Whereas non-pagans are guided by sacred books, pagans are guided by nature. Nature guides us through the course of the seasons. We take our moods, our goals and the way we pursue them, from the seasonal round, which is called ‘The Wheel of the Year’.
Witches of our Celtic tradition follow three interlocking paradigms throughout the year. The course of the Sun throughout the year is plotted by the Wheel of the Year. The course of the lunar month is plotted by the phases of the Moon and their meaning. And the sequence of lunar months through the solar year is plotted by the Ogham Tree Calendar and the Rune of Amergin, as reconstructed by the poet Robert Graves in his seminal work The White Goddess.
It should be emphasized at the start that none of what follows is obligatory for witches. If you follow the Rede and are careful of the energy you put out, bearing in mind the Law of Threefold Return, you can call yourself a witch. The paradigms offered below are tools. Witchcraft is a craft, and witches make use of ideas as tools. More specifically, skills are tools, and lore is building material, like wood or stone or metal. What is important is what you build with them, and that is your personal Craft. Select your tools and materials among the many available, and feel free to make a re-selection. Eventually you will have a house to live in that feels just right.
The Wheel of the Year:
When we follow the Wheel of the Year, we invite nature spirits to contact us and become involved in our personal lives.
The Wheel of the Year is depicted as a circle divided, like the compass, into eight equal segments by radii which contact the circumference at the points of the four cardinal directions plus the directions in between. The eight witches’ sabbats are plotted on these points. They are as follows:
1. Yule – the Winter Solstice. Generally falls between 20 and 23 December. The old Oak King, as his sacred bird robin redbreast, fights and kills the Holly King in his sacred bird-form, the gold crest wren, and hangs the latter from the holly bush. The Oak King is then reborn as the Child of Promise. He rules Middle-Earth until Imbolc, when the Maiden returns to rule with him.
2. Imbolc – The Maiden returns. The original pagan date was 1 February. The christian church moved it to 2 February. Many covens celebrate it on the 2nd because they are unaware of this. The Maiden may meet with the young Oak King and they may mate at this time. If they do, we shall have an early Spring.
3. Ostara – the Spring Equinox. Generally falls between 20 and 23 March. The Maiden and the Oak King are mated and Spring begins in earnest. Witches send out their wishes for the year on a great solar tide.
4. Beltane – May 1st. The preceding evening is called Walpurgis Night. The Maiden becomes the Mother. The handfasting of the Mother and the Oak King, symbolized by the Maypole. Celts regarded this date as the beginning of Summer.
5. Litha – the Summer Solstice. Generally falls between 20 and 23 June. The union of the Mother and the Oak King reaches the acme of power. Then the Holly King appears. He is like the Oak King’s dark twin, his shadow, as the Jungians would say. He fights the Oak King for the favor of the Lady and wins. He kills the Oak King and imprisons his spirit in the sacred oak, which is cognate with the World Pillar.
6. Lammas or Lughnasadh – August 1st. Lammas, meaning ‘loaf mass,’ is the later christian name, but many witches like to focus on baking sacred bread on this eve (July 31st), so the name Lammas is often used. The Mother becomes the Crone.
7. Mabon or Modron – the Autumn Equinox, falling between September 20 and 23. Initiate witches travel in spirit to the threshold of the Summerlands and there invite their ancestors and dead friends to visit them in Middle-Earth during the month of October.
8. Samhain – October 31st. The culmination of the series of ‘dumb suppers’ held with visiting ancestors. Now the gates of the Summerlands open wide, and Herne the Hunter (the Underworld aspect of the Holly King) leads forth the Wild Hunt, comprising human and non-human spirits. The Wild Hunt will range the skies from Samhain to the following Imbolc. Souls of those who have died during the year but failed to find the path to the Summerlands are gathered up at Samhain and shown the way. The Crone goes to the Summerlands to rest for the Winter. The ageing Holly King, soon to become the Lord of Misrule for the December festivities, takes over.
In general, Sabbats are celebrated on the evening before their date. Exceptions are at the solstices and at Beltane and Samhain. The solstices fall on the day of shortest and longest sunlight and should be celebrated on those actual days. Beltane is celebrated both on the preceding evening as Walpurgis Night, and on the following day when the dance around the Maypole and other festivities take place. Samhain, Hallowe’en, is celebrated on the evening of its date, October 31st. Its name means ‘Summer’s end’. The following day is a christian implantation and is ignored by witches.
