Friday, 3 February 2012

Pagan 101: Circle

Have you ever wondered why pagans always seem to stand in circles? Or why the ancient ones built stone circles? 

These circles are the pagans' sacred space. They are the pagans' church, temple or holy place. The place where they can worship, perform rituals and become closer to their deities.

In this post I will explain how to cast a circle for yourself, and give you a circle etiquette guide so you will know what to do if you attend a public pagan ritual, or if you are invited to a pagan ritual, such as a religious festival celebration, or a handfasting (pagan marriage ceremony). 

How To Cast A Circle For Beginners

If you have never done it before, this is the simplest and easiest way to cast a circle for complete beginners. Once you have tried this a few times, you  may wish to move on to more elaborate variations. I shall explain how you can advance in this way later.

  1. Before you start, get anything you might be using in the circle ready - candles, matches, incense, musical instruments etc. Using the sun, stars, a compass or any method you can, determine the directions of North, South, East and West.
  2. Turn your phone off (.. and off the hook if you are at home), and ensure that you have enough time during which you will not be disturbed by others. You may play some suitable relaxing music in the background if you wish, but once you have cast the circle, you should not leave it or break its boundaries. 
  3. Decide how big your circle is going to be. It can be any size, but you must leave enough space inside it to carry out any planned activities. About a 9 feet diameter is a reasonable size for one person. You can mark out the boundaries of your circle with candles, sticks, chalk or anything you like first, but this is not necessary. 
  4. Take a few moments to switch off from the daily grind. Concentrate on your breathing for a while. Take a few calm, deep breaths and focus your mind on what you are trying to achieve. 
  5. Using your power hand (the one you use most often), point your forefinger towards the ground at the Eastern edge of your planned circle. Visualise energy in any form you prefer, coming out of the earth, through you body, and out through your finger towards the ground. This could be a firey energy of any colour, an electromagnetic force, low- or high-frequency sound waves... whatever feels right for you.
  6. Slowly and purposefully, 'draw' the circle clockwise from the East with the energy flowing from your finger. As you move around, visualise the energy leaving its mark on the ground where your finger has delineated the boundaries of your circle. You can do this either standing in the centre of the circle and turning round on the spot, or you can move closer to the edge and walk the boundary line, pointing your finger to the ground as you go, but be sure to stay inside the circle's limits. When you get back to the Eastern quarter of the circle where you started, overlap the line to make sure you didn't leave any hole in your circle. 
  7. You can now visualise the circle boundary marked out by the energy you traced. Again, you can visualise this energy in any form that feels right for you - light, heat, sound etc.. The energy you have raised in this circle is a 3-dimensional form that extends above and below the earth. I like to visualise it as a sphere, but others prefer to see it as two cones  - one reaching above the earth pointing upwards and one below the earth pointing downwards, meeting at ground level where the circle is drawn. Either way, the whole shape is filled with the energy you raised and the circle is just the boundary that exists on the 2-dimensional surface of the ground. 
  8. When you are done, you must close the circle by 'cutting' into its boundaries. Again, start in the East and using your power hand, point at the circle boundary and trace its outline, using the same method you used to draw it, but this time moving in a reverse motion, anti-clockwise, to undo what you did earlier. Visualise the energy cone or sphere shrinking into the boundary and finally flickering out. 

The first few times you cast a circle in this way, I recommend that you merely sit, stand or lie in your circle for a while and be aware of the energies you have raised. You might like to meditate within your sacred circle. You could chant, play music, drum or sing, walk about or dance as your mood takes you. 

If you are outside, or you have pets, or young children, notice how they react to the circle. Animals will often avoid coming into the circle, but may be attracted to its boundaries. Some cats however, enjoy being in a sacred circle, and may come into it and sit with you there. 

After closing the circle, it is a good idea to eat and drink something, even just a little, to ground yourself again - 'bringing you back down to earth'. 

Circle Casting - Moving On From The Basics

Once you feel comfortable with the process, have practised it and feel confident that you can raise energy in this way, you may start to elaborate on this. 

You can invite your deities, if you have any, so that you may share this sacred space with them and work with them. In the same way, you can invite the elementals (air, fire, water and earth). Deities and elementals can be called upon like this to protect and guard your circle, as well as helping you with any ritual or spellwork you might wish to perform within your circle. You can also use tools to help you cast the circle and to work with deities and elementals. If you invite deities and/or elementals into your circle in this way, you must always thank and release them before closing your circle.

