Genius in the Picatrix: The Spiritual Nature(s) of Perfect Nature

Not too long ago, I was flipping through my copy of the Picatrix, and came across a fascinating little bit.  It’s something I recall having seen (but glossed over) in M. David Litwa’s Hermetica II (an amazing, though annoyingly expensive, follow-up to Brian Copenhaver’s Hermetica, focusing on the Stobaean Fragments and a number of other Hermetic texts and later references to Hermēs Trismegistus).  There’s lots in Litwa’s book which is great, most of it classical and definitely part of what I’d consider the “Hermetic canon”.  For me, that’s basically stuff written during the Roman Empire, and what separates the two in my mind is basically the Emerald Tablet (which first appears written in Arabic between the 500s and 600s); depending on how you look at it, you might consider it the last instance of classical Hermetic canonical texts, or the first of post-/neo-Hermetic texts.  Personally, my Hermetic focus is on the stuff predating the Emerald Tablet along the lines of the Corpus Hermeticum.  So, when Litwa’s book goes into neo-Hermetic texts that either talk about Hermēs Trismegistus or have things attributed to him, I admit that I glazed over that a bit easier and faster than I did the Stobaean Fragments.  Besides, so much of what was said later tends to be derivative or repetitive from earlier works.

Enter 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, and based on the history of Ibn Khaldūn, the author of this text is supposedly one Maslama al-Majrīṭī, a Muslim Andalusian scholar, mathematician, and astronomer.  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, being among the great granddaddies of them all.  As many people know, it’s primary focus is on what we nowadays call stellar image magic (the creation of astrological talismans under specific stellar configurations of planets, signs, lunar mansions, and stars that often bear a particular scene or image on them) along with early alchemical concoctions for love and hate and many other purposes (many of which are bizarre and not a few of which are outright toxic or poisonous), and which also contain some fantastic ritual prayers and processes for adoring and communing with the spirits of the planets themselves.  It also contains, hidden among its many leaves, wonderful examples and preservations 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.

Just to get this out of the way up front, we’ll be looking at several different editions and translations of the Picatrix, so I wanted to get a list of resources set up for those who want to do their own research as well:

I was looking through my well-worn copy of the Picatrix (I mostly rely on the Warnock/Greer translation) for more resources on prayers and prayer methods (always on the lookout for more tech!), and there was something that caught my eye as I was breezing through its pages looking for keywords of interest .  Nestled between other bits and bobs of magic, there were two phrases that caught my eye: “Hermēs Trismegistus” and “Perfect Nature”.  In Latin, this is phrased Natura Completa, as in one’s nature that is fulfilled, whole, complete, and, well, perfected.  Admittedly, I had basically already seen this section before from Litwa, but this time, it hit different—and it turns out that Litwa didn’t include the entire section, either.

From the end of book III, chapter 6 of the Picatrix (Warnock/Greer translation):

Certain people inquired of Hermes the sage, asking: “With what are science and philosophy joined?” He answered, “With Perfect Nature.” They asked again, saying, “What is the root of science and philosophy?” He said, “Perfect Nature.” Then they questioned him more closely: “What is the key by which science and philosophy are opened?” He answered, “Perfect Nature.” They then asked of him, “What is Perfect Nature?” He answered, “Perfect Nature is the spirit of the philosopher or sage linked to the planet that governs him. This is that which opens the closed places of knowledge, and by which is understood that which cannot otherwise be understood at all, and from which workings proceed naturally both in sleep and in waking.”

Thus it is clear from the foregoing that Perfect Nature acts in the sage or philosopher as a teacher toward a student, teaching the latter first in simple and easy matters, and then proceeding step by step to greater and more difficult ones, until the student is perfect in knowledge. When Perfect Nature works in this way, according to its own virtue and influence, the intellect of the philosopher is disposed according to his natural inclination.

You should understand this, committing it to memory, because from the foregoing it may be concluded that it is impossible for anybody to attain this science except those who are naturally inclined to it, both by their own virtue and by the disposition of the planet ruling in their nativity.

The Atallah/Kiesel translation gives a slightly more clear version of that second paragraph, at least in my mind:

The Perfect Nature for the philosopher is like the good teacher that teaches the boy word for word, and every time [the boy] gets done with one door of knowledge, he enters with [Perfect Nature] to another door, and that boy will never fear missing any knowledge as long as he has such a teacher that lasts with him forever.  Because the teacher always reveals to the boy everything that troubles him and teaches him what is hard, this is the philosopher’s Perfect Nature.

At the beginning of this chapter, the Picatrix introduces this notion of Perfect Nature in its own way, that Perfect Nature “fortifies those who philosophize and strengthens their intellect and their wisdom, so that in all their works they may quickly attain fulfillment”.  And, compounding the role of Perfect Nature, at the start of that first excerpt given above, the author of the Picatrix states that Socrates had his opinion that the Perfect Nature is the “Sun of the Wise”, i.e. the personal Sun of individual sages and philosophers.  Given these connections, it’s starting to sound an awful lot like Perfect Nature being a spirit akin to one’s own agathodaimōn or genius, especially as the Picatrix explicitly links one’s Perfect Nature to one’s ruling planet.  There are also hints later on—we’ll talk about them when we get there—that this spirit also can be a protector as well, making this in all cases much like the later notion of the guardian angel, or even Holy Guardian Angel, as both defender and teacher.

The Picatrix gives a little vignette, a vision of Hermēs Trismegistus and how he found his own Perfect Nature.  Supposedly, all this comes from the book Kitab al-Isṭamāḵis, or the Liber Antimaquis (which I myself have translated from Latin, but which didn’t appear in what I had access to), which the Picatrix attributes to Aristotle.  The vignette of Hermēs Trismegistus encountering Perfect Nature goes like this (Warnock/Greer translation):

When I wished to understand and draw forth the secrets of the workings of the world and of its qualities, I put myself above a certain pit that was very deep and dark, from which a certain impetuous wind blew; nor was I able to see anything in the pit, on account of its obscurity.  If I put a lit candle in it, straightway it was extinguished by the wind.

Then there appeared to me in a dream a beautiful man of imperial authority, who spoke to me as follows: “Put that lit candle in a lantern of glass, and the impetuosity of the wind will not extinguish it. You should lower the lantern into the pit, in the middle of which you should dig; thence you may draw forth an image by which, when you have drawn it forth, the wind from the pit will be extinguished, and then you will be able to hold the light there. Then you should dig in the four corners of the pit, and from there you may draw out the secrets of the world and of Perfect Nature, and its qualities, and the generation of all things.”

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…”

“Four names”?  Towards the start of this chapter, the Picatrix says that the ancient sages gave a string of four names to Perfect Nature: Meegius, Betzahuech, Vacdez, and Nufeneguediz.  These are corruptions of Arabic names, and cross-checking with the Arabic Picatrix, these names are properly Tamāġīs (تماغدس), Baġdīswād (بغديسواد), Waġdās (وغداس), and Nūfānāġādīs (نوفاناغاديس).  At least, these are my own transcriptions of the names; Atallah/Kiesel give them as “Tamaghees, Baghdiswad, Waghidas, Nufanaghdees”, which are fairly close (though I’m not sure where they got the extra vowel in Waġdās from, or where one of the vowels in Nūfānāġādīs went).  To get from the Arabic “tamāġīs baġdīswād waġdās nūfānāġādīs” to the Latin “meegius betzahuech vacdez nufeneguediz”…well, it’s actually fairly close as it is, especially Vacdez/Waġdas and Nufeneguediz/Nūfānāġādīs, and Betzahuech/Baġdīswād is kinda close (though I’d expect something like “Bagtezued”), but it’s the shift from Tamāġīs to Meegius that’s most perplexing.  Perhaps if we read تماغدس as “tamāġyus” instead of “tamāġīs” (reading the yā’ here as a consonant rather than a vowel), that’d get us closer, though there’s still the perplexing issue of what happened to that initial “ta-” from Arabic into Latin.  Oh well.  We’ll talk more about the origins of these names in our next post (of course there’d be a next post).

(Also, can I just say that I would absolutely join in on a new, more easily-accessible translation from the Arabic of the Picatrix, or even just a list of barbarous words and divine names from the original Arabic?  One of my greatest frustrations when having to deal with translations of Arabic works into Western languages is a lack of faithful transliteration from Arabic script to Roman script.  I know it’s a hard habit to break, but nowadays, we absolutely have the technology to faithfully produce many diacritics on letters easily, so there’s no reason why we should perpetuate bad transliterations like Atallah/Kiesel “Tamaghees” as opposed to a more faithful “Tamāġīs” where you can more easily figure out the original Arabic spelling, which is so important for pronunciation, etymology, and numerology, all of which are crucial for occult researchers.  Heck, even if you don’t want to use all sorts of diacritics, there are so many good forms of romanization for Arabic that there’s just no excuse for this.)

The Picatrix somewhat goes back and forth on this, but it seems that these are actually the names of four component spirits of Perfect Nature, or alternatively the four powers of an individual’s spirit of Perfect Nature (Warnock/Greer translation primary):

  1. The spirit/power of the senses “which are said to be joined to the world” (Atallah/Kiesel: “spreading intentional power in the world”)
  2. The spirit/power of things “to which spirit is attracted” (Atallah/Kiesel: “the spiritual instrumental power that pulls the spirits”)
  3. The spirit/power of perfect, sane, and unbroken contemplation (Atallah/Kiesel: “the right spiritual power”)
  4. The spirit/power “by which works are done by the hands” (Atallah/Kiesel: “handmade spiritual power”)

Moreover, “these three spirits in matter” (as opposed to the spirit of contemplation, i.e. the spirit of senses, things, and works done by the hands) “which exist in intention and effect, are coadunated in perfect contemplation with the sense, which we have said are joined to the world”.  In this, the Picatrix goes on to explain that the senses do not merely perceive the world passively, but like in the medieval understanding of how the eyes see in terms of lux and lumen, the senses “attract rays and bring them to those things towards which they are directed, like a mirror that is raised up to the light of the Sun”.  This is to say that, in focusing our senses on something, we not only receive those influences into ourselves, but also fill the thing with more of its own influence, or direct those influences elsewhere, as a mirror reflecting the rays of the Sun “projects them into shadowy places, and those shadowy places become bright and illuminated” without the Sun being diminished.  (It’s probably important to note the Sun and light connections here with Socrates’ own description of the Perfect Nature as the “Sun of the wise”.)

By directing the powers of the cosmos by means of the senses, we facilitate joining those powers from their sources to our targets: “when the spirits of motion and rest are joined to the superior world while in contact with the senses, they attract the powers of the spirits of the superior world and pour them out upon matter”.  It is this, fundamentally this very action, that allows the consecration, empowerment, and ensoulment of talismans (“images”) to function; images are, after all, things we look at, and this is why they often have some sort of scene, person, or figure on them to bring about a particular influence or effect.  And, in looking at something, we contemplate it, and contemplation “goes into anything in which the virtue consists of a hidden spirit”.

In this light, assuming that the names of the spirits given at the start of this chapter and this list of what the powers are at the end of it are in the same order, we can consider the four names of the four spirits of Perfect Nature and what these spirits do a little more closely:

  1. Meegius/Tamāġīs: the spirit/power of our senses that join higher things to lower ones.  This is our ability to spiritually perceive the cosmos and its various spirits, energies, and powers in their ebb and flow.
  2. Betzahuech/Baġdīswād: the spirit/power of the lower things that we work upon to infuse with higher things.  This is the actual physical substance we work with to create images, talismans, confections, and other sacred objects, including the supplies of herbs, stones, incense, fabric, paper, ink, paint, and the like, as well as our understanding of them.
  3. Vacdez/Waġdās: the spirit/power of our own mental and spiritual contemplation.  This is our ability to mentally and spiritually process information and power, the strictly internal aspect that can best be thought of as our reliance upon our divinely-granted faculties and our connection to the Divine itself.
  4. Nufeneguediz/Nūfānāġādīs: the spirit/power of labor and works that we do in the world to implement.  This is the actual work we do, both in terms of the physical labor involved to create things as well as the rituals we do around, upon, or for them.

There seems to be a natural dichotomy that results from these four spirit/power seen in this light.  Meegius/Tamāġīs is the non-physical and passive way we integrate the spiritual and material, while Nufeneguediz/Nūfānāġādīs is the physical and active way we do so (a dichotomy of perception versus interaction).  Betzahuech/Baġdīswād is the external and material component of the works we carry out, while Vacdez/Waġdās is the internal and spiritual component of those works (a dichotomy of substance and essence).  I like this sort of categorization, but we’ll return more to this idea later.

