A Critique of a Summary of Geomancy

Fellow ambler freemanpresson commented recently on a recent post on geomancy, asking if I had listened in on a recent show of Poke Runyon (a.k.a. Frater Thabion) about geomancy.  I had seen it before, but I didn’t have the time to listen in when it came out in April, and promptly forgot about it.  I listened to it once he reminded me, and although I found it interesting, I have more than a few bones to pick with how Poke Runyon describes geomancy and its history.  Granted, I don’t know much about Poke Runyon or his work, but these are a few of the things I’d argue (in order of his talking points in the show).  The following are my thoughts on what he’s saying, so if it appears unstructured, it’s meant to be read alongside listening to the show.

  • Geomancy can involve but does not require planets, planetary spirits, and the like.  They were later astrological add-ins to an already complete system that was practiced in the Sahara, and is still practiced in the forms of ifa and sikidy further south in Africa.  Although the house-based chart format of geomancy is popular, it was an astrological add-in as well, and the shield chart is still the most traditional and stable form of geomantic layout.
  • The system is called “geomancy” as a calque from an earlier Arabic phrase `ilm al-raml, or “science of the sand”, and then called “rabolion” in Byzantine Greek before it got its modern name.  Geomancy, as a desert art, was originally practiced by making sixteen lines of points in the sand, and is still done by some traditionalists in sand or soil, whether on the ground or in a special box made for the purpose.
  • Geomancy is not prehistoric or paleolithic.  The earliest writings we have from it are from the early 1000s A.D. from the Sahara and Middle East, and although some research has indicated the use of similar dot-forms to relate to planets or other phenomena, there is no indication that these were at all related to or an ancestor of geomancy (The astrological origin of Islamic geomancy, Wim van Binsbergen, 2004).
  • Agrippa’s Fourth Book of Occult Philosophy does have a significant section on geomancy, but I wouldn’t call it the primary text of modern geomancy.  Geomancy was well-known and well-established in Europe and the Middle East for centuries, and only started to fall out of the limelight due to what I contend to be two primary reasons: the Industrial Age with its focus on hard science, and the rise of Tarot, New Thought, and other occult systems of knowledge.  Various texts have survived, some in manuscript and some printed, that have helped geomancy survive, Agrippa only being a minor text among them.  Agrippa being a famous author handed down to us in the ceremonial and Hermetic traditions, however, did help geomancy stay alive in those traditions.
  • Honestly, I wish Poke Runyon chose a more updated selection of geomancy texts to choose from.  I haven’t gone over Israel Regardie’s A Practical Guide to Geomantic Divination, but I do own a copy of Stephen Skinner’s long-out-of-print The Oracle of Geomancy.  Both of these books came out in the 1970s, and a good deal more has come out on geomancy since then, including John Michael Greer’s book The Art and Practice of Geomancy and Stephen Skinner’s updates to his first book on geomancy, Terrestrial Astrology and Geomancy in Theory and Practice.  Donald Tyson’s commentary on the Fourth Book of Occult Philosophy is a good start and fairly thorough, though, but isn’t great on history if I recall rightly.
  • I don’t have an issue with Poke Runyon or the OTA having their own tradition of geomancy, and that sounds pretty awesome to me, really; heaven knows the art could use an influx of new methods and innovation!  But attributing Biblical or paleolithic origins to the art isn’t much better than attributing it to Hermes Trismegistus, Idris, Gabriel, Daniel, Mohammed, or other prophets or angels.  They may give geomancy a kind of spiritual authority, but it’s hardly a factual history.
  • Everything from the figures’ traditional names in the earliest Arabic writings reflecting a nomadic society to the right-to-left orientation of the figures indicates a Bedouin, Arabic, or otherwise nomadic Semitic origin.
  • Hermetic philosophy isn’t that old; although some people put Hermes Trismegistus as a contemporary of Moses, we don’t start seeing distinctly Hermetic ideas until after the rise of Platonism and Neoplatonism in the Roman Empire.  This still well predates any mention of geomancy in the historical record by a good five to nine hundred years at the earliest.
  • I don’t know much about Parzival, but that geomancy appears in literature throughout Europe doesn’t surprise me.  I know of two places it makes a cameo: in Dante’s Purgatory (canto XIX), and in Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales (Parson’s Tale).  It also appears in the Arabic of One Thousand and One Nights to find treasure, and Shakespeare used it for comic relief in some of his works.  Geomancy being second in popularity and authority only to astrology back in the day, I’ll bet it appears in a lot more literary works than these as well.
  • Granted that ifa and sikidy, African derivatives of geomancy, are very old, Oruban and Madagascan cultures indicate in their own historical records and stories that they got the art from what we would conclude to be Middle Eastern travelers, lending further support to the idea that it had a Saharan or Arabian Bedouin origin.
  • Although the I Ching and geomancy are superficially similar systems, they aren’t related.  For one, the I Ching is based into trigrams (three lines) or hexagrams (six lines), while geomancy has always been equivalently tetragrams (four lines).  For two, the I Ching is historically ancient, having written documentation stretching back to 500 B.C. in manuscript and as far back as the second millenium B.C. in composition, while geomancy has no such historical documentation.  For three, although there does exist a variety of I Ching symbols that have four lines with its origins around 2 BC, they also have three values for each line, in contrast to the two values for the classical trigrams and hexagrams of the I Ching and figures of geomancy: a solid line, a line broken once, and a line broken twice.
