This summer was a lot more writing-filled than I would ever have anticipated, and not just because of the whole Reviewing the Trithemian Conjuration thing, either. (I’ll stop harping on it eventually.) Really, this year was more surprising than not in a lot of ways, and one of the things I ended up getting myself into was, of all possible things, domino fortune-telling. Like…that one really did catch me off-guard, not least because I’m kinda terrible at actually playing the game. What started it all was, back on Curious Cat earlier this year, I was asked about the connections between dominoes and geomancy; since both geomantic figures and dominoes are composed of combinations of points, there’s gotta be a connection there between them, right? Nope! I have never once encountered any connection to dominoes in any geomantic text I’ve ever come across, whether traditional or modern, and I couldn’t think up any connection between them, either. I charted the different dot-patterns and tried to fit the dominoes with geomantic figures, and I just couldn’t come up with anything. They’re just too different to make simple comparisons with, and there’s not a lot else to go on. It just goes to show that just because different things kinda-sorta superficially look the same doesn’t mean that they’re connected at all.
And that’s where I intended to leave dominoes. Except…I didn’t. In fact, I pretty much outright couldn’t. Something snagged my attention hard to dominoes, and so I began researching domino fortune-telling. It might have been a spirit guide or ancestor of mine waiting for just such an opportunity, or it might have been something genuinely instinctive and curious in myself. Either way, this was something that I couldn’t simply drop, and I ended up taking it quite a bit further than was probably reasonable, but whatever.
It started with my recalling an old hand-me-down book from my brother’s neopagan days, Ray Buckland’s 1992 Secrets of Gypsy Fortunetelling, which had a brief section on dominoes. I dug the book out from the back of my dusty shelves, and started there. It seemed straightforward enough: each of the 28 bones of a double-six set of dominoes has a particular set of omens associated with it, along with meanings particular to the suits (the number of pips on either end of a bone) and weights (the total number of pips on a bone). There didn’t seem to be a lot to it, and there wasn’t a lot there to begin with. So, not being satisfied with just one book, I started to see what else was out there. Skip ahead a few months: 50 books later and half as many websites in several European languages, I ended up compiling over 150 pages of notes for the various interpretations of the bones, how they seemed to shift and turn and twist over the decades, what different authors seem to have thought about their own takes, and the like. These notes ended up getting transformed into a book format, which is now at over 200 pages and which will go to print once I finish getting a few other things wrapped up with it.
I should note that domino fortune-telling isn’t that old a practice. The earliest text I can find that describes this system of domino fortune-telling is from 1873, Mehemet Ali’s Oriental Interpretation of Dreams. This text gives a simple one-line interpretation for the 28 bones of a double-six set of dominoes, and these interpretations were later copied, sometimes vertabim from one text to another, sometimes expanded from one whole sentence to one whole paragraph. Now, I’m not ruling out the possibility of domino fortune-telling being in earlier texts or having an earlier origin than the early 1870s, but I have noticed that this type of dream-interpretation/pop-divination book (and there are dozens of examples on both sides of the Atlantic!) doesn’t include sections for dominoes before 1873, but they almost all did after 1873. (Side note: many of these texts include sections on playing card divination, numerology, astrology, and palmistry, but none include anything about geomancy, or at least, none in any reasonable way beyond the simplest of look-up tables, like in the 1884 Napoleon’s Oraculum and Dream Book, and even there, there’s no connection between dominoes and geomancy.) Even if we want to give the origins of domino fortune-telling an earlier date, we just don’t have the evidence to make it too early. After all, dominoes were only introduced into (or invented in, depending on your historical approach) Europe, specifically France and Italy, in the 1700s, reaching England and Germany only in the later part of that century, and spreading from there into the Americas after that. So, if it seems that the art of domino fortune-telling is young, then that’s because it is, because dominoes themselves are young in the West.
