Setting Up a Hermetic Shrine

I didn’t intend to make a post series about shrines and the like for a Hermetic context, but after the last two posts on offerings and feasts at a Hermetic shrine which themselves followed up on a bit about the importance of a shrine lamp for Hermeticists, I figured I may as well finish what I inadvertently started as a bit of musing on my part.  I mean, I’ve spoken a bit now about what can do and when one can do it at a shrine, but what of the shrine itself?  What concerns should one have for a shrine for Hermetic practice, what should go on it, how should one maintain it?  These are all good questions, to be sure.  Unlike the last two posts, however, where I relied heavily on Hermetic testimonia and accounts about Hermēs Trismegistos to inform Hermetic practices from a backwards-looking Islamic-era perspective, there are limitations to such an approach; we were able to learn about the nature and timing of offerings, but not where.  To that end, in this post, I’ll talk about my take on Hermetic shrines based on my own practice, experience, and opinions, instead of it being anything grounded in any Hermetic text or testimony (since there’s really not a lot to go on).

First, a bit of definitions.  Personally, I like drawing a distinction between the terms “shrine” and “altar”, and while they may overlap, I do not consider them equivalent.  I think I picked up such a notion from Elani Temperance over at the Baring the Aegis blog, whose work and diligence I’ve admired for quite some time now, but the main difference in a nutshell is:

  • An altar is a place where one makes sacrifice or otherwise does work to, for, or with the gods and spirits.
  • shrine is a place where gods and spirits (or their images) are housed.

In a Hellenistic context of worshipping the Greek gods, in classical times there were two locations one had to be mindful of when worshipping a god: an outdoor altar (either a bōmos “raised platform” or bothros “pit”, depending on the specific god in question) and a temple building.  The altar was (almost) always outside, and the temple was oriented to face the altar.  Sacrifices were (almost) always made outdoors at the altar, not inside the temple building itself, even if the temple housed all sorts of sacred images, statuary, gifts, and the like; in a good number of cases, the temple was just a glorified storehouse and administrative building, while the actual religious part of a temenos “sacred district” was always outside at a comparatively dinky stone block.  This really gets to the heart of the distinction between an altar and a shrine, I think, because in a stereotypical Hellenistic context there was a good separation between the two.

Of course, that hardly can be generalized to all possible religious traditions, and there are many cases where the distinction between shrine and altar is reasonably blurred.  I mean, if you make offerings to a shrine of incense or food, then technically you’re making a sacrifice right there, which would have that shrine serve as an altar, too, right?  Or you might have a large temple space where there’s a sacred image or cult statue of a god (literally) enshrined within, and priests would set up temporary tables in front of the image for rites of sacrifice and worship; in this case, one sets up a temporary altar before a permanent shrine, and then the altar itself is disassembled after the ritual.  It may not always be required to have a separate “working space” apart from the place of a god or spirit, and although some approaches may find it useful, it’s hardly a universal thing, especially when you throw in non-institutionalized household worship into the mix, with different space and logistical constraints entirely.

And that’s one of the big concerns with Hermeticism, I think, that we need to bear in mind: Hermeticism is, by and large, not a temple-oriented practice, at least in the sense of a large permanent institution with a permanent priesthood tending to a public congregation of worshippers.  To be sure, based on our best understanding of the Greco-Egyptian origins of Hermeticism, it definitely arose within a temple-based context, led by mystically-minded Egyptian priests teaching and guiding Egyptians and Greeks in a quasi-syncretic context, but it wouldn’t be right to say that this was a focus of their duties.  Rather, they had all their temple duties as they always had for centuries and millennia: maintaining temple grounds, making sacrifices, tending to shrines, writing and copying texts, and the like.  Likewise, non-priestly people coming to the temple had a primary goal, worshiping the gods, for which they went to temple and didn’t generally linger past what was appropriate.  However, there were then (as there are now) people (both priestly and lay) for whom going to temple, participating in a sacrifice or festival, singing a hymn or two, and having that be the sum of their religious life wasn’t enough; for them, they’d want something more, something more profound, something mystical.  That’s where Hermeticism has its origins: a sort of extracurricular “meet me after class” deal for the mystically-minded, between mystically-minded priests and mystically-minded seekers.  They’d get up to this mystical stuff, seeing the Divinity behind the divinities, after their usual temple stuff; they wouldn’t ignore their temple stuff, not at all, but would build upon that as a foundation for reaching higher and deeper into spiritual reality.

To emphasize this point, consider the set and setting of the Perfect Sermon, otherwise known as the Asclepius (AH).  Among the classical Hermetic texts, AH is notable because it presents a dialogue with a narrative setting: we actually get a notion of where the dialogue takes place.  In this case, AH takes place in a temple, with Hermēs and Asklēpios already inside ready for a divine discourse, and then Hermēs sends Askēpios to fetch Tat to be present, and likewise Asklēpios proposes Ammōn also join them, at which point Hermēs says “yup, that’s good, but that’s enough”.  Hermēs gives his sermon in the temple, and “the reverence of the four men and the divine presence of god filled that holy place…and then divine love began to speak”.  After Hermēs concludes the discourse, the four of them then recite the Prayer of Thanksgiving, but note the important bit: they leave the temple to go outside to pray, and also offer nothing except prayer, not even incense.  For the purpose of teaching and religious edification, Hermēs chooses the temple as the appropriate setting, but for actual mystical practice and devotion, he leaves it and its accoutrement behind.

All this is to say that a Hermetic practice does not need to be considered something priestly, hieratic, or temple-oriented, and so the usual obligations, logistics, or the like of temple concerns do not need to be our concerns insofar as we’re talking about Hermeticism.  But, if that’s the case, and if temples are places specifically for enshrining and petitioning and propitiating the gods, then what is a Hermetic shrine for at all?  I mean, while one could certainly enshrine any number of gods (Hermēs and his crew, maybe the seven planets, maybe even Poimandrēs and/or Agathos Daimōn, and the like), none of those would (strictly speaking) be necessary for an esoteric Hermetic practice so long as they were already factored into a preexisting exoteric or temple-oriented practice.  That last part is important to emphasize, I think, because that might change the concerns one would have for such a Hermetic shrine.  For instance, if one already has an existing practice to Hermēs and/or Thōth with their own shrines, then one can just go to them for works specifically pertaining to them, either within or outside of a Hermetic context, but if one does not have such an existing practice, then maybe having a little image of Hermēs/Thōth/Hermēs-Thōth/Hermēs Trismegistos as part of one’s Hermetic shrine would be a benefit to them.

