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The Mage: the Ascension line has adopted symbols that represent each Sphere. My question is where they are from? Not in-world - I am interested what is the real world source of these.

Image showing all the symbols for Correspondence, Entropy, Forces, Life, Matter, Mind, Prime, Spirit, and Time


I would also want to clarify that I do not believe these were created specifically for Mage. As a game tries very hard to incorporate real world mystic concepts and practices and concepts.

I have seen some of the symbols in other places, for example the Prime symbol (perhaps an ornate Greek Psi character) shows up in some video games as a "spell particle effect" or otherwise something mystic among other thing.

As an example, the video game Arcanum: Of Steamworks and Magick Obscura features the symbol for the Fire magic college. It is not merely a Psi character - it is the same trident shape with a line through it:

Image of the Fire symbol in Arcanum - very visually similar to the symbol for Prime in Mage.

The same game also features the Life symbol for the Phantasm College a Greek Psi with soft curves, rotated 90 degrees anti-clockwise and ends in a "hook":

Image of the Phantasm symbol in Arcanum - very visually similar to the symbol for Life in Mage.

Arcanum also has the Summoning which has the Entropy symbol - I can only describe it as an Arabic numeral "4" with a big flourish for the middle horizontal dash to make it 1. curved a bit 2. styled as an arrow pointing to the right:

Image of the Summoning symbol in Arcanum - very visually similar to the symbol for Entropy in Mage.

I am sure I have noticed others like the Matter and Time symbols in other contexts but I cannot give examples right now. Perhaps the only one I do not remember seeing elsewhere is the Spirit symbol.

All in all, it appears that many works tap into the same source for these but I am not sure where to search for it and how.

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As Guybrush McKenzie’s fine answer notes, Wikipedia claims these are alchemical symbols depicted in Symbols, Signs, and Signets by Ernst Lehrer, 1950. However, I haven’t been able to find a copy of this book to double-check that, and I don’t think anyone at Wikipedia has either: they don’t cite the book itself but rather this forum post. However, our own @JasonWodicka does have a copy, and confirms that it contains these symbols, drawn by Lehrer from his own references:

OK, I've finished the cross-referencing. All the symbols are in the book—and, in fact, all but the tenth sphere are on page 79, looking very much as they appear in Mage. (The tenth sphere is on page 78, and is labeled as the alchemical symbol for “Vinegar”) Given that these were the versions drawn by Ernst Lehner, from his varied references, I think it's very plausible that the Mage illustrators were using these exact drawings as reference, though we can’t prove it.

Wikipedia also includes a list of Latin names for the alchemical ideas that the symbols represent, citing this page’s scans of Medicinisch-Chymisch und Alchemistisches Oraculum, Ulm, 1755. This book is conveniently well into the public domain, and the Internet Archive has a full scan of it, making it easy to verify (convenient, since actual reprints of it apparently go for over $300).

Notably, no one is claiming that White Wolf actually referenced these particular sources for Mage: The Ascension. Lamed-Ah-Zohar’s forum post claims he just happened to find Symbols, Signs, and Signets in an old-book store while looking into the symbols, not that he has any knowledge that White Wolf used it. It’s completely unclear how Medicinisch-Chymisch was found. Point is, we don’t know exactly how White Wolf found these symbols—but most likely, it was a process rather similar to Lamed-Ah-Zohar’s, whoever was tasked with this went to a library or old-book store, and just used whatever happened to be available. Remember, Mage was published the same year Tim Berners-Lee released the world’s first web browser, so information was a lot harder to come by.

Anyway, here’s the full list, using Mage symbols from The Unofficial White Wolf Wiki, modified to fit on our site, next to the actual symbols from Medicinisch-Chymisch, for comparison. I’m using the levity.com scans since they’re in black and white, and are somewhat indexed. I also include a column with the Unicode characters for each concept, where available, just to show that the ones from Mage aren’t (apparently) the most prominent ones.

