Feasts at a Hermetic Shrine

In the last post, I brought up the notion of what sorts of offerings one might make at a shrine used for Hermetic devotions and worship and how one might go about arranging them.  For me in general, this is an important thing to mull over, because I find the simple making of offerings (even just incense, candles, and water) to be a hugely beneficial work unto itself.  And yes, sure, while Hermēs at the end of the Asclepius (AH 41) says that one shouldn’t offer incense to God:

As they left the sanctuary, they began praying to god and turning to the south (for when someone wants to entreat god at sunset, he should direct his gaze to that quarter, and likewise at sunrise toward the direction they call east), and they were already saying their prayer when in a hushed voice Asclepius asked: “Tat, do you think we should suggest that your father tell them to add frankincense and spices as we pray to god?”

When Trismegistus heard him, he was disturbed and said: “A bad omen, Asclepius, very bad. To burn incense and such stuff when you entreat god smacks of sacrilege. For he wants nothing who is himself all things or in whom all things are. Rather let us worship him by giving thanks, for god finds mortal gratitude to be the best incense.”

Such a direction only really applies to the One God, not to the many gods.  After all, earlier on in the Asclepius (AH 38), Hermēs praises works of sacrifice for the gods, or at least those that inhabit cult images in temples:

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.

While I think that making offerings to the gods is never something done in vain and can be done anytime and all the time, I also find that it helps to have some sort of routine, rhythm, or rubric by which one can organize the timing of offerings, what sorts of offerings should be given, and the like.  This is where the notion of ritual timing comes into play, and so raises the question of when we should engage in such works of offering and sacrifice.  There are lots of terms for such events, but a good general-purpose one we might use is simply “feast”—if not for us, then at least for the gods.

In the last post, I cited a few Hermetic Testimonies (TH) texts that informed my notion of what can/should be given at a Hermetic shrine for Hermetic work, according to a few Islamic-era texts that describe some clearly non-Islamic (but potentially Islamicly-filtered) practices that may well be Hermetic.  Let’s review those texts once more, with the bits about timing highlighted.

TH 37B (Picatrix III.7), but using the Attrell/Porreca translation:

The opinion of the sages about the prayers and petitions suited to the planets is that each of the planets acts on matters corresponding to its own nature (the fortunate to the good and the unfortunate to the evil).  When you wish to ask something from the planets, see to it that the chosen planet be aspected by the lord of the ascendant, that the almuten of the figure be in the east and also high in its epicycle in the fourth altitude in the east.  Then the sages would make their petitions.  The powers and effects of the planets are stronger and of greater influence at night.  Beware lest you seek anything from the any planet that is not from its own proper nature since it would be the downfall of such a request.

The sages who made prayers and sacrifices to the planets in mosques did the abovementioned things.  When the heavens moved by eight degrees, they made the sacrifice of one animal, and while it as setting by eight degrees, they made another sacrifice.  They say that Hermes ordered them to do this in mosques or in their churches.  Those sages have claimed regarding Hermes that he was lord of the three thriving roles, namely a king, a prophet, and a sage.

The context of this part of the Picatrix is from a lengthy chapter that contains descriptions of the seven planets, what their properties and associations are, and what prayers may be recited for them (and how!) for a number of ends.  These prayers specify particular astrological configurations (e.g. for Saturn “you must wait until he enters into good condition” like in Libra, Aquarius, or Capricorn), so these can reasonably fall into the domain of astrological magic, but if you consider Hermeticism or those influenced by it to participate in an astrological religion, then there’s little difference between the two.

In that light, what we see here is also astrological in nature, but rather than it being about a particular election, it’s about repeated and regular rituals rituals after an election.  Once a particular planetary working was performed at a given election, two further sacrifices were given to the planet, each when it had passed eight degrees along the ecliptic.  Thus, for example, if I were to do an operation of the Sun when it was at is exaltation degree of 18° Aries, then I’d make another sacrifice to the Sun at 18 + 8 = 26° Aries, and then again at 26 + 8 = 34 → 4° Taurus.  Depending on the speed of the planet in question, it could take anywhere from a day to a year or more, but the point is to follow up one ritual with two subsequent ones, either as thanks or to revisit the working to ensure its success.  However, I wouldn’t really call these “feasts”, not really; while these would be ritualized offerings, they’re done as follow-ups to particular purpose-driven operations, like follow-up visits to the doctor after a once-in-a-lifetime health procedure rather than a regularly-scheduled yearly checkup.

We’ll look at the next two together, since they’re pretty similar in content.  First, TH 28 (Kitāb Muẖtār al-Ḥikam wa-Maḥāsin al-Kalim 7.8—10.19):

He preached God’s judgment, belief in God’s unity, humankind’s worship (of God), and saving souls from punishment. He incited (people) to abstain piously from this world, to act justly, and to seek salvation in the next world. He commanded them to perform prayers that he stated for them in manners that he explained to them, and to fast on recognized days of each month, to undertake holy war against the enemies of the religion, and to give charity from (their) possessions and to assist the weak with it. He bound them with oaths of ritual purity from pollutants, menstruation, and touching the dead. He ordered them to forbid eating pig, donkey, camel, dog, and other foods. He forbade intoxication from every type of beverage, and stated this in the most severe terms.

