Last minute notice: Ariana Serpentine’s online book release party for “Sacred Gender”!

I apologize for the last-minute notice for many of you (as you might guess, there’s been a good amount going on here lately as it is between spooky season and righteous indignation), but for those who would be free tonight, I want to draw your attention to the lovely and incredible Ariana Serpentine (also on Twitter and Facebook), who just put out her new book Sacred Gender: Create Trans and Nonbinary Spiritual Connections through Llewellyn.

From the book’s page itself:

Explore gender from a sacred perspective and learn how to turn dysphoria into euphoria. With suggestions for making devotion more inclusive, Ariana Serpentine empowers you to spiritually connect to your gender and incorporate it into your personal and group practice. Sacred Gender invites you to talk to your ancestors through the stars and introduces you to spirits and deities that can help you achieve self-actualization. Learn how to manifest your desires with sigil magic and identify affirming names, pronouns, clothes, and accessories with the smile test. Filled with thought-provoking journal prompts, reflection exercises, and a gender initiation, this beginner-friendly book encourages you to see parts of yourself that may have been obscured and liberate your spirituality from the gender binary.

I’m honestly thrilled that she’s put this out, as it promises to be a great text to take apart and put back together notions of sex and gender within spiritual, magical, or divine contexts.  This is a topic I’ve written about and wrestled with before, so I’m excited to get my copy in the mail and see what Ariana has in store for us all.

To celebrate the book being released, Ariana is putting together a Facebook Live event as a book release party, scheduled for tonight, November 8 2022 at 8:30 PM EST which is in a little over an hour from this post being made (my apologies for getting the word out so late, again!).  For such an event, Ariana is putting together a series of readings from the book, guests talks by River Devora and Mhara Starling (of The Welsh Witch Podcast) and myself to talk about gender and spirituality, and an ask-me-anything section.  I’ll be there to talk about Hermeticism and gender, but there’ll be so much more there, as well.  (If the event is recorded and saved for after-the-fact access, I’ll add a link to it to my About page for others to check in on later like I have my other online appearances and interviews.)

Here’s hoping to a great time tonight, and here’s hoping to see you there!  And, of course, be sure to get her book if you think it’s something to chew on; you could get the book directly from Llewellyn, but you can also get it on Amazon in both paperback, Kindle, and audiobook form, too!

Something for my geomancy-reading readers: Geomantia Dice Kickstarter

It’s not very often I do shout-outs or calls for support on my blog for crowdfunding; I’ve only done it the once before for the Sigil Arcanum Tarot Kickstarter (which, I have to admit, turned out exceedingly well, and for which Taylor Bell has my sincere thanks for bringing it to the world).  However, as I said then, there are still times that there’ll be something neat or nifty on Kickstarter that crosses my path or which someone brings to my attention that not only I want to support but which I think the readers of my blog will, too.  So, if you’ll indulge me, dear reader, I think there’s something nice to consider for you to back.

I raise to your attention the Geomantia campaign on Kickstarter:

From the campaign page:

Historically, Arab geomancers began their divinatory exercise by first praying and then entering into a trance-like state, while focusing on the question being asked of them. By making random points in the sand and counting them up as odd or even numbers, they would obtain their first set of geomantic figures.

Qirra dice were created to generate these figures at random (see antique Qirra Raml Dice sets in museum collections here and here).The use of the Qirra set will provide the geomancer with all four figures in one throw of the dice, making it a very pragmatic and also beautiful divinatory tool to use.

[…]

Brass Qirra dice are the traditional divinatory tools of geomancy (see examples here and here) and elevate the diviners craft to bring it inline with the prestige of this highly efficacious magical practice. Tools like this are only available in museum collections.

