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African Divination systems

From: Barry Carroll 
Subject: African Divination systems
Date: Mon, 18 Sep 2000 08:20:04 -0500

the Stephen Skinner book seems especially interesting.
 my knowledge of the African traditions if very thin.

the close connection between divination and gaming came 
to my attention recently when i picked up a book called Gambling Way
by Katherine Gabriel . i found this book while looking for something to
put the meso-american ritual ball game into a bigger context.
Gambling Way is a look at gaming traditions among indian groups 
in north america including Mexico.
its primary source is, Games of the North American Indians. this 846 page 
American Bureau of Ethnology publication by Frank Cushing and 
Stewart Culin came out in 1907 and was the result of a 15 year reseach
the project only examined games played by adults, not those played by
children .

the intro  to the BAE publication made the point that among the groups

	"games of all classes are intimately connected 
	with religious beliefs and practices and have a 
	devotional aspect and cases of divinatory significance"

it was typical that both field games as well as those played on a 
table or similar layout were organized so that the playing surface  
represented a cosmological image,
"including divisions reflecting directional schemes,totems,seasons,
colors, numerology and celestial bodies". 

in legends accompanying the origin of ritual games a common motif 
is a contest which pits a culture hero[or a pair of them,usually brothers 
or twins] and assorted animal helpers against an entity with supernatural 
power over nature. victory by the culture hero [or heroes] results in
benefit for 
humanity by freeing the bounty of nature that was held in thrall.[such as
rain or wild game] 
ritual games are typically a re-enactment of such a  mythic event by which 
humanity sustains itself and excercises control over its destiny.

the connection between gaming and divination is clearest 
in games using dice or similar counters.  the dice used in north america 
were often two-sided rather than the 6 sided type most of us know best 
and were thrown in clusters like coins in an i-ching reading. i was
surprised to learn
that cowrie shells, for example, were used in a face-up or face-down manner.

when used in combination with a board or layout which is a cosmogram
loaded with symbolic correspondances,
the same action of chance which results in a gambler's winnings may be used 
in a different context to reveal divine will.

an example of such a dice game is 'patolli', a game of the Aztecs and 
other groups in northern mexico. this is the 'parchesi-like' game 
referred to in the National Geographic article about the pecked crosses 
because of the resemblance those figures share with  the board 
that patolli was played on.
the range of patolli  and its varients extended up into the american
where it was played well into the post-conquest era.

another game, a field game, worth mentioning is chunkey or chungke'
which was played by groups the the southeastern US from the period 
of the moundbuilders on through the Chactaws early in 
the 20th century.
the play involved chasing a small rolling hoop or stone disk with a hole 
in the center and successfully pinning it. apparently many of these
stone disks have been found at mound sites.this game was played on a court,
 'the chunk yard'.  in historic times it featured a tall pole at the center 
acknowledged to represent a world tree.

an illustration of a chunk yard provided by Culin also shows two smaller
standing near one edge of the field. their positions and spacing suggest 
to me that they may have functioned [in combination with the center pole]
as sighting devices to mark  the solstice sunrises  when observed 
from a mound shown in position at the opposite end of the yard. from the same 
mound the large center pole could have easily marked the equinoxes.

tho there is no mention of their function in the text it, seems appropriate 
that a ritual game might be played in a yard that also served as an
 this seems especially true since the text does mention that such games
 were sometimes linked to seasonal events.

Cushing and Culin actually did a wordwide survey of games because Culin was
a difusionist
who felt that new world dice games were too similar to those played in
india and southeast asia
to be a matter of independant origin.

re Africa:
 Culin notes that groups from the upper Nile to Capetown
did not gamble [there were a few other pockets around the world]
while those of east Africa and the congo basin were avid gamblers.
i wonder how this compares with the types of divination methods 
employed in these regions?
native people of western North america were among the world's
most avid gamblers.

>Subject:  Re: Sand divination
>Date: Fri, 08 Sep 2000 15:25:34 -0400
>Organization: University of Pennsylvania
>For those seriously interested in expanding their awareness about the 
>discussion on the origins of various methods of divination in Western 
>and Northern Africa here are a few initial titles that are worth
>looking  at. They by no means cover the full subject. It is an
>international phenomenon as virtually every system of divination found
>in West Africa is practiced in various forms by more than one ethnic
>As we are talking about the distribution and history of systems here, I
>am not including titles focusing on the application of divination
>systems. That is a different sort of knowledge and one which does not
>require a concern with or knowledge of the history of the system. Just
>as one would not turn to these authors for practical tips on divination
>(which is best learned directly from a teacher and in many systems can
>only be learned that way), books intended to provide or augment
>practical skills seldom are good sources for uncovering the history of a
>particular system. At best they usually describe the traditional 
>understanding of the origins of the system. These have a spiritual truth
>but are not infrequently historically inaccurate.
>Bascom, William Russell,  
>Ifa Divination, Communication Between Gods and Men in West Africa   
>Bloomington, Indiana University Press, [1969].
>Charmasson, ThÈrËse. 
>Recherches sur une technique divinatoire: la gÈomancie dans l'Occident
>GenËve : Droz ; Paris : H. Champion, 1980.
>Danfulani, Umar Habila Dadem. 
>Pebbles and Deities: Pa Divination Among the Ngas, Mupun, and Mwaghavul
>in Nigeria  
>New York : P. Lang, c1995.
>Diarra, Nyamaton. 
>The Artfulness of M'Fa Jigi: an Interview with Nyamaton Diarra 
>translated, edited and with an introduction by Sarah Brett-Smith; 
>recorded and conducted by Adama Mara. 
>Madison : African Studies Program, University of Wisconsin-Madison,
>Ogbaa, Kalu.  
>Gods, Oracles and Divination: Folkways 
>Trenton, N.J. : Africa World Press, 1992.
>Skinner, Stephen: 
>Terrestrial Astrology: Divination by Geomancy
>This is the only complete history in English of the art of divination by
>earth or sand, which is so called from the Arabs' tendency to make the
>marks in sand. The author draws on material from Latin, French, German &
>Arabic sources, shows the influence of Islamic geomancy in Africa as
>well as Medieval & Renaissance Europe. He also examines its use in the
>occult & astrological revival of the 19th century, followed by its 
>declining influence. He gives explanations on the practice,
>manipulation, and generation of geomantic figures with examples &
>Tata Nganga Nsasi Endoqui Malongo Quimbisa

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