Teaching Geomancy

Geomancy Visual Aids: History of Geomancy

A couple of weeks ago, at the Earthspirit community’s annual winter gathering, Feast of Lights, I got to teach a lesson on a style of magical divination that I practice, called Geomancy.  While I may not be the most skilled practitioner of the art (my own tutor-from-books, John Michael Greer, comes to mind; so does Sam at the Digital Ambler), I’m certainly qualified to introduce people to the art form. And — given that I’m a teacher myself — it turns out that I’m really good at getting people started in the art.

I knew that it was unlikely that I would have access to a whiteboard, though, or a projector.  And there’s a LOT of information that first-time geomancers really need to have access to.  So I made a series of posters on big paper, in order to teach the key lessons of this style of divination.  These posters then hung around the edges of the room, in three major groups, to provide introductory lessons, intermediate lessons, and advanced commentary, on the art of geomancy.

The posters are available on my Flickr website, as a single group called “Geomancy”.

Of course, I’m working my way through Mike Rohde’s coursebook in Sketchnotes, and that means that rather than provide people with pages and pages and pages of words, like in a book, I decided that I would present my lesson with a series of fun posters that were designed to teach the material and make it easy to figure out what you needed to know next.  The results, I think, are one of the most enjoyable lesson plans that I’ve created in a while.   And it makes me understand that I need to revise my teaching in a lot of ways, quite a bit — because I’ve never had as responsive and appreciative an audience that left with as thorough a knowledge of the topic as the Feast of Lights gang. One woman attending said to me, “I’m so pleased — I walked in here thinking, I don’t even know what Geomancy is! and I’m leaving knowing how to do it.”

I do think that’s an exaggeration.  But she certainly knows enough to cast a chart, even if she doesn’t have all the fine details down about how to interpret it.

Geomancy visual aids: Odd and Even So… what does this mean for you, dear reader?

Well, it means you get to see my notes. And if you click through to the Flickr site, you’ll be able to see the whole set, and maybe puzzle your way to a deeper understanding of western-style Geomancy.

What is Geomancy?

First, let me talk to the people who are interested in magic and divination.  I began my workshop by saying that this system is not Chinese geomancy. So it’s not feng shui, and this won’t teach you where to put the frog with the coin in its mouth, or the mirrors.  And it’s not I Ching hexagrams and Taoist alchemy.  I said that it does seem to originate from West Africa, where it possibly/sometimes forms parts of the sikidy and Ifá traditions, and a practicing Yoruba priest that I met once was able to talk to me in some detail about this, although there were differences in terminology and meaning.

By the time it made its way to Europe in the 1100s and 1200s through Arabic and Moorish influence, of course, it had become a “poor man’s astrology”, a way of foretelling the future without having to do a lot of expensive astronomical calculations first.  And the system of geomancy helped inspire Gottfried Willhelm von Leibniz’s essays on binary numbers, which helped inspire John von Newman’s ponderings, and then Alan Turing’s actual construction of machines to do John’s calculations…  But of course, the system works perfectly well on its own.

At its core is the differential between odd and even, between active and passive, between energized and relaxed, between focused and dispersed.  Using four such random calculations (standing in for earth, air, fire, and water),  one of sixteen basic structures can develop. When those are assigned a specific set of meanings and guides and contexts, the result is a fairly-complete system of fortune-telling and divination and magic.

And my students at Saturday’s workshop learned the basics of that system: how to cast a figure, how to cast a chart, and how to read that chart as a series of pictures, and contexts, and as a series of images, which tell a story.

The Larger Issue of Visual Literacy

But I think there’s a larger lesson which looms over me, and you, and everyone else — regardless of whether you’re a teacher or a magician or a pagan or a poet or a tai chi practitioner who reads my blog, or even if you don’t read my blog normally and just happen across this page by accident or Google search.

And that is that Visual Thinking Matters.   

The students at my workshop were deeply impressed by the visual aids. There were handouts, and those were nice. There was audio instruction from me, and that was good.  There was hands-on practice, which was awesome.  And all of that was great.  But the thing that everyone kept commenting on were my posters.  The posters that provided constant visual reinforcement, and visual cues, about what information they needed and when.

The software in our minds for processing and understanding pictures is thousands of years older than our capacity to process words.  We understand visual symbolism and color and line and artwork with a far greater capacity than we have for the written word.  We may treat the written word as sacred and holy and powerful, yes — but to avoid teaching people how to process and understand visual imagery, or how to create it, is criminal.

The thing that blows me away, of course, is that WE’VE KNOWN THIS FOR CENTURIES. The Notary Arts, or Ars Notoria, was an ancient and medieval system of organizing and memorizing information based on what we would today call mind-mapping or node-mapping.  When combined with techniques from the Palace of Memory, the practitioners of these two ‘occult arts’ were nearly unstoppable in what they could remember and understand and explain back.  One wonders if this had something to do with the ancient obsession among university students for access to books of magic, and the simultaneous efforts of professors and clergy to keep such knowledge out of student hands.

Maybe fifteen people came to my workshop two Saturdays ago. Maybe it was less than that — I wasn’t really keeping a deep count (and only three were there on time, anyway).  But every one of those students pulled out a phone or a tablet or a camera to take pictures of the visual aids — and they asked to do so, and I encouraged them to do so.  The artwork helped fix in their minds that this was a useful guide to the work, and that it provided a clear and demonstrable key that served to unlock the other handouts and related materials.  And I think that’s significant: because it means that, even in a culture or community that is treating itself as an artistic approach to spirituality, no one thinks about the visual component of our communal teaching. Until it’s right in their faces. And then it becomes extraordinary.  It doesn’t even matter that we know how to make sigils, and use them for transformative work.  We still rarely use visuals as teaching tools in our workshops, and we rarely think about how important it is that we learn how to make the visuals that will help our students and peers learn our way better.

