Just as the ocean has both a depth and a surface, the circle has both a centre and a circumference. In this way, there are two aspects to its symbolism.
No surprise here, but the circle often signifies the sun. Draw some rays coming out of it and now you can be sure it’s meant to be a sun.
THE NUMBER TEN
The shape of a circle corresponds to the number ten. Both signify completeness and perfection. (I’m pretty sure this has something to do with the fact we have ten fingers.) Ten symbolises the return to unity from multiplicity.
The square is the circle’s inverse in this way. Squares represent the pluralist state of humans who haven’t achieved inner unity. (The octagon is the inbetween state.)
Oneness is a spiritual concept.
These paintings are by Swedish artist Hilma af Klint (1862-1944). Hilma made these years before Kandinsky, Malevich and Mondrian made their similar abstract works. These psychedelic paintings articulated the artist’s mystical views of reality.
In Chinese thought, the masculine principle is called Yang. This is represented by a white circle. This circle depicts Heaven.
In contrast, the feminine principle (Yin) is represented by a black square. The black square depicts Earth. (There is a long, worldwide tradition of associating men with God and women with earthiness, a.k.a. with telluric forces.)
On the subject of gender and shapes…
CIRCLES AND METAPHORICAL GENDER
In many traditions around the world, the circle is feminine. We see this right down to the shapes of plots in children’s literature (in particular). Stories for and about girls emphasise the seasons and keep their characters around home. In contrast, stories for boys garner descriptions of ‘linear’. Boys leave the natal home and travel along roads and rivers on Odyssean mythical journeys. Boys find new homes of their own.
Objects, concepts and shapes have what linguists call ‘metaphorical gender.
Beef vs. chicken’ is a classic example of what’s known as ‘metaphorical gender’, where the two items in a pair are judged to express a masculine/feminine contrast despite having no directly gendered meaning — other examples include ‘square vs. circle’ and ‘knife vs fork’.language: a feminist guide
- dog vs. cat
- blue thing vs. pink/purple thing
- strong black coffee vs. frothy sweetened drink
- beef and beer vs. salad and yoghurt
- cigars vs. chocolate
- sports matches vs. reality TV
An excellent example of metaphorical gender can be found in Pixar’s Wall-E. Look at the body shapes of Wall-E compared to the body shape of Eva, femme coded and round.
Even when picture books don’t have a specific gender attached, audiences tend to code them as either ‘books for boys’ or ‘books for girls’. An example of a girl-coded book is When The Sky Is Like Lace. The purple hues, the girl characters, the feminine name of the author and — not insignificantly — the circle of the fairy ring on the front cover signals to book buyers that this is a book for girls. (I always challenge these assumptions, by the way.)
RING OF PROTECTION
Duco’s Winged Dreams is a 1957 story illustrated by Dutch artist Anton Pieck ( 1895-1987), well-known for his illustrations of city scenes.
This particular story is set on the island of Fripahatuland. King Jacohé encloses the island by means of a magic circle. The story follows the adventures of young Duco, who is brought to the island every night on the wings of King Jacohé’s wind chicks. Adventures ensue.
RING OF COMBAT
In combat sport there has to be a defined area in which competitors fight otherwise one or both might run off.
In boxing the mat might be a circle or rectangular. There may be ropes. If there are no ropes, the ring of combat might be called ‘the pit’. In sumo wrestling there is a circle carpeted with sand. Fenced areas are called a ‘cage’. These tend to be hexagonal or octagonal.
The ring of combat was marked out by stones laid in a circle in the castle’s base court…“The Lady of the Bells”, Weird Magazine, 1939
THE FAIRY RING AND OTHER MAGIC CIRCLES
A fairy ring, also known as fairy circle, elf circle, elf ring or pixie ring, is a naturally occurring ring or arc of mushrooms. They are found mainly in forested areas, but also appear in grasslands or rangelands.The Wikipedia entry for Fairy Ring
Is former movie star Madeline Bainbridge an innocent victim–or a target of revenge? Thieves have just stolen her valuable old films. And her memoirs have mysteriously disappeared before they could be published. Why would anyone want the aging actress to suffer? When The Three Investigators look into her hidden past, they begin to understand. The lady is a witch–and her spells can kill.
Fairies and witches have a lot in common, at least for contemporary audiences. Fairies are in some ways sanctified witch archetypes. We’ve taken the most scary aspects of witches — their night flight, their size, their hag-ugliness and turned fairies into tiny beautiful young women in scanty clothing. Also from witches: The standing around in a circle with like-minded friends.
A witch’s altar is the consecrated place that holds the witch’s implement: a table, bench, tree stump or rock. Some traditions recommend that the altar be circular, and that it stand within a magic circle, drawn on the ground. Witches use a cingulum (a belt of cord) to mark out the circle. Witches begin their ceremonies by ‘casting the circle’. This isolates and purifies the holy place where magic will occur, where gods and goddesses will manifest, where time will disappear, where faith will become incarnate. is the place between two worlds — the realm of the gods and the realm of the humans. Cosmic power is concentrated here.
Like a rat on a running wheel, a circle never comes to an end. This is why we wear wedding rings, symbolically joining couples together, ostensibly forever.
THE IDEA OF ROTATION
We now know that the Earth is not the centre of the universe. (Though technically, wherever you’re standing is the centre of your universe. Such is the nature of infinity.)
In diagrams of the cosmos from antiquity, the central space is reserved for the Creator. This Creator appears in centre of a series of concentric circles. Likewise, the wheel of the Zodiac is a ‘wheel’.
We’ve tended to conceptualise the world as a kind of labyrinth. I’ve written more about that here. Here’s the thing about a labyrinth: It has a centre. (It has a hairy big Minotaur at its centre, and this Minotaur must be defeated before spiritual growth occurs.)
When labyrinths appear in art, the centre is often a circle. Since getting to the centre (and slaying the Minotaur) is the absolute goal, the circle is therefore associated with Paradise regained. The circle represents a precious lost object, or an impossible/arduous journey or enterprise.
This is how the circle comes to stand for highly desirable concepts: Love, knowledge and so on.
FOR FURTHER INVESTIGATION
Okochan, Little Girl, おこちゃん 山本容子 Yamamoto Miyako 1998