Imitative Magic, Necromancy, Cleromancy, Oneiromancy & Cledonomancy in the Old Testament (Solomon Nigosian, 1978)

NOTE: The following article is taken from OCCULTISM in the OLD TESTAMENT , pp. 41-46

Occultism in the Old testament (1978)

A practice based on the assumption that certain actions performed between a person and some material object will produce certain desired effects is known as imitative magic (also referred as sympathetic or mimetic). There are numerous interesting instances of imitative magic connected with the prophet Elisha. It is recounted that a man once dropped his iron axe head into the water, whereupon Elisha cut a piece of stick and threw it into the water at the spot the axe head fell. Just as a piece of wood would float, so the iron axe head floated on the surface of the water (2 Kings 6:5-7). Another striking narrative of imitative magic is recounted in 2 Kings 2:19-22. Here it is related how the people of a certain city complained to Elisha about the bad water; Elisha having asked for a new bowl with some salt in it, went to the source of the water and threw the salt in the water, uttering the following incantation: “I have cured this water, henceforth neither death nor miscarriage shall come from it.”

The idea here is of course parallel to that of the wood and iron: because the wood floats the iron will imitate it; because salt is curative it will cure the bad water. One is reminded of the bitter water restored by Moses; he threw a piece of wood into the water and it immediately became drinkable (Exod. 15:25).

Similarly, Elisha’s followers were one day brewing a pottage from the herbs gathered by one of the disciples. Among the herbs gathered there happened to be some poisonous gourds, and this became apparent when the band of prophets began to partake of the pottage. Elisha immediately called for some meal and cast it into the pot and the effect of the meal was to make the poison innocuous (2 Kings 4:38-41). Thus, just as the meal was harmless, so too, the poisonous herb became harmless. One wonders if a magical formula of some sort was not uttered by Elisha, just as in the former case.

Another piece of imitative magic is described in 2 Kings 13:14-19. The prophet Elisha told King Josiah of Israel in Samaria to take a bow and arrows; next he placed his hands upon the king’s hand (which constituted a magical act) and bid him open the window eastward (i.e. in the direction of Syria—the foe), and told the king to shoot an arrow while he uttered the following incantation: “A victory arrow from YHWH! A victory arrow against Aram! And you shall fight the Arameans in Aphek, until you have wiped them!” This was the first part of the ritual; next came the imitative magical act. The prophet ordered the king to smite the ground with the arrows; he did so three times. Elisha rebuked the king for doing so only three times; he ought to have done it five or six times; for each time that the king struck the ground would bring one victory over Syria (2 Kings 13:14-19).

Προφήτης Ελισσαίος

There are several other incidents that indicate Elisha’s magical powers. The wife of one of the prophets, who was a widow, found herself in some kind of financial difficulty. Having sought Elisha’s assistance, she was told to borrow as many vessels as she could, and use the oil in her possession to fill up the vessels. Because one vessel contained oil, so would all the other vessels (2 Kings 4:1-7).

 Elisha and Shunammite son - The Shunammite's Son Is Raised
Elisha and Shunammite son – The Shunammite’s Son Is Raised

Another type of imitative magic is shown when Elisha is represented as being able to raise the dead by means of a somewhat elaborate ritual. He lay himself upon the dead body of a Shunammite boy and put his mouth upon the boy’s mouth, his eyes upon the boy’s eyes, and his hands upon the boy’s hands. Just as Elisha, the living, was alive, so the dead body of the boy became alive (2 Kings 4:32-35). A similar story is told of Elijah, though with less detail (1 Kings 17:21-22).

In the eyes of many Israelites, Elisha must have been regarded as a magician-prophet; not only did he perform many wonders during his lifetime, but even after his death, contact with his bones brought life to a dead man (2 Kings 13:20-21).

moses aaron hur

There are a number of other instances of imitative magic being employed for the purpose of victory in war. Moses enabled his people to conquer the Amalekites by keeping his hands raised, or, according to another version, by keeping his rod stretched out during the entire battle (Exod. 7:8-13). At the urging of his Judean ally Jehoshaphat, King Ahab of Israel consulted the four hundred prophets of Samaria about the chances of the proposed expedition against the Aramaens at Ramoth-gilead (1 Kings 22:1-28; cf. 2 Chron. 18:1-27). These four hundred prophets, who had gathered outside the city on a threshing floor, at first acted as one group chanting an incantation of victory (1 Kings 22:10). Then, as the ecstatic activity of the group intensified, Zedekiah stood out from his companions, and producing a pair of iron horns (symbol of great power; cf. Deut. 33:17), uttered the following incantation: “With these you shall trust the Arameans until they are destroyed!” (1 Kings 22:11). In the meantime the rest of the prophets kept repeating the ecstatic refrain: “Go up to Ramoth-gilead and prosper! YHWH will give it into the hand of the king!” (1 Kings 22:12). Thus, the prophet ensured the success of his sovereign’s mission.

