On Confusing Geomantic Charts and Geomantic Competency

I started studying geomancy in college, and I was blessed to go to a university with a huge library and good connections.  I’ll always fondly remember hauling my ass to the Old Stacks on grounds, and walking up the claustrophobic submarine-esque stairwell to get to the parapsychology and occult aisles, and finding tomes of occult knowledge from a variety of traditions across the world, including geomancy (which was often mixed up with feng shui manuals written in Classical Chinese and Korean as well as African divination that was only tangentially related).  Of these books, I have to credit Stephen Skinner and his out-of-print book Terrestrial Astrology: Divination by Geomancy with really getting me started in my research.  His up-to-date version of the book Geomancy in Theory and Practice is something every geomancer should have in their library; it’s a wealth of knowledge on the historical development and context of geomancy, as well as some of the major names in geomantic history dating back to its earliest mythological Arabic roots.

However, as I’ve come to learn and practice geomancy over the years, I’ve realized that Skinner’s book on geomancy has its major shortcomings.  The book is far better a history on geomancy than it is a guide to practicing it, and what little there is on actual practice is focused on a very late Golden Dawn-style of geomancy.  This isn’t bad per se, but it doesn’t draw on all the research Skinner has done in Arabic and European geomancy, especially all the new texts that have come to light since the publication of Terrestrial Astrology in 1980.  It’s one technique in particular that Skinner describes that I take major issue with, and it’s based on a fundamental issue with geomantic practice that I find to really hinder geomantic practice.  Skinner says that the Sentence, also known as the 16th figure or the Reconciler or superjudge, should only be used as a last resort if the Judge and the rest of the chart is unclear:

Who could ask for greater clarity?  If the answer were ambiguous, don’t forget that you could always resort to that back-stop, the Reconciler (figure XVI), which is formed by ‘adding’ together figures I and XV, that is, the first Mother and the Judge.  However, don’t form a Reconciler if you have already got a satisfactory answer, as this is rude persistence in the face of a perfectly adequate reply by the oracle!

The idea behind this is that the Sentence is “extra” and not needed by a geomancer except when the chart is confusing, and shouldn’t be part of the normal reading process.  As I’ve come to practice the art, I find the Sentence is always something to examine and is crucial to forming a complete answer.  In Arabic traditions, the Sentence is called “the result of the result”; if the Judge is the result of the query and how the situation resolves itself, then the Sentence is the effect of the resolution on the querent and how things go from there.  In other words, I treat the Sentence as a long-term post-mortem retrospective view on the situation and see how the querent will be effected by everything that happens, and it completes the chart by giving us a final sixteenth figure to round everything out from beginning to the end and afterwards.

The notion of using the Sentence to clarify the Judge does the role of the Sentence a severe injustice, since it belittles this noble figure way too much.  While the Judge does, of course, take precedence in giving an answer to the query, the Sentence is vital in seeing how things continue even after the situation comes to a close and gives us a final view on how the querent will be personally affected by the situation.  This differs from the rest of the chart, which describes what happens or how things happen.  To say that the Sentence is to be used as a “back-stop” doesn’t accurately describe the role of this figure, and to say that it should only be used in the case of a confusing chart is to insult it when it’s far more useful than that in every chart.

It gets worse, though.  Behind this technique of using the Sentence as a last-resort clarification to the Judge in the case of a confusing chart is the underlying notion that a geomantic chart can be too confusing to interpret with the usual methods and one must use “extra” figures in order to make sense of the thing.  I cannot overstate my disagreement with this notion, so let me make my point clear:

In a well-constructed geomantic reading, the symbols are always correct.  It is up to the geomancer to make sense of the symbols and soundly interpret the chart.  The chart in a geomantic reading is not wrong on its own, but the interpretation of the geomancer will be correct or incorrect depending on their own competency.  If a chart in a geomantic reading cannot be interpreted, the fault lies with the geomancer and not the chart.

