Circles with a sacred center are ancient, the oldest form of social interaction. The fire was in the center as the people gathered around to cook and eat their food, hear stories, worship their gods and goddesses and to pass down their traditions and wisdom that kept them alive and healthy.
Menstrual hut and moon lodge traditions are all over the world that date back to 800 C.E. and are still practiced today. The red tent and moon lodges grow in popularity as a sacred space for women and girls to affirm their spirituality/sexuality and to heal from the wounds of patriarchy.
When ancient people gathered together in large numbers they built cities and temples for worship. The oldest temple is believed to be 11,000 year’s old in a place called Gobekli Tepe, in Turkey. This first human-built holy place has great stone rings, one of them 65 feet across, crafted and arranged by prehistoric people who had not yet developed metal tools or even pottery. The stone rings indicate they worshiped in circle.
The early Christian Church was more circular than hierarchical. In the 5th and 6th centuries (and even beyond!) the Celtic church was one of the most spiritually vibrant churches in the world. The Celtic and early Christian Celtic practices of religion were carried about by women and men as equals. Wicca one of the oldest Celtic religions is recognized by the Peligion. Wicca is practiced today and continues to grow meeting the needs of those who want an Earth-centered circle-based religion that honors women.
Candomble is another Earth-based non-hierarchical and women-led religion found primarily in Brazil that is strongly influenced by religions from Africa, which came to Brazil by means of the slave trade from the 16th to 19th century. There are about 2000 followers. Candomble is found in small numbers in Uruguay, Argentina, Venezuela, Columbia, Germany, Italy, Portugal and Spain. The worship of Candomblé has been called the religion of nature; its beliefs, rituals, and medicines depend on access to the natural world. Candomblé’s deities include: Yemanjá, Goddess of the Sea; Oxum, Goddess of fresh water; Yansã of wind and storms; Oxóssi of the forest; Ossain of sacred leaves; and peace-bringing Oxalá to name a few. Candomblé and nature are inseparable.
Indigenous people around the world have and continue to meet in circle where their traditions, culture, language, wisdom and ceremonies and rituals are handed down. Their land, traditions and right to practice their religions was taken away and many have been and continue to be killed. There is a resurgence and respect for their traditional Earth-centered way of life. Women’s circles use the Native American “talking stick” as a tool for deep listening. Who holds the “talking stick” speaks from the heart and others listened without judgment. Many rituals and ceremonies that honor women and the land are now being carried out by native and non-native women.
In a 1995 study of women in religion, it was found women and women’s leadership in the church were going outside the church and forming women’s spirituality circles. The book Defecting in Place: Women Taking Responsibility for Their Own Spiritual Lives by Miriam Therese Winter and Adele Loomis has stories and statistics. Women’s rituals and ceremonies are borrowed from religious, indigenous, and created by members to embrace the Divine Feminine within us and all around.
Why did circle seem to loose favor or another question would be why were circles forbidden.
Anything seen as pagan was deemed evil among the Christian, Judaism or Islamic religions. In 1484 Malleus Maleficarum the Hammer of Witches publication by two German Dominican monks began the systematic destruction of women’s spiritual practices and health care by torturing and murdering women healers and spiritual leaders. This oppression lasted 500 years and was carried with colonialism to every corner of the earth. The Divine Feminine was hidden and forbidden to be worshiped and still is in many areas. Women’s circles were feared by the men in power. Sewing and quilting circles were allowed as long as they were seen as handmaidens to the men in control.
Hierarchy for thousands of years was seen as the most effective means for controlling people. It was the model used for waging war and grew to become the only model seen as viable. Now people don’t want to be controlled but to become equal partners in carrying out the mission. And by doing so, ensure the success of the organization.
The human potential movement that began in the late sixties empowered laywomen within the church and in organizations to seek a better way. This is where I learned the value of circle as the setting where people can reach their potential, groups can be highly functional and organizations can achieve their mission and goals while caring for the people involved and the Earth.
Today women’s circles are encouraged even within some churches. Earth-centered and honoring of the Divine Feminine is welcomed in more inclusive religions. Women who have left organized religions are forming spirituality circles. They borrow rituals from others and make up their own.
There are many kinds of circles depending on the needs of the members. They can be support circles, healing and wellness circles, spirituality circles, action circles, meet regularly or just once. They can be in a small setting or for over a thousand. A 2002 UCLA study has shown that women’s circles provide a sacred and loving container where each one walks away feeling seen, heard and supported and realize they are not alone in their experiences.
Circles are replacing hierarchies. Re-Inventing Organizations: A Guide to Creating Organizations Inspired by the Next Stage of Human Consciousness by Frederic Laloux has documented in his book that there is a sea change in leaving hierarchies and creating new organizations.
There is a proliferation of circles, circle leadership and circle organizations. Hierarchy is seen as no longer viable in bringing about a new paradigm of justice and peace for all creation. Because circles are shared leadership they are easy to start and with full participation invested and empowered to carry out the mission, they are highly successful.
When two or more are gathered together we can be a hierarchy or a circle. Choosing circle empowers us to be the change we want to see in the world. Namaste!!! Ann Smith