An interesting thing I noticed was that, as domino fortune-telling texts came over into the Americas, a particular subset of modern Spanish texts with Caribbean or Latin American origins all seemed to share a common trend not seen in other domino texts: links between dominoes with the orisha, West African deities carried over into the Caribbean and Brazil through the slave trade, with one of the most famous branches of orisha religion being a Cuban one, La Regla de Ocha Lukumí, also known as Santería. Myself being an initiated priest of Ogún in this religion, I was intrigued by this. Sure, dominoes are a huge thing in the Caribbean, and Cubans are known to start outright jihad over the game (sometimes friendly, sometimes not), but to see dominoes prescribing ritual solutions or suggesting things about orisha alongside the traditional interpretations of dominoes caught me off-guard. Sure, it’s not a lot of information along these lines, but it does exist in a handful of texts and sources, so that got me wondering how this mash-up came to be. This led to a separate strain of research alongside the rest of my domino fortune-telling investigations.
Now, bear with me here, dear reader. I know there are a few unknowns here, and I know that I’m still young in Lukumí, so there’s plenty that I don’t know. But something about the mash-up between dominoes and orisha just doesn’t smell right or feel right to me, so let me explain why. If I’m wrong, then I look forward to being educated better on it by those who know better than I do.
The thing about Lukumí (and orisha religion in general) is that, for all its own innovation and adaptations it’s had to undergo in order to survive under oppression and slavery, it’s still a comparatively rigid and closed system; it is in many ways as much an institution and religion as the Roman Catholic Church. After all, the word “regla” indicates “rule”, like the Benedictine Rule for monks in Catholicism, in the sense of there being a defined set of protocols and practices that must be followed in order for something to be considered legitimate within the bounds of orisha religion (or at least a particular type of orisha religion, like Brazilian Candomblé, Yoruba Traditional/Isheshe, Trinidadian Shango Baptist, etc., all of which have slightly different sets of protocols). This is founded on the pacts that we humans in the initiated priesthoods of orisha have made and established with orisha, and which are propagated as part of initiation into these priesthoods: if you’re a priest, you’re held to those pacts, and if you’re not in those pacts, then you’re not a priest. Within these pacts is regla; outside these pacts is…well, not a lot of note, really. To operate outside of these pacts is to operate outside regla, which isn’t looked upon favorably and wherein lies danger. This might sound like gatekeeping, but as an initiated priest myself, it’s literally my job to gatekeep: priests are the ones who maintain these pacts with orisha, and until the day comes when there are no more living priests of the orisha, these pacts will be maintained and must be defended. Orisha worship is a living and vibrant tradition, not something to be reconstructed (like Nordic, Hellenic, or Celtic practices) or approached on a whim based on something neat you read in a book that one time. To work within orisha religion is to initiate, study, train, and follow the practices and customs of your lineage based on the pacts that founded them; unlike other modern pagan or non-Abrahamic practices available in the West, orisha religion isn’t a DIY build-from-the-ground-up practice you can just do as you like with. You don’t have to initiate to worship orisha, but you do have to initiate to “work with” them (which is a turn of phrase that I find increasingly off-putting, but which I think gets my point across here).
Similarly, unlike many forms of popularly-practiced paganism, Lukumí doesn’t lend itself to free-wheeling syncretism due to the importance of maintaining these pacts and regla; you can’t just up and say that Ogún speaks through this particular Tarot card or that Oshún problems are indicated given a particular astrological transit, because neither Tarot nor astrology have any connection to orisha. Yes, there is (limited) syncretism in Lukumí, developed according to a Lukumí-specific logic, and those are valid and legitimate to varying extents depending on who you’re talking to, especially when you factor in an old-world style of Catholic saint devotion a la interpretatio Graeca. But syncretism has its limits, and when it comes to communicating with orisha or discerning their actions and recommendations, there are certain sanctioned forms of divination that are accepted by both orisha and their priests, e.g. dilogún (reading with sixteen cowrie shells), obi (reading with four pieces of coconut meat or kola nut), or Ifá (its own thing). If something isn’t sanctioned, then it’s not regla; if it’s not regla, it’s not legitimate; if it’s not legitimate, it can’t be trusted; if it can’t be trusted, it shouldn’t be used. And, well…dominoes just aren’t sanctioned for orisha-related divination, just like Tarot or runes with orisha.
