Astragalomancy

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Replica Roman astragali
Astragali used for gaming in Mongolia

Astragalomancy, also known as cubomancy[1] or astragyromancy, is a form of divination that uses dice specially marked with letters or numbers.

Historically, as with dice games, the "dice" were usually knucklebones or other small bones of quadrupeds. Marked astragali (talus bones) of sheep and goats are common at Mediterranean and Near Eastern archaeological sites, particularly at funeral and religious locations.[2] For example, marked astragali have been found near the altar of Aphrodite Ourania in Athens, Greece, suggesting astragalomancy was performed near the altar after about 500 BC.[3]

The practice of contacting divine truth via random castings of dice or bones stretches back before recorded history. The Metropolitan Museum of Art displayed bone "dice" (hakata) used by the Shona people of southern Africa.[4] They have been in use for thousands of years, and remain extant.[citation needed]

Astragalomancy is often considered to be a branch of cleromancy.[5] As a form of sortition, numbers are scrawled into the dice; the numbers are associated with letters, thus bearing on the questions of the diviner. The diviner then casts the dice, resulting in a random sequence of numbers.[6] The diviner interprets this sequence according to certain rules – usually rules related to a religion (e.g. Tibetan Buddhism and the Mo system of cubomancy).

Another branch of cleromancy sometimes compared to astragalomancy is pessomancy (also known as psephomancy) – a type of divination which uses colored or marked pebbles rather than numbered dice. These pebbles are either thrown out of a bag after shuffling or drawn from the bag at random. The interpretation of the colors or symbols relate to issues such as health, communications, success, and travel.[7]

In Ancient Greece[edit]

Astragalomancy was performed in Ancient Greece through the rolling of Astragaloi and subsequent consultation of "dice oracles", tables of divination results carved into statues or monoliths.[8] Astragaloi are the marked and cut off knucklebones of sheep, or similarly shaped imitations in bronze or wood that served as divination dice in the ancient Greek world. They had four sides and were oblong in shape, with two rounded sides so they would not land on those sides. The dice had two narrow sides and two broad sides, with one of the narrow sides being flat, the other concave, while one broad side was concave and the other convex.[8] The sides were marked with the values 1,3,4 and 6, with opposing sides adding up to seven. Unlike cubic dice, the construction of Astragaloi meant there were varying chances that a particular value would be rolled.[8] The results were then compared to what are known as “dice oracles”. These were scattered throughout the mediterranean and in some cases, such as those found in Anatolia, took the form of large stone pillars. These stone pillars were between 1.6 - 1.7m tall, and 50 – 60 cm wide.[8] These pillars were carved with tables of oracles, corresponding to the numbers rolled on the astragaloi. These ranged from the lowest result of five, consisting of five ones, to the highest result of thirty, consisting of five sixes. Each result also had an attached divinity to it, for example the roll of five ones, statistically the lowest roll due to the construction of the dice, was a favourable roll and was associated with Zeus, with one oracle reading “because Zeus will give good counsel to your mind;”.[8]

EB1911 Greek Art - Greek Drawing of Women Playing at Knucklebones

These Anatolian dice oracles are all set out in a particular format. They address the reader in a first person singular, with an implied narrator and an implied reader. The narrator addresses the reader as if they are interacting, and regularly addresses the reader as ‘stranger’ implying they come from somewhere else, usually with business to be conducted.[8] The business the reader has is either silently or openly expressed to the oracle, and the oracle responds in kind. The text's standard construction of the inquirer then is one who has come from a foreign place to the oracle, puts the business or activities he wants to conduct to the god, and then receives an answer. These answers are mostly positive, with responses like “You will find that for which you are consulting the oracle, and nothing will be bad” or “you will get everything about which you are asking”.[8] There were negative responses as well, such as “The sun has gone down, and terrible night has come. Everything has become dark: interrupt the matter, about which you ask me”[8] but these were less common.

