The Modern Wheel Of The Year
“There are rituals of the elements and feasts of the times.”
~Liber Al vel Legis, 2:36
While it is a new calendar year, it is not a new astrological year, but for our purposes, that is irrelevant. I do feel it important enough to mention though, to remind everyone that the new year begins on the spring equinox. While many may think this is in March, that is only half true globally, as it occurs in September south of the equator. Why do I open this piece with that fact? It is because that is part of what I want to address here: the modern wheel of the year. Not the twentieth-century wheel of the year, not the centuries-old wheel of the year, but rather where we stand now. Yes, I will mention both of those, but only to illustrate changes and where we are now, and why it is so important to keep up with the times, lest we fall into the pit of stagnation and endless, mindless repetition, losing potency and connection in the process.
The wheel of the year is the neopagan system of sabbats and esbats that constitute their major holy days. Even these terms need some clarification, too, so let us start with that. I use the term neopagan a lot because that is exactly what its practitioners are. Neo means “new,” so thus you get “new pagans.” Each and every person alive today that works with modern paganism as it has been created in the twentieth century is a neopagan. Are you Wiccan? Yep, neopagan. Asatru? Yep, neopagan. Satanist? Yep, the same thing, well, sort of, which is also true of Luciferians. I call all of these groups new because their ceremonies and beliefs have been created in a system and structure during the twentieth century, and even though their roots run much further back, in most cases there were no structures or systems in place. Some people may think the term neopagan is an insult or a bad term, but it really isn’t. It is simply a statement of fact. Really though, it is actually quite the compliment, as it shows just how much spiritual growth has occurred since the beginning of the nineteenth century when all of this revival and codification began. While I have mentioned the twentieth century a few times, I should point out that the only way that occurred was due to the growth from the nineteenth century, beginning with the publication of “The Magus” by Francis Barrett in 1801 in London, England. Things took off from there with the French Occult Revival, the founding of the American religion of Spiritualism, the Theosophical Society, and a whole slew of other organizations, but technically none of them would call themselves “pagan” or “neopagan.” They were simply what they were: Spiritualists lived Spiritualism, Theosophists lived theosophy, and all those involved in the French Occult Revival, which spread like wildfire to many other nations, were simply magicians, or members of magical orders. Of course, this didn’t happen in a vacuum though, and we could discuss the eighteenth century’s influence on this, but sometimes you have to draw the line somewhere, and this is the line for now. So when you see the term neopagan, now you know how I define it, and what it represents and means.
Neopagans engage in nature-based spirituality, and this is worth keeping in mind because to a lot of people, specifically Christians and ex-Christians, the term simply means a believer of a faith that is not Christianity, which is one hundred percent untrue, and really spiritual dogma and propaganda. Like many, I was raised with that particular definition because I was born and raised Roman Catholic, so I understand. It was only after I got an education that I learned that it was spiritual brainwashing.
Moving along, let’s discuss sabbats and esbats. The easy rule of thumb is that esbats are minor, or lesser, sabbats. That clears things up then, right? So, to clarify that, let’s define what a sabbat is. A sabbat, also called a Witches’ Sabbat, has casually referred to a gathering of witches. Historically, this has not been the case, and the term has come into modern regular usage only in the last one hundred fifty years or so. You can see the connection between it and the holy day of the Jewish people, the Sabbath, but any cultural connection has not been found, nor etymological tie. In popular usage today, the sabbat refers to one of two things. First, it refers to a meeting of those that practice witchcraft, and usually, this had to do with managing the affairs of the group of witches meeting. To this point, another often interpretation of esbats has been gatherings on one of the thirteen full moons throughout the astrological year. Secondly, and this is the more popular usage, it refers to a ‘high holy day’ for those that practice Neopaganism, in contrast to a regular holy day. As has been said many times, the four most important festivals of the wheel of the year are known as the fire festivals, and they occur at the cross-quarter days. In order to understand that, though, we have to define quarter days, don’t we? This is an easy definition that you know, but you don’t know that you know. The quarter days are what we now call the beginning of seasons. So, Spring Equinox, Summer Solstice, Autumn Equinox, and Winter Solstice are the four quarter days. Thus, the cross-quarter days fall at the midway point in between each one of those. To connect some dots here, those four fire festivals, the cross-quarter days, would be called sabbats, and the four-quarter days would be called esbats. That would be, until the 21st century.
