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.

Lighting the Shrine to Light the Way

Once again, I’ve found myself in the doldrums when it comes to regular practice, and once again, I periodically check in on my temple room and get a profound urge to organize, downsize, and redo so much of it.  Spirits that no longer serve, shrines I no longer tend to, tools I’ve collected but have long since forgotten what purpose they were supposed to get to—eventually, bit by bit, it all compounds upon itself, leading to a massive feeling of obligation and no means to resolve it, and thus also leading to a complete paralysis and inability to even want to do anything about it.  It is, of course, a familiar cycle, and it turns on again and again, as it ever has.

Part of the usual turning of this cycle, as it seems to turn out, is where I reconsider my main shrine, the point at which I do the bulk of all my Hermetic prayers.  I’ve had one ever since I started all this stuff back when I got into Rufus Opus’ Red Work Course way back when in 2011, and have kept it in some form or another ever since, ranging from a simple nightstand at the foot of my Ikea folding bed in my old apartment to a long sidetable in a temple room in my old place to a much wider and taller desk-type setup in the temple room where I live now.  Just as the shape and size of the surface itself has changed, so too has what’s gone on it, from a simple candle and corner for my HGA to a candle with the seven archangels and my HGA and Mary as Queen of Heaven, to a…well, much more elaborate setup I had involving the four progenitors of geomancy with the Sun and Moon, or alternatively angelic representations of the North and South Nodes of the Moon, etc.  That I’ve always had a shrine to do my Hermetic stuff at hasn’t changed, but the shape and format of my shrine has, reflecting different stages of my spiritual development, experimentation, and thinking about what it is I’m actually doing.

In addition to the various things I’ve already tried, I’ve also considered a bunch of other things, too, that I thought about as incorporating as devotional elements that might be nice for a Hermetic practice:

  • 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 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

All of these are nice, I admit, and they all reflect different ideas, approaches, and meanings that can be used towards Hermeticism.  However, despite all of these things that one might feasibly use, I’ve always felt strongly about one thing that one must use in such a Hermetic shrine, and that’s a sacred light burning on the shrine: the shrine lamp itself.  All else is effectively up to the individual’s choice, but the shrine lamp must be present, I’d claim.  It’s something I’ve always had going for my own shrines, to be sure, in one form or another, whether a plain glass-encased white novena candle in the center and back of my shrine or a Moroccan tealight lantern hanging above my shrine.  More than that, it’s not just that it’s a habit of mine, but rather that it makes sense to have it.

So, why a shrine lamp at all?  In my view, this lantern or candle or whatever burning with a sacred flame represents the pure light and holy presence of God.  I mean, light as a thing is a hugely important notion in the classical texts of Hermeticism, like the elaborate revelation of Poimandrēs to Hermēs Trismegistos in book I of the Corpus Hermeticum, how all things were originally light and it is from this light that all creation came to be and that light is the origin of mind itself.  I’ve not just explored the sacred notion and use of light in my own home and life before, but also in how it can be used in a religious sense in geomancy with its Islamic origins, but there’s also an interesting notion at play that I really want to focus on today: that of the story of Hermēs Trismegistos and the Perfect Nature from the Picatrix (book III, chapter 6).  I wrote a five-part series of posts about it a ways back (The Spiritual Nature(s) of Perfect Nature, Analyzing the Vignette and the Names, Ritual Prep and Setting the Altar, Associations of the Four Powers, and The Ritual Itself, and Why Do It Anyway), and the story there is a really interesting one (using Warnock/Greer’s translation):

When I wished to understand and draw forth the secrets of the workings of the world and of its qualities, I put myself above a certain pit that was very deep and dark, from which a certain impetuous wind blew; nor was I able to see anything in the pit, on account of its obscurity.  If I put a lit candle in it, straightway it was extinguished by the wind.

