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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Birds.

Huh.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

However, even with what little we have, we kinda start to see a potential explanation for why a geomantic chart is created in such a way that the Judge must be an even figure, and why we use such a recursive structure that takes in four figures and then manipulates them to always get an even figure as a distillation of the whole chart, whether or not it’s favorable to the specific query.  Related entries to `Iyān in Lane’s Lexicon, specifically عِينَةُ `iynah (pg. 2269), refer to “an inclining in the balance” or set of scales, “the case in which one of two scales thereof outweighs the other”, as in “in the balance is an unevenness”.  In this light, even numbers would indicate that things are in balance, and odd numbers out of balance; this idea strikes me as similar to some results used in Yòrubá obi divination or Congolese chamalongo divination or other African systems of divination that make use of a four-piece set of kola nuts, coconut meat, coconut shells, cowries, or some other flippable objects, where the best possible answer is where two pieces face-up and two fall face-down, while there being three of side and one of the other either indicates “no” or a generally weak answer.  For the sake of the Judge, then, we need it to be impartial (literally from Latin for “not odd”) in order for it to speak strongly enough to answer the question put to the chart.  Heck, in Arabic terms, the word that I’ve seen used for the Judge is میزان mīzān, literally “balance” or “scales” (the same word, I might add, that’s used to refer to the zodiac sign Libra).

And, to look at it another way, how is an even figure formed? An even geomantic figure is formed from the addition of either two odd parents or two even parents; in either case, the parity of one figure must be the same as the other figure in order for their child figure to be even.  Thus, for the Judge, the Witnesses must either both be even or they must both be odd.  “Brothers”, indeed; as that old Bedouin saying goes, “I against my brothers; I and my brothers against my cousins; I and my brothers and my cousins against the world”.  Brothers implies a similarity, a kinship, and even if they fight against each other, they must still be similar enough to come to terms with each other.  And consider the mathematical and arithmetic implications of what “coming to terms” can suggest!  Thus, the two Witnesses must be alike in parity in order for the scale of the Judge to work itself out, and perhaps, the figure with more points would “outweigh” the other and thus be of more value.  For example, if we have a Right Witness of Laetitia and a Left Witness of Puella, both odd figures, then the Judge would be Fortuna Maior, but Laetitia, having more points, would “outweigh” Puella, favoring the Right Witness representing the querent.  Thus, perhaps the Judge might be taking on the role of `Iyān and the Witnesses its two “sons”?  After all, you need both the Witnesses in order to arrive at the Judge, so telling them to hurry up would naturally speed up the calculation of the Judge.

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

On Prayer Beads, Devotions to Gabriel, and a New Way of Doing Just That

I think that, as of this moment…god, how many sets of prayer beads do I have in my temple room? Seven chaplets for the archangels I made myself, one rosary each for Mary the Theotokos and for Saint Cyprian of Antioch and for my ancestor shrine, a chaplet of Saint Cyprian of Antioch I designed myself, an Orthodox Christian prayer rope, a set of tiger’s eye prayer beads I made for solar work (specifically for a variant of my Consecration of the Twelve Faces of Hēlios), a set of labradorite prayer beads I made for my Holy Guardian Angel, a chaplet for Hermēs based on the work of the good Dr. Jeffrey S. Kupperman (yes, that one, the one with the book! he put out a wonderful novena rule and chaplet for Hermēs not too long ago), and a set of Islamic prayer beads (misbaḥa) for my ancestor shrine for one of my spirit guides. All told, that makes 16 different sets of prayer beads scattered throughout my temple, though admittedly I don’t use all of them; sometimes they’re there more for the shrine’s sake or the use of the spirits rather than my own. I used to have a rosewood mala for my old Buddhist stuff, but I’ve since gifted that away to a friend who can put it to better use since there’s nothing more for me to do along those lines or practices.

What? I like the convenience, customizability, and attractiveness of prayer beads. They’re useful, they’re tangible, they let the body focus on one thing and allow the mind to focus on another in a semi-autonomous way.

