Most people, if not everyone, has seen the pentagram, a signifier with more signifies than an entire Russian novel. Whether it's in cheesy horror movies, Arthur Miller plays or on scratched haphazardly into a bathroom stall, the pentagram is a staple of symbology. Its meaning varies drastically depending on who you ask; some call it evil, some look to it for protection. Where does this confusion come from?
The earliest known pentagrams date as far back as 6000 BCE, where it is believed to have been discovered during astronomical research in Mesopotamia. It is found in Israel and in lands formerly occupied by the ancient Sumerians as far back as 4000 BCE. The original meaning behind the symbol is debated, some believe it was meant to represent the four corners of the world and the "Vault of Heaven" while a larger subset believes it was meant to symbolize the five planets visible from the night sky: Jupiter, Saturn, Venus, Mercury, and Mars. However, we may never have any way of knowing the true purpose of the earliest symbols.
The Pythagoreans, a mathematical sect seeking truth and knowledge and often at odds with the Christian Church, saw the pentagram as a symbol with immense "mathematical perfection". Evidently, this view of mathematical perfection would be instrumental in the group's most famous work: the defining of the Golden Ratio, the basis of all symmetry and aesthetic beauty, used everywhere by everyone from artists and architects to physicists and biologists. Further, the Pythagoreans described the symbol as representing the "five points of man" with two feet, two hands and a single head atop. When the group was later driven underground and forced into secrecy, the symbol became a way to identify a fellow member. Pythagoreans in hiding would even sign their letters with the pentagram and omit their own name.
Early Christians used the pentagram as a symbol predating the cross. It was displayed on amulets, jewelry, clothing, and battle attire. Aligning with the spread limbs a crucified Jesus of Nazareth, the symbol was seen as representing the five wounds of Christ: nails in both off his feet and hands, a crown of thorns upon his head. Similar to a Greek Ouroboros, the pentagram can be drawn in a single stroke. In Christianity, a symbol formed by one continuous motion was used to represent both beginnings and ends, containing within it both Alpha and Omega. Furthermore, the pentagram was a symbol of femininity, displayed as a five-petaled rose.
While no one is quite certain what exactly caused the pentagram to fall out of favor with Christians, it's clear its outright rejection by the Church in the early 20th Century was caused by its continuous association with the occult. Some have claimed its demonetization dates back to the fall of the Knights Templar during the Inquisition but this is largely unsubstantiated. However, the symbol has been associated with later quasi-Christian groups such as the Freemasons, whose architectural prowess led to one of their own, Pierre Charles L'Enfant, to design Washington D.C. as the capital of the United States. In doing so, he famously inlaid a number of Masonic symbols into the design, the pentagram among them.
The symbol was co-opted by both Satanists and fringe occultist groups. Here, the positioning of the star becomes imperative to the interpretation of its meaning and instrumental in the confusing associations most people have. A single point on the star pointing upwards is a depiction of a spirit presiding over the four elements of matter (earth, fire, air, and water) and is considered essentially good. This was used in Nordic Scandinavian countries to ward off trolls and general evil even after its rejection by most of the Christian world in the Middle Ages. Two points, however, common among Satanists, pointing upwards has been considered a symbol of evil since Medieval Europe, forcing the symbol's association with evil.
"Turning it upside down makes the symbol unlucky," said Maddy, a practicing Wicca like her mother before her, and a friend of mine from Sleepy Hollow, New York. "It's like turning a horseshoe upside down. You're pouring out the luck."
My research told me that the most common usage of this symbol today is by neo-paganists such as Wiccans. Wanting to understand this better, I asked Maddy to explain what the pentagram means for her:
"There are a lot of different uses. For some, it's a symbol of protection or purification. It is used to clean negativity and bad energy and ward off further intrusion. In this way, it's a lot like a blue eye symbol or even a cross. It's also used in circle rituals, usually performed during solstices or moon phases. Again, this is for purification. In tarot readings, it can symbolize wealth and splendor, a lot like a gold coin."
Maddy also warned me, if I ever find myself in the middle of a circle ritual, to make sure to only walk around it clockwise. "Only ever walk counterclockwise if you know what you're doing". She seemed pretty serious and I definitely don't know what I'm doing, so I'll heed her advice.
Unfortunately for those who view the pentagram as a symbol of good, people like Maddy, the symbol's most common association in the United States is with Satanism. When adapted for Satanic practices, the symbol is known as the Sigil of Baphomet, Baphomet being a Greek word meaning, "absorption of knowledge". Like Maddy told me, Satanists turn the symbol upside down so that three-star points face the top of the circle. A second circle is usually added to encompass the first, Pythagorean Greek letters are typically replaced with Hebrew ones and a goat's head is affixed within the pentagram itself. The three downward facing points are believed to represent the rejection of Christianity's Holy Trinity.
The pentagram is one of the oldest, most provocative symbols in history. How you interpret it depends almost entirely on your own beliefs. For many in the secular, and yet largely Christian West, misinterpretation, and misinformation have made this signifier a symbol of evil. For other worshiping neo-pagan religions like Wicca, the symbol is one of purification, safety, and good fortune. It is in constant view, a major part of even the political identity for some as the pentagram can be found on the flags African nations like Morocco, an Islamic country once a colony of Catholic France, and Christian Ethiopia, representing for both nations alike between God and country as well as honoring King Solomon, the archetype of the wise king shared by all three Abrahamic religions.
For over 8,000 years the pentagram has been used by humans. It has meant a million different things to a million different people and to this day it is representative of whatever we choose it to represent. As we have since it's long lost inception, we have been the ones to decide on its meaning, to determine its value for good or evil.