Complexity Isn’t Free: Sigils

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This post is about how I think about magick, and how I find holes in my knowledge worth exploring.

It grew out of a discussion with Ananael about how sigils work. In my chapter, Using Ethereal Software. I said:

I’ve always been puzzled by sigils. How can looking at lines on a computer screen do anything?

It seems there’s an ethereal software that notices when people look at sigils. […] [I] registered my own sigil and software with it.

Ananael disagrees:

My point is that once you tell your “software” to synchronize itself with the sigil it will continue to resonate with it and therefore for any subsequent use there’s no explicit lookup step. When you hold the sigil in your mind, the similarity link is formed by the neural firing pattern, which in turn is governed by the sigil’s exact shape. […] That’s just the way the human brain works.

(Our discussion has other interesting ideas, on both sides, that I’m not citing here. Worth reading.)

Whenever I get an explanation, I try to imagine all the pieces, and step through how it works. Here’s what happens when I do that with Ananael’s model:

  • I tell my software to synchronize with the sigil. Great — not exactly what I did, but close enough, and what chaos magicians do with egregores all the time. (Note: Ergegore and ethereal software probably refer to the same external forces, using different metaphors and explanations.)
  • Not sure what “resonates” means, but let’s say that, if a person asks the software, “Is this your sigil,” it will answer “yes.”
  • Then I post the sigil online. It becomes an image file, then a bunch of electronic impulses, then some light on a computer screen. And you look at it, which makes your nerves fire in a way that’s “governed by the sigil’s shape.” Yup, that all sounds like standard technology / biology.
  • But then what happens? How does nerve firing create a connection to the software? Remember, the software doesn’t understand the image compression and electronic impulses, doesn’t follow them anywhere. What talks to what, where does that information go?

In computer programming, there’s a concept of bad code smell. That’s when a piece of code just feels wrong. It doesn’t necessarily make your program crash, and it’s often nothing you can prove is an error. Occasionally there’s even a good reason to do something that smells bad. But usually, something that smells bad is bad, and it’s just that you haven’t found the error yet. It’s more art than science, but after coding for a few years (or decades), you get a sense of it.

That model has a bad smell. Specifically, it smells like “free complexity,” that is, imagining that a step is simple when it’s actually complex. It’s easy to read “the similarity link is formed by the neural firing pattern,” nod your head, and get swept away by the long words. And it’s easy to imagine a sentient homunculus floating out of a person’s mind, walking over to the ethereal software that we all know goes with the sigil, and making that connection. It’s easy to ignore that the homunculus wouldn’t know which software it wants, or not to think about searching through those 1000s of softwares, or to ignore how darn complex it would be to create something that can even do that searching. After all, it’s natural for humans to imagine that everything has a human mind inside it. It’s easy to ignore all that complexity, and never realize that this step doesn’t “just happen.”

I never expected these sigil-based connections to work in the first place. I always assumed sigils were like CD labels: The connection went to the object the sigil was drawn on, like how the data is on the reflective side of the CD. The sigil / CD label is just for convenience, so you know what force / data you’ll get. Slapping a label on a blank CD doesn’t suddenly fill it with music, and making a symbol on a computer screen shouldn’t suddenly connect it to a force. I assumed that everyone using sigils for magick were just using the connections to the physical objects, or they were already connected to the software and the sigil just told their unconscious to engage that connection. I figured the people saying sigils actually did magick were just mistaken.

I was wrong, of course. But I wonder, if I had learned magick from books rather than my own explorations, and if those books had explained these “similarity links” as simple and natural and not deserving of any special attention, would I ever have realized that step was really complex?

I’ll stop there. Ananael (or anyone else), if you want to continue the discussion of similarity links, please feel free. And if you pick it up on your blog, please leave a comment here with a link to your post. Thanks!

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9 Responses to “Complexity Isn’t Free: Sigils”

  1. Chirotus says:

    My understanding of how sigils work is that they are acts of evocation. In more traditional terms, you are essentially creating an entity (servitor/egrigore) with a very limited function, and the sigil allows you to access it. In theory, anyone else with the same sigil should also be able to access it. And the more it is used, the stronger it gets.

    I imagine that creating a sigil encodes instructions for ethereal software and the sigil acts as a means of calling forth that software to access it.

