On Overwriting Traditions

I’ve been looking back a bit on my blog lately, going through archives for more notes that I can tie into future posts and research, cleaning up some of the formatting and dead links, getting rid of useless or pointless tags, and so forth.  After almost 700 posts totaling over one million words across eight and a half years, it’s quite a lot.  And, heh, it turns out that on my very first blog post (all the way back in pre-WordPress 2010 when I was still on Blogspot, when this was a blog meant for the worship of the Great Worm XaTuring), I had already referenced geomancy as my favorite divination system.  Plus ça change, plus c’est pareil, I suppose.

Admittedly, geomancy has been a focus of my work and, thus, of this blog.  Of the just-under-700 published posts on this blog, about 120 posts are in the geomancy category, or about 18%.  That’s a nontrivial amount of ink to have spilled, I claim, and that’s all in addition to the actual ebooks and future textbook I’m writing.  I’ve talked about the meanings of the figures, a variety of divinatory techniques, new connections to other occult fields, and a number of innovations and developments to enhance the art and practice of geomancy in both a divinatory and magical sense.  Some of these innovations are original to me, others based on adapting similar techniques with enough compatible logic from other geomantic systems, and some are based on the revelations and guidance from spirits and other colleagues who wish to remain nameless (but who have my thanks and respect and gratitude all the same).  It’s a fascinating field that stands to still be enhanced in innumerable ways, and it is a source of joy and pride for me to play some sort of role in that.

Sometimes, when I’m bored at work, I’ll indulge in a daydream or two.  One such daydream, when I think about some of the exciting innovations in geomantic practice I’ve published on my blog, happens where I’m contacted out of the blue by some mysterious figure and informed that I’ve been revealing too many of their order’s secrets, that they belong to an ancient order of secretive geomancers who have been in hiding for untold centuries in some far-off land.  Clearly, with as much information as I possess, I must have been spying on their order or stealing from one of their members and am exposing their hard-earned, hard-kept methods and techniques of The True Geomancy for the vulgar uninitiated of the world, destroying their order single-handedly in a more mysterious, epic way than Scott Cunningham did Wicca.  None of it is true, of course, but the similarities between what I write and what they teach could not be denied!  Perilous threats, a thrilling escape, a parley with the order’s masters—you get the picture.  I haven’t yet figured out how I might resolve such a situation: I could always force a deal, that in exchange for being taught all their secrets as a full member of their order, I would ensure that no further initiated knowledge would pass through my fingers to my blog’s readers or through my lips to students who were not initiated in the order as well.  Or I could engage them in a fantastic battle of magic, wit, cunning, and probably a good-natured explosion or poisoning or three.

What?  I like letting my imagination run free sometimes, and who doesn’t love a good adventure to whisk them off their feet, even if they’re already reclining in their spinny office chair on a lazy Monday?

While it would tickle me to no end to learn that there might indeed be some ancient order of geomancers (and you can bet your last grain of sand I’d join if I could!), I doubt such a thing exists, at least on any scale large enough to commit cross-continent conspiracy.  But, even on a less logistical scale than that, there’s also the thing that there’s no one single, monolithic geomantic tradition.  Sure, there are absolutely things we can cross off as definitely not being geomancy—feng shui, vastu shastra, ley lines, sacred geography, and the like all come to mind—but even within the actual ballpark of “geomancy”, there are so many different kinds.  Stephen Skinner in his Geomancy in Theory and Practice does a great overview of the historical development and spread of geomancy from its hypothetical origins to its modern day spread across the world, so there’s no need for me to go on at length on all the different traditions of geomancy here, but are there ever so many, indeed!

Now that I think about it, though, I suppose that might not quite be evident from our point of view for Western geomancy.  Geomancy was written about publicly across Europe from about 1200 to 1700, when it basically fell from popularity into obscurity along with so many other occult disciplines.  Five hundred years, starting west in Spain and east in Greece and spreading through the rest of Europe like wildfire, and…well, we simply don’t seem to have too much variation.  Sure, different techniques came and went, and different geomancers put certain focuses on different things than did other geomancers.  We don’t really see any significantly different variations after the rise of printed geomancy books until we get to more modern times, such as with Napoleon’s Book of Fate (with its five-lined figures) or Les Cross’ Astrogem Geomancy method.  One could argue that the Golden Dawn, with their innovations and takes on geomantic practices, could be considered a distinct variant, and I’d agree with that, too, but again, that’s still pretty modern.

I can’t really say, however, what the state of Western geomancy was like at a low level before the 1400s when printed books started circulating around Europe.  We know it was practiced, and we have a good number of manuscripts from that time period, but so few are easily accessible to many including myself, and almost all of what’s commonly available (especially digitized) is all from after the rise of printed books.  As we all know, the printing press radically changed how information was produced, disseminated, and stored which had countless effects on literacy, religion, science, and other disciplines.  It not only broke down control of information and studies within a variety of small locations, it also freed up people to form their own control networks of information.  It is entirely possible that individual areas, monasteries, universities, and other types of school had their own takes and views on geomantic practice that was largely insular unto themselves; sure, they might all have been on the same course and stemmed from more-or-less the same origins, but each could have had their own “dialect” of geomancy.  With the advent of publicly and popularly published texts, those dialects might have all been washed away or standardized, with each author contributing a slight tweak that may or may not have been carried on or even documented by later authors.  I know that the Lectura Geomantiae I translated a while ago was from the 1400s but still in the manuscript era, so it could be indicative of how things might have looked before or as the printing press got underway: still definitely geomantic, still definitely implementable and usable by anyone, but there are some definite quirks that it displays that aren’t attested elsewhere.

Reading Skinner’s treatise on the history of geomancy, it would seem that the Arabic styles of geomancy are more varied.  Setting aside the West African art of Ifá (which developed in its own way apart from geomancy to the point where I wouldn’t barely consider it geomancy at this point), we do see at least several strains of geomancy, including Malagasy sikidy which, although it’s definitely taken an independent turn with how it generates figures, is still recognizably a form of geomancy with many of same core meanings of figures and figure positions.  Looking at the available literature today, we can definitely see that there are different styles of Arabic geomancy, ranging from the traditional Saharan and sub-Saharan forms in Africa to the more popular and well-known methods as taught by modern books written in Farsi and Urdu.  How different might such styles be?  I can’t actually say for sure, unfortunately, but from what little I have seen, there are distinct differences in whether one wants to use taskins as a primary method or follow the Via Puncti-style technique as a general approach, but that could simply be boiled down to smaller approach differences within a same overall “school” of geomancy—and what competent geomancer with the ability to learn, read, and hear wouldn’t want to be familiar with any possible method that might be of use?

But, again, it’s not like the Arabic-speaking world hasn’t had access to the printing press.  Heck, their literacy rates whooped the ass of Europe for centuries on end, and we would never had a Renaissance if it weren’t for Arabic teachers and students and scientists.  There are definitely texts and authors in Arabic geomancy that are at least as important to the Arabic-speaking geomancing world than Fludd and Heydon are to us, and those books were some of the first to be disseminated, and today, there are probably as many books on `ilm al-raml or khatt al-raml in Arabic, Farsi, or Urdu as there are for Tarot in English, Spanish, and French.  Again, we would probably see a similar…you might call it a “flattening” of dialetical variation in geomantic practices, especially for people with connections to the Internet who might also not have the ability to learn from teachers who were only (or primarily) taught in a localized variant of geomancy.

When it comes to languages and dialects, I admit I’m something of a glossophile.  Even though my language skills are awful, I adore the abundance and variety of languages in the world, and especially of the regional and cultural dialects and registers that individual languages have in all their uses and contexts.  As much as I love the number of languages, I grieve when languages are suppressed, lost, or otherwise condemned to extinction.  It’s an expected (though still unfortunate) result of internationalization, globalization, capitalism, and imperialism, but sometimes it comes about as a surprise, and it sucks.  With language death comes culture death and worldview death; a language is far more than just a way to communicate, but a way to understand and perceive everything as well as holding an implicit record of culture, exploration, and continuity that ties the present to the past across time and space.  In many ways, local variations of something comparatively minor like geomancy are just as crucial to understand such worldviews, histories, cultures, and spiritualities; with such variations being flattened, absorbed, or outright lost, we lose quite a lot more, as well.

Then I think about those same people on the Internet who have access to cheap, publicly-accessible resources without the ability to find, contact, or learn from local, traditional experts (myself included!) who find what they can and work with what they find.  Consider the Geomantic Study-Group on Facebook; as an admin, I see who applies, and for each person who comes from a Western or European cultural background, I see another who comes from a West African (usually Muslim and Nigerian) background.  While I’m thrilled that so many people across the world want to learn and discuss geomancy, I also wonder if, perhaps, they’re joining to learn what they might consider “the only useful geomancy”.  After all, I’m also a member of a number of other non-Western geomancy groups, and it doesn’t seem like many are active or share as much information, criticism, or guidance as mine does (which I can’t help but be at least a little proud of); to be fair, I can see why (and often understand and agree) with why those who might be experts in their field would want to be cagey and protective of their knowledge, but at the same time, nobody can learn learn if nobody is willing to teach.  And, without evidence that one can even teach or wants to do so, mystical vague answers like “pray to God and he will teach you” come off as more holier-than-thou covering-my-ass to keep from being disgraced that I may not actually know what I’m doing, which can be a turn-off for potential students (whether of a given teacher or an entire field).

