Saturday, February 17, 2018

Nontheistic Sabbats: Nontheism and the Wheel of the Year


The Neopagan Wheel of the Year has its roots in several historical celebrations ranging from Greek and Roman to Gaelic to German.  Over the years, we have modernized it to fit our needs, creating a syncretic series of celebrations loosely defined by the original holidays.  Many of these holidays center around certain gods and goddesses.  What is Imbolc without Brigid?  Lughnasadh without Lugh?  Yule without Odin?  In fact, the Wiccan Wheel of the Year focuses on the life cycle of the Horned God and Triple Goddess, meaning that every sabbat relates to deity.

All of this deity-centric celebration can certainly make things difficult for the nontheistic practitioner.  In fact, you might even wonder why a nontheistic witch might follow the Wheel of the Year when it seems so diametrically opposed to their beliefs.  The truth is that you absolutely don't have to.  There are many other historical celebrations you might choose to follow. You might simply follow the moon phases instead.  You may even choose to avoid holidays altogether and fly to the Witches' Sabbath.  There are so many options!

However, some of us do enjoy celebrating the Wheel of the Year for many reasons.  For some, it gives us a sense of community.  Most Neopagan and witchcraft groups and communities follow the Wheel of the Year, giving us eight times we can regularly come together and share something in common.  For others, we appreciate celebrating the cycle of the seasons divided up in such a logical way.

If you choose to celebrate the Wheel of the Year, you must know where each holiday comes from.  Celebrating the sabbats without an understanding of their historical context allows you to trample on cultural customs.  It also makes it difficult to join in community celebrations when you're not sure why the holiday is being celebrated as such.

That being said, modern holidays change and secularize all the time.  As long as you are distinctly aware of the sabbat's roots, you are welcome to celebrate the holidays as nontheistic or secular as you wish.

Please note: I am a nontheistic witch in that I believe deities are no different than any other spirit and do not hold power over me.  The following views stem from that belief and will include other entities in the process.  Your mileage may vary!


Historical Context

Samhain is one of four Gaelic seasonal festivals adopted into the modern Wheel of the Year.  Marking the start of the darker half of the year, it is primarily celebrated in Ireland and Scotland nowadays, though it has been proven to be an important date since ancient times.  During this holiday, livestock were slaughtered for the winter, bonfires were lit and the Aos si, or spirits and fairies, could more easily be seen in our world.  Samhain is typically celebrated starting at sunset October 31st to sunset November 1st.

My Interpretation

With modern science, we are able to more easily calculate the midpoint between the equinox and the solstice, thus changing the direct date to sometime between November 6th and 7th.  Though I still often call this holiday Samhain as a reference to its previous incarnations, November Night refers to its celebration in November and its status as the opposite of May Day, it's counterpart across the Wheel.  For me, this seems more appropriate.  Our first frost in Kansas City likely occurs around - or just before - then.  The mass death of plant life and the official hibernation of animals creates a sort of liminal space for spirits and witches alike crossing the Veil.  In fact, I'm likely only just feeling the liminal space right around the typical dates for Neopagan Samhain.

November Night is a time for reverence of the dead.  Shrines should be erected, ancestors and friends who have passed should be fed and focusing on our own personal mortality is the primary theme.  Now is the time for spiritwork and divination.


Historical Context

Yule, a Neopagan festival, was primarily based on the celebration by historical Germanic tribes.  Customs included the slaughtering and sacrifice of livestock and the utilization of the blood for cleansing temples, a lengthy feast and toasts to Odin during this three to twelve-day celebration.  Eventually, this holiday would be merged with Christmas during the Christianization of Germanic peoples.

My Interpretation

Scientifically, the Winter Solstice celebrates the longest night of the year.  This is a time of rest and contemplation as we observe it from sunset to sunrise with electronics turned off - only the light of the candles and decorations to guide us.  This solstice is a wonderful time for shadow work as we come to terms with that which we dislike about ourselves and accept ourselves for exactly who we are.  Because this time has also been connected to the Wild Hunt and the Wild Hunt has been connected to the witches' Sabbath, celebrating the Wild Hunt at this time is pertinent.


Historical Context

A Gaelic celebration, Imbolc marked the beginning of spring.  It was specifically a celebration of Brigid, a goddess (and later saint) of the dawn, spring and fertility. Celebrations began on January 31st at sunset and continued until February 1st because Gaelic days began and ended at sunset.  The Gaelic Irish would light hearth fires, create corn dolls to Brigid and visit holy wells.

My Interpretation

February Eve is an actual alternative name for Imbolc, so I kept it.  That being said, February Dawn might be more appropriate.  I see this holiday as the beginning in the cycle of life, the spark of hope like the first time a newborn opens their eyes.  It is the start of something fresh, a renewal of sorts.

