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An Introduction To The Hermetic Art Of Memory
John Michael Greer
Part One: The Uses of Memory In the current occult revival, the Art of Memory is perhaps the most thoroughly neglected of all the technical methods of Renaissance esotericism. While the researches of the late Dame Frances Yates1 and, more recently, a revival of interest in the master mnemonist Giordano Bruno2 have made the Art something of a known quantity in academic circles, the same is not true in the wider community; to mention the Art of Memory in most occult circles nowadays, to say nothing of the general public, is to invite blank looks.
In its day, though, the mnemonic methods of the Art held a special place among the contents of the practicing magician's mental toolkit. The Neoplatonic philosophy which underlay the whole structure of Renaissance magic gave memory, and thus techniques of mnemonics, a crucial place in the work of inner transformation. In turn, this interpretation of memory gave rise to a new understanding of the Art, turning what had once been a purely practical way of storing useful information into a meditative discipline calling on all the powers of the will and the imagination.
This article seeks to reintroduce the Art of Memory to the modern Western esoteric tradition as a practicable technique. This first part, “The Uses of Memory,” will give an overview of the nature and development of the Art's methods, and explore some of the reasons why the Art has value for the modern esotericist. The second part, “The Garden of Memory,” will present a basic Hermetic memory system, designed along traditional lines and making use of Renaissance magical symbolism, as a basis for experimentation and practical use.
The Method And Its Development3
It was once almost mandatory to begin a treatise on the Art of Memory with the classical legend of its invention. This habit has something to recommend it, for the story of Simonides is more than a colorful anecdote; it also offers a good introduction to the basics of the technique.
The poet Simonides of Ceos, as the tale has it, was hired to recite an ode at a nobleman's banquet. In the fashion of the time, the poet began with a few lines in praise of divinities – in this case, Castor and Pollux – before going on to the serious business of talking about his host. The host, however, objected to this diversion of the flattery, deducted half of Simonides' fee, and told the poet he could seek the rest from the gods he had praised. Shortly thereafter, a message was brought to the poet that two young men had come to the door of the house and wished to speak to him. When Simonides went to see them, there was no one there – but in his absence the banquet hall collapsed behind him, killing the impious nobleman and all the dinner guests as well. Castor and Pollux, traditionally imaged as two young men, had indeed paid their half of the fee.
Tales of this sort were a commonplace in Greek literature, but this one has an unexpected moral. When the rubble was cleared away, the victims were found to be so mangled that their own families could not identify them. Simonides, however, called to memory an image of the banqueting hall as he had last seen it, and from this was able to recall the order of the guests at the table. Pondering this, according to the legend, he proceeded to invent the first classical Art of Memory. The story is certainly apocryphal, but the key elements of the technique it describes – the use of mental images placed in ordered, often architectural settings – remained central to the whole tradition of the Art of Memory throughout its history, and provided the framework on which the Hermetic adaptation of the Art was built.
In Roman schools of rhetoric, this approach to memory was refined into a precise and practical system. Students were taught to memorize the insides of large buildings according to certain rules, dividing the space into specific loci or “places” and marking every fifth and tenth locus with special signs. Facts to be remembered were converted into striking visual images and placed, one after another, in these loci; when needed, the rhetorician needed only to stroll in his imagination through the same building, noticing the images in order and recalling their meanings. At a more advanced level, images could be created for individual words or sentences, so that large passages of text could be stored in the memory in the same way. Roman rhetoricians using these methods reached dizzying levels of mnemonic skill; one famous practitioner of the Art was recorded to have sat through a day-long auction and, at its end, repeated from memory the item, purchaser and price for every sale of the day.
With the disintegration of the Roman world, these same techniques became part of the classical heritage of Christianity. The Art of Memory took on a moral cast as memory itself was defined as a part of the virtue of prudence, and in this guise the Art came to be cultivated by the Dominican Order. It was from this source that the ex-Dominican Giordano Bruno (1548-1600), probably the Art's greatest exponent, drew the basis of his own techniques.4
Medieval methods of the Art differed very little from those of the classical world, but certain changes in the late Middle Ages helped lay the foundations for the Hermetic Art of Memory of the Renaissance. One of the most important of these was a change in the frameworks used for memory loci. Along with the architectural settings most often used in the classical tradition, medieval mnemonists also came to make use of the whole Ptolemaic cosmos of nested spheres as a setting for memory images. Each sphere from God at the periphery through the angelic, celestial and elemental levels down to Hell at the center thus held one or more loci for memory images.
