Exploring the Sabbats
by Elizabeth Barrette
One thing that nature religions share is an interest in seasonal cycles. The details vary widely according to time period and geographic region, but the general idea of honoring certain holidays holds true. So whether your tradition is Gaian, Pagan, Goddess Worship, or some other Earth-centered belief system, you’re in the right place. The sabbats are the eight high holy days. Four of them – Spring Equinox, Summer Solstice, Fall Equinox, and Winter Solstice – mark path of the Earth around the Sun, so we call these the "Quarter Days." Their exact times change from year to year, so check an ephemeris. The other four – Imbolc, Beltane, Lammas, and Samhain – form a sort of cross between the rest, so we call them the "Cross-Quarter Days." Together, these eight holidays make up the Wheel of the Year. Now let’s take a look at each of the sabbats in turn.
Alternate Names and Spellings: Samuin, Hallowe’en, All Hallows’ Eve, Nutcrack Night, Dia de los Muertos, Mischief Night, Martinmas, Shadowfest.
Date(s): October 31/November 1.
Deities: Herne, Osiris, Cailleach, Moingfhinne, Carridwen, Hecate.
Colors: Orange, black, purple.
Incenses and Herbs: Copal, myrrh, mugwort, rosemary, hazelwood.
Traditional Motifs: Black cats, broomsticks, pumpkins, dead leaves, nuts, candy, bones, apples, pomegranates, costumes, tricks, ghosts, bonfires.
History: "Samhain" means "end of summer," dividing the year into a light half and a dark half. All crops had to be harvested by Samhain. At this time the Celts would slaughter most of their livestock and bring the rest inside for the winter. Masked "soulers" representing the Ancestors would go from door to door demanding tribute and threatening pranks if no tribute was forthcoming. While some cultures tried to bribe or frighten away the spirits of the dead, others invited them in for a "Dumb Feast" or shared meal. The hearth fires would be extinguished and then relit from a communal bonfire. Samhain is the Witches’ New Year.
Mythology: The Veil thins, allowing the dead to return. Herne leads the Wild Hunt, and the Faery Folk also ride forth. In Celtic and Norse tales, many kings and heroes meet their death on Samhain, often by burning or drowning. In Wiccan lore, the King of the Waning Year reaches the shore of the Shining Isle, where He becomes the Lord of Death and also the seed of His own rebirth, so that the Sun Child is conceived in the womb of the Goddess. In Egypt, people mourn the death of Osiris as the Nile’s water level drops. Chaos reigns, normal order steps aside, and all manner of strange things. All lore agrees that this is no time to wander alone, especially through the wilderness and/or after dark.
Ritual Activities: Divination is popular; singles seek clues about their future spouse, and anyone may scry about the coming year. People light bonfires for protection, purification, offerings, and celebration. In contemporary rituals, Pagans may meditate on death and the afterlife, burn symbols of something they wish to give up, explore their past lives, practice divination, dress in costumes meaningful to them, give children candy to sweeten the future, perform services for elders to make peace with the past, honor those who have recently passed into the next world, or send messages to their beloved dead.
Alternate Names and Spellings: Jul, Yule, Yuletide, Midwinter, Feill Fionnain, Alban Arthan.
Date(s): December 20-23.
Deities: Lucina, Frey, Nerthus, Woden, Herne, Oak King, Holly King, Atthar, Sunna, Sul, Amaterasu, Isis, Osiris, Apollo.
Colors: Red, green, silver, gold, white, and icy blues.
Incense: Pine, cedar, frankincense & myrrh, cinnamon, orange, bayberry.
Traditional Motifs: Evergreens, mistletoe, ivy, icicles, snowflakes, Yule Log (both the fireplace kind and the cake kind), gifts, reindeer, cookies, bells, solar disks, candles, wren, goose, wassail, eggnog.
