The Wheel of the Year is an annual cycle of seasonal festivals in contemporary Paganism. It consists primarily of eight festivals based around the solstices and equinoxes, known as the quarter days, and the midpoints between, known as the cross quarter days.
Within Paganism, many festivals are celebrated. They can vary considerably in name and date amongst specific traditions, however the eight festivals of the Wheel comprise the most adhered and important annual celebrations. They are a unifying feature of modern Paganism. The Wheel has been important to many people, both ancient and modern, and its festivals are based to varying degrees on folk tradition.
In Wicca, the festivals are also referred to as sabbats /ˈsæbət/, the term being explained as passed down from the Middle Ages.
In Pagan cosmology, all things are considered to be cyclical — including the year. It is understood as a perpetual cycle of growth and retreat tied to the Sun‘s annual death and rebirth. This cycle is also viewed as a micro- and macrocosm of other life cycles in an immeasurable series of cycles composing the Universe. The days that fall on the landmarks of the yearly cycle traditionally mark the beginnings and middles of the four seasons. They are regarded with significance and host to major communal festivals. These eight festivals are the most common times for community celebrations.
While the major festivals are determined by quarter and cross-quarter days, many minor festivals are also celebrated throughout the year amongst various traditions. Additionally, festivals (major or minor) may not enjoy the same level of significance from one tradition to another.
The festivals, being tied to solar movements, have always been steeped in solar mythology and symbolism, centred around the life cycles of the sun. Similarly, the esbats are traditionally tied to the lunar cycles. Together, they represent the most common and important celebrations in modern Paganism, especially in Witchcraft.
The most universally celebrated festival is that of Midwinter. It has been recognized as a significant turning point in the yearly cycle since the late Stone Age. The ancient megalithic sites of Newgrange and Stonehenge, carefully aligned with the solstice sunrise and sunset, exemplify this. The reversal of the Sun‘s ebbing presence in the sky symbolizes the rebirth of the solar god and presages the return of fertile seasons. From Germanic to Roman tradition, this is the most important time of celebration.
Practices vary, but sacrifices, feasting, and gift giving are common elements of Midwinter festivities. Bringing sprigs and wreaths of evergreenery (such as holly, ivy, mistletoe, yew, and pine) into the home and tree decorating are also common during this time.
This liminal festival marks the last month of the old year and the first month of the new year and is followed by eleven days of extended celebration in Germanic tradition. In Roman tradition additional festivities take place during the six days leading up to Midwinter. The celebration of Christmas during approximately the same time is the result of early Christianity‘s adaptations of popular pre-Christian festivals concerning the winter solstice.
As the first cross-quarter day following Midwinter, this traditionally marks winter‘s end and spring‘s start. It is time for purification and spring cleaning in anticipation of the year’s new life. It was historically a shepherd’s holiday and among Celts associated with the onset of ewes’ lactation, prior to birthing the spring lambs.
The vernal equinox, often called Ostara, inaugurates the new year on the Zodiacal calendar. From this point the day overcomes the night. It is widely recognized by many mythologies as the time of rebirth or return for vegetation gods (e.g. Attis) and is celebrated as a time of great fertility.
The holiday is strongly associated with fertility goddess Ostara (the eastern star). She is notably associated with the fecund symbols of the hare and egg. Her teutonic name may be etymological ancestor of the words east and Easter.
Traditionally the first day of summer, the earliest celebrations appeared in pre-Christian times with the festival of Flora, the Roman goddess of flowers, and the Walpurgis Night celebrations of the Germanic countries. It is also strongly associated with the Gaelic Beltane (bright fire).
Since the Christianization of Europe, a more secular version of the festival has continued in Europe and America. In this form, it is well known for maypole dancing and the crowning of the Queen of the May.
Midsummer is one of the four solar holidays, and is considered the turning point at which summer reaches its height and the sun shines longest. Among the Wiccan sabbats, Midsummer is preceded by Beltane, and followed by Lammas or Lughnasadh.
Some traditions call the festival Litha, a name occurring in Bede‘s Reckoning of Time (De Temporum Ratione, 7th century), which preserves a list of the (then-obsolete) Anglo-Saxon names for the twelve months. Ærra Liða (first or preceding Liða) roughly corresponds to June in the Gregorian calendar, and Æfterra Liða (following Liða) to July. Bede writes that “Litha means gentle or navigable, because in both these months the calm breezes are gentle and they were wont to sail upon the smooth sea”.
