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The Qabbalah, the Secret Doctrine of Israel


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PGM IV. 154-285: Lecanomancy

Inquiry of bowl divination and necromancy. Whenever you want to inquire about matters, take a bronze vessel, either a bowl or a saucer, whatever kind you wish. Pour water: rainwater if you are calling upon heavenly gods, seawater if gods of the earth, river water if Osiris or Sarapis, spring water if the dead. Holding the vessel on your knees, pour out green olive oil, bend over the vessel and speak the prescribed spell. And address whatever god you want ask about whatever you wish, and he will reply to you and tell you about anything. And if he has spoken dismiss him with the spell of dismissal, and you have used this spell will be amazed.
– PGM IV. 223- 243

The term ‘Bowl Divination’ as the translation of the Greek λεκανομαντεία (lekanomanteia, ‘lecanomancy’) fails to capture the full intent, power and purpose of the practice. Indeed, the scribe here presents a rite in which a specific god or spirit of the dead is actively called forth as opposed to the passive act of divination. Our initial examination of this practice demonstrated that this is an evocationary scrying technique akin to those used by the later medieval and renaissance magicians.

At face value, this is one of the most accessible examples of a Graeco-Egyptian magical practice. The steps are very simple and straightforward. The materials are clearly identified, none of which are too difficult to obtain : a bowl of water and olive oil. However, the ability for a practitioner to succeed at summoning the spirit or deity is contingent upon the spiritual authority conferred by the ritual of initiation discussed extensively in prior posts.

After the empowerment from initiation, the second key element is water, which depending on its source dictates the realm targeted. Rain, sea and spring water together compose the nearly universal triadic division of the spiritual landscape into a celestial-realm, terrestrial-realm and nether-realm respectively. These correspondences are self evident as rain comes from the sky above, the sea is here upon the earth, and springs emerge from the chthonic world below.

River water is unique in that it is a source of fresh water that is replenished by both celestial and underground sources of water and flows into the sea. It is the symbolic vein and conduit that connects the three spiritual realms. As a source of both potable water and of nutrient-rich alluvial soil for agriculture, rivers nourish life.  Rivers were thus naturally connected to such deities as Osiris and Sarapis that represent the soul’s journey through the cycles of life, death, rebirth and initiation.

Water Source PGM IV Text Realm
Rain “heavenly gods” Sky (Celestial)
Sea “gods of the earth” Earth (Terrestrial)
River “Osiris or Sarapis” Rebirth & Initiation
Spring “the dead” Underworld (Nether)

The spell spoken over the vessel is: “AMOUN AUANTAU LAIMOUTAU RIPTOU MANTAUI IMANTOU LANTOU LAPTOUMI ANCHÔMACH ARAPTOUMI, hither to me, O NN god; appear to me this very hour and do not frighten my eyes. Hither to me, O NN god, be attentive to me because he wishes and commands this ACHCHÔR ACHCHÔR ACHACHACH PTOUMI CHACHCHÔ CHARACHÔCH CHAPTOUMÊ CHÔRACHARACHÔCH APTOUMI MÊCHÔCHAPTOU CHARACHPTOU CHACHCHÔ CHARACHÔ PTENACHÔCHEU” (a hundred letters).

But you are not unaware, mighty king and leader of magicians, that this is the chief name of Typhon, at whom the ground, the depths of the sea, Hades, heaven, the sun, the moon, the visible chorus of stars, the whole universe all tremble, the name which, when it is uttered, forcibly brings gods and daemons to it. This is the name that consists of 100 letters.
– PGM IV. 223- 243

As the scribe informs us, the formula of “a hundred letters” is the magical name of Typhon. Throughout this series on the magical system of PGM IV 154-285, we have extensively discussed the Graeco-Egyptian Typhon as raw magical energy in the form of primordial deity.  In the spiritual landscape of the magicians of the PGM, to invoke Typhon was to call upon an ancient power greater than the manifest universe and master over the cycles of the sun, moon and stars; a power that “forcibly brings gods and daemons to it.”

For students and practitioners of the Solomonic traditions, the above passage will undoubtedly bring to mind the invocation from the Heptameron and from the Lesser Key of Solomon. Compare “…name of Typhon, at whom the ground, the depths of the sea, Hades, heaven, the sun, the moon, the visible chorus of stars, the whole universe all tremble…” to “…this ineffable name Tetragrammaton Jehovah , which being heard, the elements are overthrown; the air is shaken, the sea runneth back, the fire is quenched, the earth trembles and all hosts of Celestials, Terrestrials & Infernals do tremble…”. As mentioned in previous posts, the Typhon of the PGM has much in common with the demiurgic deities of antiquity and the YHVH of the grimoires.

