In the Old Testament’s Book of Genesis, God did not annihilate Cain for the fratricide he had committed unto Abel; instead, he left his mark upon Cain – that whoever encountered him will not murder him for fear of sevenfold vengeance, but will recognize the lineage of the very first human born murderer. All who sprung forth from his lineage are said to bear the mark of Cain. This mark from the divine carries implicitly both protection from fatal prosecution and the symbol of a brother killer. If we are to follow this narrative, how many of us living now bear this mark descended from our first ancestors? Is it visible? Is it an amulet or a label of shame?
Yes, it is a dramatic start… worthy of setting the stage for a glimpse into the dark arts and esoteric tattoos. Civilization is no stranger to such marks and symbols, whether it be carved upon the faces of criminals for public identification (the ancient Chinese practice of 墨刑) or hidden beneath garments to be revealed clandestinely at secret doorways (secret societies all over the world). What qualifies for a symbol rather than a regular street sign lays beneath the purely aesthetic and is suffused with the emotionally charged shadows often obscured in the light of day (in the realms of psychology - conscious attention). In our modern era, symbols are still scattered throughout the world, albeit less saliently and acknowledged than in the times of our forefathers. Think about the significance of fire, or cherry blossoms – there is no shortage of things in the natural world that humans imbue meaning upon.
Tattoo enthusiasts, of all people, can appreciate the depth of symbols, not only as perceived in nature but as esoteric tattoos purposefully designed by mind and hands. From the crafting of sigils to the practicing of charms, the esoteric and dark arts are often spectacularly misunderstood by conventional society as something sinister or altogether preposterous. We draw a very clean and arbitrary line between legitimate religious narratives and ludicrous, superstitious woo-woo as if the vivid stories and emotionally affective agency intrinsic to these systems can be reduced to mere empirical evidence. Whether it be concerning the primordial science of alchemy, the divine sortition of cleromancy, or the ominous blood rituals of the occult, the gates to explore esoteric tattoos on our own skin are always open a crack for the intrepid adventurer. Let the brave seeker gaze where the will directs one’s eyes.
The word “sigil” comes from the Latin word sigillum, meaning seal. Like the royal seal stamped on documents to bestow upon them sacred authority, it is a signature of supernatural entity and famously associated with the practice of conjuring demons in the Ars Goetia, one of the five books of the Lesser Key of Solomon. The seventy-two demons, recorded rank and file, include the infamous names of Baal, Asmodai, Belial and Paimon and their designated unholy seals. It is said that King Solomon had received a signet ring engraved by God that enabled him to summon and command demons and djinns, and even speak the language of animals. While the whereabouts of this mighty ring is now buried in the sands of time, its origin, stories and uses can be found scattered in sacred religious texts. Seekers beware, there is such knowledge in the world that is so tantalizing and powerful that to come into the slightest contact can set one aflame, as had befallen the foolhardy Icarus. Even Solomon (or Sulaiman in the Qur’an), the Biblical King most famed for his wisdom, was not immune to the fallibility of man. Eventually, God tears most of the tribes of Israel from his governance and delivers only one tribe to his son for the sake of Solomon’s father, David (of David and Goliath), who had been a faithful servant to the end.
If the magical potency of sigils and their potential manifestations as esoteric tattoos continue to interest you, read on. The creation of sigils persists in our modern day, combining ancient methods and modern formulae. The graphical depictions of sigils often include a curation of elements in the original text via lines, dots, curves and angles to piece together an artistic symbol. The intentional loading of the design, whether it be drawn on paper or designed as an esoteric tattoo, is of utmost importance. This means loading the symbol with sincere meaning – meaning that produces emotional affect. Worry not, as the ritual of tattooing will ensure that no symbol is merely aesthetic, for it includes hours of blood and pain, destruction and creation all in the movements of the needle. Some traditions assert that sigils must be forgotten, destroyed in order for the loaded magic to take effect or perhaps inscribed with invisible/barely visible ink; while the contrary belief of permanently etching the sigil to preserve the conjured power is asserted with equal validity. It may do good to be reminded not to be bogged down by the mere theoretical aspect of such rituals and symbols. It would be the most biting irony in this realm of the occult and alternative to be encumbered by the same regulations applied to empirical science and statistics.
