A Prayer to Themis in Our Time of Need

According to a number of current reports, the current military escalation directed by the increasingly unhinged, dangerous, fascist President of the United States on civilian protesters is now known as “Operation Themis”.  Yes, Themis, as in the ancient Hellenic titan goddess of divine law and order, the traditional rules of conduct first established by the gods themselves, counselor to Zeus, and one who helps bring law, fate, and good order to the world.  This is obscene and blasphemous, but after the President’s forceful takeover of a church and eviction of its members and priest—who were engaged in treating the injured from earlier police brutality—all for the sake of a photo op with an upside-down Bible through the use of teargas and flashbangs, vile and horrific as it is, this is nothing new we wouldn’t otherwise expect from him.

So, Themis. Alright then. They want to invoke Themis? Then let’s fucking invoke Themis right and right now.

O Themis, lady of law and custom of the divine!
Let your law stand against the grandest crime
against the gods, hubris itself, in defacing your name
with their mortal, miasmatic horrors!
Aid us who too rise up and, with Nikē and Tukhē in tow,
bring us out of struggle and strife!
May we always honor your name and fane
in the fame and honor you deserve,
and may those who take it in vain toil in vain,
wailing in sorrow as you hold them to account
for their crimes against man and god,
all of us the children of Zeus the Father of All!
How dare they profane your name,
how dare they profane the honor of their brethren,
how dare they continue in their hubris and crimes
against divinity, divine humanity, and nature divine!
Themis and all the gods,
support us who must work to end this,
and aid us in this our work!
Yours is good, divine order;
it is for us to know ourselves and our proper place in it.
Woe to the transgressors of their bounds;
you set their own tormentors upon them!
For too long has good order been transgressed by callous wickedness.
Help us, help us, o kindly-minded Themis!

It’s rare I do a tweet-thread (which is what this prayer was done in) while lying in bed. It’s even more rare that I’m pushed to composing a fire-and-brimstone extemporaneous, prayer on the spot.  As a result, I apologize for any crudeness or sloppiness in the prayer; this was more of an ejaculatory prayer than anything, but perhaps it’s that instant hot fire of righteousness that something useful can come out of it.  Bonus points, too, to those who can catch the subtle reference in the final line.  My apologies to my Twitter and Facebook followers who just saw this posted on those media, but this was too good—and too important to me—to not also share more centrally on my own blog.

How fucking dare they.

P.S.: Also, while you’re reading this, help encourage good law, good order, and good justice by supporting a good and worthy cause, especially one local to you! Here’s a masterthread on Twitter by the inestimable Molly Conger (@socialistdogmom) who compiled resources on who to donate to, what to sign, and who to call to help support the current protests and causes going on around the USA!

Genius in the Picatrix: Associations of the Four Powers

Last time, we started talking about a particularly interesting bit of the Ġāyat al-Ḥakīm, the “Goal of the Wise”, sometimes just known as the Ġayah, but definitely better known in the West as the Picatrix, most likely written in Arabic sometime in the middle of the 11th century CE. Everyone knows the Picatrix, everyone loves the Picatrix; it’s a fantastic text of astrological magic, and among the earliest of true grimoires in Europe. Although focused on what we’d nowadays call stellar image magic, the creation of astrological talismans bearing magical images and scenes made under particular stellar configurations, the text is famous for its wide inventory of bizarre magical concoctions and confections for a variety of purposes, its lengthy invocations to the planetary spirits, and its preservation of older pagan practices from the Hermetists, Sabians, Nabataeans, and various other Mediterranean peoples. It is not, however, a particularly theurgical text on the whole, even though it contains a wealth of information on philosophy, spiritual and cosmic frameworks, and the like in how and why magic works the way that it does. Yet, in book III, chapter 6, we encounter an interesting section on the “Perfect Nature”, a sort of guiding spirit or genius, originally encountered by Hermēs Trismegistus himself. The last post discussed what we would need to do to prepare for the ritual of communing with Perfect Nature; if you need a refresher on what we talked about last time, go read the last post!

At this point, we know we need to have the altar set up in a particular way: a bowl of butter/walnut oil/sugar/honey candy in the middle, four pint-sized pitchers of wine around the altar, and four pitchers of a particular kind of fat around the altar as well: almond oil in the east, walnut oil in the west, butter in the south, and sesame oil in the north. There’s more prep to be done beyond this, but I want to take a second to look at the symbolism hidden here and to expand on that a bit, because I’ll bet that the order that the containers of oil and butter are presented in the text (almond oil in the east, walnut oil in the west, butter in the south, and sesame oil in the north) is probably important.

Remember earlier how we drew dichotomies between the four spirits of Perfect Nature, with Meegius/Tamāġīs and Nufeneguediz/Nūfānāġādīs as one dichotomy (perception vs. interaction) and Betzahuech/Baġdīswād and Vacdez/Waġdās as another (substance vs. essence)? In the order of Meegius/Tamāġīs, Betzahuech/Baġdīswād, Vacdez/Waġdās, Nufeneguediz/Nūfānāġādīs , this would suggest that we’d put Meegius/Tamāġīs in the east, Betzahuech/Baġdīswād in the west, Vacdez/Waġdās in the north, and Nufeneguediz/Nūfānāġādīs in the south, which doesn’t fit the dichotomy scheme when thought about in terms of directions. But the Picatrix also notes that of these four spirits, there are “three spirits in matter” which are “coadunated in perfect contemplation”, suggesting that Vacdez/Waġdās (the spirit of contemplation) is set apart from the rest. We should note that, of the four containers that have non-wine substances in them, three have oil and one has butter, and that the butter is given third in the order of the containers, just as Vacdez/Waġdās is given third in the order of the list of names and contemplation given in the list of powers. So, perhaps we got our dichotomies wrong: perhaps it’s Vacdez/Waġdās and Nufeneguediz/Nūfānāġādīs that are in a better dichotomy of contemplation and labor (i.e. spiritual work vs. physical work), and Meegius/Tamāġīs and Betzahuech/Baġdīswād in another of sense and object (that which perceives vs. that which is perceived). This makes sense to me, and seems to have the altar arrangement going for it as well.

