Absent Fathers and Missing Camels: Notes on Sudanese Sand Divination

Mali geomancer

(A geomancer or sand diviner from Mali traces geomantic figures in a prepared bed of sand)

A few days ago a member of a Geomancy study group that I am a part of on Facebook posted some interesting links to 19th century material that mentions geomancy. Many of the links this person posted included accounts of geomantic procedures that European colonial explorers like Sir Richard Burton had observed during their travels through parts of Africa. One of the links was a little different however: it was a facsimile of Voyage au Darfour (Journey to Darfur), the 1845 translation into French of a travelogue written in Arabic by Sheikh Mohammed Ibn Omar El-Tounsy (Al-Tunisi), who served as chief reviewer of translations of medical texts translated from European languages into Arabic at the School of Medicine in Cairo. This particular source thus jumped out at me, not only for its content but because rather than yet another white colonist’s account of native culture, it represented the reflections of a colonized non-white foreigner observing cultural practices that were both different from and cognate with his own.

Journey to Darfur was translated by Dr Nicholas Perron, the Cairo School of Medicine’s director and a member of the Antiquities and Egyptian Society of Paris. Mohammed the son of Omar (1789-1857) was called ‘the Tunisian’ for the very reasonable reason that he was born and raised in Tunisia. Raised in a wealthy merchant family, when he was sixteen, Mohammed moved to Cairo to seek out his father who had been absent for some time. As part of this search and his broader curiosity, Mohammed visited the then independent Muslim Sultanate of Darfur, and ended up living in and around the region for some eight or more years. Al-Tunisi is supposed to have given Dr Perron Arabic lessons after he returned from Darfur to Cairo, in which city the Sheikh eventually died. Perron encouraged Al-Tunisi/Tounsy to write down a record of his travels in the Sultanate, and Mohammed obliged, penning a large volume in Arabic brimming with observations and experiences. Among a great deal of other topics the book includes a section about geomancers in Darfur.

Some readers of this blog might already be familiar with geomancy, but for those who aren’t a brief summary may be in order. Today, ‘geomancy’ is often used in English and other romance languages to refer to practices resembling Chinese Feng Shui, that is, to the study and auspicious manipulation of energetic flows in one’s home, environment or the larger natural landscape – and to such popular New Age topics as ‘earth mysteries’, ‘fairy roads’, sacred geometry and ley lines. Despite the pervasiveness of this usage, the geomancy I am talking about here has next to nothing to do with these things. In this case, geomancy or ‘divination by earth’ refers to an ancient system of divination of likely Arabic origin. In addition to percolating throughout Africa, Arabic geomantic knowledge then found its way into Europe through the translation of Arabic treatises into Latin, and geomancy became perhaps the go-to divinatory procedure for literate scholars of occult philosophy throughout the Middle Ages and Renaissance. Centuries before Tarot ever enjoyed currency as a popular form of divination, people from all walks of life consulted with geomancers, many of whom practiced geomancy alongside their work as doctors, philosophers, astrologers and sorcerers. The fact that today mentioning the word geomancy in the United States or Europe is more likely to generate either blank stares or conversations about Feng Shui than any discussion of this thoroughly cosmopolitan complex divination system, is testament to the extent that geomancy was abandoned and ignored as a comprehensive traditional field of learning by even many occultists in Europe by the late 19th century.

So what is it? At its heart, geomancy revolves around a set of sixteen domino-like geomantic figures, each comprised of four stacked horizontal rows of either single or double points. In order to consult the oracle to receive answers and insights for queries, the geomancer, with or without the help of a client, can turn to a potentially infinite array of procedures for randomly generating an either odd or even number of points, which then accumulate to produce one or more of the sixteen figures. Each of these has  traditional names and associations (‘Puella’ the Girl; ‘Carcer’ the Prison; ‘Laetitia’, Joy, for example), which the geomancer draws on to produce tailored interpretations and predictions. In European geomancy, through the fall of dice, counting of beans, or points marked randomly with a pen on paper, a stick in sand or dirt, or with a stylus in a layer of wax, the geomancer produces an initial set of four ‘Mother’ figures, who then through a standard mathematical procedure then give birth to Four Daughters. These four offspring then produce four Nieces, which then combine to make what is known as ‘the Court’, a set of three figures (the Right and Left Witnesses and Judge), which directly provide a verdict on the issue in question. Other figures can be generated and interpreted to provide a full interpretation through reading this array of figures which is often called the ‘Shield Chart’. Over the centuries, geomancy mixed with hororary astrology, and so the initial twelve figures are then also often inserted into a twelve-part astrological style ‘House Chart’ and then read according to their relationships of ‘perfection’ ‘aspect’ and so on, as one might read planets in an astrological chart.

