On the Inconvenience of Wholeness

Earlier this winter, I was taking the train to work in the morning, as I usually do.  It was during one of the exceptionally cold days—I honestly don’t think I’ve ever experienced negative degrees Fahrenheit before—and I was ruing sitting against the window, as I usually do (the sitting, not the ruing).  I take the standard Northern approach to winter clothing, applying layer after layer after layer until you end up a spherical mess of unflattering insulation, but even then, it didn’t seem to work as well as I had hoped that morning.  Worse, I had to pee, and I typically try to avoid that on the trains.  Yeah, there are bathrooms on the commuter trains, but trying to wiggle out past the person sitting next to me, wobbling down an unsteady train down to the bathroom in the next car, then having to undo layer after layer of unflattering insulation just to take a leak wasn’t worth it.  I just held it until I got to the office.

The whole experience recalled to mind a method of excreting bodily waste in abnormally or dangerously low temperatures: the use of insulated diapers.  I thought it an amusing technique, both incredibly uncomfortable to sit in my own urine while simultaneously finding the warmth probably very welcome in below-zero temperatures.  Of course, I’m not a diaper fetishist, and the idea is far more uncomfortable to me than it is to others; it’d probably have to be truly, awfully cold outside, and I’d need to be out there for quite a long duration before even giving it a serious thought.  Still, the technique of it is valid, and if I were someone like a Siberian ice-fisher, I’d probably actually consider it.

Now, I don’t often think about diapers; I leave that to some of my other friends and colleagues for their own reasons.  No, I originally heard about the notion of insulated diapers from…well, of all places, a Legend of Zelda fanfic.  Yes, dear reader, your beloved/despised polyphanes is a nerd, and while I haven’t really read fanfic or engaged in much fandom in years, it was definitely a major influence on my formative teen life.  Between Myst, Legend of Zelda, Sonic the Hedgehog, and a handful of other anime and manga, I had quite the list going.  The Legend of Zelda fandom was probably the first one I started getting involved with, and there was this one site…god, it’s been years, and I can’t remember it, and I have no idea if it’s even online anymore.  It was, for the early 2000s, a fantastic fan-maintained resource of Zelda-related content, ranging from game walkthroughs to rumors of finding the Triforce in Ocarina of Time to, of course, fanfiction.  The site author maintained his own (as I judged it at the time) pretty epic storyline, and even I helped contribute with some of my own stuff.  It was a fascinating timesink for me.

The fanfic the site maintainer himself wrote was pretty involving, I have to admit, or at least for my 12-to-14-year-old self.  It had everything I could want: drama, an unexplored dichotomy leftover from the actual mythos of Zelda, exploration, and, of course, angst.  (Yes, I still have a soft spot for Linkin Park and Gackt, and my mom still fondly remembers my overuse of “angst!” cried out as an expression of frustration and…well, angst.)  There was one part in the fanfics the site author wrote that stuck in my mind, and which this cold train morning brought up after making the leap from insulated diapers: in an earlier part of the story, Link is sent on a quest to defeat the Truly Unspeakable Evil in a place far colder than Antartica (hence the insulation), but which was so evil, Link was warned not to give even an ounce or an inch of thought or credence to it, for to even give it that much would let the Truly Unspeakable Evil get a foothold in Link’s mind, which would inevitably lead to his corruption and ultimate doom.  Later on in the series, you can guess what happened; Link, as it turned out, gave a half-second’s thought of considering the merits of what the Truly Unspeakable Evil was proposing to Link as he approached the den of the Truly Unspeakable Evil, and that was just enough to plant the seed of Truly Unspeakable Evil in Link’s head, which eventually began to drive him to depression, to madness, and ultimately, to climb the heights of Death Mountain, watch the sunrise one last time, and fling himself over the edge to end it all so as to give in to the Truly Unspeakable Evil.  He didn’t die, of course; that’d be a poor end to a Zelda fanfic, indeed, and the fanfic author had more in mind to write.  Link was grievously wounded, to be sure, but he survived, and was rescued by his friends and allies and, together, they worked to (painfully, if I recall correctly) excise and exorcise the Truly Unspeakable Evil from Link’s mind and body.  It was a surprisingly sweet, uplifting, empowering story to read for a young teenager.

Now, as a somewhat older person with a little more (but only a little more) experience under my belt in both magic, spiritual works, demonic possession and obsession, and just life in general, I can look back and realize…well, first, how fucked up that story was.  I still think fondly of it, but christ, that was a dark story to read.  All the same, it does actually have strong parallels to some of the worst case scenarios of demonic affliction, and how, in some cases, demons can drive someone mad or burden them with depression, and ultimately, it is possible for a demon to drive someone to suicide.  But…now that I look back on it, there’s something that nags me about the whole thing.  I know that I’m evaluating the merits and virtues of a fanfic I read literally 15 years ago and only dimly recall, so please suspend your sense of absurdity for my sake, but…it almost seems like it was too easy for the Truly Unspeakable Evil to be so cleanly excised from Link.  Yeah, falling off a cliff a hundred meters tall would probably knock quite a bit out of you more than just wind, but…

Problems like depression and mania and anxiety or dementia, or psychological urges to murder, rape, abuse, and the like are, indeed, problems.  They’re human problems, of course, and so many of us suffer from them all the time.  We do our best to keep ourselves in good physical and mental health, and hold in our destructive and malefic urges so we can at least maintain a semblance of non-psychopathic decency.  While there’s a little bit of the Divine in all of us, a little shard of the Good, a little spark of the Nous, we’re still mortal and material creatures, born to die.  Matter, in the Gnostic-influenced Hermetic view, stands apart from God in several ways, and is largely considered evil, or at the very least, incredibly inconvenient.  (I’m reminded of the Douglas Adams quote: “In the beginning the Universe was created. This has made a lot of people very angry and been widely regarded as a bad move.”)  Try as we might, there is not one of us who is truly good, because we’re not made to be; while the part of us that is Good can aspire to Goodness, a human being, when considered as a whole, is a mixture of both Good and Evil.  We’re both.  We have both blessings and curses, benefits and hindrances, positives and negatives.

