Werbner, R.P. 1989. Tswapong Wisdom Divination, pp 19-60 in Ritual Passage, Sacred Journey. Washington D.C.: Smithsonian Institution Press.

Tswapong Wisdom Divination

Divination is the ritual with which to begin reflecting about ritual. Its seances start the reconstruction of social reality that other rituals complete. In divination, people seek to obtain their bearings, and to prepare for the symbolic relocation of the person in other, later, ritual. As a preliminary approach to the occult, divination is, in many parts of the world, preeminently a ritual of orientation and disclosure. It creates and is created by the sense of discover; for that reason it is typically exploratory or variable, and remade for each occasion, whereas other rituals, tied to foreknowledge of the desired outcome, unfold in fixed or coordinated sequences that rely on constant terms. What comes to be known during divination, often through dramatic modes of searching and finding, is the hidden significance of events in everyday life. Divination is meant to reveal occult realities through extraordinary powers of communication; it thus has to be seen and felt to be extraordinary. In many of the moments in divination, little or nothing need actually be said. Instead, a silent language of objects is used for the presentation from the occult of felt realities, for interpretation, and for reflection. Or, if words are at all spoken, they are cryptic, highly allusive, and perhaps in a special language or in archaic verse. Almost never are they unambiguous. The imagery used is paradoxical

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and puzzling; it is evocative on different levels of meaning at once (see Werbner 1973). At other moments, however, interpretation becomes more explicit, verging on direct statement. Divination takes form as discourse through disparate moments.

Let me introduce my own account of divination as the preliminary discourse ritual somewhat after the fashion of a diviner. I want to give an example that the missionary Henri Junod records in his classic ethnography of the Tsonga (1913:512). A diviner consulted his divining ensemble of bones and smaller numbers of shells and stones-sixty-two pieces in all-and came to tell Junod this good news:

Be happy my missionary, you will have new tenants who will increase the value of your farm! They prepare their load now . . . . They will come before the tilling season begins. If they do not come I will give you an ox!

The time passed; no one arrived; and Junod says that he went to his old friend, the diviner, to ask for the promised ox. The laugh the diviner gave instead was good-natured, and he said, "Look! I will show you how the bones have told me lies."

With all the skill that an accomplished chess player would have in reconstructing the board and shape of a game through an elaborate series of moves, the diviner placed the sixty-two lots of his ensemble. Once again, they were as they had fallen during his consultation months earlier. He reconstructed an entire microcosm, and it was dualistic. The lots were exhibited clustered in two halves, indicating opposing categories of people. In the upper half was the scene among the would-be visitors; in the lower half, the scene among the would-be hosts.

The diviner interpreted the lots as signs through contrasts. He gave the significance of each piece for the others, and each half for its alternative. The whole was a bounded, structured order in miniature. All of it was coherently and quite circumstantially accounted for by the diviner, with signs, visible to the eye, of person, space, and time of the year. The half that was said to show the procession of strangers was elaborated with matters and characteristics auspicious for the hosts. And so too was the scene among the hosts elaborated with regard to their counterparts.

It was an impressive piece of social analysis and artful conceptualization. Junod first exclaimed, "Wonderful!" and then went on to challenge the diviner, "Only they did not come!"

In response the diviner said, "Never mind." But the missionary continued, "Then the bones have deceived you!"

Not at all! [was the reply] If it is not this year, it will be next year. Moreover, we diviners do not fear to be told that our bones lie. When, later on, our prophecies are fulfilled, then people wonder! They are convinced. And, after all, if the Word ( bula "the revelation,") [the divining message] lies, it is not our fault.3How is that?3We do not put our ideas into them; we merely interpret them; it is they who speak!3Then they have a power in themselves? [asked Junod]3No, the power is in the chest of the diviner. (Junod 1927:515)

How a diviner is expected to get that power of interpretation is important for the understood nature of the communication in divination; and I say more about that in due course. So far we have seen that a Tsonga diviner may go to great lengths to locate the person within an environment while representing, with iconic and indexical signs, a social mosaic in miniature. The fine spatio-temporal location is an accomplishment of interpretation that a Tsonga diviner makes patent in the face of his awareness of latent ambiguity. In the lots there are indications, but these are regarded as being relative, subject to interpretation and reinterpretation, and not absolute: "If not this year, then next." The Word of divination, if "revelation," is truth-on-balance.

