Divination: Chinese Oracle Bones

Trelawney

Photo Linked To Source

When we hear the word “divination,” most of us automatically think of Professor Trelawney waving around her crystal balls and predicting the deaths of hapless students from behind large, circular glasses as Hermione stands off to the side and declares it all rubbish. In reality, ancient forms of the practice have existed for thousands of years, and they do not look quite as kooky (but they are a bit mysterious and spooky) as we we’re used to in popular media. One of the practices archaeologists have managed to dig up is that of the Chinese oracle bones of the late Shang Dynasty.

The discovery of these bones is generally attributed to Chinese scholar Wang Yirong, who committed suicide along with his family a year later when occupying forces came to China in 1900. Since the initial find, approximately 160,000 bones have been found, but not always with all of the pieces in place. The standard inscription contains four parts: the preface, the charge, the prognostic, and the verification.

Oracle Bones I

Photo Linked to Source

The preface was a place for the diviner to record the date and leave a message that basically said, “Yo, I was here.” The charge was whatever question needed diving (Will I look fat in these shorts?), and the prognostic was the reading the diviner received from evaluating the cracks in the cattle bones or turtle shell that appeared after they were heated up (I’m pretty sure you will, yeah). Finally, the diviner observed what really happened to be inscribed  later (just kidding, you looked fab). Inscriptions from the late Shang ranged from questions about childbirth and where to build houses, to whether or not giving sacrifices to the stars would bring about better weather. These readings did not always prove to be accurate, so Hermione wasn’t exactly wrong when she called divination “woolly.”

Here are a few surviving inscriptions I have found from around the web:

The divination on day wu-hsu [35] inquired: “The shape of the strange comet [hui] has changed. Will it bring darkness upon us?” It was a fine day.

The divination on day kuei-wei [20] was performed by Cheng: “Next day, chia-shen [21], will change to sunny.” That night [his], the Moon was eclipsed. The next day was foggy; it did not rain.

(“Astronomical Records on the Shang Dynasty Oracle Bones”, Journal for the History of Astronomy)

Crack‑making 
on 
jiashen 
(day 
21),
 Que
 divined:
 “Lady
 Hao’s
 (a 
consort
 of
 Wu 
Ding)
 child bearing 
will 
be 
good.”
 (Prognostication:)
 The
 king 
read 
the
 cracks 
and 
said:
“I f
it
be
 on
 a
 ding‑day 
that
 she
 give
 birth,
there
 will 
be 
prolonged
 luck.”
 (Verification:)
(After)
 thirty‑one
 days,
on 
jiayin
(day
51), 
she 
gave 
birth; 
it
 was
 not
 good; 
it
 was 
a 
girl.

[Divined:]
 ‘The
 Fang
 (enemy) 
are 
harming
 and
 attacking 
(us);
 it
 is
 Di
 who
 orders
(them)
 to 
make 
disaster 
for 
us.” 
Third
moon.

(Sources of Chinese Tradition)

Tags: , , , , , ,

About the Author

Tierra Holmes is a senior studying Art History and History at UNCC. When she isn’t chained to her computer working on research projects, she enjoys marathoning Korean dramas and spending money she doesn’t have. After graduation, she hopes to curate a museum or gallery and possibly guest-star on Mysteries at the Museum.

Top