Today, kids, we’re going to branch out a bit from the Tarot theme of this blog. Instead, we’re going to talk about another form of divination: Western geomancy.
Although Tarot is and always will be my one true love, I’ve been increasingly fascinated by geomancy over the past year. Literally, the name means “divination by earth”, and it’s a form of divination that was extremely popular in Europe during the Renaissance. Geomancy, unlike more erudite forms of divination,* doesn’t require tools or special materials. It doesn’t even require literacy. So as a form of folk divination, its popularity was in no small part because of its accessibility to the masses.
I won’t waste more space on history, in part because I’m in no way an expert on the history of geomancy, but more importantly because I tried writing a history section in this post and it ended up dry, long-winded, and generally unpleasant to read. So let’s just skip that part.
The basic function of geomancy is to construct a chart using a series of glyphs, which look something like this:
Each glyph contains four rows, and each row contains either one or two dots.** With four data points and two possible values for each point, that leaves us with sixteen possible glyphs. Every glyph has its own name and meaning; you can read about those on Wikipedia or on this cool Princeton website, but I worry that I’ll bore you if I list out each one here.
Geomantic divination involves (randomly) generating these figures and then interpreting them. The classic way to do this is to draw a series of dots on a piece of paper (or, if we’re being really classy, on a wax tablet or in a bowl of sand; drawing in the sand is the origin of geomancy, and is the reason it’s called “divination by earth”). Draw sixteen rows of dots, not keeping track of how many dots you’re putting in each row. For example:
- ““““““ (12 dots)
- ““““ (8 dots)
- “““““““` (15 dots)
- “““““` (11 dots)
- ““ (4 dots)
- “““““ (10 dots)
- ““““““““ (16 dots)
- ““““` (9 dots)
- ““` (5 dots)
- ““““ (7 dots)
- ““““““ (12 dots)
- ““` (5 dots)
- “““““` (11 dots)
- “““““ (10 dots)
- “““““ (10 dots)
- ““““““““ (16 dots)
Then, you reduce. For each row, if you drew an odd number of dots, that reduces to a one-dot value. If you drew an even number of dots, that reduces to a two-dot value. (I worry that I’m not expressing it well, but it’s pretty intuitive.) Rows 1 through 4 generate your first glyph, rows 5 through 8 generate your second, 9 through 12 generate your third, and 13 through 16 generate your fourth. Following our above example, that gives us:
(You would not believe how fricking long it took me to find these images, upload them to this post, and then get them to arrange themselves in something resembling a pleasant order. [EDIT: And then I posted, and all the images decided to jumble up instead of being in order! I’m sorry. I can’t figure out how to get them all on one line.] If this post ends up delayed, you can blame the tardiness entirely on the difficulty I had obtaining visual aids. Aaaarrgh. I don’t like computers.)
The glyphs are arranged from right to left by convention. Why, you ask? Because those kooky Renaissance folks didn’t have television, and they needed a way to entertain themselves. Also (more likely) because geomancy is Arabic in origin, and in Arabic you write from right to left.
This drawing-dots-on-paper/wax/sand method is, like I said, the most time-honored way of generating geomantic figures, but it’s by no means the only way. Personally, I flip a coin; heads means one dot, and tails means two dots. I know of people who use dice. If you wanted to be super nerdy about it, you could make each glyph by randomly generating a number between 0 and 15 and then converting that number to binary, with each 1 becoming a one-dot line and each 0 becoming a two-dot line. (For example, the number 3 in binary is 11, i.e. 0011, so it would turn into the figure Fortuna Major pictured above.)
Or, you know, you could just do the dots-on-paper thing if all this nonsense about RNGs and binary conversion seems unnecessarily mathematical. Your call.
Moving on: At this point, regardless of how you’ve done it, you should have successfully generated four geomantic figures. In our example, I’ve generated Fortuna Major, Tristitia, Puer, and Laetitia. If you want to know the meanings of these glyphs, I recommend checking out the Wikipedia page (and I’ll link some further reading at the end of this post). For now, just to give you an idea of what they mean, their names are Latin and translate respectively as: Great Fortune, Sadness, Boy, and Joy.
