Unlocking the Observatory: Assigning Authorship

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

※ For those following along with their own copy of ZT (get yours here!), this post does not touch on any specific chapter of the text.

It’s hard to come across any discussion of ZT without the mention of André-Robert Andréa de Nerciat.  According to the preface of OZT:

Zoroaster’s Telescope is a wonderfully strange book of oracle magic. Written in 1796 by André-Robert Andréa de Nerciat, a French author of Libertine genre, the text later appeared in a collection of German folk literature compiled by Johann Scheible from which this English translation was made. The 18th century was an active time for occultism; magicians and fortune tellers of note were spread throughout Europe, often playing significant roles in historical or political events. This was the era of the Count of St. Germain, Cagliostro, Antoine Court de Gebelin, Etteilla, Louis Claude de Saint-Martin, Emanuel Swedenborg and Adam Weishaupt whom were known for their visionary and magical prowess or accuracy at divining the future. It is a curious fact that the two genres of eroticism and the occult often overlap as is the case of the author of the present text, but this did not prevent him from giving advice on bodily desires of food and love as well as moralizing on the disadvantages of non-restraint.

I mentioned in the last post that the 1933 text by Karl Kern was later reprinted under the name of “Baron André-Robert Andréa de Nerciat”, and how the 2008 Alexandre de Dánann book goes on about justifying how ZT is authored by Nerciat, although the 2021 Susan Audrey Grundy text disagrees and proposes that it lies with Tommaso di Giovanni Masini aka “Zoroastro da Peretola” with Nerciat merely being a plagiarist or someone who took an earlier text and republished it.  It needs to be understood clearly that none of the original ZT texts itself ever has any sort of explicit authorship; neither FZT, GZT, or KZT have any mention of who actually wrote the text.  The closest we get is that the Epistle at the start of FZT/GZT ends with a signature of “Baron de N……”, and it is true that that number of periods does fill in for the missing letters of “Nerciat”.  Still, although there are literary and political references scattered throughout ZT that give a terminus post quem of the reign of Louis XVI in France, there really isn’t a whole lot to go on in the text itself that establishes it as the author of any particular person, and admittedly to link “Baron de N……” to Nerciat is a stretch without further evidence.

So who was Nerciat, anyway?  André-Robert Andréa de Nerciat (who sometimes used the pseudonym “Docteur Cazzoné” or the anagram “Certani”) was born April 17, 1739 in Dijon.  Although little is known about Nerciat’s childhood, he entered military service and rose to the rank of captain, learning German and Italian in the process.  He later returned to France after being stationed in Denmark, and in the 1770s he entered French aristocratic society and became enmeshed in libertine affairs of sexuality.  This spurred him on to becoming an author and playwright, notably of erotica, which eventually led him to seek a court position under Frederick II, Landgrave of Hesse-Kassel, but he promptly left a year or two later to join the court of Karl Emmanuel, Landgrave of Hesse-Rotenburg.  A year after that, Nerciat returned to Paris and resumed his military career, working as a secret agent.  In March 1783, he was made a Baron of the Holy Roman Empire, and thence went to represent the French royal family in the Netherlands (albeit on a mission to destabilize the ruling House of Orange), before heading to Brussels and thence again to Paris in 1788.  After this point, things get murky; it is not wholly clear where Nerciat (who was known to harbor at least some republican sentiments even though he worked for the French royal government) fell along the lines of the French Revolution.  Sources differ on details, but he was officially employed in the revolutionary government by September 1792, and also worked as a librarian in the German cities of Neuweid, Hamburg, and Leipzig.  While on deployment as a secret agent in Vienna in 1796, he was exposed and was ordered to leave the city, eventually making his way back to Paris before being redeployed to Naples in 1797.  At this point, he posed as an Italian baron, and became chamberlain to the Queen of Naples and Siciliy, Maria Karolina of Austria.  Interestingly, when French troops marched on Rome (where Nerciat happened to be staying for espionage on the Vatican), they imprisoned Nerciat, and was only released when Naples reclaimed the city in 1799.  Sickened and weakened by his imprisonment, he returned to Naples, where he died in January 1800.

Okay, a French spy-diplomat-librarian, working across Europe (especially in France, Germany, and Italy), and also an author of erotica that centered on French aristocratic voluptuosity (with just as many and the expected kinds of NSFW prints associated with his works).  As the French Wikipedia article on Nerciat says (which both it and the German version have much more information than the English version):

Soldier, writer, diplomat, spy, double agent—the knight Nerciat had an even more incredible life than the licentious whirlwinds of his characters. His life was in the image of his time, upset by uncontrollable events and political regimes in crisis and in struggle against each other. Admittedly, towards the end of his life, his penchant for adventures forced him to an opportunism of survival, due to the adversity of circumstances, but this destiny, far from any greatness, preserved him from the martyrdom experienced by Condorcet or Danton.

If Nerciat, who played both the sides of the royalty and the republic, was often not as political or lucky as one of his illustrious patrons, Talleyrand, all out of financial necessity or simple security for his person, he left to posterity a much less perishable literary work. His novels, so reasonable and appropriate in political philosophy, teem with joie de vivre and happy health, quite the opposite of the cynicism and harshness of the political life of his time, which was particularly corrupt and bloody. If his work reflects his life, this knight and a subtle libertine, had to know very happy moments through so many professional vicissitudes.  On the contrary, if his work in no way reflects his life, then his chaotic life must have been particularly painful for him to extract such imaginary compensation from him. To offer a judgment on this matter, it may be decided that his work is largely autobiographical and offers a very faithful mirror of the very free morals (but without their corruption and their violence) of the French aristocracy that the reaction, during the post-Napoleonic Restoration, had not yet darkened with its implacable repression of morals. In short, his life was as dangerous as his work is joyful.

