Alternative Wheel: Other seasonal cycle stories

Exploring different ways of thinking about the wheel of the year, reflecting on aspects of the natural world to provide Pagans alternatives to the usual solar stories.

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Nimue Brown

Nimue Brown

Nimue Brown is the author of Druidry and Meditation and Druidry and the ancestors. She also writes the graphic novel series Hopeless Maine, and other speculative fiction. OBOD trained, but a tad ferral, she is particularly interested in Bardic Druidry and green living.

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How straight is your wheel?

Our usual solar stories about the turning of the year focus on the birth, maturing and death of a sun god who might fight his rival at midsummer and will probably father himself. Imbolc is all about pregnancy and birth. Beltain is all about impregnating. It’s a very heterosexual narrative, when you get down to it.

Nature is not exclusively about heterosexual reproduction. What we would understand as homosexual behaviour crops up in all creatures. If you’re part of a wolf pack or a bee hive, it’s about the group, not about spreading your own genes directly. Many plants have both male and female sex organs – if you insist on understanding them in those terms! On top of this, plants will also reproduce through suckers, bulbs and other ways of doing it for themselves without any need for pollination. Some creatures change gender. Oysters have all the kit, and effectively change gender every few years. Other life forms – fungi particularly, are asexual, and reproduce without any input from anyone else.

Where, in the traditional wheel story, would you honour the oyster? Or the male seahorse who carries his young in a pouch? Where, in the cycle of the year do we talk about how most of the elm trees in the UK are probably descended from just the one tree, and spread asexually? Where are the stories that place our equally natural gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgendered, not so gendered and asexual Pagan folk within the wheel of the year?

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  • Erin Lale
    Erin Lale says #
    That's one of the reasons I'm glad I'm a heathen, specifically an Asatruar, because our ritual structure doesn't have heterosexual
  • Nimue Brown
    Nimue Brown says #
    If we have three kinds of ancestors (blood, land and tradition) then we must also have three kinds of descendants. While that cann
  • Anna Belle LaFae
    Anna Belle LaFae says #
    Thank you for this article! After my child was stillborn and then subsequent infertility the reproductive emphasis of so many pag

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Times of balance

The spring equinox is only a few weeks away. It is part of the modern festival wheel, not because there’s any real evidence for it being celebrated historically, but because it balances things up nicely. It being the time when days and nights are the same length, we tend to talk a lot about balance around these two festivals. However, every lunar month offers two rounds of balance between light and dark in the shape of the moon, so there are other times we might feel directed to consider balance, too.

Are equinoxes really a time of balance? I do not feel that point of day and night in equilibrium especially. What I do notice a lot at this time of year, is the racing change in day length. Around the equinoxes, we have the greatest pace on the balance between night and day changing. Every day right now is a little longer than the one before it, and I’m intensely conscious not of balance, but of a sudden feeling of hurtling towards summer.

I’m waking earlier as the first light comes a lot sooner, and I’m seeing shades of blue in the sky into the evening. My living patterns shift with the changing light. I have more energy in the light half of the year. My days are longer, and soon I will be able to go back to waking in the evenings – something I love to do but which just doesn’t work in the middle of winter. So on a personal level I’m not feeling balance, I’m feeling change, and that shifting from the hibernating part of the year when I don’t want to go out much, into the better weather and more light, when I have more energy and feel more inclined to be out and about.

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Celebrating the flowers

Imbolc, when the little snowdrops emerge from the earth, the first flowers, and the first sign that spring is on the way. Except if you’re dealing with floodwater just now, you probably won’t see them because they will be submerged. If you are a bit further north than I am, there will be no sign yet. People in colder climates can’t expect flowers at this time of year – my other half, who originated in Maine, continues to be perplexed by anything trying to grow at this time. Not everywhere has snowdrops, and not everywhere has winter.

There are no doubt a lot of Pagans out there who feel they should be celebrating Imbolc this weekend, because it’s the ancient Celtic festival marking the first signs of spring, and it’s here. Some will no doubt go out with scripts that talk of things which simply are not happening in their lives. I’ve done that myself. I stood in a hailstorm one year, trying to picture the gentle, generous spring maiden and her magical wild flowers, whilst getting cold, wet, miserable and confused. It was one of those key moments in my journey towards rejecting a dogmatic approach to dates and festivals.

As it happens, the catkins have been opening for a while now, and I saw my first snowdrops last week. The weather forecast is dire, and I do not fancy my preferred hilltop, in case we do get some of those predicted 150 mile an hour winds. I like to think the Druids of old had enough sense, and enough respect for the natural world not to be out in it unnecessarily when it might do them serious injury.

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The new Atlantis

It’s storm season. Storms have hit the UK this last week or so, and we’ve seen nightmarish weather conditions, high winds and flooding. People have died. Last year the lanes around Slimbridge, where I then lived, flooded such that some of them were impassable. We’ve been seeing a lot more of this, lately, especially in the winter months.

 

The winters of my childhood were nothing like this. They were usually wet, and you might get a few days of snow, but not flooding. There would be frosts, some dips below freezing, but nothing difficult. Not like the winter three years ago when we dropped down to minus 15c. Ten years ago, high winds were a rare occurrence, but now we seem to get them every winter.

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  • Jamie
    Jamie says #
    Ms. Brown, Thanks for sharing! I hope you and yours fare well with regard to the weather.

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The plans of trees

 

The deciduous trees stand, bare and apparently lifeless through the winter months. The popular take on this, is that they are sleeping. It is a perspective which depends on paying no attention or thought to what the trees are really doing. Those bare branches are a misleading focus.

