Man’s Search For the Future: Omens, Auguries, and Magic Eight Balls

For reasons only known to my subconscious, as I was strolling the other morning, I thought back to the grand conjunction last winter, and how so many people wondered “What does it mean?” What significance, other than being a really neat astronomical event, did it hold? Was it a good omen, a warning, a sign of something Great about to happen? Astronomers and some clergy got irked at all the to-do, because conjunctions like that are not as rare as they seem, and people were “losing the meaning” of the event, whatever that was supposed to mean (varied between astronomer and clerical denomination.)

Alas for the experts, mankind has been looking for hints about the future, or about decision making, ever since Og observed a shooting star and took it to mean something, back in the days of Neandertal vs. Cro-magnon. As a species, we don’t like uncertainty, so we look for clues and hints as to what might be coming. We count stripes on wooly-worms to determine the length of winter and how hard it will be. We make note of the weather the first 12 days of the year, to see how wet or dry the next 12 months will be. We make wishes on the first star, or on shooting stars. We use cards, or yarrow stalks, or fruit peels, or tea leaves, to try and see into the future or to guide decisions. We watch birds in flight, or animals on the move. As a species, we are superstitious, even those of us who are more inclined toward science than to “woo.” We avoid walking under ladders, or always dress in a certain order when we have a big test or presentation or something. And that’s in the “rational, post-Enlightenment” part of the world.

Reading birds is where we get the term auspix, or augury, and thus auspicious. The Romans looked at bird innerds, watched flocks of birds in flight, or observed feeding chickens to see what the future might hold. Some groups read the future in eggs, although exactly how varies from place to place and over time. Certain birds were considered ill omened, like a rooster crowing at the wrong time, and might signify a coming death, or misfortune. If one flew across your path, you would be well advised to turn around and at the very least try a different path. Better might be to go home and wait another day to depart, if possible.

Comets, novae, noctilucent clouds . . . all have been seen as ill or good omens. Haley’s Comet appears in the Bayeux Tapestry, and in Chinese records. Several diaries from just before the outbreak of the Thirty-Years War describe burning lights in the sky, noctilucent clouds and a comet. “Fire in the skies” or “war in the heavens” what did they mean? Looking back, everyone knew – terrible war, and hunger, and plague. In 1066, after the Normans won, of course the comet meant that Harold Godwinson had been an oath-breaker who usurped the throne, and William of Normandy was just and blessed for claiming what was rightfully his. No one asked the Saxons or Welsh their opinion, one suspects.

People look for signs in smaller things. The Rule of Three – three bad things in a row and then you’re OK for a while. If you button something out of order, undo it all, then redo it all, or you’ll have misfortune. “Sneeze on Monday, sneeze for danger, sneeze on Tuesday, sneeze for a stranger . . .” If a bird flies into a house, someone will die. Shapes in tea-leaves. Finding a penny, or a pin, and picking it up. Don’t walk under a ladder. Do make a wish on the first star, or on a shooting star (but don’t tell anyone your wish). Use something like a Ouija board, or Magic Eight Ball (“future uncertain”) to divine the future, or decide what to do. Horoscopes? Tarot? Rune tiles? We want to know what’s coming, for good or for ill.

But don’t step on a crack. You’ll break your mother’s back, you know.


22 thoughts on “Man’s Search For the Future: Omens, Auguries, and Magic Eight Balls

  1. You’re only supposed to pick up the penny if it is heads up. Depending on the source it is either good luck to pick up a heads up penny or it is bad luck to not pick up a heads up penny.

    • Raises hand with sheepish look.

      OTOH, avoiding walking under a ladder helps avoid the problem if somebody has something sitting on a run, just waiting for gravitational mischief. The Kroger affiliate has been reroofing since the beginning of summer(!), and the ladder access is impressivly high. Not going under that one. Ever.

      • Yup. I tend not to walk under ladders… nor loader buckets, nor things hanging from cranes, etc.
        If I’m not certain it’s properly secured, I look for a way around it.
        I know gravity is out there, just waiting for its opportunity to pounce.
        Sometimes these superstitions aren’t superstitions at all, just pragmatic rules for survival.

      • I once had to give someone the what-for when they gave someone else the what-for about being “too superstitious” by not walking under a ladder.

        Doing a thing just to SHOW that you’re not superstitious is the same dang thing. If the superstition is truly powerless, then there’s no reason to reflexively violate it. You should base your actions on rational factors.

        Like not getting brained by a hammer.

        • I have had an affection for 13s for a while — slightly contrary, I admit, but unlikely to knock things over.

          (Pretty sure it predates the friend born on a Friday the 13th.)

          • A lot of pilots (yo) take 13 as a lucky number. But we’re a bit perverse that way. Although, I know at least a dozen helicopter pilots who made a pilgrimage to put on Igor Sikorsky’s hat, in hopes that his record of never crashing would touch them as well. I will neither confirm nor deny that a lucky coin resides in my flight jacket pocket.

  2. I once had a Magic 8 Ball that never lied. It was correct 100% of the time. Even the “Hazy, check again later” messages turned out to indicate that conditions were changing outside my knowledge and control. It correctly foretold the future not just a few times, but on scores of occasions, with perfect accuracy. (I took it to Iraq, and consulted it before every mission outside the wire. Which was at least three days a week, and usually five. For a year (2004). CI/HUMINT team, normally going across the desert into some city or town with two or three soft-sided trucks and 4 to 6 soldiers plus a civilian ‘terp.)

    That Magic 8 Ball became the most frightening thing I’ve ever encountered. I was genuinely afraid of the thing. When I finally got back home, I put it on top of a book case where the kids couldn’t reach it, and left it there. It eventually bled out, staining the shelf blue.

    • I was once going to run a game centered around an oracle type artifact, and play with the concept of the questions asked creating the fate.
      Then I thought about it more.
      And decided that wasn’t remotely fair, and placing it as the central mcguffin would just be evil.

  3. In a world where your survival can depend on things that might or might not happen, it is very realistic to want to ways of knowing what will happen.

    Of course, it is also very human to want somebody/something to blame if after all your planning, garbage happens. 😦

  4. I used to have a Magic 8-Ball, bur it either left me or became invisible. I miss it, but the memory lingers onnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnn.

  5. If a bird enters my house, somebody WILL die – probably the cat that brought it in….

    Not that any of the cats we’ve ever had have been particularly interested in birds unless one more or less landed in front of them and said “pick me”, it’s just that the few they did bring in tended to end up in fluffy bits under the dining room table, which meant a hands-and-knees job with the dustpan and vac for yours truly to clean up the mess – it’s a big table, and too heavy to move!

    Though there has been the odd live one that fluttered in via the open ranch-slider and had to be captured with the Other Half’s landing net and sent on its way…

    • The closest Athena T. Cat came to trying to catch a bird . . . was a stack of Inca doves (they stack up in winter to stay warm) on the windowsill. The run, run, launch “BONK” was very entertaining. For the two-foots, not so much for the cat. The birds never moved. They’d figured out force-fields, aka glass.

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