How to Learn a New System (of Anything)
December 6, 2012 4 Comments
By now, it might be apparent to most of my readers that I’m a student and practitioner of geomancy. And, while I don’t mean to brag, I also wouldn’t be too far from the truth to say that I’m one of the most experienced geomancers this half of the Mississippi (though, given the dearth of modern geomancers, that’s not a terribly difficult claim to make). Geomancy is an interesting system that works really well with a lot of Western occult traditions, has been called the little sister of astrology by past occultists, and predates Tarot by centuries. It’s a pretty nifty system and style of divination, I claim, and is made all the more fascinating by its mythological Hermetic and historical Saharan origins.
However, it’s just one system of divination out there, and there are many. Western occultists, including most modern ceremonial magicians and neopagans, often use Tarot, astrology, and runes as their first and preferred divination systems, for instance, and that’s to say nothing of the various different kinds of *mancies that have arisen across the world since time immemorial. Just as in any other system of thought or practice, we tend to be biased towards the first system we learn; speakers of foreign languages tend to retain their native language’s phonology inventory and retain an accent, programmers raised to use one programming paradigm try to fit other paradigms into their own, and so forth. This is just the same as in magic and divination, but the risk to holding onto our “first taught, always retained” biases is somewhat greater than awkward sentence structure.
Consider a person who really likes using the Elder Futhark as a divination means, and who is then interested in geomancy. The angular, point-based structure of geomancy may intrigue them, say, and the shapes the points of geomantic figures make when connected may resemble runes to some people. Naturally, being intimately familiar with the symbology and meanings of the runes of Elder Futhark, the rune diviner will try to relate their cosmos to the 24 runes first before considering the 16 geomantic figures. However, the mapping is not always clean or consistent; the geomantic figure Amissio has a similar graphical structure to the Futhark rune othala, which may lead one to think that they have similar divinatory meanings. However, consider what they mean:
- In geomancy, Amissio refers to loss in all its meanings: things are gone, going away, taken away, stolen, out of reach, missing, misplaced, left behind, waning, subsiding, or decreasing. It is beneficial in romance (losing one’s heart to another) and in illness (getting rid of a cold instead of catching one), but is generally unfortunate in all other situations (since humanity likes to keep, gain, or increase things instead of the opposite).
- In the Elder Futhark, Othala refers to ancestral property and all that it entails: inheritance, history, culture, wealth, things of value and importance on a spiritual or sentimental level, safety, increase, and abundance.
Despite the graphical similarities, Amissio and Othala are two entirely different symbols meaning almost the exact opposite meanings; further, Amissio’s inverse figure Acquisitio (Gain) and Othala reversed (or merkstave Othala) also mean almost the exact the opposite things. After all, geomancy has its origins thousands of miles, hundreds of years, and many cultures away from the birth of runes, with different attributions, uses, and correspondences drawn between their figures and symbols in other systems.
Although drawing correspondences between different systems or styles of thought is often helpful, it can’t be done on such a superficial level. Moreover, you can’t simply translate things from one system to another without taking into account how they were formed and how they’re actually being used. For instance, although Mars is often seen as the planet of war, in Mesoamerican cultures, it was Venus that fulfilled the same role due to different circumstances and perceptions on the same exact planet and celestial object. Whole systems need to be treated as such until they’re learned intimately and deeply enough to be blended when and where appropriate. This is the big complaint that some traditional astrologers (especially Christopher Warnock) have with people learning their systems when coming from a modern viewpoint, and I agree with them most of the way.
Am I saying you can’t draw connections between disparate systems of knowledge? Heavens above and hells below, no! I’m saying that you need to be smart and thoroughly learn a system in its entirety from scratch and first principles before trying to relate it to another system. Without starting from scratch and learning how a beginner would in that own system, thinking that you know enough of your own to bust headlong into a new, radically different system will only lead to failure. It’s like the Athenian and Chinese scientists in Richard Garfinkle’s book “Celestial Matters” (which I think should be highly recommended reading for most Western occultists); each is familiar with their own system of elements, medicine, alchemy, and astrology, but when faced with that of another, they find nothing but confusion and difficulty because they haven’t actually bothered to learn how the other system works. They kept trying to overlay an entirely foreign system of thought with their own, which just doesn’t work. In much the same way, it’s like trying to understand the Basque language using an English grammar book, or the symbols of geomancy using runic divination.