Clarifications on Terms for Symbols

It’s a bit of a pet peeve of mine when people badly use terms in an occult context.  To be fair, different traditions may use certain terms in particular ways that are specific to that particular tradition, which may or may not differ from normal use.  Other groups treat some terms completely interchangeably when, strictly speaking, the terms signify different things.  Generally, however, there’s not much rigor in how people use specific terms, and end up misusing them (through their own ignorance and confusion) or abusing them (to intentionally mislead or annoy others).  I’d like to clear up a few things and offer some of my definitions for particular terms used in an occult context, this time focusing specifically on terms used for different types of symbols.

For any of these terms, “symbol” is the highest-level term I can think of for any of these following terms.   If you’re not sure what kind of symbol a particular thing is, just say “symbol”.  Everyone understands that.  Not everyone understands what a particular person means by “sigil” or “rune”, however.  Granted, these words are given with my personal definitions, and again, may not be those used by other traditions.  However, for the sake of having a regular inventory of words with specific, unambiguous meanings, here’s how I use these particular things.

Glyphs are symbols used to indicate a basic thought or sound.  In other words, a glyph is much like a written-down word.  Individual letters communicate sounds; individual numerals communicate numbers; individual Chinese characters communicate sounds or concepts or words; the glyphs for the planets, zodiac signs, elements, and alchemical concepts communicate those things and only those things.  Glyphs are essentially a generalized notion of a letter in an alphabet; they are characters in a writing system that includes letters, numbers, punctuation,  labels, and so forth.  Glyphs may or may not be used in an occult context; for instance, these words you’re reading right now are composed of glyphs (letters and punctuation of the English alphabet), but so is an astrological chart (the symbols used to denote the planets and Zodiac signs) or a computer science textbook (punctuation and numerals and diagrams to indicate logical connections or mathematical operations).  Glyphs may be used one at a time (using the symbol for the Sun) or in combination with other glyphs (multiple letters to spell out a name).

Seals are symbols that are invented as a complete unit or are received from a spirit.  Seals cannot be decomposed into more basic things, but are a whole unto themselves.  They are symbols that are not generated according to a particular rule or composed according to sacred geometry.  They are simply abstract symbols that refer to something.  Importantly, especially in my own work, seals are “revealed” or given unto someone by a spirit or person to refer to themselves; seals are an abstract “body” to give an idea a graphical or visual form.  Consider the symbols used to refer to spirits in the Lemegeton Goetia; these are not composed of more base units or other symbols, but are whole things unto themselves.  These are seals, and often have no origin besides “this is what I was shown to use and has no rhyme or reason beyond that”.  Seals are to constructed diagrams what barbarous words of power are to words in the dictionary; they may not have any communicable meaning that us humans can understand, but they work.

Sigils are symbols that are constructed according to a particular algorithm.  Think of the standard way of creating a letter-based sigil according to Agrippa (book III, chapter 30) or as used in modern chaos magic, or like with my own shorthand system.  Alternatively, consider the sigils used for the planets with their planetary intelligences and spirits from Agrippa (book II, chapter 22), which are lines drawn over the qameas of particular planets and playing connect-the-dots with the gematria values of individual letters of a name or word.  Sigils are symbols created according to a defined set of rules (combine these letters, connect these numbers on this qamea, etc.).  They are not always artistically made, although the algorithms used to generate a sigil may have some leeway for style and innovation.  A painting may incorporate sigils, but a sigil is not made of pictures; a sigil is a geometric, abstract form composed or generated from glyphs.

Runes are letters of the writing systems used for Germanic languages prior to the introduction of the Roman script.  In other words, runes are no more than letters of a particularly old style of European alphabet.  These can be classified, generally speaking, into two families: the Scandinavian futhark (both Elder and Younger, together used between the 2nd and 11th centuries) and the Anglo-Saxon futhorc.  There were medieval runes used in some astrological contexts, but generally runes stayed out of Hermetic and Western ceremonial stuff.  However, a particular alphabet known as Darlecarlian runes was in use until the 20th century in a small province in Sweden, but this was certainly the exception to the historical abandonment of runic writing.  There are other systems of writing and symbols that are runiform, such as Old Turkic and Old Hungarian, but these bear only a superficial resemblance to Germanic runes, and are not technically runes on their own as they belong to a different writing system, culture, and geographic area.

