The Two Sons of `Iyān: Bird-Based Origins and Other Ideas for Geomancy

In yesterday’s post, we began looking into this funny little thing that the good Dr. Stephen Skinner mentioned in his 1980 book Terrestrial Astrology: Divination by Geomancy, which was more recently updated and republished in 2011 as Geomancy in Theory & Practice.  When describing the Arabian origins of the art of geomancy, he mentioned a peculiar chant: “Ye two sons of ‘Iyan hasten with the explanation!”  It’s the identity and nature of the entities these were referring to that’ve puzzled me for going on ten years now, and unfortunately, Skinner never cited this statement anywhere.  After doing a bit of Arabic language hacking, we ended up with a proper spelling of the big name here to be `Iyān with the triliteral root `-Y-N (`ayn yā’ nūn), which ties it into the letter `ayn, the sixteenth letter of the Arabic script according to the Phoenician order (potential geomancy connection!), and thus to notions of eyes, sight, and vision (possible divination connection!).  We continued to dig a bit further, and we found several sources that talk about what Skinner did in his own books, though with about as much specificity, which wasn’t much.  However, we did begin to make some headway into understanding some of the first swirlings of geomantic practice and how it developed from earlier proto-geomantic practices in Arabaian and related cultures.  Today, we’ll pick up where we left off and keep investigating what `Iyān might refer to.

Though our discussion yesterday focused on the lines produced for geomantic (or proto-geomantic) divination, there were a few other references that we should investigate.  Going back to Lane for a moment, the entry for `Iyān mentions something about arrows.  Let’s bring that up again:

… اِبْنَا عيَانٍ means Two birds, (Ḳ, TA,) from the flight or alighting-places, or cries, &c., of which, the Arabs augur: (TA:) or two lines which are marked upon the ground (Ṣ, Ḳ) by the عَائِف [or augurer], by means of which one augurs, from the flight, &c., of birds; (Ṣ;) or which are made for the purpose of auguring; (TA;) then the augurer says, اِبْنَى عيَانْ اًسْرِعَا البَيَانْ [O two sons of `Iyán, hasten ye the manifestation]: (Ḳ,* TA: [see 1 in art. خط :]) in the copies of the Ḳ, اِبْنَا is here erroneously put for اِبْنَى : or, as some say ابْنَا عِيانٍ means two well-known divining arrows: (TA:) and when it is known that the gaming arrow of him who plays therewith wins, one says جَرىَ اِبْنَا عِيَانٍ [app. meaning The two sons of ‘Iyán have hastened; i.e. the two arrows so termed; as seems to be indicated by a verse cited in the L (in which it is followed by the words بِالشِّواء المُضَهُّبِ with the roast meat not thoroughly cooked), and also by what here follows]: (Ṣ, L, Ḳ, TA:) these [arrows] being called ابْنَا عِيانٍ because by means of them the people [playing at the game called المَيْسِر] see the winning and the food [i.e. the hastily-cooked flesh of the slaughtered camel]. (L, TA.)

Lane says that abnā `Iyān could refer to “two well-known divining arrows”, i.e. belomancy, which was known and practiced throughout Mesopotamia, Arabia, and the Near East dating back to ancient biblical times.  In this style of divination, the arrows used for divination were required to be fletched with feathers, at least for the sake of distinguishing them.  This also brings up the memory of the pre-Islamic god Hubal worshiped by the Quraysh tribe (the tribe of the Prophet Muḥammad himself) in the Ka`bah in Mecca (when it was still a pagan shrine) who performed acts of divination with arrows for his devotees.  However, what little is known of that method of divination was that Hubal used seven arrows, not two as Lane suggests.  Plus, from what I can find (especially from Robert Hoyland’s 2002 work Arabia and the Arabs: From the Bronze Age to the Coming of Islam), there were several methods of belomancy:

  1. Using three arrows (one marked for “God commands it” or just as “do it”, one for “God forbids it” or as “don’t do it”, and one that was either left blank or marked as “not clear”), one would put them in a quiver on the back, and one would be randomly drawn.  The one that was drawn indicates the course to take; if the blank one was drawn, it was put back and another arrow was randomly drawn until an answer was obtained, or it was interpreted as “wait”.
  2. Using the same three arrows, they would be fired off, and the one that flew the furthest (or got closest to its target) indicated the answer.
  3. The arrows (perhaps the same three, or different ones?) were tossed or thrown in a certain way, and then interpreted based on the ways or the directions they fell.
  4. The seven arrows of Hubal:
    1. “Blood price”: When several people fought over who should pay blood-price, they drew lots and whoever drew this one would have to pay it.
    2. “Yes” and “No”: When they had a simple binary question, they drew lots until one of these two came up.
    3. “Water”: If someone wanted to dig for water, they cast lots containing this arrow and wherever it came forth they set to work.  (This seems unclear to me; perhaps onto a map, or into a field?)
    4. “Of you”, “Affiliated”, and “Not of You”: Whenever they wanted to circumcise a boy, make a marriage, bury a body, or make some sort of alliance or contract wit, or if someone had doubts about someone’s genealogy, they used these arrows to determine the specific relationship to someone.  “Of you” indicates that they belonged to the same tribe; “affiliated” that they were not of the same tribe but an ally of it; “not of you” that they were unrelated and unaffiliated.

None of this really comports with what we know about geomantic or proto-geomantic practice, whether from the sources Lane quotes or from Skinner’s research, unless we were to focus on the “Yes”/”No” style of Hubal-directed belomancy (which, well, it is a binary answer at least, which can be seen to tie into geomancy or proto-geomantic divination).  Plus, connections to Hubal and his divination cult seem to be a stretch; after all, Islam came about in Arabia around in the first half of the 600s ce, by which point the cult center of Hubal was effectively destroyed with the harrowing of the Ka`bah.  Even if we admit the likely possibility that there were proto-geomantic practices in Arabia at the time of the Prophet Muḥammad (and who’s to say that the earliest geomantic diviners didn’t use arrows to mark sand instead of using a simple staff?), an argument could be made that we’re looking at the wrong place for such a connection to geomancy.

Perhaps, instead, we should be looking towards the pre-Islamic gods of the sands of the Sahara rather than towards pre-Islamic gods of the Arabian peninsula.  After all, `Iyān doesn’t really seem to appear in the names of Arabian pagan religion, but it might in a Saharan one, perhaps even one with Egyptian, Canaanite, Hellenic, or Roman origins.  This is getting into some really weird and extraordinarily vague and far territory, though, and we don’t have a strong enough reason to get deep into any of it; there’s far too much variability if we widen our scope to all those other cultures, and it could well be a wild goose chase.

If not that, though, it could also be the result of the name of a spirit who wasn’t a god that was propitiated and propagated for calling upon in divination, much as how the Lemegeton duke Bune is now goetically synonymous with wealth magic, and whose name either happened to be close enough to `Iyān to be interpreted as such.  This is one possibility that my colleague and resident North African and Mediterranean traditions expert Arlechina Verdigris suggested, perhaps even a reuse of the name “John” as heard by Arabic ears (think how “John” is spoken by modern Spanish speakers, almost like “yohn” or “zhohn”), but in this context, that explanation seems a to stretch a bit too far, as “John” is usually rendered as يَـحـيٰى  Yaḥyā (especially by Arabic-speaking Muslims) or as يُوحَنَّا  Yūḥanna (especially by Arabic-speaking Jews and Christians), neither of which share much in common with the name `Iyān,  Plus, the name “John” as pronounced as such by English speakers would have been introduced only far too recently compared to the sources we’re looking at from before, considering the old origins of the chant in question.  That `Iyān could be the name of a spirit (jinn? ancestor?) or a pre-Islamic or otherwise pagan god from the Sahara or from Arabia is a possibility, but considering the variability of such names and spirits, and how so many spirit names are isolated to maybe a handful of magicians at most, I don’t know how likely this idea might be; my hunch is that it’s not, but at any rate, it’s not something that’s within my power to research, given my dearth of Arabic knowledge and Arabic materials to consult.

Okay, this line of questioning doesn’t seem to be getting us anywhere without further resources that may or may not be available, so let’s backtrack a bit.  There’s one more thing we’ve yet to discuss when it comes to `Iyān and its two sons, and that’s the topic of birds.  According to Lane’s entry on `Iyān, the “two sons” ابْنَا عِيانٍ (abnā `Iyān) refers first to the practice of augury, and specifically the interpretation of omens that result from hearing or watching birds.  Lane goes on to say that the phrase “two sons of `Iyān” refers to the “two lines which are marked upon the ground by the augurer, by means of which one augurs, from the flight, &c., of birds”.  Consider what that actually means here, especially in the light of Lane’s entry for khaṭṭ: the abnā `Iyān, the “two lines or marks” that were made when engaging in geomantic or proto-geomantic divination, were produced by the tracks of birds, specifically “two birds…from the flight/alighting-places/cries of which the Arabs augur”.  That would explain why birds are mentioned alongside geomancy; rather than using augury or ornithomancy (divination by birds) generally, such as in ways that would focus on what the birds were or how they fly or in what direction, these proto-geomancers would focus instead on how birds land upon and walk across the sand.  In this way, proto-geomancers would inspect the tracks left by birds on the ground and tally them up two-by-two until one or two footprints, or sets of tracks, were left.

If that’s what’s really being suggested or reported by Lane here, then that could mean that the practice of making marks in the sand with a staff or wand would be a way to produce such omens on demand for augury-on-the-fly, no birds required.  And when you look at such tracks left in sand…

…it’s actually pretty believable as an origin for the original geomantic method of making figures.  And, tracing the development a bit further: from inspecting the marks left behind from birds, we began to make our own to inspect anytime we wanted; from tallying up two lines of marks, we went to four, and from four to sixteen; by clustering them together, we got the Mothers; by transposing them, we got the Daughters; by adding them together and using the same basic tallying technique, we got the rest of the figures of the chart.  With a bit of mathematical finagling, we can ensure that the Judge is always an even number, which, as we discussed in the previous post, would be significant to ensure a fair judgment to be produced, even if not strictly favorable for the querent and query.  (Image below from Dawat-e-Rohaniat.)

We may well be looking at the ultimate historical origin of geomancy here: a human-innovated practice of replicating bird tracks on sand and using fundamentally Arabian ornithomantic methods to interpret them.  If that’s the case, then geomancy, ultimately, is from birds.  Birds, little divine messengers from the skies coming down to Earth, instructing us in their language, then flying back off returning to Heaven once we don’t need to directly rely on them anymore.  It’s like we can hear echoes of this in the story of how the archangel Gabriel taught the art of geomancy to the prophets, the founders of geomancy—Adam, Daniel, Hermēs Trismegistus, or Enoch, according to the different historiolas we find in geomantic texts.

Birds.

Huh.

As intoxicating as it is to think that I figured out what the ultimate origin of geomancy might be, I have to admit that this is all really interpretive and hypothetical.  There’s not a lot going on here besides chaining some circumstantial evidence, unclear etymologies and definitions, and a good amount of interpretation on my part.  No matter how likely it might be that geomancy was derived from inspecting the tracks of birds on sand (which I think is pretty likely given all the above), we shouldn’t consider it verified fact.  Unfortunately, geomancy is sufficiently old and the evidence sufficiently sparse that the origins may well be lost in the sands of time, so to speak, and while the evidence is pointing towards an Arabian origin instead of a Saharan one, there’s still nothing here that conclusively shows its actual geographic origins in either Arabia or the Sahara; still, though I’ve favored the Saharan origin up until now, I’m starting to be more inclined towards the Arabian origin.  Even so, even if we want to accept this ornithomantic Arabian origin for geomancy, there’s a little more for us to consider to get a deeper insight into what could be going on here, so let’s continue.

What we’re missing now is a more solid connection between `Iyān and birds.  Taking specific birds a little bit further into consideration, I came across this massive list of Arabic names for birds, and I found the name العين al`ayn (I think?) which appears to share the same root as `Iyān, and which refers to Oriolus oriolus, the Eurasian golden oriole.  Lane does in fact discuss it in a related entry to our main topic on page 2269: “a certain bird yellow in the belly, [dingy, dark, ash-color, or dust-color] on the back, of the size of a [species of turtle-dove]”.  The golden oriole largely fits the bill for this.  There’s also the fact that it forms pair-bonds that last between breeding seasons, which would be a symbol of life and creativity, and would tie into the notion of even numbers being positive and odd numbers (a single, lone bird without a mate, or whose mate was lost) being negative.  So if we were looking for a…I guess, a patron/tutelary animal for geomancy, then based on all the above, this would be it:

Perhaps above any other kind of bird, it’d be the golden oriole that would be best-suited for making tracks in the sand for divination, and the lines of its tracks it left behind would be its “sons”.  In watching such a bird to cross tracks, we’d urge it to hurry up to make a sufficient number for our proto-geomancer to interpret it: “ye two sons of `Iyān, hasten with the explanation”.

The only problem with assigning the golden oriole to be an entity marked by `Iyān is that this bird isn’t really common to Arabic-speaking areas; its distribution is largely across almost all of continental Europe south of Scandinavia in the winter, and across central and southern Africa from Cameroon and points south in the summer.  As pretty of a bird and as appropriate though it might be based on the description in Lane,  I’m not wholly pinning this as being what `Iyān is referring to.  However, birds know no borders, and it’s also pretty true that they’d certainly have to pass through the Arabian peninsula and northern Africa during their migrations, and it does have its non-migratory homes in some Arabic-speaking areas that are just on the edge of the expected range of locations for the origin of geomancy, from the northwest edges of the Maghreb in the west to Mesopotamia in the east.  It’s nothing I’ll wage a bet on, but it’s certainly not nothing.

Regardless of whether the golden oriole is specifically tied to `Iyān, there’s definitely some connection between birds and either `Iyān specifically or divination generally.  I mean, that there should be one wouldn’t be terribly surprising, since the word for bird is طير ṭayur, and the classical term for augury or orthithomancy is تطير taṭayyir, which was extended to divination in general, just as we might use “augury” in a wide sense to refer to all divination.  Both of these words come from the same root of Ṭ-Y-R, referring to flying or taking off.  This recalls the notion of divining arrows from above being set loose to fly; as noted, they were required to be fletched with feathers, giving them a bird-like connection and, thus, giving them a distant or alluded-to tie-in to augury by birds.  And, further, fletching would also be needed to make them “fly”, which would tie them symbolically into the Ṭ-Y-R root.  Plus, as noted above, who’s to say that they wouldn’t use fletched arrows instead of a simple staff to make marks in the sand?  Divining arrows are divining arrows, no matter how you use them, after all, and it would give these proto-geomancers a stronger connection to deeper cultural practices of divination.  Perhaps we modern geomancers might consider using fletched arrows for marking sand, if we wanted to use wands at all for ritual divination!

While mulling this over, the wonderful Nick Farrell dug up an interesting article for me, “Some Beliefs and Usages among the Pre-Islamic Arabs, with Notes on their Polytheism, Judaism, Christianity, and the Mythic Period of their History” by Edward Rehatsek (The Journal of the Bombay Branch of the Royal Asiatic Society, volume XII, 1876, pp. 163-212).  This article mentions the same thing we’ve seen before in Skinner, Lane, and Abu Dāwūd, but Rehatsek specifically considers it alongside and mixed in with ornithomantic omens.  Consider specifically pp.172ff, emphasis mine:

Many things were believed to be unpropitious by the Arabs, whilst certain birds were also considered to portend evil, and others good.  When an Arab augur, who was called Zâjar (literally meaning ‘a driver away’, because by doing so the direction of the flight of a bird, from which nearly everything appears to depend, is ascertained), began his soothsaying operation, he drew two lines called eyes, as if he could by means of them observe anything he liked; and when he had through these perceived something unpleasant he used to say, “The sons of vision have manifested the explanation.”*  It is natural that birds which were known to settle on the backs of wounded camels and to hurt them should have been considered unlucky; such were the crow, and a kind of woodpecker, but the former was also considered so for another reason—namely, because it implied separation.  When a tribe strikes its tents and departs to new pastures, the crows alight on the spot of the abandoned encampment in search of food, and there is nothing passing in front, or crossing over from the right side to the left, and no beast with a broken horn or any other object more unlucky than a crow, but the omen was increased when it happened to sit on a Bán tree and pulled out its own feathers.  As the Bán tree also implies separation, the omen is taken from this signification, and applicable not only when a crow, but also when a dove, a bird of good luck, is perched on it; but poets like plays on words, and hence the lapwing, whose name is Hudhud, also indicates the direction Huda; whilst the eagle called U’káb, being nearly homophonous with U’kb, “the end”, and the dove Ḥamám with Humma, “it was decreed”, are on these accounts respectively considered to put an end to separation, and to imply that the meeting of friends is decreed.