This means that we can give directional associations to the four powers of Perfect Nature, too, to the rest of our correspondences:

Power Power Direction Fat
Meegius/Tamāġīs Senses East Almond oil
Betzahuech/Baġdīswād Objects West Walnut oil
Vacdez/Waġdās Contemplation South Butter
Nufeneguediz/Nūfānāġādīs Labor North Sesame oil

And, if we tie this back into our revised vignette of Hermēs Trismegistus obtaining the four powers of Perfect Nature from the four corners of Heaven, then we know which direction to face for each individual power, which could come in use for other works, but about which book III, chapter 6 of the Picatrix says nothing. These associations could certainly be explored more, but it’s not so important for the present ritual—though, as noted before, the Moonlit Hermit does use these direction associations loosely for a daily invocation of the names of the Perfect Nature.

Also, if Vacdez/Waġdās is associated with the butter and Betzahuech/Baġdīswād with the walnut oil, then what should we make of the candy made from butter and walnut oil that takes prime position in the center of the altar? This makes the confection a mixture of the spirit of contemplation (Vacdez/Waġdās) with the spirit of “things to which spirit is attracted”; this confection, then, becomes something like a symbol of Alpha and Ōmega of Perfect Nature combined. Consider it this way: we proceed from pure contemplation (Vacdez/Waġdās) through the senses (Meegius/Tamāġīs) effected by the hands (Nufeneguediz/Nūfānāġādīs) onto an object (Betzahuech/Baġdīswād). It’s probably no surprise that this confection has four ingredients, though such a confection made from almond, sesame, and walnut oils with butter alone probably wouldn’t be particularly tasty; it’s likely that the sugar and honey are supposed to be stand-ins for the almond and sesame oils (and thus incorporating Meegius/Tamāġīs and Nufeneguediz/Nūfānāġādīs into the confection as well), but I’m not sure how that might be. The many grains of sugar could be thought of like the many small grains of sesame seeds and the sweetness of almonds like honey, or perhaps the pits of dates (the fruit of which would be more common to make sugar in the Old World before the cash crop of sugarcane came about) were thought of as almonds and the thick viscosity and dark color of sesame oil like honey. It’s unclear to me, but in thinking about this, I’m fairly confident in claiming that the four containers of fats around the altar represent the four spirits of Perfect Nature separately, and the confection in the middle represents their union. Also remember that the one candle we have in the ritual is to be set amidst this candy, the symbolism likely being the divine light of God filling the works of Perfect Nature.

I suppose there’s also something else that’s symbolic to note here regarding the use of butter. Of the four containers of fats, three of them are plant-based oils (sesame, almond, and walnut), but the last one of butter is animal-based. It’s not like other plant-based oils were unknown or unused—after all, consider olive oil or sunflower oil—which suggests that the use of an animal-based fat is important here. And, of all the animal-based fats, it’s not a normal fat, like lard or suet or tallow, the production of which involves killing the animal (and there’s plenty of that in the Picatrix). Rather, butter comes from milk, which is taken from an animal (cow, in this case) while it’s still alive and which itself encourages life. This is probably a sign that it’s living animals that are prioritized above plants (animal-based fat as opposed to vegetable-based fat), just as the internal is prized above the external (the power of contemplation vs. the other powers).

Beyond the above, there’s not a whole lot we might dig out as far as correspondences or associations might go for these four powers, nor is there a lot in terms of directional associations in the Picatrix to begin with; you might occasionally see “face south for this planet” (but all planets, if viewed from the northern hemisphere, would be in the southern parts of the sky if they’re above the horizon) or “go to the eastern side of a river” for a particular ritual, but that’s about it. Except, of course, for a beautiful image from book IV, chapter 3 of the Picatrix. There’s a whole lot more in this chapter in the Arabic Picatrix (and in the Atallah/Kiesel translation) than are in the Latin Picatrix (and thus the Warnock/Greer and Attrell/Porroca translations), but the title of this chapter in the Latin Picatrix is about the knowledge and secrets of the Chaldaeans…yet it’s really more about Egypt. A specific place in Egypt, no less, a special city that it calls Adocentyn, a city founded by Hermēs Trismegistus—but which in modern Egyptian Arabic is called El-Ashmunein. Those who are familiar with this place know it as a real modern city based on the ancient ruins of Khemenu, or Hermopolis Magna, the famous City of Thoth. The Picatrix gives us a lively description of this (Warnock/Greer translation):

[Hermēs Trismegistus] also it was who built, in the east of Egypt, a city twelve miles in length, in which he built a certain citadel that had four gates in its four quarters. At the eastern gate he put the image of an eagle, at the western gate the image of a bull, at the southern gate the image of a lion, and at the northern gate he built the image of a dog. He made certain spiritual essences enter into these, which used to speak in voices that issued from the images; nor could anyone pass through the portals without their permission. In that city he planted certain trees, in the midst of which he set up an arbor that bore the fruits of all generation.

At the summit of the citadel he caused to be built a certain tower, which attained a height of thirty cubits, and on the summit of it he commanded to be put a sphere, the color of which changed in every one of the seven days. At the end of the seven days it received the color it had at first. Every day, that city was filled with the color of that sphere, and thus the aforesaid city used to shine every day with color.

Around that tower, in a circle, water abounded, in which many kinds of fish used to live. Around the city he placed diverse and changing images, by means of which the inhabitants of the city were made virtuous and freed from sin, wickedness, and sloth. The name of this city was Adocentyn. Its people were most deeply learned in the ancient sciences, their profundities and secrets, and in the science of astronomy.

