One of the biggest discussions among Australian Pagans is how to celebrate the Wheel of the Year. In the Southern Hemisphere, we are largely working with material crafted in the U.K. and America. Comparatively, there’s been little research, and even less writing, on the subject of the Sabbats in the Southern Hemisphere.Long-time Witch and priestess, Frances Billinghurst is the author of Dancing the Sacred Wheel: A Journey through the Southern Sabbats. We sat down to have a chat about the challenges that Aussie Pagans face, and how we can create a unique Wheel that is better suited to Australia.
The Wild Hunt: For Pagans that observe the Wheel of the Year, many of the ritual myths associated with the Sabbats don’t apply easily to areas beyond where these traditions were born. Even within Australia, just as it is within the U.S., the climate varies tremendously from one end of the country to the other. That may be the most obvious challenge to celebrating the Wheel of the Year in Australia. What are other challenges do Aussie Pagans face?
Frances Billinghurst: There seems to be an increasing number of people that have a vague understanding of various myths that have found their way into modern Paganism. They don’t know the myths in their original forms, where they originated, much less develop a deeper understanding of them. I believe that developing this personal knowledge base assists when looking at the deeper meaning of the myth and attempting to adapt that to one’s own environment.
As a lot of modern Paganism seems to have European roots, it is important to realise that the myths vary across the European continent with many areas also incorporating their own localised versions or interpretations. It’s not a case of one size fits all. Also, as these myths often told a story, it is important for us to gain an understanding of that story and an interpretation from the peoples who it related to.
When we have developed this knowledge base then we realise that the myths form part of a bigger story and, whilst on the surface this story may not fit exactly into our own environment, when we begin to strip back the layers to expose the underlying symbolism, then this does.
Naturally, of course, this also depends greatly upon one’s own spiritual path and how that is developed. Mine, for example, is one built on symbolic meaning and myth where the journey through each cycle of the Wheel reveals a different level to the previous one.
One of the biggest challenges around the Wheel of the Year is this lack of poetic or symbolic understanding – where things are merely look at from the surface or superficial level, where people tend to take things at face value (often based on assumptions), and are not encourage to explore things for themselves. For us living in the Southern Hemisphere, we have long been told by Northern Hemispheric writers that we only need to move the Sabbat dates around by six months. That assumption is grossly incorrect. There is more to working with the Wheel of the Year than that.
You raise one issue as being climate. While the variation of this may appear to form stumbling blocks, again if you familiarise yourself with the seasonal myths and in particularly, the underlining psychological meaning, then more often than not the myth can be adapted in order to create something that reflects what is occurring within our own environment at that particular time. Changes in our climate are always going to play havoc to our interpretation of the original myth. However, we need to keep in mind that four of the Sabbats relate to the cosmic relationship between the earth and the sun, whereas the remaining four are agricultural. Depending on what tradition you follow, there may not be four agricultural markers in your area.
Coming from a more traditionally-based tradition, my personal preference is to adapt as opposed to throw the baby out with the bathwater. However, should one prefer to follow a more eclectic form of Paganism, there are no reasons why they need to stick to the traditional Wheel of the Year.
To answer your question about other challenges that face the Australian Pagan, I guess the apparent lack of published information or at least the accessibility of such information about the Wheel is a big one. Despite modern Paganism having been practiced in Australia for well over 40 years, there are still very few books that have been printed solely on this topic, resulting in the majority of information that seekers first come across being from the Northern Hemisphere.
Further, due to the smaller population of Pagans that are scattered (many extremely isolated) across a country the same size as the USA, there is not the availability or accessibility to teachers and/or those who have been confident enough to explore this area properly. I have met with a degree of resistance from my Northern Hemisphere-based elders in my desire to adapt my tradition more to what is happening within my local environment. Yet it needs to be done. If I am to work with the energies of this land, then I need to understand its underpinning cycles, which is what the Wheel of the Year is. When I am able to do this, then I am able to adapt the traditional or ritual mythos more appropriately to each Sabbat.
