Our world is full of cycles. There are natural cycles which include the life cycle of birth, childhood, adulthood and death; the daily cycle of morning afternoon and evening; the moon cycle of new, waxing, full, and waning; the seasonal cycle of winter, spring, summer and fall; and the agricultural cycle of planning, plating, growth, harvest and rest. There are also mythic cycles such as the interaction between the Goddess and the God; the cycles of the Goddess; and the cycle of the Oak and Holly Kings. The eight High Days celebrated by ADF trace the movement of the sun across the sky throughout the year and mark the changing seasons and the cycles of nature. They consist of the two solstices, the two equinoxes and four days that fall at the midway point between those days. They are: the Winter Solstice, Imbolc, the Vernal Equinox, Beltane, the Summer Solstice, Lughnasadh, the Autumnal Equinox and Samhain. Although these celebrations have agricultural correspondences, they can also be seen as corresponding to the cycles of human conditions as well as the cycle of goal conception and completion. The other cycles mentioned above can also be seen interweaving within the eight high days. We will first explore the agricultural cycle of the high days and how that can also be used to accomplish non-agricultural goals.
We will start our exploration of the eight High Days with the Winter Solstice, popularly known as Yule. The Winter Solstice occurs on or around December 21st in the northern hemisphere and June 21st in the southern hemisphere. Per the calendar it signals the first day of the season of winter. It is the time of the shortest day and the longest night. Following the longest night, the sun is reborn and the days start to lengthen. Here in Northern Indiana, though we may have seen some snow and the temperature is cold, the full force of winter has not yet started. The brunt of the cold and snow won’t arrive until January and February. Even though we celebrate the rebirth of the sun and the hope that it brings, it is a long way until spring and easier access to and availability of fresh food supplies. Hope does exist, however, and will grow with the waxing sunlight.
The time around the Winter Solstice is a time of rest and renewal following the harvest season. The last harvest is long past and the earth is resting and recuperating for the next planting season. In the human or project cycle, this is a time of rest and introspection. We think about what we have done in the past and what goals we have met, or not, while resting to restore our energies. It is a time to pause and reflect on what we have done and what we would like to do in the future.
One the Winter Solstice has passed we move to Imbolc. Imbolc is at the halfway point between the Winter Solstice and the Vernal Equinox and falls on February 1st in the Northern Hemisphere or August 1st in the Southern. By Imbolc the days are noticeably longer and, if we are lucky, we may see early signs of new life such as snow drops and crocuses pushing through the snow. The Earth and everything around her seems to be beginning to stir after the resting period of the Winter Solstice. New life is beginning even though we may not yet see it on the surface of the Earth. Imbolc is at the end of the resting phase of the year and signals the time of cleaning and planning. We strive to clean out what is no longer needed, figure out what we want to plant in the next growing cycle, and take stock of supplies and actions that will need to be taken to ensure a good harvest. Imbolc is also known for weather predictions. Currently in the United States, Puxetauney Phil gets the most press, but the Cailleach of Scotland was predicting winter’s end long before Phil arrived on the scene.
The next high day is the Vernal Equinox which is also the first of the fertility festivals. An equinox marks the day the hours of darkness and hours of light are equal. At the Vernal Equinox, which occurs around March 21st,in the Northern Hemisphere and September 21st in the Southern. It is when the balance of power shifts from dark to light. The resting period of the Winter Solstice and the cleaning and planning that occurred at Imbolc support the early planting and starting of seeds that occur around this time of year. It is a time of new beginnings. What is planted now will germinate, take root and grow though the beginning of the harvest season. These new starts must be nurtured and protected. Fertility of the soil and success in allowing the beginnings of life to hold steady so they may grow over the next months is sought. Animals begin to come out of hibernation and the mating rituals begin.
