Generating Geomantic Figures

After my fantastic and entertaining chat with Gordon on his Rune Soup podcast, and in tandem with the good Dr Al’s course on the fundamentals and history of the art, there’s been a huge influx of interest in geomancy, to which I say “about goddamned time”.  As my readers (both long-term and newly-come) know, I’m somewhat of a proponent of geomancy, and I enjoy writing about it; it’s flattering and humbling that my blog is referred to as a “treasure trove” of information on the art, and I consistently see that my posts and pages on geomancy are increasingly popular.  It’s also encouraging enough to get me to work more on my book, which…if I actually get off my ass and work on it like I need to and should have been doing for some time now, will probably get put to consumable paper sometime late next year.

One of the most common questions I find people asking when they first get introduced to the art of geomancy is “how do people generate the geomantic figures?”  Unlike other forms of divination, geomancy isn’t tied down to one specific means or method.  Tarot and all forms of cartomancy use cards, astrology uses the planets and stars, scrying uses some sort of medium to, well, scry; we often classify methods of divination based on the set of tools it uses, and give it an appropriately-constructed Greek term ending in -mancy.  Geomancy is different, though; truly any number of methods can be used to produce a geomantic figure, because geomancy is more about the algorithms and techniques used in interpretation rather than the tools it uses to produce a reading.  Once you get into the feel and understanding of geomancy, you can almost quite literally pull a chart out of thin air using any tools (or none at all!) at your disposal.  Still, partially because of the ability to be so free-wheeling, newcomers to geomancy are often caught up in the tool-centric way of thinking of divination, and can become (I find) overly concerned with the “best” or “most popular” method.

To that end, let me list some of the ways it’s possible to come up with a geomantic figure.  I don’t intend for this to be an exhaustive list, but more of a generalized classification of different kinds of ways you can produce a geomantic figure (or more than one in a single go):

