Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Tools and Accessories

This is one in an ongoing series of posts regarding some of the basics of pagan practice. These are slightly tidied-up versions of the handouts I used to give my students during some of the classes I taught, once upon a time, in a prior geologic era. I hope you find them useful. Find all the posts in this series here.

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We’ve all seen them; perhaps we've even been one of these people ourselves at one time or another - the colorful characters of the pagan community with their velvet robes, satin capes, 57 different silver necklaces, three matching knives in graduated sizes on their color-coordinated belt, 4 rings on each finger, dramatic makeup for both day and nightime wear. Of course, their altars match their outfits - chased silver goblets, carved brass and rosewood incense holder (with five kinds of incense burning at once), incised bronze pentagram inlaid with multiple different sacred stones, gold lame altarcloth embroidered with sacred symbols draped over a velvet cloth draped over an elaborately carved table, two-foot-tall deity statue, and so on.

This might be overkill or it might not; I won't argue personal tastes here - if it works for you, then do it. My point is that these people do make an impression, and that’s what ritual and ceremony are all about: making an impression. Yes, you can do everything in your head in a meditative state with just as effective an outcome, if you have the necessary mental control from years of practice. But when you’re doing ritual with other people you have to keep everyone on the same wavelength. Remember the post about symbolism in ritual? The easiest way to use symbols is with theatrics. Of course your words, the rituals you compose, will have an impact. But the visual images you use have even more power, for they are constantly present throughout the ritual, beaming themselves into everyone's brain every time they look. So it is with ritual tools.

Tools are just that: items used to accomplish a purpose. In ritual, whether private or public, tools help you focus on the task at hand. Their presence keeps your mind on the topic of the ceremony. Used correctly, your tools and accessories will reinforce the effect of your ritual. Chosen poorly, they can distract you from your purpose and hinder your energy.

Norse Yule altar with deity images, food offerings and tools
Setting the Stage

Think of the circle (or whatever shape your sacred space happens to be) as your stage. Your altar, then, is your biggest prop. If the presiding priest or priestess is the primary focus in the circle, then the altar is number two. How you set up your altar will affect how people respond to your ritual. What materials do you put on it - fancy cut crystal goblets and candlesticks or handmade ceramic ones? The gold lame altarcloth mentioned above, or a burlap one, or none at all? You don’t have to do anything elaborate; just be mindful of the impression you create when you choose what you use. Think of the overall feeling and effect you want and go from there.

The tools you place on your altar or carry on your person will, to some degree, be dictated by the type of ritual you perform and the rules of any tradition you follow. There are some standards - cups and goblets, blades, candles - that appear at most pagan rituals. There are others which you will choose according to the season and the occasion. Let’s look at some types of tools and accessories and how you might use them.

Feminine Imagery: The Womb and the Earth

Like it or not, every cup and bowl you bring into circle is a womb image. Across cultures and time, any round container which will hold liquid has been a womb symbol and hence a symbol of woman and the goddess. The bowl of salt water on your altar is a symbol of the sea, the womb of the earth. The cup of wine you share around the circle represents the life of the earth poured forth from the womb of the goddess. The cauldron in the center of your circle contains the fire-in-the-belly. Consider this imagery when choosing the type, number and prominence of cups and bowls for your ritual. For which occasions might you want multiple, large round containers? When might you want to eliminate them altogether, and why? Many tools have an individual and a collective version, one that belongs to a person and one that belongs to or symbolizes that aspect of the coven, clan or tribe. The cup is the personal womb symbol; the cauldron or other large round vessel is the group symbol.

The other basically female-symbolic tool is the pentagram, especially when drawn inside a circle, in which case it is called a pentacle. Note that while cups and bowls are female symbols cross-culturally, the pentagram is an exclusively European symbol. Its presence on the altar represents the earth and hence the goddess. The five points of the pentacle represent the elements which make up the world and which influence our lives. The pentagram as jewelry is an individual symbol; the pentagram on the altar or otherwise displayed in the ritual area is a group symbol. What tools do non-European traditions use to symbolize earth for the individual and the group?

Pagan altar with chalice, small cauldron and bowl-shaped censer
From Mal Corvus Witchcraft & Folklore artefact private collection owned by Malcolm Lidbury (aka Pink Pasty)
Long, Pointy Freudian Things

Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar . . . but never in ritual. If it’s long and narrow, it’s a male symbol. The blade, the wand and the staff represent, in a very basic sense, the male and the god. Dipping the blade into the cup during the symbolic Great Rite symbolizes not only sexual union but also the union of the two halves of universal being. The blade symbolizes its owner’s will as well, their desire and purpose extended into the material world. In this sense it is still a masculine symbol even when the owner is a woman. We all carry the both masculine and the feminine within us; the will is, in many traditions, a masculine component of one’s being. Why do you think this might be? Do you agree with this interpretation? The small blade (called an athame in some traditions) is the personal tool; the sword is the collective tool, wielded by the group’s representative or leader.

The wand is also a masculine symbol, though not usually as powerful an image as the blade. Some traditions connect the blade with the metaphysical element of air and the wand with fire; some do it the other way round. Regardless, both are masculine symbols connected with elements held to be masculine in the European tradition. The wand is an extension of the hand and arm, a way to direct and focus energy, hence the stereotype of the witch pointing her magic wand at the unlucky prince, er, frog. You can direct energy just as easily by pointing your finger (ever wonder why your mom insisted it was rude to point?) but a wand is a much more visible sign of your action and intent. In this case the wand and the staff are both individual tools, though the staff can also be a group symbol when it is used as a sign of leadership. Shamans and other indigenous spiritual leaders often use staffs as symbols of their position in the community.

If long, pointy objects are male symbols and round containers are female symbols, how would you classify the smoking pipe? An interesting note: Native American pipes, as well as many older European models, have the bowl and stem as separate, interlocking pieces. Most Native American nations consider pipes to be a combination of masculine and feminine, and often store the pieces separately, only inserting the stem into the bowl immediately before use.

