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As you measure your waist after eating two doughnuts and see that conversely you've lost two inches without dieting, you think, what a good omen, and wonder where the packet has gone and if eating anymore doughnuts will continue pressing home your unusual anti-diet diet advantage. Unfortunately your new skirt is now far too big and slips over your hips, which is a good omen for those who love to go shopping and a bad omen for their bank managers.

Our ancient ancestors looked out for omens, signs from the gods of what the future presaged, with the same interest and conviction that we read newspapers today. In the good old, bad old days, our prime minister would have had the gizzards of a free range Waitrose chicken examined to advice him, before making his prime ministerial decisions. If our dearly beloved leader had been an ancient Roman, he would have called upon haruspices to sacrifice the chicken and read it's entrails to divine the exact course for him to take before prime ministers question time in the House of Commons. Or if he preferred he would have used augers to interpret the flight of birds and upon this formed his foreign policy. In ancient Rome, people liked both types of divination equally, they were an integral part of their religion and for a tough decision, even greater than what should I wear in the morning, you might have employed both types of fortune telling. The Roman army, who depended on auguries for their decisions, carried with them wherever they went, a sacred chicken. This birdy was fed upon cake and if the chook decided not to eat the proffered cake crumbled for her by the nice general, the omens were bad. A consul, Claudius Pulcher, at the naval battle of Drepanum in 249 BC, is reported to have got so irate and frustrated with a sacred chicken for refusing it's high tea cake, he cast it into the sea. Romans didn't like this and blamed Claudius for having ignored the bad omen of a satiated sacred chicken and the following naval defeat by the Carthaginians. Which is a wise warning for all of us, be nice to sacred and dyspeptic chickens. It gives one pause for thought, that the Roman invasion of Britain must have got the final go-ahead from a cake hungry hen.

But as afore mentioned, what was considered a good omen to some might be shuddered at by their enemies; the sacred chicken presaged a happy day for the Carthaginians if not the Romans. But the Romans took their omens very seriously indeed and new laws might be repealed if the omens hadn't first been read.


It was a bad year for vestal virgins when in 114 BC, a vestal was struck by lightening. Rome quaked at the horrific news that a girl, who was a living symbol of Roman religion, had been burnt to a crisp by the gods! What did this terrible omen mean, Roman society shuddered and wondered in fear? They came to the conclusion that the girl must have been guilty of losing her virginity to a Lothario and so had been justly punished by the immortal gods. Suddenly a rash of libidinous vestal virgins, kicking up their heels and throwing off their virginity with wild abandon, led the Romans to convict them. With growing concern the ruling body, the Senate, conjectured what this presaged, it was a national crisis. The Senate decided to read the Sibylline Books, a Greek prophetess' collection of prophetic warnings, which they read for guidance, whenever a national disaster struck. The books informed them of the gruesome way they might allay the anger of the gods at the vestal virgins hedonistic cavortings. One Gallic couple and one Greek couple were taken and buried alive.

Astrology has always believed that great events on earth are presaged in the heavens. It is a cross cultural idea that comets, lunar eclipses, and the full moon may be thought astrologically to warn of great or dire things to come. In the Bible, in the book of Matthew, the three Magi predict the birth of Christ by the new star that appears in the sky. King Herod thought the Christ child was a threat to his rule and wanted the child killed. This new Star of Bethlehem led the three wise men, or astrologers, to find the child but instead of slaughtering the new born babe, they paid homage to him.

The idea of natural phenomena having a divinable meaning started with the Etruscans who loved their animal liver readings; dodging lightening in order to read what it meant; the idea that it meant that staying in doors was a good thing during a lightening storm, didn't seem to occur to many a singed Etruscan. The Etruscans developed a whole scientific system of divining omens, which we took from the Romans. In Shakespeare we see that our Tudor ancestors gave credence to the idea that nature, weather and storms foretold of cataclysmic events, paralleled in their own lives and the state. Eclipses to them were harbingers of many a nasty happening to come, the doom and disaster Express, now standing at platform 13. In Shakespeare's play King Lear, Edmund says,

'This is the excellent foppery of the world, that, when we are sick in fortune, often the surfeit of our own behaviour, we make guilty of our disasters the sun, the moon, and the stars; as if we were villains on necessity; fools by heavenly compulsion; knaves, thieves, and treachers by spherical pre-dominance; drunkards, liars, and adulterers by an enforc'd obedience of planetary influence; and all that we are evil in, by a divine thrusting on. An admirable evasion of whore-master man, to lay his goatish disposition to the charge of a star! My father compounded with my mother under the Dragon's Tail, and my nativity was under Ursa Major, so that it follows I am rough and lecherous. Fut! I should have been that I am, had the maidenliest star in the firmament twinkled on my bastardizing.'

While in the same play the character Gloucester says: 'These late eclipses in the sun and moon portend no good to us. Though the wisdom of nature can reason it thus and thus, yet nature finds itself scourg'd by the sequent effects. Love cools, friendship falls off, brothers divide. In cities, mutinies; in countries, discord; in palaces, treason; and the bond crack'd 'twixt son and father. '

Omens of death were researched in 1889 by the Society for Psychical Research, who carried out a statistical analysis called the Census of Hallucinations. This census collated information on the percentage of the nation who, whilst totally healthy in mind and body, had experienced extrasensory perceptions. The perceptions they recorded included powerful and realistic impressions of seeing, hearing or being touched by a seemingly living apparition, which could not be put down to any external factor.

The 17,000 responses from those taking part, were evaluated and it was found that these omens of death were correct in 30 times in 1,300 of seen apparitions which apparently is 1 in 43. If these coincidences of death following the apparitions had been merely chance, the proportion of apparition to death would have been a mere 1 in 19,000 cases. Following these findings the Society drew the obvious conclusion that there is a strong link between seeing an apparition and the death of an individual, which is evidentially not due to chance.

It was found that the apparition is the most proven form of death omen, although the apparition may not be of the actual person dying or about to die but rather confusingly, of someone else. The death omen may also take the form of a sudden severe depression or other oddly overwhelming feeling that has no obvious cause.

Some omens it seems are still trying to make themselves heard, though we may no longer consult them. They push themselves forward and intrude on the peace of our lives with ghastly phantasms of deaths to come, how very pushy and unbritish of them! They ought to knock quietly and then make us a nice cup of tea with biscuits before gently asking if we want the bad news - they are the omen someone is about to die - or the good news, this time, it's not us, so get on your dancing shoes, forget the poor soul on their way out and live now, or forever hold your peace...

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