Magic and the Occult in Islam: Ahmad al-Buni

What follows is a very fine lecture by Saiyad Nizamuddin Ahmad (Department of Arabic and Islamic Civilizations, American University in Cairo) delivered at the Warburg Institute, University of London, May 2003.

This is an important lecture in it’s own right, but I’m also posting this as an introduction to my next post, regarding the decoding of a manuscript using astrological elements such as Lunar Mansions, Constellations and significant stars; while making reference to the Picatrix. I’m delighted to see so much research and scholarship brought to bear on the astrological tradition and it’s association with Alchemy, Geomancy. & Theurgy.

Hermes : Magician & Psychopomp

Hermes_mercurius_trismegistus_siena_cathedralHermes Trismegistus in the Cathedral of Siena

Hermes Mercurius Trismegistus – Cathedral of Siena

Among the many joys of practising traditional astrology, is the opportunity to fully explore the inner planets. When the going gets deep, the shallow resort to ‘higher octave” delusions. The formula seems to be if it’s deep, make sure it’s as far away from the Sun as possible which strikes me as perverse.

mercury (1)Being personal doesn’t mean it can’t also be universal. Let’s take Mercury for example. Mercury has the be the most skimmed over of all planets. This is really unfortunate because Mercury in his many manifestations has perhaps the richest set of attributes of all.

Everyone interested in astrology knows Mercury is about communication and short journeys and not much else. In fact, he is probably best known for the Mercury retrograde effect.

Let’s begin with the glyph. The Semi-Circle, Luna symbol  is Soul. The Solar circle is Spirit. They are above the Cross of Matter.

Although Mercury is usually referred to in the masculine, *he* is in fact the primal hermaphrodite that takes on the gender of it’s sign and position. However, it’s Mercury’s nature to communicate both the Solar and Lunar Self. As the Magician, he channels this energy to the world of Matter, symbolized by the Cross.

The image of Thoth (below) embodies the nature of Mercury. He has the Solar – Lunar disk above him. He is in the form of the Ibis. There has been much contention about why the Ibis was chosen as representative, but the most important issue is that it represents Spirits of the Air or intellect. No matter which form he takes, whether Mercury, Hermes or Thoth, he is a winged deity.images (7)

Thoth and Hermes were credited with the revelations of writing, mathematics, magic, astrology, astronomy, medicine, and  the almost completely forgotten role of Psychopomp, conductor of souls to the next world.

When we consider all of these, Hermes takes on a redemptive quality. Yet Modern astrologers have ascribed all of these qualities to the outer planets, mostly Uranus and Pluto. Now that he is virtually ignored, or written off in a sentence or two as the most boring planet,  we can see the extent of the loss.

As messenger to the two luminaries, he was held in very high regard. He is also credited with revealing the musical spell to bring Osiris back to life. In the earliest Egyptian sources he is a self created god.


Relief from a carved funerary lekythos at Athen – Hermes as Psychopomp Cconducts the Deceased Myrrhine to Hades C 430-420-BCE-National Archaeological Museum of Athens

There is great import in the seemingly simple sentence :

“Do You not know, Asclepius, that Egypt is an image of heaven, or, to speak more exactly, in Egypt all the operations of the powers which rule and work in heaven have been transferred to Earth below ?” (Asclepius III, 24b.)

These words of Hermes contain the essential dictum of “As Above, So below.” However the precise way that we comprehend this will depend on which model we are using to reference. For example, it is completely in keeping with Plato’s doctrine of the Forms, the idea that meterial, physical reality is not the ultimate one.

If we follow this essential teaching  through the Works of Plotinus, we have a complete system of thought that is mystical. A key image in the Enneads is the fountain of light, from which all originate and ultimately return.


Arabian Hermes

In the magical tradition of Hermes Trismegigstus, Pico dell Mirandola uses the image of Hermes wedding Earth to Heaven.

