A Musing on Incense

Back when I was a child, my father (an officer in the US Navy) was stationed at one point in Sasebo, a city in the southwestern prefecture of Nagasaki in Japan.  I had the good fortune to visit him once while he was there, but I was still in like seventh grade at the time, so I was maybe about 12 or 13 years old, and didn’t have as much appreciation or means to appreciate things as I might have later on.  Still, it was neat to do so, and he picked up a few souvenirs, trinkets, and other things that may one day become family heirlooms.  One of those things he got, which he recently sent to me as a gift between house-movings, is this weird open ceramic urn of sorts.  It’s fairly large, comes with a plain wooden base, has these two brass chopsticks sticking out of it, and comes with a bag of fine grey powder.  After trying to puzzle out what it was, I figured out that it’s a 香炉 kōrō, a kind of censer used to burn incense in, which came with a pair 火箸 koji, brass chopsticks used as tongs to move charcoal within the 灰 hai ash.  It’s a simple thing, but still beautiful in its simplicity.

Looking into it recently led me to learn a bit about 香道 kōdō, the “Way of Incense”, the Japanese ceremonial art of burning and appreciating fine incense.

Of the many classical cultural arts of refinement in Japan, usually labeled some sort of 道 “way”, the big three that come to mind are 書道 shodō (traditional Japanese brush calligraphy) 華道 kadō (flower arrangement, also called 生け花 ikebana), and 茶道 chadō (tea preparation and presentation, as in tea ceremonies).  On occasion, kōdō is considered a fourth in this same category, and sometimes even replaces one of the other ones to keep the big ones in a set of three.  Of all these cultural arts or “paths”, though, kōdō might be considered the least popular nowadays, but it’s no less elaborate, intricate, meaningful, or significant than the others.  It has as many tools and implements, as much process and procedure, and as much a historical pedigree as many other ceremonial or performing arts in Japan, and is a valuable part of Japanese culture all the same.  (For those who are interested, check out Kikoh’s Japanese Incense 101 article series, which is a wonderful resource in English about Japanese incense culture and online store besides.)

At some point in the 15th century, Zen Buddhist monk and poet 一休宗純 Ikkyū Sōjun preserved and shared a short poem written in classical Chinese from the Sòng dynasty-era poet 黄庭坚 Huáng Tíngjiān outlining ten ideal properties of incense, entitled 香十徳 Kō no Ju-toku or “Ten Virtues of Incense”.  In just 40 characters (arranged in 10 series of 4 characters each, this poem conveys rather beautiful notions on the powers of what incense should be, how it should affect us, and what we should look for when approaching good-quality incense.

From what I’ve found around online, here’s the poem in Chinese characters (at least as it’s written in Japan), along with a rough translation.  I’ve found two versions of the poem that differ in slight ways (just a few minor characters that are either variants of each other or synonymous with each other), so for the lines that have a variant I’ll include the variant in parentheses, but the translation is the same either way.  I’ll also include a Japanese rendition (via kanbun) of the poem, too.

香十徳

  1. 感格鬼神
  2. 清浄心身
  3. 能除汚穢 (能払汚穢)
  4. 能覚睡眠
  5. 静中為友 (静中成友)
  6. 塵裡偷閑 (塵裏愉閑)(塵裏偸閑)
  7. 多而不厭
  8. 寡而為足 (募而知足)
  9. 久蔵不朽
  10. 常用無障

香の十徳

  1. 感は鬼神に格り
  2. 心身を清浄にし
  3. 能く汚穢を除き
  4. 能く睡眠を覚し
  5. 静中に友と成り
  6. 塵裏に閑を偸む
  7. 多くして厭わず
  8. 寡くして足れりとす
  9. 久しく蔵えて朽ちず
  10. 常に用いて障り無し

Ten Principles of Incense

  1. Sensations are considered as fierce gods.
  2. It purifies the mind and body.
  3. It can remove filth.
  4. It can rouse you from sleep.
  5. In quiet times, it becomes a friend.
  6. In busy affairs, it makes time for pleasure.
  7. Even when plentiful, one never tires of it.
  8. Even when scarce, one is still satisfied by it.
  9. Owning it for a long time, it does not decay.
  10. Used every day, it is harmless.

If I were to render it a bit more loosely-but-poetically in English as themed couplets (since I detect a bit of pairwise parallelism in the original poem, which is why I often find it written in calligraphy as five pairs of four-character statements as above):

Perceiving, it’s like a god or spirit.
Purifying, it’s for body and soul.

By it, excrement gets wiped away.
By it, exhaustion gets warded off.

In dreary times, it’ll become your friend.
In weary times, it’ll become your rest.

If it’s dense, you’ll never tire of it.
If it’s sparse, you’ll always delight in it.

Kept for an age, it won’t degrade itself.
Used every day, it won’t disturb others.

What we see here in this poem, as the name “Ten Virtues of Incense” itself indicates, are ten ideals that good-quality incense should possess and what we should look for in incense generally:

  1. It should be potent enough to perceive as an entity unto itself.  Smelling the incense should not only elevate and sharpen one’s senses, but should even bring about communion with the transcendent and the divine, bringing into connection different realms.
  2. It should refresh and purify the body, soul, spirit, and mind (literally 心身 “heart/mind-and-body”) of the one who smells it.
  3. It should eliminate pollutants and pollution (literally 汚穢 “filth, human excrement”), removing all impurity from within and without.
  4. It should bring alertness, wakefulness, and focus without drowsiness.  Even those who are asleep should be able to be roused pleasantly when they smell it.
  5. It should be a solace in solitude and a companion in quietness.  It should soothe the heart and mind, and alleviate the pangs of loneliness or boredom.
  6. It should bring a moment of peace and relaxation during busy affairs that otherwise dominate us in this world.  Even just taking the time to light the incense or taking the time to enjoy its fragrance should give us a moment to pleasantly rest when busy.
  7. It should not become annoying or unpleasant, no matter how large or abundant an amount.  The fragrance should not become oppressive or obnoxious to any mental or physical sense, but should remain enjoyable.
  8. It should be able to be smelled clearly and distinctly, no matter how small or meager an amount.  Even a small amount burned in a room should leave the room scented for a long time after it has finished burning.
  9. It should not change in potency or quality no matter its age.  Even when left unburned or kept in storage for an extended period of time, its fragrance should not degrade or break down when it finally is burned.
  10. It should not irritate, impede, or otherwise cause harm, no matter how frequently it is burned or smelled, even if used everyday.

In other words, Huáng Tíngjiān was writing about good principles for what we should look for in aromatherapy almost a thousand years ago.  And, of course, while these principles would be ideal for kōdō (where the actual act of enjoying incense for its own sake is called 聞香 monkō, literally “listening to incense”, akin to wine tasting or whiskey savoring using all of one’s senses), a good incense can be used for purposes other than being enjoyed for its own sake.  Burning incense while copying sutras, for instance, can help purify one in preparation for the sacred work of copying, while keeping the mind sharp and alert enough to avoid making mistakes, but without being overpoweringly distracting from the work as well.  When offering incense to the various buddhas, bodhisattvas, and other deities, we should strive to offer pleasant-smelling things that we can offer in abundance, but even if we can only offer a small amount, it should still be noticeable as a potent offering without causing health issues for the priests or attendees of ceremony.  For all the same reasons that tea can be drunk for its health benefits or for spiritual symbolism as much as for its own sake as a thing to delight in, incense can likewise be used and enjoyed in many of the same ways—and for that reason, just as one should strive to partake in good tea, one should likewise strive to partake in good incense.

Although Kō no Ju-toku gives its ten maxims to describe the ideal qualities of what incense should be and what benefits it should confer, I was struck by how simple these principles are and how broadly they can be applied to so many things in our lives, things that we should ultimately appreciate and which should benefit us.  I mean, sure, kōdō is the art (the “way”) of approaching incense as something to be savored and enjoyed, but as any artist of any sort (from the most venereal to the most martial) can tell you, there are ways of seeing the guiding principles from their arts as informative for all that we do in life.

So, naturally, as an occultist and mystic, I started to consider these notions as applied to spiritual practices, and thought that—just maybe—we could consider these as guiding principles for ourselves in how we consider and approach what we do for our spirituality.

Ideally, our spiritual practices should have the following ten “virtues”:

  1. It should sharpen our senses so that we can see past the merely mundane, enabling us to commune with the divine or other spiritual realities.
  2. It should cleanse and purify us on every level, not just physically but spiritually as well.
  3. It should eliminate impurities and pollution, whether our own or those around us, so as to make the world a better place.
  4. It should rejuvenate and reawaken us from whatever state we might be in, reminding us of our goals and renewing us on our path to them.
  5. It should keep us in good spirits, even (and especially) when times are hard.  Our practices should give us encouragement when we’re discouraged and solace when we’re worried.
  6. It should be a refuge and respite for us from the trials and distractions of our mundane affairs.  We should be able to steal away from the world around us, even if for a moment, to participate in our spirituality without having to be consumed by worldly matters.
  7. It should satisfy us without overwhelming us, even if we do a lot of it, without becoming a detriment to the rest of what we have to do.  We should not be left with a bad taste in our mouths, so to speak, from doing too much of our practices.
  8. It should satisfy us without underwhelming us, even if we do a little of it, without becoming a distraction for the rest of what we have to do.  Even small practices should leave an impact.
  9. It should never get old or stale, no matter how long it’s been since we started it, no matter how long it might have been since we last engaged with it.
  10. It should never become a harm, hindrance, or a burden to us in our everyday practice.  We should not be negatively impacted by our practices, especially if we engage in them frequently.

