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Esoteric Motifs

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Occult signs look good when you're writing a fantasy. A big dose of symbolism doesn't hurt either.

Most esoteric motifs are based on either Western ceremonial magic and Hermeticism, or some form of witchcraft or Wiccan tradition. The most famous of these are probably the four objects found on an altar in such traditions, which often appear as quest items or weaponry in many a fantasy plotline. These four stand in for the four Classical Elements, who seem to turn up quite a lot whenever there's magic nearby...

  • The Chalice or Cup represents Water.
  • The Wand or Staff represents Fire.
  • The Pentacle, the Coin, the Star, the Orb, or the Ring represents Earth.
  • The Athame, the Dagger, or the Sword represents Air.

These four symbols are extremely common in storytelling. This particular set of items and their associations are derived from the Tarot, being the four suits of the minor arcana, and they are in turn derived from the four Italian playing card suits that modern Anglosphere playing cardsnote  are also descended from; see also Playing Card Motifs. Sometimes, the athame and wand are inverted, so that the wand symbolizes Air and the athame, Fire. The pentacle gets the short end of the stick. It's more or less passed over as a quest object (when did you last hear the line "Right lads, our mission is to find the Mystical Pentacle"?), but it can be a sign that something unpleasant is lurking nearby. Used in this way, it's usually a symbol of Satanism, which means that technically speaking, the pentacle should be point-down.

The Wiccan calendar also makes the odd appearance as a motif. Summer and Winter Solstices often have an effect on power, as do the vernal and autumnal equinoxes (also found in other traditions). Samhain has regained some prominence as the earlier Celtic holiday that became Halloween. Beltane appears more rarely, but it's not unheard of. Some characters will have strong connections to these times of year, often based on whatever type of magic they have.

Sometimes, witchcraft doesn't enter into the symbolism at all — it's a design taken from elsewhere (usually another tradition) that looks pretty and suits the purpose. Popular symbols in fantasy include the spiral, the infinity symbol, the Ouroboros (snake eating its tail) and the Eye of Horus. (The swastika used to be used in this manner until Hitler appropriated it and rendered it ideologically radioactive.) Alternatively, the "mystical symbol" has no real-life equivalent whatsoever. It's specific to a character or the product of the writer's imagination with its own associations as defined by the writer/artist. An example of this might be the Deathly Hallows symbol, which looks similar to the Squared Circle, but is not an actual occult symbol.

See also: Instant Runes, where those funny looking scribbles actually do something; BFS, where the pointy thing the hero is lugging around isn't just a symbol, Tarot Motifs, Ritual Magic, Hermetic Magic, Western Zodiac, Magical Star Symbols for pentacles as a symbol for magic as a whole, and Public Domain Artifact. If a writer uses a real mystical symbol without taking into account its actual meaning, it's Faux Symbolism.


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     Anime and Manga 
  • Numerous Japanese stories, not the least among them the anime Blue Seed, make use of the imperial regalia of Japan, a trio of ancient artifacts tied to the Japanese national mythos: Ame no Murakumo no Tsurugi ("the sword of the gathering clouds of heaven" from the legend of Orochi and the Japanese equivalent of Excalibur) (often also called Kusanagi no Tsurugi, "the grass-cutting sword"), Yasakani no magatama (a jade necklace with large, comma-shaped jewels on it, although pop culture tends to depict it as a single large gem), and Yata no kagami (the sacred mirror). The latter two are said to be the treasures used to lure the goddess Amaterasu from a cave wherein she'd hidden herself. Unlike most mythical artifacts they appear in the historical record, and all three artifacts (or items claimed to be them) still exist, enshrined in three different locations in Japan.
    • The regalia make an appearance in the later arcs/seasons of Sailor Moon in the form of Uranus's sword, Neptune's mirror, and the gem at the end of Pluto's staff.
    • In Skies of Arcadia, the Blue Moon Crystal bears a striking resemblance to the single-gem depiction of the Yasakani no Magatama.
    • The three treasures appear, somewhat modified, as the three weapon types in Ōkami. Which makes sense, since the main character is the reincarnated Amaterasu, and the story borrows.
    • The Artifacts of Darkness arc in YuYu Hakusho plays with this, as the titular artifacts are a Sword, Mirror and Jewel respectively.
  • The anime version of Chrono Crusade has a pentagram magically appear behind Rosette during Chrono's Transformation Sequence.
  • In Fullmetal Alchemist, all of the Homunculi have Ouroboros tattoos somewhere on their bodies. There are also many other occult symbols cleverly embedded throughout, like the Green Lion on the flag of Amestris, or the Kabbalistic Tree of Life on Ed's Gate of Truth.
  • The Taijitu (Japanese Taikyoku), Taoist symbol of the Yin and Yang concept, shows up in numerous Japanese and Chinese stories. In Naruto, the Taijitu is surrounded by the Bagua (trigrams) when Neji Hyuga is about to use his advanced Gentle Fist techniques.
  • While not shaped like the items in question, Uxie, Mespirit and Azelf from Pokémon Diamond and Pearl are based on the virtues that the items represent: Uxie, the "being of knowledge", represents the mirror, Mespirit, the "being of emotion", represents the jewel, while Azelf, the "being of willpower", represents the sword.
  • Sailor Moon also used the Holy Grail. In the manga, the four Inner Scouts/Senshi have a large sword used "to protect the princess" and bring their powers together. However, it's not wonderfully effective.
    • See also the entry under the Japanese Imperial Regalia, below.
  • Yu-Gi-Oh! uses a lot of Egyptian symbolism. The Eye of Horus/Wdjat is particularly prominent, as it shows up on the Millennium Items.

