Updated: Jul 6, 2019
By Equanimous Rex
The pentagram is a symbol rife with controversy in the Western world. Often portrayed as a symbolic representation of Satanism, it has historically been banned in schools, and only fairly recently was approved as a suitable symbol of religious affiliation for United States veteran’s headstones.
The horror genre makes liberal use of this stock symbol, as does fantasy. Infographics, memes, and articles about the ‘true’ meaning of the pentagram flood the Internet, but are often neglectful of mentioning its usage in general Western Esotericism, and of its history beyond modern Wicca.
As someone who generally falls under the umbrella term “Pagan,” and self-identifies as an occultist, I decided to try my hand at creating an easy reference guide. This is my attempt to dispel some of the
cobwebs that have settled onto this popular, somewhat misunderstood symbol.
Pentagrams vs Pentacles
Firstly, let’s discuss the difference between a pentagram and a pentacle. Is there one? The two are often conflated, so why distinguish them at all?
Well, it’s actually not that complicated.
A pentagram can be — and is often used — as a pentacle. But not all pentacles contain pentagrams.
The earliest English usage of the word “pentacle” comes to us in two books, both written in the 16th century, The Heptameron by Pietro d’Abano, and The Key of Solomon, (falsely attributed to King Solomon, as was common practice, most likely written by an unnamed occultist of the time).
Both refer to symbols of a magical nature, but neither book identifies pentacles as intrinsically being pentagrams, or containing pentagrams.
In the 15–16th century occultist Heinrich Cornelius Agrippa pop-ularized the idea that the pentagram was a magical symbol, attributing to it the Neo-Platonic five elements — that is, fire, water, air, earth, and idea— to the five points of the star.
If you look at the etymology of the word ‘pentacle’, you will find similar words in Latin, Italian, French, and so on. In Latin you have “pentaculum,” which comes from the prefix “penta-” meaning “five,” and “-culum” which refers to instrumentality. In Italian, you have pentacolo, which means “anything with five points”. In French you have the 14th century word “pentacol,” which comes from the prefix “pend-” meaning “to hang-,” and “-col” meaning “-from neck,” which referred to various kinds of magical or apotropaic charms hung on necklaces or similar devices.
In the 19th century, “pentacle” gained popularity in the verbiage of Western occultism through French occultist Éliphas Lévi (1810–1875), in his book “Dogme et Rituel de la Haute Magie”. Lévi coincidentally spelled it “pantacle”, reflecting the
slippery nature of language and various permutations of the word throughout cultures and time. But we should not get hung up too much on such variances, as such are natural through the course of language.
In Dogme et Rituel de la Haute Magie, he does include a representation of a pentacle that contains a pentagram, and explains it several times.
As will be seen, all mysteries of magic,all symbols of the gnosis, all figures of occultism, all kabbalistic keys of prophecy, are summed up in the sign of the pentagram, which Paracelsus proclaims to be the greatest and most potent of all signs.
"The empire of the will over the astral light, which is the physical soul of the four elements, is represented in magic by the pentagram, which we have set at the head of this chapter. The elementary spirits are subservient to this sign when employed with understanding, and, by placing it in the circle or on the table of evocations, they can be rendered tractable, which is magically called to imprison them." — Éliphas Lévi, “Dogme et Rituel de la Haute Magie”
Aleister Crowley would go on to influence Gerald Gardener, founder of modern Wicca. Though the influence should not be over-stated, it is worth mentioning. Crowley had a massive influence on Western occultism at the time, especially that of the English speaking world. Dissecting the indirect and direct influence he had on Gardener’s conception of magical practice is hard to pin down due to this fact, and not the focus of this article anyway. (There are many articles and books that discuss the subject in depth, though their sentiments vary.)
He also includes other examples of pentacles that do not have pentagrams. Lévi would become a major influence on 20th century English occultist Aleister Crowley, who would even go so far as to claim to be a reincarnation of Éliphas Lévi, in addition to using the “pantacle” spelling in varied works.
