I am getting quite a few books on ancient magic and religion in which the topic of divination features prominently. This is great, since I find the subject fascinating and quite enjoy studying tarot and other still-practised divinatory techniques. However, I’m still a novice and make mistakes — like thinking Collins’ use of the term binary in his article on haruspicy was his original contribution.
There are two writers who bring out the worst in me. Collins is one of them. Steven Pressfield is the other. The reason is simple. I think they’re marvelous, but then I’m invariably disappointed. In Pressfield’s case, I think he’s a great story teller and wish he would use that skill to tell exciting stories, but leave the descriptions of blood and gore on the cutting-room floor. With Collins, I haven’t read so much, so it’s harder to characterize. He knows his material very well, but he either loses me near the end or discusses his pet area, anthropology, when all I want is the ancient world. So, you see, it really isn’t the authors’ fault, but if I want to read about divination and ancient Greek magic, I’m sort of stuck reading Collins.
Now to divination. The latest book to wind up in my box is another from Blackwell, Sarah Iles Johnston’s Ancient Greek Divination. Binary divination is used in contrast to conversational. If you look at a liver to determine the forecast, you have to ask a series of yes and no — binary — questions, but if you consult the Delphic Oracle, she will provide you with a prose or verse riddle. You then need to take it to someone or a series of people who can interpret the results until you get the result you’re looking for or get impatient and act on faulty intuition. Deucalion and Pyrrha correctly interpreted the riddle of throwing the bones of the mother, as casting stones on Mother Earth. Croesus interpreted the oracle’s answer that his rule would last until a mule sat on the throne as meaning he would rule forever, but this was a misinterpretation. The mule is a crossbreed and so was King Cyrus (p.52) who dethroned Croesus. The presence of a god lurks behind both binary and conversational divination.