Unlocking the Observatory: The Life and Times of Humanity

Where were we? We’re in the middle of discussing the obscure Telescope of Zoroaster (ZT), a manual of divination and spirituality originally published in French in 1796 (FZT) at the close of the French Revolution, which was later translated into German in 1797 (GZT) and then again in an abridged form as part of Johann Scheible’s 1846 Das Kloster (vol. 3, part II, chapter VII) (KZT), with Scheible’s work then translated into English in 2013 as released by Ouroboros Press (OZT).  Although OZT is how most people nowadays tend to encounter this system, I put out my own English translation of FZT out a bit ago as part of my research, and while that translation was just part of the work I’ve been up to, there’s so much more to review, consider, and discover when it comes to this fascinating form of divination.  Last time, we talked about other aspects of divinatory practice we can clean from Karl Kern’s 1933 book on ZT. If you need a refresher on what we talked about last time, go read the last post!

※ For those following along with their own copy of ZT (get yours here!), the relevant chapters from ZT are the “Fifth Step” and “Third Supplement”.

Something I’ve mentioned a few times now, and which some of my readers have picked up on otherwise, is that ZT doesn’t just provide a divination system.  Sure, that is the focus of the text itself being an introductory manual to the core fundamental aspects of the art, but the actual scope of ZT is much broader than just a form of numerological sortilege with an astrological flair.

Consider Karl Kern’s case study of a Great Mirror composed for a middle-aged man; if you remember, around the edge of the Mirror in the outer belt, he labeled the years of life for each house, each house being one “luster”, or a period of five years.

I brought this up originally when we talked about the Great Dial and how the outer belt is also called the “lustral belt” when talking about the Great Dial in concentric movement, which also ties into how ZT uses the signs of the Zodiac to talk about different phases of life.  We even see this in the list of house significations when we talked about the houses of the Great Mirror, too, starting with house 20.  I’ve bolded the explicit phase-of-life bits in the list below, but note how the whole of the outer (zodiacal) belt of the Great Mirror kinda illustrates an ideal life, from birth to ascendance to descendance to death:

  1. Birth, candor, inaction.
  2. Infancy, playfulness or mischief.
  3. Puberty, turbulence, quarrels or squabbles.
  4. Adolescence, sympathy.
  5. Intense or violent passions and senses.
  6. Debauchery, infidelity.
  7. Tenacious passions, constancy.
  8. Celibacy, marital fidelity.
  9. Moral perfection, maturity.
  10. Prudence or caution, good philosophy.
  11. Bad faith, decline.
  12. Illicit and perilous fortunes.
  13. Travel, hectic life.
  14. Inconstancy, wasted or lost time.
  15. Ancestors, old age.
  16. Apathy, waning of fortune.
  17. Infirmity, indigence.
  18. Ruin, death.

At this point in our exploration of ZT, we have touched on almost every chapter in some way or another except for the “Fifth Step”.  This is positioned between the “Fourth Step” (which talks about the Great Mirror, i.e. the large hexangular figure read in the astronomical regime, as a whole and how to read it according to its tiles and ideal subfigures) and the “Sixth Step” (which talks about the Great Dial, i.e. the large hexangular figure read in the temporal regime).  Linking the two together is how the two consider the outer band to be effectively the same between them: in the Great Mirror, the outer band is zodiacal, while in the Great Dial, it’s lustral—but for ZT, the two are effectively the same thing.

I’ve mentioned before how ZT has lots of acrimony towards all other forms of divination, with chiromancy and geomancy and cartomancy all getting explicit mentions, but none gets more condemnation than astrology.  While astrology has its origins in the Great Cabala of ZT, it was still astrologers who corrupted and degraded it into being something that only charlatans nowadays use to ensnare people with mystical mumbo-jumbo.  All the same, the truth preserved by the Great Cabala still lives on, and can be accessed all the same by those who know what to look for and how to access it.  ZT is just one such approach, and in the “Fifth Step”, ZT focuses on correcting how we should understand the Zodiac.  ZT (and, by extension, the rest of the Great Cabala) makes use of the same twelve signs of the Zodiac as ever, and in the same order, but that’s basically where the similarities end.  Instead of being an invention of the ancient Babylonians, ZT claims that the invention of the Zodiac is to be given to Zoroaster instead, and is representative of “the essence of the wisdom of this divine Legislator that is his Cabala”.

In astrology, the signs of the Zodiac are the twelve equal divisions of the ecliptic, the path that the Sun (and, similarly though to slightly different angles, all the rest of the planets) traces in the sky against the background of the fixed stars.  As the planets move through the signs up there, they indicate different things to happen in our lives down here.  At least for Western astrology, the signs of the Zodiac start with the first degree of Aries aligned to the eastern point of the ecliptic, the intersection of the ecliptic with the celestial equator where the Sun’s path enters northern declinations.  At this point, the so-called “vernal equinox”, astrological spring (for the northern hemisphere of the Earth) is said to begin.  This is why the zodiacal system used in Western astrology is called a “tropical zodiac”, coming from the Greek word τρόπος trópos “turning”, because the signs of the Zodiac are tied to the turning-points of the ecliptic (the intersections of the ecliptic with the celestial equator making the equinoxes, or the maximum/minimum points of the ecliptic making the solstices).

To all of that, ZT says “nah”:

We make the farmer’s year (like the year of the ancient Romans) begin with Aries, which also opens our astronomical spring. In the same way the Great Cabala subordinates to Aries the beginning of the existence of humanity, but it does not place, like our calendars, Aries in the springy and vivacious orbit of Mars. See Plate III: it pushes this sign back into the wintry and funereal orbit of Saturn, to the last box in the orbit of Saturn (box 20) in the zodiacal zone, immediately following the seat of death (box 37). This emblem, as philosophical as it is true, recalls that the moment when life begins also touches nihility, and that the human creature, already breathing but enjoying no physical faculties or moral privileges, must, for some time, remain suspended between life and death—in the uncertainty of its preservation—and be held in the bonds of weakness. Saturn is still there to devour his children.

