Unveiling the Hidden Interdisciplinary Approaches

INTRODUCTION.............................................................................................................................................................. 5 THE HISTORY OF DIVINATION AS A GENERAL PHENOMENON .................................................................... 10 Anders Lisdorf.......................................................................................................................................................... 10 The history of divinatio prior to Cicero ....................................................................................................................10 Cicero’s De divinatione............................................................................................................................................ 12 Modern use of divination as a general term .............................................................................................................15 Modern theories of divination .................................................................................................................................. 18 Foundations - end of the 19th century start of the 20th .......................................................................................... 18 The British thread .................................................................................................................................................... 19 The French thread.....................................................................................................................................................20 Edward Evans Evans-Pritchard .............................................................................................................................. 22 Elaborations............................................................................................................................................................. 24 Summary................................................................................................................................................................... 31 REFLECTIONS ON A HISTORY OF DIVINATION SCHOLARSHIP .................................................................... 40 Philip M. Peek ........................................................................................................................................................ 40 Recent Research........................................................................................................................................................46 Contemporary Issues................................................................................................................................................ 51 Future Possibilities ................................................................................................................................................ 53 Conclusion................................................................................................................................................................ 59 ENTERTAINED BY THE UNKNOWN .........................................................................................................................68 DIVINATION IN POST-SOCIALIST RURAL MONGOLIA.................................................................................................................. 68 Lars Højer.................................................................................................................................................................68 Divination as effects of the unknown ........................................................................................................................ 75 Conclusion................................................................................................................................................................ 80 THE RE-CREATION OF THE DIVINER IN CHINA .................................................................................................83 FENGSHUI AND COGNITIVE DISTANCE......................................................................................................................................83 Ole Bruun................................................................................................................................................................. 83 Re-Creating the Fengshui Diviner in China .............................................................................................................84 The concept of distance............................................................................................................................................ 89 From social distance to cognitive distance ...............................................................................................................91 Concluding notes...................................................................................................................................................... 95 IN THE AIRY SPACES OF OUR MINDS… ............................................................................................................... 100 COSMOLOGY AND RITUAL DESIGN IN MODERN, WESTERN ASTROLOGY .......................................................................................100 Kirstine Munk......................................................................................................................................................... 100 Astrology and the transformations of modernity .................................................................................................... 102 Globalisation and astrology ................................................................................................................................... 106 Religion, nature and cosmology..............................................................................................................................112 The universe as ‘factish’......................................................................................................................................... 113 The making of cosmos in the image of people ....................................................................................................... 120 Astrology as divination........................................................................................................................................... 122 The horoscope as an aesthetic object..................................................................................................................... 126 Conclusion ............................................................................................................................................................. 131 NEGOTIATING MEANING.........................................................................................................................................143 DIVINATION PROCESSES IN DANISH HEALING RITUALS............................................................................................................. 143 Ann Ostenfeld-Rosenthal........................................................................................................................................ 143 Divination and healing rituals................................................................................................................................144 Human nature......................................................................................................................................................... 147 Health and illness................................................................................................................................................... 148 Healing................................................................................................................................................................... 149 A case story.............................................................................................................................................................150

Divination and negotiation of meaning.................................................................................................................. 151 Concluding remarks................................................................................................................................................152 THE NATURALNESS OF RHAPSODOMANTICS .................................................................................................. 156 Anders Klostergaard Petersen ................................................................................................................................ 156 Rhapsodomantics: a Relic of Times past and of the Unlearned People only? ....................................................... 160 Churchill and Rhapsodomantics.............................................................................................................................162 Rhapsodomantics in a Ritual Context.................................................................................................................... 166 Some Cases of Rhapsodomantics from Antiquity ................................................................................................... 169 Conclusion.............................................................................................................................................................. 176 THE BIBLICAL POLEMIC AGAINST DIVINATION IN LIGHT OF THE DOMESTICATION OF FOLK PSYCHOLOGY..............................................................................................................................................................183 Gabriel Levy........................................................................................................................................................... 183 Major Problems...................................................................................................................................................... 191 ‘Scraps to Scrolls’...................................................................................................................................................192 Effects of literacy.................................................................................................................................................... 195 Relevance Theory....................................................................................................................................................197 Davidson’s Theory.................................................................................................................................................. 200 Comparison of Theories......................................................................................................................................... 202 Application to Divination ....................................................................................................................................... 205 Domestication of Divination...................................................................................................................................209 Writing and Prophecy............................................................................................................................................. 210 THE RHETORIC OF UNVEILING: ........................................................................................................................... 227 A COMPARATIVE APPROACH TO DIVINATION ANCIENT AND MODERN....................................................................................... 227 Jørgen Podemann Sørensen....................................................................................................................................227 The Delphic Oracle................................................................................................................................................ 233 The Rhetoric of the Act........................................................................................................................................... 245 The Rhetoric of the Text.......................................................................................................................................... 249 The Rhetoric of Interpretation................................................................................................................................ 254 Conclusion ............................................................................................................................................................. 255 TRUTH BEYOND DOUBT: .........................................................................................................................................262 IFÁ ORACLES IN HAVANA................................................................................................................................................... 262 Martin Holbraad.....................................................................................................................................................262 Boyer on divinatory truth ...................................................................................................................................... 272 The oracle of Ifá: a thumbnail sketch ..................................................................................................................... 277 Indubitability and the discarded premise of representation ................................................................................... 285 Motion and divinatory truth................................................................................................................................... 289 COGNITIVE UNDERPINNINGS OF DIVINATORY PRACTICES ....................................................................... 311 Jesper Sørensen.......................................................................................................................................................311 Two analytic variables of divinatory practices .......................................................................................................314 Communicative vs. indexical signs ......................................................................................................................... 314 Temporal orientation: Prognostic vs. diagnostic and retrospective vs. prospective.............................................................................................................................................................. 318 Three contextual variables of divinatory practices ................................................................................................ 322 Type of information .................................................................................................................................................323 Source of information ............................................................................................................................................. 325 The method of gathering information..................................................................................................................... 327 Conclusion.............................................................................................................................................................. 331 IF A DOG PRICKS UP ITS EARS LIKE A WOLF, IT IS A BAD SIGN… .............................................................338 OMENS AND THEIR MEANINGS............................................................................................................................................338 Anders Lisdorf........................................................................................................................................................ 338 Natural and intentional signs ................................................................................................................................. 341 Omens as intentional signs..................................................................................................................................... 343

The context of omens .............................................................................................................................................. 346 The perception of omens......................................................................................................................................... 348 Conclusion.............................................................................................................................................................. 349 CHANNELLERS, COWRIES AND CONVERSATIONS WITH THE GODS: ..................................................... 354

354 Emma Cohen...........................................................................................................................................................354 Introduction............................................................................................................................................................ 355 Divination............................................................................................................................................................... 362 The Problem............................................................................................................................................................365 How is possession defined?.................................................................................................................................... 371 Significant Others and Person Recognition ........................................................................................................... 375 Conclusion.............................................................................................................................................................. 380

From the Siberian steppes to New York apartment complexes to South African townships, people sometimes deal with misfortune by consulting a diviner. This is not a recent development, but attested from the earliest archaeological remains in China through ancient Judaism to modern day Cuba. Divination features an astounding diversity in the actual practices, but remains a truly universal feature of human societies. This book tries to come to grips with this universality and diversity. One would think that such a ubiquitous and universal phenomenon would have been thoroughly examined by researchers. Indeed many studies of divination have been conducted, but they are all confined to specific geographical areas or historical periods. Rarely have researchers made any great effort to acquire comparative knowledge about divination in other areas or periods. This geographical compartmentalisation of divination research has hampered the progress of understanding divination as a general phenomenon of human societies. The aim of this anthology is to break down the walls between these diverse research traditions to provide an interdisciplinary basis for conceptualising the fascinating phenomenon of divination. It is the hope that such interdisciplinary and interregional engagement will provide a spark of inspiration for scholars exploring divination in different fields. It is not in any way our ambition to provide a comprehensive or even representative guide to the study of divination. Rather, we have tried to evoke the breadth of divination and divination scholarship for readers to investigate divination as a richly facetted and universal part of religion in human societies. The contributions show great geographical breadth spanning three continents: we hear of diviners in China (Bruun), Mongolia (Højer), Africa (Podemann Sørensen), Cuba (Holbraad), Brazil (Cohen) and countries in the modern, Western world such as Denmark, England and the USA (Munk, Ostenfeldt, Podemann Sørensen). The same breadth is found in the historical diversity represented: the Ancient Near East (Levy), Greece (Podemann Sørensen) and Rome (Klostergaard). Further we have also tried to represent diverse theoretical approaches from anthropology (Bruun, Munk), cognitive science (Cohen, Klostergaard, Sørensen), philosophy (Holbraad, Lisdorf) and linguistics (Podemann Sørensen, Levy). Some authors try to integrate theoretical insights from diverse traditions (Bruun, Holbraad, Klostergaard, Munk, Levy, Lisdorf). Others try to integrate knowledge on divination from different areas and times (Klostergaard, Munk, Lisdorf, Podemann

Sørensen). There is also a great thematic diversity represented in these contributions, including descriptions of spirit possession, omens, oracles, shamanism, rhapsodomantics, Fa divination, Yijing, astrology, and tarot cards as well as divination as a part of specific healing rites. This volume is arranged into four parts. The first part is a general introduction to the history and future possibilities of divination research. The contribution by sociologist of religion Anders Lisdorf looks back to investigate the major threads running through the research history on divination, while the chapter by anthropologist Philip M. Peek looks forward. Peek’s contribution takes the temperature of more recent and contemporary research and tries to divine the future paths to be followed in divination research. Thereafter follows the three major theoretical approaches that are characteristic of contemporary research on divination, namely the anthropological approach, the textual approach and the cognitive approach. The anthropological/ethnographical approach has traditionally dominated the history of divination studies. The chapters under this headline are all based on the authors’ extensive fieldwork and centre mainly on the meaning-making efforts of individuals and their need to understand the diverse relations between themselves and the world they are a part of. All these contributions emphasise the interpersonal relations that are involved in divination, although on different levels. While some of the chapters may focus on the interaction between diviner and client, or on the particular problems the clients bring to the diviners for resolution, other contributions seek to include the wider sociological context of divination. In his chapter on divination in Mongolia, anthropologist Lars Højer investigates the puzzling phenomenon that divination in fact seems to provoke questions rather than provide answers – quite contrary to what has usually been assumed. Anthropologist Ole Bruun investigates the reappearance and use of the fengshui diviner in modern rural China, which has taken place in the last couple of decades. Here members of the rural community participate in the re-creation of diviners by encouraging certain individuals to give spiritual advice and by participating in establishing an elevated platform, socially as well as cognitively, from which the diviners practice. The chapter by historian of religion Kirstine Munk focuses on Western astrology. This is a phenomenon that has gained immense popularity in the modern Western world, and through field work on three different continents, she investigates the various reasons for this recent upsurge.

Finally, the chapter by anthropologist Ann Ostenfeld-Rosenthal points out how divination seems to be an integrated part of the very popular modern rituals of spiritual healing in Denmark and she investigates the dialogic processes by which it functions. The third part of the present volume consists of textual approaches. The textual approach is most often historical, since historians typically work with texts. Historian of religion Jørgen Podemann Sørensen employs four examples from different times and cultures to adumbrate a general catalogue of typical features of divination. He sees in divination ritual basically a rhetorical device that transforms a non-linguistic sign into linguistic signs in a continuous process of interpretation. Theologian Anders Klostergaard Pedersen investigates rhapsodomantics (divination through the random reading of a sacred text). He finds that rhapsodomantics is used in situations of uncertainty as a means to make a decision. It is a way of removing responsibility from one’s own actions to a supernatural agent. The connection to a supernatural agent is easily made because the texts used in rhapsodomantics are most often already perceived to be related to the superhuman world. Historian of religion Gabriel Levy focuses on the polemic against divination in the Hebrew Bible. He proposes that the polemic should be understood in the context of the invention of writing. The invention of writing effects the conceptualisation of the divine, which in turn results in a polemic against non-text based communication with God, that is, divination. These contributions all appropriate the basic tools and vocabularies of text-based disciplines, such as semiotics, philology and pragmatics, and develop accounts that take the text as a central aspect of divination, either as a connection to the divine (Klostergaard Pedersen, Levy) or as an emerging property of the divination ritual (Podemann Sørensen). The fourth part of the volume consists of cognitive approaches. This part represents a relatively new and interesting method that has already produced much interesting research on other phenomena related to religion, but which has not been used before in divination research. Anthropologist Martin Holbraad takes the typical question of whether one believes in divination as his point of departure. Closer scrutiny shows that it is not easy to answer. Through an investigation of his field work experiences with the Ifa oracles in Havana, he develops a theory of motile logic. This special form of logic differs from a traditional form of logic because it takes motion, or paths, as the basis from which stable entities occur. Historian of religion Jesper Sørensen builds a general conceptualisation of divination based on cognitive science. He takes two variables to be central in the form and function of divination. The first is types of signs, where communicative and indexical signs are the two basic forms. The second variable is temporal orientation, where the position of the

agent in relation to the event makes it retrospective or prospective. Based on these variables, he investigates the cognitive underpinnings of different types of divination. The chapter by Anders Lisdorf provides an account of omens. By integrating anthropological evidence from different geographical areas and times with philosophy and experimental cognitive science, certain recurrent features of omens are pointed out. Finally, cognitive anthropologist Emma Cohen focuses on spirit possession. While spirit possession is found all over the world, the empirical basis is her fieldwork in Brazil. Here, spirit possession is considered a form of communication with the divine world. With the aid of recent research in cognitive science, social psychology and neuroscience, she provides an explanation of how this occurs. All contributions in this part take the individual cognitive properties as central for explaining religion. While most are informed by the broad field of cognitive science (Cohen, Lisdorf, Sørensen), others have a more general philosophical outlook (Holbraad, Lisdorf). It is our hope that these four parts will provide a diversified picture of a much understudied phenomenon and aid in opening up interdisciplinary research on divination as an important part of religion in human societies.

The past and future of research on divination

The history of divination as a general phenomenon
Anders Lisdorf

The term ‘divination’ has a long history – over time it has designated a number of different practices. Nevertheless, no comprehensive history of research in this area has been written to date. Excellent expositions can be found in Peek (1991a) and Devisch (1985), but they focus only on Africa and do not take into account the entire history of the general term ‘divination’. In this chapter, I attempt to trace the trajectory of thought on divination as a general phenomenon, from prehistory until modern times. However, this is not meant to be a comprehensive examination; instead, it provides an outline of the most important issues. First we consider the construct of divination as a general phenomenon, and then we focus on modern theories of divination. Divination comes from the Latin word divinatio. The first time the word divinatio is used as a generic term describing a number of different divinatory actions can be dated rather precisely to around 43/44 BCE (Beard 1986; Schofield 1986) in Marcus Tullius Cicero’s treatise on divination ‘De divinatione’. This is also apparently the first comparative study of divination. However, before proceeding with a more thorough analysis of divination as a general phenomenon, let us investigate the history of this concept in Latin prior to Cicero’s use.

The history of divinatio prior to Cicero
Prior to Cicero’s treatise on divination, the term is found in nominal and verbal forms: divinatio and divinare, respectively. All previous attempts to construct an etymology for divinatio have derived it from deus (god) and its adjectival derivation divinus, -a, -um (divine) (Walde & Hofman 1954; Ernout & Meillet 1959), which in turn resulted in two derivations, the noun divinitas (god) and the verb divinare (to divine) (1 st pers. sg. divino). The verbal stem and the addition of the suffix –atio result in divinatio (Ernout & Meillet 1959: 171). This account accords well with Cicero’s usage in De divinatione, but the earliest attested evidence of the use of divinatio does not give the impression that a god or anything godly is involved in divinatio.

According to a dictionary by Lewis and Short, there are two senses of divinatio: it can signify “the faculty of predicting and foreseeing” (Lewis & Short 1975), but it is also a technical term used in reference to the criminal process. No one, to my knowledge, has tried to explain why the word ended up in reference to the criminal process, where it is in no way connected to the divine; even the Romans themselves found it wanting an explanation (Gel.2.4.2). It is not immediately clear what the connection is. Let us therefore consider two examples of its use pre-dating Cicero. Divinatio is attested as an ability of a diviner to see what is hidden. This is apparent in Plautus’ Miles Gloriosus 4.6.12. Here it is used to describe a woman who knows where her lover is without being able to see him. It is explicitly connected to the term hariolatur, which means to divine. 1 Divinatio refers to the process of coming to know something that is hidden to ordinary human perception, that is, the perception of the knower. No gods are implied in the procedure. The second example is in reference to the criminal process. In public trials, Crimina publica, where there was more than one plaintiff, every plaintiff had to present a speech in order for the judges present to choose who was most suitable for the job as official plaintiff (Ulp.Dig. XLVIII 2.16; Gel.2.4). This part of the process is called a divinatio. In fact, Cicero made such a speech, Divinatio in Q. Caecilium , in which he flaunts all his oratorical skills to obtain the privilege of being the plaintiff in the process against Verres. The goal is to reveal which plaintiff would turn out to be most suitable. Most interestingly, no gods of any kind are involved in this process. Divinatio thus can be seen to be related to acquiring knowledge about things not available to normal human perception, be they hidden in a spatial sense, as in the former example, or hidden in a temporal sense, as in the latter example. These earlier meanings of divinatio/divinare do not fit adequately with Cicero’s and later etymologist’s attempts to associate the construct with foreknowledge provided by the gods. It is my contention that only when Cicero chose divination as a general term in his De divinatione did the word explicitly become related to the gods. Latin had plenty of other words designating communication with gods: portentum, monstrum, augurium etc. Thus, there could be another history behind the word divinatio/divinare.


It is also described as an ability conferred upon the woman by Venus. This however should not be interpreted literally: the sense is that love has made her capable of this.

First, let us focus on the two basic forms: divinatio and divinare. Divinatio is evidently a derivation of divinare. The suffix –atio is added to a verbal stem making it a noun designating an action or a result of an action. Thus we have divinare => divination, which is analogous to the pattern orare => oratio. This is a common pattern in Latin. We need briefly to consider the Indo-European root of the word. It seems clear that we should start with the root *dei-, which designates brilliance in Indo-European (Ernout & Meillet 1959: 175). This root developed into two different formations with *- eu- and *-en-. Formations with *en- came exclusively to designate day. This is the case with the Slavic languages (cf. Bulgarian, dan; Serbian and Russian, den; both of which mean day). The other type with *-eu- appears in two forms. One is deus, from Indo-European *dyewo-. This root also develops into the Latin word for day: diem (akk.). Accordingly, from the beginning, the root is not limited to the meaning god or divine. It also designates brilliance, day and sky. I therefore propose that the derivation of divinare from divinus happened at a time when the adjective divinus still denoted something like ‘clear’ and was not fixed on the meaning ‘divine’. This verbal derivation then could have meant something like ‘to make clear’, since it is a verbal derivation of a stem that designates brilliance, light or day. Considering the use of this verb before Cicero, where we do not find any explicit connection with gods, this would be a meaningful derivation, which also could explain its mysterious use in the criminal process. The etymology would still accommodate the use by Cicero, since he merely adds the gods in the process of making clear what is hidden to normal human perception. We thus can conclude that the core meaning of the Latin term divinare before Cicero probably was ‘to make clear’ (what is hidden to normal human perception).

Cicero’s De divinatione
The De divinatione is part of Cicero’s philosophical work. At the time of its completion, Cicero was himself an Augur, which was one of the highest public Roman priesthoods (Szemler 1972). Augurs’ field of expertise was the observation and interpretation of signs from the gods. Cicero was thus in a sense a diviner himself. He was very inspired by Greek philosophy and in general tried to adapt it to the Roman context. This clash between the philosophical influence from Greece and traditional Roman state religion runs as a basic undercurrent in his work. The setting in De divinatione is written in two books and staged as a dialogue between Cicero himself (Marcus) and his brother Quintus. Quintus is expounding the stoic arguments and

Marcus the skeptical (Schofield 1986). The dialogue form was one used in Greek philosophy. The basic topic being addressed in the work is whether or not knowledge of the future is possible (Cic.Div.1.1.). Divination is defined as prasensio et scientia rerum futurarum (Cic.Div.1.1.): prediction and knowledge of future things. Quintus defends the assertion that divination is possible from a stoic perspective in the first book, whereas Marcus attacks it from a sceptical perspective in the second book. The stoic view links to the existence of the gods. Divination is seen as communication with the gods. This implies that the gods must exist and therefore care about humans. The sceptical view, on the other hand, produces an argument against this. The first book is the constructive part and therefore of primary importance. It also determines the content in the second book, since this is a response to the first. Let us take a closer look at how divination is conceptualised. In the first book, Cicero divides divination into two basic kinds: Ars and Natura, which could be termed technical and natural. The technical form of divination is defined by its application in a discipline, which has been built up through centuries of observation, whereas the natural is defined by its lack of association with any discipline and a direct relation to the divine.
Natura Hepatoscopy Portents Lots Augury Astrology Ars Dreams Ecstasy Oracles

Figure 1: Cicero’s typology of divination This typology is based on the assumption that the soul interacts with the gods. According to Cicero, a divine soul ( divinus animus) exists outside of humans. This is where the human soul comes from. The human soul, which is in the body, has two parts: one part is closely connected to the body, and has the properties of movement, sensing and appetite. The other part of the soul, which expresses itself in rationality (ratio) and intelligence (intelligentia), expresses itself the further it is removed from the body (Cic.Div.1.70). Consequently in the natural form of divination, the soul moves freely and can therefore communicate with the gods. This is what happens when you sleep or are in a state of ecstasy, for example, as with the Delphic oracle. In the technical form, it is necessary to use rationality and intelligence to see how the gods express themselves through artefacts or nature. In this case, it is the rational compilation of observation through time, which is

manifested in a discipline, for example in augury, extispicy or astrology (Linderski 1986: 2237-2240). The rest of the work includes the application of examples to fill out the typology. These examples are drawn from the vast world known to the Romans at the time of Cicero. A good example is found in Cic.Div. (1.88-91). The subject is the validity of augury: first a Greek example of its use by Amfiaraos is mentioned, then an example with the Anatolian king Priamos, then a Roman example, and then one involving the Korinthian Polyidos. He goes on to mention the Gallic druids, then a Persian example, one from Peloponnese, one from Syria one from Etruria, and on and on. The scope of the work is clearly universal. The examples show that all peoples known to the Romans were familiar with divination. This is adduced as support for the basic theory. In the second book this theory is refuted. The basic argument against the theory is that there is a lack of causal connection between, e.g., the constitution of the liver and the communication of the gods (Cic.Div.2.29). Cicero also points out several empirical examples that disconfirm the thesis (Cic.Div.2.45).2 This structure is a basic tenet of the sceptical school, which favoured the exposition of a case as the production of an argument and then a counterargument. The conclusion, however, should be left to the listener (Schofield 1986). Cicero’s work on divination connects a wide variety of phenomena under the heading of a traditional Latin term. In spite of its possible etymological link to divus, the above indicates that the connection to the gods is a novel. De divinatione specifies a clear definition and typology supported by a theory of divination that stipulates the existence of the gods as an active force able to communicate through nature or directly with the human soul. This typology is given support by a number of rich examples from the world over and a wide range of times, which is meant to demonstrate the theory’s validity. Actually, this is structurally a model example for science: a theory, a clear definition and a derived typology (Geertz 1999). But as Cicero points out in the second book, the theory has several problems: it lacks logical consistency and involves entities (souls and gods) and causal processes that are at best mysterious (such as the relation between some future misfortune, the gods and the constitution of the liver).


He derives logical conclusions from the theory, and shows that they are not confirmed by empirical evidence. In the example from Cic.Div.45, the hypothesis is that Jupiter can give signs through lightning. Thus, he would have no reason to let lightning strike in abandoned places, such as deserts, but he nevertheless does.

Modern use of divination as a general term
Since Cicero’s work, no monograph has been dedicated solely to divination. Although a great deal has been written about divination, it is mostly in reference to a single people or tribe, or a single type of divination. In order to trace the trajectory of thought about divination as a general phenomenon, I have chosen to focus on encyclopaedia articles on divination, since they are expert statements about divination as a general phenomenon. I have selected four articles: two from around 1900 and two from the last half of the 20th century. Surveying encyclopaedia entries naturally raises the problem of selection. These articles were selected based on how well known, comprehensive and general they are. Thus little known, minor (e.g. Brandon 1970) and specialised encyclopaedias (e.g. Gärtner, Wünsch & Pauly 1980) were excluded. The first example comes from the 9 th edition of Encyclopaedia Britannica . It was published between 1875 and 1889 and crowned by many as a landmark achievement of scholarly work. It has an article on divination written by Edward Burnett Tylor and starts with a definition of divination: “This term is used to mean the obtaining of knowledge of secret or future things by revelation from oracles or omens” (Tylor 1994: IV, 293). This is done on the basis of analogy and symbolism. Tylor explicitly uses Cicero’s typology and supplies it with modern examples from folklore and contemporary ethnographies of primitive people. The theory differs from Cicero’s in one important aspect since it is evolutionistic: divination belongs to the primitive with its belief in gods, but the modern world has moved beyond this. The article on “Divination” in Encyclopaedia of Religion and Ethics from 1911 is written by the classicist Herbert Jennings Rose (Rose 1974). Rose also operates within an evolutionistic framework along the same lines as Tylor. Rose defines divination thus: “by divination is meant the endeavour to obtain information about things future or otherwise removed from ordinary perception by consulting informants other than human” (Rose 1974: 775). This is followed by a detailed typology illustrated with examples from all over the world under each heading. The different types are: 1) Dreams; 2) Presentiment; 3) Divination from bodily movement; 4) Divination by possession; 5) Necromancy; 6) Divination from animals; 7) Divination by mechanical means; 8) Divination from nature and 9) Miscellaneous. The ordering principle seems to be based on the proximity of the divination practice to the human mind. 1) and 2) come from inside the human mind, 3) and 4) from the human body, and 5), although human, is dead. Type 6) involving animals is closer to humans than 7), because they are

alive, but 7) is closer to humans than 8) because they are produced by humans. We thus have a taxonomy that builds on the opposition between humans and nature. Interestingly 1) through 4) (and possibly 5) are equivalent to Cicero’s natura, and the rest are equivalent to ars. The work of Cicero thus seems to lurk in the background of the typology, although it is significantly refined. Likewise the definition also largely falls within that delimited by Cicero. The 15th edition of the Encyclopaedia Britannica published between 1943 and 1973 has a new article on divination. This time it is written by the anthropologist George K. Park, who was one of the most influential scholars of divination in the last half of the 20th century. He defines divination as: “The alleged art or science of foretelling the future by various natural, psychological and other techniques, is a phenomenon found in all civilizations in all times and areas.(..) Divination is the effort to gain information of a mundane sort by means conceived to transcend the mundane” (Park 1974). We see that the emphasis on the future aspect of divination is gone (although he later mentions that the wanted information always bears upon the future (Park 1974: 917)); it is simply information which is the purpose. The transcendent aspect is still there, though not explicitly as communication with gods. He parts with the intellectualist assessment of divination as being illogical or pre-logical. Instead he focuses on the client’s wish to obtain credible information on which he can act. Park divides divination into ‘inductive’, ‘interpretive’ and ‘intuitive’. The inductive comes from natural phenomena, while the interpretive arises out of a ‘manipulated accident’, which might involve either nature or mechanical artefacts. The intuitive is prototypically a shaman. The typology is like Rose’s, based on the degree to which the technique is related to humans. The first two correspond quite precisely to Cicero’s natura whereas the last corresponds to ars. Park refers to Cicero’s work and complains that the Ciceronian typology is too rigid (Park 1974: 917), but misreads Cicero when he claims that ‘interpretive’ divination does not fit well in the inductive category. It fits very well indeed: the Roman auspicium, one of the key examples of inductive techniques, is exactly a ‘manipulated accident’. 3 The fourth article I chose is from Mircea Eliade’s Encyclopaedia of Religion. Here, Evan M. Zuesse defines divination as “(...) the art of discovering the personal human significance or more commonly, present or past events” (Zuesse 1987: 375). The focus is on different peoples’ indigenous theories of divination. These, according to Zuesse, involve spiritual beings, which fall into the following typology: 1) Intuitive divination, where the diviner spontaneously sees the

There are some further peculiarities in Park’s systematisation. He puts scapulimancy in the inductive category, but it is clearly a manipulated accident like pyromancy, which he puts in the interpretive category.

future; 2) Possession divination, where spiritual beings communicate through intermediary agents, and these can be a) nonhuman or b) human; and lastly 3) Wisdom divination, where the diviner decodes impersonal patterns of reality. As in the other cases, these are exemplified with instances from all over the world. Types 1) and 2) b) correspond to the Ciceronian natura, whereas 2) a) and 3) correspond to ars. The idea of communication with spiritual beings reflects Cicero’s idea of communication with the divine as taking place within divination. When reading through these articles, we also notice reflections of contemporary trends: the intellectualism and evolutionism in Tylor and Rose reflect contemporary evolutionistic anthropology, the focus on social function in Park reflects British social anthropology and a concern with the morphology of the sacred in Zuesse’s article reflects the phenomenology of religion. All, however, basically build on the work of Cicero. This can be seen in the typologies presented.
Year 1889 1911 1973 1987 Natura Natura 1-5 Intuitive 2) b) + 1) Ars Ars 6-8 Inductive + Interpretive 3) + 2)a)

Encycl. Brit. 9th ed. Encycl. Rel. & Eth. Encycl. Brit. 15 th ed. Encycl. Rel

Figure 2: The relation of modern typologies of divination to Cicero’s theory. It is remarkable the degree of influence a theory and typology of divination more than 2000 years old has had on modern scholarship. The ancient Roman and stoic model of the conceptualisation of gods and their relation to humans has had a lasting effect. The problem from a scholarly perspective is that it is based on assumptions that are untenable, such as the existence of gods and souls. Further, ethnographic evidence, such as that presented by Evans-Pritchard (1937) and Favret-Saada (1980), suggests that not all divination is even seen as originating with gods or souls (cf. Boyer 1990). The distinction between ars and natura comes from stoic dualist assumptions about the soul as separate from the body and may not turn out to cover any theoretically significant distinction. What is needed then is to produce an explicit theoretical framework from which we can derive a definition and typology to accommodate empirical analyses (Geertz 1997). In this way, our typologies are not just catalogues of exotica based on millennial old ideas of the soul, but active instruments in scientific analysis and classification. In order to aid the construction of such a theoretical framework, I now present a survey of the most important modern theories of divination.

Modern theories of divination
The focus of the following presentation is on theories of divination. In many modern treatments, divination plays the role of a convenient perspective for describing a culture (e.g. Bruun 2003) or it serves as an opportunity for the scholar just to publish some field observations (e.g. Beattie 1967; Beattie 1966). Most analyses of divination are related to a specific area or scholarly field. Among the most productive areas of research are sinology (Smith 1991; Loewe 1994), the ancient Near East (Cryer 1994; Koch-Westenholz 1995), African studies (Devisch & Vervaeck 1985; Peek 1991a) and classical Antiquity (Bouché-Leclercq 1879; Rasmussen 2003). Sinologists are most interested in the divination systems and the different dynasties’ attitudes concerning divination (Smith 1991). Whereas ancient Near East scholars often work from a philological agenda of understanding what the texts mean, the classical scholars focus either on collecting and describing the historical material (Bouché-Leclercq 1879) or on understanding the relationship between divination and the state (Rasmussen 2003). These research traditions have all been formed by the nature of their task and the character of the divination system. Few have very elaborate theoretical considerations and few are interested at all in the general phenomenon of divination. Their approaches can be highly interesting and worthwhile endeavours in their own right, but they do not aid us significantly in understanding divination as a general phenomenon. Furthermore, there has not been any substantial integration across scholarly fields.4 When there has been interdisciplinary work, the direction of influence has gone exclusively from African studies to the others (e.g., Cryer 1998; Smith 1991). The field of African anthropological studies is by far the field in which most theoretical progress has been made. Thus, the following is weighted more heavily with African material and anthropological theorising.

Foundations - end of the 19 th century start of the 20 th
Colonial encounters with primitive people who used divination extensively created a problem of interpretation for the European spectators. Why did the entire world except the Europeans, at least educated Europeans, use divination? Two distinctive threads run through the early research, one is anchored in Britain the other in France.

It should be mentioned that three anthologies dedicated to divination as a universal phenomenon have been published (Caquot & Leibovici 1968; Vernant 1974; Loewe & Blacker 1981). They could have been important forums for an integration of different scholarly fields, but they are more like collages of descriptions patched together from different parts of the world and different times.

The British thread
Probably the first thorough modern treatment of divination is the work of Edward Burnett Tylor (1832-1917). In Primitive Culture, from 1891, divination is examined from an overall scientific evolutionistic framework. Tylor views divination and games-of-chance as belonging to the same species.5 Divination is the earlier, and games-of-chance a secondary development. Games-ofchance have survived from earlier stages of evolution. The difference between primitive and modern man appears to be that the primitive man takes divination seriously (Tylor 1891: 71). For Tylor divination is lumped together with magic. Magic, as divination, is based on the association of ideas (Tylor 1994: IV, 293; 1891: 104). The association in thought is erroneously transferred to reality: “he [primitive man] thus attempted to discover, to foretell, and to cause events by means of processes which we can now see to have only ideal significance” (Tylor 1891: 104). Omens are explained along the same lines as having a ‘direct symbolism’ (Tylor 1891). Thus divination is grouped with magic, distinguished by a faulty transference of ideas onto reality. This is a trait of earlier levels of culture. The distinguishing mark between divination and its modern survivor, games-of-chance, is the attitude taken towards it. Divination is thought to involve spirits who thereby communicate, whereas games-of-chance are merely thought of as games.6 Divination is revealed truth and games-of-chance an entertaining pastime. The classicist Herbert Jennings Rose (1883-1961) elaborated in 1911 somewhat on the claim that divination is based on faulty analogies of the mind (Rose 1974). Rose thought that divination, like magic, was a pseudo-science. What distinguishes it from proper science is not a lack of logical structure, but false induction. The premises were wrong, being based on an arbitrary relation between omen and event:
The reasoning may thus be paraphrased in our definite phraseology: Like causes produce like effects. Therefore this occurrence, which is like that one, will produce a like result. The fallacy lies in the ambiguity of ‘like’ and the reasoner’s inability to differentiate between those things whose likeness to one another is real and essential and those which bear only an accidental or fanciful resemblance to one another (Rose 1974: 776).


“Arts of divination and games of chance are so similar in principle that the very same instrument passes from one use to the other.” (Tylor 1891: 73) 6 Tylor knew that primitive people also had games of chance. He explained this as an example of a middle stage (Tylor 1891: 73).

Thus bad induction, a lack of ability to distinguish real from apparent likeness, results in an arbitrary as opposed to a real causal relation between sign and event. This explains why divination systems can appear logical. Most interestingly, Rose has an explanation for why people do not realise that it is an arbitrary relation between sign and event: “Divination rests in very ancient and wide-spread convictions, inherited from lower levels of culture; and its great stronghold is an utter inability to appreciate a negative argument” (Rose 1974: 775). Further, he writes that the reason for the phenomenon’s persistence is that “(...) their consultants have remembered successful predictions and forgotten unsuccessful ones” (Rose 1974: 775). With Tylor and Rose we see a typical empiricist view on divination. The reality is out there and the way to capture it is through observation. This is achieved through proper induction. This has not been attained in lower levels of culture, which is why they are caught in the ‘mind-web’ of analogical thinking.

The French thread
Émile Durkheim (1858-1917) and his nephew Marcel Mauss (1872-1950) had their own view on collective representations. In De Quelques Formes Primitives de Classification , originally from 1903, they express their dissatisfaction with contemporary psychology as being too simple in its focus on the laws of contiguity and similarity. According to Durkheim and Mauss, this is not sufficient to explain the organisation of concepts. Likewise, logicians only focus on the hierarchy of syllogistic expressions (Durkheim & Mauss 1963: 4). Instead Durkheim and Mauss claim: “Every classification implies a hierarchical order for which neither the tangible world nor our mind gives us the model” (Durkheim & Mauss 1963: 8). 7 Instead the basis for classification is to be found in the concept of kinship. There is a clear relation between divination and the classification of things: “Every divinatory rite (...) rests on the pre-existing sympathy between certain beings and on a traditionally admitted kinship between a certain sign and a future event (...). The science of the diviners [forms] a system of classification” (Durkheim & Mauss 1963: 77). Thus kinship, not association of ideas, is the key. Sociality, not nature or individual cognitive ability, is at the basis of human thought reflected in divination. Another important idea expressed here is that divination forms a microcosm. This is elaborated with the example of Chinese astrology. Divination in this perspective helps to maintain the cultural classification system.

I have used English translations for citations where I have been able to find them.

Lévy-Bruhl (1857-1939), a contemporary of Émile Durkheim, was influenced by his thinking. He considers similar problems. In Les fonctiones mentales dans les societes inferieures from 1910, he is more interested in the characterising of primitive mentality, than in determining the level and development of culture. Lévy-Bruhl however concedes that primitive people do correctly perceive and understand ‘natural’ causes (Lévy-Bruhl 1985: 281), but collective representations make them think in terms of mystical causes. This is also the case concerning divination: “Their collective representations oblige them, as it were, by some form of preconception or pre-connection to refer the death to a mystical cause (...). The only thing that matters is the true cause and among certain peoples, at any rate, this is always mystic in its nature” (Lévy-Bruhl 1985: 281). According to Lévy-Bruhl, the method of choice among primitive people for finding this true cause is divination, because it is likewise characterised by mystical ideas. Central to Lévy-Bruhl‘s treatment is the distinction between natural and mystical causes. This distinction, which I call the dual-causation theory, is a fundamental one as we will see later. Another important feature is that Lévy-Bruhl ties primitive mentality to collective representations. This accounts for the persistence of divination. The difference between primitive people and modern people is thus not one of adequate perception of the world, as in the English empiricist perspective, but one of thinking about the world. This in turn is conditioned culturally by collective ideas. Durkheim and Mauss as well as Lévy-Bruhl focus on how primitive people think and how this is culturally constituted either in collective representations or in systems of classification. In both cases, divination plays an integral role. Whereas the English tradition concerns itself with issues of inductive truth, the French tradition is concerned with mentality, thus exhibiting the differences between empiricist and rationalist philosophy. In general it is interesting to note that there seems to be no principled distinction, at this stage, between magic and divination. Both rely on the same thought processes. With the decline of evolutionist theorising after World War One, research into divination also declined somewhat with some notable exceptions. Instead of the evolutionist armchair theorising, the extended periods of field work of functionalist anthropologists, such as Bronislaw Malinowski and Alfred Radcliffe Brown, became the ideal. Both were teachers of a scholar who would arguably become the most central figure in divination research: Edward Evans EvansPritchard.

Edward Evans Evans-Pritchard
Edward Evans Evans-Pritchard’s (1902-1973) classic monograph Witchcraft, Oracles, and Magic among the Azande from 1937 is a landmark in divination research. It was based on fieldwork conducted between 1926 and 1930 among the Azande living in Southern Sudan (Evans-Pritchard 1937: vii). Before Evans-Pritchard, no one had dedicated a great deal of fieldwork and scholarly reflection to divination. As a student of the functionalists Bronislaw Malinowski and Alfred Radcliffe-Brown, his focus was on fieldwork as opposed to the arm-chair theorising of the evolutionists. But Evans-Pritchard still exhibited the methodical rigor of the evolutionists. Evans-Pritchard was educated in a post-evolutionistic environment. Although the evolutionistic theory had dwindled in importance, the difference between the scientist and the savage was still an important question. For the evolutionists, this difference was to be found in cultural stages of evolution, for Lévy-Bruhl it was found in mentality. The core of EvansPritchard’s project was to demonstrate that this difference was only apparent, and consequently that primitive people were every bit as rational and intelligent as the Europeans (Douglas 1980: 33-35). Evans-Pritchard was not satisfied with how the ‘arm-chair’ anthropologists treated data from other countries. Theories of primitive thought were constructed on dubious source material, which was treated selectively: “(...) primitive thought as pieced together in this manner by European observers is full of contradictions which do not arise in real life because the bits of belief are evoked in different situations” (Evans-Pritchard 1934: 29). Evans-Pritchard shifts the focus to how these beliefs are products of everyday life, not theoretical science or abstract theology. 8 He suggests that there is a difference between the primitives and the moderns, but he finds it not in any all pervading primitive mentality, pseudo-science or pre-logical thought. Instead, he finds the difference in how everyday life and its institutions establish in individuals’ local systems of collective representations. He got this idea of collective representations from the French school of Durkheim and Mauss and Lévy-Bruhl (Evans-Pritchard 1934). An illustration of this is when he writes about the ‘web’ of Zande thought:


This interest, of course, parallels a turn in philosophy taking place at Cambridge with Ludwig Wittgenstein and the philosophy of everyday language (Douglas 1980).

The web is not an external structure in which he (A Zande) is enclosed. It is the texture of his thought, and he cannot think his thought is wrong. Nevertheless, his beliefs are not absolutely set, but are variable and fluctuating to allow for different situations and to permit empirical observation and even doubt (Evans-Pritchard 1937: 195).

That which installs these collective representations and makes them coherent in the Azande are institutions used in real-life situations: “Throughout I have emphasized the coherency of Zande beliefs when they are considered together and are interpreted in terms of situations and social relationships” (Evans-Pritchard 1937: 540). Evans-Pritchard also devotes a lot of energy to analysing the distinction between natural and mystical causes. Evans-Pritchard calls these respectively commonsense/scientific and mystical notions. Mystical notions are roughly notions that cannot be verified by science or plain observation. Commonsense notions can be inferred from observation and science is a more methodical approach to observation. This distinction is used to show that the Azande are indeed able to observe natural causation, they just supplement it with mystical notions. A classical example of this is when an old granary collapses, killing a person who is sitting below it. This is something that happened on occasion. The Azande know all too well that it is natural for granaries whose support has been eaten away by termites to fall, but still they search for a mystical cause. They want to find out why it collapsed when this particular person was sitting below it. This is done by searching for a witch who could ultimately be responsible. The basic idea is that the collapse of the granary is an intentional act by a witch motivated by envy, jealousy or personal enmity based on past interactions. Witches according to the Azande can only be distinguished from ordinary humans by an extra organ, mangu, which they possess. It can only be found in a postmortem autopsy. The witch therefore could be practically anyone living close by with whom the person has engaged in social interactions in the past (Evans-Pritchard 1937: 69-70). This dual causation makes the event socially relevant 9, because the witch is to be found among neighbours or other people with a known animosity towards the unfortunate. Divination as an institution serves the function of finding the particular witch responsible, but it also instils in individuals the collective representation that witches exist. In this rich texture of beliefs, social relations and situations, Evans-Pritchard painstakingly demonstrates why it is rational for the Azande to take recourse to divination when misfortune hits.

“The attribution of misfortune to witchcraft does not exclude what we call its real causes but is superimposed on them and gives to social events a moral value.” (Evans-Pritchard 1937: 73)

It is interesting to see that Evans-Pritchard attaches great importance to existential phenomena such as misfortune, and to moral behaviour and emotional responses. All these were almost completely absent in previous research focusing on mentality and logical processes. English anthropology subsequently focused on social aspects and especially on witchcraft.

The work Witchcraft, Oracles and Magic was innovative and opened up new ways of investigating divination. Two aspects in particular have drawn a great deal of attention: the social aspects involved in divination ‘on the ground’ and the rationality of divination. The American tradition of anthropology, originally preoccupied with philological and descriptive matters, was also inspired by Evans-Pritchard. The American anthropologist William R. Bascom wrote an article on Ifa divination in 1941. Bascom, who had read Evans-Pritchard’s work and concerned himself with much the same problems, had also conducted meticulous fieldwork from 1937 to 1938 among the Yoruba of West Africa. Of interest to Bascom is “(…) why people fail to be disillusioned by his [the diviner’s] mistakes” (Bascom 1941: 43), that is, when a prediction does not come true. He argues that manipulation is not possible (Bascom 1941: 53) and therefore cannot explain the persistence of Ifa divination. Instead several other factors work to protect the system. First of all, he argues that it is not so easy to find a clear cut case of refutation of a prediction. Second, the system is legitimised in the mythology of the Yoruba and the system has what he calls ‘alibis’. These alibis resemble what Evans-Pritchard calls secondary elaborations and consist mostly of a postulate of technical deficiency on the part of the diviner. This article represents a big advance on Clarke’s explanation of Ifa’s persistence as a function of the diviner’s telepathic skills or hyperesthesia (Clarke 1939: 251). Echoing Melvin Herskovits (Herskovits 1938: II, 217), Bascom suggests that divination might serve the function of eliminating psychological hesitation and give the individual greater confidence in his decision (Bascom 1941: 45). In 1969, Bascom published the influential study of Ifa: Ifa Divination – Communication between Gods and Men in West Africa (Bascom 1969). This was a comprehensive study of Ifa divination. In the monograph, the system is described in detail. The account is idealised and no concrete cases are mentioned, as in Evans-Pritchard’s Azande work. There is not much theory, but instead painstaking descriptions of what sorts of nuts are used for the divination, variations in

terminology across different Yoruba towns etc. He does, however, emphasise that diviners do not and cannot manipulate their clients. The point made by Bascom that divination eliminates hesitation and creates confidence was picked up by the American anthropologist George K. Park, who then focused exclusively on the social aspect of divination (Park 1963). For Park, divination serves a social function. Divination legitimises uncomfortable decisions, which serve to eliminate unwanted elements in society, thus preserving the social structure. Legitimisation is achieved through casting the decision “upon the heavens” (Park 1963: 197). He describes the poison ordeal as an example, also used by Lévy-Bruhl to demonstrate a similar point. Through the diviner’s manipulation of the poison in the poison ordeal, unwanted people are killed with the legitimisation of the heavens. Apparently, EvansPritchard’s refutation of manipulation in Zande divination and Bascom’s likewise among the Yoruba had not impressed Park. 10 Eugene Mendonsa, an American anthropologist, provides another example of how EvansPritchard’s work was elaborated. He also suggests that the persistence of divination is the result of a closed logical system protected by secondary elaborations (Mendonsa 1978: 45-47). In divination a dual causation is revealed, but because of the secondary elaborations, the falsity of the mystical causes is never seen. In his monograph from 1982, The Politics of Divination, Mendonsa tries to overcome the general problem of social functionalism: that there is no room for man as actor. Mendonsa points out that divination rarely has the harmonious effect of maintaining society and group cohesion. Instead, it might just as well produce friction, which indeed it does among the Sisala in West Africa, where he carried out his fieldwork. In society a number of contradictory rules exist, thus suggesting that deviance is a system property. In divination the source of this deviance is masked, and a new social construction of reality is created. He suggests the persistence of divination is the result of its utility as an instrument for the elders’ manipulation of and coping with deviance (Mendonsa 1982: 23, 153). Divination consequently is explained in terms of its function not for society, but for a group in society – the elders. The fusing of the English tradition of fieldwork with inspiration from the French in the form of Durkheim had a great impact on divination research. This spawned studies focused on meaning and classification. A prime example of this is the work of Victor Turner, an influential figure in general in anthropology and specifically in divination research. Turner conducted

It is not exceptional that the refutation of the manipulation aspect was forgotten. Even in a festschrift for Evans-Pritchard, there are similar misreadings of the Witchcraft, Oracles, and Magic among the Azande: McLeod twists the source material so that it apparently shows that the Azande do manipulate with the poison oracle (McLeod 1972: 169).

fieldwork from 1950-54 among the Ndembu in Central Africa. In the course of this fieldwork, he interviewed a number of diviners on their profession, basket divination, although he did not attend any divination séances. In 1961 he published Ndembu Divination – Its Symbolism and Techniques (Turner 1961), in which he summarised the technique and dedicated a great part to in-depth symbol studies. In the Ndembu basket divination, a number of symbolic objects are used. He describes the polyvalence of each symbol, which is shown to imply the entire Ndembu cosmos and society. For Turner, the consultation is a central episode in the process that begins with a person’s death, disease or misfortune and ends with the finishing remedial action. The misfortune is usually attributed to tensions in the local kin group. As Turner puts it:
Divination therefore becomes a form of social analysis, in the course of which hidden conflicts between persons and factions are brought to light, so that they may be dealt with by traditional and institutionalized procedures. It is in the light of this ‘cybernetic’ function of divination, as a mechanism of social redress that we must consider its symbolism, the social composition of its consultative sessions, and its procedures of interrogation (Turner 1961: 17).

This idea of divination as a process was originally borrowed from Radcliffe-Brown, and it was to become important in later divination research. Long gone is the interest in the rationality and logic of divination. The epistemic dimension is still there, but in the form of an interest in how meaning arises from the symbols. A central contribution is his linking of misfortune, divination and redress together in a unitary process, where each has to be seen in the light of the others. 11 British anthropologist Richard P. Werbner followed in the footsteps of Victor Turner and was similarly from the Manchester School. He provides a detailed analysis of Kalanga rhetoric. Here the focus is on the semantic aspect and how the communication takes place within a consultation situation. In divination a “superabundance of understanding is produced”. Just as Turner investigates concrete symbols, Werbner takes it one step further and investigates actual cases using a concrete context (Werbner 1973). Following this path as well, Belgian anthropologist Rene Devisch is also inspired by Turner. He argues for what he terms a praxeological analysis of divination to bring out the emergent properties (Devisch 1985). This approach attempts to shift the focus to humans’

Turner did publish a work on divination again, but Revelation and Divination is a mere reprint of Ndembu Divination, and the introduction merely elaborates and integrates this piece with his new ideas and concepts such as Communitas (Turner 1975).

purposeful action. Devisch is inspired by Turner and the Manchester School in his consideration of the totality of social life and performance. This parallels the critique against the social functionalist school. In an article from 1985, the outlines of this approach are necessarily vague. In later articles it is clearer what this approach entails (Devisch 1994; Devisch & De Boeck 1994). Divination is a mode of world-making “in which cognitive structures are transformed and new relations are generated in and between the fields of the human body (senses, emotions), the social body and the cosmos” (Devisch & De Boeck 1994: 100). Meanwhile in France, similar studies of divination were carried out by Jean-Pierre Vernant and Alfred Adler and Andres Zempléni. The classicist Jean-Pierre Vernant studies divination in historical cultures. A similar endeavour had already been undertaken by André Caquot and Marcel Leibovici, but their two-volume study of divination as a global phenomenon, La divination, did not have the same depth of theoretical explanations (Caquot & Leibovici 1968).12 Vernant edited the volume Divination et Rationalité (Vernant 1974), the purpose of which is to investigate the divinatory systems “as a mental attitude and a social institution” (Vernant & Zeitlin 1991: 303). This volume is a collection of historical studies of divination. The most theoretically fertile paper is Vernant’s own “Paroles et signes muets”. What interests Vernant is the type of rationality expressed in divinatory procedure and the classificatory frameworks used by the diviners. He points out that divination does not form a separate sector or isolated mentality. The mental function of divination is to suppress uncertain events by investing certain objects with a symbolic value. These form a microcosm of the world. Through the agency of the objects in this microcosm, knowledge of the real macrocosm might be achieved (Vernant & Zeitlin 1991: 310). Divination is founded on a tension between a formal frame of classification and the multiplicity of concrete situations. This idea is traceable to Durkheim and Mauss’ Primitive Classification, and expresses a typically French concern with classification and cosmology. A similar tendency can also be seen in the elaborate monograph on Moundang divination by Alfred Adler and Andres Zempléni (1972). In this monograph they elaborately show the symbolism implied in Moundang divination and how it relates to society and the individual. Here the divinatory system is likened to a linguistic system (langue) that brings together cultural symbols (1972: 210-212). They explicitly use the terms and ideas of structural linguistics to analyse this linguistic system and how it comes to be expressed in actual situations.


Although Volume 2 has an interesting chapter integrating psychoanalytic theory to explain divination (Devereux 1968), the articles are predominantly descriptive.

These examples reflect a French tradition of connecting classification to the social. Here the problems are examined using the theory of structural linguistics. ‘Decision making’ is not of central concern, as it is in the British and American traditions. In the 1980s, the French influence is seen in a poststructuralist infiltration of the study of divination. An example of this is the work of American anthropologist Rosalind Shaw. She is concerned with the interrelation of conceptual structures and social strategy (Shaw 1985: 287). According to Shaw, divination involves the selection of particular cognitive constructions of reality, but also individuals who consciously or unconsciously use strategies in pursuit of their interests. Since men are in control of divination among the Temne of Sierra Leone, they have the power to define women, which can be seen in divinatory consultations involving women. To Shaw, divination is an instrument to achieve ontological assurance, a means to negotiate reality (Shaw 1985: 300). Shaw later elaborates this view and finds that truth is not a product of biological procedures, but instead of specific legitimising contexts. An example is the courtroom, where truth is sanctioned. This is the same for divination: “Divination is clearly another such truth constructing process in which, through the public reclassification of people and events a particular interpretation emerges as the authorized version of ‘what really happened’” (Shaw 1991: 140). Thus divination is a truth and knowledge producing mechanism defining authority and power. Similar sentiments are expressed by Susan Reynolds Whyte (Whyte 1991). In 1991, African Divination Systems was published and this seemed to be the apogee of theoretical research on divination. The editor Philip M. Peek, a student of William Bascom, leaves the diffusionist and descriptive paradigm present in his earlier work (Peek 1982) and presents a new approach to divination with a focus on cognitive function. Peek proposes that a ‘Non-Normal Mode of Cognition’ is produced in the divination ritual (Peek 1991b: 205). This is the function of the right hemisphere of the brain, according to Peek, characterised by analogical and liminal thinking. This has to be synthesised with the left hemisphere, which produces ‘Normal Cognition’ in order to produce a ‘plan of action’ (Peek 1991b: 203). The diviner thus must establish a nonnormal mode of cognition and then with the client mediate between the two. Similar ideas are expressed in the same volume by David Parkin. For Parkin, a dual process also takes place in divination, but this is one of synchronic deep-semantics converted to sequenced surface semantics through Bricolage (Parkin 1991). These two chapters reflect an interest in the meaning of divination, one most present in the French tradition.

Michael Jackson’s work is located somewhere between the great currents in divination research. He is also geographically ‘between’ since he was educated in New Zealand. He worked with the Kuranko, who live in Niger. In 1978 he wrote an influential article in which he analysed Kuranko divination from the perspective of existential philosophy. Whereas earlier research had ultimately been based in either empiricism or rationalism, Jackson’s existential focus made it possible to interpret the emotional dimension as more than mere irrational folly, or an unimportant excrescence upon the system of collective representations. Jackson argues that in divination emotions brought about by misfortune are objectified in words or objects, which makes it possible to manipulate them (Jackson 1978: 130). But divination also functions as a way to socialise the individual, as it is subsumed under collective concepts and dogmas. Jackson writes: “The diviner’s analysis transforms uncertainty into conditional certainty and his instructions for an appropriate sacrifice enable the consulter to move from inertia to purposeful activity” (Jackson 1978: 134). According to this, a problem leads to existential anxiety and inactivity because it is not possible to choose the correct alternative for action; through the objectification by the diviner this is overcome and the person’s problem is brought in under a system of collective representations, which makes them possible to manipulate. 13 The debate over rationality, however, had not died, although the focus had turned towards social structure and function. A series of studies took up the question of rationality inspired by philosophy, particularly pragmatic philosophy. A good example of this is Peter Winch’s article “Understanding a Primitive Society” (Winch 1964). Here Winch argues that Evans-Pritchard was wrong in trying to evaluate and describe Zande notions in relation to scientific rationality. This forces the Zande mind to go where it would not naturally go. Winch does not think that the collective representations of the Azande form anything resembling a scientific system, which is why understanding is not possible through a comparison with European science. Winch, a student of Wittgenstein, argues instead that it is necessary to find a language that matches the Azande’s. Winch finds this in religious language, like Christian prayer (Winch 1964: 370). This has in turn been criticised by some, most notably Robin Horton (Horton 1976). Another reinterpretation of Evans-Pritchard’s Zande study focusing on the rationality of divination comes from Emily Ahern. By applying speech act theory, specifically John Searle’s distinction between constitutive and regulative rules, she seeks to account for why Zande divination appeared illogical to Evans-Pritchard and other Western commentators (Ahern 1982).

For a similar argument on Roman material see Gladigow (1979).

Constitutive rules are rules that constitute an activity, such as the rules of chess. They are rules that define a kind of activity and are expressed as definitions. Regulative rules regulate a pre-existing activity and are logically independent of the rules of that activity. They are framed in the form of imperatives. Consequently, you can break regulative rules without interfering with the kind of activity, but the same is not true for the constitutive rules. According to Ahern, the misinterpretation of Zande divination comes from mistaking regulative rules for constitutive ones. This is why contradictions between rules and performance are not perceived to be irrational. David Zeitlyn is also concerned with the old problem of what happens when contradiction arises in the course of consultation and he also tackles it in the light of pragmatic linguistics (Zeitlyn 1990). He studied Mambila spider divination and found that contradictions frequently arose from consultation. Zeitlyn suggests that the key to understanding why this is not damaging to the practice might lie in conversational analysis. But Zeitlyn makes a new move in that he does not focus on the dialogue between diviner and client, but instead he argues: “We must take seriously the diviners’ assumption that the sequence of questions is a dialogue between divination and diviner” (Zeitlyn 1990: 662). In order to throw light on how people deal with contradiction in conversation, he uses a study by Harold Garfinkel. Here a group of college students are told that they can consult a student counsellor over an intercom, but that the counsellor can only answer questions with a yes or no. What they did not know was that the answers were given from a predetermined list and hence random (Garfinkel 1967). In this study it is possible to examine specifically what happens when two answers flatly contradict each other. Subjects seemed to treat contradiction not as logical problems, but as question rejecting moves (Zeitlyn 1990: 657). Meaning is constructed according to a relevance principle – that the communicator gives the most relevant answer. In order to find this, the context of the question becomes central. This is exactly the same as what happens in the divinatory dialogue. Contradiction led Evans-Pritchard, and those after him, to assume secondary elaborations were protecting the closed thought system/collective representations by immunising them to refutations. With this research, Zeitlyn shows that contradictions are not refutations. This makes the problem behind the rationality debate evaporate. Instead of logic dominating thought and dialogue, it is instead the Gricean relevance principle (cf. Grice 2001). Jon Abbink (1993) also works with the relevance principle, but in the form of Dan Sperber and Deirdre Wilson’s cognitive relevance theory (Sperber & Wilson 1986). Abbink also considers divination a form of dialogue, but one in which a lot of the communication is not explicit. With the

help of Sperber and Wilson’s relevance theory, he shows how, for example, pointing is just as communicative as speaking. Whereas Zeitlyn acknowledges that a dialogue with divination is taking place, Abbink simply treats the dialogue between the ones present. Pascal Boyer’s ideas are related to Zeitlyn’s. He started his attack on anthropology in general and cultural anthropology in particular in 1990 with Tradition as Truth and Communication (Boyer 1990). In this book, he proposes a new cognitive view on divination. The focus for Boyer is how divination constitutes a truth making procedure (Boyer 1990: 61). Boyer finds that in divination, the truth is not a function of people thinking about the answers as stemming from a god or ancestor, as there is evidence of the contrary, for example among the Azande where no gods or ancestors are thought to be communicating. Instead people implicitly make a causal link between the situation at hand and the divinatory diagnosis. Thus divinatory speech differs from ordinary speech in that people think of it as directly caused by the situations represented, in the same way we think a photograph is directly caused by the situation represented (Boyer 1990: 78). One interesting aspect of Boyer’s theory is that it separates the mental representations at work in the ritual and the ones in discourse about divination. This makes it possible to explain why some people have elaborate theories of how divination works, but do not follow them in practice. More importantly, it renders the question of collective representations and secondary elaborations extrinsic to the truth production of divination, whereas previous research, with the possible exception of Zeitlyn, tried to explain divination’s truth production as a function of secondary elaborations blocking the refutation of the system.

Divination, derived from the Latin term divination, originally came from an Indo-European word designating the making clear of something. This resulted in two different uses in the Latin language: one for designating roughly what we today call divination, another for designating the making clear of the plaintiff in the criminal process. The treatise De Divinatione by Marcus Tullius Cicero fused the first meaning of divination with stoic philosophy and created a general category. Cicero showed the universality of divination through examples from all over the known world. This work has been the frame of reference for all subsequent scholarship dealing with divination as a general construct. Divination more or less disappeared in Europe after the Roman Empire became Christian.

No research on divination as a general phenomenon was carried out until modern times. The colonial encounter with people who used divination, extensively everywhere around the world, made divination a problem: why did the rest of the world engage in divination, when the Europeans did not? Initially evolutionist ideas served to account for the differences between the savage primitive and the scientific European. The rest of the world had not yet advanced to the European stage of culture. In Britain, the evolutionistic argument rested on empiricist concerns such as a deficiency in inductive ability of the primitive people compared to the modern Europeans. In France, rationalist concerns such as collective representations and classification took centre stage. The primitive people differed in their ideas about the world, not in inductive ability. A central development here was Émile Durkheim and Marcel Mauss’ focus on sociality as the basis for classification. This created two separate trajectories of modern divination research. Anthropology in Germany and the United States was more focused on philological and descriptive endeavours, which is why divination did not pose a problem. This also resulted in very little research on divination as a general phenomenon. With the breakdown of evolutionistic anthropology after the First World War, other ways of analysing divination came to the fore. It became apparent that the source material of the arm-chair evolutionist anthropologists was not always of very high quality. With the functionalists, extended periods of fieldwork became the ideal of anthropology. This showed a more nuanced view of the ‘primitives’ and their everyday lives. This ideal entered divination scholarship with Edward E. Evans-Pritchard. He gave a richly nuanced analysis of how divination functioned in the everyday lives of people. By considering everyday life, the problem of the rationality of divination was resolved. Focus shifted to the social relations and the function of divination. Special importance was attached to how divination functioned to legitimise action and aid decision making. The French tradition of research showed a continued interest in the meaning aspect of divination particularly in relation to cultural classification schemes. This aspect was already tied to the social with Durkheim and Mauss. Victor Turner inherited the tradition of prolonged fieldwork from British anthropology, but was also inspired by Durkheim. His studies of divination focused on the aspect of meaning and integrated the social with the classificatory and an in-depth knowledge of the society, not originally present in French anthropological investigations of divination. This association of classification and the social came to have great significance for later American anthropology.

The problem of divination had not vanished with Evans-Pritchard’s meticulous treatment of how divination was rational to the Azande. It was taken up and discussed under the influence of pragmatic linguistic philosophy. This branch of the philosophy of language was developed after Evans-Pritchard’s work, but had many affinities to it. Like Evans-Pritchard, pragmatics used the context in concrete situations to explain divination, not systems of thought. Pragmatics contributed with new analytic concepts that could add nuance to the original analyses of Evans-Pritchard.

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Reflections on a History of Divination Scholarship
Philip M. Peek

There is no better evidence of the great progress in divination scholarship than the testimony of two excellent conferences on divination systems held in the summer of 2005 in Europe. The breadth and depth of topics treated reassures us that the field is alive and well, no long held hostage by negative generalizations about the character of diviners or the nature of the divinatory enterprise. Only twenty years ago, such a multi-disciplinary conference as this was barely conceivable despite the fact that every known human society did or does engage in divination. Thus, the major change to note is that there is a wealth of diverse and vital research being devoted to this extraordinary aspect of culture. There is no question that studies are more sophisticated, now concerned with such questions as the applicability of mathematical models, how diviners are trained, relationships of gender and politics to divination, and so on. There is also the very welcome growth in detailed ethnographic studies of diviners and divination systems. Nevertheless, while the scope of divination scholarship is expanding, there still seem to be some critical dimensions yet to be addressed. Just as divination itself often gives us “new arrangements of old ideas,” so I am sure this volume will reveal new paths to follow in this ancient terrain. The following review and critique of divination scholarship will be heavily weighted towards research among African cultures. I hope the issues revealed will still have broader applicability and might still stand as a “state of the field” report. After recently co-editing (with Michael Winkelman) an anthology of divination studies around the world, I have the impression that divination researches among African societies are more extensive than those elsewhere. But we

are reminded that differing terminology can affect our perceptions as William S. Lyon reveals in his extensive survey of shamanic healing involving divination methods in North America where the literature seldom uses the term “diviner” (2004). To provide a starting point for this discussion, I would offer the following definition of divination:

A divination system is a standardized process deriving from a learned discipline based on an extensive body of knowledge. This knowledge may or may not be literally expressed during the interpretation of the oracular message. The diviner may utilize a fixed corpus, such as the Yoruba Ifa Odu verses, or a more diffuse body of esoteric knowledge. Divining processes are diverse, but all follow set routines by which otherwise inaccessible information is obtained. Some type of device usually is employed, from a simple sliding object to the myriad symbolic items shaken in diviners’ baskets. Sometimes the diviner’s body becomes the vehicle of communication through spirit possession. Some diviners operate self-explanatory mechanisms that reveal answers; other systems require the diviner to interpret cryptic metaphoric messages. [Commonly] the final diagnosis and plan for action are rendered collectively by the diviner and the clients(s) (Peek 1991a: 2).

There are a number of other features which help to define divination as practiced among African peoples, such as the situating of the divination session in time and space, the diviner’s apparel and apparatuses, and other means by which the liminality of the divinatory enterprise are established. Further note will be made of these later. We can well use detailed reviews of the divination scholarship for other areas of the world. A good foundation indicating the diversity of divination forms was laid by Caquot and Leibovici (1968) and Loewe and Blacker (1981) whose anthologies provide general descriptions of

systems around the world. There are several excellent encyclopedic treatments of divination scholarship, but by their nature they are intended as introductory to a general audience and are not detailed, academic critiques. Two recent examples of such fascinating overviews with exceptional illustrations are The World Atlas of Divination (1992), edited by John Matthews, and The Illustrated Encyclopedia of Divination (2002) by Stephen Karcher. Several more recent anthologies will be discussed shortly. When considering a history of divination studies, one is quickly made aware that it is a rather shallow history in terms of anthropological studies; but considering a broader scholarship, such as theological works, there a great deal to review. Just as one can find commentaries about divination in the Classical world by Greek and Roman scholars, so there are writings on the I Ching (or more correctly, Yijing) which date back thousands of years (see, e.g., Smith 1991) and Islamic scholars surely have debated Islamic astrology and divination for centuries (see, e.g., Brenner 2000; van Binsbergen 2005). The following observations will only cover European scholarship from the late 19 th century and they will be necessarily brief. While some serious attention was paid to divination among Mediterranean cultures, such as ancient Greece and Rome, little beyond highly disparaging comments can be found by Europeans on divination as practiced in the rest of the world. That is, if it was noticed at all. There are always exceptions to the stereotyped ridicule which 19 th century Europeans employed to describe other peoples as they increasingly encountered the non-European world. Such an individual in African scholarship was Rev. Henry Callaway (1870/1970) who provided wonderful ethnographic data on Zulu diviners in the 1870s. Edward Tylor encouraged Callaway’s research and found funds to support his innovative publication of Zulu texts. Surely there were other such sympathetic champions of Asian and American peoples who recorded valuable information on divination practices in the late 19th century.

There is a fascinating sub-text in the history of African studies in the striking difference among the research carried out by scholars from England, France, and the United States. To a large degree these differences echo, as we should expect, these nations’ worldviews and larger intellectual traditions which resulted in variations in the development of anthropology, or perhaps better, ethnology. American cultural anthropology seems to have prepared Africanist anthropologists to study the full range of expressive behaviors; for example, all of Melville Herskovits’ students produced studies of the arts although few (except perhaps William Bascom and Alan Merriam) were scholars of the arts per se. Nevertheless, few studied divination, though William Bascom’s (1969) study of Ifa divination of the Yoruba of western Nigeria remains exemplary. The contrast between French ethnologists’ studies of elaborate symbol systems and the British social anthropologists’ studies of kinship systems is well-known (see Richards 1967; Douglas 1979; van Beek 1991). It is easy to make humorous comparisons of those who studied fields of symbols as opposed to fields of grain, but an important point is present. The British sought social constructs of the person while the French sought to understand the cosmological constructs of the person, yet few stressed the centrality of divination whichever path was taken. Although EvansPritchard’s careful study of Azande divination (1968, first published in 1937), remains an important starting point in divination studies, few of his students pursued research on divination systems with such a critical approach. There are a few highlights certainly ( e.g., Beattie 1967 and Middleton 1971), but there were no extensive studies until a few decades ago with studies by Werbner (1973) and Turner (1975). We too often ignore the impact of our cultures on our own scholarship on others’ cultures. And there is still a degree of nationalistic pride as I learned when colleagues responded to my attempt at a balanced critique of Evans-Pritchard and British anthropologists’ treatments of African diviners (Peek 1991a). Surely, there are cultural differences between, for example, English and French scholarship in the South Pacific.

Another aspect of the history of divination scholarship is that of typologies. Much later 19 th century and early 20 th century scholarship is filled with virtually endless typologies which attempted to categorize divination systems primarily by means of the divinatory apparatus or the outsiders’ perceptions of the process involved. Perhaps this is an intellectual legacy of “to name it is to know it” and it still seems to be with us. Virtually any extant or created object or event can be scrutinized for changes to be interpreted – from birds’ flight to tossed coins, from sliding objects to liver spots. The lists are endless. Such enumerating approaches to divination persist in more recent scholarship but they accomplish little in enlightening us about the systems or peoples involved. This is a somewhat unproductive and very problematic approach, especially because so little emic data has been utilized. Once a people’s own terminology is fully recorded, we can turn to issues of comparison. For African material, Rene Devisch’s critical review (1985) is the best and many would do well to review it today. The basic problem with attempts to distinguish divination systems by type is that, at least by the observer’s etic criteria, the presumed distinctive features become mixed in actual practice. Europeans have a tendency to rigidly separate states of consciousness. These delicate instances of cross-world communication are no simple either/or propositions. In other worlds, to attempt to separate “intuitive” from “rational” thinking or “mechanical devices” from “spirit possession” is highly problematic if the diviner is possessed by ancestral spirit as she or he casts shells or ivory tablets. Also we find in practice that the same diviner may use several different forms of divination even in the same session. All forms of divination involve, virtually by definition, a non-normal state of inquiry in which some element (the diviner or the apparatus) is in contact with some entity or power not of this mundane world. Therefore, in the total divinatory enterprise, both “analytical” and “revelatory” elements exist; indeed, the two modes seem necessary for the efficacy of divination (Peek 1991a). While typologies alone tell us little, in truth there are

extremely exacting choices made about all aspects of the divination process. Thus, the symbolic elements of a divination system are absolutely critical to understand and, surprisingly, we still need more data on these choices of apparatus, agents, regalia, and so on. In large part, it was this lack of comprehensive data in previous scholarship which prompted the anthology African Divination Systems: Ways of Knowing (1991b) which I edited and contributed two essays on the background of divination research in Africa and on an approach by which to understand the effectiveness of divination among its practitioners. Rev. Henry Callaway’s description of Zulu diviners’ initiation started the volume. Next were essays concerning the search for knowledge by John Burton on Atuot philosophy and Pierre Verin and Narivelo Rajaonarimanana on the development of divination in Madagascar. Part Three focused on ethnographic descriptions of divination systems: Rudolph Blier on Batammaliba diviners of Togo, Piet Meyer on Lobi diviners of Burkina Faso, Alden Almquist on Pagibeti divination, and Rene Devisch on Yaka divination. Epistemological issues were the focus of part four with contributions by Rosalind Shaw on Temne divination, Susan Reynolds Whyte on Nyole divination, and David Parkin on Kenyan diviners. James Fernandez provided the Afterword. The centrality of divination in virtually all cultural affairs emerged as a basic theme in that work. We sought to raise questions as much as to provide answers, but clearly divination systems form the core their cultural systems. Indeed, this is one of the main areas in which we need far more detail in future studies, especially as we increasingly portray these practices as systems of knowledge in action. What are the epistemological premises of these systems? What animals are literally or symbolically present in what form and why? For example, why are tortoises present in divination apparatus all over Africa? In fact, “silent” creatures ( e.g., spiders) may be the most frequently utilized to carry oracular messages. Are there basic concepts of good and evil present? For example, in southern Nigeria divination forms, no matter the device, there is a basic

understanding that open/up is good and closed/down is bad. And anything which can register that difference of convex and concave surfaces, from cowries to cassava peelings, may be used for divination. One cannot help but be struck by the present of twins and twinning in relation to divination systems among peoples as disparate as the Senufo of Cote d’Ivoire and the Luba of the Congo. Does this association reflect broader notions of spirituality or communication?

Recent Research
In the last few years, there have been a number of noteworthy exhibitions and publications devoted to divination, especially in Africa. In 1996, John Pemberton III organized a conference at Amherst College on “Art and Rituals of Divination in Central and West Africa: A Cross-Cultural Study.” In addition to highlighting the Maurer Collection of divination instruments (which had its own small catalog, The Artist’s Eye, The Diviner’s Insight (1998), this conference resulted in the publication of an important collection of papers, Insight and Artistry in African Divination (2000). Along with excellent ethnographic studies of divination systems in western and central Africa, there are a number of theoretically oriented essays. There are essays on historical and theoretical issues by Wyatt MacGaffey, John Mack, Barry Hallen, and Philip M. Peek. The majority of papers are basically ethnographic studies providing important information: Muslim divination by Louis Brenner, Luba by Polly Nooter Roberts, Tabwa by Allen F. Roberts, Pende by Z.S. Strother, Yaka by Rene Devisch, Chokwe and neighbors by Manuel Jordan, Gabon by Alisa La Gamma, Guro by Lorenz Homberger, and Ifa by Wande Ambimbola and by Roland Abiodun. This conference and publication sought to focus on the arts, the ritual objects of divination, in order to demonstrate that the epistemologies underpinning divination processes are portrayed, clarified, and intensified, not simply decorated, by artistic works and behaviors.

The year 2000 also saw two other significant exhibitions with associated publications. For the millennium, the Museum Reitburg of Zurich showcased the monumental exhibition on divination around the world called “Orakel” which also had an encyclopedic catalog, Orakel: De Blick in die Zukunft (Langer et al. 2000), both of which had a number of contributors. This was a project of exceptional breadth and depth. There were contributions by twenty-one scholars to this beautifully produced volume which is divided into six sections which mix divination types functions, and peoples. Extensive references within the many subsections provide an excellent update of resources on divination. Illustrated by the gorgeous objects of the exhibition and fine field photographs, divination from around the world is represented. Ancient forms, such as marked bones and tortoise shells, from China and Mesopotamia are discussed in section one, while section two is devoted to divination by means of reading livers and animal entrails from ancient Greece and contemporary Indonesia. Divination through possession trance is treated in the next section which starts with the ancient Delphi Oracle and offers contemporary examples from Tibet and China. Spectacular Islamic astrological apparatuses and ancient Indian mechanisms and texts are the focus of the fourth unit which surveys various ways by which human affairs are determined by planetary phenomena. “Black Africa,” i.e., sub-Saharan Africa, is well-represented in the following section with various peoples and divination types illustrated. Following a general introduction by John Pemberton III which treats the Zande, Luba, Yaka, and Yoruba peoples’ divination forms, short essays explain other forms found throughout Africa from silent animal oracular agents to cast objects and spirit possession. Two short entries on use of psychoactive agents in Guatemala and elsewhere, and on calculation devices in China conclude this part. Finally, there are essays on perhaps the most famous divination forms in the world: the I Ching of China, Ifa of the Yoruba, and the Tarot cards of Europe.