History: "Yule" comes from the Old Norse "iul" meaning "wheel" and it marks the Norse New Year. People burned a sacred Yule Log all night long, saving a piece to light the next year’s fire and scattering the ashes over the fields. Druids gathered the sacred mistletoe. In Britain, the "Horn Dance" drives out winter. Another custom, ranging as far as Britain to Greece, involves the hunting and killing of the wren, symbol of winter. In China the emperor performed sacrifices; in Swaziland the king withdrew for several days before emerging to celebrate the sun’s return. Early Christians adapted Winter Solstice motifs to create Christmas, in which the birth of Christ resonates with other Sun/Son Gods born at this time. Also the figure Nik, another guise of Woden, became the gift-distributing St. Nicholas … and then modern Santa Claus.
Mythology: Numerous cultures feature a Goddess giving birth to a Sun God: Isis and Horus in Egypt, Leto and Apollo in Greece, etc. The Hopi kachinas emerge from their underground home to join the tribe. In Italy, the good witch Befana flies down chimneys to bring presents. In England and Germany, this is also the time of the Wild Hunt, led by Herne or Woden respectively. In Japan, the Sun Goddess Amaterasu emerges from Her cave. In Wicca, the Great Mother brings forth the Sun Child. Alternatively the Oak King, God of the Waxing Year, vanquishes the Holly King, God of the Waning Year. The Goddess shows Her aspect of Life-in-Death.
Ritual Activities: Folk customs ensure the sun’s return. The Yule Log burns. "Wassailing" and "caroling" remain popular. Contemporary Pagan rituals most often take the form of a sacred play, enacting the battle of the Holly King and the Oak King, or celebrating the birth of the Sun Child. They may also exchange gifts, meditate on themes of rebirth and restoration, decorate an evergreen tree, or hold festive dances like the traditional "Horn Dance." Some stay up all through this longest night to greet the sunrise with much rejoicing.
Alternate Names and Spellings: Oimelc, Brigantia, Brigide’en, Bride’s Day, Lupercus, Candlemas, Candelaria.
Date(s): February 1-2
Deities: Brigid, Persephone, Demeter, Hagia Sophia, Juno Februata.
Colors: Red, white, pink, silver.
Incense: Red sandalwood, frankincense, lemon, lavender, birch, willow.
Traditional Motifs: Candles, bread, alfalfa sprouts, Bride dollies, earliest spring flowers like snowbells, inspiration, quickening, prophecy and purification, seeds, poetry.
History: "Imbolc" means "ewe’s milk" and refers to the start of lambing season. Countryfolk looked for the first signs of spring: swelling buds on trees, animals stirring from hibernation. Germany’s "Badger Day" became America’s "Groundhog Day," an example of weather divination, popular in many cultures. In Rome the Luperci, or priests of Pan, ran through the streets carrying goatskin thongs, with which to flog women to make them fertile; some women ran naked to give the priests a better target!
Mythology: The goddess Brigid has three spheres of influence – inspiration, healing, and smithcraft – which She shares with Her followers on this holiday. A footprint in the hearth signifies that the God has come to Bride’s bed, promising a fertile year. Demeter searches through the darkness for Her lost daughter, the journey lit only by a single candle; Persephone sees the light and they reunite. In Wicca, the Child Sun begins to grow strong and show His promise. The Oak King unites with the Goddess, increasing His power as the days lengthen; the Holly King retreats to the Underworld where He rests until the Summer Solstice. Yule decorations such as evergreen boughs must be taken down and burnt, and the house should be cleaned, to make way for the new season’s growth.
Ritual Activities: Folk rituals customarily feature the making of crosses or other shapes from straw or rushes, with last year’s crosses being burned. They may also involve dressing a corn dolly to represent the goddess Bride, who is then placed in a special bed along with a phallic wand. A young girl may wear a crown of lights to stand for the Maiden Goddess. Contemporary Pagan rituals may focus on blessing a cauldron of seeds, composing or reciting poetry, prayers for healing, lighting candles to symbolize wishes or plans for the coming year, scrying, or spring cleaning. Initiations are traditionally held on this holiday.