  • Two systems alone sharing a binary system of mathematics or development does not mean those systems are related.  Africa has a long history of using binary mathematics in writing, notation, and engineering, which again leads credence to an African/Saharan/Arabian origin (Bamana Sand Divination: Recursion in Ethnomathematics, Ron Eglash, American Anthropologist, New Series, Vol. 99, No. 1 (Mar., 1997), pp. 112-122).  Besides, binary systems of thought are helpful and can get one pretty far, but pose problems of their own that can’t be solved except by translating things into a trinary or n-ary system, or by reducing things to the One Thing, which is kinda hard to do if you’re not already Divine.
  • The placement of figures from the shield chart into the house chart depends on what specific method you’re using.  Poke Runyon suggests putting the first four figures (the Mother figures), into the cardinal houses of the house chart, then the next four (Daughters) into the succedent, and the next four (Nieces) into the cadent.  This, I believe, has its origins in the Golden Dawn methods, while traditional European methods (maybe Islamic/Arabian, I haven’t seen them use houses like how European geomancy uses houses) simply put the figures into the houses in the order of their generation: the first four figures into the first four houses, the next four into the next four, and so on.  This is a bit like quibbling over what house system to use in astrology (Placidus, Regiomantus, Koch, equal, etc.), so while not a bone to pick, I would just like to say that there are other ways of making the house chart.  Personally, I follow the sequential, traditional method.
  • The Judge figure is always there, not if the geomancer didn’t like the other figures.  It’s the figure after the Judge (called the sixteenth figure, the result of the result, the Reconciler, the Sentence, and so on) that isn’t always used depending on the geomancer.  Personally, I always use the Sentence, and insist that the Judge always be looked at no matter the query.
  • I know of one method that uses geomancy to make horoscopes (On Astrological Geomancy, Gerard of Cremona), but this is a very derivative method of geomancy that doesn’t make use of the traditional geomantic procedure.  It’s a neat system all the same, though.  Otherwise, I haven’t heard of people substituting geomancy entirely for astrology in any time period; although geomancy was considered “astrology’s little sister”, they’ve always been distinct, at least to the sources I can find.
  • Although divination with dice, especially that knucklebones, is definitely ancient, I strongly doubt that they were related to geomancy for reasons stated above.  Ifa uses shells or nuts to make their figures in a similar way, but this was probably an innovation on their part and not something passed down from paleolithic antiquity.
  • Urim and Thummim?  Er…really?  And fluorite crystals?  I’m really confused at this apparently random inclusion.  I get the connection of Urim and Thummim to cleromancy and divination (because that’s pretty clearly what they were used for), but their connection with geomancy is tenuous even given the best of times, especially given the lapse of time between the Temple Period of Israel and the documented use and development of geomancy.
  • Just because a single animal could produce a set of four hucklebones with four sides each (4d4, essentially) possible to be marked with simple dots and figures, I don’t see why this would indicate a connection with geomancy, especially considering the time frames Poke Runyon is talking about (ancient prehistory and medieval-modern occultism).  16 is the fourth power of two, and so is likely to come up in any system that involves the numbers 2, 4, or 8 (or any combination thereof, because math is awesome).
  • Using dice to do geomancy is well-attested, though, despite what I’m saying above.  Modern geomancers with connections to tabletop RPG players might use a d4, d6, d8, and d20 (related to the Platonic solids of fire, earth, air, and water, respectively).  I’ve seen racks of old dice that have four points in a square, three points in an upwards-pointing triangle, three points in a downwards-pointing triangle, and two points aligned vertically; two of these dice rolled and placed atop each other form a single geomantic figure.  Geomancy, being a binary system, is very adaptable to anything that can give a binary answer (heads/tails, even/odd, white/black, etc.).
  • One issue I find with Poke Runyon’s method of geomancy is that it restricts the number of possible charts drastically.  In traditional methods of making a geomantic chart, it is possible to have more than one figure appear amongst the Mothers; it’s even possible, though it’s a 1/32768 chance, to have all four Mothers be the same figure.  In his method, if I understand it right, you only have the possibility of one figure appearing once, and even then it’s restricted based on what figures are engraved together on the same die.  Although there are a total of 32768 possible geomantic charts (one of sixteen figures, one of sixteen figures, one of sixteen figures, one of sixteen figures), his method yields something like 256 (one of four possible figures, another of four different possible figures, another of four different possible figures, another of four different possible figures).  This is a major handicap.  Compare either of these to Tarot, where in a simple ten-card spread and ignoring reversed cards you may have  6.12344584 × 10103 possible spreads. Geomancy in its full style is sufficient enough to be adaptable to many situations, but not in Poke Runyon’s style, if I understand his method right.
