June 18, 2009

A Sabbatical Hodge Podge

A Sabbatical Hodge Podge: The Problems of the Eightfold Sabbat System

Why Your Eightfold Sabbat System of Worship is Killing the Spirit of Genuine Paganism- and the Witchcraft That Sometimes Lives Inside It.

Copyright © 2009 by Robin Artisson

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Beating a Well-Known Horse

It has become the mainstream currency of neo-Pagans everywhere to follow the calendrical observations of the "eightfold sabbat" year. Even though I feel like I'm beating a well-known horse by saying this, those eight sabbats are (beginning with the darkest) Yule, Imbolg, Eostre, Beltane, Midsummer, Lammas, Mabon (or the Autumn Equinox), and Samhain. Four are equinoxes and solstices; the other four are (today) positioned directly between the four solar events, and called “cross-quarters.”

Ever since my first days being cognizant of neo-Pagan religions, I've had issues with this system, and those issues turned into a full-blown illness when I did the research behind the creation of the Eightfold Sabbat system. I won't do like I normally do and write eighteen paragraphs before I get to my actual point. I'll just say it: the system, as it is, is unforgivably new-agey and invented.

Now, let me unpack what I just said. Let me start by saying "hey guys- if you like your eight sabbats, then by all means, keep celebrating them." But don't walk around thinking that you're doing anything remotely similar to Pagans from pre-christian times. These eight "sabbats" were assembled by Gardner and team for you, about 60 or so years ago. He was inspired by many then-available sources, chiefly his pals in the revivalist Druid movement- a movement that is far more Christian than Pagan, and whose luminary members and founders were always church-attending men.

The eight sabbats, as they stand, are a hodge-podge of Germanic and Celtic holy days. Before I unpack this, let me say that "Germanic" and "Celtic" are not words that refer to unitary, singular cultural traditions, but very, very broad terms that refer to linguistically-related tribes and nations of people which numbered in the hundreds. The chances that all Germanic Pagans, everywhere and at all times, kept some sacred "wheel" of rituals every year are so tiny as to be negligible. The very same thing goes for the many peoples that we now call "Celtic".

The Summer Begins Twice This Year

There is no doubt in anyone's mind that many Germanic peoples saw the Yule-tide as a very sacred time. There is no doubt that Beltaine in Ireland was a sacred time for the peoples of that Island, at least around the time of the visits of the probably fictional "St. Patrick." We do know that, historically, SOME Celtic and Germanic peoples celebrated these seasons: we know that there was a Lugh's Commemoration Fair, a Lughnassadh, in ancient Ireland, and a shadow of a cognate in Christian times. We know that Midsummer stands tall in the folkloric memory of Germanic-descended people. A few other notable nights and seasons stand out. For instance- we know that the Romans, in all places where Roman culture was strongly spread, celebrated Saturnalia around the time of the Winter Solstice- just like the Germanic Yule.

But when you look at history more soberly, you will discover quickly that taking the Celtic Beltaine, and putting it on a calendar with a Germanic Midsummer or Yule leads to the creation of a calendar that is neither historical, culturally accurate, nor very respectful to the broad ancestral metaphysics of either culture-group. Beltaine, the celebration of Bel's summer fire, seen as a great fertility drama by most neo-Pagans today, stands as the crown of the neo-Pagan conception of the "Celtic Summer": to follow it with the equivalent Germanic "First of Summer" festival- Midsummer- is nothing short of redundant.

One culture-group, at certain times and in certain places, had their summer's beginning on Beltaine, and the other, at Midsummer. These were different cultures with many different ideals, different Gods, and different destinies. They blended together eventually, sure- but they maintain, even now, their own unique treasures to offer, and they can't offer those without people who respect them enough to approach them on their own merits. Celebrating Samhain, followed by Yule- two prominent festivals that include the return of the dead kindreds or ancestors to dwell with the living- is also a bit redundant; your ancestral dead are probably annoyed by being moved twice in the space of seven weeks.