The unique pattern of Qirra dice set indents provide the diviner with the first four geomantic figures in one single throw. This is exceptionally useful in face-to-face readings with clients, as it allows the geomancer to quickly assess if the chart or pattern being cohered is fit to be judged, or for checking the cardinal houses for a figure that matches the planetary hour within which the reading is taking place (as per Agrippa) if that is the geomancer’s method for ensuring radix (radicality or whether the chart is fit to be judged as this is one of many geomantic methods to insure accuracy in a reading). Aside from being a divinatory tool, the set can also be steeped in planetary materia magica to align the dice with the spirits and or planets that governs the question being asked prior to a reading, which is a ritual I have adopted in my own practice. Using these classical geomantic tools is to partake in a magical divinatory practice that stretched from the East to the West and was second in popularity only to astrology.

Our goal is to raise funds to produce 250 deluxe, limited-edition sets of traditional Arabic brass Qirra dice. Each set will be hand made and proportioned according to classical Qirra pieces in museum collections.

This is not a mass-produced item. Once the initial run is sold out, no additional sets will be created; making this both a highly collectible item and a professional divinatory tool. Each set will be numbered and come in a custom Geomantia box. Included will be a poem, written as an ode to the spirits of this practice, and a black velvet drawstring bag to protect your dice set. Additionally, each purchase of a dice set will include a link to downloadable PDF reference of traditional house and shield charts, used to incorporate the Geomantic figures generated by the dice sticks.

A while back, I talked about the various ways geomancers across the world have produced the figures for geomantic charts and for divination making use thereof.  One of the most common ways seen across lots of the Arabian-style geomantic traditions, especially in the Middle East and South Asia, are the use of qirra, or what I call “geomantic spindle-dice”.  These are a pair of spindles, each of which has four cubes on it, each face having two, three, or four dots arranged in a pattern so that, when both are spun and laid out on a surface, reading a pair of cubes “vertically” gives you a geomantic figure.  In the following historical example of a set of Persian qirra, we could read the figures Albus, Rubeus, Cauda Draconis, and Rubeus (from right to left).  Although we don’t see this used very often in European geomantic practices to generate figures, this is a very common approach used in Arabian ones.  To that end, this Kickstarter aims to create sets of such qirra, which are otherwise extremely hard to come by in any Western context.

This project (being created by Johann Faust and Jonna Shaw) has lots of tiers and lots of things to provide:

  • PDF templates of Shield Charts and House Charts
  • A beautifully-designed geomancy-themed poster
  • Geomancy readings
  • A set of brass museum-quality geomancy spindle-dice
  • A brass, hand-etched “Plate of the Seven Planets” containing images of the seven planets, twelve Zodiac signs, and their magical characters

Images from the Kickstarter campaign page, in case you might want an idea of the beauty of what Johann and Jonna are planning (with, of course, far more information and details on the Kickstarter itself):

This is a project that Johann himself reached out to me about, even from its early prototype stages, and this is a project that I myself definitely want to see succeed (and have chipped in to help with as well).  The project aims to hit its US$20k goal by mid-December, and if all goes well and there are no hitches with production, everything should be ready and sent out no later than June next year.  As of this post, the campaign has already hit $7.3k, so it’s well on track to hitting its goal.  Note that only a limited number of these spindle-dice are planned to be made, so if you’re interested in getting yourself such a set, consider contributing to the Kickstarter soon before time and slots run out!

Here’s hoping for a successful campaign!

A Little Discourse On Apianus’ Cosmological Diagram

Okay, so, this thing:

A lot of people who’ve been around in Western occulture or astrology have probably encountered this image before in one context or another (it’s even appeared before on my own blog in a discussion about Ashen Chassan’s implementation of the Trithemian conjuration ritual and again when I discussed the Hermetic tormentors in CH XIII), and so many of us are familiar with this image to one degree or another.  True, it’s a really neat depiction of a Renaissance version of the geocentric Ptolemaic model of the solar system and cosmos, but there’s other stuff going on in it that I really want to explore and explain.

