History of the I Ching

Excerpted and adapted from the book Divination: Sacred Tools for Reading the Mind of God by Paul O’Brien

The I Ching is the oldest of all the classical divination systems. It is also one of the oldest books in the world. Its first interpretive text was composed around 1000 B.C. The I Ching’s actual discovery and much of its early history are the stuff of legends.

There are a number of myths surrounding the origins of the eight trigrams and the development of the I Ching divination system. In one tale, Fu Hsi, the first emperor of China (2852–2737 B.C.), is said to have observed a turtle emerging from the Yellow River. Knowing that true wisdom came from the direct and close observation of nature, he had a sudden realization of the significance of eight symbols he saw on the turtle’s back. He saw how the sets of three solid or broken lines, the trigrams, reflected the movement of energy in life on Earth.

A similar myth describes Fu Hsi’s contemplation of other patterns in nature, including animals, plants, meteorological phenomena, and even his own body. These myths describe how he identified the trigrams that arose from his understanding of the connection of all things, through the interplay of yin and yang.

There is evidence of early Chinese divination where tortoise shells were heated over a flame until they cracked, with the emerging patterns (presumably trigrams) being read. In some cases the shells were marked with their interpretations and stored for reference, and I have had the privilege of seeing a few of them preserved at the National Museum in Taiwan, China. Fu Hsi was the mythical First Emperor of China. He is reputed to be the inventor of writing, fish-ing and trapping, as well as the discoverer of the I Ching trigrams on the back of a turtle. He lived around 3000 B.C.

Another version also involving tortoise shells describes descendants of the “many Fu”—an ancient clan of female diviners—who read the shells of live turtles. According to the legend, they became the queens and royalty of the Shang Dynasty—which had been considered mythical until archeological evidence proving its existence was unearthed in 1899. Some say Lao Tzu, the enlightened forefather of Taoism and the author of the Tao Te Ching, was a descendent of this clan.

The Taoist/Confucian tradition posits that juxtaposing a set of the possible permutations of yin and yang with the elements of Chinese creation mythology produced the foundation of the I Ching. Pairing up the various combinations of yin (the literal ancient meaning of which is the shady north side of the hill) and yang (meaning the sunny south side of the hill) gives you four primary symbols. With the addition of another yin or yang line, the eight trigrams emerge.

The earliest composition of I Ching interpretations is attributed to King Wen. Toward the end of the Shang Dynasty, when the unjust emperor Zhou Wang imprisoned Wen, he reportedly used his confinement to meditate on the trigrams, pairing them up to produce sixty-four possible hexagrams. Each pair of trigrams took on a meaning specific to their combination. In what we might assume was an enlightened state of mind, King Wen assigned each of the sixty-four hexagrams a name, adding a few sentences to explain its meaning. It is said that his son, King Wu, added additional interpretative text, bringing the I Ching closer to its current form.

Confucius, who came a few hundred years later, was possibly the I Ching’s greatest patron, taking the interpretative texts to the next level with the addition of his extensive commentaries. Confucius was primarily interested in the I Ching as a manual for how to live a life of the highest virtue, as opposed to its usefulness as a divination system. According to his Analects (VII, xvi), Confucius, who lived to be an old man, is reputed to have said, “If some years were added to my life, I would devote fifty of them to the study of the oracle, and might then avoid committing great errors.”

Historical evidence substantiates the theory that the Book of Changes and its sixty-four hexagrams were part of an ancient oral tradition that predates recorded history in China. The basics of the I Ching text—the names of the hexagrams and their judgments—were likely composed in the eighth century B.C. However, the practice of using the hexagrams to refer to specific interpretations probably didn’t occur until the fifth century B.C. Between 475 and 221 B.C. (known as the Warring States period), the I Ching texts were consolidated into a book to make it easier to consult and share with others during that time of extreme upheaval. Shortly after, the I Ching was spared in the Ch’in Dynasty’s massive book burning because it was considered one of the five “Great Classics.”

The Book of Changes was canonized and studied intently by scholars during the Han Dynasty of 202 B.C.– A.D. 220. Between the third century B.C. and the turn of the millennium, significant additions, known as the ‘Wings’, were written regarding the individual lines in the hexagrams, and the meaning of the trigrams. These commentaries are generally attributed to Confucius, who lived around 500 B.C. More work was done, and the I Ching we use today is not substantially different from the 168 B.C. version. The main difference is that the hexagrams appear in a different order. The order in use today was first proposed around 100 B.C., but was not the standard until the third century A.D. Throughout what we know of Chinese history, the rulers of China, as well as the general public, used the I Ching as best they could before printing was available. It is woven into the fabric of this ancient culture and its influence has been fundamental to the Eastern world-view as a whole. It has only been in the last 150 years or so that Western culture was even exposed to basic Taoist concepts—such as German and English translations of the I Ching and Tao Te Ching. Carl Jung’s explanation of the I Ching’s psychological validity and value, and the widespread open-mindedness about all things spiritual during the 1960s, made using the I Ching a common experience in the Western world.

