We had joy we had fun, we had seasons in the sun…and we continue to have them every year. As we all know, Wicca privileges eight holidays, or Sabbats, throughout the year. Four, the lesser Sabbats, mark the journey of the sun through the sky: the two solstices and equinoxes. The other four–the greater Sabbats–are a bit trickier. To be honest, even though Wicca (particularly of the British traditionalist brand) emphasizes that they are holidays practiced by European ancients, there’s really not much evidence to suggest that any one culture honored them all. Even the neo-pagan celebrations of them basically end at a shared name. But for all its palimpsestic re-writings, the Wheel of the Year and it’s play between greater and lesser Sabbats does note the Earth’s reaction to the Sun’s path. For instance, Imbolc sees glimmers of the return of light promised by the winter solstice, and Beltane sees the warmth promised by the vernal equinox.
I owe a lot of my own understanding of the Sabbats to Ellen Cannon Reed. In The Heart of Wicca she writes that she had treated each Sabbat as a separate entity for the longest time. She finaly realized that she just had the spokes: she needed a rim to complete the wheel. We don’t just have a ritual every six weeks or so: we continue to tell the story of the year. Reed’s model is like what I noted above: “each sabbat [makes] a promise and [fulfills] the promise made by the previous one” (80). This is Reed’s conception of the year:
[Yule] makes the promise that the Sun will return, that the days will be longer and warmer. You can’t see that at Yule because the changes is gradual, a few minutes a day, but by Candlemas, in February, you can see the difference in the days.
Candlemas fulfills the promise made by Yule, and makes its own promise: that the Earth will awaken and Spring will come.
Spring fulfills that promise, and promises that the earth will be fertile. At Beltane, this fertility can be seen, and Beltane makes a promise of the fullness of Earth and Sun, a promise fulfilled by the Summer Solstice.
The Solstice promises there will be a harvest, and the first harvest is seen at Lammas. That sabbat promises a full harvest, which we see at the Autumnal Equinox. Harvest promises a time of rest that comes at Hallows, and Hallows promises a New Year, which is fulfilled by the return of the Sun at Yule. (80)
I like the way Reed lays out the year. It makes sense to me, particularly the part about Samhain being a time of rest, and Yule fulfilling the promise of a new year. To be honest, the idea of Samhain being the Witch’s new year never quite clicked with me. It’s the dark before a beginning, not the beginning itself.
Roderick gives us the “eight sabbats in their order, their type, and energy.” He asks us to momorize their names and dates. I’ve elaborated on his list:
- Samhain (Pronounced SOW-en): When the Sun is at 15º Scorpio, often November 8. Traditional celebration date is October 31. Greater Sabbat, feminine.
- Yule (Pronounced Yool), Midwinter (Winter Solstice): When the Sun is at 1º Capricorn, often December 23. Traditional celebration date is between December 19-23. Lesser Sabbat, masculine.
- Imbolc (Pronounced IM-allc), Candlemas: When the Sun is at 15º Aquarius, often February 4. Traditional celebration date is February 2. Greater Sabbat, feminine.
- Ostara (Prounounced Oh-STAHR-ah) (Spring Equinox): When the Sun is at 1º Aries, often March 22. Traditional celebration date is between March 19-23. Lesser Sabbat, masculine
- Beltane, Beltaine (Pronounced BEL-tayn, Bee-EL-ten-ah): When the sun is at 15º Taurus, often May 6. Traditional celebration date is May 1. Greater Sabbat, feminine
- Litha (Pronounced LEE-tha), Midsummer (Summer Solstice): When the sun is at 1º Cancer, often June 23. Traditional celebration date is between June 19-23. Lesser Sabbat, masculine
- Lughnasadh (Pronounced LOOd-nah-sah), Lammas (Prounounced LAM-mas): When the sun is at 15º Leo, often August 8. Traditional celebration date is August 1. Greater Sabbat, feminine
- Mabon (Prounounced MAY-behn) (Fall Equinox): When the sun is at 1º Libra, often September 24. Traditional celebration date is between September 19-23. Lesser Sabbat, masculine
Unlike Roderick, I’ve listed the astrological dates of the Sabbats. I prefer to do my ritual work on those day. It’s a bit hard to muck up the dates of the lesser quarters–every morning news show let’s you know it’s “the first day of X.” If you plot them on an astrological chart, you’ll see that they fall on the days when the sun enters Capricorn, Aries, Cancer, and Libra. But the traditional dates of the greater Sabbats don’t match up with astrology. They do match up more closely with other popular holidays–Halloween, May Day, and Groundhog’s Day immediately come to mind. I happen to think that following the sun is more important to the life cycle mythology of our Wheel of the Year. It also has the added side effect of letting you enjoy the secular holidays without getting tired for ritual later on.