Alternate Names and Spellings: Vernal Equinox, Eostre, Ostara, Alban Eiler, Lady Day.
Date(s): March 20-21.
Deities: Cybele, Attis, Mithras, Tammuz, Adonis, Eostre, Mielikki, Tapio, Ishtar, Venus, Koroleva, Persephone.
Colors: Spring green, pink, pale yellow, turquoise, lavender, peach, white.
Incense: Violet, narcissus, honeysuckle, lemongrass, spearmint, ash.
Traditional Motifs: Rabbits, chicks and ducklings, lambs, eggs (especially decorated), ribbons, baskets, spring flowers like tulips, solar fire-wheel, chocolate, treasure hunts.
History: "Eostre" comes from the same root word as "east." Northern farmers began to hire help for spring planting at this time, while Mediterranean farmers celebrated the sprouting. In Germany, villagers lit bonfires with a spark obtained from a priest. In Persia, people exchanged red eggs for luck; in Greece, people tapped eggs together, with the uncracked egg bringing the luck. Faberge eggs, invented in 1880, bring decoration to its pinnacle of beauty.
Mythology: A "Cosmic Egg" appears in tales around the world, including India, Indonesia, Africa, Greece, South and Central America, Estonia, Finland, and Polynesia. The Germanic/Saxon goddess Eostre counts among Her symbols the hare, the egg, and the color red. Persephone returns from Hades to Earth, and paints the spring flowers. In the Stations of the Goddess, the Spring Equinox represents initiation. In Wicca, the Prince of the Sun courts the Maiden Goddess. The Oak King flourishes; the forest puts forth new leaves. Light and dark stand in balance, with light ascending.
Ritual Activities: People everywhere enjoy decorating, hunting, or balancing eggs. Some fill baskets with eggs, candy, and flowers. Contemporary Pagan rituals may incorporate such elements as breaking free of past hindrances, celebrating the new season, planting, fertility, and courting. Pagans often meditate on balance at this time of year, and seek to overcome their "shadow" side. They make charms for prosperity, protection, health, etc. This is a traditional time for replacing a worn broom or staff.
Alternate Names and Spellings: Bealtaine, Walpurgisnacht, Walburga, Rudemas, Floralia, Mayday, May Eve.
Date(s): April 30-May 1.
Deities: Flora, Walpurga, Maia, Demeter, Danu, Bel, Balor, Pan, Cernunnos, Jack-in-the-Green.
Colors: Gold, green, purple, red, white.
Incense: Musk, vanilla, rose, patchouli, woodruff, galangal, oak.
Traditional Motifs: Ribbons, early summer flowers like hawthorn, May Pole, dancing, courting, baskets, round breads, figs, apples, nuts, May Wine, cattle, goats, bonfires, the Tree of Life.
History: "Beltane" means "Bel’s fire" and ties the holiday to the Celtic god of light. These sacred fires were kindled by drilling into an oak plank. Ancient Celts drove their cattle between the balefires to ensure protection and fertility, at this time they also moved their herds to the summer pastures. The Harvest Bride, the last sheaf of grain from last year’s harvest, was ritually burned. Many cultures observed the Great Rite, making love in the fields to encourage the crops to grow. Villagers would decorate their doors with May flowers, carry flower crowns, and wear outlandish costumes in festive processions.
Mythology: Jack-in-the-Green appears at folk festivals, representing the Forest God in His prime; another popular figure is the "Oss" or "Hobby Horse." The Goddess transforms from Maiden to Mother and Queen. In the love-chase, the God pursues the Goddess as She flees playfully. Many stories describe a woman "neither clothed nor unclothed, neither walking nor riding" amidst many other riddles, an allusion to the coquettish Beltane aspect. In Wicca, the God and Goddess marry. The Faery Folk ride on May Eve, as does the Wild Hunt, so travelers – and young people abroad on the season’s business – should take care. However, this is also the one time when it is safe to cut hawthorn, the "Flowering May."
