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Board-games and divination in global cultural history

a theoretical, comparative and historical perspective on mankala and geomancy in Africa and Asia – Part I

Wim van Binsbergen


This argument seeks to pull together the available evidence on one prominent class of board-games, mankala, highlighting its formal structure, imagery and history. It stresses mankala’s close parallels with geomantic divination, which are treated in detail. It formulates (largely in dialogue with the great historian of games Murray) such theoretical and methodological considerations as an assessment of the scattered and heterogeneous evidence necessitate. In this connection I discuss board-games and divination as formal models, their relation to narrative literature, their temporal structure, symbolism and mathematics. Mankala and geomancy display the relative indifference to local cultural specificity and change typical of formal systems; as such they are invaluable clues to cultural connections and continuities through space and time. The paper thus demonstrates a diffusionist orientation; much attention is paid to patterns of distribution and spread. Contrary to the tendency to extreme, entrenched localisation and fragmentation which has been typical of anthropology during most of the second half of the twentieth century until recently, I have sought to demonstrate how the practices and meanings attaching to artefacts are not rigidly confined within local or regional ethnic, linguistic and political boundaries, but spill over and ramify across the continents while remaining — although in a very loose sense — attached to the objects that function as material foci of their meanings and practices. The specific imagery of mankala and geomancy is primarily explored within a Neolithic context of animal husbandry, agriculture, hunting, proto-astronomy and the earth cult. The simple formal structure of mankala has tempted several archaeologists to interpret as mankala boards Neolithic cupmarked artefacts; the paper addresses the difficulties involved in such an ascription, and formulates a ritual model for the possible origin of mankala. At this point the paper foreshadows the more extensive and technical argument on cupmarks, mankala and Palaeolithic astronomy also presented in this site. In regard of the spread of geomancy and mankala in historical times, emphasis is laid on the role of Islam, the close association with kingship, and the connotations of socio-political control inherent to formal systems in general.


To Part II | to Notes | to homepage


Table of contents

Part I:

1. Introduction

2. Exploring the relation between board-games and divination

2.1. Murray: from flat dismissal to reluctant acceptance

2.2. From divinatory non-ludic to ludic, through familiar objects: African examples

3. Geomancy: basic features

4. The theoretical convergence of divination and board-games

4.1. What is divination?

4.2. Board-games

4.3. Board-games and divination compared

4.4. Board-games and divination as formal models

4.5. Relation to narrative literature

4.6. The structure of time in board-games and divination

4.7. Relation to symbolism and mathematics

5. Historical problems posed by divination systems and board-games5.1. Appearance in human history5.2. The relative a-historicity of divination systems and board-games5.3. Basic variants of the historical relation between divination and board-games

(Part II:

6. Exploring the imagery of mankala and geomancy6.1. Neolithic production as a possible key to the imagery of mankala and geomancy6.1.1. animal husbandry6.1.2. agriculture6.2. Hunting6.3. Astronomy and astrology6.4. The earth cult

7. Alternatives to the uncritical interpretation of contextless artefacts as games: The funerary context of cupmarks7.1. Context, practice, conjecture, and jumping to conclusions7.2. The archaeology of cupmarks7.3. A hypothetical ritual model as a possible origin of mankala

8. The distribution and diffusion of mankala and geomancy8.1. Geomancy8.2. Mankala8.3. Islam and mankala8.4. The convergence of geomantic divination and mankala8.5. Mankala and kingship8.6. Mankala and control: or where do formal systems come from

9. Conclusion


List of figures

Part I:

Figure 1. A West African mancala board

Figure 2. A mancala board from Sri LankaFigure

3. Chokwe divination basketFigure

4. A four-tablet divinatory set from Southern Africa.

Figure 5. A Ndebele diviner-herbalist throwing his bones as a form of geomantic divination in Francistown, Botswana, 1989.

Figure 6. Two divination chains, displaying two specific geomantic configurations, from West Africa

Figure 7. Striking the soil in order to form a geomantic figure

Figure. 7a. Two divination boards from West Africa

Figure 8. Reconstruction of a typical brick with four rows of cupmarks from Ancient Mesopotamia (c. 2000-750 BCE)

Figure 9. A game-board from Ancient Mesopotamia

Figure 10. A specimen of the Ancient Egyptian senet game

Figure 11. A specimen of the Ancient Egyptian mehen game

(Part II:

Figure 12. A grid pattern from rock art, El Castillo (Santander), Mid-Magdalénéen (12,000 BCE)

Figure 13. A terra cotta specimen of the fifty-eight holes game, Ancient Mesopotamia

Figure 14. Neandertal funerary stone with cupmarks, 35.000 BP

Figure 15. The Mallia libation stone disk

Figure 16. Distribution of the geomantic family of divination systems.

Figure 17. Probable diffusion pattern of geomantic divination.

Figure 18. Geographical distribution of mankala.

Figure 19. Probable diffusion pattern of mankala.

Figure 20. A vertical mankala-type monolith from Gada (Ethiopia)

Figure 21. An harvest ritual in North West Africa

Figure 22. An irrigation pattern in North West Africa

Figure 23. A four-row mancala game board excavated at Khami, Zimbabwe (ca. 1700 CE)

Figure 24. Ivory divining tablets excavated at Khami, Zimbabwe (ca. 1700 CE))


The first version of the present book was presented at the 1995 International Colloquium ‘Board-games in Academia’, Leiden, 9-13 April, 1995. Subsequent versions were presented at the Institute for the Study of Religion and Society, Municipal University of Amsterdam, 12 May, 1995; the international conference ‘Time and temporality in intercultural perspective’, Department of Philosophy, Erasmus University Rotterdam, 15 December, 1995; and the international conference ‘Black Athena: Africa’s contribution to global systems of knowledge’, African Studies Centre, Leiden, 28 June, 1996. I have benefited from the discussion at all these occasions, and particularly from criticism and suggestions made by Gert Baumann, Martin Bernal, Pieter Boele van Hensbroek, Jean Comaroff, Irving Finkel, Peter Pels, Peter van Rooijen, Douwe Tiemersma, and Peter van der Veer. I am greatly indebted to the African Studies Centre (ASC), Leiden, and the Department of Cultural Anthropology and Development Sociology, Free University, Amsterdam, for granting me a year of absence in which I could pursue the topics dealt with in this paper, in the immensely inspiring context of the Theme group on Magic and religion in the Ancient Near East, Netherlands Institute for Advanced Study in the Social Sciences and Humanities (NIAS), Wassenaar. I wish moreover to register my indebtedness to the following persons and institutions: the ASC and the NIAS for funds towards assistance in the translation of al-Zanati’s work (crucial for the history of Islamic geomancy); my friend Rafat Badawy for generously providing such assistance; Alex de Voogt for introducing me to the literature on mankala; the librarians of the ASC, Leiden, the NIAS and of the Musée Royal de l’Afrique Centrale, Tervuren, Belgium, for making every effort to satisfy my voracious and omnivorous library needs; Frans Wiggermann for feeding me with stimulating Assyriological literature on board-games, to which I hope to do more justice in a sequel to the present argument. Irving Finkel made a commitment, as far back as Spring 1995, to publish this argument in his forthcoming Ancient board-games, an edited volume to appear with British Museum Press based on a conference held in 1990; while his enthusiasm for my first steps in ludology was heart-warming, the bok has not year materialised and I now take the liberty to publish, via Internet, a piece which is not only dear to me but which also, as long as it was not published, leaves many many months of hard work unaccounted for. In 1997 a much shortened version of the present argument was adapted to serve a contribution on modified diffusionism, as part of my edited collection Black Athena: Ten Years After; I gratefully acknowledge comments from my collaborators in that project, especially Martin Bernal and Arno Egberts. In that 1997 version a number of steps were taken which have not yet been implemented in the text as presented here.


1. Introduction

The scholarly literature on board-games continues to be dominated by Murray’s (1913, 1952) classic works History of chess and History of board-games other than chess. In the wake of these studies, also subsequent work on board-games has tended to keep aloof of any consideration of the relation between board-games and divination.1 This is all the more remarkable since around the turn of the nineteenth century the pioneering ludological works by the American museum anthropologist Culin (1991, 1893-1896, 1898) had claimed that divination was the origin of board-games:

‘There are two principal questions involved in the study of games: that of their origin, and that of their distribution. (...) The consideration of the question of origin naturally precedes that of distribution.’

‘Upon comparing the games of civilized people with those of primitive society many points of resemblance are seen to exist, with the principal difference that games occur as amusements or pastimes among civilized men, while among savage and barbarous people they are largely sacred and divinatory. This naturally suggests a sacred and divinatory origin for modern games, a theory, indeed, which finds confirmation in their traditional associations, such as the use of cards in telling fortunes.’ (...)

