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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The Nature of Trust of a Tool

One of my favorite songs by one of my favorite bands, “Elissa” by the Crüxshadows, has a particularly poignant bridge towards the end:

Everyone has a purpose
Hidden within our lives
Something we were meant to do
Or feel before we die

It’s not particularly hard to interpret this in a Hermetic or other occult sense, if you know anything about True Will or, said another way, divine destiny.  Everyone is, in some sense, a tool of the Divine or of the Almighty.  Everyone has something that we Chose and Want to accomplish in this world we find ourselves born in, something that only we can properly accomplish.  It’s not just anything, but a particular something that is the only Thing, the only Point or Cause, of our being incarnated here.  Everything we do in our lives is either essential development and build-up to attaining and maintaining that Thing, or nonessential window-dressing that can add flavor (either sweetness or bitterness) to that goal.  So long as we Work towards that Thing, no matter how roundabout or directly, we’re doing what we need to do; we might make it easier or harder for ourselves in the process, and we may very well get waylaid or misled on our paths, but the point still stands that there is a Thing that we must Do, and all that we Work towards is in service of that Thing.

I’ve brought up the idea before that, if we envision the whole grand scheme of things, the Cosmos, as a giant machine, then everyone is a gear in that machine.  So long as we keep on doing what we need to do, every part works in harmony with every other part, and the machine works well.  If even one part, however, gets out of sync or decides to revolt, then much of the rest of the system we find ourselves in can malfunction or break down, and other parts have to accommodate the malfunction until things get into proper working order again.  (This is why life isn’t perfect, I suppose.)  Kalagni of Blue Flame Magick once described this to me (in a discussion on True Will) as how a solar system works: the planets don’t need to think or plan or consciously strive towards orbiting the Sun, they just do it naturally as an expression of their selves and their purpose.  But imagine, dear reader, if a rogue planet suddenly whipped itself into our solar system, or worse, imagine if one of our own planets suddenly got a wild hare up its axis of rotation and jumped out of its orbit.  What happens?  The other planets get knocked out of their own orbits, potentially colliding with other planets or celestial bodies, and the whole system gets out of whack until it finds a new equilibrium to settle down in.  There’s no guarantee that this equilibrium will be equivalent to the previous one, or that the solar system as a whole will survive such an accident, but hey, shit happens.  The Cosmos will do what it needs to do in order to work out its own problems, and its our job to make sure that we do our own Work accordingly to handle our Will, regardless of what the vicissitudes of fate throw at us.

Rather than just thinking of ourselves as gears in a machine, however, consider this from another perspective: that we are tools in the hands of God.  Same idea, just a slightly different expression, but now we pick up other and different concerns.  Every tool is built so as to fix a particular problem: a hammer pushes things in, a crowbar gets things out, tape holds things together quickly but temporarily, glue holds things together over time but more permanently, and so forth.  Every tool has one particular job that it does well; it’s rare to find a true multipurpose tool, since a tool that tries to do many things equally well doesn’t do any particularly thing exceptionally well, especially when compared to a true single-purpose tool.  We each have a particular purpose, and we are the tool built to Work towards that purpose.  Finding what that purpose is (specifically or generally) can not only tell us what we need to do, but also tell us more about ourselves, what we were meant to do, and why we came into the world to do it.  A sword does not hammer in nails, and trying to use a sword as a hammer can result in chipped blades, bent nails, and an overall terrible job of doing something that probably was meant for someone else.

But there’s more to this metaphor of us being made as cosmic tools.  Tools must be properly maintained in order to do their job, either well or even passably.  Consider the sword (and for this, I suggest taking a short detour and reading Meti’s Sword Manual, a text written in service of my new favorite webcomic, Kill Six Billion Demons, which I think every occultist today should read and follow because it’s wonderful).  A sword must be kept oiled so as to prevent rust, out of extreme heat so that it does not warp, and sharpened so that it can actually cut; a sword is made for cutting, and so everything the sword does must be in service of that purpose, and the sword must be kept in a good condition so as to be able to accomplish that purpose.  Further, even when a sword is used to cut, it must be used in a proper way: trying to cut a hardwood tree or a stone will often yield a nicked, chipped, or broken blade, leaving it in a worse condition than it was before due to improper use; another tool for cutting of that specific type, such as an axe or a chisel, would be better, even though they all “cut” in some sense.  It is a combination of knowing both how to maintain a tool before it is used and when to use a tool that preserves the tool for when it is truly needed to do its job well.

