Selected Hermetic Meditations on Death and Dying

It’s kinda weird, I suppose, how neatly some basic impulses start up like clockwork in alignment with the seasons.  As it’s getting darker now where I live, as summer finally relinquishes its old and lets autumn blow in, Scorpio season has arrived and, with it, Halloween and Samhain and all sorts of things related to death and the dead.  Of course, it’s also been a super rough time the past 24 months for…well, basically everyone across the world, and more people have died lately than is pleasing to count (not that it ever was pleasing, but it’s even less pleasing now that the numbers are so high everywhere).  Some of us are luckier than others, I suppose, but it seems like every day now I hear about how, in some community or other I’m connected to, someone has recently passed away.  That’s just what happens in a turbulent time, I suppose, especially one made all the worse by an ongoing global pandemic, but it doesn’t make it any easier to deal with psychologically or spiritually.

While I count myself fortunate and blessed enough to handle these things well enough by my own standards, I know that many others out there are struggling in the face of mass death and their own mortality—and it’s in times like this that people often turn to religion and religious texts for comfort, guidance, and support as balm for their tired souls and broken hearts.  I thought I’d pull out a few such excerpts from Hermetic texts that might offer some starting point for meditation, if not consolation, when it comes to the rather weighty (and ever-present) topic of death.

To offer my own summary of the views of classical Hermeticism before we dig into the passages themselves:

  • For the Hermeticist, death is something as natural to this world as life itself, and is part of the same process of coming-to-be as birth, growth, and decay.  Despite the claims of later alchemists, Hermēs Trismegistos in the classical philosophical/theosophical/theoretical texts never preached a form of immortality except for that of the soul, which is basically held to be inviolate and eternal as a direct issue of God.
  • The problems for us arise only when we try to latch onto these dissolvable bodies and identify the soul with them, from which arises addiction to corporeality, longing for the satisfaction of sense desires, and continued suffering through needless cycles of errant reincarnation.  In remembering what death truly is, we also remind ourselves what life truly is, both the immortal life of the soul as well as the proper means of living while the soul is still in the body.
  • While some religions or spiritual systems think of Death as an entity unto itself, there’s really no such notion in Hermeticism.  Death is just another process that things with bodies undergo.  Properly understood, there is nothing terrifying about death, any more than there is about the digestion of food, the expulsion of waste, yawning, or getting acne.  While particular ways of dying might be more unpleasant than others, the same could easily be said of living, as well.
  • Unlike other religious or spiritual systems, Hermeticism doesn’t really talk much about the spirits of the dead.  Sure, there’s plenty that talks about the origins and paths and destinations of the soul, whether in the course of its anabasis or katabasis or metempsychosis, but there’s basically nothing about how to treat the dead themselves.  It’s not that Hermeticism denies that ghosts and ancestors are a thing, it’s just irrelevant to the teachings and goals of Hermeticism, which is understanding the immortal life of the soul and how to consciously, intellectually, intelligibly achieve that immortality to free ourselves from our unthinking, unaware, unconscious addiction to mortality.  For actual ancestral practices or rites of propitiating the dead, if one does not wish to take a quasi-Buddhist approach of “preaching to the dead” to encourage them to move on from their attachments and addictions so that they can ascend instead, I would instead recommend researching historically appropriate approaches to funerary rites and practices of ancestral veneration as would be performed in Hellenistic (Ptolemaic or Roman) Egypt by the Greeks, Romans, and Egyptians in their own temples and household cults.

CH I.15

…Mankind is twofold—in the body mortal but immortal in the essential man. Even though he is immortal and has authority over all things, mankind is affected by mortality because he is subject to fate; thus, although man is above the cosmic framework, he became a slave within it. He is androgyne because he comes from an androgyne father, and he never sleeps because he comes from one who is sleepless. Yet love and sleep are his masters.

Ah, the initial text of the Corpus Hermeticum, Book I and the revelation of Poimandrēs to Hermēs.  There is much in this book to unpack, but this text, situated at the start of the fundamental collection of Hermetic treatises, introduces the idea that what we truly are is our souls, which come from God directly and were made immortal, while our bodies are products of this cosmos we happen to inhabit and which are mortal.  It is, fundamentally, a matter of ignorance and error that leads us to confuse who and what we really are, and in confusing the two, we lead ourselves to our own destruction.  There is suffering, and there is a way out of this suffering—this is what Poimandrēs teaches Hermēs and what Poimandrēs enjoins Hermēs to teach the world—and it all starts with this simple fact, that God created all things and that we as creations of God are immortal God-issued souls dwelling within cosmos-made bodies.  Bearing that in mind, all else falls into place, including the notion that it is only our bodies that are subject to Fate, while our souls are technically free of it (while they cannot be compelled to act or undergo conditions like the body does, because of the soul’s interaction and inhabitance of the body, the soul can be impelled towards the same).  It also introduces the notion that we are only ever in this cosmos temporarily, even to the point where cosmic incarnation can be considered a “prison” of sorts (though never as pessimistically as what some Gnostic sects would say).

CH I.24—26

First, in releasing the material body you give the body itself over to alteration, and the form that you used to have vanishes. To the demon you give over your temperament, now inactive. The body’s senses rise up and flow back to their particular sources, becoming separate parts and mingling again with the energies. And feeling and longing go on toward irrational nature.

Thence the human being rushes up through the cosmic framework, at the first zone surrendering the energy of increase and decrease; at the second evil machination, a device now inactive; at the third the illusion of longing, now inactive; at the fourth the ruler’s arrogance, now freed of excess; at the fifth unholy presumption and daring recklessness; at the sixth the evil impulses that come from wealth, now inactive; and at the seventh zone the deceit that lies in ambush.

And then, stripped of the effects of the cosmic framework, the human enters the region of the ogdoad; he has his own proper power, and along with the blessed he hymns the father. Those present there rejoice together in his presence, and, having become like his companions, he also hears certain powers that exist beyond the ogdoadic region and hymn god with sweet voice. They rise up to the father in order and surrender themselves to the powers, and, having become powers, they enter into god. This is the final good for those who have received knowledge: to be made god.

This section coming towards the end of CH I is a lovely depiction of the ascent of the soul after death; Poimandrēs gives this explanation when Hermēs asks him “tell me again about the way up, tell me how it happens”.  In this, we see a three-part ascent: the first part regarding the dissolution of the body, its temperament, and its senses as they return to nature and as the soul frees itself from all these things of the body; the second part regarding the ascent of the soul through the seven planetary spheres and, passing through each one, returning to each the cosmos-generating energy bestowed upon the soul; and the third part regarding the final stages of the ascent, above and beyond the forces of generation and corruption, as the soul reaches a timeless state of eternal perfection eventually entering into God.  CH I contrasts with CH XIII (the spiritual rebirth on the mountnain) and NHC VI.6 (the “Discourse on the Eighth and Ninth”) in that there doesn’t seem to be any initiatory rites that ensure the salvation of the soul; whether this is just what happens for those who are able to give up the body willingly at the time of its death or it’s what happens to all people, it paints a lovely picture of the afterlife and the course we take after death, up to and including a perfect salvation and blessed existence in God.  Death is merely a door to this, and is only an end of a brief sojourn here on Earth while also being a beginning of something else much greater.

