Unlocking the Observatory: Tiles as Tools

Where were we? We’re in the middle of discussing the obscure Telescope of Zoroaster (ZT), a manual of divination and spirituality originally published in French in 1796 (FZT) at the close of the French Revolution, which was later translated into German in 1797 (GZT) and then again in an abridged form as part of Johann Scheible’s 1846 Das Kloster (vol. 3, part II, chapter VII) (KZT), with Scheible’s work then translated into English in 2013 as released by Ouroboros Press (OZT).  Although OZT is how most people nowadays tend to encounter this system, I put out my own English translation of FZT out a bit ago as part of my research, and while that translation was just part of the work I’ve been up to, there’s so much more to review, consider, and discover when it comes to this fascinating form of divination.  Last time, we talked about the symbolism of the nine Intelligences and the 99 Numbers. If you need a refresher on what we talked about last time, go read the last post!

※ For those following along with their own copy of ZT (get yours here!), the relevant chapters from ZT are the “First Step”, “Third Step”, “Fourth Step”, and “Epilogue”.

In a sense, it might be a bit odd that I would start the discussion of the actual technique and trade of ZT with the notions that are symbolically used for divination first rather than the tools that employ the symbols and which are themselves physically used for divination.  I mean, most discussions about Tarot start with the actual cards themselves; why don’t I start with the tiles that ZT uses?  The way ZT teaches its method is that it starts with a brief description of the actual tools themselves, and then progressively builds upon that in an iterative way to ultimately teach the whole divinatory method of ZT.  The book is surprisingly well-written in that regard, especially at a time when divinatory literature  along these lines (as we modern folk might recognize it) was still in its relative infancy; we have to remember that, by the time of FZT’s publication in 1796, the divinatory use of Tarot cards were only two or three decades old at this point, and the common approach of using non-Tarot poker cards was only a few decades older than that.  For such a text as ZT to deal with sortilege in such a clear manner (for some definition of “clear”, I suppose) is actually really admirable and insightful as to good manual writing techniques.

As just mentioned, ZT is what I consider to be a form of sortilege, i.e. the casting of lots, the mantic word for which is “cleromancy”; this is a form of divination where outcomes are determined through the random selection of one or more particular symbol from a set of possible symbols, where the symbol(s) itself and the order in which the symbol(s) have significance.  With that sort of definition, if it sounds like a lot of forms of divination we think about as such are sortilege, you’d be correct: everything from astragalomancy to cartomancy, from the Urim and Thummim to the Magic 8-Ball would all be variations on sortilege.  Many of these -mancy words, after all, indicate something about the kind of divination one does, but generally tend to focus on the tool or medium by which such divination is done: thus, astragalomancy is “divination with knucklebones”, cartomancy is “divination with cards”, and so forth.  Still, the underlying mechanism by which Tarot, runes, geomancy, and even ZT all work is fundamentally the same: generate a random answer from a set of possible answers and interpret accordingly.

With the exception of what one might call “abstract cleromantic methods” like geomancy that focus less on the tools one use and more on the mathematical processes one uses, most forms of sortilege rely on, well, sortes, the Latin word for “lot”, from which we get the words “lottery” and “allotment”.  In general, this refers to the little tokens, counters, or tablets that are used by being randomly drawn from some pile, collection, or vessel, and which may be interpreted both according to what was drawn as well as to how it was drawn (e.g. orientation and order).  For astragalomancy, it’s the four bones/dice (which represents an abstract “collection”) which are thrown to see which of their sides they show (which represent the answer drawn); for runes, it’s generally a bunch of stone or bone tiles with a rune carved on them drawn from a bag; for Tarot, it’s the individual cards with their respective symbols printed on them that are drawn from the stack.  ZT is another kind of sortilege, so we have our own set of tokens to draw from a collection, closer to runes or Tarot.  This puts ZT in the same overall divinatory category as cartomancy—ironic, given the vitriol ZT has against “card-shooters” and other such forms of divination:

We have said just enough for the curious, before briefly giving some time to the study of the Great Cabala, to suspect that seeing clearly—and especially seeing far—is not a matter of study over a few weeks, as if it were a question of telling fortunes by hands, points, or cards. One can soon become a doctor-sorcerer through chiromancy,* geomancy, and through so many similar lies—for what else can one call any of these so-called “methods of divination”, which brazenly qualify themselves as science but which none of them have the source of all truth, the Pure Mind, as a patron? Even a child utterly lacking in genius can become a chiromancer, a geomancer, a methodical cartomancer in a short time, as skillful as their master or as the books that indoctrinate them. But it is neither so quick nor so amusing to become an enlightened Cabalist; the latter, moreover, lacks (or willingly pretends to lack) the money of such people, as if, as regards capital, the cabalist alone is rich.

