On Learning How to Imagine

Like the last post, here’s another great question that came in over email:

Here’s a question about something that hindered me in my Hermetic training: what is visualization? Is it imagining an image in your mind? How do you do it? And how do you know you’re doing it correctly? When ever I try to visualize, I try to picture the thing or event in my head, but I have never been able to consistently keep a mental image for more than five to ten seconds.  Am I doing it correctly?  Do you have any tips or guide on how to visualize?

My reply:

So, “visualization” is a more specific method of the more general term “imagination”.  When you use your imagination, you come up with images—and despite how we often use the term, “images” aren’t necessarily sight-oriented things.  An image is, more generally, a representation of simulation of something within the mind without any direct or immediate input from your physical senses.

Thus, if you were to imagine, say, an apple, there’s lots to simulate within your mind: the color of an apple (a hue ranging from pale green to a deep red), yes, and its shape (round), but also the texture of it (waxy and cool on the outside, slick and sandpaper-like on the inside), the scent of it (fresh, acidic, tart), the weight of it, and so forth and so on.  Note how little of this is “visual”: there is a visual component to it to be sure, but there are a whole bunch of other components to it as well that combine to come up with a complete image that goes far beyond merely what an apple looks like.  When a lot of modern books talk about “visualization”, they’re fundamentally just talking about “imagination”, but because most people (about 65%) are visually-oriented people (i.e. they rely primarily on sight to build and approach the world as opposed to hearing or smell as primary senses), “visualization” works as a term for most people, but you have other senses, too, so you should use them all, even if one or more are stronger than the others.

How do you imagine something correctly?  If the image is something you’ve experienced before (like an apple), consider how well the imagination matches up with your memory of the same thing.  If the image isn’t something you’ve experienced before, you can’t rely on memory, but you can mentally extrapolate from other things and make a good guess.  It’s like dreaming in a way: not everything we dream is merely a remix of things we’ve experienced.  So long as you’re imagining something to an appropriate or desired level of detail, you’re imagining it “correctly”.

As far as making an image in your imagination last more than a few seconds: it just takes practice.  Keep working at it, practicing on small things for a short time, then small things for a longer time, working your way up to big things for a short time to big things for a longer time.  Over time, you’ll find that not only will you be able to hold an image in your mind indefinitely (so long as you don’t break concentration!), but you’ll also be able to imagine things in far more elaborate and complex detail.  Start with simple pencils and apples (small everyday objects), then move to larger everyday objects that have more parts involved (computer desks or cars), then to even larger objects (a room of a house, a whole house, a whole parcel of property with a house on it), and so on.  If it’s hard at first, you’re in good company; this is a skill that requires practice and training, and despite the overwhelming prevalence of “visualization” in a lot of modern occult texts and guides, in many traditional cultures and practices, something of this kind was often considered an *advanced* practice rather than a beginner’s one.

Likewise, doing things that build up your skill of concentration is something that goes hand-in-hand with this.  In our modern world filled with endless stimuli to keep us busy or distracted, between 280-character tweets or 30-second TikToks or news chyrons flowing endlessly from one topic to the next to YouTube commercials playing in endless varying loops breaking up longer videos every few seconds, so much of the world around us gears us to instant gratification, talking-heads syndromes, and the like.  Resist that.  There’s no one way to build up your concentration, but learning what a distraction is and how it trains/conditions your mind to expect certain things or react to certain inputs is an important part of it, as is eliminating distractions in your life, setting yourself to the discipline of doing one thing for an extended period of time without looking at your phone or other tabs in your browser, meditation, going for extended walks, and the like.  One way I like to suggest doing this is to take a non-cellphone timer, put your cellphone on silent and away, and sit down to read a book for some length of time (5 minutes, 10 minutes, 30 minutes, etc.).  It doesn’t matter what the book is (and, honestly, the more boring it is the better); the point is to just sit down and read it without letting your mind wander off.  That itself is concentration, which is basically a form of mental stamina and discipline that we all have to cultivate.

I should note at this point that there is the phenomenon of aphantasia, which is the inability to imagine things.  It’s not well-studied, but there are a number of people (maybe between 1% and 5% of the general population) who claim that they just can’t imagine stuff, neither with visualization nor any other mental “sense”.  You don’t seem to be in this category by your own admission, but even for aphantasic people, there are other approaches to magic and mysticism that simply don’t rely on it (the use of dream that a number of aphantasic people report they have, recalling memory, etc.).  However, the use of the imagination to construct mental objects and worlds is a useful skill for anyone who isn’t aphantasic, so do give yourself the time to develop it as a skill.

I’ll be honest: how often do I use imagination in magic or ritual?  It depends, but…it’s hard to sort out sometimes what’s my “imagination” (as in something I’m actively constructing) versus what I’m getting from other inputs (like spirits putting an image into my mind).  For daily prayer, making offerings, or divination, imagination doesn’t really come into it at all.  For contemplating and delving deeply into a topic, notion, or semantic field (e.g. the spiritual world of a planet or element), imagination is used hugely.  When working with spirits…it’s complicated, since I’m not really sure what’s clearly on either side of my-imagination vs. its-image something might be on, because the imagination (as I consider it) is the faculty by which I sense (and make sense) of spiritual realities.  I genuinely don’t know how conjuration of a spirit works for someone who is aphantasic without resorting to tools like yes-no divination to ascertain whether a spirit is present or not, or how strongly someone might translate imagination into physical senses (e.g. someone getting physical sensations like goosebumps or temperature fluctuations in their body around spirits and translating that into spiritual information).

I admit, it’s hard for me to consider what the world would be like for an aphantasic person, because I’ve always had an active and busy imagination for as long as I can remember.  At the same time, I also recall actively diving into imagined, imaginative worlds as a child, playing with imaginary friends, reading fantasy stories and extrapolating from them to continue the story further in my mind with me taking the role of a character, and the like.  Because of that, I don’t consider my imaginative skills to be something inborn, but rather something cultivated and practiced, for much the same reason that someone taking music lessons as a child and just playing around with instruments generally ends up becoming a musician without music being some sort of inborn ability.  Imagination is a skill like so many others, and as a result, requires practice and cultivation in order to become useful beyond a few seconds or beyond a glimpse or so.

In today’s world of modern media where so much is already just given to us (movies, TV, YouTube, TikTok, video games, augmented reality, virtual reality, etc.), it’s a skill that can easily be forsaken because of (shall we say) platform redundancy; why bother imagining things and constructing your own world when you can have a whole world just delivered to you through your already-inborn physical senses?  At the risk of saying what doesn’t need to be said due to its obviousness, I don’t think that’s a useful approach for mages and mystics—or anyone really.  After all, to live just in someone else’s worlds is to give up the right to build and live in your own, which I strongly feel is a matter of self-expression and self-fulfillment.  For most people who are surrounded by constant media, their own skills of imagination can easily become attenuated or enervated, just like how learning a language in a non-immersive environment and never having a chance to use it outside book exercises can make it difficult to understand or apply that language.

Imagination is a skill.  At least for those who have the capacity for it, it needs to be developed, built up, cultivated, and maintained just like any other.

Offerings at a Hermetic Shrine

It probably hasn’t escaped the notice of many of my readers that much of my recent research and reading focuses on the classical Hermetic stuff.  As a general rule of thumb, I like using the best-available dating of the Emerald Tablet from the Kitāb Sirr al-Ḫalīqa (“Book of the Secrets of Creation”) as a cut-off, so sometime around the 6th or 7th century CE; that which is written before this is what I consider “classical Hermeticism”, and after this “post-classical Hermeticism” (ranging from medieval to Renaissance to modern, depending on the time period and geographic origin of a given text).  I like dividing these texts up in this way because, at least in western Europe prior to Marsilio Ficino’s translation of the Corpus Hermeticum in the 15th century, this cut-off date roughly corresponds to a shift in the overall focus of Hermetic texts.  While there was always a heavy practical/technical component involved in Hermeticism at all points in time, there was a much stronger and more pronounced mystical and theosophical (or, more traditionally, philosophical/theoretical) bent to many such texts, as evidenced by the Corpus Hermeticum, the Armenian Definitions of Hermēs Trismegistos to Asklēpios, the Latin Asclepius or Perfect Sermon, and the like.  After this point, however—roughly coinciding with the Roman Empire’s closing of pagan temples in the 4th and 5th centuries—much of the mystical stuff seemed to have faded into the background, and the more practical and magical stuff was not only left but was also drastically expanded, with the more mystical components no longer being provided by Greco-Egyptian religiosity but by Christianity and Islam.