CH III.4

[This is the] beginning of their living and becoming wise,
according to [their] lot from [the] course of [the] cyclic gods.
And [this is the beginning of their] being released,
leaving behind great memorials of [their] works of art upon the Earth,
and every generation of ensouled flesh,
and [every generation] of [the] sowing of fruit,
and [every generation] of every craftwork,
[all] for fame unto the obscurity of [the] ages—
[all] that is diminished will be renewed by Necessity
and by [the] renewal of the gods
and by [the] course of the measured wheel of Nature.

For the Divine is the whole cosmic combination renewed by Nature,
for the Nature is established in the Divine.

This is the final part of Book III of the Corpus Hermeticum (CH III), and specifically my own translation that I did a while back.  In the course of offering my own commentary of each of the four sections of this book, I wrote up this particular post about this section, which some may find helpful as a review of this bit.  In addition to CH III being a general overview and introduction of the Hermetic worldview and motivating ethos which I find helpful as a meditation generally, this last part has something poignant and powerful in it regarding death. The preceding section talks about all the reasons why humanity was made by the gods, “every soul in flesh”, but then we get this bit: “this is the beginning of their living and becoming wise according to their lot…and this is the beginning of their being released, leaving behind great memorials of their works of art upon the Earth, and every generation…[all that is done] for fame unto the obscurity of ages, all that is diminished will be renewed”.  No matter how much things pass away, no matter how impermanent this world and everything in it (including us as individuals and us as a species) might be, all things continue, and all things will be “renewed”, reborn, and will flourish again.  Yes, things will be forgotten, and that is our lot—but it is also our lot to be renewed, and thus remembered for a time before passing out of memory before again passing back into it, both into living and into living memory.  A doctrine of reincarnation, perhaps, or a doctrine of cyclic repeated existence; either way, we are but here for a time to do good works, then to leave them behind, much as we go to college to learn and then to graduate out of it.

CH VIII.1—4

Now, my son, we must speak about soul and body and say in what way the soul is immortal and whence comes the energy that composes and dissolves the body. Death actually has nothing to do with this. Death is a notion that arises from the term “immortal”: either it is an empty usage, or, through the loss of the first syllable, “im-mortal” is taken to mean “mortal”. Death has to do with destruction, yet none of the things in the cosmos is destroyed. If the cosmos is a second god and an immortal living thing, it is impossible for any part of this immortal living thing to die. All things in the cosmos are parts of the cosmos, but especially mankind, the living thing that reasons.

When matter was without body, my child, it was without order. Especially here below, matter has the disorder confined to the other lesser things that have qualities, the property of increase and decrease that humans call death. But this disorder arises among things that live on earth; the bodies of heavenly beings have a single order that they got from the father in the beginning. And this order is kept undissolved by the recurrence of each of them. The recurrence of earthly bodies, by contrast, is the dissolution of their composition, and this dissolution causes them to recur as undissolved bodies—immortal, in other words. Thus arises a loss of awareness but not a destruction of bodies.

Book VIII of the Corpus Hermeticum is a fairly short monist treatise, blending both Platonic and Stoic conceptions on the nature of reality and the cosmos, its creator, and our place within amongst it all.  The major thrust of CH VIII is that the cosmos as a whole is a single living being composed of multiple parts, just how your body is a single living organism composed of multiple organs and smaller cells.  If the cosmos is a single living being, then the cosmos lives, meaning everything in the cosmos lives; there can never truly be death in a living being lest the whole thing dies, and since the cosmos never dies, no part of the cosmos ever truly dies, either.  What we see and think of as death is no more than dissolution of a thing into its constituent components, which are then taken up again and used as constituent components of other living things.  The only thing that is lost is bodily awareness, but nothing else is ever truly lost in death.  Nothing here is spoken of the soul, of course, which is amply talked of in other Hermetic texts; here, we just familiarize ourselves with what “death” actually looks like, and how it is no more than a continuation of the same processes of life that produce ourselves as living beings within a forever-immortal, ever-living cosmos.

CH XII.15—18

“This entire cosmos—a great god and an image of a greater, united with god and helping preserve the father’s will and order—is a plenitude of life, and throughout the whole recurrence of eternity that comes from the father there is nothing in the cosmos that does not live, neither in the whole of it nor in its parts. For there never was any dead thing in the cosmos, nor is there, nor will there be. The father wished it to be alive as long as it holds together, and so it was necessary for the cosmos to be god. How then, my child, can there be dead things in god, in the image of all, in the plenitude of life? For deadness is corruption, and corruption is destruction. How can any part of the incorruptible be corrupted or anything of god be destroyed?”

“The things that live in the cosmos, father, though they are parts of it, do they not die?”

“Hold your tongue, child; the terminology of becoming leads you astray. They do not die, my child; as composite bodies they are only dissolved. Dissolution is not death but the dissolution of an alloy. They are dissolved not to be destroyed but to become new. And what is the energy of life? Is it not motion? In the cosmos, then, what is motionless? Nothing, my child.”

“Does the earth not seem motionless to you, father?”

“No, child; it is the only thing that is full of motion and also stationary. Would it not be quite absurd if the nurse of all were motionless, she who begets everything and gives birth to it? For without motion the begetter cannot beget anything. It is most absurd of you to ask if the fourth part is idle; that a body is motionless can signify nothing but being idle.

“Therefore, my child, you should know that everywhere in the cosmos everything is moved, either by decrease or by increase. What is moved also lives, but not everything that lives need stay the same. Taken as a whole, my child, the entire cosmos is free from change, but its parts are all subject to change. Nothing, however, is corruptible or destroyed—terms that disturb human beings. Life is not birth but awareness, and change is forgetting, not death. Since this is so, all are immortal—matter, life, spirit, soul, mind—of which every living thing is constituted.”

This excerpt from Book XII of the Corpus Hermeticum refreshes the same topic as above from CH VIII, that no part of the cosmos ever truly dies, but are only dissolved and reused in other life just as we ourselves are made from constituent parts of other things that were once living.  Dissolution is therefore part and parcel of renewal, a continuous cyclical motion of life.  Sure, different living things experience life at different stages; some are being formed, some are being dissolved, some are increasing, some are decreasing, some are growing strong, some are growing weak—but this is all life, all the same, and there is no true thing as “death”, as such, except as a matter of perception.

DH 8.7

You do not have the power of becoming immortal; neither does, indeed, the immortal have the power of dying.  You can even become a god if you want, for it is possible.  Therefore want and understand and believe and love; then you have become it!

The seventh statement from the eighth set from the Definitions of Hermēs Trismegistos to Asklēpios reminds us, quite simply, that we humans are mortal—at least, physically so, just as much as the gods are immortal.  This is something that cannot and does not change, but then, our bodies are merely and only our bodies, not who and what we truly are; rather, are souls, being immortals, have every right to stand on the same level as the gods, so long as we recognize who and what we truly are, and so long as we work towards it.  In this, we should seek to learn to accept and live by what we cannot change, and instead focus on what we can, doing what we can, to do what is truly best for ourselves and the world we live in.  (I wrote about the Definitions long ago, in what seems like another lifetime, but here’s my post about this specific one for those who are interested in reading some of my early thoughts on this.)

DH 10.6

Providence and Necessity are, in the mortal, birth and death; in God, unbegotten essence.  The immortal beings agree with one another, and the mortal envy one another with jealousy, because evil envy arises due to knowing death in advance.  The immortal does what he always does, but the mortal does what he has never done.  Death, if understood, is immortality; if not understood, it is death.  They assume that the mortal beings of this world have fallen under the dominion of the immortal, but in reality the immortal are servants of the mortals of this world.

