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Design Hydromancy

Lookup NU author(s): Professor Rachel Armstrong



This is the final published version of an article that has been published in its final definitive form by Organs Everywhere, 2017.

For re-use rights please refer to the publisher's terms and conditions.


At a time when a woman was valued by the man she married, and when childbirth was the leading cause of death amongst fertile women—with maternal mortality rates being as high as forty percent in some societies—adolescent girls could glimpse a sense of their fate by walking backwards up a staircase at nighttime, holding a candle and a vessel of water. A young woman would see in the reflection either the face of the man she would marry, or a skull, which signified that she would die before finding true love. Of course, what the inevitably terrified teenager would see was an incredibly distorted view of her own face. Yet such a familiar image appeared “otherly” under the flickering and inconstant candlelight. Her trembling hand inevitably sent waves across the reflective surface twisting its contours, and the rush of air that passed through the stairways produced further disturbances that tore the image to shreds. If you’ve ever walked through a hall of mirrors, you’ll know exactly how uncanny, or frightening, such distortions can be. Using reflective surfaces to glimpse alternate realities is an ancient art that Nostradamus himself is reputed to have employed to make his predictions. Practices such as hydromancy, which specifically uses water surfaces as a visualization tool, seek portals that may admit access to other worlds, from which new knowledge can be obtained. The liquid interface takes a symbolic form that can be interpreted by the scryer as omens of things that are yet to come. In many ways, the scryer’s notion of “the future” is very different to the deterministic hypothesis that is characteristic of modern experimental science. While both practices seek to predict events, mathematical projections are reached with trajectories that the average person can do nothing about, because algorithms embody a Platonic truth beyond human reach or influence. In contrast, the scryers empower their clients by presenting them with a set of potentialities. This places the clients in a tangible position of influence, whereby they have a chance to reshape outcomes through remedial action, like the miser Scrooge in Charles Dickens’ cautionary tale A Christmas Carol. Perhaps a young girl confronted by the image of her death may decide to “defy the stars” as Romeo did for the love of Juliet, or “play it safe” and devote herself to a convent. Such approaches do not make decision-making easy, or reduce risks, but scryers do give a measure of power back to their clients, and that is presumably why their services were much sought-after.

Publication metadata

Author(s): Armstrong R

Publication type: Article

Publication status: Published

Journal: Organs Everywhere

Year: 2017

Issue: 5

Pages: 100-107

Online publication date: 13/07/2017

Acceptance date: 01/01/2016

Date deposited: 16/03/2016

Publisher: Organs Everywhere