Autumn Equinox – September 21
Also known as Mabon and Winter Finding. The continuing of Harvest. Now, as at Spring Equinox, the days and nights are equal once again. Gardens are in full bloom and heavy with nature’s bounty. There is a slight nip in the air already and preparations begin to prepare for the long cold months which are to come. It is a time of reflection. It is a good time for gathering plants and herbs in the woods and strengthening your knowledge of herbal lore. Mabon is also a wonderful holiday to celebrate food. It is the last festival before the New Year (Samhain), and traditionally people were thankful for the fruits of the year, and for the food the gods had blessed them with. Many pagans celebrate the passing of the year with great feasts: meats, breads, wine and mead are favorites. Fall leaves and corn make great altar decorations for this celebration. Leaves used for this can then dipped in paraffin, after they are dry they can be put in a decorative jar with a sigil of protection carved on some of the leaves. Colors associated with this celebration are brown, orange, gold, and red.
At the Equinox, some become aware that this time is not the balance, or rather the order, one usually sees in nature. Nature is not really balanced. But ordered. A cypress by the ocean grows windblown by ocean storm and wind, bowing towards the earth. That cypress is the usual balance or order of nature – stable, poised, in harmony. ALL of nature leans like the ocean-blown cypress towards the dark earth. But Fall Equinox is a balance of light and dark, night and day and therefore is truly an outlandish moment in time: equality, an equal balancing, an actual moment of balance.
Date – Fall Equinox
Other Names – Wine Harvest, Feast of Avalon, Alban Elved, Harvest Home
Colors – Orange, Russet, Maroon, Brown, Green, Yellow, Dark Red, Indigo
Deities – Wine Gods, Harvest Deities, Aging Deities, Mother Goddesses, Persephone, Thor
Incense – Benzoin, Myrrh, Sage
Stones – Carnelian, Lapis Lazuli, Sapphire, Yellow Agate
Foods – Corn and Wheat Products, Breads, Nuts, Vegetables, Apples, Roots, Carrots, Onions, Potatoes, Cider, Pomegranates
Flowers/Herbs – Acorns, Aster, Benzoin, Ferns, Grains, Honeysuckle, Marigold, Milkweed, Mums, Myrrh, Oak, Passionflower, Pine, Roses, Sage, Solomon’s Seal, Thistles, Vegetables
Symbols – Apple, Wine, Vine, Garland, Gourd, Cornucopia, Burial Cairns, Acorns, Pine Cones
Keywords – Balance of Light and Dark, Time of Rest after Labor, Completion of the Harvest, Thanksgiving, A Good Time for Meditations
Despite the bad publicity generated by Thomas Tryon’s novel, Harvest Home is the pleasantest of holidays. Admittedly, it does involve the concept of sacrifice, but one that is symbolic only. The sacrifice is that of the spirit of vegetation, John Barleycorn. Occurring 1/4 of the year after Midsummer, Harvest Home represents mid-autumn, autumn’s height. It is also the Autumnal Equinox, one of the quarter days of the year, a Lesser Sabbat and a Low Holiday in modern Witchcraft.
Technically, an equinox is an astronomical point and, due to the fact that the earth wobbles on its axis slightly (rather like a top that’s slowing down), the date may vary by a few days depending on the year. The autumnal equinox occurs when the sun crosses the equator on its apparent journey southward, and we experience a day and a night that are of equal duration. Up until Harvest Home, the hours of daylight have been greater than the hours from dusk to dawn. But from now on, the reverse holds true. Astrologers know this as the date on which the sun enters the sign of Libra, the Balance (an appropriate symbol of a balanced day and night).
However, since most European peasants were not accomplished at calculating the exact date of the equinox, they celebrated the event on a fixed calendar date, September 25th, a holiday the medieval Church Christianized under the name of ‘Michaelmas’, the feast of the Archangel Michael. (One wonders if, at some point, the R.C. Church contemplated assigning the four quarter days of the year to the four Archangels, just as they assigned the four cross-quarter days to the four gospel-writers. Further evidence for this may be seen in the fact that there was a brief flirtation with calling the Vernal Equinox ‘Gabrielmas’, ostensibly to commemorate the angel Gabriel’s announcement to Mary on Lady Day.) Again, it must be remembered that the Celts reckoned their days from sundown to sundown, so the September 25th festivities actually begin on the previous sundown (our September 24th).
Although our Pagan ancestors probably celebrated Harvest Home on September 25th, modern Witches and Pagans, with their desk-top computers for making finer calculations, seem to prefer the actual equinox point, beginning the celebration on its eve.
