- Omens and Portents and the Compass Arcs
- The Earthly Compass
- The Heavenly Compass
- The Constellations
- The Heavenly Jewels
- Other Divination
The Archipelagans worship no gods. This is one of the most incomprehensible aspects of their generally baffling society as far as those living on the mainland are concerned. Instead, the Aldabreshi rely for daily guidance on omens and portents; from the auspices deliberately read when someone seeks an answer for a specific question, and from those random auguries seen by chance. In all cases, noting exactly where a sign occurs around the compass is vital for understanding its meaning.
The compass circle is divided into twelve arcs for the purposes of divination. Every Aldabreshi knows where to look for portents relating to a primary aspect of life, as well as the subsidiary characteristics of each arc. In the case of unexpected omens, any Aldabreshi can just as easily identify the sector of the compass where that sign has occurred, and so proceed to work out what significance it has for them at that particular time.
Tracing the sun’s path around the full circle from true North, the compass arcs are as follows:
Travel. Omens here relate to mental journeys as well as physical ones, so can have a bearing on learning lessons and expanding understanding.
Death. As well as the obvious meanings, portents may relate to matters of inheritance and also to the most intense passions and needs.
Marriage. Omens here can be significant for all one-to-one relationships.
Health. Portents here will also relate to daily routine and duty.
Children. Omens for love affairs and creativity also occur here.
Parents. Portents go beyond the obvious to include all aspects of home, family and emotional security.
Siblings. As well as matters relating to brothers and sisters, by blood or marriage, omens will relate to business dealings and other such binding promises.
Wealth. Portents here relate to both physical possessions and also to the intangible things one may value, as well as the personal virtues which others may value in an individual.
Life. As well as offering guidance on personal safety and prospects, omens can relate to one’s inner state of mind.
Foes. Portents relate to dangers beyond physical assailants, including fears and personal limitations.
Friendship. Omens here relate to all aspects of community life.
Honour. Portents here relate to personal honour and to status among one’s equals. In particular this is where omens pertaining to personal ambition occur.
The natural world is a source of auguries for all Aldabreshi, from the highest warlord ruling a mighty fortress to the humblest islander living in a solitary hut. The flight of different sorts of bats or birds. Patterns made by trees blowing in the wind or leaves tumbled along the ground. The appearance of some particular insect or some creature of land or sea, whether benign or dangerous. Finding something or conversely, realising that something has been lost. Things glimpsed in a mirror or a liquid’s reflection. A dream that lingers in the mind on waking. The more unexpected such an occurrence: the more significant the omen, for good or ill.
All these things and many, many more such fleeting events can provide crucial and timely guidance, whether they are seen by chance or when an Archipelagan has consciously taken the time to sit and watch the arc of the compass which is most closely related to the issue where he or she seeks guidance.
This is the source of the intense Aldabreshin hatred for elemental magic. As far as they are concerned, wizardry distorts and corrupts the natural order of things and thus irreparably disrupts the vital direction that auspices provide. Without such guidance to rely on, the Archipelago would be left in chaos.
Earthly omens can also be deliberately sought using a variety of methods. Birds such as courier doves can be released at the start of a voyage, in order to see which way they fly and whether they show boldness or fear. Animals can be released from cages to see which way they run.
Bones and large shells can be thrown into a fire and the resulting cracks examined for symbols and images. Palm nuts can be thrown into a fire until they explode so omens can be read into the compass arcs where the fragments land around the hearth. Sticks, shells, nuts, knives, valued jewellery and any number of other things can be thrown over the seeker’s shoulder onto a compass circle drawn on the ground. The resulting patterns can then be read, as well as significance drawn from the numbers of items landing within or outside the circle.
Such methods are particularly favoured by the itinerant seers and soothsayers who travel between the islands and domains of the Archipelago, earning food and clothing as the rewards for the accuracy and vital significance of their predictions, as proved by subsequent events. Successful seers can become very rich and their counsel may be sought by the wealthiest warlords. Soothsayers with a record of failure will soon starve.
Copper plates can be engraved with a compass circle marked into these divinatory arcs and used in a variety of ways. A candle may be placed in the centre, lit and left to burn down. Omens can be read in the directions the melted wax has flowed. Alternatively candles or oil lamps can be set in every arc and the behaviour of their flames observed. Conversely melted wax may be dripped into a shallow bowl of cold water with the compass arcs engraved onto the bottom and omens read where the wax congeals. Molten metal can also be used in this way, though that’s seldom done, given the scarcity of metal across the Archipelago.