Well, lately, as part of my burgeoning geomantic devotional practice, I’ve been getting more interested in Islamic prayer methods. Credit where it’s due: Islamic devotional practice, prayers, and supplication frameworks are amazing. There’s a massive body of beautiful, poetic, and wonderfully specific literature-cum-prayer rules of endless supplication after supplication after supplication, and it’s at once dazzling and daunting. Now, I’m not a Muslim, nor have I intention to convert given…all the other obligations I have and some theological differences, but I cannot deny the beauty and profundity of how they approach divinity through prayer. As you might have guessed, there’s also a method of prayer with Islam’s own kind of prayer beads: the misbaḥa, also known as tasbīḥ. The word has its origins in the word subḥa, meaning “glory”, as in the phrase Subḥāna-llāh, “Glory be to God” (the recitation of which is also called Tasbīḥ, just as the recitation of the phrase Allāhu ‘akbar, “God is Great”, is called Takbīr).

Misbaḥa are easy to understand: they’re made of 99 beads, with two separators that stand out in some way to break the counting beads up into three sets of 33 beads each. The “head” or “tail” (depending on how you look at it) typically has a long, cylindrical bead, plus some other number of beads for keeping track of iterations of going through the entire thing. Other misbaḥa are made with other numbers, some as few as 11 beads or sometimes 33 broken into three sets of 11, but others used in some religious orders can have as many as a thousand beads. Some misbaḥa have a slidable marker to further mark off particular sets of beads, such as for holding one’s place or when reaching a particular count desired (e.g. 40 is a common number found in Islamic devotional repetitions).

Probably the most popular way, or at least one of the most popular and acclaimed ways, of using misbaḥa is through the method known as the Tasbīḥ Fāṭimah, the method ascribed to Fāṭimah, the daughter of the Prophet Muḥammad. The method is simple:

  1. On each of the first set of 33 beads, recite the Tasbīḥ: Subḥāna-llah (“Glory be to God”).
  2. On each of the second set of 33 beads, recite the Taḥmīd: Alḥamdu li-llāh (“Praise be to God”).
  3. On each of the third set of 33 beads, recite the Takbīr: Allāhu ‘akbar (“God is Great”).

Unlike rosaries or chaplets in the Christian tradition, note how the separators don’t have associated prayers or anything said on them; they’re just used solely as markers to switch up prayers. There are variations of this method, too, of course; some say to recite the Takbīr first followed by the Taḥmīd and the Tasbīḥ in that order, some say to recite the Takbīr 34 times instead of 33 times, some say to conclude by reciting the first part of the Shahāda (Lā ‘ilāha ‘illā-llāh, “there is no god but God”), but the general method is fundamentally the same. It is recommended for the observant to perform this devotion immediately after every compulsory prayer, but the original story behind the Prophet giving it to his daughter also recommends saying it before one retires for sleep.

Discussing this with one of my Muslim colleagues online, this is just one method of using misbaḥa; there are countless ways to use them, such as for reciting individual attributes or names of God (of which there are, of course, a conventional set of 99 in Islam), reciting particular verses of the Qur’ān over and over, and the like. The possibilities are endless, apparently.

So, of course, this got me thinking: while I, too, can use the Tasbīḥ Fāṭimah devotion, is there a way I could use this venerable tool in a way specifically geared for my own needs? Of course there is. The Tasbīḥ Fāṭimah practice is wonderful on its own, and doesn’t require one to be a Muslim to use it; after all, the supplications involved in it are pretty basic and can work for anyone with an Abrahamic, Hermetic, or just plain deist bent, and it’s a clean and straightforward practice that doesn’t involve a lot of preliminary setup, education, or training. It’s effective, I’ll absolutely grant it that. But if there are other ways to use misbaḥa, why not also try something else as well for a more specific purpose than just worship, hesychasm, and henosis?

There being three sets of 33 beads reminded me of the Chaplet of Saint Gabriel the Archangel from Catholic devotions, which is constructed with a lead chain of three beads linked to a ring of 33 beads broken into three sets of 11 beads with one separator bead between each set.