A pretty nifty place, if you ask me. The Atallah/Kiesel translation, following the Arabic, gives other details, too, but the Latin Picatrix has basically the same information as far as the city itself is concerned, although this city appears in a number of different Arabic texts, all with mostly the same structure but slightly different details from text to text. Given that we’re taking a Picatrix-centric approach, we’ll stick with what we have in the Picatrix. What I want to point out here, though, are three things:

  • This city is built by none other than Hermēs Trismegistus (or founded or otherwise centered on him, at any rate, given the historical connection to Thoth)
  • There are four gates, each with a different animal facing a different direction
  • The central citadel of the city is a tower that shifts colors every day, one color per planet for that day, to fill the whole city with light

Of the four animals used to watch over the gates to the city of Adocentyn, three should look intensely familiar to students of Abrahamic religion and modern Hermetic lodge-based systems: the four living creatures of Ezekiel 1. These are the seraphim, and seen as sacred bearers of the throne of God with four faces, that of a man, a lion, an ox, and an eagle. Later in the New Testament, Revelation 4:6-8 describes similar creatures, which are associated with the Four Evangelists (Matthew as man, Mark as the lion, Luke as the ox, and John as the eagle). Admittedly, it is somewhat hilarious to see a dog replace the station of man, but the similarities here cannot be denied. Bear in mind, too, that Hermēs took on another form as Hermanubis, the cynocephalic deity who was also related to the worship of Hermēs and Thoth, and also that the dog is a holy animal associated with Thoth along with the ibis and the baboon.

Consider what this gives us as far as the vignette of Perfect Nature, though, made all the stronger by both this and the holy city of Adocentyn/El-Ashmunein/Khemenu both being associated with Hermēs Trismegistus! We now have something directional and symbolic to latch on to for our four powers of the Perfect Nature, giving the following:

  • Meegius/Tamāġīs, the Eagle of the East
  • Betzahuech/Baġdīswād, the Bull of the West
  • Vacdez/Waġdās, the Lion of the South
  • Nufeneguediz/Nūfānāġādīs, the Dog of the North

Now, I don’t mean to say that these four powers are four individual spirits, as we discussed earlier; though some might interpret the Picatrix to say so, I think that’s a misreading of the text, and that these are four attributes, powers, skills, or abilities that the spirit of Perfect Nature can give us access to. After all, to use the Adocentyn image, the gate is not the city, but the gate provides access to it—and Hermēs as ruler of the city did empower each statue with its own presence, if not entity, to protect the city and permit only those who sought permission to enter. Besides, not only were these statues guards, however, but in other Arabic works describing the city, according to Okasha El-Daly’s Egyptology: The Missing Millennium, these were statues of “priests holding scrolls of scientific works”, and whoever wanted to learn a science “went to its particular statue, stroked it with his hand and then stroked his breast, thus transferring the science to himself”. I like the sound of this, personally.

But consider: the four living creatures (substituting man with dog) have long-standing elemental associations, too. Their use in the Golden Dawn and other modern Hermetic lodge-based magical systems is well-known, to be sure, but we even find such an association going back at least as early as Agrippa himself (book II, chapter 7), giving the lion to Fire, the eagle to Air, the man to Water, and the ox to Earth. These can also be seen as the four fixed signs of the Zodiac, with the lion as Leo, the eagle (via the constellation Aquila) to Scorpio, the man to Aquarius, and the ox to Taurus—and it’s in these four signs that many pagans and neopagans celebrate those famous cross-quarter days as approximations of the midpoints of these signs. (And, based on my own planning of geomantic holy days, this means we could also give Adam to the Bull of the West, Enoch to the Lion of the South, Hermēs to the Eagle of the East, and Daniel to the Dog of the North based on their shared zodiacal correspondences, but this is neither here nor there.)

Now, granted, we’d have to pick between the directional correspondences and those to the living creatures (Fire is given to both the East and to the Lion, but here we have the Lion in the South), but let’s stick to the symbolic association first, since we know our directions are set from our altar setup. We also know, from such texts as the Asclepius and other parts of the Stobaean Fragments in the Hermetic canon, that the Egyptians considered the land of the world to be like a body, with the head in the south, the legs and feet in the north, the right side of the body in the east, and the left side of the body in the west. This means we can tie in the four powers of Perfect Nature to the elements and parts of the body as well:

Power Power Direction Symbol Element Body Fat
Meegius/Tamāġīs Senses East Eagle Air Right side Almond oil
Betzahuech/Baġdīswād Objects West Bull Earth Left side Nut oil
Vacdez/Waġdās Contemplation South Lion Fire Head Butter
Nufeneguediz/Nūfānāġādīs Labor North Dog Water Legs and feet Sesame oil

Looking at the elemental correspondences we’ve built up by means of the animals associated with the directions for the four powers, it makes sense why these powers would have these elements:

  • The power of pure contemplation (Vacdez/Waġdās) is given to Fire, the holiest and noblest of the elements that ties us directly to the divine source of all illumination, that of the Divine. This is the purely internal power of Perfect Nature, and the one that all the other powers serve and assist with—just as the Lion is the king of all beasts. Just as we pointed out earlier with this power being associated with the only animal-based substance on the altar (butter) being more important than the rest, just as the Lion is king of the beasts, so too is contemplation king of the powers. Appropriately, although the heart was considered supreme in Egyptian thought, this is given to the head being in the South, fitting for the internal power of the mind alone.
  • The power of sense (Meegius/Tamāġīs) is given to Air. Like the Eagle from up high perceiving all around, this is the ability to spiritually perceive and know the various spiritual presences, entities, powers, influences, and impulses in the world. It is, after all, the very air that transmits sights, sounds, and perceptions from the thing perceived to the thing doing the perceiving. And, like the Eagle, once we perceive something we need, we can dive down to the river to pluck what we need, interacting with it, which leads to…
  • The power of labor (Nufeneguediz/Nūfānāġādīs) is given to Water. On the face of it, this is a little weird, as dogs are not really aquatic animals. But Water is known to link, conjoin, and commute all things—water, after all, is the universal solvent, in which all things can be mixed. The dog, too, is a beast of burden and a beast of labor, which protects us, guides us, warns us, and helps us in our ways. Likewise, being in the North, the Egyptians would have recognized this as the legs and body of the world—limbs for labor, indeed.
  • The power of objects (Betzahuech/Baġdīswād) is given to Earth, which is pretty obvious. This is the power of the material substances we work, understanding them, their properties, and their uses in our work. Just as the bull (the only herbivore of these four animals) is focused on and grazes on the produce of the Earth, this is the one power that’s entirely external and based most on the study and observation of the world itself. If we use the right hand to reach out to perceive what’s out there in the world, then we use the left hand to hold things and get a sense for what we have and can make use of.