* This usage of “chiromancy”, “geomancy”, &c. gives no more than names to certain childish things, astonishingly proliferated by means of printing, and which alone are addressed here. The true divinatory art disdains to claim its usurped privilege over them.

Oh well! ¯\_(ツ)_/¯

At any rate, let’s talk tools: what is it that we need to use for ZT?  The book provides an exceptionally clear set of guidelines and prescriptions regarding the nature, size, shape, and material of the tools to be used (which are all given for practical reasons more than anything else), but at a high level, what we use for ZT are a set of 112 (or 113) small tiles in the shape of regular hexagons, six-sided shapes where every side is the same length and every vertex has the same angle (120°).  Why do we use these?  Because hexagons are the bestagons.

More seriously, I do have a notion of why hexagon tiles are called for as opposed to circular tiles which becomes more important for particularly-advanced spiritual adepts working the ZT system, but for the most part, I don’t think it particularly matters for the actual method of divination itself, given variant forms of recording readings described later, but we’ll get to that later on.

As for what ZT prescribes regarding the nature of such hexagonal tiles, they should be:

  • Made of wood that is firm and not brittle (though they may be made of any relatively sturdy material like cardboard or cardstock if necessary)
  • Be sized such that the long diagonal (one corner to its opposite) of each tile is 20.304mm, with each side being 10.152mm
  • Be sized such that each tile is no thinner than 1.692mm and no thicker than 3.384mm
  • Be engraved so as to hold a circular inlay, most preferably of white wood or some other surface that is not so slick as to have ink or pain wiped off easily, which is half the thickness of a tile and which is placed in the center of each tile
  • Each tile should be made identical to all the others in size, color, and (if possible) grain and texture

The reason for the weirdly specific sizes given in millimeters above is a conversion from the text; the text gives measurements in the French ligne “line”, which is 1/12 the French pouce “inch”, specifying that a tile’s long diagonal should be 9 lines long, no thicker than 1.5 lines and no thinner than 0.75 lines.  While sticking to these precise measurements is always encouraged, the point here is that the tiles should be convenient to draw and manipulate, so aim for something the size of a medium coin, like a US 25¢ or $1 coin, a Japanese ¥10/¥100/¥500 coin, a 1€ or 2€ coin, a 1£ or 2£ coin, or the like—at least as I would find them with my gigantic man-hands, so those with smaller hands and shorter fingers may find slightly smaller dimensions more convenient and comfortable.  As for the inlay (literally “incrustation”), well…my understanding is that some wood can sometimes soak up ink, pigment, or paint really easily, so it helps to write something on a separate piece of wood and then embed that in a larger piece so that there’s no risk of bleed-through.  For similar reasons, we don’t want whatever we put on to easily smudge or wipe off, which is why we want something absorbent to hold whatever we write or draw on there, hence why ivory (plastic would be a modern equivalent for its similar surface properties) is explicitly discouraged in the text.  Of course, an inlay is not strictly required if one is able to suitably write the design needed on the tiles without bleed-through or staining, even if it is preferred.

All these considerations here are given for their practical causes, not any spiritual significations.  Likewise, although this is often a concern for many modern divinatory practitioners, there is nothing in ZT regarding consecration, blessing, or purification of the tools used for divination.  We need to remember, after all, that the social and historical context of ZT was France at the end of the Revolution: between a longstanding Catholic influence and the newly-surging confluence of atheism and deism that combined to form the Cult of the Supreme Being, there’s not a great chance that the enchantment of tools along these lines would be considered anything more than superstition by some or an insidious debasement of the “Great Cabala” by others.  Of course, there’s nothing saying one can’t do such things to their tools, but the overall method, cosmology, and spirituality of ZT (which we’ll cover eventually) kinda renders it a moot point.

