The Two Sons of `Iyān: Bird-Based Origins and Other Ideas for Geomancy

In yesterday’s post, we began looking into this funny little thing that the good Dr. Stephen Skinner mentioned in his 1980 book Terrestrial Astrology: Divination by Geomancy, which was more recently updated and republished in 2011 as Geomancy in Theory & Practice.  When describing the Arabian origins of the art of geomancy, he mentioned a peculiar chant: “Ye two sons of ‘Iyan hasten with the explanation!”  It’s the identity and nature of the entities these were referring to that’ve puzzled me for going on ten years now, and unfortunately, Skinner never cited this statement anywhere.  After doing a bit of Arabic language hacking, we ended up with a proper spelling of the big name here to be `Iyān with the triliteral root `-Y-N (`ayn yā’ nūn), which ties it into the letter `ayn, the sixteenth letter of the Arabic script according to the Phoenician order (potential geomancy connection!), and thus to notions of eyes, sight, and vision (possible divination connection!).  We continued to dig a bit further, and we found several sources that talk about what Skinner did in his own books, though with about as much specificity, which wasn’t much.  However, we did begin to make some headway into understanding some of the first swirlings of geomantic practice and how it developed from earlier proto-geomantic practices in Arabaian and related cultures.  Today, we’ll pick up where we left off and keep investigating what `Iyān might refer to.

Though our discussion yesterday focused on the lines produced for geomantic (or proto-geomantic) divination, there were a few other references that we should investigate.  Going back to Lane for a moment, the entry for `Iyān mentions something about arrows.  Let’s bring that up again:

… اِبْنَا عيَانٍ means Two birds, (Ḳ, TA,) from the flight or alighting-places, or cries, &c., of which, the Arabs augur: (TA:) or two lines which are marked upon the ground (Ṣ, Ḳ) by the عَائِف [or augurer], by means of which one augurs, from the flight, &c., of birds; (Ṣ;) or which are made for the purpose of auguring; (TA;) then the augurer says, اِبْنَى عيَانْ اًسْرِعَا البَيَانْ [O two sons of `Iyán, hasten ye the manifestation]: (Ḳ,* TA: [see 1 in art. خط :]) in the copies of the Ḳ, اِبْنَا is here erroneously put for اِبْنَى : or, as some say ابْنَا عِيانٍ means two well-known divining arrows: (TA:) and when it is known that the gaming arrow of him who plays therewith wins, one says جَرىَ اِبْنَا عِيَانٍ [app. meaning The two sons of ‘Iyán have hastened; i.e. the two arrows so termed; as seems to be indicated by a verse cited in the L (in which it is followed by the words بِالشِّواء المُضَهُّبِ with the roast meat not thoroughly cooked), and also by what here follows]: (Ṣ, L, Ḳ, TA:) these [arrows] being called ابْنَا عِيانٍ because by means of them the people [playing at the game called المَيْسِر] see the winning and the food [i.e. the hastily-cooked flesh of the slaughtered camel]. (L, TA.)

Lane says that abnā `Iyān could refer to “two well-known divining arrows”, i.e. belomancy, which was known and practiced throughout Mesopotamia, Arabia, and the Near East dating back to ancient biblical times.  In this style of divination, the arrows used for divination were required to be fletched with feathers, at least for the sake of distinguishing them.  This also brings up the memory of the pre-Islamic god Hubal worshiped by the Quraysh tribe (the tribe of the Prophet Muḥammad himself) in the Ka`bah in Mecca (when it was still a pagan shrine) who performed acts of divination with arrows for his devotees.  However, what little is known of that method of divination was that Hubal used seven arrows, not two as Lane suggests.  Plus, from what I can find (especially from Robert Hoyland’s 2002 work Arabia and the Arabs: From the Bronze Age to the Coming of Islam), there were several methods of belomancy:

  1. Using three arrows (one marked for “God commands it” or just as “do it”, one for “God forbids it” or as “don’t do it”, and one that was either left blank or marked as “not clear”), one would put them in a quiver on the back, and one would be randomly drawn.  The one that was drawn indicates the course to take; if the blank one was drawn, it was put back and another arrow was randomly drawn until an answer was obtained, or it was interpreted as “wait”.
  2. Using the same three arrows, they would be fired off, and the one that flew the furthest (or got closest to its target) indicated the answer.
  3. The arrows (perhaps the same three, or different ones?) were tossed or thrown in a certain way, and then interpreted based on the ways or the directions they fell.
  4. The seven arrows of Hubal:
    1. “Blood price”: When several people fought over who should pay blood-price, they drew lots and whoever drew this one would have to pay it.
    2. “Yes” and “No”: When they had a simple binary question, they drew lots until one of these two came up.
    3. “Water”: If someone wanted to dig for water, they cast lots containing this arrow and wherever it came forth they set to work.  (This seems unclear to me; perhaps onto a map, or into a field?)
    4. “Of you”, “Affiliated”, and “Not of You”: Whenever they wanted to circumcise a boy, make a marriage, bury a body, or make some sort of alliance or contract wit, or if someone had doubts about someone’s genealogy, they used these arrows to determine the specific relationship to someone.  “Of you” indicates that they belonged to the same tribe; “affiliated” that they were not of the same tribe but an ally of it; “not of you” that they were unrelated and unaffiliated.

None of this really comports with what we know about geomantic or proto-geomantic practice, whether from the sources Lane quotes or from Skinner’s research, unless we were to focus on the “Yes”/”No” style of Hubal-directed belomancy (which, well, it is a binary answer at least, which can be seen to tie into geomancy or proto-geomantic divination).  Plus, connections to Hubal and his divination cult seem to be a stretch; after all, Islam came about in Arabia around in the first half of the 600s ce, by which point the cult center of Hubal was effectively destroyed with the harrowing of the Ka`bah.  Even if we admit the likely possibility that there were proto-geomantic practices in Arabia at the time of the Prophet Muḥammad (and who’s to say that the earliest geomantic diviners didn’t use arrows to mark sand instead of using a simple staff?), an argument could be made that we’re looking at the wrong place for such a connection to geomancy.