(And, to offer a variation on the geomantic progenitor assignment, we could use these elemental associations instead of their zodiacal ones given above to instead give Enoch to the Eagle of the East, Hermēs to the Dog of the North, and Daniel to the Lion of the South, with Adam remaining for the Bull of the West. Personally, based on the actual powers alone, I’d be more symbolically inclined to give Hermēs to the Lion in the South, Enoch to the Eagle in the East, Daniel to the Dog in the North, but I can see arguments for and against any of these associations. Still, again, this is neither here nor there.)

And yes, I am aware that the use of the four animals above is perhaps particular to the Picatrix. As others before me have noted, this story of a sacred city of Hermēs Trismegistus appears a fair bit in various Islamic and Arabic occult texts, sometimes not even related to the city of el-Ashmunein/Khemenu itself but to another city, with variations on the animals. However, considering that our focus here is on the Picatrix alone, I feel like we can handily tie together these two chapters neatly into one overarching symbolic gesture.

Now, I want to be clear about this: I’m still sticking to my understanding that these four powers are not spirits unto themselves, and even if the name of Perfect Nature is referred to in a fourfold way, I don’t think that the Perfect Nature is at all separate from these four entities, and that the fourfold name of Perfect Nature is really just one name with four parts. However, in making these associations with the four gate-guards of Adocentyn, it might not be a bad idea to treat each power as a power unto itself for the purposes of meditation or spiritual work, understanding that they’re all four different aspects of the abilities of Perfect Nature, a la the Moonlit Hermit’s daily practice of calling on “the four spirits of Perfect Nature”. Personally, I’d be most inclined to recite the whole fourfold name of Perfect Nature on the misbaḥa (Islamic prayer beads) 99 times, once in each direction, but that’s just me. I suppose, given the imagery, we could face east and intone or vibrate each name, visualizing each beast manifesting in its proper direction around us, and at the end recite all four names together as the spirit of Perfect Nature (or otherwise an illuminating, enlightening ray from Heaven) descending upon us. This bears some similarities to the whole image of the City of Adocentyn, but we’ll talk about that soon enough.

Anyway, while I’m certain there’s more that could yet be said about further associations of the four powers of Perfect Nature, we are getting off-track here all the same. This was a nice detour to take, and I’m glad I was able to talk about some of the symbolic associations we could make to the four powers, but let’s be honest—even some of this feels like a stretch to me. I like the idea of it all to link the four powers to the four guardians of Adocentyn, with a relationship to one’s Perfect Nature being a sort of spiritual construction of an internal Adocentyn, but so much of this is so circumstantial and hypothetical. Still, even as that may be, it’s useful to consider to expand upon some of our conceptions of these ideas and to link them to other symbols to rely on.

At any rate, we were in the middle of preparing ourselves and our ritual area for the actual rite of communion with Perfect Nature. We’ll actually get to that next time, so stay tuned!

Dominoes and Orisha

This summer was a lot more writing-filled than I would ever have anticipated, and not just because of the whole Reviewing the Trithemian Conjuration thing, either. (I’ll stop harping on it eventually.) Really, this year was more surprising than not in a lot of ways, and one of the things I ended up getting myself into was, of all possible things, domino fortune-telling. Like…that one really did catch me off-guard, not least because I’m kinda terrible at actually playing the game. What started it all was, back on Curious Cat earlier this year, I was asked about the connections between dominoes and geomancy; since both geomantic figures and dominoes are composed of combinations of points, there’s gotta be a connection there between them, right? Nope! I have never once encountered any connection to dominoes in any geomantic text I’ve ever come across, whether traditional or modern, and I couldn’t think up any connection between them, either. I charted the different dot-patterns and tried to fit the dominoes with geomantic figures, and I just couldn’t come up with anything. They’re just too different to make simple comparisons with, and there’s not a lot else to go on. It just goes to show that just because different things kinda-sorta superficially look the same doesn’t mean that they’re connected at all.

And that’s where I intended to leave dominoes. Except…I didn’t. In fact, I pretty much outright couldn’t. Something snagged my attention hard to dominoes, and so I began researching domino fortune-telling. It might have been a spirit guide or ancestor of mine waiting for just such an opportunity, or it might have been something genuinely instinctive and curious in myself. Either way, this was something that I couldn’t simply drop, and I ended up taking it quite a bit further than was probably reasonable, but whatever.

It started with my recalling an old hand-me-down book from my brother’s neopagan days, Ray Buckland’s 1992 Secrets of Gypsy Fortunetelling, which had a brief section on dominoes. I dug the book out from the back of my dusty shelves, and started there. It seemed straightforward enough: each of the 28 bones of a double-six set of dominoes has a particular set of omens associated with it, along with meanings particular to the suits (the number of pips on either end of a bone) and weights (the total number of pips on a bone). There didn’t seem to be a lot to it, and there wasn’t a lot there to begin with. So, not being satisfied with just one book, I started to see what else was out there. Skip ahead a few months: 50 books later and half as many websites in several European languages, I ended up compiling over 150 pages of notes for the various interpretations of the bones, how they seemed to shift and turn and twist over the decades, what different authors seem to have thought about their own takes, and the like. These notes ended up getting transformed into a book format, which is now at over 200 pages and which will go to print once I finish getting a few other things wrapped up with it.

