Myomancy - Observing Rats to Predict the Future

Divination is the practice of foreseeing the future as well as to uncover some secret knowledge. Most of the forms of divination are based on observation of inanimate objects, natural phenomena or the behavior of living creatures. In fact a whole set of divination practices is based on the movements and behavior of various birds and animals and this is known as zoomancy. Myomancy is one of the forms of zoomancy which specifically refers to divination practiced by observation of rats.

Myomancy is a form of fortune-telling where the behavior and movements of rats are observed by seers and omens drawn for the future. The term is derived from the Greek word for mouse, ‘mus’ as well as for divination, ‘manteia’.

According to the most common forms of myomancy, the cries and squeaking or rats generally indicate the presence of evil or at least a misfortune about to befall. One of the methods of myomancy involved setting a caged mouse free and drawing omens based on the direction or manner in which the mouse escaped. Sometimes the seer would free the mouse inside a constructed maze and read auguries depending on the route that it had taken. In yet another tradition of divination, predictions about the future could also be made by reading a rat's dropping patterns.

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There exist many references to myomancy in ancient texts. In the Bible, this form of divination by rats or mice is supposedly alluded to in Isaiah LXVI:17. Also the mice and emerods of gold mentioned in I Samuel V: 6, 7 were essentially charms sharing a precise symbolic meaning. According to an account by Claudius Aelianus, the Roman Consul and general Fabius Maximus stepped down from dictatorship because of a warning from rats while Varro claimed that Cassius Flaminius retired from command of the cavalry based on the same kind of premonition. An anecdote from Herodotus reveals that when Sennacherib invaded Egypt, his army was infested by mice in the night with the result that the quivers and bows of the soldiers were gnawed to pieces; in the morning, therefore, being without arms, the soldiers fled in confusion and many of them were slain. Most of these anecdotes underline the basic principle of myomancy according to which the rat was associated with devastation and general bad luck.

While to the modern mind, it may seem incredulous that the behaviour of a rat or mouse can predict a course of events in the future, the concept is not entirely improbable, since field mice have been known to behave differently in anticipation of abundant or lean harvests. Also some studies show that along with other creatures, voles of all sorts have a confirmed skill for the early sensing of earthquakes. Thus such traits of rats and mice may have prompted ancient diviners to base their prophetic utterances on the behaviour of rats and mice which in turn developed into myomancy.