Moreover, all a sword does is cut; it is a tool for cutting, and it does so without thought, leaving thought to the wielder of the sword.  A sword does not second-guess itself, and a sword does not make half-cuts or mock-cuts.  A sword cuts, just as its wielder intends for it to.  In the hands of a skilled swordsman, a sword can cut God; in the hands of an untrained one, a sword will cut everything except the intended target, usually the wielder himself.  The sword does not particularly care, because the sword’s purpose is not to plan how to cut, just to cut.  Happily, when we talk about Divinity, we can generally assume that God and the gods are Platonically capital-G Good, and therefore know what is Good and True, and therefore, as tools in their hands, we can have faith that they will not use us when we are not meant to be used.  It’s when we try to act on our own that we need to either have trust in ourselves to do what is right when it is right, or to abandon the situation entirely and avoid what should be avoided.  It’s when we take matters into our own hands, or leave ourselves to be put into the hands of anything less than Divinity, that we risk putting ourselves in harm’s way more than is absolutely necessary, and risk coming out all the worse for it.

How much trust do you put in yourself to know what is proper for you to do?  How can you trust yourself to do what is right and proper for you when the moment is called for?

I’ve been mulling over these problems over the past few days, and…well, it hasn’t been the most pleasant of self-conversations.  I admit that I enjoy dealing in absolutes as much as the next ceremonial magician (or, for that matter, human being with a finite consciousness that likes using rubrics and models of reality qua reality), and I would like to say that I trust myself to do what is right in all circumstances, that I am trustworthy to all.  To do so, however, would be a lie, and I can feel it singeing my heart whenever I even try to complete the thought of saying it.  I, myself, have done a number of regrettable, unfortunate, downright shitty things that I would like to say that I’ve put behind me, that I’ve learned from, that I’ve become better than.  And…the truth is, I haven’t.  I still beat myself up for some of the things I’ve done and said, as much as I try to forgive myself.  I still worry about slipping up again, about making the same mistakes, about committing the same crimes in the future and hurting those whom I hold dear, or myself, or my opportunities and chances for making myself better.  I fear that I’m going to be no better than I always have been, making the same excuses for the same bullshit that I would pull over and over again even given half a chance at it, even though I know better from my own experience that I should never have done them even once.

So, no, I can’t say that I trust myself as a rule, or that I trust myself in all situations to do what’s right in all cases where it’s called for.  I don’t see myself as trustworthy, and honestly, considering why others might consider me trustworthy makes me feel like an awful liar who’s mislead anyone and everyone who’s even cast an eye towards me.  And yet, I know that I have no immediate reason or way to betray these people, nor do I want to.  With even a little introspection, I know what can mislead me into a bad course of action, and what my triggers and temptations are, and I know that within a certain set of parameters, there’s neither any reason nor way to betray them, so I can be trusted, at least a little bit.  I’ve come to appreciate the saying “I trust them as far as I can throw them” in a more nuanced light; within a certain range of expectations and situations, I can be trustworthy, and I can claim to properly and rightfully hold trust, even for myself without that heart-singe, up to a point.  It’s beyond that point that I worry, because I know that if I were to go beyond such a point where it’s not just possible but probable for me to slip up, it’d be more difficult (not impossible!) to come out the other end without erring.

I can’t say that I absolutely trust myself, but I can say that I trust myself up to a point.  For most people, with whom my interactions are limited to a particular sphere of life or action, the points at which I can’t be trusted fall so far out of that sphere that there’s no need to consider me to be anything but trustworthy.  For others, though, the story changes.  I can be trusted with qualifications, and though I’d like to say I’m trustworthy without them, I can’t honestly say that.

While I accept that—mostly, and without the burn of telling a lie to myself—I’m not satisfied with it.  Far from it; while I wouldn’t go so far as to say that I hate myself for not being trustworthy across all cases and situations, I’m certainly not pleased with myself for it, and I want to make myself better.  I want to be able to do my Work without the distractions of regret, fear, worry, self-loathing, and that calls for either papering over the root cause and hoping it never rears its ugly head again (hah!), or actually doing the Work to improve myself to make my overall Work better without such distraction, as much as I am able.  As a sword, I must make sure that I am in the right condition to do my Work, and only limit myself to the range of Work that I am able to do in the form and condition I’m in; more than that, I must hone, tune, and strengthen myself to be able to push my limits, within which I am comfortable enough to work without distraction, and understand the areas into which I push my boundaries and limits.  If I am trustworthy only up to a point, by my own estimation, I need to push that point further so that I can become more trustworthy, and strive to not simply strut past it without care and end up wrecking myself or, worse, those around me.

