On Aspects in Geomantic Interpretation

Geomantically interpreting the House Chart usually necessitates a bit of knowledge about astrology.  Even though geomancy can be interpreted completely without relying on any sort of astrological symbolism or techniques, one of the biggest innovations that geomancy developed was to incorporate these very same symbols and methods into geomantic technique.  When looked at the right way, the integration is often flawless and seamless, and a good number of techniques and ideas that apply in astrological divination apply either identically or in parallel ways to geomantic divination.  This isn’t usually the case for the Shield Chart, of course, but for the House Chart?  The more astrology proper you know, the better off you are in geomancy; geomancy has often been called “astrology’s little sister”, and for good reason.

Still, though, not all astrological tricks can be borrowed directly into geomancy, and of those that can, some may need tweaking or a complete rehaul of the technique to get the ideas behind the trick to properly apply to geomancy.  Among such techniques that astrology can lend to geomancy, what we consider to be a major, integral technique in one art can be considered a minor detail in the other.  And, of course, there are always those techniques that are barely understood at all in either system but we laud them as among the best and greatest things ever until we take a step back to actually try to understand the damned thing at all.

Bearing all that in mind, here’s a few thoughts and explanations of astrological aspect, why we use them the way we do astrologically, and how they can be applied to geomantic interpretation of the House Chart.  I suggest that you grab a drink and settle in for this.

What is an aspect?  The word comes from Latin ad+spicere, meaning “to look at” or “to regard”, but in its form aspectus it can also refer to appearances, countenances, or coming into sight of something else.  Although I suppose it’s possible that you could see any planet from any position of any other planet, considering the planets as mathematical volumeless points in the sky, only a handful of specific spatial arrangements are considered to be proper aspects based on their geometry within the circle of the Zodiac.  More properly, I suppose it’s better to say that aspects are based upon the geometry presented within the Thema Mundi, the astrological-mythological chart of the beginning of creation that is fundamental to exploring and understanding many of the basic symbols of astrology:

Thema Mundi

(No, this is not actually a real chart; note the positions of Mercury and Venus in relation to the Sun.  We know.  It’s not intended to actually represent any point in time besides Creation itself, and was an important teaching tool used in Hellenistic astrology.  Of particular importance, note how the chart starts with the ascendant in Cancer, not Aries; the natural world we live in is of a nurturing, cool nature exemplified most by watery Cancer, and not the harsh, aggressive nature of fiery Aries.)

The Thema Mundi is what establishes the planetary rulerships of the signs themselves.  Judging from a location in the Northern Hemisphere, the Sun and Moon (the two luminaries whose motion only ever proceeds forward) are given to the two signs of the brightest and hottest time of the year, the Moon to feminine/receptive/cool Cancer and the Sun to masculine/active/warm Leo.  After this, we assign Mercury to Virgo, Venus to Libra, Mars to Scorpio, Jupiter to Sagittarius, and Saturn to Capricorn.  Because the planets can only ever be in one place at any one time, the other signs are left empty, but we can envision the non-luminaries to be in a “mirror world” in the signs opposite the axis formed between Cancer/Leo and Capricorn/Aquarius; thus, Saturn gets “mirrored” into Aquarius from Capricorn, Jupiter into Pisces from Sagittarius, Mars into Aries from Scorpio, Venus into Taurus from Libra, and Mercury into Gemini from Virgo.  The Sun and Moon, being two distinct luminaries already in their own signs, do not get mirrored.

Planetary Rulerships of the Signs

Now, consider the positions of the planets in relationship to the luminaries:

  • Mercury is 30° from the Sun on the right, or from the Moon on the left.  Mercury is a neutral force, blending like with like and opposite with opposite, always changing and always in flux.  The angular relationship between Mercury and its nearest luminary is that of the semi-sextile, a mutable and weak relationship that doesn’t mean or do much either which way.
  • Venus is 60° from the Sun on the right, or from the Moon on the left.  Venus is a pleasant planet, inducing joy and pleasure and which opens up the door to opportunity and happiness, though it can be fickle.  The angular relationship between Venus and its nearest luminary is that of the sextile, a relationship that tends to harmony but requires energy and action in order to keep the relationship fortunate and well.
  • Mars is 90° from the Sun on the right, or from the Moon on the left.  Mars is the planet of separation, strife, heat, anger, and war.  The angular relationship between Mars and its nearest luminary is that of the square, indicating a relationship of tension, strife, resistance, and problems that, although they can be surpassed and built upon, are not easy to overcome.
  • Jupiter is 120° from the Sun on the right, or from the Moon on the left.  Jupiter is the planet of blessing, benefice, and heavenly wonder.  The angular relationship between Jupiter and its nearest luminary is that of the trine, indicating a relationship of harmony, luck, ease, and prosperity.
  • Saturn is 180° from the Moon or the Sun on the opposite side.  Saturn, the darkest and coldest planet placed in the darkest and coldest sign, is found in the opposite sign as the luminaries in the brightest and warmest signs of the year; Saturn is the planet of cursing, curses, and being cursed, of death compared to the life of the luminaries.  Not only that, but the angular relationship formed between Saturn and its directly-opposing luminary crossed boundaries into a true mirror-world opposition, which is the relationship of extremes, rivalry, enmity, and difficulty.
  • Saturn is 150° from the Sun on the right, or from the Moon on the left.  More on this later.

Note that the relationships we care about in the list above are in particular angular arrangements such that the angle is a proper divisor of the circle of 360°: it takes twelve semi-sextiles to make a complete loop (12 × 30° = 360°), six sextiles (6 × 60° = 360°), four squares (4 × 90° = 360°), three trines (3 × 120° = 360°), and two oppositions (2 × 180° = 360°).  Additionally, since the zodiac (and the House Chart we use in astrology) is already divided up into twelve sections, an angular arrangement that does the same thing doesn’t show us anything new or more important that the simple progression of signs from one to the next, or of houses from one to the next, doesn’t also already tell us.  This leaves us with four major angular relationships, or aspects: sextile, square, trine, and opposition, each of which is exemplified best by its “thematic” presence in the Thema Mundi: Venus is the aspect-producing planet of the sextile, Mars of the square, Jupiter of the trine, and Saturn of the opposition.

