On an English Alphabet Grammatomancy

The other night, I got an email from a reader with a question.  This sort of thing happens often; in general, I enjoy taking the honest questions from my readers about practice, theory, and everything in between when it comes to the occult, as it often helps them as much as it does me by putting my thoughts in readable order and making me think.  It’s not that common I have to put some questions off, and generally that’s because they involve so much investigation and life-work that it becomes better to take the road to take a proper consultation with me for a really in-depth approach to answering such questions.  However, more often than not, simple one-off questions get prompt answers.  (If you’re interested, dear reader, check out the Contact page.)

Regrettably, this email I got didn’t have a good email address attached to it.  When I tried sending my reply, the email was immediately returned as undeliverable due to a non-existent email address.  It’s unfortunate, especially since this is the first time this has happened.  I have no other way of trying to get in contact with this person besides putting out a call on my Twitter and Facebook pages, so unless this particular reader of mine stalks me on either of those media, I don’t have a way to get back in contact with them.  (Let that be a lesson to everyone, to double-check all your entries when you try to contact someone!)  In that case, perhaps it’s best I just answer the email by making a new post specifically on this topic.  Turning a reader question by email into a post isn’t my usual approach, but between a lack of a means of communication and because the question in question is actually a thought-provoking topic, it’d be good to get the word out all the same.

What this particular reader was asking was about grammatomancy, the divination system I like that uses the letters of the Greek alphabet in a way not unlike Nordic rune divination.  In grammatomancy, each letter of the Greek alphabet is associated with a different oracular statement, and each statement begins with a different Greek letter.  For instance, the letter Gamma (Γ) has the oracle “Γῆ σοι τέλειον καρπὸν ἀποδώσει πόνων”, which translates to “The Earth will give you the ripe fruit of your labors”.  Traditionally, grammatomancy was performed by taking a bowl and filling it with 24 different pebbles or potsherds or other similar type of token, and each token had a different letter engraved on it.  Ask your question, draw out a random token, and look up the associated oracle; bam, there’s your answer.  Personally, I prefer a different approach of using dice, specifically two throws of a 12-sided die; I wrote about my method to use dice in this older post of mine.

What the reader asked was this:

I’m looking for simple instructions on how to set up dice with letters from the English alphabet, not Greek letters or symbols, including how many dice, how the letters are assigned to them, and any other info you may have.  The word “grammatomancy” goes right back to some site that gives the Greek info.

First, if I understand the situation correctly, the word “grammatomancy” started with this website.  The original source of the information I used by Apollonius Sophistes (John Opsopaus) simply calls it the Greek alphabet oracle, even in his more recent book The Oracles of Apollo: Practical Ancient Greek Divination for Today, and I honestly don’t recall the word “grammatomancy” or its Greek form “γραμματομαντεια” being used before its appearance in this 2013 post.  If it was, I apologize for my hubris, and would love to be corrected, but to my knowledge, searching online for the word grammatomancy will likely end you up at something I wrote.  Because of that, and because I’ve only discussed grammatomancy in terms of the Greek alphabet, all the resources available under that word are going to focus on the Greek alphabet.

Now, what about the actual question the reader asked?  Is there a way to use dice to randomly generate English letters?  The short answer is “no”, because of how many letters there are in the English alphabet.

The Greek alphabet as used since ancient times has 24 letters; there were a few extra letters at the start, like digamma and qoppa, but those were disused from an early period and kept around only for numeric and accounting purposes by specialists.  24 is a rather pleasing number, because it can be factored into several different sets of numbers, specifically 2 × 12, 3 × 8, and 4 × 6.  These are all fairly manageable numbers, and can be translated into dice throws quite easily.  For instance, you could use two throws of a 12-sided die (my preferred method), where the first throw determines the first half or second half of the alphabet (odd number = first 12 letters, even number = second 12 letters), and the second throw determines which letter in that set to pick; if I throw a 5 and a 9, for instance, I’ll look at the ninth letter of the first half of the Greek alphabet, which in this case is Iota.  Instead of rolling twice, you could flip a coin to determine heads for the first half of the alphabet and tails for the second half; in effect, you’re using a 2-sided die and a 12-sided die simultaneously.  Alternatively, you could throw a 4-sided die to determine which set of six letters to look at, and the 6-sided die to determine which letter in that set to pick; a 3 on the 4-sided die followed by a 3 on the 6-sided die would get you the third letter of the third set of six, which would be the fifteenth letter, which would be Omikron.  Heck, you could just use a 24-sided die (they exist!) and just associate each letter of the Greek alphabet with each number in order.

