8.5.12

Sigil Magic: a spiritist and folk-magical approach

The more I think about sigils in their various incarnations, I can't help but question what the function of all magical symbolism really is. As regular readers probably have realised by now I don't buy that the unconscious mind does magic. I'm not saying that the mind isn't involved in magic. Just that the mind is involved in magic the way that the landing gear of a Boeing 747 is involved in flight. While, strictly speaking, landing gear isn't keeping an airbus in the air - it probably is a good idea for the aircraft to have a well functioning set for take-off and landing.



The further away I have moved from the notion that I need to manipulate my mind and instead focussed on building relationships with spirits, and refined ways of creating a sympathetic language with materials, the better my magic works. From my perspective, thinking that I have all the power inside my head can, ironically, be disempowering. My personal approach has been to move the locus of power away from myself and instead to think of everything in this world (and the other) as a potentially infinite source of spiritual power.

Resultantly, I have been working quite differently with sigils. The fact is I do enjoy working with sigils and sometimes they are exactly the right tool for the job. Granted, I have jettisoned every scrap of theory associated with Spare's sigil legacy. I certainly don't worry about the unconscious, or tricking the censor and all that jazz. It seems to me that in order to reconsider sigil magic intelligibly I have had to ask myself what sigils in fact, are?

The obvious thing about Spare's sigils is that they are symbols; signs or signifiers pointing to a desire. Plain and simple. The traditional method of constructing a Spare-style sigil is pretty arbitrary if you think about it. You have your statement of intent (which, incidentally, is already a symbol). You then delete all the repeating letters  - and take those remaining letters put them together to make a pleasing magical-looking symbol.

Nine tenths of the process is aesthetic. The step between sentence of desire and sigil seems somewhat gratuitous when you take into account that both the sigil and original sentence are already symbols. I mean - why create a new signifier (sigil) from an already existing signifier (sentence) to point at the same signified (desire)? Why not just activate the sentence of desire, taking into account that it already is a symbol? The sentence of desire's reduced letters themselves (also symbols), which are used to generate the sigil, when looked at as discrete components of the sentence, don't bring anything of particular relevance to the resulting sigil itself either. We may as well randomly select letters from a scrabble set and create a sigil from those*. So why all that agonising about the cleverly crafted sentence of desire when we just have to decide that the sigil these letters produce is a magical signifier pointing to our desire? And why is this resulting set of inky squiggles on paper more powerful, magically speaking, than the originating set of inky squiggles?

Compare this for a moment to the traditional method of deriving a sigil from a planetary camea. Now here we see some more structure. Some sound mythic logic. The planetary camea creates a cosmological lens so that the symbol/sigil produced isn't just an arbitrary construct based on an aesthetic whim but the result of extrapolating something out of a meaningful mythic pattern into the form of a symbol. As above so below yada-yada.

This is one of the reasons that I am a fan of the automatic writing method for deriving a Spare-type sigil instead ( Frater U:D:, Practical Sigil Magic, 1990). One enters into trance and then sitting with a pen one allows a sigil to be produced via automatic writing. It goes without saying that the spiritualist underpinnings of that approach naturally will appeal to an espiritista. Because now I can (like with the planetary camea) bring some greater forces other than myself down to bare in this situation - in this case a spirit is providing the sigil via automatic writing. This is far more meaningful and powerful to me for several reasons.

We use signs and symbols in magic all the time. We string together signifiers of all kinds; materials, colours, sounds, shapes, words, scents to create complexes of meaning. Looked at from a certain perspective we could say a black candle with a name carved in it using a coffin nail, dressed with black arts oil and sprinkled with graveyard dirt is a kind of performed three dimensional sigil. I admit, I winced a little as I wrote that.

Yet there is a crucial difference here; all the sympathetic resonance of the black candle, coffin nail, oil and graveyard dirt - like the planetary camea method - form part of the broader cosmological web of meanings in which a deeper pattern is activated. Graveyard dirt connects to a spirit; coffin nails to the grave; black candles to evil etc... we are sitting in that web of signification and we are plucking at all those strings in a very crafty way.

I want my sigils to do that - which is why it is important to me that my method of deriving one isn't arbitrary but instead is an extension of the cosmological underpinnings of my magical world-view. As you know I don't believe the unconscious is doing the work, so I have no need to encode anything to trick it. No need to sneak sigils past the censor. No need to forget or destroy sigils (which, thankfully, has gone out of fashion anyway).

