Full Moon Magic: What is an Esbat in Wicca?

by JoHarrington

There are thirteen Esbats in the Wiccan Wheel of the Year. It's the night of the full moon. There are twelve Esbats in any Western calendar. They're all moon-ths or months.

The moon plays an important role in the Wiccan religion; not least because its phases symbolize the Triple Goddess.

All rituals and rites in Wicca involve the ebb and flow of energy in the natural world. It may be the sudden rush of a circle, or the gradual turning of the seasons. Yet all will be looking up and watching the monthly cycle.

An Esbat occurs when the moon is full, and those tides of energy are at their zenith.

A Year of Ritual: Sabbats & Esbats for Solitaries and Covens by Sandra Kynes

What is an Esbat?

It is a monthly meeting of Wiccans, or solitary communion with the Goddess, which happens at each full moon.

Image:  Full Moon'Whenever ye have need of any thing, once in the month, and better it be when the Moon is full, then shall ye assemble in some secret place and adore the spirit of me, Who am Queen of all Witcheries.'

That is the opening line to The Charge of the Goddess, one of the most important texts in modern Wicca.  The bolding is my own to highlight the importance of timing in Wiccan ritual.  The Charge is about an Esbat.

In its most practical sense, the full moon was a good time for historical Pagans to meet up; particularly when they were being persecuted by practitioners of more dominant religions.

By slipping out at night, they reduced the risk of being missed. By doing so under a bright moon, they could see where they were going; and they could complete their rituals with some kind of illumination.  Let your night vision adjust and you can almost see as well as in daylight.

But there is also a very strong religious element too.  The full moon denotes a period when the energy levels are high.  It's the perfect time to do ritual magic; and to affirm personal pledges.  Walking out in the bright stillness of a full moon night is wonderful for meditation and reflection.  Things look much clearer afterwards.

Let's not forget that the full moon is also symbolic of the Mother Goddess in Wicca.  It can, and often does, feel like a night when we come face to face with the Pagan divine.

Drawing Down the Moon

This aspect of the Wiccan Esbat can be seen most clearly in one element of ritual. 

Drawing down the Moon invites the Mother Goddess Herself to join the circle. The High Priestess remains ready to take on this role, as a representative, alongside a bowl of water reflecting the full moon itself.

In fact, Doreen Valiente wrote The Charge of the Goddess specifically for this element of Esbat ritual. It was to calm nervous ladies standing there, with a dozen Pagans waiting for her to suddenly become the Goddess.

And THIS is why Doreen is often referred to as the Mother of Modern Wicca. I, for one, have been very grateful for her foresight here over the years!

Drawing down the Moon harnesses that potent moon energy into the circle, so that practitioners within it can use it as spiritual fuel.

A Year of Esbats by Shannon Reilly

The Esbat in Context

No moon rite is an island entire of itself. It has to be a part of the monthly cycle, albeit a key piece of it.

Image:  Full Moon RisingNothing can be taken in isolation, not least an Esbat.  It's not enough to meander on down to a circle rite, when the calendar tells you that the moon is full.

If the calendar had to tell you, then you've totally missed the point.

Energy builds.  A full moon follows a waxing moon.  An explosion follows the pressure of energy unable to easily escape.  An examination follows a period of learning and revision.  Giving birth follows nine months of pregnancy; and so forth.

To speak of an Esbat as the be all and end all is to negate anything that built up to it.  It's attempting to give birth without ever being pregnant.

But even then, it's not over.  A waning moon follows a full moon.  Debris and destruction follows an explosion.  Qualifications to apply your expertise follow an examination.  Parenting follows from being in labor; and so on.

The lessons and accomplishments of the Esbat have to be carried forward. It might be into a time of action or reflection, but there is no full stop drawn at the close of ritual.  What you take from one informs how you approach the next. 

In short, the Esbat is the high point of a monthly cycle; but part of the cycle nonetheless.

Supplies for a Wiccan Altar at Esbat

The Goddess is in Her full moon aspect, as the Mother. The spell kit comes with a ritual written down. I'd advocate writing your own.

How Should You Approach an Esbat as a Wiccan?

It's not all about the High Priestess, you know. She's not even the main medium! That full moon energy is better channeled through you.