There’re lots of reasons why one might burn incense: they might do it to purify their body and prepare their mind for some undertaking, or they might do it to make offerings to the gods, or maybe they might just do it as aromatherapy for mental wellness and good health.  In all these (and all other) cases, though, no matter why we might burn incense, we should still burn good incense.

And in the same way, no matter why we might engage in spiritual practices, we should still engage in good spiritual practices.

And sure, while there are reasons why one might burn harsh incense for particular reasons, there can be times that we might need to engage in harsh spiritual practices, but by and large, that’s not what they’re for.  We don’t drink tea to poison ourselves; we don’t burn incense to choke ourselves; we don’t engage in spiritual practices to punish ourselves.  While I’d argue that we should engage in spiritual practices for more reasons than to merely enjoy and appreciate them for their own sake (which would turn meaningful ceremony into mere ceremonialism), there’s no reason to not make them enjoyable and worth enjoying, either.

Despite all the many boxes of sticks, bags of resin, and jars of other kinds of loose incense in my house, I typically don’t burn incense except as an offering to spirits or when I’m specifically suffumigating a thing or space for a particular ritual reason.  As a result, I end up hoarding the stuff, and admittedly, I like saving the good stuff for “when I need it” (whenever that might be).  After thinking about the “Fragrant Path” a little, though, and learning a bit from the “Ten Virtues of Incense”, maybe I should use incense as its own contemplation instead of just an adjunct or a mere supply, and learn a good lesson from doing so.

This post was originally made as a series of posts on Twitter, but I decided to polish it up here for posterity.

Heavenly Thoughts

I don’t recall which grade it was, probably late elementary school or sometime in middle school, but I recall one time riding the bus with the rest of my classmates from some field trip or another.  Middle of the day, clear bright weather.  There I am, my usual introverted child self, maybe some age between like 9 and 12, sitting by the window starting outside watching the landscape go past—and there I am, thinking my thoughts as I was, and it struck me:

Gosh, the sky is big.

Which, like…duh.  I asked the kid next to me (I’ve long since forgotten who) if they ever thought about how big the sky was, to which they give a (in hindsight utterly predictable) answer of pure confusion and dismissal, a combined “no” and “duh”.  I shrugged off their reply and went back at staring out the window.  I don’t remember anything else about that trip, or even what grade it was, but I remember the sudden childlike awe that struck me when it dawned on me how immeasurably huge the sky is.

Which is weird, right?  I mean, there hasn’t been a single day in my life that I haven’t seen the sky.  Sometimes it’s clear, sometimes it’s cloudy; sometimes I see the Sun, other times the Moon, other times only stars (and even then, maybe more or fewer depending on light pollution).  Somedays I go outside with the sky directly overhead, other days I stay inside and see it from my window, but there has never been a single day I can recall where I haven’t seen the sky once.  It’s always there, it’s always been there, and it always will be there.  It stretches from east to west and from north to south, a complete 360° circle, forming the illusion of a complete and total dome around the boundary of the horizon.  And yet, for some reason, in this one bizarre moment, I only realized just then how big the sky actually is.

And yet, every now and then, in the intervening years, it’ll dawn on me all over again, with almost the same impact as it did the first time.  As it did earlier today while I was taking an afternoon walk around my neighborhood.

Thinking back on it, and all the times I remember that instance and all the times I get hit with it, I realize now what actually triggered it.  Sometimes I’ll be lying on my back on the ground staring up at the sky, but that isn’t what trigger it (although, if you trick your brain, you can kinda make it feel like you’re stuck to some sort of ceiling facing a bottomless pit, which is neat, too).  What triggered this realization was, sitting on that older kind of school bus with the plain seats and cheap industrial interior, the fact that I was staring at the sky from a window—and realizing that the sky exceeded the frame of the window itself.

Intellectually, of course, I knew that the sky would go past the boundaries of a single small window (it literally exceeds all boundaries!), but I think what I realized in that moment was that the sky could not be bounded, could not be contained, and just staring out the window with a bit of tired-relaxed-eye vision to see both the sky and the window through which I saw it helped me come to that realization.  Whether or not the window is just one of a series and you’re just looking through a single pane, or whether it’s a single window in a wall, the sky will always fill the window, and just keep going past it.  Heck, you could look up outside at the sky between the tops of trees on a street, or the sky between tall buildings in an alleyway, and you’ll see the same thing: there is nothing that could ever actually limit the sky.  It just keeps going, well past the point where you yourself can see it.

It’s like…consider your own eyesight.  You have your field of view, and while some people have better peripheral vision (things outside the direct center of your sight) than others, everyone has limits to their field of view.  Now, dear reader, if you’ll indulge me in a bit of an exercise: consider your own field of view.  Become aware of the limits of your sight, how far you’re able to look from left to right and top to bottom, with one or both eyes.  You don’t need to move your eyes or anything, just relax your eyes slightly and just…become aware of your whole field of vision.

Now try to look past that, say, further to your right than your right eye actually can see.  Don’t try to move your eyes to the right, but just try to look further to the right than what you’re actually seeing in your field of view.  Look to the right into the space where you can’t look anymore.

Feels weird, right?  Almost like a paradox; your eyes aren’t designed for that, even from at the level of your own skin right down to the level of your optical nerves.  How can you see anything when you literally don’t have the field of vision to see?  How can you look  in a direction when there’s nothing there to look?  How can you get input from a source that you are literally unequipped to receive input from?

Try it again.  Don’t move your eyes, don’t try to strain them or give yourself a headache.  Just as you became aware of your field of vision as it is, try to become aware of what is outside your field of vision.  Perhaps just start with the area to the right outside your field of vision like before, or (if you’re bold) the whole area outside your entire field of vision, as if you were looking backwards while facing forwards.

Your brain is probably racing at this point, trying to figure out what sort of image to supply there for something that literally has no image.  For most people, it’ll be whirling around in a confusion, since you’re trying to tell it to do something that it naturally knows what to do normally but it’s operating in an undefined area here.  Should you just perceive an inky blackness, a void devoid of any image at all?  Should you perceive static, like a TV disconnected from any input cable?  Should you perceive what you know is actually outside your field of view, mentally constructing it from memory rather than from sense of sight?  Should you perceive the inside of your own flesh and skull, veins and tendons and all?

That feeling you get from trying to look past your own field of view is the same kind of feeling I get about the sky in general.  Just as with the limitations on your field of view, where you can just turn to see a bit more to the left or right or up or down depending on how you turn, you can just look out the window a bit more from a different angle, or poke your head out and crane your neck to get a bigger view of the sky to see more of it.  But there will always be parts you can’t see, parts you know are there, but the perception of which—the mere feeling of the perception of which—simply exceed your capacity to perceive.

And, again, that makes sense; of course the sky would do that, because it’s the sky.  But I think what stuck with me then, and what continues to stick with me now, is the sheer feeling of Unlimitedness that this is all so intimately bound up with.  Interminability, infinity, immeasurability, boundlessness, endlessness—these are all things that the sky is perhaps one of the best, most physical, and most immediately accessible representations of these notions that we have.  Unlike any building we might inhabit, any land we might tread, any sea we might sail, any road we might walk, any depth we might plumb, there is nothing on this planet that is as unlimited as the sky itself is.  And, when you think about it, that’s just the 2D spatial qualities of it; when you consider that there is nothing on this planet that has lasted as long as the sky has, or will have lasted as long as the sky will, taking any temporal bounds as a “windowframe” of time as it were, then the sky becomes even more daunting.  And, going back to the spatial qualities of it, even if you were to just consider the sky as some sort of 2D dome above the Earth based on its appearance to us, it’s technically just “the whole of the rest of space”, so if you consider it as a 3D domain, then it’s also extends infinitely above you in every direction, too.

There is nothing that can bound, limit, frame, or contain the sky.  Try as you might, you will fail—because the sky is what bounds, limits, frames, and contains all things.

