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Review Essays of Academic, Professional & Technical Books in the Humanities & Sciences



Geomancy in Theory and Practice by Stephen Skinner (Golden Hoard Press) Geomancy - divination by earth - ranks alongside the tarot, astrology and the I Ching as a major form of divination. Since the Renaissance it has largely fallen out of favour for want of a generally available book on its practice. This is the first and most comprehensive book in English to cover the full historical background and practice of divinatory geomancy, and will therefore be invaluable to all those interested in geomancy, divination, and astrology. It is the only complete history in any language, covering geomancy's various manifestations in different cultures, as well as being a practical manual showing how to cast and interpret geomantic figures.

Drawing on material from Latin, French, German and Arabic sources, Stephen Skinner explores the roots of geomancy in the Islamic raml divination of northern Africa, which lead to Fa, IA and voodoo divinatory practices on the West Coast and sikidy in Madagascar.

He examines the impact Islamic geomancy had on medieval Europe, where it rose to prominence and became, after astrology, the prime method of divination. The part it played in Renaissance thinking and in the great astrological revival of the nineteenth century is followed by an examination of its use in the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn and its declining influence in the twentieth century, only to be revived again in the last two decades.

The second section of the book is concerned with the practice, manipulation and generation of geomantic figures as standardized in Europe, and gives practical examples as a guide to the interpretation and practice of the art. It also covers astrogeomany which uses the Houses of astrology in geomancy.

There is really no better work in English on the history and the direct practice of geomancy. It is a definite supplement to astrological practice and can be adapted to the 16 court cards of the tarot as a subsystem of divining.

Excerpt: The word 'geomancy' covers three completely distinct subject areas. The original use of the word, was solely for divinatory geomancy, a technique which used sixteen binary figures composed of dots to foretell the future. These figures were derived from ninth century Islamic sand divination.

In 1880s 'geomancy' was used by a missionary in China as a translation for the completely different and unrelated subject of feng shui (which concerns the interrelation of man, his buildings and tombs with the life force, or ch'i, which flows through his environment). Feng shui is a Chinese practice that dates back more than two thousand years to before the Chin (Qin) Dynasty, and has nothing to do with divinatory geomancy.

In the last few decades of the twentieth century 'geomancy' was also applied to the study of megalithic alignments and ley lines in the UK and Europe, and was often used to describe the application of sacred geometry to these structures. This third usage is a recent imposition of the term on a much older practice than either the Islamic or Chinese practices.

These three applications of the word have been applied to completely unrelated practices, which spring from completely different cultures, with no historical linkages. The sole exception to this lies on the island of Madagascar where Chinese 'geomancy' was mixed with the Islamic geomancy brought down to that island by Arab traders. Despite New Age attempts to link them, their only connection is the use and misuse of the term 'geomancy.'

This book is concerned solely with the original geomancy, Islamic, African and European divinatory geomancy. See the page facing the title page for other works by the present author on both feng shui and sacred geometry, in which these other 'geomancies' are adequately explained.

This book is about divination by earth: it is a book of the art of geo-mancy. The New English Dictionary defines geomancy as 'divination by means of lines, figures or dots on the earth or on paper, or by particles of earth cast on the ground.' The word is derived from two Greek words. (gaia or gé) meaning the earth, and 'hayTea (manteia) meaning divination.

The techniques of geomancy are many and varied. Although in popular accounts these include the inspection of random configurations made by scattered pebbles, or the manipulation of handfuls of earth (rather like tea-leaf reading), in practice geomancy is a lot more structured. The casting of palm nuts or seeds, the use of divining chains, or the making of marks apparently haphazardly in the ground with a stick, all relay upon a precise binary arithmetic. Divination by marking the earth in due course developed into the interpretation of lines or dots made more or less haphazardly on paper with a pen or pencil.

