On Mistakes in Divination

A few days ago, I was chatting with one of my good Twitter friends in private messages.  He’s a pretty cool guy, and though I met him through a few mutual furry contacts we have online, I also found out he was an occultist, so we have fun things to talk about now and again.  He’s been learning geomancy lately (a highly worthwhile endeavor!), and he posed to me a question:

Consider a reading, where the seer fucks up and their dyslexic ass misreads Albus as Fortuna Maior, or got turned around with the meanings of say, Capricorn and Sagittarius.  Would the reading be wrong, or would it be adequate to take that slip as part of the system that produces the interpretation?  And, if the seer realizes their fuckup, should they make a full redaction and correction, or should they make a “transformation” in the reading like old Yin and old Yang in I Ching readings?

He had already guessed what my answer would be, and he was right, but he still wanted to know what my thoughts were.  It was a pretty fruitful discussion for us both, and I want to share some of the insights from that conversation more publicly.  And no, I’m not upset with him!  It just turns out that I have some Thoughts and Opinions in where we differ, and I think these are good things to talk about here.

I know that there are some diviners who everything that happens in a reading, whether in geomancy or in another system entirely, as omens of significance.  Like, say you’re shuffling a deck of Tarot cards for your usual spread, and a card slips out of the deck and falls face-up.  Some people say that that card is important and should be interpreted like any card in the spread itself; I hope he can correct me if I’m wrong, but I think it was Gordon White from Rune Soup who said something along the lines of “the only thing that card means is that you’re bad at shuffling”—and that’s a viewpoint I agree with (and if he didn’t say that or doesn’t agree with it, then I guess we disagree).  I don’t take all omens in a divination reading that relies on a divination system (i.e. a process with rules and standards and checks and skill) as significant, but only those that are produced according to the system within the boundaries of the system.  There’s a place and a role for intuition to play in divination, to be sure, but when it comes to mistakes, well…mistakes are just that: mistakes.

Without any exaggeration, I can claim that geomancy is a mathematical form of divination: geomancy relies on binary processes of addition and recursion using the binary structure of the 16 geomantic figures to produce a chart.  And there aren’t an infinite number of charts, nor are there 16! (2.092279 × 1013) different charts, or even more than that.  In fact, there are far fewer charts: only 65,536 (164) possible charts are permitted within the mathematical rules of geomancy.  By definition, any chart that does not fall into one of those 65,536 charts is not a valid chart, and there are multiple ways of checking to make sure a chart is valid.  So, you can’t have a chart where all four Mother figures are all Populus and have any other figure in the chart that isn’t Populus; such a chart just isn’t possible, any more than there could be a Tarot spread with three Empresses in a row or a horoscope where Venus opposes the Sun.  Such impossible charts are inherently invalid, and indicate that there was a mistake in your mathematics when calculating the chart; the proper approach isn’t to inspect the chart as it was drawn, but to go back and fix your error so you have a correct chart to look at.  Heck, although it wasn’t said so bluntly, there are some texts that say that “if the Judge is an odd figure, the chart is cursed and must be thrown out”; in a mathematically valid chart, the Judge must always be an even figure (containing an even number of points, e.g. Fortuna Maior with 6 points), so if you have one with an odd Judge (e.g. Puer with 5 points), that means you made a mistake.

But here’s the thing: you can make a mistake in multiple places in the chart, and a mistake anywhere in the chart means that the whole chart gets messed up.  The only four truly independently-generated figures there are in a geomantic chart, where the four figures have no inherent relationship to each other, are the four Mothers.  The Daughters rely on the Mothers, the Nieces rely on the Mothers and the Daughters, the Witnesses rely on the Nieces (and thus the Mothers and Daughters), the Judge relies on the Witnesses (and thus the Nieces, and thus the Mothers and Daughters), and the Sentence relies on the First Mother as well as the Judge (and thus, ultimately, the Four Mothers).  A mistake in the chart in the Daughters, Nieces, Witnesses, or Court indicates that there’s a break in the calculation that causes the whole chart to become invalid.  In other words, any of the figures from the fifth figure (First Daughter) to the sixteenth (Sentence) relies on all the other figures to be correct; if one figure is calculated wrong, even if it doesn’t impact the rest of the figures in the chart, it still means that the whole chart is off.

