Divination is simply a means to find answers using a variety or combination of methods ranging from meditation, intuition, augury and divination tools like ogham wands, runes, tarot cards or other tools. The opinions of many of these techniques and abilities range from whole hearted believers to skeptics who think it’s a complete fabrication. I think most of us find ourselves sitting somewhere in the middle. Personally, due to my own unique experiences, I entertain the possibilities that certain people may have heightened awareness but I also think there are many more scammers out there than genuine practitioners. In the most basic form of divination, and one often experienced by many people, when a child is injured or in distress, parents just ‘know’ even from great distances. I think science is only just beginning to catch up with the various ways humans or even animals may be capable of divining or even “group speaking” telepathically on both conscious or unconscious levels. String theory and quantum mechanics comes to mind.
The second sight or “an dara sealladh” meaning two sights, has been a constant cultural phenomenon among Celtic lands. This ability is compared to having what is called a sixth sense. People with this ability may be able to predict future events, particularly those concerning death, or tell the location of a person or object. It is most associated with those of highland, Scottish Hebridean ancestry. The most frequent vision for those with the second sight is that of someone dying right before it happens. It’s thought to be hereditary and may skip generations, like a recessive trait. There very well could be an inherited set of brain patterns that process sensory modalities differently. In the Hebrides, people used to believe that yarrow when held over the eyes could bestow second sight.
Shamanism, the ability to reach altered states of consciousness in order to perceive or interact with the spirit world through trance is a practice that countless cultures around the world have participated in. In the Celtic realm, it’s most likely the Druids who would have entered this trance like state in various ways, most likely through meditation, mind altering substances or sweat houses. There are frequent examples of engaging in ritual trance, shape shifting or connecting to animals, visiting with or asking questions from deities and returning with mystical knowledge in various Celtic literature. This is commonly called “floating your consciousness” and has deep roots in the Druid tradition. The famous Song of Amergin as well as many other references in literature hint to an overall belief in oneness at minimum and the ability to connect with various forms via consciousness.
“I am the wind that blows on the sea,
And I am the wave of the ocean,
I am the sound the sea makes,
I am the stag of seven tines,
I am the bull of seven fights,
I am the hawk upon the rock,
I am a teardrop of the sun.
I am the fairest of flowers,
I am the boar of boldness,
I am the salmon in the pool,
And I am the lake in the plain,
I am the word of skill,
I am the spear-point of battle.
I am the god who kindles fire in the head.
Who makes wise the company on the mountain?
Who foretells the ages of the moon?
Who knows the secret resting-place of the sun?”
Augury is the use of animal movements, particularly birds but likely others as well, such as rabbits, to predict the future. When we witness the near trance inducing murmurations of starlings, it’s easy to imagine using this for divination purposes. Augury was still referenced up through the 18th century and was called ‘frith’ in Scotland.
“The frith was a species of divination enabling the ‘frothier’, augured, to see into the unseen. This divination was made to ascertain the position and condition of the absent and the lost, and was applied to man and beast. The augury was made on the first Monday of the quarter and immediately before sunrise. The augurer, fasting, and with bare feet, bare head and closed eyes, went to the doorstep and placed a hand on each jamb. Mentally beseeching the God of the unseen to show him his quest and to grant him his augury, the augured opened his eyes and looked steadfastly straight in front of him. From the nature and position of the objects within his sight, he drew his conclusions.” -Alexander Carmichael, (1860 – 1909) Carmina Gadelica
While the main form of divination referenced in older texts appears to be that of augury, there are references to many others up through the present. I personally imagine that diviners did not limit their modes of divining. They may have used the clouds, planet and star movement, flames and smoke, water, mirrors or threw sticks or Ogham wands. Many of these modalities are known as scrying in modern occult culture. Bardic illumination was known as “illumination by rhymes”. The Druid would search for answers while being in a trancelike state after being lulled into a deep sleep by music or specific incantations. The use of darkness via sweat houses or other modes may have been harnessed. We see a tendency to enjoy these practices and at minimum, use them to clear our mind echoed in the popular water and sensory deprivation tanks.
“Divination was an important feature of Druidic accomplishments, and there were various forms of it. Pure Druidic divination sometimes consisted in watching the Druidic fire, how the smoke and flame went. Sometimes the Druid would chew a bit of raw flesh with incantation or “oration” and an invocation to the gods, and then generally the future was revealed to him. Sometimes, if this failed, he had to place his two hands upon his two cheeks and fall into a divine sleep, a method known as “illumination by the palms of the hands.” Fionn used to chew his thumb when he wanted any supernatural knowledge. The bards, too, were diviners at times, a fact that would appear to show their ancient connection with the Druids. The bardic divination is known as “illumination by rhymes,” when the bard in an ecstatic state pours forth a flood of poetry, at the end of which he brings out the particular fact that is required to be known. Connected with this is the power of poetic satire. If a man refused a gift, the bard could satirist him in such a way that personal injury would result, such as blisters and deformities.” -Alexander MacKenzie (Scottish, 1794 -1820)
“When the reaping was finished the people had a trial called ‘casting the sickles’. This consisted, among other things, of throwing the sickles high up in the air, and observing how they came down, how each struck the earth, and how it lay on the ground. From these observations the people augured who was to remain single and who was to be married, who was to be sick and who was to die, before the next reaping came around.” -Alexander Carmichael, (1860 – 1909) Carmina Gadelica
“I must not omit to relate their way of study, which is very singular; they shut their doors and windows, for a day’s time, and lie on their backs, with a stone upon their belly, and plaids about their heads, and their eyes being covered, they pump their brains for rhetorical eulogium or panegyric.” -Martin Martin, A Description of the Western Islands of Scotland (1719)
“The three most powerful divinations are by fire, by water and by clay.
These are the three great powers:
The power that ascends, which is fire;
The power that falls, which is water;
And the power that lies level on the earth,
And has the mystery of the dead,
Which is clay.”
-Lady Wilde (19th century)
Writer and Herbalist
A founding member of Discover Druidry, Isla is a writer, photographer and avid gardener. She wrote the Celtic Druidry Handbook: An Evidence Based Guide.