Hermeticism FAQ: Part III, Doctrine

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

Is Hermeticism monotheistic, or is it polytheistic?

Either or both, depending on your perspective.  It is true that the bulk of the Hermetic texts, especially the “philosophical Hermetica”, focus on a singular God as the One and the Good for the purposes of both cosmological structure as well as theosophical devotion, but it’s also true that the same Hermetic texts discuss the ensoulment of statues by the gods and encourage the worship of such corporeal gods as well as the many gods in heaven.  Whether one wants to consider there to be just one God and all other entities as angels subservient to this one God, or whether one wants to consider the One to be on an ontological level beyond the gods and the gods to have their own reality, Hermeticism may admit both or either perspective.  It is also helpful to consider the One to be a “god whom the gods themselves worship” or a “god beyond the gods”, a perspective that is evinced in magical texts from the same time period.

Is Hermeticism pantheistic or panentheistic?

It is perhaps most accurate to describe Hermeticism as panentheistic, where God is both immanent within and throughout the cosmos as well as transcendent of it.  All things in this cosmos come from God, and God is visible throughout all of creation by means of God’s creatures; at the same time, God is also infinitely beyond the cosmos.  God, however, should not be equated with the cosmos, which is a strictly pantheistic (and not panentheistic) perspective.  Although one may understand all things that exist as existing within God, it should be remembered that God can only be known in a way that extends beyond and outside the cosmos; one must rise above and beyond the cosmos to get on God’s own level in order to know God, which is also how we return to our own origin, which also lies beyond the cosmos.

Is there a demiurge in Hermeticism?

Depending on the specific text, yes, Hermeticism does teach that while God is the ultimate creator of all things, God creates worldly, material things by means of a demiurge.  The word “demiurge” (dēmiourgos in Greek) literally means “craftsman” or “artisan”, and in Hermeticism is seen to fashion the material, sensible, and perceptible world in accordance with the reason and will of God.  This perspective of the demiurge should not be confused with the demiurge of gnostic teachings, which tends to consider the demiurge in a much more negative light, ignorant of God and thus considered “blind” or “stupid”.  No such association is made with the Hermetic demiurge, who is considered a representative of the will and reason of God and in our cosmos is represented by (or, depending on the text, literally present as) the Sun itself.

Is there fate or is there free will in Hermeticism?

Hermeticism is essentially deterministic, with notions of free will (as generally thought of on a mundane level) being an illusion, but there is some nuance to this stance in Hermeticism.  There is a sort of chain that makes Hermeticism deterministic: 

  1. The fundamental ruling principle in all things is the will of God, also called Providence.  As the will of God, this is what establishes the high-level notions of what things are to be.
  2. Necessity, as a “servant” of Providence, is what arranges the logical consequences and ramifications of Providence.
  3. Fate, as a “servant” of Necessity as Necessity is a “servant” of Providence, is what arranges the sequence of things that happen (and which must happen, either according to Necessity or to Providence).
  4. The powers of the stars, both the seven planets as well as the myriad fixed stars, facilitate Fate upon the things that exist in the world below from the directives of Fate above.

This is one of the reasons why the study of astrology is important for Hermeticism, since—as the study of the planets and stars—grants us insight into Fate and, thus, the very will of God.  It should be noted, however, that things only apply in the domains upon which they bear; thus, Fate only applies to the cosmos (and, more specifically, our material world).  Because of this limitation on Fate, it is proper to say that Hermeticism is only deterministic within the realm of the cosmos; beyond it, other rules apply.  That distinction of determinism or lack thereof between the encosmic and hypercosmic realms becomes important once one understands the nature of and the relationship between the soul and the body, and what the goal of the Way of Hermēs is.

What exactly is the soul in Hermeticism, and what role does it play?

The existence of the soul is taken for granted in Hermeticism, and is one part of the dualistic understanding of what a human consists of: a material, mortal body and an immaterial, immortal soul.  Of these two parts, it is the soul that is held to be the “true” human, the essence of a human being, and is made in the image of God as God’s own child (and can be considered a sibling to the Demiurge and the cosmos itself).  Being created directly by God and, thus, not as a product of the cosmos, the soul is essentially above Fate.

What exactly is the body in Hermeticism, and what role does it play?

The body is the material, mortal component of a human being, housing and being animated by the immaterial, immortal soul.  Unlike the soul, which has its origins directly in God and is made as an image of God, the body is a creation of the cosmos and is made as an image of the soul.  Because the body is a creation of the cosmos, the body is subject to Fate.  Unlike the soul, which provides its own “energy” and will, the body is driven by two energies: that of drive (thumos, the emotional and passion-based desires of the body-generated ego) and desire (epithumia, the physical needs and appetites of the body).

What is the relationship between the soul and the body?

The essential human, being soul and thus being immaterial, cannot directly interact with a material cosmos without a material body, which is why the soul is housed in the body, and the connection between soul and body is facilitated by means of spirit (pneuma, literally “breath” but also with connotation of the subtle powers of air in general).  Although the soul is nominally the master of the body, the body can sometimes overpower the soul if the drive and desire of the body is stronger than the intentions and will of the soul itself; because drive and desire are bodily, and because the body is subject to Fate, the overpowering of the soul by drive and desire thus afflicts the soul with Fate.  Even though the soul comes from a realm beyond the cosmos and is thus not necessarily subject to Fate, it can still be influenced and impacted by Fate due to the body, especially when the body is stronger than the soul that it houses.  It is part of the way of Hermēs to learn how to tame the drive and desire of the body so that they remain in service to the soul and not the other way around, thus minimizing the impact of Fate upon the soul and freeing the soul to act how it needs to.

Is there reincarnation in Hermeticism, or is there a Heaven and Hell, or other afterlife?

Reincarnation of the soul into different bodies is generally held to be the case in Hermeticism, at least up until the point where the soul is able to break free of the cycles of birth, death, and rebirth in the cosmos and rejoin with its origin in God beyond the cosmos.  This does not mean that incarnation is a punishment, but it is where we are all the same.  The bulk of Hermetic texts agree that the reincarnation of the human soul only occurs in human bodies, even if one’s conduct in their previous life can determine the quality of the next.  There is a strong similarity between these Hermetic notions and the doctrines of saṃsāra and mokṣa in Vedic religions like Hinduism.  There is no notion of a generic neutral afterlife of shadehood, like Haidēs for the Hellenes or Sheol for the Jews.  In most texts, likewise, there is no notion of a hell for sinners as in Christianity, although some texts like the Perfect Sermon do describe a punishment for souls who are unconditionally “stained with evil”, so it appears that this doctrine was being developed in later texts or which was added onto Hermeticism from outside sources, and is not generally common or a universally-held belief.

Why are we here to begin with?

It is difficult to question the reason behind the creation of God, but the explanation for humanity’s creation and incarnation is that God created the cosmos and thought it beautiful, since it was made according to the will of God and, thus, in an image of God.  In order to fully celebrate the creation of the cosmos, God also created humans, also in the image of God (but in a different way than the cosmos was created), so as to engage with, understand, and adore the creation of God that was the cosmos.  However, creating humans as immaterial soul alone was not enough for them to fully engage with the material cosmos, and so bodies were created to house the soul so as to fully immerse the human soul in creation as a human being consisting of both body (so as to interact with the cosmos) and soul (so as to know and comprehend the cosmos as a creation of God).  The problems begin to arise when we misunderstand the proper relationship between the soul and the body, or between humanity, the cosmos, and God; when this relationship is imbalance or misunderstood, we begin to depart from our original tasks and forget what it is we’re supposed to do and become while down here.  This is part of the goal and aim of the Way of Hermēs: to remember our divine origin, to remember what we truly are, and to fully engage in the work of creation as is right and proper for us, but only as is right and proper for us.

What exactly is gnōsis in Hermeticism, and what role does it play?

The Greek word gnōsis literally means “knowledge” in English, but this is more than just an intellectual understanding of a concept.  In the Way of Hermēs, gnōsis is more the experiential, non-discursive knowledge of something true; it is not something that can just be arrived at through discourse or logical proofs (what might be called logos in Greek), nor something that is simply taught and believed (what might be called epistēmē).  Rather, gnōsis is more akin to a “divine revelation”, and the experience of gnōsis is something Hermeticists aim for achieving—usually multiple times.  The proper way to approach gnōsis (as evidenced in the Hermetic texts where such experiences are described) is one of care, through preparation and purification ahead of time and by means of unpacking and analysis afterwards, so as to properly integrate the experience and meaning of such an experience of gnōsis without misinterpreting it or going crazy because of it.  It is thus beyond mere insight or a hunch, and closer to a literal inspiration in the soul by God itself.

What exactly is nous in Hermeticism, and what role does it play?

Nous is the Greek word for “mind”, but this is not to be understood as what we generally or conventionally understood as our day-to-day thinking mind of thoughts and imagination.  As a technical term in Hermeticism, nous refers to a sort of divine awareness, the faculty that allows one to achieve gnōsis.  The specific nature of nous is not always clear in the Hermetic texts, and some Hermetic texts tend to describe it differently from others; as such, it is not clear whether nous is something external to the soul and “added onto/into” worthy souls that lack it and seek it, or whether it is simply a faculty preexistent in the soul but which lies dormant until awakened.  Either way, not all people have access to nous, and realizing that access (and the potential gnōsis it permits) is an early part of the Way of Hermēs.