He established many feasts for them at recognized times, and prayers and offerings in them. One (of these) is that of the entry of the sun into the beginnings (that is, the first degrees) of the signs of the zodiac. Another is that of the sightings of the new moon and that of the times of astrological conjunctions. And whenever the planets arrive at their houses and exaltations or are aspected with other planets, they make an offering. The offerings for what he prescribed include three things: incense, sacrificial animals, and wine. Of the first fruits of aromatic plants they offer roses. Of grains, they offer wheat and barley, of fruit, grapes, and of drink, wine.

And then Tārīẖ Muẖtaṣar al-Duwal, “On the Three Hermēses”:

It is also handed down that the first Hermēs founded a hundred and eighty cities, the smallest of which is Ruhā (Edessa, Urfa); and that he prescribed to people the worship of God: fasting, prayers, alms, that they held feasts whenever the planets were in their own domicile in the descendant or in the ascendant as well as on each new moon and whenever the Sun entered any of the twelve signs; they would offer the first fruits of all crops and the best perfumes and wine; and he did not prohibit inebriation or illicit foods.

As opposed to being as-needed purpose-driven operations, what these extracts give us would be much closer to religious observances.  They’re still astrologically-determined, sure, but they’re not as arbitrary or at-will as what Picatrix III.7 was describing.  From these, we get the following notions:

  • New moon (i.e. first sighting of the waxing crescent Moon after syzygy with the Sun).  This makes sense and is a pretty common observance to make the whole world over, given how the observable synodic cycle of the Moon is a common basis for months in lunar or lunisolar calendars.  Repeated, regularly-timed feasts.
  • Sun ingresses into a new sign.  For anyone astrologically-inclined, this would also make sense for similar reasons as the observance of the new Moon, just for a strictly solar calendar rather than a lunar/lunisolar one.  (Consider the Persian Nowruz celebration, marking the new year at the March equinox when the Sun enters Aries.)  More repeated, regularly-timed feasts.
  • Planets ingress into the signs of their domiciles.  Now we’re getting into actual astrological stuff, but in a way that’s as repeated and regular as the strictly lunar and solar observances as before.  (In the case of the Sun, this would overlap with the Sun ingressing into Leo.)
  • Planets ingress into the signs of their exaltations (or, more specifically, arrive at their degrees of exaltation).  Again, similar as above with planets ingressing into their domiciles, but there are two options here.  While we might perform such a feast when a given planet enters the sign of its exaltation (e.g. Venus hits 0° Pisces), exaltations are technically degree-based dignities of the planets, so instead of doing it by sign ingress, we might instead do this when the planet hits that specific degree (e.g. Venus hits 26° Pisces).  This gives us something like two or three observances a year for each planet (possibly more if we consider the separate times a planet hits a degree due to retrograde motion as a separate observance worthy of action).
  • Planets arrive into conjunction with one another, and possibly other aspects.  Unlike the above, this is not something so regular or repeated, because it depends on particular astrological configurations of the planets that might happen on any timescale, like the Great Conjunctions of Jupiter and Saturn that happen once every 20 years or so.  Now, the language here is somewhat conflicting or obscure: what such events are worthy of such an observance?  Conjunctions are specifically highlighted, but between what planets, or how many planets?  For other aspects, do we care about greater aspects (oppositions and trines) or lesser aspects (squares and sextiles)?  For Mercury and Venus, do we care about whether a conjunction is superior (on the far side of the Sun during direct motion) or inferior (between the Earth and the Sun during retrograde motion)?  Depending on the strictness of one’s observation, one could really open up the field here to quite a lot of feasts all the time or just a handful of them a year.

Also, something I’d also like to propose in addition to the above, based not on Islamic-period Hermetic testimonia but classical-period Greco-Egyptian practice: the decans!  These are 10-day periods, basically the equivalent of Egyptian “weeks”, which were used to track the passage of time, and later became incorporated into Hellenistic and later forms of astrology as “faces”, 10° segments of the ecliptic, giving three decans/faces to a sign (o° to 10°, 1o° to 20°, and 20° to 30°).  Like most of the above, these would be regular and repeated observances, but definitely on a more frequent timescale than any of the others…unless we also factor in lunar phases beyond the New Moon, like the Full Moon or quarter Moons.  It’s interesting how new Moons are specifically highlighted as an observance for making offerings, but not any other kind of lunar timing beyond this; one might presume that smaller or private observances might have been made without as much public pomp as new Moon ones, but that’s entirely conjecture.  Either way, we can certainly consider the above highlights from the Islamic-period Hermetic testimonia give a good number of basic observances to start with that form the foundation of an astrologically-informed religious practice, to which we can add other astrologically-informed observances to if desired for a more active and rigorous schedule.

