The Wheel of the Year

With a week to go until Halloween, I post yet another informational entry on neo-pagan belief/tradition. I’ll probably make my last pre-Ancestor Night post on Friday, so everyone will know what to expect.

Most neo-pagans celebrate eight seasonal rituals, which together are called the Wheel of the Year. These include the solstices and equinoxes (collectively known as the Quarters), and the four midpoints between these (the Cross-Quarters). More info can be found on wikipedia’s “Wheel_of_the_year” entry, but I’ll go over it briefly here. You can hit the links for more background on the individual holidays.

  • Samhain, on November 1 and the preceding eve October 31
  • Midwinter/Yule, on the winter solstice
  • Imbolc, on February 2 and the preceding eve
  • Ostara, on the spring equinox
  • Beltane/Beltaine/May Day on May 1 and the preceding eve
  • Midsummer/Litha, on the summer solstice
  • Lughnasadh/Lammas, on August 1 and the preceding eve
  • Mabon, on the autumnal equinox

A term often used for these is “sabbats.” There’s some debate over where the word came from in neo-pagan terms, if it’s from the Hebrew “sabbath” or a reclaiming of the medieval usage during the witch hunt period.

Samhain is either the first or last on the list, because it’s sort of like New Year’s Eve — it’s the end of one year and the beginning of the next, ceremonially speaking.

There is some thought that the cross-quarters were originally the astronomical midpoints between the solstices and equinoxes, i.e. 15 degrees of the relevant sign. Due to calendar drift, these now occur around the 7th of the month instead of the first, though the holidays are usually still celebrated on the 1st (and/or the eve of the 1st). Some pagans take advantage of this to celebrate twice, using the 1st for public/group ceremonies and the actual astronomical date for private ceremonies. This year, the cross-quarter of 15 degrees Scorpio will happen on Nov. 7 at 1131 GMT.

Another twist neopagan have to deal with is that, to the best of my knowledge, no ancient culture ever celebrated all eight holidays. Many cultures have celebrations for the solstices (especially the midwinter solstice), though the equinoxes don’t seem to have been as widely honored. Most equinox traditions come from general spring or harvest festivals that may or may not have tied to the solar cycle.

Some cultures celebrated the cross-quarters, and I think I remember reading of some who did some of the cross-quarters but not others. The Gaelic people did all four, and it is their names we often use. In addition (by chance or design I leave to another discussion), the Catholic Church ended up with holidays on the cross-quarters and many pagans use those names as well. Imbolc is St. Brigid’s day and Candlemas, Beltane has been adopted as a “National Day of Prayer,” Lughnasadh is also Lammas, which derives from Loaf Mass when the first grain harvest was celebrated, and of course there’s the Feasts of Feast of All Saints and All Souls at Samhain.

Some traditions consider the quarters to be “greater” sabbats and the cross-quarters to be “lesser” sabbats. Some use the term “fire festivals” for the cross-quarters, because they usually included bonfires.

Another neopagan construct is the Wheel of the Year as a metaphor for the cycles of the God and Goddess. In this tale, the God is born at Yule, the Goddess is celebrated (and has recovered from the birth) at Imbolc, the Young God comes into his power at Ostara, the Lord and Lady become lovers at Beltane, the Young God ritually slays and supplants the Old God at either Midsummer or Lughnasadh, the Goddess goes into mourning at Mabon, and goes into seclusion at Samhain, and at Yule the child conceived at Beltane is born (a bit prematurely if you consider a nine-month gestational period 😉 and the cycle begins again. Different traditions will place the particulars differently and add other bits to the story to fill out the eight sabbats, but that’s the general form of it.

We even have a bit of “returning the favor” for the pre-Christian traditions that Christianity adopted. Imbolc, for example, was originally a celebration of the ewes coming into their milk, which was the promise of the coming spring in the depth of winter. The Christian church had Candlemas on this date, the Feast of the Purification of Mary, and that has come back around into neopaganism by Imbolc becoming a Feast of Lights and called by some “Mother’s Day” in honor of the Great Mother. A smaller example is pagans putting up Yule trees, decorated with lights to remind us that this is when the days stop getting shorter and the light returns.

I think I mentioned in a previous diary that one eclectic group I was in decided to celebrate the quarters in wiccan fashion and the fire sabbat with the druidic form. In like manner, I figure we neopagans here on the Street can trade off, showcasing our varied traditions over the course of the year.

OK, folks, you’ve been good at finding the stuff I’ve missed before, so go to it! 🙂


What’s your favorite season?

• Fall 47%
• Winter 4%
• Spring 38%
• Summer 0%
• More than one/All of them! 9%
• None 0%
• Other 0%

Votes: 21


Michigan fall (4.00 / 4)

The autumn days bring cool weather after the heat of the summer and there is a tang to the air along with other autumn smells.

The geese and ducks are noisy in their farewells and huge flocks of birds chatter on the wires.

Traditionally, we turn to cider, either hot or cold, and with or without cinnamon to go with doughnuts.  

Fields of pumpkins are gathered into pyramids, and festivals with hayrides and games take place in orchard lots.  