Indeed, Nerciat is a super colorful character—but nothing about this says much of occult interest, and therein lies the weirdness of attributing ZT to Nerciat.  Judging from the biblographical history of Nerciat’s works as discussed in the 1800s, ZT is clearly not a recent attribution of his; in one such bibliography from 1876, the Bibliographie anecdotique et raisonnée de tous les ouvrages d’Andréa de Nerciat, ZT is indeed listed (under a variant title) on pages 52—53:

The Urn of Zoroaster, or the key of the science of the magi.  This work is quoted by Beuchot in Michaud’s Biographie universelle, and in Didot’s Nouvelle Biographie générale. Is it a play? is it a novel? No bibliography indicates it. This almost unknown book must be very rare. Perhaps it is a satire on Mesmer or Cagliostro, very famous at the time of Nerciat, for their charlatanism and their supposedly scientific discoveries.

We remember, however, having seen this work appear in a catalog published in March 1875, by the bookseller Th. Sluys, in Brussels. This very curious bulletin has the title: “Catalogue of a very fine collection of old books devoted to women, love, marriage, facetious, satirical, jolly, scatological, burlesque works, rarities, curiosities, etc.”

We encounter under no. 879, The Urn of Zoroaster, quoted at the price of 30 francs, with the qualification of “extremely rare”. Unfortunately, despite this publisher’s habit of most often following his books at marked prices with an excellent descriptive and bibliographic note, no explanatory note was attached to Nerciat’s work. Today, we are compelled to remain in this respect, in our perplexity, leaving others the chance to be happier than us.

Even older “historical dictionaries” or biographic compilations also list associations between Nerciat and ZT, like this one from 1828 or this one from 1822.  Perhaps giving an origin to these, there is a letter sent by one of Nerciat’s children, George-Augustus de Nerciat to his friend and bibliographer Adrien-Jean-Quentin Beuchot (the same one mentioned in the bibliography mentioned above).  According to this paper hosted by a small website dedicated to the work of Nerciat (my translation):

A family tradition has it that the writer [Nerciat] composed a treatise on “the cabalistic art”, however this work seems to have been lost.  George-Auguste, son of Nerciat, wrote on this subject: “I went to see Monsieur Beuchot to pay him my respects and give him a piece of notice on the author of Félicia etc.  As for the book The Urn of Zoroaster, the only copy he had sent to his family was entrusted by Mr. Ducaurroy, my friend, to a person whose trace had been lost for 16 years.  My mother thinks it was printed in Neuwien. […]”

Although I can’t seem to find the letter as mentioned in that paper for more context, though (the reference is to “Ms. fr. nouv. acq. 5203 pièce 281” in the Bibliothèque nationale de France), this is a tantalizing clue, indeed.  The title isn’t quite right, but it’s still something that gives a little more weight to such an attribution of ZT to Nerciat, along with the historical fact that Nerciat was made a baron of the Holy Roman Empire and posed as an Italian baron in his missions.  It’s still super weird, though, to ground something on this without at least without knowing more of Nerciat’s background and history, and what involvement or interest (if any) in the occult he had.

To offer a contrasting theory, in her 2021 work Zoroastro: Wizard of the Renaissance, Susan Audrey Grundy has this to say:

There doesn’t seem to be any strong reason for De Nerciat, who was a popular French writer of illustrated erotica, to be the originator of this text.  It is unclear if it was even ever published in French.  Indeed, the text appeared in a German publication of folk literature, seemingly anonymous, shortly after the date given to the De Nerciat Italian publication (1796), as if a manuscript was circulating that was not originating with De Nerciat.  De Nerciat, when not producing pornography, was a soldier and spy.  He ended his life in Naples.  It is uncertain for how long he had been in Italy, perhaps from around 1796, the time of the publication of Zoroaster’s Telescope.  He worked for, it is said, MARIA CAROLINA OF AUSTRIA, QUEEN OF NAPLES (Vienna, Austria 1752—1814).  He was reportedly also something of a linguist.  It would seem certain that his source was Italian, given he was in Italy when the work was published, not in France.  It could be De Nerciat only intended to be associated with the introduction.

This book is also sometimes called L’Urna di Zoroastro (Zoroastro’s Urn) or alternatively La chiave della scienza di Magi (The key of the Magi’s science).  Of course, Zoroastro of the title is automatically considered to refer to the prophet of ancient Persia, Zoroaster.  Realistically, however, this makes no particular sense, other than making a link to the prophet’s position in astronomy.  Zoroastrianism is not, however, a religion of vulgar divination.  Nevertheless, parts of the text of Zoroaster’s Telescope are said to condemn Tarot Cards and palm reading, while holding the Jewish kabbala and spiritual astrology in high regard.  This was also a Neoplatonist fixation.  It does appear that the Zoroastro of the text was a recently historic person.  Tarot were only introduced into Europe, likely from Mamluk Egypt, in the fourteenth century, so this is not an activity one would associate with an ancient prophet anyway.

But if this tract was something to do with the historic Zoroastro of Ammirato’s biography, seemingly still a legend in Florentine folklore, and if indeed Zoroaster’s Telescope was something De Nerciat found rather than wrote, then what if any were Zoroastro Masino’s connections to either the Kabbala or to Judaism? …

… Based on the evidence of Zoroastro’s powerful memory, and the fact of lost manuscripts long talked about but never recovered, the Zoroaster in Zoroaster’s Telescope is surely the historical Zoroastro Masino and not the ancient Zoroaster of Persian religion. […]

Given the lack of any real evidence linking this text to Zoroastro Masino, aside from the name and tantalizing links in the geometric design and some of the philosophical direction, for the moment it cannot be added to the lost papers.  However, it may certainly belong to the body of folkloric literature that recorded the impact of Zoroastro Masino’s life and personality on the popular environment.  This lingered, despite obvious scholarly attempts to suppress Zoroastro’s dual role, both in his own life and in Leonardo’s, as well as the impact of his life on the lives of those around him.  Zoroastro’s Telescope was only first published in 1796, so it is difficult to ascertain extensive influence, not least considering the arcane nature of it.

