Following the Sun-Wheel
The Shape of My Practice
by Ian Elliott 7-24-16
I am a third degree Celtic witchcraft elder. I live in Norway, a country with covens few and far between. I helped found a coven still thriving in Colorado Springs, with my high priestess, Wendy Morris. I moved to Norway eight years ago to be with my family, but I maintain contact with the coven in Colorado and my close friend Wendy. I have been solitary for some years now, and have developed a style of solitary witchcraft which I would like to share with all who are interested. My practice follows the paradigm of the Sun Wheel, which many will recognize in its calendar form, the Wheel of the Year. However, it is not necessary to practice it on the calendar dates, though that is beneficial, especially if you are in a coven. I will begin and end my description in the North, the Place of Power.
Witches chart their sacred occasions around the year on ‘the Wheel of the Year’. The wheel resembles a compass, with the eight sabbats marked out on the eight cardinal and intermediate points. Thus, Yule corresponds to the northern point, Ostara to the eastern, Litha to the southern point, and Mabon to the western, with Imbolc, Beltane, Lughnasadh (or Lammas) and Samhain mapped to the northeastern, southeastern, southwestern and northwestern points, respectively.
The Wheel of the Year can also be used to map the lunar month and the twenty-four hour day. The winter solstice (Yule), the dark moon and midnight correspond to the northern point at the top of the wheel. By following the Wheel, witches and other Pagans can align themselves with the energies of those times.
In addition, the four quarters, marked out on the wheel by the lines connecting the intermediate points (northeast to southwest and southeast to northwest), correspond to the four classic elements 1 of earth (northern quarter), air (eastern), fire (southern) and water (western quarter). These elements contain inner elemental powers, the four powers of the Magus: to keep silent or be still (north), to know (east), to will (south), and to dare (west). The ongoing purpose of witchcraft is to cultivate the four elemental powers in one’s life in a balanced fashion.
Once she is dedicated to learning the Craft for a lunar year and a day, the apprentice witch’s natal horoscope is charted, if birth information is available. The planets’ positions in the various signs are noted with respect to the elements of those signs, and in this way the tasks chosen for the present incarnation are indicated, in order to achieve a better balance among the four elements. As the balance between the elemental powers improves, the fifth power of the Magus gradually becomes available to the witch, the power to go, meaning to go on astral journeys up and down the inner pillar, exploring the various worlds or dimensions encountered along the way.
In my own case, I have most planets in air signs, then in water, then a few in earth and none in fire. This is presumably because I have already done fire work in past lives and now I am meant to emphasize the other elements in that order. Thus, I began by cultivating knowledge (air), then daring (water; daring to explore the unknown), then stillness, both mental and physical (earth), and, as a final touch, will (fire). I am beginning to make astral journeys, first from a state of lucid waking, 2 and subsequently from lucid dreaming, dreaming while being aware I am in a dream. Both are springboards to traveling up and down the inner pillar, cognate with the World Pillar or the trunk of the World Tree.
The Sunward Path
In witchcraft we say that words will have power if we do not tell lies. We are not constrained to tell the truth on every occasion, but have the option to remain silent instead. This is following the sunward path with our speech, and if we do this, the Sun will empower our words. In the same way, if we promise to do something, we should expend every effort to keep that promise. Not to do so is another form of lying. If circumstances prevent us from keeping our commitment, we should explain this to whomever we made our promise, and offer an alternative. Otherwise, our word will be doubted, and we shall have to pull the weight of a broken commitment behind us. That will inhibit and diminish our magical power.
The sunward path is the path of optimum use of energy. It is not an ethically prescriptive path. It does not say, unconditionally, do not lie. It says, “If you want to make the best use of your energy, either tell the truth or remain silent.” It is similar to the Rede, which means advice. “If you want to be free to do as you will, harm none.”
The Hindu teaching about this states that if we take our journey through life facing the Sun (and therefore following the Sun), the shadow of pleasure will follow us. If we turn our backs on the Sun, the shadow of pleasure will ever recede before us. The shadow takes the shape of our own outline, but omits our substance. Thus we will never succeed in catching our shadow.
This does not mean that the witch abstains from pleasure. She is not running from her shadow, and accepts pleasure as it comes to her, but looks toward the Sun, the light of truth and Self-knowledge. As the Sun lightens the world, it both symbolizes and embodies truth.
Cultivating the Elemental Powers
In order to cultivate the four elemental powers of knowledge, will, daring and silence, a certain amount of free energy is necessary. This energy is usually in short supply, because it has been appropriated by habits conditioned by society and largely squandered. The key to accessing and cultivating elemental powers, then, lies in saving what little free energy we possess.
