Divination by chicken bones



Damrong Tayanin (Kàm Ràw)

I am a Kammu, and I was born in 1938 in a traditional mountain village in the northern part of the Lao People's Democratic Republic. In my youth I was trained to be a shaman by an uncle of mine, and I have also received training to collect and use medical plants by my uncle Torm. In 1972 I left my home village and went to stay with my brother-in-law 40 kilometers outside of Huay Sai. Just a few weeks later I met Dr. Kristina Lindell, a Swedish linguist and folklorist, in Chieng Khong in Thailand. She invited me to come and work in the Scandinavian Institute of Asian Studies field station in Lampang. There I began my new life's work of recording Kammu folklore and traditions.

In 1974 I went to Sweden with Dr. Lindell. There I also started to work with several other researchers on a long series of Kammu projects where we have endeavoured to document and preserve as much as possible of traditional Kammu culture.

We have interviewed and co-operated with hundreds of Kammu men and women living in Thailand, China, and after the end of the war in the United States and France, where many Kammu live as refugees. It is, however, only during the last few years that we have been allowed to work in villages in Laos, where the ancient religious rituals and traditions of the Kammu are remembered by elderly people. Working with them we have learnt that they no longer teach their children the rituals.

The ceremonies, rites and rituals have never been written down by the Kammu, since it is a language which has no script. So, not only the performance but also the significance and the deeper meaning of the various ceremonies and rites are now being forgotten. Even the rather simple rituals such as divination may soon belong to history.

I have often taken part in such a ritual, and its significance and purpose is described below. A somewhat shorter version was printed in Gun Lauritzson (ed.): Cooperation East and West Continued; ten years with Lund Universtity Programme for East and Southeast Asian Studies. This volume was sent out as a presentation to research centra all over the world but was never for sale.

Using chicken bones to predict our future

We Kammu believe in fate, and hope that fortune is to come. But no one can see his own fate nor know his future. We can, however, use the chicken bones to divine what lies in store for us. This is done by sacrificing a cock or a hen and using the thigh-bones to find out our good or bad future, or good or bad luck.

There are various ceremonies, some for the ill, others for those who are about to start the certain work in the fields, and there are special ceremonies for unhappy as well as for happy occasions.

Divination follows the sacrifice of the bird and is considered a minor ritual. Not only the shaman, a priest-doctor, but any elder or knowledgeable person can perform a divination by chicken bones; providing they are able to interpret the result and understand what measures should be taken.

If the diviner predicts bad luck, we must listen and try to find the ways to protect ourselves.

How to divine by the chicken bones?

We ask the spirits what is going to happen in the future by counting the holes in the thigh-bones of the sacrificed chicken. We look closely at the shaft of each bone to locate the holes. The holes reveal good luck or bad luck, this depends on the type of ceremony performed and what we wish for. Small, thin bamboo sticks are used to show where the holes are and how they slant.

Ceremonial occasions

  1. When we are going to burn the fields we sacrifice a hen to feed the spirits of the area. We then ask the spirits about good and bad fortune, if the rice will grow well or not and if the people may live well in the coming year. This ceremony is done in April.

    We know by reading the signs of the hen bones if we are going to be healthy or not and if it will be a good harvest or a poor one.

  2. When we call upon the rice to grow well and want to drive away the spirits of waste, we sacrifice a black hen to feed the rice souls. The black hen means that the fields will be covered with rice, "black with rice" we say, so that we are unable to see the ground. This ceremony is done in June.

  3. We make similar sacrifices when we call upon the rain to fall or want to drive away the insect spirits.

  4. When we start to use the new rice, we sacrifice a brown hen to feed the rice souls. We want to know if our new rice is going to last for a short or long period. This ceremony is done in December.

  5. When we are going to travel we ask the village spirits and the house spirits, whether we travel safely or not, and whether we will have good luck on our journey. We find out from reading the signs not only of the bones but also of the feet and tongue of the sacrifice hen.

