While 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.