[RPG] the origin and meaning of D&D Beyond’s spell school symbols


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

display: inline-block;
background: url(#2) no-repeat center;
\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} \\

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.

Best Answer

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 Swekel and appear on the opening page of the chapter on magic. They are not widely used in that 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.