On the Arbatel’s Seal of Secrets

So as I work towards the end of a year of interesting spiritual obligations, I’m beginning to get back to some of my projects I had to put on hold about this time last year.  One of those projects is that of the works of the Arbatel, described in the eponymous text the Arbatel: of the Magic of the Ancients, a 16th century text that presents a body of very religious and devout occult wisdom and practice that famously introduce the seven Olympic spirits (Aratron, Bethor, Phaleg, Och, Hagith, Ophiel, and Phul).  However, while these spirits are fairly well-known, less understood and talked about is its Seal of Secrets and what the Arbatel actually preaches about wisdom that can be learned through occult means.  I’ve been mulling this particular diagram over the past few days, and it’s not the most straightfoward or clearly-explained thing in the text.

So, let’s start from the basics.  The Fourth Septenary of the Arbatel focuses on secrets, starting with aphorisms IV.22 and IV.23:

IV.22: We call that a secret, which no man can attain unto by humane industry without revelation; which Science lieth obscured, hidden by God in the creature; which nevertheless he doth permit to be revealed by Spirits, to a due use of the thing it self. And these secrets are either concerning things divine, natural or humane. But thou mayst examine a few, and the most select, which thou wilt commend with many more.

IV.23: Make a beginning of the nature of the secret, either by a Spirit in the form of a person, or by vertues separate, either in humane Organs, or by what manner soever the same may be effected; and this being known, require of a Spirit which knoweth that art, that he would briefly declare unto thee whatsoever that secret is: and pray unto God, that he would inspire thee with his grace, whereby thou maist bring the secret to the end thou desireth, for the praise and glory of God, and the profit of thy neighbour.

Aphorism IV.24 then lists three sets of seven secrets, classifying them into the greatest secrets, the medium secrets, and the lesser secrets, each focusing on a different kind of goal or aim ranging from the divinely sublime to the mundane and temporary.  Arbatel also says that the greatest secrets are those that “a man of an honest and constant minde may learn of the Spirits, without any offence unto God”, a qualifier not given to the other two, suggesting that the greatest secrets are the ones that are innately of God and for God and that the others are more easily inclined to lead away from truth and divine works.  In general, the secrets listed here fall more-or-less in line with the powers claimed by magicians in countless other texts: healing of all illnesses, knowing God and truth, longevity, the obedience of spirits, the transmutation of metals, excellence in all sorts of arts and sciences, and so forth.  By dividing them up into greater, middle, and lesser, however, we get a clear sense of priority from the Arbatel, encouraging us to focus more on the most beneficial, kind, and holy works and less so on the more mundane or “contemptible” ones.

Moving on to aphorism IV.27, the Arbatel then discusses a particular diagram that it calls the Seal of Secrets:

Make a Circle with a center A, which is framed by a square BCDE.  At the East let there be BC, at the North CD, at the West DE, and at the South EB. Divide the Several quadrants into seven parts, that there may be in the whole 28 parts: and let them be again divided into four parts, that there may be 112 parts of the Circle: and so many are the true secrets to be revealed. And this Circle in this manner divided, is the seal of the secrets of the world, which they draw from the onely center A, that is, from the invisible God, unto the whole creature.

This is a simple geometric construction telling us, basically, to make a circle bounded by a square, with the circle divided up into seven divisions, and each division divided further into four sections, for a total of 4 × 7 × 4 = 112 sections.  Some versions of the Arbatel include such a diagram, which I’ve reproduced below without the letters or labels but includes the division-level boundaries, but it could be technically written to be constructed in a more simple way as well with all the lines converging without inner boundary circles:

Continuing from the above, the Arbatel then begins describing the function of the divisions and sectors of the seal:

The Prince of the Oriental secrets is resident in the middle, and hath three Nobles on either side, every one whereof hath four under him, and the Prince himself hath four appertaining unto him. And in this manner the other Princes and Nobles have their quadrants of secrets, with their four secrets.

