From the earliest appearance of the five-pointed star in ancient times to its former role as a Christian symbol, there are millennia of history surrounding the pentagram, meaning it's one of the oldest symbols in the world. The pentagram's significance has evolved, leaving an indelible mark on culture and spirituality.
Pop culture has also embraced the star, which has become the official symbol of horror thrillers revolving around the occult. But the pentagram's journey began long before fictional supernatural baddies reigned supreme in Hollywood.
What Is the Pentagram Symbol?
The five-pointed star traditionally symbolizes the unity of the five elements: earth, air, fire, water and spirit. The topmost point signifies spirit, emphasizing its supremacy over the material elements.
This configuration symbolizes wholeness, protection and the perpetual cycle of life and nature, illustrating the unity of elements and the cyclical nature of the universe.
Beyond its elemental and protective qualities, the five-pointed star has been linked to Christian traditions, notably during the Middle Ages.
Where Does the Word 'Pentagram' Come From?
The word "pentagram" has its roots in the Greek terms "penta," meaning "five," and "gramma," meaning "letter" or "writing." It refers to a figure composed of five lines, encapsulating the essence of the symbol — a star with five straight strokes.
History of the Pentagram
Here is a look at the symbol's evolution through different eras.
Ancient Mesopotamia: The pentagram's earliest known usage was in ancient Mesopotamia, where it held celestial and religious importance. It is believed that the symbol represented the path of the planet Venus in the sky, reflecting its connection to Ishtar, the goddess of love, war and fertility.
Ancient Greece: The symbol was adopted by the Pythagoreans in ancient Greece, for whom the pentagram embodied the golden ratio, φ, seen in the proportions of the natural world and human-made art and architecture. This mathematical perfection made the pentagram a symbol of harmony, health and the unity of disparate parts into a whole.
Middle Ages: In this period, the pentagram found its way into Christian symbolism, where it was used to represent the five wounds of Christ inflicted during the crucifixion. This association made the pentagram a powerful symbol of protection against evil. Additionally, it symbolized the virtues of knighthood, reflecting ideals such as truth, honor and nobility of spirit.
Renaissance: The revival of classical knowledge during the Renaissance brought the pentagram back into the intellectual and spiritual discourse. Scholars and occultists of the time saw the pentagram as the microcosm of man, with its five points representing the spirit presiding over the four elements of nature, highlighting the interconnectedness of all things.
19th-century occult revival: This era marked a significant shift in the interpretation of the pentagram, especially through the work of Lévi, who differentiated between the upright and inverted pentagram.
Modern Wicca and Neo-paganism: In contemporary spiritual traditions, especially within Neo-paganism and Wicca, the pentagram has been reclaimed as a positive emblem. It represents the five elements and is used in rituals to invoke these forces.
Connection With the Golden Ratio
The pentagram and the golden ratio share a relationship that can be likened to the precision of a perfectly balanced scale.
Often represented by the Greek letter phi (Φ), the golden ratio is an irrational number approximately equal to 1.6180339887 (usually shortened to 1.618). This mathematical constant appears throughout nature's designs, from the spirals of shells to the patterns of flower petals.
The ratio acts as a guiding principle in the pentagram structure, ensuring that the lengths of the segments formed by its intersecting lines adhere to this proportion. It's as if each point and line within the pentagram is meticulously crafted to fit into this universal pattern of balance and harmony.
This connection between the pentagram and the golden ratio is more than just a mathematical curiosity; it reflects the underlying order in the natural world; even in the most abstract mathematical concepts, there's a resonance with the physical world around us.
4 Types of Pentagrams
While there is one traditional pentagram shape and orientation that comes to mind for many of us when we think of the symbol, there are actually a few different types, each with its own symbolic meaning.
1. Upright Pentagram
Recognized by its single upward-facing point, the upright pentagram symbolizes a host of positive attributes across various traditions. It represents the spirit's dominance over the four material elements — earth, air, fire and water — embodying protection, light and a deep connection to the divine.
Within Western spirituality, mysticism and occultism, this configuration is often linked to the right-hand path, emphasizing benevolent magic and living in harmony with the natural world. This orientation has historically served as a powerful ward against evil spirits, creating a protective barrier that balances spiritual and elemental forces.
In early Christianity, particularly during the Middle Ages, the same upright pentagram was employed to symbolize the five wounds of Christ, denoting sacrifice, salvation and divine safeguarding.
2. Inverted Pentagram
With two points facing upward, this form sometimes symbolizes the physical realm's dominance over the spiritual, often associated with the left-hand path, which includes more individualistic or self-serving practices.
The inverted pentagram has been embraced by certain groups as a satanic symbol, often seen as representing a materialistic perspective or the subversion of conventional Christian symbols.
This particular association with Satanism gained prominence in the 20th century and does not reflect the symbol's broader historical and cultural usage.
Conversely, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints incorporates the inverted pentagram into some of its early temples, representing the Morning Star, a symbol often associated with Jesus Christ.
This usage within LDS architectural and symbolic contexts highlights the inverted pentagram's broader role as a beacon of positivity, aligning with its historical Christian meanings while offering a unique perspective within the Latter-Day Saint tradition.
3. Tetragrammaton Pentagram
Éliphas Lévi, a pivotal figure in 19th-century French occultism, reinterpreted the pentagram, infusing it with deep esoteric significance. This five-pointed star, encased within a circle, symbolizes the blending of earthly elements with spiritual realms, showcasing the universe's interconnectedness.
Lévi adorned the symbol's perimeter with the Tetragrammaton, the covenantal name of God, enhancing its spiritual resonance.
Lévi incorporated Hebrew letters and alchemical symbols within this pentagram, including representations of "Adam" and "Eve," to highlight humanity's intrinsic connection to the cosmos. These elements collectively express the balance between human nature and the broader cosmic order.
4. Pentagram with Additional Symbols
Sometimes, pentagrams are combined with other esoteric symbols, such as the eye of providence, runes or planetary symbols, to tailor the star's energies for specific magical purposes or to invoke particular aspects of the divine or elemental forces.
Each pentagram serves different symbolic purposes and is used in various contexts, from ceremonial magic to personal talismans to religious beliefs.
Pentacle vs. Pentagram
The key differences between the pentacle and the pentagram lie in their composition and the symbolism attributed to each.
The pentacle is a five-pointed star enclosed within a circle, often used to represent the element earth within Wiccan symbolism. The circle surrounding the star is not just a boundary; it imbues the symbol with additional meanings of unity, eternity and wholeness. It acts as a protective barrier, sealing in the energies and intentions represented by the pentagram.
In magical traditions, the pentacle is often used in rituals and spellcasting and as a tool for spiritual empowerment, serving as a conduit for channeling divine energies and intentions.
On the other hand, the pentagram refers solely to the five-pointed star. While it holds significant spiritual value, it is not confined to any one tradition.
This article was updated in conjunction with AI technology, then fact-checked and edited by a HowStuffWorks editor.
Original article: All About the Pentagram: Meaning, History and Variations
Copyright © 2024 HowStuffWorks, a division of InfoSpace Holdings, LLC, a System1 Company