Hermeticism FAQ: Part II, Texts

Continuing our Hermeticism FAQ series (see part I here), let’s continue today with Part II, on the texts that inform our studies of Hermeticism!

What is “the Hermetica?”

There is no one single classical text called “the Hermetica”, although this term is sometimes used to refer to the collective body of Hermetic texts from the classical period.  Confusingly, however, several modern authors and scholars have used the term “the Hermetica” to title their own books containing Hermetic texts:

  • Brian Copenhaver, “Hermetica”, containing translations of the Corpus Hermeticum and the Perfect Sermon
  • M. David Litwa “Hermetica II”, containing translations of the Stobaean Fragments, Oxford Fragments, Vienna Fragments, and various other fragments and testimonia of Hermetic doctrine
  • Walter Scott, “Hermetica” (in four volumes), containing his (highly edited and amended) version of the Greek and Latin Hermetic texts along with his thorough analysis of them
  • Peter Gandy and Timothy Freke, “The Hermetica: The Lost Wisdom of the Pharaohs”, containing their (heavily remixed, reordered, and re-Egyptianized) version of Hermetic texts

While one may use “the Hermetica” to refer to the collective body of Hermetic texts from the classical period, in order to reduce confusion, it is recommended to use a different term, e.g. “the classical Hermetic texts” generally or the name of a specific such text instead.  When referring to one of the above texts, it is better to clarify by stating the author’s name, e.g. “Copenhaver’s Hermetica”.

What is the “Divine Pymander”?

When Marsilio Ficino translated the Corpus Hermeticum into Latin from Greek in the 15th century CE, he used the title of the first “book” (what we might call a “chapter” nowadays) as the title for the entire translation.  This was like titling the Old Testament “Book of Genesis”.  A few later translators working off Ficino, like John Everard, also used the same title.  Depending on the context, “Divine Pymander” may refer to either Book I of the Corpus Hermeticum (the technically correct meaning), or to later translations of the Corpus Hermeticum as a whole.  As a result, to reduce confusion, it is recommended to refer to Book I of the Corpus Hermeticum as just that, and refer to the specific translations by their authors, e.g. “in Ficino” or “in Everard”.

What are the “philosophical Hermetica”?

There are plenty of different Hermetic texts available to us from antiquity, and although the distinction isn’t always so clear or fixed as some scholars would like to believe, one group of texts is known as the “philosophical Hermetica” (or the “theoretical Hermetica”).  These texts focus on the religious, philosophical, cosmological, theosophical, and otherwise doctrinal side of Hermeticism, and generally consist of dialogues or letters between Hermēs Trismegistos and his students.  Although they may mention them at a high level, the “philosophical” texts generally lack any details regarding anything practice-oriented, like the study of astrology, the consecration of talismans, the ensoulment of statues, or the like; in other words, there is little “magic” or “ritual” in the “philosophical Hermetica”, even if such things are assumed.  Examples of “philosophical Hermetica” include (but are not limited to) the Corpus Hermeticum, the Stobaean Fragments, and the Perfect Sermon.

What are the “technical Hermetica”?

As opposed to the “philosophical Hermetica”, the “technical Hermetica” (or the “practical Hermetica”) focus on the practical, technical, or skill-oriented parts of Hermeticism; rather than being more about belief and doctrine, these are about practice and technology.  As such, these have the bulk of the “magic” and “ritual” that the “philosophical Hermetica” lack.  However, due to the overall distaste many historians and scholars have had for studying magical things, the “technical Hermetica” have received much less attention than the “philosophical Hermetica”.  This isn’t to say that they don’t exist or haven’t been translated, but aren’t as codified and haven’t received as much popular attention as the “philosophical Hermetica”, and due to the messy nature of magic and magical texts, there are plenty of overlaps between explicitly Hermetic practices and implicit ones.  Further, “technical Hermetica” continued to be produced well after the last of the “philosophical Hermetica” were written, so “technical Hermetica” can also reasonably include post-classical and modern texts.  Examples of “technical Hermetica” include the Greek Magical Papyri (PGM), the Sacred Book of Hermēs to Asklēpios, and the Picatrix.

Is the Corpus Hermeticum the Bible of Hermeticism?

