New divination tools of Hermēs available up on my Etsy!

If you want something done, give it to a busy person.  And boy, between my usual stuff going on, a new shrine project that came together WAY too quickly for it to have been mere chance, and all the 2019 yearly forecast readings going on (have you gotten yours yet? special ends next Wednesday!), it’s a true blessing that I’ve been snowed in for the past few days and have had the time to actually do everything I need and get some sleep on top of that.

I’ve had it in my mind to make some divination tools for the public to have for a while now, based on some of the tools and methods I use.  I’ve written about a bunch on this blog from time to time over the year—granted, most of it is geomancy, which is pretty tool-independent when you get right down to it—and some of them require some specialized tools.  In general, most forms of divination, especially practiced in a modern way, don’t really require consecration or blessing, though it never hurts to do so.  Tarot readers can just pick up a pack of cards and get to work, but it can often help to cleanse them and spiritually prepare them for the work they’re doing.

However, not all the forms of divination I do are so free-wheeling or powered by my own spiritual sense, but are tied directly to the spirits and gods, a true divinization of divination as it were.  To that end, I like to have some of my tools properly prepared, blessed, consecrated, and linked up to the voices of those spirits and gods so that I can read what they say as much as I hear them.  For some time now, I’ve been working on how, exactly, to go about doing that for others, but I kept putting it on the back burner.  Well, no more of that; a bunch of supplies came in, and I promptly got myself read, got into the right headspace, made the right offerings, and got to Work with the Hellenic god of guides and guide of gods, men, spirits, souls, and heroes, Hermēs.

Long-time readers might remember two forms of divination I use with him:

Guess what?  You can now buy sets of four coins and sets of five astragaloi on my Etsy page, all consecrated, blessed, and ready to go.

Making these was a pleasure and an honor, and they’re specially made for those who work with Hermēs as the messenger of gods and men to communicate to them, and to any to approach them, the best advice in the time they need and the way they need, so that anyone who comes to the gods with sincerity, honor, and reverence may have the proper guidance to go where they must go, know what they must know, do what they must do, and become what they must be.  Not only are these tools for you, but they may be used through your service for any who come to you.  Just call on Hermēs, and he will answer.

I’ve prepared a bunch of these sets in a batch, which was easy enough for me, but supplies are still limited.  I may make more in the future, or I may make more only as special requests and commissions, I haven’t yet decided.  If you’re interested, head on over to my Etsy while supplies still last:

I include with the coin sets a short guide on how to use them along with a special prayer, but the bones contain no such guide due to the amount of information they can provide.  For that, I would strongly recommend getting one of the following texts:

Of course, there are other ways you can use the astragaloi, too; one such way is to use them for grammatomancy, the Greek alphabet oracle, which I just so happen to have written about and have a highly useful reference text on, too, also coincidentally available on my Etsy.  However, you might also consider getting John Opsopaus’ book, Oracles of Apollo (Llewellyn Publications, 2017), which has that and other divination methods included in it, as well.

So what are you waiting for?  Who can deny the blessings of the gods, and who would ignore their guidance?  Learn how to communicate with Hermēs and, through him, with the rest of the gods today; get in on these tools while they’re still there to get!

On Astragalomantic Probabilities

Using the astragaloi, or knucklebones, for divination has really intrigued me lately, as if you couldn’t tell from my last two posts on the subject.  Something about them feels different from other divination tools I’ve used; it could be that they’re actual bones taken from a living creature once, or that they just feel more arcane and ancient than my divination dice or cards I’m known to use.  All the same, they’re quickly becoming my favorite divination tool (besides geomancy generally), and I’m struck by their power and potency in getting answers.  The method is overall simple: take five astragaloi, throw them, and find the oracular verse associated with the combination of the sides that come up.  It’s simple, but elegant and straightforward.

However, they’re also different from my other divination tools in that they have really weird statistical properties.  Consider a die: every side of the die has (approximately) an equal chance of coming up when thrown.  Thus, on a six-sided die, throwing a 1 comes up as often as throwing a 2, 3, 4, 5, or 6.  Knucklebones, however, are different: they’re not ideal Platonic solids, nor are they regularly shaped in any sense.  Their organic and geometrically awkward shape results in there being different probabilities in throwing an astragalos on any given side.  Of course, the probabilities will differ slightly based on the individual knucklebone used and how hard it’s thrown, but based on an analysis by Phil Winkelman, we can approximate throwing an astragalos onto a particular side as follows:

  • Khion (1): 10%
  • Hyption (3): 40%
  • Pranēs (4): 40%
  • Kōon (6): 10%

It struck me that, because of the statistical probabilities associated with each number, not all oracular verses associated with each throw of the astragaloi will come up equally.  Some verses might be relatively common, while others would be extraordinarily uncommon to obtain, whether for good or evil.  Having some free time on my hands, I decided to run a short statistical analysis on how common different throws of the astragaloi would come up and how that would affect divination using astragaloi as compared to my other divination methods or suggested ways to use the astragalomantic oracular verses.

