It is probable that all alphabets were originally magical. Only in later
times did they come to be reduced to the more prosaic transactions of
mere record and trade. ·
The names which the letters were given often concealed some religious
secret, which they enshrined in an abbreviated form. Also, the number
of the letters, and their divisions into consonants and vowels, had an
inner and arcane meaning. A frequent proportion found in old alphabets, is that of twenty-two letters, whereof seven are vowels. This conceals, in a rough approximation, the relation of the diameter of a
ALPHABETS, MAGICAL. Examples of alphabets from The Magus by
· Francis Barrett.
4 Alphabets, Magical
circle to its circumference, which is today mathematically expressed by
the Greek letter TI.
Moreover, before numeral figures were invented, the letters of the
alphabet also served for the figures of numbers, such as A = 1, B = 2,
and so on. In this way, a word or a name was also a number. Hence the
study of what is today called numerology is a very time-honoured
The Hebrew alphabet in particular contains mystic meanings in this
way ; and the study of these, and the use of numbers to express transcendental ideas, a kind of spiritual algebra, is called the Qabalah, meaning
‘traditional knowledge’. This word is sometimes spelt Cabala, or
Kabbala. It has become an important part of the mystic and magical
tradition of the West.
The Arabic alphabet, too, is used in this way, by the Sufis and other
arcane brotherhoods of the Near East. The Greek alphabet also lent
itself to such use and interpretation, in ancient times.
In Britain, the Celtic Druids made use of the Ogham alphabet, which
had several forms. These have been studied extensively in our day by
Robert Graves, in his now famous book, The White Goddess (Faber
and Faber, London, 1 961). He found them to throw a flood of new light
upon the religion of Ancient Britain, and to show among other things
that Britain was by no means a benighted and savage region, as often
previously taught, but a country in touch with the philosophy and
religion of the greater part of the ancient world.
When the Angles and Saxons and the rest of the northern invaders
settled in these islands, and Celtic Britain became Anglo-Saxon England,
another magical alphabet found its way to this country. This was the
Runic alphabet, or Futhork (so-called from its first six letters).
This alphabet has given us the word ‘rune’, meaning a magical
rhyme. Originally, the Runes were the letters it was written down in.
Each of the Runic letters had a magical meaning. Runic inscriptions were
cut upon the hilt of a warrior’s sword, to make it powerful and victorious
in battle ; and this may be the origin of the ‘magical weapons’, knives
and swords with mystic sigils and inscriptions upon them, which play
such an important part in medieval magic. The magician uses such
weapons to draw the magic circle, and to command spirits. (Though
the witches of ancient Thessaly also used short swords as magical
weapons. See ATHAME.)
It was because of their connection with pagan magic that the old
Ogham and Runic alphabets were regarded with disfavour by the
Christian Church. With the spread of Christianity, these old alphabets
fell into disuse and were replaced by the Latin alphabet, upon which
our present-day alphabet is based.
The use of Ogham, however, was continued by the Bards of Wales, in
order to write down the traditional knowledge they claimed to have
Amulets 5
received from the Druids. They also evolved their own Bardic Alphabet,
for the same purpose.
The Middle Ages saw the invention of a number of secret alphabets,
which were used by magicians and witches exclusively for magical
purposes. These were mostly based upon the twenty-two-letter Hebrew
alphabet ; though there is one, the so-called The ban Alphabet of
Honorius, which is based upon the Latin alphabet (i.e. that one in
general use). Consequently, this is a favourite magical alphabet of the
witches, whose magic generally is not Qabalistic ; and the Theban
alphabet is often used by them today. It takes its name from a legendary
great magician of the past, Honorius the The ban.
To write something down in a magical alphabet, serves two purposes.
Firstly, it conceals the secret of what has been written, and hides it from
the uninitiated. Secondly, it compels the magician or the witch to
concentrate more upon what he or she is writing, because they have to
use unfamiliar characters to express it. Hence, more power of concentrated thought goes into an inscription so written, and makes it more
magically potent.
The magical alphabets reproduced as an illustration in this book are
those given in The Magus, by Francis Barrett (Lackington and Allen,
London, 1 801, and University Books, New Hyde Park, New York,
1 967). He in turn copied them from older books of magic.