Photograph by David Coulson in Different Drums
by Michael Wood (London:  Century, 1987)

Chapter 8
The Animistic Practice of Divination

Topics in Chapter:

Nature of Divination
Uses of Divination
Methods of Divination
Biblical Perspectives toward Divination

Marta, a Bolivian Christian living in La Paz, was frightened. She was feeling sick and steadily losing weight. Soon after doctors indicated that nothing was wrong, a friend half-jokingly commented, "Somebody must have put a spell on you." Marta casually mentioned this to her mother, a Sunday school superintendent and faithful church member, never imagining that her mother would take the comment seriously. Her mother approached a curandero, a shaman who divines the source of problems, prescribes solutions, and sometimes casts spells. The curandero divined Marta's problem by casting coca leaves and analyzing their pattern. Her illness, the curandero said, was caused by the jealously of her husband's former girlfriend, who had cast a spell on her. The curandero prescribed that a live guinea pig be rubbed over Marta's body to absorb the spell. This pig would then be taken to the girlfriend's town and burned. This rite would both free Marta from the spell and kill the other woman (Koop 1987, 6).

Even faithful Christians in animistic contexts turn to divination during times of crises. Christians have not been taught to give to God the everyday problems of evil and suffering and to wait on him to act. Christianity has dealt with cosmic issues of life without touching this-worldly issues (note Chapter 3).

Nature of Divination

Divining the will of the spirits and the working of impersonal spiritual powers is imperative for the animist. According to his worldview, nothing is attributed to coincidence, luck, or chance. Spiritual powers so pervade the world that there are spiritual causes for every earthly action. One Kipsigis Christian of Kenya asked why the axe head of the son of the prophets fell into the water (2 Kgs. 6:5). His rationale for asking the question was based on his belief that "nothing falls into the river by itself." All catastrophes--whether unexpected disease, severe drought, untimely death, or an axe head falling into the water--have spiritual causations. Animists therefore seek spiritual reasons for all earthly problems.

Divination, as illustrated in the story of Marta, is the decision-making process by which animists determine the impact of personal and impersonal powers upon themselves. Divination is a method for "bringing into the open what is hidden or unknown" to make everyday decisions of life (Turner 1981, 29). This discovery of the unknown is a twofold process. First, the animist seeks to discover the source of an immediate, everyday problem. In the case of Marta the casting and reading of coca leaves was the methodology for discovering the cause of her illness. Second, the animist seeks to determine an appropriate human response based on the knowledge gained in the initial stage of divination. In the case of Marta the rubbing of a live guinea pig over her body and burning it in the place where the enemy lived inverted the power, turning it around to kill the one who initiated it.

Divination has been practiced from ancient times. Divination, although predating the development of writing, was a major topic of the early literature of Assyria, Syria, and Babylon. While the Assyrians and Syrians emphasized certain types of omens, the Babylonians emphasized divining by technique and astrology. Over a period of time the study of divination was made into a science with detailed descriptions of methodologies and a history of usage and success (Oppenheim 1964, 217).

Divination is practiced by both specialists and non-specialists. A specialist is called a diviner, which shows his chief function, or a shaman. He typically begins by divining for himself and his family and neighbors. When he is found to have an inclination for divination, he is frequently apprenticed to an established shaman for training (Steyne 1989, 140). In other cases the specialist becomes initially interested in shamanism by being cured and then deciding to take up the trade, by receiving communication from spiritual beings in dreams and visions (Shweder 1972, 408), or through possession by some spirit who desired to relate to human beings (Harvey 1989, 42-43).

Much divination is also done by nonspecialists. The average cattle-herder among the Sebei of Uganda divines by throwing his sandals up in the air. The way each throw lands determines the answer to some specific query (Goldschmidt 1986, 71). Americans who make decisions by flipping coins do not need a specialist. Among the Giriama of Kenya a traveller who sees either a snake cross his path or a bird called a kachelele will likely return home because these are considered bad omens. However, hearing only the cry of a kachelele is a good omen (Talley 1988). Such popular divination is practiced by the common person without the aid of a specialist.

Uses of Divination

Hiebert (1978, 29-30) and Burnett (1988, 108-111) have outlined various uses of divination. The following discussion integrates, amplifies, and illustrates these uses. Divination is used to chart a course of action, ascertain the cause of misfortune, determine how to avoid danger, select leaders for office, and discover a guilty party.

Charting a Course of Action

Life is uncertain especially in many third-world societies. Divination is used to help the animist determine some future action to avert problems. A father uses divination to determine the most auspicious time for the wedding of his daughter. Another seeks magic to protect his weakened wife and newborn child because they are still fragile. The farmer searches for ways to protect his crops from the power of the evil eye or witchcraft. Since rains are uncertain, he employs divination to determine at what point he should plant crops. The businessman seeks to determine when he should take his money out of the stock market or invest additional capital. In rural contexts omens and ritual techniques are most frequently used to determine a course of action, whereas in urban areas astrology and medium possession are increasingly becoming methods of divination.

Ascertaining the Cause of Misfortune

After catastrophe occurs animists seek not only spiritual causations but also ways to rectify the problem. A mother seeks the reason that her child has become gravely sick and what she must do to effect a cure. A soccer coach tries to determine why his team is losing, even though he has the best team in the division, and seeks magic that will counter the sorcery of an opposing team. A wife or girlfriend seeks to know why she is being rejected and how to reestablish love. The animist seeks to decipher covert powers impacting his life to reestablish harmony.

Animists look to diviners to determine the cause of sickness more than any other misfortune. They believe that illnesses frequently have personal causation. Animists ask, "Who caused the illness?" The sick person may have caused his own illness by breaking a taboo or by sinning against an ancestor, spirit, or god. In other cases, the jealousy of a neighbor, friend, or workmate might have led to the use of witchcraft or sorcery.

In addition to the cause of illness, animists seek personal motivations, asking, "Why did he do it?" If the sin was against ancestors, the living will seek to understand their wishes and perform any required appeasement in order to reestablish harmony. If witchcraft or sorcery is the cause, the power in some way will be directed back to those invoking it.

