Translation, Transliteration, and Greek Letter Magic

One of the more common sets of search terms I get on my blog, for some reason, involves how to write Japanese words, characters, or kanji in English, or whether there’s a Japanese to English alphabet conversion.  I mean, there are ways to write Japanese using the Roman script (which is what the English alphabet actually is), but it’s not translation, and people are stupid and don’t understand the basics of writing things in different languages well.  Let me clarify some linguistic terms:

  • Translation is the conversion of words with meaning from one spoken language to another.  For instance, to say the word “love” in Latin, you’d say “amor”, ερως in Greek, (“erōs”), and 愛 in Mandrain Chinese (pronounced “ài” with the voice falling slightly from a high level to a lower level).  The meaning is preserved although how it’s pronounced is not.
  • Transcription is the conventional means by which one writes a spoken language in a graphical, non-spoken medium.  For instance, for English, we use a variant of the Roman script as conventional, while Japanese uses a mixture of hiragana and katakana (syllabic scripts) combined with kanji (Chinese characters).  I could write English using Devanagari, the writing system most commonly used in India to write, say, Hindi, and it’d be a way of transcribing spoken English, although only people who use Devanagari could read it.
  • Transliteration is the conversion of written symbols from one writing system to another.  As opposed to translation, transliteration preserves the sound of a word while the meaning is not.  For instance, my name “polyphanes” in Roman script is written πολυφανης in Greek alphabet, ポリファニース in Japanese katakana, and полыфанис in Russian script.  The sound is preserved across each, although it has no meaning in any language but Greek (meaning “many appearances”).

It must be remembered that a writing system is not a language; a writing system is a means by which one transcribes a spoken language with a set of symbols that represent sounds or meaning, and a spoken language is a means by which one person orally communicates to another person.  However, the two are not the same; consider the status of Hebrew, German, and Yiddish.  “Hebrew” refers both to the spoken language used in Israel as well as the script used in, say, the Torah; “German” refers to both the spoken language used in Germany as well as a variant of the Roman script used to represent the same.  Yiddish, however, blends the two by using the writing system of Hebrew but the spoken language of German.  A German speaker can understand spoken Yiddish but could not read written Yiddish (because it’s written using the Hebrew script); a Hebrew speaker can not understand spoken Yiddish but can read written Yiddish aloud without understanding its meaning (because the Hebrew script is here transliterating German words that have no meaning in spoken Hebrew).  I gave an example about all this specifically with Japanese back in my January 2014 Search Term Shoot Back:

“japanese alphabet with english letters” — This is one thing I really don’t get; so many people have come to my blog looking for Japanese writing translated into English, when I’ve mentioned Japanese four times on my blog to date, and none were about transliterating Japanese into English.  First, Japanese does not use an alphabet; an alphabet is a system of writing that uses letters to indicate either consonants or vowels.  Japanese uses several writing systems, among them kanji (Chinese characters that are combinations of semantic, phonetic, and pictoral images drawn in a codified way) and the syllabaries hiragana and katakana.  A syllabary is a writing system that use letters to indicate syllables, often consonant-vowel combinations.  Thus, while English uses the two letters “k” and “i” to write the syllable “ki” (as in “key”), Japanese might use キ (in katakana), き (in hiragana), and any number of kanjifor the syllable depending on the context and meaning of the character; some might be 幾 (meaning “some” or “how many”), 氣 (meaning “energy” or “atmosphere”), 木 (meaning “tree”), 箕 (referring to the “winnowing basket” constellation in Chinese astrology), or any other number of kanji, all of which we would transliterate as “ki”.  So it’s not as easy as it sounds; not everything is an alphabet!

So why am I talking about writing systems and languages?  Because this is a fundamental distinction between writing systems and spoken languages, and it impacts mathesis and grammatomancy, and Greek letter mysticism and magic more generally, in an important way for many of us non-Hellenes.

As I’ve mentioned elsewhere, the use of stoicheia is a valuable tool in mathesis and grammatomancy.  It’s like isopsephy, or Greek gematria, in a lot of ways, but instead of evaluating a word in Greek using number, we evaluate it using the forces of planets, zodiac signs, and elements.  For instance, if we wanted to use the Greek name ΜΑΡΙΑ, “Maria”, we’d say that it’s a mixture of the forces of Libra (Μ), Capricorn (Ρ), the Sun (Ι), and the Moon (Α), perhaps indicating a balance of masculine and feminine or receptive and active powers balanced through darkness turning into light.  It’s a useful tool, especially when interpreting barbarous words of power that are best or originally written in Greek, but we have a major stumbling block when we come to the use of non-Greek words and names that aren’t historically written in Greek.  After all, I only know of systems of stoicheia and isopsephy for Hebrew and Greek, and I generally distrust anything for the Roman script since it’s highly language-specific, yet most languages I work with tend to be written in Roman.  Thus, for me to get a meaning out of something normally written in Roman script or one of its descendants (English, French, Spanish, German, Swedish, etc.), I need to find a way to transliterate a non-Greek word into Greek script.

