An Origin for the Letter Rules of Western Geomancy

Yes, yes, I am still working on my geomancy textbook!  As I’ve said before, it’s a long project, and by necessity it’s not the number one priority in my life; between a full-time job, heavy involvement in my religious community, managing several kinds of online presence, and my own routines and practices, working on my book is definitely a priority but not the priority.  If I had days empty of all other tasks, it’d be a different story, but here we are.  Besides, the book has been in progress since 2013, back at a point where I now think I was wholly unqualified to write such a book.  (I still think I am unqualified to write such a book, not least because I’ve made a number of discoveries, innovations, and corrections to what I knew earlier, but here we are.)

One of the fun parts of the book for me to write is the postscript.  It’s an appendix that, rather than focusing on the meat-and-bones of geomantic techniques and practices, I talk a small bit about my own thoughts, views, and opinions on certain techniques and how my own practice prioritizes certain techniques over others, or my value-estimates of certain techniques.  After all, though there are hundreds of different techniques that one can use in geomantic divination, in any given chart I might only use a handful of them, some I use generally for every reading and others I bust out for particular situations.  Almost all the techniques have some value, but some have more value than others.  I talk a bit about what I think of such things in the postscript as a kind of final letting-my-hair-down moment, where I get to drop a little of the academic and technical style I use throughout the book and get a little personal in my practice.

The postscript really isn’t a place for me to introduce or talk about any particular techniques at length, though—except one: methods to determine names or letters with geomancy.  As I’ve mentioned before on my blog, the methods to determine names is something that would be sorely useful for geomancers, and a number of historical authors mention methods to do so, most of all Christopher Cattan who introduces several “rules” for associating the figures with letters and a number of methods to use them.  John Heydon, likewise, introduces several such sets of associations for different scripts, but largely references the same methods Cattan uses.  John Michael Greer, continuing the vein of carrying on such information especially as it was republished over and over again in the late Renaissance, gives a similar set of attributions in his “Art and Practice of Geomancy”.

It’s all a shame, though, because I’ve never gotten these methods to work.  In my past experiments with them, I kept getting garbage answers with chance results.  Quoth my earlier article:

Alas, however, I have to consign a geomantic technique to the failure pile, and it’s not for lack of trying: determining names.  While it would make sense conceptually that one could determine names with geomancy, I have never been able to get such name charts to work right, from the first time I ran a name chart years ago up until the present day.  Add to it, I’ve found several methods to determine names with geomancy, and several ways to associate the letters to the figures, and I’ve tried them all, none of them giving anything remotely resembling an accurate answer.  This frustrates me to no end, because why the hell would this one technique not work when nearly every other technique I’ve tried has given me useful results?  This is especially frustrating, since being able to predict names would be exceptionally useful in the world, from determining the names of cities one might be successful in to determining the names of future spouses. …

But even using any of the techniques with any set of correspondences, I kept coming up with wrong answers.  If I were lucky, some of the letters in the actual name I was trying to find might appear at random places in the chart, but this was by no means guaranteed.  I did notice a slight tendency for some of the letters to appear in houses II, V, and VIII, but there was no pattern for which letters (start, medial, end) appeared within them.  I even tried using the values of the Greek, Hebrew, and Celestial Hebrew associations that Heydon gives (untrustworthy as his stuff tends to be) to see if it would get me anything closer than the Roman script association; nada.  Plus, many of the techniques assumes there to be at least four letters or syllables in a name; many names I ended up asking about after I did a reading on them had one or two syllables, or had even just three letters, and these techniques don’t specify what to do in the case of really short names.

It seems, also, that I’m not the first person to complain about these methods, not by far.  In addition to my own colleagues and contacts in the present day who largely give the same conclusions I have, the French geomancer Henri de Pisis gives in his 17th century book Opus Geomantiae Completum in libros tres divisum (reproduced as part of Fludd’s later work Fasciculus Geomanticus) gives the following complaint when he introduces these methods (translation mine from Latin):

So as to know someone’s name. I might have put this and another table of the same from Cattan, yet given how useless and hollow it is, I freely suppress it, lest it impose onto this very art which usually predicts with certainty. By this understanding, I would have omitted it and the following chapter, as with things uncertain and generally wrong, if not for that we would see what even a single author maintains …

In truth, it has always escaped me as to the use they make of these numbers here, for nobody thus far has been able to discover their reasoning; neither Gerard of Cremona, nor Geber, nor Pietro d’Abano, nor myself, nor any others besides Cocles and Cattan have discerned the reasoning of the numbers or of the letters of names. It can essentially be seen that Cattan and Cocles would have relaxed this art to such a freewheeling extent into the form of some game, such as the casting of dice or dominoes, for the troublesome cheating of long nights or for the future coaxing of a droll joke, and a good many use it for this and will have had nothing certain placed in the art. In other words, since they are unaware of that which is superfluous to the art, they are unestablished in the foundations of this very art, and are only outsiders into contempt of it. I suggest that these methods be rejected.