For instance, consider the use of astragaloi for grammatomancy.  Grammatomancy is my expanded version of the Greek alphabet oracle, and traditionally you would use five astragaloi for obtaining a Greek letter by throwing the bones and summing up the sides of the astragaloi.  So, for instance, if you threw (1,1,6,4,3), the sum would be 1 + 1 + 6 + 4 + 3 = 15.  The minimum sum you can get is 5 (1,1,1,1,1) and the maximum is 30 (6,6,6,6,6); based on how the numbers add up, you could not obtain a sum of 6 which requires (1,1,1,1,2) nor a sum of 29 which requires (6,6,6,6,5).  Between the numbers 5 and 30 inclusive, excluding the numbers 6 and 29, there are 24 possible sums.  Thus, we can associate each sum with one of the 24 Greek letters, starting with 5 = Ω and 30 = Α.  However, because the probability of an astragalos rolling on a 1 or 6 is 0.1, and on a 3 or 4 is 0.4, we get different possibilities for rolling different combinations of astragaloi and, further, obtaining different sums.  Below is a table that maps each letter of the Greek alphabet with its corresponding astragaloi sum (presented both in Arabic numerals and Greek numerals) and the probability one will obtain that letter from rolling five astragaloi.  The more extreme (higher or lower) the sum, the more rare the throw.  Thus, it’s extraordinarily unlikely that one will obtain Α or Ω with astragaloi (0.001% of the time), but comparatively common to obtain Μ and Ν (15.48% of the time).

Letter Astragaloi Sum Probability
Numerical Greek
Α 30 Λʹ 0.00001
Β 28 ΚΗʹ 0.0002
Γ 27 ΚΖʹ 0.0002
Δ 26 ΚϜʹ 0.0016
Ε 25 ΚΕʹ 0.00325
Ζ 24 ΚΔʹ 0.008
Η 23 ΚΓʹ 0.02
Θ 22 ΚΒʹ 0.0328
Ι 21 ΚΑʹ 0.0624
Κ 20 Κʹ 0.09674
Λ 19 ΙΘʹ 0.12
Μ 18 ΙΗʹ 0.1548
Ν 17 ΙΖʹ 0.1548
Ξ 16 ΙϜʹ 0.12
Ο 15 ΙΕʹ 0.09674
Π 14 ΙΔʹ 0.0624
Ρ 13 ΙΓʹ 0.0328
Σ 12 ΙΒʹ 0.02
Τ 11 ΙΑʹ 0.008
Υ 10 Ιʹ 0.00325
Φ 9 Θʹ 0.0016
Χ 8 Ηʹ 0.0002
Ψ 7 Ζʹ 0.0002
Ω 5 Ε 0.00001

For me, being used to my divination dice, this is shocking.  I use a dodecahedron die (d12, 12-sided die) for grammatomancy, where I roll the die twice.  The first roll gives me an odd or even number, which refer to the first 12 or last 12 letters in the Greek alphabet, while the second roll gives me the letter within that set according to its rank.  So, if I roll a 5 and an 8, I end up with the Greek letter Theta (eighth letter of the first half of the alphabet).  Using a 12-sided die where every side has an equal chance of turning up (approximately 8.333% of the time), every letter of the Greek alphabet has an equal chance of occurring (4.1667% of the time).  The statistical difference between getting the same Greek letter with a 12-sided die used in this way compared to using five knucklebones is huge; we’d get Α on the die 4.1667% of the time, but on the astragaloi only 0.00001% of the time.  It’s not impossible, just far more unlikely.  Then again, another classical method of grammatomancy was the method of ψηφοι, psēphoi or “pebbles”, where one has a jar of stones each marked with a different letter.  By reaching into the jar and pulling out a random stone, you get approximately an equal chance of obtaining any single Greek letter, which gets us the same results as using a 12-sided die in my fashion of using one.  Whether the use of astragaloi or psēphoi was more common for grammatomancy isn’t clear to me, but both methods work.

So what about the actual throw for proper astragalomancy, where we’re looking at the combination that results instead of the sum that’s formed from the combination?  We know that:

  • There are four sides (1, 3, 4, 6) on each astragalos
  • There are five astragaloi
  • Order of the dice doesn’t matter

Thus, although there are 1024 possible combinations of astragaloi, we only end up with 56 possible throws of the astragaloi when we disregard the order and only consider unique combinations of the bones.  Below is a table that shows the probability for each possible throw of the astragaloi; remember that order doesn’t matter, so (1,1,3,4,6) is equivalent to (1,3,6,4,1) and (6,3,1,4,1).  Generally, the more 3s and 4s there are, the more likely a particular throw is.  Thus, we end up with a probability of 0.0001% for (1,1,1,1,1) and (6,6,6,6,6) as our most unlikely throws, and a probability of 10.24% for (3,3,3,4,4) and (3,3,4,4,4) as our most likely throws.

