On Geomancy and Light

Those who follow me on Twitter know that I’ve been working on a new shrine project of sorts.  Earlier this year, I had the sudden kick-in-the-ass inspiration to start compiling things together, so I started pricing them on my wishlists and getting notes together.  I swore, up and down, that I would pay off my credit card before getting any of it.  But, yanno, just to see how much it would all cost when tallied up, I put it all into my online shopping cart to check out the shipping and taxes, and whoops there went $700 and suddenly I have all these packages showing up at my house however could this have happened let’s get to work, I guess my poor credit card statement.

Long story short, after I made that second post about geomantic holy days earlier this year, I got some sort of spirit all up in me that necessitated, demanded I put this thing together.  I ended up making a Shrine of the Geomancers, honoring the four Progenitors of the art Adam, Enoch, Hermes Trismegistus, and Daniel under the tutelage of Gabriel, with a notable Islamic influence.

I’ll save some of the details and what goes along with this whole shrine later, including a few things that aren’t shown in those above pictures, since it’s such a new thing that even I’m not sure why I have everything on it yet, just that I know I need it.  The last time an inspiring spirit this forceful came upon me was when I ended up writing my Sixteen Orisons of the Geomantic Figures in a single night (and then spent the next month editing and polishing), which you can take a look at in my ebook, Secreti Geomantici (also on Etsy!).  That was pretty fun, too, though exhausting.  I ended up making sixteen prayer-invocations to channel and work with the forces of the figures; that was just a night of power for me, as if I couldn’t shut off whatever fire hydrant of Words was turned on in my head.  The same thing happened with this shrine: I had to get these things and put them together.  Had to.

On top of getting this shrine put together, I’ve had to take a break from writing my geomancy book to take a detour into writing prayers, invocations, and incantations for geomantic practice.  Taking heavy inspiration from Islamic supplications and verses of the Qurʾān, the Book of Daniel, the Psalms, Solomonic and Hermetic literature, and other sources, I’ve been putting together a bunch of prayers—some that I wrote as original works, some I wrote a long time ago, some I’m heavily basing off other sources but tweaked for purpose and diction—for use with this shrine.  Many of the old prayers I wrote a while back, like my Prayer of the Itinerant or my Blessing of Light, fit right in with all these new ones.  It’s like so much of my previous routine, habits, and practices get tied into something so nice, so neat, so…oddly complete in this new shrine practice.  I honestly don’t know where this is all coming from, and it’s surprising me as much as it would anyone else.  If ever I would think that spirits can and do work through us, this would be one of those cases, absolutely.  There are still a lot of prayers I know for a fact I need to write and compile, but even with what I have, I’m pretty thrilled with what I have to work with.  It’s like stumbling on a new grimoire full of detailed instructions—except you don’t know for what, exactly.  It’s also happily convenient that I’m doing all these geomancy readings and follow-up divinations for the New Year, which gives me ample opportunity to try some of these very same prayers.

Now that the shrine is put together and all these prayers are coming together, I need to figure out exactly how to put this all to practice; after all, after dropping so much time and money and energy on this, there’s no way in hell I can just let this thing sit and gather dust (as if the same spirit that had me get all this together in the first place would let me).  I’ll work out routine and times and stuff later, but for now, it’s lovely.  As I noted above, there’s a heavy Islamic influence in this, and why not?  After all, geomancy is ultimately an Islamic occult art and science that arose in the sands of north Africa.  While I’m not going to be doing ṣalāt or proclaiming the five pillars of Islam, I feel it’s still important to honor the traditions and faiths of those that learned, taught, and spread the art of geomancy so far and wide in a language, or at least with symbols and practices, that would be familiar to them.  Which is also why I’m turning to so many supplications and verses of the Qurʾān for prayer inspirations, in addition to the fact that I already know that some such verses are used just for geomancy and divination generally.

One of the things I got for the shrine is a misbaḥah, a set of Islamic prayer beads.  It’s a lot simpler than a rosary, but slightly more complex than a mala; this has 99 beads, with two separators (that apparently aren’t used in counting prayers) to divide up the whole misbaḥah into three sets of 33 beads.  This kind of prayer beads can be used in any number of ways in Islamic devotions, not least the famous Tasbīḥ of Fāṭimah, and a way of kinda-sorta maybe-not-divination-per-se seeking guidance from Allah (istikhāra) can be done using misbaḥah, too, by focusing on the question for guidance and selecting two beads at random on the misbaḥah, and counting down until there are either only one or two beads left.  (The geomantic applications here are obvious.)  There are simpler ways, too, such as just intoning and focusing on one of the attributes or names of Allah, of which there are 99.

(Also, just as an entirely hilarious tangential aside?  This current post is marked as post #9999 in WordPress’ internal system for my blog.  So that’s a kinda fun synchronicity.)

One of the 99 names of Allah in Islam is النُّورُ (an-Nūr), literally “the Light”.  This is often used in the sense of being the Pure Light of the world, or the Prime Light of creation, or the One who Guides by Light.  It’s also especially associated with the Verse of the Light, a beautifully mystic verse taken from Qurʾān 24:35 (my own rendition):

God is the Light of the Heavens and the Earth.
The image of his Light is that of a niche.  In it is a lamp.
The lamp is within glass, the glass as if it were a brilliant star.
Lit from the oil of a blessed olive tree, neither of the East nor of the West,
whose oil would almost glow on its own even if fire had not touched it.
Light upon Light!
God guides to his Light whom he wills.
God gives images to follow for his people.
God is All-Knowing of all things.

The use of “The Light” as a name of Allah (or, just, yanno, God, because they really are the same and so much of Arabic theology can be expressed beautifully in Hermeticism and vice versa) is meaningful to me, given how important divine light is in my own personal theology and magical practice, especially in my Hermetic work, given how Light can be thought of as a thing that allows the intelligible to be intelligible and the visible to be visible, as both light of Nous (Mind) and light of Logos (Word).  Even my own magical motto, Lautitia Laborum Lucis Laetor “I rejoice in the splendor of the works of the Light”, is based on this same idea, and many of my more meaningful prayers incorporate Light in some way, whether directly or by puns, like in my Prayer of the Itinerant:

Shed your light on my path that I may see where I go.
Lighten the burden on my shoulders that I may go without hesitation.
Enlighten my heart that I may go with fortitude, courage, and wisdom wherever I may be.