A human being, any one of us, is a whole entity, and you can’t simply excise evil from a human.  You can’t just rip those destructive urges out, nor can you just banish anxiety and be done with it.

Please don’t misunderstand me: I’m not saying that one should have an urge to rape and kill, nor that we should be so “blessed” with depression and suicide; far from it, these are awful things that I wish we could do without, and work towards a day when we don’t have to worry about them and can maintain them so that they don’t pose a problem anymore, if not get rid of them completely.  But we all have our afflictions, our vices, our sins, and you can’t just fling yourself off a cliff to be rid of them, nor can you jam a red-hot sword into your flesh to burn it out.  Those who have these afflictions are still human, and still have an ounce of Good in them, no matter how covered up or small.  We all have our own essential dignity, so to speak.  But that dignity and that little bit of Good we have don’t excuse the shit we pull and the evil we make in the world around us or in the world within us; we can’t simply be forgiven for the awful, harmful things we do to ourselves or others, because forgiveness without remediation is wasted breath and energy.

We’re whole creatures.  We have good and bad within us, and we can’t really separate the bad out and claim it’s not us.  It’s part of us, and in a sense, it is us.  We have to own it.  We have to take responsibility for ourselves, and we have to actively work to make ourselves as Good as possible.  If only it were as simple as just letting the Good be Good, but it’s not; we have to fight, every second of every minute of every day of every month of every year we draw breath, to preserve the Good, protect the Good, enhance the Good, and elevate the Good, while fighting off the Bad, diminishing the Bad, restraining the Bad, and eventually controlling the Bad as best we can until we’re no longer human and no longer have the Bad as part of us.  Until then, the Bad is just as much as part of the whole of us as the Good is.

Being whole is inconvenient.  It’s not easy, and there’s no straightforward solution, no deus ex machina that can save us as the hero in our individual stories.  It’s not a problem to solve, but a predicament we must live with; in this view, then, every moment of every human life is a crisis, where we must constantly take responsibility for ourselves, own our wholeness and all the parts of the whole that constitutes who we are, and actively make the decision to be Good and to enhance the Good.  We have to be better than what we are.  Not only is that a matter of enhancing the Good all the time, but of diminishing the Bad all the while.

I wish it were easier.  But it’s not.  That’s just the nature of the Work, which is actual work.

Ritual and Divination as Reliving Myth

While working on editing my textbook on geomancy, I’m noticing that I recently added as many pages and sections as I’ve gotten rid of.  This is to be expected in the course of editing any work, of course, but it should be noted that I’m not getting rid of anything that would hinder someone from learning the process of divination.  Obscure astrological information that isn’t really used in geomancy, for instance, has little purpose being in a book on geomancy; things of this sort are what I’m trying to pare down and cull, not only to keep the page count from becoming too unwieldy, but also to help make sure the reader isn’t as confused or distracted from learning the actual processes of geomantic divination.  And those last two words in that sentence are important: “geomantic divination”.  This book is focused on the divinatory process and knowledge of geomancy.

I had a section on geomantic magic and the ritual timing of geomancy, but after giving it some thought, I decided to cull those sections out because, strictly speaking, they’re not really needed for geomantic divination; those are subjects best left to another book entirely.  So, of course, while I’m editing my textbook on geomantic divination during the day, during the night I’m working on a second text (which I may only release as a digital ebook or which I may also publish in some tangible form) on geomantic magic and ritual.  These are topics that one doesn’t need to know to do geomancy, but may be of help for those who take a more magical or occult approach to geomancy in general.  One of the topics I was rewriting for such a text was on ritual formats for divination, sorta like what the Golden Dawn uses, but in other ways and approaches.  I ended up coming up with a new divination ritual format, which I’m tentatively titling “The Blessing of Balaam the Prophet”, which I’m actually pretty excited about.  However, I ended up having to augment it with some follow-up ritual, because…well, the story of Balaam didn’t end too well, and there are reasons why he’s given the epithet rasha, “wicked”, in Jewish theology.  The work of Balaam may have been good, but he didn’t turn out so well; to invoke him, one should probably ward against falling into those same pitfalls, with which the ritual follow-up helps.

The backlash from using certain rituals and invoking certain powers can be rough and dangerous at times.  This isn’t necessarily from doing rituals wrong or from making certain spirits angry, but when we call upon certain powers, we borrow their semantic and mythological “essences” into our lives.  This is not just the raw spiritual forces of that power we draw up like water from a well, but it’s the overall current of power, its ebbs and flows from its originating sprint to its ultimate outlet, that we’re immersing ourselves in.  Being able to manage the raw spiritual force of a given power, saint, entity, or god is one thing, but being able to navigate that current to get you from point A to point B is quite often another, and often requires a more contextual view of what the ritual is doing in your life, as well as a contextual view of what the power is you’re calling upon in the traditions, cultures, stories, superstitions, and myths in which it appears.