Given the popularity and fame this collection of texts has received over the past 600 years, it sure seems so, doesn’t it?  Of course, the Corpus Hermeticum is just one of several collections of Hermetic texts, and despite its importance for the study and practice of Hermeticism, should not be considered the most or only important such collection.  It is unclear whether there ever even was such a “primary text” of Hermeticism.  That being said, considering Book I’s role in the Corpus Hermeticum as giving us the founding myth and initial revelation of Hermēs Trismegistos, even if it was never intended to be a “Bible” for Hermeticism, it may be considered as such by those who choose to do so—though it is best taken together with similar texts such as the Perfect Sermon and the Stobaean Fragments for a more comprehensive reading and study.

What about The Kybalion?

Despite how much this book loves to call itself Hermetic, The Kybalion is not a Hermetic text.  Rather, it is an invention of William Walker Atkinson, a prolific author and an early pioneer of New Thought, an early New Age movement, and who wrote under the pen name “The Three Initiates” (along with his other pen names like “Theron Q. Dumont” and “Yogi Ramacharaka”).  Although The Kybalion claims to be based on an ancient Hermetic book (also called “The Kybalion”), no such text has ever been discovered, the doctrines within it do not match with those of either the philosophical or technical Hermetica, the terminology used within it is foreign to classical texts of any kind but rather match cleanly with New Age terminology in the late 19th and early 20th centuries CE, and generally lacks any notion of theology or theosophy present in the actual Hermetic texts.  Although many modern occultists love the Kybalion and despite many people becoming interested in Hermeticism because of The Kybalion, The Kybalion is not a Hermetic text, and is only “Hermetic” in the sense that it has been adopted by many modern Hermeticists rather than by any virtue of its own.  The best discussion regarding The Kybalion and its (non-)Hermetic nature is the essay “The Kybalion’s New Clothes: An Early 20th Century Text’s Dubious Association with Hermeticism” by Nicholas E. Chapel.  This isn’t to say that The Kybalion is entirely without worth—for some people, New Thought can be profoundly useful—but the fact remains that it is not Hermetic, and so there’s no need to discuss it in a Hermetic context or as a source of Hermetic doctrine or practice (not that there’s much practical stuff in it to begin with).

What about The Emerald Tablets of Thoth the Atlantean, and is it the same text as the Emerald Tablet?

The Emerald Tablets of Thoth the Atlantean is another entirely modern and New Age creation, much like The Kybalion, and so is also not Hermetic, and also goes pretty far afield into extremely New Age topics and discussions that are nowhere found in actual Hermetic texts to the point of it being sci-fi.  The name is based on the Emerald Tablet (or Tabula Smaragdina), a short extract of a medieval 7th century CE Arabic book on natural philosophy and alchemy called the Book of the Secrets of Creation (Kitāb sirr al-khalīqā) attributed to Apollonius of Tyana.  The Emerald Tablet is a fascinating, though exceedingly dense and cryptic text, and has received much attention over the centuries since its first translation into Latin in the 12th century CE, though it is entirely unclear if this was a creation of Islamic Hermeticism or medieval Islamic alchemists, or whether it is a translation of something earlier from the classical period.

What’s the deal with the Emerald Tablet, anyway?

The Emerald Tablet is a well-known Hermetic text, though exceedingly short, and is less of a discourse and more of a cryptic poem.  Due to its crypticness, it’s received much attention since it entered the European mindset, and much ink has been spilled about how it might have any number of mystical or mythical origins, including a supposed ancient Chinese antecedent.  It is something of a puzzle, but it relies on early Islamic alchemical symbolism (which was the basis of much of Western and European alchemy) in order to communicate a notion of how to achieve the Philosopher’s Stone by means of transmutation of the four elements.  It is this text that the famous adages “‘tis true without lying” and “as above, so below” come from.

Are the Hermetic texts corrupted or incomplete?

It is true that, over the past 2000 years, we have lost some Hermetic texts, and those Hermetic texts that have survived have not always done so in a pristine state; sometimes there are lacunae in the texts, sometimes marginalia or external notes have become incorporated with the texts, or sometimes the language is so garbled as to be rendered difficult to comprehend.  While these are definite problems, our understanding of the texts (with the help of modern scholarship and comparison with related texts in similar or contemporary religious and philosophical traditions) is better than ever, and many of these problems have been resolved in a way that preserves (or recovers) the original meaning of the Hermetic texts themselves.  So, while some parts of the Hermetic texts are corrupted or incomplete, they are uncorrupted and complete as a whole, and are still quite understandable today with the same meaning and impact as they had 2000 years ago.

