To truly understand Neo-Paganism, the best place to begin is to appreciate how followers perceive everyday life.
For Wiccans and Neo-Pagans, life provides constant opportunities to “remember the Divinity within ourselves and all things; to manifest our God and Goddess all the time, every day, every moment; to love as They love, to give as They give; to serve Them in perfect trust; and thus bring Their grace more fully into the world; to understand that we are the embodiment of the Divine love and nurture, and to express that love in the world; to walk as God and Goddess,” says Dianne Sylvan in The Circle Within.
To Wiccans, anything and everything is possible. Wiccans try to look at the world with the eyes of a child, fully open to wonder and the magic that is all around. Yet, they also believe in taking responsibility for choices that are made along the path without judgment, and learning from them.
They see existence as presenting a cosmic cause and effect relationship, believing that everything that exists, including themselves, is comprised of energy from the Divine. Many Wiccans, and some other Neo-Pagans, seek to work with this sacred energy to improve their lives and also to return energy back to the sacred Earth. Practitioners call this important work, “magick.”
To them, walking with the Goddess and God daily means that these Deities are actually and truly present. One important way for Wiccans and other Neo-Pagans to celebrate this vital connection is to reflect on the changes of the seasons, to watch the days “turn” until life ages and turns to death, and death gives way and turns to rebirth.
As a result, they have developed the Wheel of the Year, a term for the annual cycle of the Earth's seasons. It consists of eight festivals, spaced at approximately even intervals throughout the year. These festivals are referred by Wiccans as Sabbats.
In many forms of Neo-Paganism, natural processes are seen as following this continuous cycle. The passing of time is also seen as cyclical, and is represented by a circle or wheel. The progression of birth, life, decline and death, as experienced in human lives, is echoed in the progression of the seasons. Wiccans also see this cycle as echoing the life, death and rebirth of their Horned God and the fertility of their Goddess.
While most of the Sabbat names derive from historical Celtic and Germanic festivals, the non-traditional names Litha and Mabon, which have become popular in North American Wicca, were introduced by Aidan Kelly in the 1970s. The word "sabbat" itself comes from the witches' sabbath or sabbat attested to in Early Modern witch trials.
All of the Sabbats are agrarian, four relate more to plants (planting, harvest, etc.) and four relate more to animal husbandry (cycles of fertility).
Among most Wiccans, the common Wheel of the Year narrative is that of the God/Goddess duality. In this cycle, the God is born from the Goddess at Yule, grows in power at Vernal Equinox (along with the Goddess who has now returned to her maiden aspect), courts and impregnates the Goddess at Beltane, wanes in power at Lammas, passes into the underworld at Samhain, then is once again born from Her mother/crone aspect at Yule.
The Goddess, in turn, ages and rejuvenates endlessly with the seasons, being courted by and giving birth to the Horned God. Versions of this myth vary from coven to coven, shifting the birth, conception, or death of the God to different sabbats.
Another, more solar, narrative is of the Holly King and the Oak King, with one ruling the winter, the other the summer. These two figures battle with each other endlessly as the seasons turn. At Midsummer the Oak King is at the height of his strength, while the Holly King is at his weakest. The Holly King begins to regain his power, and at the Autumn Equinox, the tables finally turn in the Holly King's favor; he vanquishes the Oak King at Yule. Then over the next months, as the sun waxes in power, the Oak King slowly regains his strength; at the Spring Equinox he begins to triumph until he once again defeats the Holly King at Midsummer.
Wicca and the Wheel of the Year
The following details the Wiccan Wheel of the Year. Four of the Sabbats, the cross-quarter days, are referred to as the Greater Sabbats, coinciding with Celtic fire festivals, and these were initially the only four sabbats. The other four are known as Lesser Sabbats, and comprise of the solstices and the equinoxes, and were only adopted in 1958 by the Bricket Wood coven. The names of these holidays are often taken from Germanic pagan and Celtic polytheistic holidays. However, the festivals are not reconstructive in nature nor do they often resemble their historical counterparts, instead exhibiting a form of universalism. Ritual observations may display cultural influence from the holidays from which they take their name as well as influence from other unrelated cultures. The eight sabbats, beginning with Samhain, which has long been thought of as Celtic new year:
• Samhain – Greater Sabbat of the Dead (Oct. 31, Nov. 1)
The first festival is known as Samhain is celebrated on October 31st. This is also known as Witch's New Year. This festival celebrates the death of the God and waiting for his rebirth at Yule. Usually, this is a festival of remembering your loved ones who have gone on. According to Celtic tradition the New Year began at sunset on this day. This holiday is also known as the Feast of the dead. Divination magic is said to be strongest on this day as the veil between the worlds is at its thinnest.
