As Roderick notes, the magic circle is basically the equivalent of a Jewish synagogue, a Christian church, a Muslim mosque, a Hindu temple, or any other place of worship. The main difference is that our place of worship is not necessarily a permanent physical structure. We can set ours up outside, we can set it up inside, and we can make it as big or as little as we like. Technically, we don’t even have to make it a circle at all, though it’s often the shape we choose. The circle doesn’t even have to follow the physical delineations of a space: my High Priestess occasionally casts our circles through the walls of her home to encompass multiple rooms in her house, depending on the activities we are doing.
In a very reductive view, all the circle is is a psychological reinforcement for saying, “Look, put away your phone and gadgets, your worries and your troubles, your class, race, and gender distinctions, and experience this present moment fully.” Energetically, we say we create a space “between the worlds”–just outside of time and our normal perceptions–where we perform our magical practices like raising and directing energy, celebrating the turning of the seasonal wheel, reading our divinatory tools, invoking the gods, and ritually performing rites of passage.
Unfortunately for us, ceremonial magicians of yore–such as the famed Doctor Faustus–were said to construct elaborate magical circles that sort of acted as barriers, either to protect them from the demons or energies they summoned or to ‘trap’ these entities in order to force them to do the magicians bidding. I think a little of this mindset was also a part of Wicca’s beginnings, as this is definitely the type of magic circle Gerald Gardner portrays in his fiction book, High Magic’s Aid. While we do cast circle with an eye to energetic restraint, I doubt very much that many Wiccans these days are summoning forth arcane demons. And yet, the general population thinks this is what witches do.
Needless to say, there definitely some myths about the magic circle that abound, and Roderick does his best to address good bit of them here. What I’ve done is bulleted his listed myth and given an expanded version of my reality following it. Some are like Roderick’s realities, others are not.
Circle Myth: The circle is a container for the spiritual energies that Witches raise.
- Yes and no. We hold that the circle focuses one’s energetic work and defines a clear space for the gods, elements, and other energies to mingle with us for a determined time, but it’s not really contain or trap anything. I think of it as constructing an energetic building in order to give the gods an address to appear for a party. We invite them in, and they tend to depart when the party is over (or linger until it is appropriate to leave). The circle naturally has to be at least somewhat porous in order for the gods to get into the party, so that does dash the container myth to pieces.
Circle Myth: The circle is a barrier that keeps out unwanted spirits.
- Again, this is something of a yes and no. The circle is, as we’ve established, something of a semi-permeable energetic membrane. It lets certain things in, especially if they were invited, but it’s also something of a block. When we cast it, we leave our problems outside it and do our best to experience the here and now. So in a way, it does act as a barrier to unwanted energies. We also have a practice of casting a small, personal, protective circle about ourselves to help deflect negative energies from another party. I like to think of it as bully insurance: they soften a lot of the impact. So while the magic circle is not a hard and fast barrier, it can muffle unwanted energies.
Circle Myth: Being within the circle makes you more vulnerable to negative spirits and psychic energies.
- I think this is what my mother might think. She’s of the school that if you’re interested in psychic stuff, you’re more attractive to the ‘bad juju’. On the one hand, I don’t think there’s any question that casting a focused circle does increase spiritual and energetic sensitivity. I’m about as energetically sensitive as a 2×4 on my best days, but when I’m in circle it is definitely far easier for me to visualize and feel energy fields. I think that working in circle does make it easier for invited entities to become more intimate with you, too. After all, just about the only time Pagans draw down the moon or sun–a simultaneous invocation of the transcendent Goddess or God and evocation of the immanent Goddess or God–is in circle. But casting a circle doesn’t make you vulnerable to demonic possession. Frankly, anything negative would have a hard time getting through all the positive energies that are brought to circle casting.
Circle Myth: The perimeter of the circle can never (and should never) be crossed.
- This is pretty much a holdover from ceremonial work, which basically holds that if something breaks the circle’s continuity it renders it ineffectual and the demon can either enter or exit, depending on what the circle was doing. In Wiccan practice, it’s generally frowned upon to physically break the circle. It’s bad visualization and bad manners to treat the thing you’ve just created as though it doesn’t exist. It’s also breaking the spirit of the circle, which is to be a place outside of external issues, and can be disruptive to other practitioners. If someone does have to leave the circle, though, it can be crossed through the practice of “cutting out”. In this, you basically pretend that the energetic sphere you’ve created is kind of like a tent, and you “unzip” or “cut” an opening with your athame, then re-zip or seal it behind you. This gives the circle and fellow practitioners the respect they deserve, while also allowing you to run to the bathroom or get a new box of matches or what have you. Additionally, the circle can be expanded or “pushed out” to encompass another area if the ritual requires a lot of movement.
Circle Myth: Only a very powerful person can correctly cast a magic circle.
- While anyone can cast a serviceable magic circle, seasoned practitioners can attest to the fact that some people cast better circles than others. I’ve never noticed that it’s an issue of being “powerful”, though–just adept. People who are comfortable with moving energy cast better circles, as are people who are organized and prepared. A lot of this stuff just comes with practice!
Circle Myth: Only an initiated Witch can cast a circle.
- Well if this were true, I’d be in a pickle, eh? Uninitiated witches can cast obviously cast perfectly good circles. In a lot of traditions, though, only initiates are permitted to cast circle for a group practice. This is hardly to say that a non-initiate would be incapable of casting the circle, but more a matter of pragmatics. A seasoned person will be able to more effectively and efficiently cast the group circle and get the energies flowing in the intended way.
Circle Myth: The dimensions of the circle must be perfectly circular.
- Sometimes I think pagans wouldn’t know a perfect circle if it bit them in the ass. Most attempts at a perfect circle shape will come out elliptical in some form without precise physical boundaries being put in place beforehand. Circles can be square, triangular, or amoeboid. Basically, they’re just cast to fill the designated space. However, I do often cast mine to be a circle/sphere form, and if I’m working in a rectangular room, that often means I cast the circle around, not within, the room.
Circle Myth: The magic circle must be nine feet in diameter.
- This is a British Traditional practice, but it’s not a requirement. The 9-foot diameter does incorporate a strong magical number into the construction (9 is 3x3x3, and 3 is sacred because of the triple goddess), and incorporating numerology is great…but it’s not the thing that will make or break a circle. Besides, I have no clue how 13 witches in a ‘full’ British Traditional coven are supposed to circle nude in a tiny 62-square foot area with all their sharp athames and emerge uninjured at the ritual’s conclusion.
Circle Myth: The circle is the only place where one practices Wicca.
- As if. Wicca is a religion where one is truly expected to “live it.” We strive to make aspects of our mundane life divine. We don’t have to go through the trouble of setting up an energetic circle to experience our craft. It is, however, a great place to practice a more formal, abstract ritual.