On Geomantic Cycles

A while back on the Facebook community I manage for geomancy, the Geomantic Study-Group, someone had posted a proposed method to obtain four Mother figures for a geomantic reading based on the time and date of the query.  The poster based this proposal off of the Plum Blossom method of I Ching, where (as one of several possible formulas) you take the date and time and numerologically reduce the numbers to obtain trigrams; in a sense, such a method could theoretically be done with geomantic figures, and so the poster called this a type of “horary geomancy” (though I’m reluctant to use that term, because it’s also used by Gerard of Cremona to come up with a horary astrological chart by geomantic means, as well as by Schwei and Pestka to refer to geomancy charts that have horary charts overlaid on top).  He proposed three methods, but they all revolved around using the time of the query in astrological terms.

The proposed idea went like this:

  1. Inspect the planetary ruler of the hour of the query.
  2. Inspect the planetary ruler of the weekday of the query.
  3. Inspect the planetary ruler of the Sun sign of the query.
  4. Inspect the planetary ruler of the year of the query.
  5. Transform the planets above, “taking into account rulerships by day or by night”, into geomantic figures, which are used as the First, Second, Third, and Fourth Mothers for the resulting chart for the query.

Seems straightforward enough!  I mean, I’m already familiar with the basics of horary astrology, I keep track of date and time cycles according to Greek letters, and I’ve flirted with using the Era Legis system of timekeeping as proposed by Thelema, and it’s even possible to extend the planetary hour system into planetary minutes and even seconds; having a geomantic system of time, useful for generating charts, seems more than fitting enough!  Besides, there’s already a system of geomantic hours based on the planetary hours which can probably be adapted without too much a problem.

I was excited for this idea; having a geomantic calendar of sorts would be a fantastic tool for both divination and ritual, if such a one could be reasonably constructed, and better still if it played well with already-existing systems such as the planetary week or planetary hours.  That said, I quickly had some questions about putting the proposed method from the group into practice:

  1. What about the assignment of Caput Draconis and Cauda Draconis?  Do we just occasionally swap them in for Venus/Jupiter and Mars/Saturn, respectively, and if so, how?
  2. Each planet has two figures associated with it; how do you determine which to pick?  “Taking into account rulerships by day or by night” isn’t always straightforward.
  3. How do we determine the planetary ruler of a given year?
  4. Is it possible instead to use the already existing cycles, such as the geomantic hours of Heydon, the rulerships of the lunar mansions, or the Cremona-based or Agrippa-based rulerships of the signs?

When I raised these questions (and a few others), I didn’t really get anything to clarify the method, so this particular conversation didn’t go anywhere.  This is unfortunate, because these pose some major problems to using a strictly planetary-based method of coming up with a geomantic cycle:

  1. The issues in assigning the nodal figures to the planets is the biggest issue.  They simply don’t quite “fit”; even if you reduce the 16 figures into pairs, it’s hard to get eight sets mapped into seven planetary “bins”.  We see this quite clearly when we look at Heydon’s geomantic hours, where the nodal figures are sometimes given to the benefic or malefic planets (though I can’t determine a method), and on Saturdays, two of the hours of the Sun are replaced by the nodal figures (which is, itself, shocking and may just be a typo that can’t be verified either way).  Unless you expand a cycle of 24 hours or seven days into a multiple of 8 or 16, you’re not going to end up with an equal number of figures represented among the planets.
  2. Given that each planet has two figures (ignoring the nodal figure issue from before), you can decide that one figure is going to be “diurnal” and the other “nocturnal”, or in planetary terms, “direct” or “retrograde”.  Different geomancers have different ways to figure out which of a planetary pair of figures are one or the other, so this might just be chalked up to individual interpretation.  Still, though, when would such a diurnal/nocturnal rulership actually matter?  Finding the figure for a planetary hour, using diurnal figures for diurnal hours and nocturnal figures for nocturnal hours?  Finding the figure for a weekday, using the diurnal figure if daytime and the nocturnal figure if nighttime, or alternating whole weeks in a fortnightly diurnal-nocturnal cycle?  Determining what figure to use if the Sun is in Leo or Cancer?
  3. Multi-part problem for the issue of finding the “planetary ruler of a year”:
    1. By inspecting the mathematics of the different kinds of planetary cycles that are established in the days of the week and the hours of the day, we can extend the system down into the minutes of the hours and the seconds of the minutes.  However, scaling up can’t be done along the same way; what allows for the planetary hours to work is that 24 does not evenly divide by 7, nor 60.  Because there’s always that remainder offset, you get a regularly repeating set of planets across a long system that, when aligned with certain synchronized starting points, allows for a planetary ruler of a given hour or day.  However, a week is exactly seven days; because there is no remainder offset, you can’t assign a planet ruling a week in the same way.  If you can’t even cyclically assign a planetary ruler to an entire week, then it’s not possible to do it for greater periods of time that are based on the week.
    2. There is no method of cyclically assigning a planetary rulership to a year the way we do for days or hours.  The poster alluded to one, but I couldn’t think of one, and after asking around to some of my trusted friends, there is no such thing.  You might find the ruler of a given year of a person’s life, or find out what the almuten is at the start of a solar year at its spring equinox, but there’s no cyclical, easily extrapolated way to allocate such a thing based on an infinitely repeating cycle.
    3. We could adopt a method similar to that in Chinese astrology: use the 12-year cycles based on the orbit of Jupiter, which returns to the same sign of the Zodiac every 11.8618 years (or roughly every 11 years, 10 months, 10 days).  In such a system, we’d base the planet ruling the year on the sign where Jupiter is found at the spring equinox.  This is both a weird import into a Western system that isn’t particularly Jupiter-centric, and is not quite exact enough for my liking, due to the eventual drift of Jupiter leading to a cycle that stalls every so often.
    4. It’s trivial to establish a simple cycle that just rotates through all seven planets every seven years, but then the problem becomes, what’s your starting point for the cycle?  It’s possible to inspect the events of years and try to detect a cycle, or we can just arbitrarily assign one, or we can use mythological calendrics (a la Trithemius’ secondary intelligences starting their rulerships at the then-reckoned start of the world), but I’m personally uncomfortable with all these options.
  4. Different existing cycles, different problems for each:
    1. John Heydon’s geomantic hours from his Theomagia (which are the first instance I can find of such an application of the planetary hours) are a mess.  Even accounting for how he reckons the figures as “diurnal” or “nocturnal” and their planetary rulers, the pattern he has breaks at random points and I can’t chalk it up necessarily to being typos.  Additionally, there are 168 hours in a week, but this doesn’t evenly divide into 16, meaning that within a given week in Heydon’s (quite possibly flawed) system of geomantic hours, some figures will not be given as many hours as others.  If we went to a fortnight system of 14 days, then we’d end up with 336 hours which is evenly divisible by 16 (336 hours ÷ 16 figures = 21 hours/figure), but Heydon doesn’t give us such a system, nor have I seen one in use.
    2. The system of lunar mansions from Hugo of Santalla’s work of geomancy ultimately formed the basis for the system of zodiacal rulerships used by Gerard of Cremona (which I’m most partial to).  However, of the 28 mansions, seven have no rulership, and five are duplicated (e.g. mansions 25, 26, and 27 are all ruled by Fortuna Minor).  Moreover, this system of attribution of figures to the mansions is apparently unrelated to the planetary rulership of the lunar mansions (which follow the weekday order, with the Sun ruling mansion 1).  It may be possible to fill in the gaps by closing ranks, such that the unruled mansion 7 is “absorbed” by Rubeus which already rule mansion 6.
    3. There’s another system of lunar mansion rulership assigned to the figures, described by E. Savage-Smith and M. Smith in their description of an Arabian geomancy machine relating to directional correspondences, which uses the similarities between graphical point representation of the figures and certain asterisms of lunar mansions to give them their correspondence.  However, it is likewise incomplete, moreso than Hugo of Santalla’s assignments, and is likely meant as a way of cementing geomancy into Arabic astrological thought (though the two systems do share three figure-mansion correspondences, but this might just be coincidental overlap).
    4. Hugo of Santalla’s system of lunar mansions and geomantic figures was eventually simplified into a set of zodiacal correspondences for the figures, such as used by Gerard of Cremona.  I like this system and have found it of good use, but Agrippa in his On Geomancy says that those who use such a system is vulgar and less trustworthy than a strictly planetary-based method, like what JMG uses in his Art and Practice of Geomancy.  Standardizing between geomancers on this would probably be the riskiest thing, as geomancers tend to diverge more on this detail than almost any other when it comes to the bigger correspondences of the figures.
    5. Even if one were to use Agrippa’s planetary method of assigning figures to the signs of the Zodiac, you’d run into problems with the whole “diurnal” and “nocturnal” classification that different geomancers use for the figures, which is compounded with the issue of nodal figures.  For instance, according to Agrippa, Via and Populus are both given to Cancer; Carcer and Caput Draconis are given to Capricorn; and Puer, Rubeus, and Cauda Draconis are all given to Scorpio.  I suppose you might be able to say that, given a choice, a nodal figure is more diurnal than the planets (maybe?), but how would you decide what to use for Scorpio, if both figures of Mars as well as Cauda Draconis are all lumped together?

In all honesty, given my qualms with trying to find ways to overlay planetary cycles with geomantic ones, I’m…a little despairing of the notion at this point.  The systems we have to base geomantic cycles on are either irregular or incomplete, and in all cases unsatisfactory to my mind.

Now, don’t get me wrong.  I have heard that some geomancers have used the geomantic hours to good results, but I’ve also heard that some geomancers can get the methods of divination for numbers and letters to work; in other words, these are things that everyone has heard of working but nobody seems to have actually gotten to work.  And, I suppose if you don’t think about it for too long and just take it for granted, perhaps you can get the geomantic hours to work!  After all, I’ve found good results with Hugo of Santalla’s figure-mansions correspondences, even if they’re incomplete and unbalanced, without anything backing them up.  (I never denied that over-thinking can be a problem, much less a problem that I specifically have.)