* Arab. Prov. [Arabum Proverbia] tome i., p. 695, ابنا عيان اظهر البيان In the beginning of the operation they were also in the habit of addressing an invocation to these two lines, or eyes:— ابنا عيان اظهرا البيان “O sons of vision, manifest the explanation?”

We’re starting to tap into some of the symbolism behind even and odd here, and we can see that we were on the right track from before, but this time it’s made a bit more explicit; we might have considered that, perhaps, birds seen in pairs was considered a good omen in general, while a lone bird was considered bad, and that could still be the case especially for birds like the golden oriole that forms long-term pair-bonds, but now we’re tapping into deeper cultural lore about separation and number.  When the result of divination is even, then things are in pairs, considered fortunate because it suggests coming together or staying together (remember that the origin of the Arabic word for “even” ultimately comes from Greek for “yoked together”, as in marriage); when the result is odd, then it implies separation and being left alone (literally “wholly one”).  For a migratory, nomadic people living in a harsh environment, survival often depended on your tribe and not being left alone or being cast out, for which separation could truly mean an ill fate up to and including death by dehydration, starving, heat, or exposure; the same would go for humans from their tribes as it would for animals from their herds.  To consider it another way, if the marks being made in the sand are “eyes”, then in order to see clearly, we need to have two of them, since eyes naturally come in pairs (at least for us humans and many other animals).  If we end up with an odd number, then we’ve lost an eye, and cannot see clearly.

Up until this point, we’ve been largely been assuming `Iyān as the name for a distinct entity and the “two sons of `Iyān” to be lesser entities under it or the productions made by the entity, as if we’re supplicating spirits or asking for aid from them.  However, there’s the distinct and possibly likely chance that we’re on the wrong track entirely.  Given that “poets like plays on words”, Iyān (which Rehatsek translates as “vision” though “inspection” is a better term, but cf. the Greek suffix -manteia to mean both) isn’t really an entity at all, but just a poetic turn of phrase, a personification of the concept of divinatory investigation rather than a deification of it (which might be just a little too animist/polytheistic for observant Muslims).  Thus, rather than thinking of the “sons of `Iyān” to represent entities under a bigger entity like how the phrase “sons of God” refers to angels under the Divine, it might be better to think of “sons of `Iyān” to represent the extensions or productions of divinatory “eyes” through a process of divination so as to perform an “inspection” or investigation of a matter.  This would be like another Arabic turn of phrase seen in poetry, the “two sons of time” relating to the day and night, and how the “daughters of time” could represent the vicissitudes or afflictions that time imposes on us.  So, saying “sons of `Iyān” is basically saying “results of the inspection”, i.e. the outcome of the divination, which we would realistically want to hasten so as to get a proper answer.  In the context in which Skinner et alia are describing this chant used by an assistant towards the diviner, it could be a way to spur the diviner on into a sense of frenzy and frenetic urgency, helping them lose themselves in the striking of the earth to produce a truly divine result, which would afterwards then be tallied up, reduced down, and accounted for.

Yet…well, I want there to be some sort of spiritual entity behind `Iyān and their two sons.  It’s kinda one of the things I was hoping to find, but what evidence that I can find doesn’t really support that premise.  Is the possibility ruled out?  No, and far from it!  As mentioned above, there is a possibility (though a faint one, as I’d reckon it) that `Iyān may be a holdover deity from some pre-Islamic, tribal, or pagan religion or some other jinn, angel, or other spiritual entity, but opening up that research…well, my gut feeling is that there’s probably not a lot to find along those lines, especially considering the scope of that sort of research.  But, at any rate, there’s not enough evidence to support the idea that the chant “Ye two sons of `Iyān, hasten with the explanation” is an invocation of a spirit, but more of a metaphorical exhortation to the diviner.  If `Iyān is considered to be an entity at all, it’d likely fall in the same category as all the minor divinities in Greek religion, divinized concepts of things like health or fruit-bearing trees or the like that might have stories told about them but never actually received cult, worship, or ritual.  That seems to be the most likely result to me, as much as I find it a disappointment.  But, hey, we’ve learned quite a bit along the way all the same, and that’s still a great result for all of us!

…well.  I think we’re at the end of this discussion and line of research, honestly.  To summarize this little garden-path effort of mine:

  • Stephen Skinner, in his 1980 work Terrestrial Astrology, mentioned in passing a practice of some of the earliest geomancers (or proto-geomancers) where they would use the chant “O two sons of ‘Iyan, hasten with the explanation!”, though this comment was not backed up with a source or reference, and left me befuddled for ten years until recently.
  • By looking at rules of Arabic word derivation, we were able to deduce the proper spelling of this word, `Iyān, and link it to the letter `ayn, the sixteenth letter of the Phoenician script and all scripts that derived from it, including the Arabic script.  This word has the root `-Y-N which links it to notions of the eye, sight, and vision, and thus has connotations of divination, along with a numerological link to the 16 figures of geomancy and any 4×4 combination of the elements.  That the numerological value of `ayn is 70, and that its reduction from 16 → 1 + 6 = 7 is also a nice bonus, tying it to seven planets and all other things with the number seven.
  • `Iyān, as a word, means “inspection”, “a witnessing of events”, “a coming into sight/light”.  This word is a verbal noun of the verb ʿāyana, meaning “to inspect” or “to witness”, but also more broadly as “to investigate” or “to behold”.
  • While investigating the word `Iyān, we were able to find a text that discusses what Skinner did with a bit more depth, as well as comparing it to other sources that describe the same fundamental practice which is likely proto-geomantic rather than geomantic as we’d recognize it.
  • This proto-geomantic practice, with origins that are attested to be either pre-Islamic or early-Islamic, involves making two lines of marks in the sand, then reducing them two-by-two until either one or two points are left.  If two points, an even number, the result is considered favorable and good; if one point, an odd number, the result is considered unlucky and bad.
  • The word `Iyān is commonly mentioned in other texts as relating not to geomancy or proto-geomancy, or at least not just those things, but to augury and ornithomancy as well.  In addition to Arabian augurs interpreting the position, direction, motion, types, and actions of birds, they would also observe the tracks they produced on the sandy ground as meaningful for omens.
  • It was from using the tracks left behind by birds and counting them for an even or odd number of marks that likely formed the ultimate origin for the (proto-)geomantic practice of making marks in the sand to produce the same.
  • The (proto-)geomancers would make marks in the sand while in a frenzy or other kind of trance state so as to obtain the same divinatory virtue through their manmade marks as might be given more purely from the cosmos through the tracks of birds.
  • The (proto-)geomancers would consider the “two sons” to be the two lines of marks they made as “eyes” (`uyūn)  that “witnessed” (yu`āyinūna) the events, circumstances, and actors involved in the query put to divination, and the whole matter would be considered an investigatory “inspection” of the matter (`iyān).
  • Even numbers, by virtue of coming in or being arranged as pairs, culturally connoted being together or holding fast, a sign of good fortune, livability, viability, survivability, meeting, and support, and thus were seen as fortunate, positive, or affirmative answers in proto-geomantic divination.  Conversely, odd numbers, by virtue of standing alone, connoted loss, exile, abandonment, absconding, maiming, and other notions of separation, which ere considered to be unfavorable, negative, or denying answers.
  • Given the symbolism behind even and odd in Arabian (nomadic) culture, later geomantic practices may have innovated a specific use of not just bundling lines into figures, but processing the resulting figures in a certain way as to always end up with an even figure in the end (the Judge) so as to ensure that the total reading may be good in some light, even if not favorable, so as to ensure a fair and valid judgment.
  • `Iyān is likely not being referred to in the chant as a spiritual entity unto itself, but in a personified way as a figure of speech, commanding “the two sons of `Iyān” to be speedy in giving an answer, said to encourage the diviner to engage in the process of frenetic/ecstatic/trance-based divination speedily without delay or delaying.
  • There is a potential connection between (proto)-geomantic divination as `Iyān and the Eurasian golden oriole (al`ayn) based on their shared word roots, as well as the role birds played in providing the initial marks for this divination to be performed with, which could provide a preferred bird by which one can perform land-based proto-geomantic augury, or which provides a kind of tutelary animal for the practice, especially through the use of its feathers, which may be used and appended to the end of a divining staff/stick to form “arrows”, tying it into an older practice of Arabian and Mesopotamian belomancy.  The “arrows”, then, would take the role of the “two sons of `Iyān”, though this might be a reuse or repurposing of the chant for a more general divinatory purpose rather than one relegated to (proto-)geomancy.
  • There is a small possibility that `Iyān may well be the name of a pagan god or another spirit of divination and that the “two sons of `Iyān” are its facilitators or emissaries that bear out the message of divination from `Iyān, but this is more likely a misreading the chant from a animist or polytheist perspective that wasn’t historically used.

This post turned out a fair bit longer (almost four times the average length!) than I expected, so much so that I had to break it up into two already-long posts, so if you managed to get this far, then I thank you for sticking with me.  Honestly, though this little bit of research didn’t end up where I wanted it to (I was kinda hoping for an old, extant, and commonly-cited spirit to appeal to for divination within a geomantic milieu), I’m honestly glad because I’ve been able to piece together plenty of information that actually clarifies an academic problem I’ve been on-and-off dealing with for ten years.  Even if there’s no historical “who” behind `Iyān and their two sons, at least we now know the “what”, and that’s still immensely important and advances the state of geomantic research, at least a tiny bit.  And, hey, we’ve left the door open for further opportunities and exploration, both academic and spiritual, too:

  • If all that was desired was an odd or even result from marking tracks off two-by-two, then why were two sets of tracks inspected at a time instead of just one?  Two sets of tracks would get you two results; does this have a connection with geomantic dice that split up a single figure of four rows into two sub-figures of two rows?
  • Are there any specific birds besides the Eurasian golden oriole that might be especially important in making tracks on the sand which were used for (proto-)geomantic divination?
  • Does the Eurasian golden oriole play a role in any of the spiritualities, superstitions, or symbolisms of Near Eastern, Middle Eastern, or African traditions that we might ply for more information?
  • What New World birds might take the same ecological or spiritual role as the Eurasian golden oriole?
  • How, exactly, were just two lines of marks read by birds, or where did the custom come from of making/marking two lines instead of just one?
  • Are there any other animals that we might associate with geomancy through the name `Iyān or the root `-Y-N, whether birds or otherwise?
  • What other geomantic mysteries might be hidden within `ayn, the sixteenth letter of the Phoenician script which has a root numerological value of 7 (either through reduction from its normal value of 70 or by reducing its ordinal number 16 into 1 + 6 = 7)?  We noted an alphabetical connection with a handful of divine epithets of Allāh, including the famous one Al-`Alīm (“The All-Knowing One”), but what other roots that start with `Ayn might be significant, if any?
  • Unlikely though it is,`Iyān could still be the name of a spirit or non-/pre-Arabian deity.  If so, where does this entity come from, from what culture, what tribe, what area, and what would a more native interpretation of the name be?  What does this entity do, and who are its two sons?
  • Just because there hasn’t been a specific spirit-based use for the original chant “O ye two sons of `Iyān, hasten ye with the explanation!” doesn’t mean that there can’t be one ever.

Once more, my thanks to Dr. Amina Inloes, Nick Farrell, and Arlechina Verdigris for helping me with organizing my thoughts, refining my ideas, providing me with useful materials, and in general being wonderful people in my life.  May God and the gods bless you all.

The Two Sons of `Iyān: Obscure Chants and Proto-Geomantic Divination

The Two Sons of `Iyān: Obscure Chants and Proto-Geomantic Divination

When it comes to the geomantic scholars of the Western world, there’s few who can touch the research of Dr. Stephen Skinner.  Internationally acclaimed for his work and practice involving feng shui as well as his doctorate-level research and publications on various grimoires and magical texts from the west, he’s also an expert in the practice and history of geomancy.  I first encountered him back in college, probably around 2008 or 2009, through his older, now out-of-print book Terrestrial Astrology: Divination by Geomancy, which has more recently been updated and published under the title Geomancy in Theory & Practice (and, more importantly, with a title that Skinner doesn’t hate, as Terrestrial Astrology was a title he regretted but which his editor insisted on).  This is a simply wonderful text that, although I consider it to be a bit light on the actual practice of geomancy, its true value shines in delving into the evidence, history, lineage, and contextual development of geomancy as a divinatory art in Africa, the Middle East, and Europe from its beginnings around a thousand years ago until today.  (There’s also his older work, The Oracle of Geomancy: Techniques of Earth Divination, which is also long out-of-print and…well, I wasn’t particularly enthused by it, but it’s a solid work of geomancy for its time before other research and experimentation was being done.)

In Terrestrial Astrology as well as Geomancy in Theory & Practice, Skinner opens up the book after the introduction by talking about geomancy and its Arabic origins as `ilm ar-raml, “the science of the sand”, also called khaṭṭ ar-raml, “marking the sand” After clarifying some of the language about it, he describes some of the basic processes used early on in the very nascent stages of geomancy:

For the purpose of divining by khatt al-raml, the diviner, accompanied by an assistant or acolyte, drew with the utmost haste a quantity of lines or ripples in the sand, allowing himself to be carried away, so that he did not know how many lines he had drawn.  Then he slowly wiped out groups of two ripples at a time, whilst his assistant often recited an incantation in Arabic, such as the words: “Ye two sons of ‘Iyan hasten with the explanation!”

The marks they made were joined by other marks (khutut) in order to complete a figure (shakl).  When these figures became stylized, a board was used, which was covered with sand or even flour, and the finger was drawn over it at random; the shapes formed in this way were then examined.  If in the end two lines were left (i.e, there was an even number of lines drawn) then this foretold success.  If however only one line remained (an odd number of lines drawn) then disappointment was certain. Here can be seen the germ of the later and more complex practice, where each line is reduced to odd (only one left) or even (two remaining). In this, the simple form of khatt al-raml, only one set of marks were made, leading straight to a lucky/unlucky prediction.

It’s that reference to “Ye two sons of ‘Iyan” that’s always mystified me.  I could never figure out what or who “‘Iyan” is or was, much less their “two sons”, and Skinner says no more about it in his works, nor is any reference provided for this statement.  Worse, when I emailed the good doctor, he unfortunately said that it’s been so long since this was written (Terrestrial Astrology was published almost 40 years ago!) that he was unable to recall where it might have come from.  Such mysterious figures, perhaps mythological, maybe angelic or even demonic, hailed in a diviner’s chant to induce a trance or stronger, more truthful connection to the art in order to obtain knowledge?  This struck me as being something that should be investigated, but unfortunately, Skinner’s text, identical in both Terrestrial Astrology as well as Geomancy in Theory & Practice, is the only reference to ‘Iyan or their two sons I’ve ever found.  It could be that this was entirely a highly localized or individual practice that Skinner was reporting on, or an extremely esoteric one that was limited and bound up in particular occult practices.

Lately, I’ve been taking another look at this, and I’ve been doing some thinking about it.  What follows is basically extrapolating from very scant knowledge and information here, coupled with a bare-bones knowledge of Arabic grammar and word derivational systems, but I suppose, if we take a look at the name ‘Iyan a bit closer, we might be able to get something.  What follows could well be a wild goose chase which might put me on par with Athanasius Kircher’s attempt to translate Egyptian hieroglyphs (surprise, it didn’t go well).  But, well, what might we find if we look?  Let’s see where we end up.

First, it’s important to note that when Skinner brings up Arabic words or glosses, he’s not always faithful in his transliteration from Arabic to Roman script.  Although the tables at the end of the book have the names of the figures in Arabic written in both Arabic script and in good transliteration, and a number of Arabic names in the endnotes are transliterated with diacritics for long vowels and the like, it’s in the text itself that long vowels aren’t indicated, there’s no standardization of how ‘alif and `ayn are transliterated, and other such problems that make it hard to understand what the original Arabic might have been based on the names given to us.  So, with ‘Iyan, we have several problems:

  • Is the mark before the I supposed to represent an ‘alif or an `ayn?
  • Which vowels are long or short?