• Yule – Lesser Sabbat, the Winter Solstice (Dec. 21 or Dec. 22)
This celebration is for the birth of the God. It is usually a celebration with family and friends. Candles are a huge part of this festival as the god is associated with light and the sun.
• Imbolc (Candlemas) – Greater Sabbat (Feb. 02)
The God is now a child growing and playing. The celebration is also to acknowledge the returning sunlight to the Earth. The first seeds are usually planted at this time. Some people light candles to honor this and others still wake up in the dead of night and stay up and watch the sunrise.
• Ostara – Lesser Sabbat, the Spring Equinox (March 20-23)
Ostara celebrates the beginning courtship between the God and Goddess. The Christian tradition of decorating Easter eggs was borrowed from this holiday. This is celebrated on the vernal equinox where daylight and night are equal. This festival is another planting holiday. The eggs symbolize fertility and it is said by decorating the eggs with desires for the upcoming year and burying them in the ground will help bring these desires to fruition.
• Beltane or May Eve – Greater Sabbat (May 01)
This is a significant celebration as the union of the God and the Goddess is made known. Large bale fires are usually lit and this is a well-known and practiced fertility ritual.
• Litha – Lesser Sabbat, the Summer Solstice (June 21)
Also known as Midsummer Night's Eve. This holiday is usually celebrated on the summer solstice; the longest day of the year. This festival is also fertility holiday. Many men would jump bonfires to aid in the fertility of the land and their livestock. This is a favorite time to perform hand-fasting, meaning commitment or pagan wedding ceremonies.
• Lughnasadh, or Lammas – Greater Sabbat of the Harvest (Aug. 01)
This is the first dedication to the god and goddess of the harvest. Traditionally, bread is baked and served at the celebrations as wheat is a harvest symbol. It is a time to give thanks for the start of a bountiful harvest season.
• Mabon – Lesser Sabbat, the Autumn Equinox (Sept. 23)
It is another harvest holiday. Usually vegetables make a star appearance at this festival. It is the waning of the god's years as the goddess starts to prepare to give rebirth to the god at Yule. This is a time for preparation for the winter and giving thanks again to the god and goddess for a good harvest season.
Wiccan founder Gerald Gardner made use of the English names of these holidays; "The four great Sabbats are Candlemass, May Eve, Lammas, and Halloween; the equinoxes and solstices are celebrated also," but the other names are now also commonly found.
Most of the holidays of the Wheel of the Year are named after Christian, Pre-Christian Celtic and Pre-Christian Germanic religious festivals, but depart largely in form and meaning from the traditional observances of those festivals. Historian Ronald Hutton ascribes this to the influence of turn of the century romanticism as well as the eclectic elements introduced by Wicca. The similarities between these holidays generally end at the shared names, as Wicca makes no effort to reconstruct the ancient practices. Hutton has described the merging of culturally diverse festivals into a unified set of eight as a form of universalism not corroborated by any historical continuity.
There is no region in Europe where all eight festivals have been observed as a set, and the complete eightfold Wheel of the Year was unknown prior to modern Wicca. In early forms of Wicca only the cross-quarter days were observed. However, in 1958 the members of Bricket Wood Coven added the solstices and equinoxes to their original calendar, as they desired more frequent celebrations. Their High Priest was Gardner who was away visiting the Isle of Man at the time. He did not object when he returned, since they were now more in line with the Neo-druidism of Ross Nichols, a friend of Gardner's who founded of the Order of Bards, Ovates and Druids.
In Wicca and similar Pagan faiths, each full moon and sometimes its phases are also celebrated. These are called Esbats and are different from Sabbats. While Sabbats generally honor the life of the God, Esbats are dedicated to the Goddess.
Generally, there are 13 Esbats every years. Actually, any moon phase can be used for an Esbat. They are considered to many as important as the Sabbats. An Esbat is an excellent time to honor the Goddess – a natural connection considering the female manifestation of the Moon, although the God is often honored as well.
It is often a time of gathering for members of a coven, but can effectively be kept by followers who are Solitary Practitioners.
Most try to celebrate outside if possible to allow the Moon to drench them with its cooling, soothing and inspiring rays. But, Esbats are often held inside too, providing opportunities to share energy with each other and the universe, or to do so alone.
During an Esbat, participants honor the Goddess, in whatever form they choose, in ritual forms. They thank her for her presence in their lives, and for the guidance she provides. To some, it is also a time to perform structured rituals and to cast “spells” according to the phase of the moon.
