The Wheel of the Year goes Round and Round

Apologies for missing last Sunday, we were deep in Tax Return Hell. We’ve climbed out of the Pit of Receipts though so normal service is now resumed!

I was initially thinking about writing a post on the design of Pagan ritual, and how if we are creating a new ritual we need to think about what we are trying to achieve and use an appropriate ‘ritual technology’ to achieve that objective, but I think that can wait until next week. We celebrated a slightly late Burns Night celebration a couple of days ago and it got me thinking about the nature of calendar celebrations, and more specifically the Eightfold Year beloved of Pagans, so I think I’ll put down some thoughts about that from the same kind of headspace. Maybe I’ll call it a Structural Functionalist Critique (I feel fairly safe that no-one will bother to look that up on Wikipedia and see if I’m using the words correctly!).

If you’re not a Pagan I guess these comments, in a broad way, apply to all calendar customs. So stay with me, eh?

Anyhow our Facebook newsfeeds this week have been mostly full of people posting pictures of snowdrops and wishing one another Imbolc blessings or similar. The 8-fold wheel of the year rolls on and I wonder how relevant are the festivals of the Ancient Celts for modern people? Why do we carry on celebrating them, what is their function, personal and collective?

For some people the celebration of the Eightfold Year is doubtless a matter of identity. Its one of those things Pagans do. Maybe if you don’t do it, you’re not a real Pagan? But what do we hope to accomplish from doing so?

Well there is the Community aspect. Well we all celebrate these things so its a nice excuse to meet up and do something together. Nothing wrong with that. On the farm here we’ve recently, at Mo’s instigation, started an informal round of calender celebrations. We wassailed the apple trees, we had two (yes two, count ’em) Christmas Dinners. We celebrated Burns Night. All great fun and nice to get together and build community, not in a heavy way, just nice. I think the Eightfold Year works rather well from this point of view. Six weeks between festivals is about enough time to build up an appetite for the next one.

The Eightfold Year is sometimes thought of as describing a mystery drama that unfolds through the year, telling the ‘life cycle’ of the Horned God and the Goddess (‘life cycle’ makes them sound like bugs, but I can’t think of another way to put it!). In this it is partly successful, although since several overlapping narratives are often used it does get rather confused. Some of this comes down to the Equinoxes, not really part of the original ancient scheme so no-one really knows what to do on them and they tend to get bits of neighbouring festivals attached to them. Maybe it functions better within a small group than it does across the Pagan scene as a whole. Six out of ten for this one Paganism!

Of course there is always Tradition. Its good to do things the way they have always been done, it feels respectful to the Ancestors. Well its good until Ronald Hutton comes along and tells you its all a Victorian Reconstruction conjured from the fevered imagination of Sir James Fraser…

But for me celebrating the turning of the year is about getting closer to nature. It focusses the mind on the changes we see around us, ultimately its humbling because we realise that being human isn’t the only game in town, and that being in the nowdoesn’t make me so important as there is an awful lot of ‘before’, and there’ll be a big lot of ‘afterwards’, if you see what I mean. Now the Eightfold year may be a bit of a trap here. I’d like people to look out of their windows (hell, maybe even go outside) and celebrate what is actually happening in their world. Celebrating that the ewes are in milk may be folkloric, but maybe we should celebrate that the sun is a little stronger, that the birds are starting to build their nests, whatever is going on near you. This might mean maybe our celebrations won’t match up with other people’s elsewhere for timing. Maybe we’ll be celebrating some pretty odd things, but somehow it would be real.

So don’t let those Ancient Celts tell you when to have your party, celebrate something that feels like it needs celebrating (the first Glow-worm of the year is cause for celebration here, as is the first time the outside tap freezes). I’m not advocating dropping the eightfold year, but lets add our personal calender to the sacred mix, because it is sacred too.

Celebrating Robbie Burn’s birthday felt good, so I’m going to do that more as well this year. Ross Nichol‘s Birthday should be marked with a candle or somesuch and maybe Thoreau, Aldo Leopold and Arne Naess deserve some sort of remembrance involving a speech directed at dinner followed by an alcoholic pudding.

So if you survived to the end of this ramble, what are the things that mark the turning of your year, and whose birthdays will you be celebrating?  Go on, use that comment box…

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5 comments
  1. Thanks for another thought prevoking blog post. so my firsts first river in flood in autum, first daffodill and blue bell, first day that i can walk around with out a sweater on first day that i have to dig the thermal undies out.

  2. Thank you for the thank you 🙂

    I think sometimes Pagans do things on automatic pilot, and we should think occasionally about what we are hoping to accomplish. Celebrating our wardrobe adjustments seems good, the first day in shorts always feels special to me somehow!

  3. I do think that sometimes dates for celebrations can be arbitrary, but I did have a nice moment this Imbolc weekend when I was walking in the woods and enjoying the lack of ice, and saw the first snowdrops of the year. That was worth celebrating!

  4. Just heard the first drumming woodpecker of the year today, spring is definitely here!

  5. Keechy said:

    I likee! We have never quite been able to fit our local Western Australian seasons into the eightfold year in any meaningful way, but boy do we notice when the first rains come in autumn, or when we first get that hint of green grass at last in winter, or the first night we light the potbelly stove or the first night in spring when we don’t. I think spontaneous celebrations when that sort of thing happens could be right up our alley, yet I never thought of it! Thanks!

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