Divinatory geomancy has its roots in Arabic sand divination, which spread also in various guises as African divinatory systems along with the spread of Islam. On the West Coast it manifested as ifa and fa, and in Madagascar as sikidy. It also moved north into Europe, and across the Atlantic to North and Central America. The first chapter considers this history in outline, while the subsequent chapters consider the varying techniques of interpretation as they manifested in each area in detail.

Geomancy has come to be one of the three or four great European methods of divination, like the tarot or astrology. It is also the most easily apprehended of the four theoretical elemental modes of divination: pyromancy (divination by fire), hydromancy (by water), aeromancy (by air) and geomancy (by earth).

Geomancy could be defined as the art of obtaining insight into the present or future by observing the combinations of patterns made in the earth or on paper by a diviner allowing his intuition, or 'the spirits of the earth,' to control the movement of his hand or pencil. To become familiar with the basic practice of geomancy let us try a very simple geomantic divination, using paper and pencil.

First formulate a question and write it at the top of the paper. Place the paper at arm's length. Then, with eyes half closed and thinking only of the question, make a line of random dots, making as many dots as you feel inclined in each line. Repeat this procedure four times, so that you generate four lines of dots.

Next, mark off the dots you have made in each line, a pair at a time. Take each line in turn and you will be left with either one or two dots.

o if there is an odd number of dots. o o if there is an even number of dots.

Starting with the first line, transcribe the one or two dots remaining. Below this, mark the one or two remaining dots of the second line. Do the same with the third and fourth lines. You have now created a geomantic figure (see Figure 1 for the sixteen possible figures).

Somewhere in the sixteen possible combinations in that Figure will be the geomantic figure you have generated. Look it up and read off the answer to your question.

This simple operation may be extended by producing four such figures which are referred to as Mother figures. From these, by a form of lateral addition, are produced a further dozen figures. The final or Judge figure derived from them by mechanical means, gives the answer. In Part Two this practical technique is explained in detail, together with its astrological amplification. Here it is sufficient to grasp the basic technique so that the historical chapters that follow make sense.

The performance of casting the figures may well remind the reader of the coin and yarrow stalk systems of establishing the hexagram for I Ching divination. The mechanics are less complicated, but the system is the same. The binary mathematics which govern both the 64 (26) hexagrams of the I Ching and the 16 (24) figures of geomancy are the basis of the physical work of both divinatory systems. In this century when computers now make many of man's economic, political and commercial forecasts, it is easy to forget that these machines work on the same simple principles of binary mathematics as the infinitely more ancient machines of the I Ching and geomancy.

It is interesting to note that Leibniz (1646-1716) who is the father of modern binary mathematics and the algebra of classes, drew some of his inspiration from the Jesuit translations of the I Ching which were just beginning to reach Europe in his lifetime, and may well have been familiar with Flacourt's work on sikidy, the geomancy of Madagascar, which was published in Paris in 1661.

It might seem as if geomancy provides a very simple set of meanings with which to discover the answer to any question, but these are just the beginning, useful for getting quick answers to simple questions. The modus

operandi described above is a very simplified version of geomantic practice, but adequate to introduce geomancy and its figures.

Having outlined divinatory geomancy in its original form, it is worthwhile to consider briefly the more recent applications of the word to telluric geomancy. When the Chinese science of divining the presence of the subtle currents in the earth and their effect on man was first investigated by Europeans, the Chinese term feng-shui was translated 'geomancy.' Certainly feng-shui was concerned with the earth, but the appropriation of a word which applied to a divinatory technique to describe this practice was rather confusing. Around 1870 writers on the then strange art of feng-shui began to call it 'geomancy' for want of a better name, falsely connecting it with the system of divination which is completely different from the Chinese practice. 'Topomancy' or even 'geoscopy' might have been a much better translation of feng-shui, the art of discovering 'dragon veins,' the subtle telluric currents of ch'i which for the Chinese determined the propitiousness of any particular site for building or burying. Stephan Feuchtwang, who has written one of the most comprehensive works on feng-shui in English, says:

'I draw attention to the fact that Chinese geomancy would be defined more accurately as topomancy. It is not divination by means of an earth or sand tray, which is the most common type of divination to be described as geomancy.' I

However, as we have now been stuck with the name for just over a century, 'geomancy' has come to describe both dot-divination and feng-shui.