Of course, this is already getting into hypotheticals and details of a Hermetic shrine without talking about the general or high-level stuff first, so let’s back up a bit.  The biggest question to be tackled is this: for what purpose would having a Hermetic shrine fulfill?  To me, the biggest thing would be giving a Hermetic practitioner a place to do their Hermetic work, their prayer, their devotional and meditative and theurgic activities.  In this light, the focus of the Hermetic shrine would be the focus of Hermeticism, which is God—and, as I mentioned before, that would render the shrine lamp as the most important element on a Hermetic shrine, being representative not only of God itself but also of our goal of divine union with God and the quest of the soul towards God.  The shrine lamp holding a sacred flame is the sine qua non of a Hermetic shrine, and…well, after all the years of me doing things along this line, is probably the only absolutely necessary thing that I would say one might need to make a Hermetic shrine.  Beyond a handful of offering dishes for observing feasts, which is more of a utilitarian concern and convenience more than anything else and which would be put away when not in use anyway, I genuinely don’t think that anything else is absolutely necessary to be present for a Hermetic shrine beyond a shrine lamp.

In that regard, can this sort of thing even really be considered a “shrine”, at least using the terms I’ve defined at the start of this post?  I suppose not, no.  I mean, what could one do to “enshrine” God?  What image could house God itself?  As book V of the Corpus Hermeticum (CH V) beautifully points out, there is nothing that could limit God either in terms of speech or image or time, so there’s neither point nor possibility in trying to “house” God when God itself is what surrounds and fills all things.  Rather, the Hermetic shrine is a place for us to do the work we need to do towards God (and, if necessary, the gods as well).  In that light, this would really be more of an altar than a shrine—except, of course, unless we do have gods enshrined there, but let’s put that aside for now (again).  The point is that I keep calling this a “Hermetic shrine”, but I’m using the term “shrine” in a very broad way that goes against my own usual definitions in a way that muddles the distinction between “shrine” (a place where spirits are housed), “altar” (a working surface for ritual or sacrifice), and “temple” (a sacred space that contains shrines and/or altars for spiritual activities).  I suppose my calling this a “Hermetic shrine” comes from my own unspoken notion of calling any place I pray at regularly a “shrine”, while I reserve “altar” for a place I do work at on an as-needed basis.  It’s just another set of definitions, I suppose.

And even then, is a dedicated space for this sort of work really necessary?  I mean, at the end of the AH, Hermēs and crew leave the temple in order to pray, and likewise the prayer instructions in CH XIII.16 (after Hermēs guides Tat into spiritual rebirth and before he sings the “secret hymn”) say that one should pray “in the open air”.  The only other context we get for something mystically happening is in CH I, when Hermēs receives his vision from Poimnadrēs, and that was entirely location-independent when Hermēs’ “thinking soared high and [his] bodily senses were restrained, like someone heavy with sleep from too much eating or toil of the body” (i.e. a deep trance state).  In an ideal setting, worship and veneration of God would not be done at any particular temple (which would be dedicated to any number of other gods anyway on an ontologically lower level than God) but rather in the open air directly under and in the midst of the heavens; spiritual work and elevation would be done, similarly, apart and away from the body itself.  Of course, that’s all in an ideal situation; a Hermetic shrine, a place we could go to in the safety and convenience of our own homes, gives us a means to engage in the work (preparatory or no) to reach such an ideal state at some point.  To that end, while I don’t think a Hermetic shrine is technically necessary, I do think that it’s helpful to have for those as a means to concentrate and focus their prayer, meditation, and work all the same.

Anyway, let’s keep up with the high-level stuff.  If the shrine lamp and a handful of offering dishes is all that’s strictly needed for the Hermetic shrine, then what should the shrine itself look like?  I don’t personally like having such things directly on the floor, and recommend some sort of elevated surface to keep everything on, but beyond that, I don’t think the specifics matter all too much.  So long as it’s something comfortable for you to stay at for an extended period of time (to account for time in meditation, prayer, devotional work, conjuration, communion, offering, etc.), then that’s the most important thing.  For instance, I like kneeling with a seiza bench for my Hermetic stuff, which makes low tables (side tables, coffee tables, etc.) ideal for me, being not too tall for me to strain my neck by looking up or having to reach to the end of it.  Others might feel more comfortable with something at desk height where they can sit in a simple chair; others might prefer something at their waist, or even higher than that, depending on the significance they might attach towards physical elevation towards these things.  Some people state that, as a sign of respect, holy things should be no lower than one’s waist and preferably at head height or above, and I respect that, but as a matter of convenience and logistics in terms of one’s own personal mystical stuff, I don’t think that that’s as strict a concern here for the considerations of the Hermetic shrine.  So long as it’s at a reasonable height for one’s practice and is large enough to hold what one needs to put on it, then I don’t think the specifics matter.  The Hermetic shrine, in a sense, can be thought of as tool for you to use, so it should be appropriate for your use.

Should the shrine be covered with a cloth?  Again, it’s up to you; I think it’s good practice to do so, so long as you can find something appropriate. You could change out tablecloths for the Sun being in different signs of the Zodiac, or for different planet/sphere-specific rituals, or for different seasons of the year, certainly.  You could just refresh the cloth with a new one once a year to mark the passage of the Sun from one solar year to the next, or to mark some anniversary like one’s first contact with one’s HGA/Agathodaimōn.  Or you could just use just one cloth that looks nice until it wears out, or none at all.  This is more “shrine decoration” than anything to my mind, and I’ve gone back and forth on the specifics of it.  My thoughts are that such a thing is nice to have, but it’s nothing necessary.  (Besides, if one has a particularly beautiful table with an elegant wood grain or marbled surface or the like, I see no reason to let that not be a decoration unto itself.)  As for colors, white is always pleasant for divine works in general, and gold or gold-accented fabric is resonant enough with Hermetic symbolism to be more than acceptable; if one has an Egyptian or especially PGM flair, one might avoid red for general purposes due to its Set-related connotations, but otherwise, I don’t think it matters too much.

