On Gender in Hermeticism: Analysis, Ranting, and Questions

Whew.  After giving that whole battery of citations from classical Hermetic literature yesterday, you might be tired, and I wouldn’t blame you.  Still, I should point out that amidst the many different texts that are extant, it was just those 15 that I could only really bring up in the topic of sex and gender within Hermeticism without getting into the more technical or scientific stuff that goes over the nitty-gritty of how biological reproduction actually works (which is getting outside the scope of gender and sex in general).  That’s all that there is, just 15 small excerpts, amounting to but a few pages among many hundreds that talk about everything else.  Suffice it to say that it’s just not a major topic within Hermeticism, but it’s still there even in some small way, and it would behoove us to get a better understanding of what’s there and what it actually says.

One of the biggest issues we have when faced with discussing notions of gender in a spiritual context, especially when it comes to Hermeticism and what the classical Hermetic texts have to say on the topic, is that it’s become common in a lot of New Age and otherwise modern magical and spiritual traditions to overlay binary and largely Western notions of gender with spiritual metaphors, conflating the two to a point where it becomes hard to separate out the symbol from the referent.  All this stuff we see, read, and hear about “male = active/emitting, female = passive/receiving” is extremely dependent on your perspective, and it’s not always there in the currents we talk about.  Trying to use notions of gender to describe spiritual realities is risky, because once you phrase things in terms of gender (which is, for the most part, based on an immaterial parallel to biological sex), you’re limiting yourself in ways that sex and gender themselves are limited that are not always appropriate to what’s being actually discussed.  As a result—especially now that we’re at a point in our cultural worldview where we can more freely and honestly evaluate what gender is, what it means to be or do gender, how gender is conditioned or developed from societal roles, and the like—we end up with a hot mess that we don’t need and never needed to deal with, but here we are all the same.  This is made all the worse when we work from our modern perspectives on gender and need to understand what “gender” even meant to people from a different temporal, cultural, geographical, and philosophical context than what we grew up within, and trying to overlay our ingrained notions with older or different ones is bound to cause so much strife and conflict that it’s honestly best to start from first principles.

So, based on the excerpts we identified last time, what are some of the takeaways we can glean from the excerpts we pointed out as a whole?

  • God is androgyne, here meaning “beyond male or female”, “transcending male and female”, “neither male nor female”, or “both male and female”, depending on your cultural perspective and understanding of this word.
  • The essential human (Anthrōpos) is androgyne in the same way that God is androgyne, since the essential human is made in the image and likeness of God with God as the “father” of the essential human.
  • By extension, all things are inherently androgyne on an immaterial level (i.e. that of the soul).
  • Every instance of “androgyne”, “male”, or “female” comes about in the context of (immaterial) creation or (material) procreation.
  • Differentiated sex only comes about and only makes sense in the context of biological reproduction with material bodies.
  • Sexed bodies were only made (in the sense of the male being sundered from the female) for the purpose of biological reproduction with material bodies.
  • Male and female, as biological sexes, are both “full of fecundity”, but have different functions of fecundity, and it is their union that creates the act of procreation, as the combination of male and female returns both to an androgyne (and thus primordial human, or God-like, state), triggering new creation.

In other words, if we take this all together, then what we (or at least, what I) arrive at is the conclusion that sex is only ever about bodies, which agrees with the modern distinction between “sex” and “gender”, and doesn’t (unless you reach to make it fit) doesn’t apply to things that don’t have bodies.  However, what sets the modern notion of gender apart from the doctrines of the Hermetic excerpts pointed out before is that there is no such notion of “gender” in the Hermetic texts as we understand it nowadays; moreover, there doesn’t need to be, because the soul which inhabits (sexed) bodies is (along with God) androgyne to begin with; there is no such thing as a “male soul” or a “female soul”, or even a “male energy” or “female energy”.  To an extent, this makes sense, since the notion of gender as a thing separate from sex is a relatively modern idea and model of human identity; after all, for most of history, “gender” was something you considered when figuring out what sort of word suffixes to use in linguistics.

Consider again CH I.17—18:

As I said, then, the birth of the seven was as follows. (Earth) was the female. Water did the fertilizing. Fire was the maturing force. Nature took spirit from the ether and brought forth bodies in the shape of the man. From life and light the man became soul and mind; from life came soul, from light came mind, and all things in the cosmos of the senses remained thus until a cycle ended (and) kinds of things began to be.

All living things, which had been androgyne, were sundered into two parts—humans along with them—and part of them became male, part likewise female. But god immediately spoke a holy speech: “Increase in increasing and multiply in multitude, all you creatures and craftworks, and let him (who) is mindful recognize that he is immortal, that desire is the cause of death, and let him recognize all that exists.”

Taking this as a basis, we know that the first seven human beings were androgyne, along with all other animal life, in a sort of primordial/antediluvian Hermetic “Golden Age”.  It was only after “a cycle ended” that differentiation in sex was started.  It’s not really explained why such a “cycle” would have to “end” for this new cycle to start, except that’s what cycles do; Scott points out in his commentary that the language in this is vaguely Stoic, but this doesn’t cleanly line up with Stoic cosmology, and also hearkens to Hesiod’s mythic “ages”.  In this, I’d mark the first start of biological life in the sense that we’d understand it to be at the start of this second age rather than in the ideal first age, since biological life requires biological reproduction, and we don’t see any sort of thing discussed or mentioned in the first age.  We end up with several possibilities here:

  • Maybe the seven androgyne humans were all that there were, and no new humans were made in the first age.
  • Maybe Physis made more androgyne humans than just these after their creation, and they just weren’t discussed.
  • Maybe the seven androgyne humans parthenogenetically made more of themselves.
  • Maybe the seven androgyne humans were already making more through combinations of themselves in ways that couldn’t be described as “sex”.

Of these possibilities, only the first possibility (that it was just the seven original androgyne humans existing for an age without any further ones) seems the most likely to me.  After that, we have biological life properly starting, which requires the differentiation of bodies along sexual lines to function properly.  Splitting bodies into two just happened to work best, I suppose; after all, there’s much philosophical ink spilled about how there’s always a median third between any two things.

On this point, a friend from the Hermetic Agora Discord put something into my mind that works really well:

Also, the thing about gender is that it is a social construct.  Take this mushroom for example: “One species of fungi, Schizophyllum commune, really shines when it comes to gender diversity. The white, fan-shaped mushroom has more than 23,000 different sexual identities, a result of widespread differentiation in the genetic locations that govern its sexual behavior.”

It’s just that evolution pared it down to two for most animals to make things easier. But even that is wiggly. There is a species of all female lizards.

We know through the investigation of modern science that biological sex gets really, really weird.  Like, there’s no brooking this debate; we know for a fact that there are more biological sexes than just saying “XY= male and XX = female”, and cases where what we’d consider “male” and “female” for one species is turned on its head or rendered a moot point entirely for other species, where sometimes it’s something from birth and other times through temporal and temporary circumstance afterward.  To believe otherwise is literally to believe wrongly; when belief in what is invisible or imperceptible and which cannot be logically proved one way or another is one thing, but to not believe in the dazzling complexity of biological processes and traits that lead to a dizzying array of different sexes in pretty much every species is the equivalent of not believing in gravity or the Pacific ocean.  I mean, as that one popular anti-transphobia rant (which I believe can be attributed to a New York biology teacher) that circulates the Internet from time to time goes:

First of all, in a sexual species, you can have females be XX and males be X (insects), you can have females be ZW and males be ZZ (birds), you can have females be females because they developed in a warm environment and males be males because they developed in a cool environment (reptiles), you can have females be females because they lost a penis sword fighting contest (some flatworms), you can have males be males because they were born female, but changed sexes because the only male in their group died (parrotfish and clownfish), you can have males look and act like females because they are trying to get close enough to actual females to mate with them (cuttlefish, bluegills, others), or you can be one of thousands of sexes (slime mold, some mushrooms.) Oh, did you mean humans? Oh ok then. You can be male because you were born female, but you have 5-alphareductase deficiency and so you grew a penis at age 12. You can be female because you have an X and a Y chromosome but you are insensitive to androgens, and so you have a female body. You can be female because you have an X and a Y chromosome but your Y is missing the SRY gene, and so you have a female body. You can be male because you have two X chromosomes, but one of your X’s HAS an SRY gene, and so you have a male body. You can be male because you have two X chromosomes- but also a Y. You can be female because you have only one X chromosome at all. And you can be male because you have two X chromosomes, but your heart and brain are male. And vice — effing — versa. Don’t use science to justify your bigotry. The world is way too weird for that shit.

