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Why is the Circle Nine Feet Across?

In traditional Wicca the circle which serves as worship space has a canonical size of nine feet. Why that size? Nine has all sorts of symbolic meanings in magic and folklore; in particular it is the number of the moon in ceremonial magic, which would make it particularly appropriate for a religion in which the moon plays as prominent a role as it does in Wicca. More mundanely, some have suggested that it’s the smallest size circle thirteen people can comfortably fit into. (I’ve seen this reversed, that the traditional number of thirteen members in a coven is based on the size of the circle.) So what’s the reason?

When Gerald Gardner was constructing Wicca, a major source for his rituals was The Key of Solomon, in the MacGregor Mathers translation. This is especially so for the casting of the circle. Aidan Kelly (p. 47) gives the ritual as it is found in the 1949 version of the Book of Shadows:

Having found a place proper, take the sickle or scimitar of Art or a Witch’s Athame, if thou mayest obtain it, and stick it into the center [sic], then take a cord, and ‘twere well to use the Cable Tow for this, and loop it over the Instrument, four and one half feet, and so trace out the circumference of the circle, which must be traced either with the Sword, or the knife with the black hilt, or it be of little avail, but ever leave open a door towards the North.

This is a slightly edited version of a ritual in the Key:

Having chosen a place for preparing and constructing the Circle, and all things necessary being prepared for the perfection of the Operations, take thou the Sickle or Scimitar of Art and stick it in the centre of the place where the Circle is to be made; then take a cord of nine feet in length, fasten one end thereof unto the Sickle and with the other end trace out the circumference of the Circle, which may be marked either with the Sword or with the Knife with the Black hilt. ... leaving an open space therein towards the North ... (p. 99).

The similarities are interesting, since they show clearly that the Gardnerian circle casting can not be traced back any further than 1888, the publication date of Mathers’ translation. For the purpose of this essay, though, it is a difference that interests me.

In the version from the Key we are told to take a nine foot cord and use it as the radius of the circle. But in Gardner we are told to take a nine foot cord, loop it in two, and use that as the radius. The circle in the Key would therefore be eighteen feet in diameter, with that in Gardner being nine feet. This, then, is the origin of the nine foot circle, a modification of the Key’s eighteen foot one.

Why did Gardner make this slight change? The most likely reason to me is simply one of size: an eighteen foot circle would not fit into most English front rooms. He may have hesitated, however, to drop the nine foot cord idea completely, especially since cords figured into some of the other rituals. The looping of the cord so as to form a nine foot circle would have been an attractive solution.

Why the Key itself uses an eighteen foot circle (in other words, what significance that size would have had to the Key’s author(s)) is another question, which might reward some research.

The question of why a nine foot circle became the rule has a two fold answer, then. First, a somewhat magical one: the size was based on that found in The Key of Solomon. Second, a rather mundane one: the circle put forth there was too big. Thus the nine foot circle is a compromise between desire and necessity.

Kelly, Aidan A. Crafting the Art of Magic, Book I: A History of Modern Witchcraft, 1939 - 1964. St. Paul, MN: Llewellyn, 1991.

The Key of Solomon the King (Clavicula Salomonis). tr. S. Liddell MacGregor Mathers. York Beach, ME: Samuel Weiser, 1974.