Bearing in mind the notion about facing certain directions from AH 41 and CH XIII.16, what about the placement and direction of our Hermetic shrine?  This gets a bit tricky, because those instructions specify two directions: east for morning/sunrise, and south (not west!) for evening/sunset.  We might consider a free-standing shrine that we can position ourselves around, or we might put a shrine in a southeast corner of a room that we might sit at the west (facing east) in the morning and at the north (facing south) in the evening, or just facing southeast in general (if it’s something like a corner/triangular desk).  That said, with the exception of putting something in a southeast corner and calling it a day, I find all those options kinda…awkward, really.  I dislike things like this not being against a wall and, frankly, I like using east in general for matters of the divine and holiness; as a rule, if nothing else speaks more strongly for another direction (like actual space constraints in someone’s home), placing this towards the eastern wall of a room is probably a reasonable choice for most people.  Likewise, it should be in a respectful place, ideally a room with a door that can be closed where one can have some measure of solitude and peace, which won’t have mundane or sexual activity happening within it.  This would be ideal, of course, as with any concerns for establishing a temple space, but as I’ve said before, it’s far from essential.  Do what you can as best as you can.  If the room has access to a window that faces outside, all the better.

Getting back to the shrine itself, what about things to go on it besides just the lamp?  In my post about the shrine lamp, I also mentioned that I’ve experimented with other things placed on my shrine(s) in the past, in various orders or combinations or arrangements:

  • A natural tall-ish stone, or a brick/stone pyramid, situated and rising from a bowl of water to represent the Benben mound of Egyptian cosmogonic myth
  • An image (statue, scroll, painting, etc.) of Hermēs Trismegistos, either with or without accompanying (and perhaps smaller) images of his students Tat, Asklēpios, and Ammōn
  • An image of the Agathodaimōn or HGA
  • An image of the Divine Cosmos or of Divine Nature (much as one might find in Jeffrey Kupperman’s excellent Living Theurgy: A Course in Iamblichus’ Philosophy, Theology, and Theurgy)
  • A small abstract model of Adocentyn (or, as one might consider it, Hermopolis Theia) from the Picatrix
  • A pair of images to represent the Sun and Moon, or seven such images of the seven planets
  • Images or symbols of one’s general faith and religion, especially if one syncretizes Hermeticism with another religion or practices it as a mystical approach to another religion (e.g. a crucifix for Christian Hermeticists)
  • Calligraphy of sacred words, verses, or statements of faith

These are all possibilities one might consider for their own Hermetic shrine, based on what they might contemplate, or venerate as symbols of the Creator or of Creation.  Additionally, one might also have particular images or statues, such as that of Hermēs Trismegistos or of the Sun and Moon or of one’s Agathodaimōn or whatnot, which one might venerate or actively ensoul, and thus enshrine at their Hermetic shrine (which would then render such a thing a shrine in the technical sense I established at the start of this post).  The thing about all these things, though, is that they aren’t essential to making a Hermetic shrine (that’d be the role of the shrine lamp), and are otherwise all so varied and ultimately based on personal needs and desires for such a shrine that it’s hard to generalize anything about it all.  Again, the Hermetic shrine is effectively a tool for our use, and so should be appropriate for our needs; if something doesn’t serve a purpose to us on the shrine, then it shouldn’t be there, and whatever is on there should always be oriented towards the ultimate goal of Hermetic practice.

So is that it, then?  Beyond it being some sort of raised surface off the ground with a lamp on top and a bit of space, is that all that I’d consider required, and everything else (size, height, location, direction, covering, etc.) is up to one’s own personal discretion?  Basically, yeah.  The whole purpose of a Hermetic shrine, to my mind, is to be a centerpoint of spiritual activity for one’s Hermetic mystical practice, but what does that entail?  Prayer, meditation, offerings to the gods in a Hermetic framework, works of purity and ascent, contemplation, and the like—all of this has a place within Hermeticism, to say nothing of astrological or alchemical works, even trafficking with any number of spirits ouranic or chthonic for the purposes of one’s own Work in this world.  To that end, one doesn’t need a whole lot beyond a bit of space that one can call their own, that one can turn to as a command-center of sorts, that one can trust will be there for them for works both routine or irregular.  As one’s own practice evolves, so too may the specific concerns on the shrine; at one time there may be a cross, at another an image of a solar deity, at another an image of the cosmos as some sort of astrological mandala, but always will the shrine itself be a thing to hold a bit of space apart from the rest of one’s life specifically for one’s own Hermetic endeavors.

To summarize this winding, rambling post:

  • The Hermetic shrine’s primary purpose is to act as a sacred space to engage in Hermetic mystic practices.
  • Required aspects of the shrine:
    • The shrine should be a raised surface, elevated off the floor.
    • The shrine must contain at least one thing at all times in a central and clearly-visible place: a shrine lamp.
    • There should be some sort of storage (underneath or to the side) to keep offering dishes clean and safe when not in use.
    • There should be sufficient space on the surface to hold offering dishes when in use.
  • Suggested or encouraged aspects of the shrine:
    • The shrine should be at a reasonable height for one to kneel or sit at for extended durations without discomfort.
    • The shrine should be kept in a quiet room with a door that closes to be used as a temple space in general, away from mundane or sexual activity.
    • The shrine should be kept facing the east, or positioned in a way that one could face it either east or south.
    • The shrine may be covered with a clean tablecloth.
    • The shrine may hold ensouled statues or devotional images for propitiation or contemplation.

What about actually setting up or maintaining the shrine?  I mean, lots of traditions have particular conditions and processes on sanctifying or purifying implements or space for sacred purposes, but…I mean, one can certainly do that, too, with the Hermetic shrine and every object that goes on it, and I wouldn’t argue against doing so, especially if one feels strongly or is already engaged in a temple/exoteric practice that makes use of such preparatory actions.  The most important thing for actually setting up or maintaining the shrine, though, as I see it?  Just keep it clean and set aside for Hermetic stuff.  If it gets dusty, wipe it down with a clean cloth; if something spills, clean it up quickly.  Don’t use the offering dishes for kitchen stuff again, and don’t use obviously filthy things with or near the shrine.  Maybe sprinkle a bit of holy water over the furniture before using it as a shrine, maybe do a monthly or seasonal cleansing of the shrine and all its tools as you use it.  Cleaning or maintaining the shrine doesn’t need to be a whole affair or anything beyond routine tidiness unless you really want it to be.  To be sure, the more thorough and dedicated you turn everything towards, the better off things will be overall, but the more expert stuff can be left for a time when you have more expertise.  If you’re just getting started, the most important thing is to just start, and everything else will proceed from there.  You can always improve on the shrine over time, just as you improve upon yourself over time.