Likewise, this thread from @RebeccaRHelm on Twitter (minor editing for readability):

Friendly neighborhood biologist here. I see a lot of people are talking about biological sexes and gender right now. Lots of folks make biological sex sex seem really simple. Well, since it’s so simple, let’s find the biological roots, shall we? Let’s talk about sex.

If you know a bit about biology you will probably say that biological sex is caused by chromosomes, XX and you’re female, XY and you’re male. This is “chromosomal sex” but is it “biological sex”? Well, turns out there is only ONE GENE on the Y chromosome that really matters to sex. It’s called the SRY gene. During human embryonic development the SRY protein turns on male-associated genes. Having an SRY gene makes you “genetically male”. But is this “biological sex”?

Sometimes that SRY gene pops off the Y chromosome and over to an X chromosome. Surprise! So now you’ve got an X with an SRY and a Y without an SRY. What does this mean? A Y with no SRY means physically you’re female, chromosomally you’re male (XY) and genetically you’re female (no SRY). An X with an SRY means you’re physically male, chromsomally female (XX) and genetically male (SRY).

But biological sex is simple! There must be another answer.  Sex-related genes ultimately turn on hormones in specifics areas on the body, and reception of those hormones by cells throughout the body. Is this the root of “biological sex”? “Hormonal male” means you produce “normal” levels of male-associated hormones. Except some percentage of females will have higher levels of “male” hormones than some percentage of males. Ditto ditto “female” hormones. And if you’re developing, your body may not produce enough hormones for your genetic sex. Leading you to be genetically male or female, chromosomally male or female, hormonally non-binary, and physically non-binary.

Well, except cells have something to say about this.  Maybe cells are the answer to “biological sex”?? Right?? Cells have receptors that “hear” the signal from sex hormones. But sometimes those receptors don’t work. Like a mobile phone that’s on “do not disturb”. Call and cell, they will not answer.

What does this all mean? It means you may be genetically male or female, chromosomally male or female, hormonally male/female/non-binary, with cells that may or may not hear the male/female/non-binary call, and all this leading to a body that can be male/non-binary/female.  Try out some combinations for yourself. Notice how confusing it gets? Can you point to what the absolute cause of biological sex is?

Is it fair to judge people by it? Of course you could try appealing to the numbers. “Most people are either male or female” you say. Except that as a biologist professor I will tell you the reason I don’t have my students look at their own chromosome in class is because people could learn that their chromosomal sex doesn’t match their physical sex, and learning that in the middle of a 10-point assignment is JUST NOT THE TIME.

Biological sex is complicated. Before you discriminate against someone on the basis of “biological sex” & identity, ask yourself: have you seen YOUR chromosomes? Do you know the genes of the people you love? The hormones of the people you work with? The state of their cells? Since the answer will obviously be no, please be kind, respect people’s right to tell you who they are, and remember that you don’t have all the answers. Again: biology is complicated. Kindness and respect don’t have to be.

To put it flatly, we know more about biology and the processes of biological reproduction today than we ever have before.  Not that we know everything and not that the methodology of science and interpretation of scientific results aren’t also subject to cultural biases, of course, but we know quite a bit more than what people did 2000 years ago when the authors of the Hermetic texts were living and writing what they wrote subject to their own models and interpretations of things.  It is true that many (but not all) species of visible animal life, humanity included, do (for the most part) procreate based on there being two sexes—but we also know that this is not the case for all animal life, and the ancients didn’t have the means to accurately quantify or qualify that, and without any observable instance of it clearly being understood, it didn’t form part of their models or mythic languages.  When the Hermetic texts do claim a model or theory of binary sex, they only limit it to biological reproduction, and that based on observation (especially that of human reproduction from a common but not universal case).  At the risk of making a bold claim when it comes to the gods: if Hermēs is the god of knowledge and science, then it’d behoove us to adapt the teachings and doctrines of earlier ages that came before to what we have now based on better knowledge of the matter given the good it stands to do for us with the minimal impact it makes on the meat and bones of the tradition, and I think this is something that could use some good updating for that very reason.  This is all the more important for us given how prevalent mystical notions of “male” and “female” are in so much of modern spirituality (even modern Hermetic ones!), but given how complicated the matter of sex is—and given how the meaning of sex only matters for the purpose of biological reproduction with any other instance of “sex” appearing in the Hermetic texts is used metaphorically based on the common case of most human coitus—we need to understand that notions of sex as they appear in the Hermetica are both outdated as well as intensely limited.

I admit that I’m (by all accounts and understanding of the term) cisgender, and I don’t have the same experience of transgender, agender, genderqueer, or other nonbinary people; for that reason, I won’t speak for them or their experiences, and this limits me to an understanding of these texts from my own point of view.  From my point of view, biological sex just doesn’t matter except for the purposes of having sex and engaging in biological reproduction (rendering my own identity of being cisgender moot), and even then, there’s a lot more happening out there than just “male” or “female”.  To construct whole models of magic, spirituality, religion, and cosmology based on the outdated binary notion of “male” and “female” alone is (at best) limiting at best and (at worst) based on utterly wrong notions of how things actually work.  Besides, as I’m emphasizing here and elsewhere, because biological sex is only about biological processes and (with the one textual exception of the theory of the soul being impacted by elemental factors from SH 24.7) not at all about the soul, there’s nothing “male” and “female” about the soul, about theurgy, about magic unless you take metaphors too far and force them to be.  And, worse, because the metaphor itself is so limited, even the use of the metaphor of biological sex being used to explain spiritual and non-biological processes is (without deliberate and careful elaboration and clarification) misleading to the point of harm and damage (which can, frankly, explain so much about modern occulture).

The issue for us as modern people with more knowledge about how things work in dealing with texts that provide models and theories of how things work is reconciling these benefits of having modern knowledge and understanding with where the ancients were coming from.  I pointed out that excerpt from Lactantius for a reason (FH 13, Divine Institutes 4.8.4—5):

Unless perhaps we conceive of God as Orpheus thought, as both male and female since he could not otherwise generate unless he had the power of both sexes.  Orpheus assumes that God either coupled with himself or could procreate without coupling. But Hermes also was of the same opinion when he called God androgynous <. . .>; “his own father” and “his own mother.”

