ORACLES AND OMENS: CONSIDERATIONS ON DIVINATION

Questo mio lavoro è pubblicato nel libro “Nel Nome di Dio Omnipotente. Pratiche di scrittura talismanica dal nord della Nigeria”, che è il catalogo della mostra del maggio 2021, curata da Gigi Pezzoli ed Andrea Brigaglia, svoltasi nella prestigiosa Cappella Palatina del Maschio Angioino di Napoli.

IL volume è edito da Andrea Aragosa, un coraggioso editore ed operatore culturale di Napoli, grazie al quale l’esposizione ha potuto realizzarsi.( https://artidellemaninere.com/2020/12/02/il-mondo-spirituale-magico-e-talismanico-del-popolo-hausa-della-nigeria/)

Every human experience intertwines the present with the past and feeds itself with the expectation of the future, making everyone’s existence unique, in constant relationship with others, in their own world of belonging. By virtue of this expectation, at all times and everywhere, the need to question the present to predict the future has been an inescapable requirement for man, both for private and community events.

In the excitement of daily acts and events the dimension of becoming is not immediately perceptible. In all our actions, however, the future is already a vivid presence. It is not for nothing that we trivially ask ourselves what the weather will be like tomorrow, or if we will pass an exam, to finally ask ourselves other questions about the fate of all humanity.

Every civilization of the past has questioned itself about the elusive entity of the future, with extremely varied and different methods, languages ​​and practices. But ultimately, to whom or to what it is addressed a request of this scale? Certainly such an imaginative act with its load of mystery and its ritual kit cannot be addressed to an earthly entity.

The question, in fact, is posed to a deity, to a mysterious and powerful force of the invisible, whatever its name is. The invisible, the supernatural, the forces of the occult, the distant god, only these, in fact, will be able to interpret the question and formulate the answer; remote entities, out of any possibility of knowledge. As the theologian Kittel suggests, “there cannot be direct access to divinity […] divinity is hidden. Even primitive man knows it 1“.

From the hermeneutic point of view, questioning the future is equivalent to revealing what is unknown, with recourse, as mentioned, to a mystical power in possession of the keys of destiny. The diviner, medium of this connection with the infinite, is the hidden face of man’s anguish and powerlessness, of his difficulty and inability to live the pitfalls of the present.

The roots of divining are very deep, which sink into the beginnings of the history of humanity. The unveiling, the highlighting of future events, however, does not aim at the removal of dangers and worries. This area is central to religious faith, it pertains, namely, to belief and devotion. The difference between believing and divining, which often trespasses into magic and esoteric rites, is fundamental from a conceptual point of view. You may not have faith, but it is almost impossible, at least for once, not to be tempted to glance at our destiny.

The divinatory practice is witnessed in Mesopotamian civilizations, in particular among the Sumerians and the Babylonians, attested by the numerous clay tablets found, inherent in the interpretation of events considered supernatural. In Egypt, the oracle of Amon, since the XIX century BC. was a source of prophecies and was consulted for many centuries to come. In ancient Greece the responses of the oracle of Delphi were collected by the priests of Apollo and had a foundation of religious norms.

I resti del tempio di Atena ( fine del V sec. a.C.) nel Sacro Recinto di Delfi,

A mythological figure was the Cumaean Sibyl who in the land of Magna Graecia was the priestess of Apollo and was considered with this rank. In ancient Rome it was customary to go to the sanctuary of Fortuna Primigenia (II century BC) for an oracular consultation.

In imperial Rome the omen, considered on a par with an auspice, was interpreted by diviners. In the case of Emperor Constantine, the stories tell, it was a dream that prophesied the sign of the cross as an omen of victory in the battle of Ponte Milvio against Maxentius, in 312 AD. Moreover, the belief that dreams are premonitory of future events is still widely spread today.

Divinatory practices were widespread in Arab culture, at least until the advent of Islam, which forbade them as knowledge of the unknown was prerogative of God only.

