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What Witches Do: The Esbats

This article was written by Edain McCoy
posted under Pagan

The second wheel of the year is made up of thirteen lunar cycles occurring within the solar year—called “esbats” by Pagans. Covens usually meet either on the full or the new moon and a few manage both. Solitary practitioners are urged to commemorate the moon’s journey through the sky at both times, but the merrymaking and festival night has always been that of the full moon. Never forget that the word “lunatic” means “moon madness.”

The great night light in the sky was humanity’s first calendar. In many pre-patriarchal cultures, it was considered a feminine symbol, representative of the Goddess due to the fact that its synodic, or relational, revolution around the earth takes twenty-nine days, twelve hours, and forty-four minutes, which closely matches the female menstrual cycle of twenty-eight to thirty days. Its waxing phase symbolized the virgin aspect of the Goddess, the full moon symbolized the fullness of the mother aspect, and the waning moon symbolized the aged and wise crone aspect.

In cultures that had male moon deities as well as or instead of female lunar deities, the waxing moon was the horned God of the woodlands and son of the Goddess, the full moon was the warrior and the father, and the waning moon corresponded to the hunter and teacher who was the elder God.

Many cultures have assigned names to each of the thirteen full moons that usually occur within our standard solar year. The Irish have one set of names, West Africans have another set, and North Americans have created several of their own moon names, some taken from the spiritual traditions of Native Americans.

However, the fact remains that thirteen lunar months is a longer period of time than our solar year of 365 days. Thirteen full lunar cycles takes approximately 374 days. Some traditions have divided their full moons into twenty-eight days, disregarding the moon’s phase just so the solar and lunar years will begin and end at the same time. This occurs frequently among North American practitioners using the Irish-Celtic lunar calendar. Other Witches will simply choose to acknowledge two separate New Year’s Days, or will use the Blue Moon—a second full moon falling within the same solar month—as a point to make any adjustments. For example, if the lunar months and solar months begin to diverge, they will acknowledge or ignore the Blue Moon. This keeps the Cold Moon from appearing in July, or the Harvest Moon falling in February.

For more than six thousand years, the Jewish calendar has allowed for periodic adjustments, while the Islamic lunar calendar makes none. The result being that in Islam a holy day can, and eventually will, fall within the corresponding season of the solar year.

No matter how hard we try, the two will never be an exact match, nor is there any reason they should be. In Witchcraft, we honor dual realities, why then can we not honor two separate and different, though equally important, wheels of time?

Honoring the Moon as We Honor the Sun

The moon should not occupy a lesser place in a Witch’s life than the sun, and forcing the moon’s thirteen cycles to match those of the sun is not only confusing, but by its very nature places the energy of the moon at the mercy of the sun.

Whatever method we choose to periodically realign the two calendars, we should never forget that the moon is as important as the sun and deserves our reverence just for being the moon. Worshiping beneath moonlight is an ancient practice, one that still motivates our primitive, atavistic centers and draws us into the moon’s spell. The oldest of the sabbats is said by many to be Yule or Midwinter, with evidence of its holy placement on the solar year dating back approximately twelve thousand years. By contrast, evidence of lunar calendars dates back nearly forty thousand years.


The Triple Goddess
The earliest humans honored the moon as a female deity. While lunar gods and solar goddess would eventually make themselves known, the obvious connection with the menstrual cycle tended to make people think of womanhood.

The three phases of the moon spoke to our ancestors of the cycles of death, renewal, and rebirth. Over the course of twenty-nine days, the moon seemed to mimic the familiar cycle of death and rebirth. Since birth was a feminine function, the moon became female.

The deity as a three-in-one god did not originate in Christianity. The moon’s three phases were correlated with the three phases of a woman’s life: virgin, mother, and crone. The moon embodied these three faces and gave rise to the worship of these three-in-one deities.

During the waxing phase, we have our virgin Goddess, adventurous, sexual, and able to traverse all worlds that open to her beauty and prowess. At the full phase, we have the nurturing mother, powerful, protective, and strong. In the waning phase, we have the crone, the elder grandmother moon with her wit, wisdom, and no-nonsense ways.