  1. Lead bead 1: “Heavenly Father, through the salutation of the Archangel Gabriel, may we honor the incarnation of your divine Son.”
  2. Lead bead 2: “Mother of our Savior, may we strive always to imitate your holy virtues and respond to our Father, ‘be it done unto me according to thy Word’.”
  3. Lead bead 3: “Archangel Gabriel, please praise our Father for the gift of his Son praying, one day, by his grace, we may all be one.”
  4. On each of the beads in each set of 11: “Hail, full of grace, the Lord is with thee: blessed art thou among women.”
  5. On each of the two separator beads: “Behold, thou shalt conceive in thy womb, and shalt bring forth a son, and thou shalt call his name Jesus.”

Simple and straightforward. It wouldn’t be a stretch to simply expand the repetitions from three sets of 11 for a total of 33 to three sets of 33 for a total of 99 (33 being a sacred number for Christians, being the number of years Jesus was alive when he was crucified). I could definitely use misbaḥa for Gabriel-based devotions, which is good given the importance of Gabriel being the angel of revelation to the prophet Daniel as well as to Elizabeth, Mary, Muḥammad, Enoch, and so many others, and given the fact that Gabriel is the angel who taught the founders of geomancy their art. However, I didn’t feel like the Catholic approach here—although totally workable—felt appropriate for either my own devotional needs or for use with the misbaḥa.

So, I scoured some verses of Scripture in which Gabriel was either directly present by name or directly being referenced from the Tanakh, the Bible, and the Qur’ān, and in the end, I developed a new method of repetition-based devotions to God through his archangel, a method I’m tentatively calling the “Crown of Gabriel”, to be used on a standard misbaḥa of 99 beads:

  1. At the beginning, recite once: “In the name of God who created me.”
  2. On of the first set of 33 beads, recite: “May God fill me with his grace.”
  3. On the first separator, recite: “God willing, teach me, o Gabriel, mighty in power, revelations to be revealed.”
  4. On each of the second set of 33 beads, recite: “May God be with me.”
  5. On the second separator, recite: “God willing, come forth, o Gabriel, to give me understanding and insight.”
  6. On each of the third set of 33 beads, recite: “Do unto me according to his word.”
  7. At the end, recite once: “My Lord is the Most Generous.”

The specific supplications come from four verses of Abrahamic scripture, one from the Old Testament, one from the New Testament, and two from the Qur’ān, all of which are associated with Gabriel in one way or another:

  • Daniel 9:22 (the clarification of the Prophecy of Seventy Weeks):

    And he [Gabriel] informed me, and talked with me, and said, O Daniel, I am now come forth to give thee skill and understanding.

  • Luke 1:28—38 (the Annunciation):

    And the angel came in unto her, and said, Hail, thou that art highly favoured [full of grace], the Lord is with thee: blessed art thou among women. And when she saw him, she was troubled at his saying, and cast in her mind what manner of salutation this should be. And the angel said unto her, Fear not, Mary: for thou hast found favour with God. And, behold, thou shalt conceive in thy womb, and bring forth a son, and shalt call his name Jesus. He shall be great, and shall be called the Son of the Highest: and the Lord God shall give unto him the throne of his father David: And he shall reign over the house of Jacob for ever; and of his kingdom there shall be no end. Then said Mary unto the angel, How shall this be, seeing I know not a man? And the angel answered and said unto her, The Holy Ghost shall come upon thee, and the power of the Highest shall overshadow thee: therefore also that holy thing which shall be born of thee shall be called the Son of God. And, behold, thy cousin Elisabeth, she hath also conceived a son in her old age: and this is the sixth month with her, who was called barren. For with God nothing shall be impossible. And Mary said, Behold the handmaid of the Lord; be it unto me according to thy word. And the angel departed from her.

  • Qur’ān, Sūrah An-Najm, 53:1—10 (which describes the appearance of Gabriel to the prophet, with connections to the star Sirius):

    By the star when it descends, your companion [Muhammad] has not strayed, nor has he erred, nor does he speak from [his own] inclination. It is not but a revelation revealed, taught to him by one intense in strength, one of soundness. And he rose to [his] true form while he was in the higher [part of the] horizon. Then he approached and descended and was at a distance of two bow lengths or nearer. And he revealed to His Servant what he revealed.