Based on my own experiences and practices, there are a few things I could suggest that one might keep at such a Hermetic shrine.  These are just extra tools or supplies to have on hand for a variety of works and practices, all of which might also be kept in storage with the offering dishes if needed.  Again, nothing here is required, but the things in the lists below are those which I have personally found to be useful in fulfilling the vast majority of my regular (and a good number of irregular) spiritual operations that I get up to, or which make the things I do at my Hermetic shrine just more convenient in general:

  • Recommended tools, utilities, or fixtures of a shrine:
    • A bowl or vessel for preparing lustral water to make ablutions from (e.g. a khernibeion for khernips)
    • An aspergillum for sprinkling things with liquid
    • A bowl for making liquid offerings from
    • A cup or goblet for partaking in libations or for mystic works
    • A snuffer and trimmer for wicks of candles or oil lamps
    • A knife for cutting cloth, string, or other things
    • A set of tweezers and/or tongs for holding things at a distance or which require fine dexterity
    • A lighter or set of matches for lighting lamps or incense
    • A shawl (preferably of natural plant-based fibers and of a white or natural light color) for covering one’s shoulders and/or head while praying or engaging in particular works
    • A prayer rug (whether a small fabric carpet or a grass mat) to kneel or sit on while at the shrine
    • A shallow but wide non-porous, fireproof tray for performing particular works with
    • Small wooden or stone stands for elevating sacred images or to act as mini-altars for particular works
    • A quiet timer for meditation
    • A bell (whether one with a handle or a singing bowl/gong struck with a mallet)
    • A set of prayer beads for reciting chants
    • A book of prayers and ritual to recite and perform
    • A book of sacred texts or scriptures to read and contemplate
    • Clean white washcloths
    • Glass jars with airtight lights for storage of liquids, powders, or the like
    • A wastebin with liners/bags for any detritus or rubbish for immediate disposal
  • Recommend supplies for works and operations at a shrine:
    • Clean water
    • Olive oil
    • Wine
    • High-proof neutral alcohol
    • Coal for censers and loose incense
    • White chalk, whether for drawing out patterns or crumbling into powder
    • Pens, ink, and clean paper
    • Twine or string made from hemp, cotton, or linen
    • Natron
    • Pure salt (whether sea salt or rock salt, or one might have different kinds available for different purposes)
    • Pure soil or sand

Still, all these are just things I might recommend as extras that might be good to have on hand, all of which may depend more importantly on your own practice, and any of which might be called for or not depending on the direction you take things in for yourself.  The big thing to remember is that, so long as the shrine lamp burns, there’s a Light to guide you, and beyond that, the shrine gives you a place to pray, read, meditate, and work.  There doesn’t need to be a whole lot else to this, and in this regard, simplicity really can be (and is) best.  At times, I do find it helpful to have separate shrines or work-spaces for different traditions or styles of work; in that regard, while the Hermetic shrine might be good for a good number of operations, it may not be good for all possible works one might get up to.  Still, not all such work-spaces need to be permanent fixtures in one’s temple space, or sometimes one just needs to do enough for a spirit or god to take care of the rest.  Just as the Hermetic shrine gives us a focus for our Hermetic work, so too should we be focused on Hermetic stuff while we’re at it; that’s the big thing to remember, and everything else will take care of itself from there.

Lighting the Shrine to Light the Way

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

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

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

  • A natural tall-ish stone, or a brick/stone pyramid, situated and rising from a bowl of water to represent the Benben mound of Egyptian cosmogonic myth
  • An image (statue, scroll, painting, etc.) of Hermēs Trismegistos, either with or without accompanying (and perhaps smaller) images of his students Tat, Asklēpios, and Ammōn
  • An image of the Agathodaimōn or HGA
  • An image of the Divine Cosmos or of Divine Nature (much as one might find in Jeffrey Kupperman’s excellent Living Theurgy: A Course in Iamblichus’ Philosophy, Theology, and Theurgy)
  • A small abstract model of Adocentyn (or, as one might consider it, Hermopolis Theia) from the Picatrix
  • A pair of images to represent the Sun and Moon, or of the seven planets
  • Images or symbols of one’s general faith and religion, especially if one syncretizes Hermeticism with another religion or practices it as a mystical approach to another religion (e.g. a crucifix for Christian Hermeticists)
  • Calligraphy of sacred words, verses, or statements of faith

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Genius in the Picatrix: Ritual Prep and Setting the Altar

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 went on at length analyzing the meaning of the vignette of Hermēs Trismegistus encountering Perfect Nature; if you need a refresher on what we talked about last time, go read the last post!

So, after the vignette, or rather as part of it, Perfect Nature introduces itself to Hermēs Trismegistus.  But he doesn’t just stop there (Warnock/Greer translation):

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

At this point, Perfect Nature describes a ritual to Hermēs Trismegistus to be done to invoke the Perfect Nature as a form of divine communion.  According to the Picatrix, which itself claims that all this is according to the Kitab al-Isṭamāḵis/Liber Antimaquis, “the ancient sages used to perform this working every year” (the Atallah/Kiesel translation says “once or twice a year”) “for the sake of their spirits, so that they might put in order their Perfect Natures”.  The Picatrix also goes on to say that Aristotle himself claims that this allowed the ancient sages to have “his proper virtue infused into him by exalted spirits, by whose powers their senses were closed, their intellects opened, and sciences revealed to them”, and that “this virtue was conjoined with the virtue of the planet ruling the radix of the nativity” (i.e. one’s ruling planet, the almuten of one’s natal chart) “so that the virtue thus co-created in them strengthened them and gave intelligence to them”, and that in this way the sages “helped themselves in their knowledge and understanding, and the increase of their business and possessions, and guarded themselves from the plots of their enemies, and did many other things”.