There are only a small number of websites that talk about “el quenkén”, supposedly the term for (Lukumí-specific) orisha-centric domino reading based on a similar game played in Nigeria (about which I can find nothing). Unlike other topics involving either dominoes or orisha, websites about orisha-centric domino divination are really scarce, which itself suggests that this just isn’t a “thing”. In print, there are only three texts I can find that talk about this topic, the earliest being Luis Manuel Núñez’ 1989 Santeria: A Practical Guide to Afro-Caribbean Magic; the other two texts, Juan Garcia Cortez’ The Osha: Secrets of the Yoruba-Lucumi-Santeria Religion in the United States and Americas and Carlos G. y Poenna’s The Yoruba Domino Oracle, both published in 2000, offer further developments and explanations of orisha-related domino reading, often directly echoing Núñez. All three texts include the same basic information as the non-quenkén traditional domino texts, just with an added orisha flair. That there are only three texts on this topic, all of which are incredibly modern, compared to the dozens of books about obi, dilogún, and Ifá that go back a hundred years or more, gives me even more cause for concern. Further, there’s an interesting trend between these three texts:
- Núñez’ text introduces domino reading by saying that dominoes “are not as respected or trusted as the formal oracles” of obi, dilogún, or Ifá, and many of the domino interpretations include directions to “throw [obi]” to confirm something with a particular orisha or to “go see a Santero or Babalawo” for further investigation and reading with dilogún and Ifá, respectively.
- Cortez’ book, which mixes legitimate practices with illegitimate ones and which includes errors that would only be known to those who are properly initiated, doesn’t include the outright disclaimer that dominoes aren’t as trusted or respected as the sanctioned oracles, but he admits that he “was lucky enough to inherit [this method of reading] from my father’s Santeria book”. This rings odd to me, since Lukumí is primarily an oral tradition where one learns from observation and practice, not books. Moreover, like Núñez, many of these domino interpretations also say to go to a properly-initiated priest for further investigation.
- y Poenna’s book says that reading with dominoes “is an explicit divination system that has been used for many years in the Yoruba tradition” (based on my research and the accounts of my elders, this statement is a total fabrication), but also says that “they are only helpful for people who are leading stable lifestyles” (what of people who have unstable ones and need stability?) and that “they are not usually read when someone is in a huge crisis” (what good of it, then?), and “often refer the querent to additional divinations using” obi, dilogún, or Ifá. It claims that “domino divination has its roots in the various earth-based systems of geomancy” (it isn’t) and that “it is possible that dominoes themselves were originally created as a means of geomantic divination” (they weren’t) but also that the practice “traces its origin to the Yoruba oracle of Ifa” (it doesn’t). Again, many of the bones instruct the reader to go to a “Pardon” or “Pi de Santo” (horrific misspellings of “padrino” and “pai de santo”, respectively, though the latter term is properly Brazilian and not Spanish or Cuban), or to a babalawo.
The evidence from the above texts speaks loudly to me: orisha-centric domino reading is inherently considered to be incomplete due to the necessary reliance on other diviners and other systems of divination and, fundamentally, cannot be trusted as a form of communication with and from orisha like what these texts otherwise claim. There are indeed times when a sanctioned oracle in Lukumí can redirect you to another priest to get more information, but these situations are well-understood and backed up by the logic of these systems; dominoes, however, do not appear to have such sanction, and it seems like it’s an intrusion into orisha religion, or at least Afro-Caribbean orisha religious culture. Domino fortune-telling on its own outside orisha religion has never had such warnings of “go to a card reader” or “do not trust this oracle more than this other older one”, but it’s only within the context of orisha religion that we see such warnings. That’s pretty telling to me that dominoes aren’t sanctioned, aren’t regla, aren’t legitimate, and aren’t trustworthy in the context of orisha-related practices. This isn’t to say that dominoes aren’t useful for divination and fortune-telling (they most certainly are!), or that diviners who also happen to be olorishas can’t use them for divination (they most certainly can!), just that dominoes should not be read in this particular way with these references to orisha, sacrifices, and the like. In other words, domino reading in general is fine, but orisha-centric domino reading is not.