The problem with the English alphabet is that it has 26 letters.  Unlike the number 24, 26 cannot be broken down so neatly into smaller pairs of factors; you could only really break it down into 2 × 13.  While there are 13-sided dice and 26-sided dice out there, these are very uncommon specialty items, and probably not what the reader was asking about given how rare they are.  So, what could an English-minded grammatomancer do in this case?  There are several options that present themselves:

  • Don’t bother with dice at all and just use a bag of tokens or a bowl of pebbles.  This is the trivial non-answer, of course, and is not necessarily as convenient as just using plain old poker dice or tabletop RPG dice.
  • Use specially-made English alphabet dice.  They exist, sure, but again, this is a specialist option, and not very useful.
  • Increase the number of options to use from 26 to another number that can be easily factored into smaller numbers.  For instance, if you were to include a “space” letter (comparable to the modern Nordic “wyrd rune”), you get 27 options, which can be broken down into 3 × 9; if you were to include two extra letters (like the Spanish Ll and Ñ), you get 28 = 4 × 7.  However, both of these options aren’t really useful either, because 9-sided and 7-sided dice are only slightly easier to come by than 13-sided dice, which is to say “not very”.  The next greatest number that could be used for a standard set of tabletop roleplaying dice would be 32 = 4 × 8, so a roll of a 4-sided die and an 8-sided die, but this means having to use six extra letters or reinterpreting them as “wild” options that make you throw the dice again until you get a valid letter.  (This is basically what the alphabet dice in the above option does.)
  • Decrease the number of options to use from 26 down to 24.  This may seem like blasphemy (how dare I suggest deleting letters!), but consider that the English alphabet is a modern repurposing of the older Roman alphabet, which originally only had 21 letters and was later increased to 23 during the classical period.  In English use, the letters J and U are essentially “duplications” of the original letters I and V, and it was only up until recently that you’d often find things spelled as “Ierusalem” or “Vnder the sea”.  If you were to fold J into I and V into U, you’d go back down to 24 letters, and then you could use the same options that the Greek alphabet uses.

Personally, if I were pressed to make a choice that forced me to use dice, I’d go with the last option and get rid of J and U at the expense of considering them their own letters, because it seems most convenient that way.  I’d still consider using tokens a better choice than dice for the English alphabet, though.

However, this is only half the answer to what the reader asked about.  Once a method is found for using dice, what about the letters themselves for divination?  When we look at the Greek alphabet, we find historical evidence across the eastern Mediterranean that uses the Greek alphabet as a form of divination, with multiple sets of oracles associated with them, sometimes overlapping and sometimes distinct based on the region.  For the Roman alphabet, however, I don’t know of any such sources.  We have nursery rhymes and mnemonics that associate the letters of the English alphabet to different things, sure, but nothing of the same scale and focus as the Greek alphabet oracles that dot the ancient world.  To that end, I have no resources at my disposal and know of none that exist otherwise that discuss the letters of the English or Latin alphabets as an oracle in a grammatomantic way.

Should someone want to develop a set of oracular statements for each letter of the English alphabet, I would think it a good development, especially if the user of such a system wanted to find a more mystical way of applying the English alphabet in spiritual practices, or reinterpreting it as a “Theban oracle” by using the Theban alphabet cipher for English (which, as an aside, note how it already collapses I/J and U/V, and how W is just a duplication of U/V, technically reducing it down to 23 letters as used since classical Rome).  However, I would find using the Greek alphabet to be more useful from the get-go, not least because there are already sets of oracles ready to go for the Greek letters, but because the Greek alphabet already has associations to numbers, planets, signs, and elements via stoicheia and isopsephia as well as to hundreds of other classical concepts, animals, birds, stones, and procedures according to texts like the Kyranides.  In other words, the Greek alphabet already has information, lore, history, and power in it that the English alphabet basically lacks.  I won’t knock an English system of grammatomancy, but it’d need quite a bit of work, innovation, and invention to get it to a similar usable state that the Greek system presents immediately.

I hope that helps!  May the reader who sent me this question find this answer useful, and may everyone ensure to check their email addresses for correctness and validity before using them in contact forms.

On a Diviner’s Code of Ethics

Having this blog isn’t the first time I’ve ran a website, whether hosted by myself or another.  I’ve dealt with buying a domain and server space and setting up everything on my own before, and though sometimes it can make things more flexible, it can also be a big hassle.  It’s one of the reasons I like the convenience of using a service like WordPress to handle the back-end stuff for me, because let’s be honest, I don’t have the time or energy to deal with the nitty-gritty of website management on my own.

Back in college, shortly before I started the first iteration of this blog on Blogspot and before I got focused into actual magical practices, I had a small website of my own I managed.  It wasn’t for blogging or sharing occult information, no; it was a marketing website for my erstwhile spiritual consultation gig to bring in a little extra pocket money during college by doing geomancy readings for people.  I was reminded of it recently because there was something I know I had on it that I don’t have on this website, and I didn’t have the original files any longer (after several computer builds and platform changes, some loss is unfortunately to be expected), and it was something I wish I had at least for a reference for something I’ve been pondering as of late.  Much to my excited surprise, a single snapshot of that old website was available on the Internet Wayback Machine, and what I was looking for was right on that snapshot.

The thing I was looking for was my first attempt at a diviner’s code of ethics.

Without sharing the entire snapshot of my old website (which…while I’m excited I found an archived copy of it, I’m still embarrassed by it like how an accomplished artist might be embarrassed by their older submissions on their long-since-abandoned deviantart), here’s what I had on that old page relating to it:

I make a deep commitment to upholding the highest ethical and moral standards to dispel negative views and myths surrounding divination in our society. To that end, I endeavor to provide answers with clarity and utility, engage my clients in a relationship of trust and confidentiality, and interact with my community in charitable and beneficial ways. I donate a portion of all profit earned from [redacted consulting company name] to a local charity or use it for the betterment of the [redacted city name] Metropolitan Area.

