On an English Alphabet Grammatomancy

The other night, I got an email from a reader with a question.  This sort of thing happens often; in general, I enjoy taking the honest questions from my readers about practice, theory, and everything in between when it comes to the occult, as it often helps them as much as it does me by putting my thoughts in readable order and making me think.  It’s not that common I have to put some questions off, and generally that’s because they involve so much investigation and life-work that it becomes better to take the road to take a proper consultation with me for a really in-depth approach to answering such questions.  However, more often than not, simple one-off questions get prompt answers.  (If you’re interested, dear reader, check out the Contact page.)

Regrettably, this email I got didn’t have a good email address attached to it.  When I tried sending my reply, the email was immediately returned as undeliverable due to a non-existent email address.  It’s unfortunate, especially since this is the first time this has happened.  I have no other way of trying to get in contact with this person besides putting out a call on my Twitter and Facebook pages, so unless this particular reader of mine stalks me on either of those media, I don’t have a way to get back in contact with them.  (Let that be a lesson to everyone, to double-check all your entries when you try to contact someone!)  In that case, perhaps it’s best I just answer the email by making a new post specifically on this topic.  Turning a reader question by email into a post isn’t my usual approach, but between a lack of a means of communication and because the question in question is actually a thought-provoking topic, it’d be good to get the word out all the same.

What this particular reader was asking was about grammatomancy, the divination system I like that uses the letters of the Greek alphabet in a way not unlike Nordic rune divination.  In grammatomancy, each letter of the Greek alphabet is associated with a different oracular statement, and each statement begins with a different Greek letter.  For instance, the letter Gamma (Γ) has the oracle “Γῆ σοι τέλειον καρπὸν ἀποδώσει πόνων”, which translates to “The Earth will give you the ripe fruit of your labors”.  Traditionally, grammatomancy was performed by taking a bowl and filling it with 24 different pebbles or potsherds or other similar type of token, and each token had a different letter engraved on it.  Ask your question, draw out a random token, and look up the associated oracle; bam, there’s your answer.  Personally, I prefer a different approach of using dice, specifically two throws of a 12-sided die; I wrote about my method to use dice in this older post of mine.

What the reader asked was this:

I’m looking for simple instructions on how to set up dice with letters from the English alphabet, not Greek letters or symbols, including how many dice, how the letters are assigned to them, and any other info you may have.  The word “grammatomancy” goes right back to some site that gives the Greek info.

First, if I understand the situation correctly, the word “grammatomancy” started with this website.  The original source of the information I used by Apollonius Sophistes (John Opsopaus) simply calls it the Greek alphabet oracle, even in his more recent book The Oracles of Apollo: Practical Ancient Greek Divination for Today, and I honestly don’t recall the word “grammatomancy” or its Greek form “γραμματομαντεια” being used before its appearance in this 2013 post.  If it was, I apologize for my hubris, and would love to be corrected, but to my knowledge, searching online for the word grammatomancy will likely end you up at something I wrote.  Because of that, and because I’ve only discussed grammatomancy in terms of the Greek alphabet, all the resources available under that word are going to focus on the Greek alphabet.

Now, what about the actual question the reader asked?  Is there a way to use dice to randomly generate English letters?  The short answer is “no”, because of how many letters there are in the English alphabet.

The Greek alphabet as used since ancient times has 24 letters; there were a few extra letters at the start, like digamma and qoppa, but those were disused from an early period and kept around only for numeric and accounting purposes by specialists.  24 is a rather pleasing number, because it can be factored into several different sets of numbers, specifically 2 × 12, 3 × 8, and 4 × 6.  These are all fairly manageable numbers, and can be translated into dice throws quite easily.  For instance, you could use two throws of a 12-sided die (my preferred method), where the first throw determines the first half or second half of the alphabet (odd number = first 12 letters, even number = second 12 letters), and the second throw determines which letter in that set to pick; if I throw a 5 and a 9, for instance, I’ll look at the ninth letter of the first half of the Greek alphabet, which in this case is Iota.  Instead of rolling twice, you could flip a coin to determine heads for the first half of the alphabet and tails for the second half; in effect, you’re using a 2-sided die and a 12-sided die simultaneously.  Alternatively, you could throw a 4-sided die to determine which set of six letters to look at, and the 6-sided die to determine which letter in that set to pick; a 3 on the 4-sided die followed by a 3 on the 6-sided die would get you the third letter of the third set of six, which would be the fifteenth letter, which would be Omikron.  Heck, you could just use a 24-sided die (they exist!) and just associate each letter of the Greek alphabet with each number in order.

