Ars Memorativa: the Art of Memory (Part 2)

Ars Memorativa: the Art of Memory

©2004 by John Michael Greer. All rights reserved.

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.


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.