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Sacred circle – to cast or not to cast one for ritual work

Contrary to poplar belief, casting a sacred circle is not a universal activity for Pagans. Many Pagan groups cast a sacred circle where they perform rituals while others don’t. And there’s also no universal understanding of what a sacred circle is for. If you’re only beginning to dip into an exploration of Paganism, you may find this a surprise.

As well, many non-Pagans, who have a very Hollywood-influenced view of Paganism, also have it wrong and often labour under the notion that things like pentagrams and circles have something to do with devil worship. Which is kind of amusing from the other side since Pagans don’t believe in the devil with a capital “D”. In case you’re not up on the history, that’s  a Christian attempt to demonise an ancient belief system of harmony and balance and has no basis in reality. Anyhoo…

Let’s get some context.

What’s a sacred circle for?

ritual fireCasting a sacred circle, traditionally, is most often for creating a protected, holy, if you will, energy-charged space to perform sacred rites. At the same time, it can also keep unwanted energies out that may interfere with the activity performed inside the space. Sacred circles are often seen as doorways to another realm depending on the Pagan tradition you happen to follow.

Even religions beyond those of the Pagan persuasion create similar sanctified spaces for worship, though would likely be horrified to have their actions compared with those of Pagans. However, biases aside, that doesn’t change the similarities in their creation with their main difference being that they don’t delineate a circular area.

Group prayer, chanting, a welcoming-in of peace or positive energy, the burning of incense or lighting some type of flame in the form of candles or bonfires are all common activities that go into defining and purifying a sanctified area in most traditions.

Neopagan understanding of sacred circle

 megalithic-sacred-circleSome modern practitioners swear that all magic activities should only take place within a sacred circle, because once created, this space becomes no longer a place on the earth. Instead, the circle becomes an area outside time and space and because of this, is freeing. This is said to allow for the easier movement by or exchange of energies between the planes. In small part, you could say it mirrors some of the rationale for creating the megalithic stone circles where ancient rituals were held.

On the other end of the spectrum, some Pagans feel that a sacred circle is limiting, because it cuts them off from the natural world. Being cut-off from the energies we’re all naturally connected with then makes magic activities more difficult and so these groups or individuals don’t use them at all.

In between, there’s a vast range of the understanding and use of sacred circle.

Which group is right?

My personal opinion? They’re all correct.

When I think about working with energy, I know we’re as much working with our own as the energy of an area around us. So, depending on who we are, where we are in our head and in the world and, of course, what we’re attempting to do, the circumstances are changeable. In that context, it only makes sense that sometimes a sacred circle might be appropriate while other times it might not.

We know it’s helpful to work with what energy we possess in combination with our location. A harmony must exist there or we’ll be at cross-purposes and could never float an intention out into the world. In this context, it’s really all about what use or help the circle would be for the person casting it. Others would argue it’s essential in all cases.

I also think a circle is helpful when working within or with a group. Everyone in that group may not be as adept at engaging with the energy around them or in bringing themselves into alignment. In this situation, casting the sacred circle becomes an essential part of the ritual of focus and this really helps get everyone on the same page.

labyrinth circle

Other practitioners often report casting a circle is helpful in blocking out the distractions of the outside world they might bring with them into their ritual work. The world is a busy place and we often carry that frantic energy with us into our art. And so, in this sense, casting the circle becomes a component of group meditation and there’s definitely nothing wrong with that to help achieve needed focus for a common purpose.

Really, whatever it takes to get you centred and aligned and in the right brain space, either alone or within a group, is what should be the deciding factor in whether or not you cast a sacred circle. If you find it helpful every time, then do it. If you find it helpful in specific circumstances, use it then. If you find no benefit casting one ever, then don’t.

Calling the Quarters

(Also referred to as calling “to Quarters”, “the Watchtowers”, the “Poets” and others) This is another sometime component of casting a sacred circle. And again where not all Pagans agree. I suppose it depends on perspective.

So what are the Quarters? At their most simplistic, you could equate the Quarters with the compass points and many Pagans and even non-Pagans understand them this way. There’s 4 main compass points, 4 quarters of that navigational circle, so hence the “quarters”. It’s an easy way to remember what they are, even though the Quarters actually have nothing to do with a compass. The Quarters are concepts for much larger ideas. Think yin-yang.