The trouble now is figuring out the precise relationship of these four spirits to the spirit of Perfect Nature itself.  In the vignette, Perfect Nature says that “I am named and called” the four names “by which I shall respond when you call”.  There is a difference, however, in how the Latin Picatrix (via Warnock/Greer and Attrell/Porreca) and the Arabic Picatrix (via Atallah/Kiesel)  actually talks about these spirits.  The Latin Picatrix makes it sound like these are four names for four individual spirits (“they gave to the spirits of Perfect Nature these four names”), while the Arabic Picatrix makes it sound like this is all just one name for one spirit (“these wise men called the hidden secret of the complete inborn spiritual nature…”).  Thinking about this some more, I think the notion of each of these being a distinct spirit unto itself is faulty, and a misunderstanding of the grammar here.  I think it’s better to understand Perfect Nature as a single spirit that has four powers, rather than as a sort of collective of four separate spirits.  However, I don’t think such a view is necessarily wrong, either; if they are separate, then they operate together as a synaxis, where if you call one, you basically get them all, all mutually supportive of each other and all mutually involved with each other (cf. the orthodox view of the archangels as all distinct entities but all working together for the same ends at the same time).

Before wrapping this post up, I should also note that the Moonlit Hermit wrote two posts some years ago, back in December 2014 and January 2015, that also explored this same chapter and this same topic, as well as another post regarding a daily practice of calling on the four names of Perfect Spirit.  I came across their posts in the research for these, and I thought they were interesting.  We arrive at some similar conclusions and some different ones, but I think they’re good to read for others who are interested in this same topic, as well.

I think this is a good place to take a break for now, having introduced Perfect Nature, its role, and its powers.  There’s plenty more to talk about, though, starting with really looking into that vignette of Hermēs Trismegistus standing above the pit and being taught by Perfect Nature how to conquer it.  We’ll talk more about that next time, so stay tuned!

On Hermetic Tormentors and Egyptian Sins

It’s weird how research can lead you in a direction, and land you in a place, completely different from what you anticipated.

I’ve been on something of a Coptic kick for a while now, courtesy of Tobias’ post regarding Helleno-Kemetic practice over at Sublunar Space, when he brought up the very good observation that the hymns and songs used in the Coptic Christian Church are a direct descendant of otherwise ancient Egyptian musical practices.  As a result, I started listening in to a variety of Coptic hymns, and beyond the sheer beauty of it, it got me thinking about the use of Coptic as another language for Hermetic magical and religious practice.  (As if I really needed yet another language to learn.)  This led me to look into the different dialects of Coptic.  The modern Coptic church and modern Coptic speakers, such as they are, use the Bohairic dialect, based in Lower (northern) Egypt, though classically speaking, it was the Sahidic dialect that was more common as the lingua franca of Coptic, based in Upper (southern) Egypt.  Being a popular dialect common for writing texts in, is well-attributed and attested enough to study as a religious language for Hermetic stuff.

Sahidic Coptic’s area would include Hermopolis, aka Khemenu in ancient Egyptian, aka Shmun in Coptic, aka El Ashmunein in Arabic.  The placement of Hermopolis in this dialect area is important, as this was practically the city for Thoth worship as well as the worship of the  eight primordial creator deities of the Ogdoad (hence Hermopolis “city of Hermes” and Khemenu “City of Eight”), and according to some modern researchers, is a natural locus for the development of Hermetic practice and texts as well as some PGM texts (especially PGM XIII).  This is a natural draw for my attention, so I began to look up the history of this city in ancient Egypt and some of its religious practices.  This led me to begin researching the system of nomes, administrative divisions used in ancient Egypt.  I suppose it’s good to know that Hermopolis was found in the Hare Nome, Nome XV of Upper Egypt, but that’s not all that important on its own.

It was when a separate line of research of mine, diving into Egyptian texts for material to write new prayers with, combined with this information about nomes that I hit on something fascinating.  Many people are familiar with the Egyptian Book of the Dead (aka “The Book of Coming Forth by Day”) and the various scenes and trials of the afterlife, including the famous scene of the Weighing of the Heart.  For those who don’t know, the story goes like this: upon dying, the soul of the deceased is lead from its body and set on a perilous path through the Duat, the Egyptian underworld, culminating in being led by Anubis into the presence of Osiris to be judged.  The judgment would consist mostly of having the heart of the deceased weighed on a scale against the Feather of Ma`at, the goddess of truth itself: if the heart is at least as light as the feather, then the soul was judged to be pure and was admitted into the afterlife of the righteous.  If, however, the heart was heavier than the feather, then the heart of the deceased would be devoured by the fearsome beast Ammit, condemning the dead to “die a second time” and never being permitted to the true afterlife and instead forever being a restless and wandering spirit.

Leading up to this judgment of the scale, the deceased is to recite the 42 Negative Confessions (or the “42 Declarations of Purity”), oaths that describe how the deceased refrained from committing particular sins, crimes, or errors while in life.  That there are 42 such confessions here is important: each sin that was denied (e.g. “I have not stolen”, “I have not uttered curses”, etc.) was linked explicitly to one of the 42 nomes of ancient Egypt, each with its own assessor (or the Ma`aty gods) who watched over the judgment of Osiris, Anubis, and Ma`at as a sort of witness or court.  In this, there was a sort of moral code that the whole of ancient Egypt upheld in unity, and which could be seen to exemplify what morality and goodness looked like to the Egyptians.  Of course, as might be expected, different funerary texts and different versions of the Book of the Dead describe somewhat different sets of sins, but there’s massive overlap between them all.  There is some unclarity, too, in our knowledge of which assessor is linked to which nome, but we do know the names of at least a good few of them.

The number 42 caught my eye: it’s a pleasing number, to be sure, and yes, it is the number of nomes in ancient Egypt.  It is also, however, the product of 6 × 7, and since there are seven sets of six sins, this naturally made the leap in my mind to the seven planets.  No, it’s not the case that all things that come in sets of seven can be linked to the seven planets, I’m not saying that, but the description of some of these sins did bring to mind the irrational tormentors from the Corpus Hermeticum like we discussed a few months ago.  Between Book I and Book XIII of the Corpus Hermeticum, we have a good idea of what the classical Hermeticists would decry as bad, immoral, or unethical behavior that results in our being tortured and hindered from achieving our true end.

My thought was this: what if we could look at the various sins of the Negative Confessions and organize them according to the tormentors associated with the seven planets?  So, I plotted out the various sins, and came up with my own little association of different crimes or sins of the Egyptians and mapped them to the seven planets based on where they fall along the tormentors described by Book I and Book XIII of the Corpus Hermeticum.  Because there are multiple sets of sins from different funerary texts, there’s no simple one-to-one matching, and there’s no clean division in some cases into seven groups of six (e.g. there are lots more crimes relating to temple observance as well as good conduct in speech compared to sexual missteps), so I tried to combine and collate them where possible, and filled in the gaps where necessary with equally viable entries in the sin-list of the Egyptians.

To that end, this is the list I came up with.  Note that each planet is described in a joint fashion as “The Sin of X with the Tormentor of Y”, with X being provided from the list of irrational tormentors from Book XIII of the Corpus Hermeticum and Y from Book I.  It’s kinda clumsy, as Book I and Book XIII aren’t precisely talking about the same thing, though it’s tantalizingly close.  In the cases of sins in quotes, e.g. “wading in water”, those are phrases from original Egyptian texts that I wasn’t really able to fully piece together, but had to either figure out contextually or give my own interpretation of such a sin.

  1. Moon ­— The Sin of Increase and Decrease with the Tormentor of Ignorance
    1. Causing pain in general through misbehavior generally or through unknown missteps
    2. Neglect of property, both in the carelessness of one’s own property and the lack of respect for the property of others
    3. Making ungainly distinctions for oneself, i.e. polluting oneself by hubris and having one’s name submitted to the authorities for good or evil out of hubris and self-acclamation
    4. “Destroying food”, i.e. the causing of affliction, tears, grief, and hunger through wanton destruction
    5. Taking more food for oneself than what one needs, including general indulgence and the stealing of food
    6. Depriving the needy, whether of food specifically or sustenance generally, including children, orphans, and the poor
  2. Mercury — The Sin of Evil Machination with the Tormentor of Sorrow
    1. Eavesdropping and prying into matters
    2. Sullenness, i.e. grieving uselessly or feeling needless remorse
    3. Transgression of human and mundane law
    4. Quarreling, i.e. violence by words or thoughts
    5. Crookedness, e.g. tampering with scales or other instruments used for measuring
    6. Disputing, attacking people for one’s own ends with words or law without care
  3. Venus ­— The Sin of Covetous Deceit with the Tormentor of Intemperance
    1. Babbling and needlessly multiplying words in speech
    2. Slighting others through through words, especially someone of a lower rank to someone of a higher rank
    3. Debauching another in any non-sexual way
    4. Disturbing the peace and stirring up strife
    5. Debauching another in any sexual way
    6. Adultery, i.e. deceitful or objectionable sex outside the bounds of what is agreed to within relationships
  4. Sun — The Sin of the Arrogance of Rulers with the Tormentor of Lust
    1. Damaging a god’s image or otherwise defacing or damaging the property of the gods
    2. Transgressing divine and cosmic law
    3. “Wading in water”, i.e. defiling the sacred springs, rivers, and other bodies of water of the gods, or otherwise messing with the natural world to defile and corrupt it
    4. “Conjuration against the king”, cursing or blaspheming against a ruler or leader acting with the divine license and power of the gods or otherwise acting appropriately and respectfully of the law both mundane and divine
    5. Killing the sacred animals of the gods, including the irreverent slaughter of sacred bulls as well as otherwise hunting, trapping, or catching animals from the sacred precincts of the gods
    6. Reviling the gods, e.g. cursing the gods or treating them with contempt, including blocking their processions
  5. Mars — The Sin of Impious Daring and Reckless Audacity with the Tormentor of Injustice
    1. Impatience, i.e. acting or judging with undue haste
    2. Terrorizing, including physical violence and threats of abuse to others
    3. “Being unduly active”, i.e. acting out of passion rather than reason, especially rage
    4. “Being loud-voiced”, i.e. speaking arrogantly or in anger
    5. “Being hot-tempered”, i.e. being angry without just cause
    6. Murder, i.e. the desired and intentional killing of those who do not deserve it
  6. Jupiter — The Sin of Evil Impulse for Wealth with the Tormentor of Greed
    1. Rapaciousness
    2. Wrongdoing, i.e. the general practice of evil against others for one’s own gain
    3. Stealing the property of other humans
    4. Stealing the property and offerings of the gods, the dead, and other spirits
    5. Robbery with violence
    6. Dishonest wealth, including the use of malefica against another for one’s own gain
  7. Saturn — The Sin of Ensnaring Falsehood with the Tormentor of Deceit
    1. “Being unhearing of truth”, i.e. being unwilling to know the truth or or willfully ignoring or remaining ignorant of it
    2. Falsehood, i.e. to not tell the truth to others (including exaggeration, depreciation, or omission) to mislead others for one’s own ends
    3. Lying, i.e. uttering untrue statements, including slander or libel of others
    4. Blasphemy, i.e. lying about divinity
    5. Hoodwinking, i.e. leading others into wrongdoing
    6. Perjury, i.e. to not tell the whole truth in a court of law whether mundane or divine

It’d be even cooler if there were 49 sins; this would give us a sort of primary-secondary planetary pair to arrange the sins by, such that we could say “such-and-such a sin is the sin of the Sun of Saturn”.  Alas, there’s just 42, for the reasons already described above.  But, if we consider the tormentor of the planet as a sin unto itself as a sort of primary, overarching, or root sin, then that would fulfill the same need: the tormentor-sin would be the root of all the other sins associated with the planet.  Thus, the list of sins above follow a more-or-less planetary order: the first sin of the Moon is given to Mercury (skipping over the Moon itself), the second to Venus, the third to the Sun, etc., and the first sin of Mercury to the Moon, the second to Venus (skipping over Mercury itself), the third to the Sun, etc.  It’s a loose scheme, honestly, and I’m not 100% sold on some of them, but it’s an idea to toy around with in the future.

Now, I’m not saying that these things are really Hermetic; there’s no real list of crimes or sins in Hermetic texts, nor have I found anything resembling a code of conduct for Hermetists/Hermeticists.  Still, it is nice to consider how to flesh out the things that trigger the various tormentors along Hermetic lines, and it’s also good to tie in Egyptian practices and beliefs back into Hermetic stuff given Hermeticism’s Egyptian origin and context, no matter how much Hellenic and Mediterranean philosophy gets mixed into it.  Besides, I’m not trying to rewrite or cop the Book of the Dead or other afterlife practices or beliefs here, but rather proposing a set of prohibitions for those who might consider taking their Hermetic philosophy to the next level through changes in their daily behavior.

