Strange Methods Of Predicting The Future That Put Tarot Cards To Shame

From acultomancy to zygomancy, there is a whole slew of divination methods and fortune telling techniques that still thrive today. Throughout the centuries, people have turned to everything from moldy cheese to rose petals to the intestines of the deceased to try and get a sneak peek at what the future has in store for them.

From the Greeks to the ancient Romans and Egyptians, different cultures with wildly different religious beliefs shared a common goal, which was to use magic and invisible mystic forces to determine their fate, coming weather conditions, or the guilt of suspected criminals. From using weights and scales to shooting off arrows, here's a look at some of the ancient forms of fortune telling that are far stranger than anything you'll see used by your average tarot card reader these days.

Photo: ignote / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

  • Acultomancy

    This form of divination, which attempted to read and envision someone's future, was performed by dropping between seven to 20 metal or bone needles into a bowl of water or onto a flat surface covered in powder. The arrangement of the needles or the tracks they made in the powder would be read and interpreted.

    Often used by nomadic Romani people, this type of divination is known as sortilege, which means predicting the future based on the casting or throwing of token items. The term itself comes from the Latin word acus, meaning pin or needle, or aculeus, which means pointed barb.

  • Ailuromancy

    Cats have long been linked to Pagan magic and folkloric tradition, so it makes sense they would be incorporated into methods of divination. Practitioners of ailuromancy turn to cats to predict future events, specifically reading special meaning into their movements and, particularly, how and when they jump, and the way in which they land.

    Ailuromancy was most commonly used to predict weather events. For example, if a cat turned away from a burning log in a fireplace, it could mean the coming of rain or frost. Also known as felidomancy, the term ailuromancy comes from the Greek term ailouros, meaning "small cat." 

  • Alectryomancy

    When it comes to telling the future, this form of divination is for the birds. Literally, you use birds. The practitioner will scatter grain or seed on the ground and then observe the movements of a bird, or multiple birds, as well as the way they eat the grain. The ideal animal to use for alectryomancy is a white rooster.

    One of the most popular forms of alectryomancy - which comes from the Greek word alectryon, meaning rooster - would be performed by having the diviner write letters on the ground and scatter the feed on the letters, then observe which letters the rooster pecked from. It has been linked to the same sort of divination techniques that went on to form the basis for the Ouija board.

  • Alphitomancy
    Photo: Peggy Greb / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain


    Instead of being used to tell the future, alphitomancy was used primarily to determine guilt or innocence among a group of suspects. The accused were fed specially prepared barley bread; those who choked or suffered from indigestion would be deemed guilty. After a while, this was expanded from questions of criminality to determining loyalty and infidelity.

    Used primarily during the Middle Ages, the bread used for the purpose of alphitomancy had to be prepared in a specific way thought to imbue it with the power of divining truth. It was kneaded with salt and milk and baked on freshly burnt cinders, after which the loaf was rubbed with specific leaves. It's believed that barley bread was favored because it was considered the hardest to eat without coughing - and therefore would more likely lead to someone they could point to as the guilty party.

  • Anthropomancy

    Anthropomancy uses human sacrifice to determine someone's fate. A sacrificial victim - often a child or a female virgin - would be cut open while still alive, and the practitioner would divine the future based on the shape and color of their intestines and internal organs. Sometimes, the screams and violent writhing of those being sacrificed would also be interpreted as part of the fortune-telling process.

    Anthropomancy was practiced as far back as the Neolithic era, and was seen most frequently during the time of the ancient Egyptians. It is believed that Roman Emperor Julian the Apostate practiced anthropomancy and had a great number of young children sacrificed in the process. The Spartan king Menelaus is also said to have slayed two kids to read their entrails while stuck in Egypt due to unfavorable winds.

  • Belomancy

    Turning to the use of archery and arrows to determine the future is what led some ancient cultures to belomancy, where different possible answers to a given question were written down and tied to feathered arrows. The arrows were then fired off into the distance and, as explained in Chamber's Encyclopedia, "An indication of futurity is sought from [the] inscription on the first arrow found." Another way to practice belomancy is to look for the answer on the arrow that flew the farthest.

    Practiced by ancient cultures as far back as the Chaldeans - and used by the Greeks, Babylonians, and ancient Arab societies - belomancy could also be used by a lost traveler looking for guidance. They would throw an arrow into the air, then walk in the direction the tip pointed when it landed on the ground.