Also there was an exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art linked to the Zurich show but which only focused on African material. Alisa LaGamma, the show’s curator, included comparative material of divinatory arts from other cultures in the exhibition; but the catalog, Art and Oracle: African Art and Rituals of Divination (2000), only illustrated the African material which was broadly related to or derived from divination. La Gamma’s introduction is followed by Pemberton’s excellent survey essay translated from Orakel, from the Reitburg exhibition. In addition to the scholars cited in these excellent works and their bibliographies, one can find other solid scholarship. There have been a number of individual scholars who have continued to publish important books and articles on African divination systems, among whom are Rene Devisch (Weaving the Threads of Life: The Khita Gyn-Eco-Logical Healing Cult Among the Yaka, 1993, and numerous articles), Susan Reynolds Whyte on Nyole divination (most recently, Questioning Misfortune, 1997), Richard Werbner on Tswapong divination (1989), and David Zeitlyn on the Mambila of Cameroon (1990, 2001). One further compilation can be mentioned. Michael Winkelman and I recently coedited a collection of essays, Divination and Healing: Potent Vision (2004). We sought to focus on the healing aspects of divination per se (not simply the prescriptions and resultant behaviors following a divination session) with essays from around the world. Representing Africa are Rene Devisch on the Yaka, Elliott Fratkin on the Samburu, Jacob Olupona on Ifa of the Yoruba, and Edith Turner on the Ndembu. For the Americas, there are Keith Bletzer on the Ngwabe of Panama, Benjamin Colby on the Maya, and William Lyon on Native North American healers and for Asia, Eva Jane Neumann Fridman on Inner Asian shamans, Ruth-Inge Heinze on divination practices in Thailand, and Krishnakali Majumdar on the Jaunsaris of India. Our intention was to demonstrate how divination directly contributes to the healing process:

Social-control views of divination may be legitimate interpretations of some practices, but they do not accommodate paradigm shifts that have occurred in anthropology and medical anthropology in particular. Traditional views of healing processes as social entertainment or dramatic enactments of social processes have shifted to the recognition that ethnomedical practices produce therapeutic effects. Therapeutic effectiveness demands an empirical role for the divinatory or diagnostic practice. How do divination processes play a role in the therapeutically effective healing responses? (Winkleman and Peek 2004: 4).

In addition, we were especially concerned that divination studies more closely represent what practitioners assert:

If we discount this emic perspective on divination, rejecting the ‘spirit hypothesis,’ what are the alternatives? Classic explanations based on latent functions, social-control mechanisms, and psychosocial processes do not effectively engage the cultural realities of the divinatory subjects. With full respect for, if not belief in other cultural systems, we seek to more completely understand divination’s role in treating illness (Winkleman and Peek 2004: 6).

Koen Stroeken’s initial essay on “the Real” which divination addresses harkens back to Mary Douglas’ famous observation:

Any culture which admits the use of oracles and divination is committed to a distinction between appearances and reality. The oracle offers a way of reaching behind appearances of another source of knowledge (1979: 129).

There is a similar endorsement from an unexpected source. In The Order of Things, Foucault notes: “Divination is not a rival form of knowledge; it is part of the main body of knowledge itself” (1970: 32). Winkelman and I also sought to respond to other erroneous characterizations of divination, such as allegations about its exclusively conservative nature. The functionalist aspect of divination is a result of a negotiated plan, not simply the dictates of tradition. In fact, divination “works” because it is both conservative (rooted in traditional values, ancestral voices, and so on) yet flexible and innovative by allowing (actually, requiring) adjustments to internal and external changes and contemporary realities. One further emphasis of ours should be mentioned. We attempted to highlight the multisensorial dimensions of divination. The divinatory enterprise is not solely a verbal encounter, nor even primarily visual; but all modes of perception, communication, and interaction are utilized. The most recent event involving divination (excluding this very conference) was a conference at the National Museum of Ethnology, Leiden, the Netherlands, July 4-5, 2005, “Realities Re-Viewed/ Revealed: Divination in Sub-Saharan Africa.” There were presentations by thirty some scholars from a variety of disciplines. Wim van Binsbergen’s far-reaching historical and comparative address initiated the conference. Most presentations were descriptive of individual diviners and divination systems. Papers could be grouped in a few categories: Ethnomathematics were treated in several papers; there were philosophically-oriented discussions of divination and time, metaphorical speech, and concepts of knowledge. More contemporary questions related to political and religious matters were raised by presentations from urban diviners and issues from pentacostal churches in Ghana to government recognition of diviner-healers in South Africa; presentations on women marabouts in Senegal and women diviners in southern Africa; as well as number of papers focused on ethnographic descriptions of divination sessions from Mali to

Mozambique and Ghana to the Congo (although the majority of presentations were based on research in West Africa). Walter van Beek and I are editing a selection of conference papers and Jan Jansen has edited another group of papers on Mande-speaking peoples. And, of course, we have the present volume and its wide-ranging presentations from many different disciplines. One very interesting development in divination scholarship is a unique presentation of the material by Michael D. Fischer and David Zeitlyn at the University of Kent. They have created an interactive CD, “Experience-rich Anthropology,” which has a section on African divination with interactive segments on Venda divination dice and Mambila spider divination (1999). This allows the student to simulate “casts” and receive their interpretations.

Contemporary Issues
There is no question that divination has taken a more central position of study in a wide range of disciplines – and rightly so! Divination is at the core of a culture and permits entry to virtually every aspect of that culture. Much good work is being done by Africanist art historians on divination arts such as shrine objects, baskets, and diviners’ apparatus and regalia (e.g., Glaze 1981; Pemberton 1998; Roberts 2000). Many African peoples, by way of signifying the importance of their divinatory systems, often embellish doors and other carved objects with portrayals of divination instruments and practices. In contrast, certain types of divination, especially those utilizing set numbers of cast objects or synoptic texts are being investigated by mathematicians (e.g., Eglash 1997). Among other matters, they are intrigued by the topic of randomness; but I want to treat this topic separately. While not all mathematicians are willing to consider such a field as “ethnomathematics” as valid, there is no question that other scientists are very interested in the botanical and zoological knowledge found among diviners and other

traditional specialists. Just as a diviner’s basket holds a summary of the society, so the symbolic associations of sacred creatures represented in the diviner’s regalia provides much valuable ethnozoological and ethnobotanical data. A related area is astrology and astronomy, but compared to research in Asia, relatively little has been done in these areas in relation to African divination studies. Gender studies have discovered divination as well. Many diviners appear to seek an androgynous state or at least androgynous appearance during the oracular sessions. Also there are valuable studies of women diviners and their status and role in their societies. Barbara Tedlock’s important recent work, The Woman in the Shaman’s Body (2005) illustrates how much we need to review about women religious specialists. Such research can also return us to more traditional social structural studies about power and politics; but now with new insights from a position once thought to be only marginal. Who divines for whom? Who has control over the divinatory process and/or the oracular results? How does divination compare to other means of decision-making, problemsolving, and judicial processes? Those previously labeled charlatans are now understood to more often be the bearers and interpreters of tradition and, be they men or women, they are divining for male and female clients. An increasing number of researchers are gaining extended personal experience of divination by apprenticeships and long-term study with individual diviners, such as Jan Jansen (2005) and Koen Stroeken (2004) have done in West Africa. There are also scholars who have become practicing diviners themselves, such as Wim van Binsbergen. This obviously introduces a whole new dimension to our studies. These experiences provide valuable information about the character of diviners (do they really have special qualities or personalities?) as well as the training process, modes of knowledge, etc. Life history studies have a long history in anthropology and can be very valuable. Along with interest from philosophers, we will gain detailed studies of

terminologies and taxonomies as well as the process of the transmission of knowledge. In addition to personal histories we can consider regional distributions of divination types (Peek 1982) and the role of diviners in their culture’s history (e.g., Roberts and Roberts 1996). With divination now more accepted, and given the wealth of material available through the close study of diviners and their divination systems, there is really no topic that is not enhanced by this research. And far from being lost in the mists of tradition, divination’s importance in urban settings and situations of culture change and globalization is now recognized. Rather than the previous depiction of divination as frozen in tradition, we better understand it as interpreting and facilitating adjustments in an ever-changing world.

Future Possibilities
An historical review is supposed to only look backwards covering the past and “recent present,” but we can also review some areas that have yet to receive the attention they should in divination studies. Taking the area of history first, I believe we can now develop histories of specific divination systems as well as histories of regional patterns. The work of Wim van Binsbergen demonstrates how fruitful and provocative such studies can be. His most recent work, “Divination through Space and Time” (2005) was the keynote address at the recent conference on African divination systems held in Leiden. Not only has he presented a detailed account of Islamic geomancy’s influence on certain divination forms throughout Africa, but he is able to argue for a unified history of certain divination systems throughout the world. While he focuses on the numerical and casting systems such as the Shona four tables and Yoruba Ifa and opele chain systems, and Muslim sand divination, he also considers other African forms to have Asian analogs. Finally, Van Binsbergen argues for astrology as the original divination form and

even proposes ancient roots among archaic peoples – a movement of cultural practices “out of Africa” ca. 140,000 BCE with a “return” to Africa millennia later. I think he makes an extremely important point when he speaks of the “protoglobalization” which affected divination forms. We must never forget that the relatively recent European “discovery” of the world has obscured the centuries of contact of, for example, peoples in Asia and Africa. It should be noted that literally all of van Binsbergen’s works, including this address, are available on his extraordinary website: www.shikanda.net. Here he has other publications on the sangoma of southern Africa, the four table divination form, his own initiation as a diviner, research on board games, and so on. We need to study the possible associations of specific divination types and the types of problems for which they are employed. Just as we investigate some health ailments via x-rays and others via blood tests that some forms of divination work better for some issues than others. Piet Meyer (1991) is convinced that the Lobi “yes-no” hand-holding divination was extremely effective, yet others would see it as the simplest and least reliable of forms. The choices of available systems by diviners and by clients need to be studied. Most African cultures have several divination forms. The Baule of Côte d’Ivoire use mouse and thong divination as well as komien, spirit possession. While the Ifa system of the Yoruba is well-known, they too have other divination forms. Do these rely on the same epistemological foundations? Are they different levels of analysis? By now we have sufficient data on enough divination systems to start considering regional studies. Granted that the late 19 th century “comparative method, at least in Africa, offered little solid data; but now we should be able to do far better. Another interesting factor in Africa is that while one culture will have several, often very different, divination forms, neighboring peoples will have radically different forms, yet provide divination for their neighbors as “foreign” diviners

are often intentionally sought. On the other hand, large regions share the same divination form as with the divining chain in southern Nigeria (Peek 1982). I might add here that van Binsbergen is much dismayed by the popularizations of divination. He found a packaged version of the four tablet divination form complete with instruction manual in a local Zambian market. Needless to say, the popularity of Yahoo Astrology. com may be equally dismaying to some. But, as contemporary television throughout the world comes to broadcast diviners’ shows and book stores continue to fill with divination manuals from everywhere, such popularization and commercialization is clearly with us and must be dealt with. We are also reminded of the extraordinary diversity of divinatory forms now available everywhere. With the spread of peoples around the world and with the interest in esoteric traditions, the “exotic other” is now living next door and virtually all oracular traditions are a click away on the Internet. As problematic as New Age therapies may be for researchers more accustomed to work in more distant and exotic contexts of African villages or Central American hill towns than among urbanites in New York City or Copenhagen or the spas of Taos, New Mexico, it is there we must work as well. Eva Jane Neumann Fridman’s research (2004) among contemporary Inner Asian diviners illustrates how much can be done. Along these lines, I might add that we should always include African American data on divination and related topics, if it is available, when studying African systems of divination because the study of Africans in Africa also should include the African Diaspora. Not only does one find extraordinary continuity of African divinatory practices in the Americas, but there are many active African diviners in the USA and Europe. Dr. Wande Abimbola, noted scholar of the Yoruba Ifa system (e.g., 1976), serves Yoruba clients throughout the USA as a babalawo. It seems that any study of a people would benefit from consideration of those peoples wherever they now reside. With globalism there is the spread of esoteric traditions throughout the world as people migrate to

other countries for economic or political reasons and carry their tools for survival with them. Today we have Korean shamans in New Jersey, Senegalese diviners in Paris, and the I Ching used worldwide in various Chinese communities. This list of questions we need to ask should, of course, include those raised in the original call for papers for this conference about existential and phenomenological issues, cognitive dimensions, and the need for an empirical focus on living epistemological systems. There is no doubt much can be learned by closer examination of divination systems by many disciplines. Before concluding I would offer a few comments on one more aspect of the research on divination, that is where there are continued problems. There is no substitute for good basic ethnography. There are still too many studies which only present fragments of a system or pass by basic contextual information. Full explanations of the efficacy and power of symbols may continue to elude us but the struggle for comprehension is still worthy. Equally, while I still support the gathering of solid field data over theorizing, I am struck by continued repetition of generally outmoded labels, models, taxonomies, and references. As much as I admire such intellectual ancestors as Evans-Prichard (1937/1968) and Victor Turner (1975), we need to move on. Ironically, the symbolic footnote for the ancestors, the call for the validation of tradition, may be more of a tradition of anthropology than of the people we study. Literacy promotes a type of rigidity of thought that we too seldom recognize. The fact remains that Victor Turner never attended a divination session but had an extraordinary informant in Muchona. Strikingly, Edith Turner did attend divination sessions – and writes very perceptively and profoundly about them from a very different perspective (2004). Along these lines, I fear we still have research being presented which does not accept divination systems as the people using them do. In other words, we still have the intrusion of the researcher’s personal belief, or disbelief. These are legitimate ways of knowing. It should not matter

what the ethnographer believes but that she or he presents what the people believe and do as understandable and fair as way as possible. Many now understand how central divination is but they still seem to feel compelled to comment on what they perceive about the veracity of these systems. On the other hand, there are also those who argue for the authenticity of “real” knowledge gained through divination and reject “rationalist” arguments of others ( e.g., Stroeken 2004; Myhre 2006; Swancutt 2006). Earlier I noted that there has been interest in the issue of the randomness of some divination systems. I almost said “apparent randomness” because the practitioners of these systems certainly do not understand the fall of tablets or the configuration of objects in a diviner’s basket to be “random.” Quite the opposite, these are explicit arrangements which convey exact oracular messages or information about the client’s predestination. We are on firmer ground if we refer to these as systems which are apparently uncontrollable by the diviner. All would agree that the cast of objects, for example, in a diviner’s basket could not be controlled by the diviner, but by greater forces in the universe. Originally, in my own research, I had actually hoped to employ Jung’s (1973) concept of synchronicity to this aspect of some divination systems. The “acausal principle,” as he termed it, was an attempt to explain the relationship of apparently unrelated events which some how coincided in space and/or time in some meaningful fashion. Jung even employed the I Ching as he wrote an introduction for an edition of the famous Chinese system (1974). Ultimately, I found more value in Gregory Bateson’s discussion of “muddling” (1974) in which the mixing up of known elements led one to a different perspective, literally a “re-vision” of the problem at hand. Actually, I think some have misunderstood my thoughts in this area. When I summarized all the ways by which the diviner and divining event are liminalized by use of esoteric language, betwixt and betweeness of space and time, anomalous creatures, androgyny of the diviner, and so on (1991a), some have understood my reference to non-normal states of

consciousness as not simply “different” but solely mystical or “non-rational.” Throughout the divinatory process, certainly clearly illustrated in the African systems, there is continual and marked dichotomization of mechanisms and other aspects of the process, yet there is resolution by the conclusion of the session. Divisions of male/female, white/black, and so on do not remain thusly separated, but a synthesis emerges which provides the client with a new and necessary perspective, narrative, answer, solution on which to act. This dichotomization, e.g., the distinction of right and left sides of divinatory casts as with the opele chain of Ifa among the Yoruba, may be related to what we now know about the functioning of the bicameral brain. Perhaps the difference making and alternations of dualities is intended to parallel the oscillations of right and left hemispheres of the brain as we seek resolution to problems, perceptions, and functioning by use of different aspects of the brain in varying order (Peek 1991a: 205). Tedlock (2001) has taken up this issue as well. Whether or not this is the exact mechanism, clearly divination provides a new way to understand an old problem, a perspective which, through negotiation among members of the divinatory contingent and after personal reflection, provides an effective plan of action. But, back to the idea of randomness. I know that this concept is recognized by African peoples because the Yoruba and Igbo of Nigeria have even personalized it in masquerades and spiritual entities; but they in no way link it to the divinatory act. In fact, divination seeks to resolve apparent randomness of life and find the correct life pattern for the afflicted individual, perhaps even that which was pre-destined, perhaps even chosen by the individual in the other world. An intriguing comparison of worldviews can be made in relation to the idea of randomness as a process of luck and chance. I was recently invited to a conference at Rutgers University in New Jersey concerned with gambling and games of chance about which it was thought that myself, John Mason, a practicing babalawo in New York City, and others could contribute perspectives via divination studies. I am not sure we did in the manner intended. While

among the Yoruba, divination (the apparently random casts of Ifa) usually leads to resolution of problems in social harmony, for the gambler in the USA, the casts of dice lead to increased individual wealth. At the risk of oversimplification, this seems yet another reminder of the individualism of the USA and communalism of Africa. Also we might note that in the USA, along with the growth of Internet Astrology, there is an epidemic of online poker games!! Divination as merely a “game of chance”? With rewards being solely monetary for the individual? No, certainly that is not the case in Africa, but the comparison highlights gambling as yet another reflection of the “Culture of Redemption” which continually revives itself in the USA!

With solid descriptions of systems of divination which provide the necessary breadth of context of all salient aspects along with depth of detail on specific aspects, perhaps guided by some theoretical perspective, we will be in great shape. I am still convinced that basically divination works because it gives us a different way to understand our problems. The combination of unique information, dramatic ritual, ancestral and spiritual power, intensified and shared concerns of the group, and practical discussion moves us to resolution and practical action. Divination has been and ever shall be. The better we understand it, the better we understand ourselves.

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Anthropological Approaches

Entertained by the unknown
Divination in post-socialist rural Mongolia
Lars Højer

Studies on divination tend to assume that people consult a diviner mainly because they are worried or suspect that something is hidden from ordinary perception (Evans-Pritchard 1950; Zeitlyn 2001). The assumption is that a person or a group of people consult a diviner because they face a problem to be addressed and solved; divination is “the pursuit of answers to questions” (Zeitlyn 1995: 189) or “is always (…) associated with a situation which (…) seems to call for a decision” (Park 1963: 195). You have a question and you seek an answer. It is not hard to see the functionalist assumptions implied in such claims: the hidden needs to be unveiled and the process of unveiling is in response to a prior practical or intellectual need. Although not necessarily wrong, it seems that this functional proposition could just as well be turned on its head – or be dispended with – so that divination, rather than being a consequence of a need, is in itself a process and anticipation of unveiling that – by itself – creates or implies an anticipation of hidden issues. When reasoning along these lines, it is not necessarily the client’s suspicion that something is hidden which leads to practices of revelation such as divination, but just as much practices of revelation themselves leading to suspense and an anticipation of the hidden as such. Thus, the hidden does not simply need to be brought out or unveiled by divination, because rather than doing away with the hidden, divination both feeds and feeds on the unknown, which is part of its constitution as a mode of cognition. In this way, we can avoid approaching divination in causal and functional terms, and prevent reducing divination to an expression of intellectual or practical utility caused by disorder, uncertainty or misfortune and leading to order, certainty and fortune. Rather, we can view it also as a particular instance of a modality of suspense concerned with and gaining effect by concealing while unveiling. This approach, I believe, can serve to illuminate ethnographic material from post-socialist Northern Mongolia. 14


The ethnographic material for this chapter was collected mainly in 2001. I am grateful to the Danish Research Council for the Humanities and the Danish Research Academy for funding the research.

I will begin the argument by introducing the kind of rural Mongolian divination sessions described in this chapter. 15 On the basis of one particular session, it will be shown that such sessions are inherently concerned with the unknown. On the one hand, it will be argued that ‘the unknown’ can be considered constitutive of a certain divinatory mode of reproduction, but on the other hand, it will be claimed that this mode of reproduction is fertilised by post-socialist conditions, where a strong sense of the unknown is fostered. In the remainder of the chapter, the idea of divinatory practice as involved in transformation per se, and as giving only a shaky sense of direction to clients, will be developed and used as a critique of what is usually considered the key function of divination, namely its ability to resolve, make visible and offer release. Rather than approaching divination as a function, i.e., as a result of other processes, whether evolutionary, psychological or sociological, it will be argued that the present Mongolian ethnography is best approached as a field where culture never stops reinventing itself.

Divination and ‘incomplete cosmologies’ in post-socialist rural Mongolia
In rural Mongolia, people might consult a diviner if they have a problem or a worry that needs to be addressed. A herdsman’s horse may have disappeared during the night, possibly due to theft, or his son could have fallen ill. Perhaps the son-in-law drinks too much, or maybe the family has run into financial problems. Often, however, people consult a diviner mainly because the diviner is in the vicinity. This is highlighted in the case of travelling diviners, 16 who visit households while travelling and incidentally meet people with whom they have no prior relationship. During such household visits, it is evident that most people present – and often even neighbouring families – feel like inquiring into something. Worries, even quite serious ones, seem to be everywhere, although they are not necessarily present independently of the divinatory context. Rather, the worries are prompted or maybe even generated by the presence of the diviner. This presence converts a straightforward problem, like the fact that a shop in the local village is not running well, into a worry or suspicion of a hidden cause that necessitates inquiry into unknown domains. It is thus wrong to claim that the diviner simply meets demands; rather, he also brings them out by serving as a catalyst for people’s curiosity and explorations. In Mongolia as elsewhere, the need arises from the divinatory possibility of questioning and creating suspense, i.e., of simultaneously creating

It should be stressed from the outset, however, that I am referring to a certain kind of session, and that far from all sessions in rural Mongolia involve the ‘amount’ of indeterminacy described in this chapter. 16 Some diviners or Buddhist lamas are often on the move, while others tend to stay in their homes most of the time if not always. I do not intend to imply, however, that we are dealing with two different categories of diviners, but rather aim to draw attention to the effects of divining while travelling.

excitement and uncertainty. Divination, it seems, revolves around being incited by the very possibility of the hidden or of playing with that very possibility – this playing, however, all too soon starts to play around with us. People are unable to resist the temptation of being confronted or faced with internalising a perspective, such as a divinatory answer, that is not their own. People lose control and are played around with, because they anticipate finding what they did not seek, and – as will be shown later – what is revealed, i.e., the new perspective, is found to be partly concealed. As such – and as will be shown in the more tangible ethnographic material below – the game never really ends. During my fieldwork, I observed a Buddhist lama, 17 on his way home from a wellknown cave cult site, visit a Mongolian herding family in their ger.18 In Mongolia, a lama is a respected person and does not visit a remote countryside household very often. The lama, of course, was treated accordingly. He – as well as the people travelling with him – was offered salted milk tea, dried curds and even a meal. Apart from the elderly host couple and the newly arrived visitors, four local people were present in the ger. The host family used the lama’s visit to have a small purification ritual performed, and most people present had their pulse taken by the lama (a practice used for medical diagnosis by lamas). At first, however, the lama carried out dice divination.19 The people sat in front of him and told him what their problems were. He then asked each of them about their year of birth according to the Mongolian zodiac, closed his eyes and shook a small box with dice, held between his folded hands, while moving his folded hands up and down in front of his face. After looking at the dice in the box, he then responded to the clients, subsequent to having gone through – or while going through – a further dialogue with the clients, mainly based on questions from the lama. Almost everyone present in the ger chose this opportunity to ask the lama diviner a question, including the elderly wife of the household. The dialogue of this particular session went as follows:
Woman: I always have a dream about a person who is dead. Lama: What's your name? What year are you? Woman: Monkey. 20 I always meet and talk to a dead person.

Tibetan Buddhism was popularised and institutionalised in Mongolia in the 16 th century, but faced severe repression during 70 years of socialist rule from 1921 to 1990. After 1990, Buddhism slowly ‘revived’ in many parts of Mongolia. Whereas a lama in the Tibetan context is a religious teacher, the term is used for the Buddhist clergy in Mongolia. Yet many lamas today are not technically proper monks in the sense of having been ordained according to the canonical Buddhist monastic rules (Bareja-Starzynska & Havnevik 2006). Accordingly, the term is often used in a vague sense. 18 The ger (Eng.: Yurt) is the portable and tent-like circular dwelling of Mongolian nomads. 19 This is a very widespread form of divination among Tibetan Buddhist lamas (Ekvall 1964: 262).

[The lama shakes the box with dice]. Lama: This seter21 [which he apparently sees in the dice], is it following you(r line). Woman: ...[unclear]... Lama: Whose seter is it? Woman: It is Mönhbat’s 22 seter [her husband’s]. Lama: Was there a lama in your family in old times? Woman: They say there was. Lama: Who was he? Woman: Maybe my dad or some close relative to him. Lama: Where did he put his religious objects? On a mountain? Woman: I don’t know, I really don’t know. I was told that there was such a person. Lama: Here [in the dice] it says that the man in question put his ancestral religious objects on the top of a high mountain. Those gods and religious objects ( bürhan shüteen) – and different kinds of things – sometimes think that they want to see you. 23 Woman: I was adopted. Why do those things follow me? Lama: They are following you and sometimes they want some offerings from you. Woman: It is impossible to find those things. Lama: We cannot find them, but we should respond and make offerings for them once a year. Woman: So we have to make offerings ( deej).24 Lama: You have to make offerings. Woman: To my place of birth? Lama: To your mother and father’s land. And pray inside yourself for those gods and religious objects. And ask them to stay where they are. You have to remain calm. Offer deej, make libations [offering of milk] and serjim [offering of vodka]. Everything else is fine. It is good to dream about dead persons. Woman: I meet them/him. Lama: Don’t be scared of them and don’t suspect them.

Mostly the diviner wants to know in which animal year the client was born according to the Mongolian zodiac. The Mongolian zodiac is roughly identical to the Chinese one and follows a twelve-year cycle, where each year is associated with a particular animal: rat (1996, 2008, 2020 etc.), ox (1997 etc.), tiger (1998 etc.), rabbit (1999 etc.), dragon (2000 etc.), snake (2001 etc.), horse (2002 etc.), sheep (2003 etc.), monkey (2004 etc.), chicken (2005 etc.), dog (2006 etc.) and pig (2007 etc.). 21 The seter is a coloured bundle of ribbons attached to either a live animal, a figure of an animal or an animal on a painting, showing that the animal – painted, carved or alive – is consecrated to a deity or spirit power. The seter is considered a spirit agency in itself and/or a vehicle for a spirit agency. 22 The name has been changed. 23 This could mean that the soul of the person to whom the objects used to belong wants her to take them back. 24 Apart from simply meaning ‘offering’, the word deej signifies “the choicest part(s) of something, especially of food or drink offered to a deity or guest of honour” (Hangin 1986: 198).

(Author’s fieldwork in Mongolia, 2001)

On the surface, this session could be interpreted as yet another instance of divination as explanatory practice. After all, she is asking a question, and she is provided with an answer and given directions by the lama. And true, plenty of examples could be provided from Mongolian divination sessions where the lesson to be drawn seems to be that the diviner simply provides an answer to an initial worry and settles what was unsettled with pre-established explanatory forms or ‘cosmologies’. People, for example, might be told by a diviner they are facing misfortune because they have polluted a clean river with milk and hence made the spirit master of the river (lus) angry, or because they have neglected to make offerings to their seter (see footnote 8). However, apart from the general analytical problems in assuming that every single person in a given community shares a once-and-for-all settled worldview, and apart from the fact that answers are not just answers, a topic to be addressed below, one needs to keep the specific point in mind that the current time period is a post-socialist period, i.e., a time when religion, religious objects and religious knowledge are felt to have been lost by Mongolians themselves and that a major characteristic of ‘cosmologies’ is that they are largely unknown. So before proceeding with a more specific analysis of the above session, it is necessary to probe a bit further into the relation between post-socialist conditions and such ‘vague cosmologies’. In Mongolia, the open practice of religion has only recently become possible again, but people – while probing into this magico-religious possibility – believe that their knowledge about such phenomena is vague at best. This obviously makes them prone to listen to the interpretations provided by knowledgeable people like lamas; but it also means that when people are presented with explanations, such explanations do not necessarily fit into already crystallised cosmological schemes of cause and effect, and they do not always involve familiar agencies. For example, the phrase bürhan shüteen, used by the diviner in the dialogue above, and roughly meaning ‘gods and religious objects’, is imprecise and can only be expected to conjure up a general image of Buddhist objects and gods (of some kind), and the woman only has a vague memory of having heard of the lama from past times. They are both vague and unfamiliar agencies that she would not expect would interfere in her life, i.e., to be a component of the relational field of which she herself is a part. In fact, she would hardly expect them to be agencies at all. In this sense, the divination is not simply about telling the client that she fell ill because she upset a definite and already known spirit power, and that she should simply make offerings to this spirit power, a well-

known and straightforward agency, for everything to be fine. The diviner’s answer does not confirm and fit into well-established cosmological fields of cause-and-effect, involving well-known, clear-cut and transparent spirit-powers, and the agencies dealt with are not part of an already established and tightly knit relational field of spirit-human interactions laid out in a cosmology. However, even more important – and reinforcing this – is the fact that the very quality of the causes evoked is that they are not well-known agencies. It is not only that people have forgotten, i.e., are self-proclaimed ignorant and seek ‘enlightenment’ in answers and in the lama’s evocation of new relations, but that this ‘ignorance’ is at the very centre of the kind of agencies dealt with. This is so because the divinatory form of knowledge analysed here works by dealing with agencies whose power and quintessence is their vagueness and unmistakable lack of complete intelligibility. Hence, if what we are examining here is to be considered a cosmology, it must be noted that we are dealing with a cosmology of the unknown (and, in consequence, with an essentially unknown cosmology) and not with an encompassing spider web of dense meaning (Geertz 1973a, 1973b). In line with this understanding, socialism has not simply served to suppress a preexisting Mongolian religious culture, which has been revived or ‘set free’ in post-socialist times. Rather, socialism has inadvertently been conducive to creating a powerful ‘landscape of empty places’ of significance. Among other things, this landscape is composed of religious objects whose significance is unknown due to the loss of knowledgeable people (causing families to give away such objects to temples as they do not know how to handle them safely), and places where monasteries and spirit-powers were once located, i.e., places or ‘points’ loaded with the energy of destruction and past existence. In repressing religious practices, and counter to its intended objective, socialism has served to empower the very same practices and agencies in at least two interrelated ways. First of all, it has empowered them through destructive practices, as the sheer effort and energy spent on killing, imprisoning and destroying, especially in the 1930s, served to confirm that the regime was indeed fighting something powerful and important. This is testified to by the many stories circulating in Mongolia of how people who destroyed shamanic paraphernalia, for example, suffered violent deaths. The point is that the ‘magico-religious’ powers came to exist as negativity, as the power of the negative (Taussig 1999; Højbjerg 2002), paradoxically summoned by the work of what was opposing it (socialism). Secondly, and following from this, the destruction served to bring the magico-religious powers into existence as semi-existent and not quite-known agencies; the destruction paradoxically – and with great effect – revealed them as secret. The powers were summoned while being buried and concealed, because the power of

certain magico-religious powers is to be concealed. In other words, socialism served to fuel powers that worked by being – and were made known as – elusive, not entirely present and not well-known. For example, people know that a monastery was once located at a certain place and they know that certain objects are supposed to be powerful, but often they do not know what to do with these powers, nor how they work. Yet, this does not make them less powerful, and it certainly makes them more disturbing. Thus, the radical ‘dialectical’ effects of socialism have fertilised the ground for a particular divinatory knowledge form, as exemplified in the above dialogue. This form of knowledge implies that causes or powers cannot be well-known and familiar and that the knowledge produced in divination implies suspense and is inherently incomplete. In line with this, divination does not provide meaning where there is none, order where there is disorder, or simply substitute anxiety with confidence. Rather than re-balancing the world and removing anxiety, sessions like those described above work with anxiety; they even create it and guide it in new directions. The woman constantly stresses her insecurity and uncertainties: ‘They say there was…’, ‘Maybe my dad or....’, ‘I don’t know, I really don’t know’, ‘I was adopted. Why do those things follow me?’ And when she states that ‘it is impossible to find those things’, the lama responds that ‘we cannot find them, but we should respond’. Of course this seems to be meant in a purely physical sense: Where are the objects? The physicality of the objects, however, is not insignificant, because their physical being is tied up with their agency. The lama, after all, does talk about responding and he refers to objects conflated with the gods – implied by the phrase bürhan shüteen. The agency materialises as a vague mixture of a lama from the past and gods and religious objects that cannot be found. Thus, that ‘we cannot find them’ should be understood in a broadened sense as a conflation of lost in present space, lost in time and most importantly, as part of that, an agency evoked as – and gaining its strength from being – partly lost or concealed: ‘Ask them to stay where they are’, the lama says. This agency is by way of not-quite-being, i.e., its very being is constituted in a form containing suspense and, hence, potency at its centre. Who is this lama? Where are the things? What do they want? Why me? In this way the gods and religious objects act on the woman by questioning her, and in responding to them in the form of an offering, she makes them stay where they are, at a distance, and simultaneously keeps the answers at arms-length. But what initially appears as avoidance and safety, i.e., making them stay at a distance by responding in the form of an offering, is simultaneously what empowers the gods and objects and what generates danger. Obviously they

are dangerous; why otherwise ‘make them stay where they are’. The distance, the gap, retained by the act of reciprocity, of offering, is what brings them into being, because their absence, the fact that we do not quite know them, is the nature of their being. And the power of such a nature of disguise is that it feeds thought, it captures and provokes attention: What kind of power is it, i.e., what does it want? And this is the ‘movement’ that this kind of divination is all about, i.e., the creation of remote ‘black holes’ that we are drawn towards by our keeping distance. This anticipation of the unknown is in itself an effect, but it is not an effect in the sense of creating an explanation or destroying another one; rather it is an effect by virtue of giving itself away to other effects.

Divination as effects of the unknown
Thus, that an agency is concealed, out of reach, not-completely-known – yet interfering in our life – is not a weakness, but is the very condition of its existence. We respond to it because it is partly unknown, known as an unknown, and this is also where its agency resides, i.e., in its ability to extract action, to provoke our attention. We might not know exactly what it is, but we know that we should act upon it, because we anticipate agency when suspense is manufactured, and this anticipation is in itself proof that action has been elicited. An orientation ‘towards’ is created; an orientation towards an entity whose quality is concealed and an orientation that owes its existence and movement to this concealment. This ability is due to the entity’s location between the fully concealed and the fully known, and it is within this domain, I would argue, that divination often works. Rather than moving from one point to another, divination should be seen as involved in movement per se, and rather than bringing movement to a halt, divination pushes it in new directions. Divination, so to speak, feeds on movement’s energy and gives it new vigour and a shaky sense of direction. This aspect is accentuated in the following case from my fieldwork. During a visit with an old female shaman, my driver used the opportunity to ask her a question. He worried about the ‘stability of his home’, some disputes or curses, and his newly started business; her answers to his questions were based on a series of divinations with forty-one stones. After asking the question posed by the driver, the stones were divided and subdivided with one hand in order to single out nine groups of stones, each containing from one to four stones. These were then organised in a square of three times three groups on the table, and the lay-out of the stones was interpreted by the diviner. The following is a slightly edited extract of the dialogue after the first divination was made:

Shaman: There might be a small obstacle, but I don't know where or what it is. It seems that there is no hel am (dispute/cursing) but maybe you have an obstacle. Client: What kind of obstacle might that be? Shaman: Maybe a hii yumnii

obstacle. How many kids do you have?

Client: Two, a son and a daughter. [The shaman begins her second divination]. Shaman: Why did this come out [looking at the stones], this obstacle? Client: What kind of obstacle – for my wife and me, or for the kids? Shaman: I think that you haven’t done anything wrong, but there is some obstacle. When you go on trips you should pray, my son. There is probably some obstacle. Client: Is the stability of the home okay? Shaman: The stability is okay, but maybe there is some har hel am (malicious talk/cursing). How old are your kids? Client: The big one is in seventh grade, the small one is entering fifth grade. Shaman: Why is it like this? [The shaman is referring to the layout of the stones]. Client: Can you do some healing? [The shaman begins the third divination]. Shaman: There is probably an obstacle [She is looking at the stones]. Why did it come out like this? Client: Did something appear that should not have appeared? Shaman: Something wrong is still coming out. Client: What is it? Shaman: Yes, what is it? Have some relatives of your parents died? Client: No, but in the spring two guys died and they are kind of related to my father, but they are not our relatives. Client: In the two previous divinations there were obstacles and I’ve asked how serious they are. And it is not close to life and death. Client: How do we fix it? Shaman: You should take better care of your kids. Maybe they are in trouble. Probably someone is going to die. When there are four here, it is bad [while pointing to the stones]. Probably someone will die. Client: Should a lama be visited? Shaman: There is some obstacle in your work.

‘Spirit’, lit. ‘air thing’. In the Darhad dialect, yum means ongod (shamanic spirits) and her dialect is clearly Darhad. Yet for any Mongol, hii yum would be understood as something spiritual, and the client was certainly aware of this reference to the spirit world.

Client: Can you fix it here? Can you do some offerings? Shaman: Do you have any bürhan or tenger yum? [i.e., things related to deities or heaven Do you have a seter or something like that? Client: My in-laws have got a seter. It is a painting of a goat. Shaman: The seter of Damdin (a Buddhist deity) . Is it a picture? Client: It is a picture. On my side there is no seter or anything like that. On my wife’s side

– her mother has got one.
Shaman: Her mother’s seter. The seter was not hurt or impure, but you have an obstacle. Client: Is it mine, or my wife’s? My wife travels a lot...to the city or for work [The shaman is divining again]. Shaman: If it is a goat, it is for Damdin. Client: I haven’t really looked at it, but it was a picture of a goat. Shaman: Are things offered to that seter? Client: I don’t know, but they might be. Shaman: Probably they do offerings. Client: Is it important for us? Shaman: It is fine for you to offer things for that seter – to burn incense and give offerings. Shaman: They don’t really do offerings for that thing. It is fine for you. It seems that they have forgotten about their seter. It is good to offer. Client: Who? Me or my wife? Shaman: Your wife’s side should offer things. Some things can be offered to that seter by a shaman. Client: By a shaman? Shaman: Yes, to Damdin seter. Some time has passed without offerings. Client: My mother in-law herself takes care of the seter. Shaman: [Repeating]. They take care. Client: Yes. It shouldn’t be related to us. [The client says to the other people in the room that he is not that lucky.] Shaman: It is not you and it is not your wife who has got some misfortune. It seems to be someone who has got high blood pressure. Client: On my wife’s side there are people who have high blood pressure, my wife’s older sister. Should we be careful about that person? Shaman: There is some harm related to high blood pressure, an obstacle. It will be suitable to offer things for the seter and bürhan tenger (deities and heaven). 26

For the Mongolian notion of heaven (tenger), or heavenly powers, see, e.g., Heissig (1980).

(Author’s fieldwork in Mongolia, 2001).

It is clear from the beginning that the client uses this opportunity to express general worries, some of which are common to people in the Mongolian countryside. The shaman keeps mentioning an obstacle in the first part of the dialogue, and the client is worried and concerned about whether it is possible to do anything about this unknown obstacle. At one point it is mentioned by the shaman that someone is going to die (after saying that “it is not close to life and death”) and things are then related to the seter of the mother-in-law and as such removed from the client’s nuclear family. The problem has been fundamentally transformed in the process (from worries about family, disputes and business to the fact that “someone in the extended family is going to die”) and is now narrowed down to be concerned with a seter. A small mitigating ritual was performed by the shaman, and the client then knew that he should inform his in-laws about the seter. However, the answer was not altogether clear and someone might still die. His worry – and the fact that new and partly unknown powers had been summoned – was expressed later that evening when he said that, apart from the seter, his mother-in-law had some other religious objects as well. They better give those objects to a temple, he concluded, as it was too dangerous to keep religious items that you do not know how to handle properly. A similar perception of a generalised danger of unknown powers was expressed by another person present at the divinations sessions. He asked the shaman about his problems with a group of criminals in the capital, Ulaanbaatar, and he came out of the session with the uncertainty that these criminals “have something in mind and are quite dangerous.” He concluded, “Somehow they are problematic.” The criminals addressed here are intriguingly similar to the spirit powers evoked above; they are obscure, unpredictable and dangerous. This understanding is quite different from a wide-spread anthropological conception of divination as “a judgement of the unknown” (Willis 1996: 163), as unveiling what is hidden or as implying a culturally conditioned transformation from uncertainty to certainty (see for example Evans-Pritchard 1950; Park 1963; Jahoda 1971; Turner 1975; Jackson 1978; Tambiah 1985; Parkin 1991; Peek 1991a, 1991b). Whereas this does point to an important aspect of divination, it hardly explains what is so disturbing about criminals in Ulaanbaatar and spirit powers in the Mongolian countryside. It ignores the fact that the closure, ‘determination’, ‘explanation’ or ‘identification of causes’ provided by the act of divination can be accompanied by an equally important production of suspense and insecurity. Rephrasing the above, divination rather should be considered ‘a judgement of the unknown as unknown’. Divination works with, from and in anxiety, and rather than removing

anxiety, divination directs it in new directions. Thus, the argument presented here is that removing uncertainty and anxiety would be removing divination’s very raison d’être. It is crucial to underline, however, that this constitutive uncertainty does not lead to the inter-subjective approach to divination, identified and criticised by Holbraad (this volume), where meanings are negotiated so that “verdicts are best seen as blank slates upon which practitioners are able to draw up interpretations that they can reasonably represent as true” (Holbraad 2003: 55; quoted from original English version). Uncertainty obviously does not imply that interpretation is what it is all about, because the interpretive movement from ‘blank slates’ to ‘reasonable representations’ would simply be another way of subscribing to closure. Much in line with Holbraad, the present argument instead concerns an ontological alterity with regard to the nature of truth in divination. The space of anxiety, entertainment (the temptation of having things revealed) and movement, of being oriented towards the unknown, are evident both in ‘divinatory intentionality’ and in the quality of the objects of attention. First, ‘divinatory intentionality’ is apparent in the conditions in which the client approaches the diviner in the first place, because, on a personal level, we can consider the divinatory practice an outcome of the client’s anticipation itself. In the above examples, the clients want to know what the diviner knows that (s)he her/himself does not know, and what the lama knows, by implication, becomes what (s)he her/himself did not know. It becomes, necessarily, a revelation of the hidden. In this sense, revealing what the client knew was absent, and revealing this absence to her/himself was more than a matter of reproducing selfsimilarity – more than a matter of knowing what the client already knew – because this particular attention (knowing that you do not know what the other knows) is predicated on an intention to reach beyond yourself by giving away to the unknown, i.e., to other effects. The client engages in losing control and the given is, so to speak, mystified in new ways. Secondly, the mystification implies that the clients in the above sessions are not enlightened in any straightforward sense. In the case of the woman, the objects of attention (gods, religious objects, lama from the past) and the answers given are elusive by nature. The woman is drawn into uncertain relations with religious objects and people whose existence she is – or at least was – hardly aware of. She is not presented with a solution or an explanation in the sense of reducing the number of possibilities in the world (Evans-Pritchard 1950), but is placed in relation to matters almost unknown to her; she has paradoxically been directed towards new uncertainties. She has certainly been moved, but not from uncertainty to clarity. In this way we might see divination as a movement that can only be directed and given momentum, and not brought to a halt. It is not a

movement from effect to cause, but rather a movement in which you give away control – and might be seduced by your own play with reality.

In conclusion, it should be stressed that the aim of this chapter was not to cover all aspects or instances of divination in rural Mongolia. Nor has it been the claim that divination cannot be analysed in other valuable and convincing ways that might not even contradict the present perspective. The aim was simply to bring to the fore a particular modality of suspense that is not only a precondition of the divination session but intrinsic to, and produced by, the divination practice itself, at least in the kind of sessions examined here. This kind of divination, it is fair to say, might be of particular relevance to the analysis of moving diviners in a changing post-socialist world, whether understood in a literal sense as travelling diviners or in metaphorical sense as innovative diviners composing new universes of relatively unknown powers. We might note, however, that moving diviners are particularly apt to highlight what is at stake in all divinatory practices working with, in and from suspense. In line with this, the aim of this chapter has simply been to show that divination is intrinsically transformative, feeding on and feeding back into other aspects of life, and rather than doing away with suspense, it elicits it, produces it, highlights it, is driven forward by it and gains power from it. It is a mode of attending to the world whose sources and products are suspense. This, I believe, is most often forgotten by old and new anthropological studies on divination. So, if we should understand ‘unveiling the hidden’, the title of this book, in a straightforward sense as discovering a reason behind the veil, certain important – even essential – aspects of divination will elude us. But if, on the other hand, we understand ‘unveiling the hidden’ both in this straightforward sense and as unveiling the hidden as such, as hidden, then we have come a step further in understanding what is distinctively at stake in the divinatory modality examined here.

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Tambiah, Stanley J. 1985. A Performative Approach to Ritual. In Culture, Thought, and Social Action: An Anthropological Perspective (ed.) S.J. Tambiah. London and Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press. Taussig, Michael. 1999. Defacement. Stanford, California: Stanford University Press. Turner, Victor W. 1975. Revelation and Divination in Ndembu Ritual . Ithaca: Cornell University Press. Willis, Roy. 1996. Divination. In Encyclopedia of Social and Cultural Anthropology (eds.) A. Bernard & J. Spencer. London & New York: Routledge. Zeitlyn, David. 1995. Divination as Dialogue: Negotiation of Meaning with Random Responses. In Social Intelligence and Interaction (ed.) E. Goody. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. —. 2001. Finding Meaning in the Text: The Process of Interpretation in Text-Based Divination. Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute (N.S.) 7: 225-240.

The Re-Creation of the Diviner in China
Fengshui and cognitive distance
Ole Bruun

This paper explores some of the processes behind the reappearance of a myriad of diviners in modern Chinese rural areas since the economic liberalisation around 1980. As a case in point, it uses the revival of fengshui specialists in rural areas to describe relations between diviners and their clients and to evaluate the forces and impulses at play. In particular, it investigates how common members of the rural community participate in the re-creation of the diviner: they encourage certain individuals to give spiritual advice by attributing to them certain capacities, while generally instituting a sense of distance between diviner and client. Clients thereby willingly participate in establishing the elevated platform from which the diviner practices. They create polarised positions, here understood in terms of social and cognitive distance, in order to cast their ‘faith’ on the diviner. This is not done merely to justify seeing the diviner, but possibly as a means of reflection or to open cognitive spaces in their own minds. Seen from this perspective, divination forms part of universal and timeless practices inherent in social groups, spontaneously giving rise to religious, or ‘proto-religious’, specialisation. Thus, rather than merely being a relic of the past, a pre-modern and obsolete institution, the diviner appears to be constantly re-created as a reflection of human spiritual activity and cognition. The persevering practices of divination confront sociology’s inherited view of religion as much as they challenge common notions of social, psychological or cognitive distance between members of a community. With an explorative approach to this field, I use Georg Simmel’s notion of ‘social distance’ (Simmel 1908/1950) as a starting point and extend it to include real or perceived psychological and cognitive distance within a community. The overwhelming thrust of modern sociology delves into issues of class, race and status. Accordingly, those sociologists building on Simmel’s original notions of spatial relations between people focus on how to overcome social distance in the modern society. In the hands of Robert Park (1923), Emory Bogardus (1925, 1959) and many later writers, social distance is oriented towards prejudice and exclusion, mostly seen as aspects of premodern institutions. As a

consequence, throughout the entire modern era, sociology has investigated forces eliminating distance rather than those continuously re-creating them. In a similar fashion, sociology took modernity’s secularising effect for granted. Thus politicised social science, it seems, has come to a dead end in the two fields relating to divination: the workings of spatial relations and the individual’s relation to religion. Gradually, strands of sociology are accepting religion as a simple fact of life, something we should depict truthfully without the intrusion of our own disbelief. On a global scale, religion is rapidly returning as a worthy subject of study, with both social and political implications. New fundamentalisms obviously rebuff our inherited views of modernisation and secularisation (Almond 2003); the general framework of ‘desecularization’, such as formulated by Peter Berger, may open a new set of questions, such as determining the future role of religion in international politics, war and peace, economic development and human rights (Berger 1999: 14-17). Conceivably, for the reasons above, the original works of Max Weber, Georg Simmel and many others have gained new attention. For Simmel, the social construction of space and the structure of simple human interaction from a bottom-up perspective are part of a social geometry, in which he tries to depict the spatial preconditions for human sociation. With inspiration from his epistemological and Kantian studies, he attempts to catalogue the spatial reality of social life (Frisby 2002: 50). Rather than starting with society as a whole, he is concerned with what he sees as its constitutive elements, or ‘atoms’: conceptions, individuals and groups. His attention is drawn to five basic properties of space (which are further elaborated below): the uniqueness of space, space divided by boundaries for social purposes thus creating social space, the fixing of social interaction in space, the effects of proximity and distance on social interactions, and the changing of locations by groups or individuals, such as is the case of the ‘stranger’ (Fearon 2005: 1). Simmel is occupied with the effect of spatial conditions on social interaction in both a geometric and a metaphorical sense, including the effects of physical, social and psychological distance. I shall return to the possible application of his concepts to the cognitive field relating to divination.

Re-Creating the Fengshui Diviner in China
Fengshui (in Chinese, a combination of the characters for ‘wind’ and ‘water’) is often called an art of placement, since it advises certain principles to be respected in the placement and layout of houses and graves. The real Chinese version, however, in contrast to newly created Western forms, is an integral part of Chinese popular religion. It shares concepts with conventional Chinese

cosmology and astrology, includes elements of Buddhism and Taoism, and makes extensive use of common ancestor worship. It may be termed an agglomerative tradition, since the source of inspiration in each historical epoch has supplied new concepts and ideas (Bruun 2003: 272-280). Fengshui principles are applied to countless situations, in addition to house and grave construction, including death, disease, accidents, common misfortune, poor harvests and pests, bad marriages, runaway children, school dropouts and determining the sex of unborn children – there is really no limit. In the rural context, fengshui forms a repository of symbols and associations that may be applied to any matter of concern to the villagers, without, however, blocking rational thought. It is strongly activist in orientation, always devising cures and remedies that reflect the capacity and originality of the individual fengshui master. As with other forms of divination, fengshui includes dramatic ritual, a rich symbolism, local lore and legend as contained in local identities, and not least the unique interpretation and specialisation of the individual master. I have described rural Chinese fengshui in great detail elsewhere (Bruun 2003) and concentrate here on the construction of the typical positions of diviner and client. The diviner returned to rural public life in the economic reform period, during which privatisation and economic liberalisation created a much wider scope for religious activity. For Chinese state institutions as well as for scholarship on religion, these activities represent new challenges (Goossaert 2005). In fact, Chinese rural areas have seen a religious revival of colossal dimensions, including both institutional forms, primarily Christianity, Buddhism, Taoism and Islam, and a wealth of diffused forms deriving from traditional Chinese popular religion and cosmology. The motivation and drive behind this revival may be found in a number of fields such as desire for healing, search for moral guidance, the social joy of belonging to symbolic and spiritual communities, pursuit of wealth and so forth (Kipnis 2001). Equally significant in this revival is the strong presence of a new monetary market culture, which raises new issues of morality and identity and fosters new combinations of cultural elements to cope with the market (Weller 2000). Although fengshui beliefs and practices do not constitute a religious movement, they still form part of a common Chinese rural identity, with elements of resistance against a secular urban elite. Apart from cultural and rational motives, however, the massive religious revival after decades of communist modernisation, campaigning and control tends as much to indicate religion as relating to the intrinsic human condition. It is a matter of continued discussion, however, to what extent there was an actual revival of religion after the economic reforms or if religious practices were there all along and just

resurfaced after the collapse of the truly communist government; the case of fengshui shows elements of both. In Sichuan, where part of the fieldwork was done, fengshui specialists did practice clandestinely in the Communist period, mostly involving elderly men trained before the collectivisation period. But they were few and their activities were limited due to fear of reprisals. With the economic reforms and weakening state and party control over people’s lives, the demand for fengshui specialists soared. New houses were built, old homes were renovated, new graves were dug and old human bones that had been hidden for decades were buried in proper graves. Traditionally, fengshui specialists had been consulted for these occasions, and with their newly won freedom, rural people searched out local masters, first with great caution but soon quite openly. In addition, people resumed the consulting of diviners for a variety of purposes such as disease, deaths, all sorts of misfortune and auspicious days for important activities. Those few elderly men still practicing at the margins of society could not possibly have satisfied the demand for divinatory services. Instead, people started looking up other potential diviners. Some were individuals known to have practiced before the crack-down on religion in the 1960s. Notably, a particular retired party cadre, who had practiced fengshui in the early days of the revolution but who had voluntarily given it up to serve his village as a headman, since he was both literate and much respected, was contacted by elderly people in the neighbourhood who knew his background. Asked to pick up his old trade and see fengshui for local people, he first refused. But people kept coming back, expressing their confidence in him as a charismatic cadre and their belief that he would serve equally well as a fengshui specialist. Unsure of himself, he started doing simple fengshui jobs in the village, such as checking the ground plans of new houses. Gradually the word of his service spread to other villages, and before long he would practice in the entire district. Once established in public opinion as a real fengshui master, trained before the revolution, people forgot about his life-long cadre career and consulted him as any other master, attributing to him the capacity to see any kind of fengshui in and around dwellings for the living and the dead. Gradually, according to the former party cadre, he resumed his capacity for ‘secret knowledge’ and ‘seeing things’ that ordinary people do not see. So at retirement, the old man was in fact pleased with the opportunity to convert a formal career into spiritual authority in his village. Another individual, also a retired party secretary, was drawn into practicing in a similar way. Having merely studied with an old master for a couple of years and never having started practicing on his own, he left divination at the time of the beginning of socialist construction. In the small village community, however, it was enough to retain an identity as

someone knowing about cosmology. Also in this case, there were constant inquiries from his surroundings, enough to make him start seeing fengshui publicly. Practicing from his house just across the street from the local government compound, and having established a consultation room opening up into the street with various religious implements on display, he appears to be defying state and party bans on divination. However, both police and government staff were among his clients. Today, if a fengshui master is being picked up by a rural police car, it most likely is because his service is needed. One of the sturdy old masters who had practiced fairly constantly through the Communist era, according to him, because he ‘knew no other trade to which he could turn’, experienced a rise in his social status, which he had never envisioned. Living in a wooden shack with no land other than a small orchard, he had been utterly impoverished since the inception of the Cultural Revolution in 1966. Traditionally, fengshui specialists were landless, and subjected to the political persecution and violence of those years; they were frequently left without subsistence. He survived by receiving a few clients in his home, explaining the fengshui situation around their houses and receiving advice without a specialist inspecting the sites; this would have been too dangerous. The clients paid for his services with a few food items, which added to what his relatives could spare, just providing for his survival. For decades he was treated as an outcast by the communist authorities, which required him to show gratitude to them for having spared his life. With the economic reforms and the break-up of the people’s communes, which definitely reduced the political power of the party authorities, common villagers started looking him up more often. At first there was a demand for reburial of corpses and bones that had been rescued from the Red Guards’ violent smashing of graves in the early days of the Cultural Revolution. More recently-deceased family members had been given very pragmatic burials while awaiting better times and their descendants now turned to the fengshui specialist for assistance in divining proper sites. When better economic means resulted from the new farming contract system, frantic building activity began in the villages, where nothing new had been built for several decades. Despite relentless communist propaganda against ‘feudal superstition’ and a whole new generation having received modern education, no one would build a house without a fengshui specialist inspecting the site. The old master was constantly busy and quickly rose to prominence in his old village; before the revolution, fengshui specialists were often spiritual leaders in their villages. Many of his old functions were resumed, such as finding

fengshui remedies for common mishaps around people’s homes, sorting out reasons for death, disease or childlessness, divining lucky days for weddings, mediating in conflicts relating to house construction and so forth. Now and then he was even asked to perform his service for the public authorities who had previously persecuted him. Until his death a few years ago, he practiced throughout the week and trained several apprentices. In the intense atmosphere of new wealth and changing status positions in the rural villages, a new market for spiritual services quickly developed. Entirely new diviners emerged, some with a little training from an old master, others entirely self-taught. One was considered a swindler, as he had stolen an old master’s collection of classical fengshui books during the turmoil of the Cultural Revolution and had hidden them in a secret place. Due to his possession of the classics, which he had studied intensely, and his creative and dramatic style of application, he nevertheless rose to become one of the highest paid diviners in the entire county. Among the new diviners, however, were also individuals believed to have special abilities right from the beginning, or who showed an unusual interest in mystical knowledge and cosmology. The actual manner in which they became diviners is a matter of great controversy in China. In the official discourse on religion, faith in divination is a product of feudal superstition and practicing divination is an act of swindle. Thus, the official rejection works against generally sanctioned training procedures (which there tended to be before the revolution) and leaves the spiritual market open to anyone willing to work within the narrow margins between quiet tolerance and vicious crackdown, depending on political signals from the centre. In the fieldwork areas, there were examples of individuals who took up divination after visions or dreams, after life-threatening disease, or on the basis of interest already from childhood. Yet this occurs within a field of culturally created types of divination and established forms of practice. The type of entry into divination that is most respected among customers, however, still tends to be the several-year-long training with an old master, such as known from both oral and written tradition. The spiritual vacuum and crisis of meaning left after the religious repression by Communist authorities, the outlook of which previously resembled a religious construct, have made China a fertile land for religious movements (Tu 1999: 91). Many individuals were sucked into divination, both as practitioners and clients, and the entirely unregulated spiritual market that developed opened up for many ways to becoming a diviner. Within their own communities, individuals tend to have a limited space to manoeuvre, as memories are long and family groups build reputations over generations; in order for individuals to start practising, it is commonly

expected that they have it in the family or have shown an early disposition to it. The new market society and its increasing labour mobility also enabled diviners to practise outside of their native areas. This is in fact known from before the revolution; for instance, the wandering fengshui master is an archetype known from tradition. Countless proverbs and sayings about the cheating character of such diviners contribute to people’s general ambivalence towards religious specialists. The conflict is presumably of a universal nature and known in world religions as much as it is in divination: believers and clients have a desire for spiritual support and divinatory judgment and have deep faith that certain gifted individuals can provide that; yet they may doubt the capacity of the specialist at hand. Contrary to the backing that pastors, priests, monks, lamas and mullahs have in powerful churches, however, diviners tend to depend on local cultural traditions, which are obviously more flexible and open to interpretation. Being mostly local, they are often under pressure from government and scorned by elite culture. Moreover, in any real-life situation, diviners are both under pressure from and in competition with institutionalised religion in the form of recognised churches: in the case of Chinese fengshui, leading members of Buddhist and Daoist temples frequently offer fengshui service themselves, which they attempt to give higher credence by maintaining its roots in temple literature are linked to philosophical traditions. Rather than in rural areas, however, they tend to serve the higher social echelons and business communities in urban areas.

The concept of distance
The notion of cognitive distance, as mutually created within a common field of faith and expectations, is supported by various materials. For instance, using newspaper accounts on ‘feudal superstition’, Ann Anagnost (1987) showed how the Chinese press previously tried to expose magical healers as swindlers. One such attempt was the healers’ own confessions of being social creations: word may spread that certain individuals have been possessed by spirits or have extraordinary powers, where after people start consulting them for cures. They give in to social pressure, and are further motivated by self-interest to start practising while gradually building up their self-confidence. As pointed out by Anagnost, however, it is a misreading of the ‘divinatory situation’ merely to disclose that the social consensus of belief may precede the healer’s own knowledge of his or her powers. Surely, with its fundamental suspicion towards popular cosmology and periodic crack-downs, the Chinese state invests in it a potent means of expressing heterodox

conceptions of the world and thus reinforces the preconditions for its existence. As will be argued below, however, the overall social and cultural environment contributes to the uniqueness of divinatory practices in each region and locality. Diviners of all sorts can be traced back into the distant past of Chinese history: archaeological finds show their key role in ancient kingdoms; Chinese historians note their presence, often in a patronising tone; philosophers contribute ideas and concepts but tend to maintain a distance; Chinese emperors and state bureaucracies both used diviners and persecuted their unwanted strands; and individuals mandarins were often said to reject them in public while using them in private. Western sources from the 16 th century Jesuits and onwards note their great numbers and specialisation, while interpreting their significance as an aspect of religious pragmatism or, in the case of Max Weber, as the result of a lack of rationalisation, that is, the Confucianist preservation of a ‘magic garden of heterodox doctrine’ (Weber 1951: 226). What unites Chinese history with the present, however, is the fact that the market is able to support great numbers of both rural and urban diviners, who at the same time present a great variety of divinatory forms and practices. Due to the historical role of bureaucracy, some connection to formal position is undoubtedly a vantage point for developing extraordinary spiritual skills and reputation, but equally important are abilities that run in the family: in pre-revolution times, most new geomancers were recruited within family and lineage groups. The few examples noted above are not sufficient to prove the point that divination is a mutual construction between a gifted individual and the public, but only emphasise a possible form of their interaction. There are interactions on several planes, social as well as psychological and cognitive, that contribute to creating the platform from which the diviners practice. In a structuralist interpretation, Claude Lévi-Strauss terms this a ‘gravitational field’ within a consensus on belief in magic: magical healing has as a precondition a social field of faith and expectations, where the shaman believes in his own methods as much as the client has faith in his power, generating the complementary conditions for the cure. According to Lévi-Strauss, this sets psycho-somatic responses in motion (Lévi-Strauss 1967: 162). The process in question is perhaps best described in shamanic cultures, where the interplay between potential shamans and the community typically exposes some measure of ‘career’ regulation (Lewis 1986: 89).

From social distance to cognitive distance
Seeing diviners as a historical phenomenon maintained merely through stubborn tradition cannot possibly capture the full complexity of divination. Historical and anthropological attention to the reconstruction of tradition over the last several decades has amply demonstrated how nations and communities constantly reflect upon and reshape their traditions. This is certainly also the case in China, where fengshui has been a living tradition for centuries, with each era writing its own concerns into it. Today, the younger generation, mostly literate and with a modern education, tends to continue the fengshui tradition while exerting its own influence on it. Young people’s scepticism is often explicit, some denouncing it all as old superstition along with the party line; but when it comes to marriages, building houses, establishing graves, curing bad misfortune and inexplicable disease, most of these young people will still use diviners. A booming application of fengshui for good luck in business involves young people as much as the elderly and indicates how tradition is creatively adapted to new circumstances. Let us return to the concept of distance and its potential application to divination. Simmel’s general argument was that social organisation requires organisation of space, and that authority and domination take on spatial dimensions. I shall examine some parallels in the way that any social organisation also implies organisation of cognitive space: it defines the use of ritual and symbols, forms common perceptions and experiences as well as supports social memory. Let us look at the five aspects of spatial relations noted at the beginning. First, the uniqueness of social space, as noted by Simmel, simply indicates that two individuals cannot occupy the same space (Simmel 1908: 462). Similarly, in a cognitive sense, two individuals necessarily occupy two distinct, confined and unique spaces, which structure their perceptions, memories and ideas and which may not normally be bridged. This is nevertheless a core area of concern to divination: the diviner may facilitate contact between the client and fellow humans, ancestors and spirits, for instance by overcoming spatial, psychic or temporal distance, or bring the client into a state of resonance with cosmological forces. In terms of group space, such as space occupied by nations, communities, cultural groups or congregations, the exclusiveness of social space will also have clear cognitive parallels; every cultural entity has its unique set of diviners and special techniques, which make sense only in that particular cultural set-up. This indicates that as much as divination may have universal characteristics, it is still structured within cultural perceptions and practices that provide basic meaning and structure the relationship between

diviner and client. In particular, the cultural context defines the role of divination in relation to politics, leadership and broader religion. Secondly, the establishment of social boundaries and the subdivision of social space bring us closer to the process described above. Social boundaries, Simmel argues, are not spatial facts with sociological consequences, but sociological facts formed spatially. This crucial argument that social space is constantly and spontaneously divided by human interaction (Simmel 1908: 465) has a parallel in that cognitive spaces of individuals may interact to form new independent wholes: clients invest their faith in diviners, who in turn devote themselves to ‘serving the community’. The social-role division between diviner and client, accompanied by a psychological or cognitive polarisation between them, takes place as a spontaneous process within the community. These bonds between diviners and their clients, usually extending in a strictly local context, may or may not run along established lines of authority, and the political dimensions of divination should not be neglected (Thomas & Humphrey 1996: 4-5). It is obvious, however, that diviners potentially have access to political power and positions of authority in villages, communities, kingdoms and states, for which reason they often historically accompanied many rulers, if not been rulers themselves. Thirdly, the fixing of social interaction in space influences social formations (Simmel 1908: 472). Villages, cities, churches, forms of land use and so forth define certain conditions for social interaction. Similarly, in a cognitive sense, interactions between individuals are both as broad as the size of the social space allows and as narrow as the total span of reflection within that space. Language and broader culture have significant impact on the specific forms of divination in use, both as general frameworks of thought and as providers of symbols and causality. Divination in a writing culture may take on different forms than within oral traditions, particularly by acting as a medium of standardisation across time and space. The space of the modern city, Simmel noted along with other sociologists, demands more flexible and briefer interactions based on a calculating mind and characterised by anonymous market relations, competition and exchange value (Simmel 1950: 409-412). Thus, divination in the city takes on entirely new forms, not least as subject to competition in the spiritual market, but it is outside the scope of this paper to investigate these. Fourthly, all social interactions may be characterised by their relative degree of proximity and distance between groups and individuals; this may include spatial as well as metaphorical distance, social as well as psychological distance, and real as well as imagined distance (Simmel 1908: 479). Just as social proximity may create over-stimulation and tension, necessitating certain forms of personal management, we may speculate that cognitive proximity can

create an overflow of sameness and common orientation, for instance in the competition for scarce resources. Cognitive distance, on the other hand, such as in the polarised roles of diviner and client, may create relaxation and the freeing of energies. The client is focussed on material, moral and essentially this-worldly affairs, while the diviner, in principle, interprets events in relation to a higher order of existence. Particularly in China, where the heavily over-populated rural areas are plagued by constant struggle and tension, much divination has a clear element of mediating social conflict. This, however, should not overshadow the tremendous role that divination plays in removing clients from the dreary routines of peasant existence, enriching their lives by reinforcing a spiritual dimension and providing backing to their search for meaningfulness. Fifthly, the changing of locations by groups and individuals (Simmel 1908: 497) and the concept of the outsider, wanderer, trader or stranger (Simmel 1950: 402-408) are perhaps the most intriguing aspects of Simmel’s work on spatial relations. The most universal figure is that of the trader, who brings new and exotic goods to the local area and thus connects it with the outside world. He is the unity of two spatial characteristics, that of liberation from a given point in space and the fixation to such a point, thus nearness and remoteness, indifference and involvement in one. He is the fundamentally mobile person, who comes in contact with everyone, but is not organically connected to any single one. In that sense, the diviner may be regarded as a cognitive trader, who connects the community with the outside world, both actually and metaphorically, and both in time and space: he connects with other diviners of his particular trade and he may bring textual knowledge to his village. He may even consult classical books on divination and derive his authority from his unique ability to read and interpret them. Further, his role is to mediate between two planes, or two levels of existence, which makes him a cherished, but also dubious and feared person. He is released from manual labour in order to pursue cosmological knowledge, which itself is supposed to be powerful, and at the same time his services for individual members of the community gives him intimate knowledge of each family. Thus, this combination of cosmological and social powers puts him in a unique position, in the management of which people can only hope for his discretion and good morality. Diviners may acquire leading positions in their communities, but they may also be scapegoated and blamed for disasters, quite similar to Simmel’s image of the stranger, modelled upon the European Jew. In a similar fashion, diviners must perform a balancing act in relation to political power-holders: they may be supported and dominated by them, although they constantly face a risk of conflict.

There are many other aspects of spatial relations that may find parallels in cognitive space and these are but a few notes on the possible application of Simmel’s work to the field of divination. His own work did not constitute a consistent theory, but rather a patchwork of ideas and insights. It may still be worthwhile to develop these into a form of cognitive geometry for analysing relations between diviners and clients. Notably, the one-to-one relation between diviner and client constitutes the dyadic relation, in Simmel’s terms, the simplest form of social interaction (Simmel 1950: 126). Being without competition, alliances and mediation, the dyadic relationship allows both individuals to present themselves in a way that maintains their identity and allows them to withdraw easily. Again, within a dyadic relationship, we see the contours of a simple exchange of value, where the diviner’s care, attention, psychological comfort and spiritual guidance are exchanged for freedom from labour and the opportunity to pursue knowledge. Such interaction creates intimacy, but also allows for, in a cognitive sense, the development of differentiated or complementary roles. In the consultation situation, these are polarised into extreme positions, the client explaining from below, that is, from the superficial appearance of events, and the diviner interpreting from above, fitting events into greater structures of meaning. The following examples are drawn from Chinese fengshui:
During a consultation , the client complains that he keeps bumping his head into beams and things around his house; the diviner immediately responds by pointing out that the client’s forefathers are unhappy due to neglect of their graves. This is their way of calling for attention. The clients, a young couple, complain that they cannot have children and their marriage is having difficulties, which they attribute to their being perhaps ‘too different’. The diviner inspects their birth dates and the date of their marriage and finds out that according to ancient Chinese numerology the numbers are antagonistic. He advises them to divorce and then remarry at a specified date six months later. (Author’s fieldwork in Sichuan, China, 1994) A client complains that the members of his household are constantly getting sick. The diviner inspects their house and sees that a sharp rock is pointing towards their main door. He orders them to move the door to a different position. (Author’s fieldwork in Jiangsu, China, 1995)

These few examples out of countless others show the typical work of fengshui diviners: they pursue distinctly different types of reasoning than do the everyday rationality of their clients, drawing on a range of divinatory systems and explanatory devices. In a sense, they ensure the coexistence of separate modes of thought, creating a broader scope of reflection within a given community (Bruun 2003: 28-32). Although perhaps of marginal interest to this paper, medical science has contributed a certain backing to the present theory of cognitive differentiation as a fundamental process in divination. A rapidly growing body of cognitive, neuro-psychological research on placebo medicine suggests that human perception is based not entirely on outside ‘objective’ information, but as much on what the human mind expects to happen, for instance, a cure that from previous experience is known to work (Moerman 2002). Thus stimulated expectancy alone may trigger massive cognitive as well as physiological responses, sometimes equal to the effect of drugs. It has been called the triumph of expectancy over reality, as sensory inputs and meanings learned through experience may beat immediate objective inputs. What is of special concern to us, however, is that if this placebo effect is to be applicable to the relation between diviner and client, the patient must have some measure of expectancy or faith in the cure. Even more important, for faith to be played out on any scale it presumably necessitates the perception of cognitive distance – just like medicine is a foreign agent imposed on the body, that is, something to which we normally keep a distance, the diviner is standing apart from the life of ordinary people and believed to command a mystic knowledge beyond their comprehension. Since faith involves casting one’s inner yearnings out onto external agents, it needs difference rather than sameness to be reflected. In that sense, distance needs to be maintained by both sides in order for the diviner’s cure to be effective (Bruun 2003: 218-219).

Concluding notes
In China, the Communist ethos, which under Mao acquired a distinctive spiritual dimension, with deification of the chairman and a cult of suffering for the sake of the country, has weakened and is giving way to a multitude of new cosmological and spiritual orientations. Accordingly, divination has seen a dramatic return to prominence, particularly in rural areas. As an aspect of social and cultural practices, divination has unique as well as universal characteristics: here I have focussed on the process of social and cognitive interaction by which certain individuals are drawn, urged or allowed into practicing divination. In this sense, ordinary members of the community participate in the institution of diviners as much as they themselves seek to practice their specialty; whether the

faith in divination precedes the diviner or the diviner encourages faith is beside the point. The relation between diviner and client is apparently archetypical and primordial, a fundamental relation that world religions have striven to appropriate and dominate by instituting their own belief systems, churches and clergy. In the case of Chinese fengshui, divination does not entail belief in the ‘pure’ ascetic, Calvinist sense, but as much a common means of alternative reflection, applicable to all kinds of occurrences. Some would say that the human capacity for such reflection only mirrors the irrational dimensions of reality, which we tend to ignore in the name of rationality. The renewed interest in divination, both in everyday use and scholarship, may indicate a growing dissatisfaction with the rule of rationality, i.e., scientism or science-based thinking applied to everyday life (Toulmin 2001). Undoubtedly, as pointed out by a number of postmodern writers, people in the present era search for new overarching perspectives that permit some measure of faith to be regained; modernity has apparently undermined the traditional certainties of everyday life (Berger 1999). It remains to be examined to what extent the recent revival of divination in China is associated with similar processes occurring in the West; that is, if they have like causes and characteristics. Some similarities are evident, however: in both China and the West, divination has returned along with an increase in non-rationalistic religion : rationalistic here in a general sense understood as deriving from enlightenment-types of thinking, containing such elements as theory, reason, accuracy, formalisation, self-criticism, the presupposition of an independently existing reality and language as an independent medium (Searle 1993). On a global scale, this is seen in the rise of various fundamentalisms (Berger 1999; Almond 2003). Apart from resistance to religious rationalisation, other aspects may be comparable, such as a general fragmentation of social life, identity and ideology (Bauman 1995), postmodern individualism and freedom of religious affiliation, which all point towards a broader scope of spiritual pursuits. The failed predictions of secularisation theory in the modern period – the belief that modernisation would lead to a decline of religion – are seen in the obvious fact that modernisation has instead produced powerful religious movements, of which the fundamentalist, conservative and traditionalist types rejecting modernity are on the rise, as opposed to accommodating rationalistic religion (Berger 1999: 6). Modernity, despite its powerful influence, many places cannot produce general well-being for rural populations and thus suffers a deteriorating social base, while old authorities, both secular and religious, are consequently being called into question. Within such an ambience of desecularisation, and particularly in cases of non-institutional religious growth at the

expense of state churches, divination may fill a large space of desire for healing, holistic knowledge, alternative perspectives of reality and so forth. Yet we should not entirely abandon previous perceptions of divination as described in the social sciences. Beliefs associated with divination are seldom of the exclusive type, leaving ample room for cultural construction, social manoeuvring and simple manipulation. In fact, a native scepticism has surrounded Chinese fengshui through its entire history and lives on today. Geomancers are accused of being tricksters as much as they are consulted as a matter of course – a great ambivalence lives on, where state policy, opposition to state rationalism, cultural traditions and local identities are important forces in an intense field of attempted cures, interacting personal interests and possible wasting of money.

Almond, Gabriel, R. Scott Appleby & Emanuel Sivan. 2003. Strong Religion: The Rise of Fundamentalisms around the World . Chicago: The University of Chicago Press. Anagnost, Ann. 1987. “Politics and magic in contemporary China.” Modern China, 13 (1): 40-61. Bauman, Zygmunt. 1995. Life in Fragments: Essays in Postmodern Morality . Oxford: Blackwell. Berger, Peter L. (ed.). 1999. The Desecularization of the World: Resurgent Religion and World Politics. Washington: Ethics and Public Policy Center. Bogardus, Emory. 1925. “Measuring social distance.” Journal of Applied Sociology , 10: 299-308. Bogardus, Emory. 1959. Social Distance. Los Angeles: Antioch Press. Bruun, Ole. 2003. Fengshui in China: Geomantic Divination between State Orthodoxy and Popular Religion. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press. Fearon, David. 2005. “Georg Simmel: The Sociology of Space.” Back to Classics: www.csiss.org, University of California, Santa Barbara. Frisby, David. 2002. Georg Simmel. London: Routledge.

