Advice for Learning a Totally Foreign System

I try to be an avid reader in my copious spare time, and I don’t mean with my ever-expanding RSS feed that aggregates occult, religious, pagan, current event, and the occasional comic blog.  My living room at home could always use more bookshelves, and of the three people in my house, I’m the one supplying over 95% of the books, because of course magicians have books.  Not all of them are on astrology, divination, conjuration, Hermeticism, or goetia, though.  I have a strong penchant for works of the realm of pure imagination, which is to say fiction books.

One of my favorite fiction books ever, and one I highly recommend anyone interested in the brand of magic I pursue, is Celestial Matters by Richard Garfinkle.  It appears to be out of print, but you can still find plenty of good used copies anywhere online.  Basically, the premise of the book is this: what if the world we lived in obeyed Aristotelian physics, the cosmos was geocentric with actual crystalline spheres of the planets nesting around us, and history took a drastically different turn during the reign of Alexander the Great that continued the supremacy of Athens and Sparta across the Western world for another millennium?  It’s a fantastic exercise in exploring an alternative reality and an alternative history all at once, told in the style of a first-person Homeric epic.  Besides its good story and good world-building (of which Richard Garfinkle is an expert, I claim), this is one of the essential books any Hermeticist should read at least once.

However, it’s not all about alchemy and astrology and celestial navigation, since the empire of the Delian League isn’t the only contender for world domination.  There’s also the Middle Kingdom, which some of you may recognize as a translation of 中國, referring to China, and they have their own notions of how the world works that doesn’t obey the laws of Aristotle and the alchemists.  The Delian League can’t for the life of them figure out how Middler technology works with its weird energy flows, nor can the Middle Kingdom figure out the senselessness of Delian alchemy and science.  This goes right down to some of their fundamental notions of science and philosophy that shape their entire worldview, such as the connection between science and medicine.  The Athenian Academic Aias, at one point, interrogates the rural Middler Dr. Zi about what Aias perceives to be highly advanced Middler spy communication technology:

“Why does an ordinary doctor know about this?” I asked.

“Medicine is the foundation of science.” he said in the same mechanical way I might recite Aristotle’s laws of motion.

I had seen that sentence in several texts on Taoist science but had never believed they meant it.  To our science, medicine was an offshoot of zeology, the study of life, and anthropology, the study of man.  No Academic could believe that such a minor offshoot subject could be the cornerstone from which an understanding of the world could be built. (page 158)

Later, after some fairly big conflict in the story, Aias interrogates the Taoist scientist Phan, sent on a death mission to kill Aias and sabotage his mission, about how Phan can know so much about medicine:

“Are you a doctor?” I said, recalling Dr. Zi’s peculiar claim of a connection between the whole of Middler science and their medicine.

Phan’s face wrinkled in contempt. “Certainly not.”

“Then how will you cure him?”

He switched to ‘Ellenic. “I know medicine.”

“But you said you weren’t a doctor,” I said in ‘Unan.

Phan’s black eyes lit with a sudden understanding. “A doctor only knows medicine.  A scientist must go beyond that simple beginning.  Medicine is the foundation stone of alchemy, and alchemy the foundation stone of science.” (page 256)

I see this kind of fundamental difficulty in trying to understand different occult systems replete throughout modern occulture.  We take certain fundamental axioms as truly universal and, worse, for granted based on the system we find our intellectual “home” in, and when we try to apply them to other systems that don’t share those axioms, we run into wall after wall after insurmountable wall.  Trying to apply a Celtic understanding of the world, for instance, to Egyptian metaphysics tries to combine two radically different systems that are based upon different rules and develop them differently into two radically different cosmologies.  It’s not impossible to truly learn a different system, as I’ve mentioned before several times over, but it’s hard, because we essentially have to unlearn everything and start from the ground up in a totally new land that we’re unfamiliar with.  It’s especially hard because we’re always tempted to bring a little of what we’re used to to this new land, and it often has no place right out of the box.

That said, I’ve found an easier way to go about learning a new system, and Aias describes how he became the first Academic from the Delian League to ever understand Middler science:

“We seem to be having a language problem,” I said to Phan.  “Let us start from first principles.  You know the atomic theory, of course.”

“I have seen that phrase in your books, but I have never understood it.”

“Atomic theory says that everything in the terrestrial world is made of minute pieces of earth, air, fire, and water. The material properties of an object can be changed by modifying the amount of each element it contains.”

