4 - A Circle Between the Worlds
Wind comes from the spring star in the East,
Fire from the summer star in the South,
Water from the autumn star in the West,
Wisdom, silence and death from the star in the North
(Fiona Macleod The Divine Adventure)
A circle is perhaps the oldest pattern set out by people, recognised by artists, acknowledged by tiny children. It is a symbol of eternity, of equality, of permanence and of change. The face of the rising sun is round, the repeating plosh as raindrops splash into puddles forms recurring circles, the patch of light born of a single flame or a mighty bonfire sheds warmth and illumination in a circle. From huddles of playing children to the greatest gatherings of learned people, the shape they make is often a circle, where all can be heard, all can offer advice, all can equally participate in whatever is being arranged. So it is with magic.
The circle cast by the ceremonial magician or swept by the old wise woman's broom on her earthy floor represents a kind of spaceship, a time traveller's craft whose occupants may be transported to other times or other places. Its use is ancient, its power is unfailing.
It can be protective, calming, healing, invigorating. It may be as small as the span of your arms or stretch, like the great Earth Zodiacs, across many miles of countryside. It may be created by your will to bring you inner peace for a few moments of meditation, or built of mighty stones and earthen banks over hundreds of years, enduring for thousands, as at Avebury, Callanish or Stonehenge.
Students have asked me if it is always necessary to have a magical circle set up in order to perform any kind of magical work, and like so much of the Old Arts, the answer is a paradox, being 'yes and no!' The greatest skill every witch, magician, druid or healer needs to develop is that of intuition. Literally 'inner teaching', it is that sense of 'rightness' about any action, thought or esoteric activity. When you have had some practical experience in the magical arts you will know, intuitively, if this is the moment to cast a circle or not. Only you can know that for yourself, no book can tell you, no teacher or school of thought can dictate it. You have to decide this minor point, as with many others as you go through your training in the coming years.
Mentally and physically, setting up a magical circle will probably be the first ritual act you will need to attempt. It can be a very simple procedure, taking a moment or two of thought, a few minutes of action. In other circumstances, or in the company of friends or companions on the path, it might take half an hour or even longer. It will be for you to experiment, explore your likes and dislikes, your personal situation and the location of your working. To begin with, it really is worth the bother of doing this small ritual carefully and completely; as you become more experienced the process may be shortened, simplified or even internalised, so that it is done in your head, instead of inside your house or garden or favourite wooded grove.
Like other paradoxical matters in magic, ritual circles are square! Acknowledgement is always given to the four points of the compass, 'the quarters', perhaps by offering a symbol of the Elements commonly associated with each, or by the welcoming of a protective being, archangel, totem animal or elemental force. There may be a setting out of a sacred object, the lighting of a candle or the invocation of a goddess or god name to help with the ritual. One group of modern witches uses the names of the four winds, and though the names they use are the Greek ones, the old folk of Britain sometimes called upon, 'A pale wind and a purple wind, a black wind and a white ...' to sweep away interference from their sacred place, protect it from harm and empower their spells.
The first consideration is space. If you are working indoors you will be limited both in the amount of room you have to make sacred, and how wild your activities within that space may be, because dancing, singing, waving a wand or even lying full length to receive divine inspiration are all possible aspects of the work. It does rather sadden me that some modern witches are keen to be sky-clad (naked) and free, but as a consequence take off their clothes and have to wear a house! Surely it is better in the eyes of the Earth Mother to wear comfortable clothes but be out of doors, in the wind and moonlight? A light robe, a warm cloak or even a special coat kept just for such encounters with Nature will not stop the channelling of power which can move the stars in their courses. Out there, the voices of the wild can answer your summons, give reply to your request or, as omens, fulfil your prayers.
Again, you will have to choose, but if you are new to these arts it may be easier and feel safer to be indoors, in familiar surroundings, where you can find items to use for the marking out of the square circle. The simplest set of symbols of the Elements of Earth, Water, Fire and Air are earth from the garden, water from the tap, a lighted candle and something scented. You can use a rock, pebble or slab of wood, which grows in the ground, for Earth.