It’s impossible to tell what these might be since we have no other information, and I’m no expert in Arabic.  But…well, consider that names typically have meaning of some sort, and the way Arabic works—and Semitic languages generally—is on a delightfully productive system of what’s called “roots” and “patterns”.  There’s this notion of a consonantal root in Semitic languages, usually of three letters but sometimes two and sometimes four, and the root has a general concept associated with it, much like the semantic radical of a Chinese character.  By filling in the consonantal root with particular vowels and appending prefixes, suffixes, and other infixes, a variety of words that give variations on the underlying can be obtained from a single root.  Consider the triliteral (three letter) consonantal root K-T-B, which refers to writing generally:

  • kitab (book)
  • kutub (books)
  • kataba (he wrote)
  • katabat (she wrote)
  • katabtu (I wrote)
  • kutiba (it [m] was written)
  • yaktubna (they [f] write)
  • yatakātabūn (they write to each other)
  • kātib (writer [m])
  • kuttāb (writers)
  • katabat (clerks)
  • maktab (office)
  • makātib (offices)
  • maktabat (library)
  • istaktaba (to cause someone to write something)

The number of derivations goes on and on.  Note how all the words in that list share the root K-T-B, sometimes with one of the consonants doubled (as in kuttāb), sometimes with extra consonants added (as in maktabat).  All these words have something semantically related to the act of writing or something written, which is grounded in the K-T-B root.  Likewise, not just nouns or verbs or adjectives can be derived from roots, but names can, as well.  Consider that the name Muḥammad is derived from the root Ḥ-M-D, generally relating to notions of “praise” or “thanks”; thus, Muḥammad literally means “praiseworthy”, and is related to the commonly-heard phrase “Alḥamdulillāh”, meaning “praise be to God” or “thank God”; this phrase is referred to as ḥamdala, and the recitation of it (like one might for reciting the prayer bead devotion Tasbīḥ Fāṭimah) is taḥmīd.  Again, same triliteral root, but endless words that can be derived from it, all tying to the same thing.

So…what if we were to interpret ‘Iyan as a word that was derived from a consonantal root?  Given how short it is, it’s not like we have a lot of options to choose from.  If we take out the two vowels, I and A, we end up with three consonants, with the first one being unclear between two choices:

  • ‘-Y-N (‘alif  yā’ nūn)
  • `-Y-N (`ayn yā’ nūn)

As it turns out, the first option (starting with ‘alif) isn’t attested as a triliteral root in Arabic, nor in any Semitic language, but the second one (starting with `ayn) is in every one of them. `-Y-N is a root used in Ugaritic, Arabic, Hebrew, Akkadian, Amharic, Syriac, and Aramaic, and is most notable for being the letter `Ayn or `Ayin itself in all the writing systems that derive from the original Phoenician script, and thus is also the origin of the Roman letter O and Greek omikron.  Originally, the Phoenician letter `ayn had the form of a simple circle, much as the Roman letter O is, though its form shifted in the various Semitic languages that used it.  The shape of the letter, and the name and meaning of the letter itself, connote an eye, which ultimately derives from the Egyptian hieroglyph 𓁹 (Gardiner D4), perhaps most famously used for the spelling of the god Osiris.  You can see the evolution of the letter below from its Egyptian origin to its Phoenician (also Greek and Latin) form, its traditional Square Hebrew form, and in its Arabic forms (with all its position variants shown below, with position variant images taken from Arabic Reading Course).

I also note that `ayn is the sixteenth letter of the Phoenician, Hebrew, Aramaic, and Syriac scripts, as well as the sixteenth letter of the traditional Arabic (abjadi) order.  Which…come on, now.  Of all possible letters that we’d end up with, we’d end up with the sixteenth one?  Sixteen, the number of geomantic figures? And on top of that, it also has the numerical value of 70, and if we were to reduce 16, then we get 16 → 1 + 6 = 7.  Which ties it into all the other mysteries of the number seven: seven planets, seven angels, and so forth.  I think we may well be onto something with our idea that this mysterious name could be a derivation from something else.

And, because I was curious, I wanted to look at which of the 99 traditional names of Allāh (really, more like epithets or attributes) in the Islamic tradition, began with the Arabic letter `Ayn.  There are six such names:

  1. Al-`Azīz (الْعَزِيزُ), “The Mighty”
  2. Al-`Alīm (اَلْعَلِيْمُ), “The All-Knowing”
  3. Al-`Adl (الْعَدْلُ), “The Just”
  4. Al-`Aẓīm (الْعَظِيمُ), “The Magnificent”
  5. Al-`Alīy (الْعَلِيُّ), “The Sublime”
  6. Al-`Afūw (العَفُوُّ), “The Pardoner”

It’s name #2, Al-`Alīm, that’s important for us as geomancers.  Along with Al-Khabīr (ٱلْخَبِيرُ), “the All-Aware”, Al-`Alīm is one of the most common names of Allāh used in Arabic geomancy when making invocations and prayers to God for the sake of divination.  It comes from the root `-L-M, which refers to knowing, teaching, and learning; note that the Arabic term for geomancy, `ilm ar-raml, begins with a word from this same root meaning “science”.  This specific name of Allāh encompasses such meanings as the Knower, the All-Knowing, the All-Knowledgable, the Omniscient, and the Possessor of Knowing Everything about Everything.  Fittingly enough, I recently spotted over on Chris Warnock’s Renaissance Astrology website a new Arabic-style Jupiter talisman specifically for the name Al-`Alīm, where he gives this description of the power of the name from the 13th century grimoire Shams al-Ma’arif (and note how it talks about knowing things that are unseen and seen, tying back into the eye and seeing imagery of the `-Y-N root):

Whoever undertakes the dhikr of this Name of sublime essence, Allāh (exalted be He) brings him to knowledge of the subtlest aspects of the sciences and their most hidden secrets. To the one who engraves it…when Mercury is highly dignified, Allāh makes him express himself with wisdom and teaches him the sapiential subtleties of mystical knowledge…when Jupiter is highly dignified, obtains an understanding of what the mystic sciences contain. … His control in the universe is strengthened and Allāh (exalted be He), frees him from all misfortunes and avoids everything that displeases him. And whoever uses his dhikr, learns what he did not know and wisdom becomes manifest in his words.

The Name has the number 150, and adding its divisors totals 222, and this number alludes to His Name Mālik al-Mulk “Lord of Sovereignty”. Hence, the wise are the kings in reality, indeed, they are the lords of the sovereignty of kings. And this is the number that makes manifest the secret of the letter yā’ in the three orders, since it is a bond, it is a coercive word and it entails a formal representation and an approach, while none of these three degrees takes place without Knowledge, which is only attributable to Him, meditate on that.

And since the manifestation of Science belongs to the sanctified spirits, the spirit of the angel Gabriel is destined to instruct the prophets, being one of the noblest our prophet Muḥammad (Allāh bless and save him) who was inspired by humility, for Allāh said: “He has taught an angel of great power and strength, since he appeared in his true form” (Qur’ān 56:5-6).

And since the holy spirit that corresponded to Jesus (peace be upon him) was a vestige of the revealing breath of Gabriel to Adam, for Jesus was the wisest of the prophets to know the details of the sciences and the subtleties of Wisdom. And among the noblest of his knowledge was the science of the letters, and hence its name comes to him, because in it resides his divine gift by indicating by the letter `ayn, science, by the letter yā’, the grace of the descended revelation, by the letter sín, the points of union of what is divided and by the letter alif, absolute knowledge. And the name Jesus has the number 141, which is precisely the value of the name `ālim (scholar), but since He has knowledge of the hidden things, and that is `alīm then his name is written with the letter yā’ and thus its number equals 150, which is the value of `alīm. Meditate on that, for Allāh speaks the Truth and He leads the way.

The names of the letters of His Name `Alīm add up to 302, alluding to His Name Basīr “the Seer”. And since science (`ilm) is an inherent sign of the external appearance of the object of knowledge, and that the acquisition of a concept involves the totality of its visible aspect, that is, it is the acquisition of the external image of the object in the mind, the meaning of `Alīm as the Knower of All is necessarily the one before whom the essence of each thing manifests itself in the totality its hidden essence as well as its external form. That is one of the secrets of `Alīm for intensification is not possible through the letter wāw, due to its importance and its height that reaches the end of the limits and reaches the totality of existence. So intensification is possible by one of these two options: either with the reduplication of a consonant, as in saying `allām, which refers to the one who has acquired a large amount of knowledge or with the letter yā’ which refers to the revelation of the most subtle details of a notion and the perception of its hidden aspects. For this reason only Al-`Alīm knows the details of a concept in the same way that He knows its most general aspects, and knows its hidden aspects in the same way that its aspects are visible.  That is why Allāh said (exalted be He) “above all, possessor of science there is a knower” (Qur’ān 12:76), so the possessor of science ū-l-‘ilm is the one who knows the general aspects of things and the knower `alīm is the one who knows its particular aspects. The possessor of science is the one who knows the external aspects of things and the knower is the one who knows their internal aspects; the possessor of science is the one who knows the evident aspects of things and the knower is the one who also knows their hidden aspects. The meaning of this yā’ has been indecipherable for many sensible people, because the most unknown of His Science are the most particular aspects, and this is evident in His words, “over every possessor of knowledge is one more knowledgeable”  (Qur’ān 12:76).

And you should know that the superiority of some of the wise over others is not the result of acquiring a greater amount of knowledge, since if so, He would have said “above all possessing knowledge there is a wise man (‘allām) who knows more.” Rather it has to do with the acquisition of the particular notions of the intelligibles and the hidden parts of their secrets. Now, the multitude of knowledge together with the detailed inner knowledge results in sapiential superiority, but without this last type of knowledge superiority does not take place. This is the meaning from the words of Allāh when he said to His prophet Moses (peace be upon him): “We have a servant at the intersection of two great rivers, whom they call Khiḍr , who is wiser than you.” Khiḍr was not wiser than Moses because he had more knowledge as Allāh said about Moses “And we wrote for him in the Tables an exhortation for everything and an explanation for everything” (Qur’ān 7:145), so the greater wisdom of Khiḍr refers to his understanding the hidden aspects of things in the same way that he knew their visible aspects. This is why his place was at the point of confluence of two great rivers, which were the river of the apparent and the river of the unapparent, so Moses knew that Khiḍr was in possession of a gnosis that he did not have.

You who study these words, focus your effort on expanding your knowledge 3, for this is what Allāh (praised and exalted be He), ordered His prophet to ask with His saying: “my Lord, increase me in knowledge” (Qur’ān 20:114). Meditate on these spiritual words and dispose of these divine subtleties, of these gifts of faith and of these sources of light, for you will find immense happiness in those knowledge that contains the allusions, and Allāh is the wisest!

Anyway, back to the main topic at hand.  So we have this root, `-Y-N, the meaning of which is semantically related to eyes and sight (and also, apparently, springs and flowing, perhaps with an origin of a notion of crying?), which is well-attested in the Qur’ān, and could well be a derivation from the same root as the sixteenth letter of the script, and which can be given some strong connections to knowing things generally if we also consider the root `-L-M and its connections to science and God.  This is a bit too strong to be mere coincidence to me, so let’s run with it some more.  This means that we can go with the `ayn instead of ‘alif, yielding us `Iyan and not ‘Iyan.  Good!  But, now, what about the vowels themselves?  With these two vowels, we can end up with both short, one short and the other long, or both long:

  • `Iyan
  • `Īyan
  • `Iyān
  • `Īyān

However, we know from rules of Arabic that any “i” sound followed by yā’ is almost always going to be inherently long, so we could write this name as either `Iyan (with or without a long A) or as `Īan (again with or without a long A).  So we can ignore the long I choices above, which whittles it down further, down to either `Iyan or `Iyān.  The former just doesn’t seem to come up in any dictionary or grammar as a form of anything.  `Iyān (or `Iyaan, عِيَان), however, is a legitimate word which means “weak” or “sick”, especially in Egyptian Arabic, but only when interpreted as coming from the root `-Y-Y and, even then, only properly with the vowels `ayyān, so that’s not what we’re going with.  But, when derived from `-Y-N, we get the verbal noun of عَايَنَ `āyana, the verb which means “to inspect”; note how it’s still related to the semantic field of eyes, looking, seeing, watching, etc.  Thus, `Iyān would mean “an inspecting” or “inspection”, but it can also mean “seeing with one’s own eyes”, “to come to light/be revealed before one’s eyes”, “clear, evident, plain, manifest” in the sense of “being seen clearly with the eyes”, as well as “witnessing” as in “eye-witnessing”.  (The notion of a witness here is appealing, given the fact that we have two Witnesses in a geomantic chart.  A possible connection to the “two sons”, perhaps?)

I got that list of meanings for `Iyān from an online version of the fourth edition of the Arabic-English Dictionary by the venerable Hans Wehr.  However, that website looks up glosses in several texts simultaneously (a wonderful study resource!), and while looking at Wehr’s dictionary, there’s something interesting I noticed in another text.  On the website that I was able to access that entry, the single page also shows entries from other texts about Arabic language and vocabulary, including the Arabic-English Lexicon compiled by Edward William Lane (aka Lane’s Lexicon) in the 19th century, itself compiled from earlier dictionaries and lexicons of Arabic in Arabic.  The entry for `Iyān in Lane’s Lexicon is…shockingly, miraculously, exactly what we were looking for all along here, and includes a reference that’s exactly what was in Skinner!  From page 2270 (forgive any errors in my copying and trying to type the Arabic):

… اِبْنَا عيَانٍ means Two birds, (Ḳ, TA,) from the flight or alighting-places, or cries, &c., of which, the Arabs augur: (TA:) or two lines which are marked upon the ground (Ṣ, Ḳ) by the عَائِف [or augurer], by means of which one augurs, from the flight, &c., of birds; (Ṣ;) or which are made for the purpose of auguring; (TA;) then the augurer says, اِبْنَى عيَانْ اًسْرِعَا البَيَانْ [O two sons of `Iyán, hasten ye the manifestation]: (Ḳ,* TA: [see 1 in art. خط :]) in the copies of the Ḳ, اِبْنَا is here erroneously put for اِبْنَى : or, as some say ابْنَا عِيانٍ means two well-known divining arrows: (TA:) and when it is known that the gaming arrow of him who plays therewith wins, one says جَرىَ اِبْنَا عِيَانٍ [app. meaning The two sons of ‘Iyán have hastened; i.e. the two arrows so termed; as seems to be indicated by a verse cited in the L (in which it is followed by the words بِالشِّواء المُضَهُّبِ with the roast meat not thoroughly cooked), and also by what here follows]: (Ṣ, L, Ḳ, TA:) these [arrows] being called ابْنَا عِيانٍ because by means of them the people [playing at the game called المَيْسِر] see the winning and the food [i.e. the hastily-cooked flesh of the slaughtered camel]. (L, TA.)

This entry references خط, khaṭṭ, which is another of the terms for geomancy.  Turning to that entry in Lane’s Lexicon, page 762 (again please forgive any errors):

خَطَّ aor. -ُ , inf. n. خَطٌّ, He made [a line, or lines, or] a mark, عَلَى الأَرْضِ , upon the ground.  (Mṣb.)  You say, خَطَّ الزَّاجِرُ فِى الأَرْضِ , aor. and inf. n. as above, The diviner made a line, or a mark, or lines, or marks, upon the ground, and then divined.  (TA.)  And الزَّاجِلٌ يَحُطُّ بِإٍصْبَعِهِ فِى الرَّمْلِ وَيَزْجُرُ [The diviner makes, lines, or marks, with his finger upon the sand, and divines.]  (Ṣ.)  Th says, on the authority of IAar, that عِلْمُ الخَطِّ is عِلْمُ الرَّمْلِ [or geomancy]: I’Ab says that it is an ancient science, which men have relinquished, but Lth says that it is practised to the present time; [to which I may add, that it has not even now ceased; being still practised on sand and the line, and also on paper;] and they have conventional terms which they employ in it, and they elicit thereby the secret thoughts &c., and often hit upon the right therein: the diviner comes to a piece of soft ground, and he has a boy, with whom is a style; and the master makes many lines, or marks, in haste, that they may not be counted; then he returns, and obliterates leisurely lines, or marks, two by two; and if there remain two lines, or marks, they are a sign of success, and of the attainment of the thing wanted: while he obliterates, his boy says, for the sake of auguring well, اِبْنَى عيَانْ اًسْرِعَا البَيَانْ [O two sons of ‘Iyán (meaning two lines or marks), hasten ye the manifestation]: I’Ab says that when he has obliterated the lines, or marks, an done remains, it is the sign of disappointment: and AZ and Lth relate the like of this.  (TA.)  It is said in a trad. of Mo’áwiyeh Ibn-El-Ḥakam Es-Sulamee, traced up by him to its author, كَانَ نَبِىّْ مبَ الأَنْبِيَآءِ يَخُطُّ فَمَنْ وَافَقَ خَطَّهُ عَلِمَ مِثْلَ عِلْمِهِ [A prophet of the prophets used to practise geomancy; and he who matches his geomancy knows the like of his knowledge].  (TA.)  You say also, when a man is meditating upon his affair, and considering what may be its issue, or result,  ‡ [Such a one makes lines, or marks, upon the ground].  (TA.)  [See also نَكَتَ: and see St. John’s Gospel, ch. viii verses 6 and 8.]  And  خَطَّ بِرِجْلِهِ الأَرْضَ means ‡ He walked, or went along.  (TA.)