Self-knowledge, either given to one by oracle or discovered through one’s own life, can hurt in the process of obtaining it.  But they who know more about themselves know how to live differently and better than if they had no such knowledge.  I know the situations in which I risk my own well-being, happiness, and success, and I stride into them at my own peril.  Dealing in absolutes as I do, the nebulous and unpredictable “being at risk of erring and not knowing how I would act” is tantamount to the definite “I will err”, and it’s safer to simply stay out of situations that I’ve been warned away from.  Should the case arise that I find myself in such a situation, it’d behoove me to find my way back out at my earliest convenience while keeping up my guard.  Still, I don’t want to be limited to this; even if the nature of my being is always to be temped by a particular set of things, there’s nothing saying I can’t strengthen myself to resist them all the more while also building myself up to avoid them at the same time.

A tool, in order to accomplish its purpose, must be in the right condition for it to be used; it must be built, maintained, and strengthened well, and having done so, it will serve a lifetime (or more) of wonders.  But a tool is only as useful as the skill of the one who wields it.  When we take ourselves into our own hands, regardless of whether that’s proper and right for us to do so, we must be sure to know how to condition the tool of our Selves as well as the limitations of use thereof, while always striving to increase our skill and reach of using the tool.  There may be upper limits to what we can accomplish, both as tool and wielder, but so long as we always strive to reach them, we’re doing all the Work we can in service of our Will.

Broke but not Cheap: Supplies and Tools

The style of magic I’m known for, western Renaissance Hermetic magic which is sometimes known generally as ceremonial magic, is often called complex, flashy, glamorous, and outright gaudy at times.  You don’t have to look hard to see why; between the magic circles, planetary hours, intricate talismans, hard-to-obtain tools, and the like, Hermetic magic can often seem dauntingly hard.  Looking back at the literature, though, it’s plain to see that this was a matter of intentional design.  It’s true that, a few hundred years ago, most people who did magic were wealthy and had copious spare time, a luxury in and of itself, and could afford the square footage in their homes to allow for massive conjuration chambers and gilded wands and shit.  Renaissance and medieval grimoire magic was, by and large, not intended for the masses.  Even the study of astrology itself was considered something akin to receiving a four-year academic undergraduate degree, right down to the costs involved (which is one of the reasons that geomancy was considered to be the “poor man’s astrology”, given that it was considerably easier to learn and apply).  Heck, looking at some of my colleague’s tools and works, even I pale at the thought of the cost and labor involved to make some of these things.

It doesn’t have to be like this, though.  Yes, if you go by the book and are a strict traditionalist or grimoire fundamentalist, you’re going to be paying more than a few pretty pennies for all the supplies and tools you need.  That said, I claim that none of that is strictly necessary, and that you can get as good results in a similar way without breaking your bank, if you’re even rich enough to have a savings account.  Considering the recession we find our world plunged into, and considering the more than likely chance that we’re permanently on our way out of an era of prosperity, it might be a good idea to visit the topic of how to do magic with as little cost as we can manage, and free whenever possible.  The first thing I want to talk about is on the material goods, tools, and supplies that we use in magic, and although I’m writing this from a Hermeticist’s point of view, you can likely apply this to most other styles of magic, as well.

Now, I will say that I speak from a place of privilege here.  I have a good, stable job with a decent income that is more than the US average household income, even after considering the debts I have for student loans and a car payment.  I come from a middle-class family that has never had to really tighten their belts in order to make ends meet.  As a whole, we haven’t had extreme medical issues or other problems that have caused us extreme financial duress (though, as we get older, that may change).  Although I wouldn’t consider us “rich”, we’re certainly not poor.  I have never been homeless nor required financial aid to get food or bills paid.  I have never been imprisoned or otherwise cut off from supplies and tools generally that would prevent me from operating in the way I choose to operate as a magician.  That said, I know the value of minimalism in magic, having done some work myself, and I’ve been able to cut through a lot of the crap and see what’s really necessary, what can be substituted, and the like.

