Circle-casting is one of the foundational skills of Wicca and witchcraft. Often, it’s one of the first things that newbies learn to do as part of their training.
But circle-casting is a complex idea, even though the techniques are rather simple. Whether you’re casting a circle for the first time or thousandth time, it never hurts to think about what, exactly, you’re doing and why. In this article, we’ll get “back to basics” on circle-castings, and also consider some of the finer points of building the Witch’s circle.
What is circle-casting?
Circle-casting refers to the practice of setting up a temporary space for magick or ritual. It is, by definition, round. Circle-casting is a term that’s most commonly used in Wiccan traditions, but other magick users may cast circles, as well. The magick circle is a mobile temple, a place apart from the ordinary world where magickal happenings can more easily occur.
Generally speaking, the circle is put up at the beginning of the rite by the leading priest and/or priestess. Solo practitioners cast circles, too. At the end of the ritual, the circle is released. (More on that later.)
A circle is a psychic boundary. You can’t see it with your normal five senses. However, a properly cast circle is detectable energetically and/or clairvoyantly by someone who has those skills. The magick circle is said to extend through the worlds—not just the physical plane, but the astral planes as well.
Why cast a circle?
There all kinds of factors that can interfere with ritual magick: Distractions from the mundane world, the contrary wills of others, chaotic entities that feed off the Witch's efforts, just to name a few. Casting a circle is one way to shut out disruptive influences and stay focused on the work. Magickal trance can be a psychically vulnerable state, so many Witches cast the circle with psychic protection in mind.
Just as important as the circle’s outer barrier is its inner one. Magickal energy—like all energy that we know about—tends to bounce around and scatter off into the Universe. Motion is its natural habit. The whole point of ritual is to concentrate some of that energy temporarily, for a purpose. A circle allows you to gather more energy up and hold onto it longer. If your work involves the evocation of spirits or deities, a well-built circle offers them a cozy place to land for the duration of the rite.
We can summarize all this by saying a magick circle has two main purposes: To keep disturbances out, and to keep the energy of the ritual in. This is certainly a vast oversimplification. So we’ll do it one worse and say the circle is a tool to make your magick stronger.
I’ve heard the circle described as a vessel, a workbench, a fence, a welcome mat, a spaceship, a gate, a bubble, and many other metaphors. Like the story of the blind men and the elephant, all of these words describe something about the circle, without really being a complete explanation of what it is.
How do you cast a circle?
There are simple and complex ways to cast a circle (and all points in between). You can cast a circle with tools or without, either aloud or silently. All methods of circle-casting require concentration or visualization, and a commitment to the belief that the circle is real.
A traditional circle has four cardinal points, set equidistant around the circle’s circumference. They are linked to the the four directions, the four Elements, and the Wiccan seasonal calendar. I think of the Quarters as ancient intelligences that appear in many of the world's religions. If you prefer, you can think of them as tent poles that balance the circle’s shape and energy.
These are all common practices in circle-casting: Visualizing the boundaries of the circle, walking the circumference of the circle, cutting a barrier with a knife or sword, calling the Quarters, lighting candles, placing objects around the edge of the circle, ritual cleansing of the space inside. Your casting may use a few of these elements, or all of them.
The following is an example of a very simple circle-casting technique: Visualize a ring of light at the edges of your ritual space. The light burns and purifies the space within the circle. Take some deep breaths, and focus on the pulse of energy within your body. Feel the heat and light of your own energy expand with every exhalation. That light also has a fiery, purifying effect on the space between you and the circle. When you feel the warm edges of your own energy reach that boundary of the circle, clap your hands together and say, “As I will, the circle is cast.”
Some people prefer to cast the circle with the aid of various tools: The athame, a length of cord, stones or candles for each of the quarters. These items can be very helpful in setting up the boundaries of the circle.
The larger and more public the ritual, the more tools tend to be used, since attendees may not be accustomed to the ins and outs of circle-casting. Large public circles often use multiple callers, altars at the Quarters, chants and written evocations to help make the circle more visible.
There is no method that is better than the others. The strength of the circle will depend on the will of the participants and other factors (such as the psychic geography of the place where the circle is cast).
Is circle-casting necessary for magick?
No, certainly not. The magick circle is not used in every tradition. Norse, Kemetic (Egyptian), and many shamanic and folk magick practitioners work just fine without one. Circle-casting is a useful technology, not a hard-and-fast rule.
The Witch’s magick circle is a legacy from the grimoires of Western ceremonial magick, what is sometimes called Solomonic magick. Its original purpose was to protect the conjuror from demons and fallen angels, and to assert the authority of God over such rebellious spirits. This commanding, adversarial approach to magick is now out of step with how many magicians view their relationship with the spiritual world.
Among Wiccans and others who do cast circles, most will say that not every act of magick requires a full-blown circle-casting. Meditation and devotional practices (such as giving offerings) often take place outside of the formal circle. Experienced Witches may choose to cast a circle only when they feel they need the extra protection and focus.
Can a circle cast itself? This is a fascinating topic! While circle-casting is far from universal, the concept of the aura, or energetic field around the body, has traction within many more spiritual paths. Many people have observed or felt this permeable barrier of energy. If you think of the magick circle as an extension of the aura, circle-casting becomes a lot less Wicca-specific.