Admittedly, Grundy’s work is not exactly in the realm of certifiable history; she presents her own theory that the notebooks of Leonardo da Vinci were not authored by him in any way, but rather it was Tommaso di Giovanni Massino (“Zoroastro Masino” or “Zoroastro da Peretola”), who was a lifelong companion (and life partner) of da Vinci.  She notes in her own preface that she has been often called a conspiracy theorist, and ardently claims that she has a better approach to understanding the authorship of his attributed notebooks than established history and conventional understanding.  I’ll leave the rest of the topic up to debate for others, but I note that her own account of ZT seems confused: I’m unable to find any record of an Italian version of ZT, especially one published the same year as the French one (which she says doesn’t exist, even though it does), so either she has access to some earlier or contemporary Italian text that there is no other record of (admittedly a possibility, which she seems to take much advantage of generally) or she’s confusing Italian with French.  The only record I can find of the explicitly Italian name she gives (L’Urna di Zoroastro) are in similar “historical dictionaries” and bibliographies as I found the other Nerciat references in, like this Italian one from 1827 that seems to be a word-for-word translation from the earlier French examples—as even the title of such a book says that it is compilata in Francia da una società di dotti ed ora per la prima volta recata in italiano (“compiled in France by a society of the learned and now for the first time in Italian”).  Still, Grundy does raise some points worthy of consideration, even if only circumstantial ones—it may well be that Nerciat did, during his time in Italy, take up a pre-existing copy or manuscript of ZT and published it as an editor rather than as its author.

At this point, we also need to bring up the 2008 book Télescope de Zoroastre, ou Clef de la grande Cabale divinatoire des Mages: ouvrage présenté définitivement restitué à son auteur légitime et annoté, written by a group of authors working under the name “Alexandre de Dánann” (which I’ll abbreviate as AdD).  This is one of the precious few books written about ZT, and while the bulk of this book is just a modern reprint of FZT, it also includes a lengthy introduction about the transmission of the text and its authorship assigned to Nerciat.  (In fact, this book was why this series took so long to get published, because I had ordered it from a small bookseller in France and it took so long to arrive, and I didn’t want to publish this series without checking on this book first.)  This book is honestly a godssend, and really does cover everything there is to know about the history, reception, and presence of this text, including pointing out references made to ZT that even I couldn’t find (like to Arthur Edward Waite’s The Holy Kabbalah, which offers a footnote or two as an oblique reference to ZT).  It is, unfortunately, out of scope to offer a full translation of what AdD says about Nerciat and ZT (it’s about 60 pages long), but it offers much to consider regarding the royalist/aristocratic/anti-revolutionary leanings of the author of ZT, ZT’s understanding of “cabala” versus what we generally understand kabbalah to be, commonalities between some kabbalistic perspectives and those offered in ZT on the nature of spirituality, and much more.  However, all of this is ancillary to the main point of this introduction (at least for my reading): offering evidence that suggests Nerciat to be tied to the production of ZT in some way or another.  To those ends, AdD offers the following evidence that I find compelling:

  • The fact that the name of the Venereal intelligence in ZT, “Erosia”, appears as a character in one of Nerciat’s 1788 Le Doctorat impromptu
  • Nerciat was a librarian in several German estates that had access to mystical/occult texts
  • Nerciat did have membership in a Freemason organization, which also would grant him further access to mystical/occult texts
  • A reference to a particular divination done indicating something grave happening to a member of the royal family (Louis XVI, incarcerated in 1792 and died in January the following year), tying to a letter Nerciat sent around the same time on the same topic
  • A number of similar names and entities were worked with in various rites in France and Italy in the second half of the 18th century in circles Nerciat was likely familiar with

I admit, though, that while this is all good evidence, so much of this still seems circumstantial to one degree or another.  Like, AdD states that Nerciat was absolutely pro-aristocracy and anti-revolution, but AdD also frames this based on what the Epistle says, as opposed to what Nerciat himself said (or was said to have said).  I suppose, to an extent, that unless we were to ever find some lost journal or diary of Nerciat that says unequivocally that “today I wrote Telescope de Zoroastre“, then I’d probably say that all we have is circumstantial evidence, but…I dunno.  Parts of the case that AdD builds up just seems really weak to me, and while it’s an extraordinarily well-researched text offering plenty of extra pointers, resources, and citations, I feel like AdD’s claim that ZT was actually, really, and definitively written by Nerciat still rings a little hollow to my ears.

All in all, I am personally convinced that Nerciat was certainly involved in the production of ZT as a book published in 1796, although perhaps not as its author, or at least its sole author. I think there’s enough evidence to ground some sort of association, although the specifics of it may be lost to time.  AdD does reveal quite a bit more about Nerciat’s life and connections, both in various European nobilities as well as in French governmental and other social groups, and that does give one reason to think that, although his writing focused on the erotic and sensual, he certainly would have been familiar with various other currents of society and likely took at least some interest in them.  For my part, I don’t think that Nerciat himself wrote the entirety of ZT, just the Epistle and Epilogue and filled in a few gaps here or there in the course of his own “editing”.  To credit Nerciat with the complete invention of ZT is a step too far, I think, and in this, I’d be inclined towards a softer notion of what Grundy suggests: Nerciat compiled some notions from earlier authors (maybe even a living teacher) and then published the text itself anonymously (because he wasn’t the originator of the content) but with his own epistle, and thus took credit for its publication even if not its composition.

