This is a guest post by Eric Steinhart.
[I’m doing a long series of posts on atheism and Wicca. I am not a Wiccan - I'm an outsider. There are many good reasons why atheists should be interested in Wicca or neo-paganism more generally. When I discuss some topic in Wicca, I do it in three stages: First, I try to give an accurate presentation of the Wiccan position. Giving an accurate presentation of their position does not imply that I endorse it. Second, I evaluate what the Wiccans say, trying to separate the rational from the irrational. It is never my purpose to be vicious or arrogant, so when I criticize, I don’t mock or sneer. Third, I try to indicate the content that is consistent with atheism, and what atheists might profitably learn and use for their own purposes. My next few posts will be on the Wiccan Wheel of the Year. Here I'm merely presenting their ideas, without any judgment.]
The Wheel of the Year involves eight solar holidays (the sabbats). The sabbats include the solar quarter days (the solstices and the equinoxes) as well as the solar cross-quarter days intermediate between the quarters. For theistic Wiccans, these days symbolize events in the life-cycles of the god and goddess. Silver Elder (2011: 23) writes that the sun represents the male principle in nature (the Wiccan god) and the earth represents the female principle in nature (the Wiccan goddess).
The sabbats are closely associated with agriculture (with yearly patterns of planting, tending, and harvesting) and animal husbandry(with yearly patterns of animal mating, birth, growth, and slaughter). For Wiccans, these yearly patterns are deified; they are translated into the life-cycle of the god and goddess. The stable earth is represented by the goddess and the variable sun is represented by the god. Although the earth remains constant, the sun waxes and wanes. Hence the god is born, grows, peaks, declines, dies, and is reborn.
Since the Wheel of the Year symbolizes the repeated biological pattern of the solar god, the Wheel also symbolizes the pattern of reincarnation. Silver Elder writes that the Wheel of the Year illustrates “the Cycle of Infinity and Reincarnation with the seasonal cycle acting as the metaphor for the regeneration of life” (2011: 23).
The dramatic interaction of the sun-god and earth-goddess includes both the cycles of fertility and of reincarnation. Thus the old sun-god mates with the earth-goddess so that she becomes impregnated with the new sun-god. After mating, the old sun-god dies. Shortly after his death, the new sun-god is born, grows to sexual maturity, and mates with the earth-goddess. Hence the cycle repeats. Although the cycle appears to involve mother-son incest, Wiccans reject all literal interpretations of the cycle and thus reject the idea that the cycle either depicts or affirms incest (Cunningham, 2004: 71). On the contrary, the sun-god and earth-goddess are merely ideal types or natural forces. At the level of biological types, the same abstract male is always fertilizing the same abstract female. It seems more accurate to say that the cycle depicts a perfectly enclosed male-female pair. It is a complete couple which, for Wiccans, is sufficient for the generation of all things.
As religious holidays, the sabbats are celebrated through various ritual forms. All sabbat rituals share a common framework holding content which varies from sabbat to sabbat. The common framework is presented in The Farrars (1981: 11-60), Cunningham (2004: ch. 13), Sabin (2011: ch. 10), Silver Elder (2011: 88-105). Here are the stages of the common framework as described by Silver Elder (2011: 88): “Preparation; Opening the Rite; Casting the Circle; Calling of the Quarters and Inviting the Deities; Cakes and Wine; Banishing of the Circle and Closing the Rite.”
After the formal ritual, the sabbat celebration often involves an informal potluck feast. The Farrars encourage every sabbat to turn into a party (1981: 21). Although the details of the sabbat rituals are of little philosophical interest, it is worth pointing out that casting the circle involves drawing or marking out a sacred circle in which the ritual takes place. This circle is typically cast by moving in a deosil direction, which is the direction of the movement of the sun across the sky. Hence casting the circle mirrors the solar cycle of the year.
The eight sabbats on the Wheel of the Year are outlined below. Sabin describes the sabbat celebrations (2011: ch. 9). Silver Elder’s entire 2011 is dedicated to them. Each sabbat includes relations between the god and goddess. For the Farrars, these relations are extremely complex, involving avatars of the sun-god as the Oak King and Holly King (1981: 24-28). As Wicca evolved and became Americanized, this complexity seems to have been dropped. By the time of Cunningham and Sabin, the god-goddess interactions are simpler. Here the god-goddess interactions are taken from Cunningham (2004: ch. 8).
