Pentagram and Pentacle Defined for Beginner Wiccans
Wicca for Beginners: Wicca Symbols
A pentacle is one of those symbols that has picked up a whole lot of baggage over the years. Beginner Wiccans often come to our religion having to "reprogram" their own way of thinking about the pentagram. For years, pop culture, media hysteria and other religions have drilled the idea into our heads that pagan symbols are bad, and the pentagram is evil.
Unfortunately, in a lot of books aimed at Wicca for beginners, more misinformation about the pentagram is spread. These often err on the side of trying to make the pentagram look good, attaching to it all kinds of romanticized ideas that are just not factual.
What is a pentagram? What is a pentacle? Is there a difference? Let’s have a closer look at the history of this symbol and the meaning of the pentagram today.
What Is a Pentagram Exactly?
A good place to begin anytime you’re trying to understand a word and its usage is to hit the dictionary and look up the etymology of the word. The word pentagram is rooted in the ancient Greek language.
Instead of giving you my own interpretations, I’ll take the meaning directly from the dictionary:
Dictionary Meaning of A Pentagram
a combining form occurring in loanwords from Greek, meaning “five” ( Pentateuch ); on this model, used in the formation of compound words ( pentavalent ). Also, especially before a vowel, pent-.
a combining form occurring in loanwords from Greek, where it meant “something written,” “drawing” (epigram; diagram ); on this model, used in the formation of compound words ( oscillogram ).
[pen-tuh-gram] noun a five-pointed, star-shaped figure made by extending the sides of a regular pentagon until they meet, usedas an occult symbol by the Pythagoreans and later philosophers, by magicians, etc. Also called pentacle, pentangle, pentalpha.
Crotona Pentagram Ring
Meaning of a Pentagram: A Brief History
The earliest use of the pentagram we know of is from ancient Sumeria—but it wasn't a religious pagan symbol. It was a word in their language that meant a corner or angle (due to the 5 sharp angles in the figure).
In the 6th century BCE, Pherecydes of Syros used it to illustrate the five recesses of the cosmology. Pentagram figures occasionally turned up in the far East as well, due to the five Chinese elements: wood, fire, earth, metal, and water.
Pythagoras went on to use the pentagram as the symbol of man. This was partly because the shape represented a human standing with his arms spread wide (the top point being the head, the two outer points the arms, and the bottom two points the legs). It was also considered to represent the five elements that the Greeks believed made up the physical body: earth (matter), air (breath), fire (energy), water (fluids) and aether (the psyche or soul). When Pythagoras’ school was driven underground, students used the pentagram as a secret symbol to identify each other.
In ancient Judaism, it was a symbol found in mysticism, related to the top portion of the tree of life. In the Kabbalah, it stood for the five books of the Torah (what Christians refer to as the pentateuch in the Old Testament of the Bible), and the symbol was featured in a seal representing the secret names of God.
Early Christians into the middle ages used the pentagram heavily as a symbol for Christ’s five wounds. The star of Bethlehem that led the wise men to baby Jesus was believed to be the pentagram. In Authorial legends, you’ll often see the symbol of the pentagram inscribed on knights' shields and other things—these were actually Christian, not pagan, references. Christians thought of the pentagram as a protective amulet, and it was the primary symbol of Christianity back then, even more common than the cross.
So the pentagram had a long, ancient history of uses as a pagan symbol and Judeo-Christian symbol. It had no single meaning. It represented perfection in mathematics, the human body, words, and was also used in religious ritual and magic.
Pentagram Symbol in Judaism:
But What About Witches, Wiccans and Satanists?
I’ve mentioned that just about everyone used the pentagram back in the day, but I have yet to mention witches, wiccans and satanists. What about them?
The fact is, they didn’t really exist yet. The only “witches” at the time were the kind of folklore and rumor. Oh, don’t get me wrong—there were people who did magic, but they would not have identified with the term “witch”, because at the time it exclusively referred to the secret baby-killing, nekkid-frolicking, Satan-suckling whackos who were believed to be responsible for plagues and crop failures. “Witchcraft” was not an underground movement, spiritual art or Pagan religion until it was re-defined in the late 19th/early 20th centuries. Witchcraft back then was essentially what the Illuminati is today: a big fat rumor fueled by hysteria—some trouble makers will take on the name just to go against the status quo and freak people out.
When the Pentagram Became Associated With Evil
The 14th and 15th centuries saw the rise of occult practices that were rooted in Judeo-Christian symbolism and mysticism, and they borrowed liberally from many of associated symbols, including the pentagram. They also borrowed from gnostic and pagan symbols. It’s no small surprise ceremonial magicians were accused by the Christian church of heresy. And heresy, to a medieval Christian, barrels down to paganism, satan worship and witchcraft.
Anything liberally used by ceremonial magicians became associated with heresy. If you don’t want to be associated with such things, you don’t use their symbols.
By Victorian times, the witch hunt craze was ending, and people started to forget how pentagrams were once very common, prominent Christian symbols. It’s now associated with paganism, satan and witchcraft, and seen as an evil symbol.
The love of romanticized myth and history drive a new movement: the pagan revival, and the pentagram gets turned around again. This is where it gets confusing, because misinformation and false histories begin to fly liberally from the late 19th to mid 20th centuries.
