Properties & Sympathies

I have an operation coming up that is one-part astrological talisman, one-part spirit fetish, and one-part pulling Stuff from the Depths closer to my incarnate life here on the skin of the world. The impetus for this project emerges out of working with the decans and, after a point, very specific things that started to come out of dreaming and from journeying work.

As I considered what I was doing with this particular operation, I consulted some reference texts for associated materials to use. I have particular characteres—glyphs, symbols, seals, what have you, that represent the presence of particular spirits. I have also found herbal and mineral associations for them. In particular, it seemed like agate was the stone I wanted to engrave/mark. Indeed, I had already marked a little agate pyramid (pyramids are cool) with a character for one of the beings in question that I’d discovered through dream contact (and which I’d already been seeing for a while). Tiger’s eye agate, in particular, seemed to be the go-to for what I’d done and am planning.

However, I started to get pulls elsewhere. Citrine started jumping out at me, in dreams and otherwise. I ordered some yellow citrines. I saw a particular tool in a dream, a rather common tool all things considered, but it had a head made from yellow citrine. A long wyrd dream narrative made short, I thought, Hmm—citrines. What’s up with that? But as I dreamt the other night, it became pretty damn apparent that Hey, maybe use yellow citrine for this instead of agate. Or at least, for part of what I’m doing. I did some divination to crosscheck outcomes, and yeah, citrine seems to be the preferred material.

Now, as a friend observed on twitter, we’re talking about various flavors of quartz. I read her response as suggesting, well, how much does it matter? It’s all quartz. Silicon is the second most common component of the Earth’s crust, after all. Citrine is just another “flavor” of quartz.

Except, well, I could say the same thing about ice cream. It’s all milk and sugar and carbon arranged into various flavors, but people will sure complain when you screw up their orders.

Correspondences & Sympathies

Based upon my experiences, we usually call these kinds of associations “correspondences”—green is a color correspondence for Venus, for example, or it can be. The term seems to enter modern occult usage since only Swedenborg. But, the principles go back more to older understandings of sympathy. I’m going to jump past Frazer and his The Golden Bough (“sympathetic magic”) to go to Marsilio Ficino, who goes to folks like Plotinus and Iamblichus. I’m lacking access to an edition of Ficino to immediately draw on, but I’ll point to Christopher S. Celenza’s write-up at the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy:

Of the three books of De vita, the third proved most controversial, dealing as it did in places with seemingly heretical themes, including potentially idolatrous “statue animation”, which is to say the possibility of drawing down celestial forces into inanimate objects, thus rendering them animate. For Ficino, the ritualized activation of occult properties (“signed” images and “sympathies”) represented a legitimate part of natural philosophy, one to which the recently available range of later Platonic and “Hermetic” material had opened new pathways. Ficino tells (to take one typical example) of certain stars that possess discrete powers (Ficino in Kaske and Clark, 3.8, 278-79). He reports that Thebit, an ancient thinker known from the Hermetic Corpus, “teaches that, in order to capture the power of any of the stars just mentioned, one should take its stone and herb and make a gold or silver ring and should insert the stone with the herb underneath it and wear it touching [your flesh]” (ibid., tr. Kaske and Clark). Channeling powers that the divine had implanted in nature for humankind to use could indeed seem legitimate [to Ficino’s Christian peers].

Ficino’s ontology thus shared aspects with Plotinus’s, including: the hierarchy which human beings, through their birth and appearance in the world, have descended; the importance of meditation and philosophical practices in fashioning re-ascent; the presence of “sympathies,” or hidden connections (which the properly observant philosopher could find and reveal) between material and celestial things that helped link the different levels of the hierarchy; and the hierarchy’s background of Platonic echoes (such as the cave imagery from the Republic and the same dialogue’s myth of Er, and the post-death journey in the Phaedo). (emphases mine)

Or, as Ficino puts it in regards to music, vibration, and sympathy:

[The Gods seem to answer you] like an echo or like a string in a lute trembling to the vibration of another which has been similarly tuned. And this will happen to you from heaven as naturally, say Plotinus and Iamblichus, as a tremor re-echoes from a lute or an echo arises from an opposite wall.[1]

Now, we’re into hermetic territory here: that which is above is like that which is below, and vice versa. The heavens resonate here on Earth, or, going a bit less hierarchical in the metaphor, some things resonate with other things, and some of those things are spirits, gods, and whatever super natural world exists beyond the little human surface we dwell upon here.

Having come up with GD and Wiccish occultism as part of my experience, I have had a couple of copies of Crowley’s 777, which is chock full of “helpful” correspondence tables. So many books will offer such tables, too. I remember D. J. Conway’s Celtic Magic had piles of these for Irish and other “Celtic” gods, fairies, and so on. People have been doing this forever, of course. In a sense, humans have sought to systemize sympathy. Humans have tried to taxonomize them even. At the same time, the monadic impulse—that impulse that leads folks to try to reduce everything down to some kind of ultimate unity—has resulted in these systems flattening the concept of sympathy to, well, literal correspondence, to the level of the symbolic.