Norse pagan altar with phallic figurine of the god Freyr
Let There Be Light

Flame. What a marvelous tool. It is a symbol of life, power, magic, inspiration, passion, individual and collective will. And it looks so lovely. We often use candles as tools during ritual but we do not always consciously consider the impact of flame on a ritual (never mind burning witches). Lighting the god and goddess candles represents the moment at which their energies enter the ritual. A central fire represents the spark of life at the center of all things.  Many traditions describe spiritual awakening or possession by deity as a flame or fire emanating from the head. When would you choose candles, a cauldron containing a small fire, a giant bonfire? If you use candles, what color and size would you choose, and why? A white taper in a crystal candlestick gives a completely different impression than a sandcast black pillar candle set in the dirt. When would you choose not to use flame at all? When might you use flame as an active part of the ritual, either extinguishing it or lighting it to symbolize some aspect of the occasion?

Wiccan Imbolc Altar with many candles
From the Reading Pagan's & Witches Imbolc Gathering & Expo

Fashion Show

The items and objects you wear and carry on your person counts as tools. A casual family ritual whose primary focus is building community can be performed in jeans and T-shirts. But a formal Sabbat with 40 attendees and an altar the size of a megalith requires appropriate costuming. Just as in good literature, in good ritual nothing is inconsequential. Every detail has an effect on the participants. This includes what you wear. You choose your workday clothing to project a particular image; select your ritual clothing with this in mind as well. What sorts of garments do you feel comfortable wearing in ritual? When would you want all the participants to dress similarly to the priest or priestess and when would you want them to dress differently? Why? When would you want to enact a ritual skyclad and why?

The Tie that Binds

Rope. Cord. Ribbon. Some traditions require their adherents to wear a cingulum, a piece of cord measured against certain parts of the owner’s body. Yes, it’s a good way to keep from tripping on your robe’s hem, but that cord is also a powerful tool. What might the cingulum symbolize when worn around the waist? When hung up or laid on the altar? Anything that can be tied into a knot or that can tie two things together is a tool of union and binding. We bind two people’s hands together when they get married, that is, we make their hands fast together to symbolize the binding of their lives. At Beltane we weave ribbon around the Maypole. Originally the Maypole dance involved binding the May King and Queen to the Maypole, binding them to each other and their union to the land. In what other ways might you use cord or ribbon in ritual? How about weaving a web of community? Or defining the circle?

Sniff. Sniff. Ding! Munch.

All the tools I have mentioned so far produce visual effects, but what about the other senses? Scent can be a powerful ritual tool; the olfactory nerve reaches directly into the brain from the back of the nose. Incense and perfume oils lend their own energies to sacred space, enhancing and reinforcing the visual symbolism. A common way of welcoming participants into a ritual is through smudging with incense or anointing with scented oil. Let the choice of scent reflect the occasion - gardenia oil for Spring Equinox, sage and sweetgrass for Harvest, menthol for the cold of winter. Burn incense on the altar, around the circle or in the sacred fire. What scents might you choose for Midsummer? Midwinter? A wedding? A funeral?

We speak words and sing chants in ritual, but there are other ways to 'fill up our ears' as well. Be aware of background sounds when you choose the site for a ceremony. A babbling brook and insect nightnoise can be a lovely addition but traffic sounds or loud neighbors will probably be a distraction. Make sure phones are turned off and preferably left outside the ritual area before beginning. Recorded music chosen to reflect the theme of your activities can add to the ambience of the event. Remember, everything the participants encounter in a ritual affects their perception of it.

Many rituals include a food component - cakes and wine, a blot, or other sharing of food and/or drink. In addition to the practical considerations of food allergies and legal drinking age, take the time to determine how the food choices affect the feel of your ritual. Your tradition may require the use of particular recipes or beverages, but if it does not, consider the appearance and flavor of any food you use. Does it enhance the intended feeling of the ritual? Does it help the participants focus on the energy of the season or the purpose of the ceremony? It may seem like a small thing, but strawberries and May wine at Beltane or oat cakes and mead at Lammas can make a much stronger impression than you might think.

My own Autumn Equinox altar
The cakes-and-ale portion of this ritual was pomegranate juice
and apples sliced equatorially to show off the pentagram of seeds inside
The Big Picture

Some rituals just beg for really big props. Consider when you might want a really imposing image in your sacred space - a huge solar disk, a massive bonfire, a large altar overflowing with fruits and grains. Not every ritual needs something that dramatic. In fact, sometimes a large prop can detract from the focus, but at other times it intensifies the energy. It can become the visual focus of the ritual. Of course, sometimes you don’t want your props to compete with some other focus in your ritual, such as the couple getting married or the child being presented to the community. But at other times the focus is more abstract (harvest, death) and a big prop helps to focus the participants’ concentration and energy in one place. If you had to choose one occasion during the year to include a really imposing prop in your ritual, when would it be and why?

And So Forth

What tools and accessories have you used in ritual, either alone or in a group? Why did you choose them for that particular occasion? Do you feel they added to the psychological impact of the ceremonry or detracted from it? What tools might you like to try that you have never used before? Remember, anything you use is a tool. Sure, the traditional blade, cup, pentacle, candle and incense are always available. But what about something different? Consider when you might use the following in a ritual: dirt, rainwater, toilet paper, a hubcap, a tube of lipstick. Yes, I have used all of these items in ritual at various times.

We have discussed the use of ritual tools mainly for their effect when perfoming rituals with others. But tools carry their symbology regardless of the number of people participating in the ritual. Do you use tools of any sort when doing ritual alone or with just one partner? Why? Are there occasions when you use tools and occasions when you don’t? If so, how do you choose whether or not you need them?

A small piece of advice: Don’t get too complicated and don't focus more on the tools and accessories than on the ritual itself. Life is the greatest magic show of all. Our tools should serve to remind us of that. If the focus becomes the tools and props rather than the greater concepts they represent, it’s time to adjust our focus.

