What is a Prophecy?

Mary McMahon

Prophets and prophecy are an important part of human history and culture. A prophecy is simply a prediction about something that is going to happen, usually spoken by an authority such as a priest, shaman, or another type of mystic. Prophecies range from the mundane to the fantastic, and have been around as long as humans have, in an attempt to understand the deeper mysteries of life. Technically anyone could experience a premonition or forewarning of an event, but most prophetic traditions believe that only unique individuals can voice a genuine prophecy.

Many primitive religions contain the concept of prophecy, usually carried out by a shaman.
Many primitive religions contain the concept of prophecy, usually carried out by a shaman.

While prophets and soothsayers are often dismissed as crazy in modern industrialized culture, they once held immense power in their societies and were revered by people of all classes. Many prophets were associated with religions; the Ancient Greeks, for example, sought to understand the will of the gods through the oracles who resided at the temple of Delphi, while Romans used temple augurs to seek out information about future events. More ancient religions included priests and priestesses who entered sacred trances to communicate with the gods and relay information to the people in the form of a prophecy. Many primitive and animist religions also contain the concept of prophecy and soothsaying, usually carried out by a priest, witch doctor, or shaman.

Like Christianity and Judaism, Islam incorporates much from the teachings of the prophet Abraham.
Like Christianity and Judaism, Islam incorporates much from the teachings of the prophet Abraham.

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Prophecy is not restricted to pagan or ancient religions; most modern day Christians, for example, read a holy text which is filled with prophets and prophecies, and many of them are waiting for a prophesied Second Coming of Christ. Monotheistic religions such as Christianity, Judaism and Islam include prophets such as John the Baptist, Noah, Abraham, Moses, and Mohammad, who are believed to have spoken directly with God. The wise words of these Biblical and Qu'ranic figures are taken seriously by adherents to those religions, and included in teachings and lessons related to these religions.

Moses is believed to have spoken directly to God.
Moses is believed to have spoken directly to God.

Pagan prophecy is usually associated with a state of ecstasy accomplished through meditation, pushing the body to extreme limits with fasting, or drugs. Only certain individuals are prophets, and they are selected on the basis of abilities which are often revealed early in life. The prophet enters a state of trance and then relays messages, sometimes in a clear form like “Beware the Ides of March” and sometimes in a more abstract format which takes the form of a riddle which must be unraveled. Some prophets use tools to focus such as tarot cards, scying glasses, or crystal balls, while others rely on their connection with the divine for a prophecy.

Tarot cards are commonly used prophetically.
Tarot cards are commonly used prophetically.

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Discussion Comments


@frankjoseph - I think you make a very good point. Much of the Torah, or Old Testament can seem quite harsh and baneful to an unaccustomed reader, but when we think of the prophecies therein as helpful and necessary warnings, it helps us to realize that these prophets weren't simply hurling "fire and brimstone," but were instead seeking to serve their people by outlining the results of their actions in turning away from Yahweh.

I think this is a point that many modern day "prophets" miss, who often simply foretell the destruction of the world or try to scare people into shedding some cash to assuage their fears.


Different religions may have different meanings they ascribe to the meaning of "prophecy." Judaism, for example, is said to use the word for foretell rather than forewarn. The distinction may seem rather nuanced, and it probably is, but I think, the distinction is meant to say that Judaism, or at least some sects of Judaism, have a stronger belief in free will and therefore the prophets (nevi'im) would forewarn, not foretell, because it wasn't a foregone conclusion that their subject of their "telling" was necessarily going to come true.

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