When I say “well-constructed”, I don’t mean a chart that is drawn up correctly (though that is a necessary condition of a reading that is constructed properly).  I also mean that the reading is performed in a proper mindset: a clear, detached mind that isn’t afflicted by taxing concerns or worries.  The reading should also be performed when the geomancer isn’t physically afflicted with illness that would cause distraction, and other distractions to the geomantic process should also be minimized: the reading should be done when the weather isn’t violent or otherwise bad, in a place that is not moving (i.e. don’t do a reading in a moving vehicle), in a place that is relatively calm and peaceful, without obstruction from outside influences including spiritual adversaries or an unethical reader that stacks the deck or manipulates the generation of the Mothers or a person working maleficia against you to mess with your divinatory skill, and so forth.  This also includes heeding the usual warnings of Rubeus or Cauda Draconis appearing as the First Mother, though how one takes that warning is dependent on tradition.  These are all crucial things to be aware of, and while mental clarity and stability can neutralize many of these concerns ranging from a raging storm to raging emotions, they should all be heeded to construct a reading in the best possible way.

Assuming you’ve heeded the weather and your own well-being, the chart is going to have all the information you need to answer the query.  However, while the chart gives you the figures to interpret, it’s still going to be the geomancer alone who develops the interpretation.  This is where geomancy turns from a mathematically-rigorous technical practice into a spiritually-refined oracular art, and this is where things like intuition, emotional understanding, and perspective come into play.  If what the geomancer says is wrong, then it’s not the chart’s fault that the reading went wrong; the blame for an incorrect interpretation lies solely with the geomancer.  It’s up to the geomancer to give a proper interpretation of the figures; and that requires the geomancer to be competent in their knowledge of the figures and the techniques of geomancy.  You do not need to relegate certain figures to be last-resort interpretive methods, nor do you need to add the Sentence to the four Mothers to get another set of Mothers to draw up a new chart that can potentially be clearer than the first; you don’t need any other figures besides the first set you got.

This notion of a chart being too confusing to read is, as I understand it, an excuse for an incompetent geomancer who lacks the finesse to put together the pieces of the geomantic puzzle before them into a coherent interpretation.  Sometimes charts will be hard to read, and this is to be expected when we have only 16 figures to represent all of the myriad myriad things in the cosmos; however, I can solidly say that there has never been a chart constructed properly that was wrong in my own practice.  I’ve had a number of readings go awry with incorrect interpretations abound, but hindsight is 20/20 and I can always point out what went wrong after the fact and see how I could have interpreted the chart better.  It might take me five minutes to develop an interpretation for a chart or it might take me five hours, but there is no such thing as a chart that is too confusing to read.

As a result, I find this notion of having techniques to resolve a confusing chart to come from a very bad understanding of geomancy, since it pushes the blame of not being able to read a chart from the geomancer to geomancy itself.  This is not the case, and never has been!  If you’re not competent enough to properly read a chart, then become competent with more practice and trial-and-error.  It’s not going to be easy, and it’s not going to go well every single time.  That’s why we practice and build up our knowledge of the figures and techniques of geomancy, and while geomancy is an art that can take a week to pick up and start practicing with good results, it can take years and years to actually become competent at it.

Consider this from the point of view of an alchemist.  In their art, they deal with the subtle forces and changes in material components to drive spiritual changes in the world, and it’s an excruciatingly fine art and science to practice.  Some alchemical processes can take months to complete and must be performed time and time again, and not all these attempts come to success.  If an alchemist’s experiment comes to failure, it’s not alchemy that was at fault, but the alchemist; they didn’t perform their calculations or their processes correctly, or they used the wrong set of materials, or they did things at the wrong time or in the wrong state.  To say that it’s alchemy itself that doesn’t work is, quite simply, wrong, and no alchemist would say such a thing of their art.  For us to say that about geomancy is misguided at best and hypocritical at worst.  Don’t do it.