Such Tsonga divination is, in my terms, "microdramatic." That is, it exhibits, in the fine scenes of easily handled lots, a series of encounters between significantly opposed agents, such as friends and foes, prey and predators, the humane and the inhumane, the social and the anti-social, creatures of the day or night, of the domestic or the wild. But Junod's example is a diviner's reconstruction long after the events of a seance. How, from one moment to the next in actual seances, are the microdramatics used for orientation in specific, personal predicaments?

That is a question I want to answer later at some length. Nevertheless, if we regard the spoken along with the silent language of objects, other issues have to be addressed. We have to understand the microdramatics that exhibit the visual, along with what I call the poetics of divination . By the poetics of divination I mean the interpretation of the use of cryptic, condensed, and highly ambiguous language, such as in archaic, authoritative verse. What is the interplay between microdramatics and poetics over the course of a seance? How do the people themselves see that? And how are we to interpret reflexively in a way that takes into account the people's own interpretive activity?

All of these are central questions. I pursue them in this chapter through my account of one of the modes of wisdom divination that utilizes lots, which in 1972-73 (fifteen months) and 1978 (two months) I studies among Northern Tswapong of Botswana (for descriptions

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Figure 2. Divining for al Brother's III Grandson. A Tswapong diviner points out to a mother the indications for her infant's recovery from troubled bowels. On the ground below him, and next to the patient, the client sits with her right leg folded and her left outstretched. The Hyena (1) is "tired," the Leopard (2) and the Lion (3) are "going out." But unlike these Enemies of the Nights, the Boars (4), as the Doctors, are "standing up." The bowels "bite and bite" according to the "Biter," Selumi, the cast shown by the four sand-tortoise shells of the Kgalagadi. People crowding around, indicated on the ivory tablets of the Elephant (5) by Mferephere, "Commotion," are also involved in the invoking of ancestral wrath .

of similar modes among Tswana, see Schapera 1953:64; Schapera n.d.; De Jager and Seboni 1964:504-11). The questions raise a problem about the nature of recent accounts of divination in southern Africa that I must consider first, before presenting my own ethnography.


Among all the rituals performed in southern Africa, none are so wide-spread, so commonplace, and yet, in the recent literature, so neglected as those of divination, especially divination with lots. Almost no attention has been paid, in recent studies, to the enduring importance of enigmatic divining verse. Yet some of it, which the people themselves regard as archaic, authoritative, and profoundly revelatory, has remained markedly stable or varied only gradually in form over vast areas of southern Africa (Bartels 1903; Junod 1925; Giesekke 1930; Eiselen 1932; Laydevant 1933; Schapera n.d.; Schapera 1953:64; De Jager and Seboni 1964:504-11). The neglected problem is how, through very different periods of history, archaic verse has continued to be a powerfully effective means of getting one's bearings on disparate personal predicaments. Similarly, there are relatively few articles about southern African divination as ritual, and those that are extant have a more limited scope than articles about divination in other parts of Africa (for a sum-Saharan comparison, cf. Devisch 1985a). There is no recent book on southern Africa that regards divination as a prime concern in its own right, with the notable exception of Turner's Revelation and Divination in Ndembu Ritual (1975). However, richly insightful and suggestive as it is, even this book owes most to diviners' self-accounts of basket divination, given apart from seances. Turner himself saw no basket divination in practice and, unlike most of Turner's other studies, here his own observation did not inspire this account.

With rare exceptions (Fernandez 1967; Werbner 1973; Jules-Rosette 1978), divination has become trivialized and marginalized in southern African studies. One reason is that the dominant interest has focused on the outcomes rather than the performance and practice of divination. Divination has been regarded as a transitional phase for selective decision-making within a process of social control or politics and, for that reason, of interest only insofar as it contributes to the wider process. The emphasis has been on what Gluckman described as the "solemn and ritually controlled jockeying" by interested parties for a suitably biased interpretation of misfortune (1965:230).

As a consequence, careful account has been taken of the people's intent to achieve disclosure, to know the hidden, and to sort out alternatives though an authoritative and, in some senses, extraordinary as well as objective procedure. But divination as performance with its own signifying practice has been largely ignored; and by signifying practice I mean not merely the system of signs with an associated grid of categories but the usual patterns of discourse, their actual sequencing over space and time, and their more or less stylized representations of events.