Why is the cosmos described as “evil”?

Although the words “good” and “evil” are bandied about in the Hermetic texts, it’s important to remember that these were, for the most part, used in a philosophical sense and not a moral sense (although the moral senses of the words come about from the philosophical senses). Suffice it to say that the Good, as a philosophical concept, is equated with God, and anything that is not God is thus not Good; as a result, anything that is created by God is not Good, but because all things are in Good, all things are likewise in (or participate in) the Good. This can be expanded to notions of being able to be moved by passion, change, corruption, or the like, which are all discussed in the Hermetic texts, but this is the simple notion; thus, evil is just “not Good”.  When extended to morality, things are morally good if they draw one closer to God, and evil if they do not.  A single act done by one person may be morally good for them, depending on their fate and whether or not they do that thing in accordance with fate and with the awareness that nous confers, while that same act may be morally evil for another depending on their fate and awareness (or the lack thereof) that nous confers.  It can be a tricky subject to tackle at times, but in general, the more we align ourselves to act in accordance with our fate in this world and with the will of God directing our souls, the more good we do, since that is what helps us reach closer to the good.

Why did God create evil or allow it to exist?

It’s fair to give God in the Hermetic texts the usual “all-good, all-knowing, and all-powerful” description according to the usual arguments of theodicy, but we also need to give God the descriptor “all-rational”, too; in that light, this is the best of all possible worlds, and all things that exist and happen do so according to the will of God (remember the Providence-Necessity-Fate chain described before).  Evil, in this light, doesn’t exist except as an illusion of duality, and the same generative and change-based processes that produce “evil” in the cosmos also purge the cosmos of that same “evil”.  Suffering, likewise, only exists as an artifact of sensation and ignorance, and it too is liable and obligated to pass away from existence just as much (and just as fast) as it passes into existence.  In this, moral evil and suffering exist as part and parcel of the cosmos in which we live just as much as moral good and pleasure, because both are part of the same overall creation, and the existence of one logically necessitates the existence of the other.  By coming to understand the processes of the cosmos, we also understand the nature of things and how they impact us, whether for weal or for woe; similarly, by coming to better understand the cosmos and our place in it, we also learn the means of rising above and beyond the cosmos, and thus away from suffering and closer to the peace of divinity.

In Book II of the Corpus Hermeticum, it says something weird about having children and how those who don’t have children are cursed. Um…?

This part has caught a number of people off-guard, seemingly out of place when it comes to Hermetic discussions, as it seems to imply a sort of divine retribution for not rearing children.  After all, not all people are willing or able to bear or raise children, sometimes for very good reasons (e.g. lack of means) and other times for reasons outside their control (e.g. infertility).  That being said, in order to maintain the good ordering of the cosmos, humanity is enjoined to continue reproducing itself, which Book II of the Corpus Hermeticum interprets to place a moral obligation on individuals to continue that work of reproduction and the continuation of the human race.  This text can just as much be said to apply to physical children as well as to spiritual children; thus, those who can manage to “increase by increasing and multiply by multiplying”, whether by having children of one’s own or by supporting the children of others, or by giving the gift of spiritual birth to those who seek the Way of Hermēs (since the spiritual womb that all have is used as a metaphor in several Hermetic texts) are all valid ways to fulfill this sort of obligation.  Further, one can also interpret this injunction to have children even more generally by interpreting all acts of creation to be one’s children, including the development of medicine, the cultivation of plants, the generation of art, the ensoulment of statues and talismans, the production of invention, and so forth; all of these are just as valid ways to engage in the work of creation in addition to bearing and raising children.

What about the Seven Hermetic Principles/Laws?

This is just more stuff from The Kybalion, and has no meaningful bearing on the study of Hermeticism.  Unless you’re actively engaged with The Kybalion as a self-help book, all they’re good for is getting more clicks on YouTube for badly-overdone video shorts on what miserably passes for “content” nowadays.

Something something gender?

We really don’t need any more bad or historical cis takes in spirituality at this point.  Besides the fact that the oft-vaunted “principle of gender” is nothing more than more tripe from The Kybalion, there’s also nothing—zero, zip, zilch, nada—in Hermeticism that teaches about any divine or essential notion of masculinity or femininity.  Rather, God is explicitly androgyne (which, in classical terms, is also equivalent to saying “genderless”), and as the essential human (i.e. the soul) is made in the image of God, so too is the essential human also androgyne (or genderless).  Even the original humans were considered to be bimorphic, consisting of both genders (in much the same way as Aristophanēs’ story regarding the origin of love in Plato’s Symposium) before they were split into distinct genders.  Gender only comes about in terms of physical bodies for the explicit and sole purpose of biological reproduction, and otherwise has no bearing on any Hermetic teaching or practice.  While some might find the notion of spiritual or divine gender comfortable or useful for their models of cosmology and theology, there is no such notion in Hermeticism, nor is one needed in order to make sense of the cosmos, of divinity, or of ourselves from a Hermetic standpoint.  If there is any indication at all regarding gender in Hermeticism, even when it comes down to the physical level, it is that they are to be held equal in power and ability, just with distinct roles to play in a small handful of acts related to procreation.

What about the role of women in Hermeticism?

It is true that the vast majority of Hermetic texts involve male characters, or characters which are grammatically described as male in the original Greek, Latin, or Coptic language: Hermēs Trismegistos, Asklēpios, Tat, Ammōn, Osiris, Poimandrēs, and the like.  The only woman who appears is Isis in the Korē Kosmou texts, where she appears as the mentor and instructor of Hōros taking on the same role that Hermēs did for his students.  The dearth of women in the Hermetic dialogs can be attributed largely to the culturally male-dominant milieu in which the Hermetic texts (and, for that matter, the vast majority of religious and philosophical texts of the time) were written, but this should not be construed to say that the absence of women is indicative of anything significant.  As mentioned earlier, neither sex nor gender have any role to play on any level except that of biological procreation; in all other respects, both in this world and in any other, women are just as important, valid, necessary, and powerful as men, because there is no fundamental distinction between them that matters on any level beyond the merely physical, and that for one concern only.  

What about the disagreements in doctrine amongst the Hermetic texts themselves?

It is true that not all the Hermetic texts agree on all details or on all points; after all, they were written by different teachers across several hundred years with varying influences, even if they all agreed on the same high-level things and participated in the same fundamental cultural, social, religious, and philosophical environment.  Sometimes this is a case where different teachers started with the same set of premises, but used different logical arguments or different perspectives to end up at different conclusions; other times, different fundamental premises were used that led to different conclusions, even if the overall logic was the same.  In some cases, different things were taught to students at different times, such as a simpler and more general model for beginner students but more complicated models with unexpected outcomes for more advanced students who are already comfortable with the general models; in other cases, one teacher’s takeaway from a mystic vision leads them to have information and conclusions that fundamentally change their perception of a particular teaching.  It is a fool’s errand to try to get all the different and differing points of doctrine in the Hermetic texts to agree with each other completely, even if they can be said to agree generally; these differences should be understood for what they are.  Such inconsistencies do not mean that Hermeticism is a fundamentally flawed form of mysticism, but that there is a wide variety of ways to perceive, reckon, and approach the cosmos and divinity even within the same overall milieu.

Did Hermetic doctrines or beliefs change over time?

To be sure, Hermeticism is not something necessarily fixed in time, as it continued to evolve through the millennia across several continents, adapting and adopting other beliefs and practices for its own ends just as much as it was adapted and adopted by other beliefs and practices for theirs. That being said, to trace the specific growth and evolution of Hermeticism through all these circumstances can be difficult.  As a result, such doctrines and beliefs definitely underwent change, but not all such changes were done in a way that furthered the logic of Hermeticism, and some such changes ended up causing even more difference or disagreement in doctrine than what was there previously, especially if it meant Hermeticism could be made more tolerable to otherwise intolerant religious communities or authorities.  Unless one is specifically focusing on a particular post-classical era or context in which Hermetic doctrines were present in some form or another, it is recommended to always draw things back to their origins and compare against the original fundamental Hermetic texts to get a better idea of what changed, how it changed, why it changed, and whether it is in accord with the original logic and goals of the Way of Hermēs.

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

It depends on the belief; if we use the classical Hermetic texts (the origin of the notion of “Hermeticism”) as a foundation to gauge the “Hermeticness” of something, then we can identify things that are compatible with Hermeticism and things that are incompatible with Hermeticism.  There’s a general rubric I like to recommend for things like this, whether or not such beliefs are modern:

  1. If a particular doctrine agrees with the doctrines of the Hermetic texts, both in means as well as in ends (i.e. they both end up at the same place and using the same road), then the thing can just be considered Hermetic as it is.
  2. If a particular doctrine does not agree with the Hermetic texts but does not disagree either (i.e. the Hermetic texts don’t talk about it at all and the logic of Hermeticism does not preclude it), then it can be used or adopted by Hermeticism within reasonable bounds, until extending such a doctrine begins to conflict with those of the Hermetic texts.
  3. If a particular doctrine disagrees with the Hermetic texts and relies on fundamentally conflicting assumptions, then it is not Hermetic, but may (with enough effort and changes) be altered or adapted by Hermeticism for Hermetic ends.

