Ancient Festivals - Living in Time

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Ancient Festivals

Living in Time

Ancient Festivals

and the Cycle of the Year

This is about the cycle of the year. To move into an inner affinity with it brings us closer to the power behind nature and gives us new creative potential. For the energy-cycle of the year is not just a calendrical affair: it is a cycle of growth and consolidation fundamental to our very existence.

Neither is it just a matter of changes in the availability of heat and light: it is a cycle of subtle energy with a marked effect in our own lives, participating in the breathing of Mother Earth. For we are as nits on her skin, and need to transform our lives from being parasitic to participatory.

Observing the ancient festivals is one small way of doing this, an inner basis on which we can move into our role as gardeners of the planet.


We tend to take the cycle of the year very much for granted, viewing it calendrically rather than from an energy viewpoint. As far as our calendar is concerned this makes sense, because there is no natural calendrical basis to it. Yet there is an energy-cycle to the year, and without being aware of it we miss out on the undertow of life and omit to use the available energy of time to guide us and help us in our purposes. If we moved more in harmony with time, we would move more in harmony with each other as well, and life would unfold more organically, more in phase with overall energy-conditions. Like surfing, moving through life is easier if we catch the wave and know how to ride it. Thus the question arises, how can we recognise the wave-pattern, and how can we develop and sustain the consciousness to be able to perceive it and stay with it?

The seasons are brought about by Earth’s relationship with Sun, in which she exposes each of her poles to Sun for half of the year as she orbits around it. Outwardly, Sun gives Earth light and heat, and the seasons come about as a result of the meeting of the yang, solar energy, and the yin, Earth substance, with Moon mediating through regulating water flows. Inwardly, however, there is an energy-weather cycle which activates the life-force within the Earth being, and within ourselves. It courses through the subtle meridians of the Earth and underlies the very blueprints of life itself.

The ancients recognised this, and took it upon themselves to invoke favourable seasonal change, in the knowledge that change is the essence of Earthly life, and rhythm is the breathing of life-force, of the prana or ch’i of Earth and all who live on her. This solar life-force is what gives us the urge to live, to chase our dreams and actualise the fullness of our potential. The Sun in us is at the centre of our being, and is our fundamental raison d’etre and source of strength, a potentially vibrant, shining place within us which can make something good out of any life circumstance.

The Sun moves around the zodiac in one year, exposing us to living experiences of different underlying life-realities as it moves through the signs. There are twelve signs of the zodiac, and these are anchored in four quarter-points of the year – the two solstices and two equinoxes. The twelve signs outline the qualitative undertow of the seasons, archetypally. An archetype (in paraphysics, an L-field) is an image or root-model of fundamental patterns behind and within all happenings and situations, and is experienced by our unconscious or deeper self. In other words, life experience is a combination of circumstances out there, and inner states of being: it pays well to observe the changes of these inner states in the collective psyche, and in our own lives, as we progress through the year.

Interestingly, nature itself (at least, in Britain and NW Europe) manifests its changes in an eightfold pattern, marked out by the four quarter points and the mid-points (cross-quarters) between these. The energy principles behind each year are represented by the twelve signs, but the manifest changes are represented by an eightfold subdivision of the year. The ancients of Britain, who were more interested in the cyclical facts of life than we are, used a fundamentally eightfold zodiac or calendar, as evidenced in many stone circles and ancient sightlines and landscape temples.

Let’s look at these eight annual subdivisions. These periods, were bounded by points in time, marked by festivals, which we call the quarters and cross-quarters.

The four and the eight

The Solstices

The four quarter points of the yearThese are, quite simply, the two exact points in the year when the days are longest and shortest – that is, when the poles of Earth are maximally inclined toward the Sun, or when Sun is directly above the two tropics (of Cancer and Capricorn). Energywise, the solstices are times of pause, in which a movement of change from one light condition to the other – long days or long nights, more emphasised for people living further from Earth’s equator, in cooler latitudes – stops and reverses. These processes of light-change bring forward the seasons and tremendous energy-changes too, felt even underground.