‘Games, I hold, must be regarded not as conscious inventions, but as survivals from primitive conditions, under which they originated in magical rites, and chiefly as a means of divination. Based upon certain fundamental conceptions of the universe, they are characterised by a certain sameness, if not identity, throughout the world.’ (Culin 1991: [ add pages ] )

Admittedly, a healthy scepticism concerning the relation between divination and board-games is to be preferred to the propensity towards the esoteric — exemplified in Pennick’s (1992) recent book Secret games of the Gods — which sees behind every board-game the revelation of a millennia-old, universal and unchanging ritual and cosmology. But given board-games’ historical inertia, to which I shall have occasion to refer several times in the course of my argument, there is much of value even in Pennick’s popular approach.

It is the intention of the present paper to explore the relationship between divination and board-games both from a theoretical perspective and by reference to specific games and forms of divination. After discussing Murray’s empiricist views of the matter, an extensive theoretical exploration of conceptualisations of time space will offer us some of the analytical tools with which to illuminate the relation between divination and board-games, and to situate both in global cultural history. I shall explore the imagery and social, economic and cosmological referents, and trace the historical trajectory, of two prominent genres of cultural production widely attested across the African continent since the sixteenth century CE, and featuring in many constructions2 of Africa as a continental cultural unit:

Figure 1. A West African mancala board

(after Murray 1952: 162).

• Mankala board-games (where a fixed number of identical pieces, e.g. pebbles, grains, shells or seeds are repeatedly redistributed — and duly captured — over a number of holes placed in 2 to 4 rows); this genre is with some justification claimed by Culin (1896) to constitute ‘Africa’s national game’ — a claim since repeated many times and still upheld by some major authors in this field;3 and

• Geomantic divination,4 based on the systematic production and distinction of 2^n combinations of lines, seeds, pebbles, or wooden or ivory tablets: a ubiquitous and dominant family of divination systems, including such famous members as Ifa, Fa, ‘Sixteen Cowries’ (Nigeria and West Africa in general), Sikidy (Madagascar and Comoro Isl.), Hakata (Southern Africa), ‘Ilm al-raml (North Africa), Ramalashastra5 (India).

Figure 2. A mancala board from Sri Lanka

(after Murray 1952: 171).

These two cultural systems, although occurring all over the world, are part and parcel of African life, cutting across the many cultural and linguistic boundaries which that continent exhibits. Do they have an African origin? Are they perhaps merely extensively localised forms, on the soil of the land mass we have chosen to call Africa, of cultural production which have a much wider distribution in the world, and which essentially originated outside that land mass? Does their Africanness lie in this localisation? Is that the reason why they are so dominant and ubiquitous in Africa? Or is the very concept of Africa as a viable unit of cultural analysis, misleading, and must we look for better units of analysis?

My review of the geographical distribution and history of mankala and geomancy will yield new suggestions as to their related origin: not as authentic and untainted all-African inventions, but as transformations of the most ancient funerary ritual, taking on hunting symbolism and later further redefined in the course of fundamental changes in production in the Neolithic, with finally, more recently, a major role played by religious and commercial long-distance connections in the context of kingship and particularly of Islam.


2. Exploring the relation between board-games and divination

2.1. Murray: from flat dismissal to reluctant acceptance

Although Murray was far from a theoretician, the fact that throughout his long and productive life he struggled with the descriptive evidence, bibliography and classification of board-games, producing what nearly half a century after his death still stands out as the best work in this field, lends considerable weight to what he has to say on the subject of the relation between board-games and divination. His apparently overall negative attitude on this point (but see below!) is certainly not based on uninformed prejudice, but on a careful sorting out of the evidence against the background of what he — a layman in that department — thought was sound anthropological thinking.

In the first place, he is aware of the fact that a problem of demarcation arises; how can we tell that a particular cultural form involving a random generator (e.g. dice of some sort) is a board-game and not a divination system or a simple form of gambling?

‘Implements of chance by themselves establish nothing, since they have been used from the earliest times for divination or simple gambling.’ (Murray 1952: 2)

Having established the boundary, Murray wants to keep as much as he possibly can outside the divinatory domain; in tacit acknowledgement of Culin’s (1975) superb work on the subject, he concedes:

‘There is a good deal of evidence to suggest that the native American games were originally divinatory, and some are still used for divination. But there is none that the Asiatic games were divinatory in origin.’ (Murray 1952: 232)

No review of evidence whatsoever supports this lapidary statement neither in this passage nor anywhere else in Murray’s book, whose index lists only very few page references under the entry ‘divination’.

Meanwhile it is interesting that he makes no pronouncement as to the possible divinatory origin of board-games outside America and Asia: in Africa, Europe and Oceania (Australia and Antarctica are out anyway, the former because Murray rightly considers it to be without board-games — a point to which we shall return — , the latter because it has no human population).

Leaving Europe and Oceania aside, let us concentrate for a moment on Africa. Of the five families of board-games into which Murray classifies all known historic types, Africa is claimed to exhibit only one, for which he employs the generic, Arabic name of mankala, referring to capture and execution. This type of game was first attested (Murray 1952: 165) in the Kitab al-Aghani by the Arab author Abu’l Faradj (897-967 CE). In the African context, looking for the possibly divinatory origin of board-games thus means exploring the relation between mankala and divination, and that will be the red thread throughout this study.

Murray complains that information on North African board-games in the Maghreb and Libya is almost entirely lacking. However, he has overlooked important sources;6 to which, since his time of writing, several other studies may be added.7 Murray’s single, furtive reference to mankala being played by N.W. African Bedouins thus considerably under-represents the available evidence. The case is not without implications, for — as we shall see towards the end of this study — Townshend cites the alleged absence of mankala from North Africa as a reason to doubt that Islam was a vehicle for the spread of mankala.

While mankala is found all over sub-Saharan Africa this game at the same time appears to have been that continent’s only board-game outside clearly Arabianized or Europeanized contexts. Townshend (1979b) claims one exception to this rule: a sub-family of games which he considers to be indigenous African, and which he situates (see below Figure 18) in desert fringes in both West and Southern Africa. To this type of game he gives the generic name of dara; he considers it similar to checkers. This would make it a war-game in Murray’s five-pronged classification; Murray however (1952: 49f) classifies it in a different category, the one of ‘games of alinement and configuration’. The latter author’s listing include the Tuareg al-karhat game (cf. Rodd 1926), of which he reluctantly admits that it is being used for divination. The context of many other, similar games (Murray 1952: 48f) with a very wide geographical distribution, the Arabic name at least of the Tuareg version, the conspicuous Arab role in the diffusion of such major games as chess and mankala, and the African distribution pattern of dara in areas all of which have substantial Arab influence — and this includes the isolated Southern African attestation, cf. van Binsbergen 1996) — all seem to argue against Townshend’s claim that dara is an indigenous African game.

Murray developed his views on divination most clearly when, towards the end of his book, he reviews authors on the origin of board-games:

‘So it is generally accepted that all the ancient athletic games are secularised and degenerate survivals of magical or religious practices, although there are differences of opinion as to the exact nature of these practices, Haddon [ 1896 ] specifically excluding practices related to divination, while Culin8 confines them to those that were divinatory. It is often assumed that this must also be true of board-games. There is, however, a gap between the athletic games that were played by large groups of men and the sedentary games that are confined to a few players, which I find it difficult to bridge. It is difficult to see how the private operations of the magician could be adopted by the secular members of a tribe. I think that we must look elsewhere for the origin of most board-games.’ (Murray 1952: 233f; my italics)

This line of reasoning reminds us of Durkheim’s (1912) theory of religion as set out in his Les formes élémentaires de la vie religieuse — introduced to British anthropology by Radcliffe-Brown, and an enormous influence on the next generation of anthropologists (that of Evans-Pritchard, Forde, Fortes and Gluckman). The argument can be summarised as follows. The collective cult, even though its symbols are entirely arbitrary and lack intrinsic qualities suggesting any particularly sacred nature, transforms a mere set of individuals into a moral community and thus creates society; in fact the cult’s object of worship is society itself, and the cult produces, as a crucial category of thought and action, the social. The social can gain moral authority over the individual because the notion of the sacred by which it is underpinned, defines itself merely by its being absolutely different from the profane. Magic, including divination, is by contrast considered to be a private cult totally devoid of these redeeming qualities, and therefore imprisoned in a state of being anti-social from which it cannot be released.

