The Wheel of the Year has become solidly established in modern Paganism over the last 60 years. But some dynamics of this Wheel of the Year have inspired a rather unexpected tradition around this time of year. Wheel of the Year criticisms are now part and parcel of the Autumn Equinox tradition. And I’m all for it.
Many of these Wheel of the Year criticisms stem from a certain author’s unilateral decision to re-name certain Pagan holidays . As he himself put it, “It offended my aesthetic sensibilities that there seemed to be no Pagan names for the summer solstice or the fall equinox equivalent to Yule or Bealtaine—so I decided to supply them.” This author relied only on one source, Bede The Venerable in assigning the name Ostara to the Spring Equinox. This assigned name has been recently controversial because of the way it was used to promote the notion of a superior German race prior to World War II. He named the summer solstice Litha based on its location in the Anglo-Saxon calendar. However, beyond its use in the ancient Anglo-Saxon calendar, no one seems to know what the word actually means.
A holiday turned into a Frankenstein monster
But the biggest reason that Wheel of the Year criticisms peak around the Autumn Equinox has to do with “assigning” the name Mabon to this milestone. The origin of this is as follows: First, the author fused together two Greek myths—Persephone was being kidnapped by Hades, and a myth of Theseus and Herakles rescuing Helen of Troy from the Underworld. (The latter myth’s existence has been disputed.) He said that “solid archeological evidence” suggests that a similar myth to these myths might be found in Britain. He then “found” it with the legend of Mabon ap Modron “whom Gwydion rescues from the underworld, much as Theseus rescued Helen” in the Mabinogion.
But Mabon ap Modron’s main appearance in the Mabinogion is as a minor character in the Culhwch ac Olwen story. Culhwch goes through an extraordinary long quest to retrieve a number of objects in order to marry Olwen. Towards the end, Culhwch frees Mabon from prison, who returns the favor by helping him find a legendary boar. This is but a small section of this long quest.
Mabon’s role in the Culhwch ac Olwen story is even less prominent than the role of Alice in Arlo Guthrie’s rambling eighteen-minute musical monologue “Alice’s Restaurant.” At one point in his ramlbing he says, “Remember Alice? This is a song about Alice,” and the audience laughs because they know it really isn’t about her. But at least Alice got to be in the story’s title and chorus, unlike Mabon. Imagine saying, “Remember Mabon? This is a story about Culhwch and Olwen.” Mabon’s story is about as similar to Persephone’s and Helen of Troy’s as the music of Camper Van Beethoven is to that of Ludwig van Beethoven.
But nevertheless, these questionable names spread widely. And more and more people are stepping up to question the validity of these assigned names. (The original author has unwittingly added fuel to people’s concerns in recent years.)
An appropriate response then would be to leave poor Mabon alone. Let him return to his rightful place in the Mabiginion. Let’s relieve him from being an involuntary effigy for a holiday that was never about him in the first place. Let’s revert to using the names Autumn Equinox, Spring Equinox, and Summer Solstice in the place of names designed to quench an author’s “offended sensibilities.”
An uneven Wheel
But some valid Wheel of the Year criticisms extends beyond the questionable choice of names for a few holidays. It extends to the very structure of the wheel itself.
Irish Pagan author Lora O’Brien has suggested that the Wheel of the Year needs to considered perhaps as two wheels, rotating next to each other. One wheel consists of the solstices and equinoxes, which are celebrated in a myriad of ways around the world. The second wheel consists of the Gaelic “fire festivals” of Imbolc, Bealtaine, Lughnasadh, and Samhain. The Gaelic fire festivals are erroneously labeled by many Pagans as the cross-quarters. The labeling is inaccurate for two reasons. 1) All of the festivals actually tend to occur roughly a week before the astronomical mid-points between the solstices and equinoxes. 2) According to researcher Sharon Paice MacLeod the Gaels chose those days because that was when it felt like the seasons were changing in Ireland and Scotland. She said there’s no evidence that they astronomically calculated the cross-quarters. (They didn’t invent a “tree calendar” either.)
When we think about it logically, the combination of these two separate wheels make for a rather bizarre pairing. That’s because the solstices and equinoxes have been celebrated in a myriad of ways around the world historically. By contrast the Gaelic fire festivals have only historically been celebrated in Ireland and parts of Scotland. This means that four of the holidays are celebrated in a myriad of ways in all corners of a planet of roughly 8,000 million people. The other four holidays are celebrated in two countries whose combined population is about 12.5 million people, and whose combined land areas is less than that of the U.S. state of Missouri. And this pairing, while seemingly a great honor for Gaelic culture, creates problems for them as I will point out below.