In the 21st century, the opposite has come to be true, where the quarter days have become the sabbats, and the cross-quarter days have become the esbats. Why has this flip-flop occurred, you ask? Well, easy: science. And, astrology. The four quarter days actually mark astrological and astronomical events, and are therefore more important and more clearly defined than the cross-quarter days. Yes, that sounds like an arrogant and egotistical statement, and frankly, I don’t care, because logically and objectively it is correct. The two equinoxes are when the Sun and the Earth align to such a degree that the Sun seems to be ‘sitting’ on the equator, so day and night are equal lengths. The two solstices take a little more explanation but are effectively cut from the same cloth. The summer solstice is when the Sun is at its highest point in the sky, so the days are the longest, and winter solstice is when the Sun is at its lowest point in the sky, so the days are the shortest. This is where the two hemispheres of the planet come into play, though, so let us take a quick diversion to clarify. The Sun travels across the southern part of the sky to those that live north of the equator, and to those that live south of it, the Sun travels across the northern part of the sky. So to the northerner, the sun is at its height at the summer solstice, when it is at its highest point moving across the southern sky. However, to the southerner, this is when the Sun is at its lowest point. This same line of thinking is true of the winter solstice as well. We will come back to this in a moment, but for now, you can see that geometry and astronomy show why these four quarter days have become the sabbats and most important days of the wheel of the year. They can be proven, whereas the four cross-quarter days cannot.
Historically speaking, the cross-quarter days were when the first signs of the incoming season were spotted. So for example, when you first start to see a flower bud, that would correspond to Imbolc. Immediately you can see how and why this was subjective and changed from year to year. When a flower or plant budded in one area may not be the same time when it did so in another, so you could not attach any specific date to this phenomenon. Yes, there are calendar dates attached to these events now, but keep in mind that the calendar has changed many times over the centuries, but whether or not a piece of paper has changed has not affected when plants bloom. Yes, having a calendar date attached to a subjective festival is handy for a variety of reasons, but ultimately that is irrelevant and to a large degree can make one lazy. Astrology has come along and fixed this problem though, in the latter part of the twentieth century and the twenty-first. The four sabbats, also known as quarter days, occur at zero degrees of an astrological cardinal sign in the tropical zodiac. Yes, I just threw a bunch of terms at you that you may not be familiar with, but out of respect to your time, I will not clarify them here because they are not that important to know for the sake of our discussion. For more information on them, please consult my book “Astrology in Theory & Practice.” The main principle to keep in mind here is that they occur at zero degrees of a sign, and there are four of them. Astrology is based on a circle, so if you take a circle, which is three hundred sixty degrees, and divide it into four sections, you will get the four seasons as we’re talking about here. You can then further divide those four seasons directly in half for each one. It is at that halfway point that we find the four cross-quarter esbat days. While yes, that does mean the day will vary each year, depending on when the Sun crosses fifteen degrees of a fixed sign (which is that specific day), this also means that astrology is in a much better position to solidify and clarify a blending of the subjective (when things happen in the natural world) with the logic of science (the four quarter days), which is a more successful attempt than any other system approaching this subject in the Western Esoteric Tradition. In the twenty-first century, one cannot simply say “This is a holy day because my calendar says so!” That shows a lack of knowledge and understanding, and spiritually, slip-shod work.
Having said that, there is still some great use to working with the esbats (cross-quarter days) on specific calendar days of the year. Personally, I don’t like to throw the baby out with the bathwater and see no reason to discard the calendar approach, especially since it has been used a long time to this end. After all, there is a lot of energy built up in those days, so to discard them would be wasteful. The thought that comes to my mind is, “why can’t we use both? After all, any excuse for a celebration!” The way I have personally come to work with this is to use two systems. System number one, the scientific system of celebrating the esbats on the days that are halfway points between quarter days, is the system I use for my personal and spiritual holy days. System number two, that of relying on a calendar schedule that nine times out of ten has no bearing on anything related to the essence of what we’re discussing, is great for community gatherings and other pedestrian functions. In other words, let’s use both! Do you want to get together with your friends or your working group for a ritual working? Then use the calendar. Do you want to execute a celebration or a ritual just between you and your intimate others? Then use the exact day, which is the day that is halfway between the quarter days. Like I said, any excuse for a party, any excuse for a feast!
