Dictionary of Occult. Hermetic and Alchemical Sigils by Fred Gettings (Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1981) 410pp £15.95 A BOOK of this title. published by so respectable a firm as RIO). probably makes its potential reader wonder if it is crackpot or scholarly.
It is both. The title itself becomes clear once one understands that Mr Getting's considerered the words 'symbol'. 'sign', and 'glyph' to be ambiguous, and therefore reinvented the useful term, 'sigil', from the Late Latin sigillant, meaning a small image, and which. he writes. ',appears frequently in medieval magical contexts. and has even been used specifically for certain astrological symbols and devices which were supposed to be amuletic in power.'
Mr Gettings addresses his work to scholars: historians of the occult, those interested in the history of ideas. art students and art historians. but also to astrologers — one of the author's several vocations is astrology.
The work is thorough and serious, and there can be few, if any. sources, manuscript or printed, that Mr Gettings has not ransacked for sigils.
To choose a sample: all the astrological sigils are here, in all their variants. and some even of the secondary references are Most respectable. such as works by Neugebauer; under 'Capricorn'. about eighty sigils (some almost identical to others) and nearly as many sources are cited.
Mr Gettings points out the antecedents of the printed forms and provides cross references to conceptually related sigils.
The feature that makes this dictionary practical is the index, for which the author has very cleverly adapted the Chinese lexicographical system and classified the sigils by the number of their strokes (straight, curved, and so on).
The dictionary, as well as being useful, is a pleasure to browse through. and one cannot but be amazed at the sheer ingenuity by VIP hich men, especially mystics, created such a vast number of symbols from a very small number of curves and lines. It is a pity that the poverty. or cost, of modern publishing requires that the book. though printed on good stock. be reproduced from typescript and hand drawings.
In his introduction. Mr Gettings anticipates and answers all criticisms that can be made of the book except the charge that his occultism has clouded his judgement. Though the explanatory notes are so spare as to be barely informative, and consequently scarcely able to be incorrect, nevertheless. Mr Gettings often bases them on secondary sources that are distinctly unrealiable. such as the writings of Madame Blavatsky. Thus. another modern eccentric leads him, in the relatively long entry for 'Hebraic Script' (here in its guise as one of a number of occult scripts), to make the highly questionable statement that 'the 22 characters are. of course. derived ultimately from a deeply significant magical structure.' He is justified in taking Madame Blavatsky and other moderns as primary sources. however, for it is clear that of the book's intended audience, the foremost are Mr Gettings fellow art historians. who may have to interpret modern artists who draw on modern mystical symbolism. Finally. occulcom limits the book. Had it been a dictionary of all sigils (save mathematical symbols, which have long had adequate treatment in the work of Cajon), it would have been only slightly larger. but much more useful. As it is, it is wider ranging than the title suggests.
Despite these faults, the book fulfils its purpose of aiding identification and being unique. it well deserves a place in every reference library.