For ZT and its Great Cabala, rather than the signs of the Zodiac dictating anything about our lives, it is rather our lives that dictate what the Zodiac is and should be:

The profoundly philosophical spirit of a production that is claimed to go back to Zoroaster, and to be only an essence of the wisdom of this divine Legislator that is his Cabala, should rather subordinate the signs of the Zodiac to the different periods of human life. On this footing, according to the distribution which we will make known, the object of the Great Cabala is perfectly fulfilled.

What ZT is saying is that the Zodiac is not a means by which we can predict things recklessly with the stars as like some sortilege of random positions of planets, but rather that we can (and should) use the Zodiac as a means to understand the flow of human life in terms of human life itself.  It is this goal—the understanding of human life—that ZT claims here to be the “object of the Great Cabala”, a sort of anthroposophy of its own, where by coming to know oneself one can more effectively attune themselves to the harmony of the spiritual cosmos.

To this end, what ZT does is it breaks life out into six overall periods, as demonstrated by the houses on the Great Mirror.  Each period is represented by one of the edges of the Great Mirror, proceeding counterclockwise starting with Aries in house 20 and lasting three houses each.  Thus, each period starts with a house assigned to one of the fire or air signs of the Zodiac, and ends with a corner house on the Mirror.

In short, the six periods of life are:

  1. Childhood
    1. Houses 20, 21, 22
    2. Aries and Taurus
    3. Starts in the orbit of Saturn, ends in the orbit of Mars
  2. Youth
    1. Houses 23, 24, 25
    2. Gemini and Cancer
    3. Starts in the orbit of Mars, ends in the orbit of Venus
    4. Period most susceptible to the harm of Senamira
  3. Maturity
    1. Houses 26, 27, 28
    2. Leo and Virgo
    3. Starts in the orbit of Venus, ends in the orbit of Jupiter
  4. Adulthood
    1. Houses 29, 30, 31
    2. Libra and Scorpio
    3. Starts in the orbit of Jupiter, ends in the orbit of Mercury
  5. Old age
    1. Houses 32, 33, 34
    2. Sagittarius and Capricorn
    3. Starts in the orbit of Mercury, ends in the orbit of the Moon
    4. Period most inclined to the influence of Sisamoro
  6. Senility
    1. Houses 35, 36, 37
    2. Aquarius and Pisces
    3. Starts in the orbit of the Moon, ends in the orbit of Saturn

ZT goes on to explain what each period is like, relying on the symbolism of the signs of the Zodiac (sometimes in innovative ways unique to how they’re positioned on the Great Mirror) and on the orbits of the planets that one moves through as one goes from period to period.  What is interesting to note is how ZT explicitly calls out the second period as being especially susceptible to the damaging, harmful influence of Senamira, the Evil Principle, even quoting part of 1 Peter 5:8 to illustrate its point: “Be alert and sober of mind; for your enemy the Devil prowls around like a roaring lion looking for someone to devour.”

This is how ZT describes the six periods of life:

First Period
We already noted the birth of the human in box 20 (Aries), next to the whirlwind of Death (box 37). We now see them emerging from the cold and gloomy orbit of Saturn passing…through Taurus into the orbit of Mars, the planet of heat and vigor. The child grows there; their moral soul develops there. By completing…box 22, they have completely reached the age of puberty, and the first period of life is finished.

Second Period
Early in the igneous orbit of Mars, the passions of existing were kindled…they enjoy an intoxicating existence that is perfumed above all by the sensuous breath of Erosia, the most magical of the Intelligences and the most lavish of true delights. But, below a road strewn with flowers, Senamira erodes and gnaws away tamquam leo rugiens, circuitu quærens quem devoret. Happy are they who can travel through candid Gemini and burning Cancer without having succumbed to the tireless efforts of their own passions. These are themselves this Protean Senamira, caressing and corroding by turns; but they manage to evade such tricks and repel such attacks if they are on their guard, and especially if they have the heavenly support of Sisamoro who does not permit themselves to be called upon in vain. Box 25 closes out one’s fiery youth and the second period of life.

Third Period
Here begins the age of energy and virtue, where one acquires all their development, so well characterized here by Leo and Virgo. They must find themselves skilled in everything that can be fulfilled into perfection. Arriving at box 28, they have become, without a doubt, everything they could aspire to be, or at least everything is well-prepared for the infallible fulfillment of reasonable wishes. They are at the apex of the mountain, they enjoy the richest period of their existence—if they have not previously abused it. This ends the third period, that of maturity.

Fourth Period
Woe to the one who has not yet contemplated their knowledge, consolidated their fortune, and confirmed their considerations to which they agreed to aspire; woe to the one who has not yet amassed enough, for they will remain poor in all that they have neglected to acquire. If one is not worthy to hold the Balance (Libra) where their experience should enable them to appreciate everything, then it is they  themselves who will be weighed, and if they are not worthy or if they are of bad character, then public blame will punish them for the bad use they have made of their best years. They will then only have the perilous means that intrigue and illicit speculation take from stupidity; for, on leaving the pure and luminous domain of Algaé, they have fallen into the mists and labyrinth of Panurgio. There easily strays whoever does not bring with faith the lantern and thread of Wisdom; therein lies the creeping restlessness, shame, and remorse, so well-figured by Scorpio, stinging and poisoning himself. There, in other words, remain ready all the punishments that the deceiver and disturber of social order deserve. Such is the insidious orbit of Panurgio, the plot of the scoundrel, while the honest person traverses it without fear of anything and continues instead to collect the fruit of their previous tiresome efforts. Such a one legitimately reaps where others can only pillage at the risk of their honor and lives. Summer has ended during the last luster of this period. Leaving box 31…gives the signal for the withering away of moral and physical forces, and now one enters the time of decrepitude.