Throw Sum Probability
A B C D E
1 1 1 1 1 5 0.00001
1 1 1 1 3 7 0.0002
1 1 1 1 4 8 0.0002
1 1 1 1 6 10 0.00005
1 1 1 3 3 9 0.0016
1 1 1 3 4 11 0.0032
1 1 1 3 6 13 0.0008
1 1 1 4 4 11 0.0016
1 1 1 4 6 13 0.0008
1 1 1 6 6 15 0.0001
1 1 3 3 3 11 0.0064
1 1 3 3 4 12 0.0192
1 1 3 3 6 14 0.0048
1 1 3 4 4 13 0.0192
1 1 3 4 6 15 0.0096
1 1 3 6 6 17 0.0012
1 1 4 4 4 14 0.0064
1 1 4 4 6 16 0.0048
1 1 4 6 6 18 0.0012
1 1 6 6 6 20 0.0001
1 3 3 3 3 13 0.0128
1 3 3 3 4 14 0.0512
1 3 3 3 6 16 0.0128
1 3 3 4 4 15 0.0768
1 3 3 4 6 17 0.0384
1 3 3 6 6 19 0.0048
1 3 4 4 4 16 0.0512
1 3 4 4 6 18 0.0384
1 3 4 6 6 20 0.0096
1 3 6 6 6 22 0.0008
1 4 4 4 4 17 0.0128
1 4 4 4 6 19 0.0128
1 4 4 6 6 21 0.0048
1 4 6 6 6 23 0.0008
1 6 6 6 6 25 0.00005
3 3 3 3 3 15 0.01024
3 3 3 3 4 16 0.0512
3 3 3 3 6 18 0.0128
3 3 3 4 4 13 0.1024
3 3 3 4 6 15 0.0512
3 3 3 6 6 17 0.0064
3 3 4 4 4 18 0.1024
3 3 4 4 6 20 0.0768
3 3 4 6 6 22 0.0192
3 3 6 6 6 24 0.0016
3 4 4 4 4 19 0.0512
3 4 4 4 6 21 0.0512
3 4 4 6 6 23 0.0192
3 4 6 6 6 25 0.0032
3 6 6 6 6 27 0.0002
4 4 4 4 4 20 0.01024
4 4 4 4 6 22 0.0128
4 4 4 6 6 24 0.0064
4 4 6 6 6 26 0.0016
4 6 6 6 6 28 0.0002
6 6 6 6 6 30 0.00001

These probabilities are still different from the coin-toss method Kostas Dervenis gives in his Oracle Bones Divination.  Dervenis suggests one uses three coins flipped to obtain one of four results (T = tails, H = heads), each with the following probabilities:

  • Khion: HHH (12.5%)
  • Hyption: THH (37.5%)
  • Pranēs: TTH (37.5%)
  • Kōon: TTT (12.5%)

Thus, using coins as a substitute for astragaloi, we’d have a 0.0000305% chance of obtaining a (1,1,1,1,1) or (6,6,6,6,6) roll and a 7.41577% chance of obtaining a (3,3,4,4,4) or (3,3,3,4,4) roll.  These are pretty big changes in the probabilities of particular rolls, and all the other rolls would be affected similarly.  In either case, however, we have a situation where some results will come up far more regularly than others; then again, the oracle overall seems designed to have common outcomes assigned to the common fates, and extraordinary news to uncommon throws.  After all, it’s not every day you have the help of Zeus, King of the Gods and Men at your side, but far more common that you should wait a bit longer since your right time to act in the cosmos isn’t yet here.

So where does this leave us?  Should we forsake the use of dice and coins in favor of authentic knucklebones for astragalomancy since the probabilities of a given outcome are so different based on the tools used?  I don’t think so.  If we were playing a game of chance, then yes, the tools definitely matter, just as weighting a particular die to come up more on a given side would.  However, we’re not simply gambling with the gods here.  Divination is a sacred art and profession, and it helps the gods communicate with us so that we can ascertain their will as well as understand our own fates and our place in the divine order of creation.  Sure, it may be our hands that throw the bones, but it’s the hands of the gods that determine the outcome and how they land.  We’re not just rolling dice on our own, no more than things in the cosmos happen according to pure chance and nothing else.  This is why it’s important to invoke the gods of divination, like Hermes and Apollo, so that they’re involved in the throw of the astragaloi and can help guide them to fall on the proper sides so that we have a proper understanding of their wills and knowledge based on the result of the throw.  In that sense, using dice or bones or coins wouldn’t really matter, since it’s ultimately up to the gods to determine the outcome, and nothing is impossible for the gods.  Although they may have a preference for the system and tools used (hence the consecration and divination ritual from the previous post), they’re pretty handy when it comes to the myriads of tools used for divination.  So long as you’re letting the gods answer when you ask, the tools and their statistical qualities don’t matter in the long run.