Pentagrams are five-pointed stars.  That’s it.  Nothing more than that.  You can only really draw a pentagram one way, regardless of orientation.

Hexagrams are six-pointed stars . Again, nothing special here, but there’s a bit more complexity.  The Star of David is nothing more than a hexagram composed of two overlapping equilateral triangles, which is what’s usually meant by “hexagram”.  The unicursal hexagram is another type, though it’s not original to Crowley by any means; the mathematician Blaise Pascal depicts it in one of his works from 1639.  The “elemental hexagrams” shown in the Key of Solomon (book I, chapter 3) are not, strictly speaking, hexagrams (with the exception of one); they are configurations of two triangles each that do not, necessary, combine to form a proper hexagon.

Pentacles are not stars.  They are not necessarily pentagrams, nor are they necessarily hexagrams.  Pentacles are more of a system of symbols that work together in unison for a particular goal; they are something usually, but not always, more elaborate than a sigil and are not necessarily combined in an algorithmic way.  Consider the pentacles from the Key of Solomon (book I, chapter 18), or the Elemental Weapon of the Earth as used in the Golden Dawn, or the protective lamen with the pentagram and extra symbols used in the Lemegeton Goetia, or that used in the Heptameron of Pietro d’Abano.  Pentacles are, essentially, the physical version of a graphic design composed of one or more symbols, often including letters and names, and arranged in a method more akin to sacred geometry than algorithmic combining or tracing.  Pentacles are tangible objects, things you can hold and touch and wear.  All pentacles are talismans, although not all talismans are pentacles.  For instance, a talisman engraved in a circular stone may have the design of a fish surrounded by Hebrew words can be considered a pentacle, but a talisman of a stone fish with words engraved on it is not a pentacle.  Pentacles are generally round, flat objects such as a circular piece of paper or a metal disc that have a design engraved, painted, drawn, or otherwise inscribed upon it as a graphic design of a system of symbols.  Pentacles are not oddly-shaped things like carved statues or rings or wands, despite its talismanic properties or designs on them.  Although the words “pentacle” and “pentagram” are related and were originally used interchangeably, the word “pentacle” started to be used for any magical talisman in the form of a pentagram or hexagram starting in medieval French.  An alternate etymology combines this with an older French word for pendant, pentacol or pendacol, or something worn around the neck.  Indeed, most pentacles are typically worn around the neck as lamens, which is probably the most correct use of this word in my opinion, but can easily be expanded to other (typically circular and flat) objects with a system of magical symbols inscribed upon it.

Tetragrammaton (more properly the Tetragrammaton) is another word for the four-letter name of God, Yod-Heh-Vav-Heh or Yahweh or Jehovah or whatnot.  The word is Greek and literally means “the thing of four letters”.  It is a title to refer to the sacred name of God, akin to the Hebrew haShem “the Name”, but is often used in Hermetic and Solomonic work as itself as a sacred name of God.  However, this is nothing more than a word composed of individual letters; the word “Tetragrammaton” does not refer to any pentacle or other occult design.

A Circle of Art

Almost every magician likes circles.  It’s not really our fault; they’ve been used since before written records of magic for protection, isolation, containment, or just simply marking a boundary of working space in a magic ritual.  They’re important, of course, but sometimes magicians can go overboard with them (see the Clavicula Solomonis, Trithemius rite, Munich Manual, or the Heptameron).  It’s even gotten to the point where there are whole networks of artists in the video game, anime, DeviantArt or other communities who specialize in elaborate and intricately detailed magic circles.  They are pretty cool-looking, admittedly, but we have to keep in mind that the circle is still a tool used for protection and containment of a consecrated space.

