The Use of the Magical Circle in Traditional Witchcraft: How it is Cast and Why
The casting of circles in witchcraft is very old and appears to be universal.
Those familiar with the modern, popular form of witchcraft, Wicca, know that they cast a circle by “calling the corners.” This procedure is sometimes complex and technical in nature and involves the use of specific colors of candles and other implements. Some of them do it to create “sacred space” to celebrate seasonal holidays, worship their gods and goddesses, or to raise a “cone of power” for some particular purpose. This is one example of the use of a magical circle in a modern form of witchcraft, but there are many others.
The next most familiar type of circle-casting to most people might be the Lesser Banishing Ritual of the Pentagram described by Israel Regardie in the book, “The Golden Dawn: The Original Account of the Teachings, Rites, and Ceremonies of the Hermetic Order.” In this version four spirits or energies are called to form and guard the circle at the four cardinal points.
The circles described by Regardie are similar to those found in some old medieval grimoires, including “The Lesser Key of Solomon.” These circles are used to summon and converse with demonic spirits. Furthermore, such rituals as these involving circles were documented by the authors of some of these old grimoires who observed and recorded the activities of witches around them at the time.
Those who are new to witchcraft may have the impression that circle casting is something only Wiccans or ceremonial magicians do, however, this is not the case, at all. Although, the Wiccans and ceremonial magicians have their own, often complex methods involving the recitation of specific words and the use of certain magical implements, the casting of a circle as part of a spell is common to witchcraft around the world.
Worldwide, the circle is primarily used as a place to concentrate power and to perform acts of witchcraft, particularly those involving manifestations of spirits or transformations.
The Obeah men and women were magicians who were among the slaves brought to the Caribbean from some region thought to be in northern Africa. The people from this region of Africa were extraordinary in their beauty, physical strength and intelligence and were prized by the human traffickers who bought and sold them, bringing them primarily to Jamaica despite the fact that they were considered dangerous and inclined to rebellion. The Obeah men and women were both revered and feared by other people because of their magical abilities. The Obeah form of ritual magic sometimes involved the magician drawing a magic circle with a special type of chalk. The origins and content of the chalk are disputed by researchers. Some say that it was formed from the native earth of Africa. Others say that it was made of powdered, white egg shells.
According to researchers, the aboriginals of Australia, also, used similar circles in their magical rituals, including witchcraft for the purpose of cursing enemies. The magician might use the circle alone or with a group of people in this procedure. In such an instance, the circle becomes a metaphysical container for the energy involved in spell casting.
But, the circle functions to protect the magician and his or her work, also. The following tale, entitled “The Witch as Cat,” involving a chalk-drawn circle comes from Bohemia, historically a German region, which is now part of the Czech Republic; it illustrates the use of the circle in witchcraft as both a protective device and a place from which to conduct acts of magic:
At the end of the sixteenth century a miller woman lived in a mill with her six children. No servant could stay in this mill because during the night a cat with six kittens would always come and bite and scratch the worker, sometimes to death. However, one day a journeyman came to the mill who knew black magic.
When he asked for a night’s lodging the miller woman said that it would not go well with him, because the place was haunted.
“That doesn’t matter,” said the journeyman. “I’m not afraid.”
That evening he lit a candle, drew a circle around himself with sanctified chalk, then sat down at the table. Near midnight a black cat with her six kittens approached the light, wanting to put it out. The journeyman grabbed a hatchet and cut off one of the cat’s paws. She let out a terrible shriek, then all of them ran out the door.
The next morning the miller woman was ill, and no one knew what was wrong with her. However, the journeyman knew what it was; that morning instead of a cat’s paw he had found a human hand lying on the ground. He reported the event, and the miller woman was burned to death, along with her children, for these too someday would have learned witchcraft. ( Josef Virgil Grohmann, Sagen-Buch von Böhmen und Mähren. Erster Theil: Sagen aus Böhmen (Prague: Verlag der J. G. Calve’schen k.k. Universitäts-Buchhandlung, 1863), pp. 225-26.)
The following story illustrates how a witch very simply casts a circle to perform a conjuration. This account demonstrates the efficacy of a simple circle for summoning spirits, which is accomplished without elaborate ritual, incantations or a lot of ceremonial tools. A book and a glass in a circle along with a pan of hot coals upon which some stinking herbs were thrown is used to conjure spirits, which take on various forms:
The Witch took her staff and there drew him about the house, making a kind of Circle, and then took a book, and carrying it over the Circle, with her hands, and taking a green glass, did lay it upon the book, and placed n the Circle an earthen pan of Coles, wherein she threw something, which burning caused a very noysome stinck, and told the Maid she should not be afraid of what she should then see, for now they could come, they are the words she used and, so calling Beelzebub, Tormentor, Satan, and Lucifer to appear, there suddainly arose a very high wind, which made the house shake, and presently the back Door of the house flying open, there came five spirits, as the Maid supposed, in the likeness of ragged Boys, some bigger than others and ran about the house, where she had drawn the staff, and the Witch threw down upon the ground Crums of Bread, which the Spirits picked up, and leapt over the Pan of Coals oftentimes, which she set in the middle of the Circle, and a Dog and a Cat of the Witches danced with them; and after some time the Witch looked again in her book, and threw some great white feeds upon the ground… (Bower, Edmond, Doctor Lamb revived, or, Witchcraft condemn’d in Anne Bodenham, 1653, Cornell University Library Witchcraft Collection,P. 4-5.)
The circle may be seen as a three dimensional geometric shape that confines and concentrates the energy that makes possible manifestations and other acts of magic. For example, in the 1947 book, “Ozark Superstitions” Vance Randolph mentions how conjurers in the Ozark Mountains force the appearance of a witch by arranging brush in a circle and lighting it on fire at midnight.
In the following story, we see that a circle large enough to accommodate an outhouse, with the cardinal points marked, is used to make someone ill by means of malefic witchcraft.
An account from circa 1579 from the book, “A Detection of Damnable Driftes Practised by Three Witches Arranged at Chelmifforde in Essex,” demonstrates that the circle not only accumulates power, but holds it in place. It is alleged that an accused witch, Mother Staunton came to the home of a Mrs. Cornell to ask for some milk, whereupon she was turned away on the suspicion that she was a witch. The second time Mother Staunton appeared, she drew a circle in the dirt with her knife outside the door of the house, marking out the cardinal points. Afterward, Mrs. Cornell departed from the house, and stepped across this circle and became very sick.
In many nations around the world, we see the circle used as for both power and protection; to contain the energy needed for a spell or ritual and to guard that energy. Sometimes it is empowered by a prayer, such as the “Our Father” or powerful names or symbols. It is drawn with knives, staffs or special chalk and often oriented toward the four cardinal points, north, south, east and west. But, the circle does not have to be created in an elaborate ritual to be effective.
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