You may, if you are going to drink it, use spring water, fruit juice or wine for Water. Fire really does have to be something alight, although a smouldering joss stick could be used to represent both Fire and Air. For Air you could use some kind of incense, burned on proper charcoal, or a sweetly scented flower, pot-pourri, even a fan or a feather. Out of doors in a natural place, you may be surprised at what you can easily discover to represent the Elements - from tiny acorn cups of Water, to aromatic shrubs for Air, a red or yellow flower or leaf for Fire, and any kind of soil, stone, wood or sand for Earth.
These traditional four Elements represent the spokes of a wheel, which give it both balance and power. By calling upon these traditional Elements you create a kind of vortex which spins the energy you are drawing up from the Earth herself and mixes it with the power that is flowing down from the sky, making a potent source of magical force by which your spells will be made to work. You cause this power to move because in your ritual or in your mind you will be walking, dancing or sweeping around the circle, like a spoon in a teacup, stirring these balanced lines of energy into a cord of light which, rather like a twisted electric cable, can direct the energy where it is needed. As your psychic vision improves you will actually be able to see the Elemental power as different colours, or as flows of rainbow light, or sense them as heat or coolness.
You will need to write little poems or invocations to welcome or recognise these forces. 'Earth beneath and Sky above, Bless me ever with your love. Power of Nature, strength of Earth, Help me to find my own true worth. Flow of Water, rain in spring, Grant my heart the joy to sing. Fire of summer, light of flame, Guide me to my lifelong aim. Wind of autumn, breath of Air, show me peace beyond compare. Circle round and Light within, Guard me now, your human kin.' As you say each of these short invocations (or ones you have made up which are better poetry or more appropriate to your own symbolism) face up for Sky, look down for Earth, point to North for Elemental Earth, West for Water, South for Fire, East for Air. (You will either need to recognise where the points of the compass are from seeing stars or the sun in the sky, or buy yourself a reliable magnetic compass from a hiking or Scout shop.)
Ideally you will need to walk around the circle to each of these points in turn. If you do it just like that you will find you are going anti-clockwise, or widdershins as they say in Scotland. Now many modern witches do not like the idea of going anti-clockwise, not realising that that is the actual direction the Earth herself turns, so it is up to you. At the beginning of your work you may well be clearing things away, be it furniture or old ideas.
Anyway, to get over this problem you can form a vortex clockwise by walking from North round three-quarters of a circle until you get to the West, where Water should be. Say the words, then do three-quarters of a clockwise circle to Fire in the South, and finally three-quarters of a circle to East where the symbol of Air will be. Face the centre and imagine a great circle of white-gold light sweeping round you and at the very centre, inside your own heart, a tiny diamond-bright point of silver fire.
Just try this very basic exercise, when you have cleared a physical space and cleaned it as well as you can. Place the four symbols of the Elements in their respective places; learn which is in which direction so that you will be able to look West from North, or South from East and so on without hesitation. Learn also to turn to your right for clockwise (deosil) or to your left for anti-clockwise (widdershins). When you have set out the Elements and walked the three whole circles it takes to do as above (or the single circle if you don't mind going widdershins), sit in the centre, relax and close your eyes. Feel the circle around you, as if it were a circular magical carpet which is tilting and building up energy, ready to lift you off and take you to the Place of Witchdom, the Old Land, where the Goddess and her Love are ready to meet you.
Be physically still, absolutely silent, and just sense, listen and become more aware than usual. After just a few minutes, get up and unwind the circle, the opposite way to how you began. In your own words thank each Element and bid them farewell. You cannot command these powers to visit you, nor should you try to banish them. They are parts of the balanced universe and it is your awareness of them that is being awakened, not their physical presence, because they are everywhere all the time. Always be polite and respectful, for it is a higher aspect of your own being you are really talking to at this stage. The more slowly and gently you practise these simple first steps, the more powerful they may become. Always take care, clear up, put things away, and really make an effort to feel the difference in the space you have temporarily made sacred.
In earlier times it was not necessary to sanctify an area for magic for among the natural places the world over there are extra special spots. High hills or mountain tops where the Sky Gods rest on their journeys; by springs and wells where the Goddess of the Inner meets the Goddess of the Outer Earth; in caves, wombs of the Earth Mother, and in sunlit glades in the Wildwood, where jack-in-the-Green greets his children, human and animal alike. Some of these places had their power delineated by the construction of banks of earth, or waterways, or upright rings of stone, or even a single standing stone. Some were recognised as holy because of a special tree that grew there, or a strange rock not common to the landscape, or because a poet had a dream there, or someone was healed or received a vision of the future. These things can still happen if we are willing to give them credence, and seek out the places where they might occur.