    Comic Books 
  • Promethea features an arc where Sophie, the current incarnation of Promethea, goes on a mythic journey with past bearers of the title, learning lessons framed around the four suits of the Tarot. One part equates reason with the Sword, as "swords cut through bullshit."
  • This issue of Bob The Dog depicts a pentacle in conjunction with demonic spirits being summoned.

    Fan Works 
  • In Vow of Nudity, Fiora the forest witch uses a chalice, pentacle, and dagger in her demonic ritual. (The fourth element, Fire, is represented by a candle instead of a wand or staff.) She also regularly refers to her silver dagger as an athame.

    Film — Live-Action 
  • Joe's "crooked road" in Joe Versus the Volcano. Seen in the crooked sidewalk to the factory, the crooked road from the airport, and the crooked path to the top of the volcano, all in the same lightning bolt shape.

  • In Fighting Fantasy, the eight-pointed star is used as a symbol of Neutrality along with a double-pointed arrow (the arrow for those who are neutral because they maintain the balance; the star for those who might do anything). The symbol for Chaos/Evil is a circle, and an arrow pointing straight up represents Order/Good.
  • Michael Moorcock invented a new symbol for chaos (a wheel of eight arrows, each pointing in a different direction) and a corresponding symbol for law (a single arrow pointing up) for his fantasy stories. The symbol has since become used by real occultists to represent the philosophy of Chaos Magic.
    • Some people say the eight-pointed star has occasionally been used even before Moorcock used it, but he is certainly the one that popularised it as a symbol for chaos.
    • Peter J. Carroll also used the eight-arrowed wheel in his non-fiction books on Chaos Magic.
  • Games Workshop took Moorcock's eight-pointed star as a symbol of Chaos in Warhammer and Warhammer 40,000. Each Chaos God has his own symbol as well, and Warhammer Fantasy has symbols for each Lore of Magic.
  • A Wizard Abroad, the fourth book in the Young Wizards series, takes the Four Great Treasures from Irish mythology and combines them with the the elemental motifs noted above: the cup known as the Cauldron of Rebirth embodying water, the sword known as Fragarach the Answerer embodying air, the Stone of Destiny embodying earth, and the Spear of Lugh embodying fire.

     Live Action TV 
  • Sibohan Beckett from Earth: Final Conflict had a bag of runes on her person and consulted them frequently. Liam doesn't consult them, but he certainly understood their meanings.
  • Kamen Rider Blade, with its running motif of playing cards, named the four main Riders for one of the elements: Blade is Swords, Chalice is Cups, Garren is Coins (the name comes from "Galleon") and Leangle is Clubs (from "liangle", a type of club). Their Elemental Powers, however, are mixed up: Blade is lightning, Chalice wind, Garren fire, and Leangle ice.

     Myth and Legend 
  • Arthurian Legend has The Four Hallows of the Fisher King's castle: the chalice, the sword, the spear (staff) and a platter, which fills the same role as the pentacle. This in turn is derived from the pre-Christian Irish legend of the four treasures of the Tuatha Dé Danaan (the Stone of Fal, the Spear of Lugh, the Sword of Light, and the Cauldron of the Dagda), which is sometimes referenced in Celtic-themed fiction, for example four treasures of the novel Elidor.

     Tabletop Games 
  • In the old World of Darkness's Mage: The Ascension, the four major organizations were presented by the four motifs: the Traditions are Wands, Marauders are Swords/Daggers, the Nephandi are Cups and the Technocracy are Coins.
  • Unknown Armies does this a lot. All magick is sympathetic, so signs and symbolism can be very useful for making magick more powerful. It's not limited to conventional pagan symbols or Tarot Motifs, either; all human ideas can be made real through magick, given the right kicker. For instance, signs of The Executioner include the Swords tarot, axes, the color black, and 9mm pistols (for "execution style" kills). Also, a good GM will roll a lot of symbols into the environment to give players clues or enrich their experience, so keep your eyes open.

     Video Games 
  • Naturally in a game about Alchemy, and Demonology — Animamundi Dark Alchemist is full of these, from Georik's Ouroboros cufflinks he had from his father (which showed his father was an alchemist), the sword-cup-wand-knife motifs, even his house has the Caduceus (the winged staff with two snakes) emblem carved into the wall. Basically, it's everywhere.
  • Ōkami has the imperial regalia of Japan show up in the weapons - the reflectors for the mirror, the rosaries for the magatama, and the glaives for the sword. Divine Retribution, Exorcism Beads, and Blade of Kusanagi are the closest to the original regalia.
  • In Radiant Historia, the disciples of the world's greatest martial artist are Chalice, Wand, Pentacle and Sword.

  • Gunnerkrigg Court has strange symbols all over the place — symbols from alchemy, stars, and spirals (which are particularly associated with the Donlan family). Then there's the eye with a diagonal line through it, which initially seems mystical, then appears to be a warning to cover your eyes, and is eventually revealed to be something else entirely.
  • Homestuck is loaded with Christian and Gnostic motifs, such as the consorts and denizens being named after Gnostic symbols, such as Yaldabaoth the demiurge and Abraxas.

     Web Original 
  • The Order of Denderah in lonelygirl15 are associated with various symbols, including the Omicron-Tau and the Watcher symbol, both based on Greek letters; Hathor, the Egyptian goddess of fertility; the lemniscate; Enochian; the Zodiac of Denderah; and various occult concepts associated with Aleister Crowley. The Resistance also use a symbol based on Greek letters, Theta-Pi.

     Western Animation 

Alternative Title(s): Esoteric Motif