The Circle, the Pyramid, and the Wiccan Temple

There’s a concept that floats around in the occult community, often called the “Magician’s Pyramid.” The concept, though not its name, originates in Éliphas Lévi’s Transcendental Magic:

To attain the SANCTUM REGNUM, in other words, the knowledge and power of the Magi, there are four indispensable conditions – an intelligence illuminated by study, an intrepidity which nothing can check, a will which cannot be broken, and a prudence which nothing can corrupt and nothing intoxicate. TO KNOW, TO DARE, TO WILL, TO KEEP SILENCE – such are the four words of the Magus.

Éliphas Lévi, The Doctrine of Transcendental Magic

Lévi’s “four words of the Magus,” also sometimes known as the “Powers of the Magus” or the “Powers of the Sphinx,” are the basis of the Magician’s Pyramid. Through the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn, each of Lévi’s four words became associated with one of the elements and one of the cardinal directions. TO KNOW is associated with Air and the East, TO WILL with Fire and the South,* TO DARE with Water and the West, and TO KEEP SILENCE with Earth and the North.

There’s a lot going on with the Pyramid. It’s a four-step guidebook for any kind of magical (or, for that matter, non-magical) operation: Know what your situation is, will what you want to change about it, dare to take action, and then shut the fuck up and do the work. If you go to an open Wiccan ritual, you may also see similarities between the Pyramid and the practice of “calling the Quarters”—summoning elemental spirits at each of the four cardinal points of the Circle. And this is the reason I’m bringing the Pyramid up today. I want to talk about some of the metaphysics of a Wiccan Circle, and my own personal, deeply idiosyncratic understanding of how the Pyramid connects to that.

So, switching topics. Let’s talk about Circle.

There’s a question that occasionally receives brief attention in Wiccan spaces (both in books and in casual conversation): What shape is the Circle? Now, this is obviously a dumb question, because the answer is right there in the name. The Circle is circle-shaped. That’s why it’s called a circle. But that’s not exactly what the question is asking. Rather, the question is, what shape is the Circle in three dimensions?

The point of a Wiccan Circle (well, one of many points**) is to create a sacred space that separates us from the humdrum of our mundane lives for the purposes of worship. When we’re in a Circle, we want to feel held. We want to feel sufficiently set apart from the ordinary world. But we are not merely two-dimensional beings; we exist as flesh-and-blood creatures in three dimensions, and a simple ring traced on the ground isn’t going to have that desired effect of marking the distinction between sacred space and mundane space. The question, then, is how the Circle, as the demarcation of our sacred space, is projected into three dimensions.

Is it a sphere? It can’t be, really. If it were, then a decently tall person standing at the edge of the Circle would have her head poking out. Likewise, it can’t be a tube extending infinitely upward and infinitely downward; if it were, your upstairs neighbors would be unwittingly brought into your Circle as they were watching TV, and The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills is not exactly the stuff of sacred space.

The answer I most often see to the question What shape is the Circle? is to say that the Circle is egg-shaped. It cups us from beneath and is extended on the top to fit everyone’s heads, but it ultimately closes over us in a dome. When you read books that talk about a “cone of power,” then, you’re raising magical energy within that elongated top part of the egg.

This explanation never really satisfied me. There are a lot of people (in fact, most Wiccans I’ve discussed this with) who are perfectly satisfied with it, but it just doesn’t fit my personal experience of the Circle. And that’s fine. Conflicting theologies are perfectly compatible in Wicca. Wicca is ultimately an experiential religion, which means that I can experience the Circle as X and you can experience the Circle as Y, and our theological viewpoints can both be correct even if they’re mutually inconsistent. It’s paradoxical, but it’s so, so important. The emphasis on personal experience is at the heart of what Wicca is.

For quite a long time, I’ve been struggling to express my experience of the shape of the Circle, and then just last week, it hit me: It has to do with the Magician’s Pyramid.

