The Eight-Fold Year

wheel of the year 3, Order of Bards, Ovates & Druids.

by Philip Carr-Gomm

Mankind has got to get back to the rhythm of the Cosmos.
~ D. H. Lawrence

Since the Enlightenment our culture has projected the message that life is linear – that we are born, we grow old and we die, and that’s it. The old message of the cyclicity of life, of life as a circle or spiral, that humanity intuitively knew from the dawn of time, and whose symbols were carved on stones all over the world, was replaced a few hundred years ago by the symbol of the straight line: the male, linear, scientific world-view that, in distortion, worships progress and goal-achievement above wisdom and clarity of being.
One of the results of this change in the collective consciousness from an awareness of the circularity of life to its linearity, has been a disconnection in the souls of many people from one of the most nourishing of spiritual sources, the realm of nature.
When I met the old Chief Druid, Nuinn, he spoke of a way that had never severed its connection with nature, and which conveyed a sense of the immanence of the divine in all things. In Druidry you communed with God in the ‘temple not made with hands’, in the ‘eye of the sun’, in the open air, in the environment made by God not by humans. In Druidry God was seen as being in everything, omnipresent yet manifesting differently in stone and star, tree and celandine.
I was introduced to a way of orienting my life that meant I could be in tune with nature, not separate from it. Looking back, I now realise what an extraordinary gift it was for me to have been given such a way of understanding life at such an early age. My teacher explained the festival scheme, the central observance-pattern of Druidry, to me one day in this way:
‘Take your life and its events. Place them in one line with birth at one end and death at the other end’, he said to me in a cafe, picking up a knife to illustrate his point, ‘and you have an isolated line beginning in the void and terminating in the void. Other lines might run parallel to yours, collide or cross, but they will all end as they begun – with nothing.’ He paused, looked at me with a shrug, and then said, ‘But we know life isn’t really like that. We know that death is followed by rebirth because we see it with the rebirth of life in the Spring, and, if we are lucky, we remember it when we reach far back in our own memories. So life is like this,’ he said gesturing to the plate, ‘Not this!’ (putting the knife down with a touch of theatre, as people started to look at us in the café).
He then ran his finger around the circumference of the plate, saying, ‘You are born, you grow old, you die’ bringing his finger back to the starting point, and then again ‘You are born, you are a child, a young man, an old man, you die. You are born, you die,’ and so on, several times until he put the plate down to allow the waitress to serve our meal.
‘What is it that guides the course of this cycle – this circling?’ He asked me. My mind went blank for a moment. ‘What lies at the centre of this wheel? What or who is responsible for its turning?’ I got it: ‘My soul – my true identity that endures through every life!’ ‘Exactly,’ he said, placing a pat of butter in the centre of my dish of spaghetti to mark the place of my Soul.
‘Now let us forget the individual,’ he went on, ‘and look at the world. The seasons are clearly cyclical – one following the other inexorably. So we can place them on a circle. That is the circle of the year. But the life of each day we can place on a circle too – it is born at dawn, reaches its peak at noon, and passes from dusk into night, before being reborn again the next day.’ He began circling his plate with his finger, more gingerly now, to avoid the food.
‘The circle of the year and the circle of the day have affinities. Winter is like the dead of night, when all is still. Spring is like the dawn of the day when the birds awaken and praise the sun. Summer is like noon – a time of maximum heat and growth. Autumn is like the evening, when the autumn colours seem like the colours of the sunset. So there are the two cycles of the Earth harmoniously brought together. Who or what do you think it is that controls the turning of this wheel?’ he said, taking the opportunity finally to begin eating, and also taking great pleasure in the coincidence that now he needed to turn his spaghetti on a fork, which operation he naturally chose to perform in the centre of the plate. Again, for a moment my mind went blank. ‘God?’ I said. ‘Well, yes, God is at the centre and is the cause of everything. But what specifically causes the cycle of the day and the seasons on Earth is the Sun. The Sun causes the wheel to turn.’
