Monday, September 26, 2011

Magical Mondays #2: Divining the Future: Chinese Oracle Bones

Welcome to my second Magical Monday. In these segments, I'll be briefly overviewing various magical traditions and elements that people have been believed in (or continue to believed in) throughout history. Eventually, I may also move onto depictions that appear only in novels, but there's plenty of historical stuff to keep me busy for a while.


Today's topic: Ancient Chinese oracle bones.


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The power of computers and an advanced understanding of mathematics has allowed modern humanity to play at something our ancestors desperately wanted: predicting the future. While jokes about weather men prove that we've not mastered predicting the future, we're at least on the way to a semi-reliable method. Our ancestors were even more at the mercy of weather, plagues, and  warfare. Thus, prediction was not just about improving their control nature, but often a matter of urgent survival.

In ancient China, particularly during the ancient Shang Dynasty (1600 B.C.-1045 B.C.), a particular form of divination developed, the use of oracle bones. Although the story of the oracle bones is actually fascinating from an archaeological perspective (ithe discovery of the bones actually confirmed the existence of the Shang Dynasty), today we're going to focus on the magic itself.

http://www.east-asian-history.net/

So, what are oracle bones? Originally, they were mostly the scapulae or shoulder bones of various types of animals inscribed with Chinese writing. The written characters were the basis of a divination system that I'll explain in more detail shortly. Before I do, I wanted to note that although the above bones were originally used, soon the turtle plastron (the underside of the shell) soon tended to be the go-to source material for the divination.

The beliefs underlying the use of the oracle bones involved the ancient Shang people's belief in both a variety of natural spirits (or gods depending on how you want to view them), particularly the chief spirit/god Di. In addition, the Shang people believed that the spirits of their ancestors could also pass and facilitate their concerns and request to the spirits, particularly Di.

To this end, specific inquires were written, in a polite tone, on the prepared bone along with what we might consider 'header' information (the diviner's name, date, et cetera). This is sometimes referred to as  the preface in contrast to the actual question/concern of divination (the charge). A proper charge would typically be two opposing paired questions on opposite sites on the bone (it will rain vs. it will not rain tomorrow).

In contrast to our modern conception about vagueness often associated with divination, the inquiries were generally rather specific. Animal sacrifice and the use of blood on the oracle bones was part of the ceremony. Given the attempts to appease various supernatural forces, one can make the argument that oracle bone divination was as much about attempting to influence the spirits as to seek their insight.

All the prep work done, the next step was to heat the bones until they cracked. Thus, this technique could be considered a type of fire-based divination or pyromancy. Now, here is where thing got a bit tricky. The diviner's interpretation was necessary to determine the meaning of the cracks. Later versions of Chinese divination were a bit more codified, but there was definitely a lot more room for error, as it were, with the earliest forms of oracles bones. This interpretation involved things such as assigning relative weights to the different cracks to judge the strength of the answer.

It should also be noted that not just anyone random citizen could attempt this. It was typically something associated with high-ranking officials, priests, royalty, and the like. In many cases, the kings themselves were the people attempting the divination. Much like the preparation of the golem, this power was something that relied on the education of the person who would seek to use it.

For information about oracle bones here are some sites you might also want to check out:

http://www.npm.gov.tw/english/exhbition/eyin0701/yin0701.htm
http://history.cultural-china.com/en/51History2941.html

If you have access to a good library, you might want to check out David Keightley's Sources of Shang History: The Oracle-Bone Inscriptions of Ancient China. It book is currently out of print.

4 comments:

CherylAnne Ham said...

This is so interesting. Excellent post. If you keep up with Magic Monday's I'll be sure to use your blog for idea gathering when needed.

I really love this.

J.A. Beard said...

Yeah, I figured these various historical/cultural tidbits in general would be something people would find interesting. :)

Right now, I plan to do this for at least a year. Though I don't plan on going much beyond 500-750 word snippets. I mean almost everything I'm going to talk about could fill a book in of itself. So I'll be keeping it high-level and interested folks can follow-up on their own. :)

lexcade said...

That is FASCINATING. I'm glad you're doing this series. Lots of novel fodder :D

J.A. Beard said...

Glad you like it.