Humankind has always looked for a way to obtain secret knowledge. Every religion has some way to do it, whether through prophesizing, talking to spirits, observing nature, or using divinatory objects like cards, stones, mirrors, or bones.
Though the popular conception of divination is as a way to tell the future, this is really a very small facet of it. In reality, divination magic is simply a way to obtain information that can’t be gotten any other way.
This might be about the future, but could just as easily be about secrets, events happening far away, undisclosed facets of the past, or even just factors that the diviner or querent might be overlooking about their present situation.
There are more types of divination than could possibly be covered in a single article, and almost as many different ways of using them as there are diviners. Here are some of the most common divination methods still in use by modern witches and Pagans:
In shamanic journeying, the shaman travels to the lower, middle, or upper world in order to communicate with a variety of spirits. Traditionally, this is undertaken to diagnose and heal physical, emotional, or spiritual maladies, or learn how to keep the shaman’s community in balance with their environment.
The shaman of a hunting community might undertake a journey to find out why deer populations seem smaller this season, and discover a way to help their numbers increase. They might also undertake a journey for someone else, to discover the root of an illness.
Working with Familiar Spirits
Familiar spirits are typically the helpers of witches and magicians. These shouldn’t be confused with familiars, which, in modern interpretations, function mostly as magical pets.
By contrast, familiar spirits are noncorporeal entities that inhabit a corporeal form — usually an animal, though they might also be humanoid, or even some amalgamation of the two.
Witches and magicians can send their familiar spirits into either the spirit world or the mundane world to obtain information for them. In return, the witch or magician must feed, house, and meet the demands of the spirit.
Familiar spirits are tied to their respective people by a pact. As long as the person fulfills the pact, the familiar spirit will work for them.
Scrying is a form of visual divination. In this, the diviner attempts to trigger a neurological phenomenon called the Ganzfeld effect.
This involves staring at a uniform color or object, and waiting for the brain to begin amplifying neural input in response to the lack of visual stimuli. This causes the diviner to enter an altered state of consciousness, during which they may begin to see anything from smoke and colors, to vivid, lifelike scenes.
This method is typically undertaken using an object consecrated for that purpose. Mirrors, crystal balls, and bowls of water are all popular focuses for scrying.
Tarot is a type of divination using cards. Specifically, it uses a deck adapted from a set of 15th century playing cards. These cards are separated into the trumps — the Major Arcana — and the pip cards — the Minor Arcana. Each of these cards has a specific meaning assigned to it.
The diviner holds a question in their mind, shuffles their deck, and draws a number of cards. These may be placed in a special arrangement, like the Celtic cross spread, or simply read in order. The diviner then interprets the cards based on their meaning, position, order, and where they lay in relation to other cards.
The best known tarot deck is the Rider-Waite-Smith deck. Most modern decks and their meanings are based on this one.
Lenormand is somewhat similar to tarot, in that it also uses a deck of cards taken from a parlor game. In this case, these cards are adapted from a deck used in The Game of Hope. Lenormand cards are named for Marie Anne Lenormand, an 18th century French fortune teller regarded as France’s greatest cartomancer.
Unlike tarot, Lenormand deals with very concrete information. Among practitioners of divination magic, tarot is widely regarded as a useful mental, emotional, and spiritual approach, while Lenormand is a practical one. Lenormand cards are also never read singly — they are always read in combination with each other, with the cards’ meanings strung together like a sentence.
Lenormand spreads rely less on the specific position of cards than tarot spreads do. The same cards may be read in combination with any number of surrounding cards to create different sentences, all of which have their own relevance to the question at hand.
Rune casting is a method of divination that’s based on the ancient Norse and Germanic writing systems. Each letter is a pictograph with its own complete meaning.
Sets of runes consist of pieces of stone, bone, or wood with individual pictographs engraved on them. The rune caster withdraws a number of runes from a pouch, and either reads them in order or casts them on a cloth. The runes are then interpreted based on their meanings and positions.
Interestingly, despite its basis in an ancient alphabet, rune casting is one of the most modern types of divination. Some scholars hold that rune casting was an ancient practice, but there aren’t enough historical records to support this idea. Rune casting really came into prominence after the publication of a 1982 book on the practice, and has grown in popularity since.
Oneiromancy: Dream Interpretation Divination
Dreams have always been sources of secret knowledge. Traditionally, shamans and other wise people acted as dream interpreters just as often as they did healers and spirit workers.
Modern oneiromancy involves attempting to stimulate prophetic dreams, and analyzing the contents of dreams that are abstract and symbolic.
Of all types of divination, this is perhaps the best for discovering secrets and neglected knowledge about the querent — their dreams, symbolism, and meanings are deeply personal, and likely to hold truths that the querent’s waking mind might miss.