geomantic figures.jpg

One of the most unique features of geomancy compared to regular astrology or most systems of divination by cards, however, is the fact that one or more of the sixteen divinatory figures of geomancy can repeat and exist in more than one location in a chart. When one lays out a deck of Tarot cards in a pre-determined pattern or ‘spread’, it is not possible to have repeating cards – the 2 of Swords is only ever in one position at one time in a layout. Geomancy’s allowance/requirement that figures repeat thus lends geomancy a special, layered quality not often seen in other oracles. Geomancy is practiced today throughout India, the Middle East and Africa, and while European styles differ somewhat from forms of geomancy in other parts of the world, they share at their base a common core (geomantic systems outside of Europe are most often found in Muslim contexts although not exclusively. In my last post, I cited an article by Nigerian scholar Amidu Sanni, who notes that while geomancy is widely practiced among Muslim Yoruba Nigerians, it enjoys a sometimes ambiguous status since, perhaps ironically, many Nigerian Muslims deem it less thoroughly Islamic and orthodox than rosary divination. It is possible that this fact has more to do with how geomantic operations have become folding into other indigenous practices of traditional healing and spirit-work in the Yoruba context more than any scholarly uncertainty about geomancy’s Arab origins. A kind of geomancy is also practiced in Madagascar under the name sikidy – see here for example, for an online ethnographic database of sikidy diviner notebooks collected by French fieldworkersDutch anthropologist-turned-diviner Wim van Binsbergen also offers an excellent analysis of the relationship between various geomantic systems and Southern African wooden tile divination and more familiar forms of African/Arabic geomancy here)

In his text, Mohammed ibn Omar provides striking anecdotal material about geomantic consultations, which despite its relative brevity, offers insight into the kinds of everyday social dynamics and concerns that go along with what both the Tunisian and his Darfurian colleagues refer to as ilm al-ramml or ‘the science of sand’.  As Mohammed describes, geomancy in Sudan (and across most of Africa) is typically performed in the Arabic fashion, by ‘cutting’ or ‘striking’ dry sand, that is drawing on its service, to generate points and subsequently figures. Al-Tunisi provides a brief run-down of the sixteen figures, their associations and the procedures for deriving them. Perron’s translation has been translated into English but the version available to read on Google books refrains from translating the bulk of the information Al-Tunisi gives on the subject. A more recent and comprehensive translation of Mohammed’s text is a massive, academic text not available for public perusal so I have done a very quick translation of the nine or so pages of Perron’s French translation of Al-Tunisi’s discussion for readers. The Tunisian’s account should be of interest to readers who may not care too much about the specifics of sand divination too – for one thing it provides even in excerpt some interesting insights into the prevalence of large-scale slavery in the region in the 19th century, a topic which I delved into a little in this earlier review I shared of anthropologist Susan Kenyon’s wonderful book about zar spirit possession and histories of slavery in Central Sudan.

I myself am a poor geomancer and am only beginning to develop my skills in this fascinating art but I thought that readers would enjoy having access to Al-Tunisi’s account in English. Geomancy is experiencing something of a revival of late, in large part due to the efforts of scholar-practitioners who through their work of translation, historical analysis and personal experimentation are facilitating new levels of access to primary sources and insights. One of the most prominent of such scholar-practitioners is Dr Alexander Cummins, who regularly lectures on and provides practical instruction in geomancy and also performs geomantic divinations for clients. For those interested, Al will be speaking about geomancy in New Orleans on February 17th 2018, and he will also be giving an interview on the subject on Astrid Haszprunarova’s Spiritual Alchemy podcast next week. Al has also done an enormous service to those interested in not simply forgetting centuries of rich occult material by making available electronic versions of the work of early modern European geomancers. Excellent resources and reflections on practical geomantic divination and magic can also be found on the blog of the founder of the aforementioned Facebook Geomancy study group Sam Block, the Digital Ambler. John Michael Greer’s works on geomancy have become some of the most popular handbooks for learning the art today and Stephen Skinner’s various texts are also highly valuable.

So here then is my translation of Perron’s translation. Right at the end in a lengthy footnote the Frenchman provides some extra explication he received orally from Al-Tounsy about the process for generating figures. In what should come as a surprise to no one, Perron cannot resist slipping in some snarky and sufficiently colonial parting shots about the credulity of his teacher and colleague, and about superstition and modernity at the end. He still records Al-Tunisi’s successful prediction though, so it feels like the lady might be protesting too much, but at any rate I hope that you will enjoy this translation!