Consider my first given name, Samuel.  Samuel is a Hebrew name, originally written שְׁמוּאֵל (ShMVAL) and pronounced something more like “shmūwehl” originally.  However, in Latin, it’s written SAMVEL, and pronounced “sahmwel” as in modern Spanish.  In Greek, however, the name is written Σαμουηλ, or Samouēl and pronounced “samūīl”.  Since my name is natively a Hebrew one, I find a good argument to use Hebrew gematria and stoicheia for analyzing it, but since I also have a correspondingly clear way to write it in Greek, I can just as easily use Greek stoicheia and isopsephy for it.  However, the problem is that the meaning of the name is not preserved; in Hebrew, depending on your interpretation, the name means “God has heard” or “Name of God”, while in Greek it’s just a string of letters that’s pronounced “samūīl”.  If we were to translate the name, we’d end up with either Θεοκουσος (“Theokousos”) or Θεονοματιος (“Theonomatios”); these are straightforward translations of the name, and while we preserve the literal meaning of the name, we end up with radically different spellings, pronunciations, isopsephies, and stoicheias because the pronunciation, and thus the spelling, have changed.  So we can either go with the conventional spelling of Σαμουηλ, or we can go with the translation (properly “calque”) of Θεοκουσος, though I’m inclined towards the former, since a name is what you’re called, and the literal meaning of a word is often occluded by the importance of pronunciation (cf. all the barbarous words we use, which we don’t know the meaning of but we pronounce and intone them all the same for great effect).

Worse yet, the problem with my name is simple compared to many others, because Samuel is an old name in a well-known and well-translated/well-transliterated text in Greek from Hebrew.  Other languages, such as Chinese or Russian or parts of Africa, have no standardized way to transcribe names or words from their languages into Greek; the closest you can get is what best approximates the sound of it, unless you want to go the way of calquing things, which…honestly, if someone called me Theokūsos, I’d never respond to it as I would Samuel, so calquing is basically right out.  For many names in English, it can be easy, since Greek and English tend to share many sounds; for some languages like Chinese, this can be exceptionally difficult, since Chinese has many sounds that Greek does not, and the Greek alphabet isn’t equipped to handle the sounds or structure of Chinese spoken language.  (Worse, there’s no official means to transcribe Chinese using Greek, as there is with Hanyu Pinyin for Roman script, though there are some unofficial means to go from Hanyu Pinyin into Greek.)

Meditation on names is important; I claim that you don’t know yourself or where you’re going if you don’t know your own name, either given at birth or chosen at will.  And since I’m a big fan of using Greek to meditate on as a sacred or mystical writing system, then I like meditating on Greek letters if at all possible so as to understand what’s in a name.  It’s just that getting names into Greek, if they’re not already in Greek, can be difficult, especially for people like my Brazilian, Chinese, or Malaysian readers, especially if the language-to-be-transliterated-from doesn’t share the same sounds as Greek does, or as what the Greek alphabet is meant for.  However, there are some exceptions, and generally speaking what I do is this:

  • If the word is just a word and not normally used as a name or isn’t used as a name for a given entity, like discussing what a rose is, I’ll use the Greek word for it.  Thus, to talk about roses, I’d use the Greek word “rhodē” (ροδη).
  • If the name is natively a Greek name, like “Stephan” from Greek Στεφανος meaning “crown”, then I’ll use the Greek form of the name.
  • If the name is not natively Greek but has a corresponding form in old works like the Bible, like “Samuel” above, then I’ll use the Greek spelling of the name regardless of how the name is spelled or pronounced in the originating language.
  • If the name is not natively Greek, I’ll transliterate the name according to modern Greek rules of spelling and other conventions.  Thus, someone given the Chinese name Yuping (宇平),  I’d transliterate it as Γιουπιν, “Gioupin” pronounced “Yūpin”; the final “-ng” is typically written as “-ν”, since “ng” is a weird phoneme in Greek.
  • If the name is a common word, like a flower, I’ll typically use the phonetic spelling and not the Greek word.  Thus, if someone is named Rose in English, I’ll use the phonetic transliteration of Rhoūz (Ρoουζ) and not the corresponding Greek name Rhodē (Ροδη).

Transcribing a name or word from one spoken language (or written language!) into Greek can be difficult, since it requires a good understanding of what the letters actually sound like so as to prepare an accurate transliteration and transcription of the name or word.  However, once that’s out of the way, it’s then straightforward to understand the mystic meaning behind such a name using Greek letter mysticism via isopsephy and stoicheia.