This is statement six from the tenth set of the Definitions, this time pointing out that death causes problems for us mortal humans, if only because we see our lives as precious, non-renewable resources, fighting over our time and our lives like geopolitically-minded countries fight over oil or water; we know we will all one day die, whether we like to admit it publicly or not, but those who don’t have a proper understanding of death end up taking the wrong lessons from it, causing not just a lack of proper living but a surplus of unnecessary death in the process.  We are immaterial, noncorporeal entities abiding in material, corporeal forms for but a time; if we only focus on what is material, we neglect the immaterial, which is way more than half of what truly matters for us.  (Again, my old post with my early thoughts on this statement can be found here.)

SH 11.2.38, 39

What is immortal does not share what is mortal, but the mortal shares the immortal.

A mortal body does not come into an immortal one, but an immortal body can arrive in a mortal one.

The eleventh Stobaean Fragment (SH) contains, sandwiched between a very brief introduction and a conclusion that reminds Tat (and the reader) towards secrecy of not teaching the unlearned advanced things of the learned, a list of 48 maxims, which can be somewhat likened to “Hermetic principles” even if their original purpose is as mnemonic reminders of broader discussions.  Amongst these maxims, these two stuck out to me in this topic, since it touches on the dichotomy between immortal souls and mortal bodies.  There is so much amongst all the Hermetic stuff that goes on and on about the immortality of the soul, all at length and in depth and by many different avenues.  There is also, likewise, plenty that touches on the mortality of the body, how the soul interacts with the body (which is especially a focus in the Stobaean Fragments), and how we are truly our souls and not our bodies.  These two maxims, sufficing indeed as kephalaía-type summaries, remind us that it is our bodies that are secondary to who and what we are while our souls are primary, and that it is our bodies that merely house and clothe the soul for its relatively brief stay in this world.  It is the nature of mortal bodies to be born and, from the moment of their birth, grow old and decay, but no such nature is given to the soul, which is immortal and does not suffer such change, and instead comes into bodies, leaves, and then enters into other bodies as it is necessary for it to.

TH 28 (emphasis mine)

He was, upon him be peace, a man of dark complexion, of full stature, bald, of handsome face, thick-bearded, of pleasant lineaments, and perfect arm-span, broad-shouldered, big-boned but of little flesh, with flashing, dark-lined eyes, unhurried in his speech, often silent, his limbs at rest; when he walked, he mostly kept his gaze toward the earth; he thought much; he was serious and stern. He moved his index finger when he talked. His period on the earth was eighty-two years.

There was on the bezel of his seal-ring that he wore every day: “Patience combined with faith in God bequeaths victory.” And on the bezel of the seal-ring that he wore at religious feasts was “perfect joy at religious feasts is good works.” And on the bezel of his seal-ring that he wore when he prayed for a dead person, “The time of death is the harvest of hope; death is a watchman never heedless.” And on the belt that he always wore, “Consideration of the next life bequeaths security to body and soul from harmful accidents.” On the belt that he wore to religious feasts, “Keeping religious duties and law is the fulfillment of religion, and the fulfillment of religion is the fulfillment of valor.” On the belt that he wore at the time of prayer for the dead, “Whoever considers his soul is victorious, and his intercession with the Lord is his good works.”

I don’t often bring up texts like this—normally I stick to the classical Hermetic texts themselves—but that doesn’t mean that we can’t look at the post-classical Hermetic fragments, excerpts, and quotes (collectively “Hermetic Fragments”, or FH), and testimonia and descriptions (TH) regarding Hermēs Trismegistos or Hermeticism.  An especially rich source of such stuff is from the Arabic doxological, gnomological, and biographical tradition, and this one in particular comes from the Muẖtār al-ḥikam (“Selection of Wise Sayings”) by Al-Mubaššir ibn Fātik, who wrote this around 1049 CE, and which was eventually translated into European languages, such as the Latin Liber philosophorum moralium antiquorum and the Middle English The Dicts and Sayings of the Philosophers.  This bit focuses more on the biographical side of Hermēs Trismegistos, the first part talking about his life (and, importantly, his death—even the greatest of sages is still mortal!) and his manner of teaching and living, the later parts focusing more on things he taught or which were ascribed to him, but the bits about the sayings engraved on his rings and belt buckles still count as “wise sayings” all the same (and, as Kevin van Bladel says in his The Arabic Hermes: From Pagan Sage to Prophet of Science, “The paragraph dealing with the inscriptions on Hermes’ rings and belt buckles is clearly part of a pre-Islamic genre: records of maxims inscribed on rings of famous individuals are attested in Arabic texts of Iranian origin…This portion is surely an excerpt from a larger collection of wise maxims adapted for the present purpose of describing Hermes”).  Although there aren’t a whole lot of other maxims attributed to Hermēs here along the lines of death and dying, there is this one at least:

Death is like a dart already thrown, and your lifespan is as much as its course toward you.

Classically speaking, there is much of Hermeticism that was inspired by the Greek and Hellenistic philosophy of Stoicism, at least in terms of its physics, but also its ethics, as well; as time went on, the ethical portion of Stoicism started to take primary place, hence what we know of from Stoic thinkers and philosophers as Marcus Aurelius and Epictetus.  This sort of memento mori is abundant in Stoic writings, and we should also bear in mind that death is not something we can avoid; we must make the best use of what time we have, and that wisely, and welcome death when it does come.

Although not one of the testimonia listed in Litwa or Nock/Festugière, van Bladel in his The Arabic Hermes does also offer this maxim from another Arabic work, the Muntaẖab:

[Hermēs] said: there are two kinds of death: voluntary death and natural death.  Whoever makes is [appetitive] soul die the voluntary death will have a natural death that is for him life.

This sort of maxim is also attributed to Socrates in other works, and definitely has Greek origins.  This one specifically is also useful to remember and to tie into the lessons we can learn from e.g. CH I.19: “the one who recognized himself attained the chosen good, but the one who loved the body that came from the error of desire goes on in darkness, errant, suffering sensibly the effects of death”.  By tempering, restraining, and giving up the body and its appetites to their own death, recognizing them for what they are and not indulging them any further than is strictly necessary for the soul to do what it has to do in its time down here, then when the death of the body comes, it is no real death at all.  To me, this is very much along the same lines as Eckhart Tolle’s saying “the secret to life is to die before you die”, but also including the death of the body so that the soul doesn’t die with it.

TH 33

When he was nearing the final end of his life, a company of disciples rose and stood around him.

“Thus far, my children,” he said, “I, expelled from my fatherland, have lived as a sojourner and an exile. Now, safe and secure, I seek my fatherland again. When, after a little while, I am fully released from my bodily chains and depart, see to it that you do not bewail me as if I were dead. I return to that best and blessed city in which all its citizens know not death or corruption, a city governed by the One, the Unique, the supreme God. As long as all people desire to obey the supremely just rule of God, they are united by the fullness of God’s inestimable and inviolable goodness, and filled with God’s wondrous sweetness.

“I confess to you, my children, that that life is the true life. In it, all effects of changeability are banished, while its citizens cling inseparably to the eternal Good and enjoy true blessedness. For the life which many consider to be the only one is rather called ‘death’, nor is there one single mortal life, but many–as many, I would say, as there are hindrances to the virtues of the highest God, as many as there are clouds of ignorance, as many as there are failures to fulfill sacred vows, and all the other errors in which our mortal condition is entangled.

