With both ritual and myth being so important in Paganism, symbolic artefacts, actions and persons also feature largely. A symbol in a religious context is something that stands for or points to something else, but often a ‘something else’ which cannot easily be expressed in non-symbolic language, being profound and ineffable. Symbol, myth and ritual help to ‘express the inexpressible’. Often symbols are not arbitrarily chosen, but seem to have some innate or perhaps psychologically powerful connection with the truth symbolised.
Many symbols used by Pagans, especially Wiccans, are taken from the history of magical practice. The importance of the circle has already been mentioned. Circles were cast in traditional magic to protect the practitioner from negative forces while engaging in ritual, but the circle also symbolises eternity and the cycle of the seasons or birth and death. A modern interpretation adds that when people stand in a circle they are all equal. The four directions – north, south, east, west – and the four elements earth, fire, air and water – have importance in ritual and are given a variety of meanings, but link human ritual clearly to the physical world. Candles and incense are used in rituals, again different flavours of incense may be used for different purposes.
Wiccans use a ritual knife or athame, not to sacrifice anything, indeed, it is not meant to cut anything in the physical world, but to direct energy, such as when casting the circle, and cutting a portal in the circle to allow admission or exit during ritual, thereby retaining the sacred nature of the space. It also symbolises the masculine in relation to the chalice or cup which symbolises the feminine.
The five-pointed star or pentagram is an ancient symbol identifying the human (four limbs and the head) with the universe (the five elements, adding ‘ether’ to the four). It was also a symbol of the star Venus. If within a circle, the star is usually called a pentacle. The pentacle is often worn as a pendant or earrings or on a bracelet by Pagans to announce their identity. Sun, moon and stars, flowers, trees, animals and birds are also important in expressing the connections between the human and the rest of nature.
Symbols for other Pagan and Heathen traditions might include: Mjolnir (Thor’s hammer), the Awen symbol in Druidry, and the double-headed axe symbolising the Goddess. The Egyptian Ankh is a very popular symbol, among Pagans and non-Pagans, although it rarely means that the wearer practises Kemeticism.