That’d be my most-preferred version of the story, at least, but in the end, I suppose it doesn’t quite matter.  There’s definitely much that we can say about ZT—and rest assured, dear reader, we will—but little of it hinges on the identity of the author that we can’t generally surmise from the state of 18th century French occultism and occulture.  We’ll pick up on that next week.

Unlocking the Observatory: Looking at (not yet through) Zoroaster’s Telescope

In my last post, I announced that I translated this obscure French book that dates back to 1796 on an equally-obtuse form of divination, Zoroaster’s Telescope (which I’ll refer to as ZT for short, both to the divinatory system itself and to the general body of texts that describe it).  The full title of this book is more properly (when rendered into English) The Telescope of Zoroaster, or, the Key of the Great Divinatory Cabala of the Magi (basically the same in any language it’s been written in or translated into), and…well, I have quite a lot to say about it.  Perhaps some of you, dear readers, might already be familiar with the book in one form or another, and might see where I’m going what with the whole “Unlocking the Observatory” bit in the title.  All the same, even though the book itself is pretty short, there’s still a lot to talk about when it comes to ZT, both the book itself as well as the divination method and spiritual system it contains—so let’s get started, shall we?

※ For those following along with their own copy of ZT (get yours here!), this post does not touch on any specific chapter of the text.

Let’s start with a review of the literature as it stands.  I touched on this briefly in the last post, but here’s what we’ve got:

  1. Up until my last post, there was only one English translation of ZT available, the 2013 Ouroboros Press version of the text translated by Dr. Jenn Zahrt (which I’ll abbreviate here on out as OZT).  The earliest social media posts and records I can find of it are that it was published sometime in summer 2013, at least by August 12, 2013.
  2. OZT is an English translation of Johann Scheible’s Das Kloster (1846), volume 3, part II, chapter VII (KZT).  Scheible (as mentioned in the last post) was a German antiquarian and compiler of folklore and superstition, and in this specific volume of his monumental 12-volume series dating from 1845 through 1849 containing various magical texts, superstitions, fairy tales, and other stories or records, Das Kloster III contains a number of other well-known occult texts (a good number of which are referenced up on Esoteric Archives).  The one I referenced was digitized by the University of Michigan Library on July 3, 2007 (and the whole series are up for public access, too).
  3. KZT itself is based on an earlier French book from 1796 (FZT).  The publication details of this are scarce; all I can find out is that at least one copy of this book survived into the modern era and was digitized by the Bavarian State Library on January 13, 2009.

That is…basically it!  However, I do want to note that, in the course of my studies, I found a fourth version of the text: an earlier German version from 1797 published by Wilhelm Rein in Leipzig (GZT) explicitly as a translation from FZT (“aus dem Französischen”) which was digitized in 2017 by the National Library of the Czech Republic.  Fascinatingly, although GZT comes hot on the heels of FZT (especially compared to KZT), a brief inspection of the text shows that KZT was not based on GZT; there are too many differences in structure and wording between KZT and GZT, while there are weirder similarities between KZT and FZT suggesting that KZT was based directly on FZT, with Scheible consulting a source that was likely ignorant of GZT and only familiar with FZT.  Also, technically, OZT being the only English translation of ZT put out so far (besides my own) isn’t quite true: William Kiesel, the man behind Ouroboros Press, put out an original translation by Robert William Mattila in 2003 as part of a very limited run, but I can’t easily find anything about such a work (just one oblique footnote in a 2008 French text, mentioned below).  While I don’t doubt that Kiesel put out such a book, it may as well not exist for the purpose of this study, and overall still seems to be based on the same source as OZT, so I’d guess it to be equivalent to OZT anyway.

So, like, that’s it for primary sources.  If it’s not apparent yet, then it needs to be emphasized that ZT is an exceedingly obscure divination system; even though the end of the 18th century in France was a super crazy and productive time for the occult scene (this was the time period, after all, when geomancy hadn’t yet lost all its vigor and was also the time of Etteilla’s popularization of Tarot as a divination system), ZT seems to have been made and then all but forgotten about—kinda.  In 1797, towards the close of the French Revolution, the French Jesuit priest Abbé Augustin Barruel published his Mémoires pour servir à l’histoire du Jacobinisme (Memoirs Illustrating the History of Jacobinism) (originally in French but translated into many other languages as well, English just being one of them).  This is a crazy book that basically goes ham on trying to pin the French Revolution on the Freemasons, Illuminati, and various other factions and subcultures in French society that wanted to subvert the royal, aristocratic, and religious institutions in France.  ZT gets a shout-out/call-out in Barruel’s book, but beyond that, we don’t see much in the way of other mentions of this book until a few decades later, most notably with Scheible’s Das Kloster.

