Pentacles and Pentagrams: What’s the Difference?

A pentagram is a five-pointed star, usually depicted as interwoven, or with the lines used to draw it overlapping. A pentacle is a pentagram with a circle around it. Pentagrams and pentacles have long been symbols of protection and warding off evil, and they are used for that purpose by many Wiccans today.

A Little History

Pentagrams have been used for thousands of years and appear in ancient Greek, Roman, Mesopotamian, and Egyptian art. They have been used by Christians, too—perhaps most famously by Hildegard of Bingen, who, along with other twelfth-century Christian scholars, associated the number five with the five senses and the human body (one head, two arms, and two legs; it reminds me a bit of Leonardo da Vinci’s Vitruvian Man), and saw it as the symbol of the microcosm, or the divine reflected on earth. The symbolism of the pentacle plays an important role in the medieval poem Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, and of course it is also associated with the Christmas star and sits atop the Christmas tree in many Christian homes.

The pentagram has been used extensively by practitioners of alchemy and high magic (both past and present), including Cornelius Agrippa and Eliphas Levi, who developed the Tetragrammaton Pentagram. The pentagram was adopted by fraternal organizations such as the Freemasons and the Order of the Eastern Star, which associates each point with a woman from the bible.

So, Is It Satanic?

The pentagram is usually depicted with one point up and two points down (again, a bit like Vitruvian Man), but Eliphas Levi postulated that if the upright pentagram symbolized the divine, the inverted pentagram (two points up, one point down) could symbolize the opposite of God, which to many is the devil or Satan. People still associate the inverted pentagram with the devil, and logo of the Church of Satan includes an inverted pentagram containing the face of Baphomet. But the inverted pentagram symbolizes non-Satanic things as well; in the Order of the Eastern Star, for example, the bottom point of the pentacle points down to Jesus’ manger, which is about as anti-Satan as you can get.

What Does It Mean to Wiccans?

I shouldn’t have to say this, but I’m going to anyway: the pentagram and the pentacle as used in Wicca have nothing to do with Satan, no matter what Hollywood or your misinformed neighbor would have you believe. To a Wiccan, a pentagram or pentacle is a powerful, positive symbol that can mean:

  • The four elements (air, fire, water, and earth) bound with spirit (usually pentacle)
  • The human figure
  • The union of male and female
  • Wholeness or manifestation (usually pentacle)
  • Five fingers/the human hand; what humans are able to do or manifest
  • Protection

In Wicca, the pentacle can also be a flat disc made of wood, metal, or clay that is inscribed with a pentagram inside a circle. It sits on the altar and is used in ritual and magic for manifestation and protection. And sometimes Wiccans draw pentagrams during ritual in the air to represent or manifest the four elements. They usually (but not always) invoke air in the east, fire in the south, water in the west, and earth in the north. The pentacles for each element are drawn starting at a different point on the star. Some Wiccans also add a pentagram for spirit.

So, Should I Wear One?

Wiccans often wear pentacle jewelry as a symbol of their faith—like a Christian might wear a cross—or as a protection symbol. I’ve seen more than a few Wiccans with pentacle or pentagram tattoos. Some Wiccans only wear them in ritual. Others wear them all the time, and still others don’t wear them at all. The choice is a deeply personal one.

Being “loud and proud” and wearing a prominent pentacle is more and more accepted in the U.S. than it used to be, but bear in mind that non-Wiccans may assume it’s a satanic symbol and feel compelled to approach you about it. This can be a chance to break down the negative associations with the pentagram by telling someone about the positive meaning of the symbol. Unfortunately it can also inspire someone to “witness,” lecture, insult, shun, or—in rare and extreme cases—harass or assault you.

If you want to wear a pentacle but are a private person, or you just don’t want to be asked about your religion, you can there are options that are less noticeable. There are designs that incorporate a pentagram but aren’t pentagram-shaped, and also subtler rings and earrings. If you wear a necklace, you can keep it in or out of your shirt, depending on your mood. I’ve also seen people draw a pentacle or pentagram on the back of a pendant so the symbol sits against their skin. You can wear the symbol on a t-shirt under another shirt (I have yet to see pentagram Underoos, which seems like a missed marketing opportunity for somebody). You can also draw a pentacle or pentagram on yourself with salt water, or visualize a pentagram on yourself before you go out for the day.

However you choose to wear your pentagram or pentacle, be aware that Wiccans have a longstanding joke about jewelry; it’s generally considered tacky or a sign of a newbie to wear a pentagram the size of a hood ornament.

A Huge Loss

Twenty years ago, when I first met Mary Kay, she told me proudly, “I’m a religious fanatic.” This unsettled me a bit since I don’t have positive associations with that phrase, but before long I realized that Mary Kay loved the Craft more than almost anyone I know. She was an insatiable learner, and her heart’s desire was to capture those fleeting, transcendent moments where we touch the divine. She was “fanatical” in the sense that gaining this understanding was the foundation and driving force behind nearly everything she did.

Mary Kay was raised Christian on the Iron Range in northern Minnesota, and she threw herself first into that faith, even traveling to Haiti to do missionary work. But once she was introduced to Wicca by a friend, she felt as though she’d come home. She was initiated into the Gardnerian tradition, and together with Patrick–the other love of her life–she eventually started her own coven. I was lucky enough to have a front-row seat for most of it, and I became their first initiate.

As a teacher, Mary Kay thought of her students as peers, and believed that everyone, regardless of experience, could bring good ideas and insights to the table, and that each person she taught had things to teach her in return. When she asked us what we thought about something, she actually wanted to know. She understood that the process of teaching is really the process of learning.

