Art begins with craft, and there is no art until craft has been mastered. You can’t create until you’re willing to subordinate the creative impulses to the constriction of a form.Anthony Burgess

Tools & Symbols

I love my tools, by which I mean my mundane tools. My Craft tools I have sometimes changed my mind on as I’ve explored my path; changing between the ornate and the simple and between tools that double-job in mundane rôles and tools set aside for Craft use — but my laptop, my pocket-knife, my chrome-vanadium screwdrivers with precision-ground electrically-hardened tips, even the hammer that took out most of one of my front teeth, I would put-aside only if damaged.

In many ways it’s the simplest tools that have the most power. In a few years the state-of-the-art laptop I’m writing this on will be obsolete and of little use even as a toy. The afore-mentioned hammer is perhaps older than me and in good condition (certainly better condition than my tooth).

Simple tools have a magic all of their own. Holding this hammer in my hands there is an immediate connection with what this tool does, with how it lets me do more things than I can bare-handed. Hefting the weight of it I can judge its usefulness and its potential to do damage (at typing this, my tongue involuntarily moves to examine the cap the dentist put in). I don’t have much of a connection to the Æsir — I can feel the hint of them in old parts of Dublin, but they don’t call to me — but Mjöllnir, yeah I can get that; before anything else, a hammer’s a hammer, a nail’s a nail, an enemy’s skull is a skull and a sore thumb is a sore thumb.

Simple tools are powerful technology. The word “technology” has nuances it could perhaps do without. As an example democracies around the world are replacing the Australian ballot (a simple technology based on paper, boxes, padlocks, sworn officers of law and a witnesses with conflicting loyalties; but no less a deeply sophisticated technology for that simplicity) with an inferior electronic system deemed “high technology” purely because we didn’t know how to build it a hundred years ago. Hammers, clubs, knives, cooking pots; these were all major technological advances in their time.

The knife, or at least the blade, in particular was a landmark technological advance, and subsequent advances in bladesmithing were so important that we label prehistoric cultures according to what they made their blades from. I’d go so far as to say that the manufactured blade was the most important invention of all time (the wheel is just another over-hyped technology). Blades can be used to hunt, kill enemies, whittle, cut into cardiac arteries in need of a bypass, scrape flesh from hides, spread foie gras on toast, remove old caulking from a hull and do service as a screwdriver if you don’t have one to hand (I always do, but still), to just touch on the many uses they have had from the Palæolithic up to the current age.

Tools are not just used in crafts; they are the product of craftsmanship themselves. It’s good to have good tools. If the poor workman blames his tools as the saying goes, then that’s at least partly because the good workman makes sure he has tools he can trust. As well as ensuring that the tools can do their job adequately a good craftsman will make the tool a thing of beauty in itself. Even a good mass-manufactured tool will fit well in ones hand and be balanced sensibly. A masterpiece will excel by both functional and æsthetic criteria — and do so seamlessly with form and function being inseparable from each other. The tools I don’t leave the house without, a multi-tool knife, a lighter and a notebook, are all design classics. I have these not so much because the marketing messages of Victorinox, Zippo and Moda e Moda are particularly convincing (they all try a bit hard really). What all three of these have in common is a certain economy of design where the form came straight from the function. To the craftsman that designed them they gave a certain amount of freedom, but also certain constraints and the designer worked well with those. Contra to this, the other tool I always carry is a USB drive, which has one bit less than a square inch in size that the designer cannot change in the slightest and the rest is completely for the designer to do with whatever he or she wants, even if that means making it the shape of a rubber duck (this has been done). There is no classic design and I don’t think there ever will be.

This comes back to ritual tools because most of us like our ritual tools to be æsthetically pleasing, but the tension between form and function still exists even if (as in the case of a knife used as an athamé) it will never be used for that function. An athamé, phurba or seax is still a knife. I’m not saying designs have to be understated, if you’re into Pagan bling well and good, but before a knife and cup can stand for anything they have to be able to stand for a knife and cup. It’s not sufficient that an athamé be longer than it is broad (unless you can trace initiatory lineage to Sigmund Freud I suppose). No matter how many centuries pass I don’t see a USB drive sitting on many altars symbolising anything else.

In dealing with tools as signifiers we are getting into their being symbols. Symbols are tools in themselves, and yet again advances in the use of symbols have been deeply important technological advances. I said before that we label prehistoric cultures according to their blade technology, but it is in stringing symbols together to encode speech that cultures moved from the prehistoric to the historic.

Symbols are indeed the tools I make the most use of in the craft by which I earn my living. I know quite a lot about how to make modern technology deal with the range of symbols human culture has produced over the last few millennia (and knowing about the efforts this has taken, seeing Witches describe themselves as 2* or whatever rather than 2° seems a bit like watching a team of master chefs take hours of painstaking effort over a fine meal only to have it covered in ketchup before the first mouthful is eaten). As well as this, programming itself is a matter of stringing symbols together so that a computer will do what I want. Hopefully this will also be what a paying client wants.

To the outsider, and even to many colleagues, it seems that the symbols are there to tell the computer what to do. This is not in fact the case at all, the computer has to do quite a bit of work to take those symbols and make it into something it can easily digest.

In truth those symbols are there for me and for fellow craftsmen who may be colleagues or who may come to my work some time after. In writing a computer program I am not truly telling the computer what to do, but expressing what I want to happen in a way that I and another hacker can understand. Computer programs are a statement of intent.

So it is also in ritual and in magic. Just how much a symbol means by itself is debatable. In his introduction to the Goetia, Aleister Crowley makes an interesting case that all of the symbols and tools; the seals that the Goetia gives for each demon, along with the circle, the triangle, the weapons (as the Ceremonial Magicians term them), the incenses and invocations, are all there purely for the effect they have on the mind of the magician. That some symbols appear with different meanings in different cultures or at different points in history supports this view. Yet the Gods themselves may have a view as to what those symbols mean. If we believe (as only some of us believe) that the Gods are apart from ourselves then symbols will have a power beyond their effects on our minds.

It’s interesting that Constantine’s taking Rome away from Classical Paganism to Christianity was, according to the legend anyway, triggered not by the person of Christ, nor the divinity of Jehovah, nor any theological argument or emotional attraction, but rather by the symbol of the Chi Rho. The vision said In Hoc Signo Vinces and it was that action — the adoption of a symbol by an army composed mainly of Pagans and led by a leader who was still a Pagan, if perhaps a wavering one — that marked the beginning of the end of the ancient forms of Paganism in Europe. Sometimes all you have to do is change the symbols and other changes will follow. Powerful magic indeed.

Yet whatever power symbols have on other planes, or whether Gods and other beings may use symbols themselves, before the symbol does anything else it is seen by the person doing the ritual and those they work with. Just as in programming the symbols I use are there for me and for others to see. With symbols I make statements of intent.