Then there appeared to me in a dream a beautiful man of imperial authority, who spoke to me as follows: “Put that lit candle in a lantern of glass, and the impetuosity of the wind will not extinguish it. You should lower the lantern into the pit, in the middle of which you should dig; thence you may draw forth an image by which, when you have drawn it forth, the wind from the pit will be extinguished, and then you will be able to hold the light there. Then you should dig in the four corners of the pit, and from there you may draw out the secrets of the world and of Perfect Nature, and its qualities, and the generation of all things.”

I asked him who he was, and he replied: “I am Perfect Nature; if you wish to speak to me, call me by my proper name, and I will answer you.” I asked him them by what name he was called, and he answered me, saying, “By the four names mentioned above I am named and called…”

In my second post on the series, I explored this little vignette, and tried to analyze it in the context of what I knew, seeing it as a mirrored version of Hermēs’ ascent into the heavens in classical pagan literature with here a chthonic descent into treasure realms in later Islamic literature.  However, what I was unaware of when I wrote that post series is that such an interpretation (which I still think has some merit as a symbolic reinterpretation) isn’t quite reasonable when one takes a broader view of the literature and myths available to the writer(s) of the Picatrix.  For instance, if we were to turn to, say, the Kitāb sirr al-ḫalīqa, or the Book of the Secret of Creation and the Art of Nature attributed to Balīnūs of Tuaya (aka Apollonius of Tyana), which the first text we know of that contains the short text of the Emerald Tablet, we see a super similar story, indeed.  Turning to Jason Colavito’s translation:

I was an orphan of the people of Tuaya, totally indigent and destitute of everything. There was in the place where I lived a statue of stone raised on a column of wood; on the column one could read these words: “I am Hermes, to whom knowledge has been given; I have made this wonderful work in public, but afterward I hid the secrets of my art, so that they can only be discovered by a man as learned as I am.” On the breast of the statue one could similarly read these words written in ancient language: “If anyone wishes to know the secret of the creation of beings, and in what way nature has been formed, he should look under my feet.” They came in crowds to see this statue, and everyone looked under its feet without seeing anything.

As for me, I was still a weak child; but when I was stronger, and I attained a more advanced age, having read the words that were on the chest of the statue, I understood the meaning, and I undertook to dig the ground under the foot of the column. I discovered a subterranean vault where a thick darkness reigned, and in which the light of the sun could not penetrate. If one wanted to carry in the light of a torch, it was immediately extinguished by the movement of the winds which blew ceaselessly. I found no way to follow the path I had discovered, because of the darkness that filled the underground; and the force of the winds which blew through it did not allow me to enter by the light of the torch. Unable to overcome these obstacles, I slipped into depression, and sleep took hold of my eyes.

While I slept an anxious and restless sleep, my mind occupied with the subject of my pain, an old man whose face resembled mine appeared before me and said to me: “Arise, Balīnūs, and enter into this underground path; it will lead you to knowledge of the secrets of creation, and you will come to know how nature was formed.” “The darkness,” I replied, “prevents me from discerning anything in this place, and no light can withstand the wind blowing there.” Then this old man said to me: “Balīnūs, place your light under a transparent vessel. It will thus be sheltered from the winds which will be able to put it out, and it will illuminate this dark place.” These words restored joy to my soul; I felt that I would finally enjoy the object of my desire, and I addressed the man with these words: “Who are you,” I said to him, “to whom I am indebted for such a great blessing?” “I am,” he replied, “your creator, the perfect being.”

At that moment I awoke, filled with joy, and placing a light under a transparent vessel, as I had been ordered to do, I descended underground. I saw an old man sitting on a throne of gold, holding in one hand a tablet of emerald, on which was written: “This is the formation of nature”; before him was a book on which this was written: “This is the secret of the creation of beings, and the science of the causes of all things”” I took this book boldly, and without fear, and I departed from this place. I learned what was written in this book of the Secret of the Creation of Beings; I understood how nature was formed, and I acquired knowledge of the causes of all things. My knowledge made my name famous; I knew the art of talismans, and marvelous things, and I penetrated the combinations of the four elementary principles, their different compositions, their antipathies, and their affinities.

