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Browsing the D&D Beyond spell list it is clear that each spell has an associated symbol related to the spell's school:

$$\require{HTML} \newcommand{\schsym}[2][]{ \style{ display: inline-block; background: url(#2) no-repeat center; #1 }{\phantom{\Rule{35px}{35px}{0px}}}} \begin{array}{c} \textbf{Abj.} & \textbf{Conj.} & \textbf{Div.} & \textbf{Ench.} & \textbf{Evo.} & \textbf{Illu.} & \textbf{Necro.} & \textbf{Trans.} \\ \schsym{https://i.stack.imgur.com/uzFcs.png} & \schsym{https://i.stack.imgur.com/8DWrI.png} & \schsym{https://i.stack.imgur.com/VfeKS.png} & \schsym{https://i.stack.imgur.com/0YuqE.png} & \schsym{https://i.stack.imgur.com/lwSxi.png} & \schsym{https://i.stack.imgur.com/bHkjS.png} & \schsym{https://i.stack.imgur.com/b9tgW.png} & \schsym{https://i.stack.imgur.com/wPeGf.png} \\ \end{array} $$

Doing a quick search for more information on this I have found:

  • a reddit thread that points to the presence of the same symbols in the 5e DMG as well as in some of the magic items and references the 3.5e PHB (which I am unable to verify)
  • an enworld thread claiming that these symbols go back at least as far back as AD&D 2e PHB referencing a Dragon 302, page 51 as well (I can't verify any of these either)

It seems clear that these symbols have been used across editions. I am mainly interested in the following:

  • What is the earliest instance of usage of these symbols?
  • Did the symbols hold some meaning beyond representing a spell school? (for example, being part of a language or script)
  • Was there a resource that actually mentioned/explained them? (the post mentioning Dragon 302, page 51 seemed to hint at this)

Update: Although I was hoping for an official explanation, as Quadratic Wizard's answer details, such an explanation probably does not exist. I have accepted his answer for tracking down and detailing the origins but I would like to leave a note of appreciation for Kryan's answer as well for being a very good source for the actual meanings of the symbols. I find both are well worth reading.

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These particular symbols date back to the AD&D 2nd edition revised Player's Handbook (1995), where they appear in an elaborate diagram in the specialist wizard rules depicting the eight opposing schools of magic. The revised 2e rules added a large amount of all-new art, so that what was a simple drawing of crossed lines in the original AD&D 2e Player's Handbook became this grand artwork depicting the schools of magic with pseudo-historical occult symbols representing each school.

The symbols later appear in the third edition Player's Handbook (2000), where they are illustrated by Arnie Swenkel and appear on the opening page of the chapter on magic. They are not widely used in the book or other books of that edition. According to the WotC gallery:

These DaVinci-inspired works of line art grace the opening page of each chapter. Although in the finished book, text covers the lower half of each illustration, here in our Player's Handbook art gallery we showcase them in their entirety.

In the actual book, the bottom four symbols are covered by text, which explains in part why these symbols were never widely used.

Dragon #302 (2002), page 51 does not use these symbols. It invents its own, different symbols, which suggests that the symbols in the PHB were never universally used or understood at this point. Dragon magazine used these for a time to label spell schools in its articles. It advises that players might find other uses for the symbols:

In general, regular, recognizable symbols can be a great way to add detail to a campaign. They give both players and DMs a visual way to connect individuals who belong to a group, and they can quickly convey a lot of information about a group's alignment and goals.

The use of runes and symbols like this goes back to the World of Greyhawk Folio (1980), which defines various runes that have secret meanings, although schools of magic are not among them.

Historically, alchemists, astrologers and occultists used symbols like this to represent cosmological or magical concepts. Best known are the symbols of the zodiac, along with various astronomical symbols, astrological symbols, and alchemical symbols.

The symbols for the schools of magic are almost certainly inspired by these renaissance occult symbols. KRyan's answer does an excellent job of inferring the individual meanings of the D&D symbols.

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Fair warning: this answer does not include any actual knowledge of the history of these symbols’ usage in D&D, nor any statements from D&D authors responsible for choosing them. Instead, I am trying to match these symbols to those found elsewhere. Several of them seemed to remind me of alchemical and astrological symbols as used in Europe since Greek times, which is why I began this answer, but more and more of them don’t seem to quite match those, suggesting that these may have been original creations at some point in Dungeons & Dragons history. So this answer is only partial—some ideas for some of the inspiration, some notes of what the symbols are not, etc. But actually tracking down the D&D history here, I leave to others.

Abjuration

A Google search finds other trident-like symbols, especially as an icon of Neptune/Poseidon. At least one source labels a symbol almost exactly like this one as magnesium, but the usual symbol for magnesium is completely different: ⊛ (a circle with an asterisk in the middle, if your font doesn’t render it correctly).

Also similar to the Greek capital letter psi, Ψ, again with some extra cross bars.