  • Qur’ān, Sūrah Al-`Alaq, 96:1—5 (the very first revelation to the Prophet by Gabriel):

    Recite in the name of your Lord who created, created man from a clinging substance. Recite, and your Lord is the most Generous, who taught by the pen, taught man that which he knew not.

For my own needs, I didn’t keep the exact wording from scripture as the Chaplet of Saint Gabriel does; rather, I tweaked them to be more specific to me, that God might teach, fill, and guide me through his angel in a personal way appropriate to me and me alone. Unlike the usual method of Tasbīḥ Fāṭimah and like the Chaplet of Saint Gabriel, I did include prayers for use on the separator beads; originally, I had those supplications for the separator beads and the supplications done at the first and last swapped (so that you’d start with “God willing, teach me…” and end with “God willing, come forth…”), but I felt like swapping them was better so that the whole thing could start off with an invocation of God of sorts—not the proper and usual Basmala (bi-smi-llāhi ar-raḥmāni ar-raḥīm, “in the name of God, the Most Compassionate, the Most Merciful”), but something that works as well and follows the same structure.

Also, what’s nice is that, even though the Crown of Gabriel is designed for a misbaḥa, it can still be used on a regular Chaplet of Saint Gabriel, reducing the number of repetitions of the main supplications from 33 to 11. As for what to recite on the three lead beads, one might add in generic prayers (the Sanctus, the Trisagion, etc.) for all three to be followed with the initial supplication of the Crown of Gabriel, or one could break out the initial supplication into three by incorporating the Basmala as well:

  1. “In the name of God, the Most Compassionate!”
  2. “In the name of God, the Most Merciful!”
  3. “In the name of God, who created me!”

And, on the joint of the chaplet and lead beads, recite the Our Father, just to keep things moving.

Up till now, my angelic devotions largely focused (and will still focus!) on the archangel Michael and my own holy guardian angel. However, I cannot deny the huge role Gabriel necessarily plays in the religions that recognize the archangels at all, as well as in the mythological origins and continued practices of geomancy. Granted that all the archangels work together in a synaxis (basically, where you call on one, you’re basically getting the whole set together no matter what), it’s clear I need to amp up my own devotional practices to Gabriel. I think the Crown of Gabriel method should suffice nicely for that, while also being a way to increase my own intuitive abilities as a diviner in the process. God willing, of course.

On Geomancy and Light

Those who follow me on Twitter know that I’ve been working on a new shrine project of sorts.  Earlier this year, I had the sudden kick-in-the-ass inspiration to start compiling things together, so I started pricing them on my wishlists and getting notes together.  I swore, up and down, that I would pay off my credit card before getting any of it.  But, yanno, just to see how much it would all cost when tallied up, I put it all into my online shopping cart to check out the shipping and taxes, and whoops there went $700 and suddenly I have all these packages showing up at my house however could this have happened let’s get to work, I guess my poor credit card statement.

Long story short, after I made that second post about geomantic holy days earlier this year, I got some sort of spirit all up in me that necessitated, demanded I put this thing together.  I ended up making a Shrine of the Geomancers, honoring the four Progenitors of the art Adam, Enoch, Hermes Trismegistus, and Daniel under the tutelage of Gabriel, with a notable Islamic influence.

I’ll save some of the details and what goes along with this whole shrine later, including a few things that aren’t shown in those above pictures, since it’s such a new thing that even I’m not sure why I have everything on it yet, just that I know I need it.  The last time an inspiring spirit this forceful came upon me was when I ended up writing my Sixteen Orisons of the Geomantic Figures in a single night (and then spent the next month editing and polishing), which you can take a look at in my ebook, Secreti Geomantici (also on Etsy!).  That was pretty fun, too, though exhausting.  I ended up making sixteen prayer-invocations to channel and work with the forces of the figures; that was just a night of power for me, as if I couldn’t shut off whatever fire hydrant of Words was turned on in my head.  The same thing happened with this shrine: I had to get these things and put them together.  Had to.

