What is a circle, exactly? A circle is a sacred space, much like a church, that one uses to connect with, cajole, and control supernatural forces. Traditionally, it is large enough to contain all the materials and people needed for the ritual. When you draw a circle, it not only has visible boundaries — by way of chalk, or altars, or element candles — but also invisible boundaries which extend above and below the plane that you’re standing on (the floor). So technically, a circle is a sphere of sacred space.
Where did circle casting come from? Circle casting has its origins in high and ritual magic, which most notably “came of age” in the late 1800’s to 1900’s. Sparing you a whole history of high magic — although Ronald Hutton’s The Triumph of the Moon is an excellent resource — suffice to say that circle casting comes from a long and storied history of secret organizations, mystical books, and eccentric people.
There are two ways to approach interacting with supernatural forces: commanding and requesting. The origins of circle casting suggest that we must command the supernatural forces, and indeed, many high magic books and rituals include special words, symbols, and tools to do just that. However, you can see in the language of Wiccan ritual that we are right down the middle. We often “command” the elements, but “pray to” or “request of” the gods.
What are the benefits to casting a circle? Hands down, the number one benefit of casting a circle is focus. By engaging in formal, organized ritual, you are more likely to invest time and energy into the changes that you are trying to make. This benefit excludes any supernatural investment or intervention: rather, it is your commitment that makes a difference. When you take the time to organize your words and actions, they become more powerful.
We can see this dogma of organization = power in the Wiccan Rede, with the line:
“To bind the spell every time,
Let the spell be spake in rhyme.”
We can see it also in the “real world” — television is almost always scripted, and when it is not, even improvisation follows structure. Poetry and books abound — you’re reading an organized thought right now!
The other benefit of a circle is in the circle casting words itself: a circle is a “container to hold the magic raised within.” Or something similar, depending on what tradition you cast in. A circle contains, and amplifies the power that you raise.
Whatever the reason you cast a circle, be sure to do it with a clear mind and heart.