  6. When we want to welcome someone we respect and love we sacrifice a hen before performing a ceremony in which we read the signs in the bones, feet and tongue of the offering.

Below seven of the many possible configurations are explained.

Chicken bone divination

The birds right bone belongs to "us", that is to say the person who perfoms the divination and his group. The left bone belongs to "others", that is to say to spirits, illness, unhappiness, and to other people or to good things, such as happiness, health and wealth.

When the right bone indicates good, it means that we will have good fortune and be lucky, but if the right side bone indicates bad, it means that we may meet with poor fortune and bad luck.

If there are more sticks pointing to the upper end of the bone than to the lower end, it means that our head is stronger than our feet. In this case we are going to have good ideas, our mind is strong and we are able to overcome all difficulties. Thus this is a very good sign for us.

If there are more sticks pointing to the lower end of the bone than to the upper end, it means that our feet are stronger than our head. In this case we will have no ideas, our mind is weak and we are unable to overcome our difficulties. We are probably going to lack rice and other kinds of food which means we must find sustenance in other villages.

Thus this is, of course, a most unfortunate sign for us.

How to protect oneself against bad luck and illness?

When bad luck and fortune are predicted we must try to protect ourselves, otherwise we cannot work in our fields because someone in the family may fall ill or die.

When we read the chicken bones, we must thus note which end of the bone is the upper end and which is the lower. As has been said, upper end means "head", lower end means "feet".

In the following pictures, all the bones are placed with the "head" upwards. Which bone is the left one and which is the right one must also be into account. If the diviner does not know all the signs, he can never find the right answers to the questions.

Divining with chicken bones is just one fascinating aspect of Kammu culture, a dying and almost forgotten society.

Traditional explanations of what the chicken bones tell us

In this illustration, as there is only one hole in each bone there is also one stick on the right bone and one on the left. Since both sticks are pointing towards the upper ends, we can see that we are strong in our heads. Both sticks are also standing almost upright, this is a good sign both for the ego and the others (spirits, bad luck and illness).

Our minds are thus very good and strong, we have a good ability and we master all difficulties. We are working with our strong minds, and are healthy and live happily in this period.

On the other hand our feet do not work so much, we are to spend most of our time at home, and there is not to be any travelling in the nearest future. This means that we have got enough food, rice and money at home. We need not go to buy necessary things from other villages, and that means good fortune and good period.

This configuration means only good for us, and we may live in peace with our enemies, not be hunted by spirits or any kind of illness.

In this illustration we see two sticks on each bone, the sticks point to both towards the upper and the lower ends of the bones. The two sticks which point to the upper ends are slanting heavily in relation to the bones, a sign of weakness. Our head and our mind are therefore weaker than our feet. When our head is weaker than our feet, we have to use our feet more than our head which means that there is not enough food and rice so that we have to go and buy it from other villages. We are not able to overcome the difficulties in the period to come. People may fall ill more frequently so that both our enemies and the spirits are able to overcome us. If people often fall ill, they are unable to work in the fields. This is the reason why there will be a lack of rice and food, so that we have to travel to look for it. We know this because the sticks pointing to the upper ends are leaning, while those which point downwards stand almost upright. We call this particular configuration "strong feet and weak head". Standing sticks indicate strength, leaning ones weakness.

In this picture the sticks on th right bone, "our" bone, are standing slightly more upright than those on the bone of the "other's". So despite the fact that we are not very strong, we are yet stronger than our enemies, illness and spirits, and this is good.

Here we see three sticks on the bones, two on the left one and one on the right. Only one stick is pointing to the upper ends, and two of them are pointing to the lower ends, a prediction of headaches. It tells us that our heads are weak but our feet are strong. Sickness, bad spirits and problems may overcome us.

All three sticks are slanting so we will be quite weak during this period and sometimes suffer from slight headaches. Only one stick is pointing upwards. We can therefore see that our minds are weak and once again, we are in for an unsuccessful, sad and sorrowful period. We cannot overcome this weak condition as our minds do not function well.

