What Is Bibliomancy? Definition and Techniques

Spain, Mallorca, Library in monastery, Valldemossa, Ancient manuscript
Ancient book in monastery archives. Tetra Images / Getty Images

Bibliomancy is one of many divination practices found around the world, and involves the use of books—typically sacred texts—as a method to foretell the future and find guidance. There are many different techniques of bibliomancy that can be used, and a practitioner's own belief system often informs the way in which results are interpreted.

Key Takeaways: Bibliomancy

  • Bibliomancy is often used with sacred texts to divine the future, but can also be performed with fiction.
  • The tradition of bibliomancy is found in religious practices all over the world.
  • To practice bibliomancy, you can select any book that is important to you, and focus on finding an answer to your question.

Sacred Texts

In religious practices the world over, sacred texts are often used as tools of divination. The Christian Bible, the Koran, and the I Ching have all been employed in the practice of bibliomancy, but it may go back even farther. There is evidence that the Greeks and Romans of the classical period performed bibliomancy, although they didn't call it that. The Romans had a divination practice called sortes, in which a random passage or single sentence was drawn from a written work. The Sortes Homericae drew upon the writings of Homer, while the Sortes Vergilianae utilized the works of the poet Virgil. This later was adapted by Christian monks, who performed the Sortes Sanctorum, calling upon the wisdom of the saints in the gospels.

Among Christians and Jews who perform bibliomancy, the Torah, the Tanakh, and the Bible itself are often utilized in bibliomancy. Because these books represent the holy word of God, using them for spiritual guidance is permitted, unlike other forms of divination such as Tarot cards and spirit boards. Some people believe that old family Bibles, often inscribed with birth and death dates, are especially powerful when it comes to bibliomancy. The Book of Psalms, in particular, seems to be an especially popular tool for bibliomancy; many practitioners of African traditional religions and hoodoo keep a copy at hand to use for inspiration and divinatory wisdom.

In some spiritual systems, bibliomancy is also used as a way of removing negative entities. Specific passages in the Bible and the Koran are associated with the expulsion of demons.

In sixteenth-century Iran and Turkey, the art of bibliomancy saw an explosion in popularity. For nobles of the period, many of the divinatory answers they sought appeared in the Falnama, or Book of Omens. This collection of figurative paintings, texts, and magical recipes was used for foretelling the future; one simply had to recite a prayer, ask a question, and then let the book fall open at random. The image and text on the resulting page presented the answer, and it could be interpreted in many different ways.

Bibliomancy and Fiction

Bibliomancy has played an important role in the themes of many notable works of fiction. In Philip K. Dick's The Man in the High Castle, characters use the I Ching for advice on a regular basis. In fact, Dick himself consulted it for inspiration while writing the novel.

Even author Jules Verne incorporated bibliomancy into his work. In his novel Michael Strogoff: The Courier of the Czar, the title character is a messenger for Tsar Alexander II in nineteenth-century Russia. Strogoff is captured and accused of being a spy, and the Tartar prince decides to punish him based upon a random selection of words from the Koran. Verne wrote "He opened the sacred book, and placed his finger on one of its pages. It was chance... or maybe God himself who was about to decide the fate of Michael Strogoff."

Once the words are read, condemning him to no longer seeing the things of the Earth, Strogoff is sentenced to be blinded with a hot poker.

Bibliomancy doesn't just appear as a plot device in fiction—some people actually use literature for their divination. Think for a moment about the wisdom contained in the works of William Shakespeare or Jane Austen. Imagine the powerful themes and ideas in your favorite series of fantasy books—could Harry Potter or The Lord of the Rings hold the solution to your problem? Perhaps you've got a question about your love life, and there's a volume of romantic poems nearby.

Techniques and Methods

To perform bibliomancy yourself, there are a number of different techniques. One aspect that seems to be universal, however, is that you should have a question in mind. If it helps you, write your question down so you can stay focused.

Next, select a book to use—this can be a holy book from your religious belief system, or some other book that speaks to you. Some people find that self help books, mythology collections, or books of devotionals can be valuable to them.

The key to successful bibliomancy, according to most practitioners, is that you should try to use a book that's important to you. Because interpretations are so uniquely personal, so too should the tools you use. Maybe the Koran or the Torah don't resonate with you, but your life was absolutely changed when you read Pride and Prejudice for the first time. If it's a book that has significance in your life, you can use it for bibliomancy.

Still not sure? Why not select a book at random? Stand in front of your book shelf—or one at the library—and run your fingers gently along the spines. Move slowly, and when you suddenly get a flash of inspiration, stop. That's a book you could use.

Once you've chosen your material, find a quiet spot to sit. Hold your book in your hands, and breathe deeply, centering yourself and becoming grounded. Focus your mind on the question at hand. It could be a simple yes or no question—"should I or shouldn't I?" Perhaps it's more in depth, like "what should I do next?" Whatever it is, make sure it's the only thing occupying space in your brain.

When you're ready, open the book to any page. Some people like to point to a random spot on the page and see what words are at their fingertips, while others prefer to simply look and note which passages catch their eye first. Do whichever feels right for you.

Now, it's time to figure out how the words you have selected actually relate to your question. At first, it may not be apparent—and it's a good idea to write the words down somewhere so that you can go back and revisit them later. Take some time to think—are the words you're seeing a cautionary passage? Are they words of hope or inspiration? Are they simply telling you what things you should be mindful of in the future? Sooner or later, you'll figure out how they apply, and what relevance they have to the situation at hand.

Resources

  • Harris, J. Rendel. “The ‘Sortes Sanctorum’ in the St. Germain Codex (g1).” The American Journal of Philology, vol. 9, no. 1, 1888, pp. 58–63. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/287245.
  • Kosinski, Matthew. “Hearing Voices and Talking Back: On Bibliomancy.” The Millions, 29 Mar. 2018, themillions.com/2018/03/hearing-voices-and-talking-back-on-bibliomancy.html.
  • Natif, Mika. “Falnama: The Book of Omens.” CAA Reviews, www.caareviews.org/reviews/1521#.XlcEjlNKhTY.
  • Pritchard, Melissa. “On Bibliomancy, Anthropodermic Bibliopegy, and The Eating Papers; or, Proust's Porridge.” Conjunctions, no. 63, 2014, pp. 26–35. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/24517831.
  • Simon, Ed. “When Books Read You, a Defense of Bibliomancy.” Berfrois: Literature, Ideas, Tea, 6 Nov. 2018, www.berfrois.com/2018/02/ed-simon-when-books-read-you/.