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The Wheel of the Year, the Heart of the Craft

Here I’d like to talk about what is probably one of the few unifying themes and beliefs across all of pagandom, that of the Wheel of the Year. Witchcraft as it is today, originated from an agricultural-based society.

1. The seasons of the year reflected the growth cycle.

2. Planting/Growing/Harvesting/Resting

3. Growth cycles are ruled by the sun; hence the sun rituals are an important aspect.

4. The growth itself kept the people alive, hence fertility, abundance, and protection from acts of God are important.

The Grand Sabbats (a Sabbat is a holy day) are the peaks of the four seasons.

1. Planting: May 1st--Beltane (May Day/Rowan Day)

2. Growing: August 1st--Lughnasadh (Lammas)

3. Harvest: November 1st--Samhain (Hallowmas)

4. Resting: February 1st--Imbolc (Candlemas)

The Lesser Sabbats are at the turning points of the seasons, notably the equinoxes and solstices are naturals.

1. The word equinox means equal nights. The day light hours are equal to the nighttime hours.

2. Solstice means standing sun. These are the longest and shortest days of the year.

Please note that the above are not the only names for the Sabbats. In different regions with different traditions, some of the names are changed usually to honor the deity of that locality, such as Lady Day or Bridget Day for Imbolc, but the date and general meaning of the celebration remains the same.

Samhain (Hallowmas)

This is pronounced like sowen and it means summers end. It is one of the more serious celebrations, as it is the festival of the dead, which is not nearly as grim as it sounds. Death to us is the door, which opens onto another life.

On the eve of November 1st, the gates between the world of the living and the world of the shadows was open. Men and fairies, ancestral ghosts and anybody else who had a desire roamed at will. Many people take this time to communicate with the spirits of their ancestors and departed loved ones, leaving food and drink for them either on graves or by the family`s hearth.

This was also a popular time for divination, for not only was the veil barring communication lifted this night, but also there was naturally a certain amount of anxiety present within people as to how they would fair through the hard winters of the area. This was an eerie time, when the livestock that was not kept for breeding purposes were slaughtered, purified and preserved with salt.

In very ancient times, according to the historian Keating, the druids in Ireland assembled to sacrifice to the gods and burned their victims on this night. The victims were usually criminals condemned to death for their crimes with the carrying out of the sentence being delayed until this time. All other fires were extinguished and later rekindled from this sacrificial fire.

This custom still lingers on, without the sacrifices, in many parts of Ireland and Scotland today. The peat fires are extinguished in the cottages and then relit from the bon-fires, which burn on the hilltops. Torches lit from this fire are carried around the fields and frequently the fields and any remaining crops are set on fire. Anything not harvested by this night was useless anyway because the pooka, a night-roaming shape-changing goblin, spent Samhain destroying or contaminating whatever remained. The goblin usually was in the shape of an ugly black horse.

In Ireland still, processions from house to house to solicit contributions of coin and food are led by a man wearing a white robe and carrying a rude representation of a horse`s head. He is called Lair Shan or the white mare representing death. They are often accompanied with a man or boy dressed all in black simply known as the man in black.

Pope Boniface IV tried to supplant this pagan holiday in the 7th century by originating the Christian holiday of All Saints, also known as All Hollows, on May 13th. It was shifted to coincide with the pagan festival of the dead by Gregory III.

In the 1600`s during the Reformation in England, it was abolished and then formally restored by the Church in 1928 on the grounds that any pagan associations with the holiday were long forgotten.


Yule is the Anglo-Saxon word for the festival of the winter solstice. This was when the chief Druid cut the sacred mistletoe from the oak, a custom that lingers with our use of mistletoe as a Christmas decoration. Ullr is also a northern god of winter and the hunt.

The idea of holding a festival at the winter solstice, to celebrate the rebirth of the sun, was so universal in the ancient world, that the Christians adapted the popular feast in to the celebration of the birth of Christ, the Son of God. By holding the feast at midwinter, Christ was mystically identified with the sun.

The pagan Saxons celebrated the feast of Yule with ale and fires, of which our relic is the Yule Log, a sort of indoor bonfire. The word Yule is derived from an old Norse word meaning "feast". In the old Clog Almanacs the symbol of a wheel was used to mark the Yule-tide. The idea is that the year turns like a wheel, the Great wheel of the Zodiac, the Wheel of Life, of which the spokes are the old ritual occasions, the equinoxes and solstices, and the four cross-quarter days.

At the Winter Solstice the rebirth of the sun is a particularly important turning point. Yuletide lasted twelve days and no work was done until Plough Monday. In many places, to make sure that all the winter festivities were duly observed, a Lord of Misrule was elected, a kind of make-believe king of merriment. His reign is said to begin on Samhain and ends at Candlemas. Significant because this is the Season of the Horned God, the principle of death and resurrection. While the Lady (Earth) sleeps her Lord the Horned One reigns. The evergreens of Yule were holly, ivy, mistletoe, bay and rosemary.


By Candlemas, all had to be gathered up and burnt or hobgoblins would haunt the house. In other words, by that time a new tide of life had started to flow through the world of nature and people had to get rid of the past and look to the future. Spring cleaning originated this way.

