Deciphering the Uncertain

The two-day conference “Deciphering the Uncertain: Sociological & Epistemological Aspects of Divination in Early Text Cultures” took place on 24th-25th June 2019 at the China Centre, University of Oxford. The event was organised by two DPhil Candidates, Flaminia Pischedda (Oriental Studies) and Domenico Giordani (Classics). Conceived as an up-to-date, comprehensive overview of divination in early text cultures, the conference featured contributions of both leading scholars in the field and young researchers. The conference comprised of two sessions each day and four sessions in all, each of which loosely focussed on a thematic macro-area (Middle-East, Far East, Greece and Rome, Medieval Europe). Each session encompassed either individual contributions of 45 minutes, or 1-hour panel of up to 3 speakers, followed by general discussion. Participants were invited to consider the following framework of five questions to draw out the principal features of the divinatory practices for comparison:

1. How is divination defined and conceptualised in each society?

2. What are the sources and texts through which we can reconstruct how divination worked? How do different material supports affect the way divination is performed?

3. Who were the practitioners? Were they professionals or amateurs? Did they have connection with a temple or a court or were they independent? What was their cultural background?

4. What were the techniques employed by these practitioners in interpreting divinatory signs, either natural or deliberately created?

5. Are there any typological similarities in a set of practices which represent a shared feature among most ancient societies? If that be the case, is it possible to bring out distinctive aspects peculiar to each society within the complexity of the mantic art?

Inspired by L. A. Raphals’ Divination and Prediction in Early China and Ancient Greece – a comparative study of divination techniques in both cultures – this framework will form the basis of a monograph, or a special volume of a journal, to be produced in collaboration between the speakers in the coming years, with the main purpose being to present the different “systems of knowledge” behind the divinatory act in all the cultures under study. This volume will aim to make a decisive contribution in the field of religious and socio-cultural studies, ideally constituting both a useful tool for advanced scholars and a general reference for those who are approaching this area for the first time. More information can be found on the conference website.

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