On the Structure and Operations of the Geomantic Figures

When I did my recent site redesign and added all those new pages on prayers, rituals, and whatnot, I also consolidated a few pages into ones that fit neatly together, and got rid of a few entirely that didn’t need to be on here anymore.  There weren’t many of those, to be fair, but the main casualties of that effort were my handful of pages on geomancy.  While it may seem odd that I, of all people, would take down pages on the art I love so much, it was partially because I’m continuing to prepare for my book and wanted to rewrite and incorporate the information of those pages in a better way than what was presented there, and partially because the idea for those pages has long since turned stale; I was going to have an entire online “book” of sorts, but I figure that I’ve written enough about geomancy on my blog that it’s probably easier to just browse through the geomancy category and read.  So, if you end up finding a broken link (which I do my utmost to keep from happening), chances are you’re seeing a relic of an earlier age on this blog that connected to those pages.  After all, even though I’d like to keep my blog in perfect running order, I’m also not gonna scroll through 600-odd posts and comb through each and every link.

One of the things that those lost geomancy pages discussed was the mathematical operations of the figures.  I’ve talked about the mathematics behind the Judge and the Shield Chart before, as well as the Parts of Fortune and Spirit, and I’ve discussed a sort of “rotary function” that rotates the elemental rows up and down through the figures before, but there are three big mathematical operations one can do on the figures themselves that reveal certain relationships between them.  I mention them on my De Geomanteia posts of the figures themselves, though now that the original page that describes them is down, I suppose a new post on what they are is in order, if only to keep the information active, especially since every now and then someone will come asking about them.  This is important, after all, because this information is definitely out there, but it’s also largely a result of my own categorization; I haven’t seen anyone in the Western literature, modern or ancient, online or offline, talk about the mathematical relationships or “operations” between the figures in the way I have, nor have I seen anyone talk about one of the operations entirely, so this post is to clear up those terms and what they signify.

First, let me talk about something tangentially related that will help with some of the operation discussion below.  As many students of geomancy are already aware, a common way to understand the figures is in terms of their motion, which is to say, whether a figure is stable or mobile.  Structurally speaking, stable figures are those that have more points in the Fire and Air rows than in the Water and Earth rows (e.g. Albus), and mobile figures are those that have more points in the Water and Earth rows than in the Fire and Air rows (e.g. Puer).  In the cases where the top two rows have the same number of points as the bottom two rows (e.g. Amissio or Populus), the figures are “assigned” a motion based on their general effects.

  • Stable figures: Populus, Carcer, Albus, Puella, Fortuna Maior, Acquisitio, Tristitia, Caput Draconis
  • Mobile figures: Via, Coniunctio, Rubeus, Puer, Fortuna Minor, Amissio, Laetitia, Cauda Draconis

Stable figures are generally seen as graphically looking like they’re “sitting upright” when viewed from the perspective of the reader, while mobile figures are considered “upside down” or “unbalanced” when read the same way.  In a similar sense, stable figures generally have effects that are slow to arise and long to last, while mobile figures are just the opposite, where they’re quick to happen and quick to dissipate.  Consider mobile Laetitia: a figure of optimism, elevation, hope, and bright-burning joy, but it’s easy to lose and hard to maintain.  This can be contrasted with, for instance, stable Tristitia: a figure of slow-moving depression, getting stuck in a rut, languishing, and losing hope.

The idea of motion, I believe, is a simplification of an older system of directionality, where instead of there being two categories of figures, there are three: entering, exiting, and liminal.  All entering figures are stable, all exiting figures are mobile, and the liminal figures are considered in-between:

  • Entering figures: Albus, Puella, Fortuna Maior, Acquisitio, Tristitia, Caput Draconis
  • Exiting figures: Rubeus, Puer, Fortuna Minor, Amissio, Laetitia, Cauda Draconis
  • Liminal figures: Populus, Via, Carcer, Coniunctio

In this system, entering figures are seen as “bringing things to” the reader or reading, and exiting figures “take things away from” the reader or reading, while liminal figures could go either way or do nothing at all, depending on the situation and context in which they appear.  For instance, consider Acquisitio, the quintessential entering figure, which brings things for the gain of the querent, while exiting Amissio is the opposite figure of loss, taking things away, and all the while liminal Populus is just…there, neither bringing nor taking, gaining nor losing.

The liminal figures also serve another purpose: they are also sometimes called “axial” figures, because by taking the upper or lower halves of two axial figures, you can form any other figure.  For instance, the upper half of Populus combined with the lower half of Via gets you Fortuna Maior, the upper half of Coniunctio with the lower half of Carcer gets you Acquisitio, and so forth.  This way of understanding the figures as being composed of half-figures is the fundamental organization of Arabic-style geomantic dice:

Entering figures, like stable figures, look like they’re “coming towards” the reader, while exiting figures look like they’re “going away” from the reader, much like mobile figures.  The reason why the liminal figures (“liminal” meaning “at the threshold”) are considered in-between is that they look the same from either direction, and are either going both ways at once or going in no direction at all.  Populus and Carcer went from liminal to stable due to their long-lasting effects of stagnation or being locked into something, while Via and Coniunctio went from liminal to mobile for their indications of change, movement, and freedom.

Alright!  With the basic structural talk out of the way, let’s talk about operations.  In essence, I claim that there are three primary operations one can do on a figure to obtain another figure, which may or may not be the same as the original figure.  These are:

  • Inversion: replace the odd points with even points, and even points with odd points.  For instance, inverting Puer gets you Albus.
  • Reversion: flip the figure vertically.  For instance, inverting Puer gets you Puella.
  • Conversion: invert then revert the figure, or revert and invert the figure.  For instance, converting Puer gets you Rubeus (Puer →Albus → Rubeus to go the invert-then-revert route, or Puer → Puella → Rubeus to go the revert-then-invert route).

