Understanding & Creating Sigils
by Simon Jester
` Recently, I've been asked a number of questions about the fascinating subject of sigils. Specifically, what are sigils? How are they made? To what use may sigils be put? The following brief entry is written in response to such questions.
A sigil is a kind of translation from one mode of expression into another. Typically, a linguistic entity such as a name or a statement is converted from the linear conceptual level and transformed into a visual symbol or metaphor. Of course, in a manner of speaking, all writing whatsoever consists of sigils because it employs symbols (i.e. letters and words) arranged according to certain rules in order to produce a visual grouping that conveys a specific idea. When I write the letters "R-A-T" I create a visual pattern that immediately calls to mind a specific kind of rodent. You are probably imagining one of these remarkable creatures yourself right now simply because you have just read the word "rat." One could say that the visual grouping "rat" is like a sigil. But the kinds of sigils used in magic take the processes used in fashioning and using everyday words and sentences several steps further. Magical sigils go beyond the normal laws of grammar and syntax by applying different rules of arrangement that add a much deeper level of complexity and metaphysical meaning to the visual symbols that those rules generate.
In order to understand what sigils really are, you have to first understand some assumptions that magicians and esotericists make about language and reality. In the universe of the magician (as in the universe of the scientist, the detective, and the medical doctor!) all things are more than they appear to be on the surface. Everything has hidden, occult aspects and relationships which normal consciousness misses or chooses to ignore. Jean Paul Sartre, the existentialist philosopher, acknowledged this when he described things as being "transphenomenal"—i.e., as having aspects that transcend whatever a person happens to perceive of them in any given moment of awareness. Magicians believe that the limited surface reality contains clues about the nature of the hidden reality that it typically obscures. For example, the hot, burning sensation you get when you taste cayenne pepper reveals an unsuspected affinity between this spice and the fiery red planet Mars, with all its war-like associations and hosts of deities and other mythological beings—an affinity that is far from apparent to the average shopper selecting this item from the spice rack at the grocery store.
Magicians apply this same kind of thinking to language, which in many cultures is viewed as being sacred in nature. This is especially the case (at least within the Qabalistic tradition) with the Hebrew language, which is believed to embody the very essence of the things that it linguistically represents. Consequently, the name of something in Hebrew contains more than just its surface structure of grammatical significance. There are many layers of hidden meanings in such words and names, sort of a "depth structure" like the linguist Noam Chomsky wrote about, only one that is given a mystical rather than a purely conceptual interpretation. And magicians have developed many different techniques to uncover the mystical "depth structure" concealed within language. Making sigils is one of them.
When a magician creates a sigil, he or she takes a word, a name, or even a sentence or group of sentences, and processes this linguistic data through a conversion system designed to help expose the hidden, magical "depth structure." What results is a visual design that may look very artistic but which differs from purely decorative or aesthetic creations because it has been generated according to the strict rules established by a preselected conversion system. Although they may look like insignificant decorative doodles to the uninitiated, sigils are actually occult schematics that reveal the essential structure of an entity or an idea. They are the magician's equivalent of the complex molecular diagrams used by chemists to help understand the underlying chemical properties of substances.
The magical belief motivating the creation of sigils is that they more perfectly express the hidden, magical essence of things. Unlike normally used everyday names or words (which are designed to facilitate the practical communications needs of the material world) sigils more clearly reveal the spiritual nature of the things to which they refer. They embody more of their occult reality, and thus, through meditation upon sigils (or through using them as talismans or divinatory tools), one can more intimately communicate and interact with the spiritual realities they represent.
The term "conversion systems" used above simply refers to all the methods used by magicians to create sigils. We use many kinds of conversion systems all the time, whenever we translate data that we encounter into a visual form that facilitates our ability to explain or communicate about the features of that data that seem most important to our immediate purposes. Drawing a map for friends that shows the route to your home provides a good example of a very common use of a conversion system. You take all the geographical and directional data involved in the task of getting from point "A" to point "B" and boil it down until only the most basic and relevant features remain. Then you apply the rules and conventions of the conversion system used in map making and draw a series of lines and symbols that indicate the roads that need to be taken and the important landmarks that will be encountered along the way.
