Four Coin Divination of Hermes

So, between geomancy, grammatomancy, and astragalomancy, as well as a working knowledge of astrology both horary and otherwise, my divination needs are pretty much set.  I can determine what’s going on with a few throws of bones or letters or geomantic figures, and all these methods have served me well.  The problem is that, often, these oracles give me too much information when I don’t need anything more than a yes or no answer.  Geomancy is definitely geared for that with its inherent binary structure, but drawing up a full geomantic chart can sometimes be a little too much for something that needs a quick answer or confirmation from the spirits.  Although simpler than geomancy, grammatomancy and astragalomancy provide too much to interpret.  For instance, if I want to know whether a bottle of wine is sufficient payment for asking Hermes to help me out with something, getting “The one on the left bodes well for everything” is a little too vague and unclear for me.

Yes/no divination is one of the simplest forms of divination that can be done with tools.  You don’t need much more than a coin to flip, after all, but that seems a little too basic, and I do appreciate a bit of nuance.  I mean, imagine how body language, intonation, and subtle gestures can change a “yes” or “no” from your parents.  I suppose I could use whether the isopsephy of the letter or the sum of the astragaloi is odd or even for yes or no, but that seems like reaching a bit.  That said, I actually do have a divination system perfect for this, that of nkobos, a set of four cowrie shells I use in my ancestor and ATR work.  In it, you take four cowrie shells that have the “lump” shaved or cracked off so that it can fall on one of two sides; you ask your question to the spirits, throw the shells, inspect how many fall with the natural mouth up or down, and get your answer based on that.  This is identical to the use of chamalongos, or coconut shells, as used in Santeria and Palo and several other ATRs.  While I have a set of fed and prepared cowrie shells I use when working with my ancestors and spirits in those traditions, it always seemed weird to me to use them with other spirits, even though they provided a very useful tool in answering yes/no divination questions.  After all, cowries weren’t especially used in Greece or Europe generally, nor were coconut shells.  Add to it, I always kept getting hints that the methods of reading shells with ATR spirits was a little different from the theoi and other spirits I work with, like a different manner of interpretation was needed.

Thus, I decided to give up my cowrie shells and use them only with ATR spirits and ancestors, and make a new form of divination with the gods and spirits I normally work with generally and Hermes specifically.  I took the nkobo style of divination, modified it according to the hints I’ve been getting, and ended up with a four-coin divination method in honor of Hermes.  With no further ado, I present to you Οι Χρησμοι των Τεσσερων Νουμισματων, the Oracles of the Four Coins!  Though it is named after him, I’m making a deal with Hermes so that I can use this divination system not just with him but with any spirit with Hermes as ερμηνευτης and αγγελος, interpreter and messenger, between me and the other spirits I work with.

For this method of divination, you will need four coins, small enough so that they can all easily be held in the hand.  Four pennies are perfect for this, for those who live in the US.  Since I work near the Postal Museum in Washington, DC, the museum has one of those penny stretcher-impresser machines with four designs (Ben Franklin, Inverted Jenny, Inverted Train, and Pneumatic Tube stamp designs), so I went there during a recent monthly feast day for Hermes and got them, etched a Mercury symbol on the back, then consecrated them later that night.  You might also get four small gambling tokens, four Mercury dimes, four foreign coins, four ancient Greek coins, four flat stones with each side colored white or black, or other similar objects.  So long as you can establish which side is heads and which is tails, you’ll be set.

The process of divination is simple: ask your question, shake the coins up, cast them down onto a surface, and inspect how many are heads and how many are tails.  The order doesn’t matter; just count how many fall on which side.  In this manner, there are five possible results, and if we assume an ideal coin, they each have a 20% chance of falling (but, of course, the result is decided by the gods).  The meanings of each throw are generally as follows:

  1. All heads (Αγαθα, Blessing): Absolute yes.  The blessing of the gods.  Ease, swiftness, and success.  The gods are pleased with you and you have their aid.  You are acting on the blessed path in line with the will of the gods.  A yes from the heart.  The most positive of results.
  2. Three heads, one tails (Αναβασις, Ascent): Tentative yes.  Rephrase the question to be more specific.  The gods have already spoken.  Don’t ask what you already know.  Propitiating the gods may be helpful.  You may be missing something.  You may need further action to ensure success.
  3. Two heads, two tails (Τετροδος, Four-Way Crossroads): Simple yes but becoming “meh”.  All ways open.  Anything is possible.  You can do it if you so choose, or not if you don’t want to.  It doesn’t matter.  Freedom in any and all directions.  Keep asking more questions.  The gods don’t particularly care whichever way you choose.
  4. One heads, three tails (Καταβασις, Descent): No, perhaps reluctantly.  The situation is not going in that direction.  You’re barking up the wrong tree.  Nothing’s working against you, but it’s just not going to happen.  The gods have judged the matter against you.
  5. All tails (Ατηρια, Evil): Absolute no, a spiteful or angry no.  Don’t ask and stop asking.  Major problems impeding you from your situation.  The gods are angry at you.  You may be cursed, crossed, or stuck in too much miasma.  You need purification, fasting, and propitiation.  You plan or ask about unlawful and amoral things.  Don’t get yourself involved.  The most negative of results.

In a way, this is a lot similar to how I had originally planned the use of my two ten-sided dice divination.  Instead of it being heads or tails on four coins, I rolled 2d10 using a standard tabletop gaming set of dice.  In that system, 99-80 would be associated with Agatha, 79 through 60 with Anabasis, 59 through 40 with Tetrodos, 39 through 20 with Katabasis, and 19 through 00 with Atēria.  That, too, was also based on shell divination, but it was mostly a means by which I could use all seven of my RPG dice in addition to the grammatomancy d12 and geomancy d4, d8, d20, and d6.  Ah well, live and learn.

In addition to getting quick yes/no answers from Hermes on a variety of topics, one of the reasons why I developed this system of divination is so that I can interact with all of the Greek gods and goddesses and heroes and demigods in order to ascertain their wishes and will.  Yes, the coin divination method belongs to Hermes proper, but remember that Hermes is the messenger god who goes between gods and men and is a friend to them both.  The coins can be thrown to ask any spirit and any god what their will is through the intercession and messages of Hermes, who communicates between us and them.  I find this a very valuable thing in my work, although I may resort to other forms of divination such as reading omens or, should I ever develop a proper hand at animal sacrifice, haruspicy.

Theoretically, this is similar to making a geomancy figure: all we need is a way to get a binary result four times, then compare how many of each binary result we get.  You could draw four lines of random dots each (odd or even), pluck up four potatoes and count how many eyes are on each (odd or even), roll a die four times (odd or even), pull four playing cards (red or black), or the like.  That said, I prefer using coins for Hermes since, after all, he is a god of commerce and coins are one of his symbols.  Plus, keeping four coins in your pocket is rather convenient and easily disguised.

Since this is a coin-based divination method, a variant of sortilege, I suppose the proper term for it would be numismatomancy, literally “divination by coins”.  And, since we’re able to make a well-formed word ending in “-mancy”, why not make some ritual numismatomancy?  Honestly, I could write up new rituals for all this, but after describing ritual astragalomancy and the consecration rituals and how to ask a query of the gods, you may as well just review that and adapt it accordingly for the coins from the knucklebones.  Similar rules for how the coins bounce and fall and their relative positions of how they fall can be devised, as well, to get even more nuance out of a single throw of the coins.

As I mentioned, the order the coins are thrown in don’t matter, just how many fall heads or tails.  However, if you draw a distinction between the coins or note the order in which they fall, you could also do geomancy using these.  If you have coins A, B, C, and D, then coin A would relate to the Fire line, coin B to the Air line, coin C to the Water line, and coin D to the Earth line; a throw of heads would mean that line is active, and a throw of tails means that line is passive.  However, the idea came to me that, well, if there are 16 possible combinations of these throws, and if the divination system is assigned to Hermes, then why not take a clue from astragalomancy and assign each combination to a different aspect of Hermes?  It’s not unreasonable to do this; astragalomancy has certain throws relate to Hermes Tetragonos (Hermes Four-Sided, i.e. Herm), Hermes Diaktoros (Hermes the Leader), Hermes Paignios (Hermes the Playful), and Hermes Kerdemporos (Hermes who Brings Gain in Trade).  Besides, I’ve seen Sannion do something similar with his Net of Orpheus, where he links different throws of coins to the different members of the pantheon of the Thiasos of the Starry Bull (though he also has his own Coins of Hermes divination method that I know nothing about, the jerk!).  I may approach Hermes and see how he feels about such a method, and if he likes the idea, which epithets he’d like to ascribe to which throw.  For instance, the throw of tails-heads-tails-heads, which in geomancy would be given to the figure Acquisitio, could be given to Hermes Kerdemporos based on the similarity between the geomantic figure and the epithet of Hermes.  It’s an idea for me to explore.