It’s frustrating, especially for someone like de Pisis to have written so bluntly about this in a way he doesn’t elsewhere in Opus Geomantiae; he only includes these methods because others have written about them, and that only bitterly and begrudgingly.  This is all the more frustrating because Arabic geomancers make claims to predict names and letters as a matter of course, though because I speak neither Arabic nor Urdu nor Farsi, it’s hard for me to find what methods they use to validate it and see whether they can walk the talk or if they’re just full of hot air.

Now, skip ahead a few years.  The Geomantic Study-Group on Facebook is thriving with over a thousand members, including a good number from Arabic-speaking countries who are, God bless them, actually willing to share and discuss Arabic methods of geomancy.  One of them even goes so far as to include a list of those fancy apparati of Arabic geomancy, taskins, though I prefer an alternate term for them now, dā`ira (plural dawā`ir), which is commonly found in Urdu and Farsi texts, and which literally mean “cycle”.  These things are fascinating for Western geomancers to look at, because we have no parallel for them; they’re a combination of correspondence as well as technique unto themselves, enforcing particular orders of figures for different needs.  Depending on the tradition of Arabic geomancy you’re looking at, some geomancers claim that there are 16 cycles, others 28, or even as many as 400 or more, some kept secret for mystical and magical ends.  Some dawā`ir are clearly organized along mathematical or otherwise clearly understood principles, such as the dā`ira-e-abdaḥ which organizes the figures according to their binary numeral meanings (reading Laetitia as 1000 as 1, Rubeus as 0100 as 2, Fortuna Minor as 1100 as 3, and so forth); others are far more obscure as to why certain figures are arranged in certain ways.

So this list of dawā`ir is shared in the group, and happily the poster who shared it cited a particular academic: Dr. Matthew Melvin-Koushki, currently of the University of South Carolina, one of whose research interests is the occult sciences in Islam.  In his paper “Persianate Geomancy from Ṭūsī to the Millennium: A Preliminary Survey” (in Nader El-Bizri and EvaOrthmann, eds., Occult Sciences in Pre-modern Islamic Cultures, Beirut: Orient-Institut Beirut, 2018, pp. 151-99), Melvin-Koushki lists seven such cycles:

The various regional schools of geomantic thought are therefore to be distinguished by the ‘cycles’ (sg. dāʾira) they prefer to employ. A cycle, Hidāyat Allāh explains, is simply a specific sequence (tartīb) of the 16 geomantic figures, with each sequence featuring different types of correspondences — elemental, humoral, temporal, astrological, lettrist, etc. And the four cycles he identifies above are far from the only ones in common use. The geomancer has at his disposal a rather larger number of cycles; which he employs in any given reading depends on the nature of the information being sought and the degree of detail required. Hidāyat Allāh lists seven by way of example:

  1. The Occupation (sakan) cycle is the most basic; it begins with Laetitia and ends with Via.
  2. The Constitution (mizāj) cycle tells the querent what day he can expect to realize his desire; it begins with Acquisitio and ends with Cauda Draconis.
  3. The BZDḤ cycle, aka the Number (ʿadad) cycle, is used to tell periods of time; it begins with Puer and ends with Populus.
  4. The Letter (ḥarf) cycle is used to reveal names (a very popular application of the science); it too begins with Laetitia and ends with Via, with the first twelve figures being assigned two letters each and the last four figures only one.
  5. The Arabic Alphabet (abjad-i ʿarabī) cycle, aka the Element (ʿunṣur) or Interior (dākhil) cycle; it begins with Laetitia and ends with Populus.
  6. The ABDḤ cycle, aka the Element (ʿunṣur) or Arabic Alphabet (abjad-i ʿarabī) cycle, which is also popular; it too begins with Laetitia and ends with Populus.
  7. The Most Complete (aṣaḥḥ) cycle, which has a different organizing principle and procedure; it begins with Laetitia and ends with Via.

Note that fourth cycle Melvin-Koushki lists: the ḥarf cycle, the word literally meaning “letter” (as in characters of an alphabet).  This cycle goes in the following order:

  1. Laetitia
  2. Tristitia
  3. Rubeus
  4. Albus
  5. Fortuna Maior
  6. Fortuna Minor
  7. Caput Draconis
  8. Cauda Draconis
  9. Puer
  10. Puella
  11. Acquisitio
  12. Amissio
  13. Populus
  14. Carcer
  15. Coniunctio
  16. Via

Melvin-Koushki says that the first twelve figures (Laetitia through Amissio) get two letters each, and the final four (Populus through Via) get one letter each.  Looking through contemporary texts on Arabic geomancy (despite my lack of knowledge of Arabic/Farsi/Urdu, I can still pick out patterns and particular words well enough to find them!), we get the following correspondences of figures to letters:

Figure Letter
Laetitia أ
‘Alif
ف
Fā’
Tristitia ب
Bā’
ص
Ṣād
Rubeus ج
Jīm
ق
Qāf
Albus د
Dāl
ر
Rā`
Fortuna Maior ه
Hā’
ش
Shīn
Fortuna Minor و
Wāw
ت
Tā’
Caput Draconis ز
Zāy
ث
Thā’
Cauda Draconis ح
Ḥā’
خ
Khā’
Puer ط
Ṭā’
ذ
Dhāl
Puella ي
Yā’
ض
Ḍād
Acquisitio ك
Kāf
ظ
Ẓā’
Amissio ل
Lām
غ
Ghayn
Populus م
Mīm
Carcer ن
Nūn
Coniunctio س
Sīn
Via ع
`Ayn

