The Turning of the Wheel

Happy Beltane!!

I’ve been meaning to write this post out for such a long long time so I am very happy to deliver it today on Beltane! Happy Reading 🙂

As we move into the age post religion and with more and more people subscribing to the notion of “spiritual” rather than religious along with the hugely growing ‘green movements’ spanning the globe, experts expect eco-friendly pagan movements will continue to grown. It is estimated around a million people identify with the term ‘pagan’ in the US, the same in Canada and twice as many across Europe. Good news for Mother Earth I say as we look to strengthen the trend in taking the balance with nature more into consideration.

Pagan traditions need to be described as non-organised religions as there is no central holy text’s or traditional places of worship as well as no set-in-stone standardized ritual proceedings one must adhere too, to follow. The details are left to specific traditions, covens and even the solitary practitioner.

As these ancient nature based religions continue in their evolution, it appears that Paganism will be the ‘catchall’ terms for believers outside of the major religious faiths with movements such as Wicca, Neo-Druidism, the Goddess Movement tending to fall under this neo-paganism or contemporary umbrella term. Although different branches, they tend to share characteristics such as polytheistic worship, honouring the female divine principle and most rewarding for myself; being nature focused and aligned with the seasons.

For all this flexibility, there is a central structure that serves as a foundation to these differing traditions: The Wheel of the Year which details the celebrated eight holidays in these paths. We would do well to hold in our awareness that the cosmology of pagan traditions is cyclical; much like Eastern religions, they acknowledge that everything is in a perpetual cycle of birth, death and rebirth. The cycle that is followed is via the season’s annual progression and also includes the waxing and waning strength of the sun with feasts and holidays typically recognizing the key points in the annual cycle, particularly giving reverence to the beginning and peak of each of the four seasons.

The wheel follows eight widely celebrated holidays, ‘Sabbats’, throughout the year and each is marked with its appropriate seasonal rituals. These Sabbats fall on ‘quarter days’ and ‘cross-quarter days’, corresponding with Equinoxes and Solstices. The modern innovation of the eightfold wheel showcases each Sabbat and the approx six or seven weeks in between each.

The most commonly known; Winter and Summer Solstice’s, along with the Spring and Autumn Equinox’s are the four points referring to the solar calendar, commonly called ‘Solar Festivals’ which mark the Earths passage around the sun. The other four, typically called ‘Earth Festivals’ are based on Celtic festivals marking out the ‘cross-quarter days’ between the solar points. They occur in February, May, August and October. Depending which tradition you are practising within, there are a variety of names used; I typically use the Celtic names of Imbolc, Beltane, Lughnasadh, and Samhain. (For example; Beltane, celebrated on 1st May – Today! – falls approx halfway between the Spring Equinox and the Summer Solstice.

Pre-Christianity, these festivals were about honouring and giving thanks for the harvests along with fertility, family and rites of passage. The sacred story behind the wheel of the year differs  from tradition to tradition however one widely celebrated story belongs to the God and his Goddess as the divine pair responsible for all of creation in nature and each one honoured in the cycles of all plant and animal life during the course of the year.

The God is representative of the Sun and the Earth as the Goddess; both the presence and the absence of sunlight, creation and warmth over the course of a year tracks the ascent and descent of these godly creatures. And The Earth remains steadfast and present throughout the whole creation, decay and re-birthing process.

The underlying vision of endless birth/death/rebirth cycle is one of balance between the female and male universal energies and the Sabbats can be viewed as representing a particular stage of each cycle as a profoundly rewarding spiritual practise. The title of ‘Turning the Wheel” refers to how many witches view their participation in Sabbats as acknowledgement of their co-creative relationship with nature and the Sabbats help to bring this connection about more consciously.

Although it could take another few good generations before we are celebrating Samhaim over Halloween or Yule over Christmas, I invite you to walk the Wheel of Pagan Calendar with me…

{These dates are for the Northern Hemisphere only… because the Equinoxes and Solstices happen at precise moments in time, they may fall on different dates in different parts of the world, and the date can vary from one year to the next. Therefore, a range of possible dates is given for the solar Sabbats}

Yule, deep in Midwinder is celebrated on or around December 19th – December 23rd and it highlights themes such as reflection, rebirth, new year, setting intentions, celebration of light and quiet introspection. Yule, or the Winter Solstice as it is commonly referred to, is the shortest day and longest night we experience in the Northern Hemisphere and is in some traditions to be the Sabbat that begins the Wheel (Samhaim for a majority of other traditions). 