Goosseart, Vincent. 2005. “State and religion in China: Religious policies and scholarly paradigms.” Paper for the Conference: ‘Rethinking Modern Chinese History’, Academia Sinica, Taipei. Kipnis, Andrew B. 2001. “The flourishing of religion in post-Mao China and the anthropological category of religion”. The Australian Journal of Anthropology , 12 (1): 32-46. Lévi-Strauss, Claude. 1967. “The Sorcerer and his Magic.” In: Structural Anthropology , New York: Doubleday: 167-185. Lewis, I.M. 1986. Religion in Context: Cults and Charisma . Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. Moerman, Daniel E. 2002. Meaning, Medicine, and the ‘Placebo Effect’. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. Park, Robert. 1923 . “The concept of social distance as applied to the study of racial attitudes and racial relations.” Journal of Applied Sociology , 8 (6): 339-344. Searle, John R. 1993. “Rationality and realism, what is at stake?” Daedalus, 122 (4): 55-83. Simmel, Georg. 1908. Soziologie Untersuchungen über die Formen der Vergesellschaftung. Berlin: Duncker & Humblot. Simmel, Georg. 1950. The Sociology of Georg Simmel . Translated, edited, and with an introduction by Kurt H. Wolff. New York: The Free Press. Thomas, Nicholas & Caroline Humphrey. 1996. Shamanism, History, and the State . Ann Arbor: The University of Michigan Press. Toulmin, Stephen. 2001. Return to Reason. London: Harvard University Press. Tu Weiming. 1999. “The Quest for Meaning: Religion in the People’s Republic of China.” In: The Desecularization of the World . Edited by Peter Berger. Washington D.C.: Ethics and Public Policy Center: 85-102.

Weber, Max. 1951 (1920). The Religion of China: Confucianism and Taoism . New York: The Free Press. Weller, Robert. 2000. “Divided Market Cultures in China: Gender, Enterprise, and Religion.” In: Culture and Development: A Critical Introduction . Edited by Susanne Schech & Jane Haggis. Oxford: Blackwell: 32-44.

In the Airy Spaces of Our Minds…
Cosmology and ritual design in modern, Western astrology
Kirstine Munk

From the relative movements of the planets and other heavenly bodies, astrology entails the interpretation and prediction of events on earth and human characteristics and dispositions. It is an umbrella term for several systems of interpretation that are found in many cultures, historical periods and in many unrelated forms, ranging from the type found in Madagascar to Chinese astrology and contemporary astrology in the Western world. 27 The central purpose of the many diverse astrological systems is to establish a meaningful relationship between humanity and the universe, and to uncover a cosmic order that would otherwise remain hidden. Western astrology dates back to the culture that existed in Babylon from the second Millennium BCE until about 500 BCE. It is a dynamic divination system that has been adapted to various currents in the history of Western philosophy and ideas. It has absorbed elements from the Western esoteric traditions of which it has always been a part (Stuckrad 2003), and it has been associated with spokespeople of mainstream philosophy, such as Francis Bacon, Thomas Aquinas and Galileo Galilei (Tester 1987: 181; Campion & Kollerstrom 2003: 5, 42). Western astrology has had periods of great popularity and almost total marginalisation, and the astrological tradition has undergone immense changes. It is therefore not possible to speak meaningfully, in one breath, of Western astrology as such. Rather, one should focus on particular historical periods. The focus of this chapter is on the present, as Western astrology now enjoys immense popularity in many of the most economically and industrially advanced societies in the world. In locations such as Tokyo, Los Angeles, London, Johannesburg, Rome and Copenhagen, rich or poor, powerful or powerless, almost everybody knows which sun sign they are born under. Magazines and newspapers support their sales by means of astrology columns, and sun sign necklaces are popular as baptism gifts. In popular television series, astrological character readings are part of the discourse, and if you don’t know that a person born under the sign of Pisces is supposed to be extremely sensitive, you might miss a punch line! Astrology is used by rock stars, stockbrokers,

As noted by Roy Willis and Patrick Curry (2004), many cultures have had religious systems that involved a postulated cosmic connection between earth and heaven, which in a very general sense could be termed ‘astrological’.

students, doctors, actors, teachers, hairdressers and politicians alike.28 It is a global phenomenon that has spread with the modernisation of the Western world, and on the Internet, astrology is the biggest religious system, not even surpassed by Christianity. 29 Researchers from the natural sciences have conducted numerous investigations exploring the validity of astrology, but with only a few debatable exceptions, these investigations have all refuted astrological claims (e.g., Dean & Mather 1977; Eysenck & Nias 1983; Culver & Ianna 1988). Yet, even though astrology cannot work, according to these investigations, it still seems to ‘work’ for its many users, in ways that clearly are not explicable within the scope of astronomy. This chapter explores aspects of the following question: How is astrology meaningful to people in the modern, Western world? The working hypothesis of this investigation is the following: to gain a deeper understanding of astrology as a meaningful practice, we should not look to the natural laws of the universe, but rather turn our attention to the social world, and to ritual, aesthetics and the human mind. 30 Astrology is a tricky but typical example of modern, non-institutionalised religion, because there is no clear connection between belief and use. Some people believe in astrology, but they do not use it; others believe in it and use it, while others use it but do not believe in it.31 Moreover, astrology functions today as a popular divination system, which can be studied in the same way as similar practices have been studied in foreign and remote places by ethnographers, anthropologist and historians of religion. Divination is a ritual of orientation and disclosure that aims at finding the hidden significance of events in everyday life and it always implies a reference to a trans-empirical reality. As it has been pointed out by anthropologist Mary Douglas, divination is committed to a distinction

In 1988, a major scandal broke out when it was discovered that the president of the United States, Ronald Reagan, not only consulted an astrologer, but that the entire presidential schedule had been calibrated according to astrological dictate. Among the events the advice from Reagan’s astrologer Joan Quigley seems to have effected was the rapprochement between Reagan and Gorbachev and the subsequent breakthrough in Cold War relations (Spencer 2000: 173-185). 29 What is meant here is simply that measured in numbers, more people access astrology sites than any other type of religious site. According to Alexia.com, which measures traffic on the Internet, www.astrology.com is the biggest religious Internet site (Alexia.com, accessed in May 2004). 30 This chapter is based on my ethnographic fieldwork in Denmark, England, the USA and Japan. It consisted of indepth interviews with 40 astrologers and astrology users, and participant observation at astrological courses, conferences and consultations between March 2003 and January 2006. The astrologers were chosen by the criteria of influence, while clients were sampled according to the criteria of diversity. The clients thus comprise a famous master composer, a former child star, a librarian, a therapist, a writer, a soldier, a university lecturer, a hairdresser and an unemployed single mother, among others. Unless otherwise stated, the extracts of interviews and other field information that appear in this chapter derive from my fieldwork. 31 Author’s fieldwork 2003-2006.

between reality and appearances (Douglas 1975: 129). It is concerned with felt realities and its language is often highly illusive and cryptic, thus forcing active interpretations by clients and practitioners. Divination concerns interpreting and connecting life’s many events into a coherent story. It often involves particular cognitive processes that are established ritually and connected to a sense of discovery (e.g., Werbner 1989; Peek 1991). Ultimately, divination is about the ability of humans to establish meaning. 32 A divination system always mirrors a cosmology (Durhheim & Mauss 1963). There is a pre-existing cosmological order that is put into play in divination rituals, which makes prediction and interpretation possible. Divination systems articulate cosmology and the cosmological systems play an important role in the ways in which the verdicts of divination acquire authority (Sørensen 1999; this volume). However, divination rituals are not only representations of the cosmos. They are also creative acts in which the ritual process functions as a virtual reality where humans re-arrange their perceptions of their own life-worlds, construct their identities in slightly new ways and get a chance to examine the social roles that they play (Munk 2004: 368 ff.).

Astrology and the transformations of modernity
Modern astrology of personality, broadly speaking, is concerned with identity and meaning. Its rise in popularity correlates significantly with recent changes in social structures and institutions that took place in the Western world during the last part of the 20

century. These changes occurred

gradually, but many commentators agree that a significant turn occurred in the 1970s (Beck 1994; Hervieu-Leger 2000: 23; Ziehe 2004: 81 ff.). Various terms such as postmodernity (Lyotard 1979/1996; Baumann 1991), radicalized modernity (Ziehe 2004), late modernity, high modernity (Giddens 1990, 1991), second modernity (Bech 1986; Ziehe 2004), postmodernisation (Denzik 2005), reflexive modernisation (Beck, Giddens & Lasch 1994) and liquid modernity (Bauman 2000) have been coined to capture the nature and pace of the rapidly accelerating changes through which societies, in the most economically and technologically developed parts of the world, are going. Individuals’ sense of identity and their self-understanding are associated with the social world they form part of, and the relationship between institutional changes and identity therefore has been the focus of much sociological attention in recent years.


Although it has become more common among astrologers to understand astrology as divination (e.g., Cornelius 2003; Willis & Curry 2004), I am aware that not all astrologers subscribe to this framework (e.g., Harris, in Campion, Curry & York 2004: 79-89). However, I find it appropriate to use the term ‘divination’ as a heuristic category.

The process of modernisation has created a movement away from societies of destiny to societies of free choice. In highly complex societies, there is no unquestionable over-arching meaning, and no established directions ready for the individual to take up and follow. The social context associated with the use of astrology in modern times is that we live in societies in which we can create our lives independently of tradition. We have vast amounts of information available in that process, but at the same time, alas (!), there is no epistemological security. This favours alternative knowledge systems, of which astrology is one example. Another important aspect of modernisation is emphasised by social psychologist Lars Denzik, namely that the nature of modernisation is such that the pace at which social conditions change is accelerating, and thus individuals are doomed to lag behind the circumstances in which they find themselves. “You are what you are, but you have to become what you are not” (Denzik 2001: 184). And furthermore, you have to provide a sense of continuity and coherence to your selfidentity project. This makes identity highly problematic in contemporary times, and therefore it is not surprising that late modernity teems with technologies of the self. Astrology is mainly used by women and by members of the educated middle-class. The absence of working-class members in astrological consultations and the relatively high formal education among astrology users in contemporary times may seem slightly surprising at first glance. However, this phenomenon is intimately connected with the dynamics of modernisation. When individual biographies are loosened from their traditional institutional settings, as happens in modern complex societies, more opportunities become available, but also new demands are placed on the individual. Reflexivity therefore has often been mentioned as one of modern life’s most striking features (Berger et al. 1973; Beck 1986; Giddens 1991; Beck, Giddens & Lasch 1994). In highly modern societies today, receding social structures have largely been replaced by information and communication structures. The economic growth in highly modern societies requires a workforce with information-processing abilities, such as critical thinking, problem-solving, symbol-processing and self-monitoring, and sociologist Scott Lash therefore argues that the new self-reflexivity is a development that is immanent to the modernisation process itself (1994: 113, 131, 134). But why is reflexivity evident at some strata of society and not at others? Lash suggests that although decreased social structures and increased freedom of agency are experienced by all social classes in high modernity, they are not replaced by information and communication structures in all social classes.

Generally speaking, while all jobs contain information-processing components, they do so in varying proportions. The more design-intensive, the more innovation-intensive and the more long-cycle the job task is, the more information-processing and reflexivity it will demand. The expanded middle-class in high modernity works inside the information and communication structures, and they do so mainly as ‘experts’ inside the expert systems. They are the ‘reflexivitywinners’ of today’s informationalised capitalist order (Lash 1994: 130). The lower classes are on the receiving end of the information and communication structures, but significantly, women are not excluded from these new structures, and often they may even be on the informationmanipulating end as well. There is comparatively open access to the education system in highly modernised societies, and we therefore can expect that women generally will gain from this process of reflexive modernisation. One salient aspect of modern astrology is that its rapid growth in the 20th century happened at a time when societies went through this transformation from simple to reflexive modernity. Some sociologists now identify global middle-class society as the site of religious developments that seem to reverse disenchantment (Lee & Ackerman 2002: 35), and this fits well with my empirical findings. The following is in many ways a typical example of astrology’s use among the educated Danish upper middle-class.

Luzia’s choice
“I believe there is meaning to everything, and that all things are connected in the most amazing ways”, explained Luzia as we were sitting in her cosy living room, where she reflected on her experiences with astrology. Luzia is in many ways a typical Danish suburban upper middle-class woman in her early forties. She has children, has been divorced, and is now remarried. She works with strategic planning for a company in Copenhagen and holds a Master’s degree in business administration. But some years ago, she explained to me, she felt an intense urge to develop spiritually, and now she has completed a private education in order to become a ‘spiritual life guide’. Her aim in the future is to be better able to combine business and spiritual work. Luzia: “I was really craving for something to happen in my life when I started this education four years ago. I went to a psychic fair and there I consulted an astrologer who confirmed my intuition that I should seek spiritual training, and that I would find the right education right here. There was everything at the fair: psychics, healing, massage, astrology, palmistry. You name it, they had it. When I finally came to the ‘spiritual life guide’ desk, I knew I had found it. It is a combination of regression therapy, psychotherapy, knowledge of spiritual energies and devas, and we also had classes with tarot card reading

and astrology. I knew the astrologer beforehand, because I had heard her give some talks on astrology and related topics on different occasions, and I liked her very much. During our astrology class, she gave consultations that lasted for about 1½ hours for each of us. We were all sitting around the table and taking notes for each other as she was talking, and I thought the things she said to the others fit very well. I was the last to have my chart done, so naturally my expectations were fairly high. Yet, I was surprised. She was right on when she mentioned some very hurtful issues from my childhood, and she advised me of the importance of not becoming victimised as my mother had been. I was aware of that already, but the effect is very powerful when you hear it from somebody else. She also said in a very frank and direct way, ‘are you sure your husband loves you?’ or ‘do you think he wants this marriage as much as you do?’, or something like that. I don’t remember the words exactly, but I do remember that I thought she came on too strong. I mean, of course I knew at the time that my marriage was not the best in the world, but still, I was glad I had some people to talk it over with afterwards. We did that the following day in the group.” Kirstine: “Did the astrologer also say things that didn’t fit well?” Luzia: “Yes. Although I haven’t looked at these notes for a long time, I do remember that she talked about something that had happened when I was fourteen or fifteen years old, which had had a huge impact on my life later on. I still don’t know what she was talking about there. Generally speaking, I could relate to everything she said about the overall themes in my life, but when she went into the details of it, it didn’t fit anymore. I actually had a similar experience last summer. You see, each morning when I arrive at work the first thing I do is get a cup of coffee and check my daily horoscope on the Internet. I have a favourite site that I think is good. At this site you can also order your personal horoscope sent by post, and I did that because the general theme in the first ten personal lines about me rang amazingly true. But when I received the detailed horoscope for the next three years ahead, it didn’t fit so well. There were many things I couldn’t recognise at all. However, when the three years are over, I might actually do it again.” Kirstine: “Even though it fit so poorly?!” Luzia: “Yes, because I like to compare and see: Did I do this? Should I focus on that? It is a means to a certain kind of reflection, rather than something that I follow and lean on completely. It’s not only astrology that I use this way. I have also been to a palmist and a clairvoyant, and I use tarot cards myself. Before an important business meeting, I always choose a tarot card in order to see what to focus on. And I sometimes try to understand people better by means of numerology, astrology and tarot cards. However, the alternative guidance I seek should just give me some kind of direction. I believe these things work on a higher level, but you can’t cover all details or explain everything. I just need to know if I am on the right track.” (Author’s fieldwork in Denmark, 2005).

This approach is very typical of the use of astrology among members of the reflexive middle-class; in actual practice, astrology functions more as inspirational input rather than as an authoritative knowledge system. Everything in astrology doesn’t have to be true. It just has to offer some sense of direction.

Globalisation and astrology
In the modern, globalised world, mass media from printed books to television and the Internet connect us not only with events in other parts of the world, but also present to us other lifestyles and biographical plots. Traditions are under siege everywhere, but more so in countries that are mostly affected by reflexive modernisation, i.e., societies with a high degree of functional differentiation, a high degree of information access, a high degree of manufactured uncertainty and a high degree of individualism. As proposed by sociologist Anthony Giddens, de-traditionalisation results on a global scale in a movement towards two diverse orientations: that of cosmopolitanism and that of fundamentalism. Fundamentalism is tradition that is challenged and legitimises itself by means of a sacred text. Cosmopolitanism is the result of individuals’ experience of being citizens of the world (Giddens 1999). The results of my fieldwork suggest that the latter also involves a tendency towards ‘cautious openness’. Here is an example:

Made in Heaven?
James Hillman is 28 years old. He is an American and works as an English teacher in Tokyo. He told me this brief story as we walked in the streets of Tokyo one late afternoon in March 2005: “I am Terumi’s English teacher [Terumi Kondo is a well-known Japanese astrologer who is gaining a growing international reputation], and she did my chart in one of my classes. I have never had my

chart done before. I am slapstick Catholic from Ohio. In Ohio, there are some people who do it at home in their living rooms, but it doesn’t seem as serious as with Terumi. To her, astrology is about the laws of nature and the connections between man and universe. It is like a science. She had calculated my chart and she described for me, on the basis of that, my character. I could recognise many of the things she said, like the fact that I have good female friends and that I have a good relationship with my mother. Other things were perhaps not so striking, so I don’t know what to think about it. I also wanted to meet a girlfriend, and Terumi said I should not hang out in bars or go out - that was not the way for me to find a nice girl. I should find someone that I knew well, perhaps someone from my job. (His girlfriend smiles.) So two months later I asked Yoko out. We work together.” Kirstine: “Do you think Terumi’s advice might have pushed you in that direction?” James: “I think so, yes, and I find it comforting to think that hopefully there is something out there that we don’t understand.” (Author’s fieldwork in Tokyo, 2005)

Global frames of reference ‘subjunctivise’ the self-evident cultural habits of everyday life.33 Our reflexive doubt not only creates ontological insecurity (Giddens 1991); it also opens the world to us in new exciting ways. What am I doing in Ohio when I could go to Tokyo? What am I doing with this person when I could be with somebody else? Thus, the imaginary in many ways becomes something critical and new in global social processes (Appadurai 1996: 31). The type of religion that characterises the cosmopolitan individual has been described as “religion beyond ‘belief’” (Heelas 1998: 5). Postmodern religion belongs to a consumer culture, in which people may adopt the truth of the various spiritual offers in a sceptical, yet open manner. In certain ways, cosmopolitans can juggle several traditions at once, and if a particular religious input can be used in a person’s ongoing identity work, the more likely it is that it will be the object of further reflection. It has often been stated that globalisation has created a sense of living in one world or, as stated in Marshall McLuhan’s catchy phrase, in a ‘global village’ (McLuhan & Fiore 1967; McLuhan & Powers 1992). However, the experience of ‘oneness’ is mainly reserved for the privileged groups of people who have access to electronic communication and global media, who have money and who can travel; in other words, the relatively affluent and well-educated. Globalisation affects underprivileged groups too, but in a less positive manner, due to the fact that

This is not a term that is normally used by sociologists. I have borrowed it and been inspired by its use in the work of cognitive psychologist Jerome Bruner. He transposed this grammatical term to narrative theory, where it now denotes the open discourse, the multiple perspectives and the ‘performable’ character of a text that allows it to work for the reader. Great story telling is about compelling human plights that are set forth with sufficient subjunctivity to allow play for the reader’s imagination. The subjunctive mood is “to be trafficking in human possibilities rather than in settled certainties” (Bruner 1986: 26). It seems to me that subjunctivation is one of the most important effects of nearness to other lives and other cultures that the mechanisms of globalisation have brought forth.

as a central mechanism of modernisation it also creates fragmentation. As opposed to traditional societies with few specialists and people who more or less could perform identical functions, modernity is characterised by what is now generally termed functional differentiation (Durkheim 1893/1984; Luhmann 1997). New forms of expertise are desired as certain functions become important, and this is why modernisation is a process that continuously creates new winners and new forms of ‘waste’ (Bauman 1991). 34 The concept of functional differentiation conveys a particular kind of social reality in which contemporary society is divided into separate functional spheres by extreme divisions of labour. A fundamental aspect of this differentiation is the dichotomy between private and public spheres, but differentiation also takes place within these two spheres, whereby the individual is provoked to relate experiences to the ego in a fundamentally new way. Sociologists of phenomenological orientation propose that one characteristic of modern societies is the ‘pluralisation of life-worlds’. A life-world is an ordered world that gives sense to the business of living. It is social in its origin and its ongoing maintenance, which means that the meaningful order of the life-world is created collectively. Humans have always lived in life-worlds that were more or less unified due to division of labour and other institutional segmentations. Nevertheless, compared to earlier societies, people today live in an increasing number of life-worlds, with the risk of experiencing a higher degree of disintegration (Berger et al. 1973: 62 ff.). In traditional societies, the differences between the various sectors of social life would ‘hang together’ by means of an order of integrating meaning that included them all. This over-arching order was typically religious, and only seldom would the individual feel that a particular social situation took him out of his common life-world (Berger 1967). Today, however, the situation is vastly different. Modern life is segmented to a high degree and the different sectors relate to different worlds of meaning and experience. This segmentation is not only observable on the level of social conduct, but also manifests itself on the level of individual consciousness (Berger et al. 1973: 64). The pluralisation of life-worlds also happens in the private sphere, and this poses particular challenges for the individual in terms of creating and maintaining a ‘home world’ that will serve as a meaningful centre. In this process of creating and maintaining a ‘home world’ within a continuously changing, complex and highly differentiated

‘Functional differentiation’ is a widely used term that was coined by sociologist Niklas Luhmann (1927-1998). He builds on the work of Émile Durkheim, who used two metaphors to describe the different mechanisms of social order in pre-industrial and industrialised societies. The former is characterised by mechanical solidarity and the latter by organic solidarity. In industrialised societies, the division of labour becomes ever more complex and differentiated. The problem of trust in expert systems, which inevitably becomes an urgent problem in highly complex societies, was examined later by Anthony Giddens (1991).

world, the ego becomes a necessary focal point of all inner experiences, as the environment loses many of its contours (Luhmann 1986: 15). The differentiation means that individuals “can no longer be firmly located in one single subsystem of society, but rather must be regarded a priori as displaced” (Luhmann 1986: 15). Whereas traditional, small-scale societies are characterised by a ‘dense sociability’ with friends and enemies, but hardly any strangers, in a modern, complex society, everybody is always potentially a stranger (Bauman 1991: 79). Metaphors of homelessness, such as ‘the homeless mind’ (Berger et al. 1973) and ‘the eternal wanderer’ (Bauman 1991: 79), are used by sociologists to describe how social distantiation is experienced by contemporary individuals in the globalised world. It has been suggested that the ‘homelessness’ of modern social life has become metaphysical, so that social ‘homelessness’ has become ‘homelessness’ in the cosmos (Berger et al. 1973: 166). Although human conditions in late modernity have generally been described in terms that seem rather bleak, it is important to acknowledge the positive opportunities that are created too. To have no home in the world also means to be at home in the whole world, to have many opportunities.35 The theme of having a home in the world, or of belonging in the cosmos in some deep archaic sense, has often been highlighted by contemporary astrologers in their writing (e.g., Forrest 1993; Costello 2004) and during many of the interviews I did as a part of my investigation. When I asked what types of questions clients consult astrologers about, a New York City based astrologer phrased his answer this way:
People come with conscious questions that conceal unconscious needs. And peoples’ conscious questions are all the same: career, health, money and love. But underneath are the same conflicts: What am I here for? What is my path? Can I heal the things that have to be healed? What is really underneath it all?! But they all have career, money, health and love questions. (Interview with Michael Lutin, California, 2003)

Darby Costello is a London-based astrologer who has been doing ethnographic work with traditional South African healers, the sangomas, for many years. In a recent article, she reflects on astrological practice and discusses the possible etymological connections between the words ‘desire’ and ‘consider’ with the Latin root for stars, ‘sidera’. She explains:

The most salient example of this is a relatively recent technique called ‘astrogeography’, in which a person’s birthplace is manipulated in the creation of a personal horoscope. Thus, the whole world becomes a cosmic playground to the privileged individual in the globalised world.

I learned that people came to me as they did to the sangomas [traditional healers] with their desires and longings around love and health and work and their success and failure, and underneath these questions were other levels that had to be addressed if any peace or healing was to take place. I learned that it was possible to create a private, sacred space in which my clients felt something happen that shifted their attention in such a way that they could see their lives in a different perspective. (…) Every astrologer knows the moment when suddenly all the aspects and transits and progressions come together and suddenly images and words are there, clear and right - the augury is seized - both astrologer and client know it: For as long as it lasts, the moment, cut out of time, is sacred. (…) Suddenly all the dimensions come together for a moment - soul, spirit and body resonate to something numinous. The astrologer and the client enter sacred space at those moments. And even when these moments are few and far between, we who are advocated to astrology cannot give up our contemplation of the stars. We consider aspects, angles and positions endlessly, always seeking ways to navigate our own and our clients’ lives. Again and again we erect temples in the airy spaces of our minds, within which we contemplate the patterns and take the auspices. (…) It is always some sort of desire that leads one to an astrologer - sometimes it seems a simple thing, such as a business deal, or the right time to buy or sell something; for modern psychologically oriented astrologers it is often the desire of the client to understand better themselves and the world they inhabit. Often it is something more naked; something looked for, longed for; something felt to be missing; sometimes real grief at something gone. (...) Often the question asked is hiding another, deeper question, another deeper longing (Costello 2004).

American astrologer Steven Forrest considers in his book, The Night Speaks. A Meditation on the Astrological Worldview (1993), the metaphysical basis of modern astrology and its alternatives:
The sky is alive. How strange those words sound. How primitive. How far from the myths they spin in schools. But try the alternative: the sky is dead. We inhabit a dead universe. So where’s the truth? Is the cosmos alive or inanimate? Do we live inside a vast thought…or a vast clock? Trust your senses. Engage your heart (Forrest 1993: 5).

The need to get out of the rational iron cage and to breathe freely in an enchanted universe could hardly be more pronounced. Although astrology is even described by this astrologer as “a disorderly

system, without much internal agreement” (Forrest 1993: 6), this seemingly does not matter because:
Each school of thought, each astrological theory, is an attempt to do the impossible: to unravel the great symbol of the living sky. Not ‘to give it meaning’. Palpably, the sky already has meaning: just look up and feel it. Astrology’s task is to put that overwhelming emotion into words. To take that vast thought, always just beyond our reach, and turn it into something comprehensible. We can’t do it. But we can try, and the trying reflects a yearning deep in every one of us…a yearning to feel the same heart beating inside us that beats in star-clouds and sea-nettles (Forrest 1993: 6).

To use astrology is a way to claim a home in the cosmos, and the image of the self is in a literal sense the image of cosmos too:
You’re in this living universe for a purpose. Time to figure out what that purpose is. And by the way, Cosmic Intelligence is going to pitch in and help you out (…). Reader, you and I are both sailing the same mysterious waters. We’re born, and from that moment we carry inside ourselves a little hologram of the sky. As long as we live, it resonates with the rhythms of planets and tides, stars and seasons. That hologram is our life; its breath is the breathing of an intelligent, conscious universe (Forrest 1993: 7-8).

In modern astrology, the fragmented social world is magically being transformed into an enchanted universe with a given purpose and direction. The astrological outlook is about ‘flow’, and about acknowledging the dynamic rhythms of nature. “Cooperation with nature brings happiness – any fight against nature is doomed to fail” (Hjelmborg & Kirsebom 187: 57. Author’s translation). But how is nature, or rather, the universal order, conceived in modern astrology? Since astronomical knowledge has increased significantly during the past 4,000 years, one should think that these scientific insights would impact modern astrological ideas about the universe, and furthermore that the ability of modern humans to take astrology seriously might be affected. These are questions that we shall turn our attention to now.

Religion, nature and cosmology 36
In a recent volume on anthropology, cosmology and nature (Roepstorff, Bubandt & Kull 2003), it is opined that nature is no longer what it used to be, and neither is culture. The authors argue that while ‘nature’ has become deconstructed during the past ten years, ‘culture’ has become naturalised. One example of this dual trend is seen in the massive interest in cognitive research in the fields of cultural studies such as anthropology and religion ( e.g., Boyer 1990, 2001; Whitehouse 2000; McCauley & Lawson 2002; Barrett 2004; Whitehouse & Laidlaw 2004), as well as in the fact that ‘nature’ has established itself firmly as a problematique with far-reaching consequences. Nature is now emerging as a cultural, historical and social construct with powerful political and moral implications, and the common opposition between culture and nature therefore seems increasingly untenable (Roepstorff, Bubandt & Kull 2003: 10). However, in the field of religious studies, researchers have always had a tendency to consider nature as partly constructed. ‘Nature’ is not only something out there. It is also actively imagined as a part of the whole systemic order of the world, and it thus contributes to and is perceived through a semantic network of meaning. It is what Bruno Latour (1999) would call a factish, namely something between fact and fetish. It is both real and really made-up, and this epistemological awkwardness is well reflected in Latour’s conceptual hybrid. Nature meets the historian of religion as a factish when it appears in the study of cosmology, i.e., the system any given culture has of ordering and conceptualising the world.

In the imagining and making of society, ‘nature’ is simultaneously established through a classification system that divides up the world as a social, political and moral order and as fields of human practice (Roepstorff, Bubandt & Kull 2003: 25). A cosmology consists of a system of classification in which everything of some importance in the world – the sun, moon and stars, spirits, trees, flowers, plants, pebbles and gemstones, colours, tribes, animals, seasons, directions, parts of the body, or members of a social group – is classified as parts of an ordered whole. There are no limits as to what can be included in the classification system, and even though these classification systems differ greatly between various religions, cultures and sub-cultures, it is generally agreed that human beings create classifications as a way to orient themselves in their

36 37

This part of the chapter previously published in Munk (2007). It is important to distinguish the two main uses of the term. In the natural sciences, cosmology is a particular research area that investigates the universe and its past, present and future (Hannestad 2003). In cultural studies, cosmology is an overarching moral, spiritual, cognitive and social order that a given culture lays out as a semantic net over the natural and the social world.

world, and that these classifications are both cultural and slightly idiosyncratic (Sørensen 1994: 18 ff.). With a now extremely well-known formulation, a cosmology represents the world as a model of and for reality (Geertz 1973). Particular imaginings of nature become moral realities that affect individual practices of identity (Roepstorff, Bubandt & Kull 2003: 15), but a cosmology is also a dynamic system that is subject to alterations. A cosmology has a strong claim to wholeness, so when changes occur in the social world, it simultaneously affects other fields of practice and imagination, e.g., ‘nature’ (Munk 1997; 1998). The question that is of great interest in relation to our field of inquiry therefore is the following: In the case of modern astrology, how is ‘nature’, or more precisely ‘cosmos’, being established as a meaningful entity?

The universe as ‘factish’
Astrologers often have pointed to the ‘order’ of the universe, which has been exemplified both poetically and mathematically. Some highlight the bare fact (or sheer wonder) that we inhabit a planet in a solar system where the size of the full moon is exactly the size of the sun disk when seen from the earth. 38 Other astrologers have calculated and compared the relative distances between the planets, their orbits and sizes and have found certain mathematical patterns that repeat themselves in the solar system in connection with phi and the golden section (Ring 1939; Martineau 1995). The patterns are considered to reflect an ‘organising principle’ that can be shown as a series of geometrical figures (Martineau 1995: xviii). Significantly, most astrologers today do not conceive of a Newtonian, mechanical universe in which planets ‘effect’ anything. Rather, everything in nature, whether planets, sea-nettles, leaves on trees or the human mind, takes part in the same ‘forces in life’ (Ring 1939; Forrest 1993).

Different worlds of experience
The Danish master composer Per Nørgård has worked with astrology for many years, and to him there is a close connection between astrology and music.

In a conversation I had with him during my fieldwork, he

explained his discovery of the so-called infinity series, a complex hierarchical musical universe in which there exists an indefinite number of melodies that expand in particular regularities like fractals (Beyer 1996;
38 39

Pointed out to me by the Danish astrologer Christian Borup, 2003. Per Nørgård (b. 1932) is widely acclaimed as the most important living composer in Scandinavia. He has composed more than 300 works including operas, symphonies, choral works, chamber music, electronic music, songs and ballet. This text is an extract from our conversation in January, 2006.

Roel & Nørgård 2005). He finally concluded: “You can almost translate everything I tell you about music into astrology. I find it all here.” Per Nørgård became acquainted with astrology a few years after discovering the infinity series in 1959. A student at the academy of music had guessed his star sign, and he recalls it as one of the lucky incidents in his life that he some time after that discovered two modest looking volumes by the German astrologer Thomas Ring, on colourful shelves in an occult bookstore: “Astrology opened for the experience of a possible consistency in life. These forces that Thomas Ring described are found in all our different worlds of experience (…). The solar system is an organism, and the whole ecological thought lies in this conception. We live in a system where everything is connected (…). I don’t know how astrology works, but I do know that if it works, it must work on all levels of existence.” (Interview with Per Nørgård. Copenhagen, 2006)

A similar idea is expressed by the British astrologer Melanie Reinhardt:
The ancient science of astrology, founded on the correlation between celestial movements and terrestrial events, recognizes the universe as an indivisible whole in which all parts are interconnected (…). The ‘living idea’ at the core of astrology is that we inhabit a universe in which everything seen and unseen, known and unknown, is interconnected and alive, and in which we are participants (…). Additionally, astrology sees individuals not only as unique in themselves, but also as reflections of a larger whole in which they live, being simultaneously embedded within it, relating to it, and co-responsible for its creation (Extracts from: Melanie Reinhardt: “Astrology, the Vision”, 2003).

A personal horoscope is an image of the sky and the position of the planets at the time and place a person was born. It is often referred to by astrologers as a ‘cosmic blue-print’ of the person. Although the philosophical thought of astrology comprises the whole universe, it is the more or less ‘domesticated’ and familiar part of our solar system that is of practical astrological concern. A horoscope always comprises the Sun, Moon, Mercury, Venus, Mars and Saturn, which are the celestial objects that have been observed and used since Babylonian times. Contemporary astrologers usually also include interpretations of Uranus, Neptune and Pluto, which were discovered, respectively, in 1781, 1846 and 1930, as well as interpretations of the lunar nodes, which are points in the chart where the eclipses of the sun and moon meet. These points are considered by some astrologers to reveal a person’s karma; to others they primarily denote a person’s ability to relate to groups and to the Zeitgeist (Borup 2003). However, due to advanced

technology, many other more recent astronomical discoveries have made the ‘edge’ around the astrological universe less clear: on New Year’s Eve 1800-1801, a new ‘planet’, Ceres, was discovered. 40 The discovery of Ceres was soon followed by the discovery of other similar objects, namely Pallas in 1802, Juno in 1804 and Vesta in 1807. This challenged, of course, Ceres’ status as a planet. These first four asteroids still have a special status and some astrologers use them in horoscope interpretation. An example of this is the work by astrologer Demetra George, who also includes some of the asteroids, such as Psyche, Eros, Icarus, Sappho and Toro, which were discovered much later (George 1986). Significantly, these other bodies seem not to have been picked according to astronomical criteria, such as shape or size, or historical criteria concerning the time of their discovery. 41 Icarus is very small; only about 1.4 kilometres in diameter, while there are many other asteroids that are significantly larger. 42 Psyche was the 16th asteroid to be discovered, whereas Eros came in as number 433 (Schmadel 1997). With the thousands of asteroids that are known today, how does one make a selection?


There are no clear conventions as to what counts as a planet and what counts as an asteroid, but size matters. Today Ceres is considered the largest asteroid. It is about 1,000 km in diameter. Most a steroids are very small and they do not even look like planets. They are not round. Round, i.e., relatively large asteroids can also be termed ‘planetoids’. Due to the rapid discovery of bodies within the solar system, the IAU (International Astronomical Union) has established a working group to consider the definition of a minimum size for a planet (www.iau.org/IAU/FAQ/sedna.html). Still, as with the discovery of Ceres, it is generally opined that asteroids occur as ‘families’, whereas a planet is solitary. This, however, has brought the status of Pluto into question. Since its discovery, it was considered to be alone. Now astronomers have shown that it is most probably the largest member of ‘the Kuiper belt’, which is a band of rocky, icy asteroids orbiting the sun. The names of the asteroids generally are mythological names, but not all. Some refer to geographical locations such as ‘Lutetia’ (no. 21, discovered in 1852), some are named in honour of great artists, astronauts or scientists, and there is even one named after somebody’s secretary (Schmadel 1997: 22, 285, 646). When an asteroid is first discovered and its existence has been confirmed once, it is given a number. When the orbit becomes well determined, the discoverer can suggest a name, which has to be accepted by the IAU. The IAU is the only institution vested with the authority to give planets and asteroids names. (My sincere thanks to Dr. Ole Knudsen, director of the Steno Planetarium, Aarhus, Denmark, for his kind help and assistance in relation to these astronomical facts.) 41 As pointed out by Demetra George herself, most asteroids are so small that they do not even look like planets. Only asteroids that are bigger than 100 miles and are spherical in shape will smooth into balls because of the force of their own gravity (George 1986: 205). 42 Source: nssdc.gsfc.nasa.gov/planetary/factsheet/asteroidfact.html.

Fig. 1: The different semantic ‘edges’ of the astrological universe as exemplified in two different versions of the same chart. The first was made by the Danish astrologer Pia Balk-Møller and only comprises the ten most well-known planets and the lunar nodes. The second was made by the British astrologer Melanie Reinhardt and includes the planetoid Chiron and a number of minor asteroids. The latter interpretation placed strong focus on some of the minor asteroids, the centaurs. Both charts belong to the author and were made as a part of the author’s fieldwork, 2003-2004.

It is natural to assume that the asteroids are so small that they probably do not matter much to astrologers. However, that is not the case. Some astrologers would argue that just as the discovery of Uranus, Neptune and Pluto correlate with significant historical occurrences that reflect the meaning of the planets, the asteroids also represent diverse archetypical principles that emerge into mass consciousness around the time of their discovery (George 1986: 1-2). The asteroids may be small, but they are “by no means minor in their powers of expression” (George 1986: 210). And the much accredited astrologer Zip Dobyns claims they are “important keys to the nature of reality!” (Dobyns 2002: 1). Recognising that thousands of asteroids have already been discovered and given names, which could perhaps exert some pressure on the overzealous astrologer, Zip Dobyns explains her method:
Based on their names, I pick out and test the asteroids that might be useful in mundane astrology. Testing them involves putting them into many horoscopes to see if their names are appropriate (…). I only list one-degree-orb aspects for the ‘new’ asteroids, that is, for all

others beyond the first four to be discovered. However, where there are overlapping orbs, a network of aspects can reinforce the major themes (Dobyns 2002: 1).43

Melanie Reinhardt explains that she discovered the meaning of the planetoid Chiron in signs and houses by plotting its position into the horoscopes of her clients, and through these consultations she gained an image of how Chiron worked in the personal charts. The point of departure for her investigation was the mythology surrounding Chiron, which also appealed to her personally. Moreover, she noted how, on writing her first book on this asteroid, the themes that were related to the mythology of Chiron presented themselves to her in everyday life. 44 The astrological meaning of the planets and asteroids, and their inclusion or exclusion in a chart, is not related to astronomical facts, but rather to a combination of factors, of which the name given seems to be the most important part. To astronomers, the name is random. To astrologers, the particular naming is ripe with meaning, whether the giver of the name knows it or not. In the words of Melanie Reinhardt:
The discovery of a new outer planet is a momentous event, suggesting that an archetypical pattern, another facet of the divine, is being activated within the collective psyche, stirring below in the unconscious depths and seeking recognition. Jung believed that the human consciousness was indispensable for the fulfilment of Creation, and in this sense we are all cocreators of the process of being and becoming, just as we are created by the process. When a new planet is discovered, many synchronous events occur which expresses its archetypical theme; a distinct cluster of images and mythic figures can be seen at work within historical and political events and general trends within the collective, the meaning of which may also have enormous impact upon the individual psyche (Reinhardt 1998: 1).

In 1977, the planetoid Chiron was discovered between Saturn and Uranus, and a number of books were published following this discovery (Clow 1987; Reinhardt 1998, 1996). Even though Chiron turned out to be significantly smaller than anticipated, it is only 180 kilometres in diameter, this asteroid is used by many astrologers in chart interpretation. More recently, a planetoid called

From a Newtonian point of view, it does seem to be a bit odd that the first four asteroids get special treatment, since these four asteroids are not the largest. Several asteroids are larger than Juno, for example, Hygeia, which was discovered in 1849 (Schmadel 1997: 20). This problem as well as the issue of semantic demarcation has also been raised in the sceptical literature (e.g., Dean & Mather 1977: 34-35, 245 ff.) 44 Interview with Melanie Reinhardt, London 2003. Other astrologers, who have explored the meaning of particular asteroids or other astrological symbolism, have also described recurring experiences of synchronicity relating to this work (Interview with Johan Hjelmborg and Louise Kirsebom, 2003, and informal conversation with Demetra George, 2004).

Sedna was discovered at the fringes of our solar system. 45 Sedna is estimated to be three-fourths the size of Pluto and lies extremely far from the sun in a region where the temperature does not rise above minus-240 degrees Celsius. The proposed name Sedna refers to an Inuit goddess, and the rich mythology surrounding her soon captured the minds of astrologers who could feel personally related to her story. In the astrological community, Sedna is a candidate for the title as the tenth planet, a judgement not currently shared by the IAU (www.iau.org/IAU/FAQ/sedna.html and author’s fieldwork, 2004).


The object designated 2003 VB_12 was discovered on November 2003. The name Sedna has not yet been endorsed by the IAU Committee on Small Bodies Nomenclature.

Fig 2: Astronomical image of the outer solar system, from Jupiter and beyond. The orbits of the planets are shown in black. Centaur objects , i.e., asteroids orbiting between Saturn and Neptune, are shown as orange triangles. Plutinos are objects whose orbits are situated outside of Neptune and Pluto’s orbit in the Kuiper Belt. Like Pluto, they consist mainly of water-ice. They are depicted as grey circles. Pluto is the large grey symbol. Scattered disc objects (e.g., Sedna) are trans-Neptunian objects of the Kuiper Belt with eccentric orbits. They are shown as magenta circles. The “ classical” Kuiper Belt objects are depicted as red circles. Objects observed at only one position are denoted by open symbols, objects with multiple opposition orbits are denoted by filled symbols. Numbered periodic comets are shown as filled light blue squares. Other comets are shown as unfilled light blue squares. Dual status objects are shown as minor planets. (This plot was created by the IAU: Minor Planet Center and is reprinted courtesy of the Minor Planet Center : The Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory, Harvard: cfa-www.harvard.edu/iau/ lists/OuterPlot.html.)

The making of cosmos in the image of people
The following could be asked now: Why ascribe this messy mass of objects in varying shapes and sizes, some even very far away, any meaning at all? What is the resemblance between the largest planet between the Earth and the Sun and a goddess of love? What is the mechanism behind this kind of anthropomorphism? And how does the universe gain religious significance? These fundamental questions concerning the human ability to hold, form and transmit religious ideas have been the focus of researchers in the cognitive sciences. The subject is vast and I shall only touch on it briefly. One of the advantages of the cognitive approach is that it successfully explains certain discrepancies often found in belief systems, including the astrological. One of the first volumes to appear in the cognitive field of religious anthropology was Faces in the Clouds by Stewart Guthrie (1993). In this book, Guthrie successfully argues that the reason why we so often find anthropomorphism in religion is because it basically underlies all religious experience. Anthropomorphism – the attribution of human characteristics to non-human things and events – stems from a strategy of perception. People seem to have a strong bias to interpret ambiguous evidence as caused by or being an agent. When hearing a bump in the middle of the night, our first impulse is to wonder who caused it, not what caused it. This is an evolutionary trait, explained thus by cognitive psychologist Justin Barrett: “If you bet that something is an agent and it isn’t, not much is lost. But if you bet that something is not an agent, and it turns out to be one, you could be lunch” (Barrett 2004: 31). Our mental device that detects agency therefore can be a little hyper-active. It appears to register non-inertial, goal-directed movement as caused by an agent, and even very little disturbance will do. Experimental work suggest that objects bearing as little resemblance to people such as computers or coloured dots on a video display can be identified as agents (e.g., Michotte 1963). In the cradle of Western astrology, before the Babylonians had acquired astronomical knowledge of the regular movements of the planets, these were perceived as agents in this sense; moving in a non-inertial, goal-oriented manner (Koch-Westenholtz 1995). Today, the planets are seen instead as traces of agency, and cognitive researchers tell us that in identifying traces – paying special attention to whether the trace is purposeful – the mind uses teleological reasoning (Barrett 2004: 37 ff). It is also suggested that our ‘agency detecting device’ probably does not stimulate god concepts in relation to the attribution of agency to traces. It does however seem to reinforce them, which fits well with empirical data. Astrology users may hold particular god

concepts or they may not, but if they do, they generally find that the meaningfulness of astrology corroborates their religious beliefs. 46 Attribution of agency to traces is an example of non-reflective thinking, which, according to cognitive researchers, is one of the two different types of mental activity that results in two different types of ‘belief’. 47 The non-reflective mental activity occurs automatically, requires no careful rumination and sometimes even seems to arise against ‘better judgement’. The reflective mental activity, on the other hand, can produce beliefs that are arrived at through deliberate contemplation or explicit instruction. Reflective beliefs vary across individuals and cultures, whereas the non-reflective beliefs are so closely tied to our mental tools that they show little variation. Beliefs that appear consistent with or resonate with non-reflective beliefs give immediate, intuitive satisfaction (Barrett 2004: 17). Cognitive anthropologist and psychologist Pascal Boyer explains that religious concepts belong to a class of concepts that are salient and ‘counter-intuitive’ (Boyer 2001). They are attention demanding because they violate certain assumptions, while they still have the ability to assist in the explanation of certain human experiences. In order for minimally counter-intuitive concepts to become cultural, they must have inferential potential, i.e., they must be able to “explain, predict, or to generate interesting stories surrounding them” (Barrett 2004: 25). They must help to explain the way things are. Concepts that are most likely to have inferential potential are those that qualify as intentional agents. They provide answers to individual questions, and they have the potential to explain, predict or to generate interesting stories surrounding them (Barrett 2004: 22, 26). Non-reflective religious beliefs can sometimes contradict reflective religious beliefs (Barrett 2004: 10), which is why astrologers find that they frequently lapse into causal vocabulary although they do not intend to (Hand 1976: 5; author’s fieldwork). 48 Even though astrologers today conceive of a cosmos that can best be described in non-personal terms, because the reflective belief
46 47

Author’s fieldwork, 2003-2006. In the cognitive sciences, the term ‘belief’ is far more inclusive than are everyday uses of the word. ‘Belief’ here means fundamental mental processes. An example of a non-reflective belief is the belief that if we drop a stone it will not fly away. These beliefs are instant assumptions that we need to function successfully in the day-to-day world. The reflective belief, on the other hand, is arrived at through deliberate contemplation or instruction. Examples could be that water boils at 100 degrees Celsius or the Christian Trinity problem. Reflective and non-reflective beliefs can be both religious and non-religious. 48 Although the planets in modern astrology are no longer conceived to be able to effect anything, in the actual explanation of peoples’ charts, astrologers nevertheless use causal explanations, e.g., ‘Pluto wants you to make changes in your life now’ or ‘Saturn brings trouble if you don’t set yourself a goal’. Author’s fieldwork, 2003-2006.

system disavows all allegations of causality, intentionality nevertheless is inferred in the language used in the actual explanations of clients’ charts.

Astrology as divination
The practical negotiation of astrological meaning takes place foremost in the consultations. As seen from the perspective of comparative religion, such a personal consultation can be understood as an example of a divination ritual, thus providing a framework of cross-cultural comparisons for our investigation.49 Divination discloses the dialectical tension between what is given and what humans make of the given. As philosophers and anthropologists of phenomenological orientation point out, although humans are pre-conditioned by culture, social circumstances, language, or the psychological environment they were brought up in, these pre-existing circumstances that people may experience as being more or less determining are never just conserved and perpetuated by individuals. Rather, they are also re-imagined, interpreted, objected to, nuanced and negotiated (e.g., Arendt 1958; Jackson 1996: 30). This duality is a central theme in modern astrology, and its language captures particular ways of feeling determined and ‘acted upon’. Yet, as mentioned by Darby Costello and others (e.g., Geddes 1990; Cunningham 1994; Duncan 2002), it is also a ritual system that enables humans to make a shift of perspective, to become conscious actors and to reconstruct their worlds in slightly different ways. But how is the space within which this can happen created ritually and in the minds of the participants?

‘To see the world in a grain of sand’
At the beginning of my fieldwork, I come for a personal consultation in the home of one of the most influential astrologers in Denmark, Pia Balk-Møller. She lives in a wonderful house in a residential area north of Copenhagen. As I enter the hall, the interior strikes me as very beautiful in a rather unusual way: the hall is aesthetically ‘pure’ and ‘zen-like’. The walls are bare and white, and the hall is dominated by a beautiful dark marble floor. Surprisingly, there are relatively large, rough beach stones suspended in a corner of the ceiling – they function as coat hooks. We pass through the living room, which has a nice

The Scandinavian phenomenological research tradition in religious studies is comparative. Its aim is to develop our understanding of religious phenomena, such as myth, ritual and divination, by means of cross-cultural comparisons that promote understanding a given phenomenon in its variety. The aim is purely heuristic and the tradition is far from the early phenomenological orientations of researchers such as Rudolph Otto and Gerhardus van der Leeuw (Hultkranz 1970; Sharpe 1975/1994). My comparative background is largely coloured by my previous research on Zulu diviners and medicine-men in South Africa ( e.g., Munk 1998, 2004). This work has inevitably functioned as a comparative ethnographic lens for me, which has generated further questions for the study of astrology in the Western world.

organic feel to it, engaged in small talk. The room is filled with huge plants, sculptures and other modern art pieces. The furniture looks comfortable. Numerous lamps made of seashells are placed everywhere. The adjacent room, which is a kind of open indoor veranda, is where all the consultations take place. It is small, but with huge windows facing all directions, one has the feeling of being part of nature while still inside. Plants, beautiful stones and religious art pieces (such as a turquoise and a cross) decorate the windowsills. There is a bookcase filled with astrology books on one side of the room, and there is a desk with a movable ‘star disc’ and a computer on the other side. In the middle of the room are two identical armchairs placed at an angle of 60 degrees from each other, and a small coffee table in the shape of an eclipse is placed in front. My chart lies here, so that we can both look at it as we speak. Pia has brewed us coffee, which she pours, and the consultation begins. (Author’s fieldwork in Denmark, 2003).

Most astrologers have a room or a corner of a room that is only used for astrology.50 It is a ‘place apart’, mentally as well as spatially. Only meetings with clients take place there. During interviews with astrologers, I asked in detail about their preparations for a chart reading. There are variations, but it more or less proceeds as follows. Most astrologers draw or print the chart beforehand and analyse it to a degree, where they feel they almost understand it, but not completely. For about half an hour before the client arrives, the astrologers generally need a space of their own. They do something absolutely quiet and peaceful. Some just sit on a sofa, while others meditate or water the flowers. It is not ritualised, but still, astrologers stress it as an important part of the preparation. If a client comes too early, she may even be sent off until the astrologer has had enough quiet time. Some astrologers pray shortly before the client arrives. They ask for good words that the client may use well, words that create transformation and meaning. The astrologers who pray are not overly concerned with to whom or what they pray. Rather, the importance seems to connect to the meaning of language. These astrologers seem highly aware of the fact that there is always more at stake in the rifts of language than the conscious mind can contain and that the speaker never has full autonomy over the language. Meaning also resides outside its immediate horizon, and just as words can open up the world to us, so can words prevent personal meaning if the language used is either too abstract or too banal. 51 The ideal is a certain ‘poetic precision’ (Willis & Curry 2004:
50 51

The description of astrological ritual practice also appears in Munk (forthcoming). Especially British astrologers, such as Melanie Reinhardt (interview in London, 2003) and John Wadsworth (Bath, 2004), have mentioned the importance of prayer. The French phenomenological philosopher Maurice Merleau-Ponty talked in his later works of the ‘paradox of expression’. Meaning is only actualised in the expression. The ‘outer’, the expression, can affect the ‘inner’; the feeling, the meaning, the intentions. There can be meaning hidden in language that the speaker is not immediately aware of, which only becomes manifest as words are pronounced and sentences said (Merleau-Ponty 1969: 144 ff.). I presume it is to this experience the astrologers relate.

98); but as one of the most influential astrologers in the present study pointed out, although it is important how things are said, in the end it is the mystery of the unsaid that enables the individual to connect to her cosmos. Whereas the first part of the ritual aims at creating a certain ‘space’ in the mind of the astrologer so that she can interact well with the client, similar efforts are made to ease the shift of perspective in the client. She must first sit in a waiting room for a while, or she is offered a cup of coffee or tea, or the astrologer first has to plug in the tape-recorder and putter around, or anything which likewise gives the client a certain ‘space’ within time to get into the situation, familiarise with the surroundings and relax. The ritual design is ‘cosmified’ by ritual regalia, such as plants and stones that bring nature into the room in sometimes unusual ways and often in connection with sacred symbols as exemplified in the description of my visit to astrologer Pia Balk-Møller. Also, images of the astrological cosmos are present first and foremost in the horoscope, but also perhaps in particular paintings on the wall, in the ‘star-disc’ – a beautiful ritual regalia showing a dynamic image of the sky, and the ordered cosmos is sometimes even represented also in the actual placement of the furniture. In the example above, Pia Balk-Møller has placed her two sitting chairs at a 60-degree angle, which is a harmonious astrological aspect. Previously, she had her consultation room in the basement, but moved it because the clients that came were the ‘plutonian types’ and the consultations were rough. When she moved to the ground floor and had the chairs placed facing each other at each side of her desk, the relationships between her and the clients were still marked by confrontation and opposition. 52 There appears to be a relation between the meanings that emerge in the ritual and the position of the bodies in the ritual space: the ritual regalia, including the position of the furniture, are experienced by astrologers as conducive for particular themes to emerge in the meeting between astrologer and client. 53 As pointed out by Pascal Boyer, divinatory technique is interpreted by its users as a tool that allows situations to speak for themselves, and ritual efforts are therefore directed at removing any obstacles on that path (1990: 73). It is cosmos that speaks through the astrological divination ritual, and the horoscope is therefore placed centrally so that both astrologer and client can look at it. Even in cases where the ritual design is such that the astrologer and client sit opposite each other or relatively far apart, the client is usually also given her own chart at which to look.

One-hundred-and-eighty degrees, or an opposition, is considered a ‘hard’, disharmonious aspect. The basement is astrologically related to the planet Pluto, which, among other things, has to do with power issues, sex, fear and repression. 53 Author’s fieldwork, 2003-2006.

This may seem odd considering that an astrological chart is impossible to read without prior astrological knowledge, but there is a reason for it: the personal horoscope is an image of the individual and cosmos at one and the same time, and it thus creates an immediate, symbolic connection between man and universe. But furthermore, astrological symbols and mythology evoke peoples’ imagination. Astrologers who also have a background in psychotherapy have mentioned that new personal understanding happens more easily if there is a chart on the table, compared to ordinary psychoanalytic work. The Danish astrologer and psychotherapist Pia Balk-Møller describes the horoscope as a lightning conductor. It is safer to talk about oneself when looking at the chart. The secrets are already on the table, and it is easier to dig into something that is already exposed in symbolic form. Liz Greene is both an astrologer and a psychoanalyst. When comparing psychotherapy to astrology, she suggests that astrology:
…helps to provide self-knowledge within a framework of, or a sense that everything is a unity. That life is as it should be. In a way, it is like the cosmos is giving permission to a person to be who they are, and it makes a link between an individual’s experience of themselves, of who they are, and much greater patterns, which gives people a different perspective of what they are going through, because it opens up, it broadens, and gives dignity (Interview with Liz Greene, London, 2003).

Astrology does not pathologise, and its language, rich in symbolic allusions, myths and anecdotes, engages the listener actively to relate mythical input and personal experience. In the words of Liz Greene, on the role of mythology in astrological consultations:
It is a way of communicating the meaning of certain issues in a birth chart that engages people imaginatively. If you just explain something in a very flat, didactic way, it might make sense intellectually, but there isn’t the connection imaginatively which often makes it feel personal. But myths have this ability because they often echo what the individual is going through. They open something up. Telling those stories is a way of saying, well this is also your story, but here it is on a cosmic level. It gives dignity to what the individual is going through (Interview with Liz Greene, London, 2003).

The key point here is that the type of insight that concerns the individual on a personal level, not only has to be understood intellectually, but also has to be imagined and felt. The client has to be imaginatively involved. If there is no involvement, the consultation does not ‘work’.54 Although astrology conveys the sense that the individual is what he/she should be, the multi-vocality of the astrological symbols produces the insight that there are many ways of being and becoming what one really is. In this way, astrology in the ritual context can open new horizons of personal understanding.

The horoscope as an aesthetic object
The quotation from the interview with Liz Greene above hints at an understanding of astrological divination rituals as ‘imagistic’. In the theoretical framework of anthropologist Harvey Whitehouse, imagistic religious practice is based on multi-vocal iconographic representations and is remembered by means of the episodic memory, which connects it to identity and life-story. Imagistic religious practice is sensuous and emotional, and there is always a sense of emotional ‘arousal’.55 It is connected with low frequency rituals, since high frequency distorts episodic memory (Whitehouse 2000; Whitehouse & Laidlaw 2004), and this explains why astrologers generally emphasise to their clients that they should not come too often for a consultation and particularly not to the same astrologer. 56 The visual side of astrology has important cognitive functions. In the ‘imagistic mode’, thoughts, emotions and senses are mixed in a less than straightforward manner, and the image of the chart is always remembered, although not intellectually understood. Researchers of divination have not yet used aesthetic theory as an explanatory category, but it seems to me that much of our understanding of how clients find astrology meaningful may be gained from a transposition of aesthetic theory to the realm of divinatory experience. In the classical formulation by John Dewey, the ‘aesthetic’ refers to an experience as “appreciative, perceiving and enjoying. It denotes the consumers’ rather than the producers’ viewpoint” (Dewey 1932: 47). Transposed to the realm of astrology, it emphasises the role of the client in the meaning-making process.
54 55

This point was stressed most intensely by the astrologers. (Author’s fieldwork) It may be argued that the arousal is rather weak compared to various types of imagistic rites in other parts of the world. However, it is a salient trait in these rituals that even though people may find it hard to remember everything the astrologer said, they always do remember that they went to an astrologer. They consider it an important part of their life story and they often recall the conversation in fragments a long time afterwards. The clients’ memories always include more sensuous aspects, such as interior decoration and what they had to drink. (Author’s fieldwork) 56 This has been stressed by many astrologers during my fieldwork, although from a purely monetary perspective, it seems rather odd.

The aesthetic experience is said to have a sense of including the whole (Dewey 1932: 194; Jørgensen 1993: 51). There is a hidden meaning; an unheeded world order just surfacing, and there must be ideally something not understood to obtain the full effect (Dewey 1932: 194). According to John Dewey:
The work of art elicits and accentuates this quality of being a whole and of belonging to the larger, all-inclusive whole, which is the universe in which we live (…). It also explains the religious feeling that accompanies intense aesthetic perception. We are, as it were, introduced into a world which is nevertheless the deeper reality of the world in which we live our ordinary experiences. We are carried out beyond ourselves to find ourselves (Dewey 1932: 195).

Dewey spoke of the experience of the aesthetic moment as an ‘openness of knowledge’, which would perhaps now include the so-called ‘aha-experiences’ in which elements of ordinary experience are bound together in new and enlightening ways. In an aesthetic experience, according to Dewey, new gestalts are formed in the transaction between a perceiving subject and an aesthetic stimulus. This always involves the active participation of the subject (Dewey 1932; Eco 1989). Aesthetic experience and personal knowledge both derive from passion. Modern works of art as well as modern astrology represent in their formal properties characteristically modern experiences of the world. There is an ‘openness’ in much modern art; an invitation to the addressee to complete the work. This is in some sense true of every work of art, since they are open to an unlimited range of possible interpretations; however, the openness and the participation of the addressee in the art work is more pronounced today (Eco 1989: 21). The same is true of modern astrology, which is about transformation and empowerment (e.g., Duncan 2002). To modern astrologers, reality is never something entirely fixed, but closely connected with the intentionality of our being, and astrological consultations therefore seek to get into the dynamics of consciousness. 57 The closed, single conception of the medieval horoscope or the work of a medieval artist reflects a conception of the cosmos as a fixed system of preordained order. Today, both modern art and modern astrology convert the Aristotelian concept of real substance into a series of subjective perceptions made by the viewer or by the client, respectively. The search for suggestiveness and the lack of transparent meaning open the aesthetic work to the response of the

Anthropologist Bruce Kapferer originally made this point in relation to a study of a different type of crisis rituals, namely sorcery rituals in Sri Lanka (Kapferer 1997). I am indebted to his theoretical framework in my analysis of divination.

addressee. Eco describes the modern aesthetic universe as a ‘chaosmos’ that can only be defined in its substantial ambiguity (Eco 1989: 41). Just as a horoscope recasts the same network of ideas, the multiplicity of semantic roots in modern art and modern symbolic horoscope interpretation give the suggestive power. Multi-interpretability and polyvalence in modern aesthetic experience reflect the world and invite the individual to become a co-creator of it. Following the aesthetic theory of Umberto Eco (1989), there is an asymmetric relation between information and meaning in aesthetic experience. Throughout my fieldwork, clients have generally related how the astrological consultation provided them with knowledge of the world and a personal insight that they could not have obtained otherwise. They felt they were given new valuable information. Yet, considering the fact that most clients have an unclear idea about the theoretical soundings of modern astrology, or do not even believe in astrology at all, why is it that they find the information so good? According to Eco, information has an additive quality; it has to convey something we did not know beforehand. The essentially additive depends on both originality and improbability. A piece of information, in order to contribute to the general stock of information of a community, must say something substantially different from the community’s previous stock of information (Eco 1989: 53). Information violates predictability, and the fact that astrology is epistemologically ‘subversive’ adds to its informative value. 58 It does not matter if the client is sceptical – that may actually be conducive to the whole process, as long as the client is in need.59 Astrologers have often stressed that there must be passion to engage actively in the interpretation of the chart. Whereas certain forms of communication demand clear meaning, order and obviousness, such as official letters and road signs, other forms of communication depend on individual interpretation and convey a sheer abundance of possible meanings. This is true of both art and divinatory astrology. 60 The quality of information also depends on its source. Clients choose their astrologers carefully, and in subsequent interviews they notice if there is anything, for example, little gestures, or something about the interior decoration, that contradicts the astrologers’ astrological authority.

This may also account for the strange fact that clients who have positive feelings concerning astrology as such have been most critical in relating to personal consultations with astrologers, whereas those that were slightly sceptical but curious have provided the most positive evaluations (author’s fieldwork, 2003-2006). 59 That meaning takes place only if the client is in need is a point stressed particularly by Melanie Reinhardt (telephone conversation, 2005). 60 The possibility of new readings of the same chart was stressed in particular by the modern composer, Per Nørgård, who works with the ‘openness’ in his music explicitly and intentionally. Also Merleu-Ponty (1962) stressed the active engagement of perception. The world as we can perceive it is unfinished and open. But we can continue to make new active selections. The horoscope presents itself to the user as an open totality.

The astrologer may well be slightly mystical and use suggestive language. That works fine because in an astrological consultation, the astrologer brings the information, whereas the client contributes with the meaning. It is the client who organises it all in a new personal gestalt and creates new possible orders. However, there has to be openness in the interaction and in the communication to do so. There has to be the ‘airy spaces in the minds’ of both the astrologer and client in order to hunt for new meanings. The airy spaces are provided by the aesthetics of the ritual room, the disorderly and multivalent symbolism of the horoscope, and the language and interaction between astrologer and client. The horoscope on the table is open to multiple interpretations, but the selection of what is remembered will depend on the clients’ individual dispositions and experiences. The astrological symbolism has suggestive power, and there is an immediate beauty to the chart that engages the clients aesthetically. The horoscope is an open totality of information and meaning, which can only be discerned through personal engagement, where new selections and rearrangements of gestalts appear. Although we can know the result of a consultation – what is remembered – we do not have access to the total meaning-making process. Just as art is “the capacity to work a vague idea or emotion over into terms of some definite medium” (Dewey 1932: 75), so does the horoscope aid in putting words to vague or silenced emotions. Many astrologers have pointed out that in these rituals a ‘sacred space’ is created, where people can talk about things that are usually not talked about, and astrologers spontaneously use words such as ‘dignity’, ‘ancestry’ and ‘longing’ when they mention topics from astrological consultations that are seldom touched on in everyday conversations. These words have largely been excluded from contemporary discourse, and people can therefore experience a discursive ‘homelessness’ in relation to certain themes. Themes that have been silenced in the contemporary, modern discourse are brought forth and realigned with other topics in the conversation and in the new personal narrative that will eventually be the outcome of the consultation. The ritual setting of the astrological consultation makes something private, such as secret longings, dreams and hopes, socially possible, and new personal worlds can be imagined. The type of story telling that takes place in the astrological ritual does not necessarily make us capable of understanding the world better intellectually, which is perhaps not even important. But as pointed out in the work of anthropologist Michael Jackson, these quasimythological stories seem to work from a ‘proto-linguistic’ level, where the story changes our experience of things that have happened to us by restructuring them symbolically (Jackson 2002).

Personal narratives are not just expressions of feeling and attention towards particular issues. They also mould the world as we experience it (Ochs & Capps 1996). The Danish astrologer Christian Borup reports that an important part of his work is to create a new personal life story for a person who is stuck.

When people see astrologers, they often

do so at critical times in their lives, such as change of career, divorce, or something that includes a demand to change one’s identity in relation to others. Christian Borup says that he then places the person somewhere else – earlier in time, or in future desires – so that she gets a chance to envision herself from different chronological perspectives. The philosopher Paul Ricoeur is one of the contemporary thinkers who has been very preoccupied with questions of identity and narrative. Paraphrasing philosopher Hanna Arendt (1958), he states that to answer the question “who?” is to tell the story of a life. Thus the identity of this “who” must be narrative identity, and without recourse to narration, the problem of personal identity would be condemned to an antinomy without solution. According to Ricoeur (1988: 246 ff.), we would either, following Hume and Nietzsche, have to hold that the idea of an identical subject is a substantialist illusion, or we would posit a subject completely identical with itself throughout all life’s different stages. The dilemma disappears if we understand identity not in the sense of being the same (idem), but as oneself as self-same (ipse). Self-sameness, or self-constancy, conforms to the model of identity as dynamic. It rests on a temporal structure and therefore can be refigured by reflective applications of new narrative configurations. Identity as understood in the sense of being the same in spite of time, i.e., the formal identity (idem), in the astrological consultation is exemplified by the horoscope. But the client is also the self-same (ipse), because she develops and unfolds her being through the passing of time. The image of the horoscope provides the idea of continuity through changes, since one has the same chart throughout a lifetime. At the same time, the multivalent symbolism and the diverse narrative input from myths and anecdotes that are told in the consultation stir a particular narrative dynamic, in which the subject appears to herself as both the reader and writer of her own life. From an astrological perspective, identity is never something fixed. It is a pattern of possibilities, and it evolves and develops over time. Astrologers are therefore eager to phrase their sentences in such a way that they still make sense in years to come when the client finds herself in a new, arduous situation. As in the narrative theory of Paul Ricoeur (1988, 1990), identity is dynamic and can only be understood in the actual tension between self-interpretation and continuity. The

Author’s fieldwork, 2003.

client is a narrative agent who through the ritual is given the leading role of her own life story, because the symbols and the mythology in the total ritual setting prompt her to use her active imagination. In the astrological divination ritual, the client is being defined as a social individual who is at once acting and acted upon; an embodied subject with an existential and ethical responsibility for her own life. The type of narrative insight that the divination ritual establishes, therefore, does not result in a final conclusion; rather, it initiates new images and thought-figures with which the individual can continue to work. It provides a ‘moving viewpoint’ (Iser 1978: 107), and an important part of what clients get out of an astrological consultation actually takes place afterwards in conversations with other people. Narrative understanding is a social project that takes time, since stories only ‘work’ if they are meaningful to other people and chronologically coherent (McAdams 1993; Gergen 1994/1997; Eakin 1999). If something is changed at one moment in time, it also has to be changed at another; however, one can always make new narrative arrangements and selections – or as Per Nørgård put it: “It is never too late to get a different childhood.” 62

Western astrology’s current renaissance fits well with reflexive modernity. It aims at formulating and creating identity and meaning ritually. Though the ‘semantic edges’ of modern horoscopes differ, they may all ‘work’ for the client through the symbolic and narrative input in the ritual setup. Astrology provides input to peoples’ life stories in a reflexive manner in that the ambivalence and the multi-vocality in horoscope symbolism challenge the individual actively to negotiate the chart. In the unlikely event that this does not happen, despite all efforts on behalf of the astrologer to create a ritual space for new empowering narratives to take place, the consultation is a failure. In the late modern era, astrological interpretations have become more open to negotiation and the multi-vocality of the chart seems more pronounced. Cosmos is made in the minds of people, and their social and existential situations are reflected therein. But in the rituals of identity construction, cosmos also serves as the legitimating frame that gives the particular ritual authority. A significant component of the success of modern astrology is that it takes its point of departure in the human plights of modern times – social and metaphysical homelessness – and transforms them in the creation of an enchanted world with ‘ temples in the airy spaces of our

Conversation, January, 2006.

minds’. Global frames of reference and the many social worlds that the individual must navigate result in a need to relate multiple experiences back to a quickly adaptable ego. In contemporary astrology, all the messy dissonant experiences of the self and the social worlds are presented in the personal horoscope within a cosmic frame of reference. Modern astrology is mainly used by members of the extended and transformed middle-class, which reflexive modernisation has created. Their jobs consist primarily of processing huge amounts of information in expert systems, but navigating in expert systems is a process in which it is impossible rationally to process all relevant factors. Much expert knowledge is therefore probabilistic and that brings a high tolerance towards other probabilistic knowledge forms, such as astrology and other types of divination. Therefore, as we saw in the case of Luzia, everything in astrology does not have to fit, but it has to prompt the user to create new possible configurations in a phenomenological act; it has to provide some sense of direction. Social imaginings are important in a constantly changing globalised world. This provides the fertile ground not only for astrology, but for divination rituals in general, and the imagistic practices of the modern, Western world are mainly found here. The widespread kind of information-processing in expert systems demands a high degree of reflexivity and self-monitoring, which inevitably leads the individual to a strong focus on self. As outlined earlier, almost all claims of knowledge today entail the form of hypothesis; knowledge claims can be true, but they are always open to revisions, and the provisory character of knowledge privileges forms of knowledge that seem inspiring and personally relevant. In the late modern era, astrological interpretations have become more open to negotiation and the multivocality of the chart seems more pronounced. Because we are moving from the era of pre-allotted ‘reference groups’ into an epoch of ‘universal comparison’, we now have multiple standards available for self-comparison. As we interact with more people and are exposed to various media representations of what a person can be, the range of self-evaluative criteria expand manifold. Despite these postmodern conditions, astrology promises to formulate an authentic self that is a part of the laws of cosmos. Yet, in accordance with postmodern perceptions of identity, the astrological self is also a relational self. One’s significant others are always symbolically present in the chart, and the symmetric relation between self and other is pronounced. Furthermore, the self is seen as a narrative construction. Through the astrological interpretation, the individual can better use the potentials of the horoscope to create a good life story – good in the sense that it is a story that is able to create a good, habitable

life-world. Astrologers acknowledge the formative and redemptive aspect of story telling, and mythology, anecdotes and other kinds of narratives play a crucial part in any successful astrological consultation. Modern astrology can be understood as religious practice as well as aesthetic experience. Astrological theory, including the meaning of newly discovered asteroids and the semantic edges of the cosmos, is in part derived from the outcome of particular consultations. Nature is also strongly present in the ritual design as cosmic images, or the position of the furniture, or as plants and stones on a windowsill. The laws of nature are ideally what speak directly through the astrological divination ritual, and the representation of the cosmos in the ritual design therefore plays an important part in the authority and outcome of the astrological divination ritual. Following aesthetic theory, the ritual contains much information, but less meaning. This last component is mainly provided by the client. Since symbolic meaning is multi-vocal and socially constructed, it seems therefore a fair conclusion that the astrological cosmos, or ‘nature’ as a semantic system, is also ritually and socially constructed too. Using the terminology generated in cognitive science, astrology may function as a reflective belief system in the minds of its users, i.e., ‘belief’ in the conventional sense of the word; but it may also work for people on a purely non-reflective level. The various reflective astrological beliefs are culture specific and should be understood within a historical and social context, whereas the almost universal spread of diverse astrological systems can be explained cognitively by the fact that astrology fits so well with many non-reflective beliefs that are part of the natural cognitive dispositions of human beings. When humans anthropomorphise and ascribe the universe intelligence and agency, it is, according to cognitive research, because that is how our minds are made. In the case of astrological divination, it is also a significant part of how minds are made up.

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Negotiating meaning
Divination processes in Danish healing rituals
Ann Ostenfeld-Rosenthal.

During the last few years, the use of spiritual healing to treat both physical and psychological disorders has increased considerably in Denmark (Widell 2000; www.vifab.dk). Although this development is in itself an interesting phenomenon, also of interest are the techniques that healers use when healing people. Divination is a way of exploring the unexplained, and one of the healers’ important tools is divinatory practice. The purpose of this chapter is to examine how these divinatory processes contribute to healing. Starting with a description of a Danish healing ritual and an explanation of its relation to the cosmology of healers – to their concepts of man, illness and healing – this chapter addresses divination processes in spiritual healing. I would like to show that although divination in Danish healing rituals does not rely on ‘concrete’ devices, as do many classical forms of divination, it plays an important role in how ritual works and in the therapeutic process in general. This chapter is based on a pilot study, the aim of which was to map the healing field in Denmark, including a description of the concepts of illness, healing and the various categories of healers.63 Qualitative interviews with 24 healers from a variety of locations in Denmark formed the basis of the pilot study. Danish healers can be categorised roughly into five groups: 1. Multi-tradition healers: Healers drawing on several spiritual/religious or philosophical traditions or healing schools. 2. Reiki healers: Healers drawing on the teachings of Mikao Usui, a Japanese monk. 3. Shamanistic healers or neo-shamans: Healers drawing on shamanistic cosmologies and practices from all over the world and adapted to modern Western society.


The study was financed by the Aase and Ejnar Danielsens’ Fund.

4. Religious charismatic healers: Healers performing in Evangelical contexts in particular, such as collective healing meetings. 5. Spontaneous healers: Self-taught healers who have spontaneously discovered their healing powers. 64 The chapter starts with a few reflections on divination and healing. Following this is a brief account of healers’ views of human nature, illness and healing. Finally, portions of an interview with a healer are presented, understanding that the healing encounter is a negotiation between healer and client regarding different interpretations of the images and symbols that have appeared during the healing.