However, that doesn’t mean that there wasn’t any further mystical or religious elements in post-classical Hermeticism.  On the contrary, there’s plenty of it to be found, albeit in a diminished and somewhat preserved state.  In a number of grimoires, magical manuals, and historical records written, we see reference to particular practices that don’t cleanly fit as merely magical or occult, but rather descriptions of things that would be classified more as worship.  I find this to be super fascinating because, outside of a small handful of things from classical Hermetic texts, we don’t have a big notion of what actual worship would have been like for a Hermeticist as a Hermeticist, rather than as someone participating in general Greco-Egyptian or Hellenistic temple cult more generally.  For instance, turning to a few of the classical texts, we see a few ideas:

  • CH I.29—30: nighttime (pre-sleep?) prayers
  • CH XIII.15: face east for morning/sunrise prayers and south for evening/sunset prayers
  • AH 41: face west for evening/sunset prayers and east for morning/sunrise prayers, no use of incense when praying to God, prayers are followed by a ritual embrace and ritual vegetarian/bloodless meal

And…well, without reading in between the lines of the rest of the classical Hermetic texts too much (e.g. does CH IV suggest a ritual baptism?), that’s about all we get.

As can be seen just now, I like using abbreviations to refer to particular Hermetic texts, like CH for Corpus Hermeticum, AH for the Latin Asclepius, DH for the Armenian Definitions, and so forth.  I have compiled a whole index of Hermetic texts and references for the benefit of the Hermetic House of Life Discord server, where I list all the abbreviations for the major texts based on our current state of Hermetic scholarship.  The numbering of the CH and AH is pretty well-known across many modern texts, while the SH (Hermetic fragments and excerpts from the Anthology of John of Stobi, aka Stobaeus) numbering is based on that originally given in Walter Scott’s four-volume Hermetica series in the first part of the 20th century.  However, there’s also the FH and TH texts—though “texts” might be a bit of a stretch.  These stand for “Hermetic Fragments” and “Hermetic Testimonies”, the former being smaller quotes or excerpts preserved in other authors, the latter being accounts of or about Hermēs Trismegistos and Hermeticism.  M. David Litwa’s Hermetica II contains an abundant wealth of FH and TH texts, and introduces them accordingly:

When approaching the Hermetic fragments, one must distinguish between a direct citation, a paraphrase, the employment of Hermetic ideas, and the mere naming of Hermes Thrice Great. In this section (FH), I strive to print only direct citations or paraphrases of Hermes Thrice Great. Moreover, I favor passages that do not appear elsewhere in Hermetic literature. Thus citations of CH and Ascl. by later authors are not included. Those interested in authors who employ Hermetic ideas or who refer in passing to Hermes should proceed to the Testimonies concerning Hermes Thrice Great (TH).

As for the TH specifically:

The Hermetic testimonies printed here range from the late third century BCE until the fifteenth century CE. The authors quoted are Jewish, Phoenician, Hellenic, Christian, and Muslim. They all present different portraits of Hermes that cannot easily be reconciled. For example, the Jewish writer Artapanus identified Hermes with Moses the great culture hero. The Christian Athenagoras indicated that Hermes was a deified king like Alexander the Great. Iamblichus the Neoplatonic philosopher presented Hermes as a god. Augustine, bishop of Hippo, depicted him as an idolater and demonically inspired prophet. The Alexandrian philosopher Hermias presented Hermes as triply incarnated. The Muslim writer Abū Ma‘shar said that there were three different Hermeses. The first of these built the pyramids in Egypt; the second was a Babylonian scholar; and the third was an expert on poisons. According to the magical handbook the Picatrix, Hermes was the builder of a mystical, multi-colored city featuring a wondrous temple to the Sun and an array of animated statues.

Whatever their diversity of content, these testimonies show that Hermes the philosopher and culture hero was never far removed from Hermes the magus and master of esoteric lore. Hermes was the inventor of writing according to Philo of Byblos. Yet according to the same author, he used his magic spells to help Kronos defeat his enemies. Arnobius put Hermes in the company of Pythagoras and Plato. Yet the Peratic author linked Hermes with Ostanes and Zoroaster (called Zoroastris), the chief Persian magi. For the philosopher Iamblichus, Hermes was the great guide to theurgists. In turn, most Arabic writers viewed Hermes as an expert on astrology and alchemy. Such testimonies indicate that the constructed boundary between “philosophical” and “technical” Hermetic writings remains questionable.

Although the following testimonies are wide-ranging, they are hardly exhaustive. We do not trace the reception history of the Asclepius by Latin writers after Augustine, since this work has already been done. Moreover, some works attributed to Hermes – such as the Arabic Rebuke of the Soul – are too long to be included here and are available elsewhere. There are dozens more Arabic and medieval Latin sources that make mention of Hermes, often in passing. A great number of these are alchemical, astrological, and magical texts that somehow feature Hermes or are attributed to him. Even today, this material remains largely uncharted by scholars. A full and exhaustive record of Hermetic testimonies can only await new critical editions and studies of these materials.

In a sense, while we might consider texts like CH, AH, DH, and the like to be primary sources and the FH texts to be quasi-primary or secondary sources, the TH texts that Litwa gives are tertiary at best, if not outright stories about some variant or other of Hermēs rather than necessarily being Hermetic.  As a case in point, Litwa opens up a few sources from the third to first centures BCE, like a quote from Cicero’s De Natura Deorum, written well before our usual dating of even the earliest CH texts.  Likewise, there’s also stuff from medieval Arabic and Latin texts which show abundant Islamicization or Christianization of Hermēs Trismegistos, or other adaptations of this pagan prophet to a non-pagan cultural milieu.  And yet, despite this, we still get some interesting accounts about what Hermēs and his followers (were thought to have) taught and practiced.

For instance, consider Litwa’s TH 37b, better known as book III, chapter 7 from the Picatrix:

The sages who made these prayers and sacrifices to the planets in mosques did all of the foregoing things. While the planet moved through eight degrees of heaven, they would sacrifice one animal, and similarly when it declined by another eight degrees they would offer another sacrifice. They say that Hermēs commanded them to do this in mosques or in their own churches. These sages say of the aforementioned Hermēs that he was the lord of the three flowers of things, that is, king, prophet, and sage. They require that no animal of two colors, nor black, nor having a broken bone nor a horn broken in any way, nor an injured eye, nor having any flaw in its body, be sacrificed in their mosques. When they behead an animal, they take out its liver at once. They examine it, and if they find any defect or spot in it, they say that the lord of that place has some notable impediment. They then cut up the liver and give it to one of the bystanders to eat.

Perhaps more fascinatingly, we can turn instead to TH 28, which Litwa draws from sections 7.8—10.19 of the Kitāb Muẖtār al-Ḥikam wa-Maḥāsin al-Kalim (“Compendium of Maxims and Aphorisms”, otherwise known as Dicts or Sayings of the Philosophers) by Abū al-Wafā’ Al-Mubaššir ibn Fātik:

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

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

We also see something similar to TH 28 in the following excerpt from the Tārīẖ Muẖtaṣar al-Duwal (“Brief History of Nations”) by Gregory Bar Hebraeus, specifically the section “On the Three Hermēses”.  Although this isn’t in Litwa’s Hermetica II (and thus lacks a TH number), Walter Scott provides a Latin translation of this bit in his fourth volume of his Hermetica series:

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

Based on all of these testimonies regarding Hermēs and Hermetic “religion”, such as it might have been considered by Islamic or Christian authors that well postdated the classical heyday of Hermeticism, we can still see clearly non-Islamic and non-Christian stuff going on.  We get, for example, a set of feasts and celebrations to be done according to particular astrological phenomena:

  • New moon (i.e. first sighting of the waxing crescent Moon after syzygy with the Sun)
  • Sun ingresses into a new sign
  • Planets ingress into their domiciles
  • Planets arrive at their degrees of exaltations
  • Planets arrive into conjunction with one another (and possibly other aspects)

For these feasts (in addition to the ones we know were observed classically even if not listed here, like the Sun ingressing into individual decans as opposed to general signs or the full Moon in addition to the new Moon), we also get notions of things given in offering sacrifice: incense/perfume, wine, flowers (especially roses), grains (especially barley and wheat), fruit (especially grapes), and sacrificial animals (with the conditions that they should be unblemished and healthy, of a single colors, and not black).  We also see notions about ritual purity and prohibited foodstuffs and drinks, some of which might seem Islamic on the surface of them but which can reasonably be tied to historical prohibitions from Greco-Roman times for Egyptian priests.

