Unlocking the Observatory: The Spiritual Practice of Zoroaster’s Telescope

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

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

It’s far from uncommon for authors to puff themselves up and make their works seem more groundbreaking and significant than they generally have any reasonable right to be (and I should know).  This can be explained any number of ways ranging from it being a marketing technique to merely getting people hooked on this Cool New Thing you’re excited about, or it may just be that the author has bought into their own hype and think that they’ve come across the Only Thing that Matters.  This is especially common in the world of occult book publishing, and to an extent, I think it’s always been that way to one degree or another; after all, the whole bit about mystical or magical historiolae explaining the discovery of some long-lost text is as much part of the occult genre as is lists of demons or elaborate instructions on tool-making.  It’s something of a cliché unto itself, really, and—at least for me—it can be almost disappointing when a text lacks such a bit of good entertainment.

Sure enough, we see a this puffing-up of itself happening in ZT, too.  This is most evident right in its very title (“The Telescope of Zoroaster, or, the Key to the Grand Divinatory Cabala of the Magi”) that calls on a whole number of occultural tropes, which are only expanded upon in the text itself, but there’s more to it than that, and I don’t think ZT is just trying to puff itself up for the sake of selling itself out.  ZT makes frequent reference to how it’s “only a key, not a treatise”, which immediately suggests that the author of ZT is holding stuff back from the reader.  While some people might be inclined to read this as a sure sign that the author is putting a blind on us, this isn’t the case here; rather, ZT does present what is necessary to learn, but only that which is necessary and not anything more, leaving what does not strictly need to be said as an exercise for the reader.  In that light, we need to consider everything that ZT does give us.  While the main purpose of ZT is ostensibly to teach about a particular form of numerological sortilege with an astrological flair, there is so much in ZT that isn’t directly about that that it leaves us to wonder: what else is it teaching us?

There’s a tantalizing statement in the Epilogue:

…willing to put ourselves in such a position, we have advocated for indicating how the operator will be able to recognize certain cases where (by a complicated contest of triangular relationships) an intimate communication and sometimes a Vision would be promised—in vain. The author of The Telescope of Zoroaster did not change course in the reply he divulged:

The Candidate must wait to be surprised by this superhuman opportunity, sooner or later infallible for them, if they are truly Called. This opportunity will fully compensate them for his work when, sooner or later, they will have reached the point of aptitude where the Pure Spirit desires them to be.

Consider the implications of this admission.  Despite the divinatory method that ZT teaches of analyzing the various tiles that might appear in any given pattern or arrangement within the Great Mirror, it suggests that this is not the ultimate (or at least the underlying) goal of the divinatory system of ZT.  Sure, the system as presented will work to predict the future, treating it fundamentally as a tile-based variation on cartomancy making use of a densely-packed spread, and the vast majority of the content of ZT discusses this very method and its variations in order to explain such a divinatory system. However, the implication of this line in the Epilogue, as well as the several mystical sections of the “Second Supplement” and “Third Supplement” that discuss more than mere angels and natal stars, suggest that this is just part of the use of such a Mirror.  Rather than merely arriving at interpretations, the real purpose is to obtain visions.

I mean, consider this line from the “First Step”, when the notion of mirrors are introduced:

These combinations are called “mirrors” when, instead of speaking only to the eye as paintings do, they offer the Cabalist a meaning which can only exist for them alone. Such combinations deserve the name “mirror” because they reflect the truth that saturates combinations. Thus, by combining the hexagons—whether we call them pieces or parts—into the triangles, diamonds, or hexagons that are composed from such hexagons, we obtain paintings, or “mirrors”. Now, the mirror being the final object of the cabalistic process, it is the quality of the mirror that prevails, and this word is principally in use.

Remember how I mentioned before that reflecting telescopes were still relatively new at the time of FZT’s publication?  Dating only to the 1660s, reflecting telescopes provided technical advantages over the older lens-based refracting telescopes.  In this light, especially when combined with how ZT says that modern astronomy has such “fruitful and no less indispensable utility”, it would suggest that the metaphor of these tile-spreads being “mirrors” was taken from astronomical tools: using mirrors in a metaphorical telescope (the divinatory system of ZT itself) to gaze into the spiritual Heavens much as an astronomer’s telescope makes use of mirrors to gaze into the physical skies. Thus, when a figure is composed for the purpose of performing divination, it takes on the name of a “mirror” as something that one gazes at as if it were a picture to contemplate.  We can certainly inspect parts of the telescope to determine how the different parts come together, but we’re not supposed to be looking at the telescope or at the mirror, but rather in the telescope or in the mirror to see what it reveals.  I mean, heck, ZT even brings up Nostradamus in the “First Supplement”, whom ZT claims also relied on the Great Cabala to determine matters of great spiritual importance and world-changing significance.  In this, by looking at the Great Mirror, we learn its parts and see individual things coming to pass, but by looking in the Great Mirror, we come to actually See things as a whole coming together—something far greater than the sum of its parts.