We have evidence that the ancients involved in these models and metaphors conceived of all creation as an act between male and female, without both of which being present creation could not occur; this is evidence that they literally could not conceive of creation otherwise outside the paradigm of biological procreation, which is a doozy of topic for a whole series of discussions on its own.  We have myths abounding from any number of cultures and religious traditions of cosmogonies being produced from one or more syzygies of male and female‚ some of which fed into the scientific theories of the day to explain procreation and creation generally, and some of those fed into the texts we now have as being the classical Hermetic corpora (like the male-female pairs of gods from the Hermopolitan Ogodad).  But we also have creation myths which don’t rely on such things (like the Heliopolitan myth of Atum masturbating to produce some gods, as well as sneezing and spitting to produce yet others).  These could be interpreted as being extrapolations of male and female dynamics within an androgyne entity (such as the hand of Atum being supposedly the feminine principle within himself), but that model of gendered interpretation doesn’t always work (what’s the female principle of him sneezing and spitting to produce Shu and Tefnut?), when a simpler model that does away with gender entirely can.  In truth, while we do need to understand where the ancients were coming from in order to understand what they were talking about with the proper context, we also have a buffet of perspectives contemporary even to them that we can draw on and synthesize together, and when combined with our modern knowledge about things that simply wasn’t available to them back then, we can go much further in developing more nuanced, helpful, and balanced approaches to spirituality and religion—or at least worldly interactions—than what they had available to them as well.  Some things don’t need to change, to be sure, but other things should when it makes sense to.

But, again, none of what we’ve been talking about as far as biological sex applies to the soul, to heavenly realities or entities, or to cosmology because the Hermetic texts admit and state that they don’t apply.  The notion of people being only male or female, and that at an essential level, is very much a relatively modern Western one; various cultures across the world, even in the premodern West, have had different notions of what androgyny (in the sense of being neither male nor female, both male and female, or something else entirely) could manifest as, and it’s an embarrassing and shameful thing that we’re stuck in a general culture that only views two sexes as being “valid”.  It could even be argued that notions of being a particular gender rely on, assume, play into this stance regarding fixed and well-defined biological sexes, and while many people use the notion of gender to free themselves from a stifling cisgender identity imposed on them, it may still be a stumbling block for others no matter how they look at it (hence agender and other nonbinary genders being made more known and accepted, even if only by the people they apply to themselves).  After all, gender really is a social construct, and while many people tend to accept that phrase on face value, its full import is that it literally has no basis in physical reality except what society constructs one to be.  From a Hermetic standpoint, this is obvious, since the soul is just gonna be the soul, and notions of gender would only apply to a (ramshackle, socially-conditioned) noetic/mental construction of the self more than anything more.

And this raises what we need to understand and reinterpret now, in light of modern discoveries of biological sex and reproduction, what the Hermetic texts mean when they say that God or the soul is “androgyne”.   I’ve been saying it all along: while it can be understood to mean “having characteristics of being both male and female”, it can also be used to mean “neither male nor female”—which is honestly the better way to discuss God and the soul, because both God and the soul arose before physical procreation arose and are therefore above it entirely.  Male and female only arose for the purposes of biological procreation, and rather than thinking that there existed something essentially male and essentially female as separate essences or energies within the soul (and, thus, God), I claim that it would be better to understand this in a more roundabout way: that God split the original seven androgyne (perhaps better “metagender”? “undifferentiated”? “non-sexed”?) humans and all animal life into smaller more-specialized pieces so that, taking the implication that there was no generation or procreation in the first age according to CH I and thus everything being in unchanging ungenerating stasis, sex first arose with this sundering to benefit humanity and animal life according to its environmental and elemental nature (about which SH 23—26 says much!), which (as my friend from Discord mentioned earlier) happened to be heavily bimodal for some species.  But we also know that it’s not strictly binary, and that the human body (which is a generation of fate, and thus a product of the Logos of creation) doesn’t have to fall on that binary or even that bimodal distribution; as such the revelation of CH I from Poimandrēs to Hermēs uses metaphorical language to explain to Hermēs something comprehensible but which doesn’t get into the nitty-gritty of how things come to be (just as it doesn’t with all the other aspects of cosmic material creation, e.g. on a molecular or atomic or quantum level).  In this, I’d rather interpret the Hermetic notion of “androgyny” to be beyond, prior to, and without gender (the very word “gender” connoting generation, i.e. biological reproduction through sex).  This still fits with the texts themselves with minimal to no conflict in terms of doctrine or metaphor, while still admitting the bimodal distribution of apparent biological sex which, being common to most people in one form or another, allows for the use of metaphors structured around it.  So long as we don’t take those metaphors too far, we’re golden, and beyond the point at which they no longer become useful or for those for whom it was never useful, other metaphors can (and should) be made to describe creation and spiritual rebirth (as in how CH IV describes it compared to how CH XIII describes it).

So, what in the Hermetic corpora can support the “male = active/emitting, female = passive/receiving” bit so common to occult theories that pervade our spiritualities and religions?  Of the 15 extant citations from classical Hermetic literature I drew up last time, only one (DH 10.1—2) actually supports that, with another (AH 21) being debatable because of variants in translation that don’t equal the views of each other.  That’s really not a whole lot of ground to stand on, and it only properly describes and relates to the act of procreative sex—and, even more specifically, the moment of sex where semen is released from one to the other.  That’s it; that’s the whole context and basis for it, and it’s an extremely limited one.  If we take instead the notion of the Coptic AH 21 into account rather than the Latin AH 21, it’s not that the male “gives up” something for the female to have, but that they both exchange with each other, and in the process, come out with something greater than the combination of its parts.  This renders the model of “male = active/emitting, female = passive/receiving” meaningless, or posits that it’s really the ejaculation of sperm as its own thing (and not the one from whom it ejaculates) as the “third thing in the middle” rather than there just being two, making this a trinary system instead of a binary one.

That still only makes sense if you limit your notion of “sex” to be that of strictly penetrative, procreative sex between men and women; while I can’t speak to trasngender or nonbinary views and experiences, as a gay man, I can speak to my experience of sex, which isn’t about procreation at all; there’s a lot more going for sex for me than procreation (which isn’t something I want or plan to engage in anyway for a variety of reasons), and there’re no fixed roles during sex between gay men.  I mean, just as there were plenty of views (and social/cultural moralizing) about androgyny and nonbinary genders (as we’d perceive them) classically, there was just as much about sex both procreative and recreative.  Taking that into account as well as my experience, I also have to adapt that rather than just accept that sex is only for procreation, because procreation isn’t a thing I’m doing or aiming for.  Just because my sex isn’t procreative, of course, doesn’t make any less divine than procreative sex between heterosexuals, I can tell you that; it doesn’t operate on the same way, even if (or when) there is an exchange of a sort via semen.  To me, making a notion of “male = active/emitting, female = passive/receiving” based on heterosexual sex (and penetrative sex, at that—there’s more than just that, trust me) between cisgender people alone to be a model for magic and spirituality is incredibly limiting, misses the mark for me, and has little Hermetic ground to stand on when the actual context of that ground is so much more limited than what many New Age people want to make it out to be.  The only thing that would lend this model validity on the level people ascribe to it is if, knowing that the soul is androgyne and has all the powers of creation (both within the All of creation and pertaining to the actual work of creation), it could not be used to its fullest in general except when it is paired with another soul inhabiting the body of the opposite sex in the actual act of procreative sex, and we just don’t see that claim being made.  It only matters for the purposes of procreation, nothing else seemingly impacted by it.  The value people give to this notion of “male = active/emitting, female = passive/receiving” far outweighs its actual weight in Hermetic texts, doctrines, and practices, because that very notion is literally limited to just the act and work of procreation.