Mage Sphere Medicinisch-Chymisch und Alchemistisches Oraculum Unicode
Correspondence symbol
Correspondence
Amalgam¹
Amalgama
U+1F75B 🝛
Entropy symbol
Entropy
Rot
Putredo
U+1F764 🝤
Forces symbol
Forces
Boiling²
Ebullitio
Life symbol
Life
Arrangement, combination; agreement, pact; union
Compoſitio
Matter symbol
Matter
Amalgam¹
Amalgama
U+1F75B 🝛
Life symbol
Mind
The Sun, cf. gold³
Sol, ſ. aurum
U+2609 ☉
(“sun”)
Prime symbol
Prime
Essence
Essentia
Spirit symbol
Spirit
Fumes, smoke, steam
Fumus
Time symbol
Time
Dust, powder
Puluis
U+1F74B 🝋
Tenth Sphere symbol
Tenth sphere
Vinegar⁴
Vinum mortuum
U+1F70A 🜊
U+1F70B 🜋
U+1F70C 🜌
  1. What, if any, distinction was found (or imagined) by White Wolf between the two amalgam symbols, used for Correspondence and Matter, is unknown. Medicinisch-Chymisch, at least, makes no such distinction. White Wolf may simply have liked both designs.

  2. The symbol used in Mage for Forces does match up nicely with a fairly common—though not common enough to get Wikipedia or Unicode treatment—alchemical symbol for boiling. It doesn’t, however, match up very well with the Medicinisch-Chymisch symbol for ebullitio, which adds another leg and splits up the crossbars between the two legs.

  3. “Sol” is “the Sun,” and “aurum” is “gold.” The “ſ.” here is a long s (ſ not f), and in particular, it is in Blackletter font, indicating it is German and not Latin. It stands for “ſiehe,” meaning “see,” and has a similar usage in German as “cf.” does in English. So this is basically “Sun, see also gold,” where gold is listed as “Aurum, sol,” or “Gold, Sun.”

    Alchemists heavily associated gold with the Sun and often used the astrological symbol for the sun, U+2609 ☉, to mean gold. Unicode also includes U+1F71A 🜚 as the alchemical symbol for gold, which in some fonts looks rather similar to that for the Sun. Amusingly, Unicode also includes a very similar “see also” note on U+1F71A 🜚, pointing to U+2609 ☉.

    My guess here is that the idea is the “Aurum, sol” entry is for symbols used for both gold and the Sun, while “Sol, ſ. aurum” is for symbols that are used only for the Sun, and don’t mean “gold.” The “ſiehe” is reminding the reader that if they’re looking for symbols for the Sun, they should also consider all the symbols for gold. Unfortunately, the author doesn’t provide a German translation as he does for so many other entries, most likely because “sol” and “aurum” were rather well-known Latin words, so this is somewhat speculative on my part.

    Also, note that the Wikipedia list associates Mind with solutio, folvere which is a large stretch, and simply wrong considering how close the penultimate “Sol, ſ. aurum” entry is. This may have just been misunderstanding the rather dense table, since “solutio” is immediately after “sol, ſ. aurum” and the entries kind of run into one another (plus the lack of translation on “sol, ſ. aurum” could make it all look like one entry).

  4. Medicinisch-Chymisch is confusing here, as it has separate entries for “acetum ſ. vinum mortuum” and “vinum mortuum, ſ. acetum.” “Acetum” and “vinum mortuum” both mean vinegar—the author even translates both as “Eſſig,” which is German for vinegar—and it’s a mystery why these two entries are different, or why our Tenth Sphere symbol only appears in the latter. If this book’s entries were in English, we’d have “acetic acid, cf. vinegar” and “vinegar, cf. acetic acid” as if those were different things.

