The Breaking of the Wheel of the Year

It’s been years and years since I last did any sort of formal rituals for the Wheel of the Year; I was never Wiccan, but the eight celebrations have been adopted by a wide range of pagans. For years I tried to use them as well, and it never really stuck. While I definitely appreciate the role of seasonal celebrations for individuals and communities, in my own practice I could never quite get over the feeling that doing a special ritual every six weeks was a bit contrived. It’s convenient for a group because it’s a set bunch of times for everyone to plan to get together for a shared ritual experience, and for some solitary pagans, too, it’s an opportunity to break out of the everyday routine and re-connect with the sacred in a deeper way.

Maybe if I was part of a working or ritual group I’d be more inclined to have these special touchstones throughout the year, and there is a part of me that feels a bit wistful about them. But on my own, I have the freedom to acknowledge special moments with nature whenever they arise, and have those as my sacred times. There’s no scheduling necessary, no potluck to cook for. Instead, it’s moments like “picking the first ripe tomatoes of the summer”, and “hey, the maple tree finally started growing leaves again” (and even “thank the gods the noisy-ass starlings finally raised their last brood in my apartment’s ceiling”.) This is not necessarily a superior way of connecting compared to the Wheel, but it’s one that’s fit me better over time.

I think part of the problem with the Wheel is that until the past few years I had little context for it. It was just something a lot of pagans did as part of the pagan package, written by Cunningham and others and used as an excuse for everything from Pagan Pride to pagan coffee klatches. But “old harvest rituals” don’t mean the same to a farmer, as to a city dweller whose food comes from the store and who doesn’t even have a window box of flowers. That was me for a number of years, first due to lack of transportation and money, and then a period of depression and inactivity in general. When I moved to Portland, almost immediately the Land embraced me, and my reconnection with it, and myself, and everything else, became so easy, and a lot of what I’d done as “what’s expected” made more sense.

This included renewed interest and activity in gardening, and for the first time I got a taste of what those old harvest rites were for. It’s one thing to watch a tree grow and shed leaves each year outside the window. It’s another thing entirely to plant a seed, watch it grow, coax it through drought and flood and disease, pick its fruits and seeds, and then bury it in the compost heap at the end of the season. Only then did the excitement over spring, the flourishing of summer, the harvesting of autumn, and the sleep of winter, begin to fall into place just a bit more.

And so it was that I spent my autumn equinox with my hands in the dirt. My community garden plot was in sore need of some work, and so I spent a great deal of the weekend weeding, putting down mulch, fertilizing the soil, and planting the fall crops of kale, spinach, radishes and more. In those hours I felt more connected to the Land than I ever had when standing in a circle with my athame and special ritual dress. The scent of the earth and rain spoke more than my chanted words, and every seed I dropped into the furrows carried more hope for the coming Winter than the candles lit in my ritual room.

Seeds in autumn, indeed! I’m not the first person to point out that using religious directives created in the U.K. in other areas can be pretty limiting. Yet I’m fortunate enough to live in a planting zone where the winter is mild enough that even the autumn is a sowing time, and deep winter and early spring the harvest. Here in Portland, the planting and harvesting cycles blend and flow together, not so much a strict progression as an ever-shifting dance where the participants step in and bow out at different times throughout the year.

Some people claim they feel the presence of death and the ancestors more around Samhain. Not so for me. I sense it all the time. Every day, every moment, something is passing away, and something else is benefiting from that death. Trees fall in the woods, and fungi and lichens flourish on the dying bark. Bears may hibernate in the winter, but bacteria continue to be fruitful and multiply in its gut and on its skin. I myself was born on Samhain Day, November 1, proof that spring does not have the monopoly on new babies. And it’s like that for the other spokes on the Wheel; everything we celebrate at one point of the year can easily resonate throughout the rest, if you know where to look.

The Wheel is broken. It doesn’t roll right here. Sure, it stumbles along the path, but it doesn’t fit the ruts worn down by other, more local vehicles. It ill-fits the conveyance of this place, which is far more than the planting and harvesting of wheat and corn, and the birthing of cattle and sheep. This land–and perhaps all lands–are places of constant, daily births and deaths and rebirths, of sowings and harvests. Here the sun never goes away entirely; though we tilt away from it a bit more, it still rises every morning and greets us, even behind a shroud of clouds.

