A Closer Look at the Wiccan Wheel of the Year
The Wheel of the Year is a symbol of the eight Sabbats (religious festivals) of Neo-Paganism and the Wicca movement which includes four solar festivals (Winter Solstice, Spring Equinox, Summer Solstice, Fall Equinox), also known as quarter holidays and ‘Lesser Sabbats’, and four seasonal festivals, celebrating or marking a significant seasonal change, also known as cross-quarter holidays, fire festivals and ‘Greater Sabbats’.
The Sabbats are based on pre-Christian customs derived from various cultures related to the movement of the sun and often centered agricultural benchmarks. Of course, now lots of Pagans live far away from the places where our food is grown. But the Sabbats are still a meaningful way to connect with the cycles of the seasons and of human life.
Contrary to modern-day Wiccan claims, there is no evidence of an ancient Wheel of the Year in its present form, but it is clear that the Celts of thousands of years ago celebrated the festivals the wheel highlights, even if these celebrations were known by another name now long lost.
Instead, the ‘Lesser Sabbats’ are loosely based on or named after the Germanic festivals, and the ‘Greater Sabbats’ are similarly inspired by the Gaelic fire festivals. However, modern interpretations vary widely, so Pagan groups may celebrate and conceptualize these festivals in very different ways, often having little in common with the cultural festivals outside of the adopted name.
The full system of eight yearly festivals held on these dates is unknown in older Pagan calendars, and originated in the modern Wiccan religion.
While names for each festival vary among diverse Pagan traditions, differing sects of modern Paganism also vary regarding the precise timing of each celebration, based on distinctions such as lunar phase and geographic hemisphere.
In the ancient Celtic culture, as in many of the past, time was seen as cyclical. The seasons changed, people died, but nothing was ever finally lost because everything returned again – in one way or another – in a repeating natural cycle. Although time in the modern world is usually regarded as linear, the cyclical nature of life continues to be recognized.
The modern-day Wheel of the Year was first suggested by the scholar and mythologist Jacob Grimm (1785-1863 CE) in his work, ‘Teutonic Mythology’, Deutsche Mythologie, published in 1835. A treatise on Germanic mythology, the work is an exhaustive treatment of the subject, tracing the mythology and beliefs of the ancient Germanic peoples from their earliest attestations to their survivals in modern traditions, folktales and popular expressions.
The Wheel of the Year fleetingly mentioned in Grimm’s book also is not the Wheel of the Year modern Pagans and Wiccans use, either. Although we know that Pagans have been marking each of the 8 festivals individually, shoehorning them into the 8-fold Wheel of the Year was really the doing of modern British occultist Gerald Gardner (the father of modern Wicca, 1884-1964) and Ross Nichols (the founder of the ‘Order of Bards, Ovates and Druids’, or OBOD, 1902-1975), where the Wheel became fixed in its present form in the 1950s and early '60 by the Wicca movement.
Some of you may recognize Jacob Grimm as one of the two Brothers Grimm, authors of long beloved myths and fairytales. Jacob and his brother Wilhelm were German academics, philologists, cultural researchers, lexicographers and authors who together collected and published folklore during the 19th century. They were among the first and best-known collectors of German and European folk tales, and popularized traditional oral tale types such as Cinderella, The Frog Prince, Hansel and Gretel, Rapunzel, Beauty and the Beast, Little Red Riding Hood, The Three Little Pigs, Rumpelstiltskin, Sleeping Beauty, and Snow White.
The modern Wiccan Wheel of the Year, celebrated or otherwise observed in whole or in part by many Pagans, Wiccans and Non-Wiccans, includes the following holy days (most dates flex slightly year-to-year):
Samhain (31 October)
Yule (20-25 December)
Imbolc (1-2 February)
Ostara (20-23 March)
Beltane (30 April-1 May)
Litha (20-22 June)
Lughnasadh (1 August)
Mabon (20-23 September)
These eight festivals are designed to draw one's attention to what one has gained and lost in the cyclical turn of the year. As in the ancient Egyptian civilization (and others), the Celts believed that ingratitude was a 'gateway sin' which then led a person into the darkness of bitterness, pride, resentment, and self-pity. By pausing to reflect upon gratitude for what one had been given in a year, as well as what one had lost but still cherished in memory, one maintained balance.