  • It’s pretty clear in Biblical and historical records that the Urim and Thummim were not shewstones, but were used for cleromancy, even in the books of Exodus and Samuel; one possible etymology of their names effectively renders them to mean “guilty” or “innocent”, using them to show the truth of a certain legal or religious matter.  I’m unclear where he got the shewstone idea from.  I don’t know about the legitimacy of their shapes being octahedrons, so I can’t say anything on that, but I feel like that something like that would be reflected in Biblical or Talmudic texts.  Again, the link between geomancy and these divination stones is highly suspect to me.  Plus, fluorite crystals do give their names to the phenomenon of fluorescence, but they only glow under UV light, which was not really documented until the 1500s A.D.; their etymology comes from the Latin verb “to flow”, referring to their use in smelting and metalworks.
  • Geomancy does not give “nasty, brutal, and short” answers unless you’re reading an old text that has a list of answers for a given figure/figure combination or figure/house combination (like everything the Golden Dawn was using), and I’ve been able to tease out whole stories on all kinds of topics with it.  It’s down to earth and snarky, sure, because it still has its origins in the earth, but it’s by no means limited to strictly important yes/no queries.  However, it does function best with yes/no queries, filling in lots of details along the way with any number of techniques to determine the speed of resolution, favorability, interference, origins of concern, hidden resources and factors, intents and spiritually destined factors, and the like.
  • I do like his idea of ceremonial divination, calling upon the genius/spirit of a query (as sorted according to the planet it’s ruled by) and using a particular ceremonial setup for divination; John Michael Greer suggests something similar as one valid and potent means of divination, too, in his works.  However, that’s hardly how most people function, especially most people involved with magic and divination today (freeform, neopagan, chaotes, etc.).  I hardly use a ceremonial framework; I might stick to using days and hours of Mercury or Saturn for divination and call on Tiriel, the intelligence (not spirit!) of Mercury, for help, but that’s about it.  With or without the timing or spiritual aid of Tiriel, though, I’ve gotten pretty consistent and accurate answers for years now.  Read up on the methods available and pick what method appeals to you most.
  • Carcer ruled by Mercury?  Puella ruled by the Moon?  What on earth has he been reading from?  I’ve seen Carcer attributed to Saturn or the Moon, but Puella only ever by Venus; I know of two distinct methods of attributing the figures to the planets, but whatever one Poke Runyon is using is definitely not among them.
  • The resolution of the query found in the house opposite the significator?  The seventh house is in opposition to the second?  Now I’m really confused, guys.  I’ll grant the first as a quirk of his particular method of geomantic divination, but the second is just plain wrong unless he’s using a ten-house chart (which isn’t attested anywhere).
  • I fully agree when he says that queries should always be “brief, simple, direct, and practical”.  This is how any divination should be posed, no matter the method or diviner.  A good third of the time I spend with clients myself, I spend on refining the query so that it makes sense with a definite answer.  The more detail in the query, the more detailed the answer; the vaguer the query, the vaguer the answer.
  • “In those days, astrological malefics were much, much more malefic than they are today, as any astrologer will tell you.”  Uh…no.  Unless he’s referring to the perceptions of them, no.  Saturn sucks.  Mars sucks.  The Tail of the Dragon sucks.  Generally.  They’re favorable for some queries, yes, but more often than not they’re inimical to what humans like.  That hasn’t really changed in the few hundred years since this has been going on; that’s like saying our brains have dramatically increased or decreased in functionality in the past few decades or so.  No.  “Modern interpretations” require a modern restructuring and reevaluation of the entire system; you’d risk muddling the system with meaninglessness.  Saying Carcer represents delays and restriction is fine, because it does; saying it’s going to help you out in matters in which you need speed and freedom is a lie. 
  • Although Poke Runyon says otherwise, the Judge was always used and always referred to as the answer of the query.  I’ve never heard this being done in any other way in any source; it wasn’t a conditional thing to be used in case the rest of the chart was confused or unfavorable.
  • When Poke Runyon says “traditional geomancy”, I think he’s referring more to the generation of the Mothers (a stick and sand, a pen and paper, etc.).  The generation of the Mothers can be done in any way that involves a binary process or that gives figures in their entirety; I myself use a deck of geomancy cards I made with 64 cards, four cards per figure, and Poke Runyon mentions Paul Huson’s method of popsicle sticks and another method of Regardie’s.  I’ve even read of people counting the eyes on sixteen potatoes plucked from a field, which is about as earthy as you can get.
  • Granted the saying “different strokes for different folks”, I can claim my own experience with traditional geomancy as being highly in favor of its accuracy.  Since I’ve never used Poke Runyon’s method of ceremonial geomancy, I can’t say much about its accuracy, but I’ve noted above a few things awry with either it or my interpretation/his explanation of it.
  • Oh lord, incorporating the dreidle (those Chanukah tops) into all this?  It’s a children’s gambling game made to make the Jewish equivalent of a Biblically-mandated V-Day more fun while the parents are praying and getting sloshed.  That’s distinctly not related to the Urim and Thummim, and certainly not to geomancy.
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About polyphanes
I'm a software developer and Hermetic occultist living near Washington, DC, USA. I claim that I'm youthful, dashing, daring, and other things. I make things and chant stuff, and periodically write about them.