Further, I’m not saying that geomantic cycles don’t exist; they very likely do, if the elements and the planets and the signs all have their cycles in their proper times.  The problem is that so much of these other cycles we see are based on fancier numbers that are either too small or infrequent (4 elements, 7 planets) or don’t evenly divide into 8 or 16 (like 12 signs, 27 letters in an alphabet), or they simply don’t match up right.  For instance, it would be possible to create a new set of geomantic hours where each figure is present in turn over a course of 16 hours, then repeat the cycle; this leads to returning to the same figure at the same hour of the day every 48 hours, starting a new cycle every third day.  This doesn’t match up well with a seven-day week, but rather a cycle of two weeks (as hypothesized above, since 14 days = 336 hours, and 336 is divisible evenly by 16).  However, such a system would break the correspondence between planets and figures because of the “drift” between cycles of 16 and 7.

So…in that line of thinking, why not rethink the notion of geomantic cycles apart from tying them to planetary ones, and start from scratch?

We’re accustomed to thinking of magical cycles in terms of seven planets, but we could just as easily construct cyclical time systems in terms of four (which can be divided four ways within it), eight (divided into two), or sixteen units.

  • Consider the synodic period of the Moon, which can be said to have eight phases: new, crescent, first quarter, gibbous, full, disseminating, third quarter, and balsamic.  We could attribute each phase two figures, and then sync the cycle to, say, the new moon (when the Sun and Moon are in conjunction) or to the first quarter moon (when the Sun sets as the Moon is directly overhead), giving a synodic month 16 geomantic “stations” each lasting about 1.85 days.
  • Those with a neopagan background are used to thinking of the year as an eight-spoked Wheel, where the year is divided by eight sabbats, which are four quarter days (equinoxes and solstices) and four cross-quarter days; each period between one sabbat and the next could be split into a geomantic “season” lasting roughly 22 or (sometimes) 23 days long.
  • Alternatively, a year of 365 days can be broken up into 22 “months” of 16 days each, leading to 352 days, meaning three or four intercalary/epagomenal days at the end of the year or spread around for, say, the quarter days.
  • Within a single day from sunrise to sunrise, we can divide the day into four segments (morning, afternoon, evening, and night) divided by the stations of the sun (sunrise, noon, sunset, midnight), and each segment can be further subdivided into four geomantic “hours”, leading to a total of 16 geomantic “hours” within a day which would, assuming a day of equal daytime and nighttime, have each “hour” equal to 90 minutes.
  • Years can be broken down into cycles of four years, every fourth year requiring a leap day; this could lend itself to a cycle of 16 years (one geomantic figure per year), or even to a cycle of 64 years (comprising 16 leap days), each of which can be used as a way to define larger-time cycles.

Such a four- or eight-fold division of time and space isn’t unheard of; we commonly reckon a year (at least in most Western Anglophone countries) as having four seasons, the Greeks broke up cycles of years into four-year Olympiads, the ancient Romans divided up the night into four watches (while using twelve hours for the daytime), and there are discussions of a Hellenistic system of astrological houses called the octotopos/octotropos system which uses eight houses instead of the usual 12, so it’s possible to dig that up and rework it to accustom a geomantic method where the number 16 could be applied to work better than mashing it onto a system where the number 7 is more prominent.  That said, finding such a system that’s thoroughly based on 4, 8, or 16 is difficult, as it’d be pretty artificial without including the moon (which repeats in patterns of 12 or 13) or whole number divisors of 360, and considering how thoroughly cultural transmission/conquering has established the 12-month year across most of the world, often obliterating and subsuming earlier systems that may not have left much of a trace.  But, again, if we’re gonna just up and make one from scratch, I suppose it doesn’t need to be grounded in extant systems, now, does it?  Even if it’s artificial, if it’s a cycle that works, such as by associating the different motions of the sun and sensations of the day with the figures, or by linking the changes in the seasons with the figures, then that’s probably the more important thing.

Unlike my older grammatomantic calendars, where the order of the letters provided a useful guide to how the system should “flow”, the geomantic figures have no such inherent order, but can be ordered any number of ways (binary numeral equivalence, element and subelement, planetary, zodiacal order by Gerard of Cremona or by Agrippa, within one of the 256 geomantic emblems, the traditional ordering of odu Ifá which we shouldn’t ever actually use because this isn’t Ifá, etc.).  Or, alternatively, new orders can be made thematically, such as a “solar order” that starts with Fortuna Maior at sunrise, continues through the figures including Fortuna Minor at sunset, and so forth.  This would be a matter of experimentation, exploration, and meditation to see what figure matches up best with what part of a cycle, if an already existing order isn’t used as a base.

