On Mistakes in Divination

A few days ago, I was chatting with one of my good Twitter friends in private messages.  He’s a pretty cool guy, and though I met him through a few mutual furry contacts we have online, I also found out he was an occultist, so we have fun things to talk about now and again.  He’s been learning geomancy lately (a highly worthwhile endeavor!), and he posed to me a question:

Consider a reading, where the seer fucks up and their dyslexic ass misreads Albus as Fortuna Maior, or got turned around with the meanings of say, Capricorn and Sagittarius.  Would the reading be wrong, or would it be adequate to take that slip as part of the system that produces the interpretation?  And, if the seer realizes their fuckup, should they make a full redaction and correction, or should they make a “transformation” in the reading like old Yin and old Yang in I Ching readings?

He had already guessed what my answer would be, and he was right, but he still wanted to know what my thoughts were.  It was a pretty fruitful discussion for us both, and I want to share some of the insights from that conversation more publicly.  And no, I’m not upset with him!  It just turns out that I have some Thoughts and Opinions in where we differ, and I think these are good things to talk about here.

I know that there are some diviners who everything that happens in a reading, whether in geomancy or in another system entirely, as omens of significance.  Like, say you’re shuffling a deck of Tarot cards for your usual spread, and a card slips out of the deck and falls face-up.  Some people say that that card is important and should be interpreted like any card in the spread itself; I hope he can correct me if I’m wrong, but I think it was Gordon White from Rune Soup who said something along the lines of “the only thing that card means is that you’re bad at shuffling”—and that’s a viewpoint I agree with (and if he didn’t say that or doesn’t agree with it, then I guess we disagree).  I don’t take all omens in a divination reading that relies on a divination system (i.e. a process with rules and standards and checks and skill) as significant, but only those that are produced according to the system within the boundaries of the system.  There’s a place and a role for intuition to play in divination, to be sure, but when it comes to mistakes, well…mistakes are just that: mistakes.

Without any exaggeration, I can claim that geomancy is a mathematical form of divination: geomancy relies on binary processes of addition and recursion using the binary structure of the 16 geomantic figures to produce a chart.  And there aren’t an infinite number of charts, nor are there 16! (2.092279 × 1013) different charts, or even more than that.  In fact, there are far fewer charts: only 65,536 (164) possible charts are permitted within the mathematical rules of geomancy.  By definition, any chart that does not fall into one of those 65,536 charts is not a valid chart, and there are multiple ways of checking to make sure a chart is valid.  So, you can’t have a chart where all four Mother figures are all Populus and have any other figure in the chart that isn’t Populus; such a chart just isn’t possible, any more than there could be a Tarot spread with three Empresses in a row or a horoscope where Venus opposes the Sun.  Such impossible charts are inherently invalid, and indicate that there was a mistake in your mathematics when calculating the chart; the proper approach isn’t to inspect the chart as it was drawn, but to go back and fix your error so you have a correct chart to look at.  Heck, although it wasn’t said so bluntly, there are some texts that say that “if the Judge is an odd figure, the chart is cursed and must be thrown out”; in a mathematically valid chart, the Judge must always be an even figure (containing an even number of points, e.g. Fortuna Maior with 6 points), so if you have one with an odd Judge (e.g. Puer with 5 points), that means you made a mistake.

But here’s the thing: you can make a mistake in multiple places in the chart, and a mistake anywhere in the chart means that the whole chart gets messed up.  The only four truly independently-generated figures there are in a geomantic chart, where the four figures have no inherent relationship to each other, are the four Mothers.  The Daughters rely on the Mothers, the Nieces rely on the Mothers and the Daughters, the Witnesses rely on the Nieces (and thus the Mothers and Daughters), the Judge relies on the Witnesses (and thus the Nieces, and thus the Mothers and Daughters), and the Sentence relies on the First Mother as well as the Judge (and thus, ultimately, the Four Mothers).  A mistake in the chart in the Daughters, Nieces, Witnesses, or Court indicates that there’s a break in the calculation that causes the whole chart to become invalid.  In other words, any of the figures from the fifth figure (First Daughter) to the sixteenth (Sentence) relies on all the other figures to be correct; if one figure is calculated wrong, even if it doesn’t impact the rest of the figures in the chart, it still means that the whole chart is off.

Now, on the rare occasion, I have seen some people in the geomancy Facebook group I admin post a chart that has a mistake in it, and generally one of the community will be sharp and fast enough to point out that mistake.  However, there is the rare time now and again that someone will still want to interpret the invalid, erroneous chart, because “well, that’s what they made in the moment”.  Like…I get it, but that’s not how geomancy works.  Geomancy is a system, a body of (more or less) well-defined and well-understood rules that must be applied for it to be considered “geomancy”.  To break those rules is to break the system, and you end up in the realm of “undefined behavior”, which doesn’t give you a lot to stand on besides pure intuition.  And geomancy, while making use of intuition, cannot simply rely on it in favor of the actual rules that keep things grounded in the actual art and practice of geomancy.

Now, to be sure and to be fair, there is absolutely a role for intuition in geomancy!  This is where we can explore our connection to the Divine and plumb its depths in order to come up with true and truly artful interpretations that pull every ounce and gram of nuance and detail out of a chart, even a single figure or a single passation of a figure from one house to another.  But that connection must be solid in order for it to be of use, and you still have to be sure you’re looking at the right things.  I’ve seen people in a variety of settings whose intuitions are strong, but not strong enough to not be swayed by what they’re looking at; it’s often what they’re looking at that kickstarts or unlocks their intuition, so if what they’re looking at is wrong, then while they might be getting messages, it’ll end up being a case of garbage-in garbage-out.  And that gets nobody anywhere good.  Sure, there are times where your intuition or spirit guides or what-have-you will kick in strong and give you ultimately-right answers with a fundamentally wrong chart, essentially covering for your mistakes, but it’s not guaranteed, it’s not trustworthy, it’s not reliable, and it’s still a problem because you made a mistake and didn’t spot or correct it.

So much for the chart, but there is a way for the Mothers to be wrong, too!  Recall that, of all the various ways to generate figures, the oldest and most traditional method is the stick-and-surface method: the geomancer takes some marking instrument (stick, staff, wand, pen, pencil, finger, etc.) and a markable surface (sand, dirt, paper, wax tablet, electronic tablet, etc.) and makes 16 rows of randomly-generated marks from right to left, then counts them off two-by-two until either one or two marks are left in a row.  Those leftover marks, read in succession from the top down and clustered into four groups of four, are what give you your four Mother figures.  The trick is to be able to make those marks clearly and distinctly enough when you’re in the throes of that geomantic diviner’s trance so that, when you’re later counting them, you can clearly count exactly how many marks you made.  The soul is moved to make those marks through the use of the body, but if you can’t read what the soul was actually doing, then there wasn’t enough control over the body to make that connection clear.  So, if you ended up reading two points as one (if the two marks were made too closely together), or if you ended up counting an extra point where there shouldn’t have been, then you got a bad Mother where you might end up with Fortuna Maior instead of Albus or vice versa, and that’s something that’s super hard to check for, and not at all possible based on the chart that uses those Mothers.  You need to carefully inspect the actual marks you made when using the stick-and-surface method to make sure you actually recorded what you were supposed to get.  (It’s because of this difficulty and honing of the use of the body, in addition to practicing that diviner’s trance, that I recommend people to start with the stick-and-surface method and become adept at it before going on to any other method of generating Mothers.)

So what about those who use the stick-and-surface method to generate figures?  Sure, humans may not be perfect dot-making or dot-reading machines, but c’mon.  If you’re not able to make or read dots well enough to avoid mistakes, then you need to get better at making and reading dots.  If you’re a geomancer who has the querent themselves make the dots for making the Mothers (and this is a thing!), well…maybe don’t let them make dots, but have them use another tool or method instead, like throwing dice or drawing cards to generate Mothers.  Or, heck, instead of making dots, I might instead recommend making short vertical notches, which are easier to read and mark rather than dots, which can get pretty sloppy.  Sure, we might not be perfect at making or reading dots, but it’s not about the dots themselves—it’s about trying to understand what the motions of the soul were trying to communicate through making the dots, not what the dots are literally saying themselves.  The dots must be inspected carefully to make sure the motions of the soul that produced them is understood, and any mistake in translating there means that that connection is disrupted, and the omens that follow will be misread.

Basically, what it comes down to is this: if there’s an error in the calculation of the chart or in the generation of the Mothers, then that’s on you to notice and to fix, then start interpreting the correct chart.  Consider a library, where each book is a particular destiny or fate for individual queries put to divination, and you want to find the book for the specific query the querent in front of you is asking; the geomantic chart is the call number for that book.  If you have the right call number, then you have the right book, and all you need to do is read from it; easy enough!  But if you have the wrong call number, then you’ll get the wrong book which won’t speak to the query put to divination by the querent—heck, you may end up with a call number for a book that doesn’t even exist.  This is why it’s crucial to make sure that we calculate the chart correctly, because if we don’t, we’re not going to get a chart that properly responds to the query put to divination: any mistake that occurs in the calculation of the chart will mess with the interpretation of the chart.

And that’s a whole other level to worry about, too!  Even if you have the chart mathematically correct, you can still mess up in the interpretation of the chart, like if you misread Fortuna Maior for Fortuna Minor or if you thought that Amissio was a figure of Mercury instead of Venus.  As a geomancer, you need to make sure that you know your symbols well enough to at least avoid major blunders in their interpretation.  These symbols are a thousand years old and are known across the Old World from Morocco to Mumbai, from Madagascar to Murmansk, and though there are definitely variations in how some geomancers or how some traditions of geomancy interpret them, the core meanings are the same no matter where you turn.  To make an egregious error in thinking that Caput Draconis talks about death or that Amissio talks about great gains in wealth is to show that you’re not getting the right information, and that will mess up the interpretation accordingly.  Just because you say things that are wrong doesn’t mean they become right because you’re “in the zone” and getting lost in the moment of talking; it just means you’re wrong and getting carried away with yourself.

