My Uncle Napoleon

By Mahmoud Omidsalar
University of California, Los Angeles

Divination (shogun zadan, fal gereftan, fal zadan, tafa'ol) is the art or technique of gaining knowledge of future events or distant states by means of observing and interpreting signs. Various objects or events may serve as media of divination. Here we discuss only those interpretive acts which have the general structure of "A is a sign of B" (e.g., seeing a black cat is a bad omen).

Classical and early Muslim sources refer to the practice of divination among Persians. Herodotus reports that the Magi interpreted the eclipse of the sun as the waning of the fortune of the Greeks, against whom the Persian king was marching. Agathias refers to the Zoroastrian priests who told the future events by looking into flames.

Ebn al-Nadim refers to a number of Persian works on divination, which seem to have been translated into Arabic. Bala'mi reports that Persians had a book of divination (ketb-e fal) in which they had listed all that they had used for divining during their dominion.

A story reported by Ebn Qotayba of a Persian warlord seems to suggest that Persians wrote names or words on the shafts of their arrows. The inscribed word was interpreted as an omen when an arrow was pulled out to shoot at the enemy.

The same warlord interpreted the actions of his enemy, who changed his mounts from elephant to horse, mule, and donkey, as evidence of his waning fortune. References about divination are scattered throughout Ferdowsi's Shah-namah (Book of Kings):

-- In the story of Alexander the sages divine the demise of the king from the birth of a monstrous child. Khosrow II Parviz divined his own death and the demise of the Sasanian dynasty from the accidental fall of a quince from the top of his throne.

-- A sage forecasts that Persia will fall into chaos during the rule of Shiruyah, because he sees the prince hitting a dried wolf claw against an animal horn.

-- The sage Bozorgmehr (q.v.) divines that the three objects concealed in a box are three pearls, one bored, one half-bored, and one intact. He reaches this insight from his chance meeting on the road with three women, one married and with child, one married and childless, and a virgin.

Meeting with unattractive or deformed individuals was considered a bad omen and such individuals were avoided or even attacked. The aversion to unattractive individuals seems to have been motivated by the belief that outward unattractiveness indicates inward or moral defect, itself a form of divination.

Quite often evil deeds, such as destruction of a Persian city or slaying of a monarch, were attributed to unattractive men who were usually red-headed, green or blue-eyed, hairy, and cross-eyed. These men often had large teeth and noses.

Conversely, a beautiful face was valued as a good omen. The Arscasid king Ardavan reportedly had his concubine Golnar awaken him every morning so that her beautiful face would be the first sight he laid eyes on.

According to pseudo-Khayyam, Persians considered certain plants such as barley as auspicious, and old women used barley in divination. Secondary sources report divination by interpreting the twitching of different parts of the body to be common among Persians.

Ebn al-Nadim lists a book on (Ekhtelaj-e A'za) among the oeuvres of the Persians. In the story of Khosrow o Shirin, the princess interprets the twitching of her del (abdomen, chest) as a sign of impending misfortune, while she expects the twitching of her eyelid to be the sign of some important unknown event.

Divination by means of animals involves not only interpreting their behavior but also any fluctuation in their numbers. Mostawfi relates that the hero Rostam divined that Kay-Khosrow would not be harmed by Afrasiab, when the hero untypically missed a shot taken at a game.

The Islamic period

Permissibility of taking good omens from people's names or chance events has support not only in literary sources but also in some compendia of prophetic traditions. There exist, however, other traditions according to which taking bad omens from random events is prohibited.

The author of Ketab al-wafi writes that whereas seeking guidance (Estekharah) from God by means of the Koran is permissible, divination is not permissible because through it the diviner seeks to gain knowledge of future events, which is an ability reserved for God.

Shi'ite scholars generally look down upon divination, considering it an irrational if not impious act. Mohammad b. Monnawar (pp. 26-27, 175) describes the manner of divination by the Koran. It seems that divination was carried over into Islam from a pre-Islamic tradition.

One of the meanings of the word fal is reported to have been divination by randomly heard names or words. The positive form of this kind of divination, which had prophetic and religious approval, reportedly was practiced by many of the early companions of the prophets and especially by Muslim generals engaged in early conquests.

Diviners were popular among the general populace of Persia and could charge their customers for their services. Many varieties of divination are attested in Persian literature and folk practice. They include interpretation of objects which appear haphazardly, interpretation of involuntary bodily actions (sneezing, twitching, itches, etc.), observing animal behavior, divining by playing cards (fale waraq ) or chick-peas (fal-e nokhod ), bibliomancy (e.g., fal-e Hafez), divination by means of mirrors and lenses (Ayna-bini), observation of the liver of a slain animal (jegar-bini), divination by means of the flame of a lamp, etc.

Bibliomancy using the divan of Hafez is the most popular for this kind of divination, but by no means the only kind. The Koran, as well as the Mathnawi of Rumi may also be used.

Fal-e Hafez may be used for one or more persons. In group bibliomancy, the divan will be opened at random, and beginning with the ode of the page that one chances upon, each ode will be read in the name of one of the individuals in the group. The ode is the individual's fal.

Assigning of the odes to individuals depends on the order in which the individuals are seated and is never random. One or three verses from the ode following each person's fal is called the shahed, which is read after the recitation of the fal.

Kat-bini is another form of divination in which the shoulder bone of a sacrificial sheep is "read." The sheep should be slaughtered at a moon-lit night in the name of the person for whom divination is being performed. Both the slaughterer and the seeker's clothing and persons should be ritually clean.

The animal should be slaughtered close to running water and its right shoulder bone taken. The bone should be carefully cleared of flesh without getting scratched or damaged by the knife. When reading the bone (presumably the next day), the diviner should sit with his back to the sun, paying attention to every detail.

A number of other types of divination are reported in the classical sources, e.g., divination by reading of the palm and by looking at the manner in which mice have gnawed something.

Folk tradition

Certain things, colors, or events are considered auspicious or inauspicious in Persian folk tradition. Shooting stars may be good or bad omens, but they usually presage someone's death. The number thirteen and certain days of the week, howling of dogs, braying of a sitting donkey, and untimely crowing of cocks are signs of misfortune or death.

A widespread belief considers a single sneeze to be a sign that one must stop whatever one is doing. This is called sabr Amad (patience is in order). A double sneeze is a sign that one should speed up whatever one is doing.

One of the most common folk practices concerns divination by a twitching of ones eyelids which may be auspicious or inauspicious depending on whether it occurs in the left or the right eye and in the upper or the lower eyelid.

The folk practice uses virtually everything in the environment, from animals, to the behavior of children, weather, insects, and even the chance movements of smoke rising from a fire, as a means of divination. There is an ethnic Persian group called Maraghian, who are also called also kalla-bozi (lit. goat-head) by their detractors because of their skill in divination by studying the severed heads of goats.

Persians believe that certain days are especially good for divination. During the last Wednesday of the year, called Chaharshanba-suri, divination, especially by listening to the conversations of the passers by and interpreting that which is heard (falgiri) as a sign is quite common. Fortunetellers, (falgir), who are mostly gypsies, are still active in some parts of Persia.

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