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Toward a Theory of Divinatory Practice

barbara tedlock, ph.d.,

Distinguished Professor of Anthropology
Department of Anthropology, State
University of New York at Buffalo
Buffalo, New York

Divination has been practiced as a way of knowing and communicating for mil-
lennia. Diviners are experts who embrace the notion of moving from a boundless
to a bounded realm of existence in their practice. They excel in insight, imagina-
tion, fluency in language, and knowledge of cultural traditions and human psy-
chology. During a divination, they construct usable knowledge from oracular
messages of various sorts. To do so, they link diverse domains of representational
information and symbolism with emotional or presentational experience. Their
divinatory acts involve complementary modes of cognition associated with these
rather different symbolic forms. In representational symbolism, intentional refer-
ence, within a relatively controlled inductive reality, is paramount, while in pre-
sentational symbolism, implicit experiential immersion, within a free-flowing
context, is grasped intuitively. Wherever a theory of divination has been elicited
from diviners, there is a clear recognition of the overlapping of inductive, intu-
itive, and interpretive techniques and ways of knowing. In order to arrive at a the-
ory of practice for divination, as a form of practical consciousness or knowledge
within different modes of cognition, one must take what diviners say and do seri-
ously. Recent scientific studies reveal that consciousness is connected both to elec-
trical information in the brain and nervous system and to electronic
semi-conduction in body tissues. Brain consciousness is embedded in body con-
sciousness and coupled to it. This validates the experience of mind-body con-
sciousness diviners have used for millennia in their performances.
keywords: mediumistic divination, cognition, intuition, somatic consciousness

Anthropology of Consciousness, Vol. 17, Issue 2, pp. 62–77. ISSN1053-4202, © 2006 by the American
Anthropological Association. All rights reserved. Please direct all requests for permissions to
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toward a theory of divinatory practice 63

Divination has been conceptualized by positivists as the irrational weak sister of
astronomy, mathematics, and medicine: a parasitic pseudoscience feeding on
these more logical, rational sciences. This view is said to have originated with the
Roman elite in the last century BCE who, we are assured by a number of classi-
cal scholars, were deeply skeptical about divination.1 The key text used as evi-
dence of this supposed skepticism is Cicero’s famous dialogue On Divination
(45–44 BCE). Careful analysis of the intellectual and cultural context, however,
suggests that Cicero may not have been such a skeptic. A close reading of this
and other texts indicate that he carefully balanced his arguments against divina-
tion in the second book by arguments in favor of divination in the first, so that, as
he put it, “each (reader) might more easily adopt the view that seemed to him
the most probable” (Beard 1986:35).
To begin my work of taking divination seriously and proposing a theory of
divinatory practice in our post-positivist, though still skeptical, age, I will
begin by examining the intellectual relationship between theory and observa-
tion. The English word theory comes from the Greek noun theoria, which
referred to a sacred pilgrimage, or journey to a distant land, to consult an ora-
cle. Such a visitation combined the observation of material things seen in the
physical world with a heightened form of witnessing, a sacramental form of
seeing. The Greek verb theorein and its Latin form obsevatio, indicate a jour-
ney with a divinatory purpose combined with attentiveness to and caring for
sacred objects and places. A person who made such a sacred journey, called a
theoros in Greek, was commissioned by the government to travel to a shrine
where one or more deities revealed themselves to humans. The theoros posed
questions concerning the will of the deities on the basis of which future deci-
sions could be made.
In the ancient Greek world, as in other traditional cultures, religious festivals
created a suspension of the world of work, providing an opening through which
the holy can break in and illuminate the everyday world. The theoros, as a festi-
val spectator, found access to meaning as the ultimate support for earthly exis-
tence. In time there was a change in the Greek concept of theory, from a festive
journey to a work-oriented form of edifying travel. Further secularization brings
us to the situation today, in which a theorist goes to the laboratory, the place of
labor, rather than to a shrine, the place of festive manifestation (Jager 1974,
1983, 1997, 2003).
There is another productive way of thinking about the relationship between
observation and theory. In recent work in the history of science on the topic of
“observability,” it has been pointed out that science was once regarded as an
extension of common sense, based on occurrences in the visible, tangible world.
Scientists limited themselves to examining how such observables behaved.
64 anthropology of consciousness 17.2

