(Footnotes are located at the end.)
In the past, when people lived with nature, the turning of the seasons and
the monthly cycle of the moon had a profound impact on religious ceremonies.
Because the moon was seen as a symbol of the Goddess, ceremonies of adoration
and magic took place in its light. The coming of winter, the first stirrings
of spring, the warm summer and the advent of fall were also marked with
The Wiccans, heirs of the pre-Christians folk religions of Europe, still
celebrate the Full Moon and observe the changing of the seasons. The Wiccan
religious calendar contains thirteen full moon celebrations and eight Sabbats,
days of power.
Four of these days (or, more properly, nights) are determined by the
Solstices, and Equinoxes,* the astronomical beginnings of the seasons. The
four ritual occasions are based on old folk festivals (and, to some extent,
those of the ancient Near East). The rituals give structure and order to the
Wiccan year, and also remind us of the endless cycle that will continue long
after we're gone.
Four of the Sabbats-perhaps those that have been observed for the longest
time-were probably associated with agriculture and the bearing cycles of
animals. These are Imbolc (February 2), Beltane (April 30), Lughnasadh (August
and Samhain (October 31). These names are Celtic and are quite common among
Wiccans, though many others exist.
When careful observation of the skies led to common knowledge of the
astronomical year, the Solstices and Equinoxes (circa March 21, June 21,
21, and December 21; the actual dates vary from year to year) were brought
into this religious structure. (1)
Who first began worshipping and raising energy at these times? That question
cannot be answered. However, these sacred days and nights are the origins of
the 21 Wiccan ritual occasions.
Many of these survive today in both secular and religious forms. May Day
celebrations, Halloween, Groundhog Day and even Thanksgiving, to name some
popular American holidays, all are connected with ancient pagan worship.
Christianized versions of the Sabbats have also been preserved within the
The Sabbats are solar rituals, marking the points of the sun's yearly cycle,
and are but half of the Wiccan ritual year. The Esbats are the Wiccan full
moon celebrations. At this time we gather to worship She Who Is. Not that
Wiccans omit the God at esbats--both are usually revered on all ritual
There are twelve to thirteen full moons yearly, or one every 28 ¼ days. The
moon is a symbol of the Goddess as well as a source of energy. Thus after the
religious aspects of the esbats, Wiccans often practice magic, tapping into
the larger amounts of energy which are thought to exist at these times.
Some of the old pagan festivals, stripped of their once sacred qualities by
the dominance of Christianity, have degenerated. Samhain seems to have been
taken over by candy manufacturers in the United States, while Yule has been
transformed from one of the most holy pagan days to a time of gross
commercialism. Even the later echoes of a Christian savior's birth are hardly
above the electronic hum of cash registers.
But the old magic remains on these days and nights, and the Wicca celebrate
them. Rituals vary greatly, but all relate to the Goddess and God and to our
home, the earth. Most rites are held at night for practical purposes as well
as to lend a sense of mystery. The sabbat, being solar oriented, are more
naturally celebrated at noon or at dawn, but this is rare today.
The sabbats tell us one of the stories of the Goddess and God, of their
relationship and the effects this has on the fruitfulness of the earth. There
many variations on these myths, but here's a fairly common one, woven into
basic descriptions of the sabbats.
The Goddess gives birth to a son, the God, at Yule (circa December 21). This
is in no way an adaptation of Christianity. The Winter Solstice has long
been viewed as a time of divine births. Mithras was said to have been born at
this time. The Christians simply adopted it for their use in 273 C.E. (Common
Yule is a time of the greatest darkness and is the shortest day of the year.
Earlier peoples noticed such phenomena and supplicated the forces of nature
to lengthen the days and shorten the nights. Wiccans sometimes celebrate Yule
just before dawn, then watch the sunrise as a fitting finale to their
Since the God is also the sun, this marks the point of the year when the sun
is reborn as well. Thus, the Wicca light fires or candles to welcome the
sun's returning light. The Goddess, slumbering through the winter of Her labor,
rests after Her delivery.
Yule is the remnant of early rituals celebrated to hurry the end of winter
and the bounty of spring, when food was once again readily available. To
contemporary Wiccans it is a reminder that the ultimate product of death is
rebirth, a comforting though in these days of unrest. (See chapter 9, "The
Imbolc (February 2) marks the recovery of the Goddess after giving birth to
the God. The lengthening periods of light awaken her. The God is a young,
lusty boy, but his power is felt in the longer days. The warmth fertilizes the
earth (the Goddess), causes seeds to germinate and sprout. And so the earliest
beginnings of spring occur.
This is a sabbat of purification after the shut-in life of winter, through
the renewing power of the sun. It is also a festival of light and of
fertility, once marked in Europe with huge blazes, torches and fire in every
Fire here represents our own illumination and inspiration as much as light and
Imbolc is also known as Feast of Torches, Oimelc, Lupercalia, Feast of Pan,
Snowdrop Festival, Feast of the Waxing Light, Brigid's Day, and probably by
many other names. Some Wiccans follow the old Scandinavian custom of wearing
crowns of lit candles (2), but many more carry tapers during their invocations.
This is one of the traditional times for initiations into covens, and so
self-dedication rituals, such as the one outlined in chapter 12, can be
performed or renewed at this time.
Ostara (circa March 21), the spring equinox, also known as spring, Rites of
Spring and Eostra's Day, marks the first day of true spring. The energies of
nature subtly shift from the sluggishness of winter to the exuberant
expansion of spring. The Goddess blankets the earth with fertility, bursting
from her sleep, as the God stretches and grows to maturity. He walks the
greening fields and delights in the abundance of nature.