Now, on the rare occasion, I have seen some people in the geomancy Facebook group I admin post a chart that has a mistake in it, and generally one of the community will be sharp and fast enough to point out that mistake.  However, there is the rare time now and again that someone will still want to interpret the invalid, erroneous chart, because “well, that’s what they made in the moment”.  Like…I get it, but that’s not how geomancy works.  Geomancy is a system, a body of (more or less) well-defined and well-understood rules that must be applied for it to be considered “geomancy”.  To break those rules is to break the system, and you end up in the realm of “undefined behavior”, which doesn’t give you a lot to stand on besides pure intuition.  And geomancy, while making use of intuition, cannot simply rely on it in favor of the actual rules that keep things grounded in the actual art and practice of geomancy.

Now, to be sure and to be fair, there is absolutely a role for intuition in geomancy!  This is where we can explore our connection to the Divine and plumb its depths in order to come up with true and truly artful interpretations that pull every ounce and gram of nuance and detail out of a chart, even a single figure or a single passation of a figure from one house to another.  But that connection must be solid in order for it to be of use, and you still have to be sure you’re looking at the right things.  I’ve seen people in a variety of settings whose intuitions are strong, but not strong enough to not be swayed by what they’re looking at; it’s often what they’re looking at that kickstarts or unlocks their intuition, so if what they’re looking at is wrong, then while they might be getting messages, it’ll end up being a case of garbage-in garbage-out.  And that gets nobody anywhere good.  Sure, there are times where your intuition or spirit guides or what-have-you will kick in strong and give you ultimately-right answers with a fundamentally wrong chart, essentially covering for your mistakes, but it’s not guaranteed, it’s not trustworthy, it’s not reliable, and it’s still a problem because you made a mistake and didn’t spot or correct it.

So much for the chart, but there is a way for the Mothers to be wrong, too!  Recall that, of all the various ways to generate figures, the oldest and most traditional method is the stick-and-surface method: the geomancer takes some marking instrument (stick, staff, wand, pen, pencil, finger, etc.) and a markable surface (sand, dirt, paper, wax tablet, electronic tablet, etc.) and makes 16 rows of randomly-generated marks from right to left, then counts them off two-by-two until either one or two marks are left in a row.  Those leftover marks, read in succession from the top down and clustered into four groups of four, are what give you your four Mother figures.  The trick is to be able to make those marks clearly and distinctly enough when you’re in the throes of that geomantic diviner’s trance so that, when you’re later counting them, you can clearly count exactly how many marks you made.  The soul is moved to make those marks through the use of the body, but if you can’t read what the soul was actually doing, then there wasn’t enough control over the body to make that connection clear.  So, if you ended up reading two points as one (if the two marks were made too closely together), or if you ended up counting an extra point where there shouldn’t have been, then you got a bad Mother where you might end up with Fortuna Maior instead of Albus or vice versa, and that’s something that’s super hard to check for, and not at all possible based on the chart that uses those Mothers.  You need to carefully inspect the actual marks you made when using the stick-and-surface method to make sure you actually recorded what you were supposed to get.  (It’s because of this difficulty and honing of the use of the body, in addition to practicing that diviner’s trance, that I recommend people to start with the stick-and-surface method and become adept at it before going on to any other method of generating Mothers.)