The Full Moon is the time in the lunar cycle when the moon is complete. This happens for three days in succession – the day before the astrological Full Moon, the astrological Full Moon itself, and the day after the astrological Full Moon. Participants believe it is then that all the magickal qualities of the Moon are their peak, thus is the time of greatest power.
A common practice during the Esbat is to “Draw Down the Moon.” This can be done as a group or as an individual. When this is done, participants call upon the moon’s magical powers to fill them with its power and inspiration. The energy gathered is used either in spells or to send back out to the universe to heal, while any that is unused is returned to Mother Earth as the ritual ends.
To each Lunar month, ancestral follower’s of Paganism assigned an Esbat name in accordance with the nature of the activity that took place at that time. Depending upon the path followed, these names often differ. Thus, the Full Moons have been named by many cultures, and can also be known by tree names, astrological names, American Indian names – the list is virtually endless. This blog will be using the most common names for the Esbat Moons, which appear below along with their matching Celtic tree correspondences:
• January – Wolf Moon or Snow Moon (Alder)
Amid the zero cold and deep snows of midwinter, the wolf packs howled hungrily outside Indian villages. It was also known as the Old Moon or the “Moon After Yule.” In some tribes this was the Full Snow Moon; most applied that name to the next Moon.
• February – Storm Moon or Death Moon (Willow)
It occurs at a time of long nights and dark days, making it a good time of year to do magick for accepting challenges and perseverance.
• March – Chaste Moon (Ash)
This moon occurs at the beginning of spring, a time of purity and newness, making it the perfect time to do magick for planting the seeds for success and hope.
• April – Seed Moon (Hawthorn)
The energies around this moon are ones of fertility, growth and inner wisdom. Followers are encouraged to be bold at this time; to take action.
• May – Hare Moon or Flower Moon (Oak)
The energies around this moon are ones of health, romance, love and wisdom. Followers are encouraged to begin to take action on the things we’ve recently been planning.
• June – Dyad (Pair) Moon or Lover’s Moon (Holly)
The energies around this moon are ones of love, marriage and success. It is a time to acknowledge and celebrate our “garden” – our life, loved ones and accomplishments.
• July – Mead Moon or Blessing Moon (Hazel)
The energies around this moon surround success, appreciation of what’s been worked hard to achieve, reaping the first harvests and celebrating all successes. Followers are encouraged to appreciate accomplishments, and to begin to put new energies into building on them.
• August – Wyrt (Green Plant) Moon or Corn Moon (Vine)
The energies around this moon are abundance, in all areas of life and marriage. Followers work to begin harvesting and collecting herbs that will be used over the next year, and storing them. Magic done at this time of year can be help themselves or someone else (who has asked for help) to reap the benefits of hard work done.
• September – Barley Moon or Corn Moon (Ivy)
Named for the corn harvest and the threshing of ripened barley. For native Americans, it has been the Nut (Cherokee), Mulberry (Choctaw) and Moon When the Calves Grow Hair (Dakota Sioux). It's the last Full Moon before the autumnal equinox. The full light allows harvest chores to go into the night.
• October – Blood Moon or Hunter’s Moon (Reed)
With the leaves falling and the deer fattened, it is time to hunt (symbolically.) Since the fields have been reaped, hunters can ride over the stubble, and can more easily see the fox, also other animals that have come out to glean and can be caught for a thanksgiving banquet after the harvest. Thus, it is a time to give thanks for the hunt, all food, regardless of type. Participants give thanks for all they’ve received: body, mind and spiritual sustenance.
• November – Snow Moon or Beaver Moon (Birch)
This was the time to set beaver traps before the swamps froze, to ensure a supply of warm winter furs. Another interpretation suggests that the name comes from the fact that the beavers are now actively preparing for winter. Rituals generally focus on preparation in body, mind and spirit as Mother earth is now at peace, she has given all food and warmth during the past year and now needs to rest under a blanket of whitest snow. Participants should take time to finish projects, and since nights are longer, to spend more time in the house and we should be preparing for the coldest months.
• December – Oak Moon or Cold Moon (Rowan)
Though we think of December as a dark month, it is also the time of the returning of the sun. A very special month in many ways, participants are asked to remember all they have as well as those who have less. They might organize a meal with loved ones, or for those less fortunate. To spend time alone or with loved ones reflecting on the year’s end in gratitude.
• Blue Moon – Variable (Second Full Moon in a Month)
When two full moons occur in a single month, the second full moon is called a "Blue Moon." Another definition of the blue moon is the third full moon that occurs in a season of the year which has four full moons (usually each season has only three full moons.) Because of its rarity, it is considered a very powerful Full Moon and should be used for important goals.
— Danu’s Daughter