Note the order of how the letters go, first down the left column then down the right: this is the traditional abjadī order of the Arabic script, the same one in use for all other Phoenician-derived scripts like Greek and Hebrew.  The fact that the last four figures in the ḥarf cycle have only one letter each are also the liminal figures that are neither entering nor exiting might be because these four figures are special.  More realistically, though, it’s because there are 28 letters in the Arabic script, which means that some figures would get two letters and others only one; because there are 16 figures, 16 × 2 = 32, and 32 – 28 = 4.  If you just start assigning the letters one by one to the figures, you’d run out for the last four.  This raises the question, which came first, the order of the figures, or the ordering of the letters to which the figures were then mapped?  It’s unclear which came first to me, but we can pick out some interesting structural notes about the ḥarf cycle:

  • The first 12 figures are given in reversion pairs: Laetitia/Tristitia, Rubeus/Albus, etc.
  • The first four figures are the “pure elemental” figures, each with seven points.
  • The last four figures are all liminal figures, each of which is their own reversion; the first two are considered the stable liminal figures, the latter two the mobile liminal figures, progressively going from the most stable to the most mobile.

I also want to note that the source Melvin-Koushki is referencing came from the late 16th century, and his sources likely came from much older ones; by that point, geomancy was already around 600 or 700 years old.  Regardless, this cycle is still found in many works even today as a means to predict names.  (I have also seen the ABDḤ/binary-numeral cycle used for this same purpose, but it seems like that’s less popular of a choice than using this specific cycle, though the mechanism is the same.  I don’t know how common using the ABDḤ cycle is for this purpose, or where it might be centralized.)  Although I haven’t yet found much in English or another language I know yet about how to specifically use this cycle for divining names, at least I know how they associate the figures with letters, which is pretty neat unto itself.

I bring this up because, while going over my draft for my postscript in my book, I returned to that section about how Western geomancy has methods for determining names.  I originally wrote the seed for that section in the aforementioned blog post of mine back in 2014, and I basically copied the same tables (in a more intelligible way and broken down by author or source) into my book.  While I was revising that particular section, something about the order of how Cattan, Heydon, and Case associated the figures to the letters…something about it struck me as familiar.  I normally use the planetary order of the figures in my posts and tables (lunar figures, Mercurial figures, Venereal figures, …, nodal figures), but it struck me that several Western authors all had it that Laetitia was given to A, Tristitia to B, Rubeus to C, and so on.  They don’t all agree with each other in some of the associations, and Cattan and Heydon have other rules that give other letters to the figures, but it’s clear they were all drawing on the same source in one form or another, and…hm.  Neither the similarities between them nor that same order could be given to chance.

Digging out my ancient binder of geomancy notes from when I was in college, I got out my transcript of one of the earliest Western works on geomancy, Martin of Spain’s work “De Geomancia”, written sometime in the 1200s.  Dr. Laurel Means has a version of it in Popular and Practical Science of Medieval England (Lister M. Matheson, ed., Michigan State University Press, 1994), and I was able to get a text transcript of it while in college, though I’ve since lost the original source and the transcript file I was working on, though I did save a copy.  I remembered this because it has an early association of the figures with letters from well before Cattan or the others, and I wanted to see how it’d match up.  Surprise: it did, more than I expected, even if I’m missing associations for two of the figures.  Though Martin of Spain gives anywhere from one to five letters to the figures, the first of them typically matches with the expected one and seems to be the “primary” letter.  All these Western sources all seemed to share the same basic order of the figures, starting with Laetitia and Tristitia and continuing from there.  There are some variations, but it’s all fundamentally the same thing.

To compare what I’m seeing, here’s a table that associates the letters of the alphabet with the figures from Christopher Cattan (specifically his First Rule), John Heydon (the “First Rule” for English, with annotations), John Case, and Martin of Spain (more below because this is weird):

Letter Martin of Spain Cattan Heydon Case
A Laetitia Laetitia Laetitia Laetitia
B Tristitia Tristitia Tristitia Tristitia
C Rubeus Rubeus Caput Draconis Caput Draconis
D Albus Albus Albus Albus
E Fortuna Minor Fortuna Minor Fortuna Minor Fortuna Minor
F Fortuna Maior Fortuna Maior Fortuna Maior Fortuna Maior
G Caput Draconis Caput Draconis Rubeus Rubeus
H Cauda Draconis Cauda Draconis Puella Puella
I J Puella Puella Acquisitio Acquisitio
K Puer Puer Cauda Draconis Cauda Draconis
L Acquisitio Puer Puer
M Acquisitio
N Via Amissio Amissio Amissio
O
P Carcer Via Via Via
Q
R Carcer Carcer Carcer
S
T Populus Populus Populus Populus
U V W
X Coniunctio Coniunctio Coniunctio Coniunctio
Y Via
Z

Admittedly, Martin of Spain’s attributions are a little weird; he gives a set of letters for each figure, roughly in alphabetical order per figure, so a bit of sussing needs figuring out; additionally, the letters “l” and “y” are not allocated anywhere, but there is an allocation for the obsolete letter yogh (ʒ), which I interpreted as “y” above.  The full set of associations from Martin of Spain are:

Figure Numbers Letters
Fortuna Maior 12 ff
Fortuna Minor 8 or 1 e
Caput Draconis 13 g t
Acquisitio 31 h m
Laetitia 50 a d
Puer 9 k j
Tristitia 12 b d n
Puella 1 j c e
Rubeus 14 a c s
Albus 14 a d e
Amissio 15 j t s
Cauda Draconis 14 or 12 h j c d
Populus 2 n o t u
Coniunctio 13 or 17 r s t x
Via 8 n o t a ʒ
Carcer 10 o p q r s

Anyway, none of the associations we have in Martin of Spain, Cattan, Heydon, or Case give a figure for the letter Z, and the letters I/J and U/V/W weren’t classified as separate letters until recently, anyway.  As always, Case agrees with Heydon, as I’m pretty sure Case’s Angelical Guide was based on Heydon’s Theomagia, and both differ from Cattan in some minor ways.  Martin of Spain’s order starts off clear, but the order gets really mixed up and unclear towards the end.  Cattan’s order seems to be the most orderly, and preserves almost but frustratingly not quite the same order as the ḥarf cycle from before, with the following changes:

  • Cattan has Fortuna Minor and Fortuna Maior in positions 5 and 6; the ḥarf cycle switches these
  • Cattan has Puella and Puer in positions 9 and 10; the ḥarf cycle switches these
  • Cattan has Via, Carcer, Populus, and Coniunctio as the final four figures; the ḥarf cycle has Populus, Carcer, Coniunctio, and Via

What we’re arriving at is that the Western rules for assigning letters to the figures is clearly a continuation of the same cycle associations that began in the Arabic tradition, even from a very early period in Western geomancy, which indicates that the ḥarf cycle definitely dates back to the late 1200s, probably earlier, making it a very early arrangement of figures, indeed.  At least in the western part of Europe (i.e. Spain as opposed to Greece), this was likely brought in at an early point along with the rest of geomantic technique, and held on in some form or another by a handful of geomancers.  It’s unclear to me exactly how popular this method or association was, since I haven’t found more than a handful of resources that give such an association and most of them tend to be the larger works on geomancy that date from Cattan and onwards, but it may well be that this system was held onto, perhaps with some corruptions or changes, which would explain the small changes in Cattan’s order versus the ḥarf cycle.

The other major difference is how the letters get assigned to the figures in their cycle.  Rather than how the Arabic method goes through the cycle of figures and gives each figure one letter in turn, which results in a bunch of figures at the start with two letters and a few at the end with only one, the European method seems to almost be reverse: double up the letters at the end of the cycle and work forward until the rest of the figures at the start have only one letter each.  Given how straightforward the association method would be, I’m not sure how the method changed so drastically; either several corruptions happened along the way, or someone innovated a variation on the system.  I can’t seem to trace sources back past Cattan, or at least find any in an accessible form, so it’s unclear whether Cattan or his predecessors carried on the same tradition that Martin of Spain wrote about, whether his method came from another variant closely related to it, or whether he reimported an Arabic method and customized it for European needs.

What would it look like if we were to use the ḥarf cycle order of the figures and the same method, but applied it to the Roman script?  Considering that the Roman script that we use nowadays has shifted a bit from Renaissance usage, notably with the introduction of a few more letters (J from I, V and W from U, and Z), we can envision two versions of this, a “Renaissance Roman” ḥarf association of the figures with the letters as it was done in the days of Cattan et al. with 23 letters, and a “Modern English” association that uses all 26 letters of the modern English alphabet but done in the same way.  Below is what we would get from using those methods, alongside Cattan’s association for comparison (with the mis-ordered letters, e.g. Fortuna Maior and Fortuna Minor, in bold italic).  Heck, we can even come up with a Cattan-style association of the letters, using the ḥarf ordering (to fix the irregularities we might have seen from before) but using the same Western-style doubling-up of successive letters at the end:

Figure Cattan Ḥarf-Style
Renaissance
Roman
Ḥarf-Style
Modern English
Cattan-Style
Modern English
Laetitia A A R A Q A
Tristitia B B S B R B
Rubeus C C T C S C
Albus D D U/V/W D T D
Fortuna Maior F E X E U E
Fortuna Minor E F Y F V F
Caput Draconis G G G W G H
Cauda Draconis H H H X I J
Puer K I/J I Y K L
Puella I/J K J Z M N
Acquisitio L M L K O P
Amissio N O M L Q R
Populus T U/V/W N M S T
Carcer R S O N U V
Coniunctio X Y P O W X
Via P Q Q P Y Z

In this light, let’s point out two things about Cattan’s original style (which I’m taking as the default Western letter association rule, which was an earlier version of what Heydon and Case later used):

