Unlocking the Observatory: The Spiritual Practice of Zoroaster’s Telescope

Where were we? We’re in the middle of discussing the obscure Telescope of Zoroaster (ZT), a manual of divination and spirituality originally published in French in 1796 (FZT) at the close of the French Revolution, which was later translated into German in 1797 (GZT) and then again in an abridged form as part of Johann Scheible’s 1846 Das Kloster (vol. 3, part II, chapter VII) (KZT), with Scheible’s work then translated into English in 2013 as released by Ouroboros Press (OZT).  Although OZT is how most people nowadays tend to encounter this system, I put out my own English translation of FZT out a bit ago as part of my research, and while that translation was just part of the work I’ve been up to, there’s so much more to review, consider, and discover when it comes to this fascinating form of divination.  Last time, we talked about how ZT constructs its notions of divinity and the cosmos, leading to a spiritual theory of sorts replete throughout ZT. If you need a refresher on what we talked about last time, go read the last post!

※ For those following along with their own copy of ZT (get yours here!), the relevant chapters from ZT are the “Epistle”, “Second Supplement”, “Third Supplement”, and “Epilogue”.

It’s far from uncommon for authors to puff themselves up and make their works seem more groundbreaking and significant than they generally have any reasonable right to be (and I should know).  This can be explained any number of ways ranging from it being a marketing technique to merely getting people hooked on this Cool New Thing you’re excited about, or it may just be that the author has bought into their own hype and think that they’ve come across the Only Thing that Matters.  This is especially common in the world of occult book publishing, and to an extent, I think it’s always been that way to one degree or another; after all, the whole bit about mystical or magical historiolae explaining the discovery of some long-lost text is as much part of the occult genre as is lists of demons or elaborate instructions on tool-making.  It’s something of a cliché unto itself, really, and—at least for me—it can be almost disappointing when a text lacks such a bit of good entertainment.

Sure enough, we see a this puffing-up of itself happening in ZT, too.  This is most evident right in its very title (“The Telescope of Zoroaster, or, the Key to the Grand Divinatory Cabala of the Magi”) that calls on a whole number of occultural tropes, which are only expanded upon in the text itself, but there’s more to it than that, and I don’t think ZT is just trying to puff itself up for the sake of selling itself out.  ZT makes frequent reference to how it’s “only a key, not a treatise”, which immediately suggests that the author of ZT is holding stuff back from the reader.  While some people might be inclined to read this as a sure sign that the author is putting a blind on us, this isn’t the case here; rather, ZT does present what is necessary to learn, but only that which is necessary and not anything more, leaving what does not strictly need to be said as an exercise for the reader.  In that light, we need to consider everything that ZT does give us.  While the main purpose of ZT is ostensibly to teach about a particular form of numerological sortilege with an astrological flair, there is so much in ZT that isn’t directly about that that it leaves us to wonder: what else is it teaching us?

There’s a tantalizing statement in the Epilogue:

…willing to put ourselves in such a position, we have advocated for indicating how the operator will be able to recognize certain cases where (by a complicated contest of triangular relationships) an intimate communication and sometimes a Vision would be promised—in vain. The author of The Telescope of Zoroaster did not change course in the reply he divulged:

The Candidate must wait to be surprised by this superhuman opportunity, sooner or later infallible for them, if they are truly Called. This opportunity will fully compensate them for his work when, sooner or later, they will have reached the point of aptitude where the Pure Spirit desires them to be.

Consider the implications of this admission.  Despite the divinatory method that ZT teaches of analyzing the various tiles that might appear in any given pattern or arrangement within the Great Mirror, it suggests that this is not the ultimate (or at least the underlying) goal of the divinatory system of ZT.  Sure, the system as presented will work to predict the future, treating it fundamentally as a tile-based variation on cartomancy making use of a densely-packed spread, and the vast majority of the content of ZT discusses this very method and its variations in order to explain such a divinatory system. However, the implication of this line in the Epilogue, as well as the several mystical sections of the “Second Supplement” and “Third Supplement” that discuss more than mere angels and natal stars, suggest that this is just part of the use of such a Mirror.  Rather than merely arriving at interpretations, the real purpose is to obtain visions.

I mean, consider this line from the “First Step”, when the notion of mirrors are introduced:

These combinations are called “mirrors” when, instead of speaking only to the eye as paintings do, they offer the Cabalist a meaning which can only exist for them alone. Such combinations deserve the name “mirror” because they reflect the truth that saturates combinations. Thus, by combining the hexagons—whether we call them pieces or parts—into the triangles, diamonds, or hexagons that are composed from such hexagons, we obtain paintings, or “mirrors”. Now, the mirror being the final object of the cabalistic process, it is the quality of the mirror that prevails, and this word is principally in use.

Remember how I mentioned before that reflecting telescopes were still relatively new at the time of FZT’s publication?  Dating only to the 1660s, reflecting telescopes provided technical advantages over the older lens-based refracting telescopes.  In this light, especially when combined with how ZT says that modern astronomy has such “fruitful and no less indispensable utility”, it would suggest that the metaphor of these tile-spreads being “mirrors” was taken from astronomical tools: using mirrors in a metaphorical telescope (the divinatory system of ZT itself) to gaze into the spiritual Heavens much as an astronomer’s telescope makes use of mirrors to gaze into the physical skies. Thus, when a figure is composed for the purpose of performing divination, it takes on the name of a “mirror” as something that one gazes at as if it were a picture to contemplate.  We can certainly inspect parts of the telescope to determine how the different parts come together, but we’re not supposed to be looking at the telescope or at the mirror, but rather in the telescope or in the mirror to see what it reveals.  I mean, heck, ZT even brings up Nostradamus in the “First Supplement”, whom ZT claims also relied on the Great Cabala to determine matters of great spiritual importance and world-changing significance.  In this, by looking at the Great Mirror, we learn its parts and see individual things coming to pass, but by looking in the Great Mirror, we come to actually See things as a whole coming together—something far greater than the sum of its parts.

I mean, consider what we said last time about the spiritual cosmos as construed by ZT.  Yes, there is the Supreme Being and the Pure Spirit and the Principles and Spirits and Intelligences, but ZT says that there’s still so much more than all of this.  While the “Second Supplement” is primarily important for students of ZT to teach about the 28 angels and their natal stars (i.e. lunar mansions), that’s really only half the chapter; the other half talks about all these various means by which humans come to know things by means of spiritual intervention through visions, messages, and communion with spirits.  The author of ZT brings up Moses and the burning bush, Saul seeing the ghost of Samuel, Brutus seeing the ghost of Julius Caesar, Belshazzar seeing the hand writing on the wall and it being clarified by the divine inspiration of Daniel, the Three Wise Men being given a vision about where to go find the Infant God, the Pharaoh having his dreams interpreted through the divine inspiration of Joseph, the daimōn of Socrates, Numa Pompilius and the nymph Egeria, and so forth and so on.  ZT emphasizes the point that all true knowledge that matters for us doesn’t come from mere human inventions of cardgames or whatnot, but from our interactions with the spiritual world which guides us and leads us to live our lives properly in accordance with the will of the Supreme Being.

It is to that end that the author of ZT presents the Great Mirror (and, by extension, all the rest of the mirrors in ZT) as a means of not just predicting the future but as a means of communing with spirits.  This is why ZT gives us Plate VI (the diagram of the Great Mirror with the angels and lunar mansions), which only makes sense by bringing up the angels first, which only makes sense by bringing up the role of spirits generally: to guide and instruct humanity in the well-ordering and proper-functioning of the cosmos.  And, heck, given the extreme detail ZT gives in the “Second Supplement” regarding all the parts and bits of Plate VI (some of which don’t even actually appear in Plate VI as given), it leads me to wonder whether Plate VI is really just a reference sheet to be used like the Table of Numbers from Plate II, or if it was meant as a meditative focus not unlike a mandala expressly for coming into communion with those very angels themselves.

In that light, the Great Mirror serves three purposes simultaneously:

  1. A means of sortilege by which we can predict the future
  2. A means of coming into visions of things that are meaningful, i.e. a scrying surface
  3. A means of communicating with spirits who speak through the tiles, i.e. a conjuration locus

Incidentally, it’s the use of the Great Mirror as a medium for scrying that I think the use of hexagonal tiles is important, not because of any mystical symbolism inherent in the shape but because they completely tile a plane without gaps.  While circular tiles would also work for the purposes of divination, since they pack in a hexagonal manner, they leave gaps between them, which hexagonal tiles don’t leave behind.  Having a smooth, complete surface would work much better in this regard to afford the diviner something cohesive and coherent to gaze at for the purposes of scrying rather than mere sortilege.