When discussing such doctrines that are added to or which extend the explicit doctrines of Hermeticism according to the Hermetic texts, it should be made clear what they are, why they are included, and whether and how much they agree with the explicit underlying doctrines or why they are permissible.  In other words, it is better to justify one’s approach in including such doctrines rather than simply adding them haphazardly in because one can.

Dominoes and Orisha

This summer was a lot more writing-filled than I would ever have anticipated, and not just because of the whole Reviewing the Trithemian Conjuration thing, either. (I’ll stop harping on it eventually.) Really, this year was more surprising than not in a lot of ways, and one of the things I ended up getting myself into was, of all possible things, domino fortune-telling. Like…that one really did catch me off-guard, not least because I’m kinda terrible at actually playing the game. What started it all was, back on Curious Cat earlier this year, I was asked about the connections between dominoes and geomancy; since both geomantic figures and dominoes are composed of combinations of points, there’s gotta be a connection there between them, right? Nope! I have never once encountered any connection to dominoes in any geomantic text I’ve ever come across, whether traditional or modern, and I couldn’t think up any connection between them, either. I charted the different dot-patterns and tried to fit the dominoes with geomantic figures, and I just couldn’t come up with anything. They’re just too different to make simple comparisons with, and there’s not a lot else to go on. It just goes to show that just because different things kinda-sorta superficially look the same doesn’t mean that they’re connected at all.

And that’s where I intended to leave dominoes. Except…I didn’t. In fact, I pretty much outright couldn’t. Something snagged my attention hard to dominoes, and so I began researching domino fortune-telling. It might have been a spirit guide or ancestor of mine waiting for just such an opportunity, or it might have been something genuinely instinctive and curious in myself. Either way, this was something that I couldn’t simply drop, and I ended up taking it quite a bit further than was probably reasonable, but whatever.

It started with my recalling an old hand-me-down book from my brother’s neopagan days, Ray Buckland’s 1992 Secrets of Gypsy Fortunetelling, which had a brief section on dominoes. I dug the book out from the back of my dusty shelves, and started there. It seemed straightforward enough: each of the 28 bones of a double-six set of dominoes has a particular set of omens associated with it, along with meanings particular to the suits (the number of pips on either end of a bone) and weights (the total number of pips on a bone). There didn’t seem to be a lot to it, and there wasn’t a lot there to begin with. So, not being satisfied with just one book, I started to see what else was out there. Skip ahead a few months: 50 books later and half as many websites in several European languages, I ended up compiling over 150 pages of notes for the various interpretations of the bones, how they seemed to shift and turn and twist over the decades, what different authors seem to have thought about their own takes, and the like. These notes ended up getting transformed into a book format, which is now at over 200 pages and which will go to print once I finish getting a few other things wrapped up with it.

I should note that domino fortune-telling isn’t that old a practice. The earliest text I can find that describes this system of domino fortune-telling is from 1873, Mehemet Ali’s Oriental Interpretation of Dreams. This text gives a simple one-line interpretation for the 28 bones of a double-six set of dominoes, and these interpretations were later copied, sometimes vertabim from one text to another, sometimes expanded from one whole sentence to one whole paragraph. Now, I’m not ruling out the possibility of domino fortune-telling being in earlier texts or having an earlier origin than the early 1870s, but I have noticed that this type of dream-interpretation/pop-divination book (and there are dozens of examples on both sides of the Atlantic!) doesn’t include sections for dominoes before 1873, but they almost all did after 1873. (Side note: many of these texts include sections on playing card divination, numerology, astrology, and palmistry, but none include anything about geomancy, or at least, none in any reasonable way beyond the simplest of look-up tables, like in the 1884 Napoleon’s Oraculum and Dream Book, and even there, there’s no connection between dominoes and geomancy.) Even if we want to give the origins of domino fortune-telling an earlier date, we just don’t have the evidence to make it too early. After all, dominoes were only introduced into (or invented in, depending on your historical approach) Europe, specifically France and Italy, in the 1700s, reaching England and Germany only in the later part of that century, and spreading from there into the Americas after that. So, if it seems that the art of domino fortune-telling is young, then that’s because it is, because dominoes themselves are young in the West.

An interesting thing I noticed was that, as domino fortune-telling texts came over into the Americas, a particular subset of modern Spanish texts with Caribbean or Latin American origins all seemed to share a common trend not seen in other domino texts: links between dominoes with the orisha, West African deities carried over into the Caribbean and Brazil through the slave trade, with one of the most famous branches of orisha religion being a Cuban one, La Regla de Ocha Lukumí, also known as Santería. Myself being an initiated priest of Ogún in this religion, I was intrigued by this. Sure, dominoes are a huge thing in the Caribbean, and Cubans are known to start outright jihad over the game (sometimes friendly, sometimes not), but to see dominoes prescribing ritual solutions or suggesting things about orisha alongside the traditional interpretations of dominoes caught me off-guard. Sure, it’s not a lot of information along these lines, but it does exist in a handful of texts and sources, so that got me wondering how this mash-up came to be. This led to a separate strain of research alongside the rest of my domino fortune-telling investigations.

Now, bear with me here, dear reader. I know there are a few unknowns here, and I know that I’m still young in Lukumí, so there’s plenty that I don’t know. But something about the mash-up between dominoes and orisha just doesn’t smell right or feel right to me, so let me explain why. If I’m wrong, then I look forward to being educated better on it by those who know better than I do.

The thing about Lukumí (and orisha religion in general) is that, for all its own innovation and adaptations it’s had to undergo in order to survive under oppression and slavery, it’s still a comparatively rigid and closed system; it is in many ways as much an institution and religion as the Roman Catholic Church. After all, the word “regla” indicates “rule”, like the Benedictine Rule for monks in Catholicism, in the sense of there being a defined set of protocols and practices that must be followed in order for something to be considered legitimate within the bounds of orisha religion (or at least a particular type of orisha religion, like Brazilian Candomblé, Yoruba Traditional/Isheshe, Trinidadian Shango Baptist, etc., all of which have slightly different sets of protocols). This is founded on the pacts that we humans in the initiated priesthoods of orisha have made and established with orisha, and which are propagated as part of initiation into these priesthoods: if you’re a priest, you’re held to those pacts, and if you’re not in those pacts, then you’re not a priest. Within these pacts is regla; outside these pacts is…well, not a lot of note, really. To operate outside of these pacts is to operate outside regla, which isn’t looked upon favorably and wherein lies danger. This might sound like gatekeeping, but as an initiated priest myself, it’s literally my job to gatekeep: priests are the ones who maintain these pacts with orisha, and until the day comes when there are no more living priests of the orisha, these pacts will be maintained and must be defended. Orisha worship is a living and vibrant tradition, not something to be reconstructed (like Nordic, Hellenic, or Celtic practices) or approached on a whim based on something neat you read in a book that one time. To work within orisha religion is to initiate, study, train, and follow the practices and customs of your lineage based on the pacts that founded them; unlike other modern pagan or non-Abrahamic practices available in the West, orisha religion isn’t a DIY build-from-the-ground-up practice you can just do as you like with. You don’t have to initiate to worship orisha, but you do have to initiate to “work with” them (which is a turn of phrase that I find increasingly off-putting, but which I think gets my point across here).

Similarly, unlike many forms of popularly-practiced paganism, Lukumí doesn’t lend itself to free-wheeling syncretism due to the importance of maintaining these pacts and regla; you can’t just up and say that Ogún speaks through this particular Tarot card or that Oshún problems are indicated given a particular astrological transit, because neither Tarot nor astrology have any connection to orisha. Yes, there is (limited) syncretism in Lukumí, developed according to a Lukumí-specific logic, and those are valid and legitimate to varying extents depending on who you’re talking to, especially when you factor in an old-world style of Catholic saint devotion a la interpretatio Graeca. But syncretism has its limits, and when it comes to communicating with orisha or discerning their actions and recommendations, there are certain sanctioned forms of divination that are accepted by both orisha and their priests, e.g. dilogún (reading with sixteen cowrie shells), obi (reading with four pieces of coconut meat or kola nut), or Ifá (its own thing). If something isn’t sanctioned, then it’s not regla; if it’s not regla, it’s not legitimate; if it’s not legitimate, it can’t be trusted; if it can’t be trusted, it shouldn’t be used. And, well…dominoes just aren’t sanctioned for orisha-related divination, just like Tarot or runes with orisha.