To formally codify these aims, I have drawn up a “seer’s code of ethics” that I pledge to follow. I believe that all professional consultants should follow some ethical code, especially if they do so for profit. Further, it makes clear the intent I have as a psychic consultant: I work for the client’s benefit first, not my own.

  1. I will respect the confidentiality and privacy of the client, and will only release information with his or her explicit permission.
  2. I will respect the faith or the lack thereof of the client.
  3. I will refrain from judging the client on any grounds.
  4. I will inform the client of anything I can see and state from the reading, honestly and without malice, be it good or ill.
  5. I will inform the client of the manner of my technique upon request.
  6. I will inform the client of the meaning of any symbol in the reading to the best of my ability and understanding upon request.
  7. I will provide further resources to aid the client when I can no longer provide adequate or proper advice.
  8. I will make no claims as to knowing anything not knowable by strictly mundane methods with any assured level of precision or accuracy.

While I often agree to answer most types of queries, I reserve the right to refuse to answer any query I find objectionable. Such queries include, but are not limited to, those about death or violence, those violating the privacy of a third party, and those for the purpose of illegal gain. I will judge each query according to its merits once it is posed, and if I find it objectionable I may refuse to answer it.

I also reserve the right to refuse performing any reading for the client if the client acts in a dishonest or insincere way. I strive to help any client that comes my way, but since my time is valuable I choose to help only those clients with a real need and respect for me and my profession.

I warn any prospective or current client: caveat emptor! I do not claim that I provide completely accurate, precise, or correct readings, nor do I believe it possible to do so for many metaphysical reasons. The client should be aware that he or she asks for a reading at his or her own risk and out of his or her own free will; any answer or advice that derives from a reading must be evaluated by the client on the client’s own terms. I will refuse to take credit or blame for any result of a situation inquired about by the client, since it is my duty to inform and not to alter.

As a professional psychic consultant, I do not endorse any religion, spiritual tradition or philosophical school, and all such views I express are mine alone. I cannot be held responsible for any religious or spiritual matter as a result of consultation. If for some reason divination or esoteric arts are prohibited in the client’s locality or community, I cannot be held responsible for any ramification, legal or otherwise, which might result from receiving a reading.

While I haven’t laid eyes on this bit of text in literal years, much of it still stuck with me in one form or another and how I generally guide myself.  But, of course, times have changed, and I would gladly make changes to this to reflect those changes in my outlook, responsibilities, and what I consider ethical.  Since the time that old website was online, I went from a “oh no I just want to See and Predict things I could never be someone who actually meddles with magic I just want to help people figure out their lives” (I had such a phase once!) to…a not-totally-inexperienced magician, a scholar and teacher of geomancy, Hermetic and Neoplatonic theurgist, initiated priest of Ogun in Santería, craftsman, and author.  I’m familiar with quite a bit more than just geomancy nowadays, but divination is still one of the focuses of my Work; if anything, it’s only become more important as time’s gone on, because so much of what I do is guided by it and so many people come to me for that above any other spiritual service (so far).  Of course, there have been some changes in how I approach clients for divination as well as the topics they ask about, both for my own sense of ethics as well as for what I find works better when dealing with people.

The reason why I wanted to find my old website’s code of ethics was because I was thinking about a more modern version for myself to incorporate onto this website.  That, of course, got me to thinking, why don’t we hear about such codes of ethics for spiritual practitioners more often?  Sure, there are a handful of them here and there, but there’s so much variation and all seem tailored for particular practices or situations, or they rely on other ideas of centralization or authority.  While there are definite commonalities to be picked out between them, it’s sometimes hard to correlate them into something approximating a “common code”.

So, that led me to post on my Twitter/Facebook about perhaps writing another diviner’s code of ethics, perhaps getting my colleague’s collaboration and input on them, perhaps even getting other people to sign onto them as a show of solidarity or something to better enhance our art and our behavior when applying it.  On the whole, it seems like many of my colleagues and friends were enthusiastic about such an idea, but a few had their reservations, either about how such a thing might be developed or why such a thing shouldn’t be developed at all.  Upon pressing them for why, I think they have some good reasons that deserve definite thought.

From that discussion, probably the most salient point was that writing or adopting a code of ethics for diviners could easily lead to a form of accreditation or certification for diviners.  The idea goes like this: declaring a standard of any sort of competence, whether in terms of expertise in one’s art or of behavior when dealing with people coming to that art, and trying to get people to adopt or recognize that standard is a slippery slope to creating standards for other fields within one’s art.  With as few as one standard or code, one can create a codified “school” of diviners, which can end up being exclusive to those who are already on the fringes of society, difficult for people who have trouble adopting or studying such a standard, and even dangerous to those who commit themselves to a standard for the purposes of privacy, decentralization, and being hard to track by authorities in areas where it’s still necessary to do so.  While I was at first confused as to where this particular colleague of mine was coming from, I now completely understand his concerns, and I can easily agree with them as they are.

So, that point raises a question: why should I want to see a diviner’s code of ethics, anyway?  I know that I should hold myself to a standard of behavior for many reasons: ensuring my clients’ confidence in my skills as well as my trustworthiness, acting in an exemplary way for my community both mundane and spiritual, behaving right in the eyes of my gods and spirits to do them honor, and so forth.  Would I like to see others do the same?  Absolutely!  I think the world could definitely use more people of good moral character and ethical behavior, and to see people of righteousness carry out the office of diviner for their communities would do us all good in the end, I think, both in terms of visibility, eradicating stereotypes about us and our work, and helping people out as we can through our skills and arts.  This is especially important when we come across stories of particular occultists, priests, or other workers who abuse their powers or offices and end up as thieves, cheats, frauds, sexual offenders, or worse.

