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An Insight On Magick Circles

posted by Gus diZerega

I am one of many who have wondered
about the traditional directions we initially learn in casting a circle.  The image we are often told to use, but
I doubt anyone actually does, is a sphere. Given that a traditional magickal
circle is 9 feet in diameter, that means it’s walls go below our waist much of
the time…  Tongue in cheek, I
usually describe casting the “magick lozenge.”  My friend Don Frew  has just suggested to me an alternative way to think about circle casting, a way that makes sense and does not indicate our Witchy ancestors were challenged in the it use of basic mathematical imagery.

In an insight spun off from his research
into NeoPaganism’s connections with Classical NeoPlatonism, Don argues the circle is in fact
a circle, not a sphere.  The original imagery is better than the modern alternative.  The circle’s walls
go up and down a considerable way before closing, but no one ever thought of such walls as needing to go to the center of the universe or any such thing.  

Of course this is what we mostly do as a matter of course,
but those of us who learned the “sphere” model as an ideal have a  slight disconnect between practice and
understanding that can interfere with the strength and quality of the
circle.  And any such disconnect
weakens the working.  

Our likely roots in Neoplatonic
Magick and philosophy suggest why the circle was never intended to be a sphere.  In my view, bringing all aspects of understanding and practice into greater coherence strengthens our work, and so this perspective is helpful to all who work this way.

The circle is as much “a bridge”
as a barrier.  It is “between the
worlds” connecting them.  The walls
go up and down far enough to connect the worlds “above and below.”  After talking with Don, I think of this
image as a kind of multidimensional bridge between dimensions.

From this perspective the circle
accesses dimensions and the accompanying ritual is a kind of “magnifying glass”
concentrating and filtering the light of the One – what Gardnerians call the
Dryghten   - as it manifests within and through all worlds. 

Within this traditional NeoPlatonic
perspective the “Planetary energies” or energetic qualities are a part of the spectrum of light from
the One.  In a sense the correspondences we find in tables of correspondence  help filter the light so only certain qualities come through while our intent
energizes the light/qualities so

The roots of the problem in contemporary Westerners understanding how the circle and ritual works, Don argues, lie in our wanting
to translate magickal instructions based on a view of the universe as a sacred
space emanated from the One into modern scientific terms that ignore this important aspect of reality.

Comments read comments(16)
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Cheryl Hill

posted May 20, 2010 at 3:59 pm

My Magick Circles are a bit different from what you describe. I’ve always used “circles” as opposed to trying for a sphere. And my first ones were cast with salt – usually kosher salt because the grains are larger and it’s easier to sweep them up later. They were as precisely 9 feet in diameter as I could make them.
Starting about 1980-ish I began not creating my Magick Circle with salt, but instead began using an energy one. When I cast a Circle for a Ritual doing energy manipulation, using my athame I Will that boundary to extend itself around me in a “bubble” of energy. This is done not to protect me, but to contain the energy until I am ready to open the Circle and release it to manifest my Will. If I need to draw energy from the Earth or down from the Cosmos (or both!) I will do the Ritual (outside if I can) in my own warded space (my home and gardens) and not cast a Circle at all. A Circle is but one way to contain energy until ready to direct it; there are other simple ways to accomplish this.
Also, because I am not raising or manipulating energy to push toward a goal I won’t cast one if I’m doing a Ritual in simple celebration or in thanks, unless I’m with a group of other Witches or not in my own warded space.

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Hecate Demetersdatter

posted May 20, 2010 at 7:03 pm

Fascinating post, Gus. I often find that I have trouble casting that part of the circle that is “behind me” out as far as I do that part of the circle that is “in front of me.” My Sticky Self and I work on this every time that I cast a circle. I don’t have the same trouble with above and below.

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posted May 20, 2010 at 9:35 pm

Interesting. I always learned to cast ‘bubble’ Circles. I still don’t really think of a Circle as a Circle per se unless I actually concentrate on it or cast it in that way.

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The L

posted May 21, 2010 at 8:20 am

As someone who usually practices seated in a wholly mentally-constructed Circle (i.e., I’m not actually walking around the borders, but sending energy to the Circle from its center), I’ve sort of gotten used to the idea of a Circle being “as big as it needs to be” in all dimensions, not necessarily a sphere. It’s nice to know that I’m not completely mistaken in doing this. :) A lot of us apparently ignore that if a Circle were a perfect sphere, it would have to be over 10 feet across for me to stand in the center (more than 12 feet for taller practitioners)–and I still wouldn’t be able to move around much without disturbing the Circle!

