Laying the Compass

For many practitioners of Traditional Witchcraft, the act of preparing the Sacred Space for ritual is known as Laying the Compass. Superficially, it resembles the Wiccan practice of casting circle, but it is done in quite a different way, and for quite different reasons.

Before we get into the practicality of this,  it may be important to take a look at the Compass itself, what it is and how we can use it. Probably one of the most important tools for the practitioner, the Compass exists as a concept, a “map” as a working tool (of the non-physical variety) and as a training aid.

As a training aid, we may have already encountered the Compass — in many ways, those diagrams of the Wheel of the year are very much this aspect of the Compass. In other words, it acts as a framework upon which we can “hang” our deities, energies, stories and so on, and examine the relationships between them in order to gain insights. . The Compass in this mode is a construct that we fashion for our own use, and it does not define ultimate reality on any level.

Think of it as a test pattern, that we use to try out the “fit” of things. Where something makes sense, we can use its position and relation to other things to help us understand Lore, to construct rituals and to generally expand our understanding of the universe. But if it does not make sense, we can try a different position, and work with it until we find a workable relationship. So in this way, the Compass can act as a template for ritual construction, or as a way to try out a theory before committing to an actual working.

Its role as a concept is equally fluid, though it changes much less frequently. We have all come across the term “moral compass”, and this is a concept that fits well here, if we replace moral with ethical. It cannot be stressed strongly enough that the Crooked Path is a path that requires the practitioner to be ethical rather than moral.

Morals are rules laid out by a person or organization. The Christian Ten Commandments are a moral code, to be followed without exception.  This in itself can provide a framework of ethical behaviour that can be followed without too much thought. A Witch or Cunning person  needs to take responsibility for their own actions. Blindly following a moral code is fine for a beginner, but it presupposed a universe of stark
black and white, and the universe we live in is made of endless shades of grey. So instead of the moral code of “do not steal”, the Witch follows the ethical route, where the theft is weighed for its position on a sliding scale.

Theft is wrong, but allowing a child to starve is more wrong, so if your child is starving and there is no better way, stealing that loaf of bread becomes a lesser wrong. You might be arrested and placed in a cell for the theft, but that is a small price to pay for the continued life of your child.

That phrase, the “price to pay” is the key here. For Cunningfolk, the real question becomes, “am I willing to pay the price for what I do?” This is why the Crooked Path is unlike Wicca with is “harm none” moral code. Sometimes it is okay to harm others, whether it is taking the life of an animal in order to feed, or taking the life of someone who threatens the life of your loved ones, or yourself.

So we cannot stress enough that by taking upon yourself the act of laying a Compass, you are placing yourself at the centre, the fulcrum or balance-point, where you are responsible for the things that are done within that sacred space.

The practical technique of laying the Compass is known by several other names: ploughing the bloody furrow, raising the grove, raising the hedgerow, calling the Land, calling the Moat, and other such names. There are countless variations of the physical process, but here is a description of the most common — at least, in my experience.

One or two people enter the space, and begin circling about the centre. If it is two people, they sort of half face each other, and try to keep the centre between them, so they are forming the ends of the diameter of the Compass space. This often involves a sort of semicrouching sideways walk, and it usually starts slow and gets faster as the intensity builds. Asolo Compass layer will do much the same, but might drag their trailing leg as if literally ploughing a furrow in the ground with it. As the intensity builds, they may start rhythmically clapping or slapping their legs, as breathing becomes laboured and grunts and other sounds escape them. Finally, if there is a pair, they grasp hands or embrace in the centre, and the Compass is laid.

Not surprisingly, it is the non-physical part of the exercise that is most important. As the person or persons circle about, they see themselves digging deeper into the ground, as if digging a ditch or trench with their feet, and this usually continues until they feel themselves about knee-deep in the Land. At this point, the idea is to build up some resistance to their movement, as if they were pushing a boulder around the trench. Usually the boulder is not visualized, but rather the person or pair “feel” the effort and push against it. This psychic “friction” builds the energy and the tension to a point where the space within the trench or moat becomes “separate” from mundane reality, which is perceived as a thickness in the air and a sense of timelessness. Coming to a stop frequently invokes dizziness in the participants, even though the circling motion itself does not make them dizzy.

Next, everyone involved in the working needs to enter the Compass, and this is done by either the person who laid the Compass or the Guardian laying a broom across the entry way so that the bristles are outside and the end of the handle is inside the moat. At this point
the sacred space is perceived as if it were a boat moored at the quay-side, and each person enters by tapping their left foot on the broom and turning widdershins into the space, as if they were climbing over an old stile to get over the fence or hedge between two fields.

When there is a group, such as a full coven, working together, there are a few considerations to be noted. Firstly, the person officiating or facilitating the work needs to claim the space and take the Compass for their own, and the other participants need to acknowledge this and surrender the Compass to the leader — an act of great trust. This is facilitated by the use of a coin to “pay for the Land”. By paying the coin, the leader becomes — temporarily — sovereign over the Land, and is able to take possession of it fully. In coven structures, this is often done by the Magister giving a coin to the Guardian, who taps it three times on the broom before stepping over it, and then presenting the coin to
the Ancestors on the Magister’s behalf, before depositing it on or near the hearthstone.

Obviously for solo or small informal workings, the leader can do this themselves, but in a coven, this esoteric equivalent of “power of attorney” gives the Guardian the authority to override the Magister for reasons of safety, and so on.

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