Geomancy, according to Lynn Thorndike 'seems to have been nearly as popular in the medieval period as the ouija board is now', and so it is no surprise to find that Michael Scot (c. 1175-c. 1235), a leading intellectual in Europe during the early thirteenth century also embraced the practice of geomancy. Scot has appeared as a shadowy and intriguing character to later generations, an alchemist, physician, astrologer and divine. His insistence on experience and experiment influenced the methods of such figures as Robert Grosseteste and Roger Bacon. On the other hand, Scot was also a man of his period and delighted 'in the adulterine arts such as the interpretation of dreams, auguries and lots'. He was born in Scotland and is thought to have studied at Oxford, and like Roger Bacon, taught and studied at the University of Paris. The earliest certain date in his cosmopolitan academic career is 1217 when he translated the work of al-Bitrugi, a twelfth century astronomer. He also introduced the works of Avicenna and Averroes to the Christian West. He was working in Toledo when he made his first translation, and later in Bologna, after which he probably served at the Court of Frederick II, at whose request many of his works were written.
Scot was often cited by many of the great scholars that followed him, including names which are also associated with the history of geomancy, such as Peter of Abano and Abraham ibn Ezra. His most popular works were Liber Introductorius, a general introduction to astrology, and Liber Particularism a more popular version of the former, containing a series of questions and answers on astrology and allied natural sciences.
Although his main activities were as translator and experimental philosopher, Scot was especially famous in the following generations as an astrologer and magician. Many legends crystallized around his memory and he thus became in the popular mind one of the foremost magicians of the middle ages. Dante put him in Hell (Canto XX, 116), characterizing him as knowing magic rather than performing it:
Michele Scoto fü, che veramente Delle magiche frode seppe il giuoco.
Dante also speaks of geomancy in the first lines of Canto XIX of the Purgatorio:
In the hour when the day's heat overcome by the earth and sometimes by Saturn, can no longer temper the cold of the moon, when the geomancers see their Fortuna Major rise in the east before dawn by a path which does not long stay dark for it, there came to me in dream a woman, stammering, cross-eyed, and crooked on her feet, with maimed hands and of sallow hue.
The reference of course would be understood by Dante's contemporaries: the path or Via is of course attributed to the moon (night) while Fortuna Major is in the domain of the sun (day).
But to return to Michael Scot, we find him defining magic as, 'not found nor received in philosophy, because it is the mistress of all iniquity and evil, often deceiving and seducing the souls of its practitioners and injuring their bodies'. This identified the invocation of demons rather than the experimental natural magic which was the medieval parallel of today's science. On the other hand, it was the demons who form 'various figures in the clouds, destroy bridges, uproot trees, and sometimes remove the roofs of houses'. Scot's attitude to magic parallels that of Hugh of St Victor (see p. 88). Scot however extended the subdivisions of divination to a total of twenty-eight categories, of course including the four familiar elemental types of divination.
In his Liber Introductorius Scot neither condemned geomancy nor asserted its claim to an astrological basis, reminding his readers that geomancers were 'apt to offend against the rule that once a question has been asked and answered, it should not be repeated'. However, as Scot was not anti-geomancy, and interested in the art, he probably tried his hand at writing a geomancy. In fact, a manuscript which closely resembles his style of writing occurs in a (sixteenth century) collection of geomantic treatises at Munich.12 The text enumerates the sixteen geomantic figures, and Scot traditionally associated the sixteen geomantic figures with the twelve Signs of the Zodiac, giving two each to Taurus, Gemini, Virgo and Libra. Each geomantic Sign is also associated with one of the planets, a day, month, colour, odour, taste, stone, tree, metal and human type. Scot's geomancy goes into immense detail over the significance of each geomantic figure: in fact, more so than any other contemporary geomancy. Just to take one example,13 Scot says of Acquisitio that it is of the planet Jupiter and the sign Aries. It is optima, fortunate, earthly [not in the elemental sense], fixed, masculine, oriental, airy, hot and wet like blood. Of colours it signifies white mixed with yellow declining to red; of tastes, sweet; of odours, fragrant; of stones, the hyacinth; of metals, gold and brass; of trees, fruit trees; of days, Thursday; of months, March; of time, years.
Scot continues with an extensive description of a typical
of mediocre stature, handsome, rather tall, with pleasing eyes, a thin nose, beautiful forehead, thin chin, long neck, hairy, and having two large upper teeth; extravagant, greedy of gain, desirous of some degree of honour and lordship, benign, faithful, and giving many goods to others for their service and friendship,
Acquisitio further 'signifies bodily health, pecuniary gain, male offspring, a hot illness and quick escape, reversion, the fugitive life of an absentee, a man of good condition who loves easily and faithfully . . .'.
Although George Sarton14 felt that the geomancy of Michael Scot was a doubtful ascription, the work itself is still a significant milestone in geomancy, dealing as it does with such a wide spectrum of attributions for each of the geomantic figures.
Was this article helpful?