However, we don’t have to limit ourselves to talking just about degree-based angular relationships when it comes to aspects.  In fact, it’s arguably more traditional to talk about them in terms of whole signs (and, thus, houses), and the idea is the same as before.  Mercury is one sign away from its luminary for the semi-sextile aspect, Venus two for sextile, Mars three for square, Jupiter four (for trine), and Saturn six for opposition.  This is the distinction between partile and platick aspects, where partile aspects are measured by the “parts” of signs (i.e. the exact degrees) and platick aspects by the “broad areas” of whole signs at a time; while we moderns generally consider partile aspects to be what really counts (ideally exact by angle, though we allow the wiggle-room of orbs for the planets), it would have been just as valid in Hellenistic and traditional astrology to consider platick aspects based on sign relationships between the location of any two particular planets.  In the above talk about the Thema Mundi, it’s actually more proper and traditional to note the angular relationships of the planets to the luminaries based on how many signs/houses they are away rather than how many degrees of celestial longitude they are away.  If we count by signs, then we have the nifty association between aspects and sign relationships:

  • Signs in sextile share the same temperature of element (i.e. hot Fire and Air, cold Water and Earth) and different modality.  They understand what each other needs and uplift/sustain each other in their complementary ways.
  • Signs in square are of the opposite element but same modality.  They understand how each other works and work in the same way, but they have the opposite views and goals and needs.
  • Signs in trine share the same element.  They understand what each other needs and join with each other in common purpose.
  • Signs in opposition share the same temperature of element as well as the same modality.  They conflict because they operate in the same way, and share the same passion but for different goals and needs, leading to rivalry and conflict.  So different, yet so similar at the same time!

But this leads to something interesting: if there are only aspects based on whole-sign counting, what about two planets that are found in signs that have no such relationship?  We already counted differences of one sign (semi-sextile), two sign (sextile), three (square), four (trine), and six (opposition), and if it’s more than six, we can simply flip the calculation to get a corresponding opposite-direction same-type aspect.  This leaves the relationships unclear when we have differences of zero signs and five signs away:

  • If there are zero signs between two planets, then they’re in the same sign, or more ideally, at a 0° difference.  In other words, this is conjunction of two planets, where instead of there being a relationship, there is a true unity and melding of force, power, and presence.  Relationships can only happen when there is a distance or difference, but in conjunction, there is neither; thus, a conjunction is not a type of aspect, technically speaking, because there’s no “other planet” for each to look at, since they become one and the same force.
  • If there are five signs between two planets, then they’re…weird.  They have nothing to relate to each other: they’re of different elements yet not opposing elements (e.g. Fire and Earth), and are not of the same modality.  If conjunction is a complete identity of essence, then this relationship is complete dissonance, and is called inconjunct; the angular relationship of 150° is called the quincunx, but the idea is the same.  This is the complete lack of relationship, which in traditional astrology was considered worse than any relationship at all (no matter how bad).

In addition to the complete dissonance bit of the inconjunct, there was a notion of certain places being “unseen” from any particular place in the House Chart.  From the ascendant, consider that houses VI (illness) and VIII (death) are inconjunct with house I (life).  While being close to the aspect (“seen”) of opposition, they are just out of range of vision, just off to the side of focus.  It’s like when you’re staring at a particular distant point: you have that point in complete view, but things just off to the side?  You can’t look at them the same way, things slide out unnoticed, or change without being seen.  This “just off to the side” quality of the inconjunct lends them to “being unseen”.  Similarly, we can say the same thing for houses XII and II: while there is technically an aspect for these (semi-sextile, 30° or one sign away), house XII (enemies) is inimical to house I (life) in the same way houses VI and VIII are, and worse, house XII is “right behind” house I, and thus is also unseen.  House II (property) isn’t usually considered negative, but it is similarly “unseen” because it is too close, too under-the-nose, to be properly regarded as an aspected house.  This leaves the relationships of one sign away and five sign away as anti-aspects, or more properly, averted.  Aversion indicates an anti-relationship: a lack of communication or awareness, a disability to understand and be understood, and a lack of control in either direction.  This is why, for the sake of astrology, the 30° relationship is at best trivial and meaningless, and at worst is as bad as the 150° quincunx.

Okay!  So much for an introduction on aspects.  Where does that leave us?  Well, we have particular angular relationships that, for the sake of both traditional astrology and geomancy, we can determine based on how far two particular things are in the House Chart based on how many signs/houses come between them:

  • Sextile: two houses away, the relationship of Venus.  Luck, opportunity, happiness, fickle fortune.
  • Square: three houses away, the relationship of Mars.  Strife, fighting, conflict, construction.
  • Trine: four houses away, the relationship of Jupiter.  Blessing, ease, harmony, prosperity.
  • Opposition: six houses away, the relationship of Saturn.  Rivalry, enmity, enemies, tension.

And, in addition, we have three non-aspects:

  • Conjunction: same house in the same location, the identification of the two luminaries as one light.  Two forces that become one.
  • Semi-sextile: one house away, the anti-relationship/aversion of Mercury.  Being too close to properly see or control.
  • Inconjunct: five houses away, the anti-relationship/aversion of Saturn.  Being just out of sight to properly see or understand.

In geomancy, we can use aspects to better understand the relationship between two particular figures in the House Chart, or the effects a given figure has on another figure based on the angular house-based relationship between them.  The naïve and simplistic way of doing this is to take any particular figure as your significator, and interpret the figures two, three, four, and six houses away as being in aspect to the significator.

Just to make things a little more exciting, let’s add in two more distinctions to our expanding set of aspects, shall we?  In geomantic interpretation, not only is it the number of houses away that matters for an aspect, but also the direction of the aspect, or dexter and sinister aspects, which are ultimately based on the natural motion of the planets as seen from the Earth:

  • Dexter aspects (literally “right”, as in “right-handed”) are counted clockwise around the House Chart from the aspecting figure to the aspected figure.  For instance, the trine formed by House V onto house I is a dexter trine, because the aspect is made going clockwise around the chart from house V to house I.  Dexter aspects go against the natural flow of the signs of the Zodiac, or said another way, against the usual counterclockwise numbering of the houses.  These are considered to be more direct, effective, obvious, blatant, or vigorous.
  • Sinister aspects (literally “left) are counted counterclockwise around the House Chart from the aspecting figure to the aspected figure.  For instance, the trine formed by House IX onto house I is a sinister trine, because the aspect is made going counterclockwise around the chart from house IX to house I.  Sinister aspects go with the natural flow of the signs of the Zodiac, or said another way, with the usual counterclockwise numbering of the houses.  These are considered to be more subtle, hidden, weak, slow, or indirect than dexter aspects.

Thus, consider the following geomantic House Chart:

If we were to consider house IV (Tristitia) as our significator, then we find the following figures in aspect with it:

  • Dexter sextile: house VI, Cauda Draconis
  • Dexter square: house VII, Amissio
  • Dexter trine: house VIII, Fortuna Minor
  • Opposition: house X, Cauda Draconis
  • Sinister trine: house XII, Coniunctio
  • Sinister square: house I, Via
  • Sinister sextile: house II, Acquisitio

Note that opposition, because it is six houses away, is always on the opposite point of the House Chart.  Therefore, it is only ever an opposition, and cannot be dexter or sinister.  Also note that we don’t count semi-sextiles or quincunxes here; although we can technically mark these as aspects, given their “unseen” nature, it’s better to say that there is no relationship between house IV and houses V, IX, XI, and III.  For similar reasons, because only one figure can only ever appear in any given house, there is no notion of conjunction in the geomantic House Chart (outside of perfection, of course, but that’s a different topic that I’ll bring up in a bit).

