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The seeking after knowledge of future or hidden things by inadequate means. The means being inadequate they must, therefore, the supplemented by some power which is represented all through history as coming from gods or evil spirits. Hence the word divination has a sinister signification. As prophecy is the lawful knowledge of the future divination, its superstitious counterpart, is the unlawful. As magic aims to do, divination aims to know. Divination is practically as old as the human race. It is found in every age and country, among the Egytians, Chaldeans, Hindus, Romans, and Greeks; that tribes of Northern Asia had their shamans, the inhabitants of Africa their mgangas, the Celtic nation their druids, the aborigines of America their medicine-men — all recognized diviners and wizards. Everywhere divination flourished and nowhere, even today, is it completely neglected. Cicero's words were, and apparently always will be, true, that there is no nation, civilized or barbarian, which does not believe that there are signs of the future and persons who interpret them. Cicero divided divination into natural and artificial. Natural (untaught, unskilled) included dreams and oracles in which the diviner was a passive subject of inspiration, and the prediction that from a power supposed to be then and there within him. Artificial (taught, studied) comprised all foretelling from signs found in nature or produced by man. Here the diviner was active, and the divination came apparently from his own skill and observation. This division is almost the same as that given by St. Thomas with respect to the invocation of demons: divination with express invocation of spirits, embracing dreams, portents, or prodigies, and necromancy, and divination with tacit invocation through signs and movements observed in objects in nature, such as stars, birds, figures, etc., or through signs and arrangements produced by man, such as molten lead poured in water, casting of lots, etc. Dreams here mean those expressly prepared and prayed for with hope of intercourse with gods or the dead. Portents or prodigies are unusual and marvellous sights coming from the lower world. Here we are considering artificial divination.


The variety of divinatory methods is very great. Scarcely an object or movement in the heavens, on the earth, or in the air or water escaped being metamorphosed into a message of futurity. Add to these the invention of man, and there is a glimpse of the immense entanglement of superstitions in which pagan people groped their way. They can, however, be grouped into three classes, as seen from St. Thomas's division. A detailed list has been given by Cicero, Clement of Alexandria in his "Stromata", and others of the Fathers.


To attempt to trace the origin of divination is a waste of time, since like religion it is universal and indigenous in one form or another. Some nations cultivated it to a higher degree than others, and their influence caused certain modes of divination to spread. By its practice they gained a wide reputation for occult power. Pre-eminent in history stand the Chaldeans as seers as astrologers, but the ancient Egyptians and Chinese were also great adepts in elaborate mysterious rites. Which of them had priority therein is still an open question, though the larger share in the development of divination, especially in connection with celestial phenomena, is attributed to the Chaldeans, a vague term embracing here both Babylonians and Assyrians. In Greece from the earliest historical times are found diviners, some of whose methods came from Asia and from the Etruscans, a people famous for the art. While the Romans had modes of their own, their intercourse with Greece introduced new forms, and principally through these two nations they spread in the South and West of Europe. Before Christianity divination was practised everywhere according to rites native and foreign. In early days priest and diviner were one, and their power was very great. In Egypt the pharaoh was generally a priest; in fact, he had to be initiated into all the secrets of the sacerdotal class, and in Babylonia and Assyria almost every movement of the monarch and his courtiers was regulated by forecasts of the official diviners and astrologers. The cuneiform inscriptions and the papyri are filled with magical formulae. Witness the two treatises, one on terrestrial and the other on celestial phenomena compiled by Sargon several centuries before our era. In Greece where more attention was paid to aerial signs the diviners were held in high esteem and assisted at the public assemblies. The Romans, who placed most reliance in divination by sacrifices, had of official colleges of augurs and aruspices who by an adverse word could postpone the most important business. No war was undertaken, no colony sent out without consulting the gods, and at critical moments the most trifling occurrence, a sneeze or a cough, would be invested with meaning. Alongside all this official divining there were practised secret rites by all kinds of wizards, magicians, wise men, and witches. Chaldean soothsayers and strolling sibyls spread everywhere telling fortunes for gain. Between the regulars and the irregulars there was a very bitter feeling, and as the latter often invoked gods or demons regarded as hostile to the gods of the country, they were regarded as illicit and dangerous and were often punished and prohibited from exercising their art. From time to time in various countries the number and influence of the regular diviners were diminished in account of their pride and oppression, and no doubt at times they in turn may have adroitly mitigated the tyranny of rulers. With an increase of knowledge the fear and respect of the cultivated people for their mysterious powers so decreased that their authority suffered greatly and they became objects of contempt and satire. Cicero's "De Divinatione" is not so much a description of its various forms as a refutaton of them; Horace and Juvenal launched many a keen arrow at diviners and their dupes, and Cato's saying is well known, that he wondered how two augurs could meet without laughing at each other. Rulers, however, retained them and honoured them publicly, the better to keep the people in subjection, and outside classical lands, workers of magic still held sway.