  • Really, why is there no Z in the Renaissance Roman scheme, or even Cattan’s original scheme?  As I mentioned earlier, Z was barely considered a letter in English until comparatively recently, so it’s not completely surprising that medieval, Renaissance, and even early modern texts on geomancy would omit it from such an association scheme.  Yet, French (for that matter, many forms of Romance languages) definitely uses the letter Z in its language regularly, so it’s odd that French or Italian would omit this letter.  Note how it would fall in the ḥarf-style Renaissance Roman scheme, as a letter corresponding to Caput Draconis.  This, however, would give its reverse figure Cauda Draconis no corresponding double letter, because the Roman script including Z would have 23 letters, and an odd number would mean one of these reversion-pairs would go unassigned.  So, this letter would have to be omitted to keep the system clean, and would probably logically be merged with S (as part of Carcer).
  • Even then, why does the Cattan scheme double up successive letters at the end, rather than allocate sequential letters cyclicly through the alphabet?  It might be more for a superficial resemblance or mirroring of how the ḥarf cycle associations work for Arabic, where the final positions are given to the liminal figures which were seen as “breaking the pattern” in some special way.  Because 22 letters get nowhere near those final four figures (as the ḥarf-style Renaissance Roman scheme shows) and because we might still want to make those final figures special in some way, the doubling-up of successive letters at the end could be seen as a compromise to keep the final few figures special while still allocating the letters to the figures in an orderly way.  It’s a major departure from the logic of the ḥarf cycle method, but it’s a method all the same.

So, let’s say that we have our pick now of these four systems.  Which would I recommend to use?  Given what the original ḥarf cycle logic was, I would throw my hat in for the ḥarf-style modern English associations above, but that’s also because I use the English language, and though the Renaissance Roman script is just an earlier version of the English alphabet, I see no reason to use an outdated orthography that omits several important letters that have not been considered allographs or variants of others for several hundred years now.  The same method of straightforwardly allocating the letters of one’s writing system in order to the geomantic figures in the ḥarf cycle can be used for any alphabetic or abjadic script.

Even with this, there are still several important questions that are still left unanswered:

  • It’s clear that alphabets or abjads that have an even number of letters would be favored, because it keeps the reversal pairs intact, so that each figure in the pair has the same number of letters.  What about scripts with an odd number of letters?  Does it really matter that much to keep reversal pairs intact?
  • Why are the figures in the ḥarf cycle placed in this order at all?  Is there an organizing principle behind it, or was it more inspired than devised?
  • Did the ḥarf cycle come first and then the association with the letters, or did the idea of divvying up the 28 letters of the Arabic script come first and the figures associated with those letters afterwards?  If the latter, it could explain why the four liminal figures just so happen to be at the end of the cycle where they get one figure each.  But even then, why would the pure element figures Laetitia, Tristitia, etc. be at the front in that order?  Reading the figures as elements, they could be read as Fire-Earth-Air-Water (my modern system or just using the points of those elemental lines) or as Air-Earth-Fire-Water (the older system that swaps Rubeus for Fire and Laetitia for Air), but this would be odd considering their pure elemental representations.
  • Can other cycles be used instead of the ḥarf cycle?  I know that at least some geomancers use the ABDḤ cycle using the same method of allocating letters to figures, just in a different order of the figures, though it seems the ḥarf cycle is more popular, at least in Africa and the Near East.
  • Where did Cattan get his Second and Third Rules of assigning the letters to the figures come from?  I haven’t been able to figure out a pattern there, either, especially with the varied and numerous associations he gives that don’t match anything else.  He even includes the letter Z in the Third Rule!

  • Did the methods of determining names as given by Cattan, Heydon, etc. also originally come from Arabic geomancy, or were they developed purely in a Western setting?  If they came from Arabic geomancy, did they come in at an early date and get passed down (and potentially corrupted) as time went by, or were they reimported at a later date?  Given their wording, it seems they were unclear and obscure even in Renaissance times.
  • What even are the methods in use for Arabic geomancy for using the ḥarf cycle?  I haven’t been able to read or research much about that, either.  How do Arabic geomancers determine names, and how similar are these methods using the ḥarf cycle (or other cycles with letters associated to the figures!) to those in Western geomancy?
  • What can be done about non-alphabetic or non-abjadic scripts?  Syllabaries can feasibly be assigned, syllable by syllable, to the geomantic figures, though that would quickly get out of hand depending on the number of syllables a language has.  How about abugidas, like any of the Brahmic-derived scripts?  How would vowels be handled in that system, if at all?  What about logographic scripts?

Still, even with these unanswered questions, I feel like I have enough at this point to convince me that that whole section in my book’s postscript about how trash these methods of determining names and letters are probably deserves a rewrite.  In fact, what’s astounding about the Western methods is that we have a fossil of Arabic dawā`ir embedded in our own practice, when otherwise there we don’t use any dā`ira-based technique.  It really emphasizes to me that, truly, geomancy is still an art that reaches deep into the sands of north African and Arabic culture, and perhaps there are more things that we can learn from or even merge with from our eastern siblings in this art.

In the meantime, I’m going to get back to more research and writing.  I want to take another look at those rules and try applying them again; now that I have a better understanding of why the letters get allocated to some figures in certain patterns, maybe using the ḥarf cycle in a more pure way than what Cattan or Heydon have could improve those chances of determining names.