But the Oriental secret is the study of all wisdom; The West, of strength; The South, of tillage; The North, of more rigid life. So that the Eastern secrets are commended to be the best; the Meridian to be mean; and the West and North to be lesser.

(A note on the word “noble” here: Peterson in his modern translation of the Arbatel uses the word “governors” to describe these six subordinate spirits, while the original Latin uses the word “satrap”, a Persian term originally describing provincial governors but later adapted to refer to leaders who act as surrogates for larger world powers.  I adore the word “satrap”.)

The division of each direction into seven rulers, with one dominating Prince and six Governors under him, is fairly straightforward, and also that each ruler presides over four secrets unto himself.  What’s peculiar is that each direction is also given to have a quality of secret: the East for the greatest secrets, the South for the middle, and the West and North for the lesser.  Though not explicitly stated, it’s pretty much certain to me that the secrets here are meant to refer to the greater, medium, and lesser secrets given before in aphorism IV.24.  However, this seems to break the neat one-to-one regularity we would expect to see here, as we see elsewhere in the Arbatel; why should one set of secrets be given to two quadrants?  Peterson in the preface to his translation of the Arbatel says:

…[f]or symmetry, it is tempting to speculate that the seven lesser secrets listed—those of strength—are actually sought from the west, while the north secrets—those of harshness—are destructive and are not explicitly mentioned.

If Peterson is right, and I’m greatly inclined to think that he is, then that means that there are actually four sets of secrets: the greatest, the medium, the lesser, and a fourth unmentioned set of seven secrets that are focused on destruction, harm, and violence.  If the greatest secrets are those that can be learned “without any offence unto God”, while the medium and lesser secrets are more tempting to lead away from and offend God, then the unmentioned secrets are those that are most likely to veer too close or outright into what the Arbatel considers cacomagy or “evil magic”, which are doomed to offend God and should be avoided to the point where they are not even listed in the text.  The works of the lesser secrets would instead be recommended to replace those of this hypothetical unmentioned set, if only to direct the reader of the Arbatel to maintain a good life without temptation of evil.

Anyway, following this in the same aphorism, the Arbatel describes a twofold purpose of this diagram, one as a divine revelation and the other as a mere mnemonic device:

The use of this seal of secrets is, that thereby thou maist know whence the Spirits or Angels are produced, which may teach the secrets delivered unto them from God. But they have names taken from their offices and powers, according to the gift which God hath severally distributed to every one of them. One hath the power of the sword; another, of the pestilence; and another, of inflicting famine upon the people, as it is ordained by God. Some are destroyers of Cities, as those two were, who were sent to overthrow Sodom and Gomorrha, and the places adjacent, examples whereof the holy Scripture witnesseth. Some are the watch-men over Kingdoms; others the keepers of private persons; and from thence, anyone may easily form their names in his own language: so that he which will, may ask a physical Angel, mathematical, or philosophical, or an Angel of civil wisdom, or of supernatural or natural wisdom, or for any thing whatsoever; and let him ask seriously, with a great desire of his minde, and with faith and constancy and without doubt, that which he asketh he shall receive from the Father and God of all Spirits. This faith surmounteth all seals, and bringeth them into subjection to the will of man. The Characteristical maner of calling Angels succeedeth this faith, which dependeth onely on divine revelation; But without the said faith preceding it, it lieth in obscurity.

Nevertheless, if any one will use them for a memorial, and not otherwise, and as a thing simply created by God to his purpose, to which such a spiritual power or essence is bound; he may use them without any offence unto God. But let him beware, lest that he fall into idolatry, and the snares of the devil, who with his cunning sorceries, easily deceiveth the unwary. And he is not taken but onely by the finger of God, and is appointed to the service of man; so that they unwillingly serve the godly; but not without temptations and tribulations, because the commandment hath it, That he shall bruise the heel of Christ, the seed of the woman. We are therefore to exercise our selves about spiritual things, with fear and trembling, and with great reverence towards God, and to be conversant in spiritual essences with gravity and justice. And he which medleth with such things, let him beware of all levity, pride, covetousness, vanity, envy and ungodliness, unless he wil miserably perish.