That word “myth” can be a problem for some people.  Most people in our modern world consider “myth” to mean lies, rumors, fabrications, imaginative or inventive beliefs, or so on, but that’s all entirely a modern view of what a myth is, and one that does a great disservice to the world.  Rather, the word (originally Greek for “speech, thought, story, myth, anything delivered by word of mouth”) is perhaps the better general descriptor of what an archetype is: “myth” refers to the instructional or fundamental stories that explain how things in the world come to be and why things are the way they are.  For instance, Hesiod’s Theogony is a one set of Hellenic myths that explain the cosmogony and theogony of the world, and the Book of Genesis is a Judeo-Christian myth that describes the creation of the world and humanity and the origins of the Israelites.  Myths aren’t just limited to creation stories, either; the Greek myth of Arachne explains why spiders weave webs and where we get the name “arachnid” from, and the story of Apollo and Coronis explains why the raven has black feathers.  Myths are the spiritual documentation of how things come to be the way they are in our world, informed by culture, history, superstition, religion, and the transmission and mutation of all that; myth feeds into spirituality, and spirituality feeds into myth in a mutually-enhancing, recursive cycle.

When we say that “history repeats itself”, we’re often describing something mythological, not in the sense of repeating a lie or rumor, but that certain things fall into the same pattern over and over again from time immemorial.  Those patterns are, in and of themselves, myths; we might give them a fictional or primordial “original occurrence”, but that pattern is itself the myth that we explain the world by, extrapolate events from, and understand a situation’s causes with.  There are always variations in any given instantiations in the pattern—after all, while there’s nothing new under the Sun, you can’t step into the same river twice—but on the whole, the pattern holds.  That’s why it’s a pattern.  That’s why these patterns become myths, and why these myths are codified into religion and spirituality as doctrine and dogma.

More than that, myths (as symbols of and as patterns) are one of the fundamental underpinnings of ritual and divination.  Consider a divination method that relies on some sort of bibliomancy: you can consider divination using a random verse of the Bible, the Homeric Oracle where you throw dice and fall upon a particular verse from a Homeric epic, or even odu Ifá where you divine one of 256 particular odu and investigate the verses and stories of orisha associated with that odu.  When we employ one of these methods, we get a particular selection of a story, a myth, from a religion that inspires and guides us.  Sometimes the verse is pretty clear, and suggests something right off the bat to do, say, pray, or warn against.  Sometimes, we have to investigate the context in which that verse was written and see what it meant in context and how it can relate to a given situation for the bibliomancer.  In either case, however, notice what it is you’re doing: you’re being pointed to a spiritually-guided myth for guidance.  By understanding the myth, you understand the pattern of arising, action, and conclusion in the situation.  What the verse points out is “hey, what you’re facing now falls under this pattern, so pay attention to the actors and events in this myth-pattern, because you’re playing out the same scene, for good or for ill”.

Consider another form of divination: astrology.  Sure, we know that Mars is the planet of force, vigor, power, war, aggression, masculinity, and all that, but have you ever stopped to consider why Mars represents those things in a horoscope?  There are two ways we can arrive at these significations by the symbol of Mars:

  • The scientific method: by noting the arrangements, alignments, and motions of the stars, and what events happen in the lives of people and events of the world that happen at the same times.  By making observations and noticing repeated trends that correspond to each other, we can establish patterns, then extrapolate both into the past when we were unaware of the pattern and into the future when we’re as yet unaware of events to come to test the pattern and obtain more information.  By establishing a pattern, we can make a model of astrological phenomena and what mundane phenomena they correspond to.  This is the method that we know was used by the ancient Babylonian and early astrologers, who noted certain astrological and celestial phenomena, tracked them with events in the matters of the king and of the state, and used those correspondences to make predictions.  By extrapolating into the past, both we and they arrived at certain mythological foundations for why certain patterns hold.
  • The religious method: by associating the planets and stars with particular gods, we ascribe all the symbols of those gods to the planets, and vice versa.  By remembering certain myths that describe the actions and qualities of a single god, we directly ascribe them to the planet; by recalling the interactions of one god with another, we come up with a model that describes what happens when the planets of those two gods come into a certain arrangement with each other.  The myths form the pattern, and the particular arrangements of the planets describe which myth to investigate and which pattern is used for a given situation.  This is both a traditional and a modern approach, especially when we have new planets and asteroids being discovered where all we have to go on to start with is a name of some deity (like Makemake or Sedna).

In either case, through astrological divination (whether horary, natal, electional, mundane, or whatever), we end up with a pattern based on myth, which forms cycles and recurrences that we live time and again, just as we do with the verses of sacred scriptures pointed out to us through bibliomancy.  If it isn’t directly inspired like clairvoyance, mediumship, or prophecy, then divination pretty much universally relies on patterns established through myth.  Just like how we would go to our grandmother to listen to a story to make us feel better about a choice we have to make (that image itself is a myth that’s lived time and again by so many people alive even today!), we go to divination to give us the right myth to listen to for the events and problems we have in our lives now.  Those myths give us guidance, advice, warnings, and encouragement, not only to accept the things that have happened and will happen but also to guard us and warn us against how things can end up if we don’t heed the advice of the characters in the myth.

And that’s where things get really interesting: not just listening to myths, but applying them.  That is, ultimately, what ritual aspires to do.  Consider all the parts of a full ritual: costume, setting, decorations, timing, environment, actors, scripts, instruments, props…ritual is, in many ways, a kind of theater.  We say that we “perform rituals”, after all, just like we would a play.  What is the purpose of acting a play?  To bring to life the same circumstances, stories, problems, and resolutions that the story of the play enacts, not just for entertainment, but to instill in us the meanings, values, warnings, and lessons of the myth of that play.  This is why Dionysos, Greek god of ecstasy (literally “standing outside yourself”) and of the mysteries, also rules over theater and its masks and costumes: he presides over the form and function of being someone else and letting the myth take over.