I mean, consider what we said last time about the spiritual cosmos as construed by ZT.  Yes, there is the Supreme Being and the Pure Spirit and the Principles and Spirits and Intelligences, but ZT says that there’s still so much more than all of this.  While the “Second Supplement” is primarily important for students of ZT to teach about the 28 angels and their natal stars (i.e. lunar mansions), that’s really only half the chapter; the other half talks about all these various means by which humans come to know things by means of spiritual intervention through visions, messages, and communion with spirits.  The author of ZT brings up Moses and the burning bush, Saul seeing the ghost of Samuel, Brutus seeing the ghost of Julius Caesar, Belshazzar seeing the hand writing on the wall and it being clarified by the divine inspiration of Daniel, the Three Wise Men being given a vision about where to go find the Infant God, the Pharaoh having his dreams interpreted through the divine inspiration of Joseph, the daimōn of Socrates, Numa Pompilius and the nymph Egeria, and so forth and so on.  ZT emphasizes the point that all true knowledge that matters for us doesn’t come from mere human inventions of cardgames or whatnot, but from our interactions with the spiritual world which guides us and leads us to live our lives properly in accordance with the will of the Supreme Being.

It is to that end that the author of ZT presents the Great Mirror (and, by extension, all the rest of the mirrors in ZT) as a means of not just predicting the future but as a means of communing with spirits.  This is why ZT gives us Plate VI (the diagram of the Great Mirror with the angels and lunar mansions), which only makes sense by bringing up the angels first, which only makes sense by bringing up the role of spirits generally: to guide and instruct humanity in the well-ordering and proper-functioning of the cosmos.  And, heck, given the extreme detail ZT gives in the “Second Supplement” regarding all the parts and bits of Plate VI (some of which don’t even actually appear in Plate VI as given), it leads me to wonder whether Plate VI is really just a reference sheet to be used like the Table of Numbers from Plate II, or if it was meant as a meditative focus not unlike a mandala expressly for coming into communion with those very angels themselves.

In that light, the Great Mirror serves three purposes simultaneously:

  1. A means of sortilege by which we can predict the future
  2. A means of coming into visions of things that are meaningful, i.e. a scrying surface
  3. A means of communicating with spirits who speak through the tiles, i.e. a conjuration locus

Incidentally, it’s the use of the Great Mirror as a medium for scrying that I think the use of hexagonal tiles is important, not because of any mystical symbolism inherent in the shape but because they completely tile a plane without gaps.  While circular tiles would also work for the purposes of divination, since they pack in a hexagonal manner, they leave gaps between them, which hexagonal tiles don’t leave behind.  Having a smooth, complete surface would work much better in this regard to afford the diviner something cohesive and coherent to gaze at for the purposes of scrying rather than mere sortilege.

This is, in a sense, what the Epistle told us about almost right from the get-go:

To read into the future is a much higher faculty still, and is less willingly granted from above. It is nevertheless obtained by means of one who knows that most ancient Pact—by means of an Advocate (but no one else) who finds in the signs and numbers of various tables the truth dictated by the intelligences concerning all that is the reasonable object of anticipation that one proposes to make in a more or less remote future. These signs, these numbers, these tables—this is what the Telescope of Zoroaster is about. […]

By means of the booklet through which I dare to pay you respectful homage, my Lord, we shall know how one might establish for oneself, so to speak, a place of rendezvous, where the Advocate enjoys the favor of being in the presence with superhuman beings and can there receive their benefit.

Recall the whole pyramid metaphor from last time that ZT gives about itself at the beginning of the “Second Supplement”:

As these approved eyes look upward along the faces of this mysterious edifice, it will happen—should the Pure Spirit allow it—that the clouds, at first reaching down to the ground to hide everything from the profane eye, will rise so slowly as to barely be noticed at once. Stone is succeeded by marble, marble by crystal, crystal by diamond, and diamond finally by a heavenly brilliance—but the Elect are not like to be dazzled with damage.

