Genius in the Picatrix: Associations of the Four Powers

Last time, we started talking about a particularly interesting bit of the Ġāyat al-Ḥakīm, the “Goal of the Wise”, sometimes just known as the Ġayah, but definitely better known in the West as the Picatrix, most likely written in Arabic sometime in the middle of the 11th century CE. Everyone knows the Picatrix, everyone loves the Picatrix; it’s a fantastic text of astrological magic, and among the earliest of true grimoires in Europe. Although focused on what we’d nowadays call stellar image magic, the creation of astrological talismans bearing magical images and scenes made under particular stellar configurations, the text is famous for its wide inventory of bizarre magical concoctions and confections for a variety of purposes, its lengthy invocations to the planetary spirits, and its preservation of older pagan practices from the Hermetists, Sabians, Nabataeans, and various other Mediterranean peoples. It is not, however, a particularly theurgical text on the whole, even though it contains a wealth of information on philosophy, spiritual and cosmic frameworks, and the like in how and why magic works the way that it does. Yet, in book III, chapter 6, we encounter an interesting section on the “Perfect Nature”, a sort of guiding spirit or genius, originally encountered by Hermēs Trismegistus himself. The last post discussed what we would need to do to prepare for the ritual of communing with Perfect Nature; if you need a refresher on what we talked about last time, go read the last post!

At this point, we know we need to have the altar set up in a particular way: a bowl of butter/walnut oil/sugar/honey candy in the middle, four pint-sized pitchers of wine around the altar, and four pitchers of a particular kind of fat around the altar as well: almond oil in the east, walnut oil in the west, butter in the south, and sesame oil in the north. There’s more prep to be done beyond this, but I want to take a second to look at the symbolism hidden here and to expand on that a bit, because I’ll bet that the order that the containers of oil and butter are presented in the text (almond oil in the east, walnut oil in the west, butter in the south, and sesame oil in the north) is probably important.

Remember earlier how we drew dichotomies between the four spirits of Perfect Nature, with Meegius/Tamāġīs and Nufeneguediz/Nūfānāġādīs as one dichotomy (perception vs. interaction) and Betzahuech/Baġdīswād and Vacdez/Waġdās as another (substance vs. essence)? In the order of Meegius/Tamāġīs, Betzahuech/Baġdīswād, Vacdez/Waġdās, Nufeneguediz/Nūfānāġādīs , this would suggest that we’d put Meegius/Tamāġīs in the east, Betzahuech/Baġdīswād in the west, Vacdez/Waġdās in the north, and Nufeneguediz/Nūfānāġādīs in the south, which doesn’t fit the dichotomy scheme when thought about in terms of directions. But the Picatrix also notes that of these four spirits, there are “three spirits in matter” which are “coadunated in perfect contemplation”, suggesting that Vacdez/Waġdās (the spirit of contemplation) is set apart from the rest. We should note that, of the four containers that have non-wine substances in them, three have oil and one has butter, and that the butter is given third in the order of the containers, just as Vacdez/Waġdās is given third in the order of the list of names and contemplation given in the list of powers. So, perhaps we got our dichotomies wrong: perhaps it’s Vacdez/Waġdās and Nufeneguediz/Nūfānāġādīs that are in a better dichotomy of contemplation and labor (i.e. spiritual work vs. physical work), and Meegius/Tamāġīs and Betzahuech/Baġdīswād in another of sense and object (that which perceives vs. that which is perceived). This makes sense to me, and seems to have the altar arrangement going for it as well.

This means that we can give directional associations to the four powers of Perfect Nature, too, to the rest of our correspondences:

Power Power Direction Fat
Meegius/Tamāġīs Senses East Almond oil
Betzahuech/Baġdīswād Objects West Walnut oil
Vacdez/Waġdās Contemplation South Butter
Nufeneguediz/Nūfānāġādīs Labor North Sesame oil

And, if we tie this back into our revised vignette of Hermēs Trismegistus obtaining the four powers of Perfect Nature from the four corners of Heaven, then we know which direction to face for each individual power, which could come in use for other works, but about which book III, chapter 6 of the Picatrix says nothing. These associations could certainly be explored more, but it’s not so important for the present ritual—though, as noted before, the Moonlit Hermit does use these direction associations loosely for a daily invocation of the names of the Perfect Nature.

