As the Wheel of the Year turns, the beginning of August marks the fragile return of life after the long winter’s sleep as the first tendrils cautiously making their appearance. There is the likelihood of frosts, but despite this, early flowers are pushing their way to the surface – snowdrops, dwarf hyacinths, jonquils, early irises and even daffodils are appearing, making the statement that spring is on its way. A fragile warming of the air can be felt as winter, usually the season of rest and withdrawal, comes to an end. This is the time of uncertainty. A sudden frost can kill the new plants and flowers, if they appear too early. They also run the risk of developing rot with the last of the winter rains.
Within contemporary witchcraft this fragile return is Imbolc (pronounced “IM-bulk”), from the Irish Gaelic meaning “in the belly” (of the mother). The Scots also had their own word for this sabbat, that being Oimelc (pronounced EE-mulk) for “ewe’s milk”, for it was commonly lambing season.
The sabbat represents the quickening of light and life as around first stirrings of spring begin to appear. In the Northern Hemisphere Imbolc occurs around 1 February, the sacred day of the Celtic Goddess Bride (pronounced “Breed”) or Brigid. At her shrine, the ancient Irish capital of Kildare, a perpetual flame was burnt. When she was Christianized into St Brigid, Kildare remained a sacred centre. Here in the Southern Hemisphere, Imbolc takes place around 31 July or 1 August, marking the return of the Maiden Goddess.
As such, the Temple of the Dark Moon will be holding a special Observing Imbolc rite to welcome back the Maiden Goddess and to celebrate the Awakening of Spirit. I hope that whatever you do, you are able to honour this turn of the wheel.
Light has given way to darkness and the coldness of winter has its icy grip upon the land. The trees are all but skeletons, having lost their leaves months ago. The sun is at its northern most point during its yearly migration across the sky, above the tropic of Cancer, meaning that whilst those of us south of the equator are shivering with summer all but a distant memory, the Northern Hemisphere is basking in the warmth and glory of the sun.
From this point onwards, however, as the sacred wheel turns, we know it will only be a matter of time for we too feel those warming rays again, that will break through the chains of winter.
The pre-dawn silence is almost deafening as the world waits in anticipation. Deep beneath us, the Great Goddess, having entered her darkness aspect, is labouring in order to bring forth the Sun God, the Child of Promise, the Divine Saviour who will bring light and life back to this frozen land again. In readiness, we too turn inward and complete on the warming months, on our inner goals and aspiration that we would like to bring forth. However in order to be able to do this, a sacrifice is called for. What will we give up to the darkness nightin order to bring forth light again?
The sacred wheel is turning and at the time of the winter solstice, we are given the unique opportunity to bring forth light and promise into our own worlds (the microcosm), just as the Great Goddess brings forth her own Son of Light and Promise into the world as a whole (the macrocosm).
As the first fingers of day light sneak over the horizon we celebrate in the knowledge that hope has returned to the land. That even within the darkest hour, there is light. This precious gift of understanding has been bestowed upon us by the Great Goddess and her eternal beloved consort and son.
Winter solstice incenses:
For a citrus smell, combine dried peel of an orange, grapefruit, lemon and tangerine with some lemon essential oil.
For a more spicy smell, mix some dried pine needles, cinnamon and myrrh with frankincense and some dried skin of an apple.
Cedar and juniper berries mixed with frankincense can also be burned as an incense.
As the Wheel of the Year turns, we almost find ourselves at the winter solstice. The sun is moving towards its northern most point during its yearly migration across the sky which means that whilst the Northern Hemisphere is basking in its warmth, for those of us in the Southern Hemisphere, the warming rays are a distant memory.
It is with this longing that we begin create our rituals that focus around the return of the Child of Promise, the Invincible Sun, or as it was known to the Romans, the Sol Invicus, the Unconquerable Sun.
The winter solstice is also the time of the never-ending battle between the Holly King and his twin, the Oak King. Twice a year ( usually at the solstices) they meet and battle for the hand of the Goddess.
At the time of the summer solstice, Oak King is at the height of his strength, while the Holly King is at his weakest. However, the Holly King begins to regain his power, and at the autumn equinox, the tables finally turn in the Holly King’s favour for at the winter solstice, he vanquishes the Oak King.
