On an English Alphabet Grammatomancy

The other night, I got an email from a reader with a question.  This sort of thing happens often; in general, I enjoy taking the honest questions from my readers about practice, theory, and everything in between when it comes to the occult, as it often helps them as much as it does me by putting my thoughts in readable order and making me think.  It’s not that common I have to put some questions off, and generally that’s because they involve so much investigation and life-work that it becomes better to take the road to take a proper consultation with me for a really in-depth approach to answering such questions.  However, more often than not, simple one-off questions get prompt answers.  (If you’re interested, dear reader, check out the Contact page.)

Regrettably, this email I got didn’t have a good email address attached to it.  When I tried sending my reply, the email was immediately returned as undeliverable due to a non-existent email address.  It’s unfortunate, especially since this is the first time this has happened.  I have no other way of trying to get in contact with this person besides putting out a call on my Twitter and Facebook pages, so unless this particular reader of mine stalks me on either of those media, I don’t have a way to get back in contact with them.  (Let that be a lesson to everyone, to double-check all your entries when you try to contact someone!)  In that case, perhaps it’s best I just answer the email by making a new post specifically on this topic.  Turning a reader question by email into a post isn’t my usual approach, but between a lack of a means of communication and because the question in question is actually a thought-provoking topic, it’d be good to get the word out all the same.

What this particular reader was asking was about grammatomancy, the divination system I like that uses the letters of the Greek alphabet in a way not unlike Nordic rune divination.  In grammatomancy, each letter of the Greek alphabet is associated with a different oracular statement, and each statement begins with a different Greek letter.  For instance, the letter Gamma (Γ) has the oracle “Γῆ σοι τέλειον καρπὸν ἀποδώσει πόνων”, which translates to “The Earth will give you the ripe fruit of your labors”.  Traditionally, grammatomancy was performed by taking a bowl and filling it with 24 different pebbles or potsherds or other similar type of token, and each token had a different letter engraved on it.  Ask your question, draw out a random token, and look up the associated oracle; bam, there’s your answer.  Personally, I prefer a different approach of using dice, specifically two throws of a 12-sided die; I wrote about my method to use dice in this older post of mine.

What the reader asked was this:

I’m looking for simple instructions on how to set up dice with letters from the English alphabet, not Greek letters or symbols, including how many dice, how the letters are assigned to them, and any other info you may have.  The word “grammatomancy” goes right back to some site that gives the Greek info.

First, if I understand the situation correctly, the word “grammatomancy” started with this website.  The original source of the information I used by Apollonius Sophistes (John Opsopaus) simply calls it the Greek alphabet oracle, even in his more recent book The Oracles of Apollo: Practical Ancient Greek Divination for Today, and I honestly don’t recall the word “grammatomancy” or its Greek form “γραμματομαντεια” being used before its appearance in this 2013 post.  If it was, I apologize for my hubris, and would love to be corrected, but to my knowledge, searching online for the word grammatomancy will likely end you up at something I wrote.  Because of that, and because I’ve only discussed grammatomancy in terms of the Greek alphabet, all the resources available under that word are going to focus on the Greek alphabet.

Now, what about the actual question the reader asked?  Is there a way to use dice to randomly generate English letters?  The short answer is “no”, because of how many letters there are in the English alphabet.

The Greek alphabet as used since ancient times has 24 letters; there were a few extra letters at the start, like digamma and qoppa, but those were disused from an early period and kept around only for numeric and accounting purposes by specialists.  24 is a rather pleasing number, because it can be factored into several different sets of numbers, specifically 2 × 12, 3 × 8, and 4 × 6.  These are all fairly manageable numbers, and can be translated into dice throws quite easily.  For instance, you could use two throws of a 12-sided die (my preferred method), where the first throw determines the first half or second half of the alphabet (odd number = first 12 letters, even number = second 12 letters), and the second throw determines which letter in that set to pick; if I throw a 5 and a 9, for instance, I’ll look at the ninth letter of the first half of the Greek alphabet, which in this case is Iota.  Instead of rolling twice, you could flip a coin to determine heads for the first half of the alphabet and tails for the second half; in effect, you’re using a 2-sided die and a 12-sided die simultaneously.  Alternatively, you could throw a 4-sided die to determine which set of six letters to look at, and the 6-sided die to determine which letter in that set to pick; a 3 on the 4-sided die followed by a 3 on the 6-sided die would get you the third letter of the third set of six, which would be the fifteenth letter, which would be Omikron.  Heck, you could just use a 24-sided die (they exist!) and just associate each letter of the Greek alphabet with each number in order.