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posted May 21, 2010 at 1:10 pm

The use of a “circle” in magic is quite convenient. The imagery, however, can become a bit tricksy.
When they are cast, I suspect that magical “circles” do not so much describe a more or less two dimensional area on the ground as they enclose a more or less plastic and deformable volume of space enclosing the practitioners. It may be described, conventionally, as a “sphere.” But it is probably shaped more like a “lozenge” (as you suggest, Gus)or like a “tube” or a “fishing bobber” (which is how I’m visualizing your description of Don Frew’s imagery.)
My own habits of visualizing a magical circle and me taking part in it amounts to a node in a dynamic network (or web) of beings, energies, and flows. A location from which I and other co-practitioners are well and vitally connected to All That. To say that I “Cast a circle” is just a convenient term for what we actually do.

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Robert Mathiesen

posted May 22, 2010 at 11:53 am

There are at least three theories of what a circle does.
The oldest theory appears to be that it erects a protective barrier between the magician, sorcerer or witch and the entities whom s\he summons — traditionally, summons into a triangle. This goes back as far as Late Antiquity.
An nineteenth-century alternate theory was created by the Spiritualist movement, which compared a circle of sitters with their medium to a series of batteries wired in series, or alternatively to a leyden jar. In each case, it contains and/or amplifies “energy” (which is not quite the same thing as what physicists call “energy”). This was the view of Gerald Gardner, who had been deeply involved with spiritualism before he discovered Wica. It may also have been the view of those who initiated him.
The third theory is that the circle functions as a symbol of the cosmos, and the one who stands at its center is therefore in a position of power within the cosmos. This owes something to the Late Antique “Book of the Twenty-Four Philosophers,” which situates God at the center of the infinite circle or sphere that represents the universe. If the circle (or sphere) has an infinite radius, then — mathematically — every point inside that infinite circle (or sphere) is equidistant from all points on its circumference (or surface), that is, every point inside it can be taken as its center, and the place of God. Thus also the point where the magician stands within the circle he has cast is the center of the Universe, the place of God — and of God’s power. This theory may be as old as the first theory.
From this “symbol of the cosmos” naturally flow two of the commonest element arrangements.
The alchemical arrangement goes clockwise around the circumference of the circle from fire to earth to water to air to fire, an endless helix rising upward when clockwise, or sinking downward when counterclockwise. Here water is in the North.
The astrological arrangement matches the element attributions of the zodiac signs, and seems to be the most common one in modern practice. Here earth and water trade places.

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Anna Korn

posted May 22, 2010 at 12:52 pm

Magic Circles–
I’m reasonably certain the idea of a sphere is quite modern, since I recall first hearing it from folks like Isaac Bonewits, Morning Glory and Tim Zell (now Oberon) and other Witches in the late sixties and early seventies. However, it does not follow that a sphere’s dimensions are as limiting as you describe. There is NO reason that the circle we draw must represent a cut through the sphere at its equator. It would be very limiting if that were the case, especially for tall people.

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Gus diZerega

posted May 22, 2010 at 1:00 pm

Gardner knew something about Spiritualism – many more did back then than now. But neither the casting of a circle nor Drawing Down of the Moon have much in common with Spiritualism as I have seen it, read about it, or heard about it. To reverse the point, your description has nothing recognizable with what I was taught or what I have seen or what I do in a Gadnerian context.
Your description DOES resemble the kind of thinking involved in at least some Brazilian healing circles and kinds of shamanic healing. And these Brazilian traditions have strong links to Alan Kardec, who initiated spiritualism in Europe, and from there, it crossed over to Brazil to mesh with African and indigenous Indian traditions. In my experience this is most clear in Umbanda.
The large number of participants, and often their singing and dancing and clapping, all generate ‘energy’ that mediums/shamans/spirits (depending on how you understand what is happening) can use to heal others.
When I do this work “retail” that is, alone with the ‘patient’ and my entities, I have been told that I should do only one truly serious ‘heavy’ energetic healing every few days because the entity uses only my own energy to perform the healing work. That fits my experience. After heavy work I feel really drained.
So I am not questioning the accuracy of your portrayal as one approach to a circle, only its relevance to Gardner and Wiccans. I have found no source that said Gardner was :”deeply involved” in spiritualism – can you name some?
I don’t know enough about the late Classical stuff to comment on it much. The first, which we see today in Ceremonial Magic, differs from a Wicca circle because when we Draw Down the Moon, the deity enters into the Circle. There is no protection. In fat, for the High Priest/ess there is incorporation. The circle also holds ‘energy’ that is then deployed outside the circle to accomplish some working (or not). Protection comes from the Guardians of the Watchtowers, or an equivalent force, who are specifically invoked for protection.
The third example soundsto me like an ego trip that has gotten out of control. But I really know nothing about it.

