Genius in the Picatrix: The Ritual Itself, and Why Do It Anyway

Last time, we started talking about a particularly interesting bit of the Ġāyat al-Ḥakīm, the “Goal of the Wise”, sometimes just known as the Ġayah, but definitely better known in the West as the Picatrix, most likely written in Arabic sometime in the middle of the 11th century CE.  Everyone knows the Picatrix, everyone loves the Picatrix; it’s a fantastic text of astrological magic, and among the earliest of true grimoires in Europe.  Although focused on what we’d nowadays call stellar image magic, the creation of astrological talismans bearing magical images and scenes made under particular stellar configurations, the text is famous for its wide inventory of bizarre magical concoctions and confections for a variety of purposes, its lengthy invocations to the planetary spirits, and its preservation of older pagan practices from the Hermetists, Sabians, Nabataeans, and various other Mediterranean peoples.  It is not, however, a particularly theurgical text on the whole, even though it contains a wealth of information on philosophy, spiritual and cosmic frameworks, and the like in how and why magic works the way that it does.  Yet, in book III, chapter 6, we encounter an interesting section on the “Perfect Nature”, a sort of guiding spirit or genius, originally encountered by Hermēs Trismegistus himself.  The last post discussed some of the symbolic components and associations we can make to the four powers of Perfect Nature; if you need a refresher on what we talked about last time, go read the last post!

Anyway, at this point, we now have everything prepared for the ritual, including ourselves.  Once the ritual area has been prepared with the candy confection made, the altar and braziers/censers have been set up appropriately, and the Moon has entered the first degree of Aries (ideally at the very moment of the Moon entering the first degree of Aries), perform the ritual:

  1. Light the candle, then put it in the middle of the dish with the candy confection (if the candle is encased in glass or another foodsafe material, or if the dish itself has a space for the candle), or immediately next to it towards the east if this is not possible.
  2. Fill the two braziers/censers with burning coals or otherwise light the coals in the braziers/censers, and set frankincense and mastic in the one to the north and aloeswood in the other to the south.  Alternatively, if using self-igniting stick/cone incense, light those now in the same order.
  3. Stand upright to the west of the altar facing east towards the altar.
  4. Recite the four names of the spirits of Perfect Nature seven times, whether using the Latin Picatrix version:

    Meegius, Betzahuech, Vacdez, Nufeneguediz

    Or the Arabic Picatrix version:

    Tamāġīs, Baġdīswād, Waġdās, Nūfānāġādīs

  5. Recite the following prayer (my own version, synthesized from the translations of Greer/Warnock, Attrell/Porreca, and Atallah/Kiesel):

    I call you, o high and powerful Spirit of Spirits, o Wisest of the Wise, o Intelligent of all Intelligence, o Knowledgeable of the Knowledge of the whole world!  It is from you that the knowledge and understanding of the wise proceed, and it is by your virtue that the desires of the wise are accomplished.  Hear me, answer me, come to me, be present here with me; unite me with your powers and draw me close to your knowledge; strengthen me with your knowledge, and grant me to understand what I do not understand, know the things I do not know, and see the things I do not see!  Remove from me and protect me from all blindness, corruption, forgetfulness, and disease.  Lift me up to the level of the ancient sages, those whose hearts were filled with intelligence, wisdom, understanding, and insight.  Let all this abide in my heart forever; imprint and affix these things in my heart, that they may never depart from me!

  6. Engage in communion with the Perfect Nature.

That’s it.  For all the complexity of much of what’s in the Picatrix, as far as ingredients or elections or supplies are concerned, this ritual is surprisingly simple and straightforward.  Let the candle burn out on its own, then disassemble the altar and ritual area.

After the directions above, the Latin Picatrix and its translations then say that one is to proceed to the table and partake in the wine, oils, and confection as desired as a sacred feast.  This suggests to me that the altar (or another table in the ritual area) may also have other foodstuffs on it in addition to the wine and oils, e.g. breads, cakes, and the like, but with the candy confection being of primary importance.  More than that, however, the Latin Picatrix and its translations say that the one who performs this ritual is to proceed to the table and feast “with their friends”, indicating that this is a sacred feast to be held and shared not just with one’s own Perfect Nature, but with others who may wish to commune with them as well, or with one’s students or colleagues in the Work.  Because multiple people might be involved, all potentially having different planetary rulerships, having this ritual timed along to a particular planet’s hour/day, rising/culminating, or its sign(s) rising or culminating or having braziers/censers intentionally made with a particular planetary metal may not be advisable, depending on who will be there participating in the ritual.  If on your own or with people who share the same ruling planet, then this could be a good idea for all involved, but otherwise, it might be better to forego such a consideration.

However, I should also note that, although this notion of a sacred communal meal is appealing, it is entirely absent from the Atallah/Kiesel translation—and thus, likely from the Arabic Picatrix in general.  The Atallah/Kiesel translation says nothing about proceeding to the table to partake of whatever is on it, nor anything about sharing a meal with one’s friends.  In fact, later on in the Atallah/Kiesel translation, there’s even a bit that suggests that doing this communally may not be a good idea in general:

Aristotle mentioned in his book also that the first philosopher that worked with these talismans and had the spirits appear to him and led him to the wonders of talismans and made him connect with his perfect nature and opened his eyes to the mysterious secrets of creation.  Also those spirits that told him will never appear to anyone else but you, unless they call our name and present a gift of sacrifice in our name.

This is made all the more confusing, given that the Perfect Nature (or “familiar spirit”) of Caraphzebiz told him in the Latin Picatrix:

“I will remain with you, but do not reveal me to others or speak of me, and make sacrifices in my name.”

In this light, the Picatrix strongly seems to suggest that it would perhaps be best that this whole ritual be done individually, or as an act of sacrifice to one’s own Perfect Nature, whether or not a teacher or mystagogue was present to direct and arrange the ritual for you, and even then, that would probably be best up to that mystagogue’s own Perfect Nature.  In this light, the offerings of wine, oil, and candy may all be a sacrifice to this spirit, not to be consumed by the person performing the ritual.  I suppose, however, at that point, you’d be listening to the directives of your Perfect Nature, who may invite you to partake in it all the same.  It’s unclear; it’s interesting that the Latin Picatrix would include such a shift in ritual directives that the Arabic Picatrix does not, while still holding to the same overall idea elsewhere.

Also, would it be strange that Perfect Nature should give Hermēs Trismegistus a prayer that seeks to make him like “the ancient sages”, given how ancient Hermēs himself is and given how Hermēs is considered to be the founder of so much of philosophy and science?  Not really; we find references in the Asclepius and Stobaean Fragments that the Hermēs we call Trismegistus is but one in a line of Hermai, and likewise for Asclepius from the earlier and more famous deified Imhotep.  Hermēs Trismegistus himself in the Hermetic writings is not just the author of ancient wisdom, but an initiator and preserver of wisdom that was established even before his time.  And, in a much later Abrahamic cultural milieu that, despite ennobling and praising him, still puts him down as a mere pagan, while Islam and Christianity were seen as pristine and purer forms of philosophy and religion dating back to the beginning of the world, this prayer allows for both a connection deeper into the Hermetic mysteries as well as more generalized divine ones that go back to the beginning of all Creation.  Depending on how you look at it, of course; given how the Picatrix also preserves outright pagan and non-Abrahamic practices, holding to an Abrahamic interpretation of what Perfect Nature can tie into is not necessarily a given.  All the same, it is something neat to pick up on here.

So, all that being said, that’s the approach one should take to understanding and communing with the Perfect Nature from book III, chapter 6 of the Picatrix.  At what point should one do this?  I mean, yes, this can be done anytime the Moon is in the first degree of Aries, and judging by the various forms of the Picatrix, this should be done at least once a year by everyone, but at what point in one’s spiritual practice, especially if one takes a Picatrix-heavy or -centric approach, should one undertake this?  I’d argue that it should be one of the very first things actually done, as opposed to study alone.  After all, if what the Picatrix says is true, that:

  • nothing “in this science” can be perfected, done, or accomplished except when the virtues and dispositions of the planets and stars allow it
  • Perfect Nature strengthens the intellect and wisdom of those who seek to do these works
  • each sage has their own proper virtue infused into them according to the works of Perfect Nature in conjunction with the powers of their own ruling planet
  • that perfecting one’s Perfect Nature grants knowledge, understanding, success, increase of wealth and station, protection from harm, and “many other things”

…then communing with and perfecting one’s Perfect Nature is essential for spiritual works, and not just in the Picatrix.  The Picatrix is tapping into a long-standing cross-cultural tradition of communing with and learning from one’s own agathodaimōn, genius, paredos, tutelar, guardian angel, or whatever you want to call it, yet it also takes on a specific association with the particular “powers of the sage” here that furthers mere education into something much, much more.  Note that the Picatrix says that the sages of old “taught all knowledge and subtleties of philosophy” before giving their students the means to work with Perfect Nature, indicating that the students of the wise first needed to understand what things are before how to make the best use of them, and that while the sages could certainly teach what can be done and how they do it, it’s one’s own Perfect Nature that teaches the how, what, and why of what each individual should best do for themselves.  Perfect Nature is the solution to the intractable problems of life that no sage, philosopher, or teacher can answer: as Hermēs says, Perfect Nature is that “by which is understood that which cannot be otherwise be understood at all, and from which workings proceed naturally both in sleep and in waking”.  The Perfect Nature is the perfect teacher, the one teacher who can truly teach us what is best and in the best way above and beyond any other.  It’s just that the Perfect Nature still needs us to learn about the world first so that we know how to properly interact with it; after all, you can’t build if you don’t have raw materials to build with.