The Lady and Lord together illustrate dynamic balance. The Lord, the god Cernunnos, is both the Oak and Holly King. They represent opposite tendencies of his dual nature. The Oak King is of Middle-Earth and rejoices in the outer world and its pleasures. The Holly King is an Underworld deity who promotes inner, spiritual work and journeys down the World Pillar to the Summerlands. Left to themselves, they would tear the cosmos apart but the Lady holds them together in harmony. She has three visible aspects: the Maiden, Mother and Crone. (Graves in his witchcraft utopian novel of the future, Watch the Northwind Rise, names these the Maiden, Nymph and Crone.) Unlike Cernunnos, she can manifest any of these at any time: “She is old or young as she wishes.” But left to herself, the harmony she creates would be static. It would be like always eating so many vegetables, or taking so many sips of wine at meals. The extremes of the Oak and Holly Kings add passion and adventure to the cosmic harmony through their excesses, which the Lady keeps within prudent limits. This serves as an example to witches, who seek dynamic balance in their lives. As Lin Yutang once said, pursue moderation moderately.
The word ‘Sabbat’ means ‘restful recreation.’ The word ‘Esbat’ is from Middle French esbattier, and means ‘to frolic.’ Thus the main celebrations of witchcraft are joyous affairs, the farthest thing from the grim oh-so-solemn assemblies of some churches. Esbats are generally held at the Full Moon. When an Esbat and a Sabbat fall on the same date, the Sabbat is given precedence.
Ancient Ways and The Wheel of the Year, by Pauline and Dan Campanelli, are recommended guides to the Sabbats. See also West Country Wicca, by Rhiannon Ryall, as an alternate but related account.
The Wheel and the Elements:
Witches seek a dynamic balance in their lives with humanity, plants, animals, and spirits, both of Middle-Earth and the worlds on The Other Side. In so doing, they focus on the four ancient elements of Air, Fire, Water and Earth. These correspond roughly to the three states of matter (solid, liquid and gas), plus detectable energy (Fire). Etheric matter or energy is a fifth element or ‘quintessence,’ that witches cutivate through achieving a good working balance with the other four, and can be understood as referring to energies not yet detectable by current scientific methods.
Each element has a power contained within it which increases through the practice of witchcraft. Air contains the power to know, Fire the power to will, Water the power to dare, and Earth the power to keep silence. Ether contains the power to go, that is, to conduct spirit journeys either from waking or dream, up and down the World Pillar. Travelling to the Summerlands while in the body is an etheric goal of initiates.
While the four powers are cultivated throughout the year, the four quarters of the Wheel of the Year are each associated specially with one of the elements. The North, from Samhain to Imbolc, is associated with Earth and the power to keep silence, that is, to keep still both mentally and physically, within and without. It is a time favorable to meditation and quiet home handicrafts. The East, from Imbolc to Beltane, is associated with Air and the power to know, that is, the power of understanding. The South, from Beltane to Lammas or Lughnasadh, is associated with Fire and the power to will. And the West, from Lammas or Lughnasadh to Samhain, is associated with water and the power to dare. This means the power to dare to go beyond one’s limits, to reach out for new life, whether through a change of consciousness or of life circumstances.
The major Sabbats occur on the cusps between one elemental quarter and the next, because the transitions from one element to another are of primary importance. Thus, the minor physical Sabbats occupy the cardinal points of the Wheel, while the major spiritual Sabbats are on the points in between.
Imbolc, occurring on the cusp between the power of silence and the power to know, is a time of silent intuition, when images and feelings from the dream-soul (who corresponds in some ways to the Holly King) begin to stir, like lambs in the bellies of ewes at this time of year.
Beltane, occurring on the cusp between the power of knowledge and the power of will, stands for the union not only of heaven and earth, but of theory and practice. Witches are nothing if not practical. The price of knowledge gained in the East is putting it into practice in one’s life in the South, cultivating the will.
Lammas, occurring on the cusp between the power of will and the power of daring, is the time when the witch applies will power to the uncanny realms of spell-casting and change of consciousness, as well as to adventures that lead to revolutionary life-changes.
Samhain, occurring on the cusp between daring and silence, is when acquired skills are allowed to sink down into the unconscious mind, there to incubate and give rise to new life. A musician will put away sheet music and improvise quietly on his or her instrument. The cast spell will be ‘earthed’ and put out of mind. Problems will be set aside for the unconscious to solve. Spontaneity will replace methods and rules, and one will be ready to join the celebrations of Yule and Saturnalia.
The power to go is cultivated through lucid dreaming, knowing one is asleep and dreaming while it is happening, and also from a peculiar state of heightened awareness while awake called lucid waking. A few people have the knack to cultivate this power up front, but most of us need to approach it gradually, through the balanced development of the other four powers, by following witches’ paradigms and conducting sacred rituals.