But…I also recognize that my way of right behavior is not the only way.  My ethics are informed by the way I was raised by my family, my studies of Hellenic tradition, Hermetic theurgy, and more recently Lukumí notions of iwa pele as well as more modern notions such as True Will; the path I walk is, truly, a path that only I can walk, no matter how similar it may be to other people’s paths.  What might seem abhorrent to me might be called for regularly by another; such a topic was brought up on that same discussion from earlier, and while I can see the reasons why someone might need to take such a stance, it’s definitely not a stance for me, as it runs antithetical to so much of what I believe and try to act upon.  And while I recognize the utility in breaking rules to achieve a particular end, I would rather have that rule to rely on and be known than otherwise.  Transgressive behavior only works when you’re going against expectations, so if you end up with a particular expectation as a standard, it no longer becomes transgressive.

I mean, my friends and follows lists, to say nothing of my friends and colleagues generally, are on the whole highly educated and technologically adept; I have many friends who are academics, many of whom hold advanced degrees, and no few number of other friends who are priests or deacons trained in seminaries or other formal settings.  It wouldn’t be a stretch by any means to call ourselves elite, Apollonian, or ivory-tower occultists, but at the end of the day, that’s still what we are: occultists.  Occultists, witches, herbalists, and the like have always been pariahs and outcasts in our culture going back centuries and millennia, and no matter how lofty and highbrow we take things, we’re still going to be at the knife’s edge of acceptable behavior (at best). Only good academics who report on magical practices while disavowing any sort of involvement in them get a pass, and even then, those who dwell too long on discussions about it get talked about behind closed doors.  While those of us living the good life in a first-world setting and culture like the conveniences and comforts of standards and rules, we necessarily deal with forces that not only bend and break those very things, but we still must be aware of how Weird we live our lives in the world.  Being still outcasts, fringefolk, or pariahs forces us to be aware of how much the rules of society don’t apply to us, not just for our benefit but also to our detriment, and how, in the end, the only rule we truly have is that there are no rules when it’s a matter of our survival and self-protection.

So where does that leave me?

I think it’s a good practice for people to consider their ethics and what their guiding rules should be in general; after all, these are rules to live by, but aren’t absolute moral commandments held on high (unless they are, but you’d know about them better than I would for yourself).  Not being moral commandments (unless they are), rules can be bent or broken in times of need, but limiting those times to truly matters of expedient means where the destination really does justify the road you take to get there.  And even then, there are always ways of evaluating ethical rules to give a higher-level view of what the rule is supposed to accomplish, and whether or not that goal is even worthy of being held.  Sometimes, the rules you want to live by are getting you to a place that you really don’t want to go to.  Consider, also, whether your rules are more method-focused or goal-focused; are you instituting a rule to conduct your behavior by, or are you instituting a rule to guide you to a particular outcome and steer you away from other ones?  That sort of ethics vs. morals distinction is crucial for this sort of thing.

I also think it would be good for people who do client work in a public way to put up a code of ethics, just for themselves in their public practice, because they’re trying to put on a public face and want business.  This may not be the case for truly back-alley, in-the-shadows workers who prefer anonymity and secrecy, which are also valuable things in their own rights.  Plus, depending on the methods used, not only would most ethical or moral codes fail to be held to, but any public knowledge at all about such methods would probably be as harmful for the client as it might be for the practitioner.  After all, while I would prefer to avoid acts of murder, I find poison a perfectly valid tool to be used when such a thing is called for, but you won’t see me hawking that service publicly, nor will you see me write a poisoner’s code of ethics.  No, codes of ethics are for people who are trying to keep a pretty face on their business and work, and if that’s one of your goals, then I think you’d be better off than not at least suggesting to your clients that you have some ethical bones that support your interactions.

As for the terms of such a code of ethics, I think it would be best to follow two principles: keep it simple, and keep it high-level.  You don’t need to go into detail about how you’re going to conduct every single reading or client interaction in a series of if-then-else conditions, nor do you need to expound on your magnum opus of morality and philosophy.  Do you value truth in your work?  Say so, simply and plainly.  Do you value correctness in beliefs?  Say that you’ll act as a mentor and guide when needed, and depending on how far you want to take it, you may want to avoid saying that you’ll judge the client for their own beliefs, because if you think yours are correct and theirs are different, you’re probably gonna come into an internal conflict.  It’s up to you to decide the actual ethical bones that make up your body of behavior, both in terms of how and what you need for your own conduct, as well as how and what is needed by your clients and community for your office and how you fill it.

I would like to see more occultists who do public work or take on client cases show their code of ethics, but it’s not something I’m going to expect or demand.  As in so many other things, putting up posters about how awesome we are falls far short of actual interactions and personal evaluations we make; no code of ethics we write for ourselves, after all, can be enforced by anyone but ourselves, and if someone’s not the type of person to act right when they need to, then perhaps that code of ethics they have plastered on their website may not be anything else but a waste of bits and bytes.  After all, codes of ethics and whatnot are there to help us become good people, at least in some public notion of it, but if you’re not going to be a good person, it’s going to show, and no amount of electronic make-up can fix it.