Now, if you're an "eight wheeler", and unless you're claiming to follow a "Celtic-Germanic" Pagan reconstructionist path, what are you really doing? And why on earth would you invent a modern "Myth cycle" with oak kings and holly kings and Persephones and Ishtars, to follow the eight hodge-podge sabbats, as though the ancients believed in any way similarly?

People are passing off "Paganism" (and worse yet, "witchcraft") as gleeful talks about "The God" (that annoying nobody-everybody God of Wiccans) getting married on Beltaine, and reaching the "height of his power" on Midsummer, and blah blah snore- people, please- spare my poor heart.
We're better than this. We don't have to "invent forward"- we can "go back" and see what is still there, written for us in the sacred seasons and in the land. We can "go into" the land around us, and see more. What we'll see is important because it's what the ancients saw, before they began doing the things that we eagerly seek out ourselves now.

Each of these sacred seasons that people toss around, within the context of its own generalized cultural group, has its own mythology- it does not "link" to others with invented neo-Pagan Godforms. Every season and time contains its own mythology, its own sacred powers, its own moods and forces. They are universes all their own, not just steps on a stone-lined path.

I know some of you have heard this sort of rant before. Many of you have not, or have and don't care. I care about getting to the real treasures that have come down to us from the past, and I know for a fact that over-inventing modern contexts and overlays for the treasures of the past is the fastest way to obscure the power and wisdom that is sitting right there, calmly and simply, waiting for people to live it again.

Lugh’s Festival Has Nothing To Do With Anglo-Saxon Loaves

When we examine the origins of these "solar" holy days and festivals, like Yule and Midsummer, even a fool can see that they were inspired by ancient people watching the sun's apparent motions in the sky, and what impact that had on earthly life and weather. When we examine the origins of agrarian festivals and culturally-encapsulated festivals like Lughnassadh or Beltaine, we can see that they were not solar; they were not timed to equinoxes and solstices; they were cultural relics of the many Celtic peoples- particularly the ancient Irish- and they have their origins in the mythical life of those people.

The very widespread Celtic God Lugus, in his Irish hypostasis of Lugh, declares a time of mourning and of competition and games for his foster-mother, who gave her life for the people of a particular region of Ireland, and thus was the mythical origin of Lughnassadh, the commemoration that was established by Lugh.

This is not a universal Pagan holy day. It belonged (and in a sense, still belongs) to a specific culture. The Anglo-Saxon harvest rites of Lammas are not the same thing as Lughnassadh. They are not a "Germanic equivalent"- the Germanic peoples who came to settle in England had no equivalent to Lugh's ordered commemoration event. And they might have been as confused as I am about people leaping all over a disordered year with all these various "holy days" dragged together and forced on one another, as though there was some secret universal pattern to them.

We have no evidence that all Celts or all Germans in every Celtic or German community followed a "four-fold" year. In fact, we don't have a single historical record saying that anyone in Northern Europe "came together this many times a year on these days" for this or that sacred day or ritual. What we do have, however is the common sense to study the everyday lives of these various peoples, and, by adding an understanding of how central nature and the land were to Pagan religions all over Europe (and the rest of the world) we can reconstruct a more sensible vision of what their years might have been like.

To begin with, when you rely on herds and crops for your very life, weather-cycles become very important. But weather-patterns are not everywhere the same: what is a killing cold in England is a balmy day on the shores of the Mediterranean. It was the cold that may have threatened life in the north, but it was drought and heat that threatened life in the Mediterranean world. Their planting seasons and growing seasons were different. What they grew was different. What they hunted, fished, and herded was different, all over. Gods and spirits associated with these animals, crops, and weather were different. They were not all faces of "one divinity" or even two, or three, or ten. They were countless, and unique to each community. The Goddess of the Land was not even called by the same name everywhere, even within cultural boundaries.