If anything, my sigils are spirit-devices. We just need to look at the grimoire tradition very briefly to notice that sigils have primarily been associated with spirits of all kinds for hundreds of years. Similarly, in Kongo magic and in the Caribbean we find a prevalence of these kinds of spirit signatures - which is one of the more compelling overlaps between African and European tradition and another important attraction for me to the practice of using sigils in my work.


Receiving sigils

And here is the most important difference in my approach to sigil magic. Instead of creating a sigil and then going into trance in order to 'activate' it. Try going into trance and getting into touch with an appropriate spiritual intelligence then state your magical intention to them. Make an offering. If the spirit is interested and helpful you can receive a sigil from them. Chances are if you have been doing magic, and sigil magic in particular, you probably have somebody in your spiritual framework guiding you in this way already. This could be done through automatic writing, scrying, direct trance-based inspiration or something like, say, pyromancy. This sigil then effectively becomes a spirit signature that activates the spirit you are working with to work in a specific way for you.

There is correlation here, for instance, in the Kongo-derived practice of Palo. A palero can and does receive an innumerable number firmas (sigils) both through revelation and tradition that will set his prenda to work in different ways depending on the firma employed. The firma is then drawn and activated allowing associated magical workings to be performed atop it.

Looked at in another way the process of the sigil's revelation to you is its activation. Then it can be deployed in any number of ways in your spell craft just as you might work with any other seal, which I will go more into in a minute.

The key thing here is not the trance induction itself. It is the spirit contact. This ass-backward focus on trance induction by any means is the result of reductive, mechanistic thinking of magicians working from a materialistic scientific world-view. We want to reduce everything to some sort of physiological phenomenon because we simply cannot imagine anything else genuinely at play. So we think that if we can trick ourselves into a trance state - presto we have magic. Not all trance is created equal. Productive trance, however, is the human nervous system's natural reflex to an encounter with the numinous. While trance itself, as a simple physiological phenomenon, does not necessarily cause contact with the numinous. 

In other words: not all altered states of consciousness are useful or productive nor does every altered state of consciousness bring you into contact with spiritual reality. But I can pretty much guarantee that if I were to bring you into close contact with a spirit entity you would almost reflexively slip into trance. Again, trance is the body's natural reflex to the presence of spirits. Focus less on inducing trance and more on befriending helpful spirits.


working with sigils in a hoodoo oriented, spirit-centric style


Contagion, contagion, contagion...

The simplest approach for starters (and not be underestimated) is to draw your sigils on petition papers used in conjure work as per normal.  You can stick them in mojo bags and paint them on glass encased candles - whatever floats your boat. Basically, I use them in much the same way I would use any solomonic seal typically included in traditional conjure because they are structurally and visually almost identical.

Here are some more ideas for working with them...

  • Take your sigil burn it to ashes then grind the ashes up with roots and herbs to create a powder to deploy near a target as you would with any magical powder.
  • Take an appropriate condition powder and use it to trace your sigil on a flat surface then burn a votive candle to the appropriate spirit over it. Gather up the powder-sigil to deploy elsewhere strategically.
  • Draw your sigil on paper in water soluble ink place it on your chosen spirit's altar in a glass of water allowing it to dissolve over night then take the water and add it to a spiritual bath, put it in a floor wash, or add it into a perfume to wear.
  • Draw the sigil in chalk on your magical work surface; energise it with a puff of cigar smoke and then do your candle work, doll-baby conjure or jar spells on top of it.
Basically, you can transfer your sigil directly or indirectly by means of one of the important cornerstones of all folk-magic: magical contagion.

I started this post by saying that the more I think about sigils, the more I question what the function of all magical symbolism really is. The conclusion I have come to, based in my involvement in the ATRs, personal experience and survey of magical history is that magical signification from the most subtle implications of a tiny gesture to the most dramatic explosive elements is a way of talking to the spirit world. We are entering into a dialogue with a numinous. We are miming the other-world into being this-world. For me it isn't just fancy dress for the unconscious mind - it is the conscious dissolution of the false distinction that there is an 'inside' and 'outside'. 