For now, don’t worry too much about interpretation. We’re still in the process of constructing our chart. We only have four glyphs out of the eventual fifteen*** that make up a complete geomantic chart.
The first four glyphs in a geomantic chart are called the Mother Figures. From them, we generate the Daughter Figures. At this point in the game, you can put away your bowl of sand, coin, dice, or RNG. The Daughters are created directly from the Mothers.
The First Daughter is composed of the top lines of each of the four Mother Figures. The top of the First Mother becomes the top of the First Daughter; the top of the Second Mother becomes the second line of the First Daughter; the top of the Third Mother becomes the third line; and the top of the Fourth Mother becomes the fourth line. And then you do the same thing to generate the other three Daughters, using the second, third, and fourth lines of each Mother Figure, respectively. This gives us:
You’ll notice that we have some glyphs in the Daughters that are repeats of the Mothers. (The two new ones, Albus and Cauda Draconis, mean “white” and “dragon’s tail”, respectively.) That’s normal; geomancy is highly recusrive, and it’s all but impossible to draw up a chart without at least one repeating glyph.
Normally, you would write the Mothers and Daughters side-by-side on the same line, with the First Mother on the far right, followed by the Second Mother, and then all the way through to the Fourth Daughter on the far left. I’m not going to do that in this post, because I don’t have the patience to try and make eight of these damned pictures all line up without my computer exploding. Forgive me this trespass, gentle reader.
Once you have the Mothers and Daughters, you form four new figures, called the Neices. You do this by taking each pair of side-by-side existing figures (i.e. the First and Second Mothers, the Third and Fourth Mothers, the First and Second Daughters, and the Third and Fourth Daughters) and comparing them, line by line. On each line, if the two figures are the same (if they both have one dot or they both have two dots), then the corresponding Niece will have two dots. If the two figures are different (if one of them has two dots and the other has only one), then the Niece will have only one dot.****
For example, let’s look at the First and Second Mothers above. Both of them have two dots on the top line, so the First Niece will have two dots, as well. The same goes for the second line. On the third line, the First Mother has one dot and the Second Mother has two, so the First Niece is going to have one dot. And then on the fourth line, both the First and Second Mother have one dot, so the First Niece will have two dots.
The Nieces for our sample chart, then, are as follows:
Whew, boy. Are you still with me? I feel like you’re not still with me. I feel like I lost you a long, long time ago. Geomancy is very easy to do, but very difficult to explain in writing without making it sound ridiculously complicated (and without blatantly plagiarizing from other people who have already tried). I’m sorry if I misled you at the beginning of this post when I claimed that geomancy was attractive because it was a form of divination accessible to the illiterate masses.
However, we are truly almost done, and if you have made it this far, I applaud your patience. Of the Nieces, you’ll notice again that two are repeats; the two new ones, Acquisitio and Conjunctio, mean “gain” and “conjoining”. The Nieces are written one line below the Mothers and Daughters from which they were generated.
We’re twelve glyphs in. Only three more to go, and we generate them exactly the way we generated the Nieces. Combine the First Niece with the Second, and the Third Niece with the Fourth. This gives you the Two Witnesses:
First Witness: Also Caput Draconis
The Witnesses are written one line below the Nieces, just as the Nieces were written one line below the Mothers and Daughters. In this case, as luck would have it, our Witnesses happen to be the same glyph: Caput Draconis, “dragon’s head”. (You’ll notice that it’s an upside-down version of the dragon’s tail, which we previously saw.)
And finally–finally–you combine the Witnesses together to form the Judge. Because the Witnesses are identical, they match on every line, so the Judge is just going to be four rows of two dots each:
And voilà! You have finally finished the chart. Now (1695 words into this post) all that’s left is for you to interpret it. Your finished chart should look something like this:
Note: As you can probably see for yourself, this is not the chart that we all just built together. It’s a sample chart stolen from Wikipedia, because I couldn’t for the life of me figure out how to get the Internet to make a picture of my own sample geomantic reading. Nevertheless, this chart gives you an idea of the final product of a geomantic reading.