Now, let’s say we’re comparing the names of two different people, say Stephen and Sarah.  Stephen is a native Greek name from Στεφανος, while Sarah is natively Hebrew spelled שָׂרָה (ShRH), yet we know it’d be spelled Σαρα since she’s a figure in the Old Testament.  Conversely, from Hebrew translations of the New Testament, we know that Stephen would be spelled סטיבן (STIBN) in Hebrew.  How do we go about comparing these two names?  Do we convert both names to one language, or do we mix-and-match based on the native language of each name?  When simply doing a run-of-the-mill analysis, I’d stick to the former when possible; I’d run a stoicheic and isopsephic analysis of Στεφανος in Greek, and a similar analysis of שָׂרָה in Hebrew and compare what results.  Thus, I’d reduce the name to what it mystically means on a stoicheic and numerologic level, and use that as my means of comparison:

  • The Greek name Στεφανος has the stoicheia Aquarius (Σ), Pisces (Τ), Mercury (Ε), Air (Φ), Moon (Α), Scorpio (Ν), and Mars (Ο).  It has the isopsephic value of 1326.
  • The Hebrew name שָׂרָה has the stoicheia Fire (Shin), Sun (Resh), and Aries (Heh).  It has a gematria value of 505.
  • Sarah has almost entirely fiery symbols, while Stephen is mostly air and water.
  • Although the number of Stephan is close to thrice that of Sarah, by reducing the value down by adding up the individual digits, we get 1 + 3 + 2 + 6 = 12 → 1 + 2 = 3 for Stephen and 5 + 0 + 5 = 10  → 1 + 0 = 1 for Sarah.  Alternatively, we ignore the powers of ten: for Stephen, we get Σ + Τ + Ε + Φ + Α + Ν + Ο + Σ = 200 + 300 + 5 + 500 + 1 + 50 + 70 + 200  → 2 + 3 + 5 + 5 + 1 + 5 + 7 + 2 = 30  → 3 + 0 = 3, and for Sarah, we get  5 + 200 + 300  → 5 + 2 + 3 = 1.

So, when we’re comparing two names against each other for the sake of a pure stoicheic and isopsephic analysis, I’d prefer to use the systems in place for the scripts in which a name is derived.  However, as I mentioned before, I only really trust the systems for Hebrew and Greek, and when possible, I prefer Greek; thus, if I were comparing Stephan and, say, Julius, I’d convert Julius to Greek as Ιουλιος and go from there.  And, even if I were analyzing a Hebrew name, I’d convert it to Greek anyway if I were using something like Christopher Cattan’s Wheel of Pythagoras or the onomatic astrology of Vettius Valens I mentioned last time; if there’s a Greek-specific system in place that I don’t have in place for another language, then I’ll convert any and all names into Greek for that system if I have to.

Thing is, however, that Greek (and Indo-European languages generally) tends to complicate things because of how it’s written and spoken.  There’s the whole problem of word endings: case and declension for nouns, and the voice, tense, mood, and the like with conjugation for verbs.  English, mercifully, has tended to drop those things out or simplify them dramatically from its Germanic ancestry, but Greek uses them heavily.  As a rule, when analyzing a word on its own, I tend to use the nominative case for nouns, and for verbs…well, I’m not great with Greek grammar too well just yet, and I haven’t decided how to approach that.  Still, because the ending of the words change based on how they’re used in a sentence, their letters change, and so too do their isopsephic values.  For uniformity, I just stick with the “plain jane” or “unmarked” endings.

An Alternative System of Stoicheia

Far be it from me, a ceremonial magician, to take something simple without introducing some complexity or confusion into it.

In continuing and reviewing my mathesis and Greek language-based mysticism research, there’s one modern book that’s invaluable to my studies: The Greek Qabalah (1999) by Kieren Barry.  Barry’s scholarship is excellent, and he wrote the book as a hybrid between pure academicism and applicability for occultists and magicians, so it’s highly accessible for most people but with plenty of inroads for deeper analysis.  Of course, I’d love to read Franz Dornseiff’s “Das Alphabet in Mystik und Magie” (1925) since it has plenty more raw information, but that’s all in German, and alas, nope.  Anyway, Barry’s book is a good start, and it’s one of the original influences that led me to go against the “Alexandrian Tree of Life” and start over fresh.  From chapter 6 (emphasis mine)

On the evidence we have seen, it is plainly incorrect to state that there are only a few correspondences to the letters of the Greek alphabet along the lines of those found much later in the Hebrew Qabalah.*  It is also anachronistic, as well as completely pointless, to attempt to project Hebrew Qabalistic symbolism onto the Greek alphabet, or to imagine anything so historically impossible as an “Alexandrian Tree of Life,” as has been done.*…

* (48) See for example, S. Flowers, Hermetic Magic (York Beach, ME: Samuel Weiser, 1995), a forgettable mixture of historical fact and personal fantasy.

Now, I don’t know about you, but I claim that when a scholar is throwing those kind of footnotes at you in an academic work, you prolly dun’ fucked up.  But I digress.

