Ogham and the Wheel of the Year
The Alphabet of Magic
The Foundations of Druid Magic
Graves' thirteen-month Ogham calendar has seen some use in modern Druidry, but long before Graves came along, Druidry had its own sacred calendar. From the beginnings of the Druid Revival, the tradition of watching the summer solstice at Stonehenge provided the anchor point for that calendar, and by the late eighteenth century the winter solstice and the equinoxes had been added to create a fourfold ceremonial calendar that followed the dance of Sun and Earth.
This calendar remained standard in the Druid community until the early 1950s, when Ross Nichols and his fellow Druid Gerald Gardner, the founder of modern Wicca, took it a step further. Gardner found references in Irish and Scottish sources to an old sacred calendar with four festivals—Samhuinn, Imbolc, Belteinne, and Lughnasadh, to give them their usual Druid names—midway between the solstices and equinoxes, and he used this fourfold calendar in the first version of his newly created nature religion, then called “Wica.” Both men were members of the Druid Circle of the Universal Bond, one of the largest Druid orders of the time, and they knew the standard Druid calendar well. Their inspiration was to fuse the two into an eightfold calendar (Figure 2-6). According to a tradition current in English Druid circles today, the inspiration for the eightfold wheel of the year happened in a London pub after several pints of ale; if this is true, it was not the only important event in Druid history to take place in a pub!
Figure 2-5 The Heather Pentagram
The new calendar caught on rapidly, and today most Pagans throughout the Western world use the eightfold wheel of the year. Many of them believe that this calendar dates back to ancient times. In point of fact, no trace of a ritual calendar based on these eight festivals, and only these festivals, appears anywhere before Gardner and Murray publicized their version, and the eightfold calendar has accordingly come in for the same sort of criticism as Graves' Ogham system. Once again, though, such criticism misses the point. A ritual calendar, like a magical alphabet, has value because it works, not because it has (or lacks) a particular historical pedigree.
Nichols and Gardner were both expert occultists, and they created something much more potent than a simple calendar. Understood in depth, the wheel of the year models every process in the universe of human experience as a cycle of eight stations (see Table 2-3), driven by two balanced forces moving around a third, central pivot. The eight festivals can be seen as eight archetypal realms of being, like the spheres of the Cabalistic Tree of Life used in the Golden Dawn and many other magical traditions. Connect these Stations with the twenty-five fews of the Ogham alphabet, and the result is the Wheel of Life, one of the core conceptual tools of Druid magic (Figure 2-7).
Figure 2-6 The Wheel of the Year
Table 2-3 The Eight Stations
Like the Cabalistic Tree of Life, the Wheel of Life defines a set of magical states of consciousness and realms of experience and provides pathways to move from one to another. Both the Wheel and the Tree have thirty-three elements: 10 Spheres plus 22 Paths plus a transitional realm called Daath or Knowledge make up the Tree of Life; 8 Stations plus 24 Paths plus the Central Grove make up the Wheel of Life. (Figure 2-8 shows how the two diagrams compare.) From a deeper perspective, the two diagrams are alternative ways of looking at the same set of relationships, and meditating on the relationship between them opens the door to many mysteries.
Figure 2-7 The Wheel of Life
The Tree and the Wheel are not identical in structure or operation, though, and several crucial differences divide them. One is that the Tree is based on a map of space, while the Wheel is a map of time. The spheres of the Tree are assigned to parts of the Earth-centered cosmos of the Middle Ages—the bottom sphere is the Earth, the seven above it are the seven planets known before the discovery of the telescope, the ninth is the realm of the stars, and the tenth represents the divine realm beyond the stars.
Figure 2-8 The Tree of Life and the Wheel of Life
The Wheel, by contrast, follows the cycle of the seasons. Instead of seeing the great realms of existence as worlds far from our own, it pictures them as phases of time that manifest right here on Earth in cyclic patterns. These same patterns appear in smaller cycles of time—for example, the old Welsh Druid lore divides the day into eight parts, corresponding to the Stations of the Wheel, and the lunar cycle can also be divided into eight parts. All these can be used to time magical workings, and each Station is at its strongest when its daily, monthly, and yearly times occur together. The correspondences among these phases are shown in Table 2-4.