Then I think I about my own blog, and how much I talk about geomancy.  I try to make it clear that many of my thoughts are just my own, that my experiences are my own, that some things are experimental or tied up in something unique and solitary to my own practice and understanding of the cosmos, and the like, but it cannot be denied that my posts on geomancy are referenced by many across the Internet, sometimes as another useful data-point on technique, sometimes as gospel.  (WordPress stat tracking, after all, comes in use when looking at such trends.)  I can’t help but wonder: what effect on the overall variations, traditions, and schools of geomancy do I have as an author with a publicly-available platform?  I want to expand the techniques and understanding of Western geomancy by offering another perspective on that which already exists as well as introducing new methods or variations thereof that aren’t yet there or aren’t well-known.  In one way, I’m helping (I hope) to introduce new variety in the field of Western geomancy, but by that same action, am I not also helping to bring in easily-accessible geomancy to those who might prefer such ease to learning local traditions that are harder to come by?  Am I not literally writing over the teachings of valid and historically-extant, possibly-threatened traditions of geomancy, as one might talk too loudly and end up drowning out other voices, whether I intend for it to happen or no?

Earlier this summer, in a conversation regarding how certain days are celebrated for the orisha in La Regla de Ocha Lukumí, Jesse Hathaway from Wolf & Goat (also of his own blog Serpent Shod and podcast Radio Free Golgotha) opined elegantly about how trends come and become tradition through misunderstanding and popular use.  Specifically, I thought it was proper to celebrate the feast day of the hunter-tracker Oshosi on June 6, which is the feast day of his Catholic syncretization, Saint Norbert of Xanten, which, when I posted a public praise of the orisha on Facebook, caught Jesse off-guard in the sense of “wait that’s today?”.  We got to talking about how the use of saint days were historically used, when certain saint days came into vogue, and how different aspects of saints can be confused and lead to non-traditional changes in practice.  One of the insights he had focused on how those who intend to keep traditions alive end up changing them all the same: enthusiasm and good intentions can just as easily uphold old practices as well as erase them and institute new ones in their place.  After all, not all things that are “done right” in the conservative sense are made public or made for public consumption, and when secretive, underground, or otherwise mysterious practices that people are interested in suddenly have to compete for attention and publicity with stuff being put out in the open by the uninitiated or newly-initiated, where do you think people are going to look first?  As Jesse put it, it’s a constant cycle of “destroy to create, create to destroy”, and that it’s easy to create a new practice that can erase older tradition if you are not aware of what it is you’re actually putting out there.  It behooves us all to be aware of our intentions and see whether what happens as a result of furthering them is worth it.

The same advice for that topic can go for any of us who publicly discuss geomancy, or any tradition, for that matter.  As Jesse punned, our canon for instruction can just as easily become a cannon for destruction; we don’t just follow and preserve unchanged that which we recieved, but we augment it, extrapolate it, whittle it down, and build it up as we carry it forward, whether we mean to or not.  Every step we take crushes some blade of grass or erases some other footprint, and if enough people follow, a new path can be forged (forced) where either there was none before or across others that become disused, differently used, or less used.  For a good example, consider how synonymous “Hermetic magic” has become with “Golden Dawn” in the 1900s: familiarity is borne of popularity, and forgetfulness from the lack thereof.  Hermetic magic has been around for far longer and with so many different variations, traditions, lineages, styles, and methods than the Golden Dawn has by far, and yet, most people even today will think of the Golden Dawn-style approach when you bring up the word “Hermetic” to the exclusion of all else that’s out there.

Geomancy is far more than just what I do, or what Robert Fludd did, or what Al-Zanati did.  The old geomancers of the past might be indelibly linked to geomancy, but geomancy is not synonymous with any one author or geomancer.  It would be folly for someone to follow what I teach (or what anyone teaches) as geomancy to be the be-all-end-all of the art, and I don’t think that anyone would seriously take that approach.  Still, even learning a little can bleed over into other techniques; while I intentionally look around to see what I can incorporate as a useful method for my geomantic practice from the practices of others, bearing in mind the origin and tweaks needed to make a nuanced distinction, not everyone has the capacity to bear nuance in mind when they’re learning something, especially if they’re a novice, and “bleeding over” can turn into outright overwriting and overwhelming.  That then carries on from one mouth to the next, and then the next, turning “innovator” into “competitor” and, potentially, “conqueror”.  It doesn’t matter if it was made up on the spot or as a joke; if it was carried on from one generation to another, it can fast become assumed as a tradition, and its origins can quickly be forgotten or, worse, mythologized (cf.  the pot roast principle), and once it becomes popular enough, it can threaten to overwhelm all that already was there.  We may like to think that we test and hold onto only the valuable things that work and are validated by trial and error so that we could weed out all the made-up stuff, but be honest: even accepting that made-up stuff works from time to time, sometimes we value our teachers’ teachings too much to question it.

It’s hard for us in a Western setting to not inadvertently do this kind of thing, with our usual preference for books and solitary practice rather than (or due to a dearth of) lineage and teachers.  Many of us look towards publicly published material to learn from, myself included in many cases, because teachers either do not exist or are unwilling to pass on their skills for one (usually valid) reason or another.  We then form communities to build ourselves up, reinforce each other with criticism and discussion, and enhance our mutual understanding of a given field.  This, when done properly, can become the definite foundations of a new school or tradition unto itself, and can be a beautiful and wonderful thing!  Even still, there’s the unavoidable risk (or unavoidable result?) that older traditions could be waylaid, forgotten, or abandoned in the course of this same thing, which can be a huge loss, even if nobody is aware of it to begin with.  I fear that, to be honest.  I don’t want other traditions of geomancy—or any occult or religious or spiritual field—to be lost or abandoned or overwritten, because when that happens, valuable knowledge is lost.  We can still learn from each other while still celebrating distinction and difference, but you can’t do that when there’s nothing to distinguish or when there’s nothing to distinguish.

I can’t properly control what people do with the stuff I post; I can offer my experiences, warnings, and cautions, but once something is out there on the internet, it’s out there for all.  I could always just not post the stuff and avoid the problem entirely, but there’s value and purpose in my writings on geomancy that I think can be used well, just as they can be misused or abused.  The dilemma of the engineeer is the same as the dilemma of the author: you can specify and design all you want, but humanity is going to do with your product what it’s going to do regardless of what you intended it for.  Even if it’s nowhere near as epic as my daydream, I really do hope that my writings on geomancy don’t destroy the traditions that have been practiced and carried on long since before I was born.  All I want is to spread knowledge and technique and ability and understanding, and I think I’m successful at least a little bit in that, and the worth and value in doing that is good.  Is it worth the inadvertent flattening of geomantic traditions?  I…don’t know.  I don’t think I’m popular enough to become a prophet of geomancy whose judgment is binding on practices worldwide (God and gods willing, I never will be!), but I do know that my word spreads.  I just hope my warnings and caveats spread, as well.

On Divining versus Counseling

Seems like I’m in a big mood for posting.  Lots of ideas keep popping up for writing, and so many ideas get shelved in my drafts folder.  Here’s one that I think really deserves some talking about.

A while back on the Geomantic Study-Group on Facebook, someone made a thread about stopping their studies of divination.  It wasn’t that they weren’t getting good results with divination generally or geomancy specifically—they were!—but rather that they were worried about people misusing the information obtained from readings one for them.  It’s easiest to simply quote the original post, with the permission of the author:

Do you often feel bad by the misuse people make from your readings and inputs?  That’s certainly my case.

People generally ask me if they will get pretty difficult long-term things in life and get disappointed when the reading says “no”.

Even when the answer is a short-term “yeah what you’re feeling will get a lot worse, seek a treatment ASAP”, people often won’t do this and that gets me angry sometimes.

A third situation is when they get good purely materialistic answers, which makes their mind go deeper in search of 100% materialistic stuff—that is, makes them avoid psychological growth

That’s why having spent a great deal of time and effort to have accuracy in divination I probably won’t follow this further…and that’s somewhat sad.

The conversation was continued by excellent friend and colleagues, and I joined in as well, but I’d like to flesh out some of my thoughts more fully here, because this touches on a really vital point for us all to understand, whether as diviners specifically or as any sort of spiritually-abled person generally.

First, let’s be clear about our topic here.  Divining is the act of divination, and divination is the process of uncovering or obtaining knowledge through occult or spiritual means.  How it does this is up for debate, but the fact that it does this is uncontroversial, and anyone who is a diviner can do it.  Some people do divination for others, some people only do divination only for themselves.  Whether you do divination for others or not is a choice that’s entirely up to you, as is whether you do it for a fee or not.   That’s all fine, well, and good, but always remember that divination is not counseling.  Not only is counseling inherently an act that involves two parties, the counselor and the counseled, but divination is simply obtaining information and relaying it to the one who requested it; counseling is taking that information and applying it in context to a person’s life.  The two are completely different sets of skills with entirely different purposes, and not all diviners can be counselors.  The issue is that this distinction is not always made clear to people who learn divination, and the notion of what a “reading” is tends to blur such distinctions, especially in many cases where a client or querent has an honest issue on their hands and needs both information and counseling.

