Witches Do It In A Magical Circle
Author: Rhys Chisnall
Sacred space is a space that is ‘experienced or seen as’ sacred but remember, this need not mean it has any extra unseen property. In many religions, it is a permanent structure such as a church, a mosque, a druid’s grove or a temple. The place is seen as sacred, as numinous and special suitable and worthy of where the Divine can be experienced. These places are often made sacred through certain rites and ritual… a form of magic, which to my mind is the manipulation of meaning to transform phenomenal reality. The rites are the manipulation of meaning which leads to ‘experiencing as’ the church as sacred (even to those who never partook in the original rituals) and if that is not the transformation of phenomenal reality I don’t know what is.
Witchcraft differs from other religious and spiritual traditions in that it does not have any permanent sacred spaces. There are no permanent temples in the initiatory Craft perhaps because it is a spiritual tradition where the focus of the experience of the Divine is through life and death, where there is no dualism between the sacred and the profane, therefore there is no need for a permanent temple. In the Craft the sacred space is declared at every meeting, wherever and whenever the coven meets.
This sacred space is declared when the circle is cast by the High Priestess with her athame and is both psychological and mythological in character. It is psychological, firstly, as it is visualised by and ‘felt by’ the participants as the sphere is formed about them. It is ‘experienced as’ by the mind through an act of imagination. Secondly, the setting up of the sacred space in the Craft prepares the Witches for the rite in which they are to participate. For example a church is laid out to either assault the senses such as in the stain glass, incense, bells, candles, crucifixes and robes of the priest in Catholicism, or the in the stark whitewash and lack of symbolism of the Methodists. The symbolism, the bells and smells of the Catholic or the austerity stemming from the suspicion of idolatry of the Protestant both work to put the worshipper into a worshipful and receptive state of mind.
Likewise the words, gestures, incense, candle light and nudity involved in the casting of the circle puts the Witches into the state of mind where magic (the manipulation of meaning to transform phenomenal reality) can occur. If the same method of casting is used each time (as in Initiatory Craft) , then expectation and classical conditioning (like Pavlov’s dogs) combine to create the appropriate state of mind with little effort on the part of the Witch. Vivianne Crowley (1989) tells us of one priestess who says something like, “I only need to hear the swish of a broom and I am in an altered state of consciousness”. I can confirm from experience that that this is certainly the case. During the set up of our rituals and the casting of the circle, after twelve years of being with the same coven, I automatically slip into ritual consciousness.
The circle is also mythological and is full of symbolism. The circle can relate to four of the classical elements, air, fire, water and earth. It can relate, like the phases of the moon and the wheel of the year to the stages of life such as youth, maturity, old age and death. To my mind this means it can relate to stages in the hero’s journey, the mono-myth described by Professor Joseph Campbell in his book, The Hero with a Thousand faces. This is the journey of the mystic, who goes out into the metaphorical wilderness, fairy land, the world of adventure. It is here that the mystic has their adventure/experience, attaining gnosis (spiritual knowledge) , before returning to everyday life where they have to integrate what they have learnt. The failed hero or mystic is not able to do this and is stuck in the adventure world and so perishes. The circle can also be symbolic of the changing seasons of the year, spring, summer, autumn, and winter, which of course, underpin the myths of the Craft.
The circle, mythologically speaking, is out of time. It is also all time, all the seasons, all the stages of life, all parts of the hero’s quest and so paradoxically, which can happen in myth, is all time and at the same time it is out of time. The circle is experienced as the mythological every-when, fairy land and eternity where the tick, tick, tick of time does not pass; there is no past, present or future. Mythologically speaking, this is the mystical state. It is in this space were we experience mythologically, rather than logically. We participate in mythology, finding meaning that allows us to engage with the mysteries.
It acts as a mythological circle that psychologically contains the emotion and meaning. It represents the keeping away of thoughts and feeling not required for the ritual. These are the daily round of duties and thoughts, which might be stresses about work, money, or whether we have left the cooker on. They are outside the psychological circle and we within the ritual are on the inside. It is a psychological and mythological barrier between the emotions, thoughts and meaning necessary for the job at hand, and those that would distract us from our purpose. So the circle acts as a boundary and protection of meaning containing the emotional power we raise.
To conclude it is both a mythological space where we engage with and act mythologically and a psychological boundary. However, while this requires imagination, visualisation and concentration; it is not the same thing as play-acting. Rather it is ‘seeing as’, making and experiencing as profound meaning rather than simply make believe. This meaning can be allegorical but it is also archetypal in that it related to our deep feelings that are invoked by what is fundamentally important in life.
Campbell, J, (1993) , The Hero with a Thousand Faces, Fortana Press
Crowley, V., (1989) , Wicca: The Old Religion in the New Age, Aquarian Press