The sacred circle of life
I recently crafted a broad definition of Paganism as “Paganism is a religious movement embracing earth-centred spiritual traditions that celebrate the sacred circle of life and teach us to live in harmony with Nature and each other.”
This definition was inspired by a clause in the current bylaws of the Unitarian Universalist Association of Congregations, the sixth source of inspiration adopted in 1995.
“The living tradition which we share draws from many sources: Spiritual teachings of Earth-centered traditions which celebrate the sacred circle of life and instruct us to live in harmony with the rhythms of nature.”
On the advice of others, for which I am grateful, I changed my original wording from “a broad umbrella religion” to “a religious movement” to allow for the many different Pagan paths within Paganism. This change also allows for the fact that a Pagan path may not be a legally recognized religion in any given country.
I wanted to have a working definition that did not focus on the theistic aspects of Paganism, as there are many possibilities, that are not well understood by non-Pagans often resulting in a knee-jerk rejection out of hand of a Pagan path as a valid religion.
The sacred circle of life is often represented by a wheel incorporating the recurring cycle of the seasons, the classical elements and the four cardinal directions.
The Scottish clergyman Robert Kirk wrote in his essay, The Secret Commonwealth of Elves, Fauns and Fairies “nothing perisheth, but (as the sun and year) every thing goes in a circle, lesser or greater, and is renewed and refreshed in its revolutions”.
Writing under the pseudonym Fiona Macleod, the Scottish writer William Sharp wrote in Iona “Wind comes from the spring star in the East, Fire comes from the summer star in the South, Water comes from the autumn star in the West, Wisdom, silence and death come from the winter star in the North.”
In Eastern spiritual traditions, circular symbols represent the cycle of cause and effect (the wheel of karma), the circular process of reincarnation and the balance of yin and yang energies. The svastika, with the shape of a sunwheel, represents wellbeing and good fortune.
The Pagan pentacle symbol of a five-pointed pentagram within a circle represents the five elements of life: spirit above manifesting as air, fire, water and earth. The circle binds the elements represented within together, representing unity, harmony and integration of the spiritual and the physical realms. The sacred circle of life is a powerful symbol that intersects with the common Pagan principles of reverence for Nature, belief in interconnectedness, and belief in both male and female forms of divinity.
Religious scholar Carol P Christ writes “I gradually came to understand that beneath the familiar Goddesses of the patriarchy, there is a much more ancient Goddess. The Goddess of Old Europe and Ancient Crete represented the unity of life in nature, delight in the diversity of form, the powers of birth, death and regeneration. In Goddess religion death is not feared, but is understood to be a part of life, followed by birth and renewal. We are not to ‘lord’ over nature and other creatures. Rather we are all interconnected in the web of life.”
This representation of the Goddess in terms of recurring life stages that are effectively circular echoes the Hindu Trimurti trinity of personified cosmic forces: Brahma (the creator), Vishnu (the sustainer) and Shiva (the destroyer).
The description of the triple goddess in terms of the lunar phases by Robert Graves in The White Goddess, first published in 1948, resulted in the religious symbol of the triple goddess adopted by many Pagans, especially among Wiccans, today.
“I write of her as the White Goddess because white is her principal colour, the colour of the first member of her moon-trinity, but when Suidas the Byzantine records that Io was a cow that changes her colour from white to rose and then to black he means that the New Moon is the white goddess of birth and growth; the Full Moon, the red goddess of love and battle; the Old Moon, the black goddess of death and divination.”
In The Paganism Reader, Graham Harvey elaborates on Graves’ discussion of the triple goddess.
“Graves discusses three forms of the Goddess in ways instantly recognizable and thoroughly familiar to many Pagans. In palaeolithic painting, classical statutes and myths, Christian Marian devotion, European witch accusations, English folklore and Victorian royalist poetry, Graves discerns a prevailing devotion to a Goddess who is virgin, mother and crone – or youthful, mature and elderly. He also notes that in each phase the Goddess is attended to by Gods who match her life-cycle… the triple Goddess and her consort are central to initiatory Wicca and foundational of much Goddess/Feminist Spirituality.”