And, of course, this is just limiting ourselves to just what Hermēs (was claimed to have) taught.  If we expand our scope slightly, we can then also account for some of the accounts involving the Sabians of Harran, who took the Hermetic texts as their gospel in an attempt to become a People of the Book (given an identification of Hermēs Trismegistos with the quranic prophet Idris and thus the patriarch Enoch).  If we turn back to Tārīẖ Muẖtaṣar al-Duwal for a moment, we also see another section, “On the Practices of the Sabians”:

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

There are fasts imposed on them: one of thirty days, the first day of which is the eighth of ‘Ādar (i.e. Hebrew Adar); also one of nine days, the first of which is the ninth of Kānūn I (i.e. Hebrew Kīslev); and one of seven days, the first of which is the eighth of Šubāṭ (i.e. Hebrew Šẹvat).

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

Based on these practices of the Sabians, we can also gather the following information:

  • Prayer and worship practices
    • Pray facing the north
    • Prostration-based prayer practice not unlike the Islamic rak’ah, each prostration having three prayers
    • Pray three times a day
      • A half hour or less before sunrise with eight prostrations
      • Just after noon (as the Sun begins to descend) with five prostrations
      • Just before sunset (to be completed as the Sun sets) with five prostrations
    • Animal sacrifices are burned whole without being eaten
  • Fasts
    • Thirty-day fast starting on the eighth day of Adar (roughly February or March)
    • Nine-day fast starting on the ninth day of Kislev (roughly November or December)
    • Seven-day fast starting on the eighth day of Shevat (roughly January or February)
  • Prohibited foods
    • All abstain from (cultivated) beans and garlic
    • Some abstain from wild beans, cabbage, kale, and lentils

It’s in light of all of this that I think that, even if we have a dearth of classical evidence of Hermetic rites and processes of worship, I think we have plenty of post-classical stuff that we can extrapolate from and work with all the same.  It might take a bit of sifting and reconfiguration, but as an attempt at (re)constructing a Hermetic practice based on available evidence, we have a surprising abundance of stuff to work with that makes sense for Hermetic stuff in general.

All of that is my introduction to talking specifically about shrine offerings.  Yes, while the notion of Hermetic feasts or holidays is certainly important, we also learn plenty about what they offered for such practices, and it’s that specific idea that I’ve been considering lately.  While I’m still settling on a firm notion of what a proper Hermetic shrine should consist of, at least for me (beyond, at least, the presence of a shrine lamp), I still want to take into account the notion of what sorts of offerings the above TH excerpts suggest, in tandem with my own experience of offerings and exposure to other approaches I’ve seen elsewhere, because offerings constitute a huge part of my own practice.  Sure, in a Hermetic view, the big focus of it all is on God rather than the gods, and to God one should offer nothing except pure offerings of speech in silence—but that’s just for God, not the gods, who do reasonably get quite a lot more and whose importance should never be underestimated in supporting a Hermeticist’s work and way.  And, while one could simply wing it and freestyle sets of offerings based on the above quite easily, I like having particular processes and protocols in place to give myself a formal foundation of practice.

To that end, while any given shrine should have a few basic necessities and other accouterment that facilitate worship and veneration (such as implements of prayer like bells or beads, books for reciting prayers or reading scripture, etc.), I would think that one should first get a set of dishes to make offerings with.  Based on the excerpts above, we know that the big things offered were incense, wine, grains, fruit, and flowers, so we can use this as a basis for figuring out what sorts of dishes we’d need.  My thoughts on this would be:

  • Twelve dishes should be used for formal offerings:
    • One tray (bowl, tripod, brazier, censer, thurible, boat, etc.) for incense offerings
    • Three candle holders or oil lamps for light offerings
    • Two vases for flower offerings
    • Two cups for liquid offerings
    • Two bowls for grain offerings
    • Two plates for fruit offerings
  • The dishes used may be reasonably small (e.g. shot glasses, rice/ice cream bowls, and bread/butter plates), especially for household or private practice where large offerings are not practical
  • The dishes used should be made in a matching style or aesthetic
  • The dishes used should be non-porous, water-safe, and corrosion-resistant
  • The dishes used should be free of cracks, dents, chips, scratches, or other blemishes
  • The dishes used may be repurposed from other mundane uses after thorough cleaning, if otherwise in good condition, but once used for shrine offerings should not otherwise be used for mundane purposes again
  • Extra candle holders/oil lamps, cups, bowls, and plates may be obtained as replacements or for additional offerings beyond formal offerings
  • Extra saucers or small plates may be used for candle holders to collect any wax that drips off them
  • When not in use, the offering dishes should be safely kept in storage near the shrine

Knowing the types of offerings to be made and the dishes used for them, we can then consider a set of guidelines for what specific offerings to make, how to choose certain offerings, the order of preference when considering particular types of offerings, and what offerings might go well with what other offerings.  Again, based on the above excerpts and my own experience in offerings with my own preferences I’ve developed:

  • All dishes used to make offerings should be removed from shrine storage, rinsed with clean water, and completely dried before use
  • Offerings may be made all at once before the formal start of a ritual, or may be offered one-by-one as a part of the ritual, but each individual type of offering (e.g. “wine” or “wine and water” as appropriate, but “flowers” generically instead of “one vase of flowers and another vase of flowers”) should be specifically enumerated and identified regardless
  • Incense and light must always be offered, but after these, at least one other offering must be made
    • The type of non-incense/non-light offering(s) can be one or more of liquids, grains, fruits, or flowers, according to availability and preference
    • Keep to a symbolic but reasonable number of offering dishes (e.g. three, seven, ten, or twelve dishes, as appropriate to the offering and occasion)
      • Three dishes are offered as a bare but common minimum
      • Twelve dishes are offered as a rare maximum
    • For more common or quotidian offerings, offering fewer dishes is acceptable and encouraged
  • When offering incense:
    • May be offered in self-igniting form (e.g. sticks) or loose form (e.g. resin grains or powders on top of charcoals), as desired
    • Amount of incense may be done in an appropriate number (e.g. three sticks or three scoops of powder)
    • Incense is ideally composed from odiferous substances appropriate to the offering
    • Incense used for offering should be pleasant, or at the very least not harsh
    • Any incense offered, regardless of the number of kinds or amount used, is all considered as one single offering (as it should all be offered on the one single dish)
  • When offering light:
    • At least one light in all cases, but:
      • Only one light should be offered if only three dishes are being offered
      • Two lights may be offered, if desired, if an offering is for an observance that occurs once a month or less and if one is offering more than three dishes
      • Three lights should be reserved only for the largest and grandest/rarest of offerings
    • If more than one light is offered, all such lights should be identical
    • Any light offered should burn for at least thirty minutes but no longer than twelve hours
    • If candles are used:
      • They may always be white or undyed
      • They may also be in a color appropriate to the offering
      • They should not be artificially scented
    • If oil lamps are used:
      • They may be of any non-animal source appropriate to the offering (olive oil always being acceptable)
      • They may also be of an animal source if rendered from the fat of appropriate animals previously sacrificed
      • They should not be blended of multiple sources (e.g. no mixes of olive oil and sesame oil)
      • They should not be artificially scented
    • Wicks used to burn for candles or oil lamps should be of a natural, undyed fabric (e.g. cotton or linen)
  • When offering flowers:
    • If more than one vase is used for offering, all vases should have the same kinds of flowers
    • Roses are most preferred before any other flower
    • The flowers should be in a color and number appropriate to the offering
    • It is best to use only fresh flowers, ideally cut immediately prior to offering
    • If desired (especially for rare or special events), a fresh spray of evergreens may also be included behind the flowers, with fragrant and non-spiny evergreens (e.g. laurel, cinnamon, star anise) being most preferred
  • When offering liquids:
    • If making two liquid offerings in a single ritual, it is best to offer two different kinds of liquids
    • Wine (i.e. any non-distilled fermented beverage not of an animal source) and/or clean cool water are preferred before other liquids (e.g. distilled liquor, tea, coffee, soda)
      • For highly frequent offerings (especially daily), water is preferred before wine
      • For less frequent offerings, wine is preferred before water
    • Liquids which can turn moldy or sour (like fresh milk or non-fermented juice) should be offered sparingly, if at all
    • Old or soured wine is discouraged from being offered
    • Any liquid offered must be safe to drink (at least in moderation) for human consumption
  • When offering grains:
    • If making two grain offerings in a single ritual, it is best to offer two different kinds of grains
    • Barley is most preferred
    • Wheat is preferred second after barley and before other grains (e.g. oats, rice, millet)
    • Grains may be cooked or uncooked before offering
    • If cooked grains are offered, they should be freshly cooked, unsalted and unseasoned
    • If uncooked grains are offered, it is best to use the first portion of a harvest or otherwise use grains that are not aged or stored for a long period of time
    • If cooked or uncooked grain cannot be obtained, bread or another cooked non-bean staple food may be offered instead
  • When offering fruits:
    • If making two fruit offerings in a single ritual, it is best to offer two kinds of fruits
    • Grapes are most preferred before any other fruit
    • Any fruit offered should be sweet rather than sour or bitter
    • It is best to use only fresh fruit, ideally obtained immediately prior to offering
    • Fruit should be free of blemishes or injury
    • Fruit should be gently washed before offering
    • Fruit should not be cut up or sliced before offering
    • If fresh fruit cannot be obtained, dried fruit or other prepared non-meat non-staple food (most preferably desserts) may be offered instead