This is the key issue: how unique genuine Pagan religion was to each community, or tribe, or grouping of people. Neo-paganism destroys the very fabric of the traditional Pagan vision by trying to bang together a "sacred year", without recourse to the context of small village and community life in ancient times, and even in recent times. There was no internet; no phones; various practices and customs sprang up all over the world, in response to the unique environmental and spiritual conditions of many places, without the other places even knowing about them or understanding them. We are speaking of a non-standardized, totally decentralized way of approaching the natural spirituality of life.

A Hammer Hallows Our Fields… A Penis Hallows Yours

What genuine Pagan people living in a village somewhere in the middle of the woods and fields in the middle of Ancient Germany would have "done" for their community "calendar" is radically different from what Pagans on the top of Norway would have done, or Pagans in Iceland, or Pagans in Britain, or Pagans in Rome. Their local weather- and thus the start of their "harvest" season, would have been different from Pagans in other parts of Europe. What local land-spirits and powers were unique to their community would have been the ones receiving their harvest or planting sacrifices. What larger "Gods" or "Goddesses" they culturally believed in would have been invoked in various ways, but probably not in the same ways, or at the same times, as the Germanic peoples just a hundred miles away, in another part of that same region.

Iceland is a good example: the God that most of the farmers of Iceland prayed to for the well-being of their crops was Thor. He was the God that sent rain and fertilized fields. In southern Sweden, the God farmers traditionally relied on the most was Frey or Ing, for the same goals: fertility and well-being for the land. And beyond these national Gods, whose names were known generally by all Swedes or Icelanders, were the local divinities and land-spirits that only the people in those communities knew and sacrificed to. Those local powers had every bit of say over what grew in their land. They were a crucial part of the old Heathen religious complexes.

Roman and Greek sacred days and seasons were and are radically different from Northern European ones. I don't need to bother going into the very well-known Roman calendar and pointing out how it bears no resemblance at all to anything the Northern Peoples were doing, with almost one exception: Saturnalia coincides in a general way with the Yule-time, and has similar themes. But this can be explained in various ways. It is not an outgrowth of a universal "Pagan year wheel".

Gerald Gardner and the Wiccans (as said before) working in tandem with their Revivalist Druid friends (those Druids who believed in the Helio-Arkite pseudo-pagan christian mythology) gave us the "eightfold sabbat" system. And before you think I'm just against it full stop, let me say a few things that are good about it.

Gardner, like all of the people of Britain now, was a mix of ancient native British and Germanic bloodlines. One might make a case that all Europeans from Northern and Northwestern Europe (as well as Spain and Italy) have Germanic in them, considering it was the German people who migrated to all these places, conquered them (yes, even conquered Spain and Italy- the Visigoths settled Spain and the Ostrogoths ruled Italy, bringing their Gods, culture, and having sex with the local women) and created the "Europe" we know now.

By making a "half kinda-Celtic and half sorta-Germanic" Calendar for his vision of a new Witchcraft, Gardner was in a way being true to his mixed-blood roots. And, for a time, all over Europe, Celtic peoples did celebrate their own local holidays alongside Germanic settlers who followed their own ways. Thus, the folkloric and historical tradition will mention "Lammas" and "Midsummer" alongside things like "Samhain"- but the chances of some small tradition of "witches", the likes of which Gardner claimed to meet, following a clockwork calendar of four Celtic and four Germanic holidays are nil and none.

The Witch of That Small Village… Somewhere Out There…

The local witch of later times, after the names "Celtic" and "Germanic" meant little and national names like "English" or "French" were in place, would certainly have gone to the harvest festivals or his or her community. That festival may have coincided with some more ancient Pagan festival, but it was no longer the same. Some of the same powers may have been there- some of the same impulses, and even some of the same practices (big bonfires, corn dollies, feasting, or what have you) but this is not an instance of "survival" of Pagan rites. Our fictional witch may, in fact, be the only person at the harvest fair that still senses the older powers and spirits of the time- I would hope they would- but again, we are a very long distance from an ancient "Lugh's Commemoration" to the local "St. Agatha's Harvest Home".