 

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The 31st of October is traditionally Samhain, and also All Hallows Eve. It has a long tradition as a festival, as do Beltain, Imbolc and Lugnasadh, all popular with modern Pagans. However, Pagans in the Southern hemisphere have long since decided that it makes no sense to celebrate Samhain at the start of what, for them, is the spring. Southen calendars swap the festivals around, putting seasonal relevance before an ancestral connection with dates.

 

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For me, Autumn is far less about the dying away, and far more about the stocking up. Granted, the leaves beyond my window are turning, shades of yellow and brown creeping in amongst the greens. It’s late this year, but then, so was the spring.

 

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Going Back

There is no place in a regular wheel of the year where it makes sense to talk about going back, returning, backtracking or heading the wrong way. The cycle of the year does of course bring us round the same seasons, reliably, but there is always a sense of moving forward.  Turning, not returning. Time as we experience it only flows one way. However, there are many ways in which we can go back.

 

We can make geographical returns to places that were important to us, and practical returns to ways of being that we have parted from for a while. Paganism as a whole can be seen as an attempt to go back to something that was lost, and like all lost things, raises issue around how much can be reclaimed. Is anything gone forever? Is it possible to return? As the saying goes, we cannot step into the same river twice. Whatever we go back to is not the same as before. It will have changed over time, too, we will have changed.

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  • Ted Czukor
    Ted Czukor says #
    This is poetic and evocative, Nimue; thank you. Here in Phoenix, AZ we are out of touch with the "natural" changing of the seasons

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Death is not a winter activity, it does not come just with the falling of the leaves, but weaves its slow, funereal dance through every day of our lives. Each living breath for us times with a last breath for some other creature. We cut the corn for Lammas, (or at least, these days, someone cuts it and most of us never see it). The death of the corn represents the life of the tribe. And so we’ll dig out the one folk song every Pagan seems familiar with, and honour good old John Barleycorn reincarnating as beer. In celebrating the beer we can slide over the death of corn, and with it our own mortality. Reincarnation for us is really something to guess at, and when we are planted in the ground we do not put up fresh, green stalks of our own.

I’ve long been fascinated by the relationship death has with the four elements. Our methods for relinquishing the dead take us to all four of them, although different cultures favour some more than others, depending mostly on available resources and behaviour of climate. What I’m thinking about here is disposal of the body, not human sacrifice, although there are parallels. We can put the dead into the water. Most usually we’ll do that when at sea, in the absence of other means of disposal, and not wanting the danger of a rotting corpse on a boat. However, I recall reading about some ancient peoples who put their dead, or some of their dead into flowing water, by choice.

Returning the dead to the womb of the earth, we plant them, seed like. Natural decay processes will follow, but there is something strange about earth burial, the digging of the hole and raising of the mound. It accelerates and disguises what happens when we leave the dead upon the ground, but it tends to invite more complex ceremony.

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  • Nancy Vedder-Shults
    Nancy Vedder-Shults says #
    Nimue -- What I like best about this post is how your brought the "unsightliness" of death "to life" in your prose. No pun intend
  • Aleah Sato
    Aleah Sato says #
    I appreciate this essay, especially living in the Southwest deserts, knowing that this intensely hot, arid time of year brings dec

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In your standard Pagan wheel of the year arrangement, harvest happens in the autumn. We tend to celebrate it at the autumn equinox, when many regular Pagan teachings encourage you to reflect on wider ideas of harvest in your own life. However, if you grow soft fruit or salad vegetables, the odds are that you’ve been harvesting since some time in June.

 

The exact timing of harvests varies according to the weather. There needs to have been enough rain to fatten things up, and enough sun to bring about the necessary chemical changes. The shift of colour in berries and grains that shows ripening, is a chemical shift of sugars, hence the radical difference in taste between an apple in early summer and late autumn. Some fruits and roots do not ripen until frosts have acted on them to make changes in the chemistry.

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  • Lizann Bassham
    Lizann Bassham says #
    Thank you for your words on harvest and harvesting - it is indeed a lovely thought to think of the mini cycles of planting and har

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Generally speaking, modern Paganism seems to associate new beginnings with spring – often as early as Imbolc. Granted, in the northern hemisphere, by the second of February there are lambs and the sheep milk is flowing, and there are snowdrops in bloom, but it is the beginning of beginnings. Eggs aren’t laid until it is considerably warmer. If that early part of the year did not strike you as a good time to get moving, perhaps the nest-leaving season will.

For birds capable of flight, there are two ways of leaving the nest (aside from being eaten by a predator!). Water birds nest low, in reeds, on banks and are usually very close to the water. As soon as the chicks hatch, they are able to float about, and so it’s not unusual at this time of year to see tiny, day old ducklings on the water. When they are this tiny, ducklings have so little weight that they can run across the water’s surface, which is a lovely and strange thing to behold. Water birds become independent quickly, foraging their own food and getting about by paddling. It will be some time before they can fly.

Non-aquatic birds tend to nest higher up, although there are exceptions, like the lark, which nests in the grass. However, regardless of where it nests, a bird not designed for the water or purely to walk on land will not be able to leave the nest until it flies. It has to wait, calling for food, dependent wholly on its parents, until it has the feathers in place to get airborne. Leaving the nest is a big event. Unlike the water bird, a bird who has to fly cannot just waddle a few steps and float. They have a matter of seconds to transition from being something that has never flown, into something that can fly.

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