My friend countered that the interpretation of a geomantic chart should embrace our imperfections and slips of reading or memory, but I countered with the metaphor of a doctor measuring someone’s blood pressure.  If their blood pressure meter is broken, the wrong numbers will result; if the blood pressure meter uses the wrong-sized armband, the wrong numbers will result; if the doctor mentally flips the numbers so that the systolic pressure is read on the bottom and the diastolic pressure on the top, the wrong numbers will result.  And wrong numbers means that the doctor is going to get a bad understanding and could gauge the person to be healthy when they’re not, or that they’re in danger when they’re fine.  Let’s not kid ourselves here: this kind of mistake can kill someone, and such a mistake cannot be tolerated or allowed by the doctor, so the doctor must make sure that the blood pressure meter is working and calibrated properly, that they’re using the right equipment for their patient, and that they’re reading and properly understanding the numbers that result.  The doctor cannot afford mistakes in tending to their patient, and neither can we, as diviners, afford mistakes in tending to our querents.  When people come to us for divination, they sometimes come to us to save their lives.  Divination can often be a matter of literal life and death for some people who know it, and more’s the pity, those who aren’t even aware of it yet.  There should be absolutely no expense spared in effort, skill, practice, study, or tools to make sure that everything in our divination readings is absolutely correct as possible, including making our calculations and double-, triple, even quadruple-checking them according to the rules within our system.  The rules of geomancy, when aided (but not replaced) by intuition, are what ensures that it work, so we need to make sure we understand the system at work.

To use another medical metaphor, consider someone coming to you for herbal medicine.  Ideally and hopefully, you can get a good read on the person and their symptoms and you know your herbs well enough to give them a particular kind of herbal concoction to help them improve themselves.  Sometimes, we can rely on intuition or spiritual guidance to pick the herbs for us, passing our hands over our jars and bundles and going “mmm…yes, this one feels right for you”.  But let’s be honest: if you don’t have a good grasp of your patient’s symptoms, or if they’re not telling you all their symptoms, or if you misremember certain properties of herbs or don’t know them to begin with, you can make a mistake in the medicine you give them that could poison them, incapacitate them, or otherwise make their situation worse.  I don’t care how strong someone’s intuition is: if my goal is to help someone, then the least I can do is to do no harm, so I’m going to do whatever I can to make sure I can at least hit that bare minimum threshold, which requires me to make sure I don’t make mistakes in what I do.  People come to us diviners for help, and it’s our job as diviners to help them and not hurt them; thus, it’s of paramount importance that everything in my divination work be done as properly and correctly as possible.  Heck, I’ll still pull out my notes and reference books when doing divinations; even if I think I know the figures and rules after ten years of constant use and study, I’ll still double-check and cross-check myself to make sure I’m on a good path with what I’m doing.  Making mistakes, honest or careless or with good intentions or otherwise, is still making mistakes, and that’s not something we can tolerate, nor is it anything I would take a chance with.

Now, sure, if geomancy were a more free-form kind of divination that relies far more on intuition, like bone-throwing or fire-scrying or trance states of remote viewing or possession, then this would all be a moot point, because pure intuition (so long as that connection is strong and clear) doesn’t have rules that can be broken.  Likewise, forms of divination that are developed on-the-spot or that have rules that can be bent or tossed aside in the moment, like some kinds of bone-throwing or nonce Tarot spreads, don’t have this issue, again because there are no rules that keep things correct, because it’s going to be correct by default.  And, of course, there are forms of divination that are strictly omen-based, like Roman augury, where you must inspect everything that happens or everything that is said as being of potential significance!  But geomancy isn’t like those forms of divination; geomancy has rules, and we use those rules and systems to enhance and ground our intuition, not the other way around.

Now, I don’t want to be misunderstood here: I’m not trying to say that geomancy is just about the rules, because it’s not, nor that there is no role that intuition plays, because there absolutely is.  Technique and intuition go hand-in-hand with geomancy, as I once said long ago with a beautiful metaphor based on Bernadette Brady’s Predictive Astrology: The Eagle and the Lark, and the dumbing-down of geomancy that reduced it only to a rule-based system ended up in the cultural forgetting and setting-aside of geomancy in favor of more intuitive methods of divination like Tarot that we saw in the West.  Intuition helps reach where rules cannot, but let’s be clear here: it really is the rules that do the bulk of the work in geomantic divination, and if you falter in the understanding or application of the rules, your intuition may not be enough to cover the distance that you’re falling short of.  Yes, there are times where intuition can do just that, and I’m not saying that it can’t or doesn’t; there are times when we’re so plugged in to the querent and tuned in to the query that we can clearly see without the use of geomancy, or that we can get at obscure meanings of the figures that don’t normally apply because of the peculiarities of a given situation.  However, if you’re using a system composed of rules like geomancy, and unless you’re a professional medium or clairvoyant or honest-to-gods psychic, you can’t always rely on that helping you out when you make a mistake, nor can you always be certain that your connection is 100% clear and strong enough to do so—and if you do have such a strong intuitive connection, then chances are you don’t need geomancy anyway.  Even so, geomancy is still more technique-based than intuition-based, and although intuition plays a role in refining and aiming the rules of geomancy, it’s still the rules of geomancy themselves that point us in the right direction to begin with, so we need to make sure that we’re facing the right way to see in that way.

Remember: an honest mistake is still a mistake, and mistakes can be costly.

A Simple PGM Invocation to the Supreme Intelligence

Recently on my Curious Cat (which has been an ongoing thing that delights me endlessly, some 3300 questions later!), I was asked a simple question: “Do you know if in PGM there’s some sort of invocation of the Nous?”  Off the top of my head, I couldn’t recall any, given that the Nous is something more of a Hermetic and Platonic entity than anything typically common in the PGM, so I got out my copy and started searching through it for anything resembling it.  As it turns out, there is actually a short invocation along these lines to the Nous in the PGM that I wanted to explore a bit, especially in the slightly expanded context of where it appears.

Let’s look at PGM V.459ff, a short prayer found in see British Museum Papyrus 46, folio 7, both recto and verso.  This is my rendition of the prayer, using Betz’s version of the PGM as a base and transliterating the barbarous words back into Greek:

I call upon you who created earth and bones and all flesh and all spirit and who established the sea and suspended the heavens,
who separated the light from the darkness,
the Supreme Intelligence who lawfully administers all things!
Eternal Eye, Daimon of Daimons, God of Gods, the Lord of the Spirits,
ΑΙΩΝ ΙΑΩ ΟΥΗΙ who cannot go astray!
Hear my voice!

I call upon you, Master of the Gods, high-thundering Zeus, sovereign Zeus: ΑΔΩΝΑΙ
Lord: ΙΑΩ ΟΥΗΕ
I am he who calls upon you, great god, in Syrian: ΖΑΑΛΑΗΡ ΙΦΦΟΥ
You must not ignore my voice in Hebrew: ΑΒΛΑΝΑΘΑΝΑΛΒΑ ΑΒΡΑΣΙΛΩΑ
For I am ΣΙΛΘΑΧΩΟΥΧ ΛΑΙΛΑΜ ΒΛΑΣΑΛΩΘ ΙΑΩ ΙΕΩ ΝΕΒΟΥΘ ΣΑΒΙΟΘ ΑΡΒΩΘ ΑΡΒΑΘΙΑΩ ΙΑΩΘ ΣΑΒΑΩΘ
ΠΑΤΟΥΡΗ ΖΑΓΟΥΡΗ
ΒΑΡΟΥΧ ΑΔΩΝΑΙ ΕΛΩΑΙ ΙΑΒΡΑΑΜ
ΒΑΡΒΑΡΑΥΩ ΝΑΥΣΙΦ

High-minded one, immortal one, who possess the crown of the whole world!
ΣΙΕΠΗ ΣΑΚΤΙΕΤΗ ΒΙΟΥ ΒΙΟΥ ΣΦΗ ΣΦΗ ΝΟΥΣΙ ΝΟΥΣΙ ΣΙΕΘΟ ΣΙΕΘΟ ΧΘΕΘΩΝΙ ΡΙΓΧ
ΩΗΑ Η ΗΩΑ ΑΩΗ ΙΑΩ
ΑΣΙΑΛ ΣΑΡΑΠΗΟΛΣΩ ΕΘΜΟΥΡΗΣΙΝΙ ΣΕΜ ΛΑΥ ΛΟΥ ΛΟΥΡΙΓΧ

The same, but with the barbarous words in my transcription:

I call upon you who created earth and bones and all flesh and all spirit and who established the sea and suspended the heavens,
who separated the light from the darkness,
the Supreme Intelligence who lawfully administers all things!
Eternal Eye, Daimon of Daimons, God of Gods, the Lord of the Spirits,
AIŌN IAŌ ŪĒI who cannot go astray!
Hear my voice!

I call upon you, Master of the Gods, high-thundering Zeus, sovereign Zeus: ADŌNAI
Lord: IAŌ ŪĒE
I am he who calls upon you, great god, in Syrian: ZAHALAĒR IPH-PHŪ
You must not ignore my voice in Hebrew: ABLANATHANALBA ABRASILŌA
For I am SILTHAKHŪKH LAILAM BLASALŌTH IAŌ IEŌ NEBŪTH SABIOTH ARBŌTH ARBATHIAŌ IAŌTH SABAŌTH
PATŪRĒ ZAGŪRĒ
BARŪKH ADŌNAI ELŌAI I-ABRAHAM
BARBARAUŌ NAUSIPH

High-minded one, immortal one, who possess the crown of the whole world!
SIEPĒ SAKTIETĒ BIŪ BIŪ SPHĒ SPHĒ NŪSI NŪSI SIETHO SIETHO KHTHETHŌNI RINKH
ŌĒA Ē ĒŌA AŌĒ IAŌ
ASIAL SARAPĒOLSŌ ETHMŪRĒSINI SEM LAU LOU LOURINKH

There’s a short note at the end in the usual PGM style referring to the use of the above invocation: “it loosens shackles, makes invisible, sends dreams; a spell for gaining favor.  Add the usual for what you want.”  The prayer has no other information associated with it, though it is prefixed with the label “Another way”; however, the preceding entry (PGM V.447ff) gives a ritual for a talismanic ring of Serapis for dream divination, so it doesn’t seem to be related to that, though given that the previous ritual is to Serapis (originally spelled “Sarapis”) and given the barbarious word ΣΑΡΑΠΗΟΛΣΩ (SARAPĒOLSŌ, as in Serapis; Betz and Preisendanz give this as two separate words, ΣΑΡΑΠΙ ΟΛΣΩ, but the scan of Papyrus 46 shows it as one word as given above) in the final line of this invocation, I may be mistaken, and that this invocation could also be used for dream divination.  For reference, the preceding ritual in PGM V.447ff prescribes the following:

  • Procure a “jasperlike agate” stone for setting into a ring.
  • Engrave on the front of the stone an image of Serapis seated and facing forwards holding an Egyptian royal scepter (a was scepter?) with an ibis atop the scepter, and on the reverse of the stone the name Serapis.
  • Set the stone into a ring (perhaps even have it so that the stone itself is completely encased and hidden within the ring?) and keep it secret and hidden away from anyone and everyone until you need to use the ring.
  • When you need to perform dream divination:
    • Wear the ring on the index finger of your left hand; in your right hand, hold a spray of olive and laurel twigs.
    • Wave the twigs towards “the lamp” while saying “the spell” seven times.
    • Without speaking to anyone, go to sleep, holding the ring to your left ear (perhaps most easily achieved by sleeping on your left side).