Tibetan Dice Divination[edit]

Tibetan culture contains a wide range of dice divination traditions, some within the buddhist tradition and some outside of it. The most common form uses the standard cubical six sided dice with numbers of pips one through six on each side. Others such as the Sanskrit pāśaka are four sided rectangular dice, and date from the eighth to the tenth century with evidence from manuscripts.[9]

There is evidence that dice divination was used in Tibetan law, influencing things such as loans, interest, marital law and troop conscription. There is a recently published Tibetan manuscript containing both a divination manual and a legal text, suggesting an interconnectedness between the two practices.[10] The legal section of the text lays out many issues spread over 11 ‘clauses’, which contain sets of questions and answers. Each case ends with a question of whether the matter can be resolved by means of sho, meaning ‘dice’. The petitions typically end with the phrase “Do we decide by means of sho or not - how do you command?".[11]

Early Tibetan Dice Divination[edit]

Early Tibetan dice divination was performed with pāśaka, four sided oblong dice with pips one through four marked on the long sides. These were generally 7 cm x 1 cm x 1 cm in size and were constructed so that under regular circumstances it was unlikely they landed on their narrow ends.[12] In order to produce an oracle, the process was as follows: one pāśaka or dice was thrown three consecutive times, with the result and order of the pips recorded. With these three throws, sixty four possible combinations, or omens were possible. These omens were usually displayed in manuscripts with geometric shapes separated by lines, like this “◎◎ / ◎ / ◎◎◎◎” representing the dice results.[13] This result would then be compared to the corresponding entry in the manuscript, and the omen would then apply. The omens themselves are constructed in a particular way, and are either written in verse (referred to as Type-1) or written in prose (referred to as Type-2).[14] The contents can be summarised as follows:

  • “(a) set of die-marks,
  •  (b) verse in ⟨Type-1⟩ / the name of the divinity in ⟨Type-2⟩,
  •  (c) commentary,
  •  (d) result.”[15]

In Tibetan Buddhism[edit]

The Dalai Lama is reported as using the mo, balls of dough in which have been placed pieces of paper with possible "choices" written on them, to help in making important decisions.[16] Tibetan divination has long featured the mo in making everyday decisions, too.[17] There are books written by various lamas on interpretations for the casting of dice. The traditional six sided dice appears in the iconography of the Hindu deity Lha-Mo. A pair of such dice hang from her belt, attached with string. Lha-Mo is part of the “eight terrible ones”, defenders of the buddhist faith, and is closely associated with divination, with a strong connection to divination via dice throwing. Lha-Mo's connection to dice throwing is apparent in a story in the Beun-mo bka'i than-yig, a religious text. In this story, Lha-Mo appears in the guise of a fortune teller multiple times, and ritually throws dice in each apparition, eventually healing a queen who was sick.[18] The lamas of the Lha-Mo cult, the “Dpal-Idan dmag-zor rgyal-mo'i sgo-nas” still perform a dice throwing ritual for divination today, called ‘mo’.[19]

On the Silk Road[edit]

The style of astragalomancy using numerical trigrams was widespread, and evidence of such is found in Turkish, Tibetan, Sanskrit, and Sogdian divination texts[20] from the sixth century through to the 10th century. One particular text is called the Divination of Maheśvara, found on the silk road frontier of Dunhuang.[21] This text is unique as it is a dice divination text in which the method is entirely different from any other known Chinese divination text.[22] The text contains sixty four oracles, each of which is associated with a deity, as well as being keyed to a particular three number combination or numerical trigram, placing this method at an intersection between Chinese numerical trigram divination traditions, and Indian dice divination traditions.[23] The method is as follows, you visit a diviner and pay his fee. He invokes the gods Śakra, Brahmā, and the four heavenly kings[24] as well as other spirits, and instructs you to sit facing west. He hands you three four sided dice with concentric circles indicating their number on each side. You state your name and the issue you have come to receive guidance on, then you cast the dice one after the other, generating a trigram. The diviner then consults his text, and relates to you the oracle that combination refers to. If you are unsure about this divination, the process can be repeated, to a maximum of three oracles, with the final one seeming to take preference over the first two.[25]

In South America[edit]

The huayru is a dice game played in South America at funerals. The game is traditionally played with llama bones, as they are believed to have a special power to attract the soul of the deceased. There are many reasons for the playing of this game, but all of which revolve around divining the will of the recently deceased.[26] There is an example of how the huayru game was used in order to divine the fate of the community during an ecuadorian agrarian reform, and interpreted the dice throw as the deceased being unhappy with the direction the community was heading. This shows that the game provided a link between the living and the deceased, with the game serving as a way to communicate and receive guidance.[27] The game also represents the journey of the deceased, with the dice representing llamas that undertake a journey throughout places associated with commodities such as a silver mine, and it is this journey that introduces ambiguity into the game. The players of the game try to influence the results of the dice by offering prayers or pouring libations, indicating it is a game of chance. This is in contrast to the cultural context of the game, where the deceased is the one who controls how the dice fall, and the players react as such, beating on the corpse of the deceased and questioning why it wishes them to fail if the dice do not fall in their favour.[28] The dice themselves in some cultures instead are carved out of manioc or plantain as opposed to llama bones, and are carved in the shape of a canoe.[29] Both llamas and canoes hold significance as they are both symbols of travel, with both llamas and canoes being used to carry cargo long distances, and so the playing of the game assists the soul of the deceased on its journey.[30] For some Amazonian societies, the symbol is more powerful as the corpse of the deceased is placed in a hollowed tree called a canoe.[31]

