A Witch’s Introduction to the Wheel of the Year

The Wheel of the Year

Wicca is a nature-based faith, and as such, its cycles and beliefs are closely tied to the earth and the passing of the seasons. The earth is our mother, and we are sensitive to her changes. She starts out each year as a maiden, then blossoms into motherhood at the fullness of the year. When winter comes, she is the crone, the old woman filled with wisdom and nearing the end of her days. As the Goddess goes, so goes the world.

The Wiccan holidays are known collectively as the Wheel of the Year. There are eight festivals, with four sabbats and four esbats. The four sabbats fall on either a solstice or an equinox and are called quarter days. They are celebrated with gatherings, festivals, rituals and bonfires, which is why they’re sometimes known as Fire Festivals. The esbats, the four that fall between these festivals, are called cross-quarter days.  All eight days are important, and they all have a part to play in the story of the Goddess and her God.

To Wiccans, the Goddess and the God are alive and present in every moment of every day. She is in the earth and its bountiful grains, fruits, trees and flowers. The God is in the living creatures, the animals and birds that share our world and from whom we take sustenance, both in the form of meat and in spiritual inspiration. Everything is divine, everything has meaning, and everything is part of everything else. We are all connected.

As the Wheel of the Year turns, the God and the Goddess grow and change, the same as people, animals, and nature itself. In the spring of the year, for the festivals of Imbolc and Ostara, the Goddess is the Maiden. She is new and fresh, full of promise and new beginnings. At Beltane and Litha, she becomes the Mother, the expression of fertility and feminine power, strong at the apex of her strength. With the fading of the year, through the festivals of Lughnasadh and Mabon, she ages and sees her efforts come to fullest fruit before her gradual decline. At Samhain, she enters the Underworld, where she rests until she gives birth the God and to the waxing year at Yule.

For his part, the God is born at Yule, coming into being as the child of the Goddess at the moment when days and nights are equal, but when days begin to extend their reach. As the days lengthen and the light begins to overcome the darkness, he grows. He is a youth at Imbolc and Ostara, innocent and coltish, just beginning to exercise the power of his masculinity.

When Beltane comes, he has reached maturity, and he lies with and impregnates the Goddess as she becomes the Mother. At Litha, the summer solstice, he is the Warrior and King at the height of his powers, strong in the fullness of his manhood. He begins to wane in power at Lughnasadh and prepares for his sacrifice to come, for the God is the fruit of the Goddess’ labors, and like the grain and the crops of the field, he is culled when he is at his ripest. He is cut down by the Magician at Mabon, the harvest festival, and at Samhain he descends into the Underworld, there to wait with the Goddess until it is time for him to be born again. For the light half of the year, he is the Oak King. When the darkness begins to fall, he is the Holly King. The two parts of his nature do battle at the solstices. The Oak King conquers the darkness at Yule, and the Holly King overcomes the light as the days shorten and darkness falls, beginning his reign at Mabon.

It’s all symbolic of the rhythms of agriculture and the life cycle of food crops. The ancients who first created the Wheel were tied to the land, and their very existence depended upon the orderly passage of the seasons. Seeds were sown in the spring, crops grew throughout the summer, and at the autumn equinox, the grain and fruit were harvested and stored for the lean months to come. Likewise, Imbolc was the time of new lambs, which grew to become strong sheep throughout the golden days of summer, finally reaching their end when they were slaughtered in the fall.

We modern Wiccans don’t depend so heavily upon the natural cycles of the world for our food supply, as supermarkets and international trade have seen to that, but it is important to us to maintain our footholds with the reality of the planet. We have seen that the farther we get from nature, the more our spirits weaken, and our souls begin to suffer. It is only by remaining tied to the natural world that we remember that we as humans are really just another thread in the complex web of life that the Goddess has woven in her creation.

