A quick and lively survey of the many faces of luck through history and language. An entertaining and surprisingly informative and wide-ranging look at divination, gambling, fortune as sacred and profane. Thoughtful and well worth a read. Mainly deals with dice games and geomancy but touches on a range of other divination and gambling systems, interesting discussion of wagering and the 'policy / numbers game".
Pennick begins with a philosophical introduction to the ideas of luck, chance and randomness, free will and predetermination, fate and destiny, to lay a surprisingly solid and sophisticated foundation to his discussion. Bringing to bear the idea of liminality, the in-between place where chance operates, where nothing is yet decided, and cautioning the reader that all divination systems, like all systems of thought, carry within them biases and gaps in understanding.
Then he proceeds to a historical exploration of the goddess Fortuna in ancient Rome, discusses her iconography and her many names (with a chart – there are numerous helpful charts and illustrations throughout the book – a helpful feature) styles of her oracles, the use of dice in oracle.
The next chapter deals with geomantic divination with the Table of Ifa (Yoruba) and the I Ching (Chinese) as familiar examples – binary yes/no figures of four lines each producing 16 possible answers. He discusses lesser-known folk magical geomancy using potatoes and other roots in England and provides a helpful table of geomantic figures and meanings as well as a complete discussion of the method of casting and deriving the figures.
Then a thorough discussion of German systems of divination using dice – both two and three dice are used. Here he also talks about the history of suppression by the Christian church and provides another helpful chart of meanings of the various dice toss outcomes.
The next chapter is substantially a detailed discussion of methods of cheating at craps, followed by one on wagering on feats of endurance. Then a discussion of the history of prohibitions on gaming and gambling and the ingenious ways that people got around them – including some popular folk songs and miscellanea.
Pennick’s chapter 8 digs into illegal gambling and its connection to magic – divination being prohibited in the Jewish and Christian religions led to games of chance being desacralized into gambling. A very interesting historical discussion of ‘running the numbers’ / the ‘policy’ gaming in the USA and the rise of hoodoo magical supplies for luck in the numbers. The next chapter digs more deeply into superstition and the gambling life with discussion of talismans, charms, hoodoo, rootwork and a large number of superstitions, briefly discussed.
The final chapter briefly touches on the discovery of randomness in the surrealist and Dada art movements of the twentieth century.
I did not expect to find as much interesting information, from such a wide range of sources, presented as thoughtfully as this. Really, I am pleased to have read this book. Short little book with a good bibliography for follow-up.
~ review by Samuel Wagar
Author: Nigel Pennick
Destiny Books, 2024
134 pg. Paperback £13.40 / $23 Can / $16.99 US