For all the hype, magic circles don’t need to be that complex.  A simple ring around yourself, drawn in the dirt or carpet or sprinkled around with salt, will suffice for most intents and purposes.  PGM or classical styles of Hermetic magic may use a few voces magicae (Ablanathanalba, Sesengenbarpharanges, Lerthexanax, etc.) and maybe a cross in the center.  Wiccans might use a ring of candles, pinecones, or rope.  Goetic magicians, especially those of the Lemegeton persuasion, might go full-out with the complete Solomonic circle.  The effect could be stronger to include all those geometric designs and names of God, but the effect is the same at its core.  Such a complex circle, though, might be preferred for permanent working spaces or for carpets/rugs/platforms that can be transported from place to place.

Well, I want a circle of my own.  I don’t have the space for a full 9′ Solomonic circle, and I keep getting images from dreams or my astral temple of something simpler, anyway.  After some doodling, thinking, and research, and struggling to keep this a clean design, I’ve come up with the following Circle of Art.

The construction of the circle is as follows: make two circles, one in the other.  In the ring between the circles, write the godnames Agla towards the east, Adonai towards the south, Eheieh towards the west, and Eloah towards the north.  These names of God represent the four elements in their quarters according to Agrippa, and I got them from Frater Osiris’ New Banishing Ritual of the Pentagram, a revised version of the Lesser Banishing Ritual of the Pentagram that updates or cleans up some of the possible inconsistencies in its format (though I kept the older Agrippa-style elemental and directional attributions that I use for my altar and other work).

  • Agla (אגלא), a contraction of Ateh Gibor Le-Olam Amen, is associated with Fire through the word Gibor, part of the godname of Mars and Geburah, Elohim Gibor.
  • Adonai (אדני) is associated with the Earth through the godname of Malkuth, Adonai ha-Aretz.
  • Eheieh (אהיה) is associated with Air since it is entirely breathed out without any hard or soft consonants, and also since it is associated with pure spirit through connection with the sephirah Kether.
  • Eloah (אלוה) is associated with Water by its first two letters El (אל) which is the godname of Jupiter and Chesed which, although airy, is made passive by its last two letters of the word which it shares with the passive letters of the Tetragrammaton.

In this scheme, all the names of God on the outer circle have four letters and begin with the letter aleph (א), showing a harmony between them that links all the elements and directions together in a kind of spacial and spiritual unity.  It helps to omit the use of the Tetragrammaton here, especially since use of the Tetragrammaton should (but hardly ever is) be used sparingly (never, as my orthodox Jewish brother would say), and since the Tetragrammaton already comprises all four elements.  Plus, these godnames link up to the four sephiroth used in the Qabbalistic Cross, lending both an elemental/microcosmic and planetary/macrocosmic power to this part of the circle design.  Major major props to Fr. Osiris for being so ingenious with this.

On the inside of the circle, there’s a diamond for the magician to stand, with a cross inside with a letter of the Tetragrammaton on each end of the cross.  The corners of the diamond, the cross, and letters of the Tetragrammaton are aligned towards their proper directions and elements (yod for east and Fire, one Heh for south and Earth, the vav for west and Air, and the other Heh for north and Water).  The inner ring can be considered the boundaries of the celestial world, and the diamond the boundaries of the terrestrial world.  Outside the diamond and aligned with each of the four directions are four hexagrams, which are known to have a protective or banishing quality against harmful energies.  However, unlike the Solomonic style of hexagrams that have the letters of the word ADONAI written around it and the Greek Tau cross in the middle, I came up with my own design, a figure I call the Star of Azoth.