And yet, the results can be magical.

Geomancy visual aids With thanks to my teachers.

I feel enormously privileged and blessed, even at this point halfway-ish through my life, to have discovered what it means to be an artist.  I feel privileged and blessed to be able to teach using a ‘new’ teaching tool that is thousands of years old, and to be able to reach students with a set of tools that helps them understand things about the world through all the great powers of their brains. And I feel tremendously privileged to be able to connect the work of people like Mike Rohde, Dave Gray, Rachel Smith, Sunni Brown, and other designers and visual artists to both the modern teaching profession and to the more ancient traditions of geomancy and magic and spirituality.

As a culture, we’ve disrespected the visual, and the visual learners, for far too long.  And we’ve shut out people who learn visually from higher learning by disrespecting their ways of organizing and understanding information.

I think it’s time for us to remember the power of the visual to transform us, to teach us, and to help us learn. And it is is time for it to be reintegrated into our learning and our teaching.

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  1. Now, THAT bit about thinking of two actives making a passive, but a weird kind of passive, one that’s a new substance instead of being just two passives.. THAT’s an elegant observation. Thank you, and I’ll be using that in my geomancy in the future.

    As for the comparison with zero — I specifically brought up Leibniz’s essay about binary numbers, which also referenced his essay on geomancy — who said “let’s use 1 and 0 instead of active and passive; and those two essays influenced John VonNeumann in his work on binary numbers, who said, maybe we can do it mechanically, which as I understand it caused Alan Turing to say, “maybe we can do it with electricity…” that there’s a connection between the concept of the bit and the byte in computer engineering, and geomancy. All of this gets lost in the posters, of course, because some of that discussion was intended to be encapsulated in a couple of quick graphics — but weren’t the main point, which was how to cast a chart.

    On the other hand, I may have to re-think my charts, for the next time I teach.

    I agree, as well, that developing some non-reductive comparisons of the Islamic/European geomancy and the African systems is good and important work. I’m not sure how we’ll go about getting the comparative work to happen, though, without a skilled western-style geomancer going to Ghana and Mali and elsewhere and making the connections happen with the traditional practitioners there.

    • I didn’t know about Leibniz’s essay on geomancy.That is really intriguing–thanks for pointing that out.

      African geomancers aren’t all in Africa–more than a few of them found homes in the burgeoning Afro-diasporic religions over the last century and a half. Ifa and Diloggun are both transparently connected to the greater geomantic tradition (though, to be fair, a lot of folks in Ifa tend to claim historical primacy for their own practice, which makes comparative work with them potentially fraught).

      It is kind of crazy to think about, but there were probably African geomancers doing their work around the corner from European geomancers throughout the so-called Enlightenment–the slave trade was a bit indiscriminate like that.

      (Which is why I chuckle sometimes over Winthrop’s reasoning for putting an end to witch trials in Connecticut–that witches couldn’t possibly have the book learning required to do real magic. Woo-boy, talk about under-estimating your cunning folk! Man, wizards 😉

    • I decided to refresh my thoughts on the Leibniz-geomancy connection, and did some digging, afraid I misspoke myself a bit. I was mis-remembering things from quite a long time ago and I got quite a lot wrong. Leibniz mentions geomancy as a “ridiculous art” in his essay on Metaphysics, and doesn’t mention it at all in his essay on binary numbers… and now I can’t find his essay on geomancy, though I vaguely recall reading more about the Leibniz-geomancy connection several years ago; although he does reference the chart of the hexagram of Feng Shui in his essay on binary numbers. As a Rosicrucian, he seems to have been aware of geomancy but dismissive of it because it was based on randomness and he didn’t think the universe was random. And yet, he describes his “Art of counting by twos” using zeros and 1s, and I don’t think that’s an accident: did he learn it from geomancy and then later turn his back on it? May be a quibble, but may be a more serious point.

      Yeah, the Winthrop “magic comes from books” argument is interesting, isn’t it? And completely misses the real point — you may learn magic from books, but that doesn’t mean it stays in the book…

    • Ah well, it was probably too good to be true to have Leibniz enthusiastically endorse geomancy. Thanks for letting me know about what you turned up–the bit about binary is still pretty intriguing.

    • Yes, although I still recall that one of my profs in college (now lo, these almost-two-decades ago) mentioned that Leibniz had done some work with astrology and magic, like Newton, before ultimately going whole-hog for the enlightenment. And that he’d written about it. But now I can’t find those notes, or those articles.

  2. I love your posters. Love them.

    I would quibble with the computer comparison. It can be a little misleading as it makes an implicit comparison between passive and zero; zero is foreign to the geomantic system. There is never nothing in geomancy.

    Each time you add one sign to another, one line to another, you are describing a transformation. The passive and active transfigure each other. It is more like an alchemical operation, right? Adding two active lines and getting a passive one is a bit like adding two chemicals and getting a dark mixture–that dark mixture has its own specific potentials, not a generic reactiveness or passivity.

    Those relationships allow the reader to better understand what each sign within a chart represents and the forces it contains (e.g., this puella is a mixture of puella and populus, but that puella is a mixture of conjunctio and puer).

    (That opens one door to a meaningful and non-reductive comparison of West African geomantic systems and Islamic-European ones, too).

    Sorry, that is probably a bit much for a quibble. I have yet to master brevity. Bless, nerd-brain; I’ve been chewing on geomantic thoughts, so it’s all queued up in the forebrains. These look like great teaching tools and I don’t mean the length of the quibble to imply otherwise!

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