One of my all time favorite occult texts is Epistle 52 of the Brethren of Purity, titled simply ‘On Magic.’ It emerges from the same backdrop of Arabic occultism expressed in the Picatrix, perhaps predating and laying the basis for it. These texts not only get us out of the narrow corridor of ‘Western esotericism’ but provide us with a glimpse into ideas and practices that could have diffused along the length and breadth of the Arabic world. That is pretty crazy when you think about it–Arabic influence extended all over the Old World, from Africa to Europe, from the Middle East well into Asia and the Southeast Asian islands.
The Brethren of Purity are influential in and of themselves in that process, but in ‘On Magic’ they provide us with a glimpse into another influential community, the Sabians. The Brethren identify them as a cult rather than a people, but what a cult! Let’s get some highlights:
- “They had taken, then, the roots of their sciences from the Babylonians and the Egyptians, according to the exchange of the arts and sciences in the countries, according to the governments and the religions that had arisen there.” (116-17)
- “…amongst the ancient chiefs there were four….then their contingents.” (117)
- “[divine souls] are divided into two kinds. The first kind is good by essence…are called angels….the second kind is bad by essense…called devils….they assign to each one of them a distinct invocation, a determined incense, and a sequence of rituals…” (120-21)
- “And they allege that, if they combine the two things [astral election and volition] with one another and follow the two paths in the quest for their needs, the nature of the star and its volition will join together for them.” (127)
Sound familiar? Well, it gets better, because it turns out that they proceeded to secure this conjoining by the establishment of temples built in cities “allotted to a certain star, in agreement with the experiences that had befallen them” (128) and having those temples hold festivals when the star of the city came into the “dignity” to which this city had been assigned (129).
Sounds like a recipe for traveling around a lot, doesn’t it? Not only would the Sabians themselves had to have traveled to find cities appropriate to the various astral powers, but they would travel between the various temples because each temple was suited to different sorts of ritual work. According to the Brethren, there were 87 such temples, plus one to a mysterious figure known as Jirjas (sounds a little like George…). This last temple was especially important because all of the other powers were honored within it and it was in this temple that the rites of initiation into the cult occurred.
Which means that not only do you have a recipe for circulating all over the place between these 87 cities, but you have a central temple to which you must return, at least if you were initiating new people into the practice. How much do you want to bet that as time goes on, the centralizing aspect starts to break down? How much do you want to bet that over time those 87 temples begin to operate with increasing independence, perhaps even becoming centers of their own temple network?
West Africa has at least a few interesting things to consider on these points. The myth of the Dogon in which with the sacrificed Nommo’s dismembered body forms the basis of a shrine network sounds a little familiar from this perspective. Similarly, among the Yoruba there is a story about a figure known as Orisa whose slave betrays him, breaking his body into many pieces. Given that the term Orisa comprises a category of spirits served in various shrines? Makes me wonder. Oh, and yes, the “Dog of the Giant, that is Sirius Crossing” is among “the temples to all the fixed stars” (130-31).
To look toward European occultism, let’s examine those ancient chiefs, shall we? The Brethren identify the ancient chiefs of this cult with figures historical and pseudo-historical: “Agathodaimon, Hermes, Homer, and Aratus,” (117) but it isn’t difficult to imagine them becoming *secret* chiefs, is it? That elision of Homer and Aratus from the list makes easy sense, once you consider that their inclusion comes by treating their poetic work as metaphysical allegories. Among my imagined Sabian diaspora into Europe, it would be very easy for the Bible to take the place of both as Greek seemed increasingly provincial rather than sacred.
While I am at it, let me gesture once again toward the Lemegeton. Not only do we have powers that are there associated with the heavens (note the inclusion of the 12 signs of the Zodiac), but those powers are organized under four great chiefs. If you do the math, 72 spirits + 12 signs of the zodiac + 4 great chiefs comes to 88 figures.
Because my mind runs in this direction, let’s take the briefest of looks at this from a geomantic perspective. The 16 figures of geomancy could dovetail with the 12 signs and the 4 chiefs, especially if you look at the traditional means of casting a geomantic chart, which divides 12 houses of the chart from the signs for the witnesses, judge, and the result of the result. Geomancy finds its way not only into Europe and West Africa (most famously in Ifa), but also into East and South Africa and out into the Pacific Ocean, all places where Islam is moving around…
I understand the temptation to try to fold all this stuff back into the earlier material, but I am a fan of emphasizing the role of diversity and diffusion. Even where we can find common roots, this material has a knack for ‘going native’ wherever it finds itself. I like to think that is more feature than bug, that while we may all be family, we aren’t all the same.