Mercury is a winged god, renowned for his speed. Sometimes refered to as Quicksilver, the protean shape shifter resembles the mind itself from the point of view of, say, Buddhism. Mercury is also the Triskster. I’m particularly interested in how Hermes was transmitted to Iranian and Arabian culture and the Abassid astrologers in particular

The early Abbāsid court astrologer Māšā allāh (fl . 762–ca 815) has been called the Prince of Astrology by Robert Zoller. He was “an associate of Umar ibn al-Farruxān aṭ -Ṭabarī, cites Hermes as an authority in his own Arabic works. He may well have known works of Hermes in the Middle Persian original; being a learned Iranian Jew, Māšā allāh could have had access toAramaic and Persian sources as well as Arabic’ (Pingee, Masa’ allah 1973. pp. 159 – 62). Several other Arabian astrologers including Al Biruni are discussed in Kevin van Bladel’s The Arabic Hermes: From Pagan Sage to Prophet of Science.

It’s fair to say that Masa’Allah was the most erudite of scholars at the Abbasid court as well as the finest astrologer. How he received Hermes therefore has resonance in European and Arabian astrology, particularly prior to the Renaissance. Their sources were Middle Iranian and not Arabian in origin. The Persians had taken and translated Hermes into their own language, and as is the case in all cross cultural receptions, Persian elements were attached. However, as can be seen by the photo of the “Arabian Hermes” he has all the same attributes, albeit in what contemporary Greeks might have thought an exotic fashion.

First, we see Mercury is winged, holding the Solar and Lunar elements. The downward triangle remains the symbol of descent into matter to this day. There is however nothing to suggest that he is merely ‘Earth bound.” The two heads certainly have a more Persian design, but it’s quite easy to see the reference to the caduceus, with the two ‘serpent’ heads (perhaps birds in this case.)

There is still plenty of room for cultural interpretation. The role of psychopomp will of course differ in understanding depending on belief in the afterlife. For one it might mean ascension and to another successfully crossing the River Styx. However, the role of spirit guide doesn’t have to change. In the words C.G. Jung:

“From the earliest times, Hermes was the mystagogue and psycho pomp of the alchemists, their friend and counselor, who leads them to the goal of their work. He is “like a teacher mediating between the stone and the disciple.” To others the friend appears in the shape of Christ or Khidr or a visible or invisible guru, or some other personal guide or leader figure.” Archetypes and the Collective Unconscious – CW 9i (1934–1954) (1981 2nd ed. Collected Works Vol.9 Part 1)

Alchemical art from the Buch der Heiligen Dreifaltigkeit

Alchemical art from the Buch der Heiligen Dreifaltigkeit

Hermes is much more than Magician and Psycopomp, but I believe these are the most ignored attributes in our time. Finally, we have the beautiful Alchemical illumination from the Buch der Heiligen Dreifaltigkeit on the left.

This has remained mysterious, although of course many scholars have had their theories. The image is very similar to the previous Arabian illustration, certainly not in style but in substance. Here the Mercurial figure is female. As mentioned, Mercury can be both genders, but is rarely portrayed as a woman. The caduceus- like form is there, with the Sun and Moon, but it’s reversed. She forms an ascending triangle. This image gives much to contemplate regarding the feminine attributes of Hermes.

Towards a Living Tradition

arithThis is a purely editorial piece – my first and probably my last.  It’s meant to raise some issues I think need to be discussed in the astrological community. My remarks should not be construed as referring to any particular individual. It’s an open letter to the Astrological community and all interested readers.

The resurrection of several texts from the Hellenistic and Medieval period in particular have contributed to a Renaissance in astrology. Many of these sources were unavailable for one reason or another until the last three decades. This is a wonderful time to be an astrologer.

Unfortunately this new knowledge has helped to create an atmosphere of elitism,  expressed most strongly in those who know the least. We have cases of ‘famous’ teachers teaching predictive astrology who have never accurately predicted anything. When asked for the specifics of a given prediction they become vague and reluctant to connect it to a specific astrological event, sometimes even contradicting themselves in the process – granted that is the extreme.

Common English words are translated into Latin to add that special patina to an otherwise mostly empty vessel. Of course, the programs offered by these astrologers are very expensive, so the recipients of the diplomas, degrees and titles  naturally become  defensive if any of the techniques they learned are in any way held up to scrutiny or their brand name questioned. This is not conducive to astrology as a living tradition.