I thought about this and realised it was true. Leaning forward he peered at me intently for a moment, before asking his next question: ‘And what do you think the connection is between your cycle’ he said, pointing to my plate, ‘and the cycle of the earth?’ pointing to his plate. For the moment I could see no connection – they seemed entirely separate as were our two plates of spaghetti. Nuinn circled his plate with his finger once more. ‘Birth, death, rebirth. Winter Solstice – the longest night. Will the sun be reborn? Yes! And here, opposite, at the Summer Solstice he is at his maximum strength, at the time of the longest day.’ Pointing to the top of my plate, he said ‘Here you are born, incarnated as a spark of light, and there,’ pointing to the other side of my plate, ‘you are in the prime of your life.’ He suddenly grabbed the pepper pot and made a dash of pepper on my plate at these two points, saying ‘Summer, Winter.’ And then two further splashes were made to either side: ‘Spring and Autumn.’ Pointing at each mark, he continued ‘Here we see how the cycle of your life and the life of the Earth are entwined. The Spring is the time of your childhood, the Summer the time of your manhood, the Autumn the time of your maturity in old age, and Winter is the time of your death. At the centre of the turning wheel of your life is your Soul. At the centre of the turning wheel of the Earth is the Sun.’ He looked around the table for something to use, then with a flourish he tossed a spoonful of parmesan cheese into the centre of my half-eaten pile of spaghetti. ‘The Sun and your Soul! Now perhaps you know why the Sun is revered so much in Druidry.’
At this point I experienced one of those sudden rushes of insight in which everything seems to come together and make sense in one flash, even though one’s everyday mind cannot quite grasp all the connections. ‘This is perhaps why it is said that the Druids believed that our Souls originate in the Sun. They believed that between lives we go to rest on the moon until our last three incarnations on earth, when we are allowed to rest between lives in the heart of the Sun, with those golden Solar Beings who guide the destiny of our planet.’
That was my introduction to the Eightfold Scheme that lies at the heart of Druidry, and indeed the Western Pagan Tradition, of which Druidry is one manifestation and Wicca another. Both Druids and Witches celebrate these eight festivals, although in a different way, and with different rites.
Basing itself on this deep and mysterious connection between the source of our individual lives and the source of the life of the planet, Druidry recognises eight particular times during the yearly cycle which are significant and which are marked by special observances.
Of the eight times, four are solar and four are lunar, creating thereby a balanced scheme of interlocking masculine and feminine observances. The solar observances are the ones that most people associate with modern-day Druids, particularly the Summer Solstice ceremonies at Stonehenge. At the Solstices, the Sun is revered at the point of its apparent death at midwinter and of its maximum power at the noon of the year when the days are longest. At the Equinoxes, day and night are balanced. At the Spring Equinox on 21 March, the power of the sun is on the increase, and we celebrate the time of sowing and of preparation for the gifts of Summer. At the Autumnal Equinox on 21 September, although day and night are of equal duration, the power of the sun is on the wane, and we give thanks for the gifts of the harvest and prepare for the darkness of Winter. These four festivals are astronomical observances, and we can be sure our ancestors marked them with ritual because many of the stone circles are oriented to their points of sunrise or sunset. By the time the circles were built, our ancestors had become a pastoral people, and times of sowing and reaping were vital to them.
But as well as these four astronomical, solar festivals, there exist four times in the year which were and are also considered sacred. These were the times which were more associated with the livestock cycle, rather than the farming cycle. At Samhuinn, between 31 October and 2 November, livestock for whom there was insufficient fodder were slaughtered and their meat salted and stored. At Imbolc, on 2 February the lambs were born. At Beltane, on 1 May, it was the time of mating and of the passing of the livestock through the two Beltane fires for purification. Lughnasadh, on 1 August, was the time which marked the link between the agricultural and the livestock cycle – the harvest began and both human food and animal fodder were reaped and stored.
The two sets of festivals represent far more than just times which our ancestors chose to honour the plant and animal life-cycles though. They demonstrate our thorough interconnectedness with both the animal and plant realms. It is only we moderns who can separate the life-cycles in an analytical way.
As we contemplate the festivals we shall see how interwoven is the life of our psyche and of our body, of the planet and of the sun and moon, for each festival time marks a potent conjunction of Time and Place in a way that is quite remarkable. Looking at the complete cycle, we shall begin at Samhuinn – a time which marked traditionally the ending and the beginning of the Celtic Year.
Samhuinn, from 31 October to 2 November was a time of no-time. Celtic society, like all early societies, was highly structured and organised, everyone knew their place. But to allow that order to be psychologically comfortable, the Celts knew that there had to be a time when order and structure were abolished, when chaos could reign. And Samhuinn was such a time. Time was abolished for the three days of this festival and people did crazy things, men dressed as women and women as men. Farmers’ gates were unhinged and left in ditches, peoples’ horses were moved to different fields, and children would knock on neighbours’ doors for food and treats in a way that we still find today, in a watered-down way, in the custom of trick-or-treating on Hallowe’en.