In my De Geomanteia posts, I briefly described what the operations do:

  • Inversion: everything a figure is not on an external level
  • Reversion: the same qualities of a figure taken to its opposite, internal extreme
  • Conversion: the same qualities of a figure expressed in a similar manner

And in this post on a proposed new form of Shield Cart company based on these operations, I described these relationships in a slightly more expanded way:

  • Inversion: The two figures fulfill each other’s deficit of power or means, yet mesh together to form one complete and total force that will conquer and achieve everything that alone they could not.
  • Reversion: The two figures are approaching the same matter from different directions and have different results in mind, looking for their own ends, but find a common thing to strive for and will each benefit from the whole.
  • Conversion: The two figures are similar enough to act along the same lines of power and types of action, but express it in completely different ways from the outside.  Internally, the action and thoughts are the same, but externally, they are distinct.  Think bizarro-world reflections of each other.

These trite descriptions are a little unclear and, now that several years have passed, I realize that they’re probably badly phrased, so it’s worth it to review what these relationships are and how they tie into other conceptions of figure relationships.  After all, inversion and reversion both deal with the notion of something being a figure’s opposite, but we often end up with two separate “opposites”, which can be confusing; and, further, if you take the opposite of an opposite, you get something similar but not quite the same (inversion followed by reversion, or vice versa, gets you conversion).

To my mind, inversion is the most outstanding of the operations, not because it’s any more important than the others, but because it’s so radical and fundamental a change from one figure to the other.  To invert a figure, simply swap the points with their opposites: turn the odd points even and the even points odd.  You could say that you’re turning a figure into its negative, I suppose, like flipping the signs, levels of activity, or polarity of each individual element.  Most notably, the process of inversion is the only one that we can perform through simple geomantic addition of one figure with another; to invert a figure, simply add Via to it, and the result will be that figure’s inversion.  Because inversion is simply “just add Via”, this is probably the easiest to understand: inverting a figure results in a new figure that is everything the original figure isn’t.  We turn active elements passive and passive elements active, male into female and female into male, light into dark and dark into light.  What one has, the other lacks; what one forgets, the other remembers.

So much for inversion.  Reversion is as simple as inversion, but there’s no “just add this figure” to result in it; it’s a strictly structural transformation of one figure based on that figure’s rows.  To be specific and clear about it, to revert a figure, you swap the Fire and Earth lines, as well as the Air and Water lines; in effect, you’re turning the figure upside down, so that e.g. Albus becomes Rubeus or Caput Draconis becomes Cauda Draconis.  Note that unlike inversion where the invert of one figure is always going to be another distinct figure, there are some figures where the reversion is the same as the original figure; this is the case only for the liminal figures (Populus, Via, Carcer, Coniunctio), since rotating them around gets you the same figure.  By swapping the points in the lines of the elements that agree with each other in heat (dry Fire with dry Earth, and moist Air with moist Water), you get another type of opposite, but rather than it playing in terms of a strict swap of polarity like from positive to negative, you literally turn everything on its head.

Both inversion and reversion get you an “opposite” figure, but there are different axes or scales by which you can measure what an “opposite” is.  As an example, consider Puer.  If you invert Puer, you get Albus; this is an opposite in the sense that the youthful brash boy with all the energy in the world is the “opposite” of the wise old man without energy.  What Puer has (energy), Albus lacks; what Albus has (experience), Puer lacks.  On the other hand, if you revert Puer, you get Puella; this is another kind of opposite in the sense that the masculine is the opposite of the feminine.  What Puer is (masculine, active, emitting), Puella isn’t (feminine, passive, accepting).  This type of analysis, where inversion talks about “has or has not” and reversion talks about “is or is not” is the general rule by which I understand the figures, and holds up decently well for the odd figures.  It’s when you get to the even figures that this type of distinction between the operations by means of their descriptions collapses or falls apart:

  • For non-liminal even figures, the inversion of a figure is the same as its reversion.  Thus, “is” is the same thing as “has”.  For instance, Acquisitio is the total opposite of Amissio, since they are both reversions and inversions of each other; gain both is not loss and loss does not have gain.
  • For liminal even figures, the reversion of a figure is the same figure as itself.  Thus, “has” makes no sense, because the figure isn’t speaking to anything one “has” or “lacks” to begin with.  For instance, Carcer’s reversion is Carcer; Carcer is imprisonment and obligation, it doesn’t “have” a quality of its own apart from what it already is.  On the other hand, Carcer’s inversion, what Carcer is not, is Coniunctio, which is freedom and self-determination.  Again, Coniunctio describes a state of being rather than any quality one has or lacks.

Between inversion and reversion, we can begin to understand the pattern of how the babalawos of Ifá, the West African development and adaption of geomancy to Yoruba principles and cosmology, organize their sixteen figures, or odu:

Rank Latin Name Yoruba Name Relationship
1 Via Ogbe inversion
2 Populus Oyẹku
3 Coniunctio Iwori inversion
4 Carcer Odi
5 Fortuna Minor Irosun inversion-
6 Fortuna Maior Iwọnrin
7 Laetitia Ọbara reversion
8 Tristitia Ọkanran
9 Cauda Draconis Ogunda reversion
10 Caput Draconis Ọsa
11 Rubeus Ika reversion
12 Albus Oturupọn
13 Puella Otura reversion
14 Puer Irẹtẹ
15 Amissio Ọsẹ inversion-
16 Acquisitio Ofun

With the exception of the even liminal figures, which are grouped in inversion pairs at the beginning of the order, it can be seen that the other figures are arranged in reversion pairs, with the even non-liminal figures grouped in what is technically either inversion or reversion, but which are most likely considered to just be reversions of each other.  Note how the non-liminal even figure pairs are placed in the order: they separate the strict-inversion pairs from the strict-reversion pairs, one at the start of the strict-reversion pairs and one at the end.  While it’s difficult to draw specific conclusions from this alone (the corpus of knowledge of odu is truly vast and huge and requires years, if not decades of study), the placement of the figures in this arrangement cannot be but based on the structure of the figures in their inversion/reversion pairs.

