On the Hermetic Afterlife: Ramifications for Necromancy

Where were we?  We’re in the middle of talking about what a “Hermetic afterlife” actually looks like and consists of, in terms of what the classical Hermetic texts have as teachings regarding what happens to us after we die beyond some vague notion of reincarnation or ascent.  There’s only a handful of texts that actually talk about this in any way, and what they have don’t always match up well between each other.  Last time, we talked about what this Hermetic model of the afterlife means for some rituals of religious import like funerals or ancestor veneration.  If you need a refresher on what we talked about last time, go read the last post!

Alright, let’s cut to the chase here.  To continue our discussion from the last post, where we left off with describing how this Hermetic model of the afterlife both explains and informs religious rituals involving the dead, we’re now moving onto rituals and works that are less religious and more magical in nature.  Let’s get right to it, and talk about necromancy!  Of course, to be sure, “necromancy” is a really broad field of magic and divination that can take many forms, and many culturally-significant practices from across the world with various origins and thinkings behind them can all be classified as this.  To make this easier, I’ll divide up “necromancy” for the purposes of this post into different sections.

Incubation, Mediumship, and Blessing of the Dead

The first kind of necromancy is what I would consider “intimate” necromancy, where one doesn’t so much communicate with the souls of the dead so much as we commune with them.  Consider the practice of ancient Greek dream incubation: after making an offering to a spirit of the dead at their tomb, the necromancer lays down a rug and sleeps overnight on the tomb itself, thereby obtaining a dream where they communicate with the dead or otherwise receive visions from them.  In modern Islamic mystical practices, one might visit (and sleep!) in the mausoleum of an Islamic or Sufi saint to receive their baraka.  In lots of modern spiritualist/spiritist and other “shamanic” practices, one engages in trance-based mediumship where one channels messages from the dead, even leading to possession where the dead temporarily inhabits the body of the medium to communicate or perform works directly in a body that they “borrow”.  Whether through works of incubation or states of mediumship, in either case, the dead might “descend” in some way to perform some sort of action or give us some sort of information for our benefit and blessing.

Recall what we said about ancestor veneration from before, where we posited that the works we do and offerings we make to venerate and elevate the souls of the dead creates an “updraft” that transmits the power of our offerings and prayers to the dwelling-place of the dead where they are.  I posit now that works of necromancy, conversely, creates a “downdraft” that actively calls down the presence of a particular soul down to our world, at least temporarily, in order to commune with it.  To an extent, we were already subtly relying on something like that last time when we posited that our souls might be able to “reach up” to make offerings to the souls in their own dwelling-place such that they might be able to “stoop down”, as well, but now we’re making it explicit and relying more on them coming down further than that, all the way down to our level.  Because we can do this with out-and-out gods (as described in AH 24 and AH 37—38), at least to call them down into idols for the purpose of having their permanent presence on Earth with us, I don’t see why we couldn’t do this with souls, either.

As with ancestor veneration rituals having a natural “boost” when they take place at the tombs of the dead, it would make sense that the resting place of the physical remains of a soul’s incarnation would be a natural place where we might do necromantic works of various sorts, whether we create an “updraft” for us to reach them or a “downdraft” for them to reach us.  However, for more intimate works where the focus is on us rather than them, it makes sense for a “downdraft” to be made instead, and while using the physical remains a soul left behind provides a natural “link” or “focus” to a soul (even if it’s more for us than for them), it’s not a required link, which is why we can do necromantic rites mostly anywhere we please, although it helps at a place that is pure enough for the dead to visit and to commune with us.  Likewise, it also helps for us to be in a pure state for us to better achieve this, only because we’re the ones bringing them down but because we’re the ones that are interfacing with them in such a refined, subtle way that we need to be prepared for such refined, subtle works.  After all, for a soul to travel out of its own dwelling-place would likely cause some further turbulence and disruption to their own stability and presence, just as if you were to be shunted suddenly from lying peacefully in your bed into a busy shopping mall.  Doing what we can to put the soul at ease once it’s down here and doing what we can to ensure that we can maintain a good connection with them would be essential for such work.

I think the most fascinating thing here would be the work of mediumship.  It’s one thing to merely perceive a spiritual entity (like a soul) and communicate what they have to say to others through speech, but it’s another thing entirely to have that spiritual entity take direct control of your body.  Because, I mean…what’s really going on at that point?  If our body is being ruled (at least nominally) by our soul, what happens to our soul when we enter a state of possession?  While I’m not sure of the properly classical views on this that philosophers might have had of e.g. the oracle of Delphi who would be possessed by the god Apollōn which would better inform a discussion like this (and if you know of any, please share down in the comments!), I can think of several options here:

  1. The soul of the medium vacates the body in agreement with the soul of the deceased, allowing the soul of the deceased to temporarily “rent” the body.  Since we know that the soul can temporarily leave the body (as in CH XI.19—21 or even in CH X.24 or CH XIII.4), it could be that a medium (in a controlled setting or following a protocol that both they and a spirit agree to follow) allows their body to become vacant and for another entity to temporarily inhabit it.
  2. The soul of the medium “diminishes” or “retreats” within their own body, allowing the mere presence of the soul of the deceased to control the body instead.  They don’t leave their body, but they “make room” within it alongside their own soul and willingly turn over the reins of the body to the visiting soul, like a deacon in a church mass stepping aside to let the priest do their work or give the homily at the altar or pulpit.
  3. The soul of the deceased “overcomes” the soul of the medium in their body.  This is effectively like the option above, but instead of the medium retracting to make room for a spirit, a spirit simply dominates the body regardless of the natural presence of the medium.  (This is more common in unwanted or forced possessions, I suppose, and may well be seen as more risky, but may make more sense for divine possession where the presence of a god is significantly overwhelming for pretty much anyone.)  Either such a soul of the deceased is naturally empowered to overcome such a medium’s own soul, or they become empowered through offerings and ritual in order to achieve such a feat.

