Last night I had the great pleasure to take part in a group poetry reading sponsored by an organization called Eat Local::Read Local, run by two fantastic UW-Milwaukee students. During my set I read a poem called “Sciomancy” from Photographing Eden. I selected that because at the recent AWP conference in Seattle I went to an off-site reading in which one participant, Miriam Bird Greenberg, also read a poem with that title, and it was the only other time I’d ever heard anyone use that term.

Oddly enough, the very next reader last night, Noel Pabillo Mariano, was also set to read a poem with that very same title. My odds for winning the Nobel this year must be better than that. Shocked himself, he retitled his poem, at least temporarily, “Umbra.” Though I think the world can stand a few more poems called Sciomancy.

So, what is that? Divination by shadows. From the Greek, skia (shadow) + manteia (divination [well obviously]). In the way I use it, it’s foretelling the future by the shape and movement of a person or, I suppose, an object’s shadow. But there is also a meaning of divination via communication with ghosts.

I had hopes of finding a reference to its use in some ancient piece of literature, but there weren’t any to be found in my not very exhaustive search. Except, at least in the second sense of the word: The Witch of Endor. In 1 Samuel 28, Saul asks a witch to raise the spirit of the recently dead prophet Samuel to tell him what will happen in his war with the Philistines. It doesn’t work out too well for Saul. Whenever I read about this incident though I can’t help but think of the forest moon of the planet Endor in Star Wars, and suddenly miniature upright-walking bears are running around the Bible.

A Google search on the term brought me to, among other places, the work of artist Rachel Phillips. Her series of “Divinations”–using 19th century cabinet cards as a basis for photographic manipulation–is really quite wonderful. The shadow puppet rabbits for the “Sciomancy” image are apt for a reason that I think is perhaps not obvious: the correlation of rabbits with magic (as in Watch me pull a rabbit out of my hat…). Which brings me back to the x-ray photography of Hugh Turvey, his xograms. [See image 10 in the slideshow.] The idea of an x-ray of a rabbit in a hat is so marvelous. Is the rabbit in there? Will the magician produce the white fluffy furball? Aha! I’m surprised I’ve not seen a connection made between this magic act and Schrodinger’s Cat.

Poor shadows. They never get to see the sun.

jmgray