The fun thing about the Book of Revelation is that there are so many possible symbolic interpretations of the Four Horsemen that you can take literally any collection of four at-least-vaguely-related characters or objects and make it work. Seriously, give it a try.
An Introduction to Correspondences, Associations, and Symbolism in Witchcraft
I’m happy to present another article designed for those beginning their journey into witchcraft and magick. This one is particularly heavy on theory rather than practice, but I do feel that a firm understanding of the philosophies that underlie magick makes for a more robust and effective practice.
In a few previous articles for beginner witches, I discussed using symbols, such as the planetary glyphs, in visualization and sketched form. This is quite practical, but prior to undertaking this sort of work, it’s important to have an understanding of the role symbols (of all kinds) play in magick and witchcraft. Thus, I’ll be discussing that here! Enjoy, and I hope you find it informative and entertaining!
What are symbols, really?
Symbols, as most of us know, are things that stand in for something else in a certain context and for a certain purpose. The letter A in the Latin alphabet is symbolic of the sound made by that letter, and computers are full of symbols designating different programs and processes. When most people think of a symbol, even in an occult context, though, they tend to picture a line drawing or sigil representing a spirit, planet, or other concept. These are indeed examples of symbols, but the concept goes much deeper. Just as a sigil is symbolic of something, so can be a color, sound, general shape, or physical object.
Most beginner witches already have inklings of this - you may know, for example, that a chalice or cup symbolizes the element of water as a whole in some contexts. Realize, though, that almost everything used in witchcraft, for the most part, has some sort of value as a symbol, and stands for something else. This includes ingredients such as herbs and candles, the wand, dagger, and other tools, as well as more intangible things such as colors or sounds. Indeed, almost anything and everything can act as a magical symbol in the hands of an astute witch, and any symbol can be used in spellcasting or magick depending on the purpose.
You see, the majority of magick as it is practiced today (and particularly most witchery) involves the use of a notion commonly called sympathetic magick. Sympathetic magick takes the very concept of symbols and how they work to its utter conclusion. In any spell or magickal operation, the witch typically seeks to exert influence over something that would otherwise be beyond his or her control. Though other methods exist, the most common way of doing this is via sympathetic magick and the use of symbols to stand in for that which the witch wishes to influence. The witch chooses a symbol to represent the target of the spell, and performs actions upon it (which are themselves symbols), often using secondary symbolic ingredients as well.
Suppose a friend becomes sad and despondent, and you would like to aid in cheering him up using witchcraft. You might visit the friend and collect an article of their discarded clothing, something not to be missed but which he’s worn or kept around for quite some time, like a small sock or piece of an old t-shirt. This bit of fabric acts a symbol for your friend’s entire existence, owing to the fact that it originated with him, was heavily used by him, and was in physical proximity with them. This is enough to forge a powerful connection in your own mind between the friend’s material (often called a taglock, see this article) and the friend himself.
This connection, though beginning and existing most strongly in the witch’s mind, allows the witch to perform symbolic actions upon the taglock (an article of clothing, in this case), and observe what are often quite tangible changes in the spell’s target (the friend) as a result. Each spell is actually an intricate, layered web of symbols acting upon one another. In one type of healing spell, the witch might sew the friend’s t-shirt into the shape of a poppet or human-shaped doll, perhaps even adding additional decorations and materials to make it resemble the friend more closely. This is a second layer of symbolism added to the first, and enhances the connection between the taglock (now a poppet) and the person it symbolizes.
A third layer of symbolism is added by the witch when he or she acts upon the poppet representing the friend. As the goal is to bring joy and cheer, the witch might fill the poppet with herbs, gemstones, and other ingredients associated with happiness. In the image below, you can see an example of such a spell. In this one, all the ingredients were chosen for their traditional Solar association. The Sun, most people would agree, is a cheerful creature indeed, and thus herbs and stones with Solar associations are particularly useful for inspiring happiness in the spell’s target.
The “Why” of Symbolism
Almost any book on witchcraft (of any sort) will tell you this, though. Most will also give lists of symbolic associations (often called correspondences) between concepts. This can range from a simple list of magical purposes (love, luck, prosperity, etc.) with ingredients prescribed for each to a complex series of tables detailing a web of connections between celestial, earthly, biological, and mineral entities. Below are some images I’ve made highlighting popular correspondences within the various traditions I use, mostly arising from alchemical and ceremonial traditions I’ve studied. The first describes mineral correspondences based on planetary principles. This is followed by information about the elements, and the third is purely describing the planets themselves and what they govern.
