The magic of circles

Magical circles photo
Magical circles photo by author Leon Calafiore

Out of the Broomcloset

In the dark of winter, I was casting about for a topic fit for the latest column. It seemed best to go with something simple, back to the basics as we enter a new decade. What could be simpler than expanding on a topic that was raised during a recent interview where the question revolved around circles. So, here you have it, magical circles.

Though not always necessary, many strands of magical practice, at least in Western culture, can employ a magical circle. Other than portentous dialogue, fetching robes and sets replete with cobwebs not found in reality, popular media has provided striking images of magical circles surrounding characters doing, well, magical things. They even appear in popular Japanese culture, in anime series that otherwise have no occult angle, or even as a design element for the staging of popular music groups.

When engaging in ritual work that touches on invoking the manifestation of spiritual beings, whether referred to as angels, spirits, or demons, the practitioner ought to be cognizant of there being an inherent power imbalance and should keep themselves protected. This is the case when engaging in the sort of ritual work one would encounter in any of the magical texts referred to as Grimoires. While the prayers, regalia, and other materials involved in this body of material are derived from the trappings of the Roman church, the inscribing or otherwise creating a circular space for the magicians to stand in, complete with powerful inscribed names of deity, of angels, and other powerful written protections, cannot be derived from anything in the Catholic Mass. Nor is it derived from other rituals or any ancient Judaic antecedents. The creation of a protective barrier of this sort seems to have been adapted from Mesopotamian ritual work, where their use was common when dealing with the expulsion of dangerous spiritual entities that were so much a focus of their practice.

These same formats and practices were adopted by many of the founding members of groups that developed many of the standards of modern Witchcraft in the 19th and 20th centuries. However, in these rituals, they are employed for a different purpose, not to act as a protective bubble for the participants but to serve two entirely different purposes.

First, the power, energy, manna, etc., whatever term one might employ to describe the magical energies generated during the ritual work (say, a working to aid in the healing of someone) is thought to build up within the circle, concentrated until released. One might consider the circle, then, as akin to a storage battery.

Secondly, the act of outlining a magical circle, whether tracing it into the ground, or marking it out with powered chalk, orienting it to the cardinal directions, adding tokens of Earth, Air, Fire, and Water to their proper locations, circumambulating the edge of the circle with blessed water and incense, serves to temporarily create a hallowed place within which the mundane world is excluded. It is a place that allows one to be both in the world and at the same time set apart from it.

In many cultures, the place where two separate things meet is considered to be part of both and neither at the same time. Additionally, part of the reason for its impermanence is so that the creation of a circle should allow for it to be unwound, closed down, or disconnected after the purpose has been fulfilled. For a set of practices that reference a reverence for the natural world, this embodies much the credo of a good camper: to move lightly on the land, leave no trace, and if possible, leave the spot looking better than when you arrived. This might just be a good mindset to govern most of our actions as we move though this year.