On Circle Casting and the World Tree

Yggdrasil - Artist Unknown

Whether you call it circle casting, treading the mill, or the compass round, the intention of this practice is to create a ritually purified space to open a protected doorway between worlds so that the ritualist(s) can commune with the deities or spirits from the other realms. The circle casting method, as it is done today in Wicca, is based on that of the Golden Dawn and also the Key of Solomon. “Circles” have been used for magic long before Wicca, but not using the Wiccan method of invoking the four elements and the extra element of spirit by drawing invoking pentagrams with an athame. Despite its younger age, this Wiccan method is very effective and a good standard practice for ritualists and magicians whether they are influenced by Gerald Gardner, Paul Huson, or The Key of Solomon itself. Good resources to draw upon for Wiccan circle casting are Mastering Witchcraft by Paul Huson and A Witch’s Bible by Janet and Stewart Farrar.

What most modern Witches and Pagans today don’t realize is that in casting a circle they are actually accessing the universal World Tree or axis mundi. Circle casting is actually a misnomer. It isn’t a circle or ring being created but instead a perfect sphere with one dome rising above the earth and the other below. In my personal opinion, when one casts a circle invoking the four elements and the extra spirit, one is only creating half the sphere. This is the half accessing the upperworld of the Gods and ignoring the realm of the dead below. Casting a circle is an act of duplicating the World Tree or accessing it as the axis mundi. This intention is found in all Pagan cultures across the world of both polytheistic and animistic beliefs. For example, the Egyptians and their djed of Osiris which is considered the god’s spine and axis mundi of the world just like Legba of both African and Haitian belief is associated with the poteau-mitan of the hounfour‘s peristyle which is also considered to be Legba’s spine and the World Tree. This poteau-mitan is used to draw down the lwa or draw up the ancestors known as the ghédé.

The Norse and Scandinavians also had centre poles in their wooden temples and places of outdoor worship. These poles were made of wood or were live trees and were where rituals took place as this pole was their representation of yggdrasil – the Norse world tree. When the Vikings sailed to settle in Iceland, they brought their carved centre poles with them and threw them into the sea believing if the poles floated ashore it was a sign the land was blessed and they should settle there. They also believed that to commune with the gods they must reach them through the World Tree and it was the same for the spirits of the dead and the gods of the underworld Hel. The Mayans, Aztecs, Sumerians, Assyrians, Celts, Greeks, Hindus, as well as animistic Native tribes all have a world tree or “tree of life” as well. In some cases the World Tree is a “World Mountain” or a colossal standing stone instead.

Sami Thor Idol

In some pagan cultures, the axis mundi is itself a god who is believed to guard the gates between all realms and instead of casting a circle, the god is called upon through the use of a tree, pole, pillar, staff, or wand which the World Tree god is believed to inhabit or be drawn into.  In many cultures this representation is then danced around while chanting to induce trance. Then this deity is propitiated with offerings and asked which gate (to the upper or under world) the participants would like the deity to open. The Norse called upon Heimdal or Odin, the Greeks upon Hermes, the Gauls upon Esus, the Haitians upon Papa Legba, and so on. Depending on the culture, there were also deities who specifically guarded a gate either to the realm of the dead or the realm of the gods. An ancient Roman necromancer would’ve called upon Hecate rather than Mercury to open the gate to the underworld.

External Circle Casting for Individuals or Groups

There is more than one method to access the World Tree. One is internal and one is external. For the external method, which is shamanic in origin,  the four directions are called (north, east, south, and west), but they do not have elements corresponding to them. Then, both the upperworld and underworld are called after the four compass points making for a total of six directions invoked to duplicate the World Tree and open the doorway to the otherworld. When it comes to calling the four main directions one could call upon the four World Tree Frame Drumsdwarves associated with them in the Norse faith, the four bees of the Mayan faith, or the four supernatural creatures associated with the four directions in ancient Chinese belief depending on what cultural tradition you practice. For the above and the below one can use the terms for the realm of the Gods and the realm of the dead used in one’s own tradition or cultural mythology. Drumming is also a common method of summoning the six directions and many images of the world tree and the cosmology of the earth are found on the drums of animistic peoples. Drums were considered by shamans to be horses or deer which allowed the drumming shaman to travel up or down the World Tree or invoke the World Tree itself. Frame drums are especially useful for this purpose. Coming up with a chant for the six directions to sing while drumming is an effective way to create the sphere and access the World Tree.

