Sigils are a hallmark of chaos magick, yet it was interesting to hear Phil Hine suggesting recently that the chaos magickal approach might actually have over-complicated their usage (Ross 2020: 11’53”).
Peter Carroll in Liber Null and Psychonaut (1987: 20-22) delineated the classic process for sigil magick: construct a glyph from a written statement of intention; focus upon the glyph and enter an altered state; and then, after the climax of the rite, forget all about it.
Carroll’s technique was based on the writings of Austin Osman Spare:
When conscious of the Sigil form (any time but the Magical) it should be repressed, a deliberate striving to forget it, by this it is active and dominates at the unconscious period, its form nourishes and allows it to become attached to the sub-consciousness and become organic, that accomplished, is its reality and realization. (Spare 2001: 177)
In Spare’s view, conscious desire or belief separates us from what and who we really are – which is unconscious. Spare, in turn, was influenced by Freud. Spare’s sigil magick produces a symbolic form for an intention, but then, by disguising and forgetting that symbol, it supposedly creates a means for the intention to fall into the unconscious where it becomes “organic” – part of our lived nature rather than merely a desire for or a belief about ourselves.
A process or a technique is a means of causing something to happen. Spare’s use of sigils supposedly turns a belief or an intention into a realised, unconscious aspect of the self. But because he draws upon Freudian thinking Spare is open to some of the criticisms levelled at Freud, including the philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein’s argument that Freudian thought is bedevilled by a confusion between reasons and causes.
For instance: low atmospheric temperature causes snow. But the reason for snow is the air being cold. What distinguishes a reason from a cause is meaning: the interposition of a perceiving mind between one thing happening and another. Cold weather causes snow regardless, but a reason for snow arises only in a perceiving mind that has or shares with other minds a lived experience of snow.
Wittgenstein criticised Freud’s tendency to suggest that psychoanalysis revealed the causes of human behaviour and was therefore a science. Certainly, this is not the case. However, in Freud’s defence, in the realm of the mind reasons often carry more significance than causes. Consider: the cause of a depression is decreased serotonin, but the reason for it might be the death of a loved one. Reasons are how reality operates at the human level.
Freud set out by attempting to account for human mental processes at a causal level, but soon abandoned his so-called Project for a Scientific Psychology (Freud 1895) and psychoanalysis was born. It is a mistake to regard psychoanalytic entities such as the id, ego and superego as anything more than theoretical constructs. Through these constructs psychoanalysis offers not causes but reasons for various types of human experiences. Freud may have wanted to intervene at the level of causality, but the degree to which therapy is effective lies in its exploration of reasons for suffering, offering possibilities to change the meanings we ascribe to experience rather than necessarily altering the conditions that cause it.
What chaos magick incorporated from Freud, via Spare, is perhaps a similar preference for causes rather than reasons. However, the skeptics who insist that magick does not work are correct in the sense that magick does indeed lack any basis in causality. Instead, it operates at the level of mind, of reason. Where the skeptics go wrong is in supposing that by “mind” is meant something not wholly sufficient in itself nor quite real.
Carroll’s procedure for sigil magick yields results, but it does not work (in the sense of causing something to happen). Alan Chapman and I made the experiment of messing around with Carroll’s technique, sometimes leaving out the altered state of consciousness, sometimes intentionally remembering the sigil and/or the desire it represented after the ritual. Guess what? The magick still bore results.
Servitors are another staple of chaos magickal practice: these are thoughtforms or entities created by the magician to perform a specific function. The advantage of a servitor over a sigil is not having to start a working completely from scratch. If you need to heal someone or find a new job or a place to a live, you fire up the servitor previously designed for the purpose. Yet this evidently contradicts the principles on which sigil magick is supposed to work. How could it be that sigils work only when we forget them, but servitors work (supposedly with increased efficacy over time) if we give our attention to them frequently and repeatedly?
Many magicians will have had the experience of deciding to cast a sigil, only to find that the desired result manifests even before they get around to doing it. This suggests that results from sigil magick arise regardless of whether we forget the sigil, alter our state of consciousness, or – indeed – whether we actually produce a sigil or perform any kind of ritual at all!
Magicians (in their various guises) have always strived to understand “how” magick works so that they might be able to do it “correctly”. But whenever a magician wonders “what is the correct method of getting a result?” they are falling victim to the fog of simplicity — because what you do, and the result you get, is your decision. There are no laws (unless you create them) and there are no secrets (unless you pretend). (Chapman 2008: 36)
There are no causes in magick, only reasons. And because reasons proceed from mind (rather than from matter, as it is conceived by materialists), then we can determine them for ourselves to a significant degree. Magick can change and expand experience because it is not restricted by causation.
If we suppose instead that magick “works”, that it operates according to specific principles or techniques, then we enter the realm of technology. I disagree with Arthur C. Clarke’s assertion: “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic” (Clarke 1973: 21). Technology is a kind of image or echo of magick. There is always a significant difference between them: magick expands or changes experience, whereas technology seeks merely to replicate inner experience outwardly. For example, internet technology connects us in an ersatz telepathy but has not changed human experience itself in ways likely to facilitate the union of humankind any time soon.
Nevertheless, technology is valuable. Meditation and prayer are technologies: methods for replicating certain states or insights. But whether they produce genuine growth and change depends on our reason for practising them. “Magick works in practice but not in theory”, Peter Carroll commented recently, and was seemingly taken aback by the implications of his own remark (Carroll 2020). There can be no theory of how magick works other than the theory that it does not work at all, because magick operates in the realm of reasons rather than causes.
Having a reason to use magick is all and everything we need.
Carroll, Peter (1987). Liber Null and Psychonaut. San Francisco: Red Wheel / Weiser.
Carroll, Peter (2020). Magic works in practise [sic] but not in theory. https://tinyurl.com/y8y2l9p2 (specularium.org). Accessed January 2021.
Chapman, Alan (2008). Advanced Magick for Beginners. London: Aeon.
Clarke, Arthur C. (1973). Profiles of the Future: an Inquiry into the Limits of the Possible. New York: Harper & Row.
Freud, Sigmund. (1895). Project for a Scientific Psychology, in: The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud, translated by James Strachey, vol 1: 281-391. London: Hogarth.
Hoenisch, Steve (1996). The myth of psychoanalysis: Wittgenstein contra Freud. https://tinyurl.com/y7exutz2 (criticism.com). Accessed December 2020.
Ross, Keats (2020). Pragmagick: Phil Hine’s varieties – beyond chaos. https://tinyurl.com/y6vg2sop (wethehallowed.org). Accessed December 2020.
Spare, Austin Osman (2001). Ethos. I-H-O Books.