To give one perfect example of ritual enacting a myth, consider the Christian Eucharist.  It’s a lot more than people gathering together to listen to the priest talk about ethics and morals and sharing some dry crackers and questionable wine; it’s a literal reenactment of the Last Supper, spiritually empowered to the point where the dry cracker literally becomes the flesh of Christ and the wine his blood, just as he broke bread and poured wine and declared them to be such two millennia ago.  Through apostolic succession, the priests are empowered not just to repeat those words of Christ, but to temporarily (through the reenactment of the ritual play) become Christ.  The Eucharist, then, not only is a reminder of the Last Supper, but is a new instantiation of the timeless and eternal presence and myth of it, just as the Last Supper itself as recorded in the New Testament was the first instance of it.

When we engage in ritual, we’re reenacting a myth, calling to mind the original actors, events, circumstances, and contexts of that myth, and applying it anew in our own lives.  By performing a ritual, we relive the myth in an intimate, present way more than just having history repeat itself again; we temporarily become the characters in the myth.  That’s one of the reasons why we wear, for instance, the Pentacles or Rings of Solomon, why we use particular phrases and clothing, why we have certain tools in our rituals: not only do these things have power and meaning of their own, but they’re backed up by myth, and by replaying the myth, we come to the same conclusions and endings that the myth describes.  When we perform a sacrifice or take the advice of a myth, we’re basically saying “this is the same problem that someone long before me encountered, and they did this particular thing to resolve it, so if I do the same thing, I will resolve the problem as well”.  In a way, not only are we replaying the myth, but we’re also honoring old pacts, which themselves establish a pattern and become myth: “if you give me X, I will give you Y, this is our covenant”.

But there’s a twist here: you don’t always have to replay the same myth in a ritual.  You don’t always have to play the protagonist of the myth; you can just as well play the antagonist, or twist certain things in the ritual around, which then messes with the myth, which can get you different results that would be predicted.  By changing the ritual, you change the myth.  In some cases, the results would be as expected; if you know that Aeneas did three steps to get the help of a particular deity, you can do two of the steps but change the third so as to not only immerse yourself in the myth but tweak the expected result to a different end.  That’s why, in the Blessing of Balaam the Prophet, I don’t just repeat the words that Balaam once said to Balak so long ago and live my life as Balaam, but I also take into account the fall of Balaam and “correctionally twist” the myth I’m enacting so that I don’t fall into the same pit that Balaam did.

Divination and ritual are powerful, not just because they allow us to interact with the powers of the cosmos in a way we can understand and command, but they also allow us to understand the myths that keep the cosmos working, and reenact those myths to attain certain ends that we know can and should (and almost always will) work.  Patterns hold; that’s why they’re patterns.  By living along patterns, we know where we’re heading; by modifying the pattern, we modify our course.  So, the next time you engage in a ritual, consider what myth that ritual is based on, inform yourself of the historical and spiritual context of that myth, and see how that enhances your performance of a ritual; the next time you modify a ritual, see how that modification would have changed the original myth or whether it would make it relate to another myth entirely, and see how that matches up with your result of the modified ritual.

You’re Probably Not Chosen, and That’s Okay

Last night on Twitter, I found a tweet thread that I thoroughly agreed with pertaining to the notion of spirit animals and how it’s culturally appropriative to use the term, and outright disrespectful when people say “unicorns are my spirit animal” or “whiskey is my spirit animal”:

I’ll let you read the whole thread, written by an Anishinaabe (Ojibwe) person with actual claim and propriety to speak on the matter, because the thread is a little long and it deserves reading.

It’s a sensitive topic for many people, but she makes fine points all around, and I can’t really disagree with them in any reasonable sense.  There are good comparisons between how people in popular occulture and New Age scenes use the word “spirit animal” with the word “shaman”, which originally applied only to Central Asian steppe-based Mongolian or Turkic tribal religions; unless you’re practicing a form of Tengrism, technically speaking, you’re not a shaman or working a shamanic path.  However, the term was adopted and adapted by anthropologists (who, I might add, typically are from Western Europe and take on a subtly colonialist-universalist view of every culture that isn’t theirs) to be applied across the board to countless religions, traditions, and cultures far removed in time, space, and language from those Central Asian priests based on perceived or superficial similarities.  In general, the word “shaman” is used wherever “priest” would normally be used, except for cultures that were deemed more “primitive” or “undeveloped” as, say, something more established, formalized, structured, or civilized as in the West.  As Kalagni shared in a related discussion on my Facebook page,

When (white) people go on about how there are analogs in other cultures, and that “spirit animal” is generic, they really mess up their history. Yes, “spirit animal” is generic and in English, but the term was coined in English to refer to Native beliefs as part of their persecution and eradication. Also, as part of another side rant, if wypipo also want to harp on about how “we have culture”, then use the goddamn names from your our culture then and prove it.  Then again, white (North American) culture did steal a lot from Native folks…so it’s part of their culture in that way.

I’d say shaman is a better case, because it’s not an English word, so despite being applied to “shamanic” traditions everywhere now, you can point and say “This is the language and culture it came from.” People have trouble grokking that with spirit animal because it’s in English, so obviously it’s a white people thing.

And, of course, as is commonly joked-not-joked?