When we talk about things associated with the sky, there are several terms we can use, each of which has a fascinating etymological origin:

  • “sky”, from Proto-Indo-European *(s)kewH- “to cover, to conceal” (cognate with Latin obscurus)
  • “heaven”, from Proto-Germanic *hibin-, perhaps from Proto-Indo-European *kem- “to cover” or from *h₂éḱmō “stone” to refer to the celestial vault generally
  • “celestial”, from Latin caelum “heaven, sky”, with unclear etymological origin, but perhaps from Proto-Indo-European *kaid-slo “bright, clear” or *keh₂i-lom “whole”
  • “天” (the Chinese character for the sky, heaven, or celestial things, including weather or divine entities associated with such realms), is considered as a person with outstretched arms (大) with a level over the head (一), originally representing the round sky (囗) above a person but in addition/alternative to this as an anthropomorphic depiction of heaven as a person with a large head

In three of the examples above, there’s a notion of the sky being something covering us, like a tarp over a pile or a lid on a pot.  The sky is the “lid” of the world we’re familiar with; from our perspective, the sky is what conceals the things above it from us, but by that same token, when seen from above, the sky is what keeps us down here below separated.  In a sense, the sky is the limit of the world, that which contains us and covers us, like a tunic does a body.

But the word “celestial” above is not quite like the other.  It has a different connotation, if you consider the PIE root *keh₂i-lom “whole”, and which would render the word “celestial” indeed related to our word “whole” and thus “holy”.  While the connotations of the English words may well have existed in an earlier time in a different language (emphasis on the word “may”), it’s especially interesting when you consider the Latin word caelum as the opposite of templum “a part” (itself from PIE *temh₁ “to cut”, related to Greek τέμενος).  Sure, this word is generally used to refer to any space dedicated to a deity or to their worship (hence our modern English derivative “temple”), but when it came to the ancient Roman practice of augury, it refers to a demarcated space that an augur would mark out in the sky—a “cut-out part” as it were—in which the augur would observe any omens for interpretation.  The whole sky was not observed, but just a part of it, presumably because the observation of the whole sky was not something possible or feasible to do, especially considering the relatively limited and limiting concerns humans have about things down here.  As a parallel, consider: in ancient Greek thought, one went to a legitimate oracle of the gods for prophecy, but otherwise would piously refrain from trying to determine the events of the future (though one might still seek out advice or guidance regarding it), because only the gods were permitted to know the mind of Zeus and the inner workings of Fate, and even then, such a mind could not be known in full, but only particular thoughts.

There, again, we see a notion of limits—and that makes sense for us as human beings, doesn’t it?  By our very nature, we are finite creatures, and we can’t really deal well with infinity all that well.  I’m reminded of the distinction in Islamic conceptions of infinite time (courtesy of Andrew Chumbley’s Qutub) between azal and abad.  In this context, azal is defined as “eternity a parte ante” or “eternity without a beginning”, and abad as its counterpart of “eternity a parte post” or “eternity without an end”.  As human beings, we naturally have only our own frame of reference to understand abstract concepts, and the most immediate frame of reference for discussing matters of time is the present moment.  In this light, azal is the whole infinity of the past up until this moment, while abad is the whole infinity of time from this moment into the future.  We can look in either direction well enough, but trying to look at both at the same time to consider one infinity unbounded in both directions at once is…challenging.  Sure, we might be able to accept the existence of time as something without beginning and without end, both agenēton and ateleuton, but trying to actually comprehend that is a different matter.  In astrological terms, it’d be like trying to join together the North and South Nodes of the Moon together to see what their conjunction would be like; they are, by definition, opposites of each other.  It’s just the same with azal and abad—and perhaps fittingly so, as they both have conjectured Persian origins meaning “without head (start)” and “without foot (end)”, respectively, just how the North Node is the “head of the dragon” (but without a body, as in Rahu) and how the South Node is the “tail of the dragon” (but without a head, as in Ketu).  It’s only through limitation, because we’re ourselves finite, that we can’t easily approach unlimitedness.

And yet, that very notion of unlimitedness is what so many of us in this mystical stuff seek.  I mean, from the Corpus Hermeticum, consider Hermēs’ vision of Poimandrēs revelation of the “the archetypal form, the preprinciple that exists before a beginning without end” in CH I.7:

After he said this, he looked me in the face for such a long time that I trembled at his appearance. But when he raised his head, I saw in my mind the light of powers beyond number and a boundless cosmos that had come to be. The fire, encompassed by great power and subdued, kept its place fixed. In the vision I had because of the discourse of Poimandrēs, these were my thoughts.

Or again when Nous tells Hermēs how to understand God in CH XI.20:

Thus, unless you make yourself equal to God, you cannot understand God; like is understood by like. Make yourself grow to immeasurable immensity, outleap all body, outstrip all time, become eternity and you will understand God. Having conceived that nothing is impossible to you, consider yourself immortal and able to understand everything, all art, all learning, the temper of every living thing. Go higher than every height and lower than every depth. Collect in yourself all the sensations of what has been made, of fire and water, dry and wet; be everywhere at once, on land, in the sea, in heaven; be not yet born, be in the womb, be young, old, dead, beyond death. And when you have understood all these at once—times, places, things, qualities, quantities—then you can understand God.

In these examples, we have Hermēs confronting (or being told to confront) the very notion of divinity in all its unlimitedness, in all its boundlessness.  In the former example, this is the revelation of Divinity itself; in the latter example, this is the way to be understand it.  It is so unlike anything else we might understand, given how we’re so finite—or, rather, are accustomed to finitude and limits, even if our limits are all within this grand infinity.  After all, the sky stops being a sky once you’re no longer on Earth; then it just becomes space, same as everywhere here.  Once you no longer have sky, you no longer have a separation between world and not-world, inner space and outer space.  It all just becomes…well, it doesn’t become anything, doesn’t it?  It’s rather that the barrier just falls down: it’s a revelation, an uncovering, and in this case, the sky itself is the covering.  At that point, you’re no longer gawking at the limitations that unlimitedness breaks, because there’s no limits there to gauge “limit” or “limitless” anymore.  You just…are, as something with and in and of the totality of everything.

I know this post is a little weird and rambly, but as I said earlier, I occasionally turn to that childlike thought in my childhood of being in awe at how big the sky was.  In considering what it meant and exploring that line of thinking a bit, it reminded me of an important aspect of this mystical stuff that I’ve been exploring more as part of my Hermeticism.  Maybe I haven’t been particularly adept at expressing it, but realizing how used we are to limits in general and realizing how limitlessness can be an aspect of Divinity—and, moreover, how easily it is to behold that limitlessness, and how weird it is to actually experience it—is something I think is a crucial reminder of what it is we’re in this for.  After all, as Nous told Hermēs, we need to get on God’s level in order to understand God.

Remember that little experiment from above, about trying to see outside your field of vision?  Maybe I could make up for the rambling of this post with leaving you a little meditative exercise that builds on that, and which also relates to the imagery of the sky.  As with most meditative exercises, get yourself into a good posture, relax yourself, and regulate your breathing however you normally do so.  Once you’re ready, consider: see yourself sitting as I was, on a school bus seat, looking out the window at the sky.  Take a good look out the window—what do you see?  Trees, cars, people walking their dogs, construction crews?  Always find the sky behind and covering them all, and fix your focus on the sky.  Contemplate how it covers, surrounds, and exceeds anything else you see, wherever else you see it.  Mentally extend how big the sky must be in your mind, not just in one direction but in all directions.  Dwell in that feeling of Bigness, letting it wash away and drown out all else that you saw before.

But, later on, once you’re ready after giving the above a few attempts, consider this instead: see yourself as a single point on Earth, wherever you fancy yourself, and look up at the sky above you.  See the limits of your own perception of the sky: is it a window, or the horizon, or the clouds, or your glasses-frames, or the limits of your field of vision?  Slowly take away each limit you come across to behold more and more of the sky, even unto the whole Earth itself if you have to, even your own body if you have to, so that all you observe is a clear sky in a perfect sphere all around you.  Once you get to that, start removing the very sky itself outwards, removing each layer of the atmosphere from your central vantage point, going outwards and outwards and ever outwards, all to see what continues to lie beyond.  Once you get to the point where you’re observing the entire observable universe all as one thing—well, what then?  Work on your own mental “field of vision”; what are you not perceiving yet, what lies outside your field of imagination (just like how you were trying to look to the right of your own field of vision above)?  Strip away your own perceptive and imaginative limits, strip away the thing even doing the perceiving itself, strip away the very thing stripping the notions of limits—and then dwell therein.

Setting Up a Hermetic Shrine

I didn’t intend to make a post series about shrines and the like for a Hermetic context, but after the last two posts on offerings and feasts at a Hermetic shrine which themselves followed up on a bit about the importance of a shrine lamp for Hermeticists, I figured I may as well finish what I inadvertently started as a bit of musing on my part.  I mean, I’ve spoken a bit now about what can do and when one can do it at a shrine, but what of the shrine itself?  What concerns should one have for a shrine for Hermetic practice, what should go on it, how should one maintain it?  These are all good questions, to be sure.  Unlike the last two posts, however, where I relied heavily on Hermetic testimonia and accounts about Hermēs Trismegistos to inform Hermetic practices from a backwards-looking Islamic-era perspective, there are limitations to such an approach; we were able to learn about the nature and timing of offerings, but not where.  To that end, in this post, I’ll talk about my take on Hermetic shrines based on my own practice, experience, and opinions, instead of it being anything grounded in any Hermetic text or testimony (since there’s really not a lot to go on).