Ritual Astragalomancy

Astragalomancy, as I brought up in the last post, is divination using knucklebones.  Besides the fact that I can legitimately say that I “throw the bones” when I do readings, I’m excited to learn about it because it’s such a classical system of divination, and one tied directly to Hermes.  Thing is, however, that it’s pretty straightforward, pretty simple, and pretty clear.  I’m a ceremonial magician.  Can I make something more complex?  You bet your ass I can, so I did with this.  After all, knucklebones and a guide to divination is well and good, but why not consecrate my new divination tools or set up a ritual divinatory framework with them?

Dervenis in his Oracle Bones Divination happily gives instructions on how astragaloi were cleansed and prepared from the actual sheep by repeatedly boiling them in a fresh dilute solution of vinegar and cleaning off whatever can come off until they’re completely cleaned of blood and flesh.  He admits that this is a bit much to ask of the everyday reader in our culture far removed from home butchery, and my knucklebones are already cleaned off.  Still, I figured I’d incorporate this simple act into a ritual of consecration under Hermes to dedicate the knucklebones for divination; the ritual boils the knucklebones more for effect and going through the motions instead of actually cleaning them, but if you’re actually cleaning off flesh and blood from the knucklebones, the ritual can be adapted for that, too.

At dawn on the day of the month given to worship of Hermes (the fourth day of the lunar month if you go by the Attic calendar, or the seventh day if you go by the mathetic calendar), prepare a large batch of khernips and wash yourself off with it.  Set aside frankincense and cinnamon incense, olive oil, white vinegar, clean water, and red wine, and make an offering to Hermes as you would normally with the usual prayers, incense, wine, candles, and whatever else you do; be sure to offer a good-sized glass of wine to the god during your offering.  Present to Hermes the five astragaloi, either by laying them on his altar before his image (if you have one) or by raising them up to the east facing the sunrise; dedicate the astragaloi to him as a gift and a means by which you can communicate with him and he with you for advice, divination, guidance, and direction:

Hail, Hermēs Khrēsmophoros! By your guidance, I seek messages from the gods.
Hail, Hermēs Euskopos! By your guidance, I seek wisdom from on high.
With these five knucklebones, these five astragaloi, I seek to know my life and the world I live in.
O Hermēs, you who love to be a friend to humanity, I give these astragaloi to you!
Let us throw these together as friends, sharing knowledge and wisdom of action and reaction!
Let us throw these together as mates, giving and hearing words of reality and advice!
Accept these five knucklebones, Hermēs Astragalios, as tools by which we may speak together!

After this, take a small pot and wash it out with the khernips.  Take one measure of vinegar and four measures of water in the pot, enough so that the entire amount is enough to completely cover the knucklebones, and heat the solution until it comes to a rolling boil.  Place the knucklebones into the boiling solution and slowly say the Orphic Hymn to Hermes.  Take the knucklebones out of the solution and place them on a clean white towel to dry and cool off, and throw out the liquid from the pot.  If so desired, repeat all this four more times, from rinsing the pot out with khernips to drying out the knucklebones, so that the knucklebones have been washed off five times in diluted vinegar; once, however, is enough, especially if the knucklebones have already been cleaned.

After this, rinse off each knucklebone in the khernips.  Take a shallow bowl and place the five knucklebones in it, and present the knucklebones to Hermes again as clean instruments for divination.  Light the incense of cinnamon and frankincense.  For each of the five knucklebones, take one from the bowl, hold it aloft, and dedicate it to Hermes in work with divination, submerging it in the wine you offered to him earlier:

With this wine, I nourish these bones that they may be fed to work in my divination.
With this wine, I honor these bones that they may help me in my life.
With this wine, I exalt these bones that they may loosen the tongues of the gods.
With this wine, I dedicate these bones to Hermēs that he may speak with his power.

