Geomancy: Gnomes, Cantombe, and Eleggua

Go big or go home, right? I’ve been having a useful discussion with Iago over on this post from a few days back and it’s getting complex enough that I want to start talking about some of the issues being raised as independent posts, some of them a bit long.

First up, post-wise, are two quotes he shared from Crowley. The first is quite long and I want to break it up into pieces to talk about:

“GEOMANCY has the advantage of being rigorously mathematical….The objection to its use lies in the limited number of the symbols. To represent the Universe by no more than 16 combinations throws too much work upon them. There is also a great restriction arising from the fact that although 15 symbols appear in the final figure, there are, in reality, but 4, the remaining 11 being drawn by an ineluctable process from the ‘Mothers.'”

I want to quibble with Crowley a bit on this point because, in point of fact, if you take the core element of geomancy to be the chart, then there those sixteen elements compose a system of 65, 536 charts! That dwarfs both Tarot and the I Ching. The problem is less with the system being vague but of being so specific that it is difficult to tally it in any thorough fashion for human access. It is a language which we are always speaking as a pidgin.

I don’t what to push the quibble too far, though, because I don’t actually take the chart to be the fundamental geomantic unit, merely one of its richest and most detailed expressions.

“It may be added that the tables given in the handbook for the interpretation of the figure are exceedingly vague on the one hand, and insufficiently comprehensive on the other.”

I definitely don’t disagree, but I answer this by suggesting that the resources upon which Crowley draws are far too narrow and represent one of the more diminished expressions of geomancy (dittoing what I already said above about the diversity of charts).

There is also an important discussion that needs to be had about the nature of a spiritual symbol, though, and how it differs from a well-defined term like a word or concept. A symbol can manifest in a number of ways, and the way in which manifests has everything to do with its role in supporting or hindering our spiritual development.

A symbol, at its highest, orchestrates our connection to an invisible reality. Through careful contemplation and preparation, the symbol provides us with a sense of the subtler reality, and allows that subtler reality to resonate within our own consciousness. Through repeated efforts to do that, our personal consciousness becomes more resonant with that subtler reality. It exceeds our concepts and helps us rehape them, rather than being a concept we reshape

I think the vagueness of these geomantic manuals reflects the disconnest between the subtle and visible reality the signs orchestrate. The manuals have replaced an effort to connect with subtler realities for meanings and portents derived from empirical experience with divination. That isn’t bad, but it is limiting. If you orient the sign toward the visible and the subtle, it becomes a tuning fork through which the two worlds can influence each other. If you just track the past resonances, interpretation becomes increasingly speculative and personal.

“Once more, the personal equation must be allowed full weight.”

Granted, partly for reasons I’ll outline below.

“At one time the MASTER THERION employed it extensively; but He was never wholly at ease with it; He found the interpretation very difficult. Moreover, it seemed to Him that the geomantic intelligences themselves were of a low order, the scope of which was confined to a small section of the things which interested Him; also, they possessed a point of view of their own which was far from sympathetic with His, so that misunderstanding constantly interfered with the Work.” (emphasis mine)

Okay, this. There is a long answer to this. Yes, there is a funny thing that happens when you follow geomantic procedures into West Africa. You find around them a number of myths and stories about trickster figures that trouble it and a complex mytho-ritualistic set of practices to negotiate that trouble. The practices do seem to pull close these particular set of neighbors (I am also a little careful about calling them ‘lower’ intelligences…it just doesn’t seem very evolutionary).

Among groups like the Dagara, you find stories about the Cantombe, childlike spirits whose influence can tip geomantic results. When Jack Goody talks about the Bagre rite, there is an aside in the initiatory material about cantombe causing a chicken to fall differently than it ought (yes, geomancy by chicken sacrifice is a thing; quite convenient, too, when you are going to have a bunch of people to feed after the initiation).