  1. Stick and surface.  This is the oldest method, going back to the very origins of the art in the Sahara, where the geomancer takes some stylus and applies it to an inscribable medium.  You can use a staff and a patch of soil on the ground, a wand on a box of sand, a stylus on a wax (or modern electronic) tablet, a pen on paper, or some other similar mechanic.  To use this method, simply make four lines of dots, traditionally from right to left.  Don’t count the dots; let them fall naturally, so that a random number of dots are in each line.  Some people get into a trance state, chant a quick prayer, or simply focus on the query while they make the dots, if only to distract the mind enough to avoid counting the dots and influencing what comes out.  Once you have four lines, count the dots in each line; traditionally, the geomancer would cross off the dots two-by-two (again, right-to-left) until either one or two dots were left over at the end.  These final leftover dots are then “separated” out from the line to form a single figure.  To make all four figures, simply increase the number of lines from four to sixteen, and group the rows of leftover dots into consecutive, non-overlapping groups of four rows.
  2. Coins.  This is a simple, minimalist method: flip a coin four times.  Heads means one point of the resulting figure, and tails means two (or you can swap these around, if you so prefer, but I prefer heads = one point).  Flipping a coin four times gets you four rows to make a complete figure.  Alternatively, you could flip four coins at once, perhaps of different denominations: for example, you could flip a penny for the Fire line, a nickle for the Air line, a dime for the Water line, and a quarter for the Earth line; a single throw of all four coins at once gets you a complete geomantic figure.  I consider any method that uses a “flip” to produce a binary answer to fall under this method; thus, the druid sticks used by geomancers like John Michael Greer and Dr Al Cummins would technically be considered a type of geomancy-specific “coin”, as would pieces of coconut shell where the convex side on top is “up” and the concave side on top is “down”.
  3. Divining chain.  This is a slightly modified version of the coin-based method, where four coins or disks are linked together in a chain.  Rather than throwing the coins individually, the chain itself is flung, tossed, or thrown in such a way that each coin falls on a different side.  The only example I can find of this in Western-style divination is the (possibly spurious) Chain of Saint Michael, where four saint medallions are chained, one to another, and connected to a sword charm, but a corollary to this can be found in the Yoruba divination methods of Ifá, using something called the ekuele (or ekpele, or epwele, depending on whether you’re Cuban or Nigerian and how you feel like spelling it).  There, you have four pieces of cut shell that can fall mouth-up or husk-up, or four pieces of metal that fall on one of two sides; notably, the ekuele has eight coins on it so that the diviner-priest can throw two figures at a time, but that’s because of the specific method of Ifá divination, which is only a distant cousin to geomancy and shouldn’t actually be mixed with our techniques.
  4. Dice.  Again, a pretty straightforward method: roll a single die four times, or four different dice one time.  If a given die is an odd number, use a single point; if an even number, use two points.  Some people use four different-colored cubical dice (e.g. red for Fire, yellow for Air, blue for Water, green for Earth), but I prefer to use tabletop RPG dice that come in different shapes.  For this, I use the associations of the Platonic solids to the classical elements: the tetrahedron (d4) for Fire, octahedron (d8) for Air, icosahedron (d20) for Water, and cube (d6) for Earth.  Like Poke Runyon aka Fr. Therion, you could use four knucklebones for the same purpose, as each knucklebone has four sides (traditionally counted as having values 1, 3, 4, and 6).  Dice are easy, the tools fit in a tiny bag which can itself fit into a pocket, and nobody is any the wiser if you just pull some dice out and start throwing them on a street corner.
  5. Counting tokens.  This is a similar method to using dice, but a more general application of it.  Consider a bag of pebbles, beans, or other small mostly-similar objects.  Pull out a random handful, and count how many you end up with.  If the number is odd, give the corresponding row in the geomantic figure a single point; if even, two points.  This is a pretty wide and varied set of methods; you could even, as Nigel Pennick proposes, pull up four potatoes from a field and count whether each potato has an odd or even number of eyes on it.  The idea here is to use something to, again, get you a random number that you can reduce into an odd or even answer, and isn’t really different from using dice, except instead of being presented with a number, you have to count a selection of objects obtained from a collection.  In a sense, both the dice and counting token methods can be generalized as using any random-number generator; you could use something like random.org to get you four (or sixteen) random numbers, to which you simply apply the odd-even reduction; such a generator can be found using this link.
  6. Quartered drawing.  Not really a technique or toolset on its own, but a variation on things that use coins, identical dice, or other counting tokens.  In this, you prepare a surface that’s cut into four quarters, such as a square with four quadrants or a quartered circle.  Each quarter is given to one of the four elements, and thus, to one of the four rows of a geomantic figure.  Into each quarter, you’d randomly flip one of four coins or drop a random number of beans, and read the pattern that’s produced as a single figure.  This can be useful if you’re short on similar-but-not-identical tools (like only having four pennies instead of four different types of coin, or four identical dice instead of different-colored/shaped dice).
  7. Selection of numbers.  One method of geomantic generation I know is used in Arabic-style geomancy is to ask the querent for a number from 1 to 16 (or, alternatively, 0 to 15).  Arabic-style geomancy places a huge emphasis on taskīn, or specific orders of the figures which are correlated with different attributions; one such taskīn, the Daira-e-Abdah, simply arranges the geomantic figures numerically, using their representation as binary numbers.  From the Ilm-e-Ramal group on Facebook, here’s a presentation of this taskīn with each figure given a number from 1 through 16:
    Personally, I use a different binary order for the figures (reading the Earth line as having binary value 1, Water as binary value 2, Air as binary value 4, and Fire as binary value 8), where Populus = 0 (or 16), Tristitia = 1, Albus = 2, and so forth, but the idea is the same.  To use this method, simply get four random numbers from 1 to 16 or (0 to 15), and find the corresponding figure in the binary order of the figures.  You could ask for larger numbers, of course; if a number is greater than 16 (or 15), divide the number by 16 and take the remainder.  You could use dice to produce these numbers, or just ask the querent (hopefully ignorant of the binary order used!) for a number.  In fact, you’re not bound by binary ordering of the figures; any ordering you like (planetary, elemental, zodiacal, etc.) can be used, so long as you keep it consistent and can associate the figures with a number from 1 to 16 (or 0 to 15).
  8. Playing cards.  A standard deck of 52 playing cards can be used for geomantic divination, too, and can give that sort of “gypsy aesthetic” some people like.  More than just playing 52-Pickup and seeing whether any four given cards fall face-up or face-down to treat cards as coins, you can draw four cards and look at different qualities of the cards to get a different figure.  For instance, are the cards red or black, odd or even, pip or face?  With four cards, you can make a single figure; with 16, you can make four Mothers.  Better than that, you can use all the different qualities of any given card of a deck to generate a single figure, making the process much more efficient; I’ve written about that recently at this post, which you should totally read if you’re interested.  What’s nice about this method is that you can also use Tarot cards for the same purpose, and some innovators might come up with geomancy-specific spreads of Tarot that can combine the meanings of the Tarot cards that fall with the geomantic figures they simultaneously form, producing a hybrid system that could theoretically be super involved and detailed.
  9. Geomantic tokens.  Some geomancers have tools that directly incorporate the figures, so instead of constructing a figure a line at a time like with coins or beans, a whole figure is just produced on its own.  Consider a collection of 16 tokens, like a bag of 16 semiprecious stones (like what the Astrogem Geomancy people use), or a set of 16 wooden discs, where each token has a distinct figure inscribed on each.  Reach into the bag, pull out a figure; easy as that.  If you use a bag of 16 tokens and are drawing multiple figures at once, like four Mothers, you’ll need to draw with replacement, where you put the drawn token back into the bag and give it a good shake before drawing the next.  Alternatively, if you wanted to draw without replacement, you’ll need a collection of 64 tokens where each figure is given four tokens each, such as a deck of cards where a single figure is printed onto four cards.