The triple aspect is applied to male as well as female divinity by some Wiccans as follows:
Goddess/Lady: Maiden, Mother, Crone
God/Lord: Youth, Father, Sage
I was born and bred in South Africa, but sadly I still know relatively little about local spiritual traditions. Some circular shapes that come to mind in a traditional South African context are the kraal (a circular enclosure for cattle), the boma (a sheltered outdoors enclosure where people gather socially around a fireplace) and the rondavel (a round-shaped hut). These enclosures are reminiscent of ancient European hill forts and roundhouses.
Although I have been studying metaphysics since 2005, and have been researching my ancestry to the best of my ability for longer, I ultimately found Paganism via my studies of divination systems including Tarot and the Elder Futhark runes. The sacred circle of life is also represented in these systems.
The Tarot deck of 78 cards comprising 22 Major Arcana and 56 Minor Arcana may be used as a tool to reveal the truth:
mirrors reflect back
secrets major and minor
holy pack of cards
The Major Arcana represent the soul’s physical journey and alchemical process:
the fool marches on
twenty-one steps circle home
paths cross, namaste
The Fool card is numbered zero (a circle) and is placed either at the beginning or the ending of the Major Arcana, effectively forming a circle that represents the soul’s evolution in a recurring cycle of birth, life, death and rebirth. The Wheel of Fortune card numbered 10 represents cycles and changes. The World card numbered 21 represents success, completion and transcendence of the duality we experience physically, emotionally and mentally on earth thereby achieving unity with All That Is.
The Minor Arcana represent the details of our daily lives in terms of the four elements comprising both active, masculine and receptive, feminine energies:
four suits, pips and courts
pages of a storybook
elements of life
The suit of Pentacles represents the receptive, feminine element of earth:
see, hear, smell, taste, touch
a star within a circle
essence of the earth
Most Tarot spreads (layouts for reading cards) include an explicit or implicit Past-Present-Future flow based on our earthly perception of linear time. In terms of the natural law of cause and effect, our future is influenced by our past and present actions and choices.
The Celtic Cross is the most well-known Tarot spread.
In Norse mythology, the three Norns are the goddesses of fate who maintain the Yggdrasil tree representing the universe and together weave the tapestry of human lives. The three Norns correspond to the Past (Urd), Present (Verdandi) and Future (Skuld) positions in a divination reading. The name of the Norn representing the future is the same as the Afrikaans word “skuld” meaning debt, which makes perfect sense in the context of natural law.
The 24 Elder Futhark runes comprise three divisions of eight known as aetts that represent three different stages of initiation in life and three ancient societal divisions. There are runes representing various aspects of life on earth, including birth (Berkano: New life) and death (Eihwaz: Crossing over). One rune in particular, Ingwaz: Win-win situation, represents earth-centred spiritual traditions.
Ingwaz is associated with the Norse god Ing. Ing is believed to be another name for Freyr, the earth god of fertility and abundance and the brother of Freyja who is the deity that our Friday is named after. Some key symbolic meanings of Ingwaz are solution, integration and harmony.
As runes were originally carved, their shapes are angular and the diamond shape of Ingwaz therefore also approximates a circle.
“You have noticed that everything an Indian does is in a circle, and that is because the Power of the World always works in circles, and everything tries to be round… The sky is round, and I have heard that the earth is round like a ball, and so are all the stars. The wind, in its greatest power, whirls. Birds make their nests in circles, for theirs is the same religion as ours… Even the seasons form a great circle in their changing, and always come back again to where they were. The life of a man is a circle from childhood to childhood, and so it is in everything where power moves.”
Black Elk, Medicine Man of the Oglala Sioux (1863-1950)
This article was first published on July 18 2011