One way we might apply this list of planetary sins, beyond simply observing the prohibitions regarding them of course, would be to take one sin from a given set each day, or each set as a whole day by day, and meditating on them.  I recall Arnemancy bringing up the practice of Mussar, using Benjamin Franklin’s 13 virtues as an example, but we could expand on that in this way.  For instance, we could dedicate a particular Wednesday, the day of Mercury, to one of the sins or to all six sins as a whole, contemplating it in the morning and dedicating oneself to observing that prohibition, and then contemplating and reviewing the day in the evening before bed to see how well one stuck to it and how one could improve on observing it.  Taking each sin day by day would take place across six weeks, or across seven weeks if we also include the arch-sin/tormentor of a given planet itself to bring up the total number of sins from 42 to 49.

If one were to use a whole set of sins for a given day, one could take a slightly more ritual approach to this by announcing a dedication to each of the six directions, e.g. saying “I will not engage in eavesdropping” to the East, “I will not engage in sullenness” to the South, “I will not transgress the law of this world” to the West, “I will not engage in quarreling” to the North, “I will not engage in crookedness” downwards to the Earth, and “I will not engage in disputing” upwards to Heaven.  This could be preceded and/or followed with the declaration of “I will not engage in evil machination” (the arch-sin/tormentor of Mercury) taking the place of the divine center, or this could be included in each of the six declarations said to the directions, e.g. “I will not engage in evil machination through sullenness”.  It’s an idea, at any rate, and could be good for a stricter spiritual practice that focuses on purity through abstinence of wrong behavior.

Something that struck me late in writing this post, I admit, is the lack of mention of drunkenness.  I did throw this in under the fifth (Jupiter) sin of the Moon, “taking more food for oneself than what one needs” as a form of indulgence, but that’s really more about stealing food than overindulgence in it.  Moderation is certainly a virtue, but this got me thinking a bit: overindulgence in a way that shifts the state of the mind doesn’t do much on its own, but it’s works that impact the well-being of other people and the world that matter.  Thus, being drunk isn’t a sin, but committing violence or adultery while drunk is—but it’d be as much a sin anyway even if you weren’t drunk.  After all, as Hermēs Trismegistus preaches in Book I of the Corpus Hermeticum, everyone is in a state of sloth and drunken stupor in their mindlessness as they are; what more could booze really do when we’re already at the bottom of the barrel?  Despite the noetic focus of much of Hermetic work, when it comes to day-to-day living, it’s generally the action that counts instead of the thought.  After all, without Nous, what true thinking could you have anyway that animals themselves wouldn’t already have?  And with Nous, why would you engage in wrong behavior to begin with?

As magicians and spiritual workers, obviously we have a variety of things to study as far as the practice, technology, and technique goes for our various disciplines and types of Work, but it’s equally as important to study the philosophy, theology, and cosmology behind the practice.  This goes hand-in-hand with living life in the proper way as a way to indirectly implement the philosophical components of our Work and as a way to assist and ground the practical components of it, as well.  Merely adopting a set of purity rules or fasting is good, don’t get me wrong, but considering broader notions of morality and good/right behavior should play a bigger role in this as well.  While I won’t ascribe cosmic importance to these rules above beyond a basic planetary correspondence, and while I’m certainly not saying that this is a good stand-in for what to deny while standing before Osiris, I think it’s a good set of rules to live by for a good number of people who want to lead a good life respectful of other human beings, the cosmos, and the gods themselves irrespective of the specifics of one’s religious tradition.

A Simple Hermetic Prayer Rule

I’m not sure what a Hermetic parallel to Christian primitivism would be, especially given how little we know about actual Hermetic practices on-the-ground in the early part of the first millennium, but maybe something like this could be considered.

Like how I recently introduced a new prayer, the Praise of the Invisible and Invisible God based off Book V from the Corpus Hermeticum, I’ve been combing through other parts of the classical Hermetic corpus to come up with other prayers to recite.  What survives is largely philosophical, but there are occasional praises of God, exhortations of praise or prayer, and other exclamations of faith that dot the Hermetic literature.  We already pointed out a lengthy one from Book V not too long ago, but there are others, as well, and a few outright prayers, too, like the famous prayer from the end of Book I from the Corpus Hermeticum to the Prayer of Thanksgiving from the Asclepius, or the Perfect Sermon which also makes an appearance in the Nag Hammadi texts.  I’ve been experimenting with the explicit prayers that appear in the Hermetic canon, but I’ve even been coming up with others only based on it, even making my own kind of “Hermetic Mass” based on Book XIII (which talks a lot about the tormentors and blessings of the various spheres of the cosmos).

So far, as far as raw material to come up with new prayers goes, Book I is probably among the most fruitful.  It’s this very book of the Corpus Hermeticum that is named after Poimandrēs itself (though many translate this to “Shepherd of Men”, following Ralph Marcus, I favor a Coptic interpretation of this as “Reason of Sovereignty”), a testament of Hermēs Trismegistos himself when he obtained the divine vision of the creation of the cosmos and passage of souls, and how to achieve henosis both in this life and in the afterlife.  It’s at the end of this that Poimandrēs exhorts Hermēs to go forth and save the human race from the torments of their mortality (Copenhaver translation, and also note my italicized text in that last paragraph):

As he was saying this to me, Poimandres joined with the powers. Then he sent me forth, empowered and instructed on the nature of the universe and on the supreme vision, after I had given thanks to the father of all and praised him. And I began proclaiming to mankind the beauty of reverence and knowledge: “People, earthborn men, you who have surrendered yourselves to drunkenness and sleep and ignorance of god, make yourselves sober and end your drunken sickness, for you are bewitched in unreasoning sleep.”

When they heard, they gathered round with one accord. And I said, “Why have you surrendered yourselves to death, earthborn men, since you have the right to share in immortality? You who have journeyed with error, who have partnered with ignorance, think again: escape the shadowy light; leave corruption behind and take a share in immortality.”

Some of them, who had surrendered themselves to the way of death, resumed their mocking and withdrew, while those who desired to be taught cast themselves at my feet. Having made them rise, I became guide to my race, teaching them the words—how to be saved and in what manner—and I sowed the words of wisdom among them, and they were nourished from the ambrosial water. When evening came and the sun’s light began to disappear entirely, I commanded them to give thanks to god, and when each completed the thanksgiving, he turned to his own bed.

Within myself I recorded the kindness of Poimandres, and I was deeply happy because I was filled with what I wished, for the sleep of my body became sobriety of soul, the closing of my eyes became true vision, my silence became pregnant with good, and the birthing of the word became a progeny of goods. This happened to me because I was receptive of mind—of Poimandres, that is, the word of sovereignty. I have arrived, inspired with the divine breath of truth. Therefore, I give praise to god the father from my soul and with all my might:

After this, Hermēs recites his famous prayer itself, which has been a staple of mine and many other Hermeticists’ practices, a beautiful bit of devotional speech and supplication.

It’s the latter two paragraphs there that I took another look at, and considered that those would be excellent to base a prayer on.  Consider: Hermēs reaches out to those who seek after Truth, and “sowed the words of wisdom among them, and they were nourished from the ambrosial water” (i.e. water of immortality), after which those same people give thanks to God.  And after that, Hermēs himself gives thanks for “what [he] wished” (or prayed) for: his bodily sleep became sobriety of the soul, his eyes’ closing became true vision, etc.  And then, because of all that, he gives his famous “Holy is God…” prayer, a kind of “Threefold Trisagion”.

So I sat with this a bit, extracted the important bits, compared the translations of Scott, Copenhaver, and Salaman along with the original Greek given in Scott, and, after a good bit of writing and rewriting, I came up with the following prayer:

Sow in me the words of wisdom, and nourish me with the water of immortality.
By this, for this, and for everything, I give unto you my thanks.

May the sleep of my body become the sobriety of my soul.
May the closing of my eyes become true vision of Truth.
May my silence become pregnant with the Supreme Good.
May my birthing of the Word become the generation of true wealth.

Let me be receptive to the Nous, the Sovereign Knowledge,
that I may be inspired by the divine breath of Truth,
that I may praise God with all my soul and all my strength.

This actually works fairly well, in my limited experience trying it out, as a prayer in its own right, especially before using before the Threefold Trisagion.  The thing is that it’s very much directed towards being used before one retires to bed at night, what with the references to sleep and closing one’s eyes, as well as the original context of the content being used before people “turn[ing] to [their] own bed[s]”.  If this is a prayer that would best be used in the evening before sleep, what about one in the morning when one rises from sleep?  Easy; note the italicized parts below:

Sow in me the words of wisdom, and nourish me with the water of immortality.
By this, for this, and for everything, I give unto you my thanks.

May the rousing of my body become the awakening of my soul.
May the opening of my eyes become true vision of Truth.
May my speech become fruitful with the Supreme Good.
May my birthing of the Word become the generation of true wealth.

Let me be receptive to the Nous, the Sovereign Knowledge,
that I may be inspired by the divine breath of Truth,
that I may praise God with all my soul and all my strength.

This also works well as a morning prayer unto itself, but again especially so when followed by the Threefold Trisagion.  But there’s something else we can add, as well: the Prayer of Thanksgiving from the Asclepius.  Note how in that penultimate paragraph above from Book I that, after Hermēs gives his teaching to people, he “commanded them to give thanks to god, and when each completed the thanksgiving, he turned to his own bed”.  This means that, after the first two lines of the two derived prayers above, we could recite the Prayer of Thanksgiving, then continuing with the rest of the prayer, then finished by the Triple Trisagion.

On top of all this, we can take inspiration from the last part of the Asclepius that gives instructions on prayer (Copenhaver translation):

As they left the sanctuary, they began praying to god and turning to the south (for when someone wants to entreat god at sunset, he should direct his gaze to that quarter, and likewise at sunrise toward the direction they call east), and they were already saying their prayer…

My big issue with this is turning to the south, since the Sun doesn’t set in the south, yet the Asclepius says to face the south while also saying one “should direct his gaze to that quarter” where the Sun is setting.  My guess would be that the use of “south” here was a mistranslation or mistransmission in the text, and it should say “west”, maybe “southwest” to reflect a more realistic setting of the Sun for places in the northern hemisphere, especially between the autumn and spring equinoxes—yet in Book XIII of the Corpus Hermeticum, Hermes tells this same thing to Tat before he imparts the Secret Hymn, the Initiatory Hymn of Silence (note the italicized part):

Be still, my child; now hear a well-tuned hymn of praise, the hymn of rebirth. To divulge it was no easy choice for me except that I do it for you, at the end of everything. Hence, it cannot be taught; it is a secret kept in silence. Therefore, my child, stand in the open air, face the south wind when the setting sun descends, and bow down in adoration; when the sun returns, bow likewise toward the east. Be still, child: …

So, yeah, we really should be facing the south for sunset/evening prayers.  In this light, keeping in mind the Egyptian context here of Hermetic texts, it makes sense: the Way of Truth of Hermēs Trismegistos is also a Way of Life, and the direction of the West was the direction of the lands of the dead, and so inappropriate for prayers of immortality to the immortal God.  (Why, then, the direction of North wasn’t used, the direction of immortality itself, is not something I’ve puzzled out yet, but I’m tired, so it can wait.)

In either case, let’s take inspiration from this for our prayer routine above.  In the morning (ideally at sunrise), we’d say the morning prayer (with Prayer of Thanksgiving in the middle and Threefold Trisagion at the end) facing the east, and in the evening again (ideally at sunset) with the evening prayer (again with the Prayer of Thanksgiving and Threefold Trisagion) facing the south (though, if one is in the southern hemisphere, one should probably face the north instead).  Following the practice given in Book XIII as noted above as well as in the Asclepius, prayers are best made “in open air” (cf. “as they left the sanctuary” in the Asclepius), starting from a standing position, and bowing during adoration (e.g. the Secret Hymn, the Threefold Trisagion, etc.); prayers with words should be said aloud, audibly if not in a low voice, while prayers without words would be said in silence.  If standing is not possible, kneeling would be fine, prostrating instead of bowing at the appropriate times; which is my own personal preference, especially if indoors, and even more so if meditation, contemplation, readings, or other prayers are to be said either before or after this.

So there’s that: a simple prayer rule for devotional Hermetic practice, derived entirely from the classical Hermetic canon.  Short, elegant, straightforward, earnest; what more could one want, even if only to start with as a seed for extended or more elaborate prayer practices of Hermetic theurgy and henosis?  It’s something otherwise detached from any other religion or spiritual practice, and, perhaps most importantly, uses the actual words of Hermēs Trismegistos for our own prayers, and to repeat those same words (or to use them in a similar way) for following the Way of Hermēs is a powerful practice, indeed.

