Tipping the scale 2 astargalomancy
The casting of bones is used by healers and diviners in most traditional African societies. In order to research the actual practice, I visited different sangomas and inyangas on many occasions. The throwing of ‘bones’ is part of a performance in which the sangoma positions himself or herself opposite a ‘patient’ in need of physical, social or psychological help. Incantations are repeated throughout in a solemn voice and a bundle of Mpepo (Helichrysum odoratissimum) is burnt and inhaled whilst special substances may also be ingested. After a while the sangoma may begin to vomit and then the ‘bones’ are casts in an approximate circle.
The bones are usually kept in a small leather pouch and although they are referred to as ‘bones’ they may consist of various personalised items such as the claw or talon of a bird or animal of prey. The bones of snakes or crocodiles are very sought after. Other items may include unusual bottle caps, dice, jewellery, and bits and pieces used in electronics. I have numerous such unusual objects of divination in my collection.
In my performance/installation, BIG DRUID IN HIS CUBICLE (2009), I use numerous instruments, gauges and processes of measuring. There are scales for determining the mass of objects, compasses for finding direction and thermometers. Amongst my calibrated rulers I have some that measure the size of one’s feet and others that can gauge the thickness of a hair. I have big and small ampules and boxes to measure quantities of medicine and snuff. However, instead of measuring length, weight and direction as I am supposed to do, I use my devices metaphorically and preternaturally to divine and appraise complex issues such as authenticity, veracity, importance, substance and state of mind. As a druid, I must attempt, for example, to know if the heart and resolve might be big enough to endure a task or if a degree of anguish might be too severe to suffer, where to venture and where not to. Do we have what it takes, or don’t we? BIG DRUID IN HIS CUBICLE has slowly developed over many years, but was set up for the first time at the 2009 Basel Art Fair. In it I function as a druid and diviner and my aim is to weigh up the state of affairs and to make philosophical assertions and even mischief with my findings. My instruments and methods make up an important section of my dictionary WHAT EVERY DRUID SHOULD KNOW (work in progress) and the balances are there to liberate my own thoughts so that I may see through things and so that I may know how to react. Do I criticise, confirm, commiserate or mock? In this manner the scales and rulers become aids of thought management and conceptualisation.
In TIPPING THE SCALE II – ASTRAGALOMANCY I weigh-up five small knucklebones that were actually used by a Zulu sangoma at the Mai Mai establishment for traditional healers in downtown Johannesburg against three small polished nuggets of fool’s gold.
The practice of divination is much revered all over Africa. The advent of modern medicine has been absorbed into this practice. A sangoma may, for example, prescribe a powder of traditional roots or bark and add in a healthy dose of aspirin, laxative, vitamin C or any other appropriate medicine available at the local chemist. Modern medicine, the art of writing, books, banks, shopping centres, electricity, new ways of transport, guns, television and cellular phones are but a few items in the relatively new scenario to be absorbed into cultures that had functioned without so-called modern science for thousands of years.
Astragalomancy, also known as astragyromancy, is a form of divination that uses dice or bones specially marked with letters and numbers. From the Greek astragalos, it refers to the knucklebone or vertebra of an animal, from which dice were originally made. Small bones such as the vertebrae are often inscribed with special divinatory symbols and used by diviners to draw answers to questions. Two of the knucklebones in TIPPING THE SCALE II – ASTRAGALOMANCY are marked with thin bands of copper. This is to set them apart in binary sets indicating male/female, this/that or yes/no.