The similarities here are beyond happenstance; to my mind, it’s clear that the Picatrix’s account of Hermēs coming in contact with Perfect Nature so as to enter a dark pit falls into the same lineage of myths and vignettes as this one of Apollonius coming in contact with Perfect Nature so as to enter the tomb of Hermēs himself.  In either case, note the crucial thing that this spirit suggests so as to enter the windy darkness and see what is within: a light encased within glass, the line to shine into the darkness and the glass to protect the light.  In my earlier analysis of the vignette from the Picatrix, I understood this to be a metaphor for protecting one’s own mind:

In a dream, Perfect Nature came and told Hermēs to protect the candle from the wind in a lamp so that the wind will not extinguish it.  Seeing how encased lamps are a truly ancient invention, I’m surprised that this had to be pointed out to Hermēs.  However, this is also symbolic…By using the candle as one’s awareness, Hermēs trying to ascend into the heavens without preparation and protection, shutting himself off from the violent passions of the world and the influences of fate produced by the planets.

I arrived at this interpretation with help from the Chronos Speaks blog on this very same topic:

This in mind, Hermes’ mysterious description of the method of contacting Perfect Nature starts to make a lot more sense. The “deep pit” is sleep itself which drags one down into the oblivion of unconsciousness if we are not successful in achieving lucidity, the “impetuous wind” is the mental noise that prevents both sleep and lucidity (and which seems to get much stronger at the critical point), the “candle” is the light of awareness itself, and the “glass lantern” that protects awareness from being blown out is the recitation of the names of the Perfect Nature itself.

Of course, this is all in addition to what I said before about the light itself being representative of God, and the use of a sacred fire to do this is far from uncommon.  There is, of course, the holy fires of Zoroastrian temples who see the ātar as the visible presence of Ahura Mazda, as well as the ner tamid of Jewish synagogues and the altar lamps of Christian churches, but even other early monotheistic movements in the early Roman Empire period had similar practices, like those of the Hypsistarians.  And, of course, from Islam, there’s the famous Āyat an-Nūr, the Verse of Light from the Qur’ān 24:35:

God is the Light of the Heavens and the Earth.
The image of his Light is that of a niche.  In it is a lamp.
The lamp is within glass, the glass as if it were a brilliant star.
Lit from the oil of a blessed olive tree, neither of the East nor of the West,
whose oil would almost glow on its own even if fire had not touched it.
Light upon Light!
God guides to his Light whom he wills.
God gives images to follow for his people.
God is All-Knowing of all things.

This is a beautiful praise of Allah, and is a qur’anic verse that I myself like to contemplate and use in my own prayers, given the harmony it has with so much else I do.  If you can get past the formatting, this webpage from The Ideal Muslimah contains not just practice for learning it by heart, but also includes a bunch of exegetical commentary and interpretations of the verse, which I think are also super neat to expand on.  I mean, while I don’t think lamps are used in the same symbolic way in mosques as they are in synagogues or churches, there is a history of mosque lamps used for illumination in mosques generally, and it’s a tradition that such lamps are also themselves decorated with the Verse of Light.

All this to say that I think that the use of a shrine lamp for a Hermetic shrine/altar/temple/prayer-space/what-have-you is crucial, above and beyond anything else one might have, and—taking a cue from the Islamic Hermetic literature—we can give it a form: a flame in glass.  This can be as simple as a tealight in a glass votive holder or a glass-encased novena candle on its own, but I’d prefer to make it a proper enclosed lantern, like a Moroccan lantern or something, where the enclosure not only allows for the flame to be carried about but also offers it protection from wind, breath, splatters, and other environmental hazards (and, likewise, protects the environment from it).  Sure, a candle in such a lantern would work totally fine (it’s what I myself have been using for quite some time), but I think there’s something more potent in using an actual oil lamp, not least because candles can be expensive and hard to maintain a continuity of flame with, while oil lamps are easier to refill and keep going endlessly.  Oil-wise, olive oil would be great, and while I’m not opposed to the use of animal products for such a thing, I’d personally find value in sticking to plant-based oils, if at all possible.  Barring either candles or oil lamps, of course, an electric lamp would also suffice—it, too, is a burning of energy to provide light, and it’s not like it’s any less useful than other things while also being generally safer to maintain; however, I prefer the care and glow of an actual flame whenever possible, viewing its maintenance as a devotional and meditative gesture in and of itself.