Make a special note of the avoidance of beans and meat in the above offerings (under grain and fruit offerings, respectively).  While one might reasonably avoid beans (fresh or dried) in general (especially given a longstanding Pythagorean avoidance of them), I also recognize that they are a staple food all the same for many people the whole world over; likewise, different kinds of meat may well be offered in sacrifice especially if an animal sacrifice is being performed and not offered as part of a holocaust.  To be clear, I’m not suggesting that these things cannot be offered in a context of this sort of shrine offering, but rather, I suggest that they shouldn’t be offered as part of this particular formalized offering approach.  Instead, dishes of beans or meat may be offered as additional offerings beyond the formal set of things to be offered, not as substitutes for them.

Similarly, note the deal with water and wine above.  I have always made these two liquids a staple of my own offering practice for many years now, but I’ve gone back and forth on when and how much to offer of either.  I recognize that, based on the TH excerpts above, even if wine was not consumed, it was certainly offered, with water being nowhere mentioned; however, I also consider water to be a universal offering, and not everyone is able to obtain wine or to use it in highly frequent offerings (like those on a daily or even weekly basis).  Because of that, I generally prefer giving water primarily for frequent or low-key offerings, but wine becomes primary for high-key or less-frequent ones.  Your mileage, as ever, may vary, and if you can afford to offer wine regularly, then please feel free to!  Note that I use the term “wine” here generically to refer to any non-distilled fermented beverage, so that would include drinks like beer, sake, toddy, and the like, but not anything distilled like araq, whiskey, vodka, baijiu, or soju.  For similar reasons as above with meat, I would also encourage not offering animal-derived liquids like milk, arkhi, kumis, or eggnog as part of the formal set of offerings, but may be offered beyond them.  As for mead (non-distilled) or honey liqueur (distilled), however, I’ll leave that to one’s determination about whether it qualifies as an extraordinary or ordinary offering, since it is technically derived from animals (bees) but can be argued otherwise.

But that’s not all!  In addition to figuring out what offerings to make, we should also consider how to arrange them in the shrine.  This is, admittedly, a really flexible thing in general, but in addition to how I like setting up my own shrines, I also like to take a hint and a bit of inspiration from the arrangements of Japanese Buddhist shrines, especially in household butsudan arrangements as exemplified here or here (both Shingon) or here (Jōdo Shinshū).  This isn’t to merely ape or appropriate them, but to give an idea of a formal way of arranging fairly universal offerings that are specifically highlighted in those TH texts above in a way that makes sense, at least for myself

  • The lights and incense tray should generally be placed in the center closest to the icon in the shrine, with other offerings placed in front of them slightly further away from the icon in the shrine or on the sides of these
  • When placing lights:
    • If one light is offered, it should be placed either directly in front of the incense tray, behind it on a slightly elevated surface, or to the right of it
    • If two lights are offered, they should be placed on either side of the incense tray
    • If three lights are offered, they should be placed in a row in front of the incense tray with one directly in front of it or behind it on a slightly elevated surface, and the other two on either side of the incense tray
  • When placing flowers:
    • If one vase is offered, it should be placed to the left, either to the left of the incense tray (if only one light is offered and placed on the right of the tray) or to the left of the offering area in general
    • If two vases are offered, they should be placed on the outermost left and right of the offering area
  • When placing liquids:
    • If one cup is offered, it should be placed in front of the incense tray and lights, either to the innermost left (opposite a single grain offering, if also present) or in the center (if a single grain offering is not present)
    • If two cups are offered, they should be placed in front of the incense tray and lights, to the innermost left and right
  • When placing grains:
    • If one bowl is offered, it should be placed in front of the incense tray and lights, either to the innermost right (opposite a single liquid offering, if also present) or in the center (if a single liquid offering is not present)
    • If two bowls are offered, they should be placed in front of the incense tray and lights, to the inner left and right (but on the outside of liquid offerings, if also present)
  • When placing fruit:
    • If one plate is offered, it may be placed in front of the incense tray and lights, either to the left or right (but in balance with any other single offering, if also present)
    • If two places are offered, they may be placed in front of the incense tray and lights, to the outer left and right (outside of the liquid/grain offerings but inside of the flowers, if any of those are also present)

Likewise, after having made offerings, we should also consider how to remove them once the ritual is done and after some time has elapsed:

  • For incense offerings:
    • Any incense should burn out on their own before the offering can be considered complete to be removed
    • Incense ash may be tamped down in the tray to hold future offerings of incense, repurposed, or disposed
  • Lights may be allowed to safely burn out on their own or be extinguished after a reasonable time, but they must go out or be put out before the offering can be considered complete to be removed
  • For flower offerings:
    • Flowers are to be removed upon wilting, though the water in the vases may be changed out once a day to preserve them as long as desired before they wilt
    • Flowers may be consumed, repurposed, composted, or returned to nature
  • For liquid offerings:
    • Non-water liquids are to be removed within twenty-four hours and consumed, repurposed, or dumped onto dry earth
    • Water is to be removed within a week and consumed, repurposed, or dumped onto dry earth
  • For grain offerings:
    • Cooked grains are to be removed within twelve hours and consumed, repurposed, composted, or scattered outside for animals
    • Uncooked grains are to be removed within a week and either used for immediate cooking (i.e. not to be mixed with other grains back into storage) and consumption or repurposing, or scattered outside for animals
    • Non-grain staple food is to be removed within twelve hours and consumed, repurposed, composted, or scattered outside for animals
  • For fruit offerings:
    • Fruit is to be removed within a week and consumed, repurposed, composted, or scattered outside for animals
    • Non-fruit prepared food is to be removed within twelve hours and consumed, repurposed, composed, or scattered outside for animals
  • All dishes used to make offerings should be thoroughly cleaned after each use, then put away safely into shrine storage
  • Any method of disposal should be done respectfully
  • Anything consumed may be done so by eating or drinking by the offerant/priest, their household/temple, or given freely as charity to others in need
  • Anything repurposed may be done so by being used in baths, washes, medicine, incenses, oils, or other purposes as deemed appropriate by the offerant/priest

I’m something of a split mind when it comes to whether and how to make use of things offered after they’ve been offered.  In one respect, things that are offered belong to the entity being offered to, and so aren’t for our use anymore; on the other hand, the act of us making an offering is often one of communion as well as sacrifice, in which we can share in the presence of a divine entity by means of the things we offer.  As a rule, any offering that begins to mold, decompose, or “turn bad” in any way should be disposed of immediately (its essence and any possible use of the offering has basically been fully consumed by the entity being offered to, especially when such decomposition happens at an otherwise remarkable rare), but given a reasonable timeframe to allow things to be consumed, whatever is left may be shared so that nothing ever goes to waste in any sense.  To that end, I’d leave it to an individual whether they give anything they offer fully away to the entity, or to give it and then partake in part of it themselves in any reasonable and respectful manner.

So, what about some example layouts?

