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Paradigm of the Picatrix: Lunar Mansions, what’s missing?



It is within electional heavy, possibly magic-phobic, neoplatonic, and theologically Abrahamic paradigmatic cultural frameworks of what the Mansions are we find, relative in the Picatrix, collected and authored perhaps around the same time as Al-Biruni’s material, which then becomes the sole source for how the West engages with the Mansions from then on, reflected almost exactly without change in Cornelius Agrippa’s Three Books Of Occult Philosophy and then collected into the lists of Alias Ashmole and other pre-moderns.

Islamic monotheism began to flourish in the Arabic world in the 7th C. replacing Judaism, Christianity, Zoroastrianism, Mithraism, Manichaeism and primarily indigenous Arabic polytheism as well as various other regional religious cults. It is this Abrahamic and monotheistic overlay on the Arabic astrological material as well as and especially the Picatrix in particular which articulates a certain posturing the material must take and formulate its functions. The worshiping of other Gods other than Allah was of course strictly forbidden, so personification of the planets within the Picatrix is directed more to their intelligences, spirits and angels, who are negotiated largely by interacting with their images and operating more or less through their virtues who’s authority spreads out via doctrines of sympathy and similitude into material reality which is overseen and pressured by the will and authority of God ultimately above all. Picatrix sidesteps direct spirit conjuration and works instead within a reality that is conveniently mechanistic, following suit from the neoplatonists who began to see the intangible higher realms of spirit as positive and the manifest lower realms of materiality as base and detestable. We might expect that these are later urbanized developments of philosophical thought paralleling that living in the penthouse is good where as toiling down in the ditches is bad. The Picatrix does not catch the narrative flow in earlier cultures of an embodied nature inhabited by agency but a materialistic and mechanistic hierarchal reality that can be manipulated and forced and coerced and ordered around by pulling strings and levers within the system. Its Hermetic outlook frames much of its alchemical logic married to this neoplatonic modality while operating under certain monotheistic prohibitions. It is by wise and clever science and careful calculation that these operations find their successful outcomes in the Picatrix’ view, not from the evil or fallacy of acts of sorcery. This is odd in modern terms, as the use of animal sacrifice and poisonous materials and open malefica smells of black magic, although, Picatrix sidesteps direct engagement in most cases with personae inhabiting the plants, animals or minerals they exploit and experience the intelligences of the heavens as subjects directly beneath the higher authority of God.


Scholars variously attribute Picatrix to prominent Sufi mystics and other Arabic Mystic fraternities, and it is altogether likely it originated in the confluence of mystical and magical knowledge preserved within flowing from Sabian Harran, the ancient Assyrian Merchant outpost in Upper Mesopotamia and modern day Turkey which at the time of the Picatrix was still transferring from being largely Gnostic to properly Islam. From here its concepts traveled through North Africa to Moorish Spain where it reached its translation points into European languages. Although, the author itself claims he sourced from Indian, Chaldean, Nabatean, Greek, Egyptian works and the knowledge of Hermes, Pliny and others, and within these cultural currents gleaned magical knowledge and in his distillation standardizes it into a usable form within his paradigmatic purposes. From the start of the work he points to hard causality as the operating principle to how what is within the pages functions, not mystical, magical or supernatural phenomenon or negotiation. Despite the works flamboyance, it is born of scientific scrutiny, utilitarian directives, and a desire to manipulate nature through clever application of philosophical rules. This is typical of ‘natural magic’, of which ‘image magic’ is a part, and the common variety which runs through the west after the christian period, separate from the tradition of goetic practice and spirit evocation which is considered more diabolical and directly illicit other than when it is applied with the intent of punishment to demons by calling upon ‘thwarting angels’. Picatrix indulges in none of this, despite it listing throughout various names of angels and spirits of the planets, it provides no tech to call upon them and no protocols of engagement. If there was any of this more elicit direct engagement with spirits going on, that we do find in surviving other Arabic manuscripts of various Djinn, Picatrix was very careful to deliberately set itself apart in what it delivers and stick to the sciences.


Picatrix takes a rather aggressive tone throughout, even at the roots of the art it describes, as it points out the word talisman is an inverse writing of the word musalit, to conquer and dominate a substance, whoever makes an image attempts to dominate the destiny of an object by violence, thus manipulating and forcing the workings of nature to conform to your intentions through tricks of a perceived advanced human intellect in communion with God and his wisdom. This places man at the center of an Aristotelian physics in magical synthesis where by “the role of the virtuoso in violating the order of nature, manipulating its laws, and exposing the existence of intangible physical entities, such as forces; the centrality of the sun; and, finally, the linear motion of rays and forces”. Everything is up or down and domination is the way in which things get done. Picatrix is far from being alone in this assumption of how the world works, but when we are in an investigation of what might be part of the most ancient mode of meaning making humanity has engaged with in search of lunar images, cycles, patterns, rhythms and cultural forms, these outlooks are very much worth keeping in mind.