In addition to all the above—or, technically, as a specification of one of the items from above—I’d also like to highlight a particular observance when Mercury hits the fifteenth degree of Virgo (i.e. 14° Virgo).  This is part of the specific astrological timing given in NHC VI,6, the Coptic Hermetic text Discourse on the Eighth and the Ninth, as that to be used for the inscribing of sacred steles:

“Child, copy this book for the temple at Diospolis  in hieroglyphic characters, and call it the Eighth Reveals the Ninth.”

“I shall do it, father,  as you command.”

“Child,  copy the contents of the book on turquoise steles.  Child, it is fitting to copy this book on turquoise steles in hieroglyphic characters, for mind itself has become the supervisor of these things. So I command that this discourse be carved into stone and that you put it in my sanctuary.  Eight guards watch over it with…the sun: the males on the right have faces of frogs, and the females on the left have faces of cats.  Put a square milkstone at the base of the turquoise tablets, and copy the name on the azure stone tablet in hieroglyphic characters. Child, you must do this when I am in Virgo, and the sun is in the first half of the day, and fifteen degrees have passed by me.”

I should note that the fifteenth degree of Virgo is the exaltation degree of Mercury, so this would already technically be accounted for in the above lists, but would definitely rank as a super-important observance to make.

Also, to follow up on something from the Picatrix, remember all that talk we had about the communion with the Perfect Nature from book III, chapter 6According to the ritual instructions given there, one is to undertake the operation when the Moon is in the first degree of Aries (i.e. 0° Aries).  Technically, the Moon is only in the first degree of Aries for about a two-hour window once every 28 days, but the Moon’s ingress to Aries could be reckoned more broadly as another kind of “new month”, just using a sidereal lunar month instead of a synodic one.  Although not given in the above list, we might also generalize this to make an observance for the Moon ingress into every sign just as the Sun does, which would rank as the most frequent type of observance (twelve or thirteen per month, once every two or three days!).

Anyway!  In the last post, though, I also highlighted another excerpt from Tārīẖ Muẖtaṣar al-Duwal, from the section “On the Practices of the Sabians”:

What is known about the sect of the Sabians among us is that their confession is exactly the same as the confession of the ancient Chaldaeans, their qiblah is the North Pole, and they diligently pursue the four intellectual virtues. It is also imposed on them to pray three times [a day]: first, a half-hour or less before sunrise, which is completed with eight bows when the sun is rising, each of which contains three prayers; secondly, a prayer finished at noon, when the sun begins to move downwards, and this consists of five kneelings, each of which contains three prayers; third, with a prayer similar to the second, to be finished when the sun sets.

There are fasts imposed on them: one of thirty days, the first day of which is the eighth of ‘Ādar; also one of nine days, the first of which is the ninth of Kānūn I; and one of seven days, the first of which is the eighth of Šubāṭ.

They invoke the stars and offer many sacrifices, from which they do not eat, but which are consumed by fire. They abstain from eating beans and garlic, and some also from wild beans, cabbage, kale, and lentils. Their sayings are near to the sayings of the philosophers; and they have the firmest arguments to prove the unity of God. They assert that the souls of transgressors are tortured for nine thousand ages, but then return to the mercy of God.

The Ṣābians (or Sabaeans) of Ḥarrān are a fascinating group.  Unfortunately, we don’t know a whole lot about them, but we know at least a few things, namely that they were a Semitic group in upper Mesopotamia (now in southern Turkey near the Syrian border) practicing a kind of polytheistic, astrologically-inclined religion well into the Islamic period.  In classical times, it was the principal city for the worship of the lunar deity Sin, and given its location at a trade crossroads (the literal meaning of the word harrānu in Akkadian), it had access to lots of religious influences from the old world.  After centuries of obstinate refusal to convert to Christianity, when it stood to be conquered by Islamic caliphs, the inhabitants of Ḥarrān were given a choice: convert to Islam, prove that they were a People of the Book as a protected people, or die.  On account of this, the Ṣābians of Ḥarrān claimed that they had Hermēs Trismegistos as a prophet, making themselves officially Hermeticists of a sort, which would legitimize them in the eyes of Islam since Hermēs Trismegistos was assimilated to the prophet ‘Idrīs, himself the biblical patriarch Enoch.  Of course, as Kevin van Bladel has amply shown in The Arabic Hermes: From Pagan Sage to Prophet of Science, they weren’t really Hermetic in any way one might recognize beyond being some sort of Neoplatonic or Pseudo-Aristotelian astrally-focused polytheists, who held many pagan sages and philosophers in high esteem well beyond just Hermēs Trismegistos.  (For real, van Bladel’s book is an excellent source on the discussion of the Ṣābians of Ḥarrān in general with ample sources and quotes, do check it out.)