In another system entirely, Stephen Skinner describes some of the relationships of figures in Arabic geomancy in his book “Geomancy in Theory and Practice”, at least as used in some places in northern Africa, where the relationships are described in familial terms and which are all seemingly based on inversion:

  • Man and wife
    • Tristitia and Cauda Draconis
    • Laetitia and Caput Draconis
    • Albus and Puer
    • Puella and Rubeus
    • Coniunctio and Carcer
  • Brothers
    • Fortuna Minor and Fortuna Maior
    • Acquisitio and Amissio
  • No relation
    • Via and Populus

Stephen Skinner doesn’t elaborate on what “man and wife” or “brothers” means for interpreting the figures, but if I were to guess and extrapolate on that small bit of information alone (which shouldn’t be trusted, especially if someone else knowledgeable in these forms of geomancy can correct me or offer better insight):

  • For figures in “man and wife” pairings, the first figure is the “husband” and the second figure is the “wife”.  Though I personally dislike such an arrangement, it could be said that the husband figure of the pair dominates the wife figure, and though they may share certain similarities that allow for them to be married in a more-or-less natural arrangement, the husband figure is more powerful, domineering, overcoming, or conquering than the wife figure.  The central idea here is that of domination and submission under a common theme.
  • For figures in “brothers” pairings, the figures are of equal power to each other, but are more opposed to each other than in harmony with each other, though they form a different kind of complete whole.  Thus, they’re like two brothers that fight with each other (in the sense of one brother against the other) as well as with each other (in the sense of both brothers fighting against a third enemy).  The central idea here is that of oppositions and polarity that form a complete whole.
  • For the two figures that have no relation to each other, Via and Populus, this could be said that they are so completely different that they operate in truly different worlds; they’re not just diametrically opposed to each other to form a whole, nor is one more dominant over or submissive to the other in the same theme, but they’re just so totally and completely different that there is no comparison and, thus, no relationship.

Of course, all that is strictly hypothetical; I have nothing else to go on besides these guesses, and as such, I don’t use these familial relationships in my own understanding of the figures.  However, these are all indicative ways of how to view “opposites”, and is enlightening on its own.  However, note the specific figures in each set of relationships.  With the exception of Coniunctio and Carcer, all the husband-wife pairs are odd figures, so the only possible relationship each figure could have in their pair is inversion.  For the brother pairs, however, these are the even non-liminal figures, where the figures could be seen as either inversions or reversions of each other.  This could well be a hint at a difference between the meanings of inversion and reversion in an African or Arabic system of understanding the figures.

Alright, so that all deals with inversion and reversion, which leaves us with one final operation.  Conversion, as you might have gathered by now, is just the act of performing inversion and reversion on a figure at the same time: you both swap the parity of each row, and rotate the order of the row upside down (or vice versa, it’s the same thing and doesn’t matter).  In a sense, you’re basically taking the opposite of an opposite, but you’re not necessarily going from point A to point B back to point A; that’d just be inverting an inversion or reverting a reversion.  Rather, by applying both operations, you end up in a totally new state that is at once familiar while still being different.  For instance, consider Puella.  Puella’s conversion is Albus, and at first blush, it doesn’t seem like there’s much in similarity between these two figures except, perhaps, their ruling element (Water, in this case).  But bear in mind that both Puella and Albus don’t like to act, emit, or disturb things; Puella is the kind, welcoming hostess who accepts and nurtures, while Albus is the kind, wizened old man who accepts and guides.  Neither of them are chaotic, violent, energetic, or brash like Puer or Rubeus, and while they don’t do things for the same reason or in the same way, they end up doing things that are highly similar, like the same leitmotif played in a different key.

However, this is a little weird for the liminal figures, because a liminal figure’s reversion is the same as itself; this means that a liminal figure’s conversion is the same as its inversion (because the reversion “cancels out”).  Thus, converting Populus gets you Via, and converting Carcer gets you Coniunctio.  While these are clearly opposites of each other, it speaks to the idea that there’s a sort of “yin in the yang, yang in the yin” quality to these figure pairs.  This is best shown by Populus, which is pure potential with all activity latent and waiting to be sprung, and Via, which is pure activity but taken as a whole which doesn’t, on the whole, change.  Likewise, you can consider Carcer to be restriction of boundaries, but freedom to act within those set parameters, and Coniunctio, which is freedom of choice, but being constrained by the choices you make and the paths you take.

It’s also a little weird for the non-liminal even figures, because the reversion of these figures is the same as its inversion, which means that the conversion of an non-liminal even figure gets you that same figure itself.  While the “opposite of an opposite” of odd figures takes you from point A to B to C to D, the nature of the non-liminal even figures takes you from point A to B right back to A.  This reflects the truly is-or-is-not nature of these figures where there’s only so many ways you can view or enact the energies of what they represent: either you win or you lose, either you gain or you lose.  You might not win using the same strategy as you expected to use, but winning is winning; you may not get exactly what you thought you were after, but you’re still getting something you needed.