Yule (Winter Solstice; about 21 December) – Yule is the shortest day of the year; after Yule, the days lengthen and the sun grows stronger. Thus Wiccans interpret this to mean that the earth-goddess gives birth to the sun-god at Yule. Cunningham says that at Yule “[t]he Goddess gives birth to a son, the God” (2004: 67). The fallow fields are interpreted as the goddess resting after giving birth. For Wiccans, the birth of the sun is in fact rebirth; thus Yule “is a reminder that the ultimate product of death is rebirth” (2004: 67). Yule is celebrated in the traditional pagan ways, with a tree, gifts for children and so on.
Imbolc (about 1 February) – The lengthening days are interpreted as “the recovery of the Goddess after giving birth to the God” (2004: 67). The sun-god is “a young lusty boy”, though he is still immature. Cunningham says that Imbolc is a “sabbat of purification after the shut-in life of winter, through the renewing power of the sun” (2004: 68). Outside of the sabbat ritual proper, celebration of Imbolc involves bonfire parties.
Ostara (Spring Equinox; about 21 March) – At the start of spring, natural creative power is manifest in increased biological activity. The emergence of vegetation during the spring is interpreted as the greater sexual maturity of the god and goddess: “The Goddess blankets the earth with fertility” while “the God stretches and grows to maturity. He walks the greening fields and delights in the abundance of nature” (2004: 68). Natural creative power stirs in animals as well as plants: “the God and Goddess impel the wild creatures of the earth to reproduce” (2004: 68).
Beltane (May Day; about 1 May) – By May Day the creative sexual powers of the god and goddess are fully mature: “They fall in love, lie among the grasses and blossoms, and unite. The Goddess becomes pregnant of the God” (2004: 69). The old pagan celebrations on Beltane often involved dancing around a Maypole.
Litha (Summer Solstice; about 21 June) – The summer solstice is the longest day of the year. On this day “the powers of nature reach their highest point. The earth is awash in the fertility of the Goddess and God” (2004: 69).
Lammas (aka Lughnasadh, about 4 August) – Lammas is the first harvest festival, when many agricultural products of the summer initially become available. Since the foremost of these products in the northern hemisphere is corn, it is often thought of as a corn festival. At this time the waning of the sun becomes manifest in the sky. The god loses his strength and “[t]he Goddess watches in sorrow and joy as she realizes that the God is dying, and yet lives on inside her as her child” (2004: 70).
Mabon (Fall Equinox; about 21 September) – At the fall equinox, light and darkness are in balance, but darkness is ascending. The god is preparing to die. Thus “[t]he Goddess nods in the weakening sun, though fire burns within her womb. She feels the presence of the God even as he wanes” (2004: 70).
Samhain (about 31 October) – At Samhain the sun-god dies: “the Wicca say farewell to the God. This is a temporary farewell. He isn’t wrapped in eternal darkness, but readies to be reborn of the Goddess at Yule” (2004: 70). Samhain is the Wiccan new year and is marked with elaborate and varied ceremonies. One way that some Wiccans honor the dead is through Silent Suppers (Cuhulain, 2011: 96; Sabin, 2011: 171). A Silent Supper is meal that is served and eaten in silence, with a place at the table set for the dead. Buckland (1986: 99-101) describes a ritual for burning away weaknesses at Samhain. Participants write down their weaknesses on papers which are then ritually burned.
Some (but not all) other posts in this series:
Buckland, R. (1986) Complete Book of Witch Craft. Second Edition Revised and Expanded. St. Paul, MI: Llewellyn Publications.
Cuhulain, K. (2011) Pagan Religions: A Handbook for Diversity Training. Portland, OR: Acorn Guild Press.
Cunningham, S. (2004) Wicca: A Guide for the Solitary Practitioner. St. Paul, MI: Llewellyn Publications.
Farrar, J. & Farrar, S. (1981) A Witches Bible. Blaine, WA: Phoenix Publishing.
Sabin, T. (2011) Wicca for Beginners: Fundamentals of Philosophy and Practice. Woodbury, MI: Llewellyn Publications.
Silver Elder (2011) Wiccan Celebrations: Inspiration for Living by Nature’s Cycle. Winchester, UK: Moon Books.