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I'm trying to make a story where the amount of people that are able to see the future range from 1-0.1% (i.e. 1 in 100 to 1 in 1000). The problem I'm having is that I'm trying to have my cake and eat it.

I want the people who can see the future to be very clear and manner and be able to change yet. Yet at the same time I want said people to essentially be rare and not really be super common place. Yes they should make a very good or large part of the policy of the state but not too much.

I've limited the ways and reasons as to why the people can be able to see the future are quite rare:

  • Multiple generations of inbreeding before seeing viable results which makes it expensive to try

  • Only being able to see a few hours in the future at most

  • Only being able to see the future around you

However after some thought I realized that this wasn't exactly enough. There still needs to be some reasons as to why being able to see the future is still so rare. Can anyone give me some ideas for an Iron Age settings?

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    $\begingroup$ The first sentence of the second paragraph, "I want the people who can see the future to be very clear and manner and be able to change yet.", doesn't make sense, could you please rewrite it so it is understandable. $\endgroup$ – Fred Apr 11 at 10:47
  • $\begingroup$ Training time and cost seem sufficient barriers? In a pre-modern society very few people were literate, and those that were were often in the service of a religious organisation. That seems like it's enough to get down to 1 in 100/1000 without having to introduce any other factors. This power could require both being able to read/write and some natural ability that's hard to detect from a young age. $\endgroup$ – David258 Apr 11 at 20:18
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Frame challenge: I don't really see why this is a problem in a pre-industrial society.

The simple reason why people don't pursue divination is because they don't have time to do so. For your average person (a hardworking peasant) it is quite useless because they'd have to take time away from directly bread-winning activities to practice and train a skill of only marginal utility.

More specifically, outside of certain edge cases, it doesn't put food on the table. Let's say a farmer's boy is born with precognitive capabilities. What is he going to do with them? He can't predict weather or climate patterns, nor can he predict if there will be frost at night. Sure, if he's awake and aware he can predict if a neighbor's house will catch on fire or if the village will get raided by bandits or maybe prevent accidental injuries, but otherwise? A couple hours is really short, and especially if your flavor of precognition is more "vision" based, only of marginal utility for the average person.

Really, this gift would be most useful in high population densities where more happens and where there are more people who are rich enough that they can spend the time to specialize in an uncommon skill. I can imagine that just like your average village of a couple hundred might have a single smith and one full-time priest, they might have one full-time seer who's job is to watch all day and prevent farm accidents like injuries, fires, or even costly mistakes. A professional seer would show up at people's houses and point out where the cook fire's about to catch on the house or where someone is about to swing an ax into their leg, and extract payment.

By virtue of simple pre-industrial economics, the amount of people who have the time and wealth to pursue an activity that doesn't directly create food is already limited to numbers in the 1% and lower range.

EDIT: Note that precognitive power is a sliding scale. On the low end you have things like "danger sense" or ritualized vision-quests and at the high end you get nigh-omnipotent Contessa-Path-to-Victory-level precognition. Obviously, the more powerful your average diviner is, the easier it becomes for them to make it their living.

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  • $\begingroup$ Let me disagree with you. In early agricultural societies, it was very important to know the future weather pattern. Weather varies so much year to year that knowing when it was safe to plant (vs too early and the crops will freeze or too late and the harvest won't be ready by the next freeze) was critical information. This was often the reason why the culture invested in priests - people paid to predict the weather pattern. $\endgroup$ – David R Apr 11 at 14:01
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    $\begingroup$ @DavidR The question specifically states that the diviners are only capable of seeing "a few hours in the future at most" which makes it useless for agriculture. Someone skilled at reading weather patterns and with a good view of the sky can do better without magic. $\endgroup$ – Dragongeek Apr 11 at 14:07
  • $\begingroup$ While it may not be much use to a farmer, it would be immensely useful for a hunter, a soldier, or a thief. Imagine being able to look into the future and see where the prey is hiding, and what route you need to be able to take to get there. A solider could see in advance what moves his opponent will take and block them, a thief could see where the guards are and be somewhere else. $\endgroup$ – Barry Haworth Apr 12 at 1:24
  • $\begingroup$ @BarryHaworth of course, but soldiers were very rare back in the Iron Age. Only the wealthiest kingdoms could afford small standing armies and guard forces, the rest were conscripted from the peasantry when the need to fight arose and returned to their farm after whatever war. Full time soldiers probably made up less than 0.5% of most populations. Same with thieves. Stories today romanticize banditry, but in reality, most thieves were dirt poor and desperate, no free time to train divination. Also, punishments were harsher escalating to death very quickly. $\endgroup$ – Dragongeek Apr 12 at 5:49
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  • If it is a genetic trait, it is a complex one.
    Assume that there are several distinct recessives, and a precog needs some but not all of them. Or having all makes the fetus non-viable. Without an understanding of genetics, it will appear truly random.