Example offering layouts (list not intended to be exhaustive but only illustrative of different compositions):

  • Three dishes: The simplest possible layout, consisting of the incense tray, one light, and some other offering that is neither incense or light.  This could be a cup of wine/water/some other liquid, a bowl of barley/wheat/some other grain, a plate of grapes/oranges/some other fruit, or a vase of roses/carnations/some other flowers.  The incense tray would be front and center, the candle would go to the right of the tray, and the other offering would go to the left of the tray.  Easy.
  • Five dishes: This is where we can easily change things up into a lot of different variations really quickly.
    • For instance, one could make a five-dish non-edible offering consisting of incense, two lights, and two vases of flowers, arranged entirely symmetrically all in a row with the incense in the middle, the lights on either side of the tray, and the flowers on the far sides beyond the lights.
    • One could instead make a varied offering consisting of incense, one light (placed behind and above the incense), a cup of wine (placed in front of the incense), a bowl of barley (placed on the right of the wine), and a vase of flowers (placed on the left of the wine).
  • Seven dishes: Even more possibilities arise!
    • We could try a symmetric layout of mixed offerings consisting of incense, two lights (placed on either side of the incense), one cup of wine and one bowl of barley (placed in front of the incense, liquid on the left and grain on the right), and two vases of flowers on the far left and right of the offering.  Instead of grains or liquids, one might also offer a plate of grapes instead, placed accordingly.
    • For a symmetric layout of two liquids and no grains, one would take the above layout and offer both wine and water, wine on the left and water on the right.
    • For a symmetric layout of two grains and no liquids, one would take the above layout again and offer both barley and wheat berries, barley on the left and water on the right.
    • One could instead make a varied offering consisting of incense in the middle, one light (placed behind and above the incense), a cup of wine and a cup of water (placed directly in front of the incense, wine on the left and water on the right), a bowl of barley (placed in the center in front of the two cups), a plate of grapes (placed to the right of the grains), and a vase of flowers (placed to the left of the grains).
  • Ten dishes: Now we’re getting fancy, and we start getting into having a full spread showing off a full set of all kinds offerings.  For this, the incense would be placed in the center as always, with a single light placed behind and above the incense.  In front of the incense would be placed a cup of wine and a cup of water together (wine on the left and water on the right); to the left of the cups would go a bowl of barley and to the right a bowl of wheat.  To the left of the barley would go a plate of grapes; to the right of the wheat would go a plate of some other fruit, like oranges.  Outside of all of these, on the far left and right, would go the vases of flowers.
  • Twelve dishes: Basically the same as ten dishes, except with the addition of two additional lights.  These would go on either side of the incense tray, with the third remaining behind and above the incense tray or all three arranged in a row in front of it and behind the two cups of liquid.  This would be the maximum formal offering, reserved only for the grandest or rarest of circumstances (like a solar new year or a rare astrological event).

Of course, there’s nothing saying you couldn’t offer more than just the above, like extra plates of food or drink, especially for making offerings for rarer events like the once-every-20-years Great Conjunction of Jupiter and Saturn.  Rather, I intend all of the above as a sort of template upon which one can arrange for making offerings of various scales and styles, covering all the necessary bases that make a sine qua non of Hermetic offerings (at least according to the Hermetic testimonies available to us).  As for determining how many dishes to set out for an offering and how to gauge the specialness of any given event, well, that’s more a matter of practicality and availability; in general, I’m a fan of the Spartan and laconic notion of not being too extravagant too often so that one might always have something to offer, and let’s be honest, sometimes there’s just not a whole lot of need or reason to offer more than light, incense, and water.  Still, when there is a need or reason to do so, at least I have a few guidelines to set things up for myself to keep myself in line without having to worry too much about the details on the fly.

Unlocking the Observatory: Actually Performing Divination

Where were we? We’re in the middle of discussing the obscure Telescope of Zoroaster (ZT), a manual of divination and spirituality originally published in French in 1796 (FZT) at the close of the French Revolution, which was later translated into German in 1797 (GZT) and then again in an abridged form as part of Johann Scheible’s 1846 Das Kloster (vol. 3, part II, chapter VII) (KZT), with Scheible’s work then translated into English in 2013 as released by Ouroboros Press (OZT).  Although OZT is how most people nowadays tend to encounter this system, I put out my own English translation of FZT out a bit ago as part of my research, and while that translation was just part of the work I’ve been up to, there’s so much more to review, consider, and discover when it comes to this fascinating form of divination.  Last time, we talked about the origins of the allocation of the lunar mansions, their angels, and the primitive numbers in ZT in Renaissance German pop-astrology texts. If you need a refresher on what we talked about last time, go read the last post!

※ For those following along with their own copy of ZT (get yours here!), the relevant chapters from ZT are the “First Supplement”, “Second Supplement”, and “Third Supplement”.

At this point, I think we’ve covered enough ground to actually get to using the stuff we’ve been covering.  Besides talking about ZT and its history at a high level, we’ve gone over all the basic bits and pieces of ZT, and have gone through enough of its symbolism and understanding of itself so as to finally put things together and describe what a ZT reading would actually look like.  We’re definitely not done talking about ZT as a whole yet, much less what it has to say about humanity and spirituality and how those also play out in the Great Mirror, but at least we can start implementing what we’ve learned so far to start getting our hands familiar with the process.

First up: tool check.  Before we perform any divination with ZT, we need to make sure that all our tools are accounted for—which means we need to make sure we have both Principle tiles, both Spirit tiles, all nine Intelligence tiles, and all 99 Number tiles (and, if desired, the Sum tile as well).  Whether one uses the design of the tiles as given in the Urn foldout or not is up to the diviner; recall that, in the Epilogue, the Editors mentioned that the Redactor sent them tile designs “more detailed than those used by experienced Cabalists” so that “a greater number of amateurs might profit from it”, so if one wants to use a simpler design with just the number or simple glyph on it, that’s also totally fine.  If any of them are missing, warped, broken, or otherwise rendered unfit for use, then it should be replaced as soon as possible.  This is one of the reasons why ZT specifies to have extra blank tiles, which can be taken up and used immediately as replacements as well as for dummy tiles in option-whittling mirrors or other kinds of divination that require miscellaneous tiles of some sort or another.

And, as we said before, there’s nothing specifying any sort of cleansing or consecration of the tools.  After all, the tools are just tools with no inherent power or presence in them; it’s the diviner, guided by the Pure Spirit, that actually does the divination itself.

If you recall at the end of the post on the tools, I mentioned that ZT also specifies “three pieces of paper” which are to be used.  In ZT’s own version of Tarot’s “little white book”, ZT says recommends the use of reference guides in the course of one’s divination, presumably to make sure one doesn’t slip up with associating which tile goes with which planet or what house in the Great Mirror goes to which planet’s orbit.  These reference guides should the Table of Numbers and Intelligences from Plate II, the layout of the Great Mirror from Plate III, and the layout of the Great Dial from Plate IV.  In addition to those, although ZT doesn’t explicitly say so, I also think that the Drum and Border of Plate VI (the version of the Great Mirror with all the angels on it) should also be prepared as a fourth reference sheet; the “Second Supplement” goes on at length explaining every aspect of what this diagram should contain (including a good number of details that aren’t even in the engraving used for Plate VI itself).  There is another possible use of Plate VI, however, but I’ll leave that for a future discussion; suffice it here to say that, in the course of divination, it’s meant to be a guide to remembering which angel gets which houses or tiles, and to assist the diviner in remembering what dates of the year belong to which natal star.

I should note, also, that it’s the plates above that get reference guides to be consulted in the course of divination, but not the table of house meanings given in the “Seventh Step” or the table of tile meanings given in the “First Supplement”.  Recall how ZT emphasizes that those lists of meanings, interpretations, significations, and semantic boundaries are only presented as an illustrative guide to demonstrate what such meanings might be for the houses/tiles, not their sum total of menaings.  Rather, the diviner is to focus on the meanings of the tiles according to their composition of and reduction to primitive digits, what their Intelligences are, what the planetary orbits of a house indicate, and so forth, because that’s where the real meat of the system lies.  Again, ZT extrapolates from simple principles, and we’re expected to do the same in the course of divination, too.

We’ve gotten our tools prepared, but what about ourselves?  ZT doesn’t specify much in the way of preparing the diviner: given that this is ostensibly still a work done by a Christian for a Christian audience (no matter how “cabalistically” inclined they might be), there’s nothing in here about prayer, initiation, meditation, purification, or the like (although, to be sure, these things would absolutely be encouraged as being conducive to honest spirituality).  However, in the “Second Supplement”, we do have encouragements to live according to a “moral conduct and physical regimen which are equally conducive to the difficult task at hand”, namely:

  1. Refrain from eating heavy or stimulating food, especially in the evening.
  2. Protect themselves from heatedness of lust, passion, or strong emotion.

These are in addition to two other (arguably more necessary and crucial) traits required in every diviner (as stated at the end of the “First Supplement”):

  1. Faith and confidence in the presence, efficacy, and truth of the Pure Spirit
  2. Diligence and study in all the techniques, symbolism, and knowledge of the Great Cabala (i.e. the divinatory methods and means of ZT)

So long as the diviner can at least manage those latter two, the former two can be taken as best as one is able to—which, besides, is more meant for spiritual communication and communion in general rather than the specific process of divination.

