Geomantic Shields versus Geomantic Tetractyes

A bit ago on Curious Cat, I got asked a particularly delightful and perceptive question about some of the mathematical mechanics behind how we develop the Shield Chart in geomancy.

Generating the Nieces, Witnesses, and Judge make perfect sense, as the convergence of (XORing) two trends/situations/events create another trend/situation/event. But what, philosophically, is happening when the Daughters are generated? What does transposing a square matrix actually mean here?

This person is asking a really cool question that boils down to this: why do we do the Shield Chart the way we do?  It makes sense to add up figures to get new figures, which mathematically and symbolically shows us the interaction between those two figures and “distills” the both of them into a single new figure, but why do we bother with transposing the Mother figures into four Daughter figures?  We’re all taught in the beginning of pretty much any geomantic text how to develop the Shield Chart, but while the most important mathematical and symbolic mechanism for generating new figures is by adding them together, it’s that transposition from Mothers into Daughters that I don’t think I’ve ever touched on symbolically, nor have I seen anyone else touch on them before.  I wanted to answer the question just on Curious Cat when I got it, but there was no way for me to fully flesh out that topic in just 3000 characters, so…well, here we are!

When you think about it, why would the original geomancers have come up with such a complicated method to begin with that we use?  If you have four elements to start with, and a method to reduce two figures into one, then it would seem like the more straightforward and apparent method to use just that would be to apply it to all consecutive pairs of figures: figure one plus figure two, figure two plus figure three, figure three plus figure four, and so forth.  This would, in effect, take four figures down into three, three down into two, and two figures down into one, yielding a sort of geomantic tetractys (just with the row of four at the top going down to one instead of the reverse).  This also makes a lot of sense when you look at it; it gets rid of the whole need for transposition of Daughters at all, and seems to be something that just makes more sense to someone (or to a group of people) who may not be as mathematically inclined.  Yet, despite the simplicity of it, why don’t we see this method being used at all for such a geomantic tetractys in any of the literature?

Well…the thing about a “geomantic tetractys chart” is that I have indeed come across it before, but only once, and that only in a modern French text, that of Robert Ambelain’s 1940 work La Géomancie Magique.  Towards the end of the text, pages 200 to 202, Ambelain describes based on reports just such a tetractys-based approach to geomancy as apparently used by some Tuareg diviners (my translation):

The Tuareg Figure of Darb ar-Raml.  One of our correspondents and friends, an officer of the Moroccan Goumier (the same one who procured the members of «G.E.O.M», their sumptuous finely-cut red copper almadels), transmits to us this curious process of geomantic interrogation, still used by some nomads of the desert.

The geomancer (usually a woman) waits to perform this rite on Friday. After drawing a pentagram over a crescent moon on the sand, the diviner utters an invocation to the Evening Star, then marks a single point in the center of the star.  Then, under the sand, the diviner draws an equilateral triangle, and divides it into sixteen small triangles with four oblique lines and three horizontal lines. ([This shape appears to be a] memory of the feminine-yonic cult of Ishtar or of Astarte).

This done, the diviner marks the sixteen lines of ordinary dots and forms the four Mothers, which they then place in the upper row of the triangle.  Then the diviner copulates each of the Mothers with the next (first and second, second and third, third and fourth), and places these three new figures that he places in the second row.  After this, they copulate these three new figures together, thus forming two new ones, which are placed in the third row.  Finally, they copulate finally these last two figures together, then gets the one that constitutes the Judgment, considered simply as a pure answer (yes or no, good or bad).  By copulating the Judgment with the Mother, the diviner can further detail the answer.

Note the analogy of this graph with some geometric ornaments found on the cushions, fabrics and leathers of these regions, and also with tassels or pompoms during pyramids on both sides of the episcopal coat of arms.  All these motifs comprising ten pieces (4-3-2-1), are mere reminders of the mysterious Pythagorean tetractys:

and the Hebrew Tetragrammaton:

Both of these are esoteric reminders of the great Hermetic Secret showing us the four elements (Fire-Air-Water-Earth) that generate the three higher principles (the Salt, Mercury, and Sulfur of the Philosophers) which give rise to the Mercurial Principle and the Sulfuric Principle, i.e. the “Father” and “Mother”, [which then give rise to the] mysterious Philosopher’s Stone, the famous ferment red phosphorescent…*

Further, this same method of the nomads of the desert also has a strange resemblance to the secret emblem of the Knights Templar, who, from these same regions, may have brought it back…

The symbolism of the sons of Hermes are universal…

* The Tuareg-style geomantic chart is bastardized from the Hermetic point of view.  The alchemists will know how to restore the secret order of the four Mothers and thus generate Dry, Hot, and Wet…

The thing is, this is the only such instance of a tetractys-based approach to geomancy that I’ve ever seen, and I don’t know how much we can trust Ambelain or his reporter.  Plus, I’ve noticed quite a lot of stuff in modern French geomantic literature that seems to take some pretty wide divergences from medieval and Renaissance Western geomantic literature generally; besides potentially having a more active body of occultists who engage in geomantic research and development of techniques and study, I also think that it’s because of how French imperialism expanded so strongly across Africa and the Middle East over the past few centuries, and their anthropologists and occultists picked up quite a lot from their old colonial holdings.  That said, there’s generally a lack of any sort of citation, so sifting through the modern French geomantic literature can be confusing when picking out what was from Western practice versus what was from Arabic practice.

Anyway, the fundamental idea here with this “geomantic tetractys chart” is basically what we’re used to, but instead of transposing the Mothers to get the Daughters, we only focus on the four Mothers we get originally, and more than that, we throw in a third “Niece” into the mix, which then gets us two “Witnesses” just for the Mothers, yielding a “Judge” for the Mothers.  Okay, sure, I guess.  But what’s mathematically going with such a geomantic tectracys?  If we take any Shield Chart that we’re already familiar with and use the Four Mothers and the right side of the chart (Mothers, first two Nieces, and Right Witness), and compare the overall results with a geomantic tetractys formed from those same four Mothers, then the geomantic tetractys “judge” is the same as our Right Witness, but the figures above are almost always different than our First and Second Nieces.  What gives?  Let’s do a bit of math.  First, let’s set up our symbols for the geomantic tetractys:

F1 = First Mother
F2 = Second Mother
F3 = Third Mother
F4 = Fourth Mother

C1 = First Child
C2 = Second Child
C3 = Third Child

W1 = First Witness
W2 = Second Witness
J = Judge

Next, let’s define the Children, Witnesses, and Judge according to what figures add up for them:

C1 = F1 + F2
C2 = F2 + F3
C3 = F3 + F4
W1 = C1 + C2
W2 = C2 + C3
J = W1 + W2

While the Children figures in a geomantic tetractys are produced from adding together pairs of Mothers, the Witnesses are produced by adding together the pairs of Children.  But, because the Children are just sums of Mothers, we can reduce the terms by replacing a Child figure with its parent terms:

W1 = C1 + C2
= (F1 + F2) + (F2 + F3)
= F1 + F2 + F2 + F3

W2 = C2 + C3
= (F2 + F3) + (F3 + F4)
= F2 + F3 + F3 + F4

But note how each Witness has two of the same figure inherent in its calculation, with the Second Mother appearing twice in the First Witness and the Third Mother appearing twice in the Second Witness.  Any figure added to itself yields Populus, and so drops out of the equation.

W1= F1 + (F2 + F2) + F3
= F1 + Populus + F3
= F1 + F3

W2 = F2 + (F3 + F3) + F4
= F2 + Populus + F4
= F2 + F4

While in a Shield Chart, the First Niece is the sum of the First and Second Mothers, but in our tetractean First Witness, the First Witness is the sum of the First and Third Mothers.  Likewise, the tetractean Second Witness is the sum of the Second and Fourth Mothers.  Knowing this, we can proceed onto expanding the tetractean Judge, which, as expected, is just the sum of the four Mothers:

J = W1 + W2
= (F1 + F3) + (F2 + F4)
= F1 + F2 + F3 + F4

So, in effect, the tetractean Judge will always be the same as the Right Witness of the Shield Chart, and the First Child and Third Child the same as the First Niece and Second Niece.  It’s the presence of the Second Child, however, that makes the First and Second Witnesses of the geomantic tectratys different, which then causes a mismatch between what we’d otherwise expect in the tetractean Witnesses.  Still, the overall idea is the same: we’re distilling four figures down into one.