“So dry your tears, my children! For this dissolution, in which occurs the unloading of the burden of corruptibility, brings with it no calamitous end for me, but to me offers a glorious return! There is no reason to mourn me when you devote me to the glory of true life. Thus far I have gasped as one about to receive the prize of true immortality, which the divine steadfastness of my soul, providence, sobriety, justice, and the unimpaired worship of God has earned for me.

“You yourselves will follow your father and find him in the fatherland–and surely you will not fail to know me in my transformed state. This is because each person, when the darkness of unknowing is dispersed, will recognize all his fellow citizens by that single immense light of goodness which is God–more truly than I am able to tell. I tell you, you will follow me if you most wholly venerate the virtues of which justice is chief. By this virtue, I earnestly exhort you: despise the multitude of diversions and distractions of this world and its life that is to be called death, and worship instead with supplication the One who constructed the entire mechanism of the world’s body and  who shut up souls in these earthly prisons.”

When his disciples continued to stand around him pouring out tears instead of joy, Hermēs said: “Silence—for I know not what wondrously sweet music echoes in my ears, whose immensely pleasing melody I confess that I have never more fully attended to. It is much different than the reverberations in musical instruments by which we enjoy the symphony that procures and preserves good habits. I cannot, for lack of experience, describe that which the swiftness of the wondrous firmament produces by the mixing of high and low notes, with the seven celestial spheres veering in a contrary direction.”

Up to this point the words trailed from Hermēs’ moving lips and a glow of superlative brightness beamed from his face. Then Hermēs spoke no more, and his soul flew away from his corpse.

What Litwa has labeled as TH 33 in his Hermetica II is an extract from Book of Alcidus on the Immortality of the Soul, a Christian work from the late 12th century CE.  This is largely a beautiful monologue Hermēs gives to his disciples on his deathbead, which I think ties in nicely with the bit from TH 28 above, just from a different perspective.  I admit that the above is not exactly the translation of Litwa; it’s largely based on Litwa’s translation (and thus the original text), to be sure, though I have made some edits to remove some too-stringently monotheist language to make it a little more generalizeable.  While many of the earlier excerpts, especially from the , focused on how there is no true thing as “death” as such and how life is constantly being lived in all ways at all times in the cosmos, there are other texts, too, that stress the immortality of the soul, which is arguably far more of a thing discussed amply throughout various Hermetic texts—and I think this excerpt from the Book of Alcidus does an amazing job at pointing out the fundamental message here.  Our very lives “down here” are nothing but a sojourn and exile from our true home “up there”, and in the physical death of the body that releases our immortal souls (which is our true essence, who and what we “really” are) from its fleshy vessel, we finally embark on our return home.

De Castigatione Animae

(IV, 3) The raft on which you are borne upon this great sea [of earthly life] is made of water frozen to ice, and it is only by chance that it serves to bear you.  Soon the sun will rise and shine on it and melt the ice, and it will turn into water again, and you will be left sitting on water. But you certainly will not be able to remain in that position; you must therefore look for something to bear you up, and there is nothing that will serve that purpose except ability to swim and to direct your course aright until you shall have reached [firm ground].

(IV, 5—6) A man is not showing contempt for the house he lives in if, while omitting to fit it out and adorn it, he nevertheless goes on living in it without reluctance; he shows utter contempt for it only when he is eager to quit it, and is ready and willing to go out of it and live elsewhere.  And even so, a man does not show contempt for the physical world if, while putting away from him thepleasures and desires which belong to it, he nevertheless stays on in it without reluctance; he shows true contempt for it only when he eagerly longs to depart from it, and to be at rest from it, and from its hostility, contrariety, discord, and darkness.  You ought to fix firmly in your mind a longing and eagerness for physical death, and guard against being troubled at the prospect of it; for by fear of death is wrought destruction, and by desire for it, salvation.  Surely you know this, that by physical death you will migrate to another abode where you will dwell, not [as now] in poverty, but at ease; not in want, but fully satisfied; not in fear, but without fear; not toiling, but at rest; not in pain, but in pleasure; not in sickness, but in health; not in darkness, but in light.  Do not therefore grieve overmuch at being stripped of the garments of evil and of delusive appearance, and clothed in garments of that which is good and everlasting; grieve not at getting sure knowledge of those things, and, in virtue of your own simplicity and unity, seeing them face to face.

(IV, 12) To die with firmness is glorious; to die in fear and cowardice is shameful.  Dying is but for a moment, and is quickly ended; but base endurance of captivity is a lasting condition.  Be not unwilling then to undergo death, and thereby to quit the physical world; but suffer not yourself to be reduced to captivity, for that death is everlasting life, and this captivity is everlasting death.

(VIII, 4) First of all, assure yourself that physical death is nothing else than a departure of the soul from the body.

This text is originally an Arabic one, and was translated into Latin as Hermetis Trismegisti de castigatione animae libellus, or “The Little Book of Hermēs Trismegistos on the Castigation of the Soul” (henceforth CA for short); Walter Scott includes a translation of the entire thing into English from the Latin in volume 4 of his Hermetica, but I haven’t found another translation of it anywhere else.  It’s a somewhat long text, and is less than a single treatise and more of an anthology of maxims and brief meditations on a handful of themes, a collection of about 90 more-or-less passages broken out into 14 chapters.  The original text, although attributed to Hermēs Trismegistos, was more of a product of an Arabic Platonist, and if not an Islamic one than one heavily influenced by Islam.  Much of the text is fairly repetitive, harping on the same themes over and over, and the above bits tie into those same fundamental themes: focus on the soul, shun the body.  However, given the focus of the above sections in how we should live with respect to death, CA shows that death is truly nothing to worry about; heck, even dying itself is nothing too great, especially compared to the pain and tribulation of living badly.  In living well, we have nothing to fear; in living poorly, we have everything to fear.  Chapter IV, sections 5—6 is a rather strongly-worded section, I feel, and I want to specify that I don’t actively encourage people to indulge in thanatic urges or suicidal ideation; rather, we should read this section in the context of remembering that the body is not all we are, not by a longshot, and in giving up the body to its proper death, we relieve our souls of a burden rather than having anything ripped away from us.

Fairness

Selected entries from the Enchiridion of the Stoic philosopher Epictetus which are on my mind as of late:

7.  Consider when, on a voyage, your ship is anchored; if you go on shore to get water you may along the way amuse yourself with picking up a shellish, or an onion. However, your thoughts and continual attention ought to be bent towards the ship, waiting for the captain to call on board; you must then immediately leave all these things, otherwise you will be thrown into the ship, bound neck and feet like a sheep. So it is with life. If, instead of an onion or a shellfish, you are given a wife or child, that is fine. But if the captain calls, you must run to the ship, leaving them, and regarding none of them. But if you are old, never go far from the ship: lest, when you are called, you should be unable to come in time.

11.  Never say of anything, “I have lost it”; but, “I have returned it.” Is your child dead? It is returned. Is your wife dead? She is returned. Is your estate taken away? Well, and is not that likewise returned? “But he who took it away is a bad man.” What difference is it to you who the giver assigns to take it back? While he gives it to you to possess, take care of it; but don’t view it as your own, just as travelers view a hotel.

