As soccer fans worldwide follow the wins and losses of their favorite teams in the World Cup, a new breed of animals is predicting the match outcomes. Actually several different breeds: First it was just a psychic octopus named Paul (above), but now a whole menagerie has gotten into the act.

As Ishmael Daro of noted:

“For Day 6 of the World Cup, the search company Google paid tribute to Paul the ‘psychic’ octopus who became a global superstar for his successful predictions in the 2010 tournament, putting him in an animated ‘doodle’ on the homepage Tuesday. It shows a befuddled octopus atop some fluffy clouds with a halo around his head, trying to choose between the flags of Belgium and Algeria.  
Paul—who was kept at the Sea Life Centre in Oberhausen, Germany—had a remarkable run as a soothsayer during two major soccer tournaments, the 2008 Euro co-hosted by Austria and Switzerland and the 2010 World Cup in South Africa. Before each game, the cephalopod was presented with two clear boxes marked with different nations’ flags and each containing food. Whichever box he swam into was then considered his prediction, and over the course of his career he had an impressive record of 12 out of 14 correct predictions.”

It’s all in good fun — at least until people bet their hard-earned money on the pets’ picks — though there is a long tradition of people thinking that animals really do have some sort of psychic or prophetic powers, including of course a famous groundhog (usually wrongly) predicting the first day of spring…

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Alectryomancy: Animal Divination

The tradition of predicting the future based on animal behavior dates back millennia, and term for it is alectryomancy.

Eva Shaw, in her book “Divining the Future: Prognostication from Astrology to Zoomancy,” notes:

“The ancient Babylonians used a variation of alectryomancy. By splashing water three times on a sleeping ox’s head, a psychic could divine the future through 17 possible reactions and types of response. Each reaction had its own meaning. For example if both eyes remained open the answer was yes; if only one eye stayed open the answer was maybe. The answer was no — or there was no answer at all — if the eyes stayed closed.”

If you wake a sleeping ox by splashing cold water on its face and it gores you in the stomach with its horns, it means you shouldn’t do that again.

There are countless ancient omens derived from animals. For example encountering a black cat is widely believed to bring bad luck, as does hearing a bat squeak as it flies by. Other animals are said to bring good luck should you chance up them, including oxen, hedgehogs, bees, crickets, ladybugs,and squirrels.

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Omens and superstitions aside, people have always been fascinated by apparently amazing animal acts. In his book “Learned Pigs and Fireproof Women,” magic historian Ricky Jay describes a wide variety of animals exhibited over the past 200 years with amazing abilities.

In 1817, for example, a London advertisement touted a flock of sparrows which, “having finished their Education at the University of Oxford” taking over three years of study “are now perfect in the following seven languages: Chinese, English, French, German, Italian, Russian and Spanish.”

It’s not clear how these small birds managed to demonstrate their mastery of so many languages before a paying audience, though they could also tell time: “A Watch being shown to the Bird, the little animal will tell the Hour and every Quarter.” The bird also performed other tricks of dubious authenticity. Jay also recounts stories of pigs that appeared to solve math problems, tell time and correctly select a card thought of by a member of the audience.

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As for the World Cup, even though Paul is gone other animals are at it. A turtle named Big Head correctly predicted Brazil’s victory over Croatia in the opening game of the World Cup, swimming in a pool under a banner with both the Brazilian and the Croatian flags and heading toward the Brazilian side.

It should be noted that a review of the footage of Big Head’s pick reveals that there was a spinning, splashing soccer ball and a kneeling person — perhaps with food — just a few feet away on the side of the pool with the Brazilian flag, which may have unfairly drawn his attention.

There are various other World Cup predicting animals including a camel named Shaheen, an elephant named Nelly, a dog named Roy Dog-son, and of course Pele the Psychic Piranha. Not everyone is amused by the interest, though. Officials at a Chinese research park have forbidden panda cubs from being asked to predict sporting events, fearing it encouraged too much contact with avaricious human gamblers.

With rampant allegations of match-fixing in professional soccer, it is of course possible that Paul, Shaheen, Pele, and the others are making their correct predictions based upon insider information provided by organized crime syndicates. Yet we need not malign the reputations of these prophetic pets, for there may be a simpler explanation. With enough animals making enough predictions, some will seem to be superstar psychics merely by random chance.

Photo: Corbis