This was going to be a free ebook.
At the time it seemed like the best way to collate the last three years of experimentation with shoaling.
An ebook is too finite a product for a topic that, done well, should be in constant flux.
What if we stumble upon something really helpful tomorrow? Do I need to write another post that says “okay everybody, download a new version of the book”?
It all seems so pre-internet, like having to walk into a store and buy patches for an operating system on floppy disc. (That sentence made me feel old like granite.)
You could, and I do, argue that all magical theory should be in a state of flux. Surely that goes triple for the cornerstone technique of chaos magic?
So here we go, then. The ebook that almost was. You’ll note it’s more holistic in its topic coverage than a traditional post. It may become a page instead at some point in the future. But having it live lets me tinker with it, hence the use of the word ‘ultimate’. It will be my singular sigil magic repository.
Sigil magic was my least favourite thing back in my Baby’s First Grimoire days. It offended my sense of theatre. Where was the ritual, the incense, the scary looking altars? It was also… ahh… how you say… “messy”? So I kept away from it for years.
Then I accidentally ended up with a moderately successful career in the global advertising industry.
It was here that I saw the same techniques that underpin sigil magic -backed up with a huge amount of brain studies- being put to potent use.
Advertising relies on an understanding of how images work and how they work on the brain. Just changing a word or even a colour in an ad campaign would result in thousands of dollars profit for a client. The audience is rarely if ever aware they have been impacted in some way. And yet you think that you yourself are somehow never influenced.
It’s not as evil as it sounds. In fact, consciously filtering out sensory data is an evolutionary advantage. But you’re still absorbing it via ‘low attention processing’. As for your lack of individual awareness of being influenced, this is due to a psychological phenomenon called Third Person Perception: the belief that advertising affects other people more than you. If you don’t agree with it, put down your Starbucks coffee, tap your converse sneaker angrily on the ground while you get out your iPad and use it to send me an angry gmail. More on this later.
Clearly, using images and words has a huge impact. Over the last thirty years, millions and millions of dollars have been spent trying to understand precisely what sort of impact visual stimuli have on the human brain; from violence in computer games to font choices in mortgage ads.
This is the kind of research and exploration that the first exponents of modern sigil magic could only dream about.
So maybe sigils are in need of another look? Maybe there is a way to fold all this research into sigil magic and… reboot it?
It’s worth the effort. Sigils are elegant. Sigils are adaptable. They don’t replace anything in your life or spiritual practice. They aren’t either/or. Whatever your flavour, you can definitely use sigils. Even the most stringent atheists can get something out of working with sigils. They can fit into any magical system. You could teach a nun sigil magic. (Somebody please teach a nun sigil magic.)
>> Magic Is Easy
Firstly let me say that magic is simple. How could it not be? Cavemen did it.
But magic is simple the way sex is simple. Herein lies the problem. Because before you know it that short distance between A and B is cluttered with the magical equivalent of safe words, pimp masks and anal beads and you start to wonder if maybe, somewhere along the line, you haven’t got a little bit off track.
Sigil magic short circuits that. It is very probably the least complex form of enchantment that can still be called magic.
So if the steps outlined below look easy that’s because they are. Magic -in the words of Christopher Hyatt- is the birthright of all mankind. Magic is as much yours as is your sex drive. If you want it, then you belong here.
>> What Magic Does
New people tend to ask how magic works.
Except they’re not really interested in how magic works, they’re interested in what magic does.
And what magic does is enhance the probability of certain outcomes over others.
It loads the dice. It stacks the deck. And if you do it right it stacks the deck in your favour.
I’m not calling you ugly or anything, but let’s say there is a one in six chance you will get laid if you hit the bars tonight. Magic, properly deployed, will bring that down to a one in three.
This neatly gets around the curious phenomenon of when a spell doesn’t work. When you think about it, magic is weirder because it doesn’t work all the time, not because it actually works. It’s not like your brain can forget the colour ‘blue’ some days and not others.