What of the judgmental model of the Hermetic afterlife involving the daimōn?  We’re not necessarily “freeing” the soul of the dead or anything or trying to change its soul-stratum (necessarily) in such a way that might conflict with whatever judgment such an avenging/judging daimōn might give, but rather, we’re more like giving the soul a chaperoned field-trip of sorts, after which it will return to its abode.  While there may be some practical difference between calling down a god (as one might for a theagogy or theophany) versus a soul of a dead person who is watched over by a god, where one might have to entreat the daimōn (or SH 26.3’s Steward of Souls) for the soul to descend to perform such works down here for a time (and I can think of similar rituals from the PGM where one performs a similar observance and makes offerings to that end), I don’t think there’s ultimately any major obstacle here to worry about.  After all, once a soul has been judged and allotted its proper soul-stratum, the only thing else on the docket for it is to hang out until fate dictates it to be incarnate again.  Rituals such as this may well play into fate, even if at a some minor level, but it’s unclear to me in the end.

However, I do want to note: as with ancestor veneration and elevation practices from the last post, some spiritual traditions engage in works of mediumship and blessing of/from the dead specifically as a means for the soul to improve themselves and thereby receive further elevation and enlightenment.  In other words, although calling a spirit down for the sake of medium possession or blessing is not inherently equivalent to elevation, in light (or in the custodial overview) of an avenging/judging daimōn or Steward of Souls, it may be reckoned for such work to be like “community service” in a way, and be a way to resolve whatever baggage/weight or punishment they’ve accrued before so that, when they return to the dwelling-place of souls, they end up going back to a lighter, higher stratum than they were at before by means of the work they’ve done down here.  In a non-judgmental model, this is just them relieving themselves of their own “weight”; in a judgment model, this is like their sentence being commuted for good behavior.  In being invited down here to perform good works, we essentially give these souls a second chance at “living” a “life” of reverence and devotion that they may not have been able to fulfill while living their own life.

Calling Down and Working the Dead

The second kind of necromancy, as opposed to the “intimate” kind described above, is what I might instead consider “confrontational”, in the sense that one must confront them to work with them as an external agent, either for issuing them or subjecting them to some task or otherwise communicating with them for some overall purpose or goal.  Examples of this sort of necromancy would include all sorts of katadesmoi/defixiones/curse tablet-based works, evoking the dead (as in a Solomonic or goetic ritual), or binding/harnessing the dead to perform particular works or to be used in (or as the targets of) exorcism.  Rather than being “intimate” with the dead where we share a close relationship with them to facilitate their activity among us, here the only type of relationship we engage in with them is “at arm’s length” to force them to do work for us.  (To be fair, a good amount of necromancy is neither just intimate nor just confrontational, but may include elements of both.  I’m just using this distinction as shorthand for illustrative purposes of this post.)

As before, we would call down a soul of the deceased through a “downdraft”, perhaps making an offering to the daimōn/steward as before if one has such a model to allow for such a soul to descend.  However, unlike before, we’re not communing with them, but instead engaging in any other number of ritual practices or approaches for engaging with them.  One of the big things I want to point out here is how so much of this kind of “necromancy” is simply spirit-model approaches to magic that use the dead (often uneasy/intranquil/tormented dead) to “power” our magic or to facilitate our goals, like dropping off a curse tablet in the grave of some violently-killed maiden and relying on their unsettledness and unfulfilled desires to accomplish the will of the magician here.  And that leads to a really insightful point about why we rely on such souls of the dead for such works, and that’s because they’re so readily accessible and willing to work in such ways.

Remember what we said about there being different soul-strata, different regions in the atmosphere accorded to different souls based on how they lived, and more troubled or suffering souls are to be found in lower strata.  Depending on the text (AH 28 vs. SH 25), the lower strata themselves may be seen as more turbulent and thus more painful for the souls dwelling there or not, or may simply be an indication for their next incarnation into lower echelons of society or lower forms of life (i.e. animals).  These lower strata are low, I should note, even down to the very ground itself we walk upon up to a little above hills and mountains.  What this suggests is that, for particularly weighty souls (those who are so ignoble and undignified that they cannot or are not allowed to rise high, souls that are either so tormented from unfulfilled desires or addictions or who caused such torment because of their addictions and attachments), there’s really no need to make a “downdraft” to call them down when they’re already down here with us, and because of their tormented/tormenting nature, are already much closer to wild animals or unruly daimones than we might think—and given how many people die in such a state, it’s really no wonder why so much of goētia that focuses on daimones/demons was so readily accepting of or already bound up with the dead themselves.

As a result, so much of this kind of necromancy works because we don’t really need to do a whole lot of “calling down” of such souls, because they’re already here around us (which may well also offer a spiritual explanation why so many people perpetuate certain crimes and addictions, including perpetuating generational traumas and the like).  Given their inclination, such souls are highly likely to respond to things like “you who died as an unloved maiden, help me find love by enflaming the heart of my desire to me” because it’s what they were either left unfulfilled by in life, or  o things like “you who died as a rampaging warrior on the battlefield, restrain and murder my enemies” because it’s what they loved to do (or were addicted to doing) in life, and in either case because it gives them a chance to do it in death, perhaps as a way of experiencing the satisfaction of it vicariously.  Depending on how we engage in such works as necromancers, we might do this merely because such souls make a ready set of premade slaves to do such work, or we engage in it as a way to relieve particularly troubled dead of their burdens and help them ascend and become elevated so as to ease them in the afterlife (being a kind of “community service” as with the earlier kind of necromancy above).

Also, something else neat to note: by the same mechanism that allows for such “base necromancy” that uses troubled/intranquil souls as a means of effecting magic, whereby such souls are just naturally already lower in the atmosphere closer to our own day-to-day life, note that hauntings are often said to occur in places where great pain, suffering, or trauma has been experienced.  Given that the souls who experience such pain will often (not always!) be burdened with “weight” that prevents them from rising to a higher soul-stratum, it would follow that if they’re already down here, they end up “stuck” in places that caused them such pain and suffering while alive, like a person with PTSD reliving their traumatic experiences.  It’s not a pleasant thing to think of, admittedly, and it’s one of the reasons why we should engage in funerals and ancestor elevation to allow such suffering souls to be eased of their burdens so that they’re not stuck in such a place, but the lowness of such souls in this Hermetic afterlife model would give a ready explanation for why hauntings happen right alongside why intranquil spirits or troubled souls make for such ready spirit-servants.