In this, there are intensely strong parallels between Perfect Nature and True Will, as well, from a modern perspective.  If the Thelemic concept of True Will is “the true purpose of the totality of one’s being” and that “its discovery is initiation….and its nature is to move continually”, that it is “the true expression of the Nature, the proper or inherent motion of the matter concerned”, then to live according to one’s True Will is to fully realize the purpose, method, means, and aims of one’s proper and best life, as accorded to us by Divinity.  This, too, then is also what Perfect Nature does in virtually the same way, taking the influences of our ruling planet and refining them, joining them with divine methods to accomplish that which is best for us.  And, if we’re to take Hermēs at his word at the end of this chapter of the Picatrix, Perfect Nature really is the solution to all the problems of the wise: how science and philosophy can be joined, what the root is of science and philosophy individually and together, and how the secrets of science and philosophy may be opened to us.  Not just how or what, either, I suppose, as the Perfect Nature does more than merely tell us these things; it informs (forms within) us, it instructs (builds within) us.  After all, as Ṭumṭum al-Hindi says in the Atallah/Kiesel translation of the Arabic Picatrix (this doesn’t appear to be in the Latin Picatrix, minor edits for clarity and structure):

…when you first start to look inside of yourself to your managing spirit that connects you with your star—and that is the Perfect Nature that Hermēs the Wise mentioned in his book saying “the microcosm”, in which he meant the human—his soul would be in a similar position to that of the stationary Sun in the sky that shines with its light on the whole world.  Just so does the Perfect Nature spread in the soul so its rays connect with the power of Wisdom and pulls it until it is centered in the soul in its own proper place, just as the Sun pulls and directs the rays of the cosmos to hold itself up in the heavens.

Remember what we said earlier about our inverted vignette, how instead of Hermēs digging in a pit for the four powers of Perfect Nature, he looks to the four pillars of Heaven (or the four corners of the World) to obtain them?  If Hermēs attaining the power at the top of the heavens to still the winds is effectively him reaching his Perfect Nature, and if the top of the vault of Heaven is supported by its pillars, then we see that the relationship one has with one’s Perfect Nature is reliant upon building and refining those four spiritual powers, “just as the Sun pulls and directs the rays of the cosmos to hold itself up in the heavens”.  The Perfect Nature is self-sustaining, providing its own support, much like a spiritual singularity: once you have it, so long as you do not utterly shut yourself off from it, you’ll be set on your proper path to perfect your nature and fulfill your true will.  This, however, is still Work—it is the Work, which is why this ritual is not just a once-and-done thing, but something to be done periodically to continually maintain a relationship with your Perfect Nature in an intimate and personal way, as opposed to the subtle and suggestive ways.

This leads me to think about one more thing about the image of the City of Adocentyn from book IV, chapter 7 of the Picatrix: the central color-changing citadel.  Consider the similarity we have here with our vignettes: a deep pit with a central image and four secrets buried around it (or, rather, the apex of Heaven with the four pillars of Heaven supporting it), and a central citadel in a beautiful city guarded by four powerful gates.  To me, the symbolism would link the Perfect Nature itself with that central citadel, being able to harmonize to the planets (though always linking one most to one’s own ruling planet).  Protected by the four gates and empowered by the central citadel, “the inhabitants of the city were made virtuous and freed from sin, wickedness, and sloth…its people were most deeply learned in the ancient sciences, their profundities, and secrets, and in the science of astronomy”.   Doesn’t this all sound awfully similar to the benefits of communing and working with one’s Perfect Nature?  While I’m not sure whether or not it was written to this intent, it’s starting to sound a lot like that the City of Adocentyn, the Spiritual Hermopolis/El-Ashmunein/Khemenu, while it may well have existed in the mind of the author of the Picatrix and in myth generally, can be read as a strong metaphor for the perfection of one’s own spiritual life.  In working with and living in accordance with our Perfect Nature, we build our own internal Adocentyn of the soul, lush and abundant in life, wisdom, and wealth.

There is one final lingering problem, though: what do we make of sleep?  We know that Ibn Khaldūn in his Muqaddimah gives the four names “Tamāġīs, Baġdīswād, Waġdās, Nūfānāġādīs” (really, a variant thereof, “tamaghis ba’dan yaswadda waghads nawfana ghadis”, which may or may not be Aramaic in origin) as an incantation one uses before sleep to obtain a vision of Perfect Nature, apart and away from any rite of communion or sacred feast, and we also know that Hermēs Trismegistus received his first vision of Perfect Nature in a dream.  Dream/trance states are important for continuing one’s work with Perfect Nature, just as it was for Hermēs and Poimandrēs all the way back in the Corpus Hermeticum, and gives us a means to continually remain in contact beyond a yearly or semiyearly ritual.  It’s the constant work, the constant development, the constant communion we remain in that allows such a relationship to truly flourish—again, we see similar ideas crop up time and again in any culture or magical tradition that involves the presence and aid of an agathodaimōn, genius, tutelar, guardian angel, etc.  Big rituals are good, but it’s the small, quotidian stuff that should never, ever be neglected.

Despite the relatively late text of the Picatrix, at least as far as classical Hermetic stuff goes which the Picatrix does not properly fall into compared to other works like the Corpus Hermeticum or Asclepius or Stobaean Fragments, we find in this chapter of the Picatrix something that’s so starkly, obviously Hermetic, both in tone and content, augmented with a culturally-shifting evolution from classical pagan to (then) modern eclectic practices of spiritual works, here combining the secrets of divinity with astrology, alchemy, magic, and many other practices, almost in a seamless way.  Sure, the Perfect Nature of the Picatrix may not be the Poimandrēs, but the sentiment here is so close and familiar as to be easily understandable.  The Perfect Nature of the Picatrix is the Picatrix’s own take on one’s genius spirit, and as such, should certainly be considered one possible route to attain this crucial relationship so vital to the well-being, spiritual development, and ultimate success of any magician, philosopher, or sage—or, indeed, anyone at all.

And yes, the ritual is up on its own page for easy access under the main menu: Rituals → Communion of Perfect Nature

Genius in the Picatrix: Associations of the Four Powers

Last time, we started talking about a particularly interesting bit of the Ġāyat al-Ḥakīm, the “Goal of the Wise”, sometimes just known as the Ġayah, but definitely better known in the West as the Picatrix, most likely written in Arabic sometime in the middle of the 11th century CE. Everyone knows the Picatrix, everyone loves the Picatrix; it’s a fantastic text of astrological magic, and among the earliest of true grimoires in Europe. Although focused on what we’d nowadays call stellar image magic, the creation of astrological talismans bearing magical images and scenes made under particular stellar configurations, the text is famous for its wide inventory of bizarre magical concoctions and confections for a variety of purposes, its lengthy invocations to the planetary spirits, and its preservation of older pagan practices from the Hermetists, Sabians, Nabataeans, and various other Mediterranean peoples. It is not, however, a particularly theurgical text on the whole, even though it contains a wealth of information on philosophy, spiritual and cosmic frameworks, and the like in how and why magic works the way that it does. Yet, in book III, chapter 6, we encounter an interesting section on the “Perfect Nature”, a sort of guiding spirit or genius, originally encountered by Hermēs Trismegistus himself. The last post discussed what we would need to do to prepare for the ritual of communing with Perfect Nature; if you need a refresher on what we talked about last time, go read the last post!

At this point, we know we need to have the altar set up in a particular way: a bowl of butter/walnut oil/sugar/honey candy in the middle, four pint-sized pitchers of wine around the altar, and four pitchers of a particular kind of fat around the altar as well: almond oil in the east, walnut oil in the west, butter in the south, and sesame oil in the north. There’s more prep to be done beyond this, but I want to take a second to look at the symbolism hidden here and to expand on that a bit, because I’ll bet that the order that the containers of oil and butter are presented in the text (almond oil in the east, walnut oil in the west, butter in the south, and sesame oil in the north) is probably important.