However, once feng-shui began to be known more popularly in the West, the hardworked term 'geomancy' was applied to yet another study. Exponents of the ley-line theory, noticing superficial similarities between ley-lines and dragon lines, christened their own work 'geomancy.' There is however a world of difference between Alfred Watkin's old 'straight tracks' connecting sites in England apparently on the same ley-line, and the sinuous coilings of the dragon veins of feng-shui. Nevertheless 1 geomancy' acquired yet another meaning.

Finally there is a brief mention in Henry Cornelius Agrippa of divination by physical earth movements:

'The first, therefore, is Geomancy, which foreshows future things by the

motions of the earth, as also the noise, the swelling, the trembling, the chops, the pits, and exhalation, and other impressions thereof, the art of which Almadel, the Arabian, sets forth.'1

Polydore Virgil ascribes this type of geomancy to the Persian Magi.2 Livy also wrote at length about the meaning of earthquakes and their effect on the destiny of Rome, referring their cause to the goddesses Ceres and Libera, and the god Liber. This fourth use of the word, despite the observations of Diodorus Siculus or 'Almadel the Arabian,' partakes more of seismography or omenology than geomancy. It is interesting however that this Roman writer attributes geomancy to the Arabs, the actual source of geomancy. By attributing it to 'Almadel' he implicitly associates it with Arab magic.

'Geomancy' has come therefore to have several meanings. We have

i) a system derived from Arabic sand divination, which developed into African systems of divination by earth, nuts and beads, and into mediaeval divination by binary mathematics north of the Arab world;

ii) an independent Chinese method for determining the location of dragon veins in the earth;3

iii) ley-line theories coupled with the interpretation of the siting of Megalithic monuments; not to mention

iv) omens derived from seismography.

In this book we will treat only of the first variety, being various systems of divinatory geomancy.

The geographical dispersion of belief in both divinatory and telluric geomancy is shown in Figure 2 to clarify how different are their very origins, provenance and extent. This map will also serve to elucidate the next chapter.

The physical process of geomantic divination is similar to the trial-run simple divination outlined in the Introduction, except that instead of drawing only four lines to generate one figure, we use sixteen lines to generate four figures. Greater complexity generates greater accuracy.

Having decided on the planet relevant to your question, take a clean piece of paper and write out your question as specifically as possible.1 Then make a row of random dots or points, at the same time thinking clearly of the question. In all a total of sixteen rows of dots should be made. The pen is to be held firmly in the hand, which should not rest on the paper, while making the dots quickly and mechanically, from right to left, without counting.

The right-left direction is obviously a carry-over from geomancy's Arabic origins. It is best to avoid the temptation of anticipating or counting them, which can result in unconscious manipulation of the divination. If you are working with the sand tray you may have to note the number of digs (points made in the sand) every four lines or so, and after transferring the numbers to your paper, rub them out and proceed to the next four lines.

However, if you are working solely with a pencil and paper you can go ahead until you have done at least sixteen lines of dots. A few more won't matter as you just discount any lines after the sixteenth. It is however, advisable to have at least something in the vicinity of a dozen dots per line. Next cancel the points in each line, a pair at a time, until only one or two points are left. (Alternatively you can count the total number of points in the line. If the total is odd, mark one point as the remainder; if even, mark two points as the remainder.) Observing the operation from right to left we get:

Here ends the physical work of the divination. From here on, the figures formed from the above dots are manipulated to give an answer to the question, so you can lay aside your sand tray, slate, pebbles or dice and work solely on paper.