Wherever Christianity went divination lost most of its old-time power, and one form, the natural, ceased almost completely. The new religion forbade all kinds, and after some centuries it disappeared as an official system though it continued to have many adherents. The Fathers of the Church were its vigorous opponents. The tenets of Gnosticism gave it some strength, and neo-Platonism won it many followers. Within the Church itself it proved so strong and attractive to her new converts that synods forbade it and councils legislated against it. The Council of Ancyra (c. xxiv) in 314 decreed five years penance to consulters of diviners, and that of Laodicea (c. xxxvi) about 360, forbade clerics to become magicians or to make amulets, and those who wore them were to be driven out of the Church. A canon (xxxvi) of Orléans 511) excommunicates those who practised divination auguries, or lots falsely called Sortes Sanctorum (Bibliorum), i.e. deciding one's future conduct by the first passage found on opening a Bible. This method was evidently a great favourite, as a synod of Vannes (c. xvi) in 461 held forbidden it to clerics under pain of excommunication, and that of Agde (c. xlii) in 506 condemned it as against piety and faith. Sixtus IV, Sixtus V, and the Fifth Council of Lateran likewise condemned divination. Governments have at times acted with great severity. Constantius decreed the penalty of death for diviners. The authorities may have feared that some would-be prophets might endeavour to fulfil forcibly their predictions about the death of sovereigns. When the races of the North, which swept over the old Roman Empire, entered the Church, it was only to be expected that some of their lesser superstitions should survive. All during the so-called Dark Ages divining arts managed to live in secret, but after the Crusades they were followed more openly. At the time of the Renaissance and again preceding the French Revolution, there was a marked growth of noxious methods. The latter part of the nineteenth century witnessed a strange revival, especially in the United States and England, of all sorts of superstition, necromancy or spiritism being in the lead. Today the number of persons who believe in signs and seek to know the future is much greater than appears on the surface. They abound in communities where dogmatic Christianity is weak.

The natural cause of the rise of divination is not hard to discover. Man has a natural curiosity to know the future, and coupled with this is the desire of personal gain or advantage, some have essayed, therefore, in every age to lift the veil, at least partially. These attempts have at times produced results which cannot be explained on merely natural grounds, they are so disproportionate or foreign to the means employed. They can not be regarded as the direct work of God nor as the effect of any purely material cause; hence they must be attributed to created spirits, and since they are inconsistent with what we know of God, the spirits causing them must be evil. To put the question directly: can man know future events?

Let St. Thomas answer in substance: Future things can be known either in their causes or in themselves.

Spirits can know better than men the effects to come from the second class of causes because their knowledge is broader, deeper, and more universal, and many occult powers of nature are known to them. Consequently they can foretell more events and more precisely, just as a physician who sees the causes clearer can better prognosticate about the restoration of health. The difference, in fact, between the first and second classes of causes is due to the limitations of our knowledge. The multiplicity and complexity of cause prevent us from following their effects.

Future contingent things, the effects of the third class, spirits cannot know for certain, except God reveal them, though they may wisely conjecture about them because of their wide knowledge of human nature, their long experience, and their judgments based upon our thoughts as revealed to them by our words, countenances, or acts. Unless we wish to deny the value of human testimony, it cannot be doubted that diviners foretold some contingent things correctly and magicians produced at times superhuman effects. The very survival of divination for so many centuries would otherwise be inexplicable and its role in history an insoluble problem. On religious grounds to say that divination and kindred arts were complete impostures would be to contradict Scripture. In it we read laws forbidding magic, we have facts like the deeds of Jannes and Mambres before Pharaoh, and we have a declaration of God showing it possible for a sign or wonder to be foretold by false prophets and to come to pass (Deuteronomy 13:1-12). But, except when God gave them knowledge, their ignorance of the future resulted in the well-known ambiguity of the oracles.