The stories we tell–the Oak King and the Holly King, the god who is born of the goddess and who dies again only to be reborn–they oversimplify the many-layered cycles of the Land. Nature is not only that which we can easily see or which most benefits us. It is the midwinter birth and the spring harvest, the many hermaphroditic beings that far outnumber the sexually dimorphic ones by individual count if not species, the odd warm day in January or the snow in June.

Of course, if you still prefer the Wheel of the Year, the Oak and Holly King’s drama, and the idea that the Divine looks like us humans (and not our gut flora who are much more plentiful on this earth than we), there’s nothing wrong with that. My dissatisfaction with these things does not extend beyond myself. Still, just as others have pointed out that the Wheel doesn’t match the Southern hemisphere, and West is not always where the water is in every place, so I think it’s good to examine the reasons to celebrate throughout the year where you are, if you like. Think about being more specific–celebrate the time when the kale is harvested and the time when the hummingbirds build nests, mark the passing of an old tree that fell on the third of May and the birth of a kitten on Valentine’s Day.

These things are more important to me than standing in someone’s living room wearing robes, burning candles, and reciting words written for an ideal based on a land I’ve never been to. Let me eat not cakes and ale from the store, but lettuce and carrots from my garden; let me serve the meal I prepared on the table I painted with the flora and fauna of my Land. Let everything I do be a breath I share with this place that has given me a home. In a world where my computer is made with parts from China, where my winter apples come from Brazil, and my ancestors largely hail from Europe, let me ground myself more deeply in the place I am now, to appreciate it and its gifts and its limitations. Surrounded by global interdependence and diversity, let me also grow local roots. Let me learn the mysteries and teachings of what’s north, east, south and west of here, what is embedded in the earth and what breathes in the sky I see every day. Let it be these things and places and secrets that I celebrate, those which have the most meaning for me in this here and now.

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37 thoughts on “The Breaking of the Wheel of the Year

  1. Like you, I struggled with the popular “Wheel”…I celebrate a much altered set of sabbats…the solar solstices and lunar-linked Samhain and Beltane and one wild February romp blending Roman Lupercalia and some Nordic influences. The turning seasons do speak to me, but my celebrations are working ones….not ‘party’ ritual occasions. Also like you, I feel Death most of the time, but then…the Labyrinth is right there, day after day and week after week.

    And yes, my Equinox had my hands in the dirt, too! And the carrots are delicious!

    • I like the idea of “working celebrations”. It’s a good time for gratitude for the ability to do these things–gratitude that I am still able-bodied enough to work, have the finances to buy seeds and supplies, am fortunate enough to have a community garden space, etc. Honoring through actions, if that makes sense.

      • It does make sense! We are fully engaged in making the half of the back yard not given over to the Labyrinth into a very functional veggie garden…it will be a big part of the husband’s retirement after next year, and his recovery from PTSD. August sees me making jam, February finds me making candles and beeswaxy balms….but the “normal” sabbats never grabbed me at those busy times of year.

  2. You managed to state very beautifully the reason I don’t follow the Wheel, and didn’t even when I was Wiccan. Here I get a lot more joy out of hearing the cardinals waking me up in the morning and the Cateydids lulling me off to sleep every night than I ever did celebrating Mabon or Yule or anything like that.

    Some people enjoy spontaneity rather than structure; and there’s nothing wrong with that.

  3. Where I live now – in northeastern Iowa – the falls are cooler and drier, and the winters are much snowier, than in Missouri (where I grew up). This makes me soooo happy since the crispness and cold of the air and weather heightens my senses and makes me more aware of creation and its life-giving potential…which is weird, considering those seasons are commonly associated with death, except for Christmas anyway. I think the absence of obvious life and movement reminds me of it’s beauty (absence makes the heart grow fonder?), and I find myself delighting in creation more when I see it’s fragile yet resilient nature against the harsh snow. Spring, on the other hand, doesn’t do that for me; to me, it reminds me how I and others can take life for granted, since the rain comes so easily. So while everyone else is celebrating new life -especially around Easter- I am eagerly waiting for fall and winter to come back again, lol. Still, while I loyally follow rituals around the proper holidays, my feelings concerning nature do not feel the same as my feelings towards the religious sacraments I celebrate. Easter = life, but Spring = ugh-I-want-fall-to-be-here-already!

