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The Oracle Bones (Astragali) by Starlit

Divination was HUGE in Ancient Greece; it was a major aspect of the religion of the people, I think this was because they believed so heavily in Fate (The Morai) and even then people seemed to crave to know what the future has in store for them, only in those days a trip to see a seer was full of much pompe and ceremony and her word (yes usually a female) was literally the word of the Gods.

In Phaderus, Plato says there are two categories, the first type called “intuitive” seems to refer to a gifted person in direct communication with a God or Spirit, Pythia of Delphi is a good example. The second type is called “interpretative” and doesn’t require someone to weld any specific gift but is practiced through long held rituals by many people and can be taught to others.

Cleromancy is one of 58 forms of divination recorded by ancient writers and means “Divination by Lots”. In particular the use of the anklebones from the rear hooves of animals such as sheep, goats, deer and ox were used, these are known as Astragalus bones.

It seems like the use of astraglaus bones for divination purposes have roots in the Neolithic, right across the Eastern Mediterranean, since they’ve been found in the Neolithic village Catal Hoyuk in Anatolia (Asia Minor) dating back to the sixth millennium BCE. Golden astralgalus have also been discovered in Bulgaria from the fifth century. But alas by the classical period in Greece and Rome the divination technique had become more of a game of chance.

To honour the bones themselves, the ancients made them out of all sorts of materials from bronze and copper to ivory, marble and lead, archaeologists have found them held in the left hands of the remains of many children, which makes me think they were prized toys.

Plato seems to think that the Egyptian God Thoth created them, who some believe is an equivalent of Hermes. The spread of their use could be as the worship of Hermes and the Fates spread across the Med. As the worship of the God Apollon grew more important, divination with astragali became his domain. So much so twenty two thousands bones have been found at Delphi.

Every astragali has four sides, two of which are narrow and two broad. The broad convex (curve outwards) is called pranes, the broad concave (curve inwards) hyption. The narrow convex chion, and the narrow concave koon.

Writers think that five astragali were thrown or one astragalus five times and these combinations relate to divination messages/verses.

Since 1912 it has been generally accepted that the verses that make up these messages, discovered in the ruins of Greek temples in Asia Minor, more specifically modern Turkey: at Kosagatch (ancient Lycia), at Tefany and Yarishli (ancient Phrygia), at Enevre (Anaboura), at Sagalasso and Termessos (ancient Pisidia) at Attalia (ancient Pamphylia), and at Ordekj and Indjik constitute fragments of a long forgotten method of astragalomancy, lost to us through the passage of time. Researchers in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries who discovered the original artefacts have attempted to complete the text.

If you’re interested in having a read of the reconstructed verses I recommend the book “Oracle Bones Divination, The Greek I Ching” by Kostas Dervenis. The writer has painstakingly written out the verses from the sources available as well as making some adjustments of his own with his colleague Spyridoula Klabatsea and gives his readers a wonderful method of recreating this divination technique using coins, similar to the Taoist I – Ching. 


Dervenis. K, “Oracle Bones Divination, The Greek I Ching”, Destiny Books. 2014 Aristotle. Parts of Animals, Movements of Animals, Progression of Animals. Translated by A.L. Peck and E.S. Forster Cambirdge, Mass.: Loeb Classical Library, 1937. Arundell, Reverand F.V.J. Discoveries in Asia Minor, Including Description of the Ruins of Several Ancient Cities Vol 2. London: R. Bentley, 1834 Gilmour. G.H. “The Nature and Functions of Astralgalus Bones from Archaeological Contexts in the Levant and Eastern Mediterranean” Oxford Journal of Archaeology 16, no.2 Homer. The Iliad. Translated by Samuel Butler. Cambridge, Mass.

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