Between this system and that of the Renaissance Hermeticists there is only one significant difference, and that is a matter of interpretation, not of technique. Steeped in Neoplatonic thought, the Hermetic magicians of the Renaissance saw the universe as an image of the divine Ideas, and the individual human being as an image of the universe; they also knew Plato's claim that all “learning” is simply the recollection of things known before birth into the realm of matter. Taken together, these ideas raised the Art of Memory to a new dignity. If the human memory could be reorganized in the image of the universe, in this view, it became a reflection of the entire realm of Ideas in their fullness – and thus the key to universal knowledge. This concept was the driving force behind the complex systems of memory created by several Renaissance Hermeticists, and above all those of Giordano Bruno.
Bruno's mnemonic systems form, to a great extent, the high-water mark of the Hermetic Art of Memory. His methods were dizzyingly complex, and involve a combination of images, ideas and alphabets which require a great deal of mnemonic skill to learn in the first place! Hermetic philosophy and the traditional images of astrological magic appear constantly in his work, linking the framework of his Art to the wider framework of the magical cosmos. The difficulty of Bruno's technique, though, has been magnified unnecessarily by authors whose lack of personal experience with the Art has led them to mistake fairly straightforward mnemonic methods for philosophical obscurities.
A central example of this is the confusion caused by Bruno's practice of linking images to combinations of two letters. Yates' interpretation of Brunonian memory rested largely on an identification of this with the letter-combinations of Lullism, the half-Cabalistic philosophical system of Ramon Lull (1235-1316).5 While Lullist influences certainly played a part in Bruno's system, interpreting that system solely in Lullist terms misses the practical use of the combinations: they enable the same set of images to be used to remember ideas, words, or both at the same time.
An example might help clarify this point. In the system of Bruno's De Umbris Idearum (1582), the traditional image of the first decan of Gemini, a servant holding a staff, could stand for the letter combination be; that of Suah, the legendary inventor of chiromancy or palmistry, for ne. The decan-symbols are part of a set of images prior to the inventors, establishing the order of the syllables. Put in one locus, the whole would spell the word bene.6
The method has a great deal more subtlety than this one example shows. Bruno's alphabet included thirty letters, the Latin alphabet plus those Greek and Hebrew letters which have no Latin equivalents; his system thus allowed texts written in any of these alphabets to be memorized. He combined these with five vowels, and provided additional images for single letters to allow for more complex combinations. Besides the astrological images and inventors, there are also lists of objects and adjectives corresponding to this set of letter-combinations, and all these can be combined in a single memory-image to represent words of several syllables. At the same time, many of the images stand for ideas as well as sounds; thus the figure of Suah mentioned above can also represent the art of palmistry if that subject needed to be remembered.
Bruno's influence can be traced in nearly every subsequent Hermetic memory treatise, but his own methods seem to have proved too demanding for most magi. Masonic records suggest that his mnemonics, passed on by his student Alexander Dicson, may have been taught in Scots Masonic lodges in the sixteenth century;7 more common, though, were methods like the one diagrammed by the Hermetic encyclopedist Robert Fludd in his History of the Macrocosm and Microcosm. This was a fairly straightforward adaptation of the late Medieval method, using the spheres of the heavens as loci, although Fludd nonetheless classified it along with prophecy, geomancy and astrology as a “microcosmic art” of human self-knowledge.8 Both this approach to the Art and this classification of it remained standard in esoteric circles until the triumph of Cartesian mechanism in the late seventeenth century sent the Hermetic tradition underground and the Art of Memory into oblivion.
The Method And Its Value
This profusion of techniques begs two questions, which have to be answered if the Art of Memory is to be restored to a place in the Western esoteric tradition. First of all, are the methods of the Art actually superior to rote memorization as a way of storing information in the human memory? Put more plainly, does the Art of Memory work?
