Any look at the meaning of the pentagram would be incomplete without first looking at the meaning of the 5 elements. In western thought these elements consist of Earth, Air, Fire, Water and Spirit (Ether). The typical four elements (of the West) are well enough known that they can be skipped for the intents and purposes of this discussion. Ether is probably the most obscure of the elements.
The idea of Ether comes originally from early Alchemy. Einstien provides a very eloquent discription of the principal of Ether and it’s connection to relativity, but actually Newton was not the originator of the theory, as Einstein suggests. In fact Pythagoras was the first Western figure credited with the specific mention of a fifth element which he titled ‘Aether’ (or’Aither’). Pythagoras also borrowed from the teachings of the philosopher Empedocles who had first posited the existence of 4 basic elements which he corresponded with 4 of the Greek Gods (book 1.33). Earlier (~600bce) the philosopher Anaximander (Pythagorus’ teacher) had theorised the existence of 4 basic qualities (Hot, Dry, Cold, Wet) which eventually were combined with Empedocles’ elements by Aristotle1, thus forming what is now known as the “elemental humours”.
In addition the Eastern philosophers of the Indus river valley had a fifth element which they referred to in the Sanskrit language as ‘Akasha'(meaning void). To be thorough, the elements also existed in a different fashion on the opposite side of the Himalayan mountains in the form of the Chinese elements, Wood, Fire, Earth, Metal and Water. To properly describe the complete characteristics of this ancient and distinct system of elements is beyond the scope of this essay, but I have made a brief discription of the basic history and properties of the Chinese elements at the bottom for those who are sufficiently interested. The 4 elements did and still do have an important place in the various African Traditional Religions amounst the Bantu, Fon, and others of the Kongo delta region including their contemporary diasporia, aswell as amoungst the Celtic tribes, and Amerindians.
Having briefly considered the origin of the 5th element, lets now look at the antiquity and various meanings ascribed to the pentagram (5 pointed star) and pentacle (5 pointed star within a circle). The earliest physical evidence of the existence of the pentagram comes from the very place where agricultural civilization is popularly believed to have started. The pentagram was frequently found on potsherds and tablets (which have been dated to as early as 3500 BCE) in the location of the Kingdom of Uruk (at the mouth of the Tigris-Euphrates valley). The symbol was found accompanying signs relating to the foundation of written language. There is also evidence that the pentagram was used in ancient Mesopotamia to indicate the seal of royalty, and power which extends to the four corners of the earth.
The pentagram has appeared in myth and folk lore ever since that time. The Greek Pythagoreans(Pythagoras 586-506 BCE) referred to the pentagram as’pentalpha’ because it could also be formed by laying 5 alphas (A) together. The Jews attribute the pentagram to the five books of the Pentateuse. The Muslims attribute the pentagram to the five pillars of faith and the five times of daily prayer. The symbol is prevailent throughout Islam and is featured both upright and inverted. Within Christainity the pentagram symbolises the 5 wounds of Christ on the cross. In it’s inverted form it is referred to as St. Peter’s Cross. According to legend St. Peter considered himself unworthy to be crucified upright as was Jesus, so instead he was crucified upside down.
One of the last Pagan Roman Emperors, Constantine(who converted to Christianity on his death bed in the mid 300’s CE) used the pentacle as the symbol of his royal office. In Aurthurian legend the pentagram was emblazoned in gold upon the shield of Sir Gawain and symbolised his mastery of the 5 virtues (generosity, courtesy, chastity, chivalry and piety). In the legend and thense forth throughout England the pentagram is known as the “Endless Knot”. In Freemasonry the pentagram or 5 pointed “Seal of Solomon”, is associated with Man as Microprosopus.
The pentagram was particularly popular in the Brittish traditions of Freemasonry in the 18th and 19th centuries and is still often used to represent the seated Master of the Lodge. The Masonic symbol of the compass is set precisely to 72 degrees (1/5th of a circle) thus covertly and very intentionally associating it with the pentagram. In the order of the Eastern Star (the female counterpart to Masonry) no such subterfuge is employed. The symbol of the Sisterhood is a pentagram either upright or inverted depending on the Lodge. In the case of the Order of the Eastern Star, each point of the pentagram represents a heroine of Biblical lore (and possibly also associated with Goddesses of pre-Biblical times).
Another angle to consider is the numerology of the Pentacle. 5 corresponds to ‘change’ according to the contemporary Pythagorean system. In Kabbalistic thought (at least the tradition of modern, post 15th century Ceremonial Magic) the number 5 corresponds to the sephiroth Geburah (glory). Geburah is in turn
associated with the planet Mars (named after the Roman God of agricultural, who in later Classical times also became God of war).
The pentagram does not appear to have gained disrepute until the works of Eliphas Levi (Alphonse Louis Constant, a French Catholic deacon who lived from 1810-1875) were put into print. In his famous diagram of Baphomet (an alchemical symbol of balance), the pentagram gains it’s first association with a goat’s head. It is around this time that the inquisition featured groups of women consorting with a cloven hooved devil, and thus began the demonisation of what had once even been a revered symbol within Christainity. During the Dark Ages the pentacle also went by the names of Goblin Cross, Witch’s Foot and Devil’s Star.
Due to the church’s perscution of anyone who posed a political threat, the Masons were forced to flee to the border of Poland and Germany, which had become a gathering place for free thinkers of all kinds. Many occult organisations derive their history from that time and place, and so too does the decemination of the pentagram’s symbolism into western occult usage. It is at this time also that it appears to have gained it’s contemporary association with the 5 elements.
Finally in around 1949, Gerald Gardner (who came from a back ground of Ceremonial Magic) brought the pentagram into association with Wicca, wherein it is used in both upright and inverted form as a symbol for the three degrees of initiation. In contemporary America the symbol of the pentagram has gained the most noteriety through the works of Anton Zandor LaVey. LaVey borrowed almost entirely from the illustrations of Francis Barret and Eliphas Levi, and subsequently lumped them together to create the modern association between the inverted pentacle and the goat head.