Friday, February 1, 2013

The Wheel of the Year


The Wheel of the Year
Wheel of the Year from Witch's Cupboard on Etsy

The Wheel of the Year is a calendar of holy days celebrated by pagan people. This calendar of eight holidays or sabbats is symbolized as an eight-spoke wheel. The circular wheel represents the cyclical aspect of nature, in that as the earth goes round the sun the seasons cycle from one to the other and back again. The spokes or holidays in the wheel are set on very specific points in that seasonal cycle.

Mike Nichols in his collection of essays on the Wheel of the year stated, “The most important thing to understand about the eight Witchcraft Sabbats is that they are not man-made.” He meant that the holidays were not decided upon and set due to some human idea of celebrating things like freedom on Independence Day or certain people such as Martin Luther King Jr. Day. These were created by nature. “No, the eight Sabbats of Witchcraft were not man-made because they existed long before man was made… Indeed, these eight holidays might be said to be as old as the Earth itself…The reason these holidays are so old is because they are a basic part of how the Earth works.”

He explains that any person who pays attention to the seasons will notice that one day in summer is the longest in the year (Midsummer) while one day in winter is the shortest (Yule). That person will also notice that there are two days in which the day and night are of equal length, one in spring (Ostara) and one in fall (Mabon). These are natural holy days created by the earth’s cycles around the sun.

Terminology: Sabbat
The origins of the term Sabbat is slightly convoluted and could come from a variety of sources. Some texts correlate it to the Jewish term ‘Sabbath,’ or holy day, while others suggest that it comes from the French ‘Esbat’ or celebration.
Nichols states that Sabbat comes from the Babylonian, “Incidentally, the word ‘Sabbat’ was originally Babylonian and was used to designate the quarter-days of the lunar cycle -- Full, New, First and Last Quarter -- thus occurring about every seven days. It was only later that the Hebrews borrowed the word and used it to denote "the Lord's day", occurring every seventh day without exception.”

The Greater Sabbats and the Lesser Sabbats
The eight sabbats of the wheel of the year are split into two sects according to their importance in the Witches’ Calender; the Greater Sabbats and the Lesser Sabbats.
The Lesser Sabbats are solar sabbats sacred to the God. They are Yule, Ostara, Litha and Mabon. These are also known as Equinoxes and Solstices and are marked by the length of the day.
The Greater Sabbats consist of the four holy days; Samhain, Beltane, Imbolc and Lughnassadh. These are four lunar sabbats and are sacred to the Goddess. That these are Greater Sabbats, even though not marked by any lengthening or shortening of the day, according to Nichols, should come as no surprise. “It is a common human experience that things reach their greatest strength, their moment of peak energy, at their midpoint.”



The Sabbats
Samhain
Pronounced “Sow-en” or “Soh-en,” Samhain is the most import day of the Witches’ Calendar. It is the Witches’ New Year and dedicated to the death of the old so it can be reborn into the new. The name, Samhain, means “Summer’s End” in Gaelic, which is exactly what the holiday is, the end of the summer and the dark half of the year.

There are three major themes to Samhain; death and rebirth, honoring the ancestors, and the festival of the last harvest before the cold of winter. Activities for this festival can include divination, lighting of sacred fires, visiting the graves of lost loved ones, and feasting. Divination is a popular activity among pagans and witches celebrating Samhain, using methods such as tarot, scrying in black mirrors or fire, tea-leaf reading, pendulums and more.

Modern day activities such as trick-or-treating and carving jack-o-lanterns all spawn from ancient traditions for this festival. On Samhain, the spirits of the dead and creatures such as the fae roam freely in our realm and, traditionally, humans would leave food and offerings at the table or on the door step to appease them. This is the start of a tradition of children pretending to be ghouls and goblins going door to door to request candy to appease their mischievous ways. Candles inside carved squash, gourds, and turnips light the way for lost souls.

The modern day activity of dressing in costume for Halloween can find its roots in the practices of the Celts. To celebrate Samhain, boys and girls would exchange clothing in order to confuse and put off mischievous spirits as well as to confuse the victims of their own playful pranks.
Though Samhain is actually on November 1st, celebrations start the night before just as they would have when the ancient Celts, who believe the day starts at sundown, would have celebrated it. This celebration the eve before the day was called Oiche Shamna, pronounced “uh-EEK-uh HOW-nuh.”