Oddly, PGM V.447ff doesn’t introduce “the lamp” or “the spell”, and this ritual seems well and truly disconnected from the preceding PGM V.370ff, which also doesn’t have a lamp, and the invocations there have nothing to do with this.  This makes me think that PGM V.447ff and V.459ff are actually part of the same ritual; the only thing that distinguishes them is the “Another way” that precedes the invocation from the latter, which is only present in the original PGM manuscript by a little squiggle on the left margin.  This same symbol, with the same “translation”, is present elsewhere in PGM V (like immediately before PGM V.172ff which follows the famous Headless Rite, folio 3 recto); granted, I’m no expert in Koiné Greek manuscript deciphering, but I’m a little doubtful of this meaning here.  I think it’s proper, rather, to read PGM V.447ff and V.459ff as one single ritual entirely, which would then mean that these two separate PGM entries are related, and that Serapis is a common factor in both; after all, the description of the invocation at the end does say that it “sends dreams”, which is exactly what the previous PGM entry aims to accomplish.

So, let’s think about both of these PGM entries, and combine them together a little more concretely.  If the whole ritual is designed to send prophetic dreams, then this is the process I would recommend.

  1. Procure a “jasperlike agate” stone, an oil lamp with a clean wick and pure oil, and a spray of olive and laurel twigs or branches.
  2. Engrave on the front of the stone an image of Serapis seated and facing forwards holding a royal scepter with an ibis atop the scepter, and on the reverse of the stone the name “Serapis” (ΣΕΡΑΠΙΣ).
  3. Either set the stone into a ring (preferably gold) or wrap it in a long band of clean, white linen.
  4. In the evening after sunset, light the lamp, and face east.
  5. With the ring on your left index finger, or with the stone bound to your left index finger with the linen wrap, hold the olive and laurel sticks in your right, and wave them in a clockwise circle towards the lamp.  While doing so, recite the invocation above seven times.
  6. Go to bed with the lamp lit, saying nothing more to anyone or for any purpose, and sleep on your left side facing the east and head pointed to the north with the ring/stone by your left ear.

In the above, a “jasperlike agate” is a little weird, since both jasper and agate are the same material (chalcedony), with the only difference being how translucent (agate) or opaque (jasper) they are.  In this case, “jasperlike agate” to me would be a chalcedony stone that is only barely translucent and mostly opaque, perhaps with only the barest of striations or bands in it.  Likewise, the scepter with an ibis on it could be a little difficult to understand; it could be the famous was-scepter, or the heka-scepter, i.e. the crook from the crook-and-flail combination.  Alternatively, given that the was-scepter itself is a rod with a stylized animal’s head on top of it, one could simply make an “ibis-scepter”, with the head of an ibis on a rod being held…though, with the long curve of the ibis beak, this would make it look awfully like a crook unto itself.

So that’s all well and good, I suppose, but what I really wanted to talk about is the invocation itself.  The whole reason why it came to my attention was the phrase “Supreme Mind” (ὁ μέγας Νοῦς, ho mégas Noûs), which is what the original anon on Curious Cat was after; the only other instances of this entity being present in the PGM are in PGM XIII (aka “the Eighth and Tenth Hidden Books of Moses”, the origin of the Heptagram Rite), but it’s more in a cosmogony/narrative sense than any invocation or ritual.  In Betz’s version, “Supreme Mind” is tagged with a footnote, that “[t]he concept of the divine Nus (Mind) is an influence from Greek philosophy”, followed by a list of citations where Nous is found in a philosophical-religious sense, including PGM XIII as well as the Corpus Hermeticum.  And it is most certainly true that Nous in the Corpus Hermeticum is a divine entity, sometimes being something divine that divine humans can attain and sometimes being the Divine Itself, so it’s tempting to view this particular entry of the PGM as being explicitly Hermetic in the Corpus Hermeticum sense.  The issue with that conclusion, however, is that I’m not sure the timeline matches up.  Historically speaking, I’m a fan of the theory that Hermeticism in the sense of the Corpus Hermeticum and related “Hermetic” texts came about as a philosophical-religious movement in the early days (or, really, centuries) of the Roman Empire, so the PGM may be roughly contemporaneous as the Corpus Hermeticum; it could be that this text was influenced by Hermeticism, sure, but it could be equally as likely that it was simply influenced by Platonism and was written either before or concurrently with Hermeticism.

Plus, there’s some other interesting stuff in this prayer I want to consider.  Do you recall our earlier talk about PGM XXIIb.1ff, the “Prayer of Jacob”, which I later redid and rewrote and augmented into a fuller Prayer of the Patriarchs?  That was an interesting bit of work, and certainly has some Hermetic (or close enough) influence, but is also surprisingly Jewish in its approach to divinity.  There’s a bit of that here, too.  There is the explicit call to the Divine (I guess the Nous, equivalent to Zeus as well as Serapis) in Hebrew (ΑΒΛΑΝΑΘΑΝΑΛΒΑ ΑΒΡΑΣΙΛΩΑ, ABLANATHANALBA ABRASILŌA), but there’s also the string of barbarous words ΒΑΡΟΥΧ ΑΔΩΝΑΙ ΕΛΩΑΙ ΙΑΒΡΑΑΜ, BARŪKH ADŌNAI ELŌAI IABRAAM.  (Betz and Preisendanz just give ΑΒΡΑΑΜ, but the scan from Papyrus 46 shows ΙABRAAM.)  It’s clear, even to Betz, that this is just a Greek rendition of the Hebrew barukh [atah] Adonai, “blessed [are you], my Lord” and eloah-i Avraham, “my god of Abraham”, though “it is not clear whether or not the magician understood these words”, especially since ΑΒΛΑΝΑΘΑΝΑΛΒΑ ΑΒΡΑΣΙΛΩΑ are most likely not Hebrew at all.  I mean, much of the Jewish content in the PGM is probably just aped from Jewish tradition and practices, without it being necessarily or properly Jewish in any sense, but the fact that it has a presence at all speaks to the influence of monotheistic and Abrahamic practices, even if just because of a general perception of their power.

As might be expected, many of the other barbarous words have other presences in the PGM, especially ΖΑΓΟΥΡΗ (sometimes along ΠΑΤΟΥΡΗ or ΠΑΓΟΥΡΗ, notably PGM LXXXVIII.1ff), ΛΑΙΛΑΜ, and others.  ΝΕΒΟΥΘ is unusual, in that it’s super close to ΝΕΒΟΥΤ, which starts the barbarous word ΝΕΒΟΥΤΟΣΟΥΑΛΗΘ, which is often found in contexts related to Set or Hekatē.  The first bit of the final set of barbarous words (ΣΙΕΠΗ ΣΑΚΤΙΕΤΗ ΒΙΟΥ ΒΙΟΥ ΣΦΗ ΣΦΗ ΝΟΥΣΙ ΝΟΥΣΙ ΣΙΕΘΟ ΣΙΕΘΟ…) is almost found identically in PGM XIII.734ff as well as in PGM I.232ff, PGM II.64ff, and PGM XII.96ff; there seems to be a regularly reoccuring formula consisted of duplicated words like these.  The “Syrian” name ΖΑΑΛΑΗΡ ΙΦΦΟΥ (Betz and Preisendanz give it as one word, but Papyrus 46 seems to show a space in it) is a weird one, and I can’t find anything resembling it in the rest of the PGM; while I don’t think it’s Aramaic or “Syrian” at all, I think it’d be interesting to see if there is an actual origin for this word, or if there is something close to it in the rest of the PGM, perhaps with some variation of spelling (though I couldn’t find any from the likely variations I came up with).

Given the various types of barbarous words in this invocation, the lack of asking for anything specific within the prayer itself, and how it’s described as a general-purpose invocation, this short little prayer seems to be a good PGM-style approach to invoking the Supreme Intelligence—whether as Zeus, Serapis, Nous, or even the Abrahamic God.  It’s something I want to try incorporating into some of my practices, and maybe even give it a whirl for dream divination itself.

Also, for ease of reference and for those who are interested, I already made a formal ritual page for this: the Divine Illumination of Dreams, accessible through the site menu (Rituals → Classical Hermetic Rituals → Divine Illumination of Dreams).

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Birds.

Huh.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Two Sons of `Iyān: Obscure Chants and Proto-Geomantic Divination

The Two Sons of `Iyān: Obscure Chants and Proto-Geomantic Divination

When it comes to the geomantic scholars of the Western world, there’s few who can touch the research of Dr. Stephen Skinner.  Internationally acclaimed for his work and practice involving feng shui as well as his doctorate-level research and publications on various grimoires and magical texts from the west, he’s also an expert in the practice and history of geomancy.  I first encountered him back in college, probably around 2008 or 2009, through his older, now out-of-print book Terrestrial Astrology: Divination by Geomancy, which has more recently been updated and published under the title Geomancy in Theory & Practice (and, more importantly, with a title that Skinner doesn’t hate, as Terrestrial Astrology was a title he regretted but which his editor insisted on).  This is a simply wonderful text that, although I consider it to be a bit light on the actual practice of geomancy, its true value shines in delving into the evidence, history, lineage, and contextual development of geomancy as a divinatory art in Africa, the Middle East, and Europe from its beginnings around a thousand years ago until today.  (There’s also his older work, The Oracle of Geomancy: Techniques of Earth Divination, which is also long out-of-print and…well, I wasn’t particularly enthused by it, but it’s a solid work of geomancy for its time before other research and experimentation was being done.)

In Terrestrial Astrology as well as Geomancy in Theory & Practice, Skinner opens up the book after the introduction by talking about geomancy and its Arabic origins as `ilm ar-raml, “the science of the sand”, also called khaṭṭ ar-raml, “marking the sand” After clarifying some of the language about it, he describes some of the basic processes used early on in the very nascent stages of geomancy:

For the purpose of divining by khatt al-raml, the diviner, accompanied by an assistant or acolyte, drew with the utmost haste a quantity of lines or ripples in the sand, allowing himself to be carried away, so that he did not know how many lines he had drawn.  Then he slowly wiped out groups of two ripples at a time, whilst his assistant often recited an incantation in Arabic, such as the words: “Ye two sons of ‘Iyan hasten with the explanation!”

The marks they made were joined by other marks (khutut) in order to complete a figure (shakl).  When these figures became stylized, a board was used, which was covered with sand or even flour, and the finger was drawn over it at random; the shapes formed in this way were then examined.  If in the end two lines were left (i.e, there was an even number of lines drawn) then this foretold success.  If however only one line remained (an odd number of lines drawn) then disappointment was certain. Here can be seen the germ of the later and more complex practice, where each line is reduced to odd (only one left) or even (two remaining). In this, the simple form of khatt al-raml, only one set of marks were made, leading straight to a lucky/unlucky prediction.