Imitative magical acts performed by priests and seers were also employed for the banishing of evils and misfortunes such as sickness, sin and uncleanness. One of the methods used was to transfer the evil to an animal, which was then either driven out or put to death. For the expiation of a person’s guilt or iniquities, an animal was selected, and after the guilty person had laid both hands on the animal’s head, a confessional incantation was uttered in order to transmit his guilt to the animal (Lev. 1:2-9; 3:1-17; Num.8:12). Then, the animal was either sent away into the wilderness (Lev. 16:21), or killed and sacrificed (Lev. 4:15). Similarly, the elaborate magical ritual required for the cure of leprosy entailed the killing of one bird, and the dipping of a second live bird, along with some other materials, into the blood of the first bird (Lev. 14:4-7). Thus, the disease passed from the leper to the living bird, which was then let to fly away.

In another ritual, blood was sprinkled (Lev. 14:7) in order to restore to the person vitality, or virtue, which was affected by the evil. Similarly, the same magical procedure was performed for the cleansing of of an unclean or contaminated house, affected by disease.

The act of imitative magic was also used to avert vengeance—presumably by the spirits—for an unknown murderer’s crime (Deut. 21:1-9). In this case, a heifer was selected and led down to a valley which had running water, and there it’s neck was broken. Whether the purpose was to appease the spirit of the murdered person, or to transfer the unknown guilt of the murderer to the animal, or both, the killing of the animal represents an imitative magical act.

Somewhat different, yet a symbol of imitative magic, was the bronze serpent on the pole, made by Moses. It had the effect of curing people who were bitten by a serpent (Num. 21:8-9). This brazen serpent was used for centuries as a magical instrument until the reign of King Hezekiah (716-687 B.C.) whose reforms included, among other destructive acts, the shattering of the brazen serpent (2 Kings 18:4).

"Moses and the Bronze Serpent", by William Dyce, ca. 1860
“Moses and the Bronze Serpent”, by William Dyce, ca. 1860

Naturally, the early prophets were not the only experts in imitative magic. Some of the latter prophets too performed the practices of mimetic magic.

The activity of the sensitive and passionate prophet Jeremiah was directed against two major contemporary concerns: the imminent invasion of the enemy from the north, and the prevailing religious corruption of Judah. In regard to the latter problem, Jeremiah performed a mimetic act with a linen waistcloth which demonstrated the present corruption of his people (Jer. 13:1-11). He wore the linen waistcloth for some time, and then hid it in the cleft of a rock. After an interval he went and brought it back—and behold, “the waistcloth was spoiled and good for nothing.” In the same way, the Israelites who used to belong to YHWH were now following after other gods and their cultic rites, and therefore were like the waistcloth: “good for nothing.”

Another imitative performance was Jeremiah’s purchase of a potter’s earthen flask (Jer. 19:1-13). He went to the valley of Ben-hinnom (a place where human sacrifices were made), taking with him some of the senior priests and elders of the people. There in the presence of all he broke the flask and uttered the incantation: “So will I break this people and this city! Just as one breaks a potter’s vessel, which cannot be repaired again” (Jer. 19:11).

To demonstrate dramatically the coming siege of Jerusalem, its terrible economic condition during the siege, and its hideous final fate, the prophet Ezekiel performed an elaborate three-part mimetic act (Ezek. 4:1-5:12). First, he took a brick and upon it portrayed the city of Jerusalem with a siege wall around it, a mound, camps, and battering rams. Then, he took an iron plate and placed it between him and the brick. Turing his face towards the brick, he moved the iron plate gradually towards the brick as a sign of Israel’s next siege (Ezek. 4:1-3).

Next, he prepared a barley cake from a mixture of wheat, barley, beans, lentils, millet and spelt baked in cow’s dung. This was to be his meal for an assigned number of days to indicate that the Israelites were to “eat their bread unclean among the nations” during the siege (Ezek. 4:9-17). With bare arms and cords tied around him, he lay down on his side upon the brick in the sight of all the people. Symbolizing the number of years of punishment, he remained on the brick first for “three hundred and ninety days” on his left side, and then for “forty days” on his right side, daily eating his prepared barley cake (Ezek. 4:4-8).