Speaking of Sannion’s divination system, he mentions the following when describing his Net of Orpheus, which he made as an Orphic variant of the Chain of Saint Michael, a Sicilian/Italian derivative form of geomancy using a series of four Saint Michael medallions in a chain, not unlike the opele chain of a babalawo (diviner priest) of Ifá.  Sannion says:

That said, I do feel a little culturally appropriative since it comes from a living and lineaged tradition (Italian folk Catholicism) which I am not a part of (despite my heredity: my mom was as thoroughly Americanized as they come) but on the other hand I’m not claiming any such thing or the cachet associated with doing so – I’m being perfectly upfront that I found this system and modified it for my own uses, so I kind of hope that cancels that out. (On the other hand Orpheus had a reputation for traveling around and stealing people’s religious tech, as does Melampos the other founder of Bacchic Orphism, so I guess that just means I’m keeping the tradition alive!) Plus, while I think it entirely within the realm of possibility that this technology developed independently in the Mezzogiorno and nevertheless respect the lineage of those who are working with it now – there are some striking similarities between it and Ifá and Mẹrindínlógún, to the point that I’m a little suspicious of its antiquity.

To be honest, I don’t think it’s that big a deal.  Yes, I am deriving a similar form of divination as he was from a similar-ish source.  That said, the Sicilian Chain of Saint Michael is a variant of geomancy, as I see it, just with the association of particular saints to the figures (which is a helpful correspondence for Catholic or conjure-minded geomancers to know).  Every form of geomancy as well as Ifá, Mẹrindínlógún, Nkobo, and Chamalongos all come from Africa and all share a binary system of attaining occult knowledge.  Then again, the system itself is so simple and direct that it’s not inconceivable that other cultures in other eras and areas could have devised similar systems on their own, like the Chinese system of jiaobei.  I see no harm in appropriating and modifying a system to “make” a new one of my own, especially if it can help ascertain the will of the gods better and more clearly.  If I can’t tell whether Hermes wants one bottle of wine or two, or whether he wants me to drop off a particular offering at a crossroads or just throw it in the trash, nobody is going to be particularly happy with the results.

Since getting four pennies is easy for me to obtain, as is getting those stretched pennies from the Postal Museum (which is as much a temple to Hermes Angelos as I’ll ever seen one), I’m considering getting a bunch of these together, consecrating them, and selling them on my Etsy, or just taking custom commissions for them.  What do you think?  Would you be interested in such a set?  Lemme know in the comments if you do, and if the response is strong enough, I might make a permanent listing on my Etsy page for consecrated coins for the purpose.

12 responses

  1. I found this interesting because four tossed coins are the exact equivalents of 16 bitwise operations in computer science. Then, you work with combinations so that there are five possible interpretations of coins; but, on the basis of your interpretation I think that you could try to systematically read each of the 16 operations in the same terms. I work with four bit bitwise operations as a means to compute binary states of tones and beats as well as statements about them (, and I have developed an algorithm which would use random coin tosses with four coins to compute music theory. I think you should go four all 16 operations because then the order of heads and tells becomes important; hence permutation a number at a time with repetitions becomes more important than combination without order. For example, when you consider I Ching, it is the order of the broken and unbroken lines six at a time with repetitions (permutation) which determine the meaning of the hexagram; not just the number of broken and unbroken lines (combination).

  2. I was just wondering how many times you should toss the coins before you go with an official answer. Asking the same questions sometimes you get different results. Should I use two sets of pennies perhaps?

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  7. Thank you for this! I came across a book on coin divination. It intrigued me, so I Watched it, but now I’ve found this I don’t need it; this is all I need. You’ve saved me some money!

    • To be brief about it, I invented it, or at least this specific approach to it. While coin-type divination like this certainly has antecedents in a whole lot of traditions out there (obi, chamalongo, jiaobei, etc.), I developed this approach specifically with Hermēs for my own needs. I don’t know of any Hellenic precedent for this, at least.

      • That’s excellent! It is reminiscent of the ifa technique. Also, the reason I searched it to begin with was I was curious if a coin technique would have been known or used by renaissance magicians, specifically by the Elizabethan John Dee.

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