Beltane arrives on May 1st in the Northern Hemisphere and November 1st in the Southern. It stands as the midpoint between the Vernal Equinox and the Summer Solstice. It is also a fertility festival. The bright wild flowers are typically in bloom and the weather has warmed significantly. The sun is still waxing. Fields are being plowed and the full planting season is at hand. Because of the increase in activity, things tend to be a bit chaotic around this time of year. The seeds that were started at the Vernal Equinox have gained enough size and strength to be on their own and are transplanted outside where the sun and rain can nourish them. They are past the point of needing to be watched over and nurtured on a constant basis. Farmers and ranchers seek fertile fields and animals along with favorable planting conditions. Everyone seems to be excited to finally be able to get outside and play in the sun.
The longest day and shortest night of the Summer Solstice arrive next. This high day generally falls around June 21st in the Northern Hemisphere and December 21st in the Southern. The sun is at the height of its power. It is a time to take a break between planting and harvest and enjoy the long days and warmer weather. Once again it is a time to gather with loved ones to celebrate. This time we revel in the warmth of the sun rather than huddled indoors as we did on the Winter Solstice. The crops have been planted and we look for the correct amount rain as well as continued fertility of the soil. The crops still need tending, but the hard labor of planting has been completed.
The beginning of harvest season is celebrated at Lughnasadh, the first of the harvest festivals. It is celebrated on or around the 1st of August in the Northern Hemisphere and the 1st of February in the Southern. The time has come to begin to reap the benefits of the work we have done since Imbolc. The first grains and fruits that have resulted from the hard work of the year thus far are ready to be harvested. The days are growing shorter but the weather remains warm. We still revel in the sun even though its power is waning. We begin to reap what we have planted and give thanks for that which we harvest. Good weather and an abundant harvest are sought.
The Autumnal Equinox is the time of the second harvest. It occurs on or around the 21st of September in the Northern Hemisphere and the 21st of March in the Southern Hemisphere. This is another balance point in the year but this time the daylight’s dominance is at an end and after this day, the darkness will dominate. It is a time of accounting. We evaluate what we planted to see what had flourished, what grew, but did not do as well as planned and what did not grow at all. We also review the year to find reasons why things developed the way they did and decide if it is something we want to try to grow again next year and if so, figure out how to make the harvest successful. If not, look at why that thing is not necessary and if we want to try again during next years growing season.
The final harvest of Samhain arrives next. It is the halfway point between the Autumnal Equinox and the Winter Solstice. It occurs on November 1st in the Northern Hemisphere and May 1st in the Southern. The days are noticeably shorter now and we are preparing for winter. Meat is put up for the winter and the last of the root vegetables are harvested. We are preparing for the fallow time when the earth is resting. In Celtic cultures it is believed that this is when the veil between the worlds is the thinnest and communication and interaction between the worlds is the easiest. As such, it is the times to honor those that have gone before. We remember and honor our ancestors. This is also the last opportunity to lay in supplies for the long winter. What is preserved and stored now will determine the survival of the community thru the long winter.
The eight High Days are seen an example of the cyclical nature of life. In some Pagan traditions they form the Wheel of the Year. Just like a wheel on a buggy or a car, it turns round and around in a never ending circle. One point leads, inevitably to another. These celebratory days can, and have been, be equated to cycles other than agricultural including the cycles of human life and those in mythic stories. In the above examples we explored that agricultural significance of the High Days. Now, I would like to explore some of the other cycles.
Relationship between God and Goddess
At The Winter Solstice the Goddess gives birth to the God and light and hope return to the world. At Imbolc, the God is an infant and the Goddess is in her Mother aspect caring for the infant God. At the Vernal Equinox, the God is in his youth and the Goddess is in her maiden aspect. At Beltane, the God and Goddess are in late adolescence or early adulthood and this is the time of the first coupling. At the Summer Solstice, the God is at the height of his power in the prime of adulthood. The Goddess is pregnant from the coupling at Beltane. At the Autumnal Equinox, the God is in middle age and begins to wane as the life carried by the Goddess grows. At Samhain, the God dies and the Goddess rests until she gives birth to the God again at Yule.
The Oak and Holly King.
The Oak and Holly Kings are seen as two different aspects of the God. The Oak King presides over the period between the Winter and Summer Solstices which is also known to some as the “Light” time of the year. The Holly Kings rules between the Summer and the Winter Solstices or the “Dark” time of the year. At each Solstice there is a great battle for domination between the two Kings and then the cycle starts over again.
