On Overwriting Traditions

I’ve been looking back a bit on my blog lately, going through archives for more notes that I can tie into future posts and research, cleaning up some of the formatting and dead links, getting rid of useless or pointless tags, and so forth.  After almost 700 posts totaling over one million words across eight and a half years, it’s quite a lot.  And, heh, it turns out that on my very first blog post (all the way back in pre-WordPress 2010 when I was still on Blogspot, when this was a blog meant for the worship of the Great Worm XaTuring), I had already referenced geomancy as my favorite divination system.  Plus ça change, plus c’est pareil, I suppose.

Admittedly, geomancy has been a focus of my work and, thus, of this blog.  Of the just-under-700 published posts on this blog, about 120 posts are in the geomancy category, or about 18%.  That’s a nontrivial amount of ink to have spilled, I claim, and that’s all in addition to the actual ebooks and future textbook I’m writing.  I’ve talked about the meanings of the figures, a variety of divinatory techniques, new connections to other occult fields, and a number of innovations and developments to enhance the art and practice of geomancy in both a divinatory and magical sense.  Some of these innovations are original to me, others based on adapting similar techniques with enough compatible logic from other geomantic systems, and some are based on the revelations and guidance from spirits and other colleagues who wish to remain nameless (but who have my thanks and respect and gratitude all the same).  It’s a fascinating field that stands to still be enhanced in innumerable ways, and it is a source of joy and pride for me to play some sort of role in that.

Sometimes, when I’m bored at work, I’ll indulge in a daydream or two.  One such daydream, when I think about some of the exciting innovations in geomantic practice I’ve published on my blog, happens where I’m contacted out of the blue by some mysterious figure and informed that I’ve been revealing too many of their order’s secrets, that they belong to an ancient order of secretive geomancers who have been in hiding for untold centuries in some far-off land.  Clearly, with as much information as I possess, I must have been spying on their order or stealing from one of their members and am exposing their hard-earned, hard-kept methods and techniques of The True Geomancy for the vulgar uninitiated of the world, destroying their order single-handedly in a more mysterious, epic way than Scott Cunningham did Wicca.  None of it is true, of course, but the similarities between what I write and what they teach could not be denied!  Perilous threats, a thrilling escape, a parley with the order’s masters—you get the picture.  I haven’t yet figured out how I might resolve such a situation: I could always force a deal, that in exchange for being taught all their secrets as a full member of their order, I would ensure that no further initiated knowledge would pass through my fingers to my blog’s readers or through my lips to students who were not initiated in the order as well.  Or I could engage them in a fantastic battle of magic, wit, cunning, and probably a good-natured explosion or poisoning or three.

What?  I like letting my imagination run free sometimes, and who doesn’t love a good adventure to whisk them off their feet, even if they’re already reclining in their spinny office chair on a lazy Monday?

While it would tickle me to no end to learn that there might indeed be some ancient order of geomancers (and you can bet your last grain of sand I’d join if I could!), I doubt such a thing exists, at least on any scale large enough to commit cross-continent conspiracy.  But, even on a less logistical scale than that, there’s also the thing that there’s no one single, monolithic geomantic tradition.  Sure, there are absolutely things we can cross off as definitely not being geomancy—feng shui, vastu shastra, ley lines, sacred geography, and the like all come to mind—but even within the actual ballpark of “geomancy”, there are so many different kinds.  Stephen Skinner in his Geomancy in Theory and Practice does a great overview of the historical development and spread of geomancy from its hypothetical origins to its modern day spread across the world, so there’s no need for me to go on at length on all the different traditions of geomancy here, but are there ever so many, indeed!

Now that I think about it, though, I suppose that might not quite be evident from our point of view for Western geomancy.  Geomancy was written about publicly across Europe from about 1200 to 1700, when it basically fell from popularity into obscurity along with so many other occult disciplines.  Five hundred years, starting west in Spain and east in Greece and spreading through the rest of Europe like wildfire, and…well, we simply don’t seem to have too much variation.  Sure, different techniques came and went, and different geomancers put certain focuses on different things than did other geomancers.  We don’t really see any significantly different variations after the rise of printed geomancy books until we get to more modern times, such as with Napoleon’s Book of Fate (with its five-lined figures) or Les Cross’ Astrogem Geomancy method.  One could argue that the Golden Dawn, with their innovations and takes on geomantic practices, could be considered a distinct variant, and I’d agree with that, too, but again, that’s still pretty modern.

I can’t really say, however, what the state of Western geomancy was like at a low level before the 1400s when printed books started circulating around Europe.  We know it was practiced, and we have a good number of manuscripts from that time period, but so few are easily accessible to many including myself, and almost all of what’s commonly available (especially digitized) is all from after the rise of printed books.  As we all know, the printing press radically changed how information was produced, disseminated, and stored which had countless effects on literacy, religion, science, and other disciplines.  It not only broke down control of information and studies within a variety of small locations, it also freed up people to form their own control networks of information.  It is entirely possible that individual areas, monasteries, universities, and other types of school had their own takes and views on geomantic practice that was largely insular unto themselves; sure, they might all have been on the same course and stemmed from more-or-less the same origins, but each could have had their own “dialect” of geomancy.  With the advent of publicly and popularly published texts, those dialects might have all been washed away or standardized, with each author contributing a slight tweak that may or may not have been carried on or even documented by later authors.  I know that the Lectura Geomantiae I translated a while ago was from the 1400s but still in the manuscript era, so it could be indicative of how things might have looked before or as the printing press got underway: still definitely geomantic, still definitely implementable and usable by anyone, but there are some definite quirks that it displays that aren’t attested elsewhere.

Reading Skinner’s treatise on the history of geomancy, it would seem that the Arabic styles of geomancy are more varied.  Setting aside the West African art of Ifá (which developed in its own way apart from geomancy to the point where I wouldn’t barely consider it geomancy at this point), we do see at least several strains of geomancy, including Malagasy sikidy which, although it’s definitely taken an independent turn with how it generates figures, is still recognizably a form of geomancy with many of same core meanings of figures and figure positions.  Looking at the available literature today, we can definitely see that there are different styles of Arabic geomancy, ranging from the traditional Saharan and sub-Saharan forms in Africa to the more popular and well-known methods as taught by modern books written in Farsi and Urdu.  How different might such styles be?  I can’t actually say for sure, unfortunately, but from what little I have seen, there are distinct differences in whether one wants to use taskins as a primary method or follow the Via Puncti-style technique as a general approach, but that could simply be boiled down to smaller approach differences within a same overall “school” of geomancy—and what competent geomancer with the ability to learn, read, and hear wouldn’t want to be familiar with any possible method that might be of use?

But, again, it’s not like the Arabic-speaking world hasn’t had access to the printing press.  Heck, their literacy rates whooped the ass of Europe for centuries on end, and we would never had a Renaissance if it weren’t for Arabic teachers and students and scientists.  There are definitely texts and authors in Arabic geomancy that are at least as important to the Arabic-speaking geomancing world than Fludd and Heydon are to us, and those books were some of the first to be disseminated, and today, there are probably as many books on `ilm al-raml or khatt al-raml in Arabic, Farsi, or Urdu as there are for Tarot in English, Spanish, and French.  Again, we would probably see a similar…you might call it a “flattening” of dialetical variation in geomantic practices, especially for people with connections to the Internet who might also not have the ability to learn from teachers who were only (or primarily) taught in a localized variant of geomancy.

