SCRC is currently cataloging the reference library of the Open Court, a journal published between 1887 and 1936, dedicated to “the Science of Religion, the Religion of Science, and the extension of the Religious Parliament idea.” The reference library, consisting of more than 5,000 volumes, extensively documents late 19th and early 20th century thought on theology, philosophy, and other fields related to “the Science of Religion.”
One of the most interesting items we’ve come across in this collection is not really a book, but a game. It’s not really a game either, but a fortune teller, or an “interpreter” of destiny, to use the language on its title page. The item is called Ellu: The Oracle of the ‘Other Self,‘ and it is essentially a complex Magic 8 Ball. It is shaped like a book, and contains a pamphlet with potential answers to all of life’s questions. The back of the item contains a number of clear, red, and blue balls, which rattle around inside a box and fall into a small window. The order in which the balls land in the window is decoded by the pamphlet, and leads to an answer to the user’s burning question.
All of that might not sound nearly as fun as it really is, so I’ll share an example. The game comes with 26 questions, which cover “every possible topic of human interest.” I am now asking Ellu question number 3: “Shall I find hidden treasure–(or rich ore in a mine)?” Ellu stresses that it is important to face the light while allowing the balls to roll freely, while never shaking them. Three balls fall into the window: blue, blue, and clear. This configuration on the answer code leads me to answer T188: “Your luck at finding is so good–hunt for love and find it the greatest of all.” In other recent consultations with Ellu, we have determined that the Cubs will not win the World Series next year, and that Walter, our Political Papers Archivist, should not buy a lottery ticket.
Ellu is one of a number of “magical” novelty items marketed during the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the most well-known of which is the Ouija board. These items were popular during a time when interest in the occult was at a high-water moment. Spiritualism and Theosophy were popular belief systems, and séances were held in middle class homes throughout the United States and Europe. So, it is not surprising that a game claiming to interpret destiny would be popular in 1912, the year of its publication.
This copy of Ellu was reviewed in the Open Court, volume 27, no. 4 (April 1913), an issue which also contains an article debunking “spirit painting,” a trick performed by mediums to convince their patrons that a painting was being magically altered by ghosts as they watched. The reviewer does not seem entirely convinced of the supernatural powers of Ellu, but does find some redeeming value in its cryptic answers:
To us outsiders such devices are mere games like telling fortunes by cards, but this modern invention both illustrates the need of mankind to have a guide in cases of doubt, and offers a method of satisfying that need.