Wheel of the Year

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In Neopaganism, the Wheel of the Year is the natural cycle of the seasons, commemorated by the eight Sabbats.

Because one tenet of Neopaganism is that all of nature is cyclical, the passing of time is also seen as a cycle, a wheel which turns and turns. The course of birth, life, decline, and death that we see in our human lives is echoed in the seasons. The eight Sabbats are religious holidays that celebrate the passing of the year.

Each Sabbat also symbolizes a time in the life of the God, who is born from the Goddess, grows to full manhood, mates with her, and reigns as king during the summer. He then declines and dies, rising anew the next year.

The Sabbats, with the traditional dates of their celebrations, are:

This calendar follows the seasons of the northern hemisphere, where the celebration of Sabbats originated.

Neopagans in the southern hemisphere usually celebrate the Sabbats on the opposite dates of the year (6 months apart from the northern dates), in order to follow the cycle of seasons where they live; i.e. an Australian Neopagan would celebrate Samhain on May 1, when a Canadian Neopagan would be celebrating Beltane.

Antiquity of the Wheel

The four quarter festivals (sometimes erroneously called 'fire festivals') of Imbolc, Beltaine, Lughnasadh and Samhain are historically authentic and derive from Irish sources, while the feast of Midwinter was indeed celebrated in England.

However, the Wheel of the Year as such is a modern construct and derives from Wicca, borrowing from unrelated traditions in order to make up an eightfold seasonal round. Historical Pagans did not follow it; this can be demonstrated by the simple observation that some of the festivals are drawn from those of the Gaelic peoples and some from the Anglo-Saxons, while a third class are historically nonexistent and based on modern invention rather than reconstruction.

The Wheel's concern with 'the God' and 'the Goddess' is also a mark of its modern origin. Historical paganism does not involve generic unnamed deities. Neopagan models frequently do, in order to allow for the broadest possible use of the system among neopagans. The lack of specific named deities allows a lack of prescriptivism and the freedom to incorporate deities of one's own choosing.

"No known pre-Christian people celebrated all the eight festivals of the calendar adopted by Wicca. Around the four genuine Gaelic quarter days are now ranged the Midwinter and September feasts of the Anglo-Saxons, the Midsummer celebrations so prominent in folklore and (for symmetry) the vernal equinox, which does not seem to have been commemorated by any ancient northern Europeans."
Source: The Pagan Religions of the Ancient British Isles, Ron Hutton

Ostara in the Wheel is a celebration of the spring equinox, yet the Germanic peoples from whom the name Ostara is alleged to originate did not celebrate the Equinoxes. Ostara is a version of the Anglo-Saxon Eostre, the alleged goddess after whom the month equating to April is named. According to Bede, there were several days of feasting in honour of Eostre, in the month which bore her name, Eostremonath. This month, however, was April; and the Spring Equinox falls in March, not April. To compound the confusion, Bede records that March has its own goddess, Hretha, who gave her name to the Hrethmonath.

It seems most likely that modern neopagans named their Spring Equinox festival Ostara in order to identify it more closely with Easter and thus emphasise how much Christianity owes to Paganism. Similarly, elements of Christian festivals that commemorate events in the life of Christ have been turned into a Pagan cycle without historical precedent, in which the Christian roles are taken by generic, unnamed Pagan figures, such as 'the Goddess'. The authentic ancient festivals, by contrast, were not known to be commemorations of any divine being's life.

"Then there is the question of the genuine ancient Gaelic feast of Imbolc, which according to many modern writers was transformed into the Christian one of Candlemas, the Purification of the Blessed Virgin Mary. Some recent authors have linked Candlemas in addition with the Roman Lupercalia, or suggested that Imbolc was a 'fire feast' and that its flames were perpetuated in those of the Christian candles. A few contemporary 'witches' have asserted that behind the festival of the Purification lay a pre-Christian celebration of the recovery of 'the Goddess' from giving birth to the 'new year's Sun God'. There is absolutely no evidence for this last idea, which is purely and simply a paganization of Christianity, but the relationship between Imbolc and Candlemas is more subtle and deserves extended discussion. The Purification had to be celebrated by Christians because it commemorated one of the most important episodes in the early life of Jesus, the presentation at the Temple and his recognition as the Messiah by Simeon and Anna. Once Christmas was fixed upon 25 December, the Purification had to occur upon 2 February, being the time appointed for this ceremony, according to Hebrew law, after a birth. Its special association with candles, evident during the course of the early Middle Ages, was suggested by Simeon's words, read out at the service, that the child would be 'a light to lighten the Gentiles'. All this was determined by churchmen sitting in councils around the Mediterranean and representing lands very far from the Gaelic area in which Imbolc was known. Nor is there any evidence that ceremonies involving fire were employed in the Gaelic feast, which was Christianised in its own right, very appropriately, as the holy day of that great saint of the Gaels, Brigid. So Imbolc and Candlemas were separate in their origins and observation. But in some Gaelic or semi-Gaelic districts, notably northern Scotland, the great Christian feast came to replace that of St Brighid in the popular imagination as the quarter day which marked the beginning of spring."
Source: The Pagan Religions of the Ancient British Isles, Ron Hutton

