The Spiritual Origin of Geomancy
March 24, 2015 6 Comments
It occurs to me that I talk a fair bit about geomancy, and on occasion have briefly described the factual history of the art. Geomancy, as it is understood by scholars and historians, has no pinpointed origin as yet; the best we can guess at is that the art was developed roughly around 900 CE likely in the northeast Saharan region of Africa. It was likely innovated by migrant tribes, perhaps merchants from further east or by Tuaregs or other Bedouin-esque peoples, as a form of divination that connected with simple mathematics. It got caught up in Arabic trade routes that synced up with the expansion of Islam, and spread pretty much all over from there: west to Morocco, southwest to Nigera where it became ifá, south to Madagascar where it became sikidy, and east to Palestine and Arabia where it became raml, and even further to India where it became ramalashastra. When medieval Europe began its academic discovery and recovery that we call the Renaissance, around 1100 CE, it began to import academic, spiritual, alchemical, and divinatory texts from the Arabic world from two directions: from western Morocco into Spain where this new art was called “geomancia”, and from eastern Palestine and Turkey into Greece where it was called “rabolion”. From these two fonts came a new river of geomantic knowledge that spread quickly throughout the rest of Europe within the span of a hundred years or so. From there, it quickly became one of the foremost spiritual arts of Europe and maintained its place for another six hundred years, only beginning to fade and go underground with the coming of the Enlightenment and Industrial Revolution. As older texts began to be rediscovered yet again, many parts of the Western mystery tradition became reintegrated into modern practice, geomancy with them, and here we are today.
While it’s nice for an academic, it’s hollow as a spiritual story to tell. Happily, many of the older geomantic works, especially in the Arabic tradition but with no small number of European texts joining in, give us a spiritual origin story for geomancy, usually originating with Adam, Enoch, Idris, Daniel, or Hermes Trismegistus and usually from the angel Gabriel. So, on this day, the fourth day of the tenth lunar month that is the yearly Hermaia, as an offering to Hermes celebrating his joy and work in our world, I figure I’d share my retelling of the spiritual origin of geomancy. What follows isn’t exactly original, but it’s not exactly a rehash, either. Have a seat and pour yourself and Hermes a drink, dear reader, and let me tell you a tale.
May the Muses smile on me and help me share this story well.
As was his custom, he was sitting outside under his favorite tree during the height of the Sun’s path through the skies. Not part of the local priesthood but taught some two week’s sojourn north along the Nile, the man with the thin neck and long nose wore his usual habit of loose-fitting white robes to keep himself cool during the summer heat. His tree was on the barren outskirts of an old city, a sacred one dedicated to the Eight who made and rule the world, the scribe-god Thoth foremost among them, but although the man was well-acquainted with the local festivals and religion, he was more focused on divinity itself rather than that of any particular temple.
Alas, the day when the man would see the one who calls himself Shepherd of Men would be still far off, but the man hoped every day that that day would be this one. On that day, he would begin to be called Thrice-Great by countless students. For now, he just bears the name Hermes as some foreign god does, as yet unaware of his own divine nature but more attuned to the ebb and flow of power and life in the world than most.
It was under his favorite tree that the man would look at the distant roads and marketplaces, too far off to hear but kept in eyesight by the harsh light of the Sun. The tree was hardy, able to survive in rough winds as well as in parched earth, and had the benefit of offering good shade to the man especially when the Sun’s heat would be otherwise unbearable. Almost nobody came out this way to bother him, far off as the tree was without a nearby road, which gave the man good time and space to think. When he could, the man would meditate, contemplating whatever mystery snagged his intellect on any given day, but being human, he would sometimes suffer hunger or thirst or lust. Not seeing these as bad things but not wanting to indulge in them, the man would keep himself distracted by reciting prayers, analyzing interesting rocks, gazing at the stars, and conversing with the rare passer-by when one happened to wander out this way for grazing or travel to the next market. Anything he could learn, he figured, would help him eventually; even if he couldn’t yet directly know God, he could always know more about the creations and creatures around him.