Remember earlier how we drew dichotomies between the four spirits of Perfect Nature, with Meegius/Tamāġīs and Nufeneguediz/Nūfānāġādīs as one dichotomy (perception vs. interaction) and Betzahuech/Baġdīswād and Vacdez/Waġdās as another (substance vs. essence)? In the order of Meegius/Tamāġīs, Betzahuech/Baġdīswād, Vacdez/Waġdās, Nufeneguediz/Nūfānāġādīs , this would suggest that we’d put Meegius/Tamāġīs in the east, Betzahuech/Baġdīswād in the west, Vacdez/Waġdās in the north, and Nufeneguediz/Nūfānāġādīs in the south, which doesn’t fit the dichotomy scheme when thought about in terms of directions. But the Picatrix also notes that of these four spirits, there are “three spirits in matter” which are “coadunated in perfect contemplation”, suggesting that Vacdez/Waġdās (the spirit of contemplation) is set apart from the rest. We should note that, of the four containers that have non-wine substances in them, three have oil and one has butter, and that the butter is given third in the order of the containers, just as Vacdez/Waġdās is given third in the order of the list of names and contemplation given in the list of powers. So, perhaps we got our dichotomies wrong: perhaps it’s Vacdez/Waġdās and Nufeneguediz/Nūfānāġādīs that are in a better dichotomy of contemplation and labor (i.e. spiritual work vs. physical work), and Meegius/Tamāġīs and Betzahuech/Baġdīswād in another of sense and object (that which perceives vs. that which is perceived). This makes sense to me, and seems to have the altar arrangement going for it as well.

This means that we can give directional associations to the four powers of Perfect Nature, too, to the rest of our correspondences:

Power Power Direction Fat
Meegius/Tamāġīs Senses East Almond oil
Betzahuech/Baġdīswād Objects West Walnut oil
Vacdez/Waġdās Contemplation South Butter
Nufeneguediz/Nūfānāġādīs Labor North Sesame oil

And, if we tie this back into our revised vignette of Hermēs Trismegistus obtaining the four powers of Perfect Nature from the four corners of Heaven, then we know which direction to face for each individual power, which could come in use for other works, but about which book III, chapter 6 of the Picatrix says nothing. These associations could certainly be explored more, but it’s not so important for the present ritual—though, as noted before, the Moonlit Hermit does use these direction associations loosely for a daily invocation of the names of the Perfect Nature.

Also, if Vacdez/Waġdās is associated with the butter and Betzahuech/Baġdīswād with the walnut oil, then what should we make of the candy made from butter and walnut oil that takes prime position in the center of the altar? This makes the confection a mixture of the spirit of contemplation (Vacdez/Waġdās) with the spirit of “things to which spirit is attracted”; this confection, then, becomes something like a symbol of Alpha and Ōmega of Perfect Nature combined. Consider it this way: we proceed from pure contemplation (Vacdez/Waġdās) through the senses (Meegius/Tamāġīs) effected by the hands (Nufeneguediz/Nūfānāġādīs) onto an object (Betzahuech/Baġdīswād). It’s probably no surprise that this confection has four ingredients, though such a confection made from almond, sesame, and walnut oils with butter alone probably wouldn’t be particularly tasty; it’s likely that the sugar and honey are supposed to be stand-ins for the almond and sesame oils (and thus incorporating Meegius/Tamāġīs and Nufeneguediz/Nūfānāġādīs into the confection as well), but I’m not sure how that might be. The many grains of sugar could be thought of like the many small grains of sesame seeds and the sweetness of almonds like honey, or perhaps the pits of dates (the fruit of which would be more common to make sugar in the Old World before the cash crop of sugarcane came about) were thought of as almonds and the thick viscosity and dark color of sesame oil like honey. It’s unclear to me, but in thinking about this, I’m fairly confident in claiming that the four containers of fats around the altar represent the four spirits of Perfect Nature separately, and the confection in the middle represents their union. Also remember that the one candle we have in the ritual is to be set amidst this candy, the symbolism likely being the divine light of God filling the works of Perfect Nature.

I suppose there’s also something else that’s symbolic to note here regarding the use of butter. Of the four containers of fats, three of them are plant-based oils (sesame, almond, and walnut), but the last one of butter is animal-based. It’s not like other plant-based oils were unknown or unused—after all, consider olive oil or sunflower oil—which suggests that the use of an animal-based fat is important here. And, of all the animal-based fats, it’s not a normal fat, like lard or suet or tallow, the production of which involves killing the animal (and there’s plenty of that in the Picatrix). Rather, butter comes from milk, which is taken from an animal (cow, in this case) while it’s still alive and which itself encourages life. This is probably a sign that it’s living animals that are prioritized above plants (animal-based fat as opposed to vegetable-based fat), just as the internal is prized above the external (the power of contemplation vs. the other powers).

Beyond the above, there’s not a whole lot we might dig out as far as correspondences or associations might go for these four powers, nor is there a lot in terms of directional associations in the Picatrix to begin with; you might occasionally see “face south for this planet” (but all planets, if viewed from the northern hemisphere, would be in the southern parts of the sky if they’re above the horizon) or “go to the eastern side of a river” for a particular ritual, but that’s about it. Except, of course, for a beautiful image from book IV, chapter 3 of the Picatrix. There’s a whole lot more in this chapter in the Arabic Picatrix (and in the Atallah/Kiesel translation) than are in the Latin Picatrix (and thus the Warnock/Greer and Attrell/Porroca translations), but the title of this chapter in the Latin Picatrix is about the knowledge and secrets of the Chaldaeans…yet it’s really more about Egypt. A specific place in Egypt, no less, a special city that it calls Adocentyn, a city founded by Hermēs Trismegistus—but which in modern Egyptian Arabic is called El-Ashmunein. Those who are familiar with this place know it as a real modern city based on the ancient ruins of Khemenu, or Hermopolis Magna, the famous City of Thoth. The Picatrix gives us a lively description of this (Warnock/Greer translation):

[Hermēs Trismegistus] also it was who built, in the east of Egypt, a city twelve miles in length, in which he built a certain citadel that had four gates in its four quarters. At the eastern gate he put the image of an eagle, at the western gate the image of a bull, at the southern gate the image of a lion, and at the northern gate he built the image of a dog. He made certain spiritual essences enter into these, which used to speak in voices that issued from the images; nor could anyone pass through the portals without their permission. In that city he planted certain trees, in the midst of which he set up an arbor that bore the fruits of all generation.

At the summit of the citadel he caused to be built a certain tower, which attained a height of thirty cubits, and on the summit of it he commanded to be put a sphere, the color of which changed in every one of the seven days. At the end of the seven days it received the color it had at first. Every day, that city was filled with the color of that sphere, and thus the aforesaid city used to shine every day with color.

Around that tower, in a circle, water abounded, in which many kinds of fish used to live. Around the city he placed diverse and changing images, by means of which the inhabitants of the city were made virtuous and freed from sin, wickedness, and sloth. The name of this city was Adocentyn. Its people were most deeply learned in the ancient sciences, their profundities and secrets, and in the science of astronomy.

A pretty nifty place, if you ask me. The Atallah/Kiesel translation, following the Arabic, gives other details, too, but the Latin Picatrix has basically the same information as far as the city itself is concerned, although this city appears in a number of different Arabic texts, all with mostly the same structure but slightly different details from text to text. Given that we’re taking a Picatrix-centric approach, we’ll stick with what we have in the Picatrix. What I want to point out here, though, are three things:

  • This city is built by none other than Hermēs Trismegistus (or founded or otherwise centered on him, at any rate, given the historical connection to Thoth)
  • There are four gates, each with a different animal facing a different direction
  • The central citadel of the city is a tower that shifts colors every day, one color per planet for that day, to fill the whole city with light

Of the four animals used to watch over the gates to the city of Adocentyn, three should look intensely familiar to students of Abrahamic religion and modern Hermetic lodge-based systems: the four living creatures of Ezekiel 1. These are the seraphim, and seen as sacred bearers of the throne of God with four faces, that of a man, a lion, an ox, and an eagle. Later in the New Testament, Revelation 4:6-8 describes similar creatures, which are associated with the Four Evangelists (Matthew as man, Mark as the lion, Luke as the ox, and John as the eagle). Admittedly, it is somewhat hilarious to see a dog replace the station of man, but the similarities here cannot be denied. Bear in mind, too, that Hermēs took on another form as Hermanubis, the cynocephalic deity who was also related to the worship of Hermēs and Thoth, and also that the dog is a holy animal associated with Thoth along with the ibis and the baboon.