Below is a diagram of what the ritualist is creating along with two common ancient symbols which reflect it. Think of the circle (the sphere) as a metaphysical  elevator that moves up or down the axis mundi. Those practicing Traditional Witchcraft who are influenced by the teachings of Robert Cochrane may notice the diagram is very similar to Cochrane’s stang with the two crossed arrows hung upon it and a wreath encircling them.

Directional Circle Casting Diagram

If you practice within the umbrella of Traditional Witchcraft you can use a stang or staff in your rituals to access the World Tree. For ritual, the stang is struck into the ground outdoors (at a crossroad is best). The part in the earth reaching down to the underworld like the roots of a tree, the branch representing our realm, and the tines reaching to the heavens uniting the three realms and opening a doorway to the Otherworld. After calling upon the six directions the gods or spirits may be drawn down or up through the stang to be petitioned or communicated with during the ritual. A live tree or staff can be used in a similar manner.

Those with an interest in etymology may find the old meanings of stang very interesting indeed. In the Scottish and Anglo-Saxon tongues it most commonly means pole, staff, stick, or shaft, such as a hay fork, distaff, walking stick, the beam of a plough, or the axle of a car. If one digs a little deeper into the varying meanings, stang was also used to mean key, phallus, arrow, serpent’s fang, intoxication, or “a means of stimulating the conscience” (Dictionary of the Scots Language). Interesting no? It certainly explains the staff usually found accompanying shamans, cunning folk, sorcerers, and magicians in history, folklore, and mythology. The word Völva, used for Norse seeresses, translates as “wand bearer”. They were able to access the spirit realms and commune with gods and ancestors for the people of their communities.

Accessing the World Tree Internally

Mythological Waq Waq TreeThe internal method of accessing the World Tree is the elemental method. If the World Tree is a spine then we can also look upon our own spine as a miniature axis mundi. Many culture’s myths and folklore say humans were created from trees, but perhaps we were created from the Tree? I believe in the three sacred elements of earth (land), water (sea), and air (sky) and that fire is the extra element that completes us and gives us our intelligence and cunning – that fire is spirit. If I want to walk between worlds in my body I go to a place where the three main elements are present bringing the fire in my own body. When I wish to commune with my deities and familiar spirits, or to leave my body, I call upon the four elements contained within my own body while inducing trance in order to cross between worlds. This is an internal method because it is done without any external movement or actions besides possibly chanting or breathing methods to induce trance. Within us all is a doorway to the World Tree. Some can access it and some cannot. Some just need to find the key. If you are in a tradition that is influenced by the Kabbalah, the internal method may already be very familiar to you. I don’t personally use the Kabbalistic Tree of Life for this method, but it can also be very effective. Those influenced by yogic practices may use the chakras to access their internal axis mundi. These Eastern methods are not necessary to achieve the same effect by those practicing within a different cultural framework. The internal method is how the witch or shaman accesses the road to the otherworlds and walks between them.  Some call this method astral travel, some flying, and others hedgecrossing.

Let us bring the World Tree back into circle casting and not forget the why and wherefore of what we do in ritual as witches, shamans, druids, and magicians.

Comments

21 Responses to “On Circle Casting and the World Tree”

  1. hisprecious1 says:

    VERY interesting! Thanks for sharing this.

  2. Excellent post. A lot of Druids, especially those of us in ADF or Keltrian traditions, look to the axis mundi as an essential part of ritual. Until I began practicing a Celtic-reconstructionist inspired Druid path and started to meditate on the world tree and the powers of the upper and lower worlds, I never had very powerful meditative or ritual experiences. Prior to reading this, I knew that many Indo-European cultures placed great emphasis on the world tree and sacred realms, but I didn’t know about the Egyptian concept of the axis mundi. Very fascinating!

  3. Hieronimo says:

    You mention that a Roman necromancer would have called upon Hecate to open the door. Do you happen to know what four directional beings he or she might have called upon? The Venti–Aquilo, Vulturnus, Auster and Favonius–come to mind, or the Greek Anemoi with their more familiar names. I can’t think of any other Roman, Hellenistic or Egyptian directional gods, or ones from Asia Minor either, though surely they existed. Thanks.

    • I’m much more familiar with Greek mythology than Roman, but I definitely agree the Anemoi would suit the purpose well.

      The Egyptians had the “Four Pillars of Heaven” representing the cardinal directions and the fifth pillar being the axis mundi. This layout can still be seen in masonic buildings today.

      Maybe one day me or someone else will put effort in creating a chart…

      Slainte,
      Sarah

    • Michael says:

      They wouldn’t. Check out Daniel Ogden’s “Greek and Roman Necromancy” for a look at the practices involved in Roman necromancy.