Robert Graves, in his poetic work The White Goddess, identified a number of paired hero-figures which he believes are variants of this myth, including Lleu Llaw Gyffes and Gronw Pebr; Gwyn and Gwythr; Lugh and Balor; Balan and Balin; Gawain and the Green Knight; the robin and the wren; and even Jesus and John the Baptist.
The Goddess reminds us not to take things for granted for the worse of the winter storms are yet to come as the Night Hag, the Bone Mother of Winter still stalks the land.
Within the darkness, we ask ourselves: “To die and be reborn,the Wheel is turning, What must we lose to the night?”
We release our fears and inhibitions in order to expose that fragile light deep within our selves that has been stiffled or hidden. And as we light our candles to honour the returning light that the Child of Promise will bring, we also encourge this light to shine forth.
I realised the other day that next year, 2022, will mark the 10th anniversary since I self-published my first book, Dancing the Sacred Wheel: A Journey through the Southern Sabbats. Only 400 copies were released in the initial printing, all but two copies sold out in only nine months. In June 2021, after updating and expanding the original manuscript to some 292 pages, I released the second, and a subsequent third edition through print-on-demand platforms.
In preparation for the 10th anniversary of Dancing the Sacred Wheel next year, I thought it is about time to not only update my continual study with respect to working with the traditional eight sabbats that form the “Wheel of the Year”, especially from a Southern Hemispheric perspective, but to offer the opportunity to anyone else who has been working at re-visioning working with the sabbats to contribute.
Within modern Paganism, Samhain (a Gaelic word that is pronounced “SAH-win”) is a time when the veils between the land of the living and the realm of the dead are at its thinnest. As such, it is a time for remembering our ancestors and our departed loved ones. It is often considered to be a rather solemn time that is set side for contemplating the mysteries of birth, life, death and even rebirth as is found within the sacred teachings of many spiritual and religious practices. This cycle is also seen all around us in nature.
Within the seasonal mythos contained within contemporary witchcraft, the God (the divine masculine) transforms from the Lord of the Wine to the Dreaded Lord of the Shadows, represented in the third and final harvest (that of blood and animals) encouraging us to make final preparations for the coming colder months.
Samhain is a time of introspection, of emptying the false from the mind, heart and soul. It is a time to heal the source of our deepest wounds, and those we have inflicted upon other people around us, before time fails us. This inward reflection and contemplation teaches us how to see things more clearly.
Within contemporary witchcraft Samhain is supposed to mark the gateway to the colder, winter months. Last weekend, however, as I hosted an observance on this sabbat, it was a rather summery 26C. This did not deter us as we honoured those who have passed through the veil in the hope that they will continue to guide us in this life.
It is a spiritual cleansing of those aspects of our life, which we have grown out of or no longer need. It is a time for divination and looking into the future, and a link with the dead. We have come to a place of rest and rewards, all our labours and harvest complete for the time being. This is also a time of giving thanks for all that you have accomplished, been gifted with, brought to completion so far this year.
According to the general populace, 1 March is considered to herald in the cooler season of autumn, bringing with it much appreciated relief from our hot southern summers. This year our summer here in southern Australia has been somewhat comfortably mild which is a relief after the 2019-2020 summer season which saw many areas of the country ablaze – however is our unpredictable weather luring us into a false sense of security?
As we know however, anything could happen temperature wise during March. Whatever the case, there is definitely a chill in the air and the evening shades are closing earlier.
March heralds the autumnal equinox as the sun enters the sign of Pisces, which will be taking place around 8:07pm on 20 March. The word equinox is derived from a Latin word believed to mean “equal night”. In other words, where the hours of night and day are nearly equal in length. (They are not quite equal due to the wobble of the earth on its orbit.)
While the Northern Hemisphere enters the time where energy is manifesting for action at the spring equinox, here south of the equator it is repose after action at the autumn equinox.
We can take satisfaction in the work undertaken during the warmer months and reap the benefits. Daylight saving will conclude at the end of the month and with it, the realisation that summer will be over. While there are still a couple of weeks before the autumn equinox arrives, now is a good time to start making preparations for the colder winter months.