The Star of Azoth is a hexagram or Star of David with the letters composing the word “Azoth” in it.  This is a very powerful word, coming from alchemy to refer to the essential spirit of all things, the supreme reason, and the action that determines all things in all realms.  Further, it can be formed from four letters of the three big scripts used in Western occultism:

  • A from aleph (א), alpha, or ay, the first letter of all Phoenician-derived scripts
  • Z from zed, the last letter of the Roman script
  • O from omega (Ω), the last letter of the Greek script
  • Th from tav (ת), the last letter of the Hebrew script

In this way, you have the beginning of everything and the end of all things combined into a single unit Azoth (אZΩת).  It’s got a similar meaning, in this way, to the phrase “[EGO] ALPHA ET OMEGA”, but that phrase really bothers me.  I mean, the names of Greek letters spelled out in Latin?  Really?  How gauche.  Besides, I’ve used the same word on my fancy magical cane before, and I rather like this construction over the Alpha et Omega construction.

Anyway, the Star of Azoth combines the letters of the word in a hexagram, using aleph as the center of the star and the other letters outside, with each triangle holding the other three letters.  The same letter shares the same axis, giving the star rotational symmetry.  Using the hexagram as an image of the seven planets, as in the following image,

we can associate planets that share the same progression of Z-Ω-ת, the same letter, or the same triangle:

  • Saturn, Mars, and Mercury share one progression of letters, starting at the top Z and going counterclockwise. These planets are all on the Pillar of Severity on the Qabbalah, and all show cold, logical, or harsh qualities.
  • The Moon, Venus, and Jupiter share the other progression, starting counterclockwise from the bottom Z.  Jupiter and Venus are both on the Pillar of Mercy, though the Moon is on the Pillar of Balance.  However, these planets all share generative, kind, and generous qualities.
  • Saturn, Mercury, and Venus share the upwards-pointing triangle, indicating the ascent to the Almighty through the cosmic boundaries (Saturn) through the use of magic and spirituality (Mercury and Venus).
  • Mars, Jupiter, and the Moon share the downwards-pointing triangle, indicating the descent of spirit into the physical world, with Jupiter and Mars determining the quality and quantity of spirit allowed and the Moon giving birth into the physical world as the lowest part of the heavens.
  • Moon and Saturn share the letter Z, which reveals their natures showing boundaries (Saturn as the boundary between the celestial and the divine, the Moon as the boundary between the celestial and the terrestrial) as well as their feminine and generative nature (Saturn being associated with Binah, the black Mother and God as Female, and the Moon representing the fertility of mother goddesses and generation through the feminine cycles).
  • Mars and Venus share the letter Ω, and these too are associated with being the masculine and feminine poles of energies and forces.  They both represent kinds of nonlogical drives, that of force and action by Mars and that of emotion and reaction by Venus.
  • Jupiter and Mercury share the letter ת, and it’s been shown through Qabbalistic texts that Mercury and Jupiter, or Hod and Chesed, share a connection of their glory, which both sephirah names can translate to.  Both are related to education and nobility, for one, and both rely on each other as a forest on its trees and trees on its forest.  As the smallest and largest planets in the solar system, these share a kind of size extremity on opposite ends.
  • In the center of the hexagram, we have the Sun associated with aleph.  Aleph and alpha, in terms of gematria, both have the numerical value of unity, representing the Almighty, which has its representative in the solar system as the Sun.  In addition, in terms of the Qabbalah, the sephirah Tiphareth is known as the Lesser Countenance of God, revealed to the world as the Son by whom all things can be done.  You can’t exactly do much without eating a good meal, grown by the light of the sun, now, can you?

Putting it all together, we come up with this magic circle which combines representations of the elements (through the Tetragrammaton and the four four-letter names of God on the outer ring) and the planets (through the use of the hexagram figure and the Star of Azoth in the inner ring).  With the magician standing in the center of it all, we complete the circle in a third dimension and add one final part to the whole setup, the operative force or the quintessence that binds the entire cosmos together, the magician himself.  This looks promising as a circle design, and I hope soon enough to get a big enough piece of canvas to roll out, paint on, and use in my own work.