If the chart is confusing, it’s because you’re the one confused.  While it’s lamentable, it’s not irreparable; there are plenty of things you can do to resolve a “confusing” chart that don’t involve these problematic techniques.  Take a step back, take a deep breath, and try looking at the chart from another perspective.  Think more deeply about the query put to the chart, and see if there’s something you missed in an assumption you made or if there’s something you aren’t aware of when the query was asked.  See if you missed something in your understanding of the techniques or the symbols in geomancy, if you misapplied a particular technique, or if you’re using the wrong set of meanings for a particular symbol.  Consider your own state of being and that of the land and area around you to see if there are negative influences surrounding the reading.  If you need to, take a nap and sleep on the chart for a bit (literally or otherwise) and come back to it later.  If, even after looking at the chart from every angle, you still can’t come to a satisfactory answer, wait at least a day and draw up a new chart for the same query, but save the old one for reference to compare results later.

Over time, competency will come, but it’s up to you to work on it.  There are no shortcuts and there are no substitutes for this.  Trying to make your life easier by geomantically begging the question with “clarification” techniques does neither you nor geomancy any favors.  Research the techniques; meditate on the meanings; practice the process.  That’s the real way to resolve confusing charts.

A Critique of a Summary of Geomancy

Fellow ambler freemanpresson commented recently on a recent post on geomancy, asking if I had listened in on a recent show of Poke Runyon (a.k.a. Frater Thabion) about geomancy.  I had seen it before, but I didn’t have the time to listen in when it came out in April, and promptly forgot about it.  I listened to it once he reminded me, and although I found it interesting, I have more than a few bones to pick with how Poke Runyon describes geomancy and its history.  Granted, I don’t know much about Poke Runyon or his work, but these are a few of the things I’d argue (in order of his talking points in the show).  The following are my thoughts on what he’s saying, so if it appears unstructured, it’s meant to be read alongside listening to the show.

