Fortune-telling is one of the most interesting of human pre-occupations. This can be as serious or as light-hearted, as brief or as detailed as one wants. However in ancient times when so much was beyond control of mankind, divination was a much more important part of human society. While many forms of divination still exist in some manner, one which is less known today is clidomancy.
Variously known as Clidomancy or Cleidomancy, this is a form of divination which uses a key to answer a variety of questions which may range from the identity of a future spouse, a thief as well as events in the future. The term goes back to Greek origins where the word ‘cleido’ means key while ‘manteia’ means to divine. This is quite a complicated form of divination and is supposed to be performed only when the Sun or Moon is in Virgo. Clidomancy can take various forms and employ different methods; however the one unifying factor is the use of the key. One of the methods is to have a key fastened into a Bible or other book, the object being to ascertain who is to be one's lover or sweetheart. When the right name is mentioned or the initial letter uttered, the book and key are expected to move in the hands of the person who holds them.
The most common form of clidomancy involved suspending a key by a thread several inches in length, and in turn wrapped the thread about a person's finger, so that the dangling key can rotate, swing back and forth or become immobile. Upon questions being asked, mentally or verbally, the answers are interpreted according to the actions of the key like twistings and twirling, as well as mobility or stillness. The thread from which the key hung was supposed to be a specially blessed or charmed cord. Based on the pendulum-like movements of the key, clidomancy can also be considered related to Radiesthesia or divination through the use of a pendulum. In fact a more modern offshoot of this practice is the device exploratory pendulum; this consists of a ball hanging from a string, which should revolve for "Yes" and swing for "No" - or vice versa, according to tests with individual operators. The pendulum is also supposed to swing in the correct direction when looking for a lost article or missing person in the actual locality or when held above a map.
One of the main purposes of Clidomancy was to detect those guilty of theft. There is an interesting description of the practice in the An Encyclopaedia of Occultism compiled by Lewis Spence (University books Inc, New York 1920. According to this the name of the individual being investigated was written on a key which was then tied to a Bible. Both were hung from the nail of the ring-finger of a virgin. As she repeated, "Exurge Domine, adjuva nos et redime nos propter nomen sanctum tuum" three times, the key would remain moving or become stationary according to the person's guilt.
In an even more complicated version of clidomancy, the diviner would include the recitation of the seven Psalms with litanies and sacred prayers. In this case, not only would the key stop moving, but the impression of the key would be found on the person being judged or he or she would lose an eye. One of the more bizarre forms of clidomancy called for the key to a street door to be placed on the fiftieth Psalm. The Bible was then closed and fastened tightly with a woman's garter. Then it was fastened to a nail and would turn when the name of a suspected thief was mentioned. According to one of the more obscure versions of clidomancy, two people would suspend the Bible between them while holding the ring of the key between their two forefingers.
In some of the practices of clidomancy, aspects of other forms of divination would also creep in. For instance, one of the versions of clidomancy used a key suspended from a thread and held between the thumb and forefinger. The key was lowered into a glass and a question asked by the seer. The key would knock against the glass and the answer would be divined from the number of the knocks - one knock indicated ‘yes’ while two knocks meant ‘no’. This is quite similar to Dactylomancy which is a form of divination involving the use of a ring.
However not all practices of clidomancy was intended to identify a thief or a sinner. Sometimes it could be used for quite mundane purposes too, like finding out the name of a lover or the gender of an unborn baby. In the latter case, the practitioner would hide a key in his/her hand and then hold out both closed fists to a pregnant woman. If she touched the one with the key, it presaged the birth of a girl.
The key has repeatedly figured in folklore from across the world as an object imbued with magic and symbolism. The notion of an object which can unlock doors was naturally taken up by folklores and mythology and transformed into something very special, a kind of talisman and possessing magical powers almost which provide entry to hitherto blocked passages and allows access to other-worldly realms. The special status of the key is also seen in many popular superstitions about the key – thus it is bad luck to leave a key on the kitchen table. Also losing an outdoor key is believed to bring sickness to the loser but riches to someone who finds it. While many of these superstitions may have served a practical purpose of encouraging people to be more careful with their keys, it also points to the symbolic status of the object. In many cultures, the key often figures as a talisman in fairytales and archetypal narrative plots which can unlock doors, provide answers and show the way forward. As such it is not impossible to imagine that the key was used in various forms of divination in order to provide answers as well as to look into the future.