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Notes to:

Board-games and divination in global cultural history

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

Wim van Binsbergen

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1Thus, for instance, in the voluminous literature on mankala, there are only a few passing references to its relation with divination: Pankhurst 1971; Nsimbi 1968.

2Cf. Kassibo 1992; Traoré 1979; Abimbola 1976.

3Townshend 1976-1977, 1979a, 1979b, 1982; Russ 1984.

4The literature, both scholarly and practical, on geomantic divination is voluminous, and much of it is of excellent standards. For a recent review, by the author of one of the most original contributions in this field, cf. Jaulin 1991; and on the West African material, cf. Kassibo 1992. For a more popular overview, also dealing with the spread of geomancy to late medieval Europe, where it became a standard and increasingly popularised form of divination as from Renaissance times, cf. Skinner 1980, which however should be used with caution when it comes to the early history of geomancy. On geomancy (Sikidy) on Madagascar in relation to the general African material, cf. Trautmann 1939-1940; Hébert 1961. Only for the sake of brevity, may I further refer to my own recent writings (van Binsbergen 1994, 1995, 1996, and in preparation) for extensive references on geomancy in Africa, the Islamic world, Asia and Europe.

5Culin 1890-1891; Pingree 1978, i: 38; Pugh 1988: 295.

6Like Doutté (n.d.: 326f), where under the name of zig an unmistakable form of mankala is being described) and Tajan & Maupin 1907.

7 Including Barakat 1974; Rosenthal 1975; and Pâques 1964 (which only by implication refers to the Maghreb, as part of the circum-Saharan region sharing the culture of the ‘arbre cosmique’; but here, on p. 91, again a description of zig mankala.

8Murray does not here refer to a specific work by this author; cf. Culin 1893-96, 1896, 1898, 1991, 1975.

9With Ibn al-Arabi in the early 9th century CE (cf. Fahd 1966: 197f); a single early mention also in the famous book by al-DJahiz (c. 776-868/ 9 CE), Kitab al-hayawan.

10 E.g. Petrie 1927: 55, plate 47; Parker 1981: 587f; Bell 1960: 112f. Perhaps more Egyptian mankala-like material is available than we realise. E.g. in February 1996 the Leiden Museum voor Oudheden had on display a Ancient Egyptian boat model inside whose central passenger deck was furnished, at the correct scale, with what unmistakably looked like a 2x4 mankala board. [ check exhibit’s number and historical period ]

11The general formula is C = n^k, where

C = the number of possible different configurations

n = the number of different values each tablet can assume (in this case ‘front up’ or ‘front down’, which means that n= 2), and

k = number of tablets (here: k = 4)

In this case, C = 2^4 = 16.

12E.g. Bent 1969; Bleek 1928; Brown 1926; Coertze 1931; Eiselen 1932; Giesekke 1930; Junod 1927; Laydevant 1933; Stayt 1931.

13Cf. Meek 1931: ii 314; Murray’s original reference.

14A variant of what Townshend (1979) was to call dara; Murray (1952: 49), games category (3.6.5).

15Their essential feature (see Figure 6) is a string along which, or at whose end, a number (k, often k=8) elements (cowries or coins) are attached, in such a way that each element can pivot independently around its point of attachment; since each element has an identifiable upper side and lower side and thus can take 2 different values, the total number of possible configurations is C=n^k, e.g. 2^8 = 256; Bascom 1969, a book of many hundreds of pages all reflecting the memorised knowledge of one Ifa diviner, lists all possible combinations with the elaborate praises — of divinatory meaning — that belong to each; also cf. Abimbola 1976.

16E.g. House I: bodily, psychological and intellectual constitution; House II: finance, mobile property; House III: siblings; House IV: parents, heredity; etc.

17The northernmost extension of the imaginary line marking the intersection between the ecliptic (the plane shared by earth and sun), and the plane in which the moon revolves around the earth; with its counterpart, the Dragon’s Tail marking the southernmost extension, this imaginary point moves along the zodiac. Both received, in Indian, Arabian and medieval and later European astrology, the connotations of additional planets, and as such were marked on horoscopes, were involved in the calculation of aspects i.e. meaningful angles between planets, etc.

18Cf. Dundes (1964: 277): ‘a game is, structurally speaking, a two-dimensional folk-tale’.

19Cf. Mbiti 1990; Adjaye 1994; Wiredu 1995.

20Cf. Seidenberg 1960, 1961; Schmidl 1915; Zaslavsky 1990.

21Jaulin 1966; Popova 1974; Deledicq & Popova 1977.

22Murray 1952: 236f; cf. Huizinga 1952 to whom he rightly refers.

