What lies ahead is a question that has concerned humanity across time and space. In order to be better prepared for troubles and vicissitudes that the coming days may bring, mankind developed the art of divination or interpreting the future. And one of the forms of divination is alphitomancy.
Alphitomancy in lay terms can be described as the ‘barley bread test’. This is a kind of divination that existed in ancient times and was most commonly used to identify a thief or a perpetrator of a crime in a group of people. The term alphitomancy is derived from the Greek words alphito which means barley and manteia or divination. Whenever an entire group of people was accused of a crime, all the suspects were given specially prepared barley breads or cakes to eat. It was believed that the innocent would be able to eat it without a hitch while the guilty would choke on it or experience indigestion. There is a special reason why barley was used to make this kind of bread for divination as compared to any other grain. Barley being rather coarse resulted in a bread that was difficult to eat and more likely to cause choking. A special procedure was used to prepare the special bread for this form of divination. Barley flour was kneaded with milk and little salt, then rolled in greased paper and later baked among cinders. The baked bread was later rubbed with verdana leaves and cut into pieces for the suspects to consume.
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Throughout history many tests have been used on suspects to prove their guilt or innocence. Alphitomancy as one such form of divination seems to have made its appearance in ancient Greece even though it was quite famous in the middle ages too as a way of determining the guilt or innocence of a suspect. This practice is perhaps the reason for the origin of the famous oath, “if am deceiving you, may this piece of bread choke me”. Even though the practice of alphitomancy began with identifying a thief in a group, eventually it became a way to test the purity of an individual in a variety of circumstances.
There is evidence that alphitomancy was used to test the loyalty of wives, husbands, mistresses, servants and so on from classical times downwards to medieval times.
In one of the most common instances of alphitomancy, the Roman village Lavinium is believed to have used this form of divination to test the purity of its women inhabitants. It is said that the women were sent to the forests on certain days of the year, blind folded and carrying barley bread. Many priests resided in the woods in those times and often kept serpents for pets. These serpents would smell the bread and eat it. If a woman’s bread was left untouched then she was considered impure or guilty of misconduct.
A historical instance of this kind of divination is also known according to which Earl Godwin of Essex in England was subject to a form of alphitomancy. In this case, barley was replaced by wheat bread or cheese and apparently the nobleman succumbed to this test. As a result the case caused much debate over whether alphitomancy is an authentic divination method and should be used to determine a person’s guilt in a court of law.
In many cases ancient forms of divination often seem to be closely related to each other. Thus alphitomancy seems to share a connection with another form of divination aleuromancy where patterns of flour or writings baked in flour is used to interpret the future. Both alphitomancy and aleuromancy share a relation to the basic ingredient of the method of divination which is flour and its baked product. However while in case of aleuromancy, the baked bread is often the vehicle of future predictions in a general sense, alphitomancy specifically refers to barley flour and bread and is used to differentiate the honest from the impure.
The fact that alphitomancy is about divination by barley flour and bread can be traced to an interesting supernatural figure of childhood tales, Alphito. She is usually imagined as an old woman, with ‘flour-like’ white hair and is often used in nursery tales to frighten little children into behaving well. The first recorded mention of Alphito is in Plutarch’s collection of moral tales, the Moralia where she begins to take the form of a bogeyman. However later writers and scholars would emphasize the association of Alphito to grain and harvest in general. In fact according to 19th-century folklorist Wilhelm Mannhardt Alphito is originally classified as a "corn mother" because of her name, and others have considered her a vegetation spirit.
According to Robert Graves, the famous social anthropologist J.G. Frazer thought Alphito was actually Demeter or Persephone, or in other words a female figure embodying the principles of growth and regeneration. However in recent scholarship, Alphito has come to be grouped with spirits or demons that threaten reproduction and child-nurturing such as Acco, Gello, and Mormo. But no matter what the exact symbolism of Alphito, her supernatural powers are in no doubt and this perhaps underlines the connection between the practice of alphitomancy and its ability to glean the truth from falsehood.