Ritual Activities: Young women spend the night in the woods, weaving flower crowns, and in the morning they wash their faces in the fresh dew for beauty. Young men make the May Pole and decorate it with ribbons. People draw lots to elect a May Queen and King. Then everyone dances around the May Pole, weaving the ribbons together. Couples may jump over a broomstick or the bonfire’s coals. Contemporary Pagans usually observe the Great Rite symbolically, with a chalice and athame, but sometimes couples use the old-fashioned method in private. In ritual, Pagans may meditate on desire, cast spells to attract a suitable partner, light fires, burn symbols of things they wish to abandon, make flower art, or play whimsical games.
Alternate Names and Spellings: Midsummer, Litha, Alban Hefin
Date(s): June 20-22.
Deities: Apollo, Balder, Oak King, Holly King, Sul, Isis, Al-llat, Hestia, Carridwen.
Colors: Sea green, red, gold, brown.
Incense: Frangipani, violet, tangerine, cedar, St. John’s wort, basil, fir.
Traditional Motifs: Oak leaves, acorns, antlers, straw wheels, sows and boars, bees, honey, mead, destiny cakes, floating candles, cauldrons, marigolds, sunflowers, ivy.
History: "Litha" came from the Anglo-Saxon word for "calm." "Solstice" means "sun stands still" and indeed that seems to be the case. Many stone circles and other ancient constructions were built to mark the summer solstice and other solar holidays. Shakespeare’s famous play A Midsummer Night’s Dream takes place at this time. In Christian times, the solstice festival became associated with St. John’s Day. In Europe and North Africa, people sent burning hoops or wheels of straw rolling downhill to symbolize the start of light’s descent. In Egypt, priestesses celebrated the Burning of the Lamps. In Greece, the priests of Poseidon and priestesses of Athena made offerings of fruit and honeycombs.
Mythology: This holiday marks the longest day of the year, time of the sun’s greatest power. The Hopi kachinas return to their kivas, leaving gifts and blessings for the children. The Wild Hunt rides, not to bring terror but to bring needed rain, ensuring a bountiful harvest. The Green Man flourishes in the forest. The Oak King, God of the Waxing Year, falls to the Holly King, God of the Waning Year; and the Goddess presides in Her aspect of Death-in-Life. In Wicca, the Sun King embraces the Queen of Summer, in the love that is death. This is both a fire festival and a water festival, combining the masculine and feminine elements.
Ritual Activities: It is customary to get up early and observe the sunrise on this, the longest day of the year. Folk rituals typically include the harvesting of the first fruits, ripe with summer. Contemporary Pagans may practice divination related to romance, work sex magic, bless crops, share destiny cakes, sing the God into the growing grain, enact the battle between the Oak King and the Holly King, make charms, gather herbs, or commune with faeries. At night, people sometimes light floating candles or paper boats and set them adrift on a lake or river. This is a traditional time of year for weddings.
Alternate Names and Spellings: Lughnasadh, Cornucopia, Thingtide.
Date(s): August 1-2.
Deities: Lugh, John Barleycorn, Adonis, Dionysus, Grain God, Dark Goddess, Crone, Great Mother, Demeter, Blue Corn Girl, Juno Augusta.
Colors: Gold, yellow, bone, fawn, olive green, black.
Incense: Copal, sandlewood, frankincense, heather, yarrow, hazelwood.
Traditional Motifs: Corn, wheat, God-shaped breads, raisins, wine, beer, sunflowers, cornshuck God figures, games and athletic competitions.
History: The word "Lammas" means "loaf mass" and refers to the primary focus of this holiday. Traditional cultures marked their first harvests at this time, celebrating grains and grain products like bread and beer, and they began to preserve foods for winter use. Bread represented prosperity, hospitality, and survival itself. In Europe, the last sheaf harvested became the "Harvest Bride" and was honored in dances, processions, and other celebrations. The Celts held tribal gatherings at this time, an opportunity for young people to mingle. This is also a traditional time of sacrifice, as with the bulls that represented the Sacred King.