Be aware that magic has always been the means of last resort for many people across many cultures and eras.  Yes, there have always been the priests and the shamans and the medicine men who make this their first and foremost vocation, but most people who do magic don’t do it for the spiritual benefits or for the calling of some god or another; they usually resort to magic because they’ve tried everything else and nothing else seems to work.  They use whatever they have on hand, scavenge, or find in their nearby environment to get stuff done through occult means when material means fall short.  They resort to symbolic links, puns on brand names, personal history, superstition, and their grandparents’ stories to guide their magic.  Over time, what these people have found that works is typically codified and standardized into a “system of magic” or a “tradition”, though replete with regional or personal variations.  At its core, yes, magic is the art and science of causing changes in accordance with will, but let’s face it, most people have used magic for getting laid and getting paid.  We typically use magic for ends in this world because we need to make ends meet and often need that extra push to do so, whether our ends involve survival or gratification.

To that end, there are three places I’d recommend you get your supplies from:

  • Go outside.  No matter where you live, there are going to be stones, plants, and dirts available to you that not only ties you to the land around you and gives you a place to lay down roots and a foundation, but there are also things of power that you can obtain for use in your own work.  Large or unusual stones, rock crystal, solid branches or wooden sticks, medicinal herbs, aromatic leaves, and the like can all be obtained literally for free from harvesting them yourself.  It helps if you have a guide to plants and herbs and do a bit of research on what kinds of trees or stones your area contains.  Graveyards, crossroads, judicial buildings, schools, jails, train stations, and other specialized locations can provide you with dirt that is a powerful instrument and supply in its own right.  If you know where to look and if you know how to use something, you may never have to actually buy a damn thing.  Just be aware that it’s always polite to give something back to the land, be it a bit of your drink or a few pennies, so that the spirits around you don’t consider yourself stealing from them.
  • Most places in the US, where I live, have dollar stores where every item in there is sold for US$1.00.  These places are veritable gold mines for magicians on a budget, and they typically have such a wide selection of tools, supplies, and wares that you may not need to shop elsewhere very often.  Bags of tealights, decorations, offering glasses, candleholders, salt, spices, paint, and most common household supplies you’d need should probably be bought here.  Yeah, the quality isn’t great, but we’re not going for quality here when the alternative is doing without entirely.
  • Thrift stores or charity stores are places where people get rid of their old items and stuff which are then resold at a low price.  Not only can you get good deals on high-quality stuff (I got a large polished granite circle for a Table of Practice for $5 once), but given that these are things that people have already owned, used, and loved, you can often find trinkets, jewelry, and charms that have already been enchanted, blessed, or otherwise bespookened if you have eyes to see them.  Add to it, you can often find rare and other unusual stuff at thrift stores, like funerary urns (not all of which have been properly cleaned out), silk scarves, authentic African statuary, and so forth, which can really be valuable in practice.

If you have a bit more money to spend, you’d do well to shop at two other places:

  • A craft store, like a Michaels or AC Moore, can provide you with lots of supplies that, on their own, don’t necessarily seem magical but can be of great use in magic, especially when you get around to making your own tools.  Wooden plaques, clay, sinew and thread, semiprecious stones, and the like are easily available from here, though depending on price you may want to forego some of the fancier stuff and just resort to simple crafts you fashion yourself.
  • A hardware store, like a Home Depot or Ace Hardware, can provide you with more industrial-strength stuff as well as some of the harder-to-find household goods, like beeswax or copper piping.  You can often find some things in bulk as well as rare brands that aren’t usually sold commonly anymore.

So much for places to procure your parcels.  However, there is something on the topic of magical supplies and tools that I want to bring up, and this is more fully explained by the House of Orpheus in one of their blog posts.  Although he talks about the use of spiritual perfumes and the use of perfumes generally in spiritual works, I think this is something that can be applied to pretty much anything.  The gist of the post is that there’s a fairly recent trend in magic where we say that oil/perfume/powder X does magical thing Y, and this isn’t exactly a historical thing.  Rather, people used certain things because of the associations they could make with it:

…Royal Crown hair pomade for example was used to anoint ones hair in such a way that they carried the influence of a king about them. Like equals like… Even house hold items like red devil lye drain cleaner was used to protect the home from evil and the “devils” out there in their many forms. Red devil lye cleaner was not made for magic, it was made for cleaning drains! However the most fascinating thing is… It became and still is used today for magic.

