Divination, from the Latin divinare to be inspired by a god, is the attempt of ascertaining information by interpretation of omens or an alleged supernatural agency, either by or on behalf of a querent.
If a distinction is to be made between divination and fortune telling, divination has a formal or ritual and often social character, usually in a religious context, while fortune telling is a more everyday practice for personal purposes. Divination is often dismissed by skeptics, including the scientific community, as being mere superstition.
Psychologist Julian Jaynes categorized divination according to four types.
1) Omens and omen texts: “The most primitive, clumsy, but enduring method is the simple recording of sequences of unusual or important events.” Chinese history offers scrupulously documented occurrences of strange births, the tracking of natural phenomena, and other data. Chinese governmental planning relied on this method of forecasting for long range strategy. It is not unreasonable to assume that modern scientific inquiry began with this kind of divination.
2) Sortilege, consisting of the casting of lots, or sortes, whether with sticks, stones, bones, beans, coins, or some other item. Modern playing cards and board games developed from this type of divination.
3) Augury, a form of divination that ranks a set of given possibilities. It can be qualitative, using shapes and proximities. For example, dowsing developed from this type of divination. The Romans in classical times used Etruscan methods of augury such as hepatoscopy, which examined the livers of sacrificed animals.
4) Spontaneous. An unconstrained form of divination, free from any particular medium, and actually a generalization of all types of divination. The answer comes from whatever object the diviner happens to see or hear. Some religions use a form of bibliomancy where they ask a question, riffle the pages of their holy book, and take as their answer the first passage their eyes light upon. Other forms of spontaneous divination include reading auras and New Age methods of Feng Shui such as intuitive and Fuzion.
In the 2nd century, Lucian devoted a witty essay to the career of a charlatan, Alexander the false prophet, trained by “one of those who advertise enchantments, miraculous incantations, charms for your love affairs, visitations for your enemies, disclosures of buried treasure, and successions to estates”. Though most Romans believed in dreams and charms, divination was considered a sin in most Christian denominations.