Lammas or Lughnasadh (/ˈluːnæsə/ LOO-nas-ə) is the first of the three Pagan autumn harvest festivals, the other two being the autumnal equinox (or Mabon) and Samhain. Wiccans mark the holiday by baking a figure of the god in bread and eating it, to symbolize the sanctity and importance of the harvest. Celebrations vary, as not all Pagans are Wiccans. The Celtic name Lughnasadh is used in some traditions to designated this holiday. Wiccan celebrations of this holiday are not generally based on Celtic culture nor centered on the Celtic deity Lugh, however. This name seems to have been a late adoption among Wiccans. In early versions of Wiccan literature the festival is referred to as August Eve.
The name Lammas (contraction of loaf mass) implies it is an agrarian-based festival and feast of thanksgiving for grain and bread, which symbolizes the first fruits of the harvest. Pagan rituals may incorporate elements from either festival.
The holiday of the autumnal equinox, Harvest Home, Mabon, the Feast of the Ingathering, Meán Fómhair or Alban Elfed (in Neo-Druidic traditions), is a Pagan ritual of thanksgiving for the fruits of the earth and a recognition of the need to share them to secure the blessings of the Goddess and the God during the coming winter months. The name Mabon was coined by Aidan Kelly around 1970 as a reference to Mabon ap Modron, a character from Welsh mythology. Among the sabbats, it is the second of the three Pagan harvest festivals, preceded by Lammas / Lughnasadh and followed by Samhain.
Samhain (/ˈsɑːwɪn/ SOW-in) is considered by Wiccans to be one of the four Greater Sabbats. Samhain is considered by some as a time to celebrate the lives of those who have passed on, and it often involves paying respect to ancestors, family members, elders of the faith, friends, pets and other loved ones who have died. In some rituals the spirits of the departed are invited to attend the festivities. It is seen as a festival of darkness, which is balanced at the opposite point of the wheel by the festival of Beltane, which is celebrated as a festival of light and fertility.
Wiccans believe that at Samhain the veil between this world and the afterlife is at its thinnest point of the whole year, making it easier to communicate with those who have left this world.
In addition to the eight major holidays common to most modern Pagans, there are a number of minor holidays during the year to commemorate various events.
The minor holidays common in contemporary Germanic Paganism:
- Vali’s Blot, celebration dedicated to the god Váli and to love — 14 February
- Feast of the Einherjar, celebration to honor kin who died in battle — 11 November
- Ancestors’ Blot, celebration of one’s own ancestry or the common ancestors of a Germanic ethnicity — 11 November
- Yggdrasil Day, celebration of the world tree Yggdrasil, of the reality world it represents, of trees and nature — 22 April
- Winterfinding, celebration which marks the beginning of winter, held on a date between Haustblot and Winternights (mid-October)
- Summerfinding, celebration which marks the beginning of summer, held on a date between Ostara and Walpurgisnight (mid-April)
Dates of celebration
The precise dates on which festivals are celebrated are often flexible. Dates may be on the days of the quarter and cross-quarter days proper, the nearest full moon, the nearest new moon, or the nearest weekend for secular convenience.
The festivals were originally celebrated by peoples in the middle latitudes of the Northern Hemisphere. Consequently, the traditional times for seasonal celebrations do not agree with the seasons in the Southern Hemisphere. Pagans in the South often advance these dates six months to coincide with their own seasons.
Celebration commonly takes place outdoors in the form of a communal gathering.
Offerings of food, drink, various objects, the lives of animals, etc. have been central in ritual propitiation and veneration for millennia. The most notorious of these, ritual slaughter and sacrificing of animals has historically been common in any major settings that allowed for it, as blood sacrifices were known to be the most potent of all offerings. However, its use has always been tenuous and modern Pagan practice strongly avoids sacrificing animals in favour of grains, herbs, milk, wines, incense, baked goods, minerals, etc. The exception being with ritual feasts including meat, where the inedible parts of the animal are often burned as offerings while the community eats the rest.
Sacrifices are typically offered to gods and ancestors by burning them. Burying and leaving offerings in the open are also common in certain circumstances. The purpose of offering is to benefit the venerated, show gratitude, and give something back, strengthening the bonds between humans and divine and between members of a community.
The contemporary Wheel of the Year is somewhat of a modern innovation. While many historical pagan traditions celebrated various equinoxes, solstices, and even cross-quarter days for their seasonal and agricultural significances, none were known to have held all eight above all other annual, sacred times. The modern understanding of the Wheel is a result of the cross-cultural awareness that began developing by the time of Modern Europe.
Mid-20th century British Paganism had a strong influence on early adoption of an eightfold Wheel. By the late 1950s, the Wiccan Bricket Wood Coven and Order of Bards, Ovates and Druids had both adopted eightfold ritual calendars, for balance and more frequent celebrations. This also had the benefit of more closely aligning celebration between the two influential Pagan orders.