It’s that reference to “Ye two sons of ‘Iyan” that’s always mystified me.  I could never figure out what or who “‘Iyan” is or was, much less their “two sons”, and Skinner says no more about it in his works, nor is any reference provided for this statement.  Worse, when I emailed the good doctor, he unfortunately said that it’s been so long since this was written (Terrestrial Astrology was published almost 40 years ago!) that he was unable to recall where it might have come from.  Such mysterious figures, perhaps mythological, maybe angelic or even demonic, hailed in a diviner’s chant to induce a trance or stronger, more truthful connection to the art in order to obtain knowledge?  This struck me as being something that should be investigated, but unfortunately, Skinner’s text, identical in both Terrestrial Astrology as well as Geomancy in Theory & Practice, is the only reference to ‘Iyan or their two sons I’ve ever found.  It could be that this was entirely a highly localized or individual practice that Skinner was reporting on, or an extremely esoteric one that was limited and bound up in particular occult practices.

Lately, I’ve been taking another look at this, and I’ve been doing some thinking about it.  What follows is basically extrapolating from very scant knowledge and information here, coupled with a bare-bones knowledge of Arabic grammar and word derivational systems, but I suppose, if we take a look at the name ‘Iyan a bit closer, we might be able to get something.  What follows could well be a wild goose chase which might put me on par with Athanasius Kircher’s attempt to translate Egyptian hieroglyphs (surprise, it didn’t go well).  But, well, what might we find if we look?  Let’s see where we end up.

First, it’s important to note that when Skinner brings up Arabic words or glosses, he’s not always faithful in his transliteration from Arabic to Roman script.  Although the tables at the end of the book have the names of the figures in Arabic written in both Arabic script and in good transliteration, and a number of Arabic names in the endnotes are transliterated with diacritics for long vowels and the like, it’s in the text itself that long vowels aren’t indicated, there’s no standardization of how ‘alif and `ayn are transliterated, and other such problems that make it hard to understand what the original Arabic might have been based on the names given to us.  So, with ‘Iyan, we have several problems:

  • Is the mark before the I supposed to represent an ‘alif or an `ayn?
  • Which vowels are long or short?

It’s impossible to tell what these might be since we have no other information, and I’m no expert in Arabic.  But…well, consider that names typically have meaning of some sort, and the way Arabic works—and Semitic languages generally—is on a delightfully productive system of what’s called “roots” and “patterns”.  There’s this notion of a consonantal root in Semitic languages, usually of three letters but sometimes two and sometimes four, and the root has a general concept associated with it, much like the semantic radical of a Chinese character.  By filling in the consonantal root with particular vowels and appending prefixes, suffixes, and other infixes, a variety of words that give variations on the underlying can be obtained from a single root.  Consider the triliteral (three letter) consonantal root K-T-B, which refers to writing generally:

  • kitab (book)
  • kutub (books)
  • kataba (he wrote)
  • katabat (she wrote)
  • katabtu (I wrote)
  • kutiba (it [m] was written)
  • yaktubna (they [f] write)
  • yatakātabūn (they write to each other)
  • kātib (writer [m])
  • kuttāb (writers)
  • katabat (clerks)
  • maktab (office)
  • makātib (offices)
  • maktabat (library)
  • istaktaba (to cause someone to write something)

The number of derivations goes on and on.  Note how all the words in that list share the root K-T-B, sometimes with one of the consonants doubled (as in kuttāb), sometimes with extra consonants added (as in maktabat).  All these words have something semantically related to the act of writing or something written, which is grounded in the K-T-B root.  Likewise, not just nouns or verbs or adjectives can be derived from roots, but names can, as well.  Consider that the name Muḥammad is derived from the root Ḥ-M-D, generally relating to notions of “praise” or “thanks”; thus, Muḥammad literally means “praiseworthy”, and is related to the commonly-heard phrase “Alḥamdulillāh”, meaning “praise be to God” or “thank God”; this phrase is referred to as ḥamdala, and the recitation of it (like one might for reciting the prayer bead devotion Tasbīḥ Fāṭimah) is taḥmīd.  Again, same triliteral root, but endless words that can be derived from it, all tying to the same thing.

So…what if we were to interpret ‘Iyan as a word that was derived from a consonantal root?  Given how short it is, it’s not like we have a lot of options to choose from.  If we take out the two vowels, I and A, we end up with three consonants, with the first one being unclear between two choices:

  • ‘-Y-N (‘alif  yā’ nūn)
  • `-Y-N (`ayn yā’ nūn)

As it turns out, the first option (starting with ‘alif) isn’t attested as a triliteral root in Arabic, nor in any Semitic language, but the second one (starting with `ayn) is in every one of them. `-Y-N is a root used in Ugaritic, Arabic, Hebrew, Akkadian, Amharic, Syriac, and Aramaic, and is most notable for being the letter `Ayn or `Ayin itself in all the writing systems that derive from the original Phoenician script, and thus is also the origin of the Roman letter O and Greek omikron.  Originally, the Phoenician letter `ayn had the form of a simple circle, much as the Roman letter O is, though its form shifted in the various Semitic languages that used it.  The shape of the letter, and the name and meaning of the letter itself, connote an eye, which ultimately derives from the Egyptian hieroglyph 𓁹 (Gardiner D4), perhaps most famously used for the spelling of the god Osiris.  You can see the evolution of the letter below from its Egyptian origin to its Phoenician (also Greek and Latin) form, its traditional Square Hebrew form, and in its Arabic forms (with all its position variants shown below, with position variant images taken from Arabic Reading Course).

I also note that `ayn is the sixteenth letter of the Phoenician, Hebrew, Aramaic, and Syriac scripts, as well as the sixteenth letter of the traditional Arabic (abjadi) order.  Which…come on, now.  Of all possible letters that we’d end up with, we’d end up with the sixteenth one?  Sixteen, the number of geomantic figures? And on top of that, it also has the numerical value of 70, and if we were to reduce 16, then we get 16 → 1 + 6 = 7.  Which ties it into all the other mysteries of the number seven: seven planets, seven angels, and so forth.  I think we may well be onto something with our idea that this mysterious name could be a derivation from something else.

And, because I was curious, I wanted to look at which of the 99 traditional names of Allāh (really, more like epithets or attributes) in the Islamic tradition, began with the Arabic letter `Ayn.  There are six such names:

  1. Al-`Azīz (الْعَزِيزُ), “The Mighty”
  2. Al-`Alīm (اَلْعَلِيْمُ), “The All-Knowing”
  3. Al-`Adl (الْعَدْلُ), “The Just”
  4. Al-`Aẓīm (الْعَظِيمُ), “The Magnificent”
  5. Al-`Alīy (الْعَلِيُّ), “The Sublime”
  6. Al-`Afūw (العَفُوُّ), “The Pardoner”

It’s name #2, Al-`Alīm, that’s important for us as geomancers.  Along with Al-Khabīr (ٱلْخَبِيرُ), “the All-Aware”, Al-`Alīm is one of the most common names of Allāh used in Arabic geomancy when making invocations and prayers to God for the sake of divination.  It comes from the root `-L-M, which refers to knowing, teaching, and learning; note that the Arabic term for geomancy, `ilm ar-raml, begins with a word from this same root meaning “science”.  This specific name of Allāh encompasses such meanings as the Knower, the All-Knowing, the All-Knowledgable, the Omniscient, and the Possessor of Knowing Everything about Everything.  Fittingly enough, I recently spotted over on Chris Warnock’s Renaissance Astrology website a new Arabic-style Jupiter talisman specifically for the name Al-`Alīm, where he gives this description of the power of the name from the 13th century grimoire Shams al-Ma’arif (and note how it talks about knowing things that are unseen and seen, tying back into the eye and seeing imagery of the `-Y-N root):

Whoever undertakes the dhikr of this Name of sublime essence, Allāh (exalted be He) brings him to knowledge of the subtlest aspects of the sciences and their most hidden secrets. To the one who engraves it…when Mercury is highly dignified, Allāh makes him express himself with wisdom and teaches him the sapiential subtleties of mystical knowledge…when Jupiter is highly dignified, obtains an understanding of what the mystic sciences contain. … His control in the universe is strengthened and Allāh (exalted be He), frees him from all misfortunes and avoids everything that displeases him. And whoever uses his dhikr, learns what he did not know and wisdom becomes manifest in his words.

The Name has the number 150, and adding its divisors totals 222, and this number alludes to His Name Mālik al-Mulk “Lord of Sovereignty”. Hence, the wise are the kings in reality, indeed, they are the lords of the sovereignty of kings. And this is the number that makes manifest the secret of the letter yā’ in the three orders, since it is a bond, it is a coercive word and it entails a formal representation and an approach, while none of these three degrees takes place without Knowledge, which is only attributable to Him, meditate on that.

And since the manifestation of Science belongs to the sanctified spirits, the spirit of the angel Gabriel is destined to instruct the prophets, being one of the noblest our prophet Muḥammad (Allāh bless and save him) who was inspired by humility, for Allāh said: “He has taught an angel of great power and strength, since he appeared in his true form” (Qur’ān 56:5-6).

And since the holy spirit that corresponded to Jesus (peace be upon him) was a vestige of the revealing breath of Gabriel to Adam, for Jesus was the wisest of the prophets to know the details of the sciences and the subtleties of Wisdom. And among the noblest of his knowledge was the science of the letters, and hence its name comes to him, because in it resides his divine gift by indicating by the letter `ayn, science, by the letter yā’, the grace of the descended revelation, by the letter sín, the points of union of what is divided and by the letter alif, absolute knowledge. And the name Jesus has the number 141, which is precisely the value of the name `ālim (scholar), but since He has knowledge of the hidden things, and that is `alīm then his name is written with the letter yā’ and thus its number equals 150, which is the value of `alīm. Meditate on that, for Allāh speaks the Truth and He leads the way.