14.  If you wish your children, and your wife, and your friends to live for ever, you are stupid; for you wish to be in control of things which you cannot, you wish for things that belong to others to be your own. So likewise, if you wish your servant to be without fault, you are a fool; for you wish vice not to be vice, but something else. But, if you wish to have your desires undisappointed, this is in your own control. Exercise, therefore, what is in your control. He is the master of every other person who is able to confer or remove whatever that person wishes either to have or to avoid. Whoever, then, would be free, let him wish nothing, let him decline nothing, which depends on others else he must necessarily be a slave.

16.  When you see anyone weeping in grief because his son has gone abroad, or is dead, or because he has suffered in his affairs, be careful that the appearance may not misdirect you. Instead, distinguish within your own mind, and be prepared to say, “It’s not the accident that distresses this person., because it doesn’t distress another person; it is the judgment which he makes about it.” As far as words go, however, don’t reduce yourself to his level, and certainly do not moan with him. Do not moan inwardly either.

And a Stoic…well, not quite a prayer, but I use it as one, compiled and rewritten from several sources including Cleanthes and Euripides:

Lead me, o Zeus, and holy Destiny,
T’wherever my post in life’s battle be.
Willing I follow; were it not my will,
Wicked and wretched would I follow still.
Fate guides the willing but drags the unwilling.

Futile though it might be, I bring this up as an exercise to myself and as a reminder to my readers, because I’m going through a bit of a tough time.  I’m not writing this to ply sympathies or condolences, but rather as just an exploration of my own thoughts and feelings, recorded more for myself than anyone else.  Recently, my husband’s and my cat died.  Her name is Isis, and she has always been, and always will be, a Very Good Cat.

My husband grew up at his grandparents’ house, and about…twelve? thirteen? years ago, there was a particular cat that was hunting and haunting the backyard and forest of their house.  They would entice this cat with food, and she’d come up and eat from them, and would even hop into my husband’s lap for pets and brushing.  She must have been a stray, since she obviously knew the touch of humans and had been spayed, but she seemed to adapt quite well to being taken care of, such as it was.  Eventually, after a year or so, on his way home from a party, my husband saw the cat at the back door with a giant bloody gash on her face; apparently she got in a nasty fight and wanted some help.  He asked her if she was ready to be indoors again.  She looked at him, huffed, and strutted right inside, and didn’t go back outside again.  He named her Isis, a large black Maine coon mix with a white tuft of fur on the front of her lower neck; he didn’t know exactly how old she was, but definitely around four years old at that point.  She gave my husband many years of support and emotional connection in the times when he had nobody else but her.

She lived in his grandmother’s house for a good long while, and while I was dating my husband before we married, I would occasionally catch glimpses of her, but she was always so skittish and not at all sociable.  She’d occasionally stare out the front window or prowl around the house, but she was far from a sociable animal.  When my husband and I moved into our current house, we decided to bring her over to live with us; by this point, she was already like 14 years old, and she had feline leukemia virus all her life, though it never bothered her any.  We did this because he wanted her to live with us, sure, but knowing she was getting on in years, we wanted to make sure the last part of her life was comfortable, easy, and peaceful, away from the stress of being at his grandparents’ house.  After the initial acclimation period, Isis changed dramatically towards both him and me; she was an adorable little attention whore, chirped and chatted, started playing with catnip and feather toys for the first time, and couldn’t get enough of sleeping with us in bed.  Even my husband was caught off-guard by how much she had changed, as if she finally got to be a pampered little kitten again, and hand to God did she enjoy it for all it was worth, as did we.  She was adorable in every way, even if she did piss on some of the rugs now and again or drank from our offering glasses on some of the shrines around the house.

Over the past few weeks, I noticed I haven’t had to refill her food bowl with kibble up as much as I thought I should.  I didn’t pay it any mind, but towards the end of the month, my husband and I realized that we haven’t had to replenish it at all.  She really cut back on eating to eating nothing, and we weren’t able to entice her to eat much of fresh tuna or turkey.  She had been lying around the house in places we didn’t often see her.  She didn’t come up to bed with us when it was bedtime.  She was even more lethargic and less playful and chatty than we were accustomed to her being.  It dawned on us; she was getting to the last stages of her life.  That realization was not easy; on a weekend when everything else was going sideways, this was the last thing we wanted to have to face.  Neither my husband nor I got much sleep.  We mostly stayed awake evaluating her condition, trying to get her to eat or drink at least a little, and just pet and brushed her as much as we could in between having our bouts of tears.  She was getting bonier, and her breath was getting to have a new and unpleasant odor.  We took her to the emergency vet (by the time we were able to get anywhere with her, most vets had already closed for the weekend), and they ran some tests on her; we couldn’t get a clear diagnosis, but we did get a prescription for an appetite stimulant.

She still wouldn’t eat more than a nibble of tuna.

Against every fiber in his body, my husband made the decision that it was time.  I made the arrangements to take her back to the emergency vet on my way back home from working ceremony, and…I needed some time in the car alone before I could get face going inside my house.  I wasn’t aware I could even make some of those sounds.

I won’t recount the whole process of her passing.  Suffice it to say that she went quietly and peacefully, bundled in her tortilla blanket, being pet and loved and hugged and brushed.  She went out with a soft purr, knowing and feeling that she was loved.

We found out afterwards that it was the cancer catching up to her in force, and there wouldn’t’ve been much we could’ve done anyway besides just making her passing as easy as possible.  We did what we had to.

I bundled up her dishes, toys, and blankets and put them in a box, placed under the table in our office where she liked to lie down.

I haven’t been around much death in my life.  Bones, rot, mold, and the effects of death, sure; I mean, it’s a natural part of life, if not the most expected, inevitable, and boring part about the entire thing.  We may not know what happens afterward with complete certainty, but we know that it happens to everything that lives.  But as for actual living creatures dying that I’m aware of, that I care for?  It’s different.  Last year, my grandmother passed away, but it was hard to feel too sad about it.  Sure, there was a touch of grief, but I was far happier than anything for her.  Passing away at the age of 96, becoming a great-great-grandmother in her own life, having outlived three of her husbands, having inherited a small fortune from one of them, having traveled the world, having gotten a college education for a woman in a time when that was difficult, living wherever she wanted, enjoying being as sharp and quick as Olenna Tyrell herself, being surrounded by family and comfort all her life, having passed away quietly and peacefully and painlessly…in short?  My Nana Jane won at life.  It’s hard to not celebrate a life and death such as hers.

Isis basically had that same equivalent status for cats when she went, but…it’s so much harder.  I suppose that’s just the nature of it when she’s effectively your baby that you watch out for, care for, nurture, and nourish.  It’s not as difficult now as in the days and hours leading up to her passing, but it’s still not easy, especially when you keep seeing motions out of the corner of your eye you expect to be her, hearing creaks in the floorboards you expect to be her, a pair of black boots sitting in a sunbeam you expect to be her, a ruffle in the blankets on the bed you expect to be her.

I’ve been trying to revisit some of my earlier Stoic learning and practices, before I really committed myself to Neoplatonism and Hermetic philosophies.  Stoicism isn’t a perfect philosophy, but for dealing with much of the bullshit of life, it affords a fantastic worldview and helps to cool the heart and head from the heat of passion and drama.  For myself, I admit that I had Isis in my life a lot less than my husband had her in his, but her death still hurts.  We brought her into our home with the understanding and expectation that she wouldn’t have much longer to live no matter what, and we made the choice to give her an easy, good death with the understanding and expectation that there’s nothing else that could be done no matter what, but…it’s so hard to make the leap from an intellectual understanding of something and the emotional acceptance of it.  Like SMBC’s The Falling Problem, I could go on for hours about the nature of the situation, the diagnosis and prognosis, what the expected social, emotional, and physical effects would be upon me and my husband, and all the rest…but it doesn’t impact the actual experience of the same thing.  Worse, if not outright embarrassingly, all that mental preparation does exceedingly little to absolutely nothing for emotional preparation.