Mythically, this is the day of the year when the god of light is defeated by his twin and alter-ego, the god of darkness. It is the time of the year when night conquers day. And as a friend has recently shown in their seasonal reconstruction of the Welsh myth of Blodeuwedd, the Autumnal Equinox is the only day of the whole year when Llew (light) is vulnerable and it is possible to defeat him. Llew now stands on the balance (Libra/autumnal equinox), with one foot on the cauldron (Cancer/summer solstice) and his other foot on the goat (Capricorn/winter solstice). Thus he is betrayed by Blodeuwedd, the Virgin (Virgo) and transformed into an Eagle (Scorpio).
Two things are now likely to occur mythically, in rapid succession. Having defeated Llew, Goronwy (darkness) now takes over Llew’s functions, both as lover to Blodeuwedd, the Goddess, and as King of our own world. Although Goronwy, the Horned King, now sits on Llew’s throne and begins his rule immediately, his formal coronation will not be for another six weeks, occurring at Samhain (Halloween) or the beginning of Winter, when he becomes the Winter Lord, the Dark King, Lord of Misrule. Goronwy’s other function has more immediate results, however. He mates with the virgin goddess, and Blodeuwedd conceives, and will give birth — nine months later (at the Summer Solstice) — to Goronwy’s son, who is really another incarnation of himself, the Dark Child.
Llew’s sacrificial death at Harvest Home also identifies him with John Barleycorn, spirit of the fields. Thus, Llew represents not only the sun’s power, but also the sun’s life trapped and crystallized in the corn. Often this corn spirit was believed to reside most especially in the last sheaf or shock harvested, which was dressed in fine clothes, or woven into a wicker-like man-shaped form. This effigy was then cut and carried from the field, and usually burned, amidst much rejoicing. So one may see Blodeuwedd and Goronwy in a new guise, not as conspirators who murder their king, but as kindly farmers who harvest the crop which they had planted and so lovingly cared for. And yet, anyone who knows the old ballad of John Barleycorn knows that we have not heard the last of him.
Incidentally, this annual mock sacrifice of a large wicker-work figure (representing the vegetation spirit) may have been the origin of the misconception that Druids made human sacrifices. This charge was first made by Julius Caesar (who may not have had the most unbiased of motives), and has been re-stated many times since. However, as has often been pointed out, the only historians besides Caesar who make this accusation are those who have read Caesar. And in fact, upon reading Caesar’s ‘Gallic Wars’ closely, one discovers that Caesar never claims to have actually witnessed such a sacrifice. Nor does he claim to have talked to anyone else who did. In fact, there is not one single eyewitness account of a human sacrifice performed by Druids in all of history!
Nor is there any archeological evidence to support the charge. If, for example, human sacrifices had been performed at the same ritual sites year after year, there would be physical traces. Yet there is not a scrap. Nor is there any native tradition or history which lends support. In fact, insular tradition seems to point in the opposite direction. The Druid’s reverence for life was so strict that they refused to lift a sword to defend themselves when massacred by Roman soldiers on the Isle of Mona. Irish brehon laws forbade a Druid to touch a weapon, and any soul rash enough to unsheathe a sword in the presence of a Druid would be executed for such an outrage!
Jesse Weston, in her brilliant study of the Four Hallows of British myth, ‘From Ritual to Romance’, points out that British folk tradition is, however, full of MOCK sacrifices. In the case of the wicker-man, such figures were referred to in very personified terms, dressed in clothes, addressed by name, etc. In such a religious ritual drama, everybody played along.
In the medieval miracle-play tradition of the ‘Rise Up, Jock’ variety (performed by troupes of mummers at all the village fairs), a young harlequin-like king always underwent a mock sacrificial death. But invariably, the traditional cast of characters included a mysterious ‘Doctor’ who had learned many secrets while ‘travelling in foreign lands’. The Doctor reaches into his bag of tricks, plies some magical cure, and presto! The young king rises up hale and whole again, to the cheers of the crowd. As Weston so sensibly points out, if the young king were ACTUALLY killed, he couldn’t very well rise up again, which is the whole point of the ritual drama! It is an enactment of the death and resurrection of the vegetation spirit. And what better time to perform it than at the end of the harvest season?
In the rhythm of the year, Harvest Home marks a time of rest after hard work. The crops are gathered in, and winter is still a month and a half away! Although the nights are getting cooler, the days are still warm, and there is something magical in the sunlight, for it seems silvery and indirect. As we pursue our gentle hobbies of making corn dollies (those tiny vegetation spirits) and wheat weaving, our attention is suddenly arrested by the sound of baying from the skies (the ‘Hounds of Annwn’ passing?), as lines of geese cut silhouettes across a harvest moon. And we move closer to the hearth, the longer evening hours giving us time to catch up on our reading, munching on popcorn balls and caramel apples and sipping home-brewed mead or ale. What a wonderful time Harvest Home is! And how lucky we are to live in a part of the country where the season’s changes are so dramatic and majestic!