The names of the letters of His Name `Alīm add up to 302, alluding to His Name Basīr “the Seer”. And since science (`ilm) is an inherent sign of the external appearance of the object of knowledge, and that the acquisition of a concept involves the totality of its visible aspect, that is, it is the acquisition of the external image of the object in the mind, the meaning of `Alīm as the Knower of All is necessarily the one before whom the essence of each thing manifests itself in the totality its hidden essence as well as its external form. That is one of the secrets of `Alīm for intensification is not possible through the letter wāw, due to its importance and its height that reaches the end of the limits and reaches the totality of existence. So intensification is possible by one of these two options: either with the reduplication of a consonant, as in saying `allām, which refers to the one who has acquired a large amount of knowledge or with the letter yā’ which refers to the revelation of the most subtle details of a notion and the perception of its hidden aspects. For this reason only Al-`Alīm knows the details of a concept in the same way that He knows its most general aspects, and knows its hidden aspects in the same way that its aspects are visible.  That is why Allāh said (exalted be He) “above all, possessor of science there is a knower” (Qur’ān 12:76), so the possessor of science ū-l-‘ilm is the one who knows the general aspects of things and the knower `alīm is the one who knows its particular aspects. The possessor of science is the one who knows the external aspects of things and the knower is the one who knows their internal aspects; the possessor of science is the one who knows the evident aspects of things and the knower is the one who also knows their hidden aspects. The meaning of this yā’ has been indecipherable for many sensible people, because the most unknown of His Science are the most particular aspects, and this is evident in His words, “over every possessor of knowledge is one more knowledgeable”  (Qur’ān 12:76).

And you should know that the superiority of some of the wise over others is not the result of acquiring a greater amount of knowledge, since if so, He would have said “above all possessing knowledge there is a wise man (‘allām) who knows more.” Rather it has to do with the acquisition of the particular notions of the intelligibles and the hidden parts of their secrets. Now, the multitude of knowledge together with the detailed inner knowledge results in sapiential superiority, but without this last type of knowledge superiority does not take place. This is the meaning from the words of Allāh when he said to His prophet Moses (peace be upon him): “We have a servant at the intersection of two great rivers, whom they call Khiḍr , who is wiser than you.” Khiḍr was not wiser than Moses because he had more knowledge as Allāh said about Moses “And we wrote for him in the Tables an exhortation for everything and an explanation for everything” (Qur’ān 7:145), so the greater wisdom of Khiḍr refers to his understanding the hidden aspects of things in the same way that he knew their visible aspects. This is why his place was at the point of confluence of two great rivers, which were the river of the apparent and the river of the unapparent, so Moses knew that Khiḍr was in possession of a gnosis that he did not have.

You who study these words, focus your effort on expanding your knowledge 3, for this is what Allāh (praised and exalted be He), ordered His prophet to ask with His saying: “my Lord, increase me in knowledge” (Qur’ān 20:114). Meditate on these spiritual words and dispose of these divine subtleties, of these gifts of faith and of these sources of light, for you will find immense happiness in those knowledge that contains the allusions, and Allāh is the wisest!

Anyway, back to the main topic at hand.  So we have this root, `-Y-N, the meaning of which is semantically related to eyes and sight (and also, apparently, springs and flowing, perhaps with an origin of a notion of crying?), which is well-attested in the Qur’ān, and could well be a derivation from the same root as the sixteenth letter of the script, and which can be given some strong connections to knowing things generally if we also consider the root `-L-M and its connections to science and God.  This is a bit too strong to be mere coincidence to me, so let’s run with it some more.  This means that we can go with the `ayn instead of ‘alif, yielding us `Iyan and not ‘Iyan.  Good!  But, now, what about the vowels themselves?  With these two vowels, we can end up with both short, one short and the other long, or both long:

  • `Iyan
  • `Īyan
  • `Iyān
  • `Īyān

However, we know from rules of Arabic that any “i” sound followed by yā’ is almost always going to be inherently long, so we could write this name as either `Iyan (with or without a long A) or as `Īan (again with or without a long A).  So we can ignore the long I choices above, which whittles it down further, down to either `Iyan or `Iyān.  The former just doesn’t seem to come up in any dictionary or grammar as a form of anything.  `Iyān (or `Iyaan, عِيَان), however, is a legitimate word which means “weak” or “sick”, especially in Egyptian Arabic, but only when interpreted as coming from the root `-Y-Y and, even then, only properly with the vowels `ayyān, so that’s not what we’re going with.  But, when derived from `-Y-N, we get the verbal noun of عَايَنَ `āyana, the verb which means “to inspect”; note how it’s still related to the semantic field of eyes, looking, seeing, watching, etc.  Thus, `Iyān would mean “an inspecting” or “inspection”, but it can also mean “seeing with one’s own eyes”, “to come to light/be revealed before one’s eyes”, “clear, evident, plain, manifest” in the sense of “being seen clearly with the eyes”, as well as “witnessing” as in “eye-witnessing”.  (The notion of a witness here is appealing, given the fact that we have two Witnesses in a geomantic chart.  A possible connection to the “two sons”, perhaps?)

I got that list of meanings for `Iyān from an online version of the fourth edition of the Arabic-English Dictionary by the venerable Hans Wehr.  However, that website looks up glosses in several texts simultaneously (a wonderful study resource!), and while looking at Wehr’s dictionary, there’s something interesting I noticed in another text.  On the website that I was able to access that entry, the single page also shows entries from other texts about Arabic language and vocabulary, including the Arabic-English Lexicon compiled by Edward William Lane (aka Lane’s Lexicon) in the 19th century, itself compiled from earlier dictionaries and lexicons of Arabic in Arabic.  The entry for `Iyān in Lane’s Lexicon is…shockingly, miraculously, exactly what we were looking for all along here, and includes a reference that’s exactly what was in Skinner!  From page 2270 (forgive any errors in my copying and trying to type the Arabic):

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

This entry references خط, khaṭṭ, which is another of the terms for geomancy.  Turning to that entry in Lane’s Lexicon, page 762 (again please forgive any errors):

خَطَّ aor. -ُ , inf. n. خَطٌّ, He made [a line, or lines, or] a mark, عَلَى الأَرْضِ , upon the ground.  (Mṣb.)  You say, خَطَّ الزَّاجِرُ فِى الأَرْضِ , aor. and inf. n. as above, The diviner made a line, or a mark, or lines, or marks, upon the ground, and then divined.  (TA.)  And الزَّاجِلٌ يَحُطُّ بِإٍصْبَعِهِ فِى الرَّمْلِ وَيَزْجُرُ [The diviner makes, lines, or marks, with his finger upon the sand, and divines.]  (Ṣ.)  Th says, on the authority of IAar, that عِلْمُ الخَطِّ is عِلْمُ الرَّمْلِ [or geomancy]: I’Ab says that it is an ancient science, which men have relinquished, but Lth says that it is practised to the present time; [to which I may add, that it has not even now ceased; being still practised on sand and the line, and also on paper;] and they have conventional terms which they employ in it, and they elicit thereby the secret thoughts &c., and often hit upon the right therein: the diviner comes to a piece of soft ground, and he has a boy, with whom is a style; and the master makes many lines, or marks, in haste, that they may not be counted; then he returns, and obliterates leisurely lines, or marks, two by two; and if there remain two lines, or marks, they are a sign of success, and of the attainment of the thing wanted: while he obliterates, his boy says, for the sake of auguring well, اِبْنَى عيَانْ اًسْرِعَا البَيَانْ [O two sons of ‘Iyán (meaning two lines or marks), hasten ye the manifestation]: I’Ab says that when he has obliterated the lines, or marks, an done remains, it is the sign of disappointment: and AZ and Lth relate the like of this.  (TA.)  It is said in a trad. of Mo’áwiyeh Ibn-El-Ḥakam Es-Sulamee, traced up by him to its author, كَانَ نَبِىّْ مبَ الأَنْبِيَآءِ يَخُطُّ فَمَنْ وَافَقَ خَطَّهُ عَلِمَ مِثْلَ عِلْمِهِ [A prophet of the prophets used to practise geomancy; and he who matches his geomancy knows the like of his knowledge].  (TA.)  You say also, when a man is meditating upon his affair, and considering what may be its issue, or result,  ‡ [Such a one makes lines, or marks, upon the ground].  (TA.)  [See also نَكَتَ: and see St. John’s Gospel, ch. viii verses 6 and 8.]  And  خَطَّ بِرِجْلِهِ الأَرْضَ means ‡ He walked, or went along.  (TA.)

It’s clear that we’re arriving at basically the same source, or a highly similar source with the same origins, as Skinner himself was using.  For the sake of further scholarship by any who come across this post, the abbreviations in Lane’s Lexicon come from page xxxi of the preface refer to the following authors and authorities in Arabic lexicology (in their original transliterations as Lane gives them, a more modern list and transcriptions given on this page):

  • TA: the “Táj el-‘Aroos”
  • Mṣb: The “Miṣbáḥ” of el-Feiyoomee, full title “El-Miṣbáḥ el-Muneer fee Ghareeb esh-Sharḥ el-Kebeer”
  • Ḳ: The “Kámoos” of El-Feyroozábádee
  • Ṣ: The “Ṣiḥáḥ” of El-Jowharee
  • I’Ab: Ibn-Abbás
  • L: The “Lisán el-‘Arab” of Ibn-Mukarram
  • Lth: El-Leyth Ibn-Naṣr Ibn-Seiyár, held by El-Azheree to be the author of the “‘Eyn”, which he calls “Kitáb Leyth”
  • AZ: Aboo-Zeyd

These are all Arabic sources, so it seems like that line of research comes to an end there, until and unless I ever learn classical Arabic.  Still, all the same, at least we found a (likely) source for Skinner’s claim about this strange chant, which I’ll gladly take as a win!  Still, even if we have a (likely) point of origin for this strange chant that Skinner describes, what exactly does it mean? Well, unfortunately, there’s no real solid information about the identity of `Iyān or their two sons in Lane, but at least we know we were on the right track tracing it down by considering what its likely Arabic spelling was, and giving that a consideration.  I strongly doubt that `Iyān is merely a name without meaning or that it doesn’t have some notion of watchfulness, witnessing, accounting, or observing; I think its relationship with the letter `Ayn and, by extension, eyes and sight really is important in some way.

Lane first says that the “two sons” of `Iyān refer to “two birds…from the flight/alighting-places/cries/&c. of which the Arabs augur”, but…birds?  That seems a little out of left field, so let’s set that aside for now and return to what we know.  (We’ll return to it, I promise.)  Based on the rest of Lane’s entries, even this same one on `Iyān when we consider what the two lines of marks in the sand would entail, it seems reasonable to assume that the “two sons” of `Iyān refer to either the numerical concepts of odd (فرد fard, literally “alone”) and even (زَوْجِيّ zawjiyy, from زوج zawj meaning “pair”, ultimately from Greek ζεῦγος meaning “yoke” in reference to marriage), or to the two units that make up the first even whole number; it’s this latter that might well have the better argument going for it.  Note that, interestingly, it’s even numbers that are considered good and affirmative, while odd numbers are bad and negative; this seems to be a general inversion of what we usually encounter in numerology, where it’s the odd numbers (being relatively masculine) that cause change while even numbers (being relatively feminine) maintain stasis.  And yet, looking back at Skinner:

Figures which contain a total number of even points are said to be Helu, sweet or a good omen, whilst those which contain odd numbers of total points Murr, bitter, or ill-omened.

