Wednesday, June 20, 2012

On Molybdomancy

Molybdomancy is something mediaeval Norwegians did when they weren’t looking for islets to bean each other with axes on (see Holmganga). It consists, as the name will suggest to classically educated readers, of divining the future through lead*. Molten lead, in this case, poured into water, and the shadow of the resulting solid shape observed by candlelight. These can then be interpreted according to the standard symbolisms, the inspiration of the diviner and, no doubt, the influence of strong liquor.

I don’t know what they call it in Scandinavia, as the Wiki article doesn’t say, and Mrs Hickory hasn’t achieved that level of competence in Old Norse yet, but I assume they have their own, Germanic, word for it.

There is almost no limit to the means by which man, in his desperation, has sort to peer into the future. From the flight of birds to the entrails of sacrificial victims, from the cryptic responses of aging women in temples to random selections of words from leather bound books, from teabags to playing cards to apple peelings, from the patterns of moss on tree trunks to the tracks of ants across the fields and of clouds across the sky, there are probably no patterns that have not been used at one time. The need to believe that we can control aspects of the world that are manifestly beyond our control is part of our humanity. The failure of all these methods to predict anything successfully doesn’t stop whole cultures believing in them.

I assume that when modern Norsemen sit around the fire at Christmas and cast lead in water they are having a bit of fun, but you wonder how many bad decisions their ancestors took because of the way the light fell on a lump of lead. On the other hand it’s probably as good a way of taking them as any other.

*The word μόλυβδος has an interesting history, made even more interesting by its obscurity. I leave this little taster for those who enjoy these things.

 Greek mólybdos as a Loanword from Lydian
H. Craig Melchert
University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill
Beekes (1999: 7-8) has established that the oldest form of the Greek word for ‘lead’ is Mycenaean mo-ri-wo-do (for attestations of the word see Aura Jorro 1985: 1:457-458). Beekes reads the Mycenaean as /moliwdos/, but one must also consider /molivdos/, as suggested by Chantraine (1968: 710 and 1972: 205-206).1 As per Beekes (1999: 10), all later variants of the word in Greek can be derived from the shape attested in Mycenaean.
The earliest Greek form /moliw/vdos/ precludes any connections of the word with Latin plumbum or Basque berun ‘lead’ (thus with Beekes 1999: 10-11). Beekes, who argues for Asia Minor as the source of the Greek word, cites in passing Lydian mariwda- after Furnée, but merely as an example of the sequence -wd- in a language of Asia Minor. He can do nothing further with the Lydian word attested as a divine name.


Sackerson said...

They do it in Germany, on New Year's Eve - "Silvesterblei". Done it myself there, as a child. You buy little lead shapes - top hat, shoe etc - melt in a spoon and drop into a washing-up bowl of water.

CIngram said...

Thanks for the personal input. It brings it to life and make it more than just an abstract curiosity. I assume Silvesterblei refers to the Saint, rather than the metal.

Sackerson said...

It's the feast day of + word for lead. The result was always a splattered spiky lump, never a large pound sign or anything.

CIngram said...

My attempts at alchemy invariably end the same way;-)

Brett Hetherington said...

It seems to me that even some of the greatest minds have been largely wrong about their predictions for the future (including one of THE greatest, George Orwell.)

Our western culture has typically "seen" the future as a vista laid out in front of us.

I favour the Aymara´s "view" of time which is that we are sitting in a narrow boat where the past is all a river churning in front of us and we are rowing into the future, which is at our backs, always unseeable behind us.

Anonymous said...

Some cultures (and people) invent ways to pretend they can know what's coming, while others come up with picturesque explanations for why they can't know. I like the image of rowing backwards down a frothing river. It suggests the past is also hard to know, which is true.

Jules Verne made a better fist than many of

predicting technical aspects of the future, but it so much depends on the constant interplay of countless millions of individual acts of thehuman will that it is only ever possible to suggest vague trends. Politicians, economists, journalists, soothsayers, psephologists, even scientists- not to mention blokes in pubs- are constantly being caught out by the idiosyncratic humanity of the people whose behaviour they try to predict.
But it's still fun to try if not too much hangs on being right.