At that point, I suppose it’s less a job for rationalization and more of one for faith.  I can’t even really say “trust”, because trust in…what?  Isis, for all her love and adorability, is still a cat, and as Wittgenstein once wrote, if a lion could speak, we could not understand him.  There’s only so much I can figure out or know about cats and their behavior, so I have to have faith that she knew she was loved and taken care of to the best of our ability until and through her very last heartbeat and breath.  I have to have faith in my spirits that they heard my pleas to watch over her, guide her, accompany her, entertain her, and protect her as she uses up the last of her nine lives to go…wherever it is cats go, and that once she gets her spiritual bearings, that maybe she’ll choose to stick around for us.  I have to have faith in my gods that they can and do support me to point out to me the strength I have and to give me the help I need to get through this as best as I’m able.  I have to have faith that everything really will be alright, even if it doesn’t yet feel like it is.  I have to have faith in myself that I’ll be alright, even if I don’t yet feel like I am.

And even then, faith feels like a bandage over a gushing wound; triage is no substitute for actual healing, and there’s no real regimen to heal this sort of pain besides taking my time.  I suppose that’s inevitable, too.

I could waste words on how to live your own lives better, spending more time with the ones you love, being more forgiving and compassionate, not taking things for granted, blah blah blah.  There’s no point to that here; I’m not in a great state to give advice, and there are more than enough others who have given that same advice in better ways and in more appropriate venues.  This is just…a reflection, I suppose, a processing of grief over loss.  I suppose I could rewrite that in geomantic terms, by saying Tristitia plus Amissio yields…well, Puella: the compassionate Maiden who takes all in under her roof, the pleasant Hostess who heals and nurtures, the all-accepting Lady of Fortune who shares her love for all until it’s time to move on.  Fitting, I suppose.  Puella is often described as fickle, but I find that an uncharitable description; it’s only because that fortune must pass over everyone equally, that all things must have balance, and that everyone gets their fair share of time and love before that time and love passes away.  It may never feel fair, especially in the heat of the moment or in the cold of the withdrawal, but Puella is the fairest and the Fairest force there is.

It’ll take time, but it won’t take too long.  It may be bad, but it’s not the worst thing.  It may hurt, but I’ve had worse.  Even through the tears and the wailing and the jaw-clenching-so-hard-I-might-shatter-my-teeth, there’s still that glimmer of love and appreciation in the muck and the rot and the ash.  I still have, at least a little bit, that happiness we were able to have Isis in our lives for at least a little bit, to love her and be loved by her, and to see things through to the end for her.

Her name is Isis, and she has always been, and always will be, a Very Good Cat.

On Things that Die

I am becoming increasingly familiar with the smell of rot.

The husband and I were on a small road-trip to a friend’s birthday the other day, and we were driving up and down some lovely backwoods roads in the Appalachians to get there.  It was nice to get a breath of somewhat cleaner air than we’re normally treated to, and the sight of mountains covered in verdant green and carbon-tinted shade under blue skies always fills my heart with a quiet joy.  Smells of crab shacks, flowers, cow dung, corn fields, and daytime mountain winds mingled with the cologne we wore and the menthols we smoked along the way.  And, yes, at several points during the drive, my nose would unfailingly twitch as we’d drive past the occasional roadkilled raccoon or hunted deer or whatnot.

“Mmmm. Rot.”  “Yup.” <drags on cigarette>

To clarify: I use the word “rot” to mean the smell of a once-living animal that has died or been killed.  Yes, plants and fungus and other organic matter can decay in their own ways, and perhaps there’s a better word for the smell I’m describing besides something dead-animalian.  Though it’s certainly not what I’d consider pleasant, it’s not so offensive that I can’t stand to be around it.  Sure, I’d rather avoid smelling it, but it won’t stop me from the Work at hand.

I’ve always heard that rot smells sickeningly sweet, but…maybe I have a different notion of sweetness than those who made up that timeworn phrase.  I try to take out the trash regularly enough, keep the fridge cleaned out, and wipe down the showers, but those tend to have the smells of food gone bad, mold in the tupperware, or mildew on the tiles.  These are not the smells of rot as I’d consider it; these are the smells of things going sour or sickening, but not of rot.  Rot has a distinct profile to the smell, and one that’s surprisingly difficult for me to describe.  It’s something totally different than anything else I’ve smelled: something like a mixture of pink cotton candy, overly ripe fruit on the edge of fermentation, old steel, dirt after the rain, and the idea itself of revolting (lit. “turning away”).  Sure, the specific thing that’s rotting will color the smell differently, whether it’s skin or feather or fur or leaves or wood, but that core smell in the middle of it is unmistakable.

The way the smell seems to travel feels different than other smells, too.  While foods or pheromones or perfumes seem to waft like ribbons of invisible smoke in the air, rot crawls and seeps like a slow, glacial flood that is just as hard to get rid of once it’s there.  It lurks behind other smells, making it difficult to mask or suffumigate or sweep under the carpet; there’s always some tiny, faintly pungent hint of it always reminding you that something there has died.  Some people would even say that the smell is capital-w Wrong, like something is trying to force you out of the room, or something is setting off alarm bells to make your hair stand on end in the lizard brain we humans’ve got.

And yet, despite all this, I cannot bring myself to call rot a “smell of death” as I’ve also heard it described.  Yes, it is a smell of things that are dead, but it is not the smell of death.  When an animal dies, that is not the end of the story.  Sure, the soul or spirit or mind of the thing might dissipate or go elsewhere, depending on which cosmology you’re following, but the body continues to exist in the physical world, and the body is nowhere near done.  It becomes a breeding ground for bacteria, parasites, fungus, and even insects.  It becomes a food and a host, and the toxic smell that humans have innately, instinctively evolved to reject is the olfactory evidence that everything continues in the world.  Call it the “circle of life”, if you will; just because a thing dies does not mean that’s the end of the story for the thing.  It continues to exist to nourish, to fertilize, to disintegrate, to return to its base elements for the repurposing and recycling of all things in this world as constituent parts into new and more exciting forms.

Our world is predicated on the Idea of life and living things; the only things that are truly absent of life are those bodies, viewed as distinct and separate from their surroundings, that never had life to begin with (and even then, that idea is suspicious on its own).  Everything else is alive, in one form or another.  And yet, all that lives must one day die, right?  So our world must therefore be as much death as it is life, right?  I mean, we’ve all seen this adorable and saccharine little comic about the interplay between life and death at some point on our Facebook feeds:

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I’m not so certain anymore.  Things that are dead are not death itself.  Much as nature abhors a vacuum, I claim that our world does not abide death.  Life exists to beget more life, and if death weren’t a limiting constraint on these things, life would always and only serve to beget more life in one way or another.  Death is…unwelcome, in many ways, though a necessary law in the world.  But, to me, it feels increasingly like death is something Other, something Else, something Different than anything else in the world.  It does not feel part of this world in the same way that conception, flirting, hate, offices, rituals, or fruit feels like a part of this world.  Death is like a vacuum; if this world is composed of Life, then what place does Death have?

