Introducing the Wheel of the Year
The Sabbats are seasonal festivals which mark the turning of the Wheel of the Year and the cycles of nature. Most western pagans celebrate eight sabbats; the Summer and Winter Solstices, the Spring and Autumn Equinoxes and the quarter days or fire festivals – Samhain, Imbolc, Beltaine and Lughnasadh.
These sabbats help you tune in to the cycles of nature as they exist within you as well as without. The idea of the eight-fold Wheel of the Year was created by Ross Nicholls and Gerald Gardner in the 1950’s.
The festivals themselves, however, are very old, and mark important times in the agricultural cycle of the year. All of the eight sabbats were celebrated in the ancient world, but not all necessarily by the same people or in the same place.
It should be remembered that the energies at different times of the year are different depending on where you are. If you are living in the southern hemisphere, the seasons and therefore the festivals are reversed.
It is important to try to learn what you can about the myths, legends, beliefs and festivals of the land you live in, to enable you to tune in to the natural energies as perceived by the inhabitants of the land through time.
SAMHAIN – 31st OCTOBER
Samhain, or Halloween, is the death festival, marking the descent of Winter. The leaves are falling from the trees in drifts, and life is drawn away from the surface of the earth, and descends deep into the earth. Life is now in the roots and bulbs of plants which rest over the Winter. The Horned God who was Lord of Life and the Wild Greenwood has now truly taken His throne as Lord of the Underworld, the dread Lord of Shadows, the comforter of souls.
The earth prepares for sleep and draws energy inwards. This is a time for introspection, as we too draw our energy within and prepare for the Winter. The Earth is becoming cold, and barren, and we see Her as the Cailleach, the Crone, the Wise One. She is the Dark Mother who devours the God that She may give birth to Him again. Her womb is also the tomb, and the Underworld, and the Horned God thus resides within Her womb over the Winter months.
Samhain is a time of transformation and inner work. It is also a sombre time of remembrance, when we remember and honour those who have died. The veil is thinnest between the worlds and we call on the spirits of the dead and invite them to feast with us on this, the feast of death. We call upon our ancestors and contact the ancient wisdom. It is a time of endings, but also a time of beginnings, as Samhain is a Celtic New Year’s Eve festival. Thus we give up the past and look to the future, and it is also a good time for skrying.
It is the end of one cycle and the beginning of another. Samhain is a good time for banishings, and for sorting out unfinished business. At Samhain we look back and take stock of the past year and contemplate what we have learned. Samhain is also the time to face our shadow, the dark side of ourselves.
We find no wild flowers blooming, yet the colours of nature are rich and warm. Magick mushrooms grow to help us explore other realms, to make the veil thinner still. Samhain is also a harvest festival, but a harvest of flesh. The livestock would be killed at this time so that there would be meat throughout the bleak Winter. The wind blows, Jack Frost makes patterns on our windows and the mists rise. It is no wonder this season is one of mystery.
THE WINTER SOLSTICE: YULE – 21st DECEMBER
Yule is the time we celebrate the return of the waxing sun. Light and life can be seen to be returning and conquering death. Yule is a turning point, a point of change, where the tides of the year turn and begin to flow in the opposite direction. It is the darkest time of the year, the time of the longest night, but there is the promise of the return of light.
We encourage the sun to rise and to grow in power, and we remember the seasons of plenty. Magickally we bring back the season of plenty, and we feast on rich foods and drinks. The fir tree represents life amidst death, it is evergreen, representing everlasting life, and lasting friendship.
Holly and Mistletoe bear berries at this time, symbolizing fertility. Mistletoe berries are white, representing the semen of the Horned God, the Holly berries are blood red, symbolizing both the menstrual blood of the Goddess and the sacrifice of the God. Evergreen trees also represent youth and freshness, and are symbols of the promise of spring. A yule custom, still practised at Christmas is to dress an evergreen tree, and make offerings.
We honour the spirit of the tree, and what it represents. It is sad that a custom of honouring the living tree has been replaced by the meaningless decoration of ghastly plastic or tinsel trees, or the cutting down of thousands of living trees so that people can have them in their living rooms for a couple of weeks, and then dump them, causing environmental damage. It is far better to honour a living tree, outdoors.