And then it comes to the query, the actual question put to divination for inquiry and investigation.  Both in my blogs, chats, interviews, and ebooks, I’ve gone on about my “three Cs of good queries”, like I did back in my post on ritual astragalomancy:

  • A good divination query is clear.  There is no obscurity, duplicity, or vagueness in the query; you’re being honest about what it is you want to know, and you’re putting it bluntly, frankly, and openly for both yourself, the diviner, and the gods or spirits who answer.
  • A good divination query is concise.  You aren’t droning on for half an hour telling your life story, nor are you taking the garden path when asking your question.  Instead, you’re able to succinctly phrase your question into a single, short sentence.  This goes hand-in-hand with the clarity of the query.
  • A good divination query is concrete.  You know exactly what you’re asking about and you’re asking it clearly and concisely.  You aren’t talking about abstract concepts or hypothetical theoretical potentialities of what ifs, but something that can actually happen with tangible or viewable results.

ZT doesn’t appear to disagree with this: “before establishing a figure, it is necessary to have posed the question well and to have foreseen its interesting ramifications”.  Partially this is to allow for the diviner to consider which kind of figure is best to answer a particular kind of query (Great Mirror, Great Dial, some other sort of smaller figure for option-whittling?), but also because ZT is not interested in flights of fancy, pipe dreams, or otherwise unrealistic and unobtainable castles in the sky.  ZT gives the examples of asking about the recovery of a sick person or whether someone who is able to marry will do so at some point as being things that are totally fine to ask about, but a Jewish person becoming Pope is not due to the sheer improbability of it (even if it cannot, technically speaking, be ruled out as impossible).  To that end, ZT has a sort of spiel prepared for telling potential querents regarding their hopes and desires:

Let us first form a Great Mirror about what interests you, and let us find out if your vision would be allowed within it and by it. This will be a winnowing pan that we will load, from which we will sort out all the grain that your chaff will include. Beyond that, there is nothing to say, for the Great Cabala must not be profaned by the abuse of compulsively conjuring up chimeras and other childish things.

It doesn’t really matter whether the diviner is also the querent; although parts of the ZT instruct the reader about how to deal with people who come to the diviner for guidance, a good chunk of the text suggests that the diviner is divining for themselves.  As such, warnings like the above are for other people’s benefit as much as the diviner themselves; after all, if it is bad form for others to hope for things not to be hoped for, it should likewise be bad form for the diviner to give people such hopes with outlandish predictions that aren’t justified by a sound interpretation of the signs and symbols they interpret.

That said, the spiel above also indicates something important for us as a matter of technique: that the Great Mirror is to be used as the default, standard, and first go-to when it comes to divination with ZT.  It is the primary method and means of investigation and, while it may provide too much information at times, it also allows for the in-depth analysis and investigation (by means of not only the essential interpretation of tiles in houses but also accidental interpretations of tiles in ideal triangles) of any particular topic that might be asked about.  It might not be sufficient to answer all questions with perfect detail on its own, but it is necessary to do so, especially because if something doesn’t pass the sensibility test of the Great Mirror, then there’s no sense in using any smaller mirror to pursue a further investigation.  While some people might not need to start with a Great Mirror (especially if they’re following up on a previous divination), most people would seem to benefit from that in one way or another, so we should strive to use the Great Mirror as a first approach whenever possible.

Okay, so: we have our tools ready, we have ourselves ready, and we have the query ready (whether or not we’re the ones asking it as the diviner or it’s someone else coming to us to ask it).  At this point, we’re good to go.  We clear off some space on a table, get out our Urn full of our tiles, and, one by one, draw out each tile as necessary from the Urn and place it accordingly in the mirror we’re composing.  Once the mirror is composed—and only once it is composed in full—then we can begin the process of interpretation.  ZT cautions us explicitly to not interpret any given tile on its own as it comes out of the Urn:

…it would only be a charlatan who would dare, as the pieces come out of the Urn, to proclaim what they must signify, not even seeming to read fluently as a whole the contents of the mirror as guided by the very image that forms under the hand. If not, then the cabalistic process would merely be a mummery. There is, therefore, no Cabalist who should pride themselves on being an improviser; the wisest is one who, even when an expressive competition of numbers strikes them, doubts their meaning until the whole mirror is scrupulously analyzed and all possible interpretations are verified.

And even then, once the mirror has been composed, we should do our utmost to be as scrupulous with it as we can to make sure our judgment is as sound as possible given the evidence presented to us.  For particularly grave or serious matters, ZT even encourages us to compose several mirrors on the same query to make sure that we’re issuing as sound a judgment as possible:

There are, after all, particular—and particularly finicky—cases that can yet be highly important, and the Cabalist must beware of relying straightaway on the first projection, for it would be barbaric to issue a prediction lightly on certain events, which might perchance inspire strong fears or instill dangerous hopes. Such a Cabalist, on these serious occasions, only dares to make a judgment after having obtained, out of four projections, three completely affirmative results, which yet involves ten or twelve projections before having decided on such a necessary majority. However, when the Pure Spirit deigns, it is rare that, time after time, the interpreter of Fate does not immediately obtain indications of evidence—often even by the state of the Great Mirror alone—that are striking enough to make the proliferation of small procedures useless.

I wouldn’t uncharitably or skeptically say that this is a matter of normalizing random patterns.  I mean, consider how, in modern meteorology or economics forecasting, sensible predictions are made by generating various models using a number of methods and approaches or with minor components that change from instantiation to instantiation, then seeing what’s most likely based on all of those by comparing them, contrasting them, and investigating what seems senseless or bizarre?  If we conclude that even small shifts in our body, soul, spirit, or mind could influence the outcome of a divination, as well as those of the querent (if separate from us) as well as small shifts in what happens in the outside world where the event to be predicted actually happens, why would such an approach not benefit us here, too?  Sure, it’s a lot of work, but for those rare do-or-die moments where being absolutely correct is absolutely critical, taking the time to perform rigorous analysis is probably time worth spent.  Lesser matters, of course, would not necessarily require this sort of investigation.

Now, assume we’re composing a Great Mirror.  Such a mirror is composed as any others are: start with a tile in the middle and work your way out in an outwards counterclockwise spiral.  The only major difference in the composition of a Great Mirror versus any other is how we treat the Principle tiles: in a Great Mirror, these don’t get put into the Mirror itself, but rather to a point above it (if Sisamoro is drawn) or below it (if Senamira is drawn).  If either of these tiles are drawn, we put them into their appropriate spots as indicated by Plate III, but we should also make a note at which point they were drawn, because ZT says that that sort of information is useful for our interpretation.  For that reason, having a pen and notebook ready to record what gets composed for a mirror would be helpful for the diviner (and the querent, too, as having a record of their own to bring to later sessions if needed).

In fact, we actually have a good number of suggestions for inspecting the Great Mirror, all provided in a nice list from the “Third Supplement”.  To paraphrase and condense somewhat:

  1. On learning the system:
    1. Remember that the process of learning and grasping all the nuances of the Principles, Spirits, Intelligences, Numbers, and houses is a long and slow process, which develops progressively over time.
    2. Constantly contemplate and review the attributes and qualities of the Intelligences, and what among such attributes and qualities of any given Intelligence are compatible or incompatible with another Intelligence.
    3. Constantly contemplate and review the qualities of the primitive Numbers.
    4. Remember that any compound Number, although it has its own overall meaning, still retains some quality or indication of the primitive Numbers that composes it, no matter where it might fall in the Great Mirror.
  2. On applying the system:
    1. Investigate what it might mean when a particular Intelligence dominates a Great Mirror through its tiles, or when a particular Intelligence is notably absent or sparse in a Great Mirror.
    2. Investigate what it might mean when there is an abundance of tiles that belong to two opposing Intelligences in the Great Mirror.
    3. Investigate ideal triangles that all share the same Intelligence or the qualities thereof.
    4. Investigate when a Principle or Spirit (or the Sum tile) appears in a Great Mirror.
    5. Investigate when and where an Intelligence tile appears in a Great Mirror, both in terms of what tiles precede and succeed it, as well as what tiles might form an incidental orbit around such an Intelligence.
    6. Investigate ideal triangles that have two Intelligences, two doublets, two nilled compound Numbers, or two primitive Numbers.

As ZT itself notes regarding all the details a Great Mirror might provide:

Between all the numbers that together compose a mirror, there may be much affinity between them or much opposition, an alliance of friendly Intelligences or a battle between enemies—all of this is significant. There is not a single triangle, whether in a large or small figure, that should not be considered with the utmost care before passing judgment.

