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The divination by water
that was stated by Natalius Comes (d. 1852) as being initiated by the ancient
sea god Nereus, but presently the term covers a variety of divinations
ranging from crystalomancy to radiesthesia.
The Jesuit M. A. Del Rio (1551-1608) described several methods oif hydromancy.
The first method described depicts a ring hanging by a string that is dipped
into a vessel of water which was shaken. A judgment or prediction is made
by the number of times which the ring strikes the sides of the vessel.
A second method is when three pebbles are thrown into standing water and
observations are made from the circles formed when the objects strike the
The third method described depended upon the agitation of the water, this
custom was prevalent among Oriental Christians of annually baptizing that
element, at the same time as taking especial care to show that the betrothment
of the Adriatic by the Doge of Venice had a wholly different origin.
A fourth method used colors of the water and figures appearing in it by
which Varro stated that many prognostications were made concerning the Mithridatic
War. This branch of the divination proved so important that it was given
a separate name and there arose from it the divination of fountains whose
waters were frequently visited. Among the most famous were the fountains
of Palicorus in Sicily which destroyed many a criminal who testified falsely
before them. A full description as to their usage and virtue was give by
the Roman philosopher Microbus (c. 345-423 AD).
Pausanius (2nd century AD) described the fountain near Epidaurus dedicated
to Ino into which loaves were thrown by worshippers hoping
to receive an oracle from the goddess. If the loaves were accepted they
sank in the water which meant good fortune, but if they were washed up from
the fountain it meant bad luck.
Other divining spring stories were collected by the antiquary J. J. Bossiard
to which Del Rio gave their origination. A custom of ancient Germans was
to throw newborn children into the Rhine. It was thought if the child was
spurious he would drown, but if he was legitimate he would swim. Such a
custom appears to be a precursor of the 17th century custom of "swimming
witches" perhaps related to the Anglo-Saxon law of trail by water established
by King Athelstain.
In a fifth method of hydromancy mysterious words are pronounced over a glass
of water, then observations are made of it spontaneous ebullience.
In the sixth method a drop of oil was let drop into a vessel of water, this
furnished a mirror through which wondrous things became visible. This, Del
Rio said, is the Modus Fessanus.
The seventh method of hydromancy was cited by Clemens Alexandrinus who cited
that women of Germany watched the whirls and courses of rivers for prognostic
interpretations. The identical fact was mentioned by J. L. Vives in his
Commentary upon St. Augustine.
Also, in modern Italy, continued the learned Jesuit, there are still diviners
who take three name of suspected thieves and write them on three little
balls which they throw into water, he added, some were so profaned as to
use holy water in this unsanctified practice.
In a fragment of M. T. Varro's de Cultu Deorum the practice of hydromancy
was attributed to Numa. A.G.H.