Crowley himself would go on to influence Gerald Gardener, founder of modern Wicca. Though the influence should not be over-stated, it is worth mentioning. Crowley had a massive influence on Western occultism at the time, especially that of the English speaking world. Dissecting the indirect and direct influence he had on Gardener’s conception of magical practice is hard to pin down due to this fact, and not the focus of this article anyway. (There are many articles and books that discuss the subject in depth, though their sentiments vary.)
Gardner would be influenced by the occult tropes of his time, including the depiction of the pentacles suit of Tarot cards in the Rider-Waite as disks inscribed with a pentagram. The Rider-Waite tarot deck was printed in 1910, and Gardener would have certainly come into con-tact with them. Additionally, Gardner knew about the Key of Solomon text and probably did know the term “pentacle” referred to all sorts of magical symbols, not only pentagrams, so the intention behind his choice to define pentacle as containing pentagrams is unknown.
To boil it down: Pentagrams are often incorporated into pentacles, but not all pentacles contain pentagrams. The pentacles of modern Wicca are indeed pentacles, that happen to contain a symbol considered holy and magical by many Wiccans, the pentagram.
Much like the position of playing cards in their adoption for tarot, the pentagram symbol itself started to appear reversed. Is the upside down pentacle really a symbol of the Christian devil? Is the right-side up one a symbol of goodness and spirituality? Well, it depends who you ask.
Re-enter occultist Éliphas Lévi, who was the first person to make the distinction:
“The Pentagram with two points in the ascendant represents Satan as the goat of the Sabbath; when one point is in the ascendant, it is the sign of the Saviour. The Pentagram is the figure of the human body, having the four limbs and a single point representing the head. A human figure head downwards naturally represents a demon that is, intellectual subversion, disorder or madness. Now, if Magic be a reality, if occult science be really the true law of the three worlds, this absolute sign, this sign ancient as history and more ancient, should and does exercise an incalculable influence upon spirits set free from their material envelope.” — Éliphas Lévi, Dogme et Rituel de la Haute Magie.
This definition, which does not appear before Lévi, certainly continued after him.
The most recognizable image of the reversed pentagram can be attributed to French occultist Stanislas De Guaita (1861–1897), who created the first ever “goat pentagram,” found in La Clef de la Magie Noire (1897), and which was inspired by Lévi’s own depiction of the now widely popular Baphomet.
Additionally, this ‘goat pentagram’ would be re-drawn by the Church of Satan, and used as their logo, thus entrenching the idea that it was tied to the Christian devil, even though the Church of Satan defines itself as materialistic, and atheistic.
The original De Guaita “goat pentagram”
The distinction of “right” and “wrong” side up pentagrams continues to this day among various Western esotericists, and some modern Neo-Pagans, though by no means does this constitute a consensus.
Pentagrams, Agrippa, and the Pythagoreans
Heinrich Cornelius Agrippa (1486–1535/1538)
Heinrich Cornelius Agrippa associated the five points of the pentagram not only with the five Neo-Platonist elements, but can also be seen to associate them with five classical planets. Shown below is a figure of the ‘human body’ pentagram, with Mars, Saturn, Venus, Jupiter, and Mercury. These five planets would also have had alchemical associations.
Also of note is the Pythagorean “γιεια” pentagram, or “health” pentagram, which can be found in addition to the “human body” pentagram in Agrippa’s De Occulta Philosophia libri III (1533). The “health” pentagram is associated with Pythagoreanism, a mystico-philosophical school of Ancient Greece. While Pythagoreanism’s influence on Agrippa is hard to deter-mine, it is clear that he knew of them, referencing them in “De Occulta”.