After all five knucklebones have been fed with wine, empty and clean out the bowl, then place them back in the bowl (you may want to pat them dry first) and drizzle them all with the olive oil.  Rub each with the olive oil, making sure that they’re slick and covered with the stuff.  Waft each of the knucklebones in the incense so that the smoke completely surrounds each bone, having come in contact with all its surfaces.  Present the oiled and suffumigated knuclebones in the bowl (again emptied and cleaned out) to Hermes again, setting them before his image (if you have one), and pray:

Hail, Hermēs Khrēsmophoros! By your guidance, I seek messages from the gods.
Hail, Hermēs Euskopos! By your guidance, I seek wisdom from on high.
Great Hermēs guides all on their paths.
Great Hermēs leads all to their ends.
Great Hermēs knows all in their minds.
I dedicate these five astragaloi, to the words and works of Hermēs Astragalios,
that I may not be misguided, that I may not be mislead, that I may not be left in ignorance.
Cleaned, fed, anointed, suffumigated, dedicated,
may Hermēs speak clear and true through his oracles of his dice!

After this, leave the knucklebones on his altar for some time, at least a full day but, if possible, a full lunar month; set a candle on top of the bones every day that they’re being consecrated.  Once the consecration period is over, make an offering to Hermes in thanks for consecrating and accepting the knucklebones as a tool to be used with him for divination; the dice can now be wiped off from any extra oil that did not take and can be kept in a clean, protective bag.  Afterwards, that same day, also make an offering to Apollo, the best friend of Hermes and the other primary god of divination, and present the dice to him that his words may also come across true and clear through the dice with the guidance and aid of Hermes.

With that, our astragaloi are consecrated and ready for use.  Now, how do we go about using them?  Traditionally, astragalomancy was performed in the agora or forum, the town marketplace, by a herm (four-sided pillar topped with a bust of Hermes) with the 56 different oracles inscribed on the sides.  Next to the herm would be a table or a bowl containing the five astragaloi for divination; you’d ask Hermes the question, take up the astragaloi, roll them on the table or on the ground, and look up the corresponding answer.  Pretty simple and straightforward; ritually speaking, we don’t need to do more than just invoke Hermes and ask him our query.  Then again, that’s boring, so let’s be a little fancier.

Before consulting the astragalomancy, it helps to always figure out what exactly you’re going to ask.  I’ve talked about this plenty before, more in person than otherwise, but the query is the most important part of the whole divination process.  Without a good query, your answer’s going to be shit.  A good query follows the rules of the three “C”s:

  • A good divination query is clear.  There is no obscurity, duplicity, or vagueness in the query; you’re being honest about what it is you want to know, and you’re putting it bluntly, frankly, and openly for both yourself, the diviner, and the gods or spirits who answer.
  • A good divination query is concise.  You aren’t droning on for half an hour telling your life story, nor are you taking the garden path when asking your question.  Instead, you’re able to succinctly phrase your question into a single, short sentence.  This goes hand-in-hand with the clarity of the query.
  • A good divination query is concrete.  You know exactly what you’re asking about and you’re asking it clearly and concisely.  You aren’t talking about abstract concepts or hypothetical theoretical potentialities of what ifs, but something that can actually happen with tangible or viewable results.

So, rather than asking “will I ever be happy in my love life?”, which is clear and concise but not concrete, you might ask “will John Doe propose to me by the end of this year?”; instead of asking “am I in the right place in my life” after droning on for an hour about your college mistakes, you might ask “should I leave my current company to work on my start-up idea?”.  You get the gist.  Given the placement of the oracle and given the major focus of the astragalomantic verses, although astragalomancy can be applied to any query, they’re especially powerful for matters involving business, trade, travel, and other worldly affairs.  It’s quite probable that tradesmen, shopkeepers, and other business-minded people would consult the agora astragalomancy before business deals or other ventures as our modern businesspeople consult the stock market and trade indexes.

Once you have the query fixed in your mind, understanding what it is you’re actually going to ask, prepare yourself and a few supplies for making a formal supplication for divination from Hermes.  Wash off with khernips and sprinkle it around the area you’ll be divining in as well as on the astragaloi.  Set the astragaloi before you.  Make an offering to Hermes by lighting a white candle and, if desired, some frankincense incense, and pour out a small amount of wine, praying:

Hail, Hermēs Khrēsmophoros! By your guidance, I seek messages from the gods.
Hail, Hermēs Euskopos! By your guidance, I seek wisdom from on high.
Great Hermēs guides all on their paths.
Great Hermēs leads all to their ends.
Great Hermēs knows all in their minds.
I make you this offering, Hermēs, and I seek your presence here!
I come with a question seeking answers, a query seeking advice!
Accept this light, this incense, and this wine, blessed god, and be pleased with them.
Open now my paths and see now my plight!

Feed the astragaloi with wine, using the fingers of your left hand to dip into the glass of wine for Hermes and sprinkling them onto the astragaloi.  Pray the same wine-feeding prayer as above:

With this wine, I nourish these bones that they may be fed to work in my divination.
With this wine, I honor these bones that they may help me in my life.
With this wine, I exalt these bones that they may loosen the tongues of the gods.
With this wine, I dedicate these bones to Hermēs that he may speak with his power.