Because missionaries from a Western context seek the natural cause of disease, it is difficult for them to understand divination. They ask, "What caused the illness?" instead of "Who caused it?" and "Why did he do it?" Western missionaries naturalize what animists spiritualize. Animists would not object to these naturalistic explanations. They would merely assume that there is some spiritual power behind the secular explanation. For example, Burnett records a discussion between an African tribesman and a missionary:

TRIBESMAN: "This man is sick because someone worked sorcery against him."
WHITE DOCTOR: "This man is sick from malaria because he was bitten by an infected mosquito."
TRIBESMAN: "Yes, he was bitten by a mosquito, but who sent the mosquito?" (Burnett 1988, 109)

Determining Ways to Avoid Danger

Another use of divination is to gain information about possible disaster before performing dangerous acts. When Saul received no answer from the Lord by traditional means, he sought out a medium to call up the spirit of the prophet Samuel to divine the results of the impending battle (1 Sam. 28:5-25). In precolonial times the powerful Kipsigis orgoiyot divined whether men of the warrior age-set should attempt cattle raids against enemy tribes. Kipsigis today attribute the defeat and almost total decimation of their warrior class at Migori by the Kisii tribe to the warriors' refusal to heed the advice of the orgoiyot.

Such protection is also sought by some illegal drug organizations. A drug lord of Matamoros, Mexico, engaged Adolfo de Jesus Constanzo, a Cuban occult practitioner, to use magic to protect his organization from legal authorities, rival drug lords, and those running drugs from Mexico into the United States. Constanzo integrated various elements of Santeria, an Afro-Caribbean religion which relies on animal sacrifices to achieve power and punish enemies; Palo Mayombe, a cult similar to Santeria which employs human parts dug up at graves; and various aspects of Haitian voodoo. To these borrowed rites he added human sacrifices to the Palo Mayombe gods.

These sacrifices, totaling at least thirteen, were thought to give the cult invincibility in the midst of a dangerous trade. The executioner of the human sacrifices believed so much in their validity that he challenged the police commandant to shoot him, saying, "Go ahead. Your bullets will just bounce off." The cult was uncovered when a member ran through a roadblock believing himself invisible and bulletproof. When Mexican police first uncovered the crude temple of the cult, they postponed the investigation until a curandero could cleanse the area. After all investigations were completed, Mexican officials recalled the curandero to do a proper purification ceremony. He sprinkled salt on the floor, pronounced incantations, and made the sign of the cross. Finally, gasoline was sprinkled over the crude citadel of black magic, a match was lit, and the place burnt to the ground. "In the world of the [leaders of the drug ring], the best protection was magic. Witches and curanderos were as much a part of their daily lives as lawyers and doctors were to [secular Americans]" (Cartwright 1989, 78-83, 152-156, 163).

In 1989 Alice Lakwena, a Catholic of the Langi tribe of Northern Uganda, organized the Holy Spirit Movement to fight against the armies of the new president of Uganda, Joseph Musevani. Under the previous president, Dr. Milton Obote, the Langi controlled the Uganda government, but a successful guerilla movement organized by Musevani defeated Obote's organized military forces and sent his forces either fleeing into northern Uganda or across the border into Kenya. In the midst of this defeat, Lakwena, claiming to be led by the Holy Spirit, gave her believers oil which was to repel bullets. Stones were also given to the soldiers which would become grenades in their hands when thrown at the forces of Musevani. The belief in their powers was so great that Lakwena's soldiers swarmed from northern Uganda to Jinja in the far south before masses of her followers were killed by the bullets which were not supposed to harm them (Guma 1989). In each of these illustrations animistic diviners or practitioners sought ways to avoid harm or danger before going on raids and dangerous missions.

Selecting Leaders for Office

Western cultures assume that the best way to select leaders is by democratic election. This methodology assumes that each individual should have an equal role in the selection of leaders and that no spiritual powers desire to impact leadership selection. However, in many third-world contexts decisions are made by group consensus. For example, Christians among the Church of Christ in Kipsigis discuss who should be local church elders, deacons, and evangelists for hours and hours until all in the local congregation agree. The discussions are coupled with prayer for God's guidance and reading of scriptures concerning the qualifications of leaders. In such deliberations it is assumed that older men with more maturity will contribute more to the decision-making process than those with less maturity. Westerners, who are not experienced in such decision-making, usually become impatient and say, "Let us get on about our business and vote."

When churches in group-oriented societies adopt the Western individualistic model, the result is considerable confusion and damage to the church. The African Gospel Unity Church, an independent church among the Kipsigis of Kenya, split when the first bishop of the church refused to call an election. The African Gospel Liberty Church, which developed from a split with the Unity Church, still experiences considerable internal struggles holding periodic elections. Brothers in Christ vie for the allegiance of the church. In societies where cooperation is the culturally accepted method of decision-making, elections merely introduce competition and create division.

While the democratic model assumes that humans can validly select leaders, numerous peoples of the world believe that spiritual powers aid in the selection of leaders. Some leaders are thought to be possessed by spirits who force them to act as mediums. Dr. Francois Duvalier, president of Haiti from 1957 to 1971 and known as "Papa Doc," was popularly understood to be the embodiment of "Baron Samedi," a voodoo spirit of death. He actively played the part by wearing black clothes, speaking with a whispery voice, and exaggerating the slow-motion movements of someone thought to be close to the dead (Young 1986, 27). Others are accepted as religious and political leaders because they have dreams or interpret the dreams of others. Sometimes God spoke to men through such dreams and visions (Num. 12:6-8; Acts 18:9), as in the cases of Joseph and Daniel in the scriptures; sometimes this medium is used by the false gods who desire to be gods (Deut. 13:1-5). In some cases leaders are chosen by ritual techniques which are guided by spiritual powers. In selecting the apostle to replace Judas the early church first looked for those qualified to be apostles and chose two such men, Joseph Barsabbas and Matthias. With prayer they then cast lots (Acts 1:26) believing that the decision was of the Lord (Prov. 16:33). Thus spiritual power is frequently employed in the selection of political and religious leaders.

