Since the beginning of time, mankind as invested considerable time and effort in finding out what the future holds. One result of this was the development of the art of divination according to which a seer uncovers some hidden knowledge, meaning or is able to predict future events. Cleromancy is one of earliest forms of divination, vestiges which still exists today.
Cleromancy is a type of divination which uses sortege or the casting of lots to choose an answer to important question or determine what is going to happen in future; usually the reading was assumed to be the will of God or gods. The etymological origins of the term are Greek where ‘cleros’ means ‘a lot’ and ‘manteia’ refers to divination. In the earliest practice of cleromancy, the knucklebones of animals was used to cast the lots and this is in fact gave rise to a particular form of divination known as astraglomancy since ‘astragli’ in ancient Greece referred to the knucklebones of the sheep. Astragali were commonly carved from sheep or goat knuckle bones and were four sided. Eventually though, other objects came to be used by the seers in order to cast lots; among these were objects of different shapes, colors, or markings and included beans, bones as well as pebbles. In one of the variations of cleromancy, slips of paper were also be used, each bearing a different symbol, which persons picked at random for appropriate interpretation. Still another involved hold a seashell up to the ear of the cleromancer and listening to the sounds within which were believed to indicate the happenings of the future. in fact even the shifting patterns of sea shells and pebbles on the beach, either moved by the flowing tide or taken from an appropriate beach and dropped from the hands of the diviner, are believed by cleromancers to help them to look into the future and what it holds.
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Cleromancy was one of the most widely used forms of divination in ancient Rome, though it may have originated even before in ancient Egypt from where it was adopted by the classical Greeks. Cleromancy was practiced at the most famous oracles of Dodona and Delphi as well as in many others. It is believed that a celebrated Temple of Hercules existed in a place known as Bura, a city of Achaia, which was famous for cleromancy. People who wished to know the future prayed to the idol at the temple and after consulting the oracle, threw a set of four dice. The priest of the temple was supposed to draw an answer from them.
In ancient Rome, cleromancy developed into the practice of sortege or fortune-telling which involved the casting of sortes or lots. In many of the ancient Italian temples as at Praeneste and Caere, the will of the gods was consulted in this way,. The sortes were thrown like dice and the results were interpreted by the seer as answers to important questions or as pointers of the future. These sortes or lots were usually little tablets or counters, made of wood or other materials. The name of "sortes" was in fact given to anything used to determine chances, and was also applied to any verbal response of an oracle.
Very often these sortes contained writings, as for instance the names of the persons using them. In later times this practice developed into the fashion of writing the verses of illustrious poets like Homer or Virgil upon the little tablets and to draw them out of the urn like other lots. The verses which a person thus obtained were supposed to be applicable to him and indicate his future. This practice came to be known as ‘sortege Homerica’ and ‘sortege Virgilianae’ according to the author of the verses illustrated on the lots.
In the Roman mythology, Mercury was believed to be the patron of the dice-throwers and was often depicted using a set of five four sided dice or three six sided dice to predict the future. For this reason an olive leaf, called "the lot of Mercury," was generally put in the urn in order to propitiate his favor.
In the Judeo-Christian tradition too, cleromancy was a common form of divination; the best example of this seems to be the Bible, particularly the Hebrew Bible, in which there are several instances of casting of lots as a way of determining God’s will.
In the Book of Leviticus 16:8 of the Bible, God commands Moses, "And Aaron shall cast lots upon the two goats; one lot for the LORD, and the other lot for the scapegoat."
Then again in the First Book of Samuel 14:42, lots are used to determine that it was Jonathan, Saul's son, who broke the oath that Saul made, "Cursed be the man who eats food until its evening and I am avenged on my enemies". (1 Samuel 14:24).
The same purpose of cleromancy figures In the Book of Jonah 1:7, where the desperate sailors cast lots to see whose god is responsible for creating the storm: "Then the sailors said to each other, “Come, let us cast lots to find out who is responsible for this calamity.” They cast lots and the lot fell on Jonah."
All these instances of cleromancy in earlier times suggest that casting of lots served a variety of purposes, right from identifying a guilty person who had committed some crime to choosing a particular course of action and even predicting what the future would bring. The basic principle of cleromancy lies in the fact that the results are not controlled by a human since the lots are cast at random. However it was believed that something which appeared random to humans actually indicated the will of God or other supernatural entities.
In modern times, cleromancy is mainly practiced with the dice, of which the seer may use one, two or three. There are many methods of casting the dice. Some require a circle to be drawn, usually about 12" in diameter while others suggest casting onto a plate or into a bowl. The most common method is the two-dice system. According to this a list of twenty possible answers numbered from four to twenty-four is written out beforehand. A pair of ordinary dice is then thrown and their numbers added together and written down. A second cast of the die is performed, and their numbers are added to the first.
The resulting number is then matched to the corresponding answer on the numbered list. If any of the dice should roll outside the circle or off the plate then that particular dice is ignored. Should all the dice end up outside the circle or off the plate then it is usually recommended that no more casting be performed that day.