The Wheel of the Year is the cycle of life and death on the Earth, and the eight sabbats all have a different theme that depends upon where they fall in relation to the cycle (hence the word 'wheel') of the seasons. Because the sabbats are seasonal festivals, their timing changes from the Northern to the Southern Hemisphere. Take Yule (the Winter Solstice) for example - in the Northern Hemisphere, it happens in December. Down here in Australia, the Winter Solstice happens in June and thus so does Yule. The theme and meaning is basically the same, but the calendar timing is different.

But back to explaining the Sabbats. The Sabbats are solar festivals during which we celebrate the God (because the Goddess already has esbats on full Moons). Basically, each Sabbat tells the story of a different part of the Lord's life:

At Yule (June), the Lady gives birth to the Lord and recovers from her labour (does this Yule story sound familiar?). The long, cold nights have gone and the days are getting longer and warmer now.

At
Imbolc (August), the Lord is a small boy and the Lady continues her recovery. The Earth is warming and waking up.

At
Ostara (September), the Lord is a growing youth - a teenager. This is the middle of spring - everything is growing and maturing.

At
Beltane (November), the Lord is now a man. He falls in love with the Lady and they unite, with the Lady becoming pregnant by the Lord. The Earth is full of growing things and abundance.

At
Litha (December), the Lord and Lady are both at their most powerful. The days are at their longest and the weather its warmest.

At
Lammas (February), the Lord begins to grow old. The first grains are harvested and all the growing is over.

At
Mabon (March), the God has died. The Earth has received His body and given up the last of the harvest. Leaves are falling from the trees and the Earth is preparing for the long, cold winter without the light of the Sun.

At
Samhain (May), the God is Lord of the Underworld, resting and waiting to be reborn. Winter starts and the Earth goes into hibernation.

I personally love that story. The Sabbats are a time to celebrate the Lord, not to do magick. A ritual to honour and celebrate the Lord - complete with Sabbat-specific altar decorations - is a great idea. The Sabbats are really not a time for casting spells.

The first four sabbats are known as the Greater Sabbats or Cross-Quarter Days, and originate in ancient Europe (the ancient Chinese also worked them out). The Greater Sabbats aren't just random dates - Beltane, for example, wasn't accidentally assigned to the first of November. It occurs on that date because November 1st is a cross-quarter day - an astronomical event that occurs halfway between the Spring Equinox and the Summer Solstice, and which marked the beginning of summer for the ancient Europeans. You'll see a lot of websites and books that tell you the Greater Sabbats are Celtic in origin - 'Celtic', in this case, is a generic term for ancient Europeans living in the area of today's Germany/France/England/Ireland from about the Iron Age through to the time of the Roman invasion of continental Europe. We've named them Celts - they didn't call themselves that.

So, the Greater Sabbats fall halfway between equinoxes and solstices - Lammas between the Summer Solstice and Autumn Equinox, marking the start of ancient autumn; Samhain between the Autumn Equinox and Winter Solstice, marking the start of ancient winter; Imbolc between the Winter Solstice and Spring Equinox, marking the start of ancient spring; and Beltane between the Spring Equinox and Summer Solstice, marking the start of the ancient summer. These correspondences can also be seen in the theme of each Grater Sabbat. Now, if we want to get technical about it, the Greater Sabbats should really be described by the actual yearly dates of the cross-quarter days - these change from year to year, and can fall anywhere within about the first week to ten days of February, May, August and November. But, creatures of habit that we are, we celebrate them on the first day of those months. Anyway - the Greater Sabbats are:

Samhain - May 1st (winter)
Imbolc - August 1st (spring)
Beltane - November 1st (summer)
Lammas - February 1st (autumn)

The other four sabbats are solar festivals, whose timing is determined by the relationship of the Sun to the Earth, are the Lesser Sabbats, sometimes called Quarter Days:

Yule - the Winter Solstice (the shortest day)
Ostara - the Spring Equinox (equal day and night)
Litha - the Summer Solstice (the longest day)
Mabon - the Autumn Equinox (equal day and night)

The Wheel of the Year is generally considered to start at Samhain, the Celtic Festival of the Dead, where the veil between the world of men and the world of the spirits is at its thinnest.

Greater Sabbats

Samhain

Imbolc

Beltane

Lammas

Lesser Sabbats

Yule

Ostara

Litha

Mabon

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