There are only a small number of websites that talk about “el quenkén”, supposedly the term for (Lukumí-specific) orisha-centric domino reading based on a similar game played in Nigeria (about which I can find nothing). Unlike other topics involving either dominoes or orisha, websites about orisha-centric domino divination are really scarce, which itself suggests that this just isn’t a “thing”. In print, there are only three texts I can find that talk about this topic, the earliest being Luis Manuel Núñez’ 1989 Santeria: A Practical Guide to Afro-Caribbean Magic; the other two texts, Juan Garcia Cortez’ The Osha: Secrets of the Yoruba-Lucumi-Santeria Religion in the United States and Americas and Carlos G. y Poenna’s The Yoruba Domino Oracle, both published in 2000, offer further developments and explanations of orisha-related domino reading, often directly echoing Núñez. All three texts include the same basic information as the non-quenkén traditional domino texts, just with an added orisha flair. That there are only three texts on this topic, all of which are incredibly modern, compared to the dozens of books about obi, dilogún, and Ifá that go back a hundred years or more, gives me even more cause for concern. Further, there’s an interesting trend between these three texts:

  • Núñez’ text introduces domino reading by saying that dominoes “are not as respected or trusted as the formal oracles” of obi, dilogún, or Ifá, and many of the domino interpretations include directions to “throw [obi]” to confirm something with a particular orisha or to “go see a Santero or Babalawo” for further investigation and reading with dilogún and Ifá, respectively.
  • Cortez’ book, which mixes legitimate practices with illegitimate ones and which includes errors that would only be known to those who are properly initiated, doesn’t include the outright disclaimer that dominoes aren’t as trusted or respected as the sanctioned oracles, but he admits that he “was lucky enough to inherit [this method of reading] from my father’s Santeria book”. This rings odd to me, since Lukumí is primarily an oral tradition where one learns from observation and practice, not books. Moreover, like Núñez, many of these domino interpretations also say to go to a properly-initiated priest for further investigation.
  • y Poenna’s book says that reading with dominoes “is an explicit divination system that has been used for many years in the Yoruba tradition” (based on my research and the accounts of my elders, this statement is a total fabrication), but also says that “they are only helpful for people who are leading stable lifestyles” (what of people who have unstable ones and need stability?) and that “they are not usually read when someone is in a huge crisis” (what good of it, then?), and “often refer the querent to additional divinations using” obi, dilogún, or Ifá. It claims that “domino divination has its roots in the various earth-based systems of geomancy” (it isn’t) and that “it is possible that dominoes themselves were originally created as a means of geomantic divination” (they weren’t) but also that the practice “traces its origin to the Yoruba oracle of Ifa” (it doesn’t). Again, many of the bones instruct the reader to go to a “Pardon” or “Pi de Santo” (horrific misspellings of “padrino” and “pai de santo”, respectively, though the latter term is properly Brazilian and not Spanish or Cuban), or to a babalawo.

The evidence from the above texts speaks loudly to me: orisha-centric domino reading is inherently considered to be incomplete due to the necessary reliance on other diviners and other systems of divination and, fundamentally, cannot be trusted as a form of communication with and from orisha like what these texts otherwise claim. There are indeed times when a sanctioned oracle in Lukumí can redirect you to another priest to get more information, but these situations are well-understood and backed up by the logic of these systems; dominoes, however, do not appear to have such sanction, and it seems like it’s an intrusion into orisha religion, or at least Afro-Caribbean orisha religious culture. Domino fortune-telling on its own outside orisha religion has never had such warnings of “go to a card reader” or “do not trust this oracle more than this other older one”, but it’s only within the context of orisha religion that we see such warnings. That’s pretty telling to me that dominoes aren’t sanctioned, aren’t regla, aren’t legitimate, and aren’t trustworthy in the context of orisha-related practices. This isn’t to say that dominoes aren’t useful for divination and fortune-telling (they most certainly are!), or that diviners who also happen to be olorishas can’t use them for divination (they most certainly can!), just that dominoes should not be read in this particular way with these references to orisha, sacrifices, and the like. In other words, domino reading in general is fine, but orisha-centric domino reading is not.

Now, there is the possibility that maybe, just maybe, orisha-centric domino divination was really carried on from older Yoruba sources and used as a form of communication with orisha by some legitimate priests, weird as it may sound to us nowadays. Or, alternatively, it could feasibly have happened that this was an innovation that was invented and adopted by some legitimate priests and considered to be legitimate within their own small communities, just not a wide-spread or well-known one, and that nobody in my lineage and nobody that I’m in contact with can vouch for it due to an absence of knowledge. This kind of thing can and does happen; there are Lukumí lineages in eastern Cuba that do things incredibly differently than in western Cuba, there are legitimate differences in approach and practice between metropolitan and rural practitioners, and those who are unfamiliar with these differences can err out of ignorance and incorrectly say that different practices they’re not aware of must be illegitimate outright, even when they’re actually legitimate. This sort of unfortunate accusation can and does happen, and it can cause harm to many people when it does. So, I’m not 100% ruling out the possibility that maybe, just maybe, dominoes were used by someone in Lukumí-style orisha religion as a means of communication with orisha with good intent. But, doing what I can do to find out as much as I can find, that honestly doesn’t look like that’s the case. Orisha religion (whether in the Caribbean, Latin America, or West Africa) is much older than dominoes, what records exist about orisha-centric domino reading are all super modern, and none of the respected and well-informed elders I can contact are aware of it. While I won’t mistake evidence for proof, what evidence I have doesn’t speak well for this.

It really would be fascinating to use dominoes for communicating with orisha and obtaining their advice, but there’s no real evidence that orisha-centric domino divination is any older than I am, and judging by the accounts of my elders, there seems to be no legitimate history behind the practice. Granted, my elders are only human, but they have 30, 50, or more years in the religion with their own elders, families, and friends; heck, there’s one example saying that orisha-centric domino reading isn’t valid written by a well-known elder priestess of Yemonja all the way back in December 2005. Orisha-centric domino divination really does seem to be no more than an unsanctioned invention in trying to use the gods and sacred advice of one initiation-restricted religion in an open, unrelated practice. After all, Núñez, Cortez, and y Poenna all agree that, unlike reading obi, dilogún, or Ifá, reading dominoes is not restricted to the priesthood, but without training (which only comes about as part of initiating into the priesthood), non-initiates wouldn’t know how to interpret what orisha is properly saying and what to prescribe because of it beyond the little they have written in their books, especially when compared to the encyclopedic amounts of knowledge and lore reached through dilogún or Ifá. I mean, when you’re trying to get religious guidance and advice, you should want an initiated, respectable, trained priest who has the power, authority, license, and expertise to prescribe ritual and religious solutions, and who knows why and when such things should be prescribed.

Let’s be honest, even from a practical standpoint: no non-initiate has any business pulling the 0-3 domino from the boneyard and telling anyone (according to Núñez) that “you need to feed Eleggua a white rooster on Monday and do what Eleggua tells you to do”, especially if they themselves don’t have an Eleggua, have never thrown obi, or have never sacrificed a bird before. On top of the fact that non-initiates have no license or authority to speak on behalf of orisha, there are other things wrong with just saying even that much that non-initiates wouldn’t be aware of, especially without any particular cause or need pointed out in the reading beyond the most vague of indications, which the nature of domino reading doesn’t really get at to the same depth, breadth, or length that dilogún or Ifá would. It’s exactly like if someone whose own spiritual education doesn’t extend any further than a few meet-ups at the local new-age store were to get the Tarot of the Orishas and start doing readings “with orisha” and telling people “Oshún is on the Ace of Cups here in your querent spot in the spread, so Oshún clearly owns your head”. It just doesn’t work like that, because dominoes (with pretty much complete certainty) don’t and can’t speak for orisha, just as Tarot doesn’t and can’t speak for orisha.

If, dear reader, orisha-centric domino reading is indeed a non-sanctioned invention of popular spirituality that takes orisha from its original sanctioned context, as all the evidence I can find suggests it is, then this would be a good example of appropriation.

Now, as I said, it could still be that orisha-centric domino reading was preserved from an earlier Yoruba tradition (incredibly unlikely) or (questionably) invented either by initiates in Lukumí or by those who were not initiated yet adjacent to initiates (and who probably didn’t want to get into the hassle of properly initiating into the religion, as was/is seen with some spiritual workers who did/do prescribe orisha-related things without initiation). Still, it’s possible for people of the same overall culture to appropriate from a subset of that culture when things proper to that subset are not open to others outside it. So, while this isn’t necessarily outright cultural appropriation, it is religious appropriation. And, yes, it is true that Lukumí does grow and evolve and adapt, within particular parameters and following a particular logic, just as any living tradition does—but this just ain’t it, chief. The absolute most that dominoes might be able to indicate along these lines is that something is up with some part of your own private, priestly, or orisha practices and you might want to get that checked out, but that could apply to any sort of spiritual influence around you, not just or simply orisha (and there are many more influences around us than just them at any given moment), nor would it talk at all in the same way with the same authority, legitimacy, and clarity how dilogún or Ifá might actually talk. Dominoes might be able to speak more to (or even for) other spirits you work with, venerate, or worship, especially if they agree to it, but orisha aren’t in that category. This is, in some ways, much like how espiritismo (the Cuban, Puerto Rican, and Caribbean forms of Kardecian Spiritism) interplays with Lukumí: orisha do not and cannot talk in a misa espiritual (basically a séance), but non-orisha spirits associated with them (e.g. deceased priests or culture heroes) can touch on orisha-related things just as they could non-orisha-related things. Still, espiritismo does not and cannot stand in for divinatory or oracular message from orisha, even if some of the mechanisms seem similar, because orisha belong to a closed religion in which espiritismo has no part; the same goes for dominoes. To cross that line is to enter into intrusion into a closed, initiation-locked system and to appropriate from it.