Consider what this gives us as far as the vignette of Perfect Nature, though, made all the stronger by both this and the holy city of Adocentyn/El-Ashmunein/Khemenu both being associated with Hermēs Trismegistus! We now have something directional and symbolic to latch on to for our four powers of the Perfect Nature, giving the following:

  • Meegius/Tamāġīs, the Eagle of the East
  • Betzahuech/Baġdīswād, the Bull of the West
  • Vacdez/Waġdās, the Lion of the South
  • Nufeneguediz/Nūfānāġādīs, the Dog of the North

Now, I don’t mean to say that these four powers are four individual spirits, as we discussed earlier; though some might interpret the Picatrix to say so, I think that’s a misreading of the text, and that these are four attributes, powers, skills, or abilities that the spirit of Perfect Nature can give us access to. After all, to use the Adocentyn image, the gate is not the city, but the gate provides access to it—and Hermēs as ruler of the city did empower each statue with its own presence, if not entity, to protect the city and permit only those who sought permission to enter. Besides, not only were these statues guards, however, but in other Arabic works describing the city, according to Okasha El-Daly’s Egyptology: The Missing Millennium, these were statues of “priests holding scrolls of scientific works”, and whoever wanted to learn a science “went to its particular statue, stroked it with his hand and then stroked his breast, thus transferring the science to himself”. I like the sound of this, personally.

But consider: the four living creatures (substituting man with dog) have long-standing elemental associations, too. Their use in the Golden Dawn and other modern Hermetic lodge-based magical systems is well-known, to be sure, but we even find such an association going back at least as early as Agrippa himself (book II, chapter 7), giving the lion to Fire, the eagle to Air, the man to Water, and the ox to Earth. These can also be seen as the four fixed signs of the Zodiac, with the lion as Leo, the eagle (via the constellation Aquila) to Scorpio, the man to Aquarius, and the ox to Taurus—and it’s in these four signs that many pagans and neopagans celebrate those famous cross-quarter days as approximations of the midpoints of these signs. (And, based on my own planning of geomantic holy days, this means we could also give Adam to the Bull of the West, Enoch to the Lion of the South, Hermēs to the Eagle of the East, and Daniel to the Dog of the North based on their shared zodiacal correspondences, but this is neither here nor there.)

Now, granted, we’d have to pick between the directional correspondences and those to the living creatures (Fire is given to both the East and to the Lion, but here we have the Lion in the South), but let’s stick to the symbolic association first, since we know our directions are set from our altar setup. We also know, from such texts as the Asclepius and other parts of the Stobaean Fragments in the Hermetic canon, that the Egyptians considered the land of the world to be like a body, with the head in the south, the legs and feet in the north, the right side of the body in the east, and the left side of the body in the west. This means we can tie in the four powers of Perfect Nature to the elements and parts of the body as well:

Power Power Direction Symbol Element Body Fat
Meegius/Tamāġīs Senses East Eagle Air Right side Almond oil
Betzahuech/Baġdīswād Objects West Bull Earth Left side Nut oil
Vacdez/Waġdās Contemplation South Lion Fire Head Butter
Nufeneguediz/Nūfānāġādīs Labor North Dog Water Legs and feet Sesame oil

Looking at the elemental correspondences we’ve built up by means of the animals associated with the directions for the four powers, it makes sense why these powers would have these elements:

  • The power of pure contemplation (Vacdez/Waġdās) is given to Fire, the holiest and noblest of the elements that ties us directly to the divine source of all illumination, that of the Divine. This is the purely internal power of Perfect Nature, and the one that all the other powers serve and assist with—just as the Lion is the king of all beasts. Just as we pointed out earlier with this power being associated with the only animal-based substance on the altar (butter) being more important than the rest, just as the Lion is king of the beasts, so too is contemplation king of the powers. Appropriately, although the heart was considered supreme in Egyptian thought, this is given to the head being in the South, fitting for the internal power of the mind alone.
  • The power of sense (Meegius/Tamāġīs) is given to Air. Like the Eagle from up high perceiving all around, this is the ability to spiritually perceive and know the various spiritual presences, entities, powers, influences, and impulses in the world. It is, after all, the very air that transmits sights, sounds, and perceptions from the thing perceived to the thing doing the perceiving. And, like the Eagle, once we perceive something we need, we can dive down to the river to pluck what we need, interacting with it, which leads to…
  • The power of labor (Nufeneguediz/Nūfānāġādīs) is given to Water. On the face of it, this is a little weird, as dogs are not really aquatic animals. But Water is known to link, conjoin, and commute all things—water, after all, is the universal solvent, in which all things can be mixed. The dog, too, is a beast of burden and a beast of labor, which protects us, guides us, warns us, and helps us in our ways. Likewise, being in the North, the Egyptians would have recognized this as the legs and body of the world—limbs for labor, indeed.
  • The power of objects (Betzahuech/Baġdīswād) is given to Earth, which is pretty obvious. This is the power of the material substances we work, understanding them, their properties, and their uses in our work. Just as the bull (the only herbivore of these four animals) is focused on and grazes on the produce of the Earth, this is the one power that’s entirely external and based most on the study and observation of the world itself. If we use the right hand to reach out to perceive what’s out there in the world, then we use the left hand to hold things and get a sense for what we have and can make use of.

(And, to offer a variation on the geomantic progenitor assignment, we could use these elemental associations instead of their zodiacal ones given above to instead give Enoch to the Eagle of the East, Hermēs to the Dog of the North, and Daniel to the Lion of the South, with Adam remaining for the Bull of the West. Personally, based on the actual powers alone, I’d be more symbolically inclined to give Hermēs to the Lion in the South, Enoch to the Eagle in the East, Daniel to the Dog in the North, but I can see arguments for and against any of these associations. Still, again, this is neither here nor there.)

And yes, I am aware that the use of the four animals above is perhaps particular to the Picatrix. As others before me have noted, this story of a sacred city of Hermēs Trismegistus appears a fair bit in various Islamic and Arabic occult texts, sometimes not even related to the city of el-Ashmunein/Khemenu itself but to another city, with variations on the animals. However, considering that our focus here is on the Picatrix alone, I feel like we can handily tie together these two chapters neatly into one overarching symbolic gesture.

Now, I want to be clear about this: I’m still sticking to my understanding that these four powers are not spirits unto themselves, and even if the name of Perfect Nature is referred to in a fourfold way, I don’t think that the Perfect Nature is at all separate from these four entities, and that the fourfold name of Perfect Nature is really just one name with four parts. However, in making these associations with the four gate-guards of Adocentyn, it might not be a bad idea to treat each power as a power unto itself for the purposes of meditation or spiritual work, understanding that they’re all four different aspects of the abilities of Perfect Nature, a la the Moonlit Hermit’s daily practice of calling on “the four spirits of Perfect Nature”. Personally, I’d be most inclined to recite the whole fourfold name of Perfect Nature on the misbaḥa (Islamic prayer beads) 99 times, once in each direction, but that’s just me. I suppose, given the imagery, we could face east and intone or vibrate each name, visualizing each beast manifesting in its proper direction around us, and at the end recite all four names together as the spirit of Perfect Nature (or otherwise an illuminating, enlightening ray from Heaven) descending upon us. This bears some similarities to the whole image of the City of Adocentyn, but we’ll talk about that soon enough.

Anyway, while I’m certain there’s more that could yet be said about further associations of the four powers of Perfect Nature, we are getting off-track here all the same. This was a nice detour to take, and I’m glad I was able to talk about some of the symbolic associations we could make to the four powers, but let’s be honest—even some of this feels like a stretch to me. I like the idea of it all to link the four powers to the four guardians of Adocentyn, with a relationship to one’s Perfect Nature being a sort of spiritual construction of an internal Adocentyn, but so much of this is so circumstantial and hypothetical. Still, even as that may be, it’s useful to consider to expand upon some of our conceptions of these ideas and to link them to other symbols to rely on.

At any rate, we were in the middle of preparing ourselves and our ritual area for the actual rite of communion with Perfect Nature. We’ll actually get to that next time, so stay tuned!

Genius in the Picatrix: Ritual Prep and Setting the Altar

Last time, we started talking about a particularly interesting bit of the Ġāyat al-Ḥakīm, the “Goal of the Wise”, sometimes just known as the Ġayah, but definitely better known in the West as the Picatrix, most likely written in Arabic sometime in the middle of the 11th century CE.  Everyone knows the Picatrix, everyone loves the Picatrix; it’s a fantastic text of astrological magic, and among the earliest of true grimoires in Europe.  Although focused on what we’d nowadays call stellar image magic, the creation of astrological talismans bearing magical images and scenes made under particular stellar configurations, the text is famous for its wide inventory of bizarre magical concoctions and confections for a variety of purposes, its lengthy invocations to the planetary spirits, and its preservation of older pagan practices from the Hermetists, Sabians, Nabataeans, and various other Mediterranean peoples.  It is not, however, a particularly theurgical text on the whole, even though it contains a wealth of information on philosophy, spiritual and cosmic frameworks, and the like in how and why magic works the way that it does.  Yet, in book III, chapter 6, we encounter an interesting section on the “Perfect Nature”, a sort of guiding spirit or genius, originally encountered by Hermēs Trismegistus himself.  The last post went on at length analyzing the meaning of the vignette of Hermēs Trismegistus encountering Perfect Nature; if you need a refresher on what we talked about last time, go read the last post!

