The Wheel of the Year

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The Wheel of the Year

The Wheel of the Year is a modern Pagan 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 often referred to as Sabbats /ˈsæbət/. While the term Sabbat originated from Judaism and is of Hebrew origin, the festivals themselves have historical origins in Celtic and Germanic pre-Christian feasts. These festivals are understood by some neo-pagans to be the Bronze Age religious festivals of Europe. As with all cultures' use of festivals and traditions, these festivals have been utilized by European cultures in both the pre- and post-Christian eras as traditional times for the community to celebrate the planting and harvest seasons. The Wheel of the Year has been important to many people both ancient and modern, from various religious as well as cultural and secular viewpoints.

Celtic Festivals


Winter Solstice (Midwinter, Yule)


SpringEquinox (Ostara)

Midsummer (
Summer Solstice)

Lughnasadh (Lammas)
Autumn Equinox (Mabon)
Resources: *Not Scholarly
For many of us, finding time to celebrate the sabbats can be a challenge, even in the summer months. Just trying to find the time to do all the usual things we have to do between work and home can make finding time to fit in a sabbat ritual tough! Many times we forget that honoring the seasons and deity do not have to be a huge celebration, fancy rituals and huge feasts. Of course the sabbats can be one or all of those things, but do they have to be? Of course not. Honoring the change of season can be as simple as a candle lit, a prayer said, and a toast made. Just 5 minutes out of your day to reconnect with your beliefs, your culture and the earth.

Samhain (pronounced “sah-ween”) comes from the Gaelic term “Samhuin”. Samhain is the Celtic New Year and means “summer’s end”.

History of Samhain

This celebration began at sundown on October 31st and ended at sundown of November 1st. It is celebrated on the eve of November 1 as the Celts measured the day from sunset to sunset. The Celtic year began with its dark winter half, when the Earth rested and fertility was renewed. Samhain (pronounced /sow-en/) was a time when spirits could mix freely with humans, when the veil between the physical world and the Otherworld was thin. This suspension of time extended to the laws of society, so that many kinds of boisterous behavior could be indulged. The cattle and sheep had been brought in from the fields, the crops harvested and leaves are falling, ushering in a new season, winter. The Samhain feast marked the distinction between the joys of Harvest and the hardships of the approaching winter. Samhain was a time of divination and a time of adjustment from outdoor to indoor activities, many of which split down gender lines.

  • In the eighth century, the Catholic Church took November 1st and turned it into Allhallows Mass then eventually All Saints Day. This was the day to celebrate the saints that did not have a day on their own. The church was competing with the pagans who were already celebrating the dead and their ancestors.

  • Samhain originated as a pastoral festival, held to assist the tribe's fertility, to honor the ancestors, provide protection from evil forces, and repay the gods (and later the saints who replaced them) for the tribe's plentiful Harvest. A portion of the crops also may have been left in the fields unharvested, the due given to the spirits of the land. In some areas, several beasts were sacrificed whose life-energy was believed to replenish the soil.

  • At sunset on October 31, clans or local villages begin the formal ceremonies of Samhain by lighting a giant bonfire. The people would gather around the fire to burn crops and animals as sacrifices to the Celtic deities. It was a method of giving the Gods and Goddesses their share of the previous years herd or crops. In addition these sacred fires were a big part of the cleansing of the old year and a method to prepare for the coming New Year.

During the celebration, the Celts wore costumes, and danced around the bonfire. Many of these dances told stories or played out the cycles of life and death or commemorated the cycle of Wheel of Life. These costumes were adorned for three primary reasons: The first was to honor the dead who were allowed to rise from the Otherworld. The Celts believed that souls were set free from the land of the dead during the eve of Samhain. Those that had been trapped in the bodies of animals were released by the Lord of the Dead and sent to their new incarnations. The wearing of these costumes signified the release of these souls into the physical world. Not all of these souls were honored and respected. Some were also feared as they would return to the physical world and destroy crops, hide livestock or 'haunt' the living that may have done them wrong. The second reason for these traditional costumes was to hide from these malevolent spirits to escape their trickery. The final representation was a method to honor the Celtic Gods and Goddesses of the harvest, fields and flocks. Through honoring the deities, Celts were giving thanks and homage to those deities who assisted the village or clan through the trials and tribulations of the previous year. And to ask for their favor during the coming year and the harsh winter months that were approaching.

  • When the community celebration was over, each family would take a torch or burning ember from the sacred bonfire and return to their own home. The home fires that have been extinguished during the day were re-lit by the flame of the sacred bonfire to help protect the dwelling and its inhabitants during the coming winter. These fires were kept burning night and day during the next several months. It was believed that if a home lost its fire, tragedy and troubles would soon follow.

  • Bonfires were built, (originally called bone-fires, for after feasting, the bones were thrown in the fire as offerings for healthy and plentiful livestock in the New Year) and stones were marked with peoples names. Then they were thrown into the fire, to be retrieved in the morning. The condition of the retrieved stone foretold of that person's fortune in the coming year. Hearth fires were also lit from the village bonfire to ensure unity, and the ashes were spread over the harvested fields to protect and bless the land.

  • Originally the "Feast of the Dead" was celebrated in Celtic countries by leaving food offerings on altars and doorsteps for the "wandering dead". Today a lot of practitioners still carry out that tradition. Single candles were lit and left in a window to help guide the spirits of ancestors and loved ones home. Extra chairs were set to the table and around the hearth for the unseen guest. Apples were buried along roadsides and paths for spirits who were lost or had no descendants to provide for them. Turnips were hollowed out and carved to look like protective spirits, for this was a night of magic and chaos. The Wee Folke became very active, pulling pranks on unsuspecting humans. Traveling after dark was not advised. People dressed in white (like ghosts), wore disguises made of straw, or dressed as the opposite gender in order to fool the Nature spirits.

Samhain Customs

Ancestor altar, costumes, divination, carving jack-o-lanterns, spirit plate, the Feast of the Dead, feasting, paying debts, drying winter herbs, masks, bonfires, apple games, tricks, honoring and consulting ancestors, releasing the old, understanding death and rebirth, entering the underworld, divination, dance of the dead, fire calling, past life recall, transformation, Wiccan new year, wisdom of the Crone, end of summer, thinning of the veil between worlds, death of the year, night of the Wild Hunt, begin new projects and end old projects

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