Specially powerful are the Markers of Memory, quiet spots often under the spreading arms of hawthorn or beech, the trees of the Goddess of Spring, and of the Book. (In earlier times writing was carved onto boards of beech wood.) In a dreamlike state it is possible to hear again the timeless stories, the hero tales, the poems and verses which record the ancient wisdom, written on the breeze; of the hymns to the Goddess, sung in her own sacred voice, unheard in the clatter of the modern world. It was to such places that the harpers, bards and storytellers of old would resort, to gain inspiration or hear, coming through the gates from some Otherworld, the music of another sphere.
You will gradually come to recognise such places, many of them unregarded yet close to the habitations of ordinary people, accessible in the everyday world, once you know what to look for. You will also discover such sacred spots are almost invisible to ordinary people, too, and that by being there in the right frame of mind, you are protected and unseen. Those who perform their magic in such places are seldom disturbed by other people, nor is the work done there interfered with by the presence of children or animals nearby. These places are genuinely guarded, and it is up to you to learn to trust the Old Ones to defend your meditations or cloak your activities from the casual observer.
Much has been written about the need for swords and knives and cups and pentacles, but these are not all really necessary, especially to the solo witch or lone practitioner. What you might need can include a cup to drink from, made of pottery, wood, stone or horn, for such things are traditional; a really sharp knife to cut hazel dowsing rods, and a long walking stick or wand. Today the Swiss Army type knives are especially good, as they also contain corkscrews, awls for boring holes in wood or leather, and a file or even a small saw for rather thicker branches.
There is often also a screwdriver, essential for changing the plug on the ritual ghetto-blaster, or rewiring the sanctuary lamp! The blades should be kept clean, if you ever cut food or herbs, and sharp! There is no place in modern magic for blunt blades, either symbolically or practically. Knives should cut, with the least damage to the tree or other material, and the least damage to the owner more people are cut by blunt blades because far more pressure is used in making the cut, so the point slips jaggedly into your hand' A cut from a sharp blade will heal quickly and more cleanly too, if you have an accident. There is also the symbolic aspect of using knives, often called athames, for magical work. This might have been relevant in medieval times, but today it is old hat. The same applies to swords. These are expensive, awkward or dangerous to carry about, and their symbolism can easily be represented by something far less threatening.
A long, forked walking stick, sometimes referred to as a 'stang', is both practical and useful. Such staffs have always been associated with wizards, and they were often carried for protection or to help with journeys on foot. In some pagan cultures they form the only altar, by being stuck into the ground at an appropriate place, and then being decorated with seasonal flowers or greenery, woven into a garland or twined up the staff.
With the addition of a candle or lamp in a jar at the foot you have all you need to welcome any of the Old Ones. You soon learn to find twining stems of ivy, or woven grasses, or fronds of honeysuckle which can quickly be plaited into a circle and stuck on the forks of the staff, and into that base garland flowers, buds, leaves and berries taken from the trees, sacred at any season, can be woven. At the end of the ritual the garland may be hung on a tree branch so that birds or animals may eat the seeds or berries, or you can scatter the leaves back into the earth.
Traditionally the sacred direction moves around the circle as the year passes, and the time at which celebrations are held varies through the day and night. Standing at midnight at Yule or Christmas, face North, seeking out the Star of Hope which guides the Child of Promise back to Earth. Deck your staff with holly and ivy, and twine it with ribbons as red as life. At Twelfth Night, before dawn, turn just a little to your right, to face North-east by North, if you have a compass with all the divisions.
Set a star at the top of the staff, twine golden ribbons, pine and other evergreen fronds about it (be careful if you use yew as the leaves are poisonous) and welcome the Three Wise Ones bringing gifts to you. At Candlemas, at first light, pick just a few snowdrops, early violets, and again ivy, symbol of the Spring Goddess, and place the staff to the North-east of the sacred circle. At the Spring Equinox or Easter bind a few yellow daffodils, sprays of jasmine and early white blossoms of the blackthorn in a wreath and place the staff to the East at the moment of sunrise.
