Unlocking the Observatory: Looking at (not yet through) Zoroaster’s Telescope

In my last post, I announced that I translated this obscure French book that dates back to 1796 on an equally-obtuse form of divination, Zoroaster’s Telescope (which I’ll refer to as ZT for short, both to the divinatory system itself and to the general body of texts that describe it).  The full title of this book is more properly (when rendered into English) The Telescope of Zoroaster, or, the Key of the Great Divinatory Cabala of the Magi (basically the same in any language it’s been written in or translated into), and…well, I have quite a lot to say about it.  Perhaps some of you, dear readers, might already be familiar with the book in one form or another, and might see where I’m going what with the whole “Unlocking the Observatory” bit in the title.  All the same, even though the book itself is pretty short, there’s still a lot to talk about when it comes to ZT, both the book itself as well as the divination method and spiritual system it contains—so let’s get started, shall we?

※ For those following along with their own copy of ZT (get yours here!), this post does not touch on any specific chapter of the text.

Let’s start with a review of the literature as it stands.  I touched on this briefly in the last post, but here’s what we’ve got:

  1. Up until my last post, there was only one English translation of ZT available, the 2013 Ouroboros Press version of the text translated by Dr. Jenn Zahrt (which I’ll abbreviate here on out as OZT).  The earliest social media posts and records I can find of it are that it was published sometime in summer 2013, at least by August 12, 2013.
  2. OZT is an English translation of Johann Scheible’s Das Kloster (1846), volume 3, part II, chapter VII (KZT).  Scheible (as mentioned in the last post) was a German antiquarian and compiler of folklore and superstition, and in this specific volume of his monumental 12-volume series dating from 1845 through 1849 containing various magical texts, superstitions, fairy tales, and other stories or records, Das Kloster III contains a number of other well-known occult texts (a good number of which are referenced up on Esoteric Archives).  The one I referenced was digitized by the University of Michigan Library on July 3, 2007 (and the whole series are up for public access, too).
  3. KZT itself is based on an earlier French book from 1796 (FZT).  The publication details of this are scarce; all I can find out is that at least one copy of this book survived into the modern era and was digitized by the Bavarian State Library on January 13, 2009.

That is…basically it!  However, I do want to note that, in the course of my studies, I found a fourth version of the text: an earlier German version from 1797 published by Wilhelm Rein in Leipzig (GZT) explicitly as a translation from FZT (“aus dem Französischen”) which was digitized in 2017 by the National Library of the Czech Republic.  Fascinatingly, although GZT comes hot on the heels of FZT (especially compared to KZT), a brief inspection of the text shows that KZT was not based on GZT; there are too many differences in structure and wording between KZT and GZT, while there are weirder similarities between KZT and FZT suggesting that KZT was based directly on FZT, with Scheible consulting a source that was likely ignorant of GZT and only familiar with FZT.  Also, technically, OZT being the only English translation of ZT put out so far (besides my own) isn’t quite true: William Kiesel, the man behind Ouroboros Press, put out an original translation by Robert William Mattila in 2003 as part of a very limited run, but I can’t easily find anything about such a work (just one oblique footnote in a 2008 French text, mentioned below).  While I don’t doubt that Kiesel put out such a book, it may as well not exist for the purpose of this study, and overall still seems to be based on the same source as OZT, so I’d guess it to be equivalent to OZT anyway.

So, like, that’s it for primary sources.  If it’s not apparent yet, then it needs to be emphasized that ZT is an exceedingly obscure divination system; even though the end of the 18th century in France was a super crazy and productive time for the occult scene (this was the time period, after all, when geomancy hadn’t yet lost all its vigor and was also the time of Etteilla’s popularization of Tarot as a divination system), ZT seems to have been made and then all but forgotten about—kinda.  In 1797, towards the close of the French Revolution, the French Jesuit priest Abbé Augustin Barruel published his Mémoires pour servir à l’histoire du Jacobinisme (Memoirs Illustrating the History of Jacobinism) (originally in French but translated into many other languages as well, English just being one of them).  This is a crazy book that basically goes ham on trying to pin the French Revolution on the Freemasons, Illuminati, and various other factions and subcultures in French society that wanted to subvert the royal, aristocratic, and religious institutions in France.  ZT gets a shout-out/call-out in Barruel’s book, but beyond that, we don’t see much in the way of other mentions of this book until a few decades later, most notably with Scheible’s Das Kloster.

