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What is divination?

Divination is defined by Webster's New World Dictionary as: 

bulletThe art or practice of trying to foretell the future or explore the unknown by occult means. 
bulletA Prophecy; an augury.

There are an enormous variety of techniques for attempting to foretell the future. Some are. 

bulletAstrology: This is the concept that one's future is dependent upon the location of the sun, moon and planets at the precise time of a person's birth.
bulletBird organs: The ancient Romans would prophecy the future on the basis of the internal organs of birds that had been sacrificed for the purpose. 
bulletI Ching: This is an ancient Chinese oracle book which can be used to foretell the future, answer questions, etc. The practitioner generates a number from 1 to 64 by selecting sticks, or casting dice or coins. The oracle book assigns different meanings to each of the numbers.
bulletNumerology: This is the practice of assigning a digit to each letter in a person's name, and deriving a series of numbers which have special significance to the person.
bulletPalm reading: A person's future is foretold by observing the creases in their palm and shape of their fingers.
bulletRunes: These are a group of from 16 to 31 (typically 26) letters of an ancient Northern European alphabet. The letters are inscribed on small rocks or pieces of paper or plastic. The runes are cast, and the future foretold from the runes that land inverted and not inverted, as well as from their location.
bulletScrying: This is a technique of producing visions of the future by gazing into a crystal ball, black mirror, bowl of water, hot coals from a fire, etc.
bulletTarot cards: This involves fortune telling through the use of a pack of 78 Tarot cards. 1 The cards are shuffled; a few are dealt and laid in a specific formation (circle, cross, square, etc.). The cards are interpreted according to their intrinsic meaning, as modified by the significance of their location.
bulletTeacup reading: The future is predicted by the shapes formed by tea leaves after a cup of tea has been consumed
bulletOther methods: Future events have been predicted through the use of dice, dominos, dream interpretation, pendulum movements, playing cards, various trance techniques, etc.

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Christian response to divination:

As in just about every other activity or belief, there are widely divergent teachings within Christianity about the nature of divination and foretelling the future:

bulletConservative denominations generally condemn all divination techniques which use any of the above techniques; i.e. methods which involve  mechanical aids or the interpretation of natural signs. 
bulletSome faith groups, particularly Pentecostals, expect Christians to receive gifts from God which confirm their salvation. One of these is prophecy, as described in 1 Corinthians 12:10. This gift of foretelling the future comes through the person's mind and does not involve mechanical devices. 
bulletReligious liberals tend to treat divination as harmless activity -- an amusing pastime without any religious significance.

There are a number of instances in the Bible where respected leaders were involved in divining the future, apparently without any condemnations by God. Some are:

bulletIn Genesis 44:5, Joseph's household manager refers to a silver drinking cup "...in which my lord drinketh and whereby indeed he devineth". Later, Joseph accuses his brothers of stealing the cup, saying "that such a man as I can certainly divine [the identity of the thieves]". These passages show that Joseph engaged in scrying. This technique of foretelling the future was used by Nostradamus and is still used today.
bulletThe Urim and Thummim were two objects mentioned in Numbers 27:21 and 1 Samuel 28:6 of the Hebrew Scriptures. They were apparently devices (perhaps in the form of flat stones) that the high priest consulted to determine the will of God. They might have worked something like a pair of dice.
bulletThe prophet Daniel was employed for many years in Babylon as the chief occultist to the king. He was supervisor "of the magicians, astrologers, Chaldeans and soothsayers". See Daniel 5:11.

On the other hand, there are numerous passages in the Bible that condemn specific divination techniques. These include Exodus 22:18, Leviticus 19:26-26; 19:31; 20:6; Deuteronomy 18:10-11; Isaiah 8:19 and Malachai 3:5. The passage in Deuteronomy is perhaps the most important. They forbade the Israelites from engaging in eight specific practices. One translation is:

"There shall not be found among you anyone that...useth divination, or an observer of times, or an enchanter or a witch, or a charmer, or a consulter with familiar spirits, or a wizard, or a necromancer.(KJV)

Various other translations of the Bible use the following terms or phrases here:
augur, black magic, calls up the dead, charm, consults with spirits, fortune teller, interpret omens, look for omens, magician, medium, sorcerer, soothsayer, spiritist, weaves or casts spells, witchcraft, and wizard.