Recently, however, it has been argued that the category of observables depends
upon a theoretical or conceptual framework and this theoretical framework, in
turn, depends upon observations. As a result, “observables” include both mate-
rial things seen in the world and unobserved entities that can be imagined by
extension or extrapolation from such observed phenomena. Observation, thus, is
theory laden.2
Today we no longer regard the physical sciences as simply a form of exposure
to sense perception. In fact, one of the hallmarks of much late 20th and early 21st
century science has been its failure to conform to mental images drawn from our
everyday experience. Instead, scientists are now imagining parallel universes,
quantum non-locality, worm holes in time and space, mass-energy transforma-
tions, cosmic strings, gravity-bent light, and other strange concepts that defy
common sense reality (Visser 1989; Hawking 1992; Nadeau and Kafatos 1999).
Given these remarkable developments in the physical sciences, why should we
not approach divination with the same conceptual openness, in what the
English philosopher of science Mary Hesse (1980:147) aptly called “the spirit of
the principle of no privilege”?
This is precisely what the historian Francesca Rochberg (1999, 2004) has done
by tracing the interconnections among the Babylonian scribal traditions of celes-
tial science: including omen divination, personal astrology through horoscopes,
and the astronomical text corpus. Many of the omens were problematic, she
points out, in that they indicate schema for eclipses on days of the month begin-
ning with the days of opposition—14, 15 and 16—but then they continue until
conjunction at the end of the month. It is clear that on all of these days
(14 through 30), it is not possible to observe a lunar eclipse. However, if these
eclipse omens are thought of as referring to observables, or phenomena of inter-
est to diviners, then they rightfully include unobserved entities that might be
imagined by extension or extrapolation from observed phenomena. Thus, what
should we make of so-called “eclipses” on days of the month other than the days
of syzygy (three celestial bodies in a line)?3
When we examine the meaning of the Babylonian term AN.KU, usually
translated as eclipse, we find that it also includes any darkening of the moon by
clouds. On the bases of this and other examples, Rochberg argues that science
did not emerge from a magical religious culture but rather it was fully integrated
with such a culture. One of the key markers of integral studies today is that sci-
ence is once again in dialogue with religion.4
All peoples during all historical periods have practiced divination as a way of
exploring the unknown, solving problems, diagnosing ailments, and prescribing
medicines and other healing treatments (Winkelman and Peek 2004). The earli-
est known form of divination, practiced in China during the second century
BCE, involved reading patterns of cracks in oracular bones, made from the
shoulder blades of deer, sheep, pigs, and oxen, or the shells of turtles. Oracular
toward a theory of divinatory practice 65

