Reimagining the Wheel of the Year

Many contemporary pagan traditions, such as Wicca and Druidry, divide the year into eight equal pie pieces known as the Wheel of the Year. The Wheel follows the agricultural cycle which is acknowledged both directly and as a metaphor for the process of self-improvement and spiritual growth.

In this time of ecological and environmental crises, practitioners of earth-based spirituality can move towards deeper interconnection and bring the Wheel of the Year with them.

Where Did the Wheel Come From?

Each section of the year begins with a holiday or festival called a Sabbat. Four, known as the quarters, are tied to the solar cycle – two equinoxes and two solstices. In Wicca, they are called Yule, Ostara, Litha, and Mabon.

The others, known as the cross-quarter days, fill in between them. They are Samhain, Imbolc, Beltane, and Lughnasadh.

Wiccan Wheel of the Year

The celebration of each of the Sabbats is a modern take on an ancient pagan festival. They are tied to Christian feast days, likely due to “borrowing” which occurred between the faiths, first to conquer and then to reclaim.

The eight festivals in their present form have been around since the 1950s when Gerald Gardner’s Bricket Wood Coven and the Order of Bards, Ovates, and Druids agreed to a common approach. There are many other pagan celebrations, both ancient and contemporary (check out our pagan celebration calendar), but we will stick to the Wheel of the Year.

The Agricultural Basis for the Wheel

The Wheel’s Sabbats follow the agricultural cycle. Ostara, for example, is the spring equinox and celebrates the birth of bunnies, chicks, lambs, and other animal babies, as well as the sprouting of seeds.

For some pagans the land may still be snow-covered in mid-March and chicks may not hatch until the end of June. Beltane is a time to light bonfires and cavort in the fields to petition the Goddess for fertility, but you may have to travel a long distance to see a farmer’s field.

And perhaps your first harvest at Lughnasadh is not grain or corn but just the one scrawny zucchini that grew after you fed most of the flowers to your bearded dragon.

Pagans are not all gardeners, much less farmers. Thanks to greenhouses and long-haul truckers hauling food from places that stay warm year-round, the life-and-death necessity of good crop yields and fertile cows are not our current reality.

Our jobs are often completely unrelated to agriculture, and we may live in urban areas far from fields.

The Wheel and Personal Growth

Disconnected from the agricultural cycle by location or vocation, pagans have considered the Wheel of the Year a metaphor for personal growth. What we plant and harvest may be relationships, business ventures, or art.

For those who let the squirrels eat their eggplants again, the Wheel simply reminds us to put the magic of intention and gratitude behind whatever we want to manifest over the year.

There is value in practices that encourage gratitude and bridge us to our ancestors. But there is also value in changing and growing our traditions to address the needs of the day.

In our current state of environmental devastation, climate change, and mass extinction, are our human- and Euro-centric celebrations of planting and harvesting, whether actual or metaphoric, sufficient to address a deeper ecological awareness that is needed?

Squirrel Photo Ame Vanorio

Photo Ame Vanorio

Deep Ecology

In general, we pagans are ahead of the curve. Conservation, permaculture, herbalism, and foraging are increasingly part of our conversations and lifestyles, but those still feel human dominated.

The questions are:

  • “What am I allowing to remain wild?

  • “What can nature give me?” instead of “How can I earn the trust of nature so that I am welcomed as the part of it I believe myself to be?”

It is possible to spiral our work with the Wheel of the Year past the agricultural cycle, past our self-improvement metaphors, past even gratitude, and around to a deep immersion in the local ecology.

Beyond what the land gives you and what you give to the land, the Wheel offers an opportunity to simply be with the land and its beings.

It is hard for us humans to simply observe or listen without naming, analyzing, or problem-solving.

For the most part, that is what our ceremonies and rituals do.

We list what we are thankful for. We consider what we need to manifest. We ask our chosen representatives of spirit to help with the steps of bringing it into being.

What if you did not need to figure it out?

  • Could you just sit in the present with the non-human animals and plants you share your space with and just be there?

  • Could you, like them, just experience living?

  • Could months or years of that kind of mindful practice inform a different kind of celebration?

Editors Note: Guest Author, Debbie Philp, has a wonderful podcast called My Shamanic Life. It’s one of my favorites and I highly recommend it. This episode is about her “sit spot”, inspired by the book, Coyote’s Guide to Connecting with Nature, by Jon Young. In this episode. Learn what a sit spot is and get some tips on finding your own.

Making the Wheel Local

Rethinking the celebrations that we have dutifully put on our calendars to repeat each year requires a willingness to let go of some parts of them. Solitaries, covens, and groves will have to come up with new ideas for community ritual and social gatherings.

It is not going to be instant, but we can begin, and we must if we are going to evolve our spiritual traditions to meet the most pressing needs of our time.

  1. The first step might be a small one. Invite your group to go outside and just be. A regular practice of mindfulness, especially in a wild place, becomes the basis for knowing what the Wheel of the Year truly is where you are.

  2. Consider how your gatherings or solitary rituals might be more ecologically aware. Simple options include providing vegetarian or vegan options in shared meals and choosing candles that are not made with fossil-fuel derived paraffin.

Check out our video on sourcing candles!

3. Go deeper by identifying the plants you will be trampling when you cast your outdoor circle, so your ceremony does not put threatened natives at risk. That kind of attention requires research.

4. Learn about your local native trees and shrubs by observing them. Put your plant identification book aside and simply look at the plants around you at the Sabbats.

  • How quickly do they grow?

  • Who visits the flowers, the leaves, the bark?

  • What parts of the plant get eaten?

  • When does it bud out or grow new needles?

  • When does it create seeds?

  • When do they fall?

  • How do the animals contribute to seed dispersal?

5. Avoid interfering by responding to your human need to help. You may even notice how the trees respond to drought, heat, heavy rain, or snow. Let the plants teach you.

Consider what you have learned when you plan your Wheel of the Year rituals. Which local tree has the most “going on” at Imbolc? At Lughnasadh? Which has buds showing at Ostara? Which deciduous trees are showing their fall colors by Mabon? In your rituals and celebrations, you can both honor the trees and draw your own symbolic meaning from their current state.

6. You might also pick a wild non-human animal species native to your area and go through the same process. Remember that you, as a human, are considered something to fear by all but some apex predators, so do not chase or sneak up on your chosen animal, disturb nests, or anything else that may cause undue panic.

Simply sit quietly and mindfully and watch.

Without looking at a natural history book, observe what the animal eats, what hunts them, how they respond to the seasonal changes and weather.

  • Do they migrate?

  • Hibernate?

  • When do you see young?

  • Match those events to a Sabbat.

Urban Pagans

Even in cities, there is an ecology to connect with. Plants pop up around building foundations and through sidewalk cracks. There are birds, small mammals, and insects all around.

How these beings adapt to the buzz of human activity can be a source of inspiration for you.

Bring It All Together

In the end, you or your group will have a Wheel of the Year that is tied to your local ecology.

The rituals you craft will reflect the relationship you have forged with the land and the beings who share it. And, when those you now care for are threatened, you will have a deep well of spiritual connection to draw on when you stand up to help.

Guest Author, Debbie Philp is an interfaith minister, a Shamanic Reiki Master Teacher, and a state-licensed wildlife rehabilitator who specializes in injured freshwater turtles. She has been on an eclectic pagan path for three decades and recently found her spiritual home in Druidry. Her ministry and teachings are centered in spiritual ecology and reflect her commitment to deep interconnection with the Earth's wild beings.