[NB] Geomancy in Micronesia

I have a tendency to follow my interests all around the bend, into the curious corners and back alleys. When I was tracing what I could of the movement of geomancy around the African and European sphere, I stumbled onto a brief reference to a geomantic practice in Micronesia in William Bascom’s Ifa Divination. It turns out his colleague down the hall, William Lessa, had been doing fieldwork and turned up a system that bore some striking similarities to Ifa. I’ve tried to talk about it elsewhere, but I figured it might merit a proper blog post, too.

Called bwe, it’s practitioners knotted coconut leaves to determine odd and even patterns, which produced one of sixteen signs (one leaf for each finger, yielding a sign for each hand). There is an old article in German which details them somewhat, and I even muddled through it for a bit to see if anything popped.

Here is a description of the oracle’s origins, from Lessa’s work in the Caroline Islands:

“Supunemen was a god, who understood the art of divination. On his body he bore the signs of destiny, the mesanepwe. Then he took them all and put them on the floor, and they grew to be as large as human beings; there were sixteen of them. Supunemen said to them, – 190 ‘Go into the forest, chop wood, and make a canoe.’ They did so, and in two days they had completed a canoe without a keel. On this boat they came down to earth, and sat in this order:

Tilifek (: ) sat on the outrigger, Inoaeman (: : ) and Toalefailan (: : : ) on the platform. The whole craft was called wanepwe, the canoe of destiny. When they had reached the entrance to Inatik (Natik) they capsized. Bukenemar [sic], who had sat in back at first, now came forward to the first thwart, and Laneperen went back to the last one. First they came ashore at Ifaluk, where they met a man called Sukau, who was bathing in the sea. At first he did not want to let them go on land, because it had been forbidden by the spirit, Tilifek. But Supunemen commanded him to carry the canoe on shore for him and to light a fire in the hut. The spirits slept there.

But, as the place was very cramped, Supunemen took all sixteen of them and set them on the skin of his body. Then in the morning, when the man came into the hut, he was frightened, because he thought that Supunemen had a rash. But the spirit said to him, ‘Do not be afraid; we are neither spirits nor men, we are destinies.’ Then he took all the signs and put them on the floor; there they grew again to human stature and his skin became smooth again. Then they taught Sukau about the art of divination and sailed on to Pulwot. Here Pukenemar said, ‘Let us go ashore.’

But Supunemen replied, ‘No, I do not like this land.’ Then they went to Thuk, from there to Losop, then to Namoluk, Etal, Moath, Kitu, Ta, Lukunor, Oneup, 12 and in each country they taught one man. Then they wanted to return to Inatik, but they did not find it and in its place they encountered Oroluk. On the way Inoaeman began to sweat blood. Then Sauya cried to him, ‘Get out of the canoe, for you are a woman.’ Inoaeman left the craft – 191 and swam to Inatik on a tree trunk, which Supuneman [sic] ordered one of the gods of destiny to give him. When he reached the island, he sat underneath a tree, called Net, which was close to the sea.

When he did not return, Inipwai was dispatched to bring him back. Then Mesauk led him by the hand back to Supunemen. They took counsel, and it was decided that Inifau should teach the inhabitants of Inatik. When he had finished, he returned to the canoe of destiny. Then they went to Foanipe (Ponape), then to Pinelap, where Laneperen went on shore, and then to Mokil, where Lipul got out for the same purpose. When they had finished, Supunemen asked, ‘Have you all taught?’ They answered, ‘Yes.’ Then one of them said, ‘Let us now return to heaven!’ Whereupon they sailed close to Mokil again and went back to heaven and they have never returned.”

Everyone that I read wanted to trace the system back to China and the I Ching; even the really peculiar article that argued for an Indonesian source for Ifa sourced the system’s origins in China! That didn’t satisfy me. It is a weird transformation to move from three- and six-lined figures to four-lined ones. Moreover, to read the I Ching properly you need to appreciate that its binary elements are more mobile than those of Arabic geomancy; you don’t just have single and double lines, you have changing lines as well.

I doggedly dug around what I could on the I Ching, though, and did stumble upon a largely defunct Chinese practice described in Taixuan jing or Classic of Great Mystery by Yan Xiong (53 bc-18 ad). The figures of this system are tetragrams generated from top to bottom (much like traditional Ifa and Arabic geomancy’s figures). In counter-distinction to Arabic geomancy, though, each line can be occupied by one, two, or three lines (and so operates from a trinary rather than binary logic).

This classic was in broad circulation in Chinese culture for a thousand years, only going out of fashion after a concerted conservative attack on it ca. 1000 ad. That would give it plenty of time to cross over to undergo simplification to a binary system and enter into the broader world of binary geomancy. The same source that described this (Smith, Fathoming the Cosmos…) also noted evidence for tetragrams well before Yan Xiong; some of the Shang Dynasty oracle bones appear to have tetragrams. If those end up forming a meaningful subset of the oracle bones, it suggests a rival pattern developing alongside the I Ching (ca. 1100 bc) which could have had extensive influence on later tetragrammatic forms of geomancy.

In terms of diffusion into the Arabic world, it’s worth remembering that there were Muslims in China just after Muhammed died, so there is a vector for transmission out of China and into the Arabic world, from there into Africa and Europe.

Alternately, it’s not out of the realm of possibility that the fire-cracked oracle bones found in ancient China are themselves rooted in practices transmitted from Middle Eastern practices. The cracking of bones in a cooking or sacrifice goes way, way back, perhaps all the way back to the cycle of ritual diffusion centered around Gobekli Tepi. Or, you know, something entirely different that I haven’t even thought of, because I am just scrounging around a library and the internet. Perhaps it all goes back to Gordon White’s hypothesized Pacific ur-culture.


Bascom, William. Ifa Divination: Communication between Gods and Men in West Africa. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1969.

Codecasa, Maria Silvia. “Of Knots, Dots, and Coconuts: Divination in Micronesia,” found on her website.

Dick-Read, Robert. “Indonesia and Africa: questioning the origins of some of Africa’s most famous icons,” The Journal for Transdisciplinary Research in Southern Africa 2 (2006): 23-45.

Girschner, Max. “Die Karolineninsel Namoluk und ihre Bewohner” (Part I), Baessler Archiv 2 (1912): 123-215.

Lessa, William A. “Divining from Knots in the Carolines,” Journal of the Polynesian Society 68 (1959): 188-204.

–“The Chinese Trigrams in Micronesia,” The Journal of American Folklore 82 (1969): 353-62.

Smith, Richard J. Fathoming the Cosmos, Ordering the World: The Yijing. Richmond: The University of Virginia Press, 2008.


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