What is the Pagan Wheel of the Year and How Do You Use It?

articles lifestyle Feb 17, 2020

When summer begins to surrender to fall, do you feel a slight melancholy watching the leaves fall and feeling warmth slipping away? When winter is in full effect and the earth seems in a deep sleep, do you also find yourself yearning for a deep and dream-filled rest? Have you noticed you feel more social in the bright and juicy months of summer? Or are you particularly more likely to deep clean your house and purge your belongings when the green buds appear on the trees, and you can open up the windows for the first time each spring?

Though our modern homes are well-equipped to protect us from the onslaught of the weather changes brought about by the seasons, we still instinctually respond to these natural transitions. Each season not only brings with it a change in weather conditions but energy unique unto itself. We feel it. We are much more like our ancestors than we may realize.  

The Pagan
Wheel of the Year

Though in our left-brained technological society, we often may think of time as being linear- having a beginning and end- our ancestors understood it as cyclical. Even today, many people and groups are aware of the cyclical nature of our reality. The neo-pagan and Wiccan movements of today draw on a pagan wheel of the year, which incorporates festivals and observances originating with ancient Europeans.  

The actual 'wheel of the year' did not belong to the Celts or another ancient source. Instead, it is a culmination of these eight yearly cyclical observances culminated into a specific calendar for the neo-pagan movement. This modern interpretation of ancient rites was first described by mythologist and scholar Jacob Grimm (1785-1863) in his work Teutonic Mythology in 1835 CE. In the 50s and 60s, the calendar became an accepted standard by modern Wiccans. The wheel includes 8 Sabbats or holy days which are:

  • Samhain (October 31)
  • Yule (20-25 December)
  • Imbolc (1-2 February)
  • Ostara (20-23 March)
  • Beltane (30 April-1 May)
  • Litha (20-22 June)
  • Lughnasadh (August 1)
  • Mabon (20-23 September)

Some of these dates are slightly flexible from year to year. Again, these eight yearly touchpoints do hale from a combination of ancient European people groups-most notably the Celts, Romans, Scandinavian peoples, and the Germanic tribes as well.  

The four fire festivals of the Celts, Samhain, Imbolc, Beltane, and Lughnasadh correlate to the all-important seasonal changes which dictated the agricultural cycles of plowing, sowing, harvesting and resting. Modern pagans, Witches, and others still celebrate these festivals acknowledging the distinct and powerful energies they represent. Individuals, families, and groups work with these energies to reflect, commune and bring blessed energy into the next phase of the cycle.

The other four celebrations of Yule, Ostara, Litha, and Mabon correspond to the winter solstice, spring equinox, summer solstice, and fall equinox, respectively. Equinoxes are the only two days of the year when day and night are precisely equal. These days, the focus is on achieving and exploring balance. Solstices are the opposite. While winter solstice represents the power of the dark and cold, summer solstice highlights the power and might of the sun's light. Individuals utilize these disproportionately powerful energies for spellcraft, prayer, and other rituals.

A Closer Look at the 8 Sabbats

Each of the eight points on the wheel of the year reminds us that this day has distinctive natural energy. Tsona from thetetraktys.com explains, "The word "Sabbat" comes from the "Witches' Sabbath," a medieval term designing an assembly that practices witchcraft. Indeed, the Sabbats are not regular holidays: they are days of power when we practice magick. Also, each Sabbat falls on a focal point during the year when nature has a specific energy. This is why there is a specific ritual for each one."

Let's look at the eight rites in more detail, in their respective order:

Samhain (October 31)

Samhain marks the last harvest before winter truly sets in. During this time, participants remember and honor their ancestors as the veils between the worlds have thinned, giving increased access to the spirit world. For many pagans, this is the real new year just as it was for the Celts. Mythologically, the sun god dies and descends to the underworld to be reborn at the winter solstice. Now reigns the energy of the crone.

Winter Solstice/Yule/Midwinter (Dec 20-23)

Yule is the literal longest night of the year, and for the northern peoples who observed it, a time of hope returned. On this night, the goddess-crone energy is still at peak, yet during the night, she births the sun god. After this long and dark night, he will grow stronger and brighter every day, leading up to his peak at the summer solstice. On this date, participants recognize that the light has prevailed. 


