The word pentagram comes from the Greek word πεντάγραμμον (pentagrammon), from πέντε (pente), "five" + γραμμή (grammē), "line".The word "pentacle" is sometimes used synonymously with "pentagram". The word pentalpha is a learned modern (17th-century) revival of a post-classical Greek name of the shape.
In early (Ur I) monumental Sumerian script, or cuneiform, a pentagram glyph served as a logogram for the word ub, meaning "corner, angle, nook; a small room, cavity, hole; pitfall" (this later gave rise to the cuneiform sign UB 𒌒, composed of five wedges, further reduced to four in Assyrian cuneiform).
The pentagram was used in ancient times as a Christian symbol for the five senses, or of the five wounds of Christ. The pentagram plays an important symbolic role in the 14th-century English poem Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, in which the symbol decorates the shield of the hero, Gawain. The unnamed poet credits the symbol's origin to King Solomon, and explains that each of the five interconnected points represents a virtue tied to a group of five: Gawain is perfect in his five senses and five fingers, faithful to the Five Wounds of Christ, takes courage from the five joys that Mary had of Jesus, and exemplifies the five virtues of knighthood.
Heinrich Cornelius Agrippa and others perpetuated the popularity of the pentagram as a magic symbol, attributing the five neoplatonic elements to the five points, in typical Renaissance fashion. By the mid-19th century a further distinction had developed amongst occultists regarding the pentagram's orientation. With a single point upwards it depicted spirit presiding over the four elements of matter, and was essentially "good". However, the influential writer Éliphas Lévi called it evil whenever the symbol appeared the other way up.
"A reversed pentagram, with two points projecting upwards, is a symbol of evil and attracts sinister forces because it overturns the proper order of things and demonstrates the triumph of matter over spirit. It is the goat of lust attacking the heavens with its horns, a sign execrated by initiates."
"The flaming star, which, when turned upside down, is the hierolgyphic [sic] sign of the goat of black magic, whose head may be drawn in the star, the two horns at the top, the ears to the right and left, the beard at the bottom. It is the sign of antagonism and fatality. It is the goat of lust attacking the heavens with its horns."
"Let us keep the figure of the Five-pointed Star always upright, with the topmost triangle pointing to heaven, for it is the seat of wisdom, and if the figure is reversed, perversion and evil will be the result."
The apotropaic use of the pentagram symbol in German folklore (called Drudenfuss in German) is referred to by Goethe in Faust (1808), where a pentagram prevents Mephistopheles from leaving a room (but did not prevent him from entering by the same way, as the outward pointing corner of the diagram happened to be imperfectly drawn):
I must confess, my stepping o'er
Thy threshold a slight hindrance doth impede;
The wizard-foot [Drudenfuss] doth me retain.
The pentagram thy peace doth mar?
To me, thou son of hell, explain,
How camest thou in, if this thine exit bar?
Could such a spirit aught ensnare?
Observe it well, it is not drawn with care,
One of the angles, that which points without,
Is, as thou seest, not quite closed.
East Asian symbolism
Wu Xing's five phases
Wu Xing (Chinese: 五行; pinyin: Wǔ Xíng) are the five phases, or five elements in Chinese tradition (medicine, acupuncture, feng shui, and Taoism) They are similar to the ancient Greek elements, with more emphasis on their cyclic transformation than on their material aspects. The five phases are: Fire (火 huǒ), Earth (土 tǔ), Metal (金 jīn), Water (水 shuǐ), and Wood (木 mù).
Uses in modern occultism
Based on Renaissance-era occultism, the pentagram found its way into the symbolism of modern occultists. Its major use is a continuation of the ancient Babylonian use of the pentagram as an apotropaic charm to protect against evil forces. Éliphas Lévi claimed that "The Pentagram expresses the mind's domination over the elements and it is by this sign that we bind the demons of the air, the spirits of fire, the spectres of water, and the ghosts of earth." In this spirit, the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn developed the use of the pentagram in the lesser banishing ritual of the pentagram, which is still used to this day by those who practice Golden Dawn-type magic.
The five-pointed star is a symbol of the Bahá'í Faith. In the Bahá'í Faith, the star is known as the Haykal (Arabic: "temple"), and it was initiated and established by the Báb. The Báb and Bahá'u'lláh wrote various works in the form of a pentagram.
Because of a perceived association with Satanism and occultism, many United States schools in the late 1990s sought to prevent students from displaying the pentagram on clothing or jewelry. In public schools, such actions by administrators were determined in 2000 to be in violation of students' First Amendment right to free exercise of religion.
The encircled pentagram (referred to as a pentacle by the plaintiffs) was added to the list of 38 approved religious symbols to be placed on the tombstones of fallen service members at Arlington National Cemetery on 24 April 2007. The decision was made following ten applications from families of fallen soldiers who practiced Wicca. The government paid the families US$225,000 to settle their pending lawsuits.
The Order of the Eastern Star, an organization (established 1850) associated with Freemasonry, uses a pentagram as its symbol, with the five isosceles triangles of the points colored blue, yellow, white, green, and red. In most Grand Chapters the pentagram is used point down, but in a few it is point up. Grand Chapter officers often have a pentagon inscribed around the star(the emblem shown here is from the Prince Hall Association).