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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