On the Megaloschema

Today, as many of my readers in the West are probably aware, is Good Friday as reckoned by Western Christianity as the annual holiday that commemorates the crucifixion of Jesus Christ, the fifth day of Holy Week and the first of the Paschal Triduum leading up to Easter Sunday, which properly celebrates the resurrection of Christ, the most important holy day in the Christian calendar. I don’t need to get into the specifics of this holiday and celebration, given its huge importance in the rites of Christianity specifically and Christian-influenced Western culture generally, nor do I really celebrate this holiday. After all, I’m not baptized as a Christian, nor was I raised as one, nor do I profess it myself as my religion. Indeed, although Christianity has a huge influence on my own magical practices, especially where saints and angels are concerned, my recent spiritual practices are taking me in my own Hermetic deist way apart from the usual stuff of Christianity. Still, that’s not to say that I’m entirely abandoning the Christian influences, at least where they’re appropriate. And today, on the commemoration of the Passion of Christ, I’d like to talk a bit about one of my favorite pieces of Christian graphical design: the Megaloschema, the Great Schema.

Properly speaking, this design is one found in Eastern Christianity, especially Greek Orthodox and Russian Orthodox practices, and generally reserved for use as a special vestment given to monks who have attained a high degree of spiritual accomplishment and retraction from the world, for whom the title “Megaloschemos” is given. It’s a profound mark of spirituality, and comes at no small cost or effort to those who have earned the rite, with some sects only giving it to monks and nuns on their deathbed. Plus, let’s be honest: those who wear it look like a wizard’s sartorial wet dream.

It’s also densely packed with symbolism, all tied to the Passion of Jesus Christ, the climax of the trials and tribulations that Christ faced at the end of his earthly life that led up to the Resurrection. Although the standard emblem of Christianity is the simple Cross (more properly, a crucifix, which is a cross plus the body of Christ), which acts as a reminder of the sacrifice of the Son of God for the sake of the salvation of the world, the Megaloschema is the Cross plus quite a bit more.

My good friend and colleague Michael Lux of Necromantic Matters tipped me off to the design a few years back, and I simply fell in love with it: the dense layers of symbolism, the almost cosmological patterning of the elements arranged on it, and the use of Greek acronyms and initialisms to add even more meaning to it immediately appealed to me, and so I appended it to my then-primary shrine, dedicated to my worship of God and the veneration of the seven archangels. It fit nicely, at least, nestled under some of the chaplets I made for them to give a bit of balance.

As my practices have shifted more and more away from Christianity, however, I found that I was using this particular shrine less and less, and when I started to reorganize and clean up my temple space, shrines, and altars after my Year in White in 2017 and again more recently at the end of 2018 and the start of this year, I realized that, even though I don’t have as much personal adoration of the Cross anymore, I still adore the use of the Megaloschema. I kept that little, dinky cutout where it was. By necessity, it was dinky; I couldn’t find a good high-resolution image of it anywhere except for other variants of the pattern that didn’t have as much detail or as many elements on it, so I kept it at the small size that it was.

Well, when I redid my temple space, I moved around a few shrines and cleaned up some other things. One of the things I moved around was my shrine to the Hieromartyr of Antioch, Saint Cyprian of Antioch with Saint Justina and Saint Theocistus. Originally, I had drawn a somewhat elaborate pattern in chalk on the wall above and behind the shrine, consisting of a Cross, a skull-and-bones, a cauldron, a crozier, and other images relevant to the work I was doing at the time with St. Cyprian. I don’t have a good picture of the specific design I drew, but you can see parts of it in this one picture I took of the shrine during the Days of the Cyprians from 2018:

When I cleaned my temple space up, I decided to wipe off the chalk drawing from the wall (it was getting faded anyway) and rotated the shrine around so that it faced a new direction. The shrine looked fresher and cleaner, but I still wanted something along the lines of the chalk pattern I had set up, now that the space was a bit clearer. At that moment, I realized that the Megaloschema would have been perfect for the Cyprian shrine; after all, still being a publicly-venerated saint in Eastern Christianity and definitely fulfilling the qualities that a monastic would have that would permit them the use of the Megaloschema, it seemed appropriate enough, especially given how symbolically rich—and, frankly, how just simply magical—the design is. Yet, as before, I couldn’t find a design that was clear enough or high-resolution enough for the shrine.

