Fortune Telling

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Related to Fortune Telling: palm reading, horoscope

Fortune Telling

(religion, spiritualism, and occult)

Fortune telling is the task of discerning the future usually by what is perceived to be a supernatural or paranormal means, i.e., divination. The quest for knowledge of the future is as old as human history and appears to reach far earlier into prehistoric times. Some practices, such as astrology, were developed in the ancient world and have remained popular over the centuries while others, such as throwing molten lead into water to seek the initial of a future mate, came and went relatively quickly.

Historically, observers of human society have noted the many different forms that divinatory activity has taken. Popular ancient practices included the reading of the patterns formed by the intestines of a recently slaughtered animal, listening to the sounds made by a conch shell held to the ear, or discerning patterns in clouds of smoke. Divination is often closely related to perceptions about various spontaneous events (such as the appearance of comets, odd incidents accompanying a birth) believed to be an omen heralding the future.

In the West, the practice of fortune telling was popularly associated with the Roma people (the Gypsies). In centuries past, their practice of fortune telling was used to denigrate them as an outsider social group. In more recent years, the continued identification of the Roma with fortune telling has been used to discredit fortune telling and tie it to various fraudulent practices, such as the taking of large sums of money for a reputed knowledge of the future.

Divination may on occasion be an activity that anybody can practice, the reading of the future being based on folklore or well-known divinatory occurrences, such as the ground hog’s shadow indicating the advent of spring, but most forms of divination require the work of a specialist. Some specialists can be trained, such as an astrologer, a palmist, or a reader of other divinatory devices such as the runes or tarot cards. However, divination often falls to people deemed to have special psychic or paranormal abilities. Such were the people who maintained the ancient oracle sites and the seers, soothsayer, and psychics of all ages. More often than not, the two roles mix in a complex fashion.

Attempts to predict the future of individuals or groups have been and continue to be made in all religious traditions, in spite of very active efforts in recent centuries to debunk the many different divinatory practices and efforts by many practitioners to redefine their practice and make it more “scientifically” acceptable. Astrology remains the most popular form of divination globally, while palmistry, tarot cards, the I Ching, andrunes also have popular followings. Thousands of psychics (under a variety of labels) operate both professionally and as amateurs. In the West, many of these are attached to some extent to one of the Esoteric religions. Among Pentecostal Christians, a variety of leaders manifest the gifts of the Holy Spirit, including those with prophetic gifts.

As the New Age movement gained strength, an attempt was made to redefine various forms of fortune telling as transformative tools. The element of divining the future was thus often excised from practices such as astrology and Tarot card readings, which were used instead for self-understanding and discernment of deeply ingrained tendencies. However, fortune-telling tendencies always struggled to reassert themselves.

In spite of widespread condemnation of fortune telling as mere baseless superstition in Western (and increasingly Eastern) culture, fortune telling appears to be surviving and finding niches to operate in an increasingly tolerant and free society.


Buckland, Raymond. The Fortune-Telling Book: The Encyclopedia of Divination and Soothsaying. Detroit: Visible Ink Press, 2003.
Easton, Cassandra. The Complete Book of Divination: How to Use the Most Popular Methods of Fortune Telling. London: Piatkus Books, 1999.
Kemp, Gillian. The Fortune Telling Book: Reading Crystal Balls, Tea Leaves, Playing Cards, and Everyday Omens of Love and Luck. Boston, MA: Little, Brown, 2000.
Pollack, Rachel. Teach Yourself Fortune Telling: Palmistry, the Crystal Ball, Runes, Tea Leaves, the Tarot. New York: Henry Holt & Company, 1986.
Shaw, Eva. Divining the Future: Prognostication from Astrology to Zoomancy. New York: Facts on File, 1995.
Smith, Richard J. Fortune-tellers and Philosophers: Divination in Traditional Chinese Society. San Francisco: Westview Press, 1991.
The Encyclopedia of Religious Phenomena © 2008 Visible Ink Press®. All rights reserved.
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