Wednesday, September 18, 2013

To Celebrate the Moon

This is one in an ongoing series of posts regarding some of the basics of pagan practice. These are slightly tidied-up versions of the handouts I used to give my students during some of the classes I taught, once upon a time, in a prior geologic era. I hope you find them useful. Find all the posts in this series here.

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The Greater and Lesser Sabbats mark out the turning of the year, the seasons and the flow of power from Goddess to God and back again. These holy days occur on more-or-less set dates coinciding with the solar calendar; Beltaine is always May 1 (or thereabouts) and Mabon is always around September 21. But there is another cycle that affects the seasons, the agricultural year, the tides, and our bodies:  the cycle of the Moon.

Finding the Moon

You have to do more than just look up at the sky. 

The lunar year consists of 13 complete cycles of the moon. A lunar cycle (lunar month) begins at the new moon and goes through the full moon to end at the next new moon. A lunar month is 29-1/2 days long if you count from the hour of one new moon to the hour of the next. For practical purposes a lunar month appears 29 to 30 days long on the solar calendar. There are four generally recognized phases of the moon, or distinguishing points during each lunar cycle: the first quarter, the full moon, the last quarter and the new moon. Most pagans mark the full moon, and occasionally the new moon, with celebratory ritual but many points throughout the moon's monthly cycle are used for ceremonial magic.

These days, thanks to scientific measurements, we calculate each moon cycle from the exact point of one new moon to the next. Our ancestors, however, had only their eyes and a great deal of time and patience to work with. They counted each moon cycle beginning with the night when the first thin sliver of silvery moon appeared, after the three days' darkness of the new moon. In some regions this first sliver is called Diana's Bow, a reference to the goddess of that name.

Since a lunar year is actually a little shorter than a solar year the dates for the new and full moons spiral backwards through the solar calendar. And since the dates are not fixed according to the solar calendar our society follows, you must consult an almanac or specially-made lunar calendar to check the dates for the moons. The Hebrew and Islamic calendars even today follow the lunar cycle rather than the solar cycle. This is why the dates for such holy times as Yom Kippur and Ramadan vary from year to year.

A good basic reference guide is the Old Farmer’s Almanac. It is inexpensive and readily available, sometimes even in supermarket magazine racks. The Old Farmer's Almanac website also has a moon phase calendar as well as other useful and interesting information. Another source for lunar cycle information is The Witches' Almanac which is available at metaphysical bookstores and online. Or you can use a lunar calendar, also available at specialty bookstores and online; having a year-long moon phase calendar on the wall to look at can be helpful in understanding the ebb and flow of the energies associated with the lunar cycle. Googling the phrase 'moon phases' or 'lunar phases' will also net you some helpful information.

The pagan rituals performed at the new and full moons are called Esbats, in contrast to the eight solar Sabbats. Some traditions consider only the full moon to be an Esbat while others include both the new and the full. I suggest not picking a fight about terminology.

If your life allows for such flexibility, you can perform your moon rituals at the actual hour and minute of the new or full moon. However, very few people have this luxury. Most people enact moon circles the night of the new or full moon. Of course, there are many sides to the debate over which night to do these rituals. If the moon goes full in the early hours of the morning, do you perform the ritual the night before or the night after it goes full?

To avoid this sort of argument altogether just remember that a new or full moon is an astrological, as well as astronomical, event and each astrological event has an orb. The orb is the event’s sphere of influence, the time the energy from the event has a direct effect in the world. The orb for a new or full moon is three days. This means the day before and the day after are still within its sphere of influence. If you go outside each night around the new or full moon you will see there is no apparent change in the moon for three days. It looks full for three days and is dark for three days.

The Ups and Downs

As the moon moves from new to full it is said to be waxing or growing. From full to new the moon is said to be waning. These cycles affect the kinds of ritual work we do and when we choose to do it.

The new moon is just that: new, open, a clean slate. This time in the moon’s cycle is usually used for rituals that involve new beginnings or releasing the old in order to move on. This is the time for cleansing and banishing, and also for initiation in many traditions.  It is no coincidence that for thousands, perhaps millions, of years women’s cycles followed the moon, with menstruation at the new moon and ovulation at the full moon. Electric lights put a stop to that kind of synchronicity, but we can still feel a connection with those cycles if we pay attention.

The energy of the moon’s cycle builds toward the full moon, the culmination or peak in the cycle. The full moon is the highest point of energy, the time for doing strong workings, for cast spells, for raising energy. If the new moon is the time for letting things go, the full moon is the time for bringing things to you.

The new and full moon are the zenith and nadir in the cycle and therefore are the traditional points for performing ritual. These are the times when groups usually gather for circle. Remember, though, that the calendar does not hold still between the moons. The cycle continues to flow and ebb. The times between the moons have traditionally been used for personal rituals, especially those that continue for several days, and for ceremonial magic associated with particular points in the cycle.

The waxing moon energy from the new until the full is similar to full moon energy in that it is growing and gaining strength. The waning moon energy from the full down to the new is similar to new moon energy in that it is fading, releasing strength. Keep in mind where you are in the cycle when determining the timing and purpose of your rituals.

'Venus of Laussel' carving from southwestern France

A Few Other Tidbits

In addition to the basic energy of the moon’s cycle, there are a number of other factors you can include in setting up your rituals or determining when to perform them. Of course, you do not have to use all of these factors each time, but they add an extra dimension of symbolism, energy and meaning to ritual times.

The Moon’s Astrological Sign: You can find this information in the Old Farmer’s Almanac under 'Gardening by the Moon’s Sign.' Or in The Witches' Almanac. Or in an ephemeris. Or by Googling the phrase 'moon astrological sign calculator.' If you are interested in astrology you can bring in all the aspects of the moon's sign: whether it is cardinal, fixed or mutable, what its attributes are, and so on. If you are not so much into astrology you can ponder the significance of the element associated with the sign. Think, for instance, how the moon’s being in a water sign could influence the kind of ritual you choose to perform.