This is, in a sense, what the Epistle told us about almost right from the get-go:

To read into the future is a much higher faculty still, and is less willingly granted from above. It is nevertheless obtained by means of one who knows that most ancient Pact—by means of an Advocate (but no one else) who finds in the signs and numbers of various tables the truth dictated by the intelligences concerning all that is the reasonable object of anticipation that one proposes to make in a more or less remote future. These signs, these numbers, these tables—this is what the Telescope of Zoroaster is about. […]

By means of the booklet through which I dare to pay you respectful homage, my Lord, we shall know how one might establish for oneself, so to speak, a place of rendezvous, where the Advocate enjoys the favor of being in the presence with superhuman beings and can there receive their benefit.

Recall the whole pyramid metaphor from last time that ZT gives about itself at the beginning of the “Second Supplement”:

As these approved eyes look upward along the faces of this mysterious edifice, it will happen—should the Pure Spirit allow it—that the clouds, at first reaching down to the ground to hide everything from the profane eye, will rise so slowly as to barely be noticed at once. Stone is succeeded by marble, marble by crystal, crystal by diamond, and diamond finally by a heavenly brilliance—but the Elect are not like to be dazzled with damage.

To lay it out bare: that the pyramid is revealed at all through the foggy mists is the work of the text of ZT, while the divinatory system of astrologically-flavored numerology provides just the rough-hewn stone base of the pyramid, but this is just the foundation of what comes next, which is heavily suggested in ZT to be obtaining visions and communing with spirits.  But even these, after all, would just be the next layers of the pyramid, upon which even higher and even more precious levels are built.  All ZT does is show us to the door of this pyramid-temple, and beyond that, so long as we have a light provided to us by the Pure Spirit, how far we ascend is up to us and our own determination and dedication.  All of this is nothing less than reclaiming the ancient spiritual heritage that the Epistle ascribes to the ancient Magi:

A similar order of things once existed wherever the Magi breathed, those revered priests, the most enlightened, the best of mortals. In their religious palaces consecrated to the Pure Spirit, these sacred servants, inaccessible to the curiosity of the vulgar, gave themselves up without distraction to the sublime intercourse which was their mission to maintain with the agents of Heaven. These dictated to their favored caste all that celestial and terrestrial nature has of secrets that can be brought within reach of human understanding, always infinitely limited to whatever degree of penetration one supposes those most perfectly organized priests, endowed with the greatest genius, were to have.

What are these secrets, exactly?  ZT doesn’t say; either the author of ZT was not privy to them, or the author found it improper to state such secrets to those whom they neither knew nor trusted, and for my part, I’d be charitable enough to accept the latter.  All the great questions we have about humanity’s origins and destinations, our questions about salvation and damnation, our questions about afterlives or reincarnation—ZT simply doesn’t say, and in many cases, doesn’t even hint at them.  All we have is this method by which we can begin to refine ourselves and build up a practice that will, so long as we keep to it, reach into the heavens themselves where all the secrets of Creation and the Creator might be revealed to us in time.

This is why, in the “Second Supplement”, the author tells us to keep ourselves in “a moral conduct and physical regimen” that keeps us relatively pure.  This isn’t about divination—well, not just about divination—but rather about us being able to accurately and consciously come into contact with spirits:

  • By avoiding heavy food, we free up our body and its senses to more easily allow the subtle perception of and communication with spirits.
  • By avoiding stimulating food, we keep our mind clear from the fog of perturbation so that we can accurately understand spirits without the message becoming biased or unclear.
  • By avoiding heatedness of sexual or emotional passion, we keep ourselves noble and worthy of entering into relationships with spirits and receiving their guidance and messages.

In the midst of the dietary restrictions ZT suggests, it brings up how so much spiritual communication occurs to us in dreams, and why ensuring that we dream well (especially in that liminal state of us rising from dream in the morning at dawn) is so important for spiritual communication:

The Elect, whom no embarrassment of the head or stomach has afflicted at the moment when sleep overtakes them, has consumed their digestion in a few hours, and then their whole being is fully at rest; this is the proper moment to catch the Spirit who deigns to communicate to this privileged mortal, and it is up to such a mortal to know how to take advantage of this sign of favor granted to them, and to not confuse with phantasy that which can be revelation, inspiration, and even sometimes apparition. Science, which is indeed the Great Cabala, is the touchstone par excellence where any accident of dream or vision can be tried and appraised at fair value. It is, we say, for the ordinary person, in the morning at the coming of the dawn, that the heavenly Agents descend and manifest themselves to the Elect.

This follows up on what the author said at the beginning of the “Second Supplement” regarding sleep and dreams:

What do we know? Nothing, perhaps, of what happens to the soul during this leisurely likeness of death called “sleep”; it is nothing but a superhuman apperception, whether helpful or harmful, sometimes pretending at ordinary facts, sometimes something disguised in supernatural forms—dreams, we say, are perhaps just favors granted by benevolent Intelligences or vexations and ambushes prepared by malevolent Intelligences, but are all too often too-fleeting impressions that vanish nearly in an instant, or symbols that are too oblique and so remain silent for ordinary mortals because they do not know the language necessary to understand them well. What one wants, what one is advised to avoid or do, even superstitious notions that have been adopted to generalize for all people the meaning that each material object can have in a dream all oppose a stupid, extravagant prejudice against natural inspiration itself, which therefore has failed in its effects.

In this light, especially considering the angelic focus of the “Second Supplement”, we build upon the divinatory practice to become introduced to communing with spirits, but we actually do the work of engaging with them primarily (it’d seem here) through the function of dreams—and not just any spirits, but primarily the angel of our own natal star.  This is best done at the coming of the dawn since, as the light of the Sun begins to enter into the world, so too do “the heavenly Agents [who] descend and manifest themselves to the Elect”.  We come into contact with the spirits, and especially our own angel, in order to better know ourselves and our natures, and thereby come to know more about the world around us, and by extension the whole Creation and the one Creator.  All of this comes about through the honest and earnest communion we might have with spirits, those celestial intelligences and heavenly agents, with whom such communion and communication is “the most beautiful privilege that humanity might enjoy”, because it is by our thoughts led on by things higher than us (the “super” to the “human”) what we might reach “to spaces that can and must be populated by a hierarchy of sublime beings”.

But, like…isn’t this a bit much?  In a book about sortilege, it’s super weird to have such an extended discussion about the virtues of a restrained diet to facilitate spiritual communication in dreams and how the greatest things we might aspire to is such spiritual communication and direction, right?  But then, that’s because ZT isn’t just a book about sortilege.  Among all the various lessons of the mechanics and components of its divinatory system and how to approach matters of querent and query, it’s clear that ZT gives us a much broader spiritual approach to understanding matters of truth on scales that go far beyond the mere individual human. Even though only the barest outlines of such a spiritual discipline is sketched out by ZT, it’s clear that it aspires to be the gateway through which one can eventually access the highest secrets of divinity and to live a holy life in continuous communion with heavenly beings.  We should remember, after all, that what ZT gives us is “a master key which will open not just the main doors but all the side doors, all the cupboards, all the drawers, and even the smallest secrets”.

Of course, such access to divinity and divine secrets isn’t given to everyone, nor is it even promised to everyone.  Success in this sort of spiritual work depends on many factors, not least of which is one’s own spiritual education (which ZT is meant to facilitate at an introductory level), but also one’s faith: faith in the Supreme Being (“Without this faith, there is no connection between the Supreme Being and humanity, and without such a connection, there can be no Great Cabala”) and confidence in the Pure Spirit (” confidence in the Pure Spirit—which is the indispensable trait of vocation which the Candidate must find themselves to possess”).  As the Epistle repeatedly emphasizes in its hypothetical rebuttals to imagined detractors of spirituality generally and ZT specifically, there is nothing in the Great Cabala for those who would dismiss it or its claims out of hand, or who would stringently favor human reason over superhuman gnōsis.  In this light, I’m reminded of part of the dialogue between Hermēs Trismegistos and Asklēpios from book IX, section 10 of the Corpus Hermeticum:

If you are mindful, Asklēpios, these things should seem true to you, but they will be beyond belief if you have no knowledge. To understand is to believe, and not to believe is not to understand. Reasoned discourse does not get to the truth, but mind is powerful, and, when it has been guided by reason up to a point, it has the means to get as far as the truth. After mind had considered all this carefully and had discovered that all of it is in harmony with the discoveries of reason, it came to believe, and in this beautiful belief it found rest. By an act of god, then, those who have understood find what I have been saying believable, but those who have not understood do not find it believable.

Returning one last time to the Epistle, we were not only introduced to the subject matter of ZT but also to a defense and explanation for its development and dissemination.  The “Baron de N…..” notes that such a discipline as this is only in its infancy, given how much work we have to do to salvage and reclaim the grand spiritual inheritance of the Magi, but reminds us even the grandest temple starts with but a simple hut to serve as an erstwhile tabernacle for the humblest of altars.  Those who dedicate themselves to such a spiritual endeavor would find themselves to be planting a sacred grove, keeping out those who would only disturb them—and, indeed, the author of ZT fully expects that this work would remain unpopular, maligned, and chastised by the many, and even many people today still scratch their heads at the incomplete, obtuse, or seemingly needlessly complicated system of ZT.  But, for those who would strive to make use of such a system, the author simultaneously hopes that, even should it take centuries, the “moral gold” that is produced from the crucibles of the dedicated would be used to reforge the bonds of true wisdom once broken long ago.