In one way, the Seal of Secrets is a sort of divine cosmogram that shows how the spirits presiding over the secrets of the cosmos are produced and how they govern, with a ruling prince of spirits presiding in the center of each direction with three noble subordinate rulers on either side.  Though it has a divine purpose and origin, the Arbatel also concedes it may be used as a mnemonic device merely and only to remember how the spirits that exist apart and away from the Seal function and how they’re organized.  In either way, though, it seems that Arbatel suggests a distinct catalog of 196 secrets and their corresponding spirits.

With all that said, the Arbatel is lacking in actually explaining the deeper use or purpose of the Seal.  It’s likely because the Arbatel is essentially an incomplete work; of the nine books it describes, only the first is extant, which is what we actually call the Arbatel today, though it calls itself the Isagoge, “which in fourty and nine Aphorisms comprehendeth, the most general Precepts of the whole Art”.  To me, the Arbatel raises more questions about the Seal and the secrets it describes than it answers.  So, what’s the deal with dividing the Seal up in the way that it does?  What first came to my mind was to compare the 4 × 7 = 28 divisions of the circle in the Seal of Secrets to the 28 Mansions of the Moon that survive in Western magic, as given by the Picatrix and Agrippa:

However, despite the use of 28 divisions, I don’t think there’s actually a connection (though I’d like there to be).  The 28 Mansions start with Alnath at 0° Aries, which is exactly celestial east.  However, the eastern quadrant of the Seal doesn’t have a well-defined “start”, and given the lack of elaboration in the text as well as the construction of the Seal itself, it would seem that the corresponding eastern point would fall smack-dab in the middle of the central division of the eastern quadrant, the seat of the Prince of Wisdom in the East according to the Seal of Secrets.  That doesn’t seem to lend itself well to associating each ruler of secrets to a single Mansion of the Moon.

That said, we do know that each Mansion of the Moon is given to a particular set of talismans, works, and properties that are used in astrology and astrological magic, each with its own presiding angel.  If we can’t allocate the 4 × 7 = 28 rulers of secrets into the Mansions of the Moons, what about the 7 × 4 = 28 secrets they rule over themselves within a single quadrant?  It could be conceived that each of the secrets ruled over by a direction’s Prince and six Governors could be allocated to a single Mansion of the Moon, giving us more insight into what each of those secrets could be, recalibrated for each direction and its corresponding kind of secret: thus, the rightmost secret of the Prince of Wisdom in the East would be given to the same Mansion (13, Alhaire) as would the same secret of the other Princes, but with Alhaire directed to Wisdom in one instance or to Strength in another, depending on the Prince being worked with.

While this is reasonable, I also don’t find it likely.  While I’m no expert on Paracelsus (who was either a large influence on the Arbatel or who founded the overall school and body of work the Arbatel builds upon within Renaissance Hermeticism) and given that much of his work is lost, I don’t think the Mansions of the Moon would have figured prominently in his or derivative works, so any actual association between the Mansions of the Moon and the rulers of secrets or the secrets themselves based only on the fact that they share the number 28 is tenuous at best; indeed, Peterson doesn’t even mention it in his version of the Arbatel.  That said, I’m still investigating that with the help of friends who are more well-versed in Paracelsian stuff than I am.  However, given that the lunar mansions weren’t really that important a topic in Western astrology or astrological magic since their introduction in the 12th century, I’m not holding my breath for such a connection.

Still, there’s another way to consider how to understand what the multitude of secrets are and their nature.  Consider how the text associates the directions with the four types and four sets of secrets, including Peterson’s hypothetical “unmentioned” set for the North and “a more rigid life”:

Secret Set
East Wisdom Greatest
South Tillage Middle
West Strength Lesser
North Harshness Unmentioned