In each quarter, the business of cultivating elemental power goes through four phases, corresponding to the three lunar phases of purification, consecration and charging, and culminating in the ‘earthing’ phase of the dark moon. This last phase lies on the transition point to the next quarter. Thus, the earthing phase of the northern quarter lies on the Imbolc northeastern point, overlapping a little with the quarters of Earth and Air.
Purification is governed by the Maiden and the waxing phase of the moon, and consists in freeing up a portion of our everyday energy, thus creating space for the influx of elemental power. Before we can receive something new, we must let go of the old. Once space has been created, the accumulated power can be put to some focused use. This is consecration, governed by the Mother and the full moon phase. As power continues to accumulate and be channeled into the consecrated purpose, it becomes magnetic, as it were, capable of creating real change in the witch’s habits and perceptions. This is charging, the harvest of power governed by the Crone and the waning moon. These phases need not occur during the actual lunar phases, for ‘she is old or young as she pleases,’ but timing to the lunar month invokes the Lady’s special assistance. Finally, the cultivated power sinks into the witch and becomes second nature, part of her emerging magical personality.
The work of cultivation takes two forms, which may be called practice and praxis. Practice involves performing or inhibiting certain actions at set times and, when possible, set places, preferably on a daily basis. Praxis, a word I am adapting, consists of small actions taken randomly throughout the day or night when we think of them. Both practice and praxis are necessary to cultivation, and should support each other.
The linchpin of praxis is to bear in mind the words “my energy.” At any given moment, you have the freedom to observe what is capturing your energy, and to decide to withdraw your energy from it if you so choose. “My energy, my choice” is the motto of praxis. This is especially important in moments of negative expression, such as voicing irritation, which can whittle away our energy, or outbursts of anger, which can consume all the magical energy freed over the course of a day.
In the quarter of the north, praxis involves restraining certain habits of nervous motions when they start up: twitchings, scratchings, tapping the foot, and other small nervous movements which, taken collectively, consume a large amount of our energy each day and promote mental unrest. When some energy has been saved and accumulated through praxis, the witch can try sitting still at certain times of the day, further quietening down the body through regular practice.
As the body begins to be still, the restlessness of the mind comes to the fore. The witch now realizes the point of cultivating stillness, and the full moon phase at the northern point begins, through meditation.
Since the witch is left free at this point to choose how he or she will meditate, I can only describe my own experience. As I close my eyes, I notice my phosphenes 3 briefly, then my current thought patterns emerge. 4 I note them as they recede, and presently I am able mentally to slip between them, falling a little down my inner pillar to quieter thoughts and feelings. This feels like a sudden mild jerk, as in an elevator which has slipped its cable a few inches, or as we sometimes feel while falling asleep.
My mind is still talking to itself a little, but increasingly it is more like whisperings. The usual feelings and images which accompany me in everyday life recede, and presently older nuances of feeling from earlier times in my life float by. These are accompanied with earlier feelings of my own existence, and I seem to become more flexibly myself, like a deck of cards that has been shuffled and re-dealt. I am still myself – it is still the same deck – but there is a new deal.
I may hit some hot spots at times, old obsessions or enthusiasms, and I try to work around these and continue descending into the quieter depths of memory. I am going down into what witchcraft calls my ‘Deep’. How far I go will depend upon how completely I have cultivated my four elemental powers in balance together. Thus, the power ‘to go’, the power of aether or spirit, is approached gradually through many descents. When I reach the Summerland or Tir-na n’og, and come into contact with my root-soul, I may experience aspects of myself from previous lives. One Vedantin monk who went this far presently got up, quit the monastic order, and went into the desert to study wildflowers. He had never desired to do so in living memory, but apparently he had been a botanist in a previous life.
This means to me that when I reincarnate, my root-soul begins growing a new shoot up into Middle-Earth, and as I live my life here, my shoot or inner pillar keeps growing. The way back down to my root-soul, then, lies through my past memories and feelings.
On the way back up the inner pillar to my body resting in Middle-Earth, many feelings from my ‘Deep’ accompany me. These include the way it felt to be me and alive many years ago, along with insights from those times. As I awake into my everyday attention, these feelings and insights from long ago have at first an uncanny, fermenting effect on my everyday personality, like yeast added to bread dough. At the same time, energy flows more freely through my mind, as some of my usual obsessions have been swept aside by the force of my descent and the arrival of past nuances of feeling. I feel more childlike, for I have more free energy not harnessed by mental foci. Children are playful because much of their energy is not directed by a mental agenda. Perhaps this is a foretaste of that joy reported by witches who have reached the ‘true Sabbat’.