On top of getting this shrine put together, I’ve had to take a break from writing my geomancy book to take a detour into writing prayers, invocations, and incantations for geomantic practice.  Taking heavy inspiration from Islamic supplications and verses of the Qurʾān, the Book of Daniel, the Psalms, Solomonic and Hermetic literature, and other sources, I’ve been putting together a bunch of prayers—some that I wrote as original works, some I wrote a long time ago, some I’m heavily basing off other sources but tweaked for purpose and diction—for use with this shrine.  Many of the old prayers I wrote a while back, like my Prayer of the Itinerant or my Blessing of Light, fit right in with all these new ones.  It’s like so much of my previous routine, habits, and practices get tied into something so nice, so neat, so…oddly complete in this new shrine practice.  I honestly don’t know where this is all coming from, and it’s surprising me as much as it would anyone else.  If ever I would think that spirits can and do work through us, this would be one of those cases, absolutely.  There are still a lot of prayers I know for a fact I need to write and compile, but even with what I have, I’m pretty thrilled with what I have to work with.  It’s like stumbling on a new grimoire full of detailed instructions—except you don’t know for what, exactly.  It’s also happily convenient that I’m doing all these geomancy readings and follow-up divinations for the New Year, which gives me ample opportunity to try some of these very same prayers.

Now that the shrine is put together and all these prayers are coming together, I need to figure out exactly how to put this all to practice; after all, after dropping so much time and money and energy on this, there’s no way in hell I can just let this thing sit and gather dust (as if the same spirit that had me get all this together in the first place would let me).  I’ll work out routine and times and stuff later, but for now, it’s lovely.  As I noted above, there’s a heavy Islamic influence in this, and why not?  After all, geomancy is ultimately an Islamic occult art and science that arose in the sands of north Africa.  While I’m not going to be doing ṣalāt or proclaiming the five pillars of Islam, I feel it’s still important to honor the traditions and faiths of those that learned, taught, and spread the art of geomancy so far and wide in a language, or at least with symbols and practices, that would be familiar to them.  Which is also why I’m turning to so many supplications and verses of the Qurʾān for prayer inspirations, in addition to the fact that I already know that some such verses are used just for geomancy and divination generally.

One of the things I got for the shrine is a misbaḥah, a set of Islamic prayer beads.  It’s a lot simpler than a rosary, but slightly more complex than a mala; this has 99 beads, with two separators (that apparently aren’t used in counting prayers) to divide up the whole misbaḥah into three sets of 33 beads.  This kind of prayer beads can be used in any number of ways in Islamic devotions, not least the famous Tasbīḥ of Fāṭimah, and a way of kinda-sorta maybe-not-divination-per-se seeking guidance from Allah (istikhāra) can be done using misbaḥah, too, by focusing on the question for guidance and selecting two beads at random on the misbaḥah, and counting down until there are either only one or two beads left.  (The geomantic applications here are obvious.)  There are simpler ways, too, such as just intoning and focusing on one of the attributes or names of Allah, of which there are 99.

(Also, just as an entirely hilarious tangential aside?  This current post is marked as post #9999 in WordPress’ internal system for my blog.  So that’s a kinda fun synchronicity.)

One of the 99 names of Allah in Islam is النُّورُ (an-Nūr), literally “the Light”.  This is often used in the sense of being the Pure Light of the world, or the Prime Light of creation, or the One who Guides by Light.  It’s also especially associated with the Verse of the Light, a beautifully mystic verse taken from Qurʾān 24:35 (my own rendition):

God is the Light of the Heavens and the Earth.
The image of his Light is that of a niche.  In it is a lamp.
The lamp is within glass, the glass as if it were a brilliant star.
Lit from the oil of a blessed olive tree, neither of the East nor of the West,
whose oil would almost glow on its own even if fire had not touched it.
Light upon Light!
God guides to his Light whom he wills.
God gives images to follow for his people.
God is All-Knowing of all things.