Of course, by my own admission, I don’t think the whole history of the practice of orisha-centric domino reading can be reliably known with such a paucity of sources, and I am still young in the religion as a whole, and thus still learning quite a bit! But, from everything I can see, know, hear, and learn? Bringing something like domino fortune-telling that has no legitimate origin in regla into it (or, rather, taking things out of it for use by non-initiates with already-not-regla domino fortune-telling in the role an initiate would be expected to play within regla) is effectively appropriating and misusing the religion and divination system both. Orisha-centric domino reading does not appear to have a longstanding practice despite (a very few) claims of it being “old”, nor does it have a theological backing to support its use with orisha. And to those who say that it does, I reply: show me the odu in which the dominoes are born and that orisha can speak through them as they would the cowries, and show me your lineage of teachers (not books) who teach this method of divination, because if there is such an odu and if you have such a lineage, I’d love to know about it to properly, happily, and quickly correct my views and this post.

Barring a miraculous discovery of some truly-secret low-key divinatory practice that doesn’t properly fit into Lukumí yet validates what Núñez, Cortez, and y Poena write about the topic—and I honestly don’t think such a revelation is ever going to happen—mixing dominoes with orisha is not something I can support, nor is it something any legitimate initiate or non-initiate can really use in orisha-related or domino-related practices because of the gross disservice it does to the religion and the gross misunderstandings it makes to domino fortune-telling. And, honestly, I really hesitated whether to make known these authors and book titles. I only bring up these texts to indicate the sources I’m talking about, but I emphatically and strongly discourage the reader from reading them, both to protect what legitimate information is contained therein from those who are not initiated (and, likewise, to protect the noninitiate from them), and to prevent the various mistakes in these books from spreading further. However, on top of these books already being published, cat yronwode’s Throwing the Bones: How to Foretell the Future with Bones, Shells, and Nuts encourages readers to check out y Poenna’s book, which I think is irresponsible and dangerous out of ignorance, even if meant helpfully, so I may as well be explicit here about these books to offer some sort of correction in the public record. What’s most troubling is that at least two of the above authors, if not all three, have or at least claim initiation into Lukumí, so I’m not sure where their information is really coming from or what lineages they represent. But, based on the knowledge and accounts of my elders whom I trust, I can’t find anything legitimate or historical about this practice within the context of orisha religion.

Domino fortune-telling is something which I gladly accept, study, encourage, and am myself beginning to practice—it’s just that I should (and will) only do so responsibly outside Lukumí, not within it. There has never been too much information behind it, but I’ve been able to develop a really strong and widespread body of information for each of its symbols, which is fantastic to make it a really helpful and usable system of divination, but it’s just not on the same level as legitimate forms of divination of orisha religion. And that’s okay! It doesn’t have to be, since the focus isn’t for communicating with orisha anyway. I think that’s the best way to go about it, both for myself and for others. So, for my readers who are likewise interested in domino fortune-telling: the core stuff is good and useful, just set aside anything that mixes it with orisha. And, for my readers who are interested in orisha religion: don’t pay attention to anyone who says they’ll do an orisha reading for you with anything less than legitimate methods.

On Fasting (and All the Various Ways You Can Fast)

Another wonderful question from Curious Cat:

What alternative recommendations would suggest to someone who cannot fast due to health issues? I already eat relatively clean … I’d like to re-start my system, but can’t entirely forgo food due to a compromised immune system. Any suggestions?

This is a surprisingly deep question, and one with plenty of alternatives.  I answered it on Curious Cat, but I want to go into more depth about it here, because it turns out there’s a lot to say.  Also, it just so happens that I’ve written about fasting long ago in two posts from 2012, here and here, which I only remembered after writing most of this current post.  Still, I think it’s time for a refresher and see what new information I might be able to put to paper here, now that I’m a little older and maybe a little bit wiser, too.

First, what exactly is fasting?  Fasting is fundamentally a practice of abstinence that typically focuses on one’s diet and which is composed of three main things:

  • A set of prohibitions on food, drink, and other substances we take into our bodies
  • A set of prohibitions on how we take food, drink, and other substances into our bodies
  • A duration of time for which above prohibitions are to be observed

The most common sorts of fasting is an absolute fast (absolutely no food or liquid) or a water fast (no food but water is permitted), and this is typically what we think of when we hear about fasting.  There are plenty of reasons for this—diagnostic fasting to achieve a baseline for medical testing or hunger strikes for the sake of political or humanitarian protests come to mind—but one of the most common reasons for fasting is for religious or spiritual purposes, and is seen in many religions across the world for an equally wide number of reasons:

  • Cultivate and maintain discipline
  • Develop spiritual powers or blessings
  • Atonement and repentance for sins or lawlessness
  • Purification of the body and spirit
  • Devotion to higher powers
  • Mourning
  • Following the example of a saint, prophet, or holy exemplar of the religion
  • Preparation for a ritual or feast

Basically, in general, when we fast for a religious or spiritual purpose, we’re essentially engaging in a form of asceticism, putting our body under an ordeal of abstinence from things that please us our our senses, holding back our taste for worldly sustenance so that we can instead feast on heavenly delights.  Asceticism and some forms of drastic fasting can also include self-mortification, but we’re not interested in that here; we don’t want to harm or destroy the body, but we do want to control and purify it through abstinence.

The thing is that absolute fasting or water fasting can be dangerous for many people: those with autoimmune disorders, blood sugar disorders (especially diabetes), hormonal imbalances (e.g. thyroid or adrenaline issues), and the like can and will suffer harm to their bodies up to and including death if they go without food for too long.  Moreover, there are also a number of religions where fasting just isn’t a thing or which is actively discouraged.  Heck, for myself, I have a specific spiritual prohibition from La Regla de Ocha Lukumí (a.k.a. Santería) where I can’t skip lunch, which I interpret a little more broadly to mean “no absolute/water fasts”, so I can’t engage in that kind of practice anymore, either.  To that end, I engage in intermittent fasting, where I don’t eat from sunrise to sunset, a la Muslim Ramaḍān or the Bahá’í Nineteen Day Fast, though I do permit myself to have water at all times and only permit other drinks during eating-time, if I don’t set a prohibition on those as well.  In the end, though, it’s important to remember that fasting isn’t the be-all end-all of spiritual practices, or even of ways to purify and refine the body and spirit.  If you’re part of a religion or tradition that recommends or requires it, or if you feel like you should engage in it, then do so, and do so safely and reasonably without causing harm or torment to yourself; otherwise, you should feel no obligation to do so, since there are plenty of other practices you can engage in towards the same ends.

But, let’s say you want to do some sort of fast or fasting-like practice, but you can’t do an absolute or water fast for health reasons, and you’re not discouraged from a fasting practice in general.  What can you do?  Quite a lot, actually.  If we interpret “fasting” to mean “abstinence” more broadly, and consider the three parts of fasting (prohibitions on food/liquid/etc., prohibitions on how we eat/drink/etc., and durations), then there are plenty of things we can hone in on, whether taken as a single thing to abstain from or taken as a cluster of rules to be observed simultaneously.  In short, rather than an absolute fast or a water fast, we engage in a so-called partial fast, where we only abstain from particular things in our diet.  The following lists of prohibitions are by no means exhaustive, but they’re intended as examples for further inspiration, and are pulled from a variety of traditions, cultures, practices, religions, and the like for consideration.

Restrictions on what food or drink is permissible :

  • No processed grains
  • No grains at all
  • No leavened bread
  • No bread or flour-based products at all (e.g. noodles, porridge, crackers).
  • No grain-, starch-, pulse-, bean-, tuber-, or nut-based staple foods
  • No meat of mammals or birds (essentially a pescatarian diet)
  • No meat at all (essentially a vegetarian diet)
  • No dairy
  • No animal products generally (essentially a vegan diet)
  • No gritty foods
  • No solid foods (i.e. broths and soups only)
  • No oils added to food or drink
  • No sweeteners added to food or drink
  • No spices added to food or drink
  • No salt added to food or drink
  • No sweet food eaten or drink drunk for the reason of being sweet
  • No carbonated drinks
  • No drinks that are not plain water
  • No drinking clear alcohols (e.g. white rum or vodka, but excluding creme liqueurs or red wines)
  • No drinking alcohol at all
  • No drinking more than a set amount of liquid each day
  • No food prepared with sauce, gravy, or dressing of any kind
  • No food or drink of a particular color (e.g. red food, brown food, white food)
  • No food or drink that are root vegetables (e.g. potatoes, onions, carrots)
  • No food or drink that are not root vegetables
  • No food or drink that contain caffeine of any kind (e.g. coffee, tea, chocolate)
  • No food or drink that contain a specific kind of ingredient (e.g. pumpkin, eggs, wheat, corn)
  • No food or drink that doesn’t contain a specific kind of ingredient (e.g. tree nuts, legumes, potatoes, beans)
  • No vitamins, dietary supplements, or medicines that are not strictly necessary for medical reasons
  • Etc.

