The Circle is a fairly central element of Wicca, and most systems derived from Wicca. It has a great many layers, and facets of meaning. Perhaps the most obvious is the purely physical/psychological aspect which most people grasp well enough. It is this which tends to receive coverage in the majority of books about Wicca, Witchcraft, or Paganism, and it is this I think that most newcomers initially see.
Basically, this describes the demarcation of space, to be treated as sacred. The psychological message to the unconscious that this is now a place of magic, and worship. Most also understand the symbolism involved in calling the quarters, incorporating the four elements into the circle, but perhaps there are fewer who ever stop to look more deeply behind the concept of the Circle than this.
In shamanic cultures we often find such constructs as spirit vines, world trees, sacred caves or mountains that act as a 'Centre of the World' and a path between various levels of existence - the 'axis mundi', the central axis of the worlds wherein the shaman is connected to all the spirit worlds and can travel freely between them and act at will. The Circle is, I believe, a bit like this for the Witch. It is said to exist 'Between the Worlds' and separate from ordinary reality, as well as consciousness, and in my own experience this is indeed the case.
On one level it is a psychological state we are seeking to achieve, where we are centred within ourselves, balanced, complete.... The quintessence, the 'spirit' perhaps, that is the sum of the four elements and more. The circle can be treated symbolically as a mandala for the Witch, and is an expansion, or extension of the Witch's psyche and aura, and is personal to the Witch who cast it. The act of casting the circle, as well as acting as psychological cues to the correct frame of mind, reverence, etc, is a 'meditation' in a way, to place us at the axis of the worlds... outside ordinary reality. It is a technique in and of itself, for the changing of our consciousness to place us at our own 'axis mundi'.
Jungians talk about this kind of a process as putting us in touch with the collective unconscious, and of balancing the various psychological functions via an 'organising archetype'. Mircea Eliade and Joseph Campbell speak often of 'Mythical Time' and of a 'Mythical Reality'. In this state the Circle is a glyph for everything, and at this level it does contain (and can affect) everything that exists.
One acquaintance recently queried the ability to 'keep something out' of a Circle which contained everything, and was cause for some deep thinking for me. As I see it this question is really symptomatic a logic problem encountered when 'slipping' between these various levels. While the Circle is 'everything', and does contain and affect everything on one level, it is also still a small physical space on another (and a definite spatial construct on the Astral on another) as well as a psychological/magical state.
It is analogous to think of us as a part of the whole web of life, just one small cell in a much larger pattern of life, but still also, simultaneously, a discrete unique individual. Both these descriptions are valid, depending on one's point of reference. Or perhaps if we think about the physical properties of light - some of its behaviour may be modelled by particle theory, others by wave theory - and they are 'supposed' to be mutually exclusive. Light doesn't neatly fit into our mental niches as physicists, and when we start describing alternate states and magical constructs we tend to experience the same slippage. Especially in magic, one's frame of reference, and focus, tend to determine one's outcomes.
While the psychological / magical / spiritual state may indeed encompass everything, it is still possible to exclude influences from the physical space where our bodies reside. However, this element of the circle has never been particularly central to Wiccan practice. Summoning the quarters to 'guard' or 'protect' is something we have been bequeathed from Ceremonial magic, where it has far more rationale ... the Witch is a part of nature, the universe, and working within her schemes has little need to fear or guard in the way many 'white-lighters' seem to.
However, the concept of invoking and 'awakening' - both externally and also internally (spiritually and psychologically) - the various elements to balance ourselves as 'Witch' and our circle as 'sacred space' is a very necessary part of the process (in whatever form our casting takes) if we are to use the circle as our 'axis mundi', that place outside of space and time where we enter 'mythic reality' and are connected to, and able to influence 'all'.
Containing and preserving power is an interesting concept too, and another one which works more on the 'lower' levels of the circle; the physical, 'simple symbolic' levels, and the lower astral. It all depends on just how one goes about working magic. If one works magic immediately, one 'releases' it to its destination as soon as it is raised. In other cases, however, power is raised within the Circle, and does stay, quite palpably discernable, in the Circle until directed to some end or grounded.
Perhaps this is as much a function of our own 'frameworks' or conceptualisation of the process we are using in making magic, for the results seem to be the same regardless. Or using the 'axis mundi' model, one doesn't 'send it' anywhere, as you are connected to everything, including the target of your working, and you simply 'change' it. But this concept and the idea of 'sending power' streaming off to do its work are both ultimately mental models to assist us in the act of magic, not the magic itself. They are both different perspectives on the same single magical act, and equally valid.
That said, at one Wiccan Conference, during the practice for the ritual (no cast circle, just stage directions as it were) I was standing pretty much in the centre of a double-spinning circle of chanting attendees, many of whom were novices, and the energy raised, the feeling of it was phenomenal. Of course, once the circling/chanting stopped the power dissipated quickly, and it is here that I think Gardner et al used the Circle, to stop it just 'leaking away' until they did something else with it.
It has been argued that this is merely illusion, that 'power' is everywhere, omnipresent, and this too is true. It is all a matter of perspective, and of your state of consciousness at the time. The use of the Circle to contain and preserve power is linked to the view of the circle as a place apart, and of energy as something to be stirred into action. It is directly linked into our state of consciousness in Circle, and works very well indeed.
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