As a facile way of using aspects in geomantic interpretation (though it is useful when learning how to interpret aspects!), we could find every figure that makes an aspect to a particular significator and interpret them to get a whole lot of details about all possible things that are acting upon, influencing, or impelling the significator to act a particular way.  However, I find this to be a whole lot more than I care to deal with, and often provides more confused data than usable information, so I typically limit the use of aspects in my own geomantic practice to only two significators at a time, and even then, only when either one or both of the significators pass.  Consider that two houses may already be in a “fixed” aspect relationship by virtue of where they are.  Marriage, for instance, is always going to be represented in house VII, so in a query about marriage, it’s trivial and useless to say that the significators of querent and quesited are in an opposition aspect (houses I and VII), because opposition is inherent to the house of marriage, and therefore is more a subject for philosophical introspection on the subject in general rather than helpful divination and guidance in a particular matter involving the subject.  We can’t use the “real houses” of the significators for determining aspect alone, so we must use something else.

In the case where one of the significators passes elsewhere in the chart, it may form an aspect to the other significator based on the house the significator passes to in relation to the “real house” of the other significator.  Consider in the above House Chart a case where we’re investigating the topic of marriage, so we have house I (Via) representing the querent and house VII (Amissio) representing the marriage or spouse-to-be.  Via in house I and Amissio in house VII, in their own “real houses”, don’t make an aspect, but Amissio passes from house VII to house IX.  House IX is in aspect with house I, so we can say that Amissio (significator of the quesited in house VII) makes a sinister trine to Via (significator of the querent in house I) by means of house IX.  Thus, we can say that the spouse-to-be and the querent are in a good relationship together, characterized by quiet peace and modest harmony, possibly involving matters involving academia, spirituality, or foreign travel, especially on the part of the spouse-to-be and how they incorporate the querent into their own life.  The aspect here reveals what their relationship is like; how each of them are individually is determined more by the figures themselves.

So, in this more limited, exacting, and useful way of interpreting aspect in the geomantic House Chart, we can determine the relationship between two significators if one of them passes to a house that aspects the other in its own “real house”.  If one of them passes but into an averted house (a house that is one or five away from the “real house”), then there is no relationship, which can be interpreted either not at all (modern) or in the more dire unseen, uncontrolled, incommunicable way (traditional).  What happens if both figures pass elsewhere in the chart?  Say we have an example where, for another chart about marriage, Coniunctio in house I passes to house IX and Amissio in house VII passes to house III.  There are two aspects here: the significator of the querent makes a dexter sextile onto the significator of the quesited (house IX onto house VII), and likewise, the quesited makes a dexter sextile onto the querent (house III onto house I).  In this case, both significators pass, and there’s a third aspect being made here: the opposition between houses III and IX!  This aspect doesn’t involve either real house of the significators, but is still another relationship between the significators that needs to be accounted for.  This is where yet another dichotomy can come into play for us:

  • Direct aspect: an aspect made by one significator that passes elsewhere in the chart onto the real house of the other significator.  Indicates the direct, known, or intended effects one significator has upon the other.  Direct aspects (with the exception of opposition) will be either dexter or sinister, using the real house being aspected to as a point of orientation.
  • Indirect aspect: an aspect made by both significators from the houses each passes to onto the other, not involving the real houses of either significator.  Side effects that result from the actions and interactions of the significators, or emergent properties of their relationship that are unknown or unintended by either party.  Indirect aspects cannot be considered dexter or sinister since there is no direction inherent to them, since both figures pass equally.

Thus, in this relationship where Coniunctio and Amissio both have direct dexter sextiles upon each other with the indirect opposition between them, the querent and quesited generally get along pretty well as each opens up new doors for the other and provides glee and luck for each other, but there’s this nagging tension that seems to result as they get closer, this weird difficulty that leaves only a soft echo in the dark corners of their minds; their friends don’t seem to get along the longer they hang out, and there’s this weird unspoken division that both of them subconsciously work around.  That’s what an indirect aspect is: an emergent property or a side-effect of the actions and interactions of both parties acting upon each other.  It’s not always the case that an indirect aspect can be formed when both significators pass, but when one can, even if it’s a subtle or minor thing, it’s usually important enough to note because of how easy it is to overlook in the real world.

What about if one significator passes to multiple other houses, each of which aspects the real house of the other significator?  In this case, despite the confusion, it’s actually pretty straightforward: there are multiple aspects, so first interpret each one separately then see how they’re all connected and fit into a bigger picture.  In such a case, can the same significator make indirect aspects with itself?  No, it cannot; when considering two or more significators, an aspect must be made between two different significators so as to indicate a relationship.  A relationship indicates two distinct parties to relate to each other; just as a significator passing to another house cannot aspect its own real house, a significator passing to multiple houses cannot form an indirect aspect amongst its passing houses.  Rather, it’s better to analyze what that same significator is doing in so many houses, and how they’re all connected and fitting into the same overall or overarching action or set of actions, and how they all impact or influence the other significator both separately and in unison.

That’s what I do to use aspect in interpreting geomantic house charts; the technique is fairly straightforward, though there is a bit of nuance between dexter and sinister as well as direct and indirect.  So, why do I use aspect?  Aspect indicates a relationship between two significators that results in their actions one upon the other (not necessarily “upon each other!”) which can affect a particular situation as a whole, or offer more details into the specific nature of the two parties acting on their own or interacting with each other.  The keyword here is “relationship”; aspects indicate the existence and nature of relationships, if any, between the significators and, if one exists, how it plays out between the two significators.

What I do not use aspect for is as a type of perfection.  Perfection, as I’ve written about before, is a method of geomantic interpretation that uses the motion of the figures in the House Chart to determine whether a particular situation will happen (if the chart perfects) or won’t happen (if the chart denies perfection).  Both perfection and aspect utilize the passing of the significators with and around each other, but to my mind, I find that they are distinct techniques that answer fundamentally different questions of the geomantic chart.  This is something I disagree with JMG on; in his “Art and Practice of Geomancy”, he says that aspect functions as a weaker kind of perfection alongside the usual occupation, conjunction, mutation, and translation.  If the chart denies perfection, such that none of the four major kinds of perfection are present in the chart, then JMG says that beneficial aspects that are made between the significators can be used to affirm the chart, and negative aspects (along with no aspects, along with the outright denial from proper perfection) can be used to reinforce a denial in the chart, or to weaken another perfection.