When the light is increasing, from winter to summer solstice, all individual entities are finding and expressing their own identity, or individualising, and when the light is decreasing, from summer to winter solstice, nature and life as a whole is integrating itself, or perhaps wholising (sometimes called socialising or universalising). You can observe this in your own life if you keep an awareness of your internal changes throughout the year. It's about stepping out into summer and returning home in winter.

The solstices occur around 2lst-22nd June and December (the variation being due to our unnatural Gregorian calendrical system). At winter solstice, individual things and people experience their belongingness to the whole and to each other, yet they start on a journey of exploration of their individuality. This exploration lifts off at the spring equinox (20th-2lst March) and reaches its peak of growth by summer solstice in late June. Within this change-completion lies a new beginning, however, and from summer to winter solstice, lifting off at autumn equinox (22nd-24th September), all individualised beings journey on a path of reintegration into belongingness to the whole, the family, the enfolding ecosystem. In the three months after each solstice, the change is bubbling under, giving new context to the prevailing energy of the time, and at the equinoxes, the change surfaces, becomes conscious and acted out.

The solstices are characterised by a feeling of relative stillness or pause – a contrast to the rushing changes which take place in autumn or spring, preceding them. They give us a chance to stop and take stock, to assimilate all that has been rapidly developing, and to transition into stasis, a state of being, from the position of a state of becoming. The solstices are gateways of consciousness, where the simple fact of our being alive becomes worthy of celebrating. At summer solstice, we celebrate our individuality and our expression, our creativity and the joy of being alive in the relieving openness of summer. Winter is memory, and summer is fact. At winter solstice, we celebrate our membership in the family and tradition of humanity and tribe, our togetherness and reunion, and the wealth of goodness we have accumulated, each in our ways, to carry together through the winter. We lie low and hibernate – relatively speaking, at least.

As gateways of consciousness, winter solstice becomes a pause to perceive the seeds of future growth, to gather intent and make our resolutions for the future. New Year’s resolutions are a modern leftover of an ancient solstice custom, moved to another date. At the other end of the year, summer solstice marks a pause in the midst of the potently vivid life-process, a re-gathering and re-focusing of intent – a break between springtime and harvest activities.

Since winter solstice is relatively lifeless, it symbolises all that is changeless, formless, concealed, potential. In northern climes, candle and fire rituals (such as yule logs) represent the quiet surviving of the life-force in the midst of the darkness. Since summer solstice is a-buzzing with life and activity, it symbolises all that is living, transient, productive and vibrant – the fire is up in the sky, emanated through the sunshine. Light within and light without: these two different aspects of the life-force are vital to an understanding of natural religion and the cycle of the year. What has been achieved and created has indeed been done, and at these points we come to accept and live with what is, and we get on with it.

Thus, if you seek to move into inner harmony with the underlying motion in the year, observe the solstices consciously, using their energy-states with a tone of reverence, and you will find yourself opening up to a fundamental energy-undertow of the year.

The Equinoxes

These are the midpoints between the solstices, when the length of days and nights is changing fast, yet they are equal in length, sunrise to sundown. These are times of transition and release of rampant change. At spring equinox the restraining influences of winter give way, and plants, animals and people take it upon themselves to go forward pursuing their individual interests, mutating and growing as each they can. At autumn equinox, individuals, somewhat tired of vying for their own rights and position, begin to join together and work as more of a wholeness, in pursuit of more shared interests, relationship and togetherness. This annually alternating current of energy, in which we seek to find ourselves, then seek to find our place in the scheme of things, only to find out that we again need to find ourselves, is the very stuff of life experience.

Thus, while the solstices mark pauses in the life cycle, at which times it is auspicious to take stock, and to orientate on coming developments, the equinoxes mark midpoints in the action, in the movement toward becoming-something-else, times of transition. The equinoxes are highpoints in the tide of change, realignments from living out the effects of past states to moving into potent future-unfolding states. Solstices are times of potential, of seed-laying and course-adjustment, and equinoxes are times of action, movement and germination along paths already set. Yet solstices are times also of completion and fulfilment, while equinoxes are times for releasing past ways, in order to make space for what is to come.

