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.