To start with, where does this image come from, and what specifically does it depict?  This illustration of the celestial spheres was originally made by the German humanist, mathematician, astronomer, and cartographer Petrus Apianus (anglicized as Peter Apian) in his 1524 work Cosmographia.  Apianus depicts this “scheme of the divisions of the spheres” for his second chapter, “on the motion of the spheres and the division of the heavens”.  At the center of the image we have the Earth, depicted as a circle of seas and land (corresponding to the elements of Water and Earth), surrounded by a sphere of clouds (Air) and that by flames (Fire). Outside the Earth, in successively larger concentric circles, we have the seven celestial spheres for the seven planets following the usual Chaldaean ascending order: Moon, Mercury, Venus, Sun, Mars, Jupiter, Saturn.  Skipping to the outermost edge of the whole thing (the eleventh “sphere”, as it were, though it’s really more like the infinitude beyond the spheres as a whole), we have “the Empyrean Heaven, Dwelling-place of God and of all the Chosen”. This is divine infinity beyond all the spheres, unlimited and unbounded and unmoving, under/within which all creation exists.  All straightforward stuff for most people, I suppose.

But it’s the stuff between the heaven of Saturn and the empyrean heaven that trip up a lot of people: the eighth, ninth, and tenth spheres.  To head off such speculation at the pass: no, it’s nothing qabbalistic or sephirothic in any meaningful sense (Apianus doesn’t appear to have been interested in such stuff).  Each of these circles in Apianus’ diagram all have the twelve signs of the Zodiac in them, but they’re respectively described as “the eighth heaven of the firmament”, “the ninth crystalline heaven”, and “the tenth heaven, the first cause”.  While all being zodiacal, they’re all somehow…different?  On top of that, they’re not all aligned with each other, only the eighth heaven has little stars in it, and the ninth heaven has this weird quartered-circle symbol at the ends of the sectors for Virgo and Pisces.  So what’s going on here, exactly?

Welcome, dear reader, to the funtime of medieval astronomy and cosmology!

Let’s start with the tenth sphere, the Primum Mobile (“First Mover”).  Ironically, despite being the most distant finite sphere of all (finite at least in comparison to the truly infinite empyrean heaven surrounding it), this is probably the easiest for us to approach.  The Primum Mobile is the outermost sphere and rotates endlessly, setting all things underneath/within it into motion as well, much like if you spin a pitcher of water, the water inside the pitcher itself won’t spin immediately but is set into motion by the spinning of its container.  In the old geocentric model of the cosmos, the Primum Mobile rotates constantly, performing one complete rotation every 24 hours, moving clockwise from the East to the South to the West to the North all the way back to the East.  According to Apianus, there exists precisely one and only one star in this tenth heaven.  Which star?  He doesn’t say and it’s not wholly clear to me, though if I were to leap to an assumption, I’d say that it’d be the northern pole star α Ursae Minoris (aka Polaris), given how this star was historically and culturally reckoned to be the axis (literally the “pole”) of rotation of all the heavens.

Let’s skip over the ninth heaven for a moment and take a look at the eighth heaven called the “firmament” in Apianus’ diagram.  This heaven is what contains the background stars of the nighttime sky that don’t wander around from night to night, month to month, or year to year.  This is why we call such stars “fixed stars”, as opposed to the “wandering stars” (ἀστέρες πλανῆται asteres planētai) of the planets (whose motion is defined according to their own heavens).  It’s because the eighth heaven of the firmament contains the fixed stars that Apianus’ diagram has all these stellated figures in this circle.  As for the motion of the eighth sphere, Apianus describes it as being subject to the motion of the tenth sphere such that they move all at once as the tenth sphere does, which is why the night sky as a whole rotates around the Earth once per 24-hour period.  Easy enough, I guess.

