How to divine the future with food


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Nothing is certain except death and taxes — and, just possibly, lunchtime. The ancients had innumerable ways of foretelling what the fates had in store for them and most involved items from everyday life. We all know that nothing tells you more about who you are and what the future holds than your diet so, in that spirit, we take a (tongue-in-cheek) look at some of the methods of food-related fortune-telling.


Favomancy: divination by beans

From the Latin words faba meaning "bean' and mantia — originally the Greek μαντεία — meaning "prophecy"

Favomancy, like many means of divination, involves looking for the meaning in a seemingly random pattern — this idea is generally called cleromancy. Here, it means casting beans on the ground and then interpreting the patterns they create. Favomancy was practiced as late as the 19th century by seers in the Russian Caucuses as well as by the Muslims of Bosnia and Herzegovina. Like many ancient practices, it now seems to be mostly a has-been.


Fructomancy: divination by fruit

From the Latin word fructus meaning "fruit"

This craft could work in one of two ways: either, as with beans, fruit such as olives or grapes cast on the ground could be interpreted by the patterns they form as they land or the diviner could look at the size, color or freshness of fruit in someone's house to see what they said about the future. You may think it bananas but it appealed to some.


Tiromancy: divination by cheese

From the Greek turos meaning "cheese"

Well, who doesn't have a deep spiritual connection with the stuff? During the medieval period, self-confessed seers of cheese would look at the patterns and shapes formed during its making for any future omens. They might also look at mold, holes or the way it was broken or cut. Another method was to write possible answers to questions on different pieces of cheese and let a mouse choose the most appropriate one. We just hope our future brings us more cheese.


Ovomancy or oomancy: divination by eggs

From the Latin ovum meaning "egg"

The would-be fortune-tellers of antiquity were very fond of using eggs. The most popular way method was to remove the yolk before pouring the white into hot water and examining the shapes formed by the cooked egg. This practice originated in ancient Greece and Rome but was still used by the English and Scottish in the Middle Ages. However, you'll get no smart remarks about scotch eggs from us.



Alphitomancy: divination by barley

From the Greek alphis meaning "barley"

Rather than predict events, alphitomancy was used in ancient Greece to discover criminals. When a crime had been committed, the suspects could be given a cake made from a certain kind of rough, gritty barley bread. Only the guilty, it was thought, would choke or have difficulty eating. Alternatively, practitioners of crithomancy (from the Greek krithe) studied the formation of barley cakes or the patterns of scattered barley in the hope of divining the future.


Cromniomancy: divination by onions

From the Greek krommuon meaning "onion"

Yes — fans of the arcane arts have used the sprouting of onions to peer into the future. Cromniomancy was practiced in ancient Europe, Africa and northern Asia to peel back the layers of mystery about what was to come. Color, smell, form and growth direction of onion sprouts were all said to give hints as to what fate had in store. We're guessing there'll be tears before bedtime.


Aleuromancy: divination by flour

From the Greek aleuron meaning "flour"

Several forms of this are known to have existed — aside from reading the patterns in unsifted flour, this method could also mean rolling small slips of paper (with messages written on them) into balls of flour which were then placed inside walnut shells. The shells would be mixed nine times before the lucky person would be asked to pick one at random to reveal the secret to his or her destiny. Aleuromancy was popular among the Greeks to whom the sun god Apollo was also known as Aleuromantis.


Eleomancy: divination by oil

From the Greek elaion meaning olive oil

Another method of creating apparently random patterns to reveal the whims of the universe, eleomancy looks at the shapes created by oil floating on water. The ancient Greeks were big fans of olive oil and their love of using it in the kitchen has hardly waned over the centuries. In our experience, it always portends good things. 


Alomancy or adromancy: divination by salt

From the Greek halo meaning "salt"

For this method of glimpsing what may be, the seer throws salt into the air and interprets the patterns it then makes. There was also said to be meaning in the patterns formed by salt as brine evaporated from a bowl. Like oil, salt was a very important resource for the ancient Greeks and some believe that our familiar superstitions about salt — including throwing it over the shoulder to ward off bad luck — stem from this period.


Tasseomancy or kypomancy: divination by tea leaves or coffee grounds

From the French tasse meaning "cup"

This method of divination might also use the dregs in wine to see what the future holds. The practice seems to have developed in Europe not long after the Dutch introduced tea from China but as well as still being practiced there, it is also found in the Middle East, Turkey and Greece. The cup is inverted so the dregs of the drink left behind can be examined and the fates foretold.  The art was still popular in England into the 20th century and potteries would create elaborate tea sets designed and decorated to help the fortune-teller.


Oenomancy or oinomancy: divination by wine

From the Greek oinos meaning "wine"

Probably our favorite, this ancient Greek method involves the study of wines. This might mean looking at the color, appearance and taste of one's libation of choice — yes, they were doing it even then — or offering the drink up to good old reliable random chance. In the practice of kottabos, a cup of wine was passed quickly back and forth between drinkers until all the wine had spilled and seers could "read" the patterns on the ground. Wine was offered up to Dionysus because he was not only the god of wine but the deity who granted inspiration and foresight. It is not known how Dionysus himself felt about this gratuitous waste.