Without doubt, the easiest and most accessible means of ‘proving’ that magic works is the sigil method. It is minimalist, requiring no equipment, and yet offers incredible versatility in terms of the results that can be obtained. Without the advent of this method, there would be many less magicians than there are now (after all, a traditional full blown ritual offers far too many opportunities for being overwhelmed by a feeling of absurdity and calling the whole thing off).
Austin Osman Spare is the man to thank for sigils; of course, sigils are as old as humankind, but the actual method (of reducing a desire down to a glyph and ‘burying’ it in the subconscious) first appeared in The Book of Pleasure, published in 1913. Spare offered sigils as an antidote to ineffectual ceremonial magic; indeed, his book must have seemed incredibly vital and ‘genuine’ compared to what was available at the time. That is of course, providing you could make sense of his insane use of grammar.
Within Spare’s lifetime, a myth developed regarding the source of his occult knowledge. In the introduction to The Book of Pleasure , there is a footnote detailing omitted chapters, such as ‘Prophecy, omens, etc’, ‘Controlling the elements’, ‘Black magic with Protection’, ‘The Black Mass’, ‘Vampirism’, ‘Sorcery’, ‘Use of Spells and Incantations on Men, Animals, etc.’ and ‘Invoking Elementals, Nature Spirits for Glamour and Power.’ It suggests Spare had a lot more ‘genuine’ occult knowledge than just the technique of sigils. Ooh, what I wouldn't give to get hold of those, eh?
According to Kenneth Grant , Spare claimed that as a child he befriended an old witch by the name of Mrs. Paterson, who was descended from a group of Salem witches that avoided persecution at the hands of Mathers. She had amazing powers, such as the ability to transform her appearance into that of a young girl, and taught Spare all she knew. Grant has gone to great pains to perpetuate this story in his numerous books, even going so far as to claim that Mrs. Paterson’s teachings are in fact of ancient Native American origin, being principally concerned with contacting the Great Old Ones straight out of H.P. Lovecraft’s fiction .
Here she is, casting a glamour:
There is no evidence of the existence of Mrs. Paterson, much like the lack of evidence regarding Spare’s alleged powers (such as being able to manifest an elemental to visible appearance in the form of a green mist, all the way to making his cock grow so big he couldn’t find a prostitute that could ‘accommodate’ him). Of course, Kenneth Grant has sold a lot of books off the back of these stories, and evidently they did Spare’s reputation as the greatest magician in London no harm.
Unfortunately, Spare had this to say in The Book of Pleasure:
Sigils are the art of believing; my invention for making belief organic, ergo, true belief.
And also, under Sigils, Belief with Protection:
Out of love for my foolish devotees I invented it.
Hmm. Could it be that Spare made up the Paterson story after he had written The Book of Pleasure?
In Austin Osman Spare: The Artist’s Books 1905 – 1927, Dr. W. Wallace makes a very convincing case for the origin of Spare’s occult knowledge. In Aleister Crowley’s own copy of The Focus of Life (a later book by Spare), Gerald Yorke wrote the following note:
Spare became Frater YIHOVEAUM under A.C. in the A.’.A.’. 10 July 1909, being the seventh member to join.
Spare joined Crowley’s order in the same year he conceived The Book of Pleasure (Spare started the book in 1909, but it wasn’t published until 1913), with none other than Crowley himself as his mentor.
Spare puts a nice little spin on this in a letter to F.W. Letchford in 1953 when he states:
I was one of the founders of the A.’.A.’.
Of course, we can’t claim Crowley taught Spare the method of sigilisation; as far as I know, the method is indeed the result of Spare’s own magical genius. However, there is evidence to suggest that a great deal of the content in The Book of Pleasure is derived from A.’.A.’. material. For instance, Spare’s concept of the Death Posture can be found in the numerous Libers (such as Liber HHH as shavasana) concerned with yoga; the derivation of the 22 letters of the Al
phabet of Desire from Dee’s Enochian Alphabet; the use of simplified Goetic seals throughout the illustrations in the book; the references to the Qabalistic Tree of Life in Spare’s cosmology; the depiction of Nuit, Hadit and Ra-Hoor-Khuit in The Death Posture on page 16; and my personal favourite, the silhouette of the Pan gesture within The Death Posture in Action on page 54. There is in fact a picture in Wallace's book of Spare performing this gesture himself.
However, there are also references to alchemy and Goethe throughout the book; the point is that there is ample evidence to suggest Spare’s magical knowledge did not originate with a Lovecraft loving Salem witch.
There is no doubting Spare’s genius, both as an artist and magician, and I believe he did ‘discover’ or ‘invent’ the sigil method, as we know it. A cursory investigation of his life will reveal that we are not dealing with an ordinary mind here; but like all geniuses, he appears to have had a little bit of an ego.
In regards to contemporary magic, a friend of mine once said:
It might be Uncle Al, but it’s definitely Grandfather Spare.
It seems that Spare knew exactly what he was doing.