Yule is a fire festival and is a time of celebrating the return of the light as we start the ascent towards the Sun’s total power with the days gradually growing longer until we reach the climax of the Summer Solstice. The Sabbat is asking us of patience as the waning time of the year is near and light and warmth will reign once more!

The importance of the Winter Solstice has been celebrated for thousands of year, ever since we humans came to recognise the ever changing skies during the course of seasons. The ancient Greeks, Romans & Persians, among others celebrated this time as a birthing of one or more gods, so when the leaders of the Christian Church took up their foolish yet cunning plan to use this time to celebrate the birth of Jesus, they strengthened their strategies of conversion as they began to align their holidays with the already existing pagan festivals, with Yule deriving from Pre-Christian festivals of Germanic tribes and believed to have been handed down from Ancient Norse.

Traditions vary from one to another, yet many believe the God is reborn at Yule after the death at the previous Sabbat of Samhain/Halloween and the weak and fragile quality of sunlight during these short days is symbolized by the God in its infancy requiring substance become coming back to full power.

The Goddess, who has been in her Crone role these past few months, is now once again in her Mother role having just given birth to the God. She represents the Earth, remaining still and silent for awhile yet as she rests and gathers strength from her labor. This is a celebration of the renewal of life, but compared to other Sabbats it is a relatively quiet, indoor holiday, as people gather within the warm shelters of their homes to be with one another and give thanks. As a Yule ritual, many decorate their altar and house with evergreen branches, such as cedar, pine, hemlock and spruce, as well as bright sprigs of holly, pinecones, and other festive winter flora. Candles are paramount to this Sabbat, of course, with Yule traditions emphasizing the colours of green, red and white an gold. You can also burn a sacred Yule log! Interestingly, many traditions which are generally thought of as belonging to Christmas—including the Yule log, a decorated tree, wreaths, and even caroling—are actually rooted in Pre-Christian pagan traditions. The Norse celebrated with bonfires, feasting and storytelling while for the Romans it was the peak of the weeklong saturnalia festivals when houses were decorated with greenery, candles were burnt and presents were exchanged. The Celtic Druids burned a Yule log to banish the darkness and any spirits accompanying it.

Imbolc or Candlemas is celebrated on February 1st/2nd and is another fire festival associated with the Goddess Brigid (Also Brighid, Bride, Brigit, Brid) celebrating the coming end of winter and the beginning of the growing cycle in the northern hemisphere as we watch the first signs of sprig upon us with the blooming of flowers and the emergence of animals from their winter long hibernation. This cross quarter day (midway between the winter solstice and the spring equinox) welcomes the arrival of the warmer months with it, a time of promise, hope, renewal, purification and hope of the coming year.

The word ‘Imbolc’ is an old irish word and relates to the birthing of the first lambs of the season, sometimes translated as ‘”ewe’s milk”, with some witches choosing to honour this Sabbat by feasting on dairy products.

We give thanks to the growing daylight as the God is developing and strengthening his power whilst the Goddess is stepping into her Maiden role. Life is quickening and the earth is working to prepare it’s soils for our crops; a metaphor for the final stages of preparation that may be required before we meet the light. We celebrate renewals and ritual cleansing after the long winter inside, purifying our space and ourselves by the lighting of white, yellow, orange and red candles and sprigs of the first flowers and besoms (decorative brooms) to mark our initiations.

Many cultures celebrated some type of cross quarter festival during this time, Pre-Christiany, and it seems that the Celtic goddess of Brigid has held the longest, perhaps due to her ‘triple goddess’ status of patroness of poetry, healing and smithcraft; each being a central element in Celtic times. The fire element is not with meaning; fire being the transformational element in the smithcraft professions.

Imblocs marks the arrival of first signs of spring and recognize the importance of a bountiful new farming season as well as ensuring the supply of food from the previous harvest will be sufficient.

Ostara (March 19th – March 23rd) symbolizes the Mother Goddess rejoining her son who spent the winter in death and celebrates balance, renewal, action, new possibilities and beginnings and hope with its themes. Situated between Imbolc and Beltane, this is a time of officially noting Springs arrival, noting the extremes that can be found amid the seasons. It is the Vernal (Spring) Equinox, the moment of exact balance between the light and the dark and also goes by the names of Alban Eiler, Rites of Spring, Eostra’s Day, Vernal Equinox, March Equinox, Spring Equinox, Lady Day and Bacchanalia.