Even before having encountered this Islamic sense of the notion, Light has already been and continues to be for me a powerful force unto itself, and a pure one that is directly associated in my mind and cosmological models with the highest divinity and source of all that is.

Then we bring in a bit of numerology.  Normally, I don’t take numerology particularly seriously; sure, gematria and isopsephia are nice tools to have, and I’ve experimented with it in some classical systems before now and again, but it’s largely a curiosity for me to find other connections with.  But take a look at the name an-Nūr more closely; the “an-” (really “al-” but Arabic rules assimilate the sounds) is just an article, so the real word to look at is Nūr, Light.  In Arabic numerology (which follows the same principles as Hebrew and Greek, since they all come from the same written language to begin with), the value of Nūr is 256.

Those who are familiar with binary mathematics and geomancy should be slapping your heads right about now.  256 = 16 × 16, the total number of pairwise combinations of geomantic figures with each other.  But even then, if we were to reduce it further, 2 + 5 + 6 = 13, and 1 + 3 = 4; alternatively, 256 % 9 = 4.  Four is also a huge number for us, there being four elements, four rows in a geomantic figure, four Mothers/Daughters/Nieces/Court figures, and so forth.  I don’t really need to expound on the myriad meanings of the number 4, given its importance in Hermetic, Pythagorean, and other systems of the occult.  Taking it a bit further as a letter-numeral, 4 is represented by the Hebrew Dālet, Arabic Dāl, and Greek Delta.  Its original meaning and form likely indicated “door”; in stoicheia, I principally associate Delta with the zodiacal sign Gemini, but it can also refer to the element of Water and the zodiacal sign of Cancer in other systems.  I also note that the Arabic Dāl is also the letter used to represent the element of Water in the Dā`irah-e-BZDḤ and Dā`irah-e-ABDḤ organizing systems of the figures, the former of which I’ve put to use in my geomantic energy working as being an Arabic-inspired seed syllable for Water.  Four is, also, the number associated with the sephirah Chesed on the Tree of Life, given to the planetary sphere of Jupiter.

On top of that, although the usual word for “light” in Hebrew is or (אור), the word nur (נור) using the same exact letters as in Arabic, and thus with the same exact numerology, refers to things that flare, flash, fire, or shine; this is an old Semitic triliteral root N-W-R that means light, illumination, and shining.  So that’s also really neat.  This word can also be associated with Hebrew ner (נר) meaning “candle”; “candle” is one of the names and images for the figure Via in some lineages of geomancy according to JMG and Skinner, and Via is sometimes considered to be the oldest or most important and powerful of the geomantic figures, as it contains all of the four elements active and present within itself as a complete whole.

Keeping with Hebrew numerology a bit longer, if we wanted to associate the usual Hebrew word for light numerologically, consider that or (אור) has a value of 207.  256 – 207 = 49, and 49 = 7 × 7, the total number of pairwise combinations of the seven planets as well as just being 7² and important for its own sake; that’s a fun connection, if not a bit contrived.  I also note that 256 is the same value as “spirit of the mother” (רוח אמא, ruach ima), which is important to recognize given that the first four figures we make are called the Mothers and are ungenerated from any other figure in the geomantic process.  It’s also the same value of the words B’nei Tzedeq (בני צדק), or “Sons of the Righteous”; in addition to being a popular name for Jewish synagogues and temples, it’s also a term used by the authors of the Dead Sea Scrolls to refer to the good and devout portion of humanity (including/especially themselves), as opposed to the B’nei `Avel (בני עול), the “Sons of Iniquity”.  Besides the Qumran connection, if there were ever a choir of angels to be associated with geomancy or if we ever wanted a good Hebrew euphemism to refer to geomancers, I suppose B’nei Tzedeq would be a good start.  Plus, Tzedeq is also the Hebrew name for the planet Jupiter, hearkening back to the numerological connection with Chesed above.

I also, somewhat regrettably and hilariously, note that 256 is the numerology of the name Viagrahel, the angel of Viagra, for which I will never thank/blame Kalagni of Blue Flame Magick enough.  (I’m as shocked as you are that that, of all things, would come back to bite me in the ass after almost seven goddamn years.  It’s like my life is one big Chekhov’s dildo.)

What about Greek?  There aren’t many words I can find that add up to 256, but there’s one big one I know of: ἀληθής (alēthēs), meaning “[that which is] unconcealed/true” but also with uses that encapsulate: real, unerring, actual, not forgetting, careful, honest.  The root of this word is –lēth-, which refers to forgetfulness (as in the mythological river of the underworld Lethe and also our modern word “lethargic”, referring to idle forgetfulness).  In that case, ἀληθής refers to things that are unconcealed, true, and honest by means of recovery from forgetfulness or by keeping forgetfulness and ignorance at bay, or alternatively, that which cannot escape notice or remain hidden.  All this ties into the actual Greek word (and, for that matter, goddess) for truth, ἀλήθεια (alētheia), too.  Even if I couldn’t find any other Greek numerological equivalent, I think this one is huge enough to make up for any others.

So where do we end up?  We have a particularly beautiful attribute of the divine, “the Light”, used in the worship and reverence of God in Islam, the religious culture in which geomancy historically developed.  To be extraordinarily terse, notions of divine light fill numerous religious and philosophical traditions as being representative of divinity, especially in any Western tradition influenced by Neoplatonism, Abrahamic faiths, or Hermeticism.  This can be further stretched through a bit of numerology, connecting the word for Light to words for fire, illumination, revelation, and truth.  Calling God “the Light” is a lot more than just thinking of that which allows us to see; God is, in a more complete sense of this attribute, the sudden and revealing flash of illumination that allows us to see that which is true and real, bringing it out of darkness, forgetfulness, and ignorance  God is the quiet, true Light behind all Fire, able to spread and open doors of wisdom to us, communicating to us on an intellectual and emotional level through our sense faculties.  This Light is not just a quiet flame in a dimmed lamp that barely illuminates the shelf it sits on, but it is a fierce, conquering, undeniable, unassailable blast into the darkness, a Light that completely destroys and wipes away anything that could or would try to cover it, a Light that breaks into the cracks of any door, window, wall, or mind and fills every niche, crevice, and corner with its presence.   It is the Light of God, or even the Light that is God, that allows the unseen to be seen, the hidden to be revealed, the unknown to be known, and the forgotten to be remembered.  God is not just Light, but the Light of Light, Light within Light, and Light upon Light.