Personal Note
Samhain is my favorite holy day of the Wheel of the Year. It is on this day that I feel the collective consciousness of others like me, other witches creating the mindset of Witch, giving it life and energy that can be felt in every move we make to prepare for the new year whether we’re writing up a ritual for a coven or simply purchasing a black candle for a solitary rite. I can feel it coursing in my blood, the autumn air that fills my lungs and caresses my skin is blended with this sacred energy of Witch and it is the holy day that I feel most alive and am reborn again on my sacred path and life purpose.

Correspondences of Samhain
Deities: The Crone Goddess known as Hekate, Cerridwen, and the Morrigan and the horned or elder god known as the Dagda, the Oak or Holly King and gods of the dead such as Persephone or Kore, Hades, Anubis, and Osiris. The druids specifically celebrated in the name of the Morrigan and the Dagda.
Colors: Black, harvest colors such as orange, brown and red.
Herbs: Acorn and Oak, Apple, Arborvitae (Yellow Cedar), Corn, Dittany of Crete, Fumitory, Hazel, Mullein, Nightshade, Pumpkin, Sage, Turnip, Wormwood
Stones: Quartz crystal, hematite, jet, apache tears, black onyx.
Foods: wild game, fresh foods from late harvest including corn, whole grain breads, squash and pumpkin, apples and late fruit such as pears.
Libation: Apple cider, Harvest Moonshine, mead, spiced mulled wine.

Yule
The Mid-winter Solstice, also known as Yule or Mein Geimhridh, is a celebration of the darkest night of the year and the coming light of the sun. As a solar holiday and Lesser Sabbat, it is a day marked by the shortest day of the year. This shortness of light is personified in Celtic tradition by a battle between the two gods, the Oak King and the Holly King. The Oak King is the youthful god of light and summer, while the Holly King is the elder god of darkness and winter and is the forefather of the celebrated Saint Nicholas or Santa Clause who is part of the modern day Christmas celebrations. During the tales of this battle, the Oak King defeats the Holly King only to be defeated later in the year when darkness takes over light again.

Yule is often celebrated by a number of activities focused on the hearth and home, spending time with friends, family and loved ones. The Yule Log is a popular focal point of the holiday that has its roots in tradition and has influenced modern day practices such as decorating the Christmas tree. The Yule Log is usually a log of oak, or other hard wood, that was either given to a family or cut down on the family’s own land. Emphasis is on never buying or bartering for a Yule Log as to do so would deplete the magical properties of prosperity and abundance. The Yule Log is then decorated with evergreens, holly, ribbons, herbs and other things that could safely be burned and also add to its magical properties. The Yule log is then ceremonially burned in the central fireplace of the home and is meant to smolder and burn for twelve days – though more modern traditions a lot a single night or simply light candles on the Yule Log rather than burn it.
Other traditions, such as caroling or wassailing also can be traced back to ancient celebrations. The Druids would wassail sacred places, trees as well as homes and animals with spiced cider, ale, wine, and mead. This not only makes for a merry ole time for those traveling from place to place in the winter cold but also provides magical offering of warmth (via heart, alcohol, and spice) to the place blessed.

Herbs that are well known for their use during Yule from ancient tradition to modern day include the use of mistletoe. The modern day rite of being caught and kissed under a sprig of mistletoe has been common in home and lodge for many years. However, the use of the herb holly used to be more commonly considered sacred by the Celts who would keep a sprig of holly used in yule decoration all year round in order to bring the blessings of nature spirits into the home.

Correspondences of Yule
Deities: The God depicted as an old man; Cernunnos, Odin, Harlequin, Santa Claus, the Holly King and the Crone. The Celts celebrated the Dagda as well as his daughter Brighid who is the Maiden who brings the warmth of light into the cold winter.
Herbs: Aborvitae (Yellow Cedar), Ash, Bay Laurel, Blessed Thistle, Chamomile, Frankincense, Holly, Juniper, Mistletoe, Pine
Stones: Ruby, Garnet, Emerald, Malachite, Clear Quartz, Diamond
Foods: Preserved foods as well as winter produce such as root vegetables and herbs, winter squash. Dried, preserved and candied fruits either alone or combined in baked goods.
Libation: Spiced or mulled wine, cider or mead; Dandelion wine to honor the strengthening Sun.

