By Ray Grasse
Originally printed in the January-February 2005 issue of Quest magazine.
Citation: Grasse, Ray. “The Voice of Divination: Omens, Oracles, and the Symbolist Worldview.” Quest 93.1 (JANUARY-FEBRUARY 2005):14-19.
“Things here are signs,” the Neoplatonic philosopher Plotinus once declared. With these words, he gave expression to a worldview that has, in one form or another, influenced human thought since the earliest stirrings of civilization. Sometimes referred to as symbolist, this perspective regards the world as a kind of sacred text, written in the language of symbols, and holds that all phenomena harbor a deeper meaning beyond their obvious appearances. If one applies the proper key, these meanings can be decoded, and everyday life unveiled for its deeper truths.
While the symbolist worldview encompassed a wide range of symbolic patterns, one of these in particular —the omen—came to hold special importance for traditional societies. “Coming events cast their shadow before them,” an ancient proverb proclaims. Through the study of omens, men and women sought to glimpse future possibilities and shifts of fortune and thus prepare themselves for the challenges and opportunities awaiting them.
As with all aspects of symbolist thought, the concept of the omen has expressed itself at widely varying levels of sophistication. At their subtlest, omens exist in a world where the boundaries between past, present, and future are permeable. Influences of past conditions or events still echo within the present, while from the other direction, what is to come sends ripples into the now, like the bow waves preceding an advancing boat. Hence the phenomenal play of each moment represents the complex blending of symbolic influences from all three dimensions of time, with those from the future designated as omens.
When classifying omens, it can be useful to distinguish between literal and symbolic forms. Literal omens require little translation. For instance, the South American novelist Gabriel Garcia Marquez once recalled the time he answered his doorbell to find a stranger saying, “You must change the electric iron’s cord—it is faulty!” Then, realizing he had come to the wrong house, the stranger promptly apologized and left. A half-hour later, Marquez's iron burst into flames—the result of a faulty cord. Here, the apparent omen foreshadowed the later event in a straightforward way.
Far more common, however, are those instances when an omen takes on a metaphoric dimension, appearing in ways that, like dreams, require greater skill and intuition to interpret. In the British television production of Robert Graves’s I Claudius, the death of a central character (Herod) is foreshadowed by an owl landing on his chair during a public ceremony. The owl hoots several times, with the number of hoots corresponding to the number of days before his death. The relationship between the omen and what is signified by it was entirely symbolic and involved several levels of meaning. To make sense of such an image, we must perceive it with a discerning eye. As creatures of flight, birds are metaphorically associated with the soul’s flight at death. Moreover, the owl is specifically a night bird, emphasizing even more dramatically the idea of otherness, the negative (or passive) half of the day/night polarity, and, by analogy, the opposing side of the life/death polarity. The number of hoots emitted by the bird represents a proportional reference to the number of days until the individual's death. In this way, a single and seemingly simple event encodes several dimensions of information and meaning at once.
In ancient times, birds represented one of many different types of omens. Other notable areas of study included the behavior of snakes, randomly situated pieces of wood along the road, patterns on bodies of water, omens derived from celestial phenomena of any sort, and even moles on the human body.
Is there any way to determine whether an event is an omen? Although such events don't lend themselves to easy classification, there are some useful guidelines we can hold in mind.
The first of these is the quality of unusualness characterizing an event. For ancient cultures, events that were out of the ordinary were seen as holding special import concerning future trends. Great attention was paid to the appearance of bizarre weather conditions, unusual dreams, the birth of malformed children or animals, or major accidents, all in the belief that the extraordinary quality of such events portended changes for the individual or the collective. This preoccupation with anomalies, in part, led ancient cultures like the Babylonian and the Mayan to chart the movements of heavenly bodies as precisely as possible in order to determine which movements or phenomena were out of the ordinary and thus of consequence to society. The more irregular an astronomical occurrence, the greater its significance as a portent of social change. For the Chinese astrologers of antiquity, such unusual sights as the daytime appearance of Venus would be regarded as highly significant omens, pointing to an imbalance of forces within the kingdom at large.
A more systematic method for identifying omens employed by traditional cultures to foretell the future was to carefully observe the symbols occurring around the beginning of any major development, whether a personal relationship, a public works project, or even an idea. This belief might be referred to as the “law of conception.” Understood esoterically, the context surrounding a phenomenon's birth holds the seeds of its unfoldment and eventual outcome, provided one knows how to interpret their symbolic language.