Fifth Period
Even should the resilience of body be weakened, the sharpness of understanding blunted, and industry threaten to slowly languish, at least one has made peace with their passions, for they now cease to torment them unless they allow themselves to be overcome by avarice or intemperance. They might tire themselves out from the pursuit of material goods, like the Hunter (Sagittarius) who chases doubtful prey all day, or they might throw themselves into stupefaction under the regime of crass Seleno, whose lunar orbit opens by way of the filthy stable of Capricorn. But if one is pure and remain master of themselves, they will not participate in the contagion of these orbits; rather, they will feel the rays warmed by the beneficences of Sisamoro, who shines in full upon this road, purifies it, and spreads the foretaste of bliss which the blameless person experiences, one who is delirious about nothing they leave behind, their wish being nothing else than for a new and better order of things. At the end of this fifth period, the person, having grown old, feels a cold hand bend them and force them to pass through the narrow gate of senility. With this…ends the fifth fragment of life.

Sixth and Final Period
Like all those they have already passed through, the last door has closed on them, too. Thrown onto a dark, barren, and icy road, the person yet drags themselves along for a long time, constantly fighting against the infirmities expressed by the frosts of Aquarius. Finally, on the threshold of the funereal domain of Lethophoro, they find a small boat—their tomb—and there lies down to sleep, overwhelmed and exhausted, putting themselves at the mercy of the black waves of Lethe, designated by Pisces. Cradled by such waves, whether smoothly or stormily, they finally arrive at the all-consuming harbor where each being must come to strip themselves of their material elements. Thus ends, in box 37, the sixth and last period of life.

As a note on that last period, it’s now clear where the Intelligence of Saturn gets the name “Lethophoro”; although a bad construction of what should rightfully be Ληθηφορος Lēthēphoros, the meaning here isn’t so much “forgetting-inducer” as it is “he who bears one to Lethe“.

When we look at the overall “wheel of life” that ZT draws out for us along the outer belt of the Great Mirror, we can consider it kinda like the image of the Wheel of Fortune.  The only thing is that the “bottom” that we start at is the leftmost point in the orbit of Saturn, that liminal period between life and death, and the “top” is the opposite rightmost point in the orbit of Jupiter, the height of our joy and satisfaction in all things.  Consider, after all, how the Great Mirror doesn’t have a corner at the top or bottom of its design, but rather has flat edges; for this reason, we cannot consider the second and fifth periods of life to be “turning points”, but rather periods of increase and decrease, respectively.  This is why ZT makes a note of how the second period is most dangerous because it’s closest to the influence of Senamira: the time of development is rough, and it’s during this period that patterns are set up for the rest of one’s life, so any bad habits that get established now can threaten one’s well-being later in long-lasting ways.  Likewise, the fifth period is closest to the influence is Sisamoro; while one can always lose one’s balance, this is the period of life where one generally begins to turn more inward and clear-minded as worldly concerns begin to fall away and fade into the background (ideally, at least).

It’s a neat system, I have to admit, and it kinda reminds me of a sixfold system of reckoning seasonal changes in mid-latitude oceanic areas (like where I live), but isn’t unlike other six-season systems, either:

  1. Prevernal (early spring)
  2. Vernal (spring)
  3. Estival (high summer)
  4. Serotinal (late summer)
  5. Autumnal (fall)
  6. Hibernal (winer)

So, ZT breaks up a human life into six periods, and consider each period to last three “houses”.  It is in this light that ZT establishes the “luster” (or “lustral period”), where every luster is five years, leading to each period of life lasting 15 years long (because 3 lusters × 5 years/luster = 15 years).  Because of this, a maximum human lifespan is 6 periods × 3 lusters/period × 5 years/luster = 90 years—at least back in the days when humans were “of better stock and more economical in their facilities”, but nowadays, most people don’t live to see past their fifth period (15 lusters, 75 years).  This is all easy and straightforward enough, I suppose, but the issue is that this only really applies for men, where every luster is worth five years flat.  In ZT’s system, the amount of years a luster consists of differs for women based on their age: while a woman goes through the same six periods of life as men do, during the first four periods a luster is only four years long, while during the last two periods a luster is seven years long.  In the end, both lustral systems yield a total of 90 years, but women effectively “age” faster than men do at first: at the end of the fourth period, men are at 60 years, while women are at 48.

Period Man Woman
Lustrality Ages Lustrality Ages
1 5 0—15 4 0–12
2 5 15—30 4 12—24
3 5 30—45 4 24—36
4 5 45—60 4 36—48
5 5 60—75 7 48—69
6 5 75—90 7 69—90

ZT sets up this system to account for menopause, which roughly occurs at or a little after age 48, which is (as ZT says) “when Nature ceases to regard her as useful for her main purpose, and therefore is the true point at which her decrepitude begins”.  To rub some more salt in the womb wound, ZT laments:

How much the woman, to whom the social order has the injustice to refuse most of the consolations accorded to men in their respective advanced ages, must find the decline of her premature winter long and painful if she must endure it until decrepitude. Such is an extremity a thousand times more deadly than death for the degraded being who has not lost the memory of the altars erected to her during the magical reign of her charms.

…on the one hand, at least it’s nice for the author of ZT to notice how poorly older (or at least post-menopausal) women are treated by society at large.  On the other, well, yikes.  I’ll leave it to modern practitioners to decide whether such a model continues to be reasonable today, whether or not one buys into the physical or social aspects of what it’s like to be a woman, and whether they choose to use the standard luster for all people regardless of sex or gender, or whether they choose to use the varying luster for particular needs.