With these three operations said, I suppose it’s appropriate to have a table illustrating the three results of these operations for each of the sixteen figures:

Figure Inversion Reversion Conversion
Populus Via Populus Via
Via Populus Via Populus
Albus Puer Rubeus Puella
Coniunctio Carcer Coniunctio Carcer
Puella Rubeus Puer Albus
Amissio Acquisitio Acquisitio Amissio
Fortuna Maior Fortuna Minor Fortuna Minor Fortuna Maior
Fortuna Minor Fortuna Maior Fortuna Maior Fortuna Minor
Puer Albus Puella Rubeus
Rubeus Puella Albus Puer
Acquisitio Amissio Amissio Acquisitio
Laetitia Caput Draconis Tristitia Cauda Draconis
Tristitia Cauda Draconis Laetitia Caput Draconis
Carcer Coniunctio Carcer Coniunctio
Caput Draconis Laetitia Cauda Draconis Tristitia
Cauda Draconis Tristitia Caput Draconis Laetitia

Looking at the table above, we can start to pick out certain patterns and “cycles” of operations that group certain figures together:

  • A figure maintains its parity no matter the operation applied to it.  Thus, an odd figure will always result in another odd figure through any of the operations, and an even figure will always yield another even figure.
  • A figure added to its inverse will always yield Via.
  • A figure added to its reverse will always yield one of the liminal figures.
  • A figure added to its converse will always yield another of the liminal figures, which will be the inverse of the sum of the original figure and its reverse.
  • If the figure is odd, then its inversion, reversion, and conversion will all be unique figures, but each figure can become any of the others within a group of four odd figures through another operation.
  • If the figure is even and liminal, then its reversion will be the same as the original figure, while its inversion and conversion will be the same figure and distinct from the original.
  • If the figure is even and not liminal, then its inversion and reversion will be the same figure and distinct from the original, while its conversion will be the same as the original figure.

The odd figures are perhaps most interesting to analyze in their operation groups.  Note that the four figures that result from the operations of a single odd figure (identity, inversion, reversion, and conversion) all, at some point, transform into each other in a neverending cycle, and never transform in any way into an odd figure of the other cycle.  More than that, we can break down the eight odd figures into two groups which have these operational cycles, or “squadrons”, one consisting of Puer-Albus-Puella-Rubeus and the other of Laetitia-Caput Draconis-Cauda Draconis-Tristitia:

Note that the Puer squadron has only figures of Air (Puer and Rubeus) and Water (Puella and Albus), while the Laetitia squadron has only Fire (Laetitia and Cauda Draconis) and Earth (Tristitia and Caput Draconis), and that the converse of one odd figure yields another odd figure of the same element.  Coincidentally, it was this element-preserving property of conversion that led me to the Laetitia-Fire/Rubeus-Air correspondence, matching with the elemental system of JMG and breaking with older literature in these two figures.  More numerologically, also note how each squadron has two figures with seven points and two figures with five points; this was marked as somewhat important in how I allotted the figures to planetary arrangements before, but it could also be viewed under an elemental light here, too.  If each squadron has two figures of the pure elements (Albus and Rubeus in the Puer squadron, Laetitia and Tristitia in the Laetitia squadron), then the converse of each would be the harmonic opposite of the pure element according to their subelemental ruler::

  • Laetitia (pure Fire) converts to/harmonizes with Cauda Draconis (primarily Fire, secondarily Earth)
  • Rubeus (pure Air) converts to/harmonizes with Puer (primarily Air, secondarily Fire)
  • Albus (pure Water) converts to/harmonizes with Puella (primarily Water, secondarily Fire)
  • Tristitia (pure Earth) converts to/harmonizes with Caput Draconis (primarily Earth, secondarily Air)

On the other hand, now consider the even figures.  Unlike the odd figures, where the same “squadron scheme” applies for two groups, there are actually two such schemes for even figures, each scheme having one pair of figures.  For the liminal even figures, a figure’s inverse is the same as its converse, and its reverse is the original figure.  On the other hand, for the even entering/exiting even figures, a figure’s inverse is the same as it’s reverse, and its converse is the original figure:

Due to how the squadrons “collapse” from groups of four into groups of two for the even figures, the same elemental analysis of harmonization can’t be done for the even figures as we did above for the odd figures.  However, it’s also important to note that each element has four figures assigned to it, two of which are odd (as noted above) and two of which are even:

  • Fire: Fortuna Minor (primarily Fire, secondarily Air), Amissio (primarily Fire, secondarily Water)
  • Air: Coniunctio (primarily Air, secondarily Water), Acquisitio (primarily Air, secondarily Earth)
  • Water: Via (primarily Water, secondarily Air), Populus (primarily Water, secondarily Earth)
  • Earth: Carcer (primarily Earth, secondarily Fire), Fortuna Maior (primarily Earth, secondarily Water)

By looking at the inverse relationships of the even figures (which is also converse for liminal figures and reverse for non-liminal figures), we can also inspect their elemental relationships:

  • Carcer (primarily Earth, secondarily Fire) inverts to Coniunctio (primarily Air, secondarily Water).  Both the primary and secondary elements of each figure are the opposite of the other, making these two figures a perfect dichotomy in every way.
  • Via (primarily Water, secondarily Air) inverts to Populus (primarily Water, secondarily Earth).  Though both these figures share the same primary element, the secondary elements oppose each other.  In a sense, this is a more bland kind of opposition that Carcer and Coniunctio show.
  • Acquisitio (primarily Air, secondarily Earth) inverts to Amissio (primarily Fire, secondarily Water).  Unlike Carcer and Coniunctio, and despite that these figures are reversions-inversions of each other, their elemental natures complement each other in both their primary and secondary rulers by heat, as Air and Fire (primary rulers) are both hot elements, and Earth and Water (secondary rulers) are both cold elements.
  • Fortuna Maior (primarily Earth, secondarily Water) inverts to Fortuna Minor (primarily Fire, secondarily Air).  Similar to Acquisitio and Amissio, these two figures are reversions-inversions of each other, but their elemental natures complement each other in moisture, as Earth and Fire (primary rulers) are both dry elements, and Water and Air (secondary elements) are both moist elements).