Imbolc/Candlemas (February 1)

Imbolc is a festival of purification and feminine gentleness. The goddess Brigid is often a focus for Celtic and pagan celebrations as the goddess of the hearth and home. The earth begins to regain its nurturing qualities as it figuratively nurses the still-infant sun god in his growth. In this midpoint between winter and spring, the light of new beginning, fertility, and light begin to take form.

Spring Equinox/ Ostara
(March 21-23)

At the spring equinox, light and dark regain balance as the day and night are of equal length. Here we observe the light finally overtaking the darkness. The goddess energy transforms into the youthful maiden, and the sun god, or masculine energy, becomes a young man. There is a flourishing of fertility and balance between the male and female energies.


May Day/Beltane (May 1)

By Beltane, the energies of the god and goddess have matured to adulthood. Fire festivals celebrate the sacred marriage of their powers joining. With spring transforming into summer, the lushness of nature blooms in response to this consummation. The veil between worlds thins at this time as well, with a particular emphasis on faeries and nature spirits. Beltane celebrates fire, passion, sexuality, and abundance.


Summer Solstice/Litha/Midsummer (June 20-23)

Litha is the longest day of the year, and a time to celebrate the blessings and joy the light brings. The god has become mature at this time. At the summer solstice, the sun god has reached the peak of his power; this also means that he will soon sacrifice himself for the success of the harvest.  


Lughnasadh/Lammas (August 1)

Lughnasadh celebrates the ancient Celtic god Lugh. The August 1 celebration is also known today as Lammas and is related to the first wave of crop harvests occurring in late summer. It is at this time that plants are dropping their seeds to give life to future crops. Symbolically the sun or male god energy gives away a portion of his power, reminding that to reap an outcome, there must always be a sacrifice. It is at this point on the wheel of the year that the god energy is weakening, and the goddess energy is beginning to grow stronger. 


Autumn Equinox/Mabon (Sep 20-23)

At the autumn equinox, there is once more a point of balance between night and day. The equinox also symbolizes a balance between male and female, dark and light. Though from here forward, the darkness will continue to become the stronger energy. Now is the time of the second harvest and thus a further weakening of the god's power. During this transition, the goddess energy begins her movement from mother to crone. 


Aligning Your Life with the Wheel of the Year

As we have now seen, the seasons and points of the year flow as a neverending cycle. We can relate the dark and cold aspects of the year to our inner nature, to the overall feminine or goddess energy, to the moon and to activities like shedding, rest, reflection, planning, dreaming, and death. The bright and warmer half of the wheel encompasses our outer action, the masculine or god essence, and the sun. During spring and summer months, our attention focuses upon socializing, fertility, creating, manifesting, growing, and life. 

Each of the eight yearly festivals we have explored above, highlight points of specific energy which exist in nature. Like our ancestors, many of us will feel the inclination to honor or celebrate these moments with some focused ritual or observance. No extravagant supplies or plans are necessary to do this. These days can be observed alone or in a group or community.

To find your connection to these cyclical points, start simple. It can help to buy or print a circular wheel calendar that depicts all eight sabbats in order. Hang this on the wall next to your standard calendar. By keeping a visual aid handy, you can always be aware of where you are in the wheel of the year. When you see that a Sabbat is approaching, begin in nature. Remember that all of these days are reflections of unique energy occurring as the season's progress. Observe the sky, sun's position, stage of growth of plants and trees, and the activity of animals and insects. You may wish to collect some plant materials, stones, or other natural objects to build an altar.  

The points in the year relate symbolically to the cycle of human life; Fertility leads to incubation, incubation leads to birth and the beginning of life and development, the young energy ages and matures, passing on the seed. Finally, death finds us all, and the cycle begins anew. Reflect on these energies. During autumn celebrations, we consider what must be shed and left behind to ensure our growth. We also find what we are harvesting as we prepare to rest.

In the winter celebrations, our attention turns toward quietude, rest, and dreaming. Here we make plans, dream, and prepare to manifest our lives in the coming seasons of warmth. Once the springtime begins to emerge, we consider the purity and fragility of new life and cleanse ourselves. During spring, we honor life returning. When the sun reaches its full force in summer, we celebrate, make love, and think about the lushness of life, preparing to harvest all we have sown in the past seasons.  

Wherever we find ourselves in this ever-turning wheel, we are reminded that 'this too shall pass' and that the closed-door will always open again with the neverending cycles of life. 

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