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You Call it the Autumn Equinox, We Call it Mabon
Article ID: 12061
Age Group: Adult
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Author: Peg Aloi [a WitchVox Sponsor]
Posted: September 16th. 2007
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You Call it the Autumn Equinox, We Call it Mabon
Spring scarce had greener fields to show than these
Of mid September; through the still warm noon
The rivulets ripple forth a gladder tune
Than ever in the summer; from the trees
Dusk-green, and murmuring inward melodies,
No leaf drops yet; only our evenings swoon
In pallid skies more suddenly, and the moon
Finds motionless white mists out on the leas.
Edward Dowden, In September
Do you remember the 21st night of September?
Love was changing the minds of pretenders
While chasing the clouds away
Our hearts were ringing
In the key that our souls were singing.
As we danced in the night,
Remember how the stars stole the night away
Earth, Wind and Fire, September (Lyrics by Maurice White, Charles Stemney and Verdine White)
Perhaps no season conjures greater feelings of nostalgia and yearning in the western imagination than the onset of autumn. Is it because most of us were raised to associate this time with the end of summer vacation and the beginning of the school year? Is it because the changing landscape is full of brilliant color and, conversely, signposts of decay? Is it the myriad smells in the air, of apples and pears, woodsmoke and fallen leaves, that connect us to ancient peoples through a vast network of racial memories? Do the lengthening shadows and shortening days remind us of the coming dormancy of winter?
The Autumnal Equinox marks the end of summer and the beginning of autumn. On this day, the sun rises exactly in the East, and sets exactly in the West.. It is also one of two days in the year when day and night are of equal duration (each twelve hours long), and this also occurs at the Vernal Equinox. The Latin roots of the word "equinox" mean "equal" and "night."
The calendar date of the equinoxes vary, usually between the 19th and 23rd of the month (tending towards later as we approach a leap year). The same is true of the solstices of summer and winter, and like the autumn equinox, these days also mark the beginning of a new astrological sign. In late September we enter Libra, the sign of balance, represented by the scales, and is ruled by the planet Venus, named for the Roman goddess of love, sex and beauty. Libra is a mutable air sign, and is associated with the personal qualities of communication, creativity, and eloquence. It is also associated with indecision, flightiness and fickleness. But above all, we associate Libra with balance, justice and a love of beauty.
The autumnal equinox is also referred to by neo-pagans as Mabon, a naming which is somewhat controversial. The name itself comes from Welsh mythology: Mabon is the son of the God Modron, and the equinox marks his birth. According to Ronald Hutton, it was Aidan Kelly, American author of the book Crafting the Art of Magic (a study of the origins of modern witchcraft and Gardnerian Wicca in particular) who first attributed this name to this festival (along with Samhain, Brigid, Beltane, Lughnasa, Litha, Ostara, and Yule. In a lecture given by Hutton at Harvard University in May 2007, entitled "Modern Pagan Festivals", the historian stated that most of these festival names have Celtic language derivations, and Kelly admitted some of them come from literary sources. Hutton also says the name and its mythological source is not really suitable for an autumn festival, which is closer to the story of Kore or Persephone in mythology. Welsh mythology also says this day was when the god of darkness, Goronwy, defeats the god of light, Llew, signaling the descent towards winter and shorter days. Kelly was apparently inspired by the Victorian tradition of using ancient myths to contextualize modern ritual inventions.
But apart from its dubious etymology, "Mabon" is the name many neopagans use to refer to this festival. Mabon's other names include Alban Elfed, Harvest Home, Cornucopia, the Feast of Avalon or others. The full moon associated with this month is often called the Harvest Moon, or sometimes the Wine Moon. First and foremost this is a festival of harvest. We also associate Lughnasa/Lammas with harvest, but August really marks the beginning of harvest in most areas. Late September marks the time when the harvest is mostly done, when the abundance of crops is brought in for the winter store and the seasonal labor in the fields is done.
"Harvest Home" is the traditional English name given to the time when all the produce has been brought in from the fields: truly a time for celebration in agricultural communities.
A common song found in church hymnals "Come you thankful people come, raise the song of Harvest Home") thanks God for the harvest, but neopagans have co-opted the song as a potent expression of thanks that can have wider meanings: Mother Earth, nature deities, gods or goddesses of grain or the fields (like Ceres, Demeter or Persephone), the orchards (Pomona, Avellenau) or of an important harvest in ages past, grapes and wine (Bacchus, Dionysus).
Another English song with a folksier feel also commemorates the day:
Come Roger and Nell,
Some Simpkin and Bell,
East lad with his lass hither come;
With singing and dancin,
And pleasure advancing,
To celebrate Harvest Home.
