This year, to celebrate the height of winter and the transition from one year to the next, our family tested the ancient European tradition of molybdomancy, a ritual with roots in Germanic and Etruscan cultures, among others. Some people say that molybdomancy is a form of fortune telling, but my opinion is that it’s much more than that.
The basic idea of molybdomancy is to drop molten metal into a basin of cold water. The metal freezes back into solid form very quickly, but almost never in simple shapes. The motion of the drops of liquid metal as they resolidify results in beautifully contorted shapes. The fortune telling portion of the molybdomancy ritual involves the interpretation of these shapes as omens of events to come in the new year.
My family performed the ritual around our outdoor firepit in the middle of a snowstorm, using tin, which has a low melting point. Held in our roaring campfire on a large steel serving spoon, it took about one minute for our small portions of tin to become fluid. The shape below was among those that I picked out of our water bucket.
I could interpret this shape as a tooth, or a red hot chili pepper. These would be powerful signs of what is to occur in 2014, but I don’t personally believe that literal clues to the future can be found encoded in little bits of tin.
In my view, molybdomancy exemplifies the ritual element of symbolic shuffling, in which multiple symbols are experienced together, often along different dimensions, to create the opportunity for epiphany within a transcendent moment. In molybdomancy, symbols are found not only in the tin shapes found frozen in cold water, but in the process of the melting and resolidifying of the metal itself. The metal acts as a symbol of the identity itself, which becomes fluid within the threshold created by the ritual process, and then is frozen again, but cast into a new shape as the ritual concludes. The melting and freezing of tin, on a snowy night in my Trumansburg woods, represented the liminal moment of the turning of the year, when the identity faces a fresh future once again, with hopes of new shapes in the events to come.