The Magic Circle

Witchcraft for Tomorrow - Doreen Valiente 1993

The Magic Circle

The magic circle is a fundamental requirement of all kinds of occult ceremonial, and one of the most ancient. The magicians of Babylonia and Assyria used magic circles in their rites. Descriptions of their workings have come down to us, together with the name they gave to the magic circle, usurtu.

They seem to have had a very similar idea of magical practice to that which prevailed in medieval Europe, namely, that mankind was surrounded by a vast assembly of spirits, many of whom were dangerous demons; but that these could be controlled by the power of divine names and images. The Assyrian magician used powdered lime or flour to outline his circle, and set little images of his gods within it to form a kind of spiritual fortress, exactly as the European magician of the Middle Ages conceived his circle to be.

Instead of using images, however, the ceremonial magicians who followed the traditions of such adepts as Cornelius Agrippa (1486-1535) and Peter of Abano (1250-1316) inscribed around their circles divine names such as the Tetragrammaton, the four-lettered name of God found in the Old Testament. Other names were supplied by the Hebrew Qabalah or Cabbala, the secret tradition of Israel, which was much studied by European occultists, ostensibly for the purpose of converting the Jews, but actually for the magical secrets it contains.

For instance, the Cabbalistic word AGLA, often regarded as a word of magical power, is the initial letters of a sentence in the Hebrew language: Ateh gibor leolam Adonai, ’Thou are mighty for ever, O Lord’. Other magical words were derived from Gnostic sources in the Greek-speaking Egyptian city, Alexandria. Although pre-Christian in origin, they were adapted to Christian use and applied to the Christian God; such words, for instance, as PRINEUMATON or ATHANATOS often featuring in the figures of magical circles given in old books of magic. The name of the Archangel Michael, too, was used, as he was believed to be the leader of the heavenly host which fought against the powers of evil. Interspersed among the words of power were potent symbols such as the pentagram, the hexagram, and the equal-armed cross.

Why, however, should the figure of a circle be supposed capable of acting as a spiritual fortress in this manner? The answer seems to lie in the fact that the circle was believed to be the most perfect geometrical figure. This belief gave early astronomers a good deal of trouble, because they thought that the heavenly bodies could not possibly move in anything but a circular path, otherwise God’s heaven could not be perfect. Only reluctantly did they abandon this idea when practical observation with telescopes showed them that the orbits of the planets were elliptical.

A primeval symbol of the infinite is the figure of a serpent with its tail in its mouth, known as the Ouroboros. The eminent psychologist Carl Gustav Jung, in his exploration of the archetypal images dwelling in man’s collective unconscious, has recognized this as meaning the first undifferentiated state of things, containing the potentialities of all within itself. The ouroboric serpent may give us a clue to the meaning of the magic circle and its origin in the mind of man.

In drawing the magic circle, man, in a sense, creates and defines his own little universe. This idea is significantly developed by Israel Regardie in his book The Tree of Life: A Study in Magic. This book, written by a modern exponent of the western magical tradition, takes a much more sophisticated view of the function of the magical circle than that shown in the concept of the medieval magician defying the demons from within the safety of its consecrated round. The magic circle is that which limits the magician to the attainment of a specific end. He no longer wanders aimlessly. He is oriented, both figuratively and literally, between the four cardinal points, at which candles traditionally burn and from which sometimes incense arises. Plans of magical circles in old books and manuscripts often show a place for a censer of incense at each of the four quarters of the circle, north, south, east and west. A cross divides the centre of the circle, with sometimes the Greek letter Alpha inscribed in the east and Omega in the west, signifying the beginning and the end; another analogy to the figure of the serpent Ouroboros.

The circle also signifies man’s own aura, the field of force which surrounds his physical body. In the case of a spiritually developed person, this aura is said to extend to a considerable distance, with strength to repel evil influences and magical power to bring to its owner that which he needs or rightfully desires.

