Did You Know? #3. The Wheel of the Year (Part 1)

Everyone talks about the Wheel of the Year, but where did it come from? A first installment about that famous cycle

#3. The Wheel of the Year: The Basics

The Wheel of the Year is the name given to a cycle of eight seasonal festivals spaced approximately every six weeks throughout the solar year. These celebrations are also known collectively as Sabbats, High Days, the Eight Great Festivals, the Greater and Lesser Sabbats, the Quarter and Cross-Quarter Festivals, or other names depending on your tradition.
Graphic of the Wheel of the Year

Four of the holidays are based on observable solar events, and in the Northern Hemisphere will fall on or about the following dates:

Spring Equinox March 21 (Sun enters Aries)

Summer Solstice June 21 (Sun enters Leo)

Fall Equinox September 21 (Sun enters Libra)

Winter Solstice December 21 (Sun enters Capricorn)

The equinoxes are days when day and night are the same length—equal. From Spring/Vernal Equinox onward, the days get longer and the nights shorter until Summer Solstice, which is the longest day and shortest night of the year. In far northern or southern latitudes, the sun may never totally set. After Summer Solstice, the days gradually become shorter and the nights longer until Fall/Autumnal Equinox when they are again equal. The nights then become longer than the days until Winter Solstice, which is the longest night and shortest day of the year.

The Solstices and Equinoxes are in some traditions called Quarter festivals, or the Lesser Sabbats.

The other four observances fall more-or-less between the solar dates. Some groups choose to observe them at the exact midpoint between solar events, but they are most commonly observed on specific calendar dates:

February 1 Imolc, Candlemas, Brigid, Oimelc

May 1 Beltane, Bealtinne

August 1 Lammas, Lughnasadh, Loaf Mass

October 31 Hallowe’en, Samhain, All Hallow’s Eve

These in-between-solar-events festivals are often called Cross-quarter Days, or the Greater Sabbats.

As you can tell from their various names, this second group of holidays has strong roots in Celtic and British cultures. The cross-quarter days were the traditional dates in Britain for collecting rents and taxes and other quarterly activities.

Many people observe cross-quarter days starting on the night before. In the Celtic calendar system from which they were originally derived, the new day started not at dawn or at midnight but at sunset the night before, similar to the Hebrew calendar system. For one holiday, Hallowe’en or Samhain (SOW-when), the eve is observed by Pagans while the next day, All Hallows, is ignored.

The solar holidays are not always named, although Winter Solstice is also known as Yule and Midwinter, and Summer Solstice as Midsummer. Spring Equinox is increasingly popular as Ostara, but that is as much a back formation from the link between Easter and the equinox as it is a known date for a festival of the Germanic vernal Goddess Eostar/Ostara.

Summer Solstice and Fall Equinox are also known as Litha and Mabon, but those names are completely ahistorical; they were first applied to the festivals in the 1970s by Aidan Kelly, who thought it would be more aesthetically pleasing if all the Sabbats had Celtic names (although Yule and Ostara are clearly Germanic). Although there are Celtic heroes and observances using those names that happened vaguely around the same dates, there is no historical evidence of those names being applied to Summer Solstice and Fall Equinox before Aidan Kelly did so. But the new names caught the attention of Oberon Zell, the editor of the influential Pagan magazine Green Egg, who liked them and popularized them. Such is how modern ancient Pagan traditions are born.

There is also no record of any Pagan religion before the modern era observing all eight holidays, although there is evidence that each individual holiday was celebrated by some group at some time. The Celts, for example, observed only the cross-quarters until the Romans introduced solstice observances; some regions celebrated either Summer or Winter Solstice, but not both. The equinoxes were the least observed of all. Though all were celebrated somewhere, at sometime, by Pagans, the cycle of eight that we call the Wheel of the Year is a modern invention.

