Fun with graphics! Today is an exploration of the Pentacle….
Let’s start with some geometric basics.
An N-Gon is a geometric object with N sides, and a Regular N-Gon has N sides that are all the same length. A Regular Trigon is more typically known as an equilateral triangle. A Regular Tetragon is more typically known as a square. And a Regular Pentagon is well-known as a money hole.
Ba-dum. No, seriously folks, The Pentagon near Washington is called that because of its shape. You can construct any of these N-Gons by spacing N points evenly around a circle, and connecting each point to the next (the closest) point until you come back to the beginning.
An N-Gram is a geometric object constructed the same way as an N-Gon, except that you can skip over one or more points each time as you connect them. A Trigram (not to be confused with the Trigram of the I-Ching, which is completely different) is exactly the same as a Trigon, except that when you skip one point each time, you end up going around the circle backward. Try it and see. A Tetragram breaks into two pieces when you skip one point, so you have two crossing Digrams (or lines), forming an X or a cross. A Pentagram is the first uniquely interesting shape. You can skip one point each time, or you can skip two points, but either way (like the Trigon/Trigram) you get the same shape, a five-pointed star.
The term Pentacle or Pentangle (as near as I’ve been able to determine) were historically just other words for Pentagram. In recent times, however, Pentacle implies a Pentagram-within-a-Circle, as shown in all of the artistic renditions at the top of this article.
Most small numbers and simple geometric shapes have distinct sacred and symbolic meanings in different cultures. The Pentagram is no exception.
In Pythagorean mysticism, the Pentagram was a symbol of perfection, and appears in its inverted orientation so that the top two points form a cup or cave, within which the seeds of creation are held, though all five caves had significance.
In medieval and Renaissance Europe, the Pentagram popularly symbolized the five wounds of Christ, the five Joys of Mary (Annunciation, Nativity, Resurrection, Ascension, and Assumption), the five Knightly Virtues (generosity, fellowship, purity, courtesy, and compassion), the five fingers of the hand, and the five senses. The symbol itself was widely worn by the superstitious as a charm of protection against witches and demons.
The Pentagram is also known as the Sigil of Gawaine, the famed Knight of the Round Table in the tales of King Arthur. In Wolfram von Eschenbach’s epic poem, Parzival, there are two distinct stories, one of Parzival, and the other of Gawaine. The two characters meet only once, in the central verse, so the two stories symbolically form a cross.
On the vertical axis is the story of Parzival, the knight who accidentally stumbles upon the castle of the Holy Grail on his very first adventure, where he blunders badly and fails to ask the question that would heal the wounded Fisher King. He is dismissed from the castle and spends the remainder of the story trying to find it again. In the end he finds the Grail castle and replaces the Fisher King as the next keeper of the Grail. His is the mystical path of spiritual enlightenment, the path of the Priestly Knight.
On the horizontal axis is the story of Gawaine. Magic and mystery enter his life, but as a distraction, an annoyance, a challenge, or a momentary aid. Gawaine’s destiny is an earthly path of living and dying with honor and integrity. His sigil, the Pentagram, thus symbolizes the Earthly Knight.
In the modern Tarot, the suit of Pentacles is likewise the earthly suit, concerning matters of prosperity and material well-being.
The Pentagram is also used as a symbol for the Order of the Eastern Star, a fraternal organization founded in 1850 with Christian and Masonic ties. This Pentagram typically appears in its inverted orientation. An inverted Pentagram also appears within Mormonism, as in the LDS Temple in Nauvoo, IL. In both cases, it represents the Eastern Star that the Wise Men followed to Bethlehem, and the downward point indicates the stable where Jesus was born.
The association of the Pentagram with evil did not appear until the eighteenth century among the obscure European occultists, who distinguished between the “upright” Pentagram (a single point upward), and the “inverted” Pentagram (a single point downward). For these occultists, the former symbolized virtue, and the latter symbolized depravity.
In the flurry of new religious activity in the 1960’s, the eighteenth century occult literature experienced a revival, and the Pentacle took on a new set of diverse meanings.