So I made one.

This is pretty packed with symbolism, so let’s break it down into its individual components:

  • The True Cross, the instrument of the execution of Christ upon which Christ was killed by the world and, in so doing, conquered the death of the world
  • The tilted beam on the Cross, tilted up to the right of Christ signifying the ascension of the thief on his right to Heaven
  • The Title of the Cross placed on top, put up to mock Christ
  • The crown of thorns used to crown Christ, encircling the four nails used to pierce the body of Christ
  • A darkened sun, indicating the eclipse that occurred at the moment of the death of Christ
  • A moon with three stars, indicating the three days Christ died, descended into Hell, and returned at his Resurrection
  • The Holy Lance, the spear of Longinus that pierced the side of Christ
  • The Holy Sponge on a reed of hyssop, used to give Christ vinegar to drink (most likely not vinegar-vinegar but posca, a diluted vinegar-wine drink consumed regularly by soldiers, lower-classes, and the poor)
  • The rooster, facing away from the Cross, being the cock that crowed three times for the denials of Peter
  • The column, to which Christ was fastened and flailed 39 times
  • The ladder used by Joseph of Arimathea, the man who assumed responsibility for burying Christ, to bring the body of Christ down from the Cross
  • The pitcher used to wash the body of Christ, and also that which he used to wash the feet of his disciples
  • The Holy Chalice, or the Holy Grail, used by Christ at the Last Supper
  • The hammer used to fix the nails into the body of Christ
  • The pincers used to remove the nails from the body of Christ
  • The flail used on the body of Christ
  • The skull and bones, being those of Adam, the First Man, buried at Golgotha where Christ was crucified

There are other items that could be included, based on the traditional items associated with the Passion of Christ collectively known as the Arma Christi, but I found the above to be enough and all fairly traditional based on the versions of the Megaloschema I could find.

And, of course, the Greek letters (note the use of the lunate sigma, Ϲ, in the image above, instead of the usual sigma, Σ, in the descriptions below):