Perhaps, instead, we should be looking towards the pre-Islamic gods of the sands of the Sahara rather than towards pre-Islamic gods of the Arabian peninsula.  After all, `Iyān doesn’t really seem to appear in the names of Arabian pagan religion, but it might in a Saharan one, perhaps even one with Egyptian, Canaanite, Hellenic, or Roman origins.  This is getting into some really weird and extraordinarily vague and far territory, though, and we don’t have a strong enough reason to get deep into any of it; there’s far too much variability if we widen our scope to all those other cultures, and it could well be a wild goose chase.

If not that, though, it could also be the result of the name of a spirit who wasn’t a god that was propitiated and propagated for calling upon in divination, much as how the Lemegeton duke Bune is now goetically synonymous with wealth magic, and whose name either happened to be close enough to `Iyān to be interpreted as such.  This is one possibility that my colleague and resident North African and Mediterranean traditions expert Arlechina Verdigris suggested, perhaps even a reuse of the name “John” as heard by Arabic ears (think how “John” is spoken by modern Spanish speakers, almost like “yohn” or “zhohn”), but in this context, that explanation seems a to stretch a bit too far, as “John” is usually rendered as يَـحـيٰى  Yaḥyā (especially by Arabic-speaking Muslims) or as يُوحَنَّا  Yūḥanna (especially by Arabic-speaking Jews and Christians), neither of which share much in common with the name `Iyān,  Plus, the name “John” as pronounced as such by English speakers would have been introduced only far too recently compared to the sources we’re looking at from before, considering the old origins of the chant in question.  That `Iyān could be the name of a spirit (jinn? ancestor?) or a pre-Islamic or otherwise pagan god from the Sahara or from Arabia is a possibility, but considering the variability of such names and spirits, and how so many spirit names are isolated to maybe a handful of magicians at most, I don’t know how likely this idea might be; my hunch is that it’s not, but at any rate, it’s not something that’s within my power to research, given my dearth of Arabic knowledge and Arabic materials to consult.

Okay, this line of questioning doesn’t seem to be getting us anywhere without further resources that may or may not be available, so let’s backtrack a bit.  There’s one more thing we’ve yet to discuss when it comes to `Iyān and its two sons, and that’s the topic of birds.  According to Lane’s entry on `Iyān, the “two sons” ابْنَا عِيانٍ (abnā `Iyān) refers first to the practice of augury, and specifically the interpretation of omens that result from hearing or watching birds.  Lane goes on to say that the phrase “two sons of `Iyān” refers to the “two lines which are marked upon the ground by the augurer, by means of which one augurs, from the flight, &c., of birds”.  Consider what that actually means here, especially in the light of Lane’s entry for khaṭṭ: the abnā `Iyān, the “two lines or marks” that were made when engaging in geomantic or proto-geomantic divination, were produced by the tracks of birds, specifically “two birds…from the flight/alighting-places/cries of which the Arabs augur”.  That would explain why birds are mentioned alongside geomancy; rather than using augury or ornithomancy (divination by birds) generally, such as in ways that would focus on what the birds were or how they fly or in what direction, these proto-geomancers would focus instead on how birds land upon and walk across the sand.  In this way, proto-geomancers would inspect the tracks left by birds on the ground and tally them up two-by-two until one or two footprints, or sets of tracks, were left.

If that’s what’s really being suggested or reported by Lane here, then that could mean that the practice of making marks in the sand with a staff or wand would be a way to produce such omens on demand for augury-on-the-fly, no birds required.  And when you look at such tracks left in sand…

…it’s actually pretty believable as an origin for the original geomantic method of making figures.  And, tracing the development a bit further: from inspecting the marks left behind from birds, we began to make our own to inspect anytime we wanted; from tallying up two lines of marks, we went to four, and from four to sixteen; by clustering them together, we got the Mothers; by transposing them, we got the Daughters; by adding them together and using the same basic tallying technique, we got the rest of the figures of the chart.  With a bit of mathematical finagling, we can ensure that the Judge is always an even number, which, as we discussed in the previous post, would be significant to ensure a fair judgment to be produced, even if not strictly favorable for the querent and query.  (Image below from Dawat-e-Rohaniat.)

We may well be looking at the ultimate historical origin of geomancy here: a human-innovated practice of replicating bird tracks on sand and using fundamentally Arabian ornithomantic methods to interpret them.  If that’s the case, then geomancy, ultimately, is from birds.  Birds, little divine messengers from the skies coming down to Earth, instructing us in their language, then flying back off returning to Heaven once we don’t need to directly rely on them anymore.  It’s like we can hear echoes of this in the story of how the archangel Gabriel taught the art of geomancy to the prophets, the founders of geomancy—Adam, Daniel, Hermēs Trismegistus, or Enoch, according to the different historiolas we find in geomantic texts.

Birds.

Huh.

As intoxicating as it is to think that I figured out what the ultimate origin of geomancy might be, I have to admit that this is all really interpretive and hypothetical.  There’s not a lot going on here besides chaining some circumstantial evidence, unclear etymologies and definitions, and a good amount of interpretation on my part.  No matter how likely it might be that geomancy was derived from inspecting the tracks of birds on sand (which I think is pretty likely given all the above), we shouldn’t consider it verified fact.  Unfortunately, geomancy is sufficiently old and the evidence sufficiently sparse that the origins may well be lost in the sands of time, so to speak, and while the evidence is pointing towards an Arabian origin instead of a Saharan one, there’s still nothing here that conclusively shows its actual geographic origins in either Arabia or the Sahara; still, though I’ve favored the Saharan origin up until now, I’m starting to be more inclined towards the Arabian origin.  Even so, even if we want to accept this ornithomantic Arabian origin for geomancy, there’s a little more for us to consider to get a deeper insight into what could be going on here, so let’s continue.

What we’re missing now is a more solid connection between `Iyān and birds.  Taking specific birds a little bit further into consideration, I came across this massive list of Arabic names for birds, and I found the name العين al`ayn (I think?) which appears to share the same root as `Iyān, and which refers to Oriolus oriolus, the Eurasian golden oriole.  Lane does in fact discuss it in a related entry to our main topic on page 2269: “a certain bird yellow in the belly, [dingy, dark, ash-color, or dust-color] on the back, of the size of a [species of turtle-dove]”.  The golden oriole largely fits the bill for this.  There’s also the fact that it forms pair-bonds that last between breeding seasons, which would be a symbol of life and creativity, and would tie into the notion of even numbers being positive and odd numbers (a single, lone bird without a mate, or whose mate was lost) being negative.  So if we were looking for a…I guess, a patron/tutelary animal for geomancy, then based on all the above, this would be it:

Perhaps above any other kind of bird, it’d be the golden oriole that would be best-suited for making tracks in the sand for divination, and the lines of its tracks it left behind would be its “sons”.  In watching such a bird to cross tracks, we’d urge it to hurry up to make a sufficient number for our proto-geomancer to interpret it: “ye two sons of `Iyān, hasten with the explanation”.