It's fair to point out that this has been a subject of dispute since ancient times. Still, then as now, those who dispute the Art's effectiveness are generally those who have never tried it. In point of fact, the Art does work; it allows information to be memorized and recalled more reliably, and in far greater quantity, than rote-methods do. There are good reasons, founded in the nature of memory, why this should be so. The human mind recalls images more easily than ideas, and images charged with emotion more easily still; one's most intense memories, for example, are rarely abstract ideas. It uses chains of association, rather than logical order, to connect one memory with another; simple mnemonic tricks like the loop of string tied around a finger rely on this. It habitually follows rhythms and repetitive formulae; it's for this reason that poetry is often far easier to remember than prose. The Art of Memory uses all three of these factors systematically. It constructs vivid, arresting images as anchors for chains of association, and places these in the ordered and repetitive context of an imagined building or symbolic structure in which each image and each locus leads on automatically to the next. The result, given training and practice, is a memory which works in harmony with its own innate strengths to make the most of its potential.
The fact that something can be done, however, does not by itself prove that it should be done. In a time when digital data storage bids fair to render print media obsolete, in particular, questions of how best to memorize information might well seem as relevant as the choice between different ways of making clay tablets for writing. Certainly some methods of doing this once-vital chore are better than others; so what? This way of thinking leads to the second question a revival of the Art of Memory must face: what is the value of this sort of technique?
This question is particularly forceful in our present culture because that culture, and its technology, have consistently tended to neglect innate human capacities and replace them where possible with mechanical equivalents. It would not be going too far to see the whole body of modern Western technology as a system of prosthetics. In this system, print and digital media serve as a prosthetic memory, doing much of the work once done in older societies by the trained minds of mnemonists. It needs to be recognized, too, that these media can handle volumes of information which dwarf the capacity of the human mind; no conceivable Art of Memory can hold as much information as a medium-sized public library.
The practical value of these ways of storing knowledge, like that of much of our prosthetic technology, is real. At the same time, there is another side to the matter, a side specially relevant to the Hermetic tradition. Any technique has effects on those who use it, and those effects need not be positive ones. Reliance on prosthetics tends to weaken natural abilities; one who uses a car to travel anywhere more than two blocks away will come to find even modest walks difficult. The same is equally true of the capacities of the mind. In Islamic countries, for example, it's not at all uncommon to find people who have memorized the entire Quran for devotional purposes. Leave aside, for the moment, questions of value; how many people in the modern West would be capable of doing the equivalent?
One goal of the Hermetic tradition, by contrast, is to maximize human capacities, as tools for the inner transformations sought by the Hermeticist. Many of the elementary practices of that tradition – and the same is true of esoteric systems worldwide – might best be seen as a kind of mental calisthenics, intended to stretch minds grown stiff from disuse. This quest to expand the powers of the self stands in opposition to the prosthetic culture of the modern West, which has consistently tended to transfer power from the self to the exterior world. The difference between these two viewpoints has a wide range of implications – philosophical, religious, and (not the least) political – but the place of the Art of Memory can be found among them.
From what might be called the prosthetic standpoint, the Art is obsolete because it is less efficient than external data-storage methods such as books, and distasteful because it requires the slow development of inner abilities rather than the purchase of a piece of machinery. From a Hermetic standpoint, on the other hand, the Art is valuable in the first place as a means of developing one of the capacities of the self, the memory, and in the second place because it uses other capacities – attention, imagination, mental imagery – which have a large role in other aspects of Hermetic practice.
Like other methods of self-development, the Art of Memory also brings about changes in the nature of the capacity it shapes, not merely in that capacity's efficiency or volume; its effects are qualitative as well as quantitative – another issue not well addressed by the prosthetic approach. Ordinarily, memory tends to be more or less opaque to consciousness. A misplaced memory vanishes from sight, and any amount of random fishing around may be needed before an associative chain leading to it can be brought up from the depths. In a memory trained by the methods of the Art, by contrast, the chains of association are always in place, and anything memorized by the Art can thus be found as soon as needed. Equally, it's much easier for the mnemonist to determine what exactly he or she does and does not know, to make connections between different points of knowledge, or to generalize from a set of specific memories; what is stored through the Art of Memory can be reviewed at will.