Binding and Enshrining the Dead (But Also Birth Into Living Bodies)

Instead of merely calling down the dead from their dwelling-places, either to commune or to communicate with them, to perform works with their assistance or just by them, there’s another necromantic option here: taking them from their dwelling-place entirely and keeping them here with us on Earth.  In this, we give the dead a particular “body” or form to inhabit, keeping them from their dwelling-place and keeping them from reincarnating for a particular purpose.  I mean, we can do this with gods by enshrining them into statues and idols; why can’t we do this with souls of the dead, too?

To be fair, I think such a comparison with enlivening idols with gods isn’t necessarily fair.  Gods are slightly different, being “big” enough to play by different rules.  Either they’re “big” enough to be more encompassing than a single soul and so can appear to be in multiple places at once by “concentrating” their otherwise ubiquitous presence in particular localized areas, or they’re “big” enough to let a shard of themselves be embodied in an idol to perform works on Earth, or they’re “big” enough to have a retinue of daimones who act on their behalf in their name with their “mask”, or they’re “big” enough to not actually be localized in their idol all the time but appear there when called upon (with the idol more acting as an as-needed point-of-contact rather than a continuously-inhabited body).  There may be other possible mechanisms behind the enlivening of statues with the presence of gods, but these are a few of the big ones that come to my mind—and it’s not clear to me which of these, if any, apply to souls of the dead.

Personally, I don’t see any issue here of scale: if we can call a soul down for a time, I don’t see any hard-or-fast limit to how long a time as they might be called down.  At the same time, we should consider why a soul leaves a body to begin with: because a body is no longer capable of supporting the soul (e.g. through the circulation of the blood which facilitates the activation and exchange of spirit/breath).  In order for a soul to be down here for an extended period of time, it needs more than just some well-wishing and offerings; it needs an actual body to inhabit appropriate to its nature.  If we can do that with gods—and we can—I don’t see why we couldn’t do that for souls.  After all, consider AH 38:

“And the quality of these gods who are considered earthly—what sort of thing is it, Trismegistus?”

“It comes from a mixture of plants, stones and spices, Asclepius, that have in them a natural power of divinity. And this is why those gods are entertained with constant sacrifices, with hymns, praises and sweet sounds in tune with heaven’s harmony: so that the heavenly ingredient enticed into the idol by constant communication with heaven may gladly endure its long stay among humankind. Thus does man fashion his gods.”

The only thing I can think of that would prevent this is that there’s some fundamental mismatch between the nature of a god that permits it to be embodied within a statue made resonant with it through such a mixture of material things and that of a soul.  However, throughout the Hermetic texts, we see notions that (at least the divine portion within) humans are considered to be gods or can become gods or can associate with gods (as in CH IV.7, CH VIII.5, CH X.22—25, CH XIII.14, etc.), so I’m not inclined to think that what we can do for the gods we can’t do for souls.  The trick would be to find the right composition and form for such a body for such a soul to inhabit, and to keep it in such a way that allows the soul to continue inhabiting it; after all, a human body can only support a soul for as long as it eats, drinks, breathes, and lives.  If a soul-idol were to be malformed, broken, or otherwise fall into neglect, I wouldn’t expect it to be able to serve as a vessel for a soul for particularly long.

What arises as an issue for me in this matter, however, is how this plays with reincarnation.  Souls are seen in this Hermetic model of the afterlife to be “localized” in one sense or another, and so cannot be in two places at the same time; either a soul is incarnate or it is discarnate, and if it is incarnate, it can only be incarnate in one body at a time.  If a soul is bound to a form that is not a human body, then, it cannot reincarnate until it is free of such a form.  Reincarnation, however, is dictated by fate, because fate is what dictates bodies to be born, suffer whatever they suffer in life, and die—but would that not, then, also include bodies that happen to be made through acts of magic?  I mean, consider this little excerpt from Diogenes Laertius about Stoicism’s own stance on fate in his Lives of the Eminent Philosophers (book VII, chapter 23):

We are told that [Zeno of Citium] was once chastising a slave for stealing, and when the latter pleaded that it was his fate to steal, “Yes, and to be beaten too,” said Zeno.

To that end, I don’t think calling down a soul is something that somehow abrogates or breaks the rule of fate; rather, at least to a large degree, it plays into fate.  After all, consider: what is it that souls normally incarnate into?  Living animal bodies (human or otherwise), formed through animal reproduction, the production of which is itself a work of fate.  We know that reproduction was considered not just something important but a vital, sacred duty in many of the Hermetic texts (CH I.18, CH II.17, CH III.3, etc.), not only because it perpetuates the work of Creation, but because it allows souls to come into incarnate existence to further enjoy and rejoice in Creation.  In a way, creating any kind of body for a soul to inhabit, whether animal or not, and then calling them down (whether through the mysteries of sexual reproduction or not, including other kinds of magical rites) would be just another form of this, albeit a weaker kind with extra restrictions imposed.  In this case, it’s not so much “calling down a soul of the dead to be bound” but more just a specific case of a more general notion of reincarnation—and in that light, is as permissible (if not directed) by fate as actual living reincarnation would be.

Interested in Greek alphabet magic and mysticism? Check out the 2020 talk I did on it!

Back in 2020, I participated in the Salem Witchcraft and Folklore Festival, which was a great time, even if was held online.  During the course of that, as I mentioned way back when, I offered my lecture Spelling by Spelling: Greek Alphabet Divination and Magic:

A variety of divination systems were used in ancient and classical Greece, ranging from oracles and prophets to common forms of sortilege. One of the more fascinating kinds of divination that was used in the ancient Hellenic world was that of grammatomancy, divination through the individual letters of the Greek alphabet. This lecture will cover the history of this useful and direct form of divination, and how it can build into an overarching spiritual practice of devotion to the Greek gods, theurgy, contemplation, and magic.

It was a great lecture (even if it had to be postponed from Saturday to Monday due to unfortunate internet/power outage issues), and I’m glad I was able to offer it.

And yes, you should definitely keep up on this year’s SWFF, too, because this summer will be its fourth year running and there is, as usual, a great lineup of presenters and talks being slated!  Jacqui Allouise at The Cauldron Black and Matthew Venus of Spiritus Arcanum (both of whom offer their own events and products the whole year round) do great work, and I definitely encourage checking them out in general on top of the yearly festivities planned.