Anyway, to take a turn back to the periods of life: if a human life starts in the orbit of Saturn and ends in the orbit of Saturn, what does this mean for us as human beings, besides noting the dangerous act of childbirth itself?  Does this propose or imply a theory of reincarnation, where one sloughs off one’s flesh at death and enters into a new body at birth?  Not really; bearing in mind that this book was still written by a Christian (or Christian-adjacent) for a Christian (or Christian-cultured) audiences, such a notion would likely have gotten even more on the bad side of religious institutions than just one upset Jesuit monarchist, but there’s nothing spoken either way on what happens after death.  We do, however, get an intriguing account of how humans come to be in the “Third Supplement”, which talks about how human souls come into being (and also why some humans can become “prodigies of perfection or perversity”):

An Angel presides at the moment of birth (see the Table of Natal Stars). However, two Intelligences, for most people, combine to animate in the mother the individual who is to be born. For this, the Angels involved each unleash a spark of fire which is their own, and this explosion is made by the material vehicle of the two terrestrial individuals who cooperate in the creation ex nihilo of a third. Unlucky is the creature whose two evil Angels provided the spiritual element, and happy is the one who will have been animated by two Angels of the opposite nature; but fights, storms, and changes in fortune are in store for the being in whom good and bad spiritual influences are in conflict.

This is actually a really fascinating idea of how humans come to be ensouled.  During sexual procreation, just as the mother and father are getting busy to create the physical embryo that will one day become a child, a similar thing can be said to occur between the mother’s and father’s own presiding angels (who come to have one based on their own birthdays), who combine their essences (“unleash a spark of fire which is their own”) to form the spiritual essence of the human-to-be.  Consider what this also suggests: a person is not just under the influence of their own natal angel, but also has a lifelong influence from the two other angels that respectively belong to their parents.  This is why (in the system of ZT) two people roughly sharing the same birth period of 13-ish days can turn out so wildly different, because it’s not just a matter of their own births, but also those of their respective parents, too.  While there’s no guarantee that these three angels (mother, father, and child) would actually form an ideal triangle in the Great Mirror according to what houses they’re associated with, ZT does subtly frame such a familial relationship as one.

Further, consider some of the more puzzling significations of the tiles of Adamasto and Lethophoro.  If you take a look at the tile meanings, the Intelligence tiles often have some sort of cosmological element to them.  We’ll get to that more in another post, but note how Adamasto (being the Intelligence of Mars) has the element of Fire associated with it, while Lethophoro (being the Intelligence of Saturn) has the element of Water associated with it.  At birth, we are composed of a spark of angelic fire that catches and sets alight onto the body in the orbit of Mars; at death, the heat of our bodies become quenched in the waters of Lethe and dissolves away like ash in a stream in the orbit of Saturn.  It’s a system that ties itself together, I have to admit, but beyond death, it’s hard to say what happens; there’s no explicit mention of an afterlife, salvation, reincarnation, or anything in ZT.  Despite a potential cyclical structure implicit in the zodiacal belt of the Great Mirror, this is a matter left unspoken in this key.

Perhaps we can figure that out a bit more when we talk about the cosmology and spirituality laden throughout ZT, which we’ll get to next time.

August Updates: back to routine, I guess!

What a time it’s been, y’all.  After a bit of annoying circumstances that pushed it back a few days, I gave my presentation for the Salem Witchcraft & Folklore Festival 2020, hosted by the good people at the Salem Summer Symposium.  By the accounts of those who attended, my class, Spelling by Spelling: Greek Alphabet Divination & Magic, went well, and even I’m pleased with it, having gotten a bit of extra time to polish up the presentation, and having ended about on target (with ten minutes leftover for questions instead of fifteen).  I’m frankly surprised that so many people still managed to show up as they did, rescheduled as it was from a Saturday afternoon to a Monday evening, and I want to express my deepest thanks and appreciation to all the attendees as well as to the organizers of the symposium and festival for hosting such a wonderful event even in light of the current awkward situation of the Reign of the Lady of Crowns.  Unfortunately, since it was just a two hour class, I didn’t get to cover half the things I originally wanted to, so I guess I’ll just have to do a separate series of classes sometime in the next year to make up for that, but that’ll be in the future.  If you didn’t manage to catch my class or any of the other amazing classes offered by SWFF2020 live, you can still register for the recordings through the end of 2020, so check out their website and sign up for everything that catches your interest, or get a package deal for multiple classes at once!  The recordings will be up in the coming days after they finish processing and uploading them, so stay tuned to their website for more information.

I consider my little hiatus from blogging well-spent, though it’s not like I wasn’t busy in general these past six-ish weeks.  It seems that I can’t not avoid writing one way or another, and I’ve been pretty busy on Twitter lately with a series of threads that I’d like to share pontificating or didacting about this or that.  To be fair, Twitter these past few weeks has been…interesting, between everything being cakes to newbie witches hexing the fae and also the Moon, to more shade being thrown against the Kybalion (which, I maintain, is more hernia than Hermetica), but a few of the highlights I wanted to share of my own twatting (which can be considered blog posts in their own right) would be these:

  1. That men (of all types) need to listen to women (of all types) more in general
  2. How our words can offend and injure even when we don’t mean for them to
  3. How we shouldn’t bias ourselves regarding accusations towards us based on what we hear alone about them and from whom
  4. How we present ourselves can affect how people react to us
  5. Nobody gets to buy any more crystals until you first learn how to treat, use, and work with the rocks in your own driveway/alleyway first
  6. How magic, spirits, and curses don’t need belief and how revealed experience is Hermetically superior to both discursive logic and faith
  7. An unfortunate incident with someone who asked for way too much information in a rather wrong way
  8. Follow-up to the preceding: on how and why closed traditions limit knowledge and teaching
  9. Why non-Jews working with or venerating Lilith most likely isn’t cultural/religious appropriation
  10. What learning from books really means and how to read them properly
  11. An unfortunate incident when someone tried to use one of my copyrighted designs for their own advertising
  12. Accuracy is not precision, but both are needed for diviners

All that in addition, of course, to the usual shitposting and antics I get up to on Twitter.  Somehow I’ve only gained followers over the past few weeks, which is nothing short of a profound mystery to me.

