On Circles

Pagan handfasting ceremony at Avebury (Beltane 2005)
Pagan handfasting ceremony at Avebury (Beltane 2005)
by Solar via WikiMedia

The recent conversation within a part of the online Pagan community discusses the usefulness of circles.  Not the geometric shape, but the magical construct with which so many Wiccanate ceremonies (by which I mean to say, those ceremonies based on ideas common to the religion of Wicca) begin.

While I suspect that most of you who’ve come here are Pagans, if some of you are not, here’s a brief explanation from none other than Scott Cunningham in Wicca: A Guide for the Solitary Practitioner.  In my copy, it’s on page 55, but regardless of edition, it’s the beginning of chapter 7 on “The Magic Circle and the Altar:”

There are two main types of magic circles.  Those used by ceremonial magicians of yesterday (and today) are designed to protect the magician from the forces which he or she raises.  In Wicca, the circle is used to create a sacred space in which humans meet with the Goddess and God.

We’re not really dealing with a conversation on the first sort of circle here.  Those seem to be quite clearly rather useful when you need one, but they’re a tool and one that you won’t need every single time you work magic.  The beginning of conversation about the latter type of circle was a post by Teo Bishop entitled I Felt Ashamed At Pagan Pride.  I’m sure there are many more responses, but I’ve encountered a few of them online and thought I would add my voice to the chorus.

If it was not clear, I am not Wiccan.  While the Wiccanate style of ceremony is likely the most common form of ritual practice in Paganism, it is not the only one and it is not mine.  So, perhaps I am biased against circles.  In fact, I know I am.  I’ve used them in the past for my own personal practice, but I’m not going to anymore.

Primarily, I think they’re unnecessary.  Theologically, Pagans are often heard to describe the Earth and all the creatures on it as sacred.  If you also believe (as I do) that the act of creation is a sacred one and that this creation imparts a spark of divinity into that which is created, then even the modern marvels of technology are a part of the sacredness of our times.  Therefore, it seems like a lot of extra work to create a barrier between us and all of that for the purpose of creating a extra-special sacred space.

Beyond the theological, however, there is the practical.  Teo’s experience was at a Pagan Pride Day.  Almost by definition, such a ritual is larger than your average Wiccan coven.  The more people you try to put into a circle and the more likely you’re going to get an ellipse.  Magically speaking, it doesn’t matter (unless you think it does) but practically, portions of an ellipse are further from the middle than others.  If your ritualists are located there (as is also common in a Wiccanate ceremony in my experience), some people around the ellipse are going to have a harder time hearing than others.

This is exacerbated if one of the ritualists moves around the circle while speaking, as was my experience recently at the Southeastern Massachusetts Pagan Pride Day.  As the speak traveled near to me, I could hear her, clearly but as she progressed further away across our ellipse it became harder and harder to do so, even though I was relatively close to the altar.

Finally, larger circles also take up more space.  Granted, any sufficiently large mob of people are going to need more room, but circles — and even more so ellipses — use up lot of ground and leave a lot of empty space between one side and the other.  This limits the possibilities for the ritual space.  I recall rituals held by the CUPagan ritual group which were located in a member’s apartment.  The maximum group size there is likely 15 (if we want to be comfortable) but we had more than that — perhaps as many as 20 to 25 — from time to time.  Cramming ourselves into the available space and remaining safe within it (after all, we Pagans to play with fire and wield sharp objects) was a concern.

But, assuming that the practicalities of your ceremony are such that a circle isn’t going to create a problem in that arena, there is the symbolic concept of the circle itself.  In many was, we use them to separate what is important from what isn’t.  Consider the meaning of the phrase “to circle the wagons” or recall the last time you wrote something down on a piece of paper and circled it four or five times.  In both cases, you’re using the circle to separate, for protection in the case of the former and to highlight importance in the case of the latter.

If, as I maintain, the exchange of information is inherently righteous, then separating ourselves from the world around us restricts that information flow.  Teo sensed this during his experience and I suspect that people on the outside of that circle looking in felt it, too, although perhaps not consciously.  Look again at the image above; from the outside of a circle you’re presented with the backs of the people in front of you.  Not exactly the most welcoming or inclusive view.

The circle’s usefulness is, therefore, limited to a smaller range of ceremonies than many Pagans may expect.  First, the circle as a magical tool is one use.  But, otherwise I suspect the circle is gong to be most useful for small, intimate groups for whom the practical problems are reduced to zero and for whom the symbolic separation between the group and everything else is desirous. For example, the initiation of a new member to a group is a perfect time for a circle* — by entering it, the initiate is brought symbolically into the fold.

But, for large rituals, especially for large public rituals, I think it’s time for us to find a new liturgy.