Finally, he performed another mimetic ordeal to indicate YHWH’s judgement over Jerusalem. He took a sharp sword and cut some hair from his head and beard. Then he weighed the hair on a balance and divided it into three equal parts. One portion he burned in the midst of the miniature city on the brick; the second part he stoked with sword over the city, while the third part he scattered to the wind. Thus one third of the Israelites were to “die of pestilence and be consumed with famine” in the besieged city; another part was to “fall by the sword,” while the third part was to be “scattered to all the winds” (Ezek. 5:1-12).

Saint Elias in the cave (below) and on a chariot of fire. A fresco from Rila Monastery, Bulgaria
Saint Elias in the cave (below) and on a chariot of fire. A fresco from Rila Monastery, Bulgaria

Occultism, Occult Functionaries & Demonology in the Old Testament (Solomon Nigosian, 1978)

NOTE: The following article is taken from OCCULTISM in the OLD TESTAMENT, pp. 9-15

Occultism in the Old testament (1978)

From the early origins of the settlement of the Old Testament people in Palestine up to the Babylonian captivity, their religious practices included magic, sorcery, witchcraft, demonology and divination. There is no better evidence for this than the words of the author who recorded the cause for the defeat and exile (in 586 B.C.) of the southern kingdom, Judah:

And he [Manasseh] did what was evil in the sight of YHWH, according to the abominable practices of the nations…he rebuilt the high places…he erected the altars for Ba’al…worshipped all the host of heaven…burnt his son as an offering, and practised witchcraft and sorcery, and consulted the mediums and the wizards. [2 Kings 21:2-6]

The situation in the northern kingdom, Israel, was similar. Less than a century and a half before Judah’s downfall, Israel too had gone to exile (in 721 B.C.). And its religious practices also included the magical and divinatory arts.

And…the children of Israel sinned against YHWH their god…and feared other gods…and did secretly things that were not right…and made their sons and daughters pass through the fire, and practiced divination and sorcery. [2 Kings 17:7-17]

Illustration from the Nuremberg Chronicle of the destruction of Jerusalem under the Babylonian rule
Illustration from the Nuremberg Chronicle of the destruction of Jerusalem under the Babylonian rule

These arts were practiced by various skilled functionaries: the sorcerer, the soothsayer, the medium, the necromancer, the wizard, the charmer, the auger, the diviner, the dream-expert, the seer, the vision-expert, the priest, and the prophet. The importance attached to such qualified practitioners by the Old Testament people is seen in the statement by Isaiah (3:2-3), who places the expert in charms, the skillful magician and the diviner on the same plane as the mighty man and soldier, the judge, the elder, and the prophet. Isaiah was merely stating a known fact—namely, the high prestige that such practitioners enjoyed within their society (cf. also Isa. 8:19). Similarly, when Jeremiah (27:9) tells the public, “do not listen to your prophets, your diviners, your dream-experts, your soothsayers or your sorcerers,” he is simply reiterating the importance attached to these practitioners in the life of the people of the state.

Incidentally, Jeremiah’s distinctive use of the second masculine plural form—your—is very significant, for it indicates that there were at least two types of practitioners: the false and the true. When Jeremiah accuses “your prophets, your diviners, your dream-experts, your soothsayers, or your sorcerers,” it is obvious that his accusation is not directed against all persons who performed such practices, since he himself was one of them. Rather, Jeremiah was accusing only those whose practices he considered to result in false victims, omens, and oracles, because they were not performed by consulting YHWH.

προφήτης Ιερεμίας

It was not just the ordinary people who sought help from the skilled functionaries; the kings did likewise. King Manasseh made public use of soothsayers, augers, sorcerers, medium-experts and wizards (2 Kings 21:6; 2 Chron. 33:6). Similarly, King Ahab had qualified practitioners in his palace who were also experts in the art of cleromancy (1 Kings 20:30-34). Moreover, he consulted some 400 prophets, experts who performed their magical imitative art in order to ensure the success of his mission (1 Kings 22:1-28). That Ahab had 950 prophets who possessed and controlled the mystical knowledge of Ba’al and Asherah (1 Kings 18:19) surely indicates the importance attached to such men by the Israelite sovereigns.

Furthermore, King Saul made use of the services of mediums, wizards, dream-experts, cleromancers, prophets, and necromancers (1 Sam. 14:36-46; 28:3-19). When David succeeded Saul as king he inherited from his predecessor not only the court officials, but also the court experts in magical practices and divinatory arts. He often consulted them, especially in time of national raids and attacks (2 Sam. 5:17-25). On the other hand, King Solomon not only inherited these court experts, but added a host of qualified functionaries whose deities were other than YHWH: Sidonians, Ammonites, Moabites, Edomites and Hittites (1 Kings 11:1-10). These functionaries performed the various magical practices and divinatory arts connected with their respective deities, Ashtoreth, Milcom, Molech and Chemosh. They must have been in sharp conflict with the group who performed their arts in the name of YHWH. More will be said about this conflict presently.

