Introduction To The Sabbats
The Magic Of AncientCeltic Beliefs In A Contemporary Society
By Mike Nichols
Thank you for the days,
Those endless days, those sacred days you gave me.
I'm thinking of the days.
I won't forget a single day, believe me.
Ray Davies- The Kinks
The most important thing to understand about the eight Witchcraft Sabbats is that they are not manmade. By this, I mean that they are not holidays in the same way that Independence Day is a holiday, i.e. a calender anniversary of some date that has a special importance in history. Indeed, the Sabbats of Witchcraft do not commerate any historical event, and are, as we shall see, almost antithetical to the concept of history. Nor are they randomly chosen holidays to observe some social institution such as Mother's Day. No, the eight Sabbats of witchcraft were not manmade because they existed long before man was made. Or woman. Or the dinosaurs. Or life on this planet. Indeed, these eight holidays might be said to be as old as the Earth itself. They might not have been called "sabbats" then, but they were there just the same.
The reason these holidays are so old is because they are a basic part of how the earth works. Consequently, these holidays are not of history; they are of Nature. You see, we happen to live on a beautiful blue-green planet that spins on its axis. And that axis is tilted, slightly, to the plane of the Earth's orbit around the sun. The practical upshot of all this is that once a year we have a night that is the longest night of the year, accompanied by the shortest day. When the hours between sunup and sundown are least. And we call this time the "Winter Solstice." And having got this far in our analyis of the planet's yearly cycle, it becomes easy to spot two more days that are simliar and equally important. Each Spring, there comes a day when the hours between sunrise and sunset are exactly equal to the hours between sunset and sunrise. And we call this the "Vernal Equinox". Likewise, there comes a day each Fall when the hours of darkness and the hours of daylight are exactly in balance. And we call this the "Autumnal Equinox". It cannot be overstressed that the importance of of these four days lies in the fact that "nobody made them up"; rather they are simply a part of how this planet works.
It is reasonable to assume that even the most primitive of humans noticed this change in the seasons. One can well imagine the anxiety in the mind of the "noble savage" as he witnessed the dwindling hours of daylight each autumn. And the sense of relief he must have felt when the year "turned the corner" at the Winter Solstice and the days started to grow longer again, promising that Spring would indeed return. Is it any wonder then that the oldest astronomical alignment of which we have a record points to the sun's position in the sky on the Winter Solstice? And this is in a burial mound in Co., Meath Ireland.
In fact, the relatively new science of "archeoastronomy" underlies much of what has been discovered about the old holidays. Megalithic sites such as Stonehenge, for example, have clear alignments to both the Summer and Winter Solstice and the Vernal and Autumnal Equinox. Nor are such alignments confined to the British Isles; indeed they can be found the world over; from the pryamids of ancient Egypt to the ancient temples of China; from the cliff dwellings of the Native Americans to the temples of Peru. The two Solstices and the two Equinoxes must certainly be the oldest holidays known to humans, and they were known worldwide. Folklorists refer to these four days as the "quarter-days", insamuch as they quarter the year. Astrologers know them too, for three Zodiac signs fit neatly into each quadrant, beginning with the first day of Aries at the Vernal Equinox. And modern Witches tend to call them the four "lesser Sabbats" or "Low Holidays".
The four "Greater Sabbats" or "High Holidays" of the Witches calendar may seem slightly less obvious at first. Essentially. they bisect the quarters we have already discussed, falling at the midpoint of each. For this reason, folklorists refer to them as the "cross-quarter-days". With these in place, the circle of the year begins to look like an eight spoked wheel, which is a sacred symbol in many ancient religions. Because these four days are not as firmly marked by terrestrial events as the solstices and equinoxes, some writers have been led to speculate that they are derivative, and that their observation evolved at a much later state of human evolution. Yet, although they may not be completely contemporaneous, their great antiquity was quite recently underscored by the discovery of Ireland of earthwork alignments of the sun's position on the horizon for each of the cross-quarter-days! That means the holiday we today call "Halloween" has been celebrated as far back as megalithic times!
