Sigils, History, etc.


In my exploration of magic, I did some things backwards. Actually, by some standards I’m doing the whole thing from the middle to the beginning and back out again.

Chaos Magic, and in particular, the modern method of “sigil” magic, was developed by practitioners who had already studied the Western Esoteric Tradition in some essentially Golden-Dawn-ish 1 order, and then branched out. A. O. Spare was an artist and an occultist, so when he started creating “sigils,” it was probably pretty clear in his mind that he was simplifying the ancient art of talismanic magic down to its basics. However, when I picked it up from Carroll, Hine, and Frater U.’.D.’., I had not been down that road. So I did many wonderful things with sigils, without really knowing the bases of it.

Then I decided, a couple of years ago, to stop dancing around the Western Esoteric Tradition and actually dig into it. Among other things, I learned the basics of the talismanic art. Right after my first successful talisman consecration, I cracked up laughing, because it finally hit me, dunce that I sometimes am, that when I had been doing all that cool, new, post-effing-modern sigil stuff fourteen years ago, I was doing the same thing as the author of the Picatrix — and he wrote about it as if it were already old, maybe scary old.

I see people doing similar things in Atlantis 15,000 years ago, and on cave and cliff walls all over the world 50,000 years before that.

And then Skyllaros reminded me of this by dreaming up yet another new-old way to enliven sketched talismans. Drumming, yo. Shamans have a song for this, a song for that, and they get them from the spirits by, oh, I don’t know … intently and prayerfully listening for them. Turning on, dropping out and tuning in. Going back to our roots and digging into the Earth is refreshing.

I’m not sure why we got the words “sigil” and “talisman” confused in the modern literature, but here are the traditional meanings: a sigil is a sign or seal, the signature of a spirit. A spirit can have more than one: in the same way, I have two that are derived from my magical name, which have great power in staking a claim or making a connection. A talisman is a particular instance of connecting a spirit with an object (which is often, but need not be, a drawing). So, really, in modern sigil magic, we’re using the simplest possible design for a talisman, one that just has the appropriate sigil on it. We encoded the intent into the sigil itself, and we found that, often enough, nothing more is needed for results magic.

Another difference between ancient and modern practices is that there is now more interest and belief in creating spirits as needed 2, where the Renaissance and prior mages did more work via making connections with already-known spiritual intelligences. However, there are references to creating custom spirits as familiars in the grimoire tradition.

I used to enjoy the fluidity of thinking of the same operation in the different models. Some of my earliest magical records have a restatement of “what I think happened” in several different models (spirit, energy, information, material [yes, I included “this is how I could explain this away” with each one]). After wearing that groove a little wider over time, I’m now feeling, like Rachel Izabella, that the spirit model wins. Spirits and sympatheia (I used to call them entities and currents, until I realized I had re-invented something already known). A spirit is connected to many sympatheia, and any sympatheion is by definition connected to multiple spirits. We’re not usually aware of the vastness of the subtle webs we move in. We are connected to superiors (daimones, celestials, Gods, etc.) and peers and inferiors by various sympatheia, in a constant interplay of “As above” with “So below” and “vice” with “versa.” They shift and move constantly, and some that were important yesterday are trivial today; so we use divination, in particular astrology, to enhance our awareness of where we are in this Cosmic play.

This is not just another effort to rationalize magic and spirit-work. This is the one that tunes me in to the pre-“Enlightenment” Hermetic world-view, and from there, all the way back to a prehistoric animistic one. That’s why a lot of the “theory” talk makes me twitch, really: it looks so much like a fierce and protective clinging to our post-“Enlightenment” “education,” instead of a return to what works and what satisfies the soul.

Not that I want to throw my modern scientific education away altogether: logic and empirical science have their place, but that place needs to be understood. Applying logic out of its proper context is pointless, rootless ideation. Applying methods and criteria of empirical science in realms where propositions are not falsifiable is the same thing. It is at best sophistry, at worst a scientistic bigotry.

Naive positivism, which amounts to pretending that the subjective and the indeterminate don’t matter, is a failing attempt to throw away 7/8s of human experience.


1. If one discourses pedantically on Ceremonial Magic, one could be said to be speaking Golden-Donnishly.
2. Why does that work? We connect to the Astral Light, to give it its Lévi-style name, create a form in it, and it fills up with what we asked for. Because that’s its nature.

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About freemanpresson

Celto-Cherokee Pagan, Priest, Frater of the Church of the Hermetic Sciences, sometime writer, astrologer.
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8 Responses to Sigils, History, etc.

  1. cairnwood says:

    I recall, quite vividly, my first forays into working with and creating sigils and talismans (which coincided with my first experiments with the magical use of hallucinogens interestingly enough) and I thought I was so smart, simplifying and shamanticising the work, and all the while not realizing I was not creating, but rather rediscovering something quite ancient and remarkable.

  2. Robert Mitchell says:

    I was following along, and agreeing, right up until the last sentence and then I got all twisty-like. Might you elaborate a bit on Naive positivism, which amounts to pretending that the subjective and the indeterminate don’t matter, is a failing attempt to throw away 7/8s of human experience.

    • Robert Mitchell says:

      Sorry, neglected to put quotes around the ol’ quoted material there…what I meant to say was, might I trouble you to elaborate a bit on your statement, “Naive positivism, which amounts to pretending that the subjective and the indeterminate don’t matter, is a failing attempt to throw away 7/8s of human experience.”? Not sure I know what you mean by “positivism.”

      • For naive, or unqualified positivism, I mean pretty much the Wikipedia definition of the term: “Positivism is a philosophy of science based on the view that information derived from logical and mathematical treatments and reports of sensory experience is the exclusive source of all authoritative knowledge,[1] and that there is valid knowledge (truth) only in scientific knowledge.[2]” Thus was a whole movement in Western thought based on a postulate that practically refutes itself.

        • Robert Mitchell says:

          Gotcha! Now I can say I agree with you 100%. A “return to what works and satisfies the soul” is a fine prescription for the individual, but also for the World. A purely positivist mind cannot hear the world’s suffering, it doesn’t weep for a fallen tree or a lost species. Science and is a tool, and when all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail.

  3. Rachel Izabella says:

    Your tracing back of latterday sigils to talismans to cave paintings is sheer genius. I salute your mighty brain, Freeman!

    • Have you ever seen an old car on its last legs chugging along the road, barely able to climb relatively small hills? Well, often those same cars look pretty lively going downhill.

      Or, in my case, if there’s enough caffeine in the tank ;-)

  4. Andrew says:

    This post has brought me some traffic lately, for reasons I don’t begin to understand; but I’ve definitely used the Picatrix’s collection of “Images” as a tool for making my own talismans/sigils. My additional ‘flip’ on it is to write sonnets that match the energies of the work, as well.

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