More than that, this sacred Light of the Mind and of the Word can reach us at any place and at any time, but we can approach it too through the devout study of the mysteries of the geomantic figures, specifically in how they add up amongst themselves in their 256 different combinations.  This same illuminating Light is the fundamental impulse from which the first stirrings of knowledge can be made, and provide the seeds themselves from with the four Mothers in geomantic divination are formed, from whom the entire rest of the geomantic process can be derived.  The Light of God is the necessary existent in order for us to see and know things by geomancy.  Understanding the geomantic figures themselves to be representative of the actual combinations of the four elements amongst the elements in 4 × 4 = 16 ways, and the combinations of elements amongst themselves in 16 × 16 = 256 ways, all of the possible things that come to be in the world and all the ways in which they pass into being and pass out of being are also undergirded by the Light of God, being ways in which that same Light emanates from God into the world, condensing through the four elements from Fire to Air to Water to Earth, mixing and matching between all possible states.  All this is fundamentally Light.

I always felt that Light was important for me to focus on in a religious and spiritual sense.  It’s nice to see that all coming together in ways that the ancients themselves would appreciate, and in ways that show me new things in new combinations.  And, perhaps, to reinforce the habit of keeping a lit candle or lamp burning nearby when I do geomancy.

De Regnis: Altars and Sacred Spaces

Although most of my writing is visible and accessible through my blog and my ebooks, there are a bunch of writing projects that I don’t necessarily intend for public release.  When I was recently going through my old documents folder on my computer, I found a writing project I had intended to be a compendium of Hermetic and Neoplatonic knowledge, guidance, and advice that would serve to document my understandings and work as a textbook unto itself, both for my benefit and any who might come after me.  This project, De Regnis or “On Kingdoms”, got pretty far along before it got abandoned, though parts of it serve as seeds or are outright cannibalized for some of my other works.  Though I have no plans to continue writing this text, I want to share some of the sections I wrote that can act as a useful introduction to some of the practices of Hermetic magic in a modern context.  My views and practices and experiences have grown considerably since then, but perhaps it can help those who are just getting started or are curious about how to fortify their own practices and views.  If you have any views, comments, suggestions, or ideas on the topics shared in this post, please feel free to share in the comments!

Today’s selection will be on the topics of altars and sacred spaces.

On Altars

Altars are important in the work of any spiritual person, as they provide a focus for one’s work.Altars may be any sacred place where one addresses the gods or spirits, or where one performs rituals or sacrifices at. At its most general, an altar is a dedicated spot that is not one’s own but so that one may work with the larger cosmos. Altars can take many forms, but are most often raised platforms, from the size of large hills to small corner tables or portable boxes. Depending onthe purpose of the altar or its target of sacredness, however, the altar may also take the form of a pit, a cast iron cauldron, or some other focus of reverence and spiritual power. Although all altars express the same idea of a place where one interacts and works with the sacred and the spiritual,altars commonly fall into two main categories based on their primary use: devotional altars for divine sacrifice and operational altars for magical ritual.

Devotional Shrine. The devotional shrine is a place or surface, such as a table or a cairn, where one makes prayers, performs sacrifices, and exalts the Divine. Holy symbols or images, such as statuary or icons, are common at devotional altars, and such altars are commonly decorated or embellished in manners pleasing to the devotee and devotor. Devotional altars may be prepared for accepting sacrifices of liquid, blood, meat, fire, incense, or other offerings as deemed acceptable by both spirit and man alike, or may be simple surfaces where one presents plates or bowls of the offerings to them. Devotional altars may be a single surface with many spirits or gods represented on them, or one may have multiple such altars each dedicated to a particular divinity. Any spirit, force, or god to be communed with or revered should have at least some representation and offering at an altar.It is always recommended to have at least one candle burning at all times on a devotional altar, or at least while one is making devotions there.

Operational Altar. As opposed to the devotional altar which is intended for prayers and sacrifices, the operational altar is a construction specific for the magus to work magical ritual. While supplicating the Divine may be done at the devotional altar, the operational altar is intended for a magician to directly contact and work with the forces of the cosmos directly or through the conjuration and invocation of other spirits. Instead of offering sacrifices, the operational altar typically holds the tools of the Work, such as wands, chalices, candles, talismans, and other such magical goods in order to perform ritual. Operational altars may be used for consecrating, blessing, en-chanting, or otherwise empowering objects to be made into talismans or amulets; for conjuration of spirits and angels; or for other particular magical endeavors such as energy work and healing. The primary distinction between an operational altar and a devotional altar is that operational altars are for one to interact with the cosmos on one’s own, while a devotional altar is for one to interact with the divinities and spirits of it on their own

Altar Care. Whether an altar is intended for one’s devotions or one’s operations, it is necessary to keep altars in good condition. Unless one has the direct suggestion from a spirit, altars should be kept clean and free from debris, dust, and all filth. Old offerings and sacrifices should be removed from the altar when the offerings have been consumed, usually immediately after the ritual or a day or so afterwards, depending on the spirit. Ash, extra herbs and powders, and loose supplies should be disposed of appropriately. The altars should ideally be kept hidden from outsiders or anyone who does not work with them, preferably in a separate room free from pollution and miasma; however,when in public or in a space where guests may be present, covering the altar with a clean cloth used only for that purpose may suffice. Before approaching an altar, one should be clean and purified physically and spiritually. Just as with one’s tools, altars should be taken care of for as long as they are in use. When an altar is no longer required, all its tools and equipment should be respectfully removed, a prayer or working done to officially deconsecrate the space or furniture used for the altar, and the furniture respectfully removed or given away.

On Sacred Spaces

Just as an altar provides a concentrated focus for one’s spiritual activities, larger spaces may also be used for devotion and ritual. While altars may be placed anywhere, they are commonly found in nested levels of sacred spaces, while some sacred spaces have no altars or only temporary ones erected for a specific purpose for a short time. Sacred spaces may be dedicated entirely to one particular spirit or type of working, or may be more generally consecrated for any number of rituals.