It will be seen that the magical circle, with its emphasis on the cardinal points, essentially resembles the circled cross which is the most primitive form of mandala, an oriental word made familiar to us by the work of Carl Gustav Jung. Jung found the mandala to be a figure of great importance among the archetypes of the collective unconscious which he studied, signifying among other things balance and harmony. It is a word evidently related to the Arabic Al-mandal, ’the circle’.

The circled cross, or Celtic cross as it has come to be called, is a pre-Christian form of cross frequently found in the British Isles. Many circled crosses are, of course, Christian, but they often show subtle influences of older things. Cornwall can show many examples of the Celtic cross, as can Scotland, Ireland and Wales. But it is a remarkable fact that the megalithic standing stones of Callanish, on the Isle of Lewis in the Outer Hebrides, were originally erected to trace out on the ground the image of a circled cross approached by a long avenue of stones, the whole making a similar outline to that of the Celtic crosses referred to above. Many of the stones of the avenue have now disappeared; but archaeologists have found within the circle a chambered cairn dating back to around 2000 B.C. The plan of the Callanish stones is depicted in Mysterious Britain by Janet and Colin Bord.

It is at least a curious coincidence that the present-day village of Avebury as seen from the air looks very like a circled cross, with the four roads of the modern village meeting within the circle of the ancient earthwork. Actually, this was the town plan upon which many very old cities were built, namely a circular wall enclosing the city, with gates at the four cardinal points and main roads leading to a central open space, which was the market place and general gathering point. In other words, the city itself was a mandala. There is a close parallel between the magic circle of western occultism, oriented to the four cardinal points, with the stations of the four elements regarded as being situated at these points, and the beautiful mandalas of Tibetan art. A mandala can be very simple or almost infinitely complicated; but essentially it is a harmonious and balanced figure. Its simplest form, as we have seen, is the Celtic circled cross; but much more complicated mandalas than this have been evolved by the art of both east and west, showing the mandala to be a universal symbol. The great rose windows of medieval cathedrals are also mandalas; so, too, is the Chinese symbol of the Pa Kua, or eight directions, with the eight trigrams arranged around it from which all the figures of the I Ching, the ancient Chinese system of divination, are formed. The mariner’s compass, with its complicated ’rose’ of all the different points of the horizon, is a mandala. The astrologer’s figure of a horoscope, with the earth in the centre surrounded by the twelve houses of heaven, is likewise a mandala, showing the arrangement of the planets and zodiacal signs for a particular time and place. All these, in a sense, are magic circles, be they large or small; because, of course, if you want to draw a harmonious geometrical figure, the easiest way to do it is to start with a circle.

The most famous magical circle of the island of Britain is Stonehenge. Archaeologists today tell us that Stonehenge was built in three stages. The earliest part of it is the great earth circle that encloses the stone structure at its centre. According to the latest evidence of the revised system of radio-carbon dating, this circle was constructed about 2775 B.C The orientation of Stonehenge to the sunrise at the summer solstice is well-known. It is still a thrilling moment to see the midsummer dawn in this way, as the sun rises above the phallic monolith called the Friar’s Heel, or the Hele Stone, and its rays strike into the feminine womb-shape of the so-called ’horseshoe’ of the great trilithons, making the hieros gamos, the Sacred Marriage of heaven and earth.

Not so well known are the mysterious alignments which connect Stonehenge with Glastonbury and with the site of Salisbury Cathedral, to name only two of the leys which were discovered by Alfred Watkins of Hereford in the 1920s and written about in our own day by John Michell in his now famous book The View Over Atlantis.

One of these alignments had been previously noted by Sir Norman Lockyer, the astronomer. If a straight line is drawn from Stonehenge through the centre of the earthworks of Old Sarum, it runs directly to the site on which Salisbury Cathedral now stands; either a remarkable coincidence or a sign that the cathedral occupies, as such buildings usually did, a site of ancient sanctity. The other alignment runs from Glastonbury, the Avalon of Celtic myth, through the axis of the ruined abbey, along an old road called Dod Lane which runs past Chalice Hill, over Gare Hill and eventually on to Stonehenge.

