Derived from the Greek alphitomantis ('divination using barley'), this is a method of fortune telling closely related to Aleuromancy.
In this ancient divination method, the guilt or innocence of a suspect person was determined by feeding him or her a specially prepared wheat or barley loaf or cake. If the person suffered from indigestion, found the loaf to be distasteful, choked, or even if their stomach rumbled, it was interpreted as a sign of guilt.
A similar ordeal was known in medieval English law (known as corsned or 'cursed bread'), but the special cakes were there replaced by a consecrated "trial slice" of bread or cheese. In the same manner, if the person had indigestion, choked or disliked the foodstuff, it was concluded to be guilty. Said Sir William Blackstone of this ordeal:
"Another species of purgation, probably sprung from a presumptuous abuse of revelation in the dark ages of superstition, was the corsned, or morsel of execration — being a piece of cheese or bread, of about an ounce in weight, which was consecrated with a form of exorcism, desiring the Almighty that it might cause convulsions and paleness, and find no passage if the man was really guilty; but might turn to health and nourishment, if he was innocent."
Barley bread was used in preference to any other, apparently for no reason but that, being more difficult of mastication, it had more change of choking the unfortunate subjects.
An often remembered story involving Alphitomancy happened in England, in the year 1053. Earl Godwin of Wessex allegedly collapsed while taking the corsned test to support an apparently false oath, and died a few days later. This case was frequently cited as a strong argument in favor of Alphitomancy as a divinatory process.
Alphitomancy was commonly employed when several persons were suspected of a crime. All of the suspects were given the foodstuff to eat, as it was assumed that those innocent could eat it effortlessly, while the guilty person would either get indigestion or choke on it. Was this practice that gave rise to the popular imprecation:
"If I am deceiving you, may this piece of bread choke me."
Careful procedures in both making the bread and administering were necessary for the proper practice of Alphitomancy. A quantity of pure barley was kneaded with milk, a little salt and without any leaven. The resulting dough was then rolled up in greased paper and baked among cinders. When fully baked, the bread was taken out and rubbed with verbena leaves. The loaf was then cut into pieces and fed to the suspects. Those that were guilty, it was believed, would be unable to eat it.
The practice of Alphitomancy became so renowned and prominent in the Middle Ages that after a while it was not just applied for people suspected of crimes, but it was also used to test the faithfulness of a mistress, a husband, or a wife.
A popular story says that in Lavinium, near Rome, in a legendary sacred forest, Alphitomancy was practiced in order to test the purity of the local women. The tale goes that in this forest dwelled certain priests who kept a divinatory serpent, or, as some say, a dragon, in a cavern in the woods. On certain days of the year the young women were sent thither, blind-folded, and carrying a cake made of barley flour and honey. The devil, we are told, led them by the right road. Those who were innocent had their cakes eaten by the serpent, while the cakes of the guilty ones were refused.
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Sources: (1) Dunwich, Gerina, A Wiccan's Guide to Prophecy and Divination, Carol Publishing Group; (2) Spence, Lewis, An Encyclopedia of Occultism, Carol Publishing Group; (3) Dictionary of the Occult, Caxton Publishing; (4) Pickover, Clifford A., Dreaming the Future: The Fantastic Story of Prediction, Prometheus Books; (5) Shepard, Leslie A and Melton, J. Gordon (Editors), Encyclopedia of Occultism and Parapsychology, Gale Group; (6) Smedley, Edward and Taylor, W. Cooke, The Occult Sciences: Sketches of the Traditions And Superstitions of Past Times And the Marvels of the Present Day (1855), Kessinger Publishing.
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