THE WHEEL OF THE YEAR
Every 365.25 days or so, the Earth completes one full orbit around our star, the Sun. Every year the seasons commence again, and repeat this process in a seemingly endless cycle that has been going on for the duration of recorded history and man's knowledge. This cycle was observed by very early man, and it was recognized from the earliest times as the cycle that governed much, if not all, of their regular existence.
Recognition of the annual cycle, or the Wheel of the Year, was not limited to one specific culture. In the old world of Europe it was recognized with specific seasonal events and celebrations that are still recognized by many pagans today as the sabats or holy days. On the North American continent the native Americans recognized this annual cycle on a regular basis reflecting the growth and development and specific moons that reoccurred throughout each year, similar to the lunar esbats recognized by many modern Pagans. The eight-spoked wheel is also the Buddhist symbol of the endless cycle of birth, life, death, and rebirth that governs the existence and transformation of all things.
Understanding the Wheel of the Year is important for us. It draws our attention to the natural cycle that was emplaced by the Great One and that still governs the lives of virtually everything that lives on the planet. We can encase ourselves in climate controlled buildings and cars, adjust the amount of light we receive indoors, and surround ourselves with house plants that stay green the year round; but the cycle continues nevertheless, and we feel it. Our bodies and souls attune to it. We may work and live around it; but still it remains an essential part of us. By recognizing it and understanding it, we reclaim or retain a part of our inherent nature as creatures of the Spirit.
The Wheel of the Year also symbolizes an inherent truth about our existence: that we never fully "die" and cease to exist. Just as the trees and plants regrow or are reborn each spring after periods of dormancy, and the baby animals leave nest and borough to greet the spring, so we to are constantly in a cyclic state in the world of the Spirit. We are born, we live, we pass on into another level of existence, and finally we are reborn into the cycle again. Our lives are cycles as the Spirit intended. Physical death is not the end... it is the beginning: the beginning of a new cycle of rebirth and life once again for us. The Wheel of the Year represents and recognizes this cyclic existence on the path of the Great One.
The Old World/Celtic Wheel of the Year
As human society evolved from the nomadic hunter-gatherer culture to the agrarian and husbandry culture in the Old World, the agricultural wheel of the year became increasingly important. The first recognized divisions of the Wheel were probably the four that had the greatest impact on society's agriculture and animal husbandry. These, correspondingly, had the greatest impact on the food supply and the existence of the people. They are Imbolc, Beltane, Lughnasadh, and Samhain. Later, as the societies observed specific solar activity that corresponded to certain times in the Wheel of the Year, the solar Sabats were added and observed. These are Ostara (the Vernal Equinox), Litha (the Summer Solstice), Mabon (the Autumnal Equinox), and Yule (the Winter Solstice). Together these eight days comprise the major sabats or holy days of the year, and are recognized by almost all pagans who observe old-world customs. They mark eight major spokes in the Wheel of the year as follows:
Imbolc, on February 2nd, is the first beginning of the period of growth. The soil begins to warm and soften for coming plant growth and ewes begin to lactate. In many Pagan traditions, this is represented as the boyhood of the God and the recovery of the Goddess from the cold winter and her birthing of the God child. It is a time of coming forth from the cold, dark confines of winter, and a celebration of the return of the Sun after the long days of darkness that occurred over the winter months.
Ostara, around March 21st, is the day of the Vernal Equinox and truly the first day of spring. On this day the length of daylight and darkness are equal, and it can be seen that once again the power of the Sun is growing to conquer the cold and darkness that has ruled the world during the winter months. A time of great springtime celebration, many Pagans recognize this day as the day that Goddess shares her fertility with all of the planet, and the process of new growth will commence in earnest.
Beltane, on April 30 (May 1st), is primarily a day for celebrating the first green shoots of spring, and to a lesser extent for recognizing the time when cattle were first driven to the fields to graze. Many Pagan traditions recognize this Sabat as a day to celebrate the maturing of the young God into puberty, and the first sexual urges of the God enticing him to impregnate the Goddess. It was traditionally a fire festival where great fires were lit to welcome and coax back the returning Sun.
Litha, around June 21st, is the Summer Solstice and the heart of the summer when the greatest fertility of the earth is demonstrated and the longest day of light occurs. Many pagan cultures recognize this day as the day when the God and Goddess are at their strongest, and their gifts are shared with the entire planet.
Lughnasadh, on August 1st, is the day of the first harvest. A day when bread was made from the rich first harvests of grain, and a day of celebrating the taking in of the fruits of the years labor. In many Pagan traditions, this represents the time of the year when the God, as the plants, begins his slow descent into weakness and old age as winter and his death ultimately approach.
Mabon, around September 21st, is the Autumnal Equinox and a day when the periods of light and dark are equal; but this time the strength of the light is waning. The days of winter approach, and the harvest from the crops begins to reduce. The harvesting of crops that began at Lugnasadh is completed. In many pagan traditions, the God is seen as dying at this time. His bright fire is dimming, and the cold, longer nights of winter seem to approach all too fast.
Samhain, on October 31st, is a day of death and sacrifice. Originally celebrated for three days from October 31st through November 2nd, the last gleanings of the fields are brought in and the cattle are brought in from the field. Animals are killed and the meat preserved for winter, and the death of the God is recognized as the Sun descends into the long cold winter that follows. This is traditionally the start of the Celtic New Year and is a day of truly great celebration.
