Wheel of the Year

Wheel of the Year

The Sun Path of Druidry involves honoring the Wheel of the Year. In many Western cultures, time is seen as linear; but in Druidry as practiced by the Order of the Elder Grove, time is seen as cyclical. In Druidry and many other forms of Paganism, the cycle of the year is divided up into eight Sabbats, or High Days. These High Days are often celebrated with feasts and rituals. They constitute the Pagan holidays. These eight High Days consist of the solstices and equinoxes and the midpoints between each solstice and equinox. The summer and winter solstice, combined with the spring and fall equinoxes, are called the Quarter Days. The midpoints between each are referred to as the Cross-Quarter Days.

The beauty of this arrangement is that the High Days are evenly distributed throughout the year, with one occurring approximately every 45 days or so. Each High Day had a special meaning and significance for those who lived in a pre-industrial society, but they also have an inner spiritual meaning that is significant for Pagans today, whether or not they live in an agrarian community. For example, the Feast of Mabon (the autumnal equinox) celebrates the harvest of first fruits as farmers begin to bring their crops in from the field, but it also symbolizes an inner, spiritual harvest as we gather the gifts of the spiritual seeds we have sown throughout the year.
The eight High Days of the Wheel of the Year are often depicted in graphic form as a wheel with eight spokes. This wheel is sometimes called the Wheel of Taranis.

Taranis is the Celtic God of Thunder, responsible for the weather and seasonal changes. An earlier variation on the Wheel of Taranis shows a wheel with four spokes representing the Quarter Days, without the Cross-Quarter Days. This leads some scholars to believe that originally only the Quarter Days were celebrated. The astronomical alignments of many of Europe’s Pagan holy sites would tend to confirm this hypothesis. In reality, it is doubtful that most, if any, of our Ancestors celebrated all eight of the holidays in ancient times, but the practice of celebrating all eight High Days is widespread today.

In modern times it is easy to miss the significance of the Wheel of the Year. We get our food from supermarkets and fast food restaurants, and most of us don’t depend on agriculture and animal husbandry for our well-being. In an agrarian society, though, not knowing the proper times to plant and harvest could literally be a matter of life and death. So it is only natural that our Pagan ancestors gave the Wheel of the Year a central place in their spiritual and religious practices.

For today’s Druids, each High Day on the Wheel marks a different phase of spiritual development. Taken altogether, the Wheel of the Year is symbolic of the cycle of birth-death-rebirth found throughout nature, and within an individual’s spiritual and personal grown. The circular nature of the Wheel reminds us that all of this has happened before, and all of this will happen again. The Druid teaching of reincarnation is a theme in many of the surviving epics of Ireland, and the Wheel serves as a living representation of this concept.

On another level, the Wheel can be taken as a metaphor for life’s journey. The Wheel tracks the Sun as it waxes and wanes throughout the year. With sunrise on the Winter Solstice, the days begin to grow in length, reaching their peak at the Summer Solstice. From there, the days begin to get shorter and shorter until the next Winter Solstice. So the period from Winter Solstice to Vernal Equinox represents youth, the period from the Vernal Equinox to the Summer Solstice represents young adulthood, the period from the Summer Solstice to the Autumnal Equinox represents middle age, and the period from the Autumnal Equinox to the Winter Solstice represents old age.

Further symbolic meaning in the Wheel of the Year can be seen in the balance between light and dark. The brighter months of summer give way to the darker months of winter, and then the cycle begins anew. This can be seen as a metaphorical representation of one’s own life journey. We all have periods of darkness and periods of light. When in a period of darkness, it helps to remember that the light will come again. Also, when in a period of light, it helps to remember that darkness will come again.

The Greek philosopher Aristotle created the concept of the Golden Mean. He conceived of the Golden Mean as a balance between two extremes. This idea is often expressed as, “Everything in moderation, nothing in excess.” For example, overeating leads to obesity, and not eating enough leads to poor nutrition and therefore poor health. So the balance between these two extremes would be to eat enough to stay healthy without gaining weight. Another example would be seen in the extremes of emotion vs. reason. To be ruled by emotion is to be tossed upon the wind by the storms of life. On the other hand, to live totally by reason is to live a cold, unfeeling life. True wisdom is found in emotion tempered by reason.

Of course, we all have times when our feelings get the better of us. We also probably have times when we stray too far into emotionless rationalism. But eventually, if we are mentally healthy, we return to stability. The Wheel of the Year illustrates this idea as well. As the Sun moves into the winter months, the days become darker, only to return to the brighter days of the summer, just as when we are experiencing our darker moods, we may look forward to brighter times. The Wheel of the Year incorporates Aristotle’s idea of the Golden Mean by depicting the tendency in Nature to strive for balance between extremes. Scientists call this idea homeostasis.

Homeostasis is the concept that a system, when out of balance, tends to correct itself over time in order to restore balance.