But this doesn’t explain why we ended up with the Shield Chart method of doing that instead of a tetractys-based method; after all, the Tetractys is a well-known symbol across many cultures for thousands of years now, so why didn’t we end up with the a geomantic tetractys method?  I think I touched on this idea a bit earlier in my post about the potential bird-based origins of geomancy when we discussed the Arabian nature of even numbers being more positive than odd numbers:

However, even with what little we have, we kinda start to see a potential explanation for why a geomantic chart is created in such a way that the Judge must be an even figure, and why we use such a recursive structure that takes in four figures and then manipulates them to always get an even figure as a distillation of the whole chart, whether or not it’s favorable to the specific query.  Related entries to `Iyān in Lane’s Lexicon, specifically عِينَةُ `iynah (pg. 2269), refer to “an inclining in the balance” or set of scales, “the case in which one of two scales thereof outweighs the other”, as in “in the balance is an unevenness”.  In this light, even numbers would indicate that things are in balance, and odd numbers out of balance; this idea strikes me as similar to some results used in Yòrubá obi divination or Congolese chamalongo divination or other African systems of divination that make use of a four-piece set of kola nuts, coconut meat, coconut shells, cowries, or some other flippable objects, where the best possible answer is where two pieces face-up and two fall face-down, while there being three of side and one of the other either indicates “no” or a generally weak answer.  For the sake of the Judge, then, we need it to be impartial (literally from Latin for “not odd”) in order for it to speak strongly enough to answer the question put to the chart.  Heck, in Arabic terms, the word that I’ve seen used for the Judge is میزان mīzān, literally “balance” or “scales” (the same word, I might add, that’s used to refer to the zodiac sign Libra).

And, to look at it another way, how is an even figure formed? An even geomantic figure is formed from the addition of either two odd parents or two even parents; in either case, the parity of one figure must be the same as the other figure in order for their child figure to be even.  Thus, for the Judge, the Witnesses must either both be even or they must both be odd.  “Brothers”, indeed; as that old Bedouin saying goes, “I against my brothers; I and my brothers against my cousins; I and my brothers and my cousins against the world”.  Brothers implies a similarity, a kinship, and even if they fight against each other, they must still be similar enough to come to terms with each other.  And consider the mathematical and arithmetic implications of what “coming to terms” can suggest!  Thus, the two Witnesses must be alike in parity in order for the scale of the Judge to work itself out, and perhaps, the figure with more points would “outweigh” the other and thus be of more value.  For example, if we have a Right Witness of Laetitia and a Left Witness of Puella, both odd figures, then the Judge would be Fortuna Maior, but Laetitia, having more points, would “outweigh” Puella, favoring the Right Witness representing the querent.  Thus, perhaps the Judge might be taking on the role of `Iyān and the Witnesses its two “sons”?  After all, you need both the Witnesses in order to arrive at the Judge, so telling them to hurry up would naturally speed up the calculation of the Judge.

And a little more again, once we got more of the bird symbolism in the mix:

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.

While I can’t point to this as saying “this is why”, I think this gives a good base for my conjecture here: we use the Shield Chart method that involves distilling the Mothers into the Right Witness, transposing the Mothers into the Daughters and distilling those figures into the Left Witness, and then distilling those two figures into the Judge because this method guarantees that the Judge will always be an even figure.  Just distilling the Mothers into a single figure can yield either an odd or an even figure, but if we use the Daughters as well as the Mothers, we always end up with an even figure.  Why do we care about this?  Because even numbers, in the original Arabian system, were considered more fortunate, comparable, approachable, and beneficial for all involved rather than odd numbers; indeed, the very word “impartial” to this day means “even”.  I’ve noted before that even figures tend to relate to objective things while odd figures relate to subjective things:

Because the Judge must be even, this narrows down the number of figures that can occur in this position from sixteen down to eight: Populus, Via, Carcer, Coniunctio, Fortuna Maior, Fortuna Minor, Aquisitio, and Amissio. It is for this reason that I call these figures “objective”, and the odd figures (Puer, Puella, Laetitia, Tristitia, Albus, Rubeus, Cauda Draconis, and Caput Draconis) “subjective”; this is a distinction I don’t think exists extant in the literature outside my own writings (which also includes contributions to the articles on geomancy on Wikipedia). I call the even figures “objective” because they are the only ones that can be Judges; just as in real life, where the judge presiding over a court case must objectively take into account evidence to issue a judgment and sentence, the Judge in a geomantic chart must likewise reflect the nature of the situation and answer the query in an impartial (a Latin word literally meaning “not biased” or “not odd”), fair, balanced, and objective way. It’s not that these figures are Judges because they inherently possess an astrological or magical quality called objectivity, but I call them objective because they’re mathematically able to be Judges.

I’ll let you read that post further, dear reader, as it gets more into the mathematics behind the evenness of the Judge and what it means for a figure to be odd or even and how that relates to its meaning and interpretation.  But, suffice it here to say that I think we use the Daughters as well as the Mothers so that mathematically we always deal in terms of evenness, for an even judgment, an even heart, an even mind, an even road.

So that explains (at least potentially) the mathematical reason behind why we have to have the Daughters.  But what about the other part of the original Curious Cat question?  What is philosophically or symbolically happening when we generate the Daughters from the Mothers?  It’s literally just the same points from the Mothers that we look at horizontally instead of vertically.  Don’t believe me?  Consider: say that you’re using the original stick-and-surface method of generating Mother figures, and you take up all those leftover points and put them into a 4×4 grid, starting in the upper right corner and going first vertically downwards and from right to left:


If we read the leftover points allocated in this way in vertical columns, from top to bottom and from right to left, we get the four Mother figures.  If, instead, we read the leftover points allocated in this table in horizontal roads, from right to left and top to bottom, we get the four Daughter figures:


This is what I and the Curious Cat poster mean by “transposing”; we change (transpose) how we read the square matrix of points from primarily vertical to primarily horizontal.  This is simply a mathematical formalization of the usual phrasing of the method we use to get the Daughters from the Mothers: take the Fire lines of each of the four Mothers (rows 1, 5, 9, 13) and rearrange them vertically to get the first Daughter, the Air lines of the four Mothers (rows 2, 6, 10, 14) to get the second Daughter, and so forth.

When you consider what transposition does, all we’re doing is looking at the same exact points from a new perspective; instead of reading the 4×4 matrix above from the bottom, we’re reading it from the side.  If the points we get from generating the four Mothers are the “raw data”, the actual symbolic point-based representation of our situation, then by reading them “from the side” as the Daughters means we’re looking at the situation from literally a point of view that is not our own.  In other words, if the Mothers represent our view of the situation we’re facing, the Daughters represent the view of everyone else who isn’t us or affiliated with us.  We can see this in the meaning of the Witnesses, which are themselves the distillations of their corresponding Mothers or Daughters; the Right Witness (the distillation of the four Mothers) represents the querent’s side of things, and the Left Witness (the distillation of the four Daughters) represents the quesited’s side of things.  To use a courtroom analogy, the Right Witness represents the defense of the person being tried, and the Left Witness is the prosecution.  It’s the Judge that hears out both sides and favors one side, the other, both, or neither depending on the arguments and evidence that the defense and prosecution present.

Moreover, it’s this method of using two Witnesses that necessarily produce an even Judge that won out as the dominant form of geomancy (or was the original one even in the oldest of times) over a tetractean form of geomantic chart because the geomantic tetractys method doesn’t produce a complete answer (given what we said above); all it does is it illustrates the complexity of the querent’s situation but only as far as the querent themselves is concerned and what they’re aware of or what they can see.  The tetractys method does not touch on how the rest of the world might perceive their situation, how the querent fits into the broader world, or how their situation could be seen from an outside point of view.  We can’t just coddle our querents, after all, and make them the center of the world when they’re just one part of it; yes, the querent is an integral and major point of any situation of their own, to be sure, but geomancy talks about the world as a whole, in which the querent only plays one part.  The shield chart method resolves this by not only ensuring an even Judge figure that allows us to more clearly see the answer in a situation unclouded by emotion or subjectivity, but also by factoring in how other people necessarily perceive and interact with the same situation the querent is, which the querent themselves might not be able to see from their own point of view.

Geomancy is, fundamentally, a spiritual science of mathematics that analyzes the raw data that the cosmos gives us through the points obtained in divination.  Understanding the symbolic meaning of the figures is just one part of the science of geomancy; it’s the mathematics behind adding figures together to distill them and transposing four Mothers into four Daughters that gives us more symbols—and, thus, more information—to work with.  In this light, the mathematics itself becomes a technique for us to understand what a geomantic chart is telling us.

Also, just a small note: last month, April 2019, was the most-viewed month of the Digital Ambler in its history of over nine years, with 21630 views and 6667 visitors.  Thank you, everyone, for all the hits, attention, and love for the Digital Ambler!  I couldn’t do it without you, and you guys make blogging and writing so much fun for me and for everyone.  Thank you!