Often, things are too busy at the equinoxes for the same kind of seasonal observances that the solstices allow: it just so happens that, in the natural scheme of things, there is little to be done at the solstices, while at the equinoxes, things are moving fast. They are times of gear change, of engagement in the life-process, stepping out. All of these are magical times well worth noting: look at what goes on for you at the quarter-points, and listen to the experiences of others around you, and you’ll get a taste of what we’re talking about. You will find that the most potent time for observance of these festivals is the hours and the two days before their exact timing. The exact timing can be found in an ephemeris.

There is nothing hidden or mysterious about the quarter points: the only veils between us and understanding the quarter-points are the veils of our own awareness. Astrology can be learned directly from life itself – which is how the first astrologers did it. And they found that, next to the lunation cycle, the annual solar cycle and its quarters was vital to observe and understand. Thus it is that many people are nowadays instinctively starting to observe these festivals again. Interestingly, a surge of interest in them took place when the planet Neptune was sitting for a few years on the winter solstice point in the early 1980s: and in the later 1980s, Uranus sat there, and featured these points in a new light.

The Fire Festivals

The cross-quarter points of the yearIt takes time for energy to filter through into nature and actuality. This is where the cross-quarters or fire festivals come in: these are the midpoints between the quarter-points, and they mark the times when nature and form respond concretely to energy-changes started off at the quarter points. The zodiac is measured in terms of 360º, and Sun moves at more or less 1° per day. The quarter points are 90° from each other, and the cross-quarter points are 45° from the quarter-points. The ancients, at least in Europe, where seasonal changes of light and dark matter a lot, used these cross-quarters as festivals to celebrate and participate in the power of nature and her expressions.

Calendrical quirks have shifted these festivals away from their original astrologically-auspicious times (just as Yule has been shifted to Christmas, three days after winter solstice). The cross-quarters occur when Sun reaches 15° (the middle) of one of the four so-called fixed signs (which I prefer to call fixing signs). The fixing signs are Aquarius, Taurus, Leo and Scorpio. The astrologically true quarter points thus take place around 2nd-7th May, August, November and February. To confuse things, the so-called traditional dates place these festivals a few days earlier – such as Beltane/Workers' Day on 1st May. However, the ancients were not as calendrically-fixated as we, and they often used to shift the festivals around a little to coincide with a new or full moon, or any other astrological power-point in time which was hovering around at the time. The ancient Celts used both solar and lunar calendars, in parallel – these calendars would go through a cycle of relationship with one another, which lasted 18-19 years, a so-called ‘metonic cycle’, at the cruxpoints of which would be special festivals of longterm significance.

Outwardly, there are visible seasonal changes at the four cross-quarters, and inwardly there is a quality of realism to life, a feeling of breakthrough in relation to the theme being explored underlyingly in each season.

It is important to understand the distinction between the quarters and the cross-quarters. The quarters represent change-points in energy-potential, both inwardly and in terms of light in the physical world. The cross-quarters represent change-points in manifest energy, inwardly and in terms of visible seasonal changes. The peaks of the four seasons, in manifest terms, show themselves at the cross-quarters. Thus, although the light starts increasing at winter solstice, this change is noticeable only at the following cross-quarter, Candlemas (Imbolc) in February, and although spring starts at the spring equinox, it manifests itself fully, in flowers and in throbbing growth, at Beltane or May Day, the May cross-quarter. And so on.

The cross-quarters used to be known as the Witches’ Sabbaths, times when the inner intents (or 'spells') of consciousness-workers such as witches worked through and became reality. These are times of coming-to-pass, of manifestation. The times for clarifying our intent are the solstices, and those for adjusting or reaffirming intent are the equinoxes. At the cross-quarters, it is necessary to actualise those intents.

Conscious energy-working is a process of bringing things from the dream-level to the reality level, and of intertwining our wills and activities with the natural flow of energy. In doing so, we enhance that natural flow and are supported by it. In ancient times, people would gather together at the quarters and cross-quarters, to meet each other, celebrate and focus their awareness collectively, in order to keep the human family moving in tune with the times. Today, people are starting to do this again – not for the romantic purpose of fantasising about ancients (though this happens too), but because they sense that it is auspicious and necessary, even if the reasons for doing so might not be intellectually clear.