  • ΘΕΟΣ (Θεός) — Literally just the word God
  • ΟΒΤΔ (Ο Βασιλεύς της Δόξης) — The King of Glory
  • ΙΣ ΧΣ ΝΙΚΑ (Ιησούς Χριστός Νικά) — Jesus Christ conquers
  • ΤΤΔΦ (Τετιμημένον Τρόπαιον Δαιμόνων Φρίκη) — Honored trophy, dread of demons
  • ΡΡΔΡ (Ρητορικοτέρα Ρητόρων Δακρύων Ροή) — A flow of tears more eloquent than orators
  • ΧΧΧΧ (Χριστός Χριστιανοίς Χαρίζει Χάριν) — Christ bestows grace upon Christians
  • ΞΓΘΗ (Ξύλου Γεύσις Θάνατον Ηγαγεν) — The tasting of the Tree brought Death
  • ΣΞΖΕ (Σταυρού Ξύλοω Ζωήν Εύρομεν) — Through the Tree of Life have we found Life
  • ΕΕΕΕ (Ελένης Εύρημα Εύρηκεν Εδέμ) — The discovery of Helen has uncovered Eden
  • ΦΧΦΠ (Φως Χριστού Φαίνοι Πάσι) — The Light of Christ shines upon all
  • ΘΘΘΘ (Θεού Θέα Θείον Θαύμα) — The vision of God, a divine wonder
  • ΤΣΔΦ (Τύπον Σταυρού Δαίμονεσ Φρίττοσιν) — Demons dread the sign of the Cross
  • ΑΔΑΜ (Αδάμ) — Literally just the name Adam
  • ΤΚΠΓ (Τόποσ Κρανίου Παράδεισος Γέγονε) — The place of the Skull has become Paradise
  • ΞΖ (Ξύλον Ζωής) — The Tree of Life
  • ΠΑΓΗΔΤΠ — The first letter of the seven sayings of Jesus Christ on the Cross:
    • Πάτερ, ἄφες αὐτοῖς, οὐ γὰρ οἴδασιν τί ποιοῦσιν. — “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.” (Luke 23:34)
    • Ἀμήν σοι λέγω σήμερον μετ’ ἐμοῦ ἔσῃ ἐν τῷ παραδείσῳ. — “Truly, I say to you, today you will be with me in paradise.” (Luke 23:43)
    • Γύναι, ἴδε ὁ υἱός σου· Ἴδε ἡ μήτηρ σου. — “Woman, behold your son. Son, behold your mother.” (John 19:26-27)
    • Ἠλὶ ἠλὶ λεμὰ σαβαχθάνι;— “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?” (Matthew 27:46 and Mark 15:34)
    • Διψῶ. — “I thirst.” (John 19:28)
    • Τετέλεσται. — “It is finished.” (John 19:30)
    • Πάτερ, εἰς χεῖράς σου παρατίθεμαι τὸ πνεῦμά μου. — “Father, into your hands I commend my spirit.” (Luke 23:46)

Despite the beauty and dense symbolism of this severe symbol of the Passion, the Megaloschema is really only limited to Eastern Christian practices; it’s not really found in Western Christianity. That is, except for one surprising icon: the Icon of the Seven African Powers, more commonly known as Las Siete Potencias Africanas, a fun amalgamation of Christian Passion- and saint-related imagery mixed in with African orisha syncretism:

Around the edge of the icon are seven different saint images for the seven most popular orisha from Yòrubá and Lukumí orisha religion. Starting at the lower right corner and going clockwise from there, they are:

Interestingly, these seven saint images (given in oval shapes, much like Roman Catholic saint medallions) are bound together by a chain with seven tools hanging from the bottom of them: a machete, hammer, spear, hoe, pickaxe, rake, and shovel. The chain and all these tools are associated with Ogun, the Blacksmith Warrior, the God of Iron and God in Iron, whose domain includes all metal and all implements of metal. (He’s also my own tutelary orisha to whom I’m primarily ordained.) Ogun plays a crucial role in orisha religion, too, and the subtle opposition between Shango (as Saint Barbara) at the top and the tools of Ogun at the bottom is a fun nod to their intense relationship.

In the center of all the saints and the chain with tools is the image of Jesus Christ on the Cross with a ladder, a spear, a sponge on a rod, a sword, a pitcher, dice, a skull, a lantern, a column, a flail, a rooster, a darkened Sun, and other implements of the Arma Christi. Although Jesus Christ is given the name Olofi (a term used in Lukumí for the cosmocrator and creator orisha, i.e. God), we have fundamentally the same exact setup and iconography as the Megaloschema of Eastern Christianity in this icon of heavily-syncretized Western Christianity. It’s a delightful mashup of names and symbols that appeals to me, even if I don’t much care for the art style that’s commonly used in Western Christian iconography. Yet, it’s also incredibly confusing and amazing how the Megaloschema got blended in with African diasporic syncretized Christianity in the New World; since I don’t actively work with the specific folk traditions that produced this image, I’m honestly not sure how this particular icon of the Seven African Powers came about. It might be something fun to research one day, especially since I’m already in orisha religion as it is.

These are just some of my thoughts on this Good Friday; I had the idea to write a post about the Megaloschema for some time now, but it didn’t seem to come together until this morning, fittingly enough. For all of my Christian readers, rejoice, for soon your Lord will be risen! For all my other readers, I hope you have a wonderful start to your weekend.