I do feel a little bad at not offering a better alternative to the problem that the original poster on Facebook posed, instead just shooting it down with all my own hangups.  Over time, I’d eventually like to start building up a geomantic calendar of sorts so as to try timing things for geomantic spirits and rituals, but that’ll have to wait for another time.  Instead, going back to the original problem statement, how can we use time to come up with four Mothers?  Well, perhaps we can try this:

  1. Consider four lists of geomantic figures: binary (B), elemental (E), planetary (P), and zodiac (Z).  Pick a list you prefer; for this method, I recommend the simple binary list (Populus, Tristitia, Albus…Via).  Enumerate the figures within this list from 0 to 15.
  2. Look at the current time and date of the query being asked.
  3. Take the second (1 through 59, and if the second is 0, use 60), minute (ditto), and hour (1 through 23, and if 0, use 24).  Add together, divide by 16, and take the remainder.  This is key 1.
  4. Take the day of the year (1 through 365 or 366), divide by 16, and take the remainder.  This is key 2.
  5. Take the year, divide by 16, then take the remainder.  This is key 3.
  6. Add up all the digits of the current second, minute, hour, day, and year.  Divide this number by 16, then take the remainder.  This is key 4.
  7. For each key, obtain the corresponding Mother by finding the figure associated with the key in the list you choose.

So, for instance, say I ask a query on September 25, 2017 at 9:34:49 in the evening.  According to the method above, starting with the actual math on step #3:

  1. Since 9 p.m. is hour 21 of the day, 49 + 34 + 21 = 104.  The remainder of this after dividing by 16 is 8, so K1= 8.
  2. September 25 is day 268 of year 2017.  The remainder of 268 ÷ 16 is 12, so K2 = 12.
  3. The remainder of 2017 ÷ 16 is 1, so K3 = 1.
  4. 49 + 34 + 21 + 268 + 2017 = 2389, and the remainder of this after dividing by 16 is 5, so K4 = 5.
  5. Using the binary list, (K1, K2, K3, K4) = (8, 12, 1, 5), which yields the Mother figures Laetitia, Fortuna Minor, Tristitia, and Acquisitio.

While this is not a perfect method, since the number of days in a year is not perfectly divisible by 16, the possibilities of each figure appearing as a Mother are not exactly equal to 1/16, but the process is decent enough for pretty solid divination based on time alone.  Instead of using purely date/time-based methods, you could also use the birth information of the querent alongside the date and time of the query, use the figures for the current geomantic hour/lunar mansion/Sun sign of the Zodiac, or numerologically distill the query by counting the number of letters or words used or by using gematria/isopsephy to distill and divide the sum of the content of the query.  So, I a method like what the original poster was proposing could certainly work on strictly numerical principles alone, just not on the astrological or planetary cyclical methods proposed.

As for geomantic cycles, dear reader, what do you think?  If you were to link the geomantic figures to, say, the phases of the moon, the eight “spokes” of the neopagan Wheel of the Year, or the flow of light and darkness across a day reckoned sunrise-to-sunrise, how would you go about creating such a cycle?  Have you used the geomantic hours, and if so, have you run into the same problems I have, or have you used them with good effect, in lieu of or in addition to the normal planetary hours?

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An upcoming geomancy course by the splendid Dr Al Cummins!

What with all the recent influx of traffic from my hilarious geomantic chat with the wonderful Gordon White yesterday on Rune Soup, I figured that this is as good a time as any to mention that there’s a series of online geomancy courses coming up in October this year by Dr Al Cummins hosted by those dastardly handsome purveyors of materia and magic Wolf & Goat.  I name-dropped Al in the podcast yesterday, but let me say a bit more about him in case you’re woefully unfamiliar.

Dr Al, as you might know, is one of the most excellent academic-minded magicians of our time; he literally has a PhD in English magic, necromancy, and history, and has quite a bit more than a fancy bit of paper to back himself up with.  Amongst many other things, he’s also one of the foremost geomancers I can think of, and I can say without hesitation that he’s one of the few to legitimately give me a hard run for my money.  In addition to co-hosting Radio Free Golgotha, he’s also the author and publisher of several modern works on various topics in the occult, ranging from astrology to Cypriana and everything in-between.  If I am, as Gordon says, “luminously bright”, then Al is brilliantly stellar.  Plus, he has that luxuriously dulcet Commonwealth accent which just makes you feel like you’re being cherished and educated at a proper university; there’s nothing bad about any of this.

If you’re interested in signing up for the good doctor’s geomancy courses, time is running out!  You can either choose the two-part Sunday classes (three hours each on October 1 and 8) or the four-part Tuesday classes (1.5 hours each on October 3, 10, 17, and 24); either way, the cost is the same (US$80) and the same information will be given in both; this course will also pave the way for future, more advanced courses on deeper geomantic technique and sorcery.  Spots are limited, so if you’re interested, hop on soon!  For more information, go to the Wolf & Goat page on the class, and just follow the instructions.  Personally speaking, I’ve signed up for the Sunday classes already, and I’m excited to hear the good doctor speak on all these topics geomantical.

I was on a podcast!

Yanno how fleeting and excellent college hookups are?  That’s basically what it was like this week with the wonderfully crazy Gordon White over at Rune Soup.

