Unlocking the Observatory: Looking at (not yet through) Zoroaster’s Telescope

In my last post, I announced that I translated this obscure French book that dates back to 1796 on an equally-obtuse form of divination, Zoroaster’s Telescope (which I’ll refer to as ZT for short, both to the divinatory system itself and to the general body of texts that describe it).  The full title of this book is more properly (when rendered into English) The Telescope of Zoroaster, or, the Key of the Great Divinatory Cabala of the Magi (basically the same in any language it’s been written in or translated into), and…well, I have quite a lot to say about it.  Perhaps some of you, dear readers, might already be familiar with the book in one form or another, and might see where I’m going what with the whole “Unlocking the Observatory” bit in the title.  All the same, even though the book itself is pretty short, there’s still a lot to talk about when it comes to ZT, both the book itself as well as the divination method and spiritual system it contains—so let’s get started, shall we?

※ For those following along with their own copy of ZT (get yours here!), this post does not touch on any specific chapter of the text.

Let’s start with a review of the literature as it stands.  I touched on this briefly in the last post, but here’s what we’ve got:

  1. Up until my last post, there was only one English translation of ZT available, the 2013 Ouroboros Press version of the text translated by Dr. Jenn Zahrt (which I’ll abbreviate here on out as OZT).  The earliest social media posts and records I can find of it are that it was published sometime in summer 2013, at least by August 12, 2013.
  2. OZT is an English translation of Johann Scheible’s Das Kloster (1846), volume 3, part II, chapter VII (KZT).  Scheible (as mentioned in the last post) was a German antiquarian and compiler of folklore and superstition, and in this specific volume of his monumental 12-volume series dating from 1845 through 1849 containing various magical texts, superstitions, fairy tales, and other stories or records, Das Kloster III contains a number of other well-known occult texts (a good number of which are referenced up on Esoteric Archives).  The one I referenced was digitized by the University of Michigan Library on July 3, 2007 (and the whole series are up for public access, too).
  3. KZT itself is based on an earlier French book from 1796 (FZT).  The publication details of this are scarce; all I can find out is that at least one copy of this book survived into the modern era and was digitized by the Bavarian State Library on January 13, 2009.

That is…basically it!  However, I do want to note that, in the course of my studies, I found a fourth version of the text: an earlier German version from 1797 published by Wilhelm Rein in Leipzig (GZT) explicitly as a translation from FZT (“aus dem Französischen”) which was digitized in 2017 by the National Library of the Czech Republic.  Fascinatingly, although GZT comes hot on the heels of FZT (especially compared to KZT), a brief inspection of the text shows that KZT was not based on GZT; there are too many differences in structure and wording between KZT and GZT, while there are weirder similarities between KZT and FZT suggesting that KZT was based directly on FZT, with Scheible consulting a source that was likely ignorant of GZT and only familiar with FZT.  Also, technically, OZT being the only English translation of ZT put out so far (besides my own) isn’t quite true: William Kiesel, the man behind Ouroboros Press, put out an original translation by Robert William Mattila in 2003 as part of a very limited run, but I can’t easily find anything about such a work (just one oblique footnote in a 2008 French text, mentioned below).  While I don’t doubt that Kiesel put out such a book, it may as well not exist for the purpose of this study, and overall still seems to be based on the same source as OZT, so I’d guess it to be equivalent to OZT anyway.

So, like, that’s it for primary sources.  If it’s not apparent yet, then it needs to be emphasized that ZT is an exceedingly obscure divination system; even though the end of the 18th century in France was a super crazy and productive time for the occult scene (this was the time period, after all, when geomancy hadn’t yet lost all its vigor and was also the time of Etteilla’s popularization of Tarot as a divination system), ZT seems to have been made and then all but forgotten about—kinda.  In 1797, towards the close of the French Revolution, the French Jesuit priest Abbé Augustin Barruel published his Mémoires pour servir à l’histoire du Jacobinisme (Memoirs Illustrating the History of Jacobinism) (originally in French but translated into many other languages as well, English just being one of them).  This is a crazy book that basically goes ham on trying to pin the French Revolution on the Freemasons, Illuminati, and various other factions and subcultures in French society that wanted to subvert the royal, aristocratic, and religious institutions in France.  ZT gets a shout-out/call-out in Barruel’s book, but beyond that, we don’t see much in the way of other mentions of this book until a few decades later, most notably with Scheible’s Das Kloster.

Whereas other, more popular forms of divination—or at least occult texts and traditions that have garnered at least some public notoriety and awareness—are able to be researched through secondary or tertiary sources that mention or bring up such methods or texts, we really don’t have a lot to go on with ZT.  I have otherwise only found only a small handful of other texts that substantially discuss or talk about ZT in any way:

  1. “The Seven Mystery Names” in Lucifer, v. 4 n. 23 (July 1889) by Jakob Bonggren.  This barely warrants a mention, but this article in the Theosophical Society’s monthly newsletter does mention the names of the planetary intelligences in ZT.  Supposedly, there are other issues of Lucifer with articles by Sepharial or Westcott that reference ZT (or at least the same Das Kloster volume as what KZT comes from), but I’m not able to find any such references in Lucifer or by those authors.
  2. Die wahrsagende Kabbala der Magier: die Kabbala des Zoroaster, published in 1933 by theosophist-turned-ariosophist Karl Kern and later reprinted under the name “Baron André-Robert Andréa de Nerciat” in 2009. While this text preserves some of the material verbatim from KZT while abridging others even further than KZT did of FZT, it does away with much of the supplemental material while also providing a lengthy case study and example of its own, and also incorporates the recently-discovered Uranus and Neptune into its system.
  3. Astrologie lunaire: essai de reconstitution du système astrologique ancien by Alexandre Volguine (originally from 1972, English translation from 1974). Although this text focuses on a rather different occult art and practice, it includes a brief section treating on the angels of the mansions of the Moon as they appear in ZT.  It doesn’t really touch on anything in any meaningful way, and the conclusions it draws don’t really line up with anything I’ve been able to uncover about the book, so it’s just kinda there, I guess.
  4. Télescope de Zoroastre, ou Clef de la grande Cabale divinatoire des Mages: ouvrage présenté définitivement restitué à son auteur légitime et annoté by a group of authors working under the name “Alexandre de Dánann”, published in 2008 by Edizioni Archè di Milano.  This book, while offering a modern reprint of FZT, justifies that the text (originally all-but-anonymous) is indeed attributable to André-Robert Andréa de Nerciat, while also providing further context of secret societies.  (This is also that aforementioned French text that listed the earlier 2003 translation put out by Kiesel; we’ll talk more about this specific book and what it has to say in the next post.)
  5. Zoroastro, Wizard of the Renaissance (2021), volume 3 in the series The Dark Side of the Da Vinci Legacy by Susan Audrey Grundy (published as an ebook through Google Play Books). Although this volume focuses on the claim that the Codex Atlanticus was not the product of Leonardo da Vinci but rather his friend and companion Tommaso di Giovanni Masini (also known as “Zoroastro da Peretola”, with “Zoroastro” being a common nickname for those engaged in the occult), the section on pages 59–62 specifically touches on the potential authorship of ZT to lie not with Nerciat but rather this earlier “Zoroastro”.

That’s it: beyond the ZT source books themselves and Barruel’s conspiracy-minded condemnation thereof, there are just two books on their own and a handful of paragraphs from another two that discuss ZT that I’ve been able to track, beyond a smattering of other smaller oblique references in footnotes here or there from the past several centuries.  As I said, it’s really obscure.

So what even is ZT about?  At a high level, the book is fundamentally about a form of divination, one which I would describe as “numerological sortilege with an astrological flair”.  The system makes use of a number of 112 (or 113) hexagonal tiles, each randomly drawn from a collection, then assembled in a number of tightly-packed geometric spreads that ZT calls “mirrors”.  While some of these mirrors are used for simple forms of divination (largely relying, as the text describes it, on a process of elimination by trying to find where one tile is to indicate one particular option out of many possible options), the bulk of the text talks about “The Great Mirror”, which makes use of 37(ish) tiles put together in a large hexagonal arrangement: one center hexagonal tile, surrounded by six more, then by another twelve, then by another 18.  Of the 112 (or 113) tiles, 108 have their own planetary and zodiacal associations, and 90 of those have further associations with the 28 mansions of the Moon; the other four (or five) are attributed to much grander cosmological notions of good versus evil, creation versus destruction, or ascent versus descent.  In the Great Mirror, likewise, each of its 37(ish) houses has its own planetary (and sometimes zodiacal, and also sometimes lunar mansion) associations, along with its own set of significations that establish that particular house’s context and bounds for interpreting whichever tile might appear in it.

Yes, there is vagueness and vagary in the above description for a reason, which we’ll get around to covering, but the gist of the system is basically just that.  Despite its up-front complexity that can easily daunt those who are used to somewhat more modern forms of divination (much of ZT was written when divinatory Tarot was still new, so many conventions we take for granted nowadays in divinatory manuals weren’t established so firmly back then!), ZT is (as I find it) a really elegant form of divination that allows for a lot of intuitive investigation without all that much fixity or rigidity of rules and processes.  The thing is, however, is that ZT only introduces such a system of divination; as the text is fond of repeating, “a key is not a treatise”, and so the text insists on only giving a high-level introduction to its divinatory system and leaves both the exploration and development thereof as an exercise for the reader.  Frustrating as it might be for us modern folk, especially when faced with such a daunting system, the divinatory system of ZT really kinda only allows for one of two kinds of text: either a short handbook that gives the basic principles of the art, or a massive text that attempts to flesh out as much as it can (which would still necessarily be incomplete to one degree or another).  In the interest of brevity, the author of ZT opted for the former.  This is one of the reasons why I was snagged in my interest so hard by this text; while some occultists can’t seem to make heads or tails of it (as I wasted this particular 20 minutes of my life finding out in the course of my research), the fact that the ZT system was so ill-defined was something that I couldn’t pass up for filling in the blanks and fleshing out what it left empty.  (Not unlike some other projects of mine, I suppose.)