Prophet Solomon
Prophet Solomon

The so-called attempted reforms of both King Hezekiah (2 Kings 18:4; 2 Chron. 29:3-31:20) and King Josiah (2 Kings 23:4-24; 2 Chron. 34:1-7) indicates, at least, how deeply rooted was the belief in the efficacy of magical practices and divinatory arts. But there is more than that! The Old Testament people had built on certain hilltops and valleys, as well as beside various trees, waters, rocks and stones, altars or sanctuaries. It was only natural that the people should continue to go to such “sacred” sites not only to burn incense and worship idols, molten images, and all the host of heaven, but to practice magic, sorcery, human offerings and divination (2 Kings 17:7-18). They persisted in such practices even during Hezekiah’s and Josiah’s so-called reform, and performed the magical customs of the surrounding nations (2 Kings 17:8).

The settling of the Old Testament people in Canaan involved, both culturally and religiously, the establishment of close relations—if not complete fusion—with the native people and the surrounding neighbors:

So the people of Israel dwelt among the Canaanites, the Hittites, the Amorites, the Perizzites, and the Jebusites; and they took their daughters to themselves for wives, and their own daughters they gave to their sons. And they served their gods…forgetting YHWH their god, and serving the Ba’als and the Asheroth. [Judges 3:5-6]

Thus the practice of magical and divinatory arts in Israel had developed from various sources. Nevertheless there appears to have developed an intense power struggle between those that practiced the art in the name of YHWH and those who practiced in the name of a number of other deities, collectively known as Ba’alim. These latter were regarded as “false” through and through by the former—false deities, false practitioners and false messages (Jer. 14:14; 27:9-10). While the struggle may have existed from the first on a small scale between the practitioners themselves, eventually it came into the open and became a political power struggle on a national scale.

Righteous Hezekiah
Righteous Hezekiah

Thus, the reforms of King Hezekiah and King Josiah should perhaps not be regarded as attempts to abolish magical and divinatory practices, but rather to suppress the so-called false practitioners in favor of true practitioners. Both these two kings used their political powers to overthrow the false functionaries, whose practices were regarded as abominable. In contrast, King Ahab and King Manasseh used all possible means of political pressure to uphold and support such false practitioners. Consequently, these two latter kings “rebuilt the high places…erected the altars for Ba’al and made an Asherah…worshipped all the host of heaven and served them…practised witchcraft and did sorcery, and consulted the medium and the wizards” (2 Kings 21:2-6).

A number of early propjets—Moses, Joshua, Samuel, Elisha, Elijah, and a host of seers, dream-experts, priests, and prophets, all tried to suppress the so-called practitioners who used the sacred arts in the name of Ba’alim. Thus, Isaiah (57:5-9) condemned the public not because they practiced the magical rite of cereal offering and libation, but because they exchanged YHWH’s power for other deities (cf. also Ezek. 16:19-22). Again, it was commonly believed by the YHWHistic group that those who consulted “foreign” gods stirred YHWH to jealousy and provoked him to anger (Deut. 32:16).

Prophet Samuel
Prophet Samuel

Furthermore, the YHWHistic group believed that the so-called false practitioners offered sacrifices, not to their respective deities, but to demons (Deut. 32:17). However, much to their frustration, the public continued to seek the practices of these false functionaries.

Consequently, the YHWHistic group strongly opposed and openly condemned those who performed the practices of the art considering them to be not only evil or abominable (Deut. 18:9), but “playing the harlot” (Exod. 34:15-17; Lev. 17:7; 20:2-6; Deut. 31:16; Judges 2:17, 8:33; Psalm 106:39). As a matter of fact the metaphor of harlotry was commonly used by the YHWHistic group who regarded all practices of the art that excluded YHWH as being an improper intercourse, prostitution and fornication (Isa. 1:21; 57:3; Jer. 2:20; 31:1-8; Ezek. 16:15-25; Hos. 2:5; 3:3; 4:15).

It became the strong conviction of the YHWHistic group that the cause of the defeat and exile of the northern kingdom, Israel, and similarly of the southern kingdom, Judah, was that the state and the public performed the practices of the false functionaries (2 Kings 17:7-20; 21:1-14). And if for a moment one were to accept this perspective, then obviously one is not only accepting that magic and divination were integral parts of the society, but is in fact saying that the false functionaries had the upper hand and the majority of the society sought their aid, since “YHWH sent them to exile.”