I should note that domino fortune-telling isn’t that old a practice. The earliest text I can find that describes this system of domino fortune-telling is from 1873, Mehemet Ali’s Oriental Interpretation of Dreams. This text gives a simple one-line interpretation for the 28 bones of a double-six set of dominoes, and these interpretations were later copied, sometimes vertabim from one text to another, sometimes expanded from one whole sentence to one whole paragraph. Now, I’m not ruling out the possibility of domino fortune-telling being in earlier texts or having an earlier origin than the early 1870s, but I have noticed that this type of dream-interpretation/pop-divination book (and there are dozens of examples on both sides of the Atlantic!) doesn’t include sections for dominoes before 1873, but they almost all did after 1873. (Side note: many of these texts include sections on playing card divination, numerology, astrology, and palmistry, but none include anything about geomancy, or at least, none in any reasonable way beyond the simplest of look-up tables, like in the 1884 Napoleon’s Oraculum and Dream Book, and even there, there’s no connection between dominoes and geomancy.) Even if we want to give the origins of domino fortune-telling an earlier date, we just don’t have the evidence to make it too early. After all, dominoes were only introduced into (or invented in, depending on your historical approach) Europe, specifically France and Italy, in the 1700s, reaching England and Germany only in the later part of that century, and spreading from there into the Americas after that. So, if it seems that the art of domino fortune-telling is young, then that’s because it is, because dominoes themselves are young in the West.

An interesting thing I noticed was that, as domino fortune-telling texts came over into the Americas, a particular subset of modern Spanish texts with Caribbean or Latin American origins all seemed to share a common trend not seen in other domino texts: links between dominoes with the orisha, West African deities carried over into the Caribbean and Brazil through the slave trade, with one of the most famous branches of orisha religion being a Cuban one, La Regla de Ocha Lukumí, also known as Santería. Myself being an initiated priest of Ogún in this religion, I was intrigued by this. Sure, dominoes are a huge thing in the Caribbean, and Cubans are known to start outright jihad over the game (sometimes friendly, sometimes not), but to see dominoes prescribing ritual solutions or suggesting things about orisha alongside the traditional interpretations of dominoes caught me off-guard. Sure, it’s not a lot of information along these lines, but it does exist in a handful of texts and sources, so that got me wondering how this mash-up came to be. This led to a separate strain of research alongside the rest of my domino fortune-telling investigations.

Now, bear with me here, dear reader. I know there are a few unknowns here, and I know that I’m still young in Lukumí, so there’s plenty that I don’t know. But something about the mash-up between dominoes and orisha just doesn’t smell right or feel right to me, so let me explain why. If I’m wrong, then I look forward to being educated better on it by those who know better than I do.

The thing about Lukumí (and orisha religion in general) is that, for all its own innovation and adaptations it’s had to undergo in order to survive under oppression and slavery, it’s still a comparatively rigid and closed system; it is in many ways as much an institution and religion as the Roman Catholic Church. After all, the word “regla” indicates “rule”, like the Benedictine Rule for monks in Catholicism, in the sense of there being a defined set of protocols and practices that must be followed in order for something to be considered legitimate within the bounds of orisha religion (or at least a particular type of orisha religion, like Brazilian Candomblé, Yoruba Traditional/Isheshe, Trinidadian Shango Baptist, etc., all of which have slightly different sets of protocols). This is founded on the pacts that we humans in the initiated priesthoods of orisha have made and established with orisha, and which are propagated as part of initiation into these priesthoods: if you’re a priest, you’re held to those pacts, and if you’re not in those pacts, then you’re not a priest. Within these pacts is regla; outside these pacts is…well, not a lot of note, really. To operate outside of these pacts is to operate outside regla, which isn’t looked upon favorably and wherein lies danger. This might sound like gatekeeping, but as an initiated priest myself, it’s literally my job to gatekeep: priests are the ones who maintain these pacts with orisha, and until the day comes when there are no more living priests of the orisha, these pacts will be maintained and must be defended. Orisha worship is a living and vibrant tradition, not something to be reconstructed (like Nordic, Hellenic, or Celtic practices) or approached on a whim based on something neat you read in a book that one time. To work within orisha religion is to initiate, study, train, and follow the practices and customs of your lineage based on the pacts that founded them; unlike other modern pagan or non-Abrahamic practices available in the West, orisha religion isn’t a DIY build-from-the-ground-up practice you can just do as you like with. You don’t have to initiate to worship orisha, but you do have to initiate to “work with” them (which is a turn of phrase that I find increasingly off-putting, but which I think gets my point across here).

Similarly, unlike many forms of popularly-practiced paganism, Lukumí doesn’t lend itself to free-wheeling syncretism due to the importance of maintaining these pacts and regla; you can’t just up and say that Ogún speaks through this particular Tarot card or that Oshún problems are indicated given a particular astrological transit, because neither Tarot nor astrology have any connection to orisha. Yes, there is (limited) syncretism in Lukumí, developed according to a Lukumí-specific logic, and those are valid and legitimate to varying extents depending on who you’re talking to, especially when you factor in an old-world style of Catholic saint devotion a la interpretatio Graeca. But syncretism has its limits, and when it comes to communicating with orisha or discerning their actions and recommendations, there are certain sanctioned forms of divination that are accepted by both orisha and their priests, e.g. dilogún (reading with sixteen cowrie shells), obi (reading with four pieces of coconut meat or kola nut), or Ifá (its own thing). If something isn’t sanctioned, then it’s not regla; if it’s not regla, it’s not legitimate; if it’s not legitimate, it can’t be trusted; if it can’t be trusted, it shouldn’t be used. And, well…dominoes just aren’t sanctioned for orisha-related divination, just like Tarot or runes with orisha.

