The Pentagram - it's history...
by Tansy Firedragon (Rachel Patterson)
Probably the most recognisable symbol from paganism and when I started on this pathway many years ago it was one of the first items I purchased to put on my altar and the symbol I chose to wear as a necklace, one that I used in my dedication to the Craft all that time ago.
Many of us wear the pentagram in the form of jewellery or on clothing, accessories and even tattoos. To pagans it is an incredibly important symbol with a whole heap of power and meaning behind it, but where did it come from?
The pentagram is a five pointed star, encased by an outer circle. Its apex points upwards. The five pointed star shape without the circle is called a pentacle. Yep I know… like many I used to get terribly confused trying to remember which one was which…
Here I have given some information that I have discovered in my research, it is by no means comprehensive but I hope you find it interesting.
The pentagram was first used around 3500BC at Ur of the Chaldees in Ancient Mesopotamia. Pieces of broken pottery were found, some of them with the earliest findings of the written language on. In later Mesopotamian art the pentagram was used as a symbol of imperial power in royal inscriptions. It symbolised the imperial power extending out to the four corners of the world. The Hebrews also used the pentagram as a symbol of truth and for the five books of the Pentateuch (the first give books of the Hebrew scriptures).
The geometry of the pentagram and its metaphysical associations were explored by Pythagoreans who saw it as a symbol of perfection. It was called the Pentalpha, composed of five geometrical ‘A’s. Pythagoras travelled all over the ancient world, so he may be the explanation of the presence of the pentagram in Tantrik art. Early Hindu and Buddist writings that seem to share Pythagoras’ view of the star.
The Gnostics saw the pentagram as a Blazing Star, symbolising the crescent moon which related to magick and mysteries of the night time sky and the dark.
Celtic Druids believed the pentagram to be a symbol of the Godhead. Celtic pagans saw the number five as sacred in many things. Examples of this are Ireland having had five great roads, five provinces and five paths of law, the Fae counted by fives and mythological figures wore five fold cloaks.
It was also a symbol of the underground womb and bears a symbolic relationship to the pyramid forms to the Egyptians.
Even early Christians used the pentagram, it symbolised the five wounds of Christ and up until medieval times it was used as a Christian symbol on occasion. It implied truth, religious mysticism and the work of the creator. It was only after the Inquisition that the ‘evil’ associations were assigned to the pentagram. Over time the Christians dropped the use of the circle and just used the five pointed star, I would assume in response to the neo pagan use of the pentagram with the circle.
In Medieval times the pentagram with one point upwards symbolised summer and with two points upwards signified winter. In the legend of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, the pentagram was his signature glyph and was used on his shield. We are told that this symbolised the five knightly virtues – generosity, courtesy, chastity, chivalry and piety.
The Knights Templar formed during the Crusades used the symbol of the pentagon in their architecture and designs.
During the Inquisition the pentagram was seen as a Goat’s head or the Devil. In the purge on witches, horned gods such as Pan became equated with the Christian’s idea of the Devil and the pentagram, for the first time in history was equated with evil and labelled the Witch’s Foot.
During the Renaissance period Hermeticism (the proto science of alchemy) developed along with occult philosophy and symbolism. Graphical and geometric symbols became very important. Western occult teachings began to emphasize the philiosophies of Man being the small part of the larger universal spirit – “as above, so below”. The pentagram returned as the Star of the Microcosm, symbolising man within the macrocosm. In 1582 Tycho Brahe’s Calendarium Naturale Magicum Perpetuum shows a pentagram with a body imposed and the Hebrew YHSVH associated with the elements. And we are all familiar with Leonardo da Vinci’s drawing of the geometric relationships of man to the universe. Later the pentagram came to be symbolic of the relationship of the head to the four limbs and hence of the pure concentrated essence of anything, such as the spirit, to the four traditional elements.
Masonry uses the pentagram to show man as the smaller aspect of the universe. The pentagram then being incorporated into American symbols. The five pointed stars on the flag and the eye/pyramid on money.
In the 19th Century metaphysical societies sprang up all around the world. Many of them based on the ancient Holy Kabbalah. Eliphas Levi was instrumental in opening of the Victorian lodges such as the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn. He is accredited with renaming the tarot card coins as pentacles. It is during this time we also see the first modern association of the pentagram with evil – Eliphaz Levi Zahed illustrated the upright pentagram beside an inverted pentagram with the goat’s head of Baphomet. This has led to the concept of the different orientations being good and evil.
In the 1940’s Gerald Gardner adopted the pentagram with two points upward as the sigil of a second degree initiation. The one point upward pentagram together with the upright triangle symbolising third degree initiation. A point downward triangle being the symbol of first degree initiates. The pentagram was also inscribed on the altar with its points symbolising the three aspects of the goddess plus the two aspects of the God in a special form of Gardnerian pentacle.
The pentagram became a negative symbol in modern society so it probably wasn’t until the 1960’s that the pentagram was used and worn again in public.
The Church of Satan was an organisation that started out as a practice of following the Set, an Egyptian deity. For its emblem they used the inverted pentagram after the Baphomet image of Levi. The reaction of the Christian church was to condemn Satanism as evil and of course this lumped all pagan societies together as Devil worship. The stigma of Witchcraft and its use of the pentagram sadly still continues today.
Despite the use and the different meaning of the inverted pentagram as a symbol of Gardnerian initiation, modern witchcraft traditions tend to use the upright pentagram.
Taoism also uses the pentacle, each point signifying wood, fire, earth, metal and water.
The pentacle is the simplest form of star shape that can be drawn unicursally, with a single line, hence it has been called the endless knot. In the old folk song – Green Grow the Rushes O, the line ‘five is the symbol at your door’ refers to the use of the pentagram above doors and windows as protection against evil and demons.
The pentagram is a symbol of Wiccan and some neo pagan spiritual beliefs. The pentagram symbolises the five elements of earth, air, water, fire and spirit, with the top point representing spirit triumphing over matter. It is used in jewellery, on clothing and altars. It is also used in some blessings and healings. The circle around the star represents protection, eternity and infinity. The circle touching all five points indicates that spirit, earth, air, water and fire are all connected.
Originally published in the Mystik Way magazine