Barbara Ardinger (one blogger here – watch for her “twist” on this in January!) and I were discussing that an explanation of the pagan year and our Sabbats might be in order. Sometimes when we are immersed in our own spiritual practice, we forget that those who read what we have written may not have a clear understanding of what forms the basis of the holy days we speak of in our articles. These holidays are called Sabbats. The word sabbat is of obscure etymology but was understood in the Middle Ages to mean a gathering of witches and heretics. The word comes from the Hebrew Shabbath meaning a day of rest. Christians use the word Sabbath for Sunday, their traditional day of worship. It is interesting to note this was not a term originally coined by pagans, themselves. It has been borrowed or adopted for use today.
Pagans see the journey traveled in a year or a lifetime as kind of wheel. It is based on the earth’s journey around the sun. One rotation equals one year. We call it the Wheel of the Year. Since the origins of most of the traditions practiced by pagans in this country come from the Northern Hemisphere, the turning of the wheel is based on the Earth’s travel around the sun and the impact that is felt in the Northern Hemisphere. It would be exactly the opposite for those in the Southern Hemisphere.
We see the year as having four seasons based on the amount of sun received (facing toward the sun or tilting away). The mythology behind our Sabbats is based on these seasons and the Earth’s rotation around the sun using metaphor and story to offer explanation of changes in nature. Most of those stories come from ancient times but we are also creating our own stories today. Because the cycle of the Earth around the Sun affects agriculture and our sources of food, honoring the changes in the seasons is spiritual in nature–to appease, placate or honor the deities worshipped. The holy days are a time to express gratitude for life as well as to acknowledge our dependence on the interplay between the Earth and the Sun for our well-being.
For pagans, life is cyclical. This includes our calendar year. Life is founded on cycles of perpetual growth and retreat and is tied to the concept of the Sun’s annual death and rebirth. The cycle of the Sun includes growth and decay, light and dark, birth and death, as well as in-between times. We mark these changes on specific days, as landmarks of beginnings, endings and middles of our four seasons. Our lives are directly tied to the fruitful harvests of these seasons and the changes we pass through on the journey we each make. These can be outward manifestations of our accomplishments or inner transitions of personal growth in our lives. The days chosen represent liminal moments in time when we stand at a threshold of one thing ending and another beginning. Because of this, these days are regarded with special significance and celebrated with community festivals. Most pagans celebrate eight of these Sabbats each year. It must be understood, however, that though they are marked by a single day on the calendar, the events are honored for several days.
In Celtic Tradition, the year is divided in two halves, the dark half and the light half with points in-between. There are four Sabbats, or holy days honored at these times. They are called the Cross-Quarter Sabbats and are Imbolc, Beltane, Lughnasadh and Samhain. We have no evidence of the equinoxes or solstices being celebrated by the tribes that made up what are now termed “Celtic.” Certainly they were aware of them as many stone circles were aligned to the Sun and the Earth’s rotation. Today, however we honor them as Midwinter, Spring, Midsummer and Autumn.
The Northern European tribes honored eight Sabbats (Blots) as well. They are named Disfest, Ostara, Valpurgis, Midsummer, Freyfaxi/Freysfest, Fallfest/Harvestfest, Winternight and Yule.
These are the most common in pagan traditions. I have friends who practice in a Wiccan Circle using Sumerian deities and corresponding mythology from ancient Sumer. They celebrate eight Sabbats and their mythology follows the life of Inanna, Her descent into the Underworld and Her return.
In Feminist Witchcraft Tradition, women’s life passages are honored, turning the wheel from birth through death on the eight holy days. There is a chant called the “Eight Bead Chant” written and performed by Carolyn Hillyer that quickly gives you an idea of what that means …
There are many rich customs associated with all of these holy days, no matter the origin. While we live in modern times we are able to take these ancient customs and the stories associated with them and bring them forward in ways that significantly impact our lives, remembering rich and deeply rooted ways to guide us through our lives.
Deanne Quarrie. D. Min. is a Priestess of the Goddess, and author of five books. She is an Adjunct Professor at Ocean Seminary College, teaching classes on Druidism, Ritual Creation, Ethics for Neopagan Clergy, Exploring Sensory Awareness and other classes on natural magic. She is the founder of Global Goddess, a worldwide organization open to all women who honor some form of the divine feminine, as well as The Apple Branch – A Dianic Tradition where she mentors women who wish to serve as priestesses. She and a business partner are in the process of opening Shaman College: Seminary for a Sacred Earth where she will offer courses in Druidism, Celtic Shamanism and Goddess Spirituality.