But if you consider your results probabilistically, they did work. They all worked. Your lottery spell worked. It dropped your chances down from 1 in 328 million to 1 in 24 million. You still lost. You chose a silly target.
Here’s how my all-time magical hero puts it:
“Daunting probabilites often appear for complex tasks like winning in war or business or love from a weak initial position; however all of those steps involved in winning may not actually look so impossible individually.
The probability of throwing a dozen heads consecutively comes out at a desperate 0.000024, so only one person in four thousand might achieve it on average. However each individual step has a 0.5 probability and a magician with any sense will choose to attack such steps individually rather than go head to head against such formidable odds.”
– Peter J Carroll. The Octavo.
Of course, if you really are after some wild speculation as to how magic works -and wild speculation is all it is possible to get from anyone because we won’t ever know- my current best guess is that magic is some kind of combination of
- Psychology: overclocking processes that you mind would normally perform anyway. There is something about the way your mind hangs together that enables it to alter the physical state of subatomic particles.
- Quantum effects: some massive kinks that have yet to be ironed out of the quantum theory. There is seriously some weird shit going on down there in your atoms. My suspicion is subatomic behaviour scales up in a haphazard way.
Exactly how it is your mind interfaces with these quantum effects is a matter for another day, to be explained by someone much smarter than me. But it all leads inevitably to the overly-convenient Rune Soup bet hedging: “Magic is all in your head except when it isn’t.”
You may, of course, attribute magic’s efficacy to a sky fairy of your choosing. Whatever gets you there, baby. Like I said, it’s extremely unlikely we will ever know.
>> The Sigil Story So Far
But if you are looking for a potted history of sigils then it really depends on how you define the term. You could go all the way back to Neolithic cave art and say that those squiggles were designed to bring about some kind of real-world effect could be considered sigils.
The very beginnings of written languages could be considered sigils if you follow this line of reasoning.
They were intended, after-all to ‘enshrine’ a concept in visual form for transmission from mind to mind. Or backwards and forwards inside the one mind but across time ie writing something down and reading it later.
(Can you imagine how potent the first ever characters meant to describe “love” or “death” were? Think of how the early mind must have boggled at being able to carry these ideas around.)
Magic squares appeared at the European end of the Silk Road (they’re Chinese originally) during the early historical period where they were quickly absorbed into magic by way of Al-Andalus. Essentially, you would choose a language with characters that had corresponding numbers -like Hebrew- and use the squares to create sigils.
Then, in the early twentieth century, we get to Spare himself, who created the most-prevalent sigil technique almost as a side-effect of building his own complete system of magic. As Geraldine Beskin of the world-famous Atlantis Bookshop says: “this is a very difficult thing to do”.
So yes, the sigil magic story. We think of it as mostly Spare but there was a heck of a lot that went on before him.
>> Tools of Sigil Magic
Pen and paper, basically.
But before you leap to judgement, recall that your earliest cavemen ancestors would have gladly have chosen paint pens and a flashlight over the charcoal and feces they were forced to use for their glyphs.
Don’t discount the method just because the tools are simple. Or what you do with said tools:
Writing up goals and staring at them might sound more like corporate sales training or lifehacking than commanding the forces of the universe but I would argue -having swum in both oceans- that this is because the business world is getting more magical, not because the magical world is getting more business-like.
>> Classic Sigil Construction
‘Classic’ is meant in the loosest possible sense, of course. What it really means is post-Spare. There is no better introduction to classical sigil construction -and chaos magic in general, I suppose- than Grant Morrison’s late nineties gem, Pop Magic.
Here is what you do:
- Write out your desire/goal.
- Cross out all the vowels.
- Cross out all the repeated letters.
- Mash the remaining letters into a single (hideous) glyph.
- Then start amending this glyph until it starts to look more pleasing. I try to make mine look organic or tribal but that’s a personal preference. Your unconscious is different to mine. (Probably.)