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Gus diZerega

posted May 22, 2010 at 1:01 pm

Good point, Anna.

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posted May 23, 2010 at 11:42 am

Let me add an observation about “magical” energy and where it comes from when we put it to use (prompted by Gus’s comment about “retail” healing).
I’m not sure when this distinction began to be made (my guess is post WWII), but when I was learning some generally Western magical techniques of energy healing in the early 60s, my sense was that the following distinction was fairly recent.
Most of the healing techniques that I learned at that time involved the use of energy generated by the body in the ordinary life process and consciously tapped and manipulated by more or less skilled individuals to heal themselves or those fairly well known to them.
This process “cost” personal energy and fatigued the body as source.
Magical healing, in other words, was self-limited by the practitioner’s own health and well being.
Most of the healing techniques that my teacher passed on took for granted using body energy. But late in the lessons, my teacher did hint that healing and other magical endeavors could, in principle, draw on “outside the body” energy–Earth energy, for instance–and that using outside energy would not fatigue the practitioner in the same manner as using one’s own body energy.
The hint was brief and not repeated, and I got the notion that it was, at that time, controversial in some fashion.
This was what started my own pokings around in the magical uses of outside, typically Earth, energy.

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posted May 23, 2010 at 1:42 pm

Very interesting idea! Thanks for sharing!

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Robert Mathiesen

posted May 23, 2010 at 2:14 pm

Hi Gus —
Here is the passage from _Witchcraft Today_ that I had in mind when I wrote about Gardner’s view of what the magic circle does for Witches:
“It is necessary to distinguish this [= the circle Witches cast] clearly from the work of the magician or sorcerer, who draws a circle on the ground and fortifies it with mighty words of power and summons (or attempts to summon) spirits and demons to do his bidding, the circle being to prevent them from doing him harm, and he dare not leave it.
“The Witches’ Circle, on the other hand, is to *keep in* the power which they believe they can raise from their own bodies and to prevent it from being dissipated before they can mould it to their own will. They can and do step in and out if they wish to, but this involves some loss of power, so they avoid doing so as much as possible.”
He says, I think, much the same thing in a few other places in his writings and other records of his views, though less clearly.
I have no idea whether Gardner’s view of how a circle works is still current among Gardnerian witches or not. To judge by conversations with them that I have had with some of them from time to time, and ritual or instructional texts that they have allowed me to read, their current views and practices do not always replicate those of Gardner himself. Also, it is clear that their current views and practices are not quite the same in Canada as in the United States, or quite the same in England as on this side of the Atlantic.
As for Spiritualist circles, it would take a much longer post to discuss the most important references in their classic texts of the 19th and early 20th centuries. If you wish, I’ll cite a few in another post. There are even 19th-century schematic illustrations of spiritualists sitting around circular tables, men and women alternating, and each man-woman pair shown with a positive and negative pole, just as one would draw a number of batteries wired in series.
As for the influence of Spiritualism on Gardner, his rather extensive period of research into Spiritualism is the subject of a substantial part of the account of his life published under Jack Bracelin’s name, but authored by his former secretary and close friend, Idries Shah. Given that biographical fact, the parallels are striking for anyone who has read (as I have) many thousands of pages by 19th-century Spiritualists. Emma Hardinge Britten (a Spiritualist, an occultist and a founding member of he Theosophical Society) could be cited at great length to make this point. Since she also, at times, spoke of herself in print as a Witch, and insisted that Witches and Magicians and Spirit mediums were all using the same energies and doing the same sort of things, she has an excellent claim on the attentions of anyone interested in the sources of Gardner’s thought. (And Doreen Valiente actually quotes a book of hers on one occasion.)
For whatever it may be worth, Hutton (in his preface to _The triumph of the Moon_) criticizes himself and his own book for failing to take in to account the substantial influence of Spiritualism on Gardner’s own “Wica” (as he called it).
Hopd this clears things up a little . . . — Robert
PS Gardner also writes about the Witches’ Circle as being a sort of gateway “between the worlds” of men and the Gods. One could, perhaps, see this as a fourth theory of how a magic circle works.