Notes and references[edit]

  1. ^ Pargiter, F. E. (1913). ""The Bower Manuscript. Facsimile Leaves, Nāgarī Transcript, Romanised Transliteration and English Translation with Notes, and Sanskrit and English Indexes; by A. F. R. Hoernle" Review by: F. E. Pargiter". The Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society of Great Britain and Ireland. Cambridge University Press: 699–705. JSTOR 25189045.
  2. ^ Reece, David S. (2000). "Worked Astragali" (PDF). Kommos: an excavation on the south coast of Crete volume IV: the Greek sanctuary. Princeton: Princeton University Press. pp. 398–401.
  3. ^ Reece, David S. (1989). "Faunal remains from the altar of Aphrodite Ourania, Athens". Hesperia. American School of Classical Studies at Athens. 58 (1): 63–70. doi:10.2307/148320. JSTOR 148320.
  4. ^ "Divination Dice (Hakata)". The Metropolitan Museum of Art. Archived from the original on 2008-05-09. Retrieved 2008-07-31. Sets of dice (hakata) are the quintessential Shona instruments used to divine the source of illness or personal misfortune. These consist of a series of four miniature tablets, made of wood, ivory, or bone, each with a distinct design motif inscribed on one side. According to Shona conceptions of experience, personal difficulties—ranging from unemployment or poor grades in school to the death of one's livestock—may all be attributed to some spiritual agency. Consequently, a distinction is made between medical treatment of certain ailments and a diviner's probing analysis and diagnosis of the ultimate cause of a client's problems.
  5. ^ Armytage, W.H.G (1966). "The Mantic Mantle". Apeiron. 1 (1): 32–38. doi:10.1515/APEIRON.1967.1.1.32B. S2CID 170389602.
  6. ^ "Astragalomancy." Encyclopedia of Occultism and Parapsychology. Ed. J. Gordon Melton. 5th ed. Vol. 1. Detroit: Gale Group, 2001. 100. Gale Virtual Reference Library. Web. 27 February 2015.
  7. ^ "Pessomancy (or Psephomancy)." Encyclopedia of Occultism and Parapsychology. Ed. J. Gordon Melton. 5th ed. Vol. 2. Detroit: Gale Group, 2001. 1202. Gale Virtual Reference Library. Web. 28 February 2015.
  8. ^ a b c d e f g h Graf, Fritz (2005). "Rolling the Dice for an Answer". Mantikê: 51–97. doi:10.1163/9789047407966_004. ISBN 9789047407966.
  9. ^ Glimpses of Tibetan divination : past and present. Petra H. Maurer, Donatella Rossi, Rolf Scheuermann. Leiden. 2020. ISBN 978-90-04-41068-8. OCLC 1112129568.{{cite book}}: CS1 maint: others (link)
  10. ^ Dotson, Brandon (2007-01-01). "Divination and law in the Tibetan Empire: The role of dice in the legislation of loans, interest, marital law and troop conscription". Contributions to the Cultural History of Early Tibet: 1–77. doi:10.1163/ej.9789004160644.i-310.6. ISBN 9789047421191.
  11. ^ "Divination and law in the Tibetan Empire: The role of dice in the legislation of loans, interest, marital law and troop conscription", Contributions to the Cultural History of Early Tibet, BRILL, pp. 1–77, 2007-01-01, doi:10.1163/ej.9789004160644.i-310.6, ISBN 9789047421191, retrieved 2022-05-26
  12. ^ Glimpses of Tibetan divination : past and present. Petra H. Maurer, Donatella Rossi, Rolf Scheuermann. Leiden. 2020. ISBN 978-90-04-41068-8. OCLC 1112129568.{{cite book}}: CS1 maint: others (link)
  13. ^ Glimpses of Tibetan divination : past and present. Petra H. Maurer, Donatella Rossi, Rolf Scheuermann. Leiden. 2020. ISBN 978-90-04-41068-8. OCLC 1112129568.{{cite book}}: CS1 maint: others (link)