Now that we have established the science of the circle, let us briefly turn our attention to the two hemispheres of the planet. Most of the material you read is going to be northern hemisphere-centric, so the dates they give you will be aimed at the northern hemisphere. But, a little known secret is that a lot of people live in the southern hemisphere. Yes, true, more people live in the northern hemisphere, but a lot live in the southern, and with the population explosion in general, that number will continue to rise, so there is no reason to alienate half the people of the planet in the name of dogma. After all, we are all on this space rock together, so why not act like it? This is an easy situation to address though and an easy fix. When you are celebrating, adjust the wheel for where in the world you are. The calendar date for Imbolc is February first, but this is only true if you are in the northern hemisphere. If you are in the southern, then the festival day is the opposite, which is the esbat of Lughnasadh. I have found this is important to keep in mind for two reasons. First, it is a reminder of a Newtonian scientific principle. If something is true, so is its opposite. If you want to know more about Imbolc, then you can study Lughnasadh, and vice versa. Secondly, by keeping this in mind, you can be inclusive of all of your friends and connections that live south of the equator if you live in the north. Most people don’t like to be excluded from things, and a lot of people don’t like reading material that is one hundred percent wrong, based on where they live and the cycles of this immediate environment. This is why I have the graphic at the top of the article that I have, to be inclusive to all that read this, because I don’t know where you live on the planet, and I am not a fascist that is going to exclude you. Even though all of this is a detail, this is something you can use to define your ability to see a true professional and spiritual adult, rather than a dabbler and a spiritual juvenile.
Let’s look at why I am discussing all of this now, in particular. February first is traditionally known as the esbat of Imbolc in the northern hemisphere, and even though the astrological year is winding down, it is the first festival of the calendar year. Now you can see that while yes, February first is the calendar day to celebrate it, it actually occurs on a different day, and this year it falls on February fourth or fifth, depending on where you live, and how the time zones affect when the Sun reaches that midpoint. Thus the release of this piece coincides with Imbolc, so, happy beginning-of-the-festival-season-day! Specifically and historically, Imbolc was celebrated as the first day of spring, because it corresponded to when plants began stirring in their slumber, getting ready to bloom. Generally, this is not the case, at least not anymore, but this point is worth keeping in mind. As it is worked with in a modern context, this is the first return of light to the earth after a cold, hard winter, and in this way, it truly is a fire festival. This is a festival having to do with warmth, specifically the warmth of family and of the home. You can see how the returning light to the earth can also address this on a spiritual level as much as a physical level. Hence now is a good time to celebrate with friends and family, and to begin to stir, to get ready for the upcoming year. The winter is over, you have survived another one! So, give thanks, celebrate, and plant your seeds for the upcoming year!
And, to all of my friends in the southern hemisphere, happy Lughnasadh! This is the opposite day of the wheel of the year, and this festival day is all about the beginning of the harvest season. What have you reaped and harvested that you started earlier this year? How do you show your gratitude? What do you do to commemorate how things have gone this year? No matter what these answers are, enjoy yourself!
Finally, one other point to note is the name of the festival. The eight-spoked wheel of the year largely takes the names of the festivals from the Celtic and British cultures, and this is how you will generally see them named. But, the names of these festivals vary from region to region, and from culture to culture. When I was growing up Catholic, I knew this day as the Christian version, which is Candlemas. Yes, feel free to do your research to see all of the variations for the name of this holy day globally, and adjust to your preference, because there is no correct name for the festival, simply preferential titles. Keep this point in mind when you’re reading about them, though, because the name an author uses for them will generally tell you their psychological disposition and orientation.
I hope these brief words clarify not only Imbolc, but also the wheel of the year, not only what it is, but how it is different in this modern century from just the brief few decades ago in the past. Remember that evolution is our friend, and stagnation equals death. For now though, feast, and enjoy the carnival that comes with the festival known as Imbolc/Lughnasadh!
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