On Variations From and In Grimoires

A good question from an inquiring reader:

I’m just confused about something I see many occultists do, and that is simply this: deviating from the instructions given in the grimoires. In your wand-making posts, for example, you make substitutions, additions, and combine aspects from multiple sources, and you are not the only one who does this. But this is super confusing to me since the grimoires are all like, “this is the true wisdom of true divinity, so you’d better follow every rule to the letter or oooh there’ll be trouble!”  So how is it possible to deviate from the instructions and still work effective operations?

It’s certainly an interesting question to ask, and a good one, too.

Consider the origin of the word “grimoire”, in that it comes from the same word we have as “grammar”.  For us, grammar (without the article) is the set of rules we use to compose clauses, phrases, words, sentences, and the like to communicate with other people using language; a grammar (with the article) refers to a book that describes and lays out such rules.  If you were to learn Japanese from a Japanese grammar book, it would tell you how to properly and correctly conjugate verbs and adjectives, where to use the subject and topic particles, and the like.  It would also indicate to you what would be incorrect language, with the warning that you will not be understood properly if you use it.  All grammar books tend to work in similar ways to this: use these rules properly as laid out and you’ll be understood, don’t and you won’t.

But the thing is, people break those rules all the time, and they’re understood all the same.  Whether they use a non-standard dialect compared to the “standard” language of the grammar, whether they’re breaking rules ironically (e.g. “cat no like banana” or “I accidentally the thing”), or whether they’re using poetry that intentionally breaks some rules to maintain senses of beauty or aesthetics—the proper rules of grammar are broken all the time, and we still manage to understand people who do so.  Sometimes it’s an honest error, like when a native Chinese speaker gets the English pronouns “he” and “she” mixed up (because they don’t historically have a gender distinction for the third person singular pronoun 他 ); sometimes it’s because people have just adapted how they talk and have formed a “new standard” for themselves even if it’s not “book standard” according to this or that grammar.  This is the danger with linguistic or grammatical texts, and why there’s a distinction between “prescriptive” linguistics (which describe language as it “ought to” or “should” be spoken from a top-down authority) and “descriptive” linguistics (which describe language how it’s actually spoken in real life from the bottom up).

It’s much the same with many grimoires and magical texts.  What distinguishes a grimoire from a spellbook or Book of Shadows is that a grimoire doesn’t just provide a collection of spells, but a method and methodology—a “grammar”, if you will—of ritual and magic.  And grimoires, like grammars, can be traced and investigated to ascertain their origins and development across and through time, culture, and language; we know for a fact that no one grimoire just appeared out of thin air, but comes in a long line of spiritual research and development, and even if it’s an original text (rare, but it happens!), we can still trace its context for clues about what information fed into it.  For instance, the Heptameron of Pietro d’Abano and the planetary invocations from the Munich Manual both share a common origin, as does the Elucidarius Magicae, and all of these texts are based on other texts in the Solomonic grimoiric textual tradition, some of which can be traced back to earlier Arabic magical texts like the Shams al-Ma`arif.  When we take a broader look at these grimoires in their histories and lineages, we definitely see changes, developments, innovations, and departure from earlier texts all the time; sometimes it’s because a new author-operant of a grimoire found an improvement or simplification to make, sometimes they made a copyist’s error, sometimes they tried to “aesthetically fix” an ugly or messy symbol they found which causes changes in the shapes or appearances of seals and sigils and the like (cf. the pre- and post-Mathers versions of the seals of the 72 demons of the Lemegeton Goetia).

If anyone told me that they had the one and true wisdom and method of magic and that any deviation from it whatsoever would land me in trouble, I’d laugh in their face; that’s obviously just not factual.  But what these grimoires give us (in all their variation) as a whole isn’t just the notion that there’s more than one right way to do, write, or chant something; they each give us a baseline of operations.  One of the reasons I encourage people who are looking or consulting a grimoire for something to work with one specific grimoire to the letter, at least at first, is because it gives them something to establish themselves with.  Either they get results with it and they know what can happen when they follow the text, or they don’t get anything and either need to check themselves for departures from it or find out that maybe that method just isn’t for them.  But getting this sort of baseline is important for when you do need to change things or extrapolate from the grimoire to do something new using old methods; after all, the fundamental idea of a grammar isn’t to tell you every possible correct sentence, but how to form correct sentences.  Just so does a grimoire not tell you all that can be done, but shows you how to do all things by using its own “grammar” of magic and extending it as necessary.  And, when you want to innovate, improve, simplify, adapt, or otherwise depart from the grimoire for whatever reason or need that arises, you know what you can compare against as a baseline because you’ve already done what the grimoire says, and can extrapolate from the grimoire from there.  Remember that these grimoires were written by people who lived and breathed that magic in them; they know it works, because that’s what they’ve done and recorded as what works.  This is the reason behind the “this is the true wisdom of true divinity”, because it’s gotten them there—it’s just that that’s their truth, and there’s usually more than one way to be true.