For those with a linguistic bent, Dr. Christian Casey of Brown University is hosting a free online course for teaching Sahidic Coptic.  If you have an interest in translating Coptic works from the early Christian, Gnostic, and Hermetic traditions or have an eye on getting at the non-Greek more-Egyptian magical papyri, this is something to keep an eye on!  The classes will be weekly on Saturdays at 1pm Eastern US time, starting September 5 and continuing for 30 weeks, so sign up if you’re interested!  I’ve signed up and hope to keep up with it, but we’ll see.

I’ve also picked up Final Fantasy XIV again.  I had a dream during a nap one day a few weeks back that I was playing again, and BOOM the desire hit me to play again, even though I hadn’t played in about two or three years.  So, after about two weeks and no small amount of enticing from some other magicians and astrologers who also play, I’ve caught up on all the main story content from patches 4.3 to 5.3 (holy shit you guys, I cried so much), though I’m still getting caught up on the side story and other stuff.  I’m trying to limit myself mostly to weekends for playing and spending the rest of the week researching and writing as ever, but I’ve definitely missed the game and my friends who play it.  Plus, this gives me a good reason to pick up my writing about the Deck of Sixty, the in-game divination deck used by the Astrologian job, and how it can be used and expanded upon using in-game lore and other canonical information given by the lorebooks to be used as an actual method of divination we ourselves can use.  I’ve written about it in a publicly-viewable spoiler-free Google Doc for those who are interested in checking out the system, such as it is.  (And yes, I’m still Smoking Tongue on Aether/Midgardsormr.)

I’m sure other things have happened these past six weeks that have escaped my memory, but in general, things have been largely quiet and peaceful for me on my end.  Still at home and rarely leaving the house, still working from home full time, still annoying the cats, still keeping up with housework and ritual work as best as I can.  I wish I could say I’ve caught up on sleep, but we all know that’d be a lie.  On the whole, things go well and busily as ever, and I’m happy with that.  I hope the past few weeks have been at least as nice for you all, dear readers, and that things continue to improve for us all, wherever we might be and whatever we might be doing.

With that, I suppose it’s time to figure out what to write about next.  I’ve got a few ideas lined up, but it’ll take me a few days to get back into the swing of things.  At least, with the presentation for SWFF2020 over, I can devote more time back to my other projects again—and start figuring out what to propose for next year’s symposium, too.  Plus, with it getting to be towards the end of summer (finally), the busy season is really going to start ramping up soon, so there’s always more to do.

On Things that Die

I am becoming increasingly familiar with the smell of rot.

The husband and I were on a small road-trip to a friend’s birthday the other day, and we were driving up and down some lovely backwoods roads in the Appalachians to get there.  It was nice to get a breath of somewhat cleaner air than we’re normally treated to, and the sight of mountains covered in verdant green and carbon-tinted shade under blue skies always fills my heart with a quiet joy.  Smells of crab shacks, flowers, cow dung, corn fields, and daytime mountain winds mingled with the cologne we wore and the menthols we smoked along the way.  And, yes, at several points during the drive, my nose would unfailingly twitch as we’d drive past the occasional roadkilled raccoon or hunted deer or whatnot.

“Mmmm. Rot.”  “Yup.” <drags on cigarette>

To clarify: I use the word “rot” to mean the smell of a once-living animal that has died or been killed.  Yes, plants and fungus and other organic matter can decay in their own ways, and perhaps there’s a better word for the smell I’m describing besides something dead-animalian.  Though it’s certainly not what I’d consider pleasant, it’s not so offensive that I can’t stand to be around it.  Sure, I’d rather avoid smelling it, but it won’t stop me from the Work at hand.

I’ve always heard that rot smells sickeningly sweet, but…maybe I have a different notion of sweetness than those who made up that timeworn phrase.  I try to take out the trash regularly enough, keep the fridge cleaned out, and wipe down the showers, but those tend to have the smells of food gone bad, mold in the tupperware, or mildew on the tiles.  These are not the smells of rot as I’d consider it; these are the smells of things going sour or sickening, but not of rot.  Rot has a distinct profile to the smell, and one that’s surprisingly difficult for me to describe.  It’s something totally different than anything else I’ve smelled: something like a mixture of pink cotton candy, overly ripe fruit on the edge of fermentation, old steel, dirt after the rain, and the idea itself of revolting (lit. “turning away”).  Sure, the specific thing that’s rotting will color the smell differently, whether it’s skin or feather or fur or leaves or wood, but that core smell in the middle of it is unmistakable.

The way the smell seems to travel feels different than other smells, too.  While foods or pheromones or perfumes seem to waft like ribbons of invisible smoke in the air, rot crawls and seeps like a slow, glacial flood that is just as hard to get rid of once it’s there.  It lurks behind other smells, making it difficult to mask or suffumigate or sweep under the carpet; there’s always some tiny, faintly pungent hint of it always reminding you that something there has died.  Some people would even say that the smell is capital-w Wrong, like something is trying to force you out of the room, or something is setting off alarm bells to make your hair stand on end in the lizard brain we humans’ve got.

