Seeing the Signs

Flipping a Coin for a Quick Answer



When I need a fast answer, an easy answer, I flip a coin.  This is not something I do for serious problems or deep, probing issues.  This is for more superficial thing such as:  should I wear the pink top or the white top?  Should I prepare zucchini or broccoli with the chicken for dinner?   Should I ride my bike along the paved bike path in the park or go along the old railway bed?  Every few days, I am digging into my change purse or into the cracked cup in which I keep spare change to flip a coin to help me make a decision.  I generally use an American quarter.  Its size and weight makes for a good toss in the air, a decent flip as it flies up and over, and randomness of fall.  Contrary to common thought, coins do have a 50-50 chance of landing heads or tails.  It depends on how they are tossed and whether they are caught mid-air or not.  Therefore, someone who is skilled in tossing coins can actually help determine the outcome.  Bruce Schneier writes about this in his blog, “Schneier on Security: Non-Randomness in Coin Flipping”.

Tossing coins has a long history.  Richard Alleyn writes that in Roman times, it was called “Heads or Ships”, since Roman coins had the head of the current emperor on one side of the coin and a ship on the other side.  Often coins would have the head of the god Janus on the coin in place of the emperor.  In medieval times, it was called “Cross or Piles”.  Coins had a cross on one side and the pile was a mark made by a hammer on the other side.  When coin tossing became to be called “Heads or Tails” is obscure, but it seems to be around the late eighteenth century.

Raymond Buckland writes in The Fortune-Telling Book that many people use a special coin just for tossing.  He writes, “They will consecrate the coins before use by ritually cleansing them in saltwater and in the smoke of incense.  The coins will then be kept wrapped in a cloth or special bag for use only in divination.”  (132)

For Yes/No answers, generally Heads are Yes & Tails are No.  These kind of questions work beautifully with flipping a coin.  However, you must stick with the answer you get!  No two out of three, three out of five tosses!  If you don’t like the answer you received, then do something about your situation!

Raymond Buckland gets quite involved with using coins for divination, far more than just flipping a coin for a quick answer.  He has a system using five coins that utilizes numerology and another one that uses ten coins and the Astrological Houses.  Those are very complicated and I am not going into that here today.

He also mentions that tossing coins is how the Chinese developed the I-Ching.  I am not so sure if this is true or if it was by tossing something else – sticks, for instance, or bones.  You can certainly use coins for tossing when consulting the I-Ching.  I have done that myself (I always use pennies).

But generally, when I flip a coin, it’s for a quick answer.  The yellow dress or the blue tie-dye?   Cheese omelet or eggs benedict?  Let the coin make my decision for me.



Alleyn, Richard. “Coin Tossing Through the Ages.”  The Telegraph. December 31, 2009.  http://www.telegraph.co.uk/science/science-news/6911921/Coin-tossing-through-the-ages.html

Buckland, Raymond.  The Fortune-Telling Book: The Encyclopedia of divination and Soothsaying. Detroit: Visible Ink Press, 2004

Schneier, Bruce.  “Schneier on Security: Non-Randomness in Coin Flipping”  August 24, 2009.  http://www.schneier.com/blog/archives/2009/08/non-randomness.html