Such a combination of traditions would only be logical within the mindset of a decaying 20th century British Empire. That, of course, which is where British Traditional Wicca has its origin. In their defense, the originators may not have been thinking about much beyond Britain when conceiving of this Wheel of the Year. However, British Traditional Wicca appropriated elements of Gaelic (and in the case of Mabon, Brythonic) Celtic cultures that the British Empire spent many centuries trying to eradicate. The language of the cultures that these festivals came from are endangered. Another Wiccan author unwittingly and loudly proclaimed the colonialistic thinking of the founders of Wicca when he described “six of the eight” Wiccan holidays as having been “celebrated in the English-speaking world for thousands of years.” That four of those six holidays are Gaelic, not English, doesn’t seem to matter to him. (It might be highly entertaining to walk onto the streets of any English city and ask random strangers to spell “Lughnasadh,” though some might correctly guess the modern Irish spelling Lunasa.) Unfortunately, this author didn’t retract this inherently offensive statement despite having the error pointed out to him.
The “All The Same Thing” fallacy
Both of the Wiccan authors I’ve mentioned engage in a rather common logical fallacy frequently used by British and Americans. Roman conquerors and other colonial empires subjugating and dominating other cultures have also used this fallacy.. I call this the “All The Same Thing” fallacy. It reflects the tendency to focus on superficial similarities between cultures and drawing false conclusions based on it. This logic also insists that there’s a common root which in fact has not been proven to exist. It ignores the depth, richness, and uniqueness of the cultures they’re talking about. It is intellectually lazy thinking. It also creates excuses for the continued domination and cultural appropriation of minority cultures.
This “All The Same Thing” fallacy has infected the entirety of the Wheel of the Year. One outcome, among other things—is the invention of the “12 Fertility Deities of Bealtaine.” These twelve include Aztec, Hopi, Zulu, and Egyptian deities, in addition to the mostly Greco-Roman deity lineup. Oh, and a couple Celtic deities are included but the article doesn’t mention the Celtic origin of Bealtaine. I’ve nicknamed this distortion “Beltanejuice,” in honor of the classic 1988 comedy-horror film. Despite it having little in common with the actual Bealtaine, it climbed the ladder to the very top of a Duck Duck Go search. Two other websites appearing in the top ten results of the search also copied the “12 Fertility Deities” trope.
I have written in the past how some authors and Internet content farms have distorted the Celtic fire festivals beyond recognition. Some Wiccan writers have omitted mention of the Celtic origin of these fire festivals, calling them “Wiccan festivals” instead. I would argue that Internet content farms have taken Celtic erasure even one step further. They do so by creating content whose main purpose is to rise to the top of Google page rankings regardless of their accuracy. They do this for advertising dollars. This business model makes it much more difficult for people to find authentic representations of their own culture on the Internet. Writers like the rather creative inventor of the “12 Fertility Deities” trope need to reflect on what they are doing to other people’s cultures. They need to be held accountable for their actions if they don’t hold themselves accountable.
Despite my own Wheel of the Year criticisms I see a lot of value in the eight-spoked Wheel of the Year. In Wisconsin where I live, the local terrain looks remarkably different during each of the eight celebrations. It is true that some of the autumn traditions online seem to float between Lughnasadh, the Autumn Equinox, and Samhain. (The same goes for spring traditions floating between Imbolc, the Spring Equinox, and Bealtaine). Some of this may have been the result of genuine evolution within traditional cultures. Some may have been voluntary exchanges of ideas between different cultures. But I certainly don’t consider the “12 Fertility Deities of Bealtaine” or the inclusion of the Aztec goddess Xochiquetzal in this list to be a result of such an exchange. It is the result of one writer obtaining undue influence over multiple cultures due to the fact that she has the backing of well-capitalized Dotdash Meredith, the owner of the Learn Religions website. The difference between honest cultural exchange and cultural appropriation is analogous to the difference between being invited to dinner and being on the menu.
How to celebrate the Wheel of the Year respectfully
As an eco-Pagan, in light of the Wheel of the Year criticisms, I would advocate the following steps for sorting out this misappropriated mythological meltdown milieu:
Because the Celtic fire festivals refer to a specific set of festivals, it is best to celebrate them as the Celts have done prior to their cultural appropriation. It’s important to respect the original traditions as much as possible. This doesn’t mean that you have to recite a ceremony word-for-word by rote. But you almost certainly don’t want to drag poor Xochiquetzal into it the ceremony. It is important to understand the Celts on their own terms, and not as part of your own or someone else’s narrative. If you must introduce significant elements foreign to these festivals, please be clear in your rituals (especially if they’re public!) that these are not part of the traditional Celtic celebrations. Probably the best resources for understanding these traditions include The Irish Pagan School and Caillleach’s Herbarium among others. Trust me, they are much better resources than anything Dotdash Meredith could even dream of offering.