Note that Carcer and Coniunctio along with Via and Populus (the liminal figures) show a more rigid opposition between them based on their inversion pairs than do Acquisitio and Amissio along with Fortuna Maior and Fortuna Minor (the non-liminal even figures).  Liminality, in this case, shows a forceful dichotomy in inversion, while actually possessing motion suggests completion of each other in some small way.  In this post I wrote on how the natures of the elements complement or “agree” each other based on the element of figure and field in the Shield Chart, these could be understood to say something like the following:

  • Disagree (Carcer and Coniunctio, Via and Populus): Undoing and harm to the point of weakness and powerlessness, force and constriction from one into the other unwillingly.  This is more pronounced with Carcer and Coniunctio than it is Via and Populus, since Via and Populus still agree in the more important primary element, in which case this is more a complete undoing for strength rather than weakness, an expression of transformation into an unknown opposite rather than a forced march into a known but undesired state.
  • Agree in heat (Acquisitio and Amissio): Completion and aid to both, but transformation in the process for complete change in goals and intent.
  • Agree in moisture (Fortuna Maior and Fortuna Minor): Balance and stabilization that lead to stagnation and cessation of action, but with potential that must be unlocked or initiated.

Admittedly, this post took a lot longer to write than I anticipated, largely because although the mathematics behind the operations is pretty easy to understand, the actual meaning behind them is harder to nail down, and is largely a result of introspection and reflection on the figures involved in these operations.  For my own part, I don’t claim that my views are the be-all-end-all of these mathematical or structural relationships between the figures, and I would find this a topic positively begging for more research and meditation by the geomantic community as a whole, not just to flesh out more of the meanings and the relationships of the figures themselves, but also how they might be applied in divination as part of divinatory technique rather than just symbolism, like how I suggested using them for a mathematical/structural form of Shield Chart company.

So, what about you?  Do you think anything of these operation-based relationships of the figures?  Are there any insights you’d be willing to share regarding these operations and relationships?  Is there anything you can thread together from the observations I’ve made above that makes things flow better or fit together more nicely?  Feel free to share in the comments!

Same Figures, but Different Names and Different Traditions

In addition to the Geomantic Study-Group on Facebook that I admin, there are a few other groups out there that focus on geomancy.  I may or may not be a member of them, or I might have been at one point before leaving, but there’s one that I belong to that focuses on the Arabic style of geomancy, Ilm-e-Ramal (Geomancy).  What the Geomantic Study-Group is for Western geomancy, this group is for Arabic `ilm al-raml (the formal Arabic term for geomancy, literally “the science of the sand”, sometimes abbreviated to raml or ramal), and since I’d love to learn more about that style of geomancy, I decided to join in.  It’s not always easy, since many of the members use Urdu or Arabic as their primary language, but when there are English conversations, I try to follow along best I can.

One of the major issues in learning Arabic `ilm al-raml for an English speaker is, of course, terminology.  It’s only fair and expected that the users of a system built in one language would use that language to discuss it, but it still poses a stumbling block.  After all, geomancy has been practiced continuously in Arabic- and Urdu-speaking countries far longer than it was in Europe, and they’ve kept the system in their own ways.  Once I see what they’re doing and see certain words repeated in certain contexts, I can usually catch on and follow along, but the biggest impediment to discussing geomancy and `iln al-raml is the different names we have for the figures themselves.  It’s difficult for me to talk about the meanings of a given figure and compare it with what it means in `ilm al-raml when neither of us know which figure we’re supposed to be talking about, after all.

So, with that in mind, I decided to produce the following table that lists the names of the sixteen geomantic figures and their names in Western geomancy (in Latin and English, using their most popular form) and in Arabic `ilm al-raml (in Arabic and English, again using their popular form).  This is to help me out to learn the names of the figures better in Arabic contexts, as well as to help the students of `ilm al-raml learn the European names for Western contexts.  For other variants in these and other languages that have historically been used for geomancy, including Hebrew, Greek, Sudanese, and Malagasy, I’d recommend checking out Stephen Skinner’s book on geomancy, Geomancy in Theory and Practice, and his larger book on correspondences, The Complete Magician’s Tables.

Figure Latin Arabic Yoruba
قبض الخارج
Qubiḍ al-ḫariǧ
Catching the outside
Fortuna Maior
Greater Fortune
نصرهّ الداخل
Nuṣraht al-daḫil
Inside victory
Fortuna Minor
Lesser Fortune
نصرهّ الخارج
Nuṣraht al-ḫariǧ
Outside victory
قبض الداخل
Qubiḍ al-daḫil
Catching the inside
Caput Draconis
Head of the Dragon
عتبة الداخل
ʿAtabaht al-daḫil
Inner threshold
Cauda Draconis
Tail of the Dragon
عتبة الخارج
ʿAtabaht al-ḫariǧ
Outer threshold

Because I like using an Arabic transliteration system that uses diacritics for faithful romanization, it can be a little difficult to read the Arabic names, but the accented letters can be read as follows:

  • q sounds like a “k”, but further back in the throat.
  • ṭ, ṣ, and ḍ all sound like normal but with the back of the tongue further to the back and top of the throat.  However, in Urdu, ṭ and ṣ just sound like “t” and “s”, and ḍ just sounds like “z”.
  • ǧ sounds like a soft “g” or “j” (or like in the word “division”).
  • ḫ sounds like the “ch” in Scottish “loch“.
  • ḥ sounds like the “ch” in Scottish “loch” but a little smoother.
  • ʿ sounds like a very soft, whispered “h” sound, if pronounced at all.