The tree may be decorated with appropriate offerings, fruit, decorated pine cones, jewellery, symbols of the sun, symbols of fertility, birds, animals, etc. At yule we say goodbye to the dying sun, and wait through the long, cold night for the sun’s rebirth. The night belongs to the Goddess, and is a night of waiting, through her pregnancy, for the Child of Promise.
In the morning we greet the new sun and celebrate the waxing year. The rising sun brings the promise of the spring and the gifts that will bring. It is still a long time before the sun will be strong, but we hope and we trust. The sun is now the Child of Promise, the young hero God. It is a time of making wishes and hopes for the coming year, and of setting resolutions. From the darkness comes light.
IMBOLC or BRIDE – 1st FEBRUARY
The Festival of Imbolc or Bride, is celebrated around 2nd February by Pagans, and by Christians who call it Candlemas. Imbolc is Irish- Gaelic, translated variously as “in the belly” and “ewe’s milk”, and represents the quickening of Light and Life.
The first stirrings of the coming of Spring can be seen, as the first flowers (snowdrops and winter aconite) begin to appear. Seeds which have lain dormant within the Earth over the cold Winter months begin to stir with life, as yet unseen. At Imbolc we celebrate the Waking Light of the soul. Our spirits begin to quicken as we anticipate the rebirth of Nature. In Wicca it is the traditional time for initiation. Now is the time for the banishing of Winter and the welcoming of Spring. We welcome the Goddess Who is renewed, reborn as the Flower Maiden. She has passed through Her phase as the Hag, Crone or Wise One, and is a Maiden again. Bride or Brigid is a three-fold Celtic Goddess who has been christianized into St. Brigid, whose day is celebrated on 1st February.
In Ireland, St. Brigid’s cross is made of rushes and straw, and goes back to pre-Christian times, representing the Sun Wheel or Fire Wheel. It may also be linked to an ancient ceremony connected with the preparation of the grain for sowing in the Spring. It was believed that the Spirit of the Grain, or the Goddess Herself, resided in the last grain harvested, and the last grain from the Harvest Festival was ritually brought into the house at Imbolc, blessed and planted as the first seed of the next harvest.
The grain may also be made into a female figure, the Brideog (little Brighde) and dressed. Bride’s bed is made, and She is welcomed in. The Goddess is seen in Her three aspects at Imbolc, as the new-born Flower Maiden; the Mother, or bride of fertility, awaiting the fertilizing Sun God, and the Dark Crone of the dark half of the year. The sun is growing in strength, the Child of Promise, re-born at Yule, is now the Conquering Child.
What was born at the Solstice begins to manifest, and this is the time for individuation, as we each light our own light, and set ourselves tasks and challenges. We nurture and kindle our resolutions and begin to look outwards again, do outer activity, although first we look deep within to discover what potential lies there waiting to be fulfilled.
Through the weeks ahead the days grow gradually longer, but we are still in the dark half of the year (until Beltaine) and this is the time to develop non-physical skills, such as psychometry, clairvoyance and precognition.
EOSTRE: THE SPRING EQUINOX – 21st MARCH
This festival is named after the Anglo-Saxon Goddess Eostre or Eastre, also known in Old German as Ostara. Little is known about this Goddess, except that her festival was celebrated at the Spring Equinox, and became Easter, and that She was a Goddess of fertility. She was later connected with hares and eggs.
She may also be connected with the Greek Eos and the Roman Aurora, both Dawn Goddesses, and with the Babylonian Ishtar and Phoenician Astarte, both love Goddesses.
The Anglo-Saxon lunar month, which became April, was called Eastermonath. The equinox is a time both of fertility and new life, and of balance and harmony. Light and dark are here in balance, but the light is growing stronger. It is a time of birth, and of manifestation. Daffodils, tulips and crocuses are all in full bloom, blossom appears on trees and catkins can be found on the hazel and willow. Rites are best performed at dawn or dusk, (but better at Dawn) that time between light and dark.
The days grow lighter and the earth grows warmer. As at Imbolc, seeds may be blessed and planted. Seeds of wisdom, understanding, and magickal skills may also be planted. Eggs may be used for the creation of talismans, or ritually eaten. The egg is a symbol of rebirth, and its yolk represents the sun, its white, the Goddess. Egg production in hens is stimulated when the bird’s retina is stimulated by more than 12 hours of light, thus more eggs are produced after the equinox.