Clearly, translators have had a great deal of difficulty selecting unique English words or short phrases to match the 8 original Hebrew words:

  1. yid'oni Making contact with spirits (not of God)
  2. sho'el 'ov Making contact with the dead
  3. qosem q'samim Foretelling the future by using lots or a similar system
  4. m'onen Predicting the future by interpreting signs in nature
  5. m'nachesh Enchanting (perhaps related to nachash, a snake)
  6. chover chavar Casting spells by magical knot tying
  7. m'khaseph evil sorcery; using spoken spells to harm other people
  8. doresh 'el hametim "One who asks the dead", probably via another method than sho'el 'ov

Of these 8 prohibitions, most appear to refer to contacting the spirits of dead people, or to perform evil sorcery which harms others. Two (#3 and 4) seem to relate to divination:

bulletqosem q'samim: Casting stones or sticks and predicting the future by their position. This would seem to condemn I Ching, runes, tarot cards, and similar techniques.
bulletm'onen: Foretelling the future by looking for signs in nature (e.g. predicting the harshness of a winter by looking at moss on trees, or fur thickness on animals in the wild, or whether the groundhog sees his shadow)

Other currently used methods of foretelling the future, such as tea cup reading, palm reading, tarot cards, runes etc. are not specifically  mentioned. 

The Biblical passages appear to apply to persons who are directly engaged in the various practices (e.g. mediums, channelers, astrologers, etc.); they do not seem to refer to people who simply observe the activity.

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Divination within other religions:

Various methods of foretelling the future are widely practiced within Wicca and other Neopagan religions. Divination does not form part of the theology of Neopagan religions; it is simply a practice that many Pagans are involved with. Probably the most popular methods used by Pagans to foretell the future are tarot cards, scrying and runes. 2,3

The New Age, is a free-flowing spiritual movement - a network of believers and practitioners who share somewhat similar beliefs and practices. Their book publishers take the place of a central organization; seminars, conventions, books and informal groups replace of sermons and religious services. Divination techniques are commonly used. 4

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North Carolina Law

The Ancient Arts Freedom Association (AAFA) stated in a 1999-AUG mailing:

"Magick and those that delve into the ancient arts have been a force on this planet of ours since before recorded history. And, as history has proven, people fear, persecute and sometimes even kill traditions and cultures they do not understand."

"On the verge of a new millennium, you would think we could move past these old ways of thinking and embrace the differences of other cultures, especially in the U.S...North Carolina is proving otherwise...

"All across the state...mediums, spiritual advisors and psychics, etc. are being forced to close up their shops or risk paying up to a $500 fine, six months in prison or both. Divination (fortune-telling) is an inherent part of many religions and cultures, like Wiccans, Buddhists and Native Americans..." 6

In North Carolina's General Statutes, sandwiched between a law on defacing identifying marks on motor vehicles and another on the unlawful possession of tear gas, is statute 14 - 201.5: "Practice of phrenology, palmistry, fortune-telling or clairvoyance prohibited." (Pnrenology is the art of analyzing the character of a person by examining the shape of their skull). It was placed on the books in 1951, It states, in part:

    "It shall be unlawful for any person to practice the arts of
phrenology, palmistry, clairvoyance, fortune-telling and other
crafts of a similar kind in the counties named herein. Any person
violating any provision of this section shall be guilty of a
Class 2 misdemeanor.
     "This section shall not prohibit the amateur practice of
phrenology, palmistry, fortune-telling or clairvoyance in
connection with school or church socials, provided such socials
are held in school or church buildings.
     "Provided that the provisions of this section shall apply
only to the Counties of Alexander, ...Transylvania, Union, Wake and Wayne." 

