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.

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?

Divination and the Limits of Possibility

Recently on the Twitters, one of my fellow occultist friends, the lovely Rachel Izabella from The Way of the Transgressor is Hard, asked whether I was ever worried whether “divinations sorta quantum collapse possible futures and precipitate the one future that’s divined”.  It sparked an interesting conversation between us, but given the response lag and enforced brevity of Twitter, it wasn’t the greatest medium for such a chat.  The idea was originally spurred from Kalagni’s post (which I hadn’t read before) on using the Tarot to both read and influence probable events.

To this, I gave a befuddled “no”, and after some more talking a more solid “no”.

First, some background. Quantum entanglement is basically the idea that, on a quantum level, the positions, behaviors, and all its theoretically possible quantities and qualities of a particular object exist simultaneously until observed.  Upon observation, the object falls into one particular configuration of its qualities and states.  Basically, until something is observed (seen, heard, touched, informed about, sensed in any way, etc.), literally anything can happen and is happening constantly, but once observation occurs, what happens is what’s observed, and since observations of multiple states in the same object cannot occur simultaneously, the object must fall into one particular state.  This is called “collapsing the waveform” or some similar phrase, depending on the author.  However, pleasing as this idea might be, it only applies on the quantum level.  Things that exist bigger than a few molecules don’t follow the rules of quantum physics.

Every generation of occultists since the 1700s has wanted to help occultism and magic “catch up to speed” with modern science and industrial innovation, in some weird kind of keeping up with the metaphysical Joneses.  Read back on some of the literature from those days, and you’ll find claims that magic works based on rays of light, electricity, magnetism, or (even today) some kind of unspecified energy.  Indeed, the notion of “energy” as we (kinda sorta) understand it today in magic didn’t exist until electricity became widespread; there was no “energy model” of magic.  Whether occultists believed magic to work literally on these physical concepts or metaphorically, it’s still kept up today with notions of “galactic alignment” or, you guessed it, “quantum physics”.  Whether these theories apply to magic doesn’t concern me; I just don’t bother, since magic was reckoned as a more-or-less complete system for thousands of years before we had these newer ideas.  Admittedly, some of these ideas offer a useful interpretation of magical operations, but by no means do I conflate the two.  And, given the micro/macro divide in physics, notions of quantum physics and waveform collapsing as applied to my life and work are next to meaningless.

I was a little placated once it was cleared up that Rachel only intended her question metaphorically instead of physically, since it cleared up the conversation to get to the real meat of the topic: does divination affect outcomes in addition to relaying information about them?  Now we get to an interesting topic, and here’s where philosophy really kicks in.  To talk about this, some background information might be required, which could very easily tip this talk of a narrow aspect of divination into a huge blogosphere-churning debate about the entirety of the art (or maybe I’m just flattering myself).  For the sake of the question above, let us assume the following:

  1. Divination is done in earnest by the diviner, not fraudulently.
  2. Divination obtains omens, messages, or some other symbols containing useful information from some occult, metaphysical, or spiritual source.
  3. Divination doesn’t care who benefits from the reading (the diviner, the querent, anybody else), so long as information is delivered.
  4. Divination is performed strictly for the sake of gathering information, not to intentionally change it by the act of divination itself.  (This precludes Kalagni’s probability wave Tarot technique, which I would claim is divination plus magic instead of just divination.)

Is divination as a skill necessarily accurate?  No, but why this might be depends.  If the divination is inspired like prophecy, the inspirer might be a trickster spirit or the god, if authentic, might intentionally deceive or lie in the message; the first is usually protected and warded against, and the latter is rarely heard of, so neither of these cases are likely.  However, I have heard of cases where diviners were intentionally misled due to the will of God for some other purpose, so it may still happen.  If the divination is technical like Tarot or geomancy, the diviner might misinterpret the omens, or in generating the omens the diviner might not have a clear enough connection with the source of information.  If one believes set and setting to be important in divination, then anything from turbulent current affairs, local spirits interfering, or even the weather might upset the transmission of the message from the source to the diviner.  If one assumes perfect circumstances, with clear and correct interpretations of omens and messages, then divination relies on another question…

Is reality fixed?  The answer to this relies on one’s worldview.  The prevailing opinion is that reality and the flow of time isn’t fixed, and that what divination shows is only one possible way that flow might go.  Divination might show the most likely path or outcome, but not necessarily the only one.  This is where one’s ideas of fate and free will mingle and mix and mangle each other to unrecognizable conceptual pulps.  Personally, I think that there is a kind of “divine plan” that indicates what should happen, but not how it should happen.  I point out the Fall of Troy, which was destined to happen by the will of Zeus.  However, Poseidon mentions to an impassioned Aphrodite that if he had known Aphrodite held Troy so dear to her heart, he would have given the Trojans better walls to last even longer against the Greeks, though they would still have had to fall eventually.  This indicates that although certain events might be “fated” from on high, how they might be brought about depends on the actions of us down below.  What things are fated and what’s not, however, isn’t known to me, or whether either of those is an illusion based on the other.  For my worldview, I assume that there is a high-level set of fixed events that will eventually be brought around in some manner or another, the which manner may have otherwise chaotic side-effects that do not change the occurrence of the fated events but affect other non-fated or less-fated events.  In short, “what will happen will happen”, but how it will happen is up to us.  It’s like writing a software program: so long as the program fulfills its requirements and constraints, the actual flow of bits and commands sent to the CPU don’t have to follow any set or known pattern.

Does divination affect the future or merely relay information about it?  Technically, divination only ever relays information without changing it, but I have to say both yes and no to this, because it depends on whether something is one of those fated events or one of those non-fated incidental side-events I mentioned above.  It’s because of the human element that may want to change things, and may have the power to do so when armed with particular knowledge through divination if and only if the event is non-fated.  For instance, it is fated that we will all die one day.  The method by which we die may not be fated, or may not be fully specified (consider that terrible series of movies Final Destination, where everyone was supposed to die and eventually did but not necessarily in the manner foreseen).  In my experience, what was said to come to pass in divination in fact did come to pass, even when I’ve tried to act contrary to it…except sometimes when magic is involved, actions that mess with fate and the wills of the gods and whatnot. 

I guess I don’t have a concrete answer to this, at least for now.  Trying to answer this question for divination brings up the same question of any method of relaying information, from news media to any other kind of communication.  Hell, it brings into question the notions of fact, truth, correctness, and accuracy of information, consciousness, and reality itself (how can we know that what we see is real? do two people seeing the same thing recognize the same thing? etc.).  This is way more philosophy than a single blog post, or even a whole blog, can cover.

At any rate, to answer her actual question about whether I “worry” about it, no, I don’t.  As a magician, I use information to my advantage.  I’ve likened magic and divination to a river with both treasure and junk flowing down it; using divination, we can figure out where to position ourselves to catch the treasure and avoid the junk, but with magic we can lure the junk to us and keep the trash away.  If I know something is going to happen and I don’t like it, either I’ll change it to something else I like or I’ll be changed to like it, or some combination of the two.  I’m never worried that I’m whittling down the range of possible events that could happen, but rather I aim to have my preferred events happen as much as possible given the circumstances amongst all possible events.

What do you guys think about divination, accuracy, free will, fate, and the like?  This is a really hairy topic, but I’d like to hear your ideas and opinions on the matter.