Despite our culture's distaste for memorization, and for the development of the mind generally, the Art of Memory thus has some claim to practical value, even beyond its uses as a method of esoteric training. In the second part of this article, “The Garden of Memory,” some of these potentials will be explored through the exposition of an introductory memory system based on the traditional principles of the Art.
Notes for Part 1
1. Yates, Frances A., The Art Of Memory (Chicago: U. Chicago Press, 1966) remains the standard English-language work on the tradition.
2. Bruno, Giordano, On the Composition of Images, Signs and Ideas (NY: Willis, Locker & Owens, 1991), and Culianu, Ioan, Eros and Magic in the Renaissance (Chicago: U. Chicago Press, 1987) are examples.
3. The brief history of the Art given here is drawn from Yates, op. cit.
4. For Bruno, see Yates, op. cit., ch. 9, 11, 13-14, as well as her Giordano Bruno and the Hermetic Tradition (Chicago: U. Chicago Press, 1964).
5. See Yates, Art of Memory, Ch. 8.
6. Ibid., pp. 208-222.
7. Stevenson, David, The Origins of Freemasonry: Scotland's Century (Cambridge: Cambridge U.P., 1988), p. 95.
8. See Yates, Art of Memory, Ch. 15.
Part Two: The Garden of Memory During the Renaissance, the age in which it reached its highest pitch of development, the Hermetic Art of Memory took on a wide array of different forms. The core principles of the Art, developed in ancient times through practical experience of the way human memory works best, are common to the whole range of Renaissance memory treatises; the structures built on this foundation, though, differ enormously. As we'll see, even some basic points of theory and practice were subjects of constant dispute, and it would be impossible as well as unprofitable to present a single memory system, however generic, as somehow “representative” of the entire field of Hermetic mnemonics.
That is not my purpose here. As the first part of this essay pointed out, the Art of Memory has potential value as a practical technique even in today's world of information overload and digital data storage. The memory system which will be presented here is designed to be used, not merely studied; the techniques contained in it, while almost entirely derived from Renaissance sources, are included for no other reason than the simple fact that they work.
Traditional writings on mnemonics generally divide the principles of the Art into two categories. The first consists of rules for places – that is, the design or selection of the visualized settings in which mmemonic images are located; the second consists of rules for images – that is, the building up of the imagined forms used to encode and store specific memories. This division is sensible enough, and will be followed in this essay, with the addition of a third category: rules for practice, the principles which enable the Art to be effectively learned and put to use.
Rules for Places
One debate which went on through much of the history of the Art of Memory was a quarrel over whether the mnemonist should visualize real places or imaginary ones as the setting for the mnemonic images of the Art. If the half-legendary classical accounts of the Art's early phases can be trusted, the first places used in this way were real ones; certainly the rhetors of ancient Rome, who developed the Art to a high pitch of efficacy, used the physical architecture around them as the framework for their mnemonic systems. Among the Hermetic writers on the Art, Robert Fludd insisted that real buildings should always be used for memory work, claiming that the use of wholly imaginary structures leads to vagueness and thus a less effective system.1 On the other hand, many ancient and Renaissance writers on memory, Giordano Bruno among them, gave the opposite advice. The whole question may, in the end, be a matter of personal needs and temperament.
Be that as it may, the system given here uses a resolutely imaginary set of places, based on the numerical symbolism of Renaissance occultism. Borrowing an image much used by the Hermeticists of the Renaissance, I present the key to a garden: Hortus Memoriae, the Garden of Memory.
The Garden of Memory is laid out in a series of concentric circular paths separated by hedges; the first four of these circles are mapped in Diagram 1. Each circle corresponds to a number, and has the same number of small gazebos set in it. These gazebos – an example, the one in the innermost circle, is shown in Diagram 2 – bear symbols which are derived from the Pythagorean number-lore of the Renaissance and later magical traditions, and serve as the places in this memory garden.2 Like all memory places, these should be imagined as brightly lit and conveniently large; in particular, each gazebo is visualized as large enough to hold an ordinary human being, although it need not be much larger.