Circles. A circle is the simplest form of sacred space, consisting of a closed off area for protection or purity drawn about in a circle. The use of a circle is important, though features outside the circle such as braziers or stands may be in a square, pentagonal, or some other shape. The circle itself is sacred, due to its shape and property of consisting of a single unbroken line. A circle should be drawn clockwise and erased counterclockwise, as a symbolic means to create and remove the circle. Circles may be drawn by tracing a wand or blade on the ground, or may be drawn out in paint, powder, salt, or some other material. The defining feature of a circle is that it is inherently a temporary space, though a fixed circle drawn in something permanent may be reused in multiple rituals. Circles may also be drawn to be pushed out to the boundaries of whole rooms, such as by pointing the wand or blade up at the corner edges of a room in a circle instead of down on the ground.

Temples. Unlike the temporary circle, a temple is a dedicated space for spiritual work. A temple consists of some sort of structure, from a single small room to a sprawling construction complex,which is completely given over to spiritual work. Non-spiritual work should be limited or prohibited in the temple, which may house multiple altars for separate divinities or operations. Though the word “temple” is used, it may be applied to any similar structure, such as a church, synagogue, mandir, jinja, or masjid. Personal or small-scale temples may be set up in a house by dedicating a whole room or a corner of one to spiritual work, often with an altar and keeping it separate from the rest of the house and household activities. Other structures that may be related to spiritual work but not used for spiritual work itself, such as storerooms or galleries for religious art, maybe considered part of the temple if the actual temple space used for spiritual work encloses or is connected to the other structures or rooms. While a circle may be used to interact with the spirits,the temple is often seen to be the home or residence of a spirit. Small temples, such as those which occupy only a part of a room, may often be referred to as shrines, especially when they house some sort of cult image or relic. Oratoria, or prayer rooms, may be considered a type of single-room or part of a room dedicated to prayer and devotional work.

Precincts. Enclosing whole temples, large spaces known as precincts or temenoi are large areas of land and real estate given over to a temple, often including groves, parks, lakes, or other natural features of the land. These are most often reserved for large temples, but the precinct is sometimes the temple itself, especially if a spiritual tradition has an emphasis on open-air rituals such as in ancient Greek rituals. Sacred precincts serve to provide a retreat both in body and spirit to provide an immersive environment separate from worldly matters. These sacred lands may also be seen to provide an earthly paradise for man and god alike, as well as a place where man may be closer to divinity through nature or through meditation in a large area dedicated to a particular divinity.

Space Care. Similar to altars and tools, sacred spaces must be cared for and maintained, though the area covered by a particular sacred space may be difficult to maintain. Any sacred space must be kept clean and free from miasma; regular cleaning and cleansing of the area is good, as is ensuring that all who enter are pure and cleansed. Any who try to enter a sacred space with contrary or ill desires, or with an intent to harm, steal, or defile the sacred space, should be kept from entering at all costs. If the sacred space is not meant to be opened to the public, the space should be locked or somehow protected from trespassers. If a sacred space is created for a temporary purpose, the area should be thoroughly cleaned first in every way before consecrating the area. If the sacred space is dedicated to a particular god or divinity, the blessing and guidance of that spirit should be invoked both for the consecration of the space as well as for its maintenance. When a temporary sacred space is deconsecrated, all the spirits and work there should be honored and all tools, supplies,sacrifices, and work should be respectfully removed according to the wishes of the spirits and gods there; this done, the space itself should be thoroughly cleaned once more and all altars and furniture decommissioned and disassembled in a respectful manner, followed by the invocation of the spirits there to release the area back to the world to no longer be used for a holy purpose. If a sacred space was dedicated to a particular spirit or a particular type of working, workings or worship of spirits antithetical or opposed to that consecration should not be done in that area.

Everyone’s Got Troublesome Ancestors

This post is a little late in the making, but it’s something I definitely wanted to bring up after my earlier post on ancestor veneration 101.  If you missed out on that post or forgotten about the basics of working with your ancestors, take a look at that old post before reading this one.  Who knows, you might have some new insights along the way, even if you did read it before!

So, when you get right down to it, everyone’s got ancestors, and ancestor veneration practices are available to everyone in pretty much any way.  Every culture has some way to recognize ancestors, whether it’s nothing more than praying for the dead or culminating in a week of offering full burnt sacrifices at their tombs.  For magicians, priests, and other spiritual practitioners, working with our ancestor is a powerful practice that we can adapt to our own cultures and traditions that can yield huge blessings, often without much of the fuss or hassle that other rituals might demand of us.  After all, the dead live on through us, and we stand on the shoulders of those who have gone before us; working with our ancestors can often be mutually beneficial.  Before any god or goddess, our ancestors should be and often are our first go-to spirit allies for defense, prosperity, and succor, and their insights can help guide us throughout our lives in so many ways, including teaching us new methods of working or simply easing things in difficult times.

But…well, there’s always gonna be some hitch or difficulty inherent in a practice, innit?  Of course there is.  When it comes to ancestor veneration, sure, there’s always the issue of doing rituals inappropriately or offering them things taboo to them within the culture, or desecrating their memories, or any other obvious-as-hell mistake you can make, but there’s one issue that we’re all (quite literally) familiar with: that one damn relative we just don’t get along with.  Or two.  Or a dozen.  Or quite a bit more.  While we can often ignore these troublesome relatives when they’re alive, putting up with them politely once or twice a year when we have to endure their presence for holiday dinners, it’s a little more tricky when they’re dead and hanging out at your ancestor shrine.

So, what can happen when a particular ancestor is acting up and causing problems?  What sorts of problems can they make?  Honestly, the effects can be as varied as the number of ways they can make your life better; they can interfere with your personal relationships among the living, cause health issues, stymie progress in the things you’re working forwards, or other things all the way to causing actual mayhem and chaos which can result in your injury or death.  They might not do anything, of course, depending on how patient they might be with you or based on the type of relationship you have with them, but they might also just ignore your pleas for help when you actually need them to do something, or they can turn your other ancestors against you as well.  It depends on the specific ancestor’s temperament, how badly they’re offended, and how badly they want to bring your attention to the offense, but in general, when the dead are upset, it can cause any number of issues in your life.  Untended and ignored, the ancestors can become overwhelmed by wrath and anger and turn into truly fearsome beasts of spirits, potentially even becoming enemies of their own family that can cause untold trouble across multiple generations; it’s not uncommon for familial curses to be rooted in an upset ancestor that, essentially, curses their own bloodline.  It’s unfortunate, but it does happen; in such cases, the way to break the curse is to appease that ancestor or remove them entirely from the situation.  Essentially, upset ancestors can be a pain, and it really is best to deal with that pain as soon as you can so you can avoid more pain down the line.