OCTOBER - NOVEMBER
Common Names: Samhain, All Hallow's Eve, Last/Third/Blood Harvest, Ancestor Night, Feast of the Dead, Nos Galan Gaeaf (Welsh), Halloween, All Saints/All Souls Day(Catholic), Day of the Dead (Mexican), Witches New Year, Shadowfest (Strega), Festival of the Dead, Feast of All Souls
Northern Hemisphere Dates: Oct 31 – Nov 2, though some celebrate between Nov 5–10 during the astronomical Samhain.
Ancient Names and Spellings: Samhiunn, Samana, Samhuin, Sam-fuin, Samonios, Samuin, Hallowe’en, All Hallows’ Eve, Nutcrack Night, Dia de los Muertos, Mischief Night, Martinmas, Hallomas, Trinoux Samonia, Celtic/ Druid New Year, Martinmas or Old Hallowmas (Scotttish/Celtic) Lá Samhna (Modern Irish), Feile Moingfinne (Snow Goddess), Hallowtide (Scottish Gaelis Dictionary), Nos Galen-gae-of Night of the Winter Calends (Welsh), La Houney or Hollantide Day, Sauin or Souney ( Manx), oidhche na h-aimiléise-the night of mischief or confusion(Ireland), Oidhche Shamna (Scotland)
Each Sabbat fell at a time of the year to correspond to the natural cycles of the earth and seasons and Samhain was considered among the most important of these observances. Samhain marks the beginning of the cycle of the year, a kind of New Year’s Day.
Samhain is also sometimes known as the Third Harvest, or Blood Harvest. The first Harvest is at Lammas, around August 1st. This is a Grain Harvest, and baking breads at this time is traditional. The second Harvest is Mabon, or the Autumn Equinox, usually around September 21st. This is the Fruit & Vegetable Harvest, very much like the American Thanksgiving.
Samhain (pronounced 'sou-when') simply means "summer's end" and marks the end of the season of light and the beginning of the season of darkness. In this context, however, 'darkness' should not be equated with evil or sadness but understood as simply a part of the human condition: there must be regenerative darkness for there to be light.
One gave thanks at Samhain for what one had been given in the previous year and reflected upon what one had lost. Samhain is considered by some as a time to celebrate the lives of those who have passed on, and it often involves paying respect to ancestors, family members, elders of the faith, friends, pets, and other loved ones who have died. Physical evidence of the celebration of Samhain in ancient times comes from numerous ancient sites across Ireland, Scotland, Britain, and Wales. Many rituals grew up around Samhain which have become identified with the modern-day observance of Halloween in the United States and are also still observed elsewhere.
HALLOWEEN BONFIRES AND THE PRACTICES OF SO-CALLED 'MISCHIEF NIGHT' ARE TRACEABLE BACK TO SAMHAIN.
Samhain is aligned with the contemporary observance of Halloween and Day of the Dead. In some rituals the spirits of the departed are invited to attend the festivities. It is seen as a festival of darkness, which is balanced at the opposite point of the wheel by the festival of Beltane, which is celebrated as a festival of light and fertility.
In modern Witchcraft and Paganism, it’s largely believed that Spirits of the Dead can move between this world and the next any time of the year. However, Samhain is often recognized as a time when the veil between the living and the dead is at its thinnest. This is known as an 'in-between', a time in which the dead can move more easily into the realm of the living.
In ancient times, far from being a frightening concept, it was thought that one's Ancestors and loved ones who had passed on could visit during this time, and it was customary to prepare a favorite meal and leave out treats for the Spirits of the Dead. However, if one had wronged someone who had passed on, that spirit could return seeking compensation - and so one wore a mask so as not to be recognized.
As the spirit world was inhabited by all kinds of beings in addition to the souls of the dead, such as fairies and sprites who could seduce and abduct mortals, one also had to be wary of traveling at night when their powers were most potent. Disguising oneself with a mask and costume also helped to protect a person from these entities.
Halloween bonfires and the practices of so-called 'mischief night' are traceable back to Samhain. As it was believed that the world began in chaos and was then ordered by the divine forces, it made sense that, on a night when the veil was thinnest between the spirit world and that of mortals, the world might slip back into chaos. Pranks performed the night before the Samhain celebration symbolized chaos while rectifying those pranks the next day meant the restoration of order.
In this same way, the bonfires (originally bone fires in which the offal and bones of slaughtered animals were burned) symbolized a triumph of light and order over darkness. Bonfires are still lighted all across Ireland, Scotland, Britain, and throughout the Hebrides and Orkney on Samhain in recognition of this same concept. This paradigm was reinforced by the next Sabbat of Yule.
