The Wheel of the Year for the Age of the Anthropocene

It is hard to deny both the increasing challenge of climate change nor its impact on local ecosystems, local people, and all of us living in this age. While both druidry and Wicca (and many other neopagan practices) share the traditional eightfold wheel of the year, I have long argued that it needs to be adapted to local ecosystems and also help us adapt and embrace the qualities that will help us live our best lives and become good ancestors in a challenging age. If we think about what spiritual practices do, they help anchor us, provide us a sense of purpose, grounding, stability, and purpose.  The traditional wheel of the year, as a broader concept, can be a wonderful tool for rituals and that grounding, but I think the traditional themes have gotten a bit old and worn as part of our current ecological crisis.  Re-inventing the wheel of the year for the age of the Anthropocene has been a rich and yet tumultuous journey, for any journey that directly faces the crisis of our age is fraught with difficulty, and sadness, and yet, offers us hope.

The Wheel of the Year is often interpreted in a very static way–the concept itself was created in the 1960’s by Gerald Gardener (the founder of modern Wicca) and Ross Nichols (the founder of OBOD druidry).  They created the wheel by piecing together holidays from several Celtic and European cultures–by bringing these together, they created an 8-fold system that fit the weather patterns, ecology, and traditional lifestyles of Great Brittain. While it is, in many ways, a brilliant and elegant system, and one that I feel has great value, it is not without its serious flaws.  One of the challenges that people have with the wheel of the year is that the themes and ideas presented in the wheel do not fit their lifestyles, ecosystems, or daily practices. If you live in a place that does not have four seasons, for example, then the wheel needs to be heavily adapted (and maybe the idea of eight holidays needs to be revisited).  Another challenge that people have is that the wheel, even if it does reflect the outside ecosystem, seems to be tied to things that are not part of the lifestyle of most modern people.  As a homesteader, I think that my own life fits a lot of the wheel, in that we have clear times of seed starting, planting, harvesting, and rest, and we live a life that is very close to the seasons.  Our animals go through their own yearly cycles, which of course, we also experience (e.g. egg laying/mating season, molting season, etc).  But when I didn’t live a homesteaeding lifestyle, I felt that the wheel was much more “metaphorical” than real, and spent many years trying to make it work in my circumstances (living in dorms, cities, apartments, etc).

But now, with climate change, a whole new set of problems emerges–the weather is no longer predictable, and traditional seasonal markers may not be appropriate any longer.  The traditional themes may not represent the seasonal realities we face and continue to be disconnected from people’s everyday lives.  Thus, over the last year, I’ve worked to create a wheel of the year that is still inspired by the original neopagan wheel of the year, but one that works for people in many different living conditions, and that directly focuses on actions and activities that help us more gracefully navigate this difficult ecological age.

The 21st Century Neopagan Wheel of the Year

The new wheel of the year I am proposing shifts the emphasis away from specific agricultural practices and into the present age.  This wheel can supplement or complement a set of existing practices or themes of the traditional wheel, and it can be used not only as a focus for ritual and ceremony, but also for meditation, intentional living, and sacred action.

Here are the major themes of the wheel, with a description of each.  You can click on the link in the title to be taken to each of the pages, which will offer further discussion as well as activities, rituals, practices, and mediations to help embrace this concept in your life.

Release at Samhain: We begin at the Celtic and Neopagan new year, Samhain, where we focus on the first part of the healing process: release.  For those in temperate climates, this time of year often involves the transition from fall to winter–when the killing frosts come, the leaves drop, and the ground grows brown and frozen.  This is a good time to let go and use the energy of the season to release anything that no longer serves you. Release has many different aspects and you may choose to focus on one or more of each Samhain.  Release can be themed around individual healing, where we work to release pain, trauma, sadness, grief, and suffering. Release can also be focused on helping us move past the old, worn ideas of the recent past that have caused the unfolding of the climate crisis: ideas like infinite growth, the myth of progress, consumerism, colonizing mindsets, and other ideologies that no longer serve us, and that culturally, have led to nearly all of the challenges we face.  Release can also focus on healing our emotions surrounding witnessing the breakdown of the ecosystem and climate firsthand. One of the things that are becoming clear to people who are involved both in trying to fight climate change and support those other healers of the earth is that we all have our own grief work to do, and manage our own emotions surrounding climate change.   Our emotions about climate change are real, valid, and are a deep part of our own humanity. Honoring those emotions, understanding them, giving them space, and working with them can help us with the rest of this Wheel of the Year and allow us to be more effective on the path to becoming a good ancestor.