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Gus diZerega

posted May 23, 2010 at 8:41 pm

Thanks Robert. I appreciate your information and will check the stuff about Bracelin out with friends who know that literature much better than myself.
Gardner’s description is what I have always understood us to do. That’s why I said a Gardnerian circle is a container. To me that is not what Spiritualism is about. People I know who have studied Spiritualism historically, and who are deeply knowledgeable about the Craft, mention that both were practitioners of spirit possession, but do not mention similarities in circles.
I agree that probably all such workings with subtle energies and entities work with energy/chi/prana (though there are likely subsets within that category in every tradition – and energy is both affected by mind and intent and by intent of other entities in my experience. With the Chinese chi there is yin chi and yang chi. But on the whole it seems the same to me at the level most Witches practice, and given that the energy can be empowered with intent, I am not really sure there is a difference of note.
When I read about American Spiritualists they seem to work with it differently and use different images and metaphors. One similarity between your description and Gardnerian Circles is that ideally a British Traditional Circle is balanced in term of gender (which gets complicated when some members are gay). So sexual polarity exists in both. On the other hand, so far as I know the Spiritualists’ table is not a container. Is it?
The American Spiritualists, as I understand it, have no significant connection with Kardec, and while I’ve read much of Kardec’s stuff – which for all intent and purposes has zero similarity with the Craft, I haven’t read the American stuff. But concepts such as ectoplasm play no role in any Wiccan circle I have ever encountered. Or table tipping/rapping, or except at Samhain, a focus on those who have gone before. So far as I know, American Spiritualists didn’t raise energy and send it to do work.
I consulted some histories just now, and American Spiritualism did have a strong connection with Theosophy, and Theosophy did have a big influence in Europe and India. Gardner probably was well acquainted with Theosophy and perhaps by studying backwards, encountered Spiritualism. But Spirit Possession – which I think is the only common element in Spiritualism and Gardnerianism, seems not to have been so central to Theosophy other than with Blavatsky. And the spirits encountered are quite different from Wiccan ones. Finally, spirit possession is hardly unique to Spiritualism and Gardnerianism, though in the Craft it seems a minority practice.
It would be interesting to know what kind of Spiritualism Bracelin says Gardner was interested in.
Thanks again,

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Robert Mathiesen

posted May 25, 2010 at 1:32 pm

Hi Gus,
You’re most welcome!
For whatever it may be worth, present-day spiritualism (in the USA) seems to me to be about as different from 19th-century spiritualism as Gardnerian Craft is from the craft of, say, Silver Ravenwolf or that of Scott Cunningham. (And Kardec-style spiritism is something else again.)
In the older form of Spiritualism, the circle was formed by the linked bodies of the sitters, alternatingly positive and negative (as a rule, alternatingly male and female), who may sit around a table or in a circle of chairs, rather than by the table itself. If, subject to Victorian ideas of propriety, the sitters do not hold hands with one another, then a wooden table becomes essential, and all the sitters must place both their hands on it. In that case, the table serves as a conductor to carry the energy from one body to the next, completing the circuit of energy.
Ideally such a circle has an even number of sitters (half male, half female), no more than twelve in all, plus a medium, for a total of no more than thirteen.
You can find various 19th-century descriptions and rules for forming spirit circles on the web. Search, for example, on google books for “Rules to be observed for the spirit circle,” which should give an 1869 article in “The Spiritual Magazine.”
I took another look at Bracelin, and there is just one chapter on Gardner’s adventures among the spiritualists. I’ll rummage elsewhere among my books and xerocopies to see what else I can turn up.
All best,

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posted May 25, 2010 at 4:19 pm

Speaking for myself, when I was taught to draw a circle, it was always envisioned as a sphere. I have been to other covens who draw a circle and envision a circle. It felt odd to me but hey, that one of the beautiful things regarding Wicca or Paganism, allowing for differences.