The problem with the English alphabet is that it has 26 letters.  Unlike the number 24, 26 cannot be broken down so neatly into smaller pairs of factors; you could only really break it down into 2 × 13.  While there are 13-sided dice and 26-sided dice out there, these are very uncommon specialty items, and probably not what the reader was asking about given how rare they are.  So, what could an English-minded grammatomancer do in this case?  There are several options that present themselves:

  • Don’t bother with dice at all and just use a bag of tokens or a bowl of pebbles.  This is the trivial non-answer, of course, and is not necessarily as convenient as just using plain old poker dice or tabletop RPG dice.
  • Use specially-made English alphabet dice.  They exist, sure, but again, this is a specialist option, and not very useful.
  • Increase the number of options to use from 26 to another number that can be easily factored into smaller numbers.  For instance, if you were to include a “space” letter (comparable to the modern Nordic “wyrd rune”), you get 27 options, which can be broken down into 3 × 9; if you were to include two extra letters (like the Spanish Ll and Ñ), you get 28 = 4 × 7.  However, both of these options aren’t really useful either, because 9-sided and 7-sided dice are only slightly easier to come by than 13-sided dice, which is to say “not very”.  The next greatest number that could be used for a standard set of tabletop roleplaying dice would be 32 = 4 × 8, so a roll of a 4-sided die and an 8-sided die, but this means having to use six extra letters or reinterpreting them as “wild” options that make you throw the dice again until you get a valid letter.  (This is basically what the alphabet dice in the above option does.)
  • Decrease the number of options to use from 26 down to 24.  This may seem like blasphemy (how dare I suggest deleting letters!), but consider that the English alphabet is a modern repurposing of the older Roman alphabet, which originally only had 21 letters and was later increased to 23 during the classical period.  In English use, the letters J and U are essentially “duplications” of the original letters I and V, and it was only up until recently that you’d often find things spelled as “Ierusalem” or “Vnder the sea”.  If you were to fold J into I and V into U, you’d go back down to 24 letters, and then you could use the same options that the Greek alphabet uses.

Personally, if I were pressed to make a choice that forced me to use dice, I’d go with the last option and get rid of J and U at the expense of considering them their own letters, because it seems most convenient that way.  I’d still consider using tokens a better choice than dice for the English alphabet, though.

However, this is only half the answer to what the reader asked about.  Once a method is found for using dice, what about the letters themselves for divination?  When we look at the Greek alphabet, we find historical evidence across the eastern Mediterranean that uses the Greek alphabet as a form of divination, with multiple sets of oracles associated with them, sometimes overlapping and sometimes distinct based on the region.  For the Roman alphabet, however, I don’t know of any such sources.  We have nursery rhymes and mnemonics that associate the letters of the English alphabet to different things, sure, but nothing of the same scale and focus as the Greek alphabet oracles that dot the ancient world.  To that end, I have no resources at my disposal and know of none that exist otherwise that discuss the letters of the English or Latin alphabets as an oracle in a grammatomantic way.

Should someone want to develop a set of oracular statements for each letter of the English alphabet, I would think it a good development, especially if the user of such a system wanted to find a more mystical way of applying the English alphabet in spiritual practices, or reinterpreting it as a “Theban oracle” by using the Theban alphabet cipher for English (which, as an aside, note how it already collapses I/J and U/V, and how W is just a duplication of U/V, technically reducing it down to 23 letters as used since classical Rome).  However, I would find using the Greek alphabet to be more useful from the get-go, not least because there are already sets of oracles ready to go for the Greek letters, but because the Greek alphabet already has associations to numbers, planets, signs, and elements via stoicheia and isopsephia as well as to hundreds of other classical concepts, animals, birds, stones, and procedures according to texts like the Kyranides.  In other words, the Greek alphabet already has information, lore, history, and power in it that the English alphabet basically lacks.  I won’t knock an English system of grammatomancy, but it’d need quite a bit of work, innovation, and invention to get it to a similar usable state that the Greek system presents immediately.