There are only a small number of websites that talk about “el quenkén”, supposedly the term for (Lukumí-specific) orisha-centric domino reading based on a similar game played in Nigeria (about which I can find nothing). Unlike other topics involving either dominoes or orisha, websites about orisha-centric domino divination are really scarce, which itself suggests that this just isn’t a “thing”. In print, there are only three texts I can find that talk about this topic, the earliest being Luis Manuel Núñez’ 1989 Santeria: A Practical Guide to Afro-Caribbean Magic; the other two texts, Juan Garcia Cortez’ The Osha: Secrets of the Yoruba-Lucumi-Santeria Religion in the United States and Americas and Carlos G. y Poenna’s The Yoruba Domino Oracle, both published in 2000, offer further developments and explanations of orisha-related domino reading, often directly echoing Núñez. All three texts include the same basic information as the non-quenkén traditional domino texts, just with an added orisha flair. That there are only three texts on this topic, all of which are incredibly modern, compared to the dozens of books about obi, dilogún, and Ifá that go back a hundred years or more, gives me even more cause for concern. Further, there’s an interesting trend between these three texts:

  • Núñez’ text introduces domino reading by saying that dominoes “are not as respected or trusted as the formal oracles” of obi, dilogún, or Ifá, and many of the domino interpretations include directions to “throw [obi]” to confirm something with a particular orisha or to “go see a Santero or Babalawo” for further investigation and reading with dilogún and Ifá, respectively.
  • Cortez’ book, which mixes legitimate practices with illegitimate ones and which includes errors that would only be known to those who are properly initiated, doesn’t include the outright disclaimer that dominoes aren’t as trusted or respected as the sanctioned oracles, but he admits that he “was lucky enough to inherit [this method of reading] from my father’s Santeria book”. This rings odd to me, since Lukumí is primarily an oral tradition where one learns from observation and practice, not books. Moreover, like Núñez, many of these domino interpretations also say to go to a properly-initiated priest for further investigation.
  • y Poenna’s book says that reading with dominoes “is an explicit divination system that has been used for many years in the Yoruba tradition” (based on my research and the accounts of my elders, this statement is a total fabrication), but also says that “they are only helpful for people who are leading stable lifestyles” (what of people who have unstable ones and need stability?) and that “they are not usually read when someone is in a huge crisis” (what good of it, then?), and “often refer the querent to additional divinations using” obi, dilogún, or Ifá. It claims that “domino divination has its roots in the various earth-based systems of geomancy” (it isn’t) and that “it is possible that dominoes themselves were originally created as a means of geomantic divination” (they weren’t) but also that the practice “traces its origin to the Yoruba oracle of Ifa” (it doesn’t). Again, many of the bones instruct the reader to go to a “Pardon” or “Pi de Santo” (horrific misspellings of “padrino” and “pai de santo”, respectively, though the latter term is properly Brazilian and not Spanish or Cuban), or to a babalawo.

The evidence from the above texts speaks loudly to me: orisha-centric domino reading is inherently considered to be incomplete due to the necessary reliance on other diviners and other systems of divination and, fundamentally, cannot be trusted as a form of communication with and from orisha like what these texts otherwise claim. There are indeed times when a sanctioned oracle in Lukumí can redirect you to another priest to get more information, but these situations are well-understood and backed up by the logic of these systems; dominoes, however, do not appear to have such sanction, and it seems like it’s an intrusion into orisha religion, or at least Afro-Caribbean orisha religious culture. Domino fortune-telling on its own outside orisha religion has never had such warnings of “go to a card reader” or “do not trust this oracle more than this other older one”, but it’s only within the context of orisha religion that we see such warnings. That’s pretty telling to me that dominoes aren’t sanctioned, aren’t regla, aren’t legitimate, and aren’t trustworthy in the context of orisha-related practices. This isn’t to say that dominoes aren’t useful for divination and fortune-telling (they most certainly are!), or that diviners who also happen to be olorishas can’t use them for divination (they most certainly can!), just that dominoes should not be read in this particular way with these references to orisha, sacrifices, and the like. In other words, domino reading in general is fine, but orisha-centric domino reading is not.

Now, there is the possibility that maybe, just maybe, orisha-centric domino divination was really carried on from older Yoruba sources and used as a form of communication with orisha by some legitimate priests, weird as it may sound to us nowadays. Or, alternatively, it could feasibly have happened that this was an innovation that was invented and adopted by some legitimate priests and considered to be legitimate within their own small communities, just not a wide-spread or well-known one, and that nobody in my lineage and nobody that I’m in contact with can vouch for it due to an absence of knowledge. This kind of thing can and does happen; there are Lukumí lineages in eastern Cuba that do things incredibly differently than in western Cuba, there are legitimate differences in approach and practice between metropolitan and rural practitioners, and those who are unfamiliar with these differences can err out of ignorance and incorrectly say that different practices they’re not aware of must be illegitimate outright, even when they’re actually legitimate. This sort of unfortunate accusation can and does happen, and it can cause harm to many people when it does. So, I’m not 100% ruling out the possibility that maybe, just maybe, dominoes were used by someone in Lukumí-style orisha religion as a means of communication with orisha with good intent. But, doing what I can do to find out as much as I can find, that honestly doesn’t look like that’s the case. Orisha religion (whether in the Caribbean, Latin America, or West Africa) is much older than dominoes, what records exist about orisha-centric domino reading are all super modern, and none of the respected and well-informed elders I can contact are aware of it. While I won’t mistake evidence for proof, what evidence I have doesn’t speak well for this.