Mythology: In many stories, a god or godlike figure meets his death now; often a younger god wresting power from an older god, or a god brought down by female power. The overall motif is sacrifice. Betrayed by his wife, Lugh dies at the hand of her lover. Several Native American tribes welcome a Corn Goddess at this time. In Wicca, the Mother Goddess becomes the Reaper and slays the Corn God. The Oak King journeys to the Underworld where He will rest until the Winter Solstice; the Holly King strengthens His power over the season as the days grow ever shorter.
Ritual Activities: These usually revolve around the harvest and sacrifice. Folk rituals involve reaping the grain and binding the last sheaf into the Harvest Bride, with attendant festivities. Contemporary Pagan rituals usually enact the death of the Corn God at the hands of the Goddess; some celebrate the ripeness of fields and projects instead. Pagans may mediate on such things as sacrifice, the way death feeds life, ripening, bountiful harvests, reaping what they have sown, and so forth. They bake bread into God-shaped loaves and share it during the ceremony.
Alternate Names and Spellings: Mabon, Modron, Michaelmas, Alban Elfed, Winter Finding, Harvest Home.
Date(s): September 21-22.
Deities: Modron, Mabon, Maponus, Herne, Cernunnos, Mannanan Mac Ler, Lord of Shadows, Ishtar, Isis, Demeter, Persephone, Grain Mother, Rhiannon.
Colors: Orange, red, yellow, russet, gold, chocolate.
Incense: Clove, nutmeg, cinnamon, myrrh, sage, juniper, pine, cedar.
Traditional Motifs: Cornucopia, autumn leaves, pine cones, gourds, corncobs, mushrooms, grapes, apples, geese, chrysanthemums.
History: "Mabon" means "son." In some agricultural communities, this festival marked the end of harvest, and the start of winter preparations. The second harvest was the fruit harvest, bringing in such things as apples that would keep all winter. Farmers would settle accounts, paying rents and other fees to landowners; they also gathered seed for next year’s crops. A feast celebrated healers and justice bringers. People reaped what they had sown earlier. In the sky, light and dark hang in balance, but dark is ascending. The Greeks observed the Eleusinian Rites at this time.
Mythology: Mabon is an ancient Celtic god; Modron is his mother, an aspect of the Great Goddess. In the Welsh tale "Culhwch and Olwen," Mabon appears as the Great Prisoner, stolen in infancy from his mother. Some sources suggest this holiday celebrates his release and return to her. In India, the harvest maiden is represented by an unmarried girl and a bunch of balsam plants; she stands for the seeds that promise next year’s crop. In the Mediterranean, Persephone descends into the Underworld. In the Stations of the Goddess, the Fall Equinox represents repose. In Wicca, the Sun King has become the Lord of the Shadows, sailing west to the Shining Isle.
Ritual Activities: The overall theme is of rebalancing and setting things aright. Summer decorations come down, autumn decorations go up. Folk rituals typically give thanks for a successful harvest. Contemporary Pagans may enact myths like the reunion of Mabon and Modron, celebrate the autumn storms, seek reconciliation, meditate on how their projects have matured, salute the retreating sun, and honor the Elders who have "gone to seed" and are ready to share their wisdom. One widespread custom is the offering of grain in baskets; a modern version is gathering donations for a local food pantry.
— Elizabeth Barrette lives in central Illinois with my lifepartner, in a large Victorian farmhouse with a yard frequented by wildlife. An avid wordsmith, she works as a writer and editor, doing poetry, articles, essays, reviews, interviews, short stories. She is a former editor of PanGaia magazine and has written several popular books published by Llewellyn including the popular 2012 Magical Almanac and Composing Magic and many more. She is a member of The Greenhaven Tradition, and Fieldhaven Coven in central Illinois.
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