Of course, both groups engaged in various forms of the art and their practice was widespread. Many feared, worshipped, and through the help of practitioners, offered sacrifices with libation to numerous deities and demons (Deut. 32:17). Plagues, disease, and all sorts of mishap were attributed to demons and evil spirits (Ps. 78:49; 91:6; Job 3:8; cf. also Isa. 13:21; 30:6; 34:8-15). Not only were protective amulets worn in order to ward off evil but recourse was made to magical practices in order to remove or transfer the contagion.

Besides averting evil powers and influences, many performed various practices of a magical nature in order to seek the favor of deities and demons, or appease their wrath (for example, when social or religious taboos had been broken). One of the significant apotropaic acts was aimed at the protection of the living from harm which could be caused by the spirit of the departed.

The effectiveness of the “binding spell” and of the various genres of imitative magic performed either for the removal of evil, misfortune and disease, or for the purpose of war-victory, or to avert vengeance, or even to appease hostile spirits, will be discussed in the following pages. Similarly, the symbolic imitative performance of the prophets, as well as the restrictions and prohibitions imposed upon the society to protect themselves from hostile spirits, mysterious powers and evil influences will be cited to indicate that such magical practices were not only frequently performed but favorably looked upon as legitimate enterprises.

Thus in order to avert evil powers and influences, to appease the wrath or seek the favor of deities and demons, the Old Testament people resorted to magical practices. To find solutions to personal or national distress, to solve disputed questions, to discover the will of deities regarding various affairs, the people sought omens and resorted to the art of divination. Numerous qualified functionaries, such as sorcerers, soothsayers, seers, diviners, prophets and priests, all had important roles within the society, and their expert services in magical and divinatory practices were sought both by the public and by the state.

The art of cleromancy (divination by lot-casting) was considered a proper method of obtaining decisions regarding various affairs, assignment of duties, discovering guilty individuals and solving disputed questions. Again, strange as it may appear to us, there is not the least doubt that the Old Testament people firmly believed that certain expert functionaries had the power to evoke and communicate with the dead—an art known as necromancy. Moreover, they thought that a person could become the unconscious agent of a spirit of deity so that any pronouncement by such a person would instantly be seized by those skilled in the art as a clue of good or evil omen—the art of cledonomancy.

Furthermore, there can be no doubt that the Old Testament people believed that dreams and visions were messages emanating from supernatural powers, benevolent or malevolent spirits and deities. The “dream-expert,” the “vision-expert” (gazer), the “seer” and the “prophet” were among those who attached great importance to dreams and visions, regarding them as vehicles by which divine intentions were revealed. Such an art is known as oneiromancy.

Not all occult techniques, however, were considered approved methods to inquire of God. Inquiries performed by “a diviner, a soothsayer, an auger…a medium…or a necromancer” were unconditionally banned (Deut. 18:10; Lev. 20:6, 27). Despite this prohibition, however, and despite the efforts of King Saul (1 Sam. 28:3, 9) and King Josiah (2 Kings 23:24) to eliminate from the society these so-called illegitimate practices of inquiry, the Old Testament people consulted “diviners, soothsayers, augers and mediums” (2 Kings 17:16-17; 21:6; Isa. 8:19; Jer. 27:9; Hos. 4:12).

Thus it is difficult to conceive how the Old Testament people regarded the practice of magic and divination “evil.” Probably, what was abominable to a certain group was that such practices were not done in the name of YHWH (who, in their view, was the only powerful and true deity) but in the name of other deities (who were absolutely false deities). It seems that magic and divination were not only permissible, but were legitimate religious enterprises—if performed correctly in the name of YHWH. Many naturally confused the issue with YHWH and performed their practices in the name of other deities. This must have brought them into sharp conflict, opposition, and condemnation. In fact, in the struggle, even political power was used (such as the reform of Josiah) in order to repress such non-YHWHistic activities.

At any rate, magic and divination were integral parts of the society and numerous practices were performed by skill functionaries.

Tower of Babel
Tower of Babel

Astrology Debunked (Georges Charpak, 2004)

NOTE: The following article is taken from the book Debunked!: ESP, Telekinesis, and Other Pseudoscience, pp. 1-10:


Truth is Drawn from a Well

“The proof that astrology works, and that it works well, is that my horoscope has accurately predicted things that actually happened to me.” How many times have we heard such remarks? How many personal experiences of this type get presented as evidence of the validity of astrology?