There are lots of reasons why we might find a particular member of our ancestors to be a pain in the ass.  To rule out the most obvious case, there’s always a chance we could have done something to offend one of them.  For instance, if we promise a particular ancestor something, such as giving them a cooked meal or refraining from doing a particular thing, it’s not uncommon or unlikely that they’ll take offense to our having neglected or broken our promise, and we’d need to work it off and mend the relationship we have with them.  This goes for any kind of spirit you have a relationship, of course, which is why we can bring this up and set it aside first; as I’ve said before, try to refrain from making vows unless you absolutely need to, but even if you make a small promise of payment, a promise is a promise, and you’d best keep your word.

One of the most common issues for beginners that can result from ancestral work is the fact that, once they start to realize that you’re reaching out to them, they often flock to you like moths to a flame, especially if you have the ability to see, hear, and speak with spirits as opposed to simply making offerings and prayers in their name.  Not only can this happen with our own ancestors, but it can also happen with any passing spirit of the dead, whether or not we’re related to them by blood, tradition, or culture.  In short, some ancestors want attention, sometimes for an actual reason and other times because they miss being tended to or cared for.  This isn’t as much a problem in cultures where ancestor veneration is common, but in modern Western societies where we hardly ever tend to our family graves or make offerings to our dead, it’s increasingly a problem that we tend to forget our dead, and when they have problems, they can cause problems for us.  The simple approach here is to simply work with them as much as you’re able, not overextending yourself or draining yourself dry, but working with them as you can to make sure their needs are met.  In the process, you often learn more about your heritage and ancestry, you learn specific ways and workings from and with your ancestors that can make things easier for you and them, and you find newer ways to make your ancestor work more efficient and effective.  This can take any number of forms, but one major caution I’d recommend is that you set boundaries with your spirits; they may not be able to get everything they ask for, even if it’s just attention (especially if it’s just attention), and many of us can’t tend to our ancestry all day every day.  After all, we living have needs, too, and if the ancestors make big demands, then they need to give big assistance.  If all they want is attention, tell them (kindly, politely, yet firmly) to back off and enjoy what they have, and if they have a specific need, make sure you understand why they need it or if they just want it.  This sort of problem can develop or undevelop depending on the spirit, and sometimes it can be useful in situations where you need to pass along messages to the living in order to keep the living from coming to future harm.  Just take it easy, so long as you take your relationships seriously and take your work further as best suits you.

There can often be a problem where it’s not so much with our relationships with our ancestors as with the fact that we simply don’t know who we are.  Unless you’re big into genealogy or have good connections in your family with genealogists, we simply may not know who it is we descend from, especially in our modern age when keeping up ties with the extended family is becoming more and more difficult, as well as more and more uncommon in Western culture.  While I won’t say that everything’s fine, this won’t necessarily cause you problems; if you know even one name of your ancestors, such as a grandparent you vaguely knew who passed away, that can be your key to learning more about the rest of them.  That particular ancestor can act as a gopher and go-between that can bring you in touch with the rest of your ancestral family.  Working with this single ancestor can open up the door to working with all the rest of them and bring you into a closer relationship with those whom you might have forgotten or never knew about.  Genealogical research is only a boon in this case, and I highly recommend everyone be able to trace their ancestry back at least a few generations if not further; this may not always be the case due to records that were lost, destroyed, or suppressed, but information is information, whether you get it through historical research or spiritual investigation.

A special case of this is were someone is adopted and has no ties with or knowledge of their blood family.  In this case, hope is not lost; for all practical purposes, the ancestors of your adoptive family become your own ancestors.  Although kin is primarily determined by blood, it is also determined by name; being adopted means being made part of the family into which you were adopted, and being accepted into a family means that they accept you from now all the way back into time.  It can often be a painful shame for those who are adopted and truly have no means of connecting with their blood family, but again, just as with the other case of not knowing who your ancestors might be, you’re not bereft of ancestors just because you may not know who they are.  Family is family, either way; ancestors of the adoptive family can just as easily bridge the gap between you and your blood family just as a known blood ancestor can connect you with your unknown blood ancestors.  As above, information is information, whether you get it through historical research or spiritual investigation.

One particular issue with our ancestors that often arises is that we simply might not like them or agree with them on important philosophical, spiritual, or political views.  For instance, it’s a common issue where many outcasts in our day and age are cast out by their own family for any number of reasons, such as converting to another religion, being queer of some sort, differences in views on human decency and bigotry, or other relationship-breaking things that can cause us suffering in life when dealing with them personally as well as in death when we have to deal with them spiritually.  I can attest to some of these things myself; coming from a European American family with roots going back to the founding of the country, I have proud slaveowners and slavedrivers in my lineage, and not all my ancestors from those lines care for the fact that I’m initiated into an African diasporic religion and affiliate myself so closely to the faith of those that they subjugated and thought subhuman; other of my ancestors find the fact that I’m gay to be confusing and problematic for them, if not disrespectful to their notions of tradition and righteousness.  It’s unfortunate that they think this way, but in general, once people die and get used to being an ancestral spirit, I have noticed that their viewpoints tend to soften somewhat; they might hold on to particular strongly-held views, but they do tend to be more accepting in death than they were in life.  At points, however, these issues can be difficult to overcome; in those cases, I work with other of my ancestors who do like and accept me to either facilitate relationships and communications with them, or simply pay my respects to the ancestors who dislike me and move on.

