Ceraunomancy - Predicting the Future by Observing Bolts of Lightning


Ever since humans were capable of rational thought and planning, the question of what would happen in the future has concerned them. In order to exert some measure of control over the future, mankind developed the art of divination whose purpose was not only to foretell what was going to happen but also to uncover hidden truths and meanings. And one of the many forms of divination which used to exist in ancient times was Ceraunomancy.

Ceraunomancy was a form of divination that used lightning to interpret the future. The seer would observe the direction and shape of bolts of lightning and then read them as indication of events that were about to happen. An alternative term for this form of divination is astrapomancy which is derived from ‘astrape’, Greek for lightning as well as ‘manteia’ or divination. Like ceraunomancy, astrapomancy was the art of divining the past, present and future by examination and interpretation of bolts of lightning in the sky.

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The practice of ceraunomancy was especially common among the ancient Romans who believed that the shape and direction of streaks of lightning could be a way of foretelling the future. One of the most valuable authorities on this subject was the famous classical Roman author, Seneca. According to him ceraunomancy depended on studying the lightning on the basis of its type, intensity, color, sound and effect on the earth or human populace. Also the practice of ceraunomancy was based on a division of the sky into certain sections; according to this, the Eastern part of the Heavens was denoted as ‘pars familiaris’ or the part belonging to one’s own people. Hence  bolts of lightning that came from the east were good omens. On the other hand the western section of the sky was marked as ‘pars hostilis’ or the part belonging to the enemy; thus if the bolts of lightning came from the west, they usually indicated misfortune. However the worst omens were those which symbolized by lightning bolts from a northerly direction. Thus if lightning was observed in the northwestern sky, it usually meant that something terrible was going to happen while bolts of lightning observed in the northeaster sky indicated the benevolent presence of Luck. In order to practice ceraunomancy, the diviner was supposed to stand outside facing south so as to be able to correctly observe and interpret the bolts of lightning and the omens they carried. Among other cultures that also used ceraunomancy as a form of divination were the Babylonians, Etruscans, Egyptians, Greeks and Celts.

Forms of divination often overlap with one another mostly because many of them focus on the same or inter-related subject matter like sky, water,  body and so on. In this case, ceraunomancy seems to be associated to some extent with aeromancy which is a form of divination that reads atmospheric conditions or phenomenon in the sky to read the future. As such, ceraunomancy appears to be a sub-classification of aeromancy since the former deals with a specific kind of atmospheric conditions like lightning.

In ancient times when physical conditions like rain, sunshine or aridity played a crucial role in the welfare of mankind, various weather and atmospheric conditions were accorded great significance and even capable of predicting the future. This is true of lightning as well which came with the added dramatic effects of light and sound and could even have a devastating effect if it struck anyone or anything on the ground below. In fact the ancients thought that lightning was sent by the gods in order to convey something special to mankind and for this reason, it is not impossible to see how the study of lightning became an important part of divination practices.