Review: Farrars, Eight Sabbats for Witches

Farrar, Janet, and Stewart Farrar. Eight Sabbats for Witches: and rites for birth, marriage and death. Phoenix, 1981. Hardback, 192 pages.

This classic of Alexandrian Witchcraft deserves its place as a classic. Thirty years after its publication, it is a work that belongs on the bookshelf of every coven and ought to be read, or at least skimmed, by anyone who wants to be connected to the roots of Wicca. Combined with The Witches’ Way, it is reprinted in The Witches’ Bible. Witches and Wiccans can argue about the appropriateness of that title, but the material remains a seminal and still relevant pillar of contemporary Wicca.

Janet and Stewart Farrar were taught and initiated by Alex Sanders, who derived his material from Gerald Gardner, probably in a less-than-wholly-ethical manner. Regardless, the Alexandrian tradition is one of the earliest offshoots of Gardnerian Wicca, and the Farrars were early students of Sanders’. After they started writing and publishing, they got in touch with Doreen Valiente, renowned poet who worked with Gardner to create not only “The Charge of the Goddess” but in fact the majority of Gardner’s finished rituals. Part of what makes the Farrars’ work priceless is the way they were near the original sources of contemporary Wicca, but also distant enough to be able to cast a critical eye over material, including Gardner’s Book of Shadows. They explicitly state that they do not want to impose their forms on anyone, but that Gardner’s material is “very sketchy indeed” when it comes to ways to celebrate the eight Sabbats. (15) In this work, the Farrars provide their own material as they have developed and refined it in coven practice in order to enrich any and all practices of Wicca, probably much as Doreen Valiente saw her published works.

The Farrars were living in Ireland at the time they wrote this, and as a result they use the Irish Gaelic names for Sabbats and draw on Irish lore explicitly. This isn’t a generic “Celtic” tradition, and it’s not attempting to be an ancient revival. It’s what the Farrars came up with, drawing on Irish lore as it was being retold in the 1970s. Like all such amateur anthropology, the accounts are slightly dubious, but they’re certainly more authentically Irish (and Celtic) than much that has been drawn on since. Moreover, the Farrars are interested in describing the sources for their material. Where they rely on individual accounts, they say so; when they use a bit of folklore in common usage at the time, they say so. They identify the sources of poetry, even describing how parts of the opening ritual from Gardner is derived from Mather’s The Key of Solomon. They are not trying to deconstruct Gardner; they describe the adaptation by saying, “like most of Gardner’s borrowings, they suit their purpose admirably.” (fn 1, p37) Rather, they provide sources in an attempt at transparency, letting the reader judge for herself whether the adaptation is appropriate or not.

Although this book is seldom referenced explicitly today, it may have started the trend of seeing the Sabbats as a “framework” common to all Wicca, regardless of lineage or tradition. (13) To bring this framework together, the Farrars created a coherent myth out of the ideas implied but not worked out in the Gardnerian Book of Shadows. To this end, they present the dual deities of Wicca as a consort pair; they study and incorporate the ideas of the sun’s cycles and the distinct but closely related vegetation god who appears as the Holly and the Oak; and they describe the Goddess’ aspects and their interaction with the nature of the God throughout the cycle of the year. The God, in two persons, experiences a sacrificial mating and rebirth at the beginning and end of summer. The Goddess “does not undergo the experiences so much as preside over them.” (25, emphasis in the original) These fundamental ideas of Wicca are nowhere explained in the Gardnerian Book of Shadows; Witches who would understand the Wheel of the Year have to return to its first full explication in this work.

The title is appropriate; the book is not so much on the idea of the Wheel of the Year as it is a collection of ritual scripts for the eight Sabbats, plus necessary material to make sense of the Wheel, and the basics of Gardnerian ritual. The Farrars start their year at Imbolg (as they spell it), and each chapter has a section on relevant history and mythology; practical advice for the ritual that follows, including how to obtain or make necessary props, and details of staging; then a script of the ritual; and suggestions for games after. Oh, yes, the Farrars include games – as they write, “every Sabbat should develop into a party.” (21) Their rituals are formal, in the Gardnerian/Alexandrian style, and full of poetry and ideas that everyone will find useful, even those working in the most informal way possible.

In fact, this book also includes some trenchant observations on the conduct of ritual and the magic of the Sabbats that many more recent works are entirely lacking. The Alexandrian ritual always includes Drawing Down the Moon, and often includes the Great Rite. The Farrars’ discussion of these practices is insightful, especially the way they emphasize the importance of privacy to the Great Rite. Any Witch wanting to learn more about either the mystical meaning or the nitty gritty of performing these rituals could search a whole shelf full of more recent books without coming up with half the information provided here. As an example from the Sabbats where the Holly King slays the Oak King, or vice versa, they point out that they are “careful to include in each ritual the formal release of the actor of the slain King…and also an explanation of what happens to the spirit of the slain King during his coming half-year of eclipse.” (27) This differentiation between the actor and the role is the height of practicality in magic and ritual design. Similarly, as they point out, not enacting a closing to mirror the opening of ritual is “bad manners…bad magic…and bad psychology.” (55)

In the additional material, they also include rituals for Wiccaning, or baby blessing, Handfasting, or marriage, and a Requiem, or ritual for those who have died. They carry through their attention to detail in these areas, noting that the Wiccaning is not a commitment made on behalf of the child, as it is in many christening ceremonies, but rather a request for blessing as the child grows and finds his own way to relate to the divine. The Handfasting includes material adapted from Dion Fortune’s ever-popular novels, and the Requiem includes an enaction of the myth of the Descent of the Goddess, one of the most appropriate uses of that myth that I have ever seen.

In short, although some of the material may seem dated, and it might very well be borrowed from a library or belong to the coven’s library rather than bought by every Witch, this is a treasure trove of material for anyone who wants to write rituals, run a coven, or develop her own understanding of the Sabbats. It is a product of its time, but one with enough quality material and adaptability to have gained a slightly timeless relevance that makes it much more applicable to contemporary practice than the average reader might suspect.

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About Literata

Literata is a Wiccan priestess and writer. She edited Crossing the River: An Anthology in Honor of Sacred Journeys, and her poetry, rituals, and nonfiction have appeared in works such as Mandragora, Unto Herself, and Anointed as well as multiple periodicals. Literata has presented rituals and workshops at Sacred Space conference, Fertile Ground Gathering, and other mid-Atlantic venues. Literata offers healing and divination services as well as customized life-cycle rituals. She is currently completing her doctoral dissertation in history with the support of her husband and four cats.
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