Also, if Vacdez/Waġdās is associated with the butter and Betzahuech/Baġdīswād with the walnut oil, then what should we make of the candy made from butter and walnut oil that takes prime position in the center of the altar? This makes the confection a mixture of the spirit of contemplation (Vacdez/Waġdās) with the spirit of “things to which spirit is attracted”; this confection, then, becomes something like a symbol of Alpha and Ōmega of Perfect Nature combined. Consider it this way: we proceed from pure contemplation (Vacdez/Waġdās) through the senses (Meegius/Tamāġīs) effected by the hands (Nufeneguediz/Nūfānāġādīs) onto an object (Betzahuech/Baġdīswād). It’s probably no surprise that this confection has four ingredients, though such a confection made from almond, sesame, and walnut oils with butter alone probably wouldn’t be particularly tasty; it’s likely that the sugar and honey are supposed to be stand-ins for the almond and sesame oils (and thus incorporating Meegius/Tamāġīs and Nufeneguediz/Nūfānāġādīs into the confection as well), but I’m not sure how that might be. The many grains of sugar could be thought of like the many small grains of sesame seeds and the sweetness of almonds like honey, or perhaps the pits of dates (the fruit of which would be more common to make sugar in the Old World before the cash crop of sugarcane came about) were thought of as almonds and the thick viscosity and dark color of sesame oil like honey. It’s unclear to me, but in thinking about this, I’m fairly confident in claiming that the four containers of fats around the altar represent the four spirits of Perfect Nature separately, and the confection in the middle represents their union. Also remember that the one candle we have in the ritual is to be set amidst this candy, the symbolism likely being the divine light of God filling the works of Perfect Nature.

I suppose there’s also something else that’s symbolic to note here regarding the use of butter. Of the four containers of fats, three of them are plant-based oils (sesame, almond, and walnut), but the last one of butter is animal-based. It’s not like other plant-based oils were unknown or unused—after all, consider olive oil or sunflower oil—which suggests that the use of an animal-based fat is important here. And, of all the animal-based fats, it’s not a normal fat, like lard or suet or tallow, the production of which involves killing the animal (and there’s plenty of that in the Picatrix). Rather, butter comes from milk, which is taken from an animal (cow, in this case) while it’s still alive and which itself encourages life. This is probably a sign that it’s living animals that are prioritized above plants (animal-based fat as opposed to vegetable-based fat), just as the internal is prized above the external (the power of contemplation vs. the other powers).

Beyond the above, there’s not a whole lot we might dig out as far as correspondences or associations might go for these four powers, nor is there a lot in terms of directional associations in the Picatrix to begin with; you might occasionally see “face south for this planet” (but all planets, if viewed from the northern hemisphere, would be in the southern parts of the sky if they’re above the horizon) or “go to the eastern side of a river” for a particular ritual, but that’s about it. Except, of course, for a beautiful image from book IV, chapter 3 of the Picatrix. There’s a whole lot more in this chapter in the Arabic Picatrix (and in the Atallah/Kiesel translation) than are in the Latin Picatrix (and thus the Warnock/Greer and Attrell/Porroca translations), but the title of this chapter in the Latin Picatrix is about the knowledge and secrets of the Chaldaeans…yet it’s really more about Egypt. A specific place in Egypt, no less, a special city that it calls Adocentyn, a city founded by Hermēs Trismegistus—but which in modern Egyptian Arabic is called El-Ashmunein. Those who are familiar with this place know it as a real modern city based on the ancient ruins of Khemenu, or Hermopolis Magna, the famous City of Thoth. The Picatrix gives us a lively description of this (Warnock/Greer translation):

[Hermēs Trismegistus] also it was who built, in the east of Egypt, a city twelve miles in length, in which he built a certain citadel that had four gates in its four quarters. At the eastern gate he put the image of an eagle, at the western gate the image of a bull, at the southern gate the image of a lion, and at the northern gate he built the image of a dog. He made certain spiritual essences enter into these, which used to speak in voices that issued from the images; nor could anyone pass through the portals without their permission. In that city he planted certain trees, in the midst of which he set up an arbor that bore the fruits of all generation.

At the summit of the citadel he caused to be built a certain tower, which attained a height of thirty cubits, and on the summit of it he commanded to be put a sphere, the color of which changed in every one of the seven days. At the end of the seven days it received the color it had at first. Every day, that city was filled with the color of that sphere, and thus the aforesaid city used to shine every day with color.

Around that tower, in a circle, water abounded, in which many kinds of fish used to live. Around the city he placed diverse and changing images, by means of which the inhabitants of the city were made virtuous and freed from sin, wickedness, and sloth. The name of this city was Adocentyn. Its people were most deeply learned in the ancient sciences, their profundities and secrets, and in the science of astronomy.