Restrictions on how food or drink is cooked or processed:

  • No cooked food or drink
  • No cooked food or drink older than 24 hours (i.e. no leftovers)
  • No preserved food or drink
  • No prepackaged food or drink
  • No food or drinks that are colder than ambient room temperature (e.g. nothing ice-cold or chilled)
  • No food or drinks that are hotter than ambient room temperature (e.g. nothing warm or hot)
  • No food or drink that has been touched by fire
  • No food or drink that has been cooked with or come in contact with metal
  • No food or drink that is fermented
  • No food or drink that was not cooked or prepared by your own hands
  • No food or drink that was not freely given to you by another person
  • No food or drink that was not prepared using a specially-dedicated, consecrated, or otherwise set-apart set of cookware or dishes
  • Etc.

Restrictions on when we eat or drink:

  • No eating between sunset and sunrise
  • No eating or drinking between sunset and sunrise
  • No dining more than once a day
  • No dining before a particular task or set of tasks have been done
  • Etc.

Restrictions on how we eat or drink:

  • No engaging in talking, writing, or any other activity when eating
  • No dining at restaurants, at other people’s homes, or anywhere outside your own home
  • No dining with other people
  • No dining unless in the company of other people
  • No dining with metal implements
  • No dining while seated at a table (i.e. only while sitting on the ground)
  • Etc.

Besides just focusing on dietary prohibitions, though, there are also behavioral prohibitions that we can incorporate, either instead of dietary prohibitions or in addition to them.  Again, if we engage in fasting as a means of restraining ourselves by means of abstaining from things that give us sensual pleasures and distractions from spiritual development, then we can also include a bunch of behaviors, habits, addictions, or other things we like doing (rather than just eating or drinking) that can be at least as spiritually distracting or impure as any kind of food or drink.  After all, consider that the original questioner from Curious Cat already eats pretty clean and sparingly, so trying to restrict or further inhibit or prohibit their food/drink intake might just be a case of diminishing returns, so it might not be a bad idea to expand our scope of prohibitions to behaviors.  Some examples include (again, not a definitive or exhaustive list):

  • No sexual activity, whether with someone else or by oneself
  • No playing games or sports, listening to music, watching movies or TV, or any other activity for the sole purpose of entertainment
  • No social media
  • No computer or mobile use between sunset and sunrise
  • No smoking of tobacco, cannabis, salvia, or any other inhaled drug
  • No recreational or psychotropic drugs except those for explicitly medical or required spiritual purposes
  • No sleeping on a bed or any surface higher than the width of two fingers
  • No wearing makeup, nail polish, or any other cosmetics for the purpose of embellishing or hiding the natural form of the body
  • No using perfumes, colognes, scented oils, fragrances, or any other odoriferous substance outside of purely religious or spiritual reasons
  • No wearing jewelry, fine clothes, immodest clothes, or any other articles for the purpose of ostentation or displaying appeal
  • No wearing clothes of a particular color (e.g. black clothes, red clothes)
  • No bathing or washing any part of the body with hot water
  • No being in direct sunlight or moonlight
  • No being in complete darkness
  • No lying, exaggerating, undue modesty, deceit, or misleading of any kind
  • No cursing, arguing, yelling, raising one’s voice, gossiping, or using any kind of heated or improper language
  • No violence to any living being
  • No using or carrying of weapons of any kind
  • No using, lighting, carrying, or being around fire
  • No sleeping in late or taking naps
  • No cutting any of the hair on the head or the body
  • No capitalizing the first-person singular pronoun “I” (i.e. always write it as “i went to the store”)
  • Etc.

(I admit that a bunch of those behavioral rules are those that are common-enough prohibitions from the initiatory year of Lukumí, the Year in White, which I had to observe for…quite some time, and some I still have to observe for other reasons, but are general enough and smart enough rules to be used by plenty of people.)

With all the options above we have for abstaining from particular foods and drinks, how they’re prepared, how we can abstain from them, and other behaviors, I think it’s important to remember that fasting is an ordeal, and should be taken seriously as such.  Yes, you could do a fast from all pork products, but if you never or only rarely eat pork, then you’re not really abstaining from something that you weren’t already abstaining from.  Fasting, whether absolute or partial or whether total or intermittent, should be a time when we give up and abstain from things that we actively enjoy or find ourselves relying on or addicted to; when you fast, take away the things that give you a sense of pleasure and which distract you from focusing on spiritual stuff.  If you eat a lot of candy, give that up; if you don’t eat candy, give something else up instead.  If you don’t have the ability to sleep in (e.g. if you live on a regimented, scheduled military base or if you have a farm), then you’re already de facto abstaining from that, so give something else up instead.  Of the things that you don’t strictly need for medical or health-related reasons, pick the things you dread or fear to give up yet which you’re able to, and then you’ll be properly fasting.

Then, finally, then there’s one last thing to consider: how long do we observe all the above prohibitions, and when should we do it?  While all of the above is really up to you in how seriously (or not) you want to engage in your own personalized kind of fasting, this is where it can get really customized.  This is where you should really focus on what your traditions or religions say, because those are the guiding principles here along with whatever your priests or mentors or gurus or godparents might prescribe or recommend, but there are some guiding rules that I like to follow for my own practices and traditions.  Some examples of fasting durations include (again, not a definitive or exhaustive list):

  • One day every week on a day set aside for the worship, veneration, or devotion of a particular spirit or deity
  • The day of the New Moon (technically, the day of the first sighting of the Moon rather than the day of syzygy between the Moon and the Sun)
  • The three days before, the day of, and the day after the Full Moon
  • Three, four, seven, or sixteen days leading up to any feast or regular celebration
  • Three days leading up to any minor ritual, whether for yourself or another
  • Seven days leading up to any major ritual, whether for yourself or another
  • Three, four, seven, sixteen, or more days after any major initiation, according to that tradition’s rules
  • The two days before and of religious communion or communal worship
  • The forty days of Lent (for Christians)
  • The thirty(ish) days of Ramaḍān (for Muslims)
  • The nineteen days of the Nineteen Day Fast (for Bahá’í)
  • The forty-nine days after the death of a close family member
  • Throughout spiritual retreats or prolonged holy festivals or gatherings
  • The three or more days after one has committed a particularly bad spiritual offense
  • Once a week on a particular weekday for a set number of weeks (e.g. every Sunday from sunrise to sunset for six weeks straight)
  • Whenever vows or rules are adopted in devotion to a spirit or as part of a pact or payment

When fasting for a prolonged period of time more than a single day, there’s also the notion of progressive fasting, where as time goes by, you bring on more and more prohibitions.  For instance, in one of the posts from 2012 I mentioned, there’s the four-day progressive fast from the Scribbler (whose blog is no longer active) where, for example, on the first day I would abstain from meat, alcohol, and soda; on the second, all the above plus abstinence from breads and noodles as well as all non-clear liquid drinks; on the third day, all the above plus abstinence from anything that wasn’t fresh fruits and water; on the fourth and final day, all the above plus abstinence from anything that wasn’t just water, i.e. a water fast.  Progressive fasts can be useful for those who need time for their body to adjust to heavier and heavier kinds of fasting, especially if a particular substance is one we habitually eat and which we might rely on as a staple, and which can be a way for the body to acclimate for more severe or austere fasting practices so that they won’t cause a total shock to the body which could result in medical harm.

What happens when we violate one or more of the prohibitions we have set for us?  Honestly, that depends on your tradition’s or practice’s rules on fasting or how you set up the rule or agreement of fasting, but it’s probably most important how you violated it.  If you started running into severe medical issues from a particular prohibition, then it’s best to get rid of that prohibition entirely so that you can fast more safely; it’s not an indulgence if it’s absolutely necessary for your health!  Likewise, if even a partial fast or if even intermittent fasting is causing you problems at all, then stop fasting.  It’s better you live and find other ways to hone and temper the body without suffering and putting yourself at major risk for health problems or death.  What if you were forced to fast, like if you were incarcerated or imprisoned and forced to eat things you wouldn’t against your will?  Honestly, nobody would blame you for getting by, and you’re already in a bad and potentially ascetic situation; better to survive under duress and save your strength than suffer righteously with the risk of death.

All of those could be considered accidental or unintentional violations, but what about if you just decided “eh, fuck it, let’s have a cheat day” or if you thought nobody was looking?  Tough luck, pal; you intentionally and willfully committed a violation of your prohibitions when you had no reason not to, and that’s where you should own up to your violation and make amends.  How you do that is up to you, your tradition, and your spirits; you might add on another day (or week, or month, etc.) of fasting for every willful violation you committed, add on another prohibition in addition to the ones you already had pay a “fine” through donating or caring for others out of your own pocket, put yourself through another spiritual ordeal such as intense purifications or heightened prayers, or make formal amends through heavy offerings to God, the gods, or other spirits to make up for your violation.  Or, you could just eat it (heh) and accept that you were weak and carry on as normal, being more mindful as time goes on, perhaps with letting someone know as a kind of confession.  Sometimes, it’s okay to perform a fast with built-in cheat days or days of leniency, but these should be limited; remember, the whole point of a fast is to not indulge.