But even if there is no precedent for observing all eight as an integrated system before the 20th century or so, it’s a good, workable Wheel. And it’s especially nice because the Wheel of the Year provides the perfect reason to have a good party every six weeks!

Isaac Bonewits’s Neopagan Druid Calendar

Eight Sabbats for Witches by Stewart and Janet Farrar

Wheel of the Year: Living the Magical Life by Pauline and Dan Campanelli

The Stations of the Sun: A History of the Ritual Year in Britain by Ronald Hutton

The Wheel Of the Year At Muin Mound Grove, ADF by Skip Ellison

The ADF Dedicant Path Through the Wheel of the Year by Michael J. Dangler

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Did You Know? #2. The Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn

Magicians and mystics from more than a century ago had tremendous influence on both occultism and contemporary Paganism. Number 2 in a series of brief looks at esoteric history and practical magic.

2. The Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn

Back of Thoth Tarot card showing the Rosy Cross with Isaac Bonewits's ex libris stamp

Back of Thoth Tarot card showing the Rosy Cross with Isaac Bonewits’s ex libris stamp

The Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn was an influential magical lodge whose heyday spanned the last years of the 19th and the early years of the 20th centuries. Many famous people of the period such as the poet W.B. Yeats, actress Florence Farr, A. E. Waite, the controversial Aleister Crowley, and others were members of HOGD and its various descendants and offshoots.

Members of the Golden Dawn entered at the Neophyte grade (0=0) and progressed through additional grades (up to 10=10) as the result of study and merit. Each member had a mentor who was only one grade above them, because they believed that once you got too far along in your occult studies, you wouldn’t be able to explain things in a way that a beginner could understand.

The numbers of the grades relate to positions on the Tree of Life, a diagram from the Qabalah, a system of Jewish mysticism which influenced Western esotericism as early as the 16th century. HOGD was deeply influenced by the Qabalah and other traditional aspects of Western occultism, classic occult texts such as the Key of Solomon, the Enochian system of John Dee, and writings of early 19th century occultists such as Frances Barrett and Eliphas Levi.

Tarot was part of the Golden Dawn curriculum, although it was studied as a tool for inner development not for divination. Members drew their own decks using the Order’s symbolism. In 1910, Arthur Edward (A.E.) Waite collaborated with Pamela Colman Smith to produce a Tarot deck to his specifications. The deck, published by the Rider Company and known since as the Rider Waite, has influenced modern Tarot profoundly right up to today. Near the end of his life, Aleister Crowley also collaborated to produce a deck, with artist Lady Frieda Harris, but it was not published until 1969, almost two decades after his death. His Thoth deck differs, in some ways radically, from the Rider Waite, and is highly prized by many occultist.

Although the Golden Dawn’s teaching documents and rituals were considered secret and only available to members—and members of the appropriate grade at that—mid-20th century, many of the documents, practices and rituals of HOGD were published by Israel Regardie, who was once Aleister Crowley’s secretary and an initiate of a Golden Dawn offshoot. The National Library of Ireland holds W.B. Yeats’s HOGD journals and has exhibited them.

Golden Dawn ideas and rituals strongly influenced magical and occult/religious practices all through the 20th century, and still in the 21st. Many groups claim to be direct descendants of the original HOGD, but there is much dispute over this. Sadly, I am not qualified to judge which of those claims are valid.

For further information:

The Golden Dawn by Israel Regardie

Women of the Golden Dawn by Mary K. Greer

What You Should Know About the Golden Dawn by Israel Regardie

GoldenDawnPedia FAQ

Interactive Online Exhibition of The Life and Works of William Butler Yeats at the National Library of Ireland
Of interest is the section called “The Celtic Mystic” which shows artifacts from his time with the HOGD

Images from a copy of W.B. Yeats’s HOGD journal

Tabitha and Chic Cicero’s website

“The Golden Dawn is Alive and Growing!” blog post by Donald Michael Kraig

The Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn on Thelemapedia

The Golden Dawn Lectures

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