There is no indication that Murray had much knowledge or appreciation of actual divination practices outside Europe; even in his time (he was in his late eighties when his book on board-games other than chess was completed) a perusal of the available anthropological literature (Evans-Pritchard 1937, e.g. 1965) would have shown that Durkheim’s rigid distinctions were exaggerated, very far from universal, and in fact amounted to ethnocentric projections onto other societies of the features of West European Victorian variety as seen through Durkheim’s own eyes: those of a dropout Rabbinical student influenced by de Bonald’s idealist philosophy. In many societies, the clients of divinatory specialists are ordinary people, who may not attain a working knowledge of the specialist’s divinatory system (sometimes they do), but whose role in divinatory and therapeutic sessions is yet essential for the divinatory system’s performance, and who therefore usually have plenty of opportunity of seeing the divinatory apparatus in action. In many societies therefore the distinction between specialist and layman is not so absolute, and the same holds for the distinction between sacred and profane, between ritual and jest, between piety and agnostic cynicism. In many cultures it does not disqualify a ritual nor its participants, if the proceedings are punctuated by occasional mirth and irony. Imitation of sacred acts and paraphernalia may often be an admissible form of familiarising oneself with the sacred without giving offence. Let me give one example out of a myriad possible. In northwestern Tunisia right up to the 1970s the supreme form of the veneration of local saints, especially for adult men, was to engage as faqir (plural: fuqra) in the ecstatic dance, which was loosely controlled by a local branch of the Qadiriyya brotherhood. Politically and economically ambitious men did not qualify. They frequently resigned themselves to the second best, a playful imitation of the sacred dances during the musical evenings that used to be the common pastime. These were also the people who, without offence being taken, could make merry of the fuqra both during and outside ecstatic sessions (cf. van Binsbergen, forthcoming (b)).

The conceptual boundaries which early anthropology created around divination were largely artificial, did not necessarily exist in the societies under study, and therefore the transformation from divination system into board-game was in principle a possibility.

Murray has more arrows on his bow when stating the case against a divinatory origin of board-games. He reviews (Murray 1952: 234), with obvious and understandable disbelief although no explicit verdict, Culin’s (1991) theory that board-games sprang from the necessity to ascertain, through divination, the correct classification of the many phenomena in the visible world which could not self-evidently be subsumed under one of the fundamental cosmological categories (e.g. the four or five cardinal directions). With the same lack of specific argument, Murray rejects Groos’s (1901) theory on the oracular origin of board-games, although — with rare intuition — he does accept as valid Groos’s view on board-games are originating from early, illiterate scribblings in the sand:

‘The primitive races, who find it difficult to convey their thoughts in speech naturally take to marking on the sand, and hence the figures (i.e. game-boards) might arise. If the leader of one of the more intelligent peoples wished to instruct them concerning some part or future combat, it would be a simple method of illustrating his meaning to draw an outline on the ground and represent the position of the hostile forces by small stones or similar objects, whose movements would symbolise the manoeuvres of the forces or the advance of knights for single combat. This would no doubt, be exceedingly interesting to those conducting it, and also to the spectators and might easily be repeated for the sake of the amusement afforded until some inventive genius turned it into a veritable play with board and men.’ (Groos 1901, as quoted in Murray 1952: 234f; italics added).

The cogency of this general idea will become clear to us when below we shall review the link between the mankala family of board-games (the vast majority of which are played in villages in African and Asia, using not formal boards but merely series of shallow holes in the ground) and the geomantic family of divination systems, whose first9 and most widespread attestation in documentary sources is that in the form of the Arabic khatt al-raml, which literally means (Fahd 1966, 1978): ‘the art of drawing lines in the sand’...!

Meanwhile Murray cannot quite bring his argument to a conclusion. He simply asserts (again without citing the evidence, and again leaving out mankala from his summing-up):

‘In the Old World, all the leading board-games, chess, draughts, wei-k’i, fox and geese, and the game of goose, were invented solely for the purposes of recreation. They are essentially pastimes.’ (Murray 1952: 235)

Yet even so he has no choice but to admit that a minority of board-games (which we shall review shortly) must have to do with festivals, calendars, funerals, and particularly with divination.

But already he plays his greatest trump: board-games, he claims, must have originated in the relative security of food and shelter, the relative absence of burdening daily chores, such as would characterise the beginnings of civilisation. Our more recent insights in the nature of ‘Stone Age economics’ (e.g. Sahlins 1972) have exploded this point: hunter-gatherers turn out to spend on the average only about 20% of their time on productive activities, and they are now recognised to live in a world of relative plenty. If they did not have board-games, it is not because they had no time to spare, but because board-games had not been invented — and that again was because the structure of their life world did not call for such inventions.

In the light of his earlier emphatic dismissal, we hardly believe our eyes when Murray (1952: 236f) in the end virtually endorses the theory of the divinatory origin of board-games! For what does newly-civilised man do with all that hard-earned, and in fact largely imaginary leisure time? He playfully finds new meaning and new uses for familiar objects by which he has already been surrounded.

Repeatedly, in The history of board-games other than chess, has Murray stated the principle that game-boards are unlikely to be created out of the blue and specifically for gaming purposes, assuming as a leading hypothesis that the board’s basic lay-out must have been available for other purposes before it was appropriated and redefined as a board-game. Thus, for instance, he has offered the following ingenious but totally unconvincing hypothesis with regard to the origin of the mankala board:

‘...the mancala games form a special class of board-games and (...) they do not exemplify any of the more ordinary activities of early man [ below, when interpreting the imagery of mancala, we shall see that this is largely incorrect ] . I find it difficult to believe that the mancala games can have been invented in vacuo and we seem to be driven back to the hypothesis that mancala arose out of experimentation with an already existing board. But what purpose the mancala board may have served is not easy to see when no use is made of it anywhere, now, except for a game [ we shall see that this is equally incorrect, some varieties of mancala being used for divination, as Murray himself repeated admits ] . It may be significant that the earliest boards all occur in the neighbourhood of building operations. May the board have been used for the calculation of the wages to be paid to workmen, and the board be originally a primitive kind of abacus?’ (Murray 1952: 164; italics added)

When Murray wrote, the oldest examples in the way of mankala boards (or what was then recognised as such) came from Ancient Egypt: a few rows of cup-marks in inaccessible or vertical (i.e. prohibitive for playing a board-game) parts of monumental architecture, and one detached stone slab looking like a mankala board.10 In the light of my subsequent discussion in the present paper that material will take on a different aspect. Meanwhile, far-fetched as the builders’ pay-day hint may be, Murray’s general hypothesis of game-boards as re-interpreted pre-existing non-ludic material is utterly sound. And without admitting this in so many words, it is the ritual sphere, and even more specifically the divinatory sphere, which he then identifies as likely origin for the game-boards:

‘Among these objects may have been the lined boards that are still used in Ceylon as charms and defences against evil spirits and have provided the boards for games of alinement. (...) All this points to the conclusion that fashioned lots formed part of the cherished possessions of man in the early stages of civilisation [ he specifically adduces references to cleromantic practices — i.e. the casting of lots — in Vedic India and to Tacitus’s Germania ], and that the handling of these possessions in leisure hours resulted in their use for games.’ (Murray 1952: 236f)

His sound intuition, fed by an enormous erudition, has finally taken the upper-hand over his mistaken, Durkheimian theoretical position. In accordance with ethnographic findings from many (but by no means all) societies all over the world, the distance between ritual and game, specialist and layman, cultic object and game-board, turns out to be surmountable as soon as the ritual, ‘proto-ludic’ apparatus found itself in more or less general public access and circulation.

2.2. From divinatory non-ludic to ludic, through familiar objects: African examples

One could easily find African ethnographic parallels to match Murray’s examples exemplifying the possible transition from non-ludic familiar objects (notably in the ritual, and especially the cleromantic domain) to board-games.

A first example that comes to mind are the abbia gambling pieces — half nutshells embellished which nice figurative representations — , which among the Cameroonian Beti find themselves in the possession of most adults even although not all adults know how to carve these themselves (Siegel 1940; Quinn 1971). The enormous iconographic repertoire of these representations encompasses the entire range of objects from everyday life: bellows, slit drums, stools, utensils, etc. Not surprisingly in the light of our discussions, below, of geomantic divination, the concrete descriptions of the abbia game itself as furnished by these authors stress pairs and foursomes, and come close to patterns of binary arithmetic opposition underlying all geomantic practice however much its surface practices vary.

Figure 3. Chokwe divination basket

(after Bastin 1959).