The Sun’s Astrological Sign: This means the standard zodiacal sign for the time of year it is, just like when you determine what sign you are according to your birthday. For instance, for a full moon on May 15 the sun is in Taurus. A new moon on October 26 finds the sun in Scorpio. You can bring in all the same kinds of information as for the moon’s astrological sign, also keeping in mind whether the sun and moon are characterized as having masculine or feminine energy in your tradition.

The Time of Year: This can be anything from the fact that it is summer to the fact that it is two days after Lammas. Keep in mind the kind of energy in the earth around you: Are things sprouting, growing, dying or dormant? Is it wet or dry? Hot or cold? It sounds simplistic, but paying attention to the earth’s cycles can add a great deal of power to your rituals. So can focusing on the Sabbat cycle. Think about whether god energy or goddess energy is stronger. Think about which two Sabbats you are between and what they mean.

Ritual Lunar Calendars: There are a number of moon-cycle calendars devised for ritual use.  Some are based on agricultural or hunting cycles while others are based on ancient symbol sets such as the Druid grove. You can find more information on these calendars in my post about the Wheel of the Year. You can bring in any of this information to add depth to your rituals.

And So Forth: If you are interested in various kinds of symbolism, numerology or sacred alphabets, you can even take into account the numbers and letters in the date and time of day. Or the day of the week or solar month, all of which have certain energies and deities associated with them. Anything that has meaning to you will add depth to your ritual. Just look around you.

Wednesday, September 11, 2013

The Wheel of the Year

This is one in an ongoing series of posts regarding some of the basics of pagan practice. These are slightly tidied-up versions of the handouts I used to give my students during some of the classes I taught, once upon a time, in a prior geologic era. I hope you find them useful. Find all the posts in this series here.

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Wheel:  a recurring course, development, or action: CYCLE; a directing or controlling force.
Calendar:  a system for fixing the beginning, length, and divisions of the civil year and arranging days and longer divisions of time in a definite order.
--Webster’s 9th New Collegiate Dictionary
“Nemesis carries a wheel in her other hand to show that she is the goddess of the turning year, like Egyptian Isus and Latin Fortuna.”  (Graves, The White Goddess)
“Arianrhod is the Goddess mother of Celtic ‘Aryans,’ keeper of the endlessly circling Silver Wheel of the Stars, symbol of Time, the same as Kali’s karmic wheel.”  (Walker, The Woman’s Encyclopedia of Myths and Secrets)
Wheel of the Year painting from the Museum of Witchcraft in Boscastle, Cornwall, England

Time and Time Again

Over thousands of years people have kept records of the passing of time according to the cycles of the seasons, the human body, the sun and the moon.  People have long tried to reconcile all the cycles they see in the world around them, from the Mayan calendar of eighteen 20-day months with a 5-day intercalary festival at year’s end to the modern Julian/Gregorian calendar system.  Our modern system is based, believe it or not, on the ancient Egyptian cycle of twelve 30-day months, five extra days each year, and another extra day every four years.  Each culture and civilization devised its own method of reckoning time, for only when we can recognize and predict the paths of the cycles can we prepare ourselves for the changes that occur within and around us.

It is easy, with the proliferation of smartphones, Google Calendar, and perpetually busy schedules, to see time as a straight line running on endlessly ahead of us.  But as pagans we know that time, as everything, runs in cycles: the Spiral Dance.  We can visualize periods of time in terms of wheel-type drawings (pie charts, for those with an inclination to food imagery) and thus see the year in terms of a turning wheel, repeating the same cycle over and over but never quite the same way twice.

In this post we will look at four different types of year-wheels, all different ways of describing the changing energy of the cycle of the year.  We will discuss the zodiacal year, the Druid cycle of tree-months, the European agricultural moon-cycle and some possible North American variants, and the god/goddess year-wheel.  Each year-wheel has its own set of information to reveal and you can use more than one at a time when you are choosing the energy and focus for magickal workings, meditation, or other activities.

Many of the old calendar and year-wheel systems used Spring Equinox as their new year since the equinox was the start of a new agricultural and planting cycle.  However, since we are now accustomed to use a point near Midwinter as our new year I will begin all the year-wheel cycles at this point, or as close to it as each particular year-wheel will allow.  With all the year-wheels oriented the same way, you will find it quite easy to compare the different descriptions of each time of year.

Please bear in mind that all these year-wheels are fairly recent constructions. The further back in time you go, the less evidence there is for a complete year-wheel of seasonal festivals in any culture. In northern Europe, for instance, before Roman times the only seasonal points we have evidence of are a movable harvest festival based on the actual date of the harvest and a midwinter festival. Everything else is later. The book The Lost Beliefs of Northern Europe by Dr. Hilda Ellis Davidson has an excellent expose of exactly what we do and don't know about the ancient seasonal festivals of that region.

The fact that our ancestors may not have always celebrated a full year-wheel need not hinder us from appreciating the full cycle and allowing its beauty to power our annual activities.

The Zodiacal Year

The zodiacal year is divided into twelve approximately equal sections based on the progression of the sun through a series of constellations along the plane of the ecliptic during the course of the solar year. It comes down to us from early Babylon, slightly changed over the centuries as various cultures filtered it through their own belief systems. Each zodiacal constellation is associated with one of the four classical elements.  As the sun shifts its place in the sky through the year the elements move in the progression EARTH-AIR-WATER-FIRE three times to complete the cycle.  Each sign has a primary symbol and a number of images or emotional responses connected with it. The names of the constellations have changed as the zodiac system was handed down from the Babylonians through the Greeks and Romans but the system itself remains intact. The Babylonian-based form of the zodiacal year focuses on defined segments of the sky, rather than the constellations themselves, so the 'signs' are set and do not change even though the actual stars in the sky move slowly due to the precession of the equinoxes. The Hindu zodiac, which may derive from the Babylonian system, takes precession into account and allows for the changes in the sky that occur as the celestial bodies shift and flow along their cycles.