However, note that all of the above are almost all focused on prohibitions, rules that take things away from ourselves.  That’s entirely a workable and practical way to do fasting, but consider: instead of taking things away, why not add things?  If we consider a fast to be a duration of time to cultivate and refine the spirit, then there are plenty of other things we can do, whether instead of piling on prohibitions or to be done along with them.  This is an idea that I got from Catholic writings a few years back, specifically for Lent; rather than just take things away, incorporate new things to fill the gaps left behind or just for the sake of upping our spiritual practices and devotions generally. Some examples include (again, not a definitive or exhaustive list):

  • Say a prayer to formally begin a fast, whenever you break the fast, and when you formally end the fast.
  • When you sit down to eat, pray over and bless the meal before you do so.
  • Engage in daily prayer, or add more prayers to your daily practice
  • Participate in daily communal worship (e.g. going to daily mass, having a daily circle with a coven)
  • Read and contemplate scripture daily
  • Commit to doing works of charity frequently (e.g. giving to the poor, working at a kitchen, setting aside income as donations for noble causes)
  • Commit to creating a devotional work of art every day (e.g. poetry, drawing, sculpture)
  • Commit to environmental works (e.g. picking up litter, tending to a communal garden)
  • Commit to helping or organizing religious works (e.g. signing up to be an altar-server, assisting with setting up circle devotions, providing guidance to students)
  • Commit to daily offerings, whether dedicated to a particular spirit or deity specifically or more generally for the benefit of all sentient beings
  • Perform a daily purification (e.g. ablution, spiritual bath, banishing)
  • Etc.

In the end, when it comes to abstinence for spiritual purposes, we can do a lot better than just simply cutting out food, and we can focus on a number of different aspects of the practice of fasting that can provide for a well-rounded period of intense spiritual work that can work for anyone, regardless of their health conditions, so that we can all derive benefit by focusing on the higher while tempering (but not utterly neglecting) the lower:

  • Prohibitions on what food and drink one takes in
  • Prohibitions on how food or drink is prepared
  • Prohibitions on when one can eat or drink
  • Prohibitions on how food or drink is consumed
  • Prohibitions on behaviors and activities outside eating and drinking
  • Mandates on behaviors to include spiritual or spiritually-oriented activities
  • The duration for which prohibitions and mandates are to be observed

Now, what about me?  There are times when I’ll fast for my own practices (like for those Sixteen Days of Cultivation leading up to the spring equinox I did not too long ago), or before receiving or participating in ceremony for Lukumí purposes, sure.  But, lest we all forget, I’m a Hermeticist, and there’s some useful stuff in the Corpus Hermeticum and other Hermetic texts that touch on this same topic, too. There’s this almost-universal, quasi-gnostic notion that you can’t really engage in a spiritually pure practice without somehow abstaining from physical pleasures or indulgences, and that abstaining from food and drink, whether entirely or from particular kinds or from particular ways of having it, is one of the most common ways to do that.  Food and drink is what sustains the body, yes, and we should care for the body since it’s our vessel for living in this world.  But since we’re spiritual entities ourselves that just so happen to have a body, and since we’re all always trying to become better spiritual entities, we need to care for the body only as much as we need to, and focus on the spirit at least as much as we care for the body, if not much more than that.  To focus overmuch on the body is to neglect the spirit; just as in the Buddha’s method of taking the Middle Path, we should care for the body just enough that it’s healthy and can stay healthy, and give the rest of our time, energy, and attention to spiritual works.  That’s really the whole purpose of fasting: to cut back on indulging the body so that we can indulge the spirit, instead.  We don’t need to completely neglect or harm the body; otherwise, you may as well just kill yourself off quickly and painlessly than starve yourself to death painfully!  We need our body to host our spirit for as long as our spirit needs the body, and until the point when our spirit is ready to go, we need to care for the body.  But we only need to care for it, not indulge it.  And even then, remember: fasting is not the be-all end-all of ways to accomplish spiritual evolution.  Do it if you want to or if your tradition requires you to, and if you do engage in fasting, do so safely.  If you don’t engage in it, there still so many ways to indulge the spirit and encourage its cultivation rather than just tempering the body.

What about you, dear reader?  Do you fast, and if so, how do you fast?  Do you engage in total fasting, partial fasting, or intermittent fasting?  Do you abstain from only certain things or practices?  What else do you do when you fast?  Let me know in the comments!

Mythos and Stories as Models of Practice

Lately, I’ve been fiddling around with Python and LaTeX scripts again.  For those who aren’t as inclined to computers, the former is a very flexible, extensible programming language of no small fame, while the latter is a type of language used to format, typeset, and compile documents (sorta like what HTML and CSS are for webpages).  I use Python for all my short, little, experimental research things, like calculating certain astronomical/astrological phenomena or doing a brute-force search of all 65,536 possible geomantic charts for particular patterns, minimums, or maximums of certain qualities.  Meanwhile, I use LaTeX for all my document needs, mostly for ebooks but also for letters, résumés, and other things in lieu of a normal word processor like OpenOffice or Microsoft Word (because I’m a crazy fool who loves the commandline and raw power over convenience and ease).

The main impetus for this bout of hobby programming that’s been going on this week is so I can make a full calendar in LaTeX that spans from June 23, 2009 through June 23, 2047, complete with dates of eclipses, lunar phase changes, seasonal start and midpoint dates, and zodiacal ingresses of the Sun.  It’s hard to find that sort of data over such a wide span of time, and much more difficult than that to find it in an easily-obtainable format that I can use for LaTeX compilation.  To that end, I wrote the scripts to calculate all the astronomical information from scratch (Jean Meeus’ “Astronomical Algorithms” is a godsend of a book for this, so do get yourself a copy for reference) and formatted the output just the way I needed it.  It’s not exactly an exciting feeling to realize that it’s easier to just code and test all the algorithms yourself than trying to find the data you need online, but after two long days of coding, the profound feeling of accomplishment can’t be easily described (except, of course, as “fucking awesome and thank god that’s over”).

For what end would I take on this crazy project, you might ask?  Because this unusual span of time is the 69th cycle of 38 years of the Grammatēmerologion, the lunisolar grammatomantic calendar I devised that associates the days of the lunar months, the lunar months themselves, and the lunisolar years with the letters of the Greek alphabet for use in ritual grammatomancy and, more broadly, my nascent theurgic practice of mathesis, a new kind of Hermetic theurgy I’m developing that refocuses on Pythagorean, Platonic, and Neoplatonic influences before introduction of qabbalah.  It’s been a bit since I’ve done any mathetic work, given the whole house-buying/house-moving of 2016 and the Year in White of iyaworaje that went on through most of 2017, but I’m preparing slowly to pick it up again.  Since a daily observation of the letter of the day is a practice I found great use with, I wanted to have an actual calendar to reference instead of having another one of my scripts calculate it for me each and every morning.  (This also means I’ll be getting back to my Daily Grammatomancy posts I was doing for a while over on my Facebook page, so if you haven’t liked it yet, please head on over and do so!)  So, yanno, it’s the little gains that help give a sturdy foundation for this sort of work.

The thing is, though, that I’m not setting out to develop this whole new practice and system for its own sake, or for the sake of being able to say “look at me, mister high muckety-muck of my own sandcastle!”.  I want a way to explore the Neoplatonic and Hermetic cosmos without having to rely on the procrustean bed of qabbalah that we can’t seem to escape from, purge, or ignore; Hermeticism and Neoplatonism existed before and did fine without it, and even if qabbalah brought in excellent insights and models and frameworks for the two philosophies to expand with (and it most certainly did!), after a certain point, those same models and frameworks can become a hindrance.  If nothing else, taking another look with another system can breathe a breath of fresh air into these things, and allow for opening up new doors and avenues to cosmic exploration, theurgy, and spiritual development.

