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You Call it the Autumnal Equinox, We Call it Mabon

Author: Peg Aloi [a WitchVox Sponsor]
Posted: September 19th. 2004
Times Viewed: 20,732

"Goddess, bless our reaping,
Each ridge and plain and field,
Each sickle curved, shapely, hard,
Each ear and handful in the sheaf,
Each ear and handful in the sheaf."

From "The Reaping Blessing"
The Silver Bough by F. Marian McNeill

Well, we pagans certainly like to give fancy names to things. Our knives are "athames," our cups are "chalices," our grimoires are "Books of Shadows." To name our festivals, we draw upon cultures and languages rich in mythology. We call the autumnal equinox "Mabon" after the Welsh god Mabon ap Modron, which means literally "son of mother" or "son of mothers." Mabon appears in The Mabinogion tale Culhwch and Olwen. (Melanie Fire Salamander, a fine pagan author, writes about this in-depth in an article [Link]. Mabon is a minor warrior figure who acts as houndsman so the hero of the tale can hunt a notorious wild boar to fulfill his magical to-do list. Mabon is helpful because he has a way with animals, apparently...although having a way with wild boars is considerably different from having a way with dogs, cats, horses or even pigs. The pig's association with this time of year is with the upcoming time when livestock will be slaughtered and preserved (pork is usually salted or smoked) to provide enough food for the winter. The "Blood Moon" of October is so named for this reason. Even in the midst of agricultural abundance, the old names and associations with this festival are tinged with images of sacrifice.

Other European festivals of this include Michaelmas (September 29) and other lesser-known rites such as "The Streeking of the Plough," "The Maiden Feast, or Meal-and-Ale," "The Bere Barrel" (bere being a type of barley), and the "Kirn-Feast" or Corn Feast, also known as Harvest Home (more on this in a bit). Some very colorful descriptions of specific customs appear in F. Marian McNeill's study of Scottish folklore, The Silver Bough, Volume Two: A Calendar of Scottish National Festivals, Candlemas to Harvest Home.

Another name for this festival is from the Gaelic, Alban Elfed, or "Light of the Water." Water is, of course, the element associated with the West, with dusk and twilight, with autumn, with the realm of the emotions, with our ancestors, with death, with music and creative expression. I find that when we attune with the elements in their corresponding seasons the connection is particularly strong. Rising to greet the dawn in spring, a time when the soft colors of the landscape brighten as gradually as the sun over the eastern horizon, is especially compelling, and when we feel the wind blow through our hair and awaken our senses, we are inspired in the mercurial realm of the imagination, even as we inspire that air element into our lungs. Likewise, at autumn, if we stand near a body of water at twilight, watching as the sun goes down in the west and makes the water sparkle and reflect dusky colors (pink, purple, red, grey, deep blue), we are usually gripped by emotion, maybe melancholy, maybe joy. We think of the past. And that watery realm reminds us of the liquid truths of our bodies and psyches, our blood and tears, the way we must decide each day how to flow, how to swim. This rush of emotion and simultaneous desire to remain detached from it is a way of understanding the attitudes of our ancestors towards life's challenges; amidst pain and death, we must remain strong and capable. If we stagnate in anger or bitterness, we stop moving.

In western culture, the autumn is often seen as a time of new beginnings, even as we understand that the heat and light of summer are coming to an end. Summer's dying fall, some have called it: nature's greens grow less bright, the sun less brilliant, the days shorter. The changeable strangeness of the weather puts us in a liminal lull: cool misty mornings, hot sunny afternoons, chilly nights of frost and wind. The Equinox is an in-between time; the end of something, the beginning of something else, the cusp of change. The zodiac shifts from Libra, ruled by Venus, goddess of love, sex, beauty and relationships, to Scorpio, ruled by Mars and Pluto, planetary gods that rule death, insight and transformation. The Wheel of the Year that neo-pagans follow for our major holidays throughout the year is based on an agrarian calendar, the planting and harvest festivals of western Europe. Since most of us do not depend closely upon this agricultural cycle for our food and survival, the ways in which we pagans and witches interact with this information is to create metaphorical language and imagery in our rites and observations.

Spring? That's about planting. For farmers, they plant seeds at the proper time to insure fruitful harvest -- we use this same vaguely-biblical terminology when we talk about "planting" our desires and goals for the coming year. Fall? That's the harvest -- the time when we "reap" what we've "planted" and tended all this time, when we show our thanks for the blessings we've been given. Technically that's what the American holiday of Thanksgiving is about, although on the calendar it occurs slightly after most of the harvesting has been done. At Mabon, we acknowledge the riches of the harvest while the fields are still bringing forth produce. This lets us interact, if we choose, with the living Earth even as She is busy making our apples and cabbages and corn and beans and potatoes get fat and ready for the picking. Whether we go to the local farmer's market, go picking in a local orchard, or grow our own in a garden plot, the sensual connection with nature is strong at this time because the season of harvest is rich with color, fragrance and texture.