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Gus diZerega

posted May 27, 2010 at 11:44 am

Robert- I’m back after doing some checking about the issues you raised about Gardnerian Craft and Spiritualism. Craft history is not something I know deeply so I’ve consulted with some who do. What I have learned is that the similarities between Gardnerian Wicca and Spiritualism, such as male/female polarity and having 13 as the ideal number are not particularly significant for several reasons.
First, Gardner did study Spiritualism. He studied a lot of what existed in the occult world at that time. But from what they knew and had seen, he was not particularly impressed by it. They were well acquainted with Bracelin’s work, which I have not read, and wondered whether there were other sources on the issue. They wondered whether they missed one, because in their judgment Bracelin doesn’t give evidence that Spiritualism contributed to our roots.
First similarities that initially impressed me, such as 13 participants, these long pre-exist both Gardnerian Craft and Spiritualism, extending back into old grimoires. Margaret Murray’s writings also mention it. Gardner had access to these. Therefore it is unlikely that Spiritualism is the source of the idea – it was all around the place in Gardner’s time.
Second, so far as they knew gender polarity is not in the earliest Gardnerian material. This is something I had not known. I’d assumed it had always been there. Apparently not. My informants said they believed it entered our tradition after Gardnerian Craft arrived in the US, probably in New York state. They were also curious to know whether you have any data that suggests otherwise. That is, they were not dogmatic at all about the issue, just giving me what they knew and curious as to what other evidence might be out there.
I read big parts of the magazine you recommended http://books.google.com/books?id=gvkDAAAAQAAJ&pg=PA197&dq=rules+to+be+observed+for+the+spirit+circle,+spiritual+magazine,+1869&hl=en&ei=cJD-S8mGB5vENNSihDs&sa=X&oi=book_result&ct=result&resnum=1&ved=0CCwQ6AEwAA#v=onepage&q&f=false
and the similarities and differences with Craft work are interesting. Craft has never in my experienced been oriented towards the visual manifestation of entities. It does not seek to maintain a passive open state of mind, though we work to abandon our concern with mundane issues when we ground. A Wiccan circle dance is anything but passive. A Spiritualist group should never last more than a year without some withdrawing and others being added, so as to keep the “batteries” in good shape. This seems pretty fundamental to Spiritualism. The opposite applies in Craft, where ideally the first initiation takes a year and a day and strong covens meet for many years. Broader points about etiquette seem compatible with what we strive to do.
I have reread your posts and you appear to suggest there is a similarity between our raising power to do a working from within a circle and the Spiritualists’ idea of bodies as energy generators? I missed that the first time around. I’d need more evidence because the metaphors are different, the uses to which the energy is put are different, and the idea that bodies can raise energy is an old one found in many cultures.
I have worked many times with a Chinese American regarded by others as a Tai chi/Xi Gung “Master.” He is modest and I am unqualified, but he teaches these techniques and practices in the SF Bay Area, where there is a big Chinese population and has his own teacher in China. We work with the same energy, but as I joke, I have a 25 year learning curve and his is 4000 year old.
As I review these comments I see another point of interest. Larry Wong and I met while working with a Brazilian healer. I studied with him for 6 years – and it was as challenging as getting a PhD at Berkeley. Every bit as hard, but vastly different. Larry studied longer. There the energy was raised in part by a big crowd and the spirits used it in the work they did through entranced mediums or through shamans. So it was different from Craft, where the High Priestess or other leaders in a working manipulates the energy, and it was different from Xi Gung, where the master (so far as I know) manipulates and works with it on his own terms. It’s not a group thing.
So that Spiritualists and Gardnerians both say energy as coming from bodies working together is nothing new.
For me personally, Craft origins is an issue where I have an interest but no strong preferences one way or another. The people I first learned with have done major research on both the original material available in Toronto and to a much less significant degree, in Florida. Their work suggested to them powerful similarities with NeoPlatonism once you got to core principles rather than the garb that cloaked a ritual. Much of their work has been investigating that possibility. I find their stuff more persuasive than the alternatives I’ve encountered, but it’s still circumstantial, as probably everything is we will learn about Craft origins.
But if English Gardnerian Craft has roots partially in America, that’s also kind of cool to me. That means a spiritual movement dominated by women and rising in the first religiously free modern society will have contributed to our practice. I personally like that. I have become fascinated with that period between the War of 1812 and the Civil War, so like the 60s in many ways, where Spiritualism grew and flourished here. So consider me open but unpersuaded.
I agree with you I can find no major doctrinal or organizational similarities between Kardec and American Spiritualism, other than that both deal with departed spirits and both use channeled material. There may be more and I simply do not know the material well enough to see it.

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