The rites of witchcraft, whether performed alone or with others, are a form of magic theatre. One goes to them not to sit in the audience but to participate in the performance. Audiences can arrive tired, perhaps somewhat dispirited, prepared to relax and, if possible, receive some form of uplift from the spectacle. This is not the case with performers; they must be vigorous, well-balanced in their energies, with energies pitched high and practically electric. The rite itself should, if performed well, both deepen and further heighten those energies, but one goes to the magic theatre to give and share energy rather than to be lifted out of some swale of ennui.
To call witchcraft a magical theatre means that practical results are secondary. This is at variance with many accounts of witchcraft, which emphasize the desired result to be attained, even though one is cautioned that such results should be forgotten at the conclusion of the spell. The double-bind of forgetting is avoided in this approach, which sees the magic circle as neither primarily religious nor as an act of collective engineering, but as art. A concert performance is directed towards the production of music, but the musicians are not producing music as workmen produce things, instead uniting with the music and with each other in music. There is no separation between them and the music they make, or which makes itself through them, as there may be separation between an artisan and his artifact. The same is, or should be, true of the art of magical theatre. The theatre is not the place where the rite occurs, nor the script followed, nor even the objects employed in the rite; it is the act of creating the rite, in all its perceptible beauty, united with the persons creating it. For this reason, needless to say, one must memorize any scripts before attempting to perform the rites pertaining to them. But this is only partly feasible, in view of the tendency of witchcraft rites to have a lot to say.
Though the emphasis should be on art, this does not exclude the sacred. Indeed, we should recall that theatre began in a sacred setting, as picaresque rites to Dionysus; and in this connection we should note that Pagan religion can be quite picaresque without losing one whit of the sacred. The use of salacious language in ancient rites of marriage, preparation for the mysteries, and sacred theatre, had as its main purpose to offend and thus drive off spirits of infertility, who were known to be great prudes. This perhaps gives us a key to understanding the nature of antipagan deities, who insist on excluding such behavior from their own sacred rites. If we can incorporate this element of ribaldry in our own circle rituals, we shall succeed in drawing nearer to the spirit of the old religions.
In ancient religion, stress was laid on performing the rites, not on repeating credal formulations of belief over and over until the mind is hypnotized by words. So long as one respected the gods and observed their rites, one was free to entertain a wide variety of beliefs about the origin of the world, life after death, and so forth. Beliefs that insulted the deities were, naturally, excluded, but this left one with a great deal of freedom to believe what one liked, and to change one’s beliefs if one were so inclined. Pagans tended to be a little vague about such matters, for belief per se was not regarded as particularly important. What did the gods care what a mortal thought, so long as he or she was pious? Not a whit.
Performing sacred rites induces a certain atmosphere of suspended disbelief. This was the general attitude to the myths (which were originally not separate from ritual). Even Socrates remarked that the traditional tale was good enough for him; he was more interested in ethical matters anyway. The proper attitude to take into ritual is a readiness to act towards the focus of the rite as if the god or goddess exists. That is all that is required: not to doubt, and to behave towards the object of prayer as if that being were real.
This should be good news to modern witches and other neopagans, for they need not try to work up the intensity of belief characteristic of antipagan religions. Indeed, if they try to approach the Circle like church, they will soon become exhausted, and conclude that paganism is too complicated and therefore too hard to practice. It is not hard at all, if we bear in mind that we are about to participate in sacred theatre.
The temple of witchcraft is built up partly from sacred objects, partly from ritual movement and acts, and partly from visualization. All three elements work together to create the real illusion of a spherical temple. A real illusion is defined here as an object-event that is experienced and has real effects, even if it is not amenable to outside scientific observation and measurement. Another example of a real illusion is the aura of energy enfolding the bodies of lovers which is both felt and seen by them but only them.
The sacred objects which go into a temple are various but there are certain objects of central importance that are present on every occasion. These include candles of various sizes and colors, incense and an incense burner, chalice, fossil stone or pentacle, magical weapons or tools, a bell, a salt censer, and various auxiliary items such as a water ewer, matches, an ashtray, cakes and ale, cushions for sitting around the altar, and of course the altar itself. This list is not exhaustive.
The form of the temple itself, a sphere, is largely visualized through a series of ritual acts. The equator of the sphere is marked out on the floor or ground by eight candles, set at the quarter and cross-quarter points of the compass. The equator, or circumference of the circle, is generally nine feet in diameter. Directly overhead, over the center of the circle, is the zenith or ‘height’ of the sphere. This is visualized partly through the sweeping of miasma – old, stale energy – from the circle before it is cast by the use of a besom. The besom is used to sweep the circle three times deosil (that is, clockwise), beginning in the east and finishing in the east again. The first time around the besom sweeps at ground level; the second time at shoulder level, and the third time, at a forty-five degree angle above shoulder level, pointing upward. This helps the coveners to visualize the upper parts of the sphere, and the zenith is established in the mind’s eye by acts of pointing straight upward using the athame.