On Saturday, 20 March, I will be hosting a event that honours the autumn equinox here in Adelaide at The Connection Centre in North Adelaide. During this event we will be exploring the myths and folklore surrounding the autumn equinox, undergo a sacred journey in order to find balance in our lives, and create a special charm that will protect and guide us through the darker months of the year that we will empower. Tickets for this event can be found here.
The following is a wonderful seasonal poem by William Blake.
To Autumn by William Blake (from Poetical Sketches, 1783)
O Autumn, laden with fruit, and stain’d With the blood of the grape, pass not, but sit Beneath my shady roof; there thou may’st rest, And tune thy jolly voice to my fresh pipe, And all the daughters of the year shall dance! Sing now the lusty song of fruits and flowers. “The narrow bud opens her beauties to The sun, and love runs in her thrilling veins; Blossoms hang round the brows of Morning, and Flourish down the bright cheek of modest Eve, Till clust’ring Summer breaks forth into singing, And feather’d clouds strew flowers round her head. “The spirits of the air live in the smells Of fruit; and Joy, with pinions light, roves round The gardens, or sits singing in the trees.” Thus sang the jolly Autumn as he sat, Then rose, girded himself, and o’er the bleak Hills fled from our sight; but left his golden load.
As the Wheel of the Year turns, those of us residing south of the equator find ourselves at the gateway to the autumn months and the darker months of the year. Ironically, however, this gateway tends to herald in the hottest weather as if the sun is determined to cleanse and purify the southern lands through the element of fire before its departure is well and truly noticed. Traditionally, the sabbat celebrated is that of the first harvest, Lughnasadh (from the Irish Gaelic Lúnasa) or Lammas (from the Anglo-Saxon hlaf-mas, “loaf-mass”) and when “the feast of the first fruits” was observed. In the agricultural year, Lughnasadh or Lammas also marked the end of the hay making season that had commenced as early as mid Summer.
According to Irish mythology, the festival of Lughnasadh were first observed by the God Lugh as a funeral feast and games in honour of his foster mother Tailtiu who had died from exhaustion after clearing the plains of Ireland for agriculture. Originally known as Óenach Tailten, these games were held at Tailtin in what is now County Meath and were considered to be similar to the ancient Greek Olympic Games in that they included ritual athletic and sporting contests. The Óenach Tailten also included fairs, the drawing-up of contracts, and matchmaking. Trial marriages were also were conducted, where young couples joined hands through a hole in a wooden door. These marriages lasted a year and a day, at which time the union could be made permanent or broken without consequences. When the games were revived in the 20th century, they were known as the Tailteann Games.
Here in central southern Australia, the hay and grain harvest has long been collect, and with the intensive weather at the start of the year (that brought an early and rather frightening start to the bush fire season), there is limited bounty to reap from my garden as corn, tomatoes, lettuce and celery all perished. Yet, being a festival which can also be seen as a Wake for the Sacred King (the Lord of the Grain), this appears rather appropriate.
A “Wake” (from the Old English wacan meaning to “wake up” or wacian “to be awake, keep watch”) was a custom in most Celtic countries in Europe for mourners to keep watch or vigil over their dead until they were buried. At Lughnasadh, we prepare ourselves to observe the Wake of the Sacred King whose life has been sacrificed in order for ours to be strengthened. And while the sun continues to entice us outdoors, we are reminded of the more festive aspect of this time of the year – the fairs, handfastings and feasts, as are expressed in the following poem, “The Rigs O’ Barley” by Scottish poet Robbie Burns:
It was on a Lammas night, when corn rigs are bonie, Beneath the moon’s unclouded light, I held away to Annie: The time flew by, wi tentless heed, till ‘tween the late and early; Wi’ sma’ persuasion she agreed to see me thro’ the barley. The sky was blue, the wind was still, the moon was shining clearly; I set her down, wi’ right good will, amang the rigs o’ barley I ken’t her heart was a’ my ain; I lov’d her most sincerely; I kissed her owre and owre again, among the rig o’ barley. I locked her in my fond embrace; her heart was beating rarely: My blessings on that happy place, amang the rigs o’ barley. But by the moon and stars so bright, that shone that hour so clearly! She ay shall bless that happy night, amang the rigs o’ barley. I hae been blythe wi’ Comrades dear; I hae been merry drinking; I hae been joyfu’ gath’rin gear; I hae been happy thinking: But a’ the pleasures e’er I saw, tho three times doubl’d fairley That happy night was worth then a’ among the rig’s o’ barley.
