Scattering Violets

An exploration of funerary traditions and innovations, care of the dead, and pagan perspectives on death

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The Turning Wheel: Folk Tradition and Myth


There’s a house across the hill from mine that has a wagon wheel mounted on a post in their front yard. It’s painted white with eight spokes, and in front of it is a small garden bed with flowers. I’ve seen wagon wheels in yards and even mounted on house exteriors before, but I never thought much about them until recently. When I noticed this particular wagon wheel on the way to my son’s school one morning, it struck me as one of those old traditions that have been practiced consistently for so long that people have forgotten what they mean. But still they use them, out of superstition (a code word for lingering belief in folk magic and religion), a love of tradition, or both.

I tried researching where this home decor tradition originated, but I didn’t have much luck. One forum member on Digital Spy suggested that it symbolizes putting down roots: "When you hang up your wheels, it means you've settled down." This seems like a reasonable assumption, and it might be part of the appeal. In general, however, the impression seems to be that it’s a vague hearkening toward older times, particularly American frontier days when settlers left the east coast to try their luck farther west, going farther and farther until some reached the California coast and Pacific Northwest (and displacing and decimating indigenous populations as they went -- my ancestors included). Most home design and decor sites, when discussing how to decorate with wagon wheels, refer to its “rustic charm” and “frontier style.” It signals a desire to (re)connect with ancestors and older ways, however superficially (and often dismissive or unaware of the cost of that westward settlement on Native peoples and their cultures).

The significance of the wagon wheel as a symbol goes further back than that, however. In ancient Indo-European iconography, the wheel is often a symbol of the sun, which is similarly circular and travels across the sky, marking time. Miranda Green in The Gods of the Celts notes that “the sun-disk [is] usually portrayed as a spoked wheel” (37). Wheel-like solar symbols were depicted on Celtic torcs, belt buckles, and other accessories, and miniatures were carried as talismans for luck, health, and protection. The Celtic dead were buried with wheels, too. As a symbol of movement, the process of continual change, and rebirth (the sun rising again every morning, fresh and new), sun-wheels in gravesites demonstrate the belief in the continuance of life after death, including an eventual reemergence into new life. It might even serve as a guide or vehicle for such a journey.

Sun wheels were also fit offerings for Celtic deities: they were cast into sacred bodies of water and given at Romano-Celtic temples. Romano-Celtic statues of sky deities, such as Taranis, were often depicted with wheels. This concept extends beyond Celts to other Indo-European cultures as well: remember Greek Helios with His golden chariot; Germanic Thor on His chariot pulled by goats; Germanic Nerthus, described by Tacitus as riding through villages and towns on a sacred cart; and Vedic Surya in a chariot pulled by seven horses.

The potent symbol of a solar wheel and related traditions persisted in some places in Europe even after Christianization, especially during holy days and nights. notes that "after the harvest work was complete, celebrants joined with Druid priests to light a community fire using a wheel that would cause friction and spark flames" during Samhain celebrations. In Germany, a similar practice occurred at Midsummer. Giant wheels would be dragged to hilltops, stuffed with straw, set on fire, and then sent downhill.

Whenever I pass by the house with the wagon wheel now, I think of the long history of the wheel as a symbol of vitality and protection. I’m sure -- though I’ve never spoken to the people who placed the wheel there -- that it gives them a sense of having good luck, stability and connection to their ancestors, even if they might not voice these feelings (or even be aware of them). Symbols don’t need words or concrete understanding to work. Our cultures have experienced drastic changes over millennia, but our love of certain images and powers persists. Sure, they may be reinterpreted and altered over time, but there is a continuity that still holds meaning. We can grasp onto that meaning and power to revive old ways and beliefs, which will be a little different than before but are still powerful, still meaningful and vibrant.



Unlinked Works Cited

Green, Miranda. The Gods of the Celts. The History Press, 1986.

Image by Colter Olmstead via Unsplash

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The Cunning Wife is an animist, writer, diviner, crafter, witch, and spirit worker and traveler. Her work has been published in a number of online and print magazines, including Witches & Pagans and Hagstone Publishing's Stone, Root, and Bone ezine. She gets excited about scholarly essays and books on folklore, magical tales, and ancient spiritual practices, and is passionate about sharing that information. She is also an avid crafter of magical and mundane items. She believes that there is magic in the mundane, just waiting to be remembered.  


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