Restoration at the Winter Solstice: Moving right from Samhain’s theme of release we move to the winter solstice and the time restoration, of rest, of going fallow to allow for quiet time for healing.  The deep grief work of Samhain is completed, and now it is time to rest and heal.  One of the challenges with today’s age is that Western cultures are obsessed with old and tired ideas of productivity, growth at all costs, and mindless consumption and are often embedded in cultures of busyness. While I think this varies from culture to culture, never is it more striking than here in the USA, particularly around the holiday season. Restoration directly counters the notion that we must always be on, always producing, and always working.  We all need rest, to slow down, and how to learn to slow down more broadly in our lives.  When I look out at the landscape here where I live at the winter solstice, it is dark, cold, and bare.  The land is hibernating, the animals have gone into their burrows, and the sun–when I see it at all–lies low in the sky.  This is a time for us too, to work for rest and restoration so that we can move forward in the work we want to do in the world.  Restoration is about giving ourselves permission for this rest, not feeling guilty about it, and learning how to build restorative, self-care practices into our lives, even beyond the winter solstice.

Reskilling at Imbolc:  With the hard work of healing behind us, we can now move into cultivating some of the themes that will help us be more responsive, present, and connected to our own lives and how to transition our lives–and those of our communities–into earth-honoring, receptive and balanced living so that we can create a better tomorrow.  Reskilling is the first of these practices and is incredibly powerful and empowering. Reskilling is the work of bringing back traditional skills that often bring us close to the land and learning how to work with the land to provide for our needs. One of the major challenges we face in the age of the Anthropocene is that most of the traditional skills passed on from generation to generation were lost. The social and economic movements of the 19th and 20th centuries created generations of people who are entirely dependent on others for taking care of their basic needs. Before our species were even homo sapiens, it was a basic necessity for a human being to act like every animal on this planet: to be able to know where to find food and water, to take shelter, to keep warm and safe.  Reskilling encompasses a great many skills including those in wilderness survival and bushcraft, how to grow and forage your own food, food preservation techniques, animal husbandry, beekeeping, and how to create functional things from the land for your use: spoon and bowl carving, sewing, hand papermaking, tool repair and creation, blacksmithing, and so much more. The whole point here is to develop a set of new skills–skills practiced by all of our ancestors throughout much of human history–so that we are more resilient and prepared to meet our needs and the needs of our family, friends, and community. And that by learning how to make these things ourselves, we lessen our own burden to the land.  (And for those of you who have purchased my book Sacred Actions: Living the Wheel of the Year through Earth-Centered Sustainable Practices, I have a whole chapter on resilience that you can check out!)

Resilience at the Spring Equinox:  As we continue the wheel of the year, we get to one of the most important concepts for thriving and living our best life even in a difficult age–resilience.  Resilience is the capacity to endure, to overcome difficulty, and to thrive even when faced with struggles or adversity.  And this is particularly hard, especially since most global education systems try to produce the opposite kind of person–a person who is dependent, passive, and looks to others to solve their problems (see both Wendell Berry’s discussion of generalist vs. specialist thinking in the Unsettling of America and also psychologist Carol Dweck’s Mindsets for discussion in this direction). Resiliency is a quality of all life that is currently living on this planet–our ancestors were resilient through ice ages and many different ages–or we wouldn’t be standing here today.  Resiliency is a quality we all need to learn to embrace in order to live our best lives, thrive, and do good even in a difficult world.  And if the global pandemic, resulting in political and social instability globally has taught us anything, its that the systems we once depended on are breaking down and we will need that resilience in the coming age. Nature is one of our best teachers here, like everywhere else, where we can look to resilient flora and fauna like dandelions, Japanese knotweed, and raccoons for lessons for how to adapt and thrive.  By building this concept into our meditations, rituals, and spiritual practices, we can learn to be strong, brave, and flexible.