      • Care to elaborate? Were four directions or beings invoked at all by the Romans?

      • Michael says:

        Sorry its been a few days, I get busy here and there.
        —–
        No, not at all. The directions held no importance in typical Roman ritual practices. The only thing really relevant here is the idea of a circle casting. In large public ceremonies as well as necromantic rites, the presiding officiant would circle around the focal point of the ritual area–usually an altar, pit, or sometimes the corpse of a person. Typically, this act was used as a means to lay a boundary between the profane and the divine, the living and the dead as well as mark an area of purification.

        Naturally various spirits and/or deities were invoked for the given work, but nothing akin to the four quarters of the Western Magical tradition.

  4. Pombagira says:

    yeah, i can remember once going to a ritual where the scared plate was cast..it was errmm odd and a little like wadding in a shallow pool..

    i teach my students that there are 7 directions to casting a circle, 4 directions to anchor it in this world and three above below and centre to anchor in the other worlds.. however i might now have to add the world tree cause it makes excellent sense in my head.. *ponders this*..

    yay
    *beams*

    • Technically the centre would be the world tree. I don’t consider it a direction as it moves through all the directions, hence the use of just six, but one could consider the world tree a seventh entity to invoke when casting a circle.

      • Pombagira says:

        hmm.. .. i was thinking that the word tree would in essence be three directions.. above below and centre? centre is important to me cause to me that balances things.. and being a Libra i like balance..tehe

        a little like you i do see above below and centre as being a direction as such, more of a place? errr the other world, which is not really direction but is.. umm.. *waves hands cause it helps* yeah difficult to explain.. but interesting to work with..

        *beams*
        Polly

  5. Thanks for the post! This completely changes the way I’m going to look at circle casting from now on :D

  6. Lune says:

    In a traditional wiccan (and french) context, my High Priestess has taught me to draw a perfect sphere and not a circle or half-sphere :) It’s not complete without ” as above, so below”. But always in a such context, I find the call of the elements rather hollow… To develop !

  7. J. says:

    I really loved this article, Sarah. Thanks so much for writing, you blog is always an inspiring read.

  8. Rhi *Kim* says:

    Sarah,

    This is one of the most powerful & illuminating posts you’ve done. Thanks for all your serious work when there is so much “fluff” out there.

    I always felt like I wasn’t “casting the circle” right because I’m surrounded by those who simply call the quarters. My spheres take quite a while to establish because I focus on truly inviting and connecting with all 7 “parts” that make up the whole. As I’ve begun to incorporate the world tree into my spheres, I find longer lasting & more intense workings.

    Most of my workings are by instinct based on research, but there’s so much to learn from so many different historical & cultural sources. It’s nice to have a well researched witch as a virtual teacher.

    Many thanks,

    Rhi *Kim*

  9. Valiel says:

    Such a good article. Through time and manyh researchs, I finally got at this point, the Sphere, the Tree !

    It’s funny when I think about it : in witchcraft, I NEVER managed to cast a circle in the wiccan way with the elements and so on. For me it was hybrid, unclear… Yes, I was a little disturb with the notion of circle, for me it was incorrect. When I begun thinking about a sphere of energy, then things went better. But still, I developped the inner practice, my body being the only tool and vessel ! And for a long time, I was misunderstood by young practionneers who stick to the rules. And reading others, I could never find similar things (only when I found more experienced people). In my shamanistic pratices I meditated upon the Medecine Wheel, and I realised I had the same problem as the circle… so I meditated, I thought, and with time I got my answer : things happen in 3D, above, below… a sphere, a ladder : the Tree ! Then I got it, and I thought back of the witch circle and made the parallel.
    Now I realise I’ve always had a very close relationship to the elements, having an instinctive practice, and being very “sensual”. With your article, I now understand many things. Among them, how it is possible for me to travel without “doing” anything : my consciousness of the Tree and the Elements are so strong, around as well as in my body, that I inconsciously use them. Interesting ! I have so much to explore…

    Well then, thanks for sharing as usual. :)

  10. Eric says:

    For my personal practice I will circle a center area with the stang dragging behind me (or my foot if I am without my staff). In this way the circle and the area within the circle becomes the axis mundi and I move up and down within it, sort of like an elevator. If I wish to reach down into the underworld then I will circle against the sun and if I wish to go up into the upperworld I will circle clockwise.

  11. Jessica says:

    What a fabulous article. I really enjoyed reading it. It is interesting to see how many cultures use the same symbolism. I personally work with spheres instead of circles as well.