When working magick with others outside of a formal circle, I’ve sometimes noticed the collected energy take on a circle-like shape. (Or a blob, at least). Other have commented on this phenomenon, too. It may be that the magick circle is something that forms spontaneously as the energy of the participants knits itself together.
How large should the circle be? What shape?
Nine feet in diameter is the traditional size for the Wiccan circle. Nine, or three times three, is an important number in Wicca. The customary nine-foot ritual cord, folded in half, is anchored in the center and walked around to trace out the circle’s edge. The resulting circle will be just over 27 feet in circumference.
The nine-foot circle is not a commandment, just a suggestion. Feel free to tailor your circle to your needs and the available space.
How small is too small? The circle should be large enough to completely contain the Witch and his or her ritual items. You don’t want to accidentally penetrate the edges of the circle while gesturing or reaching during ritual. For group rituals, you want to leave enough space for people to maintain a comfortable distance from each other. (If that is in fact the goal…no judgement here.)
If you’re working in a bedroom or other small space, the nine-foot circle may not be practical. Cast a circle that fits the space. It’s better to have a circle that’s small and round, rather than a larger one with boundaries that extend through walls, furniture, etc. Ideally, the circle should include the altar (if there is one), ritual tools and nothing else—no other items that could pose a hazard or distraction during the ritual.
Theoretically, there’s no upper limit to the size of a magick circle. But smaller is often better. I’ve worked with groups that cast circles to the edge of a building or field to miminize the disruption from people wandering in or out. These circles are not very round, and they don’t have sharp boundaries. They tend to dissolve well before the ritual is over. Smaller, tighter circles are just easier to visualize and maintain.
Now that we’ve covered circle size, here’s a few words about shape. A lot of people visualize the cast circle as a ring of energy laying on the ground like a hula hoop. Some people visualize it as a vertical tube (or stack of circles) standing up like a paper towel roll. Some people visualize it as a sphere, extending into the ground and up overhead. Some go with a cone, with the circle at its base. That’s all fine. It’s really up to you and how many dimensions of visualization you’re comfortable with.
Circles are made of energy, and there are subtlely different energetic functions to each of these shapes. As you grow more experienced with circle magick, you may find that some shapes are better than others for certain tasks. If you’re working with a group, make sure you’re on the same page, shape-wise.
However, don’t worry about the people who say that a simple two-dimensional circle is inferior or ineffective or dangerous. That’s just wankery. Fundamentally, it’s always intention that matters. I’m gonna go out on a limb and say that nobody’s ever died because their ritual circle didn’t have a lid on top. If you intend your circle to be impenetrable and set it up that way, no baddies are going to be hopping the fence like goats in a garden…trust me.
What does being in circle feel like?
Being in a really solid circle is a bit like having an orgasm. You can read about it and get some ideas…but when you have one, you’ll know.
People experience all different kinds of sensations while standing within a ritual circle. Heightened sensations of energy and a distorted sense of time are common. Words, images, and objects within the circle may take on special significance. The boundaries of the circle can feel quite strange—giving off heat, resistance, or a tingling feeling when you approach them. It’s also normal for objects beyond the boundary of the circle to appear hazy or out-of-focus.
Here are some notes about standing inside magickal circles:
Being in circle is like having a lucid dream. It feels real and not-real at the same time.
Being in circle is like being wrapped up in a blanket that smells like you.
Being in circle is like being in an airplane cabin with the pressure turned up too high.
Being in circle is like being very tall and still with your feet deep in the ground and your head among the star.
Being in circle is like looking at an alien planet through frosted glass.
Being in circle is like being able to move while the rest of the world is frozen.
That’s a few of mine, anyway. How about yours?
How do you take down a circle?
When the ritual has ended, it’s time for the circle to be taken down. Some Witches call this “opening” the circle, while some call it “closing” the circle. Both phrases mean basically the same thing. The language can be confusing, so I usually seek out other words to describe the dissolution of a magick circle.
Releasing the circle allows the energies contained to dissipate, and the room or patch of ground to return to its pre-ritual state. There are many techniques that can be used to help the energy to disperse, such as ringing a bell or visualizing the walls of the circle dissolving. Gathering ritual tools and putting them away also helps scatter any lingering energy. The sensation of taking down a circle can vary in intensity, from a slow fade to a dramatic rush as the circle collapses back into the aether.
If a formal circle has been cast, formally un-casting it is good form. Often this means following the circle-casting ritual in reverse. For example, say the circle was cast by walking the circumference clockwise, then calling the Quarters, then lighting a candle on the central altar. You could un-cast it by blowing out the candle, releasing the Quarters in reverse order, and finally by walking the circumference counter-clockwise. Ideally, the person or persons who cast the circle should be in charge of taking it down. (If necessary, another person can take over.)
What if you fail to properly shut down the magick circle? It will eventually fade away on its own, usually within minutes or hours. Ley lines, water features, and heavy foot traffic are some of the things that can cause the circle to fade away faster. Temple furnishings, buried crystal or metal deposits, and regular use of an area can slow the dissipation of the circle’s structure. Using a pendulum or dowsing rods can help you detect the presence of lingering energy in a ritual space.
The cast circle is never more than a temporary psychic construction. However, leaving an unattended circle is a weak coda to your magickal working. It also can leave an open portal through which unwanted entities can travel. For best results, always pack up your circle when you’re done.