From a Christian perspective leaders should never be selected magically in such a way that humans force deity to act. The way of God is consistently opposed to such a magical view of reality. However, such syncretism has entered Christian religious movements. In one large evangelical church in Africa a newly elected bishop testified that a candidate who opposed him in the election had procured medicine from an witchdoctor to improve his chances of being elected bishop (Hesselgrave 1987, 216-217). The Christian must ascertain that the power employed is of God and not of the demonic realm.

Discovering a Guilty Party

The curse is used among many animistic peoples against those who commit undetected crimes. When a person becomes sick or dies after such a curse, it is deduced that he is the guilty party and that his illness or death was the result of the curse. Such curses are socially acceptable because they

Divination stems from the need to answer the immediate, everyday problems of life. Each of the uses of divination described in this section points toward solving these everyday issues.

Methods of Divination

Diviners use innumerable and varied types of methods to determine the will of spiritual powers. They check omens, use astrology, divine by technique, employ ordeals, rely on guidance from the dead, interpret dreams and visions, and divine under possession. These types of divination are based on the conception that the universe functions harmoniously as an organism. The stars of the heavens, the signs of nature, the dreams of the night, and the wishes of spiritual beings are all interrelated and connected to events which occur in the world. What happens to one part of the organism is reflected in its other parts. The astrologist reads signs of the heavens to determine the workings of the world. He believes that these elements work together harmoniously in an interconnected world.

Interpretation of Omens

Omens are natural signs which presuppose a cause-effect relationship between humans and nature. These omens warn of impending danger or inform of future blessings. Such omen-seekers analyze the flight of birds, the activity of animals, and the ways sacrificial animals fall. Belief in omens is present in all cultures of the world. In American culture walking under a ladder, a black cat crossing one's path, and breaking a mirror are considered by some to be omens of bad luck. Ancient people in a crescent from Asia Minor through Assyria and Syria to Palestine practiced augury, divination based on the behavior of birds. In Babylon the birth of deformed animals and children was considered so ominous that it affected the reign of kings and the stability of governments (Oppenheim 1964, 209, 217).

Kipsigis of Kenya avidly analyze omens. When going to the koito, the giving of the first part of the bride price, the groom's family looks for omens of success or disaster. A hawk facing them, with white breast in full view, is a good omen. However, seeing only the hawk's back is a bad omen. These preliminary marriage rites will be terminated if omens are not favorable. A Kipsigis traveller who sees a snake or a small antelope cross his path must turn back or meet with unfortunate consequences. Traditionally omens were carefully analyzed before battle. A hawk facing the opposite direction was thought to spell sure defeat.

Among the Nuer of Sudan a bird perching on the top of a house is a bad omen. They say "e kwoth" ("It is spirit"), meaning that the spirit world is about to bring them catastrophe (Evans-Pritchard 1956, 125-126). To the Nuer the way in which sacrifices fall is an omen. If a sacrificial animal falls over cleanly on its side, especially its right side, it is a good omen and shows that the ghost to whom it is offered is content. If it falls on its head or totters about before falling, it is a bad omen (Evans-Pritchard 1956, 147).


Astrology, the belief that the placement and influence of heavenly bodies affect human destinies, assumes a cause-effect relationship between the celestial and terrestrial. While omen-seekers interpret signs in nature, astrologers interpret signs in the sky. Generally omens are widely used in rural areas, where people are closely related to nature, while astrology flourishes in urban, more literate contexts, where written horoscopes provide guidance for the present and future.

From antiquity astrology has been a widespread method of divination. Astrological records date from Sumerian times in ancient Mesopotamia where astrology was considered the "queen of the sciences" (Oppenheim 1964, 224). Ancient astrological beliefs spread from Babylon to Greece, Rome, and Egypt, and finally throughout Asia. In Babylon the movement of heavenly bodies was thought to express the will of the gods. Since the gods governed the universe and stars and planets were considered their writings, diviners interpreted signs of the sky to determine the will of the gods. Each god was identified with one of the planets. Jupiter was coupled with Marduk, Venus with the goddess Ishtar, Saturn with Ninib, Mercury with Nebo, and Mars with Nergal. During this early period, astrological forecasts were almost exclusively concerned with the welfare of the entire society, especially with the king and his royal family. The concept of individual horoscopes used to divine personal problems developed at a much later period in Babylon (Crim 1981a, 71-72).

The Greeks and Romans borrowed many astrological concepts from the Babylonians and recast them in Greco-Roman molds. Personal horoscopes were first devised in Babylon, but the Greeks emphasized and refined personal horoscopy. They developed horoscopic methods of charting an individual's destiny based "on the position of the stars, the times of their heliacal risings and settings, and their relations with each other" (Crim 1981a, 73). Astrology was made to appear rational by eclectically integrating ideas from every science and pseudo-science. The Greeks also fully developed the "zodiac, marked by its twelve `stations' or `mansions' of 30 degrees each and a particular animal linked with each of the twelve zones" (Crim 1981a, 73). These philosophical adaptations made astrology extremely palatable to the Hellenistic mind.

When Hellenists began to lose faith in traditional gods who had given cohesion to their society, many looked to astrology, a cosmic impersonal force, as the principle around which to order their world. From the third century B.C. astrology became the "scientific theology of waning heathenism." Soon, however, the personal gods of the Greeks and Romans reappeared as astral deities. "The seven planets are enthroned as kosmokratores or `potentates of the world' and arbiters of human fate" (MacGregor 1954, 20). Man's disposition and destiny were thought dependent on one's time of birth. Magic and secret rituals were used to overcome such fate. Christians proclaimed within this context that Christ determines fate since the world is in his hands (MacGregor 1954, 20). God is "the Maker of the Bear and Orion, the Pleiades and the constellations of the south" (Job 9:9; 38:31-33).

Despite secular beliefs, astrology continues to be a frequent method of divination in contemporary Western cultures. In the late 1940's only 100 American newspapers carried horoscopes. By the late 1960's horoscopes were in 1200 of the 1750 major newspapers, and today no major American newspaper can compete without including horoscopes. In 1969, 68 percent of all occult literature in the United States was concerned with astrology (Truzzi 1989, 405). In Britain thousands of people buy Old Moore's Almanac, which publishes horoscopes to guide one in the coming year. Hundreds of farmers and gardeners in the United States buy the Farmer's Almanac to know the best astrological times to plant various crops. My wife's grandfather always consulted the Almanac when he planted his garden.