That the cross-quarter-days should be regarded as more important than the solstices or equinoxes should come as no surprise. It is a common human experience that things reach their greatest strength, their moment of peak energy, at their midpoint. In observing a human life, for example a person is usually at the apex of health and vigor at a point about halfway through his mortality. So, too, with most other things in nature. So, too, with each quarter of the year. The cross-quarter-days can thus be seen as the four "power points" of the year. Consequently, these power points were marked by the four most important holidays of the Witches' year which according to the old folk calendar, also marked the turning of the seasons. These also corresponded with the "tetramorph" figures of the Zodiac, and were later adopted by
Whenever I am asked what things make a Witch's worldview different from other people's, one of the first things I think about is the Witch's sensitivity to the cycles of Nature especially the cycles of the moon and sun. In our modern world, insulated as we are from the progress of the seasons, we can go to the local supermarket and buy vegies and fruit year round, without consideration of what is "in season". Still, a Witch can usually tell you where she is in the course of the year, or what phase the moon is in. (Incidentally the word "Sabbat" was originally Babylonian and was used to designate the quarter days of the lunar cycle - Full, New, First and Last Quarter thus occuring about every seven days. It was only later that the Hebrews borrowed the word and used it to denote "the Lord's day," occuring every seventh day without exception.)
And nothing can keep a modern Witch in tune with the cycles of Nature like observing the Old Holidays. I can still remember the feeling I sometimes got as a child that a particular night during the year was somehow special, charged with magic and power, alive and responsive to my inner thoughts and desires. Like Halloween Night (always my favorite holiday) in some ways, but different too, and occuring at other points of the year. I never knew why such nights occurred, but I knew they had to be celebrated, by placing candles on the front porch railings creating mysterious shadow play where the light of an old incandescent street lamp fell on the side of the garage, or playing hide-and-seek with the neighborhood kids, the wind helping my running. Or maybe an impromptu weenie roast (always a good excuse for building a big bonfire) was called for. I can't prove it, of course because I didn't keep a diary, but I'd be almost willing to bet that I had stumbled onto the Old Holidays, vestiges of their primordial power still echoing down through the centuries.
Finding out more about these ancient holy days has been a lifelong labor of love for me, and I sincerely hope that the gleanings of my own research into these mysteries will kindle in my readers that same sense of magic and grounding or "connectedness" with Nature that I have always experienced in relating to the Old Holidays.
This document copyright 1995, 1998 Mike Nichols
This and all related documents can be republished as long as no information is changed, credit is given to the author, and is is provided or used without cost to others.
Other uses of this document must be approved in writing by Mike Nichols.
Revised Thursday April 2, 1998
Candlemas: The Light Returns
By Mike Nichols
It seems quite impossible that the holiday of Candlemas should be considered the beginning of Spring. Here in the Heartland February 2nd may see a blanket of snow mantling the Mother. Or, if the snow has gone, you may be sure the days are filled with drizzle, slush and steel-grey skies the dreariest weather of the year. In short, the perfect time for a Pagan Festival of Lights. And as for Spring, although this may seem a tenuous beginning, all the little buds, flowers, and leaves will have arrived on schedule before Spring runs its course to Beltane.
'Candlemas' is the Christianized name for the holiday, of course. The older Pagan names were Imbolc and Oimelc. 'Imbolc' means, literally, 'in the belly' (of the Mother Earth). For in the womb of Mother Earth, hidden from our mundane sight but sensed by a keener vision, there are stirrings. The seed that was planted in her womb at the solstice is quickening and the new year grows. 'Oimelc' means 'milk of ewes', for it is also lambing season.
The holiday is also called St Brigit's Day, in honor of the great Irish Goddess Brigit. At her shrine, the ancient Irish capital of Kildare, a group of 19 priestesses (no men allowed) kept a perpetual flame burning in her honor. She was considered a goddess of fire, patroness of smithcraft, poetry, and healing (especially the healing touch of midwifery). This triparite symbolism was occassionally expressed by saying that Brigit had two sisters, also named Brigit. (Incidentally, another form of the name Brigit is Bride, and it is thus She bestows her special patronage upon any woman about to be married or handfasted, the woman being called 'bride' in her honor.)
The Roman Catholic Church could not very easily call the Great Goddess of Ireland a demon, so they canonized her instead. Henceforth she would be call 'Saint' Brigit patron saint of smithcraft, poetry, and healing. They 'explained' this by telling the Irish peasants that Brigit was 'really' an early Christian missionary sent to the Emerald Isle, and that the miracles she performed there 'misled' the common people into believing that she was a goddess. For some reason, the Irish swallowed this. (There is no limit to what the Irish imagination can convince itself of. For example, they also came to believe that Brigit was the 'foster-mother' of Jesus having spent his boyhood in Ireland!)