The first four circles of the garden are built up in the imagination as follows:
The First Circle
This circle corresponds to the Monad, the number One; its color is white, and its geometrical figure is the circle. A row of white flowers grows at the border of the surrounding hedge. The gazebo is white, with gold trim, and is topped with a golden circle bearing the number 1. Painted on the dome is the image of a single open Eye, while the sides bear the image of the Phoenix in flames.
The Second Circle
The next circle corresponds to the Dyad, the number Two and to the concept of polarity; its color is gray, its primary symbols are the Sun and Moon, and its geometrical figure is the vesica piscis, formed from the common area of two overlapping circles. The flowers bordering the hedges in this circle are silver-gray; in keeping with the rule of puns, which we'll cover a little later, these might be tulips. Both of the two gazebos in this circle are gray. One, topped with the number 2 in a white vesica, has white and gold trim, and bears the image of the Sun on the dome and that of Adam, his hand on his heart, on the side. The other, topped with the number 3 in a black vesica, has black and silver trim, and bears the image of the Moon on the dome and that of Eve, her hand touching her head, on the side.
The Third Circle
This circle corresponds to the Triad, the number Three; its color is black, its primary symbols are the three alchemical principles of Sulphur, Mercury and Salt, and its geometrical figure is the triangle. The flowers bordering the hedges are black, as are the three gazebos. The first of the gazebos has red trim, and is topped with the number 4 in a red triangle; it bears, on the dome, the image of a red man touching his head with both hands, and on the sides the images of various animals. The second gazebo has white trim, and is topped by the number 5 in a white triangle; it bears, on the dome, the image of a white hermaphrodite touching its breasts with both hands, and on the sides the images of various plants. The third gazebo is unrelieved black, and is topped with the number 6 in a black triangle; it bears, on the dome, the image of a black woman touching her belly with both hands, and on the sides the images of various minerals.
The Fourth Circle
This circle corresponds to the Tetrad, the number Four. Its color is blue, its primary symbols are the Four Elements, and its geometrical figure is the square. The flowers bordering the hedges are blue and four-petaled, and the four gazebos are blue. The first of these has red trim and is topped with the number 7 in a red square; it bears the image of flames on the dome, and that of a roaring lion on the sides. The second has yellow trim and is topped with the number 8 in a yellow square; it bears the images of the four winds blowing on the dome, and that of a man pouring water from a vase on the sides. The third is unrelieved blue and is topped with the number 9 in a blue square; it bears the image of waves on the dome and those of a scorpion, a serpent and an eagle on the sides. The fourth has green trim and is topped with the number 10 in a green square; it bears, on the dome, the image of the Earth, and that of an ox drawing a plow on the sides.
To begin with, these four circles and ten memory places will be enough, providing enough room to be useful in practice, while still small enough that the system can be learned and put to work in a fairly short time. Additional circles can be added as familiarity makes work with the system go more easily. It's possible, within the limits of the traditional number symbolism used here, to go out to a total of eleven circles containing 67 memory places.3 It's equally possible to go on to develop different kinds of memory structures in which images may be placed. So long as the places are distinct and organized in some easily memorable sequence, almost anything will serve.
The Garden of Memory as described here will itself need to be committed to memory if it's to be used in practice. The best way to do this is simply to visualize oneself walking through the garden, stopping at the gazebos to examine them and then passing on. Imagine the scent of the flowers, the warmth of the sun; as with all forms of visualization work, the key to success is to be found in concrete imagery of all five senses. It's a good idea to begin always in the same place – the first circle is best, for practical as well as philosophical reasons – and, during the learning process, the student should go through the entire garden each time, passing each of the gazebos in numerical order. Both of these habits will help the imagery of the garden take root in the soil of memory.
Rules for Images
The garden imagery described above makes up half the structure of this memory system – the stable half, one might say, remaining unchanged so long as the system itself is kept in use. The other, changing half consists of the images which are used to store memories within the garden. These depend much more on the personal equation than the framing imagery of the garden; what remains in one memory can evaporate quickly from another, and a certain amount of experimentation may be needed to find an approach to memory images which works best for any given student.