It was on one such day that the man was slightly more perturbed than he usually was by worldly concerns. He had family, and although he cared for them as much as a solitary philosopher could, he wasn’t always in the best contact with them. One of his sons had a propensity for spiritual development as much as he did, but his other children were better suited to buying and selling. One such son of his traveled far and wide, well out of the Black Land, and it was a rare day indeed that the man ever got word from him. Whether it was a fear of having an empty nest or having grass-is-greener syndrome from seeing a successful youth exploring the world, the man was more distracted than usual in the shade and couldn’t fully focus on his usual contemplation. Thought leaped to thought as he went from his son to his children to his own fatherhood to his own father to his own home. It didn’t help that he felt like he should only be a part of this world without being of the world, but his worries kept overriding that spiritual calling.
Resorting to habit, the man looked around him and noticed the wind calmer than it should be for this time of year, the land quieter than it had been this week, the Sun brighter than he thought it could ever be. Nothing around him to take his mind off his son, the man resorted to the earth underneath him and grasped a handful of the loose, sandy dirt under his knees and held it. He felt the grit, the dryness, the coolness, the crumbliness of the dirt, feeling this handful of soil as if his palm was all he had of sense. Curious, he tossed it away from him into the air, noting how the particles of dirt traveled through the air in near-perfect arcs, the gleam and glimmer of pulverized crystal and silica shining bright once it crossed the threshold of shade into the realm of light, the smell of dry barely-fertile dirt filling the air. He began to cough and his eyes began to water as some of the dirt suddenly flew back into his face from a strong wind that came out of nowhere. That wind caught him off-guard, and the pain in his dusty lungs snapped him back to the present and the place where he sat.
Once he could see clearly again, he wiped off the cough-spittle from his mouth and looked around him. The dirt he threw covered the ground, smoothed out by the wind, leaving him with a blank space before him that nearly begged to have something, anything, upon it. Feeling somewhat out of himself from the cough, like he had just awoken from a nap, he leaned forward and dipped his fingers into the flat earth before him. A dot here, a mark there, a trailing line from letting his arm rest before pulling it back. He recalled some of his education as a child in being taught simple numbers and parts of numbers, and from that memory, treated some of the marks he made as mathematical forms. He heard that, once, some teacher visiting from the far north across the Sea, the only non-Egyptian who had ever been taught by the priesthood of home, was saying something like numbers were life and all was number, but this man never really understood that kind of thing. Numbers were numbers and couldn’t eat or fight or mate, just like the lines and marks he was making before him on the dirt.
Another wind came up, this time from the opposite direction. Again surprised, the man looked around himself; the sky was unchanged, the Sun barely moved, no storms on the horizon. There should’ve been no cause for this wind, considering the time of year; this meteorological puzzle would have eaten at his mind more, but he glanced down and saw that the land before him was smoothed out by the wind again, as if the marks he had made were never made at all. Frowning, he began to consider the benefit of just going home and returning to housekeeping if going outside was going to be so uncooperative. Another spasm shot through his lungs from the dust he inhaled, making him cough again.
The man jumped. Opening his eyes, wiping tears from his face with a dusty hand, he looked around and saw someone standing a few yards off from him under the light of the Sun. The man saw a placid face atop loose robes of white and blue, nearly blending into the sky and sand behind him. Unsure if it was a trick of the tears in his eyes and the light of the Sun, Hermes blinked several times before letting his eyes fix on the stranger. No sound of approach, no previous call to him, unusually-colored clothes, coming from the direct direction as the noontime Sun? This was something stranger than Hermes was used to for an average day under his tree.
Seeing confusion flicker across Hermes’ face, the stranger gave an apologetic smile and slowly took a few steps towards the shade. “Sorry for giving you a scare. I was going to my father’s house, and was curious to see what someone was doing under this lonely tree.”
Hermes, taking comfort in the stranger’s voice that had an odd lilting quality to it, smiled back and waved away the apology. “No worries. I think a lot here. You just gave me a bit of a startle, no worries.”