But the most convincing comparison—with thanks to @KumosAgosta for pointing it out—is that the symbol is one of the spokes of the Norse rune Ægishjálmr, or Helm of Awe. The rune was responsible for the dragon Fafnir’s invincibility in the Poetic Edda, so it has strong associations with protections (unlike Neptune, Poseidon, magneium, or psi, so far as I know).

Conjuration

This seems to be a stylized version of the symbol for the classical element Earth: 🜃

Could be a reference to the idea of bringing things “to Earth” perhaps? In classical elemental theory, the Earth element was heavily associated with salt, which was often involved in binding circles and the like.

The stylization also suggests horns, which could be a reference to the fiends that are often summoned with Conjuration. The fact that the line is wavy rather than straight doesn’t seem to matter, or at least I cannot find any other symbol that has a wavy line instead.

Divination

I can’t find any symbol remotely like this. I suspect the curvature may have something to do with dowsing rods, which are bent sticks that are supposed to be able to divine the location of water.

Enchantment

The right side of this symbol seems pretty clearly to be the astrological symbol for the constellation Virgo, ♍, which is also used for the alchemical process of distillation. It could, alternatively, be Scorpio, ♏, with a little more curl—Scorpio is associated with the alchemical process of separation.

The left side is a cross. Along with the circle, the cross is the most common symbol in human civilization; literally every culture ever had one or more. The particulars of this cross—longer bottom piece, shorter top piece, left and right arms equal—really do seem to reference the specific cross symbol used by Christianity to represent the Crucifixion. But that is far from certain.

I cannot find any other source that combines these two symbols in this way. I also... do not quite care to try to speculate on the possible ways in which Virgo and the Crucifixion can combine to refer to Enchantment.

Detexify amusingly associates this symbol with a trademark, ™.

Evocation

An oblong version of one astrological symbol for the planet Earth, ⊕, perhaps, plus rays extending from it. Could also be a sun with a cross (though note that “a sun with a cross” is exactly what that Earth symbol is, since a plain circle is often used for the sun), or an eye with a cross.

My actual preferred speculation here is that this is an eye, with a targeting reticle across it. But I cannot find this particular symbol, either, so speculation is all this is.

And, as noted in the comments, @Quadratic Wizard’s speculation that this is just a stylized fireball seems a lot more convincing than my guesses.

Necromancy

This one is pretty straightforward: the Greek capital omega, Ω. As the final letter of the Greek alphabet, omega has been used to refer to “the end” since antiquity, since at least well before Revelations did it. Necromancy is the magic of messing with “the end,” death, hence omega appearing here.

Illusion

An eye, obviously. Because that is what Illusion is concerned with, what is seen or not seen.

Transmutation

The Greek capital pi, Π, with a little tail, and maybe the left leg has a little blade on it—possibly a scalpel? I can’t find any other source that adds that little tail, or that blade, and I’m not sure what they represent. If it is a scalpel, though, the association with surgery and thus body modification seems obvious.

In modern times, pi, but specifically the lower-case pi, π, represents the ratio of a circle’s circumference to its diameter \$\left(\pi = \frac{C}{d}\right)\$. π is of course immensely important to a lot of mathematics, but I’m not quite sure I see how it associates with Transmutation. Π is also used in mathematics, for repeated multiplication, similar to how capital sigma, Σ, is used for repeated addition (Π is the Greek P, for product, and Σ is the Greek S, for sum), but there’s not any clear relationship between that process and Transmutation.

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    \$\begingroup\$ Necromancy also looks like Liliana Vess's headdress. She's a necromancer. No idea if there's a connection or just coincidence, e.g. if Liliana Vess's headdress is meant to be an Omega (common inspiration), or if the graphic designer was a fan of Liliana & borrowed the symbol. \$\endgroup\$ – doppelgreener Mar 2 '18 at 16:03
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    \$\begingroup\$ @doppelgreener Assuming that the assertions made in the threads linked in the question are true, these symbols may predate Liliana (and/or Magic altogether) by some time. That said, I sort of suspect these are just independent references to omega, regardless of timing. Be really interesting to discover a deeper connection between the two, though. \$\endgroup\$ – KRyan Mar 2 '18 at 16:05
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    \$\begingroup\$ π might be a reference to "squaring the circle", a mathematical problem with some association with alchemy. That'd be kind of oblique, though, and I'm not sure why they wouldn't just pick something more direct... \$\endgroup\$ – mattdm Mar 2 '18 at 16:09
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    \$\begingroup\$ The aburation symbol looks like one of the prongs on the Helm of Awe, a Norse symbol for protection and might. The prongs supposedly represent runes for protection. norse-mythology.org/symbols/helm-of-awe \$\endgroup\$ – KumosAgosta Mar 2 '18 at 17:01
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    \$\begingroup\$ I suspect the symbol for evocation represents a fireball, the quintessential evocation spell. \$\endgroup\$ – Quadratic Wizard Mar 2 '18 at 17:43

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