The whole question of these alignments is still being investigated; but enough has been discovered to compel us to realize that a whole lost civilization, radically different from our own, employing a technology of a potent but different type from our own, lies hidden within the British landscape. To this lost civilization John Mitchell gave the figurative name of ’Atlantis’. No review of the Old Religion of Western Europe to which we give the name of witchcraft, can be complete without taking these discoveries into account, because they are deeply concerned with the hidden forces of nature, the powers which true magic sets out to contact.

We will return to the study of the leys in a later chapter; but here we will simply ask the question, what is the power of magic that is raised and contained within the magic circle? This mysterious power has been given all sorts of names, all over the world and in all ages. The Kahunas, or native magicians of the South Sea Islands, call it mana. The Hindu yogis call it prana. Bulwer Lytton, in his magical romance The Coming Race, named it Vril. (Lytton, incidentally, was a practising occultist and a member of a magical society.) Baron Von Reichenbach conducted many experiments in the early nineteenth century to demonstrate the existence of a similar force which he called odyle. Paracelsus and Mesmer also wrote of the existence of a mysterious force, to which the latter attributed the operations of what is now called hypnotism. Mesmer regarded it as a sort of invisible fluid, or all-pervading medium.

The famous French occultist, Eliphas Levi, regarded this force as ’the Great Magical Agent’, to which most of the operations of magic were indebted for their success. No one, however, seemed to be able to give any very clear definition of it; or perhaps, as its great potency was constantly stressed, their discretion as occultists did not permit them to do so.

Today we would call it a ’borderline energy’; that is, an energy somewhere between the physical plane and the metaphysical, or normally invisible realms. The person who has perhaps come closest to discovering its secrets in our own day is Wilhelm Reich, the psychologist who experimented with what he called orgone energy. According to his writings, this energy, which radiates from living matter and permeates everything, seems very like the odyle, vril, and so on, of the ancient writers.

In this connection, we may well wonder about that weird symbol, the so-called Hand of Glory. Most people know the story from the Ingoldsby Legends, of the thieves who enlisted the aid of a witch to concoct this horrible charm, made from the hand of a hanged man stolen from the gibbet. Five wicks of human hair were affixed to the thumb and fingers, greased with the fat of a black cat, while incantations of evil magic were recited, so that when this infernal light was kindled the criminals who carried it could rob with impunity, because everyone in the house would be cast into a death-like trance.

This fictional story has quite a number of parallels from folklore; but curiously enough, the Hand of Glory appears in old pictures of the witches’ Sabbat, where it is certainly not being used as a robbers’ charm. For instance, the hand with its flame-tipped fingers is shown in an old engraving by Jaspar Isaac, dating from 1614. It stands upon the mantelpiece of the witches’ kitchen, where frightful imps of all shapes and sizes are disporting themselves. The two most famous seventeenth-century painters of witch scenes, Frans Francken and David Teniers, also depict the Hand of Glory in just the same situation.

Now, as Gerald Gardner pointed out, many of these old pictures actually depict the garbled popular beliefs of their day about witches and what they did. So the real Hand of Glory was a witch symbol; what of? When we read Baron Von Reichenbach’s account of how his ’sensitives’ could see the flames of odylic force streaming from the fingers of the human hand in a dark room, surely we can guess. The Hand of Glory was the symbol of this mysterious force, but the truth about it was kept secret. Hence the wild legends which grew up among the common people, who believed it to be some potent talisman of evil.

