As the Wheel Turns
Updated: Oct 20, 2019
The Year Begins at Summer's End:
An excerpt from:
Witchcraft, Power, and Transformation
A Magical Mystery School for the 21st Century
© Janus Blume 2019
WHEEL OF THE YEAR:
The Ancient Celts noticed new life emerging from darkness--babies emerging from the womb, sprouts springing from beneath the soil. Naturally, they looked to the time when the harvest was complete, and their world descended into the blackness of longer and longer nights, to find the beginning of the new year. The old Celtic year began at the midpoint between fall equinox and winter solstice, and so begins the Witch’s Wheel of the Year.
If you think of the year as a compass, and place winter solstice in the North, we would find summer solstice in the South. Fall and spring equinoxes would be in the east and west respectively. Witches celebrate eight NeoPagan holidays each year. We call them sabbats. They occur at each solstice, equinox and 'cross quarter' in between. Around the outer ring you'll find the names of our sabbats, but this can vary from group to group.
Like Wicca itself, the Wheel of the Year is a modern mashup of ideas which come to us across time. The sabbats on the Wheel all relate to the agricultural cycle.
Start with Samhain
Our most auspicious holiday and the first of the year starts at sundown on October 31, and ends at sundown on November 1. We call it Samhain (pronounced SAH-wen), which means ‘summer’s end’ in Gaelic. It’s the day that evolved into Halloween.
This holiday takes its name from the seasonal change it celebrates, and nothing more. Some evangelical fundamentalists have sought to propagate nonsense about Samhain (usually mispronounced as Sam Hain) as a deity and a Lord of Death, The Celts had neither a death god nor any deity named Samhain. Their story is pure fabrication based on faulty scholarship.
The ancient Celts divided the year into two seasons, summer and winter. At the new year the everyone moved indoors, where their lives literally centered around a central fire for warmth and cooking. They called it the ‘little sun.’ When summer returned, they would move outdoors, and live under the ‘big sun.’
Winter began at sunset on the last day of the harvest. They prepared by clearing their summer campsites and putting out their cooking fires. Then they gathered for a community celebration around a bonfire. Each household brought a carved turnip, potato, or beet to carry a coal from the fire.
Community members started their own household blazes from the ceremonial bonfire. In this way, the entire community shared the spark of their shared fire throughout the year.
As we discussed in Chapter 3, this was an act of sympathetic magic which bound them to their tribe.
Samhain marked the very end of the cycle, when they believed that the old year literally dissolved. They didn’t view the passage of time as we do. For us, time moves forward in a straight line. For them, it was circular. The old year didn’t go away. It diffused to re-form into the new one, and began anew.
As the old year thinned, so did the veil separating the living from the dead. It became easier to communicate with the spirits of those who had crossed over. The Celts honored and invited interaction with beloved ancestors and well-intentioned spirits.
Eventually, the Romans arrived, bringing Christianity to Northern Europe. Many ancient celebrations, such as Samhain, were adopted, but recontextualized. November 1 would eventually become All Saints Day. An older word for saints is “hallows.” This is how October 31 became All Hallows Evening, later shortened to Hallowe’en.
Aspects of the ancient traditions are alive in the modern-day celebrations of Hallowe’en. You can see the tradition of honoring the dead in all the hauntings and ghosts on display. However, not all spirit visitors who crossed over were benevolent, so people sometimes costumed themselves to hide from the evil ones. Dressing up also provided cover for prankish humans practicing tricks. Modern Halloween costumes are a continuation of this practice.
We mentioned earlier that people carried coals home from their communal bonfire to use in starting their own hearth fires. In the 1800s when many immigrants with Celtic roots arrived in the United States, they discovered that pumpkins were much easier to carve than turnips, and created the modern jack ‘o’ lantern.
In addition to its place on the calendar as the Witch’s New Year, Samhain is also the last of the three annual Neo Pagan harvest celebrations. The god has now given all his strength to the harvest. He descends into the underworld for regeneration. We mourn his passage and wait for him to be reborn at winter solstice.
You may have heard rumors calling Halloween the blood harvest. This has some basis in fact, but it’s not as creepy as it sounds.
Winter weather was on its way. It took careful planning for primitive agrarian communities to survive the cold season in the British Isles. Food stores had to be set aside to get people and livestock through the fallow months. It was time to cull the herds. Practical decisions had to be made about how many animals could be fed until they could graze again.
The blood harvest of Celtic history was simply a common-sense approach to the proper seasonal management of food resources. Modern Pagan observances have nothing to do with the shedding of blood.
Samhain celebrants continue to gather around bonfire. Many Witches consider it their favorite holiday. Rituals may include periods of meditation to communicate with our beloved dead. We set up ancestor altars and read the names of those who are on the other side of the veil, especially those who have made their passage since the last Samhain. We feel connected to our ancestors as well as those who now walk in spirit rather than flesh. We begin the new year in their company while the hours of sunlight decline until the winter solstice.