A pretty nifty place, if you ask me. The Atallah/Kiesel translation, following the Arabic, gives other details, too, but the Latin Picatrix has basically the same information as far as the city itself is concerned, although this city appears in a number of different Arabic texts, all with mostly the same structure but slightly different details from text to text. Given that we’re taking a Picatrix-centric approach, we’ll stick with what we have in the Picatrix. What I want to point out here, though, are three things:

  • This city is built by none other than Hermēs Trismegistus (or founded or otherwise centered on him, at any rate, given the historical connection to Thoth)
  • There are four gates, each with a different animal facing a different direction
  • The central citadel of the city is a tower that shifts colors every day, one color per planet for that day, to fill the whole city with light

Of the four animals used to watch over the gates to the city of Adocentyn, three should look intensely familiar to students of Abrahamic religion and modern Hermetic lodge-based systems: the four living creatures of Ezekiel 1. These are the seraphim, and seen as sacred bearers of the throne of God with four faces, that of a man, a lion, an ox, and an eagle. Later in the New Testament, Revelation 4:6-8 describes similar creatures, which are associated with the Four Evangelists (Matthew as man, Mark as the lion, Luke as the ox, and John as the eagle). Admittedly, it is somewhat hilarious to see a dog replace the station of man, but the similarities here cannot be denied. Bear in mind, too, that Hermēs took on another form as Hermanubis, the cynocephalic deity who was also related to the worship of Hermēs and Thoth, and also that the dog is a holy animal associated with Thoth along with the ibis and the baboon.

Consider what this gives us as far as the vignette of Perfect Nature, though, made all the stronger by both this and the holy city of Adocentyn/El-Ashmunein/Khemenu both being associated with Hermēs Trismegistus! We now have something directional and symbolic to latch on to for our four powers of the Perfect Nature, giving the following:

  • Meegius/Tamāġīs, the Eagle of the East
  • Betzahuech/Baġdīswād, the Bull of the West
  • Vacdez/Waġdās, the Lion of the South
  • Nufeneguediz/Nūfānāġādīs, the Dog of the North

Now, I don’t mean to say that these four powers are four individual spirits, as we discussed earlier; though some might interpret the Picatrix to say so, I think that’s a misreading of the text, and that these are four attributes, powers, skills, or abilities that the spirit of Perfect Nature can give us access to. After all, to use the Adocentyn image, the gate is not the city, but the gate provides access to it—and Hermēs as ruler of the city did empower each statue with its own presence, if not entity, to protect the city and permit only those who sought permission to enter. Besides, not only were these statues guards, however, but in other Arabic works describing the city, according to Okasha El-Daly’s Egyptology: The Missing Millennium, these were statues of “priests holding scrolls of scientific works”, and whoever wanted to learn a science “went to its particular statue, stroked it with his hand and then stroked his breast, thus transferring the science to himself”. I like the sound of this, personally.

But consider: the four living creatures (substituting man with dog) have long-standing elemental associations, too. Their use in the Golden Dawn and other modern Hermetic lodge-based magical systems is well-known, to be sure, but we even find such an association going back at least as early as Agrippa himself (book II, chapter 7), giving the lion to Fire, the eagle to Air, the man to Water, and the ox to Earth. These can also be seen as the four fixed signs of the Zodiac, with the lion as Leo, the eagle (via the constellation Aquila) to Scorpio, the man to Aquarius, and the ox to Taurus—and it’s in these four signs that many pagans and neopagans celebrate those famous cross-quarter days as approximations of the midpoints of these signs. (And, based on my own planning of geomantic holy days, this means we could also give Adam to the Bull of the West, Enoch to the Lion of the South, Hermēs to the Eagle of the East, and Daniel to the Dog of the North based on their shared zodiacal correspondences, but this is neither here nor there.)

Now, granted, we’d have to pick between the directional correspondences and those to the living creatures (Fire is given to both the East and to the Lion, but here we have the Lion in the South), but let’s stick to the symbolic association first, since we know our directions are set from our altar setup. We also know, from such texts as the Asclepius and other parts of the Stobaean Fragments in the Hermetic canon, that the Egyptians considered the land of the world to be like a body, with the head in the south, the legs and feet in the north, the right side of the body in the east, and the left side of the body in the west. This means we can tie in the four powers of Perfect Nature to the elements and parts of the body as well:

Power Power Direction Symbol Element Body Fat
Meegius/Tamāġīs Senses East Eagle Air Right side Almond oil
Betzahuech/Baġdīswād Objects West Bull Earth Left side Nut oil
Vacdez/Waġdās Contemplation South Lion Fire Head Butter
Nufeneguediz/Nūfānāġādīs Labor North Dog Water Legs and feet Sesame oil

Looking at the elemental correspondences we’ve built up by means of the animals associated with the directions for the four powers, it makes sense why these powers would have these elements:

