Same Figures, but Different Names and Different Traditions

In addition to the Geomantic Study-Group on Facebook that I admin, there are a few other groups out there that focus on geomancy.  I may or may not be a member of them, or I might have been at one point before leaving, but there’s one that I belong to that focuses on the Arabic style of geomancy, Ilm-e-Ramal (Geomancy).  What the Geomantic Study-Group is for Western geomancy, this group is for Arabic `ilm al-raml (the formal Arabic term for geomancy, literally “the science of the sand”, sometimes abbreviated to raml or ramal), and since I’d love to learn more about that style of geomancy, I decided to join in.  It’s not always easy, since many of the members use Urdu or Arabic as their primary language, but when there are English conversations, I try to follow along best I can.

One of the major issues in learning Arabic `ilm al-raml for an English speaker is, of course, terminology.  It’s only fair and expected that the users of a system built in one language would use that language to discuss it, but it still poses a stumbling block.  After all, geomancy has been practiced continuously in Arabic- and Urdu-speaking countries far longer than it was in Europe, and they’ve kept the system in their own ways.  Once I see what they’re doing and see certain words repeated in certain contexts, I can usually catch on and follow along, but the biggest impediment to discussing geomancy and `iln al-raml is the different names we have for the figures themselves.  It’s difficult for me to talk about the meanings of a given figure and compare it with what it means in `ilm al-raml when neither of us know which figure we’re supposed to be talking about, after all.

So, with that in mind, I decided to produce the following table that lists the names of the sixteen geomantic figures and their names in Western geomancy (in Latin and English, using their most popular form) and in Arabic `ilm al-raml (in Arabic and English, again using their popular form).  This is to help me out to learn the names of the figures better in Arabic contexts, as well as to help the students of `ilm al-raml learn the European names for Western contexts.  For other variants in these and other languages that have historically been used for geomancy, including Hebrew, Greek, Sudanese, and Malagasy, I’d recommend checking out Stephen Skinner’s book on geomancy, Geomancy in Theory and Practice, and his larger book on correspondences, The Complete Magician’s Tables.

Figure Latin Arabic Yoruba
قبض الخارج
Qubiḍ al-kharij
Catching the outside
Fortuna Maior
Greater Fortune
نصرهّ الداخل
Nuṣraht al-dahkhil
Inside victory
Fortuna Minor
Lesser Fortune
نصرهّ الخارج
Nuṣraht al-kharij
Outside victory
قبض الداخل
Qubiḍ al-dakhil
Catching the inside
Layhan (or Ḥayyan)
Caput Draconis
Head of the Dragon
عتبة الداخل
ʿAtabaht al-dakhil
Inner threshold
Cauda Draconis
Tail of the Dragon
عتبة الخارج
ʿAtabaht al-kharij
Outer threshold

Because I like using an Arabic transliteration system that uses diacritics for faithful romanization, it can be a little difficult to read the Arabic names, but the accented letters can be read as follows:

  • q sounds like a “k”, but further back in the throat.
  • ṭ, ṣ, and ḍ all sound like normal but with the back of the tongue further to the back and top of the throat.  However, in Urdu, ṭ and ṣ just sound like “t” and “s”, and ḍ just sounds like “z”.
  • ǧ sounds like a soft “g” or “j” (or like in the word “division”).
  • ḫ sounds like the “ch” in Scottish “loch“.
  • ḥ sounds like the “ch” in Scottish “loch” but a little smoother.
  • ʿ sounds like a very soft, whispered “h” sound, if pronounced at all.

So, “Bayaḍ” can sound like either “bah-yahd'”, or “bayz”, “Nuṣraht al-ḫariǧ” will sound like “nus-raht al-khareej”, and so forth.  Note that some of these names are not proper Arabic, and moreover, just like in Western geomancy, there are dozens of names used across the Arabophone sphere.  These are just one set that I’ve found common in geomancy groups online, and are the ones I’m trying to memorize.  Most of the other variants used are just that: variants, which are easy enough to pick up on.

Also, note that I’m using the standard planetary order of the figures in the above chart, which is fairly common for Western geomancers.  While Western geomancy doesn’t really prescribe a particular order as the order of the figures, Arabic geomancy has a set number of particular orders of the figures that are used for various divinatory purposes.  Probably the most common and canonical one is the dairah-e-abdah, which uses a kind of binary ordering, as seen in the following diagram (to be read from right to left):

While it may not seem like it makes much sense for me to make a single blog post doing nothing more than transliterating and translating a single set of Arabic names into English, given my penchant for long-winded exploratory posts, this is still an important first step in increasing Western geomancers’ understanding of Arabic `ilm al-raml as well as Arabic practitioners’ understanding of Western geomancy.  After all, it’s hard to make a journey if the door is still shut, and this helps open the door for both sides.