So what about those who use the stick-and-surface method to generate figures?  Sure, humans may not be perfect dot-making or dot-reading machines, but c’mon.  If you’re not able to make or read dots well enough to avoid mistakes, then you need to get better at making and reading dots.  If you’re a geomancer who has the querent themselves make the dots for making the Mothers (and this is a thing!), well…maybe don’t let them make dots, but have them use another tool or method instead, like throwing dice or drawing cards to generate Mothers.  Or, heck, instead of making dots, I might instead recommend making short vertical notches, which are easier to read and mark rather than dots, which can get pretty sloppy.  Sure, we might not be perfect at making or reading dots, but it’s not about the dots themselves—it’s about trying to understand what the motions of the soul were trying to communicate through making the dots, not what the dots are literally saying themselves.  The dots must be inspected carefully to make sure the motions of the soul that produced them is understood, and any mistake in translating there means that that connection is disrupted, and the omens that follow will be misread.

Basically, what it comes down to is this: if there’s an error in the calculation of the chart or in the generation of the Mothers, then that’s on you to notice and to fix, then start interpreting the correct chart.  Consider a library, where each book is a particular destiny or fate for individual queries put to divination, and you want to find the book for the specific query the querent in front of you is asking; the geomantic chart is the call number for that book.  If you have the right call number, then you have the right book, and all you need to do is read from it; easy enough!  But if you have the wrong call number, then you’ll get the wrong book which won’t speak to the query put to divination by the querent—heck, you may end up with a call number for a book that doesn’t even exist.  This is why it’s crucial to make sure that we calculate the chart correctly, because if we don’t, we’re not going to get a chart that properly responds to the query put to divination: any mistake that occurs in the calculation of the chart will mess with the interpretation of the chart.

And that’s a whole other level to worry about, too!  Even if you have the chart mathematically correct, you can still mess up in the interpretation of the chart, like if you misread Fortuna Maior for Fortuna Minor or if you thought that Amissio was a figure of Mercury instead of Venus.  As a geomancer, you need to make sure that you know your symbols well enough to at least avoid major blunders in their interpretation.  These symbols are a thousand years old and are known across the Old World from Morocco to Mumbai, from Madagascar to Murmansk, and though there are definitely variations in how some geomancers or how some traditions of geomancy interpret them, the core meanings are the same no matter where you turn.  To make an egregious error in thinking that Caput Draconis talks about death or that Amissio talks about great gains in wealth is to show that you’re not getting the right information, and that will mess up the interpretation accordingly.  Just because you say things that are wrong doesn’t mean they become right because you’re “in the zone” and getting lost in the moment of talking; it just means you’re wrong and getting carried away with yourself.

My friend countered that the interpretation of a geomantic chart should embrace our imperfections and slips of reading or memory, but I countered with the metaphor of a doctor measuring someone’s blood pressure.  If their blood pressure meter is broken, the wrong numbers will result; if the blood pressure meter uses the wrong-sized armband, the wrong numbers will result; if the doctor mentally flips the numbers so that the systolic pressure is read on the bottom and the diastolic pressure on the top, the wrong numbers will result.  And wrong numbers means that the doctor is going to get a bad understanding and could gauge the person to be healthy when they’re not, or that they’re in danger when they’re fine.  Let’s not kid ourselves here: this kind of mistake can kill someone, and such a mistake cannot be tolerated or allowed by the doctor, so the doctor must make sure that the blood pressure meter is working and calibrated properly, that they’re using the right equipment for their patient, and that they’re reading and properly understanding the numbers that result.  The doctor cannot afford mistakes in tending to their patient, and neither can we, as diviners, afford mistakes in tending to our querents.  When people come to us for divination, they sometimes come to us to save their lives.  Divination can often be a matter of literal life and death for some people who know it, and more’s the pity, those who aren’t even aware of it yet.  There should be absolutely no expense spared in effort, skill, practice, study, or tools to make sure that everything in our divination readings is absolutely correct as possible, including making our calculations and double-, triple, even quadruple-checking them according to the rules within our system.  The rules of geomancy, when aided (but not replaced) by intuition, are what ensures that it work, so we need to make sure we understand the system at work.