Take up the astragaloi in your left hand and speak your query directly into them; focus on the query, breathing onto the astragaloi, until they become warm.  Once they’ve taken on your heat, cup them in both hands, shake them four times, and toss them onto the ground before you.  Make a note of how each astragalos falls, both in terms of which side it falls on (Khion, Hyption, Pranēs, Kōon) and how it falls in terms of speed, bounce, location, direction, and whether it bumps into another astragalos or into another object.  Announce the god associated with the throw of the astragaloi, and read aloud the corresponding oracle associated with the throw of the astragaloi.  Meditate on the god, the oracle, and the manner in which the astragaloi fell and how it all ties into a single answer for your query; if desired, also consult the Greek alphabet oracle interpretation for the sum of the throw.

If there are any more questions to be asked, wash off the astragaloi with khernips and feed them with wine again, saying the prayer as above, then repeat the process of throwing the astragaloi and meditating on the answer.  Once all questions have been asked, the divination ritual can be brought to a close.  Wash off the astragaloi with the khernips once more and pour a bit more wine into the offering for Hermes, thanking him for his answers and guidance from your heart, and asking that he continue to guide you that his advice may not be wasted or spoken in vain.  The candle can be respectfully put out or left burning as an offering.

Of course, if all the above is too much for you, you might invoke Apollo and Hermes, the gods of divination and prophecy, in a simple prayer that Apollonius Sophistes gives on his page about the Greek alphabet oracle.  This is an invocation at the top of a pillar with a set of oracular verses upon which grammatomancy is based, directly preceding the verses themselves.  The prayer runs thus:

Apollo, Lord, and Hermes, lead the way!
And thou, who wanders, this to thee we say:
Be still; enjoy the oracle’s excellence,
for Phoebus Apollo has given it to us,
this Art of Divination from our ancestors.

As far as ritual timing goes, I’d say that pretty much any time is good for Hermaic astragalomancy.  He’s both ouranic and chthonic, liminal, and everywhere all the time; there’s no bad time to work with him for this.  That said, as a matter of custom, any days the agora or market wouldn’t be open is probably a day to not consult the bones for this; in my lunar grammatomantic calendar, the unlettered days would be an example of this.  The usual astrological phenomena apply, of course: be wary of Mercury retrograde, rethink starting a matter when Mercury is afflicted or Moon is void of cource, yada yada.  Taking observance of the weather, a common warning in geomantic practice, is useful, too; you probably don’t want to do divination with the gods when those same gods in charge of the weather and the world are fighting or upset, causing storms or hurricanes or damaging winds or sharp frosts or whatever.  The process of figuring out the query can be coupled with meditation to clear out your own mind and settle your own passions, too, but you probably already know this.

On Astragalomancy

My birthday was last month, and I was fortunate enough to spend it with my mother and sister, with whom I haven’t spent a birthday in something like eight years.  I was in town to watch over my mother after a hip surgery of hers, and it coincided with my birthday (a few days after Crucible, no less!), and besides coming down with a minor cold for a day or two, it was overall a fantastic trip and a good way to spend my birthday.  My mother is the type to always spoil people on their birthday; she lives for gift-giving, and most of her house is filled with Christmas, Hanukkah, and birthday supplies year-round.  One of the rooms in her house (my old room, no less) is filled with nothing but tchotchkes and trinkets that she’s accumulated over the years of working at Lillian Vernon and shopping at antique stores and QVC that she doles out regularly, always somehow replenishing her wares of knick-knacks and the like.  I tend to dislike her taste of gifts, personally.  It’s only occasionally that I find something I like in her house that I’d like to have for myself, and I’d rather her save her money for herself.  She insists otherwise, however, so I just redirect her to my Amazon wish list and she’s content with that, and I’m more than content with her buying me stuff I actually know I want.  She’s really too kind to indulge me at all at this age.

This year, like many years, she’s gotten me books on magic and divination; of the more-than-200 items on my wish list, a vast majority of them are books, so this isn’t surprising.  However, this year she got me a book I’ve had my eye on for a while: Oracle Bones Divination by Kostas Dervenis. The author calls it a “Greek I Ching”, and although I don’t quite agree with that, I can see where he’s coming from.  The book is short and to-the-point, focusing on a form of divination used in ancient and classical Greece where one uses a set of five dice to obtain a particular oracle.  It’s not unlike the use of Greek letter divination or grammatomancy in that light, but there are some major differences; no letters are required here, and while grammatomancy has only 24 results, this form of divination has 56, and the literature explicitly links each result not only to an oracular answer but also to a particular deity or divinity.  However, there’s no one single body of oracular verses for this; many different sites had their own variations, although they generally coincided for the most part.  Fritz Graf’s article “Rolling the Dice for an Answer”  (published in “Mantikê: Studies in Ancient Divination” as part of the series “Religions in the Graeco-Roman World”, vol. 155, Brill, 2005) contains one such list, based mainly on the inscriptions found at Kremma in Pisidia and Perge in Pamphylia, both in Anatolian colonies of the Greeks, while Dervenis’ work is based on other locations from ancient Anatolia; they’re mostly the same, with about 40% of the divine names different and 25% of the oracular verses different.  No one complete list of names and verses survives, though it’s hypothesized that there’s one specific originating text from which derive all the others.