The Oak King begins his rule at the Winter Solstice when the days begin to lengthen after the longest night. His strength and power wax through Imbolc, the Vernal Equinox, and Beltane until the Summer Solstice which his both the day of his greatest power and the time of his defeat.
The Holly King assumes power when the days begin to wane after the longest day of the Summer Solstice. He rules through Lughnasadh, The Autumnal Equinox, and Samhain. His greatest day is the Winter Solstice and, like the Summer Solstice is for the Oak King, it is also the day of his defeat.
Aspects of the Goddess
Some traditions see the Goddess as a tripartite deity of Maiden, Mother, and Crone. This pattern can be overlaid onto the Wheel of the Year as well. The Goddess is in her Maiden aspect starting at Imbolc. She grows into a little girl though the Vernal Equinox and into a teenager at Beltane. At the Summer Solstice she takes on the Mother aspect. She remains in this nurturing provider aspect though the harvests at Lughnasadh and as a grandmother figure the Autumnal Equinox. She then transforms into the Crone at Samhain as life is ebbing and remains there through the Winter Solstice.
Cycle of Life
The Wheel of the Year can also be seen as echoing the cycle of life. The Winter Solstice corresponds to birth, when new life is just beginning. At Imbolc, the child birthed is beginning to grow but, as an infant, still requires support and nurturing from external sources. The Vernal Equinox equates to the curiosity and carefree days of childhood when we are still reliant on others, but gaining independence. Beltane corresponds to the chaotic time of adolescence and early adulthood. We are torn between the desire for the autonomy of independence and the security of relying on others for most of our needs. The Summer Solstice lines up with the full force of adulthood, when humans tend to be in the prime of their power and energy. We have claimed independence and are learning to navigate the world on our own. Middle Age arrives at Lughnasadh. Our lives are beginning to wane but are still baring fruit. The experience and wisdom we have gained serve us well as we once again teeter between autonomy and relying on others. The Autumnal Equinox brings old age and reflection. We celebrate that which we have accomplished during our lives and morn that which remains undone. We may, once again, have to rely on others for help and support as we lose the ability to do everything for ourselves. At Samhain we meet death and wait to be reborn again.
Dedicant Path Book Review – Indo-European Studies: A History of Pagan Europe
This is a short book crammed full of information. In its 220 pages, this book covers the Pre-Christian beliefs of several different cultures and how those cultures interacted with one another and how their beliefs intermingled. The book starts with Eastern Mediterranean areas and the Greeks then moves on to the Romans. The Celts are next followed by the Germanic peoples. The Baltic states, Russians and Balkans round out the cultures mentioned.
As I stated before, this book is densely packed with information and that may make it a challenging read for some. I see it as a fantastic resource and starting point for further investigation of a culture. It gives the reader a good overview of the cultures and their pre-Christian practices. It also gives a larger picture view than culture specific books. I think this is one of the reasons that A History of Pagan Europe is on the ADF Dedicant Reading List. Not only does the book cover several different cultures, it also shows how the cultures interacted with, and affected, one another. It is just enough information to make you want to dig further. I particularly like reading about the Balkans. Prior to reading this book, I had no idea how long the Pagan influence and culture held on in places like Lithuania. I also appreciated that they recorded not only the Christian’s violent acts against Pagans and their holy sites but also the destruction wrought by Pagans upon Christians as well as other Pagans. I think it is important to know that the fighting and conflict were not one sided with the Pagan cultures cowering before their conquerors. Granted, the Christians won out and there was a lot of blood shed along the way, but the Pagans were not completely innocent either. It seems that everyone tried to conquer everyone else. I think it is of the utmost importance to know where you come from and, as much as possible, the truth of your history whether it is positive, destructive, or somewhere in between.
I think this book may be a tough read for some. It is full of information. There is very little filler. Those that chose to tough it out will find it was worth the effort. I have already recommended it to a few of my friends that are interested in either ancient cultures or comparative religion and they have enjoyed as much as I did. I will most likely use this as a resource through my studies with ADF.