Between the eighth and tenth spheres is the ninth, described as “crystalline or aqueous” by Apianus (though just labelled as “crystalline” in the diagram).  First, what we can pick out is those two quartered circles.  Although they occur at the ends of the sectors for Virgo and Pisces, they’re really intended to be between these signs and the ones that follow to mark the equinoxes: the September equinox (occurring at the end of Virgo and the start of Libra) and the March equinox (occurring at the start of Aries and end of Pisces) respectively.  As for the motion of this heaven, Apianus says that the ninth heaven “vibrates” (trepidat), which causes the fixed stars in the eighth heaven to move forward and backward.  This would make no sense to modern folk today, but what Apianus is describing was a feature of older forms of astronomy: trepidation, a sort of oscillation in the precession of the equinoxes.  While an obsolete theory nowadays, trepidation has its origins as far back as the 4th century CE and was popular generally from the 9th to 16th centuries (putting Apianus roughly at the end of that period).

First, let’s back up a bit and talk about precession of the equinoxes (and yes, the ancients knew about axial precession all the way back in the 2nd century BCE).  Imagine a top, like the child’s toy: you pick it up, you give it a twist, and it spins around on its point upon a flat surface until it loses enough momentum to keep itself balanced.  At first, when the momentum is fast, the top stands upright, but as it continues, it eventually develops a kind of “wobble”, such that the axis of rotation is no longer precisely upright but ends up rotating on its own in a circle.  As the axis itself wobbles and rotates around, it causes the whole top to rotate in a different way on top of its already ongoing rotation around the axis, including the relative position of where such rotation around its axis “starts”.  This is what is meant by “axial precession”, and when it’s applied to the Earth as a whole, we call it “precession of the equinoxes” because it’s what causes the whole of the background sky to appear to “rotate backwards” relative to its daily regular motion—which includes the equinox points where the ecliptic (the Sun’s path around the sky) crosses the celestial equator.  The axis of the Earth precedes in a complete loop roughly once every 26000 years (currently 25772 years given our current observed rate of precession).

The theory of trepidation, on the other hand, suggested that the rate of the precession of the equinoxes was not a constant rate, but varied and could go either forward or backward.  In the original theory from the classical era, reversing its direction every 640 years or so.  Thus, given a rate of precession of 1° every 80 years, after 8° (thus 640 years), the precession would reverse into procession, such that the equinoxes would move forward eight degrees for the next 640 years, then reverse again, and so forth.  In later and more popular models from the medieval period (especially in Islamic astronomy), trepidation was more of a smaller, less-rigid variation that added to the motion of precession, where the oscillation provided by trepidation occurred over 7000 years, causing the precession of the equinoxes to take place over 49000 years rather than 26000.  It’s this later model that Apianus was describing and subscribed to when he says that the ninth heaven “trepidates”.

Interestingly, the ninth heaven (at least in Apianus’ model) was starless.  While the eighth sphere was full of fixed stars (all conceived of as being roughly the same distance away from the Earth in this geocentric model) and the tenth having just its one sole star (Polaris?), the ninth is a void having nothing in it—except, perhaps, the “waters which were above the firmament” (Genesis 1:7).  Apianus using this biblical model to describe the distant heavens would explain his description of the ninth heaven as being “aqueous”, and would moreover suggest that the wobbling of trepidation could be accounted for by the ripples and waves occurring in such celestial waters.

So there we have it!  We’ve finally knocked out what those intermediate heavens are in Apianus’ famous cosmological diagram, situated between the planetary heavens and the ultimate divine one.  While some of this might be a new thing for some, when placed in its own historical context, all of this is the natural development and expected evolution of a Renaissance take on the geocentric Ptolemaic cosmic model, depicted in a beautifully concise diagram.

But there’s still one issue left: why do the zodiacal sectors not line up in those eighth, ninth, and tenth heavens?  If you look at the eighth and ninth spheres, they line up exactly at Aries and Libra (the equinox points), but they seem to diverge slightly (starting at the east-north-east part of the diagram) before converging again (at the opposite, west-south-west part).  I have honestly no explanation for this beyond it being an artistic whoopsie; after all, sometimes considerations of space and communicability (in the form of the stellated figures and the circle labels) make accuracy and precision a secondary concern.  I feel like there should be a better reason than that, but I haven’t honestly found one beyond it just being something handmade in a constrained space.