Phan shook is head. “Anything can be in a state of earth, air, fire, water, or wood,” he said. “The ten thousand things are changed into one another by the natural flow of transformation.”

We continued to argue about basics for half an hour.  I explained that matter and form were fundamental to the behavior of objects.  He declared them to be accidents, saying that the flow and transformation of things lay at the heart of all science.  At the end of that time we had found no common ground, but we were both very thirsty… (page 250)

“I need to know more about your science,” I said to Phan.

“Tell me how to teach you,” he said.  There was a quiet glow in his dark eyes and something lay on his shoulders that made his seventy-year-old frame look younger and stronger. “If you can learn to learn, then perhaps I can as well.”

“What do you mean?” I said.

“I need to know your science, also,” he said, and his eyes grew brighter. “But where do we begin?”

“At the weakest point in the barrier between us,” I said.  “The walls of theory are too high; let us start with practice.  Show me your equipment.  Pretend that I am not a scientist. Pretend that I am some ignorant bureaucrat who wants an explanation of your work so he can make out reports.”

The old man smiled and bowed. “Will you do the same for me?”

“Of course.”

Over the next week, Phan and I gave each other basic introductions to the paraphernalia of our sciences.  I showed him how we used rare and dense air to create forced motion, and he showed me how gold, silver, and cinnabar placed along Xi flow could modify or control natural motion. Slowly, the dark cavern in my heart began to grow bright with a second vision of the universe, one of change and flow instead of matter and form. And as the light of practical work grew from a flickering candle to a solar beacon, it illuminated the bewildering Taoist texts I had studied over the years but had gained nothing from. (page 299)

We don’t call it the Study.

We don’t call it the Theory.

We don’t call it the Lesson.

We call it the Work, because we have to make it work.  Theory, study, and lessons aren’t enough; they’re all well and good in the abstract, but unless you can pull those things down and apply them in the real world, they get locked up in an isolated ivory tower, and they lock you up with it.

In my experience, the best way to understand how a different tradition works is to go out and see what it does.  Not what it believes or what it claims to exist, but actually what it does.  It’s the Work, the hands-on practical use and application of the tradition, that shows what it does and how it does it.  I mean, consider what the ancestors of our ancestors were doing when they first stumbled upon this stuff.  They had no preexisting theories, no cosmologies; they had the land around them and shit happening because of unseen forces.  They acted in a certain way, and the unseen forces and the land reacted in a certain manner.  It was only after they started codifying and assembling what they learned did the theories come around, and based on what each tribe of ancestors thought was most important (warmth from snow, harvesting enough fish, protection from tornadoes, warding off plague, etc.), they would have focused on different things to do, and thus the theories they developed would have been different.

Thus far in my occult life, I’ve come in contact with Santería, Palo, Quimbanda, Aztec and Mayan stuff, Celtic stuff (both neopagan and reconstructionist), Ásatrú, Thelema, esoteric Judaism, and so many other traditions both modern and ancestral.  No, they’re not all compatible to practice side-by-side.  No, they don’t agree on why the world works or what a particular entity is or whether a particular thing is ruled by a class of spirits.  No, they don’t all think the same things are important.  And you know what?  That’s all entirely okay, because what they all do is manage the bullshit we have in life.  They all manage to achieve particular ends using a particular set of techniques, and that’s what we see first and that’s what we continue with when we learn a new system.  Just because they have different and often-conflicting ways to describe the cosmos doesn’t mean they’re not internally coherent within their own individual traditions.

Forget the theory and cosmology and cosmogony; all that will come with time.  If you never saw something fall to the ground, why would you believe gravity to exist?  If you never had to undergo a shortage of healthy and safe food, why would you believe food poisoning or famine in another country to exist?  Humans have to see to believe, and we like hands-on stuff the best to drive the strongest points home.  Once we figure out what can happen, we can eventually puzzle out why it happens based on what we know and the hypotheses and explanations we devise that we can put to further testing.

But even then, it all comes down to Work, and when explaining your work, never start with “why”.  Ask “what” or “how”.  What are the tools you use?  How would you describe the effect a particular tool has when used in a particular way?  What are the forces you call upon?  What are their names?  How do they interrelate and interact?  How do you gain confirmation that something works?  How do you gain information about something you don’t know yet?  What do you need to achieve a particular end?

Remember: without work, you’re not doing the Work.  See the work that others do to understand their Work.