Due to early Wicca’s influence on Paganism and their syncretic adoption of Anglo-Saxon and Celtic motifs, the most commonly used English festival names for the Wheel of the Year tend to be Celtic and Germanic.
The American Ásatrú movement has adopted, over time, a calendar in which the Heathen major holidays figure alongside many Days of Remembrance which celebrate heroes of the Edda and the Sagas, figures of Germanic history, and the Viking Leif Ericson, who explored and settled Vinland (North America). These festivals are not, however, as evenly distributed throughout the year as in Wicca and other Heathen denominations.
It is a misconception in some quarters of the Neopagan community, influenced by the writings of Robert Graves, that historical Celts had an overarching narrative for the cycle of the year. They did not; and modern revivalists often observe only the four Gaelic fire festivals of the Celtic calendars.
Slavic mythology tells of a persisting conflict involving Perun, god of thunder and lightning, and Veles, the black god and horned god of the underworld. Enmity between the two is initiated by Veles’ annual ascent up the world tree in the form of a huge serpent and his ultimate theft of Perun’s divine cattle from the heavenly domain. Perun retaliates to this challenge of the divine order by pursuing Veles, attacking with his lightning bolts from the sky. Veles taunts Perun and flees, transforming himself into various animals and hiding behind trees, houses, even people. (Lightning bolts striking down trees or homes were explained as results of this.) In the end Perun overcomes and defeats Veles, returning him to his place in the realm of the dead. Thus the order of the world is maintained.
The idea that storms and thunder are actually divine battle is pivotal to the changing of the seasons. Dry periods are identified as chaotic results of Veles’ thievery. This duality and conflict represents an opposition of the natural principles of earth, water, substance, and chaos (Veles) and of heaven, fire, spirit, order (Perun), not a clash of good and evil. The cosmic battle between the two also echoes the ancient Indo-European narative of a fight between the sky-borne storm god and chthonic dragon.
On the great night (New Year), two children of Perun are born, Jarilo, god of fertility and vegetation and son of the Moon, and Morana, goddess of nature and death and daughter of the Sun. On the same night, the infant Jarilo is snatched and taken to the underworld, where Veles raises him as his own. At the time of the spring equinox, Jarilo returns across the sea from the world of the dead bringing with him fertility and spring from the evergreen underworld into the realm of the living. He meets his sister Morana and courts her. With the beginning of summer, the two are married bringing fertility and abundance to Earth, ensuring a bountiful harvest. The union of Perun’s kin and Veles’ stepson brings peace between two great gods, staving off storms which could damage the harvest. After the harvest, however, Jarilo is unfaithful to his wife and she vengefully slays him, returning him to the underworld and renewing enmity between Perun and Veles. Without her husband, god of fertility and vegetation, Morana — and all of nature with her — withers and freezes in the ensuing winter. She grows into the old and dangerous goddess of darkness and frost, eventually dying by the year’s end only to be reborn again with her brother in the new year.
Modern Wicca and Neo-druidism
In Wicca, the narrative of the Wheel of the Year traditionally centres on the sacred marriage of the God and the Goddess and the god/goddess duality. In this cycle, the God is perpetually born from the Goddess at Yule, grows in power at the vernal equinox (as does the Goddess, now in her maiden aspect), courts and impregnates the Goddess at Beltane, reaches his peak at the summer solstice, wanes in power at Lammas, passes into the underworld at Samhain (taking with him the fertility of the Goddess/Earth, who is now in her crone aspect) until he is once again born from Her mother/crone aspect at Yule. The Goddess, in turn, ages and rejuvenates endlessly with the seasons, being courted by and giving birth to the Horned God.
Many Wiccan, Neo-Druid and eclectic Neopagans incorporate a narrative of the Oak King and the Holly King as rulers of the waxing year and the waning year respectively. These two figures battle endlessly with the turning of the seasons. At the summer solstice, the Oak King is at the height of his strength. Having just defeated the Oak King, the Holly King enjoys the commencement of his reign. As the year progresses, the Holly King slowly regains his power and with the autumnal equinox, the tables finally begin turning in the Holly King’s favor. Come the winter solstice, he is vanquished by the Oak King. Over the next months, the sun waxes in power again and the Oak King slowly regains his strength. At the vernal equinox he begins to triumph until he is once again defeated by the Holly King at the summer solstice. The two are ultimately seen as essential parts of a whole, light and dark aspects of the male God, and would not exist without each other.