But then there’s the dramatic mismatch between the zodiacal sectors of the eighth and ninth heavens with that of the tenth heaven, which can’t possibly be just a slip.  The tenth heaven has Aries starting at the due east point of the diagram, while the eighth and ninth heavens have it starting to the northeast.  What gives?

Well, using my handy-dandy free-to-use planetary observer software Stellarium for the year 1524, we can see exactly what’s going on:

The bright slightly-slanted orange line is the ecliptic, with the faint orange grid of lines being the ecliptical coordinate grid based off it to look at points in the night sky.  The bright more-slanted blue line is the celestial equator (which divides the sky into a “north” part and “south” part).  The ecliptic intersects with the equator at two points, which is where we call the equinox points.  In this case, the image above is centered on the March equinox point, where the ecliptic goes from being below the celestial equator (on the right) to above it (on the left).  The small squiggly faint blue lines in the background indicate constellations, and as you can see, the March equinox point is hanging out somewhere in Pisces, with Aries to the left and Aquarius to the right.

It should be remembered at this point that Western astrology (and historical astronomy, for that matter) has been founded on the notion of a “tropical zodiac”, which is to say a zodiacal system comprising twelve equal 30° segments of the night sky (according to the ecliptic) where the starting point of it (0° Aries) aligns with the March equinox point (where the ecliptic crosses to rise above the celestial equator).  Thus, we consider the segment from 0° to 30° of the ecliptic to be the sign Aries, from 30° to 60° Taurus, from 60° to 90° Gemini, and so on through from 330° to 360° (o°) to be Pisces.  The issue here—as many of my astrologer friends on Twitter are tired of hearing—is that this notion of “sign” doesn’t match up cleanly with the actual physical constellations of the night sky.  Although the constellations were more-or-less aligned with the signs once upon a time, due to precession of the equinoxes, the constellations began drifting “forward” from the signs while the signs drifted “backwards” from the constellations.  Again, precession here was something known to older astrologers from a very early date, so this came as no surprise to any of them—and it’s precisely this mismatch that Apianus is documenting between the eighth/ninth heavens and the tenth heaven.

Thus, in Apianus’ diagram, the tenth heaven’s zodiacal sectors represent the tropical zodiac (aligned to the seasons and the ecliptical crossing of the celestial equator), while the eighth and ninth heavens represent the actual constellations and stars of the sky (which would be a sidereal zodiac, literally “according to the stars” as opposed to according to ecliptical intersections).  This is why the equinox markers (those quartered circles) are placed in Pisces and Virgo in Apianus’ diagram (because technically we have those equinoxes occur while the Sun is in one sign according to the tenth heaven but in another constellation according to the eighth/ninth), and why the Aries sector of the eighth/ninth heavens in Apianus’ diagram start in the northeast rather than th eeast, just as it does celestially if you consider the March equinox point to be due (celestial) east.

Also, one more note: yes, it’s true that while the tropical zodiac doesn’t align with the constellations, neither does the sidereal zodiac.  In both of these zodiacal systems, we’re working with signs, not constellations, and a sign is defined as being a 30° segment of the ecliptic.  The tropical and sidereal zodiacs are identical in every regard except for one: at what point along the ecliptic it should start as being o° Aries.  The tropical zodiac defines this to always be the intersection between the ecliptic and the celestial equator, but the sidereal zodiac…well, it’s a little more complicated.  The sidereal zodiac aims to be closer to the constellations by using what’s called an ayanāṃśa to account for the precession of the equinoxes, and there are a number of different ones in use with some more popular than others (resulting in what’s technically a number of sidereal zodiacs rather than just one).  The issue with even this sidereal approach, however, is that the actual constellations themselves that lend their names and symbolism to the signs don’t neatly align with this equal-segments-of-30° approach.  Some signs are much shorter than 30° (as short as Scorpio’s 6°), some signs much larger (as large as Virgo’s 44°), and there’s even that dumb stupid notion of there being a “thirteenth sign” (Ophiuchus) because its constellation is considered close enough to the ecliptic to make it count (it doesn’t).