Learning the Astragalomantic Oracular Verses

The way that astragalomancy works is pretty simple; Kostas Dervenis in his Oracle Bones Divination calls it the “Greek I Ching”, noting the similarity of the method.  Basically, what you do is you roll five knucklebones, or astragaloi, and you note the sides that come up.  The astragaloi act like four-sided dice, and each of the 56 different rolls you get (the order doesn’t matter) indicates a different outcome.  Each roll is associated with a particular godname and a matching oracular verse, not unlike grammatomancy (the methods are basically the same).  So, really, there’s little room for interpretation: roll the astragaloi, read the corresponding verse, and that’s your answer.  Expanding and meditating on the verse as it relates to the situation or the query is often necessary, but there’s little other inspiration to be had here, which is just as well.  I’m sure I can fit some more mystical aspects into it later, of course, but that’s later once I learn all the verses.

It’s learning the verses, however, that’s proving something of a struggle for me.  Each verse is four or five lines long, and there are 56 different verses.  Learning the one-line verses associated with the 24 letters of the Greek alphabet took a bit of time on its own, but that’s child’s play in comparison to this.  My memory may be good, but it’s not that good to just up and memorize a book’s worth of divination.  I want to be able, eventually, to pull out my astragaloi whenever needed and on the spot do a reading with them, which may mean that I won’t have a book of verses with me at any given moment, so I want to memorize them and know them by heart.  Getting there is hard, so I’m trying out different ways of learning them and comparing what I’ve done with other methods.

Geomancy, for instance, was easy because each set of meanings could be tied to a graphical form, the geomantic figure composed of four lines of one or two dots in each line.  Grammatomancy was easy because I had the 24 Greek letters as graphical forms to link their meanings and verses to, as well as the fact that the alphabet itself formed an index and acronym for the verses themselves (at least in Greek).  And, while I don’t know Tarot half as well as I probably should as a Hermetic magician, learning the symbolism could easily be done by association with the pretty pictures of the cards themselves (if I even bother to go that route, since the pictures lend themselves well to impromptu interpretation as they already are).    These all use some sort of graphical image as a symbol to which can be linked a referent, the verse or meaning; my mind plays well with these instead of just straight-up words or numbers.

Astragalomancy, however, is different; I’m just getting a set of numbers, a numeric ID, that gives me a particular verse and meaning.  It’s a different beast, and the lack of a distinct symbol bothers me.  The ID doesn’t register to my mind as a graphical image or a symbol in the same way a geomantic figure does, especially given the different forms it can take.  Consider the throw where you get two khion (1) throws, a hyption (3), a pranēs (4), and a kōon (6).  While I might write this down as 11346, there are 60 different permutations of this ID.  Add to it, the original sources don’t tend to list the numbers in a simple manner, so the actual ID of this is 43611 in the book!  While each verse begins with a description of the throw (in this case, “one four, one three, one six, and two ones: …”), that’s not helpful without me just up and memorizing all the verses by heart and running through them one by one until I get to the one I need, or until I get to the point where automatic recital of each verse is possible just from the start of each one (and, moreover, how each first line starts).  That takes time, and I’m trying to get up to speed as fast as possible with this.

Flashcards help, though, and I was able to link the sums of the throws to the Greek letters (one of the ways to do grammatomancy with astragaloi) in a day with this method.  For this, the online service Quizlet is amazing, and if you’re so interested, you can check out the sets of flashcards I’ve made for your own study.  Linking the throws to the letters involves summing up the sides of the astragaloi, however, and just observing the throws themselves isn’t a link I can make directly to the Greek letter just yet.  Over time, perhaps, as I regularly use the astragaloi it can happen, but I need that intermediate step first that detaches the throw to the Greek letter directly.  However, the way Quizlet works, you need to type in the answer to a given prompt more-or-less directly, and while it may be a useful activity for me to go through all the oracles themselves and make a one- or two-word summation of every verse, I haven’t gotten around to doing that just yet.  So, for me, the first step is to learn the throws of the astragaloi and how they associate with the different gods associated with each throw.