The stranger looked around and smirked. “I take it you don’t get much company out this way. Mind if I join you? The Sun is bright today.”
“Of course, of course! I don’t deny anyone the pleasure of shade here. Come, have a seat.” Hermes waved the stranger over, emitting one last, small cough before the stranger could begin another conversation.
“Thank you.” The stranger entered the shade and sat down gracefully a few paces from Hermes. Hermes didn’t notice that the stranger’s footsteps weren’t marking the ground, but was still looking around, still half-wondering where that last wind came from. As the stranger sat down, Hermes opened his mouth to begin his usual niceties to greet passers-by when he caught the stranger’s eyes looking directly into his own. Hermes stopped short of making any kind of utterance; the piercing quality of the stranger’s eyes seemed like pure fire, and his skin seemed to glow from something more than the Sun’s heat.
The stranger took this opportunity of awe and silence from Hermes and leaned forward curiously. “Before I surprised you, I noticed you were drawing in the sand. I take it you’ve studied letters?” Hermes nodded, confusion mixing with his awe. The stranger smiled enthusiastically. “Good! It always gladdens me to find another soul schooled in that art. Mind if I ask what you were writing?”
Hermes snapped to his senses and shook himself out of his awestruck confusion. “Ah, er, nothing, really. Not letters, more like numbers. I was clearing my mind and letting my hands do their own thing.” Hermes grinned with some embarrassment, wiggling his fingers as if to show they thought on their own.
The stranger let out a casual scoff. “Come now. Surely one studied such as yourself should know that all forms are valuable. After all, sometimes the most true meaning can come from pure accident.” Hermes nodded with a shrug, not sure what the stranger was getting at but feeling something nagging at his mind in that general, vague sentiment. “If it’s not too presumptuous of me, I noticed an interesting thing from afar. Would you show me some of the marks you made?” The stranger tilted his head coyly, but Hermes didn’t catch what the stranger was getting at.
“Er…okay. It wasn’t much, just a few dots in a row like this.” Hermes leaned forward and made four small dots in the sand, one atop each other in a stack. “I recognize this as a particular way to write a particular number, but little else. Like I said, I was just idly clearing my mind.”
The stranger looked down and chewed his lip thoughtfully before glancing up. “True, but numbers are true, too. Simple though it might look, I know of this symbol as an omen. Look at it this way; if you link the dots here”—Gabriel made a light cut down the row of dots in the dirt—”you get a straight, long line, like a road. Roads are powerful, long though they may be, and the longer, the better. Don’t you agree?” Hermes let the stranger’s words sink in a bit, looking down at the dots and looking up again. “Absolutely,” Hermes replied, “and it’s true that the more one travels, the more one changes. It’s a lonely path, but then, what journey isn’t truly taken alone?”
The stranger gave a broad smile, teeth glimmering like pearls even in the shade of the tree. “You speak wisdom beyond your years, sir. What’s your name?”
Hermes sat up and extended his hand toward the stranger in friendship. “I’m Hermes. I live in the town over there,” giving a nod towards the marketplace too far to be heard. “And you, my friend?”
The stranger clasped Hermes’ hand and nodded. “An honor, Hermes. I am called Gabriel.”
Hermes cocked his head and gave Gabriel a puzzled look. “A strong name, Gabriel, and a rare one. You’re from Canaan, aren’t you? I haven’t met someone with one of those names before, though I’ve heard of similar names before.”
Gabriel shrugged and looked down evasively. “It’s not exactly my homeland, but yes, my tribe is settled there.” Gabriel looked up beyond the eaves of the tree towards the north, then back to Hermes. “But the road I walk is long, which is why this symbol you cast”—he motioned to the dots on the ground—”caught my eye. Would you want to know more of the truth of this symbol?” Always eager for more knowledge and more to contemplate, Hermes nodded and tilted his hand towards Gabriel, beckoning him to continue. And continue Gabriel did for quite some time, expounding to Hermes this symbol that Gabriel called the Road, and how to find this symbol as a result of multiple marks being made and crossed off two by two.
