Chapter 15 - The Sabbats - part c
A significant source of material regarding the idea of the Sabbats is The Golden Bough. Frazer devoted a chapter of the book to it, discussing the prevalence and importance of the fire festivals in ancient Europe, thus giving an appealing provenance of ancestry to these rites. Frazer himself may well have been influenced by Michelet, who suggested in La Sorcière that the Sabbat was part of the celebration of the witches’ fertility cult for ensuring abundant crops.
“All over Europe the peasants have been accustomed from time immemorial to kindle bonfires on certain days of the year, and to dance round or leap over them.”
These opening words of the chapter “The Fire Festivals of Europe” in The Golden Bough may well have inspired Gardner in his justification of Wicca as the survival of ancient rites, giving provenance to the antiquity of Wicca. Frazer also made the point of connecting witches to many of the fire-festival celebrations, a point which Gardner or his possible predecessors are unlikely to have ignored. Frazer, as one would expect from a folklorist, detailed many customs associated with the fire festivals, which have subsequently been included in the Wiccan tradition and more modern pagan ceremonies. From jumping the Beltane fires to the burning of the Yule log, Frazer was a prime source of information for anyone looking to discover more about old customs to use and apply in their ceremonies. That such luminaries as Frazer and Murray were folklorists may well have inspired Gardner to become a member of the Folklore Society himself, and avail himself of their not inconsiderable library, though of course he already had a life-long interest in local customs.
“English witchcraft, therefore, was neither a religion nor an organisation. Of course, there were many pagan survivals - magic wells, calendar customs, fertility rites - just as there were many types of magickal activity.”
It should by now be clear that the Witches Sabbats were not seasonal celebrations. This idea seems to originate in the writings of Murray, and then be mingled with Frazer’s Golden Bough and records of ancient Druid practices. Here we should also remember the friendship between Gerald Gardner and Ross Nichols, founder of the Order of Bards, Ovates and Druids and the driving force behind the modern Druidic revival. Nichols also edited Gardner’s book The Meaning of Witchcraft, and was the deputy editor of the magazine The Occult Observer. This friendship may well have provided some of the ideas regarding the Sabbats which would expand the material Gardner already possessed.
Another possible source for the idea of seasonal rites is Dion Fortune in her novel The Winged Bull (1935). In this story the hero and heroine perform a Spring Equinox ritual that bears a strong resemblance in concept to the Wiccan perspective of the Sabbat.
“Ursula represents the earth in spring. You are the Sun-god gradually gathering strength as the days lengthen.”
“He knew they danced together to slow rhythms. He knew they came up to the altar and drank together from the cup of dark, resinous-tasting wine, and ate together of the broken bread dipped in the coarse salt.”
Whilst it has been suggested that early Wiccans only celebrated the four Greater Sabbats, this is not strictly true, as the celebration of Yule is also referred to in early writings by Gardner. He refers in some detail to the Yule rite in chapter 1 of Witchcraft Today in 1954. Some of the early Books of Shadows also include a Yule rite, giving five Sabbat celebrations - perhaps there was still a desire to have a party around the time of Christmas!
The term ’Wheel of the Year’ is now commonly understood to correspond to the cycle of eight Sabbats celebrated at intervals of roughly six to seven weeks throughout the year. However, although it may not have been knowingly directly borrowed from there, it is interesting to note that the term Wheel of the Year is first found in the classic ancient Indian text, The Mahabharata, describing the god Krishna:
“He it is that constitutes the wheel of the year, having three naves and seven horses to drag it. It is in this way that He supports the triple mansion (of the seasons).”
The Wheel of the Year was a common term from the mid-nineteenth century onwards in written and other published materials. We find it in the book What the Moon Saw by Hans Christian Andersen which was published in 1866, the American Talisman of Battle: And Other Poems published in 1864, and in popular Welsh poetry such as that found in Gweithiau: Wedi eu trefnu a’u golygu gan in 1891 and even in English translations of The Mahabharata. The first appearance of this term in a way that blatantly connects it to a cycle of festivals seems to have been in Herman Wouk’s work This Is My God in 1959, contemporary to Gardner’s writings. Chapter 5 of the book is called The Nature Festivals, with the first subsection being called The Wheel of the Year. Shortly after this the term would start to occur in more occult works, such as Juan Cirlot’s A Dictionary of Symbols in 1962. The term does not seem to occur in published modern Witchcraft or Wiccan works until the late 1970s.
 Religion and the Decline of Magic, Thomas, 1980
Extract from: Wicca: Magical Beginnings written by d’Este & Rankine, 2008 (Avalonia.) PB / Kindle @ https://amzn.to/3Ay4HJr. Shared here with the intention to inspire and inform the now and future generations interested in Wicca and other Pagan traditions inspired by it.