And as I think about why citrine over agate—or even just quartz—the answer isn’t a matter of the chemical, material composition of citrine—though that has literally mattered in the emergence of citrine as a physical object I can manipulate. But the magic isn’t stored in the molecules, let alone the atoms or subatomic particles. And yet, people have often used citrine for particular purposes and agate for others.

It’s all quartz, but why citrine matters isn’t somehow locked in the “ferric impurities” that distinguish citrine from “just” quartz.

Non-Systemic Answers

As much as I want to get at what I would argue is going on—which will wind up being far more suggestive than definitive—I also want to avoid trying to further systemize things. Humans observe and can describe their observations about relationships and happenings within the world, but we aren’t determining those relations, at least not exclusively. It’s easy and tempting to think that what we’re doing is imposing meaning and order over the world—over the herbs, images, words, stones, colors, and more that we use (or partner with, depending where you are in your practice) in doing our magic.

Materia as Persons

I can come at this subject in terms of the personhood of citrine as being different than agate, or that this citrine is different, though related, to another piece of citrine. With herbs, I think humans can have an easier time sensing personhood. I was preparing some mugwort the other day, took a bit of dried herb in my mouth as I was working, and bam, mugwort was definitely saying hello, and  I was saying hello back and smiling. I have some rosemary out on my balcony right now—the rosemary from last year, who’s looking sickly, and the rosemary I bought (just in case). I very much appreciate both of their presences, and I have noted what their presences do—what they do—in helping protect my home. As growing, organic, living beings, I think humans can more easily recognize their personhood, or even connect with them. The act of breathing their scents, mingling my consciousness and body with theirs (through eating), makes our relationship as persons all the more immediate.

I suspect this can be more difficult with stones unless a particular stone reaches out. I remember witches talking about meditating with amethyst because of the color’s effect on one’s aura and particular chakras, but, well, amethyst itself can also be helping you there. The color can be a thing—and it might be interesting to meditate or journey on how color has personhood, too—but we’ve been talking about plants, animals, and stones having particular virtues and affinities forever.

I actually don’t put much stock into the hermetic planetary hypothesis—the idea that particular stones and herbs and animals are channels or conduits for particular planetary “energies” or “sympathies.” According to the two websites I just found, mugwort is apparently a Venusian herb. Citrine is Mercurial—or associated with Sun-day, but not with the Sun—and fire and…well, I find various answers there. That’s part of the problem with correspondence tables: they vary. But also, if citrine or mugwort can be persons, then they aren’t just “Venus’s herb” or “Sunday’s stone,” along with others sharing such designations.

The older thinking—very humancentric in where personhood can be ascribed—identified humans as being composed of roughly all four elements in equal proportions, or as having the influences of all seven planets and 12 signs and 36 decans. Humans could be complicated—everything else wasn’t “complex” enough to count. That said, these astrological correspondences can serve other, semiotic, purposes, which I’ll get at below.

But, it’s usually only after we work a stone that we seem willing to treat it as a person. A pile of marble will seem “just” a pile of marble to most folks. And, as many cultures demonstrate, not everything in nature is a spirit or person—if personhood is confusing you, then consider how you might also characterize personhood in terms of having a spirit. But, then you run into a pile of marble that’s a person/spirit. Michaelangelo’s David is, perhaps, 6 tons of marble. Marble is rock: silicon with some other stuff. But David has a presence, an ontological status as David now. The marble had existed for untold millennia. Michaelangelo lived for 88 years. He worked on David for three-ish years. The statue has existed for over 514 years—and over 454 years without Michaelangelo, the putative “creator” of its personhood.


But can you imagine a yellow citrine David?

The idea of an artist unveiling or discovering a spirit within a block of material is not a new one. But it’s also not the only answer to the question of why citrine? That said, citrine itself may “resonate” with the kind of being I’m wanting to work with. The citrine may even sing in a similar chorus, so to speak, or be able to help me get the other spirit’s attention. Or citrine may simply be more adept at the particular ends I’m imagining than other stones.

World as Language

Semiotics is the study of meaning and its creation. The semiotic nature of spoken and written language probably makes immediate sense to most folks—words and utterances have meaning, and even create meaning. If I say, “I promise to take out the garbage,” then I’ve created a new meaning: I’ve made a promise.

But theater theorists—and scholars of ritual structure—also know that there’s a semiotics of the theater. A quick search points me to several scholarly texts in these regards—I’ve got a copy of one such text in the other room. But let me give you an example of non-verbal, non-textual semiotics.

In ancient Greek drama, a strophe was on the one hand a particular kind of poetic form, but it was also a mode of movement on the stage. In a strophe, the chorus would move from the right side of the stage to the left while speaking their strophe-utterances. They would then turn, and move the other direction for the antistrophe, expressing not only the turn-in-thought through speech but also through movement on the stage.