The Zodiac by Giovanni Battista Fontana
The Druid Tree-Months

The year-wheel the Druids used, like the zodiacal year, is divided into segments with fixed dates, although the Druid tree-wheel has thirteen divisions rather than twelve.  This cycle uses an early Gaelic alphabet (Ogham) as its template with each letter standing for a particular tree or shrub and was popularized by Robert Graves in his book The White Goddess.  Alphabets as well as other types of writing systems were developed for divinatory and religious purposes as much as for communication and record-keeping. There is now some debate among scholars as to whether the Ogham system was truly designed into a full tree calendar but many Druid groups use this wheel of the year with great success.

The Beth-Luis-Nion (Ogham) alphabet is a shorthand reminder of the story of the seasons in terms of the vegetation that grows in the British Isles.  It is also a reminder of a series of ancient myths associated with the seasonal cycles, telling the stories of the Celtic gods and their deeds.

Each month has an associated tree or shrub appropriate to that time of year in the British Isles.  In some cases the tree is in bloom during its calendar month, or is the first tree to bud out in the spring, or bears fruit or nuts during the month named after it.  Each tree is associated with an attribute said to characterize it in some way, such as strength or flexibility.  These traits are also said to characterize people born during each tree-month and to be especially strong in magickal workings during the associated month.  Each tree is also associated with a god or goddess and the mythic tales of that deity.

The Druid tree year-wheel also includes an intercalary day, a day between the end of one year and the beginning of the next year, which is not a part of any of the months.  Technically this day does not belong to the calendar but is in between one year and the next, hence the term intercalary.  This is the extra day from which we derive the concept of “a year and a day,” a formula which equates the tree-year plus its extra day with the solar year.

Druid's Grove mound, Kilwinning, North Ayrshire, Scotland

The European Agricultural Moon Cycle

This year-wheel, like the system of the Druid tree-months, follows the agricultural and seasonal cycles of nature.  Unlike the Druid calendar, however, this year-wheel follows the ever-shifting succession of new and full moons rather than a set series of dates.

In this year-wheel you can see the cycle of preparing the fields, planting, reaping nature’s bounty, and preparing for the meager and difficult months of winter.  The hunter’s cycle peeks through a bit as well in the alternate name for the tenth lunation: the farmer calls it Wine Moon but the hunter calls it Blood Moon since this is the time of year when hunting begins for such animals as deer.

This year-wheel is attuned to the European seasonal cycles where it developed.  These seasons correspond roughly to the seasonal cycles in northern New England and southeastern Canada.  People who live in other regions of North America experience a slightly different seasonal cycle and may wish to adapt this one to their own locale.  Creating your own year-wheel can help you attune yourself more closely to the energy and cycles of your immediate surroundings.

As an example, here is a possible moon cycle for the southeastern U.S. where I live:

1. Wind Moon
2. Ice Moon
3. Robin Moon
4. Dogwood Moon
5. Sunshine Moon
6. Cicada Moon
7. Wildflower Moon
8. Blackberry Moon
9. Goldenrod Moon
10. Twilight Moon
11. Chill Moon
12.  Midnight Moon

Phases of the moon by Galileo Galilei

The God/Goddess Year-Wheel

This last year-wheel is not divided into wedges, pie-chart style, like the previous three.  Rather, it is symbolized by a pentagram in a circle with the points marking Sabbats and dividing the year into sections ruled and influenced by the Goddess and God.  This year-wheel is  not as commonly used as the others but is another helpful way of looking at the annual cycles.

The three aspects of the Goddess - Maiden, Mother, and Crone - are marked by the three sections of the pentagram between Imbolc and Beltaine (Maiden), Beltaine and Lammas (Mother) and Lammas and Samhain (Crone).  At Samhain the Crone “goes into hibernation” (Crone-Death) and later reawakens at Imbolc as a new Maiden (Crone-Wake).

While the Goddess is often portrayed as having three aspects in reflection of the three major phases of a woman’s life, the God is here portrayed as  having two aspects: Judge and King.  The Judge aspect represents the young man who is still making choices and judgments about his life: what he will do, who he will choose as partner, and so forth.  The word “judge” does not imply that he is judging others but rather that he is still making choices.  The King aspect represents the man who has made his choices, directed his life and is growing his power in his life path.  The portion of the year which represents the God’s energy and power is marked by the two sections of the pentagram between Samhain and Imbolc: Samhain to Yule (Judge) and Yule to Imbolc (King).

Of course, the ritual power and rule changes hands at Beltaine, not Imbolc.  The time from Imbolc to Beltaine is a time of awakening for the Goddess as Maiden, as it is a time of awakening for the Earth out of the sleep of winter.  The Goddess does not come into her own to take the power of ritual until Beltaine.  Remember also that, regardless of who holds the sword in Circle, the Goddess and God move together in the cycle of life.

Wednesday, September 4, 2013

The Sabbats: Seasonal Celebrations

This is one in an ongoing series of posts regarding some of the basics of pagan practice. These are slightly tidied-up versions of the handouts I used to give my students during some of the classes I taught, once upon a time, in a prior geologic era. I hope you find them useful. Find all the posts in this series here.

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sabbath [ME sabat, fr. OF & OE, fr. L sabbatum, fr. Gk sabbaton, fr. Heb shabbath, lit. “rest”] 1. the seventh day of the week observed as a day of rest and worship by Jews and some Christians 2. a time of rest

holiday [ME, fr. OE haligdaeg, fr. halig “holy” + daeg “day”] 1. holy day 2. a day on which one is exempt from work; specif: a day marked by a general suspension of work in commemoration of an event

                                                                                   ---Webster's Ninth New Collegiate Dictionary

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For untold millenia people have celebrated the turning of the seasons, the cycles of plant and animal life and the movement of the sun from south to north and back to south again. Shamans, priestesses, priests and daykeepers around the globe have long made it their sacred task to record and predict the cycles of the Earth on which we live, to ensure the physical survival and spiritual fulfillment of their peoples. Now, in our age of calendars, digital watches, smart phones and The Weather Channel, we must ask ourselves why we still celebrate these days as holy.

