Note: This entry is nearly three thousands words long, and actually pretty difficult to understand. Not so much because the ideas involved are tricky, just that they take a lot of explaining, and some of them I don't understand that well, and some of them I didn't put the work into explaining them clearly, and some of them are just really dull unless you're a divination nerd. So, y'know, be warned, and don't necessarily expect to finish reading the stupid thing.
Having finally finished my (fourth or fifth, in the 23 years I’ve been using it) study of the tarot, which I started doing when I renewed a regular practice, as a way to recondition my mind to thinking in certain symbols and patterns, I have embarked on a study of geomancy. Unlike the tarot, it’s something I’ve studying only briefly and superficially, once, years ago. I’m picking it up again now because divination and oracular practices (in the form of tarot) were my first foray into both magic and paganism, and studying or regularly practicing any method will reliably deepen my practice.
I have been both a diviner and an oracle (a diviner is one who practices divination, the art of gaining information about the future; and oracle is one through whom a god delivers messages to mortals). First I gave tarot readings for friends, and later spent more than two years setting up weekly in a bookstore coffee shop and offering readings for tips, and occasionally hiring out for parties. (I remember one Halloween party where everybody was having fun and being pretty silly and enjoying the readings a lot… and then there was an older women who simply started silently crying in the middle of the reading, and thanked me profusely when I was done. I have no memory of what I said to her, and never knew what it meant to her at the time, but it really brought home to me how I could touch people with divination, even when I knew nothing about them or their lives, had no knowledge to draw on with which to refine the reading.) I studied runes, pendulum work, the I Ching, geomancy, tasseomancy (and other cup-reading methods, like reading the foam on a beer glass), scrying, and a couple of non-Tarot divination decks (like Morgan’s Tarot, which is not a tarot at all). Cartomancy and rune readings were the only ones I ever studied very deeply, and I’ve long since given up runes (although I still have a set). Divination, of course, is one of the classic witch’s skills.
My oracular states have always tended to be at the will of the gods. I can intentionally use trance and ritual techniques to get there, but historically it’s been far more likely that I’ll be in the middle of a reading and suddenly somebody else is using me to get a message to the querent. I’ve dedicated myself to service to my gods, and I have no objection to this being part of it, but it’s not an easy thing when you’re prepared for it, and much less so when you’re not.
So, as I said, this connects to both magical practice and religious practice for me, and since I’m working to make the practice of each of them a major part of my life again, I’m trying to keep studying more methods. This includes practicing the methods I’ve been studying, too. I no longer use the Greek litteromancy every day, but do turn to it when I have a question, and write down the answers and the ways they’re demonstrated in my life. Having finally freed up my favorite decks from the study, I’m also reading those for myself with some frequency, and sometimes recording those results, too. (It’s less necessary, since I already have a long history with tarot, and know how the cards reflect life, but not yet much about how the Greek letters do.)
As an aside, I love the wide variety of methods of divination and the names for them. I love the ability of humans to take a set of information with some degree of randomness (and nearly every method of divination I’m aware of has some random element), find a pattern in it, and derive meaning and advice from it. The term apophenia was coined by Klaus Conrad, a German psychiatrist and neurologist, in 1958 to describe it, but he specifically intended it to refer to false meaning and delusion as a symptom of schizophrenia. Michael Sherman coined patternicity fifty years later for the human tendency to find pattern in meaningless noise, without any connection to mental illness, but it’s still based on the assumption that the meaning derived is false. (Shermer is a professional skeptic, indeed is the founder of The Skeptics Society and editor in chief of its magazine.) I think it’s a shame that there’s no term for the tendency that specifically considers it as a useful behavior.
Back to geomancy.
You’ll see the term geomancy turn up in fantasy sometimes without any awareness of what it actually is. The names of some of the figures appear in Harry Potter (Albus, Rubeus, Caput Draconis, Fortuna Major), a number of books I’ve read have had the figures appear on maps to trace ley lines or other features, and I’ve seen the term applied to feng shui, just to name a few. I don’t think I’ve ever seen it used for the actual divinatory method. Certainly I never knew what it actually was until I ran across John Michael Greer’s book Earth Divination, Earth Magic sometime around 2000. (He’s got a newer book out now, The Art and Practice of Geomancy, but I’m not sure if it’s a revision of the old book or an entirely new one.) He lays out a history and practice that begins in North Africa, connects to several other African traditions, and came to Europe in Arabic texts first translated in the twelfth century, although the Arabs clearly had the method by the ninth century. In the Renaissance, geomancy was one of the greatest and most popular methods of divination, second only to astrology. Where astrology required lots of paperwork, calculations, reference materials, and knowledge of the heavens, geomancy can be done with a single sheet of paper and writing utensil, or with a pointed stick and a clear patch of dirt to scratch in, making it available to many more people.