She and Patrick both absolutely hated the idea of coven as cult of personality or as a group of seekers blindly following a guru. Mary Kay could be fierce and stubborn when she felt injustice had been done, and fought hard, almost until her death, for people she felt had been wronged by their coven leaders or the greater Gardnerian community. This made her some enemies, and it would be wrong to say she didn’t care about that, but she strongly believed standing up for someone without a voice was more important than her personal political capital.

Mary Kay was endlessly curious about the origins of her tradition, and she loved a spirited debate about any aspect of the Craft. She did a tremendous amount of research on it, chasing down obscure writings and seeking out and corresponding with Gardnerians from around the world. This required crossing some political lines and breaking some cultural taboos, which was a little intimidating to her at first. But she had a very strong sense of fairness, and by breaking the unwritten “rules” about who talks to whom, she helped punch holes in ridiculous and artificial boundaries between Gardnerian groups and empower others to do the same. This work by Mary and others and the blossoming of the Internet have allowed us to share things in ways we never dreamed of before.

She was extremely generous in sharing what she learned with her students as well. After I left Minneapolis, she would call me, excited, and tell me about her discoveries, and email me the new treasures she’d found. And when I had my own students, we had “Stump Mary Kay” nights, where we’d get her on the speakerphone and my students would try to come up with questions about the tradition she couldn’t answer. They almost never succeeded.

Perhaps most important, Mary Kay loved with her whole heart, without reservation, and in a way that was utterly authentic. She adored Patrick, and anyone else who was fortunate enough to be her friend gained a steadfast ally. When she was hurt or betrayed by those she loved, she didn’t let that stop her from putting herself out there to love again. She had no guile–what you saw is what you got–and she had no qualms about making fun of herself. We often teased her about her love of butt rock, ability to reduce us to hysterics by invoking the quarters in her creepily accurate impression of South Park’s Eric Cartman, and her oft-stated desire to be the filling in a Supernatural Winchester brothers sandwich cookie. But even in her goofiest moments, her love of Craft was ever-present.

As Mary Kay died, Patrick held her hand, I held his, and my husband held us both, so she was surrounded by people who loved her. I feel I’ve lost one of the best friends I’ve ever had and one of my life’s anchors. I know that if the Summerlands exist, she is already enfolded in the arms of her beloved gods. But I’d give just about anything to hear her tell me one more time to get my hands off of her Cheesy Poofs.

Spooky Movies: Trick R Treat

Trick RI’ve saved the most Halloween-y Halloween goody for last. If you judge Trick R Treat by its cover, you’ll probably guess that it’s another boring, cliché-ridden slasher film. Although there is a fair amount of blood spilled, this isn’t your run-of-the mill b-grade horror flick. The film contains five interwoven stories about people living on the same block. There’s a naive young woman out for her first Halloween night on the town with the girls; a couple who discover what happens if you disrespect Halloween tradition; a high school principal who is every bit the monster kids think a principal is; a group of kids who set up a prank that goes badly awry with truly terrifying consequences; and a curmudgeonly old guy who has a very creepy trick-or-treater. Interwoven through these stories is a lot of Halloween lore, such as what happens if you allow the candle in your pumpkin to go out before midnight, and the art director—yes, it’s a horror film with art direction—makes use of a lot of old-fashioned Halloween imagery from the late 1800s and early 1900s. (If you don’t think that’s creepy, check this out.) Trick R Treat is scary and satisfying, like Halloween should be.

Spooky Movies: The Devil’s Backbone

backboneMany people know Guillermo del Toro from Pacific Rim, Hellboy, or Pan’s Labyrinth, but his less well-known stuff—especially The Devil’s Backbone—is well worth a look. The story takes place at a dusty, run-down orphanage in a remote part of Spain during the Spanish Civil War. Carlos, a boy who has been abandoned by his parents, arrives at the orphanage and soon discovers that many of its occupants have secrets, including the couple running the orphanage who are hiding a cache of gold for the Republican loyalists, the caretaker, Jacinto, who is secretly searching for the gold to steal it, the orphanage’s bully, who has been traumatized, and the sad and terrifying child ghost who may or may not be a missing boy named Santi. Even the unexploded bomb in the courtyard has a secret of sorts.

The film refers to a ghost as a “tragedy condemned to repeat itself over and over again,” a metaphor that could also apply to the war and its impact on the orphanage and everyone in it. In other words, it’s not a happy story. But the film’s compelling performances, evocative art direction, and what it has to say about loyalty and sacrifice will stay with you for a long time. This is absolutely one of del Toro’s best films. Highly recommended.

Spooky Movies: Shadow of the Vampire

ShadowWhat if Max Schreck, who played the vampire Count Orlock in the iconic silent 1922 film Nosferatu, had been a real vampire? Shadow of the Vampire is a fictionalized account of the making of Nosferatu. Director F. W. Murnau, played by a scenery-chewing John Malkovich, takes his cast to Czechoslovakia and introduces them to a strange character actor called Max Schreck (Willem Dafoe), who will be playing Count Orlock, and who, he warns them, will remain in character at all times. What Murnau doesn’t tell them is that he’s so determined to make the most authentic vampire film ever that he’s hired a real vampire and has promised him the leading lady as a reward. But Schreck won’t be controlled and can’t keep his teeth out of the cast and crew, who start dropping like flies as an obsessive, laudanum-addicted Murnau pushes on relentlessly to complete his film.

Dafoe manages to elicit both sympathy and horror as Schreck. When he’s asked what he thinks of the novel Dracula, Schreck speaks of how lonely the immortal count must have been, and how he must have forgotten how to do everyday things. It’s an incredible scene, and it garnered Dafoe an Oscar nod. You’ll probably get more out of Shadow if you’ve seen Nosferatu, so I recommend them as a double feature. But even if you haven’t seen the original, Shadow is definitely worth a look.

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