Investigating and reading a Great Mirror will take time; ZT makes it clear that it’s an elaborate process with much nuance and detail to sift through.  Because of this, ZT also notes the danger in leaving tiles just out there on a table; they might get knocked around, misplaced, or otherwise mixed up, which could significantly impede (if not abort) the process of reading.  Additionally, ZT notes the possibility of the mere presence of someone else influencing and affecting the diviner, either in how and what they draw from the Urn as well as in how they interpret the reading, and for that reason, ZT suggests that while the drawing of the tiles may be done in the presence of a querent, the interpretation is best done elsewhere.  To this end, ZT recommends the use of some sort of “enhanced reading device” beyond merely using the 112 (or 113) tiles on a flat surface:

  • A special board with tile-shaped recesses cut out of it in the shape of a Great Mirror to securely hold the individual tiles put into the Great Mirror
  • A board with small holes bored into it in the overall pattern of a Great Mirror, into which may be put slips of paper noting each hole’s respective tile or a plug marked similarly
  • A whiteboard or notebook with a hexagonal pattern to note the tiles that come out in a Great Mirror

For most people, that latter approach is probably going to be the most common and reliable; not only does it cut down on the size and number of divinatory tools required, but having a record of divinations done is good for pretty much anyone in any tradition, ZT included.

That being said, ZT is a little weird and unclear on the bit about not doing the reading in the presence of someone else.  After it mentions the contingency methods above, it says (and I’ll provide the original 1796 French here, too, for comparison):

L’un ou l’autre de ces soins étant pris, on est à même de travailler chez soi, ce qui vaut mieux que de le faire en présence de la personne qui a tiré les pieces, attendu que chaque individu par ses atomes sympathiques, ou antipathiques avec le Devin, peut le modifier étrangement, ce à quoi il est de la derniere importance de mettre ordre.

One or the other of these options being taken, one is then able to work at home, which is better than to work in the presence of the person who drew the tiles [lit. “pieces”], since each individual by their presence [lit. “atoms”] sympathetic or antipathetic to the Diviner can modify strangely what is of utmost importance to put in order.

This is an ambiguous statement and somewhat hard to make sense of.  Read literally, it sounds like the one drawing the tiles is not the one interpreting them.  Elsewhere, ZT says that the diviner is the one drawing the tiles and interpreting them, but here, it sounds like there’s a split.  Should there be two diviners involved, one to draw and one to interpret?  Or is it saying that it is the querent who should be drawing the tiles, and the diviner interprets them?  This latter may well be the case as a means for the querent to “get their energy mixed into” the tiles and situation; it’s just that, for most cases, the diviner is the one also asking the query, so they are their own querent.  It’s not wholly clear on this point, and I think that different approaches here are all valid, depending on what one’s stance is.

At any rate, that’s basically it: we have our tools ready, we have ourselves prepared, we have the query stated, we compose the mirror, we investigate the mirror, and then we issue our judgment.  At this point, once the matter is decided from the Great Mirror, if there are any follow-up questions or requests for detailed information that was not or could not be provided from the Great Mirror, then (and only then) would other or smaller mirrors be used to determine the specifics of a particular situation.  Matters of time are the obvious choice here (“oh, I’ll get married? When?”), but matters of place, or the like are also totally acceptable things to investigate.  In a footnote regarding the use of smaller mirrors to determine details from the “First Supplement”, ZT gives a useful anecdote:

In a Great Mirror overloaded with misfortunes, which concerned the unfortunate royal family of France, the Redactor of these cabalistic notions at the end of 1792 came upon an episode of war, a chance of which threatened a certain absent branch made up of three male individuals, a grandfather and a father and a son. The general threat was of bodily injury, and a small triangle made it known that this accident would be suffered by the father. This unfortunate prediction, which the Diviner shared with his friends, unfortunately came true the following year.

In this case, we might see how a Great Mirror would suggest “bodily injury” (something like tile 77), and we might investigate whom in that group.  To that end, we could use the tile 77 with two other random tiles to compose a small triangle, where one tile would represent the son, one for the father, and one for the grandfather.  Using the usual option-whittling approach, we could then determine who would get the 77 tile.  (As a personal note, I’m not familiar enough with the history of the French Revolution or the French Bourbon monarchial family to determine what such an event as described in this footnote of ZT might actually refer to.  If anyone knows, please say so in the comments!)

Unfortunately, although ZT gives small examples of “certain wholly-mechanical processes” involving option-whittling methods and similar approaches to determining matters of details, it doesn’t actually give an notion of what a reading would look like as a whole.  If the Great Mirror is so important, then shouldn’t we have some sort of guide or illustrative example to help us out?  Of course not: ZT is “only a key, not a treatise”, so that would just be too much to ask for.  But that doesn’t mean there aren’t any case studies out there for us to look at, either, and we’ll take a look at just such a case study next time.


Hermeticism FAQ: Part IV, Practice

Continuing our Hermeticism FAQ series (see part I, part II, and part III here), let’s continue today with (the final) Part IV, on the various practices of Hermeticism!

What practices are part of Hermeticism?

Although the “philosophical Hermetica” are great for teaching doctrine, they offer very little in the way of actual practice, whether day-to-day routine practice or things for non-routine ritual.  However, we do know that prayer to God is something Hermēs Trismegistos encourages, especially at sunrise (preferably outdoors facing east) and at sunset (again preferably outdoors facing south), along with at nighttime immediately before going to bed.  Practices of purity and asceticism are also encouraged, both for their training of the body as well for the work of engaging divinity without being polluted by the passions of base matter.  In tandem with study of the discourses and other arts, frequent meditation should be engaged with, both for the purposes of delving deeper into the meanings of the teachings as well as to gain insight regarding one’s own nature and the nature of the cosmos generally.  For those who are building shrines for the gods, calling the gods down into statues for more immediate contact and worship of them is recommended, by the means of filling the statues with sacred substances, burning incense before them, bathing them in sacred liquids, and the singing of hymns to seat them in their terrestrial bodies; rather than just statues or other images, bodily possession by the gods may also be attempted.  When ready, works of spiritual elevation and divine ascent should be undertaken, which can be considered among the crowning acts (though far from a one-time effort) a Hermeticist should endeavor towards.  Besides these, many other practices as described in the “technical Hermetica” or which are borrowed from any number of other magical and spiritual traditions may also be incorporated.

Are there any particular gods I should worship?

The only divinity one is strictly required to worship and venerate in Hermeticism is God, and that in a way that is often distinct from other gods; rather than burning incense or making material sacrifices, the true worship of God consists of a sacrifice of speech and the singing of hymns in sacred silence, adoring the Creator by means of their Creation.  Beyond that, whatever other gods one worships (if one worships other gods at all) is entirely up to the student.  For those who are willing, Hermēs Trismegistos himself is an excellent candidate to receive worship for those who follow the Way of Hermēs, whether as a divinity in his own right or as a deified hero-prophet; the same goes for the students of Hermēs Trismegistos, like Asklēpios (the Egyptian Imhotep), Tat (another instance of Thōth), and Ammōn (the Egyptian Amun).  While Greek and Egyptian religion offers many such deities to worship, to say nothing of the many syncretic religious entities present in texts like the Greek Magical Papyri, there is no limit nor rule as to which gods one should worship, so long as one (also) worships God.

Did the classical Hermeticists practice magic, and should we continue to practice magic today?

Although the “philosophical Hermetica” is silent on the subject, and although Zosimus of Panopolis suggests that Hermēs Trismegistos disavowed magic, it is a fact that Hermeticism has long been associated with magical works of many types, and indeed, ancient Egyptian religion saw little distinction between religious works and magical works, to the point where the very concept of magic itself (Heka) in Egypt was venerated as a deity in its own right in addition to the view that the gods had such supernatural power at their disposal to accomplish all manner of works.  Magic is simply the operational use of subtle forces or spiritual entities in addition to or instead of physical or bodily ones to achieve particular ends, and as such, the study of such forces and entities is part and parcel of the study of the cosmos as much as the study of any material or physical force or entity.  This being the case, classical Hermeticists (along with Egyptian priests themselves, and in company with many other wandering magicians of the day) certainly practiced magic, as this was a valid way to engage with the various powers of the cosmos, and thus we are both enabled and encouraged to today.  Of course, such works should be held to a high moral and ethical standard—but so should any other work, whether or not it can be considered “magical”.

What about astrology or alchemy?