It’s my hope that all of this exploration over the past several weeks has helped attain at least some measure of that, instead of letting this fascinating system languish forgotten on old shelves.  At this point, I’ve basically said everything I have to say on it, so we’ll wrap up this series in the next and final post to summarize everything and bring it all together.

Justifying a Hermetic Vegetarianism

At the very end of the Logos Teleios, aka the “Perfect Sermon” and more commonly known as the Asclepius (or AH for short), we find the beautiful Prayer of Thanksgiving, which we have preserved in Latin, Greek, and Coptic.  It’s a beautiful expression of devotion, love, and praise for Divinity from a Hermetic standpoint, and is good to recite (in one form or another) by many people engaged on the Way of Hermēs.  However, it’s not the prayer that’s grabbed my attention this time; rather, it’s the narrative description that follows just afterward.  This led me to a bit of thinking and a rather long blog post; please bear with me as we take a bit of a garden path stroll through the Hermetic texts to talk about something that plays into implementable practice and, moreover, explaining it from a Hermetic standpoint.

The Asclepius is an interesting Hermetic text; unlike most of the Hermetic texts, which are preserved as simple dialogues or as a letter from teacher to student, the Asclepius has an actual narrative structure involved at the very start and very end, giving it a set and setting of its own.  It opens up in AH 1 with Hermēs sitting with Asklēpios in a temple, with Tat and then Ammōn joining them soon enough, at which point:

…the reverence of the four men and the divine presence of God filled that holy place; duly silent, the minds and thoughts of each of them waited respectfully for a word from Hermēs, and then divine love began to speak.

At the end of the discourse (AH 40—41), after Hermēs has told his students “everything that a human being could say”, they get up to worship God—and interestingly, outside of the temple.  After they pray the Prayer of Thanksgiving, there is this interesting conclusion to the prayer.  In the Latin version of the Asclepius, it reads:

With such hopes we turn to a pure meal that includes no living thing.

A similar statement is given in the Coptic version, preserved as text #8 in codex VI of the Nag Hammadi Codices.  Unlike in the Latin, this is a narrative statement rather than a concluding remark:

When they prayed and said these things, they embraced and went to eat their sacred bloodless food.

The presence of this line (along with the ritual directions for praying facing certain directions and refraining from offering incense to God) has been read to suggest the presence of an actual Hermetic community of one sort or another, whether decentralized or not, as well as indicating that this is more than a mere literary tradition of “read mysteries” but one with actual ritual acts, and that done communally.  Setting aside that scholarly discussion as it happens in academia, for those of us who care less about the historical implications and want to focus more on the practical implementation of the texts, this description/injunction is useful.  We can interpret it in one of two ways:

  1. In a strict approach, this can be read to say that ritual discourses or other ritual acts should be followed with a communal meal, which is to be vegetarian in nature.
  2. In a lax approach, this can be read to encourage followers of the Way of Hermēs to be vegetarian in general, both for ritual purposes and otherwise.

In either case, whether or not such a vegetarian meal is limited to ritual contexts, there does appear to be some indication that vegetarianism is desirable to some extent.  It’s far from uncommon in a classical context, to be sure; abstinence from meat (in Greek sometimes called ἀποχὴ ἐμψύχων apokhē empsukhōn “abstinence from ensouled beings”) was a documented thing of the Pythagoreans and Orphics, and Platonists and Peripatetics alike encouraged it, as well.  According to the Stoic author Chaeremon of Alexandria, Egyptian priests in his time also abstained from meat, which (along with wine) appeared to cause a “weakness in the senses and dizziness in the head…but especially because of the strong sexual desires that are the results of these kinds of food and drink”, to say nothing about how the slaughter of animals (with its necessary violence) could cause the souls of the animals to linger around their bodies and thus the meat that issues from it (more on what Chaeremon says later).  That Hermēs Trismegistos would encourage vegetarianism is unsurprising, at least for a ritual context if not a broader lifestyle.  However—besides just a general push for it because that’s just what mystics, priests, philosophers, and holy people did back in the day—it’s not clear why that should be the case from a Hermetic standpoint.  Answering this question can take many different avenues, but I have a theory of my own, and that begins with the Coptic translation of a vegetarian meal not just being one that “includes no living thing” but which is specifically “bloodless”.

Is it wise to base something on just one translation like this when variants exist?  The Coptic version of the Asclepius is a fascinating text; it’s only a fragment of the broader Asclepius, matching to what we’d recognize as AH 21—29 in the Latin text, and it’s not an exact match, either; it roughly covers the same ground, but it has some fairly stark differences in what it presents and how it presents it.   The differences between the Coptic and Latin versions of the Asclepius suggest that there were likely several different “lineages” of the Asclepius all stemming from some Greek original, and there are certain clues between the Coptic version preserved in the Nag Hammadi Codices with what few scraps of the older Greek versions that still exit that show that the Coptic translation adheres more closely to the original than the comparatively free-wheeling Latin translation.  It’s on this ground that I think hinging something on the Coptic could be worth our while.

So, “bloodless”.  Blood is something that is generally fairly important for us as living being, but the Asclepius is generally silent on matters regarding blood.  However, if we expand our scope from that text to classical Hermetic texts generally, we see some super nifty descriptions of blood in the Corpus Hermeticum (CH), namely from the CH X.13—17 where Hermēs talks about soul and its relation to the body generally:

A human soul is carried in this way:  the mind is in the reason; the reason is in the soul; the soul is in the spirit; the spirit, passing through veins and arteries and blood, moves the living thing and, in a manner of speaking, bears it up.  Some hold, therefore, that the soul is blood, mistaking its nature and not seeing that the spirit must first be withdrawn into the soul and then, when the blood thickens and the veins and arteries are emptied, this destroys the living thing; and this is the death of the body.

When the soul rises up to itself, the spirit is drawn into the blood, the soul into the spirit, but the mind, since it is divine by nature, becomes purified of its garments and takes on a fiery body, ranging about everywhere, leaving the soul to judgment and the justice it deserves.

In an earthy body occurs the combining of these garments, my son, for the mind cannot seat itself alone and naked in an earthy body. The earthy body cannot support so great an immortality, nor can so great a dignity endure defiling contact with a body subject to passion. Mind, therefore, has taken the soul as a shroud, and the soul, which is itself something divine, uses the spirit as a sort of armoring-servant. The spirit governs the living being.

The initial bit about “the mind is in the reason, the reason is in the soul, etc.” from CH X.13 also bears a striking resemblance to statements from CH V and CH XII:

(CH V.11) The matter composed of the finest particles is air, but air is soul, soul is mind, and mind is god.

(CH XII.13—14) The blessed god, the good demon, has said that soul is in body, that mind is in soul, that reasoned speech is in mind and that god is their father.  Thus, the finest of matter is air, the finest air is soul, the finest soul is mind and the finest mind is god. And god surrounds everything and permeates everything, while mind surrounds soul, soul surrounds air and air surrounds matter.

It’s taken for granted in the earlier Hermetic treatises that we have souls, and theories and models of the soul are explained in later texts and fragments, but it’s not always clear how the different texts agree with each other, if at all, given the various perspectives and opinions that individual texts espouse.  One of the topics of this intertextual conversation between different Hermetic authors is a discussion regarding how the soul is carried in the body; it’s said time and time again that the soul is somehow carried in the body, whether explicitly or metaphorically, but it’s not always clear how the soul is related to the body.  For the purposes of this present post (this is a super complicated topic, and I’m still working through the details in my own research!), we’ll take for granted that the soul is somehow carried in the body, but using CH X.13—17 as a basis for discussion, we can see that the soul does not directly inhabit the body.  Rather, the soul is better thought of being present within spirit, which itself is present within blood, which is what is present within the body.  This is the solution proposed by CH X to reconcile the difficulty in explaining how an immaterial, incorporeal entity (the soul) can communicate with or control or inhabit a material, corporeal one (the body): by using spirit, as the most incorporeally-corporeal substance which can also be the least corporeally-incorporeal substance, as an intermediary between the two.

On the role of spirit, well…outside the CH X excerpts above, there is comparatively little in the Corpus Hermeticum, or indeed in most of the non-Asclepius Hermetic texts, that talks about spirit (πνεῦμα pneuma) from a technical or scientific perspective; generally it’s at a higher-level, more nebulous sense.  The closest we get is from CH III.1—2, which describes a very high-level cosmology.  I know I have my own translation that I like referring to, but I’ll rely on Copenhaver here as I have in the rest of this post:

In the deep there was boundless darkness and water and fine intelligent spirit, all existing by divine power in chaos. Then a holy light was sent forth, and elements solidified out of liquid essence. And all the gods divide the parts of germinal nature.