Two new translations from Latin on medieval astrology!

While browsing through my computer for old files for something I was trying to look up, I came across some old translations that had been sitting there, untouched and unloved.  I meant to compile a few more and publish it as another ebook, but I don’t have the original book to translate from anymore (it’s a hard-to-find critical edition from a university library), so so much for that idea.  Instead of just letting them languish and gather electronic bit dust on my hard drive, I decided to polish them up a bit and let them shine on some distant server’s hard drive instead for the whole world to see.

These two translations are from the text Hermes Trismegistus, Astrologia et divinatoria (Corpus Christianorum, Continuatio Medievalis 144C, Brepols: Turnhout, 2001), which is also the very same collection of manuscripts, texts, and other critical editions that gave me the Lectura Geomantiae and the Liber Runarum, medieval texts on geomantic divination and runic magical practice, respectively.  Now joining those two translations, I now present to you the following two:

  • Liber De Accidentibus (“The Book of Accidents”).  This translation consists of a collection of astrological aphorisms and rules about particular astrological arrangements or phenomena and how they may be used in forecasting, as in mundane or horary astrology.
  • De Amicitia vel Inimicitia Planetarum (“On the Amity and Enmity of the Planets”).  This translation describes a simple form of mundane astrology based on the planetary rulers of particular parts of the world and how their motions through the signs ruled by other planets impact or affect those areas of the world.

You can find these pages up under the site menu: Occult→ Liber Divinationis → (pagename), where I’ve also bundled the Liber Runarum page with them under the overall heading Liber Divinationis, or “The Book of Divination”.

I hope you enjoy, and maybe even find them useful in some small way!

Ancestors are for Everyone

I realize that lately (and for some time now), the general trend on my blog is to talk about either geomancy or philosophical topics involving spirituality and the occult, with only the occasional ritual thrown in.  Maybe that’s true, maybe it’s not; I personally feel like I’ve shifted away from talking more about specific rituals I’ve done or some of the concrete results or distinct messages that I’ve obtained, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing.  After all, this blog has been up in one form or another for going on eight years now, and things have changed from those first days I started talking about XaTuring or how awesome Fr. Rufus Opus’ coursework was.  While I still consider myself young and woefully inexperienced, I can also say that I’ve done a fair bit.  I still have more than a fair bit to do, of course, and I strive to continue learning and practicing as much as I’m able to, and I would like to keep sharing what I do as much as I can to document my own progress and path, and if that helps others with their own works, all the better.

One of the things I’ve noticed is that the general feel of the occult blogosphere has kinda changed.  Again, it may just be my perception, but many of the old blogs I’ve used to follow are pretty much defunct, some having been wiped off the internet for good.  Back when I first started blogging about magic, you couldn’t swing a cat without coming across an occult blog.  I guess these things come and go, but I feel like there has been a notable drop in people talking about the Work.  It could just be that people are moving onto bigger and better things, or simply are at a level where they can’t really talk much publicly about their works and rituals, or it could be that for some people, they got in, got what they needed, and got back out.  It’s fine in any case, I suppose, but it does make me feel a little wistful and nostalgic.  There are some of my friends who I would’ve liked to see keep blogging, but that’s entirely up to them.  After all, in conversations with them, I know they’ve been kept busy, it’s just that writing about their business (and busy-ness) isn’t in the cards anymore for them.

Which then got me to thinking, what about myself and my own writing?  Even though I follow the maxim that one should never apologize for the rate of their own writing on their own blog, I know I have my slow periods, and I’ve noted that I typically don’t write as much when I’m not doing much.  After all, without the Work that acts as my inspiration, I don’t have much to say besides just throwing my thoughts out into the open, which…I mean, let’s be honest, thoughts are cheap to the point of worthlessness.  You can ask anyone for their opinion, after all, but I assume people visit my blog for more than just to see me waste electronic ink on something that may or may not be related to their lives.  And from what I hear, people come here for inspiration and guidance in their own Work, not just moral or ethical guidance (such as it is) from my pontification and soapboxing on whatever debacle or outrage du jour I see on Twitter or Facebook.  And, while I may extol the virtues of the art heavily, not everyone is interested in geomancy.

I assume, dear reader, that you want things that empower your practice and your life, and that that’s what you’re most interested in.  So, let me reintroduce you to a basic practice you may or may not already have heard of: ancestor veneration.

Everyone has ancestors; there is not a single person alive who didn’t come from other people who have already passed or eventually will pass.  If it weren’t for our ancestors and forebears, we literally wouldn’t be here.  It is because of all their labors, efforts, works, and lives that we can exist.  Their blood flows in our veins, their breath fills our lungs, their thoughts and hopes and dreams help shape our own.  More than just our own lives, though, our ancestors have collectively formed the entirety of all human civilization to date: every prayer we recite, every machine we use, every language we speak, every plant we harvest, every building we enter, every philosophy we debate, every thing we use was developed, cultivated, maintained, and passed down to us by all those who have gone before us.  In truly every sense, we owe everything we are, everything we have, and everything we do to our ancestors.