At the end of Gabriel’s discourse on the letter, Hermes noted a queer thing. They must have been talking for at least an hour, and Hermes was unusually tired and mentally overstimulated from learning about this character, but the Sun was still in the same position it was before Gabriel had arrived, as if it was suspended and watching Gabriel teach as Hermes himself did. Gabriel, noticing that Hermes was exhausted from the lesson, smiled and stood up, ignoring the dust that clung to his robes. “I see that I’ve talked your ear off, and probably ruined your day with my chatter. I should probably get on with my day, Hermes, and let you do the same, but I’m glad you’ve let me share this with you.” Hermes shook his head with a grateful smile. “No, I’m glad you’ve shared this with me! I appreciate it, and honored by it. If you’ve stayed too long, then I apologize for keeping you too long.”
Hermes began to climb to his feet to see Gabriel off, but Gabriel dismissively waved Hermes back down. “Don’t bother, don’t bother. If you like, I can visit again tomorrow and tell you more. There were other symbols I saw you drawing; those have meaning, too, much like the Road does. Would it bother you too much to visit you again?” Hermes, sensing an unusual opportunity that seemed unusual on an already unusual day, felt that this was one to seize. “Of course! You know where to find me, my friend. I’ll see you again.” Gabriel nodded and gave a slight bow, then walked off into the desert away from the Sun.
The man looked towards Gabriel as he left, glancing at the symbol for the Road before glancing back up. Hermes let out a yelp; Gabriel was nowhere to be found, despite the land around being fairly clear and there being no footprints to mark Gabriel’s coming or going. Now he was certain; this stranger named Gabriel was no ordinary man, just as this day was no ordinary day, and this symbol was no ordinary symbol. Hermes leaned back on the tree, running his dusty fingers through his hair in perplexion, spending several hours more in quiet contemplation of this figure, turning over Gabriel’s lesson over and over again in his head, digesting all that the stranger had taught him. As the Sun lowered to the western lands, Hermes left his mental exploration and decided to call it a day, feeling renewed and grown in this new knowledge. Hermes got up and headed to his home in the city, leaving his marks in the dirt.
The Sun set, the stars rose, the stars set, and the Sun rose once more.
After the Sun began its ascent to the heavens, as was his custom, Hermes went back to his tree, seeing his marks on the ground from the day before the same as he left it. He sat back down as he normally would, and let his mind wander before settling on higher thoughts. As the morning slowly turned to afternoon, Hermes, his eyes closed in meditation, began to drift into a light sleep, when a breezy rustling through the leaves above him roused him from his nap. He looked around and found, yet again, the ground before him blank from the wind. The moment Hermes noticed his marks on the ground erased, Hermes looked up to find Gabriel approaching once more from the south.
Hermes gave the strange not-quite-a-stranger a wave, and Gabriel responded in kind, raising his hand in a friendly salute as he approached the tree. “Well, you’re actually here! And if you’re here to learn, then I’m here to teach, if you’re ready for it.” “Of course, my friend,” Hermes said with a grin, waving Gabriel over, “I’d like to see what these other symbols you mentioned were.” Gabriel took his seat once more by Hermes, and repeated the same process as the day before. Again, Gabriel asked Hermes to draw a symbol, and again, Gabriel expounded the meaning of the symbol to Hermes; again, the Sun stood still in the heights of heaven, and again, Hermes became worn out from learning all that Gabriel taught; again, Gabriel offered to teach Hermes more, and again, Hermes agreed to meet with Gabriel to learn more; again, Hermes noted the unusual vanishing of Gabriel, and again, Hermes went home looking forward to the next lesson.