The Japanese language has an interesting idea that makes English students a little distressed: there is no way to say “I’m dying” in Japanese. In Japanese, gerundive forms (sometimes called the “-te form” of a verb) are what’s used to make a progressive action when used with the supplemental verb iru; for instance, taberu means “to eat”, while tabete iru means “to be eating”.  However, in Japanese, shinu “to die” has the progressive form shinde iru, which isn’t “to be dying” but rather “to be dead”.  For speakers of Japanese, the act of dying is something that can only happen in a single moment; it is not something that can be prolonged, continued, or stretched out temporally.  One is going to die at some point in the future, one dies is in this very moment, one died at some point in the past, or one is in the state of being dead.  There is no “one is dying across time” in Japanese; it is a transition from one state to another, and there is no grey area between the two.  Either you are animated or you are inanimate, you breathe or you cease to draw breath, you live or you are dead.

It still seems like Death is something so distinctly different, so Other, that it does not belong to this world.  And yet, that doesn’t seem like a right claim to make; even I think I sound like some willful child raging against having to flush their expired goldfish down the toilet because “it’s not right” or “this shouldn’t happen”.  I do not mean to say in the least that Death is something unnecessary, forced upon us, or wrong; far from it!  Life here on this planet would be a Malthusian hellscape without death to regulate us and keep us in check.  Death is the rightful end of life, and the (generally, hopefully) rightful point at which our spirits shake off their physical forms and go their separate ways.  We all know and have heard from innumerable traditions that Death belongs to this world just as much as Life does.

Yet, what is Death, then?  We know of the dead; they’re “here” as much as any spirit, but then, they’re not “here” in the same sense as you or me, since we’re incarnate and they’re not.  It’s like they’re just beyond the chiffon curtain in the room, on a slightly different frequency a half-kHz up on the radio.  They’re not part of this world of physical forms and bodies, barring any attachments or grounding to bones or artifacts of the dead, so we can leave them out of the picture for the time being.  What is Death, then, if Death can be considered a spirit, one of the very few able to directly interact with the living processes of this world strong enough to quell them?  Is it truly some specter or shade, skeletal and robed in black-white-red with a scythe and an owl on their shoulder, swooping in to catch her prey?  Is it some king of a hell-realm with four eyes and wide nostrils and two dogs, chasing people down and bringing them to his doorstep as prisoners?  Is it a radiant angel, taking people by the hand and elevating them from their bodies for the last time?  Is it an ancient woman, one of three sisters, who cuts the thread of light at its right proportion and length?

None of those, either, seem right.  Sure, they’re ways we can personify and interact with Death as a spirit, but they are themselves not Death.  After all, even gods themselves die, some more permanently than others, and there is some precedent (even if I’ve only come across it in games like Neverwinter Nights) that Death is a non-entity apart from any spirit or god, even those related to or administering the sacrament of death.  Plus, what sort of crazy exception of a spirit would Death then have to be, to be so powerful as to directly interfere with living creatures on a level totally unseen and unheard of when compared to literally every other deity and spirit, save for those religious texts where miracles happen de rigueur?

It does not seem right to claim that Death is a spirit, any more than Life itself is a spirit.  It is a phenomenon that happens in our world naturally, and therefore must be a natural part of this world, too.  It is the exact moment of transition from animacy to inanimacy, and therefore is not an action in the same way “eating” is an action, both because it is a state transition and because it is…probably? difficult to impossible for a living body to intentionally, intentfully die without causing its own death.  Like, a body can continue breathing, pumping blood, digesting, wiggling in the dirt, and so on, but dying is not something the body can just do.  Dying happens as a result of other natural processes: the failure of parts of the body (from the organ scale to the cellular scale) to function together concordantly, trauma inducing failure of the body, disease inducing failure of the body, or so forth.  When Life cannot continue, Death occurs.  When Life fails to proceed “normally”, Death occurs.  And yet, Death is as needed, as necessary, and as natural as Life; it’s not that Death is inimical to Life, or Death is something “wrong”, but that the one picks up where the other leaves off.  And Death then becomes the endpoint for physical incarnation, after which, the story of that spirit that once animated a body, which existed only once for a short while and in a limited location in such a form in all of infinite time and boundless space, continues outside this world of physical forms.  The body begins its own dissolution, the spirit continues its own analysis, but the story ends for the two of them together.

Rot is the smell of the world reclaiming its due and collecting its own spare resources for other purposes.  Sure, it smells toxic and wrong to us, not only because we’ve evolved to avoid it for health and survival reasons, but because it reminds us that, as living bodies, that is something that we’re not yet ready for, and something that we won’t necessarily be around to witness once it happens to ourselves.  Rot is something that happens when you’re already shinde iru; it is not the smell of shinu, although it may be a reminder of it.

Yet, look what happens when rot is not allowed to happen.  Consider the Red Forest in the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone; the leaves from the trees there do not rot, due to the toxic radiation they’ve all been exposed to.  Things there persist long after they have any right to, just as bodies preserved with formaldehyde or encased in glacial ice for millennia.  These are things that cannot return to the world; they may as well be ejected by rockets from the Earth as space junk, lost and unusable to the world forever, except they linger on posing a space-wasting and ecological threat of disaster to everything around it, like a cancer in the body unwilling to be flushed out by its neighboring cells.  They cannot undergo the total process of life.  See, also, why zombies and the undead generally cannot be permitted in the world, as they take something already in the process of life-after-death (rot) and hijack it.  Either the zombie in question continues to rot, leaving its new consciousness to die a new death, or the zombie is preserved against rot and cannot continue the process of life proper; unnatural, to be sure.

The smell of rot tells me (besides the fact that I need to air out my basement more) that death is always around me.  Rot is a necessary and natural part of all these physical bodies: things that are made (created) to die that are also things that are made (forced) to die.  Rot is the “Kilroy Was Here” graffiti that Death leaves behind; it is the trash collector routine of the CPU of the world we inhabit.  Yet rot does not show me what Death is.

Greek Onomancy: The Sphere of Democritus and the Circle of Petosiris

I don’t consider all systems of divination to be equal.  More specifically, I don’t consider all that is considered to be divination to be actual divination.  Geomancy, Tarot, augury, extispicy, horary astrology, and the like are divination systems to me: the interpretation of omens from physically random, spiritually determined sources by means of inspiration and technique.  This is distinguished from prophecy or clairvoyance, which is sheer revelation of messages or sights from the gods, and it’s likewise distinguished from purely mechanical methods of prediction, such as economic and weather forecasts derived from mathematical formulae alone.  All these things, however, share something in common: revelations about the future.  As a diviner, I find this an extraordinarily useful field of magic and occultism, and one of the things I insist those who are interested in magical practices to investigate first.

However, I don’t rank numerology among useful methods of divination or prediction.  I never have, and I doubt I’ll ever ascribe it the same level of predictive power or flexibility as, say, geomancy, and I put numerological methods of divination in the same category as phrenology, palm reading, and other forms of physiognomy.  Something about the use of fixed factors in divination irks me, especially when it comes to matters of names, number, and the body.  Then again, I consider my natal horoscope in astrology to provide useful information, and I do consider haruspicy to be worthwhile; I suppose some fixed factors can be used in divination, if applied judiciously enough.  Moreover, even if I don’t consider such methods to be the most reliable or trustworthy, I’d appear to be in the minority with that view, considering how much of the old literature dating back to Hellenistic times is devoted to these topics.