That’s one of the core methods of working with troublesome ancestors, by the way; even if you don’t like them or if they don’t like you, it doesn’t change the fact that you’re still their kin and descendant.  Don’t get me wrong, I’m as supportive as anyone else about the whole “blood doesn’t determine family, your love determines your family” notion that’s common among the youth of today, but there’s still something to be said for blood ties that really does matter spiritually and physically that Platonic or romantic bonds alone cannot approach or approximate.  All ties to your ancestry are indelible and unalienable, and no matter what you might think of your ancestry or heritage, whether you’re proud or ashamed of it, you cannot change the fact that they lived and did whatever they did.  No human alive or dead was wholly good or wholly evil, and all of humanity of the past, present, and future has a particular dignity that we need to recognize and appreciate.  For the mere fact that their works contributed to the world we live in today, for good or for ill, and that their lives contributed to the possibility of your own, I claim that your ancestors should be honored across the board and unconditionally.  I consider it to be an obligatory form of filial piety that crosses the boundaries of life and death.  In my case, of course I despise the fact that my ancestry played a direct role in the trans-Atlantic slave trade and supported the inhumane institutions of slavery, and I am ashamed of it and for their propagation of racism that still blights my country today; however, I cannot help but honor the fact that I am related to them, and without them I would not and could not live, and that even amongst their works that I consider evil and baneful to the happiness and health of humanity, there are also good works that encouraged those same things.  In seeing the good in them, I can help bridge what might otherwise be an unsurpassable chasm that would only cause problems, and perhaps swing their viewpoints to see how their actions caused both harm and help in their time and in my own, maybe even remediate them to help correct what I see as negative.  If not, oh well; I pay my respects to them all the same for what can be respected, and ignore the rest of what can’t, and move on to the spirits that don’t cause me such conflict.

It can be exceptionally difficult for some people who tend to their ancestors, however, who were abused by them in life or were close to those who were abused by them.  Consider the case where a young child was abused by their grandmother they lived with, or where someone was raped by their uncle; having grown up and with the abusive relative now dead, how might the person approach this situation?  It’s difficult, I admit, and I feel somewhat at a loss to discuss this particular topic because I haven’t been the victim of family or domestic abuse; in lieu of or in addition to my own thoughts which I offer here, I bow to the guidance and advice of those who can better speak to such a situation.  The pain from being emotionally, physically, sexually, or spiritually abused can often never be forgiven nor forgotten, and I don’t suggest that the abused should simply move on with their lives and pretend that everything is hunky-dory A-OK now that their relative is dead and hopefully enlightened; I know some people who would sooner condemn their parents to the bottom pits of hell with bell, book, and candle before uttering a single good thing to their name for all the abuse they put them through.  There are different approaches you could take in this case, depending on where you are emotionally and spiritually.  If you’re at a point where you can offer forgiveness or are looking for closure, then you could do exactly that; you might not work with that ancestor as an ally or treat them as you might your trusted, close-knit dead, but you could offer them forgiveness and acceptance for who they were and what they did, and work with them so as to bring to them the pain they brought you so you both can work towards bringing it to an end so that you don’t have to carry it anymore as a burden in your life.  Alternatively, if you’re not at that stage yet, simply don’t work with them, don’t call on them, and don’t try to give them attention if doing so brings you more pain than peace.  If such an abusive ancestor starts acting up and demanding attention, have your other ancestors cut them off and protect you or to help you figure out how you might placate them at arm’s distance so that, if nothing else, you aren’t pained by them any more with their wants when they didn’t do a damn to help you.  In other words, if you find that you can’t work with them in a good mutually-beneficial way, don’t work with them at all.  Even if all humanity has good and bad in them, if all you can see is the bad, then not only should you refrain from attempting to work with them for good, but you’re rendered unable to do so because of the hurt that you’re still healing from.  Take your time; you’re not responsible for the abuse they gave you in life, and you’re not responsible for their amelioration in death, either.  Work with abusive ancestors only as much as you’re capable of doing so, and work with your other ancestors instead to help you with your own healing as well as working on your behalf to isolate, remediate, elevate, or otherwise correct the patterns of abuse that might be present in your ancestry.

If you’re in a relationship like a marriage or otherwise long-term arrangement, especially where you’re living with a partner, there’s a particular issue that can crop up that might not otherwise be expected.  It can sometimes be the case where you and your ancestors get along great, as do your partner with their ancestors, but your two ancestral courts have a feud or other issue between them.  Think like what would happen if the descendants of the Hatfields and McCoys of American fame got together, or if Shakespeare’s Juliet of the House of Capulet and Romeo of the House of Montague got married instead of killing themselves overdramatically; even if the living descendants of these families made up and ended their feuds, the dead ancestors of these families might still have beef between them.  Such problematic ancestors might cause issues for the living couple in ways that might threaten to break up the relationship, if not start the feud anew or prolong it in dangerous ways for the couple or their respective families.  Breaching such a problem can often take the involvement of both you and them, as sometimes trying to convince the ancestors in question to make up and play nice can be trying at the best of times, especially if the beef is one-sided and you happen to be on the opposite side (and therefore considered an enemy).  Protection works can help, as can getting your ancestors who do play nice with the other side set a good example for facilitating peace between your different courts of ancestors; other magical works similar to happy marriage or peaceful home workings can be done on your ancestries much as you might get two quarrelsome people to play nice in life.  If the feud was caused over a particular event or item, it might be good to repair that breach in familial relationships by giving in to the demands made of the offended party, whether symbolically or in actuality; for instance, if the feud was started over a stolen horse, giving a representation of a horse to the offended spirit or dedicating a horse’s growth and training in that ancestor’s name can often repair the feud and break any further hostilities.

You might start to see see something of a trend with all these solutions to these problems, dear reader.  All the problem-solving, diplomatic, political, and interpersonal tactics and strategies we might use in life among the living to solve problems are often the most realistic, approachable, and effective ways to deal with sorting out problems with the dead.  Our ancestors, after all, were human just like us, and just because they’re dead doesn’t necessarily mean they’ve forgotten how to act like humans, because in almost all cases, they still are.  That said, we’d still need to approach them how they might expect to be approached; I wouldn’t approach my ultra-Orthodox Jewish Ukrainian ancestors from way back who died well before my parents were born the same way I might approach my more recently-deceased bacon-eating gentile cousins whom I knew personally and familiarly, and those who come from radically different cultures will often find that there is no one-size-fits-all approach.  Still, once you understand the rules and nuance of culture, the problems often present solutions of their own accord.  Treat your ancestors as human with human wants and human needs, and you’ll often figure out that the best way to deal with problems is an extrapolation of how you’d deal with the living, just in the realm of spirit.