    • Thanks! Indeed, that’s the standard explanation, more or less. And, if it’s just you using the sigil, calling forth a software / servitor / whatever that you already know, then everything makes sense: The sigil communicates your intent, your unconscious knows how to fulfill that intent, so everything works.

      But what happens when I post a sigil online, and people who have never used my software look at it? They don’t know the software’s signature, have no connection to it, can’t access it. The sigil isn’t just reminding them to connect to something they already know, it’s enabling them to connect to something they couldn’t access before. That’s surprising. Bizarre, even.

      It’s not that the sigil somehow encodes the software’s signature / programming. I made the sigil by drawing some more-or-less random lines, and it didn’t do anything until I told the lookup software to associate the sigil with my book’s software. In other words, the lines themselves don’t matter, they don’t hold any info.

      I agree with you on how sigils behave and how to use them. (And thanks for posting that.) Now let’s go deeper, and explore how they’re implemented — how they work under the hood.

  2. Ananael Qaa says:

    I’m not sure that we’re going to agree on this one without some empirical, objective testing and definitive results one way or the other, and I don’t really have any good ideas on how to do it given the current embryonic state of basic magical models.

    Because honestly, I’m a programmer too and to me much of how you explain the whole “ethereal software” model to me has the same “bad code smell” that you seem to have perceived in my explanation of sigils. In this and a number of other cases, it seems like you’ve added a whole extra layer of complexity that doesn’t explain much aside from moving a few pieces around.

    I do understand that it works for you, and that you’ve done a great deal of introspective work and so forth, which is great. If everybody did that we might all be able to compare notes and see what underlying themes and patterns might emerge. I can’t help feeling, though, like some of the conclusions you’ve drawn are based on metaphors to which you personally are particularly drawn rather than objective analysis of magical phenomena.

    Understand, I suspect that because I’ve caught myself doing it too. Generalizing a personal process like magick is an extremely difficult problem, and I truly appreciate your efforts to solve it. I just don’t agree with some of your conclusions based on my own experiences, and I feel like a truly general model would bridge those gaps more easily.

    In relation to the topic at hand, here’s how your previous description of sigils sounds to me in a totally different (and admittedly silly) context. You have a magnet. You take a piece of copper and set it close to the magnet. Nothing happens. You take a piece of iron and set it close to the magnet. The iron is attracted to the magnet and moves toward it.

    Given that data, it seems like you’re doing the equivalent with sigils of trying to explaining how the magnet knew not to attract the first piece because it was made of copper but knew to attract the second because it was made of iron. And then, going further, trying to work out how the molecules in the magnet performed all the necessary computations to impart awareness of the atomic structure of the two pieces of metal and calling the resulting logic “magnetic software.”

    And if this is not what you’re saying, I must just be failing to understanding how you’ve been explaining this aspect of your model.

    Resonance, as I see it, is like a fractal signature. When two things are similar enough a connection forms between them. It’s a basic property of the esoteric universe, like magnetism in the physical world. When you look at a sigil that you’ve never seen before on a page or computer screen, certain neurons take on the electromagnetic shape of the sigil. If you’ve already linked your “software” to connect with that shape, that pattern of neural firing creates an additional connection – a magical link.

    Now I will grant that similarity links are harder to explain on a basic physics level than contagion links, which appear to correspond in some manner to quantum entanglement. But given that uncertainty, I’m not sure how useful it is to try and further dissect the nuts and bolts of how they work. It seems to me that you run the risk of going off in a totally wrong direction if you draw too many conclusions above and beyond what your data set actually shows.

    • On complexity: “Everything should be made as simple as possible, but no simpler.” I can see where my explanations are more complicated than saying “it just happens.” But that complexity is in the world, and trying to make a model that doesn’t contain that same complexity is trying to make things simpler than they can be. But, agreed, I don’t think we can convince one another in the comments.

      On magnets: When a physicist tells you that magnetism is just a “natural law,” what he’s really saying is, “I can’t explain this to a non-physicist, so I’m just going to shut down the discussion with a curiosity-stopper.” Feynman has a good interview about that, I link to it in an old post:

      In other words, don’t trust statements like, “It’s simple, it’s just a natural law.” Because, well, everything is just how the universe works, and science lives by asking why it works that way.

      On magick connections: A magnet attracts every iron object near it. These connections are different, they’re responding to symbols. It would be like if a magnet somehow only attracted iron that we’d stamped with the letter A, and only if a human were looking at it.