The problem of the original post is that of getting stuck in the pull between divination and counseling, and also seeing how people react to your best attempts at guiding and counseling them through divination.  The original poster points out that he gets discouraged from doing divination because of three types of people:

  1. People who get disappointed with the answers of divination because it doesn’t confirm their hopes.
  2. People who disregard the advice given to them in a reading against the hopes of the reader.
  3. People who use spiritual means for strictly material ends against the hopes of the reader.

Before discussing any of these, it’s important to note that all these situations take place in the context of doing readings for other people.  If the original poster is getting discouraged to the point where he might not “follow [divinatory studies] any further”, then it really should be emphasized that divination can always be done for yourself or for people you trust explicitly; you don’t have to do divination for anyone but yourself, if you don’t want to.  There’s no requirement that, having learned divination, you must provide it for others as a service.  If you only want to study divination for your own benefit, that’s great!  Keep doing that.  You don’t owe others something you cultivate for your own benefit.

So, let’s talk about these situations.  Let’s say that we have a client who’s coming to a reader for a reading.  We can say that, for the sake of this post, either the client has paid or bartered with the reader in an acceptable way and the reader is obliged to give the client a reading, or that the reader is giving a reading to the client free of any charge but as a gift that the reader earnestly wants to give.  In either case, it’s understood that the reader is doing readings for other people as their own choice, and once the reading begins, the reader is obliged to give the reading to the best of their ability

It must be noted that, of the three situations above, it’s only the first one that deals with divination strictly and not counseling.  In the first situation, we have a querent who comes to a diviner asking about the outcome or possibility for a certain thing in their lives; the divination gives a negative answer, and the querent becomes disappointed and put off.  As a reader and diviner, being the bearer of bad news is never fun, and I’ve sometimes had to take a moment to myself after particularly difficult readings to regain my composure.  That said, as a reader, I am obliged to give whatever information is in the reading to the client; if it’s there, I must give it to the client because that’s what they’re paying me for (or what I feel obliged to give, in any case).  I know there are some people who might take issue with that rule of honesty, but as I see it, for me to be aware of something and preventing someone from also being aware of it, especially when they’re specifically directing me to help them be aware of it, is immoral and unethical.  Beyond that, just like how I can’t force someone to be happy when I make them dinner, I can’t force them to be happy when I tell them what I read.  This is especially a problem (for the client, I should say, not for me) when someone comes to me for a reading that only confirms what they already think and hope for; they don’t actually care about getting new information, they just want to make a mockery of the sacred practices of divination to make themselves feel better, and when they find out that they don’t actually know everything, they get put out.  Tough for them, I suppose, but that’s none of my concern.

Regardless of the type of news, news is news, and my only job in a reading as a diviner is to give information to the client.  How they react to it is up to them; I have no control over that, nor is it any of my concern.  They wanted information, I gave them information.  They now know what they did not know, and that’s the end of my role in the situation.  Read that again: once the reading is done, the role of the reader is complete.  As a diviner, counselor, reader, or whatever term you want to use, it’s important to know your role in a reading and what the reader-client relationship consists of, because that’s what defines your responsibilities, obligations, and level of involvement in the situation.  As a reader, your roles can be divvied up into two sets: as diviner, that of intelligence-gatherer, information-compiler, and contextualizer; as counselor, that of adviser, therapist, and listener.  All of these roles last for the duration of the reading, after which you’re not beholden to the client for any reason, nor should you be.  To stay attached is a matter of emotional over-involvement, and you can’t afford that level of attachment as a reader.  Down that way lies bias, which is an inhibition that effectively prevents you from performing divination and counseling.  Bias prevents you from seeing things accurately and evaluating the information coming to you critically and objectively, whether it’s the symbols in a chart or the words from your client’s mouth.  Getting too attached also gets you also gets you riled up when they’re riled up, or depressed when they’re depressed, and in either case prevents your own equanimity that can spiritually ensure your ability to divine at all.

So, one of the biggest rules to divination in general, no matter the system: if you cannot significantly reduce bias or entirely eliminate it from the reading at hand, you should not do the reading.  This works in either direction, whether you’re biased towards or against the situation of the reading or the client requesting it.  Regardless whether they’re your friend, husband, or a stranger, if you can’t extract yourself from hopes or fears or hates about the situation or the people involved, then you’re not the right person to do the reading.  Divination and counseling requires levelheadedness and objectivity so that you can not only see the information given to you but also communicate it effectively and accurately, and bias disrupts that ability.  It’s much like when you’re faced with a situation you’re incredibly anxious about; if you can’t calm yourself or if you’re fixated on the worst possible outcomes, you can’t do divination for yourself because you’re neither mentally fit nor objectively-minded enough to read whatever symbols and information might come through.  The same thing also goes for when you’re doing divination or counseling for other people.  Yes, bias in counseling matters, too; after all, it’s hard to avoid revulsion and spite if your client is someone you hate, and as hard to avoid enabling and sugarcoating if your client is someone you have affection for.  We can minimize these things, sure, but being critical and fair to our client is hard if we lean too far in either direction.

So, with those three statements in bold we’ve got so far, the next situation described by the original poster becomes pretty clear to deal with.  In the second case, we have a client who disregards the information, advice, suggestions, and counseling given to them by the reader.  Just like how being the bearer of bad news can break my heart, being the bearer of ignored news is often worse, and I definitely sympathize with the frustration.  But remember, your role to play is complete once the reading is done.  Whether they paid you for a reading or whether they accepted your volunteering for giving them one, your role was only to give them any information they asked for and any advice or suggestions that would be pertinent to their situation.  Anything beyond that is uncalled for and, quite honestly, none of your business.  Whether or not they take your advice, or any advice at all, is not up to you, just like how their emotional reactions to a particular type of information isn’t up to you.  They were warned ahead of time of what would happen, and so they had no excuse to not act on that information, especially when provided with reasonable and applicable advice.  Is it frustrating to see people set themselves up for failure?  Absolutely.  Can I chastise them for it?  You bet!  But whether or not they sabotaged themselves by their own unwillingness to act doesn’t affect my role in the situation; after all, I’m not their caretaker, I’m just their diviner who does divination for them, their adviser who gives them advice, and their counselor who gives them counsel.  That’s all I can do; you can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make him drink.

Typically, however, clients don’t usually just up and say “you’re giving me advice that I refuse to take” in the middle of a reading.  We commonly know about clients not taking our advice when they’re return clients, those with whom we have a stable reader-client relationship with that lasts over several interactions.  In these cases, the client comes back to inform us that something bad in the reading came to pass as you said, or something good didn’t come to pass as you predicted, and it turns out they never took your advice that would have prevented the bad thing or ensured the good thing.  That’s honestly not my fault; I told them what would happen or not happen under what circumstances, so they sabotaged themselves by not acting on that information in the prescribed way.  Hopefully, they learned from this, and would be more amenable to heeding advice.  However, there are cases where sometimes clients just don’t listen, don’t take advice, don’t carry things through to their end, and just aren’t…well, responsible people who take care of themselves.  If, after a certain point, you can’t help but get angry or frustrated with this client?  Well, that’s a type of bias, isn’t it?  And what do we do when we’ve got bias?  Not a damn thing, that’s for sure.  I know several highly-competent and reliable readers who have had to fire their clients—you read that right, the readers fired the clients and not the other way around.  The clients kept flailing for help and kept coming back for it, but never actually use what the reader gave them.  After a certain point, each reader has come to the conclusion with “Why am I wasting my time and breath on you? Why are you wasting your time and money on me? Good luck, good bye.”

So, those’re my thoughts on the first two situations: dealing with disappointment and frustration on the part of the client with the content of readings, and dealing with disappointment and frustration on the part of the reader with lazy clients who don’t take advice.  The third situation described by the original poster is perhaps the most interesting, and it’s not one that had occurred to me before: being disappointed with using divination for purposes that goes against spiritual or psychological development.  That’s…forgive me for being blunt, but that’s an incredibly prejudiced, judgy, holier-than-thou stance that I feel compelled to rebuke and refute.  To make it simple, this is an issue with bias on the part of the diviner, and again, if you feel biased against the client, it’s best that you don’t do readings for them.

Why do I feel so negatively about this stance?  Simply put, you’re not God.  You don’t get to establish the morals, ethics, and goals of other people according to your own, no more than you get to say what divinities I worship or what practices I perform.  If you think all spiritual work should be done in the name of elevation, development, and growth, then I would say that you’re wrong; people have been using magic for getting laid and getting paid since the first days of our awareness of spiritual dimensions of the cosmos and of human existence, and I find nothing wrong with doing so.  I don’t disagree one jot that spiritual development is a good thing, but I’m not going to knock the physical pleasures of the world, either, which are also good to have and to strive for.  And, quite simply, not everyone is going to be playing on the same playing field as you are, nor will they be playing the same games you play.  You don’t know the purpose of why someone acts the way they do, nor do you know their reasoning for it, nor do you know whether it’s fate or divinely ordained for them to do so.  All you know is that they’re coming to you for help with their purposes; if you find that you react so negatively to their aims, then you should simply decline the to do the reading and move on.