Courtesy of the good Dr. Amina Inloes, whom I occasionally harass for help with topics involving Arabic and Islam and who generously and amply provides it, I was directed to the Sunan Abu Dāwūd, a massive compilation and commentary on the ʼaḥādīth (the extra-scriptural traditions of Islam) written sometime in the 800s ce, which would be a little before we start seeing geomancy proper arise.  At the bottom of page 147, footnote 3 confirms all the above (which you can put through Google Translate or get an actual Arabic speaker to translate it for you):

قال الشيخ : صورة الخط : ما قاله ابن الأعرابي، ذكره أبو عمر عن أبي العباس أحمد بن يحيى عنه ، قال : يقعد المحازي : [المحازي والحزاء : الذي يحزر الأشياء ويقدرها بظنه] ، ويأمر غلاماً له بين يديه فيخط خطوطاً على رمل أو تراب، ويكون ذلك منه في خفة وعجلة، كي لا يدركها العدّ والإحصاء، ثم يأمره فيمحوها خطين خطين، وهو يقول : ابني عيان أسرعا البيان، فإن كان آخر ما يبقى منها: خطين فهو آية النجاح، وإن بقي خط واحد فهو الخيبة والحرمان

The bold bits are what we’re looking for.  The first bold line basically gives the same chant as found elsewhere: “sons of `Iyān, hasten the statement” (ibnay `iyān ‘asra`ā al-bayan), and the last bit the same fundamental rule that “two lines is the sign of success, and if one line remains, it is disappointment and deprivation”.  The important thing we get from this is that, when Abu Dāwūd was writing this in the 800s ce, he was likely reporting on proto-geomantic practices that provided for the foundation of geomancy proper as we’d recognize it, and which were most likely in use for quite some time beforehand, especially if references to divination by making marks in the sand in other texts operated on these same principles going back at least to early-Islamic, if not into pre-Islamic, times.  Granted, we don’t have a lot of references to this kind of proto-geomantic divination in pre-Islamic times; most of the time it’s just said in passing, and when they do mention some specifics, they just don’t get more specific than just this.

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.

However, what we’re seeing from Skinner, Lane, and Abu Dāwūd is clearly proto-geomantic and isn’t really about figures as much as it is about lines, so this is probably an anachronistic imposition of `Iyān and their two sons onto later developments.  As fitting as it might be, and as fascinating as all this is, it doesn’t do anything for us as far as showing what `Iyān itself might originally refer to.  But there are other leads we can take; after all, wasn’t there something about birds?  We’ll pick up on that tomorrow.

New divination tools of Hermēs available up on my Etsy!

If you want something done, give it to a busy person.  And boy, between my usual stuff going on, a new shrine project that came together WAY too quickly for it to have been mere chance, and all the 2019 yearly forecast readings going on (have you gotten yours yet? special ends next Wednesday!), it’s a true blessing that I’ve been snowed in for the past few days and have had the time to actually do everything I need and get some sleep on top of that.

I’ve had it in my mind to make some divination tools for the public to have for a while now, based on some of the tools and methods I use.  I’ve written about a bunch on this blog from time to time over the year—granted, most of it is geomancy, which is pretty tool-independent when you get right down to it—and some of them require some specialized tools.  In general, most forms of divination, especially practiced in a modern way, don’t really require consecration or blessing, though it never hurts to do so.  Tarot readers can just pick up a pack of cards and get to work, but it can often help to cleanse them and spiritually prepare them for the work they’re doing.

However, not all the forms of divination I do are so free-wheeling or powered by my own spiritual sense, but are tied directly to the spirits and gods, a true divinization of divination as it were.  To that end, I like to have some of my tools properly prepared, blessed, consecrated, and linked up to the voices of those spirits and gods so that I can read what they say as much as I hear them.  For some time now, I’ve been working on how, exactly, to go about doing that for others, but I kept putting it on the back burner.  Well, no more of that; a bunch of supplies came in, and I promptly got myself read, got into the right headspace, made the right offerings, and got to Work with the Hellenic god of guides and guide of gods, men, spirits, souls, and heroes, Hermēs.

Long-time readers might remember two forms of divination I use with him:

Guess what?  You can now buy sets of four coins and sets of five astragaloi on my Etsy page, all consecrated, blessed, and ready to go.

Making these was a pleasure and an honor, and they’re specially made for those who work with Hermēs as the messenger of gods and men to communicate to them, and to any to approach them, the best advice in the time they need and the way they need, so that anyone who comes to the gods with sincerity, honor, and reverence may have the proper guidance to go where they must go, know what they must know, do what they must do, and become what they must be.  Not only are these tools for you, but they may be used through your service for any who come to you.  Just call on Hermēs, and he will answer.

I’ve prepared a bunch of these sets in a batch, which was easy enough for me, but supplies are still limited.  I may make more in the future, or I may make more only as special requests and commissions, I haven’t yet decided.  If you’re interested, head on over to my Etsy while supplies still last:

I include with the coin sets a short guide on how to use them along with a special prayer, but the bones contain no such guide due to the amount of information they can provide.  For that, I would strongly recommend getting one of the following texts:

Of course, there are other ways you can use the astragaloi, too; one such way is to use them for grammatomancy, the Greek alphabet oracle, which I just so happen to have written about and have a highly useful reference text on, too, also coincidentally available on my Etsy.  However, you might also consider getting John Opsopaus’ book, Oracles of Apollo (Llewellyn Publications, 2017), which has that and other divination methods included in it, as well.

So what are you waiting for?  Who can deny the blessings of the gods, and who would ignore their guidance?  Learn how to communicate with Hermēs and, through him, with the rest of the gods today; get in on these tools while they’re still there to get!

2019 Forecast Geomancy Reading Special!

Happy New Year!  Now that we’re done with it, I hope your 2018 went well!  It’s also time to start thinking about how 2019 will go.  Are you excited? Anxious? Worried? Hopeful?  Let me help with figuring out what plans need to be made, what can be improved on, and what should be focused on in this coming year!  For a limited time only (from now through Wednesday, January 23, 2019), I’m offering a discounted special on 2019 Forecast Divination readings for only US$33, available exclusively through my Etsy store!  When this offer is gone, it’s gone, so be sure to get yours booked soon!

This divination reading will be for an overview of your life for 2019. While I will attempt to provide a thorough analysis of the chart for the major points of one’s life—career, family, romance, finances, health, spirituality, and so forth—I can also take a deeper (though limited) look at specific areas in your life for fleshing out specific concerns, upon request.  Considering how in-depth I go for my geomancy readings and how far I go to make sure you’ve got the edge you need, $33 is a steal.

Interested in getting your 2019 Forecast?
Head on over to my Etsy now and get your reading booked!

Also, as of this post, we’ve finally hit 700 published posts since the very first one almost nine years ago, way back in the Blogspot days!  Just a little milestone I’m proud of which I wanted to proclaim.  Thank you all for growing and ambling with me all this time!

An Origin for the Letter Rules of Western Geomancy

Yes, yes, I am still working on my geomancy textbook!  As I’ve said before, it’s a long project, and by necessity it’s not the number one priority in my life; between a full-time job, heavy involvement in my religious community, managing several kinds of online presence, and my own routines and practices, working on my book is definitely a priority but not the priority.  If I had days empty of all other tasks, it’d be a different story, but here we are.  Besides, the book has been in progress since 2013, back at a point where I now think I was wholly unqualified to write such a book.  (I still think I am unqualified to write such a book, not least because I’ve made a number of discoveries, innovations, and corrections to what I knew earlier, but here we are.)

One of the fun parts of the book for me to write is the postscript.  It’s an appendix that, rather than focusing on the meat-and-bones of geomantic techniques and practices, I talk a small bit about my own thoughts, views, and opinions on certain techniques and how my own practice prioritizes certain techniques over others, or my value-estimates of certain techniques.  After all, though there are hundreds of different techniques that one can use in geomantic divination, in any given chart I might only use a handful of them, some I use generally for every reading and others I bust out for particular situations.  Almost all the techniques have some value, but some have more value than others.  I talk a bit about what I think of such things in the postscript as a kind of final letting-my-hair-down moment, where I get to drop a little of the academic and technical style I use throughout the book and get a little personal in my practice.

The postscript really isn’t a place for me to introduce or talk about any particular techniques at length, though—except one: methods to determine names or letters with geomancy.  As I’ve mentioned before on my blog, the methods to determine names is something that would be sorely useful for geomancers, and a number of historical authors mention methods to do so, most of all Christopher Cattan who introduces several “rules” for associating the figures with letters and a number of methods to use them.  John Heydon, likewise, introduces several such sets of associations for different scripts, but largely references the same methods Cattan uses.  John Michael Greer, continuing the vein of carrying on such information especially as it was republished over and over again in the late Renaissance, gives a similar set of attributions in his “Art and Practice of Geomancy”.

It’s all a shame, though, because I’ve never gotten these methods to work.  In my past experiments with them, I kept getting garbage answers with chance results.  Quoth my earlier article:

Alas, however, I have to consign a geomantic technique to the failure pile, and it’s not for lack of trying: determining names.  While it would make sense conceptually that one could determine names with geomancy, I have never been able to get such name charts to work right, from the first time I ran a name chart years ago up until the present day.  Add to it, I’ve found several methods to determine names with geomancy, and several ways to associate the letters to the figures, and I’ve tried them all, none of them giving anything remotely resembling an accurate answer.  This frustrates me to no end, because why the hell would this one technique not work when nearly every other technique I’ve tried has given me useful results?  This is especially frustrating, since being able to predict names would be exceptionally useful in the world, from determining the names of cities one might be successful in to determining the names of future spouses. …

But even using any of the techniques with any set of correspondences, I kept coming up with wrong answers.  If I were lucky, some of the letters in the actual name I was trying to find might appear at random places in the chart, but this was by no means guaranteed.  I did notice a slight tendency for some of the letters to appear in houses II, V, and VIII, but there was no pattern for which letters (start, medial, end) appeared within them.  I even tried using the values of the Greek, Hebrew, and Celestial Hebrew associations that Heydon gives (untrustworthy as his stuff tends to be) to see if it would get me anything closer than the Roman script association; nada.  Plus, many of the techniques assumes there to be at least four letters or syllables in a name; many names I ended up asking about after I did a reading on them had one or two syllables, or had even just three letters, and these techniques don’t specify what to do in the case of really short names.