What about the Hermetic texts that we’ve lost?

We only have what has survived the knife of time and the redactor’s pen.  We know for a fact that there were more Hermetic texts written than what we have today, and we even know that some of the texts we do have are missing parts (like how Book II of the Corpus Hermeticum is missing its entire introduction, and the title applied to Book II is actuall the title of a separate text that originally came before what we have today as Book II).  We can only hope that there are still manuscripts out there, whether hidden away in desert sands or preserved still in mouldering monastery libraries or museum collections, that contain as-yet undiscovered Hermetic texts.  Until then, we make do with what we can, and try to fill in the gaps as reasonably as we’re able.

What are the core texts of Hermeticism?

The “beating heart” and root of much of Hermeticism are found in the classical Hermetic canon, which can be thought of as consisting of the following texts from the “philosophical Hermetica”:

  • The Corpus Hermeticum, a collection of 17 short texts
    • This is the most famous and most well-known collection of Hermetic texts today
  • The Perfect Sermon, also called the Asclepius
    • This is also the most famous Hermetic text along with the Corpus Hermeticum, especially before the recovery of the Corpus Hermeticum in western Europe in the 15th century CE
    • The most popular version of this text is preserved only in Latin.
    • Sections 21 through 29 of the Latin Asclepius is also preserved in Coptic as part of the Nag Hammadi Library (NHC VI.8)
    • The final thanksgiving prayer is also present in Coptic in the Nag Hammadi Library (NHC VI.7) as well in Greek as part of the Greek Magical Papyri (PGM III.590—611)
  • The Definitions of Hermes Trismegistus to Asclepius, a collection of 49 “definitions” or summary-teachings preserved in Armenian and translated into French and English in the late 20th century CE
  • The Stobaean Fragments, a series of 29 Hermetic extracts of varying lengths by John of Stobi in his 5th century CE Anthology
    • One of the most famous series of Hermetic texts in the Stobaean Fragments is the Korē Kosmou (“Virgin of the World”), preserved in the 23rd through 26th Stobaean Fragments
  • The Oxford Fragments, a series of five Hermetic extracts 
  • The Vienna Fragments, two badly-preserved Hermetic texts
  • The Discourse on the Eighth and the Ninth, a short text describing a ritual of spiritual elevation and divine ascent preserved in Coptic as part of the Nag Hammadi Library (NHC VI.6)

As regards the “technical Hermetica”, however, there is much more variability in terms of what texts one should consider as “core” to Hermeticism, especially given the varied nature of them and how well they may or may not integrate or harmonize with the “philosophical Hermetica”.  Important among these, however, can be considered (though by no means are limited to):

  • The Greek Magical Papyri, a collection of Greek magical rituals, spells, and invocations as practiced in a Greco-Egyptian context
  • The Demotic Magical Papyri, a similar collection of magical rituals but preserved in Demotic Egyptian and containing a stronger Egyptian pagan presence
  • The Coptic Magical Papyri, a similar collection of magical rituals but preserved in Coptic Egyptian and containing a stronger Christian presence
  • The Centiloquium of Hermes Trismegistus, a series of 100 propositions regarding astrology
  • The Picatrix, or the Ghāyat al-Ḥakīm, a medieval collection of rituals, prayers, and recipes from Islamic esoteric traditions preserving aspects of earlier Sabian, Harranian, and Hermetic practices and beliefs

In what order should I read the texts?

One after the other, usually from the front towards the back.  More seriously, though, because each text is considered a single treatise on its own, and because none of the collections build upon each other, it doesn’t generally matter what order you read them in (at least as far as the “philosophical Hermetica” are concerned).

What are the differences between different translations of the Corpus Hermeticum, Asclepius, etc., and which should I get?