Let us move into another realm of much renown and recognition in our heritage – alchemy. No explorer of the esoteric can forego this enormous mine of treasures. If you wrestle with the distinctions between fact and truth, knowledge and wisdom, and are a skeptical discerner of unsubstantiated hogwash, yet also a keen observer that at the root of all facts and observations lies an a priori ground, as touted by the great thinker Kant, this ancient system intertwining philosophy and protoscience may suit your tastes. Aside from birthing remarkably profound sayings, such as used in the heading paragraph, it also shares a bedrock of teachings with the other esoteric systems of Hermeticism, Gnosticism, Sufism, Kabbalah and even Taoism, dating back to the Ancient Egyptian civilization. Even the great founder of analytical psychology, Carl Gustav Jung, attributes his paradigm shifting notion of the Unconscious to his discovery and studying of alchemy.
Unlike modern science, which anchors on the exactitude, replicability and falsifiability of experiments and theories, alchemy and the general branch of its philosophy emphasizes the essential recognition for the individual consciousness in the interpretation of natural principles. “As above; so below. As within; so without. As with the universe; so with the soul.” This initially obscure teaching of Hermes Trismegistus is profound in its recognition that the reality perceived externally is inseparable from the perceiver and one’s internal faculties. One can also echo the notion of “as above; so below” with the concept of the eternal loop, as illustrated by the symbol of infinity, or the oldest allegorical symbol of the ouroboros, both of which suffice as excellent esoteric tattoos. Dante Alighieri’s magnum opus - Inferno, chronicles his epic descent into the levels of Hell, before finally emerging from the center and lowest region to the surface, under a star-studded sky, encapsulates the same principle.
Students of alchemy will surely have also heard of the Emerald Tablet, and the Philosopher’s Stone. Together, they are said to hold the secrets of the universe and immortality, inspiring monumental searches throughout history and continues to be a recurring theme in movies and fiction. To even venture a brief synopsis of these significant subjects of alchemy would lead to an unending maze of rabbit holes (like the internet), seekers after such knowledge will do well to embark on this quest with humility and sincerity. Perhaps, the steps of creation of the Stone belong to an ancient form of chemistry; or perhaps, the Stone itself is a spiritual substance, and the process a metaphor for the soul’s transmutation.
Last but not least, a digestif from the eastern orient to settle the unsettling feast of western esotericism. The Book of Changes, or I Ching (易經) dates from over 3,000 years ago and is one of the world’s oldest books. It has shaped Taoism and Confucianism, the major branches of Chinese philosophy and travelled across the globe to influence 20th century intellectual figures such as Hermann Hesse, Philip K. Dick, Terence McKenna, and the great Carl Jung, who devoted 30 years of his life to studying it with the vision of its possible universal nature. Even across the vast distance and remote time, Jung’s realizations had echoed Confucius, who famously exclaimed that if he had 50 years to spare, he would have dedicated it entirely to the study of the I Ching.
The I Ching is a system of divination of hexagrams (卦 guà), a figure composed of six stacked horizontal lines that are either broken or unbroken. Traditionally, stalks of yarrow plant would be counted, added and constructed into hexagrams in order to be read and analyzed through interpreting the divination text. It is with such divinations that Zhuge Liang, well known from the epic “Romance of the Three Kingdoms,” was reputed to have impeccable mastery over infantry and cavalry formation in battle. While the study and usage of this intricate system may take one decades, finding the symbols that resonate with you in its abstract readings requires only your intuition and individual interpretation, making it just as fascinating a realm to explore for esoteric tattoos.
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There is so much more in the nooks and crannies of human civilization that beckon to the curious minds; so many tangents to leap into; so many multi-coloured lenses to view the world through. Perhaps with exploration in these realms of the esoteric, you may find just what resonates with your soul, worthy to be inked upon your skin as an esoteric tattoo, a mark loaded with your own stories and meanings.