…What made these perfumes magic wasn’t the pharmacist or large factory making them today… It was the imagination and magical sensibility. As well as traditional knowledge of the practitioners of folk magic. A sweet smell might sweeten someone to you. A dominating odor may help you dominate someone, the shape of the plant going into the perfume and its qualities all shaping and being shaped by the magical symbolic systems of understanding of many cultures. This is what helped them make these perfumes magical and what placed them in a magical context of use today.

So, to that end, don’t despair if you can’t get your botanica’s expensive line of Fiery Wall of Protection Oil or Flying Oil, because in all likelihood those oils are, for lack of a better term, snake oil, a little bit of glycol with some artificial scent and color applied to them.  You can do that much on your own for a lot cheaper, and you can make it a lot better with not a lot of effort.  Always ask yourself “what can I use this thing for” rather than “what does this do”: what a stick “does” is grow leaves from itself, but it can be used as a wand; what Kölnisch Wasser “does” is smell nice, but it can be used for purification; what salt “does” is make food taste more like itself, but it can be used for protection as well as absorption of energies.  Of course, if you ask five different magicians what a particular thing can be used for, don’t be surprised if you get fifty different answers.  What one person sees as protective, another person sees as offensive and another as sweetening.  Let your own associations, stories, imagination, and education guide you in determining the best use for a particular thing or stuff in a given working.

Looking around my house and temple, I note that I have a few pricey things, namely statues and a singular stick of ebony that I did a bit of working on, which themselves form the bulk of the cost of my temple (not counting the furniture).  However, more than 80% of the stuff I have and use accounts for maybe 20% of the cost I’ve put into it all.  Offering vessels for gods were gotten at thrift stores for $1 to $3 each; cloth for decorating shrines were from thrift stores and stores going out of business for 50¢ to $2 each.  Most of the wooden plaques and boards I’ve used for making pentacles, talismans, and magic squares cost maybe $3 to $10 each, and a pack of paint markers and polyurethane finish cost another $10 total.  The candleholders I have are a combination of brass fixtures from thrift stores ($2 each), IKEA glass holders (50¢ each), and seashells and flat stones (free from outside).  The pile of railroad spikes I use for Hephaistos as well as for several workings were all free, obtained by literally going to my local railway and picking them up by the bagful.  In lieu of statues, several of the spirits I work with are enshrined within stones, some of which were obtained from outside and some I got for cheap from a rock-dealing friend of mine.  The decorations I use for some of my shrines are a combination of seasonal goods from the dollar store and things on discount from the craft store.

Besides, none of this touches on the notion of just stealing things you’d otherwise have to buy.  That’s all I have to say about that (just be smart about it, don’t get caught, and don’t piss people off).

Now that we’ve gone over where to get stuff and an idea of what it costs for this stuff, let’s talk about the difference between making stuff to use and buying stuff to use as-is.  As a rule, what you can’t buy, make it yourself, and you should always try making something yourself before going about buying it.  This goes for everything, from wands and Tables of Practice to anointing oil and talismans.  Always try making something yourself before having someone else do it, because in the process of making it yourself you get the Idea of it cemented in your sphere.  This is something Fr. Rufus Opus calls “kinetic meditation”, but which I like to call “contemplative exercise”.  It’s one thing to just look at and intellectually understand the layout of the Circle of Art from the Lemegeton Goetia, but it’s quite another to have actually gotten your paint and canvas, painstakingly drawn out every line, and painted on every letter of every divine name onto it.  This sort of activity is beyond price and value, since it instills into your own being something that cannot be obtained from just buying it from someone else.

