On Geomancy as Actually Being Earthy

I’ll be honest with you.  I don’t actually think geomancy is nearly as earthy as people make it out to be.

Yes, the word “geomancy” comes from Greek γεωμαντεια, literally “earth-seeing”.  Yes, St. Isidore of Seville and Hugh of St. Victor, two philologists and academics of the medieval era, list geomancy as a form of divination alongside other elemental forms of divination (although St. Isidore lived and wrote about geomancy several centuries before we have records of it ever being practiced).  However, I think this is glossing over something very important.  If you look at the history of the word geomancy, the Greek word was a calque (literal word-for-word translation) from the Arabic term for it, `ilm al-raml, which literally means “science of the sand”.  This is in reference to the way the first geomancers practiced their art, by drawing out the figures and dots and lines in sand or loose, fine soil as would have been done by shepherds and holy men in the desert climates of the Sahara.  Thus, sand being the “earth” of the Arabs, I suppose it’s reasonable to translate `ilm alm-raml literally as “earth-seeing”.

The problem with this is that people have taken the word and gone into some pretty crazy directions with it.  For one, the word “geomancy” is haphazardly applied to such varied things as the Chinese art of feng shui (literally “wind and water”, probably more accurately translated as “auspicious designing”) as well as the more modern art of plotting ley lines and places of natural power, which might better be termed “spiritual/occult geography”.  Modern fantasy stories and role-playing games haven’t helped matters any, for that matter, by badly applying any word ending in “-mancy” to a field of magic, such as pyromancy to bending the forces of Fire or geomancy to bending the forces of Earth to cause harm or help with the wave of a wand or utterance of a word of power.  (Alas that I can’t do that…yet.)

Then again, maybe “geomancy” isn’t the best name for this art of divination I practice, either.  In its deepest, oldest, and most tried-and-true sense, geomancy should be just that: earth-seeing, scrying using dirt or rocks or crystal formations in and upon the Earth itself, just as pyromancy is scrying flames or just as hydromancy is scrying the patterns and images that appear in bodies of water.  To use the word “geomancy” implies a strong connection using the natural resources of the Earth that express the element of Earth, and, well…that’s simply not the case with the art called “geomancy”.

To put it simply, geomancy is not based on Earth, but based on the Earth; it’s not about γη the element, but Γη the place we live.  There is, quite literally, a world of difference between the two.

Consider, if you will, a bit of Qabbalah.  The sephirah associated with the Earth is Malkuth, sephirah #10 at the bottom of the Tree of Life.  This sephirah is seen as the distillation and combination, the entire purpose and the entire root of the Tree of Life.  However, while each of the other sephirah are presented as just one color (e.g. red for Geburah, yellow for Tiphareth, green for Netzach), Malkuth is unusual in that it’s presented as four colors all at once: citrine, olive, russet, and black.  This is because Malkuth isn’t a single atomic force, but a combination of the four elements that are Air, Water, Fire, and Earth.  Older European Hermetic depictions of the cosmos as a series of nested spheres often show the Earth as within four spheres of the elements Earth, Water, Air, and Fire all nested within the sphere of the Moon.

Thus, the Earth is the combination of the four elements Fire, Air, Water, and Earth that together make up our world; the Earth is not synonymous with the element Earth.  Similarly, the art called geomancy uses 16 figures that are themselves amalgamations of the four elements, and manipulates them using binary algorithms to figure out what’s going on in the world we live in.  Geomancy doesn’t just deal with the element of Earth, but it deals with those of Fire, Air, and Water equally as much to figure out what’s going on in the world we live in.  Geomancy isn’t about divination with the element of Earth; geomancy is about divination to understand the Earth and what’s going on in this sphere we call “the World”.  Perhaps another, more appropriate word for this art might be κοσμομαντεια, cosmomancy or “cosmos-seeing”.  It’s more inclusive than just using the element of Earth, since we geomancers actually use all four elements in all their combinations, just as the world, or the κοσμος, we live in expresses all the elements in all their combinations.  Alternatively, seeing how we use the four elements in divination, we might also call it στοιχειομαντεια, stoicheiomancy or “element-seeing”, perhaps which can be translated “theoretical alchemical divination”, which isn’t a bad way to summarize the art of geomancy generally.

However, I doubt I’ll be able to shift to using these alternate terms anytime soon, or encourage others to do the same; the word “geomancy” is simply too entrenched into the art over its millennium-long history, and I’m a little fond of how it rolls off the tongue.  Still, I think it’d do the geomantic community well to take another look at the term “geomancy” and remember that it’s not the element of Earth that we focus on, but the world we call the Earth that geomancy relies upon.  Geomancy can be considered “terrestrial astrology”, as Stephen Skinner famously called it; while it does injustice towards the arts of geomancy and astrology alike, it makes sense from an outsider’s point of view.  Astrology is the understanding of the heavens using heavenly bodies and how they affect us; geomancy is the understanding of the World using worldly elements and how they affect us.

