divinatory and oracular traditions

This module seeks to explore the nature of “divinatory intelligence” (Vernant, 1991). This involves an inquiry into how meaning is derived from symbolism, omen-interpretation and prophecy, drawing on relevant insights from classical studies, biblical studies and anthropology. While the focus is on ancient near-Eastern and European traditions, comparisons are made with divination systems in African and Chinese culture. In addition the module addresses cosmological implications of divination, most fully exemplified in traditional astrology. With these perspectives in place, a primary aim of the module is to introduce the philosophical and theological implications of, and challenges to, magical, oracular, symbolic and divinatory beliefs and practices. These challenges, running in a tradition from antiquity to the European scientific enlightenment, are revealed both in rationalist scepticism and in religious rebuttal. The tradition of scepticism stemming from Cicero is reviewed, together with its culmination in the philosophy of the Enlightenment. Of equal historical significance is the theological dimension of the debate, redolent in Christianity and Islam and still potent as a matter of religious controversy. This leads finally to a consideration of the survival of astrology and divination in contemporary and popular spirituality. What is the place of “divinatory intelligence” in modernity?

Papers on this topic.

Response to Cicero's 'On Divination' by Simão Cortês


The purpose of this essay is to sketch an answer to Cicero’s critique of divination in his book On Divination using mainly arguments from the philosophy of Plutarch and contemporary scholarship. When investigating for this essay I realised that most my sources were written in dialogue and decided that the most interesting way to answer to Cicero was in a dialogue inspired by Plutarch’s style. Thus, I created a small dialogue with three characters: Cicero, Plutarch and myself. I have tried to faithfully reproduce Cicero’s and Plutarch’s views in their characters, while adding some interesting points from my own thought and contemporary scholarship through mine.


Read ‘Response to Cicero’s On Divination’

Jung and Synchronicity by Carol Duncan

The question of meaningful coincidences occupied much of Jung’s attention for many years, and he developed and adapted his theory of synchronicity over a considerable period of time. In this enquiry into whether the concept of synchronicity offers a descriptive and explanatory framework for the study of divination, I examine firstly the characteristics and forms of divination, and note its historical and geographical ubiquity. In investigating the views of various scholars and researchers in the field, I consider in particular the work of Barbara Tedlock who developed a concept of a cognitive continuum as a basis for defining different ways of knowing which may be accessed by diviners. I then examine in some detail Jung’s various definitions of the term ‘synchronicity’, drawing upon his own writings together with those of Marie-Louise von Franz, Roderick Main, and Maggie Hyde, who have all made contributions to this theme. The definitions of synchronicity proposed by Jung touch upon major topics such as causality and meaning, so these ideas are explored in a little more detail, recognising Jung’s dilemma in attempting to reconcile the philosophical contradictions involved.

 Continue reading: ‘Jung and Synchronicity’

Spirit Possession in Shamanism by Stone Fitzgerald

Psyche and Cosmos: Joining the soul to the stars by Tegan Gigante

To seek divination is to enter into the mysteries. We cannot stand aside and watch the act from outside: it is an encounter that brings our own being into play, draws in our psyche to participate and contribute to the event. Consciousness is intimately involved in a shifting, uncertain drama in which meaning and knowledge are created and found, the self that entered emerging changed, holding the gift of new understanding and a sense of one’s place in the
world. To explore the relationship between psychology and divination, I want to speak of the way we engage in this mystery, the participating consciousness and the cosmology that flows from the experience.

Continue reading ‘Psyche and Cosmos’ 

Animal Messengers in Pagan Tradition; Omens, Oracles and Other Worlds by Dani Hawkyard


Imagine for a moment that you find yourself in sunlit gardens, surrounded by grass, wild flowerbeds, wandering paths and twisting trees. You crouch beside a spring that emerges into a meandering stream. Springs are a symbol of the eternal life-force of the earth, and this one in particular is said to be a source of inspiration and vitality for those who drink from its waters. Uncertain, perhaps even skeptical, you wonder about the truth behind the tales.


Continue reading: ‘Animal Messengers’

Why does divination appear to be a taboo topic for educated modern thought? by Alice Winborn

I open this essay with words taken from Cicero’s refutation of the practice of divination (On Divination), because I believe that this statement, taken from a treatise written over two thousand years ago, not only highlights the mentalities of men and women from that time, but is also arguably illustrative of the modes of thought and experiences of many individuals in our contemporary Western society. Whilst it is more likely that in our post-Enlightenment age the practice of divination is carried out in the private realm, nevertheless as Sarah Johnston argues, divination is pervasive in contemporary culture, regardless of whether “[we] believe in it personally” (2008, p.3). Moreover, she claims that the “underlying persistence of desire for divinatory knowledge reflects a basic human need” (Johnston, 2008, p.4). In view of this of bold statement, I would like to consider the question of why the study of this area, which thus appears to be so integral to our human experience, is still perceived as a taboo topic for educated modern thought.

 Continue reading: ‘ Why does divination appear to be a taboo topic for educated modern thought’

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