This ancient art of divination used a cock or hen to foretell the future. Alectromancy sprung up in many cultures across the world, though there were a few common methods.
The most common method involved placing the bird inside a circle of grain. The letters of the alphabet were placed nearby. The bird’s movements were carefully monitored, and the letters closest to the bird’s chosen feeding areas were gathered up. From there, the letters were strung together to help answer questions. Of course, not all questions need complicated answers – if a simple yes or no would suffice, only two piles of grain were used. The one chosen by the bird reflected the answer as foretold.
In ancient Rome, alectromancy was used to not only foretell the future, but to identify robbers. The famous philosopher Iamblichus was credited with developing the technique before his death in 330 AD. The area where the divination was to occur was cleaned and magical preparations were undertaken. In one particularly gruesome form, the cock’s claws were cut off, them wrapped in a parchment covered with magical symbols and words before being shoved down the unfortunate bird’s throat. Incantations were chanted during the set-up and ceremony.
Another form of alectromancy may have begun in Africa. This version depended on the crowing of the cock, considered along with the time at which the crowing occurred. A similar version had someone recite the letters of the alphabet – each time the cock crowed, the appropriate letter was noted.
The Roman military even used birds to foretell the results of major battles. The chickens would be provided with food before a battle. If they ate greedily, the battle was sure to be a success. On the other hand, if the birds refused to eat, the omens were poor. Caution was necessary.
The Roman emperor Valens used alectromancy to divine the name of his successor. Once placed into the circle of letters, the cock spelled out the name THEO. Fearing for his kingship, Valens ordered the execution of every Theodorus, Theodectes, and Theodotus he could find. Still the bird insisted that THEO would rule next. In a fit of anger, Valens began a campaign against the oracles, astrologists, philosophers, and soothsayers. The campaign failed, and Valens was succeeded by Theodosius.