What do you really know about the Pentagram?
by Jason Mankey
Few symbols are as loved and as reviled as the pentagram. To many Modern Pagans the pentagram is a holy symbol, equivalent to the Christian cross. Outside of Pagandom the pentagram is a scorned and feared symbol, generally associated with Satanism and negativity.
The pentagram is a legitimately old symbol. It was first used in ancient Sumer, and later throughout the Middle East, including Israel. The Greek cult of Pythagoras used the pentagram to represent mathematical perfection. The pentagram was also used by Native Americans in South and Central America, showing up occasionally in both Mayan and Incan ruins, and also appeared in ancient China; its use was nearly worldwide, though meanings often changed from culture to culture.
For many centuries, the pentagram was also a Christian symbol. The five points of the pentagram were said to represent the five wounds of Christ upon the cross. Two points for the nails in his wrists, two points for the nails in his feet, and the top point for the spear wound in his side.
Sir Gawain, of King Arthur’s Knights of the Round Table, wore the pentagram as a device upon his shield. The pentagram was also seen as representing man’s submission to God, with the top point representing the head, and the points directly below that representing outstretched, submissive arms.
During the Renaissance, the pentagram became a part of the Western Magical Tradition, appearing in spell books (grimoires) and other writings on magic and the occult. It’s important to note that Western Magic during the Renaissance was practiced by Christians (and certainly some Jews), and utilized Christian iconography and Christian beliefs. While high magic was certainly frowned upon in some circles, it wasn’t a capital offense.
Much of the pentagram’s sinister reputation can be traced to the French writer and occultist Eliphas Levi (February 8, 1810 – May 31, 1875) who provided two different meanings for the pentagram. He saw the “upside down pentagram” (a pentagram with two points projecting upwards) as a symbol of black magic representing the triumph of the material over the spiritual. The right side up pentagram (with one point projecting upwards) meant the opposite and implied the spiritual over the material.
Had Levi stopped there, it’s likely that the pentagram would not be the controversial symbol it is today, but he didn’t. Levi also superimposed the goat-face of the occult figure Baphomet onto the upside down (or reversed) pentagram. Baphomet’s horns were the top two points, his ears the middle ones, and his goatee the final point. This rather frightening version of the pentagram began the symbols association with Satanism. That association is something many take for granted today, but it’s really only about 150 years old, a relatively recent development in the history of a symbol that is thousands of years old.
Influenced by writers like Levi, the pentagram became a popular symbol in English Ceremonial Magic, a practice that was a strong influence on the development of Modern Paganism. Due to that influence, the pentagram with one-point upwards became one of the primary symbols of today’s Paganism. Later, a self-styled Satanism and former carnival barker would adopt Levi’s Baphomet infused pentagram as a Satanic symbol.
Modern Pagans today view the pentagram as a symbol representing the triumph of the spiritual over the material. It’s seen as a positive sign, much like it was until relatively recent history.