When it comes to languages and dialects, I admit I’m something of a glossophile.  Even though my language skills are awful, I adore the abundance and variety of languages in the world, and especially of the regional and cultural dialects and registers that individual languages have in all their uses and contexts.  As much as I love the number of languages, I grieve when languages are suppressed, lost, or otherwise condemned to extinction.  It’s an expected (though still unfortunate) result of internationalization, globalization, capitalism, and imperialism, but sometimes it comes about as a surprise, and it sucks.  With language death comes culture death and worldview death; a language is far more than just a way to communicate, but a way to understand and perceive everything as well as holding an implicit record of culture, exploration, and continuity that ties the present to the past across time and space.  In many ways, local variations of something comparatively minor like geomancy are just as crucial to understand such worldviews, histories, cultures, and spiritualities; with such variations being flattened, absorbed, or outright lost, we lose quite a lot more, as well.

Then I think about those same people on the Internet who have access to cheap, publicly-accessible resources without the ability to find, contact, or learn from local, traditional experts (myself included!) who find what they can and work with what they find.  Consider the Geomantic Study-Group on Facebook; as an admin, I see who applies, and for each person who comes from a Western or European cultural background, I see another who comes from a West African (usually Muslim and Nigerian) background.  While I’m thrilled that so many people across the world want to learn and discuss geomancy, I also wonder if, perhaps, they’re joining to learn what they might consider “the only useful geomancy”.  After all, I’m also a member of a number of other non-Western geomancy groups, and it doesn’t seem like many are active or share as much information, criticism, or guidance as mine does (which I can’t help but be at least a little proud of); to be fair, I can see why (and often understand and agree) with why those who might be experts in their field would want to be cagey and protective of their knowledge, but at the same time, nobody can learn learn if nobody is willing to teach.  And, without evidence that one can even teach or wants to do so, mystical vague answers like “pray to God and he will teach you” come off as more holier-than-thou covering-my-ass to keep from being disgraced that I may not actually know what I’m doing, which can be a turn-off for potential students (whether of a given teacher or an entire field).

Then I think I about my own blog, and how much I talk about geomancy.  I try to make it clear that many of my thoughts are just my own, that my experiences are my own, that some things are experimental or tied up in something unique and solitary to my own practice and understanding of the cosmos, and the like, but it cannot be denied that my posts on geomancy are referenced by many across the Internet, sometimes as another useful data-point on technique, sometimes as gospel.  (WordPress stat tracking, after all, comes in use when looking at such trends.)  I can’t help but wonder: what effect on the overall variations, traditions, and schools of geomancy do I have as an author with a publicly-available platform?  I want to expand the techniques and understanding of Western geomancy by offering another perspective on that which already exists as well as introducing new methods or variations thereof that aren’t yet there or aren’t well-known.  In one way, I’m helping (I hope) to introduce new variety in the field of Western geomancy, but by that same action, am I not also helping to bring in easily-accessible geomancy to those who might prefer such ease to learning local traditions that are harder to come by?  Am I not literally writing over the teachings of valid and historically-extant, possibly-threatened traditions of geomancy, as one might talk too loudly and end up drowning out other voices, whether I intend for it to happen or no?

Earlier this summer, in a conversation regarding how certain days are celebrated for the orisha in La Regla de Ocha Lukumí, Jesse Hathaway from Wolf & Goat (also of his own blog Serpent Shod and podcast Radio Free Golgotha) opined elegantly about how trends come and become tradition through misunderstanding and popular use.  Specifically, I thought it was proper to celebrate the feast day of the hunter-tracker Oshosi on June 6, which is the feast day of his Catholic syncretization, Saint Norbert of Xanten, which, when I posted a public praise of the orisha on Facebook, caught Jesse off-guard in the sense of “wait that’s today?”.  We got to talking about how the use of saint days were historically used, when certain saint days came into vogue, and how different aspects of saints can be confused and lead to non-traditional changes in practice.  One of the insights he had focused on how those who intend to keep traditions alive end up changing them all the same: enthusiasm and good intentions can just as easily uphold old practices as well as erase them and institute new ones in their place.  After all, not all things that are “done right” in the conservative sense are made public or made for public consumption, and when secretive, underground, or otherwise mysterious practices that people are interested in suddenly have to compete for attention and publicity with stuff being put out in the open by the uninitiated or newly-initiated, where do you think people are going to look first?  As Jesse put it, it’s a constant cycle of “destroy to create, create to destroy”, and that it’s easy to create a new practice that can erase older tradition if you are not aware of what it is you’re actually putting out there.  It behooves us all to be aware of our intentions and see whether what happens as a result of furthering them is worth it.

The same advice for that topic can go for any of us who publicly discuss geomancy, or any tradition, for that matter.  As Jesse punned, our canon for instruction can just as easily become a cannon for destruction; we don’t just follow and preserve unchanged that which we recieved, but we augment it, extrapolate it, whittle it down, and build it up as we carry it forward, whether we mean to or not.  Every step we take crushes some blade of grass or erases some other footprint, and if enough people follow, a new path can be forged (forced) where either there was none before or across others that become disused, differently used, or less used.  For a good example, consider how synonymous “Hermetic magic” has become with “Golden Dawn” in the 1900s: familiarity is borne of popularity, and forgetfulness from the lack thereof.  Hermetic magic has been around for far longer and with so many different variations, traditions, lineages, styles, and methods than the Golden Dawn has by far, and yet, most people even today will think of the Golden Dawn-style approach when you bring up the word “Hermetic” to the exclusion of all else that’s out there.

Geomancy is far more than just what I do, or what Robert Fludd did, or what Al-Zanati did.  The old geomancers of the past might be indelibly linked to geomancy, but geomancy is not synonymous with any one author or geomancer.  It would be folly for someone to follow what I teach (or what anyone teaches) as geomancy to be the be-all-end-all of the art, and I don’t think that anyone would seriously take that approach.  Still, even learning a little can bleed over into other techniques; while I intentionally look around to see what I can incorporate as a useful method for my geomantic practice from the practices of others, bearing in mind the origin and tweaks needed to make a nuanced distinction, not everyone has the capacity to bear nuance in mind when they’re learning something, especially if they’re a novice, and “bleeding over” can turn into outright overwriting and overwhelming.  That then carries on from one mouth to the next, and then the next, turning “innovator” into “competitor” and, potentially, “conqueror”.  It doesn’t matter if it was made up on the spot or as a joke; if it was carried on from one generation to another, it can fast become assumed as a tradition, and its origins can quickly be forgotten or, worse, mythologized (cf.  the pot roast principle), and once it becomes popular enough, it can threaten to overwhelm all that already was there.  We may like to think that we test and hold onto only the valuable things that work and are validated by trial and error so that we could weed out all the made-up stuff, but be honest: even accepting that made-up stuff works from time to time, sometimes we value our teachers’ teachings too much to question it.

It’s hard for us in a Western setting to not inadvertently do this kind of thing, with our usual preference for books and solitary practice rather than (or due to a dearth of) lineage and teachers.  Many of us look towards publicly published material to learn from, myself included in many cases, because teachers either do not exist or are unwilling to pass on their skills for one (usually valid) reason or another.  We then form communities to build ourselves up, reinforce each other with criticism and discussion, and enhance our mutual understanding of a given field.  This, when done properly, can become the definite foundations of a new school or tradition unto itself, and can be a beautiful and wonderful thing!  Even still, there’s the unavoidable risk (or unavoidable result?) that older traditions could be waylaid, forgotten, or abandoned in the course of this same thing, which can be a huge loss, even if nobody is aware of it to begin with.  I fear that, to be honest.  I don’t want other traditions of geomancy—or any occult or religious or spiritual field—to be lost or abandoned or overwritten, because when that happens, valuable knowledge is lost.  We can still learn from each other while still celebrating distinction and difference, but you can’t do that when there’s nothing to distinguish or when there’s nothing to distinguish.

