by Scott Cunningham
The Sabbats tell us one of the stories of the Goddess and God, of their relationship and the effects this has on the fruitfulness of the Earth. There are many variations on these myths, but here's a fairly common one, woven in to the basic descriptions of the Sabbats.
The Goddess gives birth to a son, the God, at Yule (circa December 21). This is in no way an adaptation of Christianity. The Winter Solstice has long been viewed as a time of divine births. Mithras was said to have been born at this time. The Christians simply adopted it for
their use in 273 C.E. (Common Era).
Yule is a time of the greatest darkness and is the shortest day of the year. Earlier peoples noticed such phenomena and supplicated the forces of nature to lengthen the days and shorten the nights. Witches sometimes celebrate Yule just before dawn, then watch the Sun rise as
a fitting finale to their efforts.
Since the God is also the Sun, this marks the point of the year when the Sun is reborn as well. Thus, the Witches light fires or candles to welcome the Sun's returning light. The Goddess, slumbering through the Winter of Her labour, rests after Her delivery.
Yule is remnant of early rituals celebrated to hurry the end of Winter and the bounty of Spring, when food was once again readily available. To contemporary Witches it is a reminder that the ultimate product of death is rebirth, a comforting thought in these days of unrest.
Imbolc (February 2) marks the recovery of the Goddess after giving birth to the God. The lengthening periods of light awaken Her. The God is a young, lusty boy, but His power is felt in the longer days. The warmth fertilizes the Earth (the Goddess), and causes seeds to germinate and sprout. And so the earliest beginnings of Spring occur.
This is a Sabbat of purification after the shut-in life of Winter, through the renewing power of the Sun. It is also a festival of light and of fertility, once marked in Europe with huge blazes, torches and fire in every form. Fire here represents our own illumination and inspiration as much as light and warmth.
Imbolc is also known as Feast of Torches, Oimelc, Lupercalia, Feast of Pan, Snowdrop Festival, Feast of the Waxing Light, Brighid's Day, and probably by many other names. Some female Witches follow the old Scandinavian custom of wearing crowns of lit candles, but many more carry tapers during their invocations.
This is one of the traditional times for initiations into covens, and so self-dedication rituals, such as the one outlined in this Book of Shadows, can be performed or renewed at this time.
Ostara (circa March 21), the Spring Equinox, also known as Spring, Rites of Spring and Eostra's Day, marks the first day of true Spring. The energies of Nature subtly shift from the sluggishness of Winter to the exuberant expansion of Spring. The Goddess blankets the Earth with fertility, bursting forth from Her sleep, as the God stretches and grows to maturity. He walks the greening fields and delights in the abundance of nature.
On Ostara the hours of day and night are equal. Light is overtaking darkness; the Goddess and God impel the wild creatures of the Earth to reproduce. This is a time of beginnings, of action, of planting spells for future gains, and of tending the ritual gardens.
Beltane (May 1) marks the emergence of the young God into manhood. Stirred by the energies at work in Nature, He desires the Goddess. They fall in love, lie among the grasses and blossoms, and unite. The Goddess becomes pregnant of the God. Witches celebrate the symbol of Her fertility in ritual.
Beltane (also known as May Day) has long been marked with feasts and rituals. May poles, supremely phallic symbols, were the focal point of Old English village rituals. Many persons rose at dawn to gather flowers and green branches from the fields and gardens, using them to decorate the May pole, their homes and themselves.
The flowers and greenery symbolize the Goddess; the May pole the God. Beltane marks the return of vitality, of passion and hopes consummated.
May poles are sometimes used by Witches today during Beltane rituals, but the cauldron is a more common focal point of ceremony. It represents, of course, the Goddess - the essence of womanhood, the end of all desire, the equal but opposite of the May pole, symbolic of the God.
Midsummer, the Summer Solstice (circa June 21), also known as Litha, arrives when the powers of Nature reach their highest point. The Earth is awash in the fertility of the Goddess and God.
In the past, bonfires were leapt to encourage fertility, purification, health and love. The fire once again represents the Sun, feted on this time of the longest daylight hours. Midsummer is a classic time for magick of all kinds.
Lughnasadh (August 1) is the time of the first harvest, when the plants of Spring wither and drop their fruits or seeds for our use as well as to ensure future crops. Mystically, so too does the God lose His strength as the Sun rises farther in the South each day and the nights grow longer. The Goddess watches in sorrow and joy as She realizes that the God is dying, and yet lives on inside Her as Her child.
Lughnasadh, also known as August Eve, Feast of Bread, Harvest Home and Lammas, wasn't necessarily observed on this day. It originally coincided with the first reapings.
As Summer passes, Witches remember its warmth and bounty in the food we eat. Every meal is an act of attunement with Nature, and we are reminded that nothing in the universe is constant.
Mabon (circa September 21), the Autumn Equinox, is the completion of the harvest begun as Lughnasadh. Once again day and night are equal, poised as the God prepares to leave His physical body and begin the great adventure into the unseen, toward renewal and rebirth of the Goddess.
Nature declines, draws back its bounty, readying for Winter and its time of rest. The Goddess nods in the weakening Sun, though fire burns within Her womb. She feels the presence of the God even as He wanes.
At Samhain (October 31), the Craft say farewell to the God. This is a temporary farewell. He isn't wrapped in eternal darkness, but readies to be reborn of the Goddess at Yule.
Samhain, also known as November Eve, Feast of the Dead, Feast of Apples, Hallows, All Hallows and Hallowe'en, once marked the time of sacrifice. In some places this was the time when animals were slaughtered to ensure food throughout the depths of Winter. The God - identified with the animals - fell as well to ensure our continuing existence.
Samhain is a time of reflection, of looking back over the last year, of coming to terms with the one phenomenon of life over which we have no control - death.
The Craft feel that on this night the separation between the physical and spiritual realities is thin. Witches remember their ancestors and all those who have gone before.
After Samhain, Witches celebrate Yule, and so the Wheel of the Year is complete.
Surely there are mysteries buried here. Why is the God the son and then the lover of the Goddess? This isn't incest, this is symbolism. In this agricultural story (one of many Craft myths) the everchanging fertility of the Earth is represented by the Goddess and God. This myth speaks of the mysteries of birth, death and rebirth. It celebrates the wondrous aspects and beautiful effects of love, and honours women who perpetuate our species. It also points out the very real dependence that humans have on the Earth, the Sun and the Moon and of the effects of the seasons on our daily lives.
To agricultural peoples, the major thrust of this myth cycle is the production of food through the interplay between the Goddess and God. Food - without which we would all die - is intimately connected with the deities. Indeed, Witches see food as yet another manifestation of divine energy.
And so, by observing the Sabbats, Witches attune themselves to the Earth and to the deities. They reaffirm their Earth roots. Performing rituals on the nights of the Full Moon also strengthens their connections with the Goddess in particular.
It is the wise Witch who celebrates on the Sabbats and Esbats, for these are times of real as well as symbolic power. Honouring them in some fashion is an integral part of Witchcraft.
Note: Scott Cunningham is a great source of information for beginners, especially those trying to learn on their own. Here are a few of his very good books:
Wicca: A Guide for the Solitary Practitioner
Living Wicca: A Further Guide for the Solitary Practitioner
Earth Power: Techniques of Natural Magic
Book of Shadows © 2001, Dana (Huntress of the Dark)