Geomancy relies on a basic binary system, like the I Ching and many sub-Saharan African systems (Ifa, hakata, agbigba, and more), with four lines that are either odd or even/active or passive. This gives us two options for each of the four lines, for a total of sixteen figures (2 x 2 x 2 x 2 = 16). If that makes no sense, well, here they are, from a scan of a text written by Heinrich Cornelius Agrippa and translated by Robert Turner in 1655:
There, the sixteen geomantic figures. Each of the lines of a figure represents one of the classical physical elements, with the top line (called the head) being fire, the second (or neck) air, the third (the body) water, and the fourth (the feet) earth. One dot is considered active and two passive. A single figure is generated by randomly producing four odd or even numbers. You can use coins, dice, draw lines of dots on paper without counting, whatever you like that gives you that binary element. Each figure, of course, has a meaning, and a simple answer can be obtained from just one figure. Most of the art of geomancy, though, comes from charts.
The first chart is the Shield Chart. This is the one in Agrippa, which is kind of difficult to understand if you don’t already know what you’re looking at:
It’s an escutcheon, or shield shape, divided down the center, with eight figures in the top row, four in the second, and the bottom divided into thirds for three more figures.
Um. Let me find a better image, because that explanation still isn’t terrible clear.
from this blog here, I just googled up an image
The chart is read, and filled in, from right to left. So you generate four figures, which are the Four Mothers, and fill them into the top right slots. From those, you derive the Four Daughters, using the heads of the Four Mothers to build the First Daughter, the necks for the Second, body for the Third, and feet for the Fourth. If you’ll look at that second figure, you’ll see that the Second Daughter has one dot in the head line, from the neck of the First Mother, two in the neck from the Second Mother, one in the body from the Third Mother, and one in the feet from the Fourth Mother. Then you derive the First Niece from the First and Second Mother by adding together each line, so that the 2 + 2 of the head lines make an even number, or two dots for the head of the First Niece, 1 + 2 from the necks makes an odd number for a single dot of the neck, and so on. Each of the Nieces is made from the two Mothers or Daughters above it in this way. The Right and Left Witnesses are made from the Nieces using the same method, and the Judge from the two Witnesses.
How confused are you now? Totally lost? Probably, since I just spent a paragraph on what Greer took six pages and as many figures to explain. Fortunately, you don’t actually need to understand it unless you want to try geomancy, which I cannot possibly give you enough information here to do. Go buy one of Greer’s books, or read the Agrippa if you have the patience for Elizabethan English, or if you can find them, the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn has a whole series of texts for initiates of various grades (on which, more later). There are a bunch of other resources online, too.
Greer provides three methods by which to read this chart, which can be used singly or together, depending on how much and what kind of detail is wanted. The methods given are the Witnesses and the Judge (which is analogous to the three card tarot spread), the Way of Points (which traces the roots of the question by means of the commonality of the fire line), and the Four Triplicities (which looks at broad themes and patterns in the first twelve figures).
If that isn’t exhaustive enough, there is then an entire second chart, used to get even more information, which is based on the Twelve Houses of astrology. Again from the Agrippa:
You put the first twelve figures on the chart in order. The First House is the center triangle on the left-hand side, and they proceed around the chart counterclockwise. You put the First Mother in the First House and so on. The figure in the First House is the Significator, representing the querent, but the subject of the reading is found in whatever House best fits the question. I do not actually understand this system, since every house has a whole set of often apparently unrelated meanings. For example, Greer lists the Fourth House as dealing with “father and mother, inheritances from parents, land, agriculture, buildings, construction, treasures, anything underground, ancient places and things, old age, hidden things, and the end of any matter” and the Seventh as “the querent’s spouse or lover, love relationships, marriage, partnerships, quarrels, any unidentified person”. These meanings are, of course, drawn directly from the astrological Houses, but since I’ve never studied nor had any interest in astrology, the language and symbolism of the Houses is completely lost on me. (I have Objections to astrology, beginning with the fact that it no longer has any relationship to where the sun and stars actually are, due to the precession of the equinoxes, and moving on through the way people use it badly.) So you have your Querent in the First House, your question (or Quesited) in whatever House it goes in, and then you go looking for where the same figures turn up elsewhere in the chart, with something like nine different possible relationships, which can appear in combination, providing fodder for interpretation. I admit to feeling rather overwhelmed by all of this.