I can’t properly control what people do with the stuff I post; I can offer my experiences, warnings, and cautions, but once something is out there on the internet, it’s out there for all.  I could always just not post the stuff and avoid the problem entirely, but there’s value and purpose in my writings on geomancy that I think can be used well, just as they can be misused or abused.  The dilemma of the engineeer is the same as the dilemma of the author: you can specify and design all you want, but humanity is going to do with your product what it’s going to do regardless of what you intended it for.  Even if it’s nowhere near as epic as my daydream, I really do hope that my writings on geomancy don’t destroy the traditions that have been practiced and carried on long since before I was born.  All I want is to spread knowledge and technique and ability and understanding, and I think I’m successful at least a little bit in that, and the worth and value in doing that is good.  Is it worth the inadvertent flattening of geomantic traditions?  I…don’t know.  I don’t think I’m popular enough to become a prophet of geomancy whose judgment is binding on practices worldwide (God and gods willing, I never will be!), but I do know that my word spreads.  I just hope my warnings and caveats spread, as well.

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.

Work, Lineage, and Auturgy

I’m going through an interesting development in my life, pursuant to the awesome life choices I made back in October.  It’s the cause for several sets of changes, some of which are more immediately felt than others, some of which are more mental or intellectual than others.  One of those intellectual realizations I’ve made is how stark the difference is between different kinds of Work based on how one obtains access to it, and I think it bears discussing how that plays out within one’s own practice.

For most of my magical practice, I’ve largely worked on my own, sometimes with one or two other people, but it’s largely been an independent process.  I’ve made my own tools and consecrated them, I built my own temple, I learned my prayers and rituals and made up my own in the process, and I’ve built up my own body of knowledge, wisdom, and expertise.  I’m not saying I did this fully on my own; I proudly claim Fr. Rufus Opus as my instructor and mentor, but that’s all he is: an instructor, one who instructs.  He passed nothing onto me that I could not have obtained elsewhere, but he taught me where to look and offered guidance, tips, and advice of the process that he explicitly claims is a series of self-initiations into the spheres of the elements, the planets, and the Self.  No matter how much instruction or mentorship he provides, it doesn’t change the fact that all the Work to be done must be done, developed, and built by one’s own self.  It’s been a long road and highly educational, and extraordinarily worth it to build up your own Power and maintain it for your own ends.

And yet, that’s far from the only way to operate.  Just because that’s one method of Work doesn’t mean that it’s the only kind of Work out there, and the other is a matter of initiation into a lineage.  Consider that, in October, I was initiated by my godparent into a religion that spans centuries across several continents.  I was initiated by my godfather, who was initiated by his godmother, she by her godmother, she by her godfather, and so forth on many more times back to a time when we forget names.  In the duration from the first godparent we all share in common to my own initiation, prayers and songs and protocols have been developed as a type of pact with our divinities, and all the power that my godfather has was shared and passed along to me; what applies to him in the religion largely applies to me, as well, and I follow the precepts and protocols of this religion to obtain the same benefits.  They pre-existed my own initiation, and my initiation is a pact I make with our divinities that I can rely on this huge body of Work that was already done so long as I accept the terms and conditions.  I’m free to build up more power and pacts on my own, of course, but I pass down what was passed onto me, and as a result, keep the lineage going.  I don’t need to independently develop these pacts or these powers or these protocols; all I had to do was accept them.  The Work was done before my time, and now I participate in that same Work of the lineage.

It’s because of this distinction that I want to make explicit a difference between lineaged Work and what I call “αυτουργια” (“auturgy” in a modern spelling), or self-driven, self-sustained, self-begun Work that is without lineage and independent of it.  Most Western Hermetic work nowadays is auturgic in nature; we learn from books with nobody to initiate ourselves and little pre-existing power or pacts to rely on, and instead we must forge our own tools, protocols, and power to accomplish our Work.  Sure, we rely on the work done by our forebears, but they’re only passing on their instructions to us.  They do not hand us power or have their pacts take effect over ourselves, and many of the pacts they made with their spirits do not necessarily work for us the same way; we must make new pacts in the process of our auturgic Work.  This is starkly different from lineaged Work, where such power is already in place, and all you need to do is be given license to interact with it.

To make the distinction clear, take for example a particular tool you might use in ritual, say a crystal shewstone or the very area itself used in the Trithemian conjuration ritual.  The Trithemian ritual does not prescribe a consecration for either of these things to be done ahead of time, as might be done for some of the tools in the Key of Solomon; rather, they are consecrated in the ritual itself for the purposes of that specific instance of the ritual:

…O inanimate creature of God, be sanctified, consecrated, and blessed, so that no evil phantasy may appear in you, and that all spirits within you speak intelligibly, truly, and without the least ambiguity.  Amen.

…In the name of the thrice-holy Tetragrammaton Elohim Tzabaoth, I consecrate this piece of ground for my defense, so that no evil spirit may have power to break these bounds prescribed here.  Amen.

Whenever the Trithemian ritual is performed, the shewstone or the ritual area is consecrated for as long as that ritual is performed, and after which the consecration isn’t technically valid anymore.  Every time the ritual is performed, these things must be consecrated again in order for them to be useful in the ritual being performed at that instance.  Over time, with repeated application, the residual power and blessing build up, so that they eventually become powerful tools in their own right.  For example, the original wand I made for conjuration was nothing more than a pine dowel woodburned according to the instructions of the ritual (as Fr. RO taught it); it was not previously consecrated, but its use in conjuration over and over eventually made it a tool of power that gave it the same “oomph” that my ebony Wand of Art, made of ebony and gold and silver and crystal and consecrated over the course of a week, already had from the get-go.  There was a lot of prep involved in the ebony Wand that the pine wand didn’t go through, but over time, the pine wand was conditioned, programmed, and “seasoned” enough to have the same power that the ebony Wand would have had from the get-go.  However, I used that pine wand near-constantly for a full two years before I made my ebony Wand, and it took quite a bit of time for it to attain that same strength.  The ebony Wand, however, already had all that power as soon as I made it, given the use of powerful natural materials and the layers of consecration I put upon it, and it quite easily became even more powerful at a faster rate than the pine wand ever had.  This is why, in many cases, texts like the Key of Solomon have all those elaborate consecration rituals for pretty much everything the magician touches, from quills and paints to knives both utility and spiritual.  By taking the effort of consecrating each of the tools ahead of time, you don’t need to consecrate them on-the-fly each time you use them; simply pick them up and go.  But, to make sure that the consecrations are done right, you too need to be consecrated, purified, and prepared so as to make sure that all the other consecrations are effective.  The Key of Solomon is important in the Western Hermetic tradition because it implies a set of preexisting pacts and processes that one must enter into so as to make the most of the system; Solomon bound the demons, and in some sense the demons are still bound to Solomon’s word, and they will honor whatever Solomon did regardless of who performs it nowadays, and Solomon passed along the pentacles that he received so as to accomplish miraculous works for us to use so long as we make them in the same way he did.  You could make something similar and make a temporary consecration upon it, but you’d need to do the same thing over and over again every time you used it; likewise, you could make a pact with a new spirit that Solomon never contacted, but you wouldn’t be able to rely on the pacts and processes Solomon used because that spirit was never bound by them originally, so you’d need to make a new set of pacts and protocols with that spirit with new, perhaps unpredictable effects or side-effects.

