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The Wheel of the Year

One of the goals of any earth-centered spirituality is to attune oneself with the cycles of nature.  Before modern times this was in a sense automatic, as most folks worked directly with the earth for their basic sustenance.  The practice of agriculture demanded an intimate knowledge of the seasons and weather patterns.  To be out of touch with these cycles could mean disaster by way of starvation.  In today’s world most of us are not farmers.  Our food comes pre-packaged or processed in supermarket stores.  Those of us in urban centers are even more disconnected from natural surroundings, with little space set aside for gardens or parks.  But though awareness of the cycles of nature is not as common as it once was, many still choose to observe and learn as they can.  We may not all study ecology, yet we do all have access to two of the most basic observable patterns – those of the sun and the moon.

In this article I will focus on the solar cycle, which is the basis of the calendar we use today.  Each year is of course one full revolution of the earth around the sun.  Our planet experiences what we know as seasons because of this cycle combined with the factor of the earth’s tilt.  We experience winter when the strength of the sunlight we receive is weakest, not from any change in the sun but rather due to the indirect angle at which it is hitting the surface of the earth.  Summer is likewise the opposite point in the year when the light is most direct.  Observing seasonal changes is something anyone no matter where they live can do.  Allergy sufferers are often keenly aware of these changes!

To truly attune with seasonal cycles though, takes a step beyond simple observation.  Attunement is more than intellectual knowledge; it is a celebration of these processes of nature and an awareness of them in everyday life.  Many religions and cultures mark seasonal holidays for just such a reason.  In modern Wicca these are known as the eight sabbats that comprise the Wheel of the Year.  Each sabbat celebrates either the beginning or midpoint of a given season and has its own set of traditions that have built up over the years.  A brief overview of each follows*:

Samhain (sow-in) is the Wiccan New Year. It falls around the same day of the calendar as secular Halloween and marks the midpoint between the autumn equinox and the winter solstice.  It is a time of traditions that honor loved ones who have passed on, and many believe that at this time the boundary between the worlds of the living and the dead is blurred or thin.  Many practice divination around Samhain.

Yule is the winter solstice. It is the shortest day of the year, with all the days following it bringing a bit more daylight going towards summer.  For this reason Yule marks the celebration of the rebirth of the God, metaphorically represented by the sun.  Celebrations of this type are ancient and cross-cultural.  Christmas as a celebration of the birth of Christ is one such version of the Sun-God’s rebirth, bringing the hope of new life that is to come while at the darkest point of the year.

Imbolc, also known as the Feast of Lights, follows Yule.
It is the midpoint of winter and is traditionally a time of inspiration and the seeds of the life that will emerge with spring.  One goddess especially associated with Imbolc is the Celtic Brigid.

Ostara is the beginning of spring and marks the spring equinox. Day and night are even at this point of the year.  Themes of fertility and sprouting life dominate this holiday.  The Christian Easter is around the same time and symbols such as the egg and rabbit actually reflect older pagan observances.

Beltane falls opposite Samhain and is the height of spring. It was one of the greatest festivals for the ancient Celts and was celebrated with large bonfires.  In secular terms we know it as May Day.  Beltane marks the sacred marriage of the God and the Goddess from which all life and fertility flow.  Their union leads to the future miracle of rebirth, as the child she conceives is to become the new God born at Yule.  Practices such as the dancing of the May Pole are folk traditions symbolic of fertility rights and sexuality.

Midsummer or Litha is the summer solstice. As the longest day of the year it is a celebration of the light and warmth of the sun.  Life is at its peak, and fruits of the earth abound.  Many Wiccans choose to focus on spells and magic of all kinds at this time.

Lughnasadh (loo-nus-uh) or Lammas is the first of the festivals celebrating the harvest of the coming autumn months. Lugh is a god of the Celts, honored as a sacrificial king whose death mirrors the harvest of the grain.  Bread and corn are symbols of this sabbat, and the baking of all types of loaves is the primary activity.

Mabon is second harvest festival and the autumn equinox.
It is the final stretch of the year leading up to Samhain as the days begin to wane.  As at Ostara day and night are even at Mabon, and many use it as a time for reflection on balancing aspects in their lives.  As a harvest festival it is also a celebration of abundance and family with whom we give thanks for our many blessings.

The descriptions above are the barest of outlines for the sabbats and I heartily recommend Eight Sabbats for Witches by Janet and Stewart Farrar for more information.  The four sabbats falling on solstices or equinoxes (Yule, Ostara, Midsummer, Mabon) are referred to as quarter days, and the others (Samhain, Imbolc, Beltane, Lughnasadh) are termed cross-quarter days.  The latter are modern adaptations of ancient Celtic fire festivals, hence their names and associations with the Celtic gods.  The quarter day holidays may not have been observed all at once in particular cultures, but grew out of folk customs that held over time and were later adapted by Wicca.  By celebrating each of these sabbats as a solitary or with others it is easier to stay in tune with the passing seasons and remember the cycles of planting and harvest that are the ultimate source of our food.  The sun is of course the original source, whose light is converted by agricultural plants into energy we can consume to live.  Our reverence for the sun by commemorating sabbats is really our reverence for sustenance, and our thanks for the miracle of life and rebirth.

* I have composed the knowledge of these sabbats from my own readings and do not claim in any way that these are their only meanings or correspondences.  Different paths will have their own traditions and may or may not attribute the same meanings.

Journal for the Month of January:

Attunement as a solitary is for me the primary part of my practice right after reading as much as I possibly can.  When I don’t remember to mark the sabbats and the cycles of the moon I lose touch with my spiritual practice.  I get sucked right back into daily life, with little appreciation for where my food comes from or what is in season.  It is very easy to get distracted from what is important, and I have to constantly make the effort to immerse myself in nature, because the world I live in isn’t going to do it for me.

Now I’m not someone who romanticizes going back to nature in the sense of separating from the modern world.  I’m a rare camper, and while I thoroughly enjoy outdoor activities I’d say I’m probably still guilty of seeing the outdoors as more of a temporary destination than a home.  I love my air conditioning in the summer.  I burn to a crisp without buckets of sunscreen, attract poison ivy like a magnet, and seem to taste quite yummy to a variety of insects.  In the winter I’m buried under layers of coats and sweaters and feel cold no matter the temperature.  And yet despite all the discomfort I could very well ease by choosing not to go out, I find myself wanting to stand out under the stars and just gaze.  Since choosing this path I see the moon in the sky at night and smile with true happiness.  I want to know what foods are grown locally and what is in season.  I look upon nature with a new appreciation through the metaphor of the God and Goddess.  In short I feel I am beginning to see what is around me and perhaps I’m starting to reconnect.  I take small steps, but a whole new curiosity exists in me that was absent, or maybe just silent, before.

I’m looking forward to Imbolc this year.  Though I started this column late last year my first steps into Wicca were shortly after last year’s Imbolc, and in a sense I consider it my New Years.  It is the time when Persephone emerges from the underworld as the maiden Kore, bringing life and hope once more to a barren world.  New beginnings and renewal are my themes, and I wish a blessed year to all in whatever new endeavors you are pursuing.  May we all reach the heights to which we aim!

Until next month, blessed be! )O(