I will note something here, though: why is this called “Zoroaster’s Telescope” at all?  Yes, the name of Zoroaster and the Magi get dropped a handful of times in ZT as something it pretends to descend from; perhaps surprising absolutely nobody these days, this book is as much a product of orientalizing pseudohistory as Antoine Court de Gébelin’s attribution of Tarot to the venerable wisdom of the ancient Egyptians earlier that same century as FZT’s publication.  However, let’s be honest: ZT is fundamentally a product of the more-or-less bog standard continental European occulture of the late 18th century.  And yet, the use of “telescopes” and “mirrors” is striking here; although mirrors are certainly an old thing throughout the world in one form or another, telescopes are a much more recent invention.  It should be noted that, although telescopes were already in wide use by the end of the 18th century, there is a difference between refracting telescopes (which use lenses to magnify images at a distance) and reflecting telescopes (which use internal mirrors to do the same) in how well they are able to clearly magnify distant objects.  Although reflecting telescopes had been around in one form or another since the mid-17th century, they were significantly improved on in the 18th century and quickly became popular throughout the astronomical world, facilitating William Herschel’s discovery of Uranus in 1781.  In this light, we might consider ZT’s use of “telescope” and “mirror” (especially in the context of its own praising of astronomy and dismissal of astrology—I know, I know, we’ll cover that weirdness later) to be a sign of the times in keeping up with scientific progress, much as many New Age folk attribute various spiritual or occult things to quantum physics or string theory.  In other words, ZT gives us a telescope by which we may inspect the spiritual heavens, facilitated by looking directly at the mirrors we produce that reflect their spiritual motions and influences.  I think it’s a really beautiful metaphor, at least—and given how ZT gives us a key (specifically a “master key which will open not just the main doors but all the side doors, all the cupboards, all the drawers, and even the smallest secrets”), well, I think you’ll understand now why I’m entitling this series “Unlocking the Observatory”.

Let’s turn back to the source texts for a bit.  As I mentioned in the last post, although OZT is a fantastic translation of KZT, KZT was based on FZT, but not exactly so; rather, KZT provides more of an abridged version of FZT and leaves out quite a lot.  If we use FZT as the exemplary version that contains all possible bits, then we can compare the other versions of ZT to it to see what we’re missing.  In order, FZT provides us with the following:

  1. Seven beautifully-engraved plates with diagrams (technically six plus a large foldout)
  2. An introductory (and lengthy) “Epistolary Essay to One Privileged to be Placed at the Highest Rank in the Social Order” (hereafter just “Epistle” for short)
  3. Seven chapters focusing on basic techniques and information entitled “Steps”, plus one introduction of its own
  4. Three chapters focusing on advanced techniques and information that it calls “Supplements” (and which OZT translates acceptably as “Addenda”)
  5. A concluding “Epilogue from the Editors” (hereafter just “Epilogue”)
  6. A brief errata offering minor corrections in the French text
  7. A good number of footnotes throughout the Steps and Supplements

How do the different versions compare?

FZT GZT KZT/OZT
Plates Yes Yes Yes
Epistle Yes Yes No
Steps Yes Yes Yes (mostly)
Supplements Yes Yes Yes (mostly)
Epilogue Yes No No
Errata Yes No No
Footnotes Yes Yes Very few

GZT, KZT, and OZT all drop something out that is present in FZT, the big ones being either just the Epilogue or both the Epilogue and Epistle, with the Epilogue containing further refinement of technique (and an explanation of something present in one of the plates of all the other versions but which is never explained) and the Epistle providing a passionate defense and spiritual contextualization of ZT’s use and purpose.  In addition to the fact that KZT/OZT drop most of the footnotes given in FZT/GZT, KZT/OZT also don’t maintain all the core text of FZT/GZT, either; to be sure, the core content is present in KZT/OZT, but sections of it are abridged or omitted for the sake of brevity and (what I assume it considers to be) clarity.  This isn’t so much a problem with GZT, which (at a glance) preserves the structure, length, and content of FZT much more accurately than KZT/OZT do.  It’s no wonder, then, that when modern occultists approach ZT through the popular OZT version, they often feel like the text is incomplete; to a degree, this is attributable to the fact that ZT provides “only a key and not a treatise”, but also, it’s because the text that they’re reading is fundamentally incomplete, as well.  As I said earlier, this is no fault of Zahrt et al. over at Ouroboros Press; this is the fault of the text that they happened to translate.  This is why I went with FZT for my studies and as the basis of my own English translation, because it offers the most complete version of ZT that is extant.

When it comes to the actual contents of ZT, what are we faced with?

  1. Epistle: a lengthy, long-winded letter by the “Baron de N……” to an unnamed French nobleman, dedicating the production of ZT to the recovery and rediscovery of ancient wisdom and true spirituality and offering a defense against skeptics
  2. Introduction: a brief introduction to what ZT is and how it contrasts with other (lesser) forms of divination
  3. First Step: the size, shape, and form of the 112 tiles used as the main toolset for the divinatory method of ZT
  4. Second Step: the ways the tiles are put together into “figures” (geometric compositions of tiles that create a larger geometric shape, e.g. three or six or ten tiles to form a triangular figure)
  5. Third Step: the two Principles, two Spirits, nine celestial Intelligences, and the 99 Numbers that are used in the divinatory method of ZT, including a small treatise of base-10 numerology
  6. Fourth Step: the Great Mirror, its cosmological structure, and the notion of reading particular triads of tiles placed within it (“ideal triangles”)
  7. Fifth Step: the life of humanity according to zodiacal and planetary notions according to their layout on the Great Mirror
  8. Sixth Step: reinterpreting the Great Mirror as the Great Dial to determine matters of time and temporality
  9. Seventh Step: a summary of the meanings of the 37 houses of the Great Mirror
  10. First Supplement: specific methods of finding dates and times according to the Great Dial, how to engage in divinatory processes with querents and queries, and a summary of the meanings of the two Spirit tiles, nine Intelligence tiles, and 99 Number tiles
  11. Second Supplement: a summary of the 28 natal stars and their angels, their planetary natures, and what Numbers they are associated with, along with encouragement and directions of conduct to facilitate spirituality and contact with spiritual entities
  12. Third Supplement: further guidance and considerations on engaging in divination with ZT and understanding spiritual influences in the life of humanity
  13. Epilogue: further guidance, clarifications, cautionary warnings, and corrections regarding the content of ZT and how it should be applied and developed, along with an introduction to the errata
  14. Errata: a small list of emendations to particular words or phrases throughout the text of FZT