But behind this apparent lunacy, lay a deeper meaning. The Druids knew that these three days had a special quality about them. The veil between this world and the World of the Ancestors was drawn aside on these nights, and for those who were prepared, journeys could be made in safety to the ‘other side’. The Druid rites, therefore, were concerned with making contact with the spirits of the departed, who were seen as sources of guidance and inspiration rather than as sources of dread. The dark moon, the time when no moon can be seen in the sky, was the phase of the moon which ruled this time, because it represents a time in which our mortal sight needs to be obscured in order for us to see into the other worlds.
The dead are honoured and feasted, not as the dead, but as the living spirits of loved ones and of guardians who hold the rootwisdom of the tribe. With the coming of Christianity, this festival was turned into Hallowe’en [October 31] All Hallows [1 November and All Saints [2 November. Here we can see most clearly the way in which Christianity built on the pagan foundations it found rooted in these isles. Not only does the purpose of the festival match with the earlier one, but even the unusual length of the festival is the same.
Next in the cycle is the time of the Winter Solstice, called in the Druid Tradition Alban Arthan [the Light of Arthur]. This is the time of death and rebirth. The sun appears to be abandoning us completely as the longest night comes to us. Linking our own inner journey to the yearly cycle, the words of the Druid ceremony urge us to ‘Cast away, O wo/man whatever impedes the appearance of light.’ In darkness we throw on to the ground the scraps of material we have been carrying that signify those things which have been holding us back, and one lamp is lit from a flint and raised up on the Druid’s crook in the East. The year is reborn and a new cycle begins, which will reach its peak at the time of the Midsummer Solstice, before returning again to the place of death-and-birth.
Although the Bible indicates that Jesus was born in the Spring, it is no accident that the early Church chose to move his official birthday to the time of the Midwinter Solstice, for it is indeed when the Light enters the darkness of the World, and we see again the building of Christianity on the foundations of earlier belief.
In a Christian culture we really only have one marker for the year, and that is Christmas. Easter and Harvest-time used to be significant, but can hardly be considered so now, when only a fraction of the British population attend Church regularly. Druidry has eight markers, which means that every six weeks or so, we have the opportunity to step out of the humdrum of daily life, to honour the conjunction of Place and Time.
The next Festival occurs on 2 February, or the night of 1 February. It is called Imbolc in the Druid tradition, or sometimes Oimelc. Although we would think of Imbolc as being in the midst of Winter, it represents in fact the first of a trio of Spring celebrations, since it is the time of the first appearance of the snowdrop, and of the melting of the snows and the clearing of the debris of Winter. It is a time when we sense the first glimmer of Spring, and when lambs are born. In the Druid tradition it is a gentle, beautiful festival in which the Mother Goddess is honoured with eight candles rising out of the water at the centre of the ceremonial circle.
The Goddess that ruled Samhuinn was the Cailleach, the Grey Hag, the Mountain Mother, the Dark Woman of Knowledge. But by Imbolc the Goddess has become Brighid, the Goddess of poets, healers and midwives. And so we often use Imbolc as a time for an Eisteddfad dedicated to poetry and song praising the Goddess in her many forms. The Christian development of this festival is Candlemas – the time of the Presentation of Christ in the Temple. For years successive Popes had tried to stop parades of lit candles in the streets of Rome at this time, until seeing that it was impossible to put a stop to this pagan custom, it was suggested that the populace enter the churches so that the priests could bless the candles.
Time moves on, and in a short while we come to the Spring Equinox, the time of equality of day and night, when the forces of light are on the increase. At the centre of the trio of Spring Festas, Alban Eilir [the Light of the Earth] marks the more recognisable beginnings of Spring, when the flowers are beginning to appear and when the sowing begins in earnest. As the point of psychological development in our lives it marks the time of late childhood to, say, 14 years – Imbolc marking the time of early childhood [say to 7 years]. We are in the Spring of our lives – the seeds that are planted in our childhood time of Imbolc and Alban Eilir will flower from the Beltane time of adolescence onwards as capacities and powers that will help us to negotiate our lives with skill and accomplishment.


Learn more about Druidry and how to join the order

The practice of Druidry used to be confined to those who could learn from a Druid in person. But now you can take an experience-based course wherever you live, and when you enrol on this course, you join the Order of Bards, Ovates & Druids, and begin an adventure that thousands of people all over the world have taken. It works with the ideas and practices of Druidry in a thoroughly practical, yet also deeply spiritual way.