Various authors give slightly differing accounts of how correspondences actually “work” beyond “this herb is associated with this purpose,” though. They don’t always (or often, even) explain where the association originates, nor do they mention that numerous traditions for correspondence exist and are often at odds. This doesn’t mean a beginning witch won’t get good results from picking herbs out of a chart in a random book with little extra information, but it will surely be more difficult than had they first learned the rationale between the correspondences in question, as well as been given space to examine the many interrelated systems of correspondences that exist today, choosing one, or perhaps developing a personal system of his or her own.
The above image encapsulates a certain important aspect of my own philosophy regarding witchcraft, and why I wish authors used different methods to write about it and teach it. The “what” and “how” of witchcraft practice is definitely important, but must always, in my mind, take a backseat to “why.” While someone might manage to follow a spell from a book with no awareness of the symbolism involved and get proper results due to the strength of their intent alone, they will likely be ten times more effective once they’ve developed the mental connections to understand why each aspect of said spell is what it is, what each ingredient or tool signifies, and, in essence, the whole spell’s mechanism of action.
A spell will undoubtedly be most powerful if the witch who casts it is aware of why and how it is supposed to work. This philosophical premise, of course, goes deeper than mere spellcasting, and ideally a witch ought be purposeful in all areas of his or her life, and never act without knowing why. As the image hints, though, often the answer to the question of why might just be the witch’s intuition, and that’s perfectly valid, though either way, one should be aware of it. It’s impossible to name or point to every single factor that plays a role in our decision-making at any point in time, but beginning the process of sorting out what causes us to act in a certain way in each situation is certainly a positive step towards self-actualization and a full understanding of magick.
How Symbols Work
Most books, though, rarely go into detail about why or how symbolism is important or even how it works. If they do, they tend to babble about “energies” and (worse) reference unsubstantiated theories of quantum mechanics as a way of legitimizing the concept. I find this distasteful, as it’s wholly inaccurate in terms of science, and doesn’t do justice to magick, either. It is far less disingenuous, and far more accurate, to admit that science has yet to explain most occult experiences, and that no appeals to avant garde quantum flapdoodle will change this. Thus, leaving excessive, pointless, and ill-defined science terminology (such as the ubiquitous “energy” or “vibrations” references) out of our discussions of the “how” and “why” of magick is advantageous.
This is not to say that a power or force (or energy in the colloquial sense) doesn’t exist behind the practice of magick, but as yet, it remains undefined scientifically, though we, as witches and magicians can conjecture about its nature based on our own experiences. From both my own practice and reading accounts of others, I can say unequivocally that symbolism and forging connections between concepts within one’s own mind and in the world at large is central to manipulating this force.
This is a lifelong process of both study and self-examination. I’m well-versed in what the traditional associations have been in a European context for various materials (herbs, gemstones, metals, etc.), and always strive to understand where the connection came from in a cultural context. This helps to solidify it in my mind. I also exercise my intuition in forging personal correspondences based on my own life experiences. Together, this all allows me to use the substance in question as a sort of conduit towards manipulating the higher forces with which my mind associates it.
Those favoring a more woo-ish hypothesis might posit that it’s more about understanding pre-existing connections. They might argue that certain herbs inherently possess certain qualities, like an association with healing or love, and none of this is the least bit subjective. This essentialist approach never sat well with me. While most Western witches would agree on many correspondences, it is important to realize that other traditions exist and contain within them highly effective correspondences, as well.
Take tobacco. A very commonly used (ahem) herb worldwide, in the Western Magical Tradition, it tends to have very Martial, warlike associations, and is often used in cursing. Tobacco is, however, native to the Americas, and long before Europeans gained access to it and developed that way of categorizing it, the plant had very different connotations for Amerindian peoples. Which is correct? Both function within their own tradition. Were it the case that materials and symbols all always had the same meaning regardless of who used them, this wouldn’t be possible.
Let’s examine some of the traditional “whys” of common witchcraft correspondences and symbolism. The spell for cheering up a friend that appears above includes the use of the herb known as St. John’s wort. This particular plant is often referred to as Solar, as noted above, because it has properties that reminded many witches and herbalists throughout history of the Sun.