Warnock and Greer make an important observation at this point in their translation:

This entire passage is reminiscent of the Poemandres, the first dialogue of the Corpus Hermeticum, in which Hermes has a conversation with a similar spiritual being.  The ritual that follows is of great interest; it seems to bridge the gap between classical rituals for evoking a guardian spirit, of the sort found in the Graeco-Egyptian magical papyri, and early modern rituals for the same purpose such as the famous Abramelin working.

Based on the ritual that follows and everything we already know about the Perfect Nature, I’m absolutely in agreement with them.  Perfect Nature is already being presented through the vignette as an actual spirit one can interact with, and is described as a sort of spirit that neatly fills the role of genius, tutelar, agathodaimōn, or guardian angel.  What’s interesting about the Picatrix, however, is that it also breaks out the single entity of Perfect Nature into its four works of Meegius/Tamāġīs, Betzahuech/Baġdīswād, Vacdez/Waġdās, and Nufeneguediz/Nūfānāġādīs, each corresponding to a particular power—or individual spirit, if you choose to interpret the Picatrix that way.  In either case, Perfect Nature is both one and many: a single entity with distinct powers, or a single entity as a collective of four spirits.  I lean towards the former interpretation, as discussed earlier.

According to the Latin Picatrix and its translations, the ritual to commune with Perfect Nature is to be done when the Moon is in the first degree of Aries (i.e. between 0°0’0″ Aries and 0°59’59.999…” Aries); it does not matter whether the ritual is done during the daytime or nighttime, so long as the Moon is in this degree of Aries.  On average (and this can vary incredibly depending on the specific speed of the Moon at this time, based on where the Moon’s apogee/perigee is relative to the first degree of Aries), this gives you a window about 110 minutes long on average, or a little less than two hours, once every 28-ish days.  This also puts the Moon starting a new sidereal cycle, coinciding with:

  • The first lunar mansion, An-Naṭḥ (Alnath), which is good “to go on a journey, so as to travel safely and return in good health…to place discord and enmity between husband and wife, and between two friends so that they become enemies, and to sow discord between two allies…to cause servants to flee” (book I, chapter 4), as well as “for destruction and depopulation” (book IV, chapter 9).
  • The first face/decan of Aries, “a face of strength, high rank and wealth without shame” (book II, chapter 11), which makes one to be “always victorious in battle, litigation and controversy and gain what they wish, and are never defeated; and…to hinder the milk of beasts and destroy their butter” (book II, chapter 12).

Granted, these observations are really more for making talismans in the vein of stellar image magic than anything connected to the present ritual, although the notions of “going on a journey safely and in good health” along with “strength, high rank, and wealth without shame” and victory without defeat are always nice suggestions, too.  What matters most is that the Moon is in the first degree of Aries; if you wanted to put a nice touch on it, you could aim for this to coincide with a planetary hour and/or day corresponding to the planet that governs you, or have a sign of that planet rising or culminating, but these are secondary concerns at best.  However, in the Atallah/Kiesel translation of the Arabic Picatrix, the phrasing is given somewhat differently: “when the Moon comes down to the level of the Head of Aries at any time in either day or night”.  This might be a poetic or idiomatic way of saying the same thing the Latin Picatrix is saying (“cum Luna in primo gradu Arietis fuerit in die vel in nocte”), but it could be interpreted in other ways.  For instance, knowing that the first lunar mansion is associated with the star β Arietis (Sheratan, the lower/first horn of Aries), we could do away with signs and lunar mansions entirely and link the entire ritual to the conjunction of the Moon with this star, ignoring the effects of precession.  Still, I think the simple explanation here is the easiest and most straightforward: the ritual is to be done in that brief window of time when the Moon is in the first degree of Aries.

Taking a step back, now that we know when to do the ritual, what about preliminary purification or other spiritual preparations to be made ahead of the ritual?  Although the Picatrix doesn’t really say much about this, it does say that the philosopher Tintinz the Greek (طمطم الهندي Ṭumṭum al-Hindī in the Arabic Picatrix, a name known to students of geomancy as a student of Hermēs Trismegistus) claims that “one who desires to perform this work ought to abandon all intention and contemplation concerning other things, because the root and foundation of all these workings consists of contemplations” (see above about the role of contemplation as the main vehicle for empowering images), and that either the philosopher Caraphzebiz (in the Arabic Picatrix, كرفسايس Karafsāyis?) or his student Amenus (in the Latin Picatrix, who is not mentioned in the Arabic Picatrix as far as I can tell), likewise says that (Warnock/Greer translation):

…any sage who wanted to work magic, and preserve himself with the powers of the spirits, ought strictly to give up all cares and all other sciences beside this one, because when all the senses and the mind, and all contemplations about other things, are strictly turned to magic, it may be acquired with ease; and since many assiduous contemplations are appropriate to this science of magic, the magician must wrap himself in these, rather than being wrapped around any other things.

In other words, yeah, works of purification and other preliminary preparations of the mind, spirit, soul, and body should be undertaken before this ritual, even if only to refine the focus and desire of the person who undertakes it.  This is especially backed up by what Ibn Khaldūn says in the Muqaddimah:

A man is said to have done this after he had eaten but little and done dhikr exercises for several nights. A person appeared to him and said, “I am your perfect nature.” A question was put to that person, and he gave the man the information he desired.

So, based on this, I would suggest engaging in a period of fasting accompanied by works of steadfast devotion and sincere prayer, especially the repetition of divine names or chants (perhaps including the Four Names of Perfect Nature as well?), at least for three days leading up to the ritual, but more preferably seven or longer, perhaps even for a full lunar month starting from the previous time the Moon entered the first lunar mansion.