What we find in the Bar Hebraeus quote above is a description of some of the practices attributed to such a people.  None of it is particularly Hermetic or tied to Hermeticism, and given the evidence van Bladel presents there may well not be any such connection at all, but it is noteworthy as a religion at least nominally tied in some marginal (and marginalized) way to Hermēs Trismegistos.  While there’s more here about regular religious practice (which doesn’t neatly mesh with what we know of from the classical Hermetic texts), I do find it fascinating that there are three fasting periods listed:

  • Thirty-day fast starting on the eighth day of Adar (roughly February or March)
  • Nine-day fast starting on the ninth day of Kislev (roughly November or December)
  • Seven-day fast starting on the eighth day of Shevat (roughly January or February)

I’m using the Hebrew month names here, but we should remember that the Hebrew calendar, which itself is a continuation of the earlier Babylonian calendar which was in use for quite a while and which spawned later calendars all across Mesopotamia and the near/middle East.  It’s not clear what these fasts would be for or why they were celebrated, but it is an interesting thing to note all the same for religious observances, especially if one wanted to take a more generically Old World-inspired religious approach to observances (and which might be tied into the “fast on recognized days of each month” bit from TH 28 above).  After all, we should remember that the lunar/lunisolar Babylonian calendar and its derivatives have little to do with the solar Egyptian calendar and its derivatives (like the Coptic calendar), which arrange for time in a much different way.

On that point, I’m reminded of an earlier discussion I had back when I was considering holy days for a geomantic practice, when trying to figure out a feast day of sorts to commemorate and venerate Hermēs Trismegistos himself.  And that opens up a whole new can of worms for us to mull over, doesn’t it?  All the above are very astral/astrological observances that recognize the changes, ebbs, and flows of things in the cosmos, which is certainly an important thing for a Hermetic practice that seeks to be awe-struck by the beauty of the cycles of the cosmos to incorporate, but what about other holidays and feasts that aren’t astrologically determined or which are for the explicit purpose of astrological observations?  This would include things like feasts and holidays from Hellenic and Egyptian religious traditions that fed into the development of Greco-Egyptian spiritualities like Hermeticism, and a handful I can think of would be:

  • The Greek Hermaia, to be celebrated on the fourth day of the tenth lunar month, the days reckoned from the first sighting of the Moon and the months reckoned from the first new Moon after the June solstice (putting this usually sometime in March)
  • The Roman Mercuralia, celebrated on May 15
  • The Egyptian Thoth festival celebrated on the third day of the Wag festival, so the 19th day of the first month, reckoned from the heliacal rising of Sirius (using the ancient Egyptian reckoning, which varies from latitude to latitude on Earth but is generally between late July and late August) or from the start of the Coptic New Year (using the modern Coptic calendar, starting on September 11)

And those three would just be the most famous ones focusing on Hermēs-Mercurius-Thōth as analogues for our own Hermēs Trismegistos based on other religious traditions with their own calendars, to say nothing of minor or more regional holidays across the Mediterranean.  If we expand that to also include ones for Asklēpios-Imhotep or Ammōn-Amūn as other students of Hermēs Trismegistos (the student-son Tat being equivalent to Thōth himself), we’d get even more candidates for holidays.  As for whether one should incorporate them is a matter for one’s own personal practice, of course, especially if one is already engaged in one of these sorts of paganisms today (e.g. modern Hellenism or Kemeticism).  Given the trouble I had with trying to figure out what would have been a reasonable feast day for Hermēs Trismegistos all those many moons ago, I’ll leave this thread here for others to pick up if they so choose.  If I were pressed to make a choice, I’d just make up arbitrary Gregorian calendar-based dates for honoring Hermēs Trismegistos and the rest of them that use repeating numbers: March 3 for Hermēs  Trismegistos and April 4 for Tat (or vice versa, or together as one or the other), June 6 for Asklēpios-Imhotep, and December 12 for Ammōn-Amūn.

Besides just figuring out feasts for individual gods apart from astrological considerations, there’s also an abundance of choices one might have for particular commemorations, whether cultural, historical, or personal.  Because of how much possibility there is for that, both that I might consider for myself as well as others for themselves, it’s just too much to consider in a single post even for me, and I wouldn’t even know where to start.  What I think we can all agree on, however, are the transitions and changes that the cycles of astrological phenomena might suggest as being a good foundation for everyone to consider.  I’ve idly considered making a sort of prayer practice composed of interlocking cycles that relate to astronomical and cosmic ones:

  • Two, three, four, or six prayers for the four times of the day
    • Sunrise, sunset
    • Sunrise, noon, sunset
    • Sunrise, noon, sunset, midnight
    • Dawn, sunrise, noon, sunset, dusk, midnight
  • Seven prayers for the seven days of the week
  • Ten prayers for the ten days of each decan
  • 12 prayers for the Sun or Moon ingress into each sign of the Zodiac
  • 28 prayers for the Moon ingress into each lunar mansion
  • 36 prayers for the Sun ingress into each decan
  • Three, four, six, or eight prayers for the lunar phases
    • Waxing, culminating, waning
    • New, waxing, full, waning
    • New, first sighting after syzygy, waxing, full, waning, last sighting before syzygy
    • New, crescent, waxing, gibbous, full, disseminating, waning, balsamic