You really can’t get this wrong. Of course, you’ll think you are doing it wrong the first few times. Not only are you not constructing your sigils incorrectly, you are probably already activating them. Common concerns include
- This still looks too much like the original letters.
- This looks nothing like the original letters.
- This doesn’t look very ‘magical’.
It doesn’t need to look like anything. But it works better if it looks ‘pleasing’. And only you will know when you get to ‘pleasing’.
There are some recommended changes to the classic copy construction I have picked up from years of hoodwinking people into buying things they probably don’t need.
- Use positive words rather than negative words.
- Have fixed or clear goals.
- Use the present tense.
- Describe the ‘completed’ situation rather than the desire to get there.
For some reason or another, your unconscious doesn’t really do ‘time’ or ‘distance’ or any of the other perceived barriers to success that so concern your conscious mind. And recent studies have shown that the language you ‘think’ in can affect whether you achieve your goals:
Languages can be divided into those that use grammar to make a strong distinction between the present and the future (linguists say these have strong “future time reference” or FTR) and those that blur the two (weak FTR). Where you’d say, “I’m going to buy a house” in English, which is a strong FTR language, you’d say, “I buy house” in Mandarin, with the timing implied by the context. Chen’s number-crunching revealed extraordinary correlations. Weak-FTR speakers are 24% less likely to smoke and 29% more likely to exercise; strong-FTR speakers saved far less money. Chen’s argument is that the more you think of the future as a radically different thing, the easier it is not to worry about how too many cigarettes – or too little money – might cause problems in that future. It’s not your fault you’re a wreck. It’s your grammar’s.
My completely unfounded suspicion is your unconscious’s inability to grokk time when delivering on magical results -a phenomenon common to spirit work as well- has something to do with the way your mind interfaces with the freaky quantum uncertainty that underpins the entire universe.
Your observation will collapse a wave into a particle instantaneously. Ie in exactly ‘zero’ time.
By definition it is faster than light. That’s what makes quantum observation so weird. (Correction, that’s one of the things that makes it so weird.)
Incidentally, somewhere in this instantaneous observational quality of the unconscious that makes sigil magic work.
For one reason or another, it just does what you tell it. Right away. Whatever it looks upon changes. Weird, huh?
However it works, even just on a liguistic level, the implications are clear: pick positive, completed scenarios rather than emphasising the things that you ‘lack’.
Here are some examples of optimised magical statements:
- ‘I am my ideal weight’ or ‘I wear size 12’ rather than ‘I wish to lose weight fast’.
- ‘I wholly own my house’ rather than ‘I wish to be mortgage free’.
- ‘I am in a loving relationship’ rather than ‘I want to find love’.
A lot of the time you can shorten it further… using the first example again, you can bring your statement down to just ‘my ideal weight’ for instance. (The I, A and M will be crossed out anyway.) You’ll get faster at noticing these shortcuts with more practice.
>> Preliminary Magical Work
There is probably a better word than ‘preliminary’ here. But what I mean is that sending coded messages to your unconscious is more effective if you already have a working relationship with it.
Energy work and meditation are the best ways to do this. Responsible administration of entheogens are also extremely attractive in ‘cleaning out the pipes’ so the water can run clear. (And it may surprise you to learn that quite a number of them are weirdly legal in a lot of places. Google around.)
If you are reading this, it is very likely that you already have a magical system you work and you are just looking to add something to it. If not -and you are completely fresh to magic- then I almost don’t want to give you any tips. Seriously just fire off some sigils, see how it works and then go looking for more elaborate and spooky things. Why not use sigil magic to summon up your ideal magical system?
>> Sigils Redux: Your Brain
Sparean sigil construction relies on a model of the brain that is now about a century old. Essentially you need to smoosh your sigils past your conscious mind and down into your unconscious… really ram them down there… like you’re making pan-dimensional foie gras.