Preoccupation with electional protocols guides Picatrix’s logic greatly, and glancing at the list it appears to be a selection of perhaps one demographics use of any kind of sequential selection. Its themes are so repetitive that it would not be surprising to find out they were merely a single warlords list of when to conduct sieges and slave runs that he acquired from his personal astrologer. The emphasis on election likely derives at least in part from the Indian Nakshatras that Al Biruni was exploring, but here we see names derived mostly from Arabic Asterisms and Images that might be a blend of Arabic lore, and the Indian and Greek wisdom the Picatrix mentions, but without the extensive richness and holistic wholeness preserved in the Indian Nakshatra tradition, instead you get a stripped down list poised toward very particular agendas alien to most of daily life.

Furthermore, we see a tropical logic alluded to in Al Biruni who claims the mansions begin with the Sun at the equinox, and indeed the Picatrix begins the sequence at 0 degrees Aries, and standardizes the 28 sections to 12 degrees and 51 minutes of arc, but then lands its entire structure upon observance of asterisms related to these degrees. It is this authors opinion that there needn't be any tension between tropical and sidereal zodiacs; that there are natural qualities to the story of light and darkness, day and night told throughout the solstitial and equinoctial cycle the Sun tells in a year and the Moon remembers each 27.35 days, as well as being significance to the stars planets and luminaries pass through and by in their cycles, and that they might be two varied but important layers of legitimate sky territory in each their own rights. Although, historically we can see confusion about where things fall and how they are distinguished in the face of grappling with the problems presented by precession, and the Picatrix’s understanding of the mansions seem to be such a case, as their blending of Indian and Greek astrologies has them perhaps applying inherited Indian star tracked electional operations onto a Tropical framework they became used to from the material they integrated from the mediterranean. The result is maybe even only in part a true lunar mansion system and one of a more sectionalized star sorcery by standardized groupings of celestial measurement. Using the Moon to receive and amplify and direct the significations and qualities of the stars and by them also choose times to act (a talisman is in some sense an action done at an election that results in a fetish of that action), rather than speaking to something that tells the meaning and mythologies and subtle rhythms of our closest celestial body traversing sky territory in a story within which we might play a part, and have played apart for many millennia, evidenced by animal image marked lunar time keeping calendars dating back to almost 30,000 years. In these early calendars we also find a count of 28, pointing out that we are not dealing with phase, but instead with days it takes for the Moon to return to the same zodiacal degree.

What Picatrix describes is maybe then a stop along the way of the much larger lunar zodiacal story rather than the whole foundation and inheritance of the west’s lunar zodiac itself, as we may be able to find many more layers by searching back further into antiquity, and especially closer to the regions where the astrology we use in the west coalesced.

We might look at a couple of the features of the list itself and how its organized to find out more about how the Picatrix feels about what it is describing. By grouping the mansions by what they are good for and not good for doing we can see that the 9th Lunar Mansion was thought to be in this tradition entirely malefic. This is not entirely uncommon in the Nakshatras, although the Nakshatra traditions might consider some Nakshatras more challenging to the native they denote someone who has to make peace with themselves and wrestle with their inner demons, which often requires establishing relationships with more turbulent or wrathful deities. Picatrix, as it is only describing something to elect for in the moment and not live with for a lifetime categorizes the 9th Lunar mansion as explicitly destructive. Although, this falls within tropical Cancer, the Moon’s traditional rulership. The next most destructive mansion seems to be the 15th, which falls upon 0 degrees Libra, the Autumn Equinox and the rulership of Venus. Upon closer inspection to the archetypes and cross tradition overlaps of these mansions you discover they tend to be most consistently associated with female energies, attributes and images. There is something not surprising coming from an Islamic and Neoplatonic perspective in a list that repeatedly selects opportunities for besiegement and incarceration that the most feminine sections of the cycle itself would be thought to be destabilizing to such and equivalent aims. When the Picatrix speaks about the virtues of Venus it specifically denotes that it is a planet that is good for “laying with women” rather than good for women. This, again is largely the language of all textual history, as literacy was dominated almost exclusively by men, although it is worth pointing out here as we are looking to this text to tell us about the zodiac which belongs to the nocturnal and feminine luminary itself, and find primarily advice on good or bad times to war, make money and otherwise ruin lives. The integration with directionality, subtle metaphysics, deific presence, elaborate myth and so on we find in the Nakshatras is altogether absent, as well as the overwhelming presence of animals mentioned, which seems to be the primary way to point at each of the 28 mansions from the vastness of pre-history.

The Picatrix is an absolute treasure to the the astrologer and is the undisputed centerpiece of the talismanic arts, as well as a foundational component to the Western Magical Tradition in its entirety, although it doubtfully contains a complete, whole or unbiased description of what a lunar zodiac ultimately might look like.

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