On the Arbatel

I feel like it’s been too long since I talked about something solidly within the framework and scope of Western Renaissance Hermetic magic.  Admittedly, that’s partially because I haven’t been doing much.  Beyond the occasional candle spell or planetary invocation, my work has been focusing as of late on the study of Greek letter magic, mathesis-centered meditation, Saint Cyprian work, and communion with the gods.  Life gets busy, after all, and I get swept up in a particular current every so often.

Still, that doesn’t mean I’ve forsaken everything I’ve learned with the angels, the planets, or even qabbalah (as much as I was using it, or as most modern Hermetic magicians use it, which isn’t saying much).  I still try to keep up with daily planetary angel invocations and call on them and the elemental princes in banishing rituals, although I don’t find that I have much time for conjuration anymore except on the rare occasion when I really need it.  Generally speaking, that’s okay; if you don’t have problems, you don’t have much to fix.  My life is generally in order due to the graces of the gods and goddesses and saints and angels I work with; they have my back and I have theirs.  I do admit that I miss the power and psychotripping in conjurations, however, and I have been considering getting back to that.  Saint Cyprian is trying to trick me into some goetic conjurations, not that I mind, but I’m letting that sit on the back burner for a while yet while I get other stuff in order.

Still, after my exploration and invention of mathesis, I’ve been considering a different route to conjurations, and for that I’m casting my eyes elsewhere than Trithemius’ conjuration ritual.  Trithemian conjuration technology and methodology is priceless and endlessly applicable, of course, but I’m starting to look elsewhere for ideas that can tie in easier into mathesis as I begin to explore the idea of mathetic ritual.  One such place for me to explore would be the magic and system presented in the Arbatel, an anonymous work of magic that’s pretty simple, short, and to the point.  Quoth Joseph H. Peterson of the Esoteric Archives (who also published a new translation of the text):

In many ways, Arbatel is unique among texts on magic. Unlike the vast majority of writings, it is clear, concise, and elegantly written. The practical instructions are straightforward and undemanding. When it first appeared in 1575, it attracted the attention of people with a surprisingly broad range of agendas, including some of the finest minds of the time. Often quoted and reprinted, both praised and condemned, its impact on western esoteric philosophy has been called “overwhelming.”

The Arbatel takes the format of 49 aphorisms, broken down into seven sets each called a septenary.  Each septenary of aphorisms focuses on a different aspect of the behavior, conduct, cosmology, and conjuration practices of the magician.  (No, I don’t think I’ll be doing a 49 Days of Definitions project for the Arbatel, so don’t worry, my beleaguered readers.)  The introduction to the text itself says that the 49 aphorisms that comprise the Arbatel are actually just the introduction to a nine volume set of works, each containing seven septenaries of aphorisms; however, Peterson notes that these were probably never written and have never been found extant, which is a damn shame since I’d love to read about the magical systems purported to be used by Hesiod, Homer, Apollonius, and the Sibyls of Rome.  Ah well, guess we just have to make them up in our own time instead of relying on someone making it up five centuries ago.

What we have that survives to us, or what we have that the author was able to write down, is sometimes called the Isagoge, literally an introduction or outline to the practice of the Arbatel.  The Arbatel is perhaps most famous for introducing to us the seven Olympic spirits, each one associated with one of the seven planets of traditional astrology.  Thus, Phul is associated with the Moon, Ophiel with Mercury, Hagith with Venus, and so forth; each have their own particular seal beautiful renditions of which you can find on Asterion’s art blog, and which occasionally pop up in gothic occult art and jewelry.  Each of the seven Olympic spirits is described according to the usual planetary powers, and the Arbatel also notes how many legions of spirits and how many rulers of spirits belong to them, as well as which spirit rules over the current era of 490 (7 × 7 × 100) years.  (For those who are curious, Ophiel rules the current era until 2390 CE).

The bulk of the Isogoge of the Arbatel is focused on living right and properly in the eyes of God; it’s no stretch at all to say that the Arbatel is solidly a Christian magician’s grimoire, and the author quotes or refers to the Bible throughout the text.  Honestly, this is all pretty straightforward morality stuff: hide what should be hidden, reveal what should be revealed, don’t procrastinate, have faith in and love for and fear of God, be humble, accept what God gives you, and the like.  Still, though this is simple and though we’ve undoubtedly heard it before in our plentifully Christian modern culture, for a magician, this all makes sense.  If we’re going to be given powers and secrets of the cosmos, we better be worthy of them and make sure we use them responsibly and without concern just for ourselves.  If we get deluded by greed and hate and infidelity, then everything collapses in a spectacular meltdown only magicians are known for.

When it comes to working with these spirits, the Arbatel’s system of magic is so minimalist and straightforward that it might be described as scantily written or even lacking.  At sunrise on the planetary day associated with the Olympic spirit, face one of the four cardinal directions based on what type of thing you want to learn or discuss, say a short prayer requesting the spirit’s presence, converse with the spirit for no longer than an hour (unless you and the spirit are really tight), and say another prayer to dismiss the spirit.  That’s it.  No tools needed, not even a description of how to use the seals of the Olympic spirits or whether they’re even needed at all.  In fact, the use of the names of the Olympic spirits isn’t even required, and the Arbatel suggests you use more general appellations of office rather than the name of a spirit since names tend to change over time.  To be fair, there was supposed to be another volume of the Arbatel that details how to work with the Olympic spirits, but that doesn’t exist, so we’re pretty much on our own with what we have.

Of course, leave it to ceremonial magicians to complicate things, especially when we’re so used to all the wands and circles, plumes of incense, and the like.  Indeed, some magicians have used all the stops and props of Golden Dawn-style ritual, while others simply take it straight to the astral and commune with the Olympic spirits there.  Other magicians have written about their experiences with the Arbatel, from the Scribbler’s posts to the detailed and heavy writings of Fr. Acher.  There’s no exact consensus, it’d seem, on what the nature of the Olympic spirits are; some people hold that they’re the gods themselves, others that they’re the angels, others that they’re planetary spirits under the angel of their planet, others that they’re some mix of the above.  What people do agree on, however, is that they work, and that they’re powerful.

Given the simplicity in calling upon the Olympic spirits and their power, I plan on starting up a new cycle of conjuration that focuses on these guys.  I’m not turning my back on the planetary angels, of course, and Lord knows I still have work to do with them, but there’s no sense either in declining to explore other parts of magic.  Besides, if it goes well, then I might be able to develop a mathetic conjuration ritual based on my experiences with the spirits of the Arbatel.  Could be useful, no?

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