So, after the vignette, or rather as part of it, Perfect Nature introduces itself to Hermēs Trismegistus.  But he doesn’t just stop there (Warnock/Greer translation):

I asked him who he was, and he replied: “I am Perfect Nature; if you wish to speak to me, call me by my proper name, and I will answer you.” I asked him them by what name he was called, and he answered me, saying, “By the four names mentioned above I am named and called.” I asked him next at what times I should call him, and how I should make the invocation.

At this point, Perfect Nature describes a ritual to Hermēs Trismegistus to be done to invoke the Perfect Nature as a form of divine communion.  According to the Picatrix, which itself claims that all this is according to the Kitab al-Isṭamāḵis/Liber Antimaquis, “the ancient sages used to perform this working every year” (the Atallah/Kiesel translation says “once or twice a year”) “for the sake of their spirits, so that they might put in order their Perfect Natures”.  The Picatrix also goes on to say that Aristotle himself claims that this allowed the ancient sages to have “his proper virtue infused into him by exalted spirits, by whose powers their senses were closed, their intellects opened, and sciences revealed to them”, and that “this virtue was conjoined with the virtue of the planet ruling the radix of the nativity” (i.e. one’s ruling planet, the almuten of one’s natal chart) “so that the virtue thus co-created in them strengthened them and gave intelligence to them”, and that in this way the sages “helped themselves in their knowledge and understanding, and the increase of their business and possessions, and guarded themselves from the plots of their enemies, and did many other things”.

Warnock and Greer make an important observation at this point in their translation:

This entire passage is reminiscent of the Poemandres, the first dialogue of the Corpus Hermeticum, in which Hermes has a conversation with a similar spiritual being.  The ritual that follows is of great interest; it seems to bridge the gap between classical rituals for evoking a guardian spirit, of the sort found in the Graeco-Egyptian magical papyri, and early modern rituals for the same purpose such as the famous Abramelin working.

Based on the ritual that follows and everything we already know about the Perfect Nature, I’m absolutely in agreement with them.  Perfect Nature is already being presented through the vignette as an actual spirit one can interact with, and is described as a sort of spirit that neatly fills the role of genius, tutelar, agathodaimōn, or guardian angel.  What’s interesting about the Picatrix, however, is that it also breaks out the single entity of Perfect Nature into its four works of Meegius/Tamāġīs, Betzahuech/Baġdīswād, Vacdez/Waġdās, and Nufeneguediz/Nūfānāġādīs, each corresponding to a particular power—or individual spirit, if you choose to interpret the Picatrix that way.  In either case, Perfect Nature is both one and many: a single entity with distinct powers, or a single entity as a collective of four spirits.  I lean towards the former interpretation, as discussed earlier.

According to the Latin Picatrix and its translations, the ritual to commune with Perfect Nature is to be done when the Moon is in the first degree of Aries (i.e. between 0°0’0″ Aries and 0°59’59.999…” Aries); it does not matter whether the ritual is done during the daytime or nighttime, so long as the Moon is in this degree of Aries.  On average (and this can vary incredibly depending on the specific speed of the Moon at this time, based on where the Moon’s apogee/perigee is relative to the first degree of Aries), this gives you a window about 110 minutes long on average, or a little less than two hours, once every 28-ish days.  This also puts the Moon starting a new sidereal cycle, coinciding with:

  • The first lunar mansion, An-Naṭḥ (Alnath), which is good “to go on a journey, so as to travel safely and return in good health…to place discord and enmity between husband and wife, and between two friends so that they become enemies, and to sow discord between two allies…to cause servants to flee” (book I, chapter 4), as well as “for destruction and depopulation” (book IV, chapter 9).
  • The first face/decan of Aries, “a face of strength, high rank and wealth without shame” (book II, chapter 11), which makes one to be “always victorious in battle, litigation and controversy and gain what they wish, and are never defeated; and…to hinder the milk of beasts and destroy their butter” (book II, chapter 12).

Granted, these observations are really more for making talismans in the vein of stellar image magic than anything connected to the present ritual, although the notions of “going on a journey safely and in good health” along with “strength, high rank, and wealth without shame” and victory without defeat are always nice suggestions, too.  What matters most is that the Moon is in the first degree of Aries; if you wanted to put a nice touch on it, you could aim for this to coincide with a planetary hour and/or day corresponding to the planet that governs you, or have a sign of that planet rising or culminating, but these are secondary concerns at best.  However, in the Atallah/Kiesel translation of the Arabic Picatrix, the phrasing is given somewhat differently: “when the Moon comes down to the level of the Head of Aries at any time in either day or night”.  This might be a poetic or idiomatic way of saying the same thing the Latin Picatrix is saying (“cum Luna in primo gradu Arietis fuerit in die vel in nocte”), but it could be interpreted in other ways.  For instance, knowing that the first lunar mansion is associated with the star β Arietis (Sheratan, the lower/first horn of Aries), we could do away with signs and lunar mansions entirely and link the entire ritual to the conjunction of the Moon with this star, ignoring the effects of precession.  Still, I think the simple explanation here is the easiest and most straightforward: the ritual is to be done in that brief window of time when the Moon is in the first degree of Aries.

Taking a step back, now that we know when to do the ritual, what about preliminary purification or other spiritual preparations to be made ahead of the ritual?  Although the Picatrix doesn’t really say much about this, it does say that the philosopher Tintinz the Greek (طمطم الهندي Ṭumṭum al-Hindī in the Arabic Picatrix, a name known to students of geomancy as a student of Hermēs Trismegistus) claims that “one who desires to perform this work ought to abandon all intention and contemplation concerning other things, because the root and foundation of all these workings consists of contemplations” (see above about the role of contemplation as the main vehicle for empowering images), and that either the philosopher Caraphzebiz (in the Arabic Picatrix, كرفسايس Karafsāyis?) or his student Amenus (in the Latin Picatrix, who is not mentioned in the Arabic Picatrix as far as I can tell), likewise says that (Warnock/Greer translation):

…any sage who wanted to work magic, and preserve himself with the powers of the spirits, ought strictly to give up all cares and all other sciences beside this one, because when all the senses and the mind, and all contemplations about other things, are strictly turned to magic, it may be acquired with ease; and since many assiduous contemplations are appropriate to this science of magic, the magician must wrap himself in these, rather than being wrapped around any other things.

In other words, yeah, works of purification and other preliminary preparations of the mind, spirit, soul, and body should be undertaken before this ritual, even if only to refine the focus and desire of the person who undertakes it.  This is especially backed up by what Ibn Khaldūn says in the Muqaddimah:

A man is said to have done this after he had eaten but little and done dhikr exercises for several nights. A person appeared to him and said, “I am your perfect nature.” A question was put to that person, and he gave the man the information he desired.

So, based on this, I would suggest engaging in a period of fasting accompanied by works of steadfast devotion and sincere prayer, especially the repetition of divine names or chants (perhaps including the Four Names of Perfect Nature as well?), at least for three days leading up to the ritual, but more preferably seven or longer, perhaps even for a full lunar month starting from the previous time the Moon entered the first lunar mansion.