  • Geomancy can involve but does not require planets, planetary spirits, and the like.  They were later astrological add-ins to an already complete system that was practiced in the Sahara, and is still practiced in the forms of ifa and sikidy further south in Africa.  Although the house-based chart format of geomancy is popular, it was an astrological add-in as well, and the shield chart is still the most traditional and stable form of geomantic layout.
  • The system is called “geomancy” as a calque from an earlier Arabic phrase `ilm al-raml, or “science of the sand”, and then called “rabolion” in Byzantine Greek before it got its modern name.  Geomancy, as a desert art, was originally practiced by making sixteen lines of points in the sand, and is still done by some traditionalists in sand or soil, whether on the ground or in a special box made for the purpose.
  • Geomancy is not prehistoric or paleolithic.  The earliest writings we have from it are from the early 1000s A.D. from the Sahara and Middle East, and although some research has indicated the use of similar dot-forms to relate to planets or other phenomena, there is no indication that these were at all related to or an ancestor of geomancy (The astrological origin of Islamic geomancy, Wim van Binsbergen, 2004).
  • Agrippa’s Fourth Book of Occult Philosophy does have a significant section on geomancy, but I wouldn’t call it the primary text of modern geomancy.  Geomancy was well-known and well-established in Europe and the Middle East for centuries, and only started to fall out of the limelight due to what I contend to be two primary reasons: the Industrial Age with its focus on hard science, and the rise of Tarot, New Thought, and other occult systems of knowledge.  Various texts have survived, some in manuscript and some printed, that have helped geomancy survive, Agrippa only being a minor text among them.  Agrippa being a famous author handed down to us in the ceremonial and Hermetic traditions, however, did help geomancy stay alive in those traditions.
  • Honestly, I wish Poke Runyon chose a more updated selection of geomancy texts to choose from.  I haven’t gone over Israel Regardie’s A Practical Guide to Geomantic Divination, but I do own a copy of Stephen Skinner’s long-out-of-print The Oracle of Geomancy.  Both of these books came out in the 1970s, and a good deal more has come out on geomancy since then, including John Michael Greer’s book The Art and Practice of Geomancy and Stephen Skinner’s updates to his first book on geomancy, Terrestrial Astrology and Geomancy in Theory and Practice.  Donald Tyson’s commentary on the Fourth Book of Occult Philosophy is a good start and fairly thorough, though, but isn’t great on history if I recall rightly.
  • I don’t have an issue with Poke Runyon or the OTA having their own tradition of geomancy, and that sounds pretty awesome to me, really; heaven knows the art could use an influx of new methods and innovation!  But attributing Biblical or paleolithic origins to the art isn’t much better than attributing it to Hermes Trismegistus, Idris, Gabriel, Daniel, Mohammed, or other prophets or angels.  They may give geomancy a kind of spiritual authority, but it’s hardly a factual history.
  • Everything from the figures’ traditional names in the earliest Arabic writings reflecting a nomadic society to the right-to-left orientation of the figures indicates a Bedouin, Arabic, or otherwise nomadic Semitic origin.
  • Hermetic philosophy isn’t that old; although some people put Hermes Trismegistus as a contemporary of Moses, we don’t start seeing distinctly Hermetic ideas until after the rise of Platonism and Neoplatonism in the Roman Empire.  This still well predates any mention of geomancy in the historical record by a good five to nine hundred years at the earliest.
  • I don’t know much about Parzival, but that geomancy appears in literature throughout Europe doesn’t surprise me.  I know of two places it makes a cameo: in Dante’s Purgatory (canto XIX), and in Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales (Parson’s Tale).  It also appears in the Arabic of One Thousand and One Nights to find treasure, and Shakespeare used it for comic relief in some of his works.  Geomancy being second in popularity and authority only to astrology back in the day, I’ll bet it appears in a lot more literary works than these as well.
  • Granted that ifa and sikidy, African derivatives of geomancy, are very old, Oruban and Madagascan cultures indicate in their own historical records and stories that they got the art from what we would conclude to be Middle Eastern travelers, lending further support to the idea that it had a Saharan or Arabian Bedouin origin.
  • Although the I Ching and geomancy are superficially similar systems, they aren’t related.  For one, the I Ching is based into trigrams (three lines) or hexagrams (six lines), while geomancy has always been equivalently tetragrams (four lines).  For two, the I Ching is historically ancient, having written documentation stretching back to 500 B.C. in manuscript and as far back as the second millenium B.C. in composition, while geomancy has no such historical documentation.  For three, although there does exist a variety of I Ching symbols that have four lines with its origins around 2 BC, they also have three values for each line, in contrast to the two values for the classical trigrams and hexagrams of the I Ching and figures of geomancy: a solid line, a line broken once, and a line broken twice.
