I found myself fascinated recently by the concept of oracle bones, so I did a little research and found it so interesting that I couldn’t find it within myself to write a post on anything else.
The concept was not entirely foreign to me. I have had a great deal of exposure to something similar through anime/manga over the years, so the basics we already known to me. However, as is often the case with fictional portrayals, the facts weren’t quite accurate.
I was super relieved to find that they used animal bones, not human (which probably tells you just how out-there and inaccurate the stuff I had been reading was on this subject). The rest of popular anime-oriented myth follows these basics: the bones (human, and often recognizably leg, arm, or rib bones) are chanted over by a dark priest/priestess dressed in traditional flowing robes. The ceremony is elaborate, involves more chanting, occasionally requires the priest or priestess to slice a finger and dribble blood all over the place, and ends with casting the bones into the fire and examining the cracks. There is a milder variation, in which finger bones with symbols carved on them are used instead. This milder version is usually used by benign oracles, who chant over the bones, toss them, and then examine the patterns in which they fall and which symbols are facing up, in addition to which symbols land near each other. The questions addressed by such divination were often outcomes of battles, fates of key individuals, and the future of the world as a whole. I’m sure a lot could be said about what such portrayals say about the Japanese and how they perceive these traditions, but we’ll let that point rest here for the moment.
Let’s take a moment to compare this depiction with what we know to be reality: a divination using tortoise or ox bones, an absence of blood sacrifice, done by priests and later by kings themselves, regarding often arbitrary things like the weather and the harvest. No black magic. No half-demons lurking in the shadows and awaiting the answer. No fate-of-the-world stuff. Bones are done one at a time and may be reused. Chanting may or may not happen, but the questions and their answers are conveniently inscribed in the bones. Compared to the fictional representation, this variation seems to be more about asking the bones rather than asking a deity through the medium of the bones (although this is purely conjecture on my part).
I also found it interesting, during research, to discover that farmers in the 1800’s, upon finding these discarded oracle bones while working their fields, dubbed them “dragon bones” and proceeded to grind them up and use them as medicine. Obviously this didn’t help cure anybody (although a psych study or two might beg to differ). But I found it interesting that people could find a piece of their own history like that, falsely attribute its origin to an otherworldly being, and destroy it for the sake of medicine. I’m sure this is not the first time something like that has happened, over the course of the world and whatnot, but still I find it mind-blowing.