The Wheel Of The Year

by Yvonne Rathbone
©2000

Home

Pagan Things

Tales & Fun

Wheel of the Year
Samhain
Yule
Imbolc
Oestre
Beltaine
Litha
Lammas
Mabon

Old English

Background
In all things there are two strands of existence. In paradox these exist as two sides of the same coin. One is the unchanging existence - always there, always the same, it is the bedrock upon which everything else happens. In physics it could be likened to the "empty" space out of which particles miraculously emerge and into which they with equal mystery, return. The body of the Goddess. The other strand of existence is that which is constantly changing. This is every unique moment filled with sound and fury. The fire of transformation, the spectre of Death. This is the realm of will and is the body of the God. These two strands are inseparable and exist one within the other at every moment.

In the Wheel of the Year, there is always the interplay between that which receives, gestates, nurtures and harvests, and that which gives, grows, sacrifices and dies. The first is another face of the Goddess. The second is another face of the God.
At anytime and place we can see the interaction of these forces. We can never completely know them for to do so we would have to at once have a body and transcend all manifest experience. We would have to retain our individual identity and return to the godhead at the same time. As it is, we see the whole in stages, a beautiful procession. And at the same time, we are the procession.

The Structure of the Wheel
The Wheel is an image of the solar year as a cycle that never ends. This isn't to say that people using this concept of time don't experience time as linear. All of us have physical lives that begin at a certain point and end at another, usually later, point. It's just that we also see time as cyclical.

This combination of views is seen in placing the New Year at Samhain, the time of Death and Going Under. With a cyclical framework, any point in the wheel is both a beginning and an end. It is conceivable to view each passing moment as the beginning of a new year rather like the phrase, "Today is the first day of the rest of your life." Still, it's a little unsatisfying to mark the passage of time in such short moments.

The placement of the New Year at Samhain underlines that life begins with death, the point at which, from our corporeal existence, it seems to stop. By placing the beginning at this point, we deconstruct our own idea that death ends life. Indeed, it is only through death, symbolized in the passing of Samhain, that we get to Yule, the rebirth of the Sun.

The placement of sabbats, witches' holy days, at particular points on the wheel is seemingly straightforward at first, but rather more complicated in practice. In general the points represent aspect of the solar year, particularly in relation to the agricultural cycle. They track the course of the sun and the affects that course has on planting and harvesting. In turn, the metaphors of planting and harvesting are used to understand aspects of human experience.

Because the sabbats track the solar cycle and commemorate important phases of the agricultural cycle, placement of sabbats is related to the position of the Sun. Extremes and midpoints in the Sun's yearly course were noted in some cultures. The emphasis here was on celebrating when the Sun was closest (Summer Solstice), farthest (Winter Solstice) and the two midpoints or when the Sun was at the Equator (Vernal and Autumnal Equinoxes.)

In Celtic cultures, the emphasis was on season and placement of the sabbats was related to the Sun being "in the middle of a season". In other words, halfway between an equinox and a solstice. This places the sabbats at 15° of a fixed sign, the fixed signs being Taurus (Spring), Leo (Summer), Scorpio (Autumn) and Aquarius (Winter.) It's interesting to note that in Astrology, these signs are considered fixed because they occur complete in their seasons, while the other signs occur at transitions in to and out of seasons.1

Neo-paganism combines these two systems to get eight sabbats. The emphasis is on the Celtic "cross-quarter" days with the "quarter" days of the solar stations being generally considered more minor celebrations. This combination divides the wheel into eight sections, each roughly consisting of half a season.

The wheel is also divided into halves. The New Year starts at Samhain and so Beltane, the sabbat opposite on the wheel, represents the halfway mark. In Celtic cultures, these two sabbats were considered the most important - with Samhain edging Beltane out ever so slightly for first place. Indeed, the Celts recognized only two seasons: An Ghrian beag - winter, the time between Samhain and Beltane, and An Ghrian mór, summer, the time between Beltane and Samhain.

I find it very interesting that the axis made through these times is almost identical to the tilt of the Earth relative to the solar plane (22.5° and 23° respectively.)

On top of these two systems, Astrological and Seasonal, we also have inherited a system of traditional calendar dates. To put all this together: We have eight sabbats. These sabbats occur at each solstice and each equinox and at each midpoint between. The placement of sabbats by astrological degree changes the dates of the cross quarter days. For example, 15° Taurus usually falls around May 5.

It should be noted that different traditions may use any of the three systems listed here, and many use a combination. Many covens are rather flexible in setting a date for a particular celebration, often using a combination of the systems listed above to select dates that all members can attend.

Furthermore, as if all this weren't complicated enough, many people also take into consideration the phase of the moon. The two most common ways to do this are either to select the closest full moon to one of the dates above or to select the nearest dark moon for cross quarter days and the nearest full moon for quarter days.

As with most things pagan, unless you are a member of a tradition that specifically states when celebrations occur, the final decision is one's own and is best made through the use of the most powerful symbolism for that person. If you are astrologically inclined, use that system. If you prefer the consistency of standard calendar dates use them. If the phase of the moon is important, it is always available.

The Myth Cycle of the Wheel
The cycle of seasons through the year and their effect on the Earth is shown in the myth cycle of the wheel. Again, there are several variations of cycle, but the most basic imagery centers on the life and love affair of the Goddess and the God. The Goddess never dies, but she grows old in winter and young in spring. She gives birth to the God, is impregnated by him, and then slays him each year only to birth him again.

These images come directly from experience with the changes in season felt on the Earth. While the Earth (Goddess) is always here, in winter she is cloaked in decay and death only to be renewed the next spring. Plants have a yearly cycle, and it's highly apparent in the food crops so important to early peoples, of growth in the spring, fruiting in the summer, death in the autumn. The new plants of the next year are grown from the old, sometimes from seed, and just as often, from old parts of the earlier plant. It is this cycle that is likened to the God.

From this basic imagery, many variations can be seen. For some, the God dies at Mabon, and spends the time through Samhain and up to Yule in the realm of the Dead. In others, he dies at Samhain in the final harvest. In some systems, there are two gods, twins, one light and one dark. The light twin rules until Midsummer when he is sacrificed. At that time the dark twin begins his rule until Yule.

The constants in all these variations are their connection to the seasonal changes of the Earth. Indeed it can be said that those changes aren't just represented by a myth of Goddess and God, but are in fact the Goddess and the God.

Trees
I love trees, and have assigned a Bay Area native tree that I know to each of the sabbats. I don't intend these to correspondences to be set in stone. Instead, they are connections I'm making now that help me to both understand the sabbat and the tree a little better.

Samhain
Yule
Imbolc
Oestre
Beltaine
Litha
Lammas
Mabon

-------------
Books
Chevalier, J. and Gheerbrant, A. The Penguin Dictionary of Symbols. Penguin. 1996
Crowely, V. Essentials of Wicca. Thorsons. 1997.
Crowther, P. Lid Off The Cauldron. Samuel Weiser. 1981.
Gardner, G.B. Witchcraft Today. Magical Childe. 1982.
Monoghan, P. The Book of Goddesses and Heroines. Llewellyn Publications. 1993
Sykes, E. Who's Who: Non-Classical Mythology. Oxford University Press. 1993.

Websites
Daria. Witch Wisdom.
Epona.

Silver Circle.

 

Home|Library|Cats|Tarot|Forest|Warrior|Pagan|Email