While all was unlimited and unformed, light elements were set apart to the heights and the heavy were grounded in the moist sand, the whole of them delimited by fire and raised aloft, to be carried by spirit. The heavens appeared in seven circles, the gods became visible in the shapes of the stars and all their constellations, and the arrangement of this lighter substance corresponded to the gods contained in it. The periphery rotated in the air, carried in a circular course by divine spirit.

Spirit appears to be something that pervades the cosmos, and indeed has its origins described as being something totally cosmic, according to CH I:

(CH I.9) The mind who is god, being androgyne and existing as life and light, by speaking gave birth to a second mind, a craftsman, who, as god of fire and spirit, crafted seven governors; they encompass the sensible world in circles, and their government is called fate.

(CH I.16) When nature made love with the man, she bore a wonder most wondrous. In him he had the nature of the cosmic framework of the seven, who are made of fire and spirit, as I told you, and without delay nature at once gave birth to seven men, androgyne and exalted, whose natures were like those of the seven governors.

(CH I.17) …the birth of the seven was as follows. Earth was the female. Water did the fertilizing. Fire was the maturing force. Nature took spirit from the ether and brought forth bodies in the shape of the man. From life and light the man became soul and mind; from life came soul, from light came mind, and all things in the cosmos of the senses remained thus until a cycle ended and kinds of things began to be.

Spirit is a quality of the Demiurge, and thus of the Logos of God, which proceeds from the Life of God much as the fire of the Demiurge/Logos proceeds from the Light of God; the spirit and fire of the Logos/Demiurge is also what the planets are composed of.  Because fire and spirit are demiurgical/logical correspondences of the divine light and life, respectively, we can also say the same of the mind and soul of humanity.  This correspondence, established all the way back in CH I, associates spirit with soul as ontologically forms of “life” that proceed from the Life of God.  Moreover, spirit is something that pervades and fills the cosmos—perhaps issuing from the planets, or otherwise directed by them, or perhaps which are directed by spirit?—and through spirit, life is possible.

However, when it comes to the Asclepius, there’s quite a bit more specific stuff we can look to regarding the role and activity of spirit, which is generally paired with or contrasted against the role and activity of matter:

(AH 6) The spirit that fills all mixes with everything and enlivens everything.

(AH 14) There was god and hulē (which we take as the Greek for “matter”), and attending matter was spirit, or rather spirit was in matter, but it was not in matter as it was in God nor as the things from which the world came were in God…But hulē (or the nature of matter) and spirit, though from the beginning they seem not to have come to be, nonetheless possess in themselves the power and nature of coming to be and procreating. For the beginning of fertility is in the quality of nature, which possesses in itself the power and the material for conceiving and giving birth. Nature, therefore, can breed alone without conceiving by another.

(AH 16—17) Spirit supplies and invigorates all things in the world; like an instrument or a mechanism it is subject to the will of the supreme god. For now let this be our understanding of these issues. Understood by mind alone, the god called “supreme” is ruler and governor of that sensible god who encloses within him all place, all the substance of things, all the matter of things that produce and procreate, all that there is whatsoever and however much there is.  But spirit stirs and governs all the forms in the world, each according to the nature allotted it by god. Hūle or matter, however, receives them all, spirit stirs and concentrates them all, and god governs them, apportioning to all things in the world as much as each one needs. He fills them all with spirit, breathing it into each thing according to the quality of its nature.

Based on the Asclepius, we have a notion that spirit is what facilitates “the will of God”, for lack of a better term, and which is the means of activity/energy in things as it pervades all things coterminally with matter.  Spirit, being the substance that “enlivens everything” and “stirs and governs all the forms in the world”, is what allows for matter to take on form and energy.   If we combine our understanding of spirit from the Asclepius with the role of it from CH I and CH X, we have this notion that bodies can take on/be affected by energy because all matter is pervaded by spirit, and even some bodies can be alive with spirit alone (i.e. plants, cf. AH 4 and AH 6).  However, there are other bodies that have spirit which itself contains/is inhabited by/is pervaded(?) by soul, and those bodies are what we would call ensouled living beings.

So where am I going with this?  There’s one more bit I need to bring up before I get to my point about how all this ties to vegetarianism: how the soul “works” in the human being.  There’s much in the Stobaean Excerpts (SH) on the soul, but a good introduction to this would be these:

(SH 3.5—8) These are the kinds of souls: divine, human, and non-rational. The divine soul is the energy that propels its divine body, for it moves by itself in its body and also moves its body. When the soul of mortal animals separates from its non-rational parts, it goes off into the divine body which is ever-moving and moved in itself. In this way, the soul circles round the universe. The human soul has a portion of the divine. Yet non-rational elements, namely drive and desire, are attached to it. Drive and desire are also immortal inasmuch as they are energies, the energies of mortal bodies. These energies are far from the divine part when the soul inhabits the divine body. But when this divine part enters a mortal body, drive and desire travel round with it; with them present, a human soul is always the result. The soul of non-rational animals is composed of drive and desire. Accordingly, these animals are called “non-rational”, since their souls lack reason.

(SH 2b.6—8) The reason is, first of all, that the soul must battle with itself, make a violent separation, and be taken advantage of by one part. The battle is of one against two. The one flees, while the others drag it down. Strife and manifold conflicts occur among them—the one part desires to flee, while the others eagerly hold it down. The victory of each part is not the same. The one rushes toward the Good, the others reside with evils. The one yearns to be free, but the others are content with slavery. If the two parts are conquered, they stick to their own affairs, deprived of their ruler. But if the one part is conquered, it is driven by the two and conveyed as a punishment to life in this realm. This discourse, my child, is the guide of the path to the upper world. Before you reach the goal, you must, my child, first abandon your body, conquer this life of struggle, and after conquering, ascend!

(SH 17.1—3) Thus the soul, Ammōn, is a reality perfect in itself. In the beginning, soul chose a life according to Fate and drew to itself a rationality adapted to matter. (The soul) had in its control both drive and desire. Indeed, drive exists as matter. If drive generates a disposition fitted to the soul’s intellect, it becomes courage and does not fade away under fear. Desire, for its part, affords the same possibility. If it is produced as a disposition conforming to the rationality of the soul, it becomes self-control and is not stirred by pleasure. Reasoning fills up the insufficiency of desire. The virtue of justice is born under three conditions: when both drive and desire agree, when they produce a balanced state, and when they are controlled by the soul’s rationality. Their balanced state removes the excessiveness of drive and compensates for the insufficiency of desire.

There’s this Platonic notion in the Stobaean Excerpts of the soul not being the only thing that animates a body; sometimes it’s called the soul put against drive and desire (thumos and epithumia, basically ego-driven needs and id-driven needs to borrow Jungian terms), sometimes it’s called the higher/divine soul put against the lower/animal soul, but the idea here is the same: the soul is the truly divine/higher part of what animates a human body that drives the human onto divine/higher things, while the animal/base/lower soul is what spurs the body on towards animal/base/lower needs and actions.  This notion of drive and desire (expressly and explicitly hammered out by Litwa in his Hermetica II) is super common in the Stobaean Excerpts, but we have to really try to see such a model in texts like the Corpus Hermeticum; this may be a later Platonic import into Hermeticism, or it may be just the Platonic bias of John of Stobi when he compiled his Anthology, but we can get a whiff of similar notions.  Combining this perspective from the Corpus Hermeticum and the Stobaean Excerpts, there’s this notion that part of the process of spiritual elevation/ascent and the salvation of the soul is that we need to live our lives in a way that tames the drive and desire that arises from the body and separates the (higher/divine/proper) soul from this drive and desire.

Which brings me back to someone I mentioned towards the start of this post: Chaeremon of Alexandria, a Stoic philosopher and author of various works regarding Egyptian society, science, religion, and culture who lived in the first century CE (so roughly contemporaneous with the earlier stage of classical Hermeticism).  It is from Chaeremon that we get some really insightful stuff, albeit preserved only in fragments quoted by later authors, regarding the lifestyles and practices of Egyptian priests in post-Ptolemaic/Roman Imperial Hellenistic Egypt.  Given the recent academic leaps in understanding more about the history and context of classical Hermeticism and the development of the Hermetic texts, especially with the discovery of texts like the Demotic Book of Thoth, we have a better appreciation of how much Egyptianity is present in Hermeticism, and how much of that was derived from the philosophy, religiosity, teachings, and practices of Egyptian priests.  A few I’d like to bring up regarding the consumption of animals:

(Jerome, Adversus Iovinianum II.13) They always abstained from meat and wine because of the weakness of the senses and the dizziness in the head which they experienced after a little (of this) food, but especially because of the strong sexual desires that are the results of these kinds of food and drink. They seldom ate bread, in order not to overload their stomachs; and if sometimes they did eat it, they also used pounded hyssop in the food so that by its heat they could consume the more heavy food. They used oil only with vegetables, but this too in small quantities in order to mitigate the nausea and the acid taste. “What should I say”, he said , “about birds, for they (sc. the priests) abstain from egg, too, as if it is meat, and from milk. They said that the former (sc. an egg) was liquid meat, the latter (sc. milk) blood with a changed colour”.