I hope that helps!  May the reader who sent me this question find this answer useful, and may everyone ensure to check their email addresses for correctness and validity before using them in contact forms.

Two new translations from Latin on medieval astrology!

While browsing through my computer for old files for something I was trying to look up, I came across some old translations that had been sitting there, untouched and unloved.  I meant to compile a few more and publish it as another ebook, but I don’t have the original book to translate from anymore (it’s a hard-to-find critical edition from a university library), so so much for that idea.  Instead of just letting them languish and gather electronic bit dust on my hard drive, I decided to polish them up a bit and let them shine on some distant server’s hard drive instead for the whole world to see.

These two translations are from the text Hermes Trismegistus, Astrologia et divinatoria (Corpus Christianorum, Continuatio Medievalis 144C, Brepols: Turnhout, 2001), which is also the very same collection of manuscripts, texts, and other critical editions that gave me the Lectura Geomantiae and the Liber Runarum, medieval texts on geomantic divination and runic magical practice, respectively.  Now joining those two translations, I now present to you the following two:

  • Liber De Accidentibus (“The Book of Accidents”).  This translation consists of a collection of astrological aphorisms and rules about particular astrological arrangements or phenomena and how they may be used in forecasting, as in mundane or horary astrology.
  • De Amicitia vel Inimicitia Planetarum (“On the Amity and Enmity of the Planets”).  This translation describes a simple form of mundane astrology based on the planetary rulers of particular parts of the world and how their motions through the signs ruled by other planets impact or affect those areas of the world.

You can find these pages up under the site menu: Occult→ Liber Divinationis → (pagename), where I’ve also bundled the Liber Runarum page with them under the overall heading Liber Divinationis, or “The Book of Divination”.

I hope you enjoy, and maybe even find them useful in some small way!

Same Figures, but Different Names and Different Traditions

In addition to the Geomantic Study-Group on Facebook that I admin, there are a few other groups out there that focus on geomancy.  I may or may not be a member of them, or I might have been at one point before leaving, but there’s one that I belong to that focuses on the Arabic style of geomancy, Ilm-e-Ramal (Geomancy).  What the Geomantic Study-Group is for Western geomancy, this group is for Arabic `ilm al-raml (the formal Arabic term for geomancy, literally “the science of the sand”, sometimes abbreviated to raml or ramal), and since I’d love to learn more about that style of geomancy, I decided to join in.  It’s not always easy, since many of the members use Urdu or Arabic as their primary language, but when there are English conversations, I try to follow along best I can.

One of the major issues in learning Arabic `ilm al-raml for an English speaker is, of course, terminology.  It’s only fair and expected that the users of a system built in one language would use that language to discuss it, but it still poses a stumbling block.  After all, geomancy has been practiced continuously in Arabic- and Urdu-speaking countries far longer than it was in Europe, and they’ve kept the system in their own ways.  Once I see what they’re doing and see certain words repeated in certain contexts, I can usually catch on and follow along, but the biggest impediment to discussing geomancy and `iln al-raml is the different names we have for the figures themselves.  It’s difficult for me to talk about the meanings of a given figure and compare it with what it means in `ilm al-raml when neither of us know which figure we’re supposed to be talking about, after all.

So, with that in mind, I decided to produce the following table that lists the names of the sixteen geomantic figures and their names in Western geomancy (in Latin and English, using their most popular form) and in Arabic `ilm al-raml (in Arabic and English, again using their popular form).  This is to help me out to learn the names of the figures better in Arabic contexts, as well as to help the students of `ilm al-raml learn the European names for Western contexts.  For other variants in these and other languages that have historically been used for geomancy, including Hebrew, Greek, Sudanese, and Malagasy, I’d recommend checking out Stephen Skinner’s book on geomancy, Geomancy in Theory and Practice, and his larger book on correspondences, The Complete Magician’s Tables.

