Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Monograph #2 Vico Giambattista

The Age of gods and the Language

As Vico pointed out, the language is an important source to examine certain ages. He says in his book “New Science(1744)” that “In harmony with these three kinds of nature and government- the age of gods, the age of heroes, and the age of men, three kinds of language were spoken which compose the vocabulary of this Science.” It means to say that three kinds of nature and government had their own language that reflects the characteristic of each age. Then he has also stated the characteristics of the languages of three ages that; the age of gods- That of the time of the families when gentile men were newly received into humanity. This, we shall find, was a mute language of signs and physical objects having natural relations to the ideas they wished to express. The age of heroes- That spoken by means of heroic emblems, or similitudes, comparisons, images, metaphors, and natural descriptions, which make up the great body of the heroic language which was spoken at the time the heroes reigned. The age of men- Human language using words agreed upon by the people, a language of which they are absolute lords, and which is proper to the popular commonwealths and monarchical states.” In order to carefully examine the theory of Vico, I think that it is really helpful us to look into the characteristics of languages used during each ages.

So I would like to discuss about the Inscription on bones and tortoise carapaces, or Oracle bone, the language or scripts, which was prevalent during ancient time of China which we may call the age of gods. It will clearly show us how the language is related to the each age, and how it reflects the characteristics of “the age of gods” which are proposed by Vico.

Oracle bones (Chinese: 甲骨; pinyin: jiǎgǔ) are pieces of bone or turtle plastron (that is, the underside of the shell, not the harder, thicker shell on top) bearing the answers to divination chiefly during the late Shang Dynasty. They were heated and cracked, then typically inscribed using a bronze pin in what is known as oracle bone script. The oracle bones are the earliest known significantcorpus of ancient Chinese writing, and contain important historical information such as the complete royal genealogy of the Shāng dynasty. These records confirmed the existence of the Shāng dynasty, which some scholars, until then, had doubted ever existed.

The vast majority of the inscribed oracle bones date to the last 230 or so years of the Shāng dynasty; oracle bones have been reliably dated to the fourth and subsequent reigns of the kings who ruled at Yīn (modern Ānyáng)—from king Wǔ Dīng (武丁) to Dì Xīn (帝辛). However, the dating of these bones varies from ca. the 14th -11th centuries BCE to ca. 1200-1050 BCE because the end date of the Shāng dynasty is not a matter of consensus. The largest number date to the reign of king Wǔ Dīng. Very few oracle bones date to the beginning of the subsequent Zhōu Dynasty.

In this Shang Dynasty oracle bone (which is incomplete), a diviner asks the Shang king if there would be misfortune over the next ten days; the king replied that he had consulted the ancestor Xiaojia in a worship ceremony.

The oracle bones are mostly tortoise plastrons (ventral or belly shells, probably female) and ox scapulae (shoulder blades), although some are the carapace (dorsal or back shells) of tortoises, and a few are ox rib bones, scapulae of sheep, boars, horses and deer, and some other animal bones. The skulls of deer, ox skulls and human skulls have also been found with inscriptions on them, although these are very rare, and appear to have been inscribed for record-keeping or practice rather than for actual divination]; in one case inscribed deer antlers are reported, but Keightley (1978) reports that they are fake. Neolithic diviners in China had long been heating the bones of deer, sheep, pigs and cattle for similar purposes; evidence for this in Liáoníng has been found dating to the late fourth millennium BCE. However, over time, the use of ox bones increased, and use of tortoise shells does not appear until early Shāng culture.

Since divination (-mancy) was by heat or fire (pyro-) and most often on plastrons or scapulae, the terms pyromancy, plastromancy and scapulimancy are often used for this process. Divinations were typically carried out for the Shāng kings, in the presence of a diviner. A very few oracle bones were used in divination by other members of the royal family or nobles close to the king. By the latest periods, the Shāng kings took over the role of diviner personally.

During a divination session, the shell or bone was anointed with blood , and in an inscription section called the 'preface', the date was recorded using the Heavenly Stems and Earthly Branches, and the diviner name was noted. Next, the topic of divination (called the 'charge') was posed, such as whether a particular ancestor was causing a king's toothache. The divination charges were often directed at ancestors, whom the ancient Chinese revered and worshiped, as well as natural powers and Dì (帝), the highest god in the Shāng society. A wide variety of topics were asked, essentially anything of concern to the royal house of Shāng, from illness, birth and death, to weather, warfare, agriculture, tribute and so on. One of the most common topics was whether performing rituals in a certain manner would be satisfactory.

An intense heat source was then inserted in a pit until it cracked. Due to the shape of the pit, the front side of the bone cracked in a rough 卜 shape. The character 卜 (pinyin: bǔ or pǔ; Old Chinese: *puk; "to divine") may be a pictogram of such a crack; the reading of the character may also be an onomatopoeia for the cracking. A number of cracks were typically made in one session, sometimes on more than one bone, and these were typically numbered. The diviner in charge of the ceremony read the cracks to learn the answer to the divination. How exactly the cracks were interpreted is not known. The topic of divination was raised multiple times, and often in different ways, such as in the negative, or by changing the date being divined about. One oracle bone might be used for one session, or for many, and one session could be recorded on a number of bones. The divined answer was sometimes then marked either "auspicious" or "inauspicious," and the king occasionally added a “prognostication”, his reading on the nature of the omen. On very rare occasions, the actual outcome was later added to the bone in what is known as a “verification”. A complete record of all the above elements is rare; most bones contain just the date, diviner and topic of divination, and many remained uninscribed after the divination.

As we see, the ancient language of China, which we can consider as the age of gods, is clearly reflecting the age of gods.

The age of gods is defined by Vico that “The age of the gods, in which the gentiles believed they lived under divine governments, and everything was commanded them by auspices and oracles, which are the oldest things in profane history.”(Vico, 1744) The Oracle bone, or Inscription on the on bones and tortoise carapaces was used by people at the time to augur what will happen to them and to ask wills of god. Its usage was to communicate with god. This fact proves Vico’s thought that I have stated above. The characteristics and usage of the language is clearly reflecting aspects of the age of gods proposed by Vico.

The language implies its time. It corresponds with the time. Vico’s try to analyze the each age with languages was great and Historically reliable. Although I disagree with most of his theory, I admire his way and means of approach to analyze the certain period of History.


The Inscription on bones and tortoise carapaces, July 8, 2009 Retrieved from

Vico Giambattista (1744). New Science New York: Ithaca

Oracle Bone, July 8, 2009 Retrieved from

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