And yet, despite all this, I cannot bring myself to call rot a “smell of death” as I’ve also heard it described.  Yes, it is a smell of things that are dead, but it is not the smell of death.  When an animal dies, that is not the end of the story.  Sure, the soul or spirit or mind of the thing might dissipate or go elsewhere, depending on which cosmology you’re following, but the body continues to exist in the physical world, and the body is nowhere near done.  It becomes a breeding ground for bacteria, parasites, fungus, and even insects.  It becomes a food and a host, and the toxic smell that humans have innately, instinctively evolved to reject is the olfactory evidence that everything continues in the world.  Call it the “circle of life”, if you will; just because a thing dies does not mean that’s the end of the story for the thing.  It continues to exist to nourish, to fertilize, to disintegrate, to return to its base elements for the repurposing and recycling of all things in this world as constituent parts into new and more exciting forms.

Our world is predicated on the Idea of life and living things; the only things that are truly absent of life are those bodies, viewed as distinct and separate from their surroundings, that never had life to begin with (and even then, that idea is suspicious on its own).  Everything else is alive, in one form or another.  And yet, all that lives must one day die, right?  So our world must therefore be as much death as it is life, right?  I mean, we’ve all seen this adorable and saccharine little comic about the interplay between life and death at some point on our Facebook feeds:


I’m not so certain anymore.  Things that are dead are not death itself.  Much as nature abhors a vacuum, I claim that our world does not abide death.  Life exists to beget more life, and if death weren’t a limiting constraint on these things, life would always and only serve to beget more life in one way or another.  Death is…unwelcome, in many ways, though a necessary law in the world.  But, to me, it feels increasingly like death is something Other, something Else, something Different than anything else in the world.  It does not feel part of this world in the same way that conception, flirting, hate, offices, rituals, or fruit feels like a part of this world.  Death is like a vacuum; if this world is composed of Life, then what place does Death have?

The Japanese language has an interesting idea that makes English students a little distressed: there is no way to say “I’m dying” in Japanese. In Japanese, gerundive forms (sometimes called the “-te form” of a verb) are what’s used to make a progressive action when used with the supplemental verb iru; for instance, taberu means “to eat”, while tabete iru means “to be eating”.  However, in Japanese, shinu “to die” has the progressive form shinde iru, which isn’t “to be dying” but rather “to be dead”.  For speakers of Japanese, the act of dying is something that can only happen in a single moment; it is not something that can be prolonged, continued, or stretched out temporally.  One is going to die at some point in the future, one dies is in this very moment, one died at some point in the past, or one is in the state of being dead.  There is no “one is dying across time” in Japanese; it is a transition from one state to another, and there is no grey area between the two.  Either you are animated or you are inanimate, you breathe or you cease to draw breath, you live or you are dead.

It still seems like Death is something so distinctly different, so Other, that it does not belong to this world.  And yet, that doesn’t seem like a right claim to make; even I think I sound like some willful child raging against having to flush their expired goldfish down the toilet because “it’s not right” or “this shouldn’t happen”.  I do not mean to say in the least that Death is something unnecessary, forced upon us, or wrong; far from it!  Life here on this planet would be a Malthusian hellscape without death to regulate us and keep us in check.  Death is the rightful end of life, and the (generally, hopefully) rightful point at which our spirits shake off their physical forms and go their separate ways.  We all know and have heard from innumerable traditions that Death belongs to this world just as much as Life does.

Yet, what is Death, then?  We know of the dead; they’re “here” as much as any spirit, but then, they’re not “here” in the same sense as you or me, since we’re incarnate and they’re not.  It’s like they’re just beyond the chiffon curtain in the room, on a slightly different frequency a half-kHz up on the radio.  They’re not part of this world of physical forms and bodies, barring any attachments or grounding to bones or artifacts of the dead, so we can leave them out of the picture for the time being.  What is Death, then, if Death can be considered a spirit, one of the very few able to directly interact with the living processes of this world strong enough to quell them?  Is it truly some specter or shade, skeletal and robed in black-white-red with a scythe and an owl on their shoulder, swooping in to catch her prey?  Is it some king of a hell-realm with four eyes and wide nostrils and two dogs, chasing people down and bringing them to his doorstep as prisoners?  Is it a radiant angel, taking people by the hand and elevating them from their bodies for the last time?  Is it an ancient woman, one of three sisters, who cuts the thread of light at its right proportion and length?

None of those, either, seem right.  Sure, they’re ways we can personify and interact with Death as a spirit, but they are themselves not Death.  After all, even gods themselves die, some more permanently than others, and there is some precedent (even if I’ve only come across it in games like Neverwinter Nights) that Death is a non-entity apart from any spirit or god, even those related to or administering the sacrament of death.  Plus, what sort of crazy exception of a spirit would Death then have to be, to be so powerful as to directly interfere with living creatures on a level totally unseen and unheard of when compared to literally every other deity and spirit, save for those religious texts where miracles happen de rigueur?

It does not seem right to claim that Death is a spirit, any more than Life itself is a spirit.  It is a phenomenon that happens in our world naturally, and therefore must be a natural part of this world, too.  It is the exact moment of transition from animacy to inanimacy, and therefore is not an action in the same way “eating” is an action, both because it is a state transition and because it is…probably? difficult to impossible for a living body to intentionally, intentfully die without causing its own death.  Like, a body can continue breathing, pumping blood, digesting, wiggling in the dirt, and so on, but dying is not something the body can just do.  Dying happens as a result of other natural processes: the failure of parts of the body (from the organ scale to the cellular scale) to function together concordantly, trauma inducing failure of the body, disease inducing failure of the body, or so forth.  When Life cannot continue, Death occurs.  When Life fails to proceed “normally”, Death occurs.  And yet, Death is as needed, as necessary, and as natural as Life; it’s not that Death is inimical to Life, or Death is something “wrong”, but that the one picks up where the other leaves off.  And Death then becomes the endpoint for physical incarnation, after which, the story of that spirit that once animated a body, which existed only once for a short while and in a limited location in such a form in all of infinite time and boundless space, continues outside this world of physical forms.  The body begins its own dissolution, the spirit continues its own analysis, but the story ends for the two of them together.