So, of course, Barry mentions the property of stoicheia in several parts as he begins to discuss the mystical associations of the letters with other well-known forces or powers in the cosmos; the seven planets are a given, as well as all the permutations and wing- or heart-shaped formations of letter triangles that are formed from having rows of letters with slowly increasing or decreasing numbers of letters in each line.  However, the system of stoicheia Barry shows is much different than the one I use when it comes to the association of letters with the planets and elements.  Not that it matters much to me; I’ve gotten used to my system, and I’ve gotten good results from using it, but just in case anyone wants to start a meaningless argument with me saying that my way isn’t the only way, lemme preempt that and discuss what Barry talks about.  First, if you’re forgetful or unclear on what my system of stoicheia is like, read more here.  I honestly don’t know how far back the system I uses goes, but it’s at least as old as Cornelius Agrippa (book I, chapter 74); if it’s not any older than this, at least I know it works and makes sense to me.

The Greek words for the five elements are ΓΗ (earth), ΥΔΩΡ (water), ΑΗΡ (air), ΠΥΡ (fire), and ΑΙΘΗΡ (rarefied air, ether, spirit).  Note that there are only five consonants used between all of these words: Γ (used only in γη), Δ (used only in υδωρ), Π (used only in πυρ), Θ (used only in αιθηρ), and Ρ (used in all except γη, but the only one used in αηρ).  Thus, we can associate each of these five consonants with the five elements:

  • Gamma with Earth
  • Delta with Water
  • Rho with Air
  • Pi with Fire
  • Theta with Spirit

This method of assigning the letters to the elements, which I call the acronymic method (though this isn’t a true acronymic method), seems to have more truck in really old antique and classical systems than the phonologic method I use, which is based on the comparatively recent Cornelius Agrippa.  However, since the system of vowels connected to the seven planets remains the same in both the phonologic and acronymic systems, we can also complete this system of stoicheia by associating the other letters to the zodiac signs in the same way.  Thus, Beta in both the phonologic and acronymic methods is given to Aries, but in the phonologic system Taurus is given to Gamma (the next simple consonant), while Taurus is given to Zeta in the acronymic method (since Gamma is given to Earth, Delta to Water, and Epsilon to Mercury).

There’s also another method of stoicheia introduced by the classical Hellenic astrologer Vettius Valens, who associated the entire Greek alphabet to the 12 signs of the Zodiac.  This doesn’t assign letters to the planets or elements themselves, just the Zodiac, and since we have 24 letters and 12 signs, the associations are very straightforward: start with Alpha and Aries and continue on to Pisces associated with Mu, then Nu with Aries again until Omega with Pisces again.  This was used in a system of “onomatic astrology”, less astrology than numerology-like stoicheic interpretation of names, where yes/no divination on a matter involving multiple people can be performed based on how their names compare based on number and stoicheia.  Perhaps eventually I’ll get around to finding more about this, as there exist similar things at least as far back as the Greek Magical Papyri (PGM XII.351) and at least as recent as Christopher Cattan’s “The Geomancy”, but we’ll see.

So, if we compare these three systems of stoicheia (the full phonological stoicheia, full acronymic stoicheia, and zodiac-only stoicheia), we get the following system:

Letter Full Stoicheia Zodiac-only
Stoicheia
Phonologic Acronymic
Α Moon Aries
Β Aries Taurus
Γ Taurus Earth Gemini
Δ Gemini Water Cancer
Ε Mercury Leo
Ζ Cancer Taurus Virgo
Η Venus Libra
Θ Earth Spirit Scorpio
Ι Sun Sagittarius
Κ Leo Gemini Capricorn
Λ Virgo Cancer Aquarius
Μ Libra Leo Pisces
Ν Scorpio Virgo Aries
Ξ Water Libra Taurus
Ο Mars Gemini
Π Sagittarius Fire Cancer
Ρ Capricorn Air Leo
Σ Aquarius Scorpio Virgo
Τ Pisces Sagittarius Libra
Υ Jupiter Scorpio
Φ Air Capricorn Sagittarius
Χ Fire Aquarius Capricorn
Ψ Spirit Pisces Aquarius
Ω Saturn Pisces

So, how does this impact my work with mathesis or Greek letter magic (grammatomageia as opposed to grammatomanteia)?  Well, not much.  It’s like the use of different house systems for astrology or different ways to assign the figures from the Shield Chart to the House Chart in geomancy; it’s just a different way of using the same tools and the same symbols.  While the system overlaps for 1/3 (8 of 24) of the Greek letters, the system is notably different.  But, if the only thing that really changes is what forces we associate them to, then the only thing that really changes is, maybe, the association of letters to the odoi of the Tetractys.  Remember, we assigned the letters to the paths based on their stoicheia.  The path of Taurus is still going to be the path of Taurus, the path of the Moon is still going to be the path of the Moon, and so forth; it’s just that, in my system, the path of Taurus is given the letter Beta, but in the acronymic stoicheic system, it’d be given the letter Zeta.  The letters alone change on the paths, as well as any tangential associations the paths receive based on the shapes and non-stoicheic associations of the letters; otherwise, the structure is pretty much solid.  Then again, like I said, I’ve gotten good results with my phonologic stoicheic system, so I see no reason to switch.

And no, I’m not going to redraw up that lettered Tetractys picture again for this.

