Bibliomancy - Predicting the Future with the Bible and Other Holy Books

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Across time and space, mankind has been curious to know that the future holds. Human beings either made use of objects and signs found in their natural surroundings to predict the future or employed objects with symbolic and esoteric value. Among the latter ways of divination, one of the most important is Bibliomancy.

Simply put, Bibliomancy is a form of divination that makes use of books as evident from the etymological origins of the term, ‘Biblios’ means books while ‘manteia’ means to divine. The kind of books employed in this kind of divination is almost always the sacred book of the particular culture or religion or one which is held in very high esteem like an epic. Thus in order to perform Bibliomancy, the Christians would have used the Bible, the Jews the Old Testament of the Bible, the Muslims the Koran and the Hindus the Vedas. Likewise Homer’s epics would have been thought to contain the highest truth by the ancient Greeks and for the Romans, the works of Virgil would have assumed a similar stature. However the Council of Vannes, in 465 AD, prohibited the practice; it ordained that those who  used the method were to be placed under the pain of excommunication. But this apparently had little effect as people continued to use bibliomancy as a form of divination.

According to the practice of bibliomancy, the questioner starts by picking a book that is believed to hold truth like the Bible, Koran, Gita or a Homeric epic. The book is then balanced on its spine and allowed to fall open. The seeker with his/her eyes closed, picks up a passage which is then read and interpreted in the light of the question at hand. The particular passage or line chosen is believed to hold the answer to the seeker’s question or an indication of the shape of things to come. However since book owners frequently have favorite passages which may result in the books opening themselves at predetermined pages, some practitioners use dice or something equally random to choose the page to be opened. This practice was formalized by the use of coins or yarrow stalks in consulting the I Ching, one of the oldest of classic Chinese texts which itself contains a system of divination.

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In one of the variations of Bibliomancy, a book may be randomly chosen from a library before selecting a passage from that book. Then again if a book has fallen down from a shelf on its own, this could also be used to perform bibliomancy. One of the most famous examples of this kind of divination was carried out by English poet Robert Browning when he was perturbed about the fate of his romantic relationship to the famous poetess Elizabeth Barret. Apparently the book that Browning chose was "Cerutti’s Italian Grammar"; however on randomly opening it his eyes fell on the following fortunate sentence: ‘if we love in the other world as we do in this, I shall love thee to eternity'  which actually formed part of a translation exercise.

One of the traits of bibliomancy is that it gives in to several sub-classifications, one of which is rhapsodomancy derived from rhapsode or "poem, song, ode" and referring to a kind of divination by reading a random passage from a poem. Yet another related practice was that of sortege which was especially popular with the ancient Romans. This involved the drawing of lots or sortes to obtain knowledge of future events and was further classified into   sortes Homerica  ,  sortes Virgilianae , and  sortes Sanctorum, which respectively used the texts of Homer, Virgil and the Bible. 

Then again while in Islamic cultures, Koran was the most preferred book for bibliomancy it was not the only one. For instance in Iran, the dīvān of Hafiz as well as the Masnawī of Rumi was also used for the purpose of divination. In fact the Fāl-e Ḥafez was often used in group bibliomancy where the fate or future of more than one person may be interpreted from the reading of passages or lines in a book. In group bibliomancy, the dīvān or sacred book would be opened at random, and beginning with the ode of the page that one chances upon, each ode in sequence will be read in the name of one of the individuals in the group. The ode is the individual’s fāl or indication of his fortunes. Assigning of the odes is never random and instead depends on the order in which the individuals are seated. An ode which had already been used for one individual in the group is not used as the fāl for a second time.

As a testament to the popularity of bibliomancy in determining a future course of action, several fiction writers have mentioned this particular kind of divination in their works. one of the most remarkable instances is present in Wilkie Collins' 1868 novel The Moonstone, in which the narrator Gabriel Betteredge regularly practices bibliomancy using the pages of Daniel Defoe's Robinson Crusoe. Then again in the novel Man in the High Castle, every major character uses bibliomancy, mainly by casting yarrow stalks in conjunction with the I Ching. In fact the author Philip K. Dick reportedly used this process himself for deciding key points in the story, and was even supposed to have blamed the I Ching for weak plot developments.

The idea that books contain the truth and can tell humans something about matters of great importance – something that would even indicate the course of future events - is a very powerful one. It would have seemed almost magical to primitive illiterate people who would watch scholars and priests able to solve complex problems of life by getting answers from books.  In more ways than one, the ability of being able to read and write in earlier times elevated one into the privileged classes. In fact the act of being able to read and write was so powerful that ancient civilizations attributed the invention of writing to the gods. Thus while the Egyptians considered Thoth and later Isis as the inventor of writing, the ancient Greeks accorded their favorite writer Homer a status of the seer, the prophet and almost God-like. Even the New Testament claims that “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God”, (King James Bible John 1:1). All these are indications of the sway and significance that bibliomancy held for centuries over mankind as a form of divination.