Astrology is one of the most misunderstood divination methods. It’s far more than a newspaper horoscope — in reality, it covers a broad spectrum of practices and methods.
Astrology can explain how people react to situations, the direction their lives may take, and where their talents lie. Creating a horoscope is akin to laying out a tarot spread, but, instead of cards, it’s planets. Each planet has its own sphere of influence, and these are interpreted to determine how they will impact the querent.
I Ching Divination
This is a type of divination magic using the I Ching, or Book of Changes, a Chinese text that dates back to 1000-750 BCE. The text itself illustrates 64 hexagrams, figures made up of six broken or unbroken lines, and offers an interpretation of each.
Divining using the I Ching involves using dice, coins, or yarrow sticks to generate numbers, each of which corresponds to a type of line within a hexagram. After the diviner produces a complete hexagram using this method, it can be interpreted by comparing it to one of the hexagrams within the I Ching.
Automatic writing is possibly the most straightforward divination method. It was used in China as far back as the Song dynasty (960-1279 CE), and in Europe from the 16th century.
To perform it, the diviner places themselves in a psychically receptive mindset or trance state. Then, grasping a writing implement, they allow their hand to begin moving on its own over a piece of writing paper. Afterward, the diviner interprets the resulting marks to look for messages.
Any writing implement will work for automatic writing, but some diviners prefer a planchette. This is a flat, heart-shaped device with a hole to hold a pen or pencil. The diviner places their hands on the planchette, and allows it to drift over the paper, leaving marks in its wake.
Numbers have held special significance ever since humanity created the first numerical system.
In Greek philosophy, early Christianity, and Judaism alike, some numbers were given unique meanings and significance. In the modern era, numerology draws parallels between numbers and events.
This can be as simple as synchronicities — the appearance of repeated “angel numbers” and their meaning — or as complex as interpreting names and birthdates for their numerological significance.
Each number from one to nine has a specific meaning. All larger numbers can be reduced to a single digit, which the diviner then interprets according to these meanings.
Reading Tea Leaves
Reading tea leaves, or tasseomancy, is the practice of looking for symbols in used tea leaves. Though tea is the usual vehicle for these symbols, any beverage with a sediment works — coffee, chocolate, or even wine.
The diviner pours the querent a cup of tea without using a strainer, so some of the loose leaves end up in the cup. The querent then drinks the tea, and the diviner pours off any remaining dregs to ensure that only the wet leaves remain in the cup.
Afterward, the diviner looks for letters, shapes, or other symbols formed by the leaves. These are interpreted based on their relevance to the querent’s question.
Tasseomancy doesn’t require anything more complicated than a cup and loose-leaf tea, but some diviners enjoy using specialized fortune telling cups. These cups are printed with designated areas, letters, astrological signs, or other symbols, and come with guide books for interpreting readings.
Lithomancy: Divination with Stones
Lithomancy is any divination using stones. These can be gemstones, or ordinary pebbles.
One method involves using 13 individual stones, each marked with a symbol related to its meaning. The diviner tosses these stones onto a board or cloth, and interprets them based on their meaning, where they fell, and their position relative to other stones.
Osteomancy: Reading Bones
Osteomancy is similar to lithomancy, but, instead of stones, it uses a collection of bones, stones, and shells. This form of divination dates back to prehistory, and arose all over the world.
As in lithomancy, the bones may be drawn from a basket or pouch and read individually, or cast on a board or cloth. They are interpreted based on their individual meanings, position, and any patterns that emerge.
Pendulum divination is one of the first divination methods beginning diviners learn. It’s deceptively simple, but capable of yielding a tremendous amount of information.
It involves using a pendulum — either one consecrated for this purpose, or something as simple as a pebble tied to a string. The diviner holds their pendulum perfectly still, and waits for it to begin swinging on its own.
Pendulums are often used for simple “yes” or “no” readings. In this case, the diviner may interpret a “yes” or “no” from the motion of the pendulum — a clockwise spin for an affirmative, a counterclockwise for a negative, for example — or allowing it to dangle into an empty glass. When the pendulum strikes the rim, the diviner interprets the number of taps.
These tools can also be used over a specialized spirit board. These boards usually have letters and numbers printed in a semi-circular arrangement. The diviner holds the pendulum at the base of this semi-circle, and asks a question. When the pendulum swings toward a letter or number, the diviner writes this down and reads the resulting message.
The Celtic Ogham
Like rune casting, Ogham (pronounced “Ohm”) divination relies on an ancient writing system. In this case, it’s the Ogham alphabet of Ireland. Each Ogham “letter” has a tree and meaning associated with it. These letters are engraved or painted on slices of wood, which the diviner selects from a pouch and interprets.