Saint work can incorporate similar semiotic “turns” through pointing a saint to the right, then to the left for more—ahem—malefic saintly activities. But, in general, humans recognize that movement can convey meaning—it has a semiotic dimension. After all, dance as an artform has existed for centuries for many reasons, and a slow stately dance conveys quite a different meaning than an ecstatic one.

And we recognize that color, costume, props—or color, regalia, and tools—carry or convey or express meaning (have semiotic dimensions) on their own and in coordination with other elements.

But, well, materials and objects and herbs and stones presumably can express meaning, as well. The human symbolism associated with citrine versus, well, diamond is immediately obvious: one is rarer and more valuable than the other. One has associations with blood and slavery. One is known for its legendary hardness, the other not so much. And that’s the human, semiotic dimension.

Now, on the one level, we have all these individual semiotic media—color, material, costuming, movement, speech, markings, placement, timing, rhythm, and so on and on. Each of those can express a bit of meaning. Bring them all together, and more complex meanings emerge, are possible.

But, where a play might try to convey a meaning—a point, what have you—to its human audience—a ritual aims to do something more ambitious. A religious or magical ritual seeks to (1) get the attention of whatever spirits or beings you’re trying to communicate with and (2) communicate to them in terms that establish some kind of preferred relationship between the spirits and the humans involved and (3) persuade or force the spiritual agency to do something.

Many human ritualists—armed with tables of correspondences and stock rituals from various sources, or what their studies tell them should be done—are more likely to treat recalcitrant spirits like they’re unappreciative, philistine theater critics. I suspect that all too often, we misunderstand the human manipulation of meaning as being all there is to the situation.

Your ritual is your attempt to initiate a conversation with the super natural. You’re putting on a production at a particular ritual-theater venue, hoping the spirit shows up in the audience and decides to join you onstage to play “Spiritual Ally.” But you have to use language that they will notice, appreciate, understand, and respond appropriately to. Like any conversation, though, some adaptability and willingness to try to speak in terms the spirit expects (or demands) may take you further than half-assing a ritual or replacing elements that you find unpalatable.

Because, ultimately, it’s not us that determines the meaning of a ritual. Or, we only determine the human-level of the meaning of a ritual. The Other side of the mirror probably determines far more of the meanings involved.

So, at that point, I have to wonder if, perhaps, agate was what an individual (or tradition of individuals) discovered a spirit responded appropriately to based upon what was available at a particular point in time in a particular part of the world. Or, within particular ritual contexts, agate expressed something in the semiotic domain that meant something to the spirit in question. But for me, with the materials I can draw upon, for the purposes I am intending, my dreaming specifically tells me No, you want to use citrine for this conversation.

I think this is also where synchronicities often also play into ritual and magical practice. I got the spirit’s attention. I start noticing citrine citrine citrine popping up in my life. I finally dream about citrine (with a few other dream synchronicities). If I stop and pay attention, then I might notice that a conversation is going on. And indeed, I’m being coached on how to get the larger conversation going.

At that point, those individual semiotic components become words and punctuation and syntax in a grammar for communicating with the spirit world. Hell, there’s even a bit of a learning how the code works—or how to code—using the logic and system that the spirit world and particular spirits or classes of spirits use and understand. And at that point, Kohn’s sylvan language—that the world we inhabit is itself semiotic—takes on clearer import, but also magical import.

Synthesizing Meaning

There are further dimensions to how this works, but the semiotic level is an important one here. Nonetheless, I also feel it important to acknowledge the personhood component of this topic. Objects can be inspirited, and they can have spirits of their own. The nature of citrine’s personhood will be radically different than my own, let alone, say, mugwort, but I don’t want to discount it. I wonder if mineral spirits have a contiguous personhood—break off some citrine from the ground, it’s still part of the whole of Citrine, or at least from the cluster or locale the citrine was gathered from. I don’t know.

I also have to say that I have found this experience even a little humbling. It’s reaffirmed the value of silence—of stopping and listening, of paying attention, and reflecting on what you’re seeing. I had quipped to my friend about ice cream having flavors, too, only to almost immediately remember another element of the dream. I had gone to another room in my dream home to get some citrines and stones, bringing back colorful, multicolored “stones”—but those stones, upon returning, had turned into ice cream in my hands, melting and messy. It loses something in the telling—that’s the nature of talking about your dreams, right?—but it was almost as if I was being told, “No, seriously, citrine. I know there’ll be questions.”

Featured Image: KatinkavomWolfenmond | Pixabay

[1] Qtd. in Charles Burnett, “Harmonic and Acoustic Theory: Latin and Arabic Ideas of Sympathetic Vibration as the Causes of Effects between Heaven and Earth,” in Sing Aloud Harmonious Spheres: Renaissance Conceptions of Cosmic Harmony, edited by Jacomien Prins and Maude Vanhaelen (New York: Routledge, 2018), 40, from Marsilio Ficino, De Vita Coelitus Comparata, in Three Books on Life, edited and translated by Carol V. Kaske and John R. Clark (Binghampton, NY: Medieval and Renaissance Texts, 1989), 360-1.

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