Another beautiful African illustration of Murray’s suggestion, but now on the divination side, is offered by the basket oracle as found in South Central Africa among the people identifying as Chokwe, Luvale, Lunda, Ndembu etc. Here the culture’s favourite divinatory instrument (but surrounded by many rival techniques, most of them of far lesser complexity) is an open basket containing scores of small elements, which are shuffled by the diviner and made to present themselves near the rim of the basket in answer to the client’s questions and predicament. Outstanding among a very rich literature including for instance some of Victor Turner’s most intriguing writings (Turner 1961, 1967, 1975), is Rodriquez de Areia’s (1985) monumental standard work on the topic. Here the exhaustive symbolic and iconographic description makes it very clear that the divinatory pieces, mostly fashioned out of wood (with additions in other vegetal material, bone, ivory, metal and products of modern industrial manufacture) among other items contain a fair catalogue of objects of everyday and ritual use as found in the village: a drum, a pestle, a fire-place, a fire-bore, a head-rest, a knife, etc. A set published by Delachaux (1946: 70 pl. viii no. 22) even features a miniature 2x6 mankala board. To these objects symbolic meanings attach which, when produced serially and interpreted creatively and selectively in the course of a divination session, reveal both general social and moral principles, and the latter’s application in the form of pronouncements which directly address the client’s past, present and future.

Figure 4. A four-tablet divinatory set from Southern Africa.

shaded symbols: reverse side

Or take (cf. figure 4) the four rectangular or triangular tablets (largest dimension about 10 cm) which, fashioned out of wood, bone, ivory or (among the San populations) leather, form the dominant material apparatus by means of which throughout Southern Africa the local variety of geomantic divination is carried out. All four tablets are different from each other (in terms of shape, notches at the basis, and markings distinguishing between the front and the back of each tablet); each tablet has a distinct name and is identified as male or female, and as senior or junior. Thus when the tablets, in the course of a divinatory session, are cast from the cupped hands of the diviner or the client, sixteen different configurations can form.11 Each configuration is named and interpreted according to a memorised yet highly conventionalised interpretative catalogue of meanings which turns out (van Binsbergen 1996) to be a local adaptation of the general geomantic catalogue as found all over the world of Islam and, extending beyond its periphery, all over the Indian Ocean region including India and East Africa, in West Africa, and (as a result of forced migration in the context of the trans-Atlantic slave trade) around the Caribbean and on the Latin American west coast.

Here again we can see an example of Murray’s idea of a playful reinterpretation of cherished familiar objects. In Southern Africa the specialist use of these tablets’ as part of a gainful divinatory and therapeutic practice is restricted to certified traditional doctors with several years of training and usually a formal graduation (i.e. initiation) behind them. A standard divinatory session consists of the dialogue between diviner and patient, in which questions, answers and interpretations evolve around the diviner’s creative and empathic, verbal interpretation of throw after throw, in a sequence which may comprise as many as forty throws. But it is not only specialist diviners who own and use these tablets. This is already indicated by their ready availability at the medical sections of regional markets. Many adults (especially men), having acquired a rudimentary knowledge of these tablets’ operation, use them for private divinatory self-help. And, like among the ancient Aryans and Germans, also these Southern African ‘fashioned lots’ are described, in an abundant older literature which Murray may be simply echoing, as the local people’s ‘most cherished possessions’ to which they take frequently recourse.12

We have already begun to narrow down the scope of our argument to, specifically, mankala board-games and geomantic divination. In this respect it is interesting to note that the few cases of board-games where Murray admitted to a possible ritual, including divinatory origin, often remind us of either mankala, or geomantic divination, or both:

‘...a few minor games suggest a different origin. Some are associated with festivals of various kinds. Thus, the Kanakura tribe of northern Nigeria, plays canonical games at their annual festival at the end of the first millet harvest, September or October.13 Three games are played on a board represented by holes made in sand, with four pieces (red and white seeds). Seven elders of the town, five representing the chief and two, the commoners, take part. Meek [ 1931 ] calls the game backgammon, but it may be mancala, as other observers have called mancala ‘backgammon’. Chaturaji, the Indian four-handed dice-chess, was played in the eighteenth century at the festival of the New Moon, when worshippers kept vigil all through the night (...). Women in Ceylon play olinda (mancala) at the New Year (...). More often, board-games are played during wakes and funeral ceremonies, galat-jang (...) in Celebes, mancala by Negroes in Dutch Guiana, which Herskovits suggests is a custom brought by slaves from West Africa (...) Mancala boards form part of the furniture of Egbo houses in Calabar (...), and the mancala board which K. C. Murray saw at the shrine of Odudua in the village of lloru, Abeokuta Pr., Nigeria may have been used for divination, as the Tuaregs of the Sahara play alkarhat14 (...) for this purpose, and the priests in Madagascar played fanorona (...) during the siege of the capital by the French for guidance and success in its defence. Since, however, fanorona was only invented about 1680, this can only carry weight if it perpetuated a similar [ i.e. divinatory ] use of the parent game, alquerque (...). There is no evidence that this game, which is widely played in Asia, was ever played except as a pastime. (...) When we turn to the New World, there is more evidence that the race-games of the American Indian tribes had a religious aspect.’ (Murray 1952: 234f).

Unexpectedly encouraging as all this may be, these disconnected and context-less ethnographic examples remain suspended in the air as long as we do not have a more systematic theory to tell us why, of the myriad possible manifestations of human culture, divination and board-games should be so similar in deep structure that to postulate a generic relationship between the two could ever become more than just wishful thinking.

For this I propose a number of steps: first, a more formal description of the structure of geomantic divination; followed by, secondly, a theoretical exposé on the nature of both divination systems and board-games as formal systems, or as we shall see, ‘as space-shrinking time machines’; thirdly, an examination of the imagery attending geomancy and mankala; and finally a reconstruction of the earliest forms from which both seem to descend.


3. Geomancy: basic features

In all these [ anders ] different regions where geomantic divination is practised, the material apparatus is very different, ranging from divination chains (cf. figure 6):15 or shells cast in a square, rimmed wooded board covered with sand in West-Africa, or four tablets in Southern Africa, to piles of grain or pebbles in the Indian Ocean area (e.g. cf. Hébert 1961), and the forceful ‘hitting of the sand’ (darb al-raml) with a stick, in the North and North East Africa. With the exception of the Southern African variant (where the tablets’ fall is interpreted directly, i.e. without the construction of a standard geomantic symbol) the result produced by the apparatus is interpreted, through a process of transformation and elimination, as contributing one line, of one or two dots, to a four-line geomantic symbol, of which there are of course sixteen:

or, in the Arabian notation:

More complex procedures may raise this number to any higher power of 2. A written or memorised key (the catalogue) provides the interpretation of each geomantic symbol, and of their combinations.

Figure 5. A Ndebele diviner-herbalist throwing his bones as a form of geomantic divination in Francistown, Botswana, 1989.


Figure 6. Two divination chains, displaying two specific geomantic configurations, from West Africa

(after Skinner 1980: plate 3).

Thus geomantic divination can be said to consist of three interrelated features:

• a physical apparatus serving as a random generator

e.g. the diviner strikes four times with his walking stick on the ground in a sideways, bouncing movement, thus producing four separate sets of a fair number — say, 23, 17, 32, 12 — of distinct indentures on the soil.


Figure 7. Striking the soil in order to form a geomantic figure

(after Ferrand 1891-1902: i 76).

Note. The bold dots incorporated in the curved lines are the ones produced by ‘hitting the ground’. The horizontal series of small dots merely connects each curved line with the corresponding single dot (in case of an uneven number of bold dots) or double dot (in case of an even number of bold dots). The latter is the value which the hitting produces on one of the four geomantic lines. The confusing thing about this figure is that the number of horizontal connecting dots, for no apparent reason, is consistently one below the number of bold dots.

  • • a set of rules which allow for the translation, i.e. coding, of the numerical outcome of the random generator in terms of culturally agreed specific values with a divinatory meaning

    • in the same example, the totals of 23, 17, 31 and 12 yield, for bottom to top, distinct scores for the our lines out of which the geomantic figure is to be composed: two dots or a horizontal line for even, one dot for uneven, so: or ; in the most elaborate, standard variants of geomancy four independent figures are produced initially (out of sixteen runs of the random generator, here: sixteen times striking the soil), and through simple algorithms twelve dependent figures are calculated out of these four; the fifteenth and sixteenth figure are then decisive for the overall interpretation, while the first twelve figures provide additional shades of interpretation in the light of the widely-held conventional meaning of the twelve astrological houses,16 the imaginary aspects (meaningful angles) to be constructed between the various figures, etc.