It’s clear that we’re arriving at basically the same source, or a highly similar source with the same origins, as Skinner himself was using.  For the sake of further scholarship by any who come across this post, the abbreviations in Lane’s Lexicon come from page xxxi of the preface refer to the following authors and authorities in Arabic lexicology (in their original transliterations as Lane gives them, a more modern list and transcriptions given on this page):

  • TA: the “Táj el-‘Aroos”
  • Mṣb: The “Miṣbáḥ” of el-Feiyoomee, full title “El-Miṣbáḥ el-Muneer fee Ghareeb esh-Sharḥ el-Kebeer”
  • Ḳ: The “Kámoos” of El-Feyroozábádee
  • Ṣ: The “Ṣiḥáḥ” of El-Jowharee
  • I’Ab: Ibn-Abbás
  • L: The “Lisán el-‘Arab” of Ibn-Mukarram
  • Lth: El-Leyth Ibn-Naṣr Ibn-Seiyár, held by El-Azheree to be the author of the “‘Eyn”, which he calls “Kitáb Leyth”
  • AZ: Aboo-Zeyd

These are all Arabic sources, so it seems like that line of research comes to an end there, until and unless I ever learn classical Arabic.  Still, all the same, at least we found a (likely) source for Skinner’s claim about this strange chant, which I’ll gladly take as a win!  Still, even if we have a (likely) point of origin for this strange chant that Skinner describes, what exactly does it mean? Well, unfortunately, there’s no real solid information about the identity of `Iyān or their two sons in Lane, but at least we know we were on the right track tracing it down by considering what its likely Arabic spelling was, and giving that a consideration.  I strongly doubt that `Iyān is merely a name without meaning or that it doesn’t have some notion of watchfulness, witnessing, accounting, or observing; I think its relationship with the letter `Ayn and, by extension, eyes and sight really is important in some way.

Lane first says that the “two sons” of `Iyān refer to “two birds…from the flight/alighting-places/cries/&c. of which the Arabs augur”, but…birds?  That seems a little out of left field, so let’s set that aside for now and return to what we know.  (We’ll return to it, I promise.)  Based on the rest of Lane’s entries, even this same one on `Iyān when we consider what the two lines of marks in the sand would entail, it seems reasonable to assume that the “two sons” of `Iyān refer to either the numerical concepts of odd (فرد fard, literally “alone”) and even (زَوْجِيّ zawjiyy, from زوج zawj meaning “pair”, ultimately from Greek ζεῦγος meaning “yoke” in reference to marriage), or to the two units that make up the first even whole number; it’s this latter that might well have the better argument going for it.  Note that, interestingly, it’s even numbers that are considered good and affirmative, while odd numbers are bad and negative; this seems to be a general inversion of what we usually encounter in numerology, where it’s the odd numbers (being relatively masculine) that cause change while even numbers (being relatively feminine) maintain stasis.  And yet, looking back at Skinner:

Figures which contain a total number of even points are said to be Helu, sweet or a good omen, whilst those which contain odd numbers of total points Murr, bitter, or ill-omened.

Courtesy of the good Dr. Amina Inloes, whom I occasionally harass for help with topics involving Arabic and Islam and who generously and amply provides it, I was directed to the Sunan Abu Dāwūd, a massive compilation and commentary on the ʼaḥādīth (the extra-scriptural traditions of Islam) written sometime in the 800s ce, which would be a little before we start seeing geomancy proper arise.  At the bottom of page 147, footnote 3 confirms all the above (which you can put through Google Translate or get an actual Arabic speaker to translate it for you):

قال الشيخ : صورة الخط : ما قاله ابن الأعرابي، ذكره أبو عمر عن أبي العباس أحمد بن يحيى عنه ، قال : يقعد المحازي : [المحازي والحزاء : الذي يحزر الأشياء ويقدرها بظنه] ، ويأمر غلاماً له بين يديه فيخط خطوطاً على رمل أو تراب، ويكون ذلك منه في خفة وعجلة، كي لا يدركها العدّ والإحصاء، ثم يأمره فيمحوها خطين خطين، وهو يقول : ابني عيان أسرعا البيان، فإن كان آخر ما يبقى منها: خطين فهو آية النجاح، وإن بقي خط واحد فهو الخيبة والحرمان

The bold bits are what we’re looking for.  The first bold line basically gives the same chant as found elsewhere: “sons of `Iyān, hasten the statement” (ibnay `iyān ‘asra`ā al-bayan), and the last bit the same fundamental rule that “two lines is the sign of success, and if one line remains, it is disappointment and deprivation”.  The important thing we get from this is that, when Abu Dāwūd was writing this in the 800s ce, he was likely reporting on proto-geomantic practices that provided for the foundation of geomancy proper as we’d recognize it, and which were most likely in use for quite some time beforehand, especially if references to divination by making marks in the sand in other texts operated on these same principles going back at least to early-Islamic, if not into pre-Islamic, times.  Granted, we don’t have a lot of references to this kind of proto-geomantic divination in pre-Islamic times; most of the time it’s just said in passing, and when they do mention some specifics, they just don’t get more specific than just this.

However, even with what little we have, we kinda start to see a potential explanation for why a geomantic chart is created in such a way that the Judge must be an even figure, and why we use such a recursive structure that takes in four figures and then manipulates them to always get an even figure as a distillation of the whole chart, whether or not it’s favorable to the specific query.  Related entries to `Iyān in Lane’s Lexicon, specifically عِينَةُ `iynah (pg. 2269), refer to “an inclining in the balance” or set of scales, “the case in which one of two scales thereof outweighs the other”, as in “in the balance is an unevenness”.  In this light, even numbers would indicate that things are in balance, and odd numbers out of balance; this idea strikes me as similar to some results used in Yòrubá obi divination or Congolese chamalongo divination or other African systems of divination that make use of a four-piece set of kola nuts, coconut meat, coconut shells, cowries, or some other flippable objects, where the best possible answer is where two pieces face-up and two fall face-down, while there being three of side and one of the other either indicates “no” or a generally weak answer.  For the sake of the Judge, then, we need it to be impartial (literally from Latin for “not odd”) in order for it to speak strongly enough to answer the question put to the chart.  Heck, in Arabic terms, the word that I’ve seen used for the Judge is میزان mīzān, literally “balance” or “scales” (the same word, I might add, that’s used to refer to the zodiac sign Libra).

And, to look at it another way, how is an even figure formed? An even geomantic figure is formed from the addition of either two odd parents or two even parents; in either case, the parity of one figure must be the same as the other figure in order for their child figure to be even.  Thus, for the Judge, the Witnesses must either both be even or they must both be odd.  “Brothers”, indeed; as that old Bedouin saying goes, “I against my brothers; I and my brothers against my cousins; I and my brothers and my cousins against the world”.  Brothers implies a similarity, a kinship, and even if they fight against each other, they must still be similar enough to come to terms with each other.  And consider the mathematical and arithmetic implications of what “coming to terms” can suggest!  Thus, the two Witnesses must be alike in parity in order for the scale of the Judge to work itself out, and perhaps, the figure with more points would “outweigh” the other and thus be of more value.  For example, if we have a Right Witness of Laetitia and a Left Witness of Puella, both odd figures, then the Judge would be Fortuna Maior, but Laetitia, having more points, would “outweigh” Puella, favoring the Right Witness representing the querent.  Thus, perhaps the Judge might be taking on the role of `Iyān and the Witnesses its two “sons”?  After all, you need both the Witnesses in order to arrive at the Judge, so telling them to hurry up would naturally speed up the calculation of the Judge.

However, what we’re seeing from Skinner, Lane, and Abu Dāwūd is clearly proto-geomantic and isn’t really about figures as much as it is about lines, so this is probably an anachronistic imposition of `Iyān and their two sons onto later developments.  As fitting as it might be, and as fascinating as all this is, it doesn’t do anything for us as far as showing what `Iyān itself might originally refer to.  But there are other leads we can take; after all, wasn’t there something about birds?  We’ll pick up on that tomorrow.

I was on a podcast, this time on Glitch Bottle with Alexander Eth!

While I’m always flattered and excited to be interviewed and hosted on someone’s podcast or radio show, truth be told, I’m always a little terrified.  My preferred medium is writing, both for taking it in and putting it out there.  Plus…I mean, let’s be honest, I don’t like listening to people.  Yet, when I am invited to speak on someone’s show, I find myself listening in, if for no other reason than to get a feel for someone’s style and what I might expect, and yet I’m always drawn into the show itself and all the wonderful things people say.  Once more, it just so happened that I found myself talking on someone’s show, and I gotta say, this is one for the books!

Earlier this month, I was invited to chat with the dreamy, excellent Alexander Eth on his podcast, Glitch Bottle, “the esoteric podcast and blog where we Uncork the Uncommon in magic, mysticism and the generally misunderstood”.  He’s a well-accomplished magician in his own right, but combined with his actual radio-host voice and brilliant mind, he’s also got a name for himself as having one of the most popular podcasts on the occult and magic out there today.  I’m his show #47, but on earlier shows he’s had luminaries and dignitaries among whom we can count Fr. Ashen Chassan (#44), Dr. Stephen Skinner (#36, #40), Jason Miller (#34), Joseph H. Peterson (#32), and so many others.  To be counted among them is a huge honor, because clearly, Alexander just doesn’t fuck around and goes right for the top.  He’s been trying to get me on his show for a bit now, and apparently his readers kept calling for my name like a mob does for blood.  (Perhaps it was the same thing, it’s hard to keep track anymore.)

So, late one night this early April, we finally met up online and had a blast of what came to be a three-hour conversation in total.  What did we talk about?  My own occult and spiritual upbringing, geomancy (as always), the Munich Manual and translating Latin as part of the Work, various aspects on ceremonial and Hermetic and Solomonic magical practice, how to get started on the Work in a reasonable way, how occult texts evolve and adapt and vary amongst themselves within lineages of practical literature across the centuries, who Saint Cyprian is, how to make ritual offerings to gods and spirits, how to learn Latin, why the Kybalion is still crap and why I specifically don’t like it, the difference between devotional and conjurational magic, prayer beads, and so much more.  It was a great chat, and I’m honestly honored and privileged to have had it on the Glitch Bottle show.

So what are you waiting for?  Take a listen!

Notice how I said we had a three-hour conversation, yet the podcast above was only a little less than two-and-a-half hours?  And how I said we talked about some topics that didn’t come up in what you just heard (if, indeed, you just subjected yourself to it)?  That’s because Alexander does something super nice for his patrons where he has a special in-depth conversation and interview, his “Inside the Circle” that’s released only to those who support him through Patreon.  Of course, he has other bonuses, too, such as sharing non-interview occult media including blog posts, videos and tutorials (protorials?) on practice, early access to posts and interviews, and letting people submit their own questions for interviews.  So, clearly, if you (for some unfathomable reason) can not only stand hearing my voice for so long and want more, you know where to get it!

So what are you waiting for?  Go listen!  In addition to however you access your podcasts, whether through iTunes or Stitcher or some other way, don’t forget to check out his Facebook page, follow him on Twitter (@glitchbottle), subscribe to him on YouTube, and if you really wanna go the extra mile and get all the good stuff, support him as a producer of high-quality occult media on Patreon.

On the Megaloschema

Today, as many of my readers in the West are probably aware, is Good Friday as reckoned by Western Christianity as the annual holiday that commemorates the crucifixion of Jesus Christ, the fifth day of Holy Week and the first of the Paschal Triduum leading up to Easter Sunday, which properly celebrates the resurrection of Christ, the most important holy day in the Christian calendar. I don’t need to get into the specifics of this holiday and celebration, given its huge importance in the rites of Christianity specifically and Christian-influenced Western culture generally, nor do I really celebrate this holiday. After all, I’m not baptized as a Christian, nor was I raised as one, nor do I profess it myself as my religion. Indeed, although Christianity has a huge influence on my own magical practices, especially where saints and angels are concerned, my recent spiritual practices are taking me in my own Hermetic deist way apart from the usual stuff of Christianity. Still, that’s not to say that I’m entirely abandoning the Christian influences, at least where they’re appropriate. And today, on the commemoration of the Passion of Christ, I’d like to talk a bit about one of my favorite pieces of Christian graphical design: the Megaloschema, the Great Schema.

Properly speaking, this design is one found in Eastern Christianity, especially Greek Orthodox and Russian Orthodox practices, and generally reserved for use as a special vestment given to monks who have attained a high degree of spiritual accomplishment and retraction from the world, for whom the title “Megaloschemos” is given. It’s a profound mark of spirituality, and comes at no small cost or effort to those who have earned the rite, with some sects only giving it to monks and nuns on their deathbed. Plus, let’s be honest: those who wear it look like a wizard’s sartorial wet dream.

It’s also densely packed with symbolism, all tied to the Passion of Jesus Christ, the climax of the trials and tribulations that Christ faced at the end of his earthly life that led up to the Resurrection. Although the standard emblem of Christianity is the simple Cross (more properly, a crucifix, which is a cross plus the body of Christ), which acts as a reminder of the sacrifice of the Son of God for the sake of the salvation of the world, the Megaloschema is the Cross plus quite a bit more.

My good friend and colleague Michael Lux of Necromantic Matters tipped me off to the design a few years back, and I simply fell in love with it: the dense layers of symbolism, the almost cosmological patterning of the elements arranged on it, and the use of Greek acronyms and initialisms to add even more meaning to it immediately appealed to me, and so I appended it to my then-primary shrine, dedicated to my worship of God and the veneration of the seven archangels. It fit nicely, at least, nestled under some of the chaplets I made for them to give a bit of balance.

As my practices have shifted more and more away from Christianity, however, I found that I was using this particular shrine less and less, and when I started to reorganize and clean up my temple space, shrines, and altars after my Year in White in 2017 and again more recently at the end of 2018 and the start of this year, I realized that, even though I don’t have as much personal adoration of the Cross anymore, I still adore the use of the Megaloschema. I kept that little, dinky cutout where it was. By necessity, it was dinky; I couldn’t find a good high-resolution image of it anywhere except for other variants of the pattern that didn’t have as much detail or as many elements on it, so I kept it at the small size that it was.

Well, when I redid my temple space, I moved around a few shrines and cleaned up some other things. One of the things I moved around was my shrine to the Hieromartyr of Antioch, Saint Cyprian of Antioch with Saint Justina and Saint Theocistus. Originally, I had drawn a somewhat elaborate pattern in chalk on the wall above and behind the shrine, consisting of a Cross, a skull-and-bones, a cauldron, a crozier, and other images relevant to the work I was doing at the time with St. Cyprian. I don’t have a good picture of the specific design I drew, but you can see parts of it in this one picture I took of the shrine during the Days of the Cyprians from 2018:

When I cleaned my temple space up, I decided to wipe off the chalk drawing from the wall (it was getting faded anyway) and rotated the shrine around so that it faced a new direction. The shrine looked fresher and cleaner, but I still wanted something along the lines of the chalk pattern I had set up, now that the space was a bit clearer. At that moment, I realized that the Megaloschema would have been perfect for the Cyprian shrine; after all, still being a publicly-venerated saint in Eastern Christianity and definitely fulfilling the qualities that a monastic would have that would permit them the use of the Megaloschema, it seemed appropriate enough, especially given how symbolically rich—and, frankly, how just simply magical—the design is. Yet, as before, I couldn’t find a design that was clear enough or high-resolution enough for the shrine.

So I made one.

This is pretty packed with symbolism, so let’s break it down into its individual components:

  • The True Cross, the instrument of the execution of Christ upon which Christ was killed by the world and, in so doing, conquered the death of the world
  • The tilted beam on the Cross, tilted up to the right of Christ signifying the ascension of the thief on his right to Heaven
  • The Title of the Cross placed on top, put up to mock Christ
  • The crown of thorns used to crown Christ, encircling the four nails used to pierce the body of Christ
  • A darkened sun, indicating the eclipse that occurred at the moment of the death of Christ
  • A moon with three stars, indicating the three days Christ died, descended into Hell, and returned at his Resurrection
  • The Holy Lance, the spear of Longinus that pierced the side of Christ
  • The Holy Sponge on a reed of hyssop, used to give Christ vinegar to drink (most likely not vinegar-vinegar but posca, a diluted vinegar-wine drink consumed regularly by soldiers, lower-classes, and the poor)
  • The rooster, facing away from the Cross, being the cock that crowed three times for the denials of Peter
  • The column, to which Christ was fastened and flailed 39 times
  • The ladder used by Joseph of Arimathea, the man who assumed responsibility for burying Christ, to bring the body of Christ down from the Cross
  • The pitcher used to wash the body of Christ, and also that which he used to wash the feet of his disciples
  • The Holy Chalice, or the Holy Grail, used by Christ at the Last Supper
  • The hammer used to fix the nails into the body of Christ
  • The pincers used to remove the nails from the body of Christ
  • The flail used on the body of Christ
  • The skull and bones, being those of Adam, the First Man, buried at Golgotha where Christ was crucified

There are other items that could be included, based on the traditional items associated with the Passion of Christ collectively known as the Arma Christi, but I found the above to be enough and all fairly traditional based on the versions of the Megaloschema I could find.