In the mythology of the old ways, the growing daylight serves as a reminder that the God is moving from his infancy towards maturity and we see this principle played out as the Earth becomes warmer and breeds life in its fertility just as the Goddess moves into her full power in the Maiden role. We awaken to a time of child life wonder and innocence as the end of winter arrives and life is once again springing up around us. The balance is towards a cooling energy. We celebrate with fresh flowers and newly potted plants, casting our sacred circles with flower petals and our rituals and spells during Ostara promoting balance and renewal.

We can journey inwards and quest upon the habits and patterns that we would like to let go of and plants the seeds of which that we’d like to grow in the coming months – both literally in the gardens and in terms of personal growth. The deity of Ostara was a northern european goddess of fertility who was upheld for the qualities of fertility and abundance, celebrated by the Germanic tribes, and once again with the rise and domination of Christianity, the church eventually adopted ‘Easter’ to mark the time, furthering the strategy of conversion and eliminating pagan religions.

Yet, even with the decline of honouring The Old Ways, its roots live on in many customs  today; painting eggs was a tradition practised among Druids and the Eastern European cultures and the Rabbits symbolism of fertility was there a long time before Christianity adopted it to market the Chocolate giving Easter Bunny! It is during this time that we celebrate renewal of life on earth with the welcome arrival of spring and we can also look to the goddess’s of Aphrodite and Hathor.

Beltane (1st May) is now celebrated as May Day or Floralia and Calan Mai and pays homage to the union of the Lord and Lady and the coming of the Summer with fertility, passion, mischief, sensuality and sexuality all playing important themes. This is a celebration of lust, beauty and romance as we mark the return of vitality to both the Earth and Sun. Life is in full bloom and the young are growing into maturity with days becoming long and stronger in the Sun’s rays. Love and Commitment are honoured on this Sabbat with many hand fastings taking place.

Beltane is a very potent, creative and sensual Sabbat celebrating the rise of sexual energy and co-creation as the God and Goddess come together in physical union having both reach full maturity in their growth over spring. Their coming together ensures the life cycle is bound as the God will now be reborn of the Goddess after his death in late Autumn. The deeply symbological merging of masculine and feminine is not to be downplayed as the life force at work in all of creation. Here we see the Goddess stepping into her Mother aspect as the God has almost reached his pinnacle height of his power.

In the ancient Roman cultures, Floralia was celebrated on this day and many eastern and Germanic tribes celebrated a day of Walpurgisnacht, whilst in England the holiday took on the name as May Day where people gathered around a tall wooden pole – said to represent male virility – which they decorated with flowers and green branches or brightly coloured ribbons and danced the day away around it – a custom that has never entirely died out. It is also common to host a Beltane fire festival as was the custom in ancient Irish settlements, of where the name arrives from, said to protect and purify their cattle from illness by walking them between two fires in a ritual to cleanse them and connect with the suns energy. As was the custom for people to jump over a bonfire, said to promote good luck and fertility.

Beltane, an ancient celtic word meaning ‘bright fire’ allows us to understand the importance of fire during this Sabbat, along with a ‘wedding feast’ for the God and Goddess, typically including breads, grains and oats and often would spend the night outdoors, honouring the sexual sensual themes of this time; her with braids in her hair to mark the union between God and Goddess.

And here we arrive to a Midsummer’s evening, usually 21st June when the sun has reached its highest point in the sky and what we call Midsummer, Summer Solstice, Gathering Day, St. John’s Day, St. John’s Eve, Alban Hefin, Feill-Sheathain all celebrating abundance, growth, masculine energy and love and magic. “Litha” is a name given by some wiccan’s to mark the longest day and shortest night of the year and from here on out, the suns departure each day, that much shorter as we move back to the coming winter months, giving thanks to the sun’s rays and life provided with it.

Here the God is now at his fullest point, symbolized by the sun at its highest point and the Goddess of Earth is bringing forth the greatest abundance of the years as the crops reach their full maturity and the forests are bursting with life. We prepare for the upcoming harvest season, only a few short weeks away, as we pause to reflect upon the manifestation of what was planted in the early weeks of spring. Again we are in reverence to the Sun and its fiery element and we pay homage to the Horned God of the Forest with its wild nature, along with the element of Water; paying respect to both by setting fire to large wheels and rolling them down hills to lakes, rivers and creeks, some say as a ritual against summer droughts.

Here we go out to forage collecting wild herbs for medicine and magic, hence “Litha” or Gathering Day as it was known in Wales, celebrating with summer flowers and fruits. We realign with God and Goddess spirituality orienting ourselves with love and gratitude. Burn a candle throughout this long day and perform your magic at noon with the Sun to aid your intentions. Be outside, eating, sleeping and fire up your life.