In magic, there are many different conversion systems used to create sigils. The system originated by Austin Osman Spare and elaborated by contemporary Chaos magicians is explained in numerous places online. In this system, the magician writes a sentence that clearly, emphatically, and succinctly expresses his or her intent, for example: "I will stop smoking." Then this sentence is "processed" through the conversion system used by Chaos magicians. They eliminate all the repeated letters used in the sentence until only a series of non-repeating letters remains, and end up with the following converted datum: "I-W-L-S-T-O-P-M-K-N-G." This may be further converted or condensed by eliminating all letters which repeat the single vertical pen stroke employed in writing the letter "I" in order to get just the letters "I-W-S-O-G." According to the Chaos magician, IWSOG embodies the magical essence of the will to stop smoking, and these letters may further be fashioned into a kind of monogram or visual design that functions as a talisman that will help to magically facilitate the goal of freeing oneself from enslavement to the demon of the tobacco weed.
The creators and compilers of the medieval grimoires adopted highly specialized and complex Qabalistic techniques for the creation of sigils. Since Hebrew letters do double duty as numbers, the names, words, and sentences formed with them may be converted into numerical equivalents by a conversion method known as Gematria. The results of such gematriac conversions were organized into patterns, usually squares divided into a specific number of spaces into which the numbers were placed according to some additional system of ordering. In the case of the specialized squares called Qameas, the letters/numbers are arranged in such a manner that each row totals the same number or adds up to a series of mystically significant numbers. Then lines are drawn from space to space connecting the letters or numbers of a certain name or word and thereby forming a pattern of lines that functions as the sigil. The grimoires provide numerous examples of sigils for various planetary angels, intelligences, and spirits that were generated in this fashion.
Initiates of the Golden Dawn make sigils by using a conversion method known as the "Rose of 22 Petals." This is a circular device, ultimately inspired by an ancient Qabalistic categorization, first appearing in the Sepher Yetzirah, that divides the letters of the Hebrew alphabet into three groups: 3 Mother Letters (for the elements Air, Water, and Fire), 7 Double Letters (for the seven major celestial bodies known to the ancients and 12 Single Letters (corresponding to the 12 Signs of the Zodiac.) These groups of letters are arranged in three concentric circles and sigils are traced by drawing lines to connect the various letters. The Rose of 22 Petals may be seen at the center of the Golden Dawn Cross, and there is a website called "The Rose Cross Sigil Creator" which you may access and consult in order to learn more about this particular conversion system.
The descriptions given here of the ways sigils are created are intentionally brief because other people's ways of making sigils will only enable you to make sigils the way other people do. Yes—this is a good way to learn the process, and you can, if you desire, go online and learn any or all of the three techniques mentioned above. And the sigils that you generate with these methods will, of course, give you important insights into different aspects of reality, just like the molecular diagram of the medicine you take will give you a specialized kind of insight into the hidden structure of the pills in the bottle you keep in the medicine cabinet. But the end result of the processes described above—the finished sigils themselves—are only a part of what's really important about sigils. The most important benefit to be derived from these highly stylized designs is actually concealed in the process of creating them, of figuring out your own method of generating sigils and then applying it by selecting letters or numbers according to the rules of that method, and designing a matrix into which they may be fit and on which the sigils themselves may be drawn. This is your way of designing your own tailor made method for discovering the hidden spiritual essence of things and for communicating more efficiently with that occult level of reality.
When you advance to the point of designing your own conversion system and begin using it to make sigils unique to your own personal intuitions about occult realities and spiritual truths, then you are participating in the very same process of emanation symbolized by the Four Worlds on the Tree of Life. Your desire to create sigils and your will to do so manifests at the level of Atziluth. The search for and discovery of a conversion method and a suitable matrix (whether it be a square, a circle, or some other figure) takes place at the level of Briah. The selection of specific names, words, letters and/or numbers and your arrangement of them into the matrix occurs in the realm of Yetzirah. The actual tracing or drawing of the sigils onto the matrix, or their final formation into a pattern of letters, brings them to birth in Assiah. By making your own sigils in this more completely creative manner, you will gain deep insights into the process of emanation itself.
Think of sigils as being like crystal formations that reveal the hidden magical depth structure of things. They begin with the abstract Desire and Will that such crystallizations should come into being, descend through a stage in which names, letters and numbers are condensed and concentrated into a super saturated solution, and then become exposed to a matrix that acts like a catalyzing seed crystal which initiates their material formation. The process of their creation actually involves a powerful alchemical transformation that I highly encourage you to attempt.