Now, you’ll notice that I’ve also included a third set of names, which are Yoruba for the figures as used in the sacred divination of Ifá.  I’ve included them for reference (both my own and other scholars of geomancy, especially those with a historical or academic eye), but I want to make something clear that I’ve only mentioned in passing before: Ifá is not geomancy, and geomancy is not Ifá.  Stephen Skinner talks at length about how the art of Ifá came about historically in his geomancy book, but the short of the matter is this: as geomancy traveled along the Arabic trade routes from its (likely) origin in the northern Sahara westward to Morocco and Spain, eastward to Palestine and Greece, and southward through Africa as far as Madagascar, it also traveled to West Africa where it was adopted and adapted by the priests and lorekeepers of the cultures living there.

While geomancy largely retained the same form and (mostly) the same interpretations everywhere else, it underwent dramatic changes and adaptations to the native Yoruba and Fon cultures in what is now Nigeria and Benin to become Ifá.  The form of the figures and several crucial aspects of geomancy were retained, but pretty much the entirety of the art was rebuilt from the ground up and grew apart into its own entirely-unique system.  As a result, although we as geomancers might recognize that Ifá has sixteen figures in the same format we’d consider them to be figures, almost nothing of what we know about geomancy applies to Ifá, and no assumptions should be made regarding any similarities besides the superficial appearance thereof.  To say it another way, if European geomancy and Arabic `ilm al-raml are sisters who grew up in the same house but then left to go their separate ways in neighboring cities, then Ifá is a distant cousin who grew up in an entirely different part of the country with little contact with the rest of the family.

As an initiate in La Regla de Ocha Lukumi (aka Santería), which also has roots in Nigeria and matured alongside Ifá in Cuba, Ifá is something I’m constantly surrounded by, especially since I belong to an Ifá-centric house that respects, utilizes, and incorporates Ifá and its priests (the babalawos and oluwos) in our ceremonies and lives.  While I understand the historical origins of Ifá from geomancy, I also have to understand and respect the mythological origins and religious context of its practice as its own thing.  And, like Santería itself, it’s an initiated tradition, and non-initiates are not taught or permitted to learn the secrets of Ifá; for various reasons, I am not and will likely never become an initiate in Ifá.  Unlike many Western systems including geomancy, where formal initiation is not really a Thing outside magical lodges and certain master-student systems, this might be something of a shock to my readers, but as it is, there is only so much of the external parts of Ifá that I can learn, and even less that I’m willing to share to people, even to those in Santería itself.  I caution my readers to avoid getting too studious of Ifá without considering proper initiation and study under a legitimate and respected babalawo.

Likewise, a similar word of warning for those Western geomancers who aspire to study Arabic `ilm al-raml and vice versa.  Unlike geomancy and Ifá, geomancy and `ilm al-raml are much closer in method, meaning, and use, and many things are easily translatable between the two systems.  However, caution should still be taken, because although they’re very close sister traditions where there are more similarities than differences, they are still different traditions where the differences still matter.  It’s much like the difference between Western astrology and Indian jyotiṣa astrology: same origin, same symbols, slightly different techniques of interpretation and shades of meaning of those symbols.  While some things are translatable between geomancy and `ilm al-raml, not everything is, and the two systems should still be respected as two separate systems.  Experience and study of both systems will show the diligent geomancer what can be brought over with no effort, what must be adapted from one system to the other, and what is unique and proper to one system and not the other.  Though they share the same origin and great similarities, enough time, space, and work has passed that have made the two sciences grow apart into their own unique systems.  Respect that, study the differences, and experiment accordingly.

Also, my thanks go out to Masood Ali Thahim, one of the multilingual good guys in the `ilm al-raml group on Facebook, who helped me with the Arabic spelling and transliteration of the names of the figures as used in `ilm al-raml.

What is a deity?

So, recently a friend of mine who’s getting his legs in working with the occult and spiritual worlds was talking with me and my boyfriend, and it caused a bit of a debate amongst ourselves, mostly due to semantics and differences in worldview that can complicate things when describing How Things (Can/Should) Work.  Part of that was that my friend had said that me and my boyfriend “traffick in gods”, and that he himself doesn’t like working with gods but does like working with forces of nature.  This caused a bit of confusion between all of us until we pegged down exactly what he meant by that generally, and also what he meant by gods.  This is where my boyfriend and I disagree a bit, but then, we can attribute that to different worldviews and paths in spirituality.

As for myself, the question of what the nature of a god is can be complicated, especially when describing specific instances of spirits and how they might be or might not be gods.  For instance, we can easily point to Zeus and say that he’s a god, and we can point to my little Air elemental ally and easily say that he’s nowhere near as godlike as Zeus may be, and you’d generally be right in saying that my elemental ally isn’t a god.  But what about river spirits, like that of the Mississippi or Ganges?  Or spirits of a forest or a mountain?  Or spirits ruling over an entire element?  This is where the ontology of godhood and spirithood can get tricky.  I present below my understanding and use of the words “god” and “spirit”.

