Both in mainland China and Taiwan Taoist temples, I frequently saw people praying and then throwing little wooden blocks of wood (jiao-bei 筊杯 ) on the floor repeatedly. The blocks were cresent-moon-shaped and flat on one surface and round on the other. The Taoist petitioners used the jiao-bei divination to ask a question of the gods who answered the questions by influencing the wood blocks.
The supplicants could only ask ‘yes’ or ‘no’ questions. If one block landed flat-side up and the other down the answer was ‘yes’ (“sacred jiao”), both down meant ‘no’ (“negative jiao”). If one block landed on edge, the throw was null and void and must be repeated because the gods did not understand the question. If both flat sides were up, the blocks would roll and appear to laugh — this is called “laughing jiao” which means the gods are amused at the statement put to them because of one of the following:
- The question is not clear enough.
- The divine reply is not sincerely sought as the questioner has already decided what to do.
- The questioner knows the time is not ripe for the matter posed and yet still wants to seek divine direction.The question posed is therefore considered irrelevant.
- The questioner already knows the answer, is just looking for reassurance, and the consultation isn’t necessary.
This last option reminds me of the mental subtleties Christians go through while seeking answers to prayers to their God when they don’t think they got the answer they sought for.
Stupid, right? Silly superstition, right? Well, I’ve always wondered how stupid it really is. I certainly don’t think gods are talking through the sticks, or through any such divination or augury method but perhaps there is some utility beyond the false beliefs. For instance, see my I-Ching post for one possible benefit of divination — cooking tofu in our mind juices or how vague readings help us to see behind parts of our minds otherwise hidden — creative insight.
Aeon magazine just published an article called “How to Choose” which discusses another possible explanation for the utility of “stupid, superstitious divination” methods besides my “creative insight” version. The author, Michael Schulson points out that many phenomena in life are somewhat random and that for those processes, using a systemic choice method may carry biases which harm the outcomes. In other words, reason can sometime hurt us. Well, good reasoning may tell us that a random choice would be the wisest, but this in not the sort of reasoning we usually do. Ironic, eh? For more details, you may enjoy Schulson’s article.
- HT to Cris, at Genealogy of Religion, for writing on the Aeon article.
- See my post on this Zulu movie where I labeled the divination used by a Shaman as “nonsense”. In the movie, the sick person (AIDS) blows on bag of bones that shaman read as a disease caused by anger and ordered a stupid prescription. So, yeah, often divination is stupid. But maybe my post helps you see the adaptive reason it evolved or persists.