Speaking of “following the Way”, there’s something else I was considering.  We used that excerpt from Book I of the Corpus Hermeticum to create those evening and morning prayers above, but we focused on the latter two paragraphs of the excerpt for that.  The first two paragraphs, on the other hand, take a distinctly different tone: that of a call to wake up, a call to the Way of Truth that Hermēs Trismegistos began to teach at the instruction of Poimandrēs.  Like Buddha going around from town to town with the call of “Anyone for the other side?” or the Islamic adhān calling Muslims to prayer, similar language could be used as a preliminary…perhaps not “prayer”, but reminder of what it is to follow the Way and why we should do so.  Though I doubt there are many communities that would need such a grand call, it could be useful before both individual or group practice before any major Hermetic theurgic undertaking, even (or especially) those that rely on heavier PGM-style magic and ritual.  To that end, I figured I’d end this post by sharing my rewrite of Hermēs’ original call, based again on comparing the older translations of Scott, Copenhaver, and Salaman amongst each other:

O all you children of mankind, o all you born of the Earth, o all who you have given yourselves over to drink and sleep in your ignorance of God! Make yourselves sober, cease your drunken sickness, end your bewitchment by unreasoning sleep! Why have you given yourselves over to death, since you have the power to partake of immortality? You who have wandered with Error, you who have partnered with Ignorance: think again, and repent! Be released from the darkness, take hold of the Light, take part in divine immortality, leave behind your corrupt destruction! Do not surrender to the way of death by your mockery or distance, but come, rise, and be guided on the way of life!

The Twelve Irrational Tormentors and the Ten (or Seven) Rational Powers

Lately I’ve been reviewing some of my first real spiritual texts as part of my practice that I first began to familiarize myself with years ago: the Corpus Hermeticum.  These books, being a homegrown Egyptian manifestation of what could be considered Hellenic theurgic philosophy (either as Stoicizing Neoplatonism or Neoplatonizing Stoicism), are some of my favorite texts, amounting to my own “bible” as it were.  Granted, it’s been some time since I’ve last seriously sat down with them, and since I’ve been discussing parts of it with a colleague of mine, I figured it was high time to get back into chewing on them so I’m not just talking out of my ass when it comes to classical Hermetic philosophy and theurgy.  It’s a deeply rewarding practice, after all, and study is something that we can never truly finish; it always helps to review, reread, and rethink things from time to time.

There are essentially four versions of the Corpus Hermeticum that I consult:

  1. Clement Salaman, The Way of Hermes: New Translations of the Corpus Hermeticum and the Definitions of Hermes Trismegistus to Asclepius.  Inner Traditions, 2004.  This is the most readable and accessible version of the Corpus Hermeticum, in my opinion, and also includes the Definitions of Hermēs Trismegistus, which was the focus of that massive blog project I did back in late 2013 that inspected all 49 definitions.  (I should probably review some of those one of these days.)
  2. Brian Copenhaver, Hermetica: The Greek Corpus Hermeticum and the Latin Asclepius in a New English Translation, with Notes and Introduction.  Cambridge University Press, 1995.  This is the version of the Corpus Hermeticum I started with, and though it’s not as accessible as Salaman’s translation, it’s still a very good translation all the same, and gives a slightly more critical and academic approach.
  3. G. R. S. Mead, The Corpus Hermeticum.  Thrice Greatest Hermes, vol. 2.  London, 1906.  Available in the public domain on Gnosis.org.  This is the most popular one that most people know and have used for over a hundred years, and though it has some Theosophical biases, it’s still a surprisingly good translation, even if the prose is overwrought.
  4. Walter Scott, Hermetica: The ancient Greek and Latin Writings which contain religious or philosophic teachings ascribed to Hermes Trismegistus, vol. 1.  Clarendon Press, 1924.  Though the translation isn’t considered good, Scott includes critical editions of the actual Greek text of the Corpus Hermeticum as well as the Latin of the Asclepius, so this is pretty useful for that reason alone.

If you want to read something better than the Kybalion, which would basically be anything and everything, I’d recommend the Corpus Hermeticum.  (NB: Kybalion delendum est.)

Anyway, I was flipping through the Corpus, refreshing some of the things I knew and being reminded of the things I’ve forgotten.  It was in book XIII, where Tat asks Hermēs Trismegistus for help in attaining divinity and, eventually reaches it, that I found something fascinating that I must have skipped over before.  Whether it’s due to my engineering training or my love of Buddhist text, it’s when things appear in lists that I snap to attention, and Hermēs describes a list of twelve “Hermetic sins of the body” that keep us ensnared in darkness and ignorance, as well as ten “Hermetic virtues of the soul” that free us from darkness and ignorance.  Fascinated by these lists, I dug in, and I started matching them up to a few other parts of the Corpus Hermeticum I know, the results of mulling over which I wanted to share.  I’ll let you, dear reader, pick your own preferred version of the Corpus Hermeticum and read (at minimum) books I and XIII on your own, which I recommend you do so before continuing with this post.

Ready?  Good.  So, as Hermēs states in book XIII, we have these twelve “irrational tormentors of the body” (ἄλογα τιμωρία τῆς ὕλης, áloga timōría tês húlēs).  The specific word being used here is technically τιμωρία, timōría, literally “retribution” or “vengeance” or even “punishment”, but usually translated here as “tormentor” or “torturer”.  Collectively, they all arise fundamentally from irrationality, the true lack of reason (which is emphasized in the Corpus Hermeticum as being divine, as it is truly Λόγος, Lógos, “the Word”).  Hermēs lists these tormentors as below; I give both the Greek term used in Scott along with the various translations that Salaman, Copenhaver, et al. have provided for these terms.

# Greek Salaman Copenhaver Mead Scott
1 ἄγνοια Ignorance Ignorance Not-knowing Ignorance
2 λύτη Sorrow Grief Grief Grief
3 ἀκρασία Intemperance Incontinence Incontinence Incontinence
4 ἐπιθυμία Lust Lust Concupiscence Desire
5 ἀδικία Injustice Injustice Unrighteousness Injustice
6 πλεονεξία Greed Greed Avarice Covetousness
7 ἀπάτη Deceit Deceit Error Deceitfulness
(or being deceived,
i.e. error)
8 φθόνος Envy Envy Envy Envy
9 δόλος Treachery Treachery Guile Fraud
10 ὀργή Anger Anger Anger Anger
11 προπέτεια Recklessness Recklessness Rashness Rashness
12 κακία Malice Malice Malice Vice
(or malice)

Of course, though these are the main tormentors of the body that we have to deal with, Hermēs notes that “besides these there are many others”, but these seem to be the major ones that either rule lesser tormentors or which themselves are the causes or predecessors of others.  Together, they “compel the inner man who dwells in the prison of his body to suffer through his senses”.  Hemēs is explicit, too in giving each of these a zodiacal association, even if he doesn’t say which belongs to which sign: “this tent of the body through which we have passed…is composed from the zodiac and this consists of signs, twelve in number; the body is of one nature and appears in every form; it exists to lead man astray”.  I think a simple association could be drawn up such that the first tormentor listed, “ignorance”, be given to the first sign Aries, the second “sorrow” to Taurus, the third “intemperance” to Gemini, and so forth.  It’s not exactly clear to see how each of these might be matched up with their corresponding sign, like why Aquarius should be linked to Recklessness in this way, but we’ll just accept it for granted for now.

But all hope is not lost for us!  Though these tormentors of the body plague us and trap us, “these tormentors depart one by one from the man who receives God’s mercy”, which manifests itself as ten “powers of God” (δυνάμεις θεοῦ, dunámeis theoû) that cleanse the body and soul of the twelve (and more) irrational tormentors:

# Greek Salaman Copenhaver Mead Scott
1 γνῶσις θεοῦ Knowledge of God Knowledge of God Gnosis of God Knowledge of God
2 χαρα Experience of Joy Knowledge of Joy Joy Joy
3 ἐγκράτεια Self-control Continence Continence Continence
4 καρτερία Steadfastness Perseverance Steadfastness Endurance
5 δικαιοσύνη Justice Justice Righteousness Justice
6 κοινωνία Generosity Liberality Sharing-with-all Unselfishness
7 ἀλήθεια Truth Truth Truth Truth
8 ἀγαθός Supreme Good the Good the Good Good
9 ζωή Life Life Life Life
10 φώς Light Light Light Light

Moreover, each of the powers (or at least most of them) correspond to a specific tormentor that it specifically chases out or conquers.  Using the Salaman translations of the tormentors and powers:

Tormentor Power
Ignorance Knowledge of God
Sorrow Experience of Joy
Intemperance Self-control
Lust Steadfastness
Injustice Justice
Greed Generosity
Deceit Truth
Envy Good, Life, Light
Treachery
Anger
Recklessness
Malice

Note that the last three powers, the Good with Life and Light, seem to act as a triune force, because once Truth arrives, “the Supreme Good arises”, and Life and Light come together with it, and together they chase out the “torments of darkness” (τιμωρία τοῦ σκότος, timōría toû skótos).  Hermēs says that Life and Light are specifically united together, and “this unity is born from spirit”; this echoes what Poimandrēs told Hermēs back in book I of the Corpus Hermeticum: “the truth is: light and life is God and Father, whence Man is begotten”.

With all ten powers present, “spiritual birth is complete…and by this birth we have become divine”.  These are all given by the mercy of God, which quells the torments of the bodily senses, and one who has these powers “knows himself and rejoices”; these ten powers “beget the soul”.  There’s some Pythagorean influence here in how these are described: Life and Light together form a unit, a henad (the number One), and the henad is the source of the decad (the number Ten), and “the Henad contains the Decad” while at the same time “the Decad [contains] the Henad”.  If we consider “spirit” here to be fundamentally the spirit of God, then we can consider this to be equivalent or identified with the power of the Good itself, from which come Life and Light, and from those two all the other powers derive.  This dimly kinda recalls how I plotted out the ten spheres onto the Tetractys as part of my Mathēsis stuff, with “the Supreme Good” being simply the Monad at the top, Light being the right-hand sphaira of the Dyad (the sphere of the fixed stars, the active power) and Life being the left-hand sphaira (the sphere of the Earth, the passive power):

At the same time, note that we have two systems going on here: a system of twelve (the tormentors) and a system of ten (the powers).  We start off by specifically linking one tormentor to one power, but after the first seven pairs, the last five seem to get jumbled together.  Hermēs says that “among the signs…there are pairs united in activity”, and notes that recklessness is inseparable with and indistinguishable from anger.  Copenhaver notes that, in this light, four of the twelve tormentors can be considered as two pairs broken up; if this is so and they are reduced into units, such as anger and recklessness into a combined tormentor, then we go from twelve tormentors to ten, but we don’t know what the other pair is (perhaps envy and treachery?).  If that were the case, and if we consider the sequence of introducing Good and Life and Light to be reversed given a descent of the Dyad from the Henad, then we might come up with the following scheme:

Tormentor Power
Ignorance Knowledge of God
Sorrow Experience of Joy
Intemperance Self-control
Lust Steadfastness
Injustice Justice
Greed Generosity
Deceit Truth
Envy and Treachery Light
Anger and Recklessness Life
Malice Good

That being said, I don’t know if I trust that specific scheme; Copenhaver notes that such an understanding of some of the tormentors isn’t agreed upon.  After all, though it’s definitely not contemporaneous with this, we can bring in a bit of Qabbalah here to justify keeping the systems of twelve tormentors and ten powers separate rather than forcing them onto the same scheme of ten.  Recall that the lower seven sefirot of the Tree of Life are considered underneath the Veil of the Abyss that separate the upper three sephiroth (Keter, Ḥokmah, Binah) from the lower seven (Ḥesed, Geburah, Tiferet, Neṣaḥ, Hod, Yesod, Malkut).  The upper three sefirot, then, are considered a trinity unto themselves that, from the perspective of everything below it, act as a unity.  Not to equate the sefirot of the Tree of Life here with what Hermēs is talking about, but it does offer an interesting possible parallel to how we might consider how these powers function and upon what.

By that same token, however, this means that the last five tormentors of the body (envy, treachery, anger, recklessness, and malice) seem to function differently than the first seven, in that the first seven have a distinct power of God that chases them out while the latter five are only chased out by the highest attainments of powers of God themselves, and that indistinctly.  In a way, this brings to mind part of book I of the Corpus Hermeticum, when Hermēs is communing with Poimandrēs, who tells Hermēs about “how the way back [to Nous, i.e. the Divinity of the Mind] is found”.  In this part of book I, there’s this notion of heavenly ascent through the seven planetary spheres, where one gives up a particular force (vice? tormentor?) associated with each of the planets.  Using Salaman’s translation of this section as a base, and giving the alternative translations of Copenhaver, Mead, and Scott for each of those forces:

First, in the dissolution of the material body, one gives the body itself up to change.  The form you had becomes unseen, and you surrender to the divine power your habitual character, now inactive.  The bodily senses return to their own sources.  Then they become parts again and rise for action, while the seat of emotions and desire go to mechanical nature.