As for me?  When I was first starting out, I used the pen-and-paper method (or stick-and-surface method, to be more general).  This was mostly to do a sort of “kinetic meditation” to get me into the mode and feel of geomancy, going back to its origins as close as I could without being a Bedouin wise-man in the wastes of the Sahara.  After that, I made a 64-card deck of geomancy cards, with each figure having four cards.  I’d shuffle the deck, cut it into fourths from right to left, and flip the top card of each stack to form the Mothers.  For doing readings for other people in person, like at a bookstore or psychic faire, I’ll still use this; even if geomancy isn’t familiar to people, “reading cards” is, so it helps them feel more comfortable giving them a medium they’re already familiar with.  Plus, I also can get the querent’s active involvement in the divination process by having them be the ones to cut the deck after I’ve shuffled; I’ll still flip the top card, but I find having them cut the deck gives them a meaningful inclusion into the process.  Generally, though, I use tabletop RPG dice for the Platonic solids.  I roll the dice and see whether each die is odd or even for a single figure, so four throws of dice get me four Mothers.  Nowadays, I only use the stick-and-surface method if I have truly nothing else at hand, because I find the process to be slow and messy, but it still works, and I can still rely on my own familiarity with it so that it doesn’t trip me up when I have to use it.

What would I suggest for newcomers to the art?  Like me, I’d recommend new geomancers to start with the stick-and-surface method, if only to develop an intimacy with the underlying, traditional method that produced all the others.  In a sense, doing this first is like a kind of initiation, practicing the same fundamental technique as have geomancers for a thousand years, and itself can be a powerful portal into the currents of the art.  Once you have that down-pat and have gotten into the feel of the art, though, I find that the method is pretty much up to the desires and whims of the geomancer.  Anything that returns a binary answer can be used for geomancy, but for convenience, some people might prefer instead a “whole figure” type of draw.  Once you settle on a set of tools, for those who are of a more magical or ritual bent, you may want to consider consecrating or blessing them, or entrusting them to the connection and care of a divining or talking spirit, according to whatever methods you find appropriate, but this isn’t strictly necessary for the art, either.