Then you are to ‘consciously forget’ about them so as not to summon them back up to your conscious mind where they would be ineffective. The conscious mind does the thinking, the unconscious mind is your interface with the numinous, dark, unknowable forces of creation.
Our understanding of the mind has moved along quite a bit since then -particularly since the postwar adoption of television and the explosive growth of the advertising and marketing world. How your brain absorbs symbols and the resulting behaviour those symbols elicits is big business. (Bout half a trillion a year.)
The dividing line between the conscious and the unconscious is a bit more nuanced these days, which means we must necessarily update how we engage them.
For a start, it looks like some kind of cognition goes on in our unconscious:
Researchers took a chronic amnesiac to the [Hampton Court] maze, and asked him if he’d ever been there. No, he replied, he had not. They gave him a whistle, and had him wind his way through the hedges. Upon reaching the center he blew the whistle. Researchers recorded the time. The next day, the researchers did the same thing. They asked the amnesiac if he’d ever been to the maze, to which the reply was no. Off they sent him again with the whistle, and they timed the speed with which he reached the center.
Day after day, same thing. Again they asked if he’d ever been to the maze, again the reply was no. Again they timed how long it took him to reach the center.
Though the patient had no recollection of his time in the maze, something strange happened. Each time the patient made his way through the maze, he did it differently. Specifically, he did it faster. Without actively remembering the maze, he was subconsciously learning. Over time he built up a mental schema of the labyrinth… It’s inefficient, but for several decades in the twentieth century, it’s how advertising worked. Like the amnesiac in the maze, we passively absorbed brand messages, cumulatively, over the course of years, without realising it. – Sally Hogshead. Fascinate.
We also now know that a message viewed consciously-even an extremely negative one- has unexpected, unhelpful and sometimes completely opposite effects. For instance, exposure to tobacco health warnings makes people want to smoke:
Lindstrom notes the potent effect of imagery associated with tobacco brands. Red Formula 1 racing cars, rugged cowboys, and other images long associated with cigarettes (Marlboro, in those examples) were more powerful in stimulating the same craving center than the brand logo itself. Lindstrom suggests that the presence of overt advertising stimuli like a logo actually alerts the brain to the fact that it’s viewing a commercial message, while the cars and cowboys are more readily processed without the brain applying a “commercial” filter.
I think what’s happening with the tobacco warning labels is that they have become part of the “trade dress” of cigarette brands. While a bold warning that the product might kill you isn’t as appealing from a branding standpoint as a red Ferrari, there’s little doubt that being exposed to the warning labels many times per day for years has become part of the Marlboro experience. This would happen with anything you put on the cigarette packs. Put a picture of George Bush on every pack, and within a short time every time Bush was on TV you’d see smokers lighting up.
Your unconscious mind is just as much of a filthy traitor as your conscious mind. This implies techniques such as visualisation are even less reliable than previously considered.
But there are ways this can be hacked. For instance, it’s just possible that distraction rather than deliberation leads to better decision making. From the wiki page:
[I]t is still unknown what exactly happens neurologically when unconscious thought occurs, a more thorough understanding of which may inform those trying to prescribe unconscious or conscious thought. (Antonio Damasio’s recent book on the neurology of reason, Descartes Error: Emotion, Reason, and the Human Brain, while not a discussion of consciousness, argues for the existence of an evolved interaction that takes place in normal brains between emotion – an unconscious process, distinct from the conscious experience of feeling – and conscious reasoning.)
What this suggests is that thoughts moving backwards and forwards between your conscious and unconscious minds -rather than a one way trip from conscious to unconscious- could improve sigil efficacy.
- Visual stimuli affect the unconscious in entirely unpredictable ways.
- Cognition is not confined to the conscious mind (and hence cannot be the barrier to successful sigil magic).
- An ongoing back and forth between the conscious and the unconscious mind contributes in some way to optimal magical outcomes.
