Sunday, November 3, 2019
The Difference Between a Sigil and an Image
It may seem like a strange question, as they are clearly different things, but what is the difference between a sigil and an image? As a contemporary magician who is deeply invested in the Picatrix and how it fits within the greater philosophies of modern occultism, this distinction is an important one. I have a few thoughts on the matter and a few unresolved questions as well.
First off, let's define each of these concepts.
A sigil is generally considered to be a symbol, a graphic representation of an idea or an identity. Probably the most well know sigils are the symbols of the astrological sign. But sigils are everywhere in contemporary culture. The grimoires are full of sigils representing all manner of spirits, of the planets, of angels, and of demons. Many logos of corporations would also qualify as a sigil. Indeed almost all letters and written words in various alphabets, singly or in artistic combinations, can be sigils. They can be simple, like the symbols of the astrological signs, or incredibly complex, like mandalas composed of Arabic calligraphy. To me, the defining characteristic of a sigil is its design being rooted in the magic of writing. The sigil making process of A.O. Spare is a perfect crystallization of this idea. A common phrase of intent is reduced to a single symbol that still retains some of the features of the shapes of the Roman alphabet. A sigil is almost no different from an ideogram. It is only the application of magical intent that separates them.
An image, on the other hand, is much more abstract. An image is a scene, like a picture, or an object, like a sculpture. Any inclusion of symbols, letters, or words are secondary to the greater depiction of the image. Religious icons and tarot cards are probably the most well known types of image magic. But images too can have a range of complexity; from stick figure like representations on the cave walls at Lascaux to a series of comic books by Grant Morrison. Artists use image magic all the time with the visual arts, theater, and cinema to make changes in themselves and in society. Advertising, whether in print, on TV, or over the internet, is all image magic. It works by tapping into the emotional, unconscious parts of the mind. Whenever one sees a picture of some kind it sparks a cascade of allusions and connections in the viewer. Meaning is built through the inherent cultural connotations of the objects, gestures, and characters depicted.
So why does it matter? Why should we care about the distinction between sigils and images? First, and most importantly for me, an understanding of image magic is a necessary part of learning the magic of the Picatrix. There are a few examples of sigils in my copy of the Latin Picatrix, symbols to drawn for the execution of some spell or other. But there are many more examples of images. The Decans, the Planets, the Mansions of the Moon all have descriptions of images that depict them. These images are important as a way to understand the character and the nature of the astrology and spiritual connotations of these concepts. But more than that, images can be used to make contact with the entity depicted. An image is a representation of that spirit. To be in the presence of the image is to be in the presence of the spirit.
Making images, inventing them, is one of the important facets of image magic that the Picatrix teaches. I have found this practice to be fundamental to my understanding of various concepts of not only the Picatrix but other grimoires as well. I have posted many of my efforts on this blog. Art making is a powerful way to learn about a subject. Concentrating, digging deeply into concepts, and carefully considering details are all highly instructive ways to learn about spiritual concepts.
I would suggest that widespread art making on occult subjects and entities is the next big phase of the proliferation of occult information and ideas. The texts and the information is all out there now. It is widely discussed and practiced. But what does one do with the accumulation of all the subjective, personal experiences? Passing on that knowledge through abstract means like art and literature turns it into a road sign for others on the path to spiritual enlightenment through the Mysteries. It renders inarticulate ideas in a way that can be absorbed, if not understood.
Having said all that I do have a few questions for contemplation.
Are sigils and images two ends of a continuum or are they two entirely separate things?
Where do hieroglyphics fit into these ideas? Mayan hieroglyphs in particular are intriguing to me when trying to parse the difference between images and sigils.
Is there a form of either sigils or images that could be confused with the other? In other words, when does the distinction become murky or they overlap in some way?