Anyway, one of the neat things about being a presenter is that I get a recording of my own presentation, and I was finally able to get around to uploading my talk to YouTube!  If you’re interested in grammatomancy (Greek alphabet divination), the grammatēmerologion (Greek letter lunisolar calendar), and other ways to use the Greek alphabet in magic and mysticism for all sorts of ends, check out the talk I did!

In the lecture, I mention a handout for people to study and take home.  You can access the 12-page handout (with reference information and citations for further reading) here on Google Drive.  Likewise, if you just want to check out the slides for your own study, you can also access them at this link.

I thought this was a great talk to give, and a few of my friends thought it went well enough to offer some pleasant thoughts on it.  Hopefully you’ll also find it interesting, dear reader, and this might persuade you to look into this alphabetic system of magic and mysticism!  I’ve written plenty about it, not just as an ebook on the divinatory system of grammatomancy (De Grammatomanteia, available for US$10 through Etsy or through Ko-fi) but also on countless posts on my blog; just search “grammatomancy” or “grammatemerologion”, or just browse the Mathesis category of posts for more.

Now, obviously, while at the time there was a registration fee for the talk since it was a paid event, it being almost two years later, I see no reason to insist on further charging for this sort of stuff.  If you feel moved to contribute anything to my Ko-fi as a donation, I certainly wouldn’t stop you, but much like with my online video course Geomancy in the Reign of the Lady of Crowns, I would instead encourage you to consider donating to a humanitarian charity of your choice that can make a difference in the world, whether locally or globally.  Alternatively, even if I’m not presenting this year, you might also consider spending some of that money towards attending a lecture or five for this year’s Salem event!

Hermeticism FAQ: Part IV, Practice

Continuing our Hermeticism FAQ series (see part I, part II, and part III here), let’s continue today with (the final) Part IV, on the various practices of Hermeticism!

What practices are part of Hermeticism?

Although the “philosophical Hermetica” are great for teaching doctrine, they offer very little in the way of actual practice, whether day-to-day routine practice or things for non-routine ritual.  However, we do know that prayer to God is something Hermēs Trismegistos encourages, especially at sunrise (preferably outdoors facing east) and at sunset (again preferably outdoors facing south), along with at nighttime immediately before going to bed.  Practices of purity and asceticism are also encouraged, both for their training of the body as well for the work of engaging divinity without being polluted by the passions of base matter.  In tandem with study of the discourses and other arts, frequent meditation should be engaged with, both for the purposes of delving deeper into the meanings of the teachings as well as to gain insight regarding one’s own nature and the nature of the cosmos generally.  For those who are building shrines for the gods, calling the gods down into statues for more immediate contact and worship of them is recommended, by the means of filling the statues with sacred substances, burning incense before them, bathing them in sacred liquids, and the singing of hymns to seat them in their terrestrial bodies; rather than just statues or other images, bodily possession by the gods may also be attempted.  When ready, works of spiritual elevation and divine ascent should be undertaken, which can be considered among the crowning acts (though far from a one-time effort) a Hermeticist should endeavor towards.  Besides these, many other practices as described in the “technical Hermetica” or which are borrowed from any number of other magical and spiritual traditions may also be incorporated.

Are there any particular gods I should worship?

The only divinity one is strictly required to worship and venerate in Hermeticism is God, and that in a way that is often distinct from other gods; rather than burning incense or making material sacrifices, the true worship of God consists of a sacrifice of speech and the singing of hymns in sacred silence, adoring the Creator by means of their Creation.  Beyond that, whatever other gods one worships (if one worships other gods at all) is entirely up to the student.  For those who are willing, Hermēs Trismegistos himself is an excellent candidate to receive worship for those who follow the Way of Hermēs, whether as a divinity in his own right or as a deified hero-prophet; the same goes for the students of Hermēs Trismegistos, like Asklēpios (the Egyptian Imhotep), Tat (another instance of Thōth), and Ammōn (the Egyptian Amun).  While Greek and Egyptian religion offers many such deities to worship, to say nothing of the many syncretic religious entities present in texts like the Greek Magical Papyri, there is no limit nor rule as to which gods one should worship, so long as one (also) worships God.

Did the classical Hermeticists practice magic, and should we continue to practice magic today?

Although the “philosophical Hermetica” is silent on the subject, and although Zosimus of Panopolis suggests that Hermēs Trismegistos disavowed magic, it is a fact that Hermeticism has long been associated with magical works of many types, and indeed, ancient Egyptian religion saw little distinction between religious works and magical works, to the point where the very concept of magic itself (Heka) in Egypt was venerated as a deity in its own right in addition to the view that the gods had such supernatural power at their disposal to accomplish all manner of works.  Magic is simply the operational use of subtle forces or spiritual entities in addition to or instead of physical or bodily ones to achieve particular ends, and as such, the study of such forces and entities is part and parcel of the study of the cosmos as much as the study of any material or physical force or entity.  This being the case, classical Hermeticists (along with Egyptian priests themselves, and in company with many other wandering magicians of the day) certainly practiced magic, as this was a valid way to engage with the various powers of the cosmos, and thus we are both enabled and encouraged to today.  Of course, such works should be held to a high moral and ethical standard—but so should any other work, whether or not it can be considered “magical”.

What about astrology or alchemy?

These two arts have long been held to be Hermetic, and there’s good reason for saying so; even in the core classical Hermetic texts themselves, there is much astrological symbolism and even directives to engage in the study and practice of astrology to better understand the nature of the cosmos and of divinity.  Alchemy is somewhat more complicated of a subject, becoming more popular and well-studied in the late classical and post-classical periods, but is also tied to Hermetic practices of the creation of medicine, ink, oils, and talismans.  Different texts from different time periods will focus on these arts to various degrees, but they are certainly important for the practical side of Hermeticism, and those who are interested in Hermeticism are encouraged to study and engage with them.  Remember that the study of astrology is what helps us understand more about the processes of Fate; if astrology is the “as above”, then alchemy provides the “so below”, since it helps us understand the processes of change in the cosmos, learning how the activities and energies of the cosmos play out at a low level.  The power and potentiality of Fate can be learned through astrology, and the activity and actuality of Fate can be learned through alchemy.  Even if neither are strictly required, by learning both, one has a strong footing to engage in the work of theurgy.