So, “Bayaḍ” can sound like either “bah-yahd'”, or “bayz”, “Nuṣraht al-ḫariǧ” will sound like “nus-raht al-khareej”, and so forth.  Note that some of these names are not proper Arabic, and moreover, just like in Western geomancy, there are dozens of names used across the Arabophone sphere.  These are just one set that I’ve found common in geomancy groups online, and are the ones I’m trying to memorize.  Most of the other variants used are just that: variants, which are easy enough to pick up on.

Also, note that I’m using the standard planetary order of the figures in the above chart, which is fairly common for Western geomancers.  While Western geomancy doesn’t really prescribe a particular order as the order of the figures, Arabic geomancy has a set number of particular orders of the figures that are used for various divinatory purposes.  Probably the most common and canonical one is the dairah-e-abdah, which uses a kind of binary ordering, as seen in the following diagram (to be read from right to left):

While it may not seem like it makes much sense for me to make a single blog post doing nothing more than transliterating and translating a single set of Arabic names into English, given my penchant for long-winded exploratory posts, this is still an important first step in increasing Western geomancers’ understanding of Arabic `ilm al-raml as well as Arabic practitioners’ understanding of Western geomancy.  After all, it’s hard to make a journey if the door is still shut, and this helps open the door for both sides.

Now, you’ll notice that I’ve also included a third set of names, which are Yoruba for the figures as used in the sacred divination of Ifá.  I’ve included them for reference (both my own and other scholars of geomancy, especially those with a historical or academic eye), but I want to make something clear that I’ve only mentioned in passing before: Ifá is not geomancy, and geomancy is not Ifá.  Stephen Skinner talks at length about how the art of Ifá came about historically in his geomancy book, but the short of the matter is this: as geomancy traveled along the Arabic trade routes from its (likely) origin in the northern Sahara westward to Morocco and Spain, eastward to Palestine and Greece, and southward through Africa as far as Madagascar, it also traveled to West Africa where it was adopted and adapted by the priests and lorekeepers of the cultures living there.

While geomancy largely retained the same form and (mostly) the same interpretations everywhere else, it underwent dramatic changes and adaptations to the native Yoruba and Fon cultures in what is now Nigeria and Benin to become Ifá.  The form of the figures and several crucial aspects of geomancy were retained, but pretty much the entirety of the art was rebuilt from the ground up and grew apart into its own entirely-unique system.  As a result, although we as geomancers might recognize that Ifá has sixteen figures in the same format we’d consider them to be figures, almost nothing of what we know about geomancy applies to Ifá, and no assumptions should be made regarding any similarities besides the superficial appearance thereof.  To say it another way, if European geomancy and Arabic `ilm al-raml are sisters who grew up in the same house but then left to go their separate ways in neighboring cities, then Ifá is a distant cousin who grew up in an entirely different part of the country with little contact with the rest of the family.

As an initiate in La Regla de Ocha Lukumi (aka Santería), which also has roots in Nigeria and matured alongside Ifá in Cuba, Ifá is something I’m constantly surrounded by, especially since I belong to an Ifá-centric house that respects, utilizes, and incorporates Ifá and its priests (the babalawos and oluwos) in our ceremonies and lives.  While I understand the historical origins of Ifá from geomancy, I also have to understand and respect the mythological origins and religious context of its practice as its own thing.  And, like Santería itself, it’s an initiated tradition, and non-initiates are not taught or permitted to learn the secrets of Ifá; for various reasons, I am not and will likely never become an initiate in Ifá.  Unlike many Western systems including geomancy, where formal initiation is not really a Thing outside magical lodges and certain master-student systems, this might be something of a shock to my readers, but as it is, there is only so much of the external parts of Ifá that I can learn, and even less that I’m willing to share to people, even to those in Santería itself.  I caution my readers to avoid getting too studious of Ifá without considering proper initiation and study under a legitimate and respected babalawo.

Likewise, a similar word of warning for those Western geomancers who aspire to study Arabic `ilm al-raml and vice versa.  Unlike geomancy and Ifá, geomancy and `ilm al-raml are much closer in method, meaning, and use, and many things are easily translatable between the two systems.  However, caution should still be taken, because although they’re very close sister traditions where there are more similarities than differences, they are still different traditions where the differences still matter.  It’s much like the difference between Western astrology and Indian jyotiṣa astrology: same origin, same symbols, slightly different techniques of interpretation and shades of meaning of those symbols.  While some things are translatable between geomancy and `ilm al-raml, not everything is, and the two systems should still be respected as two separate systems.  Experience and study of both systems will show the diligent geomancer what can be brought over with no effort, what must be adapted from one system to the other, and what is unique and proper to one system and not the other.  Though they share the same origin and great similarities, enough time, space, and work has passed that have made the two sciences grow apart into their own unique systems.  Respect that, study the differences, and experiment accordingly.

Also, my thanks go out to Masood Ali Thahim, one of the multilingual good guys in the `ilm al-raml group on Facebook, who helped me with the Arabic spelling and transliteration of the names of the figures as used in `ilm al-raml.

Generating Geomantic Figures

After my fantastic and entertaining chat with Gordon on his Rune Soup podcast, and in tandem with the good Dr Al’s course on the fundamentals and history of the art, there’s been a huge influx of interest in geomancy, to which I say “about goddamned time”.  As my readers (both long-term and newly-come) know, I’m somewhat of a proponent of geomancy, and I enjoy writing about it; it’s flattering and humbling that my blog is referred to as a “treasure trove” of information on the art, and I consistently see that my posts and pages on geomancy are increasingly popular.  It’s also encouraging enough to get me to work more on my book, which…if I actually get off my ass and work on it like I need to and should have been doing for some time now, will probably get put to consumable paper sometime late next year.