As these nuances begin integrating with the concerns of my everyday life, the flow of free energy in me stirs within, and feelings of inspiration and intuition arise. I have reached the boundary between stillness and knowledge, governed by the Dark Moon; I have arrived at the northeastern point.
The northeastern point is celebrated at Imbolc, February 2nd, or, more authentically, February 1st. 5 This is the time when ewes begin to feel the stirrings of unborn lambs in their wombs. Likewise, the witch, having reascended his or her inner pillar, feels the stirrings within of feelings and images recovered from the long past, along with the creativity enjoyed then before it was covered over and forgotten in later years.
This is a joyful phase, recalling the enticements of the elf-maid of Brittany, as she lured young men to the plain of Tir-na n’og, the plain of youth:
“Deuit ganin-me da gompezenn al Levenez
O! Mar goufec’h e teufec’h’vit atao!”
“Come with me to the plain of Joy.
Oh! If you knew, you would come there forever!” 6
Energy must continue to flow freely in order for the ideas it contains to emerge at the eastern point. The praxis for ensuring this is to catch the mind at the point of continuing past conversations, or anticipating future ones. One simply acknowledges them, thinking ‘that is the rehash,’ or ‘that is the rehearsal,’ and the mind will tend to relax into the present sensuous moment. This prepares it for the encounter with unique energy in the form of music, artistic images, or ideas. The Maiden works with this in the phase of purification when she gradually winnows the free flow of feelings and images from the ‘Deep,’ shaping them towards the eastern point of consecration, when the Mother articulates them as ideas. This is the time to surrender to the new, taking it in as for the first time, as we did in childhood. Too much critical analysis at this point, saying “that sounds (or looks) like x,” will assimilate it to past habit, missing its unique quality. A hallmark of such new ideas is that they are taken in lightly, without strong feelings of partisanship. As children we felt free to learn a large variety of things and enjoyed playing at ideas, strong preferences being formed only later in adolescence.
According to my natal chart, I have no planets in Fire, and I have interpreted this as meaning I worked with that element in a past life, so that I need to catch up with the other elements. That being so, I should have an overview of the quarter, and in fact I have. The Sun-Wheel is often depicted in ancient cultures as a swastika, but note it is a sunwise-turning swastika, with the bent arms trailing back to the left, the opposite of the Nazi symbol. To me the swastika resembles a fire-drill, as seen from above. The bent arms are twirled sunwise, with the drill making friction in the flints below, in ‘the Deep,’ thus igniting the fuel at its base.
At the southeastern or Beltane point, it becomes clear how one’s everyday life needs to make room for new knowledge. Old habits must be set aside or redirected. This is the purification phase of Fire, and here the fire-drill comes into play, creating friction between old and new habits, and building that magical heat the Hindus call ‘tapas,’ the fruit of spiritual discipline and austerity, which will rush up from the ‘Deep’ when it has accumulated sufficiently.
The practice of purification can involve something I call the ‘Inventory’. A spell, music or other creative act is a projection of energy, and it requires a conduit to carry the energy involved. Most of our conduits are blocked by past projects we have neither brought to completion nor canceled. By making an inventory of the physical clutter in the home, or of an overcommitted schedule, a witch can discern which projects are worth completing and which should be dropped and forgotten. In the case of the latter, the documents and other debris left over from the unfinished project need to be discarded or put to a different use. In the course of doing this, the witch will acquire practice in putting a project out of mind, a process that is of paramount importance in spellcraft, after the spell is cast.
Every project or task that extends over time requires a groove or conduit to convey the energy from one day to the next. By canceling past projects that are no longer needed or desired, and by completing others, the witch opens up a number of conduits which can serve to convey the energy used in spells. At the same time, beginning new projects makes use of the magic of the beginning, which becomes available increasingly as we get free of ever-pending tasks. The witch moves out of the dead calm of in medias res, always being in the middle of affairs, to the creative space of beginning afresh. New projects are then monitored and dropped if they become bogged down and no longer progress towards their goal.
When home and schedule have been sufficiently freed from clutter, and the work needed to optimize conditions for the new project has been done, the witch has reached the southern point of Litha or Midsummer. The Mother at the full moon phase now consecrates it to action. In case of a spell, the witch may now resort to a book of methods. 7 As the witch practices the mechanics of the spell, or the musician masters the new music, it becomes familiar and second nature. The Crone’s phase of charging lends it a personal style, called ‘the knack’ at Lammas (or Lughnasadh), as symbolized by the sacred loaf baked on that occasion and eaten at midnight.