Table 2-4 The Stations in the Day and Lunar Month
Another major difference between the Tree of Life and the Wheel of Life lies in the way the process of magical initiation appears on them. The Tree shows magical initiation as an upward journey from the lowest sphere of ordinary consciousness, called Malkuth in the Cabala, to the highest sphere of universal consciousness, called Kether. The Wheel, by contrast, shows magical initiation as a continuing cycle around a point of balance—the Central Grove—from which all states of consciousness can be accessed at once.
This echoes some of the core concepts of the Druid tradition. From the standpoint of Druidry, after all, the material world is just as holy as any other, and spiritual practice is not a matter of abandoning one state of being for another, supposedly higher one, but rather of embracing the full potential of what it means to be human and learning to be present in whatever mode of being is most relevant at any given moment. The vision of the process of initiation as a circle also teaches what every magical initiate knows, that the way of initiation has to be walked many times, not just once.
The difference between the two diagrams, finally, has important practical applications in magical work. The Tree of Life orients the mage toward a single source of spiritual power, the universal consciousness of Kether, but the Wheel of Life places the mage in a relationship with two sources, the solar current above and the telluric current below. In one sense, those are represented by two Stations: Alban Heruin, the summer solstice, represents the solar current, while Alban Arthuan, the winter solstice, represents the telluric current. This is a simplified model, though. On another level, the solar and telluric currents manifest through each of the Stations, and what moves the currents from Station to Station is the factor of time.
Imagine for a moment that you are standing in the Central Grove with half the Wheel rising high above you and the other half sinking far below. Above you is Alban Arthuan, as in Figure 2-6, and below you is Alban Heruin. During the season of Alban Arthuan, the six weeks or so following the winter solstice, this is an accurate map of the currents: the solar current flows through the Station of Alban Arthuan, while the telluric current flows through the Station of Alban Heruin.
Six weeks pass, the Wheel of Life turns an eighth of the way around its cycle, and Imbolc arrives. Imbolc is now overhead, Lughnasadh is below, and these two Stations mediate the solar and telluric currents respectively. Six more weeks pass, and Alban Eiler directs the solar current while Alban Elued channels the telluric current. In the course of the year, both currents flow through each of the eight Stations in turn.
This is the magical meaning of the eight festivals of the modern Druid year. Each festival represents the point at which the solar and telluric currents shift to new Stations on the Wheel. The Station occupied by the solar current is the festival being celebrated, while the telluric current flows through the Station at the opposite point of the Wheel. Celtic folklore hints at this double cycle in stories about another world, the world of the faeries or the dead, where the seasons are exactly opposite to ours. This “other world” lies beneath the surface of the Earth, in the realm of the telluric current, and the cycle of its nwyfre through the eight Stations forms one of the secrets of Druid magic.
The key to this secret lies in the pentagram. You learned earlier in this chapter that the oak and heather pentagrams allow you to summon nwyfre from the solar and telluric currents. This is the most important use of the pentagrams, but it conceals a more complex and flexible use. The upper point of the oak pentagram, and the lower point of the heather pentagram, represent the solar and telluric currents and whatever Station they occupy at the time the pentagram is drawn. The other points of both pentagrams, in turn, represent the other Stations of the Wheel, as shown in Figure 2-9.
Figure 2-9 Pentagrams on the Wheel of Life
The three Stations in the solar realm—represented by the upper half of the wheel—are always summoned and banished with the oak pentagram, and the three in the telluric realm—the lower half of the wheel—are summoned and banished with the heather pentagram. The two Stations that stand on the boundary between the solar and telluric realms can be summoned or banished with either one. It's best, however, to use the oak pentagram for the Station on the righthand side, because this one is rising into the solar realm, and to use the heather pentagram for the Station on the left-hand side, because this one is setting into the telluric realm.
The point that has to be grasped in all this is that the point you use for any given Station depends on the season of the year. Six weeks after Alban Arthuan, when Imbolc arrives, the Stations shift to the positions shown in Figure 2-10. Six weeks or so later, when Alban Eiler arrives, they shift again, and so on around the wheel of the year. This has to be remembered in order to summon and banish the nwyfre of the Stations effectively.
Figure 2-10 The Rotation of the Stations
In order to reach the point where you can shape nwyfre effectively through any of these symbols—the elements, pentagrams, Stations of the Wheel, or Ogham letters—you need to make the transition from theory to practice. This transition begins with basic magical exercises, the subject of the next chapter.