The Wheel of the Year: A Path of Spiritual Awakening
The women's spirituality movement has reclaimed an ancient Earth-based spirituality that was eradicated from the more traditional religions: Judaism, Christianity and Islam. This Earth-based spirituality not only shows us how the physical life of our planet evolves but it also outlines a path of psychological and spiritual growth that unites us with the life of our Mother Earth. In this time of tremendous Earth changes, working with these energies of life and death can help us create a new paradigm for living in unity with Earth.
Gaia-centered spirituality revolves around our life here on Earth rather than an afterlife paradise. It acknowledges and builds on the cyclical processes of life created by the Earth, Sun and Moon. Women have always been connected through our menses to the lunar cycle, and consciously reconnecting to the lunar cycles by celebrating the new and full moons takes us deeper into our own feminine process. The larger cycle of the year is celebrated through the eight-fold path of the Wheel of the Year, which encompasses the interweaving of masculine and feminine energies.
While our modern religions look to a god of rules that decides if we are worthy of everlasting life, Earth spirituality puts each of us in the center of our own salvation — our own evolution in consciousness. While all spiritual disciplines connect us to a larger sense of self, the Wheel of the Year connects us not only to that greater self, but also invites us to find our own rules of life within the larger context of the cosmic laws of life. The only rule is: And it harm none, do as thou wilt. This puts the responsibility squarely on our own shoulders to create and sustain a conscious way of living.
Cycles of the Cosmic Year
Winter, spring, summer, autumn — the cycle and circle of nature's year. In an age where most of us have lost touch with the life and rhythms of our Mother Earth, the cycle of the year is a sure way back into the center of life. As we reclaim the lost heritage of our natural life rhythms through the gateways of the Wheel of the Year, we come to understand and accept the cycle of conception, gestation, birth, flowering, fulfillment, harvest, decline, and finally death, which returns to a new birth once more. When we reclaim our connection to Mother Earth in this way, we get back in touch with the essential things in life.
We name these gateways according to our experience of the absence or presence of the light of the Sun. As we become more conscious of our connection to Earth, we learn to accept both the light within us as well as our inner darkness, since our inner states are so often reflected in our outer lives. Darkness is not inherently evil, as we’ve been taught by religions that divide the divine light from the divine darkness. Darkness also symbolizes the unknown or the potential of life. Our ancestors knew this and celebrated the seasons to forge a strong bond with all the cosmic laws of life.
This cycle of the Wheel of the Year contains the archetypal bones of the processes of life. When we participate in this larger Earth story, we can utilize the cosmic energy available at each season to deepen our awareness of life. This cycle allows for times to plant and times to sow, times to play and times to rest. It can take us out of our culture's insistence on an endless summer of blossoming and progress, with no rest or rejuvenation in sight. By honoring these seasonal gateways we can consciously integrate their energies, learning to age gracefully as we are renewed and supported by Earth and the cosmos.
While Pagans celebrate their New Year on October 31st, I begin the new cycle on Winter Solstice, December 20-22 (speaking from the perspective of the Northern Hemisphere; in the South, seasons are reversed). At Winter Solstice we celebrate the rebirth of the light in the time of greatest darkness. We experience the shortest time of daylight and the longest night, and feeling the weight of the darkness, long for the return of longer, lighter days. This is when we welcome the divine child of light once again into the world.
A time to go within, we give birth to the light within our inner darkness during this season. Our soul calls to us and we discover that something new wants to get born this coming year, although we haven't a clue what it is yet. This is the time when a new seed is planted, but we have to wait to see if it takes.
Six weeks later we celebrate the second gateway, the Celtic festival of Imbolc, Candlemas, or St. Brigid's Day. It is the festival of quickening, the time when seeds split open, the light grows stronger and creativity stirs in our depths. Celebrated on February 2nd, Ground Hog’s Day, we look to predict the return of spring through the strength of the returning sunlight. And we look within for visions of that new life and new creativity for the coming year.
The third gateway is Ostara, the Spring Equinox (March 20-22), when life bursts out from the seemingly barren earth, and the chains of darkness and winter are broken for another year. There is a balance of light and darkness, and we breathe in the knowledge that the light is growing and the days are getting longer and warmer. At Spring Equinox, we celebrate the resurrection of Jesus Christ as well as the Jewish holiday of Passover. The symbolism of death and resurrection is played out at this balance of light and dark, life and death. Now we begin to assert our creativity more dynamically and bring our creative talents to bear on new projects.
At this time, the fertility of the Easter bunny, named for the great fertility goddess of northern Europe, Oester, captures our imaginations. There is a story about Oester that exemplifies this balance of feminine being and masculine doing. A bird came to her one day, and told her that she had fallen in love with a land animal, a rabbit, and wanted to be changed into a rabbit to be with her beloved. So Oester blessed her and changed the bird into a rabbit, and in gratitude, the rabbit laid eggs for the goddess for the rest of her life.
