Ancient Origins Store

The Hay Harvest (1565), National Museum (Prague), Lobkowicz family collection in Lobkowicz Palace  by Pieter Brueghel the Elder (1565) (Public Domain)

Divination: Art, Luck or Whim of the Gods?

Marrying a reliable partner to depend on to help eke out a living in harsh circumstances and predicting the weather crucial to a successful harvest, were two of the most vital factors in the lives of people not so long ago.  Reluctant to leave these matters solely in the hands of the gods, mankind – and womenkind – resorted to amateurish divination to try and predict or influence the outcomes of their destinies.

In the modern digital age, when there is an app for everything, one tends to forget that for most of humanity’s time on earth, people have had to rely on quasi-magical rituals and lore to provide guidance for that which are nowadays taken for granted. Those lonely and looking for love need only to fire-up a dating app to find the man or woman of one’s dreams. Those planning an activity or job that is dependent upon there being good weather need only to consult the weather app on the phone.

The Four Seasons: Autumn by François Boucher  (1703–1770) (Public Domain)

Before the current digital era, there were ‘lonely hearts’ columns in newspapers and magazines – indeed a surprising large number of people now living in what, in the mid-19th century, were still the frontier states of North America, are descended from so-called ‘mail-order brides’. As for the weather, firstly newspapers, then radio and, finally, television have all carried weather reports and bulletins – and still do so to this day. Reversing the clock even further to a time beyond the mid-19th century, to an era before widespread literacy and the availability of cheap newspapers, none of these communication platforms were available, leaving people with nothing but traditions and customs to guide them.

Weather Lore: Red Sky at Night, Sailor’s Delight

‘If March comes in like a lion, it will go out like a lamb,’ is a phrase many will have heard and possibly still quote even today, particularly when the hope, for those living in the Northern Hemisphere, of early spring weather is dashed by unseasonal storms – and it is also a very good example of weather lore.

March is preceded by February, of which an old rhyme says:

‘February Fill-Dyke, be it black or be it white.

But if it’s white, it’s the better to like.’

This broadly translates as: February is typically a dry month so any rain or snow-melt to fill the ditches (black with mud or white with snow) is good for underground water sources as the spring crop growing season approaches – and at least the snow is prettier to look at. This echoes a Spanish/Portuguese saying:

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