Thank 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
The 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 anniversary of 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
- Lady Day/Vernal Equinox
- May Day/Beltane
- Summer Solstice
- Lammas/First Harvest
- Harvest Home/Autumn Equinox
- Yule/Winter Solstice
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”.
And 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
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 centuries.
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 is changed, credit is given to the author, and it is
provided or used without cost to others.
Other uses of this document must be approved in writing by Mike Nichols.
Revised: Thursday, April 2, 1998 c.e.
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