What’s a circle for?

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People are often confused about the role of the circle in religious witchcraft. There are a number of possible answers to this, and which ones apply to what you’re doing depend a lot on you, what you’re doing, and some other things I’ll talk about in this article.

A definition:

What’s a circle? Good question. For the purposes of this page (and this site), let’s define it as a temporary space with clearly defined energetic boundaries that provides a known space for ritual, magic, or similar controlled change.

What is casting a circle like?

You can think of the process of casting a circle as being rather like cooking. You start with some ingredients, a space, and some tools, and you use all of those to create something new that nourishes, delights, or otherwise helps you in some way.

Just like cooking, you can do something really simple (make macaroni and cheese out of the box, cut up veggies for a salad, heat up something in the microwave) or you can make something that involves a series of linked steps. (I’m currently making a batch of chicken wild rice stew from scratch, which involves caramelising onions, making stock, then cooking chicken and mushrooms before combining it in the final stew. Great result, but it does take a while.)

Just like there are many ways to cook a meal, there are many ways to create a ritual circle. However – also like cooking – there are some ways that really don’t work, and some ways that do work, but take up so much time, energy, and resources that they’re not really worthwhile.

Different methods work for different goals

In cooking, bread and cookies share a lot of the same ingredients at first glance (flour, liquid, even sugar), but they’re very different foods in other ways. Circles are the same way: the circle you like for a celebratory ritual may not be the best fit for an intense magical working (or the other way around.)

When you read in books (or here) about casting a circle, read them like you would a cookbook or recipe online. Understand the steps before you try them out. Think about if the recipe or instructions work for you. If the instructions don’t make sense, or they don’t fit your needs, look for an option that does, or learn more about what you might thoughtfully change.

Don’t change things without knowing what it affects:

You might end up with something that doesn’t work – or worse, can be dangerous and risky. You don’t want the ritual equivalent of a hangover or food poisoning if you guess wrong! (They can happen, and they’re really no fun.) Don’t worry – I’ve got some recommendations at the end of this page that can help you out that are very good at explaining alternatives and which things you can adjust easily, and how.

To sum up: your circle is both a place that’s ready for you to do work, and a tool in and of itself. Both are useful.

Why do we cast circle?

Casting a circle allows us to create the energetic space that supports our work in the physical space we have available. Since we do our ritual in a variety of spaces, many of which spend most of their time being something else (a living room, a public park, a rented room in a friendly business or community building), we need a way to make the space stop being those things, and start being a space where ritual, magic, and transformation can happen more easily.

This can be helped by some physical cues (things like altars, decorations, lighting choices, etc.) but it’s also helped by simply taking time to create a structured progression from living room to circle and back again. (or whatever the space is.) Some reasons we might cast a circle include the following.

Welcoming:

One very basic role of a circle is to create a space where we can welcome others, both human and divine. Just like we physically tidy our home before we have people over, casting a circle can help us tidy the energy of the space we’re using, and create a welcoming environment for our gathering.

Setting the mood:

Casting circle also can help us set a mood – not only with the decorations, altars, and other visual things we do, but in other ways. We might adjust parts of our ritual for different times of year, or different goals. The energies we invite at a summer solstice celebrating our friendship and community would be different than the ones we’d want for an initiation, or for a Samhain ritual honoring our beloved dead.

Creating a sacred space:

For some kinds of work, we might want a space that is not just energetically (and physically) tidy, but that has been consecrated to a particular goal or need.

Helping us step into the ritual mindset:

The simple process of creating a circle can help us set aside our daily worries and annoyances, and step more easily into a ritual mindset. Creating changes in the physical space (setting up an altar, decorations, etc.) and then following a set of steps that remind us we’re not just in our living room anymore can make this much easier.

Making our ritual work easier:

Working in a very gentle, light, celebratory circle might not feel incredibly different, but it’s also possible to create a circle that is a tool in and of itself. Going back to my cooking analogy earlier, some approaches to circle casting actually give us more tools. Think of it like trying to mix cookie dough in a square pan. Now think about mixing it in a mixing bowl that has space to work – but curves to make it easier to spread the ingredients and combine them fully.