Likewise, if you take this one step higher based on the revelation of CH I, the accounts of Anthrōpos and Physis embracing each other doesn’t really support this view unless you (again) really stretch to read it into it.  Physis is described as being the one who “took hold of her beloved, hugged him all about and embraced him” and “made love with” him—Physis is the active one in that relationship, not Anthrōpos, who is described as more passive in that relationship, except and unless you consider Anthrōpos’s enraptured (notice the passive verb there!) approach towards Physis to be a moment of activity to begin with.  The only thing that makes Anthrōpos the “father” in that relationship is that he contributes “soul and mind” by means of the life-breath to Physis in the way a (conventional) male would contribute semen to a (conventional) female during procreative sex; everything else is Physis’ doing.  And this cuts to the heart of the major issue with seeing “male = active/emitting, female = passive/receiving” because it implies that the act of contributing semen is somehow “active” because of…well, let’s be honest: it’s because of longstanding misogyny, people not understanding the mystery of how the internal (and even external) organs of women work compared to the obviousness of what happens with a man, and patriarchal power structures that favor men over women that have been around for literal millennia and which themselves are refuted by the Hermetic texts (outside of the Korē Kosmou).  All this, because—again—the soul (which is the focus of Hermetic theurgic practice) does not have gender and only bodies do for the purposes of procreation; everything else is humane bullshit.  Taking all this into account, it’s better to say that the spiritual role of procreation by means of sexed biological reproduction is to induce change into the cosmic system among human life so that it does not remain static, and for that, there needs to be differentiation to induce further differentiation.  After all, consider what Hermēs teaches Asklēpios in CH XIV.7:

You need not be on guard against the diversity of things that come to be, fearing to attach something low and inglorious to god. God’s glory is one, that he makes all things, and this making is like the body of god. There is nothing evil or shameful about the maker himself; such conditions are immediate consequences of generation, like corrosion on bronze or dirt on the body. The bronzesmith did not make the corrosion; the parents did not make the dirt; nor did god make evil. But the persistence of generation makes evil bloom like a sore, which is why god has made change, to repurify generation.

Unchanging stasis will accumulate corruption and continue to be corrupted; change, which absolves generation of persistence, purifies creation and generation.  Perhaps this is why God sundered humanity into different sexes after the first age, so that the corruption of stasis from the first age will not take root in ours.  Just as the planets keep moving in their cycles so as to remain in their orbits around the Sun, for if they stood still but a moment they’d start their inevitable fall right to the Sun, so too do we need to keep moving in our orbits with our own cycles of change so that we (and humanity as a whole) does not fall into permanent decline and decrepitude.  Likewise, knowing what we know about the risks of inbreeding, introducing variation and difference into a system can keep it healthy by ensuring that certain traits are constantly shuffled up so that no problematic trait becomes too dominant.  It just so happens that the biology of it all has it easiest to do this with most people having one of two sexes, but depending on how individual bodies arise, their changes and differences from what is otherwise considered common are likely part of a greater plan and design of Logos to make even greater purifications from decline in whatever ways are best for the individual at hand.  That said—at the risk of repeating myself one too many times—this is only ever about the body, and not at all about the soul, and all souls have the same origin (God) and same nature (androgyne/genderless), and it is the soul that is the essential human in us all, not the body that we inhabit.  That’s one of the biggest lessons that Hermeticism teaches: you are not your body, and to confuse yourself with your body is to “drink of death”.  To extend that, to treat non-bodied things as being bodied and as having the qualities of bodies is a categorical mistake.

Are there problems or issues with what I’m claiming?  Certainly.  Here are a few I can come up with that should be resolved at some point, whether by me or by others who are thinking about this as well:

  • For one, while I’m aware that what I wrote above about how gender isn’t a thing according to the Hermetic texts, I’m not saying that gender is invalid nor how one discovers, identifies with, or is a particular gender; I’m only saying that it’s not a thing associated with the soul, and more associated with society and how that impacts our personal view of ourselves from a mental/noetic point of view.  This claim that “gender doesn’t actually exist” may not be something safe or helpful for some people to hear at their individual points in their own paths of life.  If you need the notion of gender to help you, then use it; if you don’t, then don’t.  (Big Buddhist parable of the raft vibes here.)
  • From a more magical or occult perspective, are there times when physical/biological sex matters?  Perhaps!  The material form of material goods, supplies, and tools in magic does matter at points; there are often times when a specific kind of tree, a specific animal, a specific rock is needed for a ritual, and there may well be arguments to be made that, based on the biological and occult differences between male and female in terms of bodies, there may be different specific needs for one or the other in particular rituals or contexts that operate from a materia magica-centric perspective.  After all, if biological sex matters for biological reproduction, and we use biological processes and symbols in magic and that there are occult virtues in everything that don’t necessarily pertain to the soul, then it stands to reason that there may be a case when the presence or absence of certain biological traits related to sex may be beneficial or required for particular occult operations.  Can such things be substituted for or argued around to where they don’t matter?  Probably, and probably just as likely as sex mattering from an occult physical perspective outside of coitus; it depends on the specific nature of the ritual, the spirits it works with, and the cultural and religious context in which the ritual applies.  This is an extremely delicate topic with a lot of different answers all vying for attention at once, so consider each case carefully and listen to what the spirits involved ask and require as well.  To wit: if a spirit (or group of people) insists on a particular sex that you or someone else cannot fulfill, then maybe don’t listen to or work with that spirit (or group of people); that’s also an entirely practical and reasonable approach, because spirits aren’t infallible just because they’re immaterial, and people aren’t infallible no matter who they are or what they’re doing.
  • Does what I claim above apply to non-Hermetic traditions of belief, spirituality, and religion?  I dunno, ask what those other traditions say.  I’m only writing from a Hermetic perspective using Hermetic evidence to clarify Hermetic doctrines; I’m not going to talk about what other traditions do or don’t believe, as that’s not my focus in these posts nor my place to do so.  Other traditions and traditions may need to struggle with this as well, or it may be a moot point entirely where they never had problems along these lines to begin with.  Likewise, the symbol set of any particular tradition or practice would need to account for this (cf. my musings on Puella and Puer among the geomantic figures), and reconsider what it means to be or exemplify characteristics we consider to be gendered or sexed.
  • I realize, after the fact, that many of these same issues I mention here pertaining to sex and gender can also be applied to other aspects of traditional belief, like there being seven traditional planets and the like, that also need updating.  This is just me picking my battles, I suppose, but let’s be honest: the precise number, arrangement, and correspondence of the heavens is a lot less of a pressing concern than when someone asks out of fear and concern whether they can be a Hermeticist at all because they’re trans since they heard something about all things having to be neatly and cleanly male or female, when gay men are still excluded from spiritual communities because of mistaken BS-based notions that their sexual dynamics are either (more politely said) incompatible with existing male-female energetics or (more commonly thought) just wicked and debased, when women are constantly at a disadvantage (both in occult communities and outside of it) because of longstanding cis-het patriarchal issues in most cultures that view their bodies to be lesser than those of men, and so on.  All these problems result from incorrect (lamentable, horrible, despicable, damaging) views on gender and sex that have no place in Hermeticism or amongst humanity at all.
  • Given the Hermetic notion of fate that comes about by means of the Logos being the organizing principle of the cosmos (something almost certainly inherited from Stoicism), it stands to reason that we all have the bodies we have for a reason, regardless of how we feel about it.  This can be a problematic thing for some trans people who feel that they were born “in the wrong body”, as much as it is people born with congenital diseases or conditions.  I don’t have an answer to that besides appealing to God, suggesting only that each person needs to figure out what their fate is and how to live in accordance with it as best as they can; sometimes the body can be worked on and improved upon just as a mechanic might work on their own car as a hobby or out of necessity, sometimes the body they have is meant to do something that another body could not handle, sometimes they have mental quandries that need to be worked out instead of their bodies being worked on.  There’s no one answer to this, no more than I can tell someone what their true will or perfect nature might be.
  • Can the use of biological sex be a useful metaphor for some people?  Undoubtedly; honestly, this is why notions of “male = active/emitting, female = passive/receiving” have stuck around for so long, because most people do get that and how it can apply as a metaphor to describe spiritual or occult processes, and more people than not are cisgender and heterosexual.  The problem is in declaring that it’s a “law” or “principle” merely because the biological symbol this metaphor makes use of is more common than other things that happen and claiming that all things need to fit in that model, which then necessarily forces things that aren’t part of that male/female or heterosexual paradigm into uncomfortable positions merely to make it fit.  A better approach would be to use a different model that’s more inclusive or which resolves such things without having to use sex-based metaphors to begin with, and I don’t readily have a model at hand that can do that without just saying “active/passive” or “emitting/receiving” without using gendered language—which, if nothing else, is a start.  This notion that nothing is ever truly one or the other may well agree with the “law of gender” that the Kybalion and other texts state, but my issue is with using a gender-based metaphor and using gendered language to describe it in the first place, which causes so many problems that there’s really not much of a baby to throw out with the bathwater at all.

