First off, this is my first serious attempt at writing about magic, so I apologize if it’s hard to follow. Also, sorry about the horrible pun of a title. I thought of it earlier today and just couldn’t let it go to waste.
This piece is intended to present information about the branch of magical practice known as sigil magic, including some of its history from medieval times to its current form as popularized in the mid-to-late 20th century. A second (hopefully shorter) piece will follow in which I detail actual techniques for casting sigils. I will be drawing information from numerous sources, which I will try to remember to credit as we go along.
(images in this piece are either created by myself or taken from random places on the internet)
The Goetia made me do it
Sigils have probably existed in some form or another for as long as we humans have practiced magic. In simple terms, a sigil is an abstract design that symbolizes some type of information, such as an effect the magician wishes to cause (healing, acquiring something, meeting someone, etc.), or an entity the magician wishes to work with (or get rid of), or something similar. To get an idea of what I mean by this, let’s look at an example of one of the “classic” sigils, from the medieval grimoire The Lesser Key of Solomon.
This lovely little drawing is the seal of Marbas, the fifth demon listed in the book’s first and most (in)famous section, the Ars Goetia. From the book, we learn that Marbas is a president, he initially appears as a lion but will assume a human shape at the conjurer’s request, he can reveal hidden and secret things, he can both cause and cure diseases, he teaches the mechanical arts, he can cause people to change shapes, and he rules over 36 legions of spirits. The magician who is versed in this system of magic doesn’t have to consciously think of all of the above; he simply sees the sigil pictured above and the rest is automatically called up somewhere in his mind where he can easily access the information. This is admittedly not quite the same as modern sigil magic, as it requires a pretty thorough indoctrination into the system presented in that grimoire, while modern practice tends to be much less dogmatic. Still, it gives us a basic idea of what I mean when I talk of sigils being a collection of information abstracted into a symbol.
However, not all sigils are created by some robed guys with wands in a temple. We all see sigils every day, often without realizing that that’s what they are (special thanks to Grant Morrison and his excellent essay Pop Magic! for bringing this to my attention): most of us call them “logos” and you’ll probably see at least a few dozen of them driving down the average city street next time you go out. To point out just one, let’s look at the McDonald’s Golden Arches. What goes through your mind, either consciously or unconsciously, when you look at that big, friendly yellow M? A whole mess of stuff: Ronald McDonald and friends, Big Macs (two all-beef patties, special sauce, lettuce, cheese, pickles, onions on a sesame seed bun!), disgusting “chicken” nuggets, Happy Meals, teenagers working after school for crap wages, Billions and Billions Served, and so on. All in one simple symbol! I strongly suspect that quite a few magicians design corporate logos for a living, but that’s beyond the scope of this essay. So, what’s responsible for re-popularizing sigils in the modern day? Let’s rewind back a bit from the modern wizard Mickey D and look at a rather unassuming Englishman from the early- to mid-20th century.
Austin Osman Spare (1886-1956) was an artist and magician who basically invented the modern technique for casting sigils. Spare became interested in drawing and painting at a young age, and apparently got involved in occultism during his college years (later he claimed to have been initiated into magic in his childhood by an elderly “Mrs. Patterson”, though there is no real evidence for this). He wrote and self-published several books; the one that interests us for the purpose of this essay is his most well known, The Book of Pleasure (Self-Love): The Psychology of Ecstasy - essentially a treatise on Spare’s ideas about the human psyche and how it relates to magic. Spare was influenced by then-new ideas in the world of psychology, especially the idea of psychological repression. Psychologists had recently learned that potentially harmful mental complexes could be the result of the person repressing their memories of negative experiences in the past. Spare’s occult studies apparently led him to believe that our unconscious (or subconscious, if you prefer) is the part of us truly responsible for working magic, and believed that the mind’s ability to essentially make experiences a part of itself through repression could be made to work for a person, rather than against them, and this is what the sigil technique he devised depended on, which can be summed up in this quote from The Book of Pleasure: “Sigils are the art of believing; my invention for making belief organic, ergo, true belief.”
Spare’s technique for creating a sigil consisted of writing out a sentence describing what the magician wished to occur, eliminating any repeated letters, then combining and simplifying the remaining letters into a glyph, “the idea being to obtain a simple form which can be easily visualised at will, and has not too much pictorial relation to the desire.” The sigil is then made “organic” in the unconscious mind by any of various methods, the idea being to eliminate all thoughts from the mind except the image of the sigil itself, which the magician then does his best to forget from his conscious mind, to prevent it from interfering with the sigil’s “behind the scenes” work, so to speak. I had intended to put up a picture here of one of Spare’s own sigils, but I can’t find one anywhere. Still, there will be at least one example of a sigil made by myself in this method in the upcoming part two of this essay. For now, it’s time to move on, a bit after Spare’s time, to the latter half of the 20th century.
Chaos and confusion
Spare’s writings first became widely known among the occult “scene” in the 1970s, helping to kick-start the “Chaos Magic” movement, first in England, then spreading to the United States and continental Europe soon after. Chaos magic was/is concerned with stripping away the dogmatic, spiritual/metaphysical “baggage” associated with many magical systems in order to find the underlying techniques that actually make magic work. Spare’s sigil technique was practically a perfect fit for the chaos magicians, a magical practice with no need to memorize tables of correspondences or angelic hierarchies or “many other things which may or may not exist” (to repurpose a line from Crowley). Spare’s form of sigil magic (or a variation of it) has appeared in writings by many modern magicians such as Peter Carroll, Stephen Mace, Ray Sherwin, Frater U.D., and Phil Hine, and was also one of the primary practices employed by Thee Temple ov Psychick Youth (now reorganized into the Autonomous Individuals Network), another movement dedicated to “demystifying” magic in a similar manner to the chaos magicians.
…but I wanna DO it!
That’s pretty much it for the history part. I’d write up my guide to actually doing sigil magic now, but it’s almost 2 AM and I’m tired, so it’s going to have to wait a bit. I’ll try to have it up here in the next few days, if not tomorrow. I hope this has been an enjoyable and informative read so far (and that I didn’t unwittingly plagiarize anything).