The only problem with assigning the golden oriole to be an entity marked by `Iyān is that this bird isn’t really common to Arabic-speaking areas; its distribution is largely across almost all of continental Europe south of Scandinavia in the winter, and across central and southern Africa from Cameroon and points south in the summer.  As pretty of a bird and as appropriate though it might be based on the description in Lane,  I’m not wholly pinning this as being what `Iyān is referring to.  However, birds know no borders, and it’s also pretty true that they’d certainly have to pass through the Arabian peninsula and northern Africa during their migrations, and it does have its non-migratory homes in some Arabic-speaking areas that are just on the edge of the expected range of locations for the origin of geomancy, from the northwest edges of the Maghreb in the west to Mesopotamia in the east.  It’s nothing I’ll wage a bet on, but it’s certainly not nothing.

Regardless of whether the golden oriole is specifically tied to `Iyān, there’s definitely some connection between birds and either `Iyān specifically or divination generally.  I mean, that there should be one wouldn’t be terribly surprising, since the word for bird is طير ṭayur, and the classical term for augury or orthithomancy is تطير taṭayyir, which was extended to divination in general, just as we might use “augury” in a wide sense to refer to all divination.  Both of these words come from the same root of Ṭ-Y-R, referring to flying or taking off.  This recalls the notion of divining arrows from above being set loose to fly; as noted, they were required to be fletched with feathers, giving them a bird-like connection and, thus, giving them a distant or alluded-to tie-in to augury by birds.  And, further, fletching would also be needed to make them “fly”, which would tie them symbolically into the Ṭ-Y-R root.  Plus, as noted above, who’s to say that they wouldn’t use fletched arrows instead of a simple staff to make marks in the sand?  Divining arrows are divining arrows, no matter how you use them, after all, and it would give these proto-geomancers a stronger connection to deeper cultural practices of divination.  Perhaps we modern geomancers might consider using fletched arrows for marking sand, if we wanted to use wands at all for ritual divination!

While mulling this over, the wonderful Nick Farrell dug up an interesting article for me, “Some Beliefs and Usages among the Pre-Islamic Arabs, with Notes on their Polytheism, Judaism, Christianity, and the Mythic Period of their History” by Edward Rehatsek (The Journal of the Bombay Branch of the Royal Asiatic Society, volume XII, 1876, pp. 163-212).  This article mentions the same thing we’ve seen before in Skinner, Lane, and Abu Dāwūd, but Rehatsek specifically considers it alongside and mixed in with ornithomantic omens.  Consider specifically pp.172ff, emphasis mine:

Many things were believed to be unpropitious by the Arabs, whilst certain birds were also considered to portend evil, and others good.  When an Arab augur, who was called Zâjar (literally meaning ‘a driver away’, because by doing so the direction of the flight of a bird, from which nearly everything appears to depend, is ascertained), began his soothsaying operation, he drew two lines called eyes, as if he could by means of them observe anything he liked; and when he had through these perceived something unpleasant he used to say, “The sons of vision have manifested the explanation.”*  It is natural that birds which were known to settle on the backs of wounded camels and to hurt them should have been considered unlucky; such were the crow, and a kind of woodpecker, but the former was also considered so for another reason—namely, because it implied separation.  When a tribe strikes its tents and departs to new pastures, the crows alight on the spot of the abandoned encampment in search of food, and there is nothing passing in front, or crossing over from the right side to the left, and no beast with a broken horn or any other object more unlucky than a crow, but the omen was increased when it happened to sit on a Bán tree and pulled out its own feathers.  As the Bán tree also implies separation, the omen is taken from this signification, and applicable not only when a crow, but also when a dove, a bird of good luck, is perched on it; but poets like plays on words, and hence the lapwing, whose name is Hudhud, also indicates the direction Huda; whilst the eagle called U’káb, being nearly homophonous with U’kb, “the end”, and the dove Ḥamám with Humma, “it was decreed”, are on these accounts respectively considered to put an end to separation, and to imply that the meeting of friends is decreed.

* Arab. Prov. [Arabum Proverbia] tome i., p. 695, ابنا عيان اظهر البيان In the beginning of the operation they were also in the habit of addressing an invocation to these two lines, or eyes:— ابنا عيان اظهرا البيان “O sons of vision, manifest the explanation?”

We’re starting to tap into some of the symbolism behind even and odd here, and we can see that we were on the right track from before, but this time it’s made a bit more explicit; we might have considered that, perhaps, birds seen in pairs was considered a good omen in general, while a lone bird was considered bad, and that could still be the case especially for birds like the golden oriole that forms long-term pair-bonds, but now we’re tapping into deeper cultural lore about separation and number.  When the result of divination is even, then things are in pairs, considered fortunate because it suggests coming together or staying together (remember that the origin of the Arabic word for “even” ultimately comes from Greek for “yoked together”, as in marriage); when the result is odd, then it implies separation and being left alone (literally “wholly one”).  For a migratory, nomadic people living in a harsh environment, survival often depended on your tribe and not being left alone or being cast out, for which separation could truly mean an ill fate up to and including death by dehydration, starving, heat, or exposure; the same would go for humans from their tribes as it would for animals from their herds.  To consider it another way, if the marks being made in the sand are “eyes”, then in order to see clearly, we need to have two of them, since eyes naturally come in pairs (at least for us humans and many other animals).  If we end up with an odd number, then we’ve lost an eye, and cannot see clearly.