To lay it out bare: that the pyramid is revealed at all through the foggy mists is the work of the text of ZT, while the divinatory system of astrologically-flavored numerology provides just the rough-hewn stone base of the pyramid, but this is just the foundation of what comes next, which is heavily suggested in ZT to be obtaining visions and communing with spirits.  But even these, after all, would just be the next layers of the pyramid, upon which even higher and even more precious levels are built.  All ZT does is show us to the door of this pyramid-temple, and beyond that, so long as we have a light provided to us by the Pure Spirit, how far we ascend is up to us and our own determination and dedication.  All of this is nothing less than reclaiming the ancient spiritual heritage that the Epistle ascribes to the ancient Magi:

A similar order of things once existed wherever the Magi breathed, those revered priests, the most enlightened, the best of mortals. In their religious palaces consecrated to the Pure Spirit, these sacred servants, inaccessible to the curiosity of the vulgar, gave themselves up without distraction to the sublime intercourse which was their mission to maintain with the agents of Heaven. These dictated to their favored caste all that celestial and terrestrial nature has of secrets that can be brought within reach of human understanding, always infinitely limited to whatever degree of penetration one supposes those most perfectly organized priests, endowed with the greatest genius, were to have.

What are these secrets, exactly?  ZT doesn’t say; either the author of ZT was not privy to them, or the author found it improper to state such secrets to those whom they neither knew nor trusted, and for my part, I’d be charitable enough to accept the latter.  All the great questions we have about humanity’s origins and destinations, our questions about salvation and damnation, our questions about afterlives or reincarnation—ZT simply doesn’t say, and in many cases, doesn’t even hint at them.  All we have is this method by which we can begin to refine ourselves and build up a practice that will, so long as we keep to it, reach into the heavens themselves where all the secrets of Creation and the Creator might be revealed to us in time.

This is why, in the “Second Supplement”, the author tells us to keep ourselves in “a moral conduct and physical regimen” that keeps us relatively pure.  This isn’t about divination—well, not just about divination—but rather about us being able to accurately and consciously come into contact with spirits:

  • By avoiding heavy food, we free up our body and its senses to more easily allow the subtle perception of and communication with spirits.
  • By avoiding stimulating food, we keep our mind clear from the fog of perturbation so that we can accurately understand spirits without the message becoming biased or unclear.
  • By avoiding heatedness of sexual or emotional passion, we keep ourselves noble and worthy of entering into relationships with spirits and receiving their guidance and messages.

In the midst of the dietary restrictions ZT suggests, it brings up how so much spiritual communication occurs to us in dreams, and why ensuring that we dream well (especially in that liminal state of us rising from dream in the morning at dawn) is so important for spiritual communication:

The Elect, whom no embarrassment of the head or stomach has afflicted at the moment when sleep overtakes them, has consumed their digestion in a few hours, and then their whole being is fully at rest; this is the proper moment to catch the Spirit who deigns to communicate to this privileged mortal, and it is up to such a mortal to know how to take advantage of this sign of favor granted to them, and to not confuse with phantasy that which can be revelation, inspiration, and even sometimes apparition. Science, which is indeed the Great Cabala, is the touchstone par excellence where any accident of dream or vision can be tried and appraised at fair value. It is, we say, for the ordinary person, in the morning at the coming of the dawn, that the heavenly Agents descend and manifest themselves to the Elect.

This follows up on what the author said at the beginning of the “Second Supplement” regarding sleep and dreams:

What do we know? Nothing, perhaps, of what happens to the soul during this leisurely likeness of death called “sleep”; it is nothing but a superhuman apperception, whether helpful or harmful, sometimes pretending at ordinary facts, sometimes something disguised in supernatural forms—dreams, we say, are perhaps just favors granted by benevolent Intelligences or vexations and ambushes prepared by malevolent Intelligences, but are all too often too-fleeting impressions that vanish nearly in an instant, or symbols that are too oblique and so remain silent for ordinary mortals because they do not know the language necessary to understand them well. What one wants, what one is advised to avoid or do, even superstitious notions that have been adopted to generalize for all people the meaning that each material object can have in a dream all oppose a stupid, extravagant prejudice against natural inspiration itself, which therefore has failed in its effects.