In a word, this book describes Greek astragalomancy, or divination with astragaloi.  Astragaloi (singular astragalos, or Latinized astragalus) are the knucklebones (actually the anklebones) of sheep, goats, or rams, and were used as a type of die by primitive people and are still used in some cultures, especially nomadic, shepherding, or rural communities like those in mountainous areas of Greece or by Mongolian people in traditional games.  Given the way an astragalos is shaped, a person can throw an astragalos like a die and can come up with one of four results, each with a numeric value associated with it:

  • Khion (χιον, “of the island of Chios”), narrow concave side, with a value of 1
  • Hyption (υπτιον, “lying on the back”), broad concave side, with a value of 3
  • Pranēs (πρανης, “lying on the front”), broad convex side, with a value of 4
  • Kōon (κωον, “of the island of Cos”), narrow convex side, with a value of 6

astrag1

Just a note: classically, the astragaloi were tallied such that they counted the side that was face down.  Us modern people are used to throwing dice to read the side facing up.  It could be that different regions had or have different ways of traditionally throwing dice and counting things up.  I prefer the modern way, although Dervenis doesn’t specify which method to use.

While the names of the four sides are fixed, and the values associated with each name is well known, I found some confusion in figuring out which of the narrow sides was Khion and which was Kōon.  Dervenis gives Khion (1) to the narrow convex side and Kōon (6) to the narrow concave side, while most other sources I’ve found reverse the two, such that Khion is concave and Kōon convex.  I use the latter method since I find it more plausible.  Like any die, the opposite sides add up to 7 (3 + 4 and 1 + 6), and it makes sense that the convex (bulging) side is given to the larger number of a given pair, while the concave (hollow) side is given to the smaller number.  Thus, I give the narrow convex side to 6 and the narrow concave side to 1, even though Dervenis switches them.  It’s really a matter of style, I suppose, since it only affects how I read the bones; the actual oracles themselves don’t change, though my selection of them differs from Dervenis’ method.

The astragalos has a shape approximating that of a rectangular prism, so there are technically six sides to the thing, but the two short sides are too round and narrow for the astragalos to land on them.  Thus, although it’d make sense for an astragalos to have six sides with a value for each (1, 2, 3, 4, 5, and 6), there are really only four results (1, 3, 4, and 6).  A modern tabletop RPG four-sided die can be used instead of an astragalos, substituting 2 with 3, 3 with 4, and 4 with 6.  Alternatively, Dervenis suggests the use of three coins flipped so that three heads is equal to 1, two heads with 3, two tails with 4, and three tails with 6.  Astragaloi can be a little difficult to obtain, but you can find them in some Mongolian traditional supply stores from time to time.  Dervenis suggests one uses three coins flipped to obtain one of four results (T = tails, H = heads):

  • Khion: HHH
  • Hyption: THH
  • Pranēs: TTH
  • Kōon: TTT

The problem with this is that one gets slightly different probabilities using coins than when one rolls actual knucklebones.  In order to get one of four results with three coins, we ignore the order in which we flip the coins.  However, each combination has a 1/8 chance, or 12.5% chance.  There’s only one combination that has all heads or all tails, so Khion and Kōon come up approximately 12.5% of the time each.  Hyption and Pranēs, however, are split with the rest; thus, if Khion and Kōon have 1/8 each, then we have 6/8 leftover, meaning that obtaining a Hyption or Pranēs with coins has a 3/8 chance each, or a 37.5% chance.  Knucklebones, however, have different probabilities due to their odd shapes; rolling a Hyption or Pranēs has about a 40% chance each, but rolling a Khion or Kōon has about a 10% chance each.   Thus, the likelihood of certain outcomes when using coins or when using astragaloi are going to differ.  It reminds me of a similar debate in i ching divination, where the traditional yarrow stalk method yields a different probability than the coin-based method, leading some people to favor one method over the other or claim that coin-based methods are false and misleading.  Still, the difference in outcome probabilities with coins versus knucklebones is much smaller than it is with coins versus yarrow stalks, so perhaps Dervenis is alright in suggesting the use of coins.