(Porphyry, Epistula ad Anebonem II.8) They also command that their priests must abstain from animal food so as to avoid being stained by the vapours from the carcasses, although they themselves are strongly allured by vapours from sacrifices; and (they command) that the initiate must not touch a dead body, although it is for the most part by means of dead animals that the gods are evoked.

(Porphyry, De abstinentia II.47) Theologians have rightly paid attention to abstinence, and the Egyptian informs us of these things, giving a most natural reason for them which he verified by experience. For since a bad and irrational soul which tried to depart the body after having been detached from it by violence yet stays near to it (because the souls of men who die by violence also keep themselves near to the body—a fact which should prevent one from committing suicide)—since, then, violent slaughter of animals compels souls to delight in the bodies which they leave, the soul is by no means prevented from being in the place to which it is attracted by its kindred. Hence many souls are seen to lament and the souls of the unburied adhere to the bodies, souls which are abused by sorcerers for their own service, pressing them by retaining the body or part of it. Since, therefore, they (sc. the theologians) examined these things and the nature of a bad soul and its relationship to and pleasure in the bodies from which it was torn away, they rightly avoided feeding upon meat.

(Porphyry, De abstinentia IV.7) As to the products of Egypt itself, they abstained from all kinds of fish, and from such quadrupeds as had uncloven hoofs or had toes or had no horns, and also from such birds as were carnivorous. Many of them, however, even entirely abstained from all animals. And in periods of fasting and purification all of them did so; then they did not even eat an egg. But also as to other kinds of food they practised a not unexceptionable rejection; e.g. they rejected the consumption of (female) cows, and of such male animals as were twins, or blemished, or piebald, or of unusual shape, or tamed (considering them as having been already consecrated by their labours), or those resembling animals that are honoured—whatever imitation one may think—or one-eyed, or those that verged on a likeness to the human form…These are some of the religious observances that were common to all, but there were others which varied according to the class of priests and were proper to each individual god. But the periods of purification and fasting observed by all (priests) were clean. This was the period when they were to perform something pertaining to the sacred rites. Then they spent a number of days in preparation, some forty-two, others more, others less, but never less than seven days. And during this time they abstained from all animal food…

(Porphyry, De abstinentia IV.9) They even worship a man in the village Anabis, where they sacrifice and burn the victims for him on the altars; and he may eat, shortly afterwards, the things appropriate to him that have been prepared for him as a man. So, as one should abstain from eating man’s flesh, one should abstain also from the meat of other beings.

Similar bits go on at similar length, and it doesn’t just stop with consuming animals; I’ve even seen some restrictions on priests (not just in Chaeremon) regarding not wearing wool or leather, but I think the most fascinating bit from this is that bit from Porphyry’s De abstinentia II.47 regarding the violence inherent in slaughter and how an avoidance in consuming meat could be theologically grounded in how a soul is attached to the body it was separated from, especially animal souls.  This bit is especially fascinating, because in texts like CH I, SH 23, and other Hermetic or Platonic texts, animals are explicitly called irrational beasts—just as “bad and irrational souls” in this Porphyry excerpt calls them.  We also see that a complete ban on all animal-based food was employed by some priests, if not all priests, and if not at all times, at least for periods of ritual-relevant purification.

I think at this point I have enough evidence at hand to bring up my theory regarding the exhortation to a vegetarian meal at the end of the Prayer of Thanksgiving in the Asclepius.  Let’s sum up everything and trace out an argument that leads to something insightful:

  • Although some corporeal bodies have life (e.g. plants), some corporeal bodies are alive and also animate due to the presence of soul in them.
  • The presence of incorporeal soul in corporeal body is facilitated through spirit and blood; blood is in the body, spirit is in the blood, and soul is in the spirit.  Through this gradation of progressively higher, subtler, more incorporeal, less corporeal substances, we can “embed” or “carry along” incorporeal things within corporeal things in something that looks like a localized manner.
  • Animal souls can be said to be composed of drive and desire (thumos and epithumia), while human souls are a combination of a higher/divine “proper” soul (created by God) along with drive and desire (provided from the animal body we inhabit).
  • The Hermetic idea of salvation is centered around a notion of an “ascent of the soul” away from material, corporeal concerns, and the  Hermetic way of life is likewise centered around taming and controlling the drive and desire of the body so that the soul is not so bound and attached to corporeal, material things.
  • Eating is something that satisfies the body’s epithumia, and we know that matter is what supplies and sustains bodies—but we also know that gluttony is “the supplier of all evils” (cf. CH VI.3, which Copenhaver notes as an allusion to the Egyptian notion that the belly is treated as a “container of sins”).
  • Irrational souls, when parted from the body that contained them, hang around the bodies that they inhabited, and can affect or be affected by things that happen in this world for as long as they linger.
  • Eating meat was seen by the Egyptian priests as causing issues such as dizziness in the head and the arising of strong sexual desires.

My theory is, extracting this from its original (Greco-)Egyptian context and providing a solely-Hermetic opinion according to its own logic, that by consuming the flesh of animals—that which had blood in it—was seen by the Hermeticists (or at least the author of the end of the Asclepius) as also consuming the irrational soul that inhabited that flesh.  Because such irrational souls of animals consist of drive and desire, bringing such drive and desire of the animal we consume makes us more animalian/irrational in turn, increasing our own drive and desire.  Even after the “spirit withdraws into the blood” and “soul withdraws into the spirit”, even if there is no soul left in the body, we might say that there are traces or aftereffects of the soul and spirit in the blood, or at least that such an irrational soul of drive and desire hangs out around the flesh of the animal.  If one of the goals of Hermetic practice is to free the (higher) soul from (the lower soul composed of) drive and desire, that latter being considered to be all the soul that an animal has, then to partake of animal flesh could be seen to add to one’s own drive and desire, weighing one down more; after all, our own souls—or at least the irrational, lower part of it consisting of drive and desire—can be just as easily affected as any other such irrational soul.  To that end, a vegetarian diet is recommended, whether ritually if one were to be strict about it or generally if one wanted a more “pure” lifestyle, so as to avoid the risks that lead one to error and distraction inherent in consuming meat.

Now, I admit that some of that does seem to be a bit of a stretch, and it also raises the question of “how much blood is there in meat?” or “what’s even the point of koshering meat?”.  However, it could be thought (based on what we know of Hermetic ideas regarding soul, spirit, and blood) that because spirit pervades all things, and because soul would also probably need to pervade the body it inhabits, then blood would also need to pervade a body thoroughly—which it does, even if some forms of preparation (osmosis via soaking and salting, roasting, etc.) can remove most of the blood.  Moreover, if this line of thinking is at all similar to what might have gone through a classical Hermeticist’s head, then vegetarianism would be encouraged, not as a matter of animal welfare or respect for metempsychosis, but more like a Chinese Buddhist abstaining from the Five Pungent Spices, not because they were somehow sinful to consume in and of themselves but because they “excited the senses” (e.g. make you sexually excitable, or otherwise heedless in favor of seeking pleasure), and thus more prone to committing errors in one’s lifestyle and practice.  Not only would vegetarianism then be appropriate for ritual preparation or meals (we should avoid engaging in things that drag the soul down if we’re aiming to elevate the soul), but this line of thinking would naturally lead to a vegetarian lifestyle in general, even outside of ritual.  Consuming blood itself, of course, would be right out, whether in liquid or congealed form or in forms like blood sausage, but anything containing blood in any amount—especially that of a slaughtered lifeform—would be considered something that could drag the human soul down or otherwise increase the potency of one’s drive and desire to a point that could cause problems in their life.

Of course, if this is the logic, then there also probably arises the possibility of not just exsanguinating slaughtered animals in a way similar to koshering meat to remove the vast majority of blood, but also of just outright exorcising the meat we eat so that it becomes sanctified in a way that doesn’t drag us down by pumping up our drive and desire—but this kind of side-stepping doesn’t seem to be extant in the historical record available to us, and either wasn’t considered possible or wasn’t considered plausible.  Despite my quoting excerpts of Chaeremon above, I’m not fully acquainted with the nuances of Egyptian priestly prohibitions on consuming meat, but there may be something in there that’s just not avoidable, something inherently “exciting” about consuming meat which was seen as tainting or distracting from spiritual and religious endeavors.