First, a bit of definitions.  Personally, I like drawing a distinction between the terms “shrine” and “altar”, and while they may overlap, I do not consider them equivalent.  I think I picked up such a notion from Elani Temperance over at the Baring the Aegis blog, whose work and diligence I’ve admired for quite some time now, but the main difference in a nutshell is:

  • An altar is a place where one makes sacrifice or otherwise does work to, for, or with the gods and spirits.
  • shrine is a place where gods and spirits (or their images) are housed.

In a Hellenistic context of worshipping the Greek gods, in classical times there were two locations one had to be mindful of when worshipping a god: an outdoor altar (either a bōmos “raised platform” or bothros “pit”, depending on the specific god in question) and a temple building.  The altar was (almost) always outside, and the temple was oriented to face the altar.  Sacrifices were (almost) always made outdoors at the altar, not inside the temple building itself, even if the temple housed all sorts of sacred images, statuary, gifts, and the like; in a good number of cases, the temple was just a glorified storehouse and administrative building, while the actual religious part of a temenos “sacred district” was always outside at a comparatively dinky stone block.  This really gets to the heart of the distinction between an altar and a shrine, I think, because in a stereotypical Hellenistic context there was a good separation between the two.

Of course, that hardly can be generalized to all possible religious traditions, and there are many cases where the distinction between shrine and altar is reasonably blurred.  I mean, if you make offerings to a shrine of incense or food, then technically you’re making a sacrifice right there, which would have that shrine serve as an altar, too, right?  Or you might have a large temple space where there’s a sacred image or cult statue of a god (literally) enshrined within, and priests would set up temporary tables in front of the image for rites of sacrifice and worship; in this case, one sets up a temporary altar before a permanent shrine, and then the altar itself is disassembled after the ritual.  It may not always be required to have a separate “working space” apart from the place of a god or spirit, and although some approaches may find it useful, it’s hardly a universal thing, especially when you throw in non-institutionalized household worship into the mix, with different space and logistical constraints entirely.

And that’s one of the big concerns with Hermeticism, I think, that we need to bear in mind: Hermeticism is, by and large, not a temple-oriented practice, at least in the sense of a large permanent institution with a permanent priesthood tending to a public congregation of worshippers.  To be sure, based on our best understanding of the Greco-Egyptian origins of Hermeticism, it definitely arose within a temple-based context, led by mystically-minded Egyptian priests teaching and guiding Egyptians and Greeks in a quasi-syncretic context, but it wouldn’t be right to say that this was a focus of their duties.  Rather, they had all their temple duties as they always had for centuries and millennia: maintaining temple grounds, making sacrifices, tending to shrines, writing and copying texts, and the like.  Likewise, non-priestly people coming to the temple had a primary goal, worshiping the gods, for which they went to temple and didn’t generally linger past what was appropriate.  However, there were then (as there are now) people (both priestly and lay) for whom going to temple, participating in a sacrifice or festival, singing a hymn or two, and having that be the sum of their religious life wasn’t enough; for them, they’d want something more, something more profound, something mystical.  That’s where Hermeticism has its origins: a sort of extracurricular “meet me after class” deal for the mystically-minded, between mystically-minded priests and mystically-minded seekers.  They’d get up to this mystical stuff, seeing the Divinity behind the divinities, after their usual temple stuff; they wouldn’t ignore their temple stuff, not at all, but would build upon that as a foundation for reaching higher and deeper into spiritual reality.

To emphasize this point, consider the set and setting of the Perfect Sermon, otherwise known as the Asclepius (AH).  Among the classical Hermetic texts, AH is notable because it presents a dialogue with a narrative setting: we actually get a notion of where the dialogue takes place.  In this case, AH takes place in a temple, with Hermēs and Asklēpios already inside ready for a divine discourse, and then Hermēs sends Askēpios to fetch Tat to be present, and likewise Asklēpios proposes Ammōn also join them, at which point Hermēs says “yup, that’s good, but that’s enough”.  Hermēs gives his sermon in the temple, and “the reverence of the four men and the divine presence of god filled that holy place…and then divine love began to speak”.  After Hermēs concludes the discourse, the four of them then recite the Prayer of Thanksgiving, but note the important bit: they leave the temple to go outside to pray, and also offer nothing except prayer, not even incense.  For the purpose of teaching and religious edification, Hermēs chooses the temple as the appropriate setting, but for actual mystical practice and devotion, he leaves it and its accoutrement behind.

All this is to say that a Hermetic practice does not need to be considered something priestly, hieratic, or temple-oriented, and so the usual obligations, logistics, or the like of temple concerns do not need to be our concerns insofar as we’re talking about Hermeticism.  But, if that’s the case, and if temples are places specifically for enshrining and petitioning and propitiating the gods, then what is a Hermetic shrine for at all?  I mean, while one could certainly enshrine any number of gods (Hermēs and his crew, maybe the seven planets, maybe even Poimandrēs and/or Agathos Daimōn, and the like), none of those would (strictly speaking) be necessary for an esoteric Hermetic practice so long as they were already factored into a preexisting exoteric or temple-oriented practice.  That last part is important to emphasize, I think, because that might change the concerns one would have for such a Hermetic shrine.  For instance, if one already has an existing practice to Hermēs and/or Thōth with their own shrines, then one can just go to them for works specifically pertaining to them, either within or outside of a Hermetic context, but if one does not have such an existing practice, then maybe having a little image of Hermēs/Thōth/Hermēs-Thōth/Hermēs Trismegistos as part of one’s Hermetic shrine would be a benefit to them.

Of course, this is already getting into hypotheticals and details of a Hermetic shrine without talking about the general or high-level stuff first, so let’s back up a bit.  The biggest question to be tackled is this: for what purpose would having a Hermetic shrine fulfill?  To me, the biggest thing would be giving a Hermetic practitioner a place to do their Hermetic work, their prayer, their devotional and meditative and theurgic activities.  In this light, the focus of the Hermetic shrine would be the focus of Hermeticism, which is God—and, as I mentioned before, that would render the shrine lamp as the most important element on a Hermetic shrine, being representative not only of God itself but also of our goal of divine union with God and the quest of the soul towards God.  The shrine lamp holding a sacred flame is the sine qua non of a Hermetic shrine, and…well, after all the years of me doing things along this line, is probably the only absolutely necessary thing that I would say one might need to make a Hermetic shrine.  Beyond a handful of offering dishes for observing feasts, which is more of a utilitarian concern and convenience more than anything else and which would be put away when not in use anyway, I genuinely don’t think that anything else is absolutely necessary to be present for a Hermetic shrine beyond a shrine lamp.

In that regard, can this sort of thing even really be considered a “shrine”, at least using the terms I’ve defined at the start of this post?  I suppose not, no.  I mean, what could one do to “enshrine” God?  What image could house God itself?  As book V of the Corpus Hermeticum (CH V) beautifully points out, there is nothing that could limit God either in terms of speech or image or time, so there’s neither point nor possibility in trying to “house” God when God itself is what surrounds and fills all things.  Rather, the Hermetic shrine is a place for us to do the work we need to do towards God (and, if necessary, the gods as well).  In that light, this would really be more of an altar than a shrine—except, of course, unless we do have gods enshrined there, but let’s put that aside for now (again).  The point is that I keep calling this a “Hermetic shrine”, but I’m using the term “shrine” in a very broad way that goes against my own usual definitions in a way that muddles the distinction between “shrine” (a place where spirits are housed), “altar” (a working surface for ritual or sacrifice), and “temple” (a sacred space that contains shrines and/or altars for spiritual activities).  I suppose my calling this a “Hermetic shrine” comes from my own unspoken notion of calling any place I pray at regularly a “shrine”, while I reserve “altar” for a place I do work at on an as-needed basis.  It’s just another set of definitions, I suppose.

And even then, is a dedicated space for this sort of work really necessary?  I mean, at the end of the AH, Hermēs and crew leave the temple in order to pray, and likewise the prayer instructions in CH XIII.16 (after Hermēs guides Tat into spiritual rebirth and before he sings the “secret hymn”) say that one should pray “in the open air”.  The only other context we get for something mystically happening is in CH I, when Hermēs receives his vision from Poimnadrēs, and that was entirely location-independent when Hermēs’ “thinking soared high and [his] bodily senses were restrained, like someone heavy with sleep from too much eating or toil of the body” (i.e. a deep trance state).  In an ideal setting, worship and veneration of God would not be done at any particular temple (which would be dedicated to any number of other gods anyway on an ontologically lower level than God) but rather in the open air directly under and in the midst of the heavens; spiritual work and elevation would be done, similarly, apart and away from the body itself.  Of course, that’s all in an ideal situation; a Hermetic shrine, a place we could go to in the safety and convenience of our own homes, gives us a means to engage in the work (preparatory or no) to reach such an ideal state at some point.  To that end, while I don’t think a Hermetic shrine is technically necessary, I do think that it’s helpful to have for those as a means to concentrate and focus their prayer, meditation, and work all the same.

