The art or practice of divination has been around as long as mankind perhaps began to think about the future. The urge to know what tomorrow will bring is innate in human nature and the earliest man often made use of objects for divination which seem rather strange by today’s standards; and one of these was probably be oomantia which was a study of the future by means of a egg.
Alternatively known as ooscopy, ovamantia and ovomantia, oomantia is a form of divination which uses an egg to read portents of the future. The term is derived from oion which is ancient Greek for egg as well as manteia which means prophecy. The most common method of oomantia involves separating the whites of the eggs which are then dropped into hot water. The diviner looks at the shapes assumed by the rapidly-cooked egg whites and interprets them as omens of things to come. Usually divination is performed using a list of symbols like those used for tea leaves reading and which may vary from one tradition of divination to another. Generally if the egg whites take the shape of a bell, it means a wedding in near future. The shape of a snake on the other hand can be a warning of impending danger or can be interpreted as the presence of an enemy nearby. Then again if the egg whites take the shape of a boat, aero plane or automobile, it can be seen as indicating the prospect of travel.
A slightly modified version of the above process of oomantia does not involve breaking the egg in hot water. Rather the seer takes the egg and breaks it to separate the whites which is then poured into a bowl of water and set aside for roughly twenty-four hours. After that time, the egg whites are clotted and the diviner studies these shapes in order to draw omens for the future.
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Yet another version of oomantia consists of divination by the outer and inner forms of the egg. The seer first of all asks the egg to be chosen and held by the person whose reading is being done; once the seer feels that the egg has been imprinted enough, the egg is broken into a glass or bowl of cold water. The diviner then reads the white and the membrane that surrounds the yolk as a sign of things that are going to happen in future.
Oomantia need not always involved the breaking of an egg. According to one version, it can be performed by studying the position of an egg after it has slid down a slope. To do this, the diviner would take a hardboiled egg and mark one end of the egg, by a symbol to represent him/herself and draw another symbol to represent his/her deity on the opposite end.
Then the egg would be taken outside and before letting it slide, the diviner would hold it for a moment to focus on the particular question or problem. After the egg is slid down a gentle slope and it comes to rest, the seer would note the direction where the top of the egg is pointing as well as the symbol that is visible and then divine from these aspects.
One of the most common uses of oomantia in earlier times was to predict the gender of an unborn child. According to folklore, if the egg of a hen was rolled on the tummy of a pregnant woman and then carefully broken onto a saucer, the appearance of the egg could foretell the details of the birth. For instance, a single yolk would indicate the birth of one child while a double yolk would imply the impending arrival of twins. In fact the presence of three yolks during this form of oomancy was even taken as the prospect of having triplets. However if the egg yolk was streaked with red, it was seen as a bad omen, indicating the possibility of a miscarriage or complications during childbirth.
Another version of oomancy carried on pregnant women involved incubating a hen’s egg between the breasts of an expectant mother and after the chick comes out, interpreting its gender as that of the unborn child. In fact a historian of ancient Rome, Gaius Suetonius Tranquillus, gives an account of divination by this form of oomancy. According to Tranquillise, when the Roman Empress Livia Drusilla became pregnant, she was extremely anxious to know whether the child would be a girl or boy. In order to divine the gender of her unborn baby, she took a hen’s egg and kept it carefully between her bosom, until at the right temperature, a chick came out sporting a beautiful cockscomb; this was then taken as a portent of her bearing a male child.
The above account is evidence of the fact that oomancy was a common form of divination in ancient Greece and Rome where diviners would study the outer shape of the egg or the appearance of its yolk and whites as a way of reading the future. This form of divination was also widely practiced in ancient Scotland especially on the eve of the druid New Year or Samhain as well as in England on the last day of the year. On these occasions, the egg and its shapes were perhaps seen as foretelling the shapes of things to come in the ensuing year. Oomancy also seems to have been in practiced in Spain on St John’s Eve. Traditionally, oomancy was performed on Ostara, a pagan precursor of the festival of Easter. Ostara or Eostre was actually a goddess in Germanic paganism and she was associated with various fertility symbols like eggs and hares. Feasts were held in Ostara’s or Eostre's honor among the pagan Anglo-Saxons in which eggs featured significantly and perhaps oomancy also performed.