In Western society today many who rely on astrology are the elite and highly educated. For example, Mason Sexton, a graduate of Harvard Business School and a broker on Wall Street, uses astrology to determine what will occur on the stock market. He claims that "our sense of time depends on the relationship of the earth to the sun and moon." In his biweekly newsletter, having 1,500 subscribers, he predicted the 1987 stock market crash, popularly called Black Monday (Friedrich 1987, 69). Joan Quigley, a San Franciscan socialite who divined for Nancy Reagan, in her book Astrology for Adults describes President Ronald Reagan as an Aquarius who was born with the moon of Taurus. He would therefore "tend to accept only ideas that conform to . . . preconceived standards. And these are usually conservative." Since Reagan was born with Mercury in Capricorn, his "memory is excellent. Like the elephant, you never forget" (Zuckerman 1988, 41). In contemporary urban societies astrology has flourished and is espoused by numerous entertainers, intellectuals, and businessmen.

As belief in God and gods wane in secular societies, people realize that they are powerless to handle their own destinies. Like the Hellenists, they are tempted to perceive that life is controlled by astral forces. God's perception toward astrology is expressed in Isaiah's satirical diatribe,

    "Let now the astrologers,
        Those who prophesy by the stars,
    Those who predict by the new moons,
     Stand up and save you from what will come upon you."
                                                             (Isa. 47:13 NASB)

Ritual Techniques

Divination by technique is the use of fixed rituals to discover the identity and will of spiritual forces and beings operative in human affairs. In ancient Babylon when a king wished to know the will of the gods, he consulted a baru, or diviner, who first prayed to the oracle gods, Samas and Adad, requesting that their messages be written upon the parts of the sacrifice. He then slaughtered a sacrificial animal and read its entrails in a prescribed order, beginning at the liver and ending at the small intestine. Any deviation from the normal shape and coloring indicated earthly disharmonies and ominous consequences (Ezek. 21:21; Oppenheim 1964, 212; Goetze 1957, 94). An oil technique was also performed by Babylonian diviners. Oil was poured into a bowl of water which the baru held on his lap. The way the oil moved in the water indicated "for the king peace and prosperity or war and rebellion; for the private citizen it might portend progeny, success in business, the recovery of health, and the right girl when he was about to marry--or the opposite." Other techniques included casting of lots and analyzing the smoke arising from incense (Oppenheim 1964, 208-212).

The Tarot is a deck of seventy-two cards used for divining in many European countries and from which our present-day playing cards evolved. These cards were popularized by the crusaders returning from Palestine and by the gypsies who were migrating into Europe during the Middle Ages. Like modern playing cards, Tarot cards are arranged in four suits of fourteen cards each illustrating natural elements, called the "Minor Arcana." In addition to these four suits, Tarot cards have twenty-two trumps showing the signs of the zodiac and planets, called the "Major Arcana." Hoy tempts the unwary with the injunction: "The Tarot can search into the soul of every man and provide him with an answer to his problems." Only the "enlightened few" use this "`mirror' that reflects everything taking place in the universe." Hoy proclaims it to be the "most ancient and valuable of the instruments of divination" (1971, 4). Although initially the meaning of the cards was quite arbitrary, over the course of generations diviners have come to a consensus concerning the meaning of individual cards. The sequence in which they are laid out is also considered important in divination (Hoy 1971, 22-32; Waite 1973). The diviner uses the spread of the cards, coupled with his own intuition, to divine what will happen in the lives of those coming for divination. This divination, appearing to the secular Westerner as a game, has served to draw many curious and insecure people into occult activities.

The Azande of Sudan divine through numerous ritual techniques. For example, two pieces of wood, each ascribed a different meaning, are placed on a termite mound. Ritual participants determine a course of action by whether one or both pieces are eaten and by the degree to which they are consumed (Evans-Pritchard 1937). For more important decisions the Azande employ a divination technique using the poison benge, a red paste similar to strychnine. Evans-Pritchard calls it the "poison oracle." When given to chickens in a divination ritual, benge has the amazing quality of killing approximately half the chickens and sparing, for no apparent reason, the other half (Lessa and Vogt 1965, 344). While each chicken is under the influence of benge--before it expires or recovers--a questioner addresses the poison inside the chicken. The questions are reiterated time and time again in different formats but always ending with the refrain "If such is the case, poison oracle, kill the fowl." If fowl dies, the party is considered guilty; if the chicken lives, the party is thought innocent (Evans-Pritchard 1965, 345-352).

Ritual techniques were also used by Israel to determine the will of God. The urim and thummim, sometimes simply called the ephod, were used by the priest to determine God's will (Num. 27:21; Deut. 33:8). The ephod was a form of casting lots with the urim and thummim tossed from the breastplate of the priest or ceremonially drawn out by the priest (Douglas 1962d, 1306). When Abiathar the priest fled to David with the ephod, David, with prayer, asked simple binary questions requiring affirmative or negative answers concerning Saul's plans to pursue him. He received an answer from the ephod; and, although pursued by Saul, "God did not deliver him into his hand" (1 Sam. 23:6-14). Casting of lots was also employed. It was used as God's instrument to allocate the territory of Israel (Josh. 18-19), to choose a sacrifice for the Day of Atonement (Lev. 16), to detect a guilty person (Josh. 7:14), to designate temple duties (1 Chr. 24:5), and to choose an apostle in the place of Judas (Acts 1:26). These methods of determining the will of God were based on belief that God worked through them (Prov. 16:33).