What about theurgy?

Theurgy (from Greek theourgia, “divine work” or “god-work”) is the ritual mystical practice of participating in the presence of the divine, whether individual gods or God itself.  On the one hand, this can be considered the work of lifting oneself up to the level of the gods through spiritual elevation and divine ascent; on the other, it can also be considered the work of bringing the gods down to our level, either by having them inhabit sacred statues or other idols or by possessing their devotees for the gods to perform work down in our world.  In either case, the ultimate goal of theurgy is to unite ourselves with the divine, fulfilled through rites of purification of the body and soul along with communion with the gods.  It should be noted that this is not a kind of “coercion of the gods” where the gods are “forced” down (as if such a thing were possible in Hermetic terms), nor is it the case that we “trap” the gods in statues for our own bidding.  This is an act of communion, such as inviting someone to live in your home and share your table, and similar acts can be seen in the tradition of “living statues” of Hinduism and in many other pagan traditions across the world.  In a smaller sense, although not always done with theurgical goals in mind, the work of ensoulment and enlivening images can also be seen in the consecration of talismans, where one “brings to life” a particular object for it to confer some benefit, either by having a “shard” of the power of some force (like a planet) empower an object or by having a spirit come to inhabit the object.

What about thaumaturgy, and how is it different from theurgy?

Thaumaturgy (from Greek thaumatourgia “wonder-working”) is a way to describe magic in general, especially magic that is intended to create change or other paranormal phenomena in our world.  In other words, thaumaturgy is another word for most magic most people do and have done the whole world over since time immemorial.  Although some people consider theurgy to be “high magic” and thaumaturgy to be “low magic”, it should be noted that the difference between theurgy and thaumaturgy consists primarily in ends or goals, not in the means or methods; the same method one might use to raise a shade of the dead to learn where buried treasure lies may well be the same method one calls upon the presence of a god to bask in their glory in unity with them.

Are initiations involved or required in practicing Hermeticism?

“Initiation” in its literal sense indicates the beginning of something new, but in a religious context, it refers to the formal induction into a mystery, something secret that bestows some sacred or mystical power, license, experience, or knowledge, generally one protected as secret by a group dedicated to that mystery.  Importantly, an initiation is conferred upon an initiate by someone who is already initiated; it is something given, not merely taken.  In that light, although individual groups that profess Hermeticism may have their own mysteries may require initiations to access such mysteries, Hermeticism as a whole does not require them, and the very notion seems to be unknown according to the Hermetic texts.  That beings said, there are mysteries in Hermeticism, and are described as such in terms of being acts of spiritual elevation or divine ascent in order to behold divine visions.  Engaging in this work may be considered an initiation of sorts, whether or not there is one there to guide a student in such an endeavor.  It is perhaps better to consider this an initiation only when one who has already undertaken such a feat guides another in undertaking that same feat; beyond that, when one undertakes it on their own without such guidance, it might better be said to not be an initiation in the technical sense, even if it does acquaint one with a mystery of the Divine apart and away from any such group.  It’s a complicated topic to discuss, but suffice it here to say that there are often initiatory experiences involved in the higher works one undertakes in Hermeticism, whether or not one is initiated into a group by other human beings.

Is divination okay in Hermeticism?

Absolutely!  Divination is more than just “telling the future”, although it also does that, too; it is the act of approaching the gods to come to know them and what they have to say.  Not only does this fall in line with ancient practices that span the entire world, upholding old traditions of the oracles of the many gods, but it also is explicitly justified in the Hermetic texts as something legitimate we can do, so that we can know what has been, what is, and what will be.  Plus, so many forms of divination have been assigned to Hermēs Trismegistos, or even just Hermēs in the purely Greek sense, not least of which is astrology, that it’s hard to not separate out the work and study of divination from Hermeticism.

Do I need to be a vegetarian or vegan to be a Hermeticist?

At the end of the Perfect Sermon, there is a direction given by Hermēs Trismegistos to his students where they are to eat a “meal that includes no living thing” or “holy food which has no blood in it” following a prayer of thanksgiving to God.  Some interpet that this is an injunction for students of Hermēs Trismegistos to be vegetarian (or even vegan) in general, while others hold to a more limited opinion that only certain ritual meals need to be vegetarian.  It’s a good question, but there’s no one right answer.  It is known that those initiated into the Orphic and Pythagorean mystery cults were famously vegetarian as a constant ascetic practice (and also excluded certain kinds of beans due to their textural similarity to flesh), and it is also known that Egyptian priestly purity practices involved many abstinences from any number of animal products, both the eating of meat and otherwise (like the wearing of wool).  For our purposes today, while maintaining a vegetarian (or vegan, if one so chooses) diet is an excellent ascetic choice one can make, it can be agreed upon as important to abstain from consuming animal products prior to engaging in ritual and to only consume vegetarian (or vegan) food as part of ritual where ritual meals are called for, regardless whether sacrifices to the gods or spirits require meat or other animal products.

What about qabbala/kabbalah/cabala?

This term (all really the same word, just different transliterations from the Hebrew) refers to the overall mystical tradition of Judaism, which builds upon earlier Jewish traditions of hekaloth literature and merkaba mysticism along with Bablyonian and Hellenistic influence.  Although its origins ultimately lie in much earlier Jewish practices, qabbala as its own discipline only arose in the medieval period around 1200 CE.  Due to the complicated and messy history of Judaism in Europe, qabbala became integrated with non-Jewish systems of magic and mysticism, and earned central importance to magical systems like those of the Golden Dawn and Thelema.  While the study of qabbala, in its various forms and approaches, may be useful to some modern Hermeticists of various styles, it is not in and of itself Hermetic in the same sense that the Corpus Hermeticum is Hermetic, though due to the Neoplatonic and broadly Hellenistic influences upon the development of qabbala, it may be integrated with Hermetic practices.

Can I incorporate modern or non-Hermetic practices into Hermeticism?

By all means, feel free!  Considering the difficulty we have in reconstructing the practices of classical Hermeticists, to say nothing of the variety between their practices as well as the practices of various Hermeticists throughout the past 2000 years, there is plenty that can be done by us today in service to the Way of Hermēs. Just bear in mind that just because you might use a practice within a Hermetic context does not automatically make it “Hermetic”, and it is also worthy to remember the context in which such a practice arose and what its design and purpose is for.  Some things can be adapted or adopted for Hermetic ends quite neatly and nicely, other things less so, and some practices are best kept separate from Hermeticism entirely depending on their nature and purpose.

