Smoke Divination: The Art of Capnomancy

Smoke divination

I wasn’t too familiar with smoke divination or capnomancy until about a year ago. I certainly didn’t realize how precise and detailed this would be in regards to my life until I had a reading of Rissa Miller. A writer, scholar and nature lover, Rissa has also been doing tea leaf divination and smoke readings for several years. There are many different ways to approach smoke divination, and we can also incorporate specific plant allies when it comes to burning herbs. You don’t find many people who are really into capnomancy, but Rissa is one of the best, and I’m glad she wanted to share more about it!

Photo courtesy of Rissa Miller

“The soul that cannot bear fire and smoke will not find the secret.” Rumi

Ancient and evocative, the smoke mixes the mundane with an edgy element of danger; after all, where there is smoke, there is always fire. Fire is pure energy and smoke is the embodiment of its massive strength, making caponance, or smoke divination, a powerful reflection for those seeking guidance.

The magic of smoke lies in its lightness, the way it stretches skyward, grants our wishes, even moves the energy of the dead. Smoke has always been used to transport the remains of the deceased, lifting their souls from the physical world during cremation. In many cultures it clears the air and eradicates negativity with energetic cleansing and rituals such as purification. Smoke has a place in all major religions and most indigenous cultures. Literally, the smoke connects the earthly world with a subtle energy.

In divination, capnomance falls into the category of pyromancy, aka fire divination, and dates back to the earliest fires created by mankind. People gathered around a fire, watching its flames, embers and smoke stretch skyward, and looked for messages there. The first recorded capnomancy was in ancient Babylon, around 2000 BC. AD, when cedar burned in ceremonial fires was translated by priests. The Delphic oracles are also said to have used smoke in their vision, as well as the ancient Greeks, who preferred animal sacrifices in their smoke-reading fires. It is believed that the Druids used oak and mistletoe for capnomancy. Another variation was practiced by the Etruscans, who threw various seeds into the fire and omens were interpreted based on the audible sounds of the seeds popping as they burned.

Time has passed and despite countless changes in society, fire and smoke have remained constant in their nature. Reading mystical swirling vapors is like seeing shapes in clouds or peering into water. It is random guessing, and the readings depend on the skill, vision, and ability of the reader.

Photo by Kirsten Weaver

Divination, as I practice it, is a deep reflection on the present, how your past shapes it and how the future will unfold, and the midpoint – now – when you are in control.

Smoke paints a vivid scene, moving in real time with the practitioner’s thoughts and questions. Over the years, I’ve gone from reading smoke in the air to drawing smoke. Using a traditional (i.e. non-smokeless) wick candle, I pass a blank page through the smoke until it fills with shapes made of soot from the smoke . The movements of the smoke create patterns and I use my intuition and analytical skills to observe and interpret the messages in the smoke capture.

Soot tends to offer a deep dive into the seeker’s questions. Often full pictures of relationships and business endeavors unfold, with probable successes and very possible challenges. There are often details: I predicted that a book club would collapse because of toxic members; a divorce involving two daughters; small upstarts that got started; and sadly, even self-destructive addictions and abusive relationships have appeared in the smoke.

Photo courtesy of Rissa Miller

I usually watch the smoke from the candle before it starts, getting an idea of ​​the reading before it starts. It sets the stage for the larger message that unfolds on paper. I use the general observations listed below to get an initial vibe.

When I read smoke on the page or in the air, I look for the same language of symbology that I use for tea leaf readings, which I started developing 30 years ago in my cups of tea. Animals, human figures, letters and numbers, faces, geometry and other details that are completely personal to the individual reading appear regularly. Always, a story unfolds.

Due to its ethereal nature, smoke divination is ideal for breaking through the veil and entering the spirit realm. Want to talk to an ancestor, guide, deceased loved one, or resident ghost? They can speak with smoke, as it is easier for them to manipulate such an ethereal medium. Be sure to put some safeguards in place, though, in case an unexpected entity appears. I’m not kidding when I say this: the smoke first cleans your reading area.

Ready to try? It is essential to trust yourself and let your intuition run free. Smoke can come from incense, burning dried herbs (like sage), outdoor log fires, chimney smoke, or smokeless wick candles. Unfortunately, gas fires are not effective for this.

Photo courtesy of Rissa Miller

Practical advice :

~ Always look at smoke when it is backlit, which means it is brighter behind the smoke than the point you are looking from. Having a darker background also helps.

~ Learning to see smoke can be made easier with modern technology. Use your phone to take a series of photos documenting changes in the smoke, or even videos. Study the shapes in the pictures, which are easier to see in a photo, and soon you will recognize them more easily when they are floating in the air.

~ Never practice capnomany outdoors in windy weather or indoors near air vents or open windows. First of all, it’s not safe. Second, the environment will totally change your reading, rendering it null. Safety is always essential when handing out the fire! Keep enough water on hand to put out accidental fires. Never practice capnomancy on carpets!

~ Lebanonomancy is specifically the reading of incense smoke. It is a comfortable way to practice smoke divination and simplifies adaptation to smoke patterns/behaviours. Try several brands of sticks and cones to find the one that appeals to you the most. Better yet, make your own! Some commercial incenses contain harsh chemicals, and inhaling them too often can be bad for your health/pets. If you plan to use candles, avoid smokeless wicks.

~A few simple smoke gestures to get started:

Directly in one line: Things are constantly moving in your favor

Broken line: Beware, things are not what they seem

Fine smoke: Clear Path, Steady Progress

Heavy Thick Smoke: Expect delays, energy is stuck, languid

Move right: Positive, you are on the right track

Move left: Negative, reconsider your direction

Rolling down: Huge disturbance; like the Tower in the tarot

Roll towards the player: something is coming your way

Moves away from the reader: A situation ends or moves away

If the flames jump/the visible fire jumps: The situation will explode, for better or for worse

If the flames go out on their own: The energy is not aligned; probable failure

Swirls or spiral patterns: Confusion; intentions are unclear

Rising ladder: Hard work ahead, but you’ll get there

The smoke splits: More than one person is involved or there is a relevant choice point

Smoke all over the place: Chaos, prepare for distraction/disruption

True circle: Success comes unexpectedly; cycle completion

True heart: Love of spirit/deceased loved one; tips from the other side

Read my original interview with Rissa on reading tea leaves HERE.

If you would like to experience a remote smoke reading by Rissa, or if you would like her to teach the practice to your group via Zoom, visit her at

Follow on Instagram @teaandsmoke_byrissa

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