By magically working with everything in our environment; herbal and mineral materials, sounds, colours, smells, and signs such as sigils as the manifest language of spirit we are demonstrating that our actual waking, tangible, physical reality itself is magic. 

footnotes:

*And this to my way of thinking would work even better than the usual procedure. Why not enter into trance, talk to a spirit ask it for a sigil then draw letters randomly from a scrabble set and create a sigil from those? They might even mean something...

14 comments:

  1. Very generous of you to describe so many methods in one article. I'll be trying many of them out.

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  2. Great post as ever Chad, very insightful, thanks for taking the time to share your thoughts with the community.

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  3. *jawdrop* wow man, excellent post! I just got an upgrade :D

    Thank you!

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  4. This is a great post. My only comments would be...

    1. It is not a competition. I also do a lot of work with sigils that are given by spirits such as the planetary symbols in my last book and the lightning glyphs in my new one. I consider these to have a different function than a Spare style sigil and I use them both. A firma and a veve are both technically sigils, but have a very different use right?

    Similarly, I work with spirits that reveal; themselves to me directly AND I might work with a servitor. They are different things and serve different functions. Chaos magic's mistake was not in using them, it was in conflating them.

    2. I would note that Agrippa gave a very similar method to generating sigils from English letters that spare did. There is nothing nontraditional about it and those sort of conjunct letter sigils also appear in Norse and Tibetan works. To me, nothing is more contrived and human as generating sigils from the Kameas or names of Genius from birth date.

    3. There is a large overlap of mind and spirit work. You recently wrote about Chod. Chodpas are sought after by people who are sick or need exorcism because their offerings of the self to the spirits are very effective offerings for pacifying spirits - but at the end of the rite the Chodpa is still there. The spirits are enjoying offerings generated by the mind. An even more direct link can be seen in how Spirits of Tibet originally opposed Buddhism because Buddhists would not make animal sacrifices. This was overcome by the creation of tormas out of butter and barley that look like sacrificed heads and such. Today a lot of Lamas and householders use Poly Resin Tormas for the same purpose and the spirits do not seem to mind. It is a symbol, and an energy, and a mentally generated array.

    While I completely agree that Chaos Magic has a silly model of how the mind works in magic, mind is much more integral to the process then simply being the landing gear. I know that at least you give some role of mind in magic, but in general I have to say that the need people feel to establish ONE operating mechanism of all magic is probably the worst thing to happen to the art in the last decade. It is not spirit OR energy OR mind and more than your car operates on gas OR electric OR water. Different traditions emphasize different aspects of it, but they are all there.

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  5. @Scribbler: glad you found it helpful. Please let me know how they work for you.

    @Scarlet Imprint: Thank you kindly, dear friends! Super pleased you found this interesting.

    @Jason:

    1) I think you may have misunderstood the pitch of my argument here. I am not suggesting this as an opposing view. I am offering my approach as an alternative, which as you know is spirit-centric. I am not arguing for or against the efficacy of existing Spare-derived sigilisation, just giving my system here and explaining how I got to that place, that's all. Different strokes and all that.

    2) Yes, I know Agrippa did! And I never said the monogram sigil was non-traditional. And that is a perfect example because he used the monogram method to turn a SPIRIT name (Michael) into sigil, which reinforces my point actually that sigils work as spirit-devices. Agrippa's example dovetails perfectly with my own modus operandi. He uses all the letters and it's already a word of power, so there is the clever projection of a deeper system that is coherent.

    3) Firstly, I have to point out to you that the Buddhist conception of the mind is vastly, but vastly, different both in function and conception to the common western psychological notion of it. So conflating those two ideas because they both use the term "mind" is probably not a great idea.

    The poly resin torma example strikes me really as the greatest problem in the view you are proposing, Jason. I am sorry to say this but it is lousy, lousy, lousy. And it isn't transferable to any other magical system -specifically because Buddhist can get away with it because of the doctrine of emptiness. That is hardwired into that whole worldview. It's why you can multiply offerings when visualising the yidam. It does not and more importantly it SHOULD NOT be transposed onto other forms of spirit work. Promise Eleggua a rooster offering and give him a rubber chicken and just see what happens. Seriously. A bad, bad, bad idea and a major problem I have always had with that teaching of yours.

