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.
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.
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.
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.