What about Franz Bardon and self-initiation into Hermeticism?

Bardon was a fantastic modern 20th century occultist from what is now the Czech Republic, whose works like Initiation Into Hermetics, The Practice of Magical Evocation, and The Key to the True Kabbalah are well-regarded to this day.  However, despite the name, Initiation Into Hermetics has little to do with Hermeticism proper; despite the frequent discussion of things he calls “hermetic”, he only ever cites Hermēs Trismegistos once, and that’s for his usual “as above, so below” bit from the Emerald Tablet.  By and large, what Bardon calls “Hermetics” is roughly what people think of today as “ceremonial magic”, the usual mixture of post-Renaissance magical theory, Solomonic goetic approaches to spirit interaction, European developments of kabbalah, and importations of Eastern/Orientalizing notions of energy/energy work/energy systems.  In many ways, Bardon’s approach can be considered a parallel development of the same modern European tradition of magic that gave rise to the Golden Dawn.  As such, it can certainly be adapted and adopted within a properly Hermetic context, should the student of Bardon so choose.

Will Hermeticism make me powerful, give me spells to get laid, etc.?

Sigh.  Technically yes, and I won’t deny that a fundamental drive for magic is the drive to get laid and get paid, but we’re also here to recognize that there’s more to life than just power, sex, money, and the like.  There’s magic, and then there’s magic for Hermetic ends, and while the same spell can be used for a Hermetic end as well as a non-Hermetic end, there’s a reason greed and lust are outlined as “irrational torments of matter” that we’re meant to purge ourselves from.  Let’s try to be a little more mature in the future, yes?

A New Model of Elemental Assignments to the Geomantic Figures

We all know the basic four elements of Western occult cosmology, don’t we?  Of course we do!  We know that there’s Fire, Air, Water, and Earth, in order from least dense to most dense, or from most subtle to least subtle, whichever you prefer.  They’re even described in the Divine Poemander, the opening chapter of the Corpus Hermeticum as being fundamental (even in this same order!) to the creation of the cosmos:

And I saw an infinite sight, all things were become light, both sweet and exceeding pleasant; and I was wonderfully delighted in the beholding it. But after a little while, there was a darkness made in part, coming down obliquely, fearful and hideous, which seemed unto me to be changed into a certain moist nature, unspeakably troubled, which yielded a smoke as from Fire; and from whence proceeded a voice unutterable, and very mournful, but inarticulate, inasmuch as it seemed to have come from the Light.  Then from that Light, a certain holy Word joined itself unto Nature, and outflew the pure and unmixed Fire from the moist nature upwards on high; it was exceeding Light, and sharp, and operative withal. And the Air, which was also light, followed the Spirit and mourned up to Fire from the Earth and the Water, insomuch that it seemed to hang and depend upon it.  And the Earth and the Water stayed by themselves so mingled together, that the Earth could not be seen for the Water, but they were moved because of the Spiritual word that was carried upon them.

According to long-standing doctrine, going back to the time of Aristotle and before him even unto Empedocles, the four elements are considered to be arranged according to the two qualities each element has.  One pair of qualities exists on a spectrum from Hot to Cold, and the other from Dry to Moist.  If you take both Hot and Dry, you end up with Fire; Hot and Moist, Air; Cold and Moist, Water; Cold and Dry, Earth.  In this way, each element pertains to two qualities:

Hot Cold
Dry Fire Earth
Moist Air Water

This sort of arrangement has classically been described graphically with a kind of diamond-square diagram, showing how the four elements arise from combinations of these two qualities.  In the below diagram, Fire is represented by the upwards-pointing triangle in the upper left positioned between Hot and Dry, Air by the upwards-pointing triangle with a horizontal bar in the upper right between Hot and Wet, and so forth.

The thing about the four elements is that, while they are combinations of two qualities, they’re not necessarily static combinations thereof.  Some philosophers have specified that the elements are primarily of one quality and secondarily of the other that allows them to change into each other or react with each other in a more fluid way.  Fire, for instance, is both hot and dry, but in this fluid system, is specifically considered to be primarily hot and secondarily dry.  In the diagram above, we can see this in that, going clockwise around the diagram, the primary quality of an element is clockwise from that element’s corner, and the secondary quality is counterclockwise; in this sense, the primary quality is what that element is headed into, and the secondary quality is what that element is leaving behind.  Thus:

  • Fire is primarily hot and secondarily dry.
  • Air is primarily wet and secondarily hot.
  • Water is primarily cold and secondarily wet.
  • Earth is primarily dry and secondarily cold.

From this, let’s say that the four qualities themselves—even if they’re proto-elemental—can be ascribed to the four elements themselves, such that Heat is basically the main characteristic of Fire, Moisture of Air, Cold of Water, and Dryness of Earth.  (This offshoot of the Empedoclean-Aristotelian system is in opposition to the Stoic system, which gives Heat and Coldness to Fire and Air, and Moisture and Dryness to Water and Earth, but that doesn’t matter for the purposes of this system which is effectively unrelated.)  So, although Heat is part of both Fire and Air, Heat is more aligned towards Fire than Air.

We also know that certain elements—more properly, certain qualities of the elements—cannot be together lest they cancel each other out because of their inherent opposition.  Heat and Cold cancel each other out, as do Moisture and Dryness.  Thus, when we say that Fire and Water cancel each other out, it’s really their elemental qualities that cancel each other out, leaving behind a mess.  What remains when different elements cancel each other out, or some combination of elements reinforcing each other in some ways or reducing each other in other ways, can be instructive in how to alchemically understand these elemental reactions from a basic principle.

Now consider the 16 geomantic figures.  Each figure, as we all know by now, is represented by four rows, each row having one or two dots.  Each row represents one of the four elements: from top to bottom, they’re Fire, Air, Water, and Earth.  A single dot in a row signifies the presence or activity of that element in the figure, while two dots in a row signifies its absence or passivity.  Thus, Laetitia (with only one dot in the topmost Fire row and two dots in the other rows) has only Fire active, and so forth.  We know that there are many different ways to assign the elements to the figures, some being more recent than others, and the way I like to assign them has the benefit of being one of the oldest used in Western geomancy…mostly, with the figures Laetitia and Rubeus swapped around so that Laetitia is ruled by Fire and Rubeus by Air.  Moreover, my way of assigning the elements also has a benefit of giving each figure both a primary and a secondary elemental ruler, which has come in use in various techniques more often than I had originally anticipated.

