Wiccan Sabbats on the Wheel of the Year

Autumn Equinox

Welcome to this quick overview of the Wheel of the Year, which serves as the foundation of the Wiccan calendar. You can also learn more about each Sabbat by clicking on the links below.

Wicca is sometimes referred to as an unorganized religion. After all, in Wicca, there is no central sacred scripture or designated site of worship, and there are no set ceremonial procedures to follow. Individual traditions, covens, and solitary practitioners are free to make their own decisions on all of these matters.

Despite this flexibility, there is one crucial aspect of Wicca that serves as a structural center for the religion: the Wheel of the Year. The eight Wiccan holidays, commonly known as the Sabbats, provide frequent opportunities for practitioners to gather, whether for coven rituals or more informal circle festivities.

As solitary practitioners, they understand that by doing Sabbat rituals, they connect their energy with the energy of millions of other Wiccans throughout the world who commemorate these unique days.

Wiccan Sabbats on the Wheel of the Year - wheel of the year - Wheel of the Year

The Sabbats are made up of four “solar holidays,” the two Solstices and two Equinoxes that mark the Earth’s annual voyage around the sun, as well as four “Earth feasts,” which take place in February, May, August, and October. The “cross-quarter days” between the solar positions are marked by this second set of Sabbats. Beltane, for example, which is traditionally observed on May 1st, comes nearly halfway between the Spring Equinox and the Summer Solstice.

Imbolc, Beltane, Lammas, and Samhain are all cross-quarter Wiccan celebrations inspired by the traditional folk festivals held in Western Europe prior to the birth of Christianity. (Depending on the form of Wicca practiced, some of these holidays are known by different names.)

Those who engage with Celtic traditions, for example, refer to Lammas as Lughnasa.) The cross-quarter days are referred to as the “greater Sabbats” by many Wiccans, while the solar days are referred to as the “lesser Sabbats,” as the Earth festival days are thought to be periods of higher vitality. However, this language is intended to distinguish between the two types and does not imply that solar days (also known as “Sun Sabbats”) are any less important.

The origins of the Wheel of the Year

The Wheel of the Year’s mystical origins should be emphasized that these eight holidays are not limited to Wicca; many modern Pagan traditions observe any or all of the Sabbats. The metaphorical mythology surrounding the God and Goddess and each Sabbat’s share of the overarching story distinguishes the Wiccan version. This celestial couple is in charge of all creation in Nature, and each has important duties to perform in the plant and animal life cycles throughout the Year. Because God represents the Sun and the Goddess represents the Earth, their relationship can be viewed in two ways: as mother and child or as procreating lovers.

The presence and absence of warmth and sunlight over the course of the seasons is explained in this way: the God is born, grows up, and reaches the pinnacle of his power, and then ages and dies, only to be reincarnated as the growth cycle is resumed. The Goddess, who is the Earth, is both God’s mother and his co-creative partner, being stable and present throughout the Year, even when there is no warmth or light. She is the constant, which may explain why her Sabbats, or Earth feasts, are thought to have more potency. However, the general vision of the endless birth/death/rebirth cycle is one of balance between the feminine and Universal masculine forces, with each Sabbat representing a different stage of the cycle.

Sabbats

Wiccan Sabbats on the Wheel of the Year - wheel of the year - Wheel of the Year

Wiccan Witches Sabbats

Sabbats are ritual high points in the Wiccan calendar. So, what really happens during a Sabbath celebration? As with so much in Wicca, the intricacies will vary greatly, but in general, there will be a ritual concentrating on some aspect of the God and Goddess relationship and/or the time of Year. Spring and Summer Sabbats, for example, are concerned with fertility and abundance, whereas Autumnal Sabbats are concerned with harvesting.

Some kind of feast frequently follows the ceremonial rite. These rituals can be simple or sophisticated, and they might involve a single practitioner, a coven, or an informal Wiccan circle. Some covens and circles and other Pagan organizations even hold Sabbat rituals in public so that members of the community who are interested can come and see and learn. Others follow a stringent secrecy tradition and celebrate in private.

The Sabbat will most likely determine the specifics of the ritual and the décor and food.

Witches may devote their rituals to different aspects of the God and Goddess at various points throughout the Wheel of the Year, leave seasonal offerings, and adorn the altar with seasonal motifs.

Keeping the Wiccan Wheel of the Year can be a deeply spiritually satisfying exercise. Having a Sabbat every six weeks allows us to stay more in tune with Nature and be more cognizant of the changing of the seasons. Indeed, many Wiccans refer to Sabbat ritual involvement as “Turning the Wheel” as an acknowledgment of their co-creative relationship with Nature. Of course, there are opportunities to commune with the Goddess and the God every day. But it’s always good to know that another Witchy event is just a few weeks away!

