Wicca Basics: What is Casting a Circle?
What's a Wiccan Circle?
There are many religions that have a permanent place for worship: temples, mosques, churches, etc. are where some people would go for worship. Wiccans -- particularly solitaries-- rarely have a permanent building set aside for sacred space. There are two reasons for this. First, because our groups are not usually large enough in number to warrant a building of our own for worship. Indeed, unless someone's lucky enough to own a lot of property, it would be impractical for a small group or even a solitary to afford and maintain such a building set aside exclusively for religious activities. Second, because we don't feel we need it. Your spirituality is something you carry with you no matter where you go. It need not be rooted to a single location; the spirit of worship is in the heart, not the building.
For our own purposes, we create our sacred space for ritual wherever and whenever we choose. Part of creating sacred space is the rite we call 'Casting the Circle', also known as "Erecting the Temple Rite' or sometimes the 'Circle of Power'. The circle has long been a rich in esoteric symbolism and used in many spiritual practices, and Wicca has adopted it for our own use.
Casting a Circle
The Circle is Really a Sphere
What Exactly Is a Circle?
The circle is not really a circle; you should envision it more as a sphere. Imagine yourself in a giant bubble of your own creation. That big circle on the floor is only where the sphere touches and passes through the ground. The 'skin' of the bubble prevents things from passing in and out of it. The area inside of the bubble has been cleansed and consecrated. This bubble is filled with sacred space-- it is your temple, and ready for your acts of worship.
Some would say that when you cast a circle, you create a pocket and are transported. You step 'between the worlds'-- in a time that is not a time, and a place that is not a place. Others see it as a construction of energy that is beneficial as a barrier and preserver for spiritual workings. Still others see it as a psychological construct in which we mentally 'draw a line' between ourselves and the mundane so we can keep the mind focused on spiritual matters.
What's So Special about Circles, Anyway?
What Does the Circle Do?
The circle comes to Wicca from Ceremonial Magic. Ceremonial Magic adopts a more Abrahamic worldview, with angles and demons and spirits meant to be summoned and controlled. The circle is seen as mainly a force field put in place to protect the Magician from the powerful beings with whom he is working.
In Wicca, it's also used to an extent as a barrier for protection against such things as negative energy or entities, but not to the extent in Ceremonial Magic. For one thing, the whole angel/demon thing doesn't jive well with Wicca (we don't have heaven/hell, or fallen angels, etc.). It's not at all common in Wicca to summon or command entities; that's simply not the purpose of our rituals. Wicca is also not a religion that espouses a world view that teaches us evil entities are always on the prowl and ready to pounce-- you don't usually find Wiccans who worry 'evil' things are attracted to our rituals like moths to flames.
Using the circle as a barrier is akin to why you keep your door closed-- it keeps out the dirt, debris, and anyone that might on the off chance show up uninvited. It doesn't mean you're concerned about a horde of zombies overrunning the place.
The main function of the circle is generally for setting aside sacred space, and for containing the positive energies raised within until they are ready to be released. It's a conjunction for the energies of the practitioners, the forces, any spirits or deities invoked and worshiped there.
Recommended Wicca Book:
Not many books are dedicated entirely to the circle rite... this one is an excellent resource for the beginner and advanced Wiccan.
Is it Really Necessary?
I hesitate to use the word 'necessary'. I don't want to give the impression that you can't be spiritual without a circle. If you choose never to cast it, the hand of Goddess is not going to come down and smack you. There are lots of non-Wiccan Pagan religions and traditions that worship the same Gods, celebrate the similar things and even practice magic without ever casting a circle, and they get along just fine.
I will say, done right, the circle is highly beneficial for your spiritual growth and practices as a Wiccan. It promotes tradition and cohesiveness of Wicca as a religion. It helps you form a better understanding of Wiccan ritual as a fluid, complete process. It promotes ritual consciousness and the acknowledgement of sacred space, and the sanctity of the ritual being performed. It's a place of confluence and communion with the deities. It helps you learn to sense, direct and manipulate energy.
Some people worry if they cast the circle 'wrong' or if they forget to cast it at all, that something 'bad' might happen. As much as the circle has an important function in ritual, this is just not a concern. Again, these fears are generally unfounded in a religion in which there is no 'war between good vs. evil' world view. About the worst thing that's going to happen if you don't cast a circle well is that your ritual may not be as effective, and you may never fully grasp the full meaning and structure of a complete Wiccan ritual.
The Wiccan Circle
Can Anyone Cast a Circle?
Not only can anyone learn to cast a circle (Wiccan or not), it's something every Wiccan should work to master. You can do it in both a group or as a solitary; and you don't need to be coven initiated or a High Priest/ess to accomplish the task.
For exercises to help you improve your circle casting, look here.
Like anything else worth learning in a religion: start with some reading, then move on to a lot of practice. Practice should included meditation exercises, energy work exercises and actual casting the circle on a regular basis. A regular basis means at least once a month in ritual, if not more-- though you certainly don't have to wait to have a full-blown ritual to cast a circle. You can cast one to simply sit inside of it for a while, just to experiment. It's only with practice that you'll get the true 'feel' of the process and improve your skill level, reaping the benefits from this rite.