In this sense, they refer to the Elements or Elementals which are the raw energies of creation that drive the world and some concepts personified that help make them easier for us to remember. These we break down into earth, air, water and fire. To really understand the scope of the concepts conveyed when we talk about the Quarters takes a bit of explaining, so I’ve broken that out to explore in a separate post The harmony of the Quarters – air, fire, water and earth.

Sticking to their use when casting a sacred circle then, when we “call them”, we’re not literally calling down a rain of fire or a flood of water. Obviously. What we’re talking about here is aligning ourselves with the multi-layered concepts these are the short-form for.

The Quarters concepts refer to those energies, forces and ideals that we’re always attempting to fine-tune ourselves into resonating with. And so again, to cast a sacred circle, we want to be aligned and in tune with the energy around us and calling the Quarters simply identifies and, hopefully, makes us hyper-aware of all those things to align ourselves with.

Caveat about casting a Circle (or “magic” in general)

pentacle and altar

Remember, we’re working with energy here. Most especially our own. If you’re only playing around with this, then know you’re probably not going to be able to do it. You can draw a circle on the ground or make a salt ring like you’ve seen in a TV show or whatever funky ritualistic thing you’ve seen that you think looks really cool, but really it takes discipline and focus. I’m not telling you to follow some mysterious steps so a magic rabbit can pop out of this circle just because you said some special words.

It doesn’t work that way.

And just as an aside… Things about magic in general you read on the Internet? If they promise that mysterious and magical things will happen if you follow the numbered steps of a ritual you know nothing about, without study or even understanding what you’re doing and especially without discipline or intent? They’re lying to you. And if they ask you for money for it? Well, I can’t tell you what to do with your life, but at least go into that eyes open. Don’t get fleeced.

Anyhoo, onward…

Preparing to cast

If you’ve been meditating on your own and have some practice with focus, you’re in a good position to try flexing your ability to harness an intention to a narrow purpose and cast a sacred circle by yourself. Myself? As a loan practitioner, I don’t often go for a lot of ritualistic trappings (I’ve said it before, you won’t catch me jumping over any fires naked or anything), but I’ve also had a lot of practice. I can cast a defined circle or clear a space of negative energy without them. I do love candles and incense though, so when I really want to be deeply meditative or I’m going for a specific purpose, I use them.

To help make the concepts more concrete for yourself without going overboard, I suggest using four candles for simplicity – green for North to represent Earth, yellow for East to represent Air, red or orange symbolising Fire for South, and blue to the West representing Water. Set them up in position of the cardinal compass points. If those colours don’t do it for you, then use 4 colours that make sense for you. That’s the nice thing about Druidry – we use what works for us as individuals no matter what we’re doing. Think on it, and see how specific colours strike you and use the ones that represent those elements for you.

Another way to go and that I’ve also done is using four small bowls that contain items that represent the elements. Something like lit incense to represent the East, a flame like a candle for South, a bowl of water for West and some earth or pebbles for the North. You may also want to have a small bowl of salt in the centre for cleansing if you feel that will help you.

You can add anything else you want to this setup – crystals, particular stones that help you focus, a Druid’s egg, salt lamp, whatever floats your boat – but this is really all you need. Actually, you could go even less if you’re a minimalist and simply use chalk to draw-out a small circle and mark the cardinal points just so you have a visual to focus on.

Casting a sacred circle

At this point, you’re going to intone some words. This can be outloud or in your head. Makes no difference. What you’re doing here is making your intentions a concrete thing. Words are spells. That’s why they call it “spelling”. So when I say “invoke this spell”, what you’re doing is saying words. And that’s the magic part. Sorry to disappoint anyone who was looking for something more Hollywood. This is the real deal.

Depending on what you’re doing, if you’re alone or with a group, obviously, this is going to change the way you approach this part. However, no matter the circumstance, there are some basics here.

  • begin with inviting peace in general
  • then the “call” – this is an invitation to brethren and the ancients, ancestors, gods
  • establish the circle – literally say it to establish it, something like “join me in peace within this circle”
  • honour the Watchtowers by name, call to the Quarters to invoke those energies in your circle
  • invoke the Poet’s spell of earth, sea and sky for inspiration, that energy of the universe in balance to fill your circle
  • now do your work, the thing you wanted to accomplish, make your intention a concrete things, in a group, you can also share some bread or mead in fellowship
  • now back out by calling to Quarters, thanking and releasing those energies
  • call the Poet’s spell of the three worlds, thank the inspiration that was lent you and release it
  • thank the ancestors and everyone who was there for joining you and release them

And that’s it. That’s the basics for casting a sacred circle.

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