On Simplicity in Constructed Speech and the Occult

I’ve been interested in linguistics since at least middle school, when I took my first foreign language class.  It was a semester-long course in Japanese in my sixth grade, but unfortunately, the teacher had to leave back for Japan one or two months before the semester was actually over.  To fill out the rest of the semester, the school had another teacher come in and teach us the basics of Latin, for some reason.  For me, it was an awesome twofer!  That one semester started off a lifelong interest in languages, much to the chagrin of my mother, who wanted me to stick with Spanish or French because there’d be more money in that.  (I still do need to learn Spanish, of course, but for entirely different reasons than either of us would expect.)

However, my interest in linguistics didn’t just stop at learning languages and the methods of communication involving grammar and syntax.  I experimented with making a number of experimental constructed languages, also known as “conlangs”, and developed a number of writing systems for each of them.  Some of those writing systems eventually became used as ciphers for English, and one of those I developed back in high school eventually became my personal cursive/shorthand script which I still use to this day.  Creating languages and writing systems for a variety of ends has always been a hobby of mine, and it’s one that’s shared across many people of different streaks and creeds.

Chances are, dear reader, that you’ve encountered at least one conlang in your time.  Klingon as spoken in the Star Trek fandom; Orwell’s Newspeak from 1984; the elvish languages of Quenya or Sindarin, the Black Speech of Mordor, and the dwarvish language of Khuzdul created by Tolkein in his Middle Earth; the script of the Atlanteans from the Disney movie of the same name; the list goes on.  Plus, not all conlangs are meant as artistic projects for fantasy worlds.  There are a number of constructed languages, such as Esperanto and Lojban, which are intended as actual languages to be used by people on a day-to-day basis, often to encourage lofty goals of world peace or better and more logical cognition.  The conlang community has done some pretty interesting experiments when it comes to linguistics, and it’s always held an appeal for me and several of my good friends.

And yes, dear reader, there are conlangs in the occult world, as well.  The number of mystical or magical writing systems is just the start of it.  There’s the obvious Enochian of John Dee, which should be apparent to pretty much everyone, but there’re other constructed languages lesser-known across occulture.

One conlang is one I’ve known of for years and years now: toki pona.  As far as conlangs go, this is a special one marked for its simplicity.  Unlike other languages both natural and constructed, toki pona has only 120 words (when I first learned it, it only had 118).  A single word can have dozens of meanings, all semantically related depending on how it’s used.  For instance, consider the word “moku”.  This word refers to something related to consumption or digestion: to eat , to drink, to swallow, to ingest, to consume, to digest, food, meal, snack, something edible, etc.  In a sense, each word is a semantic category clarified by its use in a sentence, and not a single meaning.  The grammar is likewise very simple with only a handful of possible constructions (though, of course, with endless variations).

Why such a simple language?  The creator of the language, Sonja Lang, designed the language to be an experiment in testing the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, which can best be summed up as “the limits of my language are the limits of my world”.  Although strong forms of this hypothesis are generally believed now to be false, it’s still being researched to see how much language influences the way we behave and the way we think.  Lang (or, as known in the toki pona community, jan Sonja or “Sonja-person”) designed the language to be as simple as possible, even combining the semantic meanings of “good” and “simple” into the same word, so as to encourage a mindset and worldview focused on simplicity and dressing things down to a basic, simple means of existence.  The canonical example of this is that there is no word for “friend” in toki pona, but the way one communicates this is with the construction “jan pona”, literally “good person”.  A person who is good, especially to you, is known as a friend.  Thus, some constructions become illogical; a “bad friend” would be “jan poka ike”, literally “bad good person”, but a thing can’t really be good and bad at the same time.  Thus, if a person is bad to you, they probably shouldn’t be your friend.

One of the side effects of having such a linguistic structure is that toki pona is heavily dependent on context.  While you can take a paragraph of English text from any particular source, you can be fairly certain in a short time of what that paragraph is talking about and what kind of text it came from, be it chemistry, physics, literature, law codes, instruction manuals, comic books, or so forth.  Because of the generalized nature of toki pona, it’d be much more difficult to do the same, since unspoken (or previously-spoken) context plays such a huge role in toki pona.  Thus, toki pona utterly lacks finesse and nuance in words, and relies completely on context and (sometimes) lengthy constructions in order to describe something completely.  Then again, to describe something completely kinda defeats the purpose of toki pona.  The purpose is to communicate simply and to think simply; this is to speak well, literally “toki pona”.  To introduce more complexity than absolutely needed is unhelpful and makes what would normally be clear absolutely unclear, which is speaking poorly, literally “toki ike”.

Let’s bring this back to my life as a magician, shall we?  Why would a Hermetic magician, immersed in a cosmos full of complexity and correspondences and nuance and detail, at all be curious or appreciative of such a simplistic, simple language?  What good would a language that doesn’t even have a good means of describing numbers above 5 (and was never originally designed to have a words for numbers beyond “one”, “two”, “none”, and “many”) serve a person whose fundamental influences include the great mathematician-philosophers of the Mediterranean?  With an utterly small phonemic gallery of sounds somewhere between that of Japanese and Pirahã, how can I be served by such a language when my own Work requires subtle and exact descriptions of barbarous words of the gods?

