I think it’s safe to say that thinking about the future can be extremely scary. No one knows what is going to happen next, but that doesn’t mean that people won’t try to figure it out! Medieval people were no different. Medieval divinatory practices are an extremely broad category, so today I will be discussing a specific subject of that: Christian divination. When I say Christian divination, I am referring specifically to divinatory arts that invoke God and/or use Scripture to foretell the future. After all, if you are invoking God and/or using Scripture then it doesn’t count as demonic magic. You are asking God for answers, not the devil. (Though I will note later on in the medieval period divination was associated with the devil.)
Usually, I write about medieval Europe, however, our first example of Christian divination actually comes from fifth to seventh century Egypt. Some early medieval Greek-speaking Christians used divination through oracular texts. Oracular texts were questions written on papyrus that asked God what decision they should make. The texts are simple yes or no questions. My copy of Ancient Christian Magic: Coptic Texts of Ritual Power has English translations of six of these oracular questions. The topics vary widely, so here is a list summarizing the six to give you a better idea of exactly what could be asked:
- Should the writer go on that journey to Chiout?
- Should we bring Anoup to the hospital?
- Is it your [God’s] will for the writer to make a business offer to the bank?
- Should the writer let Theodora marry Joseph?
Now, as you can probably tell, I’ve only included four topics out of the six. This is due to two reasons. The last oracular text is worded extremely vaguely. However, it does still have a What-Does-The-Future-Hold-For-Me vibe:
✝ Do not harm your soul, for what has come to pass is from god.Translator: Marvin Meyer
Then the business question is actually split into two. One version asks for a sign if the writer should not take the opportunity and the other asks for a sign if they should:
✝ My lord god almighty and St. Philoxenos my patron, I beseech you through the great name of the lord god, if it is not your will for me to speak about the bank or about the weighing office, direct me to find out that I may not speak. ✝ (verso)
✝ CH M G ✝ CH M G ✝ CH M G ✝Translator: Marvin Meyer
✝ My lord god almighty and St. Philoxenos my patron, I beseech you through the great name of the lord god, if it is your will and you help me get the banking business, I invoke you to direct me to find out and to speak. ✝ (verso)
✝ CH M G ✝ CH M G ✝ CH M G ✝Translator: Marvin Meyer
Despite five of them being yes or no questions, only the marriage proposal actually includes the answer they got. (It was a yes.) Interestingly enough that one also specifies that the writer is asking the “God of the Christians,” implying that other gods are popular in their area.
Our next oracular text is also known as the Sortes Sanctorum, a.k.a “lots of the saints.” There are different versions of this text, however, my translation is from a seventh to eighth-century papyrus fragment. Because it’s an earlier version it primarily references God, Christ, and biblical figures instead of actual saints. Later versions were written. To use the Sortes Sanctorum you had to roll die/cast lots to see what your future held. The text itself is basically a bunch of numbered predictions and whatever numbers you rolled, that would be your future. Here is an example of one such prediction:
[25. Do not go] forth but [believe] in god: You will experience something good that you do [not] foresee.Translator: Marvin Meyer
To use later versions of the Sortes Sanctorum medieval Christians couldn’t just open the book and start throwing dice. It was mandatory to perform a few rituals (for lack of a better word) before. Rituals also needed to be done before performing other versions of bibliomancy (using a book in divination). (I will be writing a whole separate article on bibliomancy later!) For another version of the Sortes Sanctorum, you had to choose the right day to ask the question, fast for three days, read a bunch of religious readings, pray a lot, go to several masses, receive the sacrament of communion, and cast your dice on an altar. It was certainly a lot of effort to know your fate!
That being said, doing all of these things was important to do. Some church authorities considered fortune telling to be extremely pagan. By going out of your way to pray, you could have a good excuse that what you were doing wasn’t pagan but Christian in case anyone came around asking.
Chardonnens, László Sándor. “Mantic Alphabets in Medieval Western Manuscripts and Early Printed Books.” Modern Philology, vol. 110, no. 3, 2013, pp. 340–366. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/10.1086/669251. Accessed 10 Jan. 2021.
Kieckhefer, Richard. Magic in the Middle Ages. Cambridge University Press, 2004.
Meyer, Marvin, et al. Ancient Christian Magic: Coptic Texts of Ritual Power. Princeton University Press, 1999.
Nogent, Guibert de. A Monk’s Confession: The Memoirs of Guibert of Nogent. Translated by Paul J. Archambault, The Pennsylvania State University Press, 1996.
Waldorf, Sarah. We Tried Medieval Divination-And It Worked. 5 Aug. 2016, blogs.getty.edu/iris/we-tried-medieval-divination-and-it-worked/.