Divining for Guilt and Innocence

All religious cultures get involved with divination, at some point in their histories.The 1952 edition of the Schaff-Herzog Encyclopedia of Religious Knowledge defines “divination” as ‘the supposed art of discovering the will of the gods, of forecasting the future from indications ascribed to them, or of deciding from phenomena supposedly supernatural the correct course of action to be followed.’ (450) There is some object of the divination that acts as a sign. This object and its behaviour is taken to impart special knowledge to the practitioner of the divination.

Divination is very often practiced in primitive societies in order to predict whether the next crop will be bountiful. It is also commonly used to diagnose illness. But perhaps its most interesting use has been in criminal law, in the process of identifying the guilty and the innocent. Some of these divination methods have been rather harmless, if not plain silly. (In Iceland, for example, a suspect of some crime was made to walk under a piece of turf. If it fell on his head, he was guilty.) Other methods have been stunningly barbaric.

Here is a silly method. In Medieval Europe, clergymen suspected of capital crimes, such as murder or theft, were made to take the wine and bread of the Eucharist. If God intervened and made them choke or fall ill, they were found guilty. Of course, being made to drink wine and eat bread, under normal conditions, doesn’t seem like a reliable way to determine guilt from innocence.

Another harmless, but quite elegant, method was adopted by Congolese witch doctors in the early 20th century. holding  an accordion-like device called galukoji (pictured below) in his lap, the witch doctor would recite the names of the suspects of some crime. If the head of the galukoji jumped upwards towards the witch doctor’s face as a name was said, that was the guilty party.


Of course, we are all familiar with the early modern European witch trials, and the methods for smelling out witches that were used. The most famous is usually called “swimming a witch”. This method involved binding the suspect and throwing her into a body of water. If she sank, she was innocent. If she floated, then this was by some malevolent supernatural force, and so she was guilty. Contrary to popular belief, those who sank were not left for dead, but were retrieved from the water alive.

Perhaps the most barbaric method for sorting the guilty from the innocent is the following method, that was used by some West African peoples, for determining whether a wife had been faithful to her husband. I quote A. B. Ellis’ ethnography The Tshi-Speaking Peoples of the Gold Coast of West Africa:

A husband who suspects his wife of having been unfaithful to him, but is unable to prove it, while the wife strenuously denies her guilt, subjects her to an ordeal. He obtains from a priest, to whom he states the case, certain leaves, which, the priest informs him, possess medicinal or magical qualities. These leaves he mixes with water in a calabash, in the presence of his wife, while an earthen pot containing palm-oil is placed over a fire. When the oil is boiling the wife has to dip her hand in the water in which are the leaves, and then at once plunge it into the boiling oil. If the hand should sustain no injury, she is guiltless; but if it be scalded, she is guilty. (1887, 200-1)

Quite an incentive to avoid marrying the jealous type!


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s