Academic journal article Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute

Representational vs Conjectural Divination: Innovating out of Nothing in Mongolia./Divination Representationelle Ou Conjecturale: En Mongolie, L'innovation Nait a Partir De Rien

Academic journal article Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute

Representational vs Conjectural Divination: Innovating out of Nothing in Mongolia./Divination Representationelle Ou Conjecturale: En Mongolie, L'innovation Nait a Partir De Rien

Article excerpt

Prologue

There are times when Mongolians receive shockingly impossible divinatory results that refute the premise of their queries. Knowing they have a problem, Mongolians nonetheless arrive at divinatory results which state that 'everything is fine'. Faced with a crisis such as being cursed, people must disregard these results as 'sampling errors' or else revise their questions.

Galanjav and his wife, both Mongolian shamans (boo), were facing a long-term problem when they received just such a divinatory result. (1) Their infant daughter had for months had an upset stomach that did not improve despite frequent offerings to the spirits. They began divining regularly in the privacy of their home, increasingly attributing their problems to curses (kharaal) set by local shamanic rivals. Thus one morning, when Galanjav divined by playing cards to ask 'What should we do about the cursing?', he was surprised to receive a result denying that he faced any problem whatsoever. The cards reached their 'optimal layout' (explained below, in relation to Fig. 1), indicating that the outcome was the best possible since it bore the meaning 'everything is fine'.

Laughing dismissively, Galanjav quickly swept up the cards to have another go. I asked him whether this meant that their problems were over. He said no, sometimes the cards reach the optimal layout even though people know they have a problem. This result was an error (buruu), and they would dismiss it. I asked: 'but don't the spirits assist in making the divinatory result?' Galanjav and his wife admitted the spirits can assist, by whispering cues for interpretation into diviners' ears. Reshuffling the cards, Galanjav continued to brush the optimal result aside, saying that it was wrong. However, he then stopped and looked me in the eyes, suddenly linking the 'everything is fine' outcome with the painful recollection that the spirits had previously chastised him about insufficient offerings. Tentatively, he said that these results are not necessarily errors of divinatory procedure. They also can be sarcastic commentaries by the spirits, who induce impossible results to indicate that one is asking impossibly wrong questions. Incongruities redirect people so that they adopt more fruitful points of entry into tackling complex queries (Zeitlyn 1990: 662-4). Before asking what to do about the cursing, Galanjav first needed to see what was causing it.

Mongolian card divinations yield viable solutions to problems only where people link the cards' basic meanings to their questions, and thence attribute case-specific interpretations to the cards. By regarding the 'best possible' result as an error either in sampling or in formulating questions, Galanjav associated a seemingly dubious result with the divinatory effort, and allowed that the two were actually congruous. Without having to relinquish the premise that he was cursed, Galanjav only had to reorganize his questions.

Other kinds of Mongolian divination make exclusive use of true/false questioning, requiring diviners and inquirers progressively to eliminate all but the most relevant information to their problem. This true/false restriction can consistently block people's efforts to seek out successful remedies, forcing them to consider a divination false or to combine their failed inquiry with another, fresh, idea for resolving their problem. Subjecting this revised inquiry--a kind of 'combinatory thought'--to further eliminative strategies, Mongolians may perceive the need for innovation, which is the focus of this article.

Divination is not a matter of chance

Why, in moments of great uncertainty, do people use divination to address their problems? At first glance, divination appears to be a mystical practice guided by intuition and the will to predict and control one's circumstances. Inasmuch as divination is influenced by these factors, it is curious that anthropological works implicitly assume that divinatory techniques are left to 'chance' (even if people interpret divinatory results in non-random ways; cf. …

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