That is, effectively, the whole of ZT (at least as FZT has it).  Rather than trying to cover, summarize, and discuss each individual chapter on its own, I’d rather take the approach of discussing particular topics related to ZT and reference the related sections throughout the ZT, because the text is “a key, not a treatise” and so doesn’t discuss things in a clearly-defined way, rather presenting bits of technique or information piecemeal as a means to educate the reader, starting with the basics and working up iteratively to more advanced topics.  From basic approaches to divination to the weird 17th century German astrological texts that influence ZT, from estoeric spirituality to revolutionary civic religion, there’s a lot to discuss; now that we’ve gotten a high-level bird’s-eye view of the text, we can dig in more to the text itself in the next post.

New ebook for sale: The Telescope of Zoroaster!

On the one hand, I should probably apologize to all my followers on Twitter for being subjected to a constant barrage of tweet threads about this topic for several weeks now.  On the other hand, I can also blame someone else for starting me on this bizarre research project.  Either way, those who know anything about my history regarding fixations and obsessions when it comes to niche occult topics would probably guess I’d get around to writing more formally about it at some point.

So, back in early March, Nicholas Chapel a.k.a. McCryptoFace on Discord (from the excellent Hermeticulture blog) asked in the Hermetic House of Life Discord server a fairly innocuous question in the divination channel:

Has anyone ever heard of Zoroaster‘s Telescope as a divinatory method? We used to do it every year for the year ahead back when I was in my temple. I’d never heard of it before or since, but it was always pretty cool to do.

He and one of the other mods on the server (cuchlann from the G Conley: Magic Arts blog) were talking about various cartomantic card spreads, one of which was a Fibonacci-like spiral spread.  The spiraling reminded him of a similar pattern laid out with the tiles of this weird divination system, and he wanted to know if anyone else was familiar with it, since he himself wasn’t sure of the details of it.

As it so happens, I have a book on the system—rather, the book on it, I suppose.  Back in summer 2013, the fine occult book publisher Ouroboros Press put out Zoroaster’s Telescope: The Key to the great divinatory Kabbala of the Magi, translated by the inestimable Dr. Jenn Zahrt (yes, the same one of Revelore Press).  Sometime that year, I had seen some link to the book, probably on Facebook, and given how this was still relatively early on in my magical career, I thought that it would be a neat addition to my own collection and could be a useful thing for me to pick up.  I mean, Zoroaster?  Something related to the Chaldaean Oracles?  Astrological sortilege?  It seemed pretty cool!  So, in addition to getting a few of Ouroboros Press’s limited-run prints (namely their lunar mansions print and their Emerald Tablet print), I also got a copy of their Zoroaster’s Telescope book, and the book arrived later that winter.

And then it promptly sat unused for the next nine years.

It’s not like I didn’t try to read it or anything; I did give it a few honest skims, but I admit, it was a daunting system.  The method itself called for some 112 hexagonal tiles, each with a different number + planet + zodiacal symbol + angel name on them, each of which could appear in these elaborate beehive patterns it called “mirrors”, and, uh…well, the text didn’t seem to be all that well-specified.  I told myself that I’d eventually get around to reading it and studying it properly, and one day I’d get a set of wooden tiles and make them myself according to the patterns in the book.  Nine years later, the book has seen more action moving from shelf to shelf and residence to residence than actually being studied or consulted.  However, with this weird question from Nick seemingly out of the blue, I decided to take this as a sign that maybe this is the time to actually dedicate some time to learning the system.  Maybe I just wasn’t ready or learned enough before to make heads or tails of the system or something, and it’s not like I wasn’t swimming in occult research or work anyway, so I pulled the (admittedly tiny) book down off my shelf and started reading it anew

Almost immediately, I was hooked.  I started putting together spreadsheets to track correspondence tables and lists of interpretations, started jotting down notes on the system, and started puzzling out how this divinatory system was put together.  The more I studied the Ouroboros Press book (which was becoming something of a pain, because it’s actually really small for my hands and also too small for my bookholders to actually carry), the more questions I ended up having.  There was plenty about the system that made sense, but for every thing I could puzzle out there was another that I couldn’t—and the Ouroboros Press book seemed to be, I dunno, incomplete or inscrutable at times.  This led me down a long spiral of research and digging through several hundred years’ worth of really obscure occult, divinatory, and astrological texts that…well, I’ll get to that in a bit (though I’m sure you can see where this is going).