For fourteen more days, Hermes and Gabriel continued in the same way, learning all the other figures. On the sixteenth day, Gabriel told Hermes that these were all the figures that Gabriel could teach: the Road, the People, the Union, the Prison, the Greater Fortune, the Lesser Fortune, the Dragon’s Head, the Dragon’s Tail, the Girl, the Boy, Red, White, Joy, Sorrow, Loss, Gain. Gabriel told Hermes how the first four figures could be combined from their tops and their bottoms to form the other twelve, and how each figure reflects a different story on its own. His lesson complete, Gabriel shrugged, saying that this was all that he could offer Hermes in the ways of symbols and their lore, but that this was also just the beginning of their true meaning and purpose. Hermes, entranced by these symbols and stories, asked Gabriel to return to teach the rest, and Gabriel accepted.
For the next sixteen days, Gabriel taught Hermes how each figure reflects the four elements that compose all of creation as well as how they relate to the stars both wandering and fixed that determine how all things wax, wane, and transform.
For another sixteen days, Gabriel taught Hermes the secrets of combining these figures two by two and transforming them by inverting and reverting and converting them into other figures, and how all these methods change and add to the meanings of individual figures.
For yet another sixteen days, Gabriel taught Hermes how to use the meanings of the figures, the elemental and planetary and stellar correspondences, the combinations, and the transformations in answering all sorts of questions, imparting to Hermes the art of divination to reveal all mysteries of this world and all things upon it.
At the end of these 64 days, Hermes found himself exhausted, utterly and completely exhausted, from having so much taught to him in so short a time, but he felt a new wellspring of knowledge beginning to flow inside himself. Gabriel knew he was wearing Hermes thin, and after his final lesson where he revealed the deepest secrets of this art, Gabriel took from his robes a flask, uncorked it, and took a swig from it. The teacher passed the flask to Hermes, who gladly took it with both hands; Hermes was unaccustomed to drinking or eating during the day, but Hermes found himself more than parched and in need of something to quench his thirst. Hermes drank from the flask from the same spout Gabriel did, and found it filled with the clearest, coolest water. It refreshed Hermes, sure, but once he took the spout from his lips and breathed in, he felt filled with a truly newfound power. All these days of learning, all of Gabriel’s lessons seemed to immediately snap together like well-built masonry, forming within himself a beautiful temple of the finest knowledge. Figures shone like priceless jewels, transformations linked the figures like silver filigree across altars, truths and wisdom rose up like the smoke of rarest olibanum—
“I thought you might need a drink after this last lesson,” Gabriel said with a warm smile. “It’s no easy thing to learn all this, but you’ve done admirably, and I am proud to be able to share with you what I have.”
Hermes snapped out of his reverie and, realizing he was stuck holding the flask in the air as he stared off into space, hastily gave it back to Gabriel, blushing at both his own clumsiness and at the praise Gabriel gave him. Gabriel took the flask from Hermes’ hands and put it back in his robe with a chuckle before continuing. “You’re smarter than you look. You know I’m no ordinary man, and this no ordinary art.” Hermes, calming down from his embarrassment, nodded; “I know. With your name, I know not only who you are but what you are and where you come from, and it’s certainly not Canaan.”
Gabriel chuckled. “Bingo. I know you and have known you, Hermes, and I am glad you finally know me, too.” He looked down at the patch of dirt where he taught his art to Hermes, then looked back at Hermes with a contented smile. “I learned this art from my Father, and it was entrusted to me to help me in my job as His messenger. And now I entrust this art to you, Hermes, as your brother.” Hermes looked deeply at Gabriel, not only seeing that fire in Gabriel’s eyes but joining it with his own, and nodded his assent. “And as I have received this art from you, Gabriel”, Hermes responded, “I am your brother.” Gabriel smiled and, looking once more towards the northern sky and then down at their patch of dirt, stood up and brushed the dust and dirt off from his robes. “You’ve learned much, but you cannot master what you cannot name,” Gabriel said as he wiped his hands clean. “We have no word for this art where I’m from. What will you call it?”