Courtesy of this article from Kosmic Mind, here’s a depiction and comparison of the tropical zodiac (inner circle), rough sidereal zodiac (middle circle), and the constellations (outer circle):

Apianus’ diagram makes use of a sidereal zodiac for the eighth and ninth heavens but a tropical zodiac for the tenth heaven, but does not bother with trying to use the constellations themselves (because they weren’t ever really used except perhaps in classical Babylonian or otherwise ancient Mesopotamian times).

Anyway, I thought this was all pretty neat to consider and learn about.  While we today all understand, given the advances of astronomy and physics we’ve had over the past five centuries since Apianus’ time, that a heliocentric model of our solar system is a more accurate descriptor of what’s going on, the geocentric model is still what we intuitively “see” and “feel” from our perspective down here on Earth.  It’s for that reason, coupled with the various and varied religious and cultural traditions that we inherit, that the geocentric model likewise helps us for innumerable spiritual endeavors and systems, too.  I mean, as a comparison, consider the following diagram, produced by Walter Scott in volume 3 of his Hermetica, page 374 in his discussion of the sixth Stobaean Fragment (SH 6):

SH 6 talks about the decans and their relationship to the signs and how their energies affect us down here, and in the course of such a discussion, we end up with a cosmological model again consisting of ten spheres: with the Earth in the center, there’s the seven planetary heavens around that, the eighth heaven of the Zodiac, the ninth heaven of the decans, and then the outermost heaven that wraps around everything.  In this fragment, Hermēs describes the heaven of the decans to be “in between the circle of the universe and that of the zodiac, dividing both circles”, and that the decans “buoy up, as it were, the circle of the universe and define the shape of the zodiac”.  Hermēs describes here also the motion of these heavens with each other, with the tenth heaven whirling constantly, the ninth heaven slowing it down and throttling it, and the planets being whirled around and accelerated by the motion of the decans; in this, the decans move both the planets as well as the outermost sphere of the cosmos itself.  It’s certainly not the same model as what Apianus was describing over a thousand years later, but there are certainly commonalities as both share in a common geocentric Ptolemaic ancestor, and both aim to describe the cosmos according to what we can see and observe down here on Earth.

Notably, we should also remember that what Apianus was getting at wasn’t so much to describe a spiritual reality of the cosmos, but rather a scientific one according to the science of his time.  His Cosmographia is an incredible and well-designed work, and besides the fascinating woodcarved illustrations also included little movable dials and tools that allowed readers to interact with the illustrations to learn about cosmology, geography, cartography, and other sciences.  As a result, it’s been argued that such a work as his not only facilitated better understanding of such topics popularly, but also spurred on the field of amateur astronomy precisely by equipping people with the basic tools they needed, preparing for and facilitating the later scientific revolutions that were to come.  However, even if his aim was more purely “scientific” in the modern sense of the word, we can’t neglect that such sciences are just one part of our lives, with the physical aspects to be integrated with the spiritual, which would also go a ways in explaining why Apianus’ cosmological diagram depicting the various heavens is so popular in occult discussions even today.  (And which also lends itself to some rather beautiful modern pieces of art as well.)

And yes, as the astrologer and geomancer Eric Purdue (yes, the same one who recently translated Cornelius Agrippa’s Three Books of Occult Philosophy afresh and correctly into modern English!) took the opportunity to reiterate on Twitter: the signs lie outside the stars, and we shouldn’t conflate signs with constellations.

The above post was originally a thread on Twitter, which you can read here but which I’ve reformatted and expanded into a proper blog post.  Although I made it earlier this summer and then promptly forgot about it, a conversation on one of the Discord servers I’m on reminded me that I wrote about it, so I figured that I may as well make it a bit more visible and readable.

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.