Needless to say, trying to get all of that done on a regular basis is…well, outside my and most people’s capabilities for the time being (I’ve tried), probably only being reasonable for those living a highly regulated prayer-centric monastic lifestyle actively dedicated to this sort of thing.  Still, the idea of it is appealing, as it’s a way to fully line oneself up and keep oneself in tune with the natural rhythms of the Sun, Moon, and other planets (directly or indirectly).  And while I don’t think trying to implement a full prayer rule based on all of this is reasonable or feasible (I’ve kinda sorta done something like that with my Hermetic Epitomes in my Preces Templi ebook), I can at least observe such cycles with a brief moment of recognition when possible, even if just once a day.  But this is getting distracted from the main topic we were discussing.  While the observation of cycles and the progress within them is important, it’s the transitions between cycles or acyclical happenings that are what give the notion of Hermetic feasts; thus, recognizing every single day of the Sun being in a given zodiacal sign isn’t as important as recognizing the day when the Sun enters a new sign.  Without going crazy when it comes to obscure combinations of events (like I’ve experimented with my Grammatēmerologion before), probably keeping a handful of things down to a few general-purpose ideas is good enough for most people, and would still keep one plenty busy.

Of course, the next question that naturally arises: sure, we’re observing particular astrological phenomena as feasts, but what are we celebrating as a feast? To whom (or what) do we direct offerings that we’d make at such a feast?  For the astrological phenomena, at least, the answer would be straightforward enough: the planets themselves.  At least, that’d be the first answer; the secondary choice would also be the fixed stars themselves, either as single stars (if a planet were to become conjunct with one, like Jupiter and Regulus) or as constellations or decans (e.g. for the Sun entering Leo, celebrating both the Sun and/or the actual constellation Leo as a divine entity itself).  Given the highlighting of the Moon (celebrating new moons) and the Sun (celebrating new zodiac signs), the two luminaries would be primary among all the stars, but the others (primarily the wandering stars) all get offerings for their own needs at the appropriate time.

But does this make sense, to make offerings to the planets (or stars more generally) as gods?  I claim that it does from several perspectives.  For one, we know that astral polytheism is totally a thing, and while the TH fragments above might be reflecting an Islamically-perspectived mishmash of different pagan traditions lumped together as “Hermeticism” (like with the ︎Ṣābians of Ḥarrān), they do also show that the planets and stars were worshipped as gods with sacrifices being made to them.  But, for two, we also know that the planets are of paramount importance in Hermeticism as being the cosmic forces that allow creation to continue being created and creating.  Sure, from a more gnostic-flavored standpoint, they’re the things that weigh us down with energies of incarnation, but from a more holistically Hermetic view, they are the things that allow the beauty of the goodness of God to flourish through creation, including the fleshy vehicles that we travel in.  (It’s a gift with a cost, sure, but it’s still a gift all the same.)  In making good with the planets and stars, not only do we gratify them and obtain their assistance instead of just their assailing, but we also bring ourselves closer to them through the act of communion—which is what the work of offering facilitates.  (And that doesn’t even touch on the gods down here, inhabiting bodies of their own such as temple statues or sacred natural objects, that we make offerings to as well, which may also be associated with or considered to be the planetary gods, much as the Navagraha are in Hindu temple practice.)

In the end, there’s lots of opportunities for establishing particularly important days for Hermetic practice, at least as far as offerings and special devotions are concerned.  One can certainly expand them to any arbitrarily complex and rigorous degree right down to every planetary hour if desired (or even planetary minutes!), but whether that’s required or even recommended would be matter for one’s own schedule, availability, and willingness.  Still, based on what we might know from historical accounts, there are definitely a few important highlights to hit that would be reasonable for any Hermeticist to pick up on, and I think that’s good enough for anyone to start with.

On the Mathetic Rule of Observance

I mentioned in the ritual of self-initiation that one should carry out the 10 days of ritual, plus the day immediately preceding these, by observing a type of fasting and behavioral restrictions.  I call this the Mathetic Rule of Observance, which consists of six rules to restrict one’s actions and intake of food during mathetic rituals.  They’re based on Pythagorean and other spiritual practices; although the rules can be added onto and be made more strict or modified in special cases to accommodate certain situations, the minimum rules to follow are six in number:

  1. No harm to any being.
  2. No sexual activity.
  3. No lying or speaking ill of anything or anyone.
  4. No consumption of meat or beans.
  5. No intake of stimulants.
  6. Wine may be drunk in moderation.

Essentially, these are rules to help with rules of purity for rituals.  Many magical traditions and rituals have their own rules of purity, usually stopping at “fast from everything for at least half a day” or “no sexual activity for three days” for a certain period of time; other spiritual traditions and paths, like Buddhism, have precepts that one should follow to prevent oneself from committing impure actions that’d come back to bite them in the ass afterward.  I often don’t make use of these restrictions, and it’s something I’ve been meaning to try out more in my own work.  Generally, unless it’s mandatory I do so, I simply try not to eat, have sex, or masturbate for at least an hour before ritual, but there are exceptions, and I want to make mathetic exploration and ritual such an exception.