When God Says No: On God and the Angels

Yes, another post from Curious Cat.  It’s honestly a great way for people to reach out to me, and it gives me a ready store of ideas for posts to write about.  (I’ve been asking for comments on my website, Facebook, and Twitter for ages for when people would like to ask questions, but people either just don’t do that or don’t generally trigger a post-writing reaction.)  Plus, according to Human Design (which my blessed sister studies and practices), I’m a so-called “manifesting generator” type, who responds well to being asked questions in order to produce and effect wonderful things.  But unlike other posts about things that come from questions on Curious Cat, this post is gonna be a little different; we’re going to discuss a common thread that ties together several different questions that were asked, all largely pertaining to angels, their role in the cosmos, how we interact with them, how we’re permitted to interact with them, and what their relationship is to God.  To give a brief summary of the questions asked and my replies to them:

  • Where do angels come from, and what are they?  God made them to carry out his will in infinitesimal slices of divine presence, made discrete and distinct to govern over specific things, entities, events, or phenomena of the cosmos.  Angels have no free will; by definition, their will is the will of God and vice versa, so that they act strictly and solely in accordance with, for, by, and to God.
  • If angels have no free will, then when we invoke or conjure an angel and commission it with a request, it can only fulfill this request if God wills it? Yes!  All the conjurations we do in the Western Hermetic and Solomonic tradition of higher entities, if we’re not taking the rather old-school approach of assuming divine power ourselves and browbeating the cosmos into complying with our (temporarily-assumed) divine will, is to supplicate God through prayer to reveal that he send his angels to us in his name for his honor and glory.  Thus, when we call on an angel, we’re essentially asking God to graciously give his permission for the angel to be sent to us, because God’s will and God’s will alone is what allows all things to happen; how much more this is the case, then, for entities whose sole purpose is to perfectly and only fulfill the will of God!
  • What sort of behavior do angels hate?  It depends on what they’re the angel of, but in general, angels don’t really “hate” because they don’t really do emotion, since they’re the embodiments of and agents for the will of God.  In that sense, angels “hate” anything that goes contrary to the will, design, aims, and goals of God—and, by extension, all that we do that goes against our True Will, which is nothing more or less than the will of God that is right and proper for us to will and accomplish in our lifetimes.
  • How can we discover our True Will if we’re unaware of it?  This is nothing short of the first half of the Great Work; the second half is fulfilling it.  And there is nothing harder or higher than to know and do what it is what we truly Will.  This is exactly the same thing as knowing the purpose God has established for us in life.
  • Why do angels hate emotion, then? Angels don’t hate emotion; they just don’t have it, or at least in any meaningful way that we might recognize as emotion.  We might perceive or interpret them to be acting emotionally, but that’s only because we ourselves are human and thus emotive creatures, while angels are utterly devoid of humanity and completely above and beyond our level, at least or especially where emotions are concerned.  Angels don’t have free will; they don’t even roll or blink their (innumerable) eyes without God willing it.
  • If an angel is being difficult, how do we complain to its manager?  If an angel is being difficult, it’s not because the angel is acting wily or being a punk for the sake of being a punk.  If an angel declines to do something, it’s because God declines to permit that thing from occurring; it’s not that the angels decide against it, but God decides against it.  That’s why, when we pray in conjuration for an angel to appear, we pray that God grant that it should happen (see above).  If something doesn’t happen, then there’s a reason for it; we either must work towards it so that we’re ready and proper for it in the eyes of God, or we must pray for the right thing to occur, whether it involves the conjuration and commissioning of an angel to do something or whether we should do something else entirely that would be better for us to do.
  • If God is unwilling to help us, would intervention from other deities from other traditions or pantheons help instead? Maybe, but if God’s decided against it, then there’s probably a good reason for that. It could be that you should look elsewhere for help, such as from another god or using another set of spirits or practices entirely to get the same thing done rather than by directly appealing to the Highest, but it could also be that you’re asking for the wrong thing entirely or that it’s not meant for you, whether now or at all. That’s where divination is crucial for magicians: it helps us plan out what we can do, but more than that, whether we should do something. Just because you can do something doesn’t mean you should, and if you shouldn’t, you should learn the reasons why. In other words, don’t go shopping around for a second opinion when you already got The One Opinion To Rule Them All. Keep to the principle of “move, or move me”.
  • But when it comes to other gods, don’t they also share power over our reality as well?  Absolutely!  But for all their greatness and grandness and power, they’re not as great or grand or powerful as the cosmocrator God behind them all. And that’s okay, because they don’t need to be, and it’s often better to work with them directly if you’re in such a tradition than to work with the behind-the-scenes all-ruling One, because they’re more accessible. But there are limits in place that even they can’t argue with, because they’re not in charge of literally everything like God is.

All this ended up with me saying this from that last question in the series, which I want to specifically quote with a special emphasis on one particular line:

God (and I use that term in a very general, very high-and-behind-the-scenes way as in Hermetic theology/philosophy), more often than not, doesn’t really established hard and fixed prohibitions so long as something fits (or is, at least, tolerated and permissible) within the grander scheme of things.  Even the biggest events and problems in our lives are less than specks of dust compared to the grandness of all creation, and accordingly, there’s not too much that really conflicts with the overall overarching design of God; there’s more than one way to skin a cat. But when God says “no” through the creation of the cosmos, there’s no angel, demon, ghost, or god that will say “yes”. If God says “no”, then you should find out why that might be the case and act accordingly, because more often than not, it’s with your own best interests in mind. Again, this is where divination is important, because it will tell you what’s going on, whether you can do something, and whether you should do something.

Now, there’s a lot to unpack in all of this, because I didn’t necessarily summarize everything, and Curious Cat, for all its usefulness, isn’t great for truly nuanced discussions, what with its 3000 character limit on replies, and it’s easy to get some parts of the above misunderstood.  Plus, there are things that I’m hinting at in some of my replies that really need to be said explicitly, but just couldn’t fit reasonably in the above replies within the constraints of Curious Cat.  First, let me preface this by saying that I’m coming from a position that’s largely Hermetic and Neoplatonic and fundamentally emanationist-monist within a polytheistic framework, and I recognize that not all systems of theology, cosmology, or philosophy operate on these principles—but there are still quite a number that do.  Since I’m the one being asked these questions for my opinions, and since this is my own blog, these are my thoughts on all of this.

At the core of it all, the theme of all these questions is what role God has to play in our Work, whether or not we’re monotheistic or monist, and how we relate to God in that sense.

First, what exactly is this God we’re talking about?  Coming from a Hermetic standpoint, God is the ultimate underlying authority and entity that created and creates the whole cosmos.  Without getting into the nitty-gritty of Hermetic philosophy (I did a good-enough job of that in my 49 Days of Definitions blog series from 2013 regarding the “Definitions from Hermes Trismegistus to Asclepius”), God is both the end result of spiritual development and the ultimate source of all things that exist, don’t exist, might exist, etc.  Everything else that exists does so within God as part of God.  It may be said that God is fullness itself; instead of merely saying that all things exist within God, it can also be said that all things are God, and since God is all things, God is All.  However, since God is still one divinely simple entity, God is also One, and thus All is One.  God is the Platonic Good, the summum bonum of the philosophers, the object of highest knowledge and importance that is the forerunner and producer of all other objects.  God is also the Monad, the One, that which is alone in itself, made by itself endlessly (i.e. unmade), making all things, coming first; it is the one Source of all things, creating all things within itself yet never being made from anything besides itself, never taking away from itself into less nor multiplying itself into more.  God, further, encompasses all things; not only is God fully immanent in all of creation, but God also transcends all of creation, too.  Everything is permeated with divine essence, but everything is also intrinsically connected to each other and to God by it as well.

Where does that put us, as human beings?  All beings, human and otherwise that are not God are finite; they are not infinite, unending, immovable, or the like, since these are qualities that belong only to God.  Something that is finite has an end; it is defined, or set in by boundaries.  The maximum extent of these boundaries can be called something’s capacity, and nothing that is finite can exceed its own capacity.  Thus, everything that exists that is not God has a certain way of existing up to a certain point, whether it be in quantity or quality or good or evil; these things cannot act outside or beyond that point, because then it would exceed its own capacity.  A being’s capacity is, essentially, its destiny; a being does what its nature is designed to do, which is to fulfill its own capacity, but which it cannot exceed, because that would be going past what its destiny necessitates.  This is essentially our power: to fulfill our capacity, to fulfill our fate, and we have the choice of doing good or evil in a Hermetic sense, to fulfill our fate or to not fulfill it.  And that’s huge!  But, despite all this power we’re entitled to have, we’re not omnipotent; for example, our nature as humans is to die; we are mortal, after all, and the nature of things with material bodies is to die eventually.

What about other entities that aren’t human beings, such as angels or gods that are distinct from capital-G God?  They’re entities in their own rights, to be sure, and have their own capacities, natures, and roles to play.  But they’re still finite, no matter how much power they have.  Whatever something is according to its nature, that is going to be how it will be for that being.  These entities still have power, but they still exist as finite entities within creation; thus, they are still not God.  Rather, it’s God who establishes their natures and capacities, and it’s the role of those entities to fulfill them however they so choose.  Being higher than us and made of more subtle stuff and without the distractions and darkness of incarnate bodies, they also see more and know more than we do, and are necessarily closer to God than we are down here.  All the same, however, they cannot exceed their own capacities, either.

Now, I know that this might seem a little…appropriative, as if I’m trying to fit every possible tradition or religion into a single monist framework.  In a sense, yeah, because that’s what Hermeticism is, and it’s fundamentally one of the ways that Neoplatonic philosophy regards the hierarchy and workings of the cosmos.  To be sure, there isn’t just one Neoplatonism, and I’ll admit that my own philosophical background is amateurish, but it’s a thing I’ve seen and considered time and again and, simply, the framework works.  While I believe in God, I also believe in a plurality of many other gods; they’re all real, and often with varying powers, domains, personalities, temperaments, preferences, and the like.  And yet, they exist as part of creation just like I do, which is why approaching them works.  Yet, as a Hermeticist, I also recognize the existence (such as it is) of a God of gods, a God behind all creation, both within and without.  This is effectively the same God as that of Abraham or Muḥammad as well as of Hermēs Trismegistus, as well as Olodumare of the Yòrubá and Lukumí, as well as the God of the gnostics and the Good of the philosophers.  One can still be a monist without being a monotheist or monolatrist.  Even if you disagree with that approach to divinity and divinities (and I know of at least several who would with very good reasons!), accept the premise of it for the purposes of this post.