There are cases where I will decline to do readings for people without it being a matter of bias, but because I find the question so offensive or troublesome that I can’t perform the reading in good conscience.  For instance, John Michael Greer recommends that, even though divinations to determine health issues or the time and place and conditions of death were hugely common in the historical literature, it would be unethical to do them nowadays.  I don’t hold those exact same views, but I have a few that I do hold: for instance, unless it’s for a very reasonable strategic cause, I don’t do third-party readings for the sake of spying on others, because I find that a person’s privacy is pretty much sacrosanct.  Likewise, I wouldn’t do a reading about how best to kill someone, how to start a sexual relationship with a child, or other illegal acts.  If you find that something is so immoral or unethical to ask about that you cannot answer it in good conscience, you have absolutely every right to decline to perform a reading.

However, I need to contrast “doing things that actively bring harm to the world” versus “doing things for ends I don’t think highly of”.  Just because you don’t think someone should only focus on finding material success doesn’t mean that they’re not meant to do that, nor does that mean that they should sit at your feet and learn how the world ought to work.  You’re a diviner, not a pastor, and (except in the illegal cases above) when someone comes to you for advice on their query, you don’t get to judge them on it.  The most you can do is decline to do the reading for them, but I’ll tell you this: a reputation for being judgy won’t get you many friends, and if you’re doing readings and divination as a business, then it’ll get you even fewer clients.  Just as our clients should have an open mind, we as diviners and readers should, too.  Besides, you don’t know that they’ll always be 100% materialistic, nor do you know whether the very act of reading for them could change that.

After all, there are indeed people whose jobs and roles in this incarnation aren’t to be spiritual, but still recognize that there’s power in it and want to employ those who interact with spiritual forces.  That’s pretty reasonable to me; while I’d like more people to be magicians or spirit-workers, some people have no interest in doing so, or some don’t care about it or just want me to handle the dirty work for them.  I cannot bring myself to judge others for where they are in their lives or what they’re doing with their life; as another commenter on Facebook said, “we all have our hoe to row”.  I’d recommend staying in your lane on this one; give your advice on being more respectful, worshipful, spiritual, or magical, but at the same time, don’t expect it of or force it onto your clients or querents.

So, those are my thoughts; a lot more words I expected to write on this, and a little impassioned at times.  Let me distill it into a quick TL;DR for my readers:

  1. You don’t have to learn divination for other people if you don’t want to do divination for other people.
  2. You don’t have to do divination for everyone who comes knocking; you can be as selective with your clients as you want, or you can be as open to all comes as you want.
  3. Divination is not counseling, but a reading may be both.  Be aware of when a client just needs divination or just needs counseling or needs both divination and counseling.
  4. As a diviner, your role is to give the information present in the reading to the querent who requested it.
  5. As a counselor, your role is to listen, contextualize information, and give helpful advice to the client.
  6. It’s not your problem how the client reacts to the information, so long as you were honest, clear, and tactful about it.
  7. Once the reading is done, the role of the reader is complete.
  8. If you cannot significantly reduce bias or entirely eliminate it from the reading at hand, you should not do the reading.  This applies to readings you do for yourself as well as those you do for others.
  9. All you can do as a reader is present information and give advice, where called for.  Beyond that, you can’t force the client to improve their situation or their life, though you can stop dealing with them if they keep wasting your time.
  10. Either don’t judge your clients for where they are or what they’re doing with their lives, or don’t do readings for them.
  11. If you’re going to help people, focus first on helping them as best you can, and less on the overall purpose they’re coming to you for help for.
  12. If you find a query to be morally, ethically, or legally reprehensible, you have every right as a reader to decline doing a reading for that query.

For me, deciding on ceasing learning and practicing divination because some people are stupid or because I don’t like why some people might use it is like ceasing to be a software engineer because some people don’t know how to use computers properly or use them for porn; I can’t control what other people use their computers for, and I can’t teach everyone the proper care and use of computers.  What I can do, however, is make things as best I can for those who can use them and who need my skills in making things work for them.  The net gain from doing so is far greater than not doing it at all.

Giving Blessings

I really need to learn to keep more cash on me.  I’m normally a card-type of guy, but in the right circumstances (and in increasingly more ones every day), cash goes a lot farther a lot faster than credit.

One of the main reasons for me to keep more cash on me, or at least staying in the habit of having a few bills on me at all times, is religion.  In La Regla de Ocha Lukumí (aka Santería—I wonder when I’ll stop feeling obliged to give the alternate, perhaps more common name), cash is customary for donations for any number of reasons, not least because it’s legal tender and proof of payment in itself.  When we establish the celebratory throne for an orisha, when we set up the drummers’ seats for a dance, even when we visit a priest’s house for their anniversary of initiation, it’s quite acceptable to leave a few dollars as a respectful donation (often in conjunction with an offering of fruit, flowers, candles, and so forth).  My checklist for going to an event now consists of making sure my whites are clean, I’ve got my offerings ready to go, and stopping by the ATM for a few extra bills.

One of the unusual things, however, is that there is a process for giving cash in the religion (always processes for everything, after all).  This one isn’t difficult; simply cross yourself with the money before dropping it into the basket/basin/jícara/etc.  Making the Sign of the Cross is a natural motion for many people in the religion, and it helps in sanctifying the donation with a holy reverence and respect.

Well, I didn’t realize how ingrained in me that habit had become until I went to a winery this past weekend.  The husband and I went to see one of his good friends play a gig there, and we got a bottle of fruit wine while we were at it.  It was a lovely, cloudy, pleasantly mild Saturday in early May, and we enjoyed ourselves (even through all the pollen).  Our friend, a guitarist and singer, had his guitar case opened up before his station, and a few people had already dropped some cash in there.  I followed suit to support our friend, so I reached into my wallet and—well, my first instinct was to cross myself with the money.  I laughed about it with my husband, and had to remind myself that this wasn’t a religious function and there’s no need to do that here, so I didn’t, and just dropped the cash in his case anyway.  I made a joke about it on Twitter, too (along with a few others).

But…well, I realized after the fact that maybe that wasn’t a habit I should suppress, and a few replies on Twitter had really brought that conversation to the forefront of my mind.  After all, we cross ourselves with the donation in a religious setting to sanctify the donation and show our respect to the ashé of the orisha or drummer or priest or whoever-else.  As an initiated priest in this religion, not only do I show my respect with this act, but I’m also blessing that offering on-the-fly with my action and intent for the sake of whoever-it-is.  It’s not just a show of support or well-wishing at that point, but a spiritual act to lend my grace, support, succor, and help to whoever-it-is, as well as a physical prayer made to express my hope for their grace, support, succor, and help in my own life, as well.  Such is the nature of blessings.

Could I have donated money as a spiritual act before initiation?  Absolutely!  That wasn’t something that was held off for me, especially given all my other practices going on.  But here’s the thing that’s slowly dawning on me in truly profound ways: I can never stop being a priest.  Yeah, intellectually I understood that; orisha live on my head now, and they see what I see and hear what I hear, not to mention seeing and hearing me at all times.  That’s one of the reasons why good conduct is paramount for initiates.  Yet, even in the little things, I don’t stop being a priest.  Why, then, should I not bless something when it’s already a habit for me to do so in an innocuous way?  Why would I not do what is essentially my job at a perfect opportunity just because the context is different from what I’d expect for my job?  I don’t have to be in the Ocha Room in order to work Ocha; Ocha is in me, Ocha is around me, Ocha is part of me wherever I go, whenever I go.  I do not stop being a priest, so why not act accordingly?

This isn’t, of course, about proselytizing or trying to force initiations onto others or try to sell orisha out on discount.  Priesthood is still something I’m coming to terms with and figuring out in all its emanations, but there are a few things I do know, and one of them is that I want to make the world better.  For myself, to be sure, but also for my loved ones, my family, my godfamily, my colleagues, my friends, my coworkers, my teachers, my students…everyone.  In a very real sense of Buddhist emptiness, we’re all in this together, because I can’t exist without you nor can you exist without me, so if I’m to truly do well, I need to make sure that you’re also doing well, as well, because, at its core, I can’t really cease suffering myself until all suffering is ceased.  Sure, there are ways I can prosper at others’ dire expense, but even an ounce of shame would keep me from really enjoying such wealth because it’s not justly earned; only if that wealth is justly earned, the exchange is fair, and everyone has at minimum what they need without worry is it a state I can enjoy.  Extend that notion, then, to everything, everywhere, and everywhen.  It is not true that everyone needs to be a priest to make the world a better place, but it damn well sure helps me in that undertaking.  I have the tools and, slowly, the techniques and the knowledge to work what I can for myself and for those in my world to make the world a better place, and I don’t have a reason to not do that, so there’s only one real choice: do it.  In a sense, it’s a kind of theurgy, no matter how small the individual acts are.  The Great Work isn’t done in a day, after all.

For anyone involved in spiritual practices, there is no reason to separate out the mundane from the spiritual.  Context and consent matters, absolutely, but if you have the chance to infuse a mundane act with a spiritual force in it, why not do it?  If nothing else, it’s practice, and can ensure your own success later down the line.  Ideally, doing so would make things better for the entire world with a simple act that sets of a chain reaction, even if it’s just a minor set of coincidences.  But for those who can give their blessing—and you don’t, strictly speaking, need to be a priest for that—why not give it freely at every opportunity?  If you can call upon the power of the dead, the gods, the elements, the angels, or whatever else it is you work with, why not back up your hopes and well-wishes for the well-being of others with the power that you can direct and work with, especially if it’s in the moment of a trivial action you were going to do anyway?

