Wheel of the Year
Harmony with nature
The more in harmony with nature we are, the more at ease we feel. Dis-ease arises from a disconnection from the natural energies that continually course through our planet and our own bodies. Being connected to nature means being connected to both universal and ancestral wisdom. Universal wisdom provides us with the inspiration to expand our consciousness and explore new realms of thought and feeling, while ancestral wisdom connects us to an amazing library of knowledge and experience. Together these two wisdoms allow us to craft our own reality in a way that continually feels good.
Honouring the natural cycles of change is one way in which we can bring our energies more into balance. When we take time out to honour the turning of the year, we give ourselves the space and time to adjust to the continual change and expansion of our amazing universe and in doing so we allow for change and expansion of ourselves. The Wheel of the Year turns and its influence on our lives is more profound than we can possibly imagine. Through performing simple ceremonies throughout the year we can align our energies to creation around us and thus make the best use of these unfolding energies in our own lives.
“The Celts recognised that all life begins in darkness (the child in the womb, the seed in the pod) and so every ceremony actually began at dusk on the evening before the festival day. The eve of each festival was a time of both physical and spiritual preparation. Every individual involved in the evening ceremony would spend the day making sure that his or her energy was as balanced and harmonious as possible. They understood that this would allow them to gain the greatest wisdom and empowerment from these special times of celebration and honouring.”
From The Celtic Wheel of Life
Samhain (pronounced SOW-in) marks the dusk of the year and is the most sacred of the Celtic festivals as it signals a new beginning. Just as festival days begin at dusk on the eve of the day, so the Celtic year begins at the dusk of the year. Samhain falls on 31 October and is the Celtic equivalent to New Year’s Eve. It marks the beginning of a three day festival that runs up until dusk on 2 November. These three days were regarded as a time of “no-time” when the veil between this reality and other, more subtle realities is very thin. It is also traditionally a time for honouring the ancestors and connecting with their ancient wisdom.
Samhain is the perfect time to light a sacred fire and to give to it anything that no longer serves a purpose in your life. In ancient Ireland every year, at Samhain, a new sacred fire was lit from which all other fires were kindled. This fire burned throughout the winter to carry the energy of light and life through the dark time of the year until the festival of Beltane. Samhain is also a time of consolidation; a time for reviewing the lessons of the past year and setting your sights on new goals. In this way one can approach the coming year with excitement and enthusiasm.
The festival of Yule begins at dusk on the eve of the winter solstice. It marks the death of the old sun which is reborn three days later. It is a festival of light at the darkest time of the year that brings with it hope, joy and healing. Evergreen plants and trees are brought indoors to honour the creativity and growth that was seeded at Samhain. The red berries of the holly represent the feminine energy and the white berries of the mistletoe represent the masculine energy and both are brought into the home to honour the creative forces of nature that are already stirring within the earth at this time. The ivy, rich with its own berries, also symbolises fertility and creativity. In the perpetual battle between the oak king and the holly king, Yule also marks the death of the holly king and the rebirth of the oak king, who himself will “die” at the summer solstice.
The winter solstice marks the time when the powers of darkness are at their peak. Many animals are hibernating, the nights are long and the whole energy at this time is quite insular. What better thing can there be to do at this time than to life the spirits with a celebration of light and splendour. Long before the invention of Christmas, our ancestors used this special time to celebrate with feasting, dancing and the exchanging of gifts. Long before Santa Claus, there was an ancient tradition of the King of Winter (an elderly, white-haired, bearded gentleman) bringing children a gift in the middle of the night at this time of year. He was always unseen and unheard and it was customary to leave him an offering of some food and a glass of wine or ale.
Imbolc begins at dusk on 31st January marks the beginning of spring when the snowdrops flower and the hazel is adorned with "lambs tails". It is the first of a trio of spring festivals that mark the progress of creation renewed. It is sacred to the goddess Brighid and honours the creativity of the feminine and the promise of new growth. Brighid is linked to the moon and sacred wells and so this is a time for moon ceremonies and cleansings using well water. She is a triple goddess and at this time represents the death of the crone of winter and the rebirth of the maiden of spring. Sometimes represented as the goddess Brigantia, she holds the three sacred arrows of the three spring fires: the fire of healing, the fire of the hearth and the fire of inspiration. The dark introspection of winter is waning and new light is growing on the land and in our hearts. The energies of the sun and the vibrancy of spring are both rising with the sap and this makes Imbolc the perfect time for planning new works and weaving fresh dreams.
Ostara, the spring equinox, is the second of the trio of Celtic spring festivals and marks a major turning point in the wheel of the year. It is the time when the energies of light gain their first true ascendance over the powers of the darkness as shown by the hours of sunlight now being greater than the hours of darkness. It is a time when the plans formed in the dark phase of the year can be implemented and both man and nature increase their activity. The wild daffodils are in full bloom, the first primroses and wood anemones appear and all the forest trees begin to bud. Likewise the animals are courting and the birds are making their nests. Thus it is a time for honouring the Green Man, Lord of the Forest and Cernunnos, Lord of the Animals.
Ostara is a fertility rite symbolising the production of the egg. Symbolically at Imbolc the energies to produce the egg are initiated and at Beltane the final fertilisation of the egg occurs. The symbolism of eggs at this time predates the Christian Easter festival by several thousand years as a major symbol of the renewed fertility of nature. Similarly the rabbit, with its rampant fertility, has also been long honoured at this time which is where the modern idea of the Easter bunny originates. Spiritually Ostara marks a transition between the introspection of winter and the enlightening potential of summer which in the Celtic tradition begins after Beltane. It is a time for putting extra energy into new ideas and exploring new paths of learning. It is a time full of hope and potential and when reconnection with creation can have a major positive influence on our unfolding lives.