In the early days of Spiritualism, the operation of this force, sometimes called ’animal magnetism’ because it was alleged to emanate from living things, just like the power inherit in magnets, was considered very important in the production of phenomena. In the description of the formation of a Spiritualist circle given by a pioneer French Spiritualist, Baron De Guldenstubbe, we are told that the ideal number of people to form such a circle is six of positive and magnetic nature, six of negative or sensitive nature, and a medium. Generally, though not always, men were regarded as ’positive’ and women as ’negative’; in other words, the six couples and a leader of the old witch coven, though I doubt if the good Baron realized this!

It was often recommended also in early Spiritualist writings, that the medium should sit with his or her back to the north. This again harks back to the old witch belief that the north is the place of power. Streams which ran from north to south were believed to have magical properties, and their water was used for preference in spells. The Pole Star in the northern hemisphere is the pivot of the heavens, round which the rest of the stars appear to revolve. The fantastic displays of the Aurora Borealis or Northern Lights were believed to be an emanation of this mysterious power of the north, the place behind the north wind where dead heroes of Celtic myth dwelt in ’Spiral Castle’, which has many different names in Druidic lore.

Other ancient tales speak of Hyperborea (meaning ’the land beyond the north wind’), which was the original cradle of the human race, a land now hidden beneath eternal ice and snow. The phenomena of magnetism were known from a very early date, and probably regarded as an occult secret, because we read of statues in ancient temples being caused by magnetic means to hang suspended in the air, which no doubt struck awe into the ignorant populace. Hence it may well have been realized that the earth itself is a gigantic magnet, with the flow of power running through it between north and south.

It has been this belief which caused the rule of the orienting of the magical circle to the cardinal points. Old churches and cathedrals are also oriented, the high altar being at the east and the font at the west. One of the most carefully oriented buildings in the world is the Great Pyramid, which faces north, south, east and west with a precision rarely equalled in modern architecture.

The relationship of the circle of Stonehenge to the sunrise at the summer solstice has already been mentioned and is usually vaguely attributed to ’sun-worship’; but what of a similar, though much less well-known phenomenon in the great French cathedral of Chartres? Here a certain window in the western aisle of the south transept is so arranged that when the sun is shining at noon on the day of the summer solstice, a ray will strike and reflect from a piece of gilded metal set in a certain flagstone. This stone is whiter than its neighbours, and set in a different fashion, while in the window above a clear space has evidently been left for the ray of light to shine through. It was this curious circumstance which first attracted the attention of Louis Charpentier and led him to write his book The Mysteries of Chartres Cathedral.

Charpentier expresses his belief that the orientation of churches and cathedrals springs from the ancient knowledge of the mysterious forces of earth which he calls ’telluric currents’, which were symbolized by the figure of the winged serpent or dragon, the Wouivre. These forces could be beneficent or malevolent, according to how they were used; hence, perhaps, the real meaning behind the extensive dragon-lore of our world, which extends from the proud dragon which is the crest of Wales, through the many stories of dragon-slaying saints and heroes, to the glittering monsters which appear so often in the art and legend of the Far East. There are currents of the earth and also of the sky; all around us invisible forces move, of which, as yet, we know very little.

It will be seen that all this is far removed from the vulgar idea of magic as of something that consists of conjuring demons or taking part in orgies. Again and again we are brought back to the definition of magic as given by S. L. MacGregor Mathers, the Chief of the Order of the Golden Dawn; namely, that magic is the science of the control of the secret forces of nature.

With this in mind, we may get a better idea of what witches mean when they talk about ’raising the Cone of Power’. The traditional ritual nudity has for its purpose the free flow of power from the naked bodies of the participants. In ancient Greece and Rome also, those who took part in magical ceremonies were either naked or clad in loose flowing garments. Those who are trained to see the human aura are able to perceive it best surrounding the unclothed body. Hence, when a circle of naked or loosely robed dancers gyrates in a witchcraft ceremony, the power flowing from their bodies rises upwards towards the centre of the circle, forming a cone-shape which is called the Cone of Power. This is directable by the concentrated will of those present to carry out the object of the ceremony, by bearing its influence from the physical to the more subtle planes of the universe, where the power of will and imagination can, in turn, affect the physical again and influence material events.