I have to admit, now I wish I had crossed myself with that money before I dropped it in our friend’s guitar case.  Lesson learned, then.  There are some habits that really should be kept up.

On Blessings

Lately, I’ve been thinking of things going on in my life, or that have happened in my life, and started to call the good ones (like, the really good ones) “blessings”.  It’s something that I’ve heard some of my older or elder friends say, too, about some of the nicer things in life, and…it’s weird.  Before initiation into Santeria, I would never really have used the word “blessing” to describe a good thing that happens.  Awesome, fantastic, or great, perhaps, but “blessing” was weird for me to think of it that way. Now, it seems a lot more natural; perhaps it’s just a shift in the crowd I run with and adopting the terminology, but seeing how I was already running with them before, something must have clicked into place for this sense of the word “blessing” to click for me.

Let’s recap, I suppose. From my Western religious or magical viewpoint that I’d assume is more-or-less common (but I could be wrong!), a blessing is a ritual act where something or someone is blessed.  For instance, a Catholic priest can bless a saint medallion (or any number of other things), and oftentimes perform a light or simple exorcism of a person which can also count as a blessing.  Other priests in other traditions and religions generally follow suit, with the overall goal to instill a force or presence of holiness or divinity in a material vessel, animate or not.  For many of the same reasons, many of the enchanting or consecrating acts magicians do can also be considered blessings; heck, the language we use is often identical to those used in the Church, if not taken directly from their liturgies and rituals, with much the same effect (though issues of apostolic succession and the lack thereof can subtly change or weaken the end result).

We can look at the word “blessing” in two etymological ways: the first, using the Germanic word family of bless, blood, and blót, and the second using the Latin word family of benedicere.  In the former, we have an original word coming from Germanic paganism of “marking with blood”, leading to the term blót, a sacrifice, and blót-hus, “house of worship” or “temple”.  By using the blood of sacrificed animals, the divine figures of worship, the place of worship, and the worshipers themselves would be instilled with the special powers contained within; there are conceptual parallels between this and the Old Testament use of sacrificed oxen and bulls in the Temple, as well as the literal bloodbath Moses gave to the Hebrews as he came down from the Mount.

In the second sense, we have the far more bland Latin term benedicere, literally meaning “to speak well” or “to say good things”.  However, in the Christian sense, consider that Jesus Christ is the Word of God, the Logos; to speak good things upon someone is to literally cast the power of God upon them for good ends and with good means.  This builds upon the more fundamental Abrahamic understanding of a blessing (all of which ultimately come from God) to the effect that to be blessed is to be favored and approved by God.  This ties into the otherwise unusual statement “Blessed are you, Lord our God” (how almost all Jewish blessings, or berakhot, begin); after all, how could God be blessed, if God gives all blessings?  It’s because being the source of blessings is indistinguishable from the quality of being blessed; both the blessing and the blessor are identical.

So much for etymologies and definitions.  When it comes to using the word, I’ve pretty much limited myself to using it in a ritual or prayerful context.  I would suppose that, as a technical matter, only priests (who have a valid and legitimate connection to their deity and who are licensed and authorized to do so by such a connection) can actually bless an object, person, event, or space.  Laity and other non-priestly clergy who lack that connection can pray for the blessing of something, while magicians can…well, I don’t want to say “consecrate” (literally “to make sacred”, which overlaps heavily with “blessing”), but perhaps “enchant” or (one of my more favorites, thanks Kalagni and Deb et al.) “enwoogify” or “bespooken”.  As a matter of technical correctness, only priests can bless; even if what magicians do is effectively the same thing in result, the mechanics and source of the result is sufficiently different to warrant another term.

But…well, consider what the laity do in this context: they pray for blessings upon someone else.  It’s what I never really put much consideration into before now, but when someone prays for your well-being, your happiness, your prosperity, your safety, your success…those are the blessings they pray for, which are their blessings to you.  Absent any other ritual, divine connection, or other woogity, that act is the lay equivalent of blessing someone, by appealing to the source of blessings to bestow its blessings.  That is their magic, their means of plying their connection, their gift to you.  Again, while them “blessing” you isn’t necessarily a proper use of the term, just as with a magician enchanting for some effect, the effect is ultimately equivalent.

That sort of realization is, in some sense (and in addition to being with people who use that term just as a thing), what led me to start widening my use of the term “blessing”, and why it finally made sense to call good things that happen “blessings”.  When we, as magicians, carry out a ritual for some end, do we not consider ourselves successful when that very thing comes to pass?  Of course we do; we might find ways to improve upon our results for future workings, but we consider the success a validation of our work, our connections to spirits, and ourselves.  Similarly, when we pray for something, do we not consider ourselves having been heard by God or the gods when what we pray for comes to pass?  Heck, we even say that they “answer our prayers”, just as they would a phone call or question.  Thus, if we pray for a blessing, and our prayers are answered, then we would then, logically, say that we have been blessed.

I’ve long held that magicians should pray just as much as anyone else, if not more so; in the types of magic I work, prayer is part and parcel of the whole shebang.  In my own prayers, besides those of adoration of divinity, I pray for guidance, enlightenment, fortitude, progress, compassion, companionship, wisdom, intelligence, understanding, protection, purpose, purity, and so much else.  For myself and for many other people, the most common things we pray for are good health, long life, prosperity, happiness, and peace.  There are hundreds of classifications and categories of blessings out there (just look up the endless kinds of berakhot that Jews are supposed to recite upon basically anything happening), but the big ones are things we all want in our lives, which are fundamental to a universal human notion of “a life well-lived”.

So, when something good happens that furthers me along in a way I’ve prayed for, or that someone else has prayed for me, or that just happen because *gestures vaguely upwards*  I should celebrate it and be grateful for it, just as I’d celebrate myself when something I’ve been magicking for comes to fruition.  Good things that happen (and I mean with a capital G, not just the little g good things) are blessings, whether or not I or anyone else has asked for them.  It’s such a simple concept, really; I’m kind of embarrassed that I never understood it before, but I get it now.  Maybe it’s preconceived notions that Good Things just happen coincidentally (which is otherwise a notion I’ve long since abandoned), or that Good Things happen so rarely (when so much that happens is actually Good, even if it’s not good on a microcosmic level), or something else that kept me from seeing…I dunno, a more profound awe in things.

Of course, recognizing that something is a blessing is only one part of the equation; being grateful for it and not taking it for granted are others to follow through with.  After all, when we get something we ask for from someone as a gift, we graciously and gratefully thank them, if not exchange a new gift for them; when we work with people or spirits whom we commission to do work for us, we pay them for their services.  To simply take without giving is selfish and greedy, and degrades the entity doing something for us into a slave, while taking without appreciation treats them as a machine.  For the Good Things that happen to us, we must be grateful that divinity either heard our prayers and saw fit to grant them, or that divinity for the sake of divinity favored us with the Good Things, but more than that, we must never take such blessings of Good Things for granted.  But then, how do you pay back a god?  In the ways that gods want, of course.  I would fain speak for divinities without them chiming in, but the general ways that I see acceptable across the board would be to make the most of the blessings given to you to further your own development, to help others with their own development, adoration of divinity for its own sake by means of your blessing, and to simply live a good/Good life for the sake of divinity, for the sake of the world, and for your own sake.

A blessing isn’t just a one-time good thing, like a slice of cake.  It’s more than a simple result of spiritual labor or material gift.  It’s a foundation, a building material to continue constructing and instructing our lives in the best ways we’re able to, and with which we can help others build theirs.  We just need the humility to ask for these materials, the knowledge of how to implement them, and the wisdom of when to use them, but even these we can inculcate in ourselves, both as practice we cultivate and blessing we seek.

Priesthood in the World We Live In

Readers of my blog know that I’m a stickler for proper terminology, sometimes expounding on the subtle and nuanced differences (sometimes even those that I impose) to distinguish between different terms that are largely used the same, even for words that historically were interchangeable with each other.  I like to be extraordinarily precise with my language, if for nothing else than to save words or to have certain concepts ready to go, though even I acknowledge that it can be difficult with overly-precise language to actually, yanno, communicate with others.  I see this problem frequently in discussions many occultists have—even those I myself have—and why I spend so much time first trying to understand exactly what someone is talking about (with or without snarky remarks about their clearly awful use of terminology) before coming up with a response.  I might spend a goodly chunk of time on just clarifying something, but it prevents the even larger waste of time that happens when someone says one thing but I was thinking completely another thing due to a misunderstanding of what they mean.  Getting lost in translation is a serious problem, especially when so many people don’t have the same research, education, training, or standardization as other people.

