The Wheel of the Year: Rewilding your calendar (again)

Back at the beginning of 2008, I made the New Year’s resolution to “do more pagan shit this year.”  While I did do some pagany things like celebrating each full moon and thinking a little more about some of the obvious holidays like solstices and equinoxes, I wish that I had focused more on each of the major pagan holidays.  By the time that Samhain (Halloween) and Yule (Christmas) rolled around, I found myself wishing that I knew more than just the buried pagan traditions that have survived the razor of Christianity for these celebrations.

So this year, I have resolved to not only do more pagan stuff, but to learn (and, through this blog share my learning) about more pagan stuff.  Because just like the beauty of looking at the full moons in terms of phenology like I did last year, wrapping my mind around the cycle of the year and celebrating the changes that come with the quarter days and cross quarter days provides yet another way to rewild the calendar.

The Wheel of the Year basically gives us a way of looking at the cyclic nature of how the seasons progress, marking the progress with the Sabbaths which consist of “quarter days” (i.e., the solstices and equinoxes, also known as the “Lesser Sabbats”) and the “cross-quarter days” (holidays that fall roughly midway between the quarter days, known as the “Greater Sabbats” or “fire festivals”).  This probably sounds as clear as mud, so let’s use a picture to help understand it.

The Lesser Sabbats or quarter days fall in the image above fall on the North, South, East, and West compass points.

  • Yule
    • aka Winter Solstice, Christmas, Midwinter
    • falls roughly December 19 – 25
  • Ostara
    • aka Vernal Equinox, Easter
    • falls roughly March 19 – 23
  • Midsummer
    • aka Summer Solstice, Litha
    • falls roughly June 19 – 23
  • Mabon
    • aka Autumnal Equinox
    • falls roughly September 19 – 24

The Greater Sabbats or cross-quarter days fall in the image above fall on the Northwest, Northeast, Southeast, and Southwest compass points.

  • Samhain
    • aka Halloween, All Saints, Ancestor Night, Feast of the Dead
    • falls on October 31, November 1
  • Imbolc
    • aka Candlemas, Brigid’s Day, Oimelc, Groundhog’s Day
    • falls on February 1 or 2
  • Beltane
    • aka Beltaine, May Day
    • falls on May 1
  • Lammas
    • aka Lughnasadh, 1st Harvest, Bread Harvest, Festival of First Fruits
    • falls on August 1

In terms of the wheel itself, however, you begin the year at Samhain (the pagan New Year’s Day, if you will) and continue the cycle of the year through Mabon and into the next year at the next Samhain.  The terms Lesser and Greater in regard to the sabbats, don’t inform us much other than to distinguish between the holidays that mark the major solar occurrences (i.e., the solstices and equinoxes) and the traditional holidays (all the rest).  Also, historically speaking, Germanic festivals inspired the quarter days, while Celtic fire festivals inpsired the cross-quarter days, but keep in mind that no historical group ever celebrated the year with a full host of these eight holidays until the advent of modern Wiccan traditions beginning in the 1950s.

Does this fact undermine the validity of celebrating the Wheel of the Year?  Why should it?  The traditions of most of the religious holidays celebrated today have very recent roots that took form within the past century or so, yet they have embedded themselves in our culture and in our lives.  Although images of Santa Claus, for example, may hail back to the Holly King (more on him later) or Saturnalia attire, the modern image of the fat, bearded man in a red suit who lives at the North Pole developed in the last 150 years. Moreover, the Wheel of the Year provides a great example of the power of syncretism to fashion a new meme out of old ones in order to feed the needs of a faith (or culture) as it develops.

So, besides learning some crazy names for some days of the year that you probably already half-way recognized, what will following the Wheel of the Year do for you?  It gives us a new way to look at the year — one based on narrative.  Charting the phenology of your bioregion with the full moons like we did last year ties you to your local surroundings, literally telling the story of what happens in your neck of the woods (in March the worms begin to making casting in the warm soil, in April the ground phlox and dead nettles brighten the hillsides with pink spray, in May the flowers come full into bloom, etc.)  Charting the Wheel of the Year tells a different narrative — or two. Both the narratives told by the Wheel of the Year involve a waxing and waning between two characters in a very yin yang type of dance.

The Goddess and the God

This first narrative deals with the birth, growth, aging, and death of the god and his relationship to the goddess who gives birth to him and then joins with him in sex, mourns his death and then gives birth to him again.  In this twisted tale of life and death, sex and birth, love and loss, the goddess caries the unborn god in her belly even as she ages with the god and watches him die before she gives birth to him again.  You can’t get more cyclic than a self-perpetuating cycle, and nothing perpetuates itself before our eyes like the annual dance between the sun and earth.

Of course, the god represents the sun, and the goddess represents the earth.  You can see how the god dies at Samhain, just before the winter solstice and grows to his peak at the summer solstice.  Also, in the analog of the earth as the goddess, you can see how her fertility ripens at Easter, she becomes pregnant on May Day (famous for its sexual symbolism of the maypole driven into the earth), ages and mourns through the harvest time as the new god grows in her belly before giving birth to him again at Yule.

I made the table below to help myself chart the story as it progresses through each of the holidays.  I have never seen a complete account of the entire story matched up with each of the holidays before, so I figured this would help me to understand the whole of it better.  Keep in mind that not all who celebrate these holy days focus on this story, per se.  Most will certainly mark Samhain as the death of the god and Yule as his rebirth, for example.  But as to when the god and goddess join in sex, some mark it as happening at Ostara while others believe it takes place at Beltane.  If you notice these differences in the way others celebrate the holidays, keep in mind that the original inspirations from the wheel come from different parts of Europe where the seasons progressed at different rates.  German soil would warm before British soil, so the evidence of the fertility of the earth would happen later in the former than it would for the latter.

Holiday God Goddess
Samhain death mourning the god’s death
Yule (re)birth giving birth
Imbolc childhood returns from rest after childbirth, Crone becomes Maiden
Ostara maturing (puberty) maturing (puberty)
Belane union with goddess union with god, Maiden becomes Mother
Midsummer apex pregnancy
Lughnasadh aging saddened at the god’s approaching death
Mabon declining Mother becomes Crone

If you notice, the god’s cycle involves death and rebirth.  The goddess, however, never dies.  She merely changes between her three aspects of Maiden, Mother and Crone.

Note: For another retelling of the story of the god and goddess, see Faerie♥Kat’s post entitled Witches Sabbats 2009 (Northern Hemisphere).

The Holly King and the Oak King

Another story relating to the turning of the Wheel of the Year involves the twin brothers: the Holly King and the Oak King.  Though twins, they also stand as mortal enemies, battling for the favor of the goddess.  On each of the solstices, they fight for her affections.  At the Summer solstice, the Holly King wins, killing his brother.  He then rules over the waning half of the year from Litha (Midsummer) until Yule (Midwinter).  At that point, the Oak King returns to life to battle his brother and defeat him, thereby ruling over the waxing half of the year from Yule to Litha.  Interestingly, each brother finds his defeat at the peak of his own strength: the waxing king finds his defeat on the longest day of the year, and the waning king finds his defeat on the shortest day of the year.

Note: Willem Larson tells the story of waxing and waning another way in his post entitled Breaking the Spell VII: The Wise Compass at The College of Mythic Cartography.

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