Many of us have strong memories and associations with fall that seem somewhat unrelated. We think about going "back to school" even years later when we have been doing the 9 to 5 thing for decades. The scent of apples or pumpkins can jettison us back to a day when we were twelve, walking to school with our friends in the bright blue and gold morning. Memory and scent are very closely-linked in the brain, and that is why we often have a sudden sense of deju-vu when we smell something that reminds us of a long-ago memory. We can be walking down the street minding our own business when suddenly the spicy, fennel-and-caraway odor of sweet Italian sausage cooking that wafts from an open window catapults us into our grandmother's kitchen when we were 9 years old. Food memories are especially associated with these epiphanies somehow, perhaps because when we were children the smell of cooking was associated with family and love and feeling taken care of and comfortable. Even if we did not like going to school, for most of us it was a large portion of our lives and there is a sense of routine and security that remains with us when we think of it. And so many of these "perfumes" of autumn, dried leaves and pine needles and grapes ripening on the vine and hot cider with cinnamon, can also conjure up images of the schoolroom, and remind us of those wonderful or at least unforgettable smells: the wood and graphite of freshly-sharpened pencils, the slightly-lemony/powdery scent of chalkdust (now it's all stinky dry-erase markers!), the pine forest smell of disinfectant, and the indescribable scents of new leather boots you coveted for months, or the steamy, sparkling air when the sun comes out after a sudden rainshower, or your best friend's brown-bag lunch which you know contains those awesome oatmeal cookies the other kids always want to trade something for.

Mike Nichols [Link], in his wonderful series of articles on the Wheel of the Year, calls this holiday "Harvest Home." This name is familiar to many as a hymn sung in church, celebrating the wonder of God's natural bounty. (Naturally, pagans have adapted the lyrics to change "God" to "Goddess.") In my experience, covens who celebrate Harvest Home do so a bit later than the autumnal equinox, usually in October, about halfway between Mabon and Samhain. After all, the end of the harvest ("harvest home" means all the fields have been reaped and the last produce is safely stored) is still a few weeks away. But Harvest Home can also refer to a ritual that takes the form of a modern mystery play in which a figure representing a "Harvest Lord" is ritually slain by a " Corn Maiden" -- the latter being a stand-in for Persephone. The original story is from the mysteries of Eleusis, but in modern times it was crafted into a very fine and haunting novel by Thomas Tryon, called simply Harvest Home. It's the story of an urban couple who relocate to a charming New England village where the inhabitants still "keep the old ways." They eventually become closely involved in the planting and harvesting festivals only to find out the customs retain the practice of human sacrifice: they chose a Harvest Lord every seven years who, at the end of his reign, is ritually slaughtered to propitiate the gods of the fields and bless the crops. In my own magical tradition, we perform a series of rituals known as The Book of the Provider which culminates in October with Harvest Home, and a number of prose excerpts from the novel occur in the ritual text, like the following, spoken by Widow Fortune (matriarch of the village) to city-dweller and relative newcomer Ned Constantine:

"Aye, She is a friend to man. Look at Her. Feel Her. Smell Her. She is there, has been, will be, till the end. She is the beginning and the end of Life. Who will deny Her? Who can deny Her? A man has to eat. Our food comes from the earth. And the Earth must be thanked.
Let us pay Her tribute. Let us beg Her strength and protection. Let us pray that She may bring forth Her strong plants, Her rich food, Her very life. How selfish we are. We give Her but a seed, a kernel, a dead thing. Yet see what She returns to us. Such bounty, such riches, such life! What mortal is there who cannot help but wonder at Her, love Her, fear Her?"

This quote certainly gets at what many archeologists and anthropologists speculate ancient peoples must have believed about nature: that even in providing abundant food, She could show capriciousness in bad weather, blighted crops, drought, famine, illness and a hundred other hardships. Why not perform rites to placate her? Why not place offerings of the best butter and grain beneath a tree? Why not copulate in the fields so that our human fertility and fecundity might somehow be entwined with the seeming endlessness of earth's growth? This is sympathetic magic. Why not sacrifice our fattest hog or finest calf and shed blood to show our willingness to please the fickle gods of nature? What harm could it do? We are taught to count our blessings in times of plenty because it is a superstitious was of insuring our times of want will be fewer and farther between. Seeking for meaning in the modern world, pagans re-enact symbolic rites of blessing and supplication and, yes, sacrifice, to forge a connection to our ancestors and to the natural world with whom they shared an intimate and often brutal relationship. We don't necessarily see the tangible results of our actions -- this is faith...or call it a mystery religion. We don't know why it works. But for us, it does.

"The autumn leaves are falling, falling fast
And gusty winds are driving them away
In stormy earnest, or in sportive play,
Until they find a sheltered nook at last
Where round the moldering heaps decay may cast
Her blighting arms to press them day by day
More closely to Her breast, and whispering say,
'All dead! Their fleeting hours of life are past.'
But are they dead? Their loveliness, 'tis true,
Their shape and lives are gone for aye; but look
How Mother Earth absorbs them to renew
Her energies, from which their life they drew.
Why call it Death to fall back whence they took
Their being? 'Changed, not dead,' says Nature's book."
Peg Aloi
Media Coordinator - The Witches' Voice
Monday, September 20th.. 2004
Email: [Staff Email]


Peg Aloi

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