Magic, then, is essentially advertising to your unconscious. The success of shoaling in many ways hangs on this notion.
>> Sigils Redux: Target Selection
Target selection is the key to all magic. Fail to reasonably approximate the probability of your preferred outcome and you are scuppered from the start. You could summon the Crown Prince of Hell and it still won’t get you out of your mother’s basement.
Let’s return to PJC:
“Thus we arrive at the sobering conclusion that although this universe contains enough Chaos to allow magic it doesn’t contain enough to permit gross miracles in a hurry.
The magician will need to target events which depend on very small energy or entropy changes and the results won’t often look much like spectacular parapsychology, they will look more like a series of events going somewhat improbably in the desired direction.”
What does that look like in practice?
- Choose what you want to achieve and break it into smaller pieces.
- Find the piece that provides the biggest uplift in terms of achieving your goal and go after that one first.
- Break that larger piece into at least three interrelated statements of intent and sigilise them all.
Choose things with higher or flexible probability, choose timings when it is easier to nudge, choose self-focused goals rather than external ones. Here are five examples of target selection for use with sigil magic.
One that last point on target selection. It’s not recommended to curse someone via sigil magic in the same way it’s not recommended to swallow a grenade when you should be throwing it. Protection is fine, however. Or placing yourself out of harm’s way… The cursing/protection example is precisely what is meant by choosing your target carefully.
>> Sigils Redux: Shoaling
Shoaling is the deployment of multiple, interrelated sigils in the one activation session. It is the scattergun rather than the cannon.
If you adopt the Moorean conceit that thoughts have some form of functional existence then it becomes possible to map some behaviour models over them… specifically the clustering behaviour known as shoaling.
Unlike simply picking a magical outcome and enchanting for it, a sigil shoal embeds the necessary adaptability into the overall enchantment.
The extraordinary complexity of shoaling behaviour emerges from just a couple of rules:
- Each member maintains a minimum distance from other objects in its environment, including other members.
- Each member matches the velocity of its neighbour.
- Each member moves toward the perceived centre of the mass.
Shoals form from the bottom up rather than the top down. This isn’t the ‘shouty’ approach of medievalists and Victorian factory owners where you yell about what you want to happen because in your little space you’re God. (It always reminds me of the midpoint in an 80s sitcom where the father has banned one of the kids from doing something: “my house, my rules.” Then one of the kids is offered drugs at a party and turns them down of her own volition. Then there’s a dénouement in a kitchen with Tony Danza.)
Instead are a couple of simple rules that create complex behaviour in fish, birds and even cab drivers. Three rules, all determined by a relationship to one neighbour at a time.
So what about creating a sigil for something that has already happened?
Enter the robofish. This really is the key to the whole technique:
- Create a shoal of sigils based on a breakdown of your overall goal.
- Include something that has already happened or you already have.
- Activate them all at the same time.
The success rate so far has been orders of magnitude greater. There is something about enchanting for a goal that already exists that ‘pulls’ the rest of them along. It also allows you to dictate the speed, direction and veracity of the shoal depending on what you select for your robofish. Check it out. Directed sigil magic is possible!
One final possible implication for the robofish:
‘Lust of result’ seems less about keeping the objective out of your conscious mind, as Spare thought, because we now know that moving back and forth between conscious and unconscious happens as part of normal cognition. It seems to me to be more about continuously shifting the time frame further out… you encode the want rather than the have.
An effective counter to this is to -for want of more modern words- send your unconscious a ‘request’ for something that already exists… the robofish. How can their be lust after the result has been achieved? Built into the middle of your enchantment is a method for neutralising its own result lust.
>> Sigils Redux: Activation
This is really more your bag than mine. Once again I refer you to Grant Morrison’s Pop Magic for a fuller treatment of the subject.
Like all the best things in life except possibly eating carbs… practice makes everything better. Find what works and work it.
- Delineate your magical space. This can be as simple as filling the room in your mind’s eye with a fade out of brilliant white light.