23For a tentative theory of shrines in an agricultural context, cf. van Binsbergen 1981: 107f.

24Roberts & Sutton-Smith 1962, 1966; Roberts 1979.

25 Lévi-Strauss 1949, 1962, and references cited there.

26On formal aspects of rules in general, cf. Douglas, 1973; Ahern 1982; Black 1976.

27Anonymous 1990; Rollefson 1992. Considerably later are the Bronze Age allegedly mankala ‘gaming stones’ (mankala-like patterns in stone slabs) found elsewhere in the Eastern Mediterranean basin: Lee 1982; Swiny 1980; for an overview, cf. Simpson, in press (this volume), where further references may be found.

28Remarkable examples of the game’s variants being persistence to change in the face of migration across vast areas and being surrounded by distinctly different variants, are for e.g. given by Townshend 1979a: 127f.

29Murray 1952: 12f; Musées 1992; Herberger 1988; and extensive references cited there.

30The literal meaning of the name is: ‘the mother of daughters’. Not unlikely, it contains a pun on the standard Arabic term ‘umm al-walad’, ‘mother of children’, specifically referring to the female slave who has born her master children (male children being preferred over female children by far) and thereby has considerably improved her legal status; cf. Schacht 1974.

31Borger 1978: 12; character no. 105 I.

32No. 105 I (77); Borger 1978: 87.

33The applicability of the agricultural grid imagery in Arabian divination including geomancy is suggested by the fact that the table, grid or plan in which the various significant figures or values are laid out for interpretation, is called djadwal, by a word whose semantic field also includes ‘brook’, ‘watercourse’; Graefe et al. 1978.

34Schenkel 1978; Endesfelder 1979; Butzer 1976; cf. Strouhal 1993: 93f.

35Among numerous scholarly and popular editions I mention: Wilhelm & Cary 1951; Legge 1993.

36As the basis for the 2^n-based binary symbolism, one adopted for Islamic geomancy a representational symbolism in terms of single or paired dots that was most probably derived from Chinese hexagrams with their broken and unbroken lines ( etc.; cf. in geomancy ) as used in I Ching, the latter being constitutive of a cosmology pervading all of Chinese life for millennia (Needham 1956; Maspero 1978: 281f).

37aThis kind of 'scutoform' images has been subject to numerous speculations; cf. Leroi-Gourhan, Marshack etc.; while formally this figure does represent a grid pattern, I am inclined to follow those interpreters who regard it as a representation of a nature bee hive

37Cf. below, section of the earth cult and its square symbolism.

38König 1973: 97; Howell c.s. 1970: 161f; Mahoudeau 1909; Howell 1970: 161.

39For relevant discussions of imagery and production forms, cf. van Binsbergen 1991 and van Binsbergen & Wiggermann, in press.

40Montet 1955; cf. Ranke 1920; Pierini 1992; Piccione 1963.

41In which there are probably, like in the ‘game of twenty fields’ which is often laid out at the bottom of senet boxes, reminiscences of the Mesopotamian apsu as both ritual tank and primordial waters of chaos; cf. Kendall 1992.

42Among the abundant literature I mention only Gadd 1934; Murray 1952: 15f.

43Saqqara, tomb of Hemaka, 1st dynasty; Aldred 1961: 103 pl. 11, 128, 393.

44A full discussion falls outside our present scope; cf. van Binsbergen, forthcoming. Let me merely mention the once enigmatic Tabula Bianchini as an example (Boll c.s. 1966: 60, 191f).

45Reiner’s extremely rich and informative text suggests - against the background of the vast literature on the topic — many links between Ancient Mesopotamian, Seleucid cuneiform, and Ancient Greek magic; even proto-geomancies can be detected here.

46A similar argument could be developed for extispicy, a widespread divinatory tradition among the Ancient Near East: the liver model, covered with a grid and the cases thus formed inscribed with divinatory clues, was at the same time a model of the landscape near the palace, and the diviner’s instructions were in terms which referred both to the sacrificial animal’s anatomy, and to the townscape (e.g. Jeyes 1978, 1989).

47A cylinder through which the dice are thrown, bouncing unpredictably on the tower’s inside steps, so as to prevent cheating.

48E.g. it is a major aspect of religions throughout Africa (cf. Schoffeleers 1979; van Binsbergen 1976, 1981, 1988; and references cited there) and around the Mediterranean (van Binsbergen forthcoming (a)).

49Cf. Gellner 1969; van Binsbergen & Wiggermann, in press; Fontenrose 1980; Fortes 1945, 1949; Simonse 1992; van Binsbergen forthcoming (a); and references cited there.

