Imagine having the power to settle all those petty debts! And all’s you have to do is have an otherworldly god hang over your shoulders the entire time that you use it… oh, and neither go to heaven or hell, for like, ever.
In ancient Roman and Greek society, so-called “Curse Tablets,” where leaden objects bearing the name of a person that the owner of the tablet wished to harm; since in both of these societies, it was presumed that the name of a person was the extension of that person, sort of akin to their soul, should the name of a person be skewered by a sharp object—such as a nail—while the name is associated with a magical curse—think of an angry rant, or the ‘writing letters but not sending them,’ technique—then harm would befall that person. This was known as image magic.
Outside of melodramatic gothic dramas involving misunderstood youth, the idea of doing harm to a person by cursing their name is not something well survived into the contemporary epoch. But, if there is one text which best encapsulated this idea with our modern sensibilities, then it would have to be the anime Death Note.
Some background information: Death Note is my favorite anime.
Moreover, it is my favorite anime because, unlike many anime shows, it knew when to stop: the show lacked filler in the same way other anime relied on filler. Furthermore, it was a detective-mystery inverted, where the protagonist and antagonist were inverted in an elaborate game of cat and mouse; what Death Note brought to the anime fold, other than a great deal of controversy thanks to precocious teens and their own fake death notes, was a sense of intellectual prizing—the narrative kept things tense while peppering the sign-system with a plethora of motifs and thought-provoking escapades which often eschewed the typical route. Whereas many anime gave little thought to how the protagonist made it from point A to B, Death Note gave an unusual amount of detail to the specifics. Whether or not it is so-called ‘Deep Anime’ can be debated, but it was in the very least an intelligent anime.
Oh, and it also had Shinigami, or Gods of Death, and a megalomaniacal teenager who sought world domination thanks to an arcane notebook—the titular death note—which gave him the power to kill anyone whose name he wrote in it. It had that too. But, anyways.
So, here was my surprise when I learned of image magic, that I thought right way of Death Note.
In the show, protagonist Light Yigimani acquires the death note by complete chance. Once in possession, however, he gains the power to kill anyone he desires simply by writing their name in the death note notebook. It is here that we see the similarity to image magic but also how it departs from image magic while also building on the idea of image magic.
Traditionally, the name engraved on the leaden image must be damaged in some fashion in order for the spirits of the undead to fulfill their harmful mission. In Death Note, however, this idea is subverted by the name simply needing to be written (additionally, it is suggested, though never confirmed, that should a death note become damaged in some specific way, then it will no longer function); Death Note circumvents this by forcing the notebook user to imagine the target’s face and while they write their name. This way people sharing the same name are not killed. Thanks to capitalist fragmentation, though, this becomes harder due to the many persona oscillating in (what Gilles Deleuze would call) a disjunctive synthesis: who people pretend to be clashes with their outward identity and sometimes, as a result, pushes a herd of conformity thanks to the insufficiently unique number of proper names: as Light himself discovered, it is easy to write one name but think of another’s image accidentally while writing.
So it seems that this is the natural extension of image magic into the modern day. And, indeed, seems like what even ancient users would have needed to do in order for their craven sorcery to work (though, I suppose demons have a level of collective familiarity with the mortal world, so perhaps the magic-user and spirit were symbiotically connected, thus eliminating the need for the user to actively think of their target).
Provided, classically imagined image magic, presumably, had a wide range of possible effects and I am not sure death was even a likely desire for the invoker (as, after all, the sourcebook where I am studying the idea of image magic only bears witness to image magic in association to gambling, where the target doesn’t need to be killed in order for the curser to get their way). The death note, meanwhile, has only shown itself capable of killing—not injuring or rendering feeble, just killing. So, if the writers did intend on the death note being somehow related to ancient Greek and Roman image magic, as seen in the curse tablets, then it is a mildly indecent stretch.