Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Circle Symbolism

Black Elk,
a medicine man and visionary
of the Oglala Sioux, said, “Everything the
Power of the World does, is done in a circle.  The sky 
is round and I have heard that the earth is round like a ball,
and so are all the stars.  The wind, in its greatest power, whirls.
Birds make their nests in circles, for theirs is the same religion as
ours.   The sun comes forth and goes down again in a circle.   The
moon does the same, and both are round.  Even the seasons form
a great circle in their changing, and always come back again to
where they were.  The life of a man is a circle from childhood to
childhood, and so it is in everything where power moves
Our tipis were round like the nests of birds, and these
were always set in a circle; the nation’s hoop, a
nest of many nests where the Great Spirit
meant for us to hatch our

*   *   *   *   *

Having neither beginning nor end, the circle has long been a symbol - across time and cultures - of eternity, wholeness, protection, and unity. It calls to mind things such as the full moon, the sun, the entrance or exit of a tunnel, the pupil of the eye, a hug. 

In striving towards the spiritual, humankind has, over the centuries, constructed circle-forms. In ancient times closed circles were considered protective, particularly for workers of magic.  A sorcerer's title dating from the first century B.C. was "circle-drawer". Defensive emplacements surrounding ancient towns were set in a circle. A circle is present on most talismans as it was believed to concentrate the magical power needed to summon the desired spirits or forces.

Rose window, Notre Dame. Photo: Mattis, WikiCommons

Many Gothic churches are renowned for their beautiful stained glass rose windows.

Dharma Wheel atop DaZhao temple in Hohhot. Photo: M.Bremner
Ancient, circular stone henges are found in Great Britain and elsewhere. 

Mosques are frequently domed as are some churches and other religious buildings.


TaiJi drain cover in a garden in China. Photo: M.Bremner

The Noble Eightfold Path of Buddhism is symbolized by a wheel with eight spokes: the Dharma Wheel or "Wheel of the Law".

The TaiJi (or ying yang) icon is symbolic of the interconnection between opposites such as male and female, youth and age, celestial and earthly, here and there.  

In Jungian psychology, the image of a circle inside a square represents the connection between our spiritual (circle) and physical (square) natures.

The circle is often associated with the idea of a protected or consecrated space. An expected ritual of visits to some holy sites is to circumambulate - or "walk around" - the area before entering the sanctuary. Wiccan practitioners initially cast (draw) a circle on the ground. These actions separate the sacred inner area from the worldly outer area.

A circle implies a center. As babies and young children we think the universe revolves around us.  Some of this feeling lingers, no matter how old we become!  Cuzco - the capital city of the ancient Incan empire - means “navel”. The Chinese call their land the Middle Kingdom.

Stretch out your arm and point at the horizon; slowly turn all the way around, tracing the horizon back to your starting point.  The horizon makes a circle around you. I like to turn the old expression "in the middle of nowhere" on it's ear - wherever we are, we are in the middle of everywhere.

Imagine yourself at the center of a sphere and the seven sacred directions of many north American aboriginals can be imagined: east, south, west, and north, (or: front, right, back and left), then Up toward the heavens and the Creator, Down toward the Earth, and Inward toward self-knowledge.

Now, go have a nice cup of coffee.

Fancy cappuccino. Photo: M.Bremner

(This post is, at least in part, for Denyse, who tends to use a lot of circles and couldn't remember why she found them so peaceful.)


  1. Well said. I absolutely love where these challenges are leading us. Maybe we need someone to challenge us every once in a while just to "repot" our life. Who knew something as simple as a circle (or should we say orb) would have such a profound effect on us? maria

  2. Love this post about circles...I have never thought of the Symbolism of circles like this before.Great post.

  3. Wonderful post! I have always loved gazing at stained glass windows in old churchs, so beautiful.

  4. Thanks for this post - I really enjoyed it! And your photography - particularly the Yin Yang... extra special. xoxo

  5. This is a brilliant post! I've been researching circle symbolism for a post on my own blog (http://sharmond.blogspot.com). I hope you won't mind if I use the Black Elk quote and the sentence about the yin/yang symbol. Of course, I'll link the quotes back to your blog. Thanks for sharing this!