Here’s the thing. When I tell you that there are four points on the Magician’s pyramid, you probably visualize a four-sided pyramid with a square base (like the Pyramids of Giza). But it doesn’t have to be. It could also be a tetrahedron.

For anyone who’s struggling to remember their high school geometry class (no shade; geometry was ages ago and most of us don’t spend our free time thinking about Platonic solids), a tetrahedron is a regular three-dimensional figure consisting of four sides and four points, where each side is an equilateral triangle. Every angle on a tetrahedron is the same size, every edge is the same length, and every side looks the same. The tetrahedron is one of only five regular shapes that are possible in three-dimensional space; collectively, these five are known as the Platonic solids.

When we call the quarters in a Wiccan Circle, my experience (which, let’s emphasize again, is deeply idiosyncratic) is that we’re marking the four points on a tetrahedral Magician’s Pyramid. The Circle exists between those points in a wacky, spacetime-folding-in-on-itself sort of way. So when we’re standing in the Circle, our heads are never poking out, because it’s not actually a flat, two-dimensional shape. It’s a polydimensional shape that we’re projecting onto a two-dimensional surface—the same way a sphere projected onto a piece of two-dimensional paper looks like an ordinary circle.

Now, admittedly, this is a super mystical take. For people who are firmly grounded in the real world, this will sound like a load of horseshit. We can see the shape made by connecting the cardinal points of a Circle, and that shape is, in fact, a square—not a tetrahedron. To claim otherwise is practically Orwellian.

But, well…

Look. Spacetime goes wonky in a Wiccan Circle. Part of the function of ritual space is that it takes on a subjectively different quality than ordinary space. You’ll cast a Circle, do a ritual, and it will take forever—but then when you’re done, you look at your watch and realize it was only twenty minutes. (Or, conversely, it’ll go by in the blink of an eye and you’ll realize it’s actually been two hours. Both of these things have happened to me.) So it’s not utterly bizarre to me to say that our subjective experience of space warps the same way our subjective experience of time does.

Am I saying that casting a Circle objectively, fact-of-the-matter, bends the fabric of spacetime so that a formerly two-dimensional shape becomes a three-dimensional container? No, obviously not. But ritually? Experientially? Yeah, I think space bends. That’s why we can cast a spell that affects things not actually physically present in our Circle; magic involves the transcendence of space and time. And likewise, that’s why there’s never any worry about a tall person’s head poking out the top of the Circle.

So long as we stand between the four cardinal points of the Circle, we are within the Magician’s Pyramid. Those four cardinal points are, as I experience them, the two-dimensional projections of that three-dimensional pyramid,*** a way of mapping ordinary space to the altered reality of sacred space. Between those four points, we stand in the Magician’s Pyramid. And somehow, mysteriously and mystically, the Pyramid and the Circle are one.

A final disclaimer to wrap this post up: No skin off my back if you read this and don’t agree with it. Hell, a year from now, I might not agree with it. Part of the function of this blog is to serve as a place for me to hammer out my thoughts on difficult topics, and there are plenty of old posts that I reread and cringe at, because my views have changed so drastically over time. This is a deeply personal, non-rational experience of Wiccan ritual, and I’m having difficulty expressing it clearly and to my satisfaction, but I’m aware that it doesn’t make sense. I’m aware that there are gaps here, and that’s okay. More than anything, I’m trying to articulate an experience. Nothing more and nothing less.

*Note that the order here has been changed from Lévi’s original text. Lévi is insistent that the order of progression goes know-dare-will-silence, but I don’t know when this got changed.

**There’s a fun geometry joke for you.

***For bonus points, the two-dimensional projection of a four-dimensional tetrahedron is a pentagram. Ooh, shiny, Wicca, magical.

One thought on “The Circle, the Pyramid, and the Wiccan Temple

  1. That’s fascinating! I’m guilty of imagining the circle as a cylinder conveniently ending at the floor and the ceiling; your idea makes a lot more sense. You’re right about the odd effects with time too — the last group ritual I attended took about 1.5 hours, but felt like 20 minutes to me and many others.

    Liked by 1 person

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