Attempts to give artificial divination a merely natural basis have not succeeded. Chrysippus (de Divinatione, ii, 63) spoke about a power in man to recognize and interpret signs, and Plutarch (de Oraculis) wrote on the special qualifications an augur should have and the nature of the signs, but a preternatural influence was recognized in the end. Some modes, may have been natural in their origin, especially when necessary causes were concerned, and many a prediction made without occult intervention, but these must have been comparatively rare, for the client, if not always the seer, generally believed in supernatural assistance. That some analogy may be traced between an eagle and victory, an owl and sadness--though to the Athenians a welcome omen--and that to lose a tooth is to lose a friend, may readily be admitted, but to try to connect these with future contingent events would be to reason badly from a very slight analogy, just as to stab an image, to injure the person it represents, would be to mistake an ideal connection for a real one. Human instinct demanded a stronger foundation and found it in the belief in an intervention of some supernatural agency. Reason demands the same. A corporeal sign is either an effect of the same cause of which it is a sign, as smoke of fire, or it proceeds from the same cause as the effect which it signifies as the falling of the barometer foretells rain, i.e., the change in the instrument and the change in the weather come from the same cause. Man's future actions and signs in nature stand in no such relation. The sign is not an effect of his future act; neither do the sign and his act proceed from the same cause. The other kinds of signs from the living creatures can be passed over by almost the same reasoning. From those who believed in fatalism, or pantheism or that man, gods, and nature were all in close communion, or that animals and plants were divinities, a belief in omens and auguries of all kinds might be expected (see ANIMISM). Everywhere, as a matter of fact, divination and sacrifice were so closely connected that no strict line could have been drawn in practice between divination with and without express invocation of gods or demons. The client came to offer sacrifice, and the priest, the diviner, tried to answer all his questions, while the private wizards boasted of their "familiar spirits".

Theological aspect

From a theological standpoint divination supposes the existence of devils who have great natural powers and who, actuated by jealousy of man and hatred of God, ever seek to lessen his glory and to draw man into perdition, or at least to injure him bodily, mentally, and spiritually. Divination is not, as we have seen, foretelling what comes from necessity or what generally happens, or foretelling what God reveals or what can be discovered by human effort, but it is the usurpation of knowledge of the future, i.e. arriving at it by inadequate or improper means. This knowledge is a prerogative of Divinity and so the usurper is said to divine. Such knowledge may not be sought from the evil spirits except rarely in exorcisms. Yet every divination is from them either because they are expressly invoked or they mix themselves up in these vain searchings after the future that they may entangle men in their snares. The demon is invoked tacitly when anyone tries to acquire information through means which he knows to be inadequate, and the means are inadequate when neither from their own nature nor from any Divine promise are they capable of producing the desired effect. Since the knowledge of futurity belongs to God alone, to ask it directly or indirectly from demons is to attribute to them Divine perfection, and to ask their aid is to offer them a species of worship; this is superstition and a rebellion against the providence of God Who has wisely hidden many things from us. In pagan times when divining sacrifice was offered it was idolatry, and even now divination is a kind of demonolatry or devil worship (d'Annibale). All participation in such attempts to attain knowledge is derogatory to dignity of a Christian, and opposed to his love and trust in Providence, and militates against the spread of the Kingdom of God. Any method of divination with direct invocation of spirits is grievously sinful, and worse still if such intervention ensues; with tacit invocation divination is in itself a grievous sin, though in practice, ignorance, simplicity, or want of belief may render it venial. If, however, notwithstanding the client's disbelief the diviner acts seriously, the client cannot be easily excused from grievously sinful cooperation. If in methods apparently harmless strong suspicion of evil intervention arises it would be sinful to continue if only a doubt arise as to the natural or diabolical character of the effect protest should be made against the intervention of spirits; if in doubt as to whether it be from God or Satan, except a miraculous act be sought (which would be extremely rare), it should be discontinued under pain of sin. A protestation of not wishing diabolical interference in modes of divination where it is expressly or tacitly expected is of no avail, as actions speak louder than words. A scientific investigator in doubt about the adequacy of the means can experiment to see if such superhuman intervention be a fact, but he should clearly express his opposition to all diabolical assistance. The divining-rod, if used only for metals of water, may perhaps be explained naturally; if used for detecting guilty persons, or things lost or stolen as such (which may be metals), it is certainly a tacit method. To believe in most of the popular signs simply ignorance or weakness of mind (see SUPERSTITION).