“Tell me,” Salem said to me, “do you want to come with me to consult with my son-in-law Ishac? We will have him ‘strike the sand’ (i.e. perform a geomantic divination) and he will tell us what he finds out.”
“Gladly,” I responded, and we left.

We arrived at Ishac’s in the morning; he was working in his fields. Upon his return, he welcomed us with kindness and supplied us with food. After the meal, Salem said to his son-in-law, “My dear Ishac, this sharif (a Muslim leader, with claim to the genealogy of the Prophet) has come specifically so that you will strike the sand for him.” “I am wholly at his service,” Ishac replied, and he set himself to work, after which he made his predictions. Initially I did not believe in them, but I swear to God, everything that he predicted for me came to pass to the letter, as he had read it in his tables of fate, there was not a single word spoken that was not fulfilled. Here is what he told me:

“You will depart soon,” he told me, “for Ouaday, with all those who make up your household, with the exception of your father’s wife: that woman will remain in Darfur.” “And how would you have it that she won’t follow me? She’s the one most interested in leaving. Wat you’re telling me here is impossible.” But God willed it that Ishac’s words be true. My father’s wife refused to be part of the trip, she succeeded in tricking us, and the night before our departure she disappeared, leaving with us her daughter of about seven years. In the morning we searched for that woman, but nobody could tell us where she was. We left without her and we never learned what became of her.
Ishac told me further:

“The very same day that you arrive at your father’s residence in Ouaday, you will receive a young slave of such and such a manner. You will not find your father in Ouaday; you will only see him again in Tunis. The house of your father has red walls since it has been stained with moughrah (*a kind of red stone that, easily crumbled, is reduced to a very fine powder and which is used for colour-washing, and even for ink, by mixing it with gum). In Ouaday, you will have as your steed an prize-winning horse of excellent stride. The Sultan of Ouaday will shower you with gifts and generosity.” All of this was verified word for word.

While we were at Ishac’s home, several women who seemed like they were arguing came to request that he strike the sand for them, and to tell them where some items were that had been stolen from them, and who had stolen them. Ishac struck the sand. “The lost items,” he told the women, “are some red kharaz strung on a thread. They were hidden on the ritadj (a wooden sleeper) above the door of such-and-such house.” But Ishac didn’t want to say which of the women was the one who had misappropriated the kharaz and had hidden them. We went to the door that was indicated and we found the red kharaz on the beam.

Ishac was truly extraordinary in his divinations.

Here is a fact that was told to me by my uncle Ahmed Zarouc:

While my father (upon whom was the shadow of clouds of mercy and divine beneficence!) was with the troops of the Ouadayen sultan Mohammed Saboun, in his expedition against the Dar Tamah, he lost a camel of about eight years, and which had all its teeth. The camel had gone completely astray. My father sent his slaves and servants to search; people ran around everywhere and for a long time but without success. My father no longer had any hope of recovering his camel. Now, there was among those who had followed the campaign a ‘sand diviner’. Someone got it into their head to say to this diviner, “You who knows how to strike the sand, could you not divine whether Omar’s camel will be recovered or not?” Our sorcerer struck the sand and began to say: “The camel is here, very nearby: go, you will come upon it in the neighbouring camel caravans.” My father’s slaves returned to their quest and they found the camel kneeling in flock just a little way off. They lifted it up and lead it back to my father.


(Lost? I’ve never felt more in touch with myself and my passions in my whole life!)

A sharif of Ouaday recounted to me that an ulema also very versed in the ‘s

cience of sand’ was once having a discussion with a so-called geomancer (‘sander’) who was taking it upon himself to be one of the most skilled diviners. “I,” this man said, “I’ve pulled from the sand the good fortune of such-and-such kings, of such-and-such provincial governors, and I’ve made for them this and that prediction.” “Very well!” one of the assistants said all of a sudden, “Strike the sand, and let’s see what you can declare for me.” The diviner needed no more coaxing. He traced his figures on the sand, but he gave trifling auguries. The ulema, surprised at the vagueness of the predictions of his colleague, examined the figures still visible on the sand, and said to the one who had provoked the experiment: “I declare to you that the sultan will give you a gift of sixty slaves.” And the prediction came to pass.

I will finish this chapter with some general teachings on the way to go about performing divinations through sand. I will indicate briefly the figures that are traced, their names, and their favourable or sinister or variable meanings.

The types of figures are sixteen in number:

The first is tariq, or the way/path and is traced like this [VIA]. It declares the success of trips and the happy return of those who are absent and waited for. It declares as well the death of those who are sick, for it signifies that they are taking the path to the tomb.