The sun is bright, the sky is blue and the light in the evening slants from the side, lighting the colored leaves from behind and sending tree shadows across the road.

Even on a gray day, the trees light up the roads and the carpet of fallen gold or orange covers
the hillsides along with deep red sumac and dark purple asters.

Golden poplar leaves literally dance in the wind.
Winged maple seeds litter the walk and feathery milk weed seeds spill out from the open pods and sail away.

Winter wheat is a magic green that stretches for miles beside the road. Red creeper hangs across the silver gray tree trunks.

Chestnuts fall and smash out of their covers and glisten for a few moments in your hands, silky.

Memories of football under the lights and playing in leaf piles and the smell of smoke from burning leaves when it was still allowed
stay in the mind as well as the sight of the huge orange full moon that rose from the tree line.

Sometimes northern lights splay green in the sky and spread out like a sheet, pulsing faintly.

The days are warm, the apples are crisp, the wild grapes are plump, and the pies are rich with thick crusts.

Happy autumn to you all !!

by cfk on Mon Oct 24th, 2005 at 20:19:25 PDT

I had a book on Druidry (4.00 / 4)

which I lent and never got back (so I can’t check the specifics).

It suggested that the Celts may not have celebrated all eight of the holidays each year — but they were staggered (maybe three a year — I can’t remember).  Anyway, it took a cycle of 21 years to come back to the permutation of celebrations as they were in the year of a person’s birth.

And that is why we have 21 years as the age of majority — it represents a full cycle.

by Rain on Mon Oct 24th, 2005 at 21:40:22 PDT

New Year (4.00 / 2)

So what is most generally considered the beginning of a new year? For me, it’s winter solstice. But I base that only on the return of longer days & no other considerations. I do love the story of Persephone,

“Wherever we are broken
there survives a possibility
of replacement & growth”

by Asbury Park on Tue Oct 25th, 2005 at 00:24:05 PDT

Samhain… (4.00 / 2)

is generally considered the “new year” for two reasons that I’m aware of:

  1. Samhain was the beginning of the fallow cycle — the way it was explained to me — “gestation” was considered the beginning of the natural growth cycle, not birth (which would be spring).
  2. Magickally speaking (and this is probably very modern pagan interpretation based on folklore) the veils between the worlds are thinnest at Samhain (Beltane is the second thinnest time) — making it the strongest time of the year for magickal work.

With what clues we are able to piece together, Yule was probably considered the new year in other cultures/religions that folowed the sun cycle more closely — Mithraism comes to mind for one.

“When the going gets weird, the weird turn pro.” — Hunter S. Thompson

by rune on Tue Oct 25th, 2005 at 08:21:05 PDT

Mithras (4.00 / 2)

Thanks. That makes sense, given the strong influence Mithraism simultaneously had on both Roman culture & early Christian belief (Mithras was also born of a virgin called “the Mother of God”).

“Wherever we are broken
there survives a possibility
of replacement & growth”

by Asbury Park on Tue Oct 25th, 2005 at 09:11:06 PDT

Samhain (4.00 / 2)

I agree, it is the day when the veil between worlds is thinnest.

It is the day when the dead can most easily visit the living.

Samhain is about the whole death/rebirth thing — a new beginning — that place between what was and what will be.

It’s a very good New Year.

I particularly like it because my birthday comes shortly thereafter.  It’s my time of year.

by Rain on Tue Oct 25th, 2005 at 08:58:32 PDT

As others have said, Samhain (4.00 / 3)

But I wanted to add another way to look at it. The Celts, like many other groups, considered the day to end/start at sunset. Samhain is, in a sense, the sunset of the year. Midwinter would be analogous to midnight.

So, does the day start at sunset, or midnight? Depends on who you’re talking to :-). Same for the year.

by Morgan on Tue Oct 25th, 2005 at 11:58:02 PDT

Morgan (4.00 / 2)

You are very good; you really don’t miss much and I suspect that anything you miss is more due to the limits of the format rather than your knowledge or skill. Great job summarizing the Wheel of the Year.

My only comment is based on what I have learned from my covenmate, Pheonix, about the question of Sabbats/Equinoxes/Solstices. Based on her research (which I can’t cite because I did not do it myself) she suggested that what we are seeing is modern Pagans blending two very different pre-Christian European traditions.

The first and earliest would be hunter-gatherer. These would have been pre-Celtic and probably involved the folks who built the great stone and wood circles (megaliths) such as Stonehenge, Avebury and Woodhenge along with the great barrows. These megaliths are astronomically oriented in such a way as to line up in a significant way during such days as equinoxes and solstices. Those would have been very important to them as information on animal migration patterns and preparation for the seasons.

The remaining holidays (Samhain, Imbolc, Beltane and Lughnasadh) are all pastorally and agriculturally significant.  Samhain (end of October/early November) is the last harvest, Imbolc (first week of February) is the first of the spring growths, Beltane (first week of May) is time to sow and Lughnasadh (first week of August) is first harvest. These are Celtic holidays and we have records to indicate the importance of these days to the Celts in terms of rearing livestock and growing crops.  

