The roots of geomancy

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 René Trautmann, Bernard Maupoil and J.C. Hébert) 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 rami, 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.1 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.

THEORIES OF ORIGIN Classical references

The earliest mention of the word is made in Archimedes (278-212 bc), 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 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

14 history 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 bc) speaks of geomantia he also does not refer to the present method of divination.2


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, hydro-mancy 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:3

the Greek words which now refer to this form of divination 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 Santalla, who lived in Aragón 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 rami (meaning sand).

A translation of Paul Tannery's letter dated 15 June 1897 confirms this:4

Their exist in Greek treatises of geomancy, which are said to be translations from the Persian with the title 'paimkvov rhamplibn or alternatively '[email protected]\vov rabolion which seems to indicate a Semitic route from as in Byzantine Greek, the letters trn are equivalent in sound to b. On the other hand this word seems to be translated into Greek under the form Xaiewflpvov, 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 rhamplibn 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 rami which means sand, while the word laxeuterion probably refers to the method of divination, involving the poking of holes, which is an act which has been compared with chiselling a stone. As laxeuterion is simply a figurative word for the divinatory procedure, Tannery 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.

The fact that portions of the practice of geomancy first appear in Greek manuscript, translated from the Arabic,5 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.


Other origins have been posited for the practice of geomancy, often motivated by the 'romance of the East' rather than historical fact. One such study is the historical appendix written by Dr Alexander Rouhier in Eugène Caslant's Traité Élémentaire De Géomancie. Rouhier supposes that geomancy was established in Persia at least as early as the eighth or ninth centuries, during that epoch of Iranian culture which flourished at the universities of Gondé-Shapour and Baghdad which attracted the intellectual élite of many countries. However, he does not educe any proof in support of this theory, merely asserting that the Arab and Jewish scholars who attended these universities, and brought various sciences back to their homelands with them, also carried the science of geomancy to the University of Damas [eus], Alexandria, and eventually to Cairo.

The attribution of the origins of geomancy to Persia is shown to be completely false because all of the words connected with geomancy have come originally from Arabic rather than the Greek or Persian. The reason for this is that from the thirteenth century the Greeks were no longer in direct communication with the Arabs, and it is to Persia that they looked, on the other side of the Turkish hordes, for the centre of the civilization and the science of Islam. For the same reason the great authority on geomancy, az-Zanati is often called a Persian, although he is in fact a north African Arab of the twelfth to thirteenth century. This false nationality lent colour to the hypothesis that Persia was the home of geomancy.


India as a possible origin is however harder to dispose of. The basis for attributing the roots of geomancy to India probably lies in the reputed authority on geomancy called Tum-Tum el-Hindi.6 The epithet has been thought by many commentators to indicate India as his birthplace, however 'el-Hindi' was applied to a number of other writers including Apollonius of Persia (who certainly was not an Indian) which in his case at least evidently meant 'the ingenious'. In addition, the word hindasi meant a geometer, and hindi is more likely to have been an indication of the occupation of the person so designated, rather than his country of origin.

The other half of the name, 'Tum-Tum', has sometimes been construed by French savants as a corruption of Ptolemy. Whilst this is not proven, it would at least tie in with the tradition concerning the Islamic derivation of geomancy through Idris, Tum-Tum and Hermes Trismegistus. This last mentioned line of adepts will be examined at greater length in chapter 2. Suffice it to say that India is less likely as an origin for geomancy, when the only basis for this ascription rests on the epithet el-hindi.

Medieval geomancies often claim a connection with India. One condemned at Paris in 1277 began, 'The Indians have believed . . .', and several geomancies have been called Indeana indicating their supposed origin. Another manuscript in the British Library7 begins, 'This is the Indyana [i.e. geomancy] of Gremmgi which is called the daughter of astronomy and which one of the sages of India wrote . . .' However it was almost as common practice to attribute a work of this nature to a fabulous country of origin as to a fabulous author, and although it is possible, it seems unlikely that India was the fountainhead of geomancy.

Hebraic origins

Daniel, the Biblical prophet, was in great vogue in the middle ages as the reputed author of various books of prediction and dream interpretation. Amongst writing allegedly by Daniel is a manuscript on geomancy written in Turkish now in the British Library.8 Although Daniel remained a popular author-designate for Latin manuscripts from the tenth to the fifteenth century, this particular geomancy is an exception to this rule. The fact that it is written in Turkish puts it in a class of its own, and Seyyed Hossein Nasr, in a letter to the author in 1977, suggests that 'the traditional account that [geomancy] was founded by Prophet Daniel who received it as an inspiration from heaven accords very well with the historical evidence as far as its Semitic origin is concerned'. He goes on to say, 'of course historical sources cannot either prove or invalidate the traditional doctrine concerning the inspired origin of this discipline. But they have borne out the fact that this [is] closely related to old Semitic practices of divination'. Here we have a suggestion of a Semitic origin for geomancy, a birthplace not as far east as Rouhier suggested. A number of authors also parallel geomancy with ancient divinatory practices, such as Sassanian divination techniques; but direct evidence of the existence of specifically geomantic techniques in early texts of this period is missing, so we are still on rather shaky ground.