First, to talk about gods, let’s back up a bit and talk about a broader class of entities, that of spirits.  To me, a spirit is any nonphysical entity that can be meaningfully interacted with.  Let’s unpack that phrase bit by bit.  A “nonphysical entity” (NPE) is a being with a more-or-less independent consciousness and nature, which exists without corporeal form or body, and which communicates or interacts with the world through nonphysical or noncorporeal means.  Thus, humans and animals are not NPEs, but ghosts, souls, and angels are.  Elemental and animal spirits, though they may be present within actual objects or animals, are still NPEs.  (Sometimes an NPE can be incarnated or take corporeal form; this is an exception and handled elsewhere.)  To “meaningfully interact with” means that we, as human beings, can witness and observe an NPE and its effects on the world, can communicate or work with the NPE, can receive communication from the NPE, and can potentially work together or through the NPE to achieve some desired end.  So, working with Zeus or God or an angel or an animal totem would all constitute meaningful interaction; working with gravity or lightning or time would not, since these can be manipulated in certain ways but not communicated with.

I claim that all gods are spirits: they are both nonphysical entities (though are sometimes known for taking corporeal form in some circumstances) and can be meaningfully interacted with (though sacrifice, prayer, scrying, visions, and the like).  Thus, gods constitute a subset of spirits; are there spirits that are not gods?  This is where things get interesting, and I have a hard time trying to figure out where any meaningful distinction might lie between godly spirits and non-godly spirits.  If it’s a matter of scale or grandeur, then we end up with a kind of divine sorites paradox, where distinctions may be arbitrary and meaningless.  For instance, if we define a god as a spirit that has at least 10,000 worshippers, then what about spirits that have 9,999 worshippers?  Does that make the spirit any less godly, especially as seen and experienced by their worshippers?  Same thing goes with age; if we consider a god to be a spirit worshipped for at least 1000 years by some group of people, what about Christ in the first millennium AD, when he was recognized as divine even before his birth?

In many animistic traditions, there simply is no distinction between a god and a spirit, and all gods are spirits and vice versa.  Consider the Shinto term kami (神), where all of the phenomena, spirits, souls, and manifestations of cosmic order are considered a type of god, though the term “god” itself does little justice to encompass the meanings of the term kami.  Similarly, looking at Hindu and Greek polytheistic traditions that likely evolved out of animistic ones, we find both a kind of ruling group of gods with connections and children to other gods, which although lesser are still considered gods, even down to the level of individual rivers, mountains, forests, and trees.  Even the Greeks considered individual people to have their own agathodaimon, or personal spirits, which were so strong or powerful that they would be on the level of the gods themselves (implying greatness or grandeur, but no otherwise fundamental difference).  Sacrifices and prayers were carried out to the big Olympians as they were heroes and nature spirits, indicating that ritualistically the spirits were treated the same as the gods, or nearly so to the point where it’s just about meaningless to consider gods fundamentally different from spirits.

My boyfriend suggests a difference in function and level: gods are NPEs that are worked towards but not worked with, while spirits are NPEs that are worked with.  So, for instance, I might call on the aid of a saint to achieve an end (thaumaturgy) but I might work myself up to rise to the level of the Almighty (theurgy).  Thus, Olodumare/Olorun in Santeria or Yoruban religion might be considered a god, since he’s not directly worked with, but the other orishas like Chango or Babalu Aye would be considered spirits since they’re directly present and able to work directly with someone.  In Abrahamic terms, we might consider God the Father the “god” and his angels the spirits, but then this gets into more complicated issues when you consider that God the Son is directly worked with as is God the Holy Spirit, who are not God the Father but are also not apart from God in a weird non-panentheistic way.  Because of these problems, I disagree with my boyfriend, but then, it’s a minor, minor thing.

Based on all this, I contend that there is no fundamental difference between a god and a spirit: gods are spirits, and spirits are gods.  Thus, the term “god” is merely a label we use to separate out a particular set of spirits we (either as individuals or as traditions) find especially worthy of reverence, devotion, and sacrifice.  For instance, I consider myself dedicated and a priest to Hermes, but not to the local land spirits around my house.  I make them both offerings, but not in the same way, and I hold Hermes as greater and grander than the local land spirits.  Then again, I also consider the local land spirits as genii loci and thus children of Gaia, sharing in her presence and power and thus representative of her; in this sense, the genii loci can also be considered gods by other people.  And even I might consider some genii loci especially worthy of reverence, and thus would be elevated (in my mind) to the status of gods.  Likewise for Shinto, the big kami like Amaterasu or the Emperor get bigger rituals than the kami of smaller things like boulders or waterfalls, but both are considered kami.

In other words, the term “god” is merely a functional term, much how we consider the terms “stationery” and “paper” different: they’re both ultimately the same, but one has a little more decoration than the other, and that decoration is all in the eye of the beholder.  It’s a lot like how the gods of one tradition might be considered devils or illusions by those of another, so it’s tradition- and worldview-specific, but these help define one’s practice and methodology in working with the spirits.  So, for my friend who got me thinking about this to begin with, we might say that going with the animistic idea that there is no fundamental difference is probably best, especially in getting over any hang-ups on the terms used by others.