Baule Diviners Oracle Pot "Gbekre-se"

  • Tribe: Baule
  • Origin: Ivory Coast
  • Approx Age: Mid 20th Century
  • Materials: Wood, String, brass studs
  • Dimensions cm: 17 x 17
  • Ref. Number: 0938

An old and traditional styled Baule diviners oracle pot from Ivory Coast.  A beautiful and extremely used pot, up close, this pot has been carved with real skill and beauty, it does have an old and  large crack down the one side of the pot but it is  very stable. It still has the metal plate on the base it to cover the hole to keep the mouse in once caught. A stunning tribally / ritually used item.

Provenance: The Inventory and Collection from the Estate of Merton D. Simpson.

These mouse oracle pots are known as “gbekre-se” translation (mouse oracle) “gbekre” on its own (mouse). In modern day understanding the word “gbekre” is more commonly understood  with reference to the Baule monkey, which is very wrong!! The Baule monkey is called “aboya or mbotumbo” not gbekre.

Mouse Oracle (Gbekre-se)

Baule Diviner
Photo found from Bruno Claessens book: Baule Monkeys, a very interesting read!!

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.

Guro mouse oracle

Specialists spend several years mastering this divination technique. Their training emphasises properly compensating the divinities and oracle for the enlightenment they provide, to ensure that they will remain favourably 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.

Baule Mouse Oracle Pot

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 fibre 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.

Baule Mouse Oracle Pot

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, favourable augury,” “the consultant will receive a visit,” “sickness,” “death of a woman in the village,” “successful labour,” “unfavourable sign for a projected marriage,” and “death of an individual in another village.”

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