Before or during this preparatory period, gather together the following supplies:

  • Almond oil
    • If one has an allergy to nuts, substitute with a neutral oil not otherwise listed here.
  • Walnut oil
    • Warnock/Greer and Attrell/Porreca both only say “nut oil” based on the Latin “oleum nucum”, but Atallah/Kiesel specify “walnut oil” for دهن الجوز duhn al-jawz.  The word there can mean nut generally, but it is used specifically for walnuts as well.
    • If walnuts are a no-go, use another nut-based oil that is not almond oil that’s sweet and good for baking or in cooking desserts, like hazelnut or macadamia nut.
    • If one has an allergy to nuts, substitute with pine nut oil.
  • Sesame oil
    • Atallah/Kiesel say “vinegar oil”, and I have no idea what they mean by that.  Perhaps a thick, reduced vinegar, like a balsamic vinegar?
    • The Arabic phrase used for this is دهن الخل duhn al-ḵall, which does literally mean “oil of vinegar”, and is called for in another part of the Picatrix (book III, chapter 11, “that you may appear in the form of any animal you wish”), where, again, the Latin Picatrix renders this as “sesame oil”.  There are also other Latin works based on Arabic works that do seem to regularly translate sesame oil for “oil of vinegar”.
    • The confusion here is between دهن الخل duhn al-ḵall (oil of vinegar) and دهن الحل duhn al-ḥall (oil from whole sesame seeds).  In Arabic script, the difference is of the presence or absence of a single dot, which can confuse the two meanings.  In general, it seems that the use of “vinegar” here is a typo in the Arabic, given how common it was across the Mediterranean to translate this phrase as “sesame oil” into a variety of languages by different translators.
    • I suppose, however, that one could make an argument that this is something more alchemical than anything else (a la “oil of egg” or “oil of gold”), but this seems unlikely to me.
    • I would most recommend sesame oil (reading it as duhn al-ḥall), as it makes the most sense in this context, though if the vinegar approach were taken (reading it as duhn al-ḵall), this would probably be implied to be balsamic vinegar.
  • Cow’s milk butter
    • I’d recommend unsalted butter, personally.
    • Although there exist non-dairy butter substitutes, I cannot recommend their use due to the symbolic importance of this having come from a living creature (more on that later).
    • In the case of an extreme allergy to dairy, I might recommend the use of shea butter or cocoa butter, but only as an extremely limited case.
  • Wine
    • Atallah/Kiesel just say “alcohol”, though the word used in the Arabic Picatrix is خمر ḵamr, wine.  However, no specific type of wine is mentioned in the Latin Picatrix or its translations.  My personal preference would be a semi-dry white wine, and barring that a light sweet red wine, but that’s just me.
  • One large glass serving dish
    • A large low glass bowl would be perfect for this, even better if it had a separation in the middle (a la a chips-and-dip serving platter).
  • Eight glass pint-sized pitchers or tumblers
    • Each of these holds the wine, oil, or butter.  Warnock/Greer say that each of these pitchers “should have a capacity of around one pint”, while Attrell/Porreca and Atallah/Kiesel both say that these pitchers should be big enough to hold one pound of the wine, oil, or butter.  Checking WolframAlpha, making these to be pint-sized containers does in fact check out.
    • However, that assumes we know exactly which “pound” is intended for use.  One avoirdupois pound (standard in the modern US) is 453.6 grams which is equivalent to 497mL or 16.8 fl oz, but there are other definitions of pound out there historically, too, and may be closer to what was intended in the original Picatrix (using olive oil as a neutral base for unit conversion and comparison here):
      • Roman pound, equivalent to 328.9 grams (360mL, 12.2 fl oz)
      • Byzantine gold pound, which was originally 327.6 grams (359mL, 12.1 fl oz) but decreased over time to about 319 grams (349mL, 11.8 fl oz)
      • Byzantine silver pound, equivalent to 333 grams (365mL, 12.3 foz)
      • Byzantine oil pound, equivalent to 256 grams (280mL, 9.48 fl oz)
    • Based on these, I’d personally go with the Byzantine oil pound, which means instead of using pint-sized (16oz) pitchers, one needs more like 10oz containers, so a little more than half that size, about the size of a standard disposable styrofoam cup or a little more than halfway of a Solo cup.  I think this is fine, especially as almond oil or walnut oil can be expensive.
    • No material for these pitchers is specified, though I’d recommend glass to match the large serving dish above and the symbolism of the glass lantern in the vignette.
  • Sugar
    • Date palm sugar would be best if you wanted to go for cultural or historical accuracy.
  • Honey
  • Coal
  • Incense blended or compounded from frankincense and mastic
    • Atallah/Kiesel say “kandar, a good-smelling glue”.  From what I can find, this is actually a Persian term that just refers to frankincense, but probably high- or top-grade milky-white frankincense.  However, a gloss in the footnotes says that either a part of this phrase that references what to use (بالكية والكندر) is either just frankincense or is frankincense and mastic.  I’d go with using both.
  • Aloeswood (aka oudh or agarwood)
  • One tall candle
  • Two braziers for burning incense
  • A table

Before the ritual, physically clean and spiritually cleanse the ritual area so that it may be made “clean and splendid”.  Although the Picatrix says “house” here, this should better be understood to mean one’s temple space or ceremonial chamber—though cleaning and purifying the whole house where this would take place certainly wouldn’t be a bad idea.

Once the ritual area has been appropriately cleaned and cleansed, prepare the altar.  On the eastern side of the ritual area, set up a table (a card table, coffee table, etc. would be perfect for this).  The Warnock/Greer translation says “a raised table”, the Attrell/Porreca translation “a table raised from the ground”, and the Atallah/Kiesel translation “a table…on a step higher than the ground”.  What we’re looking at is a table set on a dais or other low platform, with the dais probably no more than a foot in height.  For comfort’s sake, I’d recommend the dais be a little larger than the table itself, but not too much so.  An impromptu platform made from bricks, a piece of plywood supported by some low cinderblocks, or the like would be perfect.

Before setting up the altar, a particular kind of sweet confection must be made with butter, honey, walnut oil , and sugar.  Based on the Latin and Latin-translated Picatrix alone, this may look like a sweet whipped creation, much like a buttercream frosting.  Atallah/Kiesel, however, say that this is “a candy” (later, “candies”, suggesting less a mass of substance and more parceled-out bits of it) made with “lots of sugar” and that “it needs to be very sweet and heavy on oil”.  Rather than buttercream frosting, what this may mean is to aim for something closer to toffee or butterscotch candy.