Tuning into these eight points of the year, we can move into harmony with the integral cycle of the solar year. We are entering into active involvement with life-force and its cyclic modulations. And thereby our lives are enriched. Try it. It sheds new light on the four seasons, as well, especially on the underlying learning process inherent in the seasons. The seasons take place not only out there in our world, but also in here in the psyche of us all, whether or not we actually are aware of it.

The Four Seasons

The seasons of the yearIn the climes where most people live, we have four distinct seasons – though sub-Arctic people like the Sami (Lapps) had eight – and each of these seasons has its hidden flavour. Living as we do in heated and lighted buildings and towns, we tend to believe we behave more or less the same in any season, but we do not – it is just that we don’t notice it, since our consciousness is frequently too busy to go very deep. To enunciate its changes, we could start anywhere in the annual cycle, and since these words are being written at autumn equinox (1985), we can start there.


At autumn equinox, an awareness of the relationship between self and other becomes important: summer has ended, and nature is beginning to batten down. Increasing darkness and cold, not yet serious, but making its presence felt, is impinging on nature and people, making them aware that they are part of and affected by a larger wholeness, which at this point is asserting its primacy. Individual entities must respond and adapt. This realisation of the need to explore our relationships with all that is around us is actualised at the autumn cross-quarter. In Britain, this is called Hallowe’en or Samhain. Strictly speaking, this cross-quarter occurs when Sun is at 15° Scorpio, around 5th-7th November, when the dark and cold has definitely become a fact: the leaves fall off the trees, the migrating birds have gone, the frosts and icy blasts come, and animals go into hibernation. The implications of our interrelatedness and co-involvement become actual and very real, while at equinox they were unexplored, though a possibility to be tried out.

At this time, humans must accept, regardless of our wishes, that winter is impinging, and that together we stand, divided we fall. The relative freedom and bounty of summer is gone. This is facing-facts time – traditionally, the time of the annual slaughter. Out of subsumed individuality arises a reborn selfhood, me-as-part-of-something-larger. Our urges to belong to a family, to society, to tradition and to social mores become stronger here. The ancients held a fire ceremony at Samhain to recognise that, while the solar light is dying, the light within is reborn: this is a time of death of the old, yet within it is the eventual promise of rebirth of the new. It is a time of forced adjustment (like death, something we must accept when it comes). Once accepted, it reveals a new set of possibilities, a new power in life – the power to survive and make something good by being a part of something larger.

From Samhain to the winter solstice, we explore this new reality, starting with its hard facts and ending with a celebration of our social nature: Yule. The heart-warming wintry advantages of early winter, with its crisp air and the first snows, and with warm fires to come home to, show themselves in the weeks approaching winter solstice.


To deal with winter, we must consolidate and come together. This is done at winter solstice, at which time darkness is maximal, and no longer increasing. It is a time for indoor celebration. Together, we have made it through some changes and difficulties, and we find ourselves still here, together, as a group of relatives of blood or soul. This is our family – ultimately humanity. The fruits of the past season are shared and eaten, even to excess, after a solsticial pause for awareness or prayer. The seeds of the coming year are laid here – even though it is dark, the light is from now going to slowly grow.

Winter is here, and to survive it we must engage in routines, social agreements and obligations, sensibly, to ground and solidify our situation, to consolidate ourselves after the activity of the previous summer. Summer gives meaning to winter, and vice versa. And while autumn was a time of becoming, winter is a time for being, for working with what is and living in it, whatever the size of the woodpile and the stocks of food, and benefiting from what if can offer, knowing that it is unavoidable.