Gerald Gardner used to tell me that he believed these effects to be brought about, not by direct action upon matter, but by influencing people’s minds. Thus, when the witches raised the Cone of Power against Hitler’s invasion, they sought to reach the minds of the German High Command and persuade them that the invasion could not succeed, or alternatively to muddle and stultify their thinking so that the plans for the invasion fell through. Generally, old Gerald said, there was someone somewhere whose actions would vitally affect whatever it was that the witch ceremony was trying to bring about. This person’s mind would be acted upon, without their knowledge, so that they would behave in one way rather than another, and thus the desired result would happen.

This may be the modus operandi of magic; but we know today that the apparent opposites of matter and energy, of force and form, are not really opposites at all, but different manifestations of each other. Matter and energy are interchangeable terms. So is it really impossible that material effects can be brought about by the power of thought?

The old alchemists who actually worked with metals, trying to find the philosopher’s stone or medicine of metals and the elixir of life, would not have agreed with this limitation of magical power to the realms of thought. They believed that actual transmutation could be effected by the prayers and ceremonies which usually accompanied their efforts. Another instance which springs to mind of an actual physical effect apparently brought about by magic is the rain-making magic of certain tribes of American Indians. I have been told by friends in USA that this really works, though no white person knows the secret of it.

Dancing in a circle is perhaps the most primitive and universal magical rite. We have a cave painting of it from Cogul in northeastern Spain, dating from the days of the Aurignacian cultures of the Old Stone Age. It shows a group of women dancing round a naked man, who is depicted with garters tied round his legs just below the knee. Not only is the traditional witches’ garter displayed in this fantastically ancient picture, but the dancing women are wearing another well-known attribute of witches, namely pointed hats or caps. There are nine women forming the circle of dancers, while all around are drawn and painted the figures of the great beasts upon whom the people of this hunting culture depend for their food.

One wonders whether this coven met in the cave within which this wall painting was found. Some present-day witches still believe that caves are a very potent place to work in, if one can find one that is safe from intruders and has a sufficiently level floor. One is in natural surroundings, while at the same time sheltered from wind and rain. Moreover, the power is concentrated, not only by the magical circle but also by the rocky walls themselves, full of the earth-force in a way that a room in a house is not.

Another form of natural magic circle is the so-called ’fairy ring’ of darker grass often found upon fields and hills which are covered with turf. In Sussex these are called ’hag-tracks’, because they were believed to be made by the dancing feet of witches who had gathered there to cast their spells. Actually, the fairy ring is caused by a kind of fungus, which spreads outwards from a centre to make an almost circular patch of grass which is noticeably of a different colour from its surroundings. Old Sussex people used to stand within a fairy ring at the full moon and make a wish, with their eyes fixed upon the silver orb of the moon’s disc as she rose in the summer twilight. Witches, too, would seek out a fairy ring as a basis for their circle; but they would not neglect to draw the circle in the usual way also. They just regarded the fairy ring as a propitious place in which to work.

Connected with the practice of dancing the magical round is undoubtedly the mysterious and widespread pattern of the maze. The earliest examples of this are not merely puzzles constructed for amusement, though many of these were built later as a feature of formal gardens, such as that at Hampton Court in Surrey. The earlier mazes definitely had a magical and religious significance, as is shown by their presence on the floors of some old churches and cathedrals, another example of an old pagan idea being incorporated into a Christian building. The magical maze was sometimes drawn as a square, though more frequently as a circle. It conformed to a very definite pattern, known in the British Isles as Troy Town or Caer Droia, from the old story that it commemorated the winding walls of Troy and recalled the legendary origin of the British race from Brutus, the son of Aeneas, who came here with his followers as refugees when Troy fell to the Greeks.