Brigit's holiday was chiefly marked by the kindling of sacred fires, since she symbolized the fire of birth and healing, the fire of the forge, and the fire of poetic inspiration. Bonfires were lighted on the beacon tors, and chandlers celebrated their holiday. The Roman Church was quick to confiscate this symbolism as well, using 'Candlemas' as the day to bless all the church candles that would be used for the coming liturgical year. (Catholics will be reminded that the following day, St Blaise's Day, is remembered for using the newly-blessed candles to bless the throats of parishoners, keeping them from colds, flu, sore throats, etc.)
The Catholic Church never one to refrain from piling holiday upon holiday, also called it the Feast of Purification of the Blessed Virgin Mary. (It is suprising how many of the old Pagan holidays were converted to Maryan Feasts.) The symbol of the Purification may seem a little obscure to modern readers, but it has to do with the old custom of 'churching women'. It was believed that women were impure for six weeks after giving birth. And since Mary gave birth at the winter solstice, she wouldn't be purified until February 2nd. In Pagan symbolism, this might be re-translated as when the Great Mother once again becomes the Young Maiden Goddess.
Today, this holiday is chiefly connected to weather lore. Even our American folk calendar keeps the tradition of 'Groundhogs Day', a day to predict the coming weather, telling us that if the Groundhog sees his shadow, there will be six more weeks of bad weather (i.e. until the next old holiday, Lady Day). This custom is ancient. An old British rhyme tells us that 'If Candlemas Day be bright and clear, there'll be two winters in the year'. Actually all of the cross-quarter days can be used as 'inverse' weather predictors, whereas the quarter-days are used as 'direct' weather predictors.
Like the other High Holidays or Great Sabbats of the Witches' year, Candlemas is sometimes celebrated on its alternate date, astrologically determined by the sun's reaching 15-degrees Aquarius, or Candlemas Old Style. Incidentally, some modern Pagan groups have recently begun calling the holiday itself 'Brigit' presumably as a shorthand for 'Brigit's Day'. This lexical laziness is lamentable since it confuses a deity name for the proper name of the holiday. The same disconcerting trend can be seen in the recent practice of referring to the autumnal equinox as 'Mabon', which is more properly the name of a Welsh god-form.
Another holiday that gets mixed up in this is Valentine's Day. Ozark folklorist Vance Randolph makes this quite clear by noting that the old-timers used to celebrate Groundhog's Day on February 14th. This same displacement is evident in Eastern Orthodox Christianity as well. Their habit of celebrating the birth of Jesus on January 6th, with a similar post-dated shift in the six-week period that follows it, puts the Feast of Purification of Mary on February 14th. It is amazing to think that the same confusion and lateral displacement of one of the old folk holidays can be seen from the Russian steppes to the Ozark Hills, but such seems to be the case!
Incidentally, there seems to be speculation among linguistic scholars that the very name of 'Valentine' has Pagan origins. It seems that it was customary for French peasants of the Middle Ages to pronounce a 'g' as a 'v'. Consequently the original term may have been the French 'galantine', which yields the English word 'gallant'. The word orignally refers to a dashing young man known for his 'affaires d'amour', a true galaunt. The usual associations of V(G)alentine's Day make much more sense in this light than in their vague connection to a legendary 'St Valentine' can produce. Indeed, the Church has always found it rather difficult to explain this nebulous saint's connection to the secular pleasures of flirtation and courtly love.
For modern Witches, Candlemas O.S. may be seen as the Pagan version of Valentine's Day, with a de-emphasis of 'hearts and flowers' and an appropriate re-emphasis of Pagan carnal frivolity. This also realigns the holiday with the ancient Roman Lupercalia, a fertility festival held at this time, in which the priests of Pan ran through the streets of Rome whacking young women with goatskin thongs to make them fertile. The women seemed to enjoy the attention and often stripped in order to afford better targets.
One of the nicest folk customs still practiced in many countries, and especially by Witches in the British Isles and parts of the US is to place a lighted candle in each and every window of the hourse (or at least the windows that faced the street), beginning at sundown on Candlemas Eve (February 1st) allowing them to continue burning until sunrise. Make sure that such candles are well seated against tipping and well guarded from nearby curtains etc. What a cheery sight it is on this cold, bleak and dreary night to see house after house with candle-lit windows! And, of course, if you are your Coven's chandler, or if you just happen to like making candles, Candlemas Day is the day for doing it. Some covens hold candle making parties and try to make and bless all the candles they'll be using for the entire year on this day.
