I Ching: Oracle System or Cosmology?

What is the I Ching actually?

As we discussed in the previous chapter, the origins of the I Ching lie in an oracle practice that utilized oracle bones and later yarrow stalks. Over time, this practical application gradually evolved into a systematically documented system. Alongside the questions themselves, the oracle priests recorded additional key data on the oracle bones. They described the resulting cracks, derived predictions, and retrospectively verified their accuracy. This development transformed the combinatorial oracle practice into a combinatorial oracle system.

Is the I Ching an Oracle or a Cosmology?

In fact, the term cosmology encompasses an interdisciplinary field that incorporates insights from physics, astronomy, mathematics, philosophy, and other sciences. Its objective is to expand our understanding of the universe. Physics, for example, explores the origin, structure, and evolution of the universe, including galaxies and stars, while also investigating the possibility of life. Philosophical inquiries delve into the existence and purpose of the universe and individual entities, questioning the existence of a creator or higher order, as well as the role and place of humans within this cosmic framework.

The I Ching is Both: an Oracle AND a Cosmology

In this sense, the I Ching can indeed be understood (also) as a cosmology. It is based on a philosophy that explains the world, its emergence and its transience as an interplay of Yin and Yang, being and non-being. Behind the polar duality of Yin and Yang lies a unified primordial principle from which all changes arise, yet it remains unchanged itself: the Dao.

Lama Anagarika Govinda aptly summarizes this fact in his work: The Inner Structure of the I Ching

What Type of Oracle is the I Ching?

Before we address the aforementioned question, let us briefly examine the distinctions and similarities between Wahrsagen (divination) and Weissagen (prophecy). These terms, to the best of my knowledge, are differentiated in the German language but may be used interchangeably in other languages.

Both terms, Wahrsagen (divination) and Weissagen (prophecy), refer to practices involving the transmission of information whose origin lies outside of human everyday consciousness or scientific knowledge. Setting aside personal philosophical or scientific beliefs, we can neutrally describe the origin of the transmitted information as coming “from a higher instance” or “from a higher perspective” or even “from the unconscious/preconscious”.

Despite this similarity, there are differences between Wahrsagen (divination) and Weissagen (prophecy):

  • Weissagung (prophecy) tends to be more general in content, often occurring spontaneously and requiring mediumistic or clairvoyant abilities. It is primarily transpersonal, extending beyond the personal level of the questioner/intermediary/medium and worldly events.
    Examples of Weissagung (prophecy) include biblical prophecies or the predictions of Nostradamus.
  • Wahrsagung (divination) on the other hand, always responds to a specific personal question, which limits the scope of the response in terms of time, space, or individuals involved. Throughout history, various divination methods have emerged: guided visualization, pendulums, card reading, lead casting, and astrology.

The challenge in divination techniques lies in interpreting the signs obtained “by chance” within the framework of the chosen methodology.

  • Binary systems, like tossing coins (“heads or tails”), are relatively straightforward as they require no further interpretation.
  • Combinatorial systems, such as Tarot cards, assign individual meanings to each card, which must also be interpreted in relation to the surrounding cards.
  • A third category consists of systematized (objectifying) combinatorial systems, such as astrology. These systems rely on a framework that establishes the relationships between individual elements according to a fixed set of rules. In astrology, for instance, these elements include the signs of the zodiac, planetary constellations, and houses. The underlying set of rules enables the rational understanding of the “random“ initial situation, such as the time of birth in astrology, while still allowing for interpretation. This flexibility ensures that systematic conclusions can be applied to to the questioner‘s individual situation.
Binary SystemsCombinatorial SystemsSystematized Combinatorial Systems
ExampleTossing coinsTarot cardsAstrology, I Ching
Path to finding the answerQuestion
→ Random result
→ Answer
→ Random result plus interpretation
→ Answer
→ Random result plus fixed set of rules plus interpretation
→ Answer
Comparison of different methods of divination

The I Ching as a Systematized Combinatorial (Divination) System

The I Ching, like astrology, is a systematized combinatorial (divination) system that operates based on rules while also incorporating an element of chance. It provides a structured framework for obtaining answers, allowing for individual interpretation and adaption of the general response to the specific situation and the cultural background of the questioner. However, the depth of insight obtained from the I Ching largely relies on the quality of interpretation and the intuitive abilities of the interpreter.


“Wahrsagen.” 2023. In Wikipedia. https://de.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wahrsagen.
“Synchronizität.” 2023. In Wikipedia. https://de.wikipedia.org/wiki/Synchronizit%C3%A4t.
Hertzer, Dominique. 1996. Das Mawangdui-Yijing. Text Und Deutung. München: Diederichs.

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