This is a time both of growth and of balance, and we may work on balancing ourselves and the subtle energies within us, such as our chakras, the inner masculine and feminine qualities, the light and dark aspects, etc. The equinox is also the time of Persephone’s return from the underworld, to re-unite with Her mother Demeter, making the earth green again.
This is the time of spring’s return, the joyful time, the seed time, when life bursts forth from the earth and the chains of winter are broken. It is a time of balance when all the elements within must be brought into new harmony. The Prince of the Sun reaches out His hand, and the Kore, the maiden, returns from the dark underworld. Where they dance, wild flowers appear, sorrow turns to joy, and scarcity turns to abundance.
BELTAINE – 1st MAY
The Spiral Dance Beltaine (also spelled Bealteinne, Bealtaine and various other ways) is the beginning of the Celtic Summer, the light season of the year. Like Samhain, it is a time when the veil is thin between the worlds, a time to communicate with spirits, particularly at this time nature spirits. In Irish Gaelic, Bealtaine is the name of the month of May.
In Scottish Gaelic Bealtuinn means May Day. The word originally meant “Bel Fire”, and Beltane is associated with the Celtic God Bel, also known as Balor or Belenus. Bel is a God of Light and Fire and has been equated with the Greek Apollo, and associated with the Sun, although He is not specifically a Sun God. Fires were traditionally built at Beltane, and people would jump over the fire. Young, unmarried people would leap the bonfire and wish for a husband or wife, young women would leap it to ensure their fertility and couples leap it to strengthen a bond.
Cattle were driven through the ashes or between two Beltane fires to ensure a good milk yield. The maypole, still used in Mayday festivities, represents both the phallus and the Goddess. It is also the World Tree connecting the three Worlds, its root in the Underworld, its branches in the Heavens. The shaman`s spirit may travel between the realms via the World Tree, and the phallus is also connected with life, love and death.
The phallus and the World Tree may be seen as two aspects of the God in His relationship to the Goddess in His cycle of birth, death and rebirth. The May Queen is still elected in many village May Day festivals, although the May King is largely left out these days (apart from in Pagan circles). The May King is the Green Man, and was often covered entirely with leaves.
The mating of the Green Man with the Goddess as Queen of May was a magickal act considered necessary for the fertility of the Earth. Beltane is a time of fertility and is also an excellent time for Handfastings, the couple enacting the HeirosýÓgamos, or sacred marriage. The Hawthorn tree (also called the May tree) blossoms at this time, and we are in the Hawthorn month. The blossoms can be gathered, and a delicious wine made from them, to be drunk the following Beltane. Celebrate Beltane by taking pleasure in life and enjoying the gifts of the Goddess.
LITHA: SUMMER SOLSTICE – 21st JUNE
At the Summer Solstice the sun is at its highest and brightest and the day is at its longest. The Lord of Light has fought the powers of darkness, and is triumphant, ensuring fertility in the land. But in so doing so, He sows the seeds of His own death. The Wheel turns and the Dark God (the Holly King) begins to wax in power as the Light God (Oak King) wanes.
The Goddess shows Her Death- in-Life aspect, the Earth is fertile, and all is in bloom, the Goddess reaches out to the fertilizing Sun God at the height of His powers. At the same time She presides over the death of the God. The Goddess dances Her dance of Life and Death, the Sun God loves Her, and dies of His love. The Summer Solstice is a time of fulfilment of love.
Flowers are in bloom everywhere, i.e. in sexual maturity, ready for pollination, fertilization, yet once fertilized they die that the seeds and fruits may develop. At the same time, summer fruits appear, for a short but delicious season.
June was considered by some to be the luckiest month to be married in, and is the time of the mead moon, or honey moon. A tradition was for newly weds to drink mead daily for a month after their wedding, hence the post wedding holiday being named the honeymoon. Although the days begin to grow shorter after the Summer Solstice, the time of greatest abundance is still to come. The promises of the Goddess and God are still to be fulfilled.