Going through my old posts and notes on what I’ve already set up is incredibly useful, but I see something clearly now that I didn’t before (time is great for providing experience, after all, no matter how much we might think we have some at the time).  Consider one of my favorite quick rituals, the Blessing of the Vessel, first discussed in this 2015 post, which I use as a way for generating a sacred elixir to partake of the blessing of the Divine.  This ritual works quite well on its own, though it uses some pretty arcane Judaeo-Coptic symbolism.  However, if I were to make a mathetic variant…I ran into a mental wall trying to figure that one out.  Sure, I could just replace the names of the angels or godforms, but…that seems hollow to me.  While swapping out related concepts from one system to automagically transform it into a new system is definitely a thing, like using a Celtic or Hellenic deities instead of the four archangels to make more pagan forms of the Lesser Banishing Ritual of the Pentagram, I personally find the practice distasteful and it never seems to work as fully, as cleanly, or as effectively as the original ritual in its own context with its own appropriate entities and names.  Moreover, I couldn’t think of anything comparable to the symbols and metaphors used in the Blessing of the Vessel that could be seen in Hellenic mythology off the top of my head, which…

That reminded me of that post I wrote not too long ago about how the rituals we use are means of reliving myths.  La Regla de Ocha Lukumí, more commonly known as Santería, is a perfect example of this.  All the ceremonies we participate in, all the things we wear, all the offerings we make, all the songs we sing, and so forth are established not just by tradition, but by the precedents laid out for us in the mythological stories that undergird the entire religion.  In this case, as in many religions and systems of faith, “myth” here doesn’t just mean a fairy-tale, but a narrative that explains how things become into the world and why we do certain things in a certain way.  The mythos of a religion, then, is the collective story of the cosmos from the point of view of that religion; to participate in the religion is to participate in the eternal telling-retelling of that mythos, where we are both a member of the audience as well as an actor on the stage.  Every religion is like this: Christianity retells the story of Christ’s sacrifice through the Eucharist, which is an eternal event that is played out in discrete instances that participate in the eternal truth of Jesus’ sacrifice; Judaism retells the story of the covenants of God with Noah, Abraham, Moses, Aaron, and Aaron and the Exodus through the Passover Seder and the various mitzvot they maintain; Buddhism describes the paths to nirvana through the practices of the Buddhas and bodhisattvas and how we are to understand the Noble Eightfold Path as well as all the discrete, different practices that can more quickly help us achieve our goal; Santeria tells through all the odu and all the pataki about the exploits of the orishas and how they impact our lives and what we can do about the problems through the rites and rituals that the orisha laid down so long ago, and so on.  Even in magic, we use stories that undergird our work: Solomonic magicians take on the role of Solomon as primordial gōes, reiki masters take on the role of their initiators going back to Usui-sensi to ply their work, Greek necromancers take on the role of those heroes like Odysseus who went down to the land of the dead and came back alive, and so forth.  These aren’t just simple stories we tell to children; these are the archetypal foundations of ideology, worldview, culture, faith, and interaction that our societies and civilizations are built upon and grow around.

So, what then of mathesis?  I realized that, though I have the basic ideas of Hermetic theurgy within a Pythagoreansim-centered Neoplatonic framework down and a handful of basic tools and methods at my disposal, I lack a story, a myth that explains what the whole goal is and how spiritual practices and methods should be established.  It’s these stories that not only provide inspiration for new methods to grow and develop, but also point to some of the dangers I might face and flaws I might find in myself along the way, as well as the remedies and precautions to take for when I do face them.  Without such a story, all I’m really doing is bumbling around in the dark repeating the same acts over and over with no purpose.  I can liken this to an actor on a stage reciting the same soliloquy extemporaneously with neither context nor play; no matter how excellently they might recite it, it has no meaning or purpose except to practice the ability of recitation for its own sake.  It’s only when such a soliloquy takes place in the proper context of a play that it has meaning.  All these practices of purification, meditation, contemplation, initiation, and whatnot don’t mean anything if they don’t have an overall story to fit into.  Like a collection of pieces to build furniture from IKEA, if you don’t know what you’re doing and have no instructions to fit everything together, that collection is going to remain nothing more than a pile of bits and odds and ends that don’t do anything except allow for someone to play at a frustrating adult version of Legos.

Now, I should say that I’m not trying to distill mathesis down to any one myth, any one story that we know of from ancient Greece.  I’m not suggesting that I’m doing that, or that I should do that.  I’m really talking about something more archetypal and fundamental than any one story, something that takes place time and time again in individual stories.  Consider what Leo Tolstoy (or Dostoyevsky, or John Gardner, or others) once said: “all great literature is one of two stories; a man goes on a journey, or a stranger comes to town”.  This is the kind of archetype I’m talking about: a fundamental action that takes place.  Just how the Iliad is an example of the classical “war epic” while the Odyssey is one of the “journey epic”, and how the Aeneid is an example of both, and all of which take place in greater and larger cycles of epics and sagas, each with their own stories and subplots that collectively describe how things come to be, what is the sort of high-level framework “saga” that mathesis might adopt as its underlying mythos?  That’s an interesting thing for me to ponder as a model for mathesis.

After all, consider that we can use the word “model” in terms of “framework”, but also in the sense of “role model”.  What sort of character am I playing out by working in this way?  What sort of tribulations, conflicts, issues, problems, predicaments, and crises might I face?  Where might I look towards for help and succor?  To what end do I play out this role, and how does this role pick up and start again (reincarnate, rebirth, renew) in another iteration of the story?  After all, the idea of “role model” is played out quite heavily in occult and spiritual work in terms of godforms; the Catholic priest takes on the role of Jesus when he lifts up the host and say “this is my body”, the Vajrayana Buddhist takes on the role of their yidam in meditation, the Golden Dawn initiate takes on the role of any number of Egyptian gods for a given ritual, and so forth.  In adopting a role, we take on the strengths, weaknesses, abilities, and powers of that form we take; consider the Headless Rite, where the primary mechanism is to become Akephalos, the Headless One, to command the forces of the cosmos for exorcism or banishing or conjuration.  Not only do models inform us what our views of the cosmos will be like, but models also inform us how we act within that cosmos and what our abilities and limitations are.

This isn’t to say, of course, that we can’t, don’t, or shouldn’t live by our own stories; of course we can, and we must!  While there’s definitely truth to Ecclesiastes 1:9—”what has been will be again, what has been done will be done again; there is nothing new under the sun”—there’s a difference between the fundamental archetype which is mythos and the discrete, concrete instantiation of a a story that falls under that mythos.  Like with the whole “two stories, journey or arrival” quote from above, consider that, at least under the “journey” header, we have such disparate and varied stories such as that of The Hobbit, Alice in Wonderland, Pokémon, and the Odyssey are all such stories.  Under the broader notion of Proto-Indo-European religion, which formed the basis for many of the pagan religions across Europe and some parts of Asia and the Near East, there are high-level archetype stories of divine horse twins, a sky father, a dawn goddess, and a hero slaying a dragon; take a look, dear reader, at Celtic, Greek, Roman, Slavic, Vedic, Nordic, and other Indo-European myths and you’ll find countless stories that relate to them, oftentimes many iterations of a single story with different variations.  We each have our own story, each of which is unique, and all of which play into the archetypes of the cosmos both as processes and actors.

Come to think of it, that’s one of the things that I think we as occultists tend to neglect.  It’s…it’s at least an issue, but I’m unsure whether it’s a full-blown problem, that so many of us lack contexts for the things we do.  Like the actor reciting a preset soliloquy extemporaneously without context, many of the practices we have are so distanced and removed from the theologies, cosmologies, and philosophies that gave birth to them, and we’re at a loss without understanding that collective context.  I mean, sure, the Headless Rite will still work for you whether or not you understand the currents of Egyptian, Christian, Jewish, Greek, gnostic, academic, priestly, and folk influences that collectively gave rise to that ritual and its place in the broader understanding of Greco-Egyptian magical praxis and theory, but knowing all the rest of that does significantly help attune oneself better to the ritual, not just by understanding where it came from, but also the role of the ritual, the magician who invokes Akephalos, and Akephalos itself.  To put it in modern terms, consider chaos magic with its notion of paradigm shifting.  You can pick up any ritual and make it work, sure, but if you can’t paradigm shift between them, you can’t get the most out of any given ritual you perform because you aren’t immersed in the fundamental contexts (the mythos) that allow for that ritual to work.

This is most dangerous for eclectic practitioners that don’t belong to any one tradition or practice except “what they feel like, a bit of this and a bit of that”; without a coherent, cohesive, connective mythos that undergirds their worldviews, philosophies, cosmologies, and so on, I find it extremely rare that anything of what they do even comes close to the power and efficacy of someone who has a mythos and has truly integrated themselves and everything they do into that mythos.  A mythos as model, then, provides both a skeleton and a skin for one’s practices: a skeleton to arrange and structure one’s practices together, and a skin to separate out what belongs to it and what does not, filtering things in to and out from one’s system of practices.  Without a mythos, you’re just a jumble of things that you do, some of which may have an immediate use but no overarching purpose; a set of practices without a mythos is no more than a jumble of IKEA parts without instructions that may or may not combine together to form a useful bit of furniture, and even then only if you stumble upon the right combination and order of doing so.  If you’re just interested in performing and knowing how to perform individual acts for individual needs, more power to you, but if you’re looking for purpose and direction and how all these things you do can lead to you it, then you’re going to need a mythos to understand how all these things you do play into it.

It’s because of this that I’m so interested in setting up a new kind of Hermetic theurgy with Neoplatonic philosophy divested from qabbalah.  The central mythos is the same both with and without qabbalah, sure, but the stories that play out would be different.  A different story means different actors, different problems, different predicaments, different crises, different climaxes, different resolutions, different conclusions, even if it all fits into the same mythic pattern.  With each new difference comes new insights, new abilities, new techniques, new practices that can be developed, refined, and applied, yielding new ways to understand the cosmos and ourselves.  Mathesis and qabbalah might both be mirrors made of the same stuff that reflect reality, but they’d present it from different angles, with different views, colors, shadows, and understandings of the thing to be reflected.

Qabbalah works for Hermeticism, to be sure, but almost all that we do is part of the same Hermetic story.  I want to tell a new story, and see where else I might end up.  What story will mathesis tell, I wonder?