The first question that occurs to one about this system is, why is it called ‘geomancy’ when it certainly doesn’t look like divination-by-geography? Isn’t geomancy the same thing as Feng Shui? Well, it’s called ‘geomancy’ because one early way of practicing this system was by randomly drawing four rows of dots in the dirt with a stick, counting the number of dots in each row, then assigning each row one dot or two, depending on if the number of dots in each row were odd or even. Helpful tip: in a pinch, you can do the same with a pen or pencil and a piece of paper. Or with dirt and a stick. But first, a little history.
In the course of my research on divination methods, I discovered the sixteen principle figures of Ifa divination from the west coast of Africa are the same sixteen figures which comprise the sixteen figures of western Geomancy, a form of divination practiced by European mages and mystics from the High Middle Ages through the end of the Renaissance. They are the same sixteen figures which appear in ‘Napoleon’s Book of Fate’, an oracular system allegedly found in a royal tomb in Egypt by Napoleon’s forces during the French expedition there in 1801. It’s not clear where this sixteen-symbol system originated, whether it started in west-central Africa, or the north-east corner of Africa (Egypt), and from there to Europe, but it’s clear it comes to us from Africa. It most likely came to Europe as the result of trade.
The sixteen figures are a binary divination system, comprised of a series of one or two dots in four descending levels. Each symbol has its own set of meanings and associations. Traditional Ifa divination has the sixteen symbols carved on palm nuts, which are cast onto a divining tray with sections marked out by sand. Another form, considered by purists to be a ‘lesser’ form of practicing the art, is by employing the opele, an approximately four-foot-long cord with eight half-shells or discs, marked to reflect either one hash mark or two (in Africa, the figures are made by hash marks, not dots), and spaced in such a way that four of the half-shells or discs are positioned closer to each end of the cord, with a significant space of empty cord between the two sets of four. Reportedly, many African diviners prefer to use the opele, because answers may be obtained faster.
Ifa divination was traditionally preceded by a ceremony, where prayers were recited and aid invoked from spirits. The question was asked, then the opele was cast away from the diviner onto a divining cloth or rug. The diviner tries to cast the opele in such a way that one end lands on the left, and the other on the right. The two ends of the opele were carefully straightened out, if necessary, in such a way as to not flip over any of the half-shells. The result was observed and the associated story recited.
I did something stupid and culturally-insensitive when I first became introduced to this system. Wanting to be authentic, I made an opele. I think it is a thing of beauty. Orunla, also known as Orunmila, the African Orisha Whose divination system this is, does not like females using His divination tool. (He’s got a reason for this). My first throw was Rubeus/Rubeus, which translates as rage. Getting the message, I purchased a box for the opele, placed the opele in it, set it on a high shelf in my study, and there it remains untouched to this day. (See the picture above? Before I took it out of the box to take this picture, I assured Orunla out-loud that I was not going to use it, that I was just going to take a picture of it and put it back in the box. Honest.) Pissing-off an Orisha is never a good idea.
When European mages used these symbols, they made the hash-marks dots, gave them Latin names, and used them in alchemy. So I made a set of cards with the sixteen symbols, gave them a very ornate, non-African-looking border, and unofficially call them ‘EuroIfa.’ since I’ve Europeaned them up. They work quite well in this format, and Orunla has posted no objection. Yet.
You’ll notice in the links below, I have a large set of cards and a smaller set of cards. There’s little difference between the two, it’s just whatever is your personal preference. But first, let’s do a brief (and I do mean, brief) run-down of the sixteen symbols, their associations, and what they represent:
The Sixteen Geomantic Symbols
Puer (Boy)-Keyword: Strife. Other divinatory associations: rashness, impetuousness, violence, energy, destructiveness, act-first-think-later. Mars, Aries, fire, the head. Image: a sword, or a male figure with exaggerated testicles.
Amissio-Keyword: Loss. Other divinatory associations: unfavorable, if gain is desired. This often represents things which lie outside one’s grasp. It is a favorable sign for love, or in situations where loss is desired. Venus, Taurus, Earth. Image: a bag held upside-down, with the contents spilling out.
Albus (White)-Keyword: Peace. Other divinatory associations: wisdom, purity; a favorable figure, but weak. Good for beginnings and profit. Image: a goblet, set upright. Mercury, Gemini, Air.
Populus (People)-Keyword: Stability. Other divinatory associations: a multitude, a gathering, or an assembly of people. This is a neutral figure; it is favorable with favorable figures, and unfavorable with unfavorable ones. Image: a crowd. The Moon, Cancer, water.
Fortuna Major (Greater Fortune)-Keyword: Power. Other divinatory associations: great good fortune, especially in beginnings. A figure of power and success, favorable in any conflict or contest. Image: a valley, through which a river flows. The Sun, Leo, Fire.
Conjunctio (Conjunction)-Keyword: Interaction: Other divinatory associations: a combination of forces, for either good or ill; a recovery of things lost. This is another neutral figure; it is favorable with favorable figures, unfavorable with unfavorable ones. Image: a crossroads. Mercury, Virgo, Earth.
Puella (Girl)-Keyword: Harmony. Other divinatory associations: happiness, a favorable figure in response to most questions, but it is fickle; the happiness and harmony it portends could be here-today-gone-tomorrow. Image: a female figure, with exaggerated breasts. Venus, Libra, Air.
Rubeus (Red)-Keyword: Passion. Other divinatory meanings: fierceness, violence and vice. Good in all that is evil, and evil in all that is good. Image: a goblet turned upside-down. Mars, Scorpio, Water.
Acquisitio-Keyword: Gain. Success, profit, those things which are within one’s grasp. Favorable in all material matters. Image: a bag held mouth-upward, as if to take something in. Jupiter, Sagittarius, Fire.