bones were first discovered in the 19th century by Chinese peasants, who found
them in their fields and sold them as “dragon bones” to local druggists, who
ground them up to make medicines. When scholars realized the importance of
the inscriptions carved on the bones, they began to collect and preserve them.
Since then, nearly 155,000 oracular inscriptions have been recovered. Many are
fragmentary, consisting of only a word or two, while others have as many as
200 words (Smith 1991).
In the classical world, ancient Egypt and the Middle East, the Americas,
India, Tibet, Mongolia, Japan, Korea, and all over Africa, divination has had a
critical role for millennia. Questions about future events, past disasters for which
causes could not be explained, things unknown, hidden from sight, or removed
in space, appropriate conduct in critical situations, including the healing of ill-
ness, determining the appropriate times and modes of religious worship, and
making choices for undertaking particular tasks—have all been subjects of
divinatory inquiry.
There are hundreds of forms of divination practiced worldwide: including
water-, crystal-, and star-gazing, dreaming, and the casting of lots, or sortilege, the
reading of natural omens, the taking of hallucinogenic drugs, and the contem-
plation of mystic spirals, amulets, labyrinths, mandalas, and thangkas. In some
instances, the diviner undergoes physical or psychological changes, so as to be
able to serve as a medium or vehicle for divinatory power. At other times, ani-
mals, objects, and events themselves are considered signs of an external super-
human power (Tedlock 2001; Winkelman 2005; Morales 1995).
These many forms of divination have been sorted by practitioners into four
main types: omen, pattern, symbol, and trance. Omen divination refers to
reading natural signs such as the flight of birds or the road crossings of ani-
mals. Pattern divination, such as rod or pendulum dowsing, refers to making a
shape or design and then interpreting it by fixed guidelines. Symbol divina-
tion includes the Tarot, the Chinese I Ching, and the Yoruba Ifa readings,
together with palmistry and geomancy. Here one uses a deck of cards, sticks,
lines of a person’s hand, or special landscape features that depend upon a
complex, often literary, interpretation system. Trance divination involves con-
tacting spirits to answer questions. Shamans and priests have practiced this
mediumistic technique worldwide for generations. There are a number of
ways to enter trance, including altering the chemistry of the mind and body
through fasting, rapid dancing, sonic driving, and the ingestion of hallucino-
genic drugs.
These four categories, in turn, have been collapsed by theorists into two main
classes of divination: mediumistic (nonrational, inspirational, or natural) and
inductive (rational, mechanical, or artificial). To which class a particular divina-
tory act belongs depends on the degree of rationality, or nonrationality, the
investigator believes the diviner used during his or her divination. The early
66 anthropology of consciousness 17.2

Greeks, for example, emphasized the field of mantics, divination about the
future using trance and other mediumistic forms. The Romans, however,
emphasized the mechanical pattern or inductive forms of divination. Many peo-
ples worldwide, however, as we will see, actually perform mixtures of these
two forms of divination.5
Mediumistic divination has been practiced nearly everywhere, in all his-
torical periods. In Africa it currently occurs among many peoples, including
the Yaka of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, the Tonga and Lungu of
Zambia, the Nilotic Alur of Uganda, the Tumbuka of northern Malawi, and
the Nguni of South Africa (Beattie and Middleton 1969; Devisch 1991; Friedson
1996; Willis 2004). Among the Nguni, the diviners, predominantly women,
serve as the conduit of psychic information sent by the ancestors. During div-
ination, the practitioners proceed through an intuitive “tuning in” to what
their ancestors and other deities communicate to them. Initially, they speak
ecstatically without editing, translating, or censoring what they hear, see, or
sense kinesthetically (bodily). As the divination proceeds, they ask rational
questions and receive specific feedback about the situation at hand (Ham-
mond-Tooke 2002).
The Navajo of the American Southwest also conduct what are primarily non-
rational or mediumistic divinatory rituals. These diviners, most of whom are
women, wash their hands and forearms, sprinkle corn pollen on their inside
right forearms, from their elbows all the way down to the palms of their right
hands. They also sprinkle pollen along the inside surface of their thumbs and
along each finger out to the tip. Now, sitting with their eyes closed, they visualize
and sing to the Eastern collared lizard. This is a large, night-hunting lizard with
a predominantly green body, multicolored beaded collar, and yellow head.
Silently, they ask their imaginal lizards for information about hidden problems.
As they slip into trance, their extended arms begin to shake involuntarily, resem-
bling the characteristic jerky body movements of this lizard.
When a diviner becomes aware that her arm has been trembling uncontrol-
lably, she opens her eyes. What she sees is an afterimage, perhaps the sun, the
moon, a star, or a sand-painting symbol. This image indicates the proper cere-
mony she or another practitioner should perform to heal the patient. During this
later ceremony, the healer represents her afterimage in a mandala-like sand-
painting she draws on the earthen floor of the hogan. Her healing ritual now
becomes more inductive and less mediumistic (Schwarz 1997:260–266; Keeney
This shifting from nonrational to rational discourse appears to be as common
as the opposite movement from rational to nonrational discourse. The anthro-
pologist Roy Willis narrated his experience of this latter divinatory shift, which
he observed when he visited Jane Ridder-Patrick, a well-known British herbalist,
astrologer, and author of A Handbook of Medical Astrology (1991). When he
toward a theory of divinatory practice 67