    • an interpretative catalogue listing such divinatory meanings and accessing them through the assigned codes

  • (in our example, or is named (al-Zanati 1923) ‘Inside Threshold’ (al-‘ataba al-dakhila) or ‘Flag of Joy’ (rayat farah), a name inspired by the formal, strictly graphic characteristics of the geomantic figure (cf. or , al-Tariq, ‘Path’; in or the upper horizontal line then becomes the threshold — i.e. where the road ends — or a flag, in the latter case the three lower dots a flagpole), underneath which lurks the astrological concept of the Dragon’s Head (al-Ras al-Tinnin, Latin: Caput Draconis,).17 The interpretation varies considerably but is often positive, exulting, regal, subject to qualifications and refinements depending on a more elaborate astrological reading of the figures in combination.


    Figure. 7a. Two divination boards from West Africa

    (after Skinner 1980: plate 1).

    In geomancy, the second and third features tend to considerable standardisation, which is mainly enforced by the literate Arabian context within which the geomantic system has spread all over the world: diviners’ specialisation, interregional trade, conquest and the spread of Islam. Whatever the specific forms and internal mechanics of the random generator used in a particular time and place, the divinatory process stands out as geomantic in so far as its numerical outcome tends to be translated into the conventional geomantic figures like or; and in so far these figures then tend to be interpreted according to literate or memorised catalogues in which these geomantic figures continue to carry an association, however remote and distorted, with (in the case of these three examples) the astrological concept of the ‘Dragon’s Head’. By contrast, the first feature, the material apparatus serving as a random generator, shows enormous variation as well as a tendency towards localisation: the numerical outcomes needed for geomantic interpretation, can be elaborate or simple, involving dice, wooded or ivory tablets, stones, pebbles, grains, palm kernels, marks on the ground or on a rimmed board covered with sand, dots on paper, etc. These surface forms may differ so much, and so reflect the local culture’s technology, style of decoration, and cosmological orientation, that it is often difficult to detect, underneath the visible random apparatus, the converging geomantic features of the encoding rules and of the interpretative catalogue. Indeed, in many peripheral, localised forms of geomantic divination the encoding rules have become eroded and simplified (like in many geomancies of the African interior), even the production of recognisable geomantic figures may have been dispensed with (like in the case of the Southern African hakata system), and besides a few isolated conceptual reminiscences of the original Arabian catalogue, it is merely the catalogue’s 2^n-based mathematical structure which reminds us that we are still dealing with geomancy.

    It is at the level of the physical apparatus, of the manipulation of numerous identical elements using 2n-based combinatorial mathematics, that the links between geomantic divination and a board-game like mankala are particularly conspicuous. A characteristic move in mankala consists of going around the various adjacent cupmarks, seeding one game element in each successive hole, and emptying the hole opposite the one in which this seeding sequence ends, provided the latter is found empty. A comparable exercise of elimination is typical of geomancy: in most local forms one begins with one large and unstructured mass of elements (dots, pebbles, marks etc.) which have been randomly produced, after which an often intricate procedure of elimination allows one to reduce the mass to merely one or two remaining elements — so that the mass can be scored, as the random generator’s outcome, as ‘even’ or ‘uneven’, one dot or two in any of the four superimposed lines which constitute the geomantic figure. The closeness between mankala and geomancy is also suggested at the level of the physical apparatus, for instance in Zambia, where mankala (cf. Chaplin 1956) is played with mungongo seeds (Ricinodendron rautanenii), which throughout Southern Africa are also used for geomantic divination along the lines of the hakata system.

    I have described the structure of one divination system; let us try to define an overall structure for both board-games and divination, thus accounting for their similarities.


    4. The theoretical convergence of divination and board-games

    So far we have proceeded as if our main operative terms have a self-evident meaning which does not need to be spelled out. However, if our ambitious and (in the light of the existing literature) controversial historical exercise is to inspire confidence, we should at least strengthen it by an attempt at definitional rigour. Therefore:


    4.1. What is divination?

    First we should narrow down the enormous scope of ‘divination’ (a virtual universal of culture). Let us agree to designate by this term:

    a. procedures of knowledge production which meet the following criteria:

    b. they are institutionalised within a particular historical culture, i.e. they are repetitive, socially shared, and show a tendency to persist over time;

    c. actors — as should be clear from their explicit speech acts as well as, more implicitly, from demonstrable analogies with other forms or religious behaviour in their society — see these procedures as involving forces beyond human control;

    d. through these procedures the actors seek to obtain information which is not available by direct sensory perception;

    e. these procedures involve the use of a specific material apparatus (hence ‘material’ or ‘inductive’ divination — as distinct from incubation, trance etc.); often a random generator (e.g. a die, or multiple elements such as pebbles or sticks falling in an uncontrolled fashion, or an insect moving in an unpredictable way) is at the heart of the apparatus.

    f. coding procedures through which outcomes of the random generator access the interpretational catalogue

    g. construction and operation are subject to rules which may often be highly formalised.

    h. the various values (C) which the apparatus can produce (C larger than or equal to 2) are interpreted by reference to a catalogue of divinatory meanings which may be memorised or written out.


    4.2. Board-games

    Of board-games, as a category of formalised human activity, Murray (1952: 1) offers a useful descriptive definition:

    ‘Games, which resemble chess, draughts, and backgammon in being played on a specially arranged surface with pieces or ‘men’, whose powers of move and capture are defined by the rules of each game, are designated as ‘board-games’, German Brettspiele.’

    Breaking up this definition into its constituent elements, it claims board-games to be

    games (for the essential question as to what constitute games and how they are forms of human play, Murray refers us to the fundamental philosophical works by Huizinga (1952), Groos (1901) etc.)

    • consisting of a coherent series of consecutive movements (‘moves’) of

    • physical pointers (‘pieces’, ‘counters’, ‘men’)

    • along co-ordinates defined in a space (‘board’) which, for that specific purpose, is set apart, i.e. bounded, and internally transformed and restructured

    • in such a way that formal and explicit rules define the movement of individual pointers as well as their interaction

    • and by implication, in the context of this interaction the players are defined as opponents in a struggle.

    4.3. Board-games and divination compared

    It is stimulating to compare the definitional characteristics of divination with those of board-games. Of course, board-games involve a material apparatus (e) however rudimentary (for many games the entire apparatus can be summed up as a few pips or pebbles, and a few lines drawn on the ground); they also involve formal rules (g). But the parallelism far from ends here. Little as we may realise this, board-games, too, are devices for the production of knowledge (a) not otherwise attainable (d). This knowledge is of considerable complexity: it includes the identity of winner and loser; the extent of gains and losses; information on the participants’ differential skills, integrity and stress resistance; on a more generalised plane, insights in the differential merits of such strategies as the rules allow for, the tacit or explicit rehearsal of these rules, and the detection of possible omissions, contradictions and borderline cases in the rules. With the exception of the interpretative catalogue (h) (which however might be considered analogous to the gaming rules), the one remaining item which does not seem to take part in the parallelism is (c) the actors’ notion of involving forces beyond human control. However, many board-games (even some early variants of chess, for instance) offset the players’ conscious or semi-conscious strategies against the outcome of random generators (especially dice), in cultural contexts where these random generators are held to be controlled not by any blind impersonal forces of immanent nature, but by transcendent, supernatural entities — like those which allegedly determine the outcome of the divinatory apparatus’ stochastic features. In general games tend to involve two or more visible, human opponents, while divination is culturally constructed as the interaction between one or more humans and an invisible non-human agent. The advent of mechanical and electronic gaming machines including computers has blurred this distinction between human and divine interaction partners, which may be one reason why such games exert such fascination over the solitary humans playing them.


    4.4. Board-games and divination as formal models

    The amazing parallelism which exists between divination and board-games cannot be found between board-games and most other items of culture. Both material divination systems, and board-games, are formal systems, which can be fairly abstractly defined in terms of constituent elements and rules relatively impervious to individual alteration. Both consist in a drastic modelling of reality, to the effect that the world of everyday experience is very highly condensed, in space and in time, in the game and the divination rite. The unit of both types of events is the session, rarely extending beyond a few hours, and tied not only to the restricted space where the apparatus (e.g. a game-board, a divining board or set of tablets) is used but, more importantly, to the narrowly defined spatial configuration of the apparatus itself. Yet both the board-game and the divination rite may refer to real-life situations the size of a battle field, a country, a kingdom or the world, and extending over much greater expanses of time (a day, a week, a year, a reign, a generation, a century, or much more) than the duration of the session. In ways which create ample room for the display of cosmological and mythical elements, divination and board-games constitute a manageable miniature version of the world, where space is transformed space: bounded, restricted, parcelled up, thoroughly regulated; and where time is no longer the computer scientist’s ‘real time’ — as is clearest when divination makes pronouncements about the past and the future. Utterly magical, board-games and divination systems are space-shrinking time-machines.

