In the 80′s and 90′s, everyone “properly educated” in Witchcraft and Paganism “knew” that a pentagram was the geometric shape of a five-pointed star, and a pentacle was a physical object, like a plate, with magical sigils inscribed into it, or an amulet cast into the shape of said sigils – often a pentagram but there were other seals and sigils used to create different pentacles for different purposes. In Wicca specifically, the pentagram with a point facing up was the symbol of first-degree, the point down was the symbol of the second degree, and the point up in conjunction with a triangle was the symbol of the third degree. Non-Wiccans either used point up as a default or had their own associations for the difference. Western Ceremonial Magic traditions had different ways to draw the (always upright) five-pointed star depending on whether you were invoking/summoning or banishing, and the points you started drawing from and toward gave different elemental correspondences. For example, the invoking pentagram of spirit started at the point of spirit (top), and drew down to the point of earth (usually lower left as the inscriber is facing it) as the first stroke, calling in powers of spirit into this earthly realm.
In the 90′s an earnest subset of non-initiate and non-British-Traditional Wiccans insisted that all Wiccans and witches only used the point up version, and that Satanists exclusively used the point down version, because they had stolen the pure and good symbol of the Wiccans and inverted it for their use exactly the way they used inverted crosses. And there was much hand-wringing whenever Hollywood used upright stars in circles for “the bad guys” or inverted stars in circles for “good witches”.
In the 00′s there was a new definition that gained traction for a time that a pentacle was a five-pointed star in a circle, and was therefore “contained” and “safe”, and a pentagram was a five-pointed star without a circle, and was “dangerous” to use or wear because it could… summon things on its own? use wild magic? attract spirits? become a portal? I’m a little fuzzy on this part. But it was chaotic and “unbound” and therefore only suited to chaos magicians, reckless practitioners, and the most advanced witches, and should be kept out of the hands of children and new witchlings who needed to be protected from uncontrolled magic until they learned to defend themselves properly? Anyways, it became very important among adherents to this philosophy to check all the penta-whatever pendants on a jewelry display to see if the points of the star were completely contained by, joined with, or extended beyond the circle, because these meant different things about how its magic worked and who it would be “safe” or “appropriate” for.
Oh and now I remember that for a time there were people who ascribed great meaning to whether the lines of a penta-whatever amulet or inscription wereflat-joined or interlaced like celtic knotwork, and if they were interlaced, whether the overlapping happened in one particular direction or the other. But I never quite caught the meanings they associated with those things. Darn.
A competing meme in the 90′s and 00′s was that the point up was for summoning, and the point down was for banishing.
In the 10′s, the dominant story in the next generation of witchlings seems to be that the pentacle is any five-pointed star, in image or object
(there is no differentiation between the shape and the physical object, that meaning has pretty much disappeared), with the point facing up, and is symbolic of “white witchcraft” (a racist distinction for another rant) or “good magic”, and the point down is a pentagram, which is used by Satanists, necromancers, demonologists, and “black magic”.
This new definition has become viral and I think we in the older generation are outnumbered now. I think we’ve lost this meme war.
But hey kids, if you’re reading books published before the turn of this century, please be aware that the author is probably using the older definitions of the terms and not these newer things.
Now what interests me is how it’s going to change in the next memetic shift. Anybody want to place bets?
I have a small bet that the new wave of “true meaning” will be that a pentacle has to be cast in silver, and a pentagram is anything made in a different metal, such as bronze, copper, iron, steel, pewter, gold, brass, etc.
Most of my money is riding on that it’ll be something completely out of left field I’ll have never heard of or thought of, but that will be suddenly widespread and an “everybody knows that the real meaning…” phenomenon. Just like all the rest of these waves. ;)