Thus a man starts to rise up through the harmony of the cosmos:

  1. To the first plain [of the Moon], he surrenders the activity of growth and diminution;
    1. Copenhaver: “increase and decrease”
    2. Mead: “growth and waning”
    3. Scott: “the force which works increase and the force that works decrease”
  2. To the second [of Mercury], the means of evil, trickery now being inactive;
    1. Copenhaver: “evil machination”
    2. Mead: “device of evils”
    3. Scott: “machinations of evil cunning”
  3. To the third [of Venus], covetous deceit, now inactive;
    1. Copenhaver: “illusion of longing”
    2. Mead: “guile of desires”
    3. Scott: “lust whereby men are deceived”
  4. To the fourth [of the Sun], the eminence pertaining to a ruler, being now without avarice;
    1. Copenhaver: “arrogance of rulers”
    2. Mead: “domineering arrogance”
    3. Scott: “domineering arrogance”
  5. To the fifth [of Mars], impious daring and reckless audacity;
    1. Copenhaver: “unholy presumption and daring recklessness”
    2. Mead: “unholy daring and rashness of audacity”
    3. Scott: “unholy daring and rash audacity”
  6. To the sixth [of Jupiter], evil impulses for wealth, all of these being now inactive;
    1. Copenhaver: “evil impulses that come from wealth”
    2. Mead: “striving for wealth by evil means”
    3. Scott: “evil strivings after wealth”
  7. And to the seventh plain [of Saturn], the falsehood which waits in ambush.
    1. Copenhaver: “deceit that lies in ambush”
    2. Mead: “ensnaring falsehood”
    3. Scott: “falsehood which lies in wait to work harm”

Then, stripped of the activities of the cosmos, he enters the substance of the eighth plain with his own power, and he sings praises to the Father with those who are present; those who are near rejoice at his coming.  Being made like to those who are there together, he also hears certain powers which are above the eighth sphere, singing praises to God with sweet voice.  Then in due order, they ascend to the Father and they surrender themselves to the powers, and becoming the powers they are merged in God.  This is the end, the Supreme Good, for those who have had the higher knowledge: to become God.

This final part of what Poimandrēs tells Hermēs in book I touches on what Hermēs and Tat discuss in book XIII once Tat receives the ten powers and attains divinity:

T:  Then, o Father, I wish to hear the hymn of praise which you said was there to be heard from the powers, on my birth into the eighth sphere.

H: I will recite it, o son; just as Poimandrēs revealed the eighth sphere to me.  You do well to make haste to free yourself from the tent of the body, for you have been purified.  Poimandrēs, the Nous of the Supreme, gave me no more than what has been written, being aware that I should be able to know all things by myself and to hear what I wanted to hear, and to see all, and he charged me to create works of beauty.  Wherefore the powers in me sing also in all things.

This follows with the Secret Hymn, or what I call the Initiatory Hymn of Silence.  Though some aspects of what Poimandrēs told Hermēs differs from what Hermēs is telling Tat, the fundamental process is the same: we either give up or chase off the irrational forces of matter and flesh that ensnare us and shroud us in ignorant darkness, and what remains after that (or what we replace with them) are the divine powers that enable us to return to a truly divine state.  This is what Hermēs tells Tat earlier on in book IV:

T: I also wish to be immersed in Nous, o father.

H: If you don’t hate your body, son, you cannot love your Self.  If you love your Self, you will have Nous, and having Nous you will partake of knowledge.

T: Why do you say that, father?

H: For, son, it is impossible to be governed by both, by the mortal and by the divine.  There are two kinds of beings, the embodied and the unembodied, in whom there is the mortal and the divine spirit.  Man is left to choose one or the other, if he so wishes.  For one cannot choose both at once; when one is diminished, it reveals the power of the other.

There’s this notion in the Corpus Hermeticum of a spiritual (re)birth that happens when we reject the irrational powers of the body and seek (or, as a result of rejecting the tormentors, are given) the rational powers of God, a process of spiritual ascension through forsaking the material, which we can perform while still embodied so long as we retract our awareness away from the senses and perceptions of the body.  In other words, by letting go of the body (even while still possessing it, or rather, being possessed by it), we grasp onto the Good.  This shouldn’t be interpreted as some sort of banally gnostic, simplistically dualistic world-hating, but as a simple understanding that focusing on the body keeps us in the body and away from God.  (There’s a lovely essay, Agrippa’s Dilemma: Hermetic ‘Rebirth’ and the Ambivalences of De Vanitate and De occulta philosophia by Michael Keefer, that I recommend for reading on this point, especially regarding Cornelius Agrippa’s own Christian interpretation of this Hermetic approach to salvation.)

And what of the torments?  How do they actually torment us?  Consider what Poimandrēs tells Hermēs when they discuss those who do not have Nous:

As for those without Nous—the evil, the worthless, the envious, the greedy, murderers, the ungodly—I am very far from them, having given way to the avenging spirit, who assaults each of them through the senses, throwing fiery darts at them.  He also moves them to greater acts of lawlessness so that such a man suffers greater retribution, yet he does not cease from having limitless appetite for his lust nor from fighting in the dark without respite.  The avenging spirit then puts him to torture and increase the fire upon him to its utmost.

It’s not that the Hermetic deity is a jealous or vengeful god that those without Nous should be deprived from people, since the lack of Nous isn’t really much more than being immersed in the darkness of matter and not living a life that focuses on the light of spirit.  As material beings that are born, we must also die, and so long as we focus on being material, we must and deserve to die, but once we strive for immaterial immortality, we begin to attain Nous.  By identifying with the material, we suffer material conditions, but by identifying with the spiritual, we enjoy spiritual ones; in a cosmic sense, “you are what you eat”.  In this sense, it’s not that Poimandrēs actively wants us to suffer, but that suffering is part and parcel of being material; for as long as we strive to be material, we suffer, and the more we try to be material, the more we suffer.  The “avenging spirit”, in this case, isn’t really a distinct devil or demon, but the torments of the body itself; the phrase used here is τιμωρῷ δαίμονι (timōrôy daímoni), with “avenging” (τιμωρός, timōrós) being fundamentally the same word as “torturer” (τιμωρία) from above.

What’s interesting now, at this point, is how we now have two models of irrational forces: a set of seven that are associated with the planets according to Poimandes, and a set of twelve that are associated with the zodiac signs from Hermēs, and there isn’t a clean match between them for us to link one set to the other.  There are some similarities, sure; the seventh zodiacal torment of Deceit (or, perhaps better, Error) is much like the seventh planetary force of falsehood; the sixth zodiacal torment of Greed is basically the sixth planetary force of evil striving for wealth, and so forth.  But there are also differences; it’s hard to see how the second zodiacal torment of Sorrow is at all like the second planetary force of evil machination.  Except that the word translated as “sorrow” for the second zodiacal torment is λύπη lúpē, which technically refers to pain of body or mind and is also related to the Greek verb λυπέω lupéō, with meanings including “grieve”, “vex”, “distress”, “feel pain”.  In this, if we consider this to be a mental anguish, we might bring to mind the temperament of melancholy, which can lead to states of mind including depression, fear, anxiety, mistrust, suspicion, and deeper cogitations; all these can definitely be linked to “evil machinations”, which was classically considered a symptom of being too melancholic.  Likewise, it’s not easy to immediately link the first zodiacal torment of Ignorance with the first planetary force of increase and decrease, but as Tat complains to Hermēs in book XIII:

T: I am dumbstruck and bereft of my wits, O father, for I see that your size and features remain the same.

H: In this you are deceived.  The mortal form changes day by day, with the turning of time it grows and decays, its reality is a deception.

T: What then is true, Trismegistus?

H: The untroubled, unlimited, colorless, formless, unmoving, naked, shining, self-knowing; the unchanging Good without a body.

So, maybe the seven planetary forces described by Poimandrēs really are the first seven of the zodiacal torments of Hermēs, just phrased in another way for another audience.  This lends some credence to the notion from above that the last five of the zodiacal torments really are of a different set or nature; after all, if Hermēs admits to Tat that there are far more torments than just the twelve he named, maybe Hermēs was just naming more than strictly necessary to show that the way is long and hard, beset by so many torments.  Yet, once we chase out the first seven, the others follow suit, because “upon the arrival of Truth, the Supreme Good arises…the Supreme Good, together with Life and Light, has followed upon Truth, and the torments of darkness no longer fall upon us, but conquered; they all fly off with a rush of wings”.  In this, the final five zodiacal torments could simply be called “darkness”, all chased off by Light (which is unified with Life and the Good).  And, fundamentally, regardless whether we take a planetary approach (being ruled by the wandering stars) or a zodiacal approach (being ruled by the fixed stars), the world of matter is governed by celestial forces that we need to break free of or give back what they force upon us.

Also, note that there are interesting differences in how Hermēs describes the attainment of the various powers of God: Hermēs says that knowledge of God and experience of Joy “come to us”, while he summons self-control, steadfastness, justice, generosity, and truth, and once truth “arrives”, the triune powers of Good-Life-Light “arise”.  Given that truth “arrives” after Hermēs summons it, and that the knowledge of God and experience of joy similarly arrive, it stands to reason that Hermēs also calls on those first two powers as well.  In effect, we have the first seven powers of God which we call or summon, and the last three which arise on their own without being summoned, instead following the summoning of truth.  In this, it seems like we only truly need to work to call forth (or reach towards) the first seven powers of God; once we have those seven, you attain the last three as a natural result.  This is effectively like breaking past the Veil of the Abyss in a Qabbalistic sense; sure, there’s always more work to be done (after all, “before enlightenment, chop wood, carry water; after enlightenment, chop wood, carry water”), but once you’ve made that jump, there’s truly nothing left stopping you.  Once you break into the eighth sphere from the seventh, it’s just a matter of time (“in due order”, according to Poimandrēs) of further elevation and ascension.

And, true enough, this isn’t the last we see of these powers that chase off the torments.  At the end of Book XIII, Hermēs passes onto Tat the Secret Hymn, what I call the Initiatory Hymn of Silence.  After Tat has been reborn through the ten divine powers that Hermēs describes and becomes one in Nous, Tat requests Hermēs to sing the “hymn of praise” that is sung by the holy entities of the eighth sphere to God.  Hermēs does so, though he “had not thought to impart [it] so easily”.  Hermēs instructs that it should be said outdoors “under the clear sky” facing the south at sunset, and east at sunrise.  After Hermēs begins the hymn proper, the hymn follows more-or-less the same format of the powers that Hermēs earlier referred to that themselves sing to God:

O powers within me, sing to the One and All!
All you powers, sing praise together at my bidding.
Divine Knowledge, illumined by you, I sing through you of the spiritual light and I rejoice in the joy of Nous.
Sing praise with me, all you powers!
Temperance, sing with me!
Justice, through me praise what is just!
Generosity, through me praise the All!
Truth, sing of the truth!
Good, praise the Good!
Life and Light, from you comes the praise and to you it returns.
I give thanks to you, Father, the strength of all my powers.
I give thanks to you, God, power of all my strength.
Your Word through me sings to you.
Receive all back through me by the Word, a spoken sacrifice.

Though it might have passed as high-brow yet pop spiritual philosophy back in the day, the Corpus Hermeticum really is a fundamental work for Western spiritual practices, and is fundamentally useful and instructive in matters of theurgy.  What we see above is a sort of plan or map for attaining divinity through theurgic practices, by means of purifying the senses and purging the soul of material influences so as to become a freer, truly immortal power of God ourselves.  By taking the accounts of Hermēs into consideration, we can figure out how we stand in terms of our bodies and souls, what we need to focus on to continue along our spiritual paths, and how we can maintain ourselves in a matter of right and proper living through right and divine reason.

EDIT (2019-07-30): So it turns out the excellent Reverend Erik put up his own post touching on this same topic, tying it into other practices and parallels in other traditions, back in September last year.  Go check it out for more information on this wonderful topic!

