Pentacle Symbols of Today and Yesterday

In the interest of keeping oathbound material oathbound, my interpretation of all the signs in this post comes not from what is handed down in my tradition, but from those publicly available in the Farrar’s book, A Witches’ Bible.  Their discussion of degree signs are found in the chapters focusing on the different degrees.  For all other signs, please consult part 2, pages 253-261.  My discussion of gendering the kiss and scourge signs comes from my own application of Kabbalah concepts to the pairing of these tools.

I mentioned in my last post that it took about a month from the time I contacted Godfrey and Alwynd at Gaean Allusions about taking on my custom pentacle to being able to hold that pentacle in my hands.  Part of that extended time was normal logistics, but part of it was that I had a small crisis about what symbols to put on the pentacle and what order to put them in.

Pentacle with traditional Gardnerian symbols.

Pentacle with traditional Gardnerian symbols.

As I previously discussed in a Roderick exercise prior to my initiation, this image pictured to the left is what is typically shown as an example of an Alexandrian or Gardnerian pentacle.  I think it is best known outside the tradition for appearing in Janet and Stewart Farrar’s book A Witches’ Bible, where they explain the inverted triangle is a symbol of the 1st degree, the inverted pentacle is a symbol of the 2nd degree, the central pentacle capped with an upright triangle represents the 3rd degree.  The circle capped with a crescent stands for the Horned God, and the doubled crescents stand for the Goddess.  The S and $ at the bottom stand for the kiss and the scourge, respectively.

What gave me pause was that these symbols in this order seemed so right to me, but it wasn’t quite what I copied in my Book of Shadows.  (After I later asked my HPS about the differences, she reviewed the materials I copied from and basically realized she’d flipped aspects of the image in her editing program.)  The contrast between my inherited materials and my heart led me into a pretty interesting journey where I pondered the merits of alternate symbol arrangements and eventually looked into altar photographs taken around the 1950s and 1960s.

After I played around with the symbol arrangement, I thought logical arguments could be made for the primary arrangement and these two alternates, which I'll call A and B respectively.

The primary pentacle and my A and B variations.

With seven different signs in seven different positions around the center pentagram, we essentially have 5,040 possible arrangements here, so you do have to enter in a few variables to winnow out the logical grain from the nonsense chaff.  The first thing you can fix is placing the upright triangle at the top of the pentacle above the star, since that is the third-degree sign.  Since there isn’t enough room at the base of the pentacle to place the first- and second-degree signs, we also know that they’ll either have to be in ‘row’ 1 or 2.  You can also essentially fix the first-degree sign to be on the left hand side and the second on the right since it is convention in the Western world to order things as we read them  (lower items to the left and increasing items to the right).  Even cases like formal monograms (which put the initial of the third name in the center) flank the “outlier variable” with “correctly ordered” variables (and so the surname is flanked with first name initial on the left and middle name initial on the right).

Another variable to take into consideration are the kiss and scourge signs.  It makes theological sense to yoke them together since the kiss and the scourge two primary ways of raising energy and mercy and severity are the two primary ‘flavors’ of magic.  Though it is practical to place them paired at the pentacle’s base since they, as the most slender symbols, can both fit there comfortably, it makes theological sense to place them there, too.  These two flavors and these two methods of raising energy are essentially the praxis foundation of the religion.  Much of how we relate to the degrees and to the divine can be interpreted through these practical lenses.  With the scourge and kiss signs, though, there is some logical ambiguity in how we can order them.  We can opt for a kabbalah-inspired order and place mercy (the kiss) on the right and severity (the scourge) on the left to better mirror the column arrangement on the Tree of Life.  But we can also look to the genders of these qualities in the kabbalah and let those take precedence.  Mercy there is associated with a male aspect and severity with a female aspect.  Since the degree signs and the deity signs are gendered, gendering the scourge and kiss signs may factor into how we choose to arrange the signs…and there are lots of places for gender to go.

With these variables set, we can argue that the Primary Pentacle’s arrangement is logically ordered to first keep all the degree signs together in a culturally accepted fashion and to place the most important gendered signs (the God and the Goddess) to the farthest left and right spots in the pentacle.  When placed on a north-facing altar, this then puts the Goddess in the east and the God in the west, which works nicely with our stresses on the Goddess as a deity of beginnings (births) and the God as a deity of endings (deaths).  We order the genders of the kiss and scourge to essentially ‘match’ the deity positions to reinforce the concept of “as above, so below.”  Unfortunately, this logic does result in the degree genders to be swapped, and standard “stuff on top is more important” logic to erroneously assume that degrees are more important that Gods, but it overall does a nice job.

In Variation A, the logic fixes the degree signs in the same position as the primary pentacle, but gender ultimately trumps other mystery concerns.  Since the first degree sign is fixed on the left side and the second on the right, all female signs are placed on the left side and all male signs are put on the right.  This does coincide with the belief that right is the active, masculine direction and left the passive, feminine direction, but we lose the mystery aspect of the Primary Pentacle.  We also have an unfortunate side-effect of essentially “blocking” energy flow.  In circle, we order our practioners in alternating genders (male, female, male, female) to better spin energy around the circle.  Here, the energies are just pitted against each other.

Variation B, I think, comes closest to honoring all aspects of the pentacle.  By holding the general left/right positions of the Primary Pentacle static but switching around its Rows 1 and 2, we get to see Goddess energies in the east and God energies in the west along with the “as above, so below” matching of the kiss and scourge signs.  We also get “male, female, male, female” energy flow around the outer circle.  (This does, of course, ignore the upright triangle, but it conjoined with the upright pentacle is a gender-neutral unity.)