Something to note is that the strength of the secrets—greatest to lesser and then to unmentionable—follow the path and light of the Sun, which rises in the East, culminates in the South, and sets in the West (at least from the point of view of an observer in the Northern Hemisphere, which makes sense for a book published in Switzerland during the Renaissance).  We know, from aphorism III.21, that the first hour of the day (sunrise) is the most appropriate time to conjure the Olympic spirits, and would be considered the strongest time of day; thus, the East is given the greatest secrets, and the strength descends from there as the Sun’s light grows older.  However, the Sun only rises at (more or less, accounting for time of year) due east, though the eastern quadrant of the Seal of Secrets covers the area from the northeast to the southeast.  If we associate due east with proper sunrise, then this means the three governors to the north of the Prince in the East are about the dawn, the time of early morning when the sky begins to brighten but before the Sun rises.  Likewise, the Prince in the West would be given to sunset, and the governors to the north of that Prince are dusk, the time of evening after the Sun sets but while the sky still has some light in it.  This means that the Prince of the South would be given to high noon, and the Prince of the North to midnight.  Note how the three sets of secrets listed explicitly in the Arbatel are then associated with the times of day when it’s light outside; the dark period of the night, after dusk and before dawn, would then be given to the unmentioned set of secrets.  This spatial-temporal reckoning of daylight with the secrets makes sense, at least to me, such that the secrets that should be revealed are made so by the light of the Sun, and those that shouldn’t remain occluded by the dark of the night when the Sun’s light is gone from the sky, in addition to the usual connections between darkness, nighttime, evil, wickedness, and so on.

Even still, though, there’s much about this Seal that remains unexplained, especially when considered alongside the system of the seven Olympic spirits in the text.  For instance:

  1. Do the four quarters of the Seal have a connection to the four elements that we’d normally see based on their connections to the directions?  If so, can we make use of those connections within the system of secrets within the Arbatel?
  2. Do the seven rulers within a quarter have any connection to the seven planets, or do there just happen to be seven for an unrelated reason?  If there is a planetary connection, which of the seven planets would be the prince of the direction, and who would be the governors under him, and in what order?
  3. Should we consider the seven Olympic spirits to “have their place” among the spirits in the Seal of Secrets, or should we consider a distinct Seal of Secrets for each planet, such that each of the seven planets have their own set of greatest, medium, lesser, and unmentioned secrets?
  4. Are the spirits described in the Seal of Secrets to be conjured alongside or independently of the Olympic spirits?  If so, then what is the purpose of the Olympic spirits within the system of secrets described in the Arbatel?  If not, then again, what’s the connection between the prince/rulers within a direction (or across all four directions) with the planets and their Olympic spirits?
  5. Do the seven rulers each have their own take on the seven secrets associated with that direction, or is it one of the secrets within the set per ruler?  If the former, what distinguishes the specific rulers’ takes on each secret, and do they have other providences, perhaps by relating to the other systems of magic described at the beginning of the Arbatel?  Or, alternatively for the former, are the four secrets under each ruler unrelated and given in addition to the big secrets given within the set associated with the direction?  If the latter, does this actually mean that there are four approaches to each secret within a set given by the Arbatel?
  6. What does the Arbatel mean when it says that the secrets of the South are for “tillage” or “culture”, referring to agriculture or cultivation, and how does this actually relate to the middle secrets which are more associated with the results described in books like the Liber Juratus or Ars Notoria?
  7. What does the Arbatel mean when it says that the secrets of the West are for “strength”, when the lesser secrets are more associated with mundane affairs and success in worldly matters?
  8. If Peterson is right and there is a fourth unmentioned category of secrets, the unmentioned ones for the North, how do they relate to “a rigid life”, and what are they?  If he’s wrong and the lesser secrets really are allocated to both the West and the North, then what distinguishes their spirits and the secrets they rule over?

