Humanity has always been interested in trying to predict the future. Even if the future cannot be changed, we seem to have a primal craving to know something that should not be known. The history of fortune telling can be traced back to ancient times in almost every culture.
The ancient Greeks were particular fans of divination – the art of foreseeing with the inspiration of a god – and the most famous example is of course the Oracle of Delphi. The priestesses of the Temple of Apollo at Delphi were known to give very accurate, yet cryptic, prophecies inspired by Apollo. For example, when Croesus, king of Lydia, consulted the Oracle regarding his invasion of Persia, he was advised:
“If you cross the river, a great empire will be destroyed”.
Croesus believed this to mean that he would conquer Persia, but ultimately, the invasion failed and his own empire was destroyed by the Persians instead.
However, as the Oracle of Delphi would only give prophecies on the 7th day of every month, most commoners could not afford to have their fortunes told by them and would instead turn to seers. Seers told fortune through variable method, all with the purpose of interpreting “signs from the gods”. An example would be a haruspicy – divination through the inspection of an animal’s organs, commonly a sacrificed sheep’s liver.
Divination was an important part of Native American cultures. Diviners would use potent hallucinogens to reach an altered state of mind to derive visions. Scrying was also common – the practice of “seeing” the future by using reflections in mirrors or water surfaces.
In ancient China, oracles would read the future by reading the patterns of cracks on a burnt turtle shell (plastromancy). Nostradamus, the famous French seer, would scry the future in a bowl of water. The most classic, stereotypical image of a fortune teller is a gypsy woman gazing into a crystal ball or reading the palm of a person to foresee an individual’s future.
Fortune telling still plays an important role in the modern world, with a significant proportion of people in multiple cultures believing that the future can be predicted by fortune tellers. In the Western world, horoscopes are a common feature of newspapers and astrologists and tarot card readers are frequented by people seeking advice. In countries such as Korea, China and Japan, a significant number of people will seek fortune tellers to see how “well-matched” a couple are before marriage is decided.
There has been zero scientific evidence to suggest that clairvoyance is real. However, perhaps that is not the point of fortune telling. Another name for fortune tellers is soothsayers – perhaps having our fortune told gives us a sense of comfort as it eases our morbid curiosity for what the future holds. The future is an endless sea of possibilities and the realisation that anything could happen can be crippling. So maybe the aim of fortune telling is not to predict the future, but to temporarily treat your fear of the future so that you may live in the present.