Now, when I figured this out, it took a lot of self-restraint to keep myself from saying “well, screw what the tradition typically does…I’m going to put Variation B on my pentacle.”  It was really just my belief that power is built in collective practice that kept me from shifting things around.  But it did make me wonder if a Variation B order was on older Gardnerian pentacles.  So I scoured the Internet to find images of various “First-Generation” High Priests’ and High Priestess’ altars in hopes that I could make out their pentacles.  Unfortunately, I had very little luck on this front.  In fact, I was only able to find three images of Doreen Valiente’s altar and tools.  What I found there, however, surprised me.

Doreen Valiente's more famous pentacles.

Doreen Valiente’s more famous pentacles.

As far as mostly clear images of altars went, I only found two:  a photograph from about 1962 where Valiente sat among her tools, and an undated photograph from the Doreen Valiente Foundation.  Unfortunately, the Foundation photograph doesn’t offer any information on from what era of Valiente’s magical studies these various tools date.  The 1962 photograph, however, would be during the years after Valiente broke from the Bricket Wood coven but still led a Gardnerian coven (sans Ardanes) with Ned Grove.  I’ve isolated the pentacles from these photographs in the image to the right.

Though it’s hard to make out the signs on these images, three things are very clear.  The first is that the 1962 pentacle has far more symbols on it than what we have today, including what appear to be athame symbols and an ankh.  The Foundation photograph shows less symbols, and–indeed–most of them are on today’s pentacle.  The scourge and kiss signs, however, are replaced with power signs.  What is most important to my purposes, however, is abundantly clear:  The degree signs are not grouped together on either pentacle.  In fact, God and Goddess signs are above them on both pentacles.  With the exception of the lower signs, they follow the pattern I worked out in my Variation B!


The first image is my own (poor) drawing of what I see in the black and white photo.  Places where I can see a sign but can’t make it out are numbered.  The numbers correspond to potential symbols (taken from A Witches’ Bible) below.  The second image is another of Doreen’s pentacles, and is very similar to the one pictured above that is set with colored stones or glass.  John Belham-Payne found it among other items in a catch-all bag.  Apparently this was a sort of “grab and go” witch kit of Doreen’s!

As visually cluttered as the 1962 pentacle is, I rather like the logic of what symbols were included, particularly if my guesses are right.  Using the information given for various athame symbols in A Witches’ Bible, it appears that the top pairs of symbols likely stand for the God and the Goddess and the initials of their names in BTW traditions.  Between Mathers’ Key of Solomon, Gardner’s High Magic’s Aid, and Gardner’s B-text Book of Shadows, we get a collection of three potential sigils for the God’s initial.  (Frankly, I think they’re all a little silly.  If I were to follow suit, I’d probably use the Hebrew letter kaph…which I think others have done, come to think of it.) The ankh, a symbol of life, doesn’t appear in Gardner’s materials (either for the athame or the pentacle), but Doreen’s personal suggestion to the Fararrs on the subject of athame symbols were that the initial signs were to be replaced with the ankh and the sign for Scorpio to signify life and death/the beyond or the light and dark halves of the year.  (Alternately, a sickle sign would symbolize death and the beyond, but on the athame that’s paired with a serpent for life, not the ankh.)  I like the thought that these life and death signs would be incorporated near the deity signs on the pentacle, too, since we so closely associate those states with the divine.

Below the two clusters of deity signs, there’s what is essentially a central row of the degree signs, and they’re all about the same relative size.  Below those are signs for what I like to think of as “how magic works.”  There’s the kiss and scourge which, in addition to being themselves symbols for mercy/severity are also actions performed to purify and consecrate, which paves the way for magic to be made.  There is what I believe to be the symbol for the connection of the God and the Goddess creating the power that goes forth in magic, and it is directed to the eight-spoked wheel, which can stand for the eight ways of making magic with that power.  All in all, these symbols very potentially tell a cogent story of Wiccan theology.

It looks like the same pattern is present in Doreen’s wooden pentacles, only simplified.  The God and Goddess signs don’t have the ‘extra’ signs of the initials or of life and death, but they are in roughly the same place as they are on the black and white pentacle.  The degree signs are in the middle again, but this time the center pentacle is enlarged and appears to do “double duty” of being both a pentacle and part of the third-degree sign.  The scourge and the kiss signs are absent, but the flow and path signs are present.  Interestingly, I think you could argue that the ‘flow’ sign is masculine and the ‘path’ sign feminine, particularly if you ascribe the “power flows from the God” meaning in A Witches’ Bible.  Power flows from the God and the Goddess births it into a form.

At any rate, I am very satisfied with my pentacle and my decision to conform to the contemporary Gardnerian sigil set.  I think it would be a very worthwhile endeavor, though, to start an oathbound dialogue on what we’ve chosen and why.

Pentacle form the Witchcraft Museum.

Pentacle from the Witchcraft Museum.

UPDATE:  I just came across this image of a pentacle that was purported to be in Cecil Williamson’s Witchcraft Museum back when Gardner collected various items for it.  I don’t know if Gardner collected it or where it originated, but thought it might be of interest here.  I’m not sure what the circle with the double cross is, but the other symbols are the pentagram with the tetragrammaton written in its center, the swastika, an ankh, and a templar cross.


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