After 45 days, however, it becomes evident that the light is growing. The lengthening of the days becomes noticeable, and a twinge of restlessness is in the air: it is still cold, but change is becoming apparent. This is the winter cross-quarter, called Candlemas or Imbolc, when the Sun is at 15° Aquarius. By this time winter has been with us long enough to become wearying, and something in us starts looking forward to something else, relishing the sunshine and first signs of growth. Our acceptance of winter realities is giving way to an urge to become something else, to change things, to move toward springtime. Yet the winter quarter is not yet over, and we cannot simply have our way, and in fact the coming change is so great that we must be held awhile in apparent arrested progress for us to put things on the right footing before springtime begins. So the back-end of winter, up to spring equinox, is spent fulfilling our obligations to the social contract, accepting that everything has its time (which isn't now), and that completion of the past must come before new avenues can open up. A time of reality-adjustments follows, starting at Candlemas and reaching a peak just before spring equinox.


Up to spring equinox, we have to accept the restraints and continued obligations of winter and of interrelatedness. We find out the true, deep reasons why we need to progress along our own path: because social change can come from individual impulse, and social institutions and ways suffer inertia by their very structuredness. At equinox, however, life-force suddenly rises, the cork pops, and seeds germinate, fertilised by the water released in the thaw. Likewise, we feel empowered to strike out on our own, to take risks, drop our self-restraints, and simply get on with it, motivated by an urge to make things happen.

This assertive push takes on momentum over the ensuing weeks, but it is not until the spring cross-quarter (Mayday, or Beltane), that things are in their fullest movement: flowers bloom, birds sing and nature is alive with bounteous fertility. It's a bundle of joy. In ancient days Beltane was another fire festival, when folk celebrated the upwelling of life-force into full flower: the sap rises, and people have the urge to play and frolic. They invoked fertility in all its forms. This was a festival marking the distinction between male and female, the separateness which, in joining, perpetuates the race and creates the greatest pleasure. Heaven warms and Earth blooms. From Beltane (5-6 May, 15º Taurus) until summer solstice, everything is pellmell and full-on, and every individual species, every person, is growing into their full potential, unrestrained, free to grow in ideal conditions where there is space for everyone. Yet this seeming separation of once-united people has its twinge of pain too. But there is no time to care – there’s too much to do! And everyone is determined to do it. On the approach to summer solstice, the lightest time, everything goes bananas.


Rampant growth, self-expression and progress make for a cacophony which can get excessive – the flowers and the weeds can get hopelessly mixed up. At summer solstice, within the factuality of light and warmth lies the hint of a reversal. While everyone may pause for celebration of life in the gap between the spring and the harvest, staying up all night and flirting with pleasure and variety, a deep urge sets in to settle again into some kind of coherence. If every, plant, animal and human is to realise its full potential and fruit, some focused effort is needed. The hay needs making while the Sun shines.

The heat grows as the summer cross-quarter approaches. This is Lammas or Lugnasadh, at 15º Leo. Nature ripens, the young grow bigger, and each individual explores the maximum possibilities inherent in her or his reach. Green moves to gold, and summer matures. Summer, like winter, is a time of beingness, of living in a state which has already been established: it's all about each of us doing our own thing. But we individuals collide and interfere with each other in our apparent freedom, and underneath all this, at Lammas, lies a hidden concern that perhaps it has all gone too far – yet also, we must exhaust our need for individuality before we can do anything else.

After Lammas and before autumn equinox comes the harvest, when the results of all this growth must be dealt with: we must bear in mind the future and the potential hard times which can arise if we fail to lay in and store what we need for winter. Individualism is a fact, yet there creeps up an exhaustion of it, a sense of being stuck in ourselves. We generate the beginnings of a desire to find out how others have it, to explore relationship and the benefits of cooperation. Late summer becomes lank and less lively, with its own grace, and yet the urge for change is brewing.

Much has happened, and a pause to assimilate it all (not dissimilar to the reality-adjustment just before spring equinox) takes place just before autumn equinox, before the change starts in actuality. This change breaks out at autumn equinox, where the true potential in relationship is seen: in time, by Hallowe’en, the full implications of membership in the social whole come to the surface, and a transformation comes.


