From Esbats to Sabbats, the Witches gather and rejoice.
Sabbat is another French word which has been co-opted into esoteric language. It is associated with Witches and describes their nocturnal gatherings, in particular the 16th century, where undoubtedly great evils occurred. The word literally means “day of worship” or “day of rest” and the root of the word can be found in Shabbath, the Jewish word for the day of rest running from Friday evening to Saturday evening. The derivative Sabbath is used in Christianity to denote the seventh day of rest and worship, which falls upon Sunday.
The Witches Sabbath or Sabbat, in the historical sense, was a time where Witches would raise demons and make Devilish pacts to bring about their darkest desires. We can argue the biased nature of Witch trial accounts of Sabbats and Witches in general until we are blue in the face but not today. Regardless of the original meaning and context of the phrase modern Pagan movements have taken this word and made it their own.
Sabbats are now inextricably linking it to the eight celebrations which make up the Wheel of the Year which is associated with the etiological (and hetronormative) mythology cycle of the Earth Goddess and Sun God. Through this mythology modern day Witches explain and celebrate the changes of the season in conjunction with the solar year.
Mythology of the Wheel of the Year
Midwinter Solstice (Yule)
The Winter Solstice marls the start of the Wheel of the Year and is the first of the Quarter Days. This solstice marks the shortest day of the year, when the hours of darkness outnumber the daylight hours. From this point the sun will begin to grow in strength and the days lengthen.
This time of fallow fields and returning light is seen as the time when “the Goddess” gives birth to her son and lover “the God”. The Goddess rests and the infant God slowly begins to gain in strength. This is the time during which the cycle of death and rebirth in the natural world is recognised and celebrated. Although still deep in winter, both light and life are returning to the world and this is celebrated with light and festivals honouring family.
Imbolc is the first of the Cross Quarter Days and fire festivals. Some traditions refer to this day as Candlemass because of its association with the light of candles and the blessing and opening up of the home after a long winter.
The days are slowly lengthening and the first signs of new growth are beginning to show in early bulbs such as the Crocus and Snowdrop and this is interpreted as a sign of the returning strength of Goddess and the slowly maturing God who is like a boy child, robust and young. This is a time of blessing and purification, where the home and occupants are blessed with the rude health of the boy God and protection of his mother the Goddess.
Spring Equinox (Ostara)
As the hours of night and day stand in equal balance the wheel reaches the second Quarter Day. Spring has arrived and animals are emerging from the last of their winter sleep.
The Goddess has shaken off the last of her winters lassitude and is fully recovered from giving birth. This can be seen in the abundance of green and bright spring flowers. The ever strengthening sun and lengthening day also shows that the God is reaching maturity, now a young man who takes delight in the beauty of the Goddess green mantel. He and his soon to be lover encourage the animals of both field and dale to reproduce and birth their young during these energy filled spring days. Now is the time to celebrate the energy and abundance of spring and draw on the blessings of both God and Goddess.
Beltane is the second fire festival and cross quarter day of the year. Also known as May Day and Lady’s Day this celebration is marked by fire and dance. The herds are driven between two large fires in order to purify them and the people dance their joy at the returning sun around the phallic May Pole, representative of the Gods creative sexual powers reaching full maturity.
The God and Goddess fall in love amongst the grassy fields and the world celebrates their union. The Goddess falls pregnant as a result of this sexual congress, safeguarding the next turning of the Wheel. Modern celebrations centre around rituals of purity by both Fire and Water, the elements which represent quintessentially male and female principles. The union of the God and Goddess is celebrated with feasting and rejoicing and rites of fertility.
Mid Summer Solstice (Litha)
The Summer Solstice marks the high point of the year, when the hours of daylight far exceed the night and the land has reached full bloom and the first days of harvest come into sight. The fields are ripening, the land in full flower and all things that live under the sight of the sun reveal in its warmth and light.
The God and Goddess have reached the peak of their joint power and the God is now a fully mature man and warrior. Now is the time of their marriage to one another and this and the power of the Sun is celebrated. From this point onwards the days will grow imperceptibly shorter and shorter and the wheel turns first towards harvest and then winter.
The Sun begins to wane in strength and by Lammas this is becoming more and more evidence. The first harvests of grain are beginning to be brought in from the field and with their cutting the God too seems to be cut down.
Even as the God is growing older and wiser the Goddess begins to feel the first stirrings of life within Her body. Her lover and companion may be in decline but she carries within Herself her Son and future Lover. This is a time of thanksgiving for the Harvest which is being gathered and the sacrifice of God in giving up his life force for the bountiful harvest.
