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Friday, February 15, 2013

"Zairgeh: The Egyptian Divining Table"

Sometimes new discoveries are hiding in plain sight.

As my last blog post said, I've been fascinated with the Gambols with the Ghosts catalog for some time, and once I acquired my own copy I pored through its brittle pages looking for any clues to, well, any other sort of talking board that the catalog might have offered. Maybe it was the immediate proximity to planchettes and ouija boards that made me leapfrog right over it with each perusal. Maybe I just didn't read close enough or got lost in the language. But right in the middle of composing my last post, this beauty jumped right off the page and smacked me in the face: Item #141: "Zairgeh, or Egyptian Diviner."

We collectors are used to the assignment of all manner of esoteric names and bogus mystical foreign origins to talking boards. Look no further than a few posts down to see T.H. White's absolutely-fabricated-but-nonetheless-mystical-sounding "Algomire," or Hasko's sphinx-themed "Mystic Trays," the bad-juju Native American spirit evocation of Wilder's "Mitche Manitou" boards, or even Fuld's very own "Ouija," which was patented and marketed as "The Egyptian Luck Board," with its "inventor," Charles Kennard, even making early claims that the word "ouija" was Egyptian for "good luck."

And while I find it dubious that Ralph Sylvestre actually traveled to Egypt to be gifted with a specimen of the Zairgeh board, the fact is, that beyond all the bogus marketing bloviation of the above-listed boards and scores others that hit the market in subsequent years, this one actually makes a legitimate claim to its origins.

The first mention I can uncover of the zairgeh in English is in Edward W. Lane's 1842 work, "An Account of the Manner and Customs of the Modern Egyptians." The cumbersome subtitle indicates that the travels actually took place in 1825-28, and again in 1833-35, but there is nonetheless a compelling account and description of the board and its use, which says, in part:

"The Muslims have recourse to many superstitious practices to determine them when they are in doubt as to any action which they contemplate, whether they shall do it or not. Some apply, for an answer, to a table called a "zairgeh." There is a table of this kind ascribed to Idrees, or Enoch. It is divided into a hundred little squares; in each of which is written some Arabic letter. The person who consults it repeats, three times, the opening chapter of the Kur-an, and the 59th verse of the Soorat elAn'am...having done this, without looking directly at the table, he places his finger upon it: he then looks to see upon what letter his finger is placed; writes that letter; the fifth following it; the fifth following this; and so on, until he comes again to the first which he wrote; and these letters together compose the answer."

But we don't have to rely on Lane's compelling description alone, and the author is kind enough to provide his readers with a "translated" illustrated version of the board, shown here:

The board does not quite fit into our normal definition of talking board, in that it doesn't rely on ideomotor response (or even real spirit influence!) to spell out messages through an indicator. Instead, it relies on the chance placement of your blindly-placed index finger, which provides a starting letter and point for your divination. The means to achieve the divination among the random set of letters is the secret "key" that Sylvestre dangles before the prospective buyer's eyes in his solicitation.

As Lane goes on to explain, once you've blindly chosen a starting square, you record the letter there. Then, in a left-to-right, higher-to-lower manner, just like you're reading English, you count every fifth letter, transcribing each one as you go, until you get back to your starting point. Let's say you randomly select the "n" in Column 4, Row 5. If you count down to the end, jump back to the top and keep counting while recording every 5th letter, you get the phrase "ndenjoypeaceabstaina" which, with a little rearrangement, gives you the not-so-fast-there-buddy message "Abstain and Enjoy Peace."

Of course, the "divinations" are limited to five, and Lane explains that "the framer of the table, knowing that men very frequently wish to do what is wrong, and seldom to do what is right, and that it is generally safer for them to abstain when in doubt, has given but one affirmative answer, and four negative."

The four negative answers, to save yourself the trouble, are: "Who Does it Will Do Wrong," "Wait and Attain Your Wish," "Who Waiteth, Succeedeth," and the aforementioned "Abstain and Enjoy Peace." The sole encouraging divination is "Do it Without Fear of Ill."

Gambols with the Ghosts "Zairgeh" Illustration, 1901

These divination tables were again brought to light in Harry Leech's 1869 Letters of a Sentimental Idler, then again in McClintock & Strong's Cyclopædia of Biblical, Theological, and Ecclesiastical Literature in 1894. Whether, like both he and Edward Lane claim, the tables are attributable to Indris, or Enoch, of the Book of Enoch, remains to be seen. I'll let you know. But, it is likely that Sylvestre became aware of the table through these more conventional texts, rather than trips to Egypt himself, though stranger stories have panned out to truth. Smacks of a J. Peterman Catalog, doesn't it? One can only hope Sylvestre was wearing his Italian captoe Oxfords.

As far as Sylvestre's offering is concerned, what might we keep our eyes out for when scrounging through flea markets and antique malls? We can make a few assumptions. It is called both a "board" and a "table," so we might assume it is wooden given its estimated late 1890s/early 1900s manufacture. It very well may be stenciled. It is priced at $1.00, and for that price you could also purchase a fine wooden writing planchette on the same page, or for another $.50 cents a full-blown wooden Ouija with box and planchette. A dollar could also get you a dozen 6x9" ungimmicked writing slates, or a single gaffed 7x11" writing slate. For further comparison of product-for-value, the $1.00 price is also in line with what Hudson Tuttle charged for his slightly-more-complicated Psychographs around the same period.

It seems safe to assume that we are searching for a wooden or pressed cardboard board of indeterminate size, printed with a 10x10 grid. It may or may not carry the "Zairgeh" imprint. Some dealers might assume they have a strange bingo board or other boardgame missing pieces. But, then again, the catalog's fanciful illustration does show an oracle or priest pointing to what is an obvious scroll on the temple wall, so maybe Sylvestre really hauled in the profit on a cheaply-printed paper, so we very well may be looking for a leaflet, not unlike the one we discovered on a German auction site.

Keep your eyes peeled, folks! A $1 per-square bounty seems fair, so bring a surviving non-paper specimen to me that I can confirm (or at least highly suspect) is from Sylvestre and I've got a C-note with your name on it. Happy hunting, and bonus points for pictures of Zairgeh boards in actual use out in the wild in far-off mystical realms. I hear Myanmar is lovely this time of year.

But it'll always be Burma to me. 


  1. Another hugely informative post Brandon. Are you assuming that the German paper version is a much later copy of the original?

    Venture Bookshop did one with a board and cards in the 70s called 'Rah Seba' or something. The blurb had Ray Palmer discovering it in a peasant hut by the Sphinx on the banks of the Nile!

    "Refragen sie Zairgeh wenn sie rat suchen"

    "Mr Peterman... you speak German?"

    "No, Elaine... that was gibberish"

  2. Thank you, Glenn! I don't presume that the German version is really in any way related to the Sylvestre version beyond a common origin. Presently I'm looking for other examples of the same concept, and I have a feeling it isn't uncommon.

    That's fantastic news on Venture Bookshop! I thought I had uncovered the full list of their offerings when I researched the planchette they produced in the 1960s (my page on them is here:, but looks like I missed an important one. Would love a scan/picture of that particular item!

    And thus new blog posts are imagined. Thank goodness I was wearing my Siberian Oxwool Scarf when I received you message, otherwise the chill of having missed something in research might have rattled my bones. =-)