In many cultures, great attention was paid to events on the first day of the new year (or, in some cultures, the day of the winter solstice or spring equinox). A similar notion is echoed in our observance of the twelve days of Christmas, each of which was traditionally seen as foreshadowing the weather to be expected in the corresponding month of the new year. The events seen on a person's birthday likewise assume significance as possible omens of the person’s upcoming year. Regarding this general principle, the Renaissance mystic Cornelius Agrippa remarked: “All the auspicia [omens] which first happen in the beginning of any enterprise are to be taken notice of . . . if going forth thou shalt stumble at the threshold, or in the way thou shalt dash thy foot against anything, forbear thy journey.” With this in mind, it is worth recalling what happened to Darwin's great contemporary Alfred Wallace as he was about to begin a sea voyage home to England after an exploratory trip through South America and the Pacific. Just as the ship was about to set sail, his pet toucan plunged into the ocean and drowned, a fact Wallace dejectedly noted in his journal. Within weeks, the ship was destroyed by fire at sea, resulting in the loss of almost all his research. Again, the timing of this event at the start of the trip was the key element conferring on it omenological importance.
Applied to the arena of personal relationships, this principle can sometimes yield intriguing if comical results. A friend once related to me the problems she was encountering in a current relationship. “He used to seem like such a nice guy,” she sighed. “But this last year he’s been a real monster.” I asked her if she recalled their first meeting or their first time out together. Yes, she said, they went to a movie. Could she recall the name of the movie? “Let me think,” she strained to remember, “Oh, yes, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde!”
It was with this belief that traditional cultures carefully noted the symbols arising around any person’s birth. We are perhaps most familiar with this practice in the context of astrology, which looks at the positions and relationships of the celestial bodies at the moment of birth. Yet anything in the environment during these critical moments may serve as a symbolic clue to unlock an individual’s destiny. In many Native American tribes, for instance, it was common to look for unusual events or symbols in the immediate environment at the moment a child was born, to seek indications of his or her future character and to suggest the child’s name. A deer seen running by might suggest the name Running Deer, indicating that the child might be particularly swift or graceful. Native American lore likewise tells us of the dramatic omens accompanying the births of powerful leaders, such as the great shooting star seen at the birth of Tecumseh or the winds, lightning, and hail said to coincide with the birth of Pontiac.
A third source of potential omens is dreams. Reflecting the widespread esoteric notion that dreams precipitate from a higher realm of reality, the study of dreams has sometimes been felt to yield glimpses into the underlying symbolic patterns of daily life before they crystallize into manifestation. Dream symbols are generally regarded as occurring prior to physical, waking reality. The question of how much time must pass between a dream experience and its manifestation in waking reality is often debated. For some esotericists, dream symbols find expression in waking reality almost immediately, with dreams foreshadowing events to occur on the following day. For others, however, the period varies considerably; in the Kriya Yoga tradition, for example, this process is commonly said to take around seventy-two hours.
However long it takes, dreams tend to foreshadow physical events in largely symbolic rather than strictly literal terms. For instance, a dream of falling down the stairs may herald not an actual accident but rather an emotional fall from grace, as might accompany a romantic rejection; similarly, a dream of death might symbolize the closing off or transformation of some outworn habit pattern, such as quitting smoking, rather than actual death.
The problem with omens, however, is that one can never be entirely sure when they will occur. One can’t very well wait for a comet to blaze through the sky or an animal to appear at one’s window before one makes an important decision. As a result, humans developed a wide assortment of methods to induce omenological messages on demand.. Given the order and harmony underlying all events, it was believed, the inherent meaningfulness of the universe could be tapped at will to obtain answers to specific questions.
Thus arose in classical times the distinction between natural omens (in Latin, omina oblativa) and artificial omens (omina impetrativa), or those that naturally present themselves and those humanly provoked. This latter category is conventionally known as divination. Technically speaking, divination may be used to uncover information concerning any situation, past, present, or future; conventionally, however, we associate it almost entirely with foretelling future trends.
As in the case of natural omens, the ancients developed an astonishing array of methods to ascertain the future, including watching the shape of smoke rising from specially tended fires, examining animal or human entrails, opening scriptures or other books at random, gazing into crystals, and studying the pattern of tea leaves.