Transformation takes on two faces: death at Hallowe’en and growth at Beltane. Existence or beingness take on two faces too: consolidation at Candlemas and creative self-expression at Lammas. The solstices and equinoxes mark points in time when energy enters the world, and the cross-quarters mark points where it becomes fulfilled, a reality. Candlemas is a time for gently cultivating light and energy, a transition toward becomingness and an invocation of the life-force, a rebirth of its potency. Beltane is a time for bringing forth life, and breaking free of constraint, to go forward in a fulsome burst of growth, extension, variation and expansion. Lammas is a time of climax, the peak of growth and the first sign of death, the time for ripening, collecting and harvesting. Samhain is a time of indrawing, of uncovering the inner secrets of the life-cycle in the absence of its outer forms. Fires were lit at these times to represent life-force and its capacity to transform and enliven, yet at each cross-quarter, the fire represented a different aspect of life-force. Thus the symbolism of the year was played out in a natural religious form.

Increasing numbers of people who are now seeking to return to the roots of religion are finding a pull of memory to mark the quarters and cross-quarters in some ceremonial or conscious way: it is as if Mother Earth is calling back her children, after their long sojourn into the starry, Earth-transcending heavenly spiritual paths of the last two millennia. These, through history, while bringing worthy teachings and enlightenment on many fronts, have brought with them increasing war and ignorance, an ungrounded myopia wherein spirit has separated from earthly life.

Try it for yourself: at one of these power-points in time, visit a special place – an ancient site, or a hilltop or woody glade – and lend your spirit to the time and to the hills and trees, and see what happens. You will find an empowerment, a peaceful strengthening, which awakens new life and adds new vision.

Mathematical patterns in many stone circles and ancient sites in Britain and elsewhere show that the ancients set great store by this eightfold subdivision of the tides of the year. They did this because participation in manifest form was a vital economic process to them – and economics and religion were not different. Alignments at ancient remains in Britain also point to a sixteenfold subdivision of the annual cycle, demonstrated by alignments to the rising and setting points of the Sun at sixteen points of the year.

Regularity of incidences in stone alignments to the rising and setting points of the Sun and Moon,
as found by Prof Thom amongst 300 ancient sites in Scotland.

The twelvefold subdivision of the zodiac now used in astrology arose when cultures developed materially to the level where people became interested in the psychology of living – in the first cities. Freed of some of their closeness to nature and its seasons, they re-focused on underlying images of energy – gods and forces – which they experienced in their new and complex urban life-context. They had the time and insight to look at deeper, less manifest forces at work behind creation. Twelvefold zodiacs are traced back to the Chaldeans of the Tigris valley, who evolved many of the seeds of our modern culture, passed to us through the Greeks, Romans and Arabs. However, the idea of the twelvefold zodiac would undoubtedly precede the Chaldeans, who adopted and encapsulated it for posterity. It was probably rural people who thought it up.

Yet the twelve signs are rooted too in the four quarter points, just like the eightfold system: the solstices mark the beginnings of the zodiac signs Capricorn () and Cancer (), and the equinoxes mark the beginnings of the signs Aries () and Libra (). The eightfold and the twelvefold systems coincide here. Thereafter, the twelvefold system divides each quarter into three signs, while the eightfold divides it into two halves. Zodiacal changes tend not to reflect directly in observable changes in nature in the same way as the cross-quarters do. But there is an atmosphere, subtle yet very detectable energy/tone change when the Sun moves from one zodiac sign to another. It pays us to observe and notice both. The exact times of the quarters, cross-quarters and sign-changes (solar ingresses) can be culled from your ephemeris. And one day, you will be able to tell when these phenomena are happening without your ephemeris too!

Moving into an inwardly-sounder harmony with the annual energy-cycle has several effects. It allows us to live our lives more effectively – not only from the standpoint of getting things done, but also from the standpoint of awakening ourselves. It’s not so much to do with nature-worship – although in our time, a spiritual connection with nature and its changes can be enlightening and valuable – as to do with living in accord with all levels of our being. We cannot simply impose our will upon our bodies, on life or on the world, for the results land up being disastrous – illness, confusion, things going ‘wrong’, meaninglessness and fundamental insecurity. The new life which we are seeking (or being forced to seek by inevitable historical forces of our own making) has to do with rapport between what we want and what we’ve got, between intention and the subtle small things of life, between the yang and the yin. Moving into conscious participation with natural time-cycles has implications which are immense. And the beginning place is awareness. Now.

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