That witch might have recognized the power of these times- for they all have power- and used them, as I do myself in my own life, to assay trance work and wisdom-gaining workings. But then, all times have their own power- not just special days. I think that the folk-calendar, which does in fact contain a hodge-podge of older-rooted holy days from different cultures, has its own unique wisdom. But there was no one "folk calendar" for all of Europe. Not now, and not ever. And it certainly didn't contain a "wrap-around story" that told of the progress of some singular Goddess or God.

This modern attempt to bolster Gardner's calendar with new mythology is forlorn, because it is miles from the Land itself, from the unique spirit of unique places.
The "witchcraft"- the native sorcery- of European folk-customs, ancient Pagan spirits, folk-beliefs, and the whole mystical spirit of ancient Europe as it came into the modern day, it will flee before people that automatically ignore the individual sacred lands and places, the subtle messages of individual customs or lores, in favor of some "over-arching" new Pagan calendar that sweeps up the biggest chunks of history, and sweeps away the divine, mystical details.

Gerald was, in his own way (along with those pseudo-Druids) among the first Pagan reconstructionists. And that's good. Without meaning to do so, they certainly inspired a lot of research into the Pagan origins of certain times. But in doing so, they obscured the power of local, land-based rituals, rites, and yearly observations, and how important those are to people today who are fortunate enough to take part in them, and how important they were to the ancients.

Paganism was never meant to be a centralized religion with a liturgical year, like the Catholic year or the Jewish calendar. It was meant to communicate something of the uniqueness of each and every stand of trees, field, or corner of the woods. It was meant to engage every person who lives on a land, grows their own food, or sees their own local wildlife. It was meant to be an expression of each individual's life and land, and their family, and their community. This is what organic religion is. This is why the Gods are not all "one"- they are there, in the land, hills, and mountains of many lands, and in the group-soul of many people, following them on their long migrations. They are in the storms, the skies, and the seas. They are living out their ageless lives alongside human beings, being met by humans everywhere humans go.

Pope Cernunnos

It seems to me that too many neo-Pagans don't see how similar they've become to Christianity or Islam or Judaism: they rush to ram all their Gods into "one", so as to keep some ridiculous claim on a monotheistic-ish seeming religion, in what can be described as nothing short of a fear of true Polytheism- for centuries, Polytheism has been excoriated by Monotheism as ignorant and chaotic, and these lessons have been entrenched in our cultures, in our scholarly fields, and in our basic thinking.

Many of our "New Pagans" don't seem to have the depth or the courage to challenge the Monotheistic claim that Monotheism is just better or "makes more sense". It makes no sense to place all of the rich treasures of human spirituality, all of the unique spirits of places, and all of the unique cultural Gods of the past into an immense blender and make a horrid sludge out of it, all in the name of being able to tell disapproving Christians "well, we all worship the same God, just under different names and facets..." And they've come up with a liturgical calendar, complete with "colors" for the different seasons and precise days of worship, precisely like the Roman Catholic liturgical year.

The more one thinks on it, the more disgusting and shallow it becomes. It is a betrayal of the very essence of organic, traditional Paganism. I don't need Christian approval, and I don't have to be a sorta-monotheist to be taken seriously in a philosophical debate. I don't have to debate at all; I only need to know the closeness of the sacred powers, wherever I am. I need to bond with them and live in peace and harmony with them. That is what Pagans did. That is what "Pagans" worth the name still do.

I don't need a calendar created by Popes to tell me when "Beltaine" is. I can see the bluebells come to the trees, see the bloom of hawthorn, and know that my Summer-fire festival's time is here for me and for mine. They may bloom early one year; they may bloom later- but that's fine. It's the sacred power of the Earth itself telling me that it's time to celebrate. This custom, incidentally- of waiting to see the Hawthorn flowers- is not my invention. I wish I could be so rustic and deep sounding. It was an old custom from some parts of England and Ireland.