So why purity?  There’s a lot of confusion around purity, and many rituals have no need for it at all; some tantric, ecstatic, or LHP traditions almost necessitate the use of indulgence in many ways, if not outright amorality and antinomia.  This even applies to some ancient Mediterranean traditions, especially those honoring Bacchus, Orpheus, and other ecstatic mystery cults.  That’s less the case, however, for Pythagoreanism and Neoplatonism, which were focused more on controlling the body to better free the spirit within.  By keeping the body operational and focusing on it just so that it can survive healthily, keeping it satiated without indulging it, one can better focus on elevating the spirit and ascending to the higher realms in a way both easier and worthier of the objects of adoration and exploration, like the Good, the Monad, or what have you.  Plus, keeping rules of purity like this can prevent the body, soul, spirit, and mind from being contaminated by things that would continue to bring them down.

Pythagoreanism had a litany of rules one had to follow in order to remain in the Pythagorean community, the rules for which far surpasses most non-monastic rules of asceticism I’ve ever seen.  Some of them were pretty big: strict vegetarianism, wearing white clothes, and the like.  Others were trivial and detailed, like:

  • Do not touch a white cock.
  • Do not pick up what has fallen.
  • Do not cut fire with a sword.
  • Do not look in a mirror beside a light.
  • Do not step over a yoke.

Some philosophers have explained these rules as being strictly metaphorical; for instance, one rule says “do not eat the heart”, which would literally mean not to eat the heart of any creature (which would have been redundant, considering one’s vow of vegetarianism), but is sometimes explained as not to be consumed by envy or malice, but to share with others sympathy and love.  That kind of thing, you know?  Many of the rules were likely intended to have a double meaning, such as “decline walking in the public ways, and walk in unfrequented paths”; it’d be hard, especially if one is to live a life free from violence and worldly concern, to maintain that kind of mindset when walking in large public byways with the chaos and bustle of towns going on around you; likewise, it’s hard to focus on the philosophical and eternal truth of the cosmos when you’re stuck thinking about the things everyone else thinks about.  I mean, as magicians, how many times have we rolled our eyes seeing the trash that’s being hawked on magazine counters and at the aisles of supermarkets about the latest celebrity’s latest breakup with their latest husband, especially after we just do a ritual pondering the powers of the stars or elements?

While one can have as many extra rules and restrictions one would like, the minimum rules I’m establishing for mathetic practice are six.  Each one is important, and each has profound effects on the body and spirit alike to help one with ritual.  While these are definitely more Apollonian than Dionysian, and while I fully recognize and respect the need for balance between the two, the system of mathesis as a whole leans more towards the former than the latter.  To that end, here’re some short explanations why each rule is in the Mathetic Rule of Observance.