TWH: Here in Melbourne, people like to say we have four seasons in a day. With what seems like a volatile climate, how can we celebrate meaningful Sabbats? What are some of the different approaches that Pagan communities in the Southern Hemisphere have adopted for celebrating the Wheel of the Year?
FB: In order to celebrate meaningful Sabbats, you first need to establish a basic understanding of what the Sabbat is about. Once this basic understanding is achieved, then we can attempt to adapt it into what is happening around us.
It’s important to remember that regardless what is happening in our environment that the Lesser Sabbats (Equinoxes and Solstices) were traditionally aligned on the earth’s relationship to the sun whereas the Greater Sabbats were more agriculturally orientated. This means that technically the deeper meaning of the Equinoxes (times of balance) and the Solstices (zenith power of light or dark) do not change regardless of what is happening with the climate. If you are caught up sticking with the seasonal myths from another land/culture and are getting disheartened that such myths are not reflecting what you see outside your window, then you basically have two choices: strip the myth down to what it represents to you or create something new.
In order to achieve the latter, you would need to get out into your own natural environment and see what is happening around you. If possible, get into the countryside or your closest nature reserve or park if you don’t have a garden. Get outside and observe what is happening around you. Observe significant local seasons and learn as much as possible with respect to localised folklore and or Indigenous folklore.
As to different ways of adopting the Wheel of the Year within Australia, again this comes back to environment. In the Top End, it is pointless to follow a European-based Wheel of eight Sabbats when there appears to be only two seasons – the Wet and the Dry. Alternatively, the eight Sabbats may be highly influence by the local Aboriginal seasonal wheel which acknowledges six seasons.
Some traditions only acknowledge either the Lesser Sabbats due to their relationship between the sun and the earth, whereas others I know of only acknowledge the Greater Sabbats as the gateways to each of the seasons.
TWH: In the Northern Hemisphere, Pagans who observe the Wheel of the Year just finished celebrating Imbolc. Here in the Southern Hemisphere, we celebrated Lughnassadh. What are the markers of the Summer Solstice and of Lughnassadh in Australia?
FB: Here in the South Australia around the time of the Summer Solstice, it is our grain harvest which is usually associated with Lughnasadh/Lammas. In southern central Australia, Lughnasadh is usually marked by the arrival of bushfire season. The temperatures easily climb into the high 30s and 40°Cs (high 80s to well over 100°F) and can stay there for weeks. This year, the fires arrived early and, as I write this, to date our summer has been on the mild side with only a couple of really hot days. The season is not over yet and we could be heading for a hot and dry autumn instead. In adapting the Sabbats to reflect what is happening within our local environment, we need to know what the traditional story is about and then have the confidence of being able to shape it to ensure that its underlying meaning reflects that of what is happening around us.
How my coven has been approaching this Sabbat has changed over the years. For example, within my tradition the Summer Solstice is about the bountiful Mother Goddess and the God as his guise of the Sun God. Here in South Australia this mythos can still be used yet expanded upon so that the Goddess is not only a bountiful Mother, but she also holds the scythe as she cuts down John Barleycorn, the Lord of the Grain which the God has also become along with his solar aspect.
Where I live, it is at the Summer Solstice, not at Lughnassadh, when the God offers to his abundant beloved his head, his life, and soul as the ultimate sacrifice. As the Wheel turns to Lughnasadh, as the wielder of the scythe, the Goddess starts to stalk the land in her grief and longing for the God, and in a similar manner to how when Demeter despaired for her beloved Persephone after her abduction by Hades, the land becomes dry and barren. The God, almost as a split personality, has sacrificed his life as the Lord of the Grain, but also now becomes a Lord of the Corn as Lughnasadh is usually the time when corn is ready to harvest. The Lughnasadh harvest is not always bountiful and productive depending on how hot January has become, and usually what is offered up at this time of the year is a representation of what has not been successful.Instead of celebrating the harvest and its bounty, due to the heat, lack of rain and the land often being dry and scorched with bushfires abounding, Lughnasadh becomes a fire festival of purification and also regeneration. The fires that tend to arrive at Lughnasadh reflect the regeneration that this land needs as the life of specific plant species tend to lie dominant until they are scorched. On a deeper personal, psychological level, my coven explores the purification from and removal of deep-rooted obstacles that only the force of something like a destructive fire can eradicate.