Rot is the smell of the world reclaiming its due and collecting its own spare resources for other purposes.  Sure, it smells toxic and wrong to us, not only because we’ve evolved to avoid it for health and survival reasons, but because it reminds us that, as living bodies, that is something that we’re not yet ready for, and something that we won’t necessarily be around to witness once it happens to ourselves.  Rot is something that happens when you’re already shinde iru; it is not the smell of shinu, although it may be a reminder of it.

Yet, look what happens when rot is not allowed to happen.  Consider the Red Forest in the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone; the leaves from the trees there do not rot, due to the toxic radiation they’ve all been exposed to.  Things there persist long after they have any right to, just as bodies preserved with formaldehyde or encased in glacial ice for millennia.  These are things that cannot return to the world; they may as well be ejected by rockets from the Earth as space junk, lost and unusable to the world forever, except they linger on posing a space-wasting and ecological threat of disaster to everything around it, like a cancer in the body unwilling to be flushed out by its neighboring cells.  They cannot undergo the total process of life.  See, also, why zombies and the undead generally cannot be permitted in the world, as they take something already in the process of life-after-death (rot) and hijack it.  Either the zombie in question continues to rot, leaving its new consciousness to die a new death, or the zombie is preserved against rot and cannot continue the process of life proper; unnatural, to be sure.

The smell of rot tells me (besides the fact that I need to air out my basement more) that death is always around me.  Rot is a necessary and natural part of all these physical bodies: things that are made (created) to die that are also things that are made (forced) to die.  Rot is the “Kilroy Was Here” graffiti that Death leaves behind; it is the trash collector routine of the CPU of the world we inhabit.  Yet rot does not show me what Death is.

A Break in the Threads

So, I had a few thoughts to myself lately on what I’ve been doing, where I stand, and the like, especially with regards to the whole lot of nothing I can account for these past…what, seven? ten? months.  I figure that I can use this, too, as a learning experience and gain from it, and if I can learn from it, I can write about it.  Besides, it’s not like I’ve been wearing you, dear reader, out with an endless stream of posts these past few moons.  I apologize that this is something of a navel-gazing whinefest, but it’s something that, perhaps, some of my readers could use.  While the burnt hand teaches best for some (e.g. myself), I’d rather those who can learn from the examples of others do so from me.

I don’t know where to really begin or even how to really discuss it, but I suppose I could always start with a list and give a rough chronological order of things.  Mind you, I plan on being vague about a few events, but it should give you an outline of the magnitude of things.

  1. Back in October 2014, despite a few of the good things that happen, there were other things happening beneath the surface.  Things for me and mine got really rough and there was a massive falling-out.  There was isolation, there was drama, and there were tears.  I personally got really knocked off-balance, and even to this day am still trying to get my bearings back.
  2. In early November, some of the problems of the preceding month had been cleared up; perhaps fittingly, everything in October happened during a Mercury retrograde, and as soon as Mercury went direct again, things started picking up and being picked up and put back together.  Some of the breaks were mended, but only some; mutual animosity, as well as righteous indignation and asshattery, had permanently assured me that some breaks were permanent.  Good for that.
  3. In late November, I performed what was intended to be an empowerment ritual using a well-known, lengthy psalm which had some massive and unanticipated side-effects.  This opened my life up to amazing and awesome new people, but at the same time, dredged up a sealed Pandora’s box of emotional what-the-fuckery I thought I had sealed and buried for good a long time ago.  Still, if even King Solomon couldn’t permanently seal the demons of the Lemegeton Goetia in a brass vessel under the sea, I suppose I shouldn’t have expected any differently.  Some of those personal demons are still hanging around and lingering at the corners of my eyes, and the only way I can face them now is head-on; how is still yet to be determined.
  4. In December, my partner and I took two steps towards being together in the eyes of God, gods, and men: not only did we exchange our rings in our engagement, but I started playing Final Fantasy XIV, a massively multiplayer online RPG which is frickin’ awesome.
  5. In February 2015, I undertook my first major initiation in the Afro-Cuban religion of Santeria, which significantly changed my outlook on more than a few topics personal and magical, not to mention completely thrashed my energetic and spiritual state of being for at least one solid weekend and, to a lesser extent, several weeks afterward.
  6. In early July, between visits from a good magical colleague of mine, an upcoming party, and a rather busy week at work, out of whimsy, I remembered one of the holiest acts I as a human and magos can do: the Hymns of Silence.  Even briefly, standing outside on my patio smoking a cigarette in the work week on a humid summer night, that little shadow of an echo of a resonance caught me off-guard and…broke something in me, something that really needed to be broken, something that needed to be snapped.  It wasn’t violent, it wasn’t sharp, it wasn’t painful; it was like taking out an extraneous support beam that didn’t need to be there.  I’m not even sure “broke” is the right word.  Starting about this point, I abruptly put a hold on playing FFXIV, feeling burnt out due to repetition in the game as well as personal drama with the group I play with.
  7. In the transition between late July and early August, I accepted a new job position within my current office, one which has great potential for my career, personal development, and (most awesome and utilitarian) income.  This is causing some changes in my routine and how I approach people, as having to start a new job (even in a familiar environment) is going to cause me to be hyperaware of certain elements in myself and around me.  Plus, now that I won’t be able to work from home for several months at minimum, I’ll need to develop a better routine to keep me in shape and in line.

So that’s about where I stand.  Not exactly the most epic of journeys, but every road has its flat and boring stretches, I suppose.