Wicca began to spread after the 1951 repeal of the Witchcraft Laws in England that prohibited the publication of witchcraft-related writings. The rapidly-growing Wiccan faith appropriated the Pentacle to represent the four-plus-one elements of Nature (air, fire, water, earth, plus spirit) bound within the circle of life.
The Church of Satan, founded in 1966 by Anton LaVey, appropriated the inverted Pentagram and called it the Sigil of Baphomet (which takes us far afield into Templar lore and the politics of thirteenth-century Europe, but I’ll give that fascinating bit of history a miss today).
Neo-Evangelical Christians split from the Fundamentalist movement in 1947, and became very popular in the 1960’s and 1970’s right alongside Wicca, Satanism, Hippies, the New Age movement, and all the political turmoil of Civil Rights and Vietnam. The conservative neo-Evangelicals (along with their Fundamentalist brethren) have generally lumped Wicca, Satanism, Masonry, Mormonism, Spiritualism, Occultism, and New Age beliefs together with all ancient Pagan and other non-Christian religions as “deceptions of the Devil,” and hold the Pentagram to be wholly a symbol of evil. This neo-Evangelical and Fundamentalist belief provides the main basis for the appearance of the Pentagram in modern film and print in association with horror and the supernatural.
So what does the Pentacle mean to me as a Pagan Bard?
It was originally a symbol of revolt and freedom for me. This is not the moment to explore my journey away from Christianity, but I reached a point where I wanted a symbol that marked a clean break from the old.
I bought my first Pentacle at Dragonfest, a tiny, finely hand-crafted solid-silver pentacle surrounded by a woven silver braid. I wore it all through the festival, and it served well as a symbol of transition.
I wore it publicly afterward for a while. At first, I thought it would get me beaten up, so I walked around hyper-alert and ready to run at the first sign of trouble. I quickly learned something important: nearly everyone you meet in public is completely absorbed in his or her personal drama. Unless you are jumping around in flippers, honking a horn, they won’t notice you. If you do jump around honking a horn, they’ll put an arm around their children and give you wide berth, and they won’t look at you at all.
Something else I learned is that most people don’t recognize a Pentacle as a religious symbol, even after all the schlock from Hollywood. One of the only questions I’ve ever gotten about my Pentacle has been, “Oh, are you Jewish?” (The symbol commonly used by Jews is the Hexagram, or Star of David.)
And if you’re in the Lone Star State (Texas), I suspect they’d spot your Pentacle and assume you were with law enforcement. As much as I was originally timorous about wearing a Pentacle as a Pagan symbol, I was probably at greater risk of unpleasantness from people who thought I was a Texan.
My need to wear a symbol of rebellion faded with time, and my natural antipathy to personal jewelry reasserted itself. I stopped wearing it.
I’ve used the symbol of the Pentacle in inner work as a “big gun” protection symbol, though only rarely has it been necessary — usually only when dealing decisively with people who don’t have good interpersonal boundaries.
Normally it works just as well to visualize drawing a line in the sand, then picking up a big piece of imaginary driftwood and smacking it against your palm a few times. Knowing your boundaries changes the way you react when people get close to crossing them. Most people instinctively sense that and back off.
But there are those few who just never get it….
In those cases, you have to act more decisively. I’ve found the Pentacle helpful in terminating relationships of that sort, and protecting myself from psychic and psychological backlash. It also helps me to avoid escalating the conflict myself.
Ceremonialists use the Pentacle as a way to clear, cleanse, and secure their magickal working circle, as well as to open gateways to inner worlds. I know the general theory of this kind of work, but I really don’t have much interest in doing it. At some point I’ll write about theurgy and thaumaturgy, but I’ve found over the years that I’m more allied with Gawaine than with Parzival. My life is an earthly one. I would rather sit under a tree and read a novel (or work on writing one) than converse with gods and goddesses in a ritual space.
My path as a Druidic Bard rather than a Wiccan High Priest reflects this.
The Pentacle remains my religious symbol of choice, as I consider myself a Pagan rather than Christian or Muslim or Buddhist or Hindu. But it doesn’t speak to me as strongly as it once did.