Figure Latin Arabic Yoruba
Populus
People
جماعت
Ǧamaʿat
Group
Oyẹku
Via
Way
طريق
Ṭariq
Way
Ogbe
Albus
White
بياض
Bayaḍ
White
Oturupọn
Coniunctio
Conjunction
اجتماع
Iǧtimaʿ
Meeting
Iwori
Puella
Girl
نقى
Naqi
Pure
Otura
Amissio
Loss
قبض الخارج
Qubiḍ al-ḫariǧ
Catching the outside
Ọsẹ
Fortuna Maior
Greater Fortune
نصرهّ الداخل
Nuṣraht al-daḫil
Inside victory
Iwọnrin
Fortuna Minor
Lesser Fortune
نصرهّ الخارج
Nuṣraht al-ḫariǧ
Outside victory
Irosun
Puer
Boy
فرح
Farih
Happiness
Irẹtẹ
Rubeus
Red
حمره
Ḥumrah
Red
Ika
Acquisitio
Gain
قبض الداخل
Qubiḍ al-daḫil
Catching the inside
Ofun
Laetitia
Joy
ليحان
Layhan
Bearded
Ọbara
Tristitia
Sorrow
انكيس
Ankis
Ọkanran
Carcer
Prison
عقله
ʿUqlah
Odi
Caput Draconis
Head of the Dragon
عتبة الداخل
ʿAtabaht al-daḫil
Inner threshold
Ọsa
Cauda Draconis
Tail of the Dragon
عتبة الخارج
ʿAtabaht al-ḫariǧ
Outer threshold
Ogunda

Because I like using an Arabic transliteration system that uses diacritics for faithful romanization, it can be a little difficult to read the Arabic names, but the accented letters can be read as follows:

  • q sounds like a “k”, but further back in the throat.
  • ṭ, ṣ, and ḍ all sound like normal but with the back of the tongue further to the back and top of the throat.  However, in Urdu, ṭ and ṣ just sound like “t” and “s”, and ḍ just sounds like “z”.
  • ǧ sounds like a soft “g” or “j” (or like in the word “division”).
  • ḫ sounds like the “ch” in Scottish “loch“.
  • ḥ sounds like the “ch” in Scottish “loch” but a little smoother.
  • ʿ sounds like a very soft, whispered “h” sound, if pronounced at all.

So, “Bayaḍ” can sound like either “bah-yahd'”, or “bayz”, “Nuṣraht al-ḫariǧ” will sound like “nus-raht al-khareej”, and so forth.  Note that some of these names are not proper Arabic, and moreover, just like in Western geomancy, there are dozens of names used across the Arabophone sphere.  These are just one set that I’ve found common in geomancy groups online, and are the ones I’m trying to memorize.  Most of the other variants used are just that: variants, which are easy enough to pick up on.

Also, note that I’m using the standard planetary order of the figures in the above chart, which is fairly common for Western geomancers.  While Western geomancy doesn’t really prescribe a particular order as the order of the figures, Arabic geomancy has a set number of particular orders of the figures that are used for various divinatory purposes.  Probably the most common and canonical one is the dairah-e-abdah, which uses a kind of binary ordering, as seen in the following diagram (to be read from right to left):

While it may not seem like it makes much sense for me to make a single blog post doing nothing more than transliterating and translating a single set of Arabic names into English, given my penchant for long-winded exploratory posts, this is still an important first step in increasing Western geomancers’ understanding of Arabic `ilm al-raml as well as Arabic practitioners’ understanding of Western geomancy.  After all, it’s hard to make a journey if the door is still shut, and this helps open the door for both sides.

Now, you’ll notice that I’ve also included a third set of names, which are Yoruba for the figures as used in the sacred divination of Ifá.  I’ve included them for reference (both my own and other scholars of geomancy, especially those with a historical or academic eye), but I want to make something clear that I’ve only mentioned in passing before: Ifá is not geomancy, and geomancy is not Ifá.  Stephen Skinner talks at length about how the art of Ifá came about historically in his geomancy book, but the short of the matter is this: as geomancy traveled along the Arabic trade routes from its (likely) origin in the northern Sahara westward to Morocco and Spain, eastward to Palestine and Greece, and southward through Africa as far as Madagascar, it also traveled to West Africa where it was adopted and adapted by the priests and lorekeepers of the cultures living there.

While geomancy largely retained the same form and (mostly) the same interpretations everywhere else, it underwent dramatic changes and adaptations to the native Yoruba and Fon cultures in what is now Nigeria and Benin to become Ifá.  The form of the figures and several crucial aspects of geomancy were retained, but pretty much the entirety of the art was rebuilt from the ground up and grew apart into its own entirely-unique system.  As a result, although we as geomancers might recognize that Ifá has sixteen figures in the same format we’d consider them to be figures, almost nothing of what we know about geomancy applies to Ifá, and no assumptions should be made regarding any similarities besides the superficial appearance thereof.  To say it another way, if European geomancy and Arabic `ilm al-raml are sisters who grew up in the same house but then left to go their separate ways in neighboring cities, then Ifá is a distant cousin who grew up in an entirely different part of the country with little contact with the rest of the family.

