The clavis or key to the magic of Tony Boydell's Aleph Null

Goetia, a term that signifies the conjuration of demons, comes from the Greek word "γοητεία" which means charm. Having been charmed myself by the mysteries of the images and symbols that Tony Boydell used to illustrate his solitaire card game Aleph Null, I embarked, like the Fool of the tarot, on a journey of discovery of their meanings.

I unfortunately have very little knowledge of occult imagery, and even less of magical practices. I am, however, familiar with the practice of iconology, and this is what I am trying to do here: locate where the images come from, examine what their intended symbolic meaning may be, and how they have been appropriated by the designer. As you will see, I haven't been able to fully unlock their secrets.

I understand that it's frustrating to show you a game you don't yet have access to, but hopefully you will soon, and I admit that patience has never been a virtue of mine. I have already written about the gameplay in this article, and you can watch Tony play the game on YouTube. To remind our reader, in Aleph Null you are playing as a magician, commissioned by a wealthy client to summon the demon Baphomet, just to see what it will do if let loose. If you still wish to check what these words and cards may mean, read on:

Aleph Null: The Hebrew letter Aleph and the number Zero are associated with the Fool, the first card in the Major Arcana of the tarot. The Fool is zero, because s/he is a 'nothing' full of possibility, a person about to begin his/her journey of self-exploration. We can perhaps draw an analogy here, and see the player as the 'fool', just as s/he sets out to play the game, eager to see how well or badly s/he may do in the end.

The Fool in The Kabbalistic Tarot by Eugene Vinitski and Frater North

James Blish's 'Black Easter', the novel that inspired the game, was also published under the title 'Faust Aleph Null' in 'If' magazine in 1967.

The Grimoire Verum - Book of Hours

Grimoire: A textbook of magic usually containing instructions for summoning spirits or demons.

(Planetary) Hours: The game's timer is called Book of Hours and starts at sunset. Rituals and spells are supposedly more effective when performed at the right time: for example, if you wish to do a Mercury ritual, it is better to do it on a day and at an hour that corresponds to Mercury according to the planetary tables. Nighttime in this system is divided in 12 equal parts which start at sunset and end at sunrise. In the game though, you only have 6 'hours' (rounds) to complete the conjuring.

'Grimoire Verum' cover image: I haven't been able to find the origin of the image but I recognize it as the allegory of the Rebis: the end result of the alchemical great work. The double figure (King-Queen) shows the union of sun and moon, of gold and silver. After a process of conjunction, death and putrefaction, they are resurrected as 'the one thing from two'. They have killed the Mercurial dragon (the base metal). The Pelican (seen on the right) feeding its young with its blood signifies the final sublimation of the stone.

Fumigation of the artifacts: The process of cleansing the magical tools from any negative energy before using them.

Why a Grimoire would refer to alchemical processes and take into account the position of the planets? The answer lies in their symbolic correspondences: Alchemy talks about the transformation of base matter to noble matter. Magic transforms the physical world by connecting it with the spiritual realm. The movement of the celestial planets affects life on earth. An adept on these esoteric studies would therefore be able to understand and manipulate the forces that shape human life, actions and relationships.

The main deck

1. Mother Shipton: A prophetess from Knaresborough, Yorkshire (nee Ursula Sontheil, 1488-1561), sometimes described as a witch. Reputed to be hideously ugly. She had supposedly foretold various tragic events happening in subsequent centuries. The image is taken from a 19th century illustration that shows Mother Shipton admonishing Cardinal Wolsey and King Eric VIII. In the game she acts as the magician's helper.

2. Learned Tanist, Wealthy Tanist: Helpers of the magician. Perhaps two of the protagonists in James Blish's 'Black Easter' ?

3. Wax Candle: Candles are often used in magical practices. In 'Black Easter', the magician Theron Ware mentions that it has to be the first wax taken from a new beehive.

4. Lodestone: A mineral with magnetic properties. Presumably used to attract the demons and bring them forward. The image shows a medieval floating compass from Athanasius Kircher's 'Magnes sive de arte magnetica' (1643).

5. Sacrificial Lamb: Self-explanatory.

6. Boline: Ritual knife (used to cut herbs for spells and perhaps to sacrifice the aforementioned lamb). These artifact cards gradually enter the player's tableau. By the end of the game, the player must have used and discarded them until there is none of them left when Baphomet pays a visit.

7. The Weeping Tree: The image of the Weeping Tree is taken from Hortus Sanitatis (Garden of Health), a 15th century manuscript about the medicinal use of plants. It shows the Biblical manna raining down on a tree from the heavens (to sustain travelers in the desert). This may also allude to the trees that produce aromatic resin like myrrh and frankincense. Incense is frequently used for cleansing purposes in magic, so perhaps this is what the card refers to.

