15

What is Divination really like when it is not just a school subject, but is practically applied by a competent Wizard? Is there a definition of what counts as Divination in the Harry Potter universe?

Most of what we know about Divination in the Harry Potter universe is through the school courses of Professor Trelawney and Firenze, plus a few remarks by Professor Dumbledore and Professor McGonagall. I don't believe these give a fair representation of Divination in the real world, just like how the school curriculum of the first three years of Harry's Defense Against the Dark Arts class wouldn't tell much about how Defense Against the Dark Arts is used by adults.

To give some specifics, which of the following (if any) are Divination?

  • Professor Snape's task of finding out about the Dark Lord's plan.
  • Professor Dumbledore finding out lots of details about the past of the Dark Lord.
  • Professor Dumbledore coercing Kreacher to tell him what's happened to Sirius.
  • Professor Dumbledore detecting magic in the cave.
  • The visions Harry had, showing what the Dark Lord or his Snake were doing.
  • The spell used to reveal the last spell cast by a wand, as seen in Goblet of Fire.
  • The Sorting Hat determining the personality traits of a young wizard.
  • The Specialis Revelio spell cast by Hermione on the Riddle diary.
  • The examination the Ministry of Magic has done on the objects Professor Dumbledore has left in his will to the trio.
  • The tests done on the Firebolt that Harry got as a gift, ensuring that it is not jinxed.
  • The Homenium Revelio spell cast by Hermione to find humans in the Black manor.
  • What the Marauder's Map does.
  • The two real prophecies of Professor Trelawney.

I have guesses about how some of the above are Divination and some aren't, but they are all based on what I've heared of divination outside the Harry Potter universe. There is, however, probably some material in the books, interviews, Pottermore, or other resources that I don't know about.

To address a particular argument you might give about the prophecies of Professor Trelawney, recall that Professor Dumbledore wanted to keep Trelawney in Hogwarts to protect her, after the first prophecy and the immediately following events. The way he insisted that she stay after she was sacked from her teaching position (in the Order of the Phoenix) clearly shows this, together with what he says about the matter in Half-Blood Prince chapter 20:

I cannot ask Firenze to return to the forest, where he is now an outcast, nor can I ask Sybill Trelawney to leave. Between ourselves, she has no idea of the danger she would be in outside the castle. She does not know – and I think it would be unwise to enlighten her — that she made the prophecy about you and Voldemort, you see.

This means that Professor Dumbledore may have applied Trelawney regardless of how good Divination teacher he thought she was, and regardless of whether the prophecy is Divination or not.

Can you give other examples of Divination used by Wizards, other than the ones related to school courses? This is a speciesist question, I'm specifically asking only about human Wizards, not about divination practiced by Centaurs or House Elves or Goblins or other creatures.

Remark. The original reason why this question came up is a disagreement in the thread Why didn't Dumbledore use magic to figure out what Bertie Bott’s Every Flavor Beans taste like?

  • I don't have information about how it might work in-universe, there doesn't seem to be a lot of accurate divination in the books except prophecy - however, I think you might be right. Out of universe, divination includes "discovering hidden knowledge" by supernatural means, it definitely includes scrying and dowsing (present tense), tarot and rune-casting (questions can be about the past), reading palms and dreams (mostly character analysis) - all of these methods gain information from the present or the past as well as the future. – Megha Dec 19 '15 at 18:39
15

What is Divination, as practiced by Wizards, really like?

  • Based on canon, there is no information about any Divination practice among wizards aside from what is being taught in Divination classroom at Hogwarts

  • Moreover, based on interviews, there's no successful Divination practice at all at the time of Harry Potter, aside from Trelawney's accidental Prophecies

which of the following (if any) are Divination?

NONE of the examples you listed is Divination, save last one (Prophecies) which is... iffy.

Divination is defined as practicing magical arts to reveal the future.

From Muggle Wiki definition:

Divination (from Latin divinare "to foresee, to be inspired by a god",[2] related to divinus, divine) is the attempt to gain insight into a question or situation by way of an occultic, standardized process or ritual.[3] Used in various forms throughout history, diviners ascertain their interpretations of how a querent should proceed by reading signs, events, or omens, or through alleged contact with a supernatural agency.

In Harry Potter world, Divination has the following properties/definitions:

  • Reveals information about the future. Not the present. Not the past. See the sources below for details.

  • Reveals indirect information, via magical means.

    • Not finding out direct information, such as reading someone's plan via Legilimency

    • Not to construct a logical model to predict the future the way a muggle would.

As such, every one of the examples given by you except the last one aren't divination, as none of them show revealing information about the future via indirect magical means. Only the first one is about the future in the first place, and Snape's work isn't done via indirect magical means, but by old fashioned James Bond ways.



Whether the Prophecies are "divination" or not is simply a matter of definition.

  • If we include only conscious, on-purpose attempts to divine the future, then Trelawney's prophecies aren't "Divinaton" in a strict sense of the word. This interpretation is favoured by a train of thought that if something is "Divination", it should be teachable in Divination class (either Hogwarts, or maybe something more advanced). Whereas, Prophecy isn't teachable... it just happens.