Beltane (May 1st) is the third and final spring festival marking the transition from the new growth of spring into the vibrant expansion of summer. It is a fertility rite symbolising the sacred union between the lord and lady of the land and is heralded by the flowering of the Hawthorn or May tree. Dancing round the maypole, crowning the may queen and bathing in the dew on Mayday morning are all ancient rites connected with fertility and purity. Beltane has been celebrated over millennia by the lighting of fires used to purify cattle and people. In Britain this "needfire" as it was known was created in a sacred manner by nine men bringing nine different woods with which to kindle the fire. Originally the fires were lit around a single sacred tree or upright pole which was decorated with greenery and flowers to symbolise the potency of the sun's blessing of the union of the Lord of the Greenwood and the Queen of the May.
Beltane is particularly noted as a time when contact with the fairy realm can most easily be facilitated, especially around the common circles of fungi growing within the woods and known as "fairy rings". It is also a good time for cutting wands, staffs and other magical wooden tools as the rising sap makes the wood of many trees imbued with the potent energy of the spirit of that tree. Beltane is truly a celebratory time filled with hope and joy for the coming summer. It is a good time for bringing the new insights and ideas cleaned from the previous two festivals into active reality. All the energies of creation rain down inspiration upon anyone who walks with an open heart upon the land and within the woods. This is also a good time for performing healing ceremonies and or collecting spring herbs for drying and using over the coming year.
Coamhain, the summer solstice, marks the longest day of the year and the time when the energy of the sun reaches its peak. It has long been a time for celebrations and grand tribal gatherings to honour the life-giving energies of the Sun in its union with Grandmother Earth. On the evening of mid-summer's eve, a sacred fire would be lit at sundown using specific woods and kindling and there would be music, dancing and story telling followed by purification rites observed in preparation a night of vigil. At dawn the arrival of the Sun would be hailed with shouts and cheers, the blowing of horns and the beating of drums. The wonder of abundant creation would be celebrated with feasting and more dancing. At dusk the energies would become calmer as each individual went through their own process of adjustment to the turning of the Wheel of the Year.
It is the time between planting and harvesting when the whole of nature is abundant and colourful. Traditionally the eve of the solstice was a time when wise women and shamans gathered healing plants for drying and cut certain woods for staff and wand making (most notably hazel). It is a time when the oak as King of the Forest is honoured and in Celtic times, was also a time for cutting mistletoe. The oak is a powerful and mighty tree providing its own rich and varied ecosystem for many other plants and creatures. Its health and vitality is a barometer for the whole of creation and it has been sacred to the inhabitants of Britain since before written records. Coamhain is a time for doing-for putting all your energies into life so that you can reap a rich harvest of wisdom and deeper understanding later in the year.
This festival, beginning on the eve of August 1st, was a warrior’s ceremony to prepare the hunters of the tribe for the coming months when they would venture out and hunt game to be salted for the winter. Its associations with the warrior energy are probably due to the fact that it is said that the Fir Bolg, a Celtic warrior tribe, first arrived in Ireland on August 1st. Lughnasadh, or Lammas as it is sometimes called, was a very primal affair with participants donning animal masks and skins to help them to attune better to the energies of the animal world and performing tests of strength and endurance for personal empowerment. At the end of the festival, men and women would sometimes paint a spiral on their chests using woad. Woad produces a strong dye and the spiral would remain on the skin until the next festival reminding them of the spiral of creation that comes to full fruition at Herfest.
Lughnasadh also marked the beginning of harvesting, especially corn. It is sacred to the Sun-God Lugh and is known in Ireland as the “first fruits” festival. It traditionally marked the symbolic death of the spirit of the corn and fields were harvested in such a way as to corner the corn spirit into the last remaining piece of uncut corn. This piece was cut ceremonially, woven into a corn dolly and decorated with coloured ribbon to honour Demeter, the corn mother. The dolly would then be affixed to the barn to ward off lightening or given place of honour on the mantelpiece or hearth, which was used as an altar in ancient times. In many parts of the Celtic lands, it was considered unlucky to be the one to cut the last remaining stalk of corn because it caused the death of the corn spirit. To avoid bad luck, all the reapers would gather round the last stalk and simultaneously throw their sickles at the base of the corn so that no one would know who was responsible for slaying the corn spirit. The piece of corn would then be woven into a corn dolly.
The final festival of the Celtic year is held on the autumn equinox and is called Herfest. It marks the culmination of the year’s effort when the fruits of one’s labours are gathered in. It was traditionally a time of great feasting to celebrate the gifts provided by Mother Nature and to honour the energies of the land and sky that had nourished the plants so that they could produce a bountiful harvest. The harvest supper was held at the end of the harvesting after what was perhaps the time of greatest work for the Celts. It was vital that all the fruits and grains were safely gathered in and stored before the autumn winds and rain came. Everyone would work long hours and so the feast was a reward for everyone’s hard work.
The time from Herfest until Samhain was a time of “bedding down” the animals and the land for the winter ahead. Everyone’s minds would have been on the coming New Year, a time of endings and new beginnings, of death and rebirth. As the nights drew in, so the thoughts of the people would turn inwards, reflecting on the lessons and adventures of the past months and preparing for the cold season with its new teachings and wisdom.