Since time immemorial, humans have sought to predict important events before they happen. They studied the night sky, weather patterns, animal behaviors or various objects to identify signs and patterns, then interpreted them to foretell upcoming occurrences. These practices evolved into the art of divination whereby individuals gifted with psychic understanding could look into the past, present and future.
Lampadomancy is a form of divination which uses the flames from a lamp or a torch to foresee the future. The term owes to Greek origins, lampas which means light and manteia which means prophecy. In using the flame as a tool of divination, lampadomancy is quite similar to lychnomancy or lychnoscopy; in the latter case, candles are used in the method of divination and sometimes the ritual specifically calls for three identical lighted candles placed in the shape of a triangle. The shapes and flickering movements of the flames are then observed by the seers and predictions for the future. However in case of lampadomancy, the flame from only a single torch or lamp is used for divination.
In the most common form of lampadomancy, the diviner would light a specially consecrated lamp and then note the shape, the color and the movements of the flame in order to read omens for the future. According to common interpretations of the time a single point on the flame stood for good fortune while two points on the flame presaged bad luck. A bent flame was seen as a sign of illness while sparks emanating from the flame of the lamp could mean that news was pending. During the performance of lampadomancy if the flame was extinguished without any obvious cause, it was considered a very bad omen, predicting major misfortune or even death.
In one of the variations of lampadomancy, the diviner used the lamp as a means of "attracting spirits to the flames", in the hope of consulting them about future events. In this method, usually a specially designed lamp would be employed, in the belief that unusual or even grotesque forms would more readily attract the spirits to the lamp.
According to one version of lampadomancy and lychnomancy, paper sheets were held over the flame so that carbon would be deposited; then the diviner made a reading of the carbon spots in order to find the answer to a complex question or to predict the future.
Lampadomancy was supposed to be a revered form of divination among the ancient Egyptians. The diviners would perform it at midday in a darkened room illuminated by a single lamp filled with oasis oil. The priests in ancient Egypt also held a "Feast of Lamps," at which many rites were performed, including those that were used to divine the future.
In Eastern cultures, the lamp figures prominently as a marker of holy occasions or sacred rituals. Among Hindus, the festival of Diwali is even now celebrated with the lighting of oil lamp before the goddess Lakshmi and the god Ganesha. In some regions, lighted lamps are set sail on the river or holy tanks – if they remain upright it is considered a good sign but if they turn it could presage misfortune. In fact certain Hindu scriptures have detailed instructions on how to prepare lamps for divination as well as interpretations from the behavior of the flames. According to these instructions, lamp used for divination should be without any imperfections and made of gold, silver or any other precious metal. The wick to be lighted should be made from a dry and odorless piece of wood, which is neither too thick nor too thin, with a height reaching up to the brim and should be placed in the centre of the lamp. Before lighting, barley should be heaped into the bowl of the lamp and then melted, purified butter poured over it. After the recitation of appropriate chants, the diviner is supposed to think of the question to which he/she wants the answer. Upon the lighting of the lamp, the nature and behavior of the flame is then observed. A globular point of the flame denotes safety, a conch shape represents fame, a bright yellow flame indicates absence of obstacles, while shapes like lotus and jewel like mean wealth. If the flame appears with a hook shaped tip it means that one will become powerful and one with two points signifies that the person will leave for another place.
However if the light of the lamp is dim and the flame splutters, it means the arrival of an enemy or that he or she is about to receive a guest from someplace faraway. A flame separating into two parts indicates separation within one's family. Also the appearance of a dark red flame could imply a death in the family while the middle of the flame turning red and smoke coming from the wick could indicate loss of property. Like in other conventions of lampadomancy, here too the lamp going out without apparent reason usually means imminent death.
The lamp has always existed as a significant object in various cultures, probably because of its function of illumination. Just like the lamp lights up space and banishes darkness, it was also considered to be able to destroy evil and usher in the light of knowledge which is why many Oriental cultures light lamps to mark holy occasions and festivals. Also the lighting properties of the lamp could also be seen as a way to illuminate the past, present and future, which formed the basis of the practice of lampadomancy. In other areas of popular culture too, like wish-fulfillment, the lamp was considered a magical object and evidence of this lies in the number of popular stories where the act of rubbing a special lamp leads a grants several wishes to a person. In all these ways, it is evident that the lamp has been invested with great symbolic value since the ancient times and thus it is only natural that the flame from a lamp be used purposes of divination as in lampadomancy.