  • Two systems alone sharing a binary system of mathematics or development does not mean those systems are related.  Africa has a long history of using binary mathematics in writing, notation, and engineering, which again leads credence to an African/Saharan/Arabian origin (Bamana Sand Divination: Recursion in Ethnomathematics, Ron Eglash, American Anthropologist, New Series, Vol. 99, No. 1 (Mar., 1997), pp. 112-122).  Besides, binary systems of thought are helpful and can get one pretty far, but pose problems of their own that can’t be solved except by translating things into a trinary or n-ary system, or by reducing things to the One Thing, which is kinda hard to do if you’re not already Divine.
  • The placement of figures from the shield chart into the house chart depends on what specific method you’re using.  Poke Runyon suggests putting the first four figures (the Mother figures), into the cardinal houses of the house chart, then the next four (Daughters) into the succedent, and the next four (Nieces) into the cadent.  This, I believe, has its origins in the Golden Dawn methods, while traditional European methods (maybe Islamic/Arabian, I haven’t seen them use houses like how European geomancy uses houses) simply put the figures into the houses in the order of their generation: the first four figures into the first four houses, the next four into the next four, and so on.  This is a bit like quibbling over what house system to use in astrology (Placidus, Regiomantus, Koch, equal, etc.), so while not a bone to pick, I would just like to say that there are other ways of making the house chart.  Personally, I follow the sequential, traditional method.
  • The Judge figure is always there, not if the geomancer didn’t like the other figures.  It’s the figure after the Judge (called the sixteenth figure, the result of the result, the Reconciler, the Sentence, and so on) that isn’t always used depending on the geomancer.  Personally, I always use the Sentence, and insist that the Judge always be looked at no matter the query.
  • I know of one method that uses geomancy to make horoscopes (On Astrological Geomancy, Gerard of Cremona), but this is a very derivative method of geomancy that doesn’t make use of the traditional geomantic procedure.  It’s a neat system all the same, though.  Otherwise, I haven’t heard of people substituting geomancy entirely for astrology in any time period; although geomancy was considered “astrology’s little sister”, they’ve always been distinct, at least to the sources I can find.
  • Although divination with dice, especially that knucklebones, is definitely ancient, I strongly doubt that they were related to geomancy for reasons stated above.  Ifa uses shells or nuts to make their figures in a similar way, but this was probably an innovation on their part and not something passed down from paleolithic antiquity.
  • Urim and Thummim?  Er…really?  And fluorite crystals?  I’m really confused at this apparently random inclusion.  I get the connection of Urim and Thummim to cleromancy and divination (because that’s pretty clearly what they were used for), but their connection with geomancy is tenuous even given the best of times, especially given the lapse of time between the Temple Period of Israel and the documented use and development of geomancy.
  • Just because a single animal could produce a set of four hucklebones with four sides each (4d4, essentially) possible to be marked with simple dots and figures, I don’t see why this would indicate a connection with geomancy, especially considering the time frames Poke Runyon is talking about (ancient prehistory and medieval-modern occultism).  16 is the fourth power of two, and so is likely to come up in any system that involves the numbers 2, 4, or 8 (or any combination thereof, because math is awesome).
  • Using dice to do geomancy is well-attested, though, despite what I’m saying above.  Modern geomancers with connections to tabletop RPG players might use a d4, d6, d8, and d20 (related to the Platonic solids of fire, earth, air, and water, respectively).  I’ve seen racks of old dice that have four points in a square, three points in an upwards-pointing triangle, three points in a downwards-pointing triangle, and two points aligned vertically; two of these dice rolled and placed atop each other form a single geomantic figure.  Geomancy, being a binary system, is very adaptable to anything that can give a binary answer (heads/tails, even/odd, white/black, etc.).
  • One issue I find with Poke Runyon’s method of geomancy is that it restricts the number of possible charts drastically.  In traditional methods of making a geomantic chart, it is possible to have more than one figure appear amongst the Mothers; it’s even possible, though it’s a 1/32768 chance, to have all four Mothers be the same figure.  In his method, if I understand it right, you only have the possibility of one figure appearing once, and even then it’s restricted based on what figures are engraved together on the same die.  Although there are a total of 32768 possible geomantic charts (one of sixteen figures, one of sixteen figures, one of sixteen figures, one of sixteen figures), his method yields something like 256 (one of four possible figures, another of four different possible figures, another of four different possible figures, another of four different possible figures).  This is a major handicap.  Compare either of these to Tarot, where in a simple ten-card spread and ignoring reversed cards you may have  6.12344584 × 10103 possible spreads. Geomancy in its full style is sufficient enough to be adaptable to many situations, but not in Poke Runyon’s style, if I understand his method right.