Divination in the Bible

The Hebrews coming from Egypt — a land teeming with diviners — and dwelling in a country surrounded by superstitious tribes, would have their inborn desire for foreknowledge intensified by the spirit of the times and their environments; but God forbade them repeatedly to have anything to do with charmers, wizards, diviners, necromancers, etc., all of whom were abomination in His sight (Deuteronomy 18:10, 11). The ideal was in Balaam's day when "there is no soothsaying in Jacob, nor divination in Israel" (Numbers 23:23), and to preserve this, the soul that went aside after diviner God declared He would destroy (Leviticus 20:6) and the man or woman in whom there was a divining spirit was to be stoned to death (Leviticus 20:27). God, however, as St. Chrysostom puts it, humoured the Hebrews like children, and to preserve them from excessive temptation, lots were allowed under certain conditions (Joshua 7:14; Numbers 26:55; Proverbs 16:33; in N.T. See also LOTS). Hebrew seers were permitted to answer when it pleased Him (Origen, c. Cels. I, xxxvi, xxxvii), prophets might be consulted on private affairs (1 Kings 9:6), and the high priest could respond in greater matters by the Urim and Thummim. Gifts were offered to seers and prophets when consulted, but the great prophets accepted no reward when they acted as God's representatives (2 Kings 5:20). When the Hebrews fell into idolatry, divination, which always accompanied idolatry, revived and flourished, but all during their history it is evident that secretly and again more openly wrongful arts were used and as a result condemnations were frequent (1 Kings 15:23; 2 Kings 17:17; Zechariah 10:2; Isaiah 44:25 etc.). It should be borne in mind that their history is very long one, and when we reflect how completely other nations were given over to all kinds of impious arts and silly observances we shall readily admit that the Hebrews were in comparison remarkably free from superstitions. When later these flourished more strongly and permanently it was during the decay of faith preceding and following the time of Christ (see Jos. Ant. Jud. XX, v, i, viii, 6; Bell. Jud. VI, v, 2). The Talmud shows the downward tendency.

The various methods of divining and kinds of diviners are not always clearly distinguished in Scripture, the Hebrew words being differently interpreted and sometimes merely synonyms. The following list is based on mainly upon Lesetre's article in Vigouroux's "Dict. de la Bible":--

In the N.T. diviners are not specifically mentioned except in Acts 16:16, concerning the girl who had a pythonical spirit, but it is altogether likely that Simon Magus (Acts 8:9), Elymas (Acts 13:6), and others (2 Timothy 3:13), including the possessors of the magical books burnt at Ephesus (Acts 19:19), practised divination and that it is included in the wonders by which Antichrist will seduce many (Revelation 19:20). Under the New Law all divination is forbidden because, placed on a higher plane than under the Old Dispensation we are taught not to be solicitous for the morrow (Matthew 6:34), but to trust Him perfectly Who numbers the very hairs of our heads (Matthew 10:30). In divination, apart from the fraud of the Father of Lies, there was much merely human fraud and endless deception the predictions were generally as vague and as worthless as modern fortune-telling, and the general result then as now favoured vice and injured virtue. (See ASTROLOGY.)

About this page

APA citation. Graham, E. (1909). Divination. In The Catholic Encyclopedia. New York: Robert Appleton Company.

MLA citation. Graham, Edward. "Divination." The Catholic Encyclopedia. Vol. 5. New York: Robert Appleton Company, 1909. <>.

Transcription. This article was transcribed for New Advent by Joseph P. Thomas.

Ecclesiastical approbation. Nihil Obstat. May 1, 1909. Remy Lafort, Censor. Imprimatur. +John M. Farley, Archbishop of New York.

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