The use of “The Light” as a name of Allah (or, just, yanno, God, because they really are the same and so much of Arabic theology can be expressed beautifully in Hermeticism and vice versa) is meaningful to me, given how important divine light is in my own personal theology and magical practice, especially in my Hermetic work, given how Light can be thought of as a thing that allows the intelligible to be intelligible and the visible to be visible, as both light of Nous (Mind) and light of Logos (Word).  Even my own magical motto, Lautitia Laborum Lucis Laetor “I rejoice in the splendor of the works of the Light”, is based on this same idea, and many of my more meaningful prayers incorporate Light in some way, whether directly or by puns, like in my Prayer of the Itinerant:

Shed your light on my path that I may see where I go.
Lighten the burden on my shoulders that I may go without hesitation.
Enlighten my heart that I may go with fortitude, courage, and wisdom wherever I may be.

Even before having encountered this Islamic sense of the notion, Light has already been and continues to be for me a powerful force unto itself, and a pure one that is directly associated in my mind and cosmological models with the highest divinity and source of all that is.

Then we bring in a bit of numerology.  Normally, I don’t take numerology particularly seriously; sure, gematria and isopsephia are nice tools to have, and I’ve experimented with it in some classical systems before now and again, but it’s largely a curiosity for me to find other connections with.  But take a look at the name an-Nūr more closely; the “an-” (really “al-” but Arabic rules assimilate the sounds) is just an article, so the real word to look at is Nūr, Light.  In Arabic numerology (which follows the same principles as Hebrew and Greek, since they all come from the same written language to begin with), the value of Nūr is 256.

Those who are familiar with binary mathematics and geomancy should be slapping your heads right about now.  256 = 16 × 16, the total number of pairwise combinations of geomantic figures with each other.  But even then, if we were to reduce it further, 2 + 5 + 6 = 13, and 1 + 3 = 4; alternatively, 256 % 9 = 4.  Four is also a huge number for us, there being four elements, four rows in a geomantic figure, four Mothers/Daughters/Nieces/Court figures, and so forth.  I don’t really need to expound on the myriad meanings of the number 4, given its importance in Hermetic, Pythagorean, and other systems of the occult.  Taking it a bit further as a letter-numeral, 4 is represented by the Hebrew Dālet, Arabic Dāl, and Greek Delta.  Its original meaning and form likely indicated “door”; in stoicheia, I principally associate Delta with the zodiacal sign Gemini, but it can also refer to the element of Water and the zodiacal sign of Cancer in other systems.  I also note that the Arabic Dāl is also the letter used to represent the element of Water in the Dā`irah-e-BZDḤ and Dā`irah-e-ABDḤ organizing systems of the figures, the former of which I’ve put to use in my geomantic energy working as being an Arabic-inspired seed syllable for Water.  Four is, also, the number associated with the sephirah Chesed on the Tree of Life, given to the planetary sphere of Jupiter.

On top of that, although the usual word for “light” in Hebrew is or (אור), the word nur (נור) using the same exact letters as in Arabic, and thus with the same exact numerology, refers to things that flare, flash, fire, or shine; this is an old Semitic triliteral root N-W-R that means light, illumination, and shining.  So that’s also really neat.  This word can also be associated with Hebrew ner (נר) meaning “candle”; “candle” is one of the names and images for the figure Via in some lineages of geomancy according to JMG and Skinner, and Via is sometimes considered to be the oldest or most important and powerful of the geomantic figures, as it contains all of the four elements active and present within itself as a complete whole.

Keeping with Hebrew numerology a bit longer, if we wanted to associate the usual Hebrew word for light numerologically, consider that or (אור) has a value of 207.  256 – 207 = 49, and 49 = 7 × 7, the total number of pairwise combinations of the seven planets as well as just being 7² and important for its own sake; that’s a fun connection, if not a bit contrived.  I also note that 256 is the same value as “spirit of the mother” (רוח אמא, ruach ima), which is important to recognize given that the first four figures we make are called the Mothers and are ungenerated from any other figure in the geomantic process.  It’s also the same value of the words B’nei Tzedeq (בני צדק), or “Sons of the Righteous”; in addition to being a popular name for Jewish synagogues and temples, it’s also a term used by the authors of the Dead Sea Scrolls to refer to the good and devout portion of humanity (including/especially themselves), as opposed to the B’nei `Avel (בני עול), the “Sons of Iniquity”.  Besides the Qumran connection, if there were ever a choir of angels to be associated with geomancy or if we ever wanted a good Hebrew euphemism to refer to geomancers, I suppose B’nei Tzedeq would be a good start.  Plus, Tzedeq is also the Hebrew name for the planet Jupiter, hearkening back to the numerological connection with Chesed above.