The problem with the English alphabet is that it has 26 letters.  Unlike the number 24, 26 cannot be broken down so neatly into smaller pairs of factors; you could only really break it down into 2 × 13.  While there are 13-sided dice and 26-sided dice out there, these are very uncommon specialty items, and probably not what the reader was asking about given how rare they are.  So, what could an English-minded grammatomancer do in this case?  There are several options that present themselves:

  • Don’t bother with dice at all and just use a bag of tokens or a bowl of pebbles.  This is the trivial non-answer, of course, and is not necessarily as convenient as just using plain old poker dice or tabletop RPG dice.
  • Use specially-made English alphabet dice.  They exist, sure, but again, this is a specialist option, and not very useful.
  • Increase the number of options to use from 26 to another number that can be easily factored into smaller numbers.  For instance, if you were to include a “space” letter (comparable to the modern Nordic “wyrd rune”), you get 27 options, which can be broken down into 3 × 9; if you were to include two extra letters (like the Spanish Ll and Ñ), you get 28 = 4 × 7.  However, both of these options aren’t really useful either, because 9-sided and 7-sided dice are only slightly easier to come by than 13-sided dice, which is to say “not very”.  The next greatest number that could be used for a standard set of tabletop roleplaying dice would be 32 = 4 × 8, so a roll of a 4-sided die and an 8-sided die, but this means having to use six extra letters or reinterpreting them as “wild” options that make you throw the dice again until you get a valid letter.  (This is basically what the alphabet dice in the above option does.)
  • Decrease the number of options to use from 26 down to 24.  This may seem like blasphemy (how dare I suggest deleting letters!), but consider that the English alphabet is a modern repurposing of the older Roman alphabet, which originally only had 21 letters and was later increased to 23 during the classical period.  In English use, the letters J and U are essentially “duplications” of the original letters I and V, and it was only up until recently that you’d often find things spelled as “Ierusalem” or “Vnder the sea”.  If you were to fold J into I and V into U, you’d go back down to 24 letters, and then you could use the same options that the Greek alphabet uses.

Personally, if I were pressed to make a choice that forced me to use dice, I’d go with the last option and get rid of J and U at the expense of considering them their own letters, because it seems most convenient that way.  I’d still consider using tokens a better choice than dice for the English alphabet, though.

However, this is only half the answer to what the reader asked about.  Once a method is found for using dice, what about the letters themselves for divination?  When we look at the Greek alphabet, we find historical evidence across the eastern Mediterranean that uses the Greek alphabet as a form of divination, with multiple sets of oracles associated with them, sometimes overlapping and sometimes distinct based on the region.  For the Roman alphabet, however, I don’t know of any such sources.  We have nursery rhymes and mnemonics that associate the letters of the English alphabet to different things, sure, but nothing of the same scale and focus as the Greek alphabet oracles that dot the ancient world.  To that end, I have no resources at my disposal and know of none that exist otherwise that discuss the letters of the English or Latin alphabets as an oracle in a grammatomantic way.

Should someone want to develop a set of oracular statements for each letter of the English alphabet, I would think it a good development, especially if the user of such a system wanted to find a more mystical way of applying the English alphabet in spiritual practices, or reinterpreting it as a “Theban oracle” by using the Theban alphabet cipher for English (which, as an aside, note how it already collapses I/J and U/V, and how W is just a duplication of U/V, technically reducing it down to 23 letters as used since classical Rome).  However, I would find using the Greek alphabet to be more useful from the get-go, not least because there are already sets of oracles ready to go for the Greek letters, but because the Greek alphabet already has associations to numbers, planets, signs, and elements via stoicheia and isopsephia as well as to hundreds of other classical concepts, animals, birds, stones, and procedures according to texts like the Kyranides.  In other words, the Greek alphabet already has information, lore, history, and power in it that the English alphabet basically lacks.  I won’t knock an English system of grammatomancy, but it’d need quite a bit of work, innovation, and invention to get it to a similar usable state that the Greek system presents immediately.

I hope that helps!  May the reader who sent me this question find this answer useful, and may everyone ensure to check their email addresses for correctness and validity before using them in contact forms.

2 responses

  1. Sticking with the Greek makes the most sense to me. By the time you’ve moved to 24 letters, you’re back to the Runes and the Elder Futhark with no trouble, or you could expand to 32 easily enough using the Anglo-Saxon Futhorc — but, again, when it comes to oracular statements, you’re back to the rune poems. Which will work, but it begs the question of why not just use runes, then, which also have their own associations &c (and if the reconstruction of the magic bothers the person, then, again, back to the Greek). If avoiding dice, though, there’s much good to be had in the English Qaballa system put forward by Cath Thompson and others. A little exploration there will yield some interesting gematria results. But, like I said to start, the Greek is still probably best to play with. Plus, you get to learn a bit of Greek!

  2. I have such a crush on you right now!

    If one really wanted to develop an English-language system of divination like this, I’d suggest pulling together a list of famous English quotations that collectively provide advice for pretty much any situation. A good number for that list would be 36 quotes, organized as six groups of six, so one can roll a standard six-sided die twice.

    Or one could roll multiple dice to cause the results to cluster toward the center of the numerical range, and arrange more extreme advice at the extremes. For example, 4d6 gives a range of 4-24, or 21 results, but the probability of getting either a 4 or 24 is only 1 in 1296, while the probability of getting 14 is almost 1 in 8. As our host is aware, this is fairly common in traditional divination systems.

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