In my experience, however, I haven’t seen this to be borne out, and so I don’t consider aspect-as-perfection as useful.  I’m familiar with the fact that perfection in horary astrology (which is where the whole idea of where perfection came from) uses aspects in order to accomplish its types of perfection: aspect made between the two significators, translation by a third faster-moving body making aspects to both, or collection by both significators making an aspect to a third slower-moving body.  However, we’ve departed from this by “tweaking” the understanding of perfection for the purposes of fitting it into a geomantic system; in this case, we really only consider conjunction (in the sense of one “body” identifying with the other, as in perfection by occupation, or going to meet another, as in perfection by conjunction or mutation).  We’ve broken the identification of perfection and aspect by limiting ourselves to a non-aspect type of passing.  Plus, although horary astrology has a number of ways where perfection can be denied based on the motion of other planets to interfere with the aspects being made or other astrological mishaps, there’s no such idea in geomantic perfection; the only way a geomantic chart can deny perfection is the absence of the four types of perfection.

While an argument can be made that “because perfection comes from astrology, and astrological perfection uses aspects, we should use aspects in geomantic perfection”, I would counter that since we’ve effectively come up with a new set of geomancy-specific rules that we only call “perfection” because although it accomplishes much the same aim in astrology, the methods are completely different and follow a different logic.  Perfection inspects how the figures pass irrespective of angular relationships between the significators, and is almost always sufficient to accurately answer the query.  If the chart perfects, the thing inquired will happen, and if the chart denies perfection, the thing inquired will not happen; that’s the end of the statement.  Perfection, as I’ve said before, only answers whether something will or won’t happen and, if it will happen, how it will be accomplished.  Aspect, on the other hand, answers to the existence and nature of relationships between different parties/events/situations.  Perfection answers the “what will happen” and “how”, while aspect answers “where” and “what kind”; aspect is well-suited to talk about the goodness or badness of something, but not to determining whether something will happen or not.

It can often be helpful to interpret perfection and aspect alongside each other to get a better grasp of the nature of a situation:

  • Perfection, no aspect: The situation will happen, but beyond the involvement of the parties in the situation, there is no other action being taken by either significator, or there are no side-effects or other intentions, or there are no other worlds/circles of work being pulled into the situation
  • Perfection, aspect by the quesited onto the querent: Will happen, and the quesited is producing an effect or engaging in a relationship with the querent
  • Perfection, aspect by the querent onto the quesited: Will happen, and the querent is producing an effect or engaging in a relationship with the quesited
  • Perfection, aspects by both significators onto each other: Will happen, and both significators are engaging in a relationship with each other, possibly with side-effects or emergent properties that they are unaware of
  • Perfection, good aspects: Will happen, and will turn out favorably for the significator(s) having good aspects made to it
  • Perfection, bad aspects: Will happen, and will turn out unfavorably for the significator(s) having bad aspects made to it
  • Perfection, both good and bad aspects: Will happen, but the result will be a mixed bag depending on the different effects and acts made upon the significator(s)
  • No perfection, … : All the above goes for all the “no perfection” situations, except the thing inquired about will not happen

In other words, this is just a fancier, aspect-specific version of the following chart I’ve used before when discussing perfection vs. favorability:

Good figures Bad figures
Chart perfects Will happen,
situation will turn out well
Will happen,
situation will turn out badly
Chart denies Will not happen,
situation will turn out well
Will not happen,
situation will turn out badly

Perfection and aspect are both useful techniques in geomancy, but I see them as answering different kinds of questions within a given chart.  If what you want to know is how good or bad something is, where a certain party is acting from onto a given situation or person, or what kinds of influences are upon a given situation or person, then aspect is a fantastic way to deduce the nature of relationships between different parties, if any should exist at all.  If what you want to know is whether something will happen or not, perfection is excellent.  Both can be combined to yield a well-rounded, detailed, and thorough answer, but I caution against confusing “niceness of a situation” with “accomplishment of intention”.  Just as I warn against confusing perfection with favorability, I warn against misusing or confusing aspect into saying something it may not be equipped to say.  While I understand why aspect can be used as a type of perfection, I find that it doesn’t often say anything that perfection already hasn’t said when it comes to the “will/won’t” question, and that it has much better and more detailed applications answering the questions about relationships between the significators, both on its own and alongside the technique of perfection.

 

The Nature of Trust of a Tool

One of my favorite songs by one of my favorite bands, “Elissa” by the Crüxshadows, has a particularly poignant bridge towards the end:

Everyone has a purpose
Hidden within our lives
Something we were meant to do
Or feel before we die

It’s not particularly hard to interpret this in a Hermetic or other occult sense, if you know anything about True Will or, said another way, divine destiny.  Everyone is, in some sense, a tool of the Divine or of the Almighty.  Everyone has something that we Chose and Want to accomplish in this world we find ourselves born in, something that only we can properly accomplish.  It’s not just anything, but a particular something that is the only Thing, the only Point or Cause, of our being incarnated here.  Everything we do in our lives is either essential development and build-up to attaining and maintaining that Thing, or nonessential window-dressing that can add flavor (either sweetness or bitterness) to that goal.  So long as we Work towards that Thing, no matter how roundabout or directly, we’re doing what we need to do; we might make it easier or harder for ourselves in the process, and we may very well get waylaid or misled on our paths, but the point still stands that there is a Thing that we must Do, and all that we Work towards is in service of that Thing.

I’ve brought up the idea before that, if we envision the whole grand scheme of things, the Cosmos, as a giant machine, then everyone is a gear in that machine.  So long as we keep on doing what we need to do, every part works in harmony with every other part, and the machine works well.  If even one part, however, gets out of sync or decides to revolt, then much of the rest of the system we find ourselves in can malfunction or break down, and other parts have to accommodate the malfunction until things get into proper working order again.  (This is why life isn’t perfect, I suppose.)  Kalagni of Blue Flame Magick once described this to me (in a discussion on True Will) as how a solar system works: the planets don’t need to think or plan or consciously strive towards orbiting the Sun, they just do it naturally as an expression of their selves and their purpose.  But imagine, dear reader, if a rogue planet suddenly whipped itself into our solar system, or worse, imagine if one of our own planets suddenly got a wild hare up its axis of rotation and jumped out of its orbit.  What happens?  The other planets get knocked out of their own orbits, potentially colliding with other planets or celestial bodies, and the whole system gets out of whack until it finds a new equilibrium to settle down in.  There’s no guarantee that this equilibrium will be equivalent to the previous one, or that the solar system as a whole will survive such an accident, but hey, shit happens.  The Cosmos will do what it needs to do in order to work out its own problems, and its our job to make sure that we do our own Work accordingly to handle our Will, regardless of what the vicissitudes of fate throw at us.