Mythology: The Veil thins, allowing the dead to return. Herne leads the Wild Hunt, and the Faery Folk also ride forth. In Celtic and Norse tales, many kings and heroes meet their death on Samhain, often by burning or drowning. In Wiccan lore, the King of the Waning Year reaches the shore of the Shining Isle, where He becomes the Lord of Death and also the seed of His own rebirth, so that the Sun Child is conceived in the womb of the Goddess. In Egypt, people mourn the death of Osiris as the Nile’s water level drops. Chaos reigns, normal order steps aside, and all manner of strange things. All lore agrees that this is no time to wander alone, especially through the wilderness and/or after dark.
Ritual Activities: Divination is popular; singles seek clues about their future spouse, and anyone may scry about the coming year. People light bonfires for protection, purification, offerings, and celebration. In contemporary rituals, Pagans may meditate on death and the afterlife, burn symbols of something they wish to give up, explore their past lives, practice divination, dress in costumes meaningful to them, give children candy to sweeten the future, perform services for elders to make peace with the past, honor those who have recently passed into the next world, or send messages to their beloved dead.
Goddesses: The Crone, Hecate (Greek), Cerridwen (Welsh-Scottish), Arianrhod (Welsh), Caillech (Irish-Scottish), Baba Yaga (Russian), Al-Ilat (Persian), Bast (Egyptian), Persephone (Greek), Hel(Norse), Kali (Hindu), all Death & Otherworld Goddesses
Gods: Horned Hunter (European), Cernnunos (Greco-Celtic), Osiris (Egyptian), Hades (Greek), Gwynn ap Nudd (British), Anubis (Egyptian), Coyote Brother (Native American), Loki (Norse), Dis (Roman), Arawn (Welsh), Sacrificial/Dying/Aging Gods, Death and Otherworld Gods
Common Names: Midwinter, Yule, Cuidle, Alban Arthan, Winter Rite, Mothers Night, Christmas (Christian~December 25), Xmas, Festival of Sol, Solar/Secular/Pagan New Year, Saturnalia (Rome ~December 17 & 18)
Northern Hemisphere Dates: December 19-23
Ancient Names and Spellings: Jul (“wheel”, Old Norse), Yuletide (Teutonic), Fionn’s Day, Alban huan, Gŵyl Galan Gaeaf (Welsh)
Yule celebrated the Winter Solstice, the shortest day and longest night of the year, after which the days grew longer.
Also known as Midwinter, this Sabbat has been recognized since ancient times as a significant turning point in the yearly cycle. The Longest Night of the year heralds the beginning of the Light Half of the year. This promise of longer days symbolizes the rebirth of the solar god.
Practices vary, but offerings, feasting, and gift giving are common elements of Midwinter festivities. Bringing sprigs and wreaths of evergreens (such as holly, ivy, mistletoe, yew, and pine) into the home and tree decorating are also common during this time.
In Celtic tradition, trees were considered sacred because they were the homes of deities and spirits. At Yule, a tree was decorated outdoors in honor of the birth of the sun god and gifts were offered. Evergreen trees were usually chosen as they symbolized the power of life to survive the seasons of the year.
Accompanying the decorated tree is the bonfire which includes the Yule Log. The fire symbolizes the rebirth of light in the land and new beginnings. People who gather around the log often sing songs and throw a piece of holly, symbolizing challenges of the past year, into the flames. A piece of the Yule Log is saved to start the next year’s fire, symbolizing continuity.
Yule also celebrates the triumph of the Oak King over his brother the Holly King, two symbolic entities who represent the seasons. An enduring legend of two mighty rulers fight for supremacy as the Wheel of the Year turns each season. It is a favorite reenactment and ritual or sacred drama at this time for many Pagans. From Yule to mid-summer, the Oak King reigns over the Earth (as the days grow longer) but from mid-summer to Yule, the Holly King gains in power (as days grow shorter and there is less light). The exchange of control over the seasons represents the cyclical nature of life which continues eternally.
History: "Yule" comes from the Old Norse "iul" meaning "wheel" and it marks the Norse New Year. People burned a sacred Yule Log all night long, saving a piece to light the next year’s fire and scattering the ashes over the fields. Druids gathered the sacred mistletoe. In Britain, the "Horn Dance" drives out winter. Another custom, ranging as far as Britain to Greece, involves the hunting and killing of the wren, symbol of winter. In China the emperor performed sacrifices; in Swaziland the king withdrew for several days before emerging to celebrate the sun’s return. Early Christians adapted Winter Solstice motifs to create Christmas, in which the birth of Christ resonates with other Sun/Son Gods born at this time. Also the figure Nik, another guise of Woden, became the gift-distributing St. Nicholas … and then modern Santa Claus.