  • On the other hand, it's a magical way of revealing the future, so according to the definition we started out with, it IS Divination. This interpretation is in line with thinking that spontaneous magic is still magic - if Harry re-grows his hair, it's still Transfiguration.



SOURCES

What do we know about Divination aside from what the books say relative to Trelawney's class and some remarks by Professores AD and MM?

  1. Divination details aren't really mentioned in JKR interviews. There's one direct mention (proving it's about the future only) and one tangential mention:

    JKR: Yeah, he starts learning Divination, and so...
    LS: Telling about the future...
    JKR: Uh-huh, foretelling the future. I know a lot about foretelling the future, without, I have to say, believing in it... (src)

    JK Rowling: ... at one point there was a blind character who went by the name of Mopsus, ... he sort of ­­ that was a very early character and he had the power of second sight, in other words he was a bit like Professor Trelawney, he was a very, very early character, this was when I was drafting Philosopher's Stone, the reason I cut him was he was too good. As the story evolved, if there was somebody who really could do divination at the time that Harry was alive, it greatly diminished the drama of the story because someone out there knew what was going to happen. (src)

  2. Pottermore offers very little detail, but also confirms it's about the future.

    The textbook for the class used on Pottermore is "Unfogging the Future" by Cassandra Vablatsky.

  • Can you give any proof about this from sources connected to the Harry Potter universe? Divination is defined in different ways in different sources, and sometimes include more than finding out about the future. In the other thread, I had quoted a source saying it covers more in Dungeons & Dragons. Indeed, if you look at what Divination school Wizard spells do in that game, you will see they're not all about finding out of the future, they're about finding out of some information. – b_jonas Jul 12 '15 at 13:45
  • @b_jonas - see edit – DVK-on-Ahch-To Jul 12 '15 at 13:51
  • Oh, nice! I think "Unfogging the Future" is actually a textbook title mentioned in the books. – b_jonas Jul 12 '15 at 13:58
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    Dumbledore does state that Trelawneys Grandmother was a famous Seer - and given his critical stance it can be assumed he verified this. So we know they exist, and that the branch of magic exists (even if true talent is rare). The Centaurs seem to have the methodology down (though they get more vague results). Maybe they are simply mandated by the Ministry to "encourage" this branch of magic. OR, perhaps Dumbledore was doing a Lockheart, and includes the subject to try and show the students what a fraud looks like! – DavidS Jul 17 '15 at 8:58
  • 2
    Nah, I think there's a point here. Literary criticism, for example, might be considered by some a useless field, but it is not quackery in the same sense the most of Trelawney's divinations appear to be. Literature exists, it has meaning, and that meaning can be discussed. Sometimes people read the wrong meaning, but literary criticism is not a particularly scientific field. It would be more like if someone taught astrology in college. – Adamant Mar 27 '16 at 5:15
11

And now for something completely different...

I'm going to go against the accepted wisdom here and say that Professor Trelawney's possession-type prophecies are not the only valid divination techniques shown in Harry Potter.

Professor Trewlaney correctly predicts the events at the tower in Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince

Let's see what she says:

“The headmaster has intimated that he would prefer fewer visits from me,” she said coldly. “I am not one to press my company upon those who do not value it. If Dumbledore chooses to ignore the warnings the cards show —” Her bony hand closed suddenly around Harry’s wrist. “Again and again, no matter how I lay them out —” And she pulled a card dramatically from underneath her shawls. “— the lightning-struck tower,” she whispered. “Calamity. Disaster. Coming nearer all the time . . .”

Certainly the Tower, as the Tarot card is more commonly known, is a generic indicator of catastrophe (among other things), and there is little that Professor Trelawney loves more than to predict catastrophe. But the choice of this method, of all things, and the Tower as referent (when indeed Dumbledore dies on the tower) seems to me to be more than coincidence. As stronger evidence, the very next chapter is called "The Lightning Struck Tower." No prizes for guessing what happens here. I suspect Rowling is giving us a not-so-subtle clue about the accuracy of Trelawney's prophecy.

Indeed, if we are to take Trewlaney at her word here, she continued getting the Tower no matter how many times she laid the cards out, an event which certainly defies probability.

She also detected Harry as the object of her predictions

“Two of spades: conflict,” she murmured, as she passed the place where Harry crouched, hidden. “Seven of spades: an ill omen. Ten of spades: violence. Knave of spades: a dark young man, possibly troubled, one who dislikes the questioner —”

She stopped dead, right on the other side of Harry’s statue.

“Well, that can’t be right,” she said, annoyed, and Harry heard her reshuffling vigorously as she set off again, leaving nothing but a whiff of cooking sherry behind her.

She detected a "dark young man" (meaning dark-haired), "troubled" (naturally), "one who dislikes the questioner" (which pretty much sums up Harry's attitude toward Trelawney.). That the situation is played for broadly comedic effect should not distract us from the fact that this whole scene is very obviously written to show Trelawney casting tarot for Harry, while being unaware that she is doing it.