Divination and healing rituals
Divination can be broadly defined as a method for exploring the unknown, i.e., unknown to ordinary human understanding (Evans-Pritchard 1937/1976; Winkelman & Peek 2004; Tedlock 2005). People may want to access the unknown under many circumstances: e.g., in relation to future events, unexplained misfortunes, for making choices or healing illness. As Winkelman and Peek remark:
(…) divination systems help people. Divination helps people negotiate their lives, make decisions, cure ailments and reknit social fabrics. (Winkelman & Peek 2001: 7)

The anthropologist Clifford Geertz argues that to exist as human beings, we are so dependent on meaningful order or symbol systems that “the remotest indication that they may prove unable to cope with one or other aspect of experience” (Geertz 1973: 99) threatens our human existence. There are three ways in which chaos can threaten human’s cultural order and create problems of meaning: (1) human analytical competencies, (2) existential questions related to death, illness and suffering, and (3) evil (Geertz 1973). Illness challenges the order of our worldview and creates problems of meaning, and divination can be one way of exploring the causes of a malady to make it meaningful. Divination,

The findings of the study indicate that at a basic level the healers in the first three categories are remarkably similar concerning worldview, concepts of human nature, illness and healing, while the charismatic healers differ profoundly. The first three categories use the most prolonged healing rituals, which makes them the most valuable for my study.

then, is in part a quest for meaning, trying to find possible answers to questions such as the reasons for one’s ill health and perhaps also instructions for necessary actions to re-establish well-being. Divination and healing are thus closely connected. But how do the divinatory processes in Danish healing rituals contribute to healing? First, it is necessary to place these processes in the broader context of divination. The anthropologist Barbara Tedlock (2005) describes four main types of divination: omen, pattern, symbol and trance. Divination in spiritual healing in Denmark can be classified as a mixture between symbol divination and trance. Symbol divination includes, e.g., the use of cards, sticks, lines in the hand etc. These are concrete symbolic devices. The symbols in spiritual healing rituals consist mainly of images, colours or bodily sensations, which appear during the healing session. Trance divination involves contacting spirits – that is, beings from a transempirical reality (Winkelman & Peek 2004) – in order to answer questions (Tedlock 2005). To refer to transempirical reality in relation to spiritual healing in Denmark, however, is not entirely adequate. According to the healers’ cosmology, man is ultimately made of the same matter as the Divine. The two realities – the empirical and the transempirical – are not separate, but are two aspects of the same reality. Thus, the transempirical or non-ordinary reality (Lindquist 1997) is simultaneously part of human nature and the information that the healer and the client access during healing belongs to both of their natures or to both realities, so to speak. However, healers also use spirits or ‘helpers’, such as the Virgin Mary or a power animal, not only as sources of information, but more often they ask for help to heal their clients. Another device for the creation of order and meaning is ritual. As Bronislaw Malinowski (1948) argues, the function of ritual is to give human beings a feeling of safety and security in the face of nature’s vagaries. In addition, faced with the world’s unforeseen ‘chaos’, ritual has the ability, via its multi-vocal, unifying symbols and repetitive character, to provide the ritual participants with a sense of stability and order (Ostenfeld-Rosenthal 1999). The definition of ritual, for many years, has occupied a central position in the anthropological literature on ritual. An essential and illuminative discussion developed when anthropologists moved from studying small-scale societies to more complex, industrial societies, where ritual does not always include belief in ‘supernatural beings’ – a defining feature agreed upon until then. A discussion ensued concerning the role of the supernatural in the definition of ritual, which lead to a primary ‘split’ in so-called religious and secular rituals (Moore & Myerhoff 1977).

Later, the discussion went in a slightly different and perhaps more general direction. On the one hand, ‘ritual’ is not a clear and delimited category of social behaviour. Nevertheless, to see a ritual dimension in almost all kinds of social behaviour is problematic, as it renders the concept more or less meaningless. Catherine Bell, an American professor of Religious Studies, asks the very appropriate question: is it possible to examine characteristic features of ritual activities without cutting ritual activities off from what they share with social behaviour in general? One solution to this problem could be to look at the specific cultural strategies that differentiate activities from each other. Thus, ‘ritualization’, the term Bell proposes, focuses on how and why people with different underpinnings for their motivations and interests act to privilege some activities vis-à-vis others (Bell 1992: 74). Although at a theoretical level I agree with Bell, in relation to the study of healing – and other forms of treatment as well – I find a more concrete definition of ritual more useful. I propose the following rather broad definition of ritual. To regard an act as a ritual requires three characteristics: 1) it is a symbolic phenomenon, 2) it contains an element of repetition and 3) it has a collective aspect (Ostenfeld-Rosenthal 2003). One feature that seems to be a universal aspect of ritual, and which is applied in all definitions of ritual, is its repetitive character (see, for example, Kapferer 1983; Rappaport 1984; Tambiah 1981; Turner 1967). In the current definition, the element of repetition forms the crucial component, as the symbolic and collective aspects could be features of many other forms of practice. According to this definition, healing can be defined as a ritual. The laying on of hands or prayers, for example, constitute multi-vocal symbols; they are performed the same way each time; and the collective aspect may be constituted by commonly (for healer and client) constructed beliefs about illness and healing. There are variations in each healer’s practice, but Danish healing rituals have a general pattern. The first part of the treatment consists of a dialogue with the client. The purpose of this dialogue is for the client to talk about her/his problems and why (s)he has consulted the healer (in the case of a new client), or to talk about problems since the last consultation. Then the healing – laying on of hands, balancing of or transmission of energy – is performed. During the healing ritual, images, sensations, words or symbols will often appear to the healer and often to the client as well. Some healers describe the images and impressions during the healing, while others wait until the concluding dialogue. Finally, the healer has a concluding conversation with the client about the images and symbols revealed during healing. This concluding dialogue often consists of a commonly constructed narrative formed on the basis of a negotiation between healer and client

about the meaning of the images or symbols appearing in the liminal phase of the healing ritual – a meaning that is related to the life-world of the client.

Human nature
The healers’ general worldviews and concepts of human nature are fundamental to understanding their concepts of illness and healing. The basic idea is that all living things consist of energy with different frequencies. The initial cause or source of all life forms is understood as an energy field. Depending on belief and worldview, this energy field has different names: The Energy, The Source, God, The Great Spirit, The Spirit of the Universe, Divine Power, Reiki etc. As the fundamental source of nature and the whole universe, this Energy is also part of all human beings, a source to all human existence. Thus, according to the worldview of the healers, humans are basically of divine nature. Humans are made of the same matter as the Divine, whatever name people choose to give this existence. Simultaneously, we human beings have an individual spirit, a higher self that at various levels of vibrations manifests itself via different energy bodies, the physical body, mind, thought and emotions. With this – essentially – divine nature, man is also co-creator of his own existence. This is essential in relation to understanding the concepts of illness and healing: as co-creator you are also co-responsible for your existence. According to the healers, it is precisely the act of claiming responsibility and engaging actively in the healing process that is fundamental for healing to take place. At the same time, it is one of the fundamental points that separates the religious charismatic healers from the first three categories of healers: a passive vs. an active view of human nature. As a continuation of the co-creative and responsible person, reincarnation is another common idea of the three first categories of healers. A Reiki-healer explains:
Already as a foetus, you are programmed in relation to the task you have been presented with in this life. And it may deal with something you have dealt with in other lives. We also have a remembrance of cells; but I am deeply convinced that we are working with something with which we didn’t succeed the last 300 times. So now we will take it one more time. You have all the tools you need to manage the life task you have chosen. It is the story about the talents, which is in the Bible. And you also have physical issues that the cells remember from past lives. (Author’s fieldwork in Denmark, 2005)

It is believed that at the beginning of life, an individual is presented with some ‘talents’, which – as it says in the Bible – must used well to deal with the principal task of his/her life. Often the negotiated meaning of an illness is related to one’s life task. Man is thus not only body and mind, but also spirit. In this connection, the healers in the first three categories – and to a great extent the religious charismatic healers – hold a holistic view of humans. Man – and thus health, illness and healing as well – should be considered in a larger social, cultural, psychological and spiritual context. It is, among other things, part of these contexts that the healer and the client are trying to explore in common and to find the meaning of through divination processes.

Health and illness
A basic metaphor of health is the concept of ‘balance’. A healthy person is in balance at all levels: the physical, the emotional, the mental and the spiritual. Likewise, balance between these levels is necessary: a body-mind-spirit balance. Thus, the energy must flow freely at all levels and in each of the human bodies; the physical, the etheric and the astral. The free flow of energy ensures a constant energy supply for the whole body, which is crucial to maintaining good health. Finally, health and balance involve some kind of contact with one’s spiritual aspect. Ensuing from this picture of a healthy person, the cause of illness is basically some kind of imbalance, lack of contact with the Energy or blocked energy, stagnated or undersupplied areas of the body.
Illness is the expression of lack of balance. An imbalance is introduced in the entire body-mind-spirit system. No matter where it is introduced. If for example you are a Muslim in Denmark and it is forbidden for you to wear a veil, and it really matters to you at a spiritual level, then it could become rooted and spread out in the rest of the system, like a thorn, continually dripping poison; until we see the symptom – the disease. But in reality, it is possible to trace the problem back to a spiritual level. It may also be more basic. If for example you do not get the vitamins and minerals you need, it is an imbalance at a physical level. (Interview with a multi-traditional healer, author’s fieldwork in Denmark, 2005)

Generally speaking, the healers’ notion of illness is one of an imbalance originating at a mental or emotional level, thus contributing to a blocking of energy to the body. This blocking of energy

ultimately manifests itself as a disease. However, a few healers in the current study think of this as too simplistic an explanation: illness has to be understood as aspects of several levels of the same problem, i.e., without giving priority to the order of cause-effect.

Such an in-depth understanding of health and illness requires an equally broad understanding of healing. Illness has to do with imbalance or blocking of energy. It is the healers’ task to try to restore balance. He/she must initiate the energy flow by adding up or balancing the energy. Furthermore, he/she must support the client in discovering the origin of the imbalance and mirror the life situation of the client to use the suffering as a potential for growth. A healer explains:
The task of the healer is to help people find out where the chain has come off; at which level. What the person needs in order to restore balance. In my opinion, the ideal healing is not simply about the healer performing a piece of energy work to restore balance every two weeks. Then the client remains unconscious of where he is. It is very important that the client realises where this drip, drip, drip imbalance originates. My task is to support the client in reaching out for the light and shed light in the darkness to discover, “well, this is part of the explanation as to why my energy leaks or that the energy of others invades my system.” Our definition of healing is not only energy work. It is the whole process of helping people become aware of their wholeness and their journey to healing. (Interview with a multi-traditional healer, author’s fieldwork in Denmark, 2005)

And another:
My task as a healer – the modern healer today is one who helps the client to find the way back to his/ her own light. When he/she has done that, the miracle occurs – the person recovers. So I am a kind of modern priest helping people back to themselves, without telling them that this is what I am doing; because this could be very difficult for people to handle. But through healing – which is light – I activate people’s own light. And perhaps – if the change can take place – the client will be able to begin practicing how to manifest his own light. Then the symptoms will gradually diminish and the patient will think: the healer has healed me. But I have only been a kind of midwife for the clients’ own process. (Interview with a multi-traditional healer, author’s fieldwork in Denmark, 2005)

The clients’ own healing process, then, is very important, and the healer is only the catalyst. As mentioned before, an essential part of healing – implicit in the healers’ idea of humans as active cocreators of their own existence – is the clients’ active participation in their own recovery or healing. Some healers even maintain that clients seek their assistance to gain responsibility for their own lives and health. 65 “What do you think your body wants to tell you?” is a question healers often ask their clients. One possible divinatory medium is the body. Many divination systems use the senses of both diviner and client as a medium of communication (Winkelman & Peek 2004). Using the hands as diagnostic instruments is one example; using bodily experienced images and sensations – as is the case here – is another. Closely related to the idea of claiming responsibility for one’s life is the idea of suffering as a potential for personal growth and suffering related to one’s life task. This means that suffering is not arbitrary. Suffering is a chance for you to stop and ask yourself: why did I fall ill? And why exactly now? What is the meaning of my illness? In order to learn from the suffering so you can turn your life towards a more vigorous direction, you must discover the meaning of the suffering. This is where the divination processes becomes a tool.

A case story
The following is an excerpt from an interview with a multi-traditional healer who told me about a healing session.
In the corner of my consulting room is a couch. I asked the client to lie down on the couch and put pillows under her knees and hands and use a blanket to cover her. Before that we had had a conversation. She had consulted me because of pains in her shoulders. “I can’t say whether it will ease your pains. Perhaps, perhaps not. I am not the one controlling the process. The energy has its own ways. If I try to take control of the process and let my personal will lead the way it doesn’t work. Control works against the energy-flow”, I told the client. She closed her eyes. I started to work at her head and laid my hands both directly on her body and on her astral body. The healing lasted for about 30 minutes. “How did you experience the healing”, I asked. She told me about the enduring sensations of ‘ice’ shaking her body. “This is very positive. Because then a lot of ‘ice’ has melted, which clears the way for the flow of your own energy. It will be more stable, and you will

This idea of a person being co-responsible for his/her own health is a provocative thought for many people, bearing in mind that the patient on top of his/her illness likely feels guilty about being ill.

not be drained as easily. The ‘ice’ comes from all the times you have suppressed something in yourself. That prohibits a free flow of energy and thus good health.” I then told the client about my images that appeared during the healing session. I had seen a blue bubble spreading out from the right side of her head. “The blue colour belongs to the chakra of the throat and has to do with selfexpression and communication. Does that make sense to you?” I asked. The client speaking from her own life-world answered: “A large part of my job has to do with communication. And I often feel under pressure in these situations. I am afraid I am not good enough.” “Perhaps you don’t have the courage to be loyal to yourself in these situations? And ‘betraying’ yourself or not letting your own inner core express itself drains much energy. Exactly from the area of your body where you have pains,” I told her. “Does this make sense to you?” (Author’s fieldwork in Denmark 2005)

During the healing ritual, the client had the sensation of icy waves shaking her body. And the healer saw a blue bubble spreading from the right side of the client’s head. As for the ‘ice’, there was not really a discussion of the meaning of this. Drawing on the concepts of health and illness previously outlined, the healer proposed the meaning of that sensation; an interpretation, which apparently was accepted by the client as a valid explanation. As for the blue colour, there was a more lengthy discussion. The healer, drawing on her quasi-religious tradition of knowledge, told the client that the blue colour belongs to the chakra of the throat and has to do with self-expression and communication. Then followed the question intended to open up the negotiation about the meaning of the blue colour and the chakra of the throat in relation to the life situation of the client: “Does that make sense to you?” Apparently it did, and this was the first step in the narrative about the social/psychological problems and the pains that subsequently were constructed by healer and client on the basis of the interpretation of the multi-vocal symbols that appeared during the healing ritual.

Divination and negotiation of meaning
The divination process, then, took place as a negotiation between healer and client. It was a negotiation about the meaning of a multi-vocal symbol – the blue bubble – that appeared to the healer during the healing. The point of departure of the negotiation was, on the one hand, the quasireligious cosmology of the healer – and to a certain degree of the client as well66 – and the ensuing concepts of illness and healing previously described and, on the other hand,


Some clients already know the ‘healers’ universe’ before they seek their help. Others become acquainted with it during the healing process.

the life-world of the client. It took the form of a mutual construction of a meaningful narrative, where the client’s suffering was placed in a context of social relations and psychological issues. This indicates that in a Danish healing ritual, the client’s voice plays a central part. The clients’ answers to questions, such as “Does this make sense to you?”, are important factors in the construction of the meaning of the information. Thus, this is central to an understanding of spiritual healing and its divination-like processes in a (post)modern context: the client, that is, the individual, has an influential voice in the negotiation. The most important role of the healer according to my informants is their role as a catalyst for the client’s own active cognitive, emotional and spiritual process. As Thomas Csordas gracefully expresses it: “Healing is like planting a seed” (Csordas 2002: 5). And the person planting the seed is the spiritual healer. (S)he is a midwife for this process: a bricoleur working with secondary senses, with intuition and association, with open and polysemic symbols halfway between percept and concept, and with a certain amount of humaneness and all-explaining total universes (Levi-Strauss 1969).

Concluding remarks
In his important essay on religion, Geertz argues that a fundamental necessity of human beings is to assign meaning to bear and cope with the way in which suffering disturbs cultural order. When it comes to existential questions – questions of life and death, illness and disaster – scientific explanations are not enough. And this is an area in which religion or quasi-religious cosmologies have the capacity to offer meaningful answers (Geertz 1973). To gain access to divine knowledge and meaning, people always have had to rely on contact with supernatural beings or powers, usually via gifted, sacred and clairvoyant persons, such as, shamans, diviners etc. This need is no less in our (post) modern, ever changing – and to borrow a vivid expression from Marx – ‘restless’ society. In a society in which Science has replaced God, a growing number of people who have experienced existential crises realise that – as Evans-Pritchard noted when he studied Zande notions of the causes of misfortune (Evans-Pritchard 1937/1976: 22-23) – science has its limits and only some kinds of apparently irrational beliefs – be they witchcraft or religious – seem to be able to provide meaningful and sufficient answers to these questions. This means that contact with ‘the Divine’ is still an essential requirement; and diviners – i.e., astrologers, clairvoyants or healers – are still indispensable in modern Western societies as in any other world.

Bell, Catherine. 1992. Ritual Theory, Ritual Practice. Oxford: Oxford University Press. Csordas, Thomas. 2002. Body/Meaning/Healing. Boston: Palgrave: Macmillan. Evans-Pritchard, E.E. 1976 (1937). Witchcraft, Oracles, and Magic among the Azande . Oxford: Clarendon. Geertz, Clifford. 1973. The Interpretation of Cultures. New York: Basic Books. Helman, Cecil. 1994. Culture, Health and Illness. London: Butterworth & Heinemann. Kapferer, Bruce. 1983. A Celebration of Demons. Exorcism and the Aesthetics of Healing In Sri Lanka. Bloomington: Indiana University Press. Levi-Strauss, Claude. 1969. Den vilde tanke. Copenhagen: Gyldendal. Lindquist, Galina. 1997. Shamanic Performances on the Urban Scene . Stockholm: Stockholm University Press. Malinowski, Bronislaw. 1948. Magic, Science, and Religion and Other Essays. Boston: Glencoe. Moore, Sally. F. & Myerhoff, Barbara. 1977. “Introduction.” In: Secular Ritual. Edited by Moore, Sally F. & Myerhoff, Barbara. Assen/Amsterdam: Van Gorcum. Ostenfeld-Rosenthal, Ann. 1999. Poiesis og politik i en andalusisk Maria-kult. En antropologisk analyse af ritual, identitet og regionalisme i et Spanien under forandring. Ph.D. afhandling, Afd. For Etnografi og Socialantropologi, Aarhus Universitet. Ostenfeld-Rosenthal, Ann. 2003. Studiet af ritualer i antropologien. Forelæsning holdt på Afdeling for Etnografi og Socialantropologi, Aarhus Universitet www.hum.au.dk/etno/Forskning/Publikationer.htm

Ostenfeld-Rosenthal. 2005. Healernes univers: Spirituel healing i Danmark: opfattelser af sygdom og helbredelse – et antropologisk pilotprojekt. Rapport. Afd. for Antropologi og Etnografi, Aarhus Universitet i samarbejde med Forskningsklinikken for Funktionelle lidelser, Århus Universitetshospital. Rappaport, Roy. 1984. Pigs for the Ancestors: Ritual in the Ecology of a New Guinea People. New Haven: Yale University Press. Tambiah, S. J. 1981. A Performative Approach to Ritual. Radcliffe-Brown Lecture in Social Anthropology. Proceedings of the British Academy, vol. LXV 1979. Oxford. Tedlock, Barbara. 2005. Toward a Theory of Divinatory Practice. Keynote Lecture in ‘Unveiling the Hidden: An Interdisciplinary Conference on Divination. University of Copenhagen. Turner, Victor. 1967. The Forest of Symbols. New York: Cornell University Press. Winkelman, Michael & Peek, Philip M. 2004. Divination and Healing. Potent Vision. Tucson: University of Arizona Press.

Textual approaches

The Naturalness of Rhapsodomantics ∗
Anders Klostergaard Petersen

In an illuminating passage Umberto Eco emphasises the importance that fiction plays when human beings structure their world and organise their lives. According to Eco, fiction has a pivotal role in the construction of human identity since it contributes to provide meaning. He writes:
At any rate we will not stop reading fictional stories, because it is in them that we seek a formula to give meaning to our existence. Throughout our lives, after all, we look for a story of our origins, to tell us why we were born and why we have lived. Sometimes we look for a cosmic story, the story of the universe, or for our own personal story (which we tell our confessor or our analyst, or which we write in the pages of a diary). Sometimes our personal story coincides with the story of the universe (Eco 1994: 139).

Prior to this passage Eco has underlined the advantages that fiction has compared to the actual world. Contrary to reality in which human beings can never be quite certain whether it possesses meaning or not, fiction has the unambiguous advantage of providing meaning. The meaning inherent in a particular piece of fiction may well be difficult to detect, but it is beyond doubt that by strenuous work a meaning can, in fact, be uncovered:
But there is another reason fiction makes us feel more metaphysically comfortable than reality. There is a golden rule that cryptanalysts and code breakers rely on ― namely, that every secret message can be deciphered, provided one knows that it is a message. The

A brief version of this paper was presented at the Copenhagen International conference Unveiling the Hidden. An Interdisciplinary Conference on Divination , 1.-3. of August 2005. The initial inspiration for my study of rhapsodomantics as a particular instance of divination comes from my reading of the Swedish novelist P. O. Enquist (2002). His novel Lewis’ Rejse is concerned with the formation of the Swedish Pentecostal movement. I became interested in rhapsodomantics as a particular mantic practice, since the phenomenon plays a decisive role at different stages in the plot of the story. Additionally, I have learned from the seminal essays by Kisch (1970) and van der Horst (2002). For the collection of the relevant sources from antiquity as well as regarding the general discussion of the material, I am very much indebted to these two articles. Finally, I want to express my gratitude to John Ranelagh, who apart from improving the English language of the article has made several interesting points to the overall argument that I have benefited greatly from.

problem with the actual world is that, since the dawn of time, humans have been wondering whether there is a message and, if so, whether this message makes sense. With fictional universes, we know without a doubt that they do have a mess age and that an authorial entity stands behind them as creator, as well as within them as a set of reading instructions (Eco 1994: 116).

The aim of this essay is not to examine the general use of fiction to provide meaning in the lives of people, but to explore a rather radicalised version of this idea, namely one, that is found in the context of divination. Here the random opening of texts or the arbitrary pick of textual slips is used not only to provide meaning, but also as a prescriptive guidance for future actions. To embark this Zauber- or Märchengang across one particular set of writings and practices of previous days, however, I shall begin in the present by quoting a passage from the detective or mystery-novel by Iain Pears An Instance of the Fingerpost . In the opening of chapter eight the author has the narrator ponder on the relationship between contingency and guidance, between apparent randomness and divine providence: What to thoughtless people may appear to be of a coincidental character, are to the cognitively skilled the visible tokens of the revelatory nature of God’s providence:
I have often thought about this phenomenon which occurs so frequently in the lives of all men that we almost fail to notice it any more. How often have I had a question on my mind, and picked a book at random off the shelf, often one I have never heard of before, yet found the answer I seek within its covers? It is well known that men feel impelled to go to that place where they are to encounter, for the first time, that woman who is to be their wife. Similarly, even peasants know that letting the Bible fall open where it will, and putting a finger randomly on the page thus revealed will, more often than not, give the most sound advice that any man could wish to hear. The thoughtless call this coincidence, and I note amongst philosophers a growing tendency to talk of chance and probability, as though this were some explanation rather than a scholarly disguise for their own ignorance. Simpler people know exactly what it is, for nothing can happen by chance when God sees and knows all; even to suggest anything different is absurd. These coincidences are the visible signs of His manifest Providence, from which we can learn well if we will only see His hand, and contemplate the meaning of His actions (Pears 1997: 622f.).

In a very illustrative manner this passage pertains to the subject matter of this anthology in general and to my subject in particular, that is rhapsodomantics or divination by means of sacred books or

writings that are either opened at random or used in order to provide ‘slips’ upon which verses from the books or quotes are written. The randomly chosen passage is secondarily interpreted and explained in terms of a divinely inspired guidance, be it a signal from the gods or a result of fate or destiny. In this manner, the slips become an oracle simultaneously providing access to understanding the trans-empiric world as well as it does provide, and this is where my accent is placed, guidance for decision making within particular spheres of the immediate life be it the political, the amorous, the religious, or any other aspect of life. In cases of uncertainty before grand decisions or at decisive stages of life, one might benefit from rhapsodomantics to gain an idea of what course needs to be taken. Thus, rhapsodomantics is a variant of the larger category of cleromantics that designates divination by means of such lot oracles, whether they be sortilegium (divination by means of lots), astragalomantics (divination by means of throwing dices), or rhapsodomantics. 67 In the Graeco-Roman world the range of different divinatory practices by which one could obtain knowledge about particular aspects of the future, the present, or the past that proved to be of special importance for one’s actions in the present was almost infinite. If one browses through the index of Bouché-Leclerq’s classic work on the history of divination in antiquity, one gets the impression that it is imagination only that sets reins on the multifariousness of mantic practices and divinatory mediums that were used in both private and public contexts.68 In this paper, however, I shall look at one particular practice of divination only. Rhapsodomantics is particularly interesting for a number of reasons. First, it is a mantic practice that is still in use and, apparently, continues to appeal to a wide segment of people as also indicated by the quote from Iain Pears. Second, it is a peculiar and more complex form of divination by virtue of the fact that the medium used for the divinatory practice conveys a meaning of its own independent of the particular mantic context. The sign produced through the divinatory ritual has a history of interpretation prior to its mantic use. Third, whereas most divinatory practices

See (Pease 1963: 72-4). A more complex form of rhapsodomantics is found in the so-called ‘lot’ books that combine rhapsodomanitics with other forms of divination. Bolte (1903) gives a historical survey with numerous examples of different lot books that designate: “eine sammlung von prosaischen oder metrischen orakelsprüchen, aus denen der wissbegierige frager einen zu gewinnen vermag, indem er ein nicht von seiner berechnung abhängiges, sondern dem geheimnisvollen walten des zufalls unterworfenes instrument in bewegung setzt” (276f. – substantives are not capitalised in Bolte’s text). Contrary to rhapsodomantics proper, an additional instrument such as dices, small tablets, threads, cards, the movable arrow of a dial, or calculation of numbers is used in the divinatory practice of lot books to obtain the textual passages. Examples of astragalomantics of ancient Greece and Asia Minor are given in Heinevetter 1912. 68 For the importance of divination and oracles in classic Greek religion, see Burkert (1985: 111-18), and for a later period, Lane-Fox (1986: 208-15). A brief survey of divination in the ancient world with important bibliography is found in Bremmer (1997).

from antiquity such as, for instance, alektryonomancy (divination on the basis of observations of sacred chicken), libanomancy (divination that uses the direction of the smoke of incense as a token of the divine world), aleuromancy (divination on the basis of flour), or rhapdomancy (divination on the basis of the direction that a wand falls), may appear rather bizarre and alien to the contemporary reader, rhapsodomantics has the advantage of comprehensibility even to modern readers. By saying this, I do not imply that the practice is comprehensible to modern minds in the sense of being understandable and tolerable from a rational point of view. My point is rather that the inclination to ascribe meaning to phenomena of a purely contingent nature is considerably easier to follow for contemporary readers in the case of randomly chosen texts since modern people are accustomed to conceive of texts in terms of meaningfulness and intentionality. In spite of the fact that the intentionality attributed to rhapsodomantics is of a quite different nature than the manner in which intentionality is normally perceived, the fact that texts are generally conceived of as sources of meaningful information makes it easier to identify with this practice than other forms of divination originating in antiquity. In order to examine the naturalness of mantic practices, it is obvious to investigate a phenomenon that continues to exert influence or, at least, is intelligible to modern minds. Fourth, rhapsodomantics is also worth studying since it is a form of divination that is not confined to diviners only. It may be used both by ritual experts and lay people as well. Thus, a study of rhapsodomantics in different social and cultural contexts may also shed light on how divination in different settings is used for different purposes. Apart from looking at a few cases of rhapsodomantics, I shall pose a series of very simple questions that pertain to divination in general and to rhapsodomantics in particular. To recall Umberto Eco’s point, the advantage of fiction compared to the actual world is that one can be certain that it has a message, and that an authorial entity stands behind it as creator. That, of course, makes it obvious to use fiction or pre-existing texts for divinatory purposes. If the text used already from the outset can be expected to have a meaning and to be attributed an authorial entity, it is a small step only to ascribe meaningfulness and intentionality to its use in the mantic context. On the other hand, one can hardly deny the fact that the use of rhapsodomantics to provide meaning in particular cases is a rather strenuous exaggeration of the idea of meaningfulness and authorial entity entailed in Eco’s understanding. So we need to pose a series of questions that balance between the insight of Eco and the peculiar notions of meaningfulness and intentionality implied in rhapsodomantics.

How is it, for instance, that the authorial entity entailed in the understanding of fiction in the mantic context can be interpreted as a token of divine guidance? What is it that attracts people to place their fate ― or, at least, a significant part of their life ― in particular situations in the hands of something that from a rational perspective seems to be of an utterly random nature? How can randomness, in fact, be used in a ritually orchestrated play to overcome contingency? Why in certain cases ascribe to chance an intentional character that can be interpreted as a personal directive? How can intentionality and meaningfulness be attributed to randomness, which under normal conditions is conceived of as diametrically opposite to meaningfulness and intentionality? What is the reason for the apparent widespread inclination to invest chance with meaning, and to elevate the ritually obtained meaning to such a status that it may subsequently be used as a guide for mundane acting? Why in particular situations obtain knowledge in a manner that is conspicuously different from the normal ways in which information is acquired? And why rely on that knowledge as a basis for acting?

Rhapsodomantics: a Relic of Times past and of the Unlearned People only?
By this series of interrelated questions we have entered some of the complex, precarious, and puzzling problems that pertain not only to rhapsodomantics, but concern the understanding of divination in general. How should we perceive the inclination ― apparently not only found in the ‘illiterate masses’ cultivating ‘popular religion’, but also in the cultural and social elites ― to enmesh with something that from a rational, scientific perspective seems so utterly to belong to the category of obscurantism and irrationality? One could, of course, argue that it is a rather anachronistic endeavour to judge, for instance, religious mantic practices of Imperial Rome by modern scholarly standards, thereby inferring that although mantic practices in antiquity could also be found at the highest social level, this is not the case today. If one looks, however, to a number of current and fashionable Danish magazines, predominantly directed towards upper-class women, they abound with horoscopes, numerological information, and other comparable ‘archaic relics’. This phenomenon marks a rather conspicuous change, since the same magazines during the 1970s and early 1980s had scornfully relegated the religious to the sphere of mumbo jumbo for the illiterate. The very same magazines from the late 1980s suddenly resuscitated these

‘quite mystic’ elements that in the past had been vigorously attributed an abject nature. This development of Danish magazines is hardly specific, but reflects a change that may also be observed in other North Western European countries. One could, obviously, argue that we ― with the highly indeterminate concept of the Zeitgeist ― are presently witnessing an era characterised by the indulgence of ‘mystic archaic fossils’. That is that the contemporary experience of ‘religious atavisms’ in intellectual circles is an ephemeral phenomenon only that will eventually vanish. That may well be, just as it is likely that the earnestness attributed to horoscopes and comparanda in many magazines and newspapers today is of an entirely different nature compared with the pious adherence that centuries ago were paid to horoscopes and other mantic devices. Thus, a change of domain has taken place from the religious sensu stricto to the humorous or, perhaps, more precisely to the category of entertainment of a not religiously binding nature. By saying this, I want to emphasise the discontinuity that clearly exists between contemporary examples of mantic practices in the modern Western countries and the forms of divination that thrived in the ancient world. Contrary to, for example, ancient Rome in which mantic practices were used at the societal level as a regularity or norm in political affairs, modern societies do, obviously, not believe that Fortuna or chance can be appealed to or negotiated with or even bribed. Similarly, people who nowadays indulge in mantic practices appear to do it in very particular situations and for their own particular purposes. It is certainly not something they could justify to their peers and families for example. And that is a big difference between modern people and people of the past who lived in societies in which divination was institutionally acknowledged at the societal level as a valid form of obtaining information and as a source for acting. On the other hand, it is difficult not to recall Wittgenstein’s succinctly acute criticism of Frazer’s Golden Bough, in which he emphasises the self-reflecting nature of Frazer’s views: “What narrowness of spiritual life we find in Frazer! And as a result: how impossible for him to understand a different way of life from the English one of his time! Frazer cannot imagine a priest who is not basically an English parson of our times with all his stupidity and feebleness” (1979: 5e). In the same vein, Wittgenstein comments on magic that:
Fire no more than any other phenomenon is particularly mysterious in itself, but any of them can become so to us, and it is precisely the characteristic feature of the awakening human spirit that a phenomenon has meaning for it. We could almost say, man is a ceremonial animal. This is partly false, partly nonsensical, but there is also something in it (1979: 7e).

One could illustrate the point by using Wittgenstein’s example of a man hitting the ground with his cane.69 That action, of course, from a pure rational perspective appears rather childish and irrational; but, I suspect, few people can deny that they have at different points in their lives indulged in such activity. It is true, however, that Wittgenstein’s example of the man hitting the ground with his cane does not reflect divination or magic properly. That may well be, but it does illustrate an element that is essential to divination and magic. That is the tendency to ascribe meaning to something that under normal circumstances would not be accounted of as either meaningful or as a relevant source of information. So, before we dismiss present fossils of past mantic practices as something for the ‘illiterate classes’ only or as atavistic elements to the enlightened of today, it may be worthwhile to consider what it is that in particular situations makes it relevant to obtain information by means of divinatory practices. What is, in fact, the naturalness of rhapsodomantics? I suppose that quite a few readers will be able to recognise the feeling that the narrator of Pear’s book so wonderfully reproduces. A sense of reliance ― in matters entirely determined by contingency and randomness ― on the Ergriffenheit by a distant providential instance that will guide one’s immediate course. Simultaneously, it is, of course, a way of removing responsibility for one’s own actions by projecting them onto an allegedly supernatural instance. If you can sympathise with this man, you are ready to join me on the Zaubergang through a number of cases of rhapsodomantics.

Churchill and Rhapsodomantics
Perhaps rather surprising to most readers a remarkable case of rhapsodomantics is found in Winston Churchill’s The World Crisis 1911-1918.70 In the years prior to the outbreak of the First World War, when the perils of a future war appeared increasingly impending to the leading British politicians and members of the admiralty and the General Staff, Churchill, then Home Secretary (1910-11),


Cf. Wittgenstein’s comment in the first edition of the Bemerkungen über Frazers »Golden Bough« ― published in Synthese 17 (1967: 233-53). Page 244 ― that for some reason was not included in the later editions of Bemerkungen: “Wenn ich über etwas wütend bin, so schlage ich manchmal mit meinem Stock auf die Erde oder an einen Baum etc. Aber ich glaube doch nicht, dass die Erde schuld ist oder das Schlagen etwas helfen kann. »Ich lasse meinen Zorn aus.« Und dieser Art sind alle Riten. Solche Handlungen kann man Instinkt-Handlungen nennen.” I think Wittgenstein overstates his case in this particular passage by completely ignoring the instrumental effects of ritual and emphasising its expressive dimensions only. Be that as it may, the important thing for my purpose is Wittgenstein’s emphasis on the meaningfulness of actions that from a rational perspective may appear unexplainable. 70 I owe this reference to my colleague, assistant professor Ph.d. Jakob Engberg.

recalls a fateful meeting with Prime Minister Asquith. The immediate background was the Agadir Crisis. On the first of July 1911 it was announced by the German Emperor that a German gunboat had been sent to protect German interests in the Moroccan harbour of Agadir. This action was a very strong provocation of French interest ― indeed, on the edge of declaring war ― since Morocco was in the process of being established as a French protectorate. The Agadir Crisis together with the passing of a number of German fleet laws during the previous years that entailed the building of a strong German war fleet were understood by the British as a threat to the supremacy of British naval power. Churchill had from the beginning been rather reluctant towards the idea of a British naval expansion, but in the wake of the Agadir Crisis he gradually came to change his mind. In early October 1911 he was invited to visit Asquith in Scotland in the vicinity of the Firth of Forth. At the meeting he was asked by Asquith to take over the office of First Lord of the Navy. Churchill recalls how he accepted the invitation with alacrity, since his mind was full of the dangers of an imminent war. Then follows an extraordinary passage composed in a mythicominous, quasi-Biblical language in which Churchill retrospectively describes the events that followed. Before going to bed he recalls how he in the fading light of evening in the far distance noted the silhouettes of two battleships steaming out of the Firth of Forth. He emphasises how he interpreted them to be invested with a new significance for him. Subsequently, he tells how in passing he notices that a large Bible was lying on a table next to his bed and how he was troubled with speculations over the German threat to Britain:
My mind was dominated by the news I had received of the complete change in my station and of the task entrusted me. I thought of the peril of Britain, peace-loving, unthinking, little prepared, of her power and virtue, and of her mission of good sense and fairplay. I thought of mighty Germany, towering up in the splendour of her Imperial State and delving down in her profound, cold, patient, ruthless calculations. I thought of the army corps I had watched tramp past, wave after wave of valiant manhood, at the Breslau manoeuvres in 1907; of the thousands of strong horses dragging canons and great howitzers up the ridges and along the roads around Wurtzburg in 1910. I thought of German education and thoroughness and all that their triumphs in science and philosophy implied. I thought of the sudden and successful wars by which her power had been set up (Churchill 1938: 49).

In this very situation Churchill opens the Bible at random and picks Deut 9:1-5,71 in which the Israelites are foretold that on this day they shall pass over the Jordan in order to go in to dispossess nations greater and mightier than themselves, cities great and fortified up to heaven, and a people great and tall, the sons of the Anakim. They are promised that God as a devouring fire will go before them and that he will destroy the Anakim and subdue them to the Israelites in order that they may drive them out, and make them perish quickly. Churchill concludes the passage by stating that this text “seemed a message full of reassurance” (50). Regardless of the fact that this recollection of past events by being composed at a later stage has a secondary nature, and, thus, cannot be taken at face value as an accurate historical description, there are several interesting points in the narrative. Even if the story of the portent and the rhapsodomantic oracle is a later construction and as such has the character of an ex post facto prediction, Churchill conspicuously fabricates the story and weaves it into the contemporary political situation. In the narrow context the story is meant to convey to the readers the fateful character of the moment and to emphasise the particular status of Great Britain and, simultaneously, of Churchill conceived to embody the role of God’s elected Israel and prophet in the present. Additionally, the story serves to legitimise the change of attitude of its narrator with regard to British naval rearmament by removing responsibility for it from him. By his previous reluctance Churchill had not misjudged the situation. Rather, it was a change of events the impact of which was revealed to him by an oracle that forced him to change his mind. In this manner, the inclusion of two mantic practices into the narrative is used not only to legitimise the subsequent decision to prepare for war, but also firmly to anchor that conclusion in a trans-mundane world. The reference to the divinatory confirmation of the decision invalidates potential challenges on behalf of the reader. To question the decision taken entails a confrontation with fate or even with God. Churchill recalls how he comes to realise that Asquith had made up his mind about the inevitableness of a future war. In this fateful atmosphere, before a grand decision had to be taken, the world was perceived to be embedded with meaning capable of providing directives to what future course should be followed. The attention is so to say tuned in to seek for potential signs.72 In this manner, the concern for the situation predates the occurrence of the portent and its

The solemn character of the rhapsodomantic oracle is emphasised by the typography of the Biblical passage that contrary to the remaining text is printed with Gothic letters. 72 It may well be as has been argued by Barrett 2000 among others that the proclivity to ascribe to chance an intentional nature is evolutionarily founded in our ancestors’ concern for avoiding predators. The possession of a hyperactive agent detection service (the so-called HADD) makes people alert to potential dangers in their environment. Whether one ends as prey or as a predator has to a great extent in most of human history been evolutionarily dependent on one’s ability to decode the surroundings by interpreting them in terms of agency. That is most likely the reason why humans tend to detect more agency in the environment than is warranted, see Atran (2002: 67-79).

subsequent result, namely, the interpretation of the portent as an affirmation to prepare for war.73 The distant battleships are perceived as a portentous confirmation of Asquith’s determination. Simultaneously, they are by implication conceived of as a prediction of Britain’s future arrival on the continent. Thus, the portent includes both a predictive as well as a retrodictive element. The battleships steaming out are susceptible to the portentous interpretation by their iconic as well as symbolic relationship with the referent, that is, the decision to prepare for war. Churchill does not provide an explanation for this alleged causal relationship. He simply takes for granted that the ships should be conceived of as an intentional sign provided by a culturally postulated superhuman agent ― be it God or impersonal fate favouring Britain’s role as a watchdog of celestial justice on earth.74 One may, of course, contravene by arguing that this is an over-interpretation, since Churchill does not explicitly speak of agency. That is true, but the notion of agency is implied by the fact that Churchill attributes intentionality to the random event of the two departing battleships. In order to conceive of intentionality, an element of agency must necessarily be involved. By a conscious act of will somebody has to provide a sign to somebody who decides to interpret the sign in terms of intentionality. 75 The interpretation of the omen is, subsequently, underwritten by the rhapsodomantic oracle. In analogy with the interpretation of the departing battleships, Churchill’s random pick of Deut 9:1-5 is perceived as an intentional sign provided by a superhuman agent. In consonance with the portent Churchill does not explain how the opening of the book can be conceived of in terms of intentionality. It is taken for granted that the randomness involved in the opening is of an apparent nature only. Behind the seeming arbitrariness of the act is an intentional agent who provides information to the oracular petitioner. Contrary to the portent the rhapsodomantic oracle does not only involve the ascription of intentionality to chance. It also includes a special instrument

For a thorough cognitive discussion of portents, see the essay by Anders Lisdorf in this volume. See, further, the important contribution by Humphrey (1976), in which she discusses the relationship between the different constituent elements of omens, that is, the concern, the portent itself, the possible explanation, and the result. 74 Cf. the passage in which Churchill describes the events immediately predating the final declaration of war against Germany: “Once more now in the march of centuries Old England was to stand forth in battle against the mightiest thrones and dominations. Once more in defence of the liberties of Europe and the common right must she enter upon a voyage of great toil and hazard across waters uncharted, towards coasts unknown, guided only by the stars. Once more ‘the far-off line of storm-beaten ships’ was to stand between the Continental Tyrant and the dominion of the world” (186). 75 Cf. the contribution by Jesper Sørensen in this volume. Sørensen convincingly argues that all divinatory practices involve representations of intentional agents who communicate by means of either material or human mediums. It is also a basic tenet in the ritual theory of McCauley and Lawson (2002) that all religious rituals are characterised by virtue of the fact that they involve transactions with culturally postulated superhuman agents. An increasing body of literature within the field of cognitive science documents the widespread tendency among humans to represent culturally postulated superhuman agents in different contexts and situations. See, for instance, Boyer (2001) and Pyysiäinen (2001).

ritual by which a particular sign is produced with the aim in mind to obtain guidance for the particular situation in question. 76 In this manner, it is the concern for the particular situation that motivates the divinatory practice. The random opening of the Bible is perceived to provide relevant information to Churchill’s particular concern: Should Great Britain prepare for war or not? As already stated the story has the character of an ex post facto prediction by being told years after the event. At the level of the narrative, however, the rhapsodomantic practice is of a prognostic nature. It is used to obtain knowledge about the future. The sign obtained through the mantic act is thought to be indicative of a future state, an event, a situation, or a decision that needs to be taken. Contrary to non-divinatory rituals that are perceived to cause the effect for which reason they are accomplished, mantic practices are conceived to reflect and not to produce state of affairs. They mirror ― as underlined by Jesper Sørensen in his article in this volume ― a transcendent reality the insight into which is of great relevance to the actions of the mantic petitioners whether it is an individual or a community.

Rhapsodomantics in a Ritual Context
As indicated by the previously quoted passage by Iain Pears any book can in principle serve as an instrument for rhapsodomantic oracles. In practice, however, the medium of this mantic device is confined to sacred texts or canonised books, since they are more likely to be attributed to the involvement of superhuman agency. If the book or text in question already from the outset is perceived to relate to a trans-human world ― be it through notions of revelation, divine inspiration, or a divinely sanctioned institution mirrored, for example, by the idea of a canon ― the more likely it is that the book will be used for mantic purposes and that it will be interpreted in the mantic context in terms of an intentional sign provided by culturally postulated superhuman agents. In his article in this volume Jesper Sørensen argues persuasively that randomisation is a likely prerequisite for the tendency to develop representations of culturally postulated superhuman agency in conjunction with mantic practices. In fact, he claims that it is the disconnection of the ritual actors’ own intentions and causal representations that enforces them to interpret the result of the ritual in terms of intentional agency. The random nature of the mantic ritual excludes the petitioners from interpreting it in terms of their own intentionality or in terms of normal representations of causality, but makes them likely to ascribe it to the influence of other agents. The

The term special instrument ritual designates in McCauley and Lawson (2002: 26), that particular group of rituals in which the most direct contact with the culturally postulated superhuman agent is made through the ritual act, i.e., by way of a special instrument such as is found in many divinatory practices.

presupposition is, of course, that things do not happen by chance. In this manner, the randomness of the ritual is of an apparent nature only. Since the mantic petitioners by virtue of the ritually orchestrated use of chance are precluded from interpreting the ritual result in terms of their own intentionality, they are ‘forced’ to attribute it to other intentional agents. Additionally, the fact that it is the aleatory that is ritually orchestrated may also contribute to remove the focus from the effectiveness of the ritual result. If the divinatory practice were always a secure manner to obtain the desired information, it would be hard to avoid the impression that one could by one’s own intentionality affect the success of the ritual. If, however, as argued by Sørensen, it is the randomness of the divinatory practice that is a crucial presupposition for the attribution of culturally postulated superhuman agency to the ritual, the sometimes failing mantic success with regard to the desired result may even be an important prerequisite for the continuous adherence to such practices (cf. Pyysiäinen 2005: 39). In this manner, it is the insecurity pertaining to the obtainment of the desired result that is a presupposition for the continuous ascription of superhuman intentionality to the ritual act. Chance is, thereby, understood as a precondition for the superhuman representations that occur in conjunction with divination. Simultaneously, chance is domesticated by being attributed the status of a token of superhuman agency. Randomness is not what it appears to be, but a means by which one in particular situations can gain an insight into the true state of the world. From an external point of view one could, in fact, argue that the mantic petitioner in rhapsodomantics, simultaneously, gets his random penny and his providentially dictated cake. Contrary to most forms of mantic practices in which the interpretation of the ritual result is constrained by the laws of the interpreting community only, the medium used in rhapsodomantics can in addition be ascribed a meaning outside the divinatory context. In the case of Churchill the biblical passage chosen at random is very suitable to an interpretation along the lines of Churchill’s concern. But what would have happened if the textual passage had been one with no or, perhaps, even contradictory relevance to the situation in question? One could imagine that Churchill, for instance, had picked the command to love one’s enemies in Matt 5:43 rather than the passage from Deut. We shall not know in the case of Churchill, since the oracle is used in the context of an ex post facto prediction. It is quite characteristic, however, that only in a very few cases do the mantic petitioners question or criticise the institutional foundation upon which the principles of the divinatory practice rests. Most often, the mantic petitioners tend to brush aside their own objections by explaining the failing success of the ritual as an interpretational problem on

their side. It is not the divinatory practice that is wrong, but the manner in which the petitioners have administered it. 77 One of the parameters used by McCauley and Lawson in their ritual theory is what they designate the principle of the immediacy of the superhuman agent’s involvement in any ritual. The idea is that the rituals in which “a superhuman agent is directly involved even in some role other than that of the agent are more essential to the religious system than are those where the superhuman agent appears in the structural description only in some embedded, enabling action that has occurred previously” (1990: 125f.).

Although this principle relates to an

evaluation of how different rituals should be conceived of in relation to each other, I believe it can explain also why rhapsodomantics is practically limited in its use of medium to sacred texts or canonised books only. It may well be that the ritually orchestrated randomisation is an essential precondition for the ascription of intentional agency to chance, but I would suggest that the inclination to interpret the texts chosen at random in terms of divine guidance is enhanced by virtue of the text’s alleged sacredness. The sacredness of the text can as already indicated be thought of in different ways, but the crucial point is that prior to the mantic practice a connection between the trans-human and the human world has already been established. The books or texts ritually used are not any book or text. It is a book or compilation of textual passages that by means of enabling ritual actions have somehow been attributed a divine origin. That is the reason why it seems obvious to ascribe an intentional nature to the random opening of the book or the random picking of a textual slip. Since the text is already perceived somehow to relate to a culturally postulated superhuman world, it is not a wide step to make the second inference that the random opening of the book or the arbitrary pick of a slip is, in fact, guided by a superhuman agent. Therefore, we are now in a position to see how Umberto Eco’s emphasis of the importance of an authorial entity in fiction, in the context of rhapsodomantics can be developed to notions of superhuman agency that provide crucial information to the oracular petitioner. The final point I shall emphasise concerns the manner of interpretation. We have already noted how the biblical passage chosen at random by Churchill is very suitable to his concerns. He has no problems in deciphering the oracular message by metaphorically substituting

In Petersen (2003: 11), I discuss a case from the previously mentioned novel by Per Olov Enquist in which the suitability of the randomly chosen oracle for the concern in question is challenged. In Loane (1928: 186), one also finds a humorous example from Rabelais of a discussion of the suitability of Vergil (the Sortes Vergilianae) as a source for relevant oracles. It turns out that the two friends involved in the divinatory practice, Pantagruel and Panurge, continue to quarrel over the precise interpretation of the obtained oracular texts, since they interpret them in diametrically opposite ways. 78 Cf. the discussion in Lawson and McCauley (2002: 26-9).

the Israelites with contemporary Great Britain and the Anakim of the Deuteronomy passage with present Germany. In this manner, the decision to prepare for war with Germany is authorised by the highest authority. Divine providence itself has been active in guiding Churchill to make the right choice. It may be a common place, but nevertheless it is conspicuous to see how the oracle is interpreted in the most favourable light to Churchill and to Great Britain. There is, in fact, nothing in the oracular message that dictates that the metaphorical substitution should necessarily be between Great Britain and the Israel of the biblical text. Had a prominent German statesman indulged in the same activities he would undoubtedly have made the opposite metaphorical substitution. In this manner, the concern for a particular situation to a great extent sets the agenda for the subsequent interpretation of the oracular message. Chance is ritually orchestrated in this mantic practice, but randomness is also reined by the subsequent interpretation that reflects the concern that initially gave rise to the divinatory practice. The ambiguity of the interpretational act, however, points to an interesting aspect of rhapsodomantics that pertains to the right or the ability to interpret the randomly chosen texts. In antiquity rhapsodomantics seems to have existed both in conjunction with institutionally acknowledged practices and as an individual practice. The mantic petitioner could visit an oracular site and randomly pick a text that would subsequently be interpreted by the oracular experts. The practice, however, could also be of an exclusively individual nature. In this case, however, some confusion may arise with regard to the interpretational act since there can be no criterion of correct interpretation. The oracular petitioner is entirely on his own in making the right interpretation, and there is no alternative authority apart from his own reflections he can subsequently consult who can say: “The text really meant A, not B”. That makes a big difference to the official oracle sites in which an oracular petitioner could subsequently be told that he had simply misinterpreted the oracle, Oedipus, of course, being the most notorious example.

Some Cases of Rhapsodomantics from Antiquity
The two examples of rhapsodomantics ― taken from Iain Pears and Churchill ― have pointed to the naturalness of the phenomenon. Behind the apparent peculiar practice to invest chance with meaning and to ascribe to the random nature of the mantic practice the intentionality of a superhuman agent, lies a basic and evolutionarily founded natural tendency to interpret one’s surroundings in terms of intentionality. Since one’s own intentionality by virtue of the ritual’s random character has been decoupled from the action, the intentionality of somebody/something

else must be at play. The apparent lack of visible acting agents makes it obvious to interpret the mantic event in terms of superhuman agency that is responsible for the obtained result. We have on the basis of the two examples seen how rhapsodomantics cannot be confined to the past only. Nor is it a phenomenon that can be limited to special segments of the population either. On the contrary, the two cases have pointed to the tendency in particular situations to interpret particular textual passages chosen at random as a token of divine guidance and, accordingly, as a guide for decision making in the world of mundane affairs. We shall now turn to the question of the historical background of this divinatory practice. When Churchill and Pears call attention to rhapsodomantics they, in fact, inscribe themselves in an ancient Graeco-Roman-Jewish tradition. 79 If rhapsodomantics as a divinatory practice is connected to sacred texts as its ritual medium, it follows that it is a relatively late phenomenon of antiquity only, since it presupposes the existence of authoritatively codified writings. The codification of particular writings as sacred writings or holy books comes ― at least within the Graeco-Roman-Jewish area ― relatively late into existence.

It is predominantly a

phenomenon of the Hellenistic era. It may be a slight exaggeration and somewhat misleading to call the Homeric Songs as popular usage will have it the Bible of the Greeks, but there is also a kernel of truth in the statement. 81 After all, the authorial instance behind the poems did to a certain extent disclaim responsibility for its own creation by transferring the enunciation to a divine instance, the Muse. From an early period the Homeric writings were understood as foundational texts of Greek culture. They were the dominant authoritative writings of the Greek educational system and played a decisive role in religious matters as well (Finkelberg 2003: 96), just as they could be used in the context of politics, moral questions, and technical instruction, particularly within the spheres of

The hitherto most extensive treatment of rhapsodomantics in the Graeco-Roman-Jewish world is found in the previously mentioned essay by van der Horst (2002) that I rely heavily on. 80 On this subject, see the discussion in Lang (1990) and the two recently published anthologies by A. van Der Kooij and K. van der Toorn (1998), and G. Stroumsa and M. Finkelberg (2003), in which a number of the contributions deal with processes of normativisation, authorisation, and canonisation of particular texts or corpora of texts of the GraecoRoman-Jewish world of antiquity. 81 Speyer (1995: 39), argues correctly against the idea that the poetry of Homer and Vergil were conceived of in terms of sacred or holy books. It is true that the Homeric Songs were never ascribed as, for instance, some of the Orphic writings the status of Hieroi Logoi, but that does not exclude that they were attributed an outstanding authoritative position also in religious matters. It is certainly not a coincidence that Homer in later Neoplatonic currents were thought of as the theologian par excellence whose texts possessed the potential to reveal meanings beyond the obvious, cf. (Lamberton: 21). One may also recall the words of Socrates to Ion in Ion: “For not by art do they (sc. the poets) utter these things, but by divine influence ( theia dunamei); since, if they had fully learnt by art to speak on one kind of theme, they would know to speak on all. And for this reason God takes away the mind of these men and uses them as his ministers, just as he does soothsayers and godly seers, in order that we who hear them may know that it is not they who utter these words of great price, when they are out of their wits, but that it is God himself who speaks and addresses us through them” (534C ― transl. by Lamb 1975 LCL-edition).

housekeeping, warfare, and rhetoric (Verdenius 1970: 15/219). It should, therefore, come as no surprise that Homer was also used for oracular purposes. Although oracular uses of Homer are already attested by the end of the fifth century BCE, in the comedy Peace by Aristophanes from 421, 82 examples of rhapsodomantics can not with certainty be attested before the third century CE. In De Homero by Pseudo-Plutarch we are told that “Some use for mantic purpose (pros manteian) the Songs of Homer, as if they were oracles from a god” (II 218, 4). The claim is supported by a notice by Dio Cassius who informs his readers that at an oracle site consecrated to Zeus Belos and situated in Apamea in Syria oracles were provided on the basis of Homeric verses (LXXIX, 8, 6 and 40, 3). Additional evidence is found in the Magic Papyri in which several pay witness to divinatory practices on the basis of Homer.83 One particularly interesting instance is the papyrus known as PGM VII dating to the third or the fourth century CE. It includes a Homeromanteion consisting of 216 arbitrarily chosen Homeric verses situated in random order. 84 Either oracle priests or the oracular petitioner threw three dices whose eyes were meant to correspond with a succinct numbering system of the Homeric verses on the papyrus that even were related to particular hours of the day. Each of the Homeric verses were preceded by a set of three numbers with each column numbered from one to six (running from 1-1-1- to 6-6-6), thus getting the total number of 216 verses. In this manner, an oracular petitioner may, for instance, get a firm answer on how to proceed with his love life. Needless to say, the oracular answer does frequently demand some amount of subsequent exegesis. It is, for instance, not entirely clear if one had rolled the three dices with the following numbers 4-6-4 how one should relate a verse like “You lunatic, sit still and listen to the words of others” (Il II, 200) to the progression of one’s erotic undertakings. Or what should an oracular petitioner do if he had received the following numbers 5-3-6 in pursuit of a clear answer to what future course he should take “Keep quiet, friend, and do as I say” (Il IV, 412)? 85 Although this divinatory practice
82 83

See the discussion in van der Horst (2002:176f.). Magic uses of the Homeric writings are testified in several of the Greek magical papyri (See PGM IV 467-74; 821-24; 830-34; VII 1-148; XXIIa). In PGM IV 2145-2240 three magic Homeric verses – when inscribed on a thin sheet of metal or lamella – are assigned the role of the paredros, that is, a supernatural agent, normally an angel or a demon who is supposed to assist the magician in achieving his goal. The papyrus contains both guidelines for the consecration of the lamella as well as directives for how it should be used for specific purposes such as oracles, love spells, for wrecking chariots, etc. If, for instance, a runaway carries the lamella, he can be sure not to be found again. If the lamella is attached to somebody on the point of death, one can get an answer to every possible question. The Greek text is found in Preisendanz (1928:138.140), and an English translation is given by Hubert Martin, Jr., in Betz (1986: 76-8). 84 The Greek text is found in Preisendanz (1931: 1-6), and an English translation is given by Hubert Martin, Jr., in Betz (1986: 112-19). An additional but less well-preserved Homeromanteion is kept at the Library of the University of Bologna, see the references in Kisch (1970: 343, note 2). 85 Examples of questions posed at oracles are found in Potter (1994:25f.), with regard to the Sortes Astrampsychi. In Horsley (1982: 42), an extant example of the questions posed to the Sortes Astampsychi is given: “72 Shall I get the allowance? 73 Am I to remain where I am going? 74 Am I to be sold?

strictly speaking represents a blend between astragalomantics and rhapsodomantics, it does point to the importance of the latter. I shall leave the Greek area and turn to Rome. Here we find rhapsodomantics drawn on the basis of the Roman Homer, Vergil. From an early period Vergil was considered a divinely inspired author. 86 Thus, the Aeneid soon became a ‘bible-like-book’ that in the same manner as the Homeric Songs could be used for divinatory purposes. In the Historia Augusta from the fourth century CE we see how different Roman emperors in critical situations could resort to the sortes vergilianae.87 Regardless of the fact whether the Historia Augusta can be used to reconstruct the events they purport to describe, they are in our specific context interesting since at many points they weave references to rhapsodomantics into the stories of the individual emperors. In this manner, the Historia Augusta points to the importance of rhapsodomantics as an acknowledged form of divination by the end of the fourth century CE. We shall look at one prominent example only.88 In the Vita Hadriani it is told how Hadrian upon the death of Nerva in 98 consulted the sortes vergilianae in order to achieve knowledge about his relationship to the newly elected Emperor Trajan. The alleged author of the Vita Hadriani, Aelius Spartianus, had previously described how the brother-in-law of Hadrian, Servianus, had revealed the extravagance and indebtedness of Hadrian and, thus, stirred Trajan’s anger against him. Subsequent to the death of Nerva, however, Hadrian had succeeded in being the first to bring the message of the emperor’s death to Trajan, whereby his feelings towards him changed to the better. Not surprisingly Hadrian is interested in knowing the exact attitude of the newly chosen emperor towards him in order to navigate in the most strategic manner. After all, he is a man with great aspirations for the future. Unfortunately, we are not told about the precise form or sequence of events of the oracle. To what extent was it a public event or a private affair? In what manner was the lot drawn? What was the selection of texts, and how had it been prepared? Based on the scanty information of “this lot was given out” ( sors excidit) we are only allowed to infer that the lot seems to have been drawn from a box such as, for instance, an urn. 89 The oracle that fell to Hadrian’s lot sounds: “Who is yonder man, by olive wreath distinguished, who the sacred vessels bears? I see the hoary head
75 Am I to obtain profit from my friend?”, etc. 86 For a discussion of Vergil’s status among the Romans, see van der Horst (2002: 183f.). 87 Kisch (1970: 324), points to the importance of the Historia Augusta, since it is the only text preserved from antiquity that give precise information on the use of the sortes vergilianae. The most extensive discussion of the sortes vergilianae in the Historia Augusta is found in Kisch. 88 Other examples are found in the Vita Clodii Albini V, 3-4; Vita Alexandri Severi VI, 6; XIV, 5-6; Vita Claudii X, 2-6. 89 See the discussion in Kisch (1970: 325-9), who points to a number of parallels in the contemporary literature.

and beard. Behold the Roman king whose laws shall stablish Rome anew from tiny Cures’ humble land called to a mighty realm.” 90 The oracle stems from the sixth book of the Aeneid 808-12, in which the predictions of the future king refer to the legendary king, Numa Pompilius. Needless to say, this was hardly the poorest oracle to receive for a man seeking political power who assisted by the oracle can interpret his own future in terms of the glorious king of the past. It is certainly not coincidental that the lot drawn is from the sixth book of the Aeneid, which provides most of the rhapsodomantic oracles given in the Historia Augusta (cf. Kisch 1970: 362). Comparable to the 11 th book of the Odyssey, the Nekuia, in which Odysseus descends into the underworld in order to obtain information from the deceased spirits, the sixth book of the Aeneid depicts Aeneas’ journey to the Sibyl of Cumae and subsequent travel through the underworld. At the end of the book Aeneas meets his father, Anchises, who foretells him the entire future of Rome reaching forward to Augustus’ days. The oracular content of the book made it an obvious choice for subsequent rhapsodomantic use. Once again, we see how rhapsodomantics is used at the level of the story as a prognostic means to obtain knowledge about the present: What are the exact feelings of the emperor towards Hadrian? At the level of the discourse, however, the reference to the rhapsodomantic oracle is used as part of an ex post facto prediction that accounts for Hadrian’s future assumption of imperial power. Additionally, Hadrian’s concern for the situation dictates the manner in which the reader should conceive of the oracle as highly favourable to Hadrian. There can be no doubt that Numa Pompilius of the Aeneid in the present context should be substituted with Hadrian, or, perhaps, rather that Hadrian’s fate should be seen in light of the fate of Numa Pompilius with regard to his royal position. Comparable to the example taken from Churchill we see how authoritative figures of the past are used in the mantic context to interpret the present. It may well be, as it has been argued by Pieter van der Horst, that as early as the late Second Temple Period we find Jewish examples of rhapsodomantics as can, perhaps, be inferred from 2 Macc 8:23 and 13:15. 91 I shall, however, move on to the undoubtedly most famous scene of rhapsodomantics in the great code of Western literature, namely, the tolle-lege-scene in Augustine’s Confessions modelled on the comparably famous Life of Anthony by Athanasius as its textual predecessor. In this context we do not need to raise the question of the historical accuracy of the description. It suffices to see how Augustine uses a rhapsodomantic oracle to legitimise his conversion. In the eighth book of his Confessions, Augustine tells how in his heart he struggled
90 91

Translation by David Magie in the LCL-edition of the Historia Augusta . For an examination of the Jewish material including rabbinics, see van der Horst (2002: 160-7).

against lust and passion. The mutterings of those desires are keeping him in a suspenseful state of hesitation. Good Alypius, however, is there at the side of the wretched and anguished hero silently, but faithfully, attending his inner fight. Crushed by the miserable situation Augustine raises to seek solitude and to weep his anguish. He throws himself down under a fig-tree and exclaims in the words of Ps 6:4 in his affliction: “How long, O lord? How long, Lord, will you be angry to the uttermost? Do not be mindful of our old iniquities. For I felt my past to have a grip on me. It uttered wretched cries: ‘How long, how long is it to be?’ ‘Tomorrow, tomorrow.’ ‘Why not now? Why not an end to my impure life in this very hour?’” At this point of the narrative, the famous scene of Augustine’s conversion follows:
As I was saying this and weeping in the bitter agony of my heart, suddenly I heard a voice from a nearby house chanting as if it might be a girl or a boy (I do not know which), saying and repeating over and over again ‘Pick up and read, pick up and read.’ At once my countenance changed, and I began to think intently whether there might be some sort of children’s game in which such a chant is used. But I could not remember having heard of one. I checked the flood of tears and stood up. I interpreted it solely as a divine command to me to open the book and read the first chapter I might find. For I heard how Antony happened to be present at the gospel reading, and took it as an admonition addressed to himself when the words were read: ‘Go, sell all you have, give to the poor, and you shall have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me’ [Matt 19, 21]. By such an inspired utterance he was immediately ‘converted to you’ [Ps 50, 15]. So I hurried back to the place where Alypius was sitting. There I had put down the book of the apostle when I got up. I seized it, opened it and in silence read the first passage on which my eyes lit: ‘Not in riots and drunken parties, not in eroticism and indecencies, not in strife and rivalry, but put on the Lord Jesus Christ and make no provision for the flesh in its lusts’ [Rom 13, 13f.]. I neither wished nor needed to read further. At once, with the last words of this sentence, it was as if a light of relief from all anxiety flooded into my heart. All the shadows of doubt were dispelled. Then I inserted my finger or some other mark in the book and closed it. With a face now at peace I told everything to Alypius. 92

In this scene we also find a blend between two mantic practices, namely, cledonomantics, that is, oracles by means of sudden and random sounds, as well as rhapsodomantics. Augustine himself refers to the Life of Anthony as an ideal model for his

Translation by Chadwick, VIII, xii, 29-30,2.

conversion. In chapter two of the Life of Anthony Athanasius describes how Anthony upon the death of his affluent Christian parents had inherited a great wealth. Since Anthony, however, was attracted to a simple mode of life the inheritance puts him in an awkward position. Reflecting upon the discrepancy between the inherited wealth and the examples of both the apostles who had given up everything in order to follow Jesus and the people of Acts who had sold their possessions and given them to the needy, Anthony goes into a church. Entering the church he happens to arrive at a moment when the call to go and to sell one’s possessions and to give them to the poor in order to follow Jesus and, thereby, receive a treasure in heaven (Matt 19:21), is being read aloud. Anthony interprets it as a call that has been read on his account. He quickly leaves the church and gives his possessions to the villagers. 93 Similar to this account, Augustine first reacts on what he interprets to be a cledonomantic oracle, namely, the voice of a child that repeatedly says ‘Pick up, and read’. In antiquity there was a tradition that sounds or utterances stemming from children playing could be attributed portentous value. 94 It is also likely that the renowned wording ‘tolle, lege; tolle, lege’ is a fanciful play on a well-known divinatory practice. Tollere is, in fact, a technical term for oracles by means of drawing lots that designates the act of drawing the inscribed lot.95 Similarly, legere designates the reading of the inscribed lot and the subsequent interpretative application of the oracular message on the life of the petitioner (Courcelle 1963: 155). At the level of the narrative, it is conspicuous to see how Augustine’s whole attention is tuned in to seek for signs in the environment. Comparable to Churchill pondering on whether Great Britain should prepare for war or not, Augustine is searching for an answer to his concern, namely, that his present despair and agony be finished so he may begin a new life. At this point, the voice emerges at a very convenient moment. Having reflected upon the meaning of the voice, Augustine soon decides that it should be interpreted in terms of a divine oracle that directs his attention to the Bible as a rhapsodomantic means to obtain a secure answer to his concern. The interpretation is ― at the level of the narrative ― motivated by Augustine’s recollection of the Anthony story. Anthony’s random hearing of a particular gospel passage and his subsequent interpretation of it as an oracle (oraculum) given at his account, legitimates Augustine to interpret the tolle, lege of the child as a personal directive to him provided by God. Contrary to the oracle

In the subsequent chapter of the Life of Anthony Anthony receives in the same manner an additional cledonomantic oracle that forces him to sell the rest of his property and to put his sister into a convent and to initiate his own ascetic mode of life. 94 Courcelle (1963: 137). Courcelle, pp. 137-54, gives numerous examples of children attributed divinatory roles in a wide array of Graeco-Roman, Jewish, and Christian texts. 95 Courcelle (1963: 155): “car «tollere» était l’un des termes techniques en usage pour designer le triage au sort de la tablette (sors) qui consitue la réponse de l’oracle au consultant.”

given to Anthony, however, Augustine has to interpret the oracle on his own. He returns to Alypius and opens the book of the apostle that he previously had been reading. He happens to come upon the passage in Rom 13:13-14, where Paul exhorts his addressees to live in accordance with the will of God awaiting the impending parousia of Christ. In Augustine’s case, however, the verses are interpreted as an injunction to him ― and, additionally, to future readers of the Confessions ― to put down passionate flesh plenteous of desires. Subsequent to his reading, Augustine claims to have been relieved of all the anxiety that had previously flooded into his heart. The conversion story is concluded in the subsequent chapter by an additional partial rhapsodomantic oracle. Augustine tells Alypius about the event and he asks Augustine what he has been reading. Alypius then looks up the passage and reads the words immediately following Rom 13:14, in which Paul enjoins his addressees to “Receive the person who is weak in faith” (14:1). It is said that Alypius applies these words to himself and, thereby, also to the previous account of Augustine’s conversion. He is, in fact, the elected one to receive Augustine at the stage of his initial faith. In this famous scene we find the same duality that we have also seen in some of the previous examples. At the level of the narrative the oracles are of a prognostic nature. They are used to acquire information about the future relevant to the particular concern in question. At the level of the discourse, however, they function as part of an ex post facto prediction that account for Augustine’s conversion. Simultaneously, they not only underline the importance of the depicted events, but they also ― paradoxically ― emphasise how Augustine’s conversion did not happen by chance. In spite of the fact that randomness is very much involved in the two mantic practices described, the story is meant to convey to the readers the message that Augustine’s conversion was a result of divine interaction. The fortuitous voice of a child and the random opening of Paul’s letter to the Romans are of an apparently coincidental nature only. Both actions are, in fact, the visible tokens of God’s providence.

From a ritual theoretical point of view, rhapsodomantics is an interesting case of ritual fussiness or ambivalence, since it invokes irreversibility and determinism by ritually orchestrating contingency and randomness to an utmost extent. It is the aleatory that is invoked in the ritual. Randomness is played out and played with to an excessive extent. What appears to the connoisseur to be of a coincidental nature only is, in fact, a token mediated by the hand of providence itself. Whereas

under normal circumstances one cannot have one’s random penny and one’s providentially dictated cake, that is, in fact, what is allegedly taking place in rhapsodomantics. To the expert, rhapsodomantics provides knowledge of the past, the present, or the future by reflecting the irreversibility of the course of the world. Since rhapsodomantics ― interpreted in the right manner ― is a means by which one can obtain insight into the inescapable course of the world guided by a superhuman providential instance, be it impersonal fate or god, it is also a means by which one can accommodate one’s life to the trans-human world. Rhapsodomantics enables one to adjust to the desires of superior powers that by their very nature reflect the inescapable. Since rhapsodomantics is a typical hybrid of different elements held together by a symbolic coding, it is fortuitously infallible. By its vague nature ― frequently reflected in the fact that it requires successive exegetical effort in order to be properly interpreted ― it is like most kinds of divination and, possibly, religious practices in general, resistible to empirical verification. If the outcome of one’s life is not what the oracle promised one it would be, it is not the oracle that is wrong. It is the oracular petitioner who appears as an ignorant interpreter of things hidden to the unskilled exegete. Simultaneously, it may well be that the occasional failure of rhapsodomantics to provide relevant information for a particular situation, in fact, contributes to its continuous use, since it underlines the disconnection of the practitioners’ influence on the obtained result. This point accords well with Jesper Sørensen’s argument that randomisation is a likely prerequisite for the tendency to develop representations of superhuman agency in conjunction with mantic practices. On the other hand, rhapsodomantics differs from most forms of divination by the fact that the sign produced has a history of interpretation independent of its divinatory use. It is likely that the inclination to interpret the texts chosen at random in terms of divine guidance is enhanced by virtue of the text’s pre-divinatory established sacredness. Since the texts most often used as medium in rhapsodomantics are already perceived to relate to the superhuman world in one way or another, it is not a wide step to make the second inference that the random opening of the book or the arbitrary pick of a slip is, in fact, guided by a superhuman agent. Whereas fiction is generally used to provide meaning in the lives of people, rhapsodomantics represents a rather radicalised version of this idea. It is generally assumed ― as indicated by the introductory quote from Umberto Eco ― that fictional universes embody a message and that an authorial entity stands behind them. In rhapsodomantics, however, this assumption is radicalised to the extent that the message picked at random is perceived to be a textual directive provided by a superhuman being.

Notwithstanding the vast differences that exist between mantic practices of the ancient world and the use of particular forms of divination in contemporary Western societies, we have seen how rhapsodomantics both in antiquity and in the present appeal to the inclinations of particular people in ceaseless pursuit of meaning in order to find a place on which to stand in a world that may appear to be captured by unstable symbols. Rhapsodomantics is apparently attractive in situations of uncertainty or great distress before a great decision needs to be taken. It is a way of removing responsibility for one’s own actions by projecting them onto an allegedly supernatural agent. One of the attractions of rhapsodomantics is that it ― from the point of view of the entailed semantics ― gives a glimpse into the promised land of stable meanings sanctioned by the irreversibility of a superhuman instance. Or, as Wotan in Der Ring des Niebelungen forebodes Fafner before his imminent death to Siegfried: “Alles ist nach seiner Art; an ihr wirst du nichts ändern.” In this manner, the divinatory practice signifies the pursuit of stable meanings or rather secure decisions that can be understood to triumph over contingency and arbitrariness. Incidentally, we may also note that this particular element makes it obvious to refer to rhapsodomantics in particular contexts. Rhapsodomantics ― embedded in predictions of an ex post facto character ― legitimises the actions taken by indicating their superhuman support. The paradox of rhapsodomantics is, of course, that it ― comparable to other forms of divination ― uses chance and randomisation in order to overcome the two.

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The Biblical polemic against divination in light of the domestication of folk psychology
Gabriel Levy

There is a polemic against divination in the Hebrew Bible. A few pertinent examples are:

Leviticus 20:6 The soul that turns to the necromancers, mediums, playing the harlot with
them, I will set my face against that soul, and I will cut him off from the midst of his people.96

Deuteronomy 18:10-12 There shall not be found among you anyone who burns his son or
his daughter as an offering, anyone who practices divination, tells fortunes, or interprets omens – a sorcerer, charmer, medium, wizard or a necromancer – for whoever does these things is an abomination to YHWH (Yahweh). And because of these abominations YHWHYour-God drives them out from you.