      I don’t even know what “similar” means in this context. The sigil is just random-ish lines. Sure, you can notice that a sigil makes connections to a force and say, “Aha, they connect, they must be similar,” but that’s explaining after the fact. It’s like saying objects burn because they contain phlogiston, from the debunked 18th-century theory. It doesn’t explain why these two things are similar, or why similar things link. ( )

      So, we have something that takes actions based on symbols; that responds very specifically, sending the right piece of ethereal software, rather than whatever ethereal software happens to be nearby; and that requires a person to explicitly tell it to associate this ethereal software with that sigil before the sigil can do anything. That sure sounds like a complex, interesting mechanism. It certainly doesn’t sound like something that just happens.

      But at this point, you’ve said it “happens naturally” a few times. I’ve raised some problems, and you’ve repeated that it “happens naturally.” I don’t know there’s anything more to be said. So, yes, let’s agree to disagree, I’ll continue writing my book, and you can, if you like, continue letting me know places where someone with a different background will find something surprising or odd.

  3. Jeffrey Le Fleur says:

    Just an observation as to the how a sigil connects a given “software” to the user.

    Please feel free to correct me if my logic here is flawed…

    1.If we can accept that we operate in a holographic universe, then by simply existing inside said universe, we must contain in ourselves a copy of all information that exists.

    2.If we contain in ourselves all information, then it is fairly easy to accept that we cannot actively access all of that information simply because it is either A. lock up from our access or B. we simply do not know where it is stored.

    3.Then the simple act of creating/linking a sigil to a given set of information, may not be so much actually “linking” it to the information, so much as holographically storing its look-up address and or it’s access key into the given symbol.

    If the previous points can be considered correct, then any random person could access any given information set, when using a “linked” sigil.

    This is the simplest explanation that doesn’t cause me logical issues lol. Let me know your thoughts.

    • That’s an interesting idea. I’ve heard similar proposals for how psychic intuitions might work, that all the information in the universe is somehow inside each particle, accessible in some unknown way.

      If that’s the model you’re working with, it seems like the next question is, “How does that lookup work? How can I use that mechanism to look up other information? And what happens when you register a sigil, that enables that lookup?”

      (I don’t actually think all the information in the universe is contained in each individual particle. But it is an interesting line of thought. Thanks for getting me thinking about it!)

  4. Jeffrey Le Fleur says:


    To be quite honest I am not sure how much of the holographic theory I agree with myself, though i do find the idea and theory intriguing. I do know that with the holographic idea, the smaller the particle/piece, the more degraded the picture becomes, which may be the answer as to why it not easy to access on an individual level.

    as to the how the look-up might work, how to use it, and the enabling side of the question, I would have to put some more thought into this.

  5. Ananael Qaa says:

    I’m fine with agreeing to disagree here – the point I was trying to make is that you can’t necessarily determine whether something is true by judging it according to intuition or aesthetics. I think that’s Feynman’s point too in the interview; it’s not that he can’t explain magnets, it’s that the correct explanation doesn’t neatly fit into our usual everyday understanding of the world.

    It seems to me that in a lot of cases “ethereal software” is just placing the “phlogiston” at a different point in the process. Here’s an example: as I recall, you originally came up with the idea based on the concept that ceremonial magicians don’t change their rituals. The implication there, then, is that any trivial change to something like the LRP makes it “different software.” But to anyone who’s practiced the ritual that obviously isn’t true – magicians vary it all the time within reason and it works the same way and draws the same energy.

    As a ceremonial practitioner, if I’m going to employ a software metaphor at all it seems to me that the “commands” in magick are akin not to each variation of a full ritual but rather the spirit names, words of power, and figures employed to construct those rituals. The “programming” takes place when a magician assembles those “commands” into a structure. So the Star Ruby is separate from an LRP because it calls on different names and godforms, but if you take apart the LRP, keep all the names and spirits, and put it back together to look more like a Star Ruby (which as I recall I sent you an example of) it’s still an LRP, just optimized differently.

    I honestly don’t know for sure whether that description lines up with your model or not. With the way you talk about it, a lot of the time it seems like it doesn’t. But that could also be me misreading your explanations – the above is at least close to what you’ve explained in the past and maybe it really is what you’re talking about.

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