There’s so much that can be said about this topic, and how the line is hazy or non-existent between cultural appropriation and syncretism, what the best term to describe something is depending on circumstance and originating context, whether fylgjas or totems or tutelars or paredoi or other concepts are similar enough to be clustered together (typically they aren’t except by people who don’t understand them), and so on.  Honestly, while I thought about writing about this discussion, I really don’t have much to add at the present time besides “don’t do it, and understand what you’re actually describing before you open your mouth and why you should or shouldn’t say it a certain way”; that wouldn’t make for a very exciting blog post, though, would it?  Besides, I’ll let people from the actual originating cultures speak for themselves, and keep my own mouth shut.

But there is a related topic that I can speak about, and don’t think is spoken about enough in Western occulture, New Age, and pagan thought.  People (think they) have spirit animals because they feel that the animal has chosen them; some people have patrons or matrons/patronesses (I’m not sure why “matron” isn’t the default term here, but okay, whatever) in this pantheon or that system, and all around people claim that they are “chosen” by some big-name entity or to do some monumental task.

People go on about how they’ve been chosen by some thing for some thing to do some thing, and…in general?  I don’t buy it as much as others do, or as much as I did.

I suspend my disbelief out of politeness, and see how far it goes for the person in our conversations, but for the vast majority of people and the vast majority of cases, they’re not chosen. And that’s okay!  Not only is it the norm to not be chosen, but in many of these traditions, there’s no notion of “choosing” that the gods or spirits do for us.  Moreover, any such notion is generally a recent Western overlay, much how “shaman” is used for African, Native American, and Central Asian religions despite their differences in context and origin.

I would think that the notion of having a patron in general comes from Catholic influences, where people can have a patron saint, or where a certain profession, area, or trade is associated with a saint who’s related to the thing in some way.  By being involved in that profession or trade, you can petition that saint for special help above and beyond a general-purpose spirit, sure, but you can also do the same by having your own patron saint.  Sometimes this is found based on the day of the year of the calendar of saints you’re born on, sometimes this is based on where you’re born, and sometimes it’s simply something you choose (note that it’s you doing the choosing of the saint, not necessarily the other way around) at baptism or confirmation.  This saint helps intercede for you through their unceasing prayer, not as a mediator of prayer to God but to pray alongside you to better live a better life here and in the hereafter.  This is a pretty common practice in Catholic and close-to-Catholic traditions, and seeing how that undergirds much of the past thousand-ish years of Western European philosophy and religion…well, it’s a common notion, to say the least.

So now we have all these new or newly-reborn traditions and religions, some invented out of whole (old) cloth, some reconstructed from historical and religious research: Hellenism, Heathenry, Kemeticism, Religio Romana, Rodnovery, and so on.  There are also living traditions, such as Vajrayana Buddhism or Shinto, that never died out and are extant, vibrant, and practiced to this day in their own ways.  In each, there are often an abundance of deities, demigods, heroes, saints, spirits, and whatnot.  Okay, good, cool, excellent!  The more, the merrier.  Each has its own cultural background, historical context, linguistic reliances, and so on; sometimes those who are in the know of more than one tradition can syncretize parts of them, sometimes parts of different religions ought to stay separate and far from each other.  Something I can say, however, regarding many of these traditions?  The notion of a spirit “picking” or “choosing” you is…uncommon, if not absent entirely, without having been previously syncretized with Western Christian or modern neopagan (which has some Western Christian elements) ideas.

Let me offer my own experience with something personal to me.  In La Regla de Ocha Lukumí (or Santería, as is commonly known, the Yoruba diasporic religion as it developed in Cuba with Catholic influences), there is a notion that everyone has a patron saint of sorts, an orisha that claims the head of everyone.  You don’t really get a say in who owns your head; that comes out in a special divination reading where humans don’t get to choose, but the orisha themselves choose.  In my case, it came out (surprisingly to me, at the time) that Ogun owns my head; that is a case where I was, in fact, chosen to have that connection with him in a way that other people don’t necessarily have, even if they work with Ogun or have other connections or relationships with him.  However, unlike the orisha who owns my head, it was not chosen for me to be initiated.  Some people are told that, yes, they are meant to initiate as a priest in Santería, that it is indeed an already done deal where they don’t really have much of a say in the matter if they want to continue living their destiny as it was written for them.  That wasn’t the case for me; regardless of what orisha owns my head, it was not chosen for me to initiate, and I was not told that it was necessarily part of my destiny nor that I must initiate.  Instead, I made the choice to initiate; I chose to have that relationship with Ogun, and I chose to have Ogun put on my head.  The fact that I have Ogun on my head doesn’t preclude me from working with other orisha; I still have vows and pacts made with my courts of orisha, and I can and do work with them in ways that others can’t or don’t.  Even then, however, Ogun may have been my patron saint all along in that system, but it was I who made that relationship real and tangible by my own volition and sacrifice.

Now, let me compare the similarities of that to my work with Hermes.  There are lots of things in my life that I do or that I have going on that do, in fact, relate well to Hermes’ domain: linguistics, languages, mathematics, programming, astrology, divination, conjuration, magic, trickery, trade, and on and on.  I work in a building that used to be one of the grandest post offices in the United States, and is designed with caducei and paeans to Hermes-Mercury on the pediments.  For all this, it makes sense for me to work with Hermes, because the things of his influence are already around me.  However, that does not mean I’m chosen by him to work with him, any more than a person who grew up in a family of chefs and bakers is chosen to be a culinarian themselves.  Rather, I chose to establish a shrine to him and offer sacrifices and honor in his name; I chose to have his emblem tattooed on my mortal flesh; I chose to work with him.  He did not chose me, not only because the notion of having a patron deity is unfamiliar and foreign to Hellenism, but because he…well, didn’t.  All these things in my life that are under his influence are things I chose to have in my life; he didn’t send them in my way to lure me to him, but I chose them.  Just so did I choose him, and I continue to choose him.