In this light, especially considering the angelic focus of the “Second Supplement”, we build upon the divinatory practice to become introduced to communing with spirits, but we actually do the work of engaging with them primarily (it’d seem here) through the function of dreams—and not just any spirits, but primarily the angel of our own natal star.  This is best done at the coming of the dawn since, as the light of the Sun begins to enter into the world, so too do “the heavenly Agents [who] descend and manifest themselves to the Elect”.  We come into contact with the spirits, and especially our own angel, in order to better know ourselves and our natures, and thereby come to know more about the world around us, and by extension the whole Creation and the one Creator.  All of this comes about through the honest and earnest communion we might have with spirits, those celestial intelligences and heavenly agents, with whom such communion and communication is “the most beautiful privilege that humanity might enjoy”, because it is by our thoughts led on by things higher than us (the “super” to the “human”) what we might reach “to spaces that can and must be populated by a hierarchy of sublime beings”.

But, like…isn’t this a bit much?  In a book about sortilege, it’s super weird to have such an extended discussion about the virtues of a restrained diet to facilitate spiritual communication in dreams and how the greatest things we might aspire to is such spiritual communication and direction, right?  But then, that’s because ZT isn’t just a book about sortilege.  Among all the various lessons of the mechanics and components of its divinatory system and how to approach matters of querent and query, it’s clear that ZT gives us a much broader spiritual approach to understanding matters of truth on scales that go far beyond the mere individual human. Even though only the barest outlines of such a spiritual discipline is sketched out by ZT, it’s clear that it aspires to be the gateway through which one can eventually access the highest secrets of divinity and to live a holy life in continuous communion with heavenly beings.  We should remember, after all, that what ZT gives us is “a master key which will open not just the main doors but all the side doors, all the cupboards, all the drawers, and even the smallest secrets”.

Of course, such access to divinity and divine secrets isn’t given to everyone, nor is it even promised to everyone.  Success in this sort of spiritual work depends on many factors, not least of which is one’s own spiritual education (which ZT is meant to facilitate at an introductory level), but also one’s faith: faith in the Supreme Being (“Without this faith, there is no connection between the Supreme Being and humanity, and without such a connection, there can be no Great Cabala”) and confidence in the Pure Spirit (” confidence in the Pure Spirit—which is the indispensable trait of vocation which the Candidate must find themselves to possess”).  As the Epistle repeatedly emphasizes in its hypothetical rebuttals to imagined detractors of spirituality generally and ZT specifically, there is nothing in the Great Cabala for those who would dismiss it or its claims out of hand, or who would stringently favor human reason over superhuman gnōsis.  In this light, I’m reminded of part of the dialogue between Hermēs Trismegistos and Asklēpios from book IX, section 10 of the Corpus Hermeticum:

If you are mindful, Asklēpios, these things should seem true to you, but they will be beyond belief if you have no knowledge. To understand is to believe, and not to believe is not to understand. Reasoned discourse does not get to the truth, but mind is powerful, and, when it has been guided by reason up to a point, it has the means to get as far as the truth. After mind had considered all this carefully and had discovered that all of it is in harmony with the discoveries of reason, it came to believe, and in this beautiful belief it found rest. By an act of god, then, those who have understood find what I have been saying believable, but those who have not understood do not find it believable.

Returning one last time to the Epistle, we were not only introduced to the subject matter of ZT but also to a defense and explanation for its development and dissemination.  The “Baron de N…..” notes that such a discipline as this is only in its infancy, given how much work we have to do to salvage and reclaim the grand spiritual inheritance of the Magi, but reminds us even the grandest temple starts with but a simple hut to serve as an erstwhile tabernacle for the humblest of altars.  Those who dedicate themselves to such a spiritual endeavor would find themselves to be planting a sacred grove, keeping out those who would only disturb them—and, indeed, the author of ZT fully expects that this work would remain unpopular, maligned, and chastised by the many, and even many people today still scratch their heads at the incomplete, obtuse, or seemingly needlessly complicated system of ZT.  But, for those who would strive to make use of such a system, the author simultaneously hopes that, even should it take centuries, the “moral gold” that is produced from the crucibles of the dedicated would be used to reforge the bonds of true wisdom once broken long ago.

It’s my hope that all of this exploration over the past several weeks has helped attain at least some measure of that, instead of letting this fascinating system languish forgotten on old shelves.  At this point, I’ve basically said everything I have to say on it, so we’ll wrap up this series in the next and final post to summarize everything and bring it all together.