Throughout late antiquity Typhon was used as the Greek name for Set, thus the initial impression of the mythological context of this rite is simply a Hellenized re-interpretation of the Egyptian cult of Set in the Osirian narrative. However, as discussed in PGM IV 154-285: Invocation of Typhon, the Typhon of this rite is presented as a separate entity than the Egyptian Set. They share a similar energetic imprint, but here Typhon represents the primordial origin of the current whereas Set (in his role in the Osirian cult) is an anthropomorphic manifestation of it. Thus, the practitioner self-identifies with Set in order to become a suitable vessel to receive the power of Typhon; who, in this context is a truly syncretic deity. Here Typhon displays elements and traits associated with his namesake – the Olympic monster – as well as the Olympians Zeus, Poseidon and Hades, the demiurge of the Gnostics, the cosmic serpents of the Orphic teachings, and the Canaanite, Hebrew and Babylonian martial and storm deities of Ba’al, YHVH and Hadad. The list of comparable deities continues and serves to underline the immense spiritual authority attributed to Typhon by the magicians of the PGM.

Interestingly, this may not have been an interpretation restricted to Hellenic Egypt. Typhon was possibly worshipped as Zeus-Typhon in necromantic contexts in the north-western Greek region of Thesprotia (either in syncretic form, jointly, or as a title of another chthonic deity). Ampelius in his Liber Memorialis suggests that the temple of Zeus-Typhon in Thesprotia was in fact the famed Necromanteion of Acheron described by Homer (8th C. BCE) and Herodotus (5th C. BCE). Ampelius’ reference though highly suggestive has not been corroborated by archaeological evidence. Nonetheless, the practice of prayer and invocation to a chthonic deity preceding necromantic operations is well documented by Homer, Virgil, Seneca and others. Such a deity was invoked, placated and petitioned to both empower the necromancer and to release the ghost of the dead from the underworld into the realm of the living. As would be expected, Hades, Persephone, and Hekate were the most common deities called upon for this purpose; however, the first century Latin poets Lucan and Statius also mention the primordial deities of Tartarus and Chaos in this role foreshadowing the Typhon of the PGM. Definitely by the first century Typhon was understood as a chthonic authority par excellence; in Plutarch’s Morellia, Typhon is an allegory of Tartarus and is identified as the primordial “evil World-Soul” of the Platonists. This authoritative power, capable of bringing back the dead has been known and invoked throughout history by many names. Thus, we can be certain that well before PGM IV 154-285 was written, the invocation of a Typhon-like deity to empower evocationary rites (necromantic or otherwise) was already a common magical technique employed by the goetes (‘sorcerers’) and psychagogoi (‘soul-evocators’) of the pre-Hellenic world.

The Acheron, river to the Greek underworld.
It is significant that in the initiation ritual Typhon is identified as αβεραμενθω (Aberamenthô), a divine name indicating ‘lord of the waters’ and given such epithets as λαιλαφετης (’Storm-Sender’) and κοχλαζοκὐμων (‘Water-Boiler’). The theme of water underlines much of the magical system presented in PGM IV 154-285. For the Egyptians, Babylonians and Greeks water and bodies of water were from the earliest times associated with conduits to the realm of the gods and of the dead. Thus, the water in the bowl not only provides a practical scrying surface but is the appropriate liquid medium in which a spirit can manifest.

Indeed, the use of water in oracular, necromantic and divinatory rites throughout antiquity speak to this symbolic relationship. No other element of the natural world was revered and worshipped with such consistency throughout the history of Greece as rivers, lakes, wells and other sources of water. The same religious devotion can be found in regards to the Nile river of the Egyptians, in which drowned animals and people were deified, and the Tigris and Euphrates worshipped by the early Mesopotamians. Naturally, such sacred waters were used for magical and oracular rites and the patterns and visions reflected upon the surface of the waters were understood to be direct messages from the gods and spirits of the dead. In this regard there exists a definite cross-over between hydromancy and lecanomancy; the distinguishing factor is that in lecanomancy the water is contained in a bowl, dish or pan.

The earliest written evidence of lecanomancy are from the Babylonian Ritual Tablets dating to the 7th Century BCE.  While these cuneiform tablets may be the earliest extant written evidence, the true origin of such practices are impossible to determine with any degree of certainity. Indeed, the pervasiveness of such rituals found independently across the world suggest an origin linked with the magical qualities bestowed on holy wells and springs that extends far back into prehistoric times. We know that from very early on similar practices were employed at the water-side necromanteions of Acheron and Avernus as well as many oracles and sacred wells throughout the ancient world.