If you aren’t willing to honor the Celtic traditions as they actually are, but still want to celebrate the cross-quarters, then by all means do so. Just don’t refer to them by the names of Gaelic festivals. After all, they never saw themselves as “cross-quarter” festivals in the first place. The dates of the cross-quarters, occurring when the sun reaches 15° Scorpio, 15° Aquarius, 15° Taurus, and 15° Leo, can be found by using the Swiss Ephemeris. In consulting it myself, the dates I’ve calculated for the coming year (based on Coordinated Universal Time, or UTC ) are 11/8/23, 2/4/24, 5/5/24, and 8/7/24. You’re welcome.
Because the solstices and equinoxes are a planet-wide phenomenon, with a variety of different celebrations in different cultures, I would recommend making your celebration most relevant to your area. Look at the world around you at the time of these quarterly planetary milestones. What do you see, feel, hear, smell, and taste? That is what should guide your celebration. Feel free to engage in whatever activities (free of cultural appropriation) you feel moved to engage in on those dates. Use your creativity. This is how beautiful traditions develop. This Earth awareness is what guided the creation of the Celtic Fire Festivals and made them beautiful. Certain authors and Dotdash Meredith may try to steal this beauty, but they’ll never be able to touch it.
The eco-Pagan way
We currently live in a world which, particularly in the West, imagines itself to be an individualistic culture. People who are ecologically aware realize that the degree to which this individualism is a fantasy. People like to imagine that their actions don’t affect anyone. When they first become aware that they might, people will respond with guilt or denial, which are both misplaced responses. The powers that be often tell us that all responsibility for keeping our planet habitable lies with the individual. While true to a large extent, this way of thinking ignores the influence of more powerful forces. These powers force us to lives our lives in a certain way. They set up systems whereby doing the right thing for the Earth becomes very, very difficult. A classic example of this was the decision to dismantle Los Angeles’s in the 1960s, which forced people to depend on cars instead. People are car-dependent in similar ways all around the United States.
These same systems of power also try to define our culture for us and paint our reality for us. The notion that the Internet age gives us unfettered access to information is very inaccurate. Businesses figured out a long time ago that page rankings are profitable. They have been gaming the system to ensure that their content rises to the top of web searchers. It’s literally to the point where you can be very specific with your search terms about what you’re looking for, and still not be able to find it. This also means that accurate information about cultures—particularly marginalized ones—is also very hard to find.
Unequal access to information long pre-dated the Internet. Prior to the Internet, being able to get your ideas out there and accepted depended on who you knew. Those able to publish newspapers or books, or who owned radio or television stations got to establish reality for the rest of us. This is how the early promoters of Wicca established themselves publicly in the mid-20th century. Being largely “first out of the broom closet,” they were able to define Paganism for other cultures besides themselves. (For example, there were probably no self-identified Picts to tell an early Wiccan author to piss off when he wrote this book.) The Internet was supposed to change these power dynamics and in some cases it has. But we have a system now that still prioritizes certain content over others. Once again, money plays a big role in making that determination.
I see the purpose of eco-Paganism as redefining our relationship with the Earth and each other. It involves replacing exploitation with something much more life-affirming, respectful, and nourishing. Earth has her own purposes and we need to understand the Earth on her own terms. Otherwise we take and take and take and take from her until there is little left for her to offer us.
By the same token, ending the exploitation of others means letting cultures define themselves instead of trying to speak for them. It means understanding people on their own terms. It means respecting what a culture considers to be sacred. It also means giving proper credit to the origin of the cultural phenomenon, borrowing it only when given permission to do so. We should encourage the preservation of cultures in the same way we encourage the preservation of habitat. After all, it is human habitat.
So I am all here for the Autumn Equinox being a time for Wheel of the Year criticism. This criticism is a necessary part of the evolution of the Pagan community. We need to understand the mistakes that people in the past have made and making amends. I am happy to see that a lot of more Pagans–including many Wiccans–understand this better now than thirty years ago. I hope for a day where we don’t need to criticize the Wheel of the Year as much. I would love to see the Wheel become a focal point for respecting Pagan traditions no matter where they come from.