Divination, An Animist Art – 1


Delphi is not the only place where an oracle was established at a site determined by the flight of birds.  In the Celtic world, ravens with white feathers were said to have flown down at the moment when the city of Lugdunum was founded.  This was thought to be such a good omen that a prophetic shrine was established.(1)  Picking up a friend’s copy of The Way of the White Clouds recently, I found myself reading a description of the founding of an oracle in Tibet.  Local tradition there has it that a powerful magician who lived up in the mountains, near the source of the river that flows past Llasa, put a spirit in a box and floated it downstream.  A monk who happened to be walking by the river found the box and looked to see what was inside, at which point the spirit flew out in the form of a dove, and made its home in a grove of trees.  Whenever the monk approached the grove the spirit entered him, so an oracle was established on the site.(2) At the ancient Greek oracle of Dodona, an oak tree is said to have spoken through the mouths of two doves.  That these may have been dove priestesses only makes the comparison more striking.(3)

I like the sense here that divination draws upon the communicativeness of Nature.  But this may not always be the case, and of course, attempting to communicate with Nature is not necessarily a sign of wisdom or integrity.  In classical Greece, ornithomancy became so politicised that Aristophanes felt the need to parody it in the Birds.

Geoffrey Cornelius, a leading British astrologer now teaching at the Department of Religious Studies at the University of Kent, reminds us that, for ancient cultures, divination was about interpreting the will of divine beings, often with the assistance of daemones (or, if you prefer, guides, allies, or ‘spirit’ helpers).*  Daemones might communicate through inspiration, dreams, signs and omens, or occurrences in the natural world. Cornelius draws attention to an important distinction between bidden and unbidden omens, and points out that the possibility of prediction was incidental to the main task, which was to ‘consult with the gods’, to bring the matter in question ‘within the guidance of the sacred’.(4)  This, of course opens up questions about the various ways in which ‘we’, as animists in the postmodern West, perceive and engage with deities and/or daemones, guides, allies, or ‘spirits’, and/or the world around us.

According to Barbara Tedlock the term divination comes from the relatively narrow ‘rational’ or inductive practice of the Romans, where phenomena of nature -originally the flight of birds in augury- were read for evidence of divine assent using established procedures.  By contrast, the ancient Greeks also valued intuitive or ‘natural’ divination, in which divine guidance was experienced directly.  The Greek word Mantike (from which mantic and -mancy are derived) was related to mania, divine madness, and came to refer to possession, trance, and otherwise inspired states.(5)  Current usage of divination, however, encompasses all manner of embodied practices.

Patrick Curry gives an explicitly animist description of divination, contrasting what he provisionally calls aboriginal or indigenous divination with Platonism.(6)  He associates a decline and impoverishment in divinatory practice in the West with a historical progression from animism, involving an unlimited number of ‘spirits’ (we might now say persons), through polytheism, involving a large but limited pantheon, to monotheism.  Ancient Pagan oracles were associated with cosmological and geopolitical pluralism, their spirits were local and inseparable from the sanctity of place (geophany).  Divination and arose from a metic mode of being, characterised by ‘cunning wisdom’, shapeshifting, and disguise, and embodied in the figures of Hermes, Metis herself (also perhaps the trickster), and associated with non-human animals such as the fox and the octopus.(7)  Fate was conceived as open ended and constantly negotiable.

By contrast, Curry sees Platonism as monist-universalist, in the sense that plurality is tolerated only insofar as its entities don’t conflict with the One, and universalist also in the sense that logos (reason, law) and epistēmē (abstract truth) were it’s supreme values.  He therefore proposes Platonism as the foundational instance of disenchantment.  The political correlate of this kind of cosmology is that an elite has privileged access to truth.  With its hierarchical privileging of the ‘spiritual’ over the material, the male over the female (and so forth), Platonism is inherently contemptuous of the sensuous ’embodied, embedded, and perspectival life’ where the ‘conrete magic’ of divination happens.  He goes on to argue that divination is a natural human faculty that can appear when needed, rather than ‘a divine good’, but does point out that these need not be mutually exclusive.

Responding in defence of neo-Platonism, Maggie Hyde argues that divination can work quite well for contemporary Westerners using methods that are not rooted in place, and can flourish within monist and hierarchical cultures.  The metis-like nature of divination resists containment within any preconceived theoretical structure.  Material somehow arises that reflects the observer’s psychic state.  For someone engulfed in chaos, a sense of cosmic order, holding the promise of new life, can be crucial. Divination cannot proceed without a belief in ‘some source of truth to be called on’, rather than open-ended interpretation.  Although divination arises in a particular context, it locates a ‘sacred unifying truth’.  Metis paradoxically reveals a sense of unity.(8)

When I first read this discussion I identified with Patrick Curry’s animist argument, not least against the neo-Platonic position, doubtless because of the political resonances of that tradition.  On re-reading, however, I’m uncomfortable (as perhaps he now is?) about the romanticising implication that, because of their proximity to nature, ancient animisms were intrinsically benign.  Although Curry has enthused about the recent reassertion of astrology as a postmodern divinatory art, the kind of divination practiced by contemporary astrologers is, of course, very different from animistic shamanism.  Geoffrey Cornelius, for example, cites a beautiful piece of work by herbalist Graham Tobyn, prompted when his wife peeled an orange and found a perfect smaller orange inside, and his sister commented that this was a symbol of fertility.  Tobyn found a startling fit (synastry) between his wife’s chart and a 1651 horoscope about a pregnancy that he happened to be studying, and realised that the latter gave the necessary context-specific guidance she needed.  Cornelius aptly describes this gift of divination as spellbinding.(ibid pp215-8).