Up until this point, we’ve been largely been assuming `Iyān as the name for a distinct entity and the “two sons of `Iyān” to be lesser entities under it or the productions made by the entity, as if we’re supplicating spirits or asking for aid from them.  However, there’s the distinct and possibly likely chance that we’re on the wrong track entirely.  Given that “poets like plays on words”, Iyān (which Rehatsek translates as “vision” though “inspection” is a better term, but cf. the Greek suffix -manteia to mean both) isn’t really an entity at all, but just a poetic turn of phrase, a personification of the concept of divinatory investigation rather than a deification of it (which might be just a little too animist/polytheistic for observant Muslims).  Thus, rather than thinking of the “sons of `Iyān” to represent entities under a bigger entity like how the phrase “sons of God” refers to angels under the Divine, it might be better to think of “sons of `Iyān” to represent the extensions or productions of divinatory “eyes” through a process of divination so as to perform an “inspection” or investigation of a matter.  This would be like another Arabic turn of phrase seen in poetry, the “two sons of time” relating to the day and night, and how the “daughters of time” could represent the vicissitudes or afflictions that time imposes on us.  So, saying “sons of `Iyān” is basically saying “results of the inspection”, i.e. the outcome of the divination, which we would realistically want to hasten so as to get a proper answer.  In the context in which Skinner et alia are describing this chant used by an assistant towards the diviner, it could be a way to spur the diviner on into a sense of frenzy and frenetic urgency, helping them lose themselves in the striking of the earth to produce a truly divine result, which would afterwards then be tallied up, reduced down, and accounted for.

Yet…well, I want there to be some sort of spiritual entity behind `Iyān and their two sons.  It’s kinda one of the things I was hoping to find, but what evidence that I can find doesn’t really support that premise.  Is the possibility ruled out?  No, and far from it!  As mentioned above, there is a possibility (though a faint one, as I’d reckon it) that `Iyān may be a holdover deity from some pre-Islamic, tribal, or pagan religion or some other jinn, angel, or other spiritual entity, but opening up that research…well, my gut feeling is that there’s probably not a lot to find along those lines, especially considering the scope of that sort of research.  But, at any rate, there’s not enough evidence to support the idea that the chant “Ye two sons of `Iyān, hasten with the explanation” is an invocation of a spirit, but more of a metaphorical exhortation to the diviner.  If `Iyān is considered to be an entity at all, it’d likely fall in the same category as all the minor divinities in Greek religion, divinized concepts of things like health or fruit-bearing trees or the like that might have stories told about them but never actually received cult, worship, or ritual.  That seems to be the most likely result to me, as much as I find it a disappointment.  But, hey, we’ve learned quite a bit along the way all the same, and that’s still a great result for all of us!

…well.  I think we’re at the end of this discussion and line of research, honestly.  To summarize this little garden-path effort of mine:

  • Stephen Skinner, in his 1980 work Terrestrial Astrology, mentioned in passing a practice of some of the earliest geomancers (or proto-geomancers) where they would use the chant “O two sons of ‘Iyan, hasten with the explanation!”, though this comment was not backed up with a source or reference, and left me befuddled for ten years until recently.
  • By looking at rules of Arabic word derivation, we were able to deduce the proper spelling of this word, `Iyān, and link it to the letter `ayn, the sixteenth letter of the Phoenician script and all scripts that derived from it, including the Arabic script.  This word has the root `-Y-N which links it to notions of the eye, sight, and vision, and thus has connotations of divination, along with a numerological link to the 16 figures of geomancy and any 4×4 combination of the elements.  That the numerological value of `ayn is 70, and that its reduction from 16 → 1 + 6 = 7 is also a nice bonus, tying it to seven planets and all other things with the number seven.
  • `Iyān, as a word, means “inspection”, “a witnessing of events”, “a coming into sight/light”.  This word is a verbal noun of the verb ʿāyana, meaning “to inspect” or “to witness”, but also more broadly as “to investigate” or “to behold”.
  • While investigating the word `Iyān, we were able to find a text that discusses what Skinner did with a bit more depth, as well as comparing it to other sources that describe the same fundamental practice which is likely proto-geomantic rather than geomantic as we’d recognize it.
  • This proto-geomantic practice, with origins that are attested to be either pre-Islamic or early-Islamic, involves making two lines of marks in the sand, then reducing them two-by-two until either one or two points are left.  If two points, an even number, the result is considered favorable and good; if one point, an odd number, the result is considered unlucky and bad.
  • The word `Iyān is commonly mentioned in other texts as relating not to geomancy or proto-geomancy, or at least not just those things, but to augury and ornithomancy as well.  In addition to Arabian augurs interpreting the position, direction, motion, types, and actions of birds, they would also observe the tracks they produced on the sandy ground as meaningful for omens.
  • It was from using the tracks left behind by birds and counting them for an even or odd number of marks that likely formed the ultimate origin for the (proto-)geomantic practice of making marks in the sand to produce the same.
  • The (proto-)geomancers would make marks in the sand while in a frenzy or other kind of trance state so as to obtain the same divinatory virtue through their manmade marks as might be given more purely from the cosmos through the tracks of birds.
  • The (proto-)geomancers would consider the “two sons” to be the two lines of marks they made as “eyes” (`uyūn)  that “witnessed” (yu`āyinūna) the events, circumstances, and actors involved in the query put to divination, and the whole matter would be considered an investigatory “inspection” of the matter (`iyān).
  • Even numbers, by virtue of coming in or being arranged as pairs, culturally connoted being together or holding fast, a sign of good fortune, livability, viability, survivability, meeting, and support, and thus were seen as fortunate, positive, or affirmative answers in proto-geomantic divination.  Conversely, odd numbers, by virtue of standing alone, connoted loss, exile, abandonment, absconding, maiming, and other notions of separation, which ere considered to be unfavorable, negative, or denying answers.
  • Given the symbolism behind even and odd in Arabian (nomadic) culture, later geomantic practices may have innovated a specific use of not just bundling lines into figures, but processing the resulting figures in a certain way as to always end up with an even figure in the end (the Judge) so as to ensure that the total reading may be good in some light, even if not favorable, so as to ensure a fair and valid judgment.
  • `Iyān is likely not being referred to in the chant as a spiritual entity unto itself, but in a personified way as a figure of speech, commanding “the two sons of `Iyān” to be speedy in giving an answer, said to encourage the diviner to engage in the process of frenetic/ecstatic/trance-based divination speedily without delay or delaying.
  • There is a potential connection between (proto)-geomantic divination as `Iyān and the Eurasian golden oriole (al`ayn) based on their shared word roots, as well as the role birds played in providing the initial marks for this divination to be performed with, which could provide a preferred bird by which one can perform land-based proto-geomantic augury, or which provides a kind of tutelary animal for the practice, especially through the use of its feathers, which may be used and appended to the end of a divining staff/stick to form “arrows”, tying it into an older practice of Arabian and Mesopotamian belomancy.  The “arrows”, then, would take the role of the “two sons of `Iyān”, though this might be a reuse or repurposing of the chant for a more general divinatory purpose rather than one relegated to (proto-)geomancy.
  • There is a small possibility that `Iyān may well be the name of a pagan god or another spirit of divination and that the “two sons of `Iyān” are its facilitators or emissaries that bear out the message of divination from `Iyān, but this is more likely a misreading the chant from a animist or polytheist perspective that wasn’t historically used.