CHORUS Corn rigs, an’ barley rigs, an’ corn rigs are bonie: I’ll ne’er forget that happy night, among the rigs wi’ Annie.
As the sun completes is southward journey, it rests briefly over the Tropic of Capricorn before moving northward again. When it enters the astrological sign of Capricorn in the Southern Hemisphere, we know that the sun is at its highest and brightest, and that the time of the summer solstice has arrived. However, as I write this, rain is starting to fall – but that is okay, the garden is grateful in receiving whatever rain is about at this time of the year.
For the Ngarrindjeri people of the lower Murray River and Coorong in South Australia, the warmth associated with Luwadang continues. As the sun increases in strength, it dries the land, allowing it to be haunted by the call of ravens, the bird that is often associated with death in many cultures around the world.
Within contemporary witchcraft, the God, in his guise as the Sun or Solar God, is now at the height of his power. Ever increasingly, he has been letting us know of his strength. This show comes at a cost and while it will be some time before we actually notice, from the summer solstice onwards, the power of the Sun God slowly begins to wane. This darkness, however, is not perceived in a negative sense, because it is needed to ensure the fertility of the land. Still, in doing so, the Sun God sows the seeds of his own death.
The Goddess is depicted as either showing the early signs of pregnancy from her union at Bealtaine with the God (the fertility cycle of the divine does not necessarily follow the same allotted time of humans), glowing as many expectant mothers do, or her pregnancy is well advanced (as depicted by the Empress found within many tarot decks). All around us the earth shows its magnificent bounty, full of life and busy with activity. Flowers are in full bloom, bees buzz around the garden busily collecting pollen for the production of honey. It is said a sign of a healthy garden is the number of bees that it attracts.
The Goddess, in her aspect as the Mother, Gaia, is on the verge of sharing her bounty with us. However, there is also a death in life aspect at this time of the year that is often overlooked. We humans, regardless of our spiritual beliefs in the afterlife, still tend to fear the process of death, the transition from one plane to another.
Within the bountiful produce are the seeds that will sustain life, feeding us throughout the colder months as well as being available for planting in the Spring to repeat the cycle. After the pollination and fertilization of the beautiful flowers we so admire, they will die. But this is the natural cycle of things, of life. In their death, the flowers release their previous seeds that fall to earth in order to create new life. It can be difficult to connect to the fact that the time of waxing is coming to an end and the waning time is almost upon us when we are surrounded by so much bounty and life seems to be at its fullest.
Summer is a time of beauty and love, energy and strength, and rejoicing in the warmth of the sun. Daylight saving time encourages us to spend longer hours outdoors, often socialising with family and friends. As we enjoy this carefree time, celebrating life and the triumph of light, we do not want to think about the rest of the cycle, that of death, as we will be reminded of that only too readily when the temperatures continue to climb skyward.
The summer solstice is a time to reflect on the growth of the season – not only the seeds that have been planted within the earth but also those planted within our own souls. It is also a time of cleansing and renewal, a time of celebrating creativity in all its many expressions, as well as joyous love and growth that surrounds us.
Summer Solstice (by Cheryl Ban, 1998) Brown earth lay blanketed beneath the weight of white snow People hold within their heart the promise of light Light that overcomes the night Igniting fire That burns a hole all the way to the hot dry summer fields The hope that the light holds in winter becomes in summer the knowing of the sun’s pathway back again We poise on the edge of these great turnings Balanced night and day Ah for a moment …
As the seasonal Wheel of the Year turns, it is not too long away before spring arrives. Even before Mid Winter my garden had been preparing itself with a display of early spring flowers.
This time of the year however there can appear to be a degree of false hope as the worse of the winter weather is often still to come. One thing that we do know for certain however is that life is starting to stir again.
