The Origin of the Wheel

Lughnasadh-harvest-1024x607While the Neo-Pagan Wheel of the Year is based on ancient pa­gan seasonal festivals, its present form was unknown before the mid-20th century. There is no place, in Europe or elsewhere, where all eight festivals of the Neo-Pagan calendar were ob­served by ancient pagans. The modern Neo-Pagan Wheel of the Year is an amalgamation of Irish cross-quarter days and Neo-Druidic celebrations of the solstices and equinoxes with Anglo-Saxon names. Despite its lack of historical authenticity, the Wheel of the Year, with its perfectly balanced stations, is a power­ful organizing symbol for Neo-Pagans today.

The Irish Cross-Quarter Days

The primary source for the Irish cross-quarter days is the ancient Celtic text, Tochmarc Emire, “The Wooing of Emer.” It lists:

  • Samhain (pron. sah-wen), when summer goes to rest (i.e., when autumn begins), the end of harvest
  • Oimelc (pron. ee-mulk), when the ewes are milked at the be­ginning of spring (Other texts call Oimelc by the name, “Imbolc” or “Imbolg.”)
  • Beltane, at the beginning of summer
  • Brón Trogain, Earth’s sorrowing in autumn (Brón Trogain is also called “Lughnasadh” in an ancient edito­rial gloss.)

The text then goes on to state that there were formerly two divi­sions of the Irish year, summer, from Beltane to Samhain, and winter, from Samhain to Beltane. There is no evidence for the inclu­sion of the equinoxes or solstices in the Irish calendar, with the possible exception of midsummer.

Note also that, in the Celtic calendar, the day began at sun­set, which is why Halloween or All Hallow’s Eve (which is re­lated to Samhain) is celebrated the night before November 1st, and Walpurgis Night (which is related to Beltane) is celebrated the night before May 1st.

While the cross-quarter days traditionally fall on the kalends, the first of the month, some Neo-Pagans observe them at the mid­points of the preceding and subsequent quarter days.

The Anglo-Saxon Quarter Days

The solstice festivals were important observances to the Norse and Anglo-Saxons, but there is no evidence the equinoxes were celebrated in the rest of ancient pagan Europe. The spring and autumn equinoxes were important dates in an­cient Mesopotam-ian/Semitic religions. During the Middle Ages, the English practice began of paying rents and settling accounts on four religious days that fell roughly on the equinoxes and sol­stices: Christmas, Lady Day, Midsummer, and Michaelmas.

The Wiccan Calendar

Originally, only the Irish Cross-Quarter Days were observed by Gerald Gardner’s coven. Gardner’s source was Margaret Mur­ray’s Witch-Cult in Western Europe (1921), which stated that witches’ sabbaths were originally held on May Eve, November Eve, February 2, and August 1. In 1958, Gardner’s coven added the solstices and equinoxes, which were already celebrated by some Neo-Druids. Gardner’s Book of Shadows, written between 1949 and 1953, gives no names to these festivals other than “November Eve,” “February Eve,” etc. and “Spring Equinox,” “Summer Solstice,” etc. In The White Goddess (1948), Robert Graves identified eight stations on the calendar by their popular names: Christmas, Candlemas, Lady Day, May Day, Midsum­mer, Lam­mas, Michaelmas, and All-Hallowe’en.

The Names of the Days

The common names given by Neo-Pagans to the eight festivals of the Wheel of the Year originate with Aidan Kelly. Kelly took the names of the major quarter days—Samhain, Beltane, and Lugh­nasadh—from the Irish sources. He substituted the name, “Brigid,” for “Imbolc,” but “Imbolc” remained more common among Neo-Pagans today. For the solstices and the spring equi­nox, Kelly borrowed the Anglo-Saxon names, “Yule,” “Litha,” and “Ostara,” which are the names given by the 7th/8th century monk, Venerable Bede. For the autumn equinox, Kelly invented the name, “Mabon,” which is the name of a character from Welsh myth. Various other names have been proposed in lieu of “Ma­bon,” including “Herfest” (by this author), meaning “harvest,” and “Halig” (by Jason Mankey), meaning “holy,” both of which are consistent with the Anglo-Saxon nam­ing of the other equinox and solstices.

Updated 2019