Image: Full Moon WaterWicca is not a passive religion.  If you prefer to have somebody preach a sermon and tell you how to think, then it's certainly not the religion for you.

I have genuinely had people in the past come to me with concern about the Esbat.  They had stood in the circle and gone through the motions.  They had watched me Draw Down the Moon.  But then what?

I was the High Priestess, but I didn't tell them what to do.  I was the representative of the Goddess, but I didn't direct them in a round of thou shalt and thou shalt nots.

It was about this time that I realized that I'd failed in my duties as High Priestess.  Not because I hadn't transformed into anything more divine than usual, but because they had entered the circle unable to grasp what it was all about.  Oops.

That was one Esbat circle when I really would have been better to have recited that old stand-by, The Charge of the Goddess.  Doreen explained the entire Wiccan faith and practice so brilliantly there, that my confused wards would have been in no doubt as to what was going on.

The role of the High Priestess, in Drawing Down the Moon, is akin to that of a lightning rod.  The energy is up there and potent.  We just need to direct it into our circles.  What we do next is precisely the same dilemma posed by house-holders, whose home has just been hooked up to the mains.

The answer - whatever you want!  Whatever you have to plug into it, go, go, go!  Obviously within reason and subject to certain health and safety lores, like Do As Thou Wilt An It Harm None.

So how should you approach an Esbat?  Whether in a coven or as a solitary, the answer is the same. You bring to the ritual all that you've been working towards.  You use that moment of high energy to infuse your project with purpose, or to ask the big question and seek clarity within your own mind.

No High Priestess is going to do that for you; nor a High Priest either.  And certainly not the Mother Goddess!

Books about Moon Magic and Witchcraft

Read these guides to discover the truth about moon magic within Wicca. It's probably not what you learned about from the movie theaters.

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Many initiates come seeking a world of witchcraft and spells. The reality of the Wiccan religion may not be the right path for all.
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Updated: 04/30/2014, JoHarrington
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JoHarrington on 02/17/2014

Ok, leave this one with me. I'll dig through my Wiccan history books and see if I can find any interesting references for you. If you have any further (personal) information regarding her, please let me know. Privately, if it's not for public consumption. I've certainly got the resources for this!

frankbeswick on 02/17/2014

It is this side of the family where my knowledge is limited. I do know that she was baptized a Catholic, but as a toddler her mum died and her father remarried to a wise woman, who introduced her to the craft, so I think that we are dealing with traditional English paganism here, though it seems to be folk witchcraft rather than the more conceptual Wiccan faith.Her maiden name was Shorrocks, which is old south Lancashire, which confirms that she was not pure Irish. In fact, my grandfather [her son] did not think of himself as having any Irish at all.

I do know that she had a great knowledge of herbs. Once when my mother's brother took ill when visiting her, she went out for some ingredients, mixed them into a potion and administered it. Within half an hour the child passed a bladder stone!

JoHarrington on 02/17/2014

But not Protestant? In that case, it's looking a lot more likely that she may have considered herself Pagan.

frankbeswick on 02/17/2014

She said to Mum"We are a northern Irish family," but that side of the family had no allegiance to Catholicism; and she did not like it when her son married an Irish Catholic.

JoHarrington on 02/17/2014

Was she Irish? She might well have been called an Aisling, a cailleach feasa, or carline. Or a charmer, or a cunning woman, or simply a wise woman.

I'd call her a witch, but probably only privately. What she was doing certainly sounds like witchcraft to me. But such words could have led to imprisonment during that time.

frankbeswick on 02/17/2014

Question for you,Jo. My great-grandmother was a wise woman, dealing in spells and herbal remedies among the poor of East Manchester in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. She was initiated by her step mother, so there is some indication of an ongoing tradition here. Would you call her a witch?

JoHarrington on 02/16/2014

The word or the activity? The word can only be dated back to the early 20th century, in the context in which it's used. It's much more problematic to date the activity. Witches gathering in moonlight has been referenced for centuries, though separating the reality from the conjecture is an on-going issue.

frankbeswick on 02/16/2014

How far back in time does the Esbat go?

JoHarrington on 11/12/2012

I'm glad that you think so. Thank you for reading it.

Kate on 11/12/2012

A really clear guide which dispels some myths

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