See, the 2013 Ouroboros Press book is not an original work; as I said earlier, it was Zahrt who translated it, not who wrote it.  What this book is is an English translation of the German text present in Johann Scheible’s Das Kloster (1846), volume 3, part II, chapter VII. Scheible was a German antiquarian and compiler of folklore, issuing a monumental 12-volume series from 1845 through 1849 containing various magical texts, superstitions, fairy tales, and other stories or records. Although the entire series is a treasury of folklore and esoterica, volume 3 in particular is an especially useful resource for occultists and magicians, containing such texts as the Heptameron of Pietro d’Abano, On Ceremonial Magic by Heinrich Cornelius Agrippa von Nettesheim, the Romanus-Büchlein, a German version of the Arbatel: De Magia Veterum, and others. Nestled among these well-known texts is Zoroasters Telescop, oder Schlüssel zur großen divinatorischen Kabbala der Magier, which is what the Ouroboros Press book translated into English for the first time.  However, as the Ouroboros Press book itself notes, Zoroaster’s Telescope did not originate with Scheible, who was, after all, a compiler and not an author himself.  Rather, the system dates back to an earlier 1796 French version, Telescope de Zoroastre, ou Clef de la Grand Cabale Divinatoire des Mages.  Now, admittedly, I wasn’t about to compare the Das Kloster German book with the 1796 French one myself—my language skills are nowhere near good enough for that in either language, and the Das Kloster book is itself written in eye-gouging Fraktur—so I’m going to trust (as I have every reason to) that Zahrt’s translation of Scheible is spot on and as high quality as we should expect from her.  However, even at a glance, I could tell that there was a lot in the French version that just…wasn’t in the German version: the omission of an entire lengthy introductory epistle as well as concluding epilogue, the omission of footnotes, and the rest of what remained just generally seemed abridged or abbreviated.

Seeing this snagged my attention towards this research even more (if such a thing could be possible), and…well, three weeks later, I had my own English translation of the 1796 French version of Zoroaster’s Telescope, which I have now made available through my Etsy store or my Ko-fi store for only US$10!

The Telescope of Zoroaster (inventive title, I know) is a 92 page (US Letter-sized) PDF text in English that contains, following a brief preface of my own, the first (as far as I can tell) English translation of the fascinating 1796 French text that presents both a manual to a deceptively-simple system of divination that brings along with it a grand vision of theurgy, according to how it was originally published before any other translation or abridgement occurred (or, at least, the earliest extant such text).  Admittedly, I am an amateur at translating French, and even that’s a rather generous way to put it; I’ve been powering through with a combination of online translation resources plus harassing my Francophone artist friend Berenike (who also has an amazing Etsy shop of their own which y’all should check out selling Greco-Egyptian icons and art), but I like to think that I’ve put together a fairly reasonable and intelligible translation of the work, which is itself more of a challenge than even I was expecting—not just that I’m bad at French, but the text itself was pretty difficult to work with.

Now, here’s the thing.  While I was putting together this PDF, I was torn about including anything more than the translation itself (and my own preface to explain and introduce what the rest of the text was that follows with a handful of other sources).  There is so much about this system that is just outright delightfully bizarre, and as I mentioned above, for every question I was able to answer by the text there was another that was raised.  While turning to the French original has been an amazing experience that has done wonders for my ability to grok this divinatory system (as well as placing it in a broader spiritual practice that turns it into something so much more than just a divinatory system, which the Das Kloster version of the text, and by extension the Ouroboros Press version, seems to elide out), there are still so many other questions that I simply have not been able to answer to my own satisfaction, and so I am left with either conjectures on my part or halfway-incomplete answers—and I don’t like the thought of putting those into a more-or-less permanent format as an ebook as I have with some of the other things I’ve done before.  Besides, I mean, it’s not like my blog has been particularly active as of late (I’ve been enjoying a quiet time to myself besides the fun on the HHoL Discord), and this is a system that is both obscure and daunting so many people—so why not take the opportunity to actually walk through the text of Zoroaster’s Telescope (my own, no less!), the system it describes, and everything else about it that I’ve learned during the course of my research about it?

To that end, over the coming weeks and into June, I’ll be putting up a series of blogposts about Zoroaster’s Telescope, where I’ll be fleshing out whatever I can about the system (and hopefully garner some feedback and pointers from others more expert than I am in 1600s/1700s continental European occultism and literature) based on my translation.  I would encourage those who can and who are interested to get a copy of my ebook to better follow along and to pick up on whatever stuff I don’t mention, but I’ll try to cover all the main points in my posts as well.  Seriously, this is a really neat topic that I’m thrilled to get into, so we’ll start on that soon, and I hope you’ll stick around and enjoy the ride with me!  Maybe this will help more people figure out what this system is, or at least get more attention drawn to this unfortunately (although maybe intentionally?) neglected system of spiritual perfection through knowledge.

Also, my apologies to my Twitter and Discord friends who had to put up with me not just going on endlessly and repeatedly about Zoroaster’s Telescope in general, but also for the delay in getting out the translation as well as this series of posts.  I had to wait on a particularly obscure modern French book to come in the mail, which took a while to arrive, in order to finish one last bit of analysis before the whole thing went public, and I didn’t want to start the series only for it to be interrupted pending such a thing halfway through.  Most of this was finished up at the start of April (not even a month had passed since that original question on Discord!), but I just wanted to make sure all was said and done before I considered myself finished, too. Still, it’s all there now, so now we can get started with the actual fun!

