Archive for the ‘symbolism’ Category

Sigil Vigil

Heartfelt thank-yous to you, my readers, for bringing page views to 90,000. I’m making a point of posting more regularly during these difficult times.

While this blog seems to be passing through a prolonged dry-spell with few comments, I draw encouragement from a steady international readership that averages about 50 visits a day. If what I write helps, encourages or just entertains you, please leave even a brief comment so I know I should keep doing what I’m doing. Your reaching out really matters and makes a difference!

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Watching for seals. No, not the sea-going mammals this time — the marks, glyphs, signs and symbols that we both make ourselves and also perceive in the natural world.

Tabloids regale us endlessly with pop-culture versions of this — for example, the face of Jesus burnt onto a piece of toast. Equivalent perceptions occur in other cultures with equivalent cultural icons (e.g., Buddha in the sky). Even normally restrained scientists have been known to join in: a 2019 article in Popular Mechanics gushes about the “real face” of Jesus, with this tagline “Advances in forensic science reveal the most famous face in history”. Feel the tug of that headline?

We ask “But is it real?” all the time, of a great number of things, many of which can’t (or shouldn’t) answer.

magus banner -- W Flaherty

MAGUS banner featuring the Gathering logo

Psychology explains these phenomena as instances of pareidolia — if you see the word “idol” within the word, that’s not a mistake. Pareidolia is, to borrow a rhyme, “seeing faces in unusual places”. You might find this article on the topic from LiveScience interesting. Our human tendency to detect patterns in seemingly random visual inputs is what makes the Rorschach inkplot test possible. It’s also part of a complex human survival skill with multiple consequences.

The ability to attend to a pattern, to give it a meaning, empowers signs and sigils, but of course also makes written language possible. The shapes of the 26 squiggles of the English alphabet have little to no inherent meaning (you might argue that the S is vaguely snake-like, and snakes hiss — hence, the s-sound), but humans can detect and assign meanings to a wide variety of phenomena.

An effective sigil or seal can be created as a doorway to memory, to specific states of awareness, to understandings that may not stay with us while we’re dusting the shelves, changing a diaper, emailing the boss, or cooking a meal. But we can shift consciousness at will with the aid of a seal or sigil and know and do things otherwise beyond our capacity. Our schoolteachers know the value of holding a student’s focus and attention — these make all the difference!

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doodles for Druidry and Christianity logo — cross and grail

Christians wear crosses, Jews the Star of David, and followers of other traditions their own meaningful symbols. We also doodle both new and repeated shapes and signs, and we can expand on this human tendency and engage with a whole symbolic language if we choose.

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Tolkien’s initials as logo

Books on sigil making and sigil magic — the conscious seeking, design and use of signs and shapes to change consciousness — can of course assist. But the ability already lies in each of us — a birthright.

Tolkien invented a sigil from the initials of his name (JRRT) that now appears on his books and has become a trademark of the Tolkien Estate. Companies and organizations know that a distinctive and readily recognizable logo is often a key component to visibility and reputation and success.

To point to just one immediate use of sigils anyone can put into practice today, in these times of distraction and seduction by social media, and by fear and anxiety, our corresponding ability to attend to what we choose, rather than an advertising campaign or a news outlet or political party, is a priceless human gift.

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publisher logos on book spines — Pagans know the Llewellyn moon!

Place a meaningful sigil where I can see it during my day, write, paint or carve it on objects I use regularly, or sit with it in meditation, and I have a ready tool for shaping consciousness, guiding it toward my own purposes and desires, and focusing the energies that come through it into channels and actions that help, uplift and empower me.

And Josephine McCarthy, to choose just one author whose books are on my shelves, knows the value of a sigil as a distinctive cover for a book.

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May signs point to good things for you!

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Images: Magic of the North Gate cover; Wikipedia for JRRT logo.

Listening to Inwardness–4

[Part One | Part TwoPart Three | Part Four]

IMG_3378When I began this series of posts on the 21st of November, it wasn’t immediately clear to me that the practice it recounts would run for seven days, ending today, the 27th. But one of the benefits of my year-long work with Wayne London, MD*, in his exploration of the spiritual potential of the labyrinth, has been a deepening understanding of symbolism and ritual.

Often we tend to think of symbols as arbitrary, confusing them with signs like +, %, !, etc. But symbols run deeper, and often cross cultures (though they may change in some of their associations). Even more confusing are objective things, like the sun, that can also function as symbols. So while we can begin to list what the sun “means” — light, growth, warmth, illumination, a god, Jesus, the center of a solar system, and so on, that doesn’t exhaust its symbolic power. Experience the sun vividly, like at sunrise or sunset, watch it pierce the clouds and clear the sky, see it in a dream, and you begin to know its symbolic power in other ways.

