“One for sorrow, two for joy,
three for a girl and four for a boy,
five for silver, six for gold,
seven for a secret never to be told,
eight’s a wish and nine’s a kiss,
ten is a bird you must not miss…”
One of many versions of a traditional English rhyme relating to magpies as prophetic birds.
Ovates, or vates are first referred to among the Iron Age people of Europe by Greek and Roman writers of the early centuries BCE. The word itself is cognate with the Irish fathi, a prophet, seer or inspired poet, and with the Welsh ofydd, a philosopher.
Prophets have been around probably as long as homo sapiens have and are recorded in all ancient cultures whose literature has survived. The Egyptians and Greeks had their oracles, the Romans their colleges of diviners, the Chinese developed the I Ching, the Norse cast runes, and so on.
Classical writers tell us that the Celts prophesied by the flight of birds and this practice survived in a medieval Irish manuscript known as ‘Prognostications of the Raven and the Wren’ as well as in the magpie rhyme quoted above. Irish manuscript sources also refer to neladoir, who divined from the clouds. The Irish Ogham alphabet, codified in late medieval manuscripts, relates the letters of the alphabet to trees, animals, birds and rivers, among other things. We may deduce from this that most traditional divination techniques involved studying the natural world. Strabo, in his Geographia, described vates as ‘philosophers of nature.’
In more recent times, descriptions of the ‘second sight’ from Scotland refer to the seer standing in his or her doorway at sunrise and looking out at the world seeking signs and portents.
The 12th century writings of Gerald of Wales describe a particular type of inspired diviner called awenyddion, awen-inspired ones, who prophesied in spontaneous verse while in a trance state.
Irish legends of Finn mac Cool tell of him gaining prophetic powers from the salmon of wisdom that eat nuts from the hazels that grow around the sacred Well of Connla. The later Welsh Story of Taliesin tells how the child, Gwion, tastes three drops from the Caudron of Inspiration (awen) brewed by the goddess Ceridwen, thereby gaining the powers of poetry (bard), prophecy (ovate) and shape-shifting (druid) and being reborn as Taliesin, archetype of the awen-inspired Druid bard.
Contemporary ovates continue to use many of these traditional methods, supplementing them with the use of modern oracle cards. The mainstay of ovate wisdom remains the study of the natural world to gain understanding of the cycles of time, of life, death and rebirth.