asked her to do his astrological chart, he observed that she appeared rational at
first but then, about two-thirds of the way through the hour-long reading, the
atmosphere changed.
The relatively mild-mannered Jane became suddenly powerful and authorita-
tive, as though someone or something was speaking urgently through her,
something quasi-divine. She became a priestess, possessed of Spirit, able to
make all clear. Evidently, she had moved into an altered state of consciousness
in which she was “seeing” things, connecting things together, as though a master
plan or pattern had suddenly become apparent. It was weird and impressive.
[Willis and Curry 2004:11].
Not only diviners but clients can also shift into altered states of consciousness
during divination. Among the Kootenai, a Native American people living in British
Columbia, divination has long been a central aspect of their healing system and a
key factor in their self-reliant, adaptive autonomy as a people. During sweatlodge
ceremonies, when the lodge becomes unbearably hot and people in the lodge have
difficulty breathing, they may suddenly receive spiritual-healing messages.
These messages, which are triggered visually, aurally, kinesthetically or by intuition,
are often called “strange,” “obscure,” and “symbolic” and require discussion so that
participants can understand their content, details, and meaning (Brunton 2002).

theories of divination
Most research to date has rationalized divination after the fact, explaining what it
accomplishes for individuals and societies without fully revealing that divination
is a form of intentional shared social action.6 This creates a situation in which
what Pierre Bourdieu (1977, 1990) has called the “practical mastery” or “practical
knowledge” of diviners is neglected, precluding the development of a theory of
divinatory practice.
When researchers decide in advance that some actions are practical only in
an objective realm they define, they exclude from investigation the practical
mastery diviners understand and employ. A number of investigators who were
impressed by the apparent mechanical nature of the divinatory procedure and
the orderliness it ascribed to the universe saw divination in an ancestral or ana-
logical relationship with Western science. The ethnographer June Nash (1967),
for example, coined the word “sociopsy,” to describe the parallel function of
Tzeltal Mayan divination to biopsy in Western medicine. This appears to give
diviners a space within the so-called “objective” domain. However, this is true
only to the degree that a diviner’s theory or practice is described as resembling
those of the investigator, or those of other members of her society.7
Divinatory procedures that actively combine mechanical procedures with
sudden bursts of intuition or insight, present another arena for the investigation
68 anthropology of consciousness 17.2

of the practical mastery of divination. Before I begin to describe some of these

systems, I need to say a few words about intuition. The root of the English word
intuition comes from the Latin intuitus, meaning the act of gaining knowledge
from direct perception or from contemplation. The vast body of literature on the
topic of intuition converges around a set of themes that point to intuition as a
form of instant interpretation, or “tuning in,” that pushes into and sometimes
even overwhelms conscious knowing or awareness. The source of such intuition
may be in the form of an apprehension that lies outside sensory channels and
analytical thought, or it may lie in subliminal or nonconscious awareness that is
embedded within the unconscious. What appears to be happening is an “open-
ing up” to inner promptings deriving from deep psychodynamic forces. Intuition
has been conceptualized and described within neurophysiological, cognitive,
and spiritual, or transpersonal, frameworks. These rather different ways of
approaching “intuitive knowing” have created a fertile area of research in the
emerging field of consciousness studies (Dennett 1991; Laughlin, McManus and
d’Aquili 1992; Cohen and Rapport 1995; Floyd and Arvidson 1997).
Beginning in the mid-1970s, researchers uncovered the fact that the two hemi-
spheres of the human brain carry out complementary functions: the left lob
mediates language production and analytical thought, while the right lobe medi-
ates the production of images and the spatiotemporal world. Some researchers
used these findings to suggest that humans have two modes of consciousness:
“reason,” associated with left-lobe functioning; and “intuition,” associated with
right-lobe functioning. More recently, however, it was discovered that the hemi-
spheres are not isolated from each other but connected by passageways consist-
ing of bands of fibers: the corpus callosum, the massa intermedia and the anterior
commissure. Neurons are constantly coursing between the left and right hemi-
spheres within these fiber passageways. As a result of these and other findings,
researchers have begun studying inter-hemispheric coherence and suggesting a
cognitive continuum consisting of “propositional” and “compositional” modes
of thought with a third integrative mode lying in between (McEen and Schmeck
1994:26–32; Laughlin 1997:19–37; Carter 1998:68–76; Rodd 2003:81–83; Tedlock
Wherever a theory of divination has been proposed by diviners, we find not
only inductive or propositional thought and intuitive or compositional thought,
but also integrative consciousness or ways of knowing. Integrative modes of con-
sciousness have neurobiological substrates. In South Africa, Zulu diviners have
explained that there are three main methods of divination: through the spirits,
with bones, and with the head. The first type, “through the spirits,” is a form of
mediumistic or trance divination in which the diviner communicates with and
becomes possessed by spirits who are located in the roof. “Divination with bones”
is a form of inductive or pattern divination in which the practitioner places bones
in medicine and carefully examines them in order to find out what questions the
toward a theory of divinatory practice 69