As a rule, always go with more modern translations instead of older ones.  It is true that the translations of Ficino, Everard, and Mead were greatly important in the history of Western esotericism, but we have more texts at our disposal today with better contextual understanding than what was available to earlier translators.  As a result, modern translations (especially those based on the critical Greek edition of the Corpus Hermeticum produced by A. D. Nock and A.-J. Festugière) are going to use more source material with better ability to understand and transmit the text than what was done in earlier times.  To that end, the best English translations available today of classical Hermetic texts are those produced by Brian Copenhaver, M. David Litwa, Clement Salaman, and J.-P. Mahé (as well as including more notes and references that further help elucidate the translated text, usually missing from earlier translations).  Older translations may be used, but should be cross-referenced with modern translations when possible to make sure that the meaning of the text is properly understood.

What happened to Book XV of the Corpus Hermeticum?

The earliest translations of the Corpus Hermeticum did not always follow the same convention as what modern translations use, and depending on the underlying texts that Ficino or other translators used, different Hermetic texts might be present not part of the usual collection of the Corpus Hermeticum.  As a result, Book XV of these early translations contained a Hermetic text that properly belonged to a separate collection and was not part of other Corpus Hermeticum manuscripts.  In order to maintain the convention of numbering certain books from the Corpus Hermeticum the same for the purposes of ease of reference, no modern text in the Corpus Hermeticum is counted as “Book XV”.  It’s not that “Book XV” is a “missing Hermetic text”, just that we conventionally don’t mark any text as “Book XV” (like how some buildings don’t have a 13th floor, but immediately go from floor 12 to floor 14).

What else should I read to learn more about Hermeticism?

Plenty!  Many works of Hellenistic time period, including those regarding Stoicism, Platonism (whether early or middle or new), Aristotelianism, Hellenistic Judaism, Egyptian religion and philosophy, and the like are helpful for getting a better contextual background for approaching and understanding the Hermetic texts.  Similarly, the gnostic texts of the Nag Hammadi Library and related texts like the Books of Jeu are also helpful to see similar influences at play that played out differently from the path that Hermeticism took.  In addition to these source texts, modern scholarship is also helpful to understand more subtle shifts and developments in these texts and the traditions that produced them that are not immediately apparent from the source texts themselves.  Some scholars and authors to read on these fronts include, in no particular order nor is this an exhaustive list by any means:

  • Brian Copenhaver
  • Clement Salaman
  • Jean-Pierre Mahé
  • Charles Harold Dodd
  • Walter Scott
  • Arthur Darby Nock
  • André-Jean Festugière
  • Wouter Hanegraaff
  • Gilles Quispel
  • Roelof van den Broek
  • Garth Fowden
  • Kevin van Bladel
  • Christian Bull
  • Christian Wildberg
  • Peter Kingsley
  • Antoine Faivre
  • Hans Dieter Betz
  • Eleni Pachoumi
  • Algis Uzdavinys
  • Sarah Iles Johnston
  • Ljuba Merlina Bortolani
  • Zlatko Pleše
  • Lautaro Roig Lanzillotta
  • Jonathan Peste

On the One True Geomancy (or Astrology, Alchemy, Etc.)

Within reason, of course, I enjoy fielding questions from my readers through social media, whether it’s through @s on Twitter or messages on Facebook.  I do my best to answer them as they come, and I generally have an answer, though it might take me a bit to compile it in full.  Sometimes, the answer just can’t be made simple enough for a quick message, and we need to engage in a proper conversation to flesh everything out.  However, on occasion, some of those questions or the discussions we have over them raise something up in my mind that I think needs to be explored more, and this is just one such an occasion.

One of my friends on Facebook—introduced to me by a mutual friend over (what else?) geomancy—had some questions and problems with reading over some of my posts, specifically where I catalog an assortment of geomantic texts’ attributions of elements to the figures.  Basically, in that post, I go over how there’s a lot of talk in books modern and classical about how to reckon the elemental rulerships of each of the figures, and there are a surprising number of variations about how to go about just that.  Modern confusion can arise from John Michael Greer’s use of a dual system of outer and inner elements of the figures, outer elements based on Zodiacal attributions and inner elements based on structural concerns, and I’m sure that I haven’t much improved on that with my own system of primary and secondary elements (though I find it increasingly useful).  My friend was happy to scrap the outer element system of JMG, but after reading my post, things only got more confused and muddled for her.  She vented a bit to me about some of her frustrations in learning geomancy from my blog:

I think I am a bit disheartened.  According to your work even the planetary rulerships vary from Agrippa to the Golden Dawn.  When I found geomancy, I was excited because it was based on numbers and my study of sacred geometry, and it made me hope that this system was at root based upon the same principles.  After reading a lot of your work. I am left with “everyone does it different, good luck!”