Within contemporary witchcraft the first of the two spring festivals is Imbolc (Im-bulk), derived from the Irish Gaelic that means “in the belly” referring to the potential of all life that is in the belly of the Great Mother (Mother Earth), but also the pregnancy of other animals, particularly cattle and sheep, who give birth to their young around this time. An alternative word is Oimelc, meaning “ewe’s milk”. Although here in South Australia the lambs are often born around the autumn equinox to ensure that there is enough Winter grass for them to eat, in other parts of the country, and particularly in New South Wales, Victoria and Tasmania, Imbolc heralds the birthing season for lambs.
Within contemporary witchcraft, the Goddess is often considered to be in her Maiden, or youthful aspect, while the God is in his Young Stag aspect. Their innocent reflects the lightness of the energies around them at this time of the year.
Nothing is so beautiful as spring – When weeds, in wheels, shoot long and lovely and lush; Thrush’s eggs look like low heavens, and thrush Through the echoing timber does so rinse and wring The ear, it strikes lightning to hear him sing; The glassy pear tree leaves and blooms, they brush The descending blue; that blue is all in a rush With richness; the racing lambs too have fair their fling. George Manley Hopkins (1844-1889)
In the Northern Hemisphere, Imbolc falls around 1st February and is often connected with the Goddess Brighid, or Brid (pronounced “Bree” or “Breeid”), who later become known as Saint Brigit. Spanning both paganism and Christianity, Brighid/Brigit is renown for her healing, and protection, with her sacred shrine still be utilised today in Kildare, County Meath in Ireland.
As a way of marking and honouring Imbolc, I will be holding a special Celebrate Imbolc – The Celtic Festival of Spring at the Riverdell Spiritual Centre on Saturday, 1 August 2020, where participants will not only learn about the historical origins of this Celtic festival, but they will connect with the Maiden Goddess through empowering meditations.
We will also be making our own protective Cros Bride (Brigit’s Cross) that will be empowered through sacred ceremony, and discover how to connect with the healing energies of St Brigit through candles that have been lit from her sacred flame at Kildare.
The timing of the winter solstice is marked when the sun reaches its furthest north position in the sky and starts to move back towards the south. As it does, it marks one of the main turning points in the year, the others being the equinoxes as well as the summer solstice (that occurs in December). The timing for the winter solstice this year is today, Sunday, 21 June at 7:13 am (ACST time). From this moment onwards, days start becoming longer and night times shorter. However with the worse of the winter weather yet to arrive, this thought is not often the first that comes to mind.
In ancient Europe the winter solstice (the timing of which in the Northern Hemisphere takes place in December) was seen as a time of celebration. The Romans had a week-long celebration called Saturnalia during which all wars had to stop and courts did not try criminals. Later this festival became Dies Natalis of Sol Invicti, or the Birthday of the Unconquerable Sun, celebrated on 25 December each year.
Within the mythos contained within contemporary witchcraft, this is the time when the God is reborn and emerges from the Underworld, where he passed into at Samhain. His rebirth will bring warmth and fertility back to the land.
The eve of the winter solstice, however, belongs to the Goddess who is likened to a hibernating animal, residing deep within the Underworld as she readies herself for the pending birth of her son. The child conceived at the festival of Bealtaine, which marks the commencement of summer, is about to be born. This birth is also the sign that life is about the return to the earth once again after many bleak months of winter. Just as she labours to bring forth her son, the “Child of Promise”, the young hero, we also wait with much anticipation for the sun to appear. The rebirth of the sun confirms that darkness will be overcome by light and we step into the waxing half of the year. We are reborn. The year is new.
The following “Solstice Prayer” by Thorn Coyle reflects the anticipation of waiting for the first rays of the sun to appear over the horizon:
We wait in the dark for the light to appear, Mother, give birth to our brother the Sun. We wait in the dark for the light to appear, Mother, give birth to our brother the Sun! We wait. We watch. Out of the cold comes the promise of newness. We wait. We watch. Out of the cold comes the promise of day!
The Child of Promise is the new sun, which is small and weak at this time of the year, but will grow stronger as the sacred Wheel of the Year turns. As such, the winter solstice is a time for celebrating new beginnings and to focus on what you wish to bring into your life.