8. Besom: A broom used for cleansing the energy of a space before a magician starts a ritual.

9. Circle of Protection: An imaginary circle cast by the magician to protect him/herself from unwanted influences. It often involves calling upon the elements (Air, Fire, Water, Earth) and the Archangels (see for example the LBRP - lesser banishing ritual of the pentagram).

10. Vitriol: The universal solvent (it dissolves everything except gold). An important substance in Alchemy, produced from the combination of sulfur, mercury and salt. Its letters form the alchemical motto: 'Visita Interiora Terrae Rectificando Invenies Occultum Lapidem' (visit the interior parts of the earth: by rectification you shall find the hidden stone).

11. Deck of Cards: Used for divination?

12. Bell: The curfew bell was rung in Medieval England in the evening, signalling it was time to go to bed. Everyone had to cover their fires (curfew: couvre-feu). This seems to be the intended meaning in the game. The original image, however, doesn't actually show a watchman ringing the bell; it is instead taken from F. Gaffurio's 'Theorica Musicae' (1492) and illustrates the theory of the harmony of the spheres by Pythagoras.

13. The Devil in the Hearth: I haven't been able to find anything on this.

14. Mirror: Perhaps used for scrying.

15. Exorcised Water: Presumably to ward against demons like holy water.

16. Chasuble: A type of vestment worn by priests. (In this case worn by the magician. This is a card that can be discarded in the game to get rid of an 'interference').

17. Salamander: A symbol of transformation in Alchemy, based on the mythical ability of salamanders to survive in fire. The salamander is the materia prima (the base material) that gives up its secret fire in the process of turning into the philosopher's stone.

18. Golem: An anthropomorphic creature made of mud, animated by rabbis in Jewish folklore. Since ceremonial magic is related to the Qabalah, the Golem makes an appearance in the game as a helper (Tanist).

19. Akhtoi: The sacred cat of the Egyptians was considered an animal of Satan and a sorcerer's pet in the Middle Ages. In 16th century Scotland, a ritual known as taghairm was practiced: "A person would take a cat and roast it alive over an open flame, turning it on a spit. The cat would scream in agony and this would summon the devil to protect one of his own. The devil would plead with the person to end the cat’s suffering but the person would hold out until the devil had promised to fulfill a certain request – often some prediction of the future – at which time the cat would be put out of its misery". In the game, Akhtoi (akh means 'soul' in Egyptian) is both a helper and an interference.

20. Wand of Power: One of the magician's instruments, a symbol of elemental fire.

21. Book of Pacts: Presumably a grimoire with instructions on summoning demons.

22. Grand Circle: The card shows the Sigillum Dei Aemeth (seal of the truth of God), used by the 16th century occultist John Dee. It is a diagram drawn by ceremonial magicians for protection and/or to trap demons. Inside the circle are inscribed the names of God and his angels.

23. Baphomet: This image originates from Eliphas Levi's 'Transcendental Magic: Its doctrine and ritual' which connects magical practice to the tarot. Notice that his arms say 'solve' and 'coagula', the alchemical 'dissolve and coagulate' that a substance has to go through in order to be transformed into something new. The Devil in the tarot signifies creative energy in its most material form, 'the goat leaping with lust upon the summits of earth'. When summoned in the game, he triggers the final scoring.

Aleph Null also comes with a deck of Interference cards which represent things and events that might prevent the magician from completing his/her ritual. I will mention them just for reference: Assassin, Cursed Hourglass, Ill Omen, Angel's Feather, Succubus, Reliquary, Ossuary, Opposition of the Brotherhood, The Number of the Beast, Hymns of Devotion, The Guardian of the Door, and The Holy See.

So, this is what my mini-research yielded. If your curiosity was sparked and, like the wealthy client, you wish to see what happens when you play around with fancy names, don't come running to me if things get weird. I know null.

Bibliography - Sources

Image 1: The Fool card from The Kabbalistic Tarot by Eugene Vinitski and Frater North - source

Image 2: Mother Shipton admonishing Cardinal Wolsey and King Eric VIII - source

Image 3: Pythagoras in Theorica Musicae - source

Lon Milo DuQuette, Understanding Aleister Crowley's Thoth Tarot. Weiser Books, Newburyport, 2017.

Alexander Roob, Alchemy & Mysticism. Taschen, Cologne, 2005.

Joshua J. Mark, 'Cats in the Middle Ages' in Ancient History Encyclopedia - link

Robert Hawks, Screenplay based on Black Easter by James Blish - link

'Drops tears as fast as the Arabian trees' article on Sense Shaper - link

The Tarot of Eliphas Levi - link

Thomas Forrest Kelly, Alchemy and Magic - link

I located the image of the lodestone on this website.

Planetary Hours explanation by Denis Poisson on his Foolish Fish YouTube channel

A lot of information has been sourced from Wikipedia.

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