Harvard PredictionX: a course on divination

mayan calendar

 For several months now, I have gotten into the habit practising divination by using two systems in parallel: the I Ching, and the Welsh Coelbren y Beirdd.

I’ve been using the I Ching for nearly thirty years now. I’m still very much a beginner, but I am at least comfortable with the process, and I’m familiar with the ‘personality’ of the Oracle. The Coelbren is still new to me – as it is to most people. I came to it via John Michael Greer, whose book I reviewed here. As I said there and in other posts, that book is a great introduction, but I think his approach is not correct for the Coelbren’s nature, while the meanings he gives for each letter are very limited, even when supplemented by John Williams ap Ithel’s original text, the Dosbarth Edeyrn Dafod Aur.

What I’ve been doing, then, is to write down my question, perform divination with the I Ching, write down the hexagram(s), and then repeat the process with the Coelbren, using a now-modified version of The Council of Voices. I then look up, and write down the answer given by the I Ching, after which I do the same with the meaning of the Coelbren using John Michael’s book.

What I’ve found is an astonishing degree of similarity in the answers; the greater depth and complexity of the hexagrams allows me to identify a similar meaning in the various Coelbren letters – to the extent that my copy of John Michael’s book is now falling apart, with heavy, heavy annotations. I am absolutely convinced by all this that the Coelbren is an effective divination method.

So this brings me to the topic of this post. This process has been one of thinking hard about divination, about systems, about imagery and meaning, and about just what we (think we) are doing when we engage in divination.

So, when I learned that Harvard had put together a course on “Omens, Oracles, and Prophecies”, and that it was available for free on the edx platform… well, that sounded interesting. So, I signed up.

Omens, Oracles, and Prophecies” is very definitely a beginner-level course. It presents a very basic conceptual framework with which to categorise and analyse different forms of divinition, and then proceeds to apply this framework to thirteen different divination systems drawn from different times and different parts of the world. Each system is briefly described in a short piece of text in terms of the belief system in which it existed, followed by a short video giving some further insights. The videos, which feature one of Harvard’s academic experts, are accompanied by synchronised transcripts. Finally, there will be a couple of links to further reading.

Most of these, covering divination systems from Mesopotamia, the Classical World, and Mesoamerica, are very, very basic. Although I learned a few things I didn’t know before, none of these introductions gave any meaningful insights into how the divination actually worked; there are descriptions of how the process worked, but none as to the actual interpretation method, the imagery used, and so on.

I was kind of disappointed that the only Asian system referred to was the Oracle Bones of ancient China. I do understand that this is an important scholarly topic, but when there are living traditions such as the I Ching or Daoist fortune telling, I would like to have seen one of these discussed instead.

Two of the sections stood out: one for good reasons, one as a real missed opportunity.

The disappointing section looked at Ifa divination, a Yoruba practice from West Africa which has also become a part of the syncretic Afro-Caribbean practices of the New World. This was the only video which contained original source material – in the form of an interview with a practitioner – rather than a Harvard talking head. I would love to have had serious material presented here. This is partly because I’m interested in the Afro-Caribbean religions, but also because of hints given about how Ifa works: a trained practitioner has to spend many years memorising chapters of a manual which contain a store of traditional tales and other cultural material. Chapters are selected as appropriate to interpret the meaning of the divination process. Although there are no links between Yoruba culture and Druidry, there are potentially interesting parallels (in terms of memorisation of material rather than writing it down, interpretation of traditional stories to provide contemporary guidance etc) which would really be worth investigating. Obviously, this course is not designed to provide that degree of insight, but there are major flaws. The interviewees speak in heavily accented English which, having spent time in Africa, I can follow but the transcriber clearly could not – which results in misleading errors such as ‘death’ being transcribed as ‘debt’, or ‘devouring’ as ‘divorcing’. Technical Yoruba terms which were introduced in the accompanying text are rendered as [NON-ENGLISH], as are personal names of participants who were introduced at the beginning. Even given the necessary constraints, I wish this content had been better presented.

In contrast, the section on Tarot was very interesting, presented by an engineering professor who is also a Tarot user, speaking from a clearly genuine personal enthusiasm. This explored the history and usage of Tarot in some depth, exploring the symbolism of the cards, how that is presented in different decks, and how it is used in interpretation, and (as someone who has a passing familiarity with Tarot but doesn’t use it) I found this part of the course sufficient to justify my time spent on the course.

Speaking of time: I went through this course over three afternoons. I could have done it in one day if I’d chosen to, and even then only because I was writing notes for future reference. For someone who just wanted to read the text and watch the videos, you could do it in an afternoon easily. If you actually want to learn about Divination as a general topic, you would be better off working through the Wikipedia article on Divination and its related links. However, it is useful as a primer, and it’s interesting to watch world experts speak on their subjects.

In summary, it’s a free course, and you get what you pay for. There is an option to pay for a certificate, but I can’t imagine why you would. It’s a beginner-level overview, but worth investing the time to get an overview of how divination has been practiced by different human cultures.

Image credits: Aztec/Mayan Calendar by Kim Alaniz on FLickr. Used under a Creative Commons Licence.

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