Rather than just thinking of ourselves as gears in a machine, however, consider this from another perspective: that we are tools in the hands of God.  Same idea, just a slightly different expression, but now we pick up other and different concerns.  Every tool is built so as to fix a particular problem: a hammer pushes things in, a crowbar gets things out, tape holds things together quickly but temporarily, glue holds things together over time but more permanently, and so forth.  Every tool has one particular job that it does well; it’s rare to find a true multipurpose tool, since a tool that tries to do many things equally well doesn’t do any particularly thing exceptionally well, especially when compared to a true single-purpose tool.  We each have a particular purpose, and we are the tool built to Work towards that purpose.  Finding what that purpose is (specifically or generally) can not only tell us what we need to do, but also tell us more about ourselves, what we were meant to do, and why we came into the world to do it.  A sword does not hammer in nails, and trying to use a sword as a hammer can result in chipped blades, bent nails, and an overall terrible job of doing something that probably was meant for someone else.

But there’s more to this metaphor of us being made as cosmic tools.  Tools must be properly maintained in order to do their job, either well or even passably.  Consider the sword (and for this, I suggest taking a short detour and reading Meti’s Sword Manual, a text written in service of my new favorite webcomic, Kill Six Billion Demons, which I think every occultist today should read and follow because it’s wonderful).  A sword must be kept oiled so as to prevent rust, out of extreme heat so that it does not warp, and sharpened so that it can actually cut; a sword is made for cutting, and so everything the sword does must be in service of that purpose, and the sword must be kept in a good condition so as to be able to accomplish that purpose.  Further, even when a sword is used to cut, it must be used in a proper way: trying to cut a hardwood tree or a stone will often yield a nicked, chipped, or broken blade, leaving it in a worse condition than it was before due to improper use; another tool for cutting of that specific type, such as an axe or a chisel, would be better, even though they all “cut” in some sense.  It is a combination of knowing both how to maintain a tool before it is used and when to use a tool that preserves the tool for when it is truly needed to do its job well.

Moreover, all a sword does is cut; it is a tool for cutting, and it does so without thought, leaving thought to the wielder of the sword.  A sword does not second-guess itself, and a sword does not make half-cuts or mock-cuts.  A sword cuts, just as its wielder intends for it to.  In the hands of a skilled swordsman, a sword can cut God; in the hands of an untrained one, a sword will cut everything except the intended target, usually the wielder himself.  The sword does not particularly care, because the sword’s purpose is not to plan how to cut, just to cut.  Happily, when we talk about Divinity, we can generally assume that God and the gods are Platonically capital-G Good, and therefore know what is Good and True, and therefore, as tools in their hands, we can have faith that they will not use us when we are not meant to be used.  It’s when we try to act on our own that we need to either have trust in ourselves to do what is right when it is right, or to abandon the situation entirely and avoid what should be avoided.  It’s when we take matters into our own hands, or leave ourselves to be put into the hands of anything less than Divinity, that we risk putting ourselves in harm’s way more than is absolutely necessary, and risk coming out all the worse for it.

How much trust do you put in yourself to know what is proper for you to do?  How can you trust yourself to do what is right and proper for you when the moment is called for?

I’ve been mulling over these problems over the past few days, and…well, it hasn’t been the most pleasant of self-conversations.  I admit that I enjoy dealing in absolutes as much as the next ceremonial magician (or, for that matter, human being with a finite consciousness that likes using rubrics and models of reality qua reality), and I would like to say that I trust myself to do what is right in all circumstances, that I am trustworthy to all.  To do so, however, would be a lie, and I can feel it singeing my heart whenever I even try to complete the thought of saying it.  I, myself, have done a number of regrettable, unfortunate, downright shitty things that I would like to say that I’ve put behind me, that I’ve learned from, that I’ve become better than.  And…the truth is, I haven’t.  I still beat myself up for some of the things I’ve done and said, as much as I try to forgive myself.  I still worry about slipping up again, about making the same mistakes, about committing the same crimes in the future and hurting those whom I hold dear, or myself, or my opportunities and chances for making myself better.  I fear that I’m going to be no better than I always have been, making the same excuses for the same bullshit that I would pull over and over again even given half a chance at it, even though I know better from my own experience that I should never have done them even once.

So, no, I can’t say that I trust myself as a rule, or that I trust myself in all situations to do what’s right in all cases where it’s called for.  I don’t see myself as trustworthy, and honestly, considering why others might consider me trustworthy makes me feel like an awful liar who’s mislead anyone and everyone who’s even cast an eye towards me.  And yet, I know that I have no immediate reason or way to betray these people, nor do I want to.  With even a little introspection, I know what can mislead me into a bad course of action, and what my triggers and temptations are, and I know that within a certain set of parameters, there’s neither any reason nor way to betray them, so I can be trusted, at least a little bit.  I’ve come to appreciate the saying “I trust them as far as I can throw them” in a more nuanced light; within a certain range of expectations and situations, I can be trustworthy, and I can claim to properly and rightfully hold trust, even for myself without that heart-singe, up to a point.  It’s beyond that point that I worry, because I know that if I were to go beyond such a point where it’s not just possible but probable for me to slip up, it’d be more difficult (not impossible!) to come out the other end without erring.

I can’t say that I absolutely trust myself, but I can say that I trust myself up to a point.  For most people, with whom my interactions are limited to a particular sphere of life or action, the points at which I can’t be trusted fall so far out of that sphere that there’s no need to consider me to be anything but trustworthy.  For others, though, the story changes.  I can be trusted with qualifications, and though I’d like to say I’m trustworthy without them, I can’t honestly say that.

While I accept that—mostly, and without the burn of telling a lie to myself—I’m not satisfied with it.  Far from it; while I wouldn’t go so far as to say that I hate myself for not being trustworthy across all cases and situations, I’m certainly not pleased with myself for it, and I want to make myself better.  I want to be able to do my Work without the distractions of regret, fear, worry, self-loathing, and that calls for either papering over the root cause and hoping it never rears its ugly head again (hah!), or actually doing the Work to improve myself to make my overall Work better without such distraction, as much as I am able.  As a sword, I must make sure that I am in the right condition to do my Work, and only limit myself to the range of Work that I am able to do in the form and condition I’m in; more than that, I must hone, tune, and strengthen myself to be able to push my limits, within which I am comfortable enough to work without distraction, and understand the areas into which I push my boundaries and limits.  If I am trustworthy only up to a point, by my own estimation, I need to push that point further so that I can become more trustworthy, and strive to not simply strut past it without care and end up wrecking myself or, worse, those around me.

