Every religion has a concept of sacred space, a place of particular holiness, where there is more of a connection between the spiritual and the mundane. These may be houses of worship or an axis mundi, a metaphorical central point in the world. In Christianity, for example, the axis mundi in Jerusalem. In the Middle Ages, maps were actually draw to put Jerusalem in the geographic center. For Islam, the axis mundi is Mecca. These religions have additional holy locations. In Vodun (also known as Voodoo) a pole at the center of a ritual space becomes the axis mundi. As such, there is no single geographical location for it.
Sacred space is generally not required for religious work, just as prayer does not require a church, but it is nevertheless an important component of faith.
Because Wiccans gather in small numbers, it is generally not financially possible to establish permanent temples. Also, when weather allows, many prefer to conduct their services outside. The casting of a circle addresses both of these issues, allowing us to erect sacred space wherever we choose to gather in a size appropriate for the number of participants.
The circle is frequently marked on the ground by inscribing it in the dirt or tracing it with a length of cord. Candles often mark the four cardinal points as representative of 4 physical elements – north for earth, east for air, south for fire, west for water. These markings are not necessary, but they act as a guide for participants.
Sacred space is considered a particularly appropriate place for worship because it has been purified out of respect for the gods and forms a bridge between the material and spiritual worlds. Because of its altered state of existence, it also offers protection and containment, keeping raised energy within and unwanted influences without.
History of Circle Casting
While we find ritual circles dating back thousands of years, such as at Stonehenge, circle casting as performed by Wiccans is relatively new, dating back to the 19th century.
…the visualisation of the circle, and the pentagrams at the quarters, are both based upon the standard GD [Order of the Golden Dawn] Pentagram Ritual; both the concept and word “Watchtowers” are of course from the Enochian system of Magic, passed to Wicca via the GD (although I would like to make it very clear that their use within Wicca bears no relation to the use within Enochia – the only similarity is in the name); the Elements and colours generally attributed to the Quarters are those of the GD. (Julia Phillips. “HISTORY OF WICCA IN ENGLAND: 1939 – present day.” Lecture given at the Wiccan Conference in Canberra, 1991.)
Traditionally, things called Watchtowers were invoked at the cardinal directions during circle casting. This comes directly from the Golden Dawn, a late Victorian magical society. However, in the Golden Dawn tradition, the Watchtowers bear the names of angels, as their practices existed strongly within a Judeo-Christian context. Since Wicca does not, many Wiccans have dropped the use of the term Watchtower entirely.
Symbolism of the Circle
Why a circle? Because of what they represent in a variety of cultures.
With no beginning or end, and with every point an equal distance from the center, circles are symbols of infinity and unity. Having only one side emphasizes that sense of unity, in part because objects with multiple sides commonly represent themes with multiple pieces: four-pointed objects representing the four cardinal directions of the four elements, for example.
As it lacks hard corners, the circle is a more natural geometric shape. Very few things grow with hard edges to them. Flowing energy is viewed as a spiral; scientifically speaking, energy travels in waves, which is what you get if you stretch out a spiral.
The circle also represents the various cycles of life that are so important in Wicca: the cycles of the sun and moon, of creation into destruction into creation, and so forth.
Circle Casting Ritual
Rituals for circle casting, like other rituals in Wicca, can vary tremendously depending upon the performers. However, it generally contains the following elements:
- Blessing and purification of the space and possibly the participants, often through elemental representations: incense for fire and air and salt water for eater and water, for example
- Tracing of the circle with a physical boundary such as a rope or a spiritual one directed by a hand or tool circling the space
- Calling the quarters at the cardinal points, often through the use of elements. Pentagrams might be traced in the air as a representation of the unity of the five elements and as spiritual “seals”
- Recognition of the boundary between the mundane and the spiritual
- Invitation of the divine into the circle
At the end of a ritual, the boundary is often traced in the opposite direction with the statement “may the circle be open by not unbroken.” This recognizes there sis no strict break with the presence of divinity just because the sacred space has been dismissed.