Take that same idea, of on-the-fly consecrations versus pact-based protocols of consecration, and apply it to the idea of whole systems of magic, and you have the auturgia/lineage difference.  On the one hand, you’re building yourself up through new practices that do not rely on preexisting powers or pacts, and on the other hand, you’re being given a set of protocols and pacts that already work and have been worked and have had power put into them.  In the former, you have freedom to do and develop pretty much as you please for your Work, and you get out of it what you put into it.  In the latter, the system is already powerful and stable, and it relies only on your agreements to the terms and conditions in order to do your Work.  As a more modern example, consider the religion I was just initiated into versus the Mathesis practice I’m developing.  In the former, I have been initiated into a godfamily which has maintained practices, protocols, pacts, and powers that they are allowing me access to so long as I continue to work with them and learn with them, and they all received the same from their initiators and godparents, and so forth; our divinities are accustomed to hearing these songs and prayers from us, and know how to act and react accordingly; both the divinities and the initiates know what to expect from each other, so long as we rely on the protocols that have been passed down onto us; we know what works, what doesn’t, what’s approved, what’s disapproved, what’s safe, what’s dangerous.  We all support each other and lend each other our powers and assistance in order to do what we must do, and we all serve as a system of checks and balances on each other to make sure we’re all still doing everything right.  (Note that the word “tradition” literally means “that which is handed down”; if it’s not handed down to you, it’s not a tradition.)  On the other hand, in Mathesis, I’m working directly with the theoi and letters in a novel, experimental way and seeing what works and what doesn’t, what pacts can be made and what pacts should be made, and what practices to develop as useful and what to ignore as useless.  There’s nothing binding me to anything done previously, because nothing has been done previously.  There’s not a lot of power in it yet, because I haven’t yet tapped into what’s powerful, and that’s because I’m still finding out what’s powerful about it.  Mathesis is, as of now, a strictly auturgic practice that relies on no community because there are none others who are initiated into it; it relies on no sacred body of wisdom because there hasn’t been enough wisdom yet to be built up into a body; it relies on no firm protocols because everything is so nebulous and experimental.

However, there’s a way for Mathesis to change itself from being an auturgic practice into a lineaged one.  Once I build it up enough as a system of theurgic exploration and development, once I refine some of the techniques a bit more, once I establish pacts and fail-safes when I work with the spirits, it can be passed onto others.  Once others become initiated into Mathesis, it becomes a lineage, even if it’s just one godparent-godchild step that exists.  At that point, I’ll be able to pass on the powers, pacts, and protocols that have been developed for another to tap into and use, and grant them access to that same power.  Over time, that initiate will be able to initiate others.  With each person that becomes initiated, the fertility of the tradition grows, adding new ideas, powers, and developments to the mix that allow it to grow and develop and mature as a proper tradition.  Will that happen?  Depends on how far I take Mathesis myself; if I never pass it on, then it’d just be something I did by myself for myself, but if I do pass it on, it’ll be passed onto others.  It was an old Greek ideal for a father to pass on his inheritance to his children “in at least the same condition as I received it, if not better”; if an initiate can add to the tradition in a useful, helpful way that grants it more power and stability and maturity, fantastic!  But if not, so long as they can pass on the tradition in the same way they received it without augmentation, and certainly without detriment or loss, then that’s all that’s needed for a tradition or lineage to survive.

From the perspective of a new initiate into a lineage who is accustomed to auturgic Hermetic work, it’s something a relief that most of the heavy Work of pact-building, empowerment, and protocol-development has already been done for me; I just need to be taught the practices, pacts, protocols, and plans that make the tradition work after having gone through them.  In fact, I don’t learn any practice in the religion without it first being done to me; the act of undergoing a ceremony is itself a kind of initiation that grants me access to learning what and how a thing is done.  Compared to auturgic Work, so much is honestly experimental: “I don’t know what this will do to me, but I need to study how to do it in order to accomplish it, and then later I can build upon it”.  It’s one of the reasons why I suggest all newcomers to Hermetic work follow rituals as they are written as closely as possible without innovation first so as to get them accustomed to the baseline practice, and only once they have the baseline set firmly in both the execution of the ritual and the expectation of effects should they innovate, take shortcuts, or change the ritual.  If you’re going to experiment, do so wisely, and only after you know what to expect.

Is there such a thing as a lineaged Hermetic tradition?  Absolutely!  Any initiatory practice done by others, from one generation of initiates to the next, is a lineage: the Golden Dawn and Gardnerian/Alexandrian Wicca are some prime examples that come to mind.  You have a lodge or a temple or a coven that initiates new members and teaches them their practices, protocols, and pacts to new initiates, and then those initiates (if/when ready) go on to initiate their own spiritual godchildren.  Of course, this is more the exception rather than the norm in the Western world; most people choose an auturgic practice, whether because they can’t stand “coven politics”, because they don’t have access to a spiritual family, or because they’re unfit for initiation themselves.  This doesn’t mean they can’t do the Work they need to, but it might be a path that has its own challenges.  Don’t get me wrong, lineaged Work has its own difficulties and problems: politics, policing of character and behavior, agreement to sometimes distasteful practices, and so forth, but it’s a price one must pay.  No such restrictions are there for the auturge, but they have the problems of having nothing to build upon and everything to build.  I suppose it’s a situation where there’s one product and multiple methods of payment available for it.

Are auturgic systems of practice any less worthwhile than lineaged ones?  No, and far from it!  My devotion, love, and respect for the Greek theoi remains unchanged, if not greater than before, but compared to the divinities I was just initiated to, there’s such a stark difference of presence: the divinities I was initiated to are already so powerful when I received them into my life, while I must continuously forge and reforge and strengthen my connection to the theoi in order to achieve the same level of presence.  Both sets of entities can hear me and work with me, but there’s so much less up-front work to do with the initiated divinities that I have to do with the non-initiated theoi because I was not initiated into a tradition of theoi-worship; pacts were not maintained, prayers were not continuously made, and protocols were not remembered, and I must do all the work to dust off whatever I can find and fill in the gaps where necessary so as to “bring the system online” again, as it were.  To continue to use a computer metaphor, it’s much easier for an online gamer to pick a game that already exists and simply get an account and log in, abiding by the terms and conditions and UI-issues and non-intuitive in-game quirks that exist, rather than plan a game idea, code the game, build a server to host the game, and get people to play the game with them.  Same result, different routes and costs to get there.

There’s a difference between simply teaching someone a spiritual/magical system and initiating them into it.  Fr. RO teaches me a kind of magic, but leaves the actual work to me; he did not initiate me into Hermeticism, and this is no fault against him; it never could have been, as it was never his goal to initiate people into a system that he himself was never initiated into, nor needed initiation.  My godfather is teaching me another kind of practice, but he had to initiate me into it so that all the same things that work for him can also work for me, giving me the license and right to work with it that otherwise I would had to pick and guess at.  I see many teachers of Western systems, but few initiators.  There are some Hermetic magicians out there who are, indeed, initiating students into a particular set of practices and pacts, passing on their own license and power onto their students, but this is the uncommon exception to the usual practice.  We don’t often think of Hermetic magic as a kind of initiation-/lineage-based practice, but in many cases, it probably should be.  I know for a fact that some of the powers and blessings we receive from the spheres, such as the Hymns of Silence, can be passed onto others who are ready, but I’ve rarely heard of a magician doing this for their students.

Given the general quietude of the occult blogosphere, and how so much has petered out or calmed down over the past few years (my own blog included!), I wonder if this is a sort of predicament-shift that is facing many people who got into magic around the Great Blogosphere Renaissance, and how many others are wondering this same thing I am now.

On Maintaining Tradition

Not too long ago, I read on one of my friends’ Facebook walls a particular quote that I find profound and worthy of committing to memory:

Tradition means giving a vote to most obscure of all classes, our ancestors. It is the democracy of the dead…Tradition refuses to submit to the small and arrogant oligarchy of those who merely happen to be walking about.  All democrats object to men being disqualified by the accident of birth; tradition objects to their being disqualified by the accident of death.  Democracy tells us not to neglect a good man’s opinion, even if he is our groom; tradition asks us not to neglect a good man’s opinion, even if he is our father.
G.K. Chesterton, “Orthodoxy”

After the past few posts about how to downsize magic on a budget to what you can manage, it’s probably easy to think that I’m cheering for doing away with tradition and institutionalized forms of magic in occulture in favor of an easier, cheaper route.  Don’t think that I’m supporting this; I mentioned throughout these same posts that, when possible, doing things by the book is important and worth the effort and cost, and if you can afford to do something fancier, you should.  If you can’t but really still need to do something, and if you know the logic and framework of the system you’re trying to change well enough, then doing things in a faster, cheaper, or more streamlined way can also work to more-or-less the same ends, especially if you’re willing to make up for the difference in cost with more ritual work or if you can rely on already-established spiritual contacts.