Regeneration, card 79 from the 3rd edition of the Tarot of Trees
Regeneration, card 79 from the 3rd edition of the Tarot of Trees

Regeneration at Beltane: I see Resilience and Regeneration as two sides of the very important coin in the work of helping humanity create a better future where we can live in balance with other life on this planet.  Regeneration and resilience are themes that nature demonstrates again and again–walk into a forest six months after a fire and see the regeneration on the land.  Nature is a master regenerator, and we humans can learn a lot about how to help her regenerate faster.  The challenge, of course, is that nearly all planetary destruction, whether that be habitat loss, ocean acidification, global warming, and the ongoing 6th mass extinction event is caused either directly or indirectly by humans.  One of the most powerful things we can do is to right those scales by taking an active role in healing the land, restoring the land to health, and fostering healthy ecosystems.  This work is best done locally, right outside your door–in your front or back yard, in local parks, in local watersheds.  Recognizing that you, too, have healing hands can be the difference between an arid torpor of inaction and changing the world.  There are many specific strategies I’ve outlined on this blog, such as building refugia, land healing, and practicing permaculture.

Revisioning at the Summer Solstice:  By working with our hands, hearts, and minds (reskilling, regeneration, resilience) we can turn ourselves into a force for good. The next step along the 21st century wheel of the year is putting another one of our key human gifts to use through the power of visioning a better world through our creative expression. As I wrote before, the current visions that our broader culture provide to us are often apocalyptic and paint humans as a force of destruction–and as above, so below, as within, so without.  The more that we are able to counter this with magic of our own, to write our own future story for ourselves, our community, and our world, the more power these better visions will take on. This “revisioning” asks us to use tools of our human birthright: our creativity, the gift of storytelling, music, art, and other bardic gifts to weave the magic of a better future.  (I have had people ask me about what my own vision looks like, and I’ve shared it here). We do this most sacred work at the time of the greatest light and energy, as we can direct the positive energy from the sun, the celestial heavens, and the fruitful earth

Reverence at Lughnasadh:   As we move into the harvest season, we turn our attention to another core practice of responding to today’s age and building a better world: reverence. Reverence is the practice of deep respect, which includes gratitude, honoring, and reciprocation. To revere something is to hold that thing sacred–recognizing its deep and intrinsic value–and allowing us respectful interaction and experience. For those practicing nature spirituality, reverence towards the earth and everything on it is often a natural extension of our philosophy. Reverence is a particularly salient theme at Lughnasadh, which has traditionally been considered the “first harvest” festival. Regardless of our life circumstances, focusing on reverence, respect, and gratitude at this holiday is a great way to attune ourselves with the energy of the season and re-affirm our relationship to the land. One of the big things missing culturally is reverence. If we had reverence for the earth, would the earth be in such peril? If we had reverence for things coming from the earth, would we consume much less of it? In the age of the Anthropocene, reverence and gratitude is in extremely short supply, where it seems that an over-abundance of stuff, input, and things demanding our attention and energy pushes us in very different directions. Reverence is a balm to the numbness and apathy of the present age–it helps us connect, stay focused, and ground. It reminds us of what is important and what is not, and allows us to focus our attention on the things that are truly important. And of course, it provides a very necessary balm to our living earth and her spirits who are very much in peril.