  4. > The Wheel is broken. It doesn’t roll right here.

    It was never meant to. That’s the peril of one-size-fits-all spirituality.

    Here in northern California, winter brings the renewing rains and the green hills, which fade to gold over the spring and lie fragile and brittle and dormant all summer while the rivers and reservoirs shrink. There’s a strong case to be made that summer is the dead time, all the more so if you’ve ever seen areas victimized by the wildfires that are a huge perennial problem. Of course, I’ve always been a fire spirit; summer’s the time when I can soar and stride across the parched earth, climbing to the peaks of the earth and communing with the sky, and I never quite feel so alive as when I can spend long lazy days basking in the sunlight.

    I’ll be f’d if I know how to square that mess of contradictions with a “traditional” wheel, but I can tell you how keenly aware I am of the passing of the seasons nevertheless.

  5. I adore this post. Beyond adore it, even. I knew pretty early on that I wasn’t Wiccan, and that many of the pagans around me weren’t, either, but were instead borrowing formats and adapting ideas they learned from it. It always frustrated me, though, that for a bundle of paths (all those myriad parts of “pagan”) which put such an emphasis on nature, pagans in North America never saw fit to break away from a system celebrating European cycles and, instead, celebrate their own.

  6. I very much enjoyed your article!

    The “Wheel of the Year” is very much a modern invention in that the “Sacred Holidays” or Sabbats were borrowed from several different old cultures, and adopted as a platform that became the Wheel of the Year calendar. Though I have had no real problem with celebrating these times with all the fanfare and distinctions as given, I had a problem with this being passed off as, “The Old Ways”. These special times and celebrations were celebrated by many of the old agrarian societies, but not all of them were celebrated by the very same cultures.

    What also kind of “bumps me off” of the band-wagon when it comes to the Sabbats,

    A lot of the political-correctness doctrines and very extremely femino-centric themes that are incorporated in these “holidays”. I was always under the impression that holidays and special times were for coming together and celebrating our culture, together. The ancient agrarian cultures did not have time for, nor any use for, the “he-vs.-she” political-correctness mentality, because BOTH the sexes were just as important to the cultures, and BOTH had particular ascribed roles within their communities that were equally important. Working together and living together are very much a necessity if a group or culture is to flourish. There were even some cultures whose “deities” were completely without any specifics as to which sex or the other, and some whose deities embodied ALL in One.

    I hope to have a few friends and/or associates together to celebrate Samhain, myself. I am getting a longing for celebrating and enjoying some of these Sabbats with good company. They really mean something to me. As I have studied them further and come to understand the deeper meanings they hold of life, they are sometimes best to be appreciated with others who understand their significance too.

    Though much of today’s Wheel-of-the-Year celebrations are more “new age” than they are “ancient”, they are still worth enjoying that time together – even in spite of their modernity.

    BTW: I would love to get my hands dirty in the garden again! This is how I taught myself some of the finer points of gardening, and how to identify many different plant species. It really DOES help one to “reconnect” with Nature.

    – Rev. Jim (Dragon’s Eye)

  7. I agree with you and like you have never felt all that comfortable with the wheel. I believe that we should be working towards knowing and truly understanding nature, becoming more of a part of it, rather than standing outside of the mother using human language and customs to honor her. Instead we should have our hands in the dirt, and learn the language of the winds. As we grow spiritually, we become immersed in the ways of nature and as we become more in tune, we become part of it, as we have always been.

    • There’s a place and a time for everything. Ritual does feed certain parts of the human psyche, but when the rituals aren’t grounded in our reality they can end up increasingly abstract. So we revisit the Land every so often to recalibrate, as it were.

  8. I follow the Wheel as a Druid, but I’ve always been a sort of Holiday person, even when I was an atheist. I just enjoy celebrating things. I also like to look at the different Sabbats in more of a metaphorical sense than a literal one, since, as you said, it’s not like the average person really harvests crops anymore. Some do, of course, but I don’t. I live in an apartment haha. I also have a community to celebrate with, so that definitely helps motivate me a bit.

  9. As a Roman Pagan, I don’t do the wheel thing. I am fortunate that where I live is similar to Italy. However, even before I became Roman, I always felt May was the Month of the Dead. Turns out the Roman Catholics Christian followed the Roman calendar until they bumped into Celts. Then the Pope changed the Month of the Dead from May to October/November.