Anyway, in the meantime, why not get yourself a copy of my translation and get a head start on what we’ll be talking about?  Head over to my Etsy store or my Ko-fi store and get yourself a copy of The Telescope of Zoroaster (or my other ebooks) today!

Genius in the Picatrix: The Spiritual Nature(s) of Perfect Nature

Not too long ago, I was flipping through my copy of the Picatrix, and came across a fascinating little bit.  It’s something I recall having seen (but glossed over) in M. David Litwa’s Hermetica II (an amazing, though annoyingly expensive, follow-up to Brian Copenhaver’s Hermetica, focusing on the Stobaean Fragments and a number of other Hermetic texts and later references to Hermēs Trismegistus).  There’s lots in Litwa’s book which is great, most of it classical and definitely part of what I’d consider the “Hermetic canon”.  For me, that’s basically stuff written during the Roman Empire, and what separates the two in my mind is basically the Emerald Tablet (which first appears written in Arabic between the 500s and 600s); depending on how you look at it, you might consider it the last instance of classical Hermetic canonical texts, or the first of post-/neo-Hermetic texts.  Personally, my Hermetic focus is on the stuff predating the Emerald Tablet along the lines of the Corpus Hermeticum.  So, when Litwa’s book goes into neo-Hermetic texts that either talk about Hermēs Trismegistus or have things attributed to him, I admit that I glazed over that a bit easier and faster than I did the Stobaean Fragments.  Besides, so much of what was said later tends to be derivative or repetitive from earlier works.

Enter the Ġāyat al-Ḥakīm, the “Goal of the Wise”, sometimes just known as the Ġayah, but definitely better known in the West as the Picatrix, most likely written in Arabic sometime in the middle of the 11th century CE, and based on the history of Ibn Khaldūn, the author of this text is supposedly one Maslama al-Majrīṭī, a Muslim Andalusian scholar, mathematician, and astronomer.  Everyone knows the Picatrix, everyone loves the Picatrix; it’s a fantastic text of astrological magic, and among the earliest of true grimoires in Europe, being among the great granddaddies of them all.  As many people know, it’s primary focus is on what we nowadays call stellar image magic (the creation of astrological talismans under specific stellar configurations of planets, signs, lunar mansions, and stars that often bear a particular scene or image on them) along with early alchemical concoctions for love and hate and many other purposes (many of which are bizarre and not a few of which are outright toxic or poisonous), and which also contain some fantastic ritual prayers and processes for adoring and communing with the spirits of the planets themselves.  It also contains, hidden among its many leaves, wonderful examples and preservations of older pagan practices from the Hermetists, Sabians, Nabataeans, and various other Mediterranean peoples.  It is not, however, a particularly theurgical text on the whole, even though it contains a wealth of information on philosophy, spiritual and cosmic frameworks, and the like in how and why magic works the way that it does.

Just to get this out of the way up front, we’ll be looking at several different editions and translations of the Picatrix, so I wanted to get a list of resources set up for those who want to do their own research as well:

I was looking through my well-worn copy of the Picatrix (I mostly rely on the Warnock/Greer translation) for more resources on prayers and prayer methods (always on the lookout for more tech!), and there was something that caught my eye as I was breezing through its pages looking for keywords of interest .  Nestled between other bits and bobs of magic, there were two phrases that caught my eye: “Hermēs Trismegistus” and “Perfect Nature”.  In Latin, this is phrased Natura Completa, as in one’s nature that is fulfilled, whole, complete, and, well, perfected.  Admittedly, I had basically already seen this section before from Litwa, but this time, it hit different—and it turns out that Litwa didn’t include the entire section, either.

From the end of book III, chapter 6 of the Picatrix (Warnock/Greer translation):

Certain people inquired of Hermes the sage, asking: “With what are science and philosophy joined?” He answered, “With Perfect Nature.” They asked again, saying, “What is the root of science and philosophy?” He said, “Perfect Nature.” Then they questioned him more closely: “What is the key by which science and philosophy are opened?” He answered, “Perfect Nature.” They then asked of him, “What is Perfect Nature?” He answered, “Perfect Nature is the spirit of the philosopher or sage linked to the planet that governs him. This is that which opens the closed places of knowledge, and by which is understood that which cannot otherwise be understood at all, and from which workings proceed naturally both in sleep and in waking.”

Thus it is clear from the foregoing that Perfect Nature acts in the sage or philosopher as a teacher toward a student, teaching the latter first in simple and easy matters, and then proceeding step by step to greater and more difficult ones, until the student is perfect in knowledge. When Perfect Nature works in this way, according to its own virtue and influence, the intellect of the philosopher is disposed according to his natural inclination.

You should understand this, committing it to memory, because from the foregoing it may be concluded that it is impossible for anybody to attain this science except those who are naturally inclined to it, both by their own virtue and by the disposition of the planet ruling in their nativity.

The Atallah/Kiesel translation gives a slightly more clear version of that second paragraph, at least in my mind:

The Perfect Nature for the philosopher is like the good teacher that teaches the boy word for word, and every time [the boy] gets done with one door of knowledge, he enters with [Perfect Nature] to another door, and that boy will never fear missing any knowledge as long as he has such a teacher that lasts with him forever.  Because the teacher always reveals to the boy everything that troubles him and teaches him what is hard, this is the philosopher’s Perfect Nature.