Still, what would happen if we used a different method beyond overall signification to assign the figures to the elements?  What would happen if we took the structure of the figures themselves as the sole key to understand their elemental affinities based on what’s present, what’s absent, what cancels out, and what reinforces each other?  Knowing that certain elemental qualities do just that when put together, what would happen if we took that structural approach to the elements active within a geomantic figure?  For instance, Puer has Fire, Air, and Earth active; we know that because of their opposing qualities, Air (Hot and Wet) and Earth (Cold and Dry) cancel each other out, leaving only Fire behind, giving Puer a basically fiery nature.  What if we took this approach to all the figures, seeing what came out of such elemental interactions amongst the elements present within a geomantic figure?

Fire First
Row
Second
Row
Third
Row
Fourth
Row
Remainder Result
Laetitia Hot
Dry
Hot
Dry
Fire
Fortuna
Minor
Hot
Dry
Hot
Wet
Hot ×2 Hot
Amissio Hot
Dry
Cold
Wet
Ø Null
Cauda
Draconis
Hot
Dry
Hot
Wet
Cold
Wet
Hot
Wet
Air
Puer Hot
Dry
Hot
Wet
Cold
Dry
Hot
Dry
Fire
Rubeus Hot
Wet
Hot
Wet
Air
Coniunctio Hot
Wet
Cold
Wet
Wet ×2 Wet
Acquisitio Hot
Wet
Cold
Dry
Ø Null
Puella Hot
Dry
Cold
Wet
Cold
Dry
Cold
Dry
Earth
Via Hot
Dry
Hot
Wet
Cold
Wet
Cold
Dry
Ø Null
Albus Cold
Wet
Cold
Wet
Water
Populus Ø Null
Carcer Hot
Dry
Cold

Dry

Dry ×2 Dry
Caput
Draconis
Hot
Wet
Cold

Wet

Cold

Dry

Cold
Wet
Water
Fortuna
Maior
Cold
Wet
Cold
Dry
Cold ×2 Cold
Tristitia Cold
Dry
Cold
Dry
Earth

Note the overall results we get:

  • Eight figures end up with an actual element that represents them, four being a result of that element being the only active one in that figure (e.g. Laetitia, being Fire, because only Fire is active), and four being a result of that element being active, its opposing element being inactive, and the other two elements that cancel out being active (e.g. Puer, being Fire, because Fire is active but so is Air and Earth, which cancel each other out).
  • Four figures end up with being not an actual element, but a single quality, because it contains the two elements active in that figure that have that quality, with the other qualities of those elements canceling out (e.g. Fortuna Minor is pure Heat, because Fire and Air are active within it, both elements of Heat, though the dryness of Fire and moisture of Air cancel each other out).
  • Four figures end up with being null and void of any element or quality.  One is trivial, Populus, because it just has nothing active in it to begin with, but the other three (Via, Amissio, and Acquisitio) are combinations of only opposing elements that all cancel each other out somehow.

If we separate out those eight figures that end up with an element into a “pure element” group (where the figure consists of only that single element itself) and a “muddled element” group (where the figure consists of that element plus two other elements that oppose each other and cancel out), we end up with a neat grouping of four groups of four figures.  Even nicer is that the Pure Element, Muddled Element, and Single Quality groups all have each figure representing one of the four elements (the Single Quality representing elements by means of their most closely associated quality, e.g. Fire by Heat, Water by Cold).  That leaves us with a convenient scheme for assigning the figures to the elements in a new way…

Fire Air Water Earth
Pure
Element
Laetitia Rubeus Albus Tristitia
Muddled
Element
Puer Cauda
Draconis
Caput
Draconis
Puella
Single
Quality
Fortuna
Minor
Coniunctio Fortuna
Maior
Carcer
Null
Quality
…?

…mostly.  The Null Quality group of figures (Via, Populus, Amissio, and Acquisitio) don’t fall into the same patterns as the rest because…well, they’re all null and void and empty of any single element or quality.  We’ll get to those later.

First, note that the Pure Element, Muddled Element, and Single Quality groups, we see a process of descension from one element to the next.  Descension is the process by which the elemental rows of a geomantic figure are “shifted” downwards such that the Fire line gets shifted down to the Air line, Air down to Water, Water down to Earth, and Earth cycles back up again to Air; I discussed this and the corresponding reverse technique, ascension, in an earlier post of mine from 2014.  Moreover, note that all these groups descend into the proper elements ruling that figure in lockstep, so that if we take the Fire figure from one group and descend it into the Air figure of that same group, the other Fire figures from the other groups also descend into the Air figures of those groups.  That’s actually a pretty neat reinforcing of this new system of assigning elements to the figures, and in a conveniently regular, structural way.

It’s with the Null Quality figures (Via, Populus, Amissio, and Acquisitio) that that pattern breaks down.  We know that Amissio and Acquisitio descend into each other in a two-stage cycle of descension, while Via and Albus descend into themselves without a change.  We can’t use the process of descension like we did before to make a cycle of elements within a quality group of figures, and because of their null quality, we can’t just look at the elements present in the figures themselves to determine what element they might be aligned with as a whole in this system.  So…what next?

Take a close look at the figures we already have charted, and follow along with my next bit of logic.  For one, we know that all the odd figures are either in the Pure Element or Muddled Element group, which means all the even figures must be in the Single Quality or Null Quality group.  On top of that, if we look at the figures that are already charted to the elements, we can note that Fire and Air figures are all mobile, and Water and Earth figures are all stable.  This suggests that Via and Amissio (the mobile Null Quality figures) should be given to Fire and Air somehow, and Populus and Acquisitio (the stable Null Quality figures) to Water and Earth somehow.  We’re getting somewhere!