When it comes to angels, the word itself literally means “messenger” in Greek (ἄγγελος ángelos), and the notion of it in Abrahamic religions comes from the Hebrew מלאך mal’ākh meaning, again, “messenger”.  More than just being a bearer of the messages of God, however, angels are more like ambassadors, emissaries, or functionaries of God: they accomplish the will of God in every possible way, fulfilling it by governing, ruling, directing, and instructing different parts of the cosmos, essentially acting as the limbs of God and extensions of the will of God.  If we want to take the “messenger” idea a bit further in a way that comports with both Hermeticism and Christianity, consider the role of the Word; after all, “in the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word is God”.  The “Word” of Christianity does refer to Jesus Christ, sure, but it’s also the Logos of the Hermeticists, the rational and intelligible principle that allows God (as the Nous, or Mind) to allow the cosmos to function.  In that sense, angels are messengers of the Word of God; where they bear the Word, they fulfill the will of God.

The thing about angels is that they are still only messengers; they speak the Word of God, but that is all they can speak, for that is their capacity and nature.  Angels, as extensions of the will of God, have no free will of their own; their whole purpose is to effect the will of God in the creation God made.  Whatever an angel “wants” to do is identical with what God wills; their will is inherently God’s will.  That’s why, among many other things, we can’t command an angel to do anything, because that’s equivalent to commanding God to do something, which is so far outside our finite and human capacity and capabilities that it’s laughable.  Angels cannot and do not do anything that God does not command them to do, but “command”, though a familiar concept to us coming from a Jewish, Christian, or Islamic background, isn’t really what’s happening between God and the angels; rather, God speaks his Word, and the angels bear that Word to wherever they’re going to accomplish whatever that Word is.  Angels are almost machine-like in that sense; they exist for the sole purpose of “serving God” by fulfilling the will of God.

In terms more suited to Renaissance Hermeticism, angels are “intelligences”, spiritual entities under the rule of God that guide and direct the manifestation of the forces of the cosmos.  Every force, entity, place, planet, and thing in the cosmos has its own presiding or governing angel, which can be worked with through devotional, magical, or some other kind of spiritual means.  Thus, consider Tzaphqiel, the angel of Saturn; this angel is the “governor” of that planet, and serves to establish the power, roles, functions, motions, and works of Saturn in all things in the cosmos.  Tzaphqiel, as an angel, bears the Word of God in a way that focuses on the Logos as it pertains to Saturn.  If we want to bring more Saturn power into our lives or throttle it back from our lives, we can work with Tzaphqiel to do just that.  But what if Tzaphqiel says “no”?

This is basically what a lot of these questions on Curious Cat are getting at.  Let’s step aside for a bit and consider something else for the moment: where does the nature of angels in relation to God leave us in angelic magic, whether through prayers or conjurations?  It cannot be denied that working with angels is often incredibly effective for any number of ends, and is a staple of European folk religion and folk magic as well as Hermetic, Solomonic, and other kinds of magic generally in both the West and the East.  Obviously, we don’t worship angels—that’d be idolatry, and an insult to both the angel and God—but we do venerate them and honor them, especially when thanking them or calling upon them.  But the thing is that, when we call upon them, there’s something that’s really common in much of Western magical literature that we need to carefully consider: we don’t command the angels to appear, but we ask for them to appear.  Moreover, we don’t ask the angel to appear, but we ask God that the angel appear for us.  And there are very good reasons for that.

Consider the specific conjuration prayer from Johann Trithemius’ Art of Drawing Spirits into Crystals.  For clarity, let me use my own slightly reworded version, and note the specific phrasing of the prayer in the emphasized sections:

In the name of the blessed Tetragrammaton, I call upon you, you strong and mighty angel Michael, if it be the divine will of the most holy God that you take the shape that best shows your celestial nature, and appear to me visibly here in this crystal, and answer my demands in as far as I shall not transgress the bounds of divine mercy by requesting unlawful knowledge, and that you graciously show me what things are most profitable for me to know and do, to the glory and honor of his divine majesty, who lives and reigns, world without end.  Amen.

Lord, your will be done on earth as it is in heaven.  Make clean my heart within me, and take not your holy spirit from me.

O Lord, by your name I have called Michael; suffer him to administer unto me, and that all things may work together for your honor and glory, and that to you be ascribed all might, majesty, and dominion.  Amen.

O Lord, I thank you for the hearing of my prayer, and I thank you for having permitted your spirit to appear unto me.  Amen.

For another example, consider the orison from book II, chapter 12 of the Book of Abramelin:

O Lord God of Mercy … Sanctify me also with the oil of thy sanctification, wherewith thou hast sanctified all thy prophets; and purify in me therewith all that appertains unto me, so that I may become worthy of the conversation of thy holy angels and of thy divine wisdom, and grant unto me the power which thou hast given unto thy prophets over all the evil spirits. Amen, amen.

Another example, the prayer from septenary II, aphorism 14 from the Arbatel of Magic:

O Lord of heaven and earth, Creator and Maker of all things visible and invisible; I, though unworthy, by thy assistance call upon thee, through thy only begotten Son Jesus Christ our Lord, that thou wilt give unto me thy holy Spirit, to direct me in thy truth unto all good. Amen.

Because I earnestly desire perfectly to know the Arts of this life and such things as are necessary for us, which are so overwhelmed in darkness, and polluted with infinite humane opinions, that I of my own power can attain to no knowledge in them, unless thou teach it me. Grant me, therefore, one of thy spirits, who may teach me those things which thou would have me to know and learn, to thy praise and glory, and the profit of our neighbor…

Then again, the invocation to call forth angels from the Ars Almadel (language cleaned up to be made more readable for modern readers):

O you great, mighty, and blessed angel of God, NN. … I, the servant of the same your God entreat and humbly beseech you to come and show unto me all the things that I desire of you, so far as in office you can or are capable to perform if God permit to the same.  O you servant of Mercy, NN., I entreat you and humbly beseech you … to inform and rightly instruct me in my ignorant and depraved intellect, judgment, and understanding, and to assist me both in both this and in all other truths that the almighty Adonai, the King of Kings and the Giver of all good gifts, shall in his bountiful and fatherly Mercy be graciously pleased to bestow upon me.  Thus, o you blessed angel NN., be friendly unto me and work for me, so far as God has given you power in office to perform, whereunto I move you in power and presence to appear that I may sing with his holy angels: o mappa la man, hallelujah!  Amen.

I think the message I’m getting across is clear here.  Granted, not all grimoires in the Solomonic or Hermetic tradition use this kind of phrasing, especially when we’re dealing in a more goetic fashion where instead of pleading for God to grant his permission of such-and-such a phenomenon happening, we simply assume that God has given us his authority to make things happen, thus all the perilous threats that Solomonic magicians are known to use.  But how do we actually know or make sure we have that authority, or how do we know whether God will grant us permission?  Consider the very first line of the Key of Solomon (book I, chapter 1): “Solomon, the son of David, King of Israel, hath said that the beginning of our Key is to fear God, to adore him, to honor him with contrition of heart, to invoke him in all matters which we wish to undertake, and to operate with very great devotion, for thus God will lead us in the right way.”

Heck, I think the Key of Solomon is an excellent text to discuss here.  Julio Cesar Ody (of famous occult-lampooning fame), if I recall correctly (and I hope he corrects me if I’m wrong!) has remarked before that people treat the Key of Solomon as something to pilfer and take extracts from, rather than treating it like a full initiatory system of magic unto itself.  And when you look at it…yeah.  It really is far more than just a collection of works and talismans to be made with good prayers to be used for consecrating three dozen and more tools and pentacles.  Consider that the recitation of psalms is a huge part of they Key of Solomon; why would that be the case?  Because the Psalms are fundamentally songs that are used to praise God for his power and  beneficence, creation of the world, and miracles and favors done for mankind generally and for the sake of Israel specifically.  They can take the form of laments, thanksgiving, praisegiving, celebration, or pleas for help, and their study and recitation is common in Judaism and Christianity for imparting wisdom and cultivating grace and an elevated spirituality in accordance with the will and command of God.  Yes, the specific psalms used in the rituals of the Key of Solomon do bear relation to the things being consecrated at times, but it’s a constant practice of keeping ourselves spiritually in line with the will of God, which, when used with the actual prayers of the rituals themselves, produce an all-around feat of holy work.  Consider the first prayer from book I, chapter 5:

O Lord God, holy Father, Almighty and Merciful One who has created all things, who know all things and can do all things, from whom nothing is hidden, to whom nothing is impossible!  You who know that we do not perform these ceremonies to tempt your power, but that we may penetrate into the knowledge of hidden things.  We pray to you, by your sacred Mercy, to cause and to permit that we may arrive at this understanding of secret things of whatever nature they may be by your aid, o most holy ADONAI, whose Kingdom and Power shall have no end unto the Ages of the Ages. Amen.

