It’s difficult, nigh impossible, to understand this Spiritual path without first understanding the Cycles of the Earth, the Great Mother. And it all begins with the Wheel.
The Wheel of the Year is a diagrammatic and spiritual representation of what happens to this planet throughout the full turning of the eight seasons of the Solar Year. Like all things that are reflective of Mother Earth, there are many levels of information that add a unique richness and depth to the imagery we use to represent Her. The Spiritual Teachings I use in my work are a reflection of that connection to Mother Earth.
With this explanation I will only use two layers, although there are many other ways that can be explored at leisure.
For example: Colours of the rainbow plus black; Power Centers (chakras, in some Traditions) of the body, plus psychic space, or Spirit; Animals or crystals that are representative of the seasons; Personal names that you have received during your Journeys. (I use the word ‘Journey’ to describe any form of exploration of other realms of existence apart from this physical one)
And so, at the beginning of all things, is the Wheel. A simple Circle, made out of rocks, or seashells, or drawn in the sand, or on a piece of paper …
We begin with the four cardinal points of the compass, or the Four Directions. EAST, SOUTH, WEST, NORTH.
When these four points are set out, they quarter the circle, with NORTH being at the top of the circle, and SOUTH at the bottom. EAST falls on the right side of the circle and WEST on the left. The positions of the directions are determined together with the Elements as I have outlined below. The Four Directions are called upon in order to form a Circle that is a safe and Sacred Space in which to undertake a journey.
Next we add the Four Elements. WATER, FIRE, EARTH, and AIR. Differing belief systems the world round, place the Four Elements in varying positions around the circle, for all sorts of reasons related to their Spiritual Practices or Rituals, and Traditions.
I use the elements as a means of placing or locating the Circle, created by the Four Directions, in the physical universe, so that those who Journey can find their way home again.
When I cast Circles I use my physical location as a guide. I live on the west coast of Canada. To the east of me is the entire country, so EARTH goes in the East, to the south, it gets hotter, so I place FIRE in the South. West of me is the Pacific Ocean, which naturally suggests WATER, and to the North, there is the clarity of the Arctic Circle, so it is the home of AIR.
Because the sun rises in the east, and is the beginning of a new day, we call in the Direction of East, and the Element of WATER first. Because, here in the northern hemisphere the sun tracks through the southern sky next I place the Element of FIRE in the South. Thirdly I place WATER in the West, and finally AIR goes in the North. (When releasing or opening a Circle, simply thank and farewell the Directions and Elements in the reverse order in which they were called to create, or cast, the Circle)
SOLSTICES AND EQUINOXES
Winter and Summer Solstice are the moments in our solar year that signify the times of longest day and longest night. Interestingly, about 2 weeks after the Winter Solstice the Earth reaches the point closest (perihelion) to the Sun, (in the Northern Hemisphere) and the furthest away (aphelion) two weeks after Summer Solstice. (also in the Northern Hemisphere)
The positions of the Solstices on the Wheel of the Year is set by SUMMER SOLSTICE, (June 20th-23rd) called Lithia in some Traditions, and falls in the middle of the summer. This matches it up with Fire, and places it at the bottom of the Wheel, in the South. WINTER SOLSTICE, (20th-23rd December) or Yule, being six months apart from Summer Solstice, is on the other opposite side of the Wheel, in the North, in the realm of Air.
Spring and Autumn Equinox signify the mid-point of the Earth’s peregrination around the sun, when day and night are of equal length. (at least theoretically. Celestial mechanics being what they are, it all depends on how far from the equator you are)
They are placed at the two other cardinal points of East and West. SPRING EQUINOX, (20th-23rd March) also known as Ostara, occurs when the year is young and is placed in the East, with the Element Earth. AUTUMN EQUINOX, (20th-23rd September) also called Mabon, goes in the West, with the setting of the Sun.
The dates and times of these events are set with celestial accuracy, but may vary from calendar year to year, by a span of two to three days. With all the technological might of the new millennium, the calendar year that is commonly used in the world today, the Gregorian Calendar, still doesn’t quite match up with the true Solar and Sidereal Year.
THE FOUR SEASONS AND CROSS QUARTER DAYS
The Equinoxes and Solstices fall at the height of the four seasons of Spring, Summer, Autumn, and Winter. The Cross Quarter Days herald the beginnings and endings of the four seasons and are situated at mid-point between the Equinoxes and Solstices, dividing the Wheel of the Year into eight Celebrations, or Sabbats, approximately six weeks apart.
The dark of the night, Midnight, is the beginning of the new day, and it is the same with the seasons. In the dark of the year, at Winter Solstice, the year begins. It is from this moment forward that determines where the four Cross Quarter Days are placed. The Cross Quarter Days are a time of beginnings and endings, and have a vibrant yet fragile energy about them.
IMBOLG, (1st February) (pronounced, ‘im-og’) sometimes known as Candlemas, falls between Winter Solstice and Spring Equinox, and announces the end of the old Winter and the beginning of SPRING.
BELTANE, (1st May) (pronounced, ‘bee-el-tain-e’) is the end of Spring and the beginning of SUMMER, is between Spring Equinox and Summer Solstice.
LUGHNASADH, (1st August) (pronounced, ‘loon-ah-sah’) or Lammas, is the end of Summer and the beginning of AUTUMN, (or Fall) and is between Summer Solstice and Autumn Equinox.
