Magic: Sigils, Seals and Emblems

Keri mentioned that she was contemplating the difference between sigils and seals in magical practice, and I instantly ‘got a hit’ on something…. something that’s been percolating in the back of my mind for some time: the differences between Sigils, Seals and Emblems.  I wrote it as a comment on her blog, but I want to expand on it here.

squiggle of gold lines – a sigil

See, Gordon’s variations on Sigil Magic work. Take a phrase that represents something that you want that’s magical… remove all the vowels from that statement. Remove all the doubled letters.  Take the remaining letters and wobble-wobble them together sin several different ways until they don’t mean anything, exactly, but still look significant.  Rewrite them in some fashion, like gold ink on a black surface so they look definitively wyrd in candlelight, or so that they resemble Chinese characters (without actually being Chinese characters) in black ink, maybe stamped several times in red with a sufficiently-impressive looking seal. Make a shoal of several such sigils together. Use a robofish to create a decisive movement.  Launch a number of sigils together. Leave them up until they no longer seem active. Gordon has a multi-part course behind his paywall for premium members, and it’s excellent, I recommend it.

But then there’s things like the Pentacles of Solomon. I think these are kind of like sigils, in that they’re an expression of magical power. But if I draw the same sigil as you do, that sigil isn’t going to do for me what it does for you. I’m copying your work, but I’m not copying your Work, if a capital letter can express the difference — I haven’t invested sufficient intentionality with the pen on (tracing) paper to take your intentionality and transfer it to my own sigil. My efforts might make the likelihood of your sigil working, more likely. But the sigil’s effects aren’t going to work out on me — it’s not my squiggle, apparently, but yours.  If I want the same intention as you, that’s fine… but I still have to go through the same design process of removing the vowels and the doubled letters; and then I have to find the set of squiggles and arcs and curves that mean that to my unconscious. And you have to do yours.

Fifth Pentacle of Mercury
Fifth Pentacle of Mercury – an example of a seal, or stablized/general-purpose sigil?

A seal, though, seems to be a stable sigil, that means the same thing to whoever copies it. Some of it has to do with the intentionality of the text which explains and frames the seal. This is why so many seals include Biblical quotations, at least in the West/Latin-empire derived cultures).  You can have seals without writing in other cultures, I suspect — even in cultures that are non-literate — but it’s simultaneously the act of making the seal, and knowing its purpose, that are important.  A seal is a stable sigil, in a sense — anyone who draws it, makes it, will benefit from its effects in some fashion: some of them more subtle than others; some of them practically undetectable. This one, from the Key of Solomon as translated by S.L. Mathers (Credit to Esoteric Archives for the image) belongs to a larger framework of contextual ritual and belief system.  It’s not simply a matter of drawing the seal, it’s also in a sense buying into the ritual context of it and accepting the limitations and opportunities of the toolset that makes it.  (I happen to think Keri’s Time Management sigil is a seal — it has the potential to work for anyone who makes it, which is why I copied it). Seals are more general-purpose than sigils, but heftier and clunkier.  I’m reminded of the various lines in the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy books about how the Infinite Improbability Drive is so much better than all that mucking about in hyperspace, but how Bistromathics is so much easier than messing around in infinite improbability, and so on.  Or how in the Star Wars end of the universe, a light saber is a more elegant and less clumsy weapon than a blaster…. and yet a whole lot of Jedi seem to die at the business end of a blaster.

So a sigil is a personal magical statement of intent, a talismanic tool which is personally keyed in some fashion.  And a seal is a more general-purpose sigil, one that anyone can use, but which they have to make for themselves (or purchase from a competent seal-maker). I don’t think this is a case where copy-pasting out of the Mathers paperback and scissoring out the pentacle you want from the resulting photocopy does the trick; some tools like pens and rulers and a geometer’s compass have to be deployed. A working knowledge of Hebrew helps, as does some training in calligraphy.

And then there are emblems.

The Kamea of Mercury – a typical set of emblems

If a sigil is a personal magical statement that’s magically presented to the unconscious, and a seal is a more general purpose statement that can work for almost anyone provided that they make it themselves, then an emblem is an image where the image itself carries the magical intention directly to the person who views it.