The Jewish doctrine of the Kabbalah, a symbolic architecture of enormous complexity and suggestion, was aimed, since the XII and XIII centuries AD, at the interpretation of the profound meaning of the Bible. But due to the infinity of esoteric predictions contained in it, the term Kabbalah, in the collective imagination, has turned into the art capable of deciphering future events by means of gestures, numbers, signs and letters and still today, the Kabbalah is surrounded by a magical aura.

Without bothering distant places, divination practices survived and still do survive in Italy: the Neapolitan “smorfia” is nothing more than a dictionary / handbook of divination, in Sardinia divination is still practiced through “eye medicine” and in Apulia through the figures of the “masciare”.

In this incomplete excursus, the significance of the divinatory character that distinguishes every era appears well-established, without forgetting, even if they are not mentioned, the infinite variations characterizing each geographic place.

The divination activity made use of various tools through specific rituals. The production of amulets, talismans, apotropaic figures made after the consultation was not secondary to what had as its purpose the protection of health, the search for well-being and luck.

Especially among the “primitive” peoples, this custom has given rise to authentic artistic creations of rare beauty and intensity. In central Africa there is evidence of small amulets called Nkisi that the diviner imposed they were made following his specific indications and were carried on himself, or placed on the family altar, as happened among the Lobi people of Burkina Faso and the Ivory Coast.

Luluwa bwanga bwa bwimpe o bulenga, Coll. Privata

Among the Luluwa of the ancient Congo there are small statuettes called bwanga bwa bwimpe that women used to protect pregnancy and eye diseases, very common in those regions. Noteworthy were the protective ivory amulets, musuki muhasi, of the Congolese Luba people. Of course, everything took place under the supervision of the diviner who consecrated these talismans so that they could act and carry out the protective function.

Even the Western tradition of ex-voto is to be considered a practice inextricably linked to divination, albeit ex-post. In the words of de Saussure2, the signifier of divination has come down to us, the tools, the magical objects often of a superfine artistic culture, while the original meaning, almost always, has been lost over the years and centuries.

In sub-Saharan Africa, among others, at least two divination cults deserve consideration and, specifically, those of the Yombe of the Democratic Republic of Congo and of the Hausa in northern Nigeria.

In Congo the practice of consulting the diviner, on the occasion of personal or community events, such as, to name a few, diseases, sterility, quarrels and disputes, famines, adverse weather events, etc. was widespread, at least until European colonization. The diviner, called nganga, through a complex ritual, questioned the spirit contained in a statue, the nkisi n’kondi, previously consecrated, with the magical substance (bilongo) and drew the answer to his question. The outcome of the consultation, carried out between hieratic gestures and with the use of various materials, was binding because it was an expression of the will of the forces of the invisible3.

Ancient Quranic table of the Hausa people, Nigeria
Ancient Quranic table of the Hausa people, Nigeria

In Nigeria, specifically thanks to itinerant Hausa merchants, creators of the Alluna, the Koranic tables object of this book, divination has had a great diffusion and from the north it spread to the southern ethnic groups, in particular among the Yoruba, and then spread to west between the Fon peoples of Benin and Ewe of Togo. Influenced by Islamic culture, the divination practice is called Fa (Ifa among the Yoruba and Afa for the Ewe and Guin-Mina of Togo and Ghana). The priests of the Fa, the bokono or babalawo, through a complex divination design, are able to predict the future to those who question them, by virtue of the connection with the orisha or vodu divinities and more generally with all the forces of the world of the invisible4.

Bokono or Babalawo

During the ritual practices of gorovodu, or “the voodoo of the kola nut” (introduced by Hausophone Islamized people from the north of Ghana and brought in the South to work in the plantations), the priest (babalawo) after throwing 16 palm kernels on the ground, traces with a finger the signs corresponding to the outcome of the launch on the sand placed on a wooden tablet with a raised edge (opon ifa). This long and complex ceremony called fagbo is necessary to answer vital questions and to define the kpoli, i.e destiny. A surprising curiosity is that the signs traced on the sand, in 256 combinations, follow the logic of the binary system, just like that of our modern computers!

