The two most prominent symbols in modern Witchcraft are the Sun-Wheel and the Pentacle. The Sun-Wheel is the quartered circle, while the Pentacle is the circled pentagram or five-pointed star. I want to consider the relationship between them.
The Sun-Wheel stands for many things. As the Wheel of the Year, it maps out the Sabbats. The four quarter-points of East, South, West and North stand for the minor Sabbats of Ostara, Litha, Mabon and Yule, respectively. These are the names used most widely in the Craft for the spring equinox, the summer solstice, the autumn equinox, and the winter solstice. The major Sabbats fall on the cross-quarter points: Imbolc on the northeastern point, Beltane on the southeastern point, Lammas or Lughnasadh on the southwestern point, and Samhain on the northwestern point. 1
Why are the major Sabbats aligned with the cross-quarters? The importance of these points can be seen when the Sun-Wheel is looked at as a dynamic symbol, mapping out cumulative processes that occur in cycles, such as learning and spiritual evolution. The quarters stand for the phases in any development: east for knowledge, south for will, west for daring, and north for silence. In the east we formulate our aim, in the south we put it into practice, in the west we carry it to fruition, and in the north we let it continue on an unconscious level. This being so, the cross-quarters are the points of transition between one phase and the next. At the northeast we gain intuitive glimpses of the knowledge to come; at the southeast we take responsibility for our knowledge in the practical arena; at the southwest we unite with our knowledge in a full personal commitment; and at the northwest we let our knowledge sink down into the unconscious and become “second nature”. Unless we pass these cross-quarter points of transition, our progress around the Sun-Wheel will be stopped.
In a parallel way, the major Sabbats represent important transitions in the Wheel of the Year. At Beltane the Oak King and Lady wed. At Lammas the Holly King lays down his John Barleycorn aspect into the first or grain harvest. At Samhain Herne the Hunter (the Holly King’s underworld aspect) bursts forth from the Underworld with the human and non-human spirits of the Wild Hunt riding in his train, and the world is renewed from Chaos. At Imbolc the Maiden returns and the first stirrings of spring are felt in nature, the ewes begin to lamb, the Maiden meets (and sometimes mates) with the young Oak Lord, and the Wild Hunt returns to the Underworld.
The Sun-Wheel is also the model for the ritual Circle of Witchcraft, and since the aim of Witchcraft is to develop the four powers of the magus in balance (to know, to will, to dare, to keep silence), the ritual Circle is a sort of chrysalis and each witch is a pupa growing in it from life to life. As the four powers develop, they combine to form the fifth power, to go. In the ritual Circle this is represented by the central point on the altar. Through this point the World Pillar or axis passes from the Underworld through our own Middle-Earth to the Overworld; or, as we say in the Craft, from the Deep to the Height. Round this axis the witches dance as they raise the Cone of Power. As the power to go is developed, a witch will develop the ability to make shamanic journeys up and down the World Pillar to the various worlds or dimensions lying along it. In Kafir religion the ancestors were imagined as traveling up and down it in a sort of cosmic elevator.
At death the witch will descend the World Pillar to her root-soul in the Summerland part of the Underworld. The root-soul resides in the Summerland and grows there from life to life. While the experiences of a life just past are integrated into the root-soul, the witch sojourns and recuperates in the Summerland in the company of her currently discarnated friends and ancestors, including the other witches in her reincarnating “witch family”. When the cycles come round, she will go back up the World Pillar to Middle-Earth for another school term here above. Each time she rests in the Summerland, it takes a little longer to integrate her experiences in the root-soul. This is why the pre-Islamic Berbers of North Africa said that when a soul can stay on the other side for a hundred years, it becomes one of the Djinn, their name for the Sidhe or faery-folk. This is the equivalent of graduating from the school of life. Now real work begins.
The Prasna Upanishad speaks of this transformation. It describes the path of reincarnation, from the Underworld up to the Moon (“Pitriloka”, the “world of the fathers”) and then back down to Middle-Earth, falling in the rain that was supposed by the ancients to fall from the Moon, no doubt because of its influence on tides. But when a soul no longer needs to reincarnate, the Upanishad says, it goes to the Sun instead and never returns, that is, it never reincarnates again as a mortal human. The stregha witches of Italy and Sicily also speak of this transformation. They say that in the Sun the transfigured witch receives an astral “body of light”.
On the pentacle, spirit or aether is represented by the uppermost fifth point, and the power “to go” refers not to shamanic journeys up and down the World Pillar, but to the root-soul’s ultimate journey to the Sun and its transmutation there. If the Sun-Wheel represents the pupa growing in its chrysalis, the Pentacle pictures the butterfly emerging thence into the sunlight of a larger world
Note also that the four lower elements are still present and connected with spirit on the pentacle. According to Egyptian traditions of the “glorified body”, we will be able to materialize a body made of the four elements for temporary purposes, just as the Sidhe were sometimes solid and at other times had bodies of light. On that far-off day we shall be no mere disembodied spirits awaiting rebirth from the Summerland; for body, mind and spirit are destined to evolve together.