Do you celebrate the Wheel of the Year? What does it mean to celebrate the 8 Wiccan Sabbats in the Southern Hemisphere? How does climate change effect Sabbat celebrations? What happens when you turf the Wheel altogether? Pertinent questions, many of which I have been asking of myself in the past few years. The result is this blog post which has sat in my dashboard for a while. Time to birth it, ready or not!
Last weekend my coven sisters visited my house and we held sacred space and shared nourishing food with eachother. I documented a little of it in the slightly neglected coven blog but it has got me thinking about what the year ahead may hold in store, and the egregore of the New Year and what it means to be breaking away from the Sabbat celebration format, which is what we have decided to do this year. This follows on from a year of neglect of the traditional solar sabbat format and a closer focus to the cycles of the moon for me personally.
Australian Wheel of the Year by Sharon Mcleod
I have always preferred in my personal practice to identify with the divinity inherent in the environment around me, rather than adapt too much to something someone in the Northern Hemisphere wrote in a book about seasonal changes. The 4 seasons only very vaguely reflect the climate here, which is temperate/arid. We experienced a hot, dry summer when the shopping centres are packed full of Christmas decorations and punters attempting to escape the heat, and our winters are full of rains and lush green nourishment. In addition, Australia as a whole is a large continent which observes a diverse weather pattern from coast to coast.
‘Flipping’ the Wheel (turning it upside down to suit the oppositional seasons we experience on the underside of the planet) is a practice which I have given a red hot go. It has worked in some areas, and lacked lustre in others. I love celebrating Yule with a warm fire, a yule log and sharing of gifts. When it comes to a celebration like Litha, things tend to go sour. Litha should be renamed to Lithargy (amirite? amirite? I’ll be here all week!) in Perth, as it gets so ridiculously hot that one is not inclined to dance with the fae and frolic in the sunshine, but rather retreat to a dark den under a wet sarong and a fan. Lammas is even worse as it appears to be a great festival for baking bread… but turning the oven on in High Summer is an act of insanity in this witch’s opinion.
We experienced other difficulties as a group attempting to hold close to the sabbat format. Something about it had gone stale- and it wasn’t just the odd dough effigies we had crafted February and buried in Samhain. It could have been our foot-dragging when it came to acknowledging Celtic deities or neo-Wiccan-thoughtforms that some of us had difficulty honouring directly when they had no part in many of our personal practices. The narrative embedded within the Wheel often contains the mother goddess luxuriating with her pregnant belly – it’s a fertility cult after all – and some of us are distinctly child-free by choice or otherwise. We have a yogic witch, a high priestess with strong links to Grecian symbology, a shake of atheism in some corners and a smattering of rampant eclecticism in others. These are all normal elements found in many covens, to be sure. We have had ‘good’ years where we adhered to the southern variation of the Wheel very closely, and it was nourishing and rewarding, but we felt it was time to progress and evolve. We even tried incorporating aspects of the Noongar calendar of 6 seasons but something cultural appropriationish about it made me feel slightly uncomfortable without having more information than what is readily available. We wanted something more organic and true to the spirit of the moment. What did we truly enjoy? Gathering together, sharing space, and drinking tea. So we have now amended our sabbat/esbat format and simply agree to hold space once a month, ‘better it be when the moon is full’ or otherwise.
Personally, in the process of attempting to link into my environment more closely, I have become a weather obsessive. I closely follow a local weather forum and I religiously check an app called ‘Rain?’ on my iPhone. My moods are tied dangerously closely with the weather and I refused to participate in activities if I feel the weather isn’t optimum to the spirit of said activity. I try to ‘feel’ the weather and tap into the energies and it has been a really interesting experience. ‘Feeling’ time is over though, so now it is time to step into the space magically and engage in a process of celebration and honouring with actions. So, in summary…
What are the disadvantages of celebrating the Wheel of the Year?
The Wheel itself may be too rigid or fixed.