It seems, also, that I’m not the first person to complain about these methods, not by far.  In addition to my own colleagues and contacts in the present day who largely give the same conclusions I have, the French geomancer Henri de Pisis gives in his 17th century book Opus Geomantiae Completum in libros tres divisum (reproduced as part of Fludd’s later work Fasciculus Geomanticus) gives the following complaint when he introduces these methods (translation mine from Latin):

So as to know someone’s name. I might have put this and another table of the same from Cattan, yet given how useless and hollow it is, I freely suppress it, lest it impose onto this very art which usually predicts with certainty. By this understanding, I would have omitted it and the following chapter, as with things uncertain and generally wrong, if not for that we would see what even a single author maintains …

In truth, it has always escaped me as to the use they make of these numbers here, for nobody thus far has been able to discover their reasoning; neither Gerard of Cremona, nor Geber, nor Pietro d’Abano, nor myself, nor any others besides Cocles and Cattan have discerned the reasoning of the numbers or of the letters of names. It can essentially be seen that Cattan and Cocles would have relaxed this art to such a freewheeling extent into the form of some game, such as the casting of dice or dominoes, for the troublesome cheating of long nights or for the future coaxing of a droll joke, and a good many use it for this and will have had nothing certain placed in the art. In other words, since they are unaware of that which is superfluous to the art, they are unestablished in the foundations of this very art, and are only outsiders into contempt of it. I suggest that these methods be rejected.

It’s frustrating, especially for someone like de Pisis to have written so bluntly about this in a way he doesn’t elsewhere in Opus Geomantiae; he only includes these methods because others have written about them, and that only bitterly and begrudgingly.  This is all the more frustrating because Arabic geomancers make claims to predict names and letters as a matter of course, though because I speak neither Arabic nor Urdu nor Farsi, it’s hard for me to find what methods they use to validate it and see whether they can walk the talk or if they’re just full of hot air.

Now, skip ahead a few years.  The Geomantic Study-Group on Facebook is thriving with over a thousand members, including a good number from Arabic-speaking countries who are, God bless them, actually willing to share and discuss Arabic methods of geomancy.  One of them even goes so far as to include a list of those fancy apparati of Arabic geomancy, taskins, though I prefer an alternate term for them now, dā`ira (plural dawā`ir), which is commonly found in Urdu and Farsi texts, and which literally mean “cycle”.  These things are fascinating for Western geomancers to look at, because we have no parallel for them; they’re a combination of correspondence as well as technique unto themselves, enforcing particular orders of figures for different needs.  Depending on the tradition of Arabic geomancy you’re looking at, some geomancers claim that there are 16 cycles, others 28, or even as many as 400 or more, some kept secret for mystical and magical ends.  Some dawā`ir are clearly organized along mathematical or otherwise clearly understood principles, such as the dā`ira-e-abdaḥ which organizes the figures according to their binary numeral meanings (reading Laetitia as 1000 as 1, Rubeus as 0100 as 2, Fortuna Minor as 1100 as 3, and so forth); others are far more obscure as to why certain figures are arranged in certain ways.

So this list of dawā`ir is shared in the group, and happily the poster who shared it cited a particular academic: Dr. Matthew Melvin-Koushki, currently of the University of South Carolina, one of whose research interests is the occult sciences in Islam.  In his paper “Persianate Geomancy from Ṭūsī to the Millennium: A Preliminary Survey” (in Nader El-Bizri and EvaOrthmann, eds., Occult Sciences in Pre-modern Islamic Cultures, Beirut: Orient-Institut Beirut, 2018, pp. 151-99), Melvin-Koushki lists seven such cycles:

The various regional schools of geomantic thought are therefore to be distinguished by the ‘cycles’ (sg. dāʾira) they prefer to employ. A cycle, Hidāyat Allāh explains, is simply a specific sequence (tartīb) of the 16 geomantic figures, with each sequence featuring different types of correspondences — elemental, humoral, temporal, astrological, lettrist, etc. And the four cycles he identifies above are far from the only ones in common use. The geomancer has at his disposal a rather larger number of cycles; which he employs in any given reading depends on the nature of the information being sought and the degree of detail required. Hidāyat Allāh lists seven by way of example:

  1. The Occupation (sakan) cycle is the most basic; it begins with Laetitia and ends with Via.
  2. The Constitution (mizāj) cycle tells the querent what day he can expect to realize his desire; it begins with Acquisitio and ends with Cauda Draconis.
  3. The BZDḤ cycle, aka the Number (ʿadad) cycle, is used to tell periods of time; it begins with Puer and ends with Populus.
  4. The Letter (ḥarf) cycle is used to reveal names (a very popular application of the science); it too begins with Laetitia and ends with Via, with the first twelve figures being assigned two letters each and the last four figures only one.
  5. The Arabic Alphabet (abjad-i ʿarabī) cycle, aka the Element (ʿunṣur) or Interior (dākhil) cycle; it begins with Laetitia and ends with Populus.
  6. The ABDḤ cycle, aka the Element (ʿunṣur) or Arabic Alphabet (abjad-i ʿarabī) cycle, which is also popular; it too begins with Laetitia and ends with Populus.
  7. The Most Complete (aṣaḥḥ) cycle, which has a different organizing principle and procedure; it begins with Laetitia and ends with Via.

Note that fourth cycle Melvin-Koushki lists: the ḥarf cycle, the word literally meaning “letter” (as in characters of an alphabet).  This cycle goes in the following order:

  1. Laetitia
  2. Tristitia
  3. Rubeus
  4. Albus
  5. Fortuna Maior
  6. Fortuna Minor
  7. Caput Draconis
  8. Cauda Draconis
  9. Puer
  10. Puella
  11. Acquisitio
  12. Amissio
  13. Populus
  14. Carcer
  15. Coniunctio
  16. Via

Melvin-Koushki says that the first twelve figures (Laetitia through Amissio) get two letters each, and the final four (Populus through Via) get one letter each.  Looking through contemporary texts on Arabic geomancy (despite my lack of knowledge of Arabic/Farsi/Urdu, I can still pick out patterns and particular words well enough to find them!), we get the following correspondences of figures to letters:

Figure Letter
Laetitia أ
‘Alif
ف
Fā’
Tristitia ب
Bā’
ص
Ṣād
Rubeus ج
Jīm
ق
Qāf
Albus د
Dāl
ر
Rā`
Fortuna Maior ه
Hā’
ش
Shīn
Fortuna Minor و
Wāw
ت
Tā’
Caput Draconis ز
Zāy
ث
Thā’
Cauda Draconis ح
Ḥā’
خ
Khā’
Puer ط
Ṭā’
ذ
Dhāl
Puella ي
Yā’
ض
Ḍād
Acquisitio ك
Kāf
ظ
Ẓā’
Amissio ل
Lām
غ
Ghayn
Populus م
Mīm
Carcer ن
Nūn
Coniunctio س
Sīn
Via ع
`Ayn

Note the order of how the letters go, first down the left column then down the right: this is the traditional abjadī order of the Arabic script, the same one in use for all other Phoenician-derived scripts like Greek and Hebrew.  The fact that the last four figures in the ḥarf cycle have only one letter each are also the liminal figures that are neither entering nor exiting might be because these four figures are special.  More realistically, though, it’s because there are 28 letters in the Arabic script, which means that some figures would get two letters and others only one; because there are 16 figures, 16 × 2 = 32, and 32 – 28 = 4.  If you just start assigning the letters one by one to the figures, you’d run out for the last four.  This raises the question, which came first, the order of the figures, or the ordering of the letters to which the figures were then mapped?  It’s unclear which came first to me, but we can pick out some interesting structural notes about the ḥarf cycle:

  • The first 12 figures are given in reversion pairs: Laetitia/Tristitia, Rubeus/Albus, etc.
  • The first four figures are the “pure elemental” figures, each with seven points.
  • The last four figures are all liminal figures, each of which is their own reversion; the first two are considered the stable liminal figures, the latter two the mobile liminal figures, progressively going from the most stable to the most mobile.

I also want to note that the source Melvin-Koushki is referencing came from the late 16th century, and his sources likely came from much older ones; by that point, geomancy was already around 600 or 700 years old.  Regardless, this cycle is still found in many works even today as a means to predict names.  (I have also seen the ABDḤ/binary-numeral cycle used for this same purpose, but it seems like that’s less popular of a choice than using this specific cycle, though the mechanism is the same.  I don’t know how common using the ABDḤ cycle is for this purpose, or where it might be centralized.)  Although I haven’t yet found much in English or another language I know yet about how to specifically use this cycle for divining names, at least I know how they associate the figures with letters, which is pretty neat unto itself.

I bring this up because, while going over my draft for my postscript in my book, I returned to that section about how Western geomancy has methods for determining names.  I originally wrote the seed for that section in the aforementioned blog post of mine back in 2014, and I basically copied the same tables (in a more intelligible way and broken down by author or source) into my book.  While I was revising that particular section, something about the order of how Cattan, Heydon, and Case associated the figures to the letters…something about it struck me as familiar.  I normally use the planetary order of the figures in my posts and tables (lunar figures, Mercurial figures, Venereal figures, …, nodal figures), but it struck me that several Western authors all had it that Laetitia was given to A, Tristitia to B, Rubeus to C, and so on.  They don’t all agree with each other in some of the associations, and Cattan and Heydon have other rules that give other letters to the figures, but it’s clear they were all drawing on the same source in one form or another, and…hm.  Neither the similarities between them nor that same order could be given to chance.

Digging out my ancient binder of geomancy notes from when I was in college, I got out my transcript of one of the earliest Western works on geomancy, Martin of Spain’s work “De Geomancia”, written sometime in the 1200s.  Dr. Laurel Means has a version of it in Popular and Practical Science of Medieval England (Lister M. Matheson, ed., Michigan State University Press, 1994), and I was able to get a text transcript of it while in college, though I’ve since lost the original source and the transcript file I was working on, though I did save a copy.  I remembered this because it has an early association of the figures with letters from well before Cattan or the others, and I wanted to see how it’d match up.  Surprise: it did, more than I expected, even if I’m missing associations for two of the figures.  Though Martin of Spain gives anywhere from one to five letters to the figures, the first of them typically matches with the expected one and seems to be the “primary” letter.  All these Western sources all seemed to share the same basic order of the figures, starting with Laetitia and Tristitia and continuing from there.  There are some variations, but it’s all fundamentally the same thing.

