Pentacles & Pentagrams


One star to rule them all:

Pentagrams, Pentacles, and the things people say about them

This rather complicated pentagram incorporates the Tetragrammaton.

We don’t often see product recalls at a metaphysical shop, but recently we had to pull some mini candle holders off 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 pentagram is a five-pointed star, whereas a pentacle can refer to a number of things. Originally “pentacles” were plate-like talismans which could bear all kinds of various symbols. Different “pentacles” were part of various spells in the occult traditions of the Renaissance–for example, power over angels and devils, or driving away evil spirits, or power over nature. Whether or not these spells worked, they’re not what we think of today when we hear the word “pentacle,” which gradually came to mean 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. Nor are these four elements merely an obsolete understanding of the natural world; from a scientific perspective, the traditional elements represent of the four states of matter: solid, liquid, gas, and plasma (though it may be more intuitive to think of fire as energy.) This synthesis of elements 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 other neopagan traditions, the pentacle is often the most important symbol, representing both earth and the synthesis of elements. Wiccans point out that 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. And 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 as Ceres, called the pentagram the Star of Knowledge. Christians adopted the Korein, the goddess’ 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 an altar. This plate looks sort of like those “pentacles” from back in the Renaissance, but now usually features a pentagram as its central symbol. It can then be personalized with astrological symbols, runes, and cultural symbols that have meaning to the individual.

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