This isn’t a new concept.  Even going back before the Paleolithic era, we find evidence of burials and rituals that honor the dead, and ever since then, every culture has some sort of practice that does just that.  Sometimes there are full-blown ancestor cults, sometimes there are religious specialists who practice specific rituals that interface with the dead, and sometimes there are just passing rituals that mark the passing of someone from life into death, but death is about as universal a thing as anything else could be for the human condition.  After all, every living thing must die, and there have been quite a few living things that have died before we were even close to incarnation.  We honor and respect that passing, even if we struggle to understand it and even if we have no proper way to fathom what may come after, because we know that one day every one of us living will also pass over and join with the rest of the ancestors.

Because of all this, and because we all have a bit of the dead in us that give us life, we all already have a natural connection and relationship with our ancestors.  Especially for people who are new to the Work, honoring and working with your ancestors is a fantastically wonderful, beneficial, useful, and fulfilling practice that pretty much anyone and everyone should be engaging in.  In so many ways, ancestor veneration (or ancestor work, or family necromancy, or however you want to call it) is all but necessary, and is almost always critical for so many people to engage with that it’s a true misery and failing that it’s all but fallen out of the popular Western modes of occulture (pace, Signora LaVaudoise, I know, and I adore the things you share and write about Italian folk magic, as should every-goddamn-one else, so if you’re not Signora LaVaudoise, clicky-click on her name and go to her blog).  There’s been a recent surge in necromancy this and that, sure, and ancestor veneration is definitely related to necromantic practices (you’re still working with the dead, after all), but it’s also so important to so many religions and paths around the world that it’s honestly surprising that it wasn’t one of the first things preserved, or one of the first things redeveloped, in the modern West.  There are cultural pockets where it’s kept alive (such as it is) and well, especially in Caribbean, Latino, African, Asian, and so many other practices, but unless you’re coming from such a community, you’re typically not going to be aware of anything more than the notion there’s something deathy going on around Halloween.

Even a basic ancestor veneration practice is something that I recommend at least as much as I do meditation, a personal daily prayer routine, learning divination, frequent spiritual cleansing, and any other fundamental practice because ancestor veneration itself is often so fundamental to so many other practices.  We already have a connection with these spirits, and almost every possible case, these spirits are already willing to communicate with you; after all, you’re their progeny, and they want to see you do well just like how they hoped their own children do well when they were alive.  You are their continuation and living representatives, and they want to reach out to you as much as they want you to reach out to them.  Not only that, but they’re willing to help you to achieve your goals, because it ties into that “we’re happy if you’re happy” thing.  Between their readiness to talk with you and work for you, there’s another thing that they can do that makes all the difference in the world: they’re able to teach and guide you as well.  After all, by plugging into your ancestors, you’re able to literally get in touch with honest-to-heaven-and-hell literal ancestral wisdom, countless generations of the experiences and stories and tales of full lives lived and led from start to finish.  Recall how, say, you had your first heartbreak when you were a teenager, and you felt that nobody else in the world understood the pain you’re going through?  Then recall how, ten years later, you saw such a teenager was going through their first heartbreak, and understood how it felt and how it would turn out?  For every single problem in your life, your ancestors have already lived through it in every possible permutation countless times over, and you can draw on them to teach you how to fix any problem, deal with any predicament, sort through any crisis, and guide you through every decision you need.

Between the benefits of working with your ancestors, there’s also the actual skills you can develop in the course of building a relationship with them that can serve you well in any later magical endeavor.  All these boil down into two main benefits: you learn how to communicate with spirits, and you learn how to deal with spirits.  For people who struggle with communicating with spirits or who don’t know where to begin, working with your ancestors is a fantastic kick-off point because you’re not reaching out far into the ether to connect with some ancient god or struggling to make sense of the messages from a tutelary animal spirit who doesn’t speak even any sort of human tongue; your ancestors already have a connection with you and you with them, they’re already used to communicating human things in human manners, and they typically already speak your language.  You don’t have to reach out nearly as far or try nearly as hard to listen to your dead as you would other things, so learning how to communicate with your dead is an excellent way to build up the ability to Listen to spirits and how to sense when they’re trying to communicate to you.

As for dealing with spirits, I literally mean making deals with them.  When you put your ancestors to work, you get to learn and have a feel for what’s appropriate to ask for and what’s inappropriate; for instance, even though my deceased grandmother would love to give me the world and the Moon, I wouldn’t ask her for guidance on computer programming, because that wasn’t in her skillset or expertise, and she’d be more than happy to say so, but for matters of cooking or learning how to account for documents and records, she’d be glad to share her wisdom.  More than that, you get a feel for when spirits can just help you when asked, when they need something to help them in the work, and when they expect payment for services rendered.  If a particular spirit says they need something, like a shot of whiskey or physical representation of a tool they used in life to do the work you ask them to, I invite you to try to make them do such work without giving it to them, and then see what it’s like when you give them what they need to do the work.  Sometimes they ask for too much, and they need to make do with either nothing or something pared-down; sometimes you need to negotiate and bring the price down, so to speak; sometimes you need to figure out whether it’s just a temporary thing they need to use, or if it needs to stay with them for a longer period of time as a permanent representation of them so as to stick around closer to you and do more and better work.  All that works as well for up-front provisioning as well as after-the-fact payment; sometimes they’ll say “I’m more than happy to do this for you gratis”, but just as often (if not moreso), they’ll want something as a token of your appreciation or something to repay them for the effort they put into the work, just as any human would expect it.  After all, “I’ll scratch your back if you scratch mine” is a language everyone and everything understands.