Before or during this preparatory period, gather together the following supplies:

  • Almond oil
    • If one has an allergy to nuts, substitute with a neutral oil not otherwise listed here.
  • Walnut oil
    • Warnock/Greer and Attrell/Porreca both only say “nut oil” based on the Latin “oleum nucum”, but Atallah/Kiesel specify “walnut oil” for دهن الجوز duhn al-jawz.  The word there can mean nut generally, but it is used specifically for walnuts as well.
    • If walnuts are a no-go, use another nut-based oil that is not almond oil that’s sweet and good for baking or in cooking desserts, like hazelnut or macadamia nut.
    • If one has an allergy to nuts, substitute with pine nut oil.
  • Sesame oil
    • Atallah/Kiesel say “vinegar oil”, and I have no idea what they mean by that.  Perhaps a thick, reduced vinegar, like a balsamic vinegar?
    • The Arabic phrase used for this is دهن الخل duhn al-ḵall, which does literally mean “oil of vinegar”, and is called for in another part of the Picatrix (book III, chapter 11, “that you may appear in the form of any animal you wish”), where, again, the Latin Picatrix renders this as “sesame oil”.  There are also other Latin works based on Arabic works that do seem to regularly translate sesame oil for “oil of vinegar”.
    • The confusion here is between دهن الخل duhn al-ḵall (oil of vinegar) and دهن الحل duhn al-ḥall (oil from whole sesame seeds).  In Arabic script, the difference is of the presence or absence of a single dot, which can confuse the two meanings.  In general, it seems that the use of “vinegar” here is a typo in the Arabic, given how common it was across the Mediterranean to translate this phrase as “sesame oil” into a variety of languages by different translators.
    • I suppose, however, that one could make an argument that this is something more alchemical than anything else (a la “oil of egg” or “oil of gold”), but this seems unlikely to me.
    • I would most recommend sesame oil (reading it as duhn al-ḥall), as it makes the most sense in this context, though if the vinegar approach were taken (reading it as duhn al-ḵall), this would probably be implied to be balsamic vinegar.
  • Cow’s milk butter
    • I’d recommend unsalted butter, personally.
    • Although there exist non-dairy butter substitutes, I cannot recommend their use due to the symbolic importance of this having come from a living creature (more on that later).
    • In the case of an extreme allergy to dairy, I might recommend the use of shea butter or cocoa butter, but only as an extremely limited case.
  • Wine
    • Atallah/Kiesel just say “alcohol”, though the word used in the Arabic Picatrix is خمر ḵamr, wine.  However, no specific type of wine is mentioned in the Latin Picatrix or its translations.  My personal preference would be a semi-dry white wine, and barring that a light sweet red wine, but that’s just me.
  • One large glass serving dish
    • A large low glass bowl would be perfect for this, even better if it had a separation in the middle (a la a chips-and-dip serving platter).
  • Eight glass pint-sized pitchers or tumblers
    • Each of these holds the wine, oil, or butter.  Warnock/Greer say that each of these pitchers “should have a capacity of around one pint”, while Attrell/Porreca and Atallah/Kiesel both say that these pitchers should be big enough to hold one pound of the wine, oil, or butter.  Checking WolframAlpha, making these to be pint-sized containers does in fact check out.
    • However, that assumes we know exactly which “pound” is intended for use.  One avoirdupois pound (standard in the modern US) is 453.6 grams which is equivalent to 497mL or 16.8 fl oz, but there are other definitions of pound out there historically, too, and may be closer to what was intended in the original Picatrix (using olive oil as a neutral base for unit conversion and comparison here):
      • Roman pound, equivalent to 328.9 grams (360mL, 12.2 fl oz)
      • Byzantine gold pound, which was originally 327.6 grams (359mL, 12.1 fl oz) but decreased over time to about 319 grams (349mL, 11.8 fl oz)
      • Byzantine silver pound, equivalent to 333 grams (365mL, 12.3 foz)
      • Byzantine oil pound, equivalent to 256 grams (280mL, 9.48 fl oz)
    • Based on these, I’d personally go with the Byzantine oil pound, which means instead of using pint-sized (16oz) pitchers, one needs more like 10oz containers, so a little more than half that size, about the size of a standard disposable styrofoam cup or a little more than halfway of a Solo cup.  I think this is fine, especially as almond oil or walnut oil can be expensive.
    • No material for these pitchers is specified, though I’d recommend glass to match the large serving dish above and the symbolism of the glass lantern in the vignette.
  • Sugar
    • Date palm sugar would be best if you wanted to go for cultural or historical accuracy.
  • Honey
  • Coal
  • Incense blended or compounded from frankincense and mastic
    • Atallah/Kiesel say “kandar, a good-smelling glue”.  From what I can find, this is actually a Persian term that just refers to frankincense, but probably high- or top-grade milky-white frankincense.  However, a gloss in the footnotes says that either a part of this phrase that references what to use (بالكية والكندر) is either just frankincense or is frankincense and mastic.  I’d go with using both.
  • Aloeswood (aka oudh or agarwood)
  • One tall candle
  • Two braziers for burning incense
  • A table

Before the ritual, physically clean and spiritually cleanse the ritual area so that it may be made “clean and splendid”.  Although the Picatrix says “house” here, this should better be understood to mean one’s temple space or ceremonial chamber—though cleaning and purifying the whole house where this would take place certainly wouldn’t be a bad idea.

Once the ritual area has been appropriately cleaned and cleansed, prepare the altar.  On the eastern side of the ritual area, set up a table (a card table, coffee table, etc. would be perfect for this).  The Warnock/Greer translation says “a raised table”, the Attrell/Porreca translation “a table raised from the ground”, and the Atallah/Kiesel translation “a table…on a step higher than the ground”.  What we’re looking at is a table set on a dais or other low platform, with the dais probably no more than a foot in height.  For comfort’s sake, I’d recommend the dais be a little larger than the table itself, but not too much so.  An impromptu platform made from bricks, a piece of plywood supported by some low cinderblocks, or the like would be perfect.

Before setting up the altar, a particular kind of sweet confection must be made with butter, honey, walnut oil , and sugar.  Based on the Latin and Latin-translated Picatrix alone, this may look like a sweet whipped creation, much like a buttercream frosting.  Atallah/Kiesel, however, say that this is “a candy” (later, “candies”, suggesting less a mass of substance and more parceled-out bits of it) made with “lots of sugar” and that “it needs to be very sweet and heavy on oil”.  Rather than buttercream frosting, what this may mean is to aim for something closer to toffee or butterscotch candy.

The altar should have the following things on it:

  • One pint-sized pitcher of almond oil, set towards the east on the altar
  • One pint-sized pitcher of walnut oil, set towards the west on the altar
  • One pint-sized pitcher of cow’s milk-based butter, set towards the south on the altar
    • This could be solid or melted or something else; given the presence of liquid oils for the other three such containers, melted butter or even clarified butter may be meant here.  My preference would be for whipped or otherwise non-compacted butter.
  • One pint-sized pitcher of sesame oil, set towards the north on the altar
  • Four pint-sized pitchers of wine, one placed to each of the four directions on the altar
    • These may be placed immediately to the side of the containers of the oils and butter along the edge of the table, or just beside them closer to the center, or with the pitchers of wine on the outside and the pitchers of oil and butter on the inside.
  • A glass dish filled with the candy/confection made from cow’s butter, walnut oil, honey, and sugar, placed in the center of the altar
    • No description of the containing dish is given beyond “glass”, but to my mind, simple clear glass would be best; the other containers for wine and oil would best be made of the same material, ideally even in a matching style.
    • Clear a space in the center of the dish to hold the candle later, if at all possible.

I suppose, of course, that one could also cover the table with a tablecloth; I’d recommend a white linen cloth that hangs down generously around the table, but that’s just me.  None is mentioned in the original text, so we’d be fine without it.

In addition to preparing the ritual space and the altar, we also need to prepare two braziers or censers, one to burn a mixture of frankincense and mastic (or just frankincense, maybe? per the Arabic Picatrix), the other to burn aloeswood, but the Picatrix does not say where to put these things.  If free-standing braziers are to be used (which seems to be the best practice here), I would put the one with frankincense and mastic to the north of the altar and the one with aloeswood to the south, at least three feet away on either side, depending on how much space one has available.  If smaller censers are to be used, they may be put on platforms of their own (milk crate-sized boxes would be perfect, or taller standing pillars if you wanted to be fancy) in the same positions.  Other options for using smaller censers could be to put them directly on the altar itself (I’d recommend keeping to the north/south positioning halfway between the cups and the dish) or underneath the altar directly on the dais (which I don’t find likely or recommended here at all).  The brazier approach, or otherwise keeping the censers off and away from the altar, seems to be the most reasonable.

Unlike other parts of the Picatrix that specify the metal to be used for the censers (e.g. book IV, chapter 2), no description of the material is given, so it probably doesn’t matter.  Simple braziers, made from a steel or iron bowl or chafing dish to hold the coals and incense and supported on metal or wooden legs as a tripod, or otherwise simple small censers, would really be best, especially given the simplicity of the ritual as a whole.  However, if you wanted to customize this aspect of the ritual setup for yourself based on other Picatrix practices for your own ruling planet, the metals from book III, chapter 7 would be good to observe:

  • Saturn: iron
  • Jupiter: tin
  • Mars: bronze or brass
  • Sun: gold
  • Venus: electrum (gold and silver alloy)
  • Mercury: “fixed mercury” (mercury alloy)
  • Moon: silver

If you wanted to go the extra mile, you could also make a special censer for yourself based on the instructions given in book III, chapter 5.  Such a censer would be best used for works with a particular planet, to be made with that planetary metal in the form of a hollow cross, open at the top to allow smoke to exit, and with the container for the coal/wood/fire and the incense underneath such that all the smoke of the incense would flow up through the cross and out the top.  This also has the beneficial symbolic association of smoke rising up a single channel, in the sense of rising up from a pit or straight up to Heaven in our inverted vignette.  Again, this is almost certainly and entirely unnecessary for the present ritual, but the Picatrix does have quite a lot of tech to share.  For reasons that we’ll get to later, a more general metal or material rather than one specific to any given planet might be better; better to keep it simple.

