• The Festival Celebrant

Circles, circles everywhere

Updated: Mar 4

Circling (not to be confused with ‘casting a circle’) is a wedding custom with numerous variations and alleged origins. The diversity of these sources means it doesn’t belong to any specific religion or belief system, so if you’re looking at including a symbolic action in your wedding, you might want to include a version of this one.

Here’s some background, just for context and inspiration. If you’re interested in Circling, please feel free to invest it with your own symbolism and significance.

I’ll look first at how it features in Jewish tradition. After her entry to the wedding space, the bride may circumnavigate her husband-to-be seven times. This action has a number of interpretations. For some it represents the ‘seven wedding blessings’, or (perhaps somewhat controversially to a contemporary mind-set) to signify that the bride’s life now revolves around her groom.

Judaism has a rich numerological tradition and one quality of the number seven is its association with good fortune. Another explanation for the seven circumambulations is that it ritually removes ‘seven shells of solitude’ that are said to enclose a groom’s soul.

Some sources claim that Circling represents the creation of a new world; that of a husband and wife, just as seven ‘days’ (cycles) encompassed the Creation of the Universe. Another tradition states that when Joshua attacked the city of Jericho he was instructed to circle the city seven times to bring its walls crashing down. ‘Walls’ exist between any two individuals and one of the challenges and promises of marriage is to break down these walls.

In total contrast to this, Circling may be seen as the act of building walls; magical ones to protect the couple from ill-intent. Some believe the bride is symbolically creating a new family circle. In modern ceremonies, the bride and groom can circle together or around each other, demonstrating their independent and complementary orbits.

More prosaically but no less powerfully, circling may symbolise the creation of a new family circle. In marriage we leave the orbit of our parents and start orbiting each other, and this is reflected in many modern ceremonies where the bride and groom circle one another. The seven cycles can be divided in any way you like but it’s widely accepted that the bride takes three, the groom takes three and then they link hands and do one together. The precise choreography is up to you.

In some traditions, the couples’ mothers circle the groom as well (you could adapt this however it feels right for you) while in another version the bride is escorted by two bridesmaids bearing candles. Again, there’s lots of room here for creative adaptions using other participants.

I’ll now briefly describe how Circling is used in another tradition; the Vedic (Hindu) tradition of India.

‘Saptapadi’ (or Saat Phere) means ‘seven steps’, refering to seven cycles of the sacred fire, Agni. In the Vedic tradition the bride and groom circumambulate Agni seven times, literally and symbolically bound to each other by a white scarf or by securing their hands with a thread. At each passage round the fire the couple offer specific prayers and vows to the Divine. I’ve outlined the basic principle of these vows/steps below (with huge apologies to all the Hindus out there for my vagueness!).

Circle 1 - provision and nourishment

Circle 2 - strength in sickness and health, good times and bad

Circle 3 - prosperity

Circle 4 - family solidarity

Circle 5 - progeny

Circle 6 - health

Circle 7 - love and friendship

The completion of the seventh circle officially seals the marriage. It’s obvious that there’s a massive amount of symbolism in this ceremony that could be applicable whether you’re a Hindu or not. Fire is a near-universal symbol of purification and passion; it has a strangely hypnotic effect and brings a sense of energy and focus to any ritual. Reciting vows or promises to each other (even if not to a deity) while circling the fire is undoubtedly a powerful gesture. And as always, you can write your own vows, promises or aspirations.

There are many other versions of the Circling tradition. I hope my brief outlines of just two of these, Jewish and Hindu, demonstrate the huge array of possibilities available to anyone who thinks they might want to include Circling in their ceremony. And while it’s traditionally associated with weddings, there’s no reason why you shouldn’t be able to adapt it to another type of ceremony.

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