Litha, an older name for the Solstice, is known as Midsummer’s as Beltane traditionally marks its arrival and Litha (traced back to an old Anglo-Saxon word for the month of June) marks its midpoint, yet many pagans choose to use the traditional naming of Midsummer or Solstice. Where Yule is concerned with the Suns arrival, Midsummer is an honouring rite to its warmth. Li, the Goddess of light was celebrated in China with Christians adopting St. John the Baptist.

Lammas (Lughnasadh), between August 1st – August 2nd is a harvest festival, celebrated with a feast for its first fruits with gratitude and benevolent sacrifice. Also known as Lughnasa, August Eve, Feast of Bread, Harvest Home, Gŵyl Awst, First Harvest, Lammas is one of the four “Greater Sabbats,” making it one of the most important days on the Wiccan Wheel of the Year. It is another cross-quarter day between the summer solstice and the Autumn Equinox, marking the beginning of the harvest season.

It is the hottest time of the summer but we are also start to become aware of the creeping Autumn with first grains ready to be harvest and trees beginning to drop their fruits and the ever shortening days.

We look to give thanks for the abundance of the growing season and continue to reap what we sow (A key precept in Pagan cultures). We express our gratitude and pause to reflect on our intentions that have so far unfolded during the year.

Here the God’s power begins to wane and in some traditions, the Sun God infuses the grain with his power and is sacrificed with the cutting of grain. This gave rise to the tradition of placing the first bread baked with the grains first crop in a church; showing us a period when Pagan beliefs and Christianity were able to co-exist for a time. Lammas means “Loaf Mass” taken from old Anglo-Saxon and bread making is a common way to mark the Sabbat as it represents bringing the seeds of intention into fruition, as well as making a corn dolly for use in spell work and rituals.

The Ancient Celtic Festival celebrated the god Lugh on this day, with this Sabbat holding the name of “Lughnasa”. Lugh is a craftsman including building, poetry and magic. The Irish legends tell a tale of him holding a funeral feast, along with sport competitions to honour his foster mother “Tailtiu”” after she died from exhaustion from clearing the plains of Ireland in preparation for the people to grow crops.

In the mythological story of the Wheel of the Year, the Sun God transfers his power into the grain, and is sacrificed when the grain is harvested. So, we have a dying, self-sacrificing and resurrecting god of the harvest, who dies for his people so that they may live.” (The White Goddess, 2017).

Lugh, the Celtic God of light, was a great warrior so you can find some pagans celebrating this day with competitive games. The harvest continues until Samhain.

Mabon (Autumnal Equinox) – September 20th – 24th is the second of the three Harvest festivals (Lammas, Mabon & Samhain) where we are asked to pause and give thanks and gratitude and start preparing the way for the final harvesting and welcoming of the darkness to come.

Autumnal Equinox, Fall Equinox, September Equinox, Harvest Tide, Harvest Home, Harvest Festival, Wine Harvest, Feast of Avalon, Alben Elfed, Meán Fómhair, Gwyl canol Hydref are other names of this Sabbat. Mabon, with it’s opposite at the other side of the wheel is Ostara and both Sabbats mark out days and nights of equal length so with temperatures still warm,  we acknowledge summer is nearing its end with leaves turning their delicious reds and burnt oranges leaving a crisp carpet beneath our feet and the nights become the reign as the God exiting from the stage of seasons spiraling towards his symbolic death at Samhain. Similar to Ostara, the theme of balance and temporary is here signifying that all changes, no season lasts forever and that the union of Darkness and Lightness is needed.

We express our gratitude to the God and Goddess at all Sabbats for the blessings in our lives, yet at Mabon we pay special homage, for we are harvesting the fruits of our work during this busy and tiring time so this Sabbat allows a brief respite from the fields as we gather together to enjoy with feasts of seasonal fruits and nuts. Modern day means that many of us are disconnected from growing our own foods, yet we can still give thanks and appreciation for all that we have, recognizing a need of balance between work and play. Rusty reds, burnt oranges, browns and golds are appropriate as we cast our spellwork towards protection and security, self confidence and prosperity.

SAD or Seasonal Affective Disorder is said to affect peoples moods during the darker winter months so this is a good time to set intentions for strength and planning how to use your winter restorative time for creative goods. You could make and charge a talisman for this purpose as it accompanies you through the next two months.

Mabon is a recent adoption as a name, coming into use sometime in the late 20th century and has its history in a Welsh mythological figure whose origins are connected to a divine son and mother pair; again we see another reference to the dual nature of the relationship between masculine and feminine or God and Goddess.