The ancients knew that the great goddess of life grants our wishes for life and love and happiness in spring, and that the correct response is to offer our respect back to her through our actions. At Spring Equinox, we move out of our winter hibernation into action.
On May 1st we celebrate the fourth gateway, the Feast of Beltane, when “sweet desire weds wild delight” (Starhawk) as the colors return to nature and flowery perfumes intoxicate our senses. This is when we experience, each time as if for the first time, how awesome is Earth’s beauty, seeing and feeling the gift of life that we have been blessed with. It is a time to know joy and hope and desire and passion, for these are the gifts of life that we remember as the round of the year circles on. Beltane marks a time when we celebrate the gift of life's possibilities. We have come from birth into youth and flowering. On Beltane, we dance around the maypole, joining the masculine and feminine energies to create the passion that sparks new inventions, new creativity and new life in partnership with each other.
Now the Wheel of the Year turns to its second half and the cycle of maturity and fulfillment open up, followed by the slow decay and death of autumn and winter. The fifth gateway is Litha, Summer Solstice (June 20-22), the time of the longest day and the shortest night, the marriage feast of Heaven and Earth when we feel the fullest potentials of life. At this time, the four planes of life — the physical, mental, emotional, spiritual — are aligned to promote greater spiritual awareness and growth. This is a time of spiritual opening when we can blend the feminine and masculine energies within, as well as without. Nature is open to us, assisting in this new integration.
This is the time when we know what our purpose is and are fully engaged in it. The sun bathes us in light and life. This is the moment when we celebrate the power of light, for the sun is at its most powerful and Earth is most fertile. This light brings new consciousness, new illumination, new beauty and vision as we consummate our life. But in the very moment of this longest day of light we know that the cycle is turning, and imperceptibly the darkness begins to grow and the light lessen.
The sixth gateway is August 1st, the festival of Lammas, or Lughnasadh, which marks the beginning of the end of summer and the coming of autumn. Now we begin to notice that the days are shorter, giving way to cooler days and longer nights. This festival highlights the fading power of the sun as well as celebrates the first fruits of the year’s harvest. It is the time of year when the abundance of the harvest is apparent and we begin to see the first fulfillment of our creativity and hard work. It is a time to give thanks for our lives and the good things in it. This is the time to dedicate the first fruits of the harvest to Mother Earth, an offering that reminds us that all things come from this divine source.
The seventh gateway is Mabon, the Fall Equinox (September 20-22), when once again we hang in the balance between the energies of the light and the darkness, but a very different balance than we experience in spring, for we are moving out of the light and into the darkness. As we accept the decline of the light, we also accept the gifts of the harvest. These gifts often entail healing, balance and greater strength of body, soul and spirit.
This harvest is not only of the foods that sustain our bodies, but the harvest of another creative year of our lives. Hopefully, we have grown and matured through the year and have something new in our lives to show for it. This time of harvest is a time of celebration, but also of purification and preparation. We have to look at our values and determine which ones center us in our lives, considering how our harvest went and what new goals we might want to pursue in the coming year.
We are preparing for the death of the year, for without death there can be no new life. This time of year teaches us how to let go of what no longer serves our life. Now life demands that we recognize that we are growing older and that we must learn how to accept the inevitable death of our youth, of our middle age and ultimately of our lives.
This death is celebrated at the eighth gateway on Samhain, our Halloween night, on October 31-November 1. It is not a time of evil forces, but rather the night when the veils between the worlds are thin and the spirits of the dead may once more walk among the living, so that we remember and honor what has gone before us.
This night celebrates the opening of the gate between life and death. In accepting the fact of death, we allow ourselves to open to the birth that will come once again on Winter Solstice. This is the time to let go of our fears, our failures and our unfulfilled goals so that they can go back into the darkness for rebirth at Winter Solstice. As we experience the withdrawal of life force into the depths of Earth for renewal, we learn that we too can let go of those parts of ourselves which no longer serve us, because as Earth’s children, we are assured of new life to come.
So the Wheel of Life continues its round. In celebrating these sacred times, women and men are once again acknowledging the ancient wisdom which Earth offers to her children: first, that human beings live in cyclical time, as well as linear time; second, that our human lives are regulated by the cycles of birth, growth, decay and death that Earth herself is subject to; and third, that we have an opportunity at these times to direct and influence how we use and store this energy of life for our spiritual growth.
The Wheel of the Year creates the big story that bonds us with Mother Earth, our solar system and with each other. We all live on one planet and are all subject to her laws. As the light waxes and wanes throughout the year, inner and outer become one, and life's dramas manifest through us. We each create our own story.
Psychologist, astrologer, author, ritualist, coach and teacher Cathy Pagano has worked with the gifts of the imagination for over 30 years. Cathy is an initiated priestess of the Egyptian goddess Sekhmet, and she creates rituals and classes throughout the year based on the Wheel of the Year. Visit www.wisdom-of-astrology.com.