by Cathy Douglas
We don’t often see product recalls at a metaphysical shop, but recently we had to pull some mini candle holders from the shelf — not because they were broken, but because the pentacle symbol on them was printed upside-down. It wasn’t a case of physical safety, but one of taking symbols seriously.
Pentagrams and pentacles are two different things. A basic pentagram is a five-pointed star, whereas the word “pentacle” can refer to a number of things. It used to simply mean a plate bearing a magical symbol, and was part of the occult tradition of the Renaissance. In our day it’s come to mean one special symbol: a pentagram enclosed within a circle of protection and synthesis.
Both the pentagram and pentacle are positive symbols in which the top point of the star, representing Spirit, rules the other elements (earth, water, air and fire). In combining the four physical elements with Spirit, this sigil implies a connection between the material world and the spirit world — our wills connected with the four elements. This synthesis goes both ways: the human spirit has the potency to affect the material world, while at the same time humanity is part of the natural world and of Gaia. In this way, the pentacle symbolizes both magic and protection.
So, what’s so bad about turning the five-pointed star upside-down? Metaphysically, this would represent allowing the natural elements to “bury” Spirit, or worse, could imply using magic while disregarding the greater good. A pentagram turned point-downward has also been used as a sigil of the goat-like demon Baphomet. Most of us would just as soon stay away from such symbolism, or at most relegate it to t-shirts advertising heavy metal bands.
Though pentacles and pentagrams symbolize good things, that doesn’t mean they’re without controversy. As recently as 2007, the U.S. Veteran’s Administration refused soldiers and their families the right to select a pentacle as one of the official symbols that could be displayed on a tombstone at Arlington Cemetery and other U.S. military burial ground. Overturning this prohibition was a big win for religious freedom.
Pentacles are also one of the suits of the tarot. Originally this was the suite of coins; recasting it as “pentacles” was an innovation of the Rider-Waite-Smith tarot deck. Arthur Waite and Pamela Colman Smith came across the pentacle as Golden Dawn initiates. In the Golden Dawn, the four elemental weapons of the adept correspond to what have become the four tarot suits: the wand of fire, the cup of water, the sword of air, and the pentacle of earth. These in turn may have evolved from the four weapons of the Tuatha dé Danann, reportedly of druidic origin: the spear of Lugh, the cauldron of Dagda, sword of Nuada, and stone of Fál.
In modern Wicca (and similar neopagan traditions), the pentacle is an important symbol, representing both earth and the synthesis of elements. Patterns of five are rare in inanimate nature, but common in living things: the five senses, five fingers, five flower petals, etc. A natural pentagram form is visible in an apple, which when sliced through the center reveals its seeds in a perfect, five-pointed form. The seed itself is, of course, symbolic of mystery and rebirth.
As a religious symbol, the five-pointed star dates back to followers of Kore, an earth goddess worshipped from Europe through northern Africa since ancient times. (The word “kore” is ancient Greek for “young woman or maiden,” which was how they addressed Persephone.) Later Roman followers, who worshipped the goddess Ceres, called this shape the Star of Knowledge. Christians adopted the Korein, her feast day, as the feast of Epiphany, and borrowed the five-pointed star to represent the Star of Bethlehem and the five wounds of Christ.
A pentacle, often in the form of a plate, is also one of the basic tools of a Wiccan altar. The current form is shaped a lot like those of the Renaissance, but now usually features a pentagram as its central symbol. People also personalize it with astrological symbols, runes, or really any symbol that has personal meaning.
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