Autumn Equinox (Mabon)
Once again the sun appears to stand still in the sky as the final Quarter day of the year sees day and night stand equal. The weather is golden and warm but the sun is loosing its vigor even as the trees begin to take on their autumn colours.
The God falls further into decline and prepares himself for his inevitable death. In contrast the Goddesse’s body swells with life and she begins to draw in her strength ahead of the birth of Her child. This celebration is often referred to as the second harvest where fruits and berries are gathered and stored for the winter months ahead. The imminent departure of the God and sun are acknowledged and thanks given again for a second bounty.
With the final turn of the wheel we reach Samhain, last of the fire festivals and cross quarter days. This is the last harvest of the year which is sometimes referred to as the blood harvest, the time when herds and flocks are culled and the meat preserved for the winter ahead.
The God is dead, fully returned to the arms of his Goddess and the Earth itself to await his rebirth at spring. His descendant into the Underworld is but temporary but his presence on the other side of the veil makes communication with the ancestors and inhabitants of the Otherworld so much easier. Dumb Suppers are prepared for the dead, questions asked and bonds reaffirmed by fire and candle light.
Of Dates and Times
I have conspicuously excluded any references to dates that these celebrations fall on in order to make this post relevant to both Northern and Southern Hemispheres. Because of the reversal of seasons in the North and South the celebrations are turned on their heads by six months. That means whilst Witches in England are celebrating mid Winter their counterparts in Australia are celebrating mid Summer and visa versa.
I’ve also left timings relatively vague as well. All eight celebrations are usually presented in books as being of fixed date but this is not entirely accurate and different people and groups will observe celebrations at slightly different times. For example the Quarter Days are solar events and relate to the position of the Sun in the sky.
Our ancestors developed elaborate methods of judging these occurances and were very accurate however with modern technology we are aware that the Solstices and Equinoxes are on the day that the sun enters the first degree of the Cardinal zodiacal signs not just when it aligns with certain stones and with both methods there can be a degree of variation of upto a couple of days in comparison to the ‘agreed’ date. Equally not all groups are able to arrange to meet on the specific solar or astrological dates and so decide to meet at the closest weekend or full moon. For reference…
Spring Equinox – 21st March, Sun Enters 1st degree of Aries or closest full moon
Summer Solstice – 21st June, Sun Enters 1st degree of Cancer or closest full moon
Autumn Equinox – 21st September, Sun Enters 1st degree of Libra or closest full moon
Winter Solstice – 21st December Sun Enters 1st degree of Capricorn or closest full moon
Similarly the Cross Quarter Days are sometimes celebrated according to mutually agreed fixed calendar days or according to the path of the Sun through the Zodiac or on the nearest available full moon / mutually agreed date…
Imbolc – 2nd February, 15 degrees Aquarius or closest full moon
Beltane – 30th April, 15 degrees Taurus or closest full moon
Lammas/Lughnasadh – 1st August, 15 degrees Leo or closest full moon
Samhain – 31st October, 15 degrees of Scorpio, or closest full or dark
None of these methods for time these events are quote unquote wrong, and even though the Covens may decide to celebrate on the closest full moon or weekend the individual can still hold personal celebrations according to their prefered timing.
The get out clause –
I have put the Quarter Day “names” in brackets at the end of each heading because these are names that are often disputed amongst Pagans. Although all appear in various cultures Western including (but not limited to) Norse and Anglo-Saxon the accuracy, and indeed relevance of, these names are hotly debated and I didn’t really want to get into that here and now. I’m going to again defer that conversation to another time and politely advise you that Google is your friend.
Heketean Wheel of the Year
The Sabbats don’t immediately seem to lend themselves to devotion to Hekate but Amelia Ounsted has spent time and devotion to blending the two together. If you are interested in finding out more I recommend reading Amelia’s article Hekate;
A Goddess For All Seasons which can be found in the anthology Her Sacred Fires.
As a Devotee of Hekate I place a greater emphasis on the Quarter Days rather than the Cross Quarter Days. This is because it is possible to unite the Equinoxs and Solstices with the mystery plays of the Eleuisian Mysteries. Although I am not a devotee of either Kore (Persephone also called Proserpina by the Romans) or Demeter (Roman Ceres) Hekate plays and important role within the Mysteries and I choose to link this with the four quarter days.
Representation of Sabbath gatherings from the chronicles of Johann Jakob Wick.
Painted Wheel of the Year from the Museum of Witchcraft, Boscastle.
Lambs of Spring by Warwick Globe
Hail to the Sun
Motions of the Earth