Why I abandoned the Wheel of the Year……. and still embrace it.
This blog is a story in two halves. It’s the story of how I rejected the modern Pagan Wheel of the Year and built a practice based on the land on which I live. But it’s also a story about how that same wheel binds us together as a community and so has great value. But mainly it’s a plea to you to make a conscious decision about what YOUR practice looks like and WHY.
My craft is a local craft.
It is centred on connection with the land where I live and living in harmony with its rhythms and pulses. Working with its energies and the spirits which inhabit it.
Many of those rhythms are inextricably linked with the solar cycle, the passage of the earth around the sun and our proximity at any given time to our closest star. The passing seasons caused by the changing tides of sun energy make their mark upon the earth and provide us with a visual calendar that marks the high points of the year.
So there is no wonder the seasons have always been at the heart of land based magical working. But the energies of the seasons are constantly changing. They are not fixed blocks of energy which suddenly switch, or even with short overlaps. They are a constant in and out breath of the earth, constant rises and falls – not building for several months and then waning. Its an ebb and flow within a larger ebb and flow.
The Wheel of the Year
The link between the changing face of the land through the seasons is so strong that the rise of modern of paganism has brought with it a seemingly all pervading calendar of festivals – the wheel of the year.
This relatively modern invention of 8 festivals, conveniently spaced throughout the year, provides a fixed set of high days and holidays for us to celebrate.
But it is not how our ancestors would have celebrated or marked the changing of the seasons. Or more accurately they are not all how all our ancestors would have.
The individual roots of each festival are, perhaps, found in older festivals, observances and folklore. But as a whole, as a system, it is basically modern. A product of the mid 20th Century.
Its what I learnt when I first became a witch – I read about The Wheel in my very first Witchcraft book. I bought into it wholeheartedly because, it seems, its what we do.
But, scratch the surface and its slightly uncomfortable.
What of all the other old customs and festivals which have been celebrated in Britain for hundreds of years? Why these 8 days for everyone?
And marrying the *correct* festivals and dates to what is *actually* happening in my landscape simply doesn’t work for me. It takes a huge effort to shoehorn the celebrations onto the rhythm of my immediate landscape.
Nigel Pearson gives a great example in Walking the Tides of where the general pagan calendar is often followed for pagan calendar’s sake – Lughnasadh/Lammas. It’s a corn and grain festival held around 1 August. But as a traditional witch whose practice is local and land based WHY would you celebrate/mark this if you don’t live in an agricultural area or have anything to do this farming community in your daily life.
Given I’m a British witch – and much of the wheel of the year originated in Britain (Gardner, and Ross Nichols, leaving Aiden Kelly aside for now) then the discrepancies aren’t huge. But its enough to be uncomfortable. I can only imagine how someone in Norway or Greece or Australia would follow the standard wheel! Its not just about ‘flipping’ the wheel and marking Candlemass whilst the other side of the world celebrates Lammas – it’s a whole different climate, with different roots and ancestry and natural rhythms.
A final complication is that even in Britain it’s not the same every year. The timing of the energy high and low points are always slightly different.
My Solar Cylces
So a few years ago I took a radical decision to stop doing it! I stopped using the calendar to dictate how I would acknowledge and work with the changing seasons.
Instead I began to watch, and track and FEEL.
I discovered that the solstices really are huge moments of changeable energy for me. They are tipping points. Potential filled, looking over the abyss after a slow climb, I hold on waiting to rush toward the light or to the darkness. I find there is a startling change of pace immediately following them. This winter for example trees budded, daffodils burst forth and snowdrops blossomed all within days of the solstice. But then after this rapid burst forth towards the light a slower pace and energy followed up.
I discovered the equinoxes are a period of calm. Of reflection and balance. But not much really happening in terms of changing energies. There is a feeling of liminality – space between – as the pendulum pauses for a moment.
I found truth in Nigel Pearson’s assertion in walking the tides that the solstices and equinoxes are times of great change on the inner levels which beginning to bubble into the physical plane several weeks later.
