Magic: chops

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Owl chop

I recently read Benebell Wen’s brilliant book The Tao of Craft after hearing her on Gordon’s show.

One of the things that really caught my attention in the book was the idea that a Fu sigil or talisman should really be signed and sealed — that is, in the same way that a decree from the emperor would be signed and sealed, a Fu sigil carries the authority and mark of the creator. I explained this idea to my partner, who thought it was equally interesting. And so I decided to make a chop — a seal stick — for her, in part as practice for making my own. Which is part of the reason I made that captive ball a few days ago: I want to get better at wood carving, because it’s a useful skill to pair with woodworking generally, and because it will be a nice fit with the automata work I intend to do when the woodworking shop is up and functional again.

My partner frequently uses an owl as her emblem, so I went online and searched for how to carve an owl. This isn’t the one that I used, but it’s close enough — a series of photos of an owl carving.  I used basswood, because I don’t carve jade or soapstone (slightly different and sharper tools, more patience and care required); and I had the tools for this already. It’s a fairly simple procedure to carve an owl. It was also fairly simple to reverse and cut the runic-style emblem my partner uses for her magical sign, into the base of the chop. Except, I still screwed it up — and I’m going to have plane the bottom of her chop flat, and then cut it again.  I don’t have the tools out to do that yet, butI can certainly do something else while I wait to make that set of tools available.

img_3232From there, it was fairly simple to find a procedure for carving a bear. His advice about frequent sharpening is good — I sharpened my cutting tools about six times in the course of carving the bear, and I still wound up using too much force and chipping his right arm off.   I chose to do a statue against a pillar for my bear, because I want to have a place to practice chip carving, on the back of his pedestal; I already completed the small chip-carvings around the base, and I cut my own version of an emblem into the bottom of this seal.  I still think this won’t be my final seal, for me — the missing arm is a bummer.

So here we have an object that shares kinship with a magical-scribal-calligraphic tool from Chinese Taoist magic: a seal. But it’s carved in a Western style, with a Western character sign that indicates a person. And it could be used in western magic to do the same thing it does in Taoist magic: sign and authenticate and command the results in the name of the practitioner.

Is it cultural appropriation — Or cultural inspiration— to draw on the techniques and tools of other traditions to add to and build to the existing Western tradition? Ironically, I think this is part of the reason why I broke my bear at the last possible moment… because the character on the base of my chop is one I chose for myself from Chinese characters a decade or more ago.  But it’s not my emblem to use, nor my tradition. And so, this one is broken, and I’ll have to make it again.

But I still think it showcases what’s possible, what’s within the realm of workability.  The folk tradition of carving already exists in the West; the tradition of ‘enlivening’ statues and statuettes has been part of Western magic since Egypt; the idea of a personal seal to accompany a signature has fallen out of favor in the last two hundred years, but there are still signet rings in the Middle Ages, the Renaissance and early Enlightenment periods… and we have evidence of signets or seals all the way back into Babylon and Sumer, at least.

Maybe it’s time to re-awaken the idea of a personal seal.

31DoM:Use a Seal


For the 31 Days of Magic today, I’m supposed to use a sigil (e.g, of Solomon).  For me, this tends to mean the images from, say, the Clavicula Solomonis.  But I also think about it from the perspective of the images of the Decans of the Zodiac, or the Mansions of the Moon, from Picatrix.

Twenty-Fourth mansion of the Moon

after Nigel Jackson and Christopher Warnock’s book

I’d already done some work with the 24th Mansion of the Moon, as you can see.  The 24th Mansion represents a new beginning, as shown by a mother giving milk to her child.  It represents new starts, beginning new work, and represents a kind of balance or energetic equilibrium between Mercury (flitting here and there) and Saturn (establish boundaries).

This one is in a book, so I’m reluctant to mess with bit much; it’s already been ‘activated’, but tonight I made use of it in new ways.

31DoM: sealI also went back to the Clavicula Solomonis.  I don’t want to reveal which of the pentacles I intended to create; I’ll say that my goal was to achieve some greater level of insight into my students and colleagues.  But that isn’t the one I made. At some point, I hit the scroll button, up or down, and the seal changed; or maybe I flipped a page that shouldn’t have been flipped.   I read the wrong instructions, and produced the wrong seal.  So I think it will be interesting to see what results from this.  The seal I actually created is supposedly for helping make spirits visible when they try to be invisible.  And so I wonder what the result will be, especially since it’s in my notebook that serves as my bullet journal, my vademecum or grimoire, and project notebook.

From an artistic point of view, I think about the value of the work of reproducing seals. It’s a chance to think about letters as shapes, certainly; and to think about scaling.  It’s a chance to think about geometry and imagery.  It’s a chance to consider symmetry and beauty and ugliness.  And it’s a chance to think about color and design.

But it’s also a chance to reflect on actual magic.  I mean, from the perspective of the ‘outsider’ it’s hard to see this emblem as anything other than occult.  It’s mysterious (especially since my ability to write or draw in Hebrew is severely challenged, especially when I’m reading not-particularly-well-reproduced drawings by a Victorian occultist reproducing the work of a medieval author who probably didn’t really know Hebrew).  Of all the activities I’m planning to do during these 31 days of magic, this is the image which has the most potential to get me into serious trouble.

But think about that — if we live in a physical, materialist universe, then this is just an act of historical reproduction.  It has no power to affect any thing or any one. There are no spirits that are invisible, which can be conjured to visible sight; and at the same time, there is no conjuration which will actually conjure spirits at all.  The act of reproducing such a seal is a futile action in a physical, materialist universe, except maybe to display a kind of madness.  But if that’s the case, then saying this is an example of historical reconstruction is an utterly harmless if eccentric pastime; and there’s no reason to get in trouble for making it at all.

And if it’s not the case that we live in a physical, purely materialist universe, then I have some interesting times ahead.  New beginnings indeed.