Samhain October 31st – November 1st widely celebrated as Halloween, but also goes by Samhuin, Oidhche Shamhna, , Third Harvest, Day of the Dead, Feast of the Dead (Félie Na Marbh), Shadowfest, Ancestor Night, Feile Moingfinne (Snow Goddess), Winter Nights, Old Hallowmas, Calan Gaeaf. It is a time to appreciate and celebrate those who have passed on and to give honour to the dead. It is said that that the veils between this world and the next are thinnest, which makes it easier to communicate with the spirits and celebrates themes of death, rebirth, divination, honouring ancestors and introspection as well as mischief and revelry. In particular, the Druids believe that the thinness of the veil can allow them to see into the future.

Samhain – which is my favourite Sabbat! – marks the third and final harvest festival on the Wheel of the Year and the end of the growing season as we advance towards winter. Herbs are dried and preservation of the harvest is busy underway. The word is coming from the old irish and is thought to translate as ‘Summers End’ which is fitting as it celebrates those who have ended their time here on Earth as they cross over to the other side. The nights are growing noticeably longer as the God retreats into the shadows of the dark season, which can be understood from a symbolic point of view as dying back to the Earth before rebirth at Yule.

This Sabbat is undoubtedly the most popularized and mainstream Sabbat, celebrated largely as Halloween, yet many are not aware that they are fact honouring pagan traditions; trick or treating is a echo of ancient greece when it was customary to leave offerings for the dead and the practise of pumpkin carving with a candle burning inside was a way to guide spirits visiting on Earth to the correct house for contact. To dress up as a witch on this day, is not overlooked as many witches feel this is the most potent time for spell work, especially in terms of honouring the God’s passing and giving thanks to God and Goddess for the abundance received over the past year.

It is customary to dress your altar with those who have passed and many leave a small offering of food to any spirits who happen to pass by. Loved ones who have died are invited to join in the end of harvest feasts and are asked to watch over the newest members of the community (Samhain is also the time when all those born during the past year are officially welcomed into the community).

The ancient greeks worshipped Hecate on this day as it is said that this goddess is of the underworld so any work around banishings, protection, clearings of obstacles are favoured as well as scrying, reading tarot, rune casting along with the other divination tools.

The Celts celebrated Samhain as the end of the old year and the start of the new; the Celtic calendar was divided into a dark half and a light half, rather than the traditional four seasons we adhere too. They celebrated the dark year, beginning on November 1st, but because the Celtic day began at night, (Sunset to Sunrise) October 31st is commonly celebrated before they moved into the light half of the year. Most, if not all, pagans begin their Wheel of the Year on this day too.

So there we have it, around the wheel we went! I hope it has been helpful to grasp the key concepts of this time old tradition and its rites. I also hope it became clear that this Wheel of Sabbats holds its roots in both the Celtic/Gaelic Pagans and the Germanic Pagans and it is the weaving together of both traditions that has led to the creation of the Wheel of the Year. There is much speculation, discussion and debate as to these origins however, it is not my intention, neither the intention of this post to debate this. These natural occurrences as the Sun dances around the Earth have been recognized, celebrated and honoured by many of the ancient cultures and civilizations of humans.

If you don’t find these Sabbats resonating with you, but feel the call for some seasonal work, consider the following as aids in your intention setting:

Winter is an inwards time of reflection; hibernation, resting, preparing and introspection is natural during the cold winter months. It is a time of where we can look back and wonder, what is in the past that we may learn from, let go of and contemplate the future; what seeds do we wish to plant in the coming spring…

Spring welcomes in new; beginnings, growth, opportunities, abundance and fertility. We would be wise to set in motion new goals, intentions and ideas into our life. We are leaving the cold winter months behind us and have done the work of reflection and inwards journeying to prepare for this period. Spring beckons and invites us back out into the world, to feel the warm sun on our face and plant new seeds both literally and figuratively.

Summer is action; We are gifted with the longest days of the year, giving us longer hours for us to accomplish tasks and dreams as well as relax as everything should now be in full bloom. A time to think about what you would like to have come to completion or fruition in your life and to free yourself of those things that will not bring forth a rich harvest.

Autumn is harvesting; picking up our fruits and allows us to reap our benefits. During the time of harvesting, we are able to see the fruit of our labors and the sweat and love we have put into the majority of the year nurturing and tending too. This is the time to evaluate and recognize the work and seeds we planted back in spring, did it bring forth fruit? If not, what stood in our way – either internally or externally. If so, did we play small and could we dream bigger next year? By looking at the aspects in our life that bore fruit and those that did not we can begin to prepare ourselves by delving in and readying the questions to reflect upon during winter.

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