Titles: Secret Signs, Symbols and Sigils and Dragons of the West
Publisher: Capall Bann
Author: Nigel Pennick
Pages: 240 pp/ 210 pp
Price: $21.95 US/ $20.00 US
ISBN: 978-1898307556/ 978-1861630070
[Note: the above information refers to the most recent editions of each text, published in 2001 and 1997, respectively.]
These two books — Secret Signs Symbols and Sigils andDragons of the West — serve very well as compendia of symbolic lore and dragon lore, but they have a much more interesting use to anyone who has glimpsed the white hart in the thicket and wishes for some aid in the subsequent hunt.
Secret Signs Symbols and Sigils is a handbook of symbolic thinking. Beginning with a consideration of the human body asmicrocosmos, it ranges widely, touching on hundreds of instances of the Cosmic Axis/Omphalos image, the compass star (eight winds, four or eight directions, etc.), and moves on into a deeper consideration of sacred geometry, from labyrinths to cathedrals.
Pennick’s outlook throughout is to identify elements which survive from Deep Time, culturally speaking. He is capable of over-reaching in a few instances, such as identifying the old grafitti from Royston Cave with pre-Christian symbols. If you look at the image in the book, this is an easy sell, but even a quick glance at the entire wall from which it was cropped suffices to show that the artists were completely steeped in Christianity, and reduces the argument to showing how Christians use ancient symbols such as the eight-spoked wheel.
Nevertheless, a careful reading of this book gives the modern mystic or Pagan a glimpse of a decidedly ancient and deeply satisfying way of seeing the world whole. The author could have been forgiven a thousand errors of fact if they did not detract from this. Imagine standing firm and straight at the Omphalos, with the Axis Mundi running straight up your spine, and maintaining awareness of the divine geometry of your present place; now, go carry that awareness into your daily life. If that sounds a little bit like active meditation or like koan practice, that’s no surprise.
Pennick is a pretty decent artist, as well: most of the illustrations in this book were penned by him. I found the Queen of Heaven frontispiece worth the price of the book by itself. The artwork is not terribly polished; it is just exactly suited to accomplish its mission, as if Pennick had taught himself just enough of the craft to illustrate this book and then gotten on to the real business at hand.
The book does indeed cover things like ancient and magical alphabets, as one would expect from the title, but only in a rather schematic way. Pennick wrote another book, Magical Alphabets, to go into more detail on those.
Where there is a World Tree, there is a Serpent, which leads us into the book on Dragons. Dragons of the West is like a cluttered storage room appended to the workshop of SSS&S. It starts with definitions, dallies with mythology and folktale, and then dives into the deeper symbolism before ending with a masterful catalog of surviving dragon art and pageantry.
Informed by a deep knowledge of folklore, the surviving traces of the Bardic and Northland traditions, Geomancy, Alchemy, and Qabala, these books are some of my favorite companions on my journey. It’s almost a shame that they are bound as modern paperbacks; they would seem more natural if hand-lettered on handmade paper and bound in a leather-covered folio with a strong clasp.
[Freeman Presson is an active member of the Pagan community in central Alabama. He serves as Namen (chief priest) of Temple Zagduku. He has written reviews and articles for the Temple journal (The Owl and the Lion) and Cup of Wonder, both of which are now defunct. He lives in Birmingham with his soulmate Lilith, their son “Pagan Boy,” and their furry friends. He makes a living out of his magical power over computers.]