Similarly, there was no ancient Celtic festival called Mabon, nor is there any evidence that the Celts celebrated the Equinoxes or Solstices at all. Some neopagans have given this name to their Autumn Equinox Sabbat in recent years, with others preferring to call it Harvest Home and others Alban Efed. [1] (http://www.witchvox.com/holidays/mabon/mabonhistory.html)

The sole indication that the winter solstice might have been significant to the prehistoric Irish (if not the later occupants of the island) is the construction of a single tomb at Newgrange, which is constructed so as admit light through a narrow slit to the back of the tomb on the morning of the solstice. Since the entrance to the tomb was blocked up, the light was meant for the dead within, not for the living. We are left to guess at what significance this may have had.

Gregorian months in the wheel of the year

  • January ends at or near Imbolc in the northern hemisphere and Lughnasadh in the southern hemisphere.
  • February begins at or near Imbolc in the northern hemisphere' Lughnasadh in the southern.
  • March spans spring equinox in the northern hemisphere and autumn equinox in the southern. These equinoxes coincide on or about March 21.
  • April ends at or near Bealtaine in the northern hemisphere, Samhain in the southern.
  • May begins at or near Bealtaine in the northern hemisphere, Samhain in the southern.
  • June spans summer solstice in the northern hemiphere and winter solstice in the southern. These solstices coincide on or about June 21.
  • July ends at or near Lughnasadh in the northern hemisphere and Imbolc in the southern.
  • August begins at or near Lughnasadh in the northern hemisphere' Imbolc in the southern. .
  • September spans autumn equinox in the northern hemisphere and spring equinox in the southern. These equinoxes coincide on or about September 21.
  • October ends at or near Samhain in the northern hemisphere, Bealtaine in the southern.
  • November begins at or near Samhain in the northern hemisphere, Bealtaine in the southern
  • December spans winter solstice in the northern hemisphere and summer solstice in the southern. These solstices coincide on or about December 21.

Astrological signs in the wheel of the year

  • Capricorn begins at winter solstice in the northern hemisphere, summer solstice in the southern hemisphere.
  • Aquarius spans Imbolc in the northern hemisphere, Lughnasadh in the southern.
  • Pisces ends at spring equinox in the northern hemisphere, autumn in the southern.
  • Aries begins at spring equinox in the northern hemisphere, autumn in the southern.
  • Taurus spans Bealtaine in the northern hemisphere, Samhain in the southern.
  • Gemini ends at summer solstice in the northern hemosphere, winter in the southern.
  • Cancer begins at summer solstice in the northern hemisphere, winter in the southern.
  • Leo spans Lughnasadh in the northern hemisphere, winter in the southern.
  • Virgo ends at autumn equinox in the northern hemisphere, spring in the southern.
  • Libra begins at autumn equinox in the northern hemisphere, winter in the southern.
  • Scorpio spans Samhain in the northern hemisphere, Bealtaine in the southern.
  • Sagittarius ends at winter solstice in the northern hemisphere, summer in the southern.

Samhain, Imbolc, Bealtaine and Lughnasadh are sometimes defined as cross-quarter points and their dates seem to pay anachronistic respect to the Gregorian calendar. Unlike the astrological calendar the Gregorian is not aligned with particular astronomical events in the wheel of the year. Both the cross-quarter dates and the Gregorian calendar may represent however some ancient (now forgotten) practice in the alignment of a twelve-month calendar, practice in which the alignment is deliberately one-eighth of a circle (45 degrees) out of phase with that of the astrological calendar.

In the Gregorian calendar four boundaries between months are close to but several days earlier than the precise midpoints between solstices and equinoxes. If the Gregorian calendar had equal-length months and were accurately aligned with the precise cross-quarter points then the solstices and equinoxes would fall halfway through the months of December, March, June and September, and the true cross-quarter points would be on the boundaries between October and November, January and February, April and May and between July and August.


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