Throughout the world multitudinous techniques for divining are employed. The Sebei of Uganda divine by using small stones in a wooden bowl. Holding the bowl almost vertical and shaking it, they ask it yes/no questions. If no stones fall out, a positive answer is indicated (Goldschmidt 1986, 62). Among the Banyoro of Uganda a diviner interprets how nine prepared cowrie shells fall when thrown onto a mat (Beattie 1960, 71-73). When Clodius was attacking Carthage in the First Punic War, chicken feeding was used for divination. When the chickens refused to eat, Clodius was advised not to attack Carthage. Clodius, however, lost patience with the chicken oracle and cried, "If they won't eat, let them drink" and threw the chickens into the sea. In speaking about this oracle in relation to the great defeat of the Romans at Carthage, Cicero said, "This joke, when the fleet was defeated, brought many a tear to him, and mighty carnage to the Roman people" (Howells 1962, 71).

Employment of Ordeals

An ordeal is "a ritual method [of seeking spiritual help to] determine guilt or innocence by subjecting the accused to a physical test" (Lehmann and Myers 1989, 422). Ordeals are employed to detect or punish the guilty on two different types of occasions: when someone is suspected of doing evil but no evidence is available and when criminals continue to operate in a community undetected. In such cases ordeals are used as divinations of the last resort.

An ordeal is frequently used when the accused denies his guilt. An illustration of such an ordeal is described in the Mosaic law. If a husband became jealous because he believed that his wife was unfaithful, he was to take her to the priest in the temple. The priest was to give the woman holy water mixed with dust from the floor of the tabernacle. She was to agree to the oath by saying, "Amen, Amen," and to drink the water. If she was guilty, this holy water would make "her abdomen swell and her thigh waste away, and the woman would become a curse among her people." If innocent, she would be free of the curse and able to conceive children (Num. 5:11-31). In a case among the Marakwet of Kenya a certain man's wife accused another man of raping her while they were both drunk. The man denied the charge. Since there were no witnesses, the elders were forced to subject both accused and accuser to an ordeal, called a muma. Both urinated on the same tuft of grass while taking oaths. These oaths were statements designating what would happen to them if they were lying. The mixture of urines would cause the one lying to "suffer some misfortune connected to sex or birth," the most grievous of punishments among the Marakwet (Kipkorir 1973, 15-16). Among the Bangala of Congo antagonists in ordeals are given a prescribed dose of an intoxicating drug which blurs vision and causes dizziness. Both the accuser and accused are asked to jump over a stick or to catch it when thrown to them. The one who collapses first is declared guilty (Howells 1962, 82). These ordeals presuppose that spiritual forces of the world punish the guilty.

Ordeals are used as spiritual rituals to detect and punish witches and thieves. In a government meeting elders of the Kuria people of Kenya were given two days to administer ordeals, called saiga, in eight locations of the division to flush out all bandits (Daily Nation 1985, 24). The Sungusungu, a society especially prevalent among the Sukuma and Nyamwezi in Tanzania, was organized to use ordeals to reveal witches and thieves in society. All adults in a Marakwet village in Kenya took an ordeal to uncover a thief who had upset the harmony of the village. They washed their hands and faces and poured the dirty water into a common pot. This water was then used to cook a meal. As each person of the village ate his share of the meal, an elder administered an oath:

    May you crawl along the road eating ants if you were responsible
        for this atrocious deed.
    May you lose your wits and forever become a fool,

       if . . .
   May ilat (lightening) strike your house and stock
       if . . .

The Marakwet believe that the power of Asis, "Creator God," lies behind the ordeal. When people cannot determine the solution to a dispute or find a thief, the problem is given to God, who is the ultimate arbitrator of the social order. The Marakwet give innumerable examples of the guilty participating in an ordeal in order to avoid detection and punishment but experiencing "only greater suffering instead--the loss of huts and stock by lightning, personal illness and death" (Kipkorir 1973, 16).

Reliance on the Dead

In some cases the dead are called upon to divine for the living. This type of divination, called necromancy, presupposes that the dead are part of the family who have gone beyond death into the spiritual realm. With knowledge of spiritual realities, they become the eyes of the living to guide those who have not yet reached the other side.

When God refused to communicate with King Saul by dreams, prophets, and urim (1 Sam. 28:6), he turned in desperation to the medium of Endor. He asked her to call up the spirit of the prophet Samuel. When Samuel's spirit appeared to Saul, he disclosed that God would allow the Philistines to defeat the army of Israel, and both he and his sons would be killed (1 Sam. 28:3-25). This story creates a number of very difficult questions. Why did the medium recognize Saul only after Samuel's spirit appeared? Why was she so amazed when Samuel appeared? Was she amazed because God's prophet actually appeared when normally no one appeared? Does this story verify that the dead actually communicate with the living? In the parable of the rich man and Lazarus, the rich man was not allowed to return to warn his brothers of impending doom (Luke 16:27-30). However one interprets the case of the medium of Endor, the scripture consistently condemns those who call upon the dead (Deut. 18:11; Isa. 8:19-20). Scripture testifies that Saul lost his throne not only because he disobeyed God (1 Sam. 15:23) but also because he consulted the dead (1 Chr. 10:13-14).

The Banyoro of Uganda seek assistance from their dead fathers while placing offerings of millet and sesame on their graves. When a girl is being forced into marriage by her brothers, she might appeal to her dead father to employ spiritual power to thwart these plans (Beattie 1967, 257).

Necromancy becomes possession when the dead possess the living and express their desires through them. In other situations necromancy employs dreams and visions, a common forum through which the dead communicate their wishes. Illustrations of such usages are given in the next two sections of this chapter.

At other times the wishes of the dead are apparent only after evil has occurred and when a diviner interprets the cause of the misfortune as dissatisfaction of the dead with the living. Among the Sisala of northern Ghana a man named Baton went to those of another lineage and pretended to represent his lineage in collecting bridewealth. He privately spent the money he had deceitfully acquired. When authorized representatives of his lineage were sent to collect the bridewealth, they were told that Baton had already taken the money. When confronted, Baton adamantly denied the charge and soon afterward he became very ill and died. A diviner was called to ascertain the cause of death. He determined that Baton had been killed by ancestors because of his deceitfulness. His father was therefore instructed to sacrifice a cow, goat, and sheep at the ancestral shrine (Mendonsa 1989, 282). In this case the dead spoke to the living indirectly though the punishment diagnosed by the diviner. At other times the communication of the dead is direct--through dreams or through mediums.