To that end, always attempt to make a tool yourself first.  Consider the Table of Practice from the Trithemian conjuration ritual, the summoning circle I use in my own work.  Yes, I do make them for others, but if someone asks first, I always tell them that they should make it themselves first, even if it’s just printing out a copy and tracing it with pencil on paper, with sharpie on cardstock, or with chalk on concrete.  The mere act of drawing the Table out is the essential act of bringing it into existence.  Yes, the quality may not be as good, and the quality of magical operations done with something like that may or may not take a hit, but the fact is that you have done it and you have made yourself a tool you can use more cheaply and much faster than you would have otherwise.  Need a wand?  Instead of spending hundreds of dollars on an appropriately-sized ebony dowel engraved and gilded and capped with silver, get a stick you like the feel of from a park and scratch holy names onto it with a fork, or just use your index finger.  Need a Circle of Art?  Instead of shopping around for a heavy-duty canvas sheet with enchanted paint, get an old bedsheet and some ballpoint pens or permanent markers.  Need a scrying medium?  Instead of buying “good clear pellucid crystal of the bigness of a small orange” or an obsidian mirror, get a clear glass of clean water.  Need incense?  Instead of trying to scrounge pocket change together for the finest quality olibanum, get a scented candle or a free perfume sample from your department store cosmetics counter.  Need a magical oil?  Instead of going to your botanica and shelling out for what usually isn’t worth the cost, heat up some olive oil or Crisco in a pot with some herbs, spices, and dirt available to you.  Need candles?  Instead of going to the Yankee Candle Co. shop or even your local dollar store, make yourself a cheap oil lamp (and learn how to use it).

If your need is great enough, whatever you have on hand will work.
There is no tool you need that you cannot make or obtain for free.
Everything and anything can be used for a magical end if you know how to use it.
There is nothing so specialized or specific that it can only be used for magic.

Now, I know that I have a lot of friends and colleagues who have done magic for the cost of a few pennies, if even that, and who have lived through hard times on their own.  By all means, please leave your own comments and fill in the gaps I know I’ve left in this post; I have never been under the duress that some of my own contacts have, and I welcome people to poke holes in what assumptions I’ve made or to give their own advice for getting supplies, tools, and the like when money is something they can’t afford to spend.  Try to keep it limited to the topic of this post, though; I’ll be writing a few more posts on how to apply tools and supplies in shrines, works, and the like in the near future.

On the Temple as a Convenience

It’s weird sitting here in this living room, full of clutter and boxes and antiques and the occasional errant Christmas decoration that was never put away two years ago.  We keep saying we’ll get it tidied up, but between me living 200 miles away and my sister busy with being a Tarot-reading poledancing camgirl, we haven’t.  Between a variety of memories, a vague sense of comfortable unease, and several mountains of candy and chocolates that’re amassed in one of the unused rooms, I don’t know whether I prefer or disprefer being here.

I’m staying at my mother’s.

Don’t get me wrong, I love my mom, and she’s basically the only one I ever actually call and talk to on the phone (and for someone who hates phonecalls, this is notable).  And, add to it, I hardly ever visit the place where I grew up, about 150 miles away as the bird flies.  While growing up with her could oft be a pain, our relationship markedly improved once I moved out for college.  I don’t see her that often anymore, but when I do it’s usually a combination of fun and stressful; she’s still my mother, after all.

This visit I’m paying to her is to help her out after a recent surgery she had, a hip replacement.  This is her second this year; the first one was on one hip, and this is on the other.  She needs someone to chill with and run a few errands during the day while she’s staying at her rehab center, and during the night I’m out wandering playing Ingress or just internetting idly at her place.  It’s not unbearable, though it is odd that it coincides with my birthday week and the Full Moon, and right after Crucible Convention 2014, and that my boyfriend isn’t with me.  I do get to hang with my sister aplenty, too, when she’s able, and I have plans with a few friends from high school and college.  Not too shabby a birthday week, I reckon.

Still, it’s weird.  I’m not one for travel generally, despite my Hermaic nature and despite that I’ve rarely not enjoyed a trip.  What’s probably most weird is that I’m currently away from my home, and with it my temple.  I have a small bedroom at my house set up to act as my temple, shrine, and altar room; the boyfriend and our housemate are okay with this, since they get the even-larger outside shed for their work.  I’m used to spending at least a little time each day in my temple for meditation, contemplation, prayer, jamming with the spirits, making offerings to the gods and saints, and the like.  And this week, I’m cut off by a lengthy distance from all that, and it’s somewhat jarring.  It’s kinda funny how much I’ve gotten used to having a whole temple all to myself within only a few months of living in my (still relatively new) place, and now that I’m without it temporarily how much my spiritual practice has changed and can still yet change.