This is the time the pagan revival begins (mostly a re-invention than a re-construction of “old ways”). This is when Margaret Murray published her theories on ancient witch cults being peaceful pagan religions—though her works have been completely debunked since. This is when Gerald Gardner founded Wicca, and people came crawling out of the woodwork claiming to be ‘hereditary witches’, or claiming their coven was ancient, or claiming some unbroken line to the pagan religions of antiquity. This is also when a few ‘reverse Christian’ groups popped up, with practices specifically designed to mock and rebel against Christianity (those these groups were pretty rare and the NeoPagan community did their best to distance themselves from such groups).
One thing most of these groups have in common, though, is that they adopt the pentagram.
Hollywood—new on the scene in the mid-20th century—adopts the pentagram as well. Hollywood is not interested in accuracy; it’s interested in the shock value of things. They adopt it as a symbol for evil magic and reverse-Christian style devil worship and stick it into just about every horror movie conceivable. This fuels the antics of a lot of bored, rebellious people, particularly teens, who like to spray paint it on park walls and carve it into trees for the shock value.
By the late 20th century, the pentagram is being used and abused all over the place, but it is Hollywood who manages to make an indelible imprint on the social consciousness—and this is further driven by the media with sensationalized reporting during the 1970’s “Satanic Ritual Abuse” hysteria (which has also been debunked).
It’s only the tail end of the 20th century and the beginning of the 21st century in which the pentagram is finally gaining some understanding. Though mainstream society hasn’t completely lost the ‘kneejerk reaction’ to it, the growth of the Pagan Revival and the availability of information via the Internet have helped to quell some of the shock value and fears over it.
Documentary on Wicca's Real History, Presented By Ronald Hutton
Wiccan Symbols: Pentagram vs. Pentacle
More misconceptions abound, considering the Pagan community more commonly refers to the symbol as a ‘pentacle’ rather than a ‘pentagram’. Many books and websites have tried (and failed) to make the distinction clear. Some assertions I’ve read in passing are:
- The pentagram is evil with one point down
- the pentacle is good with one point up
- The pentagram is just the star
- the pentacle is the star with a circle around it
- The pentagram is 2-D; the pentacle is 3-D
Actually, all of these answers would be technically incorrect. If you look at the definitions provided above, pentagram and pentacle are synonymous, and have nothing to do with which way the points face, or whether or not they have a circle around them.
A look at the dictionary's answer to pentacle and you see that the only real difference is one is derived from the Greek, the other from the Latin:
Dictionary Meaning of a Pentacle:
a suffix found in French loanwords of Latin origin, originally diminutive nouns, and later in adaptations ofwords borrowed directly from Latin or in Neo-Latin coinages: article; conventicle; corpuscle; particle. Origin: < French, Old French < Latin -culus, -cula, -culum, variant of -ulus -ule with nouns of the 3rd, 4th and 5thdeclensions, usually with the same gender as the base noun — suffix forming nouns indicating smallness: cubicle ; particle
[pen-tuh-kuh l] noun 1. pentagram. 2. a similar figure, as a hexagram. Origin: 1585–95; < Italian pentacolo five-cornered object. See penta-, -c
Wicca Symbol Poll:
What do you call it?
The Pentacle: Not Just a Figure, but a Tool
A tool arose out of ceremonial magic. This tool was a flat, round disc or paper that was inscribed with protective symbols (a pentagram could be inscribed on it, but there were other symbols they used as well). It is used as an amulet of warding and power because a large part of Ceremonial Magic is invoking and commanding various entities from Judeo-Christian beliefs.
It was called the pentacle or sometimes pantacle. On the Tarot (a Christian-origin divination system), the symbol is used for the suit of coins, and it represents the Element of Earth.
Wicca and other NeoPagan religions borrowed this tool from Ceremonial Magic. They kept the name, but re-defined its purpose since Wiccans don’t believe in Judeo-Christian entities and is not concerned with calling or commanding spirits.
The pentacle (the disc) was adopted as an altar tool, and is used to symbolize the Element of Earth on the altar. It’s also used as a tool for placing sacred items upon it when cleansing, consecrating or charging them.
The Wiccan symbol of choice for this round disc was the pentagram/pentacle. To further confuse things, this tool does not have to be inscribed with a pentagram/pentacle.
Also a Pentacle
Meaning of a Pentagram in Wicca (And Which Way It Should Point)
As far as Wiccan symbols go, the pentagram isn't a representation of good vs. evil. It’s a symbol of our faith, a symbol of the 5 Elements (one for each point), and the circle (the universe) contains and connects them all. No matter which way it’s facing, there’s nothing ‘bad’ about it.
Another misconception about the pentagram in Wicca is which way it points. Again, you will find common misinformation that says the pentagram is “evil” if point down and “good” if point up. The point down is most commonly associated with Satanism, because the largest branch of Satanism (Church of Satan, est. 1966) adopted the inverted pentagram with a goat head inside of it as their symbol.
It’s traditionally used both point up and point down. Point up pentagrams are more common; but point down pentagrams are not considered evil at all.
The point-up pentagram represents the spirit ascending above matter. The top point represents the Element of Spirit, the other four points represent the four Spiritual Elements.
When a pentagram is point-down, it represents spirit descending into matter. This is most traditionally used in lineage covens during second-degree initiations, because it’s at this point of one’s spiritual path that one turns “inward”. You face and challenge your ‘dark side’—your base emotions, fears, ignorance, prejudices, etc., you deal with them and develop mastery over yourself.
This article is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge. Content is for informational or entertainment purposes only and does not substitute for personal counsel or professional advice in business, financial, legal, or technical matters.
© 2014 Mackenzie Sage Wright