Also, PSA: don’t forget that today is the Feast of Saint Expedite! Go honor our good friend who loves to help us quickly, quickly, immediately, immediately, crushing the demon that cries “tomorrow, tomorrow!” and holding the divine power of Today, today! Get him a poundcake, some wine, some cigarettes, some dice, and some flowers to honor this good saint who wards off procrastination and who helps speed us on our way speedily.

Also, another PSA: today, April 19 2019, the weather for the United States has quite a bit of rain headed our way on the East Coast as well as in the Pacific Northwest. This is an excellent day to put out your bins, basins, bowls, buckets, and all other rainwater collection instruments you might have, since today is not only Good Friday and the Feast of Saint Expedite, but also a full moon (exact at 7:12 am Eastern US time this morning); such a confluence of dates is pretty rare, so take advantage of it all! Beyond just simply being rainwater, with all its normal spiritual uses, today’s rainwater would have exceedingly strong spiritual powers, potencies, and uses for quite a number of ends. Be safe when you’re traveling and commuting today, and collect that rainwater!

49 Days of Definitions: Part IX, Definition 4

This post is part of a series, “49 Days of Definitions”, discussing and explaining my thoughts and meditations on a set of aphorisms explaining crucial parts of Hermetic philosophy. These aphorisms, collectively titled the “Definitions from Hermes Trismegistus to Asclepius”, lay out the basics of Hermetic philosophy, the place of Man in the Cosmos, and all that stuff. It’s one of the first texts I studied as a Hermetic magician, and definitely what I would consider to be a foundational text. The Definitions consist of 49 short aphorisms broken down into ten sets, each of which is packed with knowledge both subtle and obvious, and each of which can be explained or expounded upon. While I don’t propose to offer the be-all end-all word on these Words, these might afford some people interested in the Definitions some food for thought, one aphorism per day.

Today, let’s discuss the thirty-ninth definition, part IX, number 4 of 7:

Soul’s illness: sadness and joy; soul’s passions: desire and opinion.  Bodies are silimar to souls when they are seen: none (is) ugly (if it is) good, none is evil (if it is) honest.  Everything is visible to one who has Nous; who(ever) thinks of himself in Nous knows himself and who(ever) knows himself knows everything.  Everything is within man.

The Definitions have been good in explaining things at a high level: where we came from, what our job is, the nature of God, and so forth.  Being short as it is, however, it doesn’t afford us many of the details to a lot of the questions it brings up.  This is how we have a traditions of philosophy that go back for two thousand years and analytic texts that help explain the core tenets of a religion and how things play out based on actual scripture which, almost always, doesn’t answer every question in full.  That’s often the point; what’s the point of describing the nature of God to someone who doesn’t know what God is?  The core texts exist to help get the proper footing needed to start learning and experiencing on our own.  Likewise, with the Definitions, we’re not told much about some of the things that we may want to know.  For instance, consider the soul: we know that all moving things have souls and that Man’s soul is different from other types of soul.  We know the high-level bare-bones theory of the soul, but we haven’t talked much about the nitty-gritty details of soul.  While we don’t (and can’t) know everything from a simple single text, we can get a basic grasp of it from learning and reasonable speech, which the Definitions provide us.  And this short definition has quite a lot to unpack.