At the beginning of this chapter, the Picatrix introduces this notion of Perfect Nature in its own way, that Perfect Nature “fortifies those who philosophize and strengthens their intellect and their wisdom, so that in all their works they may quickly attain fulfillment”.  And, compounding the role of Perfect Nature, at the start of that first excerpt given above, the author of the Picatrix states that Socrates had his opinion that the Perfect Nature is the “Sun of the Wise”, i.e. the personal Sun of individual sages and philosophers.  Given these connections, it’s starting to sound an awful lot like Perfect Nature being a spirit akin to one’s own agathodaimōn or genius, especially as the Picatrix explicitly links one’s Perfect Nature to one’s ruling planet.  There are also hints later on—we’ll talk about them when we get there—that this spirit also can be a protector as well, making this in all cases much like the later notion of the guardian angel, or even Holy Guardian Angel, as both defender and teacher.

The Picatrix gives a little vignette, a vision of Hermēs Trismegistus and how he found his own Perfect Nature.  Supposedly, all this comes from the book Kitab al-Isṭamāḵis, or the Liber Antimaquis (which I myself have translated from Latin, but which didn’t appear in what I had access to), which the Picatrix attributes to Aristotle.  The vignette of Hermēs Trismegistus encountering Perfect Nature goes like this (Warnock/Greer translation):

When I wished to understand and draw forth the secrets of the workings of the world and of its qualities, I put myself above a certain pit that was very deep and dark, from which a certain impetuous wind blew; nor was I able to see anything in the pit, on account of its obscurity.  If I put a lit candle in it, straightway it was extinguished by the wind.

Then there appeared to me in a dream a beautiful man of imperial authority, who spoke to me as follows: “Put that lit candle in a lantern of glass, and the impetuosity of the wind will not extinguish it. You should lower the lantern into the pit, in the middle of which you should dig; thence you may draw forth an image by which, when you have drawn it forth, the wind from the pit will be extinguished, and then you will be able to hold the light there. Then you should dig in the four corners of the pit, and from there you may draw out the secrets of the world and of Perfect Nature, and its qualities, and the generation of all things.”

I asked him who he was, and he replied: “I am Perfect Nature; if you wish to speak to me, call me by my proper name, and I will answer you.” I asked him them by what name he was called, and he answered me, saying, “By the four names mentioned above I am named and called…”

“Four names”?  Towards the start of this chapter, the Picatrix says that the ancient sages gave a string of four names to Perfect Nature: Meegius, Betzahuech, Vacdez, and Nufeneguediz.  These are corruptions of Arabic names, and cross-checking with the Arabic Picatrix, these names are properly Tamāġīs (تماغيس), Baġdīswād (بغديسواد), Waġdās (وغداس), and Nūfānāġādīs (نوفاناغاديس).  At least, these are my own transcriptions of the names; Atallah/Kiesel give them as “Tamaghees, Baghdiswad, Waghidas, Nufanaghdees”, which are fairly close (though I’m not sure where they got the extra vowel in Waġdās from, or where one of the vowels in Nūfānāġādīs went).  To get from the Arabic “tamāġīs baġdīswād waġdās nūfānāġādīs” to the Latin “meegius betzahuech vacdez nufeneguediz”…well, it’s actually fairly close as it is, especially Vacdez/Waġdas and Nufeneguediz/Nūfānāġādīs, and Betzahuech/Baġdīswād is kinda close (though I’d expect something like “Bagtezued”), but it’s the shift from Tamāġīs to Meegius that’s most perplexing.  Perhaps if we read تماغدس as “tamāġyus” instead of “tamāġīs” (reading the yā’ here as a consonant rather than a vowel), that’d get us closer, though there’s still the perplexing issue of what happened to that initial “ta-” from Arabic into Latin.  Oh well.  We’ll talk more about the origins of these names in our next post (of course there’d be a next post).

(Also, can I just say that I would absolutely join in on a new, more easily-accessible translation from the Arabic of the Picatrix, or even just a list of barbarous words and divine names from the original Arabic?  One of my greatest frustrations when having to deal with translations of Arabic works into Western languages is a lack of faithful transliteration from Arabic script to Roman script.  I know it’s a hard habit to break, but nowadays, we absolutely have the technology to faithfully produce many diacritics on letters easily, so there’s no reason why we should perpetuate bad transliterations like Atallah/Kiesel “Tamaghees” as opposed to a more faithful “Tamāġīs” where you can more easily figure out the original Arabic spelling, which is so important for pronunciation, etymology, and numerology, all of which are crucial for occult researchers.  Heck, even if you don’t want to use all sorts of diacritics, there are so many good forms of romanization for Arabic that there’s just no excuse for this.)