  • Using it requires training and time.
    Assume that precognition does not just happen to a precog, at least not at first. It takes meditation to get into the right mind state. The meditation is not certain to work even for precogs, and learning it takes time and (usually) a teacher. The country cannot afford to train and test all children if most of them are no precogs.

  • The training correlates with "non-worldly" concerns.
    Say the meditation for a precog is very similar to religious practices, yet those religions tend to dismiss "worldly concerns." So precogs only matter if they get the training and don't disappear into an abby, or if their visions are grave enough that their abbot gives them leave to talk to the government.

  • Related to that, they might be biased against training and testing commoners and/or the lower classes. In an iron age society you get many peasants and just a few artisans, priests, and nobles.
    On a similar line, there could be gender bias reducing the pool by half yet again.

  • Precogs are female, yet the society is a patriarchy.
    There are not enough precogs to change the overall society -- males dominate society in the villages, in the marketplaces, in the army camps. They respect their precogs as a "special case" once the talent is proven, but they won't give the benefit of the doubt.

The problem with that, of course, is that a different culture might do their very best to identify and use precogs. Over the centuries, this culture should overshadow the fools who do not treat their oracles properly.

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You could borrow an idea from the Tibetans and how their lamas are chosen - particularly the Dalai Lama and the Panchen Lama.

Tibeans practice a particular form of Buddism were reincarnation is a key to their belief system.

When a lama dies a search is undertaken across Tibet for a child who is about 5 years of age and is said to be the reincarnated lama, based on personal attributes of the child.

In your story, the people who can foresee the future could be limited in number and when their current body dies they are reincarnated and once reincarnated they need to be informed of who they are trained accordingly, or they could just know by tapping into the universal consciousness.

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Danger! When they try to remember the future, what is going to stand out? Disasters. One of them sees that the stock market is going to crash, so he tells his friends to sell, and one thing leads to another. One sees a terrorist attack, and warns people, and someone says what a great idea... Anything they see is inevitable to happen - most of it is very bad - sometimes it wouldn't have happened if they hadn't seen it. If that isn't enough to persuade them to stay out of it, perhaps the witch hunters can help.

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Because it requires some external conditions

In the ancient timess, the oracles were priestesses (the Pitia of Delphi, or the Sibyl of Cuma) who gained their (supposed) ability to foresee the future by going in trance after breathing some volcanic gases.

So, the prescience is latent in a certain percentage of the population, but in the 99% of the cases, it doesn't manifest itself spontaneously. Some kind of external input is needed, which heavily limits the number of true precogs.
It is also possible that in some cases the people don't even understand this correlation, and maybe think that the external cause is the true reason of prescience, rather than genetics

Some possibilities could be:

  • the precogs may require some psychoactive substances, because their visions of future become clear only when they are in state of trance (of course, if you are not a precog, the same substances would only give you allucinations and incoherent visions)
  • a strong psychological trauma can awake the latent abilities
  • the precog can have visions of the future only when experiencing some stressful situations.
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Rulers do not want many people who can really see the future. "Prophets get crucified".

The basic problem is that people who can really see the future can see where the rulers will engage in immoral acts and can expose such acts. Rulers want to state what they want the future to be and hide all their dirty work. So, those rulers will kill off anyone who can see what they are doing. (In real life, this is why journalists in many parts of the world are being killed today.)

This puts negative pressure on the genes that give that capability.

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  • $\begingroup$ It's a reasonable explanation, but it does suppose the rulers' misdeeds will be exposed some day - or that people will care. Shoot, it's a century on and lots of people still believe Woodrow Wilson was a good president. $\endgroup$ – Mike Serfas Apr 11 at 14:17

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