It is possible, of course, that deviation from the rules can (and does) land you in trouble; to use a food-based metaphor, there is no safe way to incorporate arsenic as an ingredient into a meal, even if you’d like for that meal to be colored a brilliant green, and there’s no way to use food to perform physical equations in the same way as you would with pen and paper.  But if a recipe calls for buttermilk and all you have is Greek yoghurt, you can substitute one for the other and still come out with a great dish, and the recipe will still work.  Sometimes it works because the thing you’re substituting and the thing you substituted are similar enough where you got your point across, or where they’re functionally and spiritually identical and it’d work either way; sometimes it works because you have no other choice but to make it work, because perhaps the original thing called for is unavailable or otherwise impossible to get or do anymore; sometimes it works because you make systemic changes that overall achieve the same goal by compensating in one area what you lacked or goofed on in another.  What the grimoires often show is an ideal, perfect method of doing something, but the world we live in is hardly ever ideal; we do what we can to make things as ideal as possible, and what we can’t, we make up for in substituting, rearranging, or otherwise putting in elbow grease to make it work the rest of the way.  An engineering textbook can give you the principles of building a bridge, and even show how to build a bridge under ideal conditions, but where on Earth is there a place where those ideal conditions actually exist?  Living engineers using real engineering must make concessions to reality and work around things that aren’t ideal in order to make a safe and sturdy bridge that fulfills its travel throughput needs—but using the principles of engineering in that textbook, and following whatever governmental, market-based, and other regulations and restrictions they need to along the way (which the engineering textbook itself may not take into account).

For my part, with my Wand of Art, it’s not so much that I was deviating from a grimoire I was working, since I wasn’t really working from any one grimoire—at least, not intentionally so.  But I was taking inspiration from and adapting several sources at once for an all-around all-purpose sort of tool that covers different aspects of wands from several grimoires.  For that reason, I wasn’t so much “deviating from the instructions” as I was making new instructions entirely, just based on old ones.  Besides, many of the grimoires offer designs and instructions not just as an ideal case, but also sometimes as a minimum requirements standard: so long as you do X, Y, and Z, it doesn’t matter what else you do, whether A, B, or Θ, even if you happen to mix the two.  In this case, I read the grimoires in question as giving a minimum set of requirements for my wand to fulfill, and as such, I’m able to work with both.  There’s also the matter of interpretation, such as by using Hebrew names of God instead of Latin ones, but since they’re effectively the same thing one way or another, it’s a clean substitution in many ways.

This is probably a bit longer of an answer than they (or you, dear reader) were anticipating, so to offer a summary: it’s possible to deviate from the instructions and still work operations because the instructions themselves are only an example of ideal situations and case-studies, and the fundamental method and methodology of a grimoire allows for making whatever improvements, adjustments, or fixes along the way to account for real-world scenarios—but no more than what’s necessary.  Even then, each grimoire is just a snapshot of a particular book-based magical tradition and lineage, and each snapshot we can get shows how varied the real-time, real and living magical tradition can be.  There is never “one true way”, but many ways to truth; it’s just up to us to find them and follow them, and sometimes we can take a detour along the way that ends up being better for us but not for others.

49 Days of Definitions: Review

This post is the final recap of the series “49 Days of Definitions” that discussed and explained some of my thoughts on a set of aphorisms explaining crucial parts of Hermetic philosophy.  These aphorisms, collectively titled the “Definitions from Hermes Trismegistus to Asclepius:, lay out the basics of Hermetic philosophy, the place of Man in the Cosmos, and all that stuff.  It’s one of the first texts I studied as a Hermetic magician, and definitely what I would consider to be a foundational text.  The Definitions consist of 49 short aphorisms broken down into ten sets, each of which is packed with knowledge both subtle and obvious, and each of which can be explained or expounded upon.  I sought to afford people some food for thought with my meditations on each aphorism in a series of blog posts, one aphorism per day, and while I know I didn’t plumb the entire depths of each one, I also didn’t try to do that.  Still, it was a blast to write, and I hope it helps in explaining some of the philosophy involved when dealing with Hermetic work.

