Humanity is surrounded by symbols. Some even say the ability to think symbolically is one of the most important things that separate us from animals and make us truly human. We are equipped with the ability to simplify complicated subjects into single words, gestures and images. Many symbols even have a strong emotional value for us, the flag of our country, for example.
Many psychologists have been very interested in symbols. The subject is so wide I feel I’ve barely got started myself, but as a human being I still have experience of symbols in my own life. I write a lot and pay much attention to how different words, although synonyms, raise different feelings in people than the other. According to colour psychology, different colours affect our moods in different ways: yellow is the colour of joy, blue of calmness and so on. Traffic signs quickly convey ideas of danger, order and command. Symbols are small bundles of feelings and ideas.
The makers of Chaos Magic worked out a way to avoid the troublesome work of creating a full symbolic system. Chaos Magic relies on sigils created with very simple graphical rules. When created, the sigil is charged with the intent of the magician and then consciously forgotten. However, historically sigils have been graphic symbols for spirit entities (often demons) used for invocation. While many grimoires contain long lists of magical symbols, the uses of these are generally limited to their original context. Practically these are too outdated to be of much interest to modern practitioners, although their study can well serve as the inspiration for a personal system instead.
As a magician I often work with concepts that are very hard to put into words. This is a very common problem within magick. Many beginners wonder about the large variety of nearly unintelligible symbolic systems like the Tarot or the Kabbalah. Systems like these are so fully packed with ideas it takes a long time for a student to start unravelling the wisdom behind them. However when a symbolic system has became familiar to a person, he or she can benefit from it even outside the context it was originally developed for. Truly versatile systems like the Tarot keep intriguing millions because of their ability to express every aspect of life. A person may pick a card with personal significance to them and meditate on the meaning of that card. The picture will thus stay in their mind for a long time and will help them to focus on those themes in their life.
In hypnosis, symbols can be used to either give emotions a physical form that makes it easier to approach them. The hypnotist may attach suggestions to words, gestures or images in order to anchor them more strongly into the mind of the patient. The same method can be used by magicians to explore their minds – or affect the minds of others. Very often people will notice their mind already contains a symbol language unique to that person. Some of the symbols may scare someone only beginning to explore their own psyche, which is why knowing one or many existing symbol languages may make it easier to approach and understand oneself.
It’s important for a magician to truly understand the symbols he or she is using. If the acceptance of a symbol is superficial outside ideas have a power to change them – if the symbol works at all. Every symbol within the system needs work from the magician to truly became his or her own. Take the much used pentagram, for example. There are many varying ideas on what the pentagram means and how it should be used. Knowing the original historical meaning of the pentagram will make the association stronger in the mind and make it less vulnerable to outside ideas.
Often it takes a long time to become truly familiar with a new symbol. Any doubt or uncertainty may ruin the experience of connection, which makes it hard to actually use the symbol in a magical setting. Personally I need weeks, even months of study before I even attempt to incorporate a symbol in my work. Others on the other hand arise naturally during trance states. Even these still however need a familiarizing period to be used outside its original context.
For beginners, a very common starting point to understand symbolism within magick is candle magic. Especially Wicca has a long tradition in the use of different candles for signifying different things. There are lots of sources such as web pages introducing their symbolic values to colours, such as cleanness for white and sorrow for black. These are by no means set in stone and I want to encourage anyone trying these to find out meanings with a personal significance for themselves, not someone else.
Also gemstones are popular tools for colour magic. There are some generally accepted ideas of what crystals mean, with some traditions going all the way back to Antiquity. Did you know that the word amethyst comes from the Greek word amethystos, which means “not drunken”? Think about that next time you walk past a gem shop! Perhaps wearing an amethyst will protect you from having a hangover on Saturday mornings.
Carl Jung: Man and His Symbols
One of the classics within psychology discussing symbolism.
Peter Carroll: Liber Null & Psychonaut
Two of the foundation books of Chaos Magic in one bundle, discussing not only sigils but also Chaos Magic in general.
The Lesser Key of Solomon
A 14th to 17th century grimoire explaining how to control demons. For those interested in historical studies. See also: Wikipedia.
An excerpt from the 1999 Book of Shadows discussing candle magic.
A list of the generally accepted interpretations of crystal powers.