This can’t always be done, however; there are times when problems get too big to handle for simple solutions, such as when the spirit of an ancestor degrades or transforms into something much more wrathful and dangerous than a powerful human spirit, when an honest-to-God generational curse is involved, when whole branches of the family declare you an enemy to your own kin, or in other particular situations.  There are ways to deal with these, but these go well beyond what might be expected for simple solutions, and often require investigation, divination, and multi-pronged approaches that bring in other entities of your spiritual courts for direction, protection, elevation, or isolation unique to the particular situation you’re in.  Every problem has a solution, of course, and it’s rare that an issue caused by an ancestor is a predicament and not a problem.  Just as your ancestors should be your first line of defense and line of aid because of their once-human status, it’s often the case that the best way to approach and work with them is as humans, both in times of peace and in times of conflict.

Do you have any particular stories of working with troublesome ancestors?  Are there any techniques, tips, or tricks you’d like to share when figuring out or fixing up problems with them?  Is there any advice you might like to offer to know when a problem might occur and how best to deal with it?  Let us know in the comments!

On Shrine-hoarding

I’m starting to slowly get back into my temple again for small tasks, hopefully leading up to bigger ones in the future (time and energy permitting, of course, and with the usual caveat that I need to spend my time and energy wisely between work, religion, home, friends, and the like).  As I mentioned in the last post, I’m slowly going through some of the stuff I have, either things I’ve procured or things I’ve made, and am putting some of them up on my Etsy store for others to buy and, hopefully, use in their own works.  Old woodburned placards, prayer beads, necklaces, altar supplies, even some stones and the like are things I’m putting up because…well, let’s be honest, I don’t need them.  I like them plenty, but most of these things aren’t things I’ll miss if I get rid of them.  The really important, vital, or precious stuff is going to stay mine and stay used, but then again, that’s the distinction, isn’t it?  If I use it, or if I know that I actually will use it, then it stays; if not, then it goes.

There’s a difference between stockpiling supplies for future use and simply hoarding stuff.  Raw supplies, stones, dirts, herbs, bones, beads, resins, and the like are all ingredients towards the Work that can be used in any number of ways; those are things that I can always use more of, even if I’m not running low or using at the moment, because they can come in use at the drop of a hat.  Those are things that we should all endeavor to hoard, absolutely, and use as needed.  The other stuff, on the other hand…spare crystal balls, unconsecrated statuary, beaded or otherwise handmade crafts meant for tools but never used for anything more than decoration, or other things that were made for a purpose but never really fulfilled it according to my desires, all those are things that I really have no desire to hold onto except for the sake of sentimentality or beautification.

One of the major hurdles in getting back to my temple work is that, in the…seven or so years I had to set it up, I amassed quite a bit of stuff.  Not a household’s worth, by any means, but I have shrines for the seven archangels, the Virgin Mary, my own guardian angel, the Three Kings, Hermes, Apollo with Asklepios with Dionysos, Aphrodite with Hephaistos, Saint Expedite, and Saints Cyprian, Justina, and Theocistus.  I have a small shrine to Hestia in the living room, and Demeter lives outside.  I have altars for my work for my conjuration/planetary stuff as well as my Mathesis work, and a more recent shrine to the planetary divinity of Saturn.  And all those are things I’ve kept; there are a handful of shrines or altars or other special working areas I’ve set up before and took them down either due to them having completed their purpose or things just not working out how I had planned or wanted.  And then there’s my initiation into La Regla de Ocha Lukumí (aka Santería), where I have a bevy of orisha shrines to maintain and work with (and which I’m marked to receive even more).  If I didn’t have a full-time job with a nontrivial commute, I could swing the determination and discipline to maintain all of these shrines and altars and work, but…I do have a full-time job with a nontrivial commute, and I don’t have the time.   Quite honestly (and it hurts to admit this), all the shrines I have is more than I can actually handle to maintain or keep up with.

To clarify some of my thoughts, let’s start with a bit of a distinction.  For me, an altar is essentially a working space, not meant for worship or veneration as much as actual spiritual or magical works to be done.  Conjuration of spirits, consecration of items, sacrifice of something, establishing crystal/energetic grids, those are all things apt and appropriate for an altar.  I only really have two of those, and while I like to keep them set up and ready to go, I can collapse them and set them up again or change them as needed and as desired.  Then there are shrines, which are meant for the veneration of spirits, gods, saints, or other divinities; shrines serve as a sacred seat or home for a spirit, in my mind, and are a physical representation of the relationship one has with them.  In that sense, for me to evaluate the meaning and need of a shrine is to evaluate the meaning and need of the relationship itself with the spirit of the shrine.  And that itself requires dialog with those spirits, recalling what pacts and vows one has with them, respect for and from those spirits, and honesty with oneself.

This is where my distinction between auturgic and lineage-based work comes into play.  Lineage is easy: you sign up for a specific relationship with a spirit, you’re given a set of terms and conditions to follow, you’re handed the powers and tools you need from your initiator, and boom, you’re set.  Just follow the vows you’ve signed up for, over which you have no say in except to say “yea” or “nay”, and you’re good.  Auturgy, on the other hand, is both easier and much more difficult: you establish your own parameters, vows, pacts, and agreements, and you determine how things work; you need to build your own tools and power and relationships, which can’t be handed to you because there’s nobody to hand them to you.  Most of my work is auturgic in that sense; I’ve built my shrines, I’ve consecrated my statues and talismans, I’ve set up my own protocols and rhythms of prayer and sacrifice for these spirits, and so I have say in how and when and whether these shrines should be established.  On the other hand, my Santería work is lineage-based, so I can’t just up and give Oshún a metal case to live in because I think it’d be more convenient for me; Oshún has what Oshún is supposed to have, what she wants, and what I’m obliged to give her.  More than that, I can’t ignore or just not work with my orisha, as that’d go against the agreements I signed up for with them; I don’t have say in those pacts, and to ignore them is to violate them.  That’s one of the costs—and strengths—of lineage.