This post turned out a fair bit longer (almost four times the average length!) than I expected, so much so that I had to break it up into two already-long posts, so if you managed to get this far, then I thank you for sticking with me.  Honestly, though this little bit of research didn’t end up where I wanted it to (I was kinda hoping for an old, extant, and commonly-cited spirit to appeal to for divination within a geomantic milieu), I’m honestly glad because I’ve been able to piece together plenty of information that actually clarifies an academic problem I’ve been on-and-off dealing with for ten years.  Even if there’s no historical “who” behind `Iyān and their two sons, at least we now know the “what”, and that’s still immensely important and advances the state of geomantic research, at least a tiny bit.  And, hey, we’ve left the door open for further opportunities and exploration, both academic and spiritual, too:

  • If all that was desired was an odd or even result from marking tracks off two-by-two, then why were two sets of tracks inspected at a time instead of just one?  Two sets of tracks would get you two results; does this have a connection with geomantic dice that split up a single figure of four rows into two sub-figures of two rows?
  • Are there any specific birds besides the Eurasian golden oriole that might be especially important in making tracks on the sand which were used for (proto-)geomantic divination?
  • Does the Eurasian golden oriole play a role in any of the spiritualities, superstitions, or symbolisms of Near Eastern, Middle Eastern, or African traditions that we might ply for more information?
  • What New World birds might take the same ecological or spiritual role as the Eurasian golden oriole?
  • How, exactly, were just two lines of marks read by birds, or where did the custom come from of making/marking two lines instead of just one?
  • Are there any other animals that we might associate with geomancy through the name `Iyān or the root `-Y-N, whether birds or otherwise?
  • What other geomantic mysteries might be hidden within `ayn, the sixteenth letter of the Phoenician script which has a root numerological value of 7 (either through reduction from its normal value of 70 or by reducing its ordinal number 16 into 1 + 6 = 7)?  We noted an alphabetical connection with a handful of divine epithets of Allāh, including the famous one Al-`Alīm (“The All-Knowing One”), but what other roots that start with `Ayn might be significant, if any?
  • Unlikely though it is,`Iyān could still be the name of a spirit or non-/pre-Arabian deity.  If so, where does this entity come from, from what culture, what tribe, what area, and what would a more native interpretation of the name be?  What does this entity do, and who are its two sons?
  • Just because there hasn’t been a specific spirit-based use for the original chant “O ye two sons of `Iyān, hasten ye with the explanation!” doesn’t mean that there can’t be one ever.

Once more, my thanks to Dr. Amina Inloes, Nick Farrell, and Arlechina Verdigris for helping me with organizing my thoughts, refining my ideas, providing me with useful materials, and in general being wonderful people in my life.  May God and the gods bless you all.

A Devotional Questionnaire

Recently I was browsing the good Sannion’s blog, and he mentioned something about a polytheist meme that one of his colleagues had posted. Turns out, Galina Krasskova over at Gangleri’s Grove had posted a type of questionnaire to help with interfaith and cross-tradition discussion, specifically to “get the ball rolling” on discussing our own paths and practice. I thought it was a fascinating set of questions, so I decided to try my hand at answering them for myself. These types of probing questionnaires are nearly always helpful to clarify one’s own situation and view thereof, and this was no exception. While Galina is writing a full post for each answer to her 24 questions, I contented myself by condensing them to simple paragraphs unless necessary.

As I read it, Galina’s questionnaire was probably intended more for people in traditions with set names, such as “Asatru” or “Hellenismos”. I don’t really fall into any one category; I work with the Greek gods and am a priest of Hermes, and I work with the saints and angels of God and perform devotion to God as well as the Logos and the Pneuma. My work as a ceremonial Hermetic magician only complicates matters further, so I’m really sorta winging it in my life on my own amalgamating Hermetic path. That said, this gives me all the more reason to try to answer these questions for myself.

