Casting Lots

Casting Lots image

How to seek a prediction: Find a special “randomizing” device, use it, and interpret the outcome following an associated pre-established predictive system

Equipment: any purposeful randomizing mechanism-- could be throwing dice or knucklebones, turning to a random page of a book, a computerized random number generator, etc…

Personnel: Depending on the system, could be anyone (such as with knucklebone tossing) or a trained expert who would interpret the random passage in a book (such as with the Gospel of the Lots of Mary)

Casting lots (also known as “sortition,” “cleromancy,” or “sortilege”) is a process used since the beginning of recorded history to divine the future. No matter the physical devices used, the idea of casting lots is always the same: reveal the will of the gods via #human interpretation of the outcome of a purposely #randomized process. Throwing dice is a good modern example of a “randomizing” process; the principle behind casting lots is each resulting combination will, owing to supernatural influence, reveal some aspect of a hidden future world.

In the videos below, Laura Nasrallah demonstrates two types of lot casting: knucklebone tossing and the Gospel of the Lots of Mary.

Tossing knucklebones (also called “astragalomancy”) was the ancient equivalent of throwing dice today--using animal knucklebones with markings analogous to pips on a die added. Predictions based on knucklebone divination start with a petitioner tossing the bones, followed by either the petitioner or an expert diviner looking up a corresponding predetermined prophecy for the values shown on the bones. For example, the lot oracle at Kremna (Asia Minor, in modern day Turkey, dating from about 120 CE) was a small limestone monument, about 2.4 meters in height, dedicated to the god Mercury. Inscribed on the side of the monument were 56 possible outcomes that the knucklebone thrower would consult in order to find the answer to questions about the future. There were over 20 stone lot oracles like this in Asia Minor. Evidence of astragalomancy dates back to at least 500 BCE in Ancient Greece.

To use the Gospel of the Lots of Mary, a petitioner would flip through the book and randomly pick out a passage of text (also called an oracle). The interpretation of the passage (which was often very vague and general) was up to either the petitioner, or to an expert they might consult. While the Gospels of the Lots of Mary are specific to early Christianity, this kind of sortition book was very common in the Greco-Roman world, with another popular example being the Sortes Astrampsychi.


The Gospel of the Lots of Mary

Meet the Expert: Professor Laura Nasrallah

The Diviner's Guide expert for the casting of lots is Professor Laura Nasrallah of the Harvard Divinity School. Professor Nasrallah is an expert in Early Christianity and Mediterranean archaeology. Her recent book is Christian Responses to Roman Art and Architecture: The Second-Century Amid the Spaces of Empire. She also has a course on edX, Early Christianity: The Letters of Paul.

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