According to historical and archaeological evidence, ancient pagan and polytheist peoples had many cultural observations.

The Anglo-Saxons honored the solstices and equinoxes, while the Celts celebrated the seasonal divisions with numerous fire festivals.

Cormac Mac Cárthaigh wrote in the 10th century about “four enormous fires…lighted upon the four great Druid festivals…in February, May, August, and November.” Before being known as the Wheel of the Year, writings such as The Golden Bough influenced the contemporary Neopagan festival cycle. James Frazer, George Western Europe’s Witch-Cult Margaret Murray is a woman. According to Frazer, Beltane (the start of summer) and Samhain (the start of winter) were the most important of the four Gaelic feasts listed by Cormac. 

Murray attempted to determine the festivals celebrated by a reportedly widespread underground pagan religion that had lasted into the early modern period by using documents from early modern witch trials as well as folklore surrounding European witchcraft. Murray cites a trial record from Forfar, Scotland, from 1661, in which the alleged witch (Issobell Smyth) is linked to gatherings held “every quarter at Candlemas Rudday Lambemas Hallowmas.” 

The White Lady Despite Christianization, Robert Graves claimed that the importance of agricultural and social cycles had preserved the “continuity of the ancient British festal system” of eight holidays: “English social life was based on agriculture, grazing, and hunting” implicit in “the popular celebration of the festivals now known as Candlemas, Lady Day, May Day, Midsummer Day, Michaelmas, All-Hallowe’en, and Christmas; it was also secretly preserved as religious doctrine.” The Bricket Wood coven’s sabbats were held at the Witches’ Cottage (2006).

In order to perform more regular celebrations, the Bricket Wood coven Gerald Gardner and the Order of Bards, Ovates, and Druids Ross Nichols had both adopted eightfold ritual calendars by the late 1950s. According to popular legend, Gardner and Nichols created the calendar during a naturist retreat, where Gardner advocated for celebrating the solstices and equinoxes while Nichols preferred celebrating the four Celtic fire festivals; eventually, the two approaches were combined into a single festival cycle.

This collaboration later resulted in more closely aligned celebrations between the two early Neopagan organizations. Gardner’s first published works exclude any mention of the solstices and equinoxes instead of focusing solely on the fire festivals. Gardner originally called these “May eve, August eve, November eve (Hallowe’en), and February eve.” Gardner connected the current witch celebrations to the Gaelic fire festivals Beltane, Lughnasadh, Samhain, and Brigid.

The term “Wheel of the Year” was coined in the mid-1960s to characterize the regular cycle of witches’ feasts.

Wiccan Sabbats on the Wheel of the Year - wheel of the year - Wheel of the Year
image by johannapolle.com

Aidan Kelly named the Wiccan summer solstice (Litha), and equinox feasts (Ostara and Mabon) in 1974, which were later adopted by Timothy Zell. Green Eggs and Ham The names’ popularity grew gradually. In her 1978 book Witchcraft For Tomorrow, famous Wiccan author Doreen Valiente did not adopt Kelly’s holiday titles, instead of naming the solstices and equinoxes (“Lesser Sabbats”) by their seasons.

Valiente called the four “Greater Sabbats,” or fire holidays, Candlemas, May Eve, Lammas, and Hallowe’en, though she also called their Irish counterparts Imbolc, Beltane, Lughnassadh, and Samhain.

Valiente called the four “Greater Sabbats,” or fire holidays, Candlemas, May Eve, Lammas, and Hallowe’en, though she also called their Irish counterparts Imbolc, Beltane, Lughnassadh, and Samhain.

Due to the influence of early Wicca on Modern Paganism and the syncretic adoption of Anglo-Saxon and Celtic motifs, the most commonly used English festival names for the Wheel of the Year tend to be the Celtic ones. Introduced by Gardner and the mostly Germanic-derived names introduced by Kelly, even when the celebrations are not based on those cultures. 

Over time, the American Satr movement has established a calendar in which the Heathen major feasts coexist with various Days of Remembrance honoring heroes from the Edda Sagas, individuals from Germanic history, and the Viking Leif Ericson, who discovered and settled Vinland (North America). These holidays, however, are not as uniformly dispersed as in Wicca and other Heathen denominations.

Festivals

The Neopagan Wheel of the Year is frequently represented as a solar cross.

Many traditions of modern Pagan cosmology regard all things as cyclical, with time as a continual cycle of development and retreat linked to death and rebirth. This cycle is also seen as a microcosm and macrocosm of other life cycles in an infinite sequence of cycles that comprise the Universe. The days that fall on the yearly milestones have traditionally marked the beginnings and middles of the four seasons. They are held in high regard and hold large communal celebrations. These are the eight most typical times for community festivities.