Fundamentally, working divine magic is just prayer, just supplications to the Divine—to God—that certain things happen, not for the simple reason that we want it to happen, but that it be capital-G Good and ordained by God that it should happen.  That’s really all there is to it.  You might want to use so many words as all the excerpts above show, perhaps to inflame yourself with prayer to reach a more powerful or ecstatic state of working, or you might use less, if you can manage to get as much intent and focus out from fewer words.  Either way, this sort of magic is just prayer.

In this light, what happens when we pray for something and it doesn’t happen?  There could be several explanations:

  • What we’re praying for isn’t permissible within the design of God. It could be that what you’re asking for just isn’t possible, realistic, or appropriate for the world that God has established.  God could look at you and say “you’re being unreasonable here, focus on what’s realistic”.  I could pray to grow wings so that I can fly around the skies, but it’s not going to happen according to the laws of human physiology and basic physics in this world, which were designed according to the will and plan of God.  It could happen on other planes where one’s form isn’t so rigidly fixed, but it’s not going to happen here.  Likewise, if you pray for the consecration of a particular talisman for a particular end and it doesn’t end up consecrated, it’s because God sees that what you’re asking for isn’t permissible within the overall scheme of things that God has set up for us, perhaps due to the nature of what you’re asking (e.g. a talisman to shoot fireballs out of our hands) or due to the ramifications it might have (e.g. it could set off a chain reaction that would end up butting up harshly against things God already has in store for the cosmos).
  • What we’re praying for isn’t for us to receive. It could be that what you’re asking for is good, noble, and proper, but you’re not the right person to request it or have it.  God could look at you and say “this is a good idea, but it’s not for you to work on, so ask for  something else”.  Not everyone is going to be good at everything; I’m no fighter or doctor, so while I might pray for skill in battle or for success in a lucrative medical career, these things aren’t in my life path.  Trying to force them, so long as it doesn’t go against the will of God for me, could get some success, but it could also just as easily happen that trying to go down those paths would end up with me being stymied, frustrated, and blocked at every turn.  These are signs from the cosmos itself that I’m not on the right path and that I’m barking up the wrong tree.  Instead, I should learn what my path truly entails and focus on that; it might not be easy (it rarely is!), but it will be successful in a way that would go far beyond things that I’m not meant to do.  Thus, if you’re praying for something to happen and it doesn’t happen, it’s could be because that thing isn’t for you to have in your life because it won’t help you and could easily harm you.
  • What we’re praying for is something that we can receive eventually but which we’re not ready to receive now. It could be that what you’re asking for is good, noble, and proper, and it’s proper for you to have those things, but you’re not ready to have it yet.  God could look at you and say “you’ve got the potential, but you aren’t at the right state of development for it right now, so keep working at it”.  In other words, you’re on the right track, but it’s above your station; one day, if you keep on the right track, you’ll get there.  Consider the notion of knowledge and conversation with the Holy Guardian Angel; coming in contact with this divine spirit often involves an ordeal because it’s a direct link to God, and quite simply, not everyone is ready for it.  They all have their own guardian angels, to be sure, but they might not be able to truly comprehend the power and, thus, the accompanying responsibility of the conscious company of that spirit yet.  They need to refine themselves through cultivating virtue and abandoning vice until they reach a certain stage of spiritual development.  Receiving those things we pray for earlier than when it’s appropriate for us could very easily cause us and those around us harm at worst or just distractions and delays at best.

How do we know whether a prayer of ours will be granted?  This is where divination comes into play.  Divination is important for magicians of all kinds, not just because it’s a useful and profitable skill to bring in clients and to spy on people, but because it shows us the way for our own Work.  By divination, we can figure out what’s going on and what the appropriate ways are to handle it; as part of that, we can see not just whether we can do a particular ritual for a particular end, but whether we should do it (or, in the words of the good and most reverend Bishop Lainie Petersen, whether it’s wise for us to do it).  If a reading indicates that we can do something but that we should not do it, then it’s within our power to do the thing but it’s not the best use of our power to do it.  If a reading indicates that we can not do something but that we should do it, then it’s not within our power yet to do the thing and that we need to focus on cultivating that power however necessary in order to do it.  And, if a reading indicates that we can not do something and that we also should not do it, then it’s neither in our power nor our best interests to do the thing.  The answer to can-or-can’t ultimately lies with us, but the answer to should-or-shouldn’t lies with God.

We’ll pick up on this tomorrow when we get more into the notion of what “should” really means here, because this is touching on what role the will of God plays for us in our lives.

On Fasting (and All the Various Ways You Can Fast)

Another wonderful question from Curious Cat:

What alternative recommendations would suggest to someone who cannot fast due to health issues? I already eat relatively clean … I’d like to re-start my system, but can’t entirely forgo food due to a compromised immune system. Any suggestions?

This is a surprisingly deep question, and one with plenty of alternatives.  I answered it on Curious Cat, but I want to go into more depth about it here, because it turns out there’s a lot to say.  Also, it just so happens that I’ve written about fasting long ago in two posts from 2012, here and here, which I only remembered after writing most of this current post.  Still, I think it’s time for a refresher and see what new information I might be able to put to paper here, now that I’m a little older and maybe a little bit wiser, too.

First, what exactly is fasting?  Fasting is fundamentally a practice of abstinence that typically focuses on one’s diet and which is composed of three main things:

  • A set of prohibitions on food, drink, and other substances we take into our bodies
  • A set of prohibitions on how we take food, drink, and other substances into our bodies
  • A duration of time for which above prohibitions are to be observed

The most common sorts of fasting is an absolute fast (absolutely no food or liquid) or a water fast (no food but water is permitted), and this is typically what we think of when we hear about fasting.  There are plenty of reasons for this—diagnostic fasting to achieve a baseline for medical testing or hunger strikes for the sake of political or humanitarian protests come to mind—but one of the most common reasons for fasting is for religious or spiritual purposes, and is seen in many religions across the world for an equally wide number of reasons:

  • Cultivate and maintain discipline
  • Develop spiritual powers or blessings
  • Atonement and repentance for sins or lawlessness
  • Purification of the body and spirit
  • Devotion to higher powers
  • Mourning
  • Following the example of a saint, prophet, or holy exemplar of the religion
  • Preparation for a ritual or feast

Basically, in general, when we fast for a religious or spiritual purpose, we’re essentially engaging in a form of asceticism, putting our body under an ordeal of abstinence from things that please us our our senses, holding back our taste for worldly sustenance so that we can instead feast on heavenly delights.  Asceticism and some forms of drastic fasting can also include self-mortification, but we’re not interested in that here; we don’t want to harm or destroy the body, but we do want to control and purify it through abstinence.

The thing is that absolute fasting or water fasting can be dangerous for many people: those with autoimmune disorders, blood sugar disorders (especially diabetes), hormonal imbalances (e.g. thyroid or adrenaline issues), and the like can and will suffer harm to their bodies up to and including death if they go without food for too long.  Moreover, there are also a number of religions where fasting just isn’t a thing or which is actively discouraged.  Heck, for myself, I have a specific spiritual prohibition from La Regla de Ocha Lukumí (a.k.a. Santería) where I can’t skip lunch, which I interpret a little more broadly to mean “no absolute/water fasts”, so I can’t engage in that kind of practice anymore, either.  To that end, I engage in intermittent fasting, where I don’t eat from sunrise to sunset, a la Muslim Ramaḍān or the Bahá’í Nineteen Day Fast, though I do permit myself to have water at all times and only permit other drinks during eating-time, if I don’t set a prohibition on those as well.  In the end, though, it’s important to remember that fasting isn’t the be-all end-all of spiritual practices, or even of ways to purify and refine the body and spirit.  If you’re part of a religion or tradition that recommends or requires it, or if you feel like you should engage in it, then do so, and do so safely and reasonably without causing harm or torment to yourself; otherwise, you should feel no obligation to do so, since there are plenty of other practices you can engage in towards the same ends.

But, let’s say you want to do some sort of fast or fasting-like practice, but you can’t do an absolute or water fast for health reasons, and you’re not discouraged from a fasting practice in general.  What can you do?  Quite a lot, actually.  If we interpret “fasting” to mean “abstinence” more broadly, and consider the three parts of fasting (prohibitions on food/liquid/etc., prohibitions on how we eat/drink/etc., and durations), then there are plenty of things we can hone in on, whether taken as a single thing to abstain from or taken as a cluster of rules to be observed simultaneously.  In short, rather than an absolute fast or a water fast, we engage in a so-called partial fast, where we only abstain from particular things in our diet.  The following lists of prohibitions are by no means exhaustive, but they’re intended as examples for further inspiration, and are pulled from a variety of traditions, cultures, practices, religions, and the like for consideration.