50Papyrus Berlin 8320 (Koptische Texte), as quoted in: de Jong 1921: 238f; further brief reference to this text in: Meyer & Smith 1994: 367, n. 75, l. 18, cf. p. 161; also cf. Isaiah 14: 13-14; Ezekiel 28: 2.

51Capitan & Peyrony 1921; Levy 1948: 6, 65f, and p. 41; cf. 125, 146.

52I am surprised by the statement that the meaning cannot be conjectured; of course it can, the real problem is that we have no direct means of verifying our conjecture — plausibility and persuasiveness are our main tools. The case belongs to the category of questions like

  • ‘what song the Sirens sang, or what name Achilles assumed when he hid himself among women, though puzzling questions are not beyond all conjecture’ (Browne [ year ] ).
  • This was the motto of Robert Graves (1988) White Goddess, which ingenuously answers these and, anyway, most other questions... Considering the imaginative thrust of Levy’s pioneering book, it is hard to believe that she does not like that kind of questions, and her statement looks like a pious remark inserted in order to propitiate a more positivist editor.

    53Rijksmuseum 1960: no. 33 and back cover; Anon. n.d.: 34 and pl. 40.

    54Buchholz & Karageorghis 1973: 90 and pl. 1122b, with extensive bibliography.

    55Gautier 1911; Parrot 1958: pl. vii a, pl. 44, and pp. 89-94; Labat 1987: 411, 496.

    56Later Palatial Crete; Buchholz & Karageorghis 1973: 34 and pl. 61a, b, with extensive bibliography.

    57Attested throughout the Ancient World, from the Maghreb to Iran; cf. van der Toorn 1996; for a modern study dealing with the same phenomenon, cf. van Binsbergen, forthcoming (a).

    58Van Binsbergen 1994, 1995a, 1995b, forthcoming.

    59Not by accident, a similar mix (except the Indian and Chinese material) went, in the same period, into the compilation of that famous piece of Arabic magic writing, GHayat al-hakim also known as Picatrix (Pingree 1980; Hartner 1965; Ritter & Plessner 1962).

    60On the basis of Murray’s detailed data: o.c. pp. 178, 240f; with additional input from Townshend (1979, 1979, 1980, o.c.), and well as from the other references on mankala quoted in this paper.

    61Leakey 1937: 165-173; here the interesting claim is made that mankala is not only essentially African, but also goes back to the Neolithic, thus converging with my own argument on Neolithic connotations.

    62For a more detailed discussion of the same material in the context of the kind of Afrocentrism found in popular distortions of the Black Athena thesis (Bernal 1991), cf. van Binsbergen, in press (a) and (b).

    63Such a travesty of ethnic boundary markers in space and time is quite common in the study of identity; for a South Central African example involving male puberty rites including circumcision as a boundary marker, cf. van Binsbergen 1993.

    63a. For an extensive discussion on this point, with special reference to a signet ring from Meroe, from beginning of the Common Era, see my forthcoming book: Global Bee Flight: Sub-Saharan Africa, Ancient Egypt, and the World: Beyond the Black Athena thesis.

    64As such I Ching may not even be strictly Chinese in origin, as its binary nature (as against the five and five directions elements of Chinese cosmology; cf. Needham 1956), and the puzzling un-Chinese

    (Tocharian i.e. Indo-European?) etymology of such key concepts as kuan, _, I Ching symbol R, the receptive earth-like principle (cf. khthóón?) suggest; I owe this reminder to the sinologist Martin Bernal.

    65Van Binsbergen, 1996 and forthcoming; partly based on Nettleton 1984.

    66E.g. Townshend 1976-77: 95f, 1979a: 118, 127 — the famous case of the Kuba king Shyaam aMbul aNgoog introducing mankala, under a West African name, after a journey to the west —, 134; Frobenius 1931; d’Hertefelt & Coupez 1964: 169.

    67Schoffeleers 1979; van Binsbergen 1981, 1992; and references cited there.

    68In the light of current insights in the nature and periodisation of irrigation in Ancient Egypt it is no longer tempting to follow Wittfogel (1957) and Harris (1978) and claim a direct relationship between irrigation and kingship.

    69Often historical indications lie hidden in seemingly meaningless details waiting to be read in their proper light. E.g., among the West African Dogon any game involving pebbles can only be played outside the house lest it omens disaster for the family; while the playing of mankala, as one of these pebble games, and in general any game which may lead to one’s enslavement, is viewed as a bad omen (Griaule 1938). In this gerontocracy without elaborate political organisation, do these fears reflect past experiences with slave raiding and with a more central political organisation featuring — like in so many African contexts — the mankala game as a sign of royal power?

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