On Ostara the hours of day and night are equal. Light is overtaking
darkness; the Goddess and God impel the wild creatures of the earth to
This is a time of beginnings, of action, of planting spells for future
gains, and of tending ritual gardens.
Beltane (April 30) marks the emergence of the young God into manhood.
Stirred by the energies at work in nature, he desires the Goddess. They fall in
love, lie among the grasses and blossoms, and unite. The Goddess becomes
pregnant of the God. The Wiccans celebrate the symbol of her fertility in
Beltane (also known as May Day) has long been marked with feasts and
rituals. May poles, supremely phallic symbols, were the focal point of old
village rituals. Many persons rose at dawn to gather flowers and green
branches from the fields and gardens, using them to decorate the May pole,
homes and themselves.
The flowers and greenery symbolize the Goddess; the May pole the God.
Beltane marks the return of vitality, of passion and hopes consummated.
May poles are sometimes used by Wiccans today during Beltane rituals, but
the cauldron is a more common focal point of ceremony. It represents, of
course, the Goddess-the essence of womanhood, the end of all desire, the equal
opposite of the May pole, symbolic of the God.
Midsummer, the summer solstice (circa June 21), also known as Litha, arrives
when the powers of nature reach their highest point. The earth is awash in
the fertility of the Goddess and God.
In the past, bonfires were lept to encourage fertility, purification, health
and love. The fire once again represents the sun, feted on this time of the
longest daylight hours.
Midsummer is a classic time for magic of all kinds.
Lughnasadh (August 1) is the time of the first harvest, when the plants of
spring wither and drop their fruits or seeds for our use as well as to ensure
future crops. Mystically, so too does the God lose his strength as the sun
rises farther in the south each day and the nights grow longer. The Goddess
watches in sorrow and joy as she realizes that the God is dying, and yet lives
on inside her as her child.
Lughnasadh, also known as August Eve, Feast of Bread, Harvest Home and
Lammas, wasn't necessarily observed on this day. It originally coincided with
As summer passes, Wiccans remember its warmth and bounty in the food we eat.
Every meal is an act of attunement with nature, and we are reminded that
nothing in the universe is constant.
Mabon (circa September 21), the autumn equinox, is the completion of the
harvest begun at Lughnasadh. Once again day and night are equal, poised as the
God prepares to leave his physical body and begin the great adventure into the
unseen, toward renewal and rebirth of the Goddess.
Nature declines, draws back its bounty, readying for winter and its time of
rest. The Goddess nods in the weakening sun, though fire burns within her
womb. She feels the presence of the God even as he wanes.
At Samhain (October 31), the Wicca say farewell to the God. This is a
temporary farewell. He isn't wrapped in eternal darkness, but readies to be
of the goddess at Yule.
Samhain, also known as November Eve, Feast of the Dead, Feast of Apples,
Hallows and All Hallows, once marked the time of sacrifice. In some places this
was the time when animals were slaughtered to ensure food throughout the
depths of winter. The God--identified with the animals--fell as well to ensure
continuing existence. (3)
Samhain is a time of reflection, looking back over the last year, of coming
to terms with the one phenomenon of life over which we have no control-death.
The Wicca feel that on this night the separation between the physical and
spiritual realities is thin. Wiccans remember their ancestors and all those who
have gone before.
After Samhain, Wiccans celebrate Yule, and so the Wheel of the Year is
Surely there are mysteries buried here. Why is the God the son and then the
lover of the Goddess? This isn't incest, this is symbolism. In this
agricultural story (one of many Wiccan myths) the ever-changing fertility of
is represented by the Goddess and the God. This myth speaks of the mysteries
of birth, death, and rebirth. It celebrates the wondrous aspects and
beautiful effects of love, and honors women who perpetuate our species. It also
points out the very real dependence that humans have on the earth, the sun and
the moon and of the effects of the seasons on our daily lives.
To agricultural peoples, the major thrust of this myth cycle is the
production of food through the interplay between the Goddess and God.
which we would all die-is intimately connected with the deities. Indeed,
Wiccans see food as yet another manifestation of divine energy.
And so, by observing the sabbats, Wiccans attune themselves to the earth and
to the deities. They reaffirm their earth roots. Performing rituals on the
nights of the full moon also strengthens their connections with the Goddess in
It is the wise Wiccan who celebrates on the sabbats and esbats, for these
are times of real as well as symbolic power. Honoring them in some
fashion--perhaps with rites similar to those suggested in The Standing Stones
Shadows--is an integral part of Wicca.
(1) Traces of this old custom are even found in Christianity. Easter, for
example, is placed on the Sunday following the first full moon after the spring
equinox, a rather "pagan" way to organize religious rites.
(2) Solstices, equinoxes, and the sabbats are listed in Llewellyn's
(3) Vegetarian Wiccans probably don't like this part of Samhain symbolism,
but it is traditional. We don't, of course, sacrifice animals in ritual. This
is symbolic of the God's passing.
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other books by Scott Cunningham.
Cunningham's Encyclopedia of Crystal, Gem & Metal Magic
Cunningham's Encyclopedia of Magical Herbs
Cunningham's Encyclopedia of Wicca in the Kitchen
Living Wicca - A Further Guide for the Solitary Practitioner
Magical Herbalism - The Secret Craft of the Wise
Spell Crafts - Creating Magical Objects
The Complete Book of Incense, Oils & Brews
The Magical Household (with David Harrington)
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