The Null Quality figures share more similarities with the Single Quality figures because they’re both sets of even figures.  Even though the Single Quality figures follow a process of descension between one element and the next, we also see that figures that belong to opposing elements (Fire and Water, Air and Earth) are also inverses of each other (inversion being one of the structural transformations of geomantic figures, this one specifically replacing odd points with even points and vice versa).  This can be used as a pattern for the Null Quality figures, too, such that inverse Null Quality figures are given to opposing elements. This means that we have two possible solutions:

  1. Via to Fire, Amissio to Air, Populus to Water, Acquisitio to Earth
  2. Amissio to Fire, Via to Air, Acquisitio to Water, Populus to Earth

At this point, I don’t think there’s any structural argument that could be made for one choice over the other, so I shift to a symbolic one.  In many Hermetic and Platonic systems of thought, when it comes to pure activity or pure passivity (though there are many other alternatives to such terms!), Fire and Water are often thought of as perfect examplars, so much so that the Hexagram is literally interpreted as a divine union of masculine/ejective/active Fire (represented by the upwards-pointing triangle) and feminine/receptive/passive Water (represented by the downwards-pointing triangle).  Taking it a step further, in some interpretations of this mystical formation of the hexagram, this combination of Fire and Water produces the element of Air.  If we translate this into geomantic figures, we can consider “pure activity” (Fire) to best be represented by the figure Via (which could, I suppose, be taken as the simplest possible representation of the phallus, being a single erect line, or as the number 1 which is also historically considered to be masculine or active), and “pure passivity” (Water) as Populus (which, likewise, could be seen as the walls of the birth canal or vulva, as well as the number 2 which is considered feminine or passive).  If we give Via to Fire and Populus to Water, this means that we’d give Amissio to Air and Acquisitio to Earth.  Note how this actually works nicely for us, because the Null Quality figure we give to Air is itself composed of Fire and Water, matching with that mystical elemental interpretation of the Hexagram from before.

Now we can complete our table from before:

Fire Air Water Earth
Pure
Element
Laetitia Rubeus Albus Tristitia
Muddled
Element
Puer Cauda
Draconis
Caput
Draconis
Puella
Single
Quality
Fortuna
Minor
Coniunctio Fortuna
Maior
Carcer
Null
Quality
Via Amissio Populus Acquisitio

Next, can we impose an ordering onto the figures given these elemental assignments and quality groups?  Probably!  Not that orders matter much in Western geomancy as opposed to Arabic geomancy, but it could be something useful as well, inasmuch as any of this might be useful.  The order I would naturally think would be useful would be to have all sixteen figures grouped primarily by element—so all four Fire figures first, then the four Air figures, and so on—and then, within that group, the most representative of that element down to the least representative, which would suggest we start with the Pure Element figure and end with the Null Quality figure.  So, which comes second, the Muddled Element or the Single Quality?  I would suggest that the Single Quality figure is more like the element than the Muddled Element figure, because the Single Quality is representative of the…well, single quality that is representative of that element and, though it has some things canceling out within the figure, those things that cancel out based on their corresponding elements active within the figure are still harmonious and agreeable to the overall element itself.  Meanwhile, the Muddled Element is more removed due to the presence of other opposing elements that fight within itself, dragging it down further away from a pure expression of its overall element.  These rules would get us an order like the following:

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

So, what does this leave us with, and where does this leave us?  We have here a new way to associate the geomantic figures to the traditional elements in a way that’s substantially different from either the usual structural method that I prefer or a more zodiacal method that’s also in common use by authors like John Michael Greer and those immersed in Golden Dawn-like systems, though there is still a good amount of overlap between this kind of elemental assignment and the structural method with eight of the figures retaining their same element (all four Pure Element figures plus Fortuna Minor, Coniunctio, Carcer, and Populus).  This is not a method I’ve encountered before in any geomantic text I’m familiar with, and I’m inclined to say it’s pretty much a novel approach to assigning the elements to the figures, though considering how straightforward the process was, or at least how simple the idea behind it was, I’d be honestly surprised that such a thing hasn’t been thought of before now.

I don’t mean to supplant the major two existing systems of elemental assignments of the geomantic figures (the planetary-zodiacal method or the structural method) or their variations as found throughout the literature; personally, I’m still inclined to keep to my structural method of elemental assignments instead of this combinatoric method, as it’s what I’ve most closely worked with for years, and I’ve gotten exceedingly good mileage out of it.  To me, all the above is something like a curiosity, a “what if” experiment of potential.  Still, even as an experiment, this combinatoric method could have more interesting applications outside pure divination, and I’m thinking more along the lines of alchemy, magic, or other such applications where it’s truly the action, nonaction, interaction, and reaction of the elements themselves among the figures is what matters.  We can alchemically-geomantically view the cosmos as arising from:

  • 4 base substances
  • 16 base entities (the 16 = 4 × 4 different combinations of the elements to form the figures)
  • 256 base interactions (the 256 = 16 × 16 = 4 × 4 × 4 × 4 different addition-pairs of the figures)

So, consider: if you add pure Fire and pure Water, that’d be Laetitia + Albus = Amissio, which gets you a Null figure of balance that leads to an overall condition of Air.  (Fitting, given our explanation of why Amissio should be given to Air at all.)  If you add simple Heat to pure Air, that’d be Fortuna Minor + Rubeus = Laetitia, which also makes sense because, as a figure of Air, Rubeus is primarily wet and secondarily hot; if we reinforce the heat, it becomes primarily hot, and the wet condition gets dried out by the overabundance of heat, transforming Air into Fire.  If we add simple Cold and simple Heat, which would be weird to think about even in alchemical terms except unless we’d isolate those qualities from simpler bases (which we do in geomantic terms), that’d be Fortuna Maior + Fortuna Minor, which would become Via, a technically Null figure given to balanced, ideal, spiritual Fire; how odd!  But we wet the same result when we add any of the opposing Single Qualities, which to me would be like a geomantic division by zero.

I think that this combinatoric model of elemental assignments, what I’m going to call the “alchemical model” as opposed to my usual “structural model” or the Golden Dawn-style “zodiacal model”, could be useful for more mystical, philosophical, or magical meditations on the figures.  It’s not one I’ve completely fleshed out or can immediately agree with given how different it can be from the models I’m used to working with, but I think it does hold some promise and is worthy of exploration and testing, especially in a more magical and less divinatory context.