Whereas other, more popular forms of divination—or at least occult texts and traditions that have garnered at least some public notoriety and awareness—are able to be researched through secondary or tertiary sources that mention or bring up such methods or texts, we really don’t have a lot to go on with ZT.  I have otherwise only found only a small handful of other texts that substantially discuss or talk about ZT in any way:

  1. “The Seven Mystery Names” in Lucifer, v. 4 n. 23 (July 1889) by Jakob Bonggren.  This barely warrants a mention, but this article in the Theosophical Society’s monthly newsletter does mention the names of the planetary intelligences in ZT.  Supposedly, there are other issues of Lucifer with articles by Sepharial or Westcott that reference ZT (or at least the same Das Kloster volume as what KZT comes from), but I’m not able to find any such references in Lucifer or by those authors.
  2. Die wahrsagende Kabbala der Magier: die Kabbala des Zoroaster, published in 1933 by theosophist-turned-ariosophist Karl Kern and later reprinted under the name “Baron André-Robert Andréa de Nerciat” in 2009. While this text preserves some of the material verbatim from KZT while abridging others even further than KZT did of FZT, it does away with much of the supplemental material while also providing a lengthy case study and example of its own, and also incorporates the recently-discovered Uranus and Neptune into its system.
  3. Astrologie lunaire: essai de reconstitution du système astrologique ancien by Alexandre Volguine (originally from 1972, English translation from 1974). Although this text focuses on a rather different occult art and practice, it includes a brief section treating on the angels of the mansions of the Moon as they appear in ZT.  It doesn’t really touch on anything in any meaningful way, and the conclusions it draws don’t really line up with anything I’ve been able to uncover about the book, so it’s just kinda there, I guess.
  4. Télescope de Zoroastre, ou Clef de la grande Cabale divinatoire des Mages: ouvrage présenté définitivement restitué à son auteur légitime et annoté by a group of authors working under the name “Alexandre de Dánann”, published in 2008 by Edizioni Archè di Milano.  This book, while offering a modern reprint of FZT, justifies that the text (originally all-but-anonymous) is indeed attributable to André-Robert Andréa de Nerciat, while also providing further context of secret societies.  (This is also that aforementioned French text that listed the earlier 2003 translation put out by Kiesel; we’ll talk more about this specific book and what it has to say in the next post.)
  5. Zoroastro, Wizard of the Renaissance (2021), volume 3 in the series The Dark Side of the Da Vinci Legacy by Susan Audrey Grundy (published as an ebook through Google Play Books). Although this volume focuses on the claim that the Codex Atlanticus was not the product of Leonardo da Vinci but rather his friend and companion Tommaso di Giovanni Masini (also known as “Zoroastro da Peretola”, with “Zoroastro” being a common nickname for those engaged in the occult), the section on pages 59–62 specifically touches on the potential authorship of ZT to lie not with Nerciat but rather this earlier “Zoroastro”.

That’s it: beyond the ZT source books themselves and Barruel’s conspiracy-minded condemnation thereof, there are just two books on their own and a handful of paragraphs from another two that discuss ZT that I’ve been able to track, beyond a smattering of other smaller oblique references in footnotes here or there from the past several centuries.  As I said, it’s really obscure.

So what even is ZT about?  At a high level, the book is fundamentally about a form of divination, one which I would describe as “numerological sortilege with an astrological flair”.  The system makes use of a number of 112 (or 113) hexagonal tiles, each randomly drawn from a collection, then assembled in a number of tightly-packed geometric spreads that ZT calls “mirrors”.  While some of these mirrors are used for simple forms of divination (largely relying, as the text describes it, on a process of elimination by trying to find where one tile is to indicate one particular option out of many possible options), the bulk of the text talks about “The Great Mirror”, which makes use of 37(ish) tiles put together in a large hexagonal arrangement: one center hexagonal tile, surrounded by six more, then by another twelve, then by another 18.  Of the 112 (or 113) tiles, 108 have their own planetary and zodiacal associations, and 90 of those have further associations with the 28 mansions of the Moon; the other four (or five) are attributed to much grander cosmological notions of good versus evil, creation versus destruction, or ascent versus descent.  In the Great Mirror, likewise, each of its 37(ish) houses has its own planetary (and sometimes zodiacal, and also sometimes lunar mansion) associations, along with its own set of significations that establish that particular house’s context and bounds for interpreting whichever tile might appear in it.

Yes, there is vagueness and vagary in the above description for a reason, which we’ll get around to covering, but the gist of the system is basically just that.  Despite its up-front complexity that can easily daunt those who are used to somewhat more modern forms of divination (much of ZT was written when divinatory Tarot was still new, so many conventions we take for granted nowadays in divinatory manuals weren’t established so firmly back then!), ZT is (as I find it) a really elegant form of divination that allows for a lot of intuitive investigation without all that much fixity or rigidity of rules and processes.  The thing is, however, is that ZT only introduces such a system of divination; as the text is fond of repeating, “a key is not a treatise”, and so the text insists on only giving a high-level introduction to its divinatory system and leaves both the exploration and development thereof as an exercise for the reader.  Frustrating as it might be for us modern folk, especially when faced with such a daunting system, the divinatory system of ZT really kinda only allows for one of two kinds of text: either a short handbook that gives the basic principles of the art, or a massive text that attempts to flesh out as much as it can (which would still necessarily be incomplete to one degree or another).  In the interest of brevity, the author of ZT opted for the former.  This is one of the reasons why I was snagged in my interest so hard by this text; while some occultists can’t seem to make heads or tails of it (as I wasted this particular 20 minutes of my life finding out in the course of my research), the fact that the ZT system was so ill-defined was something that I couldn’t pass up for filling in the blanks and fleshing out what it left empty.  (Not unlike some other projects of mine, I suppose.)