And, of course, the Greek letters (note the use of the lunate sigma, Ϲ, in the image above, instead of the usual sigma, Σ, in the descriptions below):

  • ΘΕΟΣ (Θεός) — Literally just the word God
  • ΟΒΤΔ (Ο Βασιλεύς της Δόξης) — The King of Glory
  • ΙΣ ΧΣ ΝΙΚΑ (Ιησούς Χριστός Νικά) — Jesus Christ conquers
  • ΤΤΔΦ (Τετιμημένον Τρόπαιον Δαιμόνων Φρίκη) — Honored trophy, dread of demons
  • ΡΡΔΡ (Ρητορικοτέρα Ρητόρων Δακρύων Ροή) — A flow of tears more eloquent than orators
  • ΧΧΧΧ (Χριστός Χριστιανοίς Χαρίζει Χάριν) — Christ bestows grace upon Christians
  • ΞΓΘΗ (Ξύλου Γεύσις Θάνατον Ηγαγεν) — The tasting of the Tree brought Death
  • ΣΞΖΕ (Σταυρού Ξύλοω Ζωήν Εύρομεν) — Through the Tree of Life have we found Life
  • ΕΕΕΕ (Ελένης Εύρημα Εύρηκεν Εδέμ) — The discovery of Helen has uncovered Eden
  • ΦΧΦΠ (Φως Χριστού Φαίνοι Πάσι) — The Light of Christ shines upon all
  • ΘΘΘΘ (Θεού Θέα Θείον Θαύμα) — The vision of God, a divine wonder
  • ΤΣΔΦ (Τύπον Σταυρού Δαίμονεσ Φρίττοσιν) — Demons dread the sign of the Cross
  • ΑΔΑΜ (Αδάμ) — Literally just the name Adam
  • ΤΚΠΓ (Τόποσ Κρανίου Παράδεισος Γέγονε) — The place of the Skull has become Paradise
  • ΞΖ (Ξύλον Ζωής) — The Tree of Life
  • ΠΑΓΗΔΤΠ — The first letter of the seven sayings of Jesus Christ on the Cross:
    • Πάτερ, ἄφες αὐτοῖς, οὐ γὰρ οἴδασιν τί ποιοῦσιν. — “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.” (Luke 23:34)
    • Ἀμήν σοι λέγω σήμερον μετ’ ἐμοῦ ἔσῃ ἐν τῷ παραδείσῳ. — “Truly, I say to you, today you will be with me in paradise.” (Luke 23:43)
    • Γύναι, ἴδε ὁ υἱός σου· Ἴδε ἡ μήτηρ σου. — “Woman, behold your son. Son, behold your mother.” (John 19:26-27)
    • Ἠλὶ ἠλὶ λεμὰ σαβαχθάνι;— “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?” (Matthew 27:46 and Mark 15:34)
    • Διψῶ. — “I thirst.” (John 19:28)
    • Τετέλεσται. — “It is finished.” (John 19:30)
    • Πάτερ, εἰς χεῖράς σου παρατίθεμαι τὸ πνεῦμά μου. — “Father, into your hands I commend my spirit.” (Luke 23:46)

Despite the beauty and dense symbolism of this severe symbol of the Passion, the Megaloschema is really only limited to Eastern Christian practices; it’s not really found in Western Christianity. That is, except for one surprising icon: the Icon of the Seven African Powers, more commonly known as Las Siete Potencias Africanas, a fun amalgamation of Christian Passion- and saint-related imagery mixed in with African orisha syncretism:

Around the edge of the icon are seven different saint images for the seven most popular orisha from Yòrubá and Lukumí orisha religion. Starting at the lower right corner and going clockwise from there, they are:

Interestingly, these seven saint images (given in oval shapes, much like Roman Catholic saint medallions) are bound together by a chain with seven tools hanging from the bottom of them: a machete, hammer, spear, hoe, pickaxe, rake, and shovel. The chain and all these tools are associated with Ogun, the Blacksmith Warrior, the God of Iron and God in Iron, whose domain includes all metal and all implements of metal. (He’s also my own tutelary orisha to whom I’m primarily ordained.) Ogun plays a crucial role in orisha religion, too, and the subtle opposition between Shango (as Saint Barbara) at the top and the tools of Ogun at the bottom is a fun nod to their intense relationship.

In the center of all the saints and the chain with tools is the image of Jesus Christ on the Cross with a ladder, a spear, a sponge on a rod, a sword, a pitcher, dice, a skull, a lantern, a column, a flail, a rooster, a darkened Sun, and other implements of the Arma Christi. Although Jesus Christ is given the name Olofi (a term used in Lukumí for the cosmocrator and creator orisha, i.e. God), we have fundamentally the same exact setup and iconography as the Megaloschema of Eastern Christianity in this icon of heavily-syncretized Western Christianity. It’s a delightful mashup of names and symbols that appeals to me, even if I don’t much care for the art style that’s commonly used in Western Christian iconography. Yet, it’s also incredibly confusing and amazing how the Megaloschema got blended in with African diasporic syncretized Christianity in the New World; since I don’t actively work with the specific folk traditions that produced this image, I’m honestly not sure how this particular icon of the Seven African Powers came about. It might be something fun to research one day, especially since I’m already in orisha religion as it is.

These are just some of my thoughts on this Good Friday; I had the idea to write a post about the Megaloschema for some time now, but it didn’t seem to come together until this morning, fittingly enough. For all of my Christian readers, rejoice, for soon your Lord will be risen! For all my other readers, I hope you have a wonderful start to your weekend.

Also, PSA: don’t forget that today is the Feast of Saint Expedite! Go honor our good friend who loves to help us quickly, quickly, immediately, immediately, crushing the demon that cries “tomorrow, tomorrow!” and holding the divine power of Today, today! Get him a poundcake, some wine, some cigarettes, some dice, and some flowers to honor this good saint who wards off procrastination and who helps speed us on our way speedily.

Also, another PSA: today, April 19 2019, the weather for the United States has quite a bit of rain headed our way on the East Coast as well as in the Pacific Northwest. This is an excellent day to put out your bins, basins, bowls, buckets, and all other rainwater collection instruments you might have, since today is not only Good Friday and the Feast of Saint Expedite, but also a full moon (exact at 7:12 am Eastern US time this morning); such a confluence of dates is pretty rare, so take advantage of it all! Beyond just simply being rainwater, with all its normal spiritual uses, today’s rainwater would have exceedingly strong spiritual powers, potencies, and uses for quite a number of ends. Be safe when you’re traveling and commuting today, and collect that rainwater!

When God Says No: On True Will and the Will of God

Yesterday, we started talking about a number of questions from Curious Cat that focused on the role of angels in magical work, and what happens when they don’t show up or don’t do what we ask, command, or commission them to do for us.  This is a really complex topic, at least so complex that I can’t really answer it in the 3000 character limit that Curious Cat sets for question replies, but I’m trying to flesh it out as best as I can here on my blog.  Again, I’m approaching this from a Hermetic monist-yet-polytheist standpoint that takes in the existence of both angels and gods under God in the same creation that we’re in.  What we ended up with so far is this idea that we can’t really command angels to do anything; all we can do is pray that they do something for us, whether it’s appearing in a crystal for a conjuration or fulfilling some task or teaching us some mystery.  And when we make such prayers, we’re directing those prayers to God, because angels exist solely to fulfill the will of God; that’s their nature.  Angels don’t have free will; their will is the will of God, or they just constantly and forever want the exact same thing God wants in the exact same way, and will act in their capacities to fulfill the will of God.  This means that it’s our prayers to God that matter more than the presence or help of the angels, and there are lots of reasons why prayers might not be answered: sometimes it’s because we’re not asking for what’s possible according to the will of God, and sometimes it’s best we don’t get what we want because it’s not for us or because we’re not ready for it yet.

What it all comes down to is this: we, as human beings, are blessed with quite a lot of power, but it’s not infinite power.  We’re actually quite small and insignificant in the grander scope of the cosmos, but we still have some significance.  That significance plays through our True Will, which is a fancy modern way to describe “our path in life”, the purpose and plan of God that God has established for us as individuals as written in his Book of Life.  Everything we do in life, in order to be successful, has to be either in explicit accordance with our True Will or at least tolerated and permissible within the bounds of what our True Will necessitates; to give a mundane example, it’s necessary that I leave my house at 7:20 am to go get to the train station on time, but that doesn’t mean I have to wake up at 6 am in order to be sufficiently ready, because I have the freedom to wake up earlier or later so long as I’m out the door by 7:20 am.  Likewise, we have to live according to our True Will, whether or not we’re consciously aware of it, but we also have leeway to do things explicitly outside it because it doesn’t fundamentally matter one way or another, so long as we’re not doing things that actively go against our True Will.

When we act in accordance with our True Will, then we’re acting in accordance with the will of God, and we effectively become his angels for as long as our will is his will, and so long as that synchronization is maintained, there is nothing that can stop us; we might be delayed, slowed down, or face other difficulties in accomplishing it according to the usual vicissitudes of life and the struggles we face against the ignorant actions of ourselves or other human beings or the inimical actions of malevolent spirits, but God will not bar us or deny us from it, because it is his will that we should do the thing we’re doing.  When we act within the permissibility of our True Will, then what we’re doing may not be explicitly necessitated or mandated by God, but we have the license to act on it anyway because it doesn’t fundamentally matter one way or another so long as we get the right things done in the right way.  But when we act outside the permissibility of our True Will, then we go against the will of God, and there is nothing we can do that will change that, and we’re off-track from the proper path for ourselves in life.

The topic of True Will is one that I’ve talked about time and again on my blog in the past, and I think I’ve made some really important points on this before:

When we follow and carry out our True Wills, things generally go easier for us, since they’re increasingly tied into the things we’re doing.  We encounter fewer and fewer difficulties, since we’re effectively carrying out our roles to play in the cosmos, and “if God is for us, who can be against us”?  Sure, we might still attract haters (who will, after all, continue to hate on ‘choo), but when we work our Will on the cosmos, people who would interfere with us are either brought over to our side and begin helping us instead, or are drowned out, burned up, or otherwise silenced and made powerless to counteract or contradict us.  Plus, the more we work our True Will, the more we begin to find and associate with those who are also carrying out their Will, and since they’re doing what they must for the cosmos, it’ll naturally fall in line and correlate with what we must do for the cosmos, as two players on opposite sides of an orchestra play harmoniously in the whole.

It’s only when someone else messes up their part and trashes their Will so badly that it ends up careening into yours that can cause problems, like a planet that suddenly shifts out of orbit and collides into other planets, or a player in an orchestra that decides to start playing a march when everyone else is playing a waltz just to confuse others.  Sometimes this is out of earnest confusion and spiritual flailing, sometimes this is out of deliberate spite and (mis- or ab-)use of their power and Will.  This can certainly cause issues, and can even put a cold damper or shut down the flame of one who’s actually working their Will as they should.  All it needs is a bit of correction on both our part and the parts of others to get everything singing harmoniously again, and then we’ll all be aweseome again as we should.

In a way, the idea of True Will is starting to sound a lot like Grace to me: just as Grace is not a reward, neither is True Will, but they’re both the state and result of being doing the highest Good, of becoming properly Godly, and coming to truly know yourself, your origins, and your duty. (January 31, 2013)

So too is the wand of the magician not used as a blasting rod or an offensive weapon, but it’s used as a mark of divine right and being rightly divine.  The wand should be used to remind the magician and guide them to their True Will, not used to enforce their temporary will onto others.  After all, if one is following their True Will, then pretty much all else will fall into place accordingly (except in dire or unusual circumstances when other work must be applied).  The image of control that the wand bestows is just that, an illusory image; it’s the obedience of entities to their proper stations in the cosmos that the wand reminds them of, and helps them fall into place when in the presence of one who is effectively sent from on high.  To use  the wand to simply force or bind something to the whimsy of the magician is to abuse the authority given to the magician, and when abused enough, the magician incurs punishment just as Chinese emperors might lose the Mandate of Heaven. (October 11, 2013)

What do we, as conjurers and magicians and magi, do?  We take our divine birthright as children of the Most High and join with him in the ever-continuing act of creation of the cosmos.  We ask for the blessing of God to do what is Right and to enact our True Wills, thereby rejoining God in his infinite Grace.  We step into the role as agents of the Divine, of the Most Divine, to work with the spirits who are our relatives, who are our brothers and sisters from the same Source, and who endeavor to aid us as they aid the Divine themselves.  We, essentially, become a consciously direct extension of God and join with God.  I’m going to stop this little poetic waxing short of saying “we become God”, because we already are essentially part of the Prime Mover down in this little ass-end of the cosmos, but we come closest to it consciously when we do our Work.

There are points when working with the spirits simply does not work; as Fr. Rufus Opus has said, the general idea is “move  this or move me”, where either a thing desired is changed or made in the world or where we ourselves are changed if nothing else can be changed.  God, clearly, can change everything, since that’s pretty much his thing; nothing disobeys God, since everything is a part of God and works as part of the One, the cohesive Whole.  But, that said, by moving ourselves, we partake in that same action, and bring ourselves closer to becoming what we need to Be and do what we need to Do; in these cases, we bring ourselves closer to attaining and carrying out our True Wills.  This is also the same in all other instances when working with the spirits gets us results in the external world. (November 2, 2013)

This ties in tightly to notions of True Will and divine providence, too, and the ideas are similar.  When we do what God wants us to do, carrying out and serving our divine purpose, that’s our True Will, the will we are meant to fulfill which we ourselves can know once we can see ourselves clearly enough.  To do that, however, we have to carry out the Great Work, which helps us prepare ourselves across the four parts of the world and begin to hear and use Logos.  This allows our sensible, material bodies to better heed and serve our souls, which can then develop properly into a fully-knowledgeable and divine soul with Nous.  With Nous being known to ourselves, we then can carry out what it is we’re supposed to do; at that point, any distinction between what we want and what God wants is meaningless, because our wills have become God’s will and vice versa. (December 8, 2013)

I’ve brought up the idea before that, if we envision the whole grand scheme of things, the Cosmos, as a giant machine, then everyone is a gear in that machine. So long as we keep on doing what we need to do, every part works in harmony with every other part, and the machine works well. If even one part, however, gets out of sync or decides to revolt, then much of the rest of the system we find ourselves in can malfunction or break down, and other parts have to accommodate the malfunction until things get into proper working order again. (This is why life isn’t perfect, I suppose.) Kalagni of Blue Flame Magick once described this to me (in a discussion on True Will) as how a solar system works: the planets don’t need to think or plan or consciously strive towards orbiting the Sun, they just do it naturally as an expression of their selves and their purpose. But imagine, dear reader, if a rogue planet suddenly whipped itself into our solar system, or worse, imagine if one of our own planets suddenly got a wild hare up its axis of rotation and jumped out of its orbit. What happens? The other planets get knocked out of their own orbits, potentially colliding with other planets or celestial bodies, and the whole system gets out of whack until it finds a new equilibrium to settle down in. There’s no guarantee that this equilibrium will be equivalent to the previous one, or that the solar system as a whole will survive such an accident, but hey, shit happens. The Cosmos will do what it needs to do in order to work out its own problems, and its our job to make sure that we do our own Work accordingly to handle our Will, regardless of what the vicissitudes of fate throw at us. (February 12, 2017)

When you seek to work against your True Will, you cause problems, and the only solution is to get back in line with your True Will; there is no other option or alternative, and as I said earlier, no angel, demon, ghost, or god will make what you seek permissible without them going against their own True Wills.  Yes, other entities have their own True Wills.  It stands to reason that if we have a particular purpose in the creation of the Creator, then so does everyone and everything else, too, with the same kinds of boundaries and limits, just on different scales and with different scopes.  I brought this up in my answer to that last question from Curious Cat, since the question referenced other deities as examples of ones one might go to when God himself says “no”, one of which was the orisha Yemaya:

Since you bring up Yemaya, my mother in Ocha who’s extraordinarily dear to my heart (though my father and crown is Ogun), I can phrase this in a more Ocha-centric way. In Ocha theology, there are all these orisha, the divinities of the world, but there’s a hierarchy among them, with Obatala as king of the orisha. But Obatala is not the almighty all-ruler of the cosmos; that role goes to Olodumare (or Olorun or Olofi, they’re all basically the same), the divine creator of the whole cosmos. All things exist to carry out the will of Olodumare, including the orisha; as oloshas, we don’t interact with Olodumare because ey’s so far distant and removed from our day-to-day life, but instead, we interact with eir’s emissaries, stewards, and regents: the orisha. They cannot go against the will of Olodumare, who sets the laws for everything and everyone, but within their own domains, they have the power to work and act. So long as Olodumare grants them license to do so, they can do what they want.