When the hawthorn is in bloom, welcome the May queen with a garland of her flowers, and the wild blossoms from every hedge and meadow. It was taboo to take may blossoms indoors, for the Goddess prefers to be greeted in the green world, not in a house. Dance round her South-eastern symbol in the morning. At noon on Midsummer's Day, garland your staff with St John's Wort with its golden sunray flowers, and all the brightest and best of the wild profusion in pinks and blues, mauves and whites, and the fresh green leaves from all the summer trees, especially oak. Face South and welcome the power of the Sun at his height.
When Lammas-tide brings in the corn and the Harvest God dies in the field, dress the staff with red poppies, ears of wheat or barley or oats, flowers from the hedges, trails of dog's mercury, goosegrass and bindweed, and look to the South-west where his flaming sun begins to descend in the afternoon. When the harvest of the fields is in, seek out the wild fruits, berries, seeds, and trailing old man's beard to twine around your staff, at sunset, facing West. Lay nuts and apples at the foot of the pole as an offering to the wild things of nature and scatter crumbs and seeds.
In the dark evening of Hallowe'en deck the staff with periwinkles, flowers of death so often used to garland those who went to the scaffold, with branches of yew, and bright rowan berries, hips and haws, and the black fruits of sloes and elder if any yet remain. Look out through the open door to the North-west, watching for the visit of those who have travelled into otherworlds, through death, beyond birth, or those First Ancestors, our shared kindred, Old Ones, Great Ones, Parents of All.
So the circle of the year is completed. Within a house it is not so easy to sense the power which comes from each direction, and if you wish to hold elaborate rituals at each of the Old Feasts, do try to spend just a few moments in the garden, or out of doors, looking at the sun or stars, gathering with your own hands the flowers or greenery. Please don't just buy cut flowers, they are so forced and artificially fed. Even a few flowering weeds have more life. If you don't like cut flowers at all, why not plant a few suitable herbs, flowering plants or small trees in pots so that each can form the centrepiece of your celebration? Stood at the foot of the staff, itself set in a heavy base like a bucket of sand, and decorated with coloured ribbons chosen to suit the season, the flowers and leaves are so much more evocative than a box altar.
This really works best of all out of doors, even in somewhere as tame as your back garden. If you think you might be overlooked, just consider how often in the last six months you have noticed what your neighbours were doing. If you have never noticed them, I doubt if they would notice you. If you mentally make your circle one of invisibility then you will not be seen, as I have proved over the last 25 years. Being able to celebrate rituals or festivals in both private and public places, at dawn, noon or at night, I have never been interrupted, and when I have been in the company of others, we have not been disturbed, even if other people happen to be in the same area. Learn to trust the Great Ones, in whose honour you are meeting, and whose help you are seeking, and they will surely assist in your guardianship.
Another kind of circle you will need to become aware of is the great circle of the turning year and the four mighty tides which sweep through our lives, whether we are aware of them or not. These have been described by followers of High Magic as the Cleansing Tide, between Yule and the Spring Equinox, the Growing Tide from March to June, the Reaping Tide from Midsummer to the Autumnal Equinox, and the Resting Tide from September to Yule again. Broadly they follow the pattern of the agricultural year, but they work on both the inner psychic levels of the initiate or novice, and on his or her magical work.
It is often felt that the dark winter months immediately after the bright lights of Christmas are dull and dispiriting. It is a time of changes, often seemingly for the worst, when friendships falter and depression can set in. Scientists are now saying that a lack of Vitamin D caused by the diminution of natural sunlight at this time can affect people, but those who are wise see that there is a much more ancient reason than that. It was always a hard time; old folk might die, babies fail to thrive when food was scarce, and indeed, sunlight and vitamins available in fresh food would have been in short supply, but there is an inner current that flows through our lives, too.
Certainly the death rate in Britain does increase in January and February, and hearing of deaths through illness or poor conditions does not help if you are feeling 'under the weather' already. However, as it is the Cleansing Tide it is really time to take affairs into your own hands and be prepared to discard all those unsatisfactory relationships, those cluttered cupboards of the psyche full of unfinished work, those half-completed projects from a few years ago.
