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Religion Library: Paganism

Sacred Time

Written by: Carl McColman

Like the lunar cycle, the wheel of year is rich with symbolism and mythology. Some traditions weave throughout the eight holidays a running narrative about the birth, life, and eventual death of the goddess, who over the course of the year is impregnated by her consort and gives birth to a sacred child. Another narrative associated with the wheel of the year involves a never-ending cycle of conflict between two mythic kings - the Oak King and the Holly King - who continually defeat each other at each solstice, the Oak King triumphing in the summer while the Holly King emerges victorious each winter.

Each of the agricultural festivals also has rich folklore associated with it. Samhain (the name literally means "summer's end") signifies the onset of winter and is associated with the end of harvest and the slaughtering of livestock to prepare for the cold season; thus it has traditionally been linked to death and to contact with ancestral spirits. Imbolc ("In the belly") celebrates the coming of spring and a time when ewes are lactating and pregnant with spring lambs. The celebration of spring reaches its apex with Beltane ("The fire of Bel"), a festival to mark the onset of summer and chronologically opposite of Samhain. As Samhain is a festival honoring death, Beltane is dedicated to the celebration of life and fertility. Finally, the onset of harvest is marked with Lughnasadh ("Lugh's festival"), marked by the first harvest and traditionally observed with games and other festivities.  Incidentally, Bel and Lugh are the names of Celtic gods.

These holidays are not universally observed among all Wiccans, let alone all Pagans. Their popularity among many Wiccans and some other Pagans stems from their symmetry and the rich mythic and folkloric material associated with the festival days. In some locations traditional celebrations associated with these holidays that predate the onset of Paganism by many generations, continue to be celebrated. For example, the town of Padstow in Cornwall has elaborate May Day festivities each year that many scholars believe are vestigial remains of ancient religious observances. The Padstow May Day celebration has been re-created in Berkeley, California for a number of years-an example of contemporary Pagans drawing on folkloric practice for inspiration.

Study Questions:
     1.    Why do sites like Stonehenge and Newgrange have sacred significance?
     2.    Describe the Wiccan understanding of sacred time, in relation to the lunar calendar.
     3.    What is meant by the wheel of the year?


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