Heck, even in orisha religion, there’s a notion that “no orisha can bless you if your own Ori does not accept it”.  Ori, in this case, is a special kind of head spirit that we all have, initiated or not, and is a kind of notion of “higher self” as well as our own “spirit of destiny”.  In many ways, if I were to translate it in to Western Hermtic terms, it’s essentially the spirit of our True Will.  If we ask for something but our Ori says “nope”, then it’s not part of your destiny to receive it, and no orisha will be able to give it to you, even if they want to give it to you or if you want to get it from them.  But if your Ori says “yup”, then it doesn’t matter whether we want the thing or not, because it’s part of our destiny to have it; we might delay on it or we might speed up towards it, but we can’t avoid it, and no orisha will be able to stop it, no matter how hard they try.  There might be ways to ameliorate or “fix” one’s destiny, but it’s limited, and even then, defaults back to the will of Olodumare (i.e. the will of God).

Even in Hellenic traditional religion, there’s a notion that Zeus is not just the king of Olympos, but the king of truly the entire cosmos whose power and rule is absolute, and whose will must be obeyed by all.  I dimly recall a scene from the Iliad (I forget where) where Zeus proclaims his own power, saying that if all the other gods and goddesses and spirits held on to the end of an unbreakable rope and if Zeus alone had it wrapped around his little finger, he could still yank the rope with such force as to fling all the other deities to the far ends of the world with just a nudge.  The will of Zeus is absolute, and no things can go against that supreme will; though Zeus is not necessarily a creator deity, he is still a cosmocrator all the same; he just happens to go along with his own designs and plans and will when he “obeys” the powers of other deities such as Anankē (Necessity) or the Moirai (Fates), because he does not permit himself to break the rules that he himself has set in conjunction with the other deities that establish the purpose and path of all things.

Consider it this way: in order to get around mental blocks about fighting against God when God says “no”, replace the word “God” (or “Olodumare” or “Zeus” or any other cosmocrator/creator deity) with the phrase “the fundamental nature of the cosmos”.  Thus, when the fundamental nature of the cosmos says “yes”, there’s nothing that can stop it from happening, and when the fundamental nature of the cosmos says “no”, there’s nothing that can make it happen.  Likewise, to get around the mental blocks when angels or any particular deity or divinity say “no”, replace the word “angels” or “other gods” with the phrase “the fundamental forces of the cosmos”.  When the fundamental forces of the cosmos say “yes”, that’s because the fundamental nature of the cosmos necessitates that those forces act in a certain way in order for the cosmos to maintain its nature; when the fundamental forces of the cosmos say “no”, that’s because the fundamental nature of the cosmos cannot allow those forces to function in that way in accordance with the rules that the fundamental nature of the cosmos set up and plays by.  However, those same fundamental forces of the cosmos may function in ways that produce interesting and perhaps unexpected side effects or which produce emergent properties that arise from particular combinations or edge-cases of forces interacting; these don’t go against the fundamental nature of the cosmos, but are still part of the cosmos because of how those forces work.  A force will do whatever it will do, and given the proper setting and context, it can and will do a lot, especially if there’s nothing stopping it, but it cannot do what it was not designed to do nor can it do anything when it has no power in a particular situation or context.

This is essentially where fate and destiny come into play, because “fate” is essentially “the course that the fundamental nature of the cosmos will take”, and it’s up to us to live our lives in accordance with fate, just as one can’t really go upstream down a torrentially-flowing river.  The thing is that we can go with it or fight against it; whether we’re successful or not is, ultimately, up whether what we’re doing is in accordance with that destiny and whether it plays a role in accomplishing it.  It sounds like, in the debate between fate vs. free will, all the above argues against free will and for the undeniable power of fate.  And yes!  That’s true.  But it’s also true that, from our point of view, we have freedom of choice and freedom of will, to be sure.  We don’t have to go along with the the fundamental nature of the cosmos, but it probably won’t end well, and even within the boundaries of the fundamental nature of the cosmos, we can still do a lot that the fundamental nature of the cosmos hasn’t explicitly mandated, often including how we do what we need to do.  After a certain point in the cosmos, the distinction between fate and free will becomes moot; you just do what you’re supposed to do, not because you don’t have a choice, but because you capital-W Want to.

For as important and wonderful and powerful as we are as human beings, we are still so small and weak.  The cosmos is filled with things far bigger, older, smarter, cleverer, and stronger than us.  Sometimes we can fight against them, and on occasion, we might even win.  In general, though, issues with authority will only cause you problems, and issues with the underlying authority of all of creation itself won’t get you very far at all.  When we appeal to God for help, we might get it, or we might not; it’s not up to us to demand it, because quite frankly, the cosmos owes you nothing at all.  You were made to fulfill some purpose or role; strive for that, because all else is meaningless in the end!  If you want something and you’re both meant to have it and capable of having it, then it will be yours; if you want something and you’re meant to have it but you’re not capable of having it, then start working on being capable of having it so that it can be yours; if you  want something and you’re not meant to have it, then accept it and move on to the things that you’re meant to have.  This is not an easy lesson to learn, because this is fundamentally the lesson of humility before God: “be it done unto me according to your word”.  We might be kings of our spheres and worlds, but there are still higher powers that we, too, must obey in order for our kingdoms to survive.  We are both ruler of that which is below and within and servant to that which is above and without.

This is essentially the whole point of our Great Work, our Magnum Opus, our True Will: we must learn what is appropriate and best for us, then work towards accomplishing it.  It’s not a one-and-done event that you can spend a month studying for then doing a simple ritual one night and going to bed and partying for the rest of your life; it’s literally the constant work of lifetimes, the most important and the most difficult thing we can ever do and ever be doing.  By that very same token, it’s also the most worthy, worthwhile, valuable, and precious thing we can ever hope to accomplish, and there is nothing we can do that is truly worthy of such a blessing and reward except to simply do it.  That we have the means and capability of fulfilling our fate is, in a sense, true grace from God.  We just need to keep our eyes on the target, keep facing towards God, and keep learning about our True Will so that we can fulfill it, day by day, step by step, stone by stone, breath by breath, bite by bite.  One day, we’ll get there.  There is nothing else in all of creation that is as worthy, or as difficult, than for us to fulfill what we were meant to do.

Whether we get what we want doesn’t ultimately matter, regardless whether or not we get it.  It’s whether we get what we Want that matters.

When God Says No: On God and the Angels

Yes, another post from Curious Cat.  It’s honestly a great way for people to reach out to me, and it gives me a ready store of ideas for posts to write about.  (I’ve been asking for comments on my website, Facebook, and Twitter for ages for when people would like to ask questions, but people either just don’t do that or don’t generally trigger a post-writing reaction.)  Plus, according to Human Design (which my blessed sister studies and practices), I’m a so-called “manifesting generator” type, who responds well to being asked questions in order to produce and effect wonderful things.  But unlike other posts about things that come from questions on Curious Cat, this post is gonna be a little different; we’re going to discuss a common thread that ties together several different questions that were asked, all largely pertaining to angels, their role in the cosmos, how we interact with them, how we’re permitted to interact with them, and what their relationship is to God.  To give a brief summary of the questions asked and my replies to them:

  • Where do angels come from, and what are they?  God made them to carry out his will in infinitesimal slices of divine presence, made discrete and distinct to govern over specific things, entities, events, or phenomena of the cosmos.  Angels have no free will; by definition, their will is the will of God and vice versa, so that they act strictly and solely in accordance with, for, by, and to God.
  • If angels have no free will, then when we invoke or conjure an angel and commission it with a request, it can only fulfill this request if God wills it? Yes!  All the conjurations we do in the Western Hermetic and Solomonic tradition of higher entities, if we’re not taking the rather old-school approach of assuming divine power ourselves and browbeating the cosmos into complying with our (temporarily-assumed) divine will, is to supplicate God through prayer to reveal that he send his angels to us in his name for his honor and glory.  Thus, when we call on an angel, we’re essentially asking God to graciously give his permission for the angel to be sent to us, because God’s will and God’s will alone is what allows all things to happen; how much more this is the case, then, for entities whose sole purpose is to perfectly and only fulfill the will of God!
  • What sort of behavior do angels hate?  It depends on what they’re the angel of, but in general, angels don’t really “hate” because they don’t really do emotion, since they’re the embodiments of and agents for the will of God.  In that sense, angels “hate” anything that goes contrary to the will, design, aims, and goals of God—and, by extension, all that we do that goes against our True Will, which is nothing more or less than the will of God that is right and proper for us to will and accomplish in our lifetimes.
  • How can we discover our True Will if we’re unaware of it?  This is nothing short of the first half of the Great Work; the second half is fulfilling it.  And there is nothing harder or higher than to know and do what it is what we truly Will.  This is exactly the same thing as knowing the purpose God has established for us in life.
  • Why do angels hate emotion, then? Angels don’t hate emotion; they just don’t have it, or at least in any meaningful way that we might recognize as emotion.  We might perceive or interpret them to be acting emotionally, but that’s only because we ourselves are human and thus emotive creatures, while angels are utterly devoid of humanity and completely above and beyond our level, at least or especially where emotions are concerned.  Angels don’t have free will; they don’t even roll or blink their (innumerable) eyes without God willing it.
  • If an angel is being difficult, how do we complain to its manager?  If an angel is being difficult, it’s not because the angel is acting wily or being a punk for the sake of being a punk.  If an angel declines to do something, it’s because God declines to permit that thing from occurring; it’s not that the angels decide against it, but God decides against it.  That’s why, when we pray in conjuration for an angel to appear, we pray that God grant that it should happen (see above).  If something doesn’t happen, then there’s a reason for it; we either must work towards it so that we’re ready and proper for it in the eyes of God, or we must pray for the right thing to occur, whether it involves the conjuration and commissioning of an angel to do something or whether we should do something else entirely that would be better for us to do.
  • If God is unwilling to help us, would intervention from other deities from other traditions or pantheons help instead? Maybe, but if God’s decided against it, then there’s probably a good reason for that. It could be that you should look elsewhere for help, such as from another god or using another set of spirits or practices entirely to get the same thing done rather than by directly appealing to the Highest, but it could also be that you’re asking for the wrong thing entirely or that it’s not meant for you, whether now or at all. That’s where divination is crucial for magicians: it helps us plan out what we can do, but more than that, whether we should do something. Just because you can do something doesn’t mean you should, and if you shouldn’t, you should learn the reasons why. In other words, don’t go shopping around for a second opinion when you already got The One Opinion To Rule Them All. Keep to the principle of “move, or move me”.
  • But when it comes to other gods, don’t they also share power over our reality as well?  Absolutely!  But for all their greatness and grandness and power, they’re not as great or grand or powerful as the cosmocrator God behind them all. And that’s okay, because they don’t need to be, and it’s often better to work with them directly if you’re in such a tradition than to work with the behind-the-scenes all-ruling One, because they’re more accessible. But there are limits in place that even they can’t argue with, because they’re not in charge of literally everything like God is.

All this ended up with me saying this from that last question in the series, which I want to specifically quote with a special emphasis on one particular line:

God (and I use that term in a very general, very high-and-behind-the-scenes way as in Hermetic theology/philosophy), more often than not, doesn’t really established hard and fixed prohibitions so long as something fits (or is, at least, tolerated and permissible) within the grander scheme of things.  Even the biggest events and problems in our lives are less than specks of dust compared to the grandness of all creation, and accordingly, there’s not too much that really conflicts with the overall overarching design of God; there’s more than one way to skin a cat. But when God says “no” through the creation of the cosmos, there’s no angel, demon, ghost, or god that will say “yes”. If God says “no”, then you should find out why that might be the case and act accordingly, because more often than not, it’s with your own best interests in mind. Again, this is where divination is important, because it will tell you what’s going on, whether you can do something, and whether you should do something.

Now, there’s a lot to unpack in all of this, because I didn’t necessarily summarize everything, and Curious Cat, for all its usefulness, isn’t great for truly nuanced discussions, what with its 3000 character limit on replies, and it’s easy to get some parts of the above misunderstood.  Plus, there are things that I’m hinting at in some of my replies that really need to be said explicitly, but just couldn’t fit reasonably in the above replies within the constraints of Curious Cat.  First, let me preface this by saying that I’m coming from a position that’s largely Hermetic and Neoplatonic and fundamentally emanationist-monist within a polytheistic framework, and I recognize that not all systems of theology, cosmology, or philosophy operate on these principles—but there are still quite a number that do.  Since I’m the one being asked these questions for my opinions, and since this is my own blog, these are my thoughts on all of this.

At the core of it all, the theme of all these questions is what role God has to play in our Work, whether or not we’re monotheistic or monist, and how we relate to God in that sense.

First, what exactly is this God we’re talking about?  Coming from a Hermetic standpoint, God is the ultimate underlying authority and entity that created and creates the whole cosmos.  Without getting into the nitty-gritty of Hermetic philosophy (I did a good-enough job of that in my 49 Days of Definitions blog series from 2013 regarding the “Definitions from Hermes Trismegistus to Asclepius”), God is both the end result of spiritual development and the ultimate source of all things that exist, don’t exist, might exist, etc.  Everything else that exists does so within God as part of God.  It may be said that God is fullness itself; instead of merely saying that all things exist within God, it can also be said that all things are God, and since God is all things, God is All.  However, since God is still one divinely simple entity, God is also One, and thus All is One.  God is the Platonic Good, the summum bonum of the philosophers, the object of highest knowledge and importance that is the forerunner and producer of all other objects.  God is also the Monad, the One, that which is alone in itself, made by itself endlessly (i.e. unmade), making all things, coming first; it is the one Source of all things, creating all things within itself yet never being made from anything besides itself, never taking away from itself into less nor multiplying itself into more.  God, further, encompasses all things; not only is God fully immanent in all of creation, but God also transcends all of creation, too.  Everything is permeated with divine essence, but everything is also intrinsically connected to each other and to God by it as well.

Where does that put us, as human beings?  All beings, human and otherwise that are not God are finite; they are not infinite, unending, immovable, or the like, since these are qualities that belong only to God.  Something that is finite has an end; it is defined, or set in by boundaries.  The maximum extent of these boundaries can be called something’s capacity, and nothing that is finite can exceed its own capacity.  Thus, everything that exists that is not God has a certain way of existing up to a certain point, whether it be in quantity or quality or good or evil; these things cannot act outside or beyond that point, because then it would exceed its own capacity.  A being’s capacity is, essentially, its destiny; a being does what its nature is designed to do, which is to fulfill its own capacity, but which it cannot exceed, because that would be going past what its destiny necessitates.  This is essentially our power: to fulfill our capacity, to fulfill our fate, and we have the choice of doing good or evil in a Hermetic sense, to fulfill our fate or to not fulfill it.  And that’s huge!  But, despite all this power we’re entitled to have, we’re not omnipotent; for example, our nature as humans is to die; we are mortal, after all, and the nature of things with material bodies is to die eventually.

What about other entities that aren’t human beings, such as angels or gods that are distinct from capital-G God?  They’re entities in their own rights, to be sure, and have their own capacities, natures, and roles to play.  But they’re still finite, no matter how much power they have.  Whatever something is according to its nature, that is going to be how it will be for that being.  These entities still have power, but they still exist as finite entities within creation; thus, they are still not God.  Rather, it’s God who establishes their natures and capacities, and it’s the role of those entities to fulfill them however they so choose.  Being higher than us and made of more subtle stuff and without the distractions and darkness of incarnate bodies, they also see more and know more than we do, and are necessarily closer to God than we are down here.  All the same, however, they cannot exceed their own capacities, either.