Interpretation of Dreams and Visions

Dreams, as a methodology of divination, are channels through which spiritual powers communicate with the living. In dreams the animist considers himself freed from the physical constraints of the body so that he can interact with the spirit world and travel where he could not otherwise go. Kipsigis of Kenya are typical when they say that in dreams the spirit travels while the body sleeps. A sleeping person should not be awakened quickly because his body might be caught without its spirit. In other cultures dreams are considered intrusions by spiritual beings who desire to communicate with the dreamer of dreams or the seer of visions. Beattie relates how a Banyoro Christian informant in Uganda literally interprets dreams:

I dreamed that a neighbor of mine, who I knew hated me, was approaching me with a horn (ihembe, used in sorcery) held in his outstretched hand and pointed at me. I knew that he was making sorcery against me, and I was very frightened. But at that moment my father appeared and stopped him, saying, "Leave off bewitching my son." I then woke up feeling very scared. The next morning when I went out into my compound I saw something sticking in the ground, and when I went to see what it was I found that it was a horn. So I knew that my enemy had really come to make sorcery against me in the night. . . . Two weeks later that man died; my father's ghost had killed him for having tried to make sorcery against me.
                                                                                (Beattie 1967, 257)

In animistic cultures dreams are considered literal representations of reality although they may be encased in symbols that need to be divined.

In popular usage dreams are thought to take place when one is sleeping while visions are apparitions which occur when one is awake (Padwick 1939, 207). However, in much of the literature about divination dreams are closely related to visions with the two terms frequently used interchangeably (Douglas 1962a, 1313). This overlapping of meanings is illustrated by synonymous parallelisms in the scriptures: "If there is a prophet among you, I the Lord shall make myself known to him in a vision. I shall speak with him in a dream" (Num. 12:6). Because they are both projections of a person's spirit out of his body, they are considered together in this section.

Participants of the major world religions as well as animists ascribe validity to dreams. Musk writes about dreams in Islam: "Dreams are central to the cosmological outlook of ordinary Muslims. From founder to followers, dreams form part of the total paradigm within which Muslims live and move, touch and are touched, meet and are met. They are not optional; they are a meaningful component of life." (1988, 164) Muhammad became convinced of his vocation in a dream, and a vision confirmed his decision to reconquer Mecca. A dream inspired the Islamic call to prayer (Crim 1981c, 230). Much of the Qur'an was revealed to Muhammad in dreams (Shorter 1985, 155).

Padwick, in writing about dreams in Christianity, rightly relates that dreams are "so deeply woven into the narrative of the Gospels and the Acts" that Westerners with a Freudian perspective are made to feel uncomfortable (1939, 205). The Gospel of Matthew begins with the dream of Joseph explaining the virgin birth (Matt. 1:20-25) and concludes with the dream of Pilate's wife, used by Matthew to prove Jesus' innocence. Pilate was told by his wife, "Have nothing to do with that righteous man, because I suffered greatly in a dream because of him last night" (Matt. 27:19). In contrast to Muhammad and Buddha, no dreams were accounted to Jesus. As the fullness of Deity, he was the incarnation of the word; so his message was never derived from dreams. In Acts visions were instrumental in Paul's conversion (Acts 9:3-8), guidance as to where to preach (Acts 16:8-10), and encouragement in difficult situations to continue preaching (Acts 18:9-11). In the Old Testament Joseph and Daniel were great dreamers and interpreters of dreams. God used these dreams and visions to communicate with prophets. Although God communicated with Moses face to face, he communicated with other prophets in dreams and visions (Num. 12:6).

However, many dreams do not originate with God and are contrary to the will of God. False prophets of Jeremiah's day received visions of their "own imaginations" and prophesied without hearing the word of the Lord. While they prophesied that Judah would be at peace, God had already decided to send them into Babylonian captivity because of their sins (Jer. 23:16-22). False prophets may proclaim a message which is in opposition to God but predict wonders which come true (Deut. 13:1-3). The validity of dreamers is not in the signs that they work. Spiritual beings opposing God yet having immense power may use dreams to induce humans to give them glory. One's validity rather lies in whether one fears God and keeps his commandments (Deut. 13:4). Every dream must therefore be carefully tested upon the basis of the nature and being of God as revealed in the word of God.

Dreams have frequently led to new religious movements. A dream visit to heaven led Simon Ondeto to break with the Catholic Church and initiate Legio Maria, one of the largest independent churches in Kenya (Shorter 1985, 153). A night vision led Isaac Kwesi Prah to leave the Methodist Church in Ghana and found the Divine Healing and Miracle Church. Each new Christian of the movement is given a sheet of paper stamped with these words: "One night in a vision it seemed the windows of heaven opened and a shaft of heavenly sunlight touched his lips and flooded his soul. He saw the Lord Jesus Christ, who baptized him with the Holy Spirit and healing power" (Burnett 1988, 238).

Dreams are also used for divination within established religious groups. Within the Catholic Church in Zaire the Jamaa movement requires one to have a dream encounter with Christ before he can progress to the next stage of the movement. In the Bachwezi sect of the Catholic Church in Uganda the Virgin Mary, saints, and angels appear in dreams to divine ingredients used in medicines to treat believers (Shorter 1985, 153-154). Seforoza, an old Catholic woman of Mbarara, Uganda, dreamed that the Lord took her from her bed and led her to where there was water to heal disease. Thousands flocked to her to receive the healing power of the holy water. Even educated Ugandans went to her to cure physical ailments (Guma 1989).

Westerners who have pictured the world as closed to spiritual influences have sought to demythologize dreams and visions. Dreams in such a closed system are seen as coming from within the person. Some believe with Freud that dreams are intrusions of the inner self and a symptom of neurosis (1977). Others espouse Rycroft's view that dreams are people dialoguing with themselves (1979). Aylward Shorter 1985, 149-161, for a Christian presentation. Of course, dreams are sometimes induced by neurosis and prompted by the mind restlessly thinking during sleep. However, these perceptions, as the dominant causes of dreams, are of recent origin. They are based on the secular presuppositions that there are no spiritual powers who relate to man during sleep and that spirits can never journey out of bodies.

