Genius in the Picatrix: Analyzing the Vignette and the Names

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

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

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

“Who are you?” I asked.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[And] God “is wise and knowing.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Enter the Ġāyat al-Ḥakīm, the “Goal of the Wise”, sometimes just known as the Ġayah, but definitely better known in the West as the Picatrix, most likely written in Arabic sometime in the middle of the 11th century CE, and based on the history of Ibn Khaldūn, the author of this text is supposedly one Maslama al-Majrīṭī, a Muslim Andalusian scholar, mathematician, and astronomer.  Everyone knows the Picatrix, everyone loves the Picatrix; it’s a fantastic text of astrological magic, and among the earliest of true grimoires in Europe, being among the great granddaddies of them all.  As many people know, it’s primary focus is on what we nowadays call stellar image magic (the creation of astrological talismans under specific stellar configurations of planets, signs, lunar mansions, and stars that often bear a particular scene or image on them) along with early alchemical concoctions for love and hate and many other purposes (many of which are bizarre and not a few of which are outright toxic or poisonous), and which also contain some fantastic ritual prayers and processes for adoring and communing with the spirits of the planets themselves.  It also contains, hidden among its many leaves, wonderful examples and preservations of older pagan practices from the Hermetists, Sabians, Nabataeans, and various other Mediterranean peoples.  It is not, however, a particularly theurgical text on the whole, even though it contains a wealth of information on philosophy, spiritual and cosmic frameworks, and the like in how and why magic works the way that it does.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I have an article published in this next year’s issue of the Witches’ Almanac!

For those of us who love, use, and collect almanacs and who also do magic, you could do worse than getting yourself into the habit of picking up a copy of the Witches’ Almanac, a wonderful compendium of the usual almanac stuff—sunsets and sunrises, moon phases and stations, eclipses and retrogrades, planting times and suggestions, etc.—all with a magical, spiritual, and witchy bent to it all, but that’s not all!  Each issue of the Witches’ Almanac also has a fantastic array of articles, and each issue has a particular theme.  For instance, this past year’s almanac (Issue 38, Spring 2019—2020) was themed around animals, them being our friends and familiars, and had a bunch of articles in it along those lines.

In this coming year’s almanac (Issue 39, Spring 2020—2021, coming in at 208pp. for the price of US$12.95), the theme is “Stones: the Foundation of Earth”, and has a good number of articles from such authors as Lon Milo DuQuette, Sorita d’Este, John Michael Greer, Oberon Zell, and others—including me!  I was asked to submit an article to this year’s issue, and after wondering what on earth I could contribute, I settled on an old standby of mine: grammatomancy, also known as the Greek Alphabet Oracle, the method of divination that uses the 24 letters of the Greek alphabet.  How would this tie in, you might wonder?  Because one of the oldest and most common ways of performing this kind of divination was with the use of ψηφοι, psēphoi, little pebbles which were inscribed with a different letter of the alphabet on each.  I thought it was a nice tie-in to this year’s theme, and it’s a lovely system besides, so why not?

The amazing and handsome publisher-friend I have at the Witches’ Almanac also thought it was a great idea, too, so in went my article, Stone Spelling: Delving Deeply into the Greek Alphabet Oracle, where I talk about the origins of this oracle and all the different ways it can be of use beyond getting mere advice from the gods.  Heck, it’s even the first feature article in the almanac this coming year, and you can even check out an excerpt of it online on their website!

(Also, John Michael Greer himself published an article in it on, of all possible things, domino divination.  Yanno, that thing that I’ve been obsessed with learning about all summer long and have suddenly started writing one of the most complete books on the topic ever written since one of my spirit guides kicked me in the side of the head with it.  If that’s not a goddamn sign, then I don’t know what is.  Hmph.)

What are you waiting for?  Get yourself a copy and get ready for the coming year with this little treasure trove of wisdom and information that’ll be sure to make your practice smoother and easier!

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.