To my mind, this is the most likely reason for encouraging vegetarianism in Hermeticism, whether for ritual purposes itself or for a more general lifestyle.  This doesn’t, however, touch on other common reasons for vegetarianism that we might hear about from other traditions in the classical world; I suggest that these, while they are reasons, are not Hermetic reasons.  To wit, what I’d consider to be the most common classical argument for vegetarianism and against consuming meat, dealing with metempsychosis or the transmigration of souls, isn’t what was thought of as a reason for Hermetic vegetarianism.  While Hermeticism certainly has a notion of reincarnation and the transmigration of souls in a number of texts, there is also a notion that human souls can only be born in human bodies (cf. CH X.19, though contrast this against CH X.8 which seems to state the opposite).  Unlike those who considered souls to be reborn in any sort of lifeform, it seems like that reincarnation and metempsychosis of human souls in Hermeticism is generally limited to human bodies—and if not, it seems like what animals go through as a matter of them being animals is a matter of deserved punishment for such a soul that had the ill fate to be born in such a body.  That a soul you might know in life could be reborn in an animal body does not seem to be a reason, according to the logic of the Hermetic texts, to outright encourage vegetarianism (though one could take that as a personal stance, should one so choose).

Besides this, the other major thumos-/epithumia-unrelated argument I can think of is that humans should be nonviolent.  This is more unclear than the previous reason, but was also a super common reason to encourage vegetarianism, as a means of recalling a sort of Golden Age lifestyle where there was no need for violence or slaughter.  There is nothing stated outright or explicitly in any of the Hermetic texts I can think of that say one should be nonviolent in general, but it could be read that reasonable nonviolence could be encouraged as a matter of abstaining from “unholy presumption and daring recklessness” (CH I.25) or injustice (CH XIII.7—8).  I think that this stance could be justified as a reason for encouraging vegetarianism, whether ritually or generally, perhaps as a means by which one might abstain from violence.  Moreover, although this suggests that all acts of violence are necessarily irrational, and although it could be seen to play into the drive-and-desire reason from before, this really only really address the slaughter of animals, not the consumption of them.  To me, this is a grey area; while one can take this as reason, I don’t think it’s the reason for encouraging vegetarianism in a Hermetic context.

At this point, here I am well over twice the wordcount I normally post (though a good chunk of that was quotations), at the end of this post that only touches on a super complicated topic to talk about; to even just discuss the question “why vegetarianism?” from this perspective raises a whole slew of other questions that might need to be answered first, to say nothing of bringing up so many other topics all at once that hinges on the nature of the soul, and the very notion of the soul in the Hermetic texts also necessarily brings up the teleology and eschatology of the soul, the “end goal” and “destination” of the soul, along with so much else in the doctrine of the Hermetic texts.  What I brought up above only barely scratches the surface of such a discussion—maybe I’ll have a series of posts detailing a Hermetic “theory of soul” at some point in the future, but that’s not now.  In the meantime, this is just my own thinking of half-baked thoughts to come up with a preliminary theory that arises from a super complicated topic.  Still, I think it’s a useful theory to go by because of how much of an impact it could have for our lived practice in the here and now, and such a theory could open up other interesting avenues of exploring spiritual practice in various approaches using all the means available at our disposal.

And, of course, a bit of nuance to round out this post: while I wouldn’t outright suggest that everyone should commit to a vegetarian lifestyle in general, I think that doing so at least for short stints as part of purification practices or while engaging in ritual is a highly recommended thing, and those who do commit generally to a vegetarian lifestyle would probably find themselves better suited to spiritual practices and development along the lines of classical Hermeticism.  I fully recognize and support that some people require animal-based proteins in their diet for their health and well-being, and I also know that many cultures emphasize the consumption of meat in one form or another as part of a healthy and socially-acceptable diet even while some in that culture simultaneously encourage vegetarianism as an ideal (e.g. Tibetan Buddhists in the vegetation-scarce Tibetan Plateau).  I do not write this post to shame people into abandoning meat (or animal-based products generally); far from it, I write this post to offer a theory about why this one specific classical Hermetic text encourages a vegetarian meal, and do not suggest by it that Hermeticists must be vegetarian in general or that non-vegetarians cannot be Hermeticists.  After all, Hermeticism is less of a temple cult or institutionalized religion, and many such religions require the consumption of meat for religious purposes as a means of communion or medicine, to say nothing of the various practices calling for the offering of meat or the ritual slaughter or sacrifice of animals for religious or magical ends.  Still, within a Hermetic scope, vegetarianism is (to my mind) encouraged by the Hermetic texts as one of the (many) means of continuing the process of spiritual elevation that we seek, and one that is required for ritual contexts even if not more generally as a lifestyle diet, though I would not say one cannot be a Hermeticist if one is not vegetarian in their day-to-day diet.

PS: One more thing, though—and this is more of a side-topic than anything—relating to ensoulment of bodies.  If, following the logic of CH X, souls can only be present in body with spirit-carried-along-by-blood acting as an intermediator, what of the “ensouled statues” of AH 24 and AH 37—38?  These are physical, material, and corporeal bodies that the Hermeticist calls down gods to inhabit, but what allows such a soul to inhabit such a body?  AH 38 says that “the quality of these gods” is composed of:

…a mixture of plants, stones and spices, Asclepius, that have in them a natural power of divinity. And this is why those gods are entertained with constant sacrifices, with hymns, praises and sweet sounds in tune with heaven’s harmony: so that the heavenly ingredient enticed into the idol by constant communication with heaven may gladly endure its long stay among humankind. Thus does man fashion his gods.

I would propose that, in the compounding of these substances to effect the ensoulment of a statue, the “plants, stones and spices” act as a statue’s “blood”, because (since they “have in them a natural power of divinity”) these things are able to carry soul-laden spirit in a way that blood is also able to do for us.  Moreover, it is also through the interaction of humans with these statues by means of sacrifice and worship and hymning that we keep such a thing “alive”, as if these things provided the pulse for the circulation of such “blood”.  What this indicates to me is that, while spirit pervades all things in the cosmos, some things are able to facilitate or contain more of spirit, or are able to contain a more rarefied kind of spirit.  In this case, having an abundance of spirit or a fineness of spirit is what allows incorporeal soul to interact with or inhabit it, and through it with corporeal bodies.  This is an extrapolation on my part, combining the doctrine of how soul is embodied from CH X with the description of ensouled statues from the AH, and could also stand to be refined heavily given other stuff throughout the Hermetic texts, but it is an interesting idea to play with.

Reviewing the Trithemian Conjuration: Attire and Purificatory Preparations

Where were we? We’re in the middle of discussing the early modern conjuration ritual The Art of Drawing Spirits Into Crystals (DSIC), attributed to the good abbot of Spanheim, Johannes Trithemius, but which was more likely invented or plagiarized from another more recent source by Francis Barrett in his 1801 work The Magus, or Celestial Intelligencer. Many who are familiar with it either read it directly from Esoteric Archives, came by it through Fr. Rufus Opus (Fr. RO) in either his Red Work series of courses (RWC) or his book Seven Spheres (SS), or came by it through Fr. Ashen Chassan in his book Gateways Through Stone and Circle (Fr. AC and GTSC, respectively). I’ve been reviewing the tools, techniques, and technology of DSIC for my own purposes as well as to ascertain the general use and style used by other magician in the real world today, and today we can move on to other topics Last time, we discussed all the considerations we’d need to make, create, obtain, and consecrate the tools called for by DSIC. If you need a refresher on what we talked about last time, go read the last post!

Okay, so we’ve got all the stuff that DSIC calls for, right? It’s been procured or made in some way or another, according to the outlines of consecration we’ve been able to pluck together from a variety of grimoires that more-or-less fall in line with what we’re doing. Now we can start setting up for the actual ritual, right? Well…we’re not quite done talking about equipment yet, as it turns out. We’ve covered all the designs, forms, functions, materials, and consecrations that we’d need to take care of for the DSIC equipment, but once we get ready to implement the DSIC ritual itself with all these tools and things we’ve now got, whether done by-the-book or made in with lenient or freewheeling substitutions, there are a few more things that we need to consider for the conjuration ritual.

As I mentioned last time, I took some things for granted in the list of materials you’d need for DSIC. I assume, for instance, that you have a resource to obtain or a method to create holy water, holy oil, basic incenses, consecrated chalk or charcoal, a stool or chair, a small table to act as an altar, and the like. This also assumes, of course, that you have things like lighters, candle snuffers, scissors or utility knives, spare candles and candle holders, extra fabric, extra pen and paper, and the like, just basic stuff that every temple should have or every magician should have on hand. But even beyond that, there are a few other things to consider for DSIC that aren’t explicitly discussed there but which we still need to here.