As for Valens’ zodiac-only stoicheic system?  That’s almost neither here nor there; it’s geared for a different purpose, although it is one that’s interesting and bears further exploration.

Suitable Jewelry for Magic, Spirits, and Forces

As many of my readers and followers on Twitter and Facebook are aware, one of the most important things I craft for my personal practice are pieces of jewelry I wear in honor of the spirits or as talismans of particular forces.  This goes far beyond the lamens used in conjuration or Solomonic rings, but include what I’ve come to call carcanets, beaded necklaces and bracelets with colors, stones, and metals that resonate well with a particular spirit.  I started making them to have simple wearable talismans of planetary and elemental forces that wouldn’t attract too much attention or be too bulky to carry around, but I ended up making more for some of my gods and spirits, and then more for other people based on custom needs.  On Facebook, The Professor from the blog Traif Banquet noted that she’s seen me make many different types of carcanets and was interested in how I pick the colors and patterns for each, and how I consecrate them and use them in ritual work.  Of course, I was headed to a theme park that day to support the local LGBT community, so it wasn’t quite the time for such a discussion then and there, but I decided to oblige anyway and write a fuller explanation of what exactly I do.

So, what is a carcanet?  Physically speaking, a carcanet is ritual talismanic jewelry made from beads that sometimes incorporate precious and semi-precious stone or metal or wood or bone, sometimes religious items like saint medallions or crosses, and sometimes other items that is worn to derive the blessing, presence, and aid of a particular spiritual force or entity.  I make mine from artificial twine and seed beads and make them into necklaces and bracelets, though there’s nothing saying you have to use the same materials I do.  I use artificial twine because it’s sturdy and resistant to breaking, though elastic cord or leather can be useful too on occasion.  Each carcanet is attuned and consecrated to a particular force or spirit, and the colors, materials, and patterns on the carcanet indicate exactly what that attunement is and to whom or to what it’s consecrated by or under.

For instance, consider my Sash of Powers, something I made a while back for use in standard Western ceremonial work, which contains representations of all the forces used in Western ceremonial magic based on the Golden Dawn and Agrippan materia.  This is worn across one shoulder and drapes down to the opposite hip, since it’s far too long to wear as a necklace or bracelet.  Among other forces, the Sash of Powers contains the 24 forces that we use in mathesis and, for that matter, most of the Western mystery tradition, and the colors I use for this tend are those I tend to use in most of my work:

Sash of Powers

  • Four elements: I use the system of flashing colors that the Golden Dawn instituted.  Thus, I use red (primary) and green (secondary) for Fire, yellow and purple for Air, and blue and orange for Water.  They didn’t really have flashing colors for Earth that I can find, instead using the “muddled” colors associated with the sephirah Malkuth (black, citrine, olive, russet), so instead I use black (primary) and white (secondary).
  • Spirit: I’ve never really considered this an element proper (as my mathesis stuff shows), though it can be considered an element or a planet or any other force based on the need.  Because of this, it’s hard to give a color for pure Spirit; I tend to use pure white, clear, pearlescent, or rainbow for Spirit.  If we consider Spirit to be the realm of the fixed stars (i.e. Chokmah), then some combination of silver, clear grey, or light blue might work; if we consider it pure divinity (i.e. Kether), then white and clear would work.
  • Seven planets: I use the system of Queen and King scales of the Golden Dawn, so black and crimson for Saturn, blue and purple for Jupiter, red and orange for Mars, and so forth.
  • Twelve signs of the Zodiac: I never liked the scales of the Four Worlds the Golden Dawn uses for the paths of the Tree of Life, from which we can get  colors for the twelve Zodiac signs.  Instead, I use a combination of the Queen scale of the Golden Dawn for the ruling planet of the sign as well as the colors that Agrippa gives for the sign (book I, chapter 49).  Thus, as an example, consider Aries and Libra.  Agrippa gives white as the color for both these signs, while the corresponding Queen scale of the ruling planets are red for Aries ruled by Mars and green for Libra ruled by Venus.  Thus, Aries has red and white, and Libra has green and white as its colors.  I tend to differentiate the Agrippan zodiacal colors from the Queen scale planetary colors by using a slightly brighter, more reflective, or metallic variant (so a reflective clear red instead of a flat red), but it’s not necessary.

Of course, the Sash also has a few other things marked on it, including the 12 Banners of the Names of God and the 16 geomantic figures, but those aren’t forces, per se.  These are less colors to be used with forces and more representations of more complex things that can vary.  Geomantic figures, being ultimately related to the Earth, use white and black as the colors of the element of Earth (with a white bead noting an active line and a black bead a passive line in a geomantic figure); I used white, yellow-gold, black, and brown to represent the four letters of the Tetragrammaton put in their different permutations, but I’m not sure that it matters for this how or which colors to use.