The altar should have the following things on it:

  • One pint-sized pitcher of almond oil, set towards the east on the altar
  • One pint-sized pitcher of walnut oil, set towards the west on the altar
  • One pint-sized pitcher of cow’s milk-based butter, set towards the south on the altar
    • This could be solid or melted or something else; given the presence of liquid oils for the other three such containers, melted butter or even clarified butter may be meant here.  My preference would be for whipped or otherwise non-compacted butter.
  • One pint-sized pitcher of sesame oil, set towards the north on the altar
  • Four pint-sized pitchers of wine, one placed to each of the four directions on the altar
    • These may be placed immediately to the side of the containers of the oils and butter along the edge of the table, or just beside them closer to the center, or with the pitchers of wine on the outside and the pitchers of oil and butter on the inside.
  • A glass dish filled with the candy/confection made from cow’s butter, walnut oil, honey, and sugar, placed in the center of the altar
    • No description of the containing dish is given beyond “glass”, but to my mind, simple clear glass would be best; the other containers for wine and oil would best be made of the same material, ideally even in a matching style.
    • Clear a space in the center of the dish to hold the candle later, if at all possible.

I suppose, of course, that one could also cover the table with a tablecloth; I’d recommend a white linen cloth that hangs down generously around the table, but that’s just me.  None is mentioned in the original text, so we’d be fine without it.

In addition to preparing the ritual space and the altar, we also need to prepare two braziers or censers, one to burn a mixture of frankincense and mastic (or just frankincense, maybe? per the Arabic Picatrix), the other to burn aloeswood, but the Picatrix does not say where to put these things.  If free-standing braziers are to be used (which seems to be the best practice here), I would put the one with frankincense and mastic to the north of the altar and the one with aloeswood to the south, at least three feet away on either side, depending on how much space one has available.  If smaller censers are to be used, they may be put on platforms of their own (milk crate-sized boxes would be perfect, or taller standing pillars if you wanted to be fancy) in the same positions.  Other options for using smaller censers could be to put them directly on the altar itself (I’d recommend keeping to the north/south positioning halfway between the cups and the dish) or underneath the altar directly on the dais (which I don’t find likely or recommended here at all).  The brazier approach, or otherwise keeping the censers off and away from the altar, seems to be the most reasonable.

Unlike other parts of the Picatrix that specify the metal to be used for the censers (e.g. book IV, chapter 2), no description of the material is given, so it probably doesn’t matter.  Simple braziers, made from a steel or iron bowl or chafing dish to hold the coals and incense and supported on metal or wooden legs as a tripod, or otherwise simple small censers, would really be best, especially given the simplicity of the ritual as a whole.  However, if you wanted to customize this aspect of the ritual setup for yourself based on other Picatrix practices for your own ruling planet, the metals from book III, chapter 7 would be good to observe:

  • Saturn: iron
  • Jupiter: tin
  • Mars: bronze or brass
  • Sun: gold
  • Venus: electrum (gold and silver alloy)
  • Mercury: “fixed mercury” (mercury alloy)
  • Moon: silver

If you wanted to go the extra mile, you could also make a special censer for yourself based on the instructions given in book III, chapter 5.  Such a censer would be best used for works with a particular planet, to be made with that planetary metal in the form of a hollow cross, open at the top to allow smoke to exit, and with the container for the coal/wood/fire and the incense underneath such that all the smoke of the incense would flow up through the cross and out the top.  This also has the beneficial symbolic association of smoke rising up a single channel, in the sense of rising up from a pit or straight up to Heaven in our inverted vignette.  Again, this is almost certainly and entirely unnecessary for the present ritual, but the Picatrix does have quite a lot of tech to share.  For reasons that we’ll get to later, a more general metal or material rather than one specific to any given planet might be better; better to keep it simple.

And yes, of course, for those who are operating on a budget and cannot afford braziers/censers, frankincense/mastic resin, and aloeswood (whether as whole wood chips or as powder), using self-igniting stick or cone incense is also acceptable.  It’s definitely better to go with loose incense on coals, especially as stick and cone incense tends to be compounded with fillers and other scents, but it’ll work for those who need it to work.

All this is a lot to talk about the initial ritual prep, but there’s still more to talk about along these lines, not to mention the ritual itself.  That’ll be in the next post, so stay tuned!

De Regnis: Altars and Sacred Spaces

Although most of my writing is visible and accessible through my blog and my ebooks, there are a bunch of writing projects that I don’t necessarily intend for public release.  When I was recently going through my old documents folder on my computer, I found a writing project I had intended to be a compendium of Hermetic and Neoplatonic knowledge, guidance, and advice that would serve to document my understandings and work as a textbook unto itself, both for my benefit and any who might come after me.  This project, De Regnis or “On Kingdoms”, got pretty far along before it got abandoned, though parts of it serve as seeds or are outright cannibalized for some of my other works.  Though I have no plans to continue writing this text, I want to share some of the sections I wrote that can act as a useful introduction to some of the practices of Hermetic magic in a modern context.  My views and practices and experiences have grown considerably since then, but perhaps it can help those who are just getting started or are curious about how to fortify their own practices and views.  If you have any views, comments, suggestions, or ideas on the topics shared in this post, please feel free to share in the comments!

Today’s selection will be on the topics of altars and sacred spaces.

On Altars

Altars are important in the work of any spiritual person, as they provide a focus for one’s work.Altars may be any sacred place where one addresses the gods or spirits, or where one performs rituals or sacrifices at. At its most general, an altar is a dedicated spot that is not one’s own but so that one may work with the larger cosmos. Altars can take many forms, but are most often raised platforms, from the size of large hills to small corner tables or portable boxes. Depending onthe purpose of the altar or its target of sacredness, however, the altar may also take the form of a pit, a cast iron cauldron, or some other focus of reverence and spiritual power. Although all altars express the same idea of a place where one interacts and works with the sacred and the spiritual,altars commonly fall into two main categories based on their primary use: devotional altars for divine sacrifice and operational altars for magical ritual.

Devotional Shrine. The devotional shrine is a place or surface, such as a table or a cairn, where one makes prayers, performs sacrifices, and exalts the Divine. Holy symbols or images, such as statuary or icons, are common at devotional altars, and such altars are commonly decorated or embellished in manners pleasing to the devotee and devotor. Devotional altars may be prepared for accepting sacrifices of liquid, blood, meat, fire, incense, or other offerings as deemed acceptable by both spirit and man alike, or may be simple surfaces where one presents plates or bowls of the offerings to them. Devotional altars may be a single surface with many spirits or gods represented on them, or one may have multiple such altars each dedicated to a particular divinity. Any spirit, force, or god to be communed with or revered should have at least some representation and offering at an altar.It is always recommended to have at least one candle burning at all times on a devotional altar, or at least while one is making devotions there.