There are two sticks on the left bone and only one on the right one, "our" bone. This is very negative for us, but very good for the other side, and bad situations are to encounter us, and we can easily be defeated in everything we do.

That there is only one stick on the right bone indicates that we are weaker than others, and we are therefore unsuccessful in all our undertakings. This is not a good configuration for us at all, but very good for our opponents.

Five sticks have been used in this case, three of them are pointing towards the upper ends, and two are pointing downwards. Five sticks is most uncommon, and it means that something strange and very unusual is going to happen to us in the near future. Sometimes it may be positive and mean that there will be an abundance of rice, for instance, or that we have luck in catching a large animal to eat. On the other hand it could be a negative sign and mean that someone in the family falls seriously ill. Whatever it is, it is unusual enough to warrant a big feast or ceremony in the family house.

Since the signs mean that strange things are going to happen to us, we must be extremely careful. Especially because the chicken bone prediction can mean either good or bad. There could, for instance, be a big argument if we are not sufficiently careful.

If we get a good harvest or if one of our traps catches a large animal, the whole village celebrates it with a big feast in our common-house. On the other hand, if someone falls ill, we must slaughter a water-buffalo in order to have a suitable ceremony for our ancestors, otherwise the sick person could die. Whatever the case, there will be a big feast with many visitors in our house.

Both our mind and our feet are strong according to the result of this divination. Nothing can overcome us, because our strength is supported by the many people who come to our help if need be. The stick in the middle of the right bone indicates helpers.

If there are three sticks on the right bone this is a good sign for us, but if there are three sticks on the left bone, the sickness or spirits will come to us. The three sticks on the right bone in this illustration means that we are stronger than our opponents and we would be able to master all our problems.

There are four sticks in this illustration, two are pointing upwards and two downwards. On the right bone the sticks are standing upright, which means that "our" side is stronger than our opponents. We are stronger than others, and we may solve every kind of problem. We will be healthy, have a good fortune and get a good harvest, we may even earn more money. Good things, happness and peace are coming towards our direction during this period.

This illustration shows three sticks on the bones. There is one stick pointing to the upper end of both bones and on the right bone one stick is pointing to the lower end, this indicates that we are stronger than others. In fact, because "our" bone has two sticks and the "other's" bone only has a single stick, the prediction tells us that we are stronger than sickness, spirits and other problems.

It all means that good things are going to happen to us, and we are able to get everything we wish. Both people and domestic animals are able to live well and have a pleasant life. Our rice grows well and covers the fields, and our traps will catch many large animals in this coming period.

In this picture there is just one stick on each bone and both of them are pointing down, the opposite to the sticks in the first illustration, and the prediction is, of course, also the opposite. When signs like these show us that bad fortune or bad luck is coming, we must prepare a new ceremony. This may protect us from the evil and unpleasant experiences looming ahead. We can expect evil spirits, illness, sadness or problems to appeare to us during this period.

If we do not protect ourselves now, we will probably be unable to work in our fields as someone in the family probably falls ill or dies. Our head is weak here and the strength is in our feet. As we are suffering a shortage of rice and food, we have to look for food in other villages. The constellation here is most unlucky and speaks of serious difficulties ahead. We call this particular configuration "headache". Strong feet and weak head.

For more information on security measures for traps see
  • Tayanin D and Lindell K: Hunting and Fishing in a Kammu Village, Studies on Asian Topics No. 14, Curzon Press (1991), p. 24-28.,
    and for regulations for ceremonious wine drinking see
  • Tayanin D: Being Kammu, My Village and My Life, Southeast Asia Program Series No. 14. Cornell University (1994), p. 30-31.

  • All illustrations by Kàm Ràw

    Copyright 2000-06
    Damrong Tayanin (Damrong.Tayanin@ling.lu.se)

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