In order to understand the details on the left-hand side of the page it is useful to quote Christopher Cattan: "everie pricke [point] signifieth a Starre, and everie line an Element, and everie figure the foure quarters of the world," so that a system of symbolism may be imposed upon the lines of points. Thus, the first line is attributed to Fire, the second to Air, the third to Water, and the fourth to Earth. The same sequence repeats for the fifth to eighth line, the ninth to twelfth line, and also the last four lines.

Similarly, each group of four lines which is to become a geomantic figure in its own right is attributed to an element: the first figure of four lines to Fire, the second to Air, and so on. A further level of meaning can be added to the figures by giving cardinal directions to the lines and figures, south to Fire lines and figure, east to Air, north to Water and west to Earth.

One of the difficulties of writing even a short history of geomancy is that to date studies of its emergence in one culture have tended to disregard manifestations of the same divinatory technique in other cultures. Even within Africa there are few studies (with one or two exceptions, notably Rene Trautmann, Bernard Maupoil and J. C. Hebert) which even appear to realize that ifa and fa on the west coast of Africa are exactly parallel with sikidy in Madagascar, and that both stem from raml, a common Arab origin.

The position gets worse when the question of comparison between African and European manifestations of geomancy arises. A classic example of such lack of cross-cultural information occurs in Lars Dahle's study of sikidy, one of the more comprehensive works in English to date. When Dahle comes to assessing the work of Flacourt on geomancy, he fails to follow up the references of his predecessor to 'the authors of Europe.' Flacourt, who was much wider read then Dahle, described the sixteen figures of the sikidy by giving each its equivalent Latin name, rather than by drawing the figures in full. Instead of looking up the many works on European geomancy, Dahle criticizes Flacourt for 'merely translating' the Malagasy into Latin, and proceeds to guess (wrongly) what figure each Malagasy term applied to. Dahle then satirizes Flacourt:

"He adds that 'all these figures have the same meaning and power as are attributed to them by the authors of Europe.' As it would almost amount to an insult to my readers to suppose that any of them are ignorant of what 'the authors of Europe' teach with regard to geomancy, I shall of course abstain from commenting upon this very conclusive information!"

He abstains from commenting because he has no idea which authors Flacourt refers to, or even that there was a flourishing European interest in geomancy contemporary with Flacourt's study of its appearance in Madagascar!

There is nothing new in 'authorities' ignoring each other's work,

except that in the case of geomancy, many European field-workers have not realized that geomancy was just as much a part of the undergrowth of European magical beliefs as it is of the North African Arabs, Malagasy of Madagascar, tribes of Benin (Dahomey), or of the voodoo cult in the Americas. Furthermore, such a lack of historical identification has also led to some false identifications, based on semantic confusion rather than a thorough study of the system concerned, such as that of Chinese feng-shui.

Because so many geomantic works are anonymous, and because it has become fashionable among scholars to doubt geomancies attributed to famous men (sometimes on no better grounds than "so-and-so would not have written a geomancy"), in examining the written sources of this art I have for the most part attributed works according to the title pages of their first printed version, or manuscript incipit and catalogue entry. In doing so, some will be falsely ascribed works, but this is a preferable course of action to listing unlimited anonymous texts of uncertain date. Besides, in many cases of disputed authorship, the critics can suggest no more likely an author than the one they dispute.

Finally, geomancy was not looked upon during the Middle Ages as the poor relation of the divinatory sciences, as it has come to be, an attitude which has biased many scholars to the point where they look upon the subject, which was important in its own time, as below the notice of the great men of the period under study - a situation rather similar to doubting that Newton was interested in alchemy, when in terms of written output it far exceeded his interest in physics.

Classical references

The earliest mention of the word is made in Archimedes (278-212 BCE), in which he reputedly drew geomantic figures in the sand during the siege of Syracuse to determine the outcome of the situation, but the nature of these signs cannot satisfactorily be established.

Roman divination by augury has sometimes been pointed to as a possible origin for geomancy, but this too is a red herring, for the rules of augury have been carefully preserved for us by writers such as Cicero and bear no resemblance at all to geomancy.