The second figure is called al-djemaah, the reunion, of which the figure is [POPULUS]. It is a favourable omen, except for illnesses, for it announces in this case that friends are going to be reunited to assist with the (funerary) convoy.

The third is lakkyan, the bearded, the jaw. Here is the figure for it [LAETITIA]. It is always a favourable omen.

The fourth is nekys or the reversed, the upside down and it’s traced like this [TRISTITIA]. It is always a sinister augury, except for pregnant women; it declares this and assures the arrival of a son.

The fifth is idjtima, the union, the meeting, and it is traced thus [CONJUNCTIO]. It is a happy or fortunate omen for every enterprise, except for the return of money.

The sixth, ocleh, the leg trip-up, is represented by [CARCER]. It announces misfortune, except for women who want to know if they are pregnant, it signifies their being with child.

The seventh is al alabah el dakhilah, the inner threshold, and it has this tracing [CAPUT DRACONIS]. This figure is a favourable omen. Those who obtain it on the first or second khatt (tracing) see all their worries vanish instantly. If they are waiting with impatience and anxiety for the arrival of someone absent, this absent person will not delay their coming for very long. If they are vexed or in discomfort, they will soon find themselves at ease.

The eight, al atabah el kharidjah, the outer threshold, is traced like [CAUDA DRACONIS]. It is a sign of calamity. It predicts death from an illness, embarrassment, delay in one’s affairs, vexations and divorce.

The ninth, el cabdh el dakhil, the ‘sealable bag’, with the tracing [ACQUISITIO], and announces happiness as much as misfortune. In this way it promises the recovery of money, the defeat of an enemy, but it declares as well death from an illness, and pronounces prison for those who are cited before a judge.

The tenth el cabdh el kharidj, the sack (tipped) outwards, has this tracing [AMISSIO]. It indicates the impossibility of taking up again that which has evaded you, the flight of slaves, the loss of escaped slaves, but it announces too the deliverance of those who are in prison, an upcoming departure on a trip, a transfer to another place.

The eleventh is called el bayadh, whiteness, and has this tracing [ALBUS]. This figure is a happy augury, except for sicknesses, since it announces the shroud.

The twelfth, el homrah, redness, the red, has this tracing [RUBEUS] and signifies effusion of blood, the fall of a sick person into the tomb, but, for a pregnant woman, it assures the arrival of a boy, it declares as well that red clothes will come to you, just as al bayadh promises you white clothes.

The thirteenth, gaudeleh, the solid, presents this tracing [PUELLA* these figures seem to be reversed in the text]. It is a happy auspice, it promises joy and contentment, it announces to a pregnant woman the birth of a daughter and assures her that all will succeed according to her will.

The fourteenth, naky el khadd, the clean cheek, without hair, is a sinister omen. And here is how it is traced [PUER*]. It announces a young man, an unknown enemy, the prolonging of time in prison, upcoming death from an illness.

The fifteenth, el nousrah el dakhilah, victory coming in, has this tracing [FORTUNA MAJOR]. It foretells victory, success, achievement in an enterprise, recovery from an illness, deliverance of a prisoner, and a pregnant woman.

The sixteenth, finally, el nousrah el kharidjah, victory going out, has the following tracing [FORTUNA MINOR]. It promises success and benefits, except in war, in this latter case it declares rout and complete defeat.

Now let us see how to proceed in the operation of khatt (tracing on the sand) or dharb el raml (‘hitting of the sand’* the art of striking the sand). One begins by spreading out on the ground a bed of well-cleaned sand free of sediment, then one marks above, with the middle finger, four lines of points or depressions, such as these, for example:

** ** ** **
* ** ** **
** ** **
* ** **
But one has to mark them going left to right, randomly and without counting. Next, one makes one’s finger pass alternately on each line by jumping across the depressions two by two, which is to say, over the second, fourth, sixth, etc., from right to left, erasing the depression touched except for the last, which ought never to be erased even if one’s finger ends up on it. In the event that it does, there remain at the end of the line two depressions side by side, in the opposite case, only one remains. After that one proceeds like this along the four ‘primitive’ lines, and one marks individually and always to the left of the four lines that which remains at the end of the first line, underneath that, that which remains at the end of the second, underneath that, that which remains at the end of the third, and at the base, that which remains in the last line. One obtains through that one of the sixteen figures that we have indicated.

If one does not have sand through which to perform the divinatory manoeuvres we have just described, one uses beans or chickpeas etc. One takes a handful of these grains randomly, arranges them in four lines in the same way as the four initial lines of points struck or traced in the sand, and two by two one takes out a bean according to the same procedure that through which one erases the second and fourth depressions in the sand etc. We take note of how many beans are left at the end of each row, so that one single or two beans remain. In a word, the process is the same as that used for the points imprinted on the sand.