Other customs of the holiday include weaving 'Brigit crosses' from straw or wheat to hang around the house for protection, performing rites of spiritual cleansing and purification making 'Brigit's beds' to ensure fertility of mind and spirit (and body, if desired), and making Crowns of Lights (i.e. of candles) for the High Priestess to wear for the Candlemas Circle similar to those worn on St Lucy's Day in Scandinavian countries. All in all, this Pagan Festival Of Lights, sacred to the young Maiden Goddes, is one of the most beautiful and poetic of the year.
This document copyright 1986, 1998 Mike Nichols
This and all related documents can be re-published only as long as no imformation is changed, credit is given to the author, and it is provided or used without cost to others. Other uses of this document must be approved in writing by Mike Nichols.
Revised Saturday May 23, 1998
Lady Day: The Vernal Equinox
By Mike Nichols
Now comes the Vernal Equinox, and the season of Spring reaches it's apex halfway through it's journey from Candlemas to Beltane. Once again, night and day stand in perfect balance, with the powers of light on the ascendency. The god of light now wins a victory over his twin the god of darkness. In the Mabinogion myth reconstruction which I have proposed, this is the day on which the restored Llew takes his vengeance on Goronway by piercing him with the sunlight spear. For Llew was restored/reborn at the Winter Solstice and is now well/old enough to vanquish his rival/twin and mate with his lover/mother. And the great Mother Goddess who has returned to her Virgin aspect at Candlemas, welcomes the young sun god's embrace and conceives a child. The child will be born nine months from now, at the next Winter Solstice. And so the cycle closes at last.
We think that the customs surrounding the celebration of the spring equinox were imported from the Mediterranean lands, although there can be no doubt that the first inhabitants of the British Isles observed it, as evidence from megalithic sites shows. But it was certainly more popular to the south where people celebrated the holiday as New Year's Day, and claimed it as the first day of the Zodiac, Aries. However, you look at it, it is certainly a time of new beginnings, as a simple glance at nature will prove.
In the Roman Catholic Church, there are two holidays which get mixed up with the Vernal Equinox. The first, occurring on the fixed calendar day of March 25th in the old liturgical calendar, is called the Feast of the Annunciation of the Blessed Virgin Mary (or BVM as she was typically abbreviated in Catholica Missals). 'Annunciation' means an announcement. This is the day that the angel Gabriel announced to Mary that she was 'in the family way'. Naturally this had to be announced since Mary, being still a virgin would have no other means of knowing it. (Quit scoffing, O ye of little faith!) Why did the church pick the Vernal Equinox for the commemoration of this event? Because it was necessary to have Mary conceive the baby Jesus a full nine months before his birth at the Winter Solstice (i.e. Christmas, celebrated on the fixed calendar date of December 25). Mary's pregnancy would take the natural nine months to complete, even if the conception was a bit unorthodox.
As mentioned before, the older Pagan equivalent of this scene focuses on the joyous process of natural conception, when the young Virgin Goddess (in this case 'virgin' in the original sense meaning 'unmarried') mates with the young solar God, who has just displaced his rival. This is probably not their first mating, however. In the mythical sense, the couple may have been lovers since Candlemas, when the young God reached puberty. But the young Goddess was recently a mother (at the Winter Solstice) and is probably still nursing her new child. Therefore, conception is naturally delayed for six weeks or so, and despite earlier matings with the God, She does not conceive until (surprise!) the Vernal Equinox. This may also be their Hand-fasting a sacred marriage between God and Goddess called a Hierogamy, the ultimate Great Rite. Probably the nicest study of this theme occurs in M Esther Harding's book, Women's Mysteries'. Probably the nicest description of it occurs in MZ Bradley's 'Mists Of Avalon,' in the scene where Morgan and Arthur assume the sacred roles. (Bradley follows the Brittish custom of transferring the episode to Beltane, when the climate is more suited to its outdoor celebration.)