The Kybalion is Still Crap, No Matter Who You Think You Are

Last night, I made a tweet, as I periodically do, about how much I dislike the Kybalion:

Longtime readers—and those who follow me on Facebook or Twitter—know that I’m no fan of this text. Published in 1912 by The Yogi Publication Society Masonic Temple in Chicago, Illinois, and supposedly written by the “Three Initiates”, its own introduction plays itself up quite admirably:

We take great pleasure in presenting to the attention of students and investigators of the Secret Doctrines this little work based upon the world-old Hermetic Teachings. There has been so little written upon this subject, not withstanding the countless references to the Teachings in the many works upon occultism, that the many earnest searchers after the Arcane Truths will doubtless welcome the appearance of this present volume.

The purpose of this work is not the enunciation of any special philosophy or doctrine, but rather is to give to the students a statement of the Truth that will serve to reconcile the many bits of occult knowledge that they may have acquired, but which are apparently opposed to each other and which often serve to discourage and disgust the beginner in the study. Our intent is not to erect a new Temple of Knowledge, but rather to place in the hands of the student a Master-Key with which he may open the many inner doors in the Temple of Mystery through the main portals he has already entered.

There is no portion of the occult teachings possessed by the world which have been so closely guarded as the fragments of the Hermetic Teachings which have come down to us over the tens of centuries which have elapsed since the lifetime of its great founder, Hermes Trismegistus, the “scribe of the gods,” who dwelt in old Egypt in the days when the present race of men was in its infancy. Contemporary with Abraham, and, if the legends be true, an instructor of that venerable sage, Hermes was, and is, the Great Central Sun of Occultism, whose rays have served to illumine the countless teachings which have been promulgated since his time. All the fundamental and basic teachings embedded in the esoteric teachings of every race may be traced back to Hermes. Even the most ancient teachings of India undoubtedly have their roots in the original Hermetic Teachings…

It goes on to claim that not only is Hermetic philosophy the origin of Western philosophy, occult and otherwise, but so too is it the origin of Vedic and Hindu philosophy, along with every other philosophy of note. And yet, despite Hermeticism supposedly being the origin of all the world’s philosophies, occultisms and occultures, and religions:

…the original truths taught by him have been kept intact in their original purity by a few men in each age, who, refusing great numbers of half-developed students and followers, followed the Hermetic custom and reserved their truth for the few who were ready to comprehend and master it. From lip to ear the truth has been handed down among the few… These men have never sought popular approval, nor numbers of followers. They are indifferent to these things, for they know how few there are in each generation who are ready for the truth, or who would recognize it if it were presented to them… They reserve their pearls of wisdom for the few elect, who recognize their value and who wear them in their crowns, instead of casting them before the materialistic vulgar swine, who would trample them in the mud and mix them with their disgusting mental food…

The text then goes on in short order to describe “The Kybalion”, which it only really describes as “a compilation of certain Basic Hermetic Doctrines, passed on from teacher to student”, with the exact meaning of the word “having been lost for several centuries”. Yet, the book we call the Kybalion is just the interpretation and exegesis of this ancient text that it never actually quotes in full; the Three Initiates just cite a bunch of small quotes that may or may not make up the entirety of its supposed origin text, and that in such a highbrow, supercilious way that only the occultists of the late 19th and early 20th century could achieve.

TL;DR: the Kybalion is a pretentious mess.

Probably my biggest gripe about this blasted thing is that, though the Kybalion claims to be a Hermetic text, it’s just not. I’ll delightfully and happily recommend my readers to take a look at Nicholas E. Chapel’s wonderful essay, The Kybalion’s New Clothes: An Early 20th Century Text’s Dubious Association with Hermeticism, which goes into the history and origins of the Kybalion and that it’s very much a modern product that derives from New Thought, a new age movement that originated in the 19th century spiritual scene of the United States, itself the likely root of Christian Science. From the New Thought crowd, a strong case can be made that the real identity of the “Three Initaites” is William Walker Atkinson, aka Yogi Ramacharaka aka Magus Incognito aka Theron Q. Dumont, who served in a position of honorary leadership of the International New Thought Alliance and who was a prolific writer of many works, many of which have nontrivial overlaps with the material in the Kybalion. Chapel’s essay also goes on at length and in depth about the real and numerous differences between the Kybalion and actual Hermetic philosophy, and it’s definitely an excellent read, but suffice it to say that there’s not a lot of Hermeticism in the Kybalion.

It would also be remiss of me, at this point, to not bring up the good Reverend Erik’s post over at Arnemancy about What to Read Instead of the Kybalion (surprise, it’s actual Hermetic philosophy texts, specifically the Corpus Hermeticum and the Asclepius!) and The Nature of God in the Kybalion and the Hermetica (surprise, there’re major differences in how divinity and God is described between the two texts). Also definitely give those a read, too.

All this was going through my head last night, because I saw yet another post somewhere on one of the magic-related subreddits about, once again, the Kybalion. I’ve gotten tired about voicing my opinion on there, unless it comes up in another thread I’m already involved with, but I rolled my eyes, made a snarky tweet, and got on with my evening. Then someone out of the blue—I’ve never heard of them, they weren’t following me, we have one mutual follower in common who’s someone I only barely know (but what I do know I like)—struck up a short quasi-conversation with me (verbatim below):

Them: Its entry lvl concepts but its still effective if you have discernment, just like every other esoteric projection. Better to have newly awakened read the kybalion then jump straight into solomons lesser key or any of oto ffs

Me: I find the Kybalion’s “principles” to be a waste of time at best and dangerously misleading at worst, and they often require unlearning and serious deconditioning when getting into the real meat and bones. I contend they should get into the Corpus Hermeticism at the start. But even then, taken right, there’s nothing wrong with starting off with the Lemegeton or Thelema if they want to, so long as they take them seriously.

Them: Curpus is not exactly easy digestion. Had to read it twice to fit pieces together. Its all doctrine, so whatever works for the individual to find the path to virtue is correct. But you should already know youre projecting your self into the argument…

Me: “Bitter for the mouth is sweet for the stomach.” Better they read good stuff that’s hard from the start than junk food swill for the mind; after all, nobody promised that obtaining wisdom would be easy. Besides, at least the Corpus is actually Hermetic, unlike the Kybalion.

Them: And how many initiates take any infrastructure as serious as they need to?

Me: If the initiation was done right, and if they needed initiation (otherwise, they shouldn’t have it), then all of them. It’s on the initiator as much as the initiate to ensure that instilling mysteries is done properly, but is also appropriate for the person to have them.

Them: You sure do have a lot of rules to enlightenment. Makes me think you havent found it yet. Ive heard everything I need to from you.

At which point, they blocked me. To be honest, this is the first time in the nine years I’ve been on Twitter that I can recall something like this happening, so I’m pretty proud of myself to have irritated someone to the point of getting blocked because I disagreed with them.

Listen, I have my gripes about the Kybalion, to be sure, and I’ll name three specifically:

  1. It’s not Hermetic, and thus gets people confused about actual, legitimate Hermetic philosophy and practices.
  2. Many of its lessons tend to become hindrances later on that are, at best, worthless and can just be dropped and, at worst, are dangerous and need to be unlearned.
  3. It’s such a basic text that it doesn’t really do much besides say “there are things out there”, focused more on feel-good kinda-truths that maybe encourages people to get off their ass and do something with their lives.

But, really, it’s that first gripe that’s the biggest: the Kybalion is not a Hermetic text, period, full stop. It’s influenced by Hermeticism, I’ll grant it that, but as Reverend Erik said in a comment to one of his posts above, “[d]efinitely Hermeticism influenced the Kybalion, but that doesn’t mean the Kybalion agrees entirely with Hermeticism”. And, if you look at what’s actually written in texts like the Corpus Hermeticum, the Asclepius, the Emerald Tablet, the Virgin of the World, the Isis to Horus, and the like, there’s really not a lot that the Kybalion agrees with at all. The Kybalion isn’t so much a rewrite of Hermetic philosophy and ideas into modern language, but an injection of New Thought ideas into Hermeticism. Not that I’m opposed to innovations if they’re useful, and I’ll be the first to happily and readily admit that Hermeticism as we know it from classical writings is absolutely syncretic and synthesized by many authors with related ideas and viewpoints. The problem is that this injection is also a rebranding of New Thought as Hermeticism, and thus confuses the two together, when the two are so distinct that it leads to confusion among many who read it.

I do not and cannot recommend the Kybalion as an introductory text, except unless you’re getting into New Thought and Christian Science—in which case, have at! There’s definitely virtue in New Thought and the like, but don’t call it Hermeticism, because it’s not. Yet, I’m evidently in the minority with that viewpoint that the Kybalion should not be recommended for students of Hermeticism as an introductory text, as I commonly see it lauded and praised and recommended time and time again as being so good. I mean…well, the good Dr Al Cummins said it better than I could on a Facebook post about the Kybalion I made recently: “I’m not sure I’ve ever encountered anyone online stanning the Kybalion who actually had anything remotely interesting or useful to say about it”.

Then here comes along someone whom I don’t know and who doesn’t know me saying that the Kybalion is better than the Lemegeton and the Ordo Templi Orientis. The Lemegeton I can sorta understand; goetia isn’t exactly something to go rushing into for the most part, but let’s be honest, how many generations of magicians have started with that very text and have used it and abused it for wondrous and terrible things? It’s several hundred years older than the Kybalion, for one, and though it’s more Solomonic practical literature than Hermetic, it’s still so tied up into Hermetic practice that its influences cannot be denied. But, come on, dude went out of his way to smear the O.T.O.? For real? Despite that the O.T.O. itself is also older than the Kybalion, is still around and lively to this day, and has greatly influenced modern Western occulture, especially with Crowley’s and Thelema’s influence on the O.T.O., with a supportive community and rigorous lodge-based system, you’re gonna say that the Kybalion’s better than that? As a rule, books are never preferred to teachers when teachers are available, and O.T.O. is full of them.

Is the Kybalion effective? I don’t judge it so, to be honest, and neither have many of my colleagues. We might remember it fondly, but we more often talk about it derisively, and, well, there’s what Dr Cummins said about it, too, which I can’t disagree with. Is it good to help open the mind? Sure! Is it good for getting into new age practices generally? Absolutely, since New Thought’s one such practice! But to say it’s good for getting into Hermeticism isn’t saying much more than saying it can help you move your foot towards the door, when you would probably do that anyway and a lot better, quicker, and easier if you started with actual Hermetic texts. Which is why I always recommend the Corpus Hermeticum as a kind of Hermetic Bible of sorts, along with the other texts as one is ready for them.

“But oh no, the Corpus is so hard to read!” dude said, “it took me two times to understand it!” First, it only took you two times to get it to make sense? I’m reading it for the two hundredth time and I’m still learning more from it. I had to go over it multiple times to get it to sit right in my head, and several more after that to actually begin to grok it. If you’re complaining that it took you two tries to read it, then that says a lot about how much you’re able to stomach actual philosophy, occult studies, and the like; you might have a sharp mind, but little faculty to keep with it. I find complaining about that to be embarrassing, to be honest, because of course something that old and dense on such a cosmically-encompassing huge topic is going to be hard to understand. Yet, with the works of Brian Copenhaver or Clement Salaman, it’s easy to study so long as you let yourself chew on it and digest it. Nobody promised that the occult was easy, and nobody promised that you would be able to understand Cosmic Truths About God And Everything on your first go; to think that you could or should right out of the gate is folly.

Then the dude goes on about how initiates don’t take their stuff seriously. First off, as an initiate in several mystery religions myself? Have you ever met a convert to a religion or someone newly initiated into something? Nine times out of ten, they can’t shut up about it, and are hungry to know whatever they can, do whatever they can, ask whatever they can, and implement whatever they can. Their enthusiasm may run low over time, sure, but unless it’s a matter of life and death (or because it’s a matter of social life and death), you don’t go for initiation into a spiritual path for shits and giggles, you go because you Want it. Those who Want it will take it as seriously as anything in their lives, because for them, it becomes their life.

And, as I noted, there are those who apply for initiation but aren’t ready for it, or don’t have the capacity for it, and so it’s on their initiators to assess, gauge, and test the applicants to make sure they’re able to initiate or progress to higher initiations. (It works the same in the O.T.O. as it does in Freemasonry as it does in traditional Wicca as it does in Ocha.) Heck, recall those quotes from the introduction of the Kybalion above, too! Even the Kybalion states that the old Hermetic masters “reserved their truth for the few who were ready to comprehend and master it” and that they “reserve their pearls of wisdom for the few elect, who recognize their value and who wear them in their crowns, instead of casting them before the materialistic vulgar swine, who would trample them in the mud and mix them with their disgusting mental food”. That this dude would complain about initiation clearly forgot about that part of the Kybalion, and about the role initiation properly serves in spiritual practices generally.