One of the most well-known and well-used forms of numerological divination involved the isopsephia, or Greek gematria, of a person’s name in determining their health or lack thereof.  Divination was heavily used as a prognostic tool in medicine up even through the Renaissance and early modern times, sometimes through pre-modern medical means like uromancy, sometimes through astrology, and sometimes through numerology.  One such method of numerological divination using names, sometimes called “onomancy”, involves determining whether a patient will live or die from their illness based on their name and the date on which they fell ill.  Although my resources are scant, mostly coming from some Gutenberg texts and the PGM, let me describe two (or three) ways Greek name divination was used with isopsephy to determine how a given matter would turn out.

A few notes first:

  • When we say “the day on which the person fell ill”, we mean the lunar date starting with the Noumenia.  Thus, if someone fell ill three days after the Noumenia, then the day number of the lunar month would be 4.  If someone fell ill on the last day of the month, i.e. the New Moon, then you’d need to check whether that month had 29 or 30 days.  We note the day that someone fell ill based on when they took to rest; for us modern people, that might be the first morning we just couldn’t get out of bed to go to work or class if we were feeling okay the night before, or the very day we suddenly fell nauseated and went home to rest from the office or school.
  • Obviously, given the advance of modern medicine, people don’t tend to get sick as severely or as fatally as they used to (but who knows, that’ll probably change given the end of useful antibiotics and the rise of superbacteria looming over us).  While it’s possible someone could always die from an illness (gotta love human mortality!), consider the more dire warnings given by these divination methods to be something indicating a chronic, debilitating, or acute disease, while the more mild warnings something comparably mild to endure.
  • In mathematical notation, the percent sign (%) used as an operator indicates the “modulo” operation.  While the division mark (÷) indicates division, the modulo mark indicates the remainder.  So, 28 ÷ 9 = 3.333… or 3 with 1 as a remainder, while 28 % 9 = 1.

The first is the Sphere of Democritus, a prognostic technique from PGM XII.351.  This technique determines whether a sick person will live or die based on their name and the calendar date that they fell sick.  First, calculate the isopsephic value of the person’s name and add to it the day of the lunar month on which they fell sick, took to bed, or called out of work.  Once this sum has been found, divide this sum by 30 and take the remainder.  The text gives a rectangular chart divided into two parts; if the remainder is in the upper part, the person will live, but if in the lower part, the person will die.

fig3-hi

  • They will live if the remainder is 1, 2, 3, 4, 7, 9, 10, 11, 13, 14, 16, 17, 19, 20, 23, 25, 26, or 27.
  • They will die if the remainder is 5, 6, 8, 12, 15, 18, 21, 24, 22, 28, 29, or 30.

So, let’s say it’s 200 AD, and my name is actually polyphanes (Πολυφανης), and it’s a few days before the full moon, say the 12th of the lunar month.  I suddenly get a fever and I decide to go to bed, and a healer-magician comes by and runs some tests.  The isopsephy of my name is 1339, and added to the day number 12, this yields 1351.  1351 % 30 = 1, and we find 1 in the upper portion of the Sphere.  Good news!  I’ll be fine.

The next method is the Circle of Petosiris, which was popular enough back in the day to take several forms.  I found two such methods which are essentially the same to each other and to the Sphere of Democritus, but the level of detail is different.  The idea, however, is the same, at least for the first Circle of Petosiris: take the isopsephic value of the person’s name and add it to the day number of the lunar month on which they fell ill.  However, instead of taking the sum and dividing by 30, here we divide by 29 and find the remainder.  Instead of just determining whether someone will live or die, we get more detail:

fig1-hi

 

  • Great life: 2, 3, 7, 9, 11,
  • Average life: 13, 14, 16, 17, 19, 20
  • Short life: 22, 23, 26, 28,
  • Short death: 1, 25, 27, 29
  • Average death: 4, 10, 15, 18, 21, 24
  • Great death: 5, 6, 8, 12

Let’s say that, once more, I’m sick and instead of calling over the healer-magician from before, I call over a different magician who uses the Circle of Petosiris instead of the Sphere of Democritus. Again, the isopsephy of my name is 1339, and added to the day number 12, this yields 1351.  1351 % 29 = 17, and we find 17 in the “average life” section of the Circle.  Good news!  I’ll live reasonably well once I recover without too much a threat of relapse.

The second Circle of Petosiris is more complicated, however, and involves a slightly different method than the first Circle of Petosiris and the Sphere of Democritus.  Generally speaking, however, the technique used for the first Circle can also be used for the Second, dividing by 30 instead of 29, but with a slightly different arrangement of numbers:

fig2-hi

 

  • Great life (speedy recovery): 11, 10, 9, 7, 3, 2
  • Small life (recovery within seven days): 22, 23, 26, 28
  • Small death (destroyed within seven days): 27, 25, 30, 1
  • Great death (speedy death): 12, 8, 5, 6
  • Brightness (vertical line above horizon): 13, 14, 16, 17, 19, 20
  • Darkness (vertical line below horizon): 4, 15, 18, 21, 24, 29

Another method can be used in this Circle such that one takes the isopsephic remainder of the person’s name divided by 30 and compared against the day number of the lunar month on which they fell ill.  These are then both compared against each other.  If both numbers are in Brightness, the combination promises a good figure; if both in Darkness, an unfortunate one.  If the day number of the lunar month is Bright and the number of the person Dark, then misfortune will occur under the pretense of fortune; if the number of the person is Bright and the day number of the month is Dark, the person will do well eventually though they’ll be in danger.  This method is extended more generally such that if one number or the other or both are above the horizon or below, we can get similar answers, though the Bright and Dark numbers themselves appear to be middling between “great life/death” and “small life/death”.

Once more, I’m sick and instead of calling over the healer-magician from before, I call over a different healer who’s much fancier in his techniques and who uses the this second Circle of Petosiris instead of the other methods. Again, the isopsephy of my name is 1339, and added to the day number 12, this yields 1351.  1351 % 30 = 1, and we find 1 in the “small death” section, where I might die within seven days due to the illness.  However, if we compare the numbers of my name and the number of the lunar date, then we compare 1339 % 30 = 19 against 12; 19 is Bright (above the horizon) and 12 is Dark (below the horizon).  All told, this will be reasonably chancey for me, but I should be able to live and get through this with enough help, though I’ll be in danger of dying all the same.

The “lobes” around the edge of the Circle are, starting at the 9 o’ clock position and going clockwise, indicate both the course of the Sun around the Earth in a single day as well as the four elements:

  1. Midnight (Arctic stars over the earth)
  2. Fire
  3. Sunrise (Rising above the earth)
  4. Air
  5. Noon (Midday over the earth)
  6. Water
  7. Sunset (Setting under the earth)
  8. Earth

The octants on the inner circle say much the same thing, though these are really quadrants, since each pair of octants has the same text.  Much as with the outer lobes, these use astronomical phenomena to describe times of day, though some of them don’t make sense (the Arctic stars only ever stay in the north).  Starting at the upper left quadrant and going clockwise:

  1. Nighttime (Arctic stars over the northern earth)
  2. Daytime (Midday over the northern earth)
  3. Nighttime (Midday under the southern earth)
  4. Daytime (Arctic stars under the southern earth)