Up until recently, I would have held a distinction between the words “priest” and “minister”.  This is a distinction I found online from some blogger or another, though the exact source escapes me at the moment.  Under such a distinction, while both priests and ministers can be considered part of a clergy that works with God or a god, their role and focus would differ: priests focus on serving, understanding, and working with their deity, while ministers serve, understand, and work with the people.  In other words, priests primarily work in a ritual context, and ministers primarily work in an activism context.  The priests and ministers, then, work amongst themselves and with each other so that the ministers help the words of the gods reach the people by the instructions and divinations of the priests, and the priests help the words of the people reach the gods by the complaints and needs communicated to them by the ministers.  Consider the various ministries in Christian churches that feed and clothe the poor (when they can actually still be found); they’re not really preaching or performing Mass for the poor, but they’re carrying out the will of their God by being activists for the sake of the people.  Meanwhile, the priests proper tend to the rituals of Mass, absolution, baptism, exorcism, and the like, but relegate themselves (for better or for worse) to their ritual expertise and less to activist tasks that would infringe on their time and energy carrying out their priestly duties.  Priests only work with the people insofar as to carry out spiritual ritual for them, and ministers only work with the gods insofar as to carry out their worldly aims; beyond that, the two offices don’t really mix.

But here’s a question: if we neglect our fellow human beings, our pets, our lands, our trades, our environment, we leave the world to its own self-destructive devices.  If we neglect the world, we do nothing to prevent its eventual breaking-apart and wasting-away.  In that light, what good is a broken, wasted world to a god?  They receive no sacrifices, no respect, no honor, and no priests; just as we have an investment in seeing the world do well so that we can live well in it, the gods have an investment in the world to make sure their children do well so that they can do well towards the gods.

What I’m starting to realize is that a priest has a vested interest in both their gods and their people; to tend to one necessitates tending to the other.  A priest does not become a priest merely by studying and becoming an expert in ritual; anyone with half a semi-functioning brain can do that, since it’s not hard to memorize a dozen or four established speeches, read out of special books, and make particular gestures with particular tools at the right times under the right circumstances (it’s what most office workers do mindlessly for eight hours a day five days a week, just with different sets of words, books, gestures, and tools).  A priest must be an expert in ritual but must also show devotion to their gods, discerning their wills and carrying it out.  It’s that last part, carrying out the will of a god, that often necessitates the external world of persons and people, though, sometimes to the great distaste of the priest.  In order for a god to be pleased, they need their needs met and satisfied; given that the world we live in has so many people in it, and affecting so many things to such a great extent, many times these needs call for the interaction and direct communication with people.  With no people, many needs of the gods cannot be met; it is often better, for example, for a tribe of people to raise their voice together in joy and honor of a god rather than just one person alone.  Sometimes, it helps our gods carry out their work by performing acts of charity; a god of lepers and diseases who was cast out of his kingdom, for instance, quite often smiles upon money given to the homeless in his name, and a goddess of love and beauty can appreciate her priest helping others feel beautiful for their own sake as much as being recited her own hymns of beauty.

Let’s be a little more misanthropic about this, shall we?  For a more Machiavellian take on this, consider people as tools, as means to an end.  Any good craftsman knows that you need to take care of your tools so that they can take care of you.  If your tools are crappy, you’ll need to make up for it with more work on your part, and we have tools for the express purpose of making our lives easier.  If your tools fall apart, you risk botching a work in progress and can no longer make things you need to make, and if something is broken, you can no longer fix what needs to work.  Getting high-quality tools is an investment, but you can get better results with them faster, easier, and more reliably than with crappy tools, but even crappy tools are better than no tools at all.  If people are tools, then they need to be taken care of the same way: they need food to sustain them, homes to protect them, clothing to dress them, medicine to heal them, teachers to instruct them, pastimes to relieve them, and communities to engage them.  If people are not taken care of, they will die, wither away, revolt, or outright destroy; in general, people that are not taken care of take away from a Good World, and without a Good World to live in, our lives become harder, our hearts weaker, our tongues more bitter, our minds more dejected, our prayers more hollow, our Work less focused.  We are, all of us, in this thing together.  We, too, are tools to be used by our higher powers, and we, too, need to be taken care of.  It’s very much a “wrench in the machine” kind of situation; so long as the entire machine works properly, then each individual part does well, but if even one gear is out of place or if something is put where it doesn’t belong, the entire machine will break down and explode.

To that end, even the most people-hating of priests has to admit that other people will, nearly always, play a part in their own tending to their gods.  There are exceptions, of course; sometimes there is something we can do on our own to tend to our gods’ needs, and sometimes a god has no need of dealing with other people, but these are only ever exceptions to the otherwise vastly-normal situation where the gods have plans and aims and needs that deal with other people.  Communal celebration, tending to our own towns, helping those in need, and making donations where they help are as much priestly duties as are the successful and proper execution of ritual, sacrifice, and devotion.  We must build up ourselves as much as we build up those around us; it’s only when everyone is enlightened can the bodhisattvas themselves catch a break, and it’s only when one person is elevated that everyone can be brought up to their level.  Priests must be ministers, because the priest is the intermediary between the other realms and this world we live in; ministers can help, but it’s the priest who really stands at the crossroads of divinity and humanity, of eternal immortality and fatal mortality.  If there is a distinction to be made between priests and ministers, then it’s just that ministers focus on a non-ritual, non-spiritual subset of the duties of a priest but still in the same service to the same powers.  It’s not that they’re mutually exclusive categories, but that the functions of one is a subset of the other.  Of course, you could very well cut yourself off from people in the ritual service of your deity or deities, but then that would make you a hermit or a monk, which I would indeed reckon is a distinct category from priest.

A distinction I’ve held before (and still hold to) is that we live in three realms: the physical universe, the spiritual cosmos, and the world, which is the intersection between the two linked together by humanity and the human experience; after all, the word itself comes from old English literally meaning “the age of man” (Proto-Germanic *wer + *ald).  We cannot live purely in either the universe or the cosmos, but in the human-made human-filled realm between them.  To be a priest in the world means mediating between the two by the necessary means of the third element: people itself.

Data, Information, Knowledge

As an initiate in La Regla de Ocha Lukumi (a.k.a. Santeria), I’m trying to wrap my head around all the different things we do and the proper way to do them.  The most straightforward method for this is to simply show up to ceremonies, watch what’s done, listen to what’s said or sung, and follow along; in this manner, I learn the things we do, how to do them, and why we do them.  I learn primarily from my godfather when I’m in a one-on-one situation, and under his watch and guidance more generally when I’m in the broader community.  This is the simplest way for me to learn, but even then, there are so many complications in this alone.  For one, since we’re all learning, there are things my elders will occasionally shift when they find a better or more proper way to do things, so occasionally the things they show or tell me can change over time, which isn’t even bringing up the matter of things that I can’t formally know yet, based on my own experience or initiations within the religion, without which I formally can’t know about certain things without having undergone the mysteries thereof.  For another, there’s the issue of different houses within a lineage with their small variances, and different lineages within the religion with their larger ones, which becomes more evident when we have people from other communities visiting and participating in our ceremonies or vice versa.  There’s also the issue of the “stuff out there”, books and blogs and personal notes of other people in the religion, which really should be vetted thoroughly before even being given an ounce of credence since some of it may not apply to us and some of which may just be outright wrong.

Trying to take all that in and form a useful body of knowledge that I can use is…daunting, to say the least.  Thank God and the gods for my godfather, but even by his own admission, it can be bewildering and confusing even at the best of times.

The situation is a little different in Western occulture, but many of the same issues still apply.  Consider all the grimoires we have available to us nowadays from the medieval and Renaissance Solomonic traditions; heck, just consider the books Gordon over at Rune Soup goes over in in his grimoire course.  Each book, while still belonging more-or-less to the same overall tradition of magical study, has its own variations of practice, theory, and internal logic; some things are clear inventions that start with one grimoire and continue forward form there, while other things that were present from the beginning slowly fade out over time.  Then, based on all those texts, consider our modern (largely derivative) texts and how those vary both in philosophy and praxis due to the time and location wherein they were written.  Then, for an additional twist, throw in everybody’s UPG that they love to make dogmatic Truth far more often than is good for them (or us).  If one were to study magic, then, how would you go about reconciling all these differences?  Between all the details and variations, between all the similarities and commonalities, where does one even begin to make coherence out of the mess?

Let’s talk about how we come across such facts and tidbits in the world we live in.  I like to draw a threefold distinction here: data, information, and knowledge.  All have their role to play, but all are slightly different in terms of delivery and scope:

  • Data is a Latin word literally meaning “things that are given” (where, yes, the singular of data is datum, but I won’t fault you for using data as a singular noun in English).  Literally anything that exists or that is said, witnessed, or perceived is data.  The world is full of data, but much of it doesn’t make sense or even matter.  Literally the entire world, if you’re receptive to it all, is full of data.  Data is, in many ways, boring and meaningless without some sort of structure or methodology to process it by.  If data is a set of raw materials, then the form of raw materials produces information.
  • Information is, in the words of one of my old computer science professors that stuck with me, “data that makes a difference”.  Differences can only be shown when you have some sort of rule, method, structure, or form to pit two pieces of data against each other with.  Information is another Latin derivative meaning “to educate”, but more literally meaning “to give form to”.  Information is a structure of data that literally informs (builds within) a body of knowledge.
  • Knowledge is synthesized, coherent structures of information.  When we “know” something, we have a context to put information within, and we can link it to other bodies of information to see even bigger trends that connect both within and outside a single system of information.