Okay, enough about the construction of the tiles; what about what goes on them?  As might be expected, each tile gets one symbol written, printed, or painted on one side, with the other side remaining blank.  The tiles should be oriented such that they are written on with a corner above and below the design and sides to either side; in other words, there should be a long diagonal oriented north-south.  ZT says that there should be 112 (or 113) tiles, and in the last post, we covered 108 different symbols (nine Intelligences and 99 Numbers), so each of those gets its own tile: either we put on a one- or two-digit Number on a tile, or we put on the glyph of a planetary Intelligence on a tile.  Easy enough; that’s 108 of the 112 (or 113) tiles.  What about the other another 4 (or 5) tiles that we haven’t covered yet?

This is where we start to touch on the cosmology of ZT, because these tiles get into much broader notions than particular indications or significations in a reading.  ZT describes two Principles and two Spirits:

Of the two Principles, Sisamoro is infinitely good, while Senamira is infinitely wicked. These names prove that our Cabala comes to us from the Persians: “Sisamoro” is the reverse of “Oromasis” and “Senamira” of “Arimanes”, both so powerful against each other according to the religion of this ancient race. All doubts about the origin and antiquity of our divinatory masterpiece are dispelled by this respectful tradition which transmits to us, under a fine veil, names so authentically indicative of its origin, although so many sects have since applied themselves to the same notions, which we Christians call “God” and “Satan”.

Sisamoro is represented in his lodge by a radiant upwards-pointing equilateral triangle. Senamira is represented in his lodge by a flaming upwards-pointing five-pointed star, accompanied by lightning and hail.

Of the two Spirits, one is favorable, akin to the good genius of the ancients, by whom they supposed that each human was constantly accompanied, or at least watched over. This is the “guardian angel” of the Catholics, the spirit Sallak; this spirit is feminine, and represented by a small upwards-pointing equilateral triangle with three wings.

The other Spirit is harmful, akin to the evil genius of the ancients and also a companion of each human, amusing itself by laying down traps. This is the malevolent Angel, a masculine spirit called Sokak, represented by an upwards-pointing five-pointed star with a tail, sometimes by a simple black pentagon, a figure which (without turning to the quality of the number it recalls) represents the cross-section of a coffin.*

* “Sallak” and “Sokak” are also “Kallas” and “Kakos” read backwards, two words almost correctly borrowed from Greek, the first of which signifies “beautiful”, the second “bad”. Without a doubt, from time immemorial, this reverence that these virtuous beings have for the Divinity did not allow any given Inventor of the Great Cabala to split by one simple genius such an attribute that characterizes par excellence the Almighty, the Creator, the Eternal; Sisamoro (Oromasis) seemed to them a sufficient source of good. This idea is not the least moral or least wise among those of our oriental Author.

What we have here is a notion of Ultimate Goodness and Creation (Sisamoro) and Ultimate Evil and Destruction (Senamira), which function as cosmic principles that affect things on a grand scale—and (emphatically) not necessarily on an individual scale.  Rather, when it comes to the individual, that’s where Sallak and Sokak come into play, who are respectively the representatives and emissaries of Sisamoro and Senamira for each individual human being, in much the same way that a planetary Intelligence is represented by its own primitive Number.  When it comes to divinatory indications (like we discussed in the last post with the Intelligences and Numbers), Sallak represents good fortune and Sokak ill fortune; that’s eays.  Sisamoro and Senamira are…more complicated, shall we say, and we’ll get to that later when we talk about the Great Mirror.  And yes, the text of ZT makes it explicit that the names “Sisamoro”, “Senamira”, “Sallak”, and “Sokak” are just reverses of other words, especially Oromasis (Ahura Mazda) and Arimanes (Ahriman, aka Angra Mainyu, sometimes syncretized in the classical world as Arimanius).  Like with the overall notion of ZT descending from Zoroaster and the Magi, this is another instance of orientalizing without anything particularly meaningful, a superficial borrowing of another religion’s theological concepts for our much more limited purposes here.