Imbolc
Celebrated on February 1st or 2nd, the pagan holy day of Imbolc may seem to the common person to have very little to do with the modern day celebration of Groundhog Day in which a groundhog is watched as it comes out of its winter home, tests the air and returns and those watching debate on the earliness or lateness of spring depending on whether the creature saw its own shadow or not. However, the student of history and of witchcraft can easily see the connection.

Imbolc, also called Oimelc or Candlemas, is a Greater Sabbat that celebrates the fading of winter and the first glimpses of spring. Imbol or Oimelc is a term meaning the “Lactation of the Ewes.” This is in reference to the herd animals kept in the barn or closed in during the winter being pregnant and lactating at this time.
The term Candlemas is in reference to the man candles and fires lit on this holiday to encourage and aid the Sun in its bringing of warmth and spring to the world. These candles are also burned in celebration of the Maiden goddess, Brighid who is the goddess of sacred fire. For Her, this holy day is also called La Fheile Bride or “Feast of the Bride.”

Other activities of celebration, other than the lighting of candles and fires, included consecration of agricultural tools as farmers and gardeners prepare for spring planting. The fashioning corn or straw dollies as well as clothes, beds and wands for them is done now in honor of the Maiden.

Correspondences for Imbolc
Deities: The Maiden goddess known as Brighid, Eos, Aradia, and Vesta. The Young God known as Eros and Aengus Og.
Herbs: Angelica, Basil, Bay, Benzoin, Blackberry, Celandine, Coltsfoot, Heather, Iris, Myrrh, Tansy, Violets
Stones: Amethyst, Citrine, Garnet, Green Tourmaline, Ruby, Turquoise
Foods: Those that honor the hearth and the fire within including most breads, preserved foods, and dairy products.
Libation: Fresh milk, Dandelion wine, mead and ale.

Ostara
The Spring Equinox or first day of spring is a Lesser Sabbat in which day and night are of equal lengths. This holy day is called Ostara, Eostra, Mean Earraigh, and Alban Eilir among other names. Ostara and Eostra are terms that stem from the aspect of the Maiden goddess celebrated at this time, Eos or Eostre.
In modern day celebrations of Ostara, most of the general public recognize this day as Easter in which the hunting of colored eggs, the finding of Easter baskets, and the visitation of a sacred rabbit are all activities that stem from ancient traditions.

The Celts celebrated this time in spring, when birds began their nesting and egg-laying, by decorating the eggs with color and symbols that they wished to manifest in the coming year. The eggs would then be buried in the Mother Earth for the goals to be manifest. This developed into the dying and hiding of eggs in more modern times.

Personal Note
Ostara holds a special place in my heart as this was the holiday on which I was handfasted to my husband. During this ritual, which was held in private between the two of us, we lit white candles, had a small picnic of hard boiled eggs, milk, and greens, gave blessing to the earth in her garments of spring and after the handfasting ritual reveled in the beauty of the sounds of spring and the animals outside of our home.

Correspondences for Ostara
Deities: The Maiden Goddess Eos or Boand, the Young God as her Consort Aenghus Og
Herbs: Acorn, Celandine, Cinquefoil, Dandelion, Dogwood, Honeysuckle (Woodbine), Iris, Jasmine, Rose, Tansy, Violet
Stones: Clear quartz crystal, rose quartz, agate, lapis lazuli, amazonite, garnet.
Foods: Eggs in their various forms but mostly hard or soft boiled, spring greens such as dandelion and clover, milk and dairy products, small game such as spring hares
Libation: Dandelion wine, milk, fresh herbal infusions, white wines, light beers or ales.