SAMHAIN, (31st October) (pronounced, ‘sow-ain’) also known as Hallowe’en, Day of the Dead, and many others, is the end of Autumn and the Beginning of WINTER. It is the last Celebration, or Sabbat, before the rebirth of the new year at Winter Solstice.
We celebrate these eight divisions of the year in different ways because they are representative of the different energies that our world, and therefore ourselves, experience during a full turning of the Year.
There are many, many books and websites devoted to ways of celebrating the Solstices, Equinoxes, and Cross Quarter Days, and my purpose here is not to duplicate the information they hold, but provide a starting point if you wish to research this further. A note of caution though, remember that almost all of the information will be written from a Northern Hemisphere point-of-view, (as is mine now that I live in Canada) and you will need to rotate the dates attached to the Celebrations by six months. i.e. Winter Solstice falls on December 20-23 in the Northern Hemisphere, and June 20-23 in the Southern hemisphere.
What I am going to do is use two natural cycles of life to illustrate a part of the meaning of each of the eight segments of the Wheel of the Year, and the energies that can be accessed at those times.
The first one is the life cycle of a plant. Then I will use my own life cycle as woman, who was born, lives, and will die, on this beloved planet of ours.
(Bear in mind these are representations of energies. You wouldn’t actually plant seeds in December, for instance, if there’s a meter of snow on the ground, unless you had a greenhouse or started them inside in pots)
PLANT CYCLE OF LIFE
All things begin at the beginning, at Winter Solstice, and the beginning of a plant’s life is…..
SEEDING – Winter Solstice heralds the turning of the tides of energy that renew all things, and it is time to plant the first seeds in the new fertile ground.
FIRST SHOOTS – At Imbolg, the first tiny green shoots of the plant are seen above the surface of the land. From this moment forward the land is visibly changed as plants of all descriptions unfurl their leaves and stalks and sample all the life and energy that is around them. It is an uncertain time, as are all of the Cross-Quarter days. The weather may change bringing a harsh freeze, or a blight may strike the younglings down, but still, they grow, and strive toward the warmth of the sun.
FIRST FLOWERS – Spring Equinox is the time when another visible change flows across the land. A heady perfume fills the air. Bright colors are painted onto the petals of flowers that bloom almost overnight. It is a celebration of abundance, of life.
POLLINATION – Beltane, and the insect world has discovered the treasure of pollen that lays within the heart of every flower. In their search for nectar they are the harbingers of another wonder for the plant, and a kind of alchemy takes place so that new life can begin.
FIRST FRUITS – Summer Solstice, and there are hints of other colors swelling beneath the fading and fallen flowers. Fruits and nuts and seeds are beginning to grow inside the protective shells of their pods and succulent flesh.
FRUIT MATURES – At Lughnasadh, branches creak under their loads of ripening fruit. Long stalks rustle and sway and dry out around swollen pods, not yet ready to begin their separate life. It is at this point that they are also at their most vulnerable. A drought may strike, insects may devour them, or use them as nurseries.
HARVEST – Autumn Equinox, and the offspring of the plants are harvested and husked, and milled and dried and stored, and eaten and enjoyed, and celebrated in dance and song.
FALLOW – At Samhain, the fields seem empty and spent, but they are only resting. All the frantic activity of harvesting has ended. Old stalks and broken twigs return their energy to the earth. Fallen leaves turn to mulch. The fields breathe deeply of the pleasure of doing nothing and replenish themselves to await the new year.
WOMEN’S CYCLE OF LIFE
Whether it is for a moment, an hour, a menstrual cycle, a decade, or the span of our days upon the earth, the cycle is the same.
BIRTH – At the beginning of all these cycles is Winter Solstice. The birth of a daughter is celebrated. She comes into the world with all the possibilities of her life before her.
GIRL CHILD/RITE OF PASSAGE – Imbolg brings the wonders of the world to the eyes of the child for the first time. New experiences are eagerly sought after and claimed for her own.
MAIDEN – At Spring Equinox the child has grown beyond her environment and begins to seek further horizons. In the full exuberance of her innocence, she touches the world for the very first time.
REBEL/COMING OF AGE – Her first sexual experiences run wild through her body, heart, and spirit, at Beltane. She sees the world in all its glory and pain, beauty and ugliness. She rejects and accepts all things in an instant. She is wild with the fire of her passions, and can ignite the world around her.
MOTHER – Her passionate explorations lead to choices at Summer Solstice. She gestates ideas, concepts, physical life, gives birth to them from the womb of her creativity, and nurtures them as they grow.
MATRON – With Lughnasagh, her children, physical, and of her spirit, are grown, but not yet ready to leave home, the book is written but not yet published. She yearns to explore anew, with the wisdom of experience, the wonders and dreams she knew as a child.
CRONE – No longer menstruating with the cycles of the moon, and at the time of Autumn Equinox in her life, she turns to the rhythms of the moon in different ways. A lifetime of sunrises and sunsets have given her a wisdom that can be gained no other way. Her time and energy are hers to give as she chooses, and she is honored and respected by those among her community who seek her out.
SEEKER – As the end of her time in this Physical Realm grows short at Samhain, her thirst for knowledge turns inward, and she seeks the Path that will guide her on her final Journey. Farewells are shared, and one by one, the threads of her life are gently released until she is ready to breathe her last.
DEATH/RE-BIRTH – And so, she dies at Winter Solstice. At rest with the knowledge that she has left nothing undone, no desire unfulfilled, no wound unhealed. Ready to taste the next step of her life.
To give you an idea of what’s possible with the Wheel, I found this lovely image on the interwebz with no attribution. Whoever you are, thank you …