If that isn’t enough, then you consider whether the Witness and Judges from the first chart seem to contradict the message from the second chart. If so, there are two different methods for resolving this, combining the significators and the reconciler. We have now gone well beyond the parts I’ve read and understood, so all I’m doing is mentioning that they exist. Additional tools for interpretation past this include the projection of points, the company of houses, and generating a whole fresh set of figures from the ones you have and starting over with those. Methods for dealing with particular common (at least in the Renaissance) questions are given as well.
That’s the first half of the book. The second half is about using geomancy in ritual magic. All of this is based on Hermetic Magic, which I find kind of amusing given that Greer lays the utter failure of geomancy to be picked up by 20th century occultists firmly at the feet of the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn, who managed to make the system even more complicated than it already was (for example, if certain figures appear in the First House, you have to burn the charts and anything else you’ve written down, and you can’t try again for at least two hours), plus make it utterly boring, about charts and lists, with no room for the intuition and meaning a good diviner brings to the table. They also make their initiates learn the system in pieces, by grade, rather than as an integrated system, memorizing this part at this grade and that part at another before eventually allowing them to put it all together and use it for divination or anything else.
I admit to being biased against HOGD and indeed all “High” Magic, which I find ridiculously overcomplicated, badly syncretized, overly Christian while using pagan gods anyway, and the practitioners of which have a long history of being classist, racist, sexist, appropriative, and snotty about other kinds of magic (especially witchcraft). I’ve known some good people who practiced Hermetic (and Thelemic and Rosicrucian and whatever else) magic, for whom it works very well in every way, and that’s fine, whatever works for them. But every time I read about it or its history, I end up very annoyed. (Well, I’m an easily annoyed person.) It’s the magical equivalent of Your Kink Is Not My Kink But Your Kink Is OK. As long as you’re not going around seriously fucking up other people’s lives, have fun.
(For the record, I am not against curses as an entire class of spells, but while Intent Is Not Fucking Magic in life in general, in magic intent is absolutely magic, although it’s not the whole ball of wax, and both what you do and why you do it matter. You want to curse your abusive boss who makes you work long hours with no overtime, takes the credit for everything you do, and gaslights you constantly, so they trip all over themselves in front of their clients and say all the awful things they usually only say to you? OK. You want to curse somebody because they turned you down for a date? Fuck you. It’s like hitting somebody. The asshole in the bar who won’t leave you alone? Deck him if that’s what it takes to get him away from you. Somebody is physically assaulting you? Gouge the fucker with your keys, pepper spray them, whatever you have to and can do. Don’t hit anybody weaker than you, don’t hit anybody who isn’t already hurting someone else. Curses are not really what I’m talking about when I say “seriously fucking up other people’s lives,” though. I’m talking about ritual abuse, emotional abuse rationalized with magical theory, oppressive systems and behaviors, and generally being an asshole to people because You Are A Great and Powerful Magician. Which are certainly things I’ve seen from every type of occultist and witch and pagan, but in my experience, the percentage of Hermetics, etc, who are like this is second only to the percentage of chaos magicians, who tend to be Internet Libertarian types.)
I got totally sidetracked there, didn’t I?
Greer also includes his own translation of Modo judicandi questiones secundum Petrum de Abano Patavinum, a medieval Latin textbook on geomancy that “appears in a great many manuscripts from the fourteenth, fifteenth, and sixteenth centuries,” and which had not been previously published in English.
I may or may not ever find the Twelve Houses chart useful. I’ll give it a shot, but it may simply never be a good tool for me. Much of the magical instruction certainly never will be, as it’s incompatible with my style. I’ll read it, because Greer’s a good writer and easy to read, and I never know what I might find buried in there, but very little of it will be useful to me. I suspect that to find geomancy useful, I will have to do exactly what neopagans have done with tarot: adopt the basics, adapt and recontextualize the shit out of it. I may transfer the planetary associations to gods instead or something. I don’t know. I’ll have to see.
Normally, I read these over before I post them, take out anything glaringly stupid. Not this time. Nope. Here it goes, just as it came out of my head.