Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Molybdomancy

If you pour molten lead into cold water, the liquid shapes instantly freeze into forms with gently curving tendrils or veils trailing behind round blobs.
These shapes provide the springboard for a method of fortune telling called molybdomancy, a common New Year’s tradition in Nordic countries.

The shapes are often studied by candlelight, where they may appear as fish, birds, angels or demons. Such images spring to mind by means of a shape-conjuring process known as pareidolia.

If you want to try it, you can use lead from discarded wheel weights from a tire store. Because of the toxicity, do the melting over a well-ventilated camp stove outside, and be sure to use a frying pan that you will never use again for food. Also be sure to wash your hands after you handle the lead.

After melting a half a cup or so, pour a dash of it boldly into cold water in a bucket. In the sample above, I fused a half dozen separate pourings into a floret by welding them together at their bases with molten lead.
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Previously: Pareidolia.
"Casting of the Tin" tradition in Finland. Thanks, Mervi!

20 comments:

Celia said...

How beautiful, would have never thought of this.

Anderhowl said...

Any idea if it works with any less toxic substances?

James Gurney said...

Anderhowl, I've heard you can also do it with wax or tin.

Brine Blank said...

That would make great still-life material for drawing...I also made true on my threat...this year and for the future we are using your book in the class...I told them this should be one of two books they keep until they drop out of the race...

James Gurney said...

Thanks, Brine, for the vote of confidence on using the book in your class!

=shane white= said...

For a less toxic alternative try candle wax...much fun ensues.

=s=

stefan marjoram said...

We used to do it with small amounts of tin in Germany - you could buy kits. I'd forgotten about it - I must try it this new year with my son - he'll love it - thanks.

Incidentally, where I live in Bristol we have a special building constructed for this purpose. It's a shot tower. Molten lead is poured through a sieve at the top, the drips form perfect spheres, harden and are then quenched when they hit the water - for use in old guns. The technique was actually invented there but the old tower has been replaced.

Mike Lynch Photography said...

When you poured it in the water did it go "CUSH"? ;->

BTW: Another "less toxic than lead" and "more permanent than wax "alternative is hot melt glue.

artistguy said...

fill an aluminum pie pan with melted wax and dunk it into cold water straight down. You get really cool little worlds to explore. Did that a lot when I was a kid.

Erik Bongers said...

I guess that when a 'realistic' artist ventures down the abstract path, it's really the prospect of recognizing things in those irregular and random shapes that attracts them to it.

Mark Waikien said...

That's pretty amazing. I actually thought they were fish before I read your description. Beats deciphering tea leaves in my book!

Torbjörn Källström said...

I'd forgotten about this too... I have some memory of doing this. But if that's the case I was probably very young...

Libby Fife said...

Great post so thanks. My parents attended a party every New Years where this was done. I had forgotten about that until your post:0

Clint Marsh said...

Molybdomancy is also known as "Bleigiessen" or "lead-guessing." Here's a link to a fascinating video about a piece of public sculpture based on the tradition: http://bit.ly/d9MWZb

Dan Gurney said...

I remember Dad melting lead for this fortune telling. We also melted lead for the bulb keels of some model sailboats. Did we do it outside?

I don't remember knowing then that lead (or mercury, for that matter) was particularly toxic; it was just another hackable material to be used in the pursuit of making stuff.

I also don't remember if we followed the excellent advice to retire the pans so used forever from service in the kitchen...

James Gurney said...

Dan, yeah, that explains everything. Mom must have made scrambled eggs in those frying pans, and the lead bits just filled our cavities.

I also remember making little lost wax cars out of melted lead.

You're right about how mercury wasn't seen as toxic, either. I remember a picture in National Geographic of a guy floating in a huge vat of mercury.

James Gurney said...

Erik, Yes, a realist artist--or any person really--enjoys the process or recognizing associations in abstract forms, but realists, no less than abstractionists, appreciate the music of form and shape for its own sake.

DavidStill said...

Yes, we always did it with tin, you buy them shaped like tiny horseshoes and we call them "new years fortunes". I've never heard about doing it with lead before, probably because of the health risks. Compared to the fumes of molten lead, painting with white lead doesn't sound that harmful.

jokergirl@wererabbits said...

These days, tin alloys are used because of the health issues with lead. You can buy them in traditionally "lucky" shapes (horseshoe, four-leaf clovers etc) in a set with a spoon to melt them in.
I've seen the tradition in Austria and Germany, but interestingly enough it seems to be unknown in Sweden which would be a "nordic" country...

Simon said...

When I first saw the post, I misread the title as "Molybdodactyl", even letters can be influenced by context and expectations.

I'm from Sweden and I've never heard of this being a New Year's tradition, but as a kid I did it myself a few times with tin from tin soldier casting sets.