While solar events can be celebrated with a sense of clarity and the advent of the longest night or the equinox cannot be denied, a strong adherence to dates can be a little too impractical when it comes to Real Life commitments. Also, the seasons themselves are often in flux and it sometimes feels premature to celebrate the end of summer at the Autumn Equinox when temperatures are still soaring into 40C in April. I remember when we celebrated Samhain during a camping trip and there was a total fire ban in May still- which marred our celebrations somewhat as Summer was enforcing quite the hangover on us in drought conditions.
The Wheel’s Goddess/God narrative can often be unsuitable to eclectic or progressive practitioners.
Many witches, pagans and Wiccans are well familiar with the narrative of the Goddess and the God as it is realised throughout the year. When you connect with the land, the white, pregnant bellied goddess with long flowing locks doesn’t quite feel right in the Australian scrub of the Perth hills. You feel something else maybe, without a homogenized face that would be unrecognisable compared to those in the graphic of Sharon Mcleod’s lovely artwork above. If you identify as someone who isn’t straight or cisgendered, where do you fit in a feritility-driven narrative? What if your agricultural context doesn’t fit into a Northern European one? There is something a little (ok, VERY) colonial about imposing the Wheel on the Australian context. The ‘noble savages’ that appear in some graphics are also really distasteful.
There are some uncomfortable clashes with the public holidays in a Southern Hemisphere context.
Try as you might to reconcile the proliferation of Halloween symbology in October online and in the shops (and even your streets!) when you are attempting to observe Beltane, it simply rubs a number of ways other than the ‘right’ way. You could choose to hoard the cheap junky decorations and put all your Easter chocolate in the freezer so it can lay in wait for Eostre, or just let is slide over you and incorporate/ignore the fun mess in whatever postmodern way you can. It can be fun to rejoice in the Erisian humour that buying easter eggs in January can bring. I have a black Christmas tree decorated only with red and gold as my salute to summer and the secular Christmas holiday which I thought was Discordian enough until I saw the Halloween themed Christmas tree created by Bunny AKA Grav3yardgirl. Obviously I need to step this up a notch next year. If you see any Raptor Jesus or Muhammad Rex baubles, please let me know.
The historical justification for some of the festivals are a little iffy.
Crack open a 101 book and chances are, you will find some sort of justification for the narrative within each of the sabbat celebrations as if you are observing traditions which may bear resemblance to those of pagans via archaeological or historical evidence. Some authors will valiantly attempt to do some actual research and some threads may be plucked and woven that might have some validity, but it is hard to escape the fact that some of the festivals are 20th Century cobbled together creations. Most of the sources cited are secondary in nature and are definitely not reliable. The Wheel of the Year and it’s corresponding deities are definitely ‘neo’ pagan in flavour, but if you have as many illiterate pagans on your Facebook as I do, you will be no doubt told over and over about how Christians ‘stole’ ye olde pagan traditions and symbols and that we need to ‘claim back’ what is rightfully ours. Eostre is worshipped as some sort of actual goddess but her existence historically is not quite… there? As a servitor representing Spring she seems to be doing a good job though. Not quite as good a job as Mr Rabbit, mind you, but she’s doing all right. I am not saying that there is no validity to Ostara herself, or that there isn’t some sort of link to the past by tuning in with nature and celebrating the seasons, but it needs to be recognised that history is not a straight line and can’t be re-written to add to the romanticism or validity of your own practice today. Sometimes myths are just that – myths. Modern or not, we need to not conflate our contemporary practice with invented histories. So when I’m in a public circle celebrating Spring, Ostara, the eggs and the bunnies in September with the rest of the pagan community in my area, I do question if I am interpreting the ritual in the same spirit that it was created by my fair hosts.