First off, I am incensed and appalled at the man because, in my quest to learn more about the Arbatel and similar works, I finally signed up to take his lectures on the history, development, and use of grimoires (which come bundled with the rest of his premium membership stuff, like forums, etc.).  For one, there’s apparently an old, early proto-grimoire called the Kyranides which is a handbook of various magical things you can do with herbs, stones, animals, and whatnot…all categorized by the Greek alphabet.  I had never even heard of this before, despite that it apparently was the most dangerous book to own for a solid 500 years or so in Europe; this gives my Mathesis stuff a whole new realm of data to work and play with, and I’m utterly fuming I hadn’t come across it yet.  Second, like, dude.  It’s Gordon.  He’s good, that should come as no surprise, but I didn’t expect this all to be that good.  This is quite literally a “shut up and take my money” kind of moment for me.

ANYWAY

So he and I were BSing (as we are wont to do) on Twitter, and he asked me to talk on his podcast.  So I did, and the results can be found over at his blog.  An excellent time to be had by all, wherein we talk about geomancy, PGM, weird family stuff, and how awful people are generally; do give it a listen.

On the Three Biblical Magi as Spiritual Allies

So, Christmas has come and gone, but it’s still the Christmas season, more traditionally called Christmastide.  Surely, dear reader, if you’ve grown up in the Anglophone world, you’re familiar with that old carol The Twelve Days of Christmas, yes?  Many non-Catholics or non-traditional Christians think that these are referring to the twelve days leading up to Christmas Day, but it’s actually just the reverse; Christmastide begins at sunset on December 24 and ends at sunset on January 5, the evening before Epiphany, spanning twelve days in the process.  So, even though Christmas was this past Sunday, there’s still so much going on over the next few days:

  • December 25: Christmas
  • December 26: Feast of St. Stephen
  • December 28: Childermass, or Day of the Holy Innocents
  • January 1: Feast of the Circumcision of Christ, Solemnity of Mary Mother of God

All this culminates on January 6, the Feast of the Epiphany, also known as the Theophany.  Many modern Catholic churches celebrate this mass on the Sunday closest to January 6 (between January 2 and January 8), but I prefer to keep to the day itself instead of the archdiocese’s schedule.  This day celebrates the revelation of God through the mortal Jesus to the world, and most famously remembers the visitation of three special people to the babe in the manger.  When you think of a Nativity scene, with Mary and Joseph in the manger with Jesus in the crib of hay, what else comes to mind?  Gabriel above, perhaps, maybe alongside a bright star, and a number of shabby-looking nomads and herders around.  Among the crowd coming to see the newborn King, however, there are often three special people who stand tall amongst the rest.

Usually decked in flowing and elaborate robes and accompanied by at least one camel, the Three Kings are among the gatherers to witness and praise the newborn Son of God.  Also known as the Wise Men or Magi, this bit of Bible lore comes from Matthew 2:1–12:

After Jesus was born in Bethlehem in Judea, during the time of King Herod, Magi from the east came to Jerusalem and asked, “Where is the one who has been born king of the Jews? We saw his star when it rose and have come to worship him.”  When King Herod heard this he was disturbed, and all Jerusalem with him. When he had called together all the people’s chief priests and teachers of the law, he asked them where the Messiah was to be born. “In Bethlehem in Judea,” they replied, “for this is what the prophet has written:

“‘But you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah,
are by no means least among the rulers of Judah;
for out of you will come a ruler
who will shepherd my people Israel.’”

Then Herod called the Magi secretly and found out from them the exact time the star had appeared. He sent them to Bethlehem and said, “Go and search carefully for the child. As soon as you find him, report to me, so that I too may go and worship him.”

After they had heard the king, they went on their way, and the star they had seen when it rose went ahead of them until it stopped over the place where the child was. When they saw the star, they were overjoyed. On coming to the house, they saw the child with his mother Mary, and they bowed down and worshiped him. Then they opened their treasures and presented him with gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh. And having been warned in a dream not to go back to Herod, they returned to their country by another route.

In other words, at some point soon after the birth of Jesus (between 40 days and two years after the birth itself), several magi came from the East following a particularly interesting star that led them to Judaea so as to meet with the coming “king of the Jews”.  They met with Herod, the puppet king installed by the Romans who ruled Judea at the time, to ask him where the new ruler could be found; this promptly caused Herod and the other elite and aristocracy in Judea to freak out, due to the fragile balance of power and protection that Rome afforded Judea at the time (cf. later in Jesus’ life when he was being proclaimed to be king, which would have upset the power structure as a symbol of insurrection against Roman rule, and thus resulted in his crucifixion).  Herod, disguising his fear and plotting under a mask of reverence, tells the Magi what his advisers told him according to old Jewish prophecy: Bethlehem, the birthplace of the old King David.  Herod sent the Magi off to Bethlehem and told them to return and pass along where, specifically, the newborn ruler could be found so that Herod too could “go and worship him”, though he was going to have the God-child murdered instead.  The Magi left Herod’s, followed the Star of Bethlehem, and finally come to find Jesus with Mary (not necessarily in a manger at this point), and they presented their three gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh to him.  A dream was sent to them that warned them not to return to Herod, so they left Bethlehem and Judea generally by a different route entirely, declining to tell Herod where Jesus could be found; around this same time, Mary’s husband Joseph was similarly warned in a dream to flee to Egypt with his family.  And so the Magi went back to the East and Jesus et al. went to the West, as Herod realized that he had been duped by the Magi and ordered all boys in Bethlehem and the surrounding area under the age of two years old to be murdered.  Only once Herod died did Joseph receive another dream telling him to return to Israel, but we never hear of the Magi again in the Bible.  Traditions have surfaced since then that say that, due to their recognizing God in Jesus, they either professed a kind of proto-Christianity on the spot, or later willingly became full Christians after having encountered an apostle of Jesus; they were then martyred, possibly in the southern part of the Arabian Peninsula, and their remains were discovered by Saint Helena in Palestine and transported to the Church of Hagia Sophia in Constantinople, and eventually (by way of Milan and the Holy Roman Empire) to the Shrine of the Three Kings in the High Cathedral of Saint Peter in Cologne, Germany.