Ultimately, the tools you use for geomancy are entirely up to you, because it’s the techniques and algorithms we use that are what truly makes the art of geomancy.  The only thing I really recommend is that the geomancer takes an active role in divinely manipulating the tools used to produce the figures.

How about you, dear reader?  What methods do you use for geomantic generation?  Have you heard of any that aren’t on the list above, or aren’t included in any of the above classifications?  What are you most comfortable with?  What methods do you dislike, either on a practical or theoretical level?  What would you recommend?

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Four Coin Divination of Hermes

So, between geomancy, grammatomancy, and astragalomancy, as well as a working knowledge of astrology both horary and otherwise, my divination needs are pretty much set.  I can determine what’s going on with a few throws of bones or letters or geomantic figures, and all these methods have served me well.  The problem is that, often, these oracles give me too much information when I don’t need anything more than a yes or no answer.  Geomancy is definitely geared for that with its inherent binary structure, but drawing up a full geomantic chart can sometimes be a little too much for something that needs a quick answer or confirmation from the spirits.  Although simpler than geomancy, grammatomancy and astragalomancy provide too much to interpret.  For instance, if I want to know whether a bottle of wine is sufficient payment for asking Hermes to help me out with something, getting “The one on the left bodes well for everything” is a little too vague and unclear for me.

Yes/no divination is one of the simplest forms of divination that can be done with tools.  You don’t need much more than a coin to flip, after all, but that seems a little too basic, and I do appreciate a bit of nuance.  I mean, imagine how body language, intonation, and subtle gestures can change a “yes” or “no” from your parents.  I suppose I could use whether the isopsephy of the letter or the sum of the astragaloi is odd or even for yes or no, but that seems like reaching a bit.  That said, I actually do have a divination system perfect for this, that of nkobos, a set of four cowrie shells I use in my ancestor and ATR work.  In it, you take four cowrie shells that have the “lump” shaved or cracked off so that it can fall on one of two sides; you ask your question to the spirits, throw the shells, inspect how many fall with the natural mouth up or down, and get your answer based on that.  This is identical to the use of chamalongos, or coconut shells, as used in Santeria and Palo and several other ATRs.  While I have a set of fed and prepared cowrie shells I use when working with my ancestors and spirits in those traditions, it always seemed weird to me to use them with other spirits, even though they provided a very useful tool in answering yes/no divination questions.  After all, cowries weren’t especially used in Greece or Europe generally, nor were coconut shells.  Add to it, I always kept getting hints that the methods of reading shells with ATR spirits was a little different from the theoi and other spirits I work with, like a different manner of interpretation was needed.

Thus, I decided to give up my cowrie shells and use them only with ATR spirits and ancestors, and make a new form of divination with the gods and spirits I normally work with generally and Hermes specifically.  I took the nkobo style of divination, modified it according to the hints I’ve been getting, and ended up with a four-coin divination method in honor of Hermes.  With no further ado, I present to you Οι Χρησμοι των Τεσσερων Νουμισματων, the Oracles of the Four Coins!  Though it is named after him, I’m making a deal with Hermes so that I can use this divination system not just with him but with any spirit with Hermes as ερμηνευτης and αγγελος, interpreter and messenger, between me and the other spirits I work with.

For this method of divination, you will need four coins, small enough so that they can all easily be held in the hand.  Four pennies are perfect for this, for those who live in the US.  Since I work near the Postal Museum in Washington, DC, the museum has one of those penny stretcher-impresser machines with four designs (Ben Franklin, Inverted Jenny, Inverted Train, and Pneumatic Tube stamp designs), so I went there during a recent monthly feast day for Hermes and got them, etched a Mercury symbol on the back, then consecrated them later that night.  You might also get four small gambling tokens, four Mercury dimes, four foreign coins, four ancient Greek coins, four flat stones with each side colored white or black, or other similar objects.  So long as you can establish which side is heads and which is tails, you’ll be set.