Unlike the Intelligence and Number tiles, ZT is clear about what goes on for the Principle and Spirit tiles.  While you could use the full description as above, one might also simplify things slightly (especially for those without exceptional artistic skills):

  • Sisamoro: A large white/unfilled upwards-pointing equilateral triangle, additionally with small rays coming off it if desired
  • Senamira: A large black/filled-in upwards-pointing five-pointed star, additionally with lightning bolts coming off it if desired
  • Sallak: A small white/unfilled upwards-pointing equilateral triangle with one wing coming off each side
  • Sokak: A small black/filled-in upwards-pointing five pointed star with a pointed trail coming off it, or a small black/filled-in upwards-pointing pentagon

Congrats, you now have all the information needed to make the tiles!  While you could certainly carve out and inlay a whole set for yourself according to the exact specifications above, you can also get sets of premade wooden hexagonal tiles for relatively cheap from craft stores or game supply stores and just write on them in permanent marker like I did.  Like, here’s one such set of tiles I got for myself and wrote on, spending like US$25 for the whole set:

Of course, you could do something much fancier, or turn to The Game Crafter where Calyxa’s Curios has produced a ready-made ZT divination set, which I myself also got and am thrilled about it (especially the quality for such a good price):

And with that, it’s finally time to address the elephant that’s been hanging out in a corner of the room with us. I’ve been saying “112 (or 113)” tiles at a number of points recently: why the variation, and what is this mysterious 113th tile?  In all versions of ZT extant (FZT, GZT, KZT/OZT), there is an elaborate foldout called “The Urn” which gives an elaborate example of all the tiles used in ZT:

From left to right, you’ll see the tiles of the Intelligences, followed by the tiles of the Numbers, followed by a few spare/blank tiles, and then those of the two Principles, the two Spirits, and…a small tile with the image of a cherub on it with the word “Sum”.  There is a helpful annotation on the foldout that briefly describes the purpose of this tile.  OZT translates it as:

Sum.  I am.  This figure indicates the person or thing in question.

Bizarrely, however, there is no mention of this tile anywhere in ZT—or, at least, that’s if you’re reading GZT, KZT, or OZT.  FZT is the only text that preserves the Epilogue, which describes (amongst other things) the full purpose and use of this tile:

The figure Sum represents, either in the passive or in the active, the being in question; this figure rarely appears in a Great Mirror without adding much to the meaning, either in its own particular part of an orbit or the orbit as a whole by which it is surrounded. Sometimes it suffices to announce a vision, if it happens to form a triangle (equilateral, of course) with two other figures or two simple numbers, but this rule is subject to many exceptions. The figure Sum is sometimes affirmative, sometimes negative, sometimes auspicious, sometimes menacing; we often see it shorten the detailed calculation of epochs and the operations described in the section on the temporal regime, but take care to determine either too lightly or too heavily the meaning of this superlatively influential figure. Moreover, the Pure Spirit does not allow the truly Called to go astray; that being said, miracles never happen to keep the inattentive operator or one lacking instruction to fall into error.

According to the Epilogue, after the original text was already headed towards (or was in?) production, the Redactor of ZT sent the Editors an updated and more helpful set of tiles, which the Editors reproduced as the Urn foldout above:

While this work was being printed, the Redactor, apparently desiring that a greater number of amateurs might profit from it, was kind enough to send us models of hexagons more detailed than those used by experienced Cabalists, and which are those as shown after the epistolary dissertation. Given the difficulty of inlaying the surface of the wood, as well as all that we found on the new hexagons added to either the Figure or the Number that each of them expresses, we decided to effect this design as being more suitable for the utensils, with an imprint from the plate similar to the one shown: we thus have united, on each piece, a Figure or a Number, its planetary glyph, and its sign of the Zodiac that each of these pieces comprises, in addition to the name of its Intelligence or Angel.

But the Redactor, by making such an accommodation favorable to our particular interest, asked us in turn to announce that he did so with some regret, as such details are likely to make the Candidate negligent. Rather, one should strive beyond all else, by dint of practice, to become imperturbably familiar with each Figure, each number together with the Planet, the Sign of the Zodiac, and the intelligence or angel which relates to it, as well as the department of these celestial beings and the kind of influence invested in them.