Restrictions on what food or drink is permissible :

  • No processed grains
  • No grains at all
  • No leavened bread
  • No bread or flour-based products at all (e.g. noodles, porridge, crackers).
  • No grain-, starch-, pulse-, bean-, tuber-, or nut-based staple foods
  • No meat of mammals or birds (essentially a pescatarian diet)
  • No meat at all (essentially a vegetarian diet)
  • No dairy
  • No animal products generally (essentially a vegan diet)
  • No gritty foods
  • No solid foods (i.e. broths and soups only)
  • No oils added to food or drink
  • No sweeteners added to food or drink
  • No spices added to food or drink
  • No salt added to food or drink
  • No sweet food eaten or drink drunk for the reason of being sweet
  • No carbonated drinks
  • No drinks that are not plain water
  • No drinking clear alcohols (e.g. white rum or vodka, but excluding creme liqueurs or red wines)
  • No drinking alcohol at all
  • No drinking more than a set amount of liquid each day
  • No food prepared with sauce, gravy, or dressing of any kind
  • No food or drink of a particular color (e.g. red food, brown food, white food)
  • No food or drink that are root vegetables (e.g. potatoes, onions, carrots)
  • No food or drink that are not root vegetables
  • No food or drink that contain caffeine of any kind (e.g. coffee, tea, chocolate)
  • No food or drink that contain a specific kind of ingredient (e.g. pumpkin, eggs, wheat, corn)
  • No food or drink that doesn’t contain a specific kind of ingredient (e.g. tree nuts, legumes, potatoes, beans)
  • No vitamins, dietary supplements, or medicines that are not strictly necessary for medical reasons
  • Etc.

Restrictions on how food or drink is cooked or processed:

  • No cooked food or drink
  • No cooked food or drink older than 24 hours (i.e. no leftovers)
  • No preserved food or drink
  • No prepackaged food or drink
  • No food or drinks that are colder than ambient room temperature (e.g. nothing ice-cold or chilled)
  • No food or drinks that are hotter than ambient room temperature (e.g. nothing warm or hot)
  • No food or drink that has been touched by fire
  • No food or drink that has been cooked with or come in contact with metal
  • No food or drink that is fermented
  • No food or drink that was not cooked or prepared by your own hands
  • No food or drink that was not freely given to you by another person
  • No food or drink that was not prepared using a specially-dedicated, consecrated, or otherwise set-apart set of cookware or dishes
  • Etc.

Restrictions on when we eat or drink:

  • No eating between sunset and sunrise
  • No eating or drinking between sunset and sunrise
  • No dining more than once a day
  • No dining before a particular task or set of tasks have been done
  • Etc.

Restrictions on how we eat or drink:

  • No engaging in talking, writing, or any other activity when eating
  • No dining at restaurants, at other people’s homes, or anywhere outside your own home
  • No dining with other people
  • No dining unless in the company of other people
  • No dining with metal implements
  • No dining while seated at a table (i.e. only while sitting on the ground)
  • Etc.

Besides just focusing on dietary prohibitions, though, there are also behavioral prohibitions that we can incorporate, either instead of dietary prohibitions or in addition to them.  Again, if we engage in fasting as a means of restraining ourselves by means of abstaining from things that give us sensual pleasures and distractions from spiritual development, then we can also include a bunch of behaviors, habits, addictions, or other things we like doing (rather than just eating or drinking) that can be at least as spiritually distracting or impure as any kind of food or drink.  After all, consider that the original questioner from Curious Cat already eats pretty clean and sparingly, so trying to restrict or further inhibit or prohibit their food/drink intake might just be a case of diminishing returns, so it might not be a bad idea to expand our scope of prohibitions to behaviors.  Some examples include (again, not a definitive or exhaustive list):

  • No sexual activity, whether with someone else or by oneself
  • No playing games or sports, listening to music, watching movies or TV, or any other activity for the sole purpose of entertainment
  • No social media
  • No computer or mobile use between sunset and sunrise
  • No smoking of tobacco, cannabis, salvia, or any other inhaled drug
  • No recreational or psychotropic drugs except those for explicitly medical or required spiritual purposes
  • No sleeping on a bed or any surface higher than the width of two fingers
  • No wearing makeup, nail polish, or any other cosmetics for the purpose of embellishing or hiding the natural form of the body
  • No using perfumes, colognes, scented oils, fragrances, or any other odoriferous substance outside of purely religious or spiritual reasons
  • No wearing jewelry, fine clothes, immodest clothes, or any other articles for the purpose of ostentation or displaying appeal
  • No wearing clothes of a particular color (e.g. black clothes, red clothes)
  • No bathing or washing any part of the body with hot water
  • No being in direct sunlight or moonlight
  • No being in complete darkness
  • No lying, exaggerating, undue modesty, deceit, or misleading of any kind
  • No cursing, arguing, yelling, raising one’s voice, gossiping, or using any kind of heated or improper language
  • No violence to any living being
  • No using or carrying of weapons of any kind
  • No using, lighting, carrying, or being around fire
  • No sleeping in late or taking naps
  • No cutting any of the hair on the head or the body
  • No capitalizing the first-person singular pronoun “I” (i.e. always write it as “i went to the store”)
  • Etc.

(I admit that a bunch of those behavioral rules are those that are common-enough prohibitions from the initiatory year of Lukumí, the Year in White, which I had to observe for…quite some time, and some I still have to observe for other reasons, but are general enough and smart enough rules to be used by plenty of people.)

With all the options above we have for abstaining from particular foods and drinks, how they’re prepared, how we can abstain from them, and other behaviors, I think it’s important to remember that fasting is an ordeal, and should be taken seriously as such.  Yes, you could do a fast from all pork products, but if you never or only rarely eat pork, then you’re not really abstaining from something that you weren’t already abstaining from.  Fasting, whether absolute or partial or whether total or intermittent, should be a time when we give up and abstain from things that we actively enjoy or find ourselves relying on or addicted to; when you fast, take away the things that give you a sense of pleasure and which distract you from focusing on spiritual stuff.  If you eat a lot of candy, give that up; if you don’t eat candy, give something else up instead.  If you don’t have the ability to sleep in (e.g. if you live on a regimented, scheduled military base or if you have a farm), then you’re already de facto abstaining from that, so give something else up instead.  Of the things that you don’t strictly need for medical or health-related reasons, pick the things you dread or fear to give up yet which you’re able to, and then you’ll be properly fasting.

Then, finally, then there’s one last thing to consider: how long do we observe all the above prohibitions, and when should we do it?  While all of the above is really up to you in how seriously (or not) you want to engage in your own personalized kind of fasting, this is where it can get really customized.  This is where you should really focus on what your traditions or religions say, because those are the guiding principles here along with whatever your priests or mentors or gurus or godparents might prescribe or recommend, but there are some guiding rules that I like to follow for my own practices and traditions.  Some examples of fasting durations include (again, not a definitive or exhaustive list):

  • One day every week on a day set aside for the worship, veneration, or devotion of a particular spirit or deity
  • The day of the New Moon (technically, the day of the first sighting of the Moon rather than the day of syzygy between the Moon and the Sun)
  • The three days before, the day of, and the day after the Full Moon
  • Three, four, seven, or sixteen days leading up to any feast or regular celebration
  • Three days leading up to any minor ritual, whether for yourself or another
  • Seven days leading up to any major ritual, whether for yourself or another
  • Three, four, seven, sixteen, or more days after any major initiation, according to that tradition’s rules
  • The two days before and of religious communion or communal worship
  • The forty days of Lent (for Christians)
  • The thirty(ish) days of Ramaḍān (for Muslims)
  • The nineteen days of the Nineteen Day Fast (for Bahá’í)
  • The forty-nine days after the death of a close family member
  • Throughout spiritual retreats or prolonged holy festivals or gatherings
  • The three or more days after one has committed a particularly bad spiritual offense
  • Once a week on a particular weekday for a set number of weeks (e.g. every Sunday from sunrise to sunset for six weeks straight)
  • Whenever vows or rules are adopted in devotion to a spirit or as part of a pact or payment

When fasting for a prolonged period of time more than a single day, there’s also the notion of progressive fasting, where as time goes by, you bring on more and more prohibitions.  For instance, in one of the posts from 2012 I mentioned, there’s the four-day progressive fast from the Scribbler (whose blog is no longer active) where, for example, on the first day I would abstain from meat, alcohol, and soda; on the second, all the above plus abstinence from breads and noodles as well as all non-clear liquid drinks; on the third day, all the above plus abstinence from anything that wasn’t fresh fruits and water; on the fourth and final day, all the above plus abstinence from anything that wasn’t just water, i.e. a water fast.  Progressive fasts can be useful for those who need time for their body to adjust to heavier and heavier kinds of fasting, especially if a particular substance is one we habitually eat and which we might rely on as a staple, and which can be a way for the body to acclimate for more severe or austere fasting practices so that they won’t cause a total shock to the body which could result in medical harm.

What happens when we violate one or more of the prohibitions we have set for us?  Honestly, that depends on your tradition’s or practice’s rules on fasting or how you set up the rule or agreement of fasting, but it’s probably most important how you violated it.  If you started running into severe medical issues from a particular prohibition, then it’s best to get rid of that prohibition entirely so that you can fast more safely; it’s not an indulgence if it’s absolutely necessary for your health!  Likewise, if even a partial fast or if even intermittent fasting is causing you problems at all, then stop fasting.  It’s better you live and find other ways to hone and temper the body without suffering and putting yourself at major risk for health problems or death.  What if you were forced to fast, like if you were incarcerated or imprisoned and forced to eat things you wouldn’t against your will?  Honestly, nobody would blame you for getting by, and you’re already in a bad and potentially ascetic situation; better to survive under duress and save your strength than suffer righteously with the risk of death.

