The stars move still; Aligning with magical time

Many us are experiencing a new relationship with time just now, detached as we are from the corporate routines of school and office hours. I’ve lost count of the number of people who have mentioned this to me, the feeling that the days are longer and the weeks shorter than they remembered. While some of us are fortunate in a new abundance of free time (although limited to the home and nearby locales) others must pick up extra burdens or adapt to unfamiliar routines. Inherent in this shifting state is an unique opportunity to embrace magical and astrological time, to be aware of the heavens, old feast days and natural cycles that give time a deeper meaning. We can ground ourselves by synchronising our daily routines with those of the more-than-human world and reestablish a connection to our own practice that provides much needed structure.

I have been making a concerted effort to observe magical time more closely, now that I have the freedom to select the days and times of my workings. I have also recently gained an allotment and have been studying the rhythms of astrological and lunar planting, weeding and harvesting cycles. I feel there is a growing awareness and interest in systems of magical timing among the occult community, although it has yet to filter down to popular witchcraft books, which still focus almost exclusively on lunar phases and the ‘wheel of the year’. I hope to offer here a very brief introduction to some of the forms of magical timing that have been used historically in Europe, with the suggestion that they reward further study and practice.

Planetary Hours and Days

The names we use for the week days, in most European languages, reflect their assignment to the seven traditional planets (Sun – Sunday, Moon – Monday, Mars – Tuesday, Mercury – Wednesday, Jupiter – Thursday, Saturn – Saturday) making their calculation effortless. Each day is said to be ruled by the energy of its planet.

Planetary hours are not parallel to the equal 60 minute hours of modern timekeeping, but vary in length by season. They are determined by dividing the daytime and nighttime into 12 equal segments and beginning with the hour of the planetary day at sunrise. The simplest way to select a planetary hour is to work at dawn on the planetary day of choice, however, should you wish for a lie-in occasionally, they can be calculated manually or using an app such as Astro Clock.

It’s important to stress that these days and hours are not based on the movements of the associated planets and are, essentially, a cultural tradition (the seven day week – most likely an ancient Hebrew system, was not named after the seven planets until the reign of Augustus. The planetary hours were first described by astrologers of the Hellenic period). Therefore I would advise against relying on them entirely, especially for any talismanic work, as a more detailed election should be made. However, they serve well for simple tasks such as starting or straining herbal preparations, harvesting wild herbs or performing a geomantic reading. For those seeking a deeper understanding of the planets, offering devotions to each on the appropriate day is a worthy way to develop these relationships and synchronise with this daily and weekly pattern.

Lunar Phases, Signs and Mansions

The moon has always had a powerful influence, both on the works of magicians and of herbalists, particularly those involved in cultivation. There are many ways to determine her moods and influences, but the three most commonly recognised in magic are her phases, signs and mansions.

Lunar phases (forming the synodic month) are so pervasive in entry level occult and new ages books that I will not spend much time on them here. Furthermore, the dominant focus on lunar phases, in both magic and gardening, seems to be a modern phenomena. Historically, there were several other significant markers of the moon’s influence.

The moon travels through the signs of the zodiac (forming the sidereal month), just as the sun and other planets do, although in a fraction of the time – taking just 27.3 days to visit every sign. I’ve been pleased to see an increasing awareness, in the community, of the moon’s position relative to the zodiac over the past few years, particularly around the full moon. The sidereal month is of great significance to gardeners, and I highly recommend a good almanac like this one for those keen to work with this cycle.

Speaking of almanacs, the system of naming full moons (wolf moon, snow moon etc.) was popularised by American almanac publishers in the early 20th century, appropriated from Native American cultures. For this reason, I do not use them.

Perhaps the most arcane of the lunar cycles, the 28 mansions of the moon follows the moon’s orbit around the earth against the fixed stars – forming a separate lunar zodiac. This system entered European magic via medieval Arabic astrology, and the mansions still bear Arabic names. Texts of astrological magic, most notably the Picatrix, recommend making talismans specific to these mansions. They can also be used for elections, that is, choosing the right day to perform a task or begin a project. Christopher Warnock gives an excellent introduction here.

Sun Sign Seasons

Sun sign astrology is the science’s most widely recognised form, less well known is its importance outside natal charts. Western astrology is tropical, meaning that it is based on the seasons rather than the fixed stars. The sun’s movement through the signs (really, equal 30 degree sections of the Earth’s ecliptic) provides us with twelve solar seasons, with the astrological new year at the vernal equinox in Aries. I have found these seasons often map more directly onto the cycles of the natural world than those of our calendar months. By observing the weather, plant and animal life in these seasons, we may gain a greater understanding of the signs themselves. There is nothing that expresses Aries like the headlong rush of new growth and the return of birdsong. Likewise, the gloriousness of May, with its lush verdancy and abundant flowers, epitomises Venusian Taurus.

We can embrace these seasons by making a record of their natural signs in our specific bio-region – what flowers in Leo season? What birds hatch their chicks in Gemini? This also provides an opportunity to live seasonally – eating the wild and cultivated foods that thrive in each solar season, celebrating the arrival into each new sign with offerings or ritual.

Holy days and High Days

Right now, I feel we all need something to celebrate and an excuse to eat, drink and be merry – even if only within our household. Beside the popular Neo-Pagan ‘wheel of the year’ there are many religious calendars that hold an abundance of intriguing festivals. We are now in the middle of Floralia (27 April – May 3rd), the week long festival of the Roman Goddess Flora. In a few weeks (15 May) it will be the birthday of Mercury followed by the second, or minor, Rogation day (18th-20th May). I am a deplorable syncretist and any holiday or calendar that has been celebrated on this soil in the past is fair game to me (provided it is not from a closed culture). Your preferences may vary along with religious affiliations, however, my belief is that festival dates are often chosen to reflect natural and agricultural cycles and while the gods associated with them may change, the natural world pays little heed and in the end, every new flower blooming, every bird returning, every crop ripening is worthy of celebration.

I’ll also offer a little trick for celebrating the four dates that make up the Gaelic cross-quarter days, May Day (Beltuinn), Halloween (Samhuinn), Lammas (Lughnasadh) and Candlemas (La Fheile Bride) – if the weather is unsuitable for the activities you had planned, do not despair because you actually have three chances to celebrate these days. The first is the modern Gregorian calendar day, the most widely known and celebrated. The second involves the astrological cross quarter days (Sun at 15° Taurus, Leo, Scorpio and Aquarius respectively – or by dividing the ecliptic into 45° arcs) – these are rooted in the seasons rather than a cultural calendar. Finally, we can use the Julian calendar which preceded the Gregorian and to which these festivals were originally assigned. For example, by these systems May Day falls on the 1st of May, the 5th-6th of May and finally May 14th, this year. Much in the same way you can celebrate the Winter Solstice on the shortest day and then enjoy Christmas with your family after, each of the cross-quarter days can be enjoyed as a small festive season of its own.

These are only a few of the many systems of magical and ritual timing available. Within astrology there are seemingly infinite methods for determining elections and tracking cycles. Furthermore, there are cultural systems from all over the world, equally worthy of study. However, I feel that embracing these systems should be a pleasure, rather than an added burden, deepening and enhancing our experience of passing time and the cycles of heaven and earth. Happy May Day, may you and your loved ones stay safe and well.

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