I’m sure there are other problems and questions that can arise from this discussion, but at the end of the day, for those who are still wondering: no, there is nothing in Hermeticism or the classical Hermetic texts that deny, conflict with, or raise issues with being queer, whether along lines of sexuality or gender.  Anyone who tells you that you can’t be gay/transgender/nonbinary and be spiritual is lying to you out of (either intentional or socially-conditioned) bigotry.  Yes, it’s true that we all need to “figure ourselves out and get right with God”, but that applies just as much to the people shrieking it and the people that are unfortunately shrieked at—that’s the whole point of Hermeticism, after all, the whole point of “know thyself”, and it doesn’t need to be shrieked at all in anyone’s face.  Still, that doesn’t mean you need to pigeonhole yourself into some narrow gendered bullshit that society or (bad) occulture mandates you to be in, nor that you need to relegate yourself to bad cis takes from the Victorian era about “how things just are” when they just factually aren’t.  It just means you need to figure out who and what you are, then use that knowledge to reclaim your own divine, pure, essential nature—which goes well beyond the capabilities of any metaphor or nonsense so-called “principle” to describe.

The Two Sons of `Iyān: Bird-Based Origins and Other Ideas for Geomancy

In yesterday’s post, we began looking into this funny little thing that the good Dr. Stephen Skinner mentioned in his 1980 book Terrestrial Astrology: Divination by Geomancy, which was more recently updated and republished in 2011 as Geomancy in Theory & Practice.  When describing the Arabian origins of the art of geomancy, he mentioned a peculiar chant: “Ye two sons of ‘Iyan hasten with the explanation!”  It’s the identity and nature of the entities these were referring to that’ve puzzled me for going on ten years now, and unfortunately, Skinner never cited this statement anywhere.  After doing a bit of Arabic language hacking, we ended up with a proper spelling of the big name here to be `Iyān with the triliteral root `-Y-N (`ayn yā’ nūn), which ties it into the letter `ayn, the sixteenth letter of the Arabic script according to the Phoenician order (potential geomancy connection!), and thus to notions of eyes, sight, and vision (possible divination connection!).  We continued to dig a bit further, and we found several sources that talk about what Skinner did in his own books, though with about as much specificity, which wasn’t much.  However, we did begin to make some headway into understanding some of the first swirlings of geomantic practice and how it developed from earlier proto-geomantic practices in Arabaian and related cultures.  Today, we’ll pick up where we left off and keep investigating what `Iyān might refer to.

Though our discussion yesterday focused on the lines produced for geomantic (or proto-geomantic) divination, there were a few other references that we should investigate.  Going back to Lane for a moment, the entry for `Iyān mentions something about arrows.  Let’s bring that up again:

… اِبْنَا عيَانٍ means Two birds, (Ḳ, TA,) from the flight or alighting-places, or cries, &c., of which, the Arabs augur: (TA:) or two lines which are marked upon the ground (Ṣ, Ḳ) by the عَائِف [or augurer], by means of which one augurs, from the flight, &c., of birds; (Ṣ;) or which are made for the purpose of auguring; (TA;) then the augurer says, اِبْنَى عيَانْ اًسْرِعَا البَيَانْ [O two sons of `Iyán, hasten ye the manifestation]: (Ḳ,* TA: [see 1 in art. خط :]) in the copies of the Ḳ, اِبْنَا is here erroneously put for اِبْنَى : or, as some say ابْنَا عِيانٍ means two well-known divining arrows: (TA:) and when it is known that the gaming arrow of him who plays therewith wins, one says جَرىَ اِبْنَا عِيَانٍ [app. meaning The two sons of ‘Iyán have hastened; i.e. the two arrows so termed; as seems to be indicated by a verse cited in the L (in which it is followed by the words بِالشِّواء المُضَهُّبِ with the roast meat not thoroughly cooked), and also by what here follows]: (Ṣ, L, Ḳ, TA:) these [arrows] being called ابْنَا عِيانٍ because by means of them the people [playing at the game called المَيْسِر] see the winning and the food [i.e. the hastily-cooked flesh of the slaughtered camel]. (L, TA.)

Lane says that abnā `Iyān could refer to “two well-known divining arrows”, i.e. belomancy, which was known and practiced throughout Mesopotamia, Arabia, and the Near East dating back to ancient biblical times.  In this style of divination, the arrows used for divination were required to be fletched with feathers, at least for the sake of distinguishing them.  This also brings up the memory of the pre-Islamic god Hubal worshiped by the Quraysh tribe (the tribe of the Prophet Muḥammad himself) in the Ka`bah in Mecca (when it was still a pagan shrine) who performed acts of divination with arrows for his devotees.  However, what little is known of that method of divination was that Hubal used seven arrows, not two as Lane suggests.  Plus, from what I can find (especially from Robert Hoyland’s 2002 work Arabia and the Arabs: From the Bronze Age to the Coming of Islam), there were several methods of belomancy:

  1. Using three arrows (one marked for “God commands it” or just as “do it”, one for “God forbids it” or as “don’t do it”, and one that was either left blank or marked as “not clear”), one would put them in a quiver on the back, and one would be randomly drawn.  The one that was drawn indicates the course to take; if the blank one was drawn, it was put back and another arrow was randomly drawn until an answer was obtained, or it was interpreted as “wait”.
  2. Using the same three arrows, they would be fired off, and the one that flew the furthest (or got closest to its target) indicated the answer.
  3. The arrows (perhaps the same three, or different ones?) were tossed or thrown in a certain way, and then interpreted based on the ways or the directions they fell.
  4. The seven arrows of Hubal:
    1. “Blood price”: When several people fought over who should pay blood-price, they drew lots and whoever drew this one would have to pay it.
    2. “Yes” and “No”: When they had a simple binary question, they drew lots until one of these two came up.
    3. “Water”: If someone wanted to dig for water, they cast lots containing this arrow and wherever it came forth they set to work.  (This seems unclear to me; perhaps onto a map, or into a field?)
    4. “Of you”, “Affiliated”, and “Not of You”: Whenever they wanted to circumcise a boy, make a marriage, bury a body, or make some sort of alliance or contract wit, or if someone had doubts about someone’s genealogy, they used these arrows to determine the specific relationship to someone.  “Of you” indicates that they belonged to the same tribe; “affiliated” that they were not of the same tribe but an ally of it; “not of you” that they were unrelated and unaffiliated.