Though few scholars have focused on the Biblical polemic against divination in particular, we may say that the traditional view toward Biblical polemics in general regard them as forms of doctrinal policing, where those social forces somehow out of control are made illicit and prohibited. Those who follow this approach are too numerous to mention, but the argument follows primarily from both Weber (1962, 1999) and Wellhausen (1889, 1957). This type of theory should be regarded as

This verse comes in the context of the banned practices of the ‘Holiness Code,’ which is “generally thought to contain an originally independent legal corpus which was later edited from the perspective of the Priestly School,” where other forms of ‘magic’ are also banned. As with most of the Hebrew Bible, scholars dispute the date of its composition. See Friedman (1996), entries “magic” and “holiness code”. The polemic also appears in 2 Kgs 21:6 and 2 Chr 33:6; Deut 18:19–11; Lev 19:26, 31; 20:1–6, 27; Exod 22:17; 1 Samuel 28; Isa 8:19; 57:3; Ezek 22:28; Mal 3:5. The great majority of these references are Deuteronomic.

romantic historical representation with a “fall from grace” narrative plotline, whether it is Weber’s version of routinized charisma or Wellhausen’s usurpation of divine grace by litigious priests. This theory does not do a very good job explaining the polemic, because it relies on romantic social theory.97 Like all forms of technology, divination may be conservative or destabilizing, depending on the use to which it is put; i.e. divination may reiterate conservative tendencies of the past rather than disturb them. Furthermore, this theory assumes that representations of polemics in a very ancient text were embodied in social practice, though this is not necessarily the case. In fact, given the conceptual similarities between divination and prophecy, one would expect that we cannot find a distinction between these terms in practice. An explanation for the polemic must therefore come by understanding how the group of intellectuals behind the polemic imagined the opposition between the two forms of mediation. The argument I present below, while it does not exclude the above position, suggests a “cognitive” explanation for the polemic. My hypothesis is that the polemic should be understood in the context of the invention of writing; a developmental environment of robust literacy allows for a different kind of reflection on language and competing forms of mediation. Anthropologist Jack Goody, in his Domestication of the Savage Mind (1977) was one of the first scholars to posit that writing has a substantial effect on religion. Specifically, he finds that writing encourages competition between religious specialists. This position has been reiterated by Boyer (2001, 273ff.). Goody, who sees diviners as the intellectuals of non-literate societies, argues

A recent proponent perhaps of the romantic error, in an otherwise outstanding study of “Israelite” divination, is Cryer (1994). Though we agree that prophecy is a form of divination, Cryer tends to conflate the terms, arguing that the polemic against divination (in Deuteronomy 18:10, for example, see 231ff.) should be understood “not as a blanket prohibition on the practice of divination, but as a means of restricting the practice to those who were ‘entitled’ to employ it, that is, to the central cult figures who enjoyed the warrants of power, prestige, and not least, education, as at least the ‘elite’ forms of divination [e.g. prophecy] were very much the privilege of the tiny literate stratum of ancient Near Eastern societies.” (327) Cryer also emphasizes the close relation between divination, intellectual activity, and literacy (see 138ff and 187ff). Cryer’s main goal is not to account for the polemic but to make claims about social practices in “Ancient Israel,” which he regards as a “magic society,” finding countless examples of magical practice in the Biblical text. Cryer thus reverses the long Protestant tendency to repeat the “Deuteronomic” story about divination. For Cryer it is magic that gets restricted by the “powerful” Deuteronomists, whereas for Wellhausen and Martin Luther it was the priestly emphasis on the law that degrades the original power of prophecy.

that due to cognitive changes affected by writing the role of diviner is often usurped by the intellectual historian. Diviners are responsible for directing people to one or another form of agency, and are thus concerned with the organization of the universe. With writing, he argues that just as the universe becomes reorganized and domesticated 98, so does divination:

If we regard a certain amount of magico-religious activity as oriented towards relatively pragmatic goals, such as the health of one’s children or the fertility of one’s wife, then appeals to a particular shrine or agency must necessarily fail from time to time… Monotheistic religions have certain ways of dealing with this problem, although many fall back on a pluralistic universe where one may switch one’s attention from one aspect (or intermediary) of a deity to another… The agents who introduce or invent these new shrines are often responding to the pressure from below, the demand for new ways. These men are among the intellectuals of non-literate societies. Closely related to this category of person, and often involving the same individuals, is the diviner. This practitioner is faced with a somewhat different problem. His clients may want to know which of the plurality of agencies has been responsible for the misfortunes through which they are going. In directing people to this agency rather than that, he is inevitably concerned with the organization of the universe, with man’s relationship to the gods. Moreover he is operating a specialized technique which often involves numerical manipulation as well as a certain degree of

The concept of domestication is an important one for my argument, since I am arguing that writing “domesticates” folk systems. The use of the term is based on Goody (1977). The term domestication is usually applied to the domestication of animals, a case in which a wild animal is tamed (i.e. educated or trained) to serve human beings in some way. Goody uses the term to argue that Levi-Strauss’s bricolage, the skilled manipulation of basic cultural oppositions, is subject to taming once it comes under the gaze of written reflection. We should remember that for LeviStrauss (1966) the savage mind is our own mind, the mind that evolved in the context of ancient hunter-gatherer societies. Goody’s argument is that with writing and education systems this mind is, in effect, domesticated. I argue that human folk systems (physics, biology, sociology, psychology) also evolved in the context of many thousands of years of hunter gatherer life, and undergo a similar kind of domestication. This argument is further similar to the recent accounts of theological correctness, which pose that theology (and “science”) tends to pose majorly counter-intuitive arguments, arguments we are nonetheless tamed to accept. It is interesting to point out that writing and animal domestication arose around the same time, following the invention of agriculture (the domestication of plants). The original written scripts were based on agricultural commodities.

mystification. When writing appears, then it is often the most popular divinatory technique precisely because of the access to ‘secrets’ which it makes possible… (29-30)

But what kinds of social or cognitive effects would lead to such “popularity”? More recently, researchers have concluded that some of the most prominent consequences of the ‘shift’ to writing were99: 1) reflection on writing led to the production of new theories (Olson and Astington 1989; Olson 1995), but especially new objects that competed for cognitive and hermeneutic salience (Boyer 2001, 273ff.), such as the graphic representation of words; 2) a limitation on intentionality, which is the defining feature of the polemic (or so I argue below)

; 3) communal systems of

propositional attitudes and practices that refer to superhuman agents were changed by the new technology, in part because texts took on some attributes of agents; and 4) a new type of educated specialist usurped the role traditionally held by diviners. As demonstrated by Schribner and Cole (1981), many of these changes occur because written communicants must craft their compositions while taking into consideration the fact that they do not often share a common environment with their recipients (i.e. they are distant in time and space), thus putting a different type of mental burden on a writer than oral communication. David Olson, a psychologist who supervises one of the few labs that study the cognitive effects of literacy, utilizes Donald Davidson’s theory of quotation (See 2001b, chapter 6) to make a similar argument (Olson 2001, 245). He finds that writing tends to lead to reflexivity about the semantic properties of communication, and linguistic content in particular. Writing is “related to the reflexive property of speech exploited in quotation,” (247) which is a form of metarepresentation that disembeds

For general background see Schribner and Cole (1981), Olson and Astington (1990), Olson (1994), Mithen (1999), Donald (1991, 1999, 2001), Sperber (2002), O’hara (2002), and Whitehouse (2002). See also Read et. al. (1986) who indicate that alphabetic literacy contributes to the ability to manipulate language at the level of phonemic segments. 100 The limitations placed on agency and intentionality in the polemic prelude a “Western” scientific orientation. See Sinclair (2002, 179), who argues the scientific method is predicated upon taking phenomena as mindless. See also Davidson (2001c, 128) who makes the same argument about physics. The Biblical polemic against graven images thus has a similar psychological orientation as the polemic against divination (see Leviticus 26:1, Psalm 115: 4-5). Images and icons are competing forms of representational media. For relevant work on images and religion, see Winter (1992), Gell (1999) and Goody (2004, 54).

utterances from their normal context. Quoting an utterance or proposition, like entertaining a proposition, requires “decoupling”. This level of metarepresentation has been tied to the “Theory of Mind” module in cognitive studies of communication and to Trevarthen’s “secondary intersubjectivity,” signaled first in children by the ability to pass the false belief task and pretend play.101 Olson’s point is that writing is implicitly in this category of semantic metarepresentation. With texts we find new kinds of entities that are subject to human mentalizing abilities. These second order artifacts are unique to natural history because they do in fact “say something”, however they are still somewhat foreign to our analog evolutionarily adapted cognitive folk systems (Pyysiainen 1999). Literacy thus tends to “enhance” or change the metalinguistic abilities, such as decoupling, as a central feature of religion. As Boyer (2001, 131) notes, “supernatural concepts are just one consequence of the human capacity for decoupling representations.” It should be no surprise then that literacy would have a strong effect on religion. In light of and in addition to these consequences, I argue that literacy has a measurable effect on folk systems, our default capacities for generating causal theories about complex phenomena (see Sperber 1996ab; Sperber and Hirschfeld 1999; Atran 2002, 2005). Examples of such systems are folk (or “naïve”) physics, which is our default ability to theorize and predict the movement and integrity of objects in space, and folk biology, our inherent capacity to generate biological principles (such as life) and to divide the world into biological categories. The concern of this paper is the domain of folk psychology often termed “theory of mind” (or mentalizing), which is the ability to attribute intentionality, desire, belief, and other propositional attitudes to people we wish to interpret (see Davies and Stone 1995; Caruthers and Smith 1996; Gopnik and Meltzoff 1997). To restate then, my hypothesis is that the polemic against divination is a

See Boyer (2001, 129ff.) for his discussion of decoupling. For more on metarepresentation, see Sperber (2000). For secondary intersubjectivity, see Trevarthen (1979, 1983) and Tomasello (1999).

domestication of folk psychology in the sense that writing subjects mentalizing tendencies to second order reflection and systemization. 102 Wilson and Sperber’s relevance theory and Davidson’s radical interpretation, two of the most discussed recent theories of communication, give us additional insight into the polemic because they are grounded in the most up to date cognitive science and philosophy of language, at the same time that they take seriously the irreducibility of folk systems. The first part of this paper presents some background about the production of scrolls and the effects of literacy. I then use the communication theories of Wilson, Sperber, and Davidson to generate five communicative or mentalizing principles that I argue change in the context of robust literacy. I propose that the polemic against divination must be understood in light of these changes. Prophecy is a form of divination. In the Hebrew Bible however, ‘prophecy’, that is communication with one superhuman agent in particular, probably called Yahweh or not called at all, was acceptable, while divination was subject to polemics. As a literary device, the polemic needs to be explained in the intellectual terms in which it is presented. The Hebrew Bible, or at least its final redaction, is the production of a small group of elite “scribes” or secretaries who were


A word must be said about the relation between my argument and Whitehouse’s cognitive theory of religion, which argues for two basic forms of religion, the imagistic and the doctrinal that emerge depending on the manner in which religious experiences are encoded in episodic or semantic memory respectively. Whitehouse addresses writing in Whitehouse (2004, 228), where he says that the Goody/Boyer position (see Goody 2004 and Boyer 2001, 314ff.) sees writing as the cause of the emergence of new doctrinal forms of religion in the ancient world. In contrast, Whitehouse thinks that the “massive increase in the scale and frequency of agricultural rituals, occasioned by major technological and demographic changes” possibly “triggered the earliest emergence of routinized orthodoxies.” He even thinks this new form of ritual “may have been a major stimulus for the development of writing systems, rather than the other way around” and he notes support for this from two of the chapters in Whitehouse (2004). Whitehouse ends his summary with some apologetics about the conclusions in these chapters being “drawn tentatively on the basis of fragmentary data.” (229) I do not wish to get caught up in debates about whether literacy is necessary for the doctrinal mode. Even if we had more than scant evidence about Biblical period ritual, the chicken or egg question about literacy and routinized forms of religion would not be very interesting. The fact is that we cannot understand literacy or writing as distinct from other social forms and practices; the massive increase in scale and frequency, major technological changes, demographic changes, and writing systems came together and cannot be clearly dissociated for the time period in question. We would do better to examine the actual cognitive implications of literacy on religion, precisely what I aim to do. Because a full treatment of Whitehouse’s important theory would distract from that task, I do not pursue it presently. I should note my serious doubts about a theory that sees two distinct “organizing principles of religious experience,” as if there is something called “religious experience” and as if “experience” is something that can be organized, like a broom closet or a library (see Davidson 1984b).

part of a much larger educated society of the ancient Near East.


The polemic did not refer to any

program for social action, but was rather an intellectual position taken up by a powerless segment of society, a group of very religious exiled Judeans educated in the Babylonian university system. This system was the original model for European educational system (Kramer 1963), a system designed to produce a bureaucratic “class” of managers. Archaeologist David Schloen has recently argued that it was not until the 1st millennium BCE that states in the Near East can be regarded as Weber’s “impersonal bureaucratic state”. Schloen follows Karl Jaspers use of the term “Axial Age… for the period of the emergence of more rationalized regimes in the first millennium bce.” (52) He correlates this shift with the shift to “monotheistic faith” as an elective affinity, postulating that the age experienced “a fundamental shift in human conceptions of social order, evident in religious and philosophical literature of the period, especially that of ancient Greece and Israel.” The shift was also “reflected in and dialectically influenced by changing material conditions, in the form of new economic relationships (including a monetary economy) and the physical reorganization of social interaction that we can detect archaeologically in changing settlement patterns…” (64) The key factor in the shift, according to Weber and Schloen, is the “rationalization” of social life, “a phenomenon that was ultimately rooted in a new awareness of the gulf between the transcendent and mundane spheres of reality.”


Note that this attempt to locate the group responsible for the redaction of the Hebrew Bible is conjecture; however it does represent a good guess based on both Biblical representations and comparative evidence (Niels Peter Lemche, personal communication, September 2005). This conjecture is consonant with the representation of events in the Biblical text, for example in Ezra, Nehemiah, and the latter prophets. For recent research on canon criticism, see (Lee and Sanders 2002). 104 See Schloen (2001, 64). Authority requires legitimation; Weber’s “sociology of domination” posed three ideal types of legitimation: 1) legal rational, 2) traditional, and 3) charismatic. The first characterizes rational bureaucracies which entail systems of abstract rules and differentiate between public and private. Schloen finds in the Axial age the right conditions for formal rationality to become socially effective on a wide scale and able to endure over time. He regards “Jewish monotheism” and Greek philosophy as paradigmatic examples of the trend toward formal rationalization. In terms of the former, he thinks that the earlier “polytheistic” values are concentrated, demythologized, or “disenchanted” so it became possible to “imagine universal formal principles that govern the relationship between God and humanity as a whole, with less regard to one’s substantive position within the hierarchy.” (91) There is thus much more focus on the relation between particular individuals and gods, with corresponding changes in ethics according to “increasingly egalitarian and universalizing principles.” Schloen and Weber see rationalization opening up the problem of salvation. This is when the “mundane” fails to live up to the “transcendent”. Schloen characterizes this as a conflict between utopian rationalization and traditional ideology. The former relies on a “credibility gap” between claims of legitimacy on the part of those in authority, and the belief in legitimacy; the two rarely correspond (95).

But this new bureaucratic tradition was largely subservient to royal and priestly authority. The scroll tradition that became the Hebrew Bible was thus an exceptional occurrence because much of it comes from outside these forms of authority. Due to a series of historical contingencies, most notably that a few Judeans were educated in that advanced Babylonian system, for the first time a “history” of losers could be written, and thereby preserved. 105 Israel was, after all, marked almost solely by its failures and its tragedies. The polemic against divination did not claim divination was an illusion, but that it was powerless, that it theorized agents that had no purpose of their own, and thus were useless as guides to prediction or control. In the prophetic literature, other gods, their “idols”, and their representatives are regarded as “empty” and “false”, for example in 2 Kings 17:15 “…they went after the empty ones and became empty…” (see also Psalm 31:6-7, 97:7) The Biblical tendency to play with language in and around other gods is notorious and exemplifies a similar tendency to limit agency and intentionality (for example in Exodus 10:10; see also Good 1965). The prophets are especially fixated on “idols” (see Isaiah, Ezekiel, Jeremiah). Garr (2003) makes a similar argument about the Priestly theology in the Hebrew Bible. Based on his analysis of the use of first person plural verb forms to describe Yahweh’s actions in the text, Garr argues that the Priestly theology recognized superhuman agents other than Yahweh (YHVH), but that these agents had no intentions, or real agency, independent of him. Similarly, the polemic against divination represents a religious reflection on communication and agency. Biblical prophecy and divination were and continue to be juxtaposed as competing theories of communication with gods.


For the Biblical version of this story see especially the memoirs of Ezra and Nehemiah, which are generally thought to have been composed between the 5 th and 3rd centuries BCE in Judea. See also Haggai, Zechariah, and Isaiah 40–66.

Major Problems
There are four major problems with my argument as a whole. The first is that it is not immediately obvious why some very abstract theories of communication should be able to tell us anything significant about an ancient polemic. There is far more theoretical machinery than necessary to account for the historical question. The second is that the historical picture above might be read to look like an evolutionary story about consciousness. Third, written language appeared long before the polemics of the 2 nd temple period (after the 5 th century BCE) so it could not be a precipitating factor. Fourth, it may be argued that there is only a circumstantial relation between the polemic against divination and the effects of literacy. These problems require response, more perhaps than space permits. Since the hypothesis is that a shift in communicative technology is a major factor that explains the polemic against divination, it is paramount that we begin the argument with a proper theory of communication. By comparing two of the best we have, I think this puts us on the proper theoretical starting point to address the shift. There is a growing body of literature that recognizes the implications of these theories of communication for the study of texts. 106 The shift was not a one time event, and was far from simple. What I refer to as the shift should be understood as the formation of a new bureaucratic educated class in the “Axial age” and the corresponding institutions that supported it (such as libraries, archives, tax offices, and universities; see Pearce 1995; Brosius 2003). All religions underwent significant changes in this period. It is due to another series of contingencies, most notably that the literature of the Hebrew Bible was taken up by early Christians, that we in the West and now the world, have placed so much interest and reflection in the body of literature of these Judean intellectuals. This is not therefore an evolutionary shift in consciousness nor is it the end of the golden age of archaic myth making. But


For relevance, see especially Ramos (1998, 331) and Clark (1987, 1996). For Davidson, see Dasenbrock (1993)

this era does begin a religious and intellectual preoccupation with written texts. And it is from the standpoint of this preoccupation that most of our understanding of the ancient world is based. The Hebrew Bible is an expression of a form of intellectual homelessness which has come to define the modern condition. It is an example of a group of intellectuals coming to some collective realization of themselves in light of their difference with surrounding people. From the Babylonian (or Egyptian) perspective, these elite Judeans were brought from the barbarian periphery of their empire to be enlightened in their high culture. So it was a combination of an exilic mentality and a secretarial education in the heart of the civilized world – an original divided consciousness – that made the form of literature they produced distinctive. It is these factors that precipitated specific polemics in the text. 107 As far as the fourth problem is concerned, while it may be true that this hypothesis is conjectural, I find there is direct evidence of a Deuteronomic (which is especially associated with scribal-wisdom and Pharisaic traditions) preoccupation with prophecy in contrast to divination, an increasing theology of “the word” (davar), and a central place given to the concept of prophecy in the Hebrew Bible (see Levy 2006). The concept of prophecy in the Hebrew Bible is indeed the reflection on written language to which I refer.

‘Scraps to Scrolls’
Divination is a form of technologically distributed cognition. Distributed cognition is the now generally accepted idea that “cognitive processes are… distributed across internal and external structures – across people, artifacts, space and time.” 108 That is, “the artifacts and external resources

“Monotheism,” an intellectual monism applied to superhuman agents, was well in circulation in a number of places at this time. This was not what made this community distinctive, but rather the inscription of their literature on scrolls, a literature which compelled future generations to copy, preserve, and distribute it. Though the temple in Jerusalem was surely something they could not ignore, it was seemingly more trouble than it was worth, and the religion of the temple was already a minor concern for these “proto-Jews”. Rather, they instituted the “reading” of their scrolls as their primary mode of worship. 108 For a good summary of the literature on writing and distributed cognition, see O’hara (2002). O’hara argues that writing should be understood as a form of “hybrid” problem solving. He inquires into “how the material properties of

with which we interact are a fundamental part of the cognitive system itself.” (O’hara 2002, 272) By the first millennium BCE writing had sufficiently established itself as alternative form of distributed cognition. Just as digital technology is today, writing was (and still is) an emergent technology that changed the way in which some groups thought through certain problems.109 Though we obviously have no ethnographic evidence about the process that brought together the Hebrew Bible, we can be sure that is was some process in distributed cognition.110 Philip Davies (2000) gives additional circumstantial support to this argument. Davies provides a five stage historical conjecture of the production of the prophetic books.111 The conjecture is useful primarily to think about the process and materials of production. Davies envisions a radically close relation between “prophetism and scribalism” due to the nature of
artifacts cause cognitive processes to be distributed in beneficial or problematic ways,” (272) examining four techniques: shifting attention across source materials and the composition document, spatial layout, annotation, and concurrent use of paper and computer documents (295-298). He thus argues for writing as a form of distributed cognition” where “the relationship between internal and external structures is more than simply a re-representing of the external world in internally encoded models. Rather, it involves the ways in which we can dynamically configure these external resources and artifacts to coordinate with memory, attention and to facilitate perception, simplify choice and minimize internal computation.” (271) The configuration of the external environment, “then, is thus very much dependent upon the material properties of the environment and the interactional properties they afford particular actors...” (272) See also Hutchins (1995) who describes the distribution of cognition in navigation. The most prominent philosopher to use this approach is Dennett; see for example Dennett’s discussion with Clark on writing as a form of distributed or extended cognition in Dahlbom (1995). See also Haas (1996). This literature encourages yet another form of Biblical Criticism I hereby term “Cognitive Criticism.” 109 In making this assertion we should be sure to heed Christina Haas’s (1996) warning that “the materiality of writing is the central fact of literacy.” (3) In her study of the effects of computer technology in the writing process, she notes that this materiality includes the way that the technology implicates our bodies: “changing the technologies of writing has profound implications, at least in part, because different technologies are materially configured in profoundly different ways. That is, different writing technologies set up radically different spatial, tactile, visual, and even temporal relations between the writer’s material body and his or her material text.” (226) She notes further that, “for the most part, material concerns have remained outside the realm of consideration of writing research possibly due to the profound distrust of the bodily within scholarly inquiry and within culture at large.” To the extent possible, research on the Hebrew Bible should concern itself with the details of material production process of scrolls in Iron Age Palestine and later. Tov’s work is perhaps closest to this, though even he is not specific enough about the actual bodies, habits, practices, procedures, and materials of production. Tov believes his book on scribal practices (2004) is the closest to meeting these requirements (personal communication), however, it does not do so with the kind of specificity required above. 110 Ethnographic research into scribal communities and professionalization are useful as parallels to provide context for my argument. See for example Goody (1968, 1983), Stock (1983), Clanchy (1993), Florida (1995), Pearch (1995), Nissinen (2000), Brosius (2003). The best studies on the theme of scribal practice in ancient Judea are Jamieson-Drake (1991), and Niditch (1996), Davies (1998), Schams (1998), Fitzpatrick-McKinley (1999), and Tov (2004). 111 He does so with some provisos, for “the phenomenon of ‘prophecy’ in ancient Israel and Judah is not essentially a social one, but a literary one: what makes the case of these societies unique is that they produced ‘prophetic’ scrolls.” (66)

the archival process. The composition of the Hebrew Bible, or at least its redaction, was a process of thinking things through with scrolls. Briefly, he argues that this production (or reflection) was a five stage process. Based on evidence from Mari, Uruk, and Assyria, Davies argues that the initial stage of the process begins either with the report of an oral pronouncement or with a literary pronouncement, such as the letter portrayed in 2 Chr 21:12, that finds its way into a temple or royal archive. Regardless of the mode by which a letter or report came to its recipient, in the second stage it was likely filed, shelved, or boxed in an archive according to the name of the sender. As letters were gathered associated with different names, the file would grow. At some stage, letters, reports, and larger scrolls may have been grouped according to other themes. A corpus begins to build, and should a file require copying, it is likely that they would be copied onto a single piece of leather. Davies thus argues that an “archiving mentality” was important to the production process, especially to the extent that it attached particular files to particular names. 112 After the archival stage comes the compositional stage. This stage concerns subsequent copying and the addition of elements of “detail, expansion, or structural organization.” (75) According to Davies, the compositional stage is in turn made up of three stages. In the first, we find copying, iteration, and expansion. However, this stage is not enough to explain the prophetic scrolls. Between this stage and the final stage when prophetic texts are “studied along with law and proverbs by the educated person in the 2nd century BCE,” (75) we have a stage in which “the idea of ‘prophecy’” is produced “as an institution of divine guidance of national history.” (77) That is, we find “various processes


However, Davies cautions that this exact procedure is “not intended to account for the origins of all the ‘prophetic’ books” though it does explain some of their incoherence. Rather, Davies suggests this “only as an evolutionary stage.” In this model, “material is grouped into single scrolls for convenience and is intended to be consulted or retrieved or scanned by the curious – if intended to be read at all.” (75)

of ‘historicization’ within these ‘prophetic’ collections.” Historical contextualization does not come at the beginning of the process, but towards the end. 113 The fourth stage concerns “the development of a historiographical corpus,” which then served as the historical backdrop for the prophetic compositions. The fifth stage is the last in the production process when prophetic scrolls were held in enough intellectual and religious esteem to be canonized by the outset of the Common Era.

Effects of literacy
Some digression into empirical research on the psychological effects of literacy is necessary in order to temper the conjectural statements above. The best recent example of such studies is Schribner and Cole’s (1981) groundbreaking study of the psychological effects of literacy among the Vai people of Liberia, Africa. These authors both counter the grand theorizing of a previous generation of scholars of literacy 114 such as Goody (1977), Ong (1990), and Havelock (1982), at the same time that they provide evidence of the effects of specific literary practices. Their research led them to question the usefulness of the idea of “literacy in general.” They found no significant cognitive difference between literates and illiterates. They thus questioned the grand dichotomy of literacy and its supposed historical consequences. 115

Davies adds further caution: that it is a mistake to “assume that the process of production is driven by a consistent theological, ideological, or literary purpose.” (78) This should perhaps be obvious since the production process, on most accounts, spans 5 to 10 centuries, and thus hundreds or thousands of individuals’ particular purposes. Despite this warning, Davies goes on to suggest some possible motivations for the composition of prophecy; namely, prophecy as social critique, in which a particular scribe could couch his criticism in the words of older prophets. Davies argues that many of the prophetic books are exploring the question of the world order in light of a colonial experience: “In much of the ‘prophetic’ literature one can detect the kind of interest in the political implications of a colonial monotheism that fits perhaps better with the scribes employed by the administrative center, be that the colonial governor’s or the high priest’s, than with intermediaries. Among the motives for the generation of the material in the prophetic scrolls – and perhaps for the editing of these scrolls – may lie an intellectual agenda, allied to historiography.” (78) 114 For the best review of this literature, see Collins (1995) 115 More particularly their study sought to differentiate between the cognitive effects of schooling and the effects of literacy. In order to do so they had to find a population in which reading and writing of a script were not taught in school; they found this to be the case among the Vai. Contrary to most scholars on the subject at the time, they showed that among the Vai literacy does not necessarily lead to metalinguistic knowledge, and does not enhance one’s ability for abstract thought. Literacy also does not necessarily dispel nominal realism, the idea that words and things have an intrinsic, non-arbitrary connection (thought to be found among “the primitives”). In other

However they did find four major consequences of the literacy in their research (244): reading and writing was associated with skills in (1) integrating syllables of spoken Vai into meaningful sentences (auditory integration task); (2) using graphic symbols to represent language; (3) using language as a means of instruction; (4) and talking about correct Vai speech. More generally then, literacy contributes to one’s ability to communicate about and reflect on her language. Schribner and Cole’s research gives the kind of specificity we need when talking about the psychological effects of literacy, but a few points of friction emerge with my argument. First, these researchers are interested in individual cognitive effects of literacy. This is a problem because the effects of literacy should be looked for at a cultural level, or at the very least in terms of communicative cognitive principles such as the ones outlined in this paper (below). Second, they note that they did not research the effects of “advanced literary practices” on professional scribes or scholars. They suggest that if they had they would find even greater generalizing and critical abilities, and I concur (245). Third, my argument focuses on the effects of literacy in a specific social and historical environment. Ideally this argument should be expanded to explore the effects of schooling (Davies 1998), but for now it is limited to literacy because we

words, nonschooled literacy among the Vai, “does not produce general cognitive effects.” However, they did find that “there are several literacy-specific effects on certain task specific skills.” (132) These include what I call greater propensity to “reflect” on language. This follows straightforwardly that “deliberate composition … will increase formal understanding of [one’s] language,” such as grammar. Schribner and Cole found no difference in the identification of grammatical errors among literates and nonliterates, but a significant difference in their ability to explain these differences (152). They also found that, as problem-solving activities, reading and writing affect speech performance; for example a significant and systematic increase in the use of indefinite forms among literates. They argue that this is due to the fact that writing is more general, and uses less features of immediate reference. (188) They also found that literacy improves the ability to provide important communicative information because writing places greater demands on this skill. In other words, writing “may improve instructional communication… not so much by improving ability to take the listener’s perspective, but in equipping a person with techniques to meet the informational demands in a particular communicative situation.” (218) Aside from these conclusions they found “little support for speculations that literacy is a pre-condition or prime cause for an understanding of language as an object.” (157) Specifically, literates did not have a better grasp of metalinguistic knowledge such as the relations between propositions or words (156). Of course, schooling does have these effects across the board. Schribner and Cole argue for a conception of literacy as a practice and a tool (ala Dennett): “literacy is not simply knowing how to read and write a particular script but applying this knowledge for specific purposes in specific contexts of use.” (236).

know, ipso facto, that the Hebrew Bible is a result of literary practice, while schooling is likely but unsubstantiated. It is within this context of the production process of scrolls (Davies) and the effects of literacy in 2 nd temple era Judea (Schribner and Cole) that we should locate the polemic against divination.116 However, all the scholars presented thus far have lacked a robust theory of communication. A comparison of Davidson’s theory (DT, for short) and Wilson and Sperber’s theory (“Relevance theory,” RT for short) will provide the necessary theoretical foundation from which to evaluate the above arguments. I first provide a dense, technical summary of each theory, and then I compare them. Those readers interested in the details of the theories should consult the bibliography provided. Those readers more interested in the application of the comparison than the details of the theories should skip the next two sections.

Relevance Theory
In RT communicators maximize relevance, which is the ratio of deriving (positive) contextual implications or effects with the ever-increasing cost of processing (Wilson and Sperber 1995, 76).117 Wilson and Sperber argue that communication only occurs because of the expectation of some reward on the part of communicators, and also that human beings “automatically aim at the most efficient information processing possible” (49). The reward, according to their theory, is information made manifest by relevance criteria.


Schribner and Cole rightly note that cognitive skills, “no less than perceptual or motor or linguistic skills, are intimately bound up with the nature of the practices that require them. Thus, in order to identify the consequences of literacy, we need to consider the specific characteristics of specific practices. And, in order to conduct such an analysis, we need to understand the larger social system that generates certain kinds of practices (and not others) and poses particular tasks for these practices (and not others). From this perspective, inquiries into the cognitive consequences of literacy are inquiries into impact of socially organized practices in other domains (trade, agriculture) on practices involving writing (keeping lists or sales, exchanging goods by letter).” (237) Since we lack most, if not all, the evidence of such practices in the Biblical case, the argument proceeds with greater generality and comparative abstraction concerning the effects of literacy. 117 For a good summary of RT and its initial developments see (Ramos, 1998)

A hearer will consider possible interpretations “in order of their accessibility (that is, follow a path of least effort) and… stop as soon as he reaches one that satisfies his expectation of relevance.” (Carston and Powell 2006, 2) Relevance is explained in evolutionary terms, for the claim that humans are geared towards maximizing relevance is the “claim that we are designed to look for as many cognitive effects as possible for as little processing effort as possible. The idea is that, as a result of constant selection pressure towards increasing cognitive efficiency, we have evolved procedures to pick out potentially relevant inputs and to process them in the most costeffective way...” (Carston and Powell, 1-2) Three crucial concepts in the theory of relevance are principle of relevance, manifestness, and ostension. In its modified form, the principle of relevance is actually two principles, a cognitive principle where “human cognition tends to be geared to the maximization of relevance” and a communicative sense where “every act of ostensive communication communicates a presumption of its own optimal relevance.” (Ramos, 18) The degree to which something is manifest, for Wilson and Sperber, is the degree to which it is perceptible, inferable, or assumed (Sperber and Wilson, 39). An individual’s total cognitive environment is all the “facts” manifest to him consciously or otherwise. That is, all the facts he is aware of and capable of becoming aware of. When “the same facts and assumptions” are manifest in the cognitive environments of two different people, the environments intersect. The total shared cognitive environment is the intersection of their two total cognitive environments. “In a mutual cognitive environment, every manifest assumption is what [they] call mutually manifest”; (42) that is, every manifest assumption is itself manifest. Communication, on their reading, is thus a relevance oriented attempt to alter a mutual cognitive environment, where the intention to communicate is itself manifest.

Wilson and Sperber call behavior that makes manifest an intention to make something manifest ostension (49): “just as an assertion comes with a tacit guarantee of truth, so ostension comes with a tacit guarantee of relevance.” (49) This guarantee makes it possible for interpreters to select from a set of “newly manifest assumptions” those that “have been made intentionally manifest” by a speaker (50). For Wilson and Sperber two intentions, or what they call “layers of information,” (50) are thus particularly important: a communicative intention to draw attention to oneself in order “to make her informative intention mutually manifest,” (163) and an informative intention to draw someone’s attention to some thing, to make “manifest to her audience a set of assumptions {I}.” (155) Wilson and Sperber think that the capacity to understand utterances is a different, though perhaps overlapping modality, than the general ability to attribute intentions on the basis of purposive behavior. The first reason for this is that relevance directed communication involves “four levels of metarepresentation while in understanding ordinary actions a single level of intention attribution is usually sufficient.” For RT communication the hearer has to recognize that the speaker (1) intends him to (2) believe that she (3) intends him to (4) believe a certain set of propositions (Sperber 1994; Sperber 2000; Carsten and Powell, 15) Second, unlike basic intention recognition in which the desired effect is distinct from the intention, in relevance communication “the desired effect just is the recognition of the communicator’s intention: ‘hearers cannot first identify a desirable effect of the utterance and then infer that the speaker’s intention was precisely to achieve this effect’ (Wilson 2003, 116).” That is, the desired effect is itself the recognition of an intention or set of intentions {I}.

Davidson’s Theory
In order to simplify Davidson’s complex system, for my purposes here I will focus on Davidson’s notions of first meaning, charity, and radical interpretation as they compare to RT notions above. Charity is a necessary principle in communication for Davidson. It requires us to read in to our conversation partner a massive degree of rationality. If we did not do so, there would be no chance we could understand her, and therefore no chance we could attribute thoughts to her. For Davidson the very process of arriving at meaning is one of mapping truth conditions (truths and falsities), that is, developing a theory of truth for that person based on their patterns of assent and dissent. If there were no pattern, there would be no meaning. Charity is both the principle of the pattern (as the principle of coherence) and the “constant held across contexts of observation” (as the principle of correspondence) in terms of the salient distal stimuli (Davidson 1983; Davidson 1999; Brink 2004, 191).118 First meaning is a speaker’s intention to utter words that a hearer will intepret in a certain way (Davidson 1986; Glock 2003, 258). Thus, it is an intention to induce certain beliefs in the hearer, beliefs about what the speaker believes. It is important to remember in this context that for Davidson, “a belief is not a relation to either a proposition or a sentence, but the ‘modification of a person’, and more specifically, a dispositional mental state.” 119 (Glock, 266) Whereas Wilson and Sperber’s theory depends on the idea of cognitive efficiency, Davidson’s depends on the idea of iteration. Interpretation must rest on the possession of a theory because it is based on a finite vocabulary, and a finite grammar. Davidson points out that the theory could be conceived of as “a machine which, when fed an arbitrary utterance (and certain parameters

Brink notes that for Davidson (1999) perceptual saliency is a contextual feature “connected to how much effort it takes to perceive an item. The most salient features are the ones that can be picked up with the least effort. Usually these are the ones that contrast against our expectations.” (Brink, 2004, 191) 119 Thus, as Glock glosses Davidson, “in talking about the beliefs of people we no more need to suppose that ‘there are such entities as beliefs’ than in talking about weights of objects we need suppose that there are weights for objects to have. To say that x weighs 10kg is to relate x not to ‘a weight’, but to other material objects, according to one of their properties. Similarly, talking about beliefs is a way ‘to keep track of the relevant properties of and relations among the various psychological states’ of people, for the purpose of explaining their behavior.” (Glock, 266)

provided by the circumstances of the utterance), produces an interpretation” (Davidson 1986, 468) Davidson favors a Tarski-style machine (Tarski 1944), which “provides a recursive characterization of the truth-conditions of all possible utterances of a speaker.” However, this theory need not be part of the “propositional knowledge” of an interpreter, “nor are they claims about the details of the inner working of some part of the brain.” Unlike RT, Davidson’s theory is not internal but descriptive, its purpose is rather “to give a satisfactory description of the competence of the interpreter.” (Davidson 1986, 469) At any moment in communication communicators have theories about one another that have been “adjusted to the evidence so far available to him: knowledge of character, dress, role, sex of the speaker, and whatever else has been gained by observing the speaker’s behavior, linguistic or otherwise.” Part of the communicator’s theory includes all of these manifest facts about the communicative situation. Davidson calls this the prior theory. From the speaker’s perspective, he must intend to speak in just the way he intends to be interpreted. That is, the speaker has certain beliefs about the prior theory that his interpreter takes to the communicative interaction. Even if the speaker wishes to deceive, he must do so holding beliefs about his interpreter’s prior theory. Both speaker and interpreter also have what Davidson calls an ad hoc “passing theory” in addition to the prior theory. When the speaker speaks, the interpreter then “alters his theory… revising part interpretations of particular utterance in light of new evidence.” (471) The prior theory is the theory a speaker has about the way he thinks his words will be interpreted, while the passing theory is the theory the speaker intends the interpreter to use. The hearer also has his own prior and passing theories. The prior theory is his preparedness for interpreting the speaker, while the passing theory is the actual theory that does so.

For communication to be successful only the passing theory must be shared: “for the passing theory is the one the interpreter actually uses to interpret an utterance, and it is the theory the speaker intends the interpreter to use.” Communication is successful to the extent that passing theories are shared. The basis of Davidson’s theory of communication is the thought-experiment of radical interpretation in which we are meant to imagine how communication gets off the ground between two communicators who do not share the same language. Davidson thinks the guiding process is that of “triangulation,” where the content of the communicative interaction will be provided by the convergences of lines of sight or causes. The triangle consists of two people and a shared world. The causes of linguistic content are those macroscopic features of the world, objects, and their relation in time as events, which we are programmed to find interesting. Interpretation will proceed by an ongoing coordination through the development of passing theories from prior theories within the interpretive triangle. Thus what anchors thought in the world is the joint focus of attention on objects and events. 120

Comparison of Theories
Both theories try to explain communication. Davidson does so formally and semantically while Wilson and Sperber do so in psychological and cognitive terms. Both recognize that a correct interpretation is arrived at through “the Gricean condition that the speaker intends the interpreter to arrive at the right sort of truth conditions through the interpreter’s recognition of the speaker’s intention to be so interpreted.” (Davidson 2001c, 112) Both theories, like Grice, rely on the ideal case of communication where something like an informative intention and a communicative intention are common between speaker and hearer.

It is best to read Davidson for oneself. For charity and radical interpretation see Davidson (1973), for first meaning see Davidson (1978 and 1986), for triangulation see Davidson (1984a), for a unified picture see Davidson (1991). There is also a large secondary literature, see http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/davidson/.

Both theories propose that communicators construct sets or theories that change as communication goes along. Wilson and Sperber’s shared cognitive environment and Davidson’s shared passing theories thus do similar work, and combining the two would seem to give us a full bodied theory of communication. One major difference is that Davidson relies on a holistic and formal conception of a theory. This allows him to pose a different basis for communicative content, for the content is derived from the place of sentences or propositions in theories (i.e. in languages). In Wilson and Sperber’s case, though they are more secure about the cost-benefits of cognition, there is less security when it comes to the content of communication. Another major difference is that for Davidson the passing theory would seem to be almost entirely ad hoc, while Wilson and Sperber are against Grice’s maxims because they appear ad hoc (Sperber and Wilson, 36), and instead they postulate causal mechanisms, or cognitive constraints to explain communication. 121 Comparison of the two theories finds a few points of overlap, suggesting five interrelated concepts which should serve as basic terms for any theory of communication: intention, interest, content, attention, and pattern recognition. Perhaps we can equate these theoretical terms with the modules of the communication noted by autism specialist Simon Baron-Cohen. In Baron-Cohen (1995), an essay on autism and theory of mind, Baron-Cohen describes four independent developmental mechanisms that allow for “mindreading,” or the ability for unimpaired adult human to attribute and predict the mental states of others. The first is the Intentionality Detector, which is an amodal “perceptual device that interprets motion stimuli in terms of the primitive volitional states of goal and desire.” (32) We automatically tend to interpret an object’s movement in space terms of goal and desire. That is, we take the object to have a motivation and a goal.


Though Carston (2002) disagrees.

The second mechanism that allows for mindreading is the Eye-direction Detector, which 1) detects the presence of eyes or eye-like stimuli, 2) computes whether eyes are directed toward it or toward something else, and 3) infers from its own case that if another organism’s eyes are directed at something then that organism sees that thing (38-39). The third mechanism, the Shared Attention Mechanism builds “triadic representations” which specify the relations between three objects (agent, self, object or agent, self, agent, etc…). The fourth or Theory of Mind Mechanism adds (1) “epistemic mental states,” the full range of propositional attitudes (such as pretending, thinking, knowing, believing, etc…) to the mix and (2) a way of tying volitional, perceptual, and epistemic mental-state concepts together by turning the mentalistic knowledge into a useful theory. Thus the Theory of Mind Mechanism receives inputs from the Intentionality Detector and Eye Direction Detector and integrates them into a useful theory.122 In terms of the communicative concepts derived from the comparison of DT and RT, perhaps intention and interest develop with the Intentionality Detector, content with the Eye Direction Detector, attention with the Shared Attention Mechanism , and pattern recognition with the Theory of Mind Mechanism (See Brink 2004 and Sinclair 2002, 179). To reiterate, the content of communication is provided in part by reference to these basic concepts. Communication takes advantage of biological mechanisms for drawing, following, and sharing attention. The relevance notion of manifestness and Davidson’s notion of first meaning both rely on the idea that linguistic communication occurs by directing attention jointly towards theories or sets of assumptions. In order to communicate one must also draw attention to the real or mimicked intention to communicate. Intentional behavior is goal directed and thus requires one to read in objects of desire.


Since pattern recognition is a low level cognitive device, perhaps the Theory of Mind Mechanism should be thought of as the recognition of patterns of beliefs and desires (or any ‘triadic’ propositional attitude).

Both theories recognize that interest can serve as the frame for sets of assumptions of theories. That is, the springs of desire (and other propositional attitudes) cannot be extricated from one’s standards of truth. 123 They are in fact its very substance, in the sense that desire (what things are desired, what propositions are desired) too is a theoretical entity that serves to account for people’s (including one’s own) behavior. Disagreement about the objects of desire is only possible against the theoretical background discussed above. For Wilson and Sperber content is given by the “code,” by a lexical or memory representation in the brain and by the relevance based context. In contrast, Davidson sees triangulation as the primary basis for content. Finally, both theories rely on the generation of theories based on patterns of belief and motivated actions.

Application to Divination
Divination is a form of mind reading (Gallese and Goldman 1998) of the kind discussed by cognitive scientists for many years now. Though there may be important differences, both mechanistic and interpretive divination rely on the attribution of intentionality and agency.124 The description of a divination that Abbink (1993, 711ff.) observed among the Me’en in East Africa will serve as a paradigmatic case for the argument to follow. In this case, a woman collapsed in her hut and could neither move nor speak. After trying a number of solutions an “expert in the art of intestine reading,” named Onyai, was finally called. The husband of the woman procured a black and white goat for the reading. Then,


Though Davidson is concerned primarily with belief, very early on he pointed out that the indeterminacy between meaning and belief is related to the indeterminacy between belief and decision. While semantics involves truth as a function of both meaning and belief, decision theory involves preference as a function of beliefs and desires. In this light he has called for a “unified theory of meaning and action” which involves a “heightened indeterminacy due to interdependence of meaning, belief, and valuing” (Hahn, 1999, 530). 124 The basis of my understanding of divination comes from Garfinkel (1984), Tambiah (1990), Zeitlyn (1990), Abbink (1993), Cryer (1994), and Tedlock (2001).

water from a gourd container was drunk by Berguwa, the husband, and sprayed over the goat. The remaining water was then poured out over the left hand of Berguwa, which was held above the part of the goat where the intestines are located. Then he quickly slit the throat of the animal. The blood was caught in a calabash container, to be used later. The intestines were then taken out by Onyai and carefully spread out on the grass, the top part directed toward the Omo valley (where the Me'en originated)… The reading began. Although Onyai was the person responsible for the proper reading, the interpretation of what the entrails might say was a collective, dialogic one: Onyai made a suggestion, to which the other male adults present responded. (712)

The reading then proceeded with Onyai pointing out features of the intestine, such as the presence of spots of various colors, and asking questions of the audience (712). Just as written language is anchored in the physical properties of scripts and letters, divinatory discourse “and its emergent meaning” are anchored “in the regular physical properties of the entrails: spots on parts like the jejunum, the ileum, the caecum, on the mucous membrane or the colon ascendens… and whether shades such as red, yellow or black always mean something. Irregular lines and clots in the bloodvessels… and connecting parts… are similarly examined for clues of relevance.” (710) Though “no clear or conclusive interpretation was made by Onyai” Abbink suggest that “this reading session was effective and got its sobering message across” – that the woman would die – since “through his displacement strategy Onyai's comments gave evidence of an informative intention which hearers (guided by the principle of relevance) tried to make sense of in receiving the entrails’ message.” (713) As seen in this example, during a divination ceremony the principle of relevance or principle of charity is limited by the ‘mere event’ of text or diviner (see also Zeitlyn 1990, 655). That is, divination is a case of “supply-side” communication, where the diviner or author makes statements

ambiguous enough for the hearer to supply his own relevance. The art is to balance the specificity of content with enough interpretive space for the hearer or hearers to supply their own “relevance”/“theory”. In some cases the divination technique can speak for itself, needing little interpretation from the diviner. In other cases more interpretation is called for. Divination thus balances mechanism and interpretation in addition to content and ambiguity. From a relevance theory perspective a successful diviner would be one who tends to maximize relevance. That is, an artist who maximizes the contextual implications of his reading while minimizing the cognitive efforts of his hearers. From Davidson’s perspective the practice of divination, as with any form of communication, can never be formalized but rather involves the sharing of passing theories. We may also pose a pseudo-communicative interaction between diviners and postulated superhuman agents. In normal conversation we coordinate with others by calling attention to objects and events. In normal conversation we don’t generally think that objects and events, such as dark spots in a goat’s small intestine, are put in our cognitive environment by superhuman agents as communicative signs. So unlike the case of two people in conversation, the diviner interprets objects or events to be put in the world as bearers of information, as the focus of attention. In the case of mechanical divination there is both an institutionalized process of interpretation that forms the background, and an art of reading signs. The diviner may actually believe that the first object he looks at will provide the means of his interpretation (see Guillaume 1938, 120). In this case, there is a principle of relevance at work whereby the diviner expects the object to be relevant. The diviner thus regards superhuman agents to be making manifest some object in the diviner’s cognitive environment. This object will have ramifications for the postulated mutually manifest environment, or in Davidson’s terminology the objects and events incorporated in the projected passing theory, between the diviner and the

superhuman agents. While in most forms of communication people assume that much of their own cognitive environment or prior theory is not available to the hearer, in the case of divination the diviner supposedly has access to greater degrees of that environment, the degree depending on what superhuman agent the diviner supposedly mediates. But the relevance of any particular sign will only be determined in the course of the interaction between the diviner and the human consulter or consulters. The interpretation or utterance offered is thus subject to a second real round of relevance, whereby the consulter interprets the new cognitive and physical environment established by the diviner.125 Good diviners are thus more skilled at recognizing and manipulating these cognitive environments, a practice encouraged by appeal to divinatory technologies, which can change the cognitive environment. The diviner thus makes appeal to superhuman agents in order to involve unconventional objects in the shared cognitive environment. By directing attention at the mechanical technology of divination the diviner can offload the interpretive resources, allowing communication to extend to the environment as a whole. In sum, the same communicative or mentalizing principles (discussed above) are in place, but they are modified in the context of divination. In divination systems, attention is directed at objects and events in the environment. These objects and events are mutually manifest, shared, or objects in triangulation. The consulter understands that these objects and events are invested with a superhuman intentionality. Movement is meant to give her some insight into some design or desire. The content of divinatory communication is explained partly by the fact that people desire a diviner’s utterances to be relevant. Thus the interests (the propositions desired, the objects desired)


I would argue that in Abbink’s example (note 29), this ‘real’ round takes place after the woman’s death. The diviner was successful in part because the participants believe that the divination ritual predicted her death.

take a central place in divinatory communication. The interests (a relation between desire and an object) and beliefs (propositions held true) together provide the meaning of the utterances. Finally, the notion of pattern is of crucial concern in divination, for the very process of focusing on an interpretation is one of pattern recognition. Patterns – of both events or attitudes like belief, and objects, like dice, stars, or spots – provide the code on which the pragmatic interpretation is based. For Davidson, the recognition of an underlying pattern behind someone’s beliefs and practices is the initial step in the theory, while for RT it is the recognition of a set of assumptions that are made manifest through communicative behavior.

Domestication of Divination
In some cases, by virtue of ‘charisma’, institutional apparatus, or rhetorical skill there is excessive cognitive processing over a text or a diviner; in these cases opaque utterances often become subject to excessive reflection. Literate environments especially tend to produce excessive reflection on utterances, though such reflection may take place in non-literate environments, for example in the Vedic case, due to sophisticated ritual technologies. Davidson’s theory and Relevance theory have been applied to both spoken communication and textual interpretation. 126 The analysis of sacred text, from the perspective of Relevance theory’s cost-benefit approach, would seem to be a useless expenditure of time and energy. Wilson and Sperber explain this by the fact that the number and quality of the implications of interpretation can outweigh the time dedicated to achieving them (Sperber and Wilson, 77). I suggest that the Biblical text is the paradigmatic case of what Sperber and Wilson refer to, in the above context, as the “overprocessing” of a text (77). That is, both sacred texts and divination are cases where the relevance is artificially high as a result of context surrounding these interpretive processes.


See note 11.

Though there is little empirical research studying the effects of literacy on mentalizing abilities127, I argue that the five communicative principles found in the comparison of RT and DT undergo changes in the context of written communication (reading and writing) to varying degrees depending on the media, methods, and institutions involved in the process. First, texts take on communicative intentions that are displaced across time and space. Second, new objects and events are recognized in the mutual environment or in triangulation, for example, graphic representations of language such as letters or graphemes, or morphological rules that become the basis of grammatical reflection. Third, through joint attention these objects and events become part of the content of communication. Fourth, these new objects are understood in the context of new theories and their implied interests and ontologies. 128 Fifth, obviously reading is an entirely new paradigm of communicative pattern recognition. Literate communication will also substantially change what Wilson and Sperber refer to as cognitive efficiency. Reading and writing put different physiological constraints on communication to which communicators must adapt. (See Schribner and Cole, 203, 237 and Levy 2005, 220)

Writing and Prophecy
There are no studies of ‘theory of mind’ or mentalizing in the Hebrew Bible; the closest is probably Wolff’s (1996). Based on the preliminary conclusions above, however, we may say that in scribal traditions superhuman agents, too, are subject to a different focus, the focus of “literary minds.”

In a personal correspondence Simon Baron-Cohen also confirms he knows of no studies examining the relation between autism or mentalizing and literacy (October, 2005). There are, however, a few meager empirical studies on this issue such as Frith’s brief discussion of autism and written language (Frith 2003). She claims that autistic people who can read 1) tend to prefer written communication over face-to-face contact, 2) tend not to read for overall meaning, paying more attention to individual words (125-126). She notes a study she carried out on this topic (Snowling and Frith 1986). See also a whole volume dedicated to autism and literacy (Butler 2003). Three recent dissertations discuss the relation between theory of mind and literacy more explicitly (Knotek 1996; Anderson 1998; Holman 2004). See also three studies on the effects of literacy on the functional organization of the brain (Castro-Caldas et al. 1998; Morais and Kolinsky 2000; Petersson et. al. 2001). 128 Learning to read or write should thus be understood as contributing or constituting a change in theory of the kind Gopnik and Melzoff (1997) discuss. They argue that children’s theories are directly analogous to scientific theories. A change in theory is like a quantum leap that implies a new ontology.

Their texts are second order reflections on folk systems of the day. In the case of the colonized scribal culture responsible for the Biblical text, they found it necessary to implement, or at the very least retain, a ban against most forms of magic, but especially that of divination. At the same time, prophecy comes to ascendancy. 129 The difference between these two related forms of divination is not always clear. Biblical prophecy accepts the presence of multiple superhuman agents with whom diviners may mediate, but these agents’ mediation leads to falsities. In contrast, the Judean god who goes by many different names is represented as leading to truths. This arrangement brings content to the late Biblical interest in distinguishing between true and false prophecy, or prophecy and divination; for example, in the book of Jeremiah. In my view, the central difference concerns precisely the suite of theory of mind concepts discussed above that change in the context of robust literacy and literary practice. These men saw no value in divination, the then dominant and competing theory of mindreading. The distinction between divination and prophecy thus concerns the fact that prophetic books are the result of a scribal community. Though there are some problems with his approach because he falls into many of the traps the Schribner and Cole mention (see 9-13), Ilkka Pyysiainen (1999)

Karel van der Toorn (2000) notes a similar process in Babylonia. While the concept of Biblical prophecy is a unique invention, “domestication” via writing is not unique to Biblical Israel. For example, in an article on Mesopotamian prophecy, van der Toorn (2000) contrasts Old Babylonian (1800-1200 BCE) ‘prophecy’ with Neo-Assyrian (1200-600 BCE) ‘prophecy’. He finds four major differences in ‘prophecy’ between the two periods. The first contrast concerns, “the purpose of the written record of prophetic oracles.” (72) In the older period, writing was not used as a means of preservation, “but as an aid in communication of the prophetic message on a synchronic level,” while in the more recent period, tablets were written “for archival storage and reference purposes,” and were dissociated from their “immediate historical contexts thus “whereas Old Babylonian prophecy is punctual… Neo-Assyrian prophecy is durative.” (77) The second contrast concerns, “the perception of the person of the prophet or prophetess.” (72) Old Babylonian prophets tended to be anonymous, while Neo-Assyrian prophets were never so. Relatedly, while the Old Babylonian prophets could be “connected to the cults of a variety of gods” the great majority of Neo-Assyrian prophets were connected to the goddess Ishtar. The third contrast concerns, “the cultic context of prophecy.” (72) While Old Babylonian prophecy only took place in temples and sanctuaries, in the Neo-Assyrian case “the collection tablets contain no indication where the oracles were first delivered.” (82) The Neo-Assyrian prophets need not have been in the presence of the divine image to prophesy. The final contrast concerns, “the way in which the prophecies depict the intervention of the gods.” (72) While Old Babylonian “gods secure the success of the king with their presence on earth, the Neo-Assyrian deities influence… by an intervention from heaven.” (84) That is, in the former case, “gods accompanied the royal army in the form of images and other visible forms,” with weapons even seen as objects of worship. (85) In the latter, a cosmic force from heaven intervenes in military affairs. Note the similar trends that Shloen describes, see note 8.

has recently theorized some relevant cognitive and conceptual changes that religion undergoes once the technology of writing is available. Writing allows for an “external memory store” (Sperber 1996a, 74-75; Boyer 2001, 321), providing us “with a powerful extension of our cognitive capacities.” (Pyysiainen, 278) In general, writing and literacy “introduce in religious specialists a more urgent need for theoretical coherence because the whole of the tradition can be more easily accessed in written form.” 130 (282) Pyysianien further enumerates a series of overlapping ramifications as a result of the technology. Among these are that a focus on religion as such is a literary artifact (271); that religions may become deterritorialized as a result of this greater degree of abstraction; that circular reasoning becomes inevitable; that radically counter-intuitive ideas which would normally be forgotten are “stored” by virtue of the technology (281). 131 Whereas a biological mechanism allows minorly counter-intuitive beliefs a greater propensity to be remembered (Boyer


Thus access is what differentiates the memorization technology that allowed for the Vedas and the writing technology that allowed for the Bible. For a critique of Goody for his lack of accounting for the Vedas, see (Holdrege 1994, 413-420). 131 Giddens (1984) also emphasizes storage technology in his comparison of “allocative” or material resources and “authoritative” resources. He points out that “in oral cultures memory is virtually the sole repository of information storage,” yet “memory (or recall) is to be understood not only in relation to the psychological qualities of individual agents but also as inhering in the recursiveness of institutional reproduction.” (261) For Giddens “storage presumes modes of space-time control” and involves “the retention and control of information or knowledge whereby social relations are perpetuated across time-space. Storage presumes media of information representation, modes of information retrieval or recall and, as with all power resources, modes of its dissemination… The character of the information medium… directly influences the nature of the social relations which it helps to organize.” Writing, “the prime mode of the collation and storage of information in class-divided societies,” thus marks “a radical disjuncture in history,” not only on account of storage technology but also “because the nature of ‘tradition’ becomes altered, changing the sense in which human beings live ‘in’ history,” for example in pre-Ch’in China. Thus, for Giddens, “the introduction of writing means that tradition becomes visible as tradition, a specific way, among others, of doing things,” thereby becoming open to “interrogation.” (201) See Giddens (1984) 200-201, 260-261. Note that Giddens (1984) has a monolithic conception of “writing” as a blanket phenomenon; it is not situated in any way, though his approach (structuration theory) does not in general run counter the idea of situated or embodied literacies.

2001)132, it is artificial technology that allows for the storage of radically counter-intuitive ideas.133 By way of conclusion, I add another. In literate religion, written technology isolates and affects folk psychology, especially semantic concepts associated with mentalizing abilities (theory of mind). Literate religion is parasitic on non-literate forms to the extent that literate religion takes advantage of mentalizing mechanisms common to all religions. The basis of literate religion’s comparative advantage over non-literate religion (divination), however, concerns the positing of new objects and events for second-order intersubjective reflection, such as propositions (davar in Hebrew, logos in Greek) or intentions. A text, unlike the natural environment or the organs of dead animals, actually does say something. This difference partly explains how the sacred text can serve as the mind of a god; for, in literate religions, texts become superhuman agents. I thus suggest that the polemic against divination in the Hebrew Bible, which claims that divination is empty or meaningless, is a form of hermeneutic competition. After presenting some preliminary arguments, I have compared Davidson and Wilson and Sperber’s principles of communication, shown the changes these undergo in the context of literate


Boyer’s brief comments about literate religion are helpful, though superficial (Boyer 2001, 270ff.). Boyer accepts a rather untutored view of literacy. He thinks literacy is an essential part of “organized” religion and “theology”, though he thinks the origin of “religious guilds” is a result of both literacy and complex polities, which are “naturally intertwined.” He thinks literate guilds competed with localized “illiterate” religions. Boyer argues further that literate religious guilds “offer account of gods and spirits that is generally integrated (most elements hand together and cross reference one another), apparently deductive (you can infer the guild’s position on a whole variety of situations by considering the general principles) and stable (you get the same message from all members of the guild).” (278) 133 Specifically the differences are as follows. First, and primarily, literacy allows for a different focus on religion; in fact, the very idea of religion is a literary artifact (271). Second, access to the whole of tradition at once allows for a greater degree of coherence and complexity (270). Third, religions may become deterritorialized as a result of this greater degree of abstraction; that is, “the territorial boundaries defining ethnic religion are replaced in literate religions by the conceptual boundaries provided by the ‘portable fatherland.’ (272) Fourth, circular reasoning becomes inevitable because texts come to serve as their own foundation (272). Fifth, practical reasoning tends to be replaced by theoretical reasoning (275). In part because, sixth, “half-understood information” may be more easily “stored in memory” as written artifact. In this way literate religion (that is, theology) and science are similar because they deal with this type of information. (275) Theology becomes a form of artificial communication. Seventh, the storage of partial or incomplete information allows for the ‘guru’ or ‘mystery’ effect (See also http://www.dan.sperber.com/guru.htm) whereby people accept certain statements even when they contradict with folk experiences, based on the authority of texts. Mysteries are then cognitively “quarantined” until they can potentially be resolved, but are nevertheless operative. Eighth, radically counter-intuitive ideas which would normally be forgotten are thereby “stored” by virtue of the technology (281).

environments, and argued that these differences help us understand the polemic against divination in the Hebrew Bible. The conditions of access to reading and writing and their distribution in a population may account for the polemic against divination in the sense that writing leads to changes in ‘theory of mind’, which is the center of gravity of the polemic. My argument is only preliminary because there is little research on the effects of literacy on ‘theory of mind’, and no research on ‘theory of mind’ within the Hebrew Bible (and by extension within the polemic). Further research is thus in order, especially that which would correlate the polemic more explicitly with the effects of writing on the five principles of communication: intention, interest, content, attention, and pattern recognition.134


I would like to thank a number of people who helped me at various stages of this paper. They are: Giles Gunn, Randall Garr, Barbara Holdrege, Roger Friedland, Peter Westh, Anders Lisdorf, Kirstene Munk, Maria Aamand, Niels Peter Lemche, Michael Levy, Robert Corby Kelly, William Robert, Finbarr Curtis, Vincent Biondo, and John Lardas. I would also like to thank the Jacob K. Javits Foundation for funding my research over the past few years.

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The Rhetoric of Unveiling:
A Comparative Approach to Divination Ancient and Modern
Jørgen Podemann Sørensen

In two earlier papers on ritual, in general I argued that the basic formal and rhetorical property of ritual is its postulated efficacy (Podemann Sørensen 1993, 2003, 2006). A ritual may consist in the mere verbal postulate that this (i.e., the recitation of the postulate itself) is the act that accomplishes the purpose stated. In a late nineteenth century Danish healing spell, the sentence “I command you not to run any more!” was once considered sufficient to stop the bleeding of a wound.135 Such minimal rituals, however, are extremely rare. It is well known that most rituals mobilise considerable rhetorical apparatus to support their efficacy claims: mythical exemplars may serve to situate the ritual act in a primeval context and thus render it creative, liminal symbolism may suggest the almost primeval receptivity or even the not-yet-existence of the ritual object, ritual texts may implicitly dramatise communication with superhuman agencies etc. But all these situating elements are nothing but rhetorical elaborations of the basic postulate: this act works. Divination is certainly part of the general field of ritualistics, and in a manner analogous to what we suggest for ritual in general; the basis of a rhetoric of divination is the postulate that the unpredictable is hereby predicted on the basis of something even more unpredictable: the flight of birds, the work of parasites in a sheep’s liver, or random numbers or combinations of yarrow stalks, palm nuts or cards. Military decisions of the Roman consuls had to be based on the appetite of certain chickens. No professional judgement was allowed to outdo the verdict of the holy chickens, and the most powerful army in the world had to stay at home if the chickens would not eat. 136 This is not only a very strange and perhaps counter-intuitive rule: it also claims a competence for the diviner very much like the gross postulates we have found in ritual. The diviner who claims that he sees the prospects for a military undertaking by watching chickens is as pretentious as the ritual healer who claims to stop bleeding without any active handling of the wound, i.e., through words and symbols alone. Just as any ritual claims efficacy for itself, the basic postulate in an act of divination is that, without really interfering with the matter in hand, this act
135 136

Cf. Ohrt no. 165. Dumézil (1966: 571-572); cf. Cic. De Div. (I: 15; II: 34); Liv. (X: 40).

unveils its cause, true significance and/or prospects. We shall now examine some of the ways in which this basic postulate may be rhetorically elaborated. 137 The mere stochastic procedure, the element of randomness involved in the act of divination, thus may be viewed as basic to the rhetoric of divination, since it implicitly postulates that this investigation of something unpredictable will provide the key to the true nature or the prospects of the matter in hand. For the further rhetorical elaborations, however, we must consider some examples. Up until today, movements and groupings on the fringes of the Protestant churches of northern Europe have used so-called manna-grains: small pieces of paper with printed numbers of biblical chapters and verses, e.g., Gen. 15, 6. The user draws a number from the collection and looks it up in his/her Bible. 138 The verse concerned will then be God’s answer to the specific question the user had in mind – or God’s choice of a suitable text for that day’s devotional reading. The biblical passage will then have to be interpreted as relevant to the user’s situation. This ritual, stochastic approach to the Bible, in which luck, fate or God chooses the text, makes for the relevance of the text and legitimates an interpretation at a very high level of abstraction or even an allegorical reading of the text. At least in principle, a structurally very similar procedure is used in consulting one of the world’s most famous books of divination: the Chinese classic Yijing. The book as we know it today is the product of more than two millennia of elaboration and refinement, but the elementary features of the divination procedure and the system of divination it codifies date back as early as 1000 BCE. The classical method of consulting the Yijing consists in a play with 50 yarrow stalks. According to specific rules, the diviner divides, draws and counts these stalks in order to arrive at numerical combinations that will generate either an unbroken or a broken line in a hexagram. To create a hexagram, the experiment must be carried out six times. Each of the 64 possible hexagrams has a chapter of its own in the Yijing. When the problem or the question has been carefully stated, the diviner takes the 50 yarrow stalks, returns one to its case and quickly divides the remaining 49 into two heaps. Removing one stick from the left heap, he puts it between the fingers of his left hand and goes on to remove stalks from the left heap, 4 by 4, until four or less are left. This remainder of the left heap he puts between the fingers of his left hand and repeats the same procedure with the right heap. The

For surveys of divinatory systems worldwide: cf. Loewe & Blacker (1981), Caquot & Leibovici (1968); Africa: Peek (1991); the ancient world: Johnston (2004: 370-391). 138 On manna-grains in Denmark, cf. Balle-Petersen (1982). Today, it is possible to draw manna-grains on the internet: http://www.hapasu.dk/mannakorn/mannakorn.htm.

entire content of the left hand (either 5 or 9 stalks) is then put aside in a new heap, and the whole procedure is repeated twice with the remaining stalks (40 or 44 stalks); both of the resulting two heaps will be 4 or 8 stalks. In this way, three ‘left hand’ heaps (5 or 9 + 4 or 8 + 4 or 8) are the outcome of three experiments. The numerical combination created by the number of sticks in each of the three heaps will then generate the bottom line in a hexagram; e.g., 9 + 8 + 4 will generate an unbroken yang-line, while 5 + 8 + 4 will result in a broken yin-line. In order to obtain a full hexagram, the procedure must be repeated six times. The procedure seems rather complicated when described, but the skilled diviner is able to perform it quickly and elegantly. Of particular significance are the combinations 5 + 4 + 4 (conventionally called ‘nine’) and 9 + 8 + 8 (conventionally called ‘six’). ‘Nine’ generates what is called an old yang-line, while ‘six’ produces an old yin-line. Traditional Chinese cosmology regards the world as a constant process of generation and regeneration, in which everything is on its way to being completely reversed. Accordingly, an ‘old’ line is a line that is close to regeneration and reversal. Young lines in a hexagram have their straightforward meanings, but an old yang-line must be interpreted as close to becoming a yin-line and vice versa. When interpreting in such cases, the diviner may refer to the hexagram that would have ensued if the yang-line had been a yin-line. The text of each chapter of the Yijing includes a general proverbial interpretation of its hexagram. This is followed by a section indicating the modifications caused by ‘old’ lines. An example may give an idea of the chapters and the way they may be used. Originally, the hexagrams were often interpreted as images. Thus hexagram no. 50, ting, is interpreted as a sacrificial vessel, probably one of the huge, square bronze vessels on four legs. A ‘six’ in the bottom line will imply that the broken line (the legs of the vessel) is in the process of becoming an unbroken yang-line. This in turn could be interpreted as the sacrificial vessel turned upside down, either in a destructive act of sacrilege or in the more positive act of ridding it of decaying remnants of meat. The pertinent text of the chapter is as follows:
Initial Six: The cauldron’s upturned legs; Beneficial [to expel] the bad; Getting a consort together with her son; There is no trouble. (Yijing Trsl. Shaughnessy 1996: 149)

Overturning an important sacrificial object might seem rather provocative, but the obvious proverbial sense is that there are times and situations in which this overturning is exactly the right thing to do. The following proverb confirms this generalising interpretation: to take a concubine might seem a voluptuous extravagance, but when it is done in order to gain an heir, it is perfectly legitimate and commendable. As a basis for decisions, both proverbs favour the idea that one should do what is truly necessary and constructive, disregarding superficial indignation. Another possible source of meaning when interpreting the Yijing is the fact that all 64 hexagrams are combinations of two out of eight possible trigrams. The trigrams make up a complete cosmology or a system of classification; they denote heaven and earth, fire and water, the corners of the world, family relations etc. Hexagram no. 50 thus may be read as fire over wood. Combining this with the interpretation denoting a sacrificial vessel suggests the important and pious activity of cooking meat for sacrifice. The pious, wise man who sacrifices is also morally a model of good behaviour, and on that basis the skilled diviner may phrase a lot of pertinent admonitions concerning the problem at hand. 139 It is obvious that the complicated procedure employed to create a hexagram and probably the hexagram itself, as an enigmatic, non-linguistic sign, make for a good deal of basic rhetoric of unveiling. To the specialist, it may all become routine – although probably never an entirely conspicuous routine. But the person who consults the specialist and his book will certainly experience an act of unveiling: from stochastic procedures through calculations to a non-linguistic and non-pictorial sign, the hexagram, which nevertheless is interpreted somehow as a picture or symbol and thus changed into a linguistic sign. These linguistic signs, i.e., the texts of the chapters, thus may be seen as further elaborations of the rhetoric involved in the divinatory procedure. The final divinatory result, however, is reached in an interpretation of proverbial and exemplar texts in the context of the problem stated at the outset. As noted in the case of the manna-grains, the interpretation has authority because it is based on sacred scripture, but also because the particular text it interprets is the choice of chance, fate, ‘change’, i.e., the eternal, regenerative rhythm of nature in Chinese dynamic cosmology, or God. The point in common is that the exemplar text is not the choice of the diviner, but a matter of agencies beyond human control. While the manna-grains refer to a text also taken to be normative in other contexts, namely the Bible, the text of Yijing is only designed for use in the context of divination. In this respect, Yijing divination is more like the divinatory systems we know from West Africa. The difference,

For the classical Yijing divination procedure, I rely on the instructive description in Blofeld (1969: 59-78).

however, is not necessarily a fundamental one; both the Yijing and West African divinatory lore are rich in proverbs, rules of conduct and exemplar narratives. In West Africa, a divination system very similar to the Yijing has survived till today as oral tradition among the Yoruba, who call it Ifa, and the Fon, who call it Fa.140 In both languages, this word has three meanings: an abstract idea of fate, a god and a kind of divination. The Fa or Ifa specialist, the bokonon of the Fon and the babalawo of the Yoruba, is consulted regarding many different matters: at the beginning of planting and harvest, when new land is brought under cultivation, in fact, at the beginning of any important undertaking. This form of divination is also used in order to decide whether land should be abandoned or sacrifices made to secure a better outcome, or whether old or new customs should be followed. Most often, however, the decision made is about some sacrifice that the client must conduct in order to succeed in the matter in hand. In outline, the procedure is as follows. The diviner places 16 palm nuts in his right hand. While holding the nuts, he puts his right hand on the palm of his left hand and loosens his grip a little. One or two nuts will fall out; if one, he will note this with two lines in a tray of sand; if two, he will draw only one line. This experiment is repeated eight times and results in what might be called an octogram. Like the Chinese hexagram, it is a nonlinguistic, nonpictorial sign, consisting of eight units as shown below:

It is important to note that two palm nuts result in one line in the sand, while one nut results in two lines, as if to avoid any pictorial or linguistic character in the octogram. Both in the Yijing and in Ifa-divination, this non-linguistic, non-pictorial intermediary between the act and the text is an important element in the rhetoric of unveiling. It makes for a continuous process of metamorphosis of the sign from the first experiment to the linguistic level in the text and its interpretation. For each of the 256 possible octograms of the Ifa-system there is a corresponding set of texts, which the diviner knows by heart. Unlike the Yijing, these texts are exemplar narratives, often myths, in which a person seeks divination, receives instructions for sacrifice, carries them out

Yoruba, cf. Bascom (1969); other Nigerian systems, cf. Danfulani (1995); Fon, cf. Herskovits & Herskovits (1933: 51ff.); Herskovits (1938, II: 201ff).

and succeeds in his plans or has unexpected luck. In this way the odu, the recited text, prescribes also the sacrifices to be made by the client. Among the Fon of Dahomey (now Benin), it is possible to show the intimate bonds between divination and worldview (Herskovits & Herskovits 1933: 51-55). Fa is an irresistible fate, laid down from the very beginning as the foundation of the world by the creator god Mawu. In the words of a bokonon: “Fa is the writing of Mawu,” i.e., the fixed destiny of everything and everyone (Herskovits 1938, II: 201) . This rather stern belief in fate and predestination is balanced by the idea of Legba the trickster, the youngest and the most spoilt child of Mawu. Legba serves as a mediator between Mawu and the world and between humans and Fa. Along with holding this important position, however, he is very much an outlaw who may turn everything upside down, even in the relation between humans and Fa (Herskovits 1938, II: 203). A more thorough comparison of the systems of divination described till now is bound to reveal a number of differences. Is it at all possible to think of anything more different than 16 palm nuts, 50 yarrow stalks and lots of small pieces of paper? Or the vertical lines in the sand of a West African diviner’s tray, the horizontal lines of the hexagrams, and the printed letters and numbers of manna-grains? Or the texts to which these lines and numbers refer: African myths of animals, gods and humans, extremely abstract Chinese sayings, and biblical narratives, admonitions and sermons? But to list the differences is also to uncover the structural similarity. There is an experiment; in all three instances, this is a kind of stochastic procedure. The outcome of this experiment is a line or number code that refers to an exemplar text, i.e., a text to be used as a model or at least as a point of departure for the decision concerning the matter in hand. Because this text has been produced or identified through the experiment, it is taken to be relevant and valid in the situation of the client. Accordingly, it may be interpreted ad hoc, i.e., as addressing the issue at hand. These considerations already imply a model for the analysis of divination as a process, a model that may serve as our professional checklist in the study of any future systems of divination. As production and interpretation of signs, divination involves a process of metamorphosis, in which the sign originally produced or observed is transformed into authoritative and useful speech. This process includes:
1) an act of experimentation or observation, 2) an exemplar text, and 3) an interpretation of this text as applied to the particular case.

The act produces the text or some key to identify it in a book or a body of oral tradition, and the text provides the key to the true understanding or prospects of the particular case. Accordingly, the text must somehow be privileged, authoritative speech, and the rhetoric we are searching for will be a rhetoric that serves to establish such an authority for the text. Elements of rhetoric, or elements that situate the text as authoritative, may be found in the text itself and/or in the act that produced it. We may thus conceive of our investigation as (1) the rhetoric of the act and (2) the rhetoric of the text. Since the continuity of the process – from the production of the original sign, through its metamorphosis, to its final interpretation and application to the case in hand – is an indispensable part of divinatory rhetoric, we should also consider (3) the rhetoric of interpretation. But before discussing these three points more thoroughly, we need to consider two further, slightly more complex forms of divination. As we shall see, this will serve not only to test the model outlined above, but also to deepen our understanding of the subtle ways in which rhetorical continuity between its three levels may be established.

The Delphic Oracle
In the world of classical antiquity, if ever there was a truly privileged situation of speech, it must have been that of Pythia on her tripod in the adyton of Apollo’s temple in Delphi, predicting – and thereby producing – the future. Greek literature is full of evidence of this oracle’s high reputation, evident in neighbouring countries as well. But how exactly is the ritual setting of this authoritative position to be understood? Obviously, the oracular procedure had something of the critical and dangerous character often found in ritual; to consult the oracle, a preliminary sacrifice was necessary. When the libation was poured over the lamb, it would quiver to indicate that the oracle was ready for consultation. Plutarch, who was a priest at Delphi, reports that once when the lamb had been forced to give its consent by excessive amounts of water, Pythia was struck with a dangerous rage, threw herself down, and died a few days later. 141 After the initial sacrifice of the lamb, Pythia would take her seat in the adyton of the temple in order to give oracles. We understand from paintings and texts that her seat was on a high tripod. Clients waited for their answers in a place very close to the adyton, and they probably were able to hear what Pythia said and perhaps even to see her. It is not known how the question was put before the oracle, and although quite a number of more or less authentic answers are known, we cannot claim to know precisely how the answer was delivered. It

Plutarch, Moralia 438 B-C.

has been suggested that Pythia gave the answers in a state of ecstasy or trance; this is certainly conceivable, even though neither gases from the earth, of which some sources make mention, nor the laurel leaves she perhaps chewed are known to produce such an altered state of consciousness. It has also been suggested that Pythia uttered incomprehensible sounds, which were then rendered into human speech by oracular personnel, originally in verse, but later, according to Plutarch (Moralia V, 394 D ff.), in prose. On the basis of the extant sources, it is perfectly possible to assume that Pythia did deliver the answers herself, in verse or prose.