This is the key, by the way.

When Trelawney falls into her trances, she is unaware that she is prophesizing. She is no more aware when she uses the actual tools of divination. Professor Trelawney is consciously a fraud, but unconsciously a seer, not only with her trances but with other divinatory techniques. Notice how in the first case, she admits to laying out the cards again, and in the second, she shuffles them when they fail to give the result that she desires. She tries her best at being a fraud, but her natural talents shine through.

Sybill Trelawney is clearly a genuine seer. Why should we be so surprised if there is more than one way to make a correct prediction?

Many other people have noted that a surprising number of nonspecific prophecies made by various characters came true

For example, Trelawney "predicted" Hermione leaving the class, or Lavender Brown's rabbit being eaten.

Harry "predicted" that Buckbeak would escape.

And how can we forget one of Harry and Ron's few mentioned divination homework sets:

On Monday, apparently, Harry will be in danger of burns.

On Tuesday, he will lose a treasured possession.

He will then be stabbed in the back by someone he thought was a friend.

He will lose a bet and come off worse in a fight.

The first two "predictions" correspond well to the first two tasks. Of course, he is later betrayed by Ron or, more plausibly Crouch-as-Moody. Later Bagman loses a bet he has on Harry to win the tournament.

Though each of these as individual evidence is highly suspect, together they might provide statistical indications that the average wizard can make predictions that are, at least, more likely to be correct.

We also have more direct evidence. From the Famous Wizard cards, Calchas and Mopsus competed to see whose Divination was better. Since these cards were written by Rowling, they can be considered canon. I suspect that "competing" does not plausibly mean "both waited until they had visions and then discussed them." Rather, they used divinatory techniques. Of course, one could argue that these cards are not written from an omniscient authorial viewpoint.

The fact that Divination is taught as a legitimate subject is telling.

I find it unlikely that wizards would teach divination as a subject if it were completely ineffective. So many of their spells are flashy and immediate, that the suggestion that they would adopt as a subject something as subtle as divination with no payback seems a little implausible.

This probably has some relation to Rowling's statement that she could not see Wiccans as feeling comfortable at Hogwarts: with the more immediate and obvious effects of wizardly magic, paganism and such would seem less plausible. (I actually disagree; a modified form of Wicca centered around the magic that wizards normally do could be quite successful). If Rowling finds it implausible that Wicca would be plausible in a world of instant-gratification magic, I find it hard to believe that fortune-telling would be any different.

Far more likely that divination is a subject of some use at least to Seers (as evidenced by Trewlawney's accurate predictions), and perhaps of some use to wizards generally, but prone to error. Far more likely that Professor Trelawney is simply a particularly bad Seer, who cannot use her powers very well. Clearly Cassandra Trelawney made prophecies more frequently, at the very least.

According to Pottermore:

Sybill is the great-great granddaughter of a genuine Seer, Cassandra Trelawney. Cassandra's gift has been much diluted over ensuing generations, although Sybill has inherited more than she knows.

and

Nevertheless, Sybill does experience very rare flashes of genuine clairvoyance, which she can never remember afterwards.

J.K. Rowling could not have too many accurate prophecies, as discussed in her interview. This could also be viewed as a plausible justification for the relative ineffectiveness of divination as taught at Hogwarts.

Keep in mind, though, that Professor Trelawney's gift is, short of large-scale centaur astrology, the only direct evidence we have of the nature of divination in Harry Potter. As the Pottermore article indicates, Trelawney is in some sense not a real Seer, and her gifts are very "diluted" compared to her ancestors. Could fortune-telling techniques be more useful to a full Seer? Could a full Seer make accurate predictions willfully? Since Trelawney is our main evidence, and her predictions are never conscious (or at least recognized), it really is hard to tell.

I suspect that Firenze has the right of it: Divination is an inexact art, which is not always right, and may often simply mislead those who practice it.

3

If I recall correctly (and unfortunately I don't have access to the books right now to try to get a quote), Divination is the art of discerning the future, so that sort of automatically rules out all but one of your examples (Trelawney's prophecies). Even then, those two prophecies don't appear to be a conscious thing, so they likely don't even count as Divination (Prophecy is probably its own branch of magic). The rest are various combinations of non-Divination magical spells, espionage, research, Occlumency (again, not Divination), logic and guesswork.

Ultimately there's no reason to believe that Divination, as practiced by qualified human Wizards, is any different to what Harry learnt in his lessons; except perhaps they'd have more luck at actually predicting the future. I don't believe Professor Trelawney wrote any of the books used by Divination students, and she wasn't the first Divination teacher at the school, so there'd be older generations (and students from other schools?) who have all learnt the same Divination techniques.

  • "except perhaps they'd have more luck at actually predicting the future" - that's wrong. See my answer. NOBODY could do divination, by design – DVK-on-Ahch-To Jul 12 '15 at 13:58

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