I should note that the continental Celts were migratory. Much of the evidence for an agricultural foundation to the Celtic culture comes from Ireland where there was a lot less room to migrate. However, a great deal of our information about these Sabbats comes from Ireland, seeing as how Ireland is the primary place where Celtic culture survived (not having had the Romans followed by the Germanic tribes traipsing through).

I have made a horrible series of generalizations here.  When I am able I will start digging out sourcing on this stuff… there really needs to be a diary or ten on the history of where modern Paganism comes from.

Great job Morgan!

My Blog: Recovery, Spirituality, Politics and Kilts.What more could you ask for?

by Andy Ternay on Tue Oct 25th, 2005 at 07:49:54 PDT

I’ll vote for a diary or ten (4.00 / 3)

I’m fascinated by ancient British culture.

I’ve spent quite a lot of time in Glastonbury and some far-flung places in Scotland and am smitten.  It is an energy thing — likely a past life thing, for me.  I really would rather live there.

Andy, the circles are about more than the celestial alignments.  They also mark energy lines in the earth.

Ley lines and subterranean water flow can be helpful or harmful to plants and animals.  You can spot the effects on the landscape sometimes — healthy plants on either side of a line of stunted ones — or a line of twisted trees in an otherwise normal stand of woods.  Point is, these lines tend to snake around.

Dr. Patrick MacManaway has posited that the circles serve the function of pinning the energy so that people could farm better.  In fact, the image of St. George lancing the dragon is a symbol for the British controling the earth energies in this way.  It’s a very sophisticated technology that we completely forgot after the Christianization of Britain.

I could go on and on.  As I said, I love this stuff.

by Rain on Tue Oct 25th, 2005 at 09:23:45 PDT

I have read about the ley lines (none / 1)

but do not understand the ideas behind them. One of those many interesting things I have yet to study.

My Blog: Recovery, Spirituality, Politics and Kilts.What more could you ask for?

by Andy Ternay on Tue Oct 25th, 2005 at 10:12:10 PDT

There are masculine and femine lines (4.00 / 2)

In Britain, we know the Christian church built cathedrals and churches over some of the most potent energy sites (read: ancient holy sites).  People who study ley lines say that churches built over feminine lines were most often named after Mary.  Churches built over masculine lines were most often named after St. Michael.

In other words, the name of a church is a tip-off as to what it sits upon.

Glastonbury is different.  It is a sort of sink where multiple lines cross, male and female.  The place where the High Altar of the Abbey used to be is especially “hot” — stand there and you will feel like you are flying.

When you go over touring (as I am sure you will), let me know and I will give you a guide of some things you won’t find in an ordinary travel guide.

by Rain on Tue Oct 25th, 2005 at 10:40:10 PDT

I started googling around on this (none / 0)

and could spend days (years?) immersed in the Neolithic/megalithic cultures studies.  This, from the BBC, I found interesting ~  The Amesbury Archer: The King of Stonehenge?
for heralding the earliest evidence of gold ornaments in the UK.

The presence in the British Isles of wheat and barley by about 3500 BC is noted here in a 1997 paper

Also from the BBC history section
The gene pool of the island has changed, but more slowly and far less completely than implied by the old ‘invasion model’, and the notion of large-scale migrations, once the key explanation for change in early Britain, has been widely discredited.

The worship of the old gods, and the celebration of their holidays, seems to me to have been valued by the turning wheel of the seasons whether hunter/gatherer or farmer for all were seasonal observations of the cycle of food availability within the landscape and the causes thereof.

The arrival of metallurgy, the arts of the smith,  and all the trade routes established for that need is another fascinating area, eh?  

by under the bodhi tree on Wed Oct 26th, 2005 at 07:08:14 PDT

Being a Catholic (4.00 / 2)

I resemble that remark. We have a Siant for every day of the year and then some. We pray to them based upon their -um- patronage, I’m not sure if that’s the correct word use but each Saint has ‘specialties.’

Trans-substantiation of bread and wine, ritual candles, oil and water, many Saints and Mary to help us stay on track. And that cross with Jesus still on it. The list goes on.

God has many names

by leftofcenter on Tue Oct 25th, 2005 at 07:50:45 PDT

Morgan (none / 1)

if you are willing, drop me a line at andy at If you are interested, I wanted to get in touch with you.

Sorry to intrude on your diary.


My Blog: Recovery, Spirituality, Politics and Kilts.What more could you ask for?

by Andy Ternay on Tue Oct 25th, 2005 at 08:11:50 PDT

I like all seasons (4.00 / 2)

one of the reasons I’ll stay in the north. And as wonderously peaceful as a nightime winter snow, as beautiful as the hillsides on Oct. 15 (when it is not raining 7 inches an hour), and as wonderful as summertime is with it’s warmth, outdoor activities, animals in abundance, and the most beautiful creatures in world, women, in grand display… it is spring that is easily my favorite. Spring with it’s promise and re-birth, new beginnings, and it’s continual triumph over the long hard winter.

Spring… a more fitting appellation for this week then Fitzmas.

The Ten Thousand Things

by Andrew C White on Tue Oct 25th, 2005 at 09:47:53 PDT

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