It’s simple.  Complexity and nuance often doesn’t serve us all the time, and it helps to see things in a simple way.  toki pona helps to see the forest for the trees and not be overwhelmed by the individual leaves, especially if you’re nowhere close enough to actually enter the forest.  It’s a common-enough problem in occulture that we end up theorizing and extrapolating everything to an ungainly degree, insisting on artificial divisions of particular subsets of styles of magic, based partially on Aristotelian impulses for binning things and partially on the influence of fantasy divisions of magic into the occult.  However, if we end up theorizing and complicating things to the point where we can’t actually do the Work, then we’ve fucked ourselves over and paralyzed ourselves from getting anywhere.  For all the education, training, research, and meditation that goes into a ritual, the rite itself is the simple execution of a series of actions that may or may not have a particular result.  It’s the things we feel, the things we see, the things we experience in its most basic, vulgar form that direct, inform, and destroy our theoretical models.  After testing, the models should always be adapted to fit the data, as the data can only be interpreted in but so many ways to yield but so many models.

toki pona is a philosophical language, but it’s not philosophical in the sense of the great φιλοσοφοι or the rabbis of old.  Those who speak toki pona aren’t much interested in drawing the finest distinctions between abstract concepts, the division of a speck of dust’s width between two things.  We explain what happened in the simplest, barest of terms available to us to get rid of confusion and complexity and just come out with it.  To abstract away, justify, or obfuscate is really the same sort of action, much as how exaggeration and extreme modesty are two sides of the same coin of lying.

So, how would I be using toki pona as an occultist?  I mean, to those who’ve been reading my blog for a bit, I’ve already talked about this all before.  (I actually only remembered that I wrote a post just like the present one over two years ago on the same topic with many of the same points.  Herp derp.)  After giving it some thought, and after having gone through a few more experiences in the time since the prior post, I think my original idea from two years ago is still good: using toki pona for “the description of a desired state or outcome”, how things should be at their core.  I can talk about the planetary influences of the choirs of angels all day long and how they impact the sensations of my individual fingertips at different times of the day until the celestial cows come home, but it doesn’t change the fact that all I’m doing is emitting air and sound, especially when the topic is so theoretical and strained that it’s hard to make sense even in a well-described language like English or Greek.

I find that, as I get older and a bit more experienced (however little experience a few years can make), I get less and less interested in theory.  Sure, I will always keep researching and understanding different models of reality, and I’ll keep learning correspondences and the theory behind magic, but as I keep coming in contact with it, it gets dry and boring without the moist nourishment of action to apply it all.  Besides, it’s only in the application and results of this stuff that I get to see what theory is valuable and what isn’t; by testing these theories, not all of which should have been preserved from the ancients, I get to separate the wheat from the chaff and throw out the useless junk from the useful gems.  Invariably, as I understand the theories better, my rituals get simpler and more powerful, but only because of the work that’s already gone into them.  And, should I deign to go full-steam-ahead with the complexity and decoration and embellishment of a full Solomonic shebang, it’ll be even more powerful, but the need for that is limited at best and nonexistent at worst.

Simplicity works.  That said, simplicity is the highest form of elegance, and it’s working toward that elegance that takes much time and effort.  It’s a poor choice to separate out things at the start, when it should be by proof of demonstration that we come to know what’s necessary and what’s unnecessary, what’s able to be separated out and what’s able to be coupled together, what can be kept and what can be forgotten.  toki pona helps with that in a few ways.  I don’t expect to rewrite Agrippa’s Three Books in toki pona, but it will help in affording me another internal viewpoint to understand some of the things I do.

Crucible Convention 2014!

Of course, October’s second-biggest event in my life (the first being that noble and highest holiday of my own birth) is still happening: Crucible Convention, as always held by the generous and amazing Omnimancers, this year on October 4, 2014 at the Crowne Plaza Princeton in Princeton, NJ.  Tickets are $40, or $45 if you go to the convention banquet, and the hotel has a discounted rate until September 19th if you want to get a room.  Getting a room is heavily suggested (the hotel discount code is CRU), since occult talks, socializing, and antics go on well until the night, and the Friday night mixer is fantastic to hit up.  If you plan to get the dinner, do so early, since spaces are limited.  The convention schedule can be found here, and you can log in to register here.

Last year was my second year going, and it was a fantastic blast with good knowledge spread and good stories made; my first year was no small amount of fun and education, too.  This year promises to be even better, especially because yours truly is giving his first talk!  Yes, polyphanes will make his conference talk debut at Crucible Convention 2014 on (predictably, given the recent string of posts on it) “Mathesis: Towards a Greek Kabbalah”.  The class blurb from the Crucible Convention class schedule:

Although the traditions of ancient Greece provide the foundation for most Western occulture, the use of Greek techniques and tools is underrepresented in modern Western magic, especially that which falls under the banner of Hermeticism.  Most Hermetic magic practiced today is based on the studies of those who focus on the Jewish mysteries of kabbalah.  While the spiritual technology and philosophy of Jewish, Christian, and Hermetic kabbalah has been invaluable to the development of Hermeticism, Hermetic occulture does not make the best use of kabbalah as Jewish kabbalists do, and even then, kabbalah may not be the best fit for the modern non-Jewish Hermeticist.  As a non-kabbalistic alternative to the practice of the Great Work, polyphanes will discuss a new approach to Hermetic magic using an innovative theurgical and cosmological framework based on Pythagorean and Neoplatonic philosophies called “mathesis”, meaning “teaching of the mysteries”.