The Picatrix somewhat goes back and forth on this, but it seems that these are actually the names of four component spirits of Perfect Nature, or alternatively the four powers of an individual’s spirit of Perfect Nature (Warnock/Greer translation primary):

  1. The spirit/power of the senses “which are said to be joined to the world” (Atallah/Kiesel: “spreading intentional power in the world”)
  2. The spirit/power of things “to which spirit is attracted” (Atallah/Kiesel: “the spiritual instrumental power that pulls the spirits”)
  3. The spirit/power of perfect, sane, and unbroken contemplation (Atallah/Kiesel: “the right spiritual power”)
  4. The spirit/power “by which works are done by the hands” (Atallah/Kiesel: “handmade spiritual power”)

Moreover, “these three spirits in matter” (as opposed to the spirit of contemplation, i.e. the spirit of senses, things, and works done by the hands) “which exist in intention and effect, are coadunated in perfect contemplation with the sense, which we have said are joined to the world”.  In this, the Picatrix goes on to explain that the senses do not merely perceive the world passively, but like in the medieval understanding of how the eyes see in terms of lux and lumen, the senses “attract rays and bring them to those things towards which they are directed, like a mirror that is raised up to the light of the Sun”.  This is to say that, in focusing our senses on something, we not only receive those influences into ourselves, but also fill the thing with more of its own influence, or direct those influences elsewhere, as a mirror reflecting the rays of the Sun “projects them into shadowy places, and those shadowy places become bright and illuminated” without the Sun being diminished.  (It’s probably important to note the Sun and light connections here with Socrates’ own description of the Perfect Nature as the “Sun of the wise”.)

By directing the powers of the cosmos by means of the senses, we facilitate joining those powers from their sources to our targets: “when the spirits of motion and rest are joined to the superior world while in contact with the senses, they attract the powers of the spirits of the superior world and pour them out upon matter”.  It is this, fundamentally this very action, that allows the consecration, empowerment, and ensoulment of talismans (“images”) to function; images are, after all, things we look at, and this is why they often have some sort of scene, person, or figure on them to bring about a particular influence or effect.  And, in looking at something, we contemplate it, and contemplation “goes into anything in which the virtue consists of a hidden spirit”.

In this light, assuming that the names of the spirits given at the start of this chapter and this list of what the powers are at the end of it are in the same order, we can consider the four names of the four spirits of Perfect Nature and what these spirits do a little more closely:

  1. Meegius/Tamāġīs: the spirit/power of our senses that join higher things to lower ones.  This is our ability to spiritually perceive the cosmos and its various spirits, energies, and powers in their ebb and flow.
  2. Betzahuech/Baġdīswād: the spirit/power of the lower things that we work upon to infuse with higher things.  This is the actual physical substance we work with to create images, talismans, confections, and other sacred objects, including the supplies of herbs, stones, incense, fabric, paper, ink, paint, and the like, as well as our understanding of them.
  3. Vacdez/Waġdās: the spirit/power of our own mental and spiritual contemplation.  This is our ability to mentally and spiritually process information and power, the strictly internal aspect that can best be thought of as our reliance upon our divinely-granted faculties and our connection to the Divine itself.
  4. Nufeneguediz/Nūfānāġādīs: the spirit/power of labor and works that we do in the world to implement.  This is the actual work we do, both in terms of the physical labor involved to create things as well as the rituals we do around, upon, or for them.

There seems to be a natural dichotomy that results from these four spirit/power seen in this light.  Meegius/Tamāġīs is the non-physical and passive way we integrate the spiritual and material, while Nufeneguediz/Nūfānāġādīs is the physical and active way we do so (a dichotomy of perception versus interaction).  Betzahuech/Baġdīswād is the external and material component of the works we carry out, while Vacdez/Waġdās is the internal and spiritual component of those works (a dichotomy of substance and essence).  I like this sort of categorization, but we’ll return more to this idea later.

The trouble now is figuring out the precise relationship of these four spirits to the spirit of Perfect Nature itself.  In the vignette, Perfect Nature says that “I am named and called” the four names “by which I shall respond when you call”.  There is a difference, however, in how the Latin Picatrix (via Warnock/Greer and Attrell/Porreca) and the Arabic Picatrix (via Atallah/Kiesel)  actually talks about these spirits.  The Latin Picatrix makes it sound like these are four names for four individual spirits (“they gave to the spirits of Perfect Nature these four names”), while the Arabic Picatrix makes it sound like this is all just one name for one spirit (“these wise men called the hidden secret of the complete inborn spiritual nature…”).  Thinking about this some more, I think the notion of each of these being a distinct spirit unto itself is faulty, and a misunderstanding of the grammar here.  I think it’s better to understand Perfect Nature as a single spirit that has four powers, rather than as a sort of collective of four separate spirits.  However, I don’t think such a view is necessarily wrong, either; if they are separate, then they operate together as a synaxis, where if you call one, you basically get them all, all mutually supportive of each other and all mutually involved with each other (cf. the orthodox view of the archangels as all distinct entities but all working together for the same ends at the same time).

Before wrapping this post up, I should also note that the Moonlit Hermit wrote two posts some years ago, back in December 2014 and January 2015, that also explored this same chapter and this same topic, as well as another post regarding a daily practice of calling on the four names of Perfect Spirit.  I came across their posts in the research for these, and I thought they were interesting.  We arrive at some similar conclusions and some different ones, but I think they’re good to read for others who are interested in this same topic, as well.

I think this is a good place to take a break for now, having introduced Perfect Nature, its role, and its powers.  There’s plenty more to talk about, though, starting with really looking into that vignette of Hermēs Trismegistus standing above the pit and being taught by Perfect Nature how to conquer it.  We’ll talk more about that next time, so stay tuned!