I also, somewhat regrettably and hilariously, note that 256 is the numerology of the name Viagrahel, the angel of Viagra, for which I will never thank/blame Kalagni of Blue Flame Magick enough.  (I’m as shocked as you are that that, of all things, would come back to bite me in the ass after almost seven goddamn years.  It’s like my life is one big Chekhov’s dildo.)

What about Greek?  There aren’t many words I can find that add up to 256, but there’s one big one I know of: ἀληθής (alēthēs), meaning “[that which is] unconcealed/true” but also with uses that encapsulate: real, unerring, actual, not forgetting, careful, honest.  The root of this word is –lēth-, which refers to forgetfulness (as in the mythological river of the underworld Lethe and also our modern word “lethargic”, referring to idle forgetfulness).  In that case, ἀληθής refers to things that are unconcealed, true, and honest by means of recovery from forgetfulness or by keeping forgetfulness and ignorance at bay, or alternatively, that which cannot escape notice or remain hidden.  All this ties into the actual Greek word (and, for that matter, goddess) for truth, ἀλήθεια (alētheia), too.  Even if I couldn’t find any other Greek numerological equivalent, I think this one is huge enough to make up for any others.

So where do we end up?  We have a particularly beautiful attribute of the divine, “the Light”, used in the worship and reverence of God in Islam, the religious culture in which geomancy historically developed.  To be extraordinarily terse, notions of divine light fill numerous religious and philosophical traditions as being representative of divinity, especially in any Western tradition influenced by Neoplatonism, Abrahamic faiths, or Hermeticism.  This can be further stretched through a bit of numerology, connecting the word for Light to words for fire, illumination, revelation, and truth.  Calling God “the Light” is a lot more than just thinking of that which allows us to see; God is, in a more complete sense of this attribute, the sudden and revealing flash of illumination that allows us to see that which is true and real, bringing it out of darkness, forgetfulness, and ignorance  God is the quiet, true Light behind all Fire, able to spread and open doors of wisdom to us, communicating to us on an intellectual and emotional level through our sense faculties.  This Light is not just a quiet flame in a dimmed lamp that barely illuminates the shelf it sits on, but it is a fierce, conquering, undeniable, unassailable blast into the darkness, a Light that completely destroys and wipes away anything that could or would try to cover it, a Light that breaks into the cracks of any door, window, wall, or mind and fills every niche, crevice, and corner with its presence.   It is the Light of God, or even the Light that is God, that allows the unseen to be seen, the hidden to be revealed, the unknown to be known, and the forgotten to be remembered.  God is not just Light, but the Light of Light, Light within Light, and Light upon Light.

More than that, this sacred Light of the Mind and of the Word can reach us at any place and at any time, but we can approach it too through the devout study of the mysteries of the geomantic figures, specifically in how they add up amongst themselves in their 256 different combinations.  This same illuminating Light is the fundamental impulse from which the first stirrings of knowledge can be made, and provide the seeds themselves from with the four Mothers in geomantic divination are formed, from whom the entire rest of the geomantic process can be derived.  The Light of God is the necessary existent in order for us to see and know things by geomancy.  Understanding the geomantic figures themselves to be representative of the actual combinations of the four elements amongst the elements in 4 × 4 = 16 ways, and the combinations of elements amongst themselves in 16 × 16 = 256 ways, all of the possible things that come to be in the world and all the ways in which they pass into being and pass out of being are also undergirded by the Light of God, being ways in which that same Light emanates from God into the world, condensing through the four elements from Fire to Air to Water to Earth, mixing and matching between all possible states.  All this is fundamentally Light.

I always felt that Light was important for me to focus on in a religious and spiritual sense.  It’s nice to see that all coming together in ways that the ancients themselves would appreciate, and in ways that show me new things in new combinations.  And, perhaps, to reinforce the habit of keeping a lit candle or lamp burning nearby when I do geomancy.