Yule, around December 21st, is the Winter Solstice and the shortest period of light of any day in the year. It is a day of the start of renewal found in the darkest, coldest reaches of the winter's realm. From this day forward the days again begin to lengthen, and the blessings of the sun begin to return once again. Many pagan traditions recognize this day as the day of the God's rebirth; a day when the people may look forward once again to receiving the blessings of the God as the the light of his sun slowly starts to regrow.
And thus does the Wheel of the Year constantly turn. Whether we celebrate the sabats or not, we all recognize the wheel. We feel it as it rotates annually through our lives, and as our lives follow it in form as we ourselves cycle through the creation of the spirit.
The North American Wheel of the Year
Unlike the Old World Wheel of the Year, the native North Americans recognized the turning of the wheel through the evolution of the 12 moons that occur each year. In addition, they celebrated the changing of the seasons as the major events of the seasons occurred. With less focus on an agricultural system of existence, the North American Indian moons represent an even closer tracking with the heartbeat of the Earth Mother. They demonstrate a clear evolution of not just eight seasonal nodes; but a monthly recognition of the changes in the Wheel's cycle that governed, and still govern, the life of the people.
The Medicine Wheel is a uniquely native North American understanding of the turning of the Wheel of the Year. At the center of the Medicine Wheel is the Creator, the One Great Spirit. Toward the East (right) on the Medicine Wheel is the Earth Mother who gives birth to all things. Proceeding clockwise around the Medicine Wheel from the Earth Mother one encounters representations of the Father Sun, Grandmother Moon, the element of Water, the element of Earth, the element of Fire, and the element of Air. Finally, around the circumference of the medicine Wheel are representations of the twelve moons that occur in each solar year. The lessons taught by each position of the Medicine Wheel are all of the lessons that one needs to learn to become a complete person and to rightfully walk the path of the Spirit. The Medicine Wheel teaches the fundamentals of successful and complete life. Once these lessons are fully learned, and the moons of the year turn to complete an entire annual cycle, an individual is prepared to pass over into the next cycle of existence in the world of the Spirit.
The 12 moons that were recognized by North American Natives represent specific locations on the Medicine Wheel, which is a different, but similar, way of viewing the evolution of life in an annual cyclical pattern that constantly renews itself. In addition to the significance that each moon carries for defining features of the evolution of the year (as made apparent by the name of each moon), each moon also carries with it lessons that assist one in growing on their path as the wheel progresses. Eventually, the lessons taught by all of the moons (and the other positions of the medicine Wheel) provide one with the sum total of information they require to be a full person on the path of the Spirit, and prepare one to move on in the Spirit's cycle when called to do so.
The Earth Renewal Moon occurs between December 22nd and January 19th. The Earth Renewal Moon is the first moon of the year, and begins around the winter solstice. It signifies the new beginning of life and growth that commences as Grandfather Sun once again approaches his people and brings toward them the blessings of a new annual period of growth. On the Medicine Wheel, the Earth Renewal Moon indicates a position of great power, and teaches people to be fluid, clear, adaptable, prudent and wise.
The Rest and Cleansing Moon occurs between January 20th and February 18th. It is a moon that teaches the ability to like others and to be more caring in ones views and attitudes.
The Big Winds Moon occurs between February 19th and March 20th. This moon teaches the meaning of value and protection, and helps to discover one's own medicine power and psychic abilities.
The Budding Trees Moon occurs between March 21st and April 19th. Occurring around the time of the Vernal Equinox, this moon teaches one about energy, intensity, optimism, fearlessness and change.
The Frogs Return Moon occurs between April 20th and May 20th. This moon teaches lessons about perseverance, patience, stability, and practicality.
The Cornplanting Moon occurs between May 21st and June 20th. It teaches lessons of beauty in all people and in our environment, and about healing abilities.
The Strong Sun Moon occurs between June 21st and July 22nd. This moon teaches about relationships and family, mothering, and nurturing.
The Ripe Berries Moon occurs between July 23rd and August 22nd. It teaches lessons about working from the heart, demonstrating affection, facing fears, and leadership abilities.
The Harvest Moon occurs between August 23rd and September 22nd. It teaches lessons about discrimination, fair decisions, good sense, perseverance, confidence, and analytical ability.
The Ducks Fly Moon occurs between September 23rd and October 23rd. This moon teaches lessons about showing physical affection and how to be comfortable in the earth and the sky.
The Freeze Up Moon occurs between October 24th and November 21st. It teaches lessons of traveling between different levels of creation and becoming a messenger for spiritual aspects of one's life.
The Long Snows Moon occurs between November 22nd and December 21st. The last moon of the year, this moon teaches about mental strength, fear of emotions, relationships, teaching and communicating.
Whether one views the Wheel of the Year from the old world view of the seasonal progressions, or the Medicine Wheel of the North American Indians, or the eight-spoked Wheel of Life understood by Buddhists as representing the eternal cycle of birth, life, death, and rebirth; the Wheel of the Year is always around us. Regardless of one's background, your ancestors probably knew of the Wheel in one form or another and used it effectively to govern their actions throughout the year for centuries, to serve as a calendar, to record the growth and passing on of all things, and to understand the nature of existence on the path of the Spirit. We all still benefit from recognizing and using this centuries-old understanding that transcends any modern, synthetic comprehension of life!