For convenience, here are links to the posts for each aphorism, along with a very brief summary of each section:

  1. Part I: one, two, three, four, five
    The three worlds of creation: God, the world, and Man.
  2. Part II: one, two, three, four, five, six
    The elements of the world and light which enables the world to be known.
  3. Part III: one, two, three, four
    The ubiquity of God, the place of Man in the world, and of the world in God.
  4. Part IV: one, two
    The different types of living beings and what they’re composed of.
  5. Part V: one, two, three
    Nous and Logos, God and reasonable speech.
  6. Part VI: one, two, three
    The development towards perfection of the soul of Man in the body of humans.
  7. Part VII: one, two, three, four, five
    The immortality of Man afforded by God, and the mortality of humans mandated by the world.
  8. Part VIII: one, two, three, four, five, six, seven
    Knowledge or ignorance of God/world/Man/self, and the power of Man as God.
  9. Part IX: one, two, three, four, five, six, seven
    The place of Man in the cosmos, the nature of the soul in Man, what perfect knowledge is.
  10. Part X: one, two, three, four, five, six, seven
    The natures and realization of good and evil, how the parts of the world work together.

So, what are some of the takeaways from the Definitions?

  • God is both the end result of spiritual development and the ultimate source of all things that exist, don’t exist, might exist, etc.  Everything else that exists does so within God as part of God.  There is nothing that is not within God.  God is greater than anything conceivable, and is exemplified by and is knowledge.  God is intelligible, able to be known, by those who are able to understand the intelligible.
  • The material world is a part of God, but also hides God from those within, since the world is sensible, able to be directly perceived according to material senses, but things that are intelligible are invisible and unsensable within the world.  The material world is populated with bodies, composed of matter, and different bodies have different components of elements as well as of living essences: souls, spirits, and minds.
  • We as humans are composed of different parts: a material body that dies, an immortal soul that moves the body, spirit that performs the movement within the body according to soul, and mind which is our connection to God.  We contain the nature of all things of the sensible and intelligible worlds, and rule over the sensible world as God rules over the entirety of creation.  No other creature has this distinction, since only human beings are given a special connection to God through our souls.  We are both of the sensible world and of intelligible God, God made us in its image, and God loves us and we love God as spouses or children of each other.
  • The way to salvation (immortality, freedom from death, freedom from evil) is knowledge.  Knowledge of the self is the same as knowledge of creation which is the same as knowledge of God.  Knowledge is possible due to the presence of Nous/divine Mind within our human souls and the ability to use Logos/reasonable speech.  Perfection of the soul is knowledge obtained by attaining Nous itself, joining ourselves with God in the process, and in the process we obtain the power to help others free themselves from suffering, ignorance, and evil.
  • The way to obtain knowledge is through silent contemplation, the use of pure Logos without need to further anything of this world.  Logos is the servant of the Nous, pure Reason working for and under pure Mind, and through reasonable thoughts, meditation, speech, and action can we obtain knowledge.  This must be aimed toward divinity, however, and all actions as well; the use of speech or action to further worldly, animal, or material goals does not fulfill this.  Much as one should treat the body well so much as only to keep the soul on its way to perfection, so should all actions in this world be done with an eye on the goal of divinity.

Despite the area covered by these definitions, there are some questions leftover that I’m sure are ringing in the minds of my readers; there are some I have, as well.  Some of the questions that are left unanswered wholly or in part by the Definitions that I came up with, details and minor things as they might be:

  • The many gods that exist are not God, this much is clear; I never claimed to think otherwise, since God and gods operate and exist on two wholly different levels.  That said, there are experiences of people who encounter gods made flesh, though the Definitions preclude such a thing, relegating the gods to the heavens and out of earthy existence.  What of the many myths, stories, and experiences of those who experience gods made men, not God made Man?  What about the underworld gods that are immortal?
  • Is it possible to reconcile worship of God with that of other gods, even if we recognize the difference in nature between the two?  What is the proper method of worship to God, when God is without attributes and is divinely simple and without comparison?
  • The Gnostic/Neoplatonic aspects of the text make the material world we live in to be evil, with the immortal and eternal intelligible world beyond good.  Why is this the case?  It makes sense that denying the soul is bad for it, but why should all material actions done for material purposes and aims automatically neglect the soul?  Is it impossible for a combination of Nous, soul, and immortality to exist from the outset?
  • God made the world for Man; everything exists within and for Man.  Without Man, the world may as well not exist, and likely wouldn’t.  So why did God make Man?  Why is Man desirable and loved by God, and vice versa?  What’s the whole point, and why should we have to strive for Nous in the first place?  Why does Man have to be mortal to strive for immortality?
  • What exactly does it mean that we are made in the species of Man after God?  I’ve been using the phrase “Man is made in the image of God” from the Bible, but what does that entail?  Is it physical form?  Is it our ability for Nous?  What is the nature of an essence, idea, or species that makes us so different from other creatures?
  • God is said to have conceived Logos in silence, and that we should do the same.  But what is silence?  Is it meditation and contemplation of reason, direct use of Logos without speech?
  • Because of our connection to Nous and God, we have as much power as the gods.  What is this power, exactly?  Just the choice of choosing knowledge or ignorance according to our soul-based passions?  What does it mean that we can become gods in our own right?  Gods as in the Olympians, gods as in heroes, gods as in planets or stars, gods as in God?  Or just immortal, pure Man?
  • The text hints at but never directly states that the soul may require multiple iterations of lives in order to be perfected, i.e. the soul may undergo reincarnation or transmigration.  What is the nature of death and birth, and how do souls go between one or the other?  What happens to a soul that is not yet perfect when the body dies?  What about humans who are born without soul-Nous/the Nous-based connection to God?  What about humans who are unable to use Logos/reasonable speech?
  • What about the spiritual lives, if any, of animals or the gods themselves?  These beings have soul, but lack Nous.  Is there a possibility for them to understand God and the cosmos as well?  Does reincarnation have any role to play in this, or transmigration of the soul?  What about plants or stones?  Many magicians work with the spirits or genii of individual places or bodies that are said to lack souls and Nous or even spirit, so how are they taken into account?

Alright!  That’s it for this blog project.  I really thank you guys for sticking through with me through this phase of philosophy, and I hope you got as much out of it as I did.  I had read the Definitions before, but I was honestly surprised at how much I got out of it this time by going through each with analysis and writing my thoughts down.  The past seven weeks really helped me put myself on a more solid Hermetic footing in my work, and I hope all you guys who stuck around got something out of this as well.  If you have any questions, feel free to post in the comments and help polish and refine some of my analyses further.  While the Definitions lay out the basics of Hermetic philosophy, there’s a lot that was left unsaid or unclear.  That’s kind of the point of any introductory text, of course, since it serves as an introduction, so I hope you’ll investigate more of this with me, with friends, or on your own and dig deeper into the philosophy and worldview of Hermes Trismegistus.

The past 49 days have been full of writing, and would you look at that, it’s suddenly the end of 2013!  I hope you guys had a fantastic winter solstice, however you may have spent it, and I hope you have an even better New Year and start to 2014!  Now let’s stop talking about spirits of God and soul and let’s start talking about the spirits we’ll be drinking and enjoying tonight.  Happy New Year, my fellow amblers and dear readers!  You guys made this a truly awesome year, and I look forward to what next year will bring to all of us.

Open Thread on Geomancy, so ask away!

I know a lot about geomancy.  Not a lot of people do, though that’s very slowly changing.  Just as an experiment in reader involvement with my blog, let’s try something new: ask me questions on geomancy, right down in the comments!  I’ll reply as best I can, given the comment space, but let’s see what questions you all may have.

Just a few things before we begin:

  • If you’re curious about the symbols of geomancy, you might do well to look up my posts from the De Geomanteia series I did a while back.  Try reading those and see if those answer your question.
  • This is not a place to ask me for readings; if you want one of those, you can always hire me as a reader through my Services page.
  • This is specifically for divinatory geomancy as practiced in Europe, Africa, and the Middle East.  This is not for the I Ching, feng shui, or Final Fantasy-esque earth-shaking magickqsz.  I’m barely familiar with ifa, so try to steer questions away from that.
  • Please don’t ask for full chart interpretations here. General questions about technique and symbolism are awesome, but giving me a full chart and asking me to interpret it for a particular question isn’t.