client wants to pose. Divining with the head involves an interpretive approach
that is neither purely a nonrational mediumistic process, based on no tangible
object, sign, or natural event, nor purely a rational inductive process of examina-
tion of tangible objects, signs, or events. Here we have a continuum of cognitive
processes and behavior, ranging from the showiness of trance mediumship to the
rational manipulation of physical objects interrupted by sudden breaks of deeply
embodied insight (Kohler 1941; Berglund 1989; Jolles and Jolles 2000).
A similar combination of divinatory methods, revealing several underlying
cognitive processes, has also been described by Tiv diviners. Here diviners are
called upon at a preconscious level to garner information about feelings, as well
as information about events. They use divining chains, which encourage them
to allow their fantasies and feelings to emerge into consciousness, a technique
similar to the psychoanalytical practice of free-floating attention. Thus, Tiv
divining-chain oracles cannot be classified as either strictly inductive or strictly
intuitive, but rather, as operating along an integrative cognitive continuum
(Bohannan 1975:142).
Shona divination works in a similar manner. The diviner begins with a seem-
ingly inductive use of a tangible object, in this case dice, which he casts once or
twice until he suddenly “knows everything.” At this point, he is able to tell his
clients such things as where they have come from, the name of the deceased, the
type of person the deceased was, and the cause of death (Gelfand 1962:106–110).
In the year 2000, a group of Dagara diviners, from northern Ghana and south-
ern Burkina Faso, began a series of annual pilgrimages to the African burial
grounds of England and the United States, that is, the burial grounds of those of
direct African descent who died in England and the United States. The mission
of this organization of diviners, known as the Dagara Peace Commission, is to
heal the effects of centuries of racism experienced by African Americans and
British citizens of African descent. During graveside divinations, they uncover
hidden truths that were eliminated from the history books—painful truths about
African ancestors who were horribly tortured and died during the slave trade,
slavery, and colonization. They explained that it is only through the revelation of
the gruesome facts of the sexual and other physical and psychological abuse and
exploitation under slavery that grieving can occur. And this, they say, is a neces-
sary prerequisite for forgiveness and healing.8
Among the Highland Maya of Central America, with whom my husband
Dennis Tedlock and I have worked for many years, the act of divination com-
bines the inductive use of material objects—tree seeds and quartz crystals—with
narratives centering on the interpretation of the days within the ancient Mayan
260-day calendar. During the act of divination itself, these procedures are further
combined with a mediumistic shamanic gift called koyopa, or “sheet lightning,”
which races through the diviner’s body, resulting in “the speaking of the blood,”
or kacha’ uki’k’el. Since the body of the diviner is understood as a microcosm
70 anthropology of consciousness 17.2