Missionaries living in Islamic contexts frequently comment on how dreams are instrumental in leading Muslims to Christ. Trotter, a missionary to Algeria deduced that "the guidance of dreams was granted chiefly, if not solely, in cases where other guidance was not available." Padwick, building on this thesis, compares the illustrations of types of dreams in the Bible to similar illustrations in the Islamic world. For example, as Saul was given moral warning that he was persecuting God's people, so a Muslim with no previous Christian teaching dreamed that he was at the gates of Heaven but was not allowed entry because of his sins (Padwick 1939, 205-206). Musk verifies Padwick's findings: "Dreams of guidance have frequently been part of the process of movement toward Christ for those from Muslim background. In such dreams, angels, or Jesus himself, have appeared, urging the person concerned to seek Christ" (Musk, 1988, 168).


Possession is the intrusion of a personal spiritual being into a human body. The person possessed, called a medium, provides the spirit with "a voice, a body, and a physical apparatus to express himself" (Hiebert 1983). The spirit of a person is overwhelmed by the invading spirit. While the outside body remains that of the person being possessed, his personal spirit is suppressed to allow the invading spirit to use his physical apparatuses. The spiritual beings possessing the medium might be called gods, spirits, demons, or ancestors. In Condomble and Umbanda of Brazil the spirits are considered guides, not as powerful as their gods yet greater than ancestors. Kardec spiritists of the same country consider possessing spirits to be ghosts of the dead. Frequently one enters a trance when he is being possessed. A survey of 488 societies around the world revealed that 90 percent reported some form of trance possession (Tippett 1974, 513).

Hiebert draws a continuum contrasting possession on one end of the spectrum to inspiration on the other end (1978, 31-32). In possession a person is no longer in control of his life. The god, spirit, demon, or ancestor so possesses him that only by the power of Jesus can he be freed. The possessed person has lost his self-awareness and in his possessed state speaks only with the voice of the invading power. When the possessed communicates the desires of the spirit to human beings, he becomes a medium and performs divination. In inspiration, on the other hand, a person is guided by a spiritual being while maintaining his own personality and continuing to use his own voice. He accepts the leading of the spirit without losing his self-awareness. Such a personality is called a prophet, a religious functionary prevalent in both low and high religions (2 Pet. 1:21). The result of possession is bondage and control; the result of inspiration is freedom and praise of God (or some god) with whom the person freely relates.

   Figure 5
   Contrast between Inspiration and Possession

                     Possession                                      Inspiration
                      * Spirit-controlled                              *Self-controlled
                * Loses self-awareness                     *Retains self-awareness
                * Speaks with the voice                     * Speaks with own voice
                             (Medium)                                           (Prophet)

    *Adapted from Paul Hiebert, Phenomenology and Institutions of Animism, classroom notes, Fuller Theological Seminary,  Pasadena, Calif., 1978, 32. Used by permission.

While Christianity emphasizes inspiration, many animistic cults emphasize possession. In the New Testament both Christ and those with the authority of Christ cast out spirits, freeing those under the bondage of possession. While indwelt by the spirit of God, disciples of Christ were in charge of their mental faculties. They always had the option of leaving the way of God if they wished (John 6:66-68). Biblical revelation is described as coming by inspiration. The prophet was "moved," not controlled, by the Holy Spirit (2 Pet. 1:21). This verse connotes the prophet being carried along like a ship in water. Since in inspiration the prophet was used as a mouthpiece of God while maintaining his own identity, the Bible student is compelled to distinguish what is of the spirit and what is of the individual, unless the prophet specifies (1 Cor. 7:10). God, therefore, does not seek to possess people but to indwell them with his spirit and allow them to use their own free will.

Many animistic cults use possession for the purpose of divination. This divination occurs when a person becomes a medium through whom spirits speak. The major purpose of Haitian Voodoo, Cuban Santeria, and Brazilian Spiritism is such spirit divination. Voodoo is the "African-based, Catholic influenced" religion originating on the sugar plantations of 18th century Haiti. Voodoo ceremonies, occurring in temples in the city or family ritual sites in the countryside, create an emotional environment in which spirit possession takes place. The practitioner enters a trance and serves as the chwal ("horse") of the spirit. The spirit is used to divine reasons for misfortunes of the past and guidance for the present and future. A reciprocal relationship is established between the mounted spirit and those needing aid and advice:

Using that person's body and voice, the spirit sings, dances, and eats with the people and offers them advice and chastisement. The people, in turn, offer the spirit a wide variety of gifts and acts of obeisance whose goal is to placate the spirit and ensure his or her continuing protection. (Brown 1989, 321-322)

Similar rites are also part of Santeria and Spiritism.

Frequently spirits are thought to possess mediums during times of intense emotions (Hiebert 1978, 32; Von Furer-Haimendorf 1989, 95-97). Emotional states might be mechanically induced by drugs, intense activities, depressing the body, rhythm, and ritualistic meditation. The Mazateco Indians of Mexico use a drug derived from mushrooms to induce a trance through which God was understood to speak (Pike and Cowan 1959, 145-150). St. Clair testifies that the intense activities, including drum beating and rhythmic dancing, of a Condomble Spiritist meeting in Brazil worked the crowd into such a frenzy that even an American tourist was possessed (1971, 27-34). Young men from the Crow, Shoshoni, and Cree Indian tribes underwent rigorous physical training before they began their vision quests in order to become adults. They fasted, ran four miles four times a day, and whipped themselves with nettles in order to induce a vision (Lowie 1948, 3-32). Muslim mystics of a Sufi tradition frequently meditate on certain words, praise statements, or attributes of God until a trance is induced and possession occurs.

Emotional states may also be socially induced by group activities. The Ephesian mob was stirred by the craftsmen to such frenzy that they shouted for two hours, "Great is Artemis of the Ephesians" (Acts 19:23-34). Congregational singing among Christian groups and chanting among Islamic groups are milder forms of emotional inducement.

Thus one can be emotional without having truth. A dervish, stirred by the clapping of hands and beating of drums, experiences tremendous emotion but follows powers other than God. Truth is not in the emotion but stands above emotion. However, the truth that sovereign God has loved mankind to such a degree that his Son died for them should stir such emotion as to change lives. Emotion supplies vibrancy to truth but should never be equated with truth.