While historical celebrations saw this as the start of spring, spring is still distant here in Kansas City.  Our grounds are still frozen solid and we likely still have a few more bouts of heavy snow to come.  While it may hardly be planting season, this blanket of snow and hard-frozen grounds is a sort of purification for what's to come.  I enjoy lighting candles and cleansing my home with a fiery incense or, in particular, full moon snow water, during this time.


Historical Context

It has been suggested that the modern celebration of Ostara is based on a single mention of a Germanic goddess named Eostre by English monk Bede in his work.  The historical accuracy of this has been questioned and whether Eostre even existed is a mystery.  That being said, the equinoxes were clearly of significance in ancient celebrations and lend themselves to be included on the modern Wheel of the Year.

My Interpretation

The equinoxes mark a scientific almost-balance of night and day.  This gives us two chances a year to focus on balance - what is needed and what is not - within our lives.  Also, this is actual first day of spring according to the Farmer's Almanac and, by now, we're actually feeling it.  By this point, we can actually go out, till the soil and plant seeds.  Symbolically, planting of seeds is akin to creating goals in our lives, thus I use the Spring Equinox as a time of planning and goal creation, setting forth intentions to be realized within the year.


Historical Context

Yet another of the four Gaelic festivals celebrated in the Wheel of the Year, Beltane marked the start of summer.  Special bonfires were lit from which hearth fires were then relit, livestock would be protected by special rituals and everything from doors to people to cattle would be decorated in yellow flowers.  During this time, the Aos si would also visit again. Offerings of food would be left for them.

My Interpretation

May Day celebrates the height of life and it should be just that: A celebration!  It's a time to enjoy the company of loved ones, dance and, if you're of the variety that enjoys doing so, make love.  Those of you who plan to reproduce might focus on the fertility aspect of May Day by utilizing red to represent menstrual blood and white to represent semen.  Those who do not plan to reproduce might interpret the fertility of the season in other ways, such as the fertility of the ground and of livestock, the growth of your career or the focus of friendship and happiness within your life.

As the other holiday on the Wheel where the veil is thin, this one sees life rather than death.  We're more likely to encounter otherworldly creatures such as faeries than we are spirits of the once-living.  Now is the time for faerie work!


Historical Context

Multiple different ancient and modern cultures observe the Summer Solstice as an important time for celebration, from Europe, where Stonehenge lines up perfectly with the rising sun on the solstice, to ancient Greece, were the Summer Solstice marked the start of the new year.  In Egypt, the solstice sun sets between the Great Pyramids of Khufu and Khafre if you're looking from the view of the Sphinx.  Nearly every culture has attributed some sort of significance to the Summer Solstice.  However, for our purposes, we'll be looking at European traditions as they contributed most to what modern pagans celebrate as Litha.  During this solstice, it was believed that spirits roamed the land - perhaps fae, perhaps something else.  Bonfires were lit to protect the land and its people from these spirits, and garland and wreaths were made of protective flowers and herbs such as "chase devil" (now known as St. John's Wart as the holiday was Christianized into St. John's Eve).

My Interpretation

Rather than seeing this as the middle of the summer, our heat is just starting to rise here in Kansas City.  Our hottest months are easily July and August.  So this, for me, is most definitely the start of summer.  The Summer Solstice celebrates the longest day of the year which, historically, would be the longest working day.  On this day, I often celebrate career and work-oriented triumphs, emphasizing empowerment and strength.  A good backyard fire, a grill, some friends and perhaps even a little camping out are in store along with a good look at my career and where I want it to go.  Work-oriented spells are more potent on this day. 


Historical Context:
This holiday is celebrated modernly as a combination between the Gaelic festival Lughnasadh and the Gule of August or Lammastide commonly celebrated in Europe during Medieval times.  Gaelic Lughnasadh celebrates Lugh, a sun and sky hero god who presides over truth, law, skills and crafts.  Lughnasadh included ritual athletic competitions, races, storytelling and drawing up laws and settling legal disputes.  Alternatively, Lammas marks the annual wheat harvest where it was said that any bread loaf baked that day would have magical and protective powers.  Neopagan celebrations tend to lean towards historical Lammas with hints of ancient Lughnasadh.

My Interpretation

I see August Eve as a perfect compliment to February Eve, and thus have named it such.  Where February Eve celebrates that spark of life that a newborn might have, August Eve focuses on the waning life and accomplishments of a middle-aged to, perhaps, a retiree.  Here, we truly focus on reaping what we sewed earlier in our lives: What is it that we accomplished?  What do we need to let go?  Warding spells and banishing rituals are particularly important to this holiday as we enter the darker part of the year.