The process of divination is simple: ask your question, shake the coins up, cast them down onto a surface, and inspect how many are heads and how many are tails.  The order doesn’t matter; just count how many fall on which side.  In this manner, there are five possible results, and if we assume an ideal coin, they each have a 20% chance of falling (but, of course, the result is decided by the gods).  The meanings of each throw are generally as follows:

  1. All heads (Αγαθα, Blessing): Absolute yes.  The blessing of the gods.  Ease, swiftness, and success.  The gods are pleased with you and you have their aid.  You are acting on the blessed path in line with the will of the gods.  A yes from the heart.  The most positive of results.
  2. Three heads, one tails (Αναβασις, Ascent): Tentative yes.  Rephrase the question to be more specific.  The gods have already spoken.  Don’t ask what you already know.  Propitiating the gods may be helpful.  You may be missing something.  You may need further action to ensure success.
  3. Two heads, two tails (Τετροδος, Four-Way Crossroads): Simple yes but becoming “meh”.  All ways open.  Anything is possible.  You can do it if you so choose, or not if you don’t want to.  It doesn’t matter.  Freedom in any and all directions.  Keep asking more questions.  The gods don’t particularly care whichever way you choose.
  4. One heads, three tails (Καταβασις, Descent): No, perhaps reluctantly.  The situation is not going in that direction.  You’re barking up the wrong tree.  Nothing’s working against you, but it’s just not going to happen.  The gods have judged the matter against you.
  5. All tails (Ατηρια, Evil): Absolute no, a spiteful or angry no.  Don’t ask and stop asking.  Major problems impeding you from your situation.  The gods are angry at you.  You may be cursed, crossed, or stuck in too much miasma.  You need purification, fasting, and propitiation.  You plan or ask about unlawful and amoral things.  Don’t get yourself involved.  The most negative of results.

In a way, this is a lot similar to how I had originally planned the use of my two ten-sided dice divination.  Instead of it being heads or tails on four coins, I rolled 2d10 using a standard tabletop gaming set of dice.  In that system, 99-80 would be associated with Agatha, 79 through 60 with Anabasis, 59 through 40 with Tetrodos, 39 through 20 with Katabasis, and 19 through 00 with Atēria.  That, too, was also based on shell divination, but it was mostly a means by which I could use all seven of my RPG dice in addition to the grammatomancy d12 and geomancy d4, d8, d20, and d6.  Ah well, live and learn.

In addition to getting quick yes/no answers from Hermes on a variety of topics, one of the reasons why I developed this system of divination is so that I can interact with all of the Greek gods and goddesses and heroes and demigods in order to ascertain their wishes and will.  Yes, the coin divination method belongs to Hermes proper, but remember that Hermes is the messenger god who goes between gods and men and is a friend to them both.  The coins can be thrown to ask any spirit and any god what their will is through the intercession and messages of Hermes, who communicates between us and them.  I find this a very valuable thing in my work, although I may resort to other forms of divination such as reading omens or, should I ever develop a proper hand at animal sacrifice, haruspicy.

Theoretically, this is similar to making a geomancy figure: all we need is a way to get a binary result four times, then compare how many of each binary result we get.  You could draw four lines of random dots each (odd or even), pluck up four potatoes and count how many eyes are on each (odd or even), roll a die four times (odd or even), pull four playing cards (red or black), or the like.  That said, I prefer using coins for Hermes since, after all, he is a god of commerce and coins are one of his symbols.  Plus, keeping four coins in your pocket is rather convenient and easily disguised.

Since this is a coin-based divination method, a variant of sortilege, I suppose the proper term for it would be numismatomancy, literally “divination by coins”.  And, since we’re able to make a well-formed word ending in “-mancy”, why not make some ritual numismatomancy?  Honestly, I could write up new rituals for all this, but after describing ritual astragalomancy and the consecration rituals and how to ask a query of the gods, you may as well just review that and adapt it accordingly for the coins from the knucklebones.  Similar rules for how the coins bounce and fall and their relative positions of how they fall can be devised, as well, to get even more nuance out of a single throw of the coins.