To use another medical metaphor, consider someone coming to you for herbal medicine.  Ideally and hopefully, you can get a good read on the person and their symptoms and you know your herbs well enough to give them a particular kind of herbal concoction to help them improve themselves.  Sometimes, we can rely on intuition or spiritual guidance to pick the herbs for us, passing our hands over our jars and bundles and going “mmm…yes, this one feels right for you”.  But let’s be honest: if you don’t have a good grasp of your patient’s symptoms, or if they’re not telling you all their symptoms, or if you misremember certain properties of herbs or don’t know them to begin with, you can make a mistake in the medicine you give them that could poison them, incapacitate them, or otherwise make their situation worse.  I don’t care how strong someone’s intuition is: if my goal is to help someone, then the least I can do is to do no harm, so I’m going to do whatever I can to make sure I can at least hit that bare minimum threshold, which requires me to make sure I don’t make mistakes in what I do.  People come to us diviners for help, and it’s our job as diviners to help them and not hurt them; thus, it’s of paramount importance that everything in my divination work be done as properly and correctly as possible.  Heck, I’ll still pull out my notes and reference books when doing divinations; even if I think I know the figures and rules after ten years of constant use and study, I’ll still double-check and cross-check myself to make sure I’m on a good path with what I’m doing.  Making mistakes, honest or careless or with good intentions or otherwise, is still making mistakes, and that’s not something we can tolerate, nor is it anything I would take a chance with.

Now, sure, if geomancy were a more free-form kind of divination that relies far more on intuition, like bone-throwing or fire-scrying or trance states of remote viewing or possession, then this would all be a moot point, because pure intuition (so long as that connection is strong and clear) doesn’t have rules that can be broken.  Likewise, forms of divination that are developed on-the-spot or that have rules that can be bent or tossed aside in the moment, like some kinds of bone-throwing or nonce Tarot spreads, don’t have this issue, again because there are no rules that keep things correct, because it’s going to be correct by default.  And, of course, there are forms of divination that are strictly omen-based, like Roman augury, where you must inspect everything that happens or everything that is said as being of potential significance!  But geomancy isn’t like those forms of divination; geomancy has rules, and we use those rules and systems to enhance and ground our intuition, not the other way around.

Now, I don’t want to be misunderstood here: I’m not trying to say that geomancy is just about the rules, because it’s not, nor that there is no role that intuition plays, because there absolutely is.  Technique and intuition go hand-in-hand with geomancy, as I once said long ago with a beautiful metaphor based on Bernadette Brady’s Predictive Astrology: The Eagle and the Lark, and the dumbing-down of geomancy that reduced it only to a rule-based system ended up in the cultural forgetting and setting-aside of geomancy in favor of more intuitive methods of divination like Tarot that we saw in the West.  Intuition helps reach where rules cannot, but let’s be clear here: it really is the rules that do the bulk of the work in geomantic divination, and if you falter in the understanding or application of the rules, your intuition may not be enough to cover the distance that you’re falling short of.  Yes, there are times where intuition can do just that, and I’m not saying that it can’t or doesn’t; there are times when we’re so plugged in to the querent and tuned in to the query that we can clearly see without the use of geomancy, or that we can get at obscure meanings of the figures that don’t normally apply because of the peculiarities of a given situation.  However, if you’re using a system composed of rules like geomancy, and unless you’re a professional medium or clairvoyant or honest-to-gods psychic, you can’t always rely on that helping you out when you make a mistake, nor can you always be certain that your connection is 100% clear and strong enough to do so—and if you do have such a strong intuitive connection, then chances are you don’t need geomancy anyway.  Even so, geomancy is still more technique-based than intuition-based, and although intuition plays a role in refining and aiming the rules of geomancy, it’s still the rules of geomancy themselves that point us in the right direction to begin with, so we need to make sure that we’re facing the right way to see in that way.

Remember: an honest mistake is still a mistake, and mistakes can be costly.