And yes, of course, for those who are operating on a budget and cannot afford braziers/censers, frankincense/mastic resin, and aloeswood (whether as whole wood chips or as powder), using self-igniting stick or cone incense is also acceptable.  It’s definitely better to go with loose incense on coals, especially as stick and cone incense tends to be compounded with fillers and other scents, but it’ll work for those who need it to work.

All this is a lot to talk about the initial ritual prep, but there’s still more to talk about along these lines, not to mention the ritual itself.  That’ll be in the next post, so stay tuned!

Genius in the Picatrix: Analyzing the Vignette and the Names

Last time, we started talking about a particularly interesting bit of the Ġāyat al-Ḥakīm, the “Goal of the Wise”, sometimes just known as the Ġayah, but definitely better known in the West as the Picatrix, most likely written in Arabic sometime in the middle of the 11th century CE.  Everyone knows the Picatrix, everyone loves the Picatrix; it’s a fantastic text of astrological magic, and among the earliest of true grimoires in Europe.  Although focused on what we’d nowadays call stellar image magic, the creation of astrological talismans bearing magical images and scenes made under particular stellar configurations, the text is famous for its wide inventory of bizarre magical concoctions and confections for a variety of purposes, its lengthy invocations to the planetary spirits, and its preservation of older pagan practices from the Hermetists, Sabians, Nabataeans, and various other Mediterranean peoples.  It is not, however, a particularly theurgical text on the whole, even though it contains a wealth of information on philosophy, spiritual and cosmic frameworks, and the like in how and why magic works the way that it does.  Yet, in book III, chapter 6, we encounter an interesting section on the “Perfect Nature”, a sort of guiding spirit or genius, originally encountered by Hermēs Trismegistus himself.  The last post introduced Perfect Nature and its four spiritual powers; if you need a refresher on what we talked about last time, go read the last post!

So, let’s go back to that vignette of the pit and Hermēs Trismegistus encountering Perfect Nature.  Probably the biggest thing to note here is how Perfect Nature introduces itself, coming to Hermēs Trismegistus in a dream, offering a solution to Hermēs’ problem.  Upon asking who he is, Hermēs is given the response of “I am Perfect Nature”.  This, as Warnock and Greer have noted along with many other people before, is starkly reminiscent of the introduction to Book I of the Corpus Hermeticum, in which Hermēs Trismegistus meets Poimandrēs (Copenhaver translation):

Once, when thought came to me of the things that are and my thinking soared high and my bodily senses were restrained, like someone heavy with sleep from too much eating or toil of the body, an enormous being completely unbounded in size seemed to appear to me and call my name and say to me: “What do you want to hear and see; what do you want to learn and know from your understanding?”

“Who are you?” I asked.

“I am Poimandrēs,” he said, “mind of sovereignty; I know what you want, and I am with you everywhere.”

I said, “I wish to learn about the things that are, to understand their nature and to know god. How much I want to hear!” I said.

Then he said to me: “Keep in mind all that you wish to learn, and I will teach you.”

Similar indeed!  There’s an interesting reversal here, though: in the Corpus Hermeticum, Hermēs first wishes to explore, then Poimandrēs appears, introduces himself, and teaches Hermēs, but in the Picatrix, Hermēs first wishes to explore, then Perfect Nature appears, teaches Hermēs, and introduces himself.  It’s a small difference, and probably not all that important, since the end result is the same: Poimandrēs/Perfect Nature then commits to teaching Hermēs Trismegistus all that he wishes to know.

When it comes to the vignette in book III, chapter 6 of the Picatrix, well…the whole thing is a little weird.  Why should Hermēs put himself “above a certain pit that was very deep and very dark, from which a certain impetuous wind blew”?  He did so to “understand and draw forth the secrets of the workings of the world and of its qualities”, but what about this pit would be helpful for that?  We could interpret this literally, sure, but it might make more sense to interpret it figuratively.  The Chronos Speaks blog has a lovely article about this Picatrix chapter, concluding that:

This in mind, Hermes’ mysterious description of the method of contacting Perfect Nature starts to make a lot more sense. The “deep pit” is sleep itself which drags one down into the oblivion of unconsciousness if we are not successful in achieving lucidity, the “impetuous wind” is the mental noise that prevents both sleep and lucidity (and which seems to get much stronger at the critical point), the “candle” is the light of awareness itself, and the “glass lantern” that protects awareness from being blown out is the recitation of the names of the Perfect Nature itself.

It’s not a bad way to think about this whole thing, and the post above connects the notion of lucid dreaming, sleeping, and other forms of sleep-based magic in Islamic spiritual practices.  Thus, it may well be that the pit itself is not a literal pit, but Hermēs Trismegistus trying to enter a state of lucid dreaming or other trance state in order to explore the cosmos (which is also a notion attested at several points in the Corpus Hermeticum involving the travels of the soul), and that the dream in which Perfect Nature appears to Hermēs is either a separate vision in the same dream or another trance revelation entirely.

I should also note that it’s the Chronos Speaks blog post above that tipped me off as to an origin and meaning for the four names.  As noted above, “Meegius Betzahuech Vacdez Nufeneguediz” is a corruption of Arabic “Tamāġīs Baġdīswād Waġdās Nūfānāġādīs”, but it’s likely that this itself is a corruption of other, older words.  In a footnote, Franz Rosenthal’s translation of Ibn Khaldūn’s Muqaddimah, when Ibn Khaldūn talks about “dream words” in the Picatrix, suggests that this set of barbarous words or divine names are definitely non-Arabic, and Rosenthal hypothesizes that this may well be an Aramaic phrase.  The specific section in which Rosenthal mentions this is when Ibn Khaldūn talks about “dream words”, specifically relating to the Picatrix (emphasis in bold mine):

In the Ghayah [i.e. the Picatrix] and other books by practitioners of magic, reference is made to words that should be mentioned on falling asleep so as to cause the dream vision to be about the things one desires. These words are called by (the magicians) “dream words” (al-halumah). In the Ghayah, Maslamah [the reported author of the Picatrix] mentioned a dream word that he called “the dream word of the perfect nature.” It consists of saying, upon falling asleep and after obtaining freedom of the inner senses and finding one’s way clear (for supernatural perception), the following non-Arabic words: tamaghis ba’dan yaswadda waghads nawfana ghadis. The person should then mention what he wants, and the thing he asks for will be shown to him in his sleep.

A man is said to have done this after he had eaten but little and done dhikr exercises for several nights. A person appeared to him and said, “I am your perfect nature.” A question was put to that person, and he gave the man the information he desired.

With the help of these words, I have myself had remarkable dream visions, through which I learned things about myself that I wanted to know. However, (the existence of such dream words) is no proof that the intention to have a dream vision can produce it. The dream words produce a preparedness in the soul for the dream vision. If that preparedness is a strong one, (the soul) will be more likely to obtain that for which it is prepared. A person may arrange for whatever preparedness he likes, but that is no assurance that the thing for which preparations have been made will actually happen. The power to prepare for a thing is not the same as power over the thing (itself). This should be known and considered in similar cases.

[And] God “is wise and knowing.”

In his footnotes to this section, Rosenthal suggests that Ibn Khaldūn’s transcription of “tamaghis ba’dan yaswadda waghads nawfana ghadis” should be read as Aramaic “tmaggesh b’eddan swadh waghdhash nawmtha ghadhesh”, which Rosenthal proposes to mean “you say your incantations at the time of conversation, and the accident of sleep happens”.  While there are certainly cases of barbarous words, divine names, and magical phrases that certainly have an Aramaic origin (e.g. one of my PGM favorites, ΑΚΡΑΜΜΑΧΑΜΑΡΕΙ), there are others that are only claimed as such without any real evidence to back it up (e.g. ABRACADABRA).  While I don’t have enough knowledge of Aramaic to say one way or other, and granted that Rosenthal is a respected authority on Aramaic and I’m not inclined to dispute him, I think it’s extremely hilarious that an Aramaic phrase that basically amounts to “Imma do the thing” becomes an Arabic magic phrase for doing the thing.