Be brave and firm and throw them out, recycling whatever can be saved. Things will end at this time, unbidden, but the more that you are able to recognise the unstoppable power of this Tide the more you can use it instead of allowing it to simply wash through your life like the February floods flowing through the land. Be prepared for change, which, after the inevitable upheavals, will prove to be for the best, just as the newly cleaned house rewards you for the work required to make it spotless.
The Growing Tide brings expansion to all your magical plans, after they have been weeded and cleansed by the previous months of dissolution. New ideas should blossom, you should discover companionship, shared activities, and an outgoing sense of progress and success. This will run through March, April and May, right up to Midsummer, when again the great tides of the cosmos change.
The Midsummer Solstice brings the start of the Reaping or Harvesting Tide when those plans, skills, abilities and new directions which have flourished begin to pay off for the hard work required to make them successful. New talents will show their worth, whether it is the understanding of the Tarot cards, or a method of healing, or simply that your relationship with the Old Ones begins to pay dividends, and you gain self-confidence and support from these eternal sources of power and wisdom. Not only will you be able to benefit from these new-found abilities, but by using them as extra sources of information you will see more clearly the life-path that lies before you. You will begin, quite literally, to reap the benefits of all your early efforts each year.
When that harvest is gathered in and Nature goes to rest, so your own pattern will enter a much more peaceful and reflective time. You will be able to assess your personal progress, and be more willing to allow the subtle inner skills and awarenesses to come to the surface. Although this may seem to be a fairly gentle Tide, it is both positive, like the Growing Tide, and powerful.
When you have gathered your wits at summer's end, you will be able to acknowledge your triumphs, and failings, which will be safely cast away in the following Cleansing Tide, so the cycle will continue. Both success and failure are natural parts of the system of individual progress, within the Old Arts, whether those of the solo witch or of the ceremonial magician. You will gradually be testing your own powers, sometimes succeeding, and occasionally over-reaching yourself and making mistakes, from which you will learn valuable lessons.
Gradually you will discover how cyclic the nature of many parts of life really is. Relationships may follow similar paths, of development, stability and decline, just as the trees show little life, full summer green, and a gentle decay into rest. Similarly the stories of the Goddess and her Consort show how she changes, grows, develops and seems to fade away, as the bright moon in the clear sky.
You will understand that all life is concerned with change, and that both an upsurge of power and a slow descent into decay are natural and right. We cannot continue to surge forward without occasionally withdrawing, resting and casting away those things, ideas, relationships and experiences which are outworn or outgrown. To many people, such a recognition requires considerable courage, for casting away anything may seem an intolerable action, just as failing at anything is a great heartbreak. Yet it is being willing to dare, to reach further, think deeper, and travel beyond the limits of ordinary life, in the inner worlds of psychism and magic which makes following the Old Ways so fascinating.
Eventually you will learn that the circles which form so important an aspect of Green Magic are actually spirals, turning about a still centre, yet actually rising through different planes of existence. Within this magical cone of power you will discover all the talents you have for making magic, for healing, for divination, and here, in the quiet circle you will eventually come to meet the Goddess of the Land and her Lord of Life.
Another circle which may become important to you is that of friendship. The Old Arts are not for the self-centred, the selfish or the power-hungry. They are not learned by the very young, the cruel or those who seek sexual gratification or domination over others. The Old Arts have a very high ethical foundation. The main object of entering any magical circle, pagan or High Magic, is to improve yourself, to grow in wisdom, to serve others through your growing skills.
The newspapers are all too ready to suggest that witches harm children or sacrifice animals, commit perverted sex acts or use drugs. All these have no part in the Craft, the Old Religion or ceremonial magic. Many witches live in close-knit families, keep pets, are vegetarian or even vegan. Most seek out a loving and long-term partnership, nearly always within marriage, although in some cases a civil ceremony has been replaced with a pagan handfasting when, in the presence of the Goddess, the couple make vows of love to each other.