The need is to appreciate that divination is distinctively reflexive as ritual; it is the orientation ritual in which people getting their bearings reflect upon their options in ritual and in everyday life. Divination ritual has to construct implicit and explicit realities of its own, linked to, but not the same as, the realities of everyday life and other ritual. All of this is to raise problems of cognition and communication as well

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as the social construction of reality. These problems are ones that in my view are already being explored in fresh ways with the quickening of theoretical interest in studies of divination elsewhere in Africa (De-visch 1978a, b; Jackson 1978; Zeusse, 1979; Parkin 1982, 1985; Mendonsa 1982; Shaw 1985; Peek, forthcoming).

In this chapter, I want to look at divination as discourse and as a process of orientation in the light of Pierce's threefold distinction between icon, index, and symbol. For my understanding of this I rely heavily upon Burks (1948; see also Singer 1980). An important point is that a sign can be, in turn or simultaneously, an icon, an index, and a symbol (for a comparative discussion, see Ruel 1987). Hence we may speak of an iconic or non-iconic index, an indexical or non-indexical symbol, and so forth. As put by Burks, the distinction is according to the ways that a sign represents its object to its interpretant (in effect, the interpreter's consciousness). These ways are respectively (1) symbolic, (2) indexical, or (3) iconic for a sign: "(1) by being associated with its object by a conventional rule; (2) by being in an existential relation with its object (as in the case of the act of pointing); (3) by exhibiting its object (as in the case of the diagram)" (Burks 1948:674). One difficulty with Burks' version of the distinction is that it leaves out grounds of resemblance from he definition of an icon. Hence, although Burks criticizes Pierce for inconsistency about this, for my purposes I find it more useful to follow Pierce and also say that an icon is similar to its object. It does not merely exhibit or exemplify it.


Although plain speech is never enough for the orientation through divination towards the implicit and the explicit, the invisible and the visible, the occult and the patent, all divination is not microdramatic (Werbner 1973). As Gluckman long ago pointed out, there is a continuum in the representational dimensions of divination (1965:229). At one extreme is the paucity of visual signs, with the embodiment of single binary discrimination, for example, in the Azande poison oracle. At another extreme the representation is "a resumé of a whole social order," to use Junod's phase, with each lot being used for the ambivalences and the multiple aspects, positive and negative, of social persons and institutions. In Gluckman's view, the range in representation is linked to a difference in the interpretive process. At the extreme of visual paucity, interpretation is sustained through a methodical, step-by-step selection whereas at the extreme of elaborate representation, the diviner has to work toward the reading of a pattern as a whole. A similar configurational argument could be made for the client having to reach a holistic reading in situations, as among Sisala, where both the client and the diviner put nothing in words during the indication of elaborate lots (Mendonsa 1982:122-25).

On the basis of such comparison, however, it might be thought that all divination falls simply into the ritual mode that Turner calls "analytical" by contrast to the mode of "revelation." Ndembu divination is analytical, in Turner's view, because its symbols "are used to discriminate between items that have become confused and obscure" (1975:232). It is a methodical search for the definition and resolution of a problem. It is taxonomic, and its logic is dualistic, proceeding through a sequence of binary oppositions. In the mode of revelation, which characterizes Ndembu ritual apart from divination, there is "the exposure to view in a ritual setting, and by means of symbolic actions and vehicles, of all that cannot be verbally stated and classified" (Turner 1975:15).

One difficulty that results from equating all divination with the analytical mode of ritual is raised by Devisch. Devisch takes account of the way that universal human paradoxes are embodied or possibly resolved in the symbolic forms of a Yaka diviner's possession trance and initiation:

Yaka divination realises, in contrast to Ndembu divination, what Turner interprets as being the revelatory function of the cosmogonic Chihamba rite which "asserts the fundamental power and health of society and nature grasped integrally." (Devisch 1978b:43, citing Turner 1975:16)

Clearly, divination too has moments of revelation through verbal and non-verbal communication, through paradox, incongruity, and the evocative synthesis of quite disparate meanings.

I would go further and argue that, instead of different modes of ritual, what we need to appreciate are different momentary emphases and how they are managed in the course of a single ritual. This problem is especially important in wisdom divination, which is poetic as well as microdramatic. The authoritative verse a wisdom diviner recites in praise of the lots is archaic; it is typically cryptic and paradoxical, with highly condensed imagery that is evocative on different levels of meaning at once. Tension is characteristic between what is exhibited visually and what is said in verse; each plays back upon the other. Here the challenge in studying divination is to account for the different moments, for shifts that, in the course of a consultation, move between the analytical and the synthetical, between a logic of discrimination

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and a unifying insight, and between critical examination an evocative revelation.

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