As for the lamp itself, while a traditional kind of terracotta-handled low lamp we think of from the classical Mediterranean world would work (like as I’ve described before), a Hindu-style akhand diya, Buddhist-style butter lamps, or Chinese-style oil lamps of a cup of oil layered on top of water with a floating wick would all be great, since it can be more easily be refilled, and a plain glass hurricane chimney could be placed around it.  Of course, for those who would want a more modern approach, there are a variety of mineral oil/paraffin oil/kerosene oil lamps that were common sights prior to the mass spread of electricity, which would also work great (though require different handling than natural oil lamps that don’t flow as easily or quickly as kerosene), or even better, modern battery-operated/rechargable LED-powered butter lamps that do a decent job at simulating the feel and appearance of an actual lamp flame.   In any case, taking a symbolic cue from the Verse of Light and a practical one from the Picatrix/Book of the Secrets of Creation vignettes, whatever the source of light would be, the glass itself that surrounds it should be clear and clean, preferably uncolored and unpatterned so as to allow the pure light of the flame to shine out.

For me, the shrine lamp would need to be placed in a position of relative importance.  Right now, my shrine lamp (a Moroccan metal tealight lantern) is suspended above the surface of the shrine by about two feet or so, but with my earlier shrines from before, I’ve always had a tall candle or other lightsource burning on a stone trivet in the center and towards the back of the shrine.  I might end up going back to that older format, since I find having the lamp at a more convenient height to gaze upon to be a benefit to my practice, though I do like the notion of having some elevation for it, as well.  So long as it’s at a comfortable height at least above the heart’s position, based on how one would normally pray at such a shrine, that would be fine; keeping it at eye-level when standing may also be appropriate, depending on shrine (and temple) layout, but that might be too high if, for instance, one usually prays while kneeling without getting a crick in the neck.

And then, of course, there’s the actual lighting of the lamp.  For such a thing with such central importance to my devotional space and mystic work, the shrine lamp deserves a bit of extra thought and care when lighting it, as it’s no mere candle or anything.  There are plenty of ways one might go about consecrating a flame for some holy work or other; I’ve offered such prayers in my Preces Castri and Preces Templi ebooks, but one might also reasonably use a modified form of the consecration of the fire for incense from Drawing Spirits Into Crystals, an example of which I’ve already shared as part of my own candle consecration procedure on my website and which has similar parallels in other grimoiric texts like the Heptameron of Pietro d’Abano.  Heck, if the Abrahamic and grimoiric stuff doesn’t cut it, there’s always my PGM framing rite approach, too.  If long prayers like that don’t feel right, there’s always the recitation of scripture, too; while the quranic Verse of Light is a great one, there’s a bunch from the Tanakh and the New Testament, too, like Psalms 119:105 (or the entire verse, Ps. 119:105—112, all given to the letter Nun, which is the same letter that starts of the word ner or Light) or Matthew 5:14—16.  Of course, all these things are great to say for lighting the lamp, but not everyone can (or feels comfortable to) leave a burning lamp untended or to let it burn out; in cases where the flame cannot be kept going, the lamp must be extinguished, and there are plenty of prayers one might also say when doing that, too.  Lots of options abound, as ever.

