Coscinomancy is a form of divination utilising a sieve and shears.
Derived from the Greek koskinomantis a diviner using a sieve.
The word is mention by a number of Ancient Greek writers, including Philippides, Julius Pollux, Lucianus and, most famously, Theocritus. Theocritus, in his third Idyllion, mentions a woman who was very skillful in it. It was not only used to find out persons unknown, but also to discover secrets. In medieval and early modern Europe and 17th century New England, it was used to determine the guilty party in a criminal offense, find answers to questions, etc.
One method of practising coscinomancy is clearly outlined in chapter xxi. of Cornelius Agrippa's Libri tres de occulta philosophia, 1533. A sieve or strainer is clipped between the spread blades of a pair of shears, or large scissors. The handles of the shears are then pressed in opposite directions by two different persons, using their respective thumbs or fingers until the sieve begins to turn. If the sieve trembles, shakes, or turns, when any name is repeated, the person is deemed guilty.
There has been some speculation about the manner in which the sieve was to be held by the shears, with some writers suggesting that a piece of thread was used. In the 1567 edition of Agrippa's works there is a picture showing exactly this. It is clear that the sieve was suspended from the shears in such a way that the cutting edges of the blades made tangents to the outer rim of the sieve. Thus suspended the sieve is capable of some sideways movement, or even of dropping. The sieve was held by the two middle fingers only making it almost impossible to keep the sieve still for any length of time and thus ensuring a prognostication. The complicating factor is that in the Latin text accompanying the picture the sieve is said to “turn around” (circum agatur), which clearly it cannot do unless held at two diametrically opposite points on the outer rim.
Saunders, in his Chiromancy, and Agrippa, at the end of his works, give certain mystic words to be pronounced before the sieve will turn. It was employed to discover love secrets as well as unknown persons. According to Grose, a chapter in the Bible is to be read, and the appeal made to Saint Peter or Saint Paul. Agrippa believed that the movement of the sieve was performed by a Demon, and that the conjuration Dies, mies, jeschet, benedoefet, dowima, enitemaus actually compelled the Demon to perform the task. He further notes that the words of this conjuration were understood neither by the speaker nor anyone else (nec sibi ipsis, nec aliis intellectua).
“…the sieve is suspended by tongs or pincers [forcipes], which are supported by the middle fingers of two assistants. So may be discovered, by the help of the Demon [daemone urgente], those who have committed a crime or theft or inflicted some wound. The conjuration consists of six words—understood neither by those who speak them nor by others—with are DIES, MIES, JESCHET, BENEDOEFET, DOWIMA, and ENITEMAUS; once these are uttered they compel the Demon to cause the sieve, suspended by its pincers, to turn the moment the name of the guilty person is pronounced (for all the suspected persons must be named), and thus the culprit is instantly known. . . . More than thirty years since I made use of this manner of divination three times; the first time was on the occasion of a theft which had been committed; the second on account of certain nets or snares of mine used for catching birds being destroyed by some envious one; and the third in order to find a lost dog which belonged to me and by which I set great store. In every said attempt my fortune was to succeed; yet I stopped notwithstanding after that last time for fear lest the Demon should entangle me in his snares” — Quoted in Grillot de Givry, trans. J. Courtenay Locke, Witchcraft Magic and Alchemy (reprinted New York: Dover Publications, 1971), pp. 300-301.
Other references to coscinomancy can be found in François Rabelais' Pantagruel (1532: III. xxv.); Johann Weyer's De Praestigiis Daemonum et Incantationibus ac Venificiis (1583: xii.); and Barten Holyday's Technogamia, or the Marriage of the Arts (1618: II. iii. ll. 89-146 (G2v)).