And here we go, again, it’s that time of year. A time of reminiscence, yes, especially for those whom we have lost, but also one of hope and future. Indeed, as soon as the days start getting longer, on the twelfth day after the solstice, the tradition on Prince Edward Island is for certain worthies to open up their homes or places of work in order to host a levee.

The levee is an annual gathering held on New Year’s Day. It comes from the French lever, which means to lift or rise, and is grounded in the tradition of Kings meeting with courtiers and other petitioners as they got dressed. The term was recorded by Catherine de’ Medici, Louis XIV (who had both a grand lever and a petit lever, a system which helped differentiate between the ‘in’ crowd and others), and Charles II (who introduced it as an English tradition in 1672).

It has now evolved into a reception, where the host (Lieutenant-Governor, Premier, Mayor, University President, etc.) stands in a receiving line and welcomes those who attend by shaking hands or, more commonly these days, bumping fists or elbows. Hugging and kissing are no longer encouraged. Guests mill around, chatting to others and enjoying the food and drink provided, then leave and head off to the next one on their list. Where they often meet many of the same people again.

For many Islanders, and for Come From Aways who have embraced the tradition, the custom of travelling from place to place on January 1st, greeting each other and enjoying refreshments, signals the start of a new year. It’s something that has apparently been taking place on PEI since 1854.

This year the levees started again, after a two-year hiatus due to COVID, with thirty-five to choose from, but we only went to three. It’s always a delight to see people whom you might not have seen since last year and to drink moose milk, an ungodly concoction of eggnog and rum. In addition to the traditional “how are you?” and “what are you up to these days” questions, we were faced with “what are your New Year Resolutions?” and “what do you predict will happen in the world this year?”

It’s been human nature since the early days for humankind to be inquisitive about the future. Celtic druids practised ornithomancy, the interpretation of the behavior of birds, and the old shamans of Canadian First Nations used the shoulder blades of caribou and porcupines for scapulimancy. Not too many people follow the ways of the Etruscans these days, fresh sheep livers are so difficult to source, and so hieromancy is on the decline. This I find sad.

I had to look up Piacenza on a map and was interested to discover that it is only 60 kilometres or so from Parma, along the A1. That’s a straight road, considering that it’s a motorway and wasn’t built by the Romans. Anyway, Parma, of course, is famous both for its ham (Prosciutto di Parma) and its cheese (Parmigiano Reggiano), which we used to sell at the market. I wonder if the two communities ever spoke to each other, back in the day. If there was ever a shortage of sheep liver, the seers could have always considered tyromancy, the art (science?) of using cheese to foretell the future.

Apparently the most popular process was for young women to etch the names of various prospective beaus onto slices of cheese, then leave them (the cheese slices, not the beaus) in a cool dark place. The slice which grew mold the quickest revealed the name of the person she was going to marry. I wish I’d known this earlier; that would have been a marvellous marketing strategy for the Charlottetown Cheese Company to implement in early February.

Such future-casting is part of the warp and weft of our lives. Just the other day I was sitting on the deck of a friend’s house, drinking coffee and chatting about the weather, when he mentioned that there appeared to be more geese than usual staying around longer this year. “It’s a sign of a short winter,” he said. “If they don’t leave soon, they’ll pass themselves coming back.” I had never realized he was a druid. That same afternoon I saw a robin sitting in the tree outside my daughter’s place, and a friend of hers reports that they have a Baltimore Oriole at their feeder. The bird, not the baseball player. Although that would also be a sign of a mild winter and an early spring.

Like many, I had found myself spending those damp dull days of late December reading the tealeaves or the chicken bones or the newspapers to try and determine what the new year will bring. Young people, being modern, no doubt rely on algorithms and AI, but the goal is the same. What’s going to happen this year?

It’s a futile exercise, of course. A year ago, who among us predicted that there would be a full-scale war in Europe? That the COVID19 pandemic would morph through Omicron to whatever variants are stalking us now? That there would be global inflation at levels not seen for nearly half a century? That we would experience a series of “once in a century” extreme weather events such as floods, forest fires, hurricanes, and blizzards?

That said, many of the issues we face are known to us, however we might choose to divine them. Personally, I use a variety of news media, rather than sheep livers or porcupine scapula or cheese, although I have been known to look to ornithomancy in the short-term. Two years ago, I identified six broad issues which I felt would impact our lives in 2021 and beyond.

I regret that I can repeat that list here as though it were new ideas:

  • Climate change.
  • COVID19 pandemic.
  • Economic, social, and racial inequality.
  • Global human migrations.
  • Militarization of space.
  • Political and trade relationships with other nations.

(Blog, January 23rd, 2021)

The problem, it seems to me, is not so much the identification of the issue but the action that ought to follow. When a shaman determined that the caribou were going to be coming early one year, the hunters made sure they were ready. When it was indicated that a neighbouring tribe were going to become difficult, defences were established. In essence, divination led to decisiveness.

And that, these days, is sadly missing.

There will be a provincial election on Prince Edward Island this year. It is tentatively scheduled for 2 October, although the Premier can call it at any time before then. Although the last two issues on my list are really more the purview of the federal government, the first four are of great significance to Islanders.

It would be so refreshing to have a campaign that focused on the ways in which these matters were going to be addressed. Like others, I have so many questions that I would like to be answered, questions which are PEI-centric in some ways and yet globally applicable in others. In the interest of space, I shall restrict myself to six.

  • Will there be new laws or policies regarding the building of homes (or shops or factories or anything) in known flood zones or within a certain distance of the high tide line and, if so, what are they?
  • Are there any plans to try and mitigate future power outages by burying the lines underground and, if so, who will pay for this?
  • To what extent are clinics, nursing homes, and hospitals going to be staffed to the extent required to serve a growing (and aging) population?
  • How and to what extent will the government take responsibility for ensuring that low-cost accommodation is available to those who are under-employed or otherwise unable to afford a place to live?
  • Are there any plans to introduce a basic living wage on PEI and, if not, why not?
  • What proactive actions are being taken to ensure that the growing number of people seeking a new life on PEI have opportunities to find appropriate housing, employment, and health care?

It would be very helpful to see what differences, if any, exist between the various political parties with respect to these issues. What will happen if Party X gets elected instead of Party Y – could we expect any actual and discernible differences in policy, in action?

Please feel free to adapt these questions to your local context, and to address them to your elected representatives. They may legitimately claim to have no jurisdiction over matters related to the militarization of space or political relationships with other nations, but they ought to have a position on those things that will directly impact our lives. As electors, we may not agree with those positions, but we should at least be informed.

Happy New Year!

One thought on “Divination

  1. Hi Tim, Okay, finally read your New Years blog. Thank you so much. I am going to share it with our group of friends who have ongoing political discussions. Although I know some of them get it already (Gavin for example). I especially liked the six questions at the end and will share them with some of the people who are currently undecided with respect to Alberta’s upcoming election. 🤪 And, throughout my reading of this, I was reminded several times of the book I am reading right now. Braiding Sweetgrass by Robin Wall Kimmerer. Have you read it? If you haven’t, the geese play an important role it the book, In my mind it is all really about how we try to predict the future and then what we do with those predictions. Hmm, lots to think about. Thanks for sharing. Louise



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