The other Christian holiday which gets mixed up in this is Easter. Easter, too celebrates the victory of a god of light (Jesus) over darkness (death), so it makes sense to place it at this season. Ironically the name 'Easter' was taken from the name of a Teutonic lunar Goddess, Eostre (from whence we also get the name of the female hormone, estrogen). Her chief symbols were the bunny (both for fertility and because her worshippers saw a hare in the full moon) and the egg (symbolic of the cosmic egg of creation), images which Christians have been hard pressed to explain. Her holiday the Eostara, was held on the Vernal Equinox Full Moon. Of course, the Church doesn't celebrate full moons, even if they do calculate by them, so they planted their Easter on the following Sunday. Thus, Easter is always the first Sunday, after the first Full Moon, after the Vernal Equinox. If you've ever wondered why Easter moved all around the calendar, now you know. (By the way, the Catholic Church was so adamant about not incorporating lunar Goddess symbolism that added a further calculation: if Easter Sunday were to fall on the Full Moon itself, then Easter was postponed to the following Sunday instead.)
Incidentally, this raises another point recently, some Pagan traditions began referring to the Vernal Equinox as Eostara. Historically, this is incorrect. Eostara is a lunar holiday, honoring a lunar Goddess, at the Vernal Full Moon. Hence, the name 'Eostara' is best reserved to the nearest Esbat, rather than the Sabbat itself. How this happened is difficult to say. However it is notable that some of the same groups misappropriated the term 'Lady Day' for Beltane which left no good folk name for the Equinox. Thus, Eostara was misappopriated for it, completing a chain-reaction of displacement. Needless to say, the old and accepted folk name for the Vernal Equinox is 'Lady Day'. Christians sometimes insist that the title is in honor of Mary and her Annunciation but Pagans will smile knowingly.
Another mythological motif which surely must arrest our attention at this time of year is that of the descent of the God or Goddess into the Underworld. Perhaps we see this most clearly in Christian tradition beginning with his death on the cross on Good Friday, it is said that Jesus 'descended into Hell' for the three days that his body lay entombed. But on the third day (that is, Easter Sunday), his body and soul rejoined, he arose from the dead and ascended into Heaven. By a strange coincidence, most ancient Pagan religions speak of the Goddess descending into the Underworld, also for a period of three days.
Why three days? If we remember that we are here dealing with the lunar aspect of the Goddess, the reason should be obvious. As the text of one Book of Shadows gives it, '...as the moon waxes and wanes, and walks three nights in darkness, so the Goddess once spent three nights in the Kingdom of Death.' In our modern world, alienated as it is from nature, we tend to mark the time of the New Moon (when no moon is visible) as a single date on the calendar. We tend to forget that the moon is also hidden from our view on the day before and the day after our calendar date. But this did not go unnoticed by our ancestors, who always speak of the Goddess's sojourn into the land of Death as lasting for three days. Is it any wonder then, that we celebrate the next Full Moon (the Eostara) as the return of the Goddess from chthonic regions?
Naturally, this is the season to celebrate the victory of life over death, as any nature lover will affirm. And the Christian religion was not misguided by celebrating Christ's victory over his death at this same season. Nor is Christ the only solar hero to journey into the Underworld. King Arthur, for example, does the same thing when he sets sail in his magical ship, Prydwen, to bring back precious gifts (i.e. the gifts of life) from the Land of the Dead, as we are told in the 'Mabinogi.' Welsh traids allude to Gwydion and Amaethon doing much the same thing. In fact, this theme is so universal that mythologists refer to it by a common phrase 'the harrowing of hell'.
However, one might conjecture that the descent into hell, or the land of the dead, was originally accomplished, not by a solar male deity, but by a lunar female deity. It is Nature Herself who, in Spring, returns from the Underworld with her gift of abundant life. Solar heroes may have laid claim to this theme much later. The very fact that we are dealing with a three-day period of absence should tell us we are dealing with a lunar, not a solar, theme. (Although one must make exception for those occassional male lunar deities, such as the Assyrian God, Sin). At any rate, one of the nicest modern renditions of the harrowing of hell appears in many Books of Shadows as 'The Descent of the Goddess'. Lady Day may be espeically appropriate for the celebration of this theme, whether by storytelling, reading, or dramatic re-enactment.
For modern Witches, Lady Day is one of the Lesser Sabbats or Low Holidays of the year, one of the four quarter-days. And what date will Witches choose to celebrate? They may choose the traditional folk 'fixed' date of March 25th, starting on its Eve. Or they may choose the actual equinox point, when the Sun crosses the Equator and enters the astrological sign of Aries.
This document copyright 1986, 1998 Mike Nichols
This and all other related documents can be re-published only as long as no information is changed, credit is given to the author and it is provided or used without cost to others. Other uses of this document must be approved in writing by Mike Nichols.
Revised: Saturday, May 23, 1998 c.e.