The Jewish Encyclopedia places the origins of geomancy in North Africa about the ninth century from where, it maintains, the practice penetrated into Jewish literature. Here we are on much firmer ground for the one fact we can be sure of is that the practice was well established in North Africa about the ninth century ad. At this time, geomancy was referred to in Arabic as rami, whilst in Hebrew it was called by a number of names, including y>nn bn> Goral Ha-hol, literally 'the lot by sand' or Hokmah Ha-nekuddot, the 'science of points'. Aran ben Joseph refers to diviners who use geomancy as Yidde 'Oni, or 'he who casts by means of points', in his commentary on Deuteronomy (18:11).

The best known Hebrew writers who refer specifically to geomancy include Maimonides (1135-1204) of Cordova in Spain who travelled across most of the Arab world to die finally in Cairo, and Nachmanides who mentioned geomancy in his commentary on the Pentateuch. Maimonides, most famous for his work Guide for the Perplexed, refers to geomancy in his commentaries on the Mishnah.9 However these were all Hebrew writers living in a Muslim world, pointing strongly to an Arab origin as the real genesis of the practice. Following these authoritative writers, came a host of lesser Hebrew commentators.10 An undergrowth of literature subsequently grew up, mostly anonymous works on geomancy, many of them called Sepher ha-Goralot, of which numerous examples will be found in any extensive library of Hebrew literature.11 The Hebrew literature however was a cul-de-sac of the history of geomancy, and not a major influence on either the development of geomancy in Europe, or the spread of geomancy to the south, in Africa. Rather it was the Arab rand which was most widely disseminated and which had the most influence on the later development of geomancy. It would seem for this reason fairly safe to attribute the actual origin of the technique to the Muslim area of North Africa.

Islamic origins

Islam, with its strict doctrine of predestination, offered fertile ground for the proliferation of all systems of divination: geomancy or to give it its full name, 'Urn al-raml, literally the 'science of the sand', was to survive longer than most.

Ahmad ben 'Ali Zunbul, who lived circa 1550, outlined the traditional Arab pedigree of geomancy, according to which the angel Gabriel first appeared before Idris (the Arabic name for Hermes Trismegistus) and taught him the art of geomancy. In the usual Hermetic texts, a revelation is bestowed on Hermes who in turn passes it on to his son Tat or to Asklepios (in the case of more medically inclined Hermetica). Such texts form part of a vast corpus of 'Hermetic literature', of which the Poemanders is perhaps the best known in the west.

Zunbul describes the meeting of Idris with the angel Gabriel in the following terms:

Idris, on the instruction of a spiritual being had travelled extensively. During one of these journeys, Gabriel appeared to him in the shape of a man, drew lines in the sand and said to him: 'You are a prophet; but you hide your gift of prophecy out of fear of your fellow men.' And Idris answered: 'Yes out of love and reverence for you,' Idris was surprised at the [geomantic] knowledge that Gabriel possessed and said to him: 'Dear Brother, I will become your companion and you shall teach me that which is known to you.' And Gabriel answered: 'Out of love and respect for you will I do this.' Thus Idris met Gabriel every day until he had mastered this science. Then Gabriel said unto him: . . . 'Go to the Indian Tum-Tum and his people and teach them this science.'

So from Idris/Hermes Trismegistus the chain of tradition passes to the elusive 'Tum-Tum'. Tum-Tum appears to belong to legend rather than history, although as we have seen his name may be a corruption of an actual personage, perhaps Ptolemy, and he may not necessarily come from India. For Islam, India had the same aura of mystery as Egypt has had for Europe in more recent years: consequently if it was necessary to give a subject greater authority, an Indian source was invoked by Islamic writers-. Tum-Tum also occurs as an authority in other occult writings in Arabic. Zunbul even claims that Tum-Tum's geomancy was written 'in the language of the inhabitants of India'. Moreover, Muslim travellers often made a pilgrimage to India, and 'to be an Indian, wise in the interpretation of secrets' was a common phrase, and one of the ideals of the Brethren of Purity.

Halaf al-Barbari was next in the Arabic chain of

Was this article helpful?

0 0
The Art Of Astrology

The Art Of Astrology

Get All The Support And Guidance You Need To Be A Success With Astrology. This Book Is One Of The Most Valuable Resources In The World When It Comes To A Look at Principles and Practices.

Get My Free Ebook


  • Faye Young
    Has geomancy been thought as course of study?
    5 years ago

Post a comment