In the classical Art of Memory, the one constant rule for these images was that they be striking – hilarious, attractive, hideous, tragic, or simply bizarre, it made (and makes) no difference, so long as each image caught at the mind and stirred up some response beyond simple recognition. This is one useful approach. For the beginning practitioner, however, thinking of a suitably striking image for each piece of information which is to be recorded can be a difficult matter.
It's often more useful, therefore, to use familiarity and order rather than sheer strangeness in an introductory memory system, and the method given here will do precisely this.
It's necessary for this method, first of all, to come up with a list of people whose names begin with each letter of the alphabet except K and X (which very rarely begin words in English). These may be people known to the student, media figures, characters from a favorite book – my own system draws extensively from J.R.R. Tolkien's Ring trilogy, so that Aragorn, Boromir, Cirdan the Shipwright and so on tend to populate my memory palaces. It can be useful to have more than one figure for letters which often come at the beginning of words (for instance, Saruman as well as Sam Gamgee for S), or figures for certain common two-letter combinations (for example, Theoden for Th, where T is Treebeard), but these are developments which can be added later on. The important point is that the list needs to be learned well enough that any letter calls its proper image to mind at once, without hesitation, and that the images are clear and instantly recognizable.
Once this is managed, the student will need to come up with a second set of images for the numbers from 0 to 9. There is a long and ornate tradition of such images, mostly based on simple physical similarity between number and image – a javelin or pole for 1, a pair of eyeglasses or of buttocks for 8, and so on. Any set of images can be used, though, so long as they are simple and distinct. These should also be learned by heart, so that they can be called to mind without effort or hesitation. One useful test is to visualize a line of marching men, carrying the images which correspond to one's telephone number; when this can be done quickly, without mental fumbling, the images are ready for use.
That use involves two different ways of putting the same imagery to work. One of the hoariest of commonplaces in the whole tradition of the Art of Memory divides mnemonics into “memory for things” and “memory for words.” In the system given here, however, the line is drawn in a slightly different place; memory for concrete things – for example, items in a grocery list – requires a slightly different approach than memory for abstract things, whether these be concepts or pieces of text. Concrete things are, on the whole, easier, but both can be done using the same set of images already selected.
We'll examine memory for concrete things first. If a grocery list needs to be committed to memory – this, as we'll see, is an excellent way to practice the Art – the items on the list can be put in any convenient order. Supposing that two sacks of flour are at the head of the list, the figure corresponding to the letter F is placed in the first gazebo, holding the symbol for 2 in one hand and a sack of flour in the other, and carrying or wearing at least one other thing which suggests flour: for example, a chaplet of plaited wheat on the figure's head. The garments and accessories of the figure can also be used to record details: for instance, if the flour wanted is whole-grain, the figure might wear brown clothing. This same process is done for each item on the list, and the resulting images are visualized, one after another, in the gazebos of the Garden of Memory. When the Garden is next visited in the imagination – in the store, in this case – the same images will be in place, ready to communicate their meaning.
This may seem like an extraordinarily complicated way to go about remembering one's groceries, but the complexity of the description is deceptive. Once the Art has been practiced, even for a fairly short time, the creation and placement of the images literally takes less time than writing down a shopping list, and their recall is an even faster process. It quickly becomes possible, too, to go to the places in the Garden out of their numerical order and still recall the images in full detail. The result is a fast and flexible way of storing information – and one which is unlikely to be accidentally left out in the car!
Memory for abstract things, as mentioned earlier, uses these same elements of practice in a slightly different way. A word or a concept often can't be pictured in the imagination the way a sack of flour can, and the range of abstractions which might need to be remembered, and discriminated, accurately is vastly greater than the possible range of items on a grocery list (how many things are there in a grocery store that are pale brown and start with the letter F?). For this reason, it's often necessary to compress more detail into the memory image of an abstraction.