I will note something here, though: why is this called “Zoroaster’s Telescope” at all?  Yes, the name of Zoroaster and the Magi get dropped a handful of times in ZT as something it pretends to descend from; perhaps surprising absolutely nobody these days, this book is as much a product of orientalizing pseudohistory as Antoine Court de Gébelin’s attribution of Tarot to the venerable wisdom of the ancient Egyptians earlier that same century as FZT’s publication.  However, let’s be honest: ZT is fundamentally a product of the more-or-less bog standard continental European occulture of the late 18th century.  And yet, the use of “telescopes” and “mirrors” is striking here; although mirrors are certainly an old thing throughout the world in one form or another, telescopes are a much more recent invention.  It should be noted that, although telescopes were already in wide use by the end of the 18th century, there is a difference between refracting telescopes (which use lenses to magnify images at a distance) and reflecting telescopes (which use internal mirrors to do the same) in how well they are able to clearly magnify distant objects.  Although reflecting telescopes had been around in one form or another since the mid-17th century, they were significantly improved on in the 18th century and quickly became popular throughout the astronomical world, facilitating William Herschel’s discovery of Uranus in 1781.  In this light, we might consider ZT’s use of “telescope” and “mirror” (especially in the context of its own praising of astronomy and dismissal of astrology—I know, I know, we’ll cover that weirdness later) to be a sign of the times in keeping up with scientific progress, much as many New Age folk attribute various spiritual or occult things to quantum physics or string theory.  In other words, ZT gives us a telescope by which we may inspect the spiritual heavens, facilitated by looking directly at the mirrors we produce that reflect their spiritual motions and influences.  I think it’s a really beautiful metaphor, at least—and given how ZT gives us a key (specifically a “master key which will open not just the main doors but all the side doors, all the cupboards, all the drawers, and even the smallest secrets”), well, I think you’ll understand now why I’m entitling this series “Unlocking the Observatory”.

Let’s turn back to the source texts for a bit.  As I mentioned in the last post, although OZT is a fantastic translation of KZT, KZT was based on FZT, but not exactly so; rather, KZT provides more of an abridged version of FZT and leaves out quite a lot.  If we use FZT as the exemplary version that contains all possible bits, then we can compare the other versions of ZT to it to see what we’re missing.  In order, FZT provides us with the following:

  1. Seven beautifully-engraved plates with diagrams (technically six plus a large foldout)
  2. An introductory (and lengthy) “Epistolary Essay to One Privileged to be Placed at the Highest Rank in the Social Order” (hereafter just “Epistle” for short)
  3. Seven chapters focusing on basic techniques and information entitled “Steps”, plus one introduction of its own
  4. Three chapters focusing on advanced techniques and information that it calls “Supplements” (and which OZT translates acceptably as “Addenda”)
  5. A concluding “Epilogue from the Editors” (hereafter just “Epilogue”)
  6. A brief errata offering minor corrections in the French text
  7. A good number of footnotes throughout the Steps and Supplements

How do the different versions compare?

Plates Yes Yes Yes
Epistle Yes Yes No
Steps Yes Yes Yes (mostly)
Supplements Yes Yes Yes (mostly)
Epilogue Yes No No
Errata Yes No No
Footnotes Yes Yes Very few

GZT, KZT, and OZT all drop something out that is present in FZT, the big ones being either just the Epilogue or both the Epilogue and Epistle, with the Epilogue containing further refinement of technique (and an explanation of something present in one of the plates of all the other versions but which is never explained) and the Epistle providing a passionate defense and spiritual contextualization of ZT’s use and purpose.  In addition to the fact that KZT/OZT drop most of the footnotes given in FZT/GZT, KZT/OZT also don’t maintain all the core text of FZT/GZT, either; to be sure, the core content is present in KZT/OZT, but sections of it are abridged or omitted for the sake of brevity and (what I assume it considers to be) clarity.  This isn’t so much a problem with GZT, which (at a glance) preserves the structure, length, and content of FZT much more accurately than KZT/OZT do.  It’s no wonder, then, that when modern occultists approach ZT through the popular OZT version, they often feel like the text is incomplete; to a degree, this is attributable to the fact that ZT provides “only a key and not a treatise”, but also, it’s because the text that they’re reading is fundamentally incomplete, as well.  As I said earlier, this is no fault of Zahrt et al. over at Ouroboros Press; this is the fault of the text that they happened to translate.  This is why I went with FZT for my studies and as the basis of my own English translation, because it offers the most complete version of ZT that is extant.

When it comes to the actual contents of ZT, what are we faced with?

  1. Epistle: a lengthy, long-winded letter by the “Baron de N……” to an unnamed French nobleman, dedicating the production of ZT to the recovery and rediscovery of ancient wisdom and true spirituality and offering a defense against skeptics
  2. Introduction: a brief introduction to what ZT is and how it contrasts with other (lesser) forms of divination
  3. First Step: the size, shape, and form of the 112 tiles used as the main toolset for the divinatory method of ZT
  4. Second Step: the ways the tiles are put together into “figures” (geometric compositions of tiles that create a larger geometric shape, e.g. three or six or ten tiles to form a triangular figure)
  5. Third Step: the two Principles, two Spirits, nine celestial Intelligences, and the 99 Numbers that are used in the divinatory method of ZT, including a small treatise of base-10 numerology
  6. Fourth Step: the Great Mirror, its cosmological structure, and the notion of reading particular triads of tiles placed within it (“ideal triangles”)
  7. Fifth Step: the life of humanity according to zodiacal and planetary notions according to their layout on the Great Mirror
  8. Sixth Step: reinterpreting the Great Mirror as the Great Dial to determine matters of time and temporality
  9. Seventh Step: a summary of the meanings of the 37 houses of the Great Mirror
  10. First Supplement: specific methods of finding dates and times according to the Great Dial, how to engage in divinatory processes with querents and queries, and a summary of the meanings of the two Spirit tiles, nine Intelligence tiles, and 99 Number tiles
  11. Second Supplement: a summary of the 28 natal stars and their angels, their planetary natures, and what Numbers they are associated with, along with encouragement and directions of conduct to facilitate spirituality and contact with spiritual entities
  12. Third Supplement: further guidance and considerations on engaging in divination with ZT and understanding spiritual influences in the life of humanity
  13. Epilogue: further guidance, clarifications, cautionary warnings, and corrections regarding the content of ZT and how it should be applied and developed, along with an introduction to the errata
  14. Errata: a small list of emendations to particular words or phrases throughout the text of FZT

That is, effectively, the whole of ZT (at least as FZT has it).  Rather than trying to cover, summarize, and discuss each individual chapter on its own, I’d rather take the approach of discussing particular topics related to ZT and reference the related sections throughout the ZT, because the text is “a key, not a treatise” and so doesn’t discuss things in a clearly-defined way, rather presenting bits of technique or information piecemeal as a means to educate the reader, starting with the basics and working up iteratively to more advanced topics.  From basic approaches to divination to the weird 17th century German astrological texts that influence ZT, from estoeric spirituality to revolutionary civic religion, there’s a lot to discuss; now that we’ve gotten a high-level bird’s-eye view of the text, we can dig in more to the text itself in the next post.

