Simplicity, Language, and Ceremonial Magic

Simply put, never the twain shall meet.

I’ve got a big thing for linguistics, writing systems, and conlangs (constructed languages, like Star Trek’s Klingon, Tolkien’s Quenya, Disney’s Atlantean, etc.), which all have their definite place in ceremonial magic.  The mystical scripts I use to call spirits, the barbarous names of invocation, the seed syllables and chants and mantras, and having to translate works from one language into another are all part of the Work, if for nothing else than to get more information and context on a given topic or act.  As a hobby, though, it’s just plain fun.  When I was really little, I used to think there’d be a little goblin or tiny person in each person’s head, and when someone would speak to them in a foreign language, the tiny person would translate it into English for processing, or out of English into the other language for them to speak.

What?  I was a kid, like I said; it was a phase and I grew out of it.

There’s one conlang in particular I’ve liked for a while: Toki Pona.  It’s a minimal language, with only 120 words to use and an exceedingly simple grammar.  I’ve known about it for a number of years now, and still can translate the grammar in my head though many of the words escape me.  (I need to relearn this language, if only for the fun of it.)  It’s almost reductionist in how to say things: since there’s no word for “friend”, you need to describe what “friend” means (usually, a person who’s good to you).  English, with its huge vocabulary, can say things in one or two words what Toki Pona might take five or more: “enemy combatant” might be reduced to “a fighting person who’s bad towards you/your land”. That said, often enough the simplicity in making these statements and in communicating them makes up for its simplistic vocabulary.  It helps that there’s still a live and active Toki Pona community, too, both in forums and on IRC (though the original attempts at a Toki Pona book appear to have fallen by the wayside years ago).

One idle day, I was thinking about writing a short text about or of magic in Toki Pona, thinking it might be an interesting exercise.  I had to cut it off early on, though, primarily due to time restraints but also because of how daunting a task that would be.  Even though Toki Pona (literally meaning “good talk” or “simple talk”, since “good” and “simple” are the same word and simplicity is seen as good) is such a simple language, magic (or at least the kind of magic I work with) is decidedly not.  Given that it’s hard to describe “humans” as separate from “humanoid”, and how simple religious texts written in Toki Pona are largely unclear, talking about sephiroth and angels, the specifics of calling down elemental forces to charge objects or events, or how the placement of planets can affect the progress of a life or task is pretty much right out.  The size of the text would probably multiply tenfold, and would require dozens of pages just to lay out the first principles to describe what means what.

I mean, can’t we also see this happening anyway even in English texts?  I regularly bust out ancient Hebrew, Arabic, Greek, and Latin words and phrases to describe certain things or call them by their proper names.  Hell, it’s almost a trope that magicians use arcane languages, written and spoken, to achieve their ends, or at least to keep things a trade secret from the profane and vulgar.  When describing these ideas and forms, or Ideas and Forms, you almost have to introduce complexity and specification that defy simplicity; at least in ceremonial and qabbalistic terms, the only thing that can be accurately described as simple is the One, who is divinely simple; at that point, however, it doesn’t make sense to make any distinctions, where everything is One and One is All, and all language can be done away with anyhow.  After the One becomes (at least superficially) Many, already there’s so much complexity that 120 words just won’t cut it.

Toki Pona, as a conlang, has restrictions that normal language users don’t have.  Direct borrowings are very frowned upon, the one exception being proper names of people and places (which themselves have to undergo proper tokiponization to follow the phonetic rules of Toki Pona).  Invention of new words is right out; I recall the commotion when the inventor of the language added two words (from 118 to 120).  Hell, even ASL has a trick to point to an arbitrary space to use as a label for some object or referent, while (to my knowledge) Toki Pona has only one pronoun for such a thing (which can often be confusing even with proper context).  Given all this, I don’t think Toki Pona and ceremonial magic mix particularly well except for one important use: the description of a desired state or outcome.  This conlang is fantastic for describing how things are at their core, with as little subjectivity and as much clarity as possible.  Making sigils written from Toki Pona would be fantastic, as would describing statements of intent or will to be realized and manifested.  I haven’t used Toki Pona for that, but it seems like a very good application for it in magic.

What about you?  Do you know anything about Toki Pona?  Have you used conlangs or ritual languages in your work for specific ends, or do you do it all in your mother tongue?  What about written magic?

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About polyphanes
I'm a software developer and Hermetic occultist living near Washington, DC, USA. I claim that I'm youthful, dashing, daring, and other things. I make things and chant stuff, and periodically write about them.

8 Responses to Simplicity, Language, and Ceremonial Magic

  1. Andrew says:

    As a Latin teacher, I get to construct Latin sentences from time to time to use on talismans and images, and really I should do more of that.

    I’m tempted to write a beginners’ magic text, where each chapter uses only the grammar of the chapters in my textbook, to teach basic magic. I could call it Defende contra Arti malii! and sell it to the Harry Potter crowd, as well as to my own sixth graders. :-)

  2. Satyr Magos says:

    I haven’t actually written any new spells in ancient Greek, yet, but that time will come. I’m planning on trying the Stele of Jeu in its original form once I get back to my temple in Indiana.

  3. Alex Jones says:

    Thanks for drawing this language to my attention. I will be running experiments to see if this works for me.

    • polyphanes says:

      In some ways, Toki Pona is a good example of a language to test the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis (basically, “the limits of my language are the limits of my world”). By reducing things to a select group of core components, Toki Pona seeks to act as a clarifying language as well as a therapeutic language; things are either good or bad, and good things are simple, while bad things are complex. In some ways, Toki Pona can be a worthless tool; in other ways, it can be a powerful and dangerous one.

      • Alex Jones says:

        It is early day but Toki Pona could have many useful applications, for instance as a concrete computer language for AI.

        Some of my tests will be to see if I can translate Liberated Way ideas into Toki Pona.

        The abstract nature of modern languages I dislike. Ancient Hebrew I have found to be concrete (sensory), function, action and relationship based, which Toki Pona seems to reflect.

  4. Shannon Rae says:

    Interesting….I like the goblin in your head idea. I want one of those.

  5. runeworker says:

    I just like barbarous words of power. I even have my own that I sought through meditation years ago, and use quite often for myself. On one hand they are a trance trigger, on the other hand there does seem to be some power behind them (at least for myself since I don’t share them with others…yet).

    Toki Pona as you have described it makes me think of Chaos Magic and Ouranian barbaric, at least in the sense that it should also be done without using the verb conjugations “to be” which simplifies some language but makes it more complex at other moments.

  6. Pingback: On Simplicity in Constructed Speech and the Occult | The Digital Ambler

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