Some of these questions might have answers based on other hints elsewhere in the Arbatel.  For instance, at the end of aphorism III.17 which contains the information about the seven Olympic spirits, there are the “most general precepts of this secret”; the fourth precept here says that “in all the elements there are the seven Governours with their hosts”, suggesting that the Olympic spirits or the planets they preside over are present in each of the four elements, and thus in the four directions, and that that there is some connection between the seven rulers in each direction and the seven planets with their Olympic spirits.  Later, in the invocation of the Olympic spirits given in aphorism III.21, there’s the statement “…beseech thee that thou wouldst send thy Spirit N.N. of the solar order…”, which indicates that there are multiple spirits of the Sun that can be worked with, not just Och which is the only named solar spirit given in the Arbatel; otherwise, why make the name general but the order definite here as an example?  This may suggest that while Och presides over all works of the Sun, there could be four rulers of secrets set under Och (one for each direction and set of secrets).  As for the fourfold division of secrets under each ruler of secrets in the Seal, note that aphorism VII.49 lists four kinds of good sciences: knowledge of the word of God, knowledge of the government of God through his angels, knowledge of natural things, and wisdom in humane things; these might be hints as to the ways a secret may be known or effected, though since this doesn’t mirror exactly the corresponding evil sciences, this might not necessarily be the case (though a case could be made for this, since even though there are seven evil sciences given, three of these are more states of manners of practice rather than actual works of science, so there could be still four corresponding evil sciences to match the four for the good ones).

Of course, all the above must be understood knowing that I haven’t yet worked with the Olympic spirits themselves, but in the near future, I plan to make that one of my big project priorities.  Perhaps that will help shed some more light on the secrets hidden yet within the Arbatel.

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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.

7 Responses to On the Arbatel’s Seal of Secrets

  1. I began working with the Arbatel back in 2010. To understand it, you need to understand the perspective of the author and his time. I think too many folks approach it from their 19th century Occult Revival perspective. Also, it appears to be an encrypted text. It likely has messages in it that are related to Cabala–as the title–Arbatel–refers to the Tetragrammaton–the text also refers to “prophetic magic” which is a reference to Kabala, although there is no overt discussion about Kabala in it. The Seal of Secrets is 1. depicts the lunar mansions in the 4 quarters of the space. The direction of the wheel is supposed to correspond with the zodiacal ecliptic. 2. The seal also may be meant to represent a holographic “cube of space” that depicts the hierarchy-of-sorts of Olympic Spirits. The numbers related to multiples of 7 as well as other number codes are clues to this. Some of the numbers are clues to geometric shapes. 3.The quarters, lines and planes also are meant to depict the stations (in relation to seasons, time, and space) or various angels. It works similar to that of a yantra, if you are familiar with how those are supposed to be used. “The use of this seal of secrets is that, through it, you many know when the spirits or angels are produced that they may teach you secrets they receive from God . . .” (from aphorism 27). 4. the number 169, which resolves to 7—refers to the OS and .may also be an allusion to the Tree of Life: Kether (1)-Tiphareth (6)-Yeshod (9). 5. For the author of the Arbatel—who may have been influenced by Roman and Orphic spirituality despite the sincerely pious Christian gloss throughout the text— the Eastern quarter might have been assigned to an angel associated with Jupiter (wisdom), the South with angel associated with Saturn (cultivation), the West with an angel associated with Sol (strength), and the North with an angel associated with Luna (the material world).The “nobles” flanking that angel are the angels of the other planets. I think I can also field some of your questions list. If you want to discuss more here or offline, let me know. (I am scheduled to give an interview about my work with Taliesin McKnight this week, actually.)

    • polyphanes says:

      Ahoy! I’m glad you found your way here. I’m actually going through the book you published on the Arbatel as we speak and making my own notes and observations.

      • The book is a bit of a ramble in retrospect. I’ve progressed a bit more about putting into context. I would encourage you to read the book Spiritual and Demonic Magic from Ficino to Campanella by D. P. Walker–particularly the chapters on Ficino. It explains the development of medieval neoplatonic planetary magic and evocation magic and how it was meant to be somewhat apart from goetia, which it got shuffled into thanks to Agrippa.

  2. andrewwiberg says:

    Thanks for this post! I was able to use a few quotes from it [albiet; slightly out of context] to make an argument a bit stronger over on my blog.

  3. Pingback: Practical Arbatel: Conjuration of the Olympic Spirit (Again, but Longer) | The Digital Ambler

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