  1. What wealth have the divinities brought into your life?
    Oh jeez. The love of my life, a stable job with good pay, continued health, safe travels and journeys, abundant knowledge, good friends, an understanding and loving family that knows to give me space and distance, protection and safety, skill in crafting and engineering (software and otherwise)…it’s hard to list them all. I attribute what successes I have to the gods or to my talent (itself given by the gods) or to my friends (themselves led to me and I to them by the gods). What poverty and paucity I have is from not living my life right according to the gods, or misusing my talents in ways that the gods never intended me to.
  2. What does your tradition do to increase the power and flow of blessings?
    Prayer, right living and right mindsets, ritual to come to know the gods, sacrifice to please the gods, vows and offerings to exchange work with the gods, meditation to know what’s truly a blessing and what’s not or to know what I should ask for and what I shouldn’t ask for, and the like.
  3. How have the divinities helped you in times of adversity and violent upheaval?
    I can’t really say that they have, only because my life has been blessedly free of upheaval. What troubles I have, the gods preserve me with consolation, comfort, and talking things through; they give me aid and luck when I need it, and direction and strength if I call upon it. They’re kind to me, and I honor them for that. My life has been exceedingly lucky at just the right times, just when I need the help, and I thank them by living my life well and making good and proper use of the help they give me. In doing so, this keeps my life free from adversity and upheaval as much as possible, living the life I’m supposed to live and how I’m supposed to live it. The trials they give me are never more than I can bear, and they either exhort me to action or offer me the advice I need to surpass them. I have not yet been through a time when the gods have forsaken me, and I pray I never do.
  4. What are some of the ways that you communicate with the divinities?
    Divination, oracular media, watching for omens, prayer, and simply chatting with them as I would any dear and respected friend. Sometimes they’re always with me and able to communicate; sometimes I have to go to an altar or a shrine where their power is focused enough to communicate clearly. Sometimes I have to go through ritual in order to access them; sometimes I can ping them with a mere thought and they reply. Depends on the spirit.
  5. If you could travel anywhere on pilgrimage where would it be and what would you do?
    Probably Mt. Kyllini in Western Corinth, Greece, birthplace of Hermes, son of Zeus and Maia. I’d like to go mountain climbing there, perhaps find a cave where I can make some offerings in privacy, take some dirt or vines for the place for use in devotional tools and offerings back home, and get a good meal from local restaurants.
  6. What does it feel like when one receives inspiration from the divinities?
    It may not feel like much at all, really. Physically it might be felt like an uncharacteristic gleam in the eye, a sudden temperature change in the body, or a short blackout when suddenly you’re buying something you had no plans to purchase. Mentally, it might feel like a thought or good idea popping into the head, or a dim recollection of something you never knew you witnessed.
  7. What offerings do you make in your tradition and why?
    Depends on the spirit being offered something, really. I always light at least one candle, no matter who I’m offering something to, and almost always burn incense pleasing to the spirit (heather for Dionysus, frankincense for the angels, patchouli for the ancestors, etc.). Burnt offerings have always been held in high esteem, and it takes something firmly out of this world and gives it entirely to the spirits; it’s an efficient way to do sacrifice. Beyond that, I generally make offerings of alcohol, such as wine to the gods or rum to the ancestors, since these are volatile substances with a good spiritual kick in them (in several senses of the word). Devotional acts are also common, such as helping to pick up litter when performing a devotion to land spirit or acts of charity in the name of the saints, since it helps me make a change in the world using my own power and means when material offerings aren’t as needed. Whatever’s asked of me that I can give, I give; generally the spirits don’t ask for anything that would put me in too dire of harm, but when they say “jump”, it’s extraordinarily rare for me to ask anything else besides “how high”.
  8. What methods of inducing altered states of conscious does your tradition have?
    Hm…the two main sources for this in my practice are the Christian-Hermetic tradition and the more blatantly pagan one. In the former, choices are limited: fasting, meditation, and prayer can help build up to a state of ecstasy, though it can be slow-going at times. In the latter, pretty much anything goes, though a loosening of the mind is most easily achieved with wine or rum (or gin). There’s really nothing stopping me here from using drugs or states of trance obtained through relaxation, so anything goes so long as it works. I personally prefer a light buzz from wine or rum along with good-tasting tobacco. I’ve also noticed that drumming has a more powerful effect on me than I thought it would, so anything with a good and steady and (most importantly) loud beat can get me up and out easily, including a 4/4 timed dance song heavy on the bass.
  9. How does your tradition handle wrathful, savage and destructive divinities?
    My first inclination is to reply “carefully”, but who am I kidding? The God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob was straight-up known for being a volcano unfortunately-underendowed Canaanite plains storm god who made a habit out of flooding the world and cursing those who dared eat a banana the wrong way. The apple didn’t far fall from the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil, either, with his son Jesus, who threw fits in public spaces and chased after economists with whips (which I find kinda endearing) and publicly mocked his followers for being dimwitted idiots (which didn’t change much after the Transfiguration and sending upon of the Holy Spirit). Dionysus, the good cousin to Jesus, had his epithets and images of the bull for a reason, and being the son of another thunder-god definitely knew how to cause chaos and turmoil where he went (and not in the orgiastic and ecstatic way, either). Honestly, the best way to deal with these types of divinities is to either not work with them at all and treat them as facts of life that must be worked with respectfully and honorably instead of conquered, or to placate them when possible and give them restraint and discipline. Mars in Orphic and Roman religion, after all, was both a god of war and a god of agriculture, using steel for swords as well as plows, and by propitiating him with good times (Venus and Bacchus, who could turn that down with sexy-strong Mars?), he would lay down the spear to aim for “gentle works” instead. Wrathful gods abound; they have their place, especially when wrath and “tough love” is needed. I’m not opposed to letting wrathful gods have free rein when it’s called for, but once their objective is attained, it’s time to let the wrath go by propitiation and sacrifice and thanksgiving.
  10. Have you encountered any obstacles as a result of your religion?
    Socially, no. I pass as pagan enough in pagan circles, magicky enough in magic circles, and Christian enough in Christian circles. One of my friends has commented that I have a type of personality and energy behind me that “delightfully meshes with but not of any particular force or religion”. When it comes to devotion, it’s all a matter of fulfilling my duties to my gods and my calling; sometimes it can be difficult, but they’re never insurmountable. Mostly these things involve me going out of my way to show them my devotion, doing something extra besides the usual offering of wine and honor. Of course, wine and candles and incense and altar gifts add up over time financially, but I make enough money where it’s just another expense that I live with contentedly like I would rent or a phone bill.
  11. What blocks to devotion have you had to overcome?
    Time constraints, primarily. Faith is easy, and experimentation too. I don’t need massive funds to maintain my work; a cup of wine here and there, a candle lit, and incense sweetening the airs is all I need to buy, and I can do my devotions on my bed as well as I can any full temple.
  12. What sort of festivals, memorials or seasonal observances do you keep throughout the year?
    Plenty. Primarily, the monthly ritual to Hermes I do on the fourth of the lunar month. I try to do a lunar ritual on the night of the Full Moon if the sky is clear, and a star ritual on the night of the New Moon likewise, but if the weather is bad, I skip it and wait for the weather to be clear on the following month. A few feast days here and there I hold extra prayers or offerings on, but nothing really tied much to the seasons.
  13. Have you ever found it difficult to uphold your end of a bargain with the divinities?