The method of augury consisted chiefly in the augur using a crooked staff (lituus) which is free of knots (like a magic wand), to frame an area of sky or land within whose bounds an omen was to appear. He then settled

down to watch and wait for a sign. The lituus, according to Livy, 'marked off the heavens by a line from east to west, designating as 'right' [dextrae partes] the regions to the south, as 'left' [laeuae partes] those to the north, and fixing in his mind an [easterly] landmark opposite to him and as far away as the eye could reach.' The augur 'next shifting the crook to his left hand and, laying his right hand' on the head of the person for whom the augury was performed, uttered a prayer to Jupiter. Within the bounds of this templum any natural phenomena now would be interpreted by the augur as a message from the gods. This interpretation of the signs was extremely complex and, although some of the detailed rules have now been lost to us, it is known that the meaning of the appearance of specific varieties of birds in particular quarters and in particular numbers was clearly defined. Factors taken into account included the height and manner of flight, perch, tone of call, and the direction from which the bird came. Obviously this description is not of the sixteen figures of geomancy, and so it is that when Marcus Terentius Varro (116-28 BCE) speaks of geomantia he also does not refer to the present method of divination.1


Normally one would examine the etymology of a word to derive data on its origin. However in the case of geomancy the classical Greek and Roman uses of the word had only a general meaning which persisted throughout the early Middle Ages to mean simply divination by observing patterns or cracks in the earth, just as the three other elementary methods of divination, pyromancy, hydromancy and aeromancy were basically techniques of divination by inspection rather than systematized mathematically based practices with specific rules, figures and formulations.

As Paul Tannery, the well-known French historian of science, has pointed out:

"the Greek words which now refer to this form of divination [geomancy] had in antiquity only a general meaning. In the middle-ages in the West this name was given to an Arabic practice by the translator Hugh of SantaIla, who lived in Aragon in the first half of the 12th century. The later Byzantine Greeks did not use the word geomancy in this context, but called the practice by a different name which had been derived from the Arabic raml (meaning sand)." 2

A translation of Paul Tannery's letter dated 15 June 1897 confirms this:

"Their exist in Greek treatises of geomancy, which are said to be translations from the Persian with the title or alternatively rabolion which seems to indicate a Semitic route from as in Byzantine Greek, the letters are equivalent in sound to b. On the other hand this word seems to be translated into Greek under the form laxeuterion, which is a Greek word meaning 'the stone cutter's chisel.' The metaphor is perhaps justifiable by the shape of the geomantic lines which will be a point of departure for further combinations. But I have vainly tried to find the Arabic or Persian word transcribed as rhampliôn or rabolion and translated by the word 'chisel.' Nor have I seen either that geomancy has been designated in Arabic by a similar word, but this has relatively little importance."

To sum up, in such Byzantine Greek manuscripts as that of Georges Midiates (1462), rabolion is a Greek transliteration of the Arabic raml which means 'sand,' while the word laxeuterion probably refers to the method of divination, involving the poking of holes in the earth, which is an act which has been compared with chiselling a stone. As laxeuterion is simply a figurative word for the divinatory procedure, Tarmery instead used the word rabolion when speaking about geomancy.

With the exception of two anonymous manuscripts, the word geomantia does not appear in any Greek manuscripts on the subject, the word rabolion being much more common. Thus the etymological incorrectness of the word 'geomancy' is sufficiently established, and the fact that geomancy passed from the Arab to the Greek world, rather than the other way around.

The fact that portions of the practice of geomancy first appear in a Greek manuscript, translated from the Arabic, and not in any classical sources, indicate quite definitely that the practice was of Arab origin rather than Greek. This is contrary to the usual line of cultural transmission (in which many of the Greek sciences passed into Arabic), but nevertheless supported by a number of facts which we will consider later in this chapter, and again in chapter 5.




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