Still, that alone is difficult without some sort of pattern or method, and then I realized that I have a method for this.  Every software engineer is taught this method of “divide and conquer” (or, in Greek, διαίρει καὶ βασίλευε, diairei kai basileue), where you take a large problem and divide it up into smaller chunks that can more easily be solved, linking them all together in the end once they’re all good to go.  Looking at the astragalomantic throws, I realized that I can reorder the throws into a pattern that’s more numerically pleasing where there are 18 groups of 3 or 4 throws each, based partially on the Roman game of tali or knucklebones.  I group some of the smaller groups into larger ones based on the abstract number pattern linking them together:

  • Dogs and Vultures (all throws the same number, four possible throws)  e.g. 11111, 33333
  • Iacti Veneris + 1 (all four sides represented, four possible throws) e.g. 11346, 13446
  • 4X 1Y (four throws one side and last throw another, 12 possible throws with four groups of three based on X) e.g. 11113, 46666
  • 3X 2Y (three throws one side and two throws another, 12 possible throws with four groups of three based on X) e.g. 33444, 33666
  • 3X 1Y 1Z (three throws one side and two throws different, 12 possible throws with four groups of three based on X) e.g. 11134, 34446
  • 2X 2Y 1Z (two throws one side and two throws another and last throw another, 12 possible throws with four groups of three based on Z) e.g. 34466, 13344

Sure, it’s not exactly a traditional arrangement of the throws or a traditional way of enumerating them, but it works for me.  Every day I’ll study one or two more groups, learning what the pattern is and the throws of a similar pattern with different numbers, adding in the new rows to a Quizlet flashcard quiz and practicing it every hour or so until I build myself up enough to tackle the whole lot of 56 throws.  All in all, this isn’t a bad way to learn the basic associations of throws with the gods, and given my normal speed of memorization and learning, it’ll take about two or three weeks to learn all the associations of throws and gods comfortably enough that I can identify them at a glance.

Once I get the memorization of throws and gods down, and (if I deem it worthwhile) the memorization of the canonical order of the gods, then it’ll be time to link the association of throws and oracles down.  However, I plan on using the god-associations as a halfway point, so that I’ll actually be linking the oracle to the god and the god to the throw.  Thus, by recalling the god as a symbol, I can recall the oracle to which the symbol refers.  Learning each oracle will take more time than learning the god, since each verse also has to be memorized.  That said, I can speed up the process by learning the gist of each oracle first, then going back to learning the verses themselves, but we’ll see how I feel about that.  Given this, I expect it to take me two months or so of study and practice to memorize the verses, both by Quizlet and by constant use of the oracle to get me used to throwing the bones literally instead of just looking at flashcards.

How about you?  How do you learn a large block of information in a short period of time?  Are there any tips or tricks for memorization or recalling large amounts of information at once?

Hail, Saint Isidore of Seville!

Although a lot of my practice in recent weeks has been focusing on working with saints, usually the holy archangels or the good Saint Cyprian of Antioch, there’s another saint that I want to bring up today on this blessed Friday.  First, it’s the monthly Hermaia, being the fourth day of the lunar month, so it’s fitting that this day coincides with the feast day of the Catholic saint, Isidore of Seville, whose feast day is April 4.  He’s not one of the more popular saints, but he’s definitely important to me and my work.  Given that he wrote what is basically the first encyclopedia, he’s usually associated with mass stores of knowledge and data, which is why he’s given patronage over students generally and anything dealing with computers: IT technicians, programmers, software engineers, computer users, computers themselves, and the Internet.  (Yes, the Internet.)

Saint Isidore of Seville

Saint Isidore of Seville was born in 560 CE in southeastern Spain to a family of Roman and Visigothic ancestry, high up in society and related to Visigothic royalty. Well-educated, Isidore became bishop at around 40 years of age, and incorporated both Roman, Visigothic, and Hispanic cultures into his see, and helped to conquer several sects of heretical Christians as well as tame barbarism in the general peoples.  In addition to helping culture his own people, he also pronounced anathema against any ecclesiastic who would molest monasteries or, notably, children (something both the modern Church and modern paganism should heed, especially given recent news).  Happily (or perhaps boringly), St. Isidore died on his own after serving 32 years as archbishop of Seville, unmartyred or killed.

Among his most notable works is that of the Etymologiae, or “Origins”, an encyclopedia that collected all that classical education had to offer at the close of the late classical and antique periods.  To say that this was a lot of information was an understatement; the Etymologiae had sections on grammar and language, mathematics, medicine, law, angelology and theology, animals, physics, geography, metallurgy, agriculture, tools, domestic matters, and many more.  The work encompassed twenty books in all, each dedicated to a specific topic.  One especially notable exemplar of this work is the Codex Gigas, the world’s largest medieval manuscript, consisting of 620 36″×20″ pages, consisting of the Vulgate Bible, several books of history, the entirety of the Etymologiae, several medical works, magical information, and many other sections.  One legend has it that a monk, sentenced to death by being walled up alive, wrote the entire book with the aid of the Devil in a single night; as gratitude, the author drew a large illustration of the Devil in the book, hence the name of the codex.