As an initiate in La Regla de Ocha Lukumi (aka Santería), which also has roots in Nigeria and matured alongside Ifá in Cuba, Ifá is something I’m constantly surrounded by, especially since I belong to an Ifá-centric house that respects, utilizes, and incorporates Ifá and its priests (the babalawos and oluwos) in our ceremonies and lives.  While I understand the historical origins of Ifá from geomancy, I also have to understand and respect the mythological origins and religious context of its practice as its own thing.  And, like Santería itself, it’s an initiated tradition, and non-initiates are not taught or permitted to learn the secrets of Ifá; for various reasons, I am not and will likely never become an initiate in Ifá.  Unlike many Western systems including geomancy, where formal initiation is not really a Thing outside magical lodges and certain master-student systems, this might be something of a shock to my readers, but as it is, there is only so much of the external parts of Ifá that I can learn, and even less that I’m willing to share to people, even to those in Santería itself.  I caution my readers to avoid getting too studious of Ifá without considering proper initiation and study under a legitimate and respected babalawo.

Likewise, a similar word of warning for those Western geomancers who aspire to study Arabic `ilm al-raml and vice versa.  Unlike geomancy and Ifá, geomancy and `ilm al-raml are much closer in method, meaning, and use, and many things are easily translatable between the two systems.  However, caution should still be taken, because although they’re very close sister traditions where there are more similarities than differences, they are still different traditions where the differences still matter.  It’s much like the difference between Western astrology and Indian jyotiṣa astrology: same origin, same symbols, slightly different techniques of interpretation and shades of meaning of those symbols.  While some things are translatable between geomancy and `ilm al-raml, not everything is, and the two systems should still be respected as two separate systems.  Experience and study of both systems will show the diligent geomancer what can be brought over with no effort, what must be adapted from one system to the other, and what is unique and proper to one system and not the other.  Though they share the same origin and great similarities, enough time, space, and work has passed that have made the two sciences grow apart into their own unique systems.  Respect that, study the differences, and experiment accordingly.

Also, my thanks go out to Masood Ali Thahim, one of the multilingual good guys in the `ilm al-raml group on Facebook, who helped me with the Arabic spelling and transliteration of the names of the figures as used in `ilm al-raml.

New Geomancy Ebook for Sale!

Between all the writing for the 49 Days of Definitions project I’ve got going on, I’ve also been able to finish up a new ebook for publication on my blog.  It’s up for sale on the Services page, but you can find the PayPal button below as well.  As before, this new ebook is is US$10 through PayPal.  (And just in time for the winter celebrations where everyone suddenly gets money and gifts!)

Pay for Lectura Geomantiae through PayPal

This new book is the “Lectura Geomantiae”, my translation of a 15th century work on astrological geomancy, applying the geomantic figures in the 12 houses of an astrological house chart.  It’s a fascinating look of geomancy as practiced by more common people than, say, Robert Fludd or Cornelius Agrippa, and it contains interesting bits of advice and some new quirks that haven’t been observed before.  I translated the text once before from Latin to English, but I went through it again and re-translated it to my satisfaction, as well as including a number of appendices and corrections that can help geomancers understand the text better.  The Lectura Geomantiae is a useful and easy-to-use resource for geomancers who are interested in the astrological side of geomancy.  It’s never been translated into English before I did, as far as I can tell; John Michael Greer plans to include it in his forthcoming “Geomancer’s Sourcebook”, but that project has been on hold for a long while.  Clearly, you should buy this now instead.

Also, if divination’s your thing, don’t forget that I also wrote an ebook on grammatomancy, a method of divination using Greek letters not unlike runes, which also incorporates astrological, qabbalistic, and numerological influences to form a complete and coherent system of occult knowledge.  That’s also available up on the Services page, too!

Also, I’ve noticed that I’m starting to get some more email about questions, either about general occult issues or about specific things on commissions and services.  To make things easy, please use the new Contact page to send me an email straight through the blog.