Yes. Believe it or not, North Carolina does have a Transylvania county!

Note that this statute does not merely prohibit the commercial use of divination techniques. It is a general prohibition of these techniques, even in private or in non-commercial settings. It criminalizes:

bulleta person using tarot cards or casting runes in their own home for their own use.
bulleta person using any divination technique to help a friend.
bulleta coven of Wiccans scrying as part of their religious rituals.
bulleta divination demonstration at a school or church social if it is held in a community hall, park or conservation area. (it would be legal if held in a school or church building).
bulleta divination demonstration on school grounds during a Masonic picnic or photography club corn roast. (It would be legal if the sponsoring organization was a church or school group).

The 1st Amendment of the U.S. Constitution prohibits laws that:

bulletGive special privileges to religious groups, or 
bulletRestrict religious expression, or
bulletAbridge the freedom of speech of individuals. Freedom of speech has been interpreted widely by the courts to include many forms of personal expression.

This North Carolina law violates all three 1st Amendment guarantees. It grants special privileges to church groups; it criminalizes religious expression of some Neopagans and others; it prohibits personal freedom of expression. It is a bad law; it is obviously unconstitutional. Yet it was presumably passed by the North Carolina legislature whose members have all sworn to uphold the Constitution of the United States. It is obviously a law passed to criminalize practices that the legislators personally found to be socially or theological unacceptable to them.

The Ancient Arts Freedom Association prepared a petition and made it available for signature in many places in Asheville NC. On 1999-AUG-13, they held a "Diana's Day Demonstration." They asked that interested individuals meet at 3 PM in Pack Square of Asheville NC, and to bring "signs, instruments [divination tools] and a peaceful mind.

The meeting was held; it was peaceful. Many of the approximately 50 people at the demonstration engaged in divination. The 15 police who were present at the scene were faced with a problem. They could not ignore a clear violation of the state law by so many people. At the same time, they would look ridiculous if they arrested all of the peaceful demonstrators. They realized that a constitutional issue was at stake. They compromised by issuing a ticket to Kindra Rajaniemi, a Wiccan priestess, who had openly read Tarot cards.  Rajaniemi commented: "I hope the end result is the law is repealed and people are free to practice as they should." 7

She appeared in court on 1999-OCT-14, with an ACLU attorney. She had hoped to be declared guilty so that she could appeal to a higher court and have the law wiped off the state's books. But the judge agreed with the defense and declared the law unconstitutional. John Rubin, a professor at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill's School of Law said the judge's decision does not establish precedent. "I don't think it's binding on the rest of the state. A district court judge is not going to be controlling precedent in another county, in another district. ... But it may have persuasive value, it might be persuasive to prosecutors and other judges.

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  1. Solandia has many pages showing the great variety of Tarot Cards that are currently available. See: http://www.aeclectic.net/tarot/  
  2. Divination at: http://www.premier1.net/~shagrat/wicca/divination.htm 
  3. Wild Wolf Women of the Web contains a listing of Wicca-Divination links. See: http://www.wildwolfwomen.com/soul.html
  4. Spiritweb has a listing of non-profit groups, spiritual movements, commercial outlets, non-commercial sites and and personal home pages which involve divination at: http://www.au.spiritweb.org/Spirit/networks-divination.html 
  5. Chapter 14, Criminal law, North Carolina, at: http://www.ncga.state.nc.us/statutes/statutes_in_html/chp0140.html 
  6. Ancient Arts Freedom Association (AAFA), PO Box 543, Marshall, NC 28805. Telephone: (828) 649-0024 days and (828) 281-3122 nights. E-mail: AAFA@unitedmooncircle.com Web page at: http://www.unitedmooncircle.com  
  7. Susan Dryman, "Witches, psychics hold peaceful protest downtown," Asheville Citizen-Times,

Copyright © 1999, 2000 & 2002 by Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance
Latest update: 2002-AUG-1
Author: B.A. Robinson

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