Before we go on, I’d like to point out that I live in the northern hemisphere, so I’m going to be talking about the Wheel as it turns in my experience.  If you live in the southern hemisphere, I’ll supply a listing of alternate dates at the end of this article. In the southern hemisphere, Yule usually falls around June 21st, and all of the holidays are celebrated when their opposites are celebrated in the other hemisphere.  To me it seems almost too perfect, the way that the southern and northern halves of the planet function in diametrically opposite ways. It reminds us that though the Goddess and the God travel through their appointed paths in the endless story of birth, death and rebirth, there is never a time when they’re not among us. If in the northern hemisphere the God has gone below ground, never fear – in the southern hemisphere, he is still alive and well!

So, now we’re ready to talk about the Wheel as it turns. What are these Wiccan holidays, anyway?

The first holiday in the Wheel of the Year is Yule, which falls on Midwinter, on or about December 21st. Yule has much in common with the celebration of Christmas. In fact, the Holly King is often portrayed with white hair and beard, wearing a red cloak lined with fur. Does that sound like anyone you know? Certainly – Santa Claus and his image owe a great deal to the legend of the Holly King, and in many ways, Santa is very much like the Holly King. Yule is celebrated with gift giving, feasting, and candlelight ceremonies incorporating the Yule log. (You didn’t think that was a Christian invention, did you?) There are bonfires where the people can warm themselves, and decorations are heavy on holly and evergreens like pine, fir, yew and mistletoe. These plants are used to adorn our homes to remind us that though death may come, our souls are eternal.  The sun has been reborn, the God has returned to the land from his sojourn in the Underworld, and all of life’s beauty is contained in the promise of a newborn babe. We welcome the God and the year back into our homes and make Him welcome. The Goddess, weary from the labor of bringing Him to life, rests.

On or around February 1, halfway between the winter and the spring, we celebrate the holiday of Imbolc. This day is sacred to the Goddess in awakening her Maiden form. It is the start of the lambing season, and when blackthorn, a sacred plant in Ireland, begins to bloom. (Blackthorn fruit is used to make jams, jellies, wine, and teas, and the long thorny branches can make cattle-proof hedges.) The world, which has been sleeping all winter, is beginning to awaken, and Wiccans take this time to shoo the old winter away and welcome the new year in.  This is not the true end of winter, or the true coming of spring, but a time of preparation and expectation of the year that’s on its way. We sweep and clean our homes – the origin of spring cleaning – to force out the negativity of the dark days of winter and the year just passed. We also prepare our minds and hearts for new beginnings, determining which old ways of thinking just aren’t working and preparing to replace then with something new that will help us grow. We light the Imbolc Sabbat Fire to show the light the way to come back home. We make our Brigid doll, also known as a corn dolly, which is made out of the remnants of the last ear of corn or stalk of wheat harvested in the old year. The doll represents the Goddess reborn, coming to us as a sacred and innocent infant, bringing with her the promise of her fertility to come. Quite literally, in Imbolc rituals, the last grain of the last harvest is the first seed of the new year’s sowing. It is another mark of the continuity of the circle of life.

The days grow longer, and finally the vernal equinox arrives on or around March 21st. The day and the night are of equal length, and all of nature hovers in perfect balance, ready to forge ahead into the growing time. This is the holiday of Ostara, and the day when winter finally ends and spring takes hold. There is a fire lit to welcome the light and bring warmth back to the world. Rabbits and eggs, symbols of fertility, are central to Ostara – not too unlike another spring holiday I could name – and feasting with nuts and fruits and hearty breads, all accompanied by dairy foods like milk and cheese. Ostara is the Goddess of Spring, come to bring new life in the shape of sprouting plants and newborn lambs.  It is a time of innocence, purity and hope.