As for the rest – the generation of various figures, their breakdown and secondary composition whether through sand, or further through the use of letters of the alphabet, the links that these magical games have with the influence of the stars, their results and consequences which follow from divinatory inductions, all of this is detailed in the treatises on the ‘Science of Sand’. I will not dwell further on this subject. What I have just revealed is enough for you to perceive the givens and degree of certainty of this science, and to introduce some idea of what those who are curious can get out of this kind of fortune-telling consultation. And God knows what truth there is in it.

[*This explanation, far too abridged, was completed verbally by the sheykh in the following manner.

When, by following the procedure that we have just indicated, one has derived, through the uniting together of the points which remain at the end of each line, the figure which results from these remainders, one starts again on four new lines of depressions traced just like the first ones, randomly and without counting. One derives, through the same procedure, a second figure that one places, by extracting it, to the left of the first one. From a third collection of four lines of points or depressions also traced at random on the sand, one pulls out again a third figure that one places as well to the left of the second. Finally, from a fourth series of four lines of depressions, one obtains, still in the same manner, a fourth figure, that one places in turn to the left of the third figure. It is only for the placing of these four lines that one traces randomly for each new operation and that one goes from left to right.

By operating in succession on four collections of four original lines of depressions one gets four figures each of which must necessarily represent one of the sixteen figures spoken of by the shaykh. These four figures, written as we have just said, one beside the other, are then submitted to a new procedure. Suppose the four figures are the following:


geomancy pic

One first extracts two other figures, 5 and 6, in this way: one compares the four initial figures, two by two and line by line, then with respect to the difference between them, one writes under the figures that one compares the smallest number of points presented by either one of the two that one compares. Thus, one takes the point of the top of our two initial figures – as they each only have one point, one marks one point in the place under ‘5’. One then take the tops of figures 3 and 4 and one traces the smallest number of points of these two top lines, which is written under ‘6’. One then passes to the second line of points from the four initial figures, and since the first two of these figures each have two points as their second line and the lowest of these two is two, one draws two points horizontally under the first point that is already under 5. In the two figures 3 and 4, since each of these only has a single point in their second line, we place one point under the one already under 6. One then moves to the third point of the four original figures 1, 2, 3, and 4, and since, like the first and second these each have two points and one always takes the lowest of these points, one must thus place under the first three points of figure 5 two points side by side. Through the same process, one has a single point to place beneath the two which are already placed under 6. Finally, one acts on the last line of points from the four figures, and in the same way as we have just indicated, and we have as the last derivation from the first two figures a single point which we place under the five points which are positioned under 5. And for the two figures 3 and 4, their line at the bottom gives us two points, which we place under the three points already presented under 6.

We have thus derived two new figures, 5 and 6. From these we derive a latter figure through the same process that we followed to obtain figures 5 and 6. In the case imagined here, the latter figure ends up being figure 7, which is to say the first of the sixteen, or taricah. It is this final figure which gives itself over to divinatory interpretation.

When the shaykh was explaining the process of deriving figures of dharb el raml to me, Shaykh Aly el Adaouy, one of the reviewers of translation at the School of Medicine, came into my home. This Shaykh, threatened with the prospect of being stripped of his job, was coming to me to beg me to intercede for him with the ministers of public instruction. He saw on a piece of several figures the Shaykh El-Tounsy had derived. Aly el Adaouy asked us what these various groups of points meant and we told him. “These are figures of divination.” “Ah, very well!” the shaykh replied, take a look then and tell me what will happen to me, inform me whether or not I will keep my position at the School of Medicine.” “Here you have several figures,” said Shaykh El-Tounsy, “Pronounce the name of God. Recite the Fatah (the first surah of the Quran) and then place your finger on one of them.” The Shaykh Aly el Adaouy followed the prescription and put his finger on one of the figures. It was that of idjtima, the fifth [CONJUNCTIO]. And immediately Shaykh El-Tounsy declared to his colleague the success of my interventions. The following day, I went to the minister. Shaykh Aly el Adaouy had already been wiped from the faculty of the School. I talked to the minister. Two days after that, we learned that the Shaykh had been returned to his position. We have laughed a lot at the prophetic power of diviners. But my Shaykh, despite all his intelligence, has great faith in divinatory science. For the rest, it has not been very long since this credulity ceased in Europe, where although we are more advanced than in the Orient by two centuries, it has still only been extinguished in part.