Now, in magick, the Sun itself is a symbol as well as a celestial body, and is often associated with self-actualization and awareness, health, and happiness, which makes sense given how central the Sun is to life on Earth. St John’s wort produces brilliant yellow flowers which call to mind the Sun’s glorious rays. This plant also naturally produces chemicals shown to help alleviate depression and balance the emotions in some individuals, thus it has an association with health and wellbeing, just like the Sun - another reason it is considered Solar.
All these properties make St. John’s wort a good choice for a solar spell within this particular tradition, namely that of Western astrologically-based alchemy and herbal magick. Because I’ve been studying the ins and outs of this system for quite some time, a spell like the one with St. John’s wort above works well for me, as all those things readily get filed into the notion of “Solar” within my mind. Other traditions and cultures may have other associations for it, and witches operating within them will do well to learn them.
What about personal associations, though? Most of my experiences with St. John’s wort have reinforced it being Solar, but this won’t be true for everyone. What about people who consumed it and got sick, or those who just have a negative association for yellow flowers, for whatever reason? Those experiences, or even any intuitions you might have about a particular thing, should not be ignored! Think about it: even if every book in the world says that (for example) a particular gemstone is associated with love, if you yourself have personal reasons to associate it with something more negative, you won’t be able to use it effectively without taking that into account.
Sometimes, despite being a part of a particular culture or tradition, your own correspondences for something might differ quite a bit from the “standard”, and in that case, it’s almost always advantageous to go with your personal associations rather than what everyone is telling you. There’s much debate as to whether personal correspondences for one person are as powerful as those shared by many, and compelling arguments can be made for both sides. I suggest experimenting as much as possible to discover what works best for you.
Of course, there are plenty of things that can be used in magick which have no traditional association, at all! This is a given, because I firmly believe that anything can be used in magick, yet not everything is going to have a neat little entry in Crowley’s 777 or a related text. This is another reason personal associations are so important. If you’re in a situation where you feel the need to use more non-traditional elements in your spellwork, sorting out what they mean to you in particular is quite important.
I’ve used, for example, Red Bull drinks in my workings, and many other modern creations not likely to be found in ancient alchemical tomes or even modern occult paperbacks. The trick to doing this is to examine your own relationship to the substance or symbol from all angles. Ask yourself what thoughts it brings to mind, what feelings it inspires, how it relates to your memories, etc. Though most of this will be personal, also consider what the surrounding culture is telling you about the thing in question, and you’ll be on your way to developing your own correspondences.
This has been another article for beginner witches, and I hope you found it useful or entertaining! Though most of what I’ve written here revolves around theory rather than practice, I believe a good grasp of what a symbol is and how symbolism works is integral to effective magickal praxis. I’ve got plans for further articles in this series and will, in a few days, be posting some exercises related to this topic and advice for the process of developing personal correspondences and connecting with common traditional associations. Expect, also, an article on working with spirits to be forthcoming, though that won’t really fit within my beginner series, I’d say. I hope you enjoy my work, and if you have any questions or a topic you would like me to address, don’t hesitate to contact me!
Twenty-two tunnels, dark counterparts of the twenty-two tunnels on the Sephiroth, pass between the ten Qliphothic worlds. The tunnels have been known under different names, such as Schichirion, which means ‘black’ or Necheshiron, which means ‘snake-like’. The names of the tunnels used in the illustrations above are those which have been most commonly used by contemporary western dark magicians and were published in 1977 in ˝Nightside of Eden˝, the Qabalistic classic by Kenneth Grant. The names of the tunnels also denote those entities that rule the tunnels, in the same way that Lilith and Samael are both Worlds and Demons. The paths and the tunnels are thought to correspond to Tarot cards and Hebrew letters in various ways. Kenneth Grant has based his correspondences on the Tarot, as developed by Aleister Crowley.
In this system, the Emperor corresponds to the path that extends between Netzach (or the Qlipha A’arab Zaraq) and Yesod (Gamaliel), while the Star extends between Chokmah (Ghagiel) and Tiphareth (Thagirion). The system that is represented above is based on an older and more traditional placement in which the two examples above are exchanged. Thus, the cards and the paths follow the chronological pattern around the tree with the first cards at the top and the lower ones further down.