So I work with the changing energies of the solstices and equinoxes and acknowledge the constant changing energies between them.
I don’t ‘celebrate’ spring on 1 Feb because its Candlemas but when I see the first snowdrops my heart lifts and my thoughts and magics turn to new beginning.
I do not mark autumn at Lammas because it was once the start of the Grain Harvest, but when I feel the sun’s heat and intensity reduce and the edges of leaves begin to turn then again my magic changes, and my communication with land spirits change.
This also helps me with the dilemma I’ve had for many years as a pagan – the seasons are not equal lengths! Autumn is often quite short actually. But because I don’t have to space it out nicely then THAT’S OK!!
That said the changing of the seasons won’t be entirely different each year. I can be fairly sure that summer will start to show its face somewhere between the middle of April to a week or so after 1st May. In this sense each point on the wheel has a ‘window’ of around 3 to 4 weeks. And there are no hard and fast rules. Whilst the May Blossom is a good sign of Beltane – and a very traditional one – because Im not on the look out for a single day on which to celebrate I also don’t look out for a single sign of the seasons changing.
I dislike the term wheel of the year because it implies this unmoving 8 festivals
But I also like it because it creates an image of a never-ending cycle of energies constantly moving and cycling around the sun. No beginning or end – no “new year”, but a constant hum of movement.
In order to form a relationship with the land I live upon I had to take a decision to let the land lead me.
To stop forcing a calendar onto it.
And it’s worked beautifully…. In my solitary practice.
It has brought me more magical results and better connections.
But, well, it didn’t help my connections with people!
With other pagans.
With the community.
As modern suburban-ish witches we shouldn’t be so connected to the land that we cease to be connected to people.
The witch has always lived on the edge, in the liminal space on the far side of society. But most of us aren’t able to be so separate from the world. I have to interact with ‘real world’ people in my job, who don’t really understand me and so I crave the company of other witchy folk.
And the festivals provide a wonderful community focus. A time to come together to make magic and memories. To share, to commune, to do the big important magical works when needed.
In order to celebrate in a group you have to make compromises. We have to be a bit practical. Can’t just call the coven and say ‘the hawthorn has bloomed! Beltane tonight!’
And so, the fixed calendar does serve a purpose – an important purpose.
Let’s not throw the baby out with the bath water.
Let’s not pretend that our ancestors followed the wheel of the year, but if it works for your community sharing these festivals is a wonderful way to stay bonded, to create a community rhythm and feel part of a greater whole.
If we accept that Wheel of the Year is a convenient teaching tool, a convenient shared model of seasonal changes then it becomes easier to not get hung up on its flaws. If we accept that celebrating these 8 festivals doesn’t preclude the marking of more obscure days such as Randwick Wap or Abbots Bromley Horn Dance It becomes easy to marry it with a locally focused practice built on our own personal roots and ancestry.
So now I do both.
I follow my own land based, seasonal path. With rituals designed to reflect the energies I am marking or utilising for magic. And I dip in and out of the larger community festival activities when I feel the need to connect with a wider group.
As long as I do it with intention, I can have my cake and eat it.
You just need to make sure that you control the spokes of the wheel.
Don’t celebrate somebody else’s spokes – unless they make sense to YOU and where YOU live and YOUR community. If you feel disconnected to a seasonal festival its OK not to celebrate it. It’s also a brilliant idea to add extra ones in which mean something to you, or has historical significance for your area or your ancestors.
Do some research into folk traditions in your little corner of the world. And let your history guide you along with the land.
Track the Seasons and the changing energies – my mini e-book might help with that!
Over the next 12 months I am going to share my reflections on the passing year, on the turning tides here on this blog. I’ll roughly coincide them with the popular festivals because this blog is about community. But I’ll tell you what’s happening in my bit of the world and encourage you to do the same where you are.
I hope you enjoy the series. And I hope it inspires you and gives you the confidence to create your own wheel and celebrate your own seasonal changes.