To compare what I’m seeing, here’s a table that associates the letters of the alphabet with the figures from Christopher Cattan (specifically his First Rule), John Heydon (the “First Rule” for English, with annotations), John Case, and Martin of Spain (more below because this is weird):

Letter Martin of Spain Cattan Heydon Case
A Laetitia Laetitia Laetitia Laetitia
B Tristitia Tristitia Tristitia Tristitia
C Rubeus Rubeus Caput Draconis Caput Draconis
D Albus Albus Albus Albus
E Fortuna Minor Fortuna Minor Fortuna Minor Fortuna Minor
F Fortuna Maior Fortuna Maior Fortuna Maior Fortuna Maior
G Caput Draconis Caput Draconis Rubeus Rubeus
H Cauda Draconis Cauda Draconis Puella Puella
I J Puella Puella Acquisitio Acquisitio
K Puer Puer Cauda Draconis Cauda Draconis
L Acquisitio Puer Puer
M Acquisitio
N Via Amissio Amissio Amissio
O
P Carcer Via Via Via
Q
R Carcer Carcer Carcer
S
T Populus Populus Populus Populus
U V W
X Coniunctio Coniunctio Coniunctio Coniunctio
Y Via
Z

Admittedly, Martin of Spain’s attributions are a little weird; he gives a set of letters for each figure, roughly in alphabetical order per figure, so a bit of sussing needs figuring out; additionally, the letters “l” and “y” are not allocated anywhere, but there is an allocation for the obsolete letter yogh (ʒ), which I interpreted as “y” above.  The full set of associations from Martin of Spain are:

Figure Numbers Letters
Fortuna Maior 12 ff
Fortuna Minor 8 or 1 e
Caput Draconis 13 g t
Acquisitio 31 h m
Laetitia 50 a d
Puer 9 k j
Tristitia 12 b d n
Puella 1 j c e
Rubeus 14 a c s
Albus 14 a d e
Amissio 15 j t s
Cauda Draconis 14 or 12 h j c d
Populus 2 n o t u
Coniunctio 13 or 17 r s t x
Via 8 n o t a ʒ
Carcer 10 o p q r s

Anyway, none of the associations we have in Martin of Spain, Cattan, Heydon, or Case give a figure for the letter Z, and the letters I/J and U/V/W weren’t classified as separate letters until recently, anyway.  As always, Case agrees with Heydon, as I’m pretty sure Case’s Angelical Guide was based on Heydon’s Theomagia, and both differ from Cattan in some minor ways.  Martin of Spain’s order starts off clear, but the order gets really mixed up and unclear towards the end.  Cattan’s order seems to be the most orderly, and preserves almost but frustratingly not quite the same order as the ḥarf cycle from before, with the following changes:

  • Cattan has Fortuna Minor and Fortuna Maior in positions 5 and 6; the ḥarf cycle switches these
  • Cattan has Puella and Puer in positions 9 and 10; the ḥarf cycle switches these
  • Cattan has Via, Carcer, Populus, and Coniunctio as the final four figures; the ḥarf cycle has Populus, Carcer, Coniunctio, and Via

What we’re arriving at is that the Western rules for assigning letters to the figures is clearly a continuation of the same cycle associations that began in the Arabic tradition, even from a very early period in Western geomancy, which indicates that the ḥarf cycle definitely dates back to the late 1200s, probably earlier, making it a very early arrangement of figures, indeed.  At least in the western part of Europe (i.e. Spain as opposed to Greece), this was likely brought in at an early point along with the rest of geomantic technique, and held on in some form or another by a handful of geomancers.  It’s unclear to me exactly how popular this method or association was, since I haven’t found more than a handful of resources that give such an association and most of them tend to be the larger works on geomancy that date from Cattan and onwards, but it may well be that this system was held onto, perhaps with some corruptions or changes, which would explain the small changes in Cattan’s order versus the ḥarf cycle.

The other major difference is how the letters get assigned to the figures in their cycle.  Rather than how the Arabic method goes through the cycle of figures and gives each figure one letter in turn, which results in a bunch of figures at the start with two letters and a few at the end with only one, the European method seems to almost be reverse: double up the letters at the end of the cycle and work forward until the rest of the figures at the start have only one letter each.  Given how straightforward the association method would be, I’m not sure how the method changed so drastically; either several corruptions happened along the way, or someone innovated a variation on the system.  I can’t seem to trace sources back past Cattan, or at least find any in an accessible form, so it’s unclear whether Cattan or his predecessors carried on the same tradition that Martin of Spain wrote about, whether his method came from another variant closely related to it, or whether he reimported an Arabic method and customized it for European needs.

What would it look like if we were to use the ḥarf cycle order of the figures and the same method, but applied it to the Roman script?  Considering that the Roman script that we use nowadays has shifted a bit from Renaissance usage, notably with the introduction of a few more letters (J from I, V and W from U, and Z), we can envision two versions of this, a “Renaissance Roman” ḥarf association of the figures with the letters as it was done in the days of Cattan et al. with 23 letters, and a “Modern English” association that uses all 26 letters of the modern English alphabet but done in the same way.  Below is what we would get from using those methods, alongside Cattan’s association for comparison (with the mis-ordered letters, e.g. Fortuna Maior and Fortuna Minor, in bold italic).  Heck, we can even come up with a Cattan-style association of the letters, using the ḥarf ordering (to fix the irregularities we might have seen from before) but using the same Western-style doubling-up of successive letters at the end:

Figure Cattan Ḥarf-Style
Renaissance
Roman
Ḥarf-Style
Modern English
Cattan-Style
Modern English
Laetitia A A R A Q A
Tristitia B B S B R B
Rubeus C C T C S C
Albus D D U/V/W D T D
Fortuna Maior F E X E U E
Fortuna Minor E F Y F V F
Caput Draconis G G G W G H
Cauda Draconis H H H X I J
Puer K I/J I Y K L
Puella I/J K J Z M N
Acquisitio L M L K O P
Amissio N O M L Q R
Populus T U/V/W N M S T
Carcer R S O N U V
Coniunctio X Y P O W X
Via P Q Q P Y Z

In this light, let’s point out two things about Cattan’s original style (which I’m taking as the default Western letter association rule, which was an earlier version of what Heydon and Case later used):

  • Really, why is there no Z in the Renaissance Roman scheme, or even Cattan’s original scheme?  As I mentioned earlier, Z was barely considered a letter in English until comparatively recently, so it’s not completely surprising that medieval, Renaissance, and even early modern texts on geomancy would omit it from such an association scheme.  Yet, French (for that matter, many forms of Romance languages) definitely uses the letter Z in its language regularly, so it’s odd that French or Italian would omit this letter.  Note how it would fall in the ḥarf-style Renaissance Roman scheme, as a letter corresponding to Caput Draconis.  This, however, would give its reverse figure Cauda Draconis no corresponding double letter, because the Roman script including Z would have 23 letters, and an odd number would mean one of these reversion-pairs would go unassigned.  So, this letter would have to be omitted to keep the system clean, and would probably logically be merged with S (as part of Carcer).
  • Even then, why does the Cattan scheme double up successive letters at the end, rather than allocate sequential letters cyclicly through the alphabet?  It might be more for a superficial resemblance or mirroring of how the ḥarf cycle associations work for Arabic, where the final positions are given to the liminal figures which were seen as “breaking the pattern” in some special way.  Because 22 letters get nowhere near those final four figures (as the ḥarf-style Renaissance Roman scheme shows) and because we might still want to make those final figures special in some way, the doubling-up of successive letters at the end could be seen as a compromise to keep the final few figures special while still allocating the letters to the figures in an orderly way.  It’s a major departure from the logic of the ḥarf cycle method, but it’s a method all the same.

So, let’s say that we have our pick now of these four systems.  Which would I recommend to use?  Given what the original ḥarf cycle logic was, I would throw my hat in for the ḥarf-style modern English associations above, but that’s also because I use the English language, and though the Renaissance Roman script is just an earlier version of the English alphabet, I see no reason to use an outdated orthography that omits several important letters that have not been considered allographs or variants of others for several hundred years now.  The same method of straightforwardly allocating the letters of one’s writing system in order to the geomantic figures in the ḥarf cycle can be used for any alphabetic or abjadic script.

Even with this, there are still several important questions that are still left unanswered:

  • It’s clear that alphabets or abjads that have an even number of letters would be favored, because it keeps the reversal pairs intact, so that each figure in the pair has the same number of letters.  What about scripts with an odd number of letters?  Does it really matter that much to keep reversal pairs intact?
  • Why are the figures in the ḥarf cycle placed in this order at all?  Is there an organizing principle behind it, or was it more inspired than devised?
  • Did the ḥarf cycle come first and then the association with the letters, or did the idea of divvying up the 28 letters of the Arabic script come first and the figures associated with those letters afterwards?  If the latter, it could explain why the four liminal figures just so happen to be at the end of the cycle where they get one figure each.  But even then, why would the pure element figures Laetitia, Tristitia, etc. be at the front in that order?  Reading the figures as elements, they could be read as Fire-Earth-Air-Water (my modern system or just using the points of those elemental lines) or as Air-Earth-Fire-Water (the older system that swaps Rubeus for Fire and Laetitia for Air), but this would be odd considering their pure elemental representations.
  • Can other cycles be used instead of the ḥarf cycle?  I know that at least some geomancers use the ABDḤ cycle using the same method of allocating letters to figures, just in a different order of the figures, though it seems the ḥarf cycle is more popular, at least in Africa and the Near East.
  • Where did Cattan get his Second and Third Rules of assigning the letters to the figures come from?  I haven’t been able to figure out a pattern there, either, especially with the varied and numerous associations he gives that don’t match anything else.  He even includes the letter Z in the Third Rule!

  • Did the methods of determining names as given by Cattan, Heydon, etc. also originally come from Arabic geomancy, or were they developed purely in a Western setting?  If they came from Arabic geomancy, did they come in at an early date and get passed down (and potentially corrupted) as time went by, or were they reimported at a later date?  Given their wording, it seems they were unclear and obscure even in Renaissance times.
  • What even are the methods in use for Arabic geomancy for using the ḥarf cycle?  I haven’t been able to read or research much about that, either.  How do Arabic geomancers determine names, and how similar are these methods using the ḥarf cycle (or other cycles with letters associated to the figures!) to those in Western geomancy?
  • What can be done about non-alphabetic or non-abjadic scripts?  Syllabaries can feasibly be assigned, syllable by syllable, to the geomantic figures, though that would quickly get out of hand depending on the number of syllables a language has.  How about abugidas, like any of the Brahmic-derived scripts?  How would vowels be handled in that system, if at all?  What about logographic scripts?

Still, even with these unanswered questions, I feel like I have enough at this point to convince me that that whole section in my book’s postscript about how trash these methods of determining names and letters are probably deserves a rewrite.  In fact, what’s astounding about the Western methods is that we have a fossil of Arabic dawā`ir embedded in our own practice, when otherwise there we don’t use any dā`ira-based technique.  It really emphasizes to me that, truly, geomancy is still an art that reaches deep into the sands of north African and Arabic culture, and perhaps there are more things that we can learn from or even merge with from our eastern siblings in this art.

In the meantime, I’m going to get back to more research and writing.  I want to take another look at those rules and try applying them again; now that I have a better understanding of why the letters get allocated to some figures in certain patterns, maybe using the ḥarf cycle in a more pure way than what Cattan or Heydon have could improve those chances of determining names.