By now people were sick and tired of the cold winter. At nightfall, every candle in the home is lit to encourage the swift return of the sun. At gathering s every one brings a candle, and the candles of men are lit by the candles of the women and vice versa.

This is a time for purification, the tide is turning again and we are on our way toward the re-birth of springtime. This is a time of year devoted to eliminating from one’s life all that encumbers, from old clothes to old dreams. Mundane matters such as settling debts, returning borrowed items and catching up on correspondence are attended to during this period that we may meet Aries, the sign of new beginning, with a clear heart and mind.

Spring Equinox

The Spring Equinox, marking the beginning of the planting season, is often considered to also mark the beginning of the New Year though in the ancient Celtic tradition this was believed to take place at the beginning of the Dark Season, Samhain. In many places it is celebrated as the reawakening of the Goddess in her maiden aspect. It celebrates her return from the underworld where she has dwelt during the dark season.

Sacred to this time was the Hare (bunny) and eggs. It is suggested in many books on wicca - such as Eight Sabbats for Witches - that the egg, besides its usual fertility connotations, was used to symbolize the World Egg, laid by the Goddess and split open by the heat of the Sun God, and the hatching out of the world was celebrated each year at the Spring festival. Also, the Druids at this time colored the eggs scarlet in the Sun`s honor.

May Day

The peak of the planting season, celebrated on May 1st, is most commonly known as May Day. It is also known as Hexennacht, Walpurgisdaeg, Rudemas, Rowan Day, and the Druidic name of Beltane.

This day is dedicated to the joyous reunion of the Goddess and the Horned God of fertility, the Lord and Lady, the Earth and the Sun. The energy of their mating washes over the earth and all its inhabitants, reawakening and revitalizing all of life.

Traditionally, at this time are May carols sung, bon-fires built, symbolizing the warmth of the Sun quickening the earth, and women who would leap over the fires while young couples held hopes of some of this abundant fertility being tapped into.

A huge phallic symbol is erected in the middle of the town usually decorated with ribbons and flowers and danced about by the town folk. Pageants portraying the contest between the forces of Winter and the forces of Spring, Spring always winning, were acted out. The entire feeling of the holiday is one of courting and mating, flirtation and gay abandon.

Summer Solstice

The turn of the wheel now brings us to the Summer Solstice, the Goddess is no longer the maiden. She is the Mother, full and pregnant. Also at his time the Sun God has reached his highest point, the longest day of the year, and is ready to begin his decline. A prevalent custom of the past was the rolling of the wheel.

A wagon wheel wrapped in straw and lit and sent blazing rolling down from the top of the highest hill in the area, representing the course of the sun`s descent in the sky. In Wales, they believe that if it stayed lit the entire way down an abundant harvest could be expected.


The peak of the growing season falls on August 1st, and is known to the Druids as Lughnasadh, in honor of the Sun God Lugh. In Ireland, this festival celebrated the wedding of Lugh the Sun to Eriu, the incarnation of Ireland and the Earth. It was a popular time for trial marriages, which lasted a year, and if the union did not work out the couple would return to the same spot a year later and turn back-to-back, walking away from one another.

This was also the festival of the First Fruits of the Harvest. The first fruits being offered up to the Gods along with, at times, other sacrifices. The day would conclude with the feasting of the fruits, in fact, often to the point of gorging on food and drink while there was plenty. In the United States, our Thanksgiving is a toned-down relic of these culinary orgies.

Other customs of the season would include serpentine dances and sprinkling of menstrual blood around the house and livestock for protection.

The tradition of this being the wedding feast of Lugh and Earth is accompanied by stories of the king marrying an old hag who is thereby transformed into a beautiful young woman, which is representative of the caress of the sun transforming the earth from the bleakness of winter into the floral splendor of Spring.

Autumn Equinox

Next, we come to the Autumn Equinox, when the Sun enters the sign of Libra, usually around September 21st. This is the Main Harvest, and naturally a happy occasion, with a feeling of plenty and thanksgiving again.

In Celtic folklore, the last sheaf of harvest is regarded to be the embodiment of the corn or field spirit, so most of the rites and celebration center around this. There are many special ceremonies concerning the cutting of the last sheaf and they seem to vary according to the locality.

In some areas still, it is believed that the safe-keeping of the sheaf insured fertility for the following harvest, provided that some portion of it is given to the cattle and horses to eat and some of it is strewn in the field or mixed with the seeds for the next crop. In some areas, it is dressed in women’s clothes and decked with ribbons and known as the harvest queen or kern baby, corn dolly, harvest maiden, hag, Old Woman, Corn Mother, etc. In some areas, she is a trophy for the first man to finish harvesting his crops. In other areas it is more of a booby prize for the lazy bum who finishes last.

So there it is, the full Wheel of the Year, around which most everything in paganism, Wicca, witchcraft or however you call it revolves. Of course, lots of people will have some different outlooks on the subject but this is pretty representative of most. We tend to plan our lives around following these yearly changes.

Thanks for reading this post and I hope you found it interesting and useful. Please leave me a comment on what you think of the subject and how you see the Wheel of the Year and your own traditions. What would you like to see here next?

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Blessed Be,

Sterling Knight


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