In modern Paganism, one of the facets common to many traditions is the use of a circle as a sacred space. While other religions rely on the use of a building such as a church or temple to hold worship, Wiccans and Pagans can cast a circle pretty much any place they choose. Bear in mind that not every Pagan tradition casts a circle - many Reconstructionist paths skip it altogether, as do most folk magic traditions.
A magic circle is circle or sphere of space marked out by practitioners of many branches of ritual magic, which they generally believe will contain energy and form a sacred space, or will provide them a form of magical protection or both. It may be marked physically, drawn in salt or chalk, for example, or merely visualized. Its spiritual significance is similar to that of mandala and yantra in some Eastern religions.
Traditionally, circles were believed by ritual magicians to form a protective barrier between themselves and what they summoned. In modern times, practitioners generally cast magic circles to contain and concentrate the energy they believe to raise during a ritual. Rituals usually include a combination of meditation, invocations, movement, music and the use of magical tools. Creating a magic circle is known as casting a circle, circle casting and various other names.
There are many published techniques for casting a circle, and many groups and individuals have their own unique methods. The common feature of these practices is that a boundary is traced around the working area. Some witchcraft traditions say that one must trace around the circle clockwise three times. There is variation over which direction one should start in.
Circles may or may not be physically marked out on the ground, and a variety of elaborate patterns for circle markings can be found in grimoires and magical manuals, often involving angelic and divine names. Such markings, or a simple unadorned circle, may be drawn in chalk or salt, or indicated by other means such as with a cord.
The four cardinal directions are often prominently marked, such as with four candles. Some varieties of Wicca use the common ceremonial color attributions for their quarter candles: yellow for Air in the east, red for Fire in the south, blue for Water in the west and green for Earth in the north. Other ceremonial traditions have candles between the quarters, i.e. in the north-east, north-west and so on. Often, an incantation will be recited stating the purpose and nature of the circle, often repeating an assortment of divine and angelic names.
The barrier is believed to be fragile, so that leaving or passing through the circle would weaken or dispel it. This is referred to as 'breaking the circle'. It is generally advised that practitioners do not leave the circle unless absolutely necessary.
In order to leave a circle and keep it intact, Wiccans believe a door must be cut in the energy of the circle, normally on the East side. Whatever was used to cast the circle is used to cut the doorway, such as a sword, staff or athame; a doorway is 'cut' in the circle, at which point anything may pass through without harming the circle. This opening must be closed afterwards by 'reconnecting' the lines of the circle.
The circle is usually closed by the practitioner after they have finished by drawing in the energy with the athame or whatever was used to make the circle including their hand (usually in counter-clockwise). This is called closing the circle or releasing the circle. The term 'opening' is often used representing the idea the circle has been expanded and dissipated rather than closed in on itself.
Find a safe place to cast your circle. It can be indoors or outdoors, at midnight or early in the morning. There's no perfect place to cast. The best place is somewhere you'll feel comforted and at ease, able to commune in the way you wish, and in the appropriate way for whatever ritual or ceremony you hope to perform.
Start by determining how big your space needs to be. A ceremonial circle is a place in which positive energy and power are kept in, and negative energy kept out. The size of your circle will depend on how many people need to be inside it, and what the circle’s purpose is. If you’re hosting a small coven meeting for a few people, a nine-foot-diameter circle is sufficient. On the other hand, if it’s Beltane and you’ve got four dozen Pagans preparing to do a Spiral Dance or a drum circle, you’ll need a space significantly larger. A solitary practitioner can work easily in a three- to five-foot circle.
Mark the circle upon the floor or the ground. Place a candle in each of the four quarters. All necessary magical tools should already be in place upon the altar in the center. Once the Circle is designated, it is usually navigated by the Leader, High Priest or High Priestess, holding an athame, a candle or a censer. Before entering the circle, participants are purified as well.
Physically marking the circle is not needed. White light is considered symbolic of pure protective energy. To begin, sit quietly with your eyes closed, imagining a white light surrounding first you and then the area where you are working. It is easiest to envision this light as coming from above you as sunlight does. As you see it clearer in your mind, allow the light to grow brighter, you may begin to feel warmer and the room may seem quieter or different than when you began. This indicates that you have done it correctly. Visualization works well for those working alone or in a small space indoors.
The leader enters the circle from the east and announces, “Let it be known that the circle is about to be cast. All who enter the Circle may do so in perfect love and perfect trust.” Other members of the group may wait outside the circle until the casting is complete. The leader moves clockwise around the circle, carrying a lit candle or a lighter. At each of the four cardinal points, she calls upon the Deities of her tradition (some may refer to these as Watchtowers, Dwarfs or Guardians).
At this point, the leader will announce that the circle is cast, and other members of the group can ritually enter the circle. Each person approaches the leader at the east and states: I enter in perfect love and perfect trust or In the light and love of the Goddess or whatever response is appropriate to your tradition. If you are in a circle alone this step is skipped.
Once all members are present within the circle, the circle is closed. At no time during ritual should anyone exit the circle without performing a ceremonial 'cutting.' You need to create a 'door' in the circle, which you may now walk through. When you return to the circle, enter it in the same place you exited, and 'close' the doorway by reconnecting the line of the circle with the athame.
The ritual can now be done within the protection of the circle. When the ceremony or rite has ended, the circle is usually cleared in the same manner in which it was cast; only in this case the leader will dismiss the Deities or Guardians and thank them for watching over the group. Pay respect to whatever deities you invited and thank the elements before you remove their representative objects. In some traditions, the temple is cleared simply by having all members raise their athames in salute, thanking the God or Goddess, and kissing the blades of the athame.
It’s a basic framework for ritual and you can make yours as elaborate as you like. If you’re a very poetic person who likes lots of ceremony, feel free to use creative license. If your tradition associates various deities with the directions, call upon those Gods or Goddesses in the ways that they expect you to do so. Talking to your deities should come from the heart. Just make sure that you don’t spend so much time casting the Circle that you don’t have any time left for the rest of your ceremony!
The circle, open, is not unbroken.
It remains to protect from what is unspoken.
In perfect love and perfect trust, we leave to do what we must
Merry we met and merry we part
Till we meet again with joy in our heart.