Reading the Runes: Writing Systems for Wizardry and Witchcraft

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Karswell had borne ill-will to my brother… and now his book seemed to me to be a very sinister performance indeed. One chapter in particular struck me, in which he spoke of “casting the Runes” on people, either for the purpose of gaining their affection or of getting them out of the way — perhaps more especially the latter: he spoke of all this in a way that really seemed to me to imply actual knowledge.

M. R. James – ‘Casting the Runes’

Writing has always had an association with magic. As I mentioned in a previous post, it’s easy to see how in a world of limited literacy, people might attribute supernatural qualities to these strange signs that allow initiates to recall the lore of times past or speak things they had never personally been told. It’s likely that abecedaries sometimes had magical significance in the ancient world, and we have examples of magical spells written down as early as Bronze Age Mesopotamia.

People have also often looked back to the writing systems of earlier periods, believing them to have special powers and connections to the lost secrets of elder times. As the title of this article suggests, Germanic runes have been one of the more popular examples, having enjoyed a particular resurgence in the 18th to early 20th centuries and being especially associated with divination. They’re not the only one, though. Unsurprisingly, given the particular affinity many modern would-be mages feel for Celtic traditions, the Ogham script of early mediaeval Ireland has also been widely embraced, as have Mesopotamian cuneiform and, of course, Hebrew. The use and reception of these ancient systems in modern magical beliefs could easily fill a lengthy blog post, if not an entire book, but it’s not what I’m going to focus on today. Instead I want to look in particular at those writing systems created specifically for magical purposes.

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Ancient Sages and Arcane Texts: The Myth and Magic of the Phoenician Alphabet

Hermes_mercurius_trismegistus_siena_cathedralLet me tell you a story of the forgotten wisdom of the ancients, preserved in secret libraries of elder ages and deciphered by visionary sages, let me tell you about men who became gods and gods who became men. Let me tell you the strange mythology linking the origins of the Phoenician alphabet with the birth of the Western occult tradition.

The origins of writing systems are fascinating, but sometimes it can be just as interesting to lay the reality to one side and look at where the people of the ancient world thought their writing systems came from. My colleague Natalia has been doing this with her series of blog-posts looking at myths about writing. Here, though, I want to look in a bit more depth at the stories told about the development of the Phoenician alphabet.

Because they get a bit weird. Continue reading “Ancient Sages and Arcane Texts: The Myth and Magic of the Phoenician Alphabet”

Phaistos Discuits!

We all love a good pun. And by ‘we’, I mean ‘I’, and by ‘good’ I mean ‘terrible’. So for a long time I’ve wanted to make ‘Phaistos Discuits’ – biscuit versions of the famous Phaistos Disc.

The Phaistos Disc is probably the most controversial inscription from ancient Crete, showing a ‘writing system’ (if that is what it is) that is almost unparalleled – a one-off as far as ancient inscriptions go. Despite some (really very unconvincing) attempts at decipherment, our understanding of this object remains extremely limited. However, it is just the perfect shape to turn into a biscuit!

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Alien’s ‘Standard Semiotic’, Pictograms and Icons

For one reason or another, we’ve had a bit of a fantasy writing systems theme lately in our blogging. Not so long ago I wrote something about the various invented writing systems of the Legend of Zelda games, and Pippa has told us about Aurebesh, from the Star Wars series. Just one more for now. Since there’s a new Alien movie out, we thought it’d be nice to take a look at the influential ‘Semiotic Standard’ pictographic system developed for use in spaceship signage in Ridley Scott’s original 1979 film.

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