As I mentioned, the order the coins are thrown in don’t matter, just how many fall heads or tails.  However, if you draw a distinction between the coins or note the order in which they fall, you could also do geomancy using these.  If you have coins A, B, C, and D, then coin A would relate to the Fire line, coin B to the Air line, coin C to the Water line, and coin D to the Earth line; a throw of heads would mean that line is active, and a throw of tails means that line is passive.  However, the idea came to me that, well, if there are 16 possible combinations of these throws, and if the divination system is assigned to Hermes, then why not take a clue from astragalomancy and assign each combination to a different aspect of Hermes?  It’s not unreasonable to do this; astragalomancy has certain throws relate to Hermes Tetragonos (Hermes Four-Sided, i.e. Herm), Hermes Diaktoros (Hermes the Leader), Hermes Paignios (Hermes the Playful), and Hermes Kerdemporos (Hermes who Brings Gain in Trade).  Besides, I’ve seen Sannion do something similar with his Net of Orpheus, where he links different throws of coins to the different members of the pantheon of the Thiasos of the Starry Bull (though he also has his own Coins of Hermes divination method that I know nothing about, the jerk!).  I may approach Hermes and see how he feels about such a method, and if he likes the idea, which epithets he’d like to ascribe to which throw.  For instance, the throw of tails-heads-tails-heads, which in geomancy would be given to the figure Acquisitio, could be given to Hermes Kerdemporos based on the similarity between the geomantic figure and the epithet of Hermes.  It’s an idea for me to explore.

Speaking of Sannion’s divination system, he mentions the following when describing his Net of Orpheus, which he made as an Orphic variant of the Chain of Saint Michael, a Sicilian/Italian derivative form of geomancy using a series of four Saint Michael medallions in a chain, not unlike the opele chain of a babalawo (diviner priest) of Ifá.  Sannion says:

That said, I do feel a little culturally appropriative since it comes from a living and lineaged tradition (Italian folk Catholicism) which I am not a part of (despite my heredity: my mom was as thoroughly Americanized as they come) but on the other hand I’m not claiming any such thing or the cachet associated with doing so – I’m being perfectly upfront that I found this system and modified it for my own uses, so I kind of hope that cancels that out. (On the other hand Orpheus had a reputation for traveling around and stealing people’s religious tech, as does Melampos the other founder of Bacchic Orphism, so I guess that just means I’m keeping the tradition alive!) Plus, while I think it entirely within the realm of possibility that this technology developed independently in the Mezzogiorno and nevertheless respect the lineage of those who are working with it now – there are some striking similarities between it and Ifá and Mẹrindínlógún, to the point that I’m a little suspicious of its antiquity.

To be honest, I don’t think it’s that big a deal.  Yes, I am deriving a similar form of divination as he was from a similar-ish source.  That said, the Sicilian Chain of Saint Michael is a variant of geomancy, as I see it, just with the association of particular saints to the figures (which is a helpful correspondence for Catholic or conjure-minded geomancers to know).  Every form of geomancy as well as Ifá, Mẹrindínlógún, Nkobo, and Chamalongos all come from Africa and all share a binary system of attaining occult knowledge.  Then again, the system itself is so simple and direct that it’s not inconceivable that other cultures in other eras and areas could have devised similar systems on their own, like the Chinese system of jiaobei.  I see no harm in appropriating and modifying a system to “make” a new one of my own, especially if it can help ascertain the will of the gods better and more clearly.  If I can’t tell whether Hermes wants one bottle of wine or two, or whether he wants me to drop off a particular offering at a crossroads or just throw it in the trash, nobody is going to be particularly happy with the results.

Since getting four pennies is easy for me to obtain, as is getting those stretched pennies from the Postal Museum (which is as much a temple to Hermes Angelos as I’ll ever seen one), I’m considering getting a bunch of these together, consecrating them, and selling them on my Etsy, or just taking custom commissions for them.  What do you think?  Would you be interested in such a set?  Lemme know in the comments if you do, and if the response is strong enough, I might make a permanent listing on my Etsy page for consecrated coins for the purpose.