It really would be fascinating to use dominoes for communicating with orisha and obtaining their advice, but there’s no real evidence that orisha-centric domino divination is any older than I am, and judging by the accounts of my elders, there seems to be no legitimate history behind the practice. Granted, my elders are only human, but they have 30, 50, or more years in the religion with their own elders, families, and friends; heck, there’s one example saying that orisha-centric domino reading isn’t valid written by a well-known elder priestess of Yemonja all the way back in December 2005. Orisha-centric domino divination really does seem to be no more than an unsanctioned invention in trying to use the gods and sacred advice of one initiation-restricted religion in an open, unrelated practice. After all, Núñez, Cortez, and y Poenna all agree that, unlike reading obi, dilogún, or Ifá, reading dominoes is not restricted to the priesthood, but without training (which only comes about as part of initiating into the priesthood), non-initiates wouldn’t know how to interpret what orisha is properly saying and what to prescribe because of it beyond the little they have written in their books, especially when compared to the encyclopedic amounts of knowledge and lore reached through dilogún or Ifá. I mean, when you’re trying to get religious guidance and advice, you should want an initiated, respectable, trained priest who has the power, authority, license, and expertise to prescribe ritual and religious solutions, and who knows why and when such things should be prescribed.

Let’s be honest, even from a practical standpoint: no non-initiate has any business pulling the 0-3 domino from the boneyard and telling anyone (according to Núñez) that “you need to feed Eleggua a white rooster on Monday and do what Eleggua tells you to do”, especially if they themselves don’t have an Eleggua, have never thrown obi, or have never sacrificed a bird before. On top of the fact that non-initiates have no license or authority to speak on behalf of orisha, there are other things wrong with just saying even that much that non-initiates wouldn’t be aware of, especially without any particular cause or need pointed out in the reading beyond the most vague of indications, which the nature of domino reading doesn’t really get at to the same depth, breadth, or length that dilogún or Ifá would. It’s exactly like if someone whose own spiritual education doesn’t extend any further than a few meet-ups at the local new-age store were to get the Tarot of the Orishas and start doing readings “with orisha” and telling people “Oshún is on the Ace of Cups here in your querent spot in the spread, so Oshún clearly owns your head”. It just doesn’t work like that, because dominoes (with pretty much complete certainty) don’t and can’t speak for orisha, just as Tarot doesn’t and can’t speak for orisha.

If, dear reader, orisha-centric domino reading is indeed a non-sanctioned invention of popular spirituality that takes orisha from its original sanctioned context, as all the evidence I can find suggests it is, then this would be a good example of appropriation.

Now, as I said, it could still be that orisha-centric domino reading was preserved from an earlier Yoruba tradition (incredibly unlikely) or (questionably) invented either by initiates in Lukumí or by those who were not initiated yet adjacent to initiates (and who probably didn’t want to get into the hassle of properly initiating into the religion, as was/is seen with some spiritual workers who did/do prescribe orisha-related things without initiation). Still, it’s possible for people of the same overall culture to appropriate from a subset of that culture when things proper to that subset are not open to others outside it. So, while this isn’t necessarily outright cultural appropriation, it is religious appropriation. And, yes, it is true that Lukumí does grow and evolve and adapt, within particular parameters and following a particular logic, just as any living tradition does—but this just ain’t it, chief. The absolute most that dominoes might be able to indicate along these lines is that something is up with some part of your own private, priestly, or orisha practices and you might want to get that checked out, but that could apply to any sort of spiritual influence around you, not just or simply orisha (and there are many more influences around us than just them at any given moment), nor would it talk at all in the same way with the same authority, legitimacy, and clarity how dilogún or Ifá might actually talk. Dominoes might be able to speak more to (or even for) other spirits you work with, venerate, or worship, especially if they agree to it, but orisha aren’t in that category. This is, in some ways, much like how espiritismo (the Cuban, Puerto Rican, and Caribbean forms of Kardecian Spiritism) interplays with Lukumí: orisha do not and cannot talk in a misa espiritual (basically a séance), but non-orisha spirits associated with them (e.g. deceased priests or culture heroes) can touch on orisha-related things just as they could non-orisha-related things. Still, espiritismo does not and cannot stand in for divinatory or oracular message from orisha, even if some of the mechanisms seem similar, because orisha belong to a closed religion in which espiritismo has no part; the same goes for dominoes. To cross that line is to enter into intrusion into a closed, initiation-locked system and to appropriate from it.

Of course, by my own admission, I don’t think the whole history of the practice of orisha-centric domino reading can be reliably known with such a paucity of sources, and I am still young in the religion as a whole, and thus still learning quite a bit! But, from everything I can see, know, hear, and learn? Bringing something like domino fortune-telling that has no legitimate origin in regla into it (or, rather, taking things out of it for use by non-initiates with already-not-regla domino fortune-telling in the role an initiate would be expected to play within regla) is effectively appropriating and misusing the religion and divination system both. Orisha-centric domino reading does not appear to have a longstanding practice despite (a very few) claims of it being “old”, nor does it have a theological backing to support its use with orisha. And to those who say that it does, I reply: show me the odu in which the dominoes are born and that orisha can speak through them as they would the cowries, and show me your lineage of teachers (not books) who teach this method of divination, because if there is such an odu and if you have such a lineage, I’d love to know about it to properly, happily, and quickly correct my views and this post.

Barring a miraculous discovery of some truly-secret low-key divinatory practice that doesn’t properly fit into Lukumí yet validates what Núñez, Cortez, and y Poena write about the topic—and I honestly don’t think such a revelation is ever going to happen—mixing dominoes with orisha is not something I can support, nor is it something any legitimate initiate or non-initiate can really use in orisha-related or domino-related practices because of the gross disservice it does to the religion and the gross misunderstandings it makes to domino fortune-telling. And, honestly, I really hesitated whether to make known these authors and book titles. I only bring up these texts to indicate the sources I’m talking about, but I emphatically and strongly discourage the reader from reading them, both to protect what legitimate information is contained therein from those who are not initiated (and, likewise, to protect the noninitiate from them), and to prevent the various mistakes in these books from spreading further. However, on top of these books already being published, cat yronwode’s Throwing the Bones: How to Foretell the Future with Bones, Shells, and Nuts encourages readers to check out y Poenna’s book, which I think is irresponsible and dangerous out of ignorance, even if meant helpfully, so I may as well be explicit here about these books to offer some sort of correction in the public record. What’s most troubling is that at least two of the above authors, if not all three, have or at least claim initiation into Lukumí, so I’m not sure where their information is really coming from or what lineages they represent. But, based on the knowledge and accounts of my elders whom I trust, I can’t find anything legitimate or historical about this practice within the context of orisha religion.