  • It’s pretty clear in Biblical and historical records that the Urim and Thummim were not shewstones, but were used for cleromancy, even in the books of Exodus and Samuel; one possible etymology of their names effectively renders them to mean “guilty” or “innocent”, using them to show the truth of a certain legal or religious matter.  I’m unclear where he got the shewstone idea from.  I don’t know about the legitimacy of their shapes being octahedrons, so I can’t say anything on that, but I feel like that something like that would be reflected in Biblical or Talmudic texts.  Again, the link between geomancy and these divination stones is highly suspect to me.  Plus, fluorite crystals do give their names to the phenomenon of fluorescence, but they only glow under UV light, which was not really documented until the 1500s A.D.; their etymology comes from the Latin verb “to flow”, referring to their use in smelting and metalworks.
  • Geomancy does not give “nasty, brutal, and short” answers unless you’re reading an old text that has a list of answers for a given figure/figure combination or figure/house combination (like everything the Golden Dawn was using), and I’ve been able to tease out whole stories on all kinds of topics with it.  It’s down to earth and snarky, sure, because it still has its origins in the earth, but it’s by no means limited to strictly important yes/no queries.  However, it does function best with yes/no queries, filling in lots of details along the way with any number of techniques to determine the speed of resolution, favorability, interference, origins of concern, hidden resources and factors, intents and spiritually destined factors, and the like.
  • I do like his idea of ceremonial divination, calling upon the genius/spirit of a query (as sorted according to the planet it’s ruled by) and using a particular ceremonial setup for divination; John Michael Greer suggests something similar as one valid and potent means of divination, too, in his works.  However, that’s hardly how most people function, especially most people involved with magic and divination today (freeform, neopagan, chaotes, etc.).  I hardly use a ceremonial framework; I might stick to using days and hours of Mercury or Saturn for divination and call on Tiriel, the intelligence (not spirit!) of Mercury, for help, but that’s about it.  With or without the timing or spiritual aid of Tiriel, though, I’ve gotten pretty consistent and accurate answers for years now.  Read up on the methods available and pick what method appeals to you most.
  • Carcer ruled by Mercury?  Puella ruled by the Moon?  What on earth has he been reading from?  I’ve seen Carcer attributed to Saturn or the Moon, but Puella only ever by Venus; I know of two distinct methods of attributing the figures to the planets, but whatever one Poke Runyon is using is definitely not among them.
  • The resolution of the query found in the house opposite the significator?  The seventh house is in opposition to the second?  Now I’m really confused, guys.  I’ll grant the first as a quirk of his particular method of geomantic divination, but the second is just plain wrong unless he’s using a ten-house chart (which isn’t attested anywhere).
  • I fully agree when he says that queries should always be “brief, simple, direct, and practical”.  This is how any divination should be posed, no matter the method or diviner.  A good third of the time I spend with clients myself, I spend on refining the query so that it makes sense with a definite answer.  The more detail in the query, the more detailed the answer; the vaguer the query, the vaguer the answer.
  • “In those days, astrological malefics were much, much more malefic than they are today, as any astrologer will tell you.”  Uh…no.  Unless he’s referring to the perceptions of them, no.  Saturn sucks.  Mars sucks.  The Tail of the Dragon sucks.  Generally.  They’re favorable for some queries, yes, but more often than not they’re inimical to what humans like.  That hasn’t really changed in the few hundred years since this has been going on; that’s like saying our brains have dramatically increased or decreased in functionality in the past few decades or so.  No.  “Modern interpretations” require a modern restructuring and reevaluation of the entire system; you’d risk muddling the system with meaninglessness.  Saying Carcer represents delays and restriction is fine, because it does; saying it’s going to help you out in matters in which you need speed and freedom is a lie. 
  • Although Poke Runyon says otherwise, the Judge was always used and always referred to as the answer of the query.  I’ve never heard this being done in any other way in any source; it wasn’t a conditional thing to be used in case the rest of the chart was confused or unfavorable.
  • When Poke Runyon says “traditional geomancy”, I think he’s referring more to the generation of the Mothers (a stick and sand, a pen and paper, etc.).  The generation of the Mothers can be done in any way that involves a binary process or that gives figures in their entirety; I myself use a deck of geomancy cards I made with 64 cards, four cards per figure, and Poke Runyon mentions Paul Huson’s method of popsicle sticks and another method of Regardie’s.  I’ve even read of people counting the eyes on sixteen potatoes plucked from a field, which is about as earthy as you can get.
  • Granted the saying “different strokes for different folks”, I can claim my own experience with traditional geomancy as being highly in favor of its accuracy.  Since I’ve never used Poke Runyon’s method of ceremonial geomancy, I can’t say much about its accuracy, but I’ve noted above a few things awry with either it or my interpretation/his explanation of it.
  • Oh lord, incorporating the dreidle (those Chanukah tops) into all this?  It’s a children’s gambling game made to make the Jewish equivalent of a Biblically-mandated V-Day more fun while the parents are praying and getting sloshed.  That’s distinctly not related to the Urim and Thummim, and certainly not to geomancy.