Assuming your family, culture, and religion doesn’t have one of its own, or if you’re detached from your ancestral practices to the point where you’re not familiar with them, then what do you need to get started with ancestor veneration?  Not much, honestly.  For a general template of practice, the bare minimum (and what’s sufficient for most people) that I recommend is:

  • A small, clean surface that you can cover in white cloth
  • A white cloth to cover said surface
  • A clear glass of clean water
  • A white candle

That’s it.  You don’t need anything more than that.  There are other things you can add, of course, like photos or paintings of your ancestors, religious symbols or holy texts held in high esteem by your family, jewelry or perfumes or other tchotchkes owned by them, up to eight other glasses of water for an odd-numbered total, a pot of dirt harvested respectfully from their graves mixed with the ash of their photos and names, and so forth, but you don’t need them, and after a certain point, the more cluttered things get, the more awkward and nasty it is to maintain.  As in so many other practices, it’s best to keep it simple unless you have a distinct need otherwise.

If you can afford to have a table, stool, or pedestal to set your ancestor shrine up on, awesome!  If not, a shelf, corner of a desk, or other surface will work just as well; I prefer to have something that I can sit at and see comfortably, and out of respect for the ancestors I prefer to have the surface be at least waist-high, but those are just my preferences.  So long as it’s a space you can keep clean, quiet, undisturbed, and unprofaned, it’ll work quite well as an ancestor shrine.  Clean the surface off thoroughly; if you have holy water or Florida water, this is perfect to use for this purpose, but if you have any other altar-preparation method for cleansing and preparing a shrine, go ahead and use that.  Cover the surface with a white cloth; it can be a fancy never-before-used new tablecloth if you like, but a simple piece of unstained white fabric in good condition is all you need, so long as you can dedicate it to the use of the ancestor shrine and don’t use it for another purpose.  When the cloth gets dusty or dirty, remove it, wash it, clean the surface of the ancestor shrine again as you did before, recover it with the cloth, and set it back up.

Set the white candle and glass of water on the surface.  Light the candle and dedicate the light of the candle to the empowerment, enlightenment, and elevation of your ancestors.  Let it burn out on its own safely, if you like, or burn it when you actively sit and work the shrine.   Dedicate the glass of water to your ancestors that it may refresh them, nurture them, please them, and quicken them.  Refresh the glass of water on a frequent basis, never letting it dry out completely and keeping it clean every so often.  Try to avoid using that glass for any other purpose once you give it to the ancestor shrine.  If you’re just starting out, I would recommend getting some glass-encased seven-day or novena candles, and keeping one burning all the time for the first month or so or while you’re getting your ancestor-working-legs under you, refreshing the shrine with both a new candle and a new glass of water whenever the candle goes out.  Once you and your ancestors settle into a comfortable relationship, you can change how that works or set up your own routine.

So how do you actually develop a relationship with your ancestors this way?  Literally just spend time at their shrine.  Talk with them; don’t whisper, don’t mouth words silently, but actually talk to them like you’d talk to anyone human sitting across the dinner table from you.  Call them out by name; if you have a genealogist in your family, ask them for details on the full names of those from whom you descend.  The more names you know of your ancestors, the better off you’ll be in developing a relationship with them, but if all you know is one or two, that’s sufficient; the unnamed rest will still listen to you.  If you know of one ancestor who passed over while you were alive whom you knew and loved, that shade would be a perfect person to start with, by calling them specifically to help you learn how to communicate, talk with, and organize how to work with the rest of the ancestors.  If you’re young and fortunate enough to not have had anyone close die in your lifetime or living memory, then ask for a particular ancestor to step forward and act as your primary contact, and see who comes forward.  In all cases, whether you’re working with an ancestor whom you knew in life, an ancestor who died long before you were aware of them, or any mix and match of both in any number, just talk with them.  Share your concerns, your worries, your hopes and dreams, your grievances and sorrows with them; talk about yourself, how you’re doing, how your living family members are doing, and your plans.  Literally treat your ancestors like family catching up at the dinner table of a family reunion, because that’s literally what you’re doing.  And just like how hanging out and talking with your cousins more makes them more than just people you’re kin with into friends and allies, doing the same with any of your ancestors will bring them closer to you into a tight-knit relationship that not even death could mess with.

What about prayers?  If your family’s faith and religion has any special prayers or songs they use for remembering and honoring the dead, like the Mourner’s Kaddish for Jewish dead or the Chaplet for the Dead for Catholic dead, those are gold to start with.  Heck, there’s even an entire Wikipedia article on prayers for the dead in different religions and traditions.  Other simple prayers, especially the Lord’s Prayer, Hail Mary, and Glory Be for anyone of Christian descent or familiarity, are fantastic to recite at the shrine.  Beyond that, any other prayer you find appropriate to pray at the shrine for your development as well as theirs is good; as in all things, pray from the heart.  You don’t need to invoke this deity or that saint unless you want to, because this shrine is for your dead, regardless of whatever psychopomp, gate guardian, or hieromartyr saint your traditions or faith may link with them.  And even then, you don’t need prayer at all for this shrine unless you want to; the purpose of the shrine is to act as a seat and home for your ancestors in your life, and the real prayer is just talking with them.

