Over the course of Memorial Day weekend, I found myself off in the woods of the Berkshire Mountains, teaching workshops on geomancy and palace of memory. I think a lot more people are interested in me teaching geomancy, going into the future, but I find that I want to spend more time on palace of memory techniques.
For one thing, they work. I found myself memorizing along with my students a hymn that I hadn’t done before, Number XXV, the Hymn to Gaia:
The Fumigation from every kind of Seed, except Beans and Aromatics.
O Goddess, Earth, of Gods and men the source,The Hymns of Orpheus. Translated by Taylor, Thomas (1792).
endu’d with fertile, all destroying force;
All-parent, bounding, whose prolific pow’rs,
produce a store of beauteous fruits and flow’rs,
All-various maid, th’ eternal world’s strong base
immortal, blessed, crown’d with ev’ry grace;
From whose wide womb, as from an endless root,
fruits, many-form’d, mature and grateful shoot.
Deep bosom’d, blessed, pleas’d with grassy plains,
sweet to the smell, and with prolific rains.
All flow’ry dæmon, centre of the world,
around thy orb, the beauteous stars are hurl’d
With rapid whirl, eternal and divine,
whose frames with matchless skill and wisdom shine.
Come, blessed Goddess, listen to my pray’r,
and make increase of fruits thy constant care;
With fertile Seasons [Horai] in thy train, draw near,
and with propitious mind thy suppliant hear.
University of Pennsylvania Press, 1999. (Current edition).
And my students, by and large, were not lost, exactly, so much as intrigued. The notion that learning a poem depends on knowing where you are in time and space seemed like a novel concept to many of them, as though I’d proposed that learning to look things up on Google required knowing what kind of internet connection you happened to have at any given moment, and whether you were standing in desert or tropical biome.
As we marched around camp (truthfully not very far from our starting site in a little bunkhouse more suited for happy campers than adults learning memory-skills, less than a hundred fifty feet from the chairs where we started) we encountered flowers and streams, the wealth of earth, fertile and grassy plains. A deep-bosomed woman from our band stepped into place with a laugh and a sigh about happy she was with these grassy plains; and we imagined a bunch of mature vegetables being gratefully rolled down a hill by another friend of ours. The event registrar became covered in flowers at the center of our little world, and we looked to the skies to see the frames of the stars, shining with matchless skill and wisdom.
One student pointed out that my examples of memory-systems rooted in place included Asian/Buddhist ones, Aboriginal Australian ones, and European examples, but lacked a New World/American perspective. This student recommended Wisdom Sits in Places, by Keith Basso, about how spiritual information and learning and language are especially rooted in locations among the Western Apache bands and tribes. This is intriguing to me, and I’ve ordered the book to go along with my usual suspects like Frances Yates and Mary Carruthers for when we talk about memory.
But the real benefit to teaching memory arts before Geomancy, I think, is that the memory arts are something that the community desperately needs. It seems like every event includes teaching a half-dozen songs, instead of expecting that we should learning them and know them and connect them to this place. It seems like every year, we must teach them anew, as though we hadn’t been teaching them for twenty and thirty years. This dance and that dance, this spiral pattern, everything is constantly new again, as though it hasn’t been part and parcel of the story we’ve been weaving, all along.
And yet — it’s clear that learning to recite an Orphic Hymn (or anything really, but especially the Orphic Hymns) follows a five stage sequence of initiatory experiences:
- Reading the hymn silently to oneself
- Reading the hymn aloud to oneself
- Reading the hymn aloud to another or to others
- Reciting the hymn aloud from memory to oneself
- Reciting the hymn aloud to another or to others.
I suppose one can also include with incense and without incense as their own categories. This simply requires that one learn something about incense, and either acquire it or learn to make it and use it alongside the recitation.
So, I’ve dug out a project that I began in curiosity, and then played with for a while before ceasing to experiment: a framework that ties all 84 Orphic Hymns to a day of the month (1-31), either in the morning or the evening, as well as singling out fourteen hymns for special use in either the morning or the evening. Today being the first of June, I’ve begun in earnest. I wonder how long it will take me to memorize all 84 hymns in order (though I bet those fourteen will slot themselves in pretty early, with each of them being recited once a week). My guess is, a year, but you never know. Maybe it’ll take six months if I’m paying attention.
And moving. One of the key insights of Palace of Memory techniques are that they’re improved by actually practicing memorizing in different places than home. At home, everything becomes overlapped and localized; but in the larger world, you have a chance to make each part of the learning discrete and specifically located: a glacial erratic boulder on a hillside, an ancient tree, a small beach on the lake, and the place where the rising moon is most easily seen in all the camp.
And maybe that’s the entry point for a real and deep dialogue between indigenous wisdom on any continent, and the forgotten wisdom and traditions of pagan and occult learning in Europe — that maybe, by recognizing that wisdom sits in places instead of being endlessly non-localized “in the cloud of unknowing” that is the Internet, we can make wisdom more deeply rooted in ourselves, and restore some connection with what it means to be from somewhere real.