The symbolism of the circle

A circle is a plane figure bounded by one line, and such that all right lines drawn from a certain point within it to the bounding line, are equal. The bounding line is called its circumference and the point, its centre.
— Euclid, Elements, Book I[1]:4

What do we think of when we see a circle in a symbolic setting? Here are just a few of the connoted meanings that spring to mind alongside some I have purloined from the internet

  • circle of life
  • no beginning, no end/eternity
  • the sun
  • perfection/beauty
  • a group of people with a similar interest
  • π – pi
  • simplicity
  • containment
  • protection (and its counterpart, exclusion)
  • inside/outside
  • camera lens
  • the centre of our universe/ourselves (Bremner, 2011)

The circle has been understood for all of recorded history, and the invention of the wheel is seen as one of the pillars of the birth of civilisation, but interestingly I have found it surprisingly difficult to find academic texts with any explanation of the circle’s symbolic meaning. There are new age explanations aplenty, but many fewer academic pieces. It seems that the circle’s symbolic meaning is heavily tied to religions; lots of religions across the Earth and across time. It’s meaning in magic and pre-Christian religions as protection is well known, as it its Christian appearance as the halo. It has featured regularly in art since the earliest cave paintings and is popular today in design and photography (to just name two arts).

Below, I have gathered together some online examples of the circle which have different connotations, as a small typology, and will add to it as I think of other meanings. I leave it to the reader to decide what these are. It is also worth looking at this blog post, which references some examples of circles in modern art.




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