Due to the influence of La Regla de Ocha Lukumí, aka Santería, in my life, I’m increasingly a stickler for oathbound, authorized, and transmission-based forms of initiation, and find it a useful system, not only to gain power or wisdom or what-have-you but also to throttle it and cultivate it in a useful, beneficial, and appropriate manner, controlled by the initiators and community as a whole who have as much a say in the life and works of any given initiate as the initiate does themselves. This isn’t always the case with many spiritual practices—I have plenty that are more auturgic than initiated, and not everyone needs to go the initiation route—but I know and admit that this isn’t a popular stance to take in modern occulture. As it proved to this dude, who then says that my occultism has too many rules for enlightenment and, thus, I must not be enlightened. To which:

  1. I wasn’t talking about enlightenment. I was talking about Hermetic texts and what’s better to read than not.
  2. I never claimed to be enlightened. I’ll be first to claim that I’m not, and that I’m just a rank beginner with a little expertise here and there.
  3. Who on Earth are you to judge someone, on Twitter of all places, whom you don’t know and who doesn’t know you, regarding their spiritual state?

In all honesty, despite that I’m writing such a post about this, I find the whole affair more hilarious than aggravating. He saved me the trouble of having to block him, at least; at least he had the kindness to shut the door behind him when he left.

I bring all this up because, for one, I enjoy taking any opportunity to rail against the Kybalion, and this gives me an excellent time and means to do it on my own terms, and also to flesh out some of my statements last night with more nuance and explanation. But also, let this be an example of how not to engage with someone, especially me, especially on the Internet. I know at least a few people who would take serious umbrage at this to the point of actual retribution instead of just a snarky blog post. Just…come on, guys. Don’t be a haughty asshole to other people. If you want to discuss, then discuss! Don’t just walk in, say some shit, smear someone and a few religions while you’re at it, then strut off thinking you won when all you won is some mockery.

Let’s grow up and discuss things like adults, shall we? It’s the Hermetic thing to do.

Mythos and Stories as Models of Practice

Lately, I’ve been fiddling around with Python and LaTeX scripts again.  For those who aren’t as inclined to computers, the former is a very flexible, extensible programming language of no small fame, while the latter is a type of language used to format, typeset, and compile documents (sorta like what HTML and CSS are for webpages).  I use Python for all my short, little, experimental research things, like calculating certain astronomical/astrological phenomena or doing a brute-force search of all 65,536 possible geomantic charts for particular patterns, minimums, or maximums of certain qualities.  Meanwhile, I use LaTeX for all my document needs, mostly for ebooks but also for letters, résumés, and other things in lieu of a normal word processor like OpenOffice or Microsoft Word (because I’m a crazy fool who loves the commandline and raw power over convenience and ease).

The main impetus for this bout of hobby programming that’s been going on this week is so I can make a full calendar in LaTeX that spans from June 23, 2009 through June 23, 2047, complete with dates of eclipses, lunar phase changes, seasonal start and midpoint dates, and zodiacal ingresses of the Sun.  It’s hard to find that sort of data over such a wide span of time, and much more difficult than that to find it in an easily-obtainable format that I can use for LaTeX compilation.  To that end, I wrote the scripts to calculate all the astronomical information from scratch (Jean Meeus’ “Astronomical Algorithms” is a godsend of a book for this, so do get yourself a copy for reference) and formatted the output just the way I needed it.  It’s not exactly an exciting feeling to realize that it’s easier to just code and test all the algorithms yourself than trying to find the data you need online, but after two long days of coding, the profound feeling of accomplishment can’t be easily described (except, of course, as “fucking awesome and thank god that’s over”).

For what end would I take on this crazy project, you might ask?  Because this unusual span of time is the 69th cycle of 38 years of the Grammatēmerologion, the lunisolar grammatomantic calendar I devised that associates the days of the lunar months, the lunar months themselves, and the lunisolar years with the letters of the Greek alphabet for use in ritual grammatomancy and, more broadly, my nascent theurgic practice of mathesis, a new kind of Hermetic theurgy I’m developing that refocuses on Pythagorean, Platonic, and Neoplatonic influences before introduction of qabbalah.  It’s been a bit since I’ve done any mathetic work, given the whole house-buying/house-moving of 2016 and the Year in White of iyaworaje that went on through most of 2017, but I’m preparing slowly to pick it up again.  Since a daily observation of the letter of the day is a practice I found great use with, I wanted to have an actual calendar to reference instead of having another one of my scripts calculate it for me each and every morning.  (This also means I’ll be getting back to my Daily Grammatomancy posts I was doing for a while over on my Facebook page, so if you haven’t liked it yet, please head on over and do so!)  So, yanno, it’s the little gains that help give a sturdy foundation for this sort of work.

The thing is, though, that I’m not setting out to develop this whole new practice and system for its own sake, or for the sake of being able to say “look at me, mister high muckety-muck of my own sandcastle!”.  I want a way to explore the Neoplatonic and Hermetic cosmos without having to rely on the procrustean bed of qabbalah that we can’t seem to escape from, purge, or ignore; Hermeticism and Neoplatonism existed before and did fine without it, and even if qabbalah brought in excellent insights and models and frameworks for the two philosophies to expand with (and it most certainly did!), after a certain point, those same models and frameworks can become a hindrance.  If nothing else, taking another look with another system can breathe a breath of fresh air into these things, and allow for opening up new doors and avenues to cosmic exploration, theurgy, and spiritual development.

Going through my old posts and notes on what I’ve already set up is incredibly useful, but I see something clearly now that I didn’t before (time is great for providing experience, after all, no matter how much we might think we have some at the time).  Consider one of my favorite quick rituals, the Blessing of the Vessel, first discussed in this 2015 post, which I use as a way for generating a sacred elixir to partake of the blessing of the Divine.  This ritual works quite well on its own, though it uses some pretty arcane Judaeo-Coptic symbolism.  However, if I were to make a mathetic variant…I ran into a mental wall trying to figure that one out.  Sure, I could just replace the names of the angels or godforms, but…that seems hollow to me.  While swapping out related concepts from one system to automagically transform it into a new system is definitely a thing, like using a Celtic or Hellenic deities instead of the four archangels to make more pagan forms of the Lesser Banishing Ritual of the Pentagram, I personally find the practice distasteful and it never seems to work as fully, as cleanly, or as effectively as the original ritual in its own context with its own appropriate entities and names.  Moreover, I couldn’t think of anything comparable to the symbols and metaphors used in the Blessing of the Vessel that could be seen in Hellenic mythology off the top of my head, which…

That reminded me of that post I wrote not too long ago about how the rituals we use are means of reliving myths.  La Regla de Ocha Lukumí, more commonly known as Santería, is a perfect example of this.  All the ceremonies we participate in, all the things we wear, all the offerings we make, all the songs we sing, and so forth are established not just by tradition, but by the precedents laid out for us in the mythological stories that undergird the entire religion.  In this case, as in many religions and systems of faith, “myth” here doesn’t just mean a fairy-tale, but a narrative that explains how things become into the world and why we do certain things in a certain way.  The mythos of a religion, then, is the collective story of the cosmos from the point of view of that religion; to participate in the religion is to participate in the eternal telling-retelling of that mythos, where we are both a member of the audience as well as an actor on the stage.  Every religion is like this: Christianity retells the story of Christ’s sacrifice through the Eucharist, which is an eternal event that is played out in discrete instances that participate in the eternal truth of Jesus’ sacrifice; Judaism retells the story of the covenants of God with Noah, Abraham, Moses, Aaron, and Aaron and the Exodus through the Passover Seder and the various mitzvot they maintain; Buddhism describes the paths to nirvana through the practices of the Buddhas and bodhisattvas and how we are to understand the Noble Eightfold Path as well as all the discrete, different practices that can more quickly help us achieve our goal; Santeria tells through all the odu and all the pataki about the exploits of the orishas and how they impact our lives and what we can do about the problems through the rites and rituals that the orisha laid down so long ago, and so on.  Even in magic, we use stories that undergird our work: Solomonic magicians take on the role of Solomon as primordial gōes, reiki masters take on the role of their initiators going back to Usui-sensi to ply their work, Greek necromancers take on the role of those heroes like Odysseus who went down to the land of the dead and came back alive, and so forth.  These aren’t just simple stories we tell to children; these are the archetypal foundations of ideology, worldview, culture, faith, and interaction that our societies and civilizations are built upon and grow around.

So, what then of mathesis?  I realized that, though I have the basic ideas of Hermetic theurgy within a Pythagoreansim-centered Neoplatonic framework down and a handful of basic tools and methods at my disposal, I lack a story, a myth that explains what the whole goal is and how spiritual practices and methods should be established.  It’s these stories that not only provide inspiration for new methods to grow and develop, but also point to some of the dangers I might face and flaws I might find in myself along the way, as well as the remedies and precautions to take for when I do face them.  Without such a story, all I’m really doing is bumbling around in the dark repeating the same acts over and over with no purpose.  I can liken this to an actor on a stage reciting the same soliloquy extemporaneously with neither context nor play; no matter how excellently they might recite it, it has no meaning or purpose except to practice the ability of recitation for its own sake.  It’s only when such a soliloquy takes place in the proper context of a play that it has meaning.  All these practices of purification, meditation, contemplation, initiation, and whatnot don’t mean anything if they don’t have an overall story to fit into.  Like a collection of pieces to build furniture from IKEA, if you don’t know what you’re doing and have no instructions to fit everything together, that collection is going to remain nothing more than a pile of bits and odds and ends that don’t do anything except allow for someone to play at a frustrating adult version of Legos.

Now, I should say that I’m not trying to distill mathesis down to any one myth, any one story that we know of from ancient Greece.  I’m not suggesting that I’m doing that, or that I should do that.  I’m really talking about something more archetypal and fundamental than any one story, something that takes place time and time again in individual stories.  Consider what Leo Tolstoy (or Dostoyevsky, or John Gardner, or others) once said: “all great literature is one of two stories; a man goes on a journey, or a stranger comes to town”.  This is the kind of archetype I’m talking about: a fundamental action that takes place.  Just how the Iliad is an example of the classical “war epic” while the Odyssey is one of the “journey epic”, and how the Aeneid is an example of both, and all of which take place in greater and larger cycles of epics and sagas, each with their own stories and subplots that collectively describe how things come to be, what is the sort of high-level framework “saga” that mathesis might adopt as its underlying mythos?  That’s an interesting thing for me to ponder as a model for mathesis.

After all, consider that we can use the word “model” in terms of “framework”, but also in the sense of “role model”.  What sort of character am I playing out by working in this way?  What sort of tribulations, conflicts, issues, problems, predicaments, and crises might I face?  Where might I look towards for help and succor?  To what end do I play out this role, and how does this role pick up and start again (reincarnate, rebirth, renew) in another iteration of the story?  After all, the idea of “role model” is played out quite heavily in occult and spiritual work in terms of godforms; the Catholic priest takes on the role of Jesus when he lifts up the host and say “this is my body”, the Vajrayana Buddhist takes on the role of their yidam in meditation, the Golden Dawn initiate takes on the role of any number of Egyptian gods for a given ritual, and so forth.  In adopting a role, we take on the strengths, weaknesses, abilities, and powers of that form we take; consider the Headless Rite, where the primary mechanism is to become Akephalos, the Headless One, to command the forces of the cosmos for exorcism or banishing or conjuration.  Not only do models inform us what our views of the cosmos will be like, but models also inform us how we act within that cosmos and what our abilities and limitations are.

This isn’t to say, of course, that we can’t, don’t, or shouldn’t live by our own stories; of course we can, and we must!  While there’s definitely truth to Ecclesiastes 1:9—”what has been will be again, what has been done will be done again; there is nothing new under the sun”—there’s a difference between the fundamental archetype which is mythos and the discrete, concrete instantiation of a a story that falls under that mythos.  Like with the whole “two stories, journey or arrival” quote from above, consider that, at least under the “journey” header, we have such disparate and varied stories such as that of The Hobbit, Alice in Wonderland, Pokémon, and the Odyssey are all such stories.  Under the broader notion of Proto-Indo-European religion, which formed the basis for many of the pagan religions across Europe and some parts of Asia and the Near East, there are high-level archetype stories of divine horse twins, a sky father, a dawn goddess, and a hero slaying a dragon; take a look, dear reader, at Celtic, Greek, Roman, Slavic, Vedic, Nordic, and other Indo-European myths and you’ll find countless stories that relate to them, oftentimes many iterations of a single story with different variations.  We each have our own story, each of which is unique, and all of which play into the archetypes of the cosmos both as processes and actors.