Self-knowledge, either given to one by oracle or discovered through one’s own life, can hurt in the process of obtaining it.  But they who know more about themselves know how to live differently and better than if they had no such knowledge.  I know the situations in which I risk my own well-being, happiness, and success, and I stride into them at my own peril.  Dealing in absolutes as I do, the nebulous and unpredictable “being at risk of erring and not knowing how I would act” is tantamount to the definite “I will err”, and it’s safer to simply stay out of situations that I’ve been warned away from.  Should the case arise that I find myself in such a situation, it’d behoove me to find my way back out at my earliest convenience while keeping up my guard.  Still, I don’t want to be limited to this; even if the nature of my being is always to be temped by a particular set of things, there’s nothing saying I can’t strengthen myself to resist them all the more while also building myself up to avoid them at the same time.

A tool, in order to accomplish its purpose, must be in the right condition for it to be used; it must be built, maintained, and strengthened well, and having done so, it will serve a lifetime (or more) of wonders.  But a tool is only as useful as the skill of the one who wields it.  When we take ourselves into our own hands, regardless of whether that’s proper and right for us to do so, we must be sure to know how to condition the tool of our Selves as well as the limitations of use thereof, while always striving to increase our skill and reach of using the tool.  There may be upper limits to what we can accomplish, both as tool and wielder, but so long as we always strive to reach them, we’re doing all the Work we can in service of our Will.

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 the Three Biblical Magi as Spiritual Allies

So, Christmas has come and gone, but it’s still the Christmas season, more traditionally called Christmastide.  Surely, dear reader, if you’ve grown up in the Anglophone world, you’re familiar with that old carol The Twelve Days of Christmas, yes?  Many non-Catholics or non-traditional Christians think that these are referring to the twelve days leading up to Christmas Day, but it’s actually just the reverse; Christmastide begins at sunset on December 24 and ends at sunset on January 5, the evening before Epiphany, spanning twelve days in the process.  So, even though Christmas was this past Sunday, there’s still so much going on over the next few days:

  • December 25: Christmas
  • December 26: Feast of St. Stephen
  • December 28: Childermass, or Day of the Holy Innocents
  • January 1: Feast of the Circumcision of Christ, Solemnity of Mary Mother of God

All this culminates on January 6, the Feast of the Epiphany, also known as the Theophany.  Many modern Catholic churches celebrate this mass on the Sunday closest to January 6 (between January 2 and January 8), but I prefer to keep to the day itself instead of the archdiocese’s schedule.  This day celebrates the revelation of God through the mortal Jesus to the world, and most famously remembers the visitation of three special people to the babe in the manger.  When you think of a Nativity scene, with Mary and Joseph in the manger with Jesus in the crib of hay, what else comes to mind?  Gabriel above, perhaps, maybe alongside a bright star, and a number of shabby-looking nomads and herders around.  Among the crowd coming to see the newborn King, however, there are often three special people who stand tall amongst the rest.

Usually decked in flowing and elaborate robes and accompanied by at least one camel, the Three Kings are among the gatherers to witness and praise the newborn Son of God.  Also known as the Wise Men or Magi, this bit of Bible lore comes from Matthew 2:1–12:

After Jesus was born in Bethlehem in Judea, during the time of King Herod, Magi from the east came to Jerusalem and asked, “Where is the one who has been born king of the Jews? We saw his star when it rose and have come to worship him.”  When King Herod heard this he was disturbed, and all Jerusalem with him. When he had called together all the people’s chief priests and teachers of the law, he asked them where the Messiah was to be born. “In Bethlehem in Judea,” they replied, “for this is what the prophet has written:

“‘But you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah,
are by no means least among the rulers of Judah;
for out of you will come a ruler
who will shepherd my people Israel.’”

Then Herod called the Magi secretly and found out from them the exact time the star had appeared. He sent them to Bethlehem and said, “Go and search carefully for the child. As soon as you find him, report to me, so that I too may go and worship him.”

After they had heard the king, they went on their way, and the star they had seen when it rose went ahead of them until it stopped over the place where the child was. When they saw the star, they were overjoyed. On coming to the house, they saw the child with his mother Mary, and they bowed down and worshiped him. Then they opened their treasures and presented him with gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh. And having been warned in a dream not to go back to Herod, they returned to their country by another route.

In other words, at some point soon after the birth of Jesus (between 40 days and two years after the birth itself), several magi came from the East following a particularly interesting star that led them to Judaea so as to meet with the coming “king of the Jews”.  They met with Herod, the puppet king installed by the Romans who ruled Judea at the time, to ask him where the new ruler could be found; this promptly caused Herod and the other elite and aristocracy in Judea to freak out, due to the fragile balance of power and protection that Rome afforded Judea at the time (cf. later in Jesus’ life when he was being proclaimed to be king, which would have upset the power structure as a symbol of insurrection against Roman rule, and thus resulted in his crucifixion).  Herod, disguising his fear and plotting under a mask of reverence, tells the Magi what his advisers told him according to old Jewish prophecy: Bethlehem, the birthplace of the old King David.  Herod sent the Magi off to Bethlehem and told them to return and pass along where, specifically, the newborn ruler could be found so that Herod too could “go and worship him”, though he was going to have the God-child murdered instead.  The Magi left Herod’s, followed the Star of Bethlehem, and finally come to find Jesus with Mary (not necessarily in a manger at this point), and they presented their three gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh to him.  A dream was sent to them that warned them not to return to Herod, so they left Bethlehem and Judea generally by a different route entirely, declining to tell Herod where Jesus could be found; around this same time, Mary’s husband Joseph was similarly warned in a dream to flee to Egypt with his family.  And so the Magi went back to the East and Jesus et al. went to the West, as Herod realized that he had been duped by the Magi and ordered all boys in Bethlehem and the surrounding area under the age of two years old to be murdered.  Only once Herod died did Joseph receive another dream telling him to return to Israel, but we never hear of the Magi again in the Bible.  Traditions have surfaced since then that say that, due to their recognizing God in Jesus, they either professed a kind of proto-Christianity on the spot, or later willingly became full Christians after having encountered an apostle of Jesus; they were then martyred, possibly in the southern part of the Arabian Peninsula, and their remains were discovered by Saint Helena in Palestine and transported to the Church of Hagia Sophia in Constantinople, and eventually (by way of Milan and the Holy Roman Empire) to the Shrine of the Three Kings in the High Cathedral of Saint Peter in Cologne, Germany.