    A further crucial feature of this modelling (crucial, since without this feature divination and board-games had long gone extinct) is that is it a two-way process: while real life is modelled onto the divinatory or ludic session, the session and its outcome is subsequently fed back into real life, through information and skill gained, through prestige redistributed, personal balance and motivation restored, fears explicitly named and confronted, etc. Without such feedback (if only at the level of the person’s individual consciousness) divination would be rather pointless, like an uninterpreted dream; in other words, divination is meaningful because it actively and explicitly reconstitutes the person in relation to the social and natural environment. And much as theoreticians of play would tend to emphasise the escapist or deliberately non-utilitarian, purpose-free nature of play, in board-games too there is this element of reconstitution, of learning from vicarious experience which, if nothing else, conveys the message that basic configurations of man’s confrontation with the natural and social environment (including competition and conflict) be represented, schematised, played out, and thus be rendered more transparent and manageable.


    4.5. Relation to narrative literature

    Divination and board-games far from constitute the only forms of modelling and representation, and a systematic comparison with these other forms (through narrative, song, image or dance) should help us to pinpoint the specific nature of the session as a representation of a particular kind. Clearly, both divination and board-game are model versions of reality in a rather more dynamic and time-framed form than a picture or a sculpture, or even a series of these, could ever be. They are formal systems not in an abstract steady state of idleness, but define for the participants roles as protagonists which are to be dynamically and dramatically acted out from a uniform beginning, via more or less familiar but always slightly novel steps, to an essentially unpredictable end. In this they come close to oral or written narratives including myths, and on the basis of kindred forms of modelling they share the narratives’ recreational, exemplary and revelatory potential.18

    Yet essential differences exist between the session and the narrative. In the session, the potential for identification between the human person and the representational forms is much greater than in the narrative; for in the session, the protagonists are represented not only verbally but materially, through the elements of the material apparatus, through the game pieces themselves — and these protagonists are not the narrative’s named, imitable others, but are explicitly identified with the persons involved in the session; so much so, that in many games and many cultural contexts a player will describe a particular situation or move in terms of ‘I’ when referring to a piece that belongs to him. This seems to suggest that divination and board-games find themselves somewhere halfway on a continuum stretching from external relative non-identification, as in the narrative, to internal relative identification, up to a point of literal incorporation, as in dance, trance and ecstasy — which have their own established place in the phenomenology and history of human religion.

    In contrast with literature, the complex performances of the game-pieces and of the divinatory elements (cf. literary characters) within the modelled reality of the apparatus are not controlled by a narrator but by respective, self-conscious Egos and/or by stochastic devices explicitly considered to be beyond human control. And this produces, perhaps as the essence of the model situation and of the participants’ experience of it (and in ways only remotely resembling an oral narrator’s free variations within an established genre and story-line), an abundance of parallel trajectories, with choices whose effects are rarely immediately clear and whose ultimate outcome only gets increasingly determined while the session is already on.

    This is what a major anthropologist of divination, Richard Werbner (1989), tried to capture by the apt term of micro-dynamics: the loose pieces out of which the apparatus consist, tell a complex story through their positioning and movement along an imaginary grid laid out on the ground, they perform a little drama in which the client can see himself or herself as protagonist.

    One might say that the experiential (both recreational and revelatory) value of divination and board-games is that they create an unlimited variety of vicarious experiences, i.e. stories. Spinning relevant, even illuminating and redeeming stories out of the raw material which the fall of the apparatus in combination with the interpretative catalogue provides, is the essence of the diviner’s skill and training; and in the same way board-games can be seen as machines to generate stories in which Ego plays the leading part, confronting nature and society.


    4.6. The structure of time in board-games and divination

    If time is miniaturised and transformed within the divinatory session and the board-game, so that the reality outside the modelled session appears, to the client, as better understood and more easily confronted and manipulated, we should proceed and try to define in what specific ways this feat is brought about. What is the temporal structure of the session? And how does the session’s time relate to the time of everyday life, in the many African cultures in which these formal systems occur?

    These two questions are fundamental to my argument. Before trying to offer even tentative answers, let me remind the reader that in this paper I have adopted an external position which abstracts rigorously from the specific cultural forms and signifying practices such as exist in each of the many local African cultures involved. I have done so in order to bring out such formal characteristics as board-games and divination systems have in common across the continent. I am cultivating a distance which contrasts awkwardly and even painfully with my first-hand and intensive involvement, in the course of several decades, in a limited number of narrowly localised African situations — my main inspiration as an anthropologist. Yet I feel justified in this stance because, as I have pointed out, the formalism of these systems demonstrably does not historically spring from contemporary local African cultures, and is transferred and largely retained across cultural and linguistic boundaries on the African continent. Thus as an analyst I am tempted here to formalise without much reference to specific cultural contents such as could be mediated by African actors in the course of discussions and interviews, as their explicit comments on ludic and divinatory sessions. Perhaps this approach will ultimately wreck the entire argument, for, whatever their formal characteristics, these systems can only function and acquire meaning in specific local cultural settings; at any rate, what remains is the necessity to go back to the African actors and submit the argument to them for comments and criticism.

    Even at the formal level, can we try to be more specific as to the structure of time as presented in geomantic divination and board-games?

    Much as the two formal systems may be historically related, on the surface they are rather different and should be approached separately. The temporal structural of the mankala game can be summarised as follows:

    • There is a well-defined beginning and end.

    • From an initial balance (where both players have the same number of counters) there is, through all the moves and counter-moves of the two players (and a game typically involves ‘many’ such moves: a few score at least), the gradual development towards a decisive imbalance, where one player defeats the other by taking all the counters.

    • While the game is on, players impose upon their next few moves the temporal organisation of short-term strategies, but at any one moment in the game except towards the end, the overall odds are only dimly perceived by all but the most expert players: the strategies are short-lived eddies of purpose in an encompassing flow of largely uncontrolled and unknown ‘destiny’.

    • To the extent to which time is measured by spatial pointers (and empirical manifestations of time are invariably in terms of spatial displacement, in African formal systems as well as in all other situations), the appearance of the game is strikingly repetitive: not only do the players meticulously take turns, also an ever-changing number of pointers keeps being redistributed, by simple acts of collecting in one’s hand and dishing out one by one, among the same limited number of cups as arranged in two to four rows, so that the place of action keeps racing around and around the game-board.

    • Both in time and in space the session as well as the physical game-board are framed within a far less structured, and unbounded, domain of events: ‘everyday life’.

    This description makes it clear that the temporal structure of the game is complex, ambiguous, dynamic, opaque. It cannot be readily reduced to only one of the three popular formulae of linearity, circularity and punctuality which have haunted the philosophical and anthropological literature on time and which are increasingly penetrating the African intellectual discourse on time.19 In fact, all three forms of temporality occur at the same time, in an admixture which may well constitute one of the basic characteristics of the mankala family of games, as well as the main reason for their virtually ubiquitous distribution and appeal on the African continent. The game is not only a time machine, it is a time symphony, and it amounts to a practical philosophy of time.

    A similar case could be made with regard to the divination session (cf. van Binsbergen 1994, 1995a). Against the diffuse and unbounded structure of everyday life is offset the session’s structured temporal format, with a clear beginning and end, and with a sequential temporal structure where question-throw-verbal interpretation-question-throw etc. succeed each other up to about forty times. And while a suggestion of linearity is offered by the session’s progress from initial distress and lack of insight towards final revelation, redress and remedy, this is accompanied by themes of circularity: the fusing of references to past, present and future persons and events, the dead’s continued action in the world of the living, and their reincarnation there. Here again we have to recognise the fact that the temporal structure of the divinatory session consists in a subtle combination of all three major modes of conceptualising time as can be distinguished analytically. This is why the divination session constitutes the minimal ritual par excellence (Werbner 1989); in fact, much of what I have said about divination applies to ritual in general, and suggests that ritual, much like the music that often accompanies it (Zuckerkandl 1963), is a form of time art.

    The argument so far suggests that the board-game and the divination session are not just alternative, parallel ways of dealing with time. They are not merely complementary to whatever may exist in the way of a conceptualisation of time in everyday life; alongside the latter they are the opposite of being unnecessary, playful, virtual. On the contrary, I submit that as implicit models of time the conceptual effects of these formal systems and the ‘virtual’ experience they engender, shades over onto everyday life. Here they provide some of the few available conceptualisations of time within the local culture. Starting out as models of everyday temporarily, they turn around and breed a more structured sense of temporarily in their own right. Thus they seem to provide the experimental grounds upon which a structured time sense is tested out and from which it may be extended so as to temporally restructure experiences in everyday life.