Whereas other, more popular forms of divination—or at least occult texts and traditions that have garnered at least some public notoriety and awareness—are able to be researched through secondary or tertiary sources that mention or bring up such methods or texts, we really don’t have a lot to go on with ZT.  I have otherwise only found only a small handful of other texts that substantially discuss or talk about ZT in any way:

  1. “The Seven Mystery Names” in Lucifer, v. 4 n. 23 (July 1889) by Jakob Bonggren.  This barely warrants a mention, but this article in the Theosophical Society’s monthly newsletter does mention the names of the planetary intelligences in ZT.  Supposedly, there are other issues of Lucifer with articles by Sepharial or Westcott that reference ZT (or at least the same Das Kloster volume as what KZT comes from), but I’m not able to find any such references in Lucifer or by those authors.
  2. Die wahrsagende Kabbala der Magier: die Kabbala des Zoroaster, published in 1933 by theosophist-turned-ariosophist Karl Kern and later reprinted under the name “Baron André-Robert Andréa de Nerciat” in 2009. While this text preserves some of the material verbatim from KZT while abridging others even further than KZT did of FZT, it does away with much of the supplemental material while also providing a lengthy case study and example of its own, and also incorporates the recently-discovered Uranus and Neptune into its system.
  3. Astrologie lunaire: essai de reconstitution du système astrologique ancien by Alexandre Volguine (originally from 1972, English translation from 1974). Although this text focuses on a rather different occult art and practice, it includes a brief section treating on the angels of the mansions of the Moon as they appear in ZT.  It doesn’t really touch on anything in any meaningful way, and the conclusions it draws don’t really line up with anything I’ve been able to uncover about the book, so it’s just kinda there, I guess.
  4. Télescope de Zoroastre, ou Clef de la grande Cabale divinatoire des Mages: ouvrage présenté définitivement restitué à son auteur légitime et annoté by a group of authors working under the name “Alexandre de Dánann”, published in 2008 by Edizioni Archè di Milano.  This book, while offering a modern reprint of FZT, justifies that the text (originally all-but-anonymous) is indeed attributable to André-Robert Andréa de Nerciat, while also providing further context of secret societies.  (This is also that aforementioned French text that listed the earlier 2003 translation put out by Kiesel; we’ll talk more about this specific book and what it has to say in the next post.)
  5. Zoroastro, Wizard of the Renaissance (2021), volume 3 in the series The Dark Side of the Da Vinci Legacy by Susan Audrey Grundy (published as an ebook through Google Play Books). Although this volume focuses on the claim that the Codex Atlanticus was not the product of Leonardo da Vinci but rather his friend and companion Tommaso di Giovanni Masini (also known as “Zoroastro da Peretola”, with “Zoroastro” being a common nickname for those engaged in the occult), the section on pages 59–62 specifically touches on the potential authorship of ZT to lie not with Nerciat but rather this earlier “Zoroastro”.

That’s it: beyond the ZT source books themselves and Barruel’s conspiracy-minded condemnation thereof, there are just two books on their own and a handful of paragraphs from another two that discuss ZT that I’ve been able to track, beyond a smattering of other smaller oblique references in footnotes here or there from the past several centuries.  As I said, it’s really obscure.

So what even is ZT about?  At a high level, the book is fundamentally about a form of divination, one which I would describe as “numerological sortilege with an astrological flair”.  The system makes use of a number of 112 (or 113) hexagonal tiles, each randomly drawn from a collection, then assembled in a number of tightly-packed geometric spreads that ZT calls “mirrors”.  While some of these mirrors are used for simple forms of divination (largely relying, as the text describes it, on a process of elimination by trying to find where one tile is to indicate one particular option out of many possible options), the bulk of the text talks about “The Great Mirror”, which makes use of 37(ish) tiles put together in a large hexagonal arrangement: one center hexagonal tile, surrounded by six more, then by another twelve, then by another 18.  Of the 112 (or 113) tiles, 108 have their own planetary and zodiacal associations, and 90 of those have further associations with the 28 mansions of the Moon; the other four (or five) are attributed to much grander cosmological notions of good versus evil, creation versus destruction, or ascent versus descent.  In the Great Mirror, likewise, each of its 37(ish) houses has its own planetary (and sometimes zodiacal, and also sometimes lunar mansion) associations, along with its own set of significations that establish that particular house’s context and bounds for interpreting whichever tile might appear in it.