Among the Yoruba, you find Eleggua mediums (young children) who speak in a high-pitched voice like the cantombe. The lore of Ifa and related practices like Fa make clear that Eleggua/Legba possesses the capacity to disrupt the messages of the geomantic oracle, sometimes in a way that results in a new destiny manifesting.

So, yes, I think these intelligences are a real aspect of the geomantic process, but I don’t think they are the only part, especially when you cultivate spiritual connections between the geomantic work and other intelligences. Remember this crusty old post about faeries? There is something similar going on here. The oracle requires these spirits’ aid in order to speak, but that does not mean that message necessarily derives from them.

Whatever these intelligences are, they aren’t passive. They can transmit messages from other intelligences, but they get interesting in the messages themselves and seem perfectly capable of generating their own messages inspired by those transmissions.(Though, yes, I think we are talking about some very moony, reflective, mimetic spirits whose ‘true’ nature is hard to discern, if such a ‘true’ nature exists to be found.)

This is a bit like the hurly burly world of the post office network. There is a bit between the sender and recipient that allows for miscommunication and trickery, per the second quote Iago shared (paging Thomas Pynchon’s The Crying of Lot 49 or Clive Barker’s The Great and Secret Show):

“It is a common knavery, especially in geomancy, to render an answer which is literally true, and yet deceives. For instance, one might ask whether some business transaction would be profitable, and find, after getting an affirmative answer, that it really referred to the other party to the affair!”

Which is where ritual and sacrifice (both broadly construed) come in. Remember Claude Levi-Strauss’s Mythologiques?What he talks about in many of those texts is the way in which this or that group models, in myth and ritual, the way in which something passes from being natural to being cultural. Many of those stories tell us about spiritual beings, of course, and what provides the link for the passage are forms of structure and organization.

What differentiates the natural and culture plays across noise and music, noise and language, the raw from the cooked, is the way in which one is more differentiated from the other. With the cultured eating of food, there are also patterns of eating, etiquette and taboo. When we encounter sacrifice, it isn’t just about giving food to the spirits, but of presenting them with a specific tableau (sometimes pleasing, sometimes not, but almost always organized).

This engages these beings and provides them with a rich fabric of interesting messages. This provides them with something to play with and makes it easier for other messages to be transmitted without interference. These ritual-sacrificial messages also teach them about the sort of order you want them to be playing with, the sort of order you want them using to generate messages.

That second part is important stuff, because these intelligences are what some, like Iamblichus, would call daemonic. They don’t just play with geomancer’s tools, they play with the fabric of the material world to make structures possible there, too. If food is so often a sacrifice, it is because food is sustenance and carefully structuring it creates a powerful ritual structure.

The Raw and the Cooked isn’t just about the emergence of cultural categories, it is about the emergence of cultural life with spiritual beings. It is about the process of bringing culture to them and to the subtle forces that circulate through our lives. Here it is worth getting back to the idea of the symbol, too, because if so much of what a symbol resonates with exceeds our consciousness, then sometimes we need material things, concrete reality that exceeds our ideas, in order to activate and engage with both the ‘daemonic’ intelligences and what speaks through cooperation with them.

So, when you set out an offering, you are looking at a piece of embodied grammar, which can be awfully important if you are relying on physical structures to manifest an oracle (like geomancy does). It comes with a horizon of complexity, though, because at some point those spirits are going to finish playing with the sacrifice and start playing with the grammar of the sacrifice. The sacrifice teaches these spirits and if you sacrifice sloppily, then they will play sloppily through your life.

That imprinting comes not just from what you offer, but from the way in which you offer it, from the mindset to the ritual, which is why I am always a little hesitant to recommend a practice of sacrifice to someone, even if the things sacrificed don’t seem that important. It encourages the involvement of these spirits, but it doesn’t necessarily provide them with the best direction.

2 thoughts on “Geomancy: Gnomes, Cantombe, and Eleggua

  1. Pingback: Yesod, Nephesh, and Animal Spirits | Disrupt & Repair

  2. Pingback: [NB] The Mothers of Nations | Disrupt & Repair

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