  • The power of pure contemplation (Vacdez/Waġdās) is given to Fire, the holiest and noblest of the elements that ties us directly to the divine source of all illumination, that of the Divine. This is the purely internal power of Perfect Nature, and the one that all the other powers serve and assist with—just as the Lion is the king of all beasts. Just as we pointed out earlier with this power being associated with the only animal-based substance on the altar (butter) being more important than the rest, just as the Lion is king of the beasts, so too is contemplation king of the powers. Appropriately, although the heart was considered supreme in Egyptian thought, this is given to the head being in the South, fitting for the internal power of the mind alone.
  • The power of sense (Meegius/Tamāġīs) is given to Air. Like the Eagle from up high perceiving all around, this is the ability to spiritually perceive and know the various spiritual presences, entities, powers, influences, and impulses in the world. It is, after all, the very air that transmits sights, sounds, and perceptions from the thing perceived to the thing doing the perceiving. And, like the Eagle, once we perceive something we need, we can dive down to the river to pluck what we need, interacting with it, which leads to…
  • The power of labor (Nufeneguediz/Nūfānāġādīs) is given to Water. On the face of it, this is a little weird, as dogs are not really aquatic animals. But Water is known to link, conjoin, and commute all things—water, after all, is the universal solvent, in which all things can be mixed. The dog, too, is a beast of burden and a beast of labor, which protects us, guides us, warns us, and helps us in our ways. Likewise, being in the North, the Egyptians would have recognized this as the legs and body of the world—limbs for labor, indeed.
  • The power of objects (Betzahuech/Baġdīswād) is given to Earth, which is pretty obvious. This is the power of the material substances we work, understanding them, their properties, and their uses in our work. Just as the bull (the only herbivore of these four animals) is focused on and grazes on the produce of the Earth, this is the one power that’s entirely external and based most on the study and observation of the world itself. If we use the right hand to reach out to perceive what’s out there in the world, then we use the left hand to hold things and get a sense for what we have and can make use of.

(And, to offer a variation on the geomantic progenitor assignment, we could use these elemental associations instead of their zodiacal ones given above to instead give Enoch to the Eagle of the East, Hermēs to the Dog of the North, and Daniel to the Lion of the South, with Adam remaining for the Bull of the West. Personally, based on the actual powers alone, I’d be more symbolically inclined to give Hermēs to the Lion in the South, Enoch to the Eagle in the East, Daniel to the Dog in the North, but I can see arguments for and against any of these associations. Still, again, this is neither here nor there.)

And yes, I am aware that the use of the four animals above is perhaps particular to the Picatrix. As others before me have noted, this story of a sacred city of Hermēs Trismegistus appears a fair bit in various Islamic and Arabic occult texts, sometimes not even related to the city of el-Ashmunein/Khemenu itself but to another city, with variations on the animals. However, considering that our focus here is on the Picatrix alone, I feel like we can handily tie together these two chapters neatly into one overarching symbolic gesture.

Now, I want to be clear about this: I’m still sticking to my understanding that these four powers are not spirits unto themselves, and even if the name of Perfect Nature is referred to in a fourfold way, I don’t think that the Perfect Nature is at all separate from these four entities, and that the fourfold name of Perfect Nature is really just one name with four parts. However, in making these associations with the four gate-guards of Adocentyn, it might not be a bad idea to treat each power as a power unto itself for the purposes of meditation or spiritual work, understanding that they’re all four different aspects of the abilities of Perfect Nature, a la the Moonlit Hermit’s daily practice of calling on “the four spirits of Perfect Nature”. Personally, I’d be most inclined to recite the whole fourfold name of Perfect Nature on the misbaḥa (Islamic prayer beads) 99 times, once in each direction, but that’s just me. I suppose, given the imagery, we could face east and intone or vibrate each name, visualizing each beast manifesting in its proper direction around us, and at the end recite all four names together as the spirit of Perfect Nature (or otherwise an illuminating, enlightening ray from Heaven) descending upon us. This bears some similarities to the whole image of the City of Adocentyn, but we’ll talk about that soon enough.

Anyway, while I’m certain there’s more that could yet be said about further associations of the four powers of Perfect Nature, we are getting off-track here all the same. This was a nice detour to take, and I’m glad I was able to talk about some of the symbolic associations we could make to the four powers, but let’s be honest—even some of this feels like a stretch to me. I like the idea of it all to link the four powers to the four guardians of Adocentyn, with a relationship to one’s Perfect Nature being a sort of spiritual construction of an internal Adocentyn, but so much of this is so circumstantial and hypothetical. Still, even as that may be, it’s useful to consider to expand upon some of our conceptions of these ideas and to link them to other symbols to rely on.

At any rate, we were in the middle of preparing ourselves and our ritual area for the actual rite of communion with Perfect Nature. We’ll actually get to that next time, so stay tuned!

One response

  1. Pingback: Genius in the Picatrix: The Ritual Itself, and Why Do It Anyway « The Digital Ambler

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