To use an organic metaphor, consider an animal body, which is composed of organs, which are composed of cells, which are composed of chemicals.  Those individual chemicals at the lowest level are data, and they can occur anywhere both within an animal body and outside them.  When arranged in certain structures (such as nucleotides in a strand of DNA), you start to get cells.  When the cells are organized together according to function and purpose, you get organs.  When your organs are put together in a coherent, symbiotic way, you get a complete animal.  Similarly, our minds are composed of different bodies of knowledge, which are themselves composed of structures of information, which are themselves composed of data.  The data are arranged in certain ways to form information; the information are arranged and structured in certain ways to form knowledge; different bodies of knowledge are linked together to form our intelligible minds.

To give a more concrete example, consider a school of students.  At testing time, each test score of each student gives us a single point of data.  We can point and say that we know that Tom’s score is 74 and Abby’s score is 95, which is nice and all, but individual points of data don’t really mean anything.  We can see that 95 is a higher score than 74, but more than that, we can’t say anything unless we start looking at a broader picture, a structure to fit these data points within.  Consider Tom’s trends of scores across the school year; while 74 may not seem like a particularly great score, if we see that that’s his highest score across the entire year, then we can say that Tom is getting better, while Abby might be having an off day with 95 being her lowest score across the whole year.  We can evaluate how well Tom and Abby are doing amongst their peers by taking the average or median scores of their class, or the whole school, to see whether Tom’s situation is common compared to his classmates or whether he’s underperforming.  We can split the types of test up by subject and see whether these scores are indicative of Tom or Abby excelling in certain subjects but not others.  All these methods to analyze data produce information, which is “data that makes a difference”.  Going one step further, we can take how this given school performs on tests to our bodies of information about education methods generally that we might’ve picked up from our own classes, the psychology of children and adults in learning and performing on evaluations, how obscure the material is on the tests compared to both what is commonly known and what is specialized expertise in a given field, and other things that we’re informed of to come up with a general, broad-view understanding of the performance of the school and the context in which it takes place.  From that knowledge, we can make further judgments that we might not be able to make reliably when we’re focused only on one system of information, because we lack sufficient context or experience in order to extrapolate.

We need to understand two things about data, the things we encounter in the world:

  1. Any given data point is a fact on its own terms.  This doesn’t mean that every bit of data we have is true, but it is a fact in and of itself.  Consider this book on Santeria I have before me; it is a fact that the book says such-and-such about a particular orisha.  That is a data point, and it is a fact that the book says so.  Whether such a fact is true depends on other factors that cannot be validated on its own terms; if I have other bits of data that say the opposite of what the book says (such as what other santeros say, what my godfather says, what my own experience has validated, etc.), then I can consider the data in the book to be false, but the book still says it all the same.
  2. Any given data point may or may not be meaningful.  Consider a generator that produces random numbers or words.  No matter how you pick them, any given item from that random set is just that: random.  Nothing in it makes a particularly big difference either way, since any comparison you use between one item and another will be meaningless.  It’s only when data are structured together and compared can a trend be (possibly) produced; the data that produce that trend are meaningful, and the data that don’t may or may not be meaningful, depending on whether it’s an “exception that proves the rule”, a once-off exception that can be explained contextually, or another random result that doesn’t have any bearing one way or another on the trend.  When we talk about people having “bullshit thresholds”, this is what we mean: it’s a boundary above which we can accept data as meaningful, and below which we can consider it to be no better than random noise.

It’s the easiest thing in the world to amass a large set of data, but it’s correlating that data into information that’s difficult.  In order to produce information, we need some sort of guidance to arrange, compare, and distinguish the data we have available to us.  For this, we use models, structures of data, sets of axioms or rules, and reliable methods of comparisons.  While this sounds numerical and mathematical, it doesn’t necessarily have to be.  For me in my education in Santeria, I have the religious, philosophical, and practical models imparted to my godfather which he’s expanded on in his own way, which he has passed down onto me.  For instance, if a particular santero says X and Y (two pieces of data), and the model my godfather has established allows for X and not Y, then I can accept X into my information model but not Y.  By understanding the model, I can often see why X is allowed and not Y, and if I can’t understand the model’s rules well enough to account for those, then there’s something my godfather hasn’t yet told me or there’s some other limitation that hasn’t yet been conceived of yet in the model, whether it’s arbitrary or not.  For a run-of-the-mill Solomonic magician, those models might be produced by a combination of analyzing the commonalities between grimoires over the centuries and the accounts of their uses from other magicians, forming a set of rules of “here’s what’s essential, here’s the expected results, here’s what can be added to good effect, here’s what can be removed without harming the overall results, etc.”; based on this understanding of the grimoires, one can perform a ritual and see how the methods of the ritual impacted the result, what the result was, whether the result can be trusted, and so forth.

Knowledge is a little more difficult to sift through, because it’s more abstract than a single structure of information.  Information structures, moreover, tend to be coherent and consistent within themselves; they each have their own sets of rules that permit some data but not others.  However, when you have more than one structure of information, it can happen that they each have a set of rules that can conflict with other systems of information.  One example I can pick out in my own experience is the role of the planets in my life.  In the system of information I have regarding astrology and Western magic, the planets (and the objects of the celestial world generally) are paramount in effecting certain things in this world.  In Santeria, on the other hand, so far as I can discern (and that’s a big disclaimer!), there’s no such corollary to that; I haven’t yet found any astrological component to the religion, besides some associations of the Sun and the Moon and a few star-based images, but there’s no role for the planets, aspects, houses, signs, and so forth.  Astrology, simply put, doesn’t matter or even have a place in Santeria.  So, then, if in one system of information I can say that Mercury retrograde is a poor time to do ritual, but in another it’s a moot point because “wtf even is Mercury or a retrograde”, what should I do?  This is an example of a conflict between different systems of information within an overall broader body of knowledge.

According to Gödel’s incompleteness theorem, you can have a system of understanding based on rules that can be either consistent (anything that is provable by the system is true) or complete (anything that is true is provable by the system), but not both.  If you’re consistent, then you must be incomplete, where whatever you can prove is true, but there are true things that cannot be proved by the system itself.  If, on the other hand, you’re complete, then you must therefore be inconsistent, where the system can prove everything that is true, but will also necessarily prove things that are not true.  I find this a useful model for understanding how things work.  Any given system of information, for us, is almost always going to be consistent, and therefore incomplete.  Thus, we rely on other systems of information that are likewise consistent and incomplete to fill in the gaps left by any one system.  By linking them together by means of context, comparison, metaphor, and allusion, we can have an overall more-or-less (we hope) complete system of knowledge that is based on multiple systems of information.  Just like we have to pick and choose the data we use to create information, we have to sometimes limit ourselves to what information we choose to link together in order to form knowledge.

Eventually, our end goal should be having knowledge.  Data is easy to get, and information is almost as easy, but neither are entirely usable by a complete being such as ourselves.  It is knowledge that declares and defines the contexts of information, but how do we go about getting knowledge?  It’s a lifelong process and largely automatic for human beings, and different traditions and philosophies have written endlessly about this, so it’s probably best for me to not wade into that set of eternal debates here.  Still, there are a few questions that you might want to consider:

  • What are my models for understanding data as information?
  • From where do my information models come from?
  • How do my experiences relate to what I already know, both as information and as knowledge?
  • How do I evaluate data as meaningful for a given system of information?
  • How can I explain data that do not fit a system of information?
  • How can I refine my models of information to weed out more untrue pieces of data while permitting more true pieces?
  • How can I link one system of information to another?
  • What sort of knowledge can I get by linking one system of information to another?
  • In what context should I analyze a system of information as a whole?
  • What system of information is best to take in new data to produce useful knowledge?

I’ve never been one for the whole “nothing is true, everything is permitted” thing.  There are indeed things that are true, if not generally for all people than specifically for individual people or contexts, and those are useful in and of themselves.  It’s the problem of determining the false chaff from the true wheat that’s the problem, and the rules for that can fluctuate at any given moment depending on what system of information is most useful at that moment.  Plus, when dealing with a number of occultists, it’s hard to keep track of who’s reliably honest and useful in their results, who’s good but crazy, and who just exaggerates for the sake of self-aggrandizement; I know I’ve had that problem in figuring out where to set my bullshit thresholds with certain people, and I’m pretty certain most of my readers have, as well.  We filter data through our bullshit thresholds all the time, but it’s always worthwhile to recalibrate that threshold once in a while and analyze why it’s set where it is for us, and whether it’s too high or too low for our own needs.

A Doxology and Prayer

Blessed are you, our Lord, king of the cosmos, who has kept us alive, sustained us, and enabled us to reach this season; blessed are you, who bestows good things upon the unworthy, and has bestowed upon me every goodness; blessed are you, who has made nothing lacking in his world, and created within it good creations and good trees for your children to enjoy!  Blessed are you, the father of all, whose counsel is done by his own powers, who wishes to be known and is known by his own people; blessed are you, who by the word have constituted all things that are, whom all nature was born as image, whom nature has not produced a like figure; blessed are you, who surpass every excellence, who are stronger than every power, who are mightier than all praises.  Blessed are you, now and forever, here and everywhere.  Glory to God in the highest, to whom all glory is properly due!

