Geomancy & African History

About a year or a year and a half ago, I saw this video.

I was impressed.  I was teaching 7th grade history, which includes a chapter on African history and the rise of the empires of Ghana, Mali, Aksum, and Songhai. And there’s also a chapter on east Africa, and the rise of the monsoon trade, and I got interested in that for a while.

But this fractal mathematics, and the math of infinity was seductive, so from time to time I’d try to find information about African fractal math, connections to Georg Cantor, and so on.  I enjoyed this video, and so did my students, and one of them asked me how bamana sand divination worked (discussed near the end of the video, where he undergoes initiation into the tradition by giving seven coins to seven lepers and suchlike).  I didn’t know.  Dr. Eglash also didn’t respond to my request for more information.

Thanks to the first half of this book, though, titled Earth Divination, Earth Magic, I have the art of bamana sand divination as Europe received it from the Arabs in the 12th century AD.  And lo and behold, it’s pretty cool.

You draw a number of lines on sand, or on a piece of paper.  You count the lines.  If there are an odd number of lines, you draw one dot, •. If there are an even number of lines, you draw two dots, ••.  You do that four times.

The result is one of sixteen figures or symbols, with names like “the Boy” or “Sorrow” or “Loss” or “Gain” or “The Dragon’s Tail”.  This is the Dragon’s Tail, for example — three single dots with a double-dot pair at the end.


They’re connected with the constellations of the Zodiac and with the planets; it’s hard to tell from the book if that’s part of the African design or if it’s an Arab or European addition to a system that doesn’t really need them.

In any case, when my classes study China we usually throw a hexagram every day, and look up its meaning in the I Ching. There’s often been a startling lesson for the classes in using part of that culture’s traditional magical system as part of the day.  But until this week, and a chance to delve into the book, I didn’t have a similar thing to do with studying medieval and Renaissance west Africa. It’s been cool to find this method of divination, which I’ll use as I use the iChing for China, if I ever teach 7th grade or Africa again.

Of course, there are limitations to this kind of teaching… I don’t think I’ll be subjecting any of my students to exposure to ethelyne gas any time soon when we study ancient Greece.  (Shelly, is there a comparable Latin fortune-telling system? I don’t actually know, other than Egyptian Days, and I don’t really want to give my students a reason to do nothing… they do that enough already. 🙂 )

Liked it? Take a second to support Andrew on Patreon!

One comment

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.