Michael Lundgren's GEOMANCY

While many of Michael Lundgren’s landscapes are located in the American Southwest – a formidable location of legend, associated with migration and the undeniable respite from the overbearing hand of nature – he states that “locale has never been a restrictive consideration… the images are more about a psychic space than a geographic one.” His photographs represent desert lands, places defined in human terms by its inhospitable nature noted in chronicles of travelers meandering across the natural, geographical, and political lines searching for a better life or plentiful resources, sometimes in vain. His vision of the land questions the timelessness of a seemingly unchanging landscape. His photographs are not descriptive of a specific place: he questions our ideas of time and space. Geomancy, the work and book of the same name published by UK-based Stanley/Barker, features images from ancient lands, not unlike much of his earlier work, and includes scenes from the Southwest and the Mexican Peninsula to the Yucatán and Lebanon. This project evolves into a more sacred exploration of the artificial and natural markings on the land and calls to mind our relationship to time, history and space.

by: Melanie McWhorter

In Geomancy, an allusion to the archaic divining art where Lundgren gets the book’s name, the artist chronicles the effects of the four elements of water, wind, fire, and earth: the forces of the eternal building and rebuilding of the natural world. He shows the human-made marks through characters on upright stone tablets and the remains of a bed of discarded bones. He captures  scenes of day and night and a passing solar time. Yet despite the evidence of change, the desert landscape creates a sense of foreboding, a sense of past, and a sense of eternity in a landscape devoid of forces that often bring about these shifts. 

This is where the idea of time plays. There are two basic theories of the understanding of time. There is the past, then the present, then the future in a progressing line. Humans, arguably, are always in a perception of the present. The other theory posits that there is no past, no present, or no future as a specific temporality. They all exist simultaneously. The idea of here in space is equated with now in time and it is all interpreted by our individual perception. Time, history, and the photographic medium are linked by the photographer, or at a minimum the camera or image-capturing mechanism, that must be present to capture an image (There may be a broader discussion of astrophotography and spanning great distances to see what existed many light years ago, but for this discussion we will isolate our perceptions to the Earth’s surface). The artist quotes Hollis Frampton’s essay Incisions in History/Segments of Eternity in the closing statement for the book. Frampton’s ideas fully illustrate many of Lundgren’s images. What is striking and apropos for Lundgren’s work is about the nature of photography and our ability to witness and to form or manifest a concrete reality in our presence. Here the essay’s author speaks about these ideas:

… [H]istoric time retains its credibility only so long as we each abstain from testing its assertions, against our personal experience…. as I watched you through my window, crossing into the park and vanishing among the beech trees, you ceased to breathe, you disintegrated.

Matter presents in a physical form, a concentration of energy, and thus, our perception and reality. Is all this matter created by the view, the client in geomancy terms, as an extension of the mind, the present, and the ‘here’, and ‘now’? Michael Lundgren captures these images from the ethereal impermanence. As Frampton also states, photographers were not here to capture the beginning of the universe, nor will we be there to capture the end. There is the in-between, which is what we see, what we experience. There is energy that floats in each structure, in each rock, in each grain of dry sand. 

There is the transformation of matter and energy from one form to another. Water flows over the rocks, removes the nutrients to the alluvial deposit at the bottom. The sediment is covered with more sediment. Evidence of marine life may hide among its layers, fossils of the Coelophysis and diatoms may appear. A hunter stalked a quadruped and lost the weapon on the ground soon to be covered and reexamined by an anthropologist millennia later. This energy and knowledge of the earth is a center of geomancy, divining through the land using binary language, a yes or a no, , guiding the questioner’s future. The divination art and craft, lost in popularity sometime after the Renaissance and Enlightenment, is a traditional practice that uses characters and earth markings to answer a specific question posed by client/witness to divine the future. Like this craft, Lundgren defines his work through transformation.

Geomancy deals with time and its associated notions of past, present, and future. Michael Lundgren’s three book series – Transfigurations, Matter, and most recently, Geomancy, (the first two published by Radius Books and the third by Stanley Barker), show a flow through the movement of material and energy. Transfigurations as a term relates to moving from the physical to a spritual state; then, Matter into the physical; and with the newest series, fully evoking ethereal powers to see the future from markings that tell of the seeker’s future. The photographer prompts a discussion of time, the universe, and the question of our perception of reality and idea of permanence. Whether it is physical reality in three dimensions, a fleeting construct of our mind, or something just to the left or right of either, Lundgren is there to capture what and how this land is now.

On Geomancy: The Spiritual Science of the Sand
By Sam Block
December 19, 2019


Across every culture and every land, people have turned to the supernatural for assistance, guidance, and help, especially through diviners skilled in the arts of telling fortunes, fates, and futures. From shepherding their flocks from oasis to oasis, determining the best person to marry, or figuring out whether a particular career move will be the one to make them—or break them—divination is a time-honored skill across countless traditions and religions. Among the oldest still practiced today is geomancy, the art of seeing into the future by means of the Earth. For a thousand years, from Morocco in the west to India in the east, from Madagascar in the south to Norway in the north, people have turned to the ancient art of geomancy, to track their next move, using the signs and omens of geomancy as much as they would use any map.