The – more or less authentic – oracular responses that have been preserved leave the impression that the wording of such an oracle had to be interpreted in view of the client’s situation. As is well known, the oracles of antiquity were generally thought to give obscure or ambiguous answers, the true meaning of which would often be unveiled only through later events. Most probably, this suggests that the answers were exemplar texts, useful only when considered in conjunction with the matter in hand and interpreted ad hoc. These basic considerations of a few generally acknowledged facts allow the conclusion that the divinatory process at Delphi may be understood in terms of the model we have established: the act of divination consists in Pythia taking her seat on the tripod as Apollo’s mouthpiece in the adyton of the temple. This act produces an exemplar text: the more or less obscure oracular answer, which becomes useful only in an interpretation ad hoc. In order to understand the logic – and the rhetoric – of this divinatory process, however, we must consider more closely the mythology of the oracle. The Greek myth of Apollo who kills the giant snake Pytho, like other Greek myths, is extant in a number of different versions. The mythographer Apollodorus (1st century CE) explains that Apollo, while he was Pan’s apprentice in mantics, once went to Delphi. At that time, Themis gave oracles at Delphi, and the very seat of oracles was that chasma tês gês, ‘earthopening’, also mentioned in other sources, guarded by a snake called Pytho. Apollo killed the snake and took possession of the oracle. 143 Hyginus (2nd century CE) considers Pytho, a giant dragon, to be the original possessor of the oracle. Pytho had pursued Apollo’s mother Leto, because of a prophecy that a son of hers would become his fate. On the fourth day after his birth, Apollo hastens to Delphi and kills Pytho in revenge for his mother’s sufferings. He collects the bones of the dragon and keeps them in a receptacle in his temple. 144

Maurizio (1995: 69-86). A general survey of sources and opinions concerning the oracular procedure: Parke & Wormell (1956, I: 17-45); Rosenberger (2001: 48-64). 143 Apollodorus, Bibl. (I, 4, 1). 144 Hyginus, Fabula (140).

It is, however, the oldest version of the myth, that of the Homeric Hymn to Apollo (7th century BCE), that indicates how the killing of the dragon is relevant for the oracle. It describes how Apollo, looking for a suitable place for his oracle, arrives at Delphi and founds his temple there:
Near it there was a fair-flowing spring, where the lord, son of Zeus, with his mighty bow, killed a she-dragon, a great, glutted and fierce monster, which inflicted many evils on the men of the land – many on them and many on their slender-shanked sheep; for she was bloodthirsty. (Hymn Hom Ap. 300-304)

At this point, the myth of Hera who brings her titanic offspring, Typhaon, to the dragon, “pairing evil with evil,” is told. The myth then goes on to relate how Apollo killed Pytho:
…she brought their day of doom to those who met her, until the lord far-shooting Apollon shot her with a mighty arrow; rent with insufferable pains, she lay panting fiercely and writhing on the ground. The din was ineffably awesome, and throughout the forest she was rapidly thrusting her coils hither and thither; with a gasp she breathed out her gory soul, while Phoibos Apollon boasted: “Rot now right here on the man-nourishing earth; you shall not ever again be an evil bane for living men who eat the fruit of the earth that nurtures many and will bring to this place unblemished hecatombs, not shall Typhoeus or ill-famed Chimaira ward off woeful death for you, but right here the black earth and the flaming sun will make you rot.”( ibid. 356-369)

Very far from the chat spin of the mythographers, Pytho appears in the Homeric Hymn as a proper chaotic being, and Apollo’s deed is presented exclusively as an act that liberates men from a terrible threat, inimical to life and society. In his speech to the dying monster, the first and the last emphasis is on the snake rotting away on the soil. This point is obviously very important, for it is repeated twice in the lines that end the episode:

And the holy fury of Helios made her rot away; hence the place is now called Pytho, and people call the lord by the name of Pytheios, because on that spot the fury of piercing Helios made the monster rot away. ( ibid. 371-374)

This Pythian version of the myth has a close parallel in the Vedic Indian myth of Indra killing the giant snake Vritra. 145 Not only are they variants of the Indo-European myth of a dragon killed by a warlike god, but putrefaction has an important role in both of them. When Indra had killed Vritra, it is told, the gods rushed to the place of his deed, but Vritra was already in an advanced state of putrefaction. According to the Satapatha Brahmana (4,1,4,10), he was not suitable for sacrifice nor for drinking. The idea of drinking Vritra makes sense only because Soma, the ritual intoxicating drink of Vedic India, is regularly identified with (or sacramentally construed as) Vritra. Thus, the squeezing of the soma plant is construed as Indra killing Vritra, and the soma drink itself is either Vritra or an outflow of Vritra (Buschardt 1945: 117-118). In the Satapatha Brahmana, Vayu, the god of the wind, had to vent the carcass a couple of times before Vritra or the rotten outflow of Vritra was transmuted into the tasty ritual soma drink that makes for so many blessings: religious insights, riches, immortality. 146 Thus in India, the valuable and important ritual substance, the soma drink, has its origin in the very monster that had to be killed in order to defeat chaos and establish the cosmos, and the process leading from original chaos to cosmic order is a matter of stench and putrefaction refined into tastiness and blessings. The structural resemblance of the two myths leaves no doubt that they were genetically related; but what was the role of smell and putrefaction in the Delphic myth? Plutarch147, who as a priest in Delphi must have had local knowledge, mentions a delightful scent sometimes noticed by clients and apparently issuing from the adyton of the temple. Since, as we have already noted, the oracle did not always work, Plutarch suggests that this vernal scent would be present on days when it did work, i.e., when it would be possible for Pythia to give oracular responses. In spite of his professional relations with the oracle, his interest in it as a writer is much more a matter of natural philosophy. Thus, one of the explanations he suggests is that heat or some other energy is the cause of the waxing and waning power of the oracle as well as the vernal scent.
145 146

Rigveda (I: 32; II: 12). cf., e.g., Rigveda (8,48). 147 Plutarch, Moralia (437 C).

This kind of interest is typical of the late sources. Although often convinced of the extraordinary or even the supernatural powers at work in Delphi, they give priority to physical and technical explanations. Diodorus Siculus, who wrote his work of history 60-30 BCE, gives the following account of the origin of the oracle:
There is a chasm at this place where now is situated what is known as the "forbidden" sanctuary, and as goats had been wont to feed about this because Delphi had not as yet been settled, invariably any goat that approached the chasm and peered into it would leap about in an extraordinary fashion and utter a sound quite different from what it was formerly wont to emit. (Diod. Sic. 16, 26, 2)

That was the beginning of the Delphic oracle; soon, however, the herdsman of the goats and others discovered that mantic gifts were acquired by approaching the chasm. The rest was a matter of institutionalisation:

But later, since many were leaping down into the chasm under the influence of their frenzy and all disappeared, it seemed best to the dwellers in that region, in order to eliminate the risk, to station one woman there as a single prophetess for all and to have the oracles told through her. And for her a contrivance was devised which she could safely mount, then become inspired and give prophecies to those who so desired. [5] And this contrivance has three supports and hence was called a tripod … (Diod. Sic. 16, 26, 4-5)

Diodorus describes the origin of the oracle as a local epiphany, and the whole oracular institution, Pythia and the tripod are seen as the practical and rational follow up to this wonder of nature. Concerning the chasm, no details are given. A slightly later author, the geographer Strabo, born in 63 or 64 BCE in Asia Minor, does not hesitate to provide the technical explanation:

They say that the seat of the oracle is a cave that is hollowed out deep in the earth, with a rather narrow mouth, from which arises breath that inspires a divine frenzy; and that over the mouth is placed a high tripod, mounting which the Pythian priestess receives the breath and then utters oracles in both verse and prose, though the latter too are put into verse by poets who are in the service of the temple. (Strabo 9, 3, 5)

This passage, by a man who admits that he has not seen what he describes, gives exactly that crucial technical detail that makes it possible to unite all the pieces of information we have in a single consistent picture of the oracle. Scholars have been fascinated by the idea of intoxicating gases issuing from a chasm and Pythia breathing those gases and uttering oracles on her tripod over the chasm. A closer look at Strabo’s description, however, reveals it as a learned compilation, an attempt to draw a coherent picture on the basis of very diverse literary sources. Such a coherent picture, of course, may be true, but modern scholarship has almost unanimously denied the existence and even the possibility of any structure at Delphi from which gases or airs might issue. This state of affairs led some scholars 148 to the conclusion that all the exciting intimations about some peculiar oracular procedure are nothing but entertaining fiction, and that the oracle was simply based on some kind of toss. Recent interdisciplinary research (involving archaeology, geology, chemistry and toxicology), however, has re-opened the issue and findings have suggested that geological faults in antiquity may have led (possibly intoxicating) gaseous vents (of ethylene or methane) right into the adyton of the temple where Pythia sat on the tripod.149 But as we shall see presently, it is possible to make sense of Pythia and her oracular authority on the basis of mythology alone. Georges Roux (1971: 105 ff.) convincingly argued that the sources do not necessarily speak of a chasm in the schist or even in the ground. The expression they use is chasma tês gës, which is usually translated as a fissure or an opening in the ground, but which may equally well be taken as an opening (in the foundation of the temple) down to the soil under the temple. Roux thinks that, in addition, some cavity had been dug into the ground, but this is not what chasma denotes. Chasma tês gês means that in the temple, a piece of the original ground was laid bare. Rooted in the soil of that piece of ground one might imagine the laurel known from literary as well as pictorial sources. But apart from the fact that this understanding of the chasm provides a growth medium for the laurel and is not archaeologically or geologically impossible, what sense did it make to have an opening in the foundation of Apollo’s temple at Delphi, in which the ground under the temple was visible? The temple is in fact built on soil – the schist is 6 m below the ground. According to the Homeric Hymn, it even is built on the very soil on which the putrefaction of Pytho took place. In the passages of the hymn quoted above, this putrefaction is mentioned no less than four times, twice with soil as an essential circumstance. That soil was the pre-cosmic relic kept at
148 149

Notably Fontenrose (1978: 204-224). Cf. Hale et al. (2003). Full argument and documentation in Hale et al . (2001 and 2002). I am grateful to Anders Lisdorf for having drawn my attention to the work of this interdisciplinary team.

Delphi, and the opening in the foundation of the temple in which it was laid bare probably made up the adyton. When Pythia sat on her tripod on that primeval piece of ground, she could still breathe the air of chaos and somehow smell – perhaps in the refined form described by Plutarch – the odour of the putrefying carcass of the anticosmic monster. Just as Delphi was the navel of the world and kept an omphalos stone, it was also the beginning of the cosmos and kept as a relic the soil that drank the blood and the rotten outflow of the defeated chaotic monster. The Delphic pneuma pythona150 may thus have been entirely spiritual, a matter of mere mythology not in need of gases at all. Were there gaseous emissions, e.g., of methane or ethylene as suggested by Hale and his interdisciplinary team, this would fit extremely well into the mythological construction we have outlined. Admittedly, this interpretation depends very much on the parallel Vedic motif: that of the origin of Soma as a product of the putrefaction of Vritra. Just as the Soma drink, an efficacious element in ritual, originates from the chaotic monster killed by Indra, thus we imagine the efficacious element of the Delphic oracle to be derived from an analogous, putrefying monster representing the defeated chaos: Python. And just as Soma, originally an outflow of putrefying Vritra, is refined to the point of tastiness by Vayu, thus the Pythian smell is nowadays, according to Plutarch, a delightful air on the days when the oracle works. Still another parallel is the relation between putrefaction and agricultural productivity. Among the cattle-breeding Vedic Indians, the smell of cattle is the first result when Vayu blows vehemently to vent the putrefying carcass of Vritra. In the Homeric Hymn to Pythian Apollo, Python rots “ on the man-nourishing earth”, i.e., virtually as fertilizer. The genetic relationship between the two Indo-European dragon-killing motifs seems beyond doubt, but although the Vedic parallel may guide our interpretation of the Delphic oracle, it will never prove it. In order to show the historical relevance of this interpretation, we have to argue, on the basis of Greek sources, that (1) the oracular procedure was somehow connected with Python and (2) chaos as the source of oracles or insights made sense in a contemporary Greek context: (1) No written sources explicitly speak about Python in connection with the oracular procedure. This may be due to the fact that, as we have seen, they were often engaged in finding some technical or rational explanation. Notwithstanding the Homeric Hymn, which explicitly deals with the mythological background, all these sources are from a time that had more interest in natural philosophy than in such a commonplace notion that a sacred place and its cult were

‘Pythian spirit’, in the New Testament (Acts 16, 16), this expression is used referring to mantic gifts.

connected with a myth. Yet we should notice that in Apollodorus, the killing of Python takes place at the oracular chasm, and that Hyginus, as already mentioned, includes information that relics of Python, viz. its bones, were kept in the temple. The latter particular at least bears witness to the idea that some sort of blessings were to be expected from the last remnants of Python. Of more decisive importance, however, is a passage in Pausanias (X, 13, 9). In his description of Greece, Pausanias deals thoroughly with the treasures and the works of art that could be seen at Delphi. Among these is a golden tripod, a gift from all Hellenes after the victory of Plataeae, “standing on a dragon of bronze”. This tripod is in fact preserved and now stands on the hippodrome in Istanbul. The three dragonheads are broken off, but one of them is preserved and exhibited at the Archaeological Museum of Istanbul. 151 If we imagine Pythia on this tripod, she would be sitting above the dragon, almost carried by it. Herodotus (IX, 81) refers to this tripod as a well-known piece of temple furniture close to the altar. If we presume that it was not only widely known, but also generally understood, it follows that Python was somehow, in contemporary Greek ideas about the Delphic oracle, conceived as basic to the oracular procedure. (2) Since Python was a chaotic being, both the myth of the Homeric Hymn and the tripod just mentioned may be taken to imply that, like the cosmos, Delphic oracular answers had their origin in chaos, i.e., that chaos, or the pre-cosmic state of the world, was somehow the source of these oracular insights. This certainly makes sense within the general framework of Greek religion, and in fact we need not travel far to show the more specific relevance of the idea of chaos to Greek oracles. Not very far from Delphi was the oracle of Trophonios. Pausanias tells the story of the hero Trophonios who ended his life when he was swallowed by the earth152 and gives a reasonably thorough description of the oracular procedure.153 The client had to descend to the narrow opening of a subterranean cave. When he began to enter it, with barley cakes in his hands, he would be drawn into the cave as if swallowed by the earth. In the cave there were serpents, and on the whole, it was so full of horrors that the client would usually only regain his senses and faculties after a period of intense care. In Pausanias’ description, which is allegedly based on personal experience, there is an air of the precosmic and the netherworldly, and it is hardly an exaggeration to say that in the cave of Trophonios, the client is in close contact with chaos. In various ways – some see, others hear – he obtains an answer to his question during this liminal period of what looks like an initiation. The client leaves the cave
151 152

Arkeoloji Müzesi, near Topkapi Palace. Paus. (IX: 37, 3-7). 153 Paus. (IX: 39, 4-14).

through the opening by which he entered it, with his feet first, perhaps as a symbolic rebirth following a symbolic death. The descent into Trophonios’ cave is not explicitly viewed as a descent into the Netherworld, but it may at least be said that motifs connected with death and the Netherworld are present in the description. In Greek religion, the Netherworld and the dead are well known – not least from the 11 th song of the Odyssey – as sources of divinatory predictions. In a larger perspective, however, these otherworldly motifs may be viewed as signifying the creative and liminal potential beyond the world of men, i.e., as a kind of chaos. In the Theogony, Hesiod presents chaos and Netherworld as related entities. J.-P. Vernant (1992: 69) even suggests that his description of Tartaros in 740-745 illustrates the idea of chaos. Like chaos, Tartaros is here the bottomless deep ( chasma), but also the source of everything, the very point of departure for cosmogony. In his poetic thought, Hesiod does in fact unite chaos, Tartaros and Hades (cf. Theogony 767-773). It is therefore appropriate to understand what happened in the chasma of Trophonios in a similarly broad and inclusive manner. At any rate, the aspect of chaos is important, for it is the ambivalence in the idea of chaos that enables us to view and describe the rhetoric of the oracle. Chaos is the bottomless, disordered, terrifying and bewildering, yet also the beginning of everything, the unlimited potential of creation and renewal. This is why knowledge of the future must be sought in chaos. But did this idea of chaos actually have a role to play in Delphi? Christiane Sourvinou-Inwood (1990) has subjected the myths of the previous owners of the Delphic oracle, Gaia and Themis, to a methodologically updated investigation. She convincingly refutes the idea that these myths really reflect the history of the oracle. Then she demonstrates how the myth of the earlier owners may be seen as a series of variations on a theme. We might call it the dragon-killing theme, for she takes her point of departure in the killing of Python as a typical motif of foundation: a new order prevails over savage nature. When Themis takes over the oracle from Gaia, this is in fact a variation on the same theme. Gaia is closer to savage nature and to a primeval, pre-cosmic age – in fact, closer to chaos – while Themis denotes the law and order of civilisation. When Apollo takes over, a masculine rule supersedes the female regime, which to the Greeks seemed closer to Gaia and savage nature. Thus understood, the myth of the previous owners is not a historical explanation of the female priestly office of Pythia (as a survival from the time of Gaia or Themis); it is an expression of the basic tension between the Apollonian, civilising purpose of the oracle and the ecstasy of Pythia, which is closer to Gaia and savagery. There is much more in the perspicacious

analysis of Christiane Sourvinou-Inwood, but it is already evident that the dialectic and dynamic tension between chaos and cosmos is the fundamental theme of the myth. Accordingly, savage nature or chaos is a constituent idea in the rhetoric of the oracle. The role of chaos, however, was not limited to this mythological classification of Pythia’s ecstasy. When Pythia sat on her tripod with its dragon feet planted in the soil of the adyton, she was, besides being at the navel of the earth, in close contact with the fertile soil in which the putrefaction of Python took place. In the Delphian chasma, she could smell the refined odour of chaos, she was at the very beginning of things and thus in a position to utter oracles that shaped the future. Like every ritual person, she was at the turning point, where things were reduced to their potentiality, and where a future could be produced. The Delphic oracle was not only the most famous divinatory institution of all antiquity, it is also by far the most intensely debated one. We have seen, however, that a consistently rhetorical approach makes it possible to perceive a ritual logic behind the different statements of the sources. We shall presently see that, understood in this way, the Delphic oracle is also a showcase of the continuity of the divinatory process from the not-yet-sign to the linguistic sign claiming relevance to the case in hand.

A modern, perhaps even postmodern, form of divination is the Tarot. Originally, Tarot denotes a peculiar kind of playing cards with many t rumps (Italian tarocchi, hence through French Tarot). Decks of tarot cards are known as early as the 15 th century, but the idea of using them for divination is hardly older than the 18 th century. The Tarot divination of today, the aesthetic elaboration of the cards as well as the esoteric meanings attached to them, is, to a very large degree, a product of the London based organisation or “Hermetic order” that called itself “The Golden Dawn”. Two prominent members of this order, Aleister Crowley (1875-1947) and Arthur Edward Waite (1857-1942), each designed a deck of cards. Waite’s cards, which are the most widely used, were drawn by Pamela Colman Smith in 1909 and edited in the same year. Crowley’s cards were contemporary in origin, but were only edited as cards after the death of their artist, Frieda Harris, in 1962. They served, however, as illustrations in Crowley’s The Book of Thoth from 1944. Crowley’s contribution to the living Tarot tradition is not so much these cards as his systematisation of their references to the

sefirot of the Jewish Kabbalah, the Hebrew alphabet, and the classifications of alchemy and astrology. During the first half of the 20 th century, the Tarot system thus assumed a universality and developed a supply of parameters of interpretation that seem almost post-modern. No single person can be credited with these accomplishments; and moreover, both Crawley and Waite write in a style that veils their own creativity and original contributions in dark embroideries. In almost everything they wrote, they interpreted and utilised secret and inaccessible manuscripts and traditions, of which it is difficult to ascertain the provenience or even the existence or nonexistence. As an element in the rhetoric of the Tarot, this way of writing is interesting in itself, and in this paper, no attempt will be made to write the history of the Tarot or of The Golden Dawn. In what follows, all references to the Tarot are to the Waite cards and to current modern rules for their use in divination. A deck of Tarot cards has 22 trump cards, which are also called arcane maiora, ‘the greater secrets’. The remaining 56 cards, the arcane minora, ‘the lesser secrets’, belong to one of four suits: wands, cups, swords and pentacles. Compared with ordinary playing cards, these suits correspond to clubs, hearts, spades and diamonds, respectively. Each of the four suits has four court cards: knight, queen, king and page, and the 10 cards from Ace (=I) to X. All cards have pictures, e.g., X wands shows a man carrying 10 wooden sticks, and VI pentacles shows 6 big pentacle coins at the upper edge, but the main motif is a man giving 6 small coins to a beggar. The meaning and the divinatory value of each card depend on the picture, which will often appeal to imagination and fantasy, and on the traditions attached to the card. Typically, the latter will be looked up in a handbook. A deck of cards is usually accompanied by a thin booklet with just a few key words to guide the interpretation of each card. The larger handbooks survey the corresponding cosmological, theological, alchemical, astrological and psychological systems and the significance of each card in these systems. The cards, however, are never interpreted in isolation. In the act of divination, the cards are shuffled and placed in certain patterns. They may be shuffled in such a way that some of the cards are turned upside down and thus acquire a different meaning. As a rule, a card is first chosen to represent the client, e.g., ‘The Empress’, if the client is a dignified woman. This card is called the significator. One of the simplest ways of placing the cards is called the ‘ten-card spread’ or the ‘Celtic method’. The significator is put with its picture turned up. The ten cards are taken

straightaway from the shuffled heap and then put with their pictures turned up in the following pattern:
1. On the significator: Denotes that which “covers” the client, i.e. , his situation. 2. Crossing (1) and the significator: What meets the client or stands in his way. 3. Above the significator: What crowns the client, i.e., the goal of his striving. 4. Under the significator: The basis of the problem at hand. 5. Behind the significator (i.e., to the right): The background or earlier situation of the client. 6. In front of the significator (i.e., to the left): Influences in the immediate future. 7. The client, especially her or his attitude in the situation at hand. 8. The “house” of the client, i.e., immediate environment and social situation. 9. Latent hopes and fears, especially repressed feelings and wishes, anxiety. 10. The final result. In this position, the diviner will need a card that may be understood as expressing a future for the client, which is caused by the influences traced in cards 1-9.154

In this way, each card is read and understood as part of a whole, which must make sense as situations and influences entailing a prediction. The interpretation of the cards is a hermeneutic task, in which the diviner’s understanding of each part and the whole must constantly be adjusted to each other, and in which every single part serves to limit the possibilities of interpretation. Even with the comparatively simple ‘Celtic method’, Tarot divination is a demanding task. In other patterns, the cards are arranged in a circle around the significator, e.g., with 12 cards representing the astrological ‘houses’ or with 7 cards representing sun, moon and five planets, corresponding to the seven days of the week. Most complicated and advanced are probably those patterns that refer to the Jewish Kabbalah and have the cards arranged to represent the ten sefirot of the so-called tree of life. Using our simple three-stage-model for the analysis of divination as a process, Tarot divination shows certain complications or, to put it more positively, elaborations. The act of divination conspicuously consists in shuffling the cards and drawing one after another for distribution in a prescribed pattern. The ad-hoc interpretation is also easily imagined, but where is the exemplar text? That which is interpreted ad hoc is a combination of pictures with names and

The book market as well as the Internet abound in Tarot handbooks. A classic still in use (and available on

www.sacred-texts.com ) is Waite (1911). The present account is based on the well informed and carefully
elaborated book by K. Frank Jensen (1980).

numbers in a pattern, but in the interpretation, text from a handbook is taken also into consideration. We are left free to consider the pictures as text or as the non-linguistic intermediary between the act and the text, very much like hexagrams and octograms. They may obviously play both roles: the diviner may attach great importance to interpreting the picture in itself, or only use it as a link with the text.

The Authorising Rhetoric
We have already suggested that the rhetoric of divination, i.e. , the religious expressions that substantiate the authority of divinatory decisions and make for their basis in local cosmology, may be attached to the act of divination and to the exemplar text. At the most basic level, any form of divination implies both a cosmology and a religious authority. In other words, if it is possible for an investigation of something fortuitous or random to provide indications for use in quite different areas of life, some order of coherence in the world is already presumed. In this most elementary sense, divination is utilisation of cosmology, and the act of divination already implies the postulate of possessing a key to cosmological correspondences that are normally hidden. Very much as the ritual formula already mentioned, “I command you not to run any more!”, implies the postulate of being able to stop a wound bleeding, but has no further situating elements to make this implicit religious authority plausible, thus any act of divination implies religious authority. In the following pages, using the examples we have addressed already, we shall attempt to account for such further situating elements, i.e., expressions that substantiate the basic divinatory postulate: this act unveils the hidden and shows the true nature and prospects of the matter in hand.

The Rhetoric of the Act
The stochastic or fortuitous element in the act of divination is already in itself a powerful rhetorical device. In the case of manna-grains, this element alone guarantees the relevance of the biblical text in the situation at hand. In the historical contexts in which manna-grains have been used in divination, it is reasonable to imagine that the stochastic choice of a biblical text was somehow taken to be God’s choice of a text to suit the situation. But no such ideas found further expression in the act. As for the Yijing, the stochastic method is likewise the constituent rhetorical device in the act. In fact, different stochastic procedures (e.g., with coins) may be used, but the traditional method with 50 yarrow stalks serves to substantiate and dramatise the stochastic element. For every

line in a hexagram, chance, God or dao is thrice given free rein, viz. the three times the heap of yarrow stalks is divided into two. Everything else is rule-bound and (mathematically) predictable. But between these three properly stochastic decisions and the resulting line there are so many operations and calculations that one might safely speak of a dramatisation of a decision taken without human interference. The trained user of the Yijing is of course able to carry out all these operations elegantly and with perfect ease, but for the client the act of divination appears as one long demonstration of a decision coming into existence without human intervention. In divination there is acted without action. The idea of non-action or non-intervention (wu wei) is old in China. 155 The Daodejing has the famous passage about non-action or non-doing as a means to secure that nothing is left undone (wu wei ze wu buwei, Chapter 48). Confucian literature also testifies to the idea that the wise rulers of the past ruled through wu wei, i.e., through non-intervention. Perhaps wu wei, a key idea in Daoism, originally denoted the wonderful way in which ritual creates order without interfering with the matter to be ordered (Podemann Sørensen 2003: 153-155). Of decisive importance, however, is the fact that the traditional act of divination with the Yijing represents the metamorphosis of the experiment into a linguistic sign by almost insensible degrees, in a kind of ritual slow-motion. At the stage of transition to the linguistic sign, the exemplar text, we find the hexagram, a peculiar non-linguistic, non-pictorial sign, which is nevertheless to some degree interpreted as a picture. This interpretation or substantiation of the sign then makes up the linguistic sign, the exemplar text, which is to be confronted with the matter in hand. It is remarkable that the act of divination may entail young or old, i.e., mutable lines. In this way, a very characteristic feature of traditional Chinese cosmology is embedded in the process: the world is not viewed as static, but as dynamic change (yi, from which Yijing has its name, or hua, ‘metamorphosis’). The process of divination is itself a metamorphosis, ritually coordinated with the regenerative dynamics of nature, in which everything is on its way to change into its opposite. In Yijing divination, drawing lots is not just an expedient in decision-making; rhetorically, it is a ritual and processual adaptation to the eternal change in nature and cosmos. Although Fa-divination in Dahomey is known only through oral tradition, we are well informed about Dahomean ideas concerning the act of divination and its relations with cosmology. Some of the narratives collected by Frances and Melville Herskovits in Dahomey in

On wu wei in general, cf. Fung Yu-lan (1952, I: 330-335); Needham (1956, II: 562f. and 576f.); as for the way the Yijing works: Schwartz (1985: 396); cf. especially the so-called “Great Appendix” to the Yijing (Appendix III, Section I, § 62 in Legge 1899), ( Yijing 1996: 197).

1938156 have Fa-divination as their main subject. In these narratives, the role and position of divination in mythology and cosmology finds salient expression. Some of them deal with the origin of divination: two of them, DN 22 and 23, describe divination as mythologically founded, while one (DN 24) appears as a historical account of how Fa was learned of and imported from the neighbouring Yoruba in the time of King Agadja (1708-75). In one of the mythological narratives (DN 22), divination or Fa is represented as a hermaphrodite deity called Gbadu, created by the likewise bi-sexual creator god Mawu or Mawu-Lisa, after the gods in charge of the three realms of earth, sky and sea have come into being. The division of the world into three realms has parallels in other West African cultures, but seems elaborated with radical consequence in Dahomey. Every realm has its pantheon – with its specialised priesthood. Each of the realms has its own language, and they are unable to communicate; it is even said that the priesthoods insist on their specialisation and refuse to interfere with each other’s spheres of interest. These difficulties in communication make for the mythological necessity of Fa-divination. Gbadu has 16 eyes and is seated in a palm tree in order to watch the three realms. When she has slept, Legba has to open her eyes. If she wants two eyes opened, she will give one palm nut to Legba. If she wants one eye opened, she gives him two. The roles of Legba and Gbadu in this text reflect Mawu’s character of a deus otiosus, who governs the world indirectly, without really getting in touch with it. Not only do the three realms speak three different languages, but none of them understands the language of Mawu. Only Legba understands all languages and therefore has to work as a mediator and a messenger between the three realms and Mawu. According to the wish of Mawu, Gbadu is installed as still another intermediate link, and an understanding of the language of Mawu is given to some people on earth. To Gbadu is entrusted the key to the future, which is a house with 16 doors, corresponding to Gbadu’s 16 eyes. Through the divinatory technique with the 16 palm nuts, men are able to open Gbadu’s eyes, i.e., the doors of the house of the future, and in this way they may perceive their fate. The number 16 connects the act of divination with Gbadu, who is the intermediate link between the three realms and Mawu and the link to the house of the future with the provisions of Mawu. Another narrative (DN 24) makes a similar point referring to Mawu’s 16 ‘secretaries’. As for the cosmological role given to Fa, i.e., to divination, in these mythological narratives, it is important to notice that Fa (Gbadu) and Legba, as we have seen, make up an

Published in Herskovits & Herskovits (1958, referred to as DN no.).

intermediary link between Mawu and the world and thus replace more direct forms of government or intervention (Herskovits & Herskovits 1958: 173-174). It should also be noted that the task and function of Fa is to bring order. Thus, Gbadu is installed in her divinatory office after Legba has told Mawu that the three realms are in peril of dissolving because they do not understand Mawu’s language. Men do not know how to behave, the water of the sea does not know its proper place and rain does not know how to fall (DN 22). Gbadu as an intermediate link and divination as the key to Mawu’s provisions are the solution to these problems. In a similar manner, another narrative (DN 23) describes how Fa originally came to men in a situation in which there was not yet any ‘medicine’ and no worship took place, i.e., in a primeval situation without a regulated religious life. Fa brings the necessary regulation and settles the rules of religious conduct for each single person. Through the knowledge of his personal Fa or kpoli, each individual is aware of what to eat, what to do and what to avoid (DN 23; Herskovits & Herskovits 1958: 177). This broad mythological elaboration is no doubt of primary importance in the rhetoric of the act of Fa-divination. Above all, the sacramental construction of the 16 palm nuts as the eyes of Gbadu, which correspond in turn to the doors of the house of the future, makes up a conspicuously ritual rhetoric. It is also important to notice as part of this rhetoric that the experiment, exactly as in the case of the Yijing, entails a non-linguistic and non-pictorial sign, which we call the octogram. In that metamorphosis of the sign, which leads from the experiment to the linguistic sign, i.e., the exemplar text, the octogram is a constituent intermediary link. The act of divination insists on its non-linguistic character by avoiding numerical correspondence between palm nuts and lines: if two palm nuts are released, one line is drawn in the octogram, and vice versa. The Delphic oracle, as we have already demonstrated, was as thoroughly founded in mythology as Dahomean Fa. In the act of divination, Pythia was sitting on a tripod with mythological figures, in close contact with primeval chaos and thus with the beginning of everything. The critical and decisive character of the moment was emphasised by the preceding, ominous sacrifice. In this situation, she was able to utter privileged speech that decided the future. The rhetoric of the act consists of ritually situating elements of well-known types. If Pythia, as some have suggested, spoke in a state of ecstasy or trance, this would only add to the rhetorical privilege of her speech.

As for the Tarot, the act of divination consists in shuffling the cards and putting them down in predefined positions, as a rule related to a significator card representing the client. The stochastic element in this procedure makes up the basic, authorising rhetoric, but more or less psychologising ideas about shuffling occur. Thus, it may be recommended that the client do the shuffling and in this way project her or his own unconscious dispositions into the act of divination. The cards with their pictures, numbers and names are very complex signs playing two roles: that of the preliminary, non-linguistic sign (corresponding to hexagrams and octograms) and that of a full exemplar text. The different patterns or methods for laying down the cards have their own rhetorical prestige, often referring to ancient or esoteric lore: Celtic, astrological, cabbalist etc. Moreover, it is a salient feature of the Tarot that it tends to absorb any traditional authority that comes its way. For example, Crowley’s deck of cards was called “the Tarot of the Egyptians”. 157 On the whole, decks of Tarot cards and manuals in Tarot divination appear very much as participating in age-old, beneficial secrets.

The Rhetoric of the Text
The exemplar text is already privileged speech because it was produced or selected by the act. But most often, it holds authority in itself. This is obviously the case in the various types of biblical divination, where the act is nothing but a stochastic procedure to select a biblical text for the occasion. For those circles in which manna-grains are in use, the authority of the Bible as the word of God is usually beyond question, and the very idea of the Bible as a canon suggests that, in some religious sense, the world is not broader or deeper than foreseen in the biblical text. The sacred book is seen as the universal key to the world, and future events pre-exist, as it were, in its text. Even if these basic ideas are not explicit among the users of manna-grains, we may safely say that in biblical divination, the divinatory decision is situated intertextually, i.e., it stands as a variation on a text that already represents privileged speech. What divination does is to produce new privileged speech by bringing traditional privileged speech to bear on the situation of the client.

The subtitle of Crowley’s The Book of Thoth (The Equinoc vol. III, No. V, 1944), repr. Crowley (2002), is A short essay on the Tarot of the Egyptians . Considering this subtitle, references to ancient Egyptian traditions are very few in the book, and it never wholeheartedly argues that the Tarot was invented by ancient Egyptians. On the contrary, the author thinks the whole question of origin quite irrelevant, “even if it were certain” (10). According to Crowley, the true merits of the Tarot are to be found in its systematic properties, which in turn may be identified by considering it a pictorial representation of doctrines of the Kabbalah. In this way, although he abstains from any pseudopigraphic claims to a certain origin, Crowley nevertheless manages to mobilise an impressive amount of ancient and esoteric lore.

Somewhat different are those forms of divination that have created their own literature. The great esteem in which the Yijing is held and the highly ritualised way in which it is approached with incense and gestures of reverence might suffice to account for the rhetorical power of its text. In our comparative investigation, however, it will be far more satisfactory if we are able to point out situating elements, or at least elements that make for the position of divination within a cosmology, in the text itself. And in fact, we have already noticed how the text and the commentaries move from cosmic and ritual constellations to that moral order in which consultation takes place. The Yijing thus implicitly asserts some version of what has been called ‘correlative cosmology’, a fundamental feature in Chinese thinking, unfolded most explicitly in the so-called yin-yang-school (200 BCE – CE 1000). 158 The divinatory decision stands as a substantiation of universal cosmic constellations that change all the time ( Yijing: The Book of Change) and thereby correlatively influence the matter in hand and the situation of the client at any given moment. Such a substantiating reading of cosmic influences is in itself privileged speech. It should also be noted that the Yijing sustains a peculiar, abstract style, which bears some resemblance with that of another Chinese classic, the Daodejing. Abstract words and proverbial phrases dominate this style, and it might be said that both classics follow the rule of Daodejing, chapter 64: “Deal with things in their state of not yet being.” (1968: 221) They both are full of words, phrases and sentences that do not yet mean anything distinct and are not yet statements about some subject matter, but only matrices of possible distinct meanings. A proverb is a case reduced to its mere logic and therefore is an exemplar of all similar cases. The Russian paremiologist G. L. Permjakov (1984a: 255; cf. 1984b) has aptly characterised proverbs or paremia as both signs and models; they denote, but also provide models of or for, some distinct situation or relation in real life. As for the two Chinese classics, their proverbial passages become signs only when confronting the world outside; for the Yijing, this happens in the process of divinatory substantiation. In its context-free not-yet-meaning, its abstract, proverbial statements express the potential that the book possesses as well as the dynamics of the divinatory process in which an experiment generates a not yet linguistic sign, which in turn generates a linguistic not-yet-sign, which only through an ad hoc interpretation, i.e., through confrontation with the realities of the world outside, becomes a substantial, useful sign. The commentaries added through 2000 years derive their authority from the basic, proverbial texts, but also add to the authority of the proverbs by demonstrating their cosmological validity.

Cf. Schwartz (1986), also suggesting the notion of ‘correlative anthropocosmologi’.

In the case of Ifa-divination, the texts are myths or exemplar stories about the first (and therefore exemplar) time a particular octogram was cast for a person. In Dahomey, Fa is even called the origin of all the stories of the world and the origin of sacrifice (DN 24). The very comprehensive treasure of narratives used as exemplar texts in divination usually prescribe a sacrifice to be made in order to succeed in the matter in hand. In the mythological perspective, however, these passages express the organising and cultivating role of Fa. When “all the stories of the world” are part of the organising activity of Fa, this is also to be understood in the light of their exemplar character. As already described, these myths and narratives make up the basis of the divinatory decision, and their exemplar authority is emphasised in the assertion that they were brought from heaven by Fa as the orders of Mawu or the writing/scripture of Mawu. The idea of heavenly and mythical archetypes of divinatory decisions is even further elaborated:
everything that happens on earth, has happened in the sky before. So Fa and Legba can advise human beings, because they themselves have discovered how to meet every possible situation in the sky. (DN 24)

The heavenly and mythical order, “the writing of Mawu”, is available on earth through that treasure of myths and narratives, which is administered by the divination. In this way, divination becomes cosmology in practice in a double sense: the very experimental technique or the act of divination has its mythical exemplar, and through the experiment the text is found, and with it the mythical or heavenly exemplar of the situation or the problem of the client. Exemplar texts, i.e., oracular statements, from the Delphic oracle have not been preserved in large numbers, and what is worse, the authenticity of almost every oracular answer that has come down to us is seriously doubted. 159 Perhaps among the oracular statements preserved in literary texts there is not a single authentic one, but it is at least likely that most of the faked or tendentiously edited answers are based on some idea of what a Delphic oracular utterance would be like. Recurring features are ambiguous or puzzling answers, answers expressing a general wisdom, and answers that are not fully understood before the predicted event actually takes place. Heraclitus is probably accurate when he says that the lord of Delphi “neither speaks out nor conceals, but gives a sign” (Fr. 93). It is hardly wrong to assume that behind the many anecdotes about ambiguous or

For the evidence, cf. Parke & Wormell (1956); Fontenrose (1978); Andersen (1987).

puzzling answers was a proverbial style in the oracular statements. And it seems very likely that they were designed to exhibit continuity with the act, very much as the non-linguistic signs we have seen as intermediaries between the act and the text in Yijing and Ifa-divination. Oracular statements were, admittedly, linguistic signs, but their not fully outspoken character shows continuity with the non-linguistic stage of the divination process. Let us consider a few examples. Among the most famous Delphic answers is the one reported by Herodotus (VII, 140-143). Before the Persian attack on Athens in 480 BCE, a lot of sinister predictions were obtained, but Pythia’s last statement made positive, if not conspicuous, sense:
Yet shall a wood-built wall by Zeus all-seeing be granted Unto the Trito-born, a stronghold for thee and thy children (Hdt. VII, 141).

The somewhat enigmatic expression “a wood-built wall” was taken by some as alluding to an earlier fence round the Acropolis, while others thought it meant the ships of the Athenian navy. The latter interpretation proved right, for in the battle at Salamis the Athenians and their allies won the famous victory over Xerxes. There is no reason to consider this oracular statement authentic, but in using such inscrutable wording exactly at the point where a tiny hope is to be given to the Athenians, it probably does reflect a characteristic feature of Delphic oracular statements. In fact, Herodotus’ story would be impossible if everybody knew that Pythia was always quite straightforward in her answers. Equally constructed and inauthentic – and equally instructive – is the answer that legend tells us was given to Aigeus, the king of Athens, when he asked the oracle for advice concerning his childlessness. The oracle offered the following verses:
Never release, thou best of the people, the spout of the wine skin Even though greatly it swells, until thou art well home in Athens.

On his way home, Aigeus is a guest in the house of Pittheus, whom he tells about the totally impenetrable answer from the oracle. Pittheus is able to appreciate the rather straightforward advice given to Aigeus: to avoid ejaculation of his semen before he is back in the embrace of his queen. He does, however, not impart his understanding to his guest; but his beautiful daughter Aithra and a lot

of wine make for the release of the spout and for enduring family bonds between the houses of Aigeus and Pittheus. 160 The oracular statement, so difficult for Aigeus to understand, is obviously a metaphor. Similar to “the wall of wood”, it is a riddle that has to be solved, and like the proverbial statements of the Yijing, the oracular answer is a model and not yet a sign. It becomes a sign only when confronted with reality, and this was where Pittheus and Aithra got ahead of Aigeus. The whole story would be impossible if it was not generally known that oracular answers from Delphi were exactly like that: models, not yet signs. Rhetorically, they are parallel to not only the proverbial phrases of the Yijing, but also to the mythical-exemplar narratives of the West African systems of divination. What proverbs, exemplar narratives and riddles have in common is this character of models that become signs only when interpreted to denote certain features of reality. Obviously the same goes for the biblical texts of manna-grains; like the exemplar narratives of Ifa-divination, they are, of course, signs in their own right. In a divinatory sense, however, they become signs only when applied to the client’s situation. As not-yet-signs, they rhetorically represent the processual dynamic of divination. As for the Tarot, we have already noticed how, in a truly postmodern way, the act accumulates traditional authority in an almost universalist manner. This cumulative rhetoric is even more apparent when we turn to the text. The exemplar text in Tarot is basically a constellation of pictures with names. The pictures as well as their names are styled to represent an ancient mythological lore and at the same time human emotions, dispositions, functions and abilities. In the arcana major, the summit of society and religion is represented by the emperor and empress, pope and high priestess. But also marginal persons like the fool, the hanged man, the hermit, the magician and the lovers, cosmic entities like the world, the sun, the moon and the stars, abstract ideas like justice, luck, strength and temperance occur as highly suggestive exemplar figures. Death, devil, and doomsday, not to forget a sphinx-drawn carriage and a tower hit by lightning, complete the picture. The cards seem at the point of bursting with meaning. Considerable credit, once again, is given to the diviner’s spontaneous intuitions drawn from the pictures, but usually this textual basis is extended with a manual, which describes and comments on each single card. In this way, the cards are made to refer to astrology, the Hebrew alphabet and its esoteric values, Jungian psychology, colour symbolism, alchemical stages of transmutation, and the sefirot of the Kabbalah. Guided by all – or his own selection – of these determinants of meaning, the diviner must steer his

Apollodorus, Bibl. (III, 208). The verses are author’s translation.

course towards the true understanding of the situation and prospects of the client. The rhetoric of the text, however, is not only this cumulative exhibition of age-old and honourable lore. It is also the mythological, generalising character of the pictures and their names that makes for their exemplar value. Very much like figures in myth and motifs in proverbs, these picture-cards are styled as building stones of a cosmology or of a narrative not yet told. The added traditional disciplines like astrology, alchemy and Kabbalah may be regarded as extensions of this cosmological, exemplar rhetoric.

The Rhetoric of Interpretation
The rhetorical task faced by the diviner – or the person to whom the interpretation of the exemplar text has been entrusted – is to establish a convincing continuity between the text and the matter in hand. This may imply a considerable amount of analysis and understanding of the situation and the personality of the client – analysis and understanding of a kind that will often make convincing sense even without the divination. David Zeitlyn (2001) has shown on a broad ethnographic basis how divinatory text-interpretation is a process of negotiation. In some of the West-African systems examined above, the diviner is not supposed to know the situation or the problem of the client. But whenever the question or the situation of the client is stated as part of the act or otherwise known by the diviner, text interpretation becomes a matter of establishing the relevance of the exemplar text for the needs of the client. This will often take the form of a dialogue 161 with the client, a dialogue that may even lead to the repetition of the act in an attempt to obtain useful and relevant advice. In an instructive discussion of the role of divination in decisionmaking in the ancient world, Jørgen Chistian Meyer (2002) reaches very similar results: in the historical study of ancient decision-making, it would certainly be wrong just to ignore the role of divination. On the other hand, the process of interpreting divinatory texts implies also a consideration of the matter in hand. When the Roman Senate discussed the meaning of a text from the Sibylline Books, its final decision as to what exactly was meant was also a – politically qualified – decision on what to do. 162 From the description we have already given above, it is easily imagined how the Tarot diviner, who is sometimes also the client, faces a similar task: that of understanding the client and the matter in hand in a way that makes for the relevance of the cards with their rich repertoire of
161 162

Cf. Also Zeitlyn (1995). Bruce Lincoln (1994) provides an excellent analysis of divination and politics in Julius Caesar’s Rome – in its proper context of authority, religious and political.

meanings in a coherent interpretation. For the Roman Senate, to be convincing in interpretation meant to be politically convincing (without, of course, violating the authority of the Sibylline Books or other divinatory institutions). For the modern Tarot client, it means above all to be convincing in terms of common sense psychology. The rhetoric of interpretation was probably always an issue and always exerted an influence on the historical development of both the act and the exemplar texts. In the end, it all has to be negotiable. On the other hand, it is no longer an exclusively religious rhetoric; it is about real world plausibility, albeit in the shadow of religious authority, and aims at a kind of shared responsibility for decisions. It follows that this rhetoric of plausibility always, and to a very large degree, must depend on the matter in hand. It is a field for specific historical study, in which comparative studies (in terms of a generalised rhetoric of divination) are not likely to take us further. It is nevertheless an important field, and both the historian and the comparativist should be aware of it.

Except for the postmodern tendency of the Tarot to absorb and accommodate any divinatory or cosmological system that comes its way, our four examples are basically not related in any genetic sense. This does not, however, entitle us to postulate cross-cultural or transhistorical universals. What we have seen is that in terms of rhetoric, systems of divination from very different cultural contexts may be described as variations within a relatively stable conceptual scheme. Like other ritual acts, divination implies a basic postulate: that of unveiling the hidden or predicting the unpredictable on the basis of something even more unpredictable. Our relatively stable conceptual scheme for the rhetorical analysis of divination systems was developed by considering as much as possible in the examples as elaborations of that basic postulate. In a substantial number of cases, we have seen that these rhetorical elaborations are of a kind already known from the general study of ritual: mythical exemplars of the act of divination, the place where it is carried out, the situation of the client etc. – or the exemplar text ritually construed as the speech of gods. In some cases, notably in Yijing divination, we have observed that myth and gods are absent, but rhetorically replaced by a certain cosmicity, i.e., an imitation or an articulation of cosmic order and dynamics. The rhetorical device most proper to and most characteristic of divination is, however, what we have called the metamorphosis of the sign. The act of divination is a sign, or produces a

sign or rather a not-yet-sign, which the process gradually transforms into a full, linguistic sign. In some systems of divination, the sign acquires its final meaning only when the final decision on the matter in hand is taken.

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Cognitive approaches

Truth beyond doubt:
Ifá oracles in Havana
Martin Holbraad

When I tell people here in Europe that I went to Havana to work with certain cult practitioners who think that oracles tell them the truth about things, I find that almost invariably I am called to answer for myself: ‘do you think that oracles work’? 163 I both love and hate this question. One reason why I love it, particularly when it comes –say- from a chemist at the University, is that, with its mixture of intrigue and incredulity, the question reminds me that anthropology does have something to say… even to chemists. For a testing moment, I, as a metonym for what I study, become as fascinating to my chemical friend as what I study is to me, the anthropologist. And, as an anthropologist, I am in good and venerable company, since it is probably fair to say that when Frazer and Tylor got the ball rolling in our discipline by trying to explain why savages might be credulous enough to think that things like oracles might work, they were quelling the same kind of disquiet in the Victorian psyche as I am expected to when talking to chemists. Of course, chemists today don’t bat an eyelid when told that people in the Caribbean trust oracles –and for this dubious merit they may as well thank the anthropologists. But the enduring question (yes, but do you trust oracles?) shows that the grounds for their disquiet are still there. Now, I would surely love this question even more if I could respond to it by lending people a book, if not by Frazer or Tylor, then by any one of so many more recent

A versions of this chapter have appeared in Portuguese, at the Brazilian Journal Mana (2003). Thanks are due to the members of the Senior Seminar at Cambridge for enlightening comments on an early version of the paper. I am also very grateful to Michael Houseman, Caroline Humphrey, Peter Lipton, Morten Pedersen, Rafael Robaina, David-Hillel Ruben and Alan Strathern for comments on written versions at various stages. The argument’s meta-anthropological frame takes off from a series of e-mail communications with Eduardo Viveiros de Castro, and I am hugely in his debt for his commentary and encouragement. I also record my gratitude to the Economic and Social Research Council for funding my fieldwork in Cuba, as well as the Centro de Antropología for hosting me in Havana.

anthropologists who have sought to render strange beliefs less disquieting by appropriate analysis. As it happens, I can’t. That is to say, in my view anthropologists have not managed to arrive at an adequately reassuring analysis of oracular truth. However, this claim (which I shall only defend with reference to one example 164) does not explain why I find the challenge as to my beliefs uncomfortable. What I hate about the challenge is that it tends to put me in a double bind. If I say that I do not believe in oracles, I provide a quick fix for my interlocutor’s disquiet with what is really a lie. For there is an important sense in which I do believe in oracles. But if I tell her this, I create the conditions for misunderstanding, since the sense in which I trust oracles is very different from the more sensational one in which she is interested. This paper aims to provide the kind of clarification required to avoid misunderstanding on this score. The main reason I frame discussion of Ifá oracles in Havana with thoughts drawn from the familiar is not rhetorical. The point can be made with reference to an argument presented by Eduardo Viveiros de Castro as part of a critique of what he calls the ‘classical anthropological solution’ to the problem of how to handle seriously such astonishing claims as ‘peccaries are human’ –his favourite Amerindian example (2002). With Durkheim, Lévi-Strauss and Sperber in mind among others, he argues that varieties of the ‘classical solution’ turn on a common assumption, namely that if natives are to be taken seriously when they say or do things that the anthropologists find unreasonable, they must be so taken in spite of what they say or do. Unable to admit that peccaries might be human, anthropologists feel they’re left with no option but to enunciate the conditions

The debate about divinatory truth transcends the disciplinary limits of anthropology (see, for example, Cicero 1997, Jung 1989, Detienne 1996). Within anthropology, and apart from recent arguments by Boyer which are addressed below, the debate has a long history (an indicative list of examples might include Evans-Pritchard 1937, Park 1963, Fortes 1966, Bascom 1969, Turner 1975, Jackson 1989, Zeitlyn 1990, 1995, 2001). On the whole, these discussions may be described as species to the genus of anthropological debates about ‘apparently irrational beliefs’ (Sperber 1985). Although I probably join a worthy bandwagon in finding the concept of rationality pernicious as an analytical tool in this context, I would hold on to Sperber’s phrase for heuristic reasons. The phrase is useful inasmuch as it identifies 'the problem' not with the beliefs themselves, but with the way they appear to us -not least problematically as 'beliefs' (cf. Needham 1972, Boyer 1994: 229).

under which the natives could seriously entertain such outlandish notions. The crucial assumption here, Viveiros de Castro notes, is that when anthropologists think (to themselves) ‘peccaries, clearly, are not human’ they think in terms of the same concepts as natives do when they say that peccaries are human. Otherwise anthropologists would be in no position to judge the truth or error of native statements. Or, to put the point in philosophical terms, the assumption is that the statements ‘peccaries are not human’ (as anthropologists know) and ‘peccaries are human’ (as natives claim) are cast in terms that have identical ‘intensions’ (or thereabouts), and the opposition between the two is truth-functional (viz. true v. untrue 165 respectively) because the role of each statement is semantically to fix the ‘extension’ of the terms involved 166 (cf. Viveiros de Castro 2002: 134). And indeed, under such an interpretation, the natives’ ‘error’ would be palpable. While the concepts of ‘peccary’ and ‘human’ are as distinct for them as they are for us, natives insist on misapplying those concepts (i.e. getting their extension wrong) by bizarrely conflating the two classes in statements like ‘peccaries are human’, statements which here are understood as stating empirical as opposed to conceptual claims. The job of anthropological analysis, then, is to explain why natives might get their own concepts wrong, as it were; which is to say that the anthropological ‘problem’ is epistemological through and through.


‘Untrue’ is preferable to ‘false’ here, since it allows us to include as a variation of the ‘classical solution’ Sperber’s influential idea that, like all ‘symbolic’ expressions, ‘apparently irrational beliefs’ are not so much false as empty, in the sense that they do not correspond to determinable propositions that can be judged for truth or falsehood (Sperber 1985). 166 The extension of an expression is its reference. Intension is harder to define, but for present purposes it can be understood as a description of sufficient and/or necessary criteria for determining the extension of a given expression (see Chalmers 2002, cf. Putnam 1975). So, for example, if I ask you what a peccary is and you point one out to me (“there’s one!”), you are giving me the meaning of ‘peccary’ in terms of its extension. But if you explain to me that a peccary is a pig-like animal that lives in South America, you will be giving me the intension of the term. Loosely, we may say that a term’s extension depends on empirical considerations, while its intension depends on conceptual ones.

Now, as this attempt at interpretation would indicate, the ‘classical’ approach is not untenable in its own terms. It is, however, implausible. Note the double miracle implicit in this position. One would certainly need a reason to expect people who are in so many ways as different from us as Amerindians, nevertheless to share our concepts (concepts as socially important as ‘human’, or indeed as peculiarly theirs as ‘peccary’). And one would equally need a reason to explain why they seem to get the empirical implications of these concepts wrong so systematically. After all, as Viveiros de Castro reminds us, peccaries are not just human; “they walk in gangs… have a chief… are noisy and aggressive […] and so on” (2002: 136). So, far from incidental, Amerindian ‘errors’ must be serially –and seriously- compounded. Now, we know that reasons which would explain both miracles away are forthcoming –e.g. cognitive anthropologists’ attempts to define a specieswide conceptual baseline, or the old Popperian argument about the ‘closed’ character of mystical ‘belief systems’ (cf. Horton 1967). But the point is that, regardless of their merits, in the present context such theoretical moves have a semblance of beating the sledgehammer with the nail, considering how unlikely their explananda really are.

Admittedly, if there were no alternative to the ‘classical solution’ one would have to settle for miracles –or at least the disenchanting theories that they engender. But, as Viveiros de Castro shows, a suitably radical alternative does exist, and it runs as follows. What if we stipulated that the analyst’s puzzlement in the face of surprising native statements is not caused by an epistemological disagreement over the correct empirical application of shared concepts (viz. a difference of opinion), but rather by the radical alterity of the concepts involved? So if, in line with the present interpretation, the ‘classical’ position stems from the idea that native terms like ‘peccary’ and

‘human’ have the same intension for the natives as they do for the analyst, then Viveiros de Castro’s proposed alternative is a straight negation: the terms involved have different intensions for the analyst –and this is precisely why native statements are genuinely bizarre to him.

Viveiros de Castro offers a number of arguments in favour of this conceptual reversal, but here I want to focus on two main advantages, before going on to discuss critically some implications for my own strategy in this paper. First, in denying the first ‘miracle’ of the classical approach –that somehow the natives’ concepts must be the same as ours- the move to intensional alterity also dispels the second one –that natives consistently misapply their own concepts. For, once the possibility that native concepts might be different from our own is opened up, then native statements like ‘peccaries are human’ need no longer be viewed as attempts to ‘apply’ –i.e. determine the extension of- predefined terms (‘peccaries’ and ‘human’). Rather, they can be recognised as attempts on the part of the natives to express the meaning of their own concepts, i.e. to define them intensionally (cf. Wagner 1972: 5-8). Extensional ‘applications’, then, are not the issue here, and hence the possibility of native ‘error’ does not even come into play. Indeed, since statements like ‘peccaries are human’ are meant to define what counts as ‘peccary’ (and, by this ‘bizarre’ definition, also ‘human’), they ought to be understood as ontological statements, on a par with, say, Descartes’ definition of ‘I’ as res cogitans.

The second advantage of Viveiros de Castro’s reversal is that it promises a much more fecund analytical agenda than its ‘classical’ mirror image. In taking the sense of native statements out of the brackets, as it were, and instituting it as a prime object of anthropological analysis, Viveiros de Castro

is effectively proposing a conceptual field that is fresh by definition. After all, consider what the job of analysis must amount to on this view. Rather than enunciating the conditions of native error (be they epistemic, cognitive, sociological, political, or whatever), the analytical task now becomes one of elucidating new concepts –again, new by definition. Indeed, note that this project is necessarily quite different from the notion, familiar from so-called ‘relativist’ 167 approaches, of ‘cultural translation’ or ‘emic description’. For ideas of translation or description turn on the assumption that unfamiliar concepts must, to some satisfactory degree, have familiar equivalents, as if ‘their’ conceptual repertoire must ultimately be revealed as isomorphic to ‘ours’ –a third miracle: verstehen. And this, of course, is precisely the opposite of what Viveiros de Castro is arguing.

So perhaps the best way to think of the kind of analysis Viveiros de Castro proposes is as an ethnographically guided version of what some philosophers –especially analytical ones- often see as their own trade, namely ‘conceptual analysis’. Certainly this is the direction that he himself seems to be pointing at when he defines anthropology as a species of thought-experimental “fiction”. He writes:

What does such a fiction consist in? It consists in taking indigenous ideas as concepts, and following the consequences of such a decision: to determine the pre-conceptual ground or plane of immanence that such concepts presuppose, the conceptual personae that they deploy, and the material realities that they create (2002: 123, my translation)


Contrary –perhaps- to appearances, Viveiros de Castro’s position is as distant from relativism as it is from the ‘classical’ approach (of which relativism is, in fact, a variant –albeit the most liberal). Relativism can be summarised as the idea that different people see the world differently. Viveiros de Castro, by contrast, is arguing that different people live in different worlds. Once again, the difference is captured by the distinction between epistemology (involving extensional discrepancies) and ontology (which turns on intensional alterity). Cf. Viveiros de Castro 1998a, 1998b.

The prospect sounds enticing, but I wonder if here Viveiros de Castro comes close to invoking his own miracle ex machina. For, in view of the guiding premise of his approach, what he is effectively suggesting is a process of arriving at ontological presuppositions and/or consequences of concepts that are still in want of definition. Indeed we should treat indigenous ideas as concepts, but, as already seen, the point of doing so is to render explicit –for us analysts- their intensional alterity. But the kinds of ontological inferences that Viveiros de Castro seems to be envisaging cannot be made from a position of such aporia. Indeed, this is the point at which the analogy between anthropological analysis and philosophy breaks down. As a purely autochthonous intellectual exercise, philosophy has the luxury of creating unfamiliar concepts by testing the limits of familiar ones. The ‘new’, in this case, may rest on the shoulders of the ‘old’. The anthropological challenge, by contrast, seems hyper-philosophical. What we are called upon to do is to create (our own) new concepts out of concepts which to us are just as new (the natives’). Which would seem tantamount to creation ex nihilo…

A fifth miracle perhaps? The argument of the present paper proceeds on the assumption that it is not. I would argue that the methodological tools for performing the kinds of thought-experiment that Viveiros de Castro has in mind can in fact be extrapolated from the terms of the contrast between native statements and our default assumptions. Consider the following strategy. Following Viveiros de Castro’s ‘rules of the game’, we must accept that as anthropologists we are in the dark: we begin with no sense of native concepts. We do, however, know two things. Firstly, we know the sense of our own default concepts (e.g. that peccaries are pig-like animals that live in South America). And

secondly, we know that a symptom of the difference between our concepts and the natives’ is that in a number of contexts (viz. in contexts where their intensions differ) our own translations –or, better, misunderstandings- of native comments appear as statements of falsehood.

Arguably we have here the makings of a method that may allow us to approximate an understanding of native concepts and the strange statements that define them. For, like philosophers, one thing that we can do is transform the sense of our own concepts. So what if, through conceptual analysis, we were to alter the premises of our concepts (‘peccary’, ‘human’, etc.) so at to transform them to such an extent that, when used to gloss native statements, they would yield statements of truth. The anthropological thought-experiment would then proceed from the question: how do we need to change the intension of our own terms (by defining them differently than we ordinarily do) in order to make them behave –in truth-functional terms- like the natives’ concepts appear to? How far do we have to change our assumptions about what counts as a ‘peccary’ before we could say that peccaries are human? To be sure, the promise here is not that of appropriating the native concepts themselves, but rather one of arriving at our own approximate equivalents –a truthfunctional imitation of sorts. But this doesn’t make the project of analysis any less fecund. After all, the kind of Copernican revolution of concepts proposed here is by definition aimed at arriving at new concepts. For ease of reference, I propose to call this method ‘ontographic’, by way of indicating that it offers a way of charting out the ontological premises of native discourse.

So in this limited methodological sense, I would disagree with Viveiros de Castro’s unqualified contention that anthropologists’ truth-judgements are altogether irrelevant to analysis. “I am an

anthropologist”, he writes, “not a swineologist. […An awareness of the falsehood of native statements] is only interesting in having awakened the anthropologist’s interest” (2002: 134-5). From then on, he argues, anthropologists should leave their own truth-judgements to one side, and focus on unearthing the ontological presuppositions that underlie the natives’ statements. In light of the above considerations, however, I would maintain that, logically speaking, there is no way of gauging the premises of native statements except in light of our own, and that such comparisons must ultimately be guided by truth-functional considerations.

This paper is designed to make explicit the analytical fecundity of this method. The task here will be to do an ontography of the concept of truth, as this is deployed in Cuban Ifá divination. In light of the comments just made on the role of truth-concepts in ontographic method itself, this may seem like a peculiarly recursive choice of topic. And indeed, an analysis of divinatory concepts of truth does present the prospect of pertinent comparisons with the kinds of truth-concepts anthropologists themselves might rely on in their own analytical strategies 168, including that of ‘ontography’ perhaps. Nevertheless, while emphasising that, by definition, an ontography of divinatory truth can indeed only proceed from a critique of truth-concepts that may be deemed ordinary in a general or ‘common’ sense, I should make clear that the extra step of comparing divinatory truth to those truth-concepts that are at stake specifically in the context of anthropological analysis (ontographic or otherwise) cannot be made here. After all, as my perfunctory conversations with chemists would indicate, concepts of divinatory truth are bizarre enough to justify a full-blown ontographic project of their own –so pertinent meta-anthropological implications may be left as a topic of future research.

Note that similar comparisons have been made before, notably by Jules-Rosette (1978), Jackson (1989), and Boyer (1990).

Starting off with an attempt to set the parameters of my approach with reference to a short critique of Pascal Boyer’s recent discussions of divination, my argument is set on track by presenting salient ethnographic facts regarding Ifá divination as I witnessed it in Cuba. Emphasising practitioners’ contention that the oracle of Ifá is infallible, I make the analytical point that the oracle’s verdicts need to be understood as being the kinds of truths that are immune to doubt, i.e., in philosophical parlance, truths that are ‘indubitable’. A short and rather abstract second section is devoted to establishing that from the standpoint of ordinary understandings of what counts as truth, the indubitability of divinatory verdicts can only appear as dogmatic nonsense. For purposes of ontographic analysis, these are grounds for doing away with ordinary understandings of truth, and for constructing an alternative conceptualisation that accords (extensively) with my informants’ convictions. In the final section this task is carried out by working back from the ethnography, using a nexus of concepts and practices associated with the oracle, in order to gauge the premises that guarantee truth and its emergence in Ifa divination. After all, what distinguishes ontography from arbitrary ontological speculation, is the method of extrapolating analytic abstractions from the ethnographic material, rather than, say, heaping Western philosophical concepts upon it.

The central idea, then, will be that divinatory truth-claims are beyond doubt because their truth conditions are not specified with reference to facts. Rather, divination exhibits what I call a nonrepresentational ‘motile’ logic, which pre-supposes a notion of truth understood not as correspondence across an ontological divide (representation v. fact), but as proximal motion on a single ontological plane, that allows for revelatory events. If this sounds esoteric at this stage, that

is because we have not yet seen the ethnography, to which I shall turn presently. Before doing so, however, it may be helpful to set the parameters of my own ‘non-representationist’ approach by contrasting it with a relatively recent attempt to account for divinatory truth, due to Boyer. For Boyer’s argument also turns on a negation of the role of ‘representation’ in divinatory contexts, though in a way that is quite different from the one I shall be proposing –and the difference may be instructive.

Boyer on divinatory truth
Like his arguments on religious phenomena more generally (Boyer 1990, 1994, 2000, 2001), Boyer’s argument on divination turns on a cognitive premise, namely that explaining why people think what they do –in this case, why they think that oracles give truth- must ultimately be a matter of showing how their minds are able and likely to entertain the notions in question. This is because the ideas that anthropologists usually summarily describe as ‘culture’ (such as ideas about divination) in actual fact boil down to highly complex aggregates of mental representations, distributed across human populations in accordance with constraints imposed by individual human brains –the instruments for mental representation par excellence (cf. Sperber 1996).

In line with this anti-culturalist premise, Boyer eschews the general (or, as he calls it, “epistemic”) question of why people believe in divination, and sets out to analyse the cognitive processes involved when a given individual represents an oracular pronouncement (henceforth ‘verdict’) as being true (Boyer 1994: 49-52). These processes, he argues, can be seen as a peculiar variant of the cognitive processes involved in ascribing truth to any ordinary representation, say in the course of conversation.

The first point to note about the cognitive structure of truth ascription as such is that it is ‘metarepresentational’, i.e. it turns on the mind/brain’s ability to represent representations (ibid. 243-245). Take the representations that are uttered when people communicate with each other. Representing such ordinary utterances as true involves spontaneously representing what cognitive psychologists call an ‘evidential account’. This specifies two things: (1) that the representation that the speaker is expressing was caused by the events or states of affairs that his utterance describes, i.e. that his mental representation emanates from the way things really are; (2) that the utterance in question is expressing that representation, and not some other. So if, for example, you said to me ‘Boyer is a cognitivist’, my default presumption that what you said is true would be built on the spontaneous assumption that (1) your mental representation BOYER IS A COGNITIVIST was, somehow, caused by Boyer’s actually being a cognitivist; and (2) that your utterance actually conveyed that mental representation. In other words, I believe what you say because I believe that you know what you are talking about, and that you are not lying about what you know. The evidential sequence, then, takes the following form:

[fact] causes→ [MENTAL REPRESENTATION] expressed by → [utterance]

So much for everyday communication. What is interesting about divinatory proceedings, argues Boyer, is that they explicitly preclude the possibility of constructing the representational stage of the above sequence. What is so important about trance, ‘randomising’ elements (cowries, cracked scapulae, etc.), references to supernatural agencies, etc. in divinatory methods is that they are all means through which the diviner is himself effectively divested of responsibility for the verdict (ibid.: 246). Hence, to use the famous example, when a Zande man consults an oracle, it is clear to him that it is the poison which is

fed to the fowls that determines the verdict, not the oracle operator (Evans-Pritchard 1976: 146-149). It follows that the truth of the verdict cannot be evaluated with reference to a correspondence between the verdict uttered and the mental representation of the diviner. The diviner cannot lie because, properly speaking, he does not speak at all. If suspicion does arise that the diviner’s mental representations are in fact deflecting the causal series that leads up to a given verdict, then the action simply does not count as divination (cf. Boyer 1994: 207). By-passing mental representations, then, evidential accounts for divinatory verdicts correspond to immediate sequences:

[fact] causes→ [verdict]

In Peircian terms, genuine divination is assumed by practitioners to deal in indexical utterances, i.e. utterances that are assumed to be caused by the states of affairs they express, like a smile is assumed to express good-will (Boyer 1990: 72-75; cf. Rappaport 1979). This point is of central importance to Boyer since for him the indexical character of divinatory verdicts lies at the heart of the answer as to why practitioners tend to deem such verdicts to be true. The idea is that the causal nature of the connection between indices and the facts they describe increases the probability that practitioners will suppose that the verdict is true. This, claims Boyer, is because from a very early stage of human cognitive development causal relationships are represented as stable connections, so that a given effect tends spontaneously to be conjoined in the mind/brain of the observer with its supposed cause. Consequently, to the extent that divinatory technologies coerce practitioners into assuming that their outcomes are indexical, they also tend to force the assumption that

they are true. Boyer’s logic on this last point is as pivotal to his argument as it is abstruse, so it is worth quoting his own words:

If a causal connection is assumed between two events or states c and e, a subsequent occurrence of e will lead the subject to assume that c. […R]epresenting a connection as causal leads to conjecture that it may correspond to a stable pattern. […] In metaphorical terms, the utterances [e.g. divinatory verdicts] are supposed to be true because they are construed as the stable symptoms or indices of the situations they describe (1994: 251).

But the point hardly follows. All that anti-representational divinatory techniques can do is force upon practitioners the assumption that were the verdict to be true it would be because it was caused immediately by the facts that it describes, i.e. it would be their index. In other words, Boyer’s pivotal appeal to the stability of causation is question begging. Spelling out the correspondence between indices and stable causal connections motivates not the proposition that divinatory verdicts need to be taken as indices, but only the tautology that were the verdicts to be so taken they would be assumed to be true. So, to return to the Azande, the fact that when verdicts are taken as true they are assumed to be caused by –say- witchcraft, in no way explains why verdicts are taken as true in the first place. Indeed, in light of Evans-Pritchard’s famous point about the co-existence of divinatory and ‘common sense’ explanations (see below), the question remains: why do Azande presume that the poison kills fowls because of witchcraft rather than because of its toxicity?

It may be objected that, rather than a weakness, this issue of underdetermination is more of a virtue, since it allows Boyer’s cognitive argument to accommodate the fact that verdicts

are often doubted, not only by exceptious analysts, but also by sceptical practitioners. Certainly in Cuba (and the point may well hold for most places) there are plenty of people who do not believe in the oracles at all (ideological Communists and converted Christians are most vehement in this respect). More intriguingly perhaps, a significant proportion of practitioners attend séances in what may best be described as an agnostic or half-hearted spirit, explaining, for instance, that although they are interested in what the diviners have to say they are not ‘really’ sure whether to believe them (cf. Bascom 1941). So, in light of these possible attitudes, the aim of analysis cannot be to render the truth of verdicts entirely foolproof, because, as sceptics know, it is not.

This is a point worth taking, but only because (in Viveiros de Castro’s terms) it makes explicit the ‘classical’ tendencies of Boyer’s cognitive approach. For while the divergence between the scepticcum-analyst’s and the (committed) practitioner’s views on divination is undeniable, it is not an ipso facto requirement that this divergence be interpreted as a disagreement over the truth-value of divinatory verdicts (false v. true respectively). In line with the considerations outlined above, an alternative would be to interpret the divergence as a difference in the intension of the concepts each side relies on. Much of the rest of this paper is devoted to showing that, with regard to divinatory truth, a preference for this alternative is dictated by the ethnography of divinatory practice. In this connection, I shall be defending the idea that the difference between the two conceptions of divinatory truth pertains to the question of doubt: while sceptics assume that oracles’ claims to truth are at least open to doubt (indeed they may often turn out to be false), practitioners make clear that genuine divinatory verdicts are so special precisely because they are in principle indubitable. So what is at issue here is really a botched conversation. Pointing ostensibly at the same referent (viz.

divinatory verdicts), the sceptic and the practitioner talk past each other. The sceptic imagines that practitioners simply attach a different truth-value to verdicts (true to his putative false), while the practitioner thinks that in even entertaining the possibility that verdicts might be false (let alone asserting it), sceptics misunderstand the nature of divinatory claims to truth.

Boyer’s argument cannot encompass such a scenario. Indeed, it is probably accurate to say that, in terms of the contrast between doubt and indubitability, his cognitive approach is prejudiced in favour of the former –the sceptical position. On his cognitive analysis, practitioners’ evidential accounts allow for divinatory verdicts to be represented as true because they posit a direct causal link back to the states of affairs that the verdicts describe. As we saw, this leaves open the cognitive possibility of positing an alternative causal account which would connect the verdict not to the state of affairs it describes, but to a more mundane cause like the toxicity of poison. But this is tantamount to saying that in principle practitioners of divination are able to represent verdicts as being false, which is another way of saying that for even for them verdicts are only doubtfully true. As we shall see, there is no way out of this problem for as long it is assumed that the same concept of truth is at issue for practitioners and sceptics (and analysts) alike. In order to begin to approximate a suitably new concept of truth, we now turn to the ethnography of Ifá divination in Cuba.

The oracle of Ifá: a thumbnail sketch
Ifá is very closely related to Santería, the most well known Afro-Cuban religious tradition. Both have evolved primarily on the basis of elements brought to Cuba by Yoruba speaking slaves from West Africa, primarily during the 19th century. The relationship between the two is most obvious in the

fact that they share an extremely rich mythical and devotional universe, but they are also related ritually, since babalawos (i.e. full initiates of Ifá) are often required to officiate as diviners in Santería rituals. The prestige of the babalawos as diviners stems from the fact that, unlike santeros, they are initiated into the cult of Orula, the Yoruba god of divination, whom they have the privilege to adore. Indeed, the prestige of the babalawos is rather enhanced in the Cuban context by the macho credentials conferred upon them by the fact that only heterosexual men are admitted into the cult (Holbraad 2004). Nevertheless, throughout its history in Cuba and up until today, Ifá has largely been practised by ‘marginal’ groups, as Cuban intellectuals often say, and in predominantly non-white inner city neighbourhoods of Havana, Matanzas, and Cardenas (my material comes mainly from Havana).

Rights to worship in Ifá are distributed according to strictures associated with initiation (Holbraad, in press). Part of the reason why Ifá is so prestigious is that in order to be fully initiated (becoming a babalawo, with rights to participate in and dispense all aspects of worship), one has to undergo a series of initiatory ceremonies part of the point of which is to ascertain whether Orula –the god of divination- will ‘call’ the neophyte to the next step of initiation. Orula’s will on this matter –as in allis expressed through the oracle of Ifá, so each grade initiation ceremony involves a long divinatory séance (called itá). Being called to ‘make oneself Ifa’ by the oracle, as initiation is referred to, involves agreeing with someone who is already initiated to preside over the ceremony as ‘godfather’ (padrino). In this way neophytes are recruited to ritual ‘lineages’ which from then on provide the primary context for worship and tutelage in the secret mythical and ritual knowledge that babalawos spend their lives ‘studying’ (that is the word they use).

By far the most important element of initiation is the bestowal upon the neophyte by his godfather of the consecrated idol of Orula himself. In fact, it is probably more correct to refer to this as an ‘idoldeity’ rather than just ‘idol’, since the consecrated paraphernalia that babalawos receive are not understood to ‘represent’ the deity, but rather, as practitioners emphasise, they are the deity (Bascom 1950, Holbraad 2007, cf. Palmié 2002: 166). Orula, then, basically consists of a clay pot, which, among other consecrated items, contains a bunch of 21 palm nuts (mano de Orula). These are the prime and most ceremonious means of divination, and the young babalawo will from his initiation onwards be able to use them to conduct séances.

