Creating Sacred Space: Circle Casting




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Many religions have physical churches, temples, or other structures as places of worship. The repeated, consistent use of these places for sacred purposes embues them with a kind of power and energy that can profoundly effect one's state of mind. Most of us have felt the impact of walking into an old cathedral or other place of worship. The impact is not just a consequence of the architecture and decoration; the place echoes the thoughts and feelings of all who have used it since its establishment.

Modern Pagans, for the most part, do not have buildings devoted solely to the performance of ritual. We happily perform ritual outdoors, to affirm our intimacy with nature, or indoors in homes or rented buildings for privacy and comfort. So we transform mundane space into sacred space as part of our ritual practice. In most modern Pagan traditions (and some non-Pagan magical traditions as well), this is done by casting a circle.

In the Middle Ages, the most imperative function of the magical circle was protective. The medieval magic-workers feared intrusion by both hostile human authorities and hostile demons and other spiritual entities. The circle created a boundary that kept the magician from harm.

Modern Pagan circles still serve this function, but in most circumstances, protection is no longer primary. The circle sets apart the place and time of the ritual and makes it special and spiritual. It connects us with all those who have done ritual in sacred circles before us, and serves as a container for the activities and energies that constitute the ritual itself. When enclosed by a properly cast circle, the participants are "between the worlds", removed from ordinary space and time and attuned with the world of spirit.

There are many ways to cast a circle. Ultimately, it is a mental operation; the physical actions reinforce and illustrate what the mind is doing. In Wiccan practice, the circle is usually cast by the priestess, walking the perimeter with her athame directed at the ground, inscribing a line of blue fire on the earth or floor. The circle is also usually cleansed with the four elements (salt water for earth and water, incense for fire and air). Most cleanse before the actual casting with the athame, but some cleanse after casting. Ritual words may be spoken as the circle is walked, or immediately afterwards to declare the result. A wand is sometimes used in place of an athame if the latter feels too intense for the purpose of the particular ritual. A sword can be used in a large space for extra drama.

For a personal ritual, the casting can be entirely mental: you can visualize the circle extending around yourself. For group work, this is not really possible, unless all participants are in total mental synchronization and can visualize the same circle at the same time.

A nice alternative is to have participants join hands, one by one, going around the circle clockwise and saying "hand to hand, the circle is cast". This emphasizes the human dimension of the operation and feels more comfortable for those who don't care for a lot of formal trappings in their ritual work.

Wiccan tradition establishes certain behavioral expectations within the circle. All motion should be deosil (clockwise, pronounced "dyessil" or "jessil"), whether walking, dancing, or passing items. (Motion may be widdershins or counterclockwise only if required for a specific purpose.) No one may cross the circle boundary, unless a "door" is cut in the circle and closed again afterwards. (Small children and animals are exempt from this rule.) It is also extremely important to respect the sacredness of the space in your attitudes and actions. It is not necessary (or even desirable) to be somber and deep at all times, but indifference, inattention, and cynicism are extremely detrimental.

These rules may strike some as needlessly formal and restrictive, but they are important. If energy is being raised in the ritual, the circle contains and concentrates the energy so that it can be applied to the chosen purpose without dissipating. If the participants' sense of being enclosed in sacred space is compromised, so is the viability of the work being done.

It is not difficult to find Pagans who insist that a circle must be cast in a certain way, or that some particular detail must always be observed. It is usually true - for them. Once things become bound together subconsciously, their connection becomes necessary. But different people and traditions practice differently and form different subconscious associations. The fact that no particular detail of form is required for effective circle casting does not mean, however, that one need not do anything in particular to cast a circle. There are dozens of ways to cook potatoes, but leaving them raw is not one of them!

You can experiment with different ways of creating sacred space and see what they feel like and which ones produce the strongest results for you. Trying something new every time you do a ritual is not a good idea, however. All skills are improved through practice, and circle casting is no exception. Anyone who does ritual often should have at least one method that is second nature to them. When the mind is not struggling to remember the mechanics or distracted by bits and pieces of different methods, it is free to focus exclusively on the desired result and the directing of energy required to achieve it.

Some Pagans cast the circle around the assembled participants; others cast the circle first and then lead participants into it, one by one. Purification of participants sometimes takes place before circle casting, sometimes afterwards, and sometimes as an integral part of it.

Sacred Space is a regular feature of Starweaver's Gems from Earth and Sky

Copyright © 2007 Tom Waters