12 Responses to A Critique of a Summary of Geomancy

  1. Well, well, that’s a mouthful, make no mistake. You have obviously done your homework, big-time. I read JMG’s book and Hartmann’s on Geomancy, and then shelved it for later study. I’m a bit overawed by just how many tunnels there are in this Hermetic rabbit-hole …

    You’ll notice over several of those podcasts that Poke has a grandly arcing Romantic magical narrative that dips in and out of “academic respectability.” Since that isn’t its purpose, I don’t get too involved in picking at the details.

    “I wish Poke Runyon chose a more updated selection of geomancy texts …” I totally agree. He has a tendency to point us to expensive & OOP books, too; but many of them are gems.

    “Hermetic philosophy isn’t that old …” Actually, there’s current scholarship that ties it in to some pretty old Egyptian source material (roll over, Casaubon ;-). See _The Hermetic Link_ by Jacob Slavenburg for example (review at http://freemanpresson.wordpress.com/2012/05/23/review-the-hermetic-link-slavenburg/).

    ” … it restricts the number of possible charts drastically.” I noticed that, too. Like you, I am not completely sure I understood the method. By the way, 4 figures = 16 lines = 65536 possible readings, not 32768.

    “‘In those days, astrological malefics were much, much more malefic than they are today, as any astrologer will tell you.’ Uh…no. Unless he’s referring to the perceptions of them, no. ” But that’s exactly what he was saying (and you can get a detailed rant on this from Chris Warnock, among other “trads” [in short]): modern astrologers have explained away most of the malefic elements; that’s why they have to have Mercury retrograde be the end of the world.

    • polyphanes says:

      Thanks for catching the math error! I was wondering why the number seemed off to me.

      Granted that Hermetic philosophy has very ancient roots, those roots are themselves not Hermetic notwithstanding they’re both true. Truth is eternal; the way its phrased is temporary. What we recognize nowadays as “Hermeticism” is heavily based on Neoplatonism, which is in the classical, not antique, era.

  2. Originally, the reason I liked the general idea of doing a casting on the house chart is that the operations on the shield chart, beyond filling in the Mothers, are monkey-puzzle. Every bit (pun intended) of it is arithmetically determined by the Mothers, and so adds exactly zero information to whatever interpretation is possible based on them.

    • polyphanes says:

      Totally correct, though I don’t think it’s that hard; it’s a simple exercise in recursion and matrix transformation, which are both trivial operations. But then, casting the Mothers is the same as casting the entire chart; the interconnections show that nothing is really independent of anything else. I think it’s helpful, while not being far too unwieldy or huge of a divination system.

