History of the I Ching Oracle

Co-author Terry Hurley
Coins and hexagrams for I Ching divination

The I Ching oracle is an ancient Chinese system of divination. It is printed in book form and translated into English is called I Ching: The Book of Changes. The I Ching serves as both an oracle and a book of Taoist wisdom that can provide guidance daily or in special circumstances.

I Ching: The Book of Changes

The I Ching (pronounced ee-ching) is believed to be one of the oldest books of divination in the world, extending back over 5,000 years. Since its discovery, it has been interpreted hundreds if not thousands of times. It is attributed to Emperor Fu Hsi of the Yin Dynasty who, after studying the patterns on the shell of a tortoise, came to an understanding of how everything in the world is structured, including reality itself. This is one of the many legends about the history of I Ching, although its true history may never really be known.

I Ching's Origin Legend

According to the legend, Emperor Fu Hsi originated the I Ching while taking a walk on the banks of the Yellow River. During the walk, he witnessed a dragon coming out of the water. On the dragon's back were the signs of the eight trigrams, also known as the pa-kua. The Emperor believed seeing the dragon was a miracle meant to give him contact with the eight trigrams. The eight trigrams are the basis of the I Ching and its divination system.

Multiple Influences and Additions to the Oracle

During the centuries that followed, King Wen, founder of the Chou Dynasty and Prince of Chou, made significant contributions to the I Ching regarding the 64 hexagrams, judgements, titles, and line texts. Confucius added the Appendix, Comments, and The Ten Wings.

The Divination Symbols of the I Ching Oracle

The patterns on the hexagrams are composed of a series of six lines. Each line is either solid or broken. The hexagram is further broken down into two trigrams. One of the trigrams is made of the top three lines of the hexagram and the other trigram is made of the bottom three lines. These trigrams are the same as the symbols found on a feng shui bagua.

Hexagram Lines Represent Yin and Yang

The lines represent the feminine and masculine energies of yin and yang. The solid lines on the hexagram represent masculine energy, the yang. The broken lines represent feminine energy, the yin. When the combination of yin and yang is in perfect balance, they are polarized opposites. Perfectly complementing one another, they create balance in the energy forces of the universe.

Sixty-Four I Ching Essays Correspond to Each Hexagram

Each of the 64 short essays of the I Ching corresponds to one of the 64 hexagram patterns. Each pattern also corresponds to a life situation and the way the situation will progress over time.

Using the I Ching Oracle

People throughout history used the I Ching as a way of divining the future. In early times, a seeker would ask the oracle a question and throw down three yarrow sticks. The pattern the sticks formed coincided to one of the hexagrams of the I Ching. Based on the corresponding essay, the seeker found the answer to their question as predicted by the oracle.

Bronze Coins Replace Yarrow Sticks

Over time, three similar bronze coins replaced the three yarrow sticks. The coins have one side designated as yin and the other side as yang. Tossing the coins, rather than the sticks, produced a more random result. The result of the coin toss determines which type of line is placed on the hexagram. To find the answer to a question, the seeker tosses the coins six times. Each time the result of the toss is recorded as either a broken or a solid line. Beginning with the first toss, the result is recorded as the bottom line of the hexagram. With each toss of the coins, the corresponding line is recorded on the next line above. Once all six lines are recorded, the resulting hexagram is matched to the corresponding essay in the I Ching, and the seeker has the answer to the question.

Additional Methods of Divination Using the I Ching Oracle

In addition to tossing three coins or three yarrow sticks, there are also other methods -both ancient and modern- of using the I Ching as a divination tool. Some of the methods, such as using beads or rice, go back to ancient times while using dice and virtual coins are more modern, such as consulting the oracle online. However one chooses to consult the I Ching, the ancient wisdom remains as prescient today as it did thousands of years ago.

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History of the I Ching Oracle