Not too long ago, I was recently initiated into a religion that places a huge amount of emphasis on tradition.  Not just ritual protocols and songs, though those are hugely important, but even the small things like how to ask questions, how to treat certain ritual objects on a weekly basis, and the like.  Even the smallest details are often the hinge upon which something is done, and changing these things wantonly is a huge no-no against the people and household who initiated me.  While eventually I might be able to experiment and listen to the spirits with whom we work and find ways that work better for me, those times are yet far off and I have much to learn, and there’s no guarantee I can or should find my own way to work.

However, our tradition is just that, our own, and even closely-associated houses within the same overarching religion might have vastly different ways of doing particular things.  Does this make them wrong?  No!  As with most cultures and religions, there is no centralized or centrally-managed “correct” way to do things.  Variations are to be expected based on location, time period, and evolution within those contexts, and it’s natural to assume that what I consider right, another might consider wrong.  Is that alright?  Of course!  Just because I do something differently doesn’t make either of us wrong, so long as we’re following the traditions and working within them as we should.  That our traditions differ doesn’t mean one tradition has to be changed to suit the other.  It just means that our traditions are different and that we respect our own traditions’ validity, and respect the power of other people to maintain their own traditions.

There’s a big push in occulture, and there has been a while, based on postmodernism, Discordianism, and chaos magic theory that we can do anything we want to do and change anything we want because it’s us who’s doing the work and all that’s really powering our magic is, ultimately, us.  I find that notion half-cute and half-obscene.  For one, no, we’re not alone in the cosmos; that kind of solipsistic thinking is insulting to the others who do, in fact, exist regardless of what we think of them, be they spirit or man, alive or dead.  For another, thinking that we can do whatever the hell we want and being right in how we’re doing it regardless disregards the logic, framework, and methodology that has been built up in the traditions passed down to us, and to disregard that or, worse, to cherrypick from them

The word “tradition” literally means “that which is handed down to us”.  We call a lot of things “traditions” when, in reality, they’re no such thing; it was “tradition” at my university to streak the libraries during finals, when it was really just a meme done by one or two generations of students and people wanted to show how edgy or ballsy they were.  That’s not a tradition.  A tradition is something that has been handed down to you as a whole unit from another person, who themselves received it from another person, and so forth until a particular person had a particular revelation that needed to be passed on.  The person who gives that tradition to you is, essentially, an initiator, and you are their initiate in that tradition.  In maintaining that tradition that was given to you, you show your initiator and all their initiators respect for continuing that work, the contracts they made, the sacrifices they paid for, and living their own lives to pass that tradition on.  Thus, what Chesterton said above about tradition makes this poignantly clear to me: regardless of heeding what innovations we ourselves or others make, tradition is heeding the innovations of our ancestors and those who came before us.

Now, I’m not always a stickler for tradition.  It can on occasion be a good move to break from tradition and do things differently, and not everything that’s been passed down is always a good thing.  Sometimes our morals dictate that times have changed and so too should the things we do; sometimes changing climates, famine, war, migration, and the like prevent us from doing things the way things have been done in the past.  Sometimes our ancestors operated on inexact or incomplete knowledge and we honestly have better ways to do things now that couldn’t be done in the past.  A particular story comes to mind about how certain things are passed on that no longer need to be heeded:

A young woman is preparing a pot roast while her friend looks on.  She cuts off both ends of the roast, prepares it and puts it in the pan.  “Why do you cut off the ends?” her friend asks.  “I don’t know”, she replies.  “My mother always did it that way and I learned how to cook it from her”.

Her friend’s question made her curious about her pot roast preparation.  During her next visit home, she asked her mother, “How do you cook a pot roast?”  Her mother proceeded to explain and added, “You cut off both ends, prepare it and put it in the pot and then in the oven”.  “Why do you cut off the ends?” the daughter asked.  Baffled, the mother offered, “That’s how my mother did it and I learned it from her!”

Her daughter’s inquiry made the mother think more about the pot roast preparation.  When she next visited her mother in the nursing home, she asked, “Mom, how do you cook a pot roast?”  The mother slowly answered, thinking between sentences.  “Well, you prepare it with spices, cut off both ends and put it in the pot”.  The mother asked, “But why do you cut off the ends?”  The grandmother’s eyes sparkled as she remembered.  “Well, the roasts were always bigger than the pot that we had back then.  I had to cut off the ends to fit it into the pot that I owned.”

Just because a tradition declares a certain method to be valid within that tradition doesn’t mean that tradition is infallible.  It just means that that’s how the tradition has codified something; should the code need to change for a good reason while keeping the tradition intact, then there’s no reason that the tradition shouldn’t be changed, though the original method and new way should both be kept in mind.  After all, the original method was made for a reason.

When learning magic or any sort of old art, it behooves us to learn the traditional way of doing things first.  I’m no fan of reading a ritual in a book and changing it outright to suit our own needs, especially without taking the time to see why that particular ritual was written that particular way in that particular book.  This is especially true when we consider a book to be a compendium of traditions with dozens, maybe hundreds of initiators’ teachings present within it, and all their cumulative experience in a particular act present in a codified, static form; the ritual is written that way for a reason, and we should strive to follow that ritual as it is presented to us before we go changing it around because we feel like we’re in the right to so do.  Hint: you’re not.  You might be in the right if you try the ritual and can change parts of it without changing the result or the effect, all while maintaining the integrity of the tradition you’re essentially buying into by following the book, but you’re not in the right to disregard parts of it outright and cherrypick the parts you like because you feel you’re important like that.

If you like, consider a tradition a “canonical” form of a particular body of knowledge and actions against which other acts can be compared.  If something follows the tradition closely or to the letter, we can call that thing traditional.  If that something changes a few things without changing the overall flow, feel, or structure, then we might call that thing an innovation within the tradition.  If that thing changes much to affect the flow and structure, even it reaches towards the same ends, then it’s no longer traditional nor does it belong in that tradition.  While none of these three things are “wrong” when trying to accomplish a particular goal, if we’re initiated into a particular tradition, we need to be very careful about what we show to others as part of that tradition.

Ultimately, in our lives and especially in our Work, we need to be concerned with what works and with what works best, but we also need to be mindful of what’s worked for those who have gone before us and what is known to work for others.  What works best for us might work only for us based on our own work, and this sort of thing inherently cannot become traditional though it may fit within an overall tradition.  What can be passed on should be passed on, generally speaking, and what’s been passed down to us should be passed down to others whenever possible, even if we no longer use it.  Even if it’s just for memory’s and veneration’s sake, tradition is valuable and can help others innovate on their own.

This is one of the reasons why I wrote those posts on doing magic cheaply on a budget.  Sure, anyone can whip up a ritual with a candle or a stick and get magic accomplished; that’s not the point.  Many people are used to working within traditions with access to rare, obscure, or precious items, and depending on where we are in our lives or what’s going on around us, we may not have the ability to carry out those traditions with the resources and tools we have available to us.  This doesn’t mean we can’t do our work that we’re used to, but it means we have to work within those traditions we’ve been taught in a way that maintains faithfulness to them while being aware of our limitations and own context.  Traditions aren’t necessarily fixed things, though it’s nice to keep them as fixed as we can.  Thus, within the Solomonic tradition, if we live in a place where hazel doesn’t grow, we can’t rightly make our wands from a wood we can’t obtain, so we need to find a wood that is available that works as well as hazel might.  If we’re too poor to make lamens from gold, we need to find another material that we can obtain.  We can still be traditional even if we’re unable to do as we were taught.