One of the most common questions I find people asking when they first get introduced to the art of geomancy is “how do people generate the geomantic figures?”  Unlike other forms of divination, geomancy isn’t tied down to one specific means or method.  Tarot and all forms of cartomancy use cards, astrology uses the planets and stars, scrying uses some sort of medium to, well, scry; we often classify methods of divination based on the set of tools it uses, and give it an appropriately-constructed Greek term ending in -mancy.  Geomancy is different, though; truly any number of methods can be used to produce a geomantic figure, because geomancy is more about the algorithms and techniques used in interpretation rather than the tools it uses to produce a reading.  Once you get into the feel and understanding of geomancy, you can almost quite literally pull a chart out of thin air using any tools (or none at all!) at your disposal.  Still, partially because of the ability to be so free-wheeling, newcomers to geomancy are often caught up in the tool-centric way of thinking of divination, and can become (I find) overly concerned with the “best” or “most popular” method.

To that end, let me list some of the ways it’s possible to come up with a geomantic figure.  I don’t intend for this to be an exhaustive list, but more of a generalized classification of different kinds of ways you can produce a geomantic figure (or more than one in a single go):

  1. Stick and surface.  This is the oldest method, going back to the very origins of the art in the Sahara, where the geomancer takes some stylus and applies it to an inscribable medium.  You can use a staff and a patch of soil on the ground, a wand on a box of sand, a stylus on a wax (or modern electronic) tablet, a pen on paper, or some other similar mechanic.  To use this method, simply make four lines of dots, traditionally from right to left.  Don’t count the dots; let them fall naturally, so that a random number of dots are in each line.  Some people get into a trance state, chant a quick prayer, or simply focus on the query while they make the dots, if only to distract the mind enough to avoid counting the dots and influencing what comes out.  Once you have four lines, count the dots in each line; traditionally, the geomancer would cross off the dots two-by-two (again, right-to-left) until either one or two dots were left over at the end.  These final leftover dots are then “separated” out from the line to form a single figure.  To make all four figures, simply increase the number of lines from four to sixteen, and group the rows of leftover dots into consecutive, non-overlapping groups of four rows.
  2. Coins.  This is a simple, minimalist method: flip a coin four times.  Heads means one point of the resulting figure, and tails means two (or you can swap these around, if you so prefer, but I prefer heads = one point).  Flipping a coin four times gets you four rows to make a complete figure.  Alternatively, you could flip four coins at once, perhaps of different denominations: for example, you could flip a penny for the Fire line, a nickle for the Air line, a dime for the Water line, and a quarter for the Earth line; a single throw of all four coins at once gets you a complete geomantic figure.  I consider any method that uses a “flip” to produce a binary answer to fall under this method; thus, the druid sticks used by geomancers like John Michael Greer and Dr Al Cummins would technically be considered a type of geomancy-specific “coin”, as would pieces of coconut shell where the convex side on top is “up” and the concave side on top is “down”.
  3. Divining chain.  This is a slightly modified version of the coin-based method, where four coins or disks are linked together in a chain.  Rather than throwing the coins individually, the chain itself is flung, tossed, or thrown in such a way that each coin falls on a different side.  The only example I can find of this in Western-style divination is the (possibly spurious) Chain of Saint Michael, where four saint medallions are chained, one to another, and connected to a sword charm, but a corollary to this can be found in the Yoruba divination methods of Ifá, using something called the ekuele (or ekpele, or epwele, depending on whether you’re Cuban or Nigerian and how you feel like spelling it).  There, you have four pieces of cut shell that can fall mouth-up or husk-up, or four pieces of metal that fall on one of two sides; notably, the ekuele has eight coins on it so that the diviner-priest can throw two figures at a time, but that’s because of the specific method of Ifá divination, which is only a distant cousin to geomancy and shouldn’t actually be mixed with our techniques.
  4. Dice.  Again, a pretty straightforward method: roll a single die four times, or four different dice one time.  If a given die is an odd number, use a single point; if an even number, use two points.  Some people use four different-colored cubical dice (e.g. red for Fire, yellow for Air, blue for Water, green for Earth), but I prefer to use tabletop RPG dice that come in different shapes.  For this, I use the associations of the Platonic solids to the classical elements: the tetrahedron (d4) for Fire, octahedron (d8) for Air, icosahedron (d20) for Water, and cube (d6) for Earth.  Like Poke Runyon aka Fr. Therion, you could use four knucklebones for the same purpose, as each knucklebone has four sides (traditionally counted as having values 1, 3, 4, and 6).  Dice are easy, the tools fit in a tiny bag which can itself fit into a pocket, and nobody is any the wiser if you just pull some dice out and start throwing them on a street corner.
  5. Counting tokens.  This is a similar method to using dice, but a more general application of it.  Consider a bag of pebbles, beans, or other small mostly-similar objects.  Pull out a random handful, and count how many you end up with.  If the number is odd, give the corresponding row in the geomantic figure a single point; if even, two points.  This is a pretty wide and varied set of methods; you could even, as Nigel Pennick proposes, pull up four potatoes from a field and count whether each potato has an odd or even number of eyes on it.  The idea here is to use something to, again, get you a random number that you can reduce into an odd or even answer, and isn’t really different from using dice, except instead of being presented with a number, you have to count a selection of objects obtained from a collection.  In a sense, both the dice and counting token methods can be generalized as using any random-number generator; you could use something like random.org to get you four (or sixteen) random numbers, to which you simply apply the odd-even reduction; such a generator can be found using this link.
  6. Quartered drawing.  Not really a technique or toolset on its own, but a variation on things that use coins, identical dice, or other counting tokens.  In this, you prepare a surface that’s cut into four quarters, such as a square with four quadrants or a quartered circle.  Each quarter is given to one of the four elements, and thus, to one of the four rows of a geomantic figure.  Into each quarter, you’d randomly flip one of four coins or drop a random number of beans, and read the pattern that’s produced as a single figure.  This can be useful if you’re short on similar-but-not-identical tools (like only having four pennies instead of four different types of coin, or four identical dice instead of different-colored/shaped dice).
  7. Selection of numbers.  One method of geomantic generation I know is used in Arabic-style geomancy is to ask the querent for a number from 1 to 16 (or, alternatively, 0 to 15).  Arabic-style geomancy places a huge emphasis on taskīn, or specific orders of the figures which are correlated with different attributions; one such taskīn, the Daira-e-Abdah, simply arranges the geomantic figures numerically, using their representation as binary numbers.  From the Ilm-e-Ramal group on Facebook, here’s a presentation of this taskīn with each figure given a number from 1 through 16:
    Personally, I use a different binary order for the figures (reading the Earth line as having binary value 1, Water as binary value 2, Air as binary value 4, and Fire as binary value 8), where Populus = 0 (or 16), Tristitia = 1, Albus = 2, and so forth, but the idea is the same.  To use this method, simply get four random numbers from 1 to 16 or (0 to 15), and find the corresponding figure in the binary order of the figures.  You could ask for larger numbers, of course; if a number is greater than 16 (or 15), divide the number by 16 and take the remainder.  You could use dice to produce these numbers, or just ask the querent (hopefully ignorant of the binary order used!) for a number.  In fact, you’re not bound by binary ordering of the figures; any ordering you like (planetary, elemental, zodiacal, etc.) can be used, so long as you keep it consistent and can associate the figures with a number from 1 to 16 (or 0 to 15).
  8. Playing cards.  A standard deck of 52 playing cards can be used for geomantic divination, too, and can give that sort of “gypsy aesthetic” some people like.  More than just playing 52-Pickup and seeing whether any four given cards fall face-up or face-down to treat cards as coins, you can draw four cards and look at different qualities of the cards to get a different figure.  For instance, are the cards red or black, odd or even, pip or face?  With four cards, you can make a single figure; with 16, you can make four Mothers.  Better than that, you can use all the different qualities of any given card of a deck to generate a single figure, making the process much more efficient; I’ve written about that recently at this post, which you should totally read if you’re interested.  What’s nice about this method is that you can also use Tarot cards for the same purpose, and some innovators might come up with geomancy-specific spreads of Tarot that can combine the meanings of the Tarot cards that fall with the geomantic figures they simultaneously form, producing a hybrid system that could theoretically be super involved and detailed.
  9. Geomantic tokens.  Some geomancers have tools that directly incorporate the figures, so instead of constructing a figure a line at a time like with coins or beans, a whole figure is just produced on its own.  Consider a collection of 16 tokens, like a bag of 16 semiprecious stones (like what the Astrogem Geomancy people use), or a set of 16 wooden discs, where each token has a distinct figure inscribed on each.  Reach into the bag, pull out a figure; easy as that.  If you use a bag of 16 tokens and are drawing multiple figures at once, like four Mothers, you’ll need to draw with replacement, where you put the drawn token back into the bag and give it a good shake before drawing the next.  Alternatively, if you wanted to draw without replacement, you’ll need a collection of 64 tokens where each figure is given four tokens each, such as a deck of cards where a single figure is printed onto four cards.

