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.