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Libanomancy - Predicting the Future with Incense Smoke

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Divination is an art that attempts to foresee the future, or gather insights into future events, through various rituals and tools. Very often the objects used to perform divination are those that are commonly used in religious or other sacred rituals. One such type of divination is Libanomancy which entails the use of smoke from incense to uncover hidden truths or to foretell the future.

Variously known as ‘livanomancy’ and ‘knissomancy’, libanomancy was a form of divination that interpreted the shape, movement, color and odor or incense smoke as a portent of things to come. The term is derived from the Greek words from libanos which means frankincense as well as manteia which refers to divination. According to this practice, the seer would sprinkle consecrated incense over embers and then recite appropriate chants as a way of summoning the spirits. Then he or she would ask the relevant question as the smoke would rise from the incense. Various aspects of the rising smoke like its color, odor, shape and movement would be then interpreted as omens for the future. In some traditions of libanomancy, even the way ash fell from the burnt out incense could be read as the shape of things to come. Usually the kind of incense to use for this sort of divination was loose incense that was cast on burning coals.  Sometimes incense that included seeds, especially hemp, fennel and coriander seeds, and salt peter, also known as Vesta Powder, was also used for libanomancy since it allowed for the pops and crackles of flame that could be interpreted along with the shape and color of the incense smoke.

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Quite often the exact interpretations would vary according to the culture. According to one of the ancient sources about this form of divination, the Three Collated Libanomancy Texts , if incense was sprinkled over an open flame and the smoke drifted to the right, the seeker would defeat his enemy. If the smoke clustered, it indicated financial success for the person on whose behalf the divination was been performed. If the top of the smoke looked fragmented, then it indicated financial loss for the person, especially loss of cattle on his estate. Also hard times were indicated if the top of the incense smoke looked constricted. However if the top of the smoke then pushed through the east and got out, it meant that the person would pull through and emerge successful. According to this source, rising smoke that formed two columns could mean the loss of one's sanity for the person concerned.

Then again if the smoke quickly moved away from the diviner it could indicate either a negative outcome or things moving away from him/her. If the smoke quickly moved toward the seer it could indicate either a positive outcome or things moving toward him/her. If the incense went out before it should,  it could either mean a negative omen or that it was not the right time to  ask that particular question. Very often diviners would look for shapes in the smoke and interpret them much like in tea leaf reading.

Yet another source of mentions that if the incense caught fire and sent forth a pleasing odor, then it was taken as a positive omen. However if the incense would not set aflame or if an unpleasant odor rose from it, contrary to what is expected from frankincense or other kinds of incense, the practice presaged misfortune for the person concerned. Sometimes even the sound of popping from incense made by burning seeds could be interpreted as omens for the future. According to this system, if there was one pop, it was usually taken as a good sign while two pops in quick succession usually meant a negative outcome. if there was no popping sound when there should be, like when using seeds for incense, it was thought that the answers from this session of divination was unclear and it was better to leave the matter alone.

Not much is known about the history of libanomancy. However manuals on the practice of this form of divination have been found dating back to 2,000-1,600 B.C and belonging to the Old Babylonian civilization. Even though libanomancy seems to have been popular as a form of divination in ancient times, its practice was less common in the later centuries. However it is now believed that the practice of libanomancy spread from the Mesopotamian culture to Egypt from where it became known to priests of ancient Greece and Rome in Europe. In fact the writer W. R. Halliday mentions in his book, Greek Divination: A study of its methods and principles that “libanomancy was dear to the vegetarians, who abhorred the slaughter of animals”.