Now, there is the possibility that maybe, just maybe, orisha-centric domino divination was really carried on from older Yoruba sources and used as a form of communication with orisha by some legitimate priests, weird as it may sound to us nowadays. Or, alternatively, it could feasibly have happened that this was an innovation that was invented and adopted by some legitimate priests and considered to be legitimate within their own small communities, just not a wide-spread or well-known one, and that nobody in my lineage and nobody that I’m in contact with can vouch for it due to an absence of knowledge. This kind of thing can and does happen; there are Lukumí lineages in eastern Cuba that do things incredibly differently than in western Cuba, there are legitimate differences in approach and practice between metropolitan and rural practitioners, and those who are unfamiliar with these differences can err out of ignorance and incorrectly say that different practices they’re not aware of must be illegitimate outright, even when they’re actually legitimate. This sort of unfortunate accusation can and does happen, and it can cause harm to many people when it does. So, I’m not 100% ruling out the possibility that maybe, just maybe, dominoes were used by someone in Lukumí-style orisha religion as a means of communication with orisha with good intent. But, doing what I can do to find out as much as I can find, that honestly doesn’t look like that’s the case. Orisha religion (whether in the Caribbean, Latin America, or West Africa) is much older than dominoes, what records exist about orisha-centric domino reading are all super modern, and none of the respected and well-informed elders I can contact are aware of it. While I won’t mistake evidence for proof, what evidence I have doesn’t speak well for this.
It really would be fascinating to use dominoes for communicating with orisha and obtaining their advice, but there’s no real evidence that orisha-centric domino divination is any older than I am, and judging by the accounts of my elders, there seems to be no legitimate history behind the practice. Granted, my elders are only human, but they have 30, 50, or more years in the religion with their own elders, families, and friends; heck, there’s one example saying that orisha-centric domino reading isn’t valid written by a well-known elder priestess of Yemonja all the way back in December 2005. Orisha-centric domino divination really does seem to be no more than an unsanctioned invention in trying to use the gods and sacred advice of one initiation-restricted religion in an open, unrelated practice. After all, Núñez, Cortez, and y Poenna all agree that, unlike reading obi, dilogún, or Ifá, reading dominoes is not restricted to the priesthood, but without training (which only comes about as part of initiating into the priesthood), non-initiates wouldn’t know how to interpret what orisha is properly saying and what to prescribe because of it beyond the little they have written in their books, especially when compared to the encyclopedic amounts of knowledge and lore reached through dilogún or Ifá. I mean, when you’re trying to get religious guidance and advice, you should want an initiated, respectable, trained priest who has the power, authority, license, and expertise to prescribe ritual and religious solutions, and who knows why and when such things should be prescribed.
Let’s be honest, even from a practical standpoint: no non-initiate has any business pulling the 0-3 domino from the boneyard and telling anyone (according to Núñez) that “you need to feed Eleggua a white rooster on Monday and do what Eleggua tells you to do”, especially if they themselves don’t have an Eleggua, have never thrown obi, or have never sacrificed a bird before. On top of the fact that non-initiates have no license or authority to speak on behalf of orisha, there are other things wrong with just saying even that much that non-initiates wouldn’t be aware of, especially without any particular cause or need pointed out in the reading beyond the most vague of indications, which the nature of domino reading doesn’t really get at to the same depth, breadth, or length that dilogún or Ifá would. It’s exactly like if someone whose own spiritual education doesn’t extend any further than a few meet-ups at the local new-age store were to get the Tarot of the Orishas and start doing readings “with orisha” and telling people “Oshún is on the Ace of Cups here in your querent spot in the spread, so Oshún clearly owns your head”. It just doesn’t work like that, because dominoes (with pretty much complete certainty) don’t and can’t speak for orisha, just as Tarot doesn’t and can’t speak for orisha.
If, dear reader, orisha-centric domino reading is indeed a non-sanctioned invention of popular spirituality that takes orisha from its original sanctioned context, as all the evidence I can find suggests it is, then this would be a good example of appropriation.
