There is no occult tool or esoteric symbol more ubiquitous and well-known than the magic circle. It is found everywhere from famous poetry to popular fiction, and is usually associated with the summoning of demons or the spirits of the dead for some nefarious purpose. This, of course, is due to the infinitely greater social and economic hunger for sensationalism than for reality, but it at least almost guarantees that just about everyone who has ever read a novel involving an evil wizard will at least have heard of the concept. Magicians of all stripes are quick to point out the importance of a proper magic circle in many types of magical practice, yet relatively little has been written about the precise purpose, make-up, and meaning of the circle. With this article, I seek to add my own contribution, however minor, to the available resources.
Perhaps due to the aforementioned lack of accessible literature on the subject, there are a lot of misconceptions even among those who call themselves magicians. From the amateur practitioner who will be hard-pressed to get beyond the most basic forms of practice without this information, to the experienced sorcerer who insists that the circle is an unnecessary accretion resulting from Judeo-Christian fears of spirits, there are a lot of ways to misconstrue the circle’s significance. Making the situation even more complex is the fact that there is not just one magic circle. I do not mean the many possible physical forms it may take — from the many kinds inscribed with symbols of all sorts and supposed to be made from various (usually expensive) materials found in common grimoires, to one roughly scratched into dirt or drawn with chalk — though these do make the question even more difficult, at first. I am instead referring to the fact that the magic circle is a dramatically different animal in the hands (and, more importantly, in the minds) of practitioners at different levels of the Art.
What follows is my own vocabulary; as far as I know, nobody else has written about these distinctions in precisely this way. I have chosen the terms for precision, though it must be said at the outset that the division of ideas here is not always as clear or hard-line as the application of such terms may make it seem. My intention is not to divide all practitioners or their constructs up into three completely exclusive groupings, but to present the three major coordinates along a single continuum. With that preface, let’s explore.
Sorcery is often used coterminously with magic. But sorcery is not quite the same thing; it is formulaic in nature, basically magic done without a real understanding of the underlying laws, principles, and forces. It would be just as reasonable to call this “witchcraft”, though given the specific connotations that word has taken on among occultists in recent decades, I prefer to call this sort of ignorant tampering “sorcery”. “There is no ‘black magic’, but rather sorcerers groping in the dark. They grope in the dark because the light of gnosis and mysticism is lacking.” (Meditations on the Tarot, corrected edition 2002 Tarcher/Putnam, pg. 43)
We need look no further than the popular grimoires to see the function of magic circles in the context of sorcery. Inscribed with unexplained symbols and signs, and usually with corrupted kabbalistic or Grecco-Egyptian words and names of power, these circles are presented as indispensable protection against the demonic powers to be called up from the depths. In fact, this is quite true. To attempt a goetic evocation without such divine protection will almost certainly result in complete failure, and if any “success” is had, it will definitely be of a very dangerous sort. The sorcerer’s circle is nothing more than a barrier, a line drawn in the sand (sometimes literally) between the sorcerer and the particular force or intelligence which he hopes to make his slave.
Of course, very few modern attempts at this sort of formulaic evocation come to much because most contemporary sorcerers lack the one essential element which makes not only the circle effective, but all other elements of the experiment as well: belief. Of course the modern sorcerer has some basic belief that magic works, or else why bother in the first place? But how many of them get the spectacular phenomena promised in the grimoires? These results are not impossible, but they do rely on what Joseph Lisiewski called “subjective synthesis”. (Ceremonial Magic & The Power of Evocation, 2008 New Falcon Publications) This synthesis is simply the sum total of the sorcerer’s belief in all of the individual elements of the ritual to be performed; this is why, traditionally, there is a long period of training and preparation which generally involves daily prayers of purification, attending Mass and taking the consecrated Host, etc. Sorcery almost requires involvement in some established, organized religion. This faithful involvement provides the sorcerer with three essential elements: discipline, a preexisting context and core beliefs upon which to build the subjective synthesis, and the protection of a powerful egregore. Without all of these, the use of systems of sorcery derived from the grimoires (which describes nearly all of Western ceremonial and ritual magic) is a simple impossibility, and these preconditions can only be met with a firm faith over against the “sophistication” of thoroughgoing skepticism found in most post-modernist approaches to magic popular since Aleister Crowley put pen to paper.
The sorcerer’s magic circle is then a spacial delimitation of the sorcerer’s own sense of purity in accordance to his adherence to his religion. It is an external barrier empowered not by the sorcerer himself, but by the egregore to which he is attached and with which he identifies. A Catholic summoner is pure by his Baptism, has authority by his Anointing, and is protected by his Communion, and this whole edifice, however subjective, must be externalized in the form of his circle inscribed with the names of archangels and made ready by aspersion in order for the whole internal structure to be efficacious.
