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Ten pairs of tortoises

Ten pairs of tortoises
This entry is part 4 of 7 in the series Hidden gems

I’ve written all about this before, so now I’m simply going to repeat myself. In my defence, I will point out I’m in good company:

‘Maybe increased by ten paired tortoise shells,
Nothing is capable of going against this.
From the source, good fortune.’

Hexagram 41, line 5

‘Maybe increased by ten paired tortoise shells.
Nothing is capable of going against this.
Ever-flowing constancy, good fortune.
The king uses this to make offerings to the supreme being: good fortune.’

Hexagram 42, line 2

That’s Yi repeating itself, word for word, in the paired lines 41.2 and 42.5.

They’re ‘paired lines’ because 41 and 42 are a pair of hexagrams: the same pattern of lines, but inverted:

inverted is

41.2 and 42.5 are the same line in that pattern, just seen from the opposite perspective:

inverted is

Because they’re the same line, they have the same text; because of the contrast between them – between Decrease, offering, giving things up for the sake of something higher, and Increase, blessing, a time of plenty – there are subtle differences. Specifically, they use words from the beginning and end of the yuan heng li zhen formula that opens the whole book: yuan for Hexagram 41, good fortune at its source; zhen for 42, constancy‘s good fortune. As is often true, the first hexagram of the pair shows potential that is realised in the second, where the king can take advantage of this supremely auspicious moment.

Paired text in paired lines is an obvious sign of how carefully the Yijing is crafted. But it’s the exception, not the rule – well, it would be a boring oracle if all its paired lines quoted one another. But why emphasise the pairing for these two lines in particular?

I believe this is a playful invitation for us to remember what else is used in divination and comes in pairs: tortoise shells – carapace goes with plastron, and also, plastromancy typically involved pairs of readings on the same issue. (‘If we attack the hostile tribe, we will win.’ ‘If we attack them, we will maybe not win.’)

(Aside – and another gem – Bradford Hatcher pointed out that tortoises are mentioned in three places in the Yi: in these two lines, and in Hexagram 27, line 1. Each of these hexagrams has a hard ‘shell’ of yang lines and a soft, yin interior.)

There are ten pairs of tortoise shells here. Generally speaking, numbers in the Yijing are more qualitative than quantitative: three days are a short time; ten years are a long time. Ten pairs of tortoise shells are a Very Emphatic Oracle: ‘nothing is capable of going against it.’

However, with the Yi, I always wonder if there’s more I haven’t seen. When I counted ten pairs of tortoises hexagrams forward from Hexagram 41, I found myself at Hexagram 61, Inner Truth. And both 41.5 and 42.2 change to 61.

Hexagram 61 is about fu: trust, truth, the quality of presence and spiritual connection that makes this the perfect moment the king can use for offerings to the supreme being.

And let’s look for a moment at the two lines that reach back ten pairs through the Sequence of Hexagrams to Decrease and Increase:

‘Calling crane in the shadows,
Her young respond in harmony.
I have a good wine vessel,
I will share with you, pouring it all out.’

Hexagram 61, line 2


‘There is truth and confidence as a bond.
No mistake.’

Hexagram 61, line 5

There is the bond that reaches across the 20-hexagram gap, and there is the call of the crane, so well-hidden in the shadows, and wine poured out, from one vessel to another…

        character Yi

…an invitation extended to us, through the structure of the oracle, to respond and share.

wine poured into glass

I Ching Community discussion

2 responses to Ten pairs of tortoises

  1. Thanks for this. The hexagram looks like everything’s coming up roses, but then there are always the thorns.

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