These two arts have long been held to be Hermetic, and there’s good reason for saying so; even in the core classical Hermetic texts themselves, there is much astrological symbolism and even directives to engage in the study and practice of astrology to better understand the nature of the cosmos and of divinity.  Alchemy is somewhat more complicated of a subject, becoming more popular and well-studied in the late classical and post-classical periods, but is also tied to Hermetic practices of the creation of medicine, ink, oils, and talismans.  Different texts from different time periods will focus on these arts to various degrees, but they are certainly important for the practical side of Hermeticism, and those who are interested in Hermeticism are encouraged to study and engage with them.  Remember that the study of astrology is what helps us understand more about the processes of Fate; if astrology is the “as above”, then alchemy provides the “so below”, since it helps us understand the processes of change in the cosmos, learning how the activities and energies of the cosmos play out at a low level.  The power and potentiality of Fate can be learned through astrology, and the activity and actuality of Fate can be learned through alchemy.  Even if neither are strictly required, by learning both, one has a strong footing to engage in the work of theurgy.

What about theurgy?

Theurgy (from Greek theourgia, “divine work” or “god-work”) is the ritual mystical practice of participating in the presence of the divine, whether individual gods or God itself.  On the one hand, this can be considered the work of lifting oneself up to the level of the gods through spiritual elevation and divine ascent; on the other, it can also be considered the work of bringing the gods down to our level, either by having them inhabit sacred statues or other idols or by possessing their devotees for the gods to perform work down in our world.  In either case, the ultimate goal of theurgy is to unite ourselves with the divine, fulfilled through rites of purification of the body and soul along with communion with the gods.  It should be noted that this is not a kind of “coercion of the gods” where the gods are “forced” down (as if such a thing were possible in Hermetic terms), nor is it the case that we “trap” the gods in statues for our own bidding.  This is an act of communion, such as inviting someone to live in your home and share your table, and similar acts can be seen in the tradition of “living statues” of Hinduism and in many other pagan traditions across the world.  In a smaller sense, although not always done with theurgical goals in mind, the work of ensoulment and enlivening images can also be seen in the consecration of talismans, where one “brings to life” a particular object for it to confer some benefit, either by having a “shard” of the power of some force (like a planet) empower an object or by having a spirit come to inhabit the object.

What about thaumaturgy, and how is it different from theurgy?

Thaumaturgy (from Greek thaumatourgia “wonder-working”) is a way to describe magic in general, especially magic that is intended to create change or other paranormal phenomena in our world.  In other words, thaumaturgy is another word for most magic most people do and have done the whole world over since time immemorial.  Although some people consider theurgy to be “high magic” and thaumaturgy to be “low magic”, it should be noted that the difference between theurgy and thaumaturgy consists primarily in ends or goals, not in the means or methods; the same method one might use to raise a shade of the dead to learn where buried treasure lies may well be the same method one calls upon the presence of a god to bask in their glory in unity with them.

Are initiations involved or required in practicing Hermeticism?

“Initiation” in its literal sense indicates the beginning of something new, but in a religious context, it refers to the formal induction into a mystery, something secret that bestows some sacred or mystical power, license, experience, or knowledge, generally one protected as secret by a group dedicated to that mystery.  Importantly, an initiation is conferred upon an initiate by someone who is already initiated; it is something given, not merely taken.  In that light, although individual groups that profess Hermeticism may have their own mysteries may require initiations to access such mysteries, Hermeticism as a whole does not require them, and the very notion seems to be unknown according to the Hermetic texts.  That beings said, there are mysteries in Hermeticism, and are described as such in terms of being acts of spiritual elevation or divine ascent in order to behold divine visions.  Engaging in this work may be considered an initiation of sorts, whether or not there is one there to guide a student in such an endeavor.  It is perhaps better to consider this an initiation only when one who has already undertaken such a feat guides another in undertaking that same feat; beyond that, when one undertakes it on their own without such guidance, it might better be said to not be an initiation in the technical sense, even if it does acquaint one with a mystery of the Divine apart and away from any such group.  It’s a complicated topic to discuss, but suffice it here to say that there are often initiatory experiences involved in the higher works one undertakes in Hermeticism, whether or not one is initiated into a group by other human beings.

Is divination okay in Hermeticism?

Absolutely!  Divination is more than just “telling the future”, although it also does that, too; it is the act of approaching the gods to come to know them and what they have to say.  Not only does this fall in line with ancient practices that span the entire world, upholding old traditions of the oracles of the many gods, but it also is explicitly justified in the Hermetic texts as something legitimate we can do, so that we can know what has been, what is, and what will be.  Plus, so many forms of divination have been assigned to Hermēs Trismegistos, or even just Hermēs in the purely Greek sense, not least of which is astrology, that it’s hard to not separate out the work and study of divination from Hermeticism.

Do I need to be a vegetarian or vegan to be a Hermeticist?

At the end of the Perfect Sermon, there is a direction given by Hermēs Trismegistos to his students where they are to eat a “meal that includes no living thing” or “holy food which has no blood in it” following a prayer of thanksgiving to God.  Some interpet that this is an injunction for students of Hermēs Trismegistos to be vegetarian (or even vegan) in general, while others hold to a more limited opinion that only certain ritual meals need to be vegetarian.  It’s a good question, but there’s no one right answer.  It is known that those initiated into the Orphic and Pythagorean mystery cults were famously vegetarian as a constant ascetic practice (and also excluded certain kinds of beans due to their textural similarity to flesh), and it is also known that Egyptian priestly purity practices involved many abstinences from any number of animal products, both the eating of meat and otherwise (like the wearing of wool).  For our purposes today, while maintaining a vegetarian (or vegan, if one so chooses) diet is an excellent ascetic choice one can make, it can be agreed upon as important to abstain from consuming animal products prior to engaging in ritual and to only consume vegetarian (or vegan) food as part of ritual where ritual meals are called for, regardless whether sacrifices to the gods or spirits require meat or other animal products.

What about qabbala/kabbalah/cabala?

This term (all really the same word, just different transliterations from the Hebrew) refers to the overall mystical tradition of Judaism, which builds upon earlier Jewish traditions of hekaloth literature and merkaba mysticism along with Bablyonian and Hellenistic influence.  Although its origins ultimately lie in much earlier Jewish practices, qabbala as its own discipline only arose in the medieval period around 1200 CE.  Due to the complicated and messy history of Judaism in Europe, qabbala became integrated with non-Jewish systems of magic and mysticism, and earned central importance to magical systems like those of the Golden Dawn and Thelema.  While the study of qabbala, in its various forms and approaches, may be useful to some modern Hermeticists of various styles, it is not in and of itself Hermetic in the same sense that the Corpus Hermeticum is Hermetic, though due to the Neoplatonic and broadly Hellenistic influences upon the development of qabbala, it may be integrated with Hermetic practices.

Can I incorporate modern or non-Hermetic practices into Hermeticism?

By all means, feel free!  Considering the difficulty we have in reconstructing the practices of classical Hermeticists, to say nothing of the variety between their practices as well as the practices of various Hermeticists throughout the past 2000 years, there is plenty that can be done by us today in service to the Way of Hermēs. Just bear in mind that just because you might use a practice within a Hermetic context does not automatically make it “Hermetic”, and it is also worthy to remember the context in which such a practice arose and what its design and purpose is for.  Some things can be adapted or adopted for Hermetic ends quite neatly and nicely, other things less so, and some practices are best kept separate from Hermeticism entirely depending on their nature and purpose.

What about Franz Bardon and self-initiation into Hermeticism?

Bardon was a fantastic modern 20th century occultist from what is now the Czech Republic, whose works like Initiation Into Hermetics, The Practice of Magical Evocation, and The Key to the True Kabbalah are well-regarded to this day.  However, despite the name, Initiation Into Hermetics has little to do with Hermeticism proper; despite the frequent discussion of things he calls “hermetic”, he only ever cites Hermēs Trismegistos once, and that’s for his usual “as above, so below” bit from the Emerald Tablet.  By and large, what Bardon calls “Hermetics” is roughly what people think of today as “ceremonial magic”, the usual mixture of post-Renaissance magical theory, Solomonic goetic approaches to spirit interaction, European developments of kabbalah, and importations of Eastern/Orientalizing notions of energy/energy work/energy systems.  In many ways, Bardon’s approach can be considered a parallel development of the same modern European tradition of magic that gave rise to the Golden Dawn.  As such, it can certainly be adapted and adopted within a properly Hermetic context, should the student of Bardon so choose.

Will Hermeticism make me powerful, give me spells to get laid, etc.?

Sigh.  Technically yes, and I won’t deny that a fundamental drive for magic is the drive to get laid and get paid, but we’re also here to recognize that there’s more to life than just power, sex, money, and the like.  There’s magic, and then there’s magic for Hermetic ends, and while the same spell can be used for a Hermetic end as well as a non-Hermetic end, there’s a reason greed and lust are outlined as “irrational torments of matter” that we’re meant to purge ourselves from.  Let’s try to be a little more mature in the future, yes?