We no longer pay attention to the paths of the moon and the sun or the changing seasons to determine when to plant our crops or begin the hunt. Most of us purchase our food, both plant and animal, from a store. We can buy tropical fruit year-round, hothouse vegetables in the dead of winter and meat of all sorts in any season. Perhaps this very situation compels us to celebrate the Sabbats, to reconnect with the cycles of the natural world, cycles with which we are no longer intimate. Even though we no longer rely on the seasonal shifts for our survival, still the energy of each season, its weather and its life and death influence our emotions, our health and our spirits.

What are the days we keep holy, and why? European and native North American cultures recognize four seasons, our modern Spring, Summer, Autumn and Winter. Thus we might expect four seasonal festivals marking the changes of the year. Instead, modern neopaganism gives us eight Sabbats. Where did they all come from?


The ancient Europeans recognized four seasonal changes corresponding to planting, growing, harvest and fallow time in the fields. These shifts roughly corresponded with the solstices and equinoxes, important dates on the solar calendar, but in most communities were probably determined more by changes in weather, vegetation and animal activity than the position of the sun. But in some societies, specialists kept track of the movement of the sun through the seasons; it’s not difficult as long as you’re willing to get up every morning before sunrise. You don’t need a stone circle, just a clear view of the horizon.

If you watch where the sun comes up every day and where it sets every evening you will see that it doesn’t rise and set in the same place each day. Instead, it travels along the horizon throughout the year. This apparent shifting of the sun is actually due to the tilt of the Earth's axis as it revolves around the sun. During June and the surrounding months, the the earth is tilted with the north pole angling toward the sun so the northern hemisphere is warmer and the southern hemisphere is colder. In December and the surrounding months the northern hemisphere is tilted away from the sun, making North America and Europe colder but giving the Aussies a lovely warm summer.

At Winter Solstice (approximately December 21) the sun rises in the southeast, at the southernmost point on the horizon that it will reach during the year. At Summer Solstice (approximately June 21) the sun rises in the northeast, at the northernmost point that it will reach during the year. At the equinoxes the sun rises exactly in the east, but only on those two days. Spring Equinox occurs at approximately March 21 and Autumn Equinox occurs at approximately September 21. Each of the solar Sabbats happens when the sun is positioned at 0 degrees of its constellation in the zodiac – Aries (Spring Equinox), Cancer (Summer Solstice), Libra (Autumn Equinox) and Capricorn (Winter Solstice).

The solar holy days, often referred to in European-based Paganism as the Lesser Sabbats, mark the high points of our modern seasons, hence the names Midsummer and Midwinter. In spite of what the TV meteoroligists might tell you, the equinoxes and solstices mark the middle of their respective seasons in the pagan seasonal calendar. All it takes is careful observation of sunrise and sunset to predict the dates of the solstices and equinoxes. You can even make your own calendar to predict the solar Sabbats, if you want to get more in touch with the physical world that generates the seasons. All you need is yourself, a tall post (dead tree, fence post, telephone pole) and the will to get up at sunrise every day for a year (oof). A fairly level horizon helps, but it can be the top of a building or a level forest just as easily as a field or seashore.

If you get up at sunrise every morning and look at the shadow the rising sun makes below your post, you will see that it moves from day to day, the way the shadow on a sundial moves from minute to minute. If you place a stone at the end of the shadow every morning, soon you will see a pattern emerge. At the equinoxes your stones will be far apart, for the sun moves quickly along the horizon at this time of year. On the day of each equinox the day and night are of equal length (equi = “equal”, nox = “night”) but this phenomenon only lasts one day.

As you head toward the solstices you will notice that your stones get closer and closer together as the sun moves more and more slowly. For three days in a row at each solstice it will appear that the sun rises in exactly the same spot on the horizon (sol = “sun”, stice = “stand”). The middle of these three days is the actual solstice. By the time you have done the sunrise measurement for a whole year you will have an arc of stones around your post, a calendar that you made with the help of the sun. The middle of the three stones stacked one on top of each other at each end of the arc is the solstice; the stone in the exact center of your arc is the equinox. You will travel from one end of the arc to the other and back again in one solar year.

Please note that on the Equinoxes the length of day and night are equal, but this does not mean the length of time of daylight and darkness are equal. Day and night are measured by sunrise and sunset; on the Equinoxes, the sun rises and sets at an exact 12-hour interval, dividing the 24-hour day exactly in half. But the day begins to lighten some time before dawn and remains light for a while after sunset. So to be accurate, we must say that on the Equinoxes it is the length of day and night that are equal, not the daylight and darkness.

The sun guides the seasons, the planting and sowing in the fields, and the solar Sabbats. But what of the other four Sabbats, the Greater or Cross-Quarters Sabbats?


The remaining set of Sabbats is based on the lunar, rather than solar, calendar and is thus more difficult to predict for those inexperienced with astronomy and astrology. You can't just check the location of the sun every morning to figure these out. The Cross-Quarters Sabbats fall evenly between the solar Sabbats, hence their name. In the European-based Pagan calendar the lunar Sabbats mark the beginnings and endings of the seasons, the time of change from one season to the next, in contrast to the solar sabbats which mark the height of the seasons.