None of this really comports with what we know about geomantic or proto-geomantic practice, whether from the sources Lane quotes or from Skinner’s research, unless we were to focus on the “Yes”/”No” style of Hubal-directed belomancy (which, well, it is a binary answer at least, which can be seen to tie into geomancy or proto-geomantic divination).  Plus, connections to Hubal and his divination cult seem to be a stretch; after all, Islam came about in Arabia around in the first half of the 600s ce, by which point the cult center of Hubal was effectively destroyed with the harrowing of the Ka`bah.  Even if we admit the likely possibility that there were proto-geomantic practices in Arabia at the time of the Prophet Muḥammad (and who’s to say that the earliest geomantic diviners didn’t use arrows to mark sand instead of using a simple staff?), an argument could be made that we’re looking at the wrong place for such a connection to geomancy.

Perhaps, instead, we should be looking towards the pre-Islamic gods of the sands of the Sahara rather than towards pre-Islamic gods of the Arabian peninsula.  After all, `Iyān doesn’t really seem to appear in the names of Arabian pagan religion, but it might in a Saharan one, perhaps even one with Egyptian, Canaanite, Hellenic, or Roman origins.  This is getting into some really weird and extraordinarily vague and far territory, though, and we don’t have a strong enough reason to get deep into any of it; there’s far too much variability if we widen our scope to all those other cultures, and it could well be a wild goose chase.

If not that, though, it could also be the result of the name of a spirit who wasn’t a god that was propitiated and propagated for calling upon in divination, much as how the Lemegeton duke Bune is now goetically synonymous with wealth magic, and whose name either happened to be close enough to `Iyān to be interpreted as such.  This is one possibility that my colleague and resident North African and Mediterranean traditions expert Arlechina Verdigris suggested, perhaps even a reuse of the name “John” as heard by Arabic ears (think how “John” is spoken by modern Spanish speakers, almost like “yohn” or “zhohn”), but in this context, that explanation seems a to stretch a bit too far, as “John” is usually rendered as يَـحـيٰى  Yaḥyā (especially by Arabic-speaking Muslims) or as يُوحَنَّا  Yūḥanna (especially by Arabic-speaking Jews and Christians), neither of which share much in common with the name `Iyān,  Plus, the name “John” as pronounced as such by English speakers would have been introduced only far too recently compared to the sources we’re looking at from before, considering the old origins of the chant in question.  That `Iyān could be the name of a spirit (jinn? ancestor?) or a pre-Islamic or otherwise pagan god from the Sahara or from Arabia is a possibility, but considering the variability of such names and spirits, and how so many spirit names are isolated to maybe a handful of magicians at most, I don’t know how likely this idea might be; my hunch is that it’s not, but at any rate, it’s not something that’s within my power to research, given my dearth of Arabic knowledge and Arabic materials to consult.

Okay, this line of questioning doesn’t seem to be getting us anywhere without further resources that may or may not be available, so let’s backtrack a bit.  There’s one more thing we’ve yet to discuss when it comes to `Iyān and its two sons, and that’s the topic of birds.  According to Lane’s entry on `Iyān, the “two sons” ابْنَا عِيانٍ (abnā `Iyān) refers first to the practice of augury, and specifically the interpretation of omens that result from hearing or watching birds.  Lane goes on to say that the phrase “two sons of `Iyān” refers to the “two lines which are marked upon the ground by the augurer, by means of which one augurs, from the flight, &c., of birds”.  Consider what that actually means here, especially in the light of Lane’s entry for khaṭṭ: the abnā `Iyān, the “two lines or marks” that were made when engaging in geomantic or proto-geomantic divination, were produced by the tracks of birds, specifically “two birds…from the flight/alighting-places/cries of which the Arabs augur”.  That would explain why birds are mentioned alongside geomancy; rather than using augury or ornithomancy (divination by birds) generally, such as in ways that would focus on what the birds were or how they fly or in what direction, these proto-geomancers would focus instead on how birds land upon and walk across the sand.  In this way, proto-geomancers would inspect the tracks left by birds on the ground and tally them up two-by-two until one or two footprints, or sets of tracks, were left.

If that’s what’s really being suggested or reported by Lane here, then that could mean that the practice of making marks in the sand with a staff or wand would be a way to produce such omens on demand for augury-on-the-fly, no birds required.  And when you look at such tracks left in sand…

…it’s actually pretty believable as an origin for the original geomantic method of making figures.  And, tracing the development a bit further: from inspecting the marks left behind from birds, we began to make our own to inspect anytime we wanted; from tallying up two lines of marks, we went to four, and from four to sixteen; by clustering them together, we got the Mothers; by transposing them, we got the Daughters; by adding them together and using the same basic tallying technique, we got the rest of the figures of the chart.  With a bit of mathematical finagling, we can ensure that the Judge is always an even number, which, as we discussed in the previous post, would be significant to ensure a fair judgment to be produced, even if not strictly favorable for the querent and query.  (Image below from Dawat-e-Rohaniat.)

We may well be looking at the ultimate historical origin of geomancy here: a human-innovated practice of replicating bird tracks on sand and using fundamentally Arabian ornithomantic methods to interpret them.  If that’s the case, then geomancy, ultimately, is from birds.  Birds, little divine messengers from the skies coming down to Earth, instructing us in their language, then flying back off returning to Heaven once we don’t need to directly rely on them anymore.  It’s like we can hear echoes of this in the story of how the archangel Gabriel taught the art of geomancy to the prophets, the founders of geomancy—Adam, Daniel, Hermēs Trismegistus, or Enoch, according to the different historiolas we find in geomantic texts.

Birds.

Huh.

As intoxicating as it is to think that I figured out what the ultimate origin of geomancy might be, I have to admit that this is all really interpretive and hypothetical.  There’s not a lot going on here besides chaining some circumstantial evidence, unclear etymologies and definitions, and a good amount of interpretation on my part.  No matter how likely it might be that geomancy was derived from inspecting the tracks of birds on sand (which I think is pretty likely given all the above), we shouldn’t consider it verified fact.  Unfortunately, geomancy is sufficiently old and the evidence sufficiently sparse that the origins may well be lost in the sands of time, so to speak, and while the evidence is pointing towards an Arabian origin instead of a Saharan one, there’s still nothing here that conclusively shows its actual geographic origins in either Arabia or the Sahara; still, though I’ve favored the Saharan origin up until now, I’m starting to be more inclined towards the Arabian origin.  Even so, even if we want to accept this ornithomantic Arabian origin for geomancy, there’s a little more for us to consider to get a deeper insight into what could be going on here, so let’s continue.

What we’re missing now is a more solid connection between `Iyān and birds.  Taking specific birds a little bit further into consideration, I came across this massive list of Arabic names for birds, and I found the name العين al`ayn (I think?) which appears to share the same root as `Iyān, and which refers to Oriolus oriolus, the Eurasian golden oriole.  Lane does in fact discuss it in a related entry to our main topic on page 2269: “a certain bird yellow in the belly, [dingy, dark, ash-color, or dust-color] on the back, of the size of a [species of turtle-dove]”.  The golden oriole largely fits the bill for this.  There’s also the fact that it forms pair-bonds that last between breeding seasons, which would be a symbol of life and creativity, and would tie into the notion of even numbers being positive and odd numbers (a single, lone bird without a mate, or whose mate was lost) being negative.  So if we were looking for a…I guess, a patron/tutelary animal for geomancy, then based on all the above, this would be it:

Perhaps above any other kind of bird, it’d be the golden oriole that would be best-suited for making tracks in the sand for divination, and the lines of its tracks it left behind would be its “sons”.  In watching such a bird to cross tracks, we’d urge it to hurry up to make a sufficient number for our proto-geomancer to interpret it: “ye two sons of `Iyān, hasten with the explanation”.