In this example the herbalist-astrologer combines a ‘symbolic attitude’ with sophisticated traditional procedures that draw upon planetary symbolism which is neither derived from local nature (oranges don’t grow in Britain) nor the spirits of a particular place.  The association between the Moon and fertility, a key significator in the 1651 reading, can be found in many cultures, and traced back as far as the Palaeolithic Goddess of Lausell.  I wouldn’t take this, or the usefulness of the ensuing reading, as evidence of universal truth, however.  Even though there may be only one subjectively right move at the time when guidance is sought, divination doesn’t (even in this remarkable case) furnish general truths about other similar questions or instances.  That a 337 year old horoscope came alive again here is surely down to Metis.

Perhaps a middle way can be found between the universal/cosmic and the particular/situated if we understand the cyclic phenomena repeatedly evident in astrology, or the more-than-metaphorical value of correspondences, as manifestations of a pattern making impulse inherent in Nature.  Nature abounds with large scale rhythmic regularities, but the language we use to interpret them is necessarily local, specific, and embodied, even when we draw upon long established and non-local discourses.

From the perspective of scientific ecology, animist practice in traditional societies appears to combine the pragmatic and empirical with the numinous and ‘irrational’, yet in some cases such holism has been shown to be more effective than modernist science.  Stuart Harrop refers to the ability of the James Bay Cree to manage the hunting of moose and other large mammals sustainably, with the help of omens from spirits and the natural world, in an environment where ecologists have struggled to obtain comparable results.  Likewise, traditional management of irrigation in the terraced rice fields of Bali, involving a complex system of water temples, far outperforms the ecologically dangerous ‘green revolution’ systems that almost destroyed it.(9)  Of course, the use of animals and plants for magico-religious purposes doesn’t always confer protection, and commercialisation can be problematical.

Returning to Patrick Curry, after discussing Merleau-Ponty and other theorists who deconstruct modernist Cartesianism, he gives a further definition of divination as ritual and tradition ‘constituted by, and constituting, an ongoing dialogue with more-than-human agents …’.  He then argues that it necessarily includes both ‘an embodied, sexuate, and ecological dimension’, however ‘spiritual’ the procedure may be ( because ‘the animate, enminded, ensouled, non-modern natural world’ is at the heart of divination), and ‘an irreducible discursive, ideational, and spiritual dimension’, (a ‘logic of divination’), no matter how practical the intent.  Divinatory rituals and traditions therefore include a working assumption that any ‘formal contradiction’ between these dimensions is inconsequential.(10)

Reading this I found myself wondering whether we still need to talk in dualistic terms -either because hierarchical dualism is so ingrained in our culture, or because, from a human perspective, the world we live in, the world of thought and feeling, night and day, summer and winter (where appropriate), and most starkly, life and death, appears dualistic- even as we attempt to comprehend non-duality?  In any case, divination is arguably as fundamental to animism as animism is to divination.

With the above in mind, I’d like to ground this in some personal observations in Part 2.


* The spelling of Daemones was changed in response to Christian propaganda about ‘demons’.


(1) Alexei Kontraditieff, Lugus, the Many Gifted Lord, An Tribhís Mhór, The IMBAS Journal of Celtic reconstructionism, I, Lúnasa, 1997.

(2) Lama Anagarika Govinda, The Way of the White Clouds, Rider, 1966/1992.

(3) J.S. Morrison, The Classical World, in Michael Loewe and Carmen Blacker, eds. Divination and Oracles, George Allen and Unwin, 1981.

(4) Geoffrey Cornelius, The Moment of Astrology, Origins in Divination, Second Edition, the Wessex Astrologer, 2003.

(5) Barbara Tedlock, Divination as a Way of Knowing: Embodiment, Visualisation, Narrative, and Interpretation, Folklore 112 (2001):189-187.

(6) Patrick Curry, Divination, Enchantment, and Platonism, in Angela Voss and Jean Hinson Lall, The Imaginal Cosmos, Astrology, Divination, and the Sacred, University of Kent, 2007.

(7) Marcel Detienne and Jean-Pierre Vernant, Cunning Intelligence in Greek Culture and Society, Harvester Press, 1978.

(8) Maggie Hyde, The Cock and the Chameleon; Divination, Platonism, and Postmodernism, in Angela Voss and Jean Hinson Hall, Ibid.

(9) Stuart R. Harrop, The Carbon Footprint of Oracles: How Green is Divination? In Patrick Curry, ed. Divination, Perspectives for a New Millennium, Ashgate, 2010.

(10) Patrick Curry, Embodiment, Alterity, and Agency: Negotiating Antimonies in Divination, in Patrick Curry, ed Divination, Perspectives for a new Millennium, Ashgate 2010.


2 thoughts on “Divination, An Animist Art – 1

  1. Thanks for this Brian. Nothing to add but wanted to express my appreciation for your sharing such an interesting post.

  2. This is great. I have been thinking a lot about the Animist Unified Theory, macro and micro…. This added more.
    I read my cards last night and asked “What do you think will happen from this?” to the MoreWolrders, my Daemones, which I have never done before. In particular was Eostere so that was very new for me.

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