There appear to be two kinds of emblems: emblems that only the initiate can read or see or understand; and emblems that are visible and potentially transformative to anyone.

A lot of advertising in the 21st century consists of magical emblems.  It’s interesting to me that nearly all modern books on magic include NO DISCUSSION OF IMAGE MAGIC… and I think it’s because nearly all the tools of image magic have been co-opted into the modern advertising and marketing industries.  Susan Cooper, in her book series The Dark is Rising, goes so far as to show a servant of the Dark painting his spell…. and Merriman Lyon, the wizard of the series, realizes too late that painting a spell is an old way of doing magic but that it can be done.  (I wrote about this image magic stuff about year ago or so).

Kircher-Diagram_of_the_names_of_GodBringing it back to emblems… I don’t think you have to KNOW what an emblem means, to be affected by it.  The Kircher emblem of the 72 names of God and the seventy-two angels under Him is powerful as a piece of artwork, quite separate from the magical reality that it’s imprinting on your subconscious.  You can learn quite a bit from this emblem, without ever raising a pen to try to reproduce it physically on paper or on an engraving plate with an etcher or a silverpoint.  It is itself, and even produced in black ink, it exudes a radiance that is difficult to describe yet wholly present even in a reproduction.  You can learn things from this diagram, consciously or unconsciously, that you would never be able to absorb even from the most carefully drawn seal or the most potent sigil of the most potent magus in the world.  The mere act of bringing an emblem into the world, changes the world in some fashion.  Maybe the correct term for it is hypersigil?  Grant Morrison of Pop Magic described the run of the comic The Invisibles (which I have still not read, alas) as a hypersigil working, but maybe it has status as an emblem in this classification (he talks about creating the Invisibles as a magical thing, I think, in this speech).

So… sigils are squiggles, and probably uninterpretable by the one who sees them who isn’t their creator (sometimes they’re not even interpretable by their creator, once enough time has passed).  A seal is a more general-purpose sigil, but one which has its own force or significance, and at some level ‘works’ because it’s attached to a current of energy or tradition that is re-energized or reinvigorated or re-enlivened — when you make a seal, you’re joining that current at some level, and this is part of the way the seal works. And finally, emblems work on everybody, whether they make them or not. Some emblems work better on initiates of given traditions, than they do on the general populace; some work on everyone; but you don’t have to copy them out by hand for them to have some sort of effect on you.

The trouble is… all of this classification is a guess.  And it’s a rough guess.  And there are blurred lines; some sigils slide over the line between sigil and seal; some sigils flow all the way over the line into emblem territory.  These aren’t actually as-clear distinctions as I’ve laid out, here — it’s important to recognize that there’s more of a continuum, more of a gradient where these things start to merge into one another.

What should be clear, though, is that though the classifications may not be clear, your linework should be: the making of sigils, seals, emblems and in general, image magic in various forms, is part and parcel of the Work, and we ignore it at our peril.


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  1. Since you are mentioning Gordon, another way of looking at this is how much Neighbourly attention the squiggles attract:

    * Sigils are zero to negligible level.
    * Emblems are low-moderate, possibly bidirectional attention. Think business cards.
    * Seals are higher and personalized attention, initiated by the drawer and user.

    If you extend the metaphor further:.
    * Sycnhronicities are the “shape” inbound calls take to embodied spirits.
    * Possibly excepting those that have trained for incoming contact.
    * Ritual acts as a “toll charge” to reduce prank dialling.
    * In this light, the de-emphasis of image magic reduces the odds of improper seal usage.

    If you extend it to the limit:
    * Major sacrifices are a form of robo-dialling.
    * Abductions are the end case of never picking up the phone.

    • I like the framework that you’ve laid out here, although the extremities/absurdities at the outer edges of the frame are complicated.

    • When I came up with the initial list I had a “WWGWD?” moment, hence the speculative stretching of the metaphor.

      There’s also the awkward Pepe/Kek sigil business…but then again, it would be like an ur-Trickster god to hack the system in such an elegant way.

  2. A really great post, one that untangled a lot of my own musings on the matter. Image magic is powerful, and we ignore it at our peril. A lot of newer psychology mass market books on the power of habit are starting to really drill in on the power of visual cues, so I’ve been really pondering how to blend that in with more magic. You’ve given me some ideas, thanks!

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