On Supporting People Spiritually

Note: this post was written a few months ago during a bit of a chaotic period in my life.  I was angry and hurt, as were several others around me, and I don’t consider that to be the best time to write, so I shelved the post.  However, I wanted to get the message out, and I figured I may as well post it now that I’ve cooled off, because this is something I want people to know.

When you become good enough at magic, spirituality, or whatever, you will often get the urge to spread what you’ve learned and done.  Not everyone, granted; not everyone has a parenting instinct, and not everyone is meant to be a parent physically or spiritually.  That’s fine.  But some people are meant to do just that.  Some people are meant to initiate others, to guide others, to teach others, and depending on one’s own spiritual tradition and practice, that urge can be realized into action in different ways.  Some people start online classes while others write books, while still others will spiritually adopt people into a godfamily of sorts, making them part of their spiritual house.

This is not something to be taken lightly.  People who give birth to real children make that relationship for life.  People who initiate people into being their godchildren make a lifetime bond of another kind, one that can’t be reneged upon.

Yes, I’ve heard the arguments that a mother eagle will, once its chicks are old enough, push them out of the nest so that they can fly off and do their own thing.  Eagles, after all, don’t permit freeloaders.  Wolves, too, once they grow old enough will eventually split off from their litter and form their own pack or form part of a small one, but usually leaving to make their own if they’re strong enough.  Many animals need that time on their own to develop and become independent, strong, and fierce to the point of beautifully savage.

We are not birds.
We are not dogs.
We are humans.

Human.  Fucking.  Beings.

Animals might survive on their own in the wild.  Humans do not.  Humans build families, houses, tribes.  We move together.  We fight together.  We watch each other’s backs.  We trust each other.  If everything fails, then we either die together or we split up to make new tribes.  What we don’t do is kick someone out to make them do better on their own.  We do better by being better together.  If we fight, we fight together; if we fight amongst ourselves, we work it out.  The Bedouin, one of the world’s most famous nomadic tribes, encapsulates this all: I against my brother, my brothers and I against my cousins, my cousins and I against strangers.  You uphold the sanctity, power, protection, and preservation of your in-group (house, clan, coven, order, whatever) against all others.  That’s how this shit works.  When you have a follower or godchild, you support them forever unless they leave on their own for their reasons or unless they are directly attacking you; that bond, however strained, cannot be broken.  You do not decide to rescind support for someone you spiritually get involved with like that.  You coach them, you teach them, you instruct them, you chew them out, you bitch them out, you smack them, but you do not forsake them.

If you have a problem with that, then you shouldn’t bother supporting others.  If you can’t uphold that, then you’re not ready to support others.  Be careful and be absolutely sure of yourself when you take on the responsibility of having a follower or godchild.  Once you make that commitment, you can’t go back on it.  If you turn your back on your spiritual family, you have more problems than just earning my ire or losing my respect.

Advice for Learning a Totally Foreign System

I try to be an avid reader in my copious spare time, and I don’t mean with my ever-expanding RSS feed that aggregates occult, religious, pagan, current event, and the occasional comic blog.  My living room at home could always use more bookshelves, and of the three people in my house, I’m the one supplying over 95% of the books, because of course magicians have books.  Not all of them are on astrology, divination, conjuration, Hermeticism, or goetia, though.  I have a strong penchant for works of the realm of pure imagination, which is to say fiction books.

One of my favorite fiction books ever, and one I highly recommend anyone interested in the brand of magic I pursue, is Celestial Matters by Richard Garfinkle.  It appears to be out of print, but you can still find plenty of good used copies anywhere online.  Basically, the premise of the book is this: what if the world we lived in obeyed Aristotelian physics, the cosmos was geocentric with actual crystalline spheres of the planets nesting around us, and history took a drastically different turn during the reign of Alexander the Great that continued the supremacy of Athens and Sparta across the Western world for another millennium?  It’s a fantastic exercise in exploring an alternative reality and an alternative history all at once, told in the style of a first-person Homeric epic.  Besides its good story and good world-building (of which Richard Garfinkle is an expert, I claim), this is one of the essential books any Hermeticist should read at least once.

However, it’s not all about alchemy and astrology and celestial navigation, since the empire of the Delian League isn’t the only contender for world domination.  There’s also the Middle Kingdom, which some of you may recognize as a translation of 中國, referring to China, and they have their own notions of how the world works that doesn’t obey the laws of Aristotle and the alchemists.  The Delian League can’t for the life of them figure out how Middler technology works with its weird energy flows, nor can the Middle Kingdom figure out the senselessness of Delian alchemy and science.  This goes right down to some of their fundamental notions of science and philosophy that shape their entire worldview, such as the connection between science and medicine.  The Athenian Academic Aias, at one point, interrogates the rural Middler Dr. Zi about what Aias perceives to be highly advanced Middler spy communication technology:

“Why does an ordinary doctor know about this?” I asked.

“Medicine is the foundation of science.” he said in the same mechanical way I might recite Aristotle’s laws of motion.

I had seen that sentence in several texts on Taoist science but had never believed they meant it.  To our science, medicine was an offshoot of zeology, the study of life, and anthropology, the study of man.  No Academic could believe that such a minor offshoot subject could be the cornerstone from which an understanding of the world could be built. (page 158)

Later, after some fairly big conflict in the story, Aias interrogates the Taoist scientist Phan, sent on a death mission to kill Aias and sabotage his mission, about how Phan can know so much about medicine:

“Are you a doctor?” I said, recalling Dr. Zi’s peculiar claim of a connection between the whole of Middler science and their medicine.

Phan’s face wrinkled in contempt. “Certainly not.”

“Then how will you cure him?”

He switched to ‘Ellenic. “I know medicine.”

“But you said you weren’t a doctor,” I said in ‘Unan.

Phan’s black eyes lit with a sudden understanding. “A doctor only knows medicine.  A scientist must go beyond that simple beginning.  Medicine is the foundation stone of alchemy, and alchemy the foundation stone of science.” (page 256)

I see this kind of fundamental difficulty in trying to understand different occult systems replete throughout modern occulture.  We take certain fundamental axioms as truly universal and, worse, for granted based on the system we find our intellectual “home” in, and when we try to apply them to other systems that don’t share those axioms, we run into wall after wall after insurmountable wall.  Trying to apply a Celtic understanding of the world, for instance, to Egyptian metaphysics tries to combine two radically different systems that are based upon different rules and develop them differently into two radically different cosmologies.  It’s not impossible to truly learn a different system, as I’ve mentioned before several times over, but it’s hard, because we essentially have to unlearn everything and start from the ground up in a totally new land that we’re unfamiliar with.  It’s especially hard because we’re always tempted to bring a little of what we’re used to to this new land, and it often has no place right out of the box.

That said, I’ve found an easier way to go about learning a new system, and Aias describes how he became the first Academic from the Delian League to ever understand Middler science:

“We seem to be having a language problem,” I said to Phan.  “Let us start from first principles.  You know the atomic theory, of course.”

“I have seen that phrase in your books, but I have never understood it.”

“Atomic theory says that everything in the terrestrial world is made of minute pieces of earth, air, fire, and water. The material properties of an object can be changed by modifying the amount of each element it contains.”

Phan shook is head. “Anything can be in a state of earth, air, fire, water, or wood,” he said. “The ten thousand things are changed into one another by the natural flow of transformation.”

We continued to argue about basics for half an hour.  I explained that matter and form were fundamental to the behavior of objects.  He declared them to be accidents, saying that the flow and transformation of things lay at the heart of all science.  At the end of that time we had found no common ground, but we were both very thirsty… (page 250)

“I need to know more about your science,” I said to Phan.

“Tell me how to teach you,” he said.  There was a quiet glow in his dark eyes and something lay on his shoulders that made his seventy-year-old frame look younger and stronger. “If you can learn to learn, then perhaps I can as well.”

“What do you mean?” I said.

“I need to know your science, also,” he said, and his eyes grew brighter. “But where do we begin?”