Now, I know that this might seem a little…appropriative, as if I’m trying to fit every possible tradition or religion into a single monist framework.  In a sense, yeah, because that’s what Hermeticism is, and it’s fundamentally one of the ways that Neoplatonic philosophy regards the hierarchy and workings of the cosmos.  To be sure, there isn’t just one Neoplatonism, and I’ll admit that my own philosophical background is amateurish, but it’s a thing I’ve seen and considered time and again and, simply, the framework works.  While I believe in God, I also believe in a plurality of many other gods; they’re all real, and often with varying powers, domains, personalities, temperaments, preferences, and the like.  And yet, they exist as part of creation just like I do, which is why approaching them works.  Yet, as a Hermeticist, I also recognize the existence (such as it is) of a God of gods, a God behind all creation, both within and without.  This is effectively the same God as that of Abraham or Muḥammad as well as of Hermēs Trismegistus, as well as Olodumare of the Yòrubá and Lukumí, as well as the God of the gnostics and the Good of the philosophers.  One can still be a monist without being a monotheist or monolatrist.  Even if you disagree with that approach to divinity and divinities (and I know of at least several who would with very good reasons!), accept the premise of it for the purposes of this post.

When it comes to angels, the word itself literally means “messenger” in Greek (ἄγγελος ángelos), and the notion of it in Abrahamic religions comes from the Hebrew מלאך mal’ākh meaning, again, “messenger”.  More than just being a bearer of the messages of God, however, angels are more like ambassadors, emissaries, or functionaries of God: they accomplish the will of God in every possible way, fulfilling it by governing, ruling, directing, and instructing different parts of the cosmos, essentially acting as the limbs of God and extensions of the will of God.  If we want to take the “messenger” idea a bit further in a way that comports with both Hermeticism and Christianity, consider the role of the Word; after all, “in the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word is God”.  The “Word” of Christianity does refer to Jesus Christ, sure, but it’s also the Logos of the Hermeticists, the rational and intelligible principle that allows God (as the Nous, or Mind) to allow the cosmos to function.  In that sense, angels are messengers of the Word of God; where they bear the Word, they fulfill the will of God.

The thing about angels is that they are still only messengers; they speak the Word of God, but that is all they can speak, for that is their capacity and nature.  Angels, as extensions of the will of God, have no free will of their own; their whole purpose is to effect the will of God in the creation God made.  Whatever an angel “wants” to do is identical with what God wills; their will is inherently God’s will.  That’s why, among many other things, we can’t command an angel to do anything, because that’s equivalent to commanding God to do something, which is so far outside our finite and human capacity and capabilities that it’s laughable.  Angels cannot and do not do anything that God does not command them to do, but “command”, though a familiar concept to us coming from a Jewish, Christian, or Islamic background, isn’t really what’s happening between God and the angels; rather, God speaks his Word, and the angels bear that Word to wherever they’re going to accomplish whatever that Word is.  Angels are almost machine-like in that sense; they exist for the sole purpose of “serving God” by fulfilling the will of God.

In terms more suited to Renaissance Hermeticism, angels are “intelligences”, spiritual entities under the rule of God that guide and direct the manifestation of the forces of the cosmos.  Every force, entity, place, planet, and thing in the cosmos has its own presiding or governing angel, which can be worked with through devotional, magical, or some other kind of spiritual means.  Thus, consider Tzaphqiel, the angel of Saturn; this angel is the “governor” of that planet, and serves to establish the power, roles, functions, motions, and works of Saturn in all things in the cosmos.  Tzaphqiel, as an angel, bears the Word of God in a way that focuses on the Logos as it pertains to Saturn.  If we want to bring more Saturn power into our lives or throttle it back from our lives, we can work with Tzaphqiel to do just that.  But what if Tzaphqiel says “no”?

This is basically what a lot of these questions on Curious Cat are getting at.  Let’s step aside for a bit and consider something else for the moment: where does the nature of angels in relation to God leave us in angelic magic, whether through prayers or conjurations?  It cannot be denied that working with angels is often incredibly effective for any number of ends, and is a staple of European folk religion and folk magic as well as Hermetic, Solomonic, and other kinds of magic generally in both the West and the East.  Obviously, we don’t worship angels—that’d be idolatry, and an insult to both the angel and God—but we do venerate them and honor them, especially when thanking them or calling upon them.  But the thing is that, when we call upon them, there’s something that’s really common in much of Western magical literature that we need to carefully consider: we don’t command the angels to appear, but we ask for them to appear.  Moreover, we don’t ask the angel to appear, but we ask God that the angel appear for us.  And there are very good reasons for that.

Consider the specific conjuration prayer from Johann Trithemius’ Art of Drawing Spirits into Crystals.  For clarity, let me use my own slightly reworded version, and note the specific phrasing of the prayer in the emphasized sections:

In the name of the blessed Tetragrammaton, I call upon you, you strong and mighty angel Michael, if it be the divine will of the most holy God that you take the shape that best shows your celestial nature, and appear to me visibly here in this crystal, and answer my demands in as far as I shall not transgress the bounds of divine mercy by requesting unlawful knowledge, and that you graciously show me what things are most profitable for me to know and do, to the glory and honor of his divine majesty, who lives and reigns, world without end.  Amen.

Lord, your will be done on earth as it is in heaven.  Make clean my heart within me, and take not your holy spirit from me.

O Lord, by your name I have called Michael; suffer him to administer unto me, and that all things may work together for your honor and glory, and that to you be ascribed all might, majesty, and dominion.  Amen.

O Lord, I thank you for the hearing of my prayer, and I thank you for having permitted your spirit to appear unto me.  Amen.

For another example, consider the orison from book II, chapter 12 of the Book of Abramelin:

O Lord God of Mercy … Sanctify me also with the oil of thy sanctification, wherewith thou hast sanctified all thy prophets; and purify in me therewith all that appertains unto me, so that I may become worthy of the conversation of thy holy angels and of thy divine wisdom, and grant unto me the power which thou hast given unto thy prophets over all the evil spirits. Amen, amen.

Another example, the prayer from septenary II, aphorism 14 from the Arbatel of Magic:

O Lord of heaven and earth, Creator and Maker of all things visible and invisible; I, though unworthy, by thy assistance call upon thee, through thy only begotten Son Jesus Christ our Lord, that thou wilt give unto me thy holy Spirit, to direct me in thy truth unto all good. Amen.

Because I earnestly desire perfectly to know the Arts of this life and such things as are necessary for us, which are so overwhelmed in darkness, and polluted with infinite humane opinions, that I of my own power can attain to no knowledge in them, unless thou teach it me. Grant me, therefore, one of thy spirits, who may teach me those things which thou would have me to know and learn, to thy praise and glory, and the profit of our neighbor…

Then again, the invocation to call forth angels from the Ars Almadel (language cleaned up to be made more readable for modern readers):

O you great, mighty, and blessed angel of God, NN. … I, the servant of the same your God entreat and humbly beseech you to come and show unto me all the things that I desire of you, so far as in office you can or are capable to perform if God permit to the same.  O you servant of Mercy, NN., I entreat you and humbly beseech you … to inform and rightly instruct me in my ignorant and depraved intellect, judgment, and understanding, and to assist me both in both this and in all other truths that the almighty Adonai, the King of Kings and the Giver of all good gifts, shall in his bountiful and fatherly Mercy be graciously pleased to bestow upon me.  Thus, o you blessed angel NN., be friendly unto me and work for me, so far as God has given you power in office to perform, whereunto I move you in power and presence to appear that I may sing with his holy angels: o mappa la man, hallelujah!  Amen.

I think the message I’m getting across is clear here.  Granted, not all grimoires in the Solomonic or Hermetic tradition use this kind of phrasing, especially when we’re dealing in a more goetic fashion where instead of pleading for God to grant his permission of such-and-such a phenomenon happening, we simply assume that God has given us his authority to make things happen, thus all the perilous threats that Solomonic magicians are known to use.  But how do we actually know or make sure we have that authority, or how do we know whether God will grant us permission?  Consider the very first line of the Key of Solomon (book I, chapter 1): “Solomon, the son of David, King of Israel, hath said that the beginning of our Key is to fear God, to adore him, to honor him with contrition of heart, to invoke him in all matters which we wish to undertake, and to operate with very great devotion, for thus God will lead us in the right way.”

Heck, I think the Key of Solomon is an excellent text to discuss here.  Julio Cesar Ody (of famous occult-lampooning fame), if I recall correctly (and I hope he corrects me if I’m wrong!) has remarked before that people treat the Key of Solomon as something to pilfer and take extracts from, rather than treating it like a full initiatory system of magic unto itself.  And when you look at it…yeah.  It really is far more than just a collection of works and talismans to be made with good prayers to be used for consecrating three dozen and more tools and pentacles.  Consider that the recitation of psalms is a huge part of they Key of Solomon; why would that be the case?  Because the Psalms are fundamentally songs that are used to praise God for his power and  beneficence, creation of the world, and miracles and favors done for mankind generally and for the sake of Israel specifically.  They can take the form of laments, thanksgiving, praisegiving, celebration, or pleas for help, and their study and recitation is common in Judaism and Christianity for imparting wisdom and cultivating grace and an elevated spirituality in accordance with the will and command of God.  Yes, the specific psalms used in the rituals of the Key of Solomon do bear relation to the things being consecrated at times, but it’s a constant practice of keeping ourselves spiritually in line with the will of God, which, when used with the actual prayers of the rituals themselves, produce an all-around feat of holy work.  Consider the first prayer from book I, chapter 5:

O Lord God, holy Father, Almighty and Merciful One who has created all things, who know all things and can do all things, from whom nothing is hidden, to whom nothing is impossible!  You who know that we do not perform these ceremonies to tempt your power, but that we may penetrate into the knowledge of hidden things.  We pray to you, by your sacred Mercy, to cause and to permit that we may arrive at this understanding of secret things of whatever nature they may be by your aid, o most holy ADONAI, whose Kingdom and Power shall have no end unto the Ages of the Ages. Amen.

Fundamentally, working divine magic is just prayer, just supplications to the Divine—to God—that certain things happen, not for the simple reason that we want it to happen, but that it be capital-G Good and ordained by God that it should happen.  That’s really all there is to it.  You might want to use so many words as all the excerpts above show, perhaps to inflame yourself with prayer to reach a more powerful or ecstatic state of working, or you might use less, if you can manage to get as much intent and focus out from fewer words.  Either way, this sort of magic is just prayer.

In this light, what happens when we pray for something and it doesn’t happen?  There could be several explanations:

  • What we’re praying for isn’t permissible within the design of God. It could be that what you’re asking for just isn’t possible, realistic, or appropriate for the world that God has established.  God could look at you and say “you’re being unreasonable here, focus on what’s realistic”.  I could pray to grow wings so that I can fly around the skies, but it’s not going to happen according to the laws of human physiology and basic physics in this world, which were designed according to the will and plan of God.  It could happen on other planes where one’s form isn’t so rigidly fixed, but it’s not going to happen here.  Likewise, if you pray for the consecration of a particular talisman for a particular end and it doesn’t end up consecrated, it’s because God sees that what you’re asking for isn’t permissible within the overall scheme of things that God has set up for us, perhaps due to the nature of what you’re asking (e.g. a talisman to shoot fireballs out of our hands) or due to the ramifications it might have (e.g. it could set off a chain reaction that would end up butting up harshly against things God already has in store for the cosmos).
  • What we’re praying for isn’t for us to receive. It could be that what you’re asking for is good, noble, and proper, but you’re not the right person to request it or have it.  God could look at you and say “this is a good idea, but it’s not for you to work on, so ask for  something else”.  Not everyone is going to be good at everything; I’m no fighter or doctor, so while I might pray for skill in battle or for success in a lucrative medical career, these things aren’t in my life path.  Trying to force them, so long as it doesn’t go against the will of God for me, could get some success, but it could also just as easily happen that trying to go down those paths would end up with me being stymied, frustrated, and blocked at every turn.  These are signs from the cosmos itself that I’m not on the right path and that I’m barking up the wrong tree.  Instead, I should learn what my path truly entails and focus on that; it might not be easy (it rarely is!), but it will be successful in a way that would go far beyond things that I’m not meant to do.  Thus, if you’re praying for something to happen and it doesn’t happen, it’s could be because that thing isn’t for you to have in your life because it won’t help you and could easily harm you.
  • What we’re praying for is something that we can receive eventually but which we’re not ready to receive now. It could be that what you’re asking for is good, noble, and proper, and it’s proper for you to have those things, but you’re not ready to have it yet.  God could look at you and say “you’ve got the potential, but you aren’t at the right state of development for it right now, so keep working at it”.  In other words, you’re on the right track, but it’s above your station; one day, if you keep on the right track, you’ll get there.  Consider the notion of knowledge and conversation with the Holy Guardian Angel; coming in contact with this divine spirit often involves an ordeal because it’s a direct link to God, and quite simply, not everyone is ready for it.  They all have their own guardian angels, to be sure, but they might not be able to truly comprehend the power and, thus, the accompanying responsibility of the conscious company of that spirit yet.  They need to refine themselves through cultivating virtue and abandoning vice until they reach a certain stage of spiritual development.  Receiving those things we pray for earlier than when it’s appropriate for us could very easily cause us and those around us harm at worst or just distractions and delays at best.

How do we know whether a prayer of ours will be granted?  This is where divination comes into play.  Divination is important for magicians of all kinds, not just because it’s a useful and profitable skill to bring in clients and to spy on people, but because it shows us the way for our own Work.  By divination, we can figure out what’s going on and what the appropriate ways are to handle it; as part of that, we can see not just whether we can do a particular ritual for a particular end, but whether we should do it (or, in the words of the good and most reverend Bishop Lainie Petersen, whether it’s wise for us to do it).  If a reading indicates that we can do something but that we should not do it, then it’s within our power to do the thing but it’s not the best use of our power to do it.  If a reading indicates that we can not do something but that we should do it, then it’s not within our power yet to do the thing and that we need to focus on cultivating that power however necessary in order to do it.  And, if a reading indicates that we can not do something and that we also should not do it, then it’s neither in our power nor our best interests to do the thing.  The answer to can-or-can’t ultimately lies with us, but the answer to should-or-shouldn’t lies with God.

We’ll pick up on this tomorrow when we get more into the notion of what “should” really means here, because this is touching on what role the will of God plays for us in our lives.

On Fasting (and All the Various Ways You Can Fast)

Another wonderful question from Curious Cat:

What alternative recommendations would suggest to someone who cannot fast due to health issues? I already eat relatively clean … I’d like to re-start my system, but can’t entirely forgo food due to a compromised immune system. Any suggestions?

This is a surprisingly deep question, and one with plenty of alternatives.  I answered it on Curious Cat, but I want to go into more depth about it here, because it turns out there’s a lot to say.  Also, it just so happens that I’ve written about fasting long ago in two posts from 2012, here and here, which I only remembered after writing most of this current post.  Still, I think it’s time for a refresher and see what new information I might be able to put to paper here, now that I’m a little older and maybe a little bit wiser, too.

First, what exactly is fasting?  Fasting is fundamentally a practice of abstinence that typically focuses on one’s diet and which is composed of three main things:

  • A set of prohibitions on food, drink, and other substances we take into our bodies
  • A set of prohibitions on how we take food, drink, and other substances into our bodies
  • A duration of time for which above prohibitions are to be observed

The most common sorts of fasting is an absolute fast (absolutely no food or liquid) or a water fast (no food but water is permitted), and this is typically what we think of when we hear about fasting.  There are plenty of reasons for this—diagnostic fasting to achieve a baseline for medical testing or hunger strikes for the sake of political or humanitarian protests come to mind—but one of the most common reasons for fasting is for religious or spiritual purposes, and is seen in many religions across the world for an equally wide number of reasons:

  • Cultivate and maintain discipline
  • Develop spiritual powers or blessings
  • Atonement and repentance for sins or lawlessness
  • Purification of the body and spirit
  • Devotion to higher powers
  • Mourning
  • Following the example of a saint, prophet, or holy exemplar of the religion
  • Preparation for a ritual or feast

Basically, in general, when we fast for a religious or spiritual purpose, we’re essentially engaging in a form of asceticism, putting our body under an ordeal of abstinence from things that please us our our senses, holding back our taste for worldly sustenance so that we can instead feast on heavenly delights.  Asceticism and some forms of drastic fasting can also include self-mortification, but we’re not interested in that here; we don’t want to harm or destroy the body, but we do want to control and purify it through abstinence.

