|Mouse Oracle (Gbekre)
Inside this receptacle, a device composed of sticks records the movements of mice as signs that reveal insights into matters of importance. Mouse
divination is probably of Guro origin and is one of several divination techniques used in Baule society; it is practiced in eastern and central Côte d'Ivoire
by Agni-speaking peoples, which include the Guro and Yaure. Regional oral traditions recount that in the distant past mice could speak. At that time they
lived in the forest with the earth spirits (asye usu) until a spiritual specialist carried them into the village to be kept in captivity. Their natural proximity to
the earth's surface and their ability to burrow beneath it permit mice to gain intimate access to the omniscient asye usu and the ancestors, thus enabling
them to foretell events.
Specialists spend several years mastering this divination technique. Their training emphasizes properly compensating the divinities and oracle for the
enlightenment they provide, to ensure that they will remain favorably disposed. It also includes practical lessons on preparing medications and instruction
in interpreting a vocabulary of visual signs. On becoming initiated into the secrets of the profession, the diviner is provided with his own mouse oracle
(gbekre) and may establish an independent practice.
The physical apparatus of the gbekre is contained within a terracotta vessel inside a hollow wooden cylinder. A shelf divides the vessel into two distinct
chambers, which are connected by a hole. The mice are placed in the lower chamber and pass through the hole into the upper chamber, in which the
diviner has placed ten small sticks (originally, birds' or bats' bones were used). The small sticks, called gbekre nyma (literally, "eyes of the mice"), are
coated with flour and attached at one end with fiber to the shell of an earth turtle. The actions of the mice in the upper chamber change the positions of
the sticks, creating a new configuration that constitutes the sign to be translated by the diviner. Such reliance on interpreting actions of animals perceived
to be innately endowed with insight into human experience is comparable to divination systems elsewhere, most notably spider divination in Cameroon.
Each morning and night, the diviner invokes the gbekre, asking if it is satisfied and posing questions that concern him and questions concerning family
members and clients. In preparation for a consultation, the mice are made to fast and placed in the lower chamber. The person who is consulting the
oracle places a forefinger on the container's upper rim, invokes the gbekre, and asks it the questions he or she would like answered. The diviner stands
next to the client and accompanies each question by striking the oracle, an action that attracts the protective deity's attention and galvanizes the mice.
They feed on the flour that coats the sticks, rearranging them through their movements. The diviner explains the significance of the new configuration of
the sticks according to fixed interpretations established over time for various patterns, such as "open path, favorable augury," "the consultant will receive
a visit," "sickness," "death of a woman in the village," "successful labor," "unfavorable sign for a projected marriage," and "death of an individual in
While functional Baule mouse oracles may be extremely rudimentary, their exterior surfaces are rarely physically damaged or worn and thus provide an
ideal format for decorative enhancement. Such works frequently feature animal imagery, masks, or human heads carved lightly in relief; very occasionally,
they are accompanied by figural statues carved entirely in the round and connected at the back or pubis.
Source: Metropolitan Museum of Art
|I currently do not have a mouse oracle in my collection, but have
provided a fine example below for reference.
|Mouse Oracle (Gbekre)
Baule, Côte d'Ivoire
Wood, terracotta, leather, beads, metal, cord;
H. 26 cm (10 1/4 in.)
Marceau Rivière Collection, Paris
|This mouse oracle was first analyzed in 1935 by Carl Kjersmeier. Its overall design is that of a plain, lidded container
resting on a base that takes the form of a Baule woman's circular stool. A single male figure holds on to the upper
edge and stands with his feet balanced on the ledge that encircles the bottom of the container. The harmonious
design of the body emphasizes a succession of rounded forms: elegant head, strong torso, buttocks, and calves. The
finely carved details of the figure's features contrast sharply with the vessel's lack of surface articulation. These
include the elegantly textured coiffure, and cicatrization markings on the temples and neck, enhanced by beaded
strands around the neck and hips. In its position attendant upon this oracular device designed to reveal knowledge,
the figure appears to be either its muse or a suppliant.
Metropolital Museum of Art