Anyway, let’s keep up with the high-level stuff.  If the shrine lamp and a handful of offering dishes is all that’s strictly needed for the Hermetic shrine, then what should the shrine itself look like?  I don’t personally like having such things directly on the floor, and recommend some sort of elevated surface to keep everything on, but beyond that, I don’t think the specifics matter all too much.  So long as it’s something comfortable for you to stay at for an extended period of time (to account for time in meditation, prayer, devotional work, conjuration, communion, offering, etc.), then that’s the most important thing.  For instance, I like kneeling with a seiza bench for my Hermetic stuff, which makes low tables (side tables, coffee tables, etc.) ideal for me, being not too tall for me to strain my neck by looking up or having to reach to the end of it.  Others might feel more comfortable with something at desk height where they can sit in a simple chair; others might prefer something at their waist, or even higher than that, depending on the significance they might attach towards physical elevation towards these things.  Some people state that, as a sign of respect, holy things should be no lower than one’s waist and preferably at head height or above, and I respect that, but as a matter of convenience and logistics in terms of one’s own personal mystical stuff, I don’t think that that’s as strict a concern here for the considerations of the Hermetic shrine.  So long as it’s at a reasonable height for one’s practice and is large enough to hold what one needs to put on it, then I don’t think the specifics matter.  The Hermetic shrine, in a sense, can be thought of as tool for you to use, so it should be appropriate for your use.

Should the shrine be covered with a cloth?  Again, it’s up to you; I think it’s good practice to do so, so long as you can find something appropriate. You could change out tablecloths for the Sun being in different signs of the Zodiac, or for different planet/sphere-specific rituals, or for different seasons of the year, certainly.  You could just refresh the cloth with a new one once a year to mark the passage of the Sun from one solar year to the next, or to mark some anniversary like one’s first contact with one’s HGA/Agathodaimōn.  Or you could just use just one cloth that looks nice until it wears out, or none at all.  This is more “shrine decoration” than anything to my mind, and I’ve gone back and forth on the specifics of it.  My thoughts are that such a thing is nice to have, but it’s nothing necessary.  (Besides, if one has a particularly beautiful table with an elegant wood grain or marbled surface or the like, I see no reason to let that not be a decoration unto itself.)  As for colors, white is always pleasant for divine works in general, and gold or gold-accented fabric is resonant enough with Hermetic symbolism to be more than acceptable; if one has an Egyptian or especially PGM flair, one might avoid red for general purposes due to its Set-related connotations, but otherwise, I don’t think it matters too much.

Bearing in mind the notion about facing certain directions from AH 41 and CH XIII.16, what about the placement and direction of our Hermetic shrine?  This gets a bit tricky, because those instructions specify two directions: east for morning/sunrise, and south (not west!) for evening/sunset.  We might consider a free-standing shrine that we can position ourselves around, or we might put a shrine in a southeast corner of a room that we might sit at the west (facing east) in the morning and at the north (facing south) in the evening, or just facing southeast in general (if it’s something like a corner/triangular desk).  That said, with the exception of putting something in a southeast corner and calling it a day, I find all those options kinda…awkward, really.  I dislike things like this not being against a wall and, frankly, I like using east in general for matters of the divine and holiness; as a rule, if nothing else speaks more strongly for another direction (like actual space constraints in someone’s home), placing this towards the eastern wall of a room is probably a reasonable choice for most people.  Likewise, it should be in a respectful place, ideally a room with a door that can be closed where one can have some measure of solitude and peace, which won’t have mundane or sexual activity happening within it.  This would be ideal, of course, as with any concerns for establishing a temple space, but as I’ve said before, it’s far from essential.  Do what you can as best as you can.  If the room has access to a window that faces outside, all the better.

Getting back to the shrine itself, what about things to go on it besides just the lamp?  In my post about the shrine lamp, I also mentioned that I’ve experimented with other things placed on my shrine(s) in the past, in various orders or combinations or arrangements:

  • A natural tall-ish stone, or a brick/stone pyramid, situated and rising from a bowl of water to represent the Benben mound of Egyptian cosmogonic myth
  • An image (statue, scroll, painting, etc.) of Hermēs Trismegistos, either with or without accompanying (and perhaps smaller) images of his students Tat, Asklēpios, and Ammōn
  • An image of the Agathodaimōn or HGA
  • An image of the Divine Cosmos or of Divine Nature (much as one might find in Jeffrey Kupperman’s excellent Living Theurgy: A Course in Iamblichus’ Philosophy, Theology, and Theurgy)
  • A small abstract model of Adocentyn (or, as one might consider it, Hermopolis Theia) from the Picatrix
  • A pair of images to represent the Sun and Moon, or seven such images of the seven planets
  • Images or symbols of one’s general faith and religion, especially if one syncretizes Hermeticism with another religion or practices it as a mystical approach to another religion (e.g. a crucifix for Christian Hermeticists)
  • Calligraphy of sacred words, verses, or statements of faith

These are all possibilities one might consider for their own Hermetic shrine, based on what they might contemplate, or venerate as symbols of the Creator or of Creation.  Additionally, one might also have particular images or statues, such as that of Hermēs Trismegistos or of the Sun and Moon or of one’s Agathodaimōn or whatnot, which one might venerate or actively ensoul, and thus enshrine at their Hermetic shrine (which would then render such a thing a shrine in the technical sense I established at the start of this post).  The thing about all these things, though, is that they aren’t essential to making a Hermetic shrine (that’d be the role of the shrine lamp), and are otherwise all so varied and ultimately based on personal needs and desires for such a shrine that it’s hard to generalize anything about it all.  Again, the Hermetic shrine is effectively a tool for our use, and so should be appropriate for our needs; if something doesn’t serve a purpose to us on the shrine, then it shouldn’t be there, and whatever is on there should always be oriented towards the ultimate goal of Hermetic practice.

So is that it, then?  Beyond it being some sort of raised surface off the ground with a lamp on top and a bit of space, is that all that I’d consider required, and everything else (size, height, location, direction, covering, etc.) is up to one’s own personal discretion?  Basically, yeah.  The whole purpose of a Hermetic shrine, to my mind, is to be a centerpoint of spiritual activity for one’s Hermetic mystical practice, but what does that entail?  Prayer, meditation, offerings to the gods in a Hermetic framework, works of purity and ascent, contemplation, and the like—all of this has a place within Hermeticism, to say nothing of astrological or alchemical works, even trafficking with any number of spirits ouranic or chthonic for the purposes of one’s own Work in this world.  To that end, one doesn’t need a whole lot beyond a bit of space that one can call their own, that one can turn to as a command-center of sorts, that one can trust will be there for them for works both routine or irregular.  As one’s own practice evolves, so too may the specific concerns on the shrine; at one time there may be a cross, at another an image of a solar deity, at another an image of the cosmos as some sort of astrological mandala, but always will the shrine itself be a thing to hold a bit of space apart from the rest of one’s life specifically for one’s own Hermetic endeavors.

To summarize this winding, rambling post:

  • The Hermetic shrine’s primary purpose is to act as a sacred space to engage in Hermetic mystic practices.
  • Required aspects of the shrine:
    • The shrine should be a raised surface, elevated off the floor.
    • The shrine must contain at least one thing at all times in a central and clearly-visible place: a shrine lamp.
    • There should be some sort of storage (underneath or to the side) to keep offering dishes clean and safe when not in use.
    • There should be sufficient space on the surface to hold offering dishes when in use.
  • Suggested or encouraged aspects of the shrine:
    • The shrine should be at a reasonable height for one to kneel or sit at for extended durations without discomfort.
    • The shrine should be kept in a quiet room with a door that closes to be used as a temple space in general, away from mundane or sexual activity.
    • The shrine should be kept facing the east, or positioned in a way that one could face it either east or south.
    • The shrine may be covered with a clean tablecloth.
    • The shrine may hold ensouled statues or devotional images for propitiation or contemplation.

What about actually setting up or maintaining the shrine?  I mean, lots of traditions have particular conditions and processes on sanctifying or purifying implements or space for sacred purposes, but…I mean, one can certainly do that, too, with the Hermetic shrine and every object that goes on it, and I wouldn’t argue against doing so, especially if one feels strongly or is already engaged in a temple/exoteric practice that makes use of such preparatory actions.  The most important thing for actually setting up or maintaining the shrine, though, as I see it?  Just keep it clean and set aside for Hermetic stuff.  If it gets dusty, wipe it down with a clean cloth; if something spills, clean it up quickly.  Don’t use the offering dishes for kitchen stuff again, and don’t use obviously filthy things with or near the shrine.  Maybe sprinkle a bit of holy water over the furniture before using it as a shrine, maybe do a monthly or seasonal cleansing of the shrine and all its tools as you use it.  Cleaning or maintaining the shrine doesn’t need to be a whole affair or anything beyond routine tidiness unless you really want it to be.  To be sure, the more thorough and dedicated you turn everything towards, the better off things will be overall, but the more expert stuff can be left for a time when you have more expertise.  If you’re just getting started, the most important thing is to just start, and everything else will proceed from there.  You can always improve on the shrine over time, just as you improve upon yourself over time.

