Theriomancy. That was the new word that I could recall when the dust had settled on the 2010 Fifa World Cup games. It refers to the performance of Paul the octopus which correctly predicted the results of the games, including Serbia’s shock defeat of Germany. Therio means animal, and manteia means divination, prophecy. I was surprised to find around 100 words with the suffix -mancy, designating different forms of divination.

If the matches had been played in ancient Greece, the captains would have gone to the Oracle of Delphi to learn about their chances. As always, the Oracle would have given them an answer like “Spain Germany shall defeat", leaving the enquirers perplexed by its ambiguity. In ancient days, kings and princes would consult the Oracle before any major course of action, political or military, was undertaken. The most famous of the Oracle’s predictions is the one given to Oedipus. The question he asked was “Who are my real parents?" The Oracle glossed over the question and said: “You will kill your father and marry your mother." The prediction was fulfilled.

Taking on from Paul the octopus, we find that almost every animal in the home and the yard has been seen as a bearer of omens. Whenever you say “it augurs well" or “under the auspices of", your words go back to the days of divination from the behaviour of birds. An “augur" was an ancient Roman official who observed birds and animals for guidance in public affairs. “Auspices", too, refers to birds; avis is “bird" and spec “to see". In many parts of the world, the continued howling of a dog is an omen of death. In Peru, the Incas practised arachnomancy, divination by observing spiders.

A second type of divination relies on material substances. Crystal-gazing makes use of shining surfaces, mirrors and crystal globes. The traditional picture of a gypsy seated across the table giving you hints about your future is widely known. Tarot cards were in use from the 15th century in Europe, and evolved into instruments of divination during and after the 18th century. Bibliomancy, as the name suggests, is foretelling with the aid of books. The first choice here is the Bible. A random page of the book and a random line on that page are chosen, and interpreted as a clue to your fortune. Virgil’s Aeneid is the second most popular resource in Europe.

A non-Western form of fortune-telling migrated from China into Europe and soon claimed a high place as an aid to divination. This is I Ching, or the Book of Change. The pattern obtained at the end of the ritual is interpreted to get the answer to the seeker’s questions.

A third type of fortune-telling is necromancy, communicating with the dead. The word is derived from Greek nekros, “dead body". A session in necromancy is known as a “séance". The participants sit around a table, sometimes holding hands. The medium summons the spirit of a dead person and communicates with it. Sometimes there is automatic writing in which a planchette or pointer, on which the participants place their fingers, moves to produce the words that carry the answer sought. The board on which this takes place is known by the brand name Ouija board, from French oui and German ja, both meaning yes.

Among the celebrities who have attended séances, Wikipedia lists US presidents Abraham Lincoln and Franklin Roosevelt, Arthur Conan Doyle, Guglielmo Marconi and Alexander Graham Bell. India’s eminent novelist R.K. Narayan has recounted how he was able to communicate with the spirit of his wife with the help of a medium.

Now there is good news for fortune-tellers. A court in Montgomery county, Maryland, had ruled that accepting money for foretelling the future is a punishable offence; but on 10 June, Maryland’s highest court disagreed and declared fortune-telling for a fee to be protected by the First Amendment, except where there is an intention to deceive.

VR Narayanaswami is a former professor of English, and has written several books and articles on the usage of the language. He looks at the peculiarities of business and popular English usage in his fortnightly column.

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