GEOMANCY is a form of divination based on the interpretation of figures or patterns drawn on the ground or other flat surface by means of sand or similar granular materials. The term is also used for the interpretation of geographic features. Among the Chinese, in particular, this practice of geomancy is rooted in traditional philosophic conceptions of the relationship that exists between human beings and the vital forces of their environment and the need to achieve a harmonious balance between the two to ensure well-being.
The Western form of geomancy, widespread in the Arab world, was also of importance in medieval Europe, where it was closely linked with alchemy and astrology. Geomancy of this kind is likely to have originated in the ancient Near East and may also have been developed further by Greek mathematical speculations. In the eighth and ninth centuries, during the period of Arab cultural florescence and expansion, it became systematized and was then widely distributed from its center to Byzantium and across North Africa and into Spain. From Spain it was also probably spread along a second route into Christian Europe. From Egypt and North Africa, geomancy was carried south with Islam and then even beyond, so that it is now found both in West Africa (for example, among the Yoruba of Nigeria) and in East Africa, including Madagascar.
The Arab system called ramʾl ("sand") is based on complex mathematical calculations and involves conceptions of an orderly universe. Its numerical order provides the underlying framework for all other Western systems of geomancy. The fundamental common feature of geomancy is a pattern of binary oppositions of markings grouped into sixteen combinations of four positions. In both the Arab system and that of medieval Europe (ars punctatoria ), points or lines were drawn on sand in a pattern based on chance. In the Yoruba system (Ifa), which has been particularly well described, markings are based on the casting of palm kernels or cowrie shells according to prescribed procedures. For each of the resulting figures, from among a total of 256 possible combinations and permutations there is a set of verses that the diviner (babalawo ) will have memorized to interpret the pattern and to apply to the case at hand. In general, the aim of this practice is not to divine future events but to discover the supernatural causes of present situations and their remedies.
In the European system the sixteen figures are related to astronomical signs of the planets and the zodiac; the scheme also includes four elements and four qualities. Although various authors have offered divergent interpretations of this system, its basic structure is remarkably constant and has been integrated into different philosophical conceptions with striking flexibility.
The system of medieval European geomancy appears to have had a brief revival in the occultism of the nineteenth century. The African systems are still viable, and forms of the Yoruba practice, in particular, have even been discovered in the Americas, notably in Cuba and Brazil.
Less complex systems of geomancy, apparently unrelated to those of the West, are to be found in Tibet in the form of "stone divination" and "pebble divination." These systems each have their own sets of rules, recorded in manuals. They are quite distinct from those discussed above.
The term geomancy is also used to refer to feng-shui ("winds and waters"), the traditional Chinese technique for determining propitious locations for towns, dwellings, and tombs. This system, which is still in very widespread use, concerns the distribution over the earth, by winds and water currents, of various terrestrial and atmospheric emanations that are believed to exert important influences on people. In addition to being a system of calculations for establishing favorable sites, geomancy is also a method for discerning the causes of human illness and suffering. Geomancers may claim that these causes lie in the negative influences on people of badly placed residences or of the unfortunate positioning of the tombs of ancestors, who consequently send illness and misfortune to their descendants as expressions of anger. Moreover, a given dwelling or tomb, which was originally well placed, may, in time, have its geomantic position shifted as a result of changes in the area, such as new constructions that produce an alteration in the balance of positive and negative currents. A geomancer will not only divine such causes but will also seek to remedy the situation by recommending reburial at a better spot, changing the position of a tomb, or urging the building of a wall or other structure to modify the direction of the currents. Because of the belief that illness may be due to such influences, geomancers must be included in any list of traditional Chinese diagnosticians and medical practitioners.
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Erika Bourguignon (1987)
A system of divination by means of scattering pebbles, dust, sand grains, or seeds on the earth and interpreting their shape and position. A later development by occultist Cornelius Agrippa involved making marks on the ground with a stick (currently practiced with a pencil on paper). Interpretations are partly intuitive and partly by means of a system of positions reminiscent of the I Ching hexagrams.
The term geomancy is also applied to the Chinese practice of feng-shui (wind and water), and was used by nineteenth-century writers to translate feng-shui. This Chinese art is concerned with the relationship between human beings and the subtle energies of nature. In classical Chinese sources the term ti li (land patterns) was also used; another related term is kan-yü (cover or support), with special reference to relationships between heaven and earth.
Feng-shui and ti li are concerned with the "dragon lines" or subtle energies of the earth in relation to the placement of buildings and the interaction between human life and earth currents. Feng-shui experts would determine the most suitable places for roads, bridges, canals, wells, and mines in relation to earth currents; the sites of graves were especially important. Bodies might be kept unburied for some time until a suitable burial place with harmonious currents was determined, and in some cases bodies were reburied.
It seems likely that the Western form of geomancy for divinatory purposes grew out of feng-shui concepts, since the position of pebbles, dust, or seeds has something in common with acupuncture pressure points on the "body" of nature and its energies. Chinese concepts of the subtle energies of the earth also parallel the Western concepts of leys and dowsing.
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