The thing is that absolute fasting or water fasting can be dangerous for many people: those with autoimmune disorders, blood sugar disorders (especially diabetes), hormonal imbalances (e.g. thyroid or adrenaline issues), and the like can and will suffer harm to their bodies up to and including death if they go without food for too long.  Moreover, there are also a number of religions where fasting just isn’t a thing or which is actively discouraged.  Heck, for myself, I have a specific spiritual prohibition from La Regla de Ocha Lukumí (a.k.a. Santería) where I can’t skip lunch, which I interpret a little more broadly to mean “no absolute/water fasts”, so I can’t engage in that kind of practice anymore, either.  To that end, I engage in intermittent fasting, where I don’t eat from sunrise to sunset, a la Muslim Ramaḍān or the Bahá’í Nineteen Day Fast, though I do permit myself to have water at all times and only permit other drinks during eating-time, if I don’t set a prohibition on those as well.  In the end, though, it’s important to remember that fasting isn’t the be-all end-all of spiritual practices, or even of ways to purify and refine the body and spirit.  If you’re part of a religion or tradition that recommends or requires it, or if you feel like you should engage in it, then do so, and do so safely and reasonably without causing harm or torment to yourself; otherwise, you should feel no obligation to do so, since there are plenty of other practices you can engage in towards the same ends.

But, let’s say you want to do some sort of fast or fasting-like practice, but you can’t do an absolute or water fast for health reasons, and you’re not discouraged from a fasting practice in general.  What can you do?  Quite a lot, actually.  If we interpret “fasting” to mean “abstinence” more broadly, and consider the three parts of fasting (prohibitions on food/liquid/etc., prohibitions on how we eat/drink/etc., and durations), then there are plenty of things we can hone in on, whether taken as a single thing to abstain from or taken as a cluster of rules to be observed simultaneously.  In short, rather than an absolute fast or a water fast, we engage in a so-called partial fast, where we only abstain from particular things in our diet.  The following lists of prohibitions are by no means exhaustive, but they’re intended as examples for further inspiration, and are pulled from a variety of traditions, cultures, practices, religions, and the like for consideration.

Restrictions on what food or drink is permissible :

  • No processed grains
  • No grains at all
  • No leavened bread
  • No bread or flour-based products at all (e.g. noodles, porridge, crackers).
  • No grain-, starch-, pulse-, bean-, tuber-, or nut-based staple foods
  • No meat of mammals or birds (essentially a pescatarian diet)
  • No meat at all (essentially a vegetarian diet)
  • No dairy
  • No animal products generally (essentially a vegan diet)
  • No gritty foods
  • No solid foods (i.e. broths and soups only)
  • No oils added to food or drink
  • No sweeteners added to food or drink
  • No spices added to food or drink
  • No salt added to food or drink
  • No sweet food eaten or drink drunk for the reason of being sweet
  • No carbonated drinks
  • No drinks that are not plain water
  • No drinking clear alcohols (e.g. white rum or vodka, but excluding creme liqueurs or red wines)
  • No drinking alcohol at all
  • No drinking more than a set amount of liquid each day
  • No food prepared with sauce, gravy, or dressing of any kind
  • No food or drink of a particular color (e.g. red food, brown food, white food)
  • No food or drink that are root vegetables (e.g. potatoes, onions, carrots)
  • No food or drink that are not root vegetables
  • No food or drink that contain caffeine of any kind (e.g. coffee, tea, chocolate)
  • No food or drink that contain a specific kind of ingredient (e.g. pumpkin, eggs, wheat, corn)
  • No food or drink that doesn’t contain a specific kind of ingredient (e.g. tree nuts, legumes, potatoes, beans)
  • No vitamins, dietary supplements, or medicines that are not strictly necessary for medical reasons
  • Etc.

Restrictions on how food or drink is cooked or processed:

  • No cooked food or drink
  • No cooked food or drink older than 24 hours (i.e. no leftovers)
  • No preserved food or drink
  • No prepackaged food or drink
  • No food or drinks that are colder than ambient room temperature (e.g. nothing ice-cold or chilled)
  • No food or drinks that are hotter than ambient room temperature (e.g. nothing warm or hot)
  • No food or drink that has been touched by fire
  • No food or drink that has been cooked with or come in contact with metal
  • No food or drink that is fermented
  • No food or drink that was not cooked or prepared by your own hands
  • No food or drink that was not freely given to you by another person
  • No food or drink that was not prepared using a specially-dedicated, consecrated, or otherwise set-apart set of cookware or dishes
  • Etc.

Restrictions on when we eat or drink:

  • No eating between sunset and sunrise
  • No eating or drinking between sunset and sunrise
  • No dining more than once a day
  • No dining before a particular task or set of tasks have been done
  • Etc.

Restrictions on how we eat or drink:

  • No engaging in talking, writing, or any other activity when eating
  • No dining at restaurants, at other people’s homes, or anywhere outside your own home
  • No dining with other people
  • No dining unless in the company of other people
  • No dining with metal implements
  • No dining while seated at a table (i.e. only while sitting on the ground)
  • Etc.

Besides just focusing on dietary prohibitions, though, there are also behavioral prohibitions that we can incorporate, either instead of dietary prohibitions or in addition to them.  Again, if we engage in fasting as a means of restraining ourselves by means of abstaining from things that give us sensual pleasures and distractions from spiritual development, then we can also include a bunch of behaviors, habits, addictions, or other things we like doing (rather than just eating or drinking) that can be at least as spiritually distracting or impure as any kind of food or drink.  After all, consider that the original questioner from Curious Cat already eats pretty clean and sparingly, so trying to restrict or further inhibit or prohibit their food/drink intake might just be a case of diminishing returns, so it might not be a bad idea to expand our scope of prohibitions to behaviors.  Some examples include (again, not a definitive or exhaustive list):

  • No sexual activity, whether with someone else or by oneself
  • No playing games or sports, listening to music, watching movies or TV, or any other activity for the sole purpose of entertainment
  • No social media
  • No computer or mobile use between sunset and sunrise
  • No smoking of tobacco, cannabis, salvia, or any other inhaled drug
  • No recreational or psychotropic drugs except those for explicitly medical or required spiritual purposes
  • No sleeping on a bed or any surface higher than the width of two fingers
  • No wearing makeup, nail polish, or any other cosmetics for the purpose of embellishing or hiding the natural form of the body
  • No using perfumes, colognes, scented oils, fragrances, or any other odoriferous substance outside of purely religious or spiritual reasons
  • No wearing jewelry, fine clothes, immodest clothes, or any other articles for the purpose of ostentation or displaying appeal
  • No wearing clothes of a particular color (e.g. black clothes, red clothes)
  • No bathing or washing any part of the body with hot water
  • No being in direct sunlight or moonlight
  • No being in complete darkness
  • No lying, exaggerating, undue modesty, deceit, or misleading of any kind
  • No cursing, arguing, yelling, raising one’s voice, gossiping, or using any kind of heated or improper language
  • No violence to any living being
  • No using or carrying of weapons of any kind
  • No using, lighting, carrying, or being around fire
  • No sleeping in late or taking naps
  • No cutting any of the hair on the head or the body
  • No capitalizing the first-person singular pronoun “I” (i.e. always write it as “i went to the store”)
  • Etc.

(I admit that a bunch of those behavioral rules are those that are common-enough prohibitions from the initiatory year of Lukumí, the Year in White, which I had to observe for…quite some time, and some I still have to observe for other reasons, but are general enough and smart enough rules to be used by plenty of people.)

With all the options above we have for abstaining from particular foods and drinks, how they’re prepared, how we can abstain from them, and other behaviors, I think it’s important to remember that fasting is an ordeal, and should be taken seriously as such.  Yes, you could do a fast from all pork products, but if you never or only rarely eat pork, then you’re not really abstaining from something that you weren’t already abstaining from.  Fasting, whether absolute or partial or whether total or intermittent, should be a time when we give up and abstain from things that we actively enjoy or find ourselves relying on or addicted to; when you fast, take away the things that give you a sense of pleasure and which distract you from focusing on spiritual stuff.  If you eat a lot of candy, give that up; if you don’t eat candy, give something else up instead.  If you don’t have the ability to sleep in (e.g. if you live on a regimented, scheduled military base or if you have a farm), then you’re already de facto abstaining from that, so give something else up instead.  Of the things that you don’t strictly need for medical or health-related reasons, pick the things you dread or fear to give up yet which you’re able to, and then you’ll be properly fasting.

Then, finally, then there’s one last thing to consider: how long do we observe all the above prohibitions, and when should we do it?  While all of the above is really up to you in how seriously (or not) you want to engage in your own personalized kind of fasting, this is where it can get really customized.  This is where you should really focus on what your traditions or religions say, because those are the guiding principles here along with whatever your priests or mentors or gurus or godparents might prescribe or recommend, but there are some guiding rules that I like to follow for my own practices and traditions.  Some examples of fasting durations include (again, not a definitive or exhaustive list):

  • One day every week on a day set aside for the worship, veneration, or devotion of a particular spirit or deity
  • The day of the New Moon (technically, the day of the first sighting of the Moon rather than the day of syzygy between the Moon and the Sun)
  • The three days before, the day of, and the day after the Full Moon
  • Three, four, seven, or sixteen days leading up to any feast or regular celebration
  • Three days leading up to any minor ritual, whether for yourself or another
  • Seven days leading up to any major ritual, whether for yourself or another
  • Three, four, seven, sixteen, or more days after any major initiation, according to that tradition’s rules
  • The two days before and of religious communion or communal worship
  • The forty days of Lent (for Christians)
  • The thirty(ish) days of Ramaḍān (for Muslims)
  • The nineteen days of the Nineteen Day Fast (for Bahá’í)
  • The forty-nine days after the death of a close family member
  • Throughout spiritual retreats or prolonged holy festivals or gatherings
  • The three or more days after one has committed a particularly bad spiritual offense
  • Once a week on a particular weekday for a set number of weeks (e.g. every Sunday from sunrise to sunset for six weeks straight)
  • Whenever vows or rules are adopted in devotion to a spirit or as part of a pact or payment

When fasting for a prolonged period of time more than a single day, there’s also the notion of progressive fasting, where as time goes by, you bring on more and more prohibitions.  For instance, in one of the posts from 2012 I mentioned, there’s the four-day progressive fast from the Scribbler (whose blog is no longer active) where, for example, on the first day I would abstain from meat, alcohol, and soda; on the second, all the above plus abstinence from breads and noodles as well as all non-clear liquid drinks; on the third day, all the above plus abstinence from anything that wasn’t fresh fruits and water; on the fourth and final day, all the above plus abstinence from anything that wasn’t just water, i.e. a water fast.  Progressive fasts can be useful for those who need time for their body to adjust to heavier and heavier kinds of fasting, especially if a particular substance is one we habitually eat and which we might rely on as a staple, and which can be a way for the body to acclimate for more severe or austere fasting practices so that they won’t cause a total shock to the body which could result in medical harm.

What happens when we violate one or more of the prohibitions we have set for us?  Honestly, that depends on your tradition’s or practice’s rules on fasting or how you set up the rule or agreement of fasting, but it’s probably most important how you violated it.  If you started running into severe medical issues from a particular prohibition, then it’s best to get rid of that prohibition entirely so that you can fast more safely; it’s not an indulgence if it’s absolutely necessary for your health!  Likewise, if even a partial fast or if even intermittent fasting is causing you problems at all, then stop fasting.  It’s better you live and find other ways to hone and temper the body without suffering and putting yourself at major risk for health problems or death.  What if you were forced to fast, like if you were incarcerated or imprisoned and forced to eat things you wouldn’t against your will?  Honestly, nobody would blame you for getting by, and you’re already in a bad and potentially ascetic situation; better to survive under duress and save your strength than suffer righteously with the risk of death.

All of those could be considered accidental or unintentional violations, but what about if you just decided “eh, fuck it, let’s have a cheat day” or if you thought nobody was looking?  Tough luck, pal; you intentionally and willfully committed a violation of your prohibitions when you had no reason not to, and that’s where you should own up to your violation and make amends.  How you do that is up to you, your tradition, and your spirits; you might add on another day (or week, or month, etc.) of fasting for every willful violation you committed, add on another prohibition in addition to the ones you already had pay a “fine” through donating or caring for others out of your own pocket, put yourself through another spiritual ordeal such as intense purifications or heightened prayers, or make formal amends through heavy offerings to God, the gods, or other spirits to make up for your violation.  Or, you could just eat it (heh) and accept that you were weak and carry on as normal, being more mindful as time goes on, perhaps with letting someone know as a kind of confession.  Sometimes, it’s okay to perform a fast with built-in cheat days or days of leniency, but these should be limited; remember, the whole point of a fast is to not indulge.

However, note that all of the above are almost all focused on prohibitions, rules that take things away from ourselves.  That’s entirely a workable and practical way to do fasting, but consider: instead of taking things away, why not add things?  If we consider a fast to be a duration of time to cultivate and refine the spirit, then there are plenty of other things we can do, whether instead of piling on prohibitions or to be done along with them.  This is an idea that I got from Catholic writings a few years back, specifically for Lent; rather than just take things away, incorporate new things to fill the gaps left behind or just for the sake of upping our spiritual practices and devotions generally. Some examples include (again, not a definitive or exhaustive list):

  • Say a prayer to formally begin a fast, whenever you break the fast, and when you formally end the fast.
  • When you sit down to eat, pray over and bless the meal before you do so.
  • Engage in daily prayer, or add more prayers to your daily practice
  • Participate in daily communal worship (e.g. going to daily mass, having a daily circle with a coven)
  • Read and contemplate scripture daily
  • Commit to doing works of charity frequently (e.g. giving to the poor, working at a kitchen, setting aside income as donations for noble causes)
  • Commit to creating a devotional work of art every day (e.g. poetry, drawing, sculpture)
  • Commit to environmental works (e.g. picking up litter, tending to a communal garden)
  • Commit to helping or organizing religious works (e.g. signing up to be an altar-server, assisting with setting up circle devotions, providing guidance to students)
  • Commit to daily offerings, whether dedicated to a particular spirit or deity specifically or more generally for the benefit of all sentient beings
  • Perform a daily purification (e.g. ablution, spiritual bath, banishing)
  • Etc.

In the end, when it comes to abstinence for spiritual purposes, we can do a lot better than just simply cutting out food, and we can focus on a number of different aspects of the practice of fasting that can provide for a well-rounded period of intense spiritual work that can work for anyone, regardless of their health conditions, so that we can all derive benefit by focusing on the higher while tempering (but not utterly neglecting) the lower:

  • Prohibitions on what food and drink one takes in
  • Prohibitions on how food or drink is prepared
  • Prohibitions on when one can eat or drink
  • Prohibitions on how food or drink is consumed
  • Prohibitions on behaviors and activities outside eating and drinking
  • Mandates on behaviors to include spiritual or spiritually-oriented activities
  • The duration for which prohibitions and mandates are to be observed

Now, what about me?  There are times when I’ll fast for my own practices (like for those Sixteen Days of Cultivation leading up to the spring equinox I did not too long ago), or before receiving or participating in ceremony for Lukumí purposes, sure.  But, lest we all forget, I’m a Hermeticist, and there’s some useful stuff in the Corpus Hermeticum and other Hermetic texts that touch on this same topic, too. There’s this almost-universal, quasi-gnostic notion that you can’t really engage in a spiritually pure practice without somehow abstaining from physical pleasures or indulgences, and that abstaining from food and drink, whether entirely or from particular kinds or from particular ways of having it, is one of the most common ways to do that.  Food and drink is what sustains the body, yes, and we should care for the body since it’s our vessel for living in this world.  But since we’re spiritual entities ourselves that just so happen to have a body, and since we’re all always trying to become better spiritual entities, we need to care for the body only as much as we need to, and focus on the spirit at least as much as we care for the body, if not much more than that.  To focus overmuch on the body is to neglect the spirit; just as in the Buddha’s method of taking the Middle Path, we should care for the body just enough that it’s healthy and can stay healthy, and give the rest of our time, energy, and attention to spiritual works.  That’s really the whole purpose of fasting: to cut back on indulging the body so that we can indulge the spirit, instead.  We don’t need to completely neglect or harm the body; otherwise, you may as well just kill yourself off quickly and painlessly than starve yourself to death painfully!  We need our body to host our spirit for as long as our spirit needs the body, and until the point when our spirit is ready to go, we need to care for the body.  But we only need to care for it, not indulge it.  And even then, remember: fasting is not the be-all end-all of ways to accomplish spiritual evolution.  Do it if you want to or if your tradition requires you to, and if you do engage in fasting, do so safely.  If you don’t engage in it, there still so many ways to indulge the spirit and encourage its cultivation rather than just tempering the body.

What about you, dear reader?  Do you fast, and if so, how do you fast?  Do you engage in total fasting, partial fasting, or intermittent fasting?  Do you abstain from only certain things or practices?  What else do you do when you fast?  Let me know in the comments!