Hermes stared at Gabriel thoughtfully, then looked down at the patch of ground in front of him that contained all his marks. He drew out all sixteen figures together, contemplating each point and line as he did. He gazed at the dirt for a long time, and as the Sun began to touch the horizon, he finally he looked up at Gabriel, his teacher’s profile illuminated in the ruddy gold glow of the evening Sun. “This is an art to know all that happens in and upon the world. This is an art born from the Earth, not just with earth or water but all the elements of this world. I call it ‘geomancy’, to see with the Earth.” Gabriel grinned as the wind began to pick up, blowing his robes behind his back majestically towards the sky. “Then I have taught you geomancy, Hermes, and you are the first geomancer of this world. May this art serve you well, and may you serve the world well by it.”
Hermes nodded and smiled, wiping the patch of earth before him clean before the wind could do it for him this time. “I hope that I may, brother.” Gabriel nodded in reply and extended his hand to Hermes, which Hermes took in his own. The teacher lifted his student up and, after measuring him with his eyes, embraced Hermes in the love only brothers have. After a time, Gabriel let go of Hermes and turned away, heading for the last time towards the north with the Sun setting on his left and the Moon rising on his right. Hermes kept his eyes fixed on Gabriel’s back as he walked off, but another gust of wind blew Gabriel’s robes up like wings as it blew more dust into Hermes’ eyes; by the time Hermes could clear his eyes, there was nobody around, with neither the figures of geomancy nor the footsteps of angels to mark what happened.
Sitting back down by his tree, Hermes mulled over his time with Gabriel, all of the things he learned, and all of the things he might yet learn. A quiet breeze blew, kicking up a bit of dust around Hermes but without irritating his lungs again. Staring at the ground marked with the sixteen geomantic figures, he rubbed his fingers together, noticing the fine grit of dust and sand caught between the grooves of his digits. In the last sliver of light of the Sun, Hermes got up and walked home, taking more time than he normally would to carefully settle down in all his newfound knowledge and skill. Finishing his journey well after nightfall, he paused outside the threshold of his house and looked around, seeing an empty patch of fallow ground to the side of his house. In the light of the Moon, now high in the sky, Hermes cast his first chart to see how his traveling merchant son was doing. Hermes smiled; he would never again be worried by being out of touch.
Days, weeks, months, years passed. Hermes practiced his art of geomancy, but went back to his tree every day and, once his mind calmed down from the mania of having a new method of understanding the world, went back to his habit of meditating and contemplating divine mysteries. However, the man no longer doodled mindlessly in the sand, but used geomancy to explore that which he had trouble understanding. One day, he finally became great, greater, greatest among men, beholding the Shepherd of Men and understanding the source and purpose of all things. Finally, he began to teach; he no longer worried for his children, leaving them to their own devices, except for his son Tat whom he taught as a successor to his wisdom. As Hermes Trismegistus traveled, he taught arts and skills of all kinds, reserving some for particular students and others for other students, but he kept geomancy a secret, not finding one apt enough in his travels yet to learn it from him.
Inspired by whispers of white and blue in his heart to teach geomancy to one who would do both him and his art well, Hermes Trismegistus traveled to the east, and gave the entirety of the art of geomancy to the one named Tumtum. Tumtum learned it and traveled west, giving it to the one named az-Zanati. Az-Zanati learned it and gave it to the Arabs. The Arabs learned it and gave it to the Europeans.
The ancients learned it and gave it to us.
And now I, having learned it, give it to you.
ΧΑΙΡΕ ΕΡΜΗ ΤΡΙΣΜΕΓΙΣΤΕ
ΧΑΙΡΕ ΕΡΜΗ ΓΕΩΜΑΝΤΙΚΕ
ΧΑΙΡΕ ΕΡΜΗ ΑΙΓΥΠΤΙΑΚΕ
ΧΑΙΡΕ ΕΡΜΗ ΑΓΓΕΛΕ ΑΓΓΕΛΩΝ
ΧΑΙΡΕ ΧΑΙΡΕ ΧΑΙΡΕ ΧΑΙΡΕ ΕΡΜΗ