The top right corner contains the Mothers. The top left contains the Daughters, and you can see that the First Daughter is comprised of the top lines of each of the Mothers (and so on with the Second, Third, and Fourth Daughters). The second line of the chart contains the Nieces, each one constructed by adding together the two glyphs immediately above it. The third line contains the Witnesses, constructed in the same way, and the last line contains the Judge.
This is one of two common types of chart drawn up in geomantic readings. It’s known as a Shield Chart. Personally, I prefer the other kind of geomantic chart, which combines geomancy with astrology, but that will be the subject of a later post. Before we can talk about astrological geomancy, we have to be able to construct a shield chart.
And the nice thing about shield charts (or the incredibly frustrating thing, depending on what mood you’re in) is that they are really easy to interpret. There’s a lot of complexity available to you if you want to dig into it, but you don’t actually have to go through and interpret each of the fifteen glyphs. You can do that if you want to, but all you need is contained in the last three glyphs of the chart: the Witnesses and the Judge. The other twelve glyphs can be understood as mechanical steps to produce the end result.
(“Geez, Louise!” someone just screamed in the background, “You mean you wrote a two-thousand word blog post about all this complicated Renaissance math crap, and I’m not even going to interpret any of it? What the hell, Jack?”)
Whatever your initial question was, the Witnesses provide additional, helpful contextual information about external influences that will affect the answer. The Judge, straightforwardly enough, gives you the answer.
Let’s look at our sample reading. Suppose that, as I was mindlessly typing out dots onto this blog post, I was asking the question, “Will I succeed in explaining geomantic shield charts to the readers of my blog?”
Our Witnesses are both Caput Draconis. This is a favorable figure, representative of success and good fortune. In other words, external circumstances are strongly favorable to my endeavor. Maybe I don’t give you, my readers, enough credit; maybe you’re every bit as brilliant and as fascinated by Western divination methods as I hope you are. If that’s the case, there’s a very good chance that everything I’ve said here (poorly written though it may be) will be clear as day for you.
Similarly, our Judge is Populus, the “people”. This is a glyph about communication, community, and general interaction with other people. It’s pretty damned favorable for something like a blog post (although it would be much less favorable if I had been asking about my planned meditation retreat in the woods). So all in all, it looks like maybe I did actually succeed in writing a comprehensible post about geomancy.
That’s all for now, folks. Thank you for bearing with me and letting me try something out of the Tarot box. If you’re interested by geomancy, if you have ever practiced it, or if this post has inspired you to start, please do let me know! I’d love to hear your thoughts. If you absolutely hated this non-Tarot heresy, worry not; next week’s post will be safely within the confines of a 78-card deck. At some point fairly soon, though, I will come back to geomancy and talk about the second kind of geomantic chart: an astrological chart based on the geomantic glyphs.
For anyone who might have been interested, I apologize for not listing all sixteen of the geomantic figures and their respective names and meanings. This blog post got bloated enough as it is. I do recommend the Wikipedia and Princeton pages I linked, as well as:
–The Art and Practice of Geomancy, by John Michael Greer
–This helpful and informative webpage (also from Princeton)
–De Geomantia, by Cornelius Agrippa
–This delightful blog post (much clearer than my own)
–This kick-ass occult blogger from whom I shamelessly stole all my images of individual geomantic figures. (They appear to be images from Wikipedia converted into .png files, so I don’t think there’s a copyright issue, but if there is, let me know.)
Thanks for sticking with me, gals and guys. My parting gift to you is an ocelot (because apparently that’s just my thing now).
*I’m looking at you, astrologers.
**Practitioners of I Ching will notice that the construction of geomantic glyphs is reminiscent of the construction of the Ba Gua. In the latter, you construct three-row glyphs out of “broken” and “unbroken” lines.
***Sixteen, the way some people do it, but I find the sixteenth glyph extraneous.
****This is, perhaps, a confusing way to explain it. The other way to think about it is that you’re adding up the total number of dots on the line and then reducing. If the total number of dots is even, the Niece will have two dots. If the total number of dots is odd, the Niece will have one dot.