Well, let’s be clear on the subject: Yes, horoscopes work—they work well, in fact. But the validity of the horoscope does not imply the validity of astrology. Many people are convinced of the validity of astrology because their horoscope “works.” These people believe that the occurrence of predicted events, which they have witnessed, justifies the validity that they ascribe to the “Science of Signs.” They are especially convinced that their horoscope gives them a solid foundation for an understanding of themselves and provides guidance for how to act and on their destiny.

For such people, their horoscopes are meaningful, but in truth, the horoscopes take on meaning from the believers, not for believers. It is difficult to get this point across, since it runs contrary to personal experience—“You can’t say it’s not true, because it’s happened to me.” The individual who reads his horoscope is convinced that he is dealing with his horoscope, that that horoscope is destined for him, and that it was created specifically for him by a supernatural force. There’s no recognition that the satisfaction of the client is a source of feedback, adding to the credibility that the fortune-teller can claim for himself and his “science” and consequently for his motives and his effect on the client.


A Convincing Demonstration

Twenty years ago, during a class on paranormal phenomena and the occult, one of us asked the students to write the following information on a piece of paper: their first and last names; the date, time, and place of their birth, and the theme of their latest dream. All of this was handwritten. The request implied that some kind of star-based calculation would be made using the birth data or that a handwriting analysis would be made based on the written material, in either case possibly augmented by interpretation of the most recent dream.

A week later, each student received an individualized description of his or her personality followed by the question, “How good is this description of your personality?” The concordance of the description with the student’s real personality (or self-perception of it, anyway) was rated as excellent, good, fair, poor, bad, or none. Overall, 69% of the students judged the description of their personality to be excellent, good, or fairly good.

The result is especially convincing because I had been introduced to the students as a “scientific demystifier”—a pretty lousy introduction, by the way—and not as an astrologer or other supernatural leader, which would have certainly enhanced the believability of the personality descriptions and thus the percentage of “successful matches.” It’s also a particularly good demonstration when you consider that, when we asked one of the students to read aloud the personality description that we had prepared for him, the others all thought it was theirs. They couldn’t have been more similar—in fact, the much-touted “individualized” descriptions were prepared before the students’ data were collected, and they were exactly identical for all the students! This was a simple but enlightening demonstration of one of the many “effects” that occur so often when it comes to “paranormal” phenomena. If you ever want to try this illuminating experience, use the model personality description below; simply adding a name to complete the “personalization.”

  • You need others to like and admire you, yet you are apt to be critical of yourself.
  • Although you have certain character flaws, you are generally able to make up for them.
  • You possess substantial untapped potential that you haven’t exploited for your own benefit.
  • Some of your aspirations tend to be pretty unrealistic.
  • You are outwardly disciplined and you display self-control but inside you tend to worry and be insecure.
  • Sometimes you have serious doubts as to whether you have made the right decision.
  • You prefer a bit of change and variety and are annoyed when you encounter restrictions or limitations.
  • Sometimes you are extroverted, affable, and sociable, while at other times you are introverted, cautious, and reserved.
  • You are proud of being an independent thinker and don’t accept the statements of others without satisfactory proof.
  • You find it unwise to reveal too much about yourself to others.

Similar descriptions were used and tested for the first time by the psychologist Bertram Forer, who based his wording on an astrology book. The effectiveness of such wording in a real-life setting demonstrates clearly the power of what some have called the “well effect.”

Forer effect

The Well Effect

The well effect can be summed up as follows: The vaguer a statement is, the more numerous are the people who will recognize themselves in it—and the more completely the description will be seen to “fit” them. The descriptive statements may be profound, all right, but they are only deep in the sense that a well is deep—deeply hollowed out, that is, empty. In fact, experience has shown that vague, general statements are more convincing than specific descriptions made by professional psychologists because of what sociologists might call the Barnum effect. Barnum’s circus shows were constructed so that there was something for everyone so that everyone would find their way there, which created the shows’ success. Moreover, studies have shown that, when it comes to analysis of serious personal problems, “yes” and “no” answers picked in advance completely at random are perceived as very encouraging answers to specific questions by the people posing them! (You can read more about this phenomenon in Ray Hyman’s “Cold Reading: How to Convince Strangers That You Know All about Them,” in Paranormal Borderlands of Science [Buffalo: Prometheus Books, 1981]).


The well effect explains, in large measure, the success of horoscopes. “In some ways, you are one of the stronger people”: this is a statement that is empty and void of meaning, yet it will be accepted as fundamentally true in a horoscope, as each reader interprets it in the context that gives it meaning for him. the reader will think, “My knowledge of foreign languages is strong,” “I have a great ability when it comes to fixing things,” “My muscles are strong,” or any of so many other possibilities. And this is without even taking into account that the elementary principles that can improve the receptivity of the readers. For example, don’t tell people what you know (or think you know) to be true about them, just tell them what you wish were true about them.