All of those could be considered accidental or unintentional violations, but what about if you just decided “eh, fuck it, let’s have a cheat day” or if you thought nobody was looking?  Tough luck, pal; you intentionally and willfully committed a violation of your prohibitions when you had no reason not to, and that’s where you should own up to your violation and make amends.  How you do that is up to you, your tradition, and your spirits; you might add on another day (or week, or month, etc.) of fasting for every willful violation you committed, add on another prohibition in addition to the ones you already had pay a “fine” through donating or caring for others out of your own pocket, put yourself through another spiritual ordeal such as intense purifications or heightened prayers, or make formal amends through heavy offerings to God, the gods, or other spirits to make up for your violation.  Or, you could just eat it (heh) and accept that you were weak and carry on as normal, being more mindful as time goes on, perhaps with letting someone know as a kind of confession.  Sometimes, it’s okay to perform a fast with built-in cheat days or days of leniency, but these should be limited; remember, the whole point of a fast is to not indulge.

However, note that all of the above are almost all focused on prohibitions, rules that take things away from ourselves.  That’s entirely a workable and practical way to do fasting, but consider: instead of taking things away, why not add things?  If we consider a fast to be a duration of time to cultivate and refine the spirit, then there are plenty of other things we can do, whether instead of piling on prohibitions or to be done along with them.  This is an idea that I got from Catholic writings a few years back, specifically for Lent; rather than just take things away, incorporate new things to fill the gaps left behind or just for the sake of upping our spiritual practices and devotions generally. Some examples include (again, not a definitive or exhaustive list):

  • Say a prayer to formally begin a fast, whenever you break the fast, and when you formally end the fast.
  • When you sit down to eat, pray over and bless the meal before you do so.
  • Engage in daily prayer, or add more prayers to your daily practice
  • Participate in daily communal worship (e.g. going to daily mass, having a daily circle with a coven)
  • Read and contemplate scripture daily
  • Commit to doing works of charity frequently (e.g. giving to the poor, working at a kitchen, setting aside income as donations for noble causes)
  • Commit to creating a devotional work of art every day (e.g. poetry, drawing, sculpture)
  • Commit to environmental works (e.g. picking up litter, tending to a communal garden)
  • Commit to helping or organizing religious works (e.g. signing up to be an altar-server, assisting with setting up circle devotions, providing guidance to students)
  • Commit to daily offerings, whether dedicated to a particular spirit or deity specifically or more generally for the benefit of all sentient beings
  • Perform a daily purification (e.g. ablution, spiritual bath, banishing)
  • Etc.

In the end, when it comes to abstinence for spiritual purposes, we can do a lot better than just simply cutting out food, and we can focus on a number of different aspects of the practice of fasting that can provide for a well-rounded period of intense spiritual work that can work for anyone, regardless of their health conditions, so that we can all derive benefit by focusing on the higher while tempering (but not utterly neglecting) the lower:

  • Prohibitions on what food and drink one takes in
  • Prohibitions on how food or drink is prepared
  • Prohibitions on when one can eat or drink
  • Prohibitions on how food or drink is consumed
  • Prohibitions on behaviors and activities outside eating and drinking
  • Mandates on behaviors to include spiritual or spiritually-oriented activities
  • The duration for which prohibitions and mandates are to be observed

Now, what about me?  There are times when I’ll fast for my own practices (like for those Sixteen Days of Cultivation leading up to the spring equinox I did not too long ago), or before receiving or participating in ceremony for Lukumí purposes, sure.  But, lest we all forget, I’m a Hermeticist, and there’s some useful stuff in the Corpus Hermeticum and other Hermetic texts that touch on this same topic, too. There’s this almost-universal, quasi-gnostic notion that you can’t really engage in a spiritually pure practice without somehow abstaining from physical pleasures or indulgences, and that abstaining from food and drink, whether entirely or from particular kinds or from particular ways of having it, is one of the most common ways to do that.  Food and drink is what sustains the body, yes, and we should care for the body since it’s our vessel for living in this world.  But since we’re spiritual entities ourselves that just so happen to have a body, and since we’re all always trying to become better spiritual entities, we need to care for the body only as much as we need to, and focus on the spirit at least as much as we care for the body, if not much more than that.  To focus overmuch on the body is to neglect the spirit; just as in the Buddha’s method of taking the Middle Path, we should care for the body just enough that it’s healthy and can stay healthy, and give the rest of our time, energy, and attention to spiritual works.  That’s really the whole purpose of fasting: to cut back on indulging the body so that we can indulge the spirit, instead.  We don’t need to completely neglect or harm the body; otherwise, you may as well just kill yourself off quickly and painlessly than starve yourself to death painfully!  We need our body to host our spirit for as long as our spirit needs the body, and until the point when our spirit is ready to go, we need to care for the body.  But we only need to care for it, not indulge it.  And even then, remember: fasting is not the be-all end-all of ways to accomplish spiritual evolution.  Do it if you want to or if your tradition requires you to, and if you do engage in fasting, do so safely.  If you don’t engage in it, there still so many ways to indulge the spirit and encourage its cultivation rather than just tempering the body.

What about you, dear reader?  Do you fast, and if so, how do you fast?  Do you engage in total fasting, partial fasting, or intermittent fasting?  Do you abstain from only certain things or practices?  What else do you do when you fast?  Let me know in the comments!

On Pride and Humility

Not that long ago, someone on Curious Cat asked me a pretty good question, and it’s something that’s been sitting with me for a while now:

People constantly complain about ‘baby witches’ and the inefficacy/infantilization of mainstream pop-culture “magic” on Witchblr, but on the other hand, instead of behaving like the mature and levelheaded adults they purport themselves to be, these Super Serious Traditional Ceremonial Magicians tend to be extremely rude, condescending, narcissistic and outright boorish in their treatment of others.

It’s like they’re reenacting outcast goth teen fantasies of being Powerful Darksided Magicians able to kill their enemies in a fingersnap. I mean, is this a prerogative in becoming a devoted and serious practitioner of magick? Because if so, I proudly throw in the towel.

While some questions I can answer on my phone on the go, there are others that I’d rather sit down with at a proper keyboard, think about for a bit, and type up a better thought-out answer than not.  This was one such question, and in reply, I said:

There’s a reason why so many religions prescribe humility as a virtue to be cultivated. And I know that I, myself, can lack it at times, though I try to keep it a focus for myself, too.

No, there’s no prerogative to being a pompous, prideful, supercilious bastard when it comes to magic. But when you have people getting into occult stuff—and it occurs as much with witches as it does with ceremonial magicians, even if ceremonial magicians have a reputation for it—it’s easy to get carried away when we start realizing all the power we now have access to. Fr. Rufus Opus (who at least admits that he’s overly cocky now and then) warns against “Insufferableprickitis” or “Moses-off-the-mount syndrome”, where we finally think that we truly Get It and have all the keys to the power of the Almighty. Even if it’s true, you don’t want that newfound radiance to be so overbearing and annoying that you treat other people like they’re utterly unenlightened and fools for not yet being on their level.

Everyone, no matter what field or hobby or profession or culture, thinks that they’re better than others or that they have a better way of doing something. It’s good to take pride in your accomplishments, whether it’s in software engineering or publishing anthologies of poetry or in plying the forces of the cosmos for theurgy and thaumaturgy, but it’s not okay to disparage or despise others because of those accomplishments.

There’s also an undercurrent of “oh you’re doing this because it’s popular now”, too. Big whoop. Fads come and go. If they’re meant for it, they’ll stick with it, and if not, they won’t, regardless of what mean things are said to them.

Plus, you’re reading stuff on the internet. It’s extraordinarily too common for people to get huffy and enraged and self-aggrandizing on the internet. Relax, take a deep breath and a step back, and don’t let people get to you that way, whether you’re the recipient of that kind of talk or just a witness to it. Let your work, instead, focus on making yourself better, sharing (but not enforcing) the skills you have according to your means and ability and desire, and making the world a better place.

It’s true that many occultists—myself included—can be on the pompous, arrogant, egotistical, and pretentious side, and it’s an especially common accusation lobbed at ceremonial magicians, and not without due cause.  The way I see it, there are two main influences going on here:

  1. Occultists (including witches) in general are liable to feel this way.  When you’re presented with a materialistic world and find a non-materialistic way to bend or break the rules without getting into trouble, i.e. magic, you’re going to feel powerful, and that realization will lead you to get a bit puffed-up, especially when other people say that what you do is impossible or frowned upon.  The thrill of doing stuff that society says you can’t and shouldn’t be doing can be exhilarating.
  2. When we say “ceremonial magicians”, we typically refer to those in Hermetic and Solomonic styles of magic, where we call down immense forces of the cosmos or call up demons and devils of all kinds, often with imperious threats and provocations in order to make sure that the cosmos hears us and, more than that, obeys us.  I mean, just look at the prayers in the Lemegeton Goetia, the Heptameron of Pietro d’Abano, or the rituals of the Munich Manual.  The modus operandi of browbeating the world to obey us is a common one, even going back to classical mystery traditions and the rituals of the PGM two thousand years ago and more.