Let us review our journey thus far. In the North, the journey back up the inner pillar brings with it liberated magical energy and psychic materials from ‘the Deep’. At the northeastern point these are integrated with portions of the everyday psyche covertly, in the Dark Moon phase of Imbolc. Every time this point is reached, the magical personality grows and partially replaces the old conditioned everyday personality.
At the eastern point, new knowledge emerges, and is articulated, through ideas, music, art, or the sense of a magical goal.
At the southeastern point, habits and conditions in everyday life are identified which must be changed in order to realize the knowledge physically. This identification is intuitive at first, in keeping with the character of the Dark Moon.
In the south quarter, space is cleared for the spell or other creative work by suppressing or redirecting habits incompatible with its construction. This is followed by the construction of the spell (music, art, etc.) in physical terms. The Crone charges the work accomplished by uniting it with the will, so that at the southwestern point the spell or other work becomes the knack, the personal skill of the practitioner. As in previous Dark Moons, this is accomplished covertly, as symbolized by the oven baking the sacred loaf on Lammas Eve.
The western quarter is the quarter of daring, that is, daring to penetrate the unknown. Its element is Water, which seeks the lowest point and goes around obstacles by taking their shape. The work of Fire replaces many comfortable habits with the new construction of the spell or other creative endeavor. These habits are missed because they provided a sense of orientation; they were shields against the onslaught of the unknown.
In the west the witch goes fearlessly into the unknown, in anything from taking a new route to work to undergoing some form of initiation. The portals of the unknown lie in altered perception or attention. The witch spreads his/her visual attention from where the eyes are pointing to the side, top or bottom of the visual field, and the aural attention to background sounds. As much as can be seen of the head without looking in mirrors or some other reflecting surface is held in the attention. This naturally places the attention on the periphery of the visual field. Background sounds are reproduced mentally as a way of increasing focus on the aural environment.
These practices, or praxes, sound exhausting but are actually relaxing because they switch off our usual sensory filters. The witch becomes one with his/her perceptual environment. Every day is like a day at the beach.
Continual practice or praxis of redirection opens up the body at certain points, such as the muscles at the outer corners of the eyes, to an inflow of energy carrying feelings similar to those encountered in the north, during the journey down the inner pillar. The difference is that now these feelings come up by themselves into the everyday world. At the western point of Mabon one’s dead ancestors and friends may begin showing up in dreams. When they do, they may be invited to attend ‘dumb’ suppers through the month of October, culminating in the great Sabbat of Samhain at the end of the month. In the Craft we say that the human dead are released for visits at Mabon, and the nonhuman dead are added to their number at Samhain, in the emergence of the Wild Hunt.
It is at or around Mabon, the autumn equinox, that the ‘fast’ spell is cast, though a ‘slow’ spell can be cast at Samhain, earthed when finally released. 8 This can be timed to follow the actual wheel of the year, or sequenced with previous work following the Sun-Wheel. The Sabbats celebrate these points around the Sun-Wheel and often witches in a coven will time their private work to draw on the solar energies abundant at those times, but shorter sequences can occur outside the calendrical dates.
The spell, then, may be cast in Circle by raising the Cone of Power, working together with other witches, or some more private method, such as the spell of nine knots, may be used. The important point is that the witch should be open to the spirit world through practices of daring, as described in the examples given above. Note that these are my practices, but other witches may employ visualization, mantra, or a number of other methods.
At the northwestern point of Samhain, the ‘slow’ spell is released into ‘the Height’ and (with the Wheel of the Year), added to the Wild Hunt and earthed with it when it returns to the Underworlds. Thence it will rebound into our world of Middle-Earth and accomplish its magical purpose.
It is now forgotten, as though it had never been, as the witch enters the quarter of silence and stillness once more.
Farrar, Janet and Stewart, Spells and How They Work, Custer, WA, Phoenix
1 In modern terms, these four elements correspond to the solid, liquid and gaseous states of matter, and to observable energy or fire. The fifth point of aether corresponds to more subtle states such as plasma.
2 In lucid dreaming, we are aware of being in a dream while dreaming; in lucid waking, we are aware of being awake while waking. Neither state is taken for granted.
3 Impressions of lights and squiggles produced by the pressure of the eyelids on the retina.
4 In dreams these appear as synopses, defining in advance the current dream-situation.
5 Changed to February 2nd by the Church.
6 From Janet and Stewart Farrar, Spells and How They Work, pp. 95-96.
7 Such as Janet and Stewart Farrar’s Spells and How They Work. See Bibliography.
8 A fast spell is released suddenly, as with the Cone of Power. A slow spell is released gradually, as with candle spells, which are cast gradually as a candle burns down.