  14. ^ Glimpses of Tibetan divination : past and present. Petra H. Maurer, Donatella Rossi, Rolf Scheuermann. Leiden. 2020. ISBN 978-90-04-41068-8. OCLC 1112129568.{{cite book}}: CS1 maint: others (link)
  15. ^ Glimpses of Tibetan divination : past and present. Petra H. Maurer, Donatella Rossi, Rolf Scheuermann. Leiden. 2020. ISBN 978-90-04-41068-8. OCLC 1112129568.{{cite book}}: CS1 maint: others (link)
  16. ^ Evan Osnos, Profiles, “The Next Incarnation,” The New Yorker, October 4, 2010, p. 63
  17. ^ Tseten, Dorjee. "Tibetan art of divination". The Office of Tibet. Archived from the original on 2008-05-04. Retrieved 2008-07-31.
  18. ^ "Tally-Stick and Divination-Dice in the Iconography of Lha-mo", Tibeto-Mongolica Revisited, BRILL, pp. 259–275, 2014-01-01, doi:10.1163/9789004251229_004, ISBN 9789004251229, retrieved 2022-05-26
  19. ^ TAS, A. RÓNA (1956). "Tally-Stick and Divination-Dice in the Iconography of Lha-Mo". Acta Orientalia Academiae Scientiarum Hungaricae. 6 (1/3): 163–179. ISSN 0001-6446. JSTOR 23682089.
  20. ^ Dotson, Brandon (2021). Dice and gods on the Silk Road : Chinese Buddhist dice divination in transcultural context. Constance A. Cook, Zhao Lu. Boston. ISBN 978-90-04-46437-7. OCLC 1262675426.
  21. ^ Dotson, Brandon (2021). Dice and gods on the Silk Road : Chinese Buddhist dice divination in transcultural context. Constance A. Cook, Zhao Lu. Boston. ISBN 978-90-04-46437-7. OCLC 1262675426.
  22. ^ Dotson, Brandon (2021). Dice and gods on the Silk Road : Chinese Buddhist dice divination in transcultural context. Constance A. Cook, Zhao Lu. Boston. ISBN 978-90-04-46437-7. OCLC 1262675426.
  23. ^ Dotson, Brandon (2021). Dice and gods on the Silk Road : Chinese Buddhist dice divination in transcultural context. Constance A. Cook, Zhao Lu. Boston. ISBN 978-90-04-46437-7. OCLC 1262675426.
  24. ^ Dotson, Brandon (2021). Dice and gods on the Silk Road : Chinese Buddhist dice divination in transcultural context. Constance A. Cook, Zhao Lu. Boston. ISBN 978-90-04-46437-7. OCLC 1262675426.
  25. ^ Dotson, Brandon (2021). Dice and gods on the Silk Road : Chinese Buddhist dice divination in transcultural context. Constance A. Cook, Zhao Lu. Boston. ISBN 978-90-04-46437-7. OCLC 1262675426.
  26. ^ Corr, Rachel (April 2008). "Death, Dice, and Divination: Rethinking Religion and Play in South America". Journal of Latin American and Caribbean Anthropology. 13 (1): 2–21. doi:10.1111/j.1548-7180.2008.00002.x.
  27. ^ Corr, Rachel (April 2008). "Death, Dice, and Divination: Rethinking Religion and Play in South America". Journal of Latin American and Caribbean Anthropology. 13 (1): 2–21. doi:10.1111/j.1548-7180.2008.00002.x.
  28. ^ Corr, Rachel (April 2008). "Death, Dice, and Divination: Rethinking Religion and Play in South America". Journal of Latin American and Caribbean Anthropology. 13 (1): 2–21. doi:10.1111/j.1548-7180.2008.00002.x.
  29. ^ Corr, Rachel (April 2008). "Death, Dice, and Divination: Rethinking Religion and Play in South America". Journal of Latin American and Caribbean Anthropology. 13 (1): 2–21. doi:10.1111/j.1548-7180.2008.00002.x.
  30. ^ Corr, Rachel (April 2008). "Death, Dice, and Divination: Rethinking Religion and Play in South America". Journal of Latin American and Caribbean Anthropology. 13 (1): 2–21. doi:10.1111/j.1548-7180.2008.00002.x.
  31. ^ Corr, Rachel (April 2008). "Death, Dice, and Divination: Rethinking Religion and Play in South America". Journal of Latin American and Caribbean Anthropology. 13 (1): 2–21. doi:10.1111/j.1548-7180.2008.00002.x.

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