Based on my own experiences and practices, there are a few things I could suggest that one might keep at such a Hermetic shrine.  These are just extra tools or supplies to have on hand for a variety of works and practices, all of which might also be kept in storage with the offering dishes if needed.  Again, nothing here is required, but the things in the lists below are those which I have personally found to be useful in fulfilling the vast majority of my regular (and a good number of irregular) spiritual operations that I get up to, or which make the things I do at my Hermetic shrine just more convenient in general:

  • Recommended tools, utilities, or fixtures of a shrine:
    • A bowl or vessel for preparing lustral water to make ablutions from (e.g. a khernibeion for khernips)
    • An aspergillum for sprinkling things with liquid
    • A bowl for making liquid offerings from
    • A cup or goblet for partaking in libations or for mystic works
    • A snuffer and trimmer for wicks of candles or oil lamps
    • A knife for cutting cloth, string, or other things
    • A set of tweezers and/or tongs for holding things at a distance or which require fine dexterity
    • A lighter or set of matches for lighting lamps or incense
    • A shawl (preferably of natural plant-based fibers and of a white or natural light color) for covering one’s shoulders and/or head while praying or engaging in particular works
    • A prayer rug (whether a small fabric carpet or a grass mat) to kneel or sit on while at the shrine
    • A shallow but wide non-porous, fireproof tray for performing particular works with
    • Small wooden or stone stands for elevating sacred images or to act as mini-altars for particular works
    • A quiet timer for meditation
    • A bell (whether one with a handle or a singing bowl/gong struck with a mallet)
    • A set of prayer beads for reciting chants
    • A book of prayers and ritual to recite and perform
    • A book of sacred texts or scriptures to read and contemplate
    • Clean white washcloths
    • Glass jars with airtight lights for storage of liquids, powders, or the like
    • A wastebin with liners/bags for any detritus or rubbish for immediate disposal
  • Recommend supplies for works and operations at a shrine:
    • Clean water
    • Olive oil
    • Wine
    • High-proof neutral alcohol
    • Coal for censers and loose incense
    • White chalk, whether for drawing out patterns or crumbling into powder
    • Pens, ink, and clean paper
    • Twine or string made from hemp, cotton, or linen
    • Natron
    • Pure salt (whether sea salt or rock salt, or one might have different kinds available for different purposes)
    • Pure soil or sand

Still, all these are just things I might recommend as extras that might be good to have on hand, all of which may depend more importantly on your own practice, and any of which might be called for or not depending on the direction you take things in for yourself.  The big thing to remember is that, so long as the shrine lamp burns, there’s a Light to guide you, and beyond that, the shrine gives you a place to pray, read, meditate, and work.  There doesn’t need to be a whole lot else to this, and in this regard, simplicity really can be (and is) best.  At times, I do find it helpful to have separate shrines or work-spaces for different traditions or styles of work; in that regard, while the Hermetic shrine might be good for a good number of operations, it may not be good for all possible works one might get up to.  Still, not all such work-spaces need to be permanent fixtures in one’s temple space, or sometimes one just needs to do enough for a spirit or god to take care of the rest.  Just as the Hermetic shrine gives us a focus for our Hermetic work, so too should we be focused on Hermetic stuff while we’re at it; that’s the big thing to remember, and everything else will take care of itself from there.

Feasts at a Hermetic Shrine

In the last post, I brought up the notion of what sorts of offerings one might make at a shrine used for Hermetic devotions and worship and how one might go about arranging them.  For me in general, this is an important thing to mull over, because I find the simple making of offerings (even just incense, candles, and water) to be a hugely beneficial work unto itself.  And yes, sure, while Hermēs at the end of the Asclepius (AH 41) says that one shouldn’t offer incense to God:

As they left the sanctuary, they began praying to god and turning to the south (for when someone wants to entreat god at sunset, he should direct his gaze to that quarter, and likewise at sunrise toward the direction they call east), and they were already saying their prayer when in a hushed voice Asclepius asked: “Tat, do you think we should suggest that your father tell them to add frankincense and spices as we pray to god?”

When Trismegistus heard him, he was disturbed and said: “A bad omen, Asclepius, very bad. To burn incense and such stuff when you entreat god smacks of sacrilege. For he wants nothing who is himself all things or in whom all things are. Rather let us worship him by giving thanks, for god finds mortal gratitude to be the best incense.”

Such a direction only really applies to the One God, not to the many gods.  After all, earlier on in the Asclepius (AH 38), Hermēs praises works of sacrifice for the gods, or at least those that inhabit cult images in temples:

And this is why those gods are entertained with constant sacrifices, with hymns, praises and sweet sounds in tune with heaven’s harmony: so that the heavenly ingredient enticed into the idol by constant communication with heaven may gladly endure its long stay among humankind. Thus does man fashion his gods.

While I think that making offerings to the gods is never something done in vain and can be done anytime and all the time, I also find that it helps to have some sort of routine, rhythm, or rubric by which one can organize the timing of offerings, what sorts of offerings should be given, and the like.  This is where the notion of ritual timing comes into play, and so raises the question of when we should engage in such works of offering and sacrifice.  There are lots of terms for such events, but a good general-purpose one we might use is simply “feast”—if not for us, then at least for the gods.

In the last post, I cited a few Hermetic Testimonies (TH) texts that informed my notion of what can/should be given at a Hermetic shrine for Hermetic work, according to a few Islamic-era texts that describe some clearly non-Islamic (but potentially Islamicly-filtered) practices that may well be Hermetic.  Let’s review those texts once more, with the bits about timing highlighted.

TH 37B (Picatrix III.7), but using the Attrell/Porreca translation:

The opinion of the sages about the prayers and petitions suited to the planets is that each of the planets acts on matters corresponding to its own nature (the fortunate to the good and the unfortunate to the evil).  When you wish to ask something from the planets, see to it that the chosen planet be aspected by the lord of the ascendant, that the almuten of the figure be in the east and also high in its epicycle in the fourth altitude in the east.  Then the sages would make their petitions.  The powers and effects of the planets are stronger and of greater influence at night.  Beware lest you seek anything from the any planet that is not from its own proper nature since it would be the downfall of such a request.

The sages who made prayers and sacrifices to the planets in mosques did the abovementioned things.  When the heavens moved by eight degrees, they made the sacrifice of one animal, and while it as setting by eight degrees, they made another sacrifice.  They say that Hermes ordered them to do this in mosques or in their churches.  Those sages have claimed regarding Hermes that he was lord of the three thriving roles, namely a king, a prophet, and a sage.

The context of this part of the Picatrix is from a lengthy chapter that contains descriptions of the seven planets, what their properties and associations are, and what prayers may be recited for them (and how!) for a number of ends.  These prayers specify particular astrological configurations (e.g. for Saturn “you must wait until he enters into good condition” like in Libra, Aquarius, or Capricorn), so these can reasonably fall into the domain of astrological magic, but if you consider Hermeticism or those influenced by it to participate in an astrological religion, then there’s little difference between the two.

In that light, what we see here is also astrological in nature, but rather than it being about a particular election, it’s about repeated and regular rituals rituals after an election.  Once a particular planetary working was performed at a given election, two further sacrifices were given to the planet, each when it had passed eight degrees along the ecliptic.  Thus, for example, if I were to do an operation of the Sun when it was at is exaltation degree of 18° Aries, then I’d make another sacrifice to the Sun at 18 + 8 = 26° Aries, and then again at 26 + 8 = 34 → 4° Taurus.  Depending on the speed of the planet in question, it could take anywhere from a day to a year or more, but the point is to follow up one ritual with two subsequent ones, either as thanks or to revisit the working to ensure its success.  However, I wouldn’t really call these “feasts”, not really; while these would be ritualized offerings, they’re done as follow-ups to particular purpose-driven operations, like follow-up visits to the doctor after a once-in-a-lifetime health procedure rather than a regularly-scheduled yearly checkup.

We’ll look at the next two together, since they’re pretty similar in content.  First, TH 28 (Kitāb Muẖtār al-Ḥikam wa-Maḥāsin al-Kalim 7.8—10.19):

He preached God’s judgment, belief in God’s unity, humankind’s worship (of God), and saving souls from punishment. He incited (people) to abstain piously from this world, to act justly, and to seek salvation in the next world. He commanded them to perform prayers that he stated for them in manners that he explained to them, and to fast on recognized days of each month, to undertake holy war against the enemies of the religion, and to give charity from (their) possessions and to assist the weak with it. He bound them with oaths of ritual purity from pollutants, menstruation, and touching the dead. He ordered them to forbid eating pig, donkey, camel, dog, and other foods. He forbade intoxication from every type of beverage, and stated this in the most severe terms.