Here, we learn that the soul isn’t something immutable: it has illnesses and passions.  Illnesses, broadly speaking, are temporary conditions where something is afflicted and cannot function properly.  For instance, a cold or catching the flu are illnesses, where the body’s immune system is compromised and several parts of the body go out of whack for a short while.  Some illnesses don’t affect us much and are as quickly lost as they were caught; some have a sudden onset and kill us; some linger around forever waiting for an opportunity to strike in tandem with something else to kill us.  Passions, on the other hand, are strongly felt emotions or mental states that drive us to action; the root word for this in English comes from Latin meaning “to suffer”, while the Greek means “feeling”, “suffering”, or “what befalls to one”.  Passions change us, drive us, and steer us to certain actions that normally might not be taken.  The difference between illnesses and passions is that illnesses affect someone from the outside; they’re never caught in isolation (I’m referring only to the common sense of communicable diseases, not genetic or other “natural” diseases).  Passions, however, arise from within.  If we restrict the meaning of “illness” to communicable diseases, passions might be associated with genetic disorders or other internal states such as heat, hunger, or fatigue.

We now know that the soul has two illnesses, “sadness and joy”, which arise from external causes.  The soul doesn’t make itself sad or happy, but gets the causes for these things from outside itself: the body, things that happen to the body or soul, and other external events or entities.  Likewise, the soul has two passions, “desire and opinion”, which arise from internal causes.  The soul creates these or are predisposed to these things on its own; we don’t directly get desires or opinions from outside ourselves, but come up with them on our own.  Of course, the two are connected; emotions (“illnesses”) can provide the impetus for passions, such as finding something that makes us happy and us leading to believe that we should get more of it.  Likewise, passions can help produce emotions once effected, such as desiring something that we cannot obtain, the lack of which makes us sad.

The illnesses and passions of the soul, though different and arising from different sources, are intertwined in a complex way.  Both, however, afflict the soul.  A healthy soul free of illness would be free from sadness or joy, and a calm soul free of passions would be free from desire and opinion.  Of course, no soul in a body can be properly free of these things; these are all qualities, and a soul gains “quality and quantity as well as good and evil” when it gains a body, “for matter brings about such things” (VII.4).  These things cloud the judgment, knowledge, and action of the soul, and so change the movement, function, and state of the body that it inhabits.  Because the soul would not have these things without a body, the body can be said to be the cause of both soul-illness and soul-passion, though it may not be the source for their’ arising.  Just as bodily illnesses prevent the body from acting the way it should, soul-illnesses prevent the soul from acting as it should.  Similarly, just as bodily passions drive the body to act in certain ways, soul-passions drive the soul to act in certain ways.  While all illnesses are to be avoided since they prevent action, not all passions are bad if they drive us to act a certain way; after all, it’s a good and healthy passion of the body to live and eat, and it’s a good and healthy passion of the soul to desire and know Nous (VII.3).  (The terminology here hints at Hermeticism’s influence from classical Stoicism, one of my favorite philosophies.)

Why are things like sadness and joy bad?  After all, while sadness might be seen as undesirable (note how a passion here comes into play!), we often find joy and happiness to be desirable and fun.  Keep in mind, however, that these are things that arise from external things, which are material in nature.  If we pursue the material for the sake of the material, or if we produce things that make us happy because they make us happy, then we’re effectively rising no higher than the material realm where these things exist.  If we pursue things for their own sake or for a proper opinion of them (as developed by Logos and Nous within ourselves), and if we become happy in the process, awesome, but that shouldn’t be the goal of our pursuit and only serves to distract us if we hold onto that feeling.  (I’m reminded of the Zen koan “if you meet the Buddha in the road, kill him”.)  It’s normal for us to be afflicted by sadness and joy as we go through the world doing our stuff, just as we’re accosted by germs and parasites and viruses every time we leave the house to go to work or the store.  We get these things that may make us sick in the course of doing something else; we don’t try to hold onto them, so that way we don’t get distracted from what we went outside our houses for.  If we become happy on the way to the grocer because we enjoy driving, we don’t keep driving for the sake of driving hoping that it continues to make us happy.  We drive to get to the store and we drive back, lest we run out of gas on the road and end up never going to the store or getting home.  Likewise, if we become happy or sad in the process of our Work, that’s just what happens to us; we should shrug it off naturally as the body sheds off illnesses naturally,