Pagans don't need "books on sabbats" to tell them how to worship. They need the sacred book that the ancients had: the Land itself. The Land at YOUR house will show you its own seasons. People need to pay attention to that, if they want to "celebrate the cycles of nature". People claim that the point of "celebrating the cycles of nature" is to gain "balance". I disagree. Balance comes from being part of a place, part of a family, part of a community, part of a vision of life that gives you peace. The seasons cycle around that, through that- but the balance, the "Frith" as many ancient Heathens called it, comes from belonging. You belong to a place, first, then it teaches you about its moods and seasons. By honoring those moods and seasons, you honor it and yourself, because you've become a part of it. The land and the people are one.

Even A Broken Clock Is Right Twice A Day: Let’s Go Deeper

I said that I'd say more than one good thing about the neo-Pagan calendar cycle, right? I did... and, well, I suppose I'd rather see people doing something unforgivably new-agey, and getting excited about the moon or the sun or racked-up Pagan holidays, than getting excited about Jesus and the twelve apostles. At least neo-Paganism is a move back to the sober sanity of nature, and away from the invented "triumphalist" linear story of "sin and salvation" with its absurd notion of "time beginning" and "time ending" at the hands of the ancient Hebrew God. I'd rather a modern story that excited people about nature's sacred powers, than an ancient one that excites people about physically crawling out of their graves one day to go to heaven and watch as most everyone else goes to hell forever. There's just no competition in my mind.

So, thanks to Gerald. But we can't stay right where Gerald or anyone else started people off. We have to use our hearts and reason and go deeper. Unless we all want to be content allowing "Paganism" to be perceived as a bunch of new-agers tossing together Greek and Roman Gods alongside caricatures of Norse and Celtic ones, (and a few Hindu divinities tossed in, alongside some Semitic ones, all slammed into a "one god and one goddess" duo-theism/bad monotheism) and ignoring local lands, powers, and folklore, and then worshiping on "Sabbats" that are blends of Germanic and Celtic holy days, all tied up with a big ribbon of radical liberalism and eco-feminism, we have to go deeper.


  1. What a beautiful and true post, I loved it! You are so right.

    I live in the Canary Islands (Spain), and right now we are about to finish the harvest time. During the whole summer, which lasts until october, it gets too hot to plant monstly anything, and all the planting must be indoors. This land is in full bloom in December. It would feel stupid to celebrate the coming of the summer as a pagan from Germany could do.

    I completely agree with your idea of observing the cycle around us and creating our own magickal festivities around it. I think the globalization of Paganism is a very bad idea too.

    Count me as a blog follower from now on- I really like the way you write!

  2. I think this is a very interesting and pertinent post. Living down here in Van Diemens land and completing my first full year here our sense of a sacred calendar is evolving all the time. Though my 'the dead return' festival is celebrated around the time of 'Samhain' which of course here is around early May, there is certainly something worthy of observance about midwinter here. Though I wouldn't think of repeating a 'winter begins again' festival, being so far south the nights come to a great length and we are blessed by the vision of the Aurora Borealis (Southern Lights) on these nights. We don't celebrate the middle of summer Christmas that occurs here, so we save our present giving and family time for now. Perhaps we should call it the Festival of the Aurora. Either way it is certainly unique to place and I share your dissatisfaction with the eight spoked wheel of mass-produced seasonal naff-ness.

  3. Wonderful post. As a new pagan I'm finding a lot of things that just feel so formulaic and trendy. I found paganism by trying to find the roots of Christianity. It makes no sense to me to just practice Christianity by a different name.

    Thanks for the insight.

  4. A great post, Robin. I have been absent much of late from Son of Art and the other RA blog-spaces, due to personal issues, but have peeked in from the wings from time to time, and find your rants consistently wise.