Of course, I don’t make carcanets and the like for just pure forces.  The major focus of what I make nowadays is for individual spirits, gods, saints, and the like, and that’s where creativity and research really come into play.  Unfortunately, most of the Western tradition (especially books like the Lemegeton) focus on the use of certain kinds of metals or woods and less on colors than I’d like, so I have to branch out and be a little more innovative to figure out what colors go with what spirit.  However, the way I tend to settle on colors follows a pattern:

  1. Traditions of the spirits takes precedence; if there’s a body of lore or worship built up around something, I’ll likely start with those colors, if not just use those colors.  For instance, it’s tradition that Saint Cyprian of Antioch’s colors are generally perceived to be black, purple, white, and red, so nearly all my Saint Cyprian gear has black, purple, and white on it (red I tend to reserve for specific workings or subsume it into purple, perhaps settling on a compromise of wine or dark red).  The archangels of Christianity often have their own color symbolism, especially in icons from the Orthodox tradition, so I might use the colors most commonly seen on their robes or in their icons, like light blue and pink for Sealtiel.
  2. Association with the forces described above can play a role in deciding colors.  For instance, I work with Hephaistos, the blacksmith god of the Greeks, except there’s so little known about Hephaistos’ cult back in the day that I have no tradition to go on.  However, Agrippa in his scale of 12 (book II, chapter 15) helpfully gives an association between the 12 Olympian gods (including Hestia and excluding Dionysus) and the 12 signs of the Zodiac.  There, Hephaistos is associated with the zodiac sign of Libra, and my colors for Libra are white and green, so good colors to use for Hephaistos can include white and green, as well.
  3. Asking the spirit themselves for colors they like can also work well.  This generally requires being in tune and in good standing with the spirit to get that kind of information about, and it might require divination or light trancework to get a good set of colors that works well, but overall asking the spirit themselves for what colors they like can be hugely helpful.  However, no two people may arrive at the same colors for the same spirit, based on their relationship with them.  For instance, my Hermes altar uses orange as the primary color (since I started off conflating the god Hermes with the planet Mercury, which isn’t too hard a leap to make), but my ritual necklace I have for him uses bone-white, brown, light blue, and gold beads based on a color scheme he gave me.
  4. Syncretism of different traditions can be informative as well.  If it’s alright with the spirit, looking at other traditions not native to them can help me pick what colors to use.  Going back to Hephaistos, I asked if it was alright if I looked at another tradition with a huge repertoire of color symbolism: Santeria.  The elekes and collares of Santeria are color-coded necklaces that indicate which orisha one has received, and although the ATR I’m in (yes, I’m an initiate in one) doesn’t have colors of its own, our spirits in that ATR are happy with using the same colors as Santeria (since they’re basically cousins of each other, much as how Roman and Greek gods are mythological cousins).  In Santeria, the blacksmith god Ogun has the colors black and green, so with the permission of Hephaistos, I also use black and green for some of my works in conjunction with white and green derived from Hephaistos’ association with the zodiac sign of Libra.  This can be tricky, however, and you need people on both sides to agree that the use of another traditions’ colors is alright, especially if you happen to live in an area with a large number of that other tradition who might confuse you for one of them.

As a rule, I like to have at least two colors on the carcanet.  To be honest, this keeps the thing from being visually boring; I dislike having a single solid color unless it’s required for a spiritual purpose, kind of like the Santerian orisha Obatala having his eleke being pure white.  That said, most spirits tend to have a multitude of powers, fields, strengths, and things they rule over; the different colors I use reflect those different responsibilities and dominions.  Too many colors can be confusing, however; I usually stick between two and four colors per carcanet, but sometimes more if there’s a specific need for it or if the spirit itself is associated with having many colors.

Beyond the colors of beads themselves, most of my carcanets and the like often make use of precious and semi-precious stone and metal beads, and those are much better attested in the Western traditions generally.  Of course, color symbolism is important in picking these, too, as well as the specific resonances of the stones or metals or whatnot.  For instance, red stones tend to be ruled by Mars in general, though carnelian, ruby, and fire agate all have slightly different feels that may make them better for some forces or spirits instead of others.  The minerals and chemicals within the stones themselves, too, can be important, which can link them together with metals.  For instance, one of my favorite green stones is malachite, which contains a high amount of copper that gives it its bright green color.  Copper and green are both associated with Venus, which makes this an excellent Cytherean/Venereal stone suitable for the planetary force as well as the goddess Aphrodite.

Once I have the colors figured out, then it’s time to figure out the patterns.  The most straightforward and simple pattern, assuming two colors, is to alternate the colors of beads one by one (so red, black, red, black, red, black…).  Personally, I hate this system, and I try to stay away from it as much as I can.  I generally figure out patterns based on numbers sacred to the spirit.  For instance, Saint Cyprian’s sacred number is 9, so the patterns I use tend to involve 9 in some way; one such carcanet I made for him has nine black beads, three wine beads, one white bead, one clear bead, one white bead, and three more wine beads for a “set” of 18, or 2 × 9, and I’ll repeat this as many times as necessary to get a carcanet of suitable length.  My mathesis carcanet (yes, I even made one for that) has ten white beads followed by one gold bead, since 10 and 1 are sacred numbers in mathesis and Pythagoreanism.  My Venus carcanet has two sets of seven green beads separated by a tiger’s eye bead, two sets of seven gold beads separated by a green aventurine bead, and a set of 14 (2 × 7) beads that alternate green and gold.  Making the patterns can be tricky, but usually I have a good idea in my head before I launch into stringing the beads.  On occasion, I’ll decide a few sets into the carcanet that the pattern isn’t good and I’ll start over, but they’re generally close to what I had in mind.

