my body is my altar
I cast a circle
with my breath
I touch the earth
with my fingers
to the fire of my spirit…
One of the fundamental purposes of ritual is creating a container for a sacred experience to unfold. One way to create that container is through casting a circle, often done through “calling the directions.” This feels familiar, even safe, to people accustomed to circle environments and it an easy and comfortable way to “settle” people into ceremonial space, rather than mundane space or head-space. Casting the circle is our signal, our sign, that we have entered a different way of relating to one another and we are now doing something special.
Why do we call the directions though? It has never felt essential to me to include this element in a ceremony, though I often do, and in Red Tent Circles I specifically do not include calling the directions, because my Red Tent is a multifaith space and calling the direction in the manner many of which are accustomed to is pretty specifically a neopagan tradition. It is important to me that while the Red Tent is a female-honoring space that certainly acknowledges the sacred feminine and uses goddess imagery and concepts from feminist spirituality, it is not a “Goddess circle” or a “pagan group.” It is by women and for women—-whomever is interested in coming together in sacred space to honor our lived experiences as women in this time and this place, is welcome, a shared spiritual background, interpretation, or understanding is not required. So, I was interested to read this somewhat critical analysis of the background, role, and intention behind calling the directions. It was linked to in a wonderful Facebook group: Find a Women’s Circle.
Women’s spirituality and Goddess religion is a fluid, dynamic, experiential, vibrant, evolving, lived knowingness rooted in personal experiences, the natural world, and in the body. A key way in which these understandings is expressed is through the intentional practice of woman-centered ritual. Indeed, according to Susan Sered in Priestess, Mother, Sacred Sister, ritual is the core of the women’s spirituality movement—there are no centralizing books, beliefs, tenants, or creeds, but ritual forms the foundation of this effort. Rituals may be collaboratively led or spontaneous, but are often facilitated, designed, led by the group leader or organizer. While most women’s circles work in non-hierarchal, collaborative ways, I’ve come to understand that it is important to have a skilled priestess to facilitate rituals and to serve as a community “hub” for organizing, preparing, and carrying out meaningful ritual.
In my own work, my circles are co-creative and participatory. Some spiritual traditions include rituals that are “ritual theater”—meaning several priestesses or organizers organize, lead, and prepare the ritual and everyone else gathers to watch. Participation is varied—skilled facilitators will involve everyone in the ritual in some ways, others will lose energy and become spectator events. A Women’s Circle is at its heart and soul, a participatory endeavor. Each woman is part of the circle. There is no “watching the show,” we are all a part of what unfolds. And, this is why it can be tricky or difficult to have a “perfect” ritual in a small group context or to feel like you’ve done everything right, because we are all responsible for how it unfolds, and people are unpredictable.
So, how do I suggest “casting a circle” then?
In ritual practice with my own women’s circle, since we are usually at a home, in a living room, or in a small private studio, it feels important to create an atmosphere to “hold the space” and to signify our entrance into sacred circle. The act of casting the circle is our signal, our sign, that we are now “doing something” and experiencing something together that is fundamentally different than hanging out with our kids at the park! We cast the circle in a very simple manner: we stand together in a circle and place our hands on each other’s backs. Then, we hum in unison at least three times to pull our personal vibrations and rhythms into a sense of physical and literal harmony. We began this practice many years ago when my mom suggested it at a mother blessing ceremony. It is remarkably effective, unifying, and powerful, while still being extraordinarily simple. After the group hum, depending on the setting and the intent, yes, we may read some type of invocation to the four directions, sing a song, light a candle, and or read an opening prayer. I do not find it necessary to symbolically draw the circle with any kind of object. I have a very body-based personal practice and find that our bodies and voices very effectively cast a circle without any need for additional objects or practices.
One of my favorite invocations to use is deeply rooted in our bodies and reminds us that this work comes from within and from our connection to the world and people around us, rather than from somewhere “out there.” This is the invocation I most often use with ceremonies that include children, because children tend to be very physical and hands on and this type of invocation gives them something concrete to act upon and do rather than simply listing to someone read. In this one, the group as a whole says the “welcome” lines.
Invocation using the body:
Turn to the south and rub your hands together, feeling the heat generated by your own body. Fire lives in you. Welcome fire, welcome south.
Turn to the west and lick your lips, feeling the water of your own body and how it is connected to the waters around the world. Water lives in you. Welcome water, welcome west.
Turn to the north and feel the strength and stability of your own body, connected to the earth. Hug yourself or bring your hands to your thighs, feeling your solid presence. Earth lives in you. Welcome earth, welcome north.
Turn to the east and take a deep breath, inhale, exhale, feeling the breath of life in your body. Air lives in you. Welcome air, welcome east.
(originally inspired by a similar invocation in Gathering for Goddess by Melusine Mihaltses)
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- Related past post on Embodied Prayer | WoodsPriestess
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I’m reading through this article, and both agree with and feel differently from Molly Remer on various points. I never like categorizing in a way that ends up creating divisions, and I’m afraid she slips into this with her analysis.
Anyone who is respectful of Nature (and I don’t know how one can be fully spiritual without this), understands that acknowledging the elements of earth, air, fire, and water is essential in paying homage to the natural world. Everything in Nature and in our bodies is comprised of these. And the corresponding directions are points of reference in creating the design of the circle itself. The principles of sacred geometry teach us this.
These aspects of circle casting are not specifically “pagan” or “goddess circle-y.” They are integral and mutual components abiding in the Universe that all women (and humans) can access and share.