The dates of the lunar Sabbats which we celebrate today were fixed around the first century or two C.E. by the Druids, those master astrologers and astronomers of western Europe. They calculated the dates of the lunar Sabbats according to the position of the sun in the constellations, a system which we refer to today as the zodiac. Recall that the solar Sabbats occur when the sun rises at 0 degrees of the sun sign. If the lunar Sabbats are to fall exactly between the solar Sabbats, then they must occur at 15 degrees of the sun sign between the solar Sabbats. Since the dates that the sun enters each sign change slightly from year to year, the dates for the lunar Sabbats should change from year to year, just as the dates for the Equinoxes and Solstices do.

However, the lunar Sabbats are not as obvious and easy to predict as the solar ones. Rather than risk the loss of the holy days due to ignorance of the astrological system, the Druids allowed fixed dates to be set for these Sabbats. Thus we celebrate Samhain on October 31, although its true astrological date may be November 2 or 3 or even later. These Sabbats have become fixed on the calendar for most neo-Pagan groups. Some people, however, do still check their ephemeris and celebrate the lunar Sabbats on the actual day of 15 degrees of the appropriate constellation.


There has long been argument within the Pagan community regarding which day is the “correct” one for celebrating Sabbats and Moons. There are a number of factors to consider when choosing the day of celebration, not the least of which is our structured society with its work-weeks and weekends. Our ancestors worked when there was work to be done and celebrated when the day came. Unfortunately, we do not have that luxury. But not to worry! We have a safety net so you don’t have to risk losing your job in order to honor a seasonal festival.

Astrologers refer to a phenomenon known as orb, derived from a word root meaning circle or disk. The orb is the sphere of influence of an astrological event. In other words, a Sabbat’s energy creates an effect for longer than just the one day of the Sabbat itself. Depending on which tradition you follow, the orb of a Sabbat is either 7 or 9 days. The 9-day orb is referred to as a noindon, from the Old English for “nine days.” Each Sabbat, then, influences our lives for 3 to 4 days before the Sabbat and 3 to 4 days after it.

Thus we have a little leeway for timing our celebrations while still actively participating in the energy of the Sabbat. We can set a Sabbat for the actual astrological date, for the traditional calendar date, or even (gasp) for the nearest weekend day so those who work 9-to-5 can participate. 


Since they are seasonal celebrations, the Sabbats have specific meanings and correlations with the agricultural cycle, the cycles of the sun and moon, and various deities. The following chart lists the most common correspondences for the European-based Sabbats; some traditions include other meanings as well. The ritual activities of each Sabbat reflect the seasonal energies as embodied in the deities, those anthropomorphic faces of the universe with which we interact in our rituals. Since these festivals are based on the seasonal shifts of the Northern Temperate Zone, they must be altered somewhat for use in other parts of the world (Australia, for instance, where the Sabbats are celebrated on the opposite dates from the ones I list below). Different traditions identify different Sabbats as the beginning of the year; Samhain, Yule and Spring Equinox are all common beginning points.

SAMHAIN, Hamhain, All Hallow's Eve, Feast of the Dead (Halloween). First day of Winter.
Date: October 31 or 15 degrees Scorpio.
Seasonal Importance: Plants die. Harvest the last bits now before the first snow. Brr. The God takes precedence; the Goddess is in her Crone aspect. The Celtic new year. Last of the three European harvest festivals. Feast of the Dead because the Veil between the Worlds (physical and spiritual) is thinnest on this night. Day of the connection between life and death
Goddesses: The Crone, Hecate, Inanna, Erishkegal, Tara, Isis, Cerridwen, Hel, Holde, Mother Holle, Sedna, Eurydice, Kali, Nephthys, Oya, Carlin, Vanadis, Freya, Samia, the Fates, the Morrigan, the Norns, the Erinyes (Furies), Badb, Hecate, the Morrigan, Rhiannon.
Gods: Lord of Death, Horned One, Herne, Cernunnos, Myrddin, Arawn, Coyote, Hades, Loki, Pluto, Odin.
Activities: Honoring those who have died; making our peace with death.

WINTER SOLSTICE, Yule, Midwinter, Jul (Christmas). Midpoint of Winter.
Date: Approximately December 21, 0 degrees Capricorn.
Seasonal Importance: The longest night. Apparent death of the sun. Focus on the light which will return. The God presides; the Goddess is in her Crone aspect but is renewing. Rebirth of the Sun God. The Goddess is hidden in the Underworld The promise of new life in Spring.  Celtic Festival of the Stars, Mithras’ Birthday, Osiris’ return to Isis in Egypt, La Vecchio de Natali in Italy, the Roman Saturnalia.
Goddesses: Sunne, Lucia, Isis, Lucina, Amaterasu, Arinna, Kore, Befana, Perchta, Angerona, Rhiannon, Changing Woman, Fortuna, Pandora.
Gods: Sun God, Divine Child, Lugh, Zagreus, Orion, Apollo, Baldur, Mithras, Oak/Holly King, Saturn, Odin, Ra, Osiris.
Activities: Giving gifts, lighting candles and fires to honor the newborn sun.

IMBOLC, Imbolg, Oimelc, Brigid's Day, Feast of Lights (Candlemas). First day of Spring.
Date: February 1 or 15 degrees Aquarius.
Seasonal Importance: Winter begins to melt away. Ground begins to thaw. First renewal of life. “Imbolc” means “in the belly,” suggesting the beginnings of pregnancy/fertility. The God presides; the Goddess begins her Maiden aspect.
Goddess: Brigid, Bride, Brude, Juno Februata, Vesta, Hestia, Oya, Lucia, Lucina, Freya, Perchta, Bertha, Befana, Isis, Corn Maiden, Light-Bringer, Athena, Arianrhod, Vesta.
God: Lugh, Horned One, Spirit Father, Cernunnos, Herne, Freyr, Bragi, Diancecht.
Activities: Candle-lighting. Bringing new fire into the house. Lighting the way for the Goddess’ return.

