Beltane Fire Festival Celebrations.

The Pagan Wheel of the Year: What Elaborate Rituals and Events Mark this Sacred Cycle?

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As more and more people describe themselves as ‘spiritual’ rather than religious, experts expect eco-friendly pagan movements will continue to grow. Already there are perhaps a million pagans in the United States, an equal number in Canada, and twice as many in Europe. Although it may be a long time (if ever) before pagans reclaim their Yule from Christmas or their Samhain from Halloween, it is nonetheless worthwhile to explore these ancient religious traditions. For those interested in participating in the environmentally aware celebrations, a major pagan holiday is on April 30/May 1. Beltane (also known as Celtic May Day) celebrates the coming of the summer and the fertility of the coming year.

Pagan Wheel of the Year at the Museum of Witchcraft, Boscastle, UK.

Pagan Wheel of the Year at the Museum of Witchcraft, Boscastle, UK. ( CC BY-NC SA 2.0 )

Who are the Pagans?

The Latin word pagan means “nonparticipant, one excluded from a more distinguished, professional group” and it came in vogue during the 4th century, around the same time that Christianity was gaining legitimacy. The word is often used pejoratively and implies some sort of inferiority. Indeed, today we know little about historical paganism because the ancient/ medieval scholars rarely thought the customs fit to be written down.

In modern times, paganism is still the catchall term for believers outside of the major religious faiths, but it is also qualified as modern paganism, contemporary paganism, or neo-paganism. It describes groups that claim to be derived from ancient pagan beliefs and includes such religious movements as Wicca, Neo-Druidism, and the Goddess Movement. Note that ‘paganism’ is used to describe Western belief systems (as opposed to African, Asian, or indigenous traditions) that share characteristics such as being nature-focused, being polytheistic, and honoring the female divine principal (as opposed to the male divine principal of the Abrahamic religions). Exact figures of modern pagans are hard to come by as there is still much a negative stigma attached to such beliefs and some fear being persecuted.

The Pagan Cycle of Seasons

The pagan cosmology is cyclical. Much like Eastern religions, all things are in a perpetual cycle of birth, death, and rebirth. Paganism ties this cycle to the season’s annual progression as well as the waxing and waning strength of the Sun. Pagan holidays are aligned with days that mark key points in the annual cycle, notably the beginning and peak of the four seasons. There are eight widely celebrated holidays throughout the pagan traditions. Each is usually celebrated with a community festival and seasonally appropriate rituals. These festivals can be depicted visually with the Wheel of the Year symbol. This eightfold Wheel is a modern innovation and looks like an eight-armed sun cross.

Each segment of the Wheel represents about six or seven weeks. Four points are based on the solar calendar: The Winter and Summer Solstice and the Spring and Autumn Equinox. The other four points are based on Celtic festivals and are often called by their Celtic names: Imbolc, Beltane, Lughnasadh, and Samhain. Note that all eight holidays go by a wide variety of names, depending on where you are and what tradition you are considering.

The Pagan Festival Wheel Showing The Yearly Season or “Sabbats”

The Pagan Festival Wheel Showing The Yearly Season or “Sabbats” ( CC BY-NC SA 2.0 )

12 o’clock on the Pagan Festival Wheel: The Winter Solstice (Yule)

“The Norsemen of Northern Europe saw the sun as a wheel that changed the seasons. It was from the word for this wheel, houl, that the word yule is thought to have come.” (BBC, 2006).  Like many other ancient peoples, the Norse celebrated this day with bonfires, storytelling, and feasting. For the Romans, it was the peak of the weeklong Saturnalia festivities, where houses were decorated with greenery, candles were lit, and presents were exchanged. The Celtic Druids burned a Yule log during this time in order to banish the darkness and any evil spirits that may accompany it. In all cases, the day marks the death of the Sun/ the rebirth of the sun and it was celebrated more domestically than the Summer Solstice.

Festive people at Stonehenge, England for the Pagan Winter Solstice Celebration

Festive people at Stonehenge, England for the Pagan Winter Solstice Celebration ( CC BY-SA 4.0 )

2 o’clock on the Pagan Festival Wheel: Imbolc (Disablot, Brigid’s Day, and Candlemas)

Imbolc comes at the first signs of spring. At this time, the supply of food from the previous harvest is running low. This holiday is of great importance for not only a successful new farming season but also to ensure the earth supplies enough food for people to make it until the next harvest.

Comments

It isn't good to Ben a pen to know the degrees that go into a year.     It would almost be able to be synced focus a Julian date

Troy Mobley

A very good synopsis of Pagan holidays(HolyDays) I often find myself explaining these days to those who are curious or have misconceptions regarding what those celebrations are about.

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