    From that example, I realise that the Wheel of the Year is based on one specific Pagan group’s traditions. It became universal since many new Pagans came over from Christianity, which seems to follow the Celtic sense of things. It is what folks were/ are used to. Plus Christianity lingers in people’s brains, and so they think in terms of universality – think about Easter in Australia. (Though Pagan groups are trying to follow what makes sense in the Southern Hemisphere.)

    • *nods* I think that’s one of the challenges of what’s essentially creating a religions for one place and time from pieces from another place and time. Sometimes it works, but something you have to kludge something together.

  10. I always considered the last few weeks of the year, leading up to the Winter Solstice, as the “Dead Times”, myself. This made the most sense to me (here in the Northern “Circle”) because this is when our days are at their shortest in the year.

    I also consider the season of Yule (or “Jul/Jyl”) to be the last of the horizon before the Sun experiences its annual “rebirth” with the growing light of days from then on. I also look upon from the Winter-Solstice to the first of January (that’s twelve days, usually) as the “Time-Immanent” – Awaiting the rebirth of the seasons (coming Spring).

    I guess I need to start recording these thoughts on a Journal? Sounds like the beginnings of yet-another-religion. (Oh boy, not another one!) >;=))====

    – Rev. Jim (Dragon’s Eye)

  11. Never have followed the Wheel of the year, I just saw it as some made up crap by GG, I’m sure I read somewhere he even threw in the odd festival to balance it out to 8? (I could be wrong)
    I love Halloween, always have, its become really popular in the UK, When I was growing up there was no Halloween decorations, and we would collect sugarbeet to use as Jack O’ Lanterns.

  12. This is like a long-winded defense of someone who’s bad at ritual. Protip: just because someone has no gardening skills or lacks a window planter doesn’t mean they have no connection to Earth. How self-righteous. I have a hard time seeing you invited to Witches’ Balls if you’re seriously this too-cool-for-school, if you must tell everyone that Samhain & Beltane might as well be the same because you don’t need no wheel, that the wheel is clearly not Catholic dogma so if it doesn’t fit perfectly in your area THAT’S JUST FINE.

    “My dissatisfaction with these things does not extend beyond myself.” Then the next sentence disparages those who still put water in the west! It seems like Portland has definitely shown you how your personal religious emotional responses are so much more authentic than ritual practitioners.

    • Good morning; I’ve seen you and your commentary over on Reddit!

      My intent was primarily to explain why the Wheel doesn’t work for me, personally, and what I see as some potential flaws in it when used from a very strictly Land-based path. When I spoke of things like gardening and such, it was explaining my own path to what is for me a better connection to the Land than the Wheel and similar structures were. And the part about Water your critiquing didn’t say “All you people who see Water in the West are stupid-heads”; I merely said “Still, just as others have pointed out that the Wheel doesn’t match the Southern hemisphere, and West is not always where the water is in every place”. It was not a commentary on the people who still use that structure. (And note that the previous sentence to that one was “Of course, if you still prefer the Wheel of the Year, the Oak and Holly King’s drama, and the idea that the Divine looks like us humans (and not our gut flora who are much more plentiful on this earth than we), there’s nothing wrong with that.”)

      If the Wheel works for you, great! It has its benefits even independent of natural Land cycles, like “It’s convenient for a group because it’s a set bunch of times for everyone to plan to get together for a shared ritual experience, and for some solitary pagans, too, it’s an opportunity to break out of the everyday routine and re-connect with the sacred in a deeper way.” All I’ve done here is level my criticisms of the Wheel for the purposes of my own heavily nature-based path.

  13. The wheel was simply an excuse for eight parties a year according to members of Gerald’s coven. It never was meant to work as a mythic cycle. Ross Nichols did develop a cycle, described in his 1946 book on druidry written with James Kirkup “The Cosmic Shape’. Nuinn was aiming for no less than a faith of the soil for people in the UK. I have addressed kindred issues around localization in my article “Wildcrafting Your Own Druidry”, which can be found on the AODA and OBOD websites. There are lots of non-agrarian markers as well. Meteor showers, celestial alignments, the sunspot cycle and a host of other events fairly cry out for use as the base of a recurring mythic wheel.

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