It is a different story for the magician — the practitioner who has come to know something of the real workings and relationships of the forced made use of in magic — and the theurgist — who has more or less mastered these forces. The magician does not require protection so much as isolation; for him, the circle is a sterile laboratory to be filled only with a single force or mixture of forces, and only to the precise point of saturation. It is a miniature cosmos which represents the inner cosmos being built up within the magician himself, and strictly under his control. William G. Gray has it that “[to] construct a Magic Circle is to create Inner Cosmos according to Intention.” More:
“Naturally the individual ability of the operator is a decisive factor, upon which the efficacious degree of any circle depends. Circles do not put themselves together without a directing will, whether they are Cosmic creations of a Divinity, or the personal cosmoi of human beings, both of which a genuine Magic Circle should intersect.” (Inner Traditions of Magic, 1984 Samuel Weiser, Inc., pg 124)
Franz Bardon makes the point similarly:
“The drawing of a circle symbolizes the Divinity in Its perfection, to come into contact with the Divinity, namely when the magician stands in the center of the circle, whereby, symbolically expressed, the connection with the Divinity is graphically represented. For the magician it is a connection with the macrocosm on the highest level of his consciousness. It is therefore completely logical from the point of view of true magic for the magician to stand in the center of a magic circle with the awareness of being at One with his universal divinity. This clearly shows that the magic circle is not only a diagram for protection against undesirable influences, but it also expresses untouchability and unassailability as a result of connecting one’s consciousness with the Highest. Therefore, a magician who stands in the center of a magic circle is protected from all influences, be they good or evil, because he symbolizes the Divinity in the universe. Besides, a magician who stands in a circle is God himself in the microcosm, who rules the beings which are created in the universe and he is the one who exercises his absolute powers.” (The Practice of Magical Evocation, translated by Dieter Rüggeberg, 2001 Merkur Publishing, pp 22 & 23)
In both cases, what is central is not merely the magician’s human knowledge of the inner forces, but his operative identity with the Deity. Bardon emphasizes this identity, while Gray stresses the necessity of an intersection between the magician’s cosmos and the Deity’s Cosmos. In other words, the magician needs to be careful lest his cosmos lack proper correspondence to the world. The reason for this is twofold.
First is that the purpose of magic is not to escape reality, but to interact with it as intimately as possible. We can only do this if our inner worlds and the outer world correspond to one another. Second is that, in order for the worlds to directly interact with one another, that correspondence is a strict precondition; if we wish to make changes in the outer world, we must begin with a model of that world and restructure said model accordingly. The more exactly the worlds correspond in the first place, the more effectively will the modifications be able to manifest between one plane and another. God works from subtle to gross, and so must we. The height of theurgy comes when the inner world more or less exactly reflects the outer world, down to details, at which point changes made to the inner world will flow quite naturally to the outer.
But, in order for any of this to be possible in the first place, the magician must construct the sterile chamber of experiments. In the same section quoted above, Gray refers to the magic circle as the Zero from which comes the All. Before the interior of the cosmos may be populated, there must first be made a space, relatively empty. This śunya, or void, is not absolutely empty — for ontologically speaking there is no such thing as “nothing” — but is empty relative to God’s Fullness. (Of course, this conception may be flipped, as in the case of Buddhism, Abrahamic apophatic theology, and Śaiva Siddhānta, in which the Absolute is the Void insofar as the Ground of Being is unrecognizable to our minds and senses.) Now is not the time to get into all of the elements of ritual magic and their uses and implications, but it is useful here to mention that if the magic circle is the śunya, the magician’s own will and intention serves as the bindu, or point, at its center which gives us the following diagram:
This, of course, is the astrological and alchemical symbol of Sol, our sun. The entire symbol is not intended to signify the Sun, but only the point in the center; the circumference represents the solar system, or the sphere of Sol’s direct influence. The whole thing is a diagram of Sol, his radiation, and his gravitation. So it is with the magician, who stands at the center of his own cosmos both emitting the force of will and drawing in those powers which cannot resist the inexorable pull of his dynamism. However, in order for any of this to be possible, there must first be a space made which the magician may then fill with the desired influences, and that is the magician’s circle.
Physically speaking, the magician’s circle may take literally any shape. As it is only acting as a psychic “clean zone”, the simpler it is the better it will play its part. The complicated inscriptions of the sorcerer are unnecessary, and may only serve as a distraction. Whatever action is taken for the circle’s consecration — aspersion with holy water, anointing with oil or other substances, prayers and invocations, etc. — are taken for their esoteric (i.e. inward) value, rather than their exoteric religious significance. Though the magician still requires his “subjective synthesis”, his is more plastic than the sorcerer’s, adaptable to gradual shifts and tweaks toward new ends. As such, his physical circle serves only as a visual reminder and conceptual anchor of his place and role.
As we have seen, the definition of these circles is largely a function of the practitioner’s relationship to the forces with which he or she is experimenting. Those for whom the inner forces behave as largely external require protection; those who know the forces to be inward, but still require some degree of externalization require isolation; but, finally, those who know and experience the forces entirely inwardly — whose laboratory has been perfectly integrated — require concentration. These are the alchemists.