The image of the Pythia at the Oracle of Delphi pictured at the beginning of this post is from a 5th Century BCE Attic cylix. She sits atop the sacred tripod of Apollo holding a laurel sprig and gazing into the bowl of water to deliver the prophecy.  However, aside from the initial preparations of the priestess fasting and drinking the sacred water of the Delphic spring there are no firsthand accounts of how the oracle was delivered. Apparently, such oracles were so common in classical antiquity that no sources bothered to describe the methods. Herodotus, in explaining the Oracle of Satrae in Thrace simply states that the prophetess functioned in the usual manner just like the Pythia at Delphi.

One does not have to assume that the Pythia used lecanomancy, though it is a possibility. That water itself held an important role in the oracular process is quite evident in the primary sources regarding several ancient oracles including Delphi. Nonetheless, our interest in the depiction of Pythia on the Attic cylix is twofold. First, it indicates that lecanomancy was a common enough practice by the 5th C. BCE that it could be used as an artistic element to symbolize the delivery of an oracle, regardless of how it was actually delivered. And, secondly it displays a key element of lecanomancy; the use of a plant that establishes a link to the deity (in this case the laurel of Apollo). The plant and other offerings linking the ritual scrying to a specific deity appear to be instrumental in many documented accounts of lecanomancy. At first, this element appears to be absent in PGM IV. 154-285.

Modern scholarship on lecanomancy suggest that when oil was used it was to form patterns in the water which the priest or priestess would interpret. This is easily digestible in academic circles as it speaks to both a skill of the specialist in being able to produce relevant readings and provides a psychological explanation for the visions. However, within the context of this magical practice, I do not believe the olive oil is for producing any sort of ‘illusionary’ effect, rather it is a formal offering to the spirit evoked. Such an offering is consistent with the traditional libations of olive oil. As noted by Aeschylus the soothing and propitiating nature of olive oil make it an ideal offering for the spirits of the dead and the gods. Our scribe specifies that this must be ελαιον ὀμφάκινον (‘unripe olive oil’, i.e. “green olive oil”) and as with the the “green ivy” of the initiation rite symbolizes an offering containing the essence of life itself. Thus, in the evocationary scrying of PGM IV. 154-285, the link to the deity or spirit is established first by the source of water and then the plant offering of olive oil is made into the water.

A precedent for pouring the offering directly over (or into) the area of evocation is found in the practices of Greek necromancy during the archaic and classical periods. The classical vase pictured to the left, depicts the ghost of Elpenor emerging from the waters of the Acheron as Odysseus pours the sheep blood offering into the river. In necromantic and evocationary practices not conducted near bodies of water, the standard procedure was to dig a pit and pour the libations into the earth from which the spirit was expected to emerge.

Regardless of when or where such Evocationary Bowl Scrying practices may have originated, they were nonetheless incorporated into the Greek necromantic and oracular tradition very early on, and certainly centuries before the Hellenization of Egypt. The same could be said of such practices in Egypt that were definitely in use prior to the Macedonian conquest and Ptolemaic dynasty. Thus, together with the invocation of a Typhon-like authority to summon spirits, lecanomancy was likely part of a repertoire of practical magical techniques shared by many cultures in antiquity.

Modernity tends to think of ancient societies developing and living in an isolated void. Yet, when we actually study the movement of people and trade of goods throughout antiquity it becomes very clear that ideas spread across borders much the same way they do today. Since the prehistoric Neolithic vast trade networks have extended from Asia Minor to the Iberian peninsula through which technologies, ideas and goods were exchanged. It is thus very difficult to isolate the development of a specific technology in such porous cultural environments. And, that is the one thing that we must keep in mind when discussing magical practices in antiquity.  Magic was – and still is – a spiritual technology! When a technology works, it spreads rapidly across language and country borders along with the exchange of goods and ideas and is quickly absorbed into the native traditions. The ubiquity of the practices discussed in this post are therefore a testament to their efficacy.

The PGM is first and foremost a collection of these practical magical techniques that were already prevalent throughout antiquity and were neither Greek nor Egyptian (nor Hebrew, nor Babylonian, etc.) but truly and wholly syncretic. As such, the PGM provides a snapshot of a universal living magical tradition. Yes, undoubtably there are discernible elements from one ‘culture’ or another, but more importantly, there is a cohesiveness to the magic of the PGM, a practicality that exists outside of any concept of country, religion or isolated group of people. PGM IV 154-285 is no exception.

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