These mazes of the Troy Town pattern were cut in the turf in times long past. They are the ’quaint mazes in the wanton green’ that Shakespeare refers to in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, and were part of the traditional country sports associated with Easter and May Day. People used to dance their way through the maze to the centre and out again, because you cannot actually lose your way in this kind of maze if you just keep going; you will inevitably thread your way through the labyrinth, going first deosil and then widdershins, round and round, until you return to where you entered. Such a rite is, in fact, a form of dancing out the magical circle.

Examples of these turf-cut mazes, or the remains of them, may still be found in Britain. Eight all together are known to be in existence. Many more are recorded that have since been destroyed in various ways, though fortunately plans of them have usually been preserved, showing that some were more complicated than others, while still keeping the essential feature of being able to be danced through. Place-names which preserve the indication that a maze once existed here are Troy Town, sometimes corrupted to Drayton; Mizmaze; Julian’s Bower (from a supposed connection with a Trojan prince called Julius); and Shepherd’s Race, from the May Games once played within the maze.

Earlier still than the merry mazes of the May Games is the Troy Town maze pattern carved upon a rock face in Rocky Valley near Tintagel in Cornwall. This is believed to date back to about 1500 B.C., and it is identical with the maze depicted upon coins of the old Cretan capital of Knossos, home of the fabled Labyrinth and its fearsome dweller, the Minotaur.

Moreover, the same pattern occurs upon Etruscan wine jars, upon Danish runic crosses, in religious carvings and pictures from India, and perhaps most remarkable of all, among the Hopi Indians of North America, who call it the ’Mother Earth’ symbol. In these cases it is not merely a similar pattern which recurs, but the same pattern, which is a fairly complicated one.

Is this drawing of such vast antiquity that it was brought to North America when the land bridge between that country and Asia was still in existence? Or did it spread both east and west from some common centre now lost when the waves of ocean drowned Atlantis? The question is valid, because the distribution of the Troy Town maze pattern is a fact. Pictured examples of it can be found in The Mystic Spiral by Jill Purce.

Dancing out the maze requires concentration and can develop into a mystical experience, as the mind is withdrawn from the ordinary world into another realm, a place between the worlds where the laws of this world are temporarily suspended. To concentrate upon the pictured maze pattern is to be reminded of those whirling spiral devices used by some psychologists to induce hypnosis. Perhaps, like so many other things, this is merely a re-discovery of an ancient technique.

It may be significant that the rock-carved maze near Tintagel (itself a place much associated with the legends of King Arthur) is in the neighbourhood of Bossinney, where an ancient tumulus called Bossinney Mound has a wonderful legend attached to it.

The story goes that King Arthur’s Round Table is still miraculously preserved here, though hidden by a magical veil from mortal eyes. After the last battle, when the mortally wounded King sailed away in the barge to Avalon, the Round Table was removed by unseen hands and buried in Bossinney Mound. Once a year, upon Midsummer Eve, the Table rises out of the mound and manifests itself again, shining with so great a light that it illuminates the whole world. But it is ’the light that never was on sea or land’ that the Table spreads around it, a mystic illumination that is only visible to those whose interior sight, or Third Eye, is opened. Others will only see the dark, turf-covered mound.

Bossinney Mound is actually a Bronze Age barrow, and therefore much older even than the time of the Arthurian legends. So is this story perhaps a remote folk memory of the mysteries of the Old Religion that used to be celebrated here, connected with the treading of the maze and the opening of the Third Eye?

There is one last and rather amusing development, or perhaps one should say degeneration, of the magic circle, that may often be seen in the more old-fashioned streets of England. This takes the form of little semi-circles of white paint drawn on the pavement, around the edges of doors, the corners of buildings and anywhere else that the owner does not wish to be fouled by dogs. Whether or not these painted magical barriers (because that is what they really are) actually work or not, I cannot say. However, from their fairly frequent appearance and the fact that they seem to be repainted now and then, the belief in them has evidently survived.