Mythology: Numerous cultures feature a Goddess giving birth to a Sun God: Isis and Horus in Egypt, Leto and Apollo in Greece, etc. The Hopi kachinas emerge from their underground home to join the tribe. In Italy, the good witch Befana flies down chimneys to bring presents.
In England and Germany, this is also the time of the Wild Hunt, led by Herne or Woden respectively. In Japan, the Sun Goddess Amaterasu emerges from Her cave. In Wicca, the Great Mother brings forth the Sun Child. Alternatively the Oak King, God of the Waxing Year, vanquishes the Holly King, God of the Waning Year. The Goddess shows Her aspect of Life-in-Death.
Ritual Activities: Folk customs ensure the sun’s return. The Yule Log burns. "Wassailing" and "caroling" remain popular. Contemporary Pagan rituals most often take the form of a sacred play, enacting the battle of the Holly King and the Oak King, or celebrating the birth of the Sun Child. They may also exchange gifts, meditate on themes of rebirth and restoration, decorate an evergreen tree, or hold festive dances like the traditional "Horn Dance." Some stay up all through this longest night to greet the sunrise with much rejoicing.
Goddesses: Great Mother, Befana (strega), Holda (teutonic), Isis(egyptian), Triple Goddess, Mary(christian), Tonazin(mexican), Lucina(roman), St. Lucy (swedish),Bona Dea (roman), Mother Earth, Eve(Hebrew), Ops(roman Holy Mother), the Snow Queen, Hertha (German), Frey (Norse)
Gods: Sun Child, Saturn(rome), Cronos (Greek), Horus/Ra(egyptian), Jesus(christian-gnostic), Mithras(persian), Balder(Norse), Santa Claus/Odin(teutonic), Holly King, Sol Invicta, Janus(God of Beginnings), Marduk (Babylonian)Old Man Winter
Names and Celebrations: Candlemas, Imbolc, Brigid's Day, Candlemas (Christian), Festival of Light, Brigid’s (Brid, Bride) Day, Candelaria (Mexico), Chinese New Year, Lupercalia/Lupercus (Strega), Groundhog Day, Valentines Day.
Northern Hemisphere Dates: February 1-2
Ancient Names and Spellings: Imbolg (im-molc)(em-bowl’g) (Celtic), Oimelc, Brigit, Bride's Day, Brigantia (Caledonii), Oimelc, La Fheill, An Fheille Bride, Disting-tid (Feb 14th, Teutonic), DisaBlot, Anagantios, Brigantia, Gŵyl y Canhwyllau (Welsh)
Imbolc (meaning "in the belly" from Old Irish and referencing pregnant sheep) is the mid-point (cross-quarter) between the Winter Solstice and the Spring Equinox and celebrated rebirth and purification. The association of the festival with pregnancy also links it with fertility, hope, and the promise of the future; and these concepts were embodied in the figure of the Celtic goddess Brigid, daughter of The Dagda and one of the Tuatha Dé Danann.
Brigid was the goddess of medicine, poetry, fertility, the forge, and sacred springs. Imbolc celebrations involved weaving dolls of Brigid from corn stalks or making sun wheels of the same or from wheat stalks representing fertility, continuity, luck, and the life principle of fire.
At Imbolc, one looked forward to an early spring which Brigid also symbolized in her role as a fertility goddess. This association of February 1st/2nd with the promise of spring continues to be celebrated in the United States as Groundhog Day and in the Christian tradition as St. Brigid’s day where the former sun wheels are now reinterpreted as Brigid’s crosses.
The cross-quarter Sabbat of Imbolc is a time for purification and spring cleaning in anticipation of the year's new life. In Rome, it was historically a shepherd's holiday, while the Celts associated it with the onset of ewes' lactation, prior to birthing the spring lambs.
Among Reclaiming tradition Witches, this is the traditional time for pledges and re-dedications for the coming year and for initiation among Dianic Wiccans.
History: "Imbolc" means "ewe’s milk" and refers to the start of lambing season. Country folk looked for the first signs of spring: swelling buds on trees, animals stirring from hibernation. Germany’s "Badger Day" became America’s "Groundhog Day," an example of weather divination, popular in many cultures. In Rome the Luperci, or priests of Pan, ran through the streets carrying goatskin thongs, with which to flog women to make them fertile; some women ran naked to give the priests a better target!