Of course, crafting the carcanets and the like is only half the process; the other half is consecration.  Just like how the colors and patterns may change based on the purpose, the means of consecrating the carcanet will also change.  Generally speaking, however, consecration falls into two different methods.  Both methods first start off with ritually washing the carcanet off in holy water to cleanse and prepare it for future blessing, and both tend to involve anointing with oil and suffumigation in incense, but beyond that, they’re different:

  • Force carcanet consecration: A carcanet that’s a talisman of a force (e.g. Water, Mercury, or Taurus) is consecrated by conjuring the angel associated with the force (e.g. Gabriel, Raphael or Asmodel, respectively) at an appropriate time, generally during an appropriate planetary day and hour or when the zodiac sign in question is rising or culminating during the waxing moon.  I’ll charge the angel in the appropriate godname and office to consecrate, sanctify, dedicate, bless, and empower the carcanet to serve for me a powerful talisman and connection and link to the force in question, that it may radiate the same force into my sphere that I may call upon and direct it at will and in my need.  I’ll suffumigate it in the incense burning for the conjuration and anoint it with an appropriate oil if desired and if I have one.  You know, the usual.  After the conjuration, I’ll set the carcanet on top of the lamen of the angel wrapped around a candle to continue and complete the charge of the carcanet.  Once the candle burns out, I’ll often (but not always) conjure the angel again and thank them for helping me consecrate the carcanet, charging them to seal the power into the carcanet and make it a powerful tool and instrument for my work.  This completes (and, usually, overdoes) the consecration.
  • Spirit carcanet consecration: A carcanet that’s dedicated in the honor and blessing of a spirit, on the other hand, takes a slightly different route.  Instead of turning the carcanet into a simple talisman, it becomes more of a devotional offering to be worn in the honor and service of a particular spirit.  Yes, it still accomplishes the result of bringing the blessings of a particular force into my life, but this way it’s less that it’s being filled with a particular power or motion and more that it’s bringing the attention and blessings of a particular spirit.  In this way, I’ll go up to the spirit, make offerings to them at a time good or convenient for them, and formally dedicate the carcanet as an offering to them to be worn in their honor and devotion.  I’ll often anoint the carcanet in oil or their offering drink (wine or water, usually), drape the carcanet on the image or statue of the spirit or wrap it around a prepared candle, and I’ll ask that they consecrate, sanctify, dedicate, yada yada the carcanet to their own blessings and purpose.  After leaving the carcanet on their altar or shrine for a week, I’ll make another offering to them thanking them for the carcanet’s blessings and wear it during certain times to obtain their blessing and in their honor as a kind of votive action.

Now that I think about it, the methods for consecrating them for a force via an angelic conjuration and for a spirit by dedication aren’t that different; it’s just two variations of the same idea, really.  Plus, depending on the carcanet and spirit/force it’s consecrated under, I may maintain its power in different ways, sometimes by anointing it with oil or “feeding” it with other sundry liquids, sometimes by praying over it, sometimes by letting it sit out in sunlight or moonlight.  It all depends.  The carcanet is a general ritual tool that, even though the material basis looks the same being made out of twine and glass, its spiritual essence and use may vary wildly.

Speaking of, how are these things used?  It’s pretty simple: you wear them.  That’s it.  I’ll often say a short blessing or invocation of the spirit or force to which a carcanet is dedicated or consecrated under when I don one, and I’ll say a prayer of thanks and blessing when I remove one, but that’s about it.  Seed beads are often too small for my big fingers to manipulate, so I don’t bother with using them as prayer tools but rather as part of spiritual regalia, armor, and connection when I need it.  On occasion, I’ll make a chaplet or set of prayer beads large enough to be worn, and in those cases the carcanet doubles as a prayer instrument, but this is the exception and not the norm for me; such prayer carcanets tend to use stone and metal beads more than seed beads, so the way I make them tends to differ a little bit since my options are usually more limited.

And yes, if you’re interested, I do take custom commissions for carcanets and can make them to your specifications or based on my own interactions with the gods and spirits.  If you like, contact me or send me a message through my Etsy shop and we can hash something out.

