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Austin Osman Spare and His Amazing Theory of Sigils (Part 1)


The end of the nineteenth and the beginning of the twentieth century was a time characterized by radical changes and great heretics. The secret lore and the occult, in general, were triumphant, and there were good reasons for this: the triumph of materialist positivism with its Manchester industrialism was beginning to show its first malice, resulting in social and psychological uprooting; the destruction of nature had already begun to bear its first poisonous fruits.

 In brief, it was a time when it seemed appropriate to question the belief in technology and the omnipotence of the celebrated natural sciences. 
Particularly intellectuals, artists, and the so-called "Bohemians" became advocates of values critical of civilization in general as can be seen in the literature of Naturalism, in Expressionist Art and in the whole Decadent Movement, which was quite notorious at the time. 

Austin Osman Spare (1886-1956) was a typical child of this era and, after Aleister Crowley, he was definitely one of the most interesting occultists and practicing magicians of the English-speaking world. Nowadays he is basically known only in this cultural context;  internationally, he has received only some attention in literary circles at best-ironically, in a footnote! This footnote is found in Mario Praz's pioneering but, unfortunately, rather superficial work La carne, la morte e il diavolo nella letteratura romantica (The Romantic Agony, Florence, 1930) where he terms him, together with Aleister Crowley, a "satanic occultist" and that is all. Nevertheless, this important work has at least led many an occult researcher familiar with literature to Spare. 
Compared with Aleister Crowley's enigmatic and infamous life, Austin Osman Spare's existence certainly seemed to befit only a footnote. Despite his various publications after the turn of the century, he remained practically unnoticed until the late sixties. He was born in 1886, the son of a London police officer, and we know very little about his childhood. He claimed to have experienced while a child an initiation of sorts by an elderly witch, one Mrs. Paterson who, as far as we know, must have been quite a Wiccan-like character. 

Spare found his intellectual and creative vocation as an artist and illustrator, and he attended the Royal College of Art, where he soon was celebrated as a forthcoming young artist. But he rebelled against a bourgeois middle-class career in the arts. Disgusted by commercialism, he retreated from the artistic scene soon afterwords, though he still continued editing various magazines for quite a while. 

From 1927 until his death, he virtually lived as a weird hermit in a London slum, where he sometimes held exhibitions in a local pub. People have compared his life with that of H. P. Lovecraft, and certainly, he too was an explorer of the dark levels of the soul. Around the beginning of the First World War, he released some privately published editions, and today one can acquire at least in Great Britain-numerous, usually highly expensive, reprints of his works. 
However, we are primarily interested in two volumes, namely his well-known Book of Pleasure (Self-Love): The Psychology of Ecstasy (London, 1913) and Kenneth Grant's excellently researched book in which he, as leader of his own brand of O.T.O. (Ordo Templi Orientis) and as an expert on Crowley, deals with the practical aspects of Spare's system as well. Spare's actual philosophy will not be analyzed in depth here because this is not really necessary for the practice of sigil theory and it would lead away from the subject of this study.


 Before we begin with Spare's theory of sigils, it is perhaps useful to write a few words about the part sigils play in a magical working. 

Occidental magic is known to rest on two main pillars, namely on will and on imagination. Connected with these are analogous thinking and symbolic images. For example, Agrippa uses a special sigil for each of the planetary intelligences. These are not, as has been assumed for quite some time, arbitrarily constructed, nor were they received by "revelation," but rather they are based on kabbalistic consideration. 
The Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn also employed sigils as "images of the souls" of magical entities, which enabled the magician to establish contact with them; nevertheless, the technique of their construction was not explained. The same may be said for the O.T.O. under Crowley's leadership and for the Fraternitas Saturni under Gregorius. The name Agrippa already hints at the fact that magical sigils have a long historical tradition, which we will not discuss here because then we would have to cover the whole complex of occult iconology as well. In general, people think of "correct" and "incorrect" sigils. 

The grimoires of the late Middle Ages were often little else but "magical recipe books" (the frequently criticized Sixth and Seventh Books of Moses basically applies the same procedure of "select ingredients, pour in and stir"), and these practitioners believed in the following principle: to know the "true" name and the "true" sigil of a demon means to have power over it. Pragmatic Magic, which developed in the Anglo- Saxon realms, completely tidied up this concept. 

Often Crowley's revolt in the Golden Dawn at first in favor of but soon against Mathers-is seen as the actual beginning of modern magic. It would certainly not be wrong to say that Crowley himself was an important supporter of Pragmatic thought in modern magic.

 But in the end, the Master Therion preferred to remain within the hierarchical Dogmatic system due to his Aiwass-revelation in Liber Al vel Legis. His key phrase "Do what thou wilt shall be the whole of the Law. Love is the law, love under will," as well as his whole Thelemic concept, prove him a Dogmatic magician. Not so Austin Osman Spare. He seems to derive from the individual-anarchistic direction so that we may describe his philosophy, without undue exaggeration, as a mixture of Lao-Tse, Wicca and Max Stirner.
English magic of the turn of the century was also influenced by an important young science which would actually achieve its major triumphs only after the Second World War-the psychology of Sigmund Freud. Before that, Blavatsky's Isis Unveiled and The Secret Doctrine, as well as Frazer's The Golden Bough, had given important impulses to the occult in general. William James's comparative psychology of religion influenced deeply the intellectuality of this time, but Freud, Adler, and especially Carl G. Jung eventually effected major breakthroughs. 

From then on, people started to consider the unconscious in earnest. This apparent digression, which had to be kept very short due to lack of space, is, in reality, a very important basis for the discussion that follows. We will not analyze in depth by whom Spare was influenced. Lao-Tse and Stirner having already been mentioned, we might note numerous others from Swinburne to Crowley himself, in whose order, the A:.A:., Spare had been a member at least for a short while. Rather, we will discuss his greatest achievement, his psychological approach towards magic. 
(as seen on Chaos Matrix)



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