Carcer (Prison)-Keyword: Isolation. Other divinatory meanings: solidity, restriction, delay, binding, imprisonment. Generally unfavorable, but favorable for questions regarding stability and security. Image: an enclosure. Saturn, Capricorn, Earth.
Tristitia (Sorrow)-Keyword: Sorrow. Other divinatory meanings: suffering, illness, pain. An unfavorable symbol in all questions except for those dealing with buildings and the earth. Image: a stake driven downward. Saturn, Aquarius, Air.
Laetitia (Joy)-Keyword: Joy. Other divinatory meanings: happiness and health. Favorable in almost all questions. Image: a tower. Jupiter, Pisces, Water.
Cauda Draconis (Tail of the Dragon)-Keyword: Ending. Other divinatory meanings: an unfavorable figure for most questions, but favorable if the question is about desired endings or losses. This figure brings good with evil, and evil with good. Image: a doorway with footprints leading away from it. South Node of the Moon, Fire.
Caput Draconis (Head of the Dragon)-Keyword: Beginning. Other divinatory meanings: favorable for beginnings and profit. Otherwise, favorable with favorable figures and unfavorable with unfavorable ones. Image: a doorway with footprints leading toward it. The North Node of the Moon, Earth.
Fortuna Minor (Lesser Fortune)-Keyword: Swiftness. Other divinatory meanings: a favorable figure for anything that needs to be done quickly. A figure of change and instability. Image: a mountain with a staff atop it. Sun, Leo, Air.
Via (Way)-Keyword: Change. Other divinatory meanings: alteration between good and ill-fortune. Favorable for journeys, but unfavorable for most other questions. Image: a road. Moon, Cancer, Water.
Traditional Ifa divination has 256 possible resultant answers, each with their own story attached. The babalawo (African diviner) was expected to know, from memory, all 256 answers and the story attached to each. The answer to the inquirer’s question was held to be contained in the story connected with the resultant cast, in response to their question. European mages who adopted this system likely kept the same meanings of each symbol which the Africans who developed this system assigned them. Proceeding on that assumption, and realizing that the 256 answers mean 256 different pairings of the geomantic symbols, I am offering my interpretations of the 256 answers in the link below:
Divining With This System:
African diviners traditionally threw the opele three times: once for the past, once for the present and once for the future. So a six-card spread, with two cards representing the past, two representing the present, and two representing the future, comes closest to matching the original spirit of this sixteen-symbol divination system. I recommend making two-to-four copies of all sixteen symbols for your Geomantic deck, but if you choose to make only one copy of all sixteen, you’ll need to gather the cards together and shuffle them for each part of the reading, because the same symbol may want to come up in more than one location, and it can’t do that if you have only one set of the sixteen symbols.
A note about these cards: the small version is a two-page document, and the large version of the cards is a five-page document, but the last page in both of these is intended to be the card back, so if you don’t want to use the back I provided, you’ll want to limit the print-out to omit those pages when your computer asks which pages you want to print. Before cutting out the cards, I recommend shellacking them with a few coats of sealant, available from craft or art-supplies stores.
When reading the symbols, you of course, start with the symbol on the left, then the symbol on the right—the one brings the other. For example, if for the past, you pull Populus with either Puer or Rubeus, you know that this person was in an angry crowd which may have gotten out of control. Depending on the situation, this could’ve left them feeling angry, traumatized or ashamed. If in the future you draw Acquisitio with Fortuna Minor, that could mean one of two things: either they will have a chance to experience gain, but they will have to act quickly to secure it, or it could mean a gain which comes swiftly. It could also mean a gain, which comes and goes with equal speed. As always, it will depend on you, the diviner, to discern the message.
1. Do a reading for yourself, past, present and future. Is it accurate? Note the future pairing. Did it come true?
2. Do a reading for someone you know or are related to? Is it accurate? Note the future pairing. Did it come true?
3. Do a reading for someone in the news. Does the reading make sense in terms of what you know about this person’s situation? Did it yield any information you didn’t know? Note the future pairing, then return to it later. Did it make sense, in retrospect?
Extra Credit: Look at the opele in the picture above. What is it saying?
If you’re going to practice geomancy seriously, what I’ve posted above is just the start of it. Below is my by-no-means exhaustive bibliography/pathfinder of sources that should help give you a fuller, deeper understanding of the sixteen symbols.
Greer, John Michael. Earth Divination Earth Magic: A Practical Guide to Geomancy. St. Paul, Minn.: Llewellyn Publications. 2000. ISBN: 1-56718-312-3. This book is my standard, go-to book on the subject. It also covers things like physical descriptions, character associations and the body-part rulership of each symbol, along with commentary which delves more deeply into the meanings. It details how to erect a divinatory chart, using the sixteen symbols, which I’ll cover at another time. This book also includes the first translation of Pietro de Abano’s fourteenth century handbook on the subject of geomancy, so it’s like you’re getting two books on the subject for the price of one.
Peek, Philip M. African Divination Systems: Ways of Knowing. Bloomington, Indiana: Indiana University Press, 1991. ISBN: 9780253343093. For those who want to delve into the more African origins of this divination system, this a good book, if a bit scholarly, given its university imprint. Even though the title makes it sound like it covers more than one African divination system, really, the only topic in this book is Ifa. This is the book which made me realize geomancy was yet-another white-appropriation of African culture.
https://renaissanceastrology.com/astrologicalgeomancy.html Astrological Geomancy. For those who don’t want to bother with books, this website is a gold-mine of information on the subject, and it also contains recommendations for other books on the subject, and links to still-more websites about geomancy. Certainly worth a look-see.