The only problem with assigning the golden oriole to be an entity marked by `Iyān is that this bird isn’t really common to Arabic-speaking areas; its distribution is largely across almost all of continental Europe south of Scandinavia in the winter, and across central and southern Africa from Cameroon and points south in the summer.  As pretty of a bird and as appropriate though it might be based on the description in Lane,  I’m not wholly pinning this as being what `Iyān is referring to.  However, birds know no borders, and it’s also pretty true that they’d certainly have to pass through the Arabian peninsula and northern Africa during their migrations, and it does have its non-migratory homes in some Arabic-speaking areas that are just on the edge of the expected range of locations for the origin of geomancy, from the northwest edges of the Maghreb in the west to Mesopotamia in the east.  It’s nothing I’ll wage a bet on, but it’s certainly not nothing.

Regardless of whether the golden oriole is specifically tied to `Iyān, there’s definitely some connection between birds and either `Iyān specifically or divination generally.  I mean, that there should be one wouldn’t be terribly surprising, since the word for bird is طير ṭayur, and the classical term for augury or orthithomancy is تطير taṭayyir, which was extended to divination in general, just as we might use “augury” in a wide sense to refer to all divination.  Both of these words come from the same root of Ṭ-Y-R, referring to flying or taking off.  This recalls the notion of divining arrows from above being set loose to fly; as noted, they were required to be fletched with feathers, giving them a bird-like connection and, thus, giving them a distant or alluded-to tie-in to augury by birds.  And, further, fletching would also be needed to make them “fly”, which would tie them symbolically into the Ṭ-Y-R root.  Plus, as noted above, who’s to say that they wouldn’t use fletched arrows instead of a simple staff to make marks in the sand?  Divining arrows are divining arrows, no matter how you use them, after all, and it would give these proto-geomancers a stronger connection to deeper cultural practices of divination.  Perhaps we modern geomancers might consider using fletched arrows for marking sand, if we wanted to use wands at all for ritual divination!

While mulling this over, the wonderful Nick Farrell dug up an interesting article for me, “Some Beliefs and Usages among the Pre-Islamic Arabs, with Notes on their Polytheism, Judaism, Christianity, and the Mythic Period of their History” by Edward Rehatsek (The Journal of the Bombay Branch of the Royal Asiatic Society, volume XII, 1876, pp. 163-212).  This article mentions the same thing we’ve seen before in Skinner, Lane, and Abu Dāwūd, but Rehatsek specifically considers it alongside and mixed in with ornithomantic omens.  Consider specifically pp.172ff, emphasis mine:

Many things were believed to be unpropitious by the Arabs, whilst certain birds were also considered to portend evil, and others good.  When an Arab augur, who was called Zâjar (literally meaning ‘a driver away’, because by doing so the direction of the flight of a bird, from which nearly everything appears to depend, is ascertained), began his soothsaying operation, he drew two lines called eyes, as if he could by means of them observe anything he liked; and when he had through these perceived something unpleasant he used to say, “The sons of vision have manifested the explanation.”*  It is natural that birds which were known to settle on the backs of wounded camels and to hurt them should have been considered unlucky; such were the crow, and a kind of woodpecker, but the former was also considered so for another reason—namely, because it implied separation.  When a tribe strikes its tents and departs to new pastures, the crows alight on the spot of the abandoned encampment in search of food, and there is nothing passing in front, or crossing over from the right side to the left, and no beast with a broken horn or any other object more unlucky than a crow, but the omen was increased when it happened to sit on a Bán tree and pulled out its own feathers.  As the Bán tree also implies separation, the omen is taken from this signification, and applicable not only when a crow, but also when a dove, a bird of good luck, is perched on it; but poets like plays on words, and hence the lapwing, whose name is Hudhud, also indicates the direction Huda; whilst the eagle called U’káb, being nearly homophonous with U’kb, “the end”, and the dove Ḥamám with Humma, “it was decreed”, are on these accounts respectively considered to put an end to separation, and to imply that the meeting of friends is decreed.

* Arab. Prov. [Arabum Proverbia] tome i., p. 695, ابنا عيان اظهر البيان In the beginning of the operation they were also in the habit of addressing an invocation to these two lines, or eyes:— ابنا عيان اظهرا البيان “O sons of vision, manifest the explanation?”

We’re starting to tap into some of the symbolism behind even and odd here, and we can see that we were on the right track from before, but this time it’s made a bit more explicit; we might have considered that, perhaps, birds seen in pairs was considered a good omen in general, while a lone bird was considered bad, and that could still be the case especially for birds like the golden oriole that forms long-term pair-bonds, but now we’re tapping into deeper cultural lore about separation and number.  When the result of divination is even, then things are in pairs, considered fortunate because it suggests coming together or staying together (remember that the origin of the Arabic word for “even” ultimately comes from Greek for “yoked together”, as in marriage); when the result is odd, then it implies separation and being left alone (literally “wholly one”).  For a migratory, nomadic people living in a harsh environment, survival often depended on your tribe and not being left alone or being cast out, for which separation could truly mean an ill fate up to and including death by dehydration, starving, heat, or exposure; the same would go for humans from their tribes as it would for animals from their herds.  To consider it another way, if the marks being made in the sand are “eyes”, then in order to see clearly, we need to have two of them, since eyes naturally come in pairs (at least for us humans and many other animals).  If we end up with an odd number, then we’ve lost an eye, and cannot see clearly.

Up until this point, we’ve been largely been assuming `Iyān as the name for a distinct entity and the “two sons of `Iyān” to be lesser entities under it or the productions made by the entity, as if we’re supplicating spirits or asking for aid from them.  However, there’s the distinct and possibly likely chance that we’re on the wrong track entirely.  Given that “poets like plays on words”, Iyān (which Rehatsek translates as “vision” though “inspection” is a better term, but cf. the Greek suffix -manteia to mean both) isn’t really an entity at all, but just a poetic turn of phrase, a personification of the concept of divinatory investigation rather than a deification of it (which might be just a little too animist/polytheistic for observant Muslims).  Thus, rather than thinking of the “sons of `Iyān” to represent entities under a bigger entity like how the phrase “sons of God” refers to angels under the Divine, it might be better to think of “sons of `Iyān” to represent the extensions or productions of divinatory “eyes” through a process of divination so as to perform an “inspection” or investigation of a matter.  This would be like another Arabic turn of phrase seen in poetry, the “two sons of time” relating to the day and night, and how the “daughters of time” could represent the vicissitudes or afflictions that time imposes on us.  So, saying “sons of `Iyān” is basically saying “results of the inspection”, i.e. the outcome of the divination, which we would realistically want to hasten so as to get a proper answer.  In the context in which Skinner et alia are describing this chant used by an assistant towards the diviner, it could be a way to spur the diviner on into a sense of frenzy and frenetic urgency, helping them lose themselves in the striking of the earth to produce a truly divine result, which would afterwards then be tallied up, reduced down, and accounted for.

Yet…well, I want there to be some sort of spiritual entity behind `Iyān and their two sons.  It’s kinda one of the things I was hoping to find, but what evidence that I can find doesn’t really support that premise.  Is the possibility ruled out?  No, and far from it!  As mentioned above, there is a possibility (though a faint one, as I’d reckon it) that `Iyān may be a holdover deity from some pre-Islamic, tribal, or pagan religion or some other jinn, angel, or other spiritual entity, but opening up that research…well, my gut feeling is that there’s probably not a lot to find along those lines, especially considering the scope of that sort of research.  But, at any rate, there’s not enough evidence to support the idea that the chant “Ye two sons of `Iyān, hasten with the explanation” is an invocation of a spirit, but more of a metaphorical exhortation to the diviner.  If `Iyān is considered to be an entity at all, it’d likely fall in the same category as all the minor divinities in Greek religion, divinized concepts of things like health or fruit-bearing trees or the like that might have stories told about them but never actually received cult, worship, or ritual.  That seems to be the most likely result to me, as much as I find it a disappointment.  But, hey, we’ve learned quite a bit along the way all the same, and that’s still a great result for all of us!

