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Cupmarks, stellar maps, and mankala board-games (2)
An archaeoastronomical and Africanist excursion into Palaeolithic world-views

Wim van Binsbergen

with the astronomical collaboration of Jean-Pierre Lacroix

2. From the ethnography of cultural specificity to extensive connections in space and in time

From 1990 onwards my road from ethnographer to intercultural philosopher would take me to a further exploration of the relativity of cultural specificity. Once I has become a sangoma, I had at my disposal a fairly unique body of cultural knowledge, and a fairly unique status — the status of recognised local religious specialist — but my move to become a priest-medium would be rendered meaningless if as a next step I would commit this knowledge to writing in an ethnographic monograph, with all the distancing and subordinating objectification this entails. Neither could I bring myself to write about the details of the social and psychiatric case material which automatically came my way as the therapist of my Botswana patients. What to do? Could I find a perspective from which my transcultural stance could yet be combined with a recognisable professional form of scientific knowledge production?

            I had now in my possession these mysterious rough wooden tablets of the sangoma oracle, consecrated in the blood of my sacrificial goats and periodically revived by immersion in rain water and by the application of the fat of these animals. They seemed to represent the epitome of strictly local cultural particularism. It was as if they had risen from the village society of Southern Africa at some indefinite Primordial Age, and the same seemed to apply to the interpretational scheme which names the sixteen specific combinations to be formed by the tablets when these are ritually cast in the course of a divination session. The local oracle of four tablets had been described by missionaries as long ago as four hundred years.[1]

‘The old woman like a stone’, ‘the old male witch like an axe’, ‘itching pubic hair like a young woman’s’, ‘the uvula like a youthful penis’ —

this is how (among other designations) the four tablets are named, and their various combinations have connotations of witchcraft, ancestors, taboos, sacrificial dances, and all varieties of local animal totems. What could be more authentic and more African? Not for nothing had I, at the time, described my initiation to sangoma-hood (which, after more than twenty years of work as a religious and medical anthropologist, made me an accomplished and recognised specialist in an African divination and therapy system) as

‘the end point of a quest to the heart of Africa’s symbolic culture’.[2]

However, when I plunged into a historical and comparative study of these oracular tablets and their interpretational scheme, I had to admit that this romantic suggestion of extreme locality was a mere illusion, under which lurked a reality insight into which had enormous consequences for my theoretical and existential stance as an ethnographer and a world citizen. The interpretational scheme (the nomenclature of the sixteen combinations and the complex associated meanings), turned out to have equivalents all over Africa e.g. in the famous divination systems of Ifa and Sixteen Cowries in West Africa and Sikidy in Madagascar; and all could be shown to be adaptations of tenth-century CE Arabian geomancy entitled Âilm al-raml (‘sand science’): a branch of divinatory magic, with a Chinese iconography (consisting, just like I Ching, out of configurations of whole and broken lines), and at the same time with astrological implications such as had been elaborated another fifteen or twenty centuries earlier, in Babylonia. The local cultural orientation in which the inhabitants of Francistown had entrenched themselves, and from which I initially felt painfully excluded, turned out not to be at all the incarnation of absolute and unbridgeable otherness, but — just like my own cultural orientation as a North Atlantic scholar — a distant offshoot of the civilisations[3] of the Ancient Near East, and like my own branch of science it turned out to have been effectively fertilised by an earlier offshoot from the same stem: the Arabian civilisation.[4]

            I had struggled with the other, as if it were an unassailable, utterly alien totality; but parts of it turned out, on second thoughts, to be familiar and kindred, and available for appropriation — but  not the kind of imposing, condescending and hegemonic appropriation of the North Atlantic institution of ethnography, but appropriation according to the procedures that allocate specialist knowledge and socially recognised specialist status in Southern Africa: through ancestral election, its public diagnosis and recognition, and subsequent training and initiation.

            This amounted to a head-on collision with the central tenets of classic cultural anthropology since the 1930s:

     the injunctions against ‘going native’ and against dropping one’s professional ‘self-respect’ which hinges on the construction, through ‘fieldwork’, of the ethnographic ‘participant observer’ as absolutely different from the local ‘informants’; and secondly

     the dogma of the historical and cultural specificity of distinct, for instance African, societies, the assumption of their being closed onto themselves and bounded, of their having a unique internal integration and systematics, and in general the idea that something like ‘a culture’ exists in the light of which it would be a waste of time to try and study the historical trajectory of the constituent elements of that culture.

            This insight was for me the trigger to start a comprehensive research project, which has meanwhile resulted, among lesser publications, in an edited collection Black Athena: Ten Years After (1997; now being reprinted as Black Athena Alive), on the work of Martin Bernal; the present book; and a book manuscript entitled Global Bee Flight: Sub-Saharan Africa, Ancient Egypt and the World: Beyond the Black Athena thesis

            The latter study is based on a similar Through the looking-glass (Lewis Carroll) experience as I had in connection with the Francistown divination system. A few years ago I went through my various articles on western Zambian kingship in order to collect these in a single volume. This was shortly after I has spent a year at the Netherlands Institute for Advanced Study in the Humanities and the Social Sciences (NIAS) in 1994-95, as the only anthropological member of the Working Group on ‘Magic and religion in the Ancient Near East’.[5] After this extensive exposure my eye was suddenly and totally unexpectedly caught by the many specific and profound parallels between the ceremonies and mythologies surrounding Nkoya kingship in South Central Africa on the one hand, and Ancient Egypt, Mesopotamia, and South Asia on the other. The parallels were so striking, so detailed, that I had to seriously consider the possibility of cultural diffusion from these various regions towards (or perhaps even from?) South Central Africa — once again the suggestion of continuities in space and time across thousands of kilometres and across several millennia.