On the One True Geomancy (or Astrology, Alchemy, Etc.)

Within reason, of course, I enjoy fielding questions from my readers through social media, whether it’s through @s on Twitter or messages on Facebook.  I do my best to answer them as they come, and I generally have an answer, though it might take me a bit to compile it in full.  Sometimes, the answer just can’t be made simple enough for a quick message, and we need to engage in a proper conversation to flesh everything out.  However, on occasion, some of those questions or the discussions we have over them raise something up in my mind that I think needs to be explored more, and this is just one such an occasion.

One of my friends on Facebook—introduced to me by a mutual friend over (what else?) geomancy—had some questions and problems with reading over some of my posts, specifically where I catalog an assortment of geomantic texts’ attributions of elements to the figures.  Basically, in that post, I go over how there’s a lot of talk in books modern and classical about how to reckon the elemental rulerships of each of the figures, and there are a surprising number of variations about how to go about just that.  Modern confusion can arise from John Michael Greer’s use of a dual system of outer and inner elements of the figures, outer elements based on Zodiacal attributions and inner elements based on structural concerns, and I’m sure that I haven’t much improved on that with my own system of primary and secondary elements (though I find it increasingly useful).  My friend was happy to scrap the outer element system of JMG, but after reading my post, things only got more confused and muddled for her.  She vented a bit to me about some of her frustrations in learning geomancy from my blog:

I think I am a bit disheartened.  According to your work even the planetary rulerships vary from Agrippa to the Golden Dawn.  When I found geomancy, I was excited because it was based on numbers and my study of sacred geometry, and it made me hope that this system was at root based upon the same principles.  After reading a lot of your work. I am left with “everyone does it different, good luck!”

You know what?  That’s completely fair, and it’s easy for me to have lost sight of that.  I appreciate her bringing me back down to earth a bit by sharing her feelings with me on this.

As you may have noticed, dear reader, the Digital Ambler is my blog.  Yes, it’s a website where I advertise my services and ebooks and share my research and rituals and make myself available for a variety of consultations and readings, but first and foremost, the Digital Ambler is my blog.  I write about what I want on my blog at the rate I want with the focuses I want in the way I want; it is, after all, my blog.  However, I write my blog for the public to read not just to keep track of my own notes, experiments, projects, ideas, and studies, but also to help others in the occult, Hermetic, and geomantic communities as well.  Over the years, my blog has become something of a resource for many, and I take a bit of pride and satisfaction and fulfillment that I’m able to help at least a few people through my writing.

One of the ways I think I help is that I share my research and notes, and when it comes to geomancy, there’s a lot to research—about a thousand years, to be precise, across Africa, the Middle East, South Asia, and Europe.  Even with my limited resources, I have access to texts by John Case, Robert Fludd, Heinrich Cornelius Agrippa von Nettesheim, Christopher Cattan, John Heydon, Bartholommeo della Parma, Gerard of Cremona, and Pietro d’Abano, to say nothing of more modern authors ranging from Franz Hartmann to Stephen Skinner and JMG himself.  As time goes on, I hope to get access to even more obscure materials that exist in undigitized, microfiche, or manuscript form.  And, I expect, as I get access to more such resources, I’ll learn more about how geomancy was practiced by a variety of practitioners across the millennium it’s been in use.

As a researcher, it’s evident and plain to me that geomancy is not a single, fixed subject.  Yes, even from its inception and introduction into Europe, there have been many things fixed and stable about the art: the basic meanings of the figures, the basic use of the Court and Shield Chart, how to use the House Chart, what planets the figures refer to, and so forth.  However, there are a great many things that vary between one author and the next: whether this technique or that is more useful, how many variations on a single technique there might be, how to assign the zodiac signs to the figures, how to assign the elements to the figures, how to do this or that and…well, as can be seen across many of the posts on my blog where I document classical techniques, there’s a fair amount of variation in geomantic practice.  For me to introduce that into my blog is part and parcel of my research: I research to document what was done, no matter how it was done, so I can figure out what was kept back then and why, as well as what I might keep that works and how to make what works work even better.

Why is there so much variation in what was done?  Simply put, it’s because geomancy is not a monolithic tradition: there is no canon, no centralization, no governing authority that says “this is proper geomantic practice” and “that is not proper geomantic practice”.  We in our modern age are used to such centralized authorities certifying what’s in and what’s out or what’s good and what’s bad to the point where we take it for granted, and we expect to see that such centralization would be present in previous eras.  It’s simply not the case.  Sure, there were commonly-available resources and texts, especially after the invention of the printing press and the beginning of mass-produced books, but it still was nothing like the scale of today’s “Art and Practice of Geomancy” or “Geomancy for Beginners” or “Geomancy in Theory and Practice”.  What was available were texts produced on a much smaller scale available to a smaller percentage of wealthier people who could afford books within a much more localized region; besides those, there were actual, living, breathing geomancers who not only practiced, but taught as well.  Though I’m sure some students of geomancy kept in touch with others, each geomancer was likely to be left to their own devices, see what works, and see what doesn’t, then develop and refine their own practice on their own.  Couple a few decades of that with books that may not always be 100% correct or vetted for typos and clarity, and minor variations are bound to result.