Yes, there is vagueness and vagary in the above description for a reason, which we’ll get around to covering, but the gist of the system is basically just that.  Despite its up-front complexity that can easily daunt those who are used to somewhat more modern forms of divination (much of ZT was written when divinatory Tarot was still new, so many conventions we take for granted nowadays in divinatory manuals weren’t established so firmly back then!), ZT is (as I find it) a really elegant form of divination that allows for a lot of intuitive investigation without all that much fixity or rigidity of rules and processes.  The thing is, however, is that ZT only introduces such a system of divination; as the text is fond of repeating, “a key is not a treatise”, and so the text insists on only giving a high-level introduction to its divinatory system and leaves both the exploration and development thereof as an exercise for the reader.  Frustrating as it might be for us modern folk, especially when faced with such a daunting system, the divinatory system of ZT really kinda only allows for one of two kinds of text: either a short handbook that gives the basic principles of the art, or a massive text that attempts to flesh out as much as it can (which would still necessarily be incomplete to one degree or another).  In the interest of brevity, the author of ZT opted for the former.  This is one of the reasons why I was snagged in my interest so hard by this text; while some occultists can’t seem to make heads or tails of it (as I wasted this particular 20 minutes of my life finding out in the course of my research), the fact that the ZT system was so ill-defined was something that I couldn’t pass up for filling in the blanks and fleshing out what it left empty.  (Not unlike some other projects of mine, I suppose.)

I will note something here, though: why is this called “Zoroaster’s Telescope” at all?  Yes, the name of Zoroaster and the Magi get dropped a handful of times in ZT as something it pretends to descend from; perhaps surprising absolutely nobody these days, this book is as much a product of orientalizing pseudohistory as Antoine Court de Gébelin’s attribution of Tarot to the venerable wisdom of the ancient Egyptians earlier that same century as FZT’s publication.  However, let’s be honest: ZT is fundamentally a product of the more-or-less bog standard continental European occulture of the late 18th century.  And yet, the use of “telescopes” and “mirrors” is striking here; although mirrors are certainly an old thing throughout the world in one form or another, telescopes are a much more recent invention.  It should be noted that, although telescopes were already in wide use by the end of the 18th century, there is a difference between refracting telescopes (which use lenses to magnify images at a distance) and reflecting telescopes (which use internal mirrors to do the same) in how well they are able to clearly magnify distant objects.  Although reflecting telescopes had been around in one form or another since the mid-17th century, they were significantly improved on in the 18th century and quickly became popular throughout the astronomical world, facilitating William Herschel’s discovery of Uranus in 1781.  In this light, we might consider ZT’s use of “telescope” and “mirror” (especially in the context of its own praising of astronomy and dismissal of astrology—I know, I know, we’ll cover that weirdness later) to be a sign of the times in keeping up with scientific progress, much as many New Age folk attribute various spiritual or occult things to quantum physics or string theory.  In other words, ZT gives us a telescope by which we may inspect the spiritual heavens, facilitated by looking directly at the mirrors we produce that reflect their spiritual motions and influences.  I think it’s a really beautiful metaphor, at least—and given how ZT gives us a key (specifically a “master key which will open not just the main doors but all the side doors, all the cupboards, all the drawers, and even the smallest secrets”), well, I think you’ll understand now why I’m entitling this series “Unlocking the Observatory”.

Let’s turn back to the source texts for a bit.  As I mentioned in the last post, although OZT is a fantastic translation of KZT, KZT was based on FZT, but not exactly so; rather, KZT provides more of an abridged version of FZT and leaves out quite a lot.  If we use FZT as the exemplary version that contains all possible bits, then we can compare the other versions of ZT to it to see what we’re missing.  In order, FZT provides us with the following:

  1. Seven beautifully-engraved plates with diagrams (technically six plus a large foldout)
  2. An introductory (and lengthy) “Epistolary Essay to One Privileged to be Placed at the Highest Rank in the Social Order” (hereafter just “Epistle” for short)
  3. Seven chapters focusing on basic techniques and information entitled “Steps”, plus one introduction of its own
  4. Three chapters focusing on advanced techniques and information that it calls “Supplements” (and which OZT translates acceptably as “Addenda”)
  5. A concluding “Epilogue from the Editors” (hereafter just “Epilogue”)
  6. A brief errata offering minor corrections in the French text
  7. A good number of footnotes throughout the Steps and Supplements

How do the different versions compare?

