Cleromancy is a form of sortition, casting of lots, in which an outcome is determined by means that normally would be considered random, such as the rolling of dice, but are sometimes believed to reveal the will of God, or other supernatural entities.
In classical civilization
In ancient Rome fortunes were told through the casting of lots or sortes.
In Judeo-Christian tradition
Casting of lots occurs relatively frequently in the Bible, and many biblical scholars think that the Urim and Thummim served this purpose. In the Hebrew Bible, there are several cases where lots were cast as a means of determining God's mind:
- In the Book of Leviticus 16:8, God commanded Moses, "And Aaron shall cast lots upon the two goats; one lot for the LORD, and the other lot for the scapegoat."
- According to Numbers 26:55, Moses allocated territory to the tribes of Israel according to each tribe's male population and by lot.
- In Joshua 7:14, a guilty party (Achan) is probably found by lot and executed.
- In the Book of Joshua 18:6, Joshua says, "Ye shall therefore describe the land into seven parts, and bring the description hither to me, that I may cast lots for you here before the LORD our God." This action is done in order to know God's will as to the dividing of land between the seven tribes of Israel who had not yet "received their inheritance". (Joshua 18:2).
- Also in the First Book of Samuel 14:42, lots are used to determine that it was Jonathan, Saul's son, who broke the oath that Saul made, "Cursed be the man that eateth any food until evening, that I may be avenged on mine enemies." (1 Samuel 14:24).
- In the Book of Jonah 1:7, the desperate sailors cast lots to see whose god was responsible for creating the storm: "Then the sailors said to each other, “Come, let us cast lots to find out who is responsible for this calamity.” They cast lots and the lot fell on Jonah."
Other places in the Hebrew Bible relevant to divination:
One other notable example in the New Testament occurs in the Acts of the Apostles 1:23–26 where the eleven remaining apostles cast lots to determine whether Matthias or Barsabbas (surnamed Justus) would be chosen to replace Judas.
In the Eastern Orthodox Church this method of selection is still occasionally used. In 1917 Metropolitan Tikhon was elected Patriarch of Moscow by the drawing of lots. In the Coptic Orthodox Church, drawing lots is still used to choose the Coptic Pope, most recently done in November 2012 to choose Pope Tawadros II. German Pietist Christians in the 18th Century often followed the New Testament precedent of drawing Lots to determine the will of God. This was often done by selecting a random Bible passage. The most extensive use of drawing of Lots in the Pietist tradition may have been Count von Zinzendorf and the Moravian Brethren of Herrnhut who drew lots for many purposes, including selection of church sites, approval of missionaries, the election of bishops and many others. This practice was greatly curtailed after the General Synod of the worldwide Moravian Unity in 1818 and finally discontinued in the 1880s.
Tacitus, in Chapter X of his Germania, describes casting lots as a practice used by the Germanic tribes. He states:
"To divination and casting of lots, they pay attention beyond any other people. Their method of casting lots is a simple one: they cut a branch from a fruit-bearing tree and divide it into small pieces which they mark with certain distinctive signs and scatter at random onto a white cloth. Then, the priest of the community if the lots are consulted publicly, or the father of the family if it is done privately, after invoking the gods and with eyes raised to heaven, picks up three pieces, one at a time, and interprets them according to the signs previously marked upon them."
In the ninth century Anskar, a Frankish missionary and later bishop of Hamburg-Bremen, observed the same practice several times in the decision-making process of the Danish peoples. In this version, the runes were believed to determine the support or otherwise of gods, whether Christian or Norse, for a course of action or act. For example, in one case a Swedish man feared he had offended a god and asked a soothsayer to cast lots to find out which god. The soothsayer determined that the Christian god had taken offence; the Swede later found a book that his son had stolen from Bishop Gautbert in his house.
In East Asian culture
In ancient China, and especially in Chinese folk religion, various means of divination through random means are employed, such as qiúqiān (求簽). In Japan, omikuji is one form of drawing lots.
I Ching divination, which dates from early China, has played a major role in Chinese culture and philosophy for more than two thousand years. The I Ching tradition descended in part from the Oracle bone divination system that was used by rulers in the Shang dynasty, and grew over time into a rich literary wisdom tradition that was closely tied to the philosophy of Yin and Yang. I Ching practice is widespread throughout East Asia, and commonly involves the use of coins or (traditionally) sticks of Yarrow.