(An Old English Harvest Song)
Some neopagans who make homebrewed wine, mead or cider enjoy holding festive meals at his time to celebrate their latest vintage. There are also local agricultural festivals such as Cider Days that allow people to celebrate local orchard produce, or brewery diners held at brewpubs that pair special menu items with seasonal beers. We tend to forget that our ancestors did not necessarily drink alcoholic beverages only to get intoxicated, or for social occasions; cider, beer and wine were everyday drinks, drunk in moderation at nearly every meal. The "fruit of the vine" is the liquid expression of the work and care that goes into tending the crops that can produce such liquid enjoyment.
Hutton also says that September was known to Anglo-Saxon peoples as Haleg-Monath or "Holy Month" which might explain the Christian appropriation of the equinox to create a saint's day celebrated in the Northern Hebrides: Michaelmas. This "holy day" is dedicated to Saint Michael the Archangel and falls on September 29. As with other pagan festival days which later become Christianized, the dates usually coincide fairly closely but not exactly (for example, Christmas falls on the 25th of December and the solstice rarely falls later than the 23rd). Is this because it was considered unlikely that early pagans would be willing to completely forgo their feast days in favor of newly-invented church holidays? A best of both worlds approach? Maybe in the "old days" the pagans and the church-goers existed in greater harmony than we might expect. The festival was traditionally celebrated with a dinner of roast goose. But on Michaelmas Eve, the womenfolk of the house made a struan, a bannock or loaf made of all the varieties of grain grown on the farm, and served this with lamb, which would be eaten after a hymn was sung to Saint Michael.The meal's leftovers were given to the less fortunate in the village, after which everyone who was able-bodied would mount horses and form a procession and ride around the local burial ground.
One custom recorded by a number of historians and anthropologists (Mannhardt, Tylor and Frazer among them) had to do with the harvest of the last sheaf of corn. Workers in the field observed a strange ritualized game common to many parts of Great Britain. The sheaf was usually given a name associated with a witch, queen or old woman (negative or positive based on the area of origin); it was treated with fear and caution (or praise and honor) by the reapers, who threw scythes at it from a distance or blindfolded, and its falling from the stalk was greeted with cheers; and it was treated as a symbol of potency afterwards, plowed back onto the fields, made into a token to be placed in someone's home, fed to animals or given to an enemy (according to local custom). It is interesting that this event and specifically the ownership of the last sheaf was considered a liability or an asset from one region to the next. The custom's relationship to legends of vegetation gods, or animistic myths, or fertility cults, as explored in Frazer's popular work The Golden Bough has been disputed by many historians since, Hutton in particular. But the pervasiveness of these local customs is in any case clear proof of the importance of the grain harvest to our ancestors, and by observing harvest festivals today we can perhaps claim to form some kinship with that world that was so different from the one we live in today.
However you celebrate this festival, I urge you all to get outside and enjoy the sensual delights of late summer as it gives way to early autumn. Visit a local farm. It is important to support small farms as often as possible; farming is a dying way of life in this country and your health (not to mention your local economy) will benefit when you buy local and eat fresh. Farmer's markets are abundant this time of year; find one near you. Go apple picking. Support your local orchards! There is no substitute for fruit freshly picked from the tree; bring your children or make a day of it with friends. Have a harvest dinner made with fresh local vegetables or locally-raised poultry or meat. Make a pie or tart from apples or peaches. Buy wine or beer from a local winery or brewery. Remember your ancestors, who lived close by one another, who worked the fields together, who shared food and drink and fellowship together. Celebrate your own harvests: acknowledge your work, goals or other accomplishments.
I want to close with one of my favorite poems, evocative of this time of year, by passionate nature lover D. H. Lawrence.
Not every man has gentians in his house
in soft September, at slow, sad Michaelmas.
Bavarian gentians, big and dark, only dark
darkening the daytime, torch-like, with the smoking blueness of Pluto's gloom,
ribbed and torch-like, with their blaze of darkness spread blue
down flattening into points, flattened under the sweep of white day
torch-flower of the blue-smoking darkness, Pluto's dark-blue daze,
black lamps from the halls of Dis, burning dark blue,
giving off darkness, blue darkness, as Demeter's pale lamps give off light,
lead me then, lead the way.
Reach me a gentian, give me a torch!
let me guide myself with the blue, forked torch of this flower
down the darker and darker stairs, where blue is darkened on blueness
even where Persephone goes, just now, from the frosted September
to the sightless realm where darkness is awake upon the dark
and Persephone herself is but a voice
or a darkness invisible enfolded in the deeper dark
of the arms Plutonic, and pierced with the passion of dense gloom,
among the splendor of torches of darkness, shedding darkness on
the lost bride and her groom.
D. H. Lawrence, Bavarian Gentians
Blessings of harvest,
The "Quotes for Gardeners" websites maintained my Michael Garofalo
Lecture given by Ronald Hutton at the "Forging Folklore" conference at Harvard University, May 2007 www.religioustolerance.org/fall_equinox.htm
The Stations of the Sun: A History of the Ritual Year in Britain by Ronald Hutton (1996, Oxford University Press)
Location: Jamaica Plain, New York
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