Of course, astrologers count on the fact that the public quickly forgets the predictions. The supermarket tabloids print dramatic predictions at the end of every year, often involving such events as a presidential assassination or the second coming of Christ in the following year or two, and people have been reading similar predictions for decades. In France, a prediction concerning a former prime minister is little remembered: “Despite a generally positive picture for the year [1993], the first fifteen days of January and of September as well may pose serious problems for Pierre Beregovoy.” For this prediction we are indebted to a famous astrologer, Elizabeth Teissier, writing in Your Horoscope for 1993. For those unacquainted with subsequent events, Pierre Beregovoy killed himself on May 1, 1993, by a gunshot wound to the head. In the United States, thousands died in the World Trade Center disaster of September 11, 2001. The horoscopes of any number of the victims contain predictions supposedly useful for guiding behavior that day—“a good day for a fresh start in your love life”—and the next day! Individual deaths on that day were not predicted, let alone a mass disaster; if astrology can’t unambiguously predict an event of that magnitude in your life—and still makes further predictions for the next day—what good is it?  Yet no one remembers that predictions of good days and bad days for the rest of the year were cast for these victims.

Clearly, astrologers make full use of the well effect. A prediction from Elizabeth Teissier again: “Populations in the world will suffer violence in the following month, given that Venus and Pluto…” But they also use other tricks to lend credence to their pronouncements, always centered on the big three—Love, Money, and Health. And intellectual honesty does not have to be the foremost characteristic in the star charts that predict the traits of the astrologers themselves. Skill and craftiness are often plainly evident. For example, Darah was one of the four sons of a great Moghul emperor, and he was obsessed by astrology. A soothsayer predicted that he would stake his own life on his prediction that Darah would be crowned the heir to the emperor. When someone expressed astonishment at the temerity of the prediction, the astrologer said, “One of two things will happen: either Darah will ascend the throne and my fortune is assured, or he will lose his bid and be assassinated, and then I will have nothing further to fear from him.” Beyond the well effect, astrologers don’t hesitate to have two irons in the fire or, more subtly, one iron with two different sides.

Let’s not leave out that astrologers also count on the fact that “to err is human” but constant fallibility is not. Neither perpetual fallibility nor perpetual infallibility is characteristic of anybody. People readily accept one side of this and disregard a claim of infallibility because errors inevitably appear. But people are a lot less aware that a few instances of “getting it right” are inevitable. The contrary—always being wrong—would be extraordinary. Even an astrologer will sometimes make predictions that turn out to be true. So, predict merrily along—some of your statements will always pan out.

Élizabeth Teissier, astrologer.
Élizabeth Teissier, astrologer.

Astrology in a Vacuum

Astrologers actually know very little about what goes on in the skies. In Your Horoscope in 1993, Elizabeth Teissier asked, “How does such a horoscope [for a group readership] work, and how can it be justified? How can it be conceivable that a Capricorn born January 9, 1960, should be under the same planetary influences as another born January 9, 1924, for example? Here is the answer to such questions: In its apparent travels around Earth, the Sun ends up in the same place in the sky on the same date each year” (italics added). This is totally false! On two identical dates in different years, the Sun is not in the same spot in the sky at all.

On a given date in different years, our planet is not at the same point in its orbit around the Sun. As we will explain more fully later, the phenomenon of the precession of the equinoxes causes a shift in position. To put it in numbers, as an approximation, we can say that there is a difference of about 22,000 miles between Earth’s location on any specific date in two successive years, which is a distance of about three times the diameter of our planet. Thus, contrary to the astrologer’s statements about the same planetary influences on January 9th of 1960 and 1924, the earth would not occupy the same place in its orbit around the Sun, at all. Between those two dates there would be a shift of about 780,000 miles!

For the most part, astrological soothsayers work with what is called the “tropical zodiac.” This is based on the sun and has nothing to do with the stars, which are the basis for the “sidereal zodiac.” When astrologers put together an astral analysis, they generally use the twelve signs of the tropical zodiac, defined as the twelve equal rectangles into which the celestial sphere is divided. The starting point for this division is called “gamma,” which is the intersection of the ecliptic with the celestial equator, corresponding to the spring equinox.

