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book (divination with)


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A well-attested way of finding out one's short-term future, especially for a particular venture, is to open a book at random and read the first words which come to your eye. Some references stipulate the Bible for this purpose, which is not surprising, but Virgil seems to have been popular, and many seem to imply that any book will do. In some circles, the use of the Bible in such a ‘superstitious’ way would anyway have been frowned upon. The one time that the Bible seems to be de rigueur is on New Year's Day, when the coming year can be assessed:It is usually set about with some little solemnity, on the morning of New Year's Day before breakfast, as the ceremony must be performed fasting. The Bible is laid on the table unopened; and the parties who wish to consult it are then to open it in succession. They… must open it at random… The chapter is then read aloud and commented upon by the company assembled … (Forby, 1830: 400–1)

It is usually set about with some little solemnity, on the morning of New Year's Day before breakfast, as the ceremony must be performed fasting. The Bible is laid on the table unopened; and the parties who wish to consult it are then to open it in succession. They… must open it at random… The chapter is then read aloud and commented upon by the company assembled … (Forby, 1830: 400–1)

A correspondent in N&Q (2s:12 (1861), 303) reports the custom from Oxfordshire in the 1850s and says it was called ‘dipping’ (i.e. to ‘dip’ into the Bible) and must be done before twelve noon on New Year's Day.

St Augustine refers to the haphazard opening of ‘the pages of some poet’ (Confessions (c. ad 397), IV. V), while the earliest English source is Scot (1584: book 11, chapter 10)—‘Lots comprised in verses, concerning the luck ensuing, either of Virgil, Homer, or Anie other, wherein fortune is gathered by the sudden turning unto them’. The custom is reported well into the 20th century and is still current.

See also BIBLE DIVINATION.

Wright and Lones, 1938: i. 40–1;Opie and Tatem, 1989: 35–6.


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