    Finally, I am not proposing a mind vs. spirit binary. It isn't an either or and it isn't both either - it something else far more profound and mysterious. What I am saying, is that moving the locus of power out of the mind, as a personal approach has improved my magical results exponentially. I am talking about living in a magical reality isn't defined by the vague, subjective psychologies of the unconscious but instead is alive in every possible way.

    It's radical animism baby. :-)

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    1. Hey man,

      1. I did indeed misunderstand the direction of your case, and upon re-reading it, it is purely an issue with me not the article. I had some other things floating around in my head that I think colored my reading.

      3. The Buddhist conception of the mind is vastly different, but this is where the cross over into Contemplative Christianity and other western esotericism can enter. I can show you quotes from Theresa of Avila and Namkhai Norbu that use the same terminology for things!

      But I get your point.

      That said, here is where the idea of something being true within a tradition and being true inherently (as least as much as your car and trees and stuff are) come into conflict. When Buddhism came to Tibet, the spirits rebelled specifically BECAUSE they wanted blood offerings and knew that Buddhists were not going to give them. The Red Torma thing works regardless of tradition. Some will take to it, some won't, just like in Tibet.

      In new Orleans, Priestess Miriam and Louis Martine has done ceremonies using Palm oil as a replacement for blood with great success.

      More later...

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  6. What a brilliant example of what I have been doing for a while, albeit most of my sigils are bindrunes that i have constructed, and my method of making them is to doing a rune casting and use the runes that come up to construct the sigil.

    Many years ago, I came to the realization that oils, perfumes, incenses, baths etc... are all sigils. Even the whole list of materia magic is a kind of sigil of foundational sigils that through wise and competent combination could create a more direct and purposeful sigil.

    in my own works with spirits, I have often asked for a symbol/sigil that can express them to me, to act as a touchstone and focus for building our relationship. Using that sigil as a means to make offerings, call upon thier aid, and commune with them more directly.

    lovely article over all

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    1. That is an excellent example Bother Christopher. Bind-runes are definitely of the same order of structured, meaningful sigilisation that i am trying to touch on here. I love that you cast them to form a new bind-rune. My scrabble example seems all the more workable hearing this.

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  7. “Nine tenths of the process is aesthetic.”

    I`ve always thought that aesthetic was the real source of power of Spare methodology. The original phrase is an “invocation” and the process of drawing the sigil a “divination”, a answer from the spiritual world very close to automatic drawing.

    In my practice, the best sigils are the ones that emerge by themselves and look “aesthetically powerful”.

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  8. I recently discovered your blog and really loved this post. I think so much of western magical tradition that we inherited from victorian occultism has been influenced by viewing it all from a psychological point of view - trying to explain or understand it from the point of view of the mind. Your example of Spare's sigil creation is a perfect example.

    What makes it all work is inner contact with the spirits. I think by remembering that and moving in that direction it is simultaneously carrying us into the future of magical arts and also reconnecting us with the past of the ancestors.

    Thank you!

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  9. Can't you just see it now on the 11 0'clock news: "In the detectives' search of the suspect's house they found a scrabble set, leading them to believe he was involved in shadowy occult activities." ;-)

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    1. LOL! Now there is an idea for some H.P Lovecraft fanfic!

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  10. But I think it is also important to not forget the power within us as well, for we are all spiritual beings as well encased within physical matter. Working with the spirits create powerful magick, working with one's inner witch flame (the divine spark)can also raise energy and empower our magick to make it work; combining both creates one huge wave of power to manifest one's magick into the tangible realms, which would be the ideal situation. We all carry an inner source of power within us as well, and I believe we can make our magick work even without the assistance of spirits, though if it comes down to that, I think it would be important to examine why the none of the spirits are willing to aid in manifesting said particular magical goal, evaluate whether its the best thing for oneself to do or not. But if need be, its possible to make our magick work through our own power, I believe, at least to a certain extent.

    Sorry if I didn't read the article properly and in reality everyone is talking about something completely different, LOL that would be awkward.

    And I definitely agree that its important to build a rapport with the spirits, after all it would simply be exhausting to try to do everything alone. But its also important to set boundaries, and know to what degree one is willing to go. Prevent oneself from landing into complete servitude, and become someone else' bitch so to speak. A symbiotic relationship is the best in my opinion, where all parties involved are contributing and benefiting as well. Both giving and receiving/taking.

    Anywayssss, just my two cents :)

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  11. Great article.
    What interesting points of view. Love it

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