(n.) a form of divination in which a random passage of poetry is said to foretell the future
An odd term from the word of divination and fortune-telling proved popular on HH this week: rhapsodomancy is the act of foretelling the future by randomly selecting a line from a book of poetry, and interpreting a prognostication from it.
And on Twitter, we explained that this process typically involved allowing the book of poetry to fall open on a random page.
First recorded in English in 1728, as a process of divination rhapsodomancy has its roots in an earlier divinatory procedure known as sortes. Derived from the Latin word for a lot (in the sense of a chance, as in a lottery), sortes likewise involved opening or allowing a book to fall open on a random page—though precisely which book was involved was often more specifically proscribed. In sortes Biblicae, it was a copy of the Bible. In sortes Homericae, it was an edition of Homer. In sortes Virgilianae, it was a copy of Virgil’s works. In rhapsodomancy, all that matters is that the book is a poetry book—which brings us to the word itself.
Words like rhapsodomancy (plus its more familiar cousin rhapsody) derive from rhapsoidia, an Ancient Greek word for an epic poem. Someone who recited those poems was a rhapsodos, which literally means “one who stitches” or sews things together; presumably, the original allusion here was to a performer running seamlessly from one verse of some great epic tale into another, rather than switching between shorter, individual works, verses, or authors.