Learning the Astragalomantic Oracular Verses

The way that astragalomancy works is pretty simple; Kostas Dervenis in his Oracle Bones Divination calls it the “Greek I Ching”, noting the similarity of the method.  Basically, what you do is you roll five knucklebones, or astragaloi, and you note the sides that come up.  The astragaloi act like four-sided dice, and each of the 56 different rolls you get (the order doesn’t matter) indicates a different outcome.  Each roll is associated with a particular godname and a matching oracular verse, not unlike grammatomancy (the methods are basically the same).  So, really, there’s little room for interpretation: roll the astragaloi, read the corresponding verse, and that’s your answer.  Expanding and meditating on the verse as it relates to the situation or the query is often necessary, but there’s little other inspiration to be had here, which is just as well.  I’m sure I can fit some more mystical aspects into it later, of course, but that’s later once I learn all the verses.

It’s learning the verses, however, that’s proving something of a struggle for me.  Each verse is four or five lines long, and there are 56 different verses.  Learning the one-line verses associated with the 24 letters of the Greek alphabet took a bit of time on its own, but that’s child’s play in comparison to this.  My memory may be good, but it’s not that good to just up and memorize a book’s worth of divination.  I want to be able, eventually, to pull out my astragaloi whenever needed and on the spot do a reading with them, which may mean that I won’t have a book of verses with me at any given moment, so I want to memorize them and know them by heart.  Getting there is hard, so I’m trying out different ways of learning them and comparing what I’ve done with other methods.

Geomancy, for instance, was easy because each set of meanings could be tied to a graphical form, the geomantic figure composed of four lines of one or two dots in each line.  Grammatomancy was easy because I had the 24 Greek letters as graphical forms to link their meanings and verses to, as well as the fact that the alphabet itself formed an index and acronym for the verses themselves (at least in Greek).  And, while I don’t know Tarot half as well as I probably should as a Hermetic magician, learning the symbolism could easily be done by association with the pretty pictures of the cards themselves (if I even bother to go that route, since the pictures lend themselves well to impromptu interpretation as they already are).    These all use some sort of graphical image as a symbol to which can be linked a referent, the verse or meaning; my mind plays well with these instead of just straight-up words or numbers.

Astragalomancy, however, is different; I’m just getting a set of numbers, a numeric ID, that gives me a particular verse and meaning.  It’s a different beast, and the lack of a distinct symbol bothers me.  The ID doesn’t register to my mind as a graphical image or a symbol in the same way a geomantic figure does, especially given the different forms it can take.  Consider the throw where you get two khion (1) throws, a hyption (3), a pranēs (4), and a kōon (6).  While I might write this down as 11346, there are 60 different permutations of this ID.  Add to it, the original sources don’t tend to list the numbers in a simple manner, so the actual ID of this is 43611 in the book!  While each verse begins with a description of the throw (in this case, “one four, one three, one six, and two ones: …”), that’s not helpful without me just up and memorizing all the verses by heart and running through them one by one until I get to the one I need, or until I get to the point where automatic recital of each verse is possible just from the start of each one (and, moreover, how each first line starts).  That takes time, and I’m trying to get up to speed as fast as possible with this.

Flashcards help, though, and I was able to link the sums of the throws to the Greek letters (one of the ways to do grammatomancy with astragaloi) in a day with this method.  For this, the online service Quizlet is amazing, and if you’re so interested, you can check out the sets of flashcards I’ve made for your own study.  Linking the throws to the letters involves summing up the sides of the astragaloi, however, and just observing the throws themselves isn’t a link I can make directly to the Greek letter just yet.  Over time, perhaps, as I regularly use the astragaloi it can happen, but I need that intermediate step first that detaches the throw to the Greek letter directly.  However, the way Quizlet works, you need to type in the answer to a given prompt more-or-less directly, and while it may be a useful activity for me to go through all the oracles themselves and make a one- or two-word summation of every verse, I haven’t gotten around to doing that just yet.  So, for me, the first step is to learn the throws of the astragaloi and how they associate with the different gods associated with each throw.

Still, that alone is difficult without some sort of pattern or method, and then I realized that I have a method for this.  Every software engineer is taught this method of “divide and conquer” (or, in Greek, διαίρει καὶ βασίλευε, diairei kai basileue), where you take a large problem and divide it up into smaller chunks that can more easily be solved, linking them all together in the end once they’re all good to go.  Looking at the astragalomantic throws, I realized that I can reorder the throws into a pattern that’s more numerically pleasing where there are 18 groups of 3 or 4 throws each, based partially on the Roman game of tali or knucklebones.  I group some of the smaller groups into larger ones based on the abstract number pattern linking them together:

  • Dogs and Vultures (all throws the same number, four possible throws)  e.g. 11111, 33333
  • Iacti Veneris + 1 (all four sides represented, four possible throws) e.g. 11346, 13446
  • 4X 1Y (four throws one side and last throw another, 12 possible throws with four groups of three based on X) e.g. 11113, 46666
  • 3X 2Y (three throws one side and two throws another, 12 possible throws with four groups of three based on X) e.g. 33444, 33666
  • 3X 1Y 1Z (three throws one side and two throws different, 12 possible throws with four groups of three based on X) e.g. 11134, 34446
  • 2X 2Y 1Z (two throws one side and two throws another and last throw another, 12 possible throws with four groups of three based on Z) e.g. 34466, 13344

Sure, it’s not exactly a traditional arrangement of the throws or a traditional way of enumerating them, but it works for me.  Every day I’ll study one or two more groups, learning what the pattern is and the throws of a similar pattern with different numbers, adding in the new rows to a Quizlet flashcard quiz and practicing it every hour or so until I build myself up enough to tackle the whole lot of 56 throws.  All in all, this isn’t a bad way to learn the basic associations of throws with the gods, and given my normal speed of memorization and learning, it’ll take about two or three weeks to learn all the associations of throws and gods comfortably enough that I can identify them at a glance.

Once I get the memorization of throws and gods down, and (if I deem it worthwhile) the memorization of the canonical order of the gods, then it’ll be time to link the association of throws and oracles down.  However, I plan on using the god-associations as a halfway point, so that I’ll actually be linking the oracle to the god and the god to the throw.  Thus, by recalling the god as a symbol, I can recall the oracle to which the symbol refers.  Learning each oracle will take more time than learning the god, since each verse also has to be memorized.  That said, I can speed up the process by learning the gist of each oracle first, then going back to learning the verses themselves, but we’ll see how I feel about that.  Given this, I expect it to take me two months or so of study and practice to memorize the verses, both by Quizlet and by constant use of the oracle to get me used to throwing the bones literally instead of just looking at flashcards.

How about you?  How do you learn a large block of information in a short period of time?  Are there any tips or tricks for memorization or recalling large amounts of information at once?

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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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