Capnomancy - Predicting the Future with Smoke from a Fire


As long as human being have been conscious of the future, they have searched out methods to determine what is going to happen in the days to come. Very often they did it with things that were essential to life and one of these was fire. Capnomancy is a kind of divination which uses the smoke emerging from a lit fire to interpret the future course of events.

Also known as Libanomancy, Capnomancy is form of divination that reads the direction and shape of smoke as a sign of what is going to happen. Etymologically, Capnomancy comes from two Greek words, "Kapnos-" meaning smoke and "Manteia" meaning divination or to see. After a fire has been made, the seer studies the movement of the smoke – if the plumes are thin and straight, they are thought to reach the heavens directly and indicate good fortune. On the other hand large volumes of smoke which seem to go hither and thither could mean that the gods are displeased or trouble is under way. Also if it hung low, then it was believed that a storm was on the horizon or it was taken as a bad omen. According to some capnomancy theories, if the smoke from a divination fire touches the ground, it is an exhortation to take immediate steps to avoid a catastrophe.

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Another method of capnomancy would call for casting flowers of jasmine, laurel leaves, granulated incense, or poppy seeds upon burning coals; the resulting smoke would not only be observed but even inhaled by the seer in order to draw inferences of the future course of action. Very often because of specially prepared hallucinogenic drug or herbs that would go into the making of the fire, the seer would be put into a state of trance, whereupon his visions or utterings would be interpreted as a portent of things to come. Part of this practice was the belief that the inhalation of the smoke rising from the victims burnt in a sacrificial fire, gifted the priests with prophetic inspiration. Indeed if the smoke from this fire traveled in a straight line above, it was taken that the sacrifice had succeeded in propitiating the gods; on the contrary if the smoke was blown back by the breeze, or spread itself over the altar, it meant that the gods were not yet pleased and misfortune could be in the making. Alternatively the seer could also breathe in the smoke from a sacrificial fire, and by considering its smell and effects, draw inferences of future happenings.

Capnomancy is believed to have originated with the ancient Babylonians. When sacrifices were offered on sacred occasions, cedar trees were burnt and the smoke was traced for omens. Later the practice of capnomancy for divination spread on the continent and became quite popular with the ancient Greeks; it was also thought to be a common form of divination among  the Druids.

Since capnomancy is practiced by burning wood or coal or something similar, it is related to pyromancy which is a form of divination that reads the flames of a fire and shapes therein as a portent of things to come.