An Alternative System of Stoicheia

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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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.

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