Another example I can offer is my own connection to what I may have called my “spirit animal” in an earlier time.  (Forgive me for declining to say what it is, but those who know me will already know what it is.)  This is an animal that I indeed feel a connection to, and which seems right and proper for me to work with.  But, that said, I’ll be honest with you: I went out of my way to find this animal, and I formed a connection with it of my own volition.  I can’t say that it’s my totem (because that’s more of a clan/lineage/family thing) or my spirit animal, because I don’t belong to the tradition that came up with the idea or that uses those terms; I rather say that it’s my tutelary animal or that I simply work with that animal spirit, because that’s more accurate and descriptive of what I do.  Moreover, this is a connection that allows for other connections to be formed with other animals as the case may be, sometimes as strongly as my primary tutelar, sometimes not so much, sometimes stronger as the case may be; I work with the spirit on my own connection, and listen to it if it needs something, but this is a spirit that ultimately I chose.  I may have encountered it in a strong way, but it was I who chose to stay with it and not pass over it.

I see that distinction a lot like how an astrological magician might view their own horoscope.  For instance, it was not a matter of my choosing when I was born; I am a Libra by virtue of my birth, and so could be said to have been “chosen” to be born under that sign.  It does not necessarily mean that Venus is my ruling planet, nor does it mean that I have to work with Venus or any of the deities associated with that planetary sphere except by my own volition.  Nor, for that matter, does it mean that I can’t work with other planets, or that I have some past-life connection with Venus, or that I am specifically chosen to do Venerial things in the world above and beyond other people, especially other Venus-ruled people (whether or not they’re Libras, Tauruses, Pisces, or another sign entirely).  I know of some people who live lives that would seem to run directly counter to their zodiac sign or almuten, often to great effect and purpose, but that’s because they often chose that path in life and worked for it.

Some people have certain entities that they work with closely and intimately, sometimes to enhance their own works; a photographer, for instance, could petition Saint Veronica because she holds special significance for photography and photographers generally.  Other times, they work with a certain entity because it enhances their own personal development, like a mask they can adopt to adapt themselves to the traits and characteristics of that entity that, over time, they can better facilitate and embody, like someone working with the spirit of the Wolf to be stronger, more cunning, braver, or more ruthless.  We can easily and properly say that we work with these spirits or entities because we’re already involved in their sphere, but that’s not because they came to us and made us work in their sphere.  Consider: at a banquet where you’re presented with multiple dishes, you don’t say that the first dish that was presented with you is what “chose” you, or that whatever dish you most like “chose” you.  You choose what you want to eat or pass over, and you choose what you want to take home and try to recreate in your own kitchen to make your life tastier.

In some cases, yes, someone is, in fact, chosen by some entity to do some sort of work.  The more I see, however, someone being chosen like this is actually kinda uncommon; more people who claim that they’re chosen aren’t, and are rather describing something they chose of their own volition as being out of their hands.  I consider this a kind of false modesty, ascribing one’s own choices in something to the work of the gods, and I…it twangs my sensibilities.  Some people might ascribe such choices to fate or predestination, which is not only a kind of false modesty but also handwaving away their own choices to something that can’t be proved.  Rather, people may feel a draw to some practice or divinity, but be honest: is that because they’re actually being lured to it by the divinity, or are they acting on an impulse and drive that they themselves have and want to explore because it’s actually something that clicks with them?  Are they told that they need to work with some deity or entity, or are they doing so because the person has their own needs given the themes and motifs in their lives that that particular entity can help with more than others?  Are they chosen to work with that deity, or do they chose to work with that deity?

There is no harm in saying that you chose a connection, relationship, or patronage with some spiritual entity.  While it may be an honor to have been chosen, it is also exceedingly honorable to willingly make that choice yourself, if not even more honorable, because it’s you who’s forming the connection, doing the work, making the sacrifices, and going above and beyond the normal level of devotion one might have into something truly special, rare, and powerful.  To do something of one’s own free will and unbidden by the gods that pleases them is almost always a sweeter sacrifice than any fumigation or libation or festival than they demand.  There’s no shame in saying that you chose this animal, this saint, this deity as your patron; if you’re earnest about it, and actually dedicate (literally giving over) yourself, I would say that you’re doing both you, the spirit themselves, and the world an honor by it.

So be honest with yourself.  Did the spirit you claim chose you actually choose you, or did you choose the spirit and choose to form that relationship with them?

I know this can press some people’s buttons, and this can easily lead to a topic of debate that borders on insult and aggravation.  Plus, there are definitely problems of destiny, fate, free will, and the subtle machinations of spirits that can influence what we “choose”, but in our limited human consciousness, we have to take responsibility as much as we can for our actions.  By all means, dear reader, share your thoughts and experiences in the comments, but please be respectful towards others if you do so.

On Halted Geomancy Charts

Originally, I was calling these PITA charts, and no, I’m not talking about the flatbread.  However, after seeing the term “halted charts” used more online, I think it’s a far more elegant term to use to describe the concept of a geomancy chart that shouldn’t or can’t be interpreted.  What would cause such a chart to be halted?  Read on, dear reader, because we’re gonna talk about a set of rules from the geomantic tradition that even I don’t really bother with.