Geomancy is an old art, though its origins are lost in the sands of time itself. Some say that geomancy, or `ilm ar-raml “the science of the sand” in its original Arabic, originated with the Bedouin in North Africa, others with the ancient soothsayers of old Arabia. From what we can find out, based on the old spellbooks and grimoires that teach this art, the practice of geomancy began roughly in 900 to 1000 CE, and quickly spread across the old Arabic world. It wasn’t long until it entered Europe, not just from one source but from two at the same time, from Morocco into Spain and into Greece from Turkey. From these two points, geomancy spread like wildfire across the whole of Europe, and was taught at the most famous medieval and Renaissance universities alongside astrology, medicine and law. Everyone from paupers to princes to popes consulted geomancy for any and every concern. In its heyday, geomancy was more popular in Europe than Tarot cards and ouija boards are today, and had the benefit of being far easier to learn and practice than astrology. For this reason, geomancy was sometimes referred to as “poor man’s astrology” or “astrology’s little sister”, though it was no less useful or predictive to those who sought it out.

As time passed in Europe and people passed from the Renaissance to the Enlightenment, geomancy fell by the wayside, shelved along with so many other magical and divination practices and counted as mere superstition of the uneducated. However, it never fully died out in Europe: even throughout the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, some still studied and practiced the craft, and in more recent decades, geomancy has been undergoing a renaissance of its own, taught and shared more today than it has been in hundreds of years. Of course, no such renewal or rebirth of popularity is needed in Africa or the Middle East, where geomancy was continuously practiced up into the modern day, with many professional diviners, priests, magicians, and holy men practicing geomancy in the same way they have for a thousand years to find thieves, diagnose health issues, figure out spiritual problems ranging from jinn vexation to demonic possession, and in countless other ways to improve the lives of the common people.

Geomancy earned its name by being performed not with cards or stars, but by clearing a flat space of clean soil or sand. A diviner would walk up and down the sand, beating it with a staff or wand to make a number of simple “cuts” or divets in the sand without counting, eventually finishing with sixteen rows, each row having a random number of points. Tallying up the points in each row two-by-two until either one or two points was left, the diviner eventually was left with simple collections of one or two points. Grouped into four rows each, each row having one or two points, these collections were each considered to be a “geomantic figure”, each with their own indications as to people, animals, plants, places, times, seasons, weather patterns, diseases, spirits, and countless other factors. By carefully inspecting these figures and applying special mathematical rules to them, the diviner went from having four distinct figures to sixteen separate figures, sometimes unique and sometimes repeated, within a whole geomantic chart. According to the geomancers who inspect these patterns, yielding almost infinite complexity, the art of divination by the Earth can answer any question asked on the Earth.

Nowadays, geomancy is not always performed by poking holes in sand or soil, sometimes instead with special cards or dice, but it need not be done with physical land to be practiced. Although “geo-” is in the name, this is best understood to refer to the Earth as a whole with all its elements of fire, air, water, and earth combined. Rather than being tied to the element of earth itself, geomancy can be considered a kind of “theoretical alchemy”: just as chemical equations describe chemical reactions, so too do the geomantic figures acting upon, interacting with, and reacting to others describe the states of stability and mobility, stasis and flux between people, places, things, and events. Each figure, in its simple one-point and two-point patterns, contains a whole cosmos unto itself, and seeing how those worlds connect and collide can be as profound as any tale told. Indeed, geomancy, like all forms of divination, tells a story: the story of our own lives.

Some diviners who are familiar with reading Tarot cards can attest to Tarot’s propensity to “ask the question you should be asking”, but geomancy—fittingly enough for a down-to-earth oracle—is known for answering exactly the question you ask, no more and no less. While other forms of divination often show all the details to the diviner and lets the diviner come up with the judgment and overall answer on their own, geomancy does just the opposite: it provides the answer up front, boldly and simply, and lets the diviner dig in for as many details as they want, just as a treasure-hunter would for buried gold. For many people, the answers to the questions of life and learning how to live it well are as good as gold itself, and digging into the mysteries of the unseen with geomancy is as noble and worthwhile a pursuit as any other.

Sam Block is a mage, priest, and diviner with over a decade of experience and research in the art of geomancy as well as several other forms of occult practices. He manages and writes for the long-running blog on spirituality, religion, and the occult, The Digital Ambler.https://digitalambler.com/

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Melanie McWhorter does photo consulting, sells photobooks, travels a bit and hangs out with her great kids. Her consulting site is at melaniemcwhorter.com and her bookstore Grenade in a Jar is at grenadeinajar.com.