“Democritus and Orpheus, and many Pythagoreans, having most diligently searched into the virtues of celestial things and natures of inferior things, said: That all things are full of God and not without cause. For there is nothing of such transcending virtues, which being destitute of Divine assistance, is content with the nature of itself.” — Heirich Cornelius Agrippa, De Occulta Philosophia libri III
Another pentagram from Agrippa’s book. This one has the Pythagorean letters “γιεια” or Hygieia, Health, inscribed around the circle, which was used by adherents as a form of greeting.
Another example of the Pythagorean “γιεια” pentagram.
Pentagrams as Apotropaic Symbols
The pentagram has a history as an apotropaic symbol, that is, a symbol meant to ward off evil influences, especially in European folk magic. The word comes from the Greek apotropaios, literally “averting evil”. An example can be found in the Greman drudenfuss, which means “drude’s foot” in English, a “drude” being a kind of malevolent Ger-man spirit.
The drudenfuss is referenced in Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s Faust, and has been in linguistic usage since in reference to protective pentagrams. Another example of an apotropaic pentagram can be found on the Niemelä Tenant Farm, part of the Seurasaari Outdoor Museum , in Fin-land, where a pentagram was found carved into an old farmhouse.
Pentagrams in Arthurian Myths
The pentagram appears in Arthurian myth via the poem “Sir Gawain and the Green Knight”, written by an unknown poet of the late 14th century. The poem tells a story of Sir Gawain — Knight of the Roundtable, according to the myths — being challenged by another knight who “was entirely green”.
Sir Gawain and the Green Knight (from original manuscript, artist unknown)
The story of the Green Knight and Gawain, and the mystery behind the Unknown Poet responsible for the myth, are both intriguing in their own right. The symbology of the green knight is complex, but most simply, he refers to the pagan traditions still in the medieval memory, of recent past and collective unconscious. Of particular interest is the passage describing Gawain’s shield,
Then they showed him the shield, that was of sheer gules, with the pentangle painted in pure gold. He took it by the baldric and cast it about his neck; and it became the hero passing fair. And why the pentangle pertains to that noble prince I mean to tell you, though it should delay me. It is a sign that Solomon set formerly as a token of truth, by its own right, for it is a figure that holds five points, and each line overlaps and locks in another; and throughout it is endless; and the English call it everywhere, as I hear, the endless knot. — Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, Unknown Poet, (Neilson translation)
Also of note:
First, he was found faultless in his five wits; and again the hero failed never in his five fingers; and all his affiance in this world was in the five wounds that Christ received on the cross, as the creed tells; and wheresoever this man was hard bestead in the mêlée his pious thought was in this above all other things — to take all his strength from the five joys that the courteous Queen of Heaven had of her child. For this cause the knight had her image comely painted in the greater half of his shield, that when he looked down thereupon, his courage never abated. The fifth five that I find that the hero used, were generosity and fellowship above all things, his purity and his courtesy that never swerved, and pity that passes all qualities.
— Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, Unknown Poet, (Neilson translation)
The poem “Sir Gawain and the Green Knight” is estimated to have been written in the 14th century, almost 200 years before Heinrich Cornelius Agrippa would identify the pentagram as a magical symbol, and almost 500 years before Gerald Gardener would identify pentacles as being the well-known stock example of an encircled pentagram.
It should be noted that the Key of Solomon grimoire is estimated to have been written sometime around the 14th-15th centuries. It is unknown whether there was any relationship between the Unknown Poet of Gawain’s myth, or the unknown author of the Key of Solomon.
Sir Gawain and the Green Knight was written in Middle-English, whereas the Key of Solomon is thought to have been written in Latin or Italian originally. This tells us very little, of course.
The pseudographical nature of the Key was common in it’s time, as was the reference to the “pentangle” of being a “sign that Solomon set formerly” in the Green Knight myth. It was typical of Renaissance-era occultists to attribute much to King Solomon, similar to how Early Christian writers would assume the names of Gospel figures, ostensibly to establish credibility, (though the reasons are up for debate).