Cephalonomancy: An Ancient Form of Divination

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Cephalonomancy, also known cephalonomancy or kephalonomancy, is an ancient form of divination in which either the shape of a skull was studied, or a skull of a goat or donkey was heated over hot coals while phrases or names were recited. It was most often used to divine the name of a criminal. While the skull baked over the coals the names of all suspects were recited until the skull cracked. When the skull cracked, the person whose name was being spoken was considered the guilty party. In some cases the the animal head was boiled or baked, then soot was poured over it and if any crackling of the soot occurred or the jaw of the skull moved then the person whose name was called out was considered guilty.

Cephalonomancy: The Skull

When cephalonomancy was used to study the shape of the skull, in a way much similar to extispicy or phrenology, the diviners would boil the skull until the all the flesh fell from it. Then they would remove the skull and examine it closely looking at the shape, any lumps and fissures and the overall general condition of it.

Cephalonomancy is an ancient form of augury. Augury is best described as a practice used by the ancient Romans to interpret or divine omens by looking at different things from the animal world, flight paths of birds, the entrails of an animal, or, as in cephalonomancy, the very skull of an animal. Observing the flight patterns of birds was the most common, and the diviner was known as an auger when interpreting these signs. When the auger observed the signs, it was known as ‘taking the auspices’. In the ancient times, the Romans looked at auspices from the sky in the form of thunder and lightning, or from the birds. Different birds had different meanings and every movement and sound they made was a different portent. In later centuries they also looked at the behaviors of birds when they were eating.

Other cultures developed their own forms of augury, and it is from these the cephalonomancy came. Cephalonomancy is a form of ex quadrupedibus, or from quadrupeds, augury. This form of augury developed out of the auspices of certain four-legged animals crossing a person’s path. They most often took the form of a fox, a wolf, a dog or a horse and each of the different animals foretold a different will of the Gods. It isn’t hard to see how the use of a donkey or goat’s skull would develop out of this. If the mere act of a dog crossing a man’s path in the wrong way could determine whether or not the god’s were blessing his day or his work, then it isn’t that far of a stretch to believe that a boiled skull placed on fire until it cracked could reveal the name of a criminal out of al i8st of suspects!

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