Oracles

Ask what it is that makes us human and you’ll get a variety of answers.  Spiritually, we get one set.  Man, we are told, is the animal who laughs.  Or Man is the animal who contemplates himself.  Or Man is the animal who asks why.

Anatomically, we get another set.  Perhaps it is our opposable thumb that lets us grasp (and therefore create) tools that makes us what we are.  Or perhaps it is that sexual icon, the human fundament, that allowed us to stand upright long before our brains expanded.  Or perhaps it is our forebrain that leads us to fret not merely about today’s problems, but about what might be coming down the pike.

Many of today’s gurus earn a great deal of money trying to train us to live in the moment (in an almost koan-like mantra they remind us, “Wherever you are, there you are”).  Human beings, it seems, have gotten so good at that forebrain future-think that we have lost a lot of our ability to simply bask in the here and now.

It’s possible the gurus are paddling upstream.  However beneficial it might be to our psychic welfare to savor the moment, mankind has spent so many millennia trying to foretell the future that it seems to be built into the genome.  We still pluck the petals off a daisy saying, “She (or he) loves me, she loves me not.”  We check our fortune cookies and the zodiac.  We cast bones, read palms, and consult fortune-telling cards.

And it is not just people as amateurs.  Consider the vast amounts of collective money, brain sweat, and computer power we have spent on our current favorite crisis, Global Warming.  Or, on that more short-term obsession, predicting the weather.

The earliest records we have of the 5000+ year old Chinese written language comes from what are called “oracle bones” or “dragon bones.”  Seems that the ancient Chinese would write questions on turtle shells or the shoulder blades of cattle and then crack them using hot irons.  Skilled practitioners would read how the cracks interacted with the written questions to interpret how the gods were answering.

Now consider our own culture.  Seems to me you can tell a lot about a people by looking at the words they have felt a need to invent.  On the most basic level of divining, we have something we call theomancy, prophesying the future with messages from God (or the gods).  This seems understandable enough, given our universal suspicion that higher powers like to interfere in our world.  But what can we say about the world view of a people that needs to have words like ornithomancy, foretelling using the flights of birds or ophiomancy, using the (presumed) superior wisdom of snakes to make predictions.  One might be led to ask just why these animals have some special conduit to futurity that guides their actions.

In ancient Rome you could call on the services of a haruspex to read the future in the guts of sacrificed animals.  The Roman emperor Heliogabalus was said to have taken that idea one step further and practiced anthropomancy, which involved the same charming practice on human beings.  Again, one has to wonder exactly what kind of universe would write out the future in such arcane (not to mention messy) locations.

This sort of belief is not, surprisingly enough, all that unusual.  It seems we have always believed that there are signs of the future to be read, but that for some reason they are carefully hidden from sight.

Where?  Once again, look to the language.

Over the ages, it seems we have practiced enoptromancy (mirrors), onychomancy (fingernails), pessomancy (pebbles), anthracomancy (burning coals), halomancy (salt), myomancy (movements of mice), astragalomancy (dice), capnomancy (smoke), ichthyomancy (head or entrails of fish), tyomancy (cheese), and the ever popular uromancy (urine) and scatomancy (feces).

Sometimes the sheer specialization of it all is amazing.  What can you say about a world view that sees the need to distinguish between psychomancy (spirits of the dead), sciomancy (shades of the dead), and necyomancy (damned spirits)?

But as much fun as it is to pick on our predecessors, perhaps we are a bit the poorer for our more scientific approach.  Seems to me there is something a bit romantic in living in a world so full or signs and portents.  Imagine living in a world where you could look for messages in the cheese you made and the mice that were eating it without everyone thinking you were crazy.

And what do we have in exchange?

A more factual world, it’s true, even if the forecasts are not much more accurate than the ones we got from human oracles.  But certainly our future language will be less rich.  As these words fade, what shall we talk about?

Computermancy?  PCmancy?  Or, for the truly romantic, MAComancy?

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