The Wheel of the Year is an annual cycle of seasonal festivals, observed by a range of modern pagans, marking the year's chief solar events (solstices and equinoxes) and the midpoints between them. British neopagans crafted the Wheel of the Year in the mid-20th century, combining the four solar events ("quarter days") marked by many European peoples, with the four seasonal festivals ("cross-quarter days") celebrated by Insular Celtic peoples. Different paths of modern Paganism may vary regarding the precise timing of each celebration, based on such distinctions as the lunar phase and geographic hemisphere.
Observing the cycle of the seasons has been important to many people, both ancient and modern. Modern pagan festivals that rely on the Wheel are based to varying degrees on folk traditions, regardless of actual historical pagan practices. Some Wiccans use the term sabbat () to refer to each festival.
The ancient pagan peoples of Europe differed in the festivals they celebrated. In the British Isles, the Anglo-Saxons primarily celebrated the four solstices and equinoxes, while Insular Celtic peoples primarily celebrated the four midpoints between these. The four Celtic festivals were known to the Gaels as Beltane (1 May), Lughnasadh (1 August), Samhain (1 November) and Imbolc (1 February).
The festival cycle known as the 'Wheel of the Year' was influenced by works such as The Golden Bough by James George Frazer (1890), which explored various European seasonal festivals and their possible pagan roots. Another influence was The Witch-Cult in Western Europe (1921) by Margaret Murray. Murray promoted the witch-cult hypothesis; a now-rejected theory that European witch trials were an attempt to suppress a pagan religion that had survived into the early modern era. She attempted to identify the festivals celebrated by this supposed 'witches cult'. Murray reports a 1661 trial record from Forfar, Scotland, where the accused witch (Issobell Smyth) is alleged to attend witches meetings "every quarter" at Candlemas (2 February), Roodmas (3 May), Lammas (1 August), and Hallowmas (1 November). Robert Graves also promoted the discredited 'witch cult' theory in The White Goddess (1948). He said that, despite Christianization, the importance of agricultural and social cycles had preserved "the ancient British festal system", which he believed consisted of eight holidays corresponding to Candlemas (2 February), Lady Day (25 March), May Day (1 May), Midsummer Day (24 June), Lammas (1 August), Michaelmas (29 September), Halloween (31 October), and Christmas (25 December).
Two neopagan groups in Britain adopted an eight-fold festival calendar in the 1950s: the Bricket Wood coven, a Wiccan group led by Gerald Gardner, and the Order of Bards, Ovates and Druids, a neo-Druidic group led by Ross Nichols. Popular legend holds that Gardner and Nichols developed the calendar during a naturist retreat, where Gardner advocated celebrating the solstices and equinoxes while Nichols preferred celebrating the four Celtic festivals; ultimately they melded the two sets of festivals into one cycle. Though this coordination eventually had the benefit of more closely aligning celebrations between the two neopagan groups, Gardner's first published writings leave out the solstices and equinoxes, focusing only on the Celtic festivals Beltane, Lughnasa, Samhain, and Imbolc. Gardner initially referred to these as "May eve, August eve, November eve (Hallowe'en), and February eve".
The phrase 'Wheel of the Year' was in use by the mid-1960s to describe this yearly cycle of eight holidays. Prominent Wiccan Aidan Kelly gave names to the Wiccan summer solstice (Litha) and equinox holidays (Ostara and Mabon) in 1974, which were then promoted by Timothy Zell through his Green Egg magazine. Popularization of these names happened gradually; in her 1978 book Witchcraft For Tomorrow, influential Wiccan author Doreen Valiente did not use Kelly's holiday names, instead simply identifying the solstices and equinoxes ("Lesser Sabbats") by their seasons. Valiente identified the four "Greater Sabbats", or fire festivals, by the names Candlemas, May Eve, Lammas, and Hallowe'en, though she also identified their Gaelic counterparts Imbolc, Beltane, Lughnasa, and Samhain.
Due to early Wicca's influence on modern paganism and the syncretic adoption of Anglo-Saxon and Celtic motifs, the most commonly used English festival names for the Wheel of the Year tend to be the Celtic ones introduced by Gardner and the mostly Germanic-derived names introduced by Kelly, regardless whether the celebrations are based on those cultures.
In many traditions of modern pagan cosmology, all things are considered to be cyclical, with time 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.
In addition to the quarter and cross-quarter days, other festivals may also be celebrated throughout the year, especially in the context of polytheistic reconstructionism and other ethnic traditions. While festivals of the Wheel are steeped in solar mythology and symbolism, many Wiccan esbats are commonly based on lunar cycles. Together, they represent the most common celebrations in Wiccan-influenced forms of modern paganism, especially in Neopagan witchcraft groups.
Midwinter, which is marked around 21 December, 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 winter solstice sunrise and sunset, exemplify this. Although this position in the Wheel of the Year is sometimes referred to by the term "Yule", after the Germanic and later Northern European winter festival of the same name, Yule was not likely celebrated by Germanic heathens at the winter solstice before the Christianisation of the Germanic peoples. Consistent with historical sources, scholar Andreas Nordberg proposes that it occurred instead at the full moon of the lunisolar month following the winter solstice which could range between the 5th of January to the 2nd of February in the Gregorian calendar.
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 sacrifice offerings, 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.
In Roman traditions additional festivities take place during the six days leading up to Midwinter.
A name for the festival in neo-druidry is Alban Arthan,
Imbolc is the traditional Gaelic name for 1 February and traditionally marks the first stirrings of spring. It aligns with the contemporary observance of Groundhog Day. It is time for purification and spring cleaning in anticipation of the year's new life. In Rome, it was historically a shepherd's holiday, while the Gaels associated it with the onset of ewes' lactation, prior to birthing the spring lambs.