Domino fortune-telling is something which I gladly accept, study, encourage, and am myself beginning to practice—it’s just that I should (and will) only do so responsibly outside Lukumí, not within it. There has never been too much information behind it, but I’ve been able to develop a really strong and widespread body of information for each of its symbols, which is fantastic to make it a really helpful and usable system of divination, but it’s just not on the same level as legitimate forms of divination of orisha religion. And that’s okay! It doesn’t have to be, since the focus isn’t for communicating with orisha anyway. I think that’s the best way to go about it, both for myself and for others. So, for my readers who are likewise interested in domino fortune-telling: the core stuff is good and useful, just set aside anything that mixes it with orisha. And, for my readers who are interested in orisha religion: don’t pay attention to anyone who says they’ll do an orisha reading for you with anything less than legitimate methods.

Summer update: Jailbreak the Sacred, the Salem Summer Symposium, and more!

I hope everyone’s been enjoying the Reviewing the Trithemian Conjuration posts that have been going up lately!  There are still a few more to go, but in the meantime, I didn’t want you all to think that I was just relaxing taking a vacation (as much as I might want or need to).  Rather, things have been as busy as ever, between commuting and working and Working and writing and Writing and this and that and the other, and I wanted to take a quick moment to fill you guys in on some of the things that have been happening lately.

First, a few updates about the website structure.  I decided to go through my blog archives and make things a bit easier to navigate for some of the more fun or interesting posts I’ve made, and while there’s too much to outright do a whole highlight reel of posts, I have made a few new pages for ease of navigability and readability, including adding a few goodies to the Rituals pages from old posts that discussed some rituals I apparently forgot about.

  • The About page has been updated with links to all the different categories of posts (which are also accessible on the right side of the blog page, at least while using the desktop view of the website blog).
  • Several new pages have been added to the top navbar:
    • About → Geomancy Posts: an index of all the important posts I’ve done about geomancy, geomantic divination, geomantic magic, geomantic spirituality, and divination generally.
    • About → Post Series: an index of all the different multipart series of posts I’ve written about over the years, with a summary of each series and links to each of the individual posts in each series.
    • Rituals → Candle Blitzkrieg Blessing: a ritual that utterly fills a house or dwelling with divine light for the sake of blessing it.
    • Rituals → Dream Divination Ritual: a ritual to be done while the Moon is in your ninth house for dream divination, lucid dreaming, or other forms of dreamwork.
    • Rituals → Uncrossing of the Mouth: a ritual to uncross, unbind, and free the mouth from any maleficia, cross, or curse that has settled upon it so that you can speak freely and easily once again.
  • The page Rituals → Classical Hermetic Rituals → The Headless Rite has been (finally) updated, with much of the Greek being corrected, a full transcription of the Greek provided, and more information provided on carrying out the ritual itself.

Second, I was on another podcast!  The wonderful, amazing, and handsome astrologer Nate Craddock of Soul Friend Astrology started a podcast earlier this year, Jailbreak the Sacred, where he sits down to talk with leaders, thinkers, practitioners, and activists about the intersection of mainstream religion and alternative spirituality.  After all, as he says, “spirituality in the 21st century is only getting weirder from here on out, and there’s no better time to team up with people who have walked that path before”.  It’s a wonderful and refreshing thing to listen to, and there are some great speakers already in the lineup, and it’s an honor for me to be included among them!  We spent a good hour and more talking about the intersection of my magical and religious practices, what it’s like being an orisha priest in the Afro-Cuban tradition of La Regla de Ocha Lukumí, and how that impacts my philosophy, ethics, and morality in how I approach my life and Work.  Head on over to JTS and take a listen!  And, if you use iTunes, be sure to subscribe to JTS through that platform, too!

Also, for his patrons over on Patreon, there’s an extra bonus episode of Nate and I talking about geomancy, where I give a very rough-and-fast explanation of the origins of geomancy, and I read for Nate on the air and give a full explanation of what a geomancy reading with me is like on the spot.  You’ll also be able to listen in on a special prayer I’ve written for divination, what I call the Praise of the Lord of the Unseen, which has hitherto not been published anywhere (yet).  If you’re interested, help Nate with his podcast, pitch in $10 a month, and get access to this and all sorts of other goodies and bonuses Nate has for his subscribers!

Third, I’m really super excited to announce that I will be in Salem, Massachusetts in early-mid August this year to attend, present, do readings, and generally have fun at the Salem Summer Symposium!  This is the first major event of its kind hosted by the good folk at the Cauldron Black, with the main show of events lasting from August 7 through August 11, but with other activities occurring around the city of Salem as early as August 3.  I’ll be teaming up with the wonderful Dr Al Cummins for a Double Trouble Geomancy Power Hour on Friday, August 9 from 10am to 12pm, and later on that day I’ll be presenting on my own about my recent development in geomancy-centered theurgical practices from 4pm to 6pm.  Tickets are still available, and I heartily encourage those who are able to attend to do so; there’s a massive list of fascinating talks, presentations, workshops, and other delights for the eyes and heart and mind to partake in, and that’s besides just the social fun to be had in a spot of great renown in old New England!

Last but not least, I mentioned a bit ago that the Russian occult website Teurgia.Org is working on translating some of my writings and works into the Russian language.  They’ve done it again, this time translating my old post on Ancient Words of Power for the Directions (April 2013) into Russian on their website.  If you’re a speaker of Russian, go check it out!

Anyway, that’s all I wanted to say for now.  I hope the weather is treating you all well, and that the upcoming summer solstice (or winter solstice for those in the Southern Hemisphere) is blessed and prosperous for us all!  And now, back to our regularly scheduled programming.