…well.  I think we’re at the end of this discussion and line of research, honestly.  To summarize this little garden-path effort of mine:

  • Stephen Skinner, in his 1980 work Terrestrial Astrology, mentioned in passing a practice of some of the earliest geomancers (or proto-geomancers) where they would use the chant “O two sons of ‘Iyan, hasten with the explanation!”, though this comment was not backed up with a source or reference, and left me befuddled for ten years until recently.
  • By looking at rules of Arabic word derivation, we were able to deduce the proper spelling of this word, `Iyān, and link it to the letter `ayn, the sixteenth letter of the Phoenician script and all scripts that derived from it, including the Arabic script.  This word has the root `-Y-N which links it to notions of the eye, sight, and vision, and thus has connotations of divination, along with a numerological link to the 16 figures of geomancy and any 4×4 combination of the elements.  That the numerological value of `ayn is 70, and that its reduction from 16 → 1 + 6 = 7 is also a nice bonus, tying it to seven planets and all other things with the number seven.
  • `Iyān, as a word, means “inspection”, “a witnessing of events”, “a coming into sight/light”.  This word is a verbal noun of the verb ʿāyana, meaning “to inspect” or “to witness”, but also more broadly as “to investigate” or “to behold”.
  • While investigating the word `Iyān, we were able to find a text that discusses what Skinner did with a bit more depth, as well as comparing it to other sources that describe the same fundamental practice which is likely proto-geomantic rather than geomantic as we’d recognize it.
  • This proto-geomantic practice, with origins that are attested to be either pre-Islamic or early-Islamic, involves making two lines of marks in the sand, then reducing them two-by-two until either one or two points are left.  If two points, an even number, the result is considered favorable and good; if one point, an odd number, the result is considered unlucky and bad.
  • The word `Iyān is commonly mentioned in other texts as relating not to geomancy or proto-geomancy, or at least not just those things, but to augury and ornithomancy as well.  In addition to Arabian augurs interpreting the position, direction, motion, types, and actions of birds, they would also observe the tracks they produced on the sandy ground as meaningful for omens.
  • It was from using the tracks left behind by birds and counting them for an even or odd number of marks that likely formed the ultimate origin for the (proto-)geomantic practice of making marks in the sand to produce the same.
  • The (proto-)geomancers would make marks in the sand while in a frenzy or other kind of trance state so as to obtain the same divinatory virtue through their manmade marks as might be given more purely from the cosmos through the tracks of birds.
  • The (proto-)geomancers would consider the “two sons” to be the two lines of marks they made as “eyes” (`uyūn)  that “witnessed” (yu`āyinūna) the events, circumstances, and actors involved in the query put to divination, and the whole matter would be considered an investigatory “inspection” of the matter (`iyān).
  • Even numbers, by virtue of coming in or being arranged as pairs, culturally connoted being together or holding fast, a sign of good fortune, livability, viability, survivability, meeting, and support, and thus were seen as fortunate, positive, or affirmative answers in proto-geomantic divination.  Conversely, odd numbers, by virtue of standing alone, connoted loss, exile, abandonment, absconding, maiming, and other notions of separation, which ere considered to be unfavorable, negative, or denying answers.
  • Given the symbolism behind even and odd in Arabian (nomadic) culture, later geomantic practices may have innovated a specific use of not just bundling lines into figures, but processing the resulting figures in a certain way as to always end up with an even figure in the end (the Judge) so as to ensure that the total reading may be good in some light, even if not favorable, so as to ensure a fair and valid judgment.
  • `Iyān is likely not being referred to in the chant as a spiritual entity unto itself, but in a personified way as a figure of speech, commanding “the two sons of `Iyān” to be speedy in giving an answer, said to encourage the diviner to engage in the process of frenetic/ecstatic/trance-based divination speedily without delay or delaying.
  • There is a potential connection between (proto)-geomantic divination as `Iyān and the Eurasian golden oriole (al`ayn) based on their shared word roots, as well as the role birds played in providing the initial marks for this divination to be performed with, which could provide a preferred bird by which one can perform land-based proto-geomantic augury, or which provides a kind of tutelary animal for the practice, especially through the use of its feathers, which may be used and appended to the end of a divining staff/stick to form “arrows”, tying it into an older practice of Arabian and Mesopotamian belomancy.  The “arrows”, then, would take the role of the “two sons of `Iyān”, though this might be a reuse or repurposing of the chant for a more general divinatory purpose rather than one relegated to (proto-)geomancy.
  • There is a small possibility that `Iyān may well be the name of a pagan god or another spirit of divination and that the “two sons of `Iyān” are its facilitators or emissaries that bear out the message of divination from `Iyān, but this is more likely a misreading the chant from a animist or polytheist perspective that wasn’t historically used.

This post turned out a fair bit longer (almost four times the average length!) than I expected, so much so that I had to break it up into two already-long posts, so if you managed to get this far, then I thank you for sticking with me.  Honestly, though this little bit of research didn’t end up where I wanted it to (I was kinda hoping for an old, extant, and commonly-cited spirit to appeal to for divination within a geomantic milieu), I’m honestly glad because I’ve been able to piece together plenty of information that actually clarifies an academic problem I’ve been on-and-off dealing with for ten years.  Even if there’s no historical “who” behind `Iyān and their two sons, at least we now know the “what”, and that’s still immensely important and advances the state of geomantic research, at least a tiny bit.  And, hey, we’ve left the door open for further opportunities and exploration, both academic and spiritual, too:

  • If all that was desired was an odd or even result from marking tracks off two-by-two, then why were two sets of tracks inspected at a time instead of just one?  Two sets of tracks would get you two results; does this have a connection with geomantic dice that split up a single figure of four rows into two sub-figures of two rows?
  • Are there any specific birds besides the Eurasian golden oriole that might be especially important in making tracks on the sand which were used for (proto-)geomantic divination?
  • Does the Eurasian golden oriole play a role in any of the spiritualities, superstitions, or symbolisms of Near Eastern, Middle Eastern, or African traditions that we might ply for more information?
  • What New World birds might take the same ecological or spiritual role as the Eurasian golden oriole?
  • How, exactly, were just two lines of marks read by birds, or where did the custom come from of making/marking two lines instead of just one?
  • Are there any other animals that we might associate with geomancy through the name `Iyān or the root `-Y-N, whether birds or otherwise?
  • What other geomantic mysteries might be hidden within `ayn, the sixteenth letter of the Phoenician script which has a root numerological value of 7 (either through reduction from its normal value of 70 or by reducing its ordinal number 16 into 1 + 6 = 7)?  We noted an alphabetical connection with a handful of divine epithets of Allāh, including the famous one Al-`Alīm (“The All-Knowing One”), but what other roots that start with `Ayn might be significant, if any?
  • Unlikely though it is,`Iyān could still be the name of a spirit or non-/pre-Arabian deity.  If so, where does this entity come from, from what culture, what tribe, what area, and what would a more native interpretation of the name be?  What does this entity do, and who are its two sons?
  • Just because there hasn’t been a specific spirit-based use for the original chant “O ye two sons of `Iyān, hasten ye with the explanation!” doesn’t mean that there can’t be one ever.

Once more, my thanks to Dr. Amina Inloes, Nick Farrell, and Arlechina Verdigris for helping me with organizing my thoughts, refining my ideas, providing me with useful materials, and in general being wonderful people in my life.  May God and the gods bless you all.