    Our two formal systems never provide the only models of temporarily, of course. I have already pointed at ritual as a more general related category. Obviously, myth is another domain that comes to mind; it provides its own time machines, but not for the miniaturisation of time but for its inflation beyond human scale. A further model of temporality is offered by kinship, with its sequentiality of generations and (in most rural settings) the projection of the latter’s dwellings and wider localised social groups onto the space of the local landscape. And kinship in itself often offers conceptual models for political organisation even in the total absence of biological clues; here the classic example is Evans-Pritchard’s (1967, p. 94f) famous chapter on ‘Time and space’ in The Nuer. Kingship, with a genealogical sequence of dynastic identity over time, and the narrative celebration of human achievement through legend and charter, offers a further temporal model for societies which, contrary to the acephalous type like the Nuer’s, are organised around formal and enduring leadership. And perhaps the most significant set of time models on the African continent is to be found in healing rituals, of which divination incidentally forms an integral part, and which make selective and transformative use of the various time models available in the local culture.


    4.7. Relation to symbolism and mathematics

    The formal nature of divination and board-games lies not merely in the existence of formal rules, but in the saturation of these rules with fundamental structural themes (e.g. such basic oppositions as odd/even, male/female, life/death, high/low, white/ black), which form the basis for a rich imagery and inform the dynamics of the session. At the same time these systems are formal and have been so also in archaic contexts where formalism was still in statu nascendi; hence their articulation would seem to be related to man’s most fundamental formalism, the one with the highest survival value: early forms of counting, arithmetic, representation and manipulation of numbers.20

    This point has a direct bearing on our two main empirical cases, mankala and geomancy. It is highly significant that both of them have given rise to sophisticated formal mathematical analysis21 in terms of stochastic processes, topology, theory of graphs etc. The dynamic implications of these simple systems as revealed by mathematical analysis turn out to contain unexpected features which directly reflect on strategies in the case of mankala, on the distribution of positive and negative outcomes and on the diviner’s overall management of the session’s ongoing communication and interpretation process, in the case of geomancy. But even without such sophistication (which is beyond the consciousness of most real-life actors involved in mankala and geomancy) there are the simple arithmetic facts: in geomancy the dealing with odd or even (as reflected in the scoring of one or two dots in the composition of the geomantic symbol), obverse or reverse; in board-games like mankala the sheer act of counting, collecting and dishing out again, repeated as many times as the game session has moves, but anticipated in calculating strategy many more times than there are actual moves. Both forms of formal behaviour are impossible unless as applications of simple but fundamental mathematical accomplishments, and they are likely to provide an early use (and hence reinforcement, and celebration) of just those.

    Thus while we would retain Groos’s insight in the link between board-games and the emergence of writing, arithmetic would appear to be another fundamental of their emergence; and since we are arguing the religious context throughout this paper, all three Rs would seem to have made a crucial contribution, corroborating Murray’s point22 that board-games reflect the emergence of civilisation.

    Let us now try to capture the historical questions which such emergence would seem to pose. Others have also asked such questions recently, and in inspiring ways. In a fascinating argument — which however does invite many corrections of the historical data on minor points — the psychologist Vroon (1991) has argued that divination, far from being a universal of culture, must be considered in the historical context of the emergence of writing; he goes on to claim that writing (and by implication divination) must have had such an enormous influence on the human mind (particularly through upsetting the balance between the two cerebral hemispheres) that for the first time in history qualitative changes in its functioning were brought about, even though man’s genetically determined phenotype has not demonstrably changed since the appearance of Crô Magnon man, some forty thousand years ago.


    5. Historical problems posed by divination systems and board-games

    5.1. Appearance in human history

    Modern man takes for granted his or her capability of retrospect and prospect, of testing out the dilemmas of real life in parallel model situations of reflection, planning, strategy and game, without cost or engagement; however, I submit that the invention of such a vicarious (or, with a more up-to-date term, ‘virtual’) reality, as exemplified in divination and board-games, occurred at a relatively late stage in the cultural evolution of mankind. While reflecting major structural changes at the time, the amazing mental operations in inductive divination and in board-games may well in their own right have made a crucial contribution to the realisation of more complex social and productive arrangements in time and space.

    Tentatively I would situate the invention of both board-games and material divination (if such a distinction could already be made by then) in a Neolithic context of emergent agriculture — without the slightest doubt man’s most drastic redefinition of space and time. Let me try to spell out the terms of that revolution — without the slightest pretension of originality on my part.

    The productive revolution involved in the shift (however gradual and over an extended area; cf. Renfrew 1979) from food gathering to cultivation amounted to a redefinition of space.23 A specific section of the natural environment had to be demarcated (implicitly, as the point beyond which agricultural activity would not extend; conceptually, in order to guide the agricultural process and to define ownership rights over the crops as against rival individuals and more likely groups. And often also physically, by a fence, in order to keep marauding animals out. Internally, that bounded agricultural space, the field, had to be specifically structured and transformed: the ground would be opened in order to receive the seeds; invention of the plough would automatically systematise this transformation into more or less straight lines, furrows; and soon, in many of the early agricultural sites, a grid of irrigation or drainage trenches would become necessary.

    In the same way, agriculture was to revolutionarise the sense of time, not so much by introducing an element of seasonality (for that must always have been part of hunting and gathering, given the built-in seasonality of the great majority of natural ecosystems), but of purpose: not by a passive undergoing of Nature’s monthly and annual cycles, but only by man’s timely initiative on the basis of calculated anticipation, in preparing the soil, planting, weeding and harvesting at critically appointed times could a year’s agricultural cycle be brought to a success.

    Without necessarily denying the possibility of preparatory stages of ‘proto-science’ in the Mesolithic and Palaeolithic (cf. Marshack 1971) it is clear that the sciences of the calendar, astronomy, geometry, arithmetic, were the direct intellectual outcomes of this Neolithic transformation of space and time, and they were soon carried to a level of formality and abstraction for which it is difficult to see a reason outside the context of agriculture. The true test for a different sense of time would appear to lie in the foresight which allowed people to save up their seeds for next season even in the face of virtually yearly food shortages, as well as investing so much energy in initiating an agricultural cycle whose pay-off would be many months ahead.

    What I have said for agricultural also — but perhaps in a slightly attenuated form — applies to animal husbandry, from the clearing and fencing of a kraal (but without further active transformation of the area of soil thus enclosed) to the active response to seasonality in terms of transhumance, provisions for mating, pregnancy, birth and infancy of the animals, gelding, festivals involving animal sacrifice, etc.

    Finally, the redefinition of space and time could only mean the redefinition (or the creation, in the first place?) of the notion of person, situated in new time and new space, and represented (both in board-games and in the divinatory apparatus) by external tangible, often anthropomorphic material objects moving, in his or her stead, through time and space — usually interacting with other persons so represented. Board-games and divination externalise, and offer new models of, a redefined relationship between man and his physical environment, as well as between man and his social environment — with major roles of confrontation and competition being externalised in the apparatus and redefined as opponents in a schematised exchange dominated by explicit rules (board-games), or as likely partners, enemies and witches (divination).

