Human beings as a species have an insatiable desire to know their future. It has always been the case. In the ancient past there appear to have been three broad avenues to knowing the future. Cicero, a Roman politician and philosopher of the first century BCE recognized only two ways, however (on Divination, II.26), which he designated as natural (prophecies made by inspired persons) and artificial (prophecies based on observation of signs sent by the Gods).
People could consult someone believed to be divinely inspired in order to know the future. Such persons, called: seers, oracles, and prophets (1 Sam 9:9; 2 Sam 16:23), were consulted for a wide range of reasons: matters of state, personal issues, medical questions, outcomes of battles, etc. Their utterances were called prophecies and oracles, or "Words of God." Among many oracular shrines devoted to various Gods, like the oracle of Apollo at Delphi, there also existed prophetic centers in ancient Israel at Bethel (2 Kgs 2:2-3), Jericho (2 Kgs 2:4-5), and Gilgal (2 Kgs 4:38), where one found guilds called "the sons of the prophets."
A second avenue for determining the future was by divination. In the Hellenistic period a widespread belief existed that while Gods revealed the future through certain inspired persons, to the vast majority of us they only gave uncertain signs, omens, and portents requiring interpretation. Cicero mentions a number of these indicators: for example, dreams, the direction taken by lightning in the sky, the flight of birds, observing the entrails of animals at the time of sacrifice, shooting stars, prodigies (something extraordinary, inexplicable, or marvelous), omens (something believed to portend some future event). In other words both the common and extraordinary in life may be portending some future occurrence. If one disregarded these signs, it was tantamount to not believing in the Gods. The Romans institutionalized the observation of signs by means of a college of augurs (a group of 15 who regularly "took the auspices" (read the signs). They also kept a roost of sacred chickens whose eating-behaviors were regularly consulted by eminent Romans on matters of importance, and a set of ancient books, which were collections of prophetic utterances by the Sibyls, female visionary figures from the classical tradition. They consulted these books at times of national crisis and emergency.
A third way of determining the future, which Cicero included in his artificial category, was astrology. A Hellenistic period belief was that one's fate was determined by the movement of the heavenly bodies. Fate may be defined as "the principle, power, or agency by which events are unalterably predetermined from eternity." Fate was not a deity but an impersonal force described as "an orderly succession of causes wherein cause is linked to cause and each cause of itself produces an effect." By the third century BCE ancient Greeks had developed from Babylonian astral observations the idea that "the movements of the heavenly bodies control earthly events up to the smallest detail." Not even prayer and sacrifice could help one escape one's predetermined fate. Even the Gods themselves were subject to the inevitable force of fate, as the oracle at Delphi told the envoys of King Croesus of Lydia. Astrologers were consulted to discover one's ultimate destiny. Astrology, the idea that life is determined by the movement of the heavenly bodies, is still believed by many today to be a viable way of discovering the future by consulting horoscopes, Tarot, astrological almanacs, and psychic readings. So, gentle reader, do you share any of these commonly held beliefs of antiquity?
Charles W. Hedrick
Missouri State University