    Not really. What bargains I make, I make sure I can pay off, and I work out my terms of payment with the gods ahead of time before I agree to anything. The only issues I have are with timing, such as vowing to offer a bottle of wine on the day of my return from a trip but being too tired to actually do so; in these cases, I simply pay off the vow when I can and ask if there’s anything I can do to make up for the lost time. Beyond that, though, the gods haven’t asked me (yet?) for anything not in my reach or ability.
  14. What role does mystery play in your tradition?
    Many magicians follow the four rules of the Sphinx: to know, to dare, to will, to keep silent. that final part is about mysteries, things that one has to be initiated into in order to fully understand and reap the benefits of. Most of what I do would, technically, be considered a mystery: the initiations of the planets and elements and the stars, K&CHGA, knowing the abodes of the gods, and the like. Anything that is not apparent, anything esoteric is a mystery, and must be worked towards and into. To simply read or be told of something is just to know about it, but to live and experience it is to be initiated into the mystery. Some things I cannot know or do since I am not initiated into these things; if I’m to know or do them, I seek the initiation, like being baptized first before taking Christian communion or receiving an empowerment before reciting a particular Vajrayana mantra. Initiations and mysteries go hand-in-hand, if not the same hand itself, so it’s pretty important. Plus, if one doesn’t respect initiations and tries to go ahead and do something in the mystery anyway, that only leads to bad, at best cultural appropriation and at worst utter ruin due to hubris.
  15. What methods does your tradition employ for protection and the warding off of malign influences?
    The general rule I’ve found, no matter what tradition I look at, is that no matter how big something coming at you may be, always call on something bigger to come at it. Whether it’s calling on the Almighty to protect one from demons, Typhon-Set to bully the gods into a certain action, or a powerful angel to keep one safe at night, asking for the help of those you work with is the first thing you do. Having an extra set of eyes and hands to watch and guard your back in a world and life where everything is both seen and unseen, front-facing and backwards, is the most useful thing you can do. Building up power on your own and exercising it (daily energy work and physical training), relying on the world around us to protect ourselves (secure locks and strong oils), and the like are also vital to one’s protection. Banishing and cleansing are regular things I do for my living and work area, and I frequently keep up on my offerings to sweeten and propitiate the spirits I work with to keeping me and mine safe, as well as to put a good word in with the other spirits of the cosmos that I’m a cool guy and other spirits should be cool with me.
  16. What devotional goals have you set for yourself?
    Speaking abstractly, more work and action. I’m here to do my work, to do the magic, so to do anything else unrelated to that is me not doing my job. More specifically, I try to learn more about the gods I work with and engage in a deep, ecstatic relationship with those that are proper, or learn about the arts and skills and dedications of their crafts, or facilitate their influences and powers where they’re needed in the world. Even more specifically, this boils down to listening to the gods more, studying more about practices to them both ancient and new, and involving them in every aspect of my life where they’re called for. The converse of this is to get off my ass more, stop dicking around so much on the computer, and using my time more efficiently and effectively.
  17. What qualities should a leader in your tradition possess?
    Spiritually cool (clear-headed, not impulsive, unbiased, respectful, humble), able to communicate effectively (well-spoken and well-written), learned and educated in a wide variety of subjects both spiritual and material, experienced in ritual and crafting, able to improvise, possessing a strong memory, compassionate and empathic (able to deescalate tense situations, crisis manager, understanding of personal issues, perceptive). Just a few things I’d consider important.
  18. What does fertility mean to you?
    Being able to produce anything from oneself. Being a gay man with absolutely no interest in childbearing or childrearing (I would like a child one day, deep-fried), I don’t really have much to contribute to humanity or my family in means of bringing in new humans to the world, the mass of which I’m not a fan of generally. However, there’s a lot more to creation than mere procreation, and Venus (the planet of both) runs very strong in me. Writing, drawing, painting, woodcrafts, smithing, jewelry making, carving, engineering, code development, calligraphy, and the like are all things that require innovation and power to bring into the world; in each case, you’re making something new where there was nothing before. This is the true meaning of being a creator, just as Hermes Trismegistus has prayed: “o light of mind…o life of life…of womb of every creature…o womb pregnant with the Father’s nature…o eternal permanence of the begetting Father”. We all are capable of creating, and we all are capable of being filled with creation; even the most barren and infertile earth can be used to make clay. How we express that fertility, however, depends on our own inclinations, and not everyone is meant for human children.
  19. How do you incorporate movement into your worship?
    Not much. I might make some ritual gestures here and there, such as those for the elements or the planets, or kneel with arms orans before an altar. For other rituals, I might acknowledge the four corners by turning and greeting them, or draw out circles in the around. At free-standing shrines or monuments, I like to circumambulate them clockwise in respect several times before proceeding with anything more. Dancing doesn’t have a large part in my spiritual work, or at least not yet.
  20. Does your religion help you to be a better human being?
    Yes, but how depends on your notion of “human being”. To me, a true human (in the vein of Herbert’s Bene Gesserit) is someone who is fully aware of where they come from, where they’re going, and the divinity within them and in all other things; you can call this a bodhisattva, a prophet, a sanctus/a/um, Ipsissimus, whatever. This requires gnosis and full self-divinity that can only be realized through the Logos and the spiritual transformation that it delivers, but whether that Logos is given through Dionysus or Hermes or Christ or Buddha Shakyamuni is irrelevant, since they all give Logos in their own logoi. Being a “better human being” (kinder, more compassionate, more self-aware, more peaceful, etc.) follows as a result from that.
  21. Have you ever had dreams or visions sent by the divinities?
    Very rarely. Dreams are usually not my thing, and between having shoddy dream memory to begin with as well as not having enough time to sleep comfortably regularly, dreams are generally a poor way to contact me. Visions, on the other hand, are another thing; I’ll often be taken on vision-walks or impromptu scrying sessions when I’m at the altars of the gods or saints, and they’ll show me fascinating things that are often highly pertinent to what I’m doing in my life. Something out-of-the-blue that overwhelms me, though, hasn’t occurred yet.
  22. What customs are associated with the home and family in your tradition?
    Not much. I was raised in a mostly areligious household with very faint Jewish leanings, and we celebrated Chanukkah and Christmas (the latter more for family with no mention of religion). We didn’t do anything else in my family.
  23. When did it first dawn on you that the divinities are real?
    I can’t remember time when I didn’t think they were real. I’ve always had a magical perspective on the world, and the existence of spirits was just a piece to the puzzle that fit in quite nicely early on. As for my own divinities, I pretty much accepted their existence as a truth and fact as I studied the old myths and stories, just as the ancients might’ve. There was plenty of discovery once I really opened myself up to them, but their existence and reality was pretty much never in question.
  24. What have you inherited from your ancestors?
    Besides a bunch of antiques and hand-me-down knickknacks (I can hear them getting all huffy as I call them that, nyeh nyeh), my own life. I literally would not exist without my ancestors, their lives, and their works, so I owe my life and existence to my ancestors. This isn’t just those of my blood and kin, but also of my faith and traditions, so I consider my ancestors all those upon whom my life is based: my blood lineage; Hermeticists, Christians, Jews, pagans; Egyptians, Palestinians, Ukrainians, Russians, Greeks, Romans, Italians, Englishmen, Frenchmen, Germans, Native Americans; computer scientists, mathematicians, astronomers, astrologers, geomancers, engineers, and so very, very many more. All of my blood in my veins comes from my family; all of my Works come from my traditions; all of my crafts come from my teachers; all of my thoughts come from my philosophies. More than any single ritual, possession, name, or title, the ability and knowledge of the things I do and can do are the most important and valued possessions I have from my ancestors.

