Sortes Sanctorum
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Basic Information

Despite clear biblical injunctions against all forms of divination, some members of the early Church felt the need to invent a "Christian" version of the practice for their own ends. The sortes sanctorum (roughly "holy lottery") was one of the main forms that resulted from this and consisted of taking a copy of The Bible, allowing it to fall open where it would and blindly placing your finger on the page. The verse touched was meant to give the required guidance.

Once invented, the sortes sanctorum was used in a variety of contexts, including ecclesiastical courts and determining between different candidates for a holy office. There are a great variety of historical accounts, of varying authenticity concerning figures in the (mostly Roman) Church who were commended or condemned on the basis of this practice, but the most appropriate reading is the (probably apocryphal) tale of the man who, attempting a sortes found himself reading the verse:

MAT 27:5 : "Then he [Judas] threw down the pieces of silver in the temple and departed, and went and hanged himself."

Alarmed by this he tried again and received the back half of LUK 10:37: "Then said Jesus unto him, Go, and do thou likewise."

Besides the warning against sortes, this is often also used as an admonition about misusing the Scriptures by quoting verses in a misleading context (usually cited as "Judas went out and hanged himself. Go and do thou likewise.").

For a religion for which this was not heretical, it would probably count as a form of theurgy.

See Also:


1. Wikipedia article: Sortes Sanctorum

Game and Story Use

  • Despite the complete lack of divine sanction, this is likely to be a common practice in a historical or pseudohistorical European campaign.
  • Easily recycled in any religion with a primary holy text - a similar form of divination is known to occur in some branches of Islam using the Quran and it would be amazing if some element of Judaism doesn't do the same with the Torah. The Sikhs may or may not use the Guru Granth Sahib for similar purposes whilst the broad nature of Hindu scripture makes picking a divinatory text a question in its own right. By contrast the I Ching is actually intended for this sort of divination.
  • A character claiming benefit of clergy might well find himself tried by this method for want of anything else occurring to the consistory court.
    • The ability to put a positive spin on the verse selected (and possibly a certain amount of aiming by the person doing the picking) could go a long way towards influencing the verdict.
    • As could the use history of the Bible used - one that had been left open for a long time in a given place, or had been pressed open there would naturally fall open there again, and pretty much all hand-bound books have quirks that will make them "prefer" to open in a given place. Some bits of the Bible are "higher stakes" than others.
      • If it's the judge's personal Bible, this could be good for characterization: whether the book in question falls open to the parts about mercy, wrath, begattery, or "begetting". This would also make a decent metaphor for the tendency of people to read into the Bible what they wanted to do anyway.
  • Another good "stop doing this" finding might be JER 51:63 "when you are done with reading this book, tie a stone to it and cast it into the middle of the Euphrates".
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