The number three is sacred to the Druids, and this is reflected in many triads in Druid practice. One of these triads is Underworld-Middle Earth-Sky/Heavens. Humans live on the surface of the Earth, balanced between the Earth below and the Heavens above. To many modern Druids, water represents the forces of Chaos, and fire represents the forces of Order. Looking at the triad of Underworld-Middle Earth-Heavens, we find that the Underworld is saturated with the waters of Chaos. Just as water poured onto the ground will seep into the Earth, so the forces of Chaos seep into the Underworld. Likewise, the fire of the Sun represents Order. Without the Sun, plants could not grow upward from the chaos of the Earth.

Humans and animals live on Middle Earth, the plane that is balanced between the forces of Chaos and Order. From the Druid perspective, the ideal life is one that strives for a balance between these forces. In my tradition, many rituals end with the phrase, “Between Heaven and Earth I find my balance.” This indicates that we always seek to balance Chaos and Order in our daily lives. To live a life ruled by Chaos is to live without direction and purpose. On the other hand, to live a life ruled by Order is to become obsessive about everything. Finding balance allows one to live a life of purpose without engaging in compulsive, controlling behavior.

The psychoanalyst Carl Jung conceived the ideas of Shadow and Persona. Jung believed that all human beings contain within them the potential for all behaviors, both ‘good’ and ‘bad.’ According to Jung, the Persona is the mask we wear in our everyday lives. It is the face we present to others. The Persona represents who we think we are, and who we would like to be. The Shadow, on the other hand, represents all those traits we wish to suppress in ourselves. All our anger, fears, and negative emotions and behaviors are pushed down into the Shadow and denied expression in the Persona.
Jung believed that the key to mental health was a process called individuation. Simply put, Individuation involves striking a balance between the Shadow and the Persona. The Shadow represents the forces of chaos and darkness within an individual, and the Persona represents the forces of order and light. While the Shadow contains all of our darker and more negative emotions, it is also the seat of creativity. To deny the existence of one’s Shadow is to deny one’s own ability to be creative.

However, allowing the Shadow to rule one’s life creates a situation where the individual is ruled by the forces of chaos and darkness. Psychoanalysis is the process by which we balance light and darkness within ourselves, thus achieving individuation.

Some moral, religious and ethical systems try to deny the existence of our darker impulses. These systems focus solely on the Persona…the face we present to others. The more such systems suppress the darker impulses in the Shadow, the more unbalanced the individual becomes. In such a case, the Shadow becomes a ‘pressure cooker’ with no means to release the pressure. In extreme cases, the pressure cooker blows, leading to dysfunction and even psychosis.

Druidry and many other Pagan systems recognize the need to balance Persona and Shadow. By acknowledging our darker impulses, we open the door to creating this balance, leading to individuation. Unfortunately, many people think that acknowledging our darker impulses means having to act on these impulses. Nothing could be further from the truth. For example, suppose someone has done something that leads you to be angry with that person. Your first impulse might be the desire to retaliate in some way by returning anger for anger, or by hurting that individual in some way. Those who focus only on the Persona would attempt to suppress and deny this impulse, even though the desire to retaliate is a perfectly normal reaction to being angered. The angrier such a person becomes, the more he tries to suppress that anger, until he reaches boiling point and reacts explosively to the situation.

A Druid, on the other hand, would seek to restore balance by acknowledging this impulse. Instead of swallowing her anger, a Druid would hopefully recognize it as a darker impulse. But instead of returning anger for anger, a Druid would strive to express that anger in positive ways; perhaps by confronting the source of the anger and saying to the person, “You know, what you said/did really made me angry. I don’t want to be angry with you. What can we do to resolve this situation?”

So what does all of this have to do with the Wheel of the Year?

As much as we might sometimes like to think otherwise, we are not separate from nature. A huge body of research confirms that our environment and the seasons affect our moods and behavior. If you think about it for a moment, you will probably find this to be true for yourself as well. Do you find yourself becoming more contemplative and introspective during the winter months? Do you become happier and more outgoing in the summer months? Does a walk in the woods improve your mood? If so, you are not alone.

The rites, rituals and celebrations of the cycle of the seasons allow us a tangible symbolic representation of these inner states of being. Just as the seasons move back and forth between cycles of light and darkness, so our own moods and feelings cycle between lighter and darker times.

Celebrating the Wheel of the Year allows us to acknowledge both our lighter and our darker impulses in a sacramental way. By acknowledging them, we restore balance to our lives and to our spiritual journey.

When celebrating any High Day on the Wheel of the Year, the first and most important goal is to first ask yourself what your intention is in doing so. By focusing on the intention of the ritual, you avoid the trap of just ‘going through the motions.’ If your rite or ritual is purpose-driven, you enhance its capacity to speak to you in meaningful ways. In order to direct your attention to the purpose of a High Day, take some time before beginning a ritual to ask yourself these questions:

  • Who will benefit from this ritual? What Gods and/or Goddesses does it serve? What is my relationship with this God/Goddess? What gifts do they have to offer me, and what gifts do I have to offer them? Note that you do not have to believe in Gods and Goddesses in order to ask these questions. Many Druids are either Agnostic or Atheist, seeing Gods and Goddesses as archetypes and not as real entities.
  • What is the meaning of the ritual to me? Is there something in my life I need to change, and if so, how will this ritual help me to enhance that change?
  • How should I perform this ritual so that it becomes more meaningful to me? Would music help to enhance my appreciation of the rites? If so, what music? Are there any other tools or symbols that would be meaningful for me to have available to incorporate into the completion of the ritual?
  • Why am I celebrating this ritual in the first place? What will engaging in this rite add to my own spiritual practice? If performing or participating as part of a group or a Grove, will all members present feel edified by taking part?