    Unicode’s U+1F70A 🜊, for the record, is Medicinisch-Chymisch’s entry for “acetum, ſ. vinum mortuum,” i.e. not the entry with the Tenth Sphere symbol. Things sort of like U+1F70B 🜋 are listed for “acetum deſtillatum,” distilled vinegar I suppose, but the symbols have a top crossbar, U+1F70B except the vertical part of the cross looks like a T instead of an I, or they have only two of the four dots, two symbols that look like U+1F70B except they have only the bottom two, or the top two, dots, respectively.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ Oh, this is great - thanks for doing this extra legwork! I will also have to find that book, the symbol repositories I found online had less similar versions of many of these. \$\endgroup\$ Nov 21 at 22:05
  • \$\begingroup\$ Re your point 3; I suspect (but can't prove) that the long s is an abbreviation for "sans", without, which might account for it appearing twice with different word order. \$\endgroup\$
    – postmortes
    Nov 22 at 9:28
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    \$\begingroup\$ @postmortes Latin SE came through for us—even though it turned out to be German! The “ſ.” is short for “ſiehe,” “see,” in the sense of “see also.” Still doesn’t explain what distinction is being made between “acetum” and “vinum mortuum”—the author even translates both to the same German word for vinegar—but it does clear up a lot of the confusion. \$\endgroup\$
    – KRyan
    Nov 22 at 19:29
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    \$\begingroup\$ OK, I've finished the cross-referencing. All the symbols are in the book - and, in fact, all but the tenth sphere are on page 79, looking very much as they appear in Mage. (The tenth sphere is on page 78, and is labeled as the alchemical symbol for "Vinegar") Given that these were the versions drawn by Ernst Lehner, from his varied references, I think it's very plausible that the Mage illustrators were using these exact drawings as reference, though we can't prove it. \$\endgroup\$ Nov 22 at 23:34
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    \$\begingroup\$ @JasonWodicka By the way, if you were so inclined, I’d love to see photos/scans of 78-79 here and include those in my table. Does Lehrer make some kind of distinction between the two symbols for amalgam? \$\endgroup\$
    – KRyan
    Nov 23 at 12:17
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They are derived from alchemical symbols

Several sources, including those cited on the Wikipedia article for Mage: The Ascension, match the sphere symbols to specific alchemical symbols. Some of the sources cite version of the symbols found in the 1950 book Symbols, Signs and Signets by Ernst Lehner (though don’t claim this was the source used by White Wolf), but you can also find many of them in online collections of alchemical symbols.

The Mage versions have enough in common with these that this rings true, though they are adaptations: sometimes they use part of a more complex symbol, or change it by adding or removing elements. Only a few are relatively unchanged, and some of the listed “matches” are more like inspiration than a single source.

The list given on Wikipedia and in at least one of its sources is:

  • Correspondence: amalgama (amalgam, as in a substance)


  • Entropy: putredo/putrefacto (to rot)


  • Forces: ebbulio (to boil)


  • Life: compositio (composition)


  • Matter: almagama (amalgamation, as in the process)


  • Mind: solutio (to dissolve) - though this doesn’t seem correct (see KRyan’s more comprehensive answer)


  • Prime: essentia (essence)


  • Spirit: fumus (fumes)


  • Time: pulvis (dust or powder)

  • Tenth sphere: vinegar (in Ascension); The Sorcerer’s Crusade offers a different symbol, which Wikipedia’s list claims is a combination of the symbols for stone and distillation. (Note that the older post used as a source for these matches doesn’t include either version of the tenth sphere symbol.)

As for their use in Arcanum, that game was released in 2001, many years after the release of the first edition of Mage: The Ascension in 1993. Also of note is that Arcanum was produced by Troika Games, who went on to produce Vampire: The Masquerade - Bloodlines in 2004, which might indicate some crossover awareness of Mage. This is just speculation, though; and of note the symbols you specifically cite are some of those which most closely resemble the original alchemical symbols, especially the entropy symbol.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ OK, this makes sense, I suppose. I doubt the alchemical symbols have a single representation - alchemists were famously secretive about their work and did not others to "steal" it. Having a single standard symbol set to work with that everybody used completely unchanged, especially centuries in the past doesn't seem plausible. \$\endgroup\$
    – VLAZ
    Nov 21 at 8:45
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    \$\begingroup\$ Have you been able to confirm this by actually checking a copy of Symbols, Signs, and Signets? I had found the same claim, but couldn’t verify it from that book. \$\endgroup\$
    – KRyan
    Nov 21 at 13:16
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    \$\begingroup\$ @VLAZ Yeah, my comment was too early, which is unsurprising for exactly the reasons you state. These weren't any of the “big ones,” e.g. the ones now included in Unicode, but probably were the ones in the book White Wolf (or their artist) happened to be able to get their hands on in the pre-internet age. \$\endgroup\$
    – KRyan
    Nov 21 at 13:19
  • \$\begingroup\$ something about the symbol codes is off \$\endgroup\$
    – Trish
    Nov 21 at 18:01
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    \$\begingroup\$ Note: I see a weird empty square at the end of each line of your answer (presumably some Unicode symbol or something that I can't see). This might be an artifact of copying and pasting from somewhere else. (EDIT: I only saw this on my MacBook Pro; I don't see it on my Windows laptop.) \$\endgroup\$
    – V2Blast
    Nov 22 at 17:02

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