The business of the alchemist, whether working with plant and mineral in the outer laboratory or with himself in the inner laboratory, is the concentration and transformation of substance for the release of essence. The alchemist has already integrated all of the forces or, more precisely, has located those forces within himself; he has also mastered the isolation and focusing of those forces. What remains is to concentrate them and, ultimately, sublimate them. The purpose of the alchemist’s circle is hinted at very directly in the diagram of the Umbra Zonule Meditation (the circle structure of the International Nath Order), the upper right hand corner of which displays an alchemist’s retort. (Shri Gurudev Mahendranath, The Londinium Temple Strain, 2002 electronic edition, http://www.mahendranath.org/, pg 9) The retort is an egg-shaped bottle with a tube spout which swoops downward and away from the bottle; a fluid boiled in the retort condenses against the top of the tube spout and runs down into another vessel at the bottom. (See image below.)
(Chambers’s Twentieth Century Dictionary of the English Language of 1908, http://www.gutenberg.org/)
This tool of laboratory alchemy when used in reference to “inner alchemy” represents the process of concentrating substances by removing what is nonessential from them. The Śaiva symbol for this process is the vel or spear of Lord Murugan, which hones in precisely on the heart of whatever it pierces. The idea of “concentration” thus comes into play in two ways to refer to the same notion: finding the essence within a substance.
The alchemist’s circle, then, is no longer an external barrier at all, but more the representation of a process. The alchemist may visualize a circle around him and his meditation and worship space during focused times of operation, but that is only an aid. The circle representing the practitioner’s identity with the Divinity is now experienced as being not different from one’s own Heart or Center; the circle of Zero (śunya) and the point of One (bindu) are understood to be identical. In terms of Yoga, the goal is now to realize this by uniting Śakti with Śiva at the crown. Again, Murugan’s vel shows the way, as the upward-pointed spear’s tip rests just at the crown of the head, its hilt running the length of the spine. To return to the astrological diagram of Sol, we learn that the point in the center is the practitioner’s spinal column as viewed from above.
My readers can see that I have chosen to use largely Western terms to define the magic circle and the stage of practice which they represent. This is not because those are the only appropriate words, but because they are the most familiar to most occultists, and because the Eastern literature already has its own deep examinations of this topic.
We may see in the sorcerer, magician, and alchemist, for instance, the Śaivite phases of caryā, kriyā, and yoga. One in the phase of caryā requires all of the traditions of ritual worship, moral commandments and ethical guidelines, and other externalities. This is not a bad thing, but a set of necessary prerequisites to deeper work. One in kriyā still makes use of these tools, but sees them now as means and methods for achieving a profounder participation in the Divine Work by way of living symbols and continual reorientation of self-identity. The Yogi — in a sense, one is a Yogi the whole way through, but is only fully and deliberately engaged in the process of Reintegration during this third phase — is able to fully integrate all of the symbols previously externalized. In caryā, the sacrificial fire is more or less literal, and kriyā it is an outward symbol of the inner Flame; in Yoga, there is so little distinction between outward fire and inward Flame that only the Flame itself is necessary (though a fire may still be used when it is necessary to communicate the processes to others, especially those in the caryā and kriyā stages.) As to the circle itself, it may take the forms of circles of chains of practitioners, mandalas large enough to sit inside of, or the simple act of taking āsana.
None of the earlier phases are abandoned. The higher does not sublate the lower, but integrates it, recontextualizes it, and maintains its value as a teaching tool and aid to advancement. Eventually, the plant whose roots are caryā, whose stalk is kriyā, and whose leaf and branch are yoga, blossoms as jñana (gnosis) which ripens as the fruit of mokșa (liberation). In the fruit resides the entirety of the plant in seed form, root to flower. These seeds may be planted by the initiating preceptor in the muck of the student’s mind, that the lotus will grow therefrom. And so goes Reintegration.
Here we have the Triple Circle of the Art. In one sense, the Outer Circle is alchemy, in that it contains the other two; in another sense, the Outer Circle is sorcery, in that it is the most exoteric among them. Ultimately, the three are One, as the true Circle of Art does not permit of divisions, but in practice we may distinguish between them as phases of a single process. As Draja Mickaharic so wisely wrote:
Being a magician is a stage in the process of developing spiritually. It is not the height of development; in fact, it is only a step in the first part of the range of real human development. The fact that many religious sects speak and act harshly against those who have the ability to practice magic is most revealing of the true character of the leaders heading those religions. Those whom they speak against may be more developed spiritually than the so-called religious people who speak against them! (Practice of Magic, 1995 Samuel Weiser, Inc., page iiiv of the Introduction)
Likewise, we can say that while we may not be able to recommend the practice of sorcery, it is often a stepping stone into genuine theurgy, which itself leads us to alchemy. There is but one Way, but many ways may bring us to it.
In practice, the magic circle manifests the magician’s own internal process, its power and function depending entirely upon the individual’s degree of attainment. It is the one indispensable magical tool, no matter the form it takes, because it truly represents the practitioner’s own Heart.