And the Wheel turns onward. Right around May 1st, when the days are getting hotter and the nights are becoming sultry, another fire begins to blaze in mankind and in the animals. This is the holiday of Beltane, the day when betrothal oaths are spoken. This is the night when the Goddess takes the God as her consort, and all around, the faithful celebrate the divine union with unions of their own. Wicca is a fertility religion, and so we have no shame or negativity about sexuality. Beltane is often a very sexual time, and there are great energies to be harnessed through the Great Rite. This is important to note – sexual rites and rituals are private and personal things, and nobody should ever be compelled to witness or take part in them. To do so is abuse and completely contrary to the love and acceptance that should be at the heart of Wiccan practice. If anyone tells you that you have to take part in any sexual rite in order to “properly” worship, run, don’t walk, for the nearest door! Beltane is celebrated with dancing around the may pole – and I hope I don’t have to tell you what that pole represents on this this day, of all days. There is music and feasting, flowers and wine and a whole-hearted celebration of fertility. The day is light and joyful, and it is the beginning of the bright days of summer.

The Wheel then brings us to Litha, or Midsummer, which is on or around June 21st. This is the longest day of the year, when the night is at its shortest. This is a day for planting seeds, walking in the wood and encountering wildlife. This is a feast for the sun and for the animals, all tokens of the God. He is at his most virile and most powerful, seated on his greenwood throne and showing his face as the Green Man, the spirit of the woods. Masculinity in all of its beauty and power is celebrated on this day, which more than any other day belongs to Him. There are more bonfires – Wiccans love a good bonfire – and barbecues, smoking of meats, and the honoring of our fathers. It’s no mistake that Father’s Day is observed in June.

The next stop on the turning of the Wheel is Lughnasadh, also known as Lammas, and it’s celebrated on August 1st. The days and nights are hot, and the fields are full of crops just waiting to grow mature enough for harvesting. The shadows are growing longer, and we are becoming aware that the summer is drawing to an end and soon will be gone. The God, the spirit of the grain, is aware that the harvest is coming, and with it the end of his life on the surface of the world. As the crops are prepared to be brought in, so the God is prepared to sacrifice his life, ensuring that his energy gives the world the power to sustain itself until spring returns. Lughnasadh is a happy time, but it also holds an edge of sorrow – the summer is ending, the God is preparing to die, and the harvest’s size is still unknown. Remember, the ancients who gave us these days were farmers, and if the harvest was not big enough, they might starve in the cold months of the winter. A little anxiety is common enough under those circumstances. Lughnasadh is celebrated with music and dancing, because Wiccans love music and dancing, and a fire is kindled to represent the waning light of the sun. This is the time when Wiccans focus on our own troubles, seeking to conquer our fears and prepare our homes and our lives for the introspective quiet of the winter. This is also when we begin to build protections against the perils of the coming dark.

Next comes Mabon. The grain is cut, the God is slain, and the harvest is brought in from the fields. We celebrate the gifts that the Mother has given us, and we offer her prayers of Thanskgiving for her goodness. It is September 21st, the Autumnal Equinox, and the days and nights are once again at equal length. Instead of preparing to grow, the world hesitates, preparing to sleep. The dark half of the year is beginning. It’s time to start wrapping up the business of the year, preparing for the ending to come.

Samhain is both the first and the last holiday on the Wheel. It is the Witches’ New Year, and it falls on October 31st. This is when livestock was slaughtered to store meat for the coming winter, and when the Goddess and the spirit of the God descend into the Underworld, where they will say until He is born again at Yule. This is a time of dying, and the spirits of the dead are very close at hand. The holiday is marked with rituals to honor the ancestors and departed loved ones and to welcome winter.

There is much more to say about Wiccan holidays, but hopefully this overview helps you to understand the Wheel and how it turns.

2017-2018 Holiday Schedule

Holiday Northern Hemisphere Southern Hemisphere
Yule 12/19/17 6/21/18
Imbolc 2/1/18 8/1/18
Ostara 3/20/18 9/23/18
Beltane 5/1/18 10/31/18
Litha 6/21/18 12/19/17
Lughnasadh 8/1/18 2/2/18
Mabon 9/23/18 3/20/18
Samhain 10/31/18 5/1/18

 

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