In the category of divination, we may also place seeking prophetic advice from an oracle, a man or woman thought to have the ability to speak of past, present, or future events while in a trance state. Such human “mediums” are still around today, though we call them “channelers.” From the ambiguous pronouncements uttered in poetic meter by the famed oracle of Delphi in ancient Greece to the inspired prophecies of indigenous shamans in trance, societies across the world have drawn on the psychic capacities of the human mind for insights into the future as an alternative to (or in conjunction with) the purely external sources we’ve been considering thus far.
Subjective or Objective?
When discussing the underlying mechanism of omens and divinatory techniques generally, it is sometimes asked whether the prophetic aspects of such processes are the result of the events themselves or simply a reflection of the intuitive capacities brought to bear on those events. According to the latter view, the event or technique is nothing more than a neutral screen onto which the unconscious projects its own insights about coming events, which the conscious mind then interprets as deriving from an outside source.
While no doubt true in many cases, the projection theory doesn't fully explain the range of examples that characterize the classical understanding of omens. For instance, a meteorite plunging into one's neighborhood would, to the traditional mentality, be viewed as deeply meaningful omen, yet one could hardly classify this as just another event onto which one has projected omenological significance. It is, by any standard, a genuinely unusual occurrence.
For this reason, it is more helpful to speak of a spectrum of omenological systems, ranging from those involving little intuition to those requiring a great deal. At the far end of the spectrum are “low data/high subjectivity” systems such as crystal gazing or tea-leaf reading, where the mind has minimal information to work from; at the other end are “high data/low subjectivity” systems like astrology or even the tarot, which provide relatively high levels of information that the individual can draw upon. Even with such data-rich systems as astrology, however, it must be stressed that personal intuition always remains important, since the essentially symbolic nature of the information lends itself to interpretation on many levels.
The Symbology of Endings
Traditional cultures in general placed great emphasis on all important endings and conclusions. As with births and marriages, for instance, deaths have long been viewed as accompanied by symbols that reflect this greatest of threshold crossings—what might be called the “law of completion.” As one example, it is said that at the moment of Carl Jung's death, a bolt of lightning hit the tree he frequently sat beneath. In Grace and Grit, transpersonal psychologist Ken Wilber described the unusually intense windstorm that blew through Boulder, Colorado, where they lived, at the precise moment his wife, Treya died. Checking the newspapers the next day, Wilber was intrigued to learn that this meteorological quirk did not seem to extend beyond that specific locale. Among the more common phenomena associated with death is the stopping of clocks at the moment of their owner's demise—an explicit metaphor, one may presume, for “time running out.” History informs us such a timely malfunction occurred at the passing of Frederick the Great.
Because of their high visibility, the lives of celebrities provide an unending source of symbolically provocative anecdotes involving death-related synchronicities. For instance, in 1928 humorist Will Rogers died in an airplane crash along with aviator Wiley Post; amid the wreckage was Rogers’s typewriter, showing that the last word he had typed was death. Film director John Huston’s last completed directorial effort was prophetically titled The Dead. When actress Natalie Wood died during the early 1980s, she had been working on a film titled Brainstorm in which death was a prominent theme. Before her death in 1985, actress Anne Baxter played her final role in an episode of the TV series Hotel, in which her last on-screen line was "Shall we have one last waltz?" At the time of his death, Star Trek producer Gene Roddenberry was at work on his last film, subtitled The Undiscovered Country, a Shakespearean allusion to death. When Francis Ford Coppola's son died in a tragic boating accident, the famed director was directing the film Gardens of Stone, which concerned a cemetery. And when martial artist Bruce Lee's son Brandon died during the filming of the fantasy drama The Crow, many viewers were later startled to see how explicitly the film centered around death; indeed, Lee's resurrection from the grave in the opening shots was viewed by more than one critic as uncannily analogous to the renewed popularity the actor experienced during the posthumous release of this film.