This explains the elaborate design of the tiles given in the foldout present in all versions of ZT: it’s not that each tile must have the spirit name and number/glyph and zodiac sign and whatnot, but having all those are like having Tarot cards with the Hebrew letter, planetary/elemental/zodiacal glyph, keywords, and the like: they’re interpretive aids for the sake of those who need to reference them without pulling out their “little white book”, but not mandatory parts of the cards themselves.  Likewise, when it comes to the tiles of ZT, you don’t need to have the spirit name of each tile, what a given Number’s planet and Zodiac sign are, and the like; they may be helpful for those who are still learning, but are not required for the purposes of divination.  Thus, if you want to use the more elaborate tiles with all their decorative and correspondence elements, feel free to; otherwise, especially if you’re crafting your own, you can just keep it simple.  For me, keeping things aniconic and unnamed was a nicer aesthetic choice, which is why I went with a Seal Script variant of the Chinese character 自 meaning “self” for the Sum tile in my own simple prototype set of tools.

But, to return to the Sum tile for a moment longer, it’s frustrating to me that the Sum tile is present in all versions of ZT, but is only described in FZT, with none of the other versions preserving the Epilogue as a clearly-necessary part of the ZT text that explains its use.  This leads to an interesting problem: given the smaller spread of FZT and the wider spread of GZT/KZT/OZT, do we use it or not?  The core text of ZT doesn’t say anything about it, after all, although the Epilogue does and, more importantly, every single version of ZT includes it with the rest of the tiles.  I would personally say that we should use it, even if it was an omission at first by the original Redactor but later included almost as a correction.  However, if one were to stick to the GZT/KZT/OZT versions of the text that don’t describe the use of the Sum tile except in that brief statement on the Urn foldout, either out of caution to not use what isn’t specified clearly or as a means to go with the Redactor’s “original vision”, I’d think that’d be understandable, as well.  I’ll leave it to the diviner in question as a matter for them to decide.

Taking another look at that Urn foldout, you might notice a slight difference in how the Sisamoro and Senamira tiles are depicted.  On the Urn, the Sisamoro tile has an extra Latin letter O on it, while the Senamira tile has an A on it.  These are not described in the text of ZT itself; I personally think that they’re referencing the “proper” reverse names of the principles, Oromasis and Arimanes, respectively.  I don’t think this all that significant beyond an indulgence on the part of the illustrator more than anything, perhaps as an extra interpretive aid; note how all the other tiles have some name on them, including the Spirit tiles, suspended on a banner of some sort, but the Principle tiles have no such name on them explicitly.  Rather than besmirching or condensing the otherwise elaborately-drawn Principle sigils on them, it may be that the illustrator tacked on a mnemonic cue to help those still learning to remember which is which.

The foldout I keep referencing above is called “the Urn”, which ZT itself also uses as the general name for the vessel that contains all the tiles.  Recall that sortilege in the sense of Tarot or runes requires the random drawing of tokens from some collection, like a pouch for all of one’s runes or a stack of cards for Tarot.  In the case of ZT, the text says that the tiles are put together and drawn from “the Urn”, which it notes could be “an urn, bag, box, purse, or even a simple handkerchief”.  What one draws the tiles from doesn’t really matter, so long as it’s some sort of container that is conveniently-sized to mix up, reach into, and pull individual tiles out of without being able to see what they are until they are drawn.  For us modern folk, one of those large cheap felt bags that come with a lot of divination kits or rock/crystal sets would totally work fine.

Alright, one last note for today: although ZT focuses on the tiles as being the primary tools of divination, it doesn’t just specify the tiles.  ZT also mentions the use of three (or four) pieces of paper, each of which has something written upon it.  Rather than making anything too big out of this, all these papers are are basically for reference; for instance, Plate II (the Table of Numbers from the last post) is one such piece of paper.  ZT fully expects people to require a “little white book” to reference in the course of divination, and the ZT text provides everything one might need to come up with their own for quick-and-easy lookup for the major points of the divination system.  These pieces of paper are a super minor “nice to have” thing rather than a “must have”, so it’s not a big deal whether or not you actually have one or not.

2 responses

  1. Pingback: Unlocking the Observatory: Figures, Mirrors, and the Great Mirror « The Digital Ambler

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

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