Consider this another way, too: when we read the geomantic chart, we start with the Judge and work our way up.  We literally begin at the bottom and look upward.  That’s basically the perspective of everything from the Earth’s point of view; it looks upward from beneath everything, seeing everything from below.  This ties in elegantly with late Renaissance theories of how geomancy “works”; while most geomancers agreed that it was an act of the soul within humans that allowed it to reach out and contact the divine for guidance, it was also played in part by the anima Mundi, or the soul of the world, that gave us the answers.  In contacting the Earth, we learn pretty much everything that happens, has happened, and will happen, and get a pretty down-to-earth (boo) and objective answer.

So, I think I’ll disagree with how the estimable John Michael Greer labeled the art when he titled his first book on geomancy “Earth Divination: Earth Magic”.  Geomancy is far from being divination-by-earth, but should be seen rather as divination-of-the-Earth.  The distinction in nuance here is pretty big, and I think it’d pay off well for us geomancers to reconsider how our art came to be and the forces we’re calling on.  If we’re just calling on the powers and spirits of the element of Earth to help us in geomantic divination and works, then we’re effectively forgetting the other three-quarters of the art that involve the powers and spirits of Fire, Air, and Water.  I think a healthy spiritual approach to this art should remember that fact, and model itself accordingly.

Proper Ritual Terminology

Recently, someone asked me about the differences between invoking, evoking, summoning, banishing, and all that jazz.  As a ceremonial magician, there’s a lot of different ritual I use depending on the need that can fall under different categories, each with a different label.  Then again, much of the ritual is fluid enough to defy categories or change between them with the use of a few different words.  So, let me clarify my stance (and only mine, I dunno how much others may agree with me on this) on the difference between the following words: invocation, evocation, conjuration, summoning, exorcism, banishment.  After all, I seem to be doing so well with clarifying my use of particular words, so why not?

Let me clarify first that much of the distinction drawn between these words is strictly a modern thing.  Traditional sources and grimoires from the medieval and Renaissance eras made no distinction between invoking and evoking, and used these terms interchangeably with conjuring and exorcising.  Because humanity likes to bin and classify everything endlessly, drawing the thickest lines between the smallest groups, and because we’ve inherited a knack for classification from our Platonic and Aristotelian philosophical forefathers, we insist on making these distinctions known.  In my practice, I tend to stick to the broadest, most applicable words used, mostly because these categories are strictly artificial and not always replicable in magical practice.  Ultimately, when working with the spirits, shit either gets done or it doesn’t.  This isn’t engineering where we can always follow the same procedures to obtain the same results, because magic doesn’t work like that, more often than not.

First, let’s talk about the high-level word “conjuration“.  It comes from Latin, literally meaning “swearing together”.  In a conjuration, one makes a pact, agreement, or oath with one or more spirits (or other brand of non-physical entity, that kind of classification can be talked about in a later post).  The oath taken can be just a simple request or a trade of services (you do/give X for me, I do/give Y for you), or something more complicated such as appearing physically in the name of some higher power.  In this sense, “conjuration” is the most general term to be used for any work with spirits.  A similar term is “adjuration“, or “swearing to”, often used to force a spirit to accomplish or do something.  This is a little more forceful and heavy-handed, and is often used in some of the more traditional Catholic or Solomonic rituals to really bind a spirit to the magician’s will.

Similar to conjuration, the word “exorcism” also means “binding by oath”.  It comes from Greek through Latin, originally meaning “to cause to swear”.  Even as late as the Renaissance period, this word was used in the same way as “conjuration” to refer to any ritual where one works with a spirit under some oath, pact, or agreement.  However, as most of these rituals were historically done to get rid of spirits, “exorcism” eventually picked up the meaning of “conjuration so as to banish”.  Since a lot of ritual texts from the Renaissance use “exorcism” and “conjuration” interchangeably, I also consider “exorcism” to be a very high-level broad term though with connotations or implications of getting rid of something.

Speaking of, let’s talk about what “banishment” is.  This is probably the most agreed-upon term of the bunch, and is also the only one of the bunch that has a Germanic origin instead of a Greek or Latin one.  “Banishment” is getting rid of spirits or other entities or energies, depending on your view of magic and models thereof.  Whether this is from one’s own personal sphere or internal world, or from one’s external surroundings and a given place, “banishment” gets rid of, clears out, and bars the entry of spirits into a particular area.  Simple enough, I think, though some people would align “exorcism” to be a kind of banishment; in these cases, “banishing” refers to cleansing one’s sphere and inner world, while “exorcism” is clean an external area or person.  This is certainly a modern meaning of the words, but are fairly interchangeable.

On the other hand, we have the words “summoning“, “invocation“, and “evocation” to refer to rituals that introduce or call up spirits in a particular area.  Of them, “summoning” is the broadest, and refers to calling on any spirit for a particular need; we summon them, they’re present, and then stuff gets done either with or without a charge or pact that would be signified with “conjuration”.  After that, we have “invocation” and “evocation” as two different kinds of summoning, or as synonyms for it.  Going by etymology, the former means “call in” while the latter means “call out”.  Still, more than any other set of terms, these were never seen as different in traditional texts.  I can’t stress this enough: any distinction that might be drawn between them is (as far as I’m aware) purely a modern thing.  Even if it’s a useful distinction for some people to make in theory, it’s ultimately not that big a deal or a difference in practice.