Although technically the Bible doesn’t specify exactly how many of the magi came to see Jesus, the nativity scene in Matthew explicitly lists three gifts, so it has become tradition for there to be three of them, one king bearing one gift each.  These gifts are gold, myrrh, and frankincense, each of which were (and are!) precious goods of no small price themselves, but also have spiritual symbolism regarding the prophesied life of Jesus as Messiah:

  • Gold, as one of the most recognizable precious metals, has always stood as a symbol of wealth, status, and royalty to many people across the world.  It is rare, and it adorns the bodies and palaces of those who have money and power enough to obtain it; I don’t think much explanation here is necessary.  Hermetic magicians know gold as a metal representing the perfection of body and spirit, but also that of the Sun’s might as it rules the solar system.  In the Three Kings story, gold is a symbol of Jesus as King, come to bring rule and dominion to the world as he establishes the Kingdom of God on Earth.
  • Frankincense is a bright yellow to white resin most famously used as an incense and an ingredient in anointing oils, and has mild psychotropic uses as an antidepressant.  It has a bright and vaguely citrusy smell, and has been used in religious rituals for thousands of years across the world.  In Semitic languages, its name reflects its white or milky nature, and Judaism has frankincense as a symbol of the Divine Name and an emblem of prayer generally.  Frankincense, in other words, indicates the presence and worship of the Divine.  Hermetic magicians know this to be an especially good substance for Solar works, but many grimoires and traditions say that frankincense may be used as a general incense for any ritual or spirit.  In the Three Kings story, frankincense is a symbol of Jesus as God, worthy of our veneration and praise and prayer, with frankincense burnt as a sacrifice to adore and worship God as Man.
  • Myrrh is a dark brown or black resin used in incense, medicine, and embalming of dead bodies.  Its name comes from Semitic languages meaning “bitter”, given its metallic bitterwseet aroma and taste, and has been used in medicine both as an antiseptic and a painkiller.  In Egypt, myrrh was used for embalming of mummies, and has had long-standing associations with death and the tomb, though it was also used as an anointing oil generally.  Famously, at the crucifixion of Jesus, Mark 15:23 describes Jesus as being given a drink of wine mixed with myrrh.  Hermetic magicians recall the association of myrrh as one of the plants and incenses associated with Saturn and the sephirah Binah, the third emanation of God.  In the Three Kings story, myrrh is a symbol of Jesus as Mortal, born human and destined to die as human, with a life full of pain, bitterness, sorrow, and suffering, with myrrh there to help him numb the pain in life and to protect the body in death.

Most traditionally, the three high-and-powerful guys who come to visit Jesus are known as magi, a Greek word that should be familiar to all my readers: each one of them was a μαγος, a magician-priest or (euphemistically) a “wise man” who knew the workings of the cosmos and how things come to be and how things can be used in this world to affect everything else.  Note that each of the gifts they brought not only have monetary value but spiritual value, as well.  They are giving the tools and supplies of their own magical and priestly trade to Jesus, not just as a “gift”, but as tribute; after all, one does not give their ruler a “gift”, since the ruler could just take what they want from their subjects as their own regal right, but one gives tribute to their king, showing that they owe all they have and could produce to the blessing of their ruler.  The Three Magi recognized Jesus as their ruler, even bowing down, kneeling, and worshiping him; they thus recognized that Jesus is the source of their power and their protection and salvation in the future.

It is important to note that the word μαγος had slightly different connotations than it does now.  In ancient Persia, the μαγοι were a specific caste of astronomer-priests, the same one that the prophet Zoroaster belonged to; these priests paid specific attention to astrology, and since astrology was (and is) considered one of the foremost sciences of the world, the μαγοι were not only priests but scientists.  They kept track of the passage of the planets and stars, and had a role to play in determining the lives of people in Persia, though the term is not synonymous with “king”.  Rather, the idea of the Three Magi being kings is one adopted from Old Testament prophecy, where it is described that all the kings of the world shall fall down and worship the Messiah.  With these three roles coming together—scientist of the world, priest of the soul, king of the people—we have the three routes of understanding and working with the world, and three types of elders who rule the world and the affairs of its people.  Thus, according to the Three Kings story, no matter what path in life one turns to, all paths lead to the selfsame Divinity.