Speaking back to Imbolc, one aspect Brighid that tends to often be overlooked is her fire aspect, which is appropriate at this time of the year here in southern central Australia.
In Aboriginal lore where the solar deity is a goddess, there are a number of stories about the land being scorched by sun. The Wotjobaluk people of south-eastern Australia, for example, had a solar Goddess by the name of Gnowee whose torch was the sun, and after her young son went missing while she dug for food, she climbed into the sky with her torch in order to get a better view of where to look for him. To this day, she still wanders the world with her torch looking for her son.
From the Northern Territory, comes the story of Wala (or Walo) who was also a solar goddess who would travel across the sky every day with her sister (or daughter) Bara until she realised that the two of them were drying out the land and making it parched. Wala sent Bara back to the east so that the earth could become fertile and bloom.
TWH: A question that many Aussie Pagans ask: Why do we keep on trying to fit the European Wheel of the Year into the Australian seasonal cycle?
FB: This is a question that I have been asking myself for years and one which led me to write, Dancing the Sacred Wheel: A Journey through the Southern Sabbats. It could be simply that the majority of information that Pagans have access to is from the Northern Hemisphere coupled with the overall generalisation that Pagans within Australia are often very solitary by nature and spread out by location. There is not the access to networking that is found in other countries. While Australian Pagans don’t mind travelling, the cost of travel here is expensive as are books, so we are limited largely to the Internet and, once again, the influx of information is Northern Hemispheric and, more often than not, American.
Due to the lack of localised resources, it is little wonder that newcomers can take a while before they gain the knowledge and even confidence in trying something different. Even for those within a tradition, it can be intimidating to attempt to step outside the boundaries.
While modern Paganism has reportedly been active in Australia since the 1970s, there are still relatively few resources available with respect to working with native flora and fauna. Whether or not people have actually have explored such areas and it is merely a case of them not publishing their work, or maybe their work has been published but it is not easily accessible, who can tell. All I know is that when I was researching my book, I often had to go to non-Pagan resources and then apply a Pagan interpretation. Maybe this is how the correspondences of say the Ogham came about; the Celts looked at the oak and saw strength. Yet for a lot of us, there appears to be a hesitancy to step across that line and explore our local flora and fauna in such a manner.
TWH: Australia has fascinating Indigenous cultures and traditions. Why don’t Aussie Pagans work more with an Aboriginal understanding of the seasons?
FB: There are a lot of cultural sensitivities surrounding Aboriginal teachings. There is discomfort in using such information without the proper consent, and there is the issue of who to approach to gain the proper consent. There is not always a lot of information made available especially when it comes to localised observances as a lot this knowledge has been forgotten or even lost.
What is important to realise that in a landmass that is the size of Australia there are over 500 different clan groups or nations and each have their own stories and seasonal myths, and a lot of these clan groups were very nomadic. Some of these are better known and others have been blended into an overall generalisation.
The Ngarrindjeri people in South Australia, for example, make up some 77 family groups in an area that includes the lower Murray River, western Fleurieu peninsula and the Coorong of southern central Australia. Some of their folklore and seasonal myths can be found in A World That Was: The Yaraldi of the Murray River and the Lakes, South Australia by Ronald and Catherine Berndt (John E. Stanton, 1993) as well as Ngarrindjeri wurruwarrin: A World that is, was, and will be by Diane Bell (Spinifex Press, 1998). Yet the works of the Berndts has been criticized and also doesn’t represent the environment away from the Fleurieu and southern lakes.