Another method involves laying the Ogham staves face down in a grid formation. The diviner passes their non-dominant hand over the staves, selects the ones they feel a “pull” toward, and interprets them.
Apantomancy Divination: Encounters with Animals
Broadly, apantomancy refers to divination using things that appear by chance. In many cases, this means unexpected encounters with animals. This is referred to in a lot of old superstitions — having a black cat cross one’s path foretelling bad luck, for example, or having a house catch fire after a crow lands on the roof.
Another example survives in an old poem about magpies. If the diviner had a chance encounter with magpies, they could be interpreted based on their numbers:
“One for sorrow,
Two for mirth,
Three for a wedding,
Four for death.”
Animal divinations usually relies on unusual animals. For most people in the US, the appearance of a sparrow won’t be very remarkable, and therefore won’t hold much symbolic weight. A wild cockatoo, on the other hand, would.
For this method of divination, the diviner will usually ask a question, then observe for a period of time. They might sit in a field and see what animals turn up, set an intention for a week or so and see what animals cross their path during their regular daily activities. If any animals do show up, the diviner then interprets their appearance and behavior.
Ornithomancy: Bird Divination
Ornithomancy is divination specifically using birds. Unlike apantomancy, these many not necessarily come from a chance encounter — in ancient times, diviners might deliberately release captive birds and interpret their flight paths.
If a bird flew horizontally, the querent may reach their goal after difficulty. If a bird flies to the left, the querent will achieve it with ease. If it flies to the right, it signifies delays and obstacles.
Birds flying toward the diviner portend joy and success for the querent. The higher a bird or flock flew, the better the omen. Birds calling while flying over or resting near a house foretell of important news.
Libanomancy: Incense Divination
Libanomancy is divination using the shapes, colors, paths, and even sounds of burning incense. This method usually involves loose incense burned on charcoal, which produces more unique shapes and sounds than stick or cone incense.
For this form of divination, the diviner needs charcoal, loose incense, and a draft-free room. After sprinkling the incense, the diviner pays attention to how it behaves.
If the smoke drifts to the right, the querent will meet with success. If it drifts to the left, the querent will meet with failure. If the smoke is thin and constricted, it signifies hard times ahead. If it billows freely, it signifies easy success.
Candles offer multiple methods of divination. One involves observing the flame as it burns — does it flicker, or is the flame steady? Is it producing lots of smoke? Does the candle leave a lot of soot behind?
This method is very popular among practitioners of candle magic. They interpret the behavior of the flame to see how their spell is progressing, what energies are impacting it, and how likely it is to succeed.
Ceromancy is specifically divination with candle wax. For this, the diviner lights the candle, allows it to burn, and pours some of the wax into cold water. Like tea leaves, the hardening wax forms shapes and symbols. The diviner then interprets these based on their relevance to the querent’s question.
Bibliomancy: Divination With Books
Bibliomancy is divination using books, often the Christian Bible. The diviner asks a question, closes their eyes, and opens a book to a random place. Then, with eyes still closed, they point to a place on the page before them. The diviner then reads this passage for messages relevant to the querent’s question.
All books are suitable for bibliomancy, but large volumes without pictures work the best.
Getting Started with Divination
Some divination methods are more challenging than others. For beginning diviners, the open-ended nature of lithomancy, osseomancy, or scrying can be a bit too much to start with. Straightforward methods like pendulum divination or bibliomancy might be a better jumping off point until the diviner gains more confidence in their abilities.
The most important part of divination is observation. Even if something seems irrelevant at the time, it might impact the message.
Beginning diviners should be open to receiving information however it comes — if their incense begins crackling and sputtering during a tarot reading session, that might be significant. If a crow lands outside of their window and calls during a scrying session, it might have something to say, too.
It’s also important for beginning diviners to keep a journal. Many divination tools have set meanings, like the meanings of tarot cards, runes, or Ogham staves, but interpretations can still be highly subjective.
Writing down every divination attempt, the results, and any relevant events in the weeks afterward will go a long way to helping beginners learn to interpret and develop confidence in their skills.
Lastly, persistence is key. It’s easy to get frustrated with one divination method and assume another will be better, but, even though the methods differ, the underlying skills are the same.
Diviners need to be perceptive, intuitive, and patient, no matter what they use. Beginners should be prepared to stick with one divination method for several months in order to build up the “magical muscle” needed to use it.
Humans have always wanted to uncover secrets and foretell the future. For ages, this was the sole provenance of a magical elite — everything from village wisepeople, to shamans, to druids.
Now, it’s possible for anyone to learn the basic skills needed to become an adept diviner. With persistence, intuition, and observational skills, even an absolute beginner can master any of these divination methods.