An engraved copper plate can be placed on a brazier until it becomes hot and items such as nuts or shells cast on it, to see how and where they move. Those who possess talisman or other jewels may use them for such divinations and trust that the guidance they see will be all the more significant thanks to the gems’ tie to the heavenly compass.
The skies are divided into the same twelve arcs of the compass for the purposes of divination. When reading the omens, the first significant element is the dominant constellation in a particular arc. There are twelve such constellations, each with its own significance, which complete a full circuit of the skies over the course of each lunar year. They are named for a selection of humble, everyday items, commons plants and creatures both real and mythical. The origins of these names have been lost since before records began.
The shift from month to month is marked by the rising of the new constellation on the eastern horizon on the night before the rise of the new Greater Moon, every twenty eight days. Since there are thirteen lunar months in each solar year, each constellation’s appearance shifts progressively through the seasons in successive years.
The second significant element is the location of the heavenly jewels. This is how the Archipelagans refer to the six planets and the two moons in their night sky, named for their colours and appearance. Since all these astronomical bodies move at different paces, two or more heavenly jewels coming together in a particular arc will be especially significant. Close attention is also paid to squares or triangles formed by the shifting jewels and to clusters in adjacent arcs. It’s also wise to take note of the stars and jewels lying opposite any compass arc with a specific bearing on a task in hand. A completely empty hemisphere or quadrant should also prompt careful consideration.
The heavenly jewels are also used to keep track of the solar year, most particularly the Topaz whose shift from one arc to the next marks the Aldabreshin New Year (in mid For-Spring by mainland reckoning).
Aldabreshin astronomical expertise means Archipelagans always know where these stars are, even when they’re below the horizon. This is an indicator to consider the negative aspects associated with invisible stars and jewels when reading the skies.
Generations of observing the heavens and keeping detailed records means that the Aldabreshi are easily able to say where all these stars and jewels will be at any point in the days and even years to come. The Archipelagans pay close attention to the omens ahead when planning future actions. Events will be scheduled for days when heavenly conjunctions promise good fortune. The Aldabreshi scholar can also predict less common astronomical events such as eclipses, the rare nights when neither moon can be seen, meteor showers and the reappearance of comets. These events are deemed particularly influential.
This long tradition of stargazing had led to the high levels of expertise in advanced mathematics among Aldabreshin scholars, as well as to the astonishing skills in lens grinding and fine metal work shown by the Archipelagan artisans who make telescopes, astronomical and navigational instruments. While mainland mariners make do with magnetic compasses showing them directional bearings and little else, every Archipelagan shipmaster is an expert at using the sextant and also the astrolabe which baffled mainlanders simply refer to as an Aldabreshin Compass.
The Hoe. A symbol of energy and the benefits of hard work, in particular the benefits of working together. In its positive aspects it’s a symbol of unity and building things. In its negative aspects it can indicate selfishness and hoarding. It’s also a symbol of male fertility. (This is the constellation in the north-north-east arc of the sky at the start of Southern Fire)
The Sailfish. A symbol of happiness and plenty, of freedom and good fortune. Since the sailfish that swim in the seas throughout the Archipelago (and leap up to soar clear of the water) rise to mate and spawn when both moons are full, any conjunction of these stars with either moon will be particularly significant. It’s also a symbol of female fertility. In its positive aspects it can indicate understanding and empathy. Its negative aspects indicate exaggeration and profligacy.
The Walking Hawk. These giant flightless birds have been extinct in the Archipelago since before records were kept. Their fate means this constellation often indicates a warning or something else significant with regard to adversaries. It’s also associated with the sun and with thunder. In general, this is a symbol of superiority, of courage and watchfulness. Consequently hawk and eagle feathers are valued as talismans by warriors. In its positive aspects, it can highlight a discovery. In its negative aspects it can indicate unfounded suspicions.
The Spear. A symbol of strength and of the value of initiating action in its positive aspects. In its negative aspect, it cautions against domineering or overbearing behaviour. It’s often a warning of violence to come. It’s particularly associated with lightning and with male potency.
