"Broaden your minds, my dears, and allow your eyes to see past the mundane!"
-- Sibyll Trelawney
Divination is magic which attempts to foresee future events. Many in the wizarding world consider this branch of magic to be imprecise at best.
There are several types of Divination. The most imprecise is what is commonly known as “fortunetelling,” and this is what Trelawney teaches at Hogwarts. This involves such methods as tea leaf reading, gazing into crystal balls, and so on.
The second kind of Divination is what is practiced by the centaurs. When Firenze started teaching Divination classes in the spring of 1996, he taught these techniques, although they were mostly lost on the human students in his classes. These methods involve the burning of herbs and meditation to focus one’s thoughts. Centaur divination places importance on observation of the stars and planets.
The third type of Divination is called Seeing. This is true Divination, although what the Seer reveals is usually in the form of a Prophecy which then itself requires some interpretation. A Seer, one who possesses the Inner Eye, doesn’t seem to have control over their Seeing. Trelawney, for example, only made actual Prophecies twice, although she made plenty of claims about everything from troubles ahead for various students to Neville breaking a teacup. In each case when she made an actual Prophecy, Trelawney went into a trance and spoke in a completely different voice. Both times, after speaking the Prophecy, she didn’t remember a thing about it. (PA16, OP37, HBP25)
Criminal mastermind of the early 20th century Gellert Grindelwald had abilities as a Seer, but had problems interpreting his visions with precise clarity. Arriving in New York City in 1926, he had experienced a vision of a child possessing “immense power” close to Mary Lou Barebone, a leader of the Second Salem anti-magic movement. Disguising himself as Auror Percival Graves, he befriended her oldest child Credence, the “key” of his vision, sensing that he had a repressed magical lineage. But Credence was older than the child seen in his vision, so Graves/Grindelwald used him to investigate orphans who came to Second Salem Church for food and to fold fliers to hand out on the streets. After Mary Lou was killed and the church destroyed by an Obscurial’s power, he rejected Credence as a weak Squib, suddenly believing that the youngest Barebone, Modesty, must have been the child seen in his vision. As they hunted her down, Credence became infuriated and attacked Graves/Grindelwald, as well as destroying much of New York City. Grindelwald was arrested by Aurors and jailed, a future he apparently did not foresee (WFT).
True Seeing is very rare, but it has happened plenty of times over the centuries. There is a huge cathedral-sized room of the Department of Mysteries where records of thousands of Prophecies are stored in glass spheres. Each sphere is labeled with the initials of the Seer who spoke the Prophecy and the person it was spoken to and with the subject of the Prophecy. The record of the first Prophecy Trelawney made, which was spoken to Albus Dumbledore, was labelled as follows:
S.P.T. to A.P.W.B.D.
Dark Lord and (?)Harry Potter (OP34, OP35)
History and Notes
Rowling's comment from Twitter:
— J.K. Rowling (@jk_rowling) March 2, 2016
References from the canon
The "real thing"?
While most of what Trelawney teaches seems to be just "lucky guesswork and a spooky manner," as Harry thinks (GF13), there are instances of actual prescience and prediction in the books.
- Harry's dreams
- Trelawney's two correct predictions, according to Dumbledore
- the centaurs' comments in the forest ("Mars is bright tonight!")
- Is this the real thing? Trelawney began the first class with a series of predictions. Did they come true? Here's the list:
- (to Neville) "Is your grandmother well?...I wouldn't be so sure."
- (to Parvati) "Beware a red-haired man."
- "Classes will be disrupted in February by a nasty bout of flu. I myself will lose my voice."
- "Around Easter, one of our number will leave us forever."
- (to Lavender) "That thing you are dreading--it will happen on Friday, the sixteenth of October."
- (to Neville) "After you've broken your first cup, would you be so kind as to select one of the blue patterned ones?"
- (to Neville) "You'll be late next time, so mind you work extra-hard to catch up."
- Gellert Grindelwald's vision of a powerful child near Mary Lou Barebone, as he explains to her son Credence: "My vision showed only the child’s immense power. He or she is no older than ten, and I saw this child in close proximity to your mother—she I saw so plainly. ...There is something else. Something I haven’t told you. I saw you beside me in New York. You’re the one that gains this child’s trust. You are the key—I saw this."