The difference lies in the use of the prefix “in-” versus “e(x)-“.  Some people might distinguish the difference in “invoke” versus “evoke”, especially in non-magical contexts, as a “calling upon a higher power for aid” versus a “calling forth or summoning”.  In magical settings, one might invoke a god for aid but evoke a spirit for a conjuration, perhaps invoking a god to swear by.  Alternatively, one might invoke a power to buff one’s sphere out or imbue oneself with the blessings of a particular spirit, but would evoke a spirit to accomplish things external to one’s sphere and body.  However, this isn’t always the case; the Roman notion of evocation was to call on the gods of an enemy city to abandon them and come to the side of the Romans for aid, which would normally fall under the notion of invoking enemy gods.  Similarly, the old myths have various instances of people invoking the gods for aid and then having the gods appear next to them or otherwise manifest for their external aid, which would often be considered evocation.  Depending on what one expects and one’s magical background, the same ritual might work to produce internal results, external results, or some combination of the two.  As a rule of thumb, one pulls power through an invocation and pulls out spirits through evocation, but this is still a very rough rule that has a lot of exceptions.

Like I mentioned, magical ritual can produce a wide variety of results; there is no laboratory setting or control group to measure effects against, and different people may perceive different effects resulting from the same act.  The old authors and magicians didn’t see much of a difference between many of the terms, and used yet others that we’ve largely forgotten or don’t like anymore (such as “karcist” from Fr.MC’s “Crossed Keys”, or to a lesser extent “exorcist” from any number of old grimoires that have a particularly strong Christian bent).  There are two primary ways of working with spirits: having them come to you in some way or having them leave you in some way.  The specific ritual in question might accomplish either of these aims in any number of ways, depending on tradition or philosophy, but that’s pretty much it.  These categories of ritual simply don’t hold up for any but the most rigidly defined and limited of magical practices, and don’t accomplish much on their own.  I feel like this is a debate for people who study magic more than practice it, anyway.

Labels and Definitions

Granted that a lot of people who practice magic and exploration of the higher realms are pagan nowadays, not all pagans do magic, and not all magicians are pagan.  Magic is something that isn’t tied to any one religion or spiritual path, and magic comes in so many forms, languages, shapes, and contexts that it can never be relegated to any one word or definition.  So, it always confuses me and gives me (longer-than-conversationally-permissible) pause when people ask whether I’m pagan or call me such without checking.

“Pagan” nowadays often refers to polytheistic, earth-centered, environmentally-conscious people.  Although “pagan” is usually synonymous with “Wiccan” in most popular contexts, this is far from being the actual case, with hundreds of varieties of “pagan” out there.  The word “pagan” comes from Latin paganus, meaning “country dweller” or “rustic”, or someone who lives according to an older or less sophisticated way of life.  It’s a blanket term, and synonymous in etymology with the word “heathen”, or “someone living in the heath” or the desolate back country.  Both terms came to mean “not Christian or Jewish”, and are both very broad blanket terms.  In this sense, Buddhists, Hindus, and even Muslims and Mormons (being polytheistic and not trinitarian) may be called “pagan”.  “Neopagan” is an improvement, but doesn’t cover all the bases, either, since it only covers contemporary revivals or new spiritual paths.  What about people who practice Bön on the Tibetan plateau, or the Ainu who practice their own form of animistic faith in northern Japan?  These are certainly pagans, but definitely aren’t neopagans.

Myself?  I consider myself a magician, specifically a Hermetic and/or ceremonial magician.  I don’t really operate in terms of religion or spiritual orthodoxy; instead, I work in terms of practice, experience, and experiments.  I come from a loosely Jewish background, I believe in the One God, and that Christ is an aspect or physical emanation of the Logos or Son of God and/or a pretty cool dude.  I also believe that Muhammad (PBUH), the Bahá’u’lláh, all of the Jewish patriarchs, and the like were prophets ordained by God to do work in his favor, and all likewise pretty cool dudes.  I’m also starting a priesthood role to Hermes, have worked with Avalokiteśvara and Bhaişajyaguru from Vajrayana Buddhism, honor the planets and their attendants, picking up practices with some other gods from the Greek and (as a faint possibility in the future after some chats with friends) Aztec or African pantheons, and work under the tutelage and with the assistance of my Holy Guardian Angel.  I’m so far over the place, hither and thither, that I break a lot of people’s definitions, preconceptions, and labels.  In other words, as befitting my Hermetic nature, I’m a trickster and don’t fit into any one bin, since I’ll just flit right out and into another one.  I’d be like a Schrödinger’s Cat of traditions, except with less neurotoxin.

So, next time you ask what path I’m on?  I won’t have any better of an answer than “I’m working on my own”.