For Celtic neopagans, the festival is dedicated to the goddess Brigid, daughter of The Dagda and one of the Tuatha Dé Danann.
In the Reclaiming tradition, this is the traditional time for pledges and rededications for the coming year and for initiation among Dianic Wiccans.
Ostara is a name for the spring equinox in some modern pagan traditions. The term is derived from a reconstruction produced by linguist Jacob Grimm of an Old High German form of the Old English Ēostre, a proposed Anglo-Saxon goddess for whom, according to Bede, feasts were held in her eponymous month, which he equated to April in the Julian calendar.
Known as Alban Eilir in strands of neo-druidry, this holiday is the second of three spring celebrations (the midpoint between Imbolc and Beltane), during which light and darkness are again in balance, with light on the rise. It is a time of new beginnings and of life emerging further from the grips of winter.
Baltane or May Day, 1 May, is traditionally the first day of summer in Ireland. In Rome the earliest celebrations appeared in pre-Christian times with the festival of Flora, the Roman goddess of flowers, and the Walpurgisnacht celebrations of the Germanic countries.
Since the Christianisation of Europe, a more secular version of the festival has continued in Europe and America, commonly referred to as May Day. In this form, it is well known for maypole dancing and the crowning of the Queen of the May.
Celebrated by many pagan traditions, in neo-druidry this festival recognizes the power of life in its fullness, the greening of the world, youthfulness and flourishing.
Midsummer, which is marked around 21 June, is one of the four solar holidays and is considered the turning point at which summer reaches its height. Some Wiccan traditions call the festival Litha, a name occurring in Bede's The Reckoning of Time (De Temporum Ratione, eighth century), which preserves a list of the (then-obsolete) Anglo-Saxon names for the months of the early Germanic calendar. 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".
In some neo-druid traditions the festival is called Alban Hefin. The sun in its greatest strength is greeted and celebrated on this holiday. While it is the time of greatest strength of the solar current, it also marks a turning point, for the sun also begins its time of decline as the wheel of the year turns. Arguably the most important neo-druidic festival, due to the focus on the sun and its light as a symbol of divine inspiration. Neo-druid groups frequently celebrate this event at Stonehenge.
Lughnasadh () is the Gaelic name for a harvest festival held on or around 1 August, while Lammas is an English name. 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 Irish name Lughnasadh is used in some traditions to designate this holiday. Wiccan celebrations of this holiday are neither generally based on Celtic culture nor centered on the Celtic deity Lugh. 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 symbolises the first fruits of the harvest.
The holiday of the autumnal equinox is known variously among neopagans as Harvest Home, Mabon, the Feast of the Ingathering, Meán Fómhair, An Clabhsúr, or Alban Elfed (in neo-druidry). It is a neopagan festival 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 Gods 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.
Samhain () is the name of a traditional Gaelic festival held around 1 November. The name and date were adopted by Wiccans for one of their four Greater Sabbats. For Wiccans, Samhain is 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. Aligned with the contemporary observance of Halloween and Day of the Dead, in some traditions 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. Many neopagans believe that the veil between this world and the afterlife is at its thinnest point of the year at Samhain, making it easier to communicate with those who have departed.
Some authorities claim the Christian festival of All Hallows Day (All Saints Day) and the preceding evening are appropriations of Samhain by early Christian missionaries to the British Isles.
Celebration commonly takes place outdoors in the form of a communal gathering.
The precise dates on which festivals are celebrated often vary to some degree, as would the related agricultural milestones of the local region. Celebrations may occur on the astrologically precise quarter and cross-quarter days, the nearest full moon, the nearest new moon, or the nearest weekend for contemporary convenience. The festivals were originally celebrated by peoples in the middle latitudes of the Northern Hemisphere. Consequently, the traditional timing for seasonal celebrations do not align with the seasons in the Southern Hemisphere or near the equator. Pagans in the Southern Hemisphere often advance these dates by six months to coincide with their own seasons.
Offerings of food, drink, various objects, etc. have been central in ritual propitiation and veneration for millennia. 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.
Heathens may add to the demarcations of the Wheel of the Year with various Days of Remembrance celebrating heroes of the Edda and the Sagas and figures of Germanic history such as Leif Ericson, who explored parts of North America. Some heathen organisations use a Wheel of the Year framework for their festival calendar such as the Swedish group Samfundet Forn Sed Sverige, the American inclusive group The Troth and the folkish Ásatrú Alliance.
It is a misconception in some quarters of the modern pagan community, influenced by the writings of Robert Graves, that historical Celts had an overarching narrative for the entire cycle of the year. While the various Celtic calendars include some cyclical patterns, and a belief in the balance of light and dark, these beliefs vary between the different Celtic cultures. Modern preservationists and revivalists usually observe the four 'fire festivals' of the Gaelic Calendar, and some also observe local festivals that are held on dates of significance in the different Celtic nations.
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 narrative 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.
In Wicca, the narrative of the Wheel of the Year traditionally centers 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, modern Druids, and eclectic modern pagans incorporate a narrative of the Holly King and Oak King as rulers of the waning year and the waxing year respectively. These two figures battle endlessly with the turning of the seasons. At the summer solstice, the Holly King defeats the Oak King and commences his reign.: 94 After the Autumn equinox the Oak King slowly begins to regain his power as the sun begins to wane. Come the winter solstice the Oak King in turn vanquishes the Holly King.: 137 After the spring equinox the sun begins to wax again and the Holly King slowly regains his strength until he once again defeats the Oak 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.
The Holly King is often portrayed as a woodsy figure, similar to the modern Santa Claus, dressed in red with sprigs of holly in his hair and the Oak King as a fertility god.
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