A 13th Century Machine For Seeing The Future

“Chance favors the prepared mind.” -Louis Pasteur

That’s a great quote, one of my favorites. And it’s a crucial philosophy for anybody who has to be creative in what they do, which I believe is pretty much everybody. If this isn’t your first time around here, you’ll know Grailrunner’s key driver is inspiration for innovative ideas. Mainly we’re into science fiction and recently, tabletop gaming, but dropping idea-bombs like the one today is gasoline for us.

You never know when you’re going to be able to draw a connection between ideas and make something wonderful happen in what you’re doing, so it’s best to file away all sorts of gems as you come across them and do everything you can to understand what made that idea work, what made it fascinating and useful to whoever dreamed it up.

Which brings us to mysterious brass machine crafted around 1241 AD, marvelously decorated with inlaid silver and gold, emblazoned in gorgeous Arabic script, and stored in the British Museum’s Oriental Antiquities Department:

“I am the possessor of eloquence and the silent speaker,

and through my speech [arise] desires and fears.

The judicious one hides his secret thoughts, but I disclose them,

just as if hearts were created as my parts.

I am the revealer of secrets; in me are marvels

of wisdom and strange and hidden things.

But I have spread out the surface of my face out of humility,

and have prepared it as a substitute for earth.”

-Naskh script inlaid in silver on the Geomantic Tablet

Let’s get this out of the way now, and don’t say it to offend anybody who feels otherwise, but there’s no reason at all to believe that patterns or movements in the stars, random dots in sand, or how birds move around brings any insight into the evolution of future events. There’s no known medium or physical law that would fuel something like the supposed axiom fortune tellers often lean on: “As above, so below”.

That doesn’t make it less fascinating to me though, how people throughout the millennia have given it every effort elaborately and exhaustively. And somehow, whether in hexagrams flipping through The I Ching or the dots in the sand of geomancy or other avenues, we find insights into ourselves and human dynamics in the intricate connections, metaphors, rules, and manipulations of fortune telling machinery.

If you find this sort of thing interesting, download this 2003 study by Emilie Savage-Smith and Marion B. Smith updating their earlier work on the same device. They’ve really done some exhaustive and illuminating work, fleshing out what this amazing machine was built for, how it was used, how it’s constructed, and the Islamic divination background from which it came. This is available for free in a few places on the internet, but I’m including it here so it doesn’t get lost.

What is this machine called? Most references to this device call it the ‘geomantic tablet’.

Who built it? A craftsman named Muhammed ibn Khutlukh al-Mawsili in 1241 – 1242 (he signed and dated it).

What was it for? This device is a unique machine for conducting geomancy divinations without the use of sand or dirt. Someone wishing to know the outcome of a future event could manipulate four sliders and a number of dials and then, following geomantic principles, get detailed insights into what was likely to happen.

But what’s geomancy? Geomancy is a divination technique usually involving poking random numbers of dots in sand or dirt in 16 rows while concentrating on a question for which the seeker wishes to know. Since the mind is supposed to be absorbed in the question and the mood, it’s important for them to be unaware of how many dots they’re making. Geomantic rules outline how the seeker would count the number of dots in each row and form four standard figures (called “the Mothers”). From those, rules explain how to form four more standard figures (called “the Daughters”), then more manipulations to further derive two more generations of figures and ultimately a final resulting figure.

Does geomancy work? The figures have names and a host of connections that flavor the oracle being provided, which is (to me) where the actual magic happens. Our minds find patterns everywhere; it’s literally how they’re built and how they reform themselves. Complicated jiggery like this makes it seem like science, but in my mind these manipulations and connections draw out our ability to see events and circumstances differently by throwing random noise into the problem solving process. We seize onto bits of noise that seem relevant, our rational processes jump out of the rut we’ve found ourselves in trying to resolve the issue, and we focus instead on puzzling out how this other new bit is related. In doing so, we may have found an answer that our paradigm and assumptions were preventing us from seeing before. So an oracle has spoken.

How did this machine work? The authors do a really nice job of piecing that together, actually. Those four curved sliders in the top-right corner each bear all the standard geomantic figures on them in a non-standard sequence. It’s likely the user would concentrate on their question and randomly pull the slider out to some position without looking, then look at the bottom-most figure visible in the window to see which figure was to be placed as the first “Mother”. And so on till the first four figures were found.

The dials also all held all the standard figures (each one being identical), so they’re just basically registers for the user to display the relevant figure as they use the “Mothers” and the geomantic rules to know which one to turn to. Inscriptions around each knob name and explain the figures.

Each figure is housed in ‘houses’ and brings all the requisite connections to flavor the oracle (The House Of Fathers And Mothers, of Offspring And Children, of Illness And Disease, of Women and Sexual Matters, etc). The elaborate starburst knob at the bottom, with its arcing display window, is for gaining deeper understanding into the result by linking that figure to not only its adjacent figure but to states of the moon (setting, rising, etc), and omens (mixed, tending towards good, increasing good fortune, etc).

Interesting, but how does this help me? Well, back to the point I made at the beginning…or at least Louis Pasteur’s point. There’s something to be said here about problem solving and the idea-creating process, about fascinating lore and beliefs from the 13th century, and maybe all manners of stories to tell about mysterious divination machines and the intrigue that could result. In our Salt Mystic line, there is an enigmatic calculus done with the manipulation of figures that is in many ways based on what geomancy purports to be, though the emphasis is on repeating patterns in human behavior along the lines of Asimov’s psychohistory.

What can you you do with all this? Maybe nothing now, but check out the hard work the Smiths put in here, and file it away. You never know when something might be needed.

So prepare your mind.

Till next time.

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