You know what?  That’s completely fair, and it’s easy for me to have lost sight of that.  I appreciate her bringing me back down to earth a bit by sharing her feelings with me on this.

As you may have noticed, dear reader, the Digital Ambler is my blog.  Yes, it’s a website where I advertise my services and ebooks and share my research and rituals and make myself available for a variety of consultations and readings, but first and foremost, the Digital Ambler is my blog.  I write about what I want on my blog at the rate I want with the focuses I want in the way I want; it is, after all, my blog.  However, I write my blog for the public to read not just to keep track of my own notes, experiments, projects, ideas, and studies, but also to help others in the occult, Hermetic, and geomantic communities as well.  Over the years, my blog has become something of a resource for many, and I take a bit of pride and satisfaction and fulfillment that I’m able to help at least a few people through my writing.

One of the ways I think I help is that I share my research and notes, and when it comes to geomancy, there’s a lot to research—about a thousand years, to be precise, across Africa, the Middle East, South Asia, and Europe.  Even with my limited resources, I have access to texts by John Case, Robert Fludd, Heinrich Cornelius Agrippa von Nettesheim, Christopher Cattan, John Heydon, Bartholommeo della Parma, Gerard of Cremona, and Pietro d’Abano, to say nothing of more modern authors ranging from Franz Hartmann to Stephen Skinner and JMG himself.  As time goes on, I hope to get access to even more obscure materials that exist in undigitized, microfiche, or manuscript form.  And, I expect, as I get access to more such resources, I’ll learn more about how geomancy was practiced by a variety of practitioners across the millennium it’s been in use.

As a researcher, it’s evident and plain to me that geomancy is not a single, fixed subject.  Yes, even from its inception and introduction into Europe, there have been many things fixed and stable about the art: the basic meanings of the figures, the basic use of the Court and Shield Chart, how to use the House Chart, what planets the figures refer to, and so forth.  However, there are a great many things that vary between one author and the next: whether this technique or that is more useful, how many variations on a single technique there might be, how to assign the zodiac signs to the figures, how to assign the elements to the figures, how to do this or that and…well, as can be seen across many of the posts on my blog where I document classical techniques, there’s a fair amount of variation in geomantic practice.  For me to introduce that into my blog is part and parcel of my research: I research to document what was done, no matter how it was done, so I can figure out what was kept back then and why, as well as what I might keep that works and how to make what works work even better.

Why is there so much variation in what was done?  Simply put, it’s because geomancy is not a monolithic tradition: there is no canon, no centralization, no governing authority that says “this is proper geomantic practice” and “that is not proper geomantic practice”.  We in our modern age are used to such centralized authorities certifying what’s in and what’s out or what’s good and what’s bad to the point where we take it for granted, and we expect to see that such centralization would be present in previous eras.  It’s simply not the case.  Sure, there were commonly-available resources and texts, especially after the invention of the printing press and the beginning of mass-produced books, but it still was nothing like the scale of today’s “Art and Practice of Geomancy” or “Geomancy for Beginners” or “Geomancy in Theory and Practice”.  What was available were texts produced on a much smaller scale available to a smaller percentage of wealthier people who could afford books within a much more localized region; besides those, there were actual, living, breathing geomancers who not only practiced, but taught as well.  Though I’m sure some students of geomancy kept in touch with others, each geomancer was likely to be left to their own devices, see what works, and see what doesn’t, then develop and refine their own practice on their own.  Couple a few decades of that with books that may not always be 100% correct or vetted for typos and clarity, and minor variations are bound to result.

The commonalities between different geomancers and texts vastly outweigh the differences between them, to be sure, but many of us who like to investigate the details and ply those for whatever we can might be foiled by encountering so many different ways to assign figures to elements or what have you.  As my friend said, it can often come across that, when I present my notes on how geomancers of the past practiced this art, it might just come across as “everyone does it different, good luck”.  To an extent…yeah, actually.  Everyone did do it different.  Heck, everyone still does it different; I don’t do the same exact geomancy that Stephen Skinner or JMG or Al Cummins or Eric Purdue might do.  We all understand the basics of geomancy, and the commonalities of our practices far outweigh our differences, but there are definitely differences to be had.