Operational Altar. As opposed to the devotional altar which is intended for prayers and sacrifices, the operational altar is a construction specific for the magus to work magical ritual. While supplicating the Divine may be done at the devotional altar, the operational altar is intended for a magician to directly contact and work with the forces of the cosmos directly or through the conjuration and invocation of other spirits. Instead of offering sacrifices, the operational altar typically holds the tools of the Work, such as wands, chalices, candles, talismans, and other such magical goods in order to perform ritual. Operational altars may be used for consecrating, blessing, en-chanting, or otherwise empowering objects to be made into talismans or amulets; for conjuration of spirits and angels; or for other particular magical endeavors such as energy work and healing. The primary distinction between an operational altar and a devotional altar is that operational altars are for one to interact with the cosmos on one’s own, while a devotional altar is for one to interact with the divinities and spirits of it on their own

Altar Care. Whether an altar is intended for one’s devotions or one’s operations, it is necessary to keep altars in good condition. Unless one has the direct suggestion from a spirit, altars should be kept clean and free from debris, dust, and all filth. Old offerings and sacrifices should be removed from the altar when the offerings have been consumed, usually immediately after the ritual or a day or so afterwards, depending on the spirit. Ash, extra herbs and powders, and loose supplies should be disposed of appropriately. The altars should ideally be kept hidden from outsiders or anyone who does not work with them, preferably in a separate room free from pollution and miasma; however,when in public or in a space where guests may be present, covering the altar with a clean cloth used only for that purpose may suffice. Before approaching an altar, one should be clean and purified physically and spiritually. Just as with one’s tools, altars should be taken care of for as long as they are in use. When an altar is no longer required, all its tools and equipment should be respectfully removed, a prayer or working done to officially deconsecrate the space or furniture used for the altar, and the furniture respectfully removed or given away.

On Sacred Spaces

Just as an altar provides a concentrated focus for one’s spiritual activities, larger spaces may also be used for devotion and ritual. While altars may be placed anywhere, they are commonly found in nested levels of sacred spaces, while some sacred spaces have no altars or only temporary ones erected for a specific purpose for a short time. Sacred spaces may be dedicated entirely to one particular spirit or type of working, or may be more generally consecrated for any number of rituals.

Circles. A circle is the simplest form of sacred space, consisting of a closed off area for protection or purity drawn about in a circle. The use of a circle is important, though features outside the circle such as braziers or stands may be in a square, pentagonal, or some other shape. The circle itself is sacred, due to its shape and property of consisting of a single unbroken line. A circle should be drawn clockwise and erased counterclockwise, as a symbolic means to create and remove the circle. Circles may be drawn by tracing a wand or blade on the ground, or may be drawn out in paint, powder, salt, or some other material. The defining feature of a circle is that it is inherently a temporary space, though a fixed circle drawn in something permanent may be reused in multiple rituals. Circles may also be drawn to be pushed out to the boundaries of whole rooms, such as by pointing the wand or blade up at the corner edges of a room in a circle instead of down on the ground.

Temples. Unlike the temporary circle, a temple is a dedicated space for spiritual work. A temple consists of some sort of structure, from a single small room to a sprawling construction complex,which is completely given over to spiritual work. Non-spiritual work should be limited or prohibited in the temple, which may house multiple altars for separate divinities or operations. Though the word “temple” is used, it may be applied to any similar structure, such as a church, synagogue, mandir, jinja, or masjid. Personal or small-scale temples may be set up in a house by dedicating a whole room or a corner of one to spiritual work, often with an altar and keeping it separate from the rest of the house and household activities. Other structures that may be related to spiritual work but not used for spiritual work itself, such as storerooms or galleries for religious art, maybe considered part of the temple if the actual temple space used for spiritual work encloses or is connected to the other structures or rooms. While a circle may be used to interact with the spirits,the temple is often seen to be the home or residence of a spirit. Small temples, such as those which occupy only a part of a room, may often be referred to as shrines, especially when they house some sort of cult image or relic. Oratoria, or prayer rooms, may be considered a type of single-room or part of a room dedicated to prayer and devotional work.

Precincts. Enclosing whole temples, large spaces known as precincts or temenoi are large areas of land and real estate given over to a temple, often including groves, parks, lakes, or other natural features of the land. These are most often reserved for large temples, but the precinct is sometimes the temple itself, especially if a spiritual tradition has an emphasis on open-air rituals such as in ancient Greek rituals. Sacred precincts serve to provide a retreat both in body and spirit to provide an immersive environment separate from worldly matters. These sacred lands may also be seen to provide an earthly paradise for man and god alike, as well as a place where man may be closer to divinity through nature or through meditation in a large area dedicated to a particular divinity.

Space Care. Similar to altars and tools, sacred spaces must be cared for and maintained, though the area covered by a particular sacred space may be difficult to maintain. Any sacred space must be kept clean and free from miasma; regular cleaning and cleansing of the area is good, as is ensuring that all who enter are pure and cleansed. Any who try to enter a sacred space with contrary or ill desires, or with an intent to harm, steal, or defile the sacred space, should be kept from entering at all costs. If the sacred space is not meant to be opened to the public, the space should be locked or somehow protected from trespassers. If a sacred space is created for a temporary purpose, the area should be thoroughly cleaned first in every way before consecrating the area. If the sacred space is dedicated to a particular god or divinity, the blessing and guidance of that spirit should be invoked both for the consecration of the space as well as for its maintenance. When a temporary sacred space is deconsecrated, all the spirits and work there should be honored and all tools, supplies,sacrifices, and work should be respectfully removed according to the wishes of the spirits and gods there; this done, the space itself should be thoroughly cleaned once more and all altars and furniture decommissioned and disassembled in a respectful manner, followed by the invocation of the spirits there to release the area back to the world to no longer be used for a holy purpose. If a sacred space was dedicated to a particular spirit or a particular type of working, workings or worship of spirits antithetical or opposed to that consecration should not be done in that area.