The Winter Solstice (Yule)

Midwinter, also known as Yule or Alban Arthan in current Druidic traditions, has been recognized as a crucial turning point in the yearly cycle since the late Stone Age. This is exemplified by the ancient megalithic Newgrange Stonehenge, which was meticulously aligned with the solstice dawn and sunset.

The reversal of the’s waning prominence in the sky represents the rebirth of the solar god and the restoration of productive seasons. This is the most important time of festivity, according to Germanic and Roman traditions.

Although customs differ, sacrificial offerings, feasting, and gift-giving are all frequent parts of Midwinter celebrations. Bringing sprigs and wreaths of ever greenery (holly, ivy, mistletoe, yew pine) into the home, as well as tree decorating, are popular during this season.

Additional festivities are held in Roman customs during the six days preceding Midwinter.

The Spring Equinox (Ostara)

The northern hemisphere’s annual cycle of insolation (Sun energy, represented in blue), including significant points for seasons (middle), quarter days (top), and cross-quarter days (bottom), as well as months (lower) and Zodiac houses (upper). Seasonal lag causes the temperature cycle (seen in pink) to be delayed. Ostara, derived from linguist Jacob Grimm’s derivation of an Old High German variant of the Old English goddess name Eostre, symbolizes the vernal equinox in various modern Pagan traditions.

This feast, known as Alban Eilir in current Druidic traditions, is the second of three spring celebrations (the midpoint between Imbolc and Beltane), during which light and darkness are once again in balance, with the light on the rise. It is a period of new beginnings and vitality emerging from the depths of winter.

Beltane (May Eve)

Traditionally the first day of summer in Ireland, the earliest celebrations appeared in pre-Christian times in Rome with the festival of Flora, the Roman goddess of flowers, and the Walpurgisnacht celebrations of the Germanic Christianisation of Europe. A more secular version of the festival has continued in Europe and America, commonly known as May Day. It is well recognized in this form for maypole dancing and the coronation of the Queen of May. Many pagan traditions celebrate this event, and among modern Druids, it acknowledges the power of life in all its completeness, the greening of the world, youthfulness, and prosperity.

The Summer Solstice (Litha)

Midsummer is one of the four solar festivals, and it is regarded as the point at which summer reaches its zenith, and the sun shines the brightest. 

Midsummer is preceded by Beltane and followed by Lughnasadh Lughnasadh Lughnasadh Lughnasadh Lughnasadh Lughnasadh Lughnasadh Lughnasadh Lughna Some Wiccan traditions refer to the event as Litha, a term found in Bede’s The Reckoning of Time (De Temporum Ratione, 8th century), which has a list of (then-obsolete) Anglo-Saxon names for the twelve months. 

Terra Lia (first or preceding Lia) roughly corresponds to June in the Gregorian calendar, while terra Lia (following Lia) roughly corresponds to July. According to Bede, “Litha implies mild or navigable, for the calm breezes are soft in both these months, and they were wont to sail upon the smooth sea.”

Alban Hefin is the name given by modern Druids to this celebration. At this festival, the sun is welcomed and celebrated at its peak. While it is the strongest time of the Year for the solar current, it also represents a turning point since the sun begins its descent as the Wheel of the Year revolves. Due to the emphasis on the sun and its light as a sign of heavenly inspiration is arguably the most important celebration of the Druid traditions. Druid organizations at Stonehenge typically celebrate this event.

Lughnasadh (Lammas)

Lammas, also known as Lughnasadh, is the first of three Wiccan harvest celebrations. The other two are the autumnal equinox (or Mabon) and Samhain. Wiccans celebrate the event by baking and eating a figure of God to symbolize the sanctity and value of the harvest. Because not all Pagans are Wiccans, celebrations vary. In some traditions, this holiday is referred to as Lughnasadh in Irish. Wiccan celebrations of this occasion are not based on Celtic culture and are not centered on the Celtic deity Lugh. This name appears to have been adopted late among Wiccans. August Eve is the name given to the celebration in early forms of Wiccan literature.

Lammas (contraction of loaf mass) denotes that it is an agrarian holiday and feast of thankfulness for grain and bread, which represents the first products of the harvest. Pagan rituals may be incorporated into Christian festivities.

Autumnal Equinoxes (Mabon)

Harvest Home, Mabon, the Feast of the Ingathering, Meán Fómhair, An Clabhsr, or Alban Elfed (in Neo-Druid traditions), is a modern Pagan ritual of thanksgiving for the fruits of the Earth and a recognition of the need to share them in order to secure the Goddess and Gods’ blessings during the coming winter months. Aidan Kelly coined the name Mabon in the 1970s as a tribute to Mabon ap Modron, a character from Welsh mythology.

Imbolc

Imbolc is celebrated on February 1st. Imbolc commemorates the arrival of spring. It is one of the four cross-quarter days (or “fire feasts”) and one of the four “greater sabbats” on the Wheel. Beltane, Lughnasadh, and Samhain are the other cross-quarter days.