Now, as I said, it could still be that orisha-centric domino reading was preserved from an earlier Yoruba tradition (incredibly unlikely) or (questionably) invented either by initiates in Lukumí or by those who were not initiated yet adjacent to initiates (and who probably didn’t want to get into the hassle of properly initiating into the religion, as was/is seen with some spiritual workers who did/do prescribe orisha-related things without initiation). Still, it’s possible for people of the same overall culture to appropriate from a subset of that culture when things proper to that subset are not open to others outside it. So, while this isn’t necessarily outright cultural appropriation, it is religious appropriation. And, yes, it is true that Lukumí does grow and evolve and adapt, within particular parameters and following a particular logic, just as any living tradition does—but this just ain’t it, chief. The absolute most that dominoes might be able to indicate along these lines is that something is up with some part of your own private, priestly, or orisha practices and you might want to get that checked out, but that could apply to any sort of spiritual influence around you, not just or simply orisha (and there are many more influences around us than just them at any given moment), nor would it talk at all in the same way with the same authority, legitimacy, and clarity how dilogún or Ifá might actually talk. Dominoes might be able to speak more to (or even for) other spirits you work with, venerate, or worship, especially if they agree to it, but orisha aren’t in that category. This is, in some ways, much like how espiritismo (the Cuban, Puerto Rican, and Caribbean forms of Kardecian Spiritism) interplays with Lukumí: orisha do not and cannot talk in a misa espiritual (basically a séance), but non-orisha spirits associated with them (e.g. deceased priests or culture heroes) can touch on orisha-related things just as they could non-orisha-related things. Still, espiritismo does not and cannot stand in for divinatory or oracular message from orisha, even if some of the mechanisms seem similar, because orisha belong to a closed religion in which espiritismo has no part; the same goes for dominoes. To cross that line is to enter into intrusion into a closed, initiation-locked system and to appropriate from it.
Of course, by my own admission, I don’t think the whole history of the practice of orisha-centric domino reading can be reliably known with such a paucity of sources, and I am still young in the religion as a whole, and thus still learning quite a bit! But, from everything I can see, know, hear, and learn? Bringing something like domino fortune-telling that has no legitimate origin in regla into it (or, rather, taking things out of it for use by non-initiates with already-not-regla domino fortune-telling in the role an initiate would be expected to play within regla) is effectively appropriating and misusing the religion and divination system both. Orisha-centric domino reading does not appear to have a longstanding practice despite (a very few) claims of it being “old”, nor does it have a theological backing to support its use with orisha. And to those who say that it does, I reply: show me the odu in which the dominoes are born and that orisha can speak through them as they would the cowries, and show me your lineage of teachers (not books) who teach this method of divination, because if there is such an odu and if you have such a lineage, I’d love to know about it to properly, happily, and quickly correct my views and this post.
Barring a miraculous discovery of some truly-secret low-key divinatory practice that doesn’t properly fit into Lukumí yet validates what Núñez, Cortez, and y Poena write about the topic—and I honestly don’t think such a revelation is ever going to happen—mixing dominoes with orisha is not something I can support, nor is it something any legitimate initiate or non-initiate can really use in orisha-related or domino-related practices because of the gross disservice it does to the religion and the gross misunderstandings it makes to domino fortune-telling. And, honestly, I really hesitated whether to make known these authors and book titles. I only bring up these texts to indicate the sources I’m talking about, but I emphatically and strongly discourage the reader from reading them, both to protect what legitimate information is contained therein from those who are not initiated (and, likewise, to protect the noninitiate from them), and to prevent the various mistakes in these books from spreading further. However, on top of these books already being published, cat yronwode’s Throwing the Bones: How to Foretell the Future with Bones, Shells, and Nuts encourages readers to check out y Poenna’s book, which I think is irresponsible and dangerous out of ignorance, even if meant helpfully, so I may as well be explicit here about these books to offer some sort of correction in the public record. What’s most troubling is that at least two of the above authors, if not all three, have or at least claim initiation into Lukumí, so I’m not sure where their information is really coming from or what lineages they represent. But, based on the knowledge and accounts of my elders whom I trust, I can’t find anything legitimate or historical about this practice within the context of orisha religion.
Domino fortune-telling is something which I gladly accept, study, encourage, and am myself beginning to practice—it’s just that I should (and will) only do so responsibly outside Lukumí, not within it. There has never been too much information behind it, but I’ve been able to develop a really strong and widespread body of information for each of its symbols, which is fantastic to make it a really helpful and usable system of divination, but it’s just not on the same level as legitimate forms of divination of orisha religion. And that’s okay! It doesn’t have to be, since the focus isn’t for communicating with orisha anyway. I think that’s the best way to go about it, both for myself and for others. So, for my readers who are likewise interested in domino fortune-telling: the core stuff is good and useful, just set aside anything that mixes it with orisha. And, for my readers who are interested in orisha religion: don’t pay attention to anyone who says they’ll do an orisha reading for you with anything less than legitimate methods.