In the same way, the nadir of the sphere or ‘the deep’ is visualized by the act of pointing down with the athame, and later by the act of raising energy when building the Cone of Power. The lower half of the sphere is an act of pure visualization, since the floor or ground presents the lower limit of the sphere so far as outward vision is concerned. Each witch visualizes the lower hemisphere based on his or her experience in meditation, for the witch descends into his or her depths in meditation instead of ascending to the heights. In this way, a witch becomes intimately aware of his or her lower levels of subconscious feelings and urges. It is the aim of the Craft to raise the energy trapped at the lower levels into the full light of consciousness, both in meditation and in the raising of the Cone of Power.
The altar is generally placed in the center of the circle, though in some traditions it is placed in the north. The advantage to having it in the center is that this helps the coveners to visualize the axis of the sphere, which passes through the center of the circle, up through the center of the altar, all the way to the height, connecting the height with the deep. The axis is magically connected with the World Pillar (or trunk of the World Tree), round which the heavens revolve in pagan cosmology. It is also magically cognate with the spine of each witch present. The energy of the deep is raised through this axis, which is perceived as identical with the spine of each witch at the crucial moment.
Background of the Circle:
The spherical temple of Witchcraft finds an ancient prototype in the description of a temple or hall of the Magi in Babylon in the first century C.E.. The description is by Damis, the secretary of the pagan mystic and wonder-worker Apollonius of Tyana, and was gotten second-hand from his master. Apollonius was traveling east to India in search of arcane wisdom, with an aim to restoring the temples of the West to their original purity. He lingered in Babylon for 18 months, conferring with the Median priests there, whom he described as “wise, but not in all things.” As a non-initiate, Damis could not enter the temple. Here is its description:
“The roof was dome-shaped, and the ceiling was covered with ‘sapphire’; in this blue heaven were models of the heavenly bodies (‘those whom they regard as Gods’) fashioned in gold, as though moving in the ether. Moreover from the roof were suspended four golden ‘Iygges’ which the Magi call the ‘Tongues of the Gods’. These were winged wheels or spheres connected with the idea of Adrasteia, or Fate.” 1
Mead goes on to identify the Iygges with the teachers of early humanity of Hebrew legend. They are intermediaries between humanity and the greater gods as well as tutors. In these qualities they resemble the Watchers of modern witchcraft, as that concept has developed in a number of traditions. The Watchers sponsor the initiate from the first degree onwards, and through the elementals provide him or her with the energies of elemental Air, Fire, Water and Earth. But the witch must cultivate this connection with the four Quarters and their inhabitants in order to grow in the Craft.
The temple of witchcraft, though physically only a circle, is visualized as a sphere by the ritualists. This visualization transforms the cast circle into a magical theatre, in which the powerful energies of the elements are added to the raised and combined powers of the witches present and directed to some constructive purpose. In what follows I will present one particular way of raising the temple into the magical theatre, and of building up and releasing the Cone of Power. There are many variations, but the particular method presented engages, or so I think, all the essential elements of the process.
Raising the Cone of Power:
Everyone and everything used in witchcraft must go through phases of purification, consecration and charging. This begins with the witches themselves, who first cleanse themselves individually of miasma, that is, of stale energy connected with everyday concerns. Next, the witches purify themselves as a group, settling any differences (as least provisionally) between themselves and finally join hands in a circle to share bioenergy. Meanwhile, the physical temple is erected.
The ringing of a hand-bell signals the inception of sacred time, and summons the witches to the temple. They come in quietly and, moving sunwise around the altar, take their stations. The time signaled and begun by the ringing of the bell is the time of the beginning, for this is a new world about to be created between the everyday world we know and the Otherworld of spirits. The sea of Chaos lies between and underneath all worlds. 2 Some of that chaos is about to be ordered into a cosmos, which though physically small will be complete in all the essentials of an ordered habitation.
Attention is now directed to the altar, where one or two large candles are lit in the center to honor the Lord and Lady and connect with their energy. The elemental tools and magical weapons are purified and consecrated. The chalice is filled. The candles are lit round the circumference of the circle. 3 The temple area is swept, asperged and censed. There is a general feeling of anticipation, for the next step is to build the magical theatre.
First the circle is cast, from East sunwise to East again, by a priest or priestess with his or her athame. This is a crucial moment for all present, for all must follow the casting with rapt attention, visualizing the bluish-silver light spilling from the tip of the athame along the perimeter of the circle. It is not enough, though, to visualize the circling tip of light; the whole illumined circumference must be seen and retained as it grows to a full circle. Thereafter, it must be kept in peripheral view throughout the rite. It is this act that lays the foundation for the magical theatre. Next, the quarters are called to the four cardinal points of the circle, again beginning and ending in the East and processing sunwise.