Come to think of it, that’s one of the things that I think we as occultists tend to neglect.  It’s…it’s at least an issue, but I’m unsure whether it’s a full-blown problem, that so many of us lack contexts for the things we do.  Like the actor reciting a preset soliloquy extemporaneously without context, many of the practices we have are so distanced and removed from the theologies, cosmologies, and philosophies that gave birth to them, and we’re at a loss without understanding that collective context.  I mean, sure, the Headless Rite will still work for you whether or not you understand the currents of Egyptian, Christian, Jewish, Greek, gnostic, academic, priestly, and folk influences that collectively gave rise to that ritual and its place in the broader understanding of Greco-Egyptian magical praxis and theory, but knowing all the rest of that does significantly help attune oneself better to the ritual, not just by understanding where it came from, but also the role of the ritual, the magician who invokes Akephalos, and Akephalos itself.  To put it in modern terms, consider chaos magic with its notion of paradigm shifting.  You can pick up any ritual and make it work, sure, but if you can’t paradigm shift between them, you can’t get the most out of any given ritual you perform because you aren’t immersed in the fundamental contexts (the mythos) that allow for that ritual to work.

This is most dangerous for eclectic practitioners that don’t belong to any one tradition or practice except “what they feel like, a bit of this and a bit of that”; without a coherent, cohesive, connective mythos that undergirds their worldviews, philosophies, cosmologies, and so on, I find it extremely rare that anything of what they do even comes close to the power and efficacy of someone who has a mythos and has truly integrated themselves and everything they do into that mythos.  A mythos as model, then, provides both a skeleton and a skin for one’s practices: a skeleton to arrange and structure one’s practices together, and a skin to separate out what belongs to it and what does not, filtering things in to and out from one’s system of practices.  Without a mythos, you’re just a jumble of things that you do, some of which may have an immediate use but no overarching purpose; a set of practices without a mythos is no more than a jumble of IKEA parts without instructions that may or may not combine together to form a useful bit of furniture, and even then only if you stumble upon the right combination and order of doing so.  If you’re just interested in performing and knowing how to perform individual acts for individual needs, more power to you, but if you’re looking for purpose and direction and how all these things you do can lead to you it, then you’re going to need a mythos to understand how all these things you do play into it.

It’s because of this that I’m so interested in setting up a new kind of Hermetic theurgy with Neoplatonic philosophy divested from qabbalah.  The central mythos is the same both with and without qabbalah, sure, but the stories that play out would be different.  A different story means different actors, different problems, different predicaments, different crises, different climaxes, different resolutions, different conclusions, even if it all fits into the same mythic pattern.  With each new difference comes new insights, new abilities, new techniques, new practices that can be developed, refined, and applied, yielding new ways to understand the cosmos and ourselves.  Mathesis and qabbalah might both be mirrors made of the same stuff that reflect reality, but they’d present it from different angles, with different views, colors, shadows, and understandings of the thing to be reflected.

Qabbalah works for Hermeticism, to be sure, but almost all that we do is part of the same Hermetic story.  I want to tell a new story, and see where else I might end up.  What story will mathesis tell, I wonder?

Search Term Shoot Back, September 2015

I get a lot of hits on my blog from across the realm of the Internet, many of which are from links on Facebook, Twitter, or RSS readers.  To you guys who follow me: thank you!  You give me many happies.  However, I also get a huge number of new visitors daily to my blog from people who search around the Internet for various search terms.  As part of a monthly project, here are some short replies to some of the search terms people have used to arrive here at the Digital Ambler.  This focuses on some search terms that caught my eye during the month of September 2015.

“what are the corresponding planet of each mansion of the moon” — In the system I learned it (I’m unsure if there are others), there are 28 lunar mansions that cover the 360° of the Zodiac.  The first lunar mansion starts at 0° Aries, and is given to the Sun.  From there, the lunar mansions are given to the planets in the weekday order: Sun, Moon, Mars, Mercury, Jupiter, Venus, and Saturn.  Since there are 28 mansions and 7 planets, this cycle repeats four times, so that the Sun begins at the same zodiacal position that the cardinal signs (Aries, Cancer, Libra, Capricorn) do.

Planetary attributions of the Lunar Mansions

“the seven days conjuration” — A conjuration done over seven days, a period where you do seven conjurations in seven days, what?  Be a little more specific.  There are works like Pietro d’Abano’s Heptameron, literally meaning “a period of seven days”, referring to the planetary conjurations one can best perform on each of the seven days of the week; we find a similar text in the Munich Manual.  Alternatively, you could do the usual conjuration ritual, such as Trithemius’ rite, and conjure each of the seven planetary angels on your own across the seven days of the week; this is the basis for Fr. Rufus Opus’ Seven Spheres book, and his occasional project Seven Spheres in Seven Days.  It can get a little rough, especially with a crazy mundane schedule, but it’s worth it.

“which month,day and hour is the spirit of jupiter” — It…this doesn’t, I can’t.  Unless you’re talking about a particular zeitgeist, the spirit of Jupiter abides as long as the planet and its planetary sphere does, so…yeah.  The spirit of Jupiter can always be contacted regardless of the time, but there are some times that are better than others, and for this we use the system of planetary days and hours.  For instance, the planetary day of Jupiter is Thursday, and there are planetary hours of Jupiter scattered regularly throughout the week, so if you can get something set up on a planetary day and hour of Jupiter, it’ll be all the better.  As for months, this gets a little less regular.  Our system of months tracks the procession of the Sun through the Zodiac, more or less, but we don’t care about the Sun as much as we care about Jupiter, so we’d like to know when Jupiter is particularly strong in the Zodiac.  This can get into a whole talk about electional astrology, which is beyond the scope of this entry, but suffice it to say that you should check an ephemeris and read up on William Lilly’s books to figure out when Jupiter itself will be powerful.

“can you give back eleke” — First off, I don’t know why I keep getting hits on Santeria stuff on this blog, as it’s hardly ever germane to the usual stuff that goes on.  But…so, from what I gather, receiving your elekes is a ritual available to anyone with a godparent in Santeria, and is one of the important steps one takes in the process of initiation into the priesthood.  These are like your formal introductions to the orisha of those elekes, and…I have a hard time understanding why you’d want to give them back.  They’re yours, and yours alone.  Giving them back or intentionally losing them seems, to my mind, like a massive slap in the face to the orisha to whom you’ve been introduced.  If you didn’t want elekes, unless you were only a child without agency when you received them, then you shouldn’t have gone through the ritual to get them, but…I mean, hey, it’s your life.  They won’t interfere with anything, but if you don’t even want that much, go ahead.

“hermeticism homosexuality” — Bear in mind that the idea of homosexuality (yes, the mere concept of it) is recent, dating back only to the 1800s.  There is nothing ancient about homosexuality as a concept, and while we may read homosexuality into older works or storied relationships, it is folly to think that ancient peoples may have thought of themselves as inherently preferring one sex/gender to the other.  Sexuality was something that one did, not what one was (much like the guys who claim straightness but keep hooking up with dudes on Craigslist, no homo).  As a philosophy or branch of occult fields, there is nothing prohibiting or encouraging homosexuality in Hermeticism; depending on the context, homosexuality can be as much a hindrance or a help as much as heterosexuality is, and both same-gender sex as well as different-gender sex have their place.  Are they interchangeable?  I’m not convinced one way or the other on that, but I can’t see why they wouldn’t necessarily be, even though they may have different mechanics physically and spiritually.

“hermetic laws on gender and transgender people” — Like with the above search term, there’s no real connection or law that connects the occult philosophy of Hermeticism to things like gender, especially modern notions of gender that go beyond the simple gender binary that has stuck around humanity for thousands of years.  And no, although the Kybalion talks about the “laws of polarity” or gender or whatnot, that shoddy text is distinctly not Hermetic, and should not be considered as such for this topic.  For everything I’ve seen that matters in Hermetic magic, what gender you identify as does not matter, nor does the sex your body has.  If a specific item or body part is called for from a particular sex of a human, animal, or plant, I think it’s better to use that particular sex rather than think that the sexes are completely interchangeable; just as straight sex and gay sex have different powers, so too (as I see it) do male and female bodies.  Still, from the perspective of who can or can’t do magic, gender has no role to play in it.

“mercury as a cock with a human head” — Usually, in the Mediterranean, we find humanoid bodies with animal heads, like those of Egypt.  The Greeks tended to frown on these zoocephalic gods, preferring their strictly anthrophomorphic gods like Apollo or Serapis.  However, even with some of the more bizarre gods, like the human-torsoed cock-headed snake-legged Abrasax, we tend to find that the body is human and the head is animalian.  I know of no representation of a rooster with a human head as a representation of Mercury or Hermes, but perhaps you mean a phallus?  In which case, the word you’re thinking of is “herm“.

“massive cock painting” — I prefer photographs, myself, and I prefer GIFs more than those.  There’s a whole subreddit for that, too, you know!  I’d link to it, except that I’m writing this post at work, and….yeah.

“fuck a golem jod he vau he” — Please don’t fuck a golem.  The only way to turn a golem off is to kill it, at which point you turn sexy-divine lithokinesis into necrogeophilia, and that gets really weird.

“is using corse salt for protection godly or not?” — Well, you won’t find circles of salt described in the Bible, to be sure, but then, neither will you find lots of what the Catholic Church does, either.  That said, the Church uses salt in its consecration of holy water, as there’s some virtue in salt that helps to sanctify or cleanse stuff spiritually.  Plus, it has lots of use dating back hundreds of years, if not millennia, as a means of protection from spiritual harm.  It’s up to you to judge how godly that may be, but I’m on the side that it’s quite alright to do so.

“what happens if i summon spirits good” — You did it!  You summoned a spirit.  Congratulations!  Now, I hope you thought this part out, but…why did you summon a spirit?  To what end?  Anyone can pick up a phone and call a number; what’re you going to talk about?  What will you ask for?  That’s the real part of summoning that nobody seems to think about ahead of time, and the whole point of the act.  Why bother establishing contact with a spirit if you have nothing to talk about?

“symbols on solomons wand” — In book II, chapter 8 of the Key of Solomon, we find described the method to create the Wand and Staff, which involves inscribing the symbols from the Key onto the wand in the day and hour of Mercury.  Joseph Peterson on his Esoteric Archives gives a lot of Hermetic wand lore, and in his notes on the Key of Solomon, he believes that the symbols from the Key are nothing more than corrupted Hebrew for “AGLA + ON + TETRAGRAMMATON”, the same names used on the wand in Trithemius’ ritual of conjuration.  I used both the Solomonic symbols and the Trithemian names on my own personal Wand of Art, and while I’m not entirely convinced that they’re supposed to be the same thing, they do have similar feels to their power.

Ebony Wand Design

“bath soap by geomancy figure spell” — While geomancy and magic get along great, I’m less sure about things like herbs and physical supplies used with the geomantic figures; the most I’ve seen geomantic figures used in magic is by turning the figures into a sigil that can be used to augment other works.  However, by using the elemental, planetary, and zodiacal attributions to the geomantic figures, we can get a reasonably good idea of the herbs and materials needed to make a soap or wash for each figure, such that if we wanted to be empowered by the figure of Puer, we’d make a soap using warming, spicy, woody, Martian herbs and inscribe the figure or a sigil of the figure into the soap before using it in the shower.  I suppose it could be done reasonably well this way.

“names of all seven archangels including rose” — I’m not sure what set of archangels includes the name “Rose”, unless you’re a diehard Whovian who has a special place in their cosmology for the 10th Doctor’s companion.  For me, the seven archangels of the Orthodox tradition are Michael, Gabriel, Raphael, Uriel, Barachiel, Jehudiel, and Sealtiel.

“items to put on a sagiterian prayer alter” — Please note that you put things on an altar, but change them when you alter them.  This misspelling never fails to get on my nerves.  As to the actual search term, the idea of setting up an altar or shrine to a constellation is…unusual, though not entirely out of reason.  Normally, when worship of celestial bodies is called for, it’s directed to the seven planets, hardly ever to the fixed stars, and much less any particular constellation of the Zodiac (notable exceptions being stars like the Behenian stars, the Pleiades, and so forth).  I suppose, if you wanted to set up a particular shrine to honor the constellation and god of Sagittarius in a standard modern Western fashion, you could use colors associated with the qabbalistic path of Samekh (= Temperance = Sagittarius), which are blue, yellow, green, and dark vivid blue; Jupiterian symbols and effects, such as a scepter, a battle-crown, bay and palm leaves, and so forth; symbols that relate directly to the sign, such as statues of centaurs and bows and arrows, and things that relate to the goddess Artemis; etc.  Setting it up facing the north-north west would be appropriate, or setting it up to face the east and working with it when the sign Sagittarius rises.  Making offerings in sets of 6 is appropriate, as the letter Samekh has the gematria value of 60.