This is a time of beauty, love, strength, energy, rejoicing in the warmth of the sun, and the promise of the fruitfulness to come. It seems a carefree time, yet in the knowledge of life, is the knowledge of death, and beauty is but transitory. We celebrate life, and the triumph of light, but acknowledge death, and the power of the Dark Lord which now begins to grow stronger.
At this time of year, our physical energy is generally at its peak, and we are active and strong. Games involving a show of strength, such as tug of war, wrestling, etc. are appropriate here, and are often staged at summer fayres. This can be considered a remnant of pagan customs involving the battle between the light and dark Gods.
LUGHNASADH – 1st AUGUST
Lughnasadh or Lammas is celebrated on August eve or August 1st and is the festival of the first of the harvests. Lammas is the Anglo-Saxon name for the festival, meaning Loaf mass. Lughnasadh is the festival of Lugh, a Celtic God of Light and Fire and God of crafts and skills. His Welsh form is Llew Law Gyffes, and in the Mabinogion story of Blodeuwidd and Llew, the theme of Llew as the sacrificed God can be seen (we need of course to consider the pre-Christian origins of the story).
Gronw can be seen as the Dark God of the Waning year, and Llew as the Bright Lord of the Waxing year, Blodeuwidd represents the Goddess in Her Flower Maiden aspect. Lammas or Lughnasadh then has the theme of the sacrificed God of the harvest, but he is sacrificed and transformed, rather than descending into the underworld to become Lord of Death, which comes later in the year.
Lammas is a time of the fullness of Life, and a celebration of the bountiful earth. It is a time of the sacrificial mating of Goddess and God, where the Corn King, given life by the Goddess and tasting of Her love is sacrificed and transformed into bread and ale which feeds us. The main themes of Lammas may therefore be seen as thanksgiving to the Goddess for Her bountiful harvest, stating our hopes for what we wish to harvest (for Lammas is the very beginning of the harvest), sacrifice, transformation, and a sharing of the energy of the Corn King.
MODRON: THE AUTUMNAL EQUINOX – 21st SEPTEMBER
The two equinoxes are times of equilibrium. Day and night are equal and the tide of the year flows steadily, but whilst the Spring Equinox manifests the equilibrium before action, the Autumnal Equinox represents the repose after action, the time to take satisfaction in the work of the summer and reap its benefits.
The Autumnal Equinox is celebrated on 21st September, and is the second harvest festival, with the fruit being gathered in. We celebrate the abundance of the earth, and make wine from the excess fruit, to preserve the richness of the fruits of the earth to give us joy throughout the year.
This is the time of the Vine. The God, who was Lord of the Greenwood in the summer and the Corn King at Lughnasadh now dances His last dance upon the earth, as Dionysus, God of wine, music and dance, before making his descent to the underworld to take up his role as Dread Lord of Shadows. The Lord of Light, the Sun King, His power waning, exists briefly in balance with the Dark Lord before giving way to the growing power of darkness, but the power of the sun is encapsulated in the grape and the fruits of the earth.
The wine will remind us of his power throughout the year. The leaves falling from the trees and rotting into the earth are a reflection of the Horned God’s journey from the Greenwood to the underworld, deep into the womb of the Mother, where He will reside until He begins to emerge with the new green shoots in the spring. The Autumnal Equinox marks the completion of the harvest, and thanksgiving, with the emphasis on the future return of that abundance.
The Eleusinian mysteries took place at this time, during which the initiate was said to have been shown a single ear of grain with the words “In silence is the seed of wisdom gained”. The themes then of the Autumnal Equinox are the completion of the harvest, the balance of light and dark, and of male and female, and an acknowledgement of the waning power of the sun and the waxing power of the Dark Lord.
Write down the following questions in your magickal diary and then work through them one by one, you can draw on the material given or use other reference material, remember the more work you put in, the more you will get out of your work so do take your time!
a) When is the next Sabbat? Which one is it? Explain what this sabbat and the time of the year mean to you and how it affects your environment.
b) Describe the aspects of the Goddess at the different sabbats/seasons.
c) Go to a nearby forest or park and gather any items such as leaves, flowers, etc that represent the current season. These items can be put on a shrine if you have one. You can also draw pictures or make something which represent the current season for your own shrine or altar.