He established many feasts for them at recognized times, and prayers and offerings in them. One (of these) is that of the entry of the sun into the beginnings (that is, the first degrees) of the signs of the zodiac. Another is that of the sightings of the new moon and that of the times of astrological conjunctions. And whenever the planets arrive at their houses and exaltations or are aspected with other planets, they make an offering. The offerings for what he prescribed include three things: incense, sacrificial animals, and wine. Of the first fruits of aromatic plants they offer roses. Of grains, they offer wheat and barley, of fruit, grapes, and of drink, wine.

And then Tārīẖ Muẖtaṣar al-Duwal, “On the Three Hermēses”:

It is also handed down that the first Hermēs founded a hundred and eighty cities, the smallest of which is Ruhā (Edessa, Urfa); and that he prescribed to people the worship of God: fasting, prayers, alms, that they held feasts whenever the planets were in their own domicile in the descendant or in the ascendant as well as on each new moon and whenever the Sun entered any of the twelve signs; they would offer the first fruits of all crops and the best perfumes and wine; and he did not prohibit inebriation or illicit foods.

As opposed to being as-needed purpose-driven operations, what these extracts give us would be much closer to religious observances.  They’re still astrologically-determined, sure, but they’re not as arbitrary or at-will as what Picatrix III.7 was describing.  From these, we get the following notions:

  • New moon (i.e. first sighting of the waxing crescent Moon after syzygy with the Sun).  This makes sense and is a pretty common observance to make the whole world over, given how the observable synodic cycle of the Moon is a common basis for months in lunar or lunisolar calendars.  Repeated, regularly-timed feasts.
  • Sun ingresses into a new sign.  For anyone astrologically-inclined, this would also make sense for similar reasons as the observance of the new Moon, just for a strictly solar calendar rather than a lunar/lunisolar one.  (Consider the Persian Nowruz celebration, marking the new year at the March equinox when the Sun enters Aries.)  More repeated, regularly-timed feasts.
  • Planets ingress into the signs of their domiciles.  Now we’re getting into actual astrological stuff, but in a way that’s as repeated and regular as the strictly lunar and solar observances as before.  (In the case of the Sun, this would overlap with the Sun ingressing into Leo.)
  • Planets ingress into the signs of their exaltations (or, more specifically, arrive at their degrees of exaltation).  Again, similar as above with planets ingressing into their domiciles, but there are two options here.  While we might perform such a feast when a given planet enters the sign of its exaltation (e.g. Venus hits 0° Pisces), exaltations are technically degree-based dignities of the planets, so instead of doing it by sign ingress, we might instead do this when the planet hits that specific degree (e.g. Venus hits 26° Pisces).  This gives us something like two or three observances a year for each planet (possibly more if we consider the separate times a planet hits a degree due to retrograde motion as a separate observance worthy of action).
  • Planets arrive into conjunction with one another, and possibly other aspects.  Unlike the above, this is not something so regular or repeated, because it depends on particular astrological configurations of the planets that might happen on any timescale, like the Great Conjunctions of Jupiter and Saturn that happen once every 20 years or so.  Now, the language here is somewhat conflicting or obscure: what such events are worthy of such an observance?  Conjunctions are specifically highlighted, but between what planets, or how many planets?  For other aspects, do we care about greater aspects (oppositions and trines) or lesser aspects (squares and sextiles)?  For Mercury and Venus, do we care about whether a conjunction is superior (on the far side of the Sun during direct motion) or inferior (between the Earth and the Sun during retrograde motion)?  Depending on the strictness of one’s observation, one could really open up the field here to quite a lot of feasts all the time or just a handful of them a year.

Also, something I’d also like to propose in addition to the above, based not on Islamic-period Hermetic testimonia but classical-period Greco-Egyptian practice: the decans!  These are 10-day periods, basically the equivalent of Egyptian “weeks”, which were used to track the passage of time, and later became incorporated into Hellenistic and later forms of astrology as “faces”, 10° segments of the ecliptic, giving three decans/faces to a sign (o° to 10°, 1o° to 20°, and 20° to 30°).  Like most of the above, these would be regular and repeated observances, but definitely on a more frequent timescale than any of the others…unless we also factor in lunar phases beyond the New Moon, like the Full Moon or quarter Moons.  It’s interesting how new Moons are specifically highlighted as an observance for making offerings, but not any other kind of lunar timing beyond this; one might presume that smaller or private observances might have been made without as much public pomp as new Moon ones, but that’s entirely conjecture.  Either way, we can certainly consider the above highlights from the Islamic-period Hermetic testimonia give a good number of basic observances to start with that form the foundation of an astrologically-informed religious practice, to which we can add other astrologically-informed observances to if desired for a more active and rigorous schedule.

In addition to all the above—or, technically, as a specification of one of the items from above—I’d also like to highlight a particular observance when Mercury hits the fifteenth degree of Virgo (i.e. 14° Virgo).  This is part of the specific astrological timing given in NHC VI,6, the Coptic Hermetic text Discourse on the Eighth and the Ninth, as that to be used for the inscribing of sacred steles:

“Child, copy this book for the temple at Diospolis  in hieroglyphic characters, and call it the Eighth Reveals the Ninth.”

“I shall do it, father,  as you command.”

“Child,  copy the contents of the book on turquoise steles.  Child, it is fitting to copy this book on turquoise steles in hieroglyphic characters, for mind itself has become the supervisor of these things. So I command that this discourse be carved into stone and that you put it in my sanctuary.  Eight guards watch over it with…the sun: the males on the right have faces of frogs, and the females on the left have faces of cats.  Put a square milkstone at the base of the turquoise tablets, and copy the name on the azure stone tablet in hieroglyphic characters. Child, you must do this when I am in Virgo, and the sun is in the first half of the day, and fifteen degrees have passed by me.”

I should note that the fifteenth degree of Virgo is the exaltation degree of Mercury, so this would already technically be accounted for in the above lists, but would definitely rank as a super-important observance to make.

Also, to follow up on something from the Picatrix, remember all that talk we had about the communion with the Perfect Nature from book III, chapter 6According to the ritual instructions given there, one is to undertake the operation when the Moon is in the first degree of Aries (i.e. 0° Aries).  Technically, the Moon is only in the first degree of Aries for about a two-hour window once every 28 days, but the Moon’s ingress to Aries could be reckoned more broadly as another kind of “new month”, just using a sidereal lunar month instead of a synodic one.  Although not given in the above list, we might also generalize this to make an observance for the Moon ingress into every sign just as the Sun does, which would rank as the most frequent type of observance (twelve or thirteen per month, once every two or three days!).

Anyway!  In the last post, though, I also highlighted another excerpt from Tārīẖ Muẖtaṣar al-Duwal, from the section “On the Practices of the Sabians”:

What is known about the sect of the Sabians among us is that their confession is exactly the same as the confession of the ancient Chaldaeans, their qiblah is the North Pole, and they diligently pursue the four intellectual virtues. It is also imposed on them to pray three times [a day]: first, a half-hour or less before sunrise, which is completed with eight bows when the sun is rising, each of which contains three prayers; secondly, a prayer finished at noon, when the sun begins to move downwards, and this consists of five kneelings, each of which contains three prayers; third, with a prayer similar to the second, to be finished when the sun sets.

There are fasts imposed on them: one of thirty days, the first day of which is the eighth of ‘Ādar; also one of nine days, the first of which is the ninth of Kānūn I; and one of seven days, the first of which is the eighth of Šubāṭ.

They invoke the stars and offer many sacrifices, from which they do not eat, but which are consumed by fire. They abstain from eating beans and garlic, and some also from wild beans, cabbage, kale, and lentils. Their sayings are near to the sayings of the philosophers; and they have the firmest arguments to prove the unity of God. They assert that the souls of transgressors are tortured for nine thousand ages, but then return to the mercy of God.

The Ṣābians (or Sabaeans) of Ḥarrān are a fascinating group.  Unfortunately, we don’t know a whole lot about them, but we know at least a few things, namely that they were a Semitic group in upper Mesopotamia (now in southern Turkey near the Syrian border) practicing a kind of polytheistic, astrologically-inclined religion well into the Islamic period.  In classical times, it was the principal city for the worship of the lunar deity Sin, and given its location at a trade crossroads (the literal meaning of the word harrānu in Akkadian), it had access to lots of religious influences from the old world.  After centuries of obstinate refusal to convert to Christianity, when it stood to be conquered by Islamic caliphs, the inhabitants of Ḥarrān were given a choice: convert to Islam, prove that they were a People of the Book as a protected people, or die.  On account of this, the Ṣābians of Ḥarrān claimed that they had Hermēs Trismegistos as a prophet, making themselves officially Hermeticists of a sort, which would legitimize them in the eyes of Islam since Hermēs Trismegistos was assimilated to the prophet ‘Idrīs, himself the biblical patriarch Enoch.  Of course, as Kevin van Bladel has amply shown in The Arabic Hermes: From Pagan Sage to Prophet of Science, they weren’t really Hermetic in any way one might recognize beyond being some sort of Neoplatonic or Pseudo-Aristotelian astrally-focused polytheists, who held many pagan sages and philosophers in high esteem well beyond just Hermēs Trismegistos.  (For real, van Bladel’s book is an excellent source on the discussion of the Ṣābians of Ḥarrān in general with ample sources and quotes, do check it out.)