As for me?  When I was first starting out, I used the pen-and-paper method (or stick-and-surface method, to be more general).  This was mostly to do a sort of “kinetic meditation” to get me into the mode and feel of geomancy, going back to its origins as close as I could without being a Bedouin wise-man in the wastes of the Sahara.  After that, I made a 64-card deck of geomancy cards, with each figure having four cards.  I’d shuffle the deck, cut it into fourths from right to left, and flip the top card of each stack to form the Mothers.  For doing readings for other people in person, like at a bookstore or psychic faire, I’ll still use this; even if geomancy isn’t familiar to people, “reading cards” is, so it helps them feel more comfortable giving them a medium they’re already familiar with.  Plus, I also can get the querent’s active involvement in the divination process by having them be the ones to cut the deck after I’ve shuffled; I’ll still flip the top card, but I find having them cut the deck gives them a meaningful inclusion into the process.  Generally, though, I use tabletop RPG dice for the Platonic solids.  I roll the dice and see whether each die is odd or even for a single figure, so four throws of dice get me four Mothers.  Nowadays, I only use the stick-and-surface method if I have truly nothing else at hand, because I find the process to be slow and messy, but it still works, and I can still rely on my own familiarity with it so that it doesn’t trip me up when I have to use it.

What would I suggest for newcomers to the art?  Like me, I’d recommend new geomancers to start with the stick-and-surface method, if only to develop an intimacy with the underlying, traditional method that produced all the others.  In a sense, doing this first is like a kind of initiation, practicing the same fundamental technique as have geomancers for a thousand years, and itself can be a powerful portal into the currents of the art.  Once you have that down-pat and have gotten into the feel of the art, though, I find that the method is pretty much up to the desires and whims of the geomancer.  Anything that returns a binary answer can be used for geomancy, but for convenience, some people might prefer instead a “whole figure” type of draw.  Once you settle on a set of tools, for those who are of a more magical or ritual bent, you may want to consider consecrating or blessing them, or entrusting them to the connection and care of a divining or talking spirit, according to whatever methods you find appropriate, but this isn’t strictly necessary for the art, either.

Ultimately, the tools you use for geomancy are entirely up to you, because it’s the techniques and algorithms we use that are what truly makes the art of geomancy.  The only thing I really recommend is that the geomancer takes an active role in divinely manipulating the tools used to produce the figures.

How about you, dear reader?  What methods do you use for geomantic generation?  Have you heard of any that aren’t on the list above, or aren’t included in any of the above classifications?  What are you most comfortable with?  What methods do you dislike, either on a practical or theoretical level?  What would you recommend?