In this context, one of the most traditional tools, as well as one of the most effective ones, is a principle we'll call the rule of puns. Much of the memory literature throughout the history of the Art can be seen as an extended exercise in visual and verbal punning, as when a pair of buttocks appears in place of the number 8, or when a man named Domitian is used as an image for the Latin words domum itionem. An abstraction can usually be memorized most easily and effectively by making a concrete pun on it and remembering the pun, and it seems to be regrettably true that the worse the pun, the better the results in mnemonic terms.
For instance, if – to choose an example wholly at random – one needed to memorize the fact that streptococcus bacteria cause scarlet fever, rheumatic fever, and streptococcal sore throat, the first task would be the invention of an image for the word “streptococcus.” One approach might be to turn this word into “strapped to carcass,” and visualize the figure who represents the letter S with a carcass strapped to his or her back by large, highly visible straps. For scarlet fever – perhaps “Scarlett fever” – a videotape labeled “Gone With The Wind” with a large thermometer sticking out of it and an ice pack on top would serve, while rheumatic fever – perhaps “room attic fever” – could be symbolized by a small model of a house, similarly burdened, with the thermometer sticking out of the window of an attic room; both of these would be held by the original figure, whose throat might be red and inflamed to indicate the sore throat. Again, this takes much longer to explain, or even to describe, than it does to carry out in practice.
The same approach can be used to memorize a linked series of words, phrases or ideas, placing a figure for each in one of the gazebos of the Garden of Memory (or the places of some more extensive system). Different linked series can be kept separate in the memory by marking each figure in a given sequence with the same symbol – for example, if the streptococcus image described above is one of a set of medical items, it and all the other figures in the set might wear stethoscopes. Still, these are more advanced techniques, and can be explored once the basic method is mastered.
Rules for Practice
Like any other method of Hermetic work, the Art of Memory requires exactly that – work – if its potentials are to be opened up. Although fairly easy to learn and use, it's not an effort-free method, and its rewards are exactly measured by the amount of time and practice put into it. Each student will need to make his or her own judgement here; still, the old manuals of the Art concur that daily practice, if only a few minutes each day, is essential if any real skill is to be developed.
The work that needs to be done falls into two parts. The first part is preparatory, and consists of learning the places and images necessary to put the system to use; this can be done as outlined in the sections above. Learning one's way around the Garden of Memory and memorizing the basic alphabetical and numerical images can usually be done in a few hours of actual work, or perhaps a week of spare moments.
The second part is practical, and consists of actually using the system to record and remember information. This has to be done relentlessly, on a daily basis, if the method is to become effective enough to be worth doing at all. It's best by far to work with useful, everyday matters like shopping lists, meeting agendas, daily schedules, and so on. Unlike the irrelevant material sometimes chosen for memory work, these can't simply be ignored, and every time one memorizes or retrieves such a list the habits of thought vital to the Art are reinforced.
One of these habits – the habit of success – is particularly important to cultivate here. In a society which tends to denigrate human abilities in favor of technological ones, one often has to convince oneself that a mere human being, unaided by machines, can do anything worthwhile! As with any new skill, therefore, simple tasks should be tried and mastered before complex ones, and the more advanced levels of the Art mastered one stage at a time.
Notes for Part 2
1. See Yates, Frances, Theatre of the World (Chicago: U. of Chicago P., 1969), pp. 147-9 and 207-9.
2. The symbolism used here is taken from a number of sources, particularly McLean, Adam, ed., The Magical Calendar (Edinburgh: Magnum Opus, 1979) and Agrippa, H.C., Three Books of Occult Philosophy, Donald Tyson rev. & ed. (St. Paul: Llewellyn, 1993), pp. 241-298. I have however, borrowed from the standard Golden Dawn color scales for the colors of the circles.
3. The numbers of the additional circles are 5-10 and 12; the appropriate symbolism may be found in McLean and Agrippa, and the colors in any book on the Golden Dawn's version of the Cabala. The Pythagorean numerology of the Renaissance defined the number 11 as “the number of sin and punishment, having no merit” (see McLean, p. 69) and so gave it no significant imagery. Those who wish to include an eleventh circle might, however, borrow the eleven curses of Mount Ebal and the associated Qlippoth or daemonic primal powers from Cabalistic sources.
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