What we find in the Bar Hebraeus quote above is a description of some of the practices attributed to such a people.  None of it is particularly Hermetic or tied to Hermeticism, and given the evidence van Bladel presents there may well not be any such connection at all, but it is noteworthy as a religion at least nominally tied in some marginal (and marginalized) way to Hermēs Trismegistos.  While there’s more here about regular religious practice (which doesn’t neatly mesh with what we know of from the classical Hermetic texts), I do find it fascinating that there are three fasting periods listed:

  • Thirty-day fast starting on the eighth day of Adar (roughly February or March)
  • Nine-day fast starting on the ninth day of Kislev (roughly November or December)
  • Seven-day fast starting on the eighth day of Shevat (roughly January or February)

I’m using the Hebrew month names here, but we should remember that the Hebrew calendar, which itself is a continuation of the earlier Babylonian calendar which was in use for quite a while and which spawned later calendars all across Mesopotamia and the near/middle East.  It’s not clear what these fasts would be for or why they were celebrated, but it is an interesting thing to note all the same for religious observances, especially if one wanted to take a more generically Old World-inspired religious approach to observances (and which might be tied into the “fast on recognized days of each month” bit from TH 28 above).  After all, we should remember that the lunar/lunisolar Babylonian calendar and its derivatives have little to do with the solar Egyptian calendar and its derivatives (like the Coptic calendar), which arrange for time in a much different way.

On that point, I’m reminded of an earlier discussion I had back when I was considering holy days for a geomantic practice, when trying to figure out a feast day of sorts to commemorate and venerate Hermēs Trismegistos himself.  And that opens up a whole new can of worms for us to mull over, doesn’t it?  All the above are very astral/astrological observances that recognize the changes, ebbs, and flows of things in the cosmos, which is certainly an important thing for a Hermetic practice that seeks to be awe-struck by the beauty of the cycles of the cosmos to incorporate, but what about other holidays and feasts that aren’t astrologically determined or which are for the explicit purpose of astrological observations?  This would include things like feasts and holidays from Hellenic and Egyptian religious traditions that fed into the development of Greco-Egyptian spiritualities like Hermeticism, and a handful I can think of would be:

  • The Greek Hermaia, to be celebrated on the fourth day of the tenth lunar month, the days reckoned from the first sighting of the Moon and the months reckoned from the first new Moon after the June solstice (putting this usually sometime in March)
  • The Roman Mercuralia, celebrated on May 15
  • The Egyptian Thoth festival celebrated on the third day of the Wag festival, so the 19th day of the first month, reckoned from the heliacal rising of Sirius (using the ancient Egyptian reckoning, which varies from latitude to latitude on Earth but is generally between late July and late August) or from the start of the Coptic New Year (using the modern Coptic calendar, starting on September 11)

And those three would just be the most famous ones focusing on Hermēs-Mercurius-Thōth as analogues for our own Hermēs Trismegistos based on other religious traditions with their own calendars, to say nothing of minor or more regional holidays across the Mediterranean.  If we expand that to also include ones for Asklēpios-Imhotep or Ammōn-Amūn as other students of Hermēs Trismegistos (the student-son Tat being equivalent to Thōth himself), we’d get even more candidates for holidays.  As for whether one should incorporate them is a matter for one’s own personal practice, of course, especially if one is already engaged in one of these sorts of paganisms today (e.g. modern Hellenism or Kemeticism).  Given the trouble I had with trying to figure out what would have been a reasonable feast day for Hermēs Trismegistos all those many moons ago, I’ll leave this thread here for others to pick up if they so choose.  If I were pressed to make a choice, I’d just make up arbitrary Gregorian calendar-based dates for honoring Hermēs Trismegistos and the rest of them that use repeating numbers: March 3 for Hermēs  Trismegistos and April 4 for Tat (or vice versa, or together as one or the other), June 6 for Asklēpios-Imhotep, and December 12 for Ammōn-Amūn.

Besides just figuring out feasts for individual gods apart from astrological considerations, there’s also an abundance of choices one might have for particular commemorations, whether cultural, historical, or personal.  Because of how much possibility there is for that, both that I might consider for myself as well as others for themselves, it’s just too much to consider in a single post even for me, and I wouldn’t even know where to start.  What I think we can all agree on, however, are the transitions and changes that the cycles of astrological phenomena might suggest as being a good foundation for everyone to consider.  I’ve idly considered making a sort of prayer practice composed of interlocking cycles that relate to astronomical and cosmic ones:

  • Two, three, four, or six prayers for the four times of the day
    • Sunrise, sunset
    • Sunrise, noon, sunset
    • Sunrise, noon, sunset, midnight
    • Dawn, sunrise, noon, sunset, dusk, midnight
  • Seven prayers for the seven days of the week
  • Ten prayers for the ten days of each decan
  • 12 prayers for the Sun or Moon ingress into each sign of the Zodiac
  • 28 prayers for the Moon ingress into each lunar mansion
  • 36 prayers for the Sun ingress into each decan
  • Three, four, six, or eight prayers for the lunar phases
    • Waxing, culminating, waning
    • New, waxing, full, waning
    • New, first sighting after syzygy, waxing, full, waning, last sighting before syzygy
    • New, crescent, waxing, gibbous, full, disseminating, waning, balsamic

Needless to say, trying to get all of that done on a regular basis is…well, outside my and most people’s capabilities for the time being (I’ve tried), probably only being reasonable for those living a highly regulated prayer-centric monastic lifestyle actively dedicated to this sort of thing.  Still, the idea of it is appealing, as it’s a way to fully line oneself up and keep oneself in tune with the natural rhythms of the Sun, Moon, and other planets (directly or indirectly).  And while I don’t think trying to implement a full prayer rule based on all of this is reasonable or feasible (I’ve kinda sorta done something like that with my Hermetic Epitomes in my Preces Templi ebook), I can at least observe such cycles with a brief moment of recognition when possible, even if just once a day.  But this is getting distracted from the main topic we were discussing.  While the observation of cycles and the progress within them is important, it’s the transitions between cycles or acyclical happenings that are what give the notion of Hermetic feasts; thus, recognizing every single day of the Sun being in a given zodiacal sign isn’t as important as recognizing the day when the Sun enters a new sign.  Without going crazy when it comes to obscure combinations of events (like I’ve experimented with my Grammatēmerologion before), probably keeping a handful of things down to a few general-purpose ideas is good enough for most people, and would still keep one plenty busy.

Of course, the next question that naturally arises: sure, we’re observing particular astrological phenomena as feasts, but what are we celebrating as a feast? To whom (or what) do we direct offerings that we’d make at such a feast?  For the astrological phenomena, at least, the answer would be straightforward enough: the planets themselves.  At least, that’d be the first answer; the secondary choice would also be the fixed stars themselves, either as single stars (if a planet were to become conjunct with one, like Jupiter and Regulus) or as constellations or decans (e.g. for the Sun entering Leo, celebrating both the Sun and/or the actual constellation Leo as a divine entity itself).  Given the highlighting of the Moon (celebrating new moons) and the Sun (celebrating new zodiac signs), the two luminaries would be primary among all the stars, but the others (primarily the wandering stars) all get offerings for their own needs at the appropriate time.

But does this make sense, to make offerings to the planets (or stars more generally) as gods?  I claim that it does from several perspectives.  For one, we know that astral polytheism is totally a thing, and while the TH fragments above might be reflecting an Islamically-perspectived mishmash of different pagan traditions lumped together as “Hermeticism” (like with the ︎Ṣābians of Ḥarrān), they do also show that the planets and stars were worshipped as gods with sacrifices being made to them.  But, for two, we also know that the planets are of paramount importance in Hermeticism as being the cosmic forces that allow creation to continue being created and creating.  Sure, from a more gnostic-flavored standpoint, they’re the things that weigh us down with energies of incarnation, but from a more holistically Hermetic view, they are the things that allow the beauty of the goodness of God to flourish through creation, including the fleshy vehicles that we travel in.  (It’s a gift with a cost, sure, but it’s still a gift all the same.)  In making good with the planets and stars, not only do we gratify them and obtain their assistance instead of just their assailing, but we also bring ourselves closer to them through the act of communion—which is what the work of offering facilitates.  (And that doesn’t even touch on the gods down here, inhabiting bodies of their own such as temple statues or sacred natural objects, that we make offerings to as well, which may also be associated with or considered to be the planetary gods, much as the Navagraha are in Hindu temple practice.)

In the end, there’s lots of opportunities for establishing particularly important days for Hermetic practice, at least as far as offerings and special devotions are concerned.  One can certainly expand them to any arbitrarily complex and rigorous degree right down to every planetary hour if desired (or even planetary minutes!), but whether that’s required or even recommended would be matter for one’s own schedule, availability, and willingness.  Still, based on what we might know from historical accounts, there are definitely a few important highlights to hit that would be reasonable for any Hermeticist to pick up on, and I think that’s good enough for anyone to start with.