Opinions and desires, on the other hand, drive us to do different things based on what we consider.  These are things that arise up out of the soul from different intelligible causes; according to opinion, after all, many gods have come into being that are not God (VIII.1), yet, through unreasonable speech and opinions, are worshiped as ultimate divinity for spiritual or political reasons (VIII.3).  While the Nous dwelling within the soul provides a set of natural opinions and desires that would help us lead proper lives, we as humans are capable of choosing them or choosing other ones that can lead to God or to elsewhere (VIII.6).  Depending on what external stimuli we have, our opinions and desires are swayed both by them and by Nous, and depending on which tendencies to action are stronger, our bodies and selves are led to act in certain ways by our souls, which can produce more sets of external stimuli.  For instance, we desire to go to the store to get food to cook for the week, but we may be tempted by an immediate hunger and a carelessness of money and go to a fancy restaurant instead.  Likewise, we may desire to study magic or religion, but we can be persuaded by other people to study this tradition instead of that one or no tradition at all, or we can get tempted to use it more of a means to impress or socialize other people because we think it more helpful to us instead of studying it for its own sake as a means to gnosis.

Sadness and joy, the illnesses of the soul, happen to us and afflict us as they will; just as exposing ourselves to bodily illness largely can’t be avoided, so too do we expose ourselves to them, though we can take measures and caution to make sure they don’t affect us too much and prevent us from acting how we will.  Desires and opinions, however, are much more within our control, and how do we form these?  With deliberation and our use of reason and speech, which help to provide knowledge (V.2).  By this knowledge we come to understand the world around us, which helps to provide knowledge of God.  Thus, by even trying to know God as bodily beings, we expose ourselves to danger and affliction, but this is just part of being a material being with qualities, quantities, and “good and evil”.  We should choose good, but what is good?  Knowledge, which is God, which is Nous, which is light (IX.2).  When we have Nous and knowledge, we know things as they are (II.2), which produces desires and opinions that lead us to where we need to be.

Thus, when we truly see things, we know them as they are.  “Bodies are similar to souls when they are seen: none is ugly if it is good, none is evil if it is honest”.  We do not fear the things we know (IX.3), so we are not averted by them; thus, if things are good, we know them as they are and as part of God, and so they are not “ugly”, which would cause fear and aversion if we did not truly see them.  Similarly, if they are honest, they show themselves as they are, not hiding anything.  If something hides itself without honesty, it is a lie, which is a result of unreasonable speech; further, if it hides from light which is Nous, it clouds knowledge of itself and produces darkness, the absence of light.  These things are then “evil”, since they prevent knowledge from being obtained.  These things hide, and hiding is caused by fear (IX.3), which is caused by a lack of knowledge, which is ignorance, which is evil (VII.5).  We can draw several comparisons here:

  • Things that are good are not ugly (causing attraction)
  • Things that are good are honest (truth)
  • Things that are evil are ugly (causing aversion)
  • Things that are evil are not honest (lies)
  • Things that are ugly are not honest
  • Things that are honest are not ugly

With light, one can see; with knowledge, nothing is hidden (V.2).  Nous is knowledge; thus, “everything is visible to one who has Nous”, since Nous sees all things (V.1).  Further, since one’s self is within Nous as everything is, “whoever thinks of himself in Nous knows himself and whoever knows himself knows everything” (cf. the Delphic maxim “know thyself”). Everything is within God, which is Nous.  If we know ourselves, we know God, and if we know ourselves, we know everything.  Thus, this definition finishes with a powerful statement: “everything is within man”.  We’ve seen references to this before: “man is a small world…a perfect world whose magnitude does not exceed…the world” (I.4);”God is within himself, the world is in God, and man in the world” (VII.5).  We are a microcosm, a reflection of the world as well as of God, and if we know one part of the Whole, we come to know the Whole, so if we come to know ourselves, we come to know the Whole, which is everything.  Everything is within us.