Crossroads and Stairwells

Many magicians in many traditions hold crossroads to be sacred or magical spaces.  Think about it: a crossroads is where several paths meet and intersect each other.  At a crossroads, you’re able to go in any direction, not just along the same path you were taking to get there.  This can be a place of decision or of opportunity; the letter upsilon in Greek (Υ) was known as the “philosopher’s letter”, since it has the form of a fork in the road, which is also represented in the word “dilemma”, literally meaning “two ways to go”.  Hermes and Hekate were known to be deities of the crossroads, especially of four-way or three-way roads (quadrivium or trivium in Latin, respectively).  Exu, Eleggua, Legba, Lucero, Nkuyu, and the like are all African diasporic deities for the same thing.  Crossroads are places of opportunity, being able to go in any direction, but they’re also places of liminality, being between places entirely.  Consider the famous location “Four Corners”, a place where four large states in the US meet at a grand crossroads.  Closer to where I live, there’s a notable (and terrible) place called “Seven Corners” which is a seven-way (!) crossroads.  You can get the gist of where I’m going with this.

But we have lots of other places that can be considered liminal as well.  Anything that is used to transfer or lead us from one place to another without being in any one place itself can be considered a crossroads of sorts, and I had the idea recently that stairwells fulfill this function as well as any intersection of roads or hallways.  After all, in a stairwell, you’re able to go between different floors or levels, able to take one road or another that are superimposed atop each other.  We often consider the world to have four directions, or that we travel only along two axes, but we often neglect to remember that there’s a third dimension we live in as well.  Two roads can occupy the same X and Y coordinates, after all, but they may be going in opposite directions; being on either one, you’d never know about the other, but stairwells and floor interchanges make this possible.

I propose that stairwells can be used as a crossroads in magical practice, with pretty much the same ideas and powers as the usual crossroads would have.  However, the crucial difference is in directionality of the “crossroads”.  In a standard intersection of roads, one can go into any direction on this plane; in a stairwell, one can go onto any plane in the same direction.  It’s an interesting difference to note, and although the purposes for which one may choose to use a stairwell versus a crossroad may be a little different, the idea is the same.

Stairwells have always intrigued me.  Some of the prettiest hotels and office buildings with the most elaborate hallways and baroque elevators have the simplest, barest, most architecturally brutal stairwells I’ve ever seen.  In fact, I’ve always considered the quality of a building’s stairwell to be a mark of craftsmanship; how wide is it, what materials are used, what pipes and wires are exposed, what kind of lighting is present, and the like.  I’ve always had an affinity for these kinds of access structures, the dank and dirty, claustrophobic, gritty, often ignored tunnels and chambers and stairwells that actually set the structure for a building.  All multi-story buildings need stairwells, after all; elevators, escalators, and everything else is mere decoration.  Besides those who want to take the stairs for health, few people ever actually use stairwells except in emergencies and emergency drills.  I’ve always found them subtly exciting, like being in someplace I shouldn’t because nobody else goes there, a kind of pit-of-the-stomach adventurous nervousness, despite their commonality and prevalence, especially when you ascend or descend to a level of the stairwell that you know you don’t or shouldn’t have access to.

Note that I’m not talking about staircases here; while they fulfill the same purpose, staircases are often open, decorated, and part of the public part of a building, and they act more like a hallway between two (and only two) floors.  Escalators do the same thing, for that matter, and when an escalator breaks it devolves into a staircase; no big change there.  But stairwells are different from staircases.  Stairwells are towers within buildings, a small tunnel going vertically up and down that connects all floors of a building to the same room, the same trek; you’re going nowhere when it comes to the cardinal directions, and yet you’re still going somewhere when it comes to the sky and earth.  Throw in the natural spiral, quadrated or not, that stairwells must of necessity have, and you have cycles, patterns, and vortices that connect the different vertically-arranged planes of physical existence.

Elevators, too, are different from stairwells.  Sure, they both have the same purpose of ferrying one from one physical height to another, but there’s another crucial difference: you can’t get stuck in a stairwell, but if you’re stuck in an elevator, heavens help you.  If you’re stuck between floors, you’re SOL until the elevator comes back online or someone tries to yank you out.  You can’t get stuck in a stairwell unless all the exits are blocked off (which is unlikely in most cases), but elevators can stop at any point.  Plus, elevators literally box you in and while they ferry you from one floor to another, they don’t have the same power as crossroads; that’d belong more to the elevator shaft.  It’s like being in a car at a crossroads; yeah, the car can take you through the crossroads in any direction, but the car itself is not the crossroads.

The only problem is that a stairwell in a building is often like having a crossroads on an island: the amount of distance you can travel once you leave is confined.  With the island crossroads, you’re going to have to turn back once you hit the shore, and you’ll eventually hit the same crossroads again.  With the stairwell, you’re going to have to go back down if you went up or vice versa.  Likewise, if there’s only one crossroad on the island, or if there’s only one stairwell in a building, you’re going to be stuck with that one and only place.  Stairwells are symbols of liminality, but they’re constrained by the building they’re in.  However, within that building, the stairwell is golden, just as that one crossroads is golden within that island.  Work with what you got, after all; whether you’re traveling vertically or horizontally, so long as you’re in a place that connects to other places, you’re good to go.

So, the next time you want to work magic in your office building and your building distinctly lacks a four-way intersection of hallways, try heading to the nearest staircase and leaving something in a corner of a platform between floors.