But for the shrines (and relationships) that are of my own desire and design…well, there’s the hard choice of whether I want to keep them around, and if so, what really needs to stay on them.  I’ve taken down shrines before; for instance, once upon a time I wanted to set up a shrine to Hades and Persephone as part of a Hellenic approach to working with the spirits of the dead.  It never really got off the ground, even though I had all the supplies and niche set up and everything, so down it went into a box (and, if you’re interested, I still have the unconsecrated Hades statue and offering bowl, in case anyone ever wants to buy it off me).  Then there’s an erstwhile tronco I set up to begin initial work with Quimbanda spirits; I was able to make contact, such as it was, once I had my consulta, but…I never really got anywhere with that, and I didn’t have much of a purpose to work with them given the other works I had going on, and so I worked with them to disassemble the baby-tronco I had and to dispose of their implements in a way they directed and agreed to.  Point is, I’m not ashamed to acknowledge the decline or absence of a sufficiently necessary or stable spiritual relationship to where a shrine is no longer needed, and carry that through.  But, just because I’m not ashamed, doesn’t mean I don’t feel bad about it; sometimes I feel like I failed in maintaining my agreements and plans, and other times I feel bad because I realize that the designs and purposes I had in developing something didn’t turn out the way I hoped for and have to accept that keeping a shrine set up without maintaining it isn’t doing me or the spirit any favors.  I have a few such shrines at home that I really need to talk with to see about just that.

But even then, even for the shrines that I do want to keep set up, there’s the notion of clutter and hoarding things.  I’ve seen some beautiful shrines by other occultists and priests online, and some even in person, where there are these beautiful, intricate, elaborate setups girded by chains and beads and all sorts of everything.  You know, the highly Instagrammable/Facebook viral share-worthy pictures, the ones that are actually done up in real life and not just a temporary setup for a shadow-cloaked shot in the light of a single candle’s flame.  I love the aesthetic, but…I’ve come to realize that I have neither the space nor the means to actually do that for myself, but more than that, I’ve come to realize it’s not my style, either.  I’ve decked out some of my shrines in the past, but I don’t need to live in a city of multiple Parthenons, where each shrine’s district is filled like a forest with votive offerings or whatnot.  Especially with the influence of Santería now, I see the simple elegance of just giving what’s enough and what’s needed for a shrine.  If a particular implement is needed for the functioning of the shrine or the use of the spirit within, by all means, give it!  But decorating it like a Mardi Gras parade and accumulating everything under heaven that even has a shadow of a tangential relationship to that spirit for the sake of having it be pretty is…well, it ends up collecting more dust than it’s worth.

A shrine doesn’t need much to be effective: an image or physical representation of the spirit, maybe a place to set lights or incense, maybe some implements or tools directly associated with them that one has a strong feeling (if not an explicit or confirmed directive) to provide, perhaps some supplies to be left in the care of the spirit until it can be used in workings with or without them.  Space is at a premium, after all, in my temple room and house, and a shrine doesn’t often need that much space.  Barring specific protocols or vows, anything else is probably just decoration for the sake of the devotee and not the divine.  To accumulate more and more of those latter accouterments is just…hoarding.  Having more shrines than you need is likewise hoarding.  Both of which eventually become a burden, both to maintain the cleanliness of even a single shrine as well as to maintain your relationships with those spirits, and unless you’re actually getting something out of that arrangement, perhaps it might be better to cut back, both on the shrines as well as the stuff within them.  After all, you don’t need to be a dragon to be a devotee, and we’re not often worshiping dragons that demand devotional donations.  (Of course, if you are, then different rules apply.)

That’s one of the reasons why I’m going through my temple and cutting back both on the shrines and the stuff within them.  If I’m not maintaining a relationship with a spirit, or if that spirit isn’t maintaining a relationship with me, then there’s no real need for a shrine; it’d be best to disassemble it respectfully and confer with the spirit on how and where their sacred things should be disposed of, or if they can be given to another to care for them.  (Yes, Justice, I’m aware, and I haven’t forgotten, forgive me my lateness!)  If the spirit still wants to stay and I don’t want to maintain the shrine, then an agreement can likely be brokered to pare down the shrine to a minimum, shrink it, or hold onto something to make a temporary shrine with later as needed; temporary shrines, set up on unused or other working tables, are a great way to carry out devotional work every once in a while that aren’t otherwise a full-time thing.  Otherwise, if the shrine really is to stay as a permanent installation, then I’d go through all the things on it, see what’s not necessary or essential to the shrine, and consult with the spirit on how and where to dispose of the other things that they’re okay with parting with, whether it should just be thrown out respectfully, sold, given as a gift, or used for another purpose.  It depends, and it’s a careful, sometimes heart-scouring process, but a necessary one that I need to go through.  There are some things I want to get rid of, honestly, but the spirits are adamant I keep, whether for their own use or for my own in working with them, and it requires honesty and openness to be aware of these things.

I suppose that clearing out my temple room (and the other sacred spaces in my house more generally), taking a thorough account of my spiritual relationships with my courts and pantheons, and seeing what I really need for my Work is the first step to really getting back to working with them all.  After all, I can’t go into my temple for single-minded work if I dread walking in due to all the reminders of the missed offerings, forgotten festivals, and dust gathered on them distracting me for the purpose I walked in for.  If I don’t want to be distracted, then I need to fix the distractions, and in order to do that, I need to fix my shrine situation accordingly in a way that is best for both me and them.  Only then can I be really sure about my Work, my physical and spiritual spaces, and my spirits and the relationships I have with them.  And, hey, in the process, if I uncover any goodies that I don’t need or want anymore, someone else might be lucky enough to get them for something they need or want.  Besides, I have future projects I want to plan, and should any of those require shrines or a permanent installation of some sort…well, I’ll have to evaluate if I need to give anything else up to make the time, energy, and space for it, and whether I really need to go down that route, if nothing else will do.

If you’re facing a similar situation, then it might be well for you to do a similar disassembly and decluttering of shrines and shrine stuff.  We can’t all be full-time priests tending to and taking care of all these temples of our own design; with our limited time and energy, we can only take care of what we must and what we really need to.  Be honest with yourself, and be honest with your spirits.  If you need to limit your practice to just one or two things, then let your temple or sacred spaces look and function accordingly.  Hoarding shrines may make us look cool and hardcore, but as many occultists learn at some point, we’re in this for more than just looking cool.  If you can manage that while also getting the Work done, awesome!  If not, then simplify and focus on the Work.  They say, after all, that simplicity is the highest form of elegance; some people, like myself, could do with taking that to heart.