            The Francistown divination system and Nkoya kingship are two concrete examples of the kind of serendipities — totally unexpected findings — of cultural convergence and diffusion across the entire Old World, which have occupied a central place in my empirical research since 1990. But there is also a more constant if more diffuse source of inspiration: the anthropological fieldwork which I have undertaken over the past thirty years in various locations on the African continent. In combination with the scholarly literature, with discussions with my colleagues, and with my involvement in the work of my Leiden colleagues and of my research students, these researches have created a context for comparative hypotheses suggesting considerable correspondences between local cultural orientations, far beyond the strictly local and presentist horizons of classic ethnography — far beyond ‘cultures’...


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[1]              Cf. Santos, J. dos, 1901, ‘Ethiopia oriental, and Eastern Ethiopia’, in: Theal, G.M., ed., Records of South Eastern Africa, Cape Town: Government of the Cape Colony, vii, pp. 1-182 [reprint of the original edition of 1609], 183-383 [English translation ].

[2]              Van Binsbergen, ‘Becoming a sangoma’, o.c., p. 314.

[3]              I define a civilisation as a socio-political system which — by virtue of such institutions as food production, state formation, writing and organised religion — displays a considerable degree of continuity over a vast geographical area and within which a plurality of cultural orientations are comprised. The contradiction between ‘culture’ and civilisation, as posed by Kant and as elaborated by Spengler, is not fertile from a cultural anthropological perspective. Outside the German language area it has not been common to make such a distinction; Cf. Perpeet, W., 1974, ‘Kultur, Kulturphilosophie’, in: Ritter, J., ed., Historisches Wörterbuch der Philosophie, Basel/ Stuttgard: Schwabe, Bd IV , cols 1309-1324, especially 1318f.; Kant, I., 1983, ‘Idee zu einer allgemeinen Geschichte in weltbürgerlichen Absicht’ (1784), in: Kant, I., Schriften zur Anthropologie, Geschichtsphilosohie, Politik und Pädagogik, I, part IX of: Kant, I., Werke in zehn Bänden, Weischedel, W., ed., Darmstadt: Wissenschaft­liche Buchgesellschaft; Spengler, Spengler, O., 1993, Der Untergang des Abendlandes: Umrisse einer Morphologie der Weltgeschichte, Munchen: DTV; first published 1919-1923, München: Beck p. 42f.

[4]              Van Binsbergen, W.M.J., 1994, ‘Divinatie met vier tabletten: Medische technologie in Zuidelijk Afrika’, in: van der Geest, J.D.M., ten Have, P., Nijhoff, G., en Verbeek-Heida, P., eds., De macht der dingen: Medische technologie in cultureel perspectief, Amsterdam: Spinhuis, pp. 61-110; Van Binsbergen, W.M.J., 1995, ‘Four-tablet divination as trans-regional medical technology in Southern Africa’, Journal of Religion in Africa, 25, 2: 114-140; Van Binsbergen, W.M.J., 1996, ‘Transregional and historical connections of four-tablet divination in Southern Africa’, Journal of Religion in Africa, 26, 1: 2-29; Van Binsbergen, W.M.J., 1996, ‘The astrological origin of Islamic geomancy’, paper read at The Society for the Study of Islamic Philosophy and Science/ Society of Ancient Greek Philosophy 15th Annual Conference: ‘‘Global and Multicultural Dimensions of Ancient and Medieval Philosophy and Social Thought: Africana, Christian, Greek, Islamic, Jewish, Indigenous and Asian Traditions’’, Binghamton University, New York, Department of Philosophy/ Center for Medieval and Renaissance studies; Van Binsbergen, W.M.J., 1996, ‘Time, space and history in African divination and board-games’, in: Tiemersma, D., & Oosterling, H.A.F., eds., Time and temporality in intercultural per­spective: Studies presented to Heinz Kimmerle, Amsterdam: Rodopi, pp. 105-125; Van Binsbergen, W.M.J., in press, ‘Board-games and divination in global cultural history: A theoretical, comparative and historical perspective on mankala and geomancy in Africa and Asia’, in: Finkel, I., ed., Ancient board-games, Londen: British Museum Publications; van Binsbergen, W.M.J., 1999, ‘Islam as a constitutive factor in so-called African traditional religion and culture: The evidence from geomantic divination, mankala boardgames, ecstatic religion, and musical instruments’, paper for the conference on ‘Transformation processes and Islam in Africa’, African Studies Centre and Institute for the Study of Islam in the Modern World, Leiden, 15 October, 1999, forthcoming in: Breedveld, A., van Santen, J., & van Binsbergen, W.M.J., eds., Islam and transformations in Africa.

[5]              Cf. van Binsbergen, W.M.J., & Wiggermann, F.A.M., 1999, ‘Magic in history: A theoretical perspective, and its application to Ancient Mesopotamia’, in: Abusch, T., & van der Toorn, K., eds., Magic in the Ancient Near East, Groningen: Styx, pp. 3-34.


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