Signs of the Future. Divination in East Asia and Europe

for german version click here

+++ prolonged till 5th September 2021 +++

At the beginning of a year, many of us look expectantly to the future: what will the new year bring – for society, in the world of politics, and for me personally? The desire to known the future, particularly in times of upheaval, and to react accordingly, has been common to all cultures of the world for thousands of years. From then on in, people have thought up ever new ways of finding out what the future holds, and look for answers to higher powers, who need to be “consulted” in one way or another. The methods and objects used for this are many and various.

With 130 exhibits from East Asia and Europe, the exhibition explores the similarities and differences in divination in East and West. The objects include horoscopes and tarot cards, farmer’s almanacs, astrological calendars and oracle bones which are more than three thousand years old, as well as glass balls and charms, instructions for palm reading, a séance and the interpretation of coffee grounds and tea-leaves. In an Asian temple oracle, for example, a numbered stick must first be drawn from a container. The number on the stick relates to an oracle slip containing a prediction, which can range from the concrete to the mystically cryptic. The position of the “moon blocks” which are then thrown tells whether the oracle is valid – or whether the deity has refused to answer the question. The methods of fortune-telling are complex, and the answers rarely unequivocal.

Palmistry was widespread in both Europe and East Asia: lifespan, health, wealth and social standing – all could supposedly be determined from the lines on the hand and mounts at the base of the fingers. Books such as “Die kunst der Chiromantzey” by the German theologian Johannes ab Indagine from 1523 or the Asian “Mayi’s Physiognomy” from 1599 explained the art of palm reading and provided interpretations of the lines and hand shape.

In addition to the “tools” of fortune-telling, the exhibition introduces individual players – such as Madame Buchela, who made a name for herself as a political advisor as the “Prophetess of Bonn” or “Pythia of the Rhine”. Rumours were rife about famous and influential people who supposedly visited her at her home in Remagen seeking advice. Even Konrad Adenauer was said to be a customer, although this has never been confirmed. 

In cooperation with the National Museum of Taiwan History and the Academia Sinica in Taipei, the International Consortium for Research in the Humanities of the FAU Erlangen-Nuremberg and University of Münster, the university covers a broad timespan and wide geographical area, and draws astounding parallels in the cultures of divination in East Asia and Europe.

objects from the exhibition