Going back to the vignette, what about the bit about Perfect Nature teaching Hermēs Trismegistus about the particular image, i.e. talisman, that he is to dig out of the pit to still the “impetuous wind” that blows within it?  Since the Picatrix is largely a collection (some might even say compendium) of various images to make for a variety of purposes and under a variety of powers, we’d expect something to come up to calm winds or something.  Yet, searching through the Picatrix, there’s not a lot in there that deals with winds specifically, and not a lot that deals with the weather generally, either.  Yet we find the phrase “impetuous winds”, virtually the same phrase, in a later invocation of the planet Venus from book III, chapter 7 (the famous chapter with all those, erm, long-winded planetary invocations), specifically “a prayer to Venus for love”—yet this is just an invocation, and no image is given for this work.  The only wind-related talisman that we really find in the Picatrix, however, is the famous Mirror of the Seven Winds (book IV, chapter 7).  This mirror lets one “gather men, winds, spirits, demons, the dead and the living, and all will obey you and be at your command”, as it grants “power over winds, men, and demons, and they will come obediently to you”.  It’s certainly an interesting and powerful apparatus of magic, to be sure, but I have my doubts about this, since I don’t see much of an actual tie-in here; as a result, I don’t believe the Picatrix preserves what the actual talisman is that Perfect Nature told Hermēs to recover.

But there’s something else here that bugs me about this whole vignette and the association of this being a metaphor for a deep state of sleep, at least as the Chronos Speaks post describes it as a pit “which drags one down into the oblivion of unconsciousness”.  In fact, the whole notion of a pit here is weird.  In almost every case in extant Hermetic literature, Hermēs Trismegistus is focused on ascent rather than descent.  Consider a number of cases from the Corpus Hermeticum (Copenhaver translation, emphasis in bold mine):

Once, when thought came to me of the things that are and my thinking soared high and my bodily senses were restrained… (book I, chapter 1)

…To this Poimandres said: “First, in releasing the material body you give the body itself over to alteration, and the form that you used to have vanishes. To the demon you give over your temperament, now inactive. The body’s senses rise up and flow back to their particular sourcesThence the human being rushes up through the cosmic framework…And then, stripped of the effects of the cosmic framework, the human enters the region of the ogdoad; he has his own proper power, and along with the blessed he hymns the father. Those present there rejoice together in his presence, and, having become like his companions, he also hears certain powers that exist beyond the ogdoadic region and hymn god with sweet voice. They rise up to the father in order and surrender themselves to the powers, and, having become powers, they enter into god. This is the final good for those who have received knowledge: to be made god.  (book I, chapters 24 through 26)

You whom we address in silence, the unspeakable, the unsayable, accept pure speech offerings from a heart and soul that reach up to you. (book I, chapter 31)

[God] filled a great mixing bowl with [Nous] and sent it below, appointing a herald whom he commanded to make the following proclamation to human hearts: “Immerse yourself in the mixing bowl if your heart has the strength, if it believes you will rise up again to the one who sent the mixing bowl below, if it recognizes the purpose of your coming to be.” (book IV, chapter 4)

But those who participate in the gift that comes from god, O Tat, are immortal rather than mortal if one compares their deeds, for in a mind of their own they have comprehended all—things on earth, things in heaven and even what lies beyond heaven. Having raised themselves so far, they have seen the good and, having seen it, they have come to regard the wasting of time here below as a calamity. They have scorned every corporeal and incorporeal thing, and they hasten toward the one and only. (book IV, chapter 5)

For none of the heavenly gods will go down to earth, leaving behind the bounds of heaven, yet the human rises up to heaven and takes its measure and knows what is in its heights and its depths, and he understands all else exactly and—greater than all of this—he comes to be on high without leaving earth behind, so enormous is his range. (book X, chapter 25)

There are other bits scattered throughout the Hermetic canon, but these suffice to say that the spiritual approach and focus of Hermēs Trismegistus is focused on going up, not going down.  What, then, are we to make of this weird pit above which the Hermēs Trismegistus of the Picatrix stands?  I don’t disagree that this vignette takes place in a state of dream or trance, especially given the evidence from Ibn Khaldūn’s Muqaddimah.  But the symbolism here doesn’t much fit with the broader trends of Hermetic imagery; this isn’t to say that that the Picatrix is part of the classical Hermetic canon, at least as far as I reckon it, but it’s still perplexing how such a fundamental change in spiritual and symbolic direction would take place.

I propose, instead, that we turn the whole thing on its head, and quite literally so.  Take the image of the vignette, of Hermēs standing on top of a deep pit, and turn it upside down: either Hermēs standing at the bottom of a deep pit or, better yet, at the rock-bottom of the Earth looking up into the vault of Heaven.  If we take this latter image of Hermēs not looking down into the Earth but up into Heaven, the whole vignette suddenly becomes exactly we’d otherwise expect to see in a classical Hermetic text.  We can rethink the vignette accordingly:

  • Hermēs Trismegistus wanted to understand and draw forth the secrets of the workings of the world and of its qualities, and so put himself underneath the open sky, unknowably profound and full of darkness, within which impetuous and violent winds blew.  He could not pierce the darkness of the sky, and whenever he tried to gaze into it with the light of flame, the flame was put out by the winds.
  • In a dream, Perfect Nature came and told Hermēs to protect the candle from the wind in a lamp so that the wind will not extinguish it.
    • Seeing how encased lamps are a truly ancient invention, I’m surprised that this had to be pointed out to Hermēs.  However, this is also symbolic, as the Chronos Speaks blog points out.  By using the candle as one’s awareness, Hermēs trying to ascend into the heavens without preparation and protection, shutting himself off from the violent passions of the world and the influences of fate produced by the planets.
  • Upon reaching the highest heights of Heaven, Hermēs is to obtain a secret power which will still the violent winds of the skies, which will allow Hermēs to remove the candle from the lamp and hold it once more.
    • We can’t rightly use the notion of “digging out a talisman” when you’re literally as far from things to dig from as possible, but the notion of obtaining a secret power upon attaining the summit of the firmament isn’t that uncommon a notion.  If we were to think of this as an actual talisman, we could consider it to be something like the Mirror of the Seven Winds, the Sigillum Dei Aemeth, etc.
    • Something that the Chronos Speaks blogpost didn’t bring up was this crucial part: that, in the original vignette, the image that Hermēs digs up from the pit would allow him to put out the winds as well as remove the candle from the lamp to “hold the light there”—or, according to Atallah/Kiesel, “it will also light up the rest of the place”.  There’s this notion of separating and protecting the candle before rejoining with it again, of separating out and protecting one’s awareness before rejoining with it and letting it spread to all things, a sort of solve-et-coagula as well as expansion of consciousness and divine presence process going on here.
  • With the winds having been stilled and the light now free from the lamp fully illuminating all things, Hermēs should then obtain from the four pillars of Heaven (or, alternatively, the four corners of the World) the secrets of the world and the generation of all things, that which holds Heaven and Earth together.

This inverted scene of the vignette of the Picatrix becomes much more conformable to and understandable within the context of the usual body of Hermetic texts, no weird descent required.  So, where did this descent story come from?  Without knowing more about the background of the Picatrix or older versions of the Liber Antimaquis/Kitab al-Isṭamāḵis to reference, it’s hard to say.  One possibility could be that this is a way to relegate Hermēs Trismegistus to a mere pagan philosopher, keeping him focused on descent and the secrets of this world as opposed to the true divine secrets of God in Heaven within an Abrahamic or Islamic context, regardless whether this story was invented for the Picatrix or whether it relies on an older ascent story that was at some point inverted to become a descent story.  It’s not beyond the pale, I suppose, but given how much of pagan practice the Picatrix bluntly and outright preserves, even with the usual warnings of merely presenting this for the sake of knowledge while advising the faithful reader to turn away from them as idolatry, I doubt that such an inversion would have originated with the author of the Picatrix itself.

It’s also interesting to note how the vignette of Hermēs having to dig four more times in the pit—or, rather, look to the four pillars of Heaven/four corners of the World—after he obtains the talisman that stills the winds.  Knowing that there are four powers of Perfect Nature from the last post, it’s likely that this is a metaphor for each of those powers being developed one after another, all under the tutelage and protection of Perfect Nature itself.  This would suggest that before one can develop the four powers necessary to magic—the power of labor, the power of objects, the power of sense, the power of contemplation—we must first obtain the guidance of Perfect Nature.  In many ways, this is highly reminiscent of the Holy Guardian Angel from the Abramelin operation, where you first work to obtain knowledge and conversation with your Holy Guardian Angel, and only then proceed to the binding of the rulers of Hell and other sacred works.  After all, at the very start of this chapter, the Picatrix says that “nothing in this science can be perfected [i.e. completed] unless the virtue and disposition of the planets are inclined towards it by their own nature”, and it’s the role of the Perfect Nature to assist in doing just that.

While I’m sure there’s more that could be said or analyzed about the vignette, I feel like this is good enough for us to continue.  After all, this isn’t the entire vignette; the main part of this whole scene about Hermēs Trismegistus interacting with Perfect Nature is with Perfect Nature detailing a particular ritual to commune with it.  We’ll start talking about that next time.