with its own cardinal directions, mountains, plains, lakes and winds, intuitive,
embodied sensations are interpreted according to their location, direction, and
speed. The mapping of the meanings onto the human body proceeds according
to sets of paired terms that are in a dialectical, interlocking complementarity,
rather than in a dualistic opposition. It uses a combination of divinatory methods
together with a discussion between a diviner and his or her client to arrive at the
proper “understanding,” or ch’obonik in K’iche’ Mayan. Each of these interlock-
ing, embodied, iconic, and narrative systems combines inductive, intuitive, and
integrative ways of knowing within a multidimensional dialogical narrative struc-
ture to properly diagnose, comfort, release, and heal (Tedlock 1982; 1992:133–171).
In these and many other divinatory systems, the cognitive continuum that
diviners use combines ratiocination (intellect, reason, and logic) with uncon-
scious operational processes, including intuition. While ratiocination refers to
culturally created models of cognitive processes, intuition is an unconscious cog-
nitive process that is neuro-gnostic, or genetically determined, in its structure
and function (Winkelman 2000:243–244).
Whenever it occurs, divination involves complementary modes of cognition
associated with primary-process and secondary-process thinking (Fernandez
1991; Kracke 1992). Diviners are specialists who use the idea of moving from a
boundless to a bounded realm of existence in their practice. They excel in
insight, imagination, linguistic fluency and knowledge of cultural traditions.
During a divination, they construct usable knowledge from oracular messages by
combining intuitive-synthetic modes of thinking with logical-analytical modes of
thinking. Through a dialogical and interactive mode, they link diverse domains
of representational information and symbolism with emotional or presentational
In representational symbolism, specific intentional reference is paramount,
the medium of expression is straightforward, and inductive reality is dominant.
In presentational symbolism, meaning emerges directly from experiential
immersion in the expressive or emotional patterns of the symbolic medium that
is grasped intuitively. By combining representational with presentational sym-
bolism within a single narrative structure, diviners provide a surplus, or “super-
abundance,” of understanding for their clients (Werbner 1973). During the act of
divination, individual creativity operates: jumbled ideas, metaphors, and sym-
bols suggest possible interpretations, which slowly give way to an ordered
sequencing and to more limited interpretations. Through dialogue between
diviner and client, these interpretations are superseded by an unambiguous clas-
sification of the history and causes of the situation and what is needed to respond
to or change them (Hunt 1995:41–42; Wilce 2001).
These forms of symbolism are tightly intertwined. Referential language is
filled with emotion in the form of intonation, gesture, and emphasis as its
toward a theory of divinatory practice 71

emotional aspect, while presentational language and emotional states have a

sense of intentional meaning in the form of an incipient portent. Thus, each of
these symbolic modes has a bit of the other in a subordinate or background posi-
tion. The presentational side of our symbolic capacity conveys more about con-
text than about referential focus. The delay in pragmatic semantic meaning,
found in many systems of divination, allows the time needed for the maximum
felt synthesis of presentational symbolism.
The interactions that take place during divination between these rather different
forms of cognition suggest that we pay attention to the findings of scientists working
in the area of integral mind-body research. Mae-Wan Ho (1993, 1996, 1998, 1999,
2000), a pioneer in the physics of organisms, discovered that within the cellular and
extra-cellular areas of the human body, there is a protein matrix composed of liquid
crystals and biopolymers that behave as electronic conductors, storing large
amounts of cognitive information. It is this liquid crystal structure that gives us our
characteristic flexibility, sensitivity, and responsiveness, allowing for rapid inter-
communication and enabling us to function as coherent, organized wholes.
She and other researchers have suggested that consciousness itself resides in
these cellular and extra-cellular matrices. This form of somatic consciousness,
distributed throughout the entire body, possesses all the hallmarks of conscious-
ness: sentience, intercommunication, and memory. Thus, mind exists not just in
the brain, but it is also distributed throughout the body, especially in the con-
nective tissues, including the skin, organ linings and membranes, bones, ten-
dons, ligaments, and cartilage. Such tissues have been found to be responsible
for the rapid communications that enable the body to function as a coherent
whole (Lipton 2001; Pert 2004, 2005; Goldman 2005).
Our entire nervous system, as well as areas of the body where nerves and cap-
illaries are not found, is composed of a special protein matrix mostly consisting
of a network of collagen immersed in water and hydrogen molecules that
support rapid jump conduction of protons. Jump conduction, a form of semi-
conduction, is much faster than electrical conduction through nerve fibers.
Collagen fibers in the connective tissues provide channels for communication
arranged to correspond to the mechanical stresses to which the tissue is sub-
jected. Their interlocking lineal alignments provide passageways for electrical
intercommunication that resemble the acupuncture meridians in traditional
Chinese medicine and the paths that koyopa or “sheet-lighting” follows in the
K’iche’ Mayan bodily divinatory system.
The implications for the study of divination are enormous. The jump con-
duction of streams of information within the protein matrix of our bodies appears
to be connected to the sudden bursts of intuition in the midst of otherwise
inductive procedures—like the casting lots—that have been so often described
in the literature on divination.
72 anthropology of consciousness 17.2