The Winged Snake. This mythical beast is a symbol of male and female intertwined, of heroism and defiant courage. It’s particularly associated with rainbows and also a symbol of things, good or bad, being brought into the light of day. It’s a symbol of cures and good health in its positive aspect and of pain in its negative aspect. It can also indicate the virtues of taking time to analyse and think things through, or the destructive nature of criticism.
The Horned Fish. This sea mammal is a symbol of happiness, regeneration and of birth. Its appearance swimming in the seas or in the stars above is especially significant for sailors and most usually, a favourable indicator. The positive aspects of the constellation indicate a correct course while the negative aspect warns against being led astray.
The Net. A symbol of capture which can clearly be good or bad, depending on whether one is hunting or being hunted. It’s also associated with food, with unity and cooperation. In its positive aspects, it indicates support and nurturing. In its negative aspects it indicates smothering and unwelcome restraint. It can also be a symbol of subduing chaos, most particularly the evils of magic.
The Sea Serpent. The appearance of these giant sea creatures among the Archipelago’s islands is always noteworthy. The savage beasts, easily able to sink a small vessel, usually keep to the open ocean. As a constellation, this is a symbol of mystery, of darkness, of unseen forces and dangers. Its negative aspects relate to jealousy, hatred and death as well as particular threats to children. However it can have positive associations, notably with self-sufficiency, exploration and escape.
The Vizail Blossom. This night blooming, strongly and sweetly scented shrub is ubiquitous throughout the Archipelago. As a constellation it’s a symbol of femininity, of the delights of sex and of hope. It is particularly associated with the dawn. However it’s also a reminder of the briefness of life and a warning against complacence or passivity. In its positive aspects it’s associated with empathy and in its negative aspects, with intoxication and confusion.
The Bowl. A symbol of food and drink shared, of generosity and love, of faithfulness and oathkeeping. It can indicate refreshment; literal or emotional and spiritual, or through such things as knowledge gained or relationships reaching new levels of understanding. Its positive aspect speaks of creativity while its negative aspect indicates pretence and concealment.
The Mirror Bird. A mythical creature, akin to a peacock, deemed to be a link between the earth, the heavens and the future. Its shimmering fan of a tail reputedly reflects light. As such it is considered a token of opposition to magic and a specific defence against sorcery alongside its other, more general protective associations. It’s a symbol of light, of wisdom and of higher knowledge to be gained. In its positive aspects, it indicates the virtues of communication. In its negative aspect, it warns against gossip.
The Canthira Tree. A robust tree common throughout the Archipelago. It’s a symbol of the natural and seasonal cycles of birth and death. It’s particularly resistant to insect damage, so is a talisman against decay and disease. Since it’s the first plant to reappear after a fire, even where an entire island has been burned to black ash, it’s a symbol of endurance and immortality. Indeed, since its seeds will only germinate if they’ve been scorched by passing flames, it’s strongly associated with fire, in all its useful and destructive aspects. It also links the islands and their people to the unseen powers below the earth, from the calm fertility of the soil bringing forth life-sustaining plants to the lethal forces of erupting fire mountains and earthquakes. In its positive aspects, it indicates the virtues of cooperation. Its negative aspects indicate the hindering effects of arguments.
The Opal (the Greater Moon). A symbol of harmony, it promotes truth. It unlocks emotions and promotes fidelity. It also enhances dominant character traits generally. A talisman against magic and a protection against mishaps associated with fire or such things as landslides and rockfalls. Moves from arc to arc every two to three days, completing the full circuit in 28 days and so marking each lunar month.
The Pearl (the Lesser Moon). A soothing gem, it focuses attention and balances emotion as well as strengthening intuition. An emblem of fecundity, it promotes chastity in men and women alike. A talisman against drowning, sharks, madness, lightning and storms. Moves from arc to arc every three days, completing the full circuit in 36 days.
According to Aldabreshin scholars, both these heavenly jewels are associated with dragons, possibly as talismans, but only in books of such ancient and obscure lore that no one really understands why.
The Amethyst. Calms the mind and promotes new ideas and inspired dreams. It reduces anger and promotes humility. A talisman against intoxication and arrogance. Moves from arc to arc every eighteen days.
The Diamond. Promotes loyalty, longevity and truthfulness. A gem to promote clarity of mind and of purpose and also acting as an amplifier of other gems’ properties. A talisman against corruption, physical or mental, and against magic. A jewel of most particular significance for warlords. Moves from arc to arc every twenty four days.
