Geomancy #2: A Short History

Geomancy has lost prevalence as a form of divination to tarot or astrology in the modern world. However, 400 years ago a geomancer was far more common than tarot in the western world. It has continued to exist in eastern countries. So when I say geomancy I am referring to this definition from Wikipedia:

“Geomancy is a method of divination that interprets markings on the ground or the patterns formed by tossed handfuls of soil, rocks, or sand. The most prevalent form of divinatory geomancy involves interpreting a series of 16 figures formed by a randomized process that involves recursion followed by analyzing them, often augmented with astrological interpretations.

I am not referring to:

A) Feng Shui or Ch’i. This is an ancient Chinese art dating back to the 1880s. This was called geomancy my missionaries who went to China.

B) The alignment of megalithic structures on ley lines and are generally used to find sacred geometry. Each of these places on ley lines is said to have special powers.

C) Divination by earthquakes. “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, the exhalation, and other impressions thereof, the art of which Almadel, the Arabian set forth.” – Heinrich Cornelius Agrippa, De Occulta Philosophia Liber Tres, Book 1, Chapter 57

D) The word was first utilized by Archimedes (278 BCE-212 BCE) as he drew figures in the sand to predict the outcome of the siege of Syracuse. The word is Greek, but the practice is not Greek. The odds are that Archimedes was using a totally different system.

E) The Chinese art of I Ching. Yarrow sticks were read as they fell on the ground, creating a 64 figure system of interpretation. This is been properly renamed topomancy.

This is not to say that these definitions are ‘wrong’, but they are certainly not the way I would use geomancy in this particular context. When we remember that geomancy is a Greek word, γεωμαντεία or earth divination: γεω, earth, and μαντεία, divination. So in no way is this meant to demean the way other people have used this term and how it has evolved. For the sake of specificity, I will be speaking about the Renaissance practice of the art overall in this blog series.

There are proposed places that geomancy is said to originate. Many people place tarot in mythical settings with their roots, such as India and Egypt. Geomancy has the same issue with skewed origins, but it is lesser-known as its popularity has waned:

A) Classical origins.

B) Greece.

C) India.

D) Persia.

E) Jerusalem.

F) Africa.

G) Egypt.

Each of these has been disputed by Dr. Stephen Skinner and other scholars have debunked that geomancy has any origins in these regions or the people. Skinner goes further into other mythical origins that are so fantastical that they become a parody of themselves. Geomancy in Theory and Practice is a great book that will generally go into more detail than this post.

Despite the mythology of the origins of geomancy we do know it came from Arabs and the spread of Islam. John Michael Greer writes in The Art and Practice of Geomancy: Divination, Magic, and Earth Wisdom of the Renaissance:

“Geomancy had many names in the Arabic language; the most popular was khatt al-raml, ‘cutting in the sand,’ and ‘ilm al-raml, ‘science of the sand,’ because most Arab geomancers used desert sands as a convenient working surface. It became a part of everyday culture throughout the Arabic world. Diviners peering into the future appear in stories from Arabian Nights, for example, and to this day geomancers practicing the traditional Arabic form of the art can be found in the market places across the Muslim world, from Pakistan to Morocco.” – John Michael Greer, The Art and Practice of Geomancy: Divination, Magic, and Earth Wisdom of the Renaissance , Chapter One, page 23.

Geomancy in Theory and Practice by Stephen Skinner has chapters two through four has a whole section on the Islamic spread and practice of Arabic geomancy. It is far too much to cover all the information he writes here, but it is a great read for more detailed historical origins.

The Arabic arts had finally reached Europe in the 12th Century as works were being translated in Spain at the universities of Corboda, Toledo, and Seville. The Arabs took Greek sciences and philosophy and harvested them. They even improved them to a great deal too, especially mathematics. The Arabic works helped bring Europe back to classical resources and advance western culture. The same translated literature that helped move Europe forward is also the same literature that introduced the next phase of this divinatory art.

Medieval Europe was finally ready for geomancy. Hugh of Santalla translated Ars Geomantiae from Arabic into Latin. He translated seven texts concerning astrology, astronomy, and divination. He translated ‘ilm al-raml’ to ‘geomancy.’ His other text on geomancy was entitled Geomantia Nova. On a side note, he also translated the Emerald Tablet from Arabic into Latin, which would change the world of western chemistry and medicine.

Later, Christopher Catan would base his geomantic work on Geomantia Nova. He was alive during the 16th Century. Catan’s work would be translated from French into English in a work called The Geomancy of Master Christopher Catan in 1608. There have been other famous Europeans who have written on geomancy that include:

A) Gerard of Cremona

B) Heinrich Cornelius Agrippa

C) Bernard Silvestris

D) Gerard of Sabbioneta

E) Albertus Magnus

F) Michael Scot

G) Bartholemew of Parma

H) Peter de Abano

I) John Heydon

These are a few famous people who wrote on geomancy. There was no doubt that geomancy had taken hold of the western world at this point. So much so there was a revival of astrology in geomancy. The astrology allowed geomancy to have more depth and art that gave each house and figure a meaning to interpret.

But once again, keep in mind I kept this brief. I mentioned all the literature mentioned so that you can research it for yourself. I wanted to give you enough information to explore the cultures, the texts, and the people who gave geomancy different life. It is actually much more intriguing than I mentioned. I hope all of you enjoyed the post.

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