Although technically the Bible doesn’t specify exactly how many of the magi came to see Jesus, the nativity scene in Matthew explicitly lists three gifts, so it has become tradition for there to be three of them, one king bearing one gift each.  These gifts are gold, myrrh, and frankincense, each of which were (and are!) precious goods of no small price themselves, but also have spiritual symbolism regarding the prophesied life of Jesus as Messiah:

  • Gold, as one of the most recognizable precious metals, has always stood as a symbol of wealth, status, and royalty to many people across the world.  It is rare, and it adorns the bodies and palaces of those who have money and power enough to obtain it; I don’t think much explanation here is necessary.  Hermetic magicians know gold as a metal representing the perfection of body and spirit, but also that of the Sun’s might as it rules the solar system.  In the Three Kings story, gold is a symbol of Jesus as King, come to bring rule and dominion to the world as he establishes the Kingdom of God on Earth.
  • Frankincense is a bright yellow to white resin most famously used as an incense and an ingredient in anointing oils, and has mild psychotropic uses as an antidepressant.  It has a bright and vaguely citrusy smell, and has been used in religious rituals for thousands of years across the world.  In Semitic languages, its name reflects its white or milky nature, and Judaism has frankincense as a symbol of the Divine Name and an emblem of prayer generally.  Frankincense, in other words, indicates the presence and worship of the Divine.  Hermetic magicians know this to be an especially good substance for Solar works, but many grimoires and traditions say that frankincense may be used as a general incense for any ritual or spirit.  In the Three Kings story, frankincense is a symbol of Jesus as God, worthy of our veneration and praise and prayer, with frankincense burnt as a sacrifice to adore and worship God as Man.
  • Myrrh is a dark brown or black resin used in incense, medicine, and embalming of dead bodies.  Its name comes from Semitic languages meaning “bitter”, given its metallic bitterwseet aroma and taste, and has been used in medicine both as an antiseptic and a painkiller.  In Egypt, myrrh was used for embalming of mummies, and has had long-standing associations with death and the tomb, though it was also used as an anointing oil generally.  Famously, at the crucifixion of Jesus, Mark 15:23 describes Jesus as being given a drink of wine mixed with myrrh.  Hermetic magicians recall the association of myrrh as one of the plants and incenses associated with Saturn and the sephirah Binah, the third emanation of God.  In the Three Kings story, myrrh is a symbol of Jesus as Mortal, born human and destined to die as human, with a life full of pain, bitterness, sorrow, and suffering, with myrrh there to help him numb the pain in life and to protect the body in death.

Most traditionally, the three high-and-powerful guys who come to visit Jesus are known as magi, a Greek word that should be familiar to all my readers: each one of them was a μαγος, a magician-priest or (euphemistically) a “wise man” who knew the workings of the cosmos and how things come to be and how things can be used in this world to affect everything else.  Note that each of the gifts they brought not only have monetary value but spiritual value, as well.  They are giving the tools and supplies of their own magical and priestly trade to Jesus, not just as a “gift”, but as tribute; after all, one does not give their ruler a “gift”, since the ruler could just take what they want from their subjects as their own regal right, but one gives tribute to their king, showing that they owe all they have and could produce to the blessing of their ruler.  The Three Magi recognized Jesus as their ruler, even bowing down, kneeling, and worshiping him; they thus recognized that Jesus is the source of their power and their protection and salvation in the future.

It is important to note that the word μαγος had slightly different connotations than it does now.  In ancient Persia, the μαγοι were a specific caste of astronomer-priests, the same one that the prophet Zoroaster belonged to; these priests paid specific attention to astrology, and since astrology was (and is) considered one of the foremost sciences of the world, the μαγοι were not only priests but scientists.  They kept track of the passage of the planets and stars, and had a role to play in determining the lives of people in Persia, though the term is not synonymous with “king”.  Rather, the idea of the Three Magi being kings is one adopted from Old Testament prophecy, where it is described that all the kings of the world shall fall down and worship the Messiah.  With these three roles coming together—scientist of the world, priest of the soul, king of the people—we have the three routes of understanding and working with the world, and three types of elders who rule the world and the affairs of its people.  Thus, according to the Three Kings story, no matter what path in life one turns to, all paths lead to the selfsame Divinity.

The most common names for the Three Kings are Melchior, Balthazar, and Caspar, sometimes with small variants in the spellings.  As for their origins, there are two major traditions about where each king comes from:

  • The most traditional set of origins for the Three Kings has Melchior coming from Persia, Balthazar from either Babylon or Arabia (the two, historically, were not considered too different as large areas), and Caspar from India.  These are all, generally, to the East of old Judea, and are each considered ancient places of wisdom and learning befitting their status as “wise men” or Magi, though technically only one of them could be a true μαγος, with Melchior being the only Persian among them.  Still, astrology and priestly religions filled these regions, so to Jewish eyes, they would all be equivalent as noble heathenry.
  • In the Americas, especially in Latin American spiritual communities where the Three Kings are one of the more popular religious icons, they represent the three religious, spiritual, and occult traditions that came together to form the modern spiritual life in the Western hemisphere: Melchior represents the European or “white” religions, Balthazar the African or “black” religions, and Caspar the religions indigenous to the native inhabitants of the Americas.

It’s generally agreed-upon that Melchior is the king bearing gold, Balthazar myrrh, and Caspar frankincense.  As traditional iconography is often wont to do, each king has a set of color associated with them to make them easier to pick out when one can’t necessarily see the gifts they bring.  Additionally, by correspondence with each gift, not only can they be seen as emblems of the life of Jesus, but also as spiritual strengths that humanity is to exercise.  Plus, befitting their status as magicians, each can be tied to one of the three Hermetic arts of alchemy, astrology, and theurgy as suggested by the Emerald Tablet of Hermes Trismegistus:

King Origin Color Gift
Traditional New World Matter Symbol Strength Art
Melchior Persia Europe White
Gold
Gold Kingship Virtue Alchemy
Caspar India Indigenous Brown
Green
Frankincense Divinity Prayer Theurgy
Balthazar Babylon
Arabia
Africa Black
Purple
Myrrh Sacrifice Suffering Astrology

So why bring all this up?  Well, I have a small on-again-off-again practice with the Three Kings, and I figure, what with Epiphany coming up so soon, that perhaps it’s a good time to get the word out about them.  After all, much of modern Western occulture seems to either ignore or be ignorant of the Three Kings, when we have—literally hidden in plain sight—biblically attested and venerated magicians known the world over as purveyors of wisdom, power, grace, charity, and gifts.  Plus, with many of my colleagues working in various ATR, hoodoo, or other eclectic spiritual paths, I think many of us could benefit from this trio of eclectic magicians with a running work of two-thousand-plus years.

What can the Three Magi do for us?  Well, they’re magicians, scientists, priests, and kings.  Do you want to become any of these things?  Do you want to learn any of these disciplines?  Ask and ye shall receive!  If you consider the traditional origins of the Three Magi, you have a spiritual link to the old astrologers of Persia, the conjurers of Babylon, and the monks of India to learn from them, the ancient civilizations that even ancient Egypt considered to be wise; you have a mentor in each of the three Hermetic Arts of alchemy, astrology, and theurgy to guide and teach you as you want to grow and learn; these are masters of seeking what we are meant to find, our guides on the many paths up the mountain of Divinity.  If you’re involved in a diasporic ATR like Santeria or Umbanda, you have links to the three influences that culminate in your practice: European religion with Solomonic rituals, African gods and magic, and native or indigenous practices that still survive and breathe through these practices.  If you consider the role of the Three Kings as Santa-like dispensers of gifts and prosperity, then they become powerful friends who can help you obtain your desires and wishes.  As the first adorers of Christ, they represent pilgrims putting faith and working in their own disparate religions, coming together to uncover the One, the Source, the Whole that underlies all religions and practices.

