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.

Greek Sigil Wheel

Based on comments from the last post by Satyr Magos, I got the idea to make a sigil wheel, much like the Rose Cross Sigil Wheel.  The idea is simple: have several rings of letters (Hebrew, in the case of the Rose Cross Sigil Wheel), and draw lines between successive letters to make a sigil.  There are different rules behind this, such as making loops or crests for doubled letters and starting off with a dot and ending with a line, but the idea is fairly straightforward.

Based on the division of Greek letters into elements, planets, and signs by means of stoicheia, Satyr Magos was looking for “a Greek-alphabet sigil map (akin to the Rose Cross in theory, but based on its own internal logic)”.  I decided to go ahead and try my hand at one possible arrangement of a sigil wheel, which resulted in the following.

The innermost wheel containing the letters psi, ksi, khi, theta, and phi correspond to the five elements of Aether, Water, Fire, Earth, and Air; the order comes from the standard elemental attribution of the elements to the pentagram.  The middle wheel containing the letters iota, omicron, upsilon, omega, alpha, epsilon, and eta correspond to the seven planets.  They’re in the same order as the normal planetary heptagram, but with the Sun aligned towards the top (here represented by iota), and the heptagram formed between them drawn counterclockwise yielding the order of the weekdays.  The outermost ring containing the rest of the consonants of Greek correspond to the twelve signs of the zodiac, starting with Aries (beta) at the top and going counterclockwise, as is seen on horoscopes.

Seen from a cosmological viewpoint, the outermost wheel represents an idea coming from outside and through the sphere of the fixed stars, or Kether and Chokmah; the middle wheel represents the seven planetary spheres, or Binah through Yesod, and the innermost wheel represents the Earth and Malkuth with its four elements plus Aether.  Aries, the Sun, and Aether are all aligned since the Sun has its exaltation in Aries, and Aries is the beginning and entrance of new spirit into the universe, and the Sun is the representation of the Spirit and Logos in manifestation.  I claim it makes sense as one way to order such a sigil wheel.

That’s enough explanation of the construction.  Onto the rules for using the Greek sigil wheel!  The rules are to start drawing a (potentially) crisscrossed line, with each corner of the line touching a different letter.  The resulting angular figure is the sigil of that particular word or name.  The initial point of the sigil is marked with a dot, and the final point is marked with a line.  If a certain letter is repeated, you make a little notch or niche at that particular letter; if a straight line crosses through a letter on the way to another one, the line has a little loop or bump on that letter.

Confused?  Don’t be.  Let’s try an example with my name first written in Greek (ΠΟΛΥΦΑΝΗΣ).  On the left we have the Sigil Wheel with the path of the sigil drawn out, starting at pi on the outermost ring with a large red dot, going to omicron, then lambda, and so on.  On the right, we have the sigil itself for my name.

Let’s try another.  Say you want to channel the forces of Mars into something using this format of sigil.  In Qabbalistic terms, you’d want the forces of Geburah, which in Greek is translated ΔΥΝΑΜΙΣ, or “Power”.  You’d create the following sigil and emblazon it on whatever you’d want to be made all Martian-y.  Notice how we’re crossing over psi completely, since it’s not included in the word at all.  If it were (viz. ΔΥΝΑΜΨΙΣ) then we’d make a loop over that letter to mark that we’re not just ignoring it.

Say you want a sigil of the word for angel in Greek, which is written as ΑΓΓΕΛΟΣ (Greek uses a double gamma to represent the “ng” sound, because the Hellenes hate you and your orthographic good sense).  In that case, we make a loop or a notch at gamma when we do this sigil.  Otherwise, it’s pretty straightforward.

Ready for a real fun one?  The Greek Magical Papyri are filled with holy names, barbarous words of invocation, and other voces magicae that don’t often have recognizable meanings.  Plus, a good number of these words are palindromes, meaning they’re written the same front to back or back to front, which was supposed to lend them a more magical or forceful quality.  In that case, we wouldn’t have distinct start or end marks on our sigil.  Take the case of one of the most famous such words Ablanathanalba (ΑΒΛΑΝΑΘΑΝΑΛΒΑ), for instance.  Here, we have interconnected loops of letters that act almost like a spirograph, looping back on itself endlessly.  (Now’s the time to be confused, by the way, if you want to be.)

 As an alternative to the Rose Cross Sigil Wheel, this Greek Sigil Wheel might actually stand a chance.  It’s entirely new, as far as I know, and could probably stand to go through a few refinements and tweaks.  May as well give it a try, though, until then.  For people who operate in a more Hellenic or pagan Hermetic method, as opposed to the Judeo-Christian field, this could be a very useful tool for their Work.