And with that, have at!  I’ll stop replying to questions one week from today, so get your questions in soon and I’ll answer them as they come in.

Questions from Me to You, Dear Reader

Being an active blogger, apparently, and who gets a decent amount of daily traffic (who recently passed the 100K hit count, thank you guys so much!), I like to amuse and confuse myself at what you guys actually like to read here.  I mean, seeing how I blog on everything from orgone technology to angelic conjurations and religious politics, I’ve got a fair bit of knowledge built up and a good number of posts to help share it.  Still, every so often I wonder why people read my blog, and what they might be interested in reading.  After all, feedback is one way to fine-tune writing, and you, dearest readers, are just the ones to give it!  So, here are a few questions for you to consider and answer down in the comments below:

  1. What drew you to my blog in the first place?  How’d you hear about it, and how do you tend to read it (RSS feed, WordPress Reader, links from Twitter or Facebook, etc.)?  Do you ever bother to check out the comments on the posts?  Do you ever bother to comment on the posts?
  2. I’ve made a fair number of designs for Tables of Practices, talismans, lamens, and the like.  Have you found any of them to be useful in your own work?  Have you made anything incorporating or based off of the designs you’ve found here?  Are there any designs in particular you’d like to see me create, improve, or focus on in the future?  Are there any seals, images, sigils, or pictures from magical texts you’d like to see me redraw or remake for a new age?
  3. I really enjoyed doing my series of posts on geomancy, De Geomanteia, since it’s a large topic that I know a lot about and enjoy talking about.  Are there any other series you’d like me to consider doing in the future?  Any other large topics you’d like me to delve into more thoroughly, both for my benefit and yours?  What would you like me to talk about, generally and specifically?  One series I thought about doing would be a modern reinterpretation of images of the Zodiac (e.g. Virgo as the Robot Bitch, Aquarius as the Internet-Addicted Jihadi, etc.); would you all be interested in things like this?
  4. One of the most-viewed pages on my blog is my post on the shorthand I developed for personal use.  I never expected this to be so popular a thing, but I guess a lot more people are interested in stenography than occultism.  Do any of you actually use this shorthand?  If so, have you used it for sigilization, simple writing, calligraphy, or just as an exercise in bored creativity?  Are there any other posts you come here specifically to reference (the page on Planetary Conjurations from the Munich Manual is another popular one)?
  5. I hear tell that a lot of people are impressed with the vast knowledge and intellect I display here on my blog (I disagree with the qualifications and adjectives used), but some readers have expressed interest in simpler, introductory-level posts every so often for the beginner or less bored.  What kinds of introductions, 100-style topics would you like to see me discuss?  Or would you rather me stick to the higher-level, philosophical stuff?  Would you rather me put things in terms of theory and back-end occult mechanics, or actual ritual and real-world experiences, or some mix of the two?
  6. Are there any other blogs you know of similar to this one as far as topics, philosophy, magic, and the like go that you’d suggest (and aren’t already in the blogroll to the right)?  I’m always on the lookout to expand my blogosphere and knowledge by observing the work of others who actually do the Work.
  7. What are some of your interests in the occult?  Are you more into hearth- or kitchen-witchery?  Do you dig Western ceremonial, grimoire, or Solomonic magic?  Are you more of an energy worker, orgone/radionics/reiki channeler, or a psionics practitioner?  Do you read for the philosophy or the practice?  Are you here just for the lulz and passing interests, or are you here to start yourself off on your own path?  Do you have a label for yourself, or do you describe yourself by what you do?  Do you have a specific culture or racial heritage you tie yourself and your work to?
  8. I live, work, and Work in the Washington, DC area of the US, and do readings and offer classes at Sticks and Stones in Fairfax, VA.  Are any of my readers close enough to get a small get-together going for magicians and occultists?  If I were to offer classes at Sticks and Stones with a focus on Hermetic magic and the like, what would you like to see me teach, if you could come by?

If you read my blog regularly, or even if this is your first time browsing around, feel free to leave a bit of feedback in the comments below.  Help me make my blog more awesome, and everyone’ll benefit.  I don’t have much to entice you with to make you comment, but I can give you a hug through the ether if that’s okay.  This isn’t to change the focus or scope of the blog (it is still my blog, after all), but knowing what some of my readers think can help me get more ideas myself.