The various deities summoned up across the scope of the Wheel don’t quite gel with eachother either. It is a cardinal sin to mix pantheons in a ritual no matter how soft polytheist you are (generally speaking) but we happily do it from Autumn to Spring. Plucking one European deity here and another European deity there from different cultures and climates is suddenly ok which might explain why some circles simply surrender to the homogenized neo pagan ‘Mother Goddess/Lady’ and ‘Horned God/Lord’. Please note: I don’t really have a problem with mixing pantheons in my own practice, although I did get a voice in my head driving down the freeway recently that said ‘get that elephant off my altar’ (referring to my Ganesh statues). I obliged.
What are alternatives to celebrating the 8 Sabbats on the Wheel of the Year?
Tune in with the Earth for a ‘full turn’ of the year, or even longer. Adjust your celebrations accordingly.
At a recent gathering of local pagan elders, many expressed that this was the way they chose to celebrate the cycles of the year and it was refreshing to hear so. It seems that even if you have a background of initiation into a British Wiccan Tradition it doesn’t mean that one is prone to inflexibility and many who have been walking the path for many years have chosen to listen to the land and adjust their ritual timing to suit what they heard in an eclectic fashion. It might even be that the 8 Sabbat format still fits and you wish to stick with it after your year of observation, but it will be reinvigorated with a deeper insight into just how it fits in with your practice and the landscape.
Talk to local indigenous elders in the community and find out about their seasonal observances.
This might be easier said than done, especially if the indigenous community is disjointed or difficult to contact. It is essential to do this with sensitivity to a whole range of factors, but it never hurts to ask or show interest. It is important to do this not with a view to inject aspects of another culture into your own, but to provide an alternate insight to support your own understanding. This is not something I’ve been able to pursue yet but I am definitely going to look into it this year sometime.
Go lunar for a while to keep in tune with the tides.
Esbats are often billed as the circles where ‘important work’ is completed, but there is no reason why they all need to be working circles. Communion and reflection with the different moon phases as well as what a full moon feels like in different seasons of the year can provide some insight into the seasons as well. I don’t place much stock on the moon ‘types’ such as Frost Moon or Wolf Moon that you sometimes find in neo-pagan calendars as I couldn’t think of any correspondencies that are more irrelevant to an Australian context anyways, but I do pay attention to the astrological aspect of each moon.
Cut the wheel in half and observe the equinoxes and solstices (the solar sabbats) only.
If you wish to lighten your load if celebrating the whole Wheel is too much, it could be good to celebrate the equinoxes and sabbats only. These are fixed as long as the earth’s orbit around the sun is fixed, and can be adapted in a secular manner if you are solitary, for example and want to celebrate with family and friends who are not pagan. The ‘cross quarter’ sabbats are the other 4 and are pastoral in theme, and are often billed as the more ‘exciting’ sabbats but they also come with the most baggage.
Come up with your own ‘tradition’!
Whatever you choose to do in your quest to question the Wheel for a while, know that whatever you pursue in the spirit of attunement and communion will serve you well. Fundamentalism serves no one and forging a connection that is unique to yourself or your coven is something that has its own rewards. Keep a journal and record different observations at different times of the year, and create a chart marking notable events such as the first rains, major storms, heatwaves, or cycles and events in your garden. Don’t eliminate more mundane, domestic occurances such as the birthdays of loved ones, the birth of a litter of stray kittens in a vacant block nearby, the appearance of certain birds or insects, or times of the year when just about all of your colleagues come down with a winter cold! All of these factors can colour the way you oberve the cycles and spirals of the universe we dwell within. Work with your surroundings rather than against them. Rather than rail against the commercialism of unseasonal holidays, how can you use that energy instead to show your loved ones that you care, or give to the community or the environment in some way?
One day I hope to establish a tradition or share in one that has resonance and can be passed down to future generations. But for now I am enjoying partaking in what I see that is in front of me rather than worrying to much about the fit of something foreign or the dis-ease of something that does not fit. Neo-paganism should not be about fitting square pegs into round holes, so to speak