Are there any specific times to work the shrine?  Sure, I suppose; if you put faith in the notion that “the veil between the worlds is thinner” at certain times than others, then you might do special works during Samhain, Día de los Muertos, the Ghost Festival, Setsubun, Parentalia, or other culturally-appropriate seasons.  Other dates of importance could be the birthdays and deathdays of particular ancestors for whom you have the records for, especially those whom you knew and loved when they were alive.  But, really, even considering all those, the best time to work the ancestor shrine is literally any time and all the time.  After all, every day you live is one you owe to those who went before you, and every day you live is one they support you and guide you.  They’re always ready and willing to talk with you, so any time is a good time.  You don’t need to wait for a planetary hour or astrologial election to do something unless you want to, and even then, most of your ancestors probably won’t care about them anyway unless you make a point of it.  Daytime or nighttime, waxing Moon or waning Moon, whenever you want and whenever you can, just sit down and start working with them.  If you’re comfortable doing a daily offering and chat with them, like first thing in the morning or right when you get home from work in the evening do it; if all you have time for is a ten-minute chat once a week, do it.  The only thing I would recommend is that the more frequent you do so, the better your relationships will grow, the better your work will go, and the better your results will turn out.

Are there any other disposable or consumable offerings you could make besides candles and water?  Sure!  All you need to do is ask them what they might like or prefer.  If you know that one of your ancestors was fond of a particular meal or type of food, try giving it to them as a nice gift to show that you’re thinking of them.  Whenever you cook a large meal for your family (holiday dinners, like for Thanksgiving or Christmas, are prime choices for this), set aside the first spoonful of whatever you make for the ancestors by putting it on a plate and setting it on their shrine overnight.  Flowers are always a good choice, and occasionally a cup of coffee (black or sweetened, whichever you prefer to give or however they prefer to take it) or glass of rum, whiskey, beer, or soda can go a long way towards keeping them happy and content.  A cigarette or cigar, or some incense lit for them, can also do wonders for establishing contact or getting them closer to you, as well as giving them a little extra spiritual oomph.  Of course, you probably would want to avoid things they hated or stuff they find taboo; I wouldn’t give my Jewish ancestors a plate of absolutely un-kosher fried pork belly, after all, no matter how delicious it might be.  You don’t need to spend oodles of money or time to make them offerings, and you don’t need to be wasteful or go all-out every single time.  In fact, giving modest offerings is often better than lavish ones; the more reasonable of your ancestors will probably be overwhelmed by too much, and the more greedy of them will wonder why you didn’t bring more this time like you did last time.  You don’t need much; whatever’s nice, pleasant, and simple to offer them is all that’s needed to keep their space beautiful, their hearts happy, and their minds reminded that you know them, you recognize them, and you’re thinking of them.

As for the rest?  Spells, works, rituals, ceremonies, protocols, languages, decorations, arrangements, whatever?  It’s literally up to however you want to take things, and how far you want to take them.  If you just want to give your ancestors a seat in your house and keep things relaxed and low-maintenance, do it.  If you want to spend time with them every day in preparation for a full necromantic practice with your ancestors at the helm of your spiritual court, do it.  If you want to make them work for you to keep your blood and bloodline healthy and whole, do it.  If you want to simply venerate them and consistently offer them sustenance and honor for its own sake, do it.  There are no real guidelines besides you doing what you feel is appropriate with them, what they agree to and desire from you, and whatever can inform your practices based on your cultural and religious ties to the past.

While there may be a whole slew of techniques and methods and rules one might follow based on what flavor of ancestor veneration you’re doing (Kardecian spiritism, and especially its developments into Caribbean and Brazilian Espiritismo, are fantastic resources to learn and draw from), all the above can be so individualized and customized and personalized in so many ways that it’s almost pointless to go over them here.  The real thing is to develop a strong relationship with your ancestors and learn from them, and they’ll take it from there.  Ask them questions; ask how to listen better to them, how to get dreams from them, how to pray, what to offer them, what offerings they like, when certain times to approach them might be, when you should undertake that particular project, how to enhance your own skills and trades, and so forth.  Ask who they are, what their stories are, what their specialties are, and just generally how they’re doing.  Ask if they have any problems or have any needs that you can fulfill on their end to make sure that they’re not only resting in peace but able to rise in power.  Ask if there’s any difficulty between you or them, or if they foresee any problems or dangers in your life that they can help protect you from or guide you away from.  Talk with them, chat with them, learn from them, grow with them.  Just because they’re dead doesn’t mean they’re not family, and just because they’re discarnate doesn’t mean they don’t want to be part of your incarnate life.

Your ancestors are almost always going to be the first spirits ready and willing to help you, and they have always formed the first foundation for everything in our lives, so it only makes sense that they should be among the first petitioned for any problem you may have spiritually or materially.  So what are you waiting for?  Go on and give your great-grandmother a seat at the table and have a chat with her.  I’m sure she’d love to learn the latest gossip from this side of the river and share some of her own tips and tricks when she was young.

What about you, dear reader?  Do you have any ancestor practices you follow?  Are there any special rituals you do above and beyond the usual that honor your blessed and mighty dead?  How do you work them or work with them?  Share some of your experiences below in the comments!