  3. Pingback: An Overview of Geomantic Literature « The Digital Ambler

  4. Poke Runyon says:

    The person who wrote the above review should have read the article in the Seventh Ray on which the radio broadcast was based. If so he would have learned about the origin of “Astrea”, the original huckle dice with sixteen surfaces, the curious configuration of flourite crystals, the incredible age of binary notation, and the scholarly work “Hermetic Sources of the Pasifal” by Kahane and Kahane, just to hit the highlights. A form of proto Geomancy was probably paleliolithic, and “casting the bones” is one of the oldest forms of divination known to man. Our Geomancy system is very effective and elegant compared to the dubious and inelegant “counting of pencil marks.” We have a system that works in a ceremonial setting. But I suppose someone who is not interested in practical magick could justify such a critique on very fact that we have dared to modify an old system for practical use in a ritual setting.

    Poke Runyon

    • RO says:

      Poke, while your work is prolific and useful for a lot of people, the critiques of your broadcast presented above are all valid and verifiable using really basic 8th-grade research paper techniques. If you’re saying “all random number generation techniques are geomancy,” you’re, uhm, exagerrating to say the least. Geomancy is an elegant and nuanced form of the “random number generation as divinatory tool” systems, but all forms of random number generation, I’m sure you’ll agree, are not “Geomancy.” The word itself is not a kingdom, phylum, class, order, or genus, it’s a species.

      Your conclusion that the author is “not interested in practical magick” is as erudite and accurate as your presentation on geomancy. Apparently you applied the same degree of research into Polyphanes’ history, experience, interest, and application of Hermetic arts as you did with geomancy? You can do better than that.

      Responding to criticism with this kind of brusque malfeasance is a great way to not learn anything because you obviously already know everything. I’m sure you’re spiritually evolved enough to recognize that critiques are useful because they point out flaws that can be corrected, and are not condemnations of your entire self and existence upon the Earth. Defending errors demonstrates an inability to overcome them.

      I think your biggest error was being imprecise in your expression of your research and conclusions, and the reason your errors were caught here is because Polyphanes actually has studied, extensively, the sytem, history, and application of the system known as “geomancy,” while you presented a readily consumable newage version thereof.

      The graceful response would have been, “Thanks for pointing out my imprecision of terms, I’ll try to express my conclusions more accurately in the future.” followed by an explanation of the fact that you were speaking in gross generalities to make a specific point, and maybe a nod towards “audience and purpose” to explain that the people who buy your work are generally not exposed to actual historical research performed by themselves using such advanced techniques as “googling,” “wikipedia,” and “reviewing original sources.”

      You’re in danger of missing the obvious fact that Polyphanes is the next-gen version of real magicians doing real magic. You were the groundbreaker of your day, but folks like you get real obsolete real quick when you can’t adapt to new and more accurate information coming in.

      If you don’t change your approach and your reaction responses, you’ll become a forgotten footnote and your legitimate contributions to the art and sciences of the occult will be as lost to posterity as the risible and ridiculed Lisiewski’s… although he at least admitted he exagerrated and made up the results he claimed that made so many grimoire fundamentalists interested in physical manifestations.

      Critiques are not personal attacks, they’re indications of correctable inadequacies in your presentation.

      Review, revise, rewrite… refine… like in alchemy.

  5. Mark Stavish says:

    RO. Could you please source your comment that [Dr. Joseph] Lisiewski …although at least he admitted he exagerrated and made up the results he claimed that made so many grimoire fundamentalists interested in physical manifestations.” Thank you.

  6. Mark Stavish says:

    RO: I am not certain if your reply is sarcasm or serious. I am asking that a source be given for the above statement, as it implies a written or recorded statement by Dr. Joseph Lisiewski stating “exaggeration” of the facts. This is simply the same as you have asked of others to give sources. Forgive me if I misinterpret your reply, “8th grade research is time consuming”. Thank you.

    • RO says:

      Mr. Stavish, I’m pointing out that my own standards applied to myself are time consuming. I’m looking up where I heard the anecdote and tracking down actual resources as we, uh, type. Google has been useless so far.

      I saw this info in a post to a facebook group that referenced the exagerrations of his experiences, an interview if I’m remembering right, but that group has disbanded and I’m left to asking others who were members if they have any links or resources I didn’t record at the time.

      He indicated he had combined the experiences of several rites that weren’t that imressive in and of themselves in his descriptions to make a more impressive impact. One rite might include hearing noises, another may involve scents and palpable feelings, and yet another strong “visual” experiences, but the record he presented in his books was a merging of all the separate occurences in a single rite.

      His writings set the bar pretty high, and were presented as if it were a real formula, “Follow the directions, get these results.” The article/interview/reference I am remembering indicated it wasn’t an all-at-once thing, which is much more in keeping with my personal experiences. As soon as I can track it back to original sources, I will post the results.

  7. Pingback: Generating Geomantic Figures | The Digital Ambler

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