In addition to the group on geomancy that I admin on Facebook, I’m also a member of the group Ilm-e-Ramal (Geomancy) and its associated WhatsApp convo in an attempt to better understand the practices of Arabic geomancy.  From what I’ve seen, there are far more similarities than there are differences, but the differences astound me, especially those that come from a cultural or philosophical view in addition to the details of different interpretation methods.  It can be hard to learn, especially since I don’t speak Arabic, Persian, Urdu, or Balochi, but by slowly following the conversations and reading their examples of charts, small insights are revealed, which can be fascinating.  (Probably the best thing I have to show for it so far is the post I wrote a few weeks back on actually formalizing a mapping between the Arabic/Persian and Latin names of the figures.)

One issue that may arise in Arabic geomancy is when the chart is “locked”.  A chart becomes locked when the Judge is Populus or, to a lesser extent, Via.  In these cases, the chart cannot be interpreted, because of how the Judge plays with the reading and the diviner.  In the case of Populus, where there are no elements active and thus no Via Puncti can be formed, Arabic geomancers say that Populus is dumb and cannot speak to the matter.  For Via, where all elements are active, instead of having a dumb Judge, we have a deaf Judge, who cannot hear the querent or the query properly and so cannot give a useful answer.  To resolve a locked chart in Arabic geomancy, if one can’t wait a few hours to retry the query, one can instead take four figures from the chart to act as new Mothers for a new chart to be drawn up on the spot.  Which houses are used depends on the specific lineage; I’ve heard that houses I, IV, VII, and X should be used, or the Right Witness, Left Witness, Judge, and Sentence, or houses III, V, XI, and the Judge, or houses I, III, VI, and the Judge.  Whatever set of houses one uses, the idea is the same: if the chart itself cannot answer because it’s deaf or dumb, shake it up a bit to slap some sense into it and derive a new chart.  If the new chart is also locked, probably best to just wait it out until a later time.

Unusual though such a rule may sound to Western geomancers (taking our precious few 128 Court combinations of figures down to 112 or 98, depending on whether you consider just Populus or both Populus and Via to lock the chart), the literature of Western geomancy is replete with similar rules for such halted charts.  The most commonly-known such rule is that if Rubeus or Cauda Draconis appear as the First Mother, the chart should be destroyed and abandoned, if not the matter entirely, since both of these figures are pretty negative and disastrous on their own, and to have them represent the beginning of the matter to be investigated as well as the querent themselves is a pretty bad omen.  Going past this, though, there are so many other rules you can find in the older European texts:

  • If there are no figures in common or only one figure in common between the Mothers and Daughters, the chart is untrustworthy and should not be read.
  • If Rubeus appears in two or more angular houses, the reading cannot continue due to malefic influences in the reading.
  • If the same figure appears in both houses I and II, the reading is obscured due to an ill omen.
  • If Carcer or Tristitia appear in house I with a negative figure making a negative aspect to it, the matter is past all hope.
  • If the Witnesses are equal and the Judge (Populus in this case) does not own the query, the chart must wait for another time (this is one of Heydon’s rules, which echoes the idea behind Arabic geomancy “locking”).

Plus, in Western geomancy, I’ve seen a number of rules about how to determine whether the querent is lying to the geomancer:

  • If Carcer or Tristitia appear in house I with a negative figure making a negative aspect to it
  • If the figures in houses I and VII pass in the chart to make squares or oppositions to each other
  • If Amissio is in house I
  • If Populus is in house I and Rubeus in house XI
  • Etc.

Many of these rules go hand-in-hand with methods to spiritually authenticate the chart.  Just like how we mathematically verify that the chart is valid before we even start looking at the actual contents of the chart, there are a number of ways geomancers determine whether a chart is fit to be judged beyond “destroy it due to ill omens”.  In some cases, this parallels the practice in horary astrology of determining whether a chart is radical based on a match between the ascendant and planetary hour or other considerations, or as English geomancers like Robert Fludd and John Case like to use, inspect certain physical marks and moles associated with the figure in house I to the querent to see if the chart is actually talking about the person who’s asking the query.

Now, I will say that there is some (not a lot, but some) value in these rules.  Consider the matter of radicality in horary astrology; according to far better astrologers and scholars than I am, you don’t strictly need a chart to be radical to interpret it.  If a chart isn’t radical, that doesn’t mean it’s not correct, but that there may be issues in interpreting it, such as the querent lying or omitting something to the diviner, the situation may be about to change from what’s being read or interpreted, something being overlooked in the reading, or so forth.  If a chart is to be interpreted and it’s not radical, extra care should be taken, because the chart can still be (and often is) correct regardless of other factors, it’s just that it may not be the best time to have asked the question.  C’est la vie, of course.

But as far as geomancy goes, especially in my own experience with it, I…really just don’t bother with the rules above.  In most cases, I keep the rules that have been handed down through the traditions, because I’ve seen them work, but these rules about not reading a chart because it won’t answer or because it’s obscured don’t fall in that same category.  Rather, they kinda smack of superstition and fear and cover-your-ass measures to prevent the charts becoming pains in the ass.  I understand that for those who are unfamiliar with or fearful of divination, the line between “interpreting omens that foretell how the future will go” and “speaking the future into existence and enforcing that it must be so” is hazy or absent, and it was a commonly-alleged crime that gypsies “cursed” their clients with bad readings, even if all they were doing was saying that things may not look so good for the client.  On the other hand, diviners may fear getting involved in a bad situation that they may be seen as liable for even on an honest-to-God spiritual level, and so if things look sketchy or disastrous, they’d rather wash their hands of the matter entirely instead of actually getting involved and having to deal with those spiritual influences as well as the querent.  There’s also the much more mundane issue of “this looks confusing but I don’t feel creative enough to spout cliché mystic mumbo-jumbo, so I’m just gonna try again later”.