The Ruby. A gem to strengthen love, courage, fertility and friendship. However it also intensifies negative emotions. A potent talisman against depression, debility, blood loss through accident or battle and also a protection against fire. Moves from arc to arc every forty six days.
The Topaz. A guide towards life’s best path, and a gem to encourage acceptance of new ideas or to find a new use for resources. Promotes creativity and signifies the benefits of mutual assistance. Moves from arc to arc at the turn of each Aldabreshin new year, when its new relevance for all the other omens to be seen in the heavenly compass at that time is closely studied.
The Emerald. Promotes growth, good health and peace. Associated with the Archipelago’s seasonal rains, it may warn of both good or bad times ahead when the storms arrive. A talisman gem for the young, promoting heroism and curbing foolhardiness. Also a talisman for all ages against epilepsy, dysentery and diseases of the eyes. Moves from arc to arc every two and a half years. As with all the slowly moving heavenly jewels, this shift prompts close study of the skies and all conjunctions of the stars and gems at that particular time.
The Sapphire. Slowest moving of all, this heavenly jewel moves from arc to arc every seventh year. A symbol of the sky, of daylight and wisdom, it promotes communication and truth. Clearing the mind, it promotes insight and intuition. Its shift is a time of great significance and warlords will consult their domain’s records to discover what omens were recorded and what events occurred when it was last in the particular arc it has now reached. Since that would be eighty four years previously, no one living is likely to recall such things. Anyone who sees the Sapphire in the same arc twice in their own lifetime will be honoured, receiving gifts in hopes that their good luck will spread throughout their community.
Aldabreshin warlords are skilled at reading the auspices revealed in a sacrificial animal’s entrails, initially taking particular note of what may be reflected in the mirror of the creature’s liver when it is first opened up, and then seeing what conclusions may be drawn from the condition of its internal organs. Such omens will have significance for an entire domain.
Humbler Aldabreshi are perfectly entitled to read such omens in their villages, when killing a penned animal or catching something in the forest for the pot but such portents will only relate to their immediate concerns.
The Aldabreshin passion for gambling is closely tied to their belief in auguries. Wagers are not merely made in hopes of personal gain. Who wins their bet, and in what circumstances, will be seen as far more widely significant.
Warlords’ wives have blood ties to the domains where they were born and to the domains where they choose to marry and bear children to the men bound to those islands by blood. Seeking omens in dreams which will prove significant for the domain is their particular prerogative. This is done by settling down to sleep beneath a tower of silence.
These open topped towers are where the most honoured dead of a domain are placed, in order that their virtues may be spread as far and wide as possible by insects, birds and wind through the natural processes of decay. Humbler folk are buried close to hearth and home so that their virtues may enrich the lives and future generations of their kith and kin. The Archipelagans do not believe that anyone is truly dead until everyone who knew that person in life has also ended their days.
Archipelagans place great faith in talismans, worn or carried to turn away bad luck. The most potent are gems and not merely the heavenly jewels. The lore attached to both precious and semi-precious stones, along with ornaments like pearls and decorative materials like ivory from both land and sea creatures is detailed and complex.
Humbler talismans also abound, picked up when something of particular significance has happened to an individual. A young hunter will often keep a tooth from his first kill or a girl will cherish a bracelet or necklace she wore when she took her first lover
Unsurprisingly, I now have a shelf of books and pamphlets about methods of fortune telling, various runes systems, horoscopes of different sorts, palmistry, the Tarot, crystal theory and assorted superstitions from any number of countries and cultures on my bookshelf. It would take an age to list them all and even then, that wouldn’t be particularly helpful as, ten years on, I honestly can’t recall exactly where I found all the different ideas I’ve used throughout the Aldabreshin Compass series (and in The Tales of Einarinn come to that).
I can’t even be sure all these ideas are in these reference books, since I’ve picked up no end of snippets of folklore from all sorts of cultures from museums and stately homes and other historical visitor attractions. Plus the curious stories from friends relating things their grandmothers used to say…
Moreover a lot of these ideas occur in more than one source, or overlap in some respect, just as the use I’ve made of these beliefs overlaps with the use any number of other writers have made of the same resources.
I’ll settle for mentioning two books I’ve found particularly useful.
Dictionary of Symbols – Jack Tresidder (Duncan Baird Publishers)
The Penguin Guide to the Superstitions of Britain and Ireland – Steve Roud (Penguin Reference)