The most common names for the Three Kings are Melchior, Balthazar, and Caspar, sometimes with small variants in the spellings.  As for their origins, there are two major traditions about where each king comes from:

  • The most traditional set of origins for the Three Kings has Melchior coming from Persia, Balthazar from either Babylon or Arabia (the two, historically, were not considered too different as large areas), and Caspar from India.  These are all, generally, to the East of old Judea, and are each considered ancient places of wisdom and learning befitting their status as “wise men” or Magi, though technically only one of them could be a true μαγος, with Melchior being the only Persian among them.  Still, astrology and priestly religions filled these regions, so to Jewish eyes, they would all be equivalent as noble heathenry.
  • In the Americas, especially in Latin American spiritual communities where the Three Kings are one of the more popular religious icons, they represent the three religious, spiritual, and occult traditions that came together to form the modern spiritual life in the Western hemisphere: Melchior represents the European or “white” religions, Balthazar the African or “black” religions, and Caspar the religions indigenous to the native inhabitants of the Americas.

It’s generally agreed-upon that Melchior is the king bearing gold, Balthazar myrrh, and Caspar frankincense.  As traditional iconography is often wont to do, each king has a set of color associated with them to make them easier to pick out when one can’t necessarily see the gifts they bring.  Additionally, by correspondence with each gift, not only can they be seen as emblems of the life of Jesus, but also as spiritual strengths that humanity is to exercise.  Plus, befitting their status as magicians, each can be tied to one of the three Hermetic arts of alchemy, astrology, and theurgy as suggested by the Emerald Tablet of Hermes Trismegistus:

King Origin Color Gift
Traditional New World Matter Symbol Strength Art
Melchior Persia Europe White
Gold
Gold Kingship Virtue Alchemy
Caspar India Indigenous Brown
Green
Frankincense Divinity Prayer Theurgy
Balthazar Babylon
Arabia
Africa Black
Purple
Myrrh Sacrifice Suffering Astrology

So why bring all this up?  Well, I have a small on-again-off-again practice with the Three Kings, and I figure, what with Epiphany coming up so soon, that perhaps it’s a good time to get the word out about them.  After all, much of modern Western occulture seems to either ignore or be ignorant of the Three Kings, when we have—literally hidden in plain sight—biblically attested and venerated magicians known the world over as purveyors of wisdom, power, grace, charity, and gifts.  Plus, with many of my colleagues working in various ATR, hoodoo, or other eclectic spiritual paths, I think many of us could benefit from this trio of eclectic magicians with a running work of two-thousand-plus years.

What can the Three Magi do for us?  Well, they’re magicians, scientists, priests, and kings.  Do you want to become any of these things?  Do you want to learn any of these disciplines?  Ask and ye shall receive!  If you consider the traditional origins of the Three Magi, you have a spiritual link to the old astrologers of Persia, the conjurers of Babylon, and the monks of India to learn from them, the ancient civilizations that even ancient Egypt considered to be wise; you have a mentor in each of the three Hermetic Arts of alchemy, astrology, and theurgy to guide and teach you as you want to grow and learn; these are masters of seeking what we are meant to find, our guides on the many paths up the mountain of Divinity.  If you’re involved in a diasporic ATR like Santeria or Umbanda, you have links to the three influences that culminate in your practice: European religion with Solomonic rituals, African gods and magic, and native or indigenous practices that still survive and breathe through these practices.  If you consider the role of the Three Kings as Santa-like dispensers of gifts and prosperity, then they become powerful friends who can help you obtain your desires and wishes.  As the first adorers of Christ, they represent pilgrims putting faith and working in their own disparate religions, coming together to uncover the One, the Source, the Whole that underlies all religions and practices.

How can we set up a space or shrine for the Three Magi?  Unfortunately, I haven’t found many resources in English on specific offerings, workings, or rituals one can do with them, but it’s not hard to guess for those who have worked with other saints or entities how to entreat and build a relationship with the Magi.  For setting up a shrine, you could do for the Three Magi what one might do for any Christian saint: get an image, such as statues or an icon, of the Three Kings, a candle, and a glass for liquid offerings, and set them up respectfully on a platform, shelf, or table.  I prefer to have a camel figurine with them, representing their own faithful steed who bears their burdens, and set out a smaller glass of water just for the camel, sometimes atop a bed of fresh cut grass as well.  For libations for the Three Kings, when not offering water, I suggest something very sweet: dessert wines, juice or fruit nectar with a bit of rum, maybe a fruity soda with some vodka.  Alternatively, one could offer three drinks together for each of the magi: one of water, one of juice, and one of wine.  You can burn a single candle for all Three Magi, and many botanicas or spiritual stores sell premade/dressed candles for this reason, but you can also set out three smaller candles as well, one for each.  Besides the images of the Three Kings and, perhaps, an image of a camel, I also incorporate a Star of Bethlehem into my shrine, hanging from above as the Three Kings look up adoringly at it.