How can we set up a space or shrine for the Three Magi?  Unfortunately, I haven’t found many resources in English on specific offerings, workings, or rituals one can do with them, but it’s not hard to guess for those who have worked with other saints or entities how to entreat and build a relationship with the Magi.  For setting up a shrine, you could do for the Three Magi what one might do for any Christian saint: get an image, such as statues or an icon, of the Three Kings, a candle, and a glass for liquid offerings, and set them up respectfully on a platform, shelf, or table.  I prefer to have a camel figurine with them, representing their own faithful steed who bears their burdens, and set out a smaller glass of water just for the camel, sometimes atop a bed of fresh cut grass as well.  For libations for the Three Kings, when not offering water, I suggest something very sweet: dessert wines, juice or fruit nectar with a bit of rum, maybe a fruity soda with some vodka.  Alternatively, one could offer three drinks together for each of the magi: one of water, one of juice, and one of wine.  You can burn a single candle for all Three Magi, and many botanicas or spiritual stores sell premade/dressed candles for this reason, but you can also set out three smaller candles as well, one for each.  Besides the images of the Three Kings and, perhaps, an image of a camel, I also incorporate a Star of Bethlehem into my shrine, hanging from above as the Three Kings look up adoringly at it.

So, what about prayers?  Again, being minor figures in Bible lore, there’s no wealth or treasure of prayers to the Three Magi like how there might be for, say, the Archangel Gabriel or Saint Cyprian of Antioch, but there are a few things I like to call on when working with the Three Magi.  Probably the most well known of all such texts is a common Christmastide carol that commemorates the Three Kings called, perhaps shockingly, We Three Kings, written by the Episcopalian rector John Henry Hopkins, Jr. in 1857.  It’s a lovely bit of minor-key music that recalls the quest, gifts, and symbolism of what the Three Kings brought to Jesus:

We three kings of Orient are
Bearing gifts we traverse afar
Field and fountain, moor and mountain
Following yonder star

(Refrain)
O Star of wonder, star of night

Star with royal beauty bright
Westward leading, still proceeding
Guide us to thy Perfect Light

Born a King on Bethlehem’s plain
Gold I bring to crown Him again
King forever, ceasing never
Over us all to reign

(Refrain)

Frankincense to offer have I
Incense owns a Deity nigh
Prayer and praising, all men raising
Worship Him, God most high

(Refrain)

Myrrh is mine, its bitter perfume
Breathes of life of gathering gloom
Sorrowing, sighing, bleeding, dying
Sealed in the stone-cold tomb

(Refrain)

Glorious now behold Him arise
King and God and Sacrifice
Alleluia, Alleluia
Sounds through the Earth and Skies

(Refrain)

There are many renditions of this carol, some more beautiful or haunting than others, which you can find on YouTube or sung at your local church or whatever this time of year.  The song itself is one I use frequently as an introductory prayer when approaching the Three Magi, and a good way to get into the mindset of working with them.  Beyond that, many of the usual prayers used for Epiphany refer to the Three Kings, and while they have special potency when used on Epiphany itself, they can be used at any time of the year.

In addition to doing once-off things, since Epiphany is coming up, why not a novena?  As you’re probably already aware, dear reader, novenas are nine-day sets of prayers done leading up to and completing on the feast of some saint or holy figure, and the Three Kings have their own novena for Epiphany, as well.  This would mean, then, that for the Feast of the Epiphany on January 6, novenas for Epiphany and the Three Kings should begin tomorrow, Thursday December 29.  The most common novena I can find is a fairly standard, easy Catholic one, with a short invocation to the Magi followed by a Gloria Patri, with the invocation for each day focusing on a different virtue of the Magi that the one performing the novena wishes to inculcate in themselves:

  1. Hope for the birth of the Messiah
  2. Speed and conviction to seek the Messiah
  3. Strength to persevere any difficulty for the sake of the Messiah
  4. Humility to seek help to find the Messiah
  5. Joy in the face of despair when lost finding the Messiah
  6. Faith in finding holiness amidst filth and poverty for the Messiah
  7. Charity, prayer, and penance as gifts for and tribute to the Messiah
  8. Protection from danger in staying true to the Messiah
  9. Attaining the beatific vision of the Divine as a result of one’s spiritual vows and believing in the Messiah

Instead of just that, however, since a novena takes place over nine days, since 9 = 3 × 3, and there are three gifts from Three Magi, I also figured that it might be good to explore the threefold symbolism of each gift of the Magi by means of a small meditation on each day, broken up into three groups of three:

  • Meditations of Melchior Bearing Gold
    • Day 1: Birth of Royalty in Squalor and Scorn.
    • Day 2: Crowning of Man in the World.
    • Day 3: Rulership over All.
  • Meditations of Caspar Bearing Frankincense
    • Day 4: Prayer of Man ascending to Heaven.
    • Day 5: Elevation of the Spirits of Mankind.
    • Day 6: Holiness of Divinity.
  • Meditations of Balthazar Bearing Myrrh
    • Day 7: Grief and Suffering in the Hearts of Mankind.
    • Day 8: Death and Entombing of Man in the World.
    • Day 9: Resurrection in the World into Heaven.

Also, it’s a tradition in some Catholic countries and communities to take a piece of chalk blessed on Epiphany and bless one’s house by it in a special formula.  Given the year XXYY (such that the year 2017 would have XX = 20 and YY = 17), one would write “XX + C + M + B + YY” (or, for this coming year, “20 + C + M + B + 17”) on the top threshold of the front door.  This calls on the three initials of the Magi and,  by it, asks them to bring gifts to the home for the new year just as they brought gifts to the new life of Jesus, but the letters also stand for the Latin phrase “Christus Mansionem Benedictat”, or “May Christ bless [this] home”.  Depending on the community, this is done sometimes by the local priest, sometimes by the head of the household, or sometimes by carolers specifically blessed and charged with playing out the role of the Three Kings for the community.  I do this for my own house, and leave up the chalk until the end of the year when I do my whole-house cleaning and cleansing, leaving the lintel bare until Epiphany.

While my own relationship with the Three Kings is still nascent, I plan on committing more time with them later on once my current spiritual projects and processes wind down, but I do like to give them focus this time of year regardless.  Perhaps later on, I’ll start compiling some of my ideas for workings, oils, and the like with the Three Kings for others to use, but right now, what I have is pretty bare.  What about you?  Do you work with the Three Kings?  If so, how do you work with them, and what are some of your experiences in working with them as spiritual saints?