At one time, a bit before the birth of Christ, calculations based on the tropical zodiac would have been about the same as those based on the stars and constellations that originally determined the characteristics of the various signs of the sidereal zodiac. This is no longer the case because the precession of the equinoxes has mixed things up by displacing the gamma point with respect to the starry background of the celestial sphere. This displacement has dragged along the astrological signs, which nowadays don’t correspond at all to their original stars. Today’s “tropically based” astrologers just blindly apply rectangular sign-zones, empty boxes that have nothing to do with anything and are devoid of any consistency or correspondence with the stars. If you want to know your real zodiac birth sign, rather than one fobbed off on you by the usual (tropical) astrologers, investigate Astronomic Zodiac. This resource is found on the Internet site Your true sign is simply the location of the Sun in the celestial sphere, as seen from Earth at the instant of your birth. This can be calculated rigorously from an astronomical point of view. But most astrologers, relying on the vacant rectangles of the tropical zodiac, really don’t practice astrology at all, but rather something we’ve got to call the study of emptiness—voidology, or astrology in a vacuum.

The 3 Magi
The 3 Magi

The Navel Gazers

Horoscopes are popular today because ours is a narcissistic civilization. Science makes only global or collective forecasts, while lots of people are interested only in their own personal destiny. For most people, it’s not hard to choose between the distant scientists who speak of generalities and the accessible astrologer who speaks exclusively to the individual about himself. The aura of exclusivity and uniqueness is certainly enhanced by the astrologer’s request for the complete details of the client’s birth. Exact spot, date, hour, and minute—all pertain to a single person, all pertain to me—so it must be that there’s a good correspondence between the results of the astrologer’s study and my own personality.

Our observations and perceptions depend in part upon what we are thinking at the moment we observe something. Our deepest desires and motivations, modified by our past experiences, are reinforced, whether consciously or not, by selection bias. Selection bias is a well-documented psychological principle. It means that we choose our magazines, newspapers, radio stations, television shows—all of our information sources—in such a way that our opinions are, for the most part, reinforced rather than challenged. And if, despite all that, we receive challenging information, we can always use subjective validation. Subjective validation is a psychological principle that allows us to absorb incorrectly any information that is contrary to our preferences and to interpret it in a different light. Subjective validation causes two events to be perceived as linked, when they are not, simply because a desire, a hypothesis, or a belief requires such a linkage. In the case of astrology, events are perceived as linked simply because the horoscope says the linkage exists. This perception of linkage, in turn, induces superstitious behavior founded upon the belief that one’s own actions determine the course of events, even when  this is not so in reality.

If the influence of the planets over our destiny is completely nil, however, it doesn’t follow that the horoscope is without effect. And the well effect, in particular, allows us to see why the horoscope holds such a sway over so many people.

The Precession of the Equinoxes

The precession of the equinoxes was discovered by Hipparchus of Nicea in the second century B.C.E. Earth is not perfectly spherical but flattened a bit at the poles and bulging a bit at the equator. Gravitational effects of the Sun and the Moon on the equatorial bulge cause the axis of the Earth’s rotation to shift. That is, the axis—the line between the poles—moves around. It pivots, a bit like a spinning top, very slowly, taking about 25, 790 years to go around completely. The picture is actually a bit more complicated, though. An additional phenomenon, called “nutation,” creates a little wave around the main circular motion of the axis, with a period of about 18.6 years.

In about 12,000 years, Earth’s axis will point to a new “North Star,” Vega, and today’s “North Star,” Polaris, will no longer mark the northerly direction.

The plane of the celestial equator—that is, the plane that includes Earth’s equator—obviously follows this pivoting of Earth’s axis. Therefore, its intersection with the ecliptic, which is the plane of Earth’s orbit around the Sun, must also move. But the location of that intersection determines the gamma point, the spring equinox. (Remember that the spring and autumnal equinoxes correspond to the two positions of Earth when the line from the Sun to Earth is perpendicular to the axis of Earth’s rotation. That’s why, at the equinoxes, day and night are of equal length all over the world.)

The problem is that the spring equinox serves as the reference point for the tropical zodiac. In other words, the gamma point moves slowly but surely through the celestial sphere and pulls along with it the signs of the tropical astrologers, who consequently are not working from the original constellations at all and who continue to be farther and farther away from them.

Here’s just one example among many: Those born when the Sun (as seen from the Earth) is in the constellation Leo are said to be “courageous, proud, and dominating.” But if that were true in Hipparchus’ day, two thousand years ago, it’s really difficult to understand what that sign has to do with us today. People born at the end of July are “Leos” according to the astrologers, but today’s Sun is not then in Leo at all but in Cancer.

The well effect is not limited to astrology. One can easily find many applications of this principle in every aspect of life