To be fair, though, this isn’t just a thing with geomancy.  Astrology has the same variations across its many thousands of years of practice and development based on era, land, language, and author.  Today, you’ll still find arguments about which house system is best, how to allot certain things to certain houses, whether the modern planets have any purpose in horary astrology, and so forth.  You’ll find the same thing in general Hermetic magic (Golden Dawn or Thelema? Lemegeton or Grimoirum Verum? Heptameron or Trithemius?), in ancient Greek religion (Hesiod or Homer? Attic or Doric? Delphi or Dodona?), and really in any ancient tradition.  No tradition is ever truly monolithic unless it was designed that way, and even then, if it’s at all taught and carried on by successive generations of students, there are bound to be variations.  That’s how we ended up with Theravada and Mahayana and Vajrayana Buddhism from a single teacher, and within each vehicle of Buddhism all the different sects and schools thereof.  That’s how we ended up with Catholic and Orthodox and Protestant Christianities, and all their own sects and denominations.  Spiritual traditions, sciences, and lineages are inherently messy in their development; as I said to my friend, “if it’s confusing, it’s because there are a lot of different voices shouting different things under the same big tent”.

So what do we do about it?  Is it really as simple (and confusing) as “everyone did it different, good luck”?  Well…yes, actually.  In my research-related posts on this blog, I don’t often just document what was done, but I also give my thoughts on what makes the most logical sense or what has the strongest justification, as well as share my own thoughts, experiences, and preferences on the variations on technique.  I do my best to show my own practices and why I do things the way I do and where I get the things I do from, but at the end of the day, it’s a combination of study and experimentation that informs my practice: study the things that are common and fixed in the tradition, experimentation to see which variations work best.  The way I teach geomancy is going to be different from other geomancers past and present because it’s going to be informed by my own practices, experiences, and experiments; consider that I find (much as Robert Fludd himself did) that the techniques to predict letters and numbers are crap. Heck, even among geomancers today, what I consider vital and important to the art (as far as details go, at least), Al Cummins may find ridiculous or nonsense, and vice versa.  That’s fine!  We each have our own opinions informed by our own studies, and that’s great!  It’s not going to be as simple as 2 + 2 = 4 where there’s only one right answer, but it’s going to be “which art movement is better to understand the 19th century occult movements, Pre-Raphaelite or Art Nouveau?”.

If you’re looking for the One True Geomancy (or One True Astrology, or One True Solomonic Grimoire, or One True Alchemy, etc.) with all and only the right techniques, well, you might be disappointed.  There’s really no objective, centralized, certified Manual of Geomantic (or Astrological, Solomonic, Alchemical, etc.) Practice out there, nor will there ever be.  The best you can do is find a single teacher and study what that one teacher teaches, and even then, they might change their views over time, just like you will.  In the meantime, though it might be a rough road to follow, learning what was done and seeing all the variants out there of a given technique is helpful because it informs you of what was done before to give you an idea of what works and what options you have when working your own practices.  In doing so, you have guides that point in useful directions (maybe not always the right directions) to show you where you should focus your practice or steer your practice towards or away from.  Experimentation is a must in this and every kind of occult art, but you can and should listen to your peers and colleagues and teachers to see what was done before so you don’t invent the wheel all over again and again and again.

On Tattoos of Spiritual Artifices

Recently on the endless stream of half-formed thoughts that keeps me sane in the office, which is to say Twitter, I was approached by someone who likes my work and thinks highly of it.  While I take this as a humbling and honoring thing, I was troubled by this as well, since they asked if it was a bad idea to take the Table of Practice design I developed based on Fr. Rufus Opus’ coursework and use it as a tattoo on their body.

Table of Practice

I told them bluntly that, yes, this is indeed a bad idea.  Why?  Because the Table of Practice pattern is a combination of spiritual geometry and sacred names that is put together in such a way so as to contain and manifest spirits; this is the point of the diagram.  To have this on their body would mean that, wherever they go, they risk having spirits collect on their tattoo with or without their knowledge and, worse, to give those spirits form and place in the world without actively working with them or even attentively or intentionally calling upon them.  These things happen anyway, which is why regular cleansings and baths and banishings and the like are so necessary, but to trigger that even more than it happens on its own and in a more dangerous way is a terrible, awful, no-good idea.  Worse, the person in question wanted to use this for spiritual protection, which is not the point of this design at all!  It can be used for containment and isolation, sure, but it is not primarily intended for that, and has way too many side-effects that make this a poor choice for a protection tattoo.

