Oracle Bones
Oracle bones were popular tools for divination in ancient
China, during that period of the Shang Dynasty, 1776–1122
B.C.E. Two primary objects were utilized, the bones of a nowextinct
species of tortoise (Pseudocardia anyangensis) and the
shoulder bones of oxen. The tortoise was a sacred animal in
China and appears as a symbol in various divinatory systems including
astrology. It was symbolic of long life and was considered
a guardian of graves. The ox also acquired an array of
symbolic meanings.
Pseudocardia anyangensis was bred in ancient China. The part
utilized for divination was the relatively soft and flat underlayer
called the plastron. It was cleaned, and a number of cavities
were cut into the surface. Questions would then be put to the
plastron. To discover an answer, a heated rod would be pressed
on one of the cavities and in a short time, a crack would appear
on the reverse side of the surface. The crack would then be analyzed
for its suggested portents. The majority of the surviving
examples appear to have been used on behalf of the ruler by
court diviners. Many exist only as fragments, as the process of
divination often caused the plastron to break in two. In the case
of shoulder bones, one end of which is flat, a similar process to
that used on the tortoise plastrons was used. Half of the socket
would be removed along with the longitudinal ridge, leaving a
flat piece of bone with a handle. The first burns would be made
Encyclopedia of Occultism & Parapsychology • 5th Ed. Oracle Bones
1145
on the end of the blade away from the handle. It also appears
that the questions put to the bones would have been asked multiple
times in order to determine the drift of the answers rather
than simply relying on one response.
Archeologists have uncovered extensive collections of oracle
bones of both varieties, in many cases bearing a number indicating
the use of a filing system. At some point, however, after
the fall of the Shang Dynasty, the use of oracle bones gave way
to other popular systems of divination, especially the I Ching.
Sources
Chang, Kwang-Chih. Shang Civilization. New Haven, Conn.
Yale University Press, 1980.
Keightley, David N. Sources of Shang History The Oracle-Bone
Descriptions of Bronze Age China. Berkley, Calif. University of
California Press, 1985.
Temple, Robert K. G. Conversations with Eternity Ancient
Man’s Attempt to Know the Future. London Rider, 1984.

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