Yoruba Iroke-Ifa, Nigeria

Yoruba opon ifa, Nigeria

But what are the reasons for a practice that spans for centuries and peoples and reaches down to our days? First, a brief literary digression.

In Eduardo De Filippo’s 1964 text, L’arte della Commedia, a family physician from a mountain village in central Italy asks the Prefect to have a sacred shrine removed in the center of the country. The reason is that it is perennially decorated with ex-votos by people whom the doctor has cured. Instead, the insults and complaints of the entire village are reserved to him, when the treatments have proved ineffective! The use of the supernatural, in fact, in situations of need, goes beyond the boundaries of science and its practices and the defeat of the innocent doctor is a clear testimony of this.

The human being, unlike other animals, by virtue of the awareness of his own self, acquires very early the knowledge of being an entity destined to end, that time will consume his days and that there will be an undecidable, but certain one, which will be the last of his existence. Even the other animals, when they sense the imminence of the end, sometimes seclude themselves in isolated places, but they do not seem to live with the precocious awareness of the inevitable death.

On the contrary, man is fully aware of his earthly destiny. As a wonderful verse goes:

Death will come and will bear your eyes

this death of ours, escorting us

from morning until dusk, restless,

deaf, like an old regret

or an unreasonable vice5.

Such a prospect cannot fail to generate fear and anguish, prompting some to seek answers for the future intended to mitigate the sense of their fragile vulnerability and, unfortunately, making the fortune of unscrupulous charlatans.

But, a blind and compulsive urge to question one’s own destiny is the harbinger of serious consequences; on the contrary, the painful acceptance of the human condition is a source of unexpected developments.

Fanciulla all’opera divinatoria con le carte da gioco

This is not the place to bother the fathers of the unconscious, but a psychologist who has made mythology and its rituals the fulcrum of his personal research, can provide us with fruitful suggestions. I am referring to James Hillman and in particular to what he calls “the vain escape from the gods6“. In this regard, I hope some simplifications will be forgiven, albeit in strict compliance with his thought.

Questioning the divinity in order to know in advance the events of the future, as already written, is equivalent to the desire to remove the sense of the end, with the useless and reckless attempt to intrusively put in the hands of destiny.

Denying Thanatos and Hades, the figures of the death cult, inevitably leads to the emergence of neurosis and psychosis over time. In this sense, the escape from the gods is illusory. In the deities of Greek and Latin mythology – but this is also true for the mythologies of every place and time – we find the archetypal figures of our unconscious which everyone is called to confront with. The longing for a coveted as much as illusory immortality and omnipotence, brute strength, blind violence, unbridled inebriation, furious anger, brutal sexuality, do they not perhaps refer to some gods and demigods of Mount Olympus?

And in this imaginalis, as Hillman calls it, everyone “acts” their own choices, which will lead him into the territories of creativity, ingenuity and beauty, or rather those of pathology. The removal of the gods, in fact, often returns in the form of disease.

It is useless to question fate and trust in the consultation of the future, at this point.

As the sages warned, the forces of the invisible should not be bothered in vain, on pain of falling into the compulsion to repeat, which has nothing to do with oracular art, but rather with psychic treatment.

Bacchus and Ariadne sing with the words of Lorenzo the Magnificent on the occasion of the carnival of 1490:

How beautiful our Youth is

That’s always flying by us!

Who’d be happy, let him be so:

Nothing’s sure about tomorrow.

An exhortation that is the manifesto of Epicurean philosophy and that exalts the joys of life, in the awareness of its fallacy.

In conclusion, if the desire to reveal the events of the future is irrepressible for the human being, at least he is supported by the awareness that the acceptance of his destiny is not a renunciation, but a stimulus to be better every day.

Elio Revera

Gorovodu Fon Tron

1 Kittel 1965, p. 289

2 See de Saussure 1970

3 See cards by E. Revera, in Bassani e Pezzoli (edited by) 2019, pp. 94-97.

4 Brivio 2012, pp. 222-227.

5 Pavese 1968.

6 Hillman 1991.

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