Give the questions a try, yourself. Depending on your path (so much use of that word, “depend”), you might need to write more than me or less than me. I’d be excited to see what you guys say about your own work!

Multiple Divinities

As most of you are aware, I’m a ceremonial magician.  (If you weren’t aware, I question your powers of observation.)  I was raised very loosely Jewish (more Jew-ish, really), and though I flirted with neopaganism in middle school and Buddhism in high school, I don’t particularly consider myself a follower of any one religion.  If I had to pick a label, I’d probably go with panentheistic, which essentially means that the Divine is immanent in the world (within and a part of all things) as well as transcendent of the world (beyond and greater than all things).  While pantheism is God-in-all, panentheism is both God-in-all and all-in-God; here, God is not equated with the cosmos, but is both part of and contains the cosmos.

That said, this kind of capital-G God is a big entity to handle.  It’s Kether, it’s the Endless Light, it’s the Sphere of the Prime Mover, it’s the complete infinite sum of all things manifest and unmanifest and otherwise.  It’s mindblowing, and threatens to be literally so if one tries to leap ahead of themselves to comprehend this.  In this sense, God cannot be described except in terms of negatives, and the best term that comes to mind is infinite, “no end”. 

For a little guy like me to try to work with divinity, going straight to the Source is like plugging my phone charger directly into the uranium core of a nuclear power plant.  It doesn’t work that way; the power has to be transformed from raw heat and radiation into electricity, then into alternating electrical current, then throttled down into an appropriate voltage, then channeled through an appropriate socket, plug, and wire into my phone.  There are a lot of steps inbetween, a lot of transformation from something raw and pure into something discrete and refined.  In some ways, this describes how an Idea comes from the sphere of the Prime Mover, picks up weight and form and style on its descent through the planetary spheres, and ends up materialized on Earth.  In other ways, though, it offers me a good reason to work with other gods and divinities besides the One.  They do say that variety is the spice of life, after all.

Every Wednesday, I make offerings to the god Hermes and the planet Mercury.  Being a Hermetic magician, geomancer, software engineer, calligrapher, linguist, and all-around awesome young guy, I rely on Mercury like whoa.  He’s presided over a lot of the things I’ve done in my life wittingly or no, and I figure it’s nothing bad to get in the guy’s good graces by making prayers, offerings, and vows to the god.  I’ve got plans to set up my own Hermaion, a dedicated altar space for Hermes himself and his emanations and forms, once I get the room for it, and I’ve even entertained ideas of becoming a priest of the dude in addition to my role as magician (he seemed to enjoy the idea, as well, for the record).

Do I see a contradiction between this and my ceremonial magic stuff?  By no means!  Of course a lot of the Solomonic literature relies on the One God of Judaic or Christian origin, and though he (and a good number of his followers) claims to be the only guy up there, the Bible and tradition give very strong hints that it’s just not so.  Do I still keep him at the top of my list?  Yes and no; the One, the Source, the First Father is bigger than any one god or divinity, stronger than any one religion or spirituality, longer and more manifold than any one path.  I believe in God as One; I believe that the God of Israel is but one, just as Mercury is.  God as One is too big for me to handle or interact with; depending on the need, I have to throttle the guy down into something I can actually work with without getting obliterated by his infinite grace.

A recent post at Thicket of a Witch gave me a new term to my lexicon: oligotheism.  It’s a subset of polytheism (many gods), and refers to the primary worship of several gods while admitting the existence of many more.  It’s different from henotheism in that henotheism refers to the exclusive worship of one god among others (extreme Vaishnavites or Shaivaites in Hinduism, Jews in some readings of the Bible, etc.).  Oligotheism, while a new term to me, gives me a new term for a very old phenomenon that I’ve known about and has made sense to me ever since the idea of polytheism did.  After all, once you have more than one god, you end up with an endless number of them; there’s no way to worship all of them, so you’re almost of necessity forced to pick and choose.

Consider an average citizen in Athens back in the day.  They had a job, a family and clan, a local neighborhood, and the like.   They knew all the myths, stories, and fables of the Olympians, the Trojans, the Ithacans, the Cretans, and the like.  They would be involved in the worship of several gods, heroes, and the like that they deal with.  They wouldn’t really care about Poseidon of the Horses if they had nothing to do with raising, using, or racing horses; they’d pay him respect if they passed by his temple, sure, but wouldn’t go out of their way to make offerings to him for nothing at all.  They likewise wouldn’t get involved with Hephaistos of pottery if they weren’t a potter.  If their profession involved cows and crops, though, they’d make the trips to the local fertility festivals, the shrines of the deities related to those, and the like.

In other words, they didn’t deal with infinite divinity.  They didn’t deal with infinite divinities, either.  They interacted with divinity according to what they needed, and this is alright.  Is this complicated?  Not really.  Catholics often do something similar with their calendar of saints: they might call on the patron saint of their profession but not their cousin’s, only because they have nothing to do with their cousin’s profession.  Ancient healers would rely on the deities of plants, healing, and spirit while probably keeping the divinities of war, plague, and poison at arm’s length.

Working with multiple powers is not just a good idea, but also a good practice.  Even staunchly monotheistic Solomonic magicians call on various aspects of God through the use of his names, teasing out specific attributes on their own from a greater Whole.  It’s seen all across the place, from syncretic pan-Hellenic worship, to eclectic neopaganism incorporating Sumerian, Egyptian, and Celtic divinities on the same altar, to Vaishnavites recalling the different powers and tales of different incarnations of Vishnu.  Myself?  I like working with angels, planets, the occaisonal saint, ancient Mediterranean Greco-Roman gods, and of course the One.