Plates Yes Yes Yes
Epistle Yes Yes No
Steps Yes Yes Yes (mostly)
Supplements Yes Yes Yes (mostly)
Epilogue Yes No No
Errata Yes No No
Footnotes Yes Yes Very few

GZT, KZT, and OZT all drop something out that is present in FZT, the big ones being either just the Epilogue or both the Epilogue and Epistle, with the Epilogue containing further refinement of technique (and an explanation of something present in one of the plates of all the other versions but which is never explained) and the Epistle providing a passionate defense and spiritual contextualization of ZT’s use and purpose.  In addition to the fact that KZT/OZT drop most of the footnotes given in FZT/GZT, KZT/OZT also don’t maintain all the core text of FZT/GZT, either; to be sure, the core content is present in KZT/OZT, but sections of it are abridged or omitted for the sake of brevity and (what I assume it considers to be) clarity.  This isn’t so much a problem with GZT, which (at a glance) preserves the structure, length, and content of FZT much more accurately than KZT/OZT do.  It’s no wonder, then, that when modern occultists approach ZT through the popular OZT version, they often feel like the text is incomplete; to a degree, this is attributable to the fact that ZT provides “only a key and not a treatise”, but also, it’s because the text that they’re reading is fundamentally incomplete, as well.  As I said earlier, this is no fault of Zahrt et al. over at Ouroboros Press; this is the fault of the text that they happened to translate.  This is why I went with FZT for my studies and as the basis of my own English translation, because it offers the most complete version of ZT that is extant.

When it comes to the actual contents of ZT, what are we faced with?

  1. Epistle: a lengthy, long-winded letter by the “Baron de N……” to an unnamed French nobleman, dedicating the production of ZT to the recovery and rediscovery of ancient wisdom and true spirituality and offering a defense against skeptics
  2. Introduction: a brief introduction to what ZT is and how it contrasts with other (lesser) forms of divination
  3. First Step: the size, shape, and form of the 112 tiles used as the main toolset for the divinatory method of ZT
  4. Second Step: the ways the tiles are put together into “figures” (geometric compositions of tiles that create a larger geometric shape, e.g. three or six or ten tiles to form a triangular figure)
  5. Third Step: the two Principles, two Spirits, nine celestial Intelligences, and the 99 Numbers that are used in the divinatory method of ZT, including a small treatise of base-10 numerology
  6. Fourth Step: the Great Mirror, its cosmological structure, and the notion of reading particular triads of tiles placed within it (“ideal triangles”)
  7. Fifth Step: the life of humanity according to zodiacal and planetary notions according to their layout on the Great Mirror
  8. Sixth Step: reinterpreting the Great Mirror as the Great Dial to determine matters of time and temporality
  9. Seventh Step: a summary of the meanings of the 37 houses of the Great Mirror
  10. First Supplement: specific methods of finding dates and times according to the Great Dial, how to engage in divinatory processes with querents and queries, and a summary of the meanings of the two Spirit tiles, nine Intelligence tiles, and 99 Number tiles
  11. Second Supplement: a summary of the 28 natal stars and their angels, their planetary natures, and what Numbers they are associated with, along with encouragement and directions of conduct to facilitate spirituality and contact with spiritual entities
  12. Third Supplement: further guidance and considerations on engaging in divination with ZT and understanding spiritual influences in the life of humanity
  13. Epilogue: further guidance, clarifications, cautionary warnings, and corrections regarding the content of ZT and how it should be applied and developed, along with an introduction to the errata
  14. Errata: a small list of emendations to particular words or phrases throughout the text of FZT

That is, effectively, the whole of ZT (at least as FZT has it).  Rather than trying to cover, summarize, and discuss each individual chapter on its own, I’d rather take the approach of discussing particular topics related to ZT and reference the related sections throughout the ZT, because the text is “a key, not a treatise” and so doesn’t discuss things in a clearly-defined way, rather presenting bits of technique or information piecemeal as a means to educate the reader, starting with the basics and working up iteratively to more advanced topics.  From basic approaches to divination to the weird 17th century German astrological texts that influence ZT, from estoeric spirituality to revolutionary civic religion, there’s a lot to discuss; now that we’ve gotten a high-level bird’s-eye view of the text, we can dig in more to the text itself in the next post.

4 responses

  1. Pingback: Unlocking the Observatory: Assigning Authorship « The Digital Ambler

  2. Pingback: Unlocking the Observatory: Dramatis Personae and the Great Cabala « The Digital Ambler

  3. Pingback: Unlocking the Observatory: Planets and Numbers « The Digital Ambler

  4. Pingback: Unlocking the Observatory: Summary and Recap « The Digital Ambler

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