Saint Isidore, as many other saints do, has many attributes associated with him, but his two most important ones are bees and books.  Bees, as well as swarms of bees and beehives, have always been seen as a symbol of industriousness and labor, as well as community, cooperation, and connection between individuals for a greater purpose.  Books, of course, as well as pens are notable for St. Isidore, given his prodigious writing projects.  It’s clear to those with a basic grasp of symbolism what St. Isidore stands for: work, study, networking, and getting things done, especially when it comes to matters of intellect, education, and mental power.  Fittingly, St. Isidore is good for all types of students and academics, from graduate researchers to grade school pupils.

But it’s his connection to one of the first encyclopedias that he’s given patronage over computers and the Internet.  As I mentioned way, way, way, way long ago in my XaTuring days, I don’t believe computers are forever, nor will we have the economic or fuel resources to maintain things like this forever; server farms, after all, take an extraordinary amount of energy, and without someone “thinking of something to fix it”, it’s an amazing aspect of our current age that we can maintain these types of connections and networks.  By allowing people to chat instantly from all over the world, to storing and processing more data in a single short night than humanity was able to collect in a thousand years, to creating massive troves of porn and warez for us to enjoy.  If nothing else, the Internet is the modern human beehive and collaborative supercollective, and it’s more than fair to say that many inventions and scientific research would not be possible without this type of connection and network.

Besides, there’s another more snarky reason why St. Isidore might be patron over the Internet.  As many of my readers realized, a few days past was April Fools Day, or as I like to call it, “Trust Nothing and Trust Nobody Day”.  Virtually anything on the Internet that day is wrong, but then, most stuff on the Internet is wrong anyway, being passed mimetically from mouth to mouth or keyboard to keyboard, like that meme that goes around this time every year now claiming that the holiday Easter comes from the ancient goddess Ishtar (which is completely wrong).  Likewise, for all his studies and scholarship, St. Isidore was limited in only what he could find out, which leads to studies such as that of spontaneous generation.  For instance, he claims that “many creatures go through a natural change and by decay pass into different forms, as bees by the decaying flesh of calves, as beetles from horses, locusts from mules, scorpions from crabs”.  Obviously not true, but then, that’s information for you.  Just as the Internet can be a neverending repository of all information, wrong and right, so too is the work of Isidore of Seville, but it can’t be faulted against him.  For all his incorrect facts, he helped spur further research and study to correct what was wrong, just as people on the Internet do all the time.

One modern prayer to Saint Isidore in his patronage over the Internet might be worth considering, especially for those who browse comments on forums, YouTube, and the like:

Almighty and eternal God, who has created us in Thy image, and hast bidden us to seek after all that is good, true, and beautiful, especially in the divine person of thy only-begotten Son, our Lord Jesus Christ, grant, we beseech Thee, that through the intercession of Saint Isidore, bishop and doctor, during our journeys through the Internet we will direct our hands and eyes only to that which is pleasing to Thee and treat with charity and patience all those souls whom we encounter.  Through Jesus Christ our Lord, amen.

A more traditional prayer attributed to Saint Isidore of Seville goes like this:

Here we are before thee, O Holy Ghost.
We feel the burden of our infirmities, but we are united all together in Thy name:
come to us, help us, enter into our hearts:
teach us what we should do, the path to follow,
do for us what Thou askest us to do.
Be the only one to propose and guide our decisions,
because only Thou, with the Father and the Son,
hast a name that is glorious and holy.
Do not allow us to offend justice,
Thou, who lovest order and peace,
Let not ignorance lead us astray,
Let not human sympathy bias us,
Do not let people or office influence us.
Keep us intimately close to Thee with the gift of Thy Grace,
so that we may be only one thing with Thee,
and nothing may separate us from the Truth.
Gathered in Thy Holy Name, may we be good and firm,
so that all we do may be in one accord with Thee,
awaiting that the faithful fulfillment of our duty
may lead us to the eternal good. Amen.

So, dear readers, if you’ve been having problems with studying for spring midterms or finals, whether you need extra help in getting your computer right, or whether you want an extra pair of eyes watching out for you to make sure you don’t share something on Facebook that’s cute and mind-numbingly stupid, you might want to light a candle and offer a class of water to this good saint today.