  1. No harm to any being.  This pretty much goes without saying.  Everything in the cosmos is born for a purpose, and everything in the cosmos has a bit of the divine within them.  Yes, fighting happens, and sometimes war is inevitable; conflict is a part of the world.  However, unless one is a soldier (in which case, on active duty, one probably doesn’t have much time for deep philosophical and theurgic works generally), it helps to refrain from causing harm to others.  Causing harm can lead to one being caused harm, not to mention that causing harm can distract one from a holy purpose and disrupt their thoughts and internal balance, which only sets one back.  If conflict is inevitable, there is almost always a way to resolve it without causing harm; aikido is something that focuses on this.  Yes, joint locks and throws are a thing, but this method of martial arts focuses on ending fights without causing harm.  For people of a philosophical and theurgic mindset generally, chances are that fighting is not on the day-to-day to-do list.  Besides, not all harm is physical; emotional and spiritual harm can also be exacted upon others, such as through manipulation, guilt tripping, deception, cursework, or having others do harm on your behalf.  All of that should be refrained from as much as possible.
  2. No sexual activity.  Honestly, I do not consider sex to be an inhibitor in and of itself to spiritual practice; nor, for that matter, did Pythagoras, though he too had some restrictions on it.  I personally find sex to scratch a really good itch, and I know many people use sex for magical purposes.  However, mathesis isn’t that kind of magic, and if we want to ascend spiritually, then denying the body this is a better thing than not.  By denying the body sex, we build up more power inside and prevent ourselves from getting distracted by worldly needs.  Sexual power, when contained, is fantastic to reroute and use for some powerful experiences, and by using it in sex (especially for procreation or mere enjoyment), we use it and get rid of that power for another purpose and cannot reclaim it.  Emissions from sex are on the same level as that of spit or blood; they’re not impure or waste products of the body, but they belong to the body and not to the spirit.  Let the body be empowered through sexual denial, and it can be repurposed for the spirit in mathesis.  Besides, sex with others during a mathetic ritual can potentially contaminate the body from the other person, which would then spiritually inhibit you from a purer working style.
  3. No lying or speaking ill of anything or anyone.  In some ways, this is a clarification of rule #1, no harm to any being.  While rule #1 focuses on physical and emotional harm, this rule focuses on logical and communicative harm.  By misleading others, we encourage falsity and deception in the world, and when we’re focused on trying to better ourselves with the power of truth, we end up undoing the work for others that we’re trying to do for ourselves.  Add to it, by speaking ill against others, we engage in “walking in the public ways”, getting involved with gossip, rumors, and other sundry matters that we have no business engaging in, especially when the less we’re involved generally, the better.  Lying, by the way, includes all forms of exaggeration and diminution: boasting pridefully about one’s accomplishments or modestly trying to conceal them are both negative things to do that would break this rule.  After all, humility is not modesty; being modest is to diminish yourself (reverse exaggeration), while humility is saying things as they are without embellishment.
  4. No consumption of meat or beans.  Our bodies need to survive for as long as we live in this world; without our bodies, we cannot live.  It’s that simple.  To live, we need to eat.  It’s that simple.  However, we are what we eat, and if we kill animals to feed ourselves, we become more animal than human and require death to live.  While I love me a bacon cheeseburger or a KFC Double Down sandwich, for the purposes of mathesis, we want to avoid anything that would harm the transmigration of souls.  If we kill something to eat, we kill the life of a body with a soul in it, and since we could very well be the next soul to inhabit a cow for slaughter, we probably don’t want to be eaten when we would rather live instead.  Likewise, for a similar reason, Pythagoras taught that beans should never be eaten or touched, and even walking through a field of beans was taboo.  This is due to the appearance of the bean to resemble a human body: Pythagoras taught (probably) that beans and humans shared the same source or material, so to eat a bean was akin to eating human.  Add to it, beans contained the souls of the dead, and to this day bean dishes are usually called for in most funerary rites across the world.  To be surrounded by souls of the dead is counter to our goal of attaining a soul of life in imperishable truth.  From a more practical standpoint, meat and beans are exceptionally heavy foods that weigh down the body and soul alike.  For deeper spiritual practice, we need to have the body be sated enough without becoming heavy and world-bound.
  5. No intake of stimulants.  That’s right: abstinence, as far as possible, from caffeine, nicotine, cocaine, and any kind of stimulant.  For caffiends like me who complain about there being too much blood in my caffeine system, this rule is pretty much the worst possible punishment, but there’s a point to it.  By stimulating the body chemically, we try to pull as much energy out of it artificially as we can, and that only temporarily.  Oftentimes, while a good jolt might be just what the doctor ordered, overreliance on them is extraordinarily common.  Further, by getting the body overpowered, it can also dominate the faculties of the mind; rather than having the body heavy with food into lethargy, it gets heavy with heat into physical action.  Both inhibit the spirit from working properly within the body; add to it, the spirit can best function off the body’s natural energy without having it altered through chemical stimulants.  Besides, if I can go a few days without energy drinks and cigarettes for an initiation, you can, too.  That said, Hermes is definitely a god of stimulants, so this is probably the least important of these rules, especially considering the late-to-bed and early-to-rise nature of the ritual.
  6. Wine may be drunk in moderation.  Just as stimulants can be damaging to the natural flow and processes of the body, intoxication can do the same in reverse.  Any drug, drink, or substance that dulls the senses is as damaging to those that oversharpen them or demand more out of them than one could normally provide.  Wine, however, is a staple of ritual, and is important in many Hellenic and Mediterranean rituals; it’s infeasible to except wine from this, only because it has its uses.  Yes, it can dull the senses, but it can also soothe one into relaxation.  Further, it is proper to offer and share wine with the gods and among ourselves, both as sacrifice and as a gift.  Thus, wine may be drunk, but only in moderation; it should not be consumed to get drunk.  When drinking, alternate glasses of wine with twice as much water, and neither drink too quickly nor greedily when you do so.  Moreover, this rule exhorts one to moderation generally: extending this rule, we can say that one should eat only enough to be sated but never full, sleep enough to be rested but never lethargic, and internet enough to be informed but never distracted.

Now that the rules have been explained, I’m not limiting the Mathetic Rule to just these six rules.  You can add on whatever you wish