Try to imagine going for a reading with William Lilly or John Dee only to find certificates on their wall declaring them competent . It doesn’t work that way and it never did.  Mentorship is a necessary and wonderful thing, but the greatest astrologers we have even known didn’t have a brand name mentality and usually had many teachers. Putting letters after your name might be useful for lawyers and physicians, but has little or no meaning in astrological life. William Lilly consistently refered to himself as s student of astrology.  Of course, some students are more advanced and experienced than others, but students they remain.

The study necessary to be a great Traditional Astrologer is immense and takes decades. One doesn’t just take a course in Hermetic or Neo Platonic philosophy and then claim to be  a Classicist. .Obviously you are not going to get a full understanding of Neo Platonism without being thoroughly familiar with Plato.

If you embrace the Hermetic Philosophy you will need to know a great deal about the various forms of Hermes. You will need to have a full grasp of the cosmology that lies deep in the roots of Traditional astrology. In fact it can never be separated, otherwise you will never be anything more than a mechanic. Astrology without spirit and soul is nothing more than parroted dogma. It cannot ultimately work and it certainly cannot produce anything useful to the soul. There is a pervasive aversion to the idea of soul, perhaps as much as of psychology.  Many Traditional astrologers have somehow got the idea that astrology is purely utilitarian. This is an enormous overreaction to the excesses of New Age astrology, which in fact has no coherent foundation at all. – as psychology perhaps, but not astrology.

In India, the knowledge is often passed down from generation to generation. But this transmission, no matter in which culture it occurs, does not produce photocopies. Mimicry is anathema to any Art. What we need is emulation and a deep understanding that Astrology is a living Art. I have seen far too many so called Traditional astrologers cling to dogma and find themselves superior, thus negating the ability to learn anything.

As for myself, I have studied for over forty years. I’ve been blessed by many, many great teachers. I had  an extraordinary master of yoga as my teacher at the age of sixteen. I subsequently read the Upanishads, the Rig Veda and any Indian sacred texts I could find. Later on, I practiced Tibetan Buddhism. The wisdom and beauty of these traditions astounded me, but what amazed me even more was how much they paralleled the western tradition. It’s been said that Buddhism is the closest thing to Gnosticism in the West, a sentiment with which I heartily agree. I sought my Western roots and found many marvelous things. We have all but forgotten our sacred roots. Through all this, astrology was never far away from my focus.

I spent a decade in Academia studying Greek and Roman Classics, Ancient History, philosophy – particularly Hermetica and Platonica.  My Doctoral studies were on Marsilo Ficino and the School of Alexandria.  It was my great pleasure to go on and professs the sumjmation of these studies I’ve found that none of this has conflicted in essence with my Druidic roots to which I feel a powerful bond. I make no special claims other than those required of any astrologer who has mastered the Art to the extent that I have. That doesn’t mean I never err. We all do.

Not everyone would have the opportunities I’ve had and my studies have taken me beyond what is required of a great astrologer. We can measure a great astrologer in any number of way : first he or she will enjoy a high degree of accuracy and a strong spirituality complete with humility . It’s not our doing that we have great teachers or extraordinary opportunities for transference of wisdom.  Gratitude is an appropriate attitude, arrogance is not. He will be devoted to a lifetime of study.

Contact with our ancestors in one way or another is a great necessity. From them we receive knowledge wisdom and inspiration. This is probably the greatest forgotten gift of  Modernity.

It’s not my intent to offend anyone and I recognize many wonderful teachers of the Art. These things needed to be said and I hope they stimulate some fruitful discussion in the astrological community

Hermetic Philosophy & Astrology


I have discussed the Hermetic Philosophy in a number of contexts. Here I want to get to the very core of the teaching because it is essential to Astrology as well as Sympathetic Magick. In such a medium it can only be an introductory article  – I hope it will inspire further research.

The image above is of the Goddess Nut. Her name is translated as ‘sky’ She is considered one of the most ancient deities in the Egyptian pantheon.

Her origin is found in the creation story of Heliopolis (city of the Sun). Originally Nut was goddess of the nighttime sky only. Eventually she was referred to simply as the sky goddess.

I have referred to the third century Alexandrian philosophy as essentially syncretic Neo Platonism and the Hermetic is very much part of the mix.