We honor all these aspects through our rituals and we can and do draw on each of these phases to assist us in our magick

The Esbat Celebration
Many Witches who practice their faith alone will take advantage of both the new and full moons to celebrate, and will call both of these events an Esbat. Due to the many demands on everyone’s time, covens and other groups will usually choose one or the other, with the full moon being most popular.

The word esbat (pronounced ESS-bott) is derived from the same root as the word estrus, a Greek word meaning “of the month,” for the fertile heat periods of female mammals.

The dark, new moon esbat is a chance to worship the darker aspects of the Craft. This is not to be confused with evil or negative aspects. The dark is simply that which is hidden, that which is in shadow rather than in light, and closely reflects our inner lives in the same way the sun reflects our light outer selves.

The full moon esbat tends to be a ribald, frenetic celebration—suitable for the “lunatics” who were once believed to display their insanity under the light of the full moon.

Magick for all manner of needs is enacted during esbat rituals, both in group settings and by solitary practitioners. Spells for increase or gain are usually done during the waxing phases, and spells for decrease or loss are performed during the waning period. The full moon is used for spells for wholeness, children and mothers, families, psychic enhancement, and some love spells.

The two major components of any full-moon esbat are two rituals that you must become familiar with if you want to call yourself a Witch. These are Drawing Down the Moon and the Ceremony of Cakes and Ale.


Drawing Down the Moon

Until you have some experience channeling outside energies, you will probably be only a witness to this powerful ritual of invocation. Even so, the experience can be a profound one, if you can observe a coven that is able to enact this ritual with ease.

The idea behind it is to draw the essence of the Moon Mother, or lunar Goddess, into the body of a coven member. The person chosen is usually a priestess or leader, but this is not always the case. Even men may have the lunar Goddess—or God, if you prefer—occupy their physical bodies. You’ll find a lot of experiments with androgyny in Pagan ritual the deeper into it you go.

Drawing Down the Moon can also be enacted by a solitary practitioner, but the ceremony has more meaning and, well, just more grandeur, when performed by a group outdoors under the moon’s fullest light. Through the body of the priestess, the Goddess speaks to us. She may answer questions or give instructions. She may offer someone who needs some extra attention or a special blessing from her. Or she may just pour her loving energy into the circle and lead you in a merry spiral dance.

How do we know that this is the Goddess leading us and that this is not some play-acting done to heighten the ego of a priestess? When you start working with energies outside yourself, when you learn to draw from and channel them, you become an expert at sensing what is sacred and what is Witchcrap. Any priestess faking the Goddess within would be quickly unmasked, and most would never resort to trying such a game.

The transfer of Goddess to Witch is made by having another person experienced in drawing and channeling energies pull down the lunar energy. If the person into whom the Goddess will be drawn is a woman, then a man is usually chosen to do the drawing. Likewise, if the energy is to be channeled into a man, a woman is likely to be the one who will draw down the energy. There is no law that says it must be this way, but it’s always best to keep everything balanced, and that includes the potent polarity of male and female energies.

The priest doing the drawing down of the moon may choose a chalice, usually of silver, or a double-sided ritual knife, known as an athame (pronounced ah-THAW-may or ATH-um-may), as a receptacle for the lunar energy he wishes to transfer into the body of the priestess. He and the priestess will stand face to face in the center of the circle, in a position where the priest can see the full moon directly over the head of the priestess. He will raise the chalice or blade to a point where, from his perspective, the tool touches the moon’s face. He then leads the coven in an invocation asking the Moon Goddess to use the tool as a catalyst for coming down into the body of her priestess. When the priest feels the divine energy entering the tool, he brings it down and touches it to either the forehead, heart center, or womb area of the priestess until she feels the Goddess has entered her body. As he draws in the moon, he may wish to seal his efforts by making an invoking pentagram sign in the air in front of the priestess.

There’s no mistaking this transformation. Everyone in the circle will feel the shift in energies and, in some cases, the priestess will even look and sound like a different person.

When the ritual is complete, the priest reverses the invoking process and returns the lunar energy to the moon.

When the energy is returned, the priest may make the sign of the banishing, or dismissal, pentagram in front of the priestess, and then stay near her as she reorients herself to the circle atmosphere again.