Casting a circle helps to create a safe, neutral space, that has power in both this realm and others. The circle ensures that the space you are working in is protected and that any power you raise within it, either alone or with the help of deities and elementals, is contained safely within the circle until you are ready to release it and let it do its work. 

If you feel you wish to move on to this more elaborate style of circle casting, there is a nice 'Sample Ritual' set out in the book Celtic Magic by D.J. Conway.  I know quite a few pagans who don't approve of this book or author, but I found that it worked really well for me as a complete beginner and I would recommend it. If there is enough demand for it here, I will do another future post on this myself. 

Pagan Circle Etiquette

If you are participating in a pagan ritual or celebration for the first time and are not sure what this involves or how to behave, here are some pointers.

  • You will usually be welcome to wear whatever clothes you feel comfortable in, and there is no need to wear robes, particular colours or to go naked (or 'skyclad'). 
  • Check in advance if there is anything you need to bring. You may be asked to bring an offering such as an object from nature, a candle or some food or drink.

  • It is perfectly acceptable to ask for a written transcript of the ritual in advance. This will help you to know exactly what to expect and what to say, if there are any communal responses. The whole circle is often invited to say things like 'Hail and welcome' when inviting deities and elementals, and 'Hail and farewell' on thanking and releasing them at the end. This is often done whilst facing towards the corresponding directions, so that everyone in the circle turns to face East to welcome in and bid farewell to the element of air, South for fire, West for water and North for earth. If everyone else is doing it, then feel free to join in, but if you choose not to, it is not necessary and you will not be frowned upon. 
  • Please be respectful of the fact that this kind of ritual requires concentration and focus. Turn your mobile phone off and do not start chatting or gesticulating towards another member of the circle. 

  • Children and pets are usually welcome, but be sure to double-check in advance.
  • Always come to circle with a good attitude. If you are feeling angry, in a bad mood, or feel reluctant to take part for any reason, then do not bring your negative energy into the circle. You will often still be able to attend, and may be present but remain outside of the circle boundaries as a spectator. In this case please remember to maintain respect by not distracting those in the circle. 
  • Once the circle has been cast, it is essential that you do not 'break circle' by leaving wherever possible. Make sure to bring everything you might need into the circle with you in advance (tissues, walking stick, warmer clothes...etc.) and go the toilet before the ceremony starts. If you find you do need to leave the circle for some emergency, ask the celebrant if you may be excused and allowed to break circle first. Please do not just leave. If you feel you might be unwell during the ceremony, then do not join the circle in the first place, but sit it out and remain outside the circle boundaries. 
  • As the elements (or 'quarters' as they are often referred to) are called in, you may find that a celebrant will come around the circle with saltwater and incense, sprinking the saltwater lightly on everyone in the circle, and wafting incense over them, for blessings and protection. Some people will use their hands to direct the smoke from the incense towards themselves.
  • There may also be food and drink passed around for everyone to enjoy. Feel free to take some along with the others, but it's not obligatory and no one will think any worse of you if you refuse. If you are offered food or drink during the ceremony it is perfectly acceptable to ask if it is alcoholic, vegan, wheat-free or whatever before you decided whether to partake or not. 

  • There are moments during circle when quiet, concentration and focus are necessary, and there are moments that are much more light hearted and noisy. The celebrant will usually make this quite obvious in advance by saying such things as 'Let us now take a few moments to think about our ancestors who have passed...' or 'Now we shall take up our drums and dance...'. So do not worry that you will do the wrong thing at the wrong time. It is usually pretty clear. 
  • Singing, chanting, drumming and dancing are not always included by any means, but they often are. If this is something that makes you cringe, or you have disabilities that make dancing impossible, feel free to ask if they will be included or not, and whether sitting out would be ok. In my experience no one is ever expected to do anything in circle that makes them feel uncomfortable.

Open, public, pagan rituals are the most welcoming occasions, involving people of many different beliefs, faiths and religions. If you feel drawn to attend one, but are put off because you've never been to one before, I hope that this post has reassured you that you will be accepted with glad hearts and a warm welcome. 

Whilst open pagan ceremonies and rituals have their moments of solemnity, they often also include plenty of merriment, music, dance and plenty of room for having a laugh and enjoying yourself. They are largely more relaxed and informal than other ceremonies you may have attended. You will not be met by evangelical pleas to 'join' paganism. You will merely be free to join in if you please and wished well as you leave. 

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