All of these questions will aid you in preparing rites and rituals for the celebration of the High Days. Once you have prepared your ceremony, there are also several questions you should ask yourself during the ritual in order to get the most meaning out of it. Some of these questions are:

  • 1. How will this ritual help me to find balance between the forces of Chaos and Order within myself? Within my community? Within the world?
  • How will this ritual help me to find the balance between my own Persona and Shadow?
  • How will this ritual help me to find the balance between the forces of light and darkness at work within myself? Within the world?
  • Will this ritual help me to make the changes I need to make within myself? If not, will this ritual help lead me to acceptance of my current situation?
  • How will this ritual help me along the path to spiritual growth and development?

Celebrating the Wheel of the Year

The Druid Year as celebrated by the Order of the Elder Grove is divided up into eight High Days, spaced roughly equally throughout the year at approximately every 45 days.

The Order follows a lunar year of 13 months. This means each month contains 4 weeks of 7 days each, making a total of 364 days. The remaining day (or remaining two days in a leap year) is the Day of All-Heal (or mistletoe).

The Tree Months used by the Order of the Elder Grove are as follows below. To learn more about a particular month or its associated ogham character and plant, click on a link below.

H’ UathHawthornMay
N’getalReed (Elm)November
All-HealMistletoeRemaining day of the year (or remaining two days of the year in leap years)

The Tree Months of the Year as practiced by the Order of the Elder Grove

The Druid names of each High Day are listed below, along with their more common Pagan names in parentheses.

Click on a link below to learn about each holiday and its significance.

Samhain SamhainNovember 1 (Some prefer October 31)Ivy, Reed, Yew
Alban Arthuan YuleWinter SolsticeBirch, Holly, Elder
Imbolc (Oimelc) Imbolc (Oimelc)February 1Rowan, Silver Fir
Alban EilerOstaraVernal EquinoxAlder, Ash, Tulip Poplar
BeltaneBeltaneMay 1Willow, Hawthorn, Spindle (Pink Dogwood)
Alban HeffinLitha or Midsummer’s DaySummer SolsticeOak, Gorse, Heather
LughnasadhLammasAugust 1Hazel, Grape, Witch Hazel
Alban ElfedMabonAutumnal EquinoxApple, Blackthorn, Poplar

The High Days of the Wheel of the Year

Archaeoastronomy – Equinox and Solstice data from the U.S. Naval Observatory, Washington DC. Cross-Quarter moments are interpolated as the midway points between the Solstices and Equinoxes measured in degrees along the ecliptic.

To summarize the purpose of the celebration of the Wheel of the Year, one could say that by honoring the High Days, we seek divine inspiration in our lives and in ourselves. Since Druids seek inspiration through the awen (known in Ireland and Scotland as “imbas”), no discussion on the Druid perspective of the Wheel would be complete without an elaboration on the concept.
Awen is a Welsh word roughly translated as ‘divine inspiration.’ The word is Indo-European in origin and comes from the root ‘-uel,’ which means ‘to blow.’ In this sense, it could be seen to mean, ‘that which takes one’s breath away.’ In other words, the awen is that which is awe-inspiring.
Iolo Morgannwg created a graphical representation of the awen that consists of three descending lines, in this manner: /|. The most basic interpretation of this symbol is three rays of divine light descending to the Earth, bringing inspiration. It is one of the most meaning-rich symbols in most Druid traditions. It can represent balance between Chaos and Order, or Earth-Sea-Sky, or the triple nature of the Goddess, or the Triads, or any of dozens of other interpretations.
One interpretation of the awen that is especially significant is as a representation of the Wheel of the Year. This representation, known as the Triad of Sunrises, works as follows:
If you place a stake in the ground, and use it to mark the progression of the Sun across the sky in the Northern hemisphere, the line on the left will mark the Sun’s westernmost position at the Vernal Equinox. The middle line will represent the Sun’s position at the solstices, and the right line will represent the Sun’s easternmost position at the Autumnal Equinox. These lines will be represented by the shadows the stake casts upon the ground at each of these points. These three shadows are a graphic representation of the awen.
The concept of the Triad of Sunrises is that Nature herself writes the awen upon the Earth every year. From this perspective, the awen is the means by which we seek the divine in our own lives, and the Wheel of the Year is the living physical embodiment of that divine inspiration, written upon the Earth. So the celebration of the Wheel of the Year is the celebration of our path of seeking divine inspiration.
In the following chapter we will examine each High Day of the Wheel of the Year, focusing on the Gods and Goddesses associated with each, their corporeal, spiritual, and ritualistic significance, and symbols and rites associated with each. There will also be a suggested liturgy/ritual format for each High Day. These liturgies are offered merely as suggestions. The ritual you ultimately choose should be one that gives you meaning and helps you to seek the awen/imbas.