The opposite tendency, of course, is to assume that a symbol, because it lies deeper than a sign, and often operates at more subtle levels, is therefore universally “true” or always appropriate, apt or fitting. Encounter the imagery and symbolism of a radically different culture, though, and you can see how symbols depend on lived experience. Water for a desert people can mean something much different from what it does for an ocean-side tribe whose lives revolve around fish and boats, storms and tides. Rain as a symbol in a song or a dream carries a different power.

One of the ways that Dr. London has worked with the seven-path labyrinth is to link it to the Hindu system of chakras (and also to the human sleep cycle). In this case, the number seven has a particular symbolic power, as it does in both Christianity and Druidry, of course, as well as in numerous other cultures — obviously including Hindu culture.

schneiderIn part, this symbolism of seven comes from a quartering of the moon’s cycle of 28 days, so that like many cross-cultural symbols, it augments its force by linkages to an objective reality. The largely planet-wide acceptance of a seven-day week points to a kind of symbolic “fit” with human experience.

Did the original builders of labyrinths perceive something of this symbolic fit or aptness? Is that why the seven-path labyrinth is by far the most common form of this pattern on the planet? (Investigate the 11-path Chartres labyrinth!) Who knows! But what remains to us is a set of associations that organize themselves around seven in a multitude of ways. Examine the evidence in such popularizations as Michael Schneider’s A Beginner’s Guide to Constructing the Universe: The Mathematical Archetypes of Nature, Art and Science (Harper Collins, 2014), and you begin to see how number symbolism is a particularly deep-lying symbolic sequence in our human experience and perceptions of the physical (and non-physical) world. Fear not, if you’re not mathematically inclined — Schneider’s book relies on images and diagrams, art and hands-on exercises, to bring home his several points.

Like any map, a symbol cannot include everything that it represents. It’s a selection, a set of choices and decisions about priorities. No map can “contain the universe”, nor can any symbol recall to consciousness the entirety of what it symbolizes. This is less a “limitation” of the symbol than it is a given parameter of consciousness in a world of space and time. To insist it be otherwise — to demand that one truth represent the cosmos — is like insisting that the ocean wash over everything. While that might sound at first like an ideal, in practical terms it means we all would drown.

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3-2-1-Seq-crp

In his work, Dr. London therefore begins where the seven-path labyrinth begins, at path 3. If we follow the path sequence, as the labyrinth itself suggests — 3-2-1-4-7-6-5 (see previous post for the path numbering) — we find that the extremes of 2-1 and 7-6 are always bounded by returns to the center. (We reach the center of the labyrinth not by path 7 which is “the closest”, but by path 5). To make this clearer, Dr. London notes, we can rewrite the labyrinth path sequence like this: 3-(2-1)-4-(7-6)-5. Our departure, like our arrival, emerges at or near a center: 3, 4, or 5. This fits at least with my sense of a return to the world of lived experience.

Rather than a linear journey ascending the chakras to the full flowering of realization at the 7th chakra as an endpoint, then, Dr. London’s work with the labyrinth suggests a different and more spiraling journey.

Walking the labyrinth, then, is a ritual vision quest (is there any other kind?), following a sequence we cannot miss. This isn’t a maze, but a labyrinth, with a pathway in, and also out. We begin with enough consciousness to enter at path 3 — the manipura chakra, the solar plexus, the gut instinct, the self-assertion to choose to “perform the ritual” — to begin a quest, though we may not know where it will take us. What hero or heroine does, when they set out? Setting out on path 3, as Dr. London observes, “we leave the world of time and space”.

Without that choice, we do not walk with enough awareness to benefit directly from the quest. We are merely swept along by circumstance. (Here, Dr. London’s work on the connection of the sleep cycle to the labyrinth enters the picture in a fascinating way — if we’re not conscious enough to do spiritual work with intention, the sleep cycle nevertheless reconnects us to the cosmos and divinity at a minimal “survival-maintenance level” each night. We are never wholly abandoned to the limitations of life lived in time and space. In theistic terms, the presence of God always reaches out to us. In non-theistic terms, our connection to the cosmos endures — nothing can sever it. “Sleep on it” remains good advice. Again, “we leave the world of time and space” as we enter the realm of sleep).

If we’ve gotten this far — again, we’re starting at the middle, as with Dante’s opening lines to the Inferno, “in the middle of the journey of our life” — we’ve already been walking these paths, knowing they are not entire ends in themselves, but important elements along the way. We simply cannot walk a whole path without them.

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As a symbol, and as a map of the spiritual quest, I find Dr. London’s work useful in my own life, as a spiritual yardstick along the way. We’re still editing a forthcoming publication enlarging substantially on these ideas, tentatively titled “Spiritual and Healing Aspects of the Classic Seven-Path Labyrinth”. His work on what he calls the Grid at the second link below is also ongoing.

Image: Chartres Labyrinth

Link to 2015 iBrattleboro article on Wayne London, MD. Additional links may have expired in the interim.

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