Cakes and Ale

The Ceremony of Cakes and Ale is an easy ritual to perform, and one that is very common at esbats. It usually concludes any esbat ritual whether it is a group or a solitary affair. In fact, it’s one that you can do yourself on the very next full moon if you want to start practicing the Craft.

The format and concept may already be familiar to you. If you grew up as a Christian, you will notice the similarity between the Pagan ritual and the Christian communion service, which sees the bread and wine as symbolic of the body and blood of their savior deity, Jesus. If you grew up Jewish, you notice the similarity to the Kiddush, or wine blessing, and the Hamotzi, or the thanking of God for the Gift of Bread.

The origins of breaking bread with another person as a sign of connection and goodwill go deep into prehistory, when bread and wine were staples of the small tribes of humans who had ceased their nomadic ways. Bread could be had all year long if the grain harvest was properly preserved, and fermented liquids bypassed the dangers of diseases that were carried in tainted water supplies.

For this ritual, you will need a small portion of bread and some type of drink in a cup or chalice. Do not feel you have to use an alcoholic beverage. Many covens substitute juice or even water out of concern for others who may be in recovery. Use what feels best to you. I often use plain water into which I’ve placed some lemon, a fruit sometimes associated with lunar energies.

“Cake” is also another word that is flexible and can be misleading, since most covens use cookies or loaves of bread for this ritual.

Bread and wine symbolize the body of the great Mother Goddess and the blood of her womb from which all things are born. This is why the Goddess is associated with the esbat celebration; regardless of how many lunar Gods exist, Wicca tends to view the full moon as a feminine symbol ruled by a feminine deity.

Whatever the deity, place the bread and drink onto some type of central altar. Take the bread first and hold it before you as if you were offering it to someone else. Speak words of blessing that focus on the gift of the bread from the Goddess rather than blessing the bread itself. Something like:

Blessed be the Goddess who gives herself to us
In the form of a bountiful harvest. Blessed be
Her bread, the gift of her body that sustains
And nurtures us. By all that is sacred, so mote it be.

Break off a small piece of the bread and eat it. If there are others working with you, pass the bread clockwise around your circle. Each person should break off a piece of the bread and eat it. As each person sends the loaf on around the circle, you may feel free to offer a blessing to that person, such as, “I pass the gift of life to you,” or “Here is the Goddess to feed the Goddess within.”

Next you will take up the chalice and hold it up, also as if offering it to someone else. The blessing will be similar to that said over the bread:

Blessed be the womb of the Goddess in whose
Blood we are formed and from which we are
Born. Blessed be her gift of drink, which links us
To her powers of creation. From her womb we
Came, and to it we shall one day return to await
Rebirth. By all that is sacred, so mote it be.

Take a drink from the chalice and, if you are working with others, pass the chalice clockwise around the circle so everyone may drink or honor the blood of the Goddess in their own way. No one should be forced to drink. Some people have allergies to certain juices or to the sulfites in wines, and others may be in recovery. Some fear getting or passing illnesses. Those who wish not to consume the drink may bow to the chalice, hold it to the heart or forehead, or raise it in a toast to the moon.

As with the bread, feel free to give a blessing to the person to whom you pass the chalice. This might be something like: “I give you the gift of life, the blood of the Goddess, our mother,” or “Herein is the blood of the Goddess who blesses us with life renewed.”

When your ritual is complete, you should take the chalice and remaining bread outdoors. Pour any liquid onto the ground and place the leftover bread on top of it. The liquid is a libation, your offering to the Goddess of the earth, and the bread is a sacrifice that her animals can enjoy. You may even want to make a statement out loud as you give these offerings. A simple sentence telling the Goddess what you’re giving her and thanking her is sufficient, but you may be as elaborate as you like.

Last of all, be sure to ground yourself when you are finished with this or any other ritual.


From If You Want to Be a Witch, by Edain McCoy

Edain McCoyEdain McCoy
Edain became a self-initiated Witch in 1981 and has been an active part of the Pagan community since her formal initiation into a large San Antonio coven in 1983.  Edain has researched alternative spiritualities since her teens, when she was first...  Read more

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