- Lay out your sigils in front of you. I’m either usually seated on the ground or at a large low coffee table. My kit tends to be a few candles, stick incense and the squares of paper, all arranged as artfully as I am capable of (ie not very) on a casting cloth.
- Light candles and incense. Colour correspondence is optional. I seem to get results from candles I actually like the look of rather than ones that supposedly match. (The way I do them, pinks and yellows look to my mind like I’m at a hobo kids birthday party.)
- Summon relevant beings. Either beings you have pre-existing relationships with or beings affiliated with road/gate openings. My activations seem to have more of a séance feel rather than a ‘blasting’ feel. Efficacy is better served by having a clear conduit to the other side to allow the shoal passage rather than maximum firepower at the base of a rocket.
- Meditate on each sigil individually. You’d be surprised how easy it is to genuinely forget which sigil encodes which magical goal. Pick one up, breathe and just stare at it in a comfortable, detached way. Your eyes will eventually warp the squiggle. Soon after it will feel ‘inert’… like it was once alive and has reverted to simply being a piece of paper. Mentally repeat Spare’s “Does not matter, need not be.” Put the sigil down and move onto the next one.
- Close down your space. When complete. No need to banish. You can if you want… it’s not really my bag.
That’s it. A couple of years back I would shoal entirely unrelated sigils at the one time. Anecdotally the results tend to appear in an odd, interrelated way. (For example, weight loss was achieved by moving jobs out of an area of London famed for its food and by moving to a position that doesn’t involve eating large, boozy lunches with clients three days a week. All I was after was more money and slightly smaller trousers.)
It doesn’t happen every time but be aware of it. For instance I wouldn’t curse someone, look for love and cure a cat all at the one time. (At least not with magic. Would make for a wacky afternoon off.) If you’re going to include unrelated goals to bulk out your shoal -and I do at least half the time- then here are some suggestions.
>> The Final Few Hacks
These are some parting suggestions for incorporating recent brain findings into sigil activation. If you have other suggestions, or if you take some of these and run with them in a completely random direction then please do let me know:
1. Bring back the theatre
Get medieval on your sigils. Incorporate them into a more traditional theurgic setting. Create them, summon up some spirits, give them the sigils and tell them to activate them. A lot of my favourite magical internets peeps likes them their baroque magic. There has been some personal uplift here as well… the better the setting, the deeper the activation it seems.
2. Use low attention processing
Don’t destroy your sigils. Put them somewhere that you will see them every day but not notice them. If you happen to notice them in a way that seems ‘funny’ then just repeat “Does not matter, need not be.”
This hack was actually going to be listed as the final step in the previous section. I was going to say I never destroy my sigils anymore. Except that actually I do. Even threw some in a canal last weekend.
But as a rule of thumb, don’t destroy them. I blu-tack mine to the mirror at the foot of my bed. (Written like that makes it sound creepy. Actually it’s just that I have a really tiny bedroom.)
3. Trip balls
Activate your sigils while under the influence of a 5-HT1A agonist. (Disclaimer: don’t break the law, don’t mix medications, blah, blah, blah.) I know someone who used these legalish Amsterdam imports a couple of weeks ago and it was apparently spectacular. Like lifting up the lid of your unconscious and gently depositing exactly what you need inside.
Of course, they were then tripping balls for the rest of the Saturday which didn’t do great things for the to-do list. (OEVs and everything.) Next time they’re going to shoal like a hundred sigils to make it worth the time out of their weekend. If you opt for this hack creating sigils in the purple/red range is apparently recommended.
It’s not really a conclusion so much as it is an earnest injunction to comment, share and steal anything here you find of value. Chaos magic’s inherent flexibility means a good idea or an improvement can come from everywhere.
And sigil magic’s interoperability means it can work within any system. I earnestly believe Richard Dawkins could successfully use sigil magic. Just think how much better someone like you -who isn’t an asshole- can be at it.