Beltane
Samhain’s light twin, Beltane is the polar opposite of the Witches’ New Year. The term Beltane, Bealteinne, or Beltaine are used for this holy day in reference to the bale fires lit, a tradition that stems from the celebration of the Celtic god Bel, Beli or Belinus who can be traced to the Middle Eastern god Baal. Other names for the Sabbat include Kalenda Maia, Roodmas, Walpugis, May Day, or simply May.
While Beltane is a festival of Life and fertility, it is also a festival of death. This is a time in ancient years past in which a sacrifice might have been made in order to ensure the fertility of the land and the prosperity of the many. This sacrifice in today’s rituals is purely symbolic but still holds the abundant magic of old. The magic of Beltane held such deep significance for the Celts that many important historic occasions were said to have taken place on that date including the settling of Ireland by the Tuatha De Danan.

Activities for the holy day include dancing around a May Pole, which is still done today. The pole itself is made from birch, one of the nine sacred trees of the Druids and is a phallic symbol that is planted deeply and firmly into Mother Earth. The pole also represents the movement of energy between Father Sky and Mother Earth that is further symbolized by the spiraling of ribbons down the pole during a May Pole dance.
A May Queen and King are also selected. The Queen is usually a maiden selected by the community for her beauty or other generous endowments. She either selects the King or he is selected by some activity as a foot race, a hunt, or having climbed the May Pole itself. The two represent the Mother Goddess and the Hunter and their union on this holy day.

The visitation of sacred sites, especially standing stones, is popular during this time. In olden days, offerings of milk and honey and herbs were given to these stones. It was believed that passing of a babe, an ill person or initiates through a hollow of a stone gave them protection and cured disease.
As a day of fertililty, this is also a day in which romance is in the air, especially for young people. Young women would wake early, before dawn, on Beltane to go out into the fields and wash their faces in the first dew of the day in order to obtain beauty to lure a mate. Young couples take to the hills, newly plowed lands, and forests to energize the soil with their…activities.

Though romance is high on this day, it is said to be unlucky to marry on Beltane. In fact, the Celts often held divorce procedures on this day! This belief may be due to the tendency to be a little cavalier in ones sex life during this Sabbat.

Correspondences for Beltane
Deities: The Mother Goddess Eartha, Demeter, Mati Suira Zemlya, Yemaya, Gaia, and others; the God in his aspect as Huntsman and Consort; Bel.
Herbs: Almond, Belladonna, Clover, Frankincense, Hawthorn, Ivy, Marigold, Meadowsweet, Orchid Root, Rose, Rowan, Sorrel, Woodruff
Stones: Malachite, garnet, rose quartz, emerald, beryl, tourmaline.
Foods: Fresh fruits and vegetables, flowers are in everything including salads, sweets of all kinds such as candied violets and honeyed roses.
Libation: May wine, honey mead, fruit punches

Litha
The height of summer as well as the other half of the celebration marked by Yule in which the Oak King and the Holly King meet again, this time so that the Holly King may defeat the Oak King and begin his reign in bringing darkness again to the world.

The celebrations of Midsummer revel in the powers of light and life. Celebrations are often raucous and out of doors, gathered around bonfires, dancing, leaping fires, drinking to the coming harvest, and staying up through the night before to greet the sun are common activities. Gifts of flowers are common on this day as well as gifts representing the sun such as coins, pottery, and golden objects.

Women with child are lauded in representation of the Mother Goddess about to give birth to the harvest. Solar shrines and healing springs are visited by pilgrims as well as cleaned and decorated with flowers and sacred gifts.

Healing springs and sacred wells are used for divination purposes as well as sacred fires. Most divination at this time is in regards to the harvest and prosperity. Creativity magic is also common as the Mother Goddess is at her peak for creative energy.

Correspondences for Litha
Deities: The God in his aspect of Sun King Apollo, Balder, Lugh, Horus, Chango, and others;
Herbs: Chamomile, Chickweed, Chicory, Cinquefoil, Dogwood, Elderflower, Fennel, Figwort, Hemp, Larkspur, Lavender, Male Fern, Meadowsweet, Mistletoe, Mugwort, Pine, Rose, St. John’s Wort, and Vervain.
Stones: all green gemstones, especially emerald and jade, tiger's eye, lapus lazuli and diamonds
Foods: Fresh vegetables and fruits in a variety of colors, pumpernickel bread, edible flowers
Libation: Ale and mead, fresh juices, lemon/lime/citrus drinks

Lughnassadh
Lughnassadh, also called Lammas, First Fruits, and Bron Trograine, is a sacred holy day to the sun god Lugh. It is in this day that he is married to the Crone goddess of death or, in other words, dies and darkness descends on the earth.