A similar pattern is visible in the uncanny significance of song titles or lyrics surrounding the deaths of many famous singers. When he died, Hank Williams's most popular recording was “I'll Never Get Out of This World Alive.” At the time of his death in 1960, rock and roll singer Eddie Cochrane was beginning to enjoy the popularity of “Three Steps to Heaven” Pop music legend Buddy Holly died in a plane crash in 1959; at the time, his song “It Doesn't Matter Anymore” was experiencing wide popularity. When ex-Beatle John Lennon was murdered in 1980, he was witnessing his first top-ten single in many years, with the appropriate title “Starting Over.” At the time of his death, rhythm and blues singer Chuck Willis had two songs on the charts, titled “Hang Up My Rock and Roll Shoes” and "What Am I Living For?” Otis Redding’s hit single “Dock of the Bay” was ascending the charts at the time of his death, including among its lyrics the plaintive lines “I have nothing to live for; looks like nothing’s gonna come my way.” Singer Marvin Gaye’s music experienced a posthumous resurgence of popularity with the rerelease of his song “I Heard It through the Grapevine” as part of the soundtrack to the movie The Big Chill, which went into nationwide release a day after his death; his song played over the film’s opening funeral sequence.
This awareness of the symbols surrounding death is important in the mythologies of virtually all religions. In the New Testament account of the Crucifixion, we learn of the natural wonders, including earthquakes and the darkening of the sky, that took place at the moment of Christ’s death. At the death of Krishna, we are told, a black circle surrounded the moon, the sky rained fire and ashes, and spirits were seen everywhere. At the moment the Buddha determined that he too would die, a major earthquake shook the land; three months later he was dead. In a similar vein, many Buddhists contend that the deaths or cremations of all great spiritual figures are accompanied by natural phenomena like unusual cloud formations or rainbows.
A more controversial contention held by some is that the actual mode of death contains clues to the life or karma of an individual. Just as the opening moments of a life in some way preview what is to follow, so the specific circumstances of a person’s death summarize key lessons or aspects of his or her life story. At first glance, this theory seems questionable in cases where peaceful individuals died exceptionally violent deaths (such as Mahatma Gandhi’s assassination by a political extremist) or criminals died under serene circumstances (such as Nazi doctor Joseph Mengele dying of natural causes). It may be, however, that it isn’t the actual cause of death that contains the relevant clues so much as the subtler levels of symbolism.
For example, only hours before he died by electrocution while sitting in the bathtub, famed Trappist monk Thomas Merton proclaimed to an important meeting of world religious leaders that the times ahead were “electrifying.” Clearly, it would seem we should look not to the manifestly violent nature of his death so much as the deeper symbolism (a subtle reference, perhaps, to the radical or electrifying nature of his efforts to harmonize Eastern and Western spirituality). Similarly, for many esotericists, drowning in the ocean has been viewed as one of the most auspicious deaths possible, due to the mystical connotations traditionally associated with the ocean, a symbol for the divine immensity.
Looked at deeply, every death has some significance symbolically. Say a man on his way to church is broadsided by a truck and dies. Here again, the significance of the death may reside less in its violence than in the fact that the accident occurred on the way to church. When we examine the patterns in the man’s life, we may find he had continually been “broadsided” by circumstances seemingly beyond his control in pursuit of his spiritual goals. Perhaps he wanted to be a priest but had to drop out of the seminary to get a job when his father died; perhaps a long-anticipated pilgrimage to Rome many years later was canceled because of a fire in his home. As a person becomes more sensitive to the fine shadings of symbol and archetype rather than being limited by simplistic judgments of good and bad, even seemingly negative events can reveal deeper (and potentially spiritual) significance.
What, then, of divination? In the end, it is perhaps best understood as but one element within a far more extensive web of ideas concerning the symbolic dimensions of life. Through the divinatory act, we are able to “divine” the hidden messages encoded in the seemingly mundane phenomena of ordinary experience; yet as the examples here suggest (and as I explore more extensively in my book The Waking Dream), those selfsame messages permeate our experience in a wide range of ways—if only we could recognize them. “The whole world is an omen and a sign,” the American poet and essayist Ralph Waldo Emerson once wrote. “Why look so wistfully in a corner? The voice of divination resounds everywhere and runs to waste unheard, unregarded, as the mountains echo with the bleatings of cattle.”
Ray Grasse worked on the staffs of Quest Books and The Quest magazine for ten years. His most recent book is Signs of the Times (Hampton Roads, 2002), an in-depth study of the unfolding Aquarian age. This article has been adapted from his book The Waking Dream: Unlocking the Symbolic Language of Our Lives (Quest Books, 1996). He maintains an active astrological practice in the Chicagoland area and can be reached at email@example.com.