If I’m reading for someone else and a rule like the above happens (mostly if Rubeus or Cauda Draconis appear), after having generated and calculated all the parts of the chart I find necessary, I’ll first bring the querent’s attention to the rule and what’s happening in the chart, along with a quick explanation of what the old geomancers say and what I say.  I give them the option of asking a different question, trying the reading after a few days, getting a refund and canceling the reading entirely, or just continuing on as I otherwise would; I leave the choice up to them, based on their wishes.  In many cases, the reason for the offending rule comes out in that very choice, which we can then discuss to get closer to the heart of the matter, but sometimes, it simply doesn’t match up; still, as a matter of protocol, I state the rule to the querent and let them decide how we should proceed, if at all.  If I’m reading to myself, I’ll take a pause before continuing the reading, maybe do a bit of meditation or introspection, and see if there’s any cause I wasn’t previously aware of that might be affecting me.

For a handful of such rules, here’s how I take a modern look at them, based on authors such as John Michael Greer and my own experience:

  • If Rubeus is in house I, the querent is in a state of frenzy, confusion, or mental turbulence that makes the question ill-founded.  They may have asked a query without actually thinking it through, accepting the possible results, or otherwise having a lack of foresight.  Rubeus can indicate not taking the process of divination seriously.
  • If Cauda Draconis is in house I, the querent is already thinking of the matter as closed and done, and is unwilling or unable to accept any new information or advice on the subject.  This is often the case when the querent is just looking for a confirmation of what they already think.
  • If the figures in houses I and VII pass in the chart such that they form a direct/indirect square or indirect opposition, there’s going to be difficulty in communicating the information in the reading, and either the querent is lying to the geomancer or the geomancer won’t be believed by the querent.
  • If Via is the Judge and does not own the query, the situation is in a state of rapid change and may be difficult to specifically examine what’s happening.

In general, I find it increasingly unlikely for querents to lie to the geomancer, in the sense that they’re asking about something to test the geomancer as a kind of game or to show up the geomancer that their art is pointless.  Most people don’t have the time to waste on such a futile thing, and moreover, most people don’t have the money to waste on such a thing, either.  (There’s one good reason to start charging, if you don’t already.)  Instead, when the old texts say “lie” (without also calling such a person a knave, etc.), what it means is that the querent is asking something in a highly roundabout way to save face or to keep from admitting aloud something they fear.  For instance, it’s a common trope in divination that a woman who asks “will I ever have children” is really asking “did I just get pregnant”; what they asked isn’t what they’re really asking, even if one kinda does answer the other.  For these situations, something in the chart will…not add up.  Maybe it’ll be a weird placement of the Part of Spirit, maybe the Witnesses will suggest something, maybe the Via Puncti will lead somewhere, but something in the chart will just seem off that indicates that not all is whole, hale, or complete with the query being asked.  It could also be something about body language and subliminal cues given off in wording that also ties in, but it depends.

So, if I don’t follow the rules given by older geomancers in this instance for charts that shouldn’t or can’t be read, what are my own rules?  Honestly, not many.  In general, before setting down to a divination, I ask myself the following questions:

  1. Am I physically sound enough to perform divination?  If I’m sick, hungover, coughing, sore, fatigued, intoxicated, in pain, or otherwise in any physical state that would act as a distraction and hindrance to the process of divination, I’ll put it off until such a time when I’m more together.  I’ll also try to make sure I’m clean, dressed cleanly, and don’t smell offensive to further limit any distractions.
  2. Am I mentally and spiritually sound enough to perform divination?  If I’m excessively worried about the situation, extraordinarily biased towards or against a particular outcome, overly elated or whimsical, angry, upset, or in any other mental state where I cannot maintain a clear, objective focus of the reading, I’ll put it off until later.  Meditation, cleansing, banishing, prayer, and other mind/spirit-sharpening acts may also come into play for this.
  3. Am I in a safe, calm, quiet place to perform divination?  If the place where I’m doing divination is chaotic, loud, overly busy, in transition or turmoil, dangerous, dark, or in any other way unsafe or distracting to divination, I’ll do it somewhere else.  This also includes the weather: one of the only traditional rules I follow is that the weather should not be “bad” (thunderstorms, violent winds, flooding, bitterly sharp cold, etc.), so I’ll try to wait for a mild time and weather appropriate to the season and climate where I’m at.

If I’m physically and mentally well enough to do divination, and the time and place is good to go for divination, then we’re all clear for the work, and everything else is up to my own skill, intuition, and attentiveness to the reading and the querent.  I don’t bother with trying to reconcile a difficult chart or make a new one based on picking certain figures from one chart and deriving a second one, nor do I see much point in drawing up a new chart entirely after a few hours or days if the first one didn’t make sense at the time.  Rather, if I’m having a hard time delving into a chart, I’ll put it aside, take a break, come back, draw it out afresh (I find that the actual act of drawing a chart is excellent for attuning into one, whether it’s one of my own or somebody else’s), and try interpreting it again; I claim that the symbols were as valid the first time as they are the second time, and sometimes a quick rest is all that’s needed.

Divination requires calm within and calm without; unless you have those, you probably can’t and most likely shouldn’t be doing divination.  Spiritual traditions and religious rules may institute other obligations and considerations, but beyond those, the core issue is whether you yourself are able to divine and be divine.  If you can, you’re good to go.  If you’re not, no number of tricks or techniques will get you there.

What about you?  Do you have any other rules in geomancy, from the Western or Arabic kinds, where certain charts shouldn’t be investigated?  If so, what are those rules, and how might you explain the logic behind them?  Do you stick to them to the letter, or do you take a more interpretive approach?  I’d love to hear from you about this in the comments!