Although babalawos perform a range of ceremonial and magical services, the linchpin of Ifá worship is divination, and it is chiefly in their capacity as diviners that babalawos are consulted by clients (see Holbraad 2005). In their general thrust, myths about the origins of Ifá divination recount how Orula was given the gift of interpreting Ifá as a way of bringing order into a then chaotic universe. In myth Orula is presented as an arbitrator of both divine and human affairs, putting his divinatory powers to work for the benefit of all those who approach him for help, by revealing the will or ‘word’ of Ifá. This archetypal role is one that babalawos are expected to fulfil both in regulating matters of worship within the cult (such as questions of intiation), and for the benefit of clients who, in exchange for a fee, visit the babalawos in order to clarify issues of personal concern, regarding health, financial matters, love and sex, problems with the police, etc.

The oracle of Ifá is built on a series of techniques which are designed to yield in an apparently random manner one out of 256 possible configurations that the system allows for. When it comes to the more ceremonious types of séance, in which the consecrated palm nuts are used (and on which I shall be focusing here), the babalawo achieves this by casting 16 nuts 8 consecutive times in a manner that is equivalent to tossing a coin 8 times (hence the total of 256 possibilities = 2 in the power of 8). The resulting configurations are referred to either in Yoruba as oddu, or in Spanish as signos (signs) or letras (letters or verses). While practitioners explain that the oddu are a means by which Orula speaks ‘through’ the oracle, they also emphasise that each of them is a divine being in its own right, sometimes thought of as guises of Orula –what practitioners refer to as his ‘paths’ (caminos – see Holbraad 2007 ). Furthermore, each oddu has its own name, as well as its own sign (hence the Spanish term).

Each séance involves the casting of a large number of different oddu, according to a fixed order of questioning. The first cast, however, is the most significant since it determines what is referred to as the ‘principal’ oddu of the séance, which is taken as the basis for characterising the personal circumstances of the consultant – be it a client, a neophyte, or whoever, depending on the occasion of the séance. But before revealing the significance of the principal oddu, the babalawo casts a long series of oddu which are designed, through a complex algorithm, to yield yes or no answers to specific questions. The first and most crucial of these is whether the consultant ‘is’, on this occasion, iré or osobbo, i.e., and loosely, whether his or her circumstances are favourable or not. The Cuban folklorist Lydia Cabrera translates these Yoruba terms as ‘for good path’ and ‘for bad path’ respectively (Cabrera 1996: 192). Once the consultant’s state is ascertained, the

babalawo proceeds to ask a fixed series of more specific questions which determine the nature and causes of iré or osobbo, as well as the appropriate ritual remedies and precautions.

Once all questions are duly dealt with, the babalawo initiates the last and most artful phase of the séance, whereby the principal oddu, which up to now has passed without comment, is –as it is said‘spoken’ (hablar el oddu). This idea of ‘speaking’ the oddu stems from the fact that each of the 256 configurations is associated with a large number of myths which babalawos spend a lifetime memorising. Each of these myths is colloquially referred to as a ‘path’ of the oddu (camino del oddu). Depending on the extent of his own knowledge, then, the babalawo begins to recount one or more ‘paths’ of the principal oddu, in order then to interpret it for the benefit of the consultant. To give you a flavour of what this involves, let me present an extract from the transcript of a séance that I was present at. The occasion is an ordinary client consultation conducted for the benefit of a single mother in her mid-30s by my godfather, Javier, who at the time was 77 years old, having been initiated to Ifá in 1968. The principal oddu for this session was marked as being Obbeyono, and through questioning it was determined that the woman was osobbo, with a risk of illness due to sorcery. The remedy prescribed was a consecrated necklace dedicated to Babalú Ayé, the deity of disease, who is often identified ‘syncretically’, as they say, with St. Lazarus. In ‘speaking’ the oddu, Javier recounted four ‘paths’ of Obbeyono. This extract presents just the second one.

J: Now, let me tell you, never mind your osobbo –San Lázaro will take care of that as long as you thank him. People like it when this ‘sign’ comes up, and it has been coming up a lot in these times. It speaks of a trip.

C: [Laughter] That’s what everyone wants! J: [Lugging on his cigarette] Ifá says that on Lucumí land, in Africa, there was a territory that was owned by Ogún [the fearsome deity of smithery], and with his machete he’d cut down the people when they tried to enter. It so happened once that he felt someone was penetrating the border, so he took his machete and went to meet the intruder. But when he arrived he saw San Lázaro struggling with his crutches and took pity, so instead of attacking he got to work opening the cripple’s path across the land with his machete. […] When people get this signo in their itá [i.e. the long divinatory séance conducted for neophytes as part of their initiation], we usually say that they are travellers. But in this case, Orula is just telling you of the possibility of a trip. C: Yes, if only. But every time that things look up, something comes along and spoils my luck. J: Of course, you are osobbo. Let’s see if Ogún wants something to open your path. [casts etc.]. No. He says he doesn’t want anything. In any case, when you go home you should attend to your Ogún [referring to an idoldeity she had received years earlier], give him rum to drink, but not too much in case he gets drunk and then he can’t help you. Everyone wants to travel, no?

It will be evident from this extract that interpretation is a crucial part of ‘speaking the oddu’. After all, the myth about Ogún and San Lázaro does not of itself speak to the woman’s travelling prospects. It is only because the babalawo knows that travel may well be among her concerns (since in Cuba, these days, travel is on everybody’s mind, as she herself also openly confirms), that the relevant verdict is located in this area. Indeed, for babalawos themselves the yardstick of a good ‘orator of Ifá’, as they say, is above all his skill at bringing the myths to bear with precision on their clients’ personal circumstances (cf. Matibag 1997: 151-152). Javier illustrated this to me with a vivid account that merits full quotation:

[To consult] you need to know how to speak –to be an orator of Ifá- to manage the ‘metamorphosis’, as we call it. […] You might come to me and from one story I can tell you three things. But you go to someone else and they might tell you ten, knowing how to get the most out of the oddu (sacarle provecho). There was one guy […] who was famous when I was young. Once I was in a [séance] with him; he was arrogant but with good reason since he knew more than anyone else […]. The other babalawos were speaking the oddu –I did too- but at some point he just stood up and said: ‘now listen to me!’, and turning to the neophyte [curtly], ‘the fridge in your house is broken!’. [The neophyte], bewildered, goes ‘yes, it is’. The babalawo turns to the rest: ‘Did you hear that?’ –that was his way of teaching. We wondered how Ifá can speak of the guy’s fridge… So he explained himself –I think the oddu was Obara Meyi: ‘Ifá says that there was an island where fishermen lived, but all their fish kept rotting. Close by there was another island which always had snow, so the fishermen brought snow from there to put their fish in’. And so with metamorphosis he says that in the house there must be a fridge, and since the neophyte had turned out osobbo, that it must be broken. Do you see how it works?

Now, one could list here a variety of ways in which babalawos guard the prerogative to interpretation as a good and proper constituent of a successful séance. One could also elaborate on how clients too fully expect the diviners to bring interpretative skills to bear on their case, often availing the diviners of relevant information in order to help them ‘get to the point’, as one client put it to me. Though time constraints prevent this, there is one point that pertains to anthropologists’ take on this common phenomenon, let’s call it ‘interpretative openness’. In a classic version of what de Castro calls the

‘classical solution’ to the problem of belief, a number of anthropologists have sought to explain practitioners’ conviction that divinatory means deliver true verdicts by pointing to the subtle intersubjective negotiations of meaning that divinatory interpretation so often involves (e.g. Bascom 1941, Bohannan 1975, Levi-Strauss 1963, Sperber 1982, Parkin 1991, Zeitlyn 1990, 1995). The idea, then, is that verdicts are best seen as blank slates upon which practitioners are able to draw up interpretations that they can reasonably represent as true. The diviner’s skill in achieving this air of plausibility (in good or bad faith) is therefore taken as pivotal in sustaining people’s trust in the putatively mysterious ability of divinatory means to deliver the truth.

Good manners are not the only reason for resisting this ‘smarter than thou’ stance vis a vis the practice of divination. For, to my mind, what the ethnography shows is that the practice of divination turns on a peculiarly quirky reversal of the premise of these approaches; the premise being that truth-ascription must come after interpretation since, logically speaking, if diviners and their clients are to decide whether their oracle tells them the truth, they must first understand what it is that the oracle is telling them. Quite to the contrary, I would maintain that what makes divinatory truth so special is the fact that practitioners put the cart before the horse in just this respect. From the practitioners’ point of view, what makes divinatory verdicts worth interpreting in the first place is the fact that they must be true.

I cannot establish this point with reference to all of the ethnography of divination, but the case of Ifá, at least, is a clear one. Discussing this point with babalawos and uninitiated clients alike, again and again I was given the following two maxim-like statements with an air of self-evidence: that “Orula

doesn’t make mistakes” ( Orula no se equivoca); and that “in Ifá there are no lies” (en Ifá no hay mentiras). As for the babalawos, well, “they are human beings”, as one of Javier’s godchildren put it to me, “and that means they’re imperfect”. Such comments do not only show the distortion involved in claiming that the spectre of divine truth is constructed out of crafty interpretative projections. They also point to a conclusion that places the analysis of divinatory truth on a different footing altogether. Namely that, insofar as they are construed as genuine, Orula’s verdicts are not just taken to be true by practitioners, but rather are taken as statements that are true beyond doubt. For, by saying, effectively, that oracular statements which –for whatever reason- turn out to be mistaken or deceitful are not genuine verdicts, practitioners bar the logical possibility that verdicts might be false at all, which is just another way of stipulating that genuine oracular verdicts cannot but be true . Now, this point about divination has been made before, not least by EvansPritchard who famously branded as ‘secondary elaborations’ the logical safety-nets with which the Azande were able to turn seemingly falsifying circumstances into confirmations of the infallibility of their poison oracle. The reason why I think the point bears restating is that, more like Viveiros de Castro than like Evans-Pritchard, I see practitioners’ conviction that their oracles are infallible, not as a consequence of the closed character of their epistemological presuppositions, but rather as a mark of ontological alterity regarding what kind of thing truth itself might be.

Indubitability and the discarded premise of representation
This possibility becomes clear when one considers how absurd practitioners’ views on infallibility seem, when judged from the perspective of ordinary notions of truth. The problem is as follows. From the point of view of familiar ways of thinking about truth, there are indeed certain types of truth-claims to which one can accord the status of indubitability. For example, philosophers generally agree that

strong candidates for indubitability are truth-claims that are true ‘by definition’, i.e. the kinds of statements philosophers call ‘analytic’. Hence, to take the usual illustrations, it is impossible to doubt statements such as ‘2 + 2 = 4’, or ‘all bachelors are unmarried’ because their truth is entailed by the very meaning of the terms involved (e.g. the meaning of ‘2’ entails that added to itself it gives ‘4’). Following the landmark argument by the philosopher Saul Kripke (1980) about ‘a posteriori necessity’, one might also want to extend the category of indubitable truths to include statements such as ‘water is H2O’, i.e. empirical statements that designate the ‘essential’ properties of things – the properties, that is, without which things would not be what they are (e.g. water that is not H2O is not water). Similarly, depending on how far one would want to enter the exegetical debates among philosophers about the validity of Descartes’ infamous cogito argument, one might extend indubitability to include statements like ‘I think, therefore I am’, whose truth is supposed to be entailed by their very utterance. Or, further, one could also mine indubitability in theological arguments for the existence of God (e.g. Plantinga 1964, 1974). It is easy, however, to see that divinatory truths cannot be construed as being indubitable in any of these familiar senses. Take our earlier example, of the divinatory statement ‘your fridge is broken’. This hardly looks like an ‘analytical’ statement, since there is nothing in the definition of ‘your fridge’ as a concept that entails its being broken. Apart from anything else, if the state of repair of a refrigerator could per impossible be ascertained merely by virtue of the meaning of terms, by analogy to ‘bachelors are unmarried’ and so on, then going to diviners to find such matters out would be quite redundant. Nor does ‘your fridge is broken’ look anything like a Kripkean designation of essential properties. Unlike water and its chemical formula H20, presumably the fridge in question would still be itself even if it were not broken. And as for the Cartesian cogito and theological concerns with the nature God, it hard to see their relevance in this context at all – whatever it might be, a statement such as ‘your fridge is broken’ is not an example of the cogito argument, much less a statement about the existence of God. Indeed, if it is feasible to bypass philosophically-minded deliberations of this kind that is because it seems obvious that divinatory statements are of a very familiar type, namely statements of

fact – as ‘a posteriori’, ‘synthetic’ and ‘contingent’ as any ordinary statement such as ‘you are tired’ or ‘the sun is shining’. Certainly in terms of its form, a claim like ‘your fridge is broken’ is indistinguishable from such statements of fact. After all, just as with such ordinary statements, it would appear that the truth of the claim – divinatory or not – would depend on the facts of the matter, i.e. it would depend on whether the fridge in question was indeed broken, as Javier’s own account also appears to illustrate. The problem, however, is that such matters are inherently doubtful. To render the divinatory verdict ‘your fridge is broken’ dependent on whether the refrigerator was indeed broken is just to render its truth doubtful, since there is always the possibility that the fridge may have been fine. Treating such verdicts as statements of fact, in other words, takes us straight back to the skeptical position. From an ‘ontographic’ point of view, then, there is only one thing for it: we need to identify and then discard those underlying assumptions that render ordinary conceptions of truth incompatible with the practitioners’ position on divination.

Let me keep this unavoidable digression into the philosophy of truth tolerably short by being very clear as to what it is we are looking for. We have just identified the possibility of doubt as the prime sticking point when it comes to appreciating the difference between divinatory notions of truth and ordinary ones. If we can find out, then, what it is about our ordinary concept of truth which leads inevitably to the conclusion that oracular statements are open to doubt, we will have made an important step towards characterising an alternative take on truth which might accord with divinatory practice.

Now, I would argue that a narrow focus on the concept of doubt leads us directly to a distinction that lies at the heart of ordinary assumptions about truth, namely the distinction between representations

and facts. Indeed, one might say that the possibility of doubt can only arise in terms of this commonplace distinction. For one way to express the difference between representations and facts would be to say that while facts are just actual, representations can equally well be about things that are not as they can be about things that are. Just because of this difference, it is natural to assume that representations rather than facts are the proper bearers of truth and falsehood. But if notions of truth and falsehood presuppose representations as bearers, then so does the concept of doubt, since it in turn stands or falls by the distinction between truth and falsehood. As already explained, something is doubtfully the case if it might have not been the case. But this negative possibility is a pure function of representation, since negations of facts can by definition only feature as representational contents, i.e. as what representations are about. In other words, the possibility that something may be false (upon which the possibility of doubt depends) can only arise representationally: there are no false facts. Analytically speaking, then, without a concept of representation we cannot have a concept of doubt.

But this conclusion alerts us to an intriguing –if altogether counterintuitive- analytical possibility. Since in the effort to make sense of practitioners’ understanding of divinatory truth we find the possibility of doubt standing as hurdle; and since the possibility of doubt depends on the idea that truth is a property of representations; might it not then be reasonable to question whether this latter assumption is appropriate when it comes to providing an analysis of divinatory truth? In fact, might it not be worth wondering whether an alternative conceptualisation of truth, one which does not rely on the idea of representation at all, might serve as a better analytic frame for the practice of Ifá divination? I propose to pursue this possibility ethnographically in the final section of this paper.

Motion and divinatory truth
Given space constraints, my appeal to the ethnography will be more summary than it perhaps ought to. Nevertheless, it is expedient to take as starting point the notion of ‘paths’, which, as we have noted, features in a number of surprising ways in the way practitioners talk about the procedure of Ifá divination. As mentioned already, there are two ways in which the notion of ‘paths’ features in what practitioners say about the oracle. First, you will recall that the 256 configurations that the palm nuts yield (the oddu) are themselves sometimes referred to as the idol-deity Orula’s ‘paths’. In fact, we may note that this is just a specific case of a more general logic in Ifá and Santería, whereby each deity of the pantheon (Orula being just one of them) is understood to ‘have’ a multitude of ‘paths’, each of which is known to have peculiar mythical and ritual characteristics. The second sense in which ‘paths’ feature in practitioners’ discourse has to do with what Orula says during the séance, rather than how he appears. As we noted, both the options of good or bad fortune that get ascertained to start off with (on which I shall not be focusing here), and the individual myths that get spoken towards the end of the séance (on which I focus), are thought of as ‘paths’.

When one asks babalawos to explain why deities and myths should be thought of as ‘paths’ one gets more or less speculative and in any case indifferent responses, which is odd enough, since, with their knack for magisterial wisdom, babalawos can be rather prone to the idea that they have an answer for everything. These are grounds for concluding that the concept of a ‘path’ does not, in itself, have cosmological significance. Its import, I would argue, is ontographic. The fact that practitioners find the concept self-evidently appropriate for referring to such diverse data tells us less about

what they think and more about how we should think about what they say. Now, this would probably be to put too fine a point on my informants’ quaint slight of speech, were it not for the fact that these references to ‘paths’ correspond neatly to two crucial ways in which motion is integral to the process of divination itself.

The first of these is the most obvious, and has to do with the mechanics of the séance. As already mentioned, the business of casting oddu (i.e. Orula’s ‘paths’) essentially involves a chaotic event through which a single configuration of nuts gets determined. From a technological point of view, this poses the problem of how to infuse ‘chaos’ into the set of 256 discrete possible configurations that the 16 divining-nuts allow for. And the solution is found, of course, in motion. The boundaries that render the 256 configurations discrete dissolve indeterminately in a swift continuous movement, as the babalawo shifts the divining-nuts from one hand to the other.

The second way in which motion enters the divinatory process might seem less straightforward, though my argument relies on the idea that ultimately it is not. What I have in mind here is the process of interpretation, through which babalawos ‘metamorphose’ –to use Javier’s term- the mythical ‘paths’ of Ifá, so as to provide a verdict that is relevant to the consultant’s personal circumstances. As we saw in the examples from my field-notes, divinatory interpretation involves a dialogical process, whereby myths that initially appear as rather general and opaque ‘stories’ are gradually brought to bear on the immediate circumstances of the consultant. This process, as we saw, comes down to the babalawo’s skill at transforming (or ‘metamorphosing’) the myth so as to render it specific enough to be taken as a message that “gets to the point”, as my informant put it. In other

words, the ability interpretatively to arrive at a true verdict (“your fridge is broken”, or whatever) is premised on the capacity that meaningful data –such as myths- have to change themselves, or –if you like- to move. Now, if this sounds vaguely metaphorical this is only because the entrenched habit of representationism involves a predisposition to imagine that , in their pristine state at least, meanings must correspond to something discrete and stable, what analytical philosophers who like to get their heads around things call ‘propositions’. But even that phrase –getting one’s head ‘around’ a concept- betrays artifice here. Consider what is happening now, as you read. A stream of meaningful data is gushing forth, out of this paper –just like a continuous current of sound would come out of my mouth were I to read this to you- and is apprehended by you as some kind of morphing beast which can only be tamed –or, as we say, ‘pinned down’- through a certain amount of exertion. Only once you ‘get the point’ (and only if there is one to be gotten) does meaning begin to acquire the semblance of stasis. At the first instance, then, meaning moves –quite literally so. And note also that such a ‘motile’ view of meaning is thoroughly at odds with the ordinary idea that meanings are ‘representations’ (which might ‘match’ or ‘reflect’ facts of the world), since such a match would presuppose that the meanings in question are already constituted as ‘propositions about the world’, which is just another way of imagining meaning in a state of rest.

Now, I want to argue that the central role that the notion of transformation through motion has in Ifá can be seen as the prime constituent of what I call a ‘motile’ logic, which in turn has profound implications for our conceptualisation of divinatory truth and indubitability. To give you an idea of what I mean by ‘motile logic’, it is useful to zap back some 65 years to Evans-Pritchard’s famous distinction between ‘how’ and ‘why’ questions, which may be taken as an exemplary –if unassuming-

case of ‘ontographic’ analysis. The Zande brewer’s hut burns down. He consults the oracle to find out what happened, and is told that witchcraft is at play. This explanation, says Evans-Pritchard, is not meant to replace or even compete with a commonsense account in terms of the causal sequence of events that led to the fire, which Azande are as capable of producing as anyone else. For such an account can only explain how the fire came about, whereas what interests the brewer when he goes to the oracle is why this misfortune should affect him in particular and on this particular occasion. In other words, while commonsense explanations tell causal stories, divinatory verdicts relate events to personal histories. One may say, then, that divination picks up where ‘common sense’ leaves off. After all is said and done, the fire in the hut having been accounted for in the most exhaustive and hard nosed manner possible, the owner is still left with the question: ‘why me?, why now?’ The only commonsense answer is a non-answer: ‘coincidence’.

Now, as such, the substantive distinction between ‘how’ and ‘why’ is not that important for our purposes, not least because Ifá oracles are in fact called upon to answer all sorts of questions which have nothing to do with misfortune. In what sense, for instance, should questions regarding the timing of a ceremony be thought of as ‘why’ rather than ‘how’-questions? Much more significant, to my mind, are two key insights that underlie Evans-Pritchard’s distinction. First, there is mileage to be had out of the notion that divinatory truth-claims relate things –events to personal histories. For the difference between ‘why’ and ‘how’ ultimately turns on a distinction between two orders of relation. ‘How’, as we saw, is cast in causal terms, by linking events linearly in logical sequences, consequent to antecedent: ‘this happened because that happened…’, etc. Such links we may call relations of conjunction (see Figure 1). ‘Why’-questions, on the other hand, seem to pertain to

something like a hidden dimension, squeezed laterally ‘in between’ linear conjunctions: when all causal chains are said and done, as tightly as can be, there is still space enough to ask ‘why’ as an extra question. This ‘extra’ quality is just the product of the logical shift involved in relating causal chains to data that lie outside of them –outside by definition, since positing further causal links would keep analysis at the level of ‘how’.

· (time) · · · · · · · · · : event, : causal link (consequent to antecedent), · : trajectory of motion

Figure 1: Causal links interactions

Figure 2: Non-causal

But what kind of relation could that be? A clue, I think, lies in Evans-Pritchard’s second insight, namely that common sense tends to brush off diviners’ ‘why’-questions as matters of ‘coincidence’. Notwithstanding its normative vacuity, the concept is graphically dynamic: we call ‘coincidences’ those events that constitute a singular outcome of two or more unrelated causal series. (I walk into a bar and find you there ‘by coincidence’, if the events that brought me there were causally

independent of the events that brought you.) This may seem like a negative way of characterising ‘why’-relations, since the obvious distinguishing mark of coincidence (as opposed to conjunction) is that it is non-causal. But a more abstract analysis reveals the positive, dynamic facets of coincidence. First, coincidence involves interaction: coincidental relations do not in themselves pan out as ordered series, but are rather constituted at the intersections of causal series (or their members), as illustrated in Figure 2. Second, the points of intersection that constitute coincidental relations correspond to dynamic events, since they represent meeting-points of series that are in motion. This just follows from the fact that causal chains themselves comprise events, i.e. alterations over time, so that their meetings properly constitute temporary collisions of trajectories. One may say, then, that coincidences are best glossed oxymoronically as non-causal interactions.

Now, it will be clear that these abstract considerations allow for an analysis that goes beyond the distinction between ‘how’ and ‘why’. For the difference between conjunction and coincidence is not one of meaning or content (cast in terms of distinct categories of questions), but rather a purely formal antithesis. If ‘common sense’ works on identifying the conjunctions that link events to their causes, divination works laterally at establishing collision points between causally independent trajectories of events. Indeed, note here that the distinction can also be put in terms of an opposition between rest and motion. As we have defined it, the difference between causal conjunctions and noncausal interactions comes down to the difference between giving logical priority to series of isolated –or at least distinct, and in that sense ‘stable’- events, and starting with continuous trajectories of motion. From this point of view common sense and divination are diametrically opposed: while the

former is given ‘events’ as determinable points and then must work at linking these points in an implicitly temporal order to form causal ‘chains’, the latter is given motion as the raw material so that its job becomes one of arriving at ‘events’, which in this case are constituted as temporary definitions at the vertices of motion. The concept of ‘motile logic’ refers precisely to this ontological reversal, which posits motion as primordial, and stable entities as derivative outcomes.

Now, given the ethnography already presented, perhaps the point of the present analysis begins to clarify itself. For in Ifá both the process of ‘metamorphosis’ in ‘speaking the oddu’ by which verdicts are arrived at, and the technical procedure by which the oddu itself are cast, lend themselves to an analysis in terms of coincidental relations between trajectories of motion, or ‘paths’ –to use the indigenous term. Let me start with the case of mythical interpretation. Two relevant points have already been made. First, that interpretation is a dialogical process whereby myths are brought to bear on the consultant’s circumstances. Second, that this process is transformative, and that therefore the meaning of the myths is best construed as being in motion. To this we should add that, inasmuch as the consultant’s personal circumstances also feature in the process of interpretation as meaningful data that are made to interact with the meaning of the myth, their meaning must also be thought of in motile terms. So, to return to the earlier extract, the mythical ‘path’ that tells the story of San Lázaro’s meeting with Ogún need not be construed as fundamentally different to, say, the consultant’s personal frustrations in her attempts to travel. Both data refer to events or states of affairs that are meaningful, and both can be thought about, narrated and transformed in motion. Effectively what we have, then, are two strands of meaning which initially seem unrelated, and the diviner’s job is to make the two ‘meet’ so as to produce a verdict that

‘goes to the point’. So it should be clear that what we have here is a relation of of coincidence (see Figure 3).

Figure 3: coincidence in divinatory interpretation

In view of Figure 3, we may make a couple of points regarding the motile emergence of the oracle’s verdicts, which will wrap up the argument on truth. The first point is that, according to this model, verdicts emerge as singular events. Now, this may sound like a point about epistemology rather than ontology –since it is cast as an answer to the question of how divinatory truth-claims emerge, rather than what kind of things they are. But this would be a misunderstanding. As we have emphasised all along, the process of divination itself, as well as what practitioners have to say about it, leaves no doubt as to the fact that, in Ifá divination, interpretation is constitutive to the definition of divinatory truth. Hence, if the process of interpretation i s premised on the motility of meaning, then motion is also the ontological ground of divinatory truth as such. So, and this is really the crux of the present argument, truth must in this case be defined precisely as the event that results out of the meeting of

causally independent trajectories of meaning, which is just the kind of meeting that diviners are able to induce through interpretative metamorphosis.

The second point to note is that this definition of truth has consequences with regard to the question of indubitability, from which this whole discussion took off. For, having defined truth as a kind of event, we may then ask how such a definition fares with respect to the notion of doubt. On the ordinary definition of truth, we saw, doubt pertains to the possibility that a representation may fail to match a fact. What, then, would be the equivalent possibility on a motile definition of truth? Now, looking at Figure 3 one might be tempted to offer a reply. If, on this motile image, the truth of divinatory verdicts is defined as a meeting (or collision) of causally independent trajectories of meaning, then cast ‘doubt’ on such truth would be to raise the possibility that the trajectories in question might not have met as they did. The trajectories might have taken a different course, and hence could have intersected at a different point, or not at all. However, I would argue that there is a perspective from which this is a slide ‘from the model of reality to the reality of the model’, to paraphrase Bourdieu. (1990: 39). And that is the perspective of motion itself. Consider what it is about motion that gets reduced or taken for granted for the purposes of graphic representation. In order to indicate movement on paper all that is needed is a line to show its trajectory, with a little arrow on its end indicating its direction: since only movements have directions, this is enough. But why is a line appropriate for representing a trajectory? The answer, clearly, is that trajectories are necessarily continuous, and this is because movements have a momentum, an intraneous power that ‘keeps them going’. Now, if you think about it, the continuity of plotted trajectories is only a very faint way of expressing momentum.

This is hardly surprising since tota simul representations on paper have to be ‘economical’: they do not move in themselves, and hence they cannot really have a momentum. But economy comes at a price. For the point about momentum is not only that it renders motion both continuous and directional, but also that it does so as a matter of necessity: momentum describes the inner compulsion of motion. The best way to understand this, I think, is cinematic: imagine panning away from the bird’s-eye perspective of diagrams, and placing the ‘camera’ at the helm of a moving trajectory, cockpit-style. What you see now is hardly a contingent matter, since your immanent purview is dictated at every moment by the propulsion of the trajectory itself. What previously seemed like one possible course among many now seems like the only possible course, for the momentum of motion –its propulsion in one direction- carries you with it. With momentum, one might say, motion entails its own necessity. So viewed from the point of view of motion (which, as we have seen, is constitutive to the definition divinatory verdicts), truth-claims emerge as events that cannot but be what they are. To doubt them – or in other words to posit the possibility that they could have turned out differently – is just to deny their motility.

It needs to be emphasized here that the foregoing constitutes a radical departure from the representationist take on truth, for the truth that it defines is not the one we are used to. I venture to call the truth in question ‘revelatory’. For at issue here is not the veracity of the way things are thought about or represented, but rather the capability that things –moving things- have to reveal themselves to each other, when they come into relation through mutual proximity. Once again, this should not be read as a metaphor, since ‘things’ in this context does not refer to ‘objects’ or ‘entities’, but to meaningful data that register (and can interact) in motion and as motion. Taken in

this sense ‘revelation’ is far from mysterious. Consider conversation: your ideas reveal themselves to me as they collide with –and thus transform- my own ‘in exchange’; just like my analysis of Ifá divination reveals itself to you when you ‘put your mind to it’. Taking the mystery out of it, one may cast the truth-claims of divination as ‘revelatory’ in terms of the modification that results when two initially independent strands of meaning are brought together. No accident, that Newton’s eureka moment came about as a meaningful collision with an apple: it’s just these kinds of eureka moments, writ small on the pages of personal diaries, that divination induces in its motility.

Now, this kind of definition of truth may have an air of vacuous mysticism about it. But I would argue that this impression is owed to the fact that thinking of truth in this way brings to light those aspects of truth-ascription that notions based on representation take for granted (this goes to ‘vacuity’) and thus obscure (…and this to ‘mysticism’). Consider the representationist account of truth for a moment. Truth, common sense tells us, is an attribute of representations that reflect facts. Hence truth-ascription involves a comparison between representations and facts in order to establish a match of ‘correspondence’ or ‘coherence’, depending on one’s philosophical preferences 169. However, the notion of comparison indexes a deep circularity here. Logically speaking, comparison presupposes data that are already given ‘to it’ as comparable, for comparison is not the kind of thing that takes place indeterminately: to compare is always to select to compare something with something. Hence, in the case of truth-ascription, the comparison between representation ‘p’ and fact p (i.e. the truth-giving match) already presupposes

Note that this is not just an epistemological question about how truth-claims might be arrived at, but rather pertains first to the definition of what truth consists in as such.

that p is selected as the right datum with which to compare ‘p’ (of course it may turn out to be the wrong one, but the point is precisely that match-making must always start somewhere). Now clearly this assertion of comparability is itself implicitly comparative: in supposing that ‘p’ and p are worthy of comparison, one is already comparing them –indeed one is establishing an initial match between them. But, from the representationist definition of what truth is, it follows that establishing such a match between a representation and a fact (albeit initial) is just to take a tacit stance with regard to the truth of that representation 170. The circularity of the definition is obvious: truth-matches presuppose a comparison which presupposes a truth-match which presupposes comparison, etc.

It is important to stress here that this circularity arises in connection to a deeper conceptual conflict. On the one hand the representationist account posits truth as a relational property, inasmuch as it attributes it on to representations that stand at a certain relation to facts (a matching-relation). On the other hand, the relata involved are taken as belonging to distinct ontological camps (representations v. facts). The problem that arises then is one that is typical to dualist ontologies in general, namely the problem of ‘interaction’: how can tokens of distinct ontological types be

To those familiar with the philosophical literature on truth and intentionality, this way of putting the point will sound strange: the ‘initial match’ that I describe is what most people call ‘reference’. The ordinary intuition on this matter is that representations are true/ false insofar as (1) they contain some type of referring expression (a name, a description, a token-reflexive, etc.) and (2) they combine that referring expression with a property, a relation, etc. E.g. the truth-claim ‘you are iré’ contains a referring expression ‘you’ and combines it with the property of being iré. Now, on the representationist account, ‘you are iré’ is true if and only if you are iré. But the reason why your being iré is deemed as the truth-giving fact is because the representation ‘you are iré’ has the semantic property of picking you out as a referent. Hence the semantic power or representation, i.e. the ability to refer to things without making truthclaims about them, renders comparison a non-circular premise in the definition of truth. But this escape is superficial because the circularity of the representational account of truth can be recast in terms of reference as well. The only difference is that when it comes to reference, ‘matching’ pertains not to ‘facts’ but to ‘objects’ (broadly construed to include things, people, concepts or whatever one would want to include in the class of referents). E.g. ‘you’ has a reference (relative to its context etc.) insofar as you match it as a thing of the world, just like ‘you are iré’ is true insofar as it is matched by the fact of your being iré (for a formal exposition of this parallel, see Horwich 1998: 108). But the reference-match is as much a comparison as the truth-match, and is hence subject to the same circularity: an ‘initial’ reference-match has to be posited, etc.

brought into relation with one another (as truth-matches are supposed to)? And it is in light of this problem that the representationist account both takes for granted and obscures the ‘initial’ truthmatches that we have been pointing to. Initial liaisons between representations and facts need to be assumed in order to render the matching-relations of truth-ascription possible. But they need to stay untheorised since their ontological anomaly as ‘half’ representation ‘half’ fact, if you like, would become apparent in the glare of analysis.

These kinds of problems, of course, often have solutions, and my argument regarding divinatory truth certainly has no bearing on the philosophical question as to whether or not the representationist quandary is soluble. I only claim that Ifá divination turns on an alternative account of truth, and that this alternative can be defined conceptually in terms of its freedom from that particular quandary. This is because what fails to register in the representationist account –the ‘initial’ position of truth- is now foregrounded as the basis for the very different conceptualisation of truth that we have been exploring. If truth turns on ‘meetings’ between moving trajectories of meaning there is no ontological anomaly to contend with at all and hence no circularity either: unlike ‘matches’, the meetings in question are constituted as relations between tokens of the same ontological type.

One could sum up the point about divinatory truth by way of a reply to the kind of level-headed objection one gets from chemists. Even if all these ponderous points were valid, is it not nevertheless obvious that diviners and their clients are as interested in ascertaining facts of the world as anyone else? When a babalawo pronounces that a witch is harming his client, or that his

client’s fridge is broken, is he not making statements about how things actually stand in the world – i.e. statements of fact? And isn’t this the simple reason why practitioners are interested in what oracles tell them? The answer is no. But ‘no’ not because practitioners are not interested in discovering things about the world, but because these discoveries are not captured by a notion of ‘ascertaining facts’, or not insofar as that notion implies a process of matching ideas ‘about’ the world with the way the world ‘actually’ is. Verdicts are rather temporary truth-claims that emerge as and when the world reveals itself to itself, if you like. These revelations are ‘discoveries’ in a full sense since they allow practitioners not only to gauge matters that concern them, but also to understand their significance. So when, for example, the arrogant babalawo of Javier’s story exclaimed that the consultant’s fridge must be broken, he was not demonstrating the predictive power of the oracle. The fact that the fridge was indeed broken makes for a good story, but, after all, the consultant did not need the oracle to find this out. Nor would the babalawo consider it a failure if the consultant had answered that the fridge was alright –he would simply project the problem in terms of past or future difficulties, just like Javier did with regard to his consultant’s trip. What the babalawo was demonstrating was the oracle’s ability to unearth even seemingly insignificant data and instate them as constituents of the consultant’s circumstances, intrinsic to the very course of his live.

By way of conclusion, let me defend this hypothesis against a very serious objection. For as things stand, it would appear that all meaningful data must a fortiori also be construed as ‘true’ whenever they are brought in relation to each other, and such a consequence should surely render this notion of truth vacuous. Indeed, if this analysis gives sense to the idea that divinatory verdicts are

indubitably true, then why does it not render all truth-claims indubitable? And if it does, then why go to diviners at all?

On this point we can just bite the bullet and admit that as long as they are viewed on a motile premise, all collisions of meaning-trajectories are ipso facto true (indubitably so). But crucially, the reason why truth-claims are not in general posited automatically as true in this sense is that only very few of them carry their motile credentials on their sleeve. So, to take a previous example, in full conversation your ideas may reveal themselves as they collide with my own, i.e. they may constitute truth-events on the motile account. But this does not stop me from abstracting away from the trajectories that lead up to these ‘meetings’, and representing your ideas as statements of distinct ‘propositions’ about things. Indeed, it is probably fair to say that these kinds of representational judgments dominate my thinking during conversation, and that motile considerations remain dormant as a background condition. This is arguably because the representational mould dominates thinking generally, and there are good reasons why this should be so, including, if one is that way inclined, good evolutionary reasons: the ability to align our thoughts with our environment (i.e. to judge stable representations for truth) is an indispensable condition for acting effectively. If this holds for anyone, then it holds for Cubans too, as, Evans-Pritchard assured us, it did for the Azande.

But our analysis suggests that this kind of truth reckoning is not only different from the motile one, but also logically incompatible with it. From this incompatibility follows an ‘either/or’ clause, whereby representational truth-ascription unavoidably eclipses colliding trajectories and vice versa, since the act of isolating a motile truth-event as a representational proposition is just a way of

divorcing it from the trajectories of motion that brought it about, and rendering it as a discrete abstraction. Hence the dominion of representational thinking lodges itself at the expense of motile truth-events, by obviating them as hidden premises. Therefore, the motile account of truth is rendered non-vacuous not because its general applicability is dented as such, but because it is habitually obscured.

Now, I would argue that what distinguishes the interpretative dialectics of Ifá from ordinary conversations is just the fact that divinatory proceedings meticulously maximise the scope for treating verdicts as motile truth-events, and thus resist the dominion of representation, if you like. And this, I would argue, is the crucial role of that chaotic technique of casting palm nuts to arrive at the oddu in the first place. For coincidence is pivotal to this process and the diviners’ verdicts turn on that pivot, as prescribed by the divinatory procedure and its technologies of motion. Casts, then, are truth-events par excellence since they just are temporary equilibriums that emerge from non-causal interactions between salient movements, as we saw.

Or is this too psychedelic? Even if we accept that the motile model of truth might be tenable in some circumstances, surely merely physical events like casts of palm nuts cannot fit the bill. For, unlike the processes of interpretation that follow them, casts do not bring together trajectories that are meaningful as such (what meaning could there be in a mere hand-movement, or a bunch of nuts). Indeed on this view, the fact that practitioners are prepared to attach such significance to ‘merely’ coincidental outcomes (by virtue of the elaborately meaningful ‘paths’ of each

oddu) could be taken just as an indication of the dogmatic and arbitrary character of divinatory belief. However, this objection just amounts to a flat refusal to take the motile premise of Ifá seriously. Oddu-myths appear as arbitrary semiotic appendages on ‘mere’ physical movements only if one takes for granted that meaning is separable from its material ‘manifestations’ (see Holbraad 2007)171. But such an assumption iterates the representationist ontology by insisting that meaning can be thought of only as an abstraction. Our motile analysis denies this. Since on a motile premise we can accept that meanings just are parts of the world, we can also accept that parts of the world (like moving hands and palm nut configurations) can be meanings –not as signs that ‘have’ meaning, but as instantiations of meaning pure and simple. The problem then becomes one of revealing what meanings the given movements instantiate, and this, as we have seen already, is a matter of bringing relevant meaning-trajectories together ‘by coincidence’, to give a truth-event. Divinatory casts do just that, and they do so indubitably.


The alleged ontological distinction here is analogous to the one encountered in our discussion of divinatory interpretation. If there representationism amounted to assuming an ontological gap between representations and the world (i.e. as an issue regarding the metaphysics of semantics), here the distinction is drawn between representations and the worldly vehicles through which they get expressed (i.e. at the semiotic level: signified v. signifier). However, since our motile analysis denies a premise that these variants of representationism have in common (viz. that meanings are abstract), it serves as a tenable alternative to ‘semiotic’ representationism also. On such a view, oddu are not arbitrary signifiers of abstract (signified) meanings, and nor does the system of 256 oddu constitute a semiotic ‘code’. Rather, the relationship between the material manifestation of oddu during the séance and its meaning as expressed in mythical ‘paths’ can be thought of as analogous to the relationship between a person and his personality: there is no arbitrariness because the oddu just is its meaning, for those who are acquainted with it (i.e. the babalawos who ‘study’). Hence the fact that each oddu is properly considered a deity in its own right (see above). So, inasmuch as oddu in Cuba are commonly referred to as ‘signs of Ifá’ (signos), then these signs, quite literally for practitioners, speak for themselves, to echo Roy Wagner's famous phrase (Wagner 1986).


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Cognitive underpinnings of divinatory practices172
Jesper Sørensen

The concept of divination has a long history in both anthropology and the scientific study of religion. It is used to denote a significant number of human practices found in a wide variety of cultures, both historically and geographically. If one consults the standard encyclopaedic entries on divination,173 an extremely muddled picture emerges. Like other broad categories, such as ‘religion’ and ‘magic’, ‘divination’ is used to cover a significant range of behaviours brought together by one simple, but rather abstract denominator: that otherwise undisclosed information is revealed through extraordinary means. One of the reasons for this muddled picture is that the concept of divination is negatively defined, i.e. by what it is not. Not only is divination defined as a process aimed at obtaining knowledge of some sort, the methods used to obtain that knowledge are further understood as being in contrast to ordinary or, indeed, scientific ways of obtaining knowledge. As we shall see, there is some truth to this observation, but it is hardly helpful if left at that. Moreover, when closely examining specific aspects of the practices performed, a number of important differences appear concerning whether: 1) the information obtained is about the future, present or past; 2) the information is coming from gods, spirits or ancestors; 3) the practice involves manipulation of inanimate objects or a special technique; 4) individuals are being possessed by superhuman agents; or 5) the practice merely involves the reading of environmental cues. This muddled picture indicates that divination is an ‘impure object’ that cannot be explained by reference to a single theory (Boyer 1994). No single theory will be able to explain all divinatory practices. Rather, a number of different hypotheses must be constructed in order to address each of the different aspects of behaviour traditionally described as ‘divination’. As noted above, the only common denominator across these different practices is the obtainment of otherwise undisclosed knowledge. It therefore would be a natural step to base an

Writing this chapter was made possible by a grant from the Danish Research Foundation for the Humanities (273-05-0348). The author wishes to thank Anders Lisdorf, Pierre Liénard and Kirstine Munk for helpful comments and suggestions, and to Deborah Licht for improving the language. 173 For example, Hastings (1908) and Eliade (1987). The muddled picture of divination has produced a large number of taxonomies. See Peek (1991) for a condensed overview.

explanation of divinatory practices on what we know about human cognitive processing. Unfortunately, very few studies of divination have been conducted that have incorporated cognitive science (Lisdorf 2004, Lisdorf this volume; Cohen this volume). The focus on cognitive underpinnings, however, does not preclude that divinatory practices can have other causes and effects, as for instance those argued by more traditional anthropologically inspired approaches. There is no doubt that divinatory practices can express social power relations, reify religious beliefs-systems, conceptualise Self in relation to Other, and alleviate anxiety or social tension (e.g., Harwood 1970; Peek 1991). It is, however, questionable whether this is always the case, or whether the performance of divination will sometimes have opposite effects. Using these characteristics to explain divination will not enable us to distinguish these practices from other human practices with similar effects. In contrast, divinatory practices, by definition, always use a method to obtain knowledge and information and therefore cognitive theories should naturally play a central role in any attempt to explain this type of human behaviour. A proper understanding of the constraining role of human cognition in turn will make it possible to address the relation between specific types of divinatory practices and their social functions in a more informed manner. The present chapter outlines some of the questions a cognitive approach should address and presents a number of tentative hypotheses. Thus, it should be understood in the spirit of an exploratory survey of problems and preliminary suggestions of how to resolve them. Divinatory practices potentially activate a whole catalogue of cognitive mechanisms. As different kinds of divination are likely to trigger different sets of cognitive mechanisms, this chapter starts with the presentation of two variables that are likely to impact cognitive processing. The first variable is based on the type of signs involved. When obtaining information from the environment, it is of crucial importance to determine what types of signs are involved and how cognitive processing connects signs to events. The second variable is the temporal dimension relevant when the undisclosed information is acquired. This addresses the relative positions of cognising agents in relation to the information disclosed by the divinatory practice and whether the information is about past or future events. The focus then is on a central problem of all information gathering: how does the information acquire credibility? As this question is particularly pertinent in divinatory practices, a number of contextual variables of divinatory practices are investigated. First, it is argued that information that is sought, falls within a limited repertoire, namely that of strategic social information (Boyer 2001). Second, representations of the role of the ritual agent play a crucial part when judging the reliability of information. Information should not be represented as coming from

the diviner if it is to be considered reliable. Third, the actions performed in divinatory practices are structured in a way that potentially heightens the credibility of the information obtained. Identifying the cognitive processes activated activated as a result of these variables makes it possible to present hypotheses that would explain why certain divinatory practices are more successfully transmitted and, as a consequence, why divinatory practices seem to cluster around a universal repertoire. The approach presented in this chapter is based on two premises. The first premise is that humans universally need to acquire certain types of information about their physical and social environments, and that this need has led to the development of a range of cognitive mechanisms devoted hereto. The second premise is that different types of divinatory practices activate different combinations of cognitive processing. From a cognitive perspective, no special processes are involved in divination. Rather, divinatory practices trigger cognitive systems whose development was prompted by other evolutionary pressures. Some of these cognitive systems therefore are best conceived of as heuristic means to answer species-specific and recurrent adaptive problems (Boyer & Barrett 2005; Tooby & Cosmides 2005). As human evolutionary development predominantly took place in a different physical and social environment than most people live in at present time, the proper domain of information processing must be distinguished from the actual domain from which the information is retrieved. Whereas the proper domain designates the kind of information that a given cognitive mechanism evolved to process, the actual domain specifies the kind of information that merely fulfils the input-conditions of a particular cognitive mechanism (Sperber 1994, 2005). Thus, new stimuli can be produced that, by virtue of their format, activate pre-existing cognitive mechanisms. Distinguishing between proper and actual domain is relevant in the context of divination for three reasons: (a) Fundamental cognitive mechanisms are adaptations that address species-specific problems. Thus, certain kinds of environmental cues recurrently trigger specific types of cognitive processing. When the environment changes, new cues emerge that activate different combinations of evolved cognitive mechanisms; (b) Much of the human environment today is ‘cultural’ in the sense of that which is artificial or moulded by humans. Evolved cognitive mechanisms produce a selective pressure on such cultural forms. Those that best fit evolved mechanisms are more likely to be salient and memorable and are therefore more likely to be transmitted (Sperber 1996; Boyer 1994, 2001; Boyer & Ramble 2001); and (c) Present-day human practices need not be adaptive, even if they trigger cognitive mechanisms that originally served an adaptive function. Thus, divinatory practices utilise cognitive processes that evolved to address

species-specific problems; the most successful practices are the ones that consistently present cues that activate these cognitive systems; and, in contrast to claims based on traditional social functionalism, divinatory practices need not be adaptive or functionally integrative in themselves. They become relevant due to the activation of cognitive processes developed to serve other adaptive functions.

Two analytic variables of divinatory practices
Two dimensions are of primary importance whenever humans attempt to extract undisclosed information from the environment. The first dimension is essentially semiotic, as it concerns the types of signs that convey the sought after information. At a fundamental level, humans must be able to distinguish between two types of signs: (a) communicative signs, i.e., signs based on the intentional reordering of some aspect of the physical world in order to transmit information (e.g., an arrow drawn in the sand); and (b) indexical signs, which by being part of a causal sequence point to other aspects of the sequence (e.g., footprints of a hare), even if such a sign relation was not intended. The second dimension is temporal, as it concerns whether signs are conveying information about the past or about the future and the relative position of the cognising agent. This dimension is crucial for deciding in what way new information can inform future actions. As fundamental aspects of information retrieval, both dimensions are directly relevant when searching for variables that influence the form and function of divinatory practices.

Communicative vs. indexical signs
There is strong evidence that distinct cognitive systems are involved in processing communicative and indexical signs. Per definition, communication involves an agent with communicative intentions and access to information. This involves complex representations of the intentional state of the communicating agent, of the symbols used to communicate and of the relation between the two. Developmental psychologists argue that during the first four years of life children develop a ‘Theory of Mind’. On a non-conscious and intuitive level, this theory supplies a number of expectations about the behaviour of other agents (Gopnik & Wellman 1994; Leslie 1994, 1995; Frith & Frith 1999; Wellman et al. 2001; Perner & Ruffman 2005). When faced with another agent, we automatically infer that this person has belief-states guided by perception and we assume, as a default assumption, that an agent’s actions are informed by specific beliefs and desires. Such

expectations constrain our understanding of communicative behaviour. Discerning the intentions underlying an act of communication is crucial in extracting its relevant semantic content. Further, it has been argued that human communication is informed by principles of relevance and truthfulness (Grice 1969; Sperber & Wilson 1995). Acts of communication are not only processed as reflecting the communicator’s intentions and beliefs, but as a default strategy we assume that the communicator has the intention of transmitting contextually relevant information. It is hard to imagine how communicative rapport could ever be established without such an implicit assumption of relevancy (why bother to communicate?). We also assume that the information conveyed is true (Gilbert et al. 1990; Gilbert et al. 1993; Bergstrom et al. 2006). Without this default assumption of veracity, communication would not have been established as a stable evolutionary strategy. Thus, consistent communicative deceitfulness is a self-defeating strategy (in the long run), as it undermines its own basis, i.e., if communication inflicts more costs than benefits on the organism. This by no means suggests that communication is not sometimes deliberately irrelevant or deceptive, or that we never recognise such deception. In fact, humans might have evolved cognitive systems whose function is to detect deceit (Cosmides & Tooby 2005). Without a consistent background of communicative truthfulness, however, deception would be impossible. Many divinatory practices are based on alleged communication with superhuman agents such as spirits, ancestors or gods. This is clearly the case in divination by means of possession (see Cohen, this volume), but some go further and argue that most, if not all, divinatory practices involve representations of intentional agents communicating through some medium, whether material or human (Lisdorf 2004, present volume and forthcoming). The assumption is that divination, per definition, is an act of communication with superhuman agents that have access to information otherwise unavailable to the subject. There is no doubt that many divinatory processes, indeed, are based on a representation of the involvement of superhuman agents of some sort. At the end of this chapter, I attempt to explain why acts of divination involving ritualised and randomised behaviour make such assumptions attractive to the human cognitive system. Still, it is premature simply to claim that all divinatory practices are based on represented communication. A significant number are more likely to be the result of understanding signs as indexes (Boyer 1990): instances where a given sign (e.g., a footprint) is causally related to an event (e.g., a hare passed by) without involving any representations of an agent intentionally communicating by means of the sign. Understanding signs as indexes is likely to be the result of

very different cognitive processes than is intentional communication. Indexical relations are represented in a number of ways, both causal and probabilistic: smoke indicates the presence of fire; a footprint indicates that a person passed by; water at a specific location indicates that there might be water there in the future; and a ball rolling towards the end of a table indicates that it is likely to fall off. A common feature uniting the examples above is that ascriptions of indexical relations are model dependent (i.e., depend on the existence of a mental model relating some, but not other, perceptual data to each other). At this point it would be helpful to distinguish between three types of models involved in establishing indexical relations. The first type is based on intuitive causal reasoning . There is growing evidence that, from an early age, children entertain expectations about the causal properties of physical objects, namely so-called ‘naive’ or ‘intuitive physics’ (Baillargion et al. 1995; Spelke et al. 1995). These, in turn, give rise to more complex expectations of the causal unfolding of events. Causal knowledge of physical objects also pertains to the physical aspects of living things, i.e., bodies and their interactions with the surrounding environment. The footprint of the hare precisely indicates its former presence due to its body’s physical interaction with an imprintable surface. Thus, from an early age, humans entertain a large number of causal and probabilistic models that guide expectations for events in the world. The second type of model is based on associative learning relating contiguous features of the environment to each other. This has been referred to as ‘weak’ or ‘arbitrary’ causal knowledge, in contrast to the ‘strong’ or ‘natural’ causal knowledge described above (Kummer 1995; Premack 1995). This well-documented aspect of both animal and human learning underlies classical conditioning theory of human learning. Experiments based on the behaviourist paradigm have established that under certain conditions both animals and humans form strong associations between apparently arbitrary perceptual stimuli and thus leading to automatic behavioural responses. A bell can function as an index of food, which in turn will result in salivation, as in Pavlov’s famous experiment. This example points to a strong temporal constraint on this learning process. All relevant stimuli must be both salient (in order to stand out from perceptual noise) and contiguously related in space and time in order for conditioned learning to take place (Kummer 1995). Once in place, however, such associative models can contain persistent indexical connections between otherwise causally unrelated events. This brings us to the third type of model, which can be described as based on cultural learning. Cultural transmission makes it possible not only to transmit models originally

established through conditioned learning to an individual not encountering these stimuli, but also to create systems of ‘artificial indexes’, i.e., indexes based on neither intuitive causal knowledge nor associative learning. A barometer can indicate the likelihood of imminent rain. The vial of the barometer and the rain have no direct causal connection, even though both are causally related to a common cause of low atmospheric pressure. This embedded causal structure, however, need not be cognitively represented in order to guide behaviour. In fact, often such knowledge will be utterly superfluous for everyone except for the few individuals constructing the system. Models based on cultural learning make it possible to have a much longer time interval between a sign and an effect than is the case in associative learning. The relation therefore must be established and maintained by other means in order to be transmitted. Recent cognitive theories suggest that the evocation and memory of such culturally learned relations can be developed by different methods, all with particular cognitive effects: by the associations themselves being salient, e.g., by being minimally counterintuitive (Boyer 1994, 2001); by being often repeated and explicitly taught (Whitehouse 2000); or by being linked to individually salient events as exemplars (Bering 2002). These three different types of mental models all contain indexical signs linking events to ‘causal’ scenarios that in turn can be used to inform behaviour. Some divinatory practices are based on indexes related to such mental models. Many instances of so-called ‘mechanical divination’ (Reynolds 1963) fall into this category, even if superhuman agents are evoked to ensure that the process unfolds correctly. Reading tea leaves, throwing dice and sticks, or interpreting the footprints of a fox are all based on relating signs to events based on an established model. This is also the case for the widespread ‘beliefs’ in and transmission of portents and omens. There is no reason to believe that portents, such as a black cat crossing the road as sign of imminent danger or seven years of unhappiness resulting from breaking a mirror, need involve any representations of a communicating agent. Further, we find many examples of divinatory systems in which a conventionally specified configuration of physical features is understood as indicating some (future) state of affairs. Thus, chiromancy specifies a relation between lines in a person’s hand and specific aspects of his or her (future) life, and astrological systems claim a concordance between patterns of celestial objects and individuals’ destinies. Again, it is questionable whether people automatically represent such signs as acts of communication, even in cases where a more or less explicit underlying ‘lore’ specifies such a connection. Whether these actions are necessarily understood as communicative acts intended by a superhuman agent or as mere conventionalised systems of signs that indicate a specific state of

affairs must be decided by means of empirical investigations, such as detailed ethnography and psychological experimentation (Lisdorf, forthcoming). The cognitive constraints underlying this semiotic dimension thus have an important impact on the possible form of divinatory practices. Understanding physical features of the world, whether it be birds’ migratory patterns, lines in the hand or the movements of celestial bodies, as indexes of a past or coming event, need not involve representations of these as communicative signs. Such relations are more easily explained as dependent on intuitive causal reasoning, conditioned learning and cultural learning, which guide probabilistic reasoning about future events and help explain past events. In contrast, understanding signs as communicative will automatically trigger very specific cognitive systems involved in representing the intentions of other agents, in representing how this information has relevance to the subject, and in relating these representations to the signs produced in order to understand their meaning. So, from a cognitive perspective, there seem to be two optimal forms of divinatory practices: the first is based on mental models allowing a sign to function as an index pointing to a future or past event. No communicative agent is represented. Instead the sign is more or less ‘causally’ connected to the event. The second optimal form is based on representations of communicative behaviour. Instead of being directly related to the event, an intentional agent uses a sign to transmit information about a past or future event by means of conventional reference. A preliminary hypothesis therefore would be that a divinatory practice is better transmitted and more easily disseminated if it reliably produces specific cues that trigger either or both of these cognitive systems.

Temporal orientation: Prognostic vs. diagnostic and retrospective vs. prospective
As mentioned above, the goal of divinatory practices is to obtain otherwise undisclosed knowledge. This knowledge, however, can be about past, present or future events. In addition, knowledge is not obtained for its own sake, but because it can be used to guide future actions. Divinatory practices therefore must be explained as part of a more comprehensive representation of a number of interrelated event-frames (Fillmore 1982), i.e., strings of representations of chunks of events that prototypically involve an agent, an action and an outcome. This analytic variable thus deals with the relative position and orientation of the divinatory practices in a series of interrelated event-frames.

The variable can be described according to two axes. The first axis depicts the temporal relation between a sign and its referent. This relation can be either that of a diagnosis concerning how something came to be (e.g., why a person is suffering from a disease or why the harvest failed) or a prognosis concerning what the future holds, usually in relation to some specific endeavour (e.g., the prospects of submitting a job application). Whereas the diagnostic process is based on a sign pointing backward to a prior event, in prognostic practices participants understand signs as pointing forward to a coming event. The distinction can be illustrated graphically as a temporal relation between a sign and an event:



TIME Figure 1: This figure illustrates the temporal relation between an event and a sign. In the case on the left, the
event is seen as temporally preceding the sign and thus as either ’causing’ its production (index) or prompting its production by an agent’s wishing to communicate its knowledge (communicative). In both scenarios, the sign points to a preceding event. In the case on the right, the sign points to a future event that is somehow represented as either causing or prompting the intentional creation of the prior sign.

In both cases, the event is represented as either ‘producing’ the sign (index) or, alternatively, being a communicative sign that tells the skilled interpreter something that another agent knows. If we first address indexical relations, the logic of the diagnostic frame is quite obvious, as when the footprint is understood as having been produced by the passing hare. Indexical relations in the prognostic frame are more problematic, as it is unclear how a future event, i.e., an event that has yet to take place, can be seen as ‘producing’ a sign. This apparent contradiction of causal principles (in which an effect cannot be prior to a cause) has led to numerous speculations about the ‘irrationality’, ‘prelogical’ or symbolic mind of people engaged in this sort of practice (e.g., Lévy-Bruhl 1926/1985). This framework of primitivism and exoticism has hindered a proper understanding of divinatory practices as, to a great degree, it is based on a flawed comparison between divinatory practices and causal relations as specified in formal logic. If we instead compare divinatory practices to our everyday cognition of causal relations based on the three mental models presented above, this apparent breach of causality becomes less exotic: the sign is embedded in a causal scenario linking specific events; the sign is embedded in a weak causal scenario based on conditioned learning; the sign is embedded in a cultural conventional

model, whether based on a superfluous correlation or unrecognised underlying causal connections. All three models allow the prediction of future events based on perceptions of specific signs. Two further features of event-frames can explain why such models need not entail breaches of causal principles. First, the action can be causally underspecified and accepted solely on the authority of the agent and/or the techniques involved in producing the sign. Second, the signs can be communicative and therefore not directly related to the event, but instead form part of a model involving an agent communicating knowledge of a future event by means of a symbol. Both of these features activate Theory of Mind mechanisms: the first by involving representations of the expert’s knowledge and authority, i.e., the metarepresentations involved in evaluating the action (Sperber 1996); the latter by involving an agent’s intentions to use communicative signs to dissemminate information. This, however, transforms the problem of prognosis into one of how agents can gain access to knowledge of future events, why they transmit particular types of information, and why the communication takes such strange forms in certain practices (discussed below). Thus, the apparent violation of causal principles can be explained by the three types of mental models that relate signs and events or by the activation of Theory of Mind mechanisms verifying the relation by means of authority or interpreting the sign as communicative. The second axis concerns the temporal position from which this recognition of a relation between a sign and an event is made, i.e., the viewpoint of the subject claiming a connection. In some cases, an omen/portent/sign is seen only retrospectively as a prognosis of an event, i.e., after the event has taken place (e.g., “Wasn’t a black cat crossing the street prior to the accident?” or “God tried to tell me not to go.”). In general, retrospective representations of omens or signs are part of explanatory event-frames. These frames can consist of already established cultural models relating specific signs to types of events (black cat crossing —> accident). Alternatively, they are constructed as a need arises, for example when a specific and salient state of affairs is explained by linking it to another salient event reinterpreted as a sign. Anthropologist Gilbert Lewis recounts a telling example of the latter:
A Gnau man fell ill with a bad knee. Trying to explain how this had come to be, he remembered that just after the onset of the pain, a cricket had jumped onto the bad knee. This had temporarily coincided with the passing of a young woman outside his hut whose grandfather had died from a leg infection caused by a specific ‘shade’, i.e., a malevolent spirit (Lewis 1995: 560-561).

The explanation thus produced indicated that the spirit of the dead uncle had followed the young woman, entered into the cricket, which, upon touching the man’s knee, had alerted the ‘shade’ that then made the knee go bad. At first, this explanatory frame was widely accepted and a number of rituals were performed in order to persuade the ‘shade’ to stop hurting the man. Later this explanation was rejected, as the rituals addressing the shade had no effect on the man’s condition. Besides a number of interesting features of contagious transfer and the relation between diagnostics and ritual action, the example illustrates how a salient event (the onset of knee pain) can be explained by linking it to other salient events (cricket jumping, woman passing by). In contrast to the use of omens as signs that explain specific salient events, divinatory sessions include a type of technical behaviour aimed at producing signs disclosing information about events. They are thus prospective in the sense of a motivated production of signs capable of disclosing information. In contrast to the explanatory status of the retrospective use of omens, prospective divination involves a specific action creating a sign understood as related to an event. In Figure 2, both diagnostic and prognostic relations are represented in terms of this distinction between retrospective (explanatory) and prospective (behavioural) aspects of divination. Retrospective


















Figure 2: In this figure, the crossed circle represents the viewpoint of the agent(s) participating in the divinatory
practice. In both cases of explanatory use, the agent retrospectively recognises a relation between a sign and an event. In the case of divinatory rituals, the agent’s viewpoint is attached to the sign produced through ritual behaviour.

The importance of these distinctions lies in how divinatory practices are related to more comprehensive representations of interrelated events and actions and how they influence the future actions of people. Creating conceptual tools to analyse the position of divinatory practices in the construction of complex representations of events will enable a better understanding of how the information gained can be said to influence human behaviour. Further, when analysing the temporal dimension and the types of signs utilised, we can distinguish between cases of portents and omens, on the one hand, and ritual divination on the other. Omens are more or less stable cultural models or ad hoc produced indexical relations used both to predict future states (e.g., birds’ flight indicating a warm summer) and as retrospective explanations (e.g., “The cat crossing the road should have told me I would have an accident.”). Divinatory sessions are always prospective as they involve active behaviour, namely the creation of new patterns of signs (whether this is about past or future events). Disclosure of otherwise hidden knowledge by means of specific techniques is, potentially, a very persuasive practice, as it can be aimed directly at specific but, as yet, undecided questions (e.g., “Should I marry Victoria?”). This contextual embeddedness and specificity has interesting cognitive effects. First, it activates the issue of authority. When the creation of a sign is associated with a specific ‘technique’ or privileged access to information, matters of authority and competence become significant. Even more important, it tends to embed the whole practice in a communicative frame, in which a question is posed and an answer is given. As a default, communication involves the interaction with another agent and, as we shall see below, divinatory practices contain a number of features that potentially strengthen representations of hidden agents.

Three contextual variables of divinatory practices
A central aspect of divination not yet discussed is how the information revealed in divinatory practices acquires legitimacy. Are there any particular features that enhance the veracity of information acquired through divinatory practices? Addressing this question might enable us to predict what types of divinatory practices are successfully transmitted. The traditional answer is that superhuman agents guarantee the truthfulness of information disclosed by divinatory practices. However, not all practices involve superhuman agents. Further, this does not explain how and why divinatory practices can effect representations of superhuman agents. Questions concerning veracity and the potential role of superhuman agents can be examined by addressing three contextual variables. First, the reliability of information depends on the type of knowledge that is sought.

Therefore, it is crucial to map what information is actually disclosed in divinatory practices. Second, evaluating the source of information is essential in all judgements of reliability. We therefore must investigate the role of individuals participating in divinatory sessions, and in particular the role of the diviner. Finally, the veracity of information depends on the method used to acquire it. We must specify the particular features prevalent in divinatory practices, most notably the central role of ritualisation and randomisation.

Type of information
At first glance, it seems that divination is used to search for all types of information: whether a journey will be successful, a harvest plenty or a business proposal prosperous; what caused a specific disease, who killed a family-member, or whether a witch has cast a curse on someone. On closer look, however, it becomes clear that the type of information is not random, but falls within a rather limited repertoire. In line with the arguments of evolutionary psychology presented in the introduction, humans do not randomly pay attention to all types of input from the environment (at least not until the creation of science). Rather, we are biased towards seeking specific types of information relevant in dealing with recurrent adaptive problems. Divinatory practices overwhelmingly supply two types of information of adaptive value. The first type of relevant information relates directly to the physical well-being of the subject and his or her immediate family. Information about potential dangers to life, potential sources of afflictions and diseases, and the availability of sufficient nutrition and resources can be difficult to obtain but are highly relevant for the survival of an organism. The second type of information has a more indirect impact on the fitness of an organism, as it concerns long-term social interaction within a group. Humans have an endemic interest in strategic social information (Boyer 2001). Knowing who is having sexual relations, who is forming coalitions and who is a(n) (un-)trustworthy co-operator represents recurrent types of social information of great importance when planning activities involving a social group. Evans-Pritchard’s list of reasons why Azande use the poison oracle is consistent with these two types (Evans-Pritchard 1937: 261-262). Of the 30 items on his list, 9 are directly related to potential threats to physical well-being and reproduction (conception, childbirth, sickness, death, journey etc.), 16 are about social information (marriage, job, performance of ritual, adultery, sorcery, decision of superiors etc.) and 5 potentially fit both (time of circumcision, war and journey to collect poison for oracles; see Harwood 1970 for similar results). It is a recurrent finding in both

history and ethnography, however, that problems of the first type are very often addressed in terms of the second type. Even when underlying causal relations are recognised, threats to physical wellbeing and reproduction are consistently explained as caused by malevolent human(-like) agents. The reasons for this curious tendency to understand threats to the organism in terms of actions of intentional agents is complex and cannot be addressed here (see Guthrie 1995; Kelemen 1999, 2004; Barrett 2000; Boyer 2001; Atran 2002). It suffices to point out that representing threats or misfortunes as caused by intentional agents has three effects that might go some distance towards explaining their prevalence: (a) Contiguous events can be understood as linked even when they are causally disconnected. Thus the representation of a liable intentional agent allows a car accident, the death of a cow and a daughter’s disobedience to be linked into a coherent and meaningful pattern of events (Favret-Saada 1980); (b) Individual or existential aspects of an event, i.e., not why the roof collapsed but why this person was under the roof at the time it collapsed, fit well with an intentional framing according to which events are caused by agents. Thus, addressing the particularity of the situation and its existential relevance and seeing events with social effects as a result of social causes might be a natural response (Evans-Pritchard 1937; Lewis 1995; Bering 2002); and (c) Framing an intangible physical threat in terms of intentional agents moves possible countermeasures from the physical to the social domain and thereby facilitates representations of possible control. Divinatory practices are often an integrated part of a large series of event frames involving ritual actions ‘responding’ to causes revealed through divinatory practices (Sørensen 2007a). Thus, the type of information acquired through divinatory practices is overwhelmingly of a social nature involving the interaction of agents. A hypothesis associated with this would be that culturally successful divinatory practices, i.e., divinatory practices that are faithfully transmitted and whose information is deemed to be reliable, transform threats to individual fitness into previously undisclosed interactions between intentional agents. A further hypothesis would be that the disclosure of otherwise hidden social information makes representations of superhuman agents particularly relevant, as these are generally conceived as having full access to this type of information (Boyer 2001). The social character of divinatory knowledge and the potential role of superhuman agents lead naturally to questions concerning the source of information.

Source of information
In contrast to trivial information about the physical world, receiving socially strategic information inevitably makes the receiver judge its source to a greater degree. Being told by Joan to avoid a particular path, as the river has flooded the banks, is easily verifiable. Being told by Joan to avoid Peter, as he is angry with Max, is more difficult to verify and representations of Joan’s social motives and her social relation to both Peter and Max will automatically influence judgements of the information’s veracity. Cases of divination in which the information is represented as a direct indexical reflection of some state of affairs (as when tea leaves indicates a coming misfortune) represent the relatively simple situation in which one person relates a given sign to a specific event constrained by the principles described above. The reliability of the information thus depends on the general reliability of the model and how well the current situation fits the model. When the divinatory practice involves a specific technique and/or a specific instrument, however, there is a widely documented tendency to treat the technique/instrument itself as a kind of agent (e.g., most of the Zande divinatory techniques, the I Ching and the tarot cards). The degree to which these are really cognitively represented as full-fledged agents is debated and is a subject ripe for experimental research. A hypothesis explaining at least aspects of this ‘spontaneous animism’ would be that they are a (superficial) result of the pragmatic situation. A specific question is posed and is subsequently ‘answered’ by means of the oracular techniques/instrument. This provides cues of a communicative event involving two intentional agents (one posing questions, another giving answers). As only one is present the other is inferred. A modern analogue would be the experience of overhearing someone on the phone. The existence of an agent at the other end of the line is automatically assumed, even though all cues come from the person present. It is hard to tell, however, to what extent communicative cues necessarily lead to the representations of hidden agents in divinatory practices. In cases in which a ritual specialist is involved, the situation becomes more complex. Ritual agents are generally characterised as special because they have knowledge of certain techniques and/or privileged access to special instruments necessary to produce specific patterns of signs. In addition, they are often the only ones that can ‘read’ the result of the divinatory action – they are represented as having the ‘hermeneutical keys’ necessary to relate signs produced by a ritual technique to past or future events. In many cases, these special abilities are represented as stemming from a more or less direct contact with superhuman agents. But, even when this is not the case, humans have a tendency to understand social categories as reflecting essential differences.

Accordingly, diviners are represented as belonging to a delineated social category of persons with a number of specified essential qualities and the performance of a diviner is measured against a model containing a number of expectations for his or her behaviour and abilities (Boyer 1994, 2001; Hirschfeld 1995). Further, ritual agents are automatically represented through a number of Theory of Mind mechanisms. In line with other agents, diviners have representational states, beliefs, desires, intentions and so forth, and these are generally assumed to guide their behaviours. A number of factors, however, modify representations of ritual agents in the context of divinatory rituals. First, diviners have a special relation to the knowledge produced. The clients believe as a default that the diviner is ignorant of the desired knowledge prior to the divinatory session. A number of ritual techniques exist to ensure such representations. In the most extreme cases, the ritual agent ‘disappears’, i.e., is possessed by another agent with access to the information sought after (Cohen, this volume). In other cases, diviners are imported from far away, thus ensuring their ignorance of local affairs (e.g., Harwood 1970). Even if these examples appear rather dissimilar, both signify that the concrete ritual agent, with potential interests in a local situation, does not influence the result of the divinatory session. The prevalence of these practices indicates that clients are worried about the role of the ritual agent and the possibility of manipulation and hidden motives. The problem with the veracity of social strategic information is also manifest in the special relation between the ritual agent and the divinatory practice. The pattern of signs resulting from the ritual technique is generally represented as being beyond the control of the diviner (otherwise there is no reason to perform the action). Whether the spirit communicates through a possessed ritual agent, or a pattern of sticks indicates the identity of a witch, the signs produced through a divinatory session should indicate some true state of affairs rather than the intentions of the diviner (cf. Boyer 1990). Preliminary experimental results confirm this. In an experimental setting, participants consistently rated information created through actions beyond the intentional control of the diviner as more credible than information received through patterns intentionally created by the diviner (Lisdorf, forthcoming). This does not mean that diviners never have access to relevant knowledge prior to the ritual performance, or that they never intentionally or unintentionally influence the result of an otherwise random process (Swancutt 2006). The point is that successful divinatory techniques will employ a number of cues that makes it likely for the client to think the diviner has no prior knowledge and that he or she does not influence the result of the divinatory practice. One hypothesis would be that

the diviner’s authority and, ipso facto, the long-term cultural transmission of the divinatory technique are dependent on the diviner disclosing relevant information despite not knowing anything in advance and not intentionally controlling the actions he or she performs. The disengagement of divinatory actions from the intentionality of the diviner can be understood as leaving room for representations of other intentional agents. As mentioned above, divination has traditionally been conceived as a practice of communicating with gods, spirits or ancestors. This would establish the truthfulness of the signs because they originate from a, presumably, reliable superhuman agent. As we have seen, however, divination is not dependent on such representations of communication, but can work on established indexical connections. But even if superhuman agents are not necessary, we still need to explain why representations of gods, spirits and ancestors are so prevalent in divinatory practices. Perhaps it is the result of the communicative frame mentioned above. Seeing divination as a question-answer sequence automatically leads to representations of an agent supplying the answer, and what could be more natural than inserting a reliable superhuman agent as the missing part of the dyad? This would be further prompted by the fact that the social information acquired is ‘hidden’ and therefore must stem from agents with special access to social strategic information (Boyer 2001). Another possibility is that superhuman agents are primarily evoked to authorise knowledge already acquired. They are not part of the process of acquiring information itself, but are effective guarantors for the veracity of the information and the appropriateness of the methods used to obtain it (Sperber 1996). Both of these possibilities go some way to explain the role of superhuman agents in divinatory actions. In the final part of this chapter, I explore a third possibility: that certain features common in the methods of divination make representations of superhuman agents relevant.

