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The History of Fortune Telling

written by: Andrea Campbell • edited by: Tricia Goss • updated: 2/21/2017

Fortune telling as a trade has a heritage longer than any written records show. Hundreds of methods of forecasting have been used and discarded over the centuries. Reading the future from the entrails of a killed animal is rare these days. However, other forms remain.

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    Ancestry in Question

    The History of Fortune Telling The beginnings of gypsies—the true fortune-tellers—is often in question. To begin, some believe the word “gypsy" is derogatory, slander that is associated with illegal activities and swindling. Perhaps they were a group of people who had their origins in India. Some say they were Egyptians. Still others find them ancestors of modern-day Turkey around AD 855.

    Scholars have found that because of their language and dialect, their home was most likely Romania. A nomadic people with their origins in the Thracian tribes of Indo-European descent, they likely migrated from Asia throughout Europe. By 1505, they had reached the British Isles where, after a time, people called them Anglo-Romany.

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    Maligned Peoples

    As a group, gypsies have generally been maligned, an outcast among other peoples. In slang terms, they have also been labeled as rovers and travelers. The Holy Roman Emperor Sigismund provided them with safe conduct in 1385, but many countries after that expelled them, deported them or put them to death.

    In later centuries, Roma (Romanichel) as they were referred to, were granted privileges by English statute not available to others but, often in other countries, they were restricted to certain towns, subjected to scarification—branding or marked with shaved heads or piercings—or even kept as slaves.

    During World War II, Romani were sent to concentration camps, used for forced labor and exterminated along with the Jews. After the war post-1945, they were sterilized in Czechoslovakia in order to reduce their population after being labeled a “socially degraded stratum." This practice occurred as recently as 2005. Generally, Roma or Sinti have always assimilated and even practiced the majority religion of their host country despite being marginalized and discriminated against.

    A talented people, gypsies are known for their craft skills: metalwork, tinsmiths, woodworking; as well as horse traders, drovers and trainers and in associated occupations, musicians, entertainers and, yes, fortune-telling is a stereotype as well as a popular trade.

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    Archeological Finds in Gegharot, Armenia

    In 2015, three shrines were found that are over 3,000 years old. Scientists believe the area was used specifically for predicting the future. Excavations at the shrine site were conducted by the American-Armenian Project for the Archaeology and Geography of Ancient Transcaucasian Societies.

    Gegharot, Armenia is the hilltop site of a large rock-covered room wherein artifacts have been found such as a clay basin for burning, pottery idols, incense burners and marked animal bones. Experts believe that these articles, in addition to wine vessels that were used for stimulants, were tools to help divine the future.

    The evidence there indicates a type of fortune-telling called osteomancy—using the marked knucklebones of animals that were tossed, similar to dice. In addition, they have found colored pebbles, also used in a practice called lithomancy.

    At one shrine, the archaeologists found an installation used to grind flour. Archeologist and professor at Cornell University, Adam Smith, along with graduate student Jeffrey Leon, think that this flour could have been used to predict the future in a practice called aleuromancy.

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    Dinner Party Diversion

    Surely, we have all received a Chinese fortune cookie—the little pocket of pastry that holds a strip of paper bearing a one-line homily. The piece of advice might say, “Be on the alert for new opportunities" or even the opposite, “Proceed with caution." The future derived in one second from a cookie is never taken quite seriously.

    There are other slightly longer methods that one might label superstitions. For example, a dinner party group may sit around a candle and light it to note which side the molten wax first runs down: it is bad luck for the person to be sitting at that side of the table. Two words for candle fortune telling are ceromancy and lychomancy. Any word ending, “-mancy" is another way of saying, “fortune telling by means of". If it is preceded by “lycho," the ancient Greek word for lamp, that is your candle method.

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    Medieval or Ancient Times

    Rulers, kings and noblemen often consulted wizards, witches and sorcerers as their mentors and advisors—many of them divining the future. These soothsayers predicted whether an empire should create battle or perhaps they conjured up a prophecy that said the ruler should take acts that would benefit the kingdom’s reign.

    The methods chosen for getting a peek into the future were as varied as reading tealeaves (tasseomancy), consulting tarot cards (taromancy), or reading one’s palm and getting a second sight from the lines etched into the hands (palmistry). Numerology is the tale told by numbers; astrology, consulting the stars—and using a spirit board, planchette, or the 1891 invention: The Ouija board, which created quite a sensation and one might say obsession—at séances or parties for those seeking spiritualism.

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    The Fates

    Even in mythology, there are the three goddesses of destiny: Parcae to the Romans and Moirai for the Greek version. They were a very old trio and often sat at a spinning wheel trying to “turn out" the destiny of all men and women. According to the poet Hesiod, the Fates were the pitiless daughters of the dark-robed goddess of night. The three sisters named Clotho, Lachesis and Atropos often determined the fate of the very gods themselves.

    Clotho was the youngest and spun out the threads of life. Lachesis measured out the spun thread and the dreaded Atropos, the oldest, sat at the end with shears. The “inflexible one," Atropos cut the thread of life and sent mortals to their doom.

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    Bizarre Methods

    Some of the more peculiar methods of fortune telling used cats and birds. In Felidomancy, readers took a stab at the future by observing cats. Parrots were used to pick tarot cards and augury is reading the path of birds for telling signs of the future (alectromancy used roosters to pick at grains referred to as the “cock’s crowing.")

    Story has it that the successor to Rome after Caesar was chosen by a sorcerer, Iamblichus, who used a bird to peck out four letters spelling the word “Theo", which meant that all people whose name began with those letters were killed. Of course, the messenger of such bad news gets the shaft afterward, and this resulted in a large scale punishment and killing of sorcerers as decreed in Rome by royal order.

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    The Lowdown

    A wise man once said, “If you want to know if something could possibly happen to you, the answer is always yes." But will something happen to you that is an unknown?

    Fortune telling “readings" or “spiritual consultations," which do not rely on specific devices but rather the practitioner gives the client advice and predictions that are said to have come from spirits, dreams or in visions are popular. However, some states have laws against fortune telling. It is a class B misdemeanor in New York state law and reads like this:

    S 165.35 Fortune telling.

    A person is guilty of fortune telling when, for a fee or compensation which he directly or indirectly solicits or receives, he claims or pretends to tell fortunes, or holds himself out as being able, by claimed or pretended use of occult powers, to answer questions or give advice on personal matters or to exorcise, influence or affect evil spirits or curses; except that this section does not apply to a person who engages in the aforedescribed conduct as part of a show or exhibition solely for the purpose of entertainment or amusement.

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