In the end, all of this is really just to say that I think that a shrine lamp is really the quintessential part of a Hermetic shrine, the sine qua non that not only represents the presence of God in our lives and which gives us a focus to which to pray as an aid for ourselves, but also which represents us in our own work.  Just as in CH I where it is written that mind comes from light and in CH VII where a holy place is described where “the light cleansed of darkness” shines, or even in CH X where Hermēs describes to Tat the holy light of the Good that shines forth without blinding or harming us, the presence of a sacred flame should be immediately understood to a Hermeticist in the context of a shrine.  Encasing it in glass, rendering a lamp or candle into a lantern, protects the flame, and so too should it be a reminder to protect ourselves in the quest for this selfsame light, while also serving to magnify and beautify the flame itself for all who can gaze upon it.

I suppose I have more cleaning to do of my temple room to get to that point, and a lot of reconsidering to do of what I really need to get there, but at least I won’t do so in darkness.

“Unlocking the Observatory” PDF ebook now ready for free download! (Also on Ko-fi!)

I hope y’all have been enjoying my Unlocking the Observatory post series I recently finished posting!  It was a really fun project, once I got into the swing of it, and although the post series took like two months to go online in total, truthfully it only took like two weeks to write it all.  (You know how it goes with me and writing: it’s either feast or famine.)

As promised at the end of the summary post, and taking into my account of the desires and conveniences of my readers based on my earlier Reviewing the Trithemian Conjuration post series, I went ahead, compiled, and edited my ZT post analysis into a PDF as well.  It’s 167 pages on US Letter-sized paper, which is…well, more than I had anticipated, I suppose, but then, it was a fairly large project.  As with my other ebooks, I’ve put it up under the Books page of my website, but just like a small number of other projects and unlike most of my ebooks, this one is entirely free of charge.  You can download the compiled PDF of these posts, all nice and formatted as you might expect, here at this link.

Also, as a little bonus, I went ahead and uploaded all three of my free ebooks (Unlocking the Observatory, Reviewing the Trithemian Conjuration, and the Grammatēmerologion Calendar for March 2015—March 2053) to my Ko-fi shop as well!  Here as well as there, the se three ebooks are free to download, although I have marked these books specifically on Ko-fi as “pay what you want” rather than having any fixed price.  It’s just something nice for those who like using Ko-fi and want to support it and the platform, I suppose, but it is a convenience I haven’t made use of quite yet until now.

I hope y’all enjoy the read, whether on my website or in the offline ebook!  By all means, feel free to post comments on the associated blog posts, too, because Zoroaster’s Telescope is a really nifty form of divination and my analysis is by no means exhaustive.  Feedback and further investigation from those who know more French than I do or who apply such a form of divination would be great to hear about!

Updated Version of “The Telescope of Zoroaster” PDF Available (Error Fixed)

It was bound to happen, of course, in a translation as nitpicky and as intricate as this.

So, a bit ago, not one but two people extremely clued-into ZT (one using the Ouroboros Press translation of the Das Kloster German text, the other using the original French text) pointed out a minute but still nontrivial error in one of the tables of my “Telescope of Zoroaster” PDF ebook.  Specifically, one of the tile allocations for one of the angels was mismatched: Michael should be given 32 but was given 35 in error instead (in addition to 55 and 95, which were already correctly assigned).  35 was already correctly assigned to Adriel.

I’ve gone back and fixed it, and uploaded the new version to both Etsy and Ko-fi for all future purchasers, but I don’t have an easy means to contact all those who have already purchased the text.  If you have already purchased the text and are interested in having a corrected version, please contact me using the Contact page of my website, or through messaging me on Etsy or Ko-fi regarding your order.  So long as you can provide proof of purchase (like your Etsy order number or something), I’ll send you a copy of the corrected PDF.

I apologize for the slip-up!  It helps to have an extra pair of eyes in something like this, and I’m glad I have some rather attentive readers looking out for me.

UPDATE: I’ve gone through my order lists on both Etsy and Ko-fi and tried to reply to everyone who’s ordered the book so far based on their original method of purchase, so if you’ve already purchased the book, be sure to your Etsy/Ko-fi messages.  If you aren’t able to find the message or if you’re unable to get the updated PDF there, please let me know using the messenger feature on Etsy/Ko-fi, or use the Contact page of my website to let me know.