The etymology of the name ‘Imbolc’ is unknown. However, it is likely derived from the Old Irish word for ‘in the belly’ or ‘in the womb,’ alluding to pregnant sheep and heralding the lambing season.

The Child of Promise brings light and energy to the nascent Year at Imbolc. The first signs of spring are appearing, and for pagans, this is a time for personal growth and renewed vigor. Imbolc is a time for spring cleaning and handicrafts.

Imbolc, which has profound Celtic roots, was traditionally celebrated to welcome a prosperous farming season and was devoted to Brigid, the goddess of healing, smithing, and poetry.

Midsummer

The summer solstice, or Litha, is one of the four ‘lesser sabbats’ and the solar Year’s high point. God has attained the pinnacle of his strength (the summer solstice is the longest day of the Year), and the daybreak of June 21st (or anything close to that) is his crowning glory.

The God assuming power as the Sun King and the end of his young days running in the greenwood reflect the sun’s strength and power throughout the summer months, while pagans also remember that God’s journey is now downward (the shortening of days until Yule).

Stonehenge is the focal location of the summer solstice celebration (which Druids call Alban Heruin, ‘light of the sea’) for many modern Druids and many other groups. The Stonehenge site is designed to be aligned with the winter and summer solstices.

Samhain

Each Sabbat corresponded to the Earth’s natural cycles and seasons, and Samhain was seen as one of the most important of these observances. Samhain, or New Year’s Day, marks the beginning of the Year’s cycle.

Wiccan Sabbats on the Wheel of the Year - wheel of the year - Wheel of the Year
Prague, Czech republic – 09.10.2020: Popular Botanica Coffee Truck cafe in Prague city, Czech republic

Samhain simply means “summer’s end,” and it commemorates the conclusion of the light season and the beginning of the dark season. However, in this context, ‘darkness’ should not be associated with evil or melancholy, but rather as a natural aspect of the human condition. There must be regenerating darkness in order for there to be light.

At Samhain, one offered thanks for what had been provided in the previous year and reflected on what had been lost, particularly ancestors and loved ones who had moved on to the other side. In ancient times, physical evidence of Samhain celebrations can be found at various ancient sites in Ireland, Scotland, Britain, and Wales. Many traditions arose around Samhain that has come to be associated with the modern-day festival of Halloween in the United States and are still practiced overseas.

Halloween bonfires and mischief night’ activities can be traced back to Samhain.

Samhain was observed as a period when the veil between the living and the dead was thinnest. This was known as an ‘in-between,’ a period during which the deceased may more easily transition into the realm of the living. Far from being a terrifying concept, it was believed that one’s relatives and loved ones who had died might visit around this time, and it was common to make a favorite meal and layout treat for the spirits of the dead. However, if one had mistreated someone who had died, that ghost could return demanding restitution. Thus one wore a mask to avoid being recognized.

Because the spirit world was populated by entities other than the souls of the dead, such as fairies and sprites, who might lure and capture mortals, one had to be cautious when traveling at night, when their abilities were most effective. Disguising oneself with a mask and costume also helps to keep these spirits at bay.

Halloween bonfires and mischief night’ activities can also be traced back to Samhain. Because it was believed that the Universe began in disorder and was later ordered by heavenly forces, it made sense that the world would slip back into chaos on a night when the veil between the spirit world and that of mortals was thinnest. Pranks committed the night before the Samhain celebration represented disorder, but resolving those pranks the next day represented the restoration of order.

Similarly, bonfires (originally bone fires in which the offal and bones of killed animals were burned) represented the triumph of light and order over darkness. On Samhain, bonfires are still lit throughout Ireland, Scotland, Britain, and the Hebrides and Orkney to commemorate this similar concept. The next Yule Sabbat reinforced this worldview.

Conclusion

After Christianity won over Celtic pagan beliefs, the yearly holy days were Christianized. 

  • Samhain became All Souls’ Eve; 
  • Yule, of course, became Christmas; 
  • Imbolc became Candlemas and Saint Brigid’s Day; 
  • Ostara became Easter; 
  • Beltane became the Feast of the Cross, and 
  • Litha became the Feast of St. John; 
  • Lughnasadh became Lammas, “Loaf Mass,” celebrating grains; and 
  • the Autumn Equinox became associated with various saints such as Adamnan.

Although the Wheel of Year is a recent invention as we know it, the worldview it reflects is centuries old. Many ancient civilizations’ literature, art, and architecture all depict life and time as a constantly repeating cycle. The Sabbats highlighted by the Wheel, by whatever name they were known in the past, helped people stay balanced in an uncertain world and, for those who still believe in the old ideas, continue to do so in the present.

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