From the Greek phyllon ('leaf') and manteia ('prophecy'), it is the art and practice of divination, this time by omens taken from leaves.
Methods of Phyllomancy varied from one region to another. For some cultures, the sound made by leaves as they were rustled by the wind would be significant. For others, the falling leaves in the Autumn were of significance; the number of fallen leaves, the way they fell, and how and where they fell were taken into consideration, as well as if they had fallen face up or face down.
In Oxfordshire, England, if a young lady placed an ivy leaf in her bosom, the first man who spoke to her would be the one she would marry, even if he was already married at the time he spoke to her. In Scotland, besides placing the leaf on her bosom, the girl was supposed to say the following verse:
"Ivy, Ivy, I love you.
In my bosom I place you.
The first young man who speaks to me
My first husband he shall be."
Dreaming of leaves was also another form of Phyllomancy. To dream of apple leaves was to foresee a wedding; dreaming of ivy leaves signified happiness and contentment; dreaming of falling leaves was a bad omen, signifying trouble or bad news.
Divining by ivy leaves was one of the most popular methods of Phyllomancy. The usual method was to place an ivy leaf in water on New Year's Eve. If the leaf was still fresh on Twelfth Night, it meant that the coming year would be a good one. If dark or black spots formed in the leaf, there would be illness; if the leaf was completely covered in dark spots, there would be death before the end of the year.
Contemporary Phyllomancers frequently use bay leaves for divination. One of the favorite methods is to predict which person in a group will be successful in a certain endeavor. For this they take as many bay leaves as there are people present, and after placing them in a dish, ask a simple question, such as: "Who among us will next win some cash?" All participants should then close their eyes, and in turn select a leaf from the dish. The one who picks the leaf marked with a cross is the fortunate one. For a simple yes or no type of divination, ask your question while holding a bay leaf to a candle flame; if the leaf crackles while burning, the answer is yes, but if the leaf bubbles or make a squeaking noise, the answer is no.
We hear of Phyllomancy among the Assyrians, Greeks and Romans. The 'Science of the Palm' or 'Language of Palms' referred to by medieval Jewish writers was some form of Phyllomancy with palm-trees. It is said that Mar Abraham Kobasi, the Gaon, who lived in the year 828 AD, was a proficient interpreter of the 'language of palms'. The Chasidim are said still to believe the efficacy of these methods of discovering futurity. It is thought that, on a windless day, if a man stands between two palms and observes how they incline to one another, signs can be deduced which afford hidden information.
Phyllomancy, like most divinatory systems, is quite ancient, and has been practiced since time immemorial.
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Sources: (1) Dictionary of the Occult, Caxton Publishing; (2) Pickover, Clifford A., Dreaming the Future: The Fantastic Story of Prediction, Prometheus Books Publishing; (3) Dunwich, Gerina, A Wiccan's Guide to Prophecy and Divination, Carol Publishing Group; (4) Buckland, Raymond, The Fortune-Telling Book: The Encyclopedia of Divination and Soothsaying, Visible Ink Press; (5) Kemp, Gillian, The Fortune Telling Book: Reading Crystal Balls, Tea Leaves, Playing Cards, and Everyday Omens of Love and Luck, Little, Brown and Company Publishers.
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