The method of gathering information
As mentioned in the introduction, one of the only commonalities of divination is that the knowledge sought after is acquired by ‘extraordinary’ means. This raises an intriguing question. If the knowledge is acquired in a special way, do features of the actions themselves add to the veracity of the information obtained? At this point, it is important to emphasise that ‘special’ or ‘extraordinary’ should not be confused with their cultural rareness or local participants’ surprise at the methods and content of the session. Divinatory practices (i.e., the prospective creation of signs) are part of daily life in many cultures where their performance hardly raises any interest in people not directly involved. Rather, what is intended is that both observer and practitioner understand divination as a

special way of gaining knowledge, used in special situations in order to gain specific kinds of otherwise non-available social information. Most divinatory practices are thus classified in the vernacular, sometimes even distinguishing between different types. The ‘oddness’ of divination cannot be explained (away) as a product of the scholar’s cultural background. Two special features are often mentioned in the literature as setting divinatory practices apart. First, divination is often described as a type of ritual action. Second, a large number of divinatory practices involve some degree of randomisation. This combination of ritual and randomness might seem rather surprising. Whereas ritual actions are generally understood as involving a fairly fixed set of actions that must be performed in the right sequence (i.e., they are stipulated), randomness introduces disorder and unpredictability into the action. The conflict, however, is only superficial. Randomness is only allowed to enter at specific points in the divinatory session. Further, investigations of the potential cognitive effects of both ritualised actions and randomness point to common characteristics. Even if not all divinatory sessions are considered rituals, there is no question that divinatory practices often involve some degree of ritualisation. The problem of specifying the sense in which divinatory practices are types of ritual is aggravated by the notorious difficulty in achieving a scholarly, accepted definition of ritual and ritualisation (for recent attempts, see Humphrey & Laidlaw 1994; Rappaport 1999; Liénard & Boyer 2006; Boyer & Liénard 2006; Sørensen 2007b). However, a number of recurrent features seem to be widely recognised and, of these, two are especially important for the present argument. First, ritual actions are causally underspecified. This means that the very actions that constitute a ritual sequence are not causally related to each other or to their overarching goal. No domain-specific, intuitive causal assumptions relate eating sanctified bread to receiving grace, or a specific configuration of cards to a future event. This causal underdetermination is in contrast to cognitive representations of ordinary actions that entail strong expectations of the causal relations between individual sequences of an action (e.g., putting money in a pocket; riding a bike to the bakery) as well as between individual actions and an overarching intention (buying a cake; see Sørensen 2007b, for extended discussion.). One might argue that understanding divination as a communicative act solves this problem. Just as there is no intrinsic relation between a word and the thing it denotes, divinatory signs communicate by means of a symbolic language with conventional references. This explanation, however, transforms rather than solves the problem. If divination is a type of communication, why does it consistently violate ordinary expectations of communication? Distorted language, formations of geometrical

figures, random configurations of sticks or cards, cracks on the bones of animals or footprints of a fox are all far from the prototype of intentional communication – spoken language. Even when the oracle has the form of a linguistic encoded message, this is more often than not put in a cryptic form that sets it apart from ordinary linguistic interaction. In order for divinatory practices to serve as communication, an expert interpreter is needed to link the sign to the meaning. This is similar to the process of more pragmatically oriented ritual actions, in which the purported effects of the ritual actions are specified by explicit and often conventionalised interpretations. The second relevant feature of ritualised actions is that the actions performed are underspecified by the intentions of the agent. The violation of causal connections between action and effect mentioned above means that ritual actions have a mechanical and stipulated character (cf. Humphrey & Laidlaw 1994). This is by no means confined to ritual actions. If I have no clue why a sequence of actions, say baking a cake, has a particular effect, I better perform it in strict adherence to available instructions. Similarly, if a ritual action sequence is said to produce a specific result and there are no implicit cues relating the actions performed and this result, the best strategy would be to stick to the stipulated action. This fixation to the behavioural sequence endows the whole procedure with an ‘objective’ feeling. Actions are not causally specified by the intentions of the actor, but learned as a fixed sequence (if you receive the Holy Communion do X, if you want to know who cursed you do Z). However, as the actions nevertheless activate cognitive mechanisms involved in processing actions, this might lead to an automatic search for an agent, whose intention can specify the causal and the intentional relation between the actions performed and the purported result (Lisdorf 2004; Sørensen 2007a, 2007b). Thus, the particular form of a divinatory ritual is not specified by the intention to acquire a specific type of information (as when looking for signs of a prey). Rather, they are conventionalised, and sometimes ritualised, actions subsequently used to acquire the types of information described above. A claim following the argument above is that ritualisation enhances representations of the diviner as not influencing the result of the action. Ritualisation thus ensures that the information acquired is a reflection of ‘reality’ rather than the diviner’s intentions. A further claim is that ritualised actions in general have the additional effect of making representations of superhuman agencies directly relevant: (a) they supply a causal link specifying how the signs produced by the ritual performance can be informative (either by directly being controlled by the superhuman agent, or by this agent specifying a definite indexical relation between the sign and the event); (b) they supply an intentional link between the actions and results, specifying whose intentions defines the

actions performed (Sørensen 2007b). One prediction would be that representations of superhuman agents are more likely found in divinatory sessions with a high degree of ritualisation than they are in similar divinatory practices with a low degree of ritualisation. Predicting the future by casually turning a card from a deck of tarot, is less likely to produce representations of intervening superhuman agents than is the same practice when embedded in a ritualised action sequence specifying exactly how the cards should be mixed and placed, the bodily posture of the diviner etc. Reading the astrological column in the daily newspaper is less likely to produce representations of intervening superhuman agents than is participating in an astrological session. Further, representing some involvement of superhuman agency could potentially enhance the transmission of a divinatory practice, as this would vouch for the accuracy of the divinatory technique and certify the veracity of the information disclosed. This brings us to the issue of randomisation. As mentioned above, there is a superficial contrast between the stipulated character of ritualised actions and the random actions present in numerous divinatory rituals. The poison oracle can either make the fowl die or live (EvansPritchard 1937) and, as such, the actions are not strictly stipulated. The difference might be explained by reference to the overall pragmatic purpose of the ritual action, which imposes an overall structure on the action sequence. Due to their causal under-determination, rituals that aim to have a specific result (e.g., ensuring an abundant harvest or appeasing the gods) will have to stipulate the central actions necessary to produce the desired effect. By contrast, the purpose of divinatory rituals is to create signs that relay information about certain states of affairs. A degree of flexibility in the possible results therefore is called for. As mentioned above, the diviner should not influence the result and the primary function of randomisation is to achieve this effect. Randomising the very method of producing a sign effectively inhibits representations of the diviner as having intentional or even unintentional control over the result. However, research into the psychology of gambling indicates that randomisation has additional cognitive effects. When a gambler throws his or her dice, there is a ‘withdrawal’ of intentionality, i.e., the gambler cannot intentionally control the outcome of the action. This, however, tends to make gamblers have more or less explicit representations of other intentional agents able to influence the result. So-called ‘gamblers’ superstitions’ involve representations of special agents able to influence the result of random games. 174 In fact, by making the randomness of the action more explicit, these representations seem to be strengthened, whereas ‘illusions of control’ (the illusion that the gambler

For instance, entities such as Fate, the Game and Fortune are represented as intentional agents able to influence the outcome of these otherwise random games. See Wohl & Enzle (2002) and Wood & Clapham (2005).

can influence the outcome of a random game) seem to diminish (Bersabe & Arias 2000). One might predict therefore that divinations involving randomised actions would be more likely to produce representations of superhuman agents than would otherwise similar divinations involving less randomised actions. Astrology, with its deterministic discourse, has little randomness and is therefore less likely to produce representations of superhuman agents than tarot with its high degree of randomness. Accordingly, the main purpose of both ritualisation and randomisation is to bar the diviner from having any (intentional) influence on the actions. However, both have the additional effect of making representations of other agents able to control the outcome of the actions more relevant. If this view is correct, representations of superhuman agents should be seen as a potential side-effect of aspects of divination that serve other purposes. Once in place, however, they are likely to strengthen the impact and diffusion of the practice by adding extra credibility to the performance.

In this chapter, I have argued that we need to pay close attention to the cognitive mechanisms underlying different aspects of divination. Divination is not a pure category but consists of many different types of practices that each must be explained independently before attempting any synthesis. When focussing on the semiotic dimension, i.e., what types of signs are employed, we must distinguish between indexical and communicative signs as these are based on very different types of cognitive processing. Indexes rely on the construction of mental models of events, whereas communicative signs or symbols activate a series of Theory of Mind mechanisms. Given this distinction, successful divinatory practices (i.e., those that are transmitted) are expected to employ cues triggering either type of cognitive processing. Further, we need to look at the temporal dimension involved: first, whether the sign follows the event or if it is understood as pointing to a subsequent event; second, whether the sign-relation is used retrospectively to explain the relation between events, or if it is used prospectively to produce signs that can reveal information about specific questions. Specifying this temporal dimension allows us to specify more precisely how divinatory practices are embedded in more comprehensive sequences of actions and events, and how they inform explanations of the past as well as predictions about the future. Following this, we turned to a central question: how can information received through divination be represented as truthful? In order to address this issue, three contextual variables are critical. First, by paying close attention to the type of information that is sought, it is apparent that this information is constrained to a rather limited repertoire of knowledge with potential impact on

individual fitness. Further, this information tends to be framed in terms of interactions in the social realm, i.e., as involving intentional agents. Moreover, divinatory practices involving social strategic information are more likely to spread than are practices treating other types of information. In regards to the role of participating agents in divinatory practices, a number of factors constrain representations of the diviner. He or she should not be represented as either having relevant knowledge prior to the divinatory session, nor as able to influence the configuration of signs produced in the session. Divinatory practices involving these features are judged as more reliable by clients and therefore will have a selective advantage in cultural transmission. This leads to the final variable that concerns the method of acquiring knowledge. Divination is recognised by observer and participants alike as a special method of acquiring knowledge. Two features seem particularly relevant: ritualised and randomised actions. The reason for employing ritualised and/or randomised actions is that both effectively ensure that the information is not represented as stemming from the diviner. Divination is therefore not primarily about acquiring knowledge from or communicating with gods, spirits or ancestors. Rather, divinatory practices involve established models or signs produced by a specific practice that reveals relevant but otherwise inaccessible knowledge. However, a number of recurrent features of divinatory actions make concurrent representations of superhuman agents particularly relevant. Divination is about acquiring undisclosed social strategic information and superhuman agents are generally represented as having unlimited access to this (the gods/spirits/ancestors know what you do, even if no one else does). The social groups of diviners are generally set apart, and often have their authority due to special relations to gods, spirits and ancestors. Finally, the veracity of divinatory knowledge is ensured by cues that the diviner does not have prior knowledge of the information requested, nor can s/he manipulate the production of the relevant signs. Just as an investigator’s ability to influence the outcome of a scientific experiment must be limited, the diviner’s role as an agent is severely limited. In contrast to scientific experiments, however, the methods used to ensure this ‘impartiality’ and ‘objectivity’ in divination involve ritualised and/or randomised actions, both of which make representations of superhuman agents highly relevant. If this is true, superhuman agents’ involvement in divinatory ritual should be conceived as a side effect of features that have other original functions. Future studies must address to what extent representations of superhuman agents facilitate the success and diffusion of divinatory practices, or whether they are a spurious effect.

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If a dog pricks up its ears like a wolf, it is a bad sign…
Omens and their Meanings
Anders Lisdorf

In 168 BCE, the Roman senator Lucius Paulus was elected consul for the second time. As part of his consular duties, he received the command of the war against the Persians by lot. Later that day, when he came home and kissed his daughter Terentia, he noticed she was sad. When he asked her what was wrong, she said that Persa her puppy was dead. He took that as an omen signifying that he would conquer Perses (Cic.Div.1.103). This is not a singular event found only in a strange culture from a bygone time. Omens are ubiquitous in all human cultures. But why do people in general believe that omens can tell them anything about future occurrences? And how are omens interpreted? Omens have rarely been examined in earlier research. The first to single out omens as a phenomenon worthy of scientific or scholarly reflection were Victorian anthropologists. According to Edward Burnett Tylor, omens are a phenomenon on a par with other aspects of primitive culture (Tylor 1891: 108). Divination, magic and omens all seem to obey the same basic mental principle, namely analogy characterised by weak and arbitrary resemblances (Tylor 1875/1994: 293; Tylor 1891: 118). This view that magic, divination and omens were not distinguished analytically is characteristic of early Victorian anthropology in general (Rose 1974; Wallis 1974). Whereas divination occasionally has been examined to some degree, omens have received very little attention apart from the occasional collection of ethnographica (Thurston 1912) or folklore volumes often grouped with other types of superstition. Rarely, however, have omens been submitted to methodical analytic scrutiny (Cielo 1918; Cannell & Snapp 1933). The exception to this are analyses of cultures in which omens were important, as was the case in ancient Rome (Vigourt 2001; Rasmussen 2003) or Babylonia (Jastrow 1914; Koch-Labat 1933; Reiner & Pingree 1975; Götze 1983; Baigent 1994; Westenholz 1995). Although these represent very fine studies indeed, their general purpose is not to address the questions posed at the beginning of this chapter.

Thus, no general accounts of why people universally perceive omens exist, apart from that offered by Victorian anthropology. This account is problematic because it is founded on an unwarranted assumption of a cultural divide between primitive and modern cultures. However, this does not mean that we cannot try to find general features of omens and explain why they arise universally in human cultures, which is the purpose of this chapter. One of the most perceptive analyses is apparent in Caroline Humphrey’s article about omens among the Buryat (Humphrey 1976). This can serve as a starting point, since her basic observations are very helpful. According to Humphrey, it is necessary to distinguish omens, their results and their explanations as three distinct analytical units. There may or may not be an explanation of the relation between an omen and its result, although there may even be several (Humphrey 1976: 33). She writes: “Explanations seem to have a free-floating, almost separate existence hardly attached to what they are thought to be ‘explaining’” (Humphrey 1976: 38). The following is an example of this:
Omen: If a dog pricks up its ears like a wolf, it is a bad sign. Result: Misfortune will come to its owner. Explanation: The dog must be inhabited by an evil spirit which will sooner or later cause harm to the owner. (Humphrey 1976: 28)

Humphrey also highlights another important characteristic of omens. Traditionally, studies of omens have assumed a sequence in which a peculiar feature of the environment is detected (the omen) and then explained so as to determine its meaning (result). This meaning very often concerns the future success of the individual who detects the omen. 175 This sequence previously has been described as the following: Omen – explanation – result – (concern) According to Humphrey, this model is not accurate and the sequence should be the reverse. The detection of an omen starts from an agent’s/subject’s concern for his/her own situation (Humphrey 1976: 35). This sensitises the person to omens. The different possible omens and their potential meanings are to some degree learned from other members of a culture. What is important, however,

There are exceptions to this sequence, especially among Roman historians, where a concern, or a fear, precedes the perception of portents. (Gladigow 1979; Rosenberger 1998)

is that the person’s concrete concern is what determines the interpretation of the omen. The explanation is more like an appendix that may or may not be there. Thus, the sequence according to Humphrey is: Concern - omen - result Explanation An example is the Buryat’s concern for how much snow there will be in the coming winter. This sensitises the Buryat to how high the mice build their nests. This is related as omen and result: if the mice build their nests high, the snow will be high, if low, then there will not be much snow (Humphrey 1976: 32). The meaning of an omen is intrinsically tied to an agent and his/her concern for his/her situation. The meaning is not fixed in a symbol. A symbol is not a repository of meaning (Humphrey 1976: 37). 176 However, we still need to determine how the relation between omen and result is created. Humphrey does describe some principles used among the Buryat in detecting and interpreting omens, but she admits that they have not been thoroughly analysed (Humphrey 1976: 26). First of all, the relation between omen and result is a semiotic phenomenon. It is a variation of the relation between a sign and its referent. Referent should not be taken in the literal sense as an object. Often it is a situation (rain), a condition (disease), an event (birth) or, even vaguer, something good or bad. Second, Humphrey rightly asserts the centrality of the individual and his/ her concerns for life. 177 Ruth Garrett Millikan, an American philosopher, has provided a sophisticated and elaborate framework that promises to shed new light on the question of this essay (Millikan 1984; Millikan 1995; Millikan 2004). Before using this framework, however, it is necessary first to modify the terminology used with some of Humphrey’s concepts to make them comparable with linguistic and philosophical usage. I will use sign as the most general concept and omen as a narrower type of sign. Instead of result, I will use referent or affair, which is also implied by Humphrey’s analysis. The relation between a sign and its referent is the product of an interpretation. This may be the product of an explanation, or an explanation may follow from an interpretation. The difference between an interpretation and an explanation is that the interpretation

176 177

This echoes the criticism of symbolism raised by Dan Sperber at about the same time (Sperber 1975). Strictly speaking, she does not assign the individual any centrality. She writes that the agent is central and that this could be a group. But in the end, a concern for the group is a concern for the individual, because his/her life is tied to the life of the group.

is always there and is most often unconscious and implicit, whereas an explanation is always explicit.

Natural and intentional signs
According to Millikan (2004), meaning arises from the use of signs. All organisms use signs because it helps them survive and reproduce. A rabbit able to read the signs of a fox has an evolutionary advantage over ones that could not. The greater the variety of signs of a fox it is able to read, the better. A rabbit, though, is not very good at reading signs of cups. This is because cups are not of its concern, or more precisely, they have not been of any concern in its evolutionary past. Thus reading signs is a basic adaptive function, which accounts for the existence of this ability in all organisms (Millikan 2004). It also explains why reading signs relative to the concerns of the organism is central. Signs can be divided into two classes: natural and intentional. Millikan suggests that “a natural sign of a thing is something else from which you can learn of that thing by tracking in thought a connection that exists in nature” (Millikan 2004: 37). This means that a natural sign recurs in nature. A recurrent natural sign is a sign that recurs in a natural environment, like a fox’s footprint recurring in a rabbit’s environment. Thus, locally there must be a correlation between a sign and its signified. In an environment in which an organism exists, there will be correlations between As and Bs, and these are “locally recurrent signs” (Millikan 2004: 39-41). For example, a fox’s footprints are a locally recurrent sign of a fox for a hunter. The reason that they are local is that the same signs may have other referents in other environments, if for example cats could produce the same footprints. The same signified may also have different signs in different environments; for example, redness may be a salient sign of a fox in a snowy environment, while it is not in an orchard. An organism is only concerned with its local environment and not some abstract or other environment: “The kind of knowledge that earthly creatures have is knowledge applicable in the domains they inhabit, not knowledge for arbitrary nomically possible worlds, nor for other domains, regions or eras within the natural world” (Millikan 2004: 44). Intentional signs differ from natural signs in that they are purposefully produced. This means that they are produced for some kind of interpreter or sign user (Millikan 2004: 73). Apart from this, for intentional signs to be interesting they must be cooperative: smacking at flies is an intentional sign on my behalf that I want them to go away. Indeed, they do go away, but that does not make it an intentional sign. Rather my smacking is a natural sign of danger for them. Millikan writes: “Cooperative intentional signs are produced by systems designed to make natural signs for

use by cooperating interpreting systems. That is, the sign-maker system and the sign-using system must have evolved or been designed to function symbiotically” (Millikan 2004: 73-74). The important feature of intentional signs is that they have been purposefully produced. For a sign to be interpreted as an intentional sign, an isomorphism between the two communicating systems is necessary. Intentional signs are related to some kind of purpose or intention and a cooperation between two similar systems; humans can communicate with humans because they are similar, and because they are similar, they can guess each others’ intentions through communicative cooperation.178 Both natural signs and intentional signs can be embedded, that is, they can be signs of signs. Let us look at an example of a natural sign: Goose droppings (A) are a sign of geese passing through (B) is a sign of frosty nights (C) is a sign of winter soon coming (D). A-D is the sign route. A is the most proximal sign and D the most distal (Millikan 2004: 54-55). The same sign, D, may of course be signified by different sign routes, for example the length of the day. But it is not necessary to recognise consciously any of the signs along the route. We can compare these observations with Humphrey’s. The sign is equivalent to the omen, the referent is equivalent to the result and the route is equivalent to the explanation of the relation between sign and referent. Whereas a natural sign embeds a direct causal route between the most proximal sign and the most distal affair/referent, an intentional sign embeds an indirect route through the purpose of the producer. Intentional representations can signify a distal affair without at the same time signifying all the more proximal ones. The reason is that not just the origins, but also the uses of the signs are used in determining the intentional signs’ semantic value (Millikan 2004: 58). The sentence “Winter is coming soon” is thus a sign of winter coming soon, without all the intermediaries of the sign route A-D. We still need, however, to put the agent’s concern and the concrete situation more precisely into the framework. Dan Sperber and Deirdre Wilson’s relevance theory provides a possible way to do this (Sperber & Wilson 1986). According to Sperber and Wilson, language systems provide a partial coding, which by the use of inference is used to understand the information entailed in the

It could be argued that Millikan would not approve of using her theory as I do in the following, since I will be arguing that omens are intentional signs. In chapter 10 she writes: “I want to argue that (..) no representations of speaker intentions in speaking need intervene between world affairs spoken of by speakers and hearer’s understanding of their words” (2004: 127). Millikan thus opines that there need not be any representations of intention. Surely this cannot be taken to mean that there cannot be any. In my view, what Millikan says is that the account given by neo-griceans is not valid for all human communication, but it may be valid for some. I believe that the situations I am examining here belong to those situations for which it is necessary to represent intentions.

communication. Basically, a sign producer, in Millikan’s sense, produces a stimulus (a physical sign designed to be perceived), which is interpreted by a sign consumer as a sign with a communicative intention (intention to communicate something as opposed to other kinds of intention). The informative intention of the producer is what he intends to communicate. The consumer interprets the informative intention by putting himself in the place of the producer, and asks himself: “what would I have intended to inform Y (the consumer) about, had I been X (the producer) producing these signs?” Consequently the process of interpretation is one of empathy or mind-reading. But this is assisted by contextual features such as knowledge about X (his peculiarities and idiosyncrasies and earlier interactions), knowledge of the sign (is it a linguistic sign with a stable meaning) and knowledge of the communicative context (either it is defined by preceding significations/communications or by the communicative situation in it self). Cognitive psychologist Michael Tomasello has used the same type of approach. According to Tomasello, children learn language when they recognise that adults make sounds for them to attend to something: “Sounds become language for young children when and only when they understand that the adult is making that sound with the intention that they attend to something” (Tomasello 1999: 101). When this happens, communicants enter into a joint attentional scene. “But the joint attentional scene is not the same thing as the referential scene symbolised in a piece of language; the joint attentional scene simply provides the inter-subjective context within which the symbolization process occurs” (Tomasello 1999: 99). Further, “…linguistic reference is a social act in which one person attempts to get another person to focus her attention on something in the world” (Tomasello 1999: 97). Linguistic reference can only be thought of in the context of joint attentional scenes. Therefore, intentional signs constitute a joint attentional scene between two communicants. In this scene, the information can be inferred by “guessing” the intended meaning behind the signs.

Omens as intentional signs
Above we established that omens are indeed signs bearing a relation to their referents, but should we consider them natural signs or intentional signs. Since most of them rely on natural occurrences, it would not be unexpected to assume they are indeed natural signs. Contrary to this, I will argue that they should be considered intentional signs for the interpreters. Let us look at a modern example from a website that advertises a method to learn from omens:

At a turning point in her life, Cait tried this technique [being attentive to omens]. Her omen was a sound: She heard a creaky screen door opening. She realized that a door was truly opening in her life.179

There seems to be a fundamental difference between the fox’s tracks signifying that the fox has been there and the sound of a creaky screen door signifying doors opening in life. It is difficult to see exactly what the referent of doors opening in life would constitute. Surely, what is meant is not actual doors being opened, which the creaky sound is actually a natural sign of, but instead possibilities for Cait. Consequently, the route between sign and referent is not direct. It does not have a natural recurrent relation with doors opening in Cait’s life, nor do doors opening in life in general. Recall also the omen mentioned earlier, which indicated a dog’s posture can be interpreted as a sign from evil spirits that misfortune is coming. Here the sign is also thought to have the purpose of informing someone of something. But how are omens actually interpreted? Natural occurrences become omens in the same way that sounds become language to a child as noted in the Tomasello quote above; some sort of perceptible feature in the environment is taken to be an intentional sign, that is, something containing a communicative intention. This is sometimes explicitly, but always implicitly, interpreted as a joint attentional scene with some agent. Yet this agent is hidden, that is, not perceptually present. Following convention in the cognitive science of religion, I refer to this as a “counterintuitive agent” (CIA; Barrett & Keil 1996; Boyer 2001). In other words, the agent producing the sign does not correspond to most intuitive expectations of a communicating agent. Normal agents are for example mostly visible. Here I am building on a growing body of research, tested experimentally and cross-culturally, indicating that people indeed are rather susceptible to representing CIAs (Barrett & Keil 1996; Barrett 1998; Barrett & Nyhof 2001; Boyer 2001; Boyer & Ramble 2001; Lindeman et al. 2002; Pyysiäinen et al. 2003). In most cases they are ghosts, gods or ancestors; in other cases they are lost souls of the dead or just a loose sense of some intentional entity. The goal of the joint attention is something of concern to the agent. We therefore may say that an omen is an intentional sign in a joint attentional scene, where some CIA wants the person to attend to something of concern to him/her. The reference of the intentional sign is established through interpretation in relation to some context determined by the individual’s concern. The purpose of the sign is for the CIA to bring something to the attention of the individual.


From the website:

http://www.care2.com/channels/solutions/home/1508 (22.07.05)

We can distinguish two ways in which the relation between the omen and its meaning can be interpreted: it can be interpreted according to association or convention. These types correspond roughly to the Peircean icon and symbol. The similarity-based relation will probably always have some kind of perceptual feature in common with what is being interpreted. The convention-based relation is dependent on earlier learning situations in which the relation between omen and meaning was made clear and is therefore dependent on memory. Sign-referent relations based on association are very common. Let us look at a simple illustration from the turn of the 20 th century in Southern India: “A tickling sensation of the right foot foretells that the person has to go on a journey” (Thurston 1912: 23). The association is of course to the tickling sensation in feet that is felt after walking, which was the mode of journeying for most people at that time and place. Likewise an omen from Greenland suggests that: “when the muscles in the body twitches, a relative will die” (Lynge 1981: 126). This relation stems from the fact that the flesh of seals, when killed, sometimes twitches in this way. These examples alert us to an important observation; the association has to be seen from the point of view of the interpreters, or natives if you will. Thus, a good deal of knowledge of local culture is needed in order to interpret the relation between sign and referent for similarity interpretations. A more elaborate example from modern day Denmark shows how rich this type of interpretation can be. Dogs can also be the vehicle of omens:
(...) if it [the dog] lies on its front paws with the head turned toward the door, visitors will come. (...) If the nose is on the right paw it is an important guest. If the nose and tail are turned against the door and if the dog has arched its back, you will be visited by a thief (Lingren 2003).

The turning towards the door as opposed to the wall or something else signifies that it must involve something with the door. Guests come through the door. The reason why the nose on the right paw signifies an important guest stems from an association with how you greet important guests in Danish culture – with the right hand in a handshake. The arched back is the posture an angry dog has, much like it would have if a thief were present. These examples tell us something about how omens are interpreted. An omen is interpreted like other linguistic utterances thus: “What would someone be meaning if he had produced this intentional sign? What state of affairs, given the context, would I have found these signs most relevant to express.” This would be the case if I were pointing to my empty coffee cup intending to communicate that I would like more coffee. In the case of the omen, the agent is out of sight.

As mentioned above, the convention-based interpretation depends on memory. A person has to have heard of this omen/affair relation or experienced it beforehand. An example of previous experience comes from modern day Denmark:
Years ago I saw in dreams a black cat. Two days later my uncle died. A similar experience occurred some years later. My aunt died and three days later I dreamt of a black cat again (Lingren 2003: 42).

This example shows that the relation between a black cat in a dream and a death in the family became a stable sign because it recurred. It is used by convention like linguistic signs. Another example from ancient Rome has the same pattern. The prodigy that the lances of Mars had moved in the Regia in Rome meant that bulls should be slaughtered (Gel.4.6.2). This relation between omen and meaning is so conventional that we can track it through a period of almost 200 years.180 There are several other examples of this kind. The interesting thing about these signs is that the relation between the sign and the referent is arbitrary. Perhaps they started as association-based interpretations, but eventually the original association became opaque. A good example of how history can remove any apparent link between a sign and its referent comes from Caroline Humphrey:
[it is an] originally Indian Buddhist idea that the mongoose is associated with the god of wealth because it is the conqueror of snakes which are the guardians of treasure; when Lamaism reached the Western Buryat in the late nineteenth century, the mongoose, which does not exist in the Baikal region, was depicted in icons as a pale, rat-like creature sitting on the left hand of the deity of riches; subsequently, the white mouse became an omen of foretelling wealth (Humphrey 1976: 37-38).

The relation between white mouse and wealth must have seemed arbitrary to most Buryat, but it originally had a connection to an association-based interpretation.

The context of omens
The context of the omen is defined by the agent’s concerns. In general, I assume that people’s concerns are to achieve fortune and avoid misfortune (Lisdorf 2004; Lisdorf 2007). Fortune is any


In 218 (Liv.21.63), 214 (Liv.24.10), 181 (Liv.40.19), 117 (Obs.36), 102 (Obs.44), 99 (Gel.4.6; Obs.47) and 95 (Obs.95).

state of affairs associated with positive emotions 181, and misfortune is any state of affairs associated with negative emotions. 182 Some occurrences are naturally associated with something positive or negative like food (positive), pain (negative) and stress (negative), other occurrences are more malleable by the surrounding culture; however, the valence associated with prestige, shame, pride and joy in a given culture is variable. Concerns about fortune and misfortune will always be found at the core of any interpretation of omens. There are no omens merely signifying how many trees are in the woods, or where three birches stand close to an elm tree and a wild goose has recently passed, unless this information has some significance to somebody’s life. By significance to someone’s life I mean relation to fortune or misfortune in his life project. A quick glance at any collection of omens will reveal that they are typically related to matters related to the life project: for example, death (Cannell & Snapp 1933: 20-24; Hansen 1957: 48-55, 94-122,137-167; Lynge 1981: 126-141; Lingren 2003: 139-141), marriage (Cielo 1918: 7-22; Cannell & Snapp 1933: 14-19; Hansen 1957: 35-47; Lingren 2003: 132-138), birth (Jastrow 1914; Lynge 1981: 19; Lingren 2003: 124-131) etc. These matters are notoriously central components of a life project (Bruner 1987; Settersten & Hagestad 1996; Sloan 1996). Thus, the context emerges from a person’s concern for the course of his/her life. The actual interpretation of a sign may not occur immediately, but also long after the omen happened. An example from a 19 th century folklore collection from Denmark shows this:
On the church in Tjørring sat an owl and howled and Peter Christian thought: What is that – it must mean something – should I return? But he continued. When the next day he wanted to take a nap he said to his wife: Kræsten [his son] can come to me. The boy, who was two years old and ran in the kitchen, fell one moment later into a bowl of boiling hot brine, which the wife had put on the floor and he became terribly burned and died (Hansen 1957: 9).

The precise meaning of the sign was not clear until later. It had been a prediction of death in Peter Christian’s family. Another example where it is perhaps even clearer how the concern of an agent determines the context in which an omen is interpreted is from the same collection of folklore. It was collected in 1886 in Fanø, Western Denmark. A boy’s father had gone on a journey around the earth as a sailor. It had been a long time since he had departed, so people started to speculate that he had probably died. A friend of the man’s son took him into his house and showed him a jar in which
181 182

Emotions of approach is the technical term in emotion research (Rolls 2000). Emotions of withdrawal is the technical term in emotion research (Rolls 2000).

there was water. The yoke of an egg had been put in the water and something lay at the bottom. The friend said that it signified that the sailor, the boy’s father, had drowned. His mother and aunt had told him so (Hansen 1957: 11). The context is here determined by the concern for the whereabouts of the boy’s father.

The perception of omens
I have been arguing that when interpreting omens, people represent some kind of agent that has intentionally produced the omen as a sign of something hidden, but related to their concerns for fortune in life. This is subconscious and hence difficult to prove. Often no such connection is made by people themselves, at other times omens are explicitly interpreted as stemming from ghosts, angels, gods or ancestors. In these cases, my argument is clear enough. A possible objection could be that it is ridiculous to assume that we interpret black clouds as omens of rain because we subconsciously think some agent used the clouds as signs of his intention to inform us that it will soon rain. Indeed I agree with this, but that is because black clouds as signs of rain are natural signs, not intentional signs. For a cloud to be an omen, that is, an intentional sign, it would have to be taken by an agent as somehow related to his concerns. This leaves us speculating as to why humans would think that some more or less natural, chance occurrence was produced by an agent. Recent research has shown that humans are more than willing to represent agency when there is none apparent, especially in attention demanding situations where no other explanation offers itself (Guthrie 1980; Guthrie 1993; Barrett 2004). This research indicates that this is a basic human disposition. More relevant for the understanding of why unexpected occurrences are perceived as intentional signs is recent research conducted by Jesse Bering and Becky Parker (Bering & Parker 2006). Children from ages 4 to 7 were given a task to find out in which of two boxes a ball was hidden. Each child was instructed to place his/her hand on the top of the box in which he/she thought the ball was and keep it there for 15 seconds. During the 15 seconds the child could move his/her hand back and forth as many times as desired, but by the end of the 15 seconds the position of the hand would count as the answer. The children were assigned to either an experimental group or a control group. In the experimental group, after the explanation of the rules of the game, the children were taken aside and shown a picture of Princess Alice. They were told that Princess Alice was a magical princess who could make herself invisible. They were also told that Princess Alice really liked them and that she would tell them when they picked the wrong box. In the control group, no story of Princess Alice was told. During some of the

trials one of two unexpected events would happen when the children had put their hand on the box. Either a picture of Princess Alice would fall from the door, or a table lamp would turn on and off twice in rapid succession. The researchers reported that the youngest children did not react to the unexpected events, but the oldest group, who are closer in age to adults, responded by moving their hands. This indicates that they had seen the unexpected event as an intentional sign related to their concern, which was to win the game. It also shows how easily something unexpected can be interpreted as an intentional sign. There is one difference between this scenario and omens though; the children were explicitly told that Princess Alice would communicate in this way, which is not the case for omens. Nevertheless, a case could be made that in omen cultures, a constant sensitivity to omens is present because of frequent stories of omens. These stories function in much the same way as the story of Princess Alice.

What happens when an omen is interpreted could be described as follows: An agent (signconsumer) interprets a sign (a chance physical occurrence) with reference to his (or someone else on whose behalf he is interpreting) concerns (some hidden affair concerning fortune/misfortune with respect to his life project), which forms the context of a joint attentional scene in which a counterintuitive agent (sign-producer) is taken to be the producer of the sign. This producer is not thought of as having the same restricted access to reality (such as humans’ restricted access to the future). The occurrence of the sign and the concern may be removed in time and place, making the sign a prediction, retrodiction, or ex post factum prediction; the last option being by far the most common. The actual interpretation (relation between sign and referent) is not fixed. The context can make something a sign which was not initially taken as such. It can change over the course of time; e.g., the omen of the owl on the church roof, which was not interpreted as referring to the death of Peter Christian’s son until after he had died. This example also shows how interpretations can change. At first he seemed to have interpreted it, as was its traditional interpretation, as a sign that he himself would die if he carried on his journey. A method follows from this theoretical outline: one way to analyse omens would be to look at the omen, its result and its possible explanation, but these are just the strictly literary parts. The analysis must also include an agent with some concerns forming the context of the interpretation:

Agent with concerns Context Omen (CIA) (Explanation) The CIA can be explicit or implicit. If explicit, it will be revealed in the explanation of the relation between omen and meaning: e.g., evil spirits made the dogs bark, or the gods moved Mars’ lances to inform us that a sacrifice is needed. In this essay, I have attempted to sketch a way of analysing omens, taking into account a human embodied agent situated in an environment. This human agent is equipped with some basic cognitive mechanisms for interpreting his environment. These have been produced through natural selection, so as to render the human better equipped to survive in this environment. Among these evolutionarily adapted mechanisms is one which all living creatures have, namely for optimising their own living conditions. For humans, this is expressed as concern for their own and others lives. This is in part modulated by local environmental and cultural conditions. Thus, the detection and interpretation of omens stem from cognitive mechanisms designed to enhance human survival, not from any innate longing to explain nature, as Victorian anthropology assumed. Meaning

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Channellers, Cowries and Conversations with the Gods:
explaining multiple divination methods in an Afro-Brazilian religious tradition
Emma Cohen

Spirit possession is a particular form of communication with the divine world. The vast anthropological record on possession practices worldwide describes how human hosts give passage to spirit beings and deities, who, in return, bestow blessings, heal the sick, and offer advice on many situations. When possession occurs, the human’s spirit/soul/agency/mind is said to be entirely displaced by the ancestor, deity or spirit being. Participants in possession ceremonies, spirit counselling sessions, and mediumistic séances and healing practices are afforded a direct line of contact with supernatural beings, enabling them to discern the causes of their problems and to obtain immediate guidance on their resolution. Yet, even with this readily available resource, possession cult participants also frequently employ what might be considered more prototypical divination methods, such as shell throwing and cartomancy. Why do people rely on the ‘words’ of shells and cards when they may converse freely with the gods in possession of a human host? This chapter offers an explanation for the popularity of supernatural-agent guidance so often associated with spirit possession, and for its accepted and normal co-occurrence with these other divination forms. Combining ethnographic fieldwork on possession in an Afro-Brazilian religious tradition with recent hypotheses and findings in the cognitive science of religion, social psychology and neuroscience, it explores the ways in which people represent the behaviours and

statements of possessed individuals, identifying constraints on people’s ability mentally to represent the medium as the spirit or god, and suggesting an explanation for participants’ reliance on the utterances of the divining shells. The central claim is that person-file memories and associated feelings, as well as interpersonal expectancies that the observer, or client, holds for a medium or channeller, are automatically activated in any face-to-face encounter with the medium. Thus, while the observer explicitly represents the medium as possessed, and therefore as a spirit or god, this unconsciously activated information informs the observer’s perceptions of the medium’s behaviours, generating automatic and rapid inferences about the continued presence of the medium, not the supernatural agent. Prototypical divination methods potentially avoid this interference, providing a more confident line of access to the supernatural custodians of hidden knowledge.

The purpose of this chapter is to consider a specific problem concerning the use of multiple divination techniques within a single religious tradition. The topic of divination has traditionally been a peripheral concern within holistic anthropological accounts of religious and magical practices. A number of studies, however, have considered the practice of divination in detail, and have raised important questions that remain pertinent for academic scholarship on cultural forms in general, and on the widespread practice of divination in particular (e.g., Evans-Pritchard 1937/1976; Moore 1957; Bascom 1969; Tedlock 1982; Peek 1991). Recently, there has been a resurgence of academic interest in divination as a topic in its own right. 183 As yet, however, there have been few up-to-date, scientifically-informed studies seeking to offer generalisable, testable hypotheses and theories for the persistence of divination

In the summer of 2005 alone there were two international academic conferences on the topic of divination, attracting established scholars in the field as well as doctoral and postdoctoral researchers with a primary interest in the divination studies. In addition to the conference upon which this volume is based ( Unveiling the Hidden – University of Copenhagen, August), the National Museum of Ethnology, Leiden and Leiden University hosted Realities Re-viewed/Revealed: Divination in Sub-Saharan Africa (July).

practices across cultures, for the profusion of techniques even among a single cultural group, or for the patterns of distribution of modes of divination (see Winkelman 2004). In this chapter I argue that, as we return to consider the burning questions that remain unresolved, emerging analyses of divination activities cross-culturally would benefit from an appreciation of recent developments in the cognitive sciences. Indeed, generalisable accounts that fail to consider the role of the mechanisms and processes of the human mind in the formation and spread of culture, are deprived of a crucial level of causation, considerably narrowing their explanatory power. I offer a perspective from which to begin to reconsider long-standing problems in this field, and present some evidence that may shine a brighter light on this corner of the anthropological record. The problem to be addressed concerns the transmission of culture in general, and the competition between cultural forms in particular. When we seek to explain the existence and constellation of cultural elements (e.g., ideas, artefacts, and practices) in a particular place, we may offer hypotheses and theories that account for the success of these elements in that particular context. The economic and socio-political dynamics of the society, for example, are the pillars of traditional sociological accounts. Economic circumstances, such as class distinction and inequality, may be posited as causal factors influencing, for example, the success of new religious movements in a particular society. What is often missing from such claims, however, is an account of the underlying mechanisms that produce such outcomes. 184 In this chapter, I seek to approach a particular problem, employing an explanatory, selectionist framework to generate testable hypotheses on the basis of identifiable cognitive and neural mechanisms. Although the ethnographic focus will be a particular Afro-Brazilian religious tradition, the claims put forward are potentially generalisable to all contexts in which the causal factors identified coalesce. The problem may be briefly summarised as follows; why do we find the use of divinatory techniques (e.g., sign-reading) as means of communicating with supernatural agents,

For a comprehensive critique of such “explanations”, see Sperber 1996.

such as spirits and gods, in traditions where these same supernatural agents apparently leave their celestial dwellings and usurp control of certain humans to speak through them, offering advice and imparting knowledge that is not normally available to humans (e.g., about others, the future, etc.)? Do these means of divining the spirits’ desires, intentions and knowledge constitute cultural forms in competition or are they complementary, each driven by a (partially) different set of selective factors? On the face of it, it would appear that a direct line of access to the supernatural, via spirit mediums and channellers, would eliminate the need for specialist divinatory techniques. Divination often demands extensive training, as well as specialist ritual preparation of the instruments and the diviner. As a consequence, that majority of members of the religious community are excluded from utilizing these techniques personally, relying fully on the expert. In contrast, when the gods and spirits possess their human mediums, or ‘hosts’, individuals present may avail of a direct line of contact with these special beings, engaging in conversation of an everyday type. Anthropological accounts frequently describe the spirits’ role as one of consultancy, healing and benevolence (e.g., Modarressi 1968; Chesnut 1997; Sharp 1999) – spirits are normally interested in the everyday affairs and concerns of the people who approach them. Across the anthropological record, however, it is clearly not the case that this form of communication with the divine has led to the extinction of other forms of communicative divination involving the interpretation of signs. Mediumistic traditions frequently contain specialist diviner roles. This suggests that as means of communicating with the divine, these forms of divination – both prototypical techniques and spirit channelling – are not in direct competition for cultural inclusion. In this chapter, I explore why conversation with the gods incarnate is an imperfect substitute for divination practices. Data presented are drawn from my own ethnographic research in Brazil as well as from cutting-edge neuroimaging studies and recent research in social cognition.

The ethnographic context
The questions that I address in this chapter arise from ethnographic data collected during eighteen months with a group of spirit mediums in an Afro-Brazilian terreiro, or cult house (2002-2004). Before turning to the key theoretical issues of the chapter, a short introduction to the people, activities and context of the terreiro will be necessary to provide some background to the main problem. It will also provide the descriptive detail that is crucial for the identification of corresponding cultural contexts throughout the ethnographic record and cross-cultural comparison. Since its beginnings in the early part of the twentieth century, scholarly work on AfroBrazilian religion has traditionally neglected certain regions of Brazil. The majority of research has been conducted in the state of Bahia, with more recent work on many forms of these popular religious traditions expanding to include little-researched areas in the south of the country. The northern context of the research reported in this chapter has received very little scholarly attention, with only a sprinkling of published and unpublished works in existence, most of which are in Portuguese and are not widely accessible. The reasons for this lack of representation in academic research are numerous. A major factor is that the traditional objectives of scholars seeking to understand the acculturation of the African in the New World, and to quantify the preservation of Africanisms, were drawn to those areas where African influence was strongest, where African slavery had been most highly concentrated, and where African religious practices had most successfully battled for their survival and had become an obvious part of the cultural fabric. Northern regions were largely sidelined by this approach, particularly those parts in which African slaves and their descendents had been so assimilated into European and indigenous culture as to leave little or no trace of their traditional religious practices. What did survive was viewed as a diluted and/or polluted form of what it once was, especially in the northwestern regions, such as Pará, where indigenous Amazonian, or caboclo, influence was strong. Despite the subsequent

migration and spread of regional varieties of Afro-Brazilian religion throughout the country, research continues to focus on the conurbations of the south and east. The culto afro (as Afro-Brazilian religion has come to be termed by its practitioners) is flourishing, meanwhile, in the urban centres of the north and northeast. Belém has a population of approximately 1.4 million. The number of cult houses, or terreiros, is unknown and the most recent census figures fail to capture the wide representation of Afro-derived religious practices throughout the population. In 2003, The Federation of Spiritist, Umbanda and Afro-religions for the State of Pará registered 1600 terreiros in the Greater Belém area. It was known, however, that many terreiros and other rooms used by mediums for spiritual healing and counselling had not registered with the Federation. Most frequenters declare themselves to be Catholics and see no contradiction in their simultaneous commitment to members of the AfroBrazilian spiritual pantheon and ritualistic practices of their terreiro. Indeed, many terreiros afford the opportunity to continue worship and devotion to the Catholic saints, and included liturgical prayers and worship of the saints in their programmes of activities. Popular Catholicism is one of several “lines” of religion practised in many cult houses. The leader (or pai-de-santo) of the house in which I focused my ethnographic research was also a specialist in a form of indigenous, Amazonian curing ( pajelança), in traditional Candomblé Nagô, Candomblé-Jeje, and Mina-Nagô. Candomblé is the most African of all these lines, and every effort is made to ensure that ritual and ceremonial activities are as true to the Nagô, or Yoruba, tradition as practised by the African forbears in their motherland and subsequently in the New World. As such, only African deities, called orixás, are invoked in prayer, ritual and ceremonial possession when this line is practised. An extensive mythology surrounds the orixás, some of whom are believed to have lived as legislators, warriors and kings on earth, and some of whom govern natural phenomena, such as the wind, thunder, health, the seas, and so on.

Candomblé Jeje is similar to Candomblé Nagô; its geographical origins place it next door to those of Candomblé Nagô, in the ancient kingdom of Dahomey, and the members of its pantheon of voduns correspond almost one-to-one the orixás. The Mina element is an exclusively Brazilian development. Activities in the line of Mina focus on ancestor beings, many of whom spent at least the final part of their lives in Brazil and passed into an incorporeal existence in their spiritual home (the encantaria) without experiencing physical death. The precise term for such beings is encantado. The spirits of local, indigenous ancestors, or caboclos, form another major group of spirit entities within culto afro practice. Caboclos frequently visit the terreiro by possessing their devotees. The term caboclo, however, is often extended to include frequenting spirits of many different geographical origins, all of whom enjoy conversing, dancing, offering advice, and some of whom are particularly skilled in curing. The cura (line of curing), traditionally the domain of animal spirits, such as the boto encantado (a river dolphin spirit), is now largely performed by these “caboclos” and encantados.

Afro Spirit entity Orixá Vodun


Origin Yoruba Dahomey

Line/Tradition Candomblé Nagô Candomblé Jeje Mina Mina; also curing and consultation Curing

Vodunsu, Encantado Caboclo Animal Spirits

Various – esp. Europe, Middle East Indigenous Amazonian (but term often applied more widely) Indigenous Amazonian

Figure 1 : Summary table displaying some of the various possessing spirits, their origins, and the religious
‘lines’, or traditions, with which they are associated.

A full schedule of ritual activities centres on the orixás, voduns, encantados, and caboclos. Candles are lit, requests presented, money exchanged, animals offered and bodies given over to the

possessing spirits in homage to them and in anticipation of assistance and guidance in daily life. In addition, a number of procedures are followed – some daily – that are said to provide some level of protection from negative spirits and sorcery, and cleansing from negative energies. For example, bathing with a consecrated infusion of leaves and herbs specifically chosen for their cleansing properties is performed before any kind of involvement in religious or spirit-related activities, and before entering particular parts of the house, “to eliminate [lit. cleanse] the negative charge picked up on the street”. Thus, like many other cult houses around the city, this terreiro (hereafter called “Pai’s terreiro”, after its spiritual leader and “head of the house”) serves many functions. For many of those who attend, it is simultaneously a house of worship, a place of work, a social club, a health clinic, a spiritual retreat, and a home. As spiritual father to most of the members who had been initiated into the religion, as the principle vehicle for the curing spirits, and as the sole bread-winner of all the live-in members of the house, Pai is responsible for the emotional, physical and spiritual wellbeing of a sizeable community. About twenty people formed the core of the religious community. This was slightly larger than average for the cult houses of the city. It was well-known that many houses had high numbers of frequenters, friends and hangers-on, all of whom might be present at the public possession ceremonies and parties (in which large quantities of free alcohol were normally served), but that the commitment of members was often transitory and perfunctory. Pai’s terreiro was known throughout the city as “serious”: alcohol was forbidden within the house unless it was for ceremonial use ( e.g., in libations); there were frequent study sessions and open meetings and debates on issues such as ritual practice, divination methods, spirit families, the history of the religion, etc.; there was a fastidious commitment to correct ritual practice according to the tradition of Pai’s spiritual forbears and the desires of the orixás and other spirit entities , and so on. For these reasons, Pai’s terreiro attracted a ‘different crowd’ to its public ceremonies, and was generally

spoken highly of throughout the city. (Although, for these same reasons, it was frequently the topic of much inter-terreiro gossip and jealousy). A particularly grand public occasion, for example, is the coming out ceremony that follows the 3-week period of initiation (during which the initiate is isolated from the outside world, and led by the terreiro leader through a series of rites that begin a life of dedication and commitment to a particular orixá). Any such ceremony, in which the orixás or voduns come to possess their “sons” ( filhos) and “daughers” (filhas) attracts up to sixty participants and spectators. Most of those who participate in such occasions – as members (filhos) of the terreiro, and as neighbours and friends – would have availed of the terreiro’s services at some point in their past, particularly Pai’s expertise and the specialist advice that may be solicited from the spirits that possess him. In most if not all cases, initiated members initially come to the terreiro for guidance, most often on matters of finance, health and love. For some, the first visit may be the last. In many cases, however, the first consultation with Pai and his spirit entities marks the beginning of a series of treatments. A relationship subsequently develops between the client, the spirits and their intermediaries – the terreiro’s mediums and diviners.

When a client arrives at Pai’s house, he/she is assessed by means of a variety of techniques. Even before any specific concern is discussed, simple numerological techniques are applied to the person’s birth date, and personality and physical characteristics are readily and subjectively assessed, offering Pai a “psychological profile of the person”. During these sessions, Pai (or any of the medium-consultants of the terreiro) may be possessed by a spirit entity. Alternatively, clients may be asked to return on a certain day to speak with one of the entities. In this way, spirits may engage in conversation with the clients in a normal, everyday fashion – joking with them,

questioning them, offering practical advice, and so on. Indeed, some of the spirits who regularly visit the house are barely distinguishable from the mediums they possess. It is sometimes necessary to ask people, “who are you?” to confirm whether or not they are possessed. In the culto, the continuity between the mediums’ characteristic, normal behaviour and their possession behaviour is the mark of a well-developed, competent medium. Uncontrolled possession trance, in which the medium may have difficulty in interacting with people or singing and dancing in the possession ceremonies, is common among mediums early in their career, but is something that should be corrected through experience and practice. The client may then discuss the issues and problems for which he/she needs spiritual guidance and resolution. The consultant will generally offer some advice, endeavouring to ensure that all the relevant information has been disclosed and that the story is truthful and coherent. Many clients simply need to be reassured concerning some decision, or to hear a kind word, or some other advice for which recourse to divination techniques is unnecessary. For example, the general ethical and moral guidelines within which Pai and other Afro-Brazilian religious specialists operate dictate that should a client arrive with a grievance against someone she holds responsible for her misfortune (e.g. her husband’s lover), and she is considering taking that person’s life, she should be advised against this course of action. Some advice, however, can only be sought via the búzios, or cowry shells – what Pai has nicknamed his “internet to the orixás”. The jogo de búzios (lit. “throw 185 of the cowries”) is a divination technique that is derived from the Yoruban Ifá method. Other simpler indexical divination techniques are used in the terreiro, and although all are considered to be reliable, the jogo is considered the most informative and explicatory instrument of communication with the orixás. Not only does it convey the orixás’ answers to one’s questioning; it reveals some of their reasoning by means of allegory and legend. It is a much simplified Ifá method, but still one that, according to Pai, requires intensive

The term jogo in this context should not be confused with its alternative meaning, “game”, as in game of football.

training. Such training was not to be sought in books and manuals. To be a legitimate diviner, one must learn the technique exclusively from one’s initiating pai-de-santo. This follows general culto practice for the transmission of fundamental teachings and knowledge of the orixás, spirit entities and ritual procedures. Boca à ouvido (lit. “mouth to ear”) is how all members should learn the “deep things”, or fundamentos, of the religion. In the case of the cowry throwing, these comprise the 256 stories about the orixás. Each consultation entails two casts; the first to reveal which orixá is speaking and the second to “bring the message” (trazer o recado). For each secondary cast, each of the sixteen possible configurations has sixteen possible meanings. The procedure was succinctly described to me as follows by Pai possessed with caboclo Zé Pelintra (hereafter written as Pai/Zé);

…there is a kind of table, a code, here. There are 16 cowries giving 16 falls, and 16 times 16 gives 256 if I’m not mistaken. There are 256 itans, which are the stories. Each way that they fall has a definition. For example, if it falls like this [he throws the shells], “Watch out! You need to request the protection of Oxum because your love life is looking bad.” If it falls like this, “Be careful – you need to solicit goodwill from Oxum because you are in financial difficulty.”… So, this is the jogo186 (Author’s fieldwork in Belém 2003).

Many pais-de-santo, according to Pai, can give a single reading of each fall in this way and say something about its implications. Not many, however, have endeavoured to memorise the complete repertoire of stories, or itans. This, I was told, can lead to oversimplified and misguided

…aqui existe uma especie de tabela, codigo, né. São 16 búzios que dão 16 quedas e 16 vezes 16 que dá 256, se não me engano. São 256 itans, que são as histórias. Cada moda que cai tem uma definição, por exemplo, se caiu assim, “Cuidado! Você precisa pedir a proteção a Oxum porque você vai mau no amor”. Se caiu diferente, “Cuidado, você precisa perdir a Oxum benevolência porque voce está com problema financeiro… Então esses são, são o jogo.

interpretations and a failure to perceive how a particular existential concern maybe spoken to by the contextual details of the relevant itan. Therefore, there is a moral duty upon the pai-de-santo (or mãe-de-santo if female) to learn the technique well and to be honest with his clients. As Pai clearly stated, “In each throw, there are 16 paths or parables or destinations, and it is necessary to know the itans and to have the gift of interpretation in order to better orient the client.”187 He must also be ritualistically prepared, having attained senior status within the community through initiation and subsequent rites. In addition, the cowries must be consecrated for use; otherwise, as Pai put it once, “they are not obliged to tell the truth.” Of course, many stories circulated the terreiro concerning people who had failed to observe all these rules. Indeed, for a small sum of money, one could solicit the gods’ guidance via any number of self-made diviners at the Sunday afternoon market in the city centre.

The Problem
Given that, a) the teaching and training in the jogo de búzios is intensive, demanding and exclusionary, and b) the checking of each diviner’s credentials is impractical, and c) there is a very real possibility of being deceived by a fraudster, why persist with this method when the client may much more readily assess his/her situation in conversation with the entidades when they are possessing a medium? After all, as Pai/Zé once claimed, “Our divinities, they accompany us – our gods are much closer to us than other people’s. Our god manifests himself, and he speaks, and he delivers his message.”

With such a direct, spontaneous, two-way line to the gods, why persist

with the costly method of cowry throwing when seeking the gods’ advice?


“Em cada jogada há 16 caminhos ou parábolas ou destinos, e preciso conhecer os itans e ter o dom de interpretação para melhor orientar o consulente.” 188 As nossas divindades, elas convivem conosco. Nós temos os deuses muito mais próximos do que as outras pessoas. O nosso dues se manifesta, e ele fala, e ele prega a mensagem dele.

Culto principles and practice potentially provide a number of seemingly plausible, but in the end unsatisfactory, responses to this problem:

1. The spirit entities who normally offer consultations through mediums don’t know everything (e.g., caboclos, encantados, etc.) - the orixás know much more than they do. Therefore, consulting the orixás via the cowries potentially allows one to tap into a comparatively vast reservoir of knowledge.

“Let’s give an example”, says Pai/Zé, in response to my question, Do the orixás know more than the caboclos? “You look out of the window on the first floor of your apartment block and you see a lot of things, right? If you look out of the fourth storey, you see more things, and so on and so on. If you go to the top storey, you’ll see much more, perhaps the whole city – it’s more or less like that”. The analogy served to illustrate the hierarchical nature of the different spirit-categories’ access to hidden or veiled knowledge. Extending the analogy, one might suggest that humans occupy a space in the basement of this building, at least those humans who have not developed their mediumistic capacities. 189 Furthermore, while it is often said that the spirit entities don’t know everything, and that the orixás enjoy more privileged epistemic access, entidades are still considered to have considerable powers of perception and special access to particular forms of knowledge. What we find is that in practice – outside the analytical contexts in which the above discourses arise – clients and initiated members ( filhos) are not actually interested in whether or not a certain entidade is further up the ladder towards omniscience. What interests the client is whether or not these entidades know what she needs them to know in order to plan her actions and to

It was widely accepted among cult members that mediumistic abilities ( vidência) are inherent to all human beings. There are many ways in which they may be made manifest and developed. Some people, for example, may be destined to develop their abilities as mediums, channelling spirits and partaking in possession ceremonies, etc. Others may possess a simpler form of vidência, comparable to extra-sensory perception, or may be skilled in oneiromancy (the interpretation of dreams).

respond to specific situations in the most personally advantageous ways. The possessing spirits – of whatever category – are expected to know whether or not so-and-so has been betrayed by their partner, or whether they failed to secure that job offer because of corrupt selection procedures and/ or sorcery. People fear that the entidades know things about them that they would rather keep secret, e.g. if money has been spent on a weekend’s revelling instead of being offered to assist with terreiro expenses. In short, the consulting entidades are often assumed to know about exactly the kinds of personally significant things that clients and filhos (members; lit. sons/daughters) tend to ask about in consultation sessions. One regular client once told me:

When the entidade is chatting to you, she perceives your life [lit. has clairvoyance]. She peels you like a banana, she sees what happened, she has a deep connection with what happened. It’s as if everything were being shown on television 190 (Author’s fieldwork in Belém 2003).

Furthermore, the orixás also manifest themselves through possession. There are, however, certain key differences in the manifestations of orixás and the other spirit entities. This raises a second consideration:

2. Possession by the orixás is mute – the orixás rarely speak and when they do, it is often in a different language.

In contrast to the caboclo spirits and the encantados, the orixás come less frequently to possess their filhos. When they come, they remain with their eyes closed, and rarely engage in conversation


Na hora em que a entidade está conversando com você, ela tá tendo uma vidência na tua vida. Ela faz, ela te descasca como se você fosse uma banana, ela ta vendo o que aconteceu, ela tá numa ligação profunda do que aconteceu. É como se fosse uma televisão passando do lado – ela vê tudo aquilo.

with those present. The orixás do communicate with those around them, however. Participants may approach them and speak privately to them and receive a response. Questions need to be phrased in such a way that the range of potential responses is narrow and statements short and succinct. This is a constraint that is imposed upon the diviner in a jogo de búzios session also. In addition to knowing how the cast of the cowries should be interpreted, the diviner must train in the accepted methods of formulating questions. Possessing orixás will mimic, shake and nod their heads, and perform other gestures that indicate their approval or disapproval. For example, it was necessary for me to ask their permission to take photographs of them possessing their filhos. The orixás and voduns may therefore reveal much information when they are physically manifest in the terreiro. It would appear, then, that this may constitute a more economical means of consulting them – one that does not require the costly process of training in the jogo de búzios and learning the 256 stories to interpret the casts. A third response may go as follows:

3. One can have more confidence in the búzios diviner. Many mediums are charlatans who pretend to be possessed and who consciously manipulate you and eagerly draw out your secrets.

This of course is true in many sectors of the culto afro. The distrust that results may be illustrated by the following incident. During my fieldwork period at Pai’s terreiro, I had the opportunity of accompanying the ritual activities that marked the twenty-first anniversary of his initiation into Candomblé. In the culto, members commemorate their initiation each year, repeating some of the rites that were performed at initiation and often spending several days in peaceful solitude and devotion to their orixás or voduns. Certain anniversaries are especially significant. For example, at seven years a person acquires the right to initiate his/her own community and is given the title of

bablorixá, or “father of the orixá (or if a woman – iyalorixá, meaning “mother of the orixá”). On the twenty-first anniversary, the babalorixá is said to become an orixá vivo, or an “alive orixá”, owing to his breadth of experience and depth of knowledge and intimacy with the orixás (rather than a mystical transformation or apotheosis). The lines of communication with the orixás are said to become much more open and varied. At twenty-one years the babalorixá may rely more on intuition and inspiration or revelation that he believes to be from the orixás and entidades without constant recourse to confirmation via the throw of the cowries. In one of the rites marking Pai’s twenty-first anniversary, a core group of initiated members of the terreiro met to perform an immolation for a particular entity with whom Pai had had a special association since his initiation – his Exú. According to Pai, on this occasion the “supreme will of the orixás demanded that [the rite] was performed in a way that was contrary to every norm.” The norm is that Pai should not “cut”, or perform the immolation, for his own entity. Yet, when the individuals present asked the orixás via the cowries if they should perform the immolation, each of them was rejected. When Pai threw the cowries to ask if he should do it, they responded “yes” twice. According to Pai, to have asked a third time would have provoked the orixás and so Pai performed the immolation. He said to me:

These things happen often just to teach a lesson. It’s really good that something like this should happen so that the people – the filhos – see the possibilities that exist and understand that the highest authority isn’t the babalorixá; the highest authority is the orixás. And how do they communicate with man? With the cowries, because even if a person was possessed with their orixá, someone would say, ‘Ah! But you know, who knows if he was with his orixá?’ So, the best communication that exists is by throwing the cowries (Author’s fieldwork in Belém 2003).

Nevertheless, there are charlatan diviners also. Paraphrasing what Pai said on this issue, “If I throw the cowries for you, you don’t know my method. Even if you know a method, I can tell you that my method is different. This is an ethical problem”. So, there is potentially some ambiguity in the source of wisdom in both possession and cowry-throwing. How do clients deal with this? Firstly, in the case of the jogo de búzios, most members of the in-group understand parts, if not all, of what is involved in throwing and interpreting the fall of the cowry shells according to the method of their babalorixá, and so would be capable of raising doubts about anything apparently underhand. Also, clients and filhos will generally carry out some research before paying the fee for the jogo to their pai-de-santo of choice. The diviner’s best advertisement is a satisfied client. Furthermore, the satisfied client is almost certain to return to solicit advice on any further problems. “The client who stays at your house”, Pai/Zé asserted, “is the one who sees that you have something, that you can orient him/her, that you have credibility, honesty in what you say”. Recounting the story of one very ill client who, after approaching many doctors over a long period of time, visited the terreiro and was healed, he concluded: “What was it that made her come? Credibility. Because there are lots of terreiros – on every corner there’s a terreiro, and she only came because we have credibility.” Secondly, in the case of possession, members and frequenters of the terreiro also claim to be able to detect when someone is pretending to be possessed. Such ‘mediums’ are said to be “obsessed” (from the noun obsessão, or “obsession”), not possessed, and are apparently relatively easily identified. In both contexts, then, participants should have ample opportunity to establish whether they are really consulting the gods, or if they are being misguided by a phoney. Of course, not all clients have such experience of observing possession, or of the methods employed to interpret the fall of the búzios. This would explain, however, why most

clients’ testimonies of their first encounters with the spirits – whether via mediums or cowries – reveal a certain degree of scepticism. Oftentimes, as in the case of the woman who was finally healed at the terreiro, their first visit is their last resort. It is because nothing else worked, and there is nothing to lose (other than the consultancy fee) that people often find themselves at the terreiro with little expectation that it will help their situation. Following the resolution of their problems, often over a sustained period of treatment, clients will gain experience of the correct practice as well as trust in the diviner and medium. The list of ethno-explanations could be extended further. Nevertheless, I suggest that there is much more to perceiving a purportedly possessed medium’s behaviour than critically reflecting on whether or not he or she is genuinely possessed. Even when a person is satisfied that the medium is not faking possession, a degree of uncertainty lingers, even if only on the nonreflective or unconscious level. This is demonstrated by close observation of the ways in which people behave towards mediums when they are said to be possessed. One quickly observes that people’s reactions to possessed individuals are often at odds with how they define possession generally. Some of these data are presented briefly below, taking us to some final suggestions on solving the problem that concerns us here – in the culto and many other spirit possession traditions, why do we find prototypical divination techniques to unveil the hidden, when that hidden knowledge is readily accessible through conversation with possessed mediums?

How is possession defined?
Definitions of possession in the culto correspond with what appears to be the majority view as described by ethnographers of spirit possession worldwide. There are a number of descriptions available concerning what happens when someone becomes possessed. Outside of theological debate, however, the consensus among culto members seems to lie with the following definition:

when someone is possessed by a spirit, his mind – his agency, intentionality, control and therefore his accountability for his actions – is displaced. Another agency takes the place of the one that normally occupies and animates his body. A new person is formed in which the body is not the key identifying feature. Observers may now readily appreciate that the person in front of them, though he/she looks the same, is not the same person. As one culto participant put it, “it is the conjunction of the two parts that becomes, temporarily, a person” [ i.e. body + mind]. This definition is guided by what may be dubbed “the principle of displacement” and an underlying commitment to radical dualism.191 Anthropological studies of spirit possession from across the world tend to present observers’ perceptions of possession as straightforward and unambiguous. For example, in his account of Haitian spirit possession, Ari Kiev affirms that

possession occurs when a loa selects to ‘mount’ or ‘enter the head’ of his cheval (person possessed), thereby replacing his soul… All thoughts and behaviour are then attributed to the loa (1966: 143).

In his ethnography of ‘orisha work’ in Trinidad, Kenneth Lum writes:

Since it was the spirit (the “actual you”) which animated the physical body, after an orisha had manifested on a person, it was that orisha who was now animating that person’s body…The displaced spirit only returned when the orisha had left (2000: 156).

Ioan Lewis also makes explicit the association between displacement of control and the apportioning of blame, claiming that in the Trinidadian Shango cult, as elsewhere,

See Jesse Bering (2006) and Paul Bloom (2004).

whatever the possessed person does is done with impunity since he is considered to act as the unconscious and involuntary vehicle of the gods (1971: 105).

Yet, I observed that this principle – while it informed people’s generic assessment of what is going on with bodies and minds during possession – was inconsistent with people’s behaviours towards possessed individuals in specific possession episodes. Mediums were gossiped about and reprimanded for things they had said and done when possessed. For instance, they were teased for dancing incorrectly or ungracefully, or for singing poorly; they were held responsible for inappropriate behaviour, e.g. talking dirty, or drinking excessively at a possession party, or involvement in crime. Further, observations of more subtle interactions attest to the importance of implicit mechanisms of social perception in possession episodes. Take the fictitious (but plausible) example of Maria and Claudia. Let us say that Claudia is lazy in the terreiro kitchen and this generates some tension between them. Based on comparable, specific examples of such intra terreiro tensions, it is reasonable to anticipate that when Claudia is possessed, Maria’s actions, expressions and demeanour around Claudia will show little indication that she has processed fully the implications of this change, i.e., that Claudia is now a new person and that this new person is no longer the lazy woman who shirks her kitchen duties. The dislike (as well as admiration) that characterised relationships between participants in normal daily social life carried over into the possession episodes. When participants were questioned about the apparent contradictions in what they say about possession in general and in how they interpret the behaviours of specific possessed individuals, they would either shrug their shoulders, or refer one to Pai, who would offer what might be called the “theologically correct” (Barrett 1999) description of possession. That is, the agency of the medium and the agency of the spirit entity are fused together to create a new person that is neither fully the entity nor the medium, but an amalgam of both, to

which all behaviours are attributable. The ‘principle of fusion’, however, was an unwieldy one for real-time judgements – it was clear that in rapid, real-time attributions, behaviours were not attributed to this amalgam, but to either the spirit or the medium. A number of other ethnographers have noted that ambiguity is inherent to possession. Niko Besnier, for example, writes, “mediumship is a competition between the voice of a spirit and the voice of a medium, since the two have only one mouth to speak through” (1996: 85). Similarly, Michael Lambek writes, “Possession contains the central paradox that an actor both is and is not who she claims to be” (1989: 53). Janice Boddy observes that possession by the zar spirits, “however social they may be, creates a paradox in and for those involved, as the possessed are simultaneously themselves and alien beings” (1989:9). Unlike most normal communication between two people, the intentional source of a possessed medium’s words and actions is ambiguous. The consequences of this situation are not only assessed consciously by the observer (e.g. in terms of real/false possession-trance). Even when a person is taken to be possessed, there is some evidence that observers’ perceptions of the medium’s behaviours are incommensurate with the ‘principle of displacement’. The situations in which this is most apparent (to the ethnographer) involve inappropriate or inadequate behaviour (e.g., when mediums contravene moral rules and conventions, or fail to dance or sing competently). I argue that some of the ambiguities reported from possession scenarios around the world are due to implicit psychological biases that are informed by the mental mechanisms of social cognition. These mechanisms work rapidly and automatically to deliver many inferences per second as we observe and interpret the behaviour of others. The majority of these inferences is not consciously appraised and may therefore be generated and entertained without conscious checking and without appeal to counterintuitive features of the social situation. In addition to the ethnographic data from the culto, there is further evidence to suggest that these everyday mechanisms of normal social

cognition inform and bias thinking about possessed mediums. Inferences delivered automatically and rapidly by the mechanisms that allow us to process information about people we know make it virtually impossible to process the migration of minds in real-time interaction. This evidence comes from recent studies in social cognition, specifically the growing research topic of significant-other representations and transference, and from neuroscientific accounts of person-identification.

Significant Others and Person Recognition
In a series of studies, Andersen and colleagues have investigated the mechanisms underlying the everyday transference of mental representations of Significant Others (SOs)

to new persons (1990, 1995). They found that when we encounter people who resemble SOs, the

information about the SO that is stored in our memory systems is automatically activated without our awareness. The activated representation of the SO is then used to predict and interpret the behaviour of the new person. In this context, transference is defined as “the phenomenon whereby something about a new person activates a perceiver’s representation of a significant other, leading him or her to interpret and respond to the person in ways derived from prior experiences with the significant other” (Chen 2001: 125). The activated memories of the SO include characteristics as well as feelings, motivations and interpersonal expectations. The proposed mechanism underlying transference is “chronic accessibility”. That is, the persistent readiness with which significant other representations are activated and brought to bear on social perception. Andersen et al.’s studies demonstrated chronic accessibility of SO representations compared to the control representations (1995). These findings are relevant to our investigation of the mechanisms employed in the perception of possessed mediums. The possessing spirit entity is said to take control of the host’s

Significant Others is a broadly defined category in Andersen et al’s empirical work. SO refers to “any people who have been important and influential in the individual’s life” (Andersen and Cole 1990: 385)

agency, yet observers regularly represent the host as the agent responsible for actions and behaviours. Following Andersen’s findings, I suggest that this is because the behavioural features of the possessed host are often continuous with those features of the host normally. Despite the reflectively, or consciously, held belief that the host is no longer present, but that he/she has been replaced by another agent, observed continuities in personality, voice and use of language, and behavioural characteristics (e.g., mannerisms) in the possession episode automatically trigger representations of the host’s personality characteristics and traits. 193 This informs observers’ implicit interpretations of the host’s behaviours when possessed as well as their affective responses. The neural correlates underpinning these processes have been the subject of at least two decades of rigorous neuroscientific enquiry (e.g., Bruce and Young 1986; Leveroni et al. 2000; Shah et al. 2001; Sergent et al. 1992). Neuroscientific accounts of the retrieval of information about others stored in memory draw from increasingly sophisticated fMRI techniques and data.194 In some recent investigations, Leveroni et al. 2000 and Shah et al. 2001, (see also Haxby et al. 2002; Paller et al. 2003; Gobbini et al. 2004), have demonstrated that face perception and recognition involves several neural systems in concert.


For mediums in the culto when possessed with caboclos is characteristic of highly developed mediumistic abilities. Inexperienced mediums endeavour to achieve such continuity and control in possession episodes and training sessions (“development sessions”) exist specifically for this purpose. 194 Functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging is a form of brain imaging that registers blood flow to functioning areas of the brain.
Core System: Visual Analysis Extended System: Further Processing

Amygdala, Insula, Limbic System Emotion processing, emotional response afro, a high degree of continuity between one’s everyday behaviour and one’s behaviour

Inferior Occipital Gyri Perception of face

Lateral Fusiform Gyrus Invariant aspects of faces – perception of unique identity

Anterior Temporal Regions Person identity, name, biographical information

Figure 2 : Model adapted from Haxby et al.’s (2002) model of the human neural system for face perception,
showing brain regions activated in the representation of invariant aspects of faces.

Haxby et al. (2002) distinguish between the core system and the extended system in their model of a distributed neural system for face perception (see Figure 2). The brain areas that are identified as being active in the core system are responsible for the visual analysis of faces. The extended system is composed of those areas that process the meaning of information obtained from faces. Their model is supported by increasingly precise investigations into the specific brain areas activated by exposure to strangers, familiar faces, personally familiar faces and famous familiar faces (e.g., Leveroni et al. 2001; Gobbini et al. 2004). For example, Gobbini et al. (2004) found that personally familiar faces (such as those of significant others) evoked a stronger response than did famous familiar faces in those areas associated with the representation of the personal attributes and mental states of others (or Theory of Mind) and with the retrieval of episodic autobiographical memory. Their results suggest that,

perceiving a familiar face activates a distributed network of brain structures related not only to visual familiarity but also to knowledge about a person’s personality, attitudes, and intentions; to episodic memories associated with that person; and to the emotional response to that person. The ‘knowledge’ about the other person is retrieved

spontaneously and appears to play an integral role in the recognition of familiar individuals (2004: 1634, italics mine).

This research provides evidence that there is a flow of information from specific systems in the brain that handle face perception, face recognition, and person-identification that is rapid and automatic. This means that perception of a familiar face will activate the retrieval of person-identity information without conscious effort. Although it is possible to have familiarity without identification – this happens when we know we know someone but we cannot quite place them – barring pathology, this is unlikely to occur for people we meet regularly. Recognizing a person involves automatic information flow from neuroanatomical areas of the brain that deal with face perception to familiarity checking to associated areas connected with memory and emotion. This means that even if we tried to block this neural flow, it would be impossible. Thus, the knowledge – both semantic and emotional – that we hold for a person is automatically accessed when we see him/her. Returning to the possession context, even though we may accept that he/she is possessed, and that this in turn entails a commitment to the belief that he/ she is no longer here but has been replaced by a different agent, the identity files stored for that person will continue to inform our perceptions and interpretations of his/her behaviours, our emotional responses, and our interpersonal expectancies. It remains an empirical question, and one that is highly relevant to the real-world practice of spirit possession, as to how the use of masks, the alteration of voice, and dramatic and striking transformations in behaviour during possession may interfere with these perception mechanisms. Given that these are frequent features of spirit possession traditions around the world, such questions could be investigated in real-world settings using experimental methodologies. The suggestion for our purposes here, however, is that these data are pertinent to the explanation of ambiguities in spirit possession traditions in general, and are particularly relevant to

the question of the co-existence of mediumistic and prototypical divination techniques. Why do such techniques co-exist? Why throw the cowries to gain access to the gods’ knowledge when one can ask the gods directly? I suggest that it is, in part, because the ‘principle of displacement’ that guides concepts of possession – while it is easily graspable in principle – conflicts with the intuitive expectations delivered by our mental apparatus for everyday social interaction. This produces an incongruence between reflective and non-reflective, or tacit, beliefs about possessed mediums, and, as a result, when seeking special knowledge, the randomized and mechanical communication with the supernatural agents via the cast of the cowries is a more appealing option. Insofar as charlatans can be avoided, and credible diviners accessed, divination by shells, while costly in terms of training, offers a more cognitively congruent method of accessing the messages of the gods. Does it then follow that if the incongruence in possession contexts was removed (e.g., through the use of masks, radical alterations in voice and behaviour, etc.), divination techniques would become extinct in such possession traditions? Not necessarily. The factors that potentially place these two methods of revealing the hidden in competition for cultural inclusion are numerous. Certain local characteristics of possession behaviour and possession definitions, as well as of divinatory techniques are significant. Are diviners easily accessible? What are the restrictions on becoming a diviner? How extensive is the training? Are the gods consulted through divination techniques the same as those who possess the mediums? If so, do they communicate when in possession? Such details must be considered, case by case, in addition to the generalisable principles described in this chapter in order to determine whether possession and divination are cultural competitors or complements.

This brief account of some of the processes underpinning everyday social perception takes us part of the way in explaining why the intentionality behind possession behaviour is intrinsically ambiguous. What emerges out of this compilation of evidence from field observations, psychological studies and neuroscientific investigations is that the factors that come into play in the perception and interpretation of possession behaviour are numerous. These operate both implicitly and explicitly, and potentially the contents of both implicit and explicit perceptions and interpretations are divergent. This may explain, in part, why a cult participant’s dislike for another member is not forgotten about when that member is possessed, even though she tells herself that the woman is ‘not here’ anymore; why she blames people for things they do when possessed, despite knowing that control is said to be displaced by the possessing agent; why she would have difficulty watching her possessed husband get too close to another woman, even though he is no longer the agent animating his body; and why it is the unequivocal voice of the cowries that she turns to for answers to her deepest questions and concerns, even though conversation with the possessing gods is a readily available option.

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