The shape, size, and properties of the circle can be adjusted to help us in our ritual work. We can finetune them to help us move energy in the way we want, direct it more easily to a specific purpose, or build up momentum that makes our other work in the ritual easier.

A space where what-might-be is easier to touch:

One approach to ritual is looking at that spark of potential and possibility, shaping it in the circle (where things are more malleable and fluid), and then bringing it back to our physical world with us. We can do this most easily if we create a way to transition from our regular daily life, to the space in the circle.

There’s also the fact that the circle is a small version of the universe. We can’t reach out and touch everything in our lives at once in the physical world (never mind everything in our country or our planet!) but in circle, we create a symbolic representation of the world. By changing that representation, or focusing our attention on something specific, we can help make that change happen in the physical world, too.

Speaking to deeper parts of ourselves:

As I’ve talked about elsewhere on this site, one way that magic can work very effectively is when we engage all of the parts of ourselves. The theatrical parts of casting a circle – using colors, sounds, smells, and elaborate gestures and speech – can help engage all of us in what we’re doing, and fill all of our senses.

Offering some protection:

You notice this one is almost last. I do believe that there are entities out there that are attracted to energy and ritual, and some of them get curious. However, I think very few of them are actively nasty or dangerous. That said, casting circle does give you some privacy from intrusion (on an energetic level). Think of it like closing curtains on  your home when you’re changing clothes, or having friends over. You still have some interaction with the larger world, but you’re not going to be so distracted by someone walking or driving by.

Finally, because we enjoy the process:

I – like a number of other people I know – honestly enjoy the process of casting circle. That doesn’t mean I want to do it every day (and I don’t), but I really enjoy taking the time to relax into the process, to follow a pattern that I know well, and that helps me focus, center, and direct my energy toward my goals. I love how I feel when I’m in circle: like those dreams and desires are possible, that I’m connected in an extra and special way to the people with me and the Gods and other entities I’ve invited.

Some other questions:

There are a few other questions that come up from time to time.

Circle versus a permanent building?

What’s the difference between a circle and a permanent religious building? The biggest difference is that one’s temporary, and one’s permanent. In many religious traditions, a number of the things we do to create the circle (cleansing and blessing the space, creating energetic boundaries that support the work we’re doing there, etc.) are added to the building as part of the consecration of that space (and sometimes, even the actual building.)

But this temporary nature also gives us more flexibility. A church, for example, is stuck with the architecture it has when it is built, in many ways. We, on the other hand, can create a large space sometimes, and a smaller space at others. We can change the focus or features of the space to support what we’re doing. And, of course, it gives us flexibility in where we do ritual – sometimes that might be outside, sometimes in one home, sometimes in another, sometimes in a rental space – so we can pick the best physical space for the immediate needs, rather than compromising.

Do you need to cast a circle for everything you do?

Nope. Plenty of people, including me, do not cast a circle for a range of ritual or even magical actions. I might spend time at my altar, meditate, do general energy work, and a number of other things without casting a circle.

However, I do use it if I’m doing a larger and more intricate working, or one where the extra steps of creating a circle will help hone my intention and focus and make the working easier and more effective in the long run. I do also have a permanent sacred space set up around my home, which makes this easier.

What about creating a permanent sacred space?

This is often referred to as ‘warding’. As you might guess from the name, it has a protective focus, helping to keep the home safe, and the people inside safe and healthy. There are a number of different ways to do this: some people anchor the wards into four stones in the corners of the apartment, house, or property. Some people anchor the protections to an object (like a witch bottle, a larger stone or crystal, or something else – mine are anchored to my harp.)

However, wards are not quite like a permanent circle in some ways. While they can make the home a lot more comfortable for people you like (and less comfortable for people you don’t want there), they aren’t the same kind of freshly cleaned and purified space a circle is. They also don’t offer the tighter focus and intention of a particular circle.

More resources:

There are several great books out there on creating ritual space. They include:

  • Deborah Lipp’s The Elements of Ritual
  • Amber K and Azrael K’s RitualCraft
  • A number of parts of Isaac Bonewits’ work.

[last edited December 24, 2016]

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