If you’ve been keeping up with the posts here, then you’re already ahead of the game (and there’s much to do and explore before I give the talk), but I also want to disseminate this topic as much as I can, since it’s kinda sorta my crowning project at the moment.  I don’t want to pontificate too much and start a schismatic group intent on divorcing Hermeticism from kabbalah, but I do want to give people something to think about, that “hey, there might be other ways to do Hermetic stuff besides kabbalah”.  Not only will it get a much-needed conversation going, it’ll also help in getting feedback from others and improve the system even more.

Save the date, preregister, and come to support me (and a bevy of other fantastic speakers, including my own personal colleagues) at Crucible this year!

Simplicity, Language, and Ceremonial Magic

Simply put, never the twain shall meet.

I’ve got a big thing for linguistics, writing systems, and conlangs (constructed languages, like Star Trek’s Klingon, Tolkien’s Quenya, Disney’s Atlantean, etc.), which all have their definite place in ceremonial magic.  The mystical scripts I use to call spirits, the barbarous names of invocation, the seed syllables and chants and mantras, and having to translate works from one language into another are all part of the Work, if for nothing else than to get more information and context on a given topic or act.  As a hobby, though, it’s just plain fun.  When I was really little, I used to think there’d be a little goblin or tiny person in each person’s head, and when someone would speak to them in a foreign language, the tiny person would translate it into English for processing, or out of English into the other language for them to speak.

What?  I was a kid, like I said; it was a phase and I grew out of it.

There’s one conlang in particular I’ve liked for a while: Toki Pona.  It’s a minimal language, with only 120 words to use and an exceedingly simple grammar.  I’ve known about it for a number of years now, and still can translate the grammar in my head though many of the words escape me.  (I need to relearn this language, if only for the fun of it.)  It’s almost reductionist in how to say things: since there’s no word for “friend”, you need to describe what “friend” means (usually, a person who’s good to you).  English, with its huge vocabulary, can say things in one or two words what Toki Pona might take five or more: “enemy combatant” might be reduced to “a fighting person who’s bad towards you/your land”. That said, often enough the simplicity in making these statements and in communicating them makes up for its simplistic vocabulary.  It helps that there’s still a live and active Toki Pona community, too, both in forums and on IRC (though the original attempts at a Toki Pona book appear to have fallen by the wayside years ago).

One idle day, I was thinking about writing a short text about or of magic in Toki Pona, thinking it might be an interesting exercise.  I had to cut it off early on, though, primarily due to time restraints but also because of how daunting a task that would be.  Even though Toki Pona (literally meaning “good talk” or “simple talk”, since “good” and “simple” are the same word and simplicity is seen as good) is such a simple language, magic (or at least the kind of magic I work with) is decidedly not.  Given that it’s hard to describe “humans” as separate from “humanoid”, and how simple religious texts written in Toki Pona are largely unclear, talking about sephiroth and angels, the specifics of calling down elemental forces to charge objects or events, or how the placement of planets can affect the progress of a life or task is pretty much right out.  The size of the text would probably multiply tenfold, and would require dozens of pages just to lay out the first principles to describe what means what.

I mean, can’t we also see this happening anyway even in English texts?  I regularly bust out ancient Hebrew, Arabic, Greek, and Latin words and phrases to describe certain things or call them by their proper names.  Hell, it’s almost a trope that magicians use arcane languages, written and spoken, to achieve their ends, or at least to keep things a trade secret from the profane and vulgar.  When describing these ideas and forms, or Ideas and Forms, you almost have to introduce complexity and specification that defy simplicity; at least in ceremonial and qabbalistic terms, the only thing that can be accurately described as simple is the One, who is divinely simple; at that point, however, it doesn’t make sense to make any distinctions, where everything is One and One is All, and all language can be done away with anyhow.  After the One becomes (at least superficially) Many, already there’s so much complexity that 120 words just won’t cut it.

Toki Pona, as a conlang, has restrictions that normal language users don’t have.  Direct borrowings are very frowned upon, the one exception being proper names of people and places (which themselves have to undergo proper tokiponization to follow the phonetic rules of Toki Pona).  Invention of new words is right out; I recall the commotion when the inventor of the language added two words (from 118 to 120).  Hell, even ASL has a trick to point to an arbitrary space to use as a label for some object or referent, while (to my knowledge) Toki Pona has only one pronoun for such a thing (which can often be confusing even with proper context).  Given all this, I don’t think Toki Pona and ceremonial magic mix particularly well except for one important use: the description of a desired state or outcome.  This conlang is fantastic for describing how things are at their core, with as little subjectivity and as much clarity as possible.  Making sigils written from Toki Pona would be fantastic, as would describing statements of intent or will to be realized and manifested.  I haven’t used Toki Pona for that, but it seems like a very good application for it in magic.

What about you?  Do you know anything about Toki Pona?  Have you used conlangs or ritual languages in your work for specific ends, or do you do it all in your mother tongue?  What about written magic?