This Sabbat is also the first of the three harvest holy days. This is the beginning of Autumn and most activities for this festival revolve around abundance, prosperity and the gathering of the first fruits before the cold of winter. This was also a time of prayer to the gods to bring the people nourishment for if the harvest was poor, people could experience hunger in the dark days of winter. So the gratitude for an abundant harvest was heartfelt.

In modern times, harvest and fall festivals held at schools, parks, and town centers begin to pop up in schedules. Activities such as bobbing for apples, making corn dollies, baking contests, and more are prevalent and allow the modern witch to take part in celebrations that their ancestors in the craft would have celebrated.

Correspondences for Lughnassadh
Deities: Lugh; the Mother Goddess in her pregnant form about to give birth.
Herbs: Fenugreek, Frankincense, Heather, Hollyhock, Mistletoe, Oak, Oat, and Sunflower.
Stones: Gold and red cat’s/tiger’s eye, carnelian, citrine, pyrite, yellow topaz, red and moss agate, and lodestone
Foods: Late summer fruits and vegetables, breads and cakes made from fresh grains, wild game especially venison and wild boar.
Libation: Water from sacred sites or wells, golden wines, beers, ales, mead

Mabon
This holy day is often referred to as the Witches’ Thanksgiving. It is a time of the second harvest celebration as well as one of family and ancestry. Similar to Samhain, honoring the dead, especially dead family members, is common on this Sabbat. Visiting and decorating graves with autumnal d├ęcor is a popular modern day activity.

This is the second of the three Sabbats dedicated to harvest and celebrates that of grains and of fruits that are made into wine. The Sacred symbol of Mabon (also adopted by modern day Thanksgiving) is the cornucopia, the symbol of prosperity.

It is also a holy day of preparation for the coming darkness. Ellen Evert Hopman states it well in her book, The Druid’s Herbal for the Sacred Earth Year:
We bid farewell to the strength of Lugh and welcome once again the power of the Cailleach, the Old one, the hag and crone. She is the Dark Woman who visits us with gifts of wisdom and insight…She is the Great Queen who gives birth and reaps death; the mystical embodiment of the land.

Correspondences for Mabon
Deities: The Father Gods seen as Zeus, Nodens, Thor, Jupiter, and others; Gods of the harvest including Dionysus and the Green Man, Circe and Demeter; The Crone Goddess as she and the Holly King take over the Light and bring Winter.
Herbs: Acorn, Apple, Benzoin, Fern, Grains, Honeysuckle, Marigold, Milkweed, Myrrh, Passionflower, Rose, Sage, Solomon’s Seal, and Thistle.
Stones: stones ruled by the Sun - clear quartz, amber, peridot, diamond, gold, citrine, yellow topaz, sunstone.
Foods: As the Witch’s Thankgiving, this is a great holy day for feasting – traditional Thanksgiving foods such as squash, corn, apples, nuts, potatoes, even pomegranates. Roots such as burdock and dandelion can also be cooked alongside potatoes, parsnips, carrots, and onions for rustic stews and roasts. Rustic breads with whole wheat and corn breads are also traditional.
Libation: Ale, mead, dark and golden wines, and apple and pear cider.


Resources
Witch School: First Degree by Rev. Donald Lewis-Highcorrell. Llewellyn Publications, 2005.
An Introduction to the Sabbats by Mike Nichols. MicroMuse Press, 1988.
Eight Sabbats of Witchcraft by Mike Nichols. MicroMuse Press, 1988.
Beltain: May 1 by Mike Nichols. MicroMuse Press, 1988.
Ostara: Circa March 25 by Mike Nichols. MicroMuse Press, 1988.
Samhain: October 31st by Mike Nichols. MicroMuse Press, 1988.
Alexandrian Book of Shadows, Public Domain, Compiled by Sekhet Sophia

**This essay was written for my Witch School First Degree, Lesson 3**

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