Because the purpose of the rite is to effect change in the everyday world through the launching of a thought-form into the Otherworld of spirit, the energies raised within the circle must be augmented by the elemental energies of beings who remain outside the circle but who supercharge the energy of the raised Cone of Power through the four cardinal portals. These powers also guard the portals and the integrity of the temple boundary from unwanted intrusion and from collapsing when the Cone of Power is released. These wards, the Watchers and elementals, are next called to their stations on the cardinal points. They are beckoned and invited to perch, as it were, on the portals, which are both doors to the temple and inlets for their more highly-charged energies. The more sensitive witches may begin to feel a sort of throb along the circumference of the circle, like the pounding of surf.
Next the Lady and Lord are invited in and reside in the large candles at the center of the altar. Now the pillar or axis of this little “world between the worlds” is visualized as passing up through the center of the altar between the Lady and Lord and extending from the nadir to the zenith of the spherical temple. 4 As the witches join hands and circle the temple slowly, the Pillar is visualized as revolving, from the polarity between the Lady and Lord. The circling is slow at first as the High Priest or High Priestess states the magical purpose of the rite. This purpose is then summed up in a word, which is repeated by the witches as they circle.
The pace now picks up as the High Priest/ess recites a Witches’ Mill:
“On an oak-leaf I stand
I ride the filly that never was foaled
And I carry the dead in my hand
Under the earth I go.” 5
Each witch in turn takes a line and the mill is recited three times as they circle.
High Priest/ess then calls out the one-word magical purpose again and witches repeat it while circling a little faster. It is repeated three times and then witches fall silent as they circle, each one visualizing an image to stand for the purpose. After a moment, High Priest/ess begins the Witches’ Rune, two troubadour discoveries from the 12thor 13th century:
“Bagahi laca bachahe
Lamac cahi achabahe
Lamac lamec Bachalyos,
Samahac et famyolas,
Witches repeat the rune three times, circling a little faster.
High Priest/ess immediately goes into the second part of the Rune, picking up the pace which now approaches the maximum speed consistent with safety:
“Eko eko Azerak,
Eko eko Zomelak
Zod ru koz e zod ru koo
Zod ru goz e goo roo moo
Eeo eeo hoo hoo hoo!” 7
This is likewise repeated three times by the witches, at the end of which they stop, throw up their hands with the last “hoo!”, and each mentally projects his or her visual image of the magical purpose upward through the zenith. At the same time, each witch mentally releases his or her gaze of the Watchers and their eyes. A whoosh results, the release of the elemental energy at the cardinal points upward and inward to the zenith of the circle. There it joins the uprush of witches’ energy, directed by the uprushing column of the World Pillar, and all join at the apex of the Cone of Power, which is then released through the portal of the height, at the temple’s zenith, the summit of the magical theatre.
After releasing the Cone of Power, witches drop to their hands and knees to release any leftover energy back into the Earth. Then all resume their stations and cakes and ale are passed around, as well as water, with some of each left over to be returned into the ground following the dissolution of the Circle. Coveners sit quietly in fellowship with each other and the Lord and Lady, Watchers and elementals and any other beings attracted to the rite. The Circle is now just a circle; the magic theatre is closed. Spirits and helpers are dismissed, the Lord and Lady thanked for their presence. The high priest/ess cuts the circumference of the Circle at its southwestern point and announces that the rite is ended. The hand-bell is rung three times once more, signaling the end of sacred time. Coveners go outside and return what remains of the water, cakes and ale to the ground. The candles are snuffed out and the temple is disassembled, in reverse order to that in which it was assembled in the beginning.
FARRAR, Janet and Stewart, Eight Sabbats for Witches, Custer, WA,
Phoenix Publishing Inc., 1988.
_____________________, The Witches’ Way; Principles, Rituals, and
Beliefs of Modern Witchcraft, Custer, Washington, Phoenix Publishing Inc., 1984.>
JACKSON, Nigel, Call of the Horned Piper, Berkshire, UK, Capall Bann, 1994.
MEAD, G.R.S., >Apollonius of Tyana; The Philosopher-Reformer of the First
Century A.D., New Hyde Park, New York, University Books, Inc., 1966.
VALIENTE, Doreen, Witchcraft for Tomorrow, Custer, Washington, Phoenix
1 G.R.S. Mead, Apollonius of Tyana, pp 84-5.
2 “World” is understood in the ancient sense as a cosmos or ordered habitation in space-time, not necessarily a planet.
3 Or sometimes after the circle is cast, with the calling of Quarters.
4 At certain times of year, when there is only one candle, the axis of the temple is visualized as rising through it.
5 From Nigel Jackson, Call of the Horned Piper. p. 22 et passim.
6 Farrar, Janet & Stewart, Eight Sabbats for Witches, p. 44. Often misquoted, this troubadour chant can be viewed in manuscript in an illustration in plate 8 of Farrar, The Witches’ Way.
7 Recorded in a footnote by Doreen Valiente to Janet and Stewart Farrar’s Eight Sabbats for.Witches, p. 45.