Historical Context

Historically, Mabon didn't exist until the 1970's when it was coined by Aiden Kelly, an influential figure and writer who has been associated with Golden Dawn, Wicca, Feri Trad and more.  In fact, up until 1970, we really didn't have a name for Ostara or Litha either.  Kelly drew from English monk Bede for those.  But Mabon is unusual in that he didn't follow the same pattern for this equinox, instead choosing to name it after perhaps a god that isn't even associated with this time of year or holiday.  The closest historical holiday to this time is Harvest Time, but it wasn't celebrated as an equinox holiday.  Rather, it was a Thanksgiving-like feast.  Confusing!

My Interpretation

While the equinox is sometimes seen as the middle of fall, we're lucky if we've seen the end of 90F temperatures in my city.  Leaves haven't shown a touch of turning, still bushy and green, and summer picnics are all the rage.  So the Autumn Equinox represents the first day of fall for me, just as it does in the Farmer's Almanac and on any calendar you might open.  From here, the days definitely begin to get cooler and the trees actually start to turn.

The Autumn Equinox is the second time of balance on the Wheel.  Marking equal day and night, we once again get to look at our lives and see what we need to find comfortable balance.  In addition, this equinox is a day of feasting and gratitude.  The harvest is well under way - and, for me, my chaotic work season is starting to come to an end - so I'm able to share the spoils of my efforts by sitting down to a feast with my circle.



As you can see from my interpretations and the chart above, the sabbats are split into two important sections for me.  The quarter days, or the equinoxes and solstices, represent balance.  Two actually focus on balance while two balance each other out in terms of energy versus rest.  The crossquarter days, or the four "fire festivals," represent the cycle of life.  I utilize this symbolism in my correspondences.

In the end, your interpretation of the Wheel of the Year is yours.  As long as you see it as necessary to your practice and you keep in mind the historical celebrations behind the sabbats, you are welcome to celebrate them without deity and in the matter that best suits you.  Best of luck to you on your journey!

14 comments:

  1. An informative post, thank you. :) I enjoy celebrating the Wheel of the Year and learning more about it. It's interesting that some traditions are still celebrated in "mainstream"/general society, e.g. we still have May Day here in the UK (1st May) and we have May fairs where children dance around the Maypole, and Morris dancers.

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    1. You're very welcome! A lot of local towns here also have secular renditions of older holidays. It's nice to know they're still being honored!

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  2. Excellent post! Thank you!

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    1. Of course, Anon! Thank you for reading!

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  3. There are aspects in the Wheel of the Year that resonates with me and I have wanted to introduce it to my path. However, I have avoided it to this point as having to center god/goddess beliefs in order to celebrate the wheel of the year has been uncomfortable. I felt like I would dishonour the whole concept by not holding true to it’s make-up.

    In following my nature-based spirituality the Equinox and Solstice have been my main observation.

    Thank you for bringing clarity to these events and validating that everything is not black or white. It has been helpful and I feel comfortable with making a few adjustments to include other aspects of the wheel in which will resonate to my beliefs and practices.

    Di

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    1. I completely understand, Di! It's tough to walk that line between honoring your personal needs and honoring the historical context when you're working a nontheist. Personally, celebrating the sabbats wasn't essential to my practice until I formed my coven. Sometimes I wonder if I still would without Circle of Fountains. Let's hope I never have to find out!

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  4. It's nice to see your own personal interpretations of Sabbats. I live in the Sonoran Desert where most of the correspondences don't quite apply, so I've had to give my own meanings to them as well. Very informative and inspiring. :)

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    1. Thank you so much, Anon! I certainly sympathize with your situation. I live int he Midwest and, while you would think that it would be more appropriately seasonal, our timing simply doesn't line up with the sabbats much either. We're just a few weeks away from tradition Beltane - the "beginning" of summer or the "height" of spring, yet it just snowed here last weekend and will again this weekend. I needed something that could conform to any seasonal situation and avoid a deity-centric nature. I'm so glad my interpretations can help!

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  5. This is a great post, thank you! I think I will find myself referring back to it in future.

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    1. Thank you so much! I'm certainly glad I could help!

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  6. This is a great post! I am a non-traditional witch too (Christan Green Witch) but never even thought to explore outside of the box of traditional Wiccan wheel of the year holidays with my practice. Your nontheistic approach fits right in! Love!!!

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    1. Thank you so much, Nicole! I'm so glad this helps. Best of luck to you!

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  7. If you have the original pic for your "February Eve", the dates need corrected. It's confusing to those learning.

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    1. I'm surprised no one's caught that sooner! All corrected. One would hope, however, that no one would think a holiday called "February Eve" would be in November. :)

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