Life and death are deeply interwoven. From death, life arises. We see this in the renewal of nature around us as life springs up again after the devastation of winter. Our own lives continue through the death of what provides us sustenance, whether plant or animal. We bury our dead so that they may rot and return the substance of their bodies to the earth, creating sustenance for new living things.
The year opens with the Death Moon, the beginning and the end, which are the same – two sides of the same coin, yin and yang. The Sun, who we call Father or Grandfather, is waning. Here in the midst of winter, animals retreat into hibernation, plants die back into dormancy, the world creeps towards icy stillness. Each day, the light grows weaker, leaves us sooner, and warms us less.
It is in this dark, cold passage of the Death Moon that we must begin, and begin again.
In this barren winterscape we watch the skies, waiting for a sign that we have survived the worst. Finally, we are rewarded. Here comes the Birth Moon and with it, the Winter Solstice (solstice means to ‘stop’). Now, as we perceive it looking up into the sky, the sun stops moving away from us towards the north and begins its journey south again, strengthening with every day hereafter.
Through ancient eyes, the Mother has given birth to the Son (the Sun), the Divine Child whose coming is celebrated as the traditional festival of Yule, also called Midwinter. Hope of warmer days and fresh crops abound as we light fires to welcome back the saviour of life, the Sun, and feast on what little remains of our stored autumn harvest.
After the rigors of giving birth, the Mother needs to rest and recuperate, but, as milk comes into the breasts of new mothers soon after birth, so in the Milk (or Nursing) Moon can we see in nature around us the first faint signs that the Mother’s ability to nurture us will return as the Sun strengthens. Tiny green promises of winter herbs and flowers begin to peek out. Buds on trees begin to swell, and the birds on their branches sing mating calls into the warmer days. Spring lambs are born.
The traditional festival of Imbolc, the beginning of Spring, happens now in the Milk Moon. Imbolc is the festival of renewal and purification for the coming revival of life. At Imbolc, the Goddess in her phase as the aged Crone, visits the sacred well, is renewed, and comes away in her Maiden form.
While we are buoyed by the promise of new life all around us, we must still endure the bitter end of Winter’s dwindling resources. Here, we come to the Fasting, or Weaning Moon.
The final stores from our autumn harvest need to be stretched out to last until new plants are grown enough to collect and cook. The Mother is weaning Her children, preparing them to adapt to the changes of the world. We fast so that our food stores and precious seed last until planting time and the first harvest of the new year.
The Earth is warming and plants are responding to the longer days. Dormant autumn seeds are waking and sprouting, farmers sow their fields. Nature is springing forth in joyous renewal all around us. The light half of the year begins, characterised by longer days and shorter nights.
The Vernal Equinox, the traditional festival of Ostara is celebrated now. In the mythological cycle, this is the Seed Moon, when the seed is planted in Mother so that She may give birth again to the Father Sun at the Winter Solstice.
Mother Nature is full of new life and hope for the future. Plants send out their pollen, animals mate and give birth to new young, and we too look to each other with sparkles in our eyes. As green plants and other fresh foods are gratefully reintroduced to our winter diets of salted meats and stored grains, our bodies respond to better nutrition with more energy and we are able to look beyond bare survival. The Mating Moon is here.
Mother looks upon Her Sun, now grown to manhood, and loves Him, and in Him, all Her creation. At the traditional feast of Beltane, the beginning of summer, the Goddess in her Maiden form unites in love with the Father Sun to bring forth the bounty of the new season.
It’s not harvest time yet, so we have space to look outside our immediate surroundings. We make plans now to travel to other communities or gatherings, to find partners, make trading alliances, and to share knowledge and ideas with others. We venture to new places to source rare plants and other materials. Herders take their flocks to summer pastures full of new grass.
The Journey Moon occurs near the Summer Solstice, a soft time of the year with long days and plenty food stores on the horizon.
The Summer Solstice, called Litha or Midsummer in the traditional calendar, happens around the Mother’s Moon, the time of the greatest abundance of life and food in the entire year. The life-giving energy of the Father Sun is at its greatest strength, and he pours his energy into Mother Earth.
This moon expresses Mother Earth’s bounty to Her children, a cornucopia of giving characterised by the Goddess in her form of Mother. The Mother’s Moon represents the idyllic feeling with associate with our youngest happiest memories, when all our needs were provided for and we experienced unconditional love.
Nothing lasts forever, and here we experience the message of the Father’s Moon, that life has boundaries and limits, that what we receive must be earned. The Sun still warms the Earth, but, since the solstice, He has turned again towards the north, and each day He shines less than He did the day before. Those who are wise can see the coming of autumn.
The Father, whose energies have ripened the grain, now offers Himself for the good of His children. In His persona as John Barleycorn, He sacrifices His life so that His body, the grain, may be transformed into the bread that will sustain life until the next year, when the cycle begins again.
The festival of Lammas, which celebrates both this sacrifice and the first harvest (of grain) is normally in the Father’s Moon. This festival is specifically a celebration of the life-affirming transformation that follows willing sacrifice. It is the essence of the mystery that the Father, who dies with the grain, will return again in the spring from that same dead grain. ‘All that falls shall rise again’. So we are reminded – in death, life arises.
It’s time to prepare for the coming winter with the last of the good weather. The Nesting Moon is a time for building the nest, preparing the homestead for the harsh months to come.
Now is a time of planning. We prepare means to store food, we chop wood for the fire, we shore up our homes with fresh thatch and warmer bedding, and collect the materials we’ll need for indoor work over the winter, such as weaving.
Chilly morning air and crisp evenings announce the coming of winter. It’s time for the Harvest Moon. The full moon that rises now is one of the most brilliant and brightest of the year, because the moon rises above the horizon just after sunset. Traditionally, its name stems from the extra hours of light it grants us to continue harvesting. We all work together to bring everything useful in under shelter for winter.
The feast of Mabon – both the Autumn Equinox and the second harvest (of fruit and wine) – normally falls during this moon. The equinox is the start of the dark half of the year, where the nights are longer than the days. The Father again sacrifices His life for His children in the fruit that nourishes and is the seed of new plants. The Mother offers us Her second harvest, another flourish of gifts in late-ripening foods, especially fruit and nuts, which put all their goodness into the future before giving in to the little death of winter dormancy. Perennial herbs are harvested for the final time this year. It’s time to make spiced wines and ciders to warm winter bellies as we wait out the cold beside our hearths.
Every two or three years, an intercalary moon is added to the calendar to keep the named moons in sync with the solar season. This intercalary moon is called the Courting Moon. The name indicates that it is a ‘between’ time, a time for dalliance and fun, a holiday between the sowing of the fields and the journeys of late autumn.
The final moon of this solar cycle (year) is the Sorting, or Culling, Moon. We set aside bruised fruit to eat now so that better fruit that will store longer can be saved. Any late straggling crops are lifted from the ground and dried. We cull the herds down to a number that can be sustained by the fodder and shelter available for overwintering. The cull is the third and final harvest.
The feast of the dead, Samhain, normally occurs in the Sorting Moon, marking the beginning of winter. The God, in his aspect as the Horned One or Great Stag, sacrifices Himself for the third and final harvest. Here we look past the veil of life and consider the greater questions of why we are here, we commune with our ancestors to hear their guidance, and celebrate loved ones who have journeyed on from this life into the eternal Summerlands.