These various methodologies of divination--omens, astrology, techniques, relying on the dead, dreams and visions, and possession--are employed to varying degrees throughout the world. Some are even used by people of high religions, including Christianity, to determine the will of creator God. However, the motivations that lead an animist to divine the will of spiritual powers are frequently opposed to the mind of God. What, then, is the perspective of biblical revelation toward divination?

Biblical Perspectives toward Divination

The motivation which leads an animist to perform divination is opposed to the very nature of God. God is love, and this love leads him to relate to humanity. He demonstrates his desire to relate to his creation by sending deliverers to free his people, prophets to proclaim his message, and his Son as the incarnation of his nature. Since God is sovereign in the world which he created, his creation should give him glory, honor, and praise. He actively works in his world as he desires and cannot be manipulated or controlled. While prayerful supplication affects his working, divination implies a desire to force deity, an impatience to look behind the curtain of time, a disbelief in God's sovereignty. It is an attempt to manipulate the spiritual forces of God's world to find out its secrets and manipulate them for personal benefit. Such motivations, based on greedy self-benefit, are alien to the mind of God. While the Christian way is relational, the animistic way is manipulative.

The Bible stands against forms of manipulative divination. The Old Testament law provides a general condemnation of divination, "You shall not . . . practice divination or soothsaying" (Lev. 19:26). The follower of God is further enjoined to "turn away from mediums or spiritists" (Lev. 19:31). God caused "omens of boasters to fail" so that diviners were made to appear as fools (Isa. 44:25). Isaiah satirically suggested that those who look to the counsel of the stars should use their astrologers to save them from impending doom which God was bringing upon them:

    "Let now the astrologers,
        Those who prophesy by the stars,
    Those who predict by the new moons,
        Stand up and save you from what will come upon you."
                                                                    (Isa. 47:13 NASB)

Necromancers were condemned for consulting the dead instead of the law and the testimony (Isa. 8:19-20). Many false prophets were accused of speaking "lying divinations," because they followed "their own spirit" and had "false visions" (Ezek. 13:3-9). The prophet who presumptuously spoke in the name of God without receiving a message from God or who spoke in the name of other gods was to be put to death (Deut. 18:20). The God who "makes the storm clouds" should be petitioned for rain rather than divining through the use of the teraphim and false dreams and lying visions (Zech. 10:1-2). Such attempts at divining reality were considered in opposition to God.

When methods of divination were used by the followers of God, they depended on God's sovereign will. The casting of lots was done by prayer with confidence that God was providing the answer (Prov. 16:33; Acts 1:26). The urim and thummim were thrown by the priest with belief that God would determine the outcome (Num. 27:21). Dreams and visions were used by God to reveal mysteries, which could not be interpreted by "wise men, conjurers, magicians, or diviners," but only by the special people God set aside for this purpose (Dan. 2:27-28). These methodologies were not to be manipulative but gifts of God during certain time periods for determining his will. The boundary between the biblical use of these methodologies and the use in animistic societies is reliance on God for direction rather than reliance on magic or spiritual beings. The scriptures must be used as the measuring standard for determining what is of God. God in Jesus Christ has also given a fuller revelation of himself (Heb. 1:1-2).

In communicating the gospel to animists God must be shown as the one who controls the future. He began time (Gen. 1:1) and will conclude time (Matt. 24:36). When the apostles asked concerning the time for the restoring of the kingdom to Israel, Christ replied that God is in control of time: "It is not for you to know the times and the epochs which the Father has fixed by his own authority." The apostles were rather to be witnesses from Jerusalem to the remotest parts of the world (Acts 1:6-8). Followers of God must wait upon the Lord, not seek to manipulate him through divination (Isa. 8:17-20).

Isa. 40-55, a passage addressed to the exilic Jewish community, contrasts Yahweh to the gods of the Babylonian pantheon (Isa. 46:1-3) and reflects a concern about the use of divination. The covenant lawsuit of Isa. 41:21-24 is a polemic directed to the gods asking them to divine the future. Since these gods could not predict the future, they should be considered as "nothingness." A further subpoena and interrogation of the nations, Isa. 45:20-25, announces that the gods have no power of prediction, but that the prophecy of God--that Babylon is about to fall and the exiles will return to Jerusalem--is at the point of fulfillment. In Isa. 44:24-25 the creative power of Yahweh is contrasted with the frustration of the diviners who make extensive use of omens. Revelation is shown to come from God alone; it cannot be extracted mechanistically. Isaiah 47 is an oracle condemning Babylon, who is about to fall disgracefully from power. The Babylonians are mockingly challenged to use their spells and sorceries to avoid catastrophe (Isa. 47:12). If these do not work, they are told satirically that they should resort to astrology (Isa. 47:13). However, these activities are described as useless because Babylonian diviners were like stubble about to be consumed by fire and unable to save themselves (Isa. 47:14). The Babylonians are condemned for following their own individual methodologies of divination and told that no diviner would be able to save them (Isa. 47:15). The punishment of God could not be turned aside by human practitioners.

These exilic prophets apparently were heard by the Jews. Before the exile the Israelites were continually tempted to follow the animistic practices of the nations around them. Stern, in reporting on preexilic archeological sites, says that it is "impossible to distinguish between Israelite areas and pagan areas on the basis of the presence or absence of cultic figurines." However, the exile served to purify the Jews of their animistic tendencies. After the exile not even one cultic figurine was found in areas occupied by Jews, although these figurines were continuing in use wherever non-Jews lived (Stern 1989, 53-53). God's punishment to purify Israel was successful.

Christians must conclude that any human attempts to manipulate God and determine his will are rebellions against him. While the creation declares the glory of God (Rom. 1:18), our God is so great--so unpredictable in his actions--that the stars, while reflecting his glory, say little about his workings in everyday life. What astrologer has ever predicted Israel's deliverance from Egyptian captivity, the news of the empty tomb, and God's use of finite humans to accomplish his task? Ultimately, divination is an attempt to define God, who is undefinable in human terms!


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