Her headdress was a hieroglyphic of part of her name which symbolizes the womb Female sky gods are not common.. Symbolically the Sky is the Mother — the divine origin.

The Magician weds Earth to Heaven - Note the infinity symbol above his head

The Magician weds Earth to Heaven – Note the infinity symbol above his head

The tractates of the Corpus Hermeticum, along with Asclepius, are the fundamental documents of the Hermetic tradition. It was written by unknown authors in Egypt towards the end of the third century C.E.

They were part of a once substantial body of writing attributed to Hermes Trismegistus, which means Thrice Great. They can ce seen as a Hellenistic fusion of the Greek god Hermes and the Egyptian god Thoth.

The Hermetica is thoroughly compatible with Platonism and neo Platonism in most cases and are often used side by side. For example, Plato’s doctrine of the Forms is congruent with the Egyptian belief that the Milky Way was the true Nile – more accurately the ideal Nile..

Under the Sub Lunary Sphere everything is subject to decay and corruption. The Hermetic Philosophy taught the way to liberation. We have a n inner light or *spark* of divinity that grows as we progress. But we can never be separated from the source

Plotinus used the image of a fountain of light to explain the soul’s descent into matter and invetible return to the source.

The Hermetica is a rich text, but at it’s core is what has become known as The Emerald Table of Hermes. This where we find the words :

“True, without error, certain and most true: that which is above is as that which is below, and that which is below is as that which is above, to perform the miracles of the One Thing. “207688_301630169940725_1211993157_n

If we turn to Astrology in particular, we can see how these precepts are the core of authentic astrological work. Marsilio Ficino referred to this  as “making your life agree with the Heavens (Book of Life p. 86).

The teaching of As above, So Below isn’t just a concept. It implies that the relationship between Heaven and Earth is very real. Plato would call this doctrine of essence that of the Forms.

When we discuss the Elements, Signs, Houses etc  in Astrology, we remember this formula

Astrology would be a futile endeavour if this were not true. The horoscope connects it’s native to the heavens, the source. It’s a strong recognition of interconnectedness with natural and the celestial world.

Element of Water

tsunami The intended readership of this article is the informed astrological neophyte, although I hope practicing astrologers will find something of value as well.

In Astrology we use the four elements: Earth, Water, Fire and Air. The fifth or Quintessence is the source of them all.

We have become accustomed to thinking of such things in the abstract; but these are live and dynamic elements, each with unique and complex characteristics.  The doctrine of As above, So below doesn’t just apply some of the time. It applies always. Consciousness and vital expression is everywhere.

My goal is to use the study of each element from many perspectives to be ultimately used in the interpretation of horoscopes: to experience the elements as not only living, but divine, both in the microcosm and the macrocosm. One of the most regrettable blind allies taken by students of Traditional Astrology is to divorce the Art not only from psychological concerns but spiritual ones as well. This can lead to a very dry materialism that puts little or no value on the spiritual.

Considering the Neo Platonic, Pythagorean and Hermetic philosophies that inform the art, this is a sad state of affairs. I read not so long ago that “Modern astrology has no brains and Traditional Astrology has no soul.”  Technicalities can become an end in themselves.

The most concise definition of astrology is ‘the practical application of astronomy to human use.’ Titus Burckhardt writes: “our response to it must necessarily hinge on our understanding of what it means to be human ” (Ibn Arabi p.5). If our essential interconnectedness with all that is and all that will ever be is ignored, we become greatly diminished as human beings; but what might have been a sad fact at another time in history is inexorably linked to our own survival and the survival of thousands of other species in our own lifetime. The deliberate or unconscious  pollution of the oceans, for example, is immediately connected with spiritual sickness. It is the act of someone who has no idea of who they really are.


When we consider this in  light of  a particular chart,  we will of course want to know how a given element expresses itself in the  horoscope. This perhaps sounds all too obvious, but you will never meet anyone with the same chart as you, no matter how long you live.  ‘

Likewise, no two drops of water are identical. So while it is tempting to think of an  element as  one thing, we must also take into account that the same element exists in many different states. Most obviously we have water, ice and clouds in the Water Triplicity. but that’s just the beginning.