To be fair, nothing I do strictly requires a temple.  For that matter, nothing I do strictly requires being in any one place; I carry my gods with me in my heart and in my mind, and occasionally in the jewelry that I wear.  All of my tools are relatively compact and can fit in a duffel bag with enough space leftover for a bottle of wine, and if I don’t have my tools with me, I have my own force and prayers to wield as wands and swords.  The statues and shrines I have set up for my gods and spirits are nice to have, but not strictly necessary if I have somewhere outside to pour out wine and water and oil.  I memorize my prayers, formulae, and rituals, and what I haven’t memorized I keep written down in a small journal that can fit in a cargo pants pocket.  If I have a lighter, a box of generic incense, a pack of tealights, a bottle of wine, a bottle of oil, and a bottle of water, I have more than what I need to make my offerings and prayers, and even then most of that isn’t necessary if I have time and a quiet space to pray.

Having a statue to dedicate to a spirit is nice.  Having a shrine to interface with a spirit is nicer.  Having an altar to do Work with spirits is even nicer than that.   Having a room to store shrines, altars, tools, and supplies is pretty damn nice.  Having your head on your shoulders is all you need, though, because without your presence, mindfulness, and mental effort, nothing else matters.  If all you have is a quiet room, or even a public room with a few minutes of quiet and maybe a little bit of privacy, you have all you need to be any level of spiritual, religious, occult, magical, or whatever.

All this is rather clear right now to me.  I used to have a little “shrine” on a bookcase with a few baubles, a mini-sand garden, and plants when I was in middle school and high school, but I never considered it anything special, nor was I doing Work back then (just reading about it with all the fascination of a middle-schooler).  That room has long since been taken over with extra Christmas presents, surplus clothes bought on discount, and giant bags of yarn, and I’m basically living in the living room while my mom’s at rehab.  As far as my spiritual needs are concerned, I have everything I need: a space to sit, time to myself, and all the privacy I could want.  As a bonus, I have a countertop to make offerings on, so even if I can’t pour wine out at my shrines, I can at least do it here.  And yes, I did bring along my carcanets and chaplets as my major tools plus a bottle of Florida water; the heavy work that requires full circles can wait, after all, but even if an emergency happened, I could still manage here just fine.

Even then, say I had nowhere to stay this week.  Say my mother’s house was either metaphorically or literally wrecked to the point where I didn’t even have the couch to sleep on or enough floor space to sit, and I had to live out of my car.  I’d be able to manage just fine, then, too; there’s this little thing called the astral temple, after all.  We all have access to it, and we all have our own astral temple, if not our own astral “country”, our own little space and neighborhood that exists all to ourselves.  Whether you access it in your dreams or through projection of one sort or another, you can get to it all the same.   The rules are a little different on the astral than they are here; there’s no limit to the things you can do, really, so long as you can think and command it so.  Any tool or drink you want, craft it from thought alone; call on any spirit, and they’ll appear before you in any form you ask (if they’re willing); any ambiance or setting you need, snap and the set changes immediately.  The more you work in the astral, the more you can do and the easier it gets to work there.  If all you have is a bed in a shared room to spend time in at night with someone else asleep, if you can slip into your astral temple, you really have pretty much all of magic at your disposal (give or take a few physical actions to ground out the purely-spiritual work).

You don’t often find me talking about astral temples or astral work generally because, generally speaking, I don’t do it.  I have my own temple in the physical world that I (almost always) have access to; what more could I need?  Well, I don’t strictly need a physical temple if I have an astral one, and even then, I don’t strictly need an astral temple, either, if I can pray and work anywhere.  Magicians have gotten by without astral temples far longer than the notion of them has existed.  Even priests and the faithful used to worship anywhere they could, regardless of the regalia or temples or community they might’ve been accustomed to; the real purpose of it all was the things you did as Work.  Even the ancient and huge temples of the Hellenes weren’t the focus of worship, but the tiny, almost insignificant altar just outside to the east.  Temples, devotional art, shrines, processions, tools, and the like all exist to support and facilitate the Work, but they themselves are not the Work.  They’re convenient.  That’s all.  They’re nice to have, but the Work does not require them.

Of course, I am taking this time to get my astral skills back up and running and dust out my astral temple.  I’ve been neglecting my astral presence and environment, after all, and I could do with a good banishing and touching up of the place.  Even if I don’t strictly need a temple space to do my Work and offerings, I am used to it, and even if all I have is a place in my head I can overlay with the place my body’s at, I’m good to go.  I’m used to the convenience of having a temple; it’s nice to be reminded that I don’t need one, and if all my wordy gaudy blinged-out shit isn’t needed, then none of you need it to do the Work, either.  They’re nice, but they’re not needed.

So, if you’re not Working yet, what’s your excuse?