Receptivity at the Fall Equinox: Our final theme In its most simple form, receptivity is about openness: openness to new ideas, to change, and new experiences or patterns of life.  It’s about accepting what comes rather than trying to force things in a specific direction.One of the reasons that Receptivity is such a good theme is that it is a counterbalance to the effort-reward cultural narrative that is tied to the Fall Equinox and themes of harvest. There is one enormous problem with the effort/reward theme on a larger cultural level: it belongs to a different age. It belongs to the Holocene, an 8000-11,000 year period of stable climate that allowed humans to develop agriculture, allowed humans to have some predictability about their surroundings and allowed us to develop symbolic understandings like those drawn upon for the modern wheel of the year. It also belongs to the 20th century, when stable careers were common and people would retire from blue-collar jobs with pensions. But we are not in the Holocene any longer, both climate-wise and culturally, and receptivity (along with the other seven themes) helps us be open to what comes. Cultivating receptivity allows us to be more open, aware, and engaged with the world as it is.  It allows us to hold space for what is happening and approach it with gratitude and respect.

I’ll also note here that after being deeply receptive to the world, it is probably time for some healing and release, and thus, we reach Samhain again.

Concluding Thoughts

Now that the new wheel is complete, I thought it would be useful to see the interrelationships of all of the themes and how they work together.  We can see that the wheel keeps turning, and as it turns, these core themes help us both adapt and adjust to a difficult age but also allow us to explore new and empowered roles within that world–roles focused on regenerating our own landscapes, envisioning a better future for all life, and helping ourselves transition to more earth-centered ways of living in the world around us.

For me personally, this journey of creating the wheel has been really powerful in my own life.  It created a deep sense of empowerment–these practices that I’ve been cultivating for a long time are now firmly tied with my spiritual practice and celebration.  I’ll spend a few years continuing to integrate these themes into my own life and practice and at some point, will probably have more reflections to share. I am curious about others who used the posts in the last year–what did you learn? Were these themes helpful to you? How did you integrate them into your life?

Dana O'Driscoll

Dana O’Driscoll has been an animist druid for over 15 years, and currently serves as Grand Archdruid in the Ancient Order of Druids in America. She is a druid-grade member of the Order of Bards, Ovates, and Druids and is the OBOD’s 2018 Mount Haemus Scholar. She is the author of Sacred Actions: Living the Wheel of the Year through Earth-Centered Spiritual Practice, and is a writing professor with extensive journaling experience. Dana is a certified permaculture designer and permaculture teacher who teaches sustainable living courses and wild food foraging. Dana lives at a 5-acre homestead in rural western Pennsylvania with her partner and a host of feathered and furred friends. She writes at the Druids Garden blog and is on Instagram as @druidsgardenart.

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5 Comments

  1. This was brilliant. Your themes are good fits. I like how they relate to each other, the observances seem more cohesive to me.

    1. Thank you, Mary! :).

  2. I love these categories and am looking forward to integrating them into my practice. The Wheel of the Year is so much more than ancient weather patterns that are no longer relevant geographically or temporally.

  3. The wheel of the year has always been more than the seasons in a particular place. It’s a great metaphor for any kind of cycle–human life, from birth through growth to maturity to death, or any project, from inspiration (Yule or Imbolc) through planning and execution (Alban Eiler, Beltane, Alban Helfin), through results (Lughnasad, Alban Elued), to endings (Samhain). The concepts you’ve added are also relevant and useful and worth exploring. Maybe I’m lucky that I live in a place where the natural cycle is close to the one given on the standard wheel, but I would feel deprived if my wheel didn’t include the actual seasons happening around me. How you would make a wheel for, say, a tropical land where you can plant and harvest year-round, I don’t know. That would be for those who live there to figure out.

    1. Hi Karen, thanks for reading and commenting! That’s the question–how to adapt the wheel. Up to each of us to do, to figure out what system of celebrations based on the seasons works…and how we adapt as the seasons change due to the ongoing climate crisis. Blessings!

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