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


A review of the seance as discourse illuminates its main course. Throughout the seance, the collusion of the client and the patient with the diviner was largely nonverbal. The diviner put interpretations into words, indicated the visual exhibitions of the lots, and directed the patient what to say himself. Under the diviner's direction most of the lots, especially the enemies of the night, such as the lion, leopard, and hyena, were disregarded. The greatest attention was paid to the doctors, and thus the doctor-patient relationship; the seance was a preliminary to ritual treatment by the diviner as doctor.

The diviner began with the poetics of verse for the sake of locating the social space and time of affliction. He used the symbolic in metaphor and verse to open core themes about home and one's own, and about sorcery and the occult attack of the night, which he later developed repeatedly throughout the seance. The first and free fall from the bag, Inner Circle on the senior tablets, was the one to which he gave the greatest weight for the location of his patient's personal predicament. It is important to recognize that the core theme here, like virtually all the others in this diviner's practice, was standard for its tablet outcome from seance to seance. This was usual in other diviners' practice as well.

I observed more than a dozen of Rra Mafaya's seances that had Inner Circle as an outcome and, because of this outcome, something about intimates and intimacy was consistently in the foreground of his interpretation. What this diviner varied from seance to seance was the evaluation of the theme, and not its content. His choice was between good and bad, between auspicious and inauspicious, and between the laughter of thankful rejoicing, when "turtles are crying in the water, for rain is due to arrive," and the laughter of "a clever person with white teeth that kill while laughing." Here the evaluation he understood, and later made plain, was negative and adverse; the laughter was the laughter of cunning by which an intimate who is actually an enemy dissembles love or friendship when appearing to laugh with you.

When it came to confirming the significance of the other tablets in the first fall, showing Biter, he reasoned from the negative to the positive, from the absence of Tramper to the presence of Biter. He used the selective method of proof from exclusion. In this method of interpretation, a hypothesis about actual occurrence is put, and confirmed, by highly selective allusion to one among the many excluded outcomes (on the use of such hypothetical and excluded outcomes in diviners' reasoning, see Werbner 1973).

The diviner was concerned, from the very start, with finding

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confirmation of a suspicion that he felt the patient already knew to be true. Linked to that was his concern with establishing the continuity of significance. Both of these concerns were evident in his orderly, sequential method of constructing the interpretation, from disclosing the spatial and temporal location of the occult attack, to declaring, in turn, its nature, its mode, its immediate symptoms and, finally, its personal agent.

Once the diviner turned from the poetics to the microdramatics, he made plain the exhibition of an an image of rulagana, "following in order," i.e., "being organized together." This he did by pointing out how certain dice, the doctors among the allies, that had fallen somewhat in single file, indicated rulagana, "following in order." But rather than ignoring disorder, he later recognized it and explained it as an aspect of the patient's predicament. A later presentation of disorder in the scene among the allies, including the doctors with the god, was thus a proof, rather than a contradiction of his interpretation. The god and the boar were said to be those who should protect the patient that is his dead grandfather (or any ancestor) and his doctors respectively. Yet, bunched up and overturned, they were so disposed that they could not, or would not, help him. Here the diviner challenged the patient to recognize the concrete representation of the unstable states of the patient's own mind.

Viewed as a whole, the course of the diviner's interpretation was first from poetics to microdramatics, then for the patient's own first throw, the reverse and, finally, in the patient's last throw, back to the start, from poetics to microdramatics. It was also a course according to a hierarchy of authority, starting with the most authoritative lots at the top and moving downward, and then the reverse, and finally again back to the first move, from the top downward. The course of interpretation, like the procedure for excluding dice, was thus highly methodical and authoritative, yet selective, idiosyncratic, and made for the occasion.


In Northern Tswapong wisdom divination, lots as the moving parts of friendly or hostile creatures are seen and said to be subjects, not mere objects. What they are expected to disclose, above all, are the hidden characteristics of subjects, their true intent as friends or enemies, their unacknowledged motives, their real force, and power in practice. Each fall of the lots exhibits a microdramatic scene of friends and enemies. It is up to the diviner in his wisdom to get people to see the scene selectively, with regard for a certain foreground or disregard for a particular background. The diviner also is the one to create the poetics of wisdom divination by drawing upon a repertoire of verse and metaphor for each fall.

A double transformation takes place, both in knowledge and experience. On the one hand, the seance moves as a search toward the definition of a plan of, and for action. On the other hand, the seance also involves a change in the client's or patient's initial impressions that the elaborateness of the lots presents a somewhat baffling complexity. Formally, this impression yields to an impression of simplicity and then intelligible complexity. The use of the lots for nonverbal communication gives a direct knowledge of complexity, of a type that is concretely embodied in the moving parts of other creatures and, thus, manifested as something external to the subjects themselves. The overcoming of complexity in their own subjectively is exhibited and experienced. It is typical of wisdom divination that, apart from the play of imagery or words in puns, it comes without anti-rites (Douglas 1968), pranks, jokes, or play. Hence, there is a recognition of an orderly transformation in experience, the sense of finding a way methodically through some maze, that helps to underwrite the authority of wisdom divination in the face of the intuitive and irregular actualities of the interpretive process.

Pierce's distinction between the symbolic, the iconic, and the indexical enables us to appreciate wisdom divination as ritual performance with its own signifying practice. Wisdom divination is informed by binary opposition, dichotomous discriminations, and taxonomic classifications. It is, nevertheless a cultural means for specific, highly contextualized, personal perception, and not merely a means for the conventional recognition of life situations. The interpretations that diviners reach with their clients bring together the archaic and the contemporary, the microdramatic and the poetic, the everyday and the extraordinary. Thus our account of the discourse is wisdom divination illuminates the progression from moment to moment in the people's quest for powerful knowledge of the hidden realities in their lives.


I wish to thank the University of Manchester and the Economic and Social Studies Research Council (formerly SSRC) for leave and research funds, which enabled me to study Northern Tswapong. I am grateful also to the Northern Tswapong diviners and their clients from

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GoMoremi and its surrounding villages who kindly allowed me to make tape recordings and photographs of their consultations.

At the invitation of the Catholic University of Leuven, I first wrote this chapter as a public lecture; and I am grateful to colleagues at the Catholic University, especially Rene Devisch, for their helpful comments.

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