Cornelius Agrippa discusses this at great length in Bk I of  Occult Philosophy, using the language of his own times. However, Jakob Boehme and William Blake were just as expressive of this reality – “To see a world in a grain of sand, And a heaven in a wild flower, Hold infinity in the palm of your hand, And eternity in an hour” is on the mark. (Augeries of Innocence)”

In Hermetic Philosophy elements are not just things, categories or qualities. Everything is imbued with spirit and everything we can know see has consciousness: “Everything That Lives is Holy” (Blake MHH).

Water is incredibly dangerous. Traditionally this is one reason that Saturn was given governance over seafarers. This also carries the meaning of  the extremities or ‘furthest reaches’ as Saturn is the furthermost visible planet. The ocean was regarded as both chaos and the source of life in cultural mythologies.



Water is essential to life. Either too much or too little can mean the difference between life and death. She gives and takes life.

The human body is approximately 2/3 water. About 83 percent of our blood is water, which helps digest our food, transport waste, and control body temperature. Each day humans must replace 2.4 litres of water, some through drinking and the rest taken by the body from the foods eaten.

Great civilizations grew up around rivers, such as the Euphrates, the Nile, the Indus, the Mekong, the Yangtze, the Danube and the Ganges. The Egyptians refer to the Milky Way as the “true Nile.” The Indians say the Milky Way is the Heavenly Ganges.

Rivers are often a place of worship and most specifically ritual purification. The Ganges is a goddess to Hindus.  The bather in the Ganges is letting the waters of the goddess dissolve all physical and spiritual impurities. She is alive and responsive.

Because water retains memory, the person drinking water at the mouth of the Rhine is taking in more information than one drinking at the source of the Rhine (see video 1)

This is science in accordance with the spirit of  Hermetic doctrine

Indian mythology equates the river Ganges with the Milky Way. According to Vedic lore  Ganga (Ganges) resided in the sky (Milky Way) and was called Akash Ganga' or Sky-River.

Indian mythology equates the river Ganges with the Milky Way. According to Vedic lore Ganga (Ganges) resided in the sky (Milky Way) and was called Akash Ganga’ or Sky-River.

All Signs of the Water Triplicity are Feminine and Receptive. In other words, they are absorbent.

This is more true of Pisces than Cancer and Scorpio because the fishes have no armor. But the principle applies to all three nevertheless.

Water is highly receptive and demonstrably responsive to sound waves or in fact being in contact with anything, It is not malleable as is Earth; but it will conform to any container.

It is not my intent here to go into any detail regarding the signs. That is for another post. But we can take a quick look at a couple of examples to see the principle at play.

Yangtze River

Yangtze River

With the Moon in Cancer she is in her own domicile. The Moon is the most reflective of all luminaries and planets.

The Moon governs memory. Both luminary and sign are feminine and receptive.

To put it simply, the Moon functions best in her own home.

Venus is exalted in Pisces. Again we have feminine with feminine.

The selfless nature of Pisces produces what we can call an optimum Venus because she is spiritualized.  But she is even better off in Libra or Taurus predominantly through art and sensuality respectively, balanced and stable. Libra and Taurus are her domiciles.

Elements perform best when placed with harmonious planets and luminaries: particularly in their domicile or exaltation. In the case of water signs, they are particularly impressionable and absorbent.

Massive wave near Australia's Bondi beach

Massive wave near Australia’s Bondi beach

The element of water is highly intuitive and, unless otherwise afflicted, highly empathic.

Those with strong water signatures in the horoscope need to drink more water than most and do well near large bodies of water. Salt water can absorb *negative energy* even is used in a small receptacle at home.

Pisces, the most Feminine sign of all, needs to cleanse themselves from the excess of negative energy absorbed. Pisces is like a sponge and requires more time alone to recharge than any other sign.


Belugas playing in the Arctic

Most I think are aware of the relationship of water to positive or negative ions. A negative Ion is an atom or molecule that has absorbed one or more extra negatively charged electrons. Negative ions are highly beneficial. They are generated by evaporating water, ocean surf, or waterfalls.

It should be an easy task to connect the spiritual and the material by understanding the essential nature of any element. But all the true Arts take many years to master. The doctrine of As above, So below will become increasingly profound in the process

Alchemical Symbol for the Element of Water

Alchemical Symbol for the Element of Water