My honor and gratitude to my ancestors: those of my blood, bone, flesh, and kin; those of my traditions, lineage, practices, and spirituality; those of my labor, trade, profession, and craft; those of my culture whose names everyone knows; those those names we have forgotten but whose presence we still feel; those who have passed away in my lifetime, and those who have passed away well before my birth.  We walk upon the ground you once walked upon, we breathe now the air you once breathed, we drink the water you once drank; your blood flows in our veins, your breath fills our lungs, your words echo in our ears even now.  We live today because of you; were it not for you, none of us today could live.  As we tread upon your bones and stand on your shoulders, may you uplift us and guide us that we may ever reach higher honorably, and in doing so, raise you up nobly in the world after this.  May every ancestor of each and every one of us be honored, remembered, and praised forevermore, that your spirits may never truly depart from the memory of your children.

My honor and gratitude to my family, especially my mother and my father and my sister and my brother, who nurtured and nurture me, with whom I grew and grow up.  Through the mere circumstances of my birth, I have been blessed with parents, siblings, cousins, and others who have supported me, uplifted me, and established me in the world for my own success, which encourages the success of us all.  Through the happenstance of my mother’s bearing me into the world have I been fortunate to find love, camaraderie, education, nourishment, and prosperity which would have been impossible were it not for them, and through the guidance of all my family have I been shown the manifold and innumerable opportunities for me to explore of the world.  May I always do my family honor, even should we disagree on the insignificant things; may I always make my family prosperous, even should we falter in faith in each other; may I always support my family proudly, even should we drift apart across the seas and generations.

My honor and gratitude to my teachers, instructors, and mentors in all subjects, numeric or artistic, physical or philosophical, material or immaterial, mundane or spiritual; whether you taught me as a child or as an adult, you are my teachers all the same.  It is because of you I have a love of learning, and it is by you I have a rigor for research.  From your hands and mouths have wisdom, knowledge, and understanding been passed onto me according to your own, and by my own do I hope to do right by your memory and build upon it where possible and to correct it when necessary.  Though you might have become fallible through your humanity, may I never speak ill of you, for the gifts you have given me surpass any critique except that which makes them better, which you yourselves would have endeavored to do, just as you encourage me to do.

My honor and gratitude to my friends, who guided me when I needed it, who celebrated with me when we could, who struggled with me when we had to, who cried with me in our sorrow.  May we always support each other and keep far from deceit and misunderstanding, that no obstacle may be too huge for us to overcome.  May we continue to look after each other as we look after ourselves, in joy and in grief, in luxury and in poverty, in wisdom and in folly, for the blood of the covenant is thicker than the water of the womb, and no truer connection can be made than those made freely out of our own free will.  Distant though we might be in time and space, the memories and impacts we have made will last forever, and always will you be honored in my life.  Even through our difficulties and through our distance, may we always keep each other aloft in our hearts, minds, and worlds through our memories and our care for each other.

My honor and gratitude to my husband, a kindred soul with whom I have become united, married together before the presence and sight of the gods and men.  A happy and strange couple we make, but the binding force of our love for each other overcomes all differences, difficulties, and dearth that the world would see thrust upon us.  Just as you complement me, I complement you; we come from different worlds, sometimes truly so, and through our union do we each help the other in areas each of us alone would be left to despair.  Just as you support me, I support you; we have embarked into a new life together, and even though we have our own magna opera to achieve, we help each other do so as we continue to achieve our shared magnum opus.  Stand by me that I may always stand by you, you who are my love, you who are my lover, you who are my beloved.  I have never loved you more than I love you now; I love you far more than I did yesterday, and far less than I shall tomorrow.

My honor and gratitude to the innumerable spirits with whom I have worked, on whom I have called, and by whom have I prospered.  Whether a spirit of the four elements, the seven planets, the ten heavens, the 12 signs, the 16 figures, the 24 hours, the 28 mansions, the 360 degrees, or any of the infinite stars in the nighttime sky; whether a spirit of the dead, the living, or the unborn-undying; whether a spirit of humanity, a spirit of those who were once human, or a spirit who was never human at any time before; whether a spirit assigned to me by higher powers or a spirit come to me of their own volition; whether a spirit of the ouranic, chthonic, thalassic, or gaic realms; whether deity of any pantheon, angel of any choir, saint of any patronage, demon of any operation, or devil of any hell; whether immanent or transcendent, present or absent; whether I have called upon you or have yet to do so in the constantly-passing passage of time!  I plead before you for your support for all the tasks I have yet to do, just as I plead before the Almighty for your well-being and power and grace.  My praise, thanks, and honor go to you, your words, your guidance, your actions, and your support to me in my life and in my Work.

My honor and gratitude to Hermes: blessed god, powerful god, splendid god, mighty god; god of travelers, roads, passages, and tricks; god of guides and guide of gods, men spirits, souls, and heroes.  Grant that I may always praise, rejoice, and celebrate you, that all the people of all the world, regardless of language, origin, age, or habit may come to honor, glorify, and praise you to sing your songs, dance your dances, and carry out your work for you in the cosmos.  It is because of you I stepped forth on the path that led me where I am today, and it is always with you in one form or another, by one name or another, wearing one mask or another, that I always shall travel to my ultimate and final destination.  Your hand opens the door for me; your wand points the way for me; your presence protects my own at all crossroads, both of the land and of the mind.  Before all others in time and thought, you are my patron among the theos; watch over me, and keep me far and safe from all pain, plague, poison, illness, injury, infirmity, death, disease, defilement, all harm and all misfortune and all witchcraft, wheresoever I may go.

May all that has happened before continue to teach, guide, instruct, and fortify me as I continue into the future.  May old pacts be renewed, alliances reinforced, works restarted, and offerings refreshed.  May I not abandon my original goals, but widen the scope of my horizons to go where I must go, know what I must know, do what I must do, and become what I must be.

Amen, amen, amen.

My honor and gratitude to my godfather and my godmother, and through them the rest of my godfamily, who have welcomed me as one of their own, despite all barriers and overcoming all obstacles.  Far more than any teacher, far more than any colleague, far more than any friend have my godparents stood up for me; by the hands, heart, and breath of my godfather has power, privilege, and divine right been passed onto me, and by the care, awareness, and perseverance of my godmother have I been empowered and protected.  The presence and power of the divine is now carried by my soul and body in ways subtle and mysterious, which I could never have known were it not for the grace and lenience of my godparents, just as it was passed onto them through their godparents, and through all the lineage into the distant reaches of time.  May I grow tall, strong, and prosperous under your tutelage; may I never dishonor, disgrace, or debase what you have passed onto me.  As you have granted me the grace of divinity through your right, may God grant me the grace to one day pass on what has been passed on to me in at least as good a condition as I received it, and by the grace of God, better than anyone could have hoped for.

As the days grow shorter and the leaves grow golden, the Sun leaves its station where I was born in flesh nigh three decades ago, and it retakes for the first time its station where I was born in spirit.  One year ago, I embarked on the spiritual endeavor of the iyaworaje of La Regla de Ocha Lukumí, and with the sunrise of this morning, it has concluded.

Honor, gratitude, praise, and power to the divinities of all the realms, who preside over all the elements of creation created by the Creator Almighty.
Honor, gratitude, praise, and power to the Trickster of the Crossroads, the living paradox, the critical instigator.
Honor, gratitude, praise, and power to the Silent Hunter of Prey and Criminals, tracking the paths of justice and righteousness.
Honor, gratitude, praise, and power to the Old Mountain King in White, covering the world in peace, purity, and wisdom.
Honor, gratitude, praise, and power to the Clever Queen, Warrior of the Winds, the gatekeeper of transitions and metamorphosis.
Honor, gratitude, praise, and power to the Charitable Lady of the Sweet Waters, letting flow freely the finest luxuries of life.
Honor, gratitude, praise, and power to the Mother Empress of the Ocean, the reason our tears and sweat are salty like her seas.
Honor, gratitude, praise, and power to the Fulminous Lord of Drums and Thunder, bestowing unto us the divine right of royalty.
Honor, gratitude, praise, and power to the Diviner Priest of the Divine, the impartial witness of fate, the solemn scribe of destiny.

All my honor, gratitude, praise, power, and total respect to the Blacksmith Warrior, the intelligent begetter of civilization and technology, the master of all tools, the one who cuts for life and death, the one who pierces for healing and killing, the alchemist and metallurgist of the animate and inanimate, the first who tastes blood, the reason of the red in our blood, the spiller of blood upon the earth, the Lord Of Iron and the Lord In Iron.  Hail to you, my lord, my king, my warrior, my commander, my defender, my protector, my patron saint, my guardian angel, my god, my father, my crown.  Hail to you, each and every day of my life, for I always was and always shall be your son.  Grant me your blessing, your guidance, your wisdom, your wit, your inventiveness, your ingenuity, your strength, your courage, your constitution, your protection.

A mà là!  Ògún Ààrẹ’ré, a mà là e a!  A fẹ́’re yọ̀, a fẹ́’re yọ̀; a fẹ́’re yọ̀, a fẹ́’re yọ̀!

Maferefun Ògún.  Modupé Ògún.

Ashé, ashé, ashé.

 

(No, dear reader, I’m not gonna stop posting about Hermetic, PGM, geomantic, or other occult stuff.  That will still be the focus of my blog, as it always was; don’t worry, no need for concern.  And yes, this does mean that in the near future I’ll be opening up for divination and other services.)