SPRING EQUINOX, Ostara, Eostre (Easter). Midpoint of Spring.
Date: approximately March 21, 0 degrees Aries.
Seasonal Importance: Planting and sowing time. The world greens again. Day and night are equal. The return of the Maiden to the Mother and of the God to the Goddess.
Goddesses: Ostara, Eostre, Aphrodite, Erzulie, Oshun, Ishtar, Esther, Cybele, Astarte, Inares, Tonantzin, Ata Bey, Persephone, Spring Maiden, Spring Queen.
Gods: Sun God, Lord of Light, Adonis, Lugh, Attis, Apollo.
Activities: Planting seeds. Spring cleaning.

BELTANE, Beltaine, Bealtaine, May Day. First day of Summer.
Date: May 1 or 15 degrees Taurus.
Seasonal Importance: Animal mating time. Plants are growing strong. The world is warm. The Goddess begins precedence in her Maiden aspect.
Goddesses: Lei Day in Hawaii, dedicated to the Great Mother Hina. Festival for Bona Dea in Italy; Maia, Rhea and Fauna in Rome; Ostara in Germany; Flora in Greece. Other goddesses include Asherah, Latona, Ops, Tanith, Tana, Don, Danu, the Sidhe, Gwenhwyvar, Virgin Mary, the May Rose, Demeter, Mawu, Yemaya, Erzulie, Aida Wedo, Bloddeuwedd.
God: The May King, Lord of the Greenwood, Robin of the Wood, Herne, Cernunnos, Myrddin, Belenos, Pan, Freyr.
Activities: Symbolic sex (maypole dancing, May games) and actual sex. Celebration of fertility by focusing on the children and baby animals and blessing them.

SUMMER SOLSTICE, Litha, Midsummer (St. John's Day). Midpoint of Summer.
Date: approximately June 21, 0 degrees Cancer.
Seasonal Importance: Gold in the sky, gold in the fields. Wedding time. The longest day. The Goddess presides in her Mother aspect. Marriage of the God and Goddess. The fullness of the year.
Goddesses: In Brazil, Candalaria ceremony for Yemaya/Iamanja at the ocean. Other goddesses include Freya, Demeter, Anahita, Kupalo, Athena, Cybele, Aine, Amaterasu, Erzulie, Oshun, Spider Woman, Venus, Neit, Isis, Hathor, Hou Tu, Iamanza, Yemaya, Hera, Ma, Emma, A-Ma, Astarte, Ishtar, Ashtoreth, Aida Wedo, Mawu, the Great Mother.
Gods: Helios, Father Sky, Lugh, Freyr, Attis, Gwydion, Apollo, Ra, Holly/Oak King.
Activities: Bonfires to mimic the blazing sun. Weddings.

LAMMAS, Lughnasadh, Harvest Home, Festival of Lugh. First day of Autumn.
Date: August 1 or 15 degrees Leo.
Seasonal Importance: Earliest crops are ready to harvest. Green harvest of herbs. First of three European harvest festivals. Goddess presides in her Mother aspect. Goddess slays the Grain God in a ritual sacrifice that symbolizes cutting down the harvest in the field.
Goddesses: Tailtu, Abonde, Habondia, Aida Wedo, Demeter, Ceres, Mawu, Spider Woman, Chicomecoatl, the Corn Mothers, Huruing Wuhti, Changing Woman, Tonantzin, Rhea, Gaia, Ge, Ops, Macha, Juno Augusta, Bloddeuwedd.
Gods: Harvest gods, Lugh, Baal, Attis, Adonis, Tammuz, Dumuzi, Herne, Pan, Bacchus, Dionysus, Ra, Damballah, Quetzalcoatl, John Barleycorn, Odin.
Activities: Sacrifice of the Harvest God. Sharing the first bread from this year's harvest.

AUTUMN EQUINOX, Mabon, Thanksgiving, Mab. Middle of Autumn.
Date: Approximately September 21, 0 degrees Libra.
Seasonal Importance: Bountiful harvest. Plants begin to brown and die. Day and night are equal. Second of three European harvest festivals. Native American harvest celebration. The death of the god as he enters the grain, the three-fold Goddess and promise of life, death and rebirth.
Goddesses: In Sumeria, the death of Tiamat. Demeter, Persephone, Ceres, Proserpina, Ata Bey, Mawu, Spider Woman, Cerridwen, Inanna.
Gods: Tammuz, Dumuzi, Attis, Adonis, Baal, Osiris, Pan, Bacchus, Cernnunos, Dionysus, Dumuzi, Thor.
Activities: Giving thanks for the harvest. Recounting the year and its blessings.


The Sabbats which we as European descendants practice are based on the traditions of our ancestors. However, there is very little evidence regarding which festivals the ancient Europeans actually celebrated. We know they recognized the changing seasons – their lives depended on that knowledge – but the Wheel of the Year setup that is so familiar to us now is a modern invention. There is some evidence that ancient (pre-Roman, pre-medieval) northern European peoples celebrated the Winter Solstice and a harvest festival of undetermined date. Beyond that, we honestly can’t say. The eight-Sabbat cycle has a great deal of meaning for modern pagans so we use it and teach our children about it. But we should recognize that it is not a truly ancient construct.

Of course, there are other peoples around the world who have evolved their own seasonal celebrations based on the life cycles in their environments. It would be difficult to follow their cycles of holy days in our environment since our seasons do not match theirs, but it is always good to know and understand what others do.

Central America, South America, Africa, and a large portion of the Far East, for instance, experience not our four-season cycle but only two seasons: wet and dry. Their celebrations revolve around survival during the dry season and thanks for the rainy season. The more temperate regions of Asia experience seasons similar to ours, but their cultures celebrate five rather than four seasons. In addition to our Spring, Summer, Autumn and Winter, they celebrate Harvest (between Summer and Autumn) as a season all on its own. The Australian Aborigines celebrate their own seasonal cycles which run counter to ours since they live in the southern hemisphere.

Wherever we live, whatever we do for work and play, we should attune ourselves to the changing seasons and cycles of life around us. For however separate we may feel in our manufactured world, we are still a part of a magical system called Earth and Cosmos.

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