In Greek astragalomancy, five astragaloi are thrown and their combination inspected without regard for order.  Thus, a throw of 1-1-1-3-6 is equivalent to one of 6-1-1-3-1, and both are associated with the same oracular verse.  As mentioned before, there are 56 different combinations of throws, but we can view each throw of the astragaloi as a sum of the value of each astragalos.  Thus, 1-1-1-3-6 yields the sum 12.  This sort of summation was used in the ancient game of pleistobolinda, which is basically Greek dice gambling where the highest throw wins (though there are more complex rules to make scoring more fun).  In pleistobolinda with five astragaloi, we can get 24 different results ranging from 5 to 30, with the values 6 and 29 impossible to obtain given the numeric values available to us.  This means we link astragalomancy with grammatomancy, using give astragaloi to obtain one of 24 numbers and link that number to one of the 24 letters of the Greek alphabet.  Happily, Apollonius Sophistes on his page about the Greek alphabet oracle already gives us such a correspondence between the sums of five astragaloi to the 24 letters of the Greek alphabet.  Following the rule of pleistobolinda where the greatest sum wins the round, we give the highest throw of five astragaloi (30) to Alpha, the best oracle in grammatomancy, and the lowest throw (5) to Omega, the worst oracle.  The rest of the letters get assigned their respective values accordingly from high to low based on their position in the Greek alphabet.

Thus, with five astragaloi, we can pick and choose which set of oracles we want to use: if we’re only going to use the sum of the throw, we’d use the Greek alphabet oracle, but if we inspect the combination of individual astragaloi, then we’d use the astragalomantic oracle.  With the same set of tools we can pick and choose how we can get an answer, but it’s not clear to me how to link the two together, if we should at all.  For instance, consider the throw 1-1-1-1-1.  The sum of this throw is 5, associated with Omega with the oracle “you will have a difficult harvest, not a useful one”, which is the worst oracle you can get in grammatomancy.  However, in astragalomancy, the corresponding oracle for this says “Zeus the Savior will inspire you; he will give you happiness and all that you wish for, but sing the praises of Aphrodite and Hermes”.  This is actually quite a nice oracle to get, so long as you pay your respects to the good gods; plus, Dervenis links this throw of the astragaloi to the god Zeus Olympiou, Zeus of Olympos, while grammatomancy would link its corresponding oracle to the planet Saturn and, thus, the titan Kronos.  I see other issues with other results in trying to link Dervenis’ astragalomancy with grammatomancy, so although I can use the same set of tools for both, it may not be great to link the two together unless I find that grammatomancy and astragalomancy serve different ends.  Like, it’d be cool if grammatomancy could suggest a method of action while astragalomancy what will overall happen, but both seem to answer in terms of both advice on action and what will happen.  It’s unclear, although there is some connection between the two; one of the throws has in its oracular verse the verse associated with the letter Kappa (“fighting with waves is difficult; endure, friend”), though whether astragalomancy came before grammatomancy or vice versa isn’t clear.

Happily, the order in which the astragaloi are thrown don’t matter for astragalomancy; while one can simply throw a single astragalos five times, it’s implied that one throws five astragaloi at once.  However, although it’s never said in any text, it’s never mentioned about whether the manner in which the astragaloi themselves fall is interpreted, not just on which side but how far apart they end up, whether they bounce, the overall shape of the astragaloi placement, and the like.  There’re no rules for this, as far as I can tell, but where the astragaloi fall can often be as important as how they fall.  It’s similar to the cowrie shell divination I use; if they tend to fall in a straight line, it indicates motion to or some involvement with a particular entity, especially if all the shells fall in a line leading to a particular shrine or statue.  One flying off in a bizarre direction can indicate a wild hare up something’s ass.  This is far more free-form and is more ominous than oracular, so it all depends on the circumstances of the query, but it’s something to keep in mind.

All the same, astragalomancy is definitely a divination system I plan to be using and studying in tandem with grammatomancy.  After all, the use of dice has always been important for divination (sorcery and sortilege come from the same word, Latin sors meaning “lots” or selection by chance), and are excellent symbols of Hermes, to whom astragaloi and dice generally have always been linked.  Still, the use of knucklebones for divination has a different feel to it, a different charm and aesthetic that feels…well, older, classier, and more classical, and happily the set of knucklebones I bought on Ebay came in a set of 10, so I can keep one on Hermes’ altar and one in a satchel I keep of divination and magical tools on the go.  I’m getting to the point where I prefer to use them over my divination dice (a standard set of tabletop RPG dice from Chessex), but since I went ahead and consecrated my plastic divination dice, I figured why not undergo a consecration ritual for my astragaloi, too? Or, hell, turn astragalomancy from something casually done into something with a bit more flair?