What I want to focus on here is the effect that playing FFXIV was having on me, especially now that I’ve been divorced of it for a few weeks now.  I admit, I enjoy the company and interaction of the people I play with, and the world of Eorzea that Square-Enix built up for us to play in is beautifully crafted and exceedingly well-done, and I miss hanging out with my free company and our antics.  That said, what’s been interesting, and something that I’ve noticed more and more as of late, is that I can pretty solidly say that I was relying on FFXIV for more things than just entertainment for…pretty much eight months of my life.  To be fair, I think I needed it; shit was getting too heavy even for me to healthily deal with, and I needed an escape.

So escape I did, and took a break from the rest of the shit that was going on around me.  In those eight months, I’ve done fuck-all.  Sure, I’ve kept up with commissions for crafts and divination readings, taught my students as I’ve agreed to do, and led or undergone a few rituals here and there, but I can’t say with any level of honesty that I’ve been active in my magical life.  I haven’t bothered with pretty much any of the tasks I set for myself to accomplish at the start of 2015, I haven’t kept up with my prayers or offerings, and when I have gone into my temple room, it’s usually to get something for myself instead of actually doing Work.  I’ve ended up putting on a few more pounds than I had, and the Quimbanda tronco I built on my own based on ley-person guidance has been shut and more-or-less ignored only right after I built it.  I’ve barely even kept up with blogs on my RSS feed and haven’t really been active with other magicians besides the occasional theory or theology discussion with friends, and as you may have noticed, I’ve barely had anything to say on my own blog.

I’ve completely wasted my time pursuing simple antics of fun and relaxation, which even sometimes produced problems on its own accord, in a made-up world not of my own creation, obeying its own sets of rules that I have willingly submitted myself to. Dear reader, take note: if you have even a barest glimmer of Hermetic or Gnostic cosmology and anthropogony, or if you’ve read some of my metaphors for human existence in the Hermetic worldview before, you can see the conundrum.  This world is beautiful, but also incredibly seductive; our true origin is not here, but Elsewhere, in the All.  And yet, not only have I forgotten that much on an intellectual level, I’ve even gone so far as to forget myself in this world and get lost in a tinier, even more beautiful and seductive world, forgetting even my incarnate origin and work in this world.  But hey, at least I can see that now, and I can treat the world of Eorzea in the archonic grip of Square-Enix as the fun side-show it really is.

What’s peculiar is that I still haven’t gotten my bearings straight yet after several weeks.  Rather, instead of just replacing my work in FFXIV with my Work in the cosmos, which is what I’d like to claim and what would intellectually make sense to do, I’ve just kinda been…adrift.  I’ve been experiencing what might be seen as symptoms of addiction withdrawal (as MMORPGs tend to cause in certain people), or what might be seen as depression: lack of energy to do things, general thoughtlessness, increased sleep (which would normally be a blessed thing), unwillingness to focus on the tasks before me, yada yada.  It’s almost embarrassing, but now I’m starting to see my situation with clearer eyes than I’ve had in months: I lost the threads of my Work and haven’t picked them up again.  I’ve picked up other threads to fill the gap in time, but now that I’ve dropped those, I haven’t yet picked up the new threads of my Work.  Call it a lull, or a change in direction where the mere act itself of looking in another direction is taking a long time.  The fact is that I have not yet given myself anything to substantially and substantively Do to fill this void of time and energy, and it’s taking its toll on me and driving me into another, different unhealthy place.

I lost the threads I once wove, and I’ve been struggling to find a new one to pick up and start weaving again.  But, in a tapestry, there are countless threads with which to work, even if it’s just tying a few of them them up for good.

Recently, I picked up one thread I had lost a ways back.  Some of you may remember that I developed an interest in astragalomancy, or Greek knucklebone divination, late last year after I finally got a book on the subject.  Yes, it still is an interest of mine, but memorizing all 56 oracular verses proved more difficult than I had anticipated, and given the knockings-around I’ve had, it was pretty much a foregone conclusion that I wasn’t going to memorize them anytime soon.  Still, I didn’t want to lug the book around with me just for reference, so I got myself a tiny little black journal, about the size of my palm, that I wanted to copy all the verses into so I could have an enchiridion, a handbook of sorts, I could consult at will.  I planned on copying verses into it during the downtimes I had in the office, but either found myself too busy or just too lazy to do so.  Recently, I decided (while working at home, no less!) to finally copy down those last…gosh, more than half of the verses that I hadn’t touched in months.  And, even though it’s such a minor task of copying down words from one medium into another, it…it was good.  Even the most basic and elementary of activities, picking up a book and just copying notes out of it, made me feel a little satisfied with things.

Even the smallest thread can act as a sturdy rope, if it’s all you’ve got.  And you need something to hold onto and climb up in order to get out of a pit, however deep.

I have many shelves of books on astrology, divination, magic, religion, and cult.  I have a temple room filled with idols and offering cups and magical tools of great power.  I live on a land filled to bursting with life and spirits.  I have friends, colleagues, and teachers both in the physical and online who surround me, showing me countless possibilities of work and the rich rewards thereof.  Shit, I have my own destiny and path to walk, and sitting on a bench beside the road playing chess is not getting me anywhere, especially when I haven’t set up a tent to keep me out of the rain or a fire to cook food.  Me neglecting my Work is not only disrespectful to the spirits, angels, gods, and saints that I’ve called on before, it’s disrespectful to my friends and students and others who look to me and check up on me, and it’s disrespectful to myself and my own well-being.  I know I have shit to do, and I know I have projects waiting for me, and I know I have places to go and things to do.

It’s time I’ve picked up a few of those dangling threads again.  Who knows?  Maybe, in the mess I left for myself, I’ll find a few of those that I dropped.