Nowadays, the most common method for casting the I Ching involves tossing three coins six times to create the six-line pattern, or hexagram. A traditional technique for deriving a hexagram, dating from about 500 B.C., involves a fairly complicated process of selecting and sorting fifty sticks, usually yarrow stalks. The best yarrow stalks for this were the ones that grew on Confucius’ grave, but the supply was limited! After the coins or stalks are tossed and sorted out, one looks up the interpretation in the sacred book.

A Short History of Divination

Excerpted and adapted from the book Divination: Sacred Tools for Reading the Mind of God by Paul O’Brien

Human beings have always looked for the answers to life’s great mysteries. Why are we here? Who controls our destiny? How does life work? What does the future hold? There is archeological evidence that a need to know and deep spiritual seeking are universal human traits, and that some form of divination has been used since the earliest times, to support this quest.

Many cultures, including Chinese, Mayan, Mesopotamian and Indian, looked upwards to heavenly bodies— stars, planets, constellations, eclipses, and comets—not only to tell time and understand the seasons, but also for signs of portent or to decipher changes attributable to divine action. Others paid special attention to terrestrial omens such as animal migrations and weather patterns, as well as patterns of tossed sticks, bones, amulets, or rocks. African tribes have used bones in divination rituals for hundreds of thousands of years.

Chinese Taoists read patterns on tortoise shells, which evolved into the hexagrams of the I Ching. Vikings consulted the runestones. Ancient Roman shamans observed the entrails of slaughtered animals and grains that hens pecked at and formed messages (alectryomancy).

Other cultures have looked to inner space (such as the Australian aborigines with their dreamtime), or have used entheogenic plants for vision quests (such as the Mazatec Indians of Mexico who use Salvia divinorum for spiritual rituals and divination). There are also numerous passages in the Old Testament documenting Jahweh’s instructions for using a sacred set of dice called Urim and Thummim to make decisions in His name.

Even though various forms of divination have been used in all societies, the widespread use of sophisticated divination systems across all classes of people is a recent development. The spread of divination systems had depended on oral transmission, which in preliterate times was largely the exclusive domain of the rulers, chieftains, official soothsayers, priests, sages, prophets and shamans. Although belief in magic was practically universal up to and through the Middle Ages, including primitive divinatory practices of folk magic, knowledge of divination systems and what Tarot scholar Bob O’Neill calls learned magic, could not spread until the invention of printing.

The Chinese invented paper more than two thousand years ago, and by 1045 a printer named Bi Sheng had created the first primitive moveable type, which served to increase the production of reading material. His method was used to reproduce the oldest book of wisdom—the I Ching, which is also the world’s oldest and most venerated divination system. Johann Gutenberg’s invention of the Western printing press in the 1450s gave rise to printing of books in Europe, and the reproduction of card decks, including Tarot cards.

As literacy increased, more translations of ancient texts were made and knowledge of divination systems was able to spread over time. Today people around the world can experiment with all kinds of divination systems, including those from other cultures. There are five systems in particular that are rooted in history and are widely used throughout the world today: Astrology, Numerology, I Ching, Tarot and Runes. Because they have stood the test of time and each of them incorporates a sufficiently complex and balanced set of archetypes, I refer to these five as the world’s classical divination systems.

Given the distances the world’s classical divination systems have had to travel—through time and space—not to mention the intense persecution their practitioners endured in Western society for hundreds of years—it is a miracle that they are still with us. Even though divination systems arise from the collective unconscious, totalitarian governments and fundamentalist religions seem to consider the profound insights that divination can stimulate as some vague threat to a social order based on wealth, status and power. In their fearfulness, proponents of the status quo fail to realize that higher aspirations never threaten lower ones.

Authentic divination systems passed down by our ancestors are a special heritage. From a practical point of view, their ability to provide fresh perspective on the changes of our lives and world is to our collective advantage. They help us satisfy a primordial need to better understand life and our place in the Universe. Their usefulness has allowed Astrology, Numerology, the I Ching, Runes and Tarot not only to survive, but also to thrive in the face of all odds.