    Statistical cross-cultural comparison, an anthropological technique in fashion in the 1960s, has revealed that games of strategy, such as mankala, tend to be found in societies with a certain level of complexity.24 Several authors (e.g. Simpson, in press) have postulated a specific link between the explicit, formal rules in board-games, and the more complex nature of the societies which became possible with the Neolithic revolution in food production: cities, states, large scale religious and political control over production leading to marked class formation, in short the emergence of civilisation. At first this may sound rather convincing, but on further anthropological reflection doubt sets in. Although rules are often stressed in a context of games as if they are the principal features of such cultural phenomena (‘the rules of the game’), they are not in the least peculiar to games: language, kinship, social organisation, ritual, law, art, are similarly regulated by rules, and so are, in general, all aspects of social behaviour in whatever human culture. The rules of marital alliances in certain Aboriginal Australian societies,25 whose food technology is that of hunting and gathering, are sufficiently intricate so as to render implausible any straightforward connexion between level of food technology, social complexity, and prominence of explicit, formal rules in a culture. More thinking is required on this point. Perhaps further formal analysis may show that the rules involved in board-games are of a very specific nature, incomparable with the rules governing marital alliance. But for the time being I suggest that we stress the Neolithic as a likely context for the emergence of board-games, while interpreting their regulation by rules as an instance, not of revolution, but of continuity, as merely a sign of being cultural.26

    As formal manipulations of space and time, my theory situates both divination and board-games in the Neolithic, where the emergence of agriculture brought about man’s most drastic redefinition of space and time before the rise of modern communication and transport technology. In response to my first tentative statements to this effect, Irving Finkel kindly drew my attention to recent archaeological finds of a considerable number of Pre Pottery Neolithic and Bronze Age finds, involving artefacts which on the face of it could be mankala boards. Below, when considering alternative readings of the imagery of mankala and geomancy, we must address the fundamental methodological problems involved, but al least there is now some relevant archaeological evidence predating the oldest Egyptian possible mankala boards known to Murray, and never older than the Neolithic.27 In the same vein, Deleqicq & Popova (1977), who wrote a brilliant study of the finite mathematics of the mankala game, claim that mankala originates in Mesopotamia. They qualify this claim immediately:

    ‘Signalons en passant qu’aucun jeu de pions avec un tablier à quatre rangées de cases symétriques, sumérien, assyrien ou persan, n’a jamais été retrouvé jusqu’à présent.’ Deleqicq & Popova 1977: [ add pages ] )

    However, there are serious indications, and from the best authorities, that mankala-like artefacts, with four rows of cupmarks, have actually existed in Ancient Mesopotamia:

    ‘I learnt from Sir L. Woolley, that from time to time during his explorations at Ur, bricks, of face 12 inches by 9, and ranging in date from 2000 to 750 B.C., were found. In one face of these bricks four rows of holes had been roughly ground. So far as he remembers, the two inner rows each contained eight holes and the two outer rows contained in their middle three holes. A similar brick had been found by him at Carchemish on the middle Euphrates. It is difficult to see any purpose which these bricks can have served other than as a game-board.’(Murray 1952: 36)


    Figure 8. Reconstruction of a typical brick with four rows of cupmarks from Ancient Mesopotamia (c. 2000-750 BCE)

    (as decribed by Murray (1952: 36) after Woolley)

    Probably such artefacts reminiscent of latter-day mankala boards also existed in the Indus civilisation:

    ‘A couple of bricks have been found roughly scored with lines marking out a game: one contains part of the whole pattern which might either have been similar to a known Sumerian games-board or another type from Egypt. The other brick has a row of depressions into which pebbles or something similar, such as beans, could be flicked, in the manner of the games of certain African tribes. Both bricks probably came from pavements, and contrive to give a convincing picture of household servants playing, and probably gambling, in a shaded corner of the courtyard.’ (Piggott 1961: 190)

    Whether this was mankala proper, or some kind of no-ludic proto-mankala, we may never know. However, from the Indus this type of four-row artefact may have inspired fully-fledged four-row mankala as it was recently discovered in Southern China (Eagle 1995).

    If the Neolithic is really the base-line, this would mean that the distribution of board-games and inductive divination among the world’s non-agriculturalists is to be interpreted as borrowing. It falls outside our present scope to systematically confront this hypothesis with the evidence in the archaeological and anthropological literature. However, it is certainly in line with this hypothesis that board-games are reported (Murray 1952: 4) to be near-universals of human culture, with the exception of Eskimos, Australians and New-Guineans before these human groups came into contact with Iron Age and post-Iron Age civilisations.

    The only truly universal game which Murray acknowledges, and which therefore receives the honour of featuring in the last, slightly incoherent pages of History of board-games other than chess, is the string game or cat’s cradle. Lévi-Strauss [ year: page ] points at their calendrical connotations throughout North American native cultures, but with reference to the winter solstice and in a hunting context, not an agricultural one. Incidentally, Meggitt (1958) reports a board-game played by Australian Aboriginals in the 1950s, but without hesitation attributes its presence to recent diffusion from India.

    In terms of productive techniques, Eskimos (cf. Birket-Smith 1946: 473f) and Australians can be said to have perpetuated until only a century ago cultural forms already found in the Palaeolithic, while the New-Guineans’ digging-stick agriculture would situate them just inside the Neolithic. It is moreover interesting that in four African hunter-gatherers societies divination was found to be absent in a context where it is very frequently resorted to in agricultural societies: to ascertain the causes of death of a group member (Woodburn 1982). The dynamics of borrowing and parallel invention are notoriously complex, and it would be very dangerous to assume that a specific level of the development of productive technique dictates a social-structural (let alone a mental) incapability for board-games. Of this we are reminded for instance by the case of the San hunter-gatherers of Southern Africa, among whom mankala is being played — but in a context where there is ample evidence, over several millennia at least, of a variety of relations (including trade, raiding, serfdom and conquest) involving not only surrounding Bantu- or Indo-European-speaking groups (Wilmsen 1989) but also, at the end of long chains of exchange and dislocated, de-contextualised cultural influence, Middle Eastern and Mediterranean groups (Wilmsen & Denbow 1983; Breuil 1952).

    Russ, who is clearly not a regional specialist, prefers to enlist the San (‘Bushmen’) in a rather more romantic capacity, as the mysterious, largely vanished and unattested, hypothetical Urhebers of the most complex and accomplished variety of the game:

    ‘The origin and dispersion of mancala remain much of a mystery at the present time, but there are indications that the game is several thousand years old and was spread through the Bantu expansion, along trading routes (including those of the slave trade), and by the expansion of Islam. There is some evidence that two-row mancala is considerably older than three-row mancala, but the origin of four-row mancala is a particularly puzzling question. I can offer the observation that four-row mancala is played in the part of Africa formerly (and in some cases presently) occupied by the Bushmen.’ (Russ 1984: 12; my italics).

    In so far as this statement (probably inspired by Townshend 1976-77: 95) echoes the old Bushmen myth, we should not take it seriously (cf. Wilmsen 1987, 1991). However, towards the end of my argument I shall come back to the same issue: the early spread of mankala to Southern Africa, and there Russ’ hint will turn out to make some sense, if for San hunters we read Khoi pastoralists, and for four-row mankala early, two-row forms.


    5.2. The relative a-historicity of divination systems and board-games

    The formal nature of divination and board-games lead them to be relatively a-historic (in the sense of being rather inert in the face of general social and cultural change) and to elude localisation (crossing cultural, linguistic etc. boundaries and, while allowing for local adaptation, diffusing in such a way that they can hardly ever be said to truly reflect the central orientation of a local culture).28 Therefore attempts to show how, for instance, a local variety of the mankala board-game so eminently fits the more general local culture miss the point: Townshend (1982) for bao in the Swahili context, and Barnes (1975) for the Indonesian context of Kedang. Both authors have succumbed — not surprisingly, considering the hegemony this paradigm has exerted since the 1930s — to the temptation of the structural-functional paradigm in anthropology stressing localisation, boundedness and functional integration of culture, even though they are in principle well aware of the problems I signal here (Townshend 1979b; Barnes 1975: 82f). Such a localising approach is based on the assumption of some local cultural core from which meaning and structure exclusively springs, rather than that the latter are fragmentarily conveyed across cultural and linguistic boundaries from multiple and disconnected distant origins — finding only a very partial local integration and stream-lining. In other words, they are examples of the earliest forms of the globalisation of culture.

    This state of affairs would suggest that divination systems and board-games are very welcome guiding fossils in cultural history, but their own history (in the sense of movement in space and transformation over time under explained conditions) is far more difficult to write.


    5.3. Basic variants of the historical relation between divination and board-games

    On the basis of the parallelism between material divination and board-games their actual relationship in time and space can take a number of specific forms:

    • Board-game and material divination complementarily serve identical functions, e.g. are used to mark, to visualise and to cross essential boundaries in the life of the individual and the social group. Hence the prominence of board-games in funerary and puberty rites: rites of passage whose being accompanied by divination anthropologists take for granted. Hence also, for instance, the co-occurrence of family board-games and drawing-room versions of divination at Christmas as a calendar rite in 19th-century Western Europe.

    • The board-game, without denying its primarily secular, recreational nature, is interpreted by the actors as a divinatory device, i.e. its outcome is supposed to reflect on the fate of the players; examples of this abound around the world.

    • The divination system is routinised and profanised into a pastime and effectively becomes a board-game. This would seem to be the case with the astronomically- or astrologically-based board-games from the Ancient cultures of the Near East, Egypt and Crete.29 I shall come back to this type of games below.

    The most common relation meanwhile is the following:

    • Board-game and divination system spring from the same pre-ludic and pre-divination context in the domains of production and/or ritual, and their genetic link is retained and remains detectable in their overlapping imagery.

    It is therefore to an analysis of this imagery that we shall now turn.

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