“At the weakest point in the barrier between us,” I said.  “The walls of theory are too high; let us start with practice.  Show me your equipment.  Pretend that I am not a scientist. Pretend that I am some ignorant bureaucrat who wants an explanation of your work so he can make out reports.”

The old man smiled and bowed. “Will you do the same for me?”

“Of course.”

Over the next week, Phan and I gave each other basic introductions to the paraphernalia of our sciences.  I showed him how we used rare and dense air to create forced motion, and he showed me how gold, silver, and cinnabar placed along Xi flow could modify or control natural motion. Slowly, the dark cavern in my heart began to grow bright with a second vision of the universe, one of change and flow instead of matter and form. And as the light of practical work grew from a flickering candle to a solar beacon, it illuminated the bewildering Taoist texts I had studied over the years but had gained nothing from. (page 299)

We don’t call it the Study.

We don’t call it the Theory.

We don’t call it the Lesson.

We call it the Work, because we have to make it work.  Theory, study, and lessons aren’t enough; they’re all well and good in the abstract, but unless you can pull those things down and apply them in the real world, they get locked up in an isolated ivory tower, and they lock you up with it.

In my experience, the best way to understand how a different tradition works is to go out and see what it does.  Not what it believes or what it claims to exist, but actually what it does.  It’s the Work, the hands-on practical use and application of the tradition, that shows what it does and how it does it.  I mean, consider what the ancestors of our ancestors were doing when they first stumbled upon this stuff.  They had no preexisting theories, no cosmologies; they had the land around them and shit happening because of unseen forces.  They acted in a certain way, and the unseen forces and the land reacted in a certain manner.  It was only after they started codifying and assembling what they learned did the theories come around, and based on what each tribe of ancestors thought was most important (warmth from snow, harvesting enough fish, protection from tornadoes, warding off plague, etc.), they would have focused on different things to do, and thus the theories they developed would have been different.

Thus far in my occult life, I’ve come in contact with Santería, Palo, Quimbanda, Aztec and Mayan stuff, Celtic stuff (both neopagan and reconstructionist), Ásatrú, Thelema, esoteric Judaism, and so many other traditions both modern and ancestral.  No, they’re not all compatible to practice side-by-side.  No, they don’t agree on why the world works or what a particular entity is or whether a particular thing is ruled by a class of spirits.  No, they don’t all think the same things are important.  And you know what?  That’s all entirely okay, because what they all do is manage the bullshit we have in life.  They all manage to achieve particular ends using a particular set of techniques, and that’s what we see first and that’s what we continue with when we learn a new system.  Just because they have different and often-conflicting ways to describe the cosmos doesn’t mean they’re not internally coherent within their own individual traditions.

Forget the theory and cosmology and cosmogony; all that will come with time.  If you never saw something fall to the ground, why would you believe gravity to exist?  If you never had to undergo a shortage of healthy and safe food, why would you believe food poisoning or famine in another country to exist?  Humans have to see to believe, and we like hands-on stuff the best to drive the strongest points home.  Once we figure out what can happen, we can eventually puzzle out why it happens based on what we know and the hypotheses and explanations we devise that we can put to further testing.

But even then, it all comes down to Work, and when explaining your work, never start with “why”.  Ask “what” or “how”.  What are the tools you use?  How would you describe the effect a particular tool has when used in a particular way?  What are the forces you call upon?  What are their names?  How do they interrelate and interact?  How do you gain confirmation that something works?  How do you gain information about something you don’t know yet?  What do you need to achieve a particular end?

Remember: without work, you’re not doing the Work.  See the work that others do to understand their Work.

Hestia and Me

A large part of my devotional activities focus on working with the Greek gods.  This goes well beyond Hermes, of course, though he does take up the major focus of my work between the new field of mathesis as well as being the god of guides and a guide of gods, men, spirits, souls, and heroes.  I also honor Aphrodite, who’s arguably my celestial mother in astrological terms, as well as Hephaistos for my crafting work, and Dionysos because he came into my life for an as-yet unclear purpose and who am I to turn down He Who Comes?  There are yet other gods I honor and work with, enough so that it helped me out to develop a ritual calendar for making monthly offerings based on lunar cycles and grammatomancy.

One of the gods who made that list is the hearth goddess Hestia, lady of the hearth flame and arguably the definition of domestic deity, whose name itself literally means “hearth”.  Hestia is a daughter of Kronos and Rhea, of the same generation of Zeus, Hera, Poseidon, Demeter, and Hades.  She is probably the least dramatic of all the Olympians, not having many stories of her exploits since she didn’t really have any, and the only one that comes to mind is how she got her position as goddess of the hearth.  Basically, Apollo and Poseidon both wanted her hand in marriage, but she wanted nothing of them nor of marriage in general, and so begged Zeus to remain a virgin all her days; Zeus agreed, and instead of giving her in marriage gave to her the hearth of the gods and, thus, of all mankind.  And since in older times the hearth was the focal point of domestic life, providing warmth and light and food and protection for the family, Hestia became the goddess of all of these.

Moreover, as the household hearth was also often the shrine to nearly all the other household gods, as much as it was in Greece as it was in Rome, Hestia presided over all offerings and worship made at her hearth.  Indeed, since she was both first-born of the original six Olympians as well as last-born (recall how Zeus ripped out or forced his father Kronos to vomit his other children, and how Hestia was eaten first and therefore escaped last), it was custom for Hestia to receive both the first offering and last offering made at any ancient Greek ritual.  Going to a scale larger than the family, Hestia was often viewed as the goddess of the city hearth itself, with a central fire from which all other hearts burned and took their fire, and from which other colonies of a given city could trace their hearthfires back to as well.  Even more unusual for a Greek deity, she had no processions of her own, no parades to celebrate her; as the hearth was an immovable part of the household, so too was Hestia’s worship and honor solely situated on the hearth itself.  In spite of Hestia’s lack of epic poetry or exploitations, she’s kind of a big deal to the ancients.

I associate Hestia, according to Agrippa (book II, chapter 14), with the zodiacal sign of Capricorn, and thus with the Greek letter Rho according to the stoicheia of the letters.  Her day is the 21st day of the lunar month, which I would normally set aside to make special offerings for her as I do the other gods, but Hestia is different in many ways.  In fact, up until earlier this year, I didn’t really honor Hestia at all.  Sure, there was the genius domus and genius loci, the spirits of the house and land where I lived, and I referred to them as “children” of Hestia and Gaia, and worked with them to make my residence better for myself and my neighbors.  That said, there was no real hearth to the place; it was a second-story apartment in a suburb of DC, our living room was nearly bare and only my roommate spent any amount of time in it, and our kitchen was small and cramped.  It was only when I moved to my new house this year that I decided to formally welcome Hestia into my life and my new house, especially since this new house has an actual wood stove placed against a stone wall with built-in stone shelves.

Now, before I proceed any further, let it be known that while I work with and honor the Greek gods, I am not a Hellenist in the sense of belonging to Hellenismos, the Greek neopagan reconstructionist religion.  I do not follow all the rules and customs that survive to us from ancient writings, nor do I follow the rules and customs of other Hellenistic communities; I generally do my own thing, inspired by the rules and customs as well as by my own experience and interactions with the gods themselves.  After all, times and cultures change, and it’s a given that most traditions change with them.  I’d love to make more offerings of piglets and pigeons to Hermes and Hephaistos, for instance, though I need to build and consecrate a proper altar outside for that, and most neopagans would revile me for even entertaining the thought of blood sacrifice, though I have nothing against it.