I live in the land of the Kaurna people of the Adelaide Plains who had their culture and language almost wiped out within a short time after the arrival of the European settlement in the 1830s. While great attempts have been made in recent decades to re-establish their language and culture, a lot of this knowledge is not available to the public.TWH: How can Aussie Pagans learn to better adapt their Sabbats to the local climate and landscape?
FB: Simply by moving away from the computer and getting outside into their gardens, local park, bushland, whatever is convenient. Feel the sun and rain on your skin and the wind in your hair. Even in the middle of suburbia, this is possible. Take note of when plants flower, when fruit comes into season, strike up conversations with green grocers about seasonal fruits, and nursery owners about plants. Visit the botanic gardens. Many have free walks and botany guides, especially when it comes to the local flora. This was one of the first exercises that I gave students when I ran a correspondence course in the late 1990s and early 2000s prior to online schools, and something that I still teach within my outer course classes for my coven.
Don’t only rely on Pagan material. While knowing the background and myths of the Sabbats is important, look into local Aboriginal myth and even, if possible, local folklore that can be traced back to the European settlers. This latter point may require some digging, but you will be amazed at what you discover.
When you start to collate your notes, patterns emerge and these can assist in constructing a unique Wheel of the Year.
TWH: You have written one of the few books about the Wheel of the Year in Australia. What has that process been like for you?
FB: Coming up with a Wheel of the Year that is uniquely Australian can very well be a long process and indeed one that will differ from region to region. In the eight or so years that it took me to research and write Dancing the Sacred Wheel: A Journey through the Southern Sabbats, one of my biggest surprises was simply the lack of information written by Pagans in offering an alternative to the traditional, eight-spoked Wheel of the Year. On Yahoo groups and now Facebook groups, despite a lot of discussion, few people have taken the bull by the horns and actually put something in writing.
My book is far from complete and, when I was finishing the second edition, I was still not 100% happy with it. The Summer Solstice and Lughnasadh are the two Sabbats that really need addressing here in southern Australia. Yet, if I wrote about dramatically changing these two Sabbats, I could be alienating some readers. Instead, I left hints to encourage readers to look deeper at the Wheel and what it means to them.
I want to publish a follow-up to Dancing the Sacred Wheel: A Journey through the Southern Sabbats, probably an anthology of what people actually do in order to acknowledge and celebrate the Sabbats in the Southern Hemisphere, including New Zealand, South Africa, and even South America if possible. The more writings we get out there that address the revamping of the Wheel of the Year, the more confidence people will have in adapting to find something that they personally resonate with on a deeper level.
TWH: What else are you working on?
FB: I have a number of projects that I am currently working on at the moment. The first is the editing of my first anthology, Call of the God: An Exploration of the Divine Masculine within Modern Paganism, which I hope to publish later this year. This anthology will balance out my second book, In Her Sacred Name: Writings about the Divine Feminine, which contains a selection of articles that I have written over the years on various aspects of the Goddess.
I also have contributed to a number of other people’s anthologies which are in the process of being published this year, in particular The Bosom of Isis by Sorita d’Este and Avalonia, as well as a number of anthologies by Neos Alexandria/Bibliotheca Alexandrina.
Behind the scenes, I have a further two more books that I work on when I get a bit of time that I hope to have published by the end of this year or early 2016. One is on the darker aspects of the Goddess, which is based on the workshops I have been running since 2006, as well as an instruction manual on working with respect to a modern traditional form of the Craft. Based on my own teachings and kind of a 101 book, it will offer some “meat on the bones” for the more solitary practitioner.
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More information about Frances Billinghurst, including her books and upcoming projects, can be found on her website at http://francesbillinghurst.blogspot.com.au/.