The usual activity of our mind is limited to the perception of the world around us, and its life, as far as the power of our senses reaches; it must, therefore, necessarily be confined within the limits of space and time.
There are, however, specially favoured men among us who profess an additional power, or even ordinary men may be thus endowed under peculiar circumstances, as when they are under the influence of nervous affections, trances, or even merely in an unusual state of excitement.
Then they are no longer subject to the usual laws of distance in space,or remoteness in time; they perceive as immediately present what lies beyond the reach of others, and the magic power by which this is accomplished is called Divination.
This vision is never quite clear, nor always complete or correct, for even such exceptionable powers are in all cases more or less subject to the imperfections of our nature; habitual notions, an ill-executed imagination, and often a disordered state of the system, all interfere with its perfect success. These imperfections, moreover, not only affect the value of such magic perceptions, but obscure the genuine features by a number of false statements and of erroneous impressions, which quite legitimately excite a strong prejudice against the whole subject. Hence, especially, the rigor of the Church against divination in every form; it has ever ascribed the errors mixed up with the true parts of such revelations to the direct influence of the Evil One.
The difficulty, however, arises that such magic powers have nothing at all to do with the question of morality; the saint and the criminal may possess them alike, since they are elements of our common nature, hidden in the vast majority of cases, and coming into view and into life only in rare exceptional instances.
Divination, as freed from the ordinary limits of our perceptions, appears either as clairvoyance, when things are seen which are beyond the range of natural vision, or as prophecy, when the boundary lines of time are overstepped. The latter appears again in its weakest form as a mere anticipation of things to come, or rises to perfection in the actual foretelling of future events. It is sad enough to learn from the experience of all nations that the occurrences thus foreseen are almost invariably great misfortunes, yet our surprise will cease if we remember that the tragic in life exercises by far the greatest influence on our mind, and excites it far beyond all other events. Nor must we overlook the marvellous unanimity with which such magic powers are admitted to exist in Man by all nations on earth. The explanation, also, is invariably the same, namely, that Man possessed originally the command over space and time as well as God himself, but that when sin came into the world and affected his earth-born body, this power was lost, and preserved only to appear in exceptional and invariably most painful cases. So, thought the ancients even long before revelation had spoken.
They believed that Man had had a previous god-like existence before appearing upon earth, where he was condemned to expiate the sins of his former life, while his immortal and divine soul was chained to a perishing earthy body.
One of the most prolific sources of error in Divination has ever been the variety of means employed for the purpose of causing the preparatory state of trance. It is well known in our day that the mind may be most strangely affected by innumerable agencies which are apparently purely
mechanical, and often utterly absurd. Such are an intent gazing at highly-polished surfaces of metal, or into the bright inside of a gold cup, at the shining sides of a crystal, or the varying hues of a glass globe; now vessels filled with pure water, and now ink poured into the hand of a child, answer the same purpose. Fortune-telling from the lines of the hand or the chance combinations of playing-cards are, in this aspect, on a par with the prophecies of astrologers drawn from the constellations in the heavens.
It need hardly be added that this almost infinite variety of more or less absurd measures has nothing at all to do with the awaking of magic power, and continues in use only from the prestige which some of the means, like the cup of Joseph and the mirror of Varro, derive from their antiquity. Their sole purpose is uniformly to withdraw the seer’s attention from all outward objects, and to make him, by steadily gazing at one and the same object, concentrate his thoughts and feelings exclusively upon his own self. Experience has taught that such efforts, long continued, result finally in utter loss of feeling, in unconsciousness, and frequently even in catalepsy. It is generally only under such peculiarly painful circumstances that the unusual powers of our being can become visible and begin to operate.
While these results may be obtained, as recent experiments have proved, even by mere continued squinting, barbarous nations employ the most violent means for the same purpose–the whirling of dervishes, the drumming and dancing of northern shamans, the deafening music of the Moors, are all means of the same kind to excite the rude and fierce nature of savages to a state of excessive excitement. In all cases, however, we must notice the comparative sterility of such divination, and the penalty which has to be paid for most meagre results by injuries inflicted upon the body, and by troubles caused in the mind, which, if they do not become fatal to life, are invariably so to happiness and peace.
The state in which all forms of divination are most apt to show themselves is by theologians called _ecstasis_, when it is caused by means specially employed for the purpose and appears as a literally “being beside one’s self”; by its side they speak of _raptus_, when the abnormal state suddenly begins during an act of ordinary life, such as walking, working, or even praying. The distinction is of no value as to the nature of the magic powers themselves, which are in all cases the same; it refers exclusively to the outer form.
One of the simplest methods is the Deasil-walking of the Scotch Highlanders: the seer walks rapidly three times, with the sun, around the person whose future is to be foretold, and thus produces a trance, in which his magic powers become available.
In the East, on the contrary, the usual form is to employ a young boy, taken at haphazard from the street, and to force him to gaze intently at Indian ink poured into the hollow of the hand, at molten lead, wax poured into cold water, the paten of a priest or a shining sword, with which several men have been killed.
Divination by means of bones–generally the shoulder bones of rams–is quite common among the Mongols and Tongoose, and the custom seems to have remained unchanged through centuries. Three shoulder bones of rams were brought to a willing subject, which he held for some time in his hands, while deeply meditating on the subject; then he threw them into the fire. After they were burnt black they were again laid before him and examined; if they had cracked lengthways the omen was favourable, if crossways the enterprise was abandoned.
Divination of one sort or another has been around for as long as anyone can remember and it will probably be around for a long time to come.
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