Though I live with my fiancé and our mutual close friend, none of us are particularly into cooking large meals.  When we cook at all, we tend to cook for our individual selves, and regardless of whether we cook for ourselves or for all of us, we do it in the kitchen with our fancy modern stove and oven and microwave and cooking supplies.  We don’t use our woodstove to cook (though we may experiment with it foolishly come the winter), nor do we keep it burning (we’ve not used it yet and should probably get the chimney cleaned first), nor do we rely on it for warmth (we have a HVAC system for that) nor for light (since we have electric lightbulbs and not torches or firepits).  We live out in the country, so there’s no big municipal center with its own central hearth, since hearths and common grounds both are generally missing in most of modern urban, suburban, exurban, or rural America.  Even if there were a local community hearth fire, I strongly doubt most people in this neck of the woods would think to honor an ancient Greek goddess with any amount of reverence.  Most of how the ancient Greeks honored Hestia simply doesn’t work for me, and indeed, most of the relevance Hestia had to the ancient Greeks is missing for me.

Still, that doesn’t mean I should just ignore Hestia; she’s an Olympian for a reason, after all, and although many of the amenities of houses have changed, the things for which she stands never have.  We still need light, heat, and food, which Hestia provides through an old-fashioned hearth or through modern lightbulbs and HVAC systems and ovens.  We still need shelter, protection, and a place to call “home”, which Hestia abundantly provides.  We still need a place to gather and celebrate our lives and rituals, which Hestia allows us to do.  Hestia, though she is the goddess of the hearth which is becoming rarer and rarer to find these days in active use, is also the goddess of the home generally, and we definitely have one of those.  It is thus right for me to honor Hestia, giving her a spot to call her own, her own simple shrine in the place she’d feel most comfortable and honored: right by our fireplace.  At the very minimum, I acknowledge her every day as the goddess of the hearth, house, and home itself, and thank her for letting me live there and watching over the house.

Still, I don’t honor Hestia as the ancients did, nor how Hellenists tend to do.  For one, Hestia is an outlier to me; she was one of the original Olympians, yes, but recall that there are 12 Olympians.  There’s Zeus, Hera, Poseidon, Aphrodite, Hephaistos, Ares, Athena, Apollo, Artemis, Hermes, and Demeter, who form 11 of the 12, but there’s both Hestia and Dionysos to deal with.  Although we don’t have a surviving story that says as much, it’s believed that Hestia gave up her seat at the table of the Olympians to give to Dionysos when he was (re)inducted into the Olympian ranks; Hestia did this to prevent upsetting a balance or causing drama, always the arbiter of peace and prosperity in the home, and took her eternal place by the hearth of the gods.  Likewise, I have my temple room on the other side of the house from the hearth where I do all my spiritual work, with all my shrines and altars and prayer tools.  Hestia, on the other hand, is separated from all that, kept by the fireplace in the living room, isolated from both my spiritual work as well as that of my fiancé and housemate.  My gods are not the household gods, and they’re kept in their own little temenos apart from the public spaces in the house.

Further, while my other gods get their monthly offerings (or, depending on the god, weekly), and although Hestia has a day set aside for her in my lunisolar grammatomantic ritual calendar, I do something different and make offerings to Hestia much more frequently.  I buy novena-like 8″ glass-jar candles from the dollar store near where I live in bulk, and they last about 5 days each; I keep one burning for Hestia at her shrine, and when it goes out, I light her another one along with making her an offering of wine, oil, and incense, and sing out her Orphic Hymn and (short) Homeric Hymn.  The only other shrines I light this type of candle for are my primary devotional altar (which serves as a symbol of the Eternal Infinite Light of God) and for my ancestors, though neither shrine gets special offerings when I light them a new candle (the ancestors have their own trimonthly schedule of offerings).  Hestia gets a large amount of attention from me every five days or so, amounting to about six offerings a month, which is more than the other gods.  Even Hermes gets weekly offerings in addition to his larger monthly offerings, so about five offerings a month.

That said, I’ve only recently started up the process of making an obligatory initial offering to Hestia before the monthly offerings of my other gods.  Before I do any offerings to, say, Zeus on his day of the month, I set out a small amount of wine and oil by her image, thanking her for allowing me a place to live, love, rest, relax, and honor the gods, then I go back to my temple and resume my usual song and dance.  This doesn’t apply to my weekly offerings; those I find more intimate, casual, and off-the-cuff with individual deities I share a very close relationship with, and not everyone gets both a weekly and monthly offering.  Overall, making a preliminary offering to Hestia is a nice gesture, and it helps me prepare myself mentally to do anything else with the gods.  Sure, it’s a little more wine and oil spent, but it’s worth it.  I don’t, however, make her an offering after my other monthly stuff; it suffices for us that she get the first pour of wine.  Plus, this only applies when I’m working with the Greek gods; different traditions necessitate different rules, and some traditions (like Santeria) specify that one of their deities must be fed first; in order to prevent a conflict of interest when one might arise, I keep Hestia before offerings to Greek gods and other deities before gods of their own kind.  (This is one of the problems with having your fingers in so many spiritual pots.)

When it comes to food, well, none of us are big cookers or bakers, though we are known to prepare some large dishes from time to time, or host an occasional dinner party.  When we produce a large amount of food (and I’m talking something substantially more than a pot of macaroni and cheese for an after-work dinner), we set aside small portions for our ancestors, and I set aside another small portion for Hestia.  After all, if the hearth is where food is cooked, then it can be argued that the kitchen is one such hearth for us, and since Hestia allows us a home to live in and cooked food to live on, it’s proper to honor her too.  This follows no schedule, of course, beyond whenever we happen to make a large amount of food or bake a loaf of bread.  When it’s time for the food to be removed, a day or more after I make the offerings, I do with the food the same as I do all the other spiritual offerings; throw it into the pit in my backyard.  That way, we feed the land with the actual material food, which in turn provides more for us both materially and spiritually and helps out the fae and other flora and fauna, both physical and metaphysical, in our area.  In other words, we compost.

Of course, Hestia isn’t the only household spirit we work with.  As I mentioned, we have a big fae population where we live out in the woods, and we feed the fae once in a while, perhaps giving them offerings of their choice (usually red wine and berries with whipped cream).  Plus, in addition to Hestia, I also have a household guardian, a coywolf spirit I’ve been working with for some time now.  The coywolf gets offerings along with Hestia, and a smaller candle lit just for her.  If we get other spirits who decide to take up residence with us as household spirits or guardians, we’ll likewise honor them in a similar way; that said, I don’t exactly intend to call on them the same way as I did the genii I did in my old flat; Hestia and the coywolf guardian suffice for my needs.  It’s not like I need to ask them for much, either; they keep the household running safely and soundly, and all goes well.  When I offer a candle to Hestia, I often dress the candle with oils that encourage peace, prosperity, and fortune in the home for me and my housemates.

So, when I actually do make offerings to Hestia, what is it I seek from her?  I mean, honoring the gods in and of itself is a virtue that should be inculcated, but in my Hermetic and Hermaic mind, nearly all worship and honor is a transaction.  Of course I honor her because she’s Hestia, but I also honor her to ask for her blessing.  When it comes to Hestia, I think my goals are pretty straightforward: I want to live in a place that is safe, stable, and secure from those who would try to harm me intentionally or unintentionally; I want to live in a place that helps me obtain peace, prosperity, and protection from the world, both natural and humane; I want to live in a place that gives me tranquility and takes away tension.  I want a place where I can live, learn, love, rest, relax, study, store my belongings.  I want a place where I don’t have to be evicted or come under threat of it.  I want a place that won’t be destroyed by plague, earthquake, fire, or flood.  I want a place where I can be warm when it’s cold, cool when it’s hot, dry when it’s raining, fed when I’m hungry, rested when I’m fatigued, and safe when I’m persecuted.  I want a place to call home.

Of all the sacred places in ancient Greek thought, from Gibraltar in the West to the Indus in the East and all the shrines and temples in between, probably the most sacred one of them is the oikos, the home itself, which itself is the sanctuary beyond all sanctuaries and temple beyond all temples, the one to which we ourselves belong.  Hestia has much to provide for us, even in our day and age.