    I recently moved--only 20 minutes between houses. And yet, the new house is a full 1000 feet in elevation higher than the old house, and this spring has totally thrown me for a loop. Everything is different (albeit subtly) from last year. Luckily, I have a hawthorn right in my front yard... But everything happened later than I thought it would. So I have listened to the new time-table.

    In one sense, I have not changed my location at all, same town, same job, same friends... and yet everything is different. If something as simple as a 15 mile move makes such a difference from a natural, seasonal sense, how can we think that all over the world it is the same?

    I also agree very much with your point about the "all gods are one god; all goddesses are one goddess" position of modern wicca. As a lapsed monotheist, that has always made me uncomfortable.

    Anyway, keep on rantin'.

    Jongiorgi Enos

  5. Excellent post! I never celebrated all those "Pagan Holidays" anyway. They always felt so out of step with what I saw outside. For example, I grew up in northern Vermont and to celebrate Imbolc as "nature stirring from its slumber" is rather silly!! I can assure you, nature is not even THINKING of stirring up there in early February. The only thing "stirring" up there at that time of year are the embers in the wood stove.

    Now I live in Georgia and I think Beltaine should be celebrated here at least a month earlier than the hard and fast April 30th. On that date in northern New England it's still a little chilly for the festivities our ancestors certainly enjoyed, maybe the end of May would be more appropriate for that area.

    Anyway, thanks for the insight, Robin! And thanks SO much for the effort, honesty, and wisdom you put into your work! Future generations of Pagans will look back at your work and be glad you had the BALLS to say what you did!! Your writings have inspired me and have deepened my spirituality and worldview in ways for which I could NEVER thank you enough! I'm reasonably sure I speak for more than just myself. You're a wonderful teacher, thanks again!!

  6. Fabulous rant, this is exactly what I have been ranting on about all year! Especially after I was asked to illustrate the Wiccan year! It just set me off about the actual Celtic and Anglo-Saxon practices and I can't help but looks at the Wiccan Wheel saying 'what on earth were you thinking when you put this together??'

  7. Thank you for this article. You voiced the very things I have been concerned and confused over in regard to neo-Paganism and Wicca. It's hard to get to the root when there is so much misinformation and "static" out there. I've had a hard time with Wicca myself, although I think certain aspects of it are beautiful, but it is very "Christianized" and is fast becoming just another monotheistic sect.

    I'm so grateful to have found your blog!

  8. Yes these things do need to be challenged as with all cliches.

    In my own practice I've always thought of Beltaine and Midsummer merging into each other (and the latter not primarily being about the Solstice at all). I do see different emphases between each and certainly the emergence of 'May' blossom is a key factor if we are to go with the seasons as they are rather than the calender.

  9. yes, great! thank you

    The local changes in the land and weather guide my practices

  10. An excellent post, and one whose sentiment I have agreed with for many years now.

    One minor quibble; you claim "we don't have a single historical record saying that anyone in Northern Europe "came together this many times a year on these days" for this or that sacred day or ritual."

    Take a look at Ynglingatal, chapter 8. It does not bolster the 8 or 4-fold calendar of holidays, but it does indeed mention when the three sacrifices were held, and for what purposes.

    But as I say, that's a minor point. Your broader thesis is spot-on.

  11. This is way late but I've just discovered your blog and will try not to make too big a fool out of myself here. :)

    A couple of years ago an astrologer ex-boyfriend pointed out to me that the four major Celtic sabbats all take place right around the time when the sun hits 15 degrees of the fixed signs - Aquarius, fixed air/Imbolc, Taurus, fixed earth/Beltaine, Leo, fixed fire/Lughnasadh, Scorpio, fixed water/Samhain. As long as I've been a Pagan I still don't really properly have a grasp on astrology and how it relates to Paganism, but this connection intrigued me, and since I learned of it I've been trying to celebrate the sabbats on the astrological dates. I figure it must have some significance, even if I'm not entirely clear on what it is, or what the Celts really thought about astrology in the first place. I'm certainly willing to learn, however, and articles such as this are helping me do so. Thank you!