So, what about prayers?  Again, being minor figures in Bible lore, there’s no wealth or treasure of prayers to the Three Magi like how there might be for, say, the Archangel Gabriel or Saint Cyprian of Antioch, but there are a few things I like to call on when working with the Three Magi.  Probably the most well known of all such texts is a common Christmastide carol that commemorates the Three Kings called, perhaps shockingly, We Three Kings, written by the Episcopalian rector John Henry Hopkins, Jr. in 1857.  It’s a lovely bit of minor-key music that recalls the quest, gifts, and symbolism of what the Three Kings brought to Jesus:

We three kings of Orient are
Bearing gifts we traverse afar
Field and fountain, moor and mountain
Following yonder star

(Refrain)
O Star of wonder, star of night

Star with royal beauty bright
Westward leading, still proceeding
Guide us to thy Perfect Light

Born a King on Bethlehem’s plain
Gold I bring to crown Him again
King forever, ceasing never
Over us all to reign

(Refrain)

Frankincense to offer have I
Incense owns a Deity nigh
Prayer and praising, all men raising
Worship Him, God most high

(Refrain)

Myrrh is mine, its bitter perfume
Breathes of life of gathering gloom
Sorrowing, sighing, bleeding, dying
Sealed in the stone-cold tomb

(Refrain)

Glorious now behold Him arise
King and God and Sacrifice
Alleluia, Alleluia
Sounds through the Earth and Skies

(Refrain)

There are many renditions of this carol, some more beautiful or haunting than others, which you can find on YouTube or sung at your local church or whatever this time of year.  The song itself is one I use frequently as an introductory prayer when approaching the Three Magi, and a good way to get into the mindset of working with them.  Beyond that, many of the usual prayers used for Epiphany refer to the Three Kings, and while they have special potency when used on Epiphany itself, they can be used at any time of the year.

In addition to doing once-off things, since Epiphany is coming up, why not a novena?  As you’re probably already aware, dear reader, novenas are nine-day sets of prayers done leading up to and completing on the feast of some saint or holy figure, and the Three Kings have their own novena for Epiphany, as well.  This would mean, then, that for the Feast of the Epiphany on January 6, novenas for Epiphany and the Three Kings should begin tomorrow, Thursday December 29.  The most common novena I can find is a fairly standard, easy Catholic one, with a short invocation to the Magi followed by a Gloria Patri, with the invocation for each day focusing on a different virtue of the Magi that the one performing the novena wishes to inculcate in themselves:

  1. Hope for the birth of the Messiah
  2. Speed and conviction to seek the Messiah
  3. Strength to persevere any difficulty for the sake of the Messiah
  4. Humility to seek help to find the Messiah
  5. Joy in the face of despair when lost finding the Messiah
  6. Faith in finding holiness amidst filth and poverty for the Messiah
  7. Charity, prayer, and penance as gifts for and tribute to the Messiah
  8. Protection from danger in staying true to the Messiah
  9. Attaining the beatific vision of the Divine as a result of one’s spiritual vows and believing in the Messiah

Instead of just that, however, since a novena takes place over nine days, since 9 = 3 × 3, and there are three gifts from Three Magi, I also figured that it might be good to explore the threefold symbolism of each gift of the Magi by means of a small meditation on each day, broken up into three groups of three:

  • Meditations of Melchior Bearing Gold
    • Day 1: Birth of Royalty in Squalor and Scorn.
    • Day 2: Crowning of Man in the World.
    • Day 3: Rulership over All.
  • Meditations of Caspar Bearing Frankincense
    • Day 4: Prayer of Man ascending to Heaven.
    • Day 5: Elevation of the Spirits of Mankind.
    • Day 6: Holiness of Divinity.
  • Meditations of Balthazar Bearing Myrrh
    • Day 7: Grief and Suffering in the Hearts of Mankind.
    • Day 8: Death and Entombing of Man in the World.
    • Day 9: Resurrection in the World into Heaven.

Also, it’s a tradition in some Catholic countries and communities to take a piece of chalk blessed on Epiphany and bless one’s house by it in a special formula.  Given the year XXYY (such that the year 2017 would have XX = 20 and YY = 17), one would write “XX + C + M + B + YY” (or, for this coming year, “20 + C + M + B + 17”) on the top threshold of the front door.  This calls on the three initials of the Magi and,  by it, asks them to bring gifts to the home for the new year just as they brought gifts to the new life of Jesus, but the letters also stand for the Latin phrase “Christus Mansionem Benedictat”, or “May Christ bless [this] home”.  Depending on the community, this is done sometimes by the local priest, sometimes by the head of the household, or sometimes by carolers specifically blessed and charged with playing out the role of the Three Kings for the community.  I do this for my own house, and leave up the chalk until the end of the year when I do my whole-house cleaning and cleansing, leaving the lintel bare until Epiphany.

While my own relationship with the Three Kings is still nascent, I plan on committing more time with them later on once my current spiritual projects and processes wind down, but I do like to give them focus this time of year regardless.  Perhaps later on, I’ll start compiling some of my ideas for workings, oils, and the like with the Three Kings for others to use, but right now, what I have is pretty bare.  What about you?  Do you work with the Three Kings?  If so, how do you work with them, and what are some of your experiences in working with them as spiritual saints?