The commonalities between different geomancers and texts vastly outweigh the differences between them, to be sure, but many of us who like to investigate the details and ply those for whatever we can might be foiled by encountering so many different ways to assign figures to elements or what have you.  As my friend said, it can often come across that, when I present my notes on how geomancers of the past practiced this art, it might just come across as “everyone does it different, good luck”.  To an extent…yeah, actually.  Everyone did do it different.  Heck, everyone still does it different; I don’t do the same exact geomancy that Stephen Skinner or JMG or Al Cummins or Eric Purdue might do.  We all understand the basics of geomancy, and the commonalities of our practices far outweigh our differences, but there are definitely differences to be had.

To be fair, though, this isn’t just a thing with geomancy.  Astrology has the same variations across its many thousands of years of practice and development based on era, land, language, and author.  Today, you’ll still find arguments about which house system is best, how to allot certain things to certain houses, whether the modern planets have any purpose in horary astrology, and so forth.  You’ll find the same thing in general Hermetic magic (Golden Dawn or Thelema? Lemegeton or Grimoirum Verum? Heptameron or Trithemius?), in ancient Greek religion (Hesiod or Homer? Attic or Doric? Delphi or Dodona?), and really in any ancient tradition.  No tradition is ever truly monolithic unless it was designed that way, and even then, if it’s at all taught and carried on by successive generations of students, there are bound to be variations.  That’s how we ended up with Theravada and Mahayana and Vajrayana Buddhism from a single teacher, and within each vehicle of Buddhism all the different sects and schools thereof.  That’s how we ended up with Catholic and Orthodox and Protestant Christianities, and all their own sects and denominations.  Spiritual traditions, sciences, and lineages are inherently messy in their development; as I said to my friend, “if it’s confusing, it’s because there are a lot of different voices shouting different things under the same big tent”.

So what do we do about it?  Is it really as simple (and confusing) as “everyone did it different, good luck”?  Well…yes, actually.  In my research-related posts on this blog, I don’t often just document what was done, but I also give my thoughts on what makes the most logical sense or what has the strongest justification, as well as share my own thoughts, experiences, and preferences on the variations on technique.  I do my best to show my own practices and why I do things the way I do and where I get the things I do from, but at the end of the day, it’s a combination of study and experimentation that informs my practice: study the things that are common and fixed in the tradition, experimentation to see which variations work best.  The way I teach geomancy is going to be different from other geomancers past and present because it’s going to be informed by my own practices, experiences, and experiments; consider that I find (much as Robert Fludd himself did) that the techniques to predict letters and numbers are crap. Heck, even among geomancers today, what I consider vital and important to the art (as far as details go, at least), Al Cummins may find ridiculous or nonsense, and vice versa.  That’s fine!  We each have our own opinions informed by our own studies, and that’s great!  It’s not going to be as simple as 2 + 2 = 4 where there’s only one right answer, but it’s going to be “which art movement is better to understand the 19th century occult movements, Pre-Raphaelite or Art Nouveau?”.

If you’re looking for the One True Geomancy (or One True Astrology, or One True Solomonic Grimoire, or One True Alchemy, etc.) with all and only the right techniques, well, you might be disappointed.  There’s really no objective, centralized, certified Manual of Geomantic (or Astrological, Solomonic, Alchemical, etc.) Practice out there, nor will there ever be.  The best you can do is find a single teacher and study what that one teacher teaches, and even then, they might change their views over time, just like you will.  In the meantime, though it might be a rough road to follow, learning what was done and seeing all the variants out there of a given technique is helpful because it informs you of what was done before to give you an idea of what works and what options you have when working your own practices.  In doing so, you have guides that point in useful directions (maybe not always the right directions) to show you where you should focus your practice or steer your practice towards or away from.  Experimentation is a must in this and every kind of occult art, but you can and should listen to your peers and colleagues and teachers to see what was done before so you don’t invent the wheel all over again and again and again.

I was interviewed on Witches & Wine!

So, not that long ago, I was approached by the wonderful Chaweon Koo from her YouTube channel Witches & Wine, where she talks about various aspects of the occult, spirituality, and other related topics ranging from New Thought to Korean shamanism with experts and veterans in all sorts of arts. It’s a lovely channel with an entertaining host and buffet of topics and chats, and I highly recommend you check her out, subscribe on YouTube, and like her on Facebook!

Anyway, she and I had a good long chat one evening, and we talked about—you guessed it—geomancy, how to apply it, and what some of the pitfalls are in picking up the art.  It was such a good interview, but it also went on so long, that she decided to break it down into a two-part series.  At last, both are now up on her channel, which I share down below!  Check out the actual YouTube pages for timestamps for specific topics.

Part 1: Geomancy 101 — History and Theory

Part 2: Geomancy 101 — Practical Applications

(Also yikes the camera really does add twenty pounds, I need to find a better angle for myself.  I swear my chin isn’t that fleshy in real life.)

I had a lovely time chatting with Chaweon, and I hope you enjoy our conversations, too!

Also, lately I’ve been going through my temple and spiritual goods, and I’ve been doing a bit of spring cleaning for some of the old tools, supplies, charms, and other knickknacks I have and putting them up on my Etsy page.  If you’re interested in getting one-of-a-kind crafts that will likely never be made again, or if you’re interested in my ebooks or divination services, go take a look at the Digital Ambler on Etsy!