I’m sure there are other reasons, too, but those are the two big ones that occur to me.  Another thing that I mentioned in my answer above is, simply, that we’re on the Internet, and it’s easy to say a lot of things without repercussions like getting punched in the face or spat on or having a drink thrown at you because there’s an element of anonymity and facelessness that lets us feel more righteous and dignified than we properly have a right to be most of the time.

Being overweeningly proud is a problem, to be sure, but it’s not one that’s necessarily limited to ceremonial magicians, or to occultists in general, but to a lot of people in the world.  Pride is, after all, considered to be one of the seven deadly sins (and by some accounts, the most serious of them all), but I think it’s important to recall what pride is.  A proper kind of pride is akin to greatness of soul and magnanimity, bound up with nobility and goodness of character; it’s possible to take pride in the things we’ve done, placing value and greatness on our accomplishments or abilities, and it’s good to do this within reason.  Taking too much pride, however, tends to vanity, self-worship, vainglory, narcissism, and all-around hubris, and that’s where the danger comes into play.  Hubris, in the classical sense, is having pride beyond what is deserved to be proud of, which leads to ill-treating others for one’s own satisfaction and gratification.  And that’s a real problem which was truly fitting of punishment direct from the gods themselves, a notion that was carried on in Christianity to this day.

Thus, this is where humility comes in.  Though it can be used to mean having a low self-regard or feeling unworthy, it’s also a recognition of our place in the cosmos, how little we are, and that we should be selfless compared to selfish.  Consider the etymology of the word itself:

humility (n.)
early 14c., “quality of being humble,” from Old French umelite “humility, modesty, sweetness” (Modern French humilité), from Latin humilitatem (nominative humilitas) “lowness, small stature; insignificance; baseness, littleness of mind,” in Church Latin “meekness,” from humilis “lowly, humble,” literally “on the ground,” from humus “earth,” from PIE root *dhghem– “earth.” In the Mercian hymns, Latin humilitatem is glossed by Old English eaðmodnisse.

In other words, to be humble is to be down-to-earth in a way that reminds you that you are of the earth.  Yes, Hermeticism has much to say about us having divine origins and that we’re made in the likeness of God and all that, sure, and all that’s all well and good, but let’s be honest: as human beings, part of us is divine, but being human is being human, living on the Earth and living in Heaven.  Heck, the word “human” itself has the same ultimate origin as the word humility:

human (adj.)
mid-15c., humain, humaigne, “human,” from Old French humain, umain (adj.) “of or belonging to man” (12c.), from Latin humanus “of man, human,” also “humane, philanthropic, kind, gentle, polite; learned, refined, civilized.” This is in part from PIE *(dh)ghomon-, literally “earthling, earthly being,” as opposed to the gods (from root *dhghem- “earth”), but there is no settled explanation of the sound changes involved. Compare Hebrew adam “man,” from adamah “ground.” Cognate with Old Lithuanian žmuo (accusative žmuni) “man, male person.”

To be properly human is to be humble.  Yes, we all belong to God and it is to God our souls will return, but our bodies are made from dust, and to dust our bodies shall return.  We have to remember and set ourselves apart from the gods and spirits we work with, because we are incarnate, mortal, and finite as opposed to discarnate, immortal, and infinite.  We have to remember that we are humans, and have far more in common with other humans and the human world we live in than with the spirits and their non-human world.  For that reason, we need to remain humble, not only to avoid reaching too far past our proper station as humans, but also to avoid putting ourselves on too high a pedestal above other humans.  We have to take care of ourselves, recognizing that no matter how much we might be capable of, we are only capable of but so much.  As Tzadqiel, the angel of Jupiter, once told me long ago:

You see those stars?  They’re kings, just like the Sun here.  They rule over their parts of the sky, their worlds.  They are small and distant, however, and they are not kings here.  As they travel their light to other places, they cease to become kings and become equals or even less to the places they travel.  They rule only over what they rule, and no more.  Just so do you rule only what you rule, and you do not rule over everything, even though you may think you do.  You will one day become as a star, but even stars are outshone by the ones higher and brighter than them, especially the highest Light.

Humility is a virtue even in the greatest kings.  Humility is the beginning of greatness.

Now, it’s important to distinguish humility from modesty, because the two are vastly different.  As I wrote about back in 2013, humility is more being meek in the facts of a situation, while modesty is more about understating something to the point of reverse exaggeration, and that’s essentially lying against oneself.  But I also brought up that there’s a similarity between (proper) pride and humility: (proper) pride is recognition of all that you are and can be or do, while humility is recognition of all that you are and have done in the grand scheme of things.  Pride is accepting that we have accomplished and learn things, and humility is accepting that we can accomplish and learn yet more.  To be properly proud as well as humble is to be honest and truthful about yourself to the world in the world you live.  Boasting, on the other hand, is having too much pride, the lie we tell to make ourselves seem more than we actually are; modesty, likewise, is the lie we tell to make ourselves seem less than we actually are.

I bring up all this because I want to bring up one of my favorite prayers today, the Litany of Humility.  I think I first brought it up on my blog in another post from 2013, where I meditated on what might make me special, but more importantly, how my being special doesn’t make anyone else less special.  This prayer, as seen in a number of Christian, and especially Catholic, texts, is often attributed to or outright claimed to be written by the 19th/20th century Cardinal Rafael Merry del Val, although it doesn’t seem like he actually wrote it.  Instead, the real origin of the Litany seems to be lost to history—a fitting end, I suppose, for one who prayed for no glory of the world, instead giving their work to the world freely.  At any rate, the Litany of Humility isn’t like the usual litanies of the Christian Church, at least, not like those commonly used in the formal liturgies like the Litany of the Saints; while it can be used liturgically, it reads and feels more like a personal plea and a way to remind oneself of the good things we should aim towards and the bad things we should aim away from.

While I originally used the standard modern Christian version in my prayer practice, reciting it at least once a week for a good long while, as my practice has shifted, I’ve been less and less…I don’t want to say “comfortable”, but less inclined to call on explicitly Christian names and phrases when I can avoid it in favor of more general deistic language.  Plus, it’s been a long time since I’ve recited or read it (dropping out of a regular practice will do that to you), so I think it’s time to take another look at it.  While I still think the original Christian version is an excellent one that we should all bear in mind, I also think it’s worthwhile to make it more usable by others who aren’t Christian.  To that end, I sat down with it and amended it somewhat for my own personal use, and thought I might share it for others to consider using in their use, should they so desire.  Below is the variant I use now that basically keeps the same text, with a slightly different opening and a different invocation for each request.  Rather than being Jesus-centric, e.g. “from the desire of being esteemed, deliver me, Jesus”, I’ve substituted every invocation of Jesus with simply “o Lord”.  This way, the prayer is more accessible to those within a more broadly Abrahamic, deist, or non-Christian Hermetic practice.  The sentiment is the same: we invoke God and pray that we might begin to possess the virtue of humility while shedding from ourselves the vice of pride.

O Lord, hear my prayer, and grant me, I beg you,
the blessing to be humble of heart,
the power to crush my pride,
and the grace to master myself that I may more fully serve you.

From the desire of being esteemed, deliver me, o Lord.
From the desire of being loved, deliver me, o Lord.
From the desire of being extolled, deliver me, o Lord.
From the desire of being honored, deliver me, o Lord.
From the desire of being praised, deliver me, o Lord.
From the desire of being preferred, deliver me, o Lord.
From the desire of being consulted, deliver me, o Lord.
From the desire of being approved, deliver me, o Lord.

From the fear of being humiliated, deliver me, o Lord.
From the fear of being despised, deliver me, o Lord.
From the fear of being rebuked, deliver me, o Lord.
From the fear of being maligned, deliver me, o Lord.
From the fear of being forgotten, deliver me, o Lord.
From the fear of being ridiculed, deliver me, o Lord.
From the fear of being wronged, deliver me, o Lord.
From the fear of being suspected, deliver me, o Lord.

That others may be loved more than me, o Lord, grant me the grace to desire it.
That others may be esteemed more than me, o Lord, grant me the grace to desire it.
That others may grow and I diminish in the opinion of the world, o Lord, grant me the grace to desire it.
That others may be chosen and I set aside, o Lord, grant me the grace to desire it.
That others may be praised and I unnoticed, o Lord, grant me the grace to desire it.
That others may be preferred to me in everything, o Lord, grant me the grace to desire it.
That others may become holier than me, provided that I might become as holy as I should, o Lord, grant me the grace to desire it.


I think it’s important to remember all that being proud entails, and what being humble necessitates.  That goes for both ceremonial magicians and witches, both occultists and scientists, and all people, especially myself.  I’ve come a long way since those posts in 2012 and 2013 when I discussed these things before, but I know that I’ve only come but so far, and there’s still so much for me to do, and no matter how far I might reach, there are still yet others who are (properly and well-deservedly) better than me.  It’s all I can do to do all I must do, and that’s for the best.  I’m happy to have recalled this prayer up, because I think it’s high time for me to reincorporate it back into my prayer routine regularly again.  Perhaps there are others who might find it useful, too.