To The Sabbats
The Magic Of Ancient Celtic Beliefs In A Contemporary Society
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
most important thing to understand about the eight Witchcraft Sabbats
is that they are not man-made. By this, I mean that they are not holidays
in the same way that Independence Day is a holiday, i.e. a calendar
some date that has a special importance in history. Indeed, the Sabbats
of Witchcraft do not commemorate 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
man-made 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
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 sundown
and sunup are the greatest, and the hours between sunup and sundown
are least. And we call this time the "Winter Solstice".
And exactly opposite it on the wheel of the year, we have its opposite,
the longest day of the year, and the shortest night. And we call this
time the "Summer Solstice".
having got this far in our analysis of the planet's yearly cycle,
it becomes easy to spot two more days that are similar 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 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 hours of daylight, and the consequent 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 pyramids 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 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",
inasmuch 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
mid-point 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 stage of human evolution. Yet,
although they may not be completely contemporaneous, their great antiquity
was quite recently underscored by the discovery in Ireland of earthwork
alignments of the sun's position on the horizon for each of the cross-quarter
days! That means that 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, those 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
correspond with the "tetramorph"; figures of the Zodiac,
and were later adopted by Christian tradition as the sigils of the
four gospel writers.
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 occurring about every seven days. It was
only later that the Hebrews borrowed the word and used it to denote
"the Lord's day", occurring 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 occurring 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-plays 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
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 re-published
only as long as no information
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Other uses of this document must be approved in writing by Mike Nichols.
Revised: Thursday, April 2, 1998 c.e.