It is only by engaging with diviners and observing their acts of divination, in the
spirit of the principle of no privilege, that we can study divination as we would
any other meaningful social or cultural phenomena. While divination has been
thought of as either inductive (i.e., rational) or mediumistic (i.e., nonrational),
many peoples worldwide have long practiced a combined or integrative form of
Integrative consciousness involves disclosure and orientation. In any one
instant during a divination, little or nothing may be said. Instead, a silent lan-
guage of objects and signs may be used for the presentation of felt realities, for
reflection, meditation, and interpretation. If words are used, they are often cryp-
tic, poetic, and highly allusive, sometimes even spoken in a foreign or archaic
tongue. The images these words and objects conjure are paradoxical and evoca-
tive: they create and are created by a sense of discovery.
By paying attention to what diviners say about and do during divination, we
can develop a theory of divinatory practice. Wherever this has happened, we
have uncovered integrative ways of knowing along a cognitive continuum
stretching from ratiocination to intuition. The ongoing interactions between
these divergent forms of cognition suggest that the various forms of conscious-
ness manifested during divination are much more complex than we once
Recent findings in biophysics indicate that cognition is found not only in the
brain and nervous system but also throughout the entire protein matrix of our
bodies, most especially in our connective tissues. Divination is a way of knowing
that depends only partly on cognitive information from our brains and nervous
system. It also depends, perhaps to a larger extent, on the electronic conduction
of information stored throughout the tissues of our bodies. This is why divina-
tion, as an embodied human universal, will simply not go away. Although it has
been laughed at, legislated against, and banned by the church, it continues to be
practiced worldwide and always will be.

1. This view, which was formulated by Lily Ross Taylor (1949:76–97), remains the
dominant one. See Dumézil (1970:549–550).
2. My discussion of the interaction of theory and observation is informed by the work
of Hanson (1958), Wortofsky (1968), Hesse (1970), Horton (1993), Kitcher (1993), and
Hardcastle (1994), among others.
3. During a syzygy, three celestial bodies are positioned along a straight line: Sun,
Earth and the Moon or a planet, where the latter is in conjunction or opposition.
Both solar and lunar eclipses are examples of syzygy.
4. For a discussion of the integral vision today, see the on-line journal Ikosmos, founded
and edited by Byron Belitsos: http://www.ikosmos.com.
toward a theory of divinatory practice 73

5. The Romans were so fond of the inductive form of divination that they set up a
college that specialized in augury: interpreting species, cries, numbers, and the
direction of the flight of birds. See Bouché-Leclercq (1879); Cox Miller (1994);
Tedlock (2001).
6. For notable exceptions to this generalization, see Jules-Rosette (1978) and Shaw (1985).
7. Indigenous people themselves sometimes make an analogy between divination and
the high-status diagnostic techniques of Western medicine. Thus a Tumbuka diviner
in Africa told the ethnographer Steven Friedson (1996:37) that diviners X-ray their
8. For more details about the divinatory work of the Dagara Peace Commission, see
“African delegation brings wisdom to slave trade history,” Miami Times, October 9,
9. This representational-presentational distinction was first suggested by the philoso-
pher Susanne Langer (1942) and later developed by a number of cognitive psycholo-
gists and anthropologists. See Geschwind (1965), Haskell (1984), Peek (1991), and
Winkelman (2000).

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