None of the reputable covens or training schools will consider very young people, below about eighteen years, unless they are part of a pagan family, when some training might be given. Those who offer initiation would not expect young folk to be ready, mentally, spiritually or religiously, until they were at least 20; often it is older than that. Certainly there is no upper limit, and some very mature and even retired people have discovered the Old Ways and seen then that they provide a spiritual path hitherto missing in their long lives. Within the Work there are many close friendships, working partnerships where absolute love and trust form a strong foundation to the relationship. Some of these are life-long bonds, and others last only while a particular piece of work, or healing or training is taking place.
The best way that any would-be or practising witch can serve the community is by being a valuable member of that society. It is often the case that a neighbour has been involved with magic or the Old Path for many years, but you only know of their good works because they are always cheerful, with an optimistic comment on the weather or the world situation. If you are in need they will help. Only later on might they let slip that they are interested in country traditions, alternative healing methods, folklore or some such thing. Real witches do not, and never have, called themselves 'witches'; that is a term applied by others. They might say they are interested in the Old Ways, even that they see themselves as pagans, but though all witches are pagans of one sort or another, not all pagans are witches. Some are members of orthodox faiths as well.
If you begin to set out your circle, become aware of its protection, its stillness, and the opening up of your own abilities which happens whilst you are within it, you will learn a valuable lesson; no one can learn for you. Remember, too, that if you go in for banishing rites, copied out of some other book, you might find yourself banishing friends, lovers, pets and many of the good things in your life. If you have to set up a guarded space for your meditation, then remember to take it down at the end. At the start, you may not be able to sense or see such circles, but they are there, real and effective right from the very beginning, so make sure all are gently swept away, and any Great Powers which you have invited to help you are duly thanked, to be welcomed again on another occasion.
After spending several months mainly thinking and researching and developing your curiosity as to the origins of things which happen around you all the time, it is time to start the most basic practical exercises.
If you have been part of a magical group or coven some of the ideas may seem very simple or even primitive, compared to the lengthy speeches, 'Goddess Charges' and complex rituals of coven witches. Well, they are. Magic in any form is essentially simple, because most of it is made to work within your consciousness, and is seen in 'the mind's eye'. All the drama, ritual gestures, paraphernalia, witch tools and statues are unnecessary to making magic work.
They only help set the psychological scene within the mind of the practitioner, who has to make an individual, genuine and sincere contact with the Great Ones in whichever guise he or she seeks to meet them, and then the power will flow. Think about it. Magic is extremely ancient and its power is undiminished by the ages. In the earliest times people did not have all the clutter of civilisation, and much of it becomes unnecessary props once the direct link is made. Here are a few of the most effective and basic considerations.
Go into the countryside with a sharp saw or knife and find a single branch of either an ash or hazel bush which you can cut to make a staff about as tall as your shoulder. Ideally it should be fairly straight and have a fork at the top. (Yes, certain suppliers do offer these for sale at a price, but you are supposed to be learning the Old Arts for yourself. Save your money and make the effort!) Carefully trim off side branches and, if you can, offer something to the tree, even if it is only spit. (Some water and plant food would be good.)
Take the staff home, smooth the rough bits and allow it to dry, hung up to keep it straight. Round the tips and if you are clever, carve it, or decorate it in some other way. You should leave the bark on. Learn to love and respect your staff for it is the altar, the centre of your working. Discover how to make garlands, either as circles which can hang from the fork, or be twined around the upright. If you sharpen the bottom it will be possible to stick it into the ground.
Start learning to make a magical space, as described in this chapter. Do it silently, in your garden, and then in wilder places. Create it with your will, feel its power and guardianship. Know it is real.
List under columns headed North, West, South and East the symbols, natural and magical (as on the Tarot suits), colours, times of day or seasons, sacred animals, scenery for inner journeys, and all the other things which you will discover as an ongoing exercise to be kept in your Book of Illumination.
Go for a walk in the country and find a natural object which will represent each Element; Earth, Water, Fire and Air. Make a circle with them at the quarters.
Here is a selection of books to try this moon:
Marian Green, A Modern Magician's Handbook (Thoth)
John and Caitlin Matthews, The Western Way Vol I (Arkana)
Doreen Valiente, Natural Magic (Hale)
You might now be ready to design, if not make, a garment for magic, a simple tabard or robe (as described in several of the above books) or a kaftan from an ordinary pattern. (There are some good books of theatrical costume in most libraries, which give very simple designs which are ideal as they have minimal shaping or sewing!)