  • Do not wear black clothing.  This would be difficult for me, but I can pull it off all the same through a judicious use of my wardrobe.  However, consider the color black.  We see things as particular colors because light reflects off them in a particular way based on what light is absorbed by the material; things that appear red absorb light that is not red, for instance.  Things that appear white reflect all colors at once, absorbing nothing; white is a symbol of not only purity but of purification.  Black, on the other hand, absorbs all colors; it takes in all things and holds them there.  Black does not reflect, but sticks to things.  When in mathetic practice, wearing black should be avoided generally, since it absorbs things like negativity and filth and holds onto them, causing them to better contaminate you.  After all, you can’t generally see the stains on your clothes when you’re wearing black, and you have no idea how filthy you get until you finally take them off.
  • Do not eat root vegetables.  This is an extension of two major rules above, not eating beans and not causing harm.  Beans bear a specific resemblance, according to Pythagoras, to human beings and the potential for life itself, especially due to their growth in the ground where the dead live underneath.   However, this rule is an influence from Buddhist monastic restrictions, where one cannot dig holes.  This is because animals, even insects and small creatures, live in the earth, and by digging holes for planting or for setting posts or beams, one risks injuring and killing them.  Digging up root vegetables to eat not only risks killing the plant, but also all insects around the dirt and soil where the plant is buried.  Further, the ground is where we put our dead; it is, quite literally, dirty.  Root vegetables are tied to the earth, and by eating the earth we keep ourselves earthy.  This is less than helpful if we want to ascend and rise up out of our world.
  • Do not eat cooked food.  This is an extreme dietary restriction, seeing how much of our food needs to be cooked either thermically or chemically, in order to be safe and edible.  Mind you, this includes cooking by heat as well as by chemical application.  In other words, one can only eat fresh fruits and vegetables; cooked grains, stews, and even processed sugars cannot be eaten with this rule.  By eating only fresh, live vegetables, you inculcate a desire for life within you and subsist on only that which helps keep the body satisfied without bringing it down in any way.  The only more extreme dietary restriction I can think of is to simply fast from all food entirely, but that’s often not helpful, either.  In fact, I think this rule should only be done for a maximum of ten days unless you can specifically train yourself to subsist healthily on this, especially with the restrictions on meat and beans or (perhaps) all root vegetables.
  • Do not steal.  I think this goes without saying.  Don’t take what’s not yours, since that can bring harm to others and cause harm to yourself, spiritually or physically.  Besides, without something being officially yours, you don’t know where it came from, what kind of contagion it might have, or whether you need it.  Indulging one’s avarice and greed is not something good for mathetic practice.
  • Do not accept things directly handed to you.  This rule is from Santeria practice of the so-called “iyawo year”.  When Santeros make ocha, or are accepted into the priesthood, they must undergo a year of initiation where they can only wear white and have a number of restrictions placed upon them.  This one means that you cannot accept things that are directly handed to you; they must be placed down before you can pick it up.  (There are exceptions, of course, but those don’t have to apply here.)  If you’re trying to remain pure, then you need to keep away from impurity.  If other people are impure, they can give you their impurity and contaminate you.  Passing you something is a way to transmit that contagion by means of the object being passed over.  This can make shopping exceptionally awkward, admittedly, but this is just an example of what kinds of practices you can add on to enforce and encourage purity.
  • Do not be completely in the dark.  This is based on some rules of ceremonial magic where one should never pray in the dark, but always with a fire or light present; the Pythagoreans themselves had a similar rule involving their mysteries.  Light encourages truth, while darkness conceals it; further, in darkness, you never know whether there’s someone around you to harm you or eavesdrop.  If you want to remain in the light, then you need to always remain in the light; never be in a completely darkened room or space.  Always carry a light or candle with you, sleep with a candle or nightlight on, and similar acts can be done to ensure that there’s always some light around you.

So, what happens if we break one of these rules?  Does that invalidate our efforts or negate the power of the ritual?  It can, but it doesn’t have to.  These rules of observance are only intended to encourage one to focus on spiritual work; they’re precepts, not obligations or commandments, and are meant as a rough guide to help us manage our physical actions while we attempt some really powerful spiritual actions.  Should we break a rule, go back and admit your fault to anyone who was affected by it, and offer to help clarify or fix any problems that result from them.  Otherwise, if nobody external to ourselves was affected by our fault, accept what you did and move on.  Dwelling on our “transgressions” is potentially worse than having committed them in the first place; we did what we did, it’s in the past, accept it, and don’t let it happen again.  Fearing what we may have done affecting us negatively in the future distracts us from the work at hand.  There’s no prescribed ritual or prayer to forgive or confess breaking any of the rules above; if you want to, admit fault in your private prayers, either to some savior god or to Hermes or whatever, and ask for help and guidance to keep you from doing it again.

What about exceptions to the rules?  No set of rules is one-size-fits-all unless it’s a set of universally applicable platitudes that don’t actually say much.  For instance, consider the no stimulants rule.  Some medication for conditions like ADHD are by their nature stimulants, and allow people to focus better in a way that is constructive to spiritual activity, even actually sleep properly.  Some people require animal protein in order to digest other foods properly, though these are a very small minority of people.  The overall meta-rule here is that, as much as you can, you should stick to these minimum rules as best as you feasibly can given your circumstances and situation; the more you can stick to them, especially if you can stick to all of them, the better.  If you can’t stick to one rule for a necessary reason, find a new rule similar enough to substitute it with.  For instance, if you require stimulants in order to maintain regular mental functions, try a “no refined sugar” rule instead.  If you’re required to work in a field where harm is a very high possible outcome, minimize it as much as you can and substitute it with “no idle talk”.  Other rules, however, are pretty much universal: don’t lie, don’t exaggerate, don’t diminish, don’t condemn, don’t indulge.

Again, this Rule isn’t a set of commandments.  There’s no community to shun you, no authority to excommunicate you (at least, not yet).  They’re there to help you in the spiritual work, not to establish a set of negative commandments (“thou shalt not”) to prevent you from living or exploring the work.  Given the focus of mathesis, it helps to restrain the body so as to let the spirit soar, but if you can successfully balance a physical and spiritual life while striving for the spiritual, then chances are you already live by a sufficient set of rules on your own without having to adopt these.