“Stability and universality are complementary. They seem all the more significant since games are largely dependent upon the cultures in which they are practiced. They affect their preferences, prolong their customs, and reflect their beliefs. In antiquity, hopscotch was a labyrinth in which one pushed a stone–i.e. the soul–toward the exit. With Christianity, the design became elongated and simplified, reproducing the layout of a basilica. The problem in moving the stone became to help the soul attain heaven, paradise, halo, or glory, coinciding with the high altar of the church, and schematically represented on the ground by a series of rectangles”
Roger Caillois (2001 ) Man, Play and Games, p. 82.
Two objects from Magical Consciousness, the current exhibition at the Arnolfini caught my eye a few years ago, one a modern artwork by Ula Dajerling Amnesia and Oscillation 2009, the other an Aztec mirror made from obsidian, AD 1325-1521. Each is an example of, or reference to, a simple yet powerful technology of divination. From the exhibition guide:
Every year in Poland on the last day before advent (Andrzejki or St Andrews Day) a traditional divining custom of pouring hot wax into cold water takes place. The abstract wax shapes that solidify in the water are used to tell people’s fortunes for the coming year. The formless black mass is used as a device for creating images of the future, yet can be interpreted differently in different contexts: a bird appearing the wax could be considered as a crow (portend of doom) or alternatively as a dove (messenger of peace).
Obsidian is a naturally occurring black, volcanic glass found in the highland areas of Mesoamerica, traditionally used in the manufacture of cutting tools. For the Aztecs, obsidian took on a much more auspicious function and they believed the highly reflective polished surface of obsidian enabled them to look into the future. Also referred to as the ‘smoking mirror’, Aztec priests would gaze into the obsidian and wait for a cloud of smoke to appear. Once the smoke had parted, the mirror would reveal an image detailing the future […] Also known as the god of the obsidian, [the warrior god] Tezacatlipoca is often portrayed in the guise of a sorceror with an obsidian mirror attached to both his head and foot, and an obsidian blade strapped to his body.
“… technology and magic are inextricably linked […] magic consists of a symbolic commentary on technical strategies”
Gell 1998, 8