First up? Attire. This topic isn’t brought up by DSIC itself, so there’s nothing said about it, its material, or its consecrations in DSIC, but it’s important enough to talk about here. The three big suggestions for attire when it comes to rituals like this come from the Heptameron, Agrippa (book IV, chapter 10), and the Key of Solomon (book II, chapter 6), respectively:

  1. “Let it be a priest’s garment, if it can be had, let it be of linen, and clean.”
  2. “You shall also have a long garment of white linen, close before and behinde, which may cover the whole body and the feet, and girt about you with a girdle. You shall also have a veil of pure clean linen, and in the fore-part thereof let there be fixed golden or gilded Lamens, with the inscription of the name Tetragrammaton; all which things are to be sanctified and consecrated in order…[and] with your feet naked.”
  3. “…ought to be of linen, as well as those which he weareth beneath them; and if he hath the means they should be of silk. If they be of linen the thread of which they are made should have been spun by a young maiden…shoes or boots should be made of white leather, on the which should be marked the signs and characters of art. These shoes should be made during the days of fast and abstinence, namely, during the nine days set apart before the beginning of the operation, during which the necessary instruments also should be prepared, polished, brightened, and cleaned.”

If you want to go the extra mile and be period-authentic by-the-book, then have at; it is technically what the grimoires themselves recommend. Do I recommend it? No. In my opinion, you do not need to wear a robe. You don’t. I don’t know what else to tell you. Unless you’re actually involved in a clerical or monastic order that wears robes, or unless you want to cosplay or LARP for your present-day ceremony with anachronistic garb that will waste more of your money and time than might give you spiritual or mental benefit, then there’s no need. We don’t live in the 1500s anymore when robes were actually a common sight and had cultural meaning beyond “weirdo”. You can get modern-day jalabiyyas, thobes, or similar garments worn by Muslims and Bedouins in north Africa, the Middle East, and southeast Asia if you want, but this is just simply not a priority or a concern for the vast majority of us.

Now, if you are in a priestly order? Wear priestly garments, if you wish and if you feel comfortable with it. If you’re in a monastic order? Well, chances are you’ll be wearing your habit anyway, because it’s just what you wear. But otherwise, don’t bother, don’t fret, and don’t worry about it. If you’re not a Christian priest or a Christian monk, or Christian at all, there’s no need to dress like one. Wear what befits your station and authority. I claim that the whole point of dressing in priestly garments in the grimoires, if you weren’t already a priest, was to get you in the mindset of being a representative of Divinity and taking on the authority and license as befits such a priest, and looking the part can trick the brain into believing it. But let’s be honest: most people wouldn’t be able to tell a proper priest’s garment from a discount Halloween costume from that one weird store in that shopping center across town, especially nowadays when there are fewer and fewer actual Christians who actually recognize what the priest actually is and stands for in the cosmos. If you’re not in that mindset, you don’t need to oblige yourself by forcing yourself into it.

Also, if you’re not in the Christian clergy of at least the level of a deacon? Do not wear a stole. This isn’t something to argue with or disagree with: do not wear a stole. I don’t care what Fr. AC says; you do not wear a stole unless you’ve actually taken holy orders in the Christian clergy. To do otherwise is disrespectful to the priesthood and makes you out to be something you’re not, just as if you were to wear Lukumí religious bead-jewelry reserved for initiates as a mark of their initiation, or a Plains Indian war bonnet when you haven’t earned the right to. You can wear something else instead of a stole, like a scarf or cape or sash or mantle or shawl or something, but wearing a proper stole is effectively appropriation of a legitimate emblem of a legitimate priesthood for the sake of LARPing; wearing a stole without having earned the right to do so in a ritual like this makes a mockery of those who have actually earned the right to wear it. Unless you’ve actually taken holy orders, do not wear a stole.

Now, should you have some sort of “temple garments”? Absolutely! Don’t get me wrong: I do think that wearing special clothing reserved for ceremonies, and ideally white clothing at that, is important, as is dressing modestly and in a way that covers most of the body for both protection and purity. I do certainly think having a set of clothes you put on for Doing Formal Magic is a highly recommended practice for getting you into the proper mindset. But does it need to be a full-body robe made of white linen? I like robes and I like linen, but no, it doesn’t. You can get a new white cotton hoodie and new white sweatpants, or get a new set of white scrubs, and those will work fine as standard all-around all-purpose temple/ritual wear. I know this might seem weird, if we’re spending so much time and money on the rest of DSIC/conjuration equipment, but I don’t consider the clothes we wear—which are necessarily products of the time and culture we’re living in, as opposed to the tools and names we’re using—to be nearly as important as the other things we discussed in the last post. But, like I said, if you want to go with full-blown robes (and I have my own set I do wear periodically for some rituals, consecrated according to the Key of Solomon, sacred signs and all), then by all means, have at! But this sort of sartiorial choice is about as far as it could get from being a priority in my opinion.

That said, if you want to, you can customize your look for specific rituals instead of donning your preferred default temple garments; in other words, dress for the part. This is something that Fr. RO uses to its max in SS: when interacting with a particular planet, dress for that planet. For Mars? Wear a set of camo BDUs or a martial arts uniform or similar “armor” or “battlegear”. For Jupiter? A three-piece business suit with cufflinks and a silk tie, the more expensive the better. For Venus? Luxurious clothing that makes you feel Good, something you could go to a high-class danceclub in. Et cetera, ad nauseam. I’ve used these outfits before, and I find it great for getting into the mindset of particular planets; it can certainly be a boon, especially if you’re trying to build up as much resonance as possible with the planet and its spirits that you’re about to interact with. Fr. AC, who prefers the LARP approach of wearing robes, says that wearing robes in the color of that planet can be an option, modern though it may be, but he would rather keep the robe white (which I don’t disagree with) and use a girdle (a loose belt) instead colored appropriately. I think that’s a pretty fair approach; our scrubs/sweatpants-and-hoodie approach might use a colored scarf, keffiyeh, sash, or other piece of fabric to do similarly. Either way, it’s up to you whether you pick the the full-costume approach, colored-robe approach, or white-garments-with-an-accent-color approach; I don’t consider it essential, but it can be helpful under the proper circumstances.

Whatever you select for your temple garments, whether scrubs or sweats or linen robes or priestly costume or whatever, keep them clean and in good condition, don’t wear them when not engaged in temple work, and don’t engage in any sort of ill-mannered, immodest behavior while wearing them (unless specifically called for by the ritual, but that’s not a concern for us with DSIC). If you want, you can consecrate your garments using the method from the Key of Solomon (book II, chapter 6), even going so far as stitching on the proper symbols and the like in red silk thread, but that’s still overkill for most people; unless you’re specifically working the Key of Solomon, then you can just throw them in the washing machine with some holy water and call it a day. You can keep this simple and modern based on what you can find accessible and appropriate.

When putting on your temple garments, there are prayers in Solomonic literature, ranging from the Heptameron to the Key of Solomon (same chapter as mentioned above) to the Secret Grimoire of Turiel, that you’ll say when putting on your clothing for your ritual; if you have a girdle (or scarf, sash, etc.) to wear in addition to your temple garments, then recite the blessing of the girdle from the Secret Grimoire of Turiel. You should be in a state of purity for putting on your temple garments, since you’re (a) about to literally clothe yourself with something made holy and pure (b) are about to engage in ritual work because you must have a need to put on temple garments.  Since DSIC doesn’t bring up any specific prayers or anything about clothing, we don’t need to bring up the specific prayers here, but you can use them (or not) as you wish or desire.

But that brings up an important topic on its own: how do we purify ourselves and otherwise spiritually prepare for the work to be done? There are basically three things that we need to do every day for a certain number of days leading up to a ritual of this nature, especially for the first time we contact a spirit or begin working with a planet that we’ve hitherto never formally contacted before:

  1. Fast.
  2. Ablute.
  3. Pray.

First, fasting. For this topic, I’ll just link to a post I wrote a bit ago on that topic extensively that I encourage you to read. You could simply do a water fast (i.e. abstaining from all food and only drinking pure water) or a water-and-bread fast; either of those are good if you wanted to be extreme about this part, or you could just abstain from meat and alcohol and keep the rest of your diet more-or-less the same. However you can limit your attachments, pleasures, indulgences, and addictions to worldly substances and behaviors, do it. This also typically and especially includes any and all sexual activity, whether performed alone or with anyone else in any number; not only do we want to fast from food, we also want to fast from all distracting, immodest, and mundane behaviors, for we are about to engage in a work of holiness and divinity, and need to sufficiently detach ourselves from the world in order to do so. Read my post on fasting, both for food and behaviors, and take it as food for thought.

