“Everything the Power of the World does is done in a circle. The sky is round, and I have heard that the earth is round like a ball, and so are all the stars. The wind, in its greatest power whirls. Birds make their nest in circles, for theirs is the same religion as ours. The sun comes forth and goes down again in a circle. The moon does the same and both are round. Even the seasons form a great circle in their changing, and always come back again to where they were. The life of a man is a circle from childhood to childhood, and so it is in everything where power moves. Our tepees were round like the nests of birds, and these were always set in a circle, the nation’s hoop.”
— Black Elk
The Neo-Pagan Wheel of the Year consists of eight seasonal celebrations which correspond to the solstices and equinoxes and the seasonal points in between. The Wheel of the Year is a year-long spiritual meditation on the rhythms of nature and the corresponding rise and fall, ebb and flow of our inner lives. Karen Clark explains:
“Our life too is a shifting balance of light and dark, joy and sorrow, and life and death moments. Ponder the seasons of your own life: the death-like times when darkness, sorrow and loss swallowed you whole, and other times when the sun was shining bright and life was rich and full. Dig deep and notice that the good things in life hold you in your darkest moments, and that your sorrows and challenges can make your high points all the more poignant and precious. So without, so within; like the natural world, our humanity is woven of darkness and death, and light and life. And in this bittersweet, powerful truth, we can find our balance and wholeness in the face of life’s shifting seasons.”
The Neo-Pagan Wheel of the Year was unknown before the mid-20th century. While the Wheel is based on ancient pagan seasonal festivals, there is no place, in Europe or elsewhere, where all eight festivals of the Neo-Pagan calendar were observed by ancient pagans. The modern Neo-Pagan Wheel of the Year is an amalgamation of Irish cross-quarter days and neo-druidic celebrations of the solstices and equinoxes with Anglo-Saxon names. Despite its lack of historical authenticity, the Wheel of the Year, with its perfectly balanced stations, is a powerful organizing symbol for Neo-Pagans today.
The Irish Cross-Quarter Days: The seasonal divisions
The primary sources for Irish cross-quarter days is the Tochmarc Emire, “The Wooing of Emer”: It lists: (1) Samhain (pron. sah-wen), when summer goes to rest (i.e., when autumn begins), the end of harvest, (2) Oimelc, when the ewes are milked at spring’s beginning, (3) Beltane, at summer’s beginning, and (4) Bron Trogain, earth’s sorrowing in autumn. Bron Trogain is also called “Lughnasadh” in an ancient editorial gloss. Other texts call Oimelc by the name “Imbolc” or “Imbolg”.
The text then goes on to state that there were formerly two divisions of the Irish year, summer, from Beltane to Samhain, and winter, from Samhain to Beltane. There is no evidence for the inclusion of the equinoxes or solstices in the Irish calendar, with the possible exception of midsummer. Note also that, in the Celtic calendar, the day began at sunset, which is why Halloween (which is related to Samhain) is celebrated the night before November 1, and Walpurgis Night (which is related to Beltane) is celebrated the night before May 1. While the cross-quarter days traditionally fall on the kalends, the first of the month, some Neo-Pagans observe them at the midpoints of the preceding and subsequent quarter days.
The Anglo-Saxon Quarter Days: The solar divisions
The solstices festivals were important observances to the Norse and Anglo-Saxons, but there is no evidence the equinoxes were celebrated in ancient pagan Europe. The spring and autumn equinoxes were important dates in ancient Mesopotamian/Semitic religions. During the Middle Ages, the English practice began of paying rents and settling accounts on four religious holiday days that fell roughly on the equinoxes and solstices: Christmas, Lady Day, Midsummer, and Michaelmas.
The Wiccan Calendar
Originally, only the Irish Cross-Quarter Days were observed by Gerald Gardner’s coven. Gardner’s source was Margaret Murray’s The Witch-Cult in Western Europe (1921), which stated that witches’ sabbaths were originally held on May Eve and November Eve, and later on February 2 and August 1 as well. In 1958, however, Gardner’s coven requested that the solstices and equinoxes be added. The solstices and equinoxes were already celebrated by the neo-druidic order of Ross Nichols. Gardner’s Book of Shadows, written between 1949 and 1953, gives no names to these festivals other than “November Eve”, “February Eve” etc. and “Spring Equinox”, “Summer Solstice” etc. In his book, The White Goddess, Robert Graves later identified eight stations on the calendar: Christmas, Candlemas, Lady Day, May Day, Midsummer, Lammas, Michaelmas, All-Hallowe’en.
Below is the most common form of the Neo-Pagan Wheel of the Year:
- Yule: the winter solstice
- Imbolc: the mid-winter cross-quarter
- Ostara: the vernal equinox
- Beltane: the mid-spring cross-quarter
- Litha: the summer solstice
- Lughnasadh: the mid-summer cross-quarter
- Herfest (Mabon): the autumn equinox
- Samhain: the mid-autumn cross-quarter