Put simply, this person was coming from a place of ignorance, a place which I hope I was able to help them out from.  The occult world is full of arcane geometries, obscure patterns, and unusual shapes that many a graphical artist would love to get their hands on or take credit for.  Add to it, so much of this stuff is just so cool-looking (and if you’re one of the vast majority of people who get into the occult, you got into it because it looks so freaking awesome).  There’s a heavy and high danger in this, though, because if you merely work with this stuff because it looks cool, you often overlook how powerful and grave and serious this stuff is.  It’s easy to forget that these things that appear so simple are in and of themselves so dangerous; a simple stray mark, a vowel pronounced with the wrong intonation, the wrong type of pepper used in incense, or such minor differences could honestly and hugely change how something works.  Just because something looks simple and straightforward doesn’t mean that it can be used in a simple and straightforward manner.

This stuff is called the occult, and the word “occult” means “that which is hidden”.  This stuff is not always apparent but always needs to be studied and mulled over for it to make sense and for it to click.  Picking something up and running with it is a bold move, and can easily cross over into folly; without a firm understanding of what you’re doing and to what end, as well as the construction of the tools and designs and artifices you’re using, you could really hurt yourself or those around you.  This goes double for tattoos of spiritual designs and artifices, because you’re literally and permanently transforming your body into an occult tool or a container for occult forces and entities; you need to take extra care when getting a spiritual tattoo because you may be biting off far more than you can chew.

Learning the Astragalomantic Oracular Verses

The way that astragalomancy works is pretty simple; Kostas Dervenis in his Oracle Bones Divination calls it the “Greek I Ching”, noting the similarity of the method.  Basically, what you do is you roll five knucklebones, or astragaloi, and you note the sides that come up.  The astragaloi act like four-sided dice, and each of the 56 different rolls you get (the order doesn’t matter) indicates a different outcome.  Each roll is associated with a particular godname and a matching oracular verse, not unlike grammatomancy (the methods are basically the same).  So, really, there’s little room for interpretation: roll the astragaloi, read the corresponding verse, and that’s your answer.  Expanding and meditating on the verse as it relates to the situation or the query is often necessary, but there’s little other inspiration to be had here, which is just as well.  I’m sure I can fit some more mystical aspects into it later, of course, but that’s later once I learn all the verses.

It’s learning the verses, however, that’s proving something of a struggle for me.  Each verse is four or five lines long, and there are 56 different verses.  Learning the one-line verses associated with the 24 letters of the Greek alphabet took a bit of time on its own, but that’s child’s play in comparison to this.  My memory may be good, but it’s not that good to just up and memorize a book’s worth of divination.  I want to be able, eventually, to pull out my astragaloi whenever needed and on the spot do a reading with them, which may mean that I won’t have a book of verses with me at any given moment, so I want to memorize them and know them by heart.  Getting there is hard, so I’m trying out different ways of learning them and comparing what I’ve done with other methods.

Geomancy, for instance, was easy because each set of meanings could be tied to a graphical form, the geomantic figure composed of four lines of one or two dots in each line.  Grammatomancy was easy because I had the 24 Greek letters as graphical forms to link their meanings and verses to, as well as the fact that the alphabet itself formed an index and acronym for the verses themselves (at least in Greek).  And, while I don’t know Tarot half as well as I probably should as a Hermetic magician, learning the symbolism could easily be done by association with the pretty pictures of the cards themselves (if I even bother to go that route, since the pictures lend themselves well to impromptu interpretation as they already are).    These all use some sort of graphical image as a symbol to which can be linked a referent, the verse or meaning; my mind plays well with these instead of just straight-up words or numbers.