Next, ablution. Abluting refers to the act of spiritually cleansing and washing yourself; if fasting is purifying yourself from the inside out, ablution is purifying yourself from the outside in. Just as we fast and abstain from worldly things and behaviors to make sure that we go in with clean hearts and minds into a ritual, we need to cleanse ourselves to make sure that we go in with clean hands and mouths, too. Spiritual hygiene mitigates the spiritual problems we encounter in the world, and reduces the influence they have when we engage in ritual. Not only that, but in this sort of ritual, we’re coming into direct contact with divinity in a sacred setting; tracking in worldly filth and spiritual garbage is disrespectful to the work we’re doing, the spirits we’re engaging with, and the God we’re calling upon.

And, last and best of all, prayer. This is essentially the warm-up exercise we do before we engage in the heavy lifting of ritual, and helps us get in tune with both God as well as the spirits we’re about to conjure. In effect, if we maintain a proper prayer practice and earnestly pray every day in the lead-up to the ritual, we’ve basically focused ourselves so much for so long, seeking to adapt ourselves to the work at hand, that by the time we even light the first candle, we’ve practically already put into the contact of the spirit, just not in any focused way. And that’s on top of the purificatory power of prayer, too! If fasting cleanses the body from the inside out and ablution from the outside in, then prayer cleanses not the body but the mind, spirit, and soul, which helps both our fasting practices and our ablution practices to be more efficacious all the while.

How long do we engage in these practices for? Different texts specify different lengths:

  • Agrippa (book IV, chapter 10): a full lunar month leading up to the ritual or, alternatively, forty days, increasing one’s strictness on the day of the ritual itself
  • Heptameron: nine days, increasing one’s strictness on the final three days
  • Key of Solomon (book II, chapter 4): nine days, increasing one’s strictness on the final three days, and increasing it even more on the day of the ritual itself
  • Secret Grimoire of Turiel: seven days

Personally, I think seven days of maintaining purifying practices is sufficient. If you want to go for longer, by all means have at! Keeping up such practices can certainly be worth the trouble, and I cannot argue with going longer if that’s what you can manage. Any less than seven days, well…personally, I consider that one should purify themselves for a bare minimum of three days, and that only if they honestly can’t manage longer than that for some reason—and, honestly, at that point, I’d be wondering what else is going on, because if it’s something that significant or major, then maybe it’s just not the best time to do that ritual. Only in cases of emergency should one skip the purifying phase of preparation, but the fact that it’s an emergency indicates that (a) you probably messed up somewhere along the line and should work it off in other ways than cheapening yourself and the ritual by skipping the purifying process (b) the purifying process is even more worthwhile and necessary than if it wasn’t an emergency.

Also, just as a note? I’m increasingly finding it important to maintain purification practices both before and after a ritual. So, in my recommendation, I’d suggest that you’d spend at least seven days purifying yourself and keeping yourself pure before the ritual, and at least a bare minimum of three days, preferably seven, afterwards as well. This helps you to better incorporate the effects from the ritual in a way without getting immediately tangled up in mundane, worldly, or fleshy matters again, and gives you time to ease back into living a normal life.

Just as different texts specify different lengths for pre-ritual purification, so too do they often offer specifics on the kinds of things to be done. Ablution, for instance, could just be bathing twice a day, or it could also be specifically washing yourself with holy water, or it might also include a daily anointing with holy oil after bathing proper. Fasting, as mentioned, isn’t just about food, but about our behaviors as well; as the Key of Solomon says in the aforementioned chapter:

…is absolutely necessary to ordain and to prescribe care and observation, to abstain from all things unlawful, and from every kind of impiety, impurity, wickedness, or immodesty, as well of body as of soul; as, for example, eating and drinking superabundantly, and all sorts of vain words, buffooneries, slanders, calumnies, and other useless discourse; but instead to do good deeds, speak honestly, keep a strict decency in all things, never lose sight of modesty in walking, in conversation, in eating and drinking, and in all things…

As for the kind of prayer we should cite? This could be something as easy as just partaking in Mass every day during this period, if you’re Christian, or it could be through the recitation of a particular prayer once a day, or once in the morning and twice in the evening, and the like. The prayer from the Arbatel (aphorism II.14) is a wonderful choice for this, but the Key of Solomon prayer from the same aforementioned chapter plus the confession and subsequent prayer from book I, chapter 4 are also excellent, as is the First Morning Prayer from the Secret Grimoire of Turiel or the orison from book II, chapter 12 from the Sacred Magic of Abramelin. No matter which prayer you consider, the basic things we pray for that tend to be common across grimoires are include, but are not limited to:

  • recognizing, admitting to ourselves, and regretting the errors we make by doing the wrong things or doing things wrongly
  • seeking help in assistance in our lives generally to lead better lives and to make the world better
  • seeking help through holy works specifically to lead better lives and to make the world better
  • seeking the assistance of the particular spirit we wish to conjure, that God will permit us to contact the spirit and the spirit to be allowed to be present for us and communicate with us
  • recognizing our place in the world, both as base creatures of flesh and blood as well as spiritual creatures made in the image of God
  • recognizing the place and power of God

I don’t think it’s all that important which prayer you use, or whether you use any pre-written prayers instead of praying from the heart, so long as you pray appropriately. At least, of course, if you’re using DSIC, because no preliminary or preparatory work is specified. If we were working a grimoire or other text that specifies a prayer to use, then we’d be using that, but for DSIC, I’d recommend something along the lines of either the Arbatel prayer or the First Morning Prayer from the Secret Grimoire of Turiel.

Given that these grimoires generally, and DSIC specifically, were written within a predominantly Christian context, the prayers we use are essentially Christian prayers (or Abrahamic generally in the case of the Key of Solomon or the Abramelin). That being said, prayers and process work no matter what religion you practice; the only thing I wouldn’t recommend is if you partake in the Holy Eucharist of Mass if you’re not baptized in the church. However, I do recognize that many people aren’t comfortable with Christian prayers or calling upon Jesus—and, after all, one of the whole reasons for my writing this series of posts to begin with is to analyze the DSIC ritual to both flesh it out as well as have a firm foundation in what it’s specifically doing so I can make my own less-Christian more-Hermetic approach for my own purposes that more closely aligns with my general practices. If you’re not comfortable with these prayers as given by DSIC and other grimoires in the Western magical tradition, then I think Fr. AC’s advice in GTSC is solid here: sit with the ritual (like I am now), and compose your own prayers that match the wording and intent of the original as closely as possible ahead of time. Fr. RO does this in RWC and SS, and I’ve seen a few other variants over the years (mostly privately shared) to make them less Jesus-y and more Hermetic-y or Hellenic-y. This is an acceptable variation and, if done right, won’t have an impact on the effect of the ritual.

Though, that said, I personally question the logic of conjuring angels who by definition are subject to God and who are not the various gods or goddesses or divinities of other pantheons without also having at least some token or intellectual acceptance of the existence of God. I find a belief in God, whether you want to conceive of the God of Abraham or the Nous of Hermēs Trismegistus or the One of Plato or the philosophical Zeus Pantokrator of other Hellenic philosophers and theurges, to be more than simply useful in these sorts of rituals. I can’t tell you how to live your life, nor can I tell you what you ought to believe, but while the wording of the prayers can be changed in DSIC, the fundamental cosmology it taps into with God, the One, the Summum Bonum at the top isn’t so flexible. There is a notion of a divine hierarchy and ultimate power upon whom we call, can enter into, and serve as divine ambassadors of authority and True Will that’s part of Hermetic practice that I cannot divest my perspectives, practices, or DSIC from. While I don’t doubt that there are ways around this, I can’t think of any that would make sense to me at the moment, so I won’t try to come up with them. I will be taking a monistic approach to divinity for the sake of the later DSIC posts; whether you want to interpret this as monotheistic (as in Abrahamic traditions), monolatric (worshiping only one god without denying the existence of others), or polytheism with a single central authority (as is common in many of the PGM texts and other Hermetic or proto-Hermetic works) is up to you.  We’ll return to the notion of a de-Christianized DSIC later on in this series.

Anyway, back to the topic of prayer. Though I don’t think the extreme length of a lunar month or of 40 days is necessary, I do like Agrippa’s method best here for how we go about the daily prayer (book IV, chapter 10). Basically, we first set up our temple space, including exorcising and cleansing it, and set up the altar for the conjuration, but keeping the necessary things covered with a clean white linen cloth. Every day, we purify ourselves, get changed into our temple garments, burn sacred lights (which ideally shouldn’t go out during the preparatory period, changing them out as necessary), burn sacred incense, and pray at the altar as we need. On the day of the ritual, we cleanse ourselves one last time, anoint ourselves with oil, and pray (which effectively consecrates us for the ritual, too!), then we uncover the consecrated objects on the altar and perform the conjuration.

But this all assumes we know how to set up the temple space generally and the altar of conjuration specifically, and we haven’t touched on that yet. We will next time.

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

Another wonderful question from Curious Cat:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Restrictions on what food or drink is permissible :

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

Restrictions on how food or drink is cooked or processed:

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

Restrictions on when we eat or drink:

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

Restrictions on how we eat or drink:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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