Astragalomancy, however, is different; I’m just getting a set of numbers, a numeric ID, that gives me a particular verse and meaning.  It’s a different beast, and the lack of a distinct symbol bothers me.  The ID doesn’t register to my mind as a graphical image or a symbol in the same way a geomantic figure does, especially given the different forms it can take.  Consider the throw where you get two khion (1) throws, a hyption (3), a pranēs (4), and a kōon (6).  While I might write this down as 11346, there are 60 different permutations of this ID.  Add to it, the original sources don’t tend to list the numbers in a simple manner, so the actual ID of this is 43611 in the book!  While each verse begins with a description of the throw (in this case, “one four, one three, one six, and two ones: …”), that’s not helpful without me just up and memorizing all the verses by heart and running through them one by one until I get to the one I need, or until I get to the point where automatic recital of each verse is possible just from the start of each one (and, moreover, how each first line starts).  That takes time, and I’m trying to get up to speed as fast as possible with this.

Flashcards help, though, and I was able to link the sums of the throws to the Greek letters (one of the ways to do grammatomancy with astragaloi) in a day with this method.  For this, the online service Quizlet is amazing, and if you’re so interested, you can check out the sets of flashcards I’ve made for your own study.  Linking the throws to the letters involves summing up the sides of the astragaloi, however, and just observing the throws themselves isn’t a link I can make directly to the Greek letter just yet.  Over time, perhaps, as I regularly use the astragaloi it can happen, but I need that intermediate step first that detaches the throw to the Greek letter directly.  However, the way Quizlet works, you need to type in the answer to a given prompt more-or-less directly, and while it may be a useful activity for me to go through all the oracles themselves and make a one- or two-word summation of every verse, I haven’t gotten around to doing that just yet.  So, for me, the first step is to learn the throws of the astragaloi and how they associate with the different gods associated with each throw.

Still, that alone is difficult without some sort of pattern or method, and then I realized that I have a method for this.  Every software engineer is taught this method of “divide and conquer” (or, in Greek, διαίρει καὶ βασίλευε, diairei kai basileue), where you take a large problem and divide it up into smaller chunks that can more easily be solved, linking them all together in the end once they’re all good to go.  Looking at the astragalomantic throws, I realized that I can reorder the throws into a pattern that’s more numerically pleasing where there are 18 groups of 3 or 4 throws each, based partially on the Roman game of tali or knucklebones.  I group some of the smaller groups into larger ones based on the abstract number pattern linking them together:

  • Dogs and Vultures (all throws the same number, four possible throws)  e.g. 11111, 33333
  • Iacti Veneris + 1 (all four sides represented, four possible throws) e.g. 11346, 13446
  • 4X 1Y (four throws one side and last throw another, 12 possible throws with four groups of three based on X) e.g. 11113, 46666
  • 3X 2Y (three throws one side and two throws another, 12 possible throws with four groups of three based on X) e.g. 33444, 33666
  • 3X 1Y 1Z (three throws one side and two throws different, 12 possible throws with four groups of three based on X) e.g. 11134, 34446
  • 2X 2Y 1Z (two throws one side and two throws another and last throw another, 12 possible throws with four groups of three based on Z) e.g. 34466, 13344

Sure, it’s not exactly a traditional arrangement of the throws or a traditional way of enumerating them, but it works for me.  Every day I’ll study one or two more groups, learning what the pattern is and the throws of a similar pattern with different numbers, adding in the new rows to a Quizlet flashcard quiz and practicing it every hour or so until I build myself up enough to tackle the whole lot of 56 throws.  All in all, this isn’t a bad way to learn the basic associations of throws with the gods, and given my normal speed of memorization and learning, it’ll take about two or three weeks to learn all the associations of throws and gods comfortably enough that I can identify them at a glance.

Once I get the memorization of throws and gods down, and (if I deem it worthwhile) the memorization of the canonical order of the gods, then it’ll be time to link the association of throws and oracles down.  However, I plan on using the god-associations as a halfway point, so that I’ll actually be linking the oracle to the god and the god to the throw.  Thus, by recalling the god as a symbol, I can recall the oracle to which the symbol refers.  Learning each oracle will take more time than learning the god, since each verse also has to be memorized.  That said, I can speed up the process by learning the gist of each oracle first, then going back to learning the verses themselves, but we’ll see how I feel about that.  Given this, I expect it to take me two months or so of study and practice to memorize the verses, both by Quizlet and by constant use of the oracle to get me used to throwing the bones literally instead of just looking at flashcards.

How about you?  How do you learn a large block of information in a short period of time?  Are there any tips or tricks for memorization or recalling large amounts of information at once?