The following is from Llewellyn’s 2003 Witches’ Datebook, article by James Kambos
In September the rhythm of life begins to change. Vacations are over and school begins. We return to our regular schedules. Nature also changes. The hills surrounding the valley where I live start to lose their summer green and slowly take on the deep rich hues of a Persian carpet. As I work outdoors putting my garden to bed, I hear the haunting cry of wild geese flying overhead. Flying in a V formation, they glide across the blue September sky, migrating southward to warmer climates, just as they have done for ages. At the country markets, apples, pumpkins, squash, and Indian corn make brilliantly colored displays, tumbling from barrels and crates. Soon they’ll be used as seasonal decorations or in favorite recipes.
As the dreamy days and nights of September – the Harvest Moon – drift by, we arrive at the Fall Equinox, which occurs somewhere between September 21 and 23. This is also known as the Pagan holiday of Mabon, a time of balance and change. On this day, the hours of light and dark are about equal. The female and male forces are equal also. This is the day when the Sun enters the sign of Libra, symbolized by the scales, which echoes Mabon’s theme of balance and equality.
The Legend of Mabon
Mabon is the second of the three harvest sabbats and the first dark sabbat. According to Celtic and Welsh lore, Mabon (which means “Great Son”) was the son of the Mother Goddess. As an infant, he was abducted and imprisoned. Later, he was freed and returned to his Great Mother as the Young God, a youth in his prime. His story is appropriate for this time of year, for as Mabon disappears into the darkness and later returns, nature, too, begins to enter the darkness which now overshadows the light, until Ostara, the Spring Equinox, arrives, and the light again gains control.
The meaning of Mabon
Mabon is perhaps the most unique and mysterious of all the sabbats because it celebrates the dual nature of life and death. At Mabon, the past and future are united. Yes, we mourn the passing of the Great Son as he returns to Mother Earth; however, he doesn’t enter the darkness of complete death. It is the darkness of rest, regeneration, and eventual rebirth, which will occur at Yule when he returns to us as the newborn Sun God.
At Mabon, we say farewell to summer and light, and enter the dark season, a time when the spirit can be nurtured and personal growth may begin.
As the Great Son ages he becomes wise. Now he is regarded as the lord of the shadows, and we are drawn to him because he is the keeper of the mysteries. In some traditions he is the Huntsman, the rider of the storm. The sky is his domain as he leads the Wild Hunt. He and the spirit riders who follow him come from the shadows of the Otherworld on windy moonlit autumn nights and move across the sky. With them ride the spirits of those whose life cycle has just ended. But the Huntsman is not to be feared, because he offers peace and renewal. his love is unconditional.
One of the key messages of Mabon is sharing. The Mother Goddess has not only shared her son with us, but she also shares with is the bounty of the harvest. The Lord and Lady give us so much and ask for little in return. The least we can do is give thanks for the abundance they have provided for us, to sustain us during the lean months ahead.
Harvest celebrations such as Mabon are rooted deep in antiquity. Probably people of the ancient Middle East noticed that where one plant grew, more plants would grow the next season. They realized that if they saved seeds from the wild grains, and returned them to the soil, new plants would emerge. This formed the basis of all agriculture. The human race became a partner with nature, instead of only taking from it. After these early farmers learned that the harvest was a critical life-sustaining activity, the nature spirits that they turned to for help in protecting the harvest eventually became the harvest deities we honor today. The ancients were aware that seeds contained the mysteries of life and death and the eternal cycle of nature. And here, we have the essence of Mabon.
Magic for Mabon
Many types of magic may be performed during Mabon. Since we are entering the dark half of the year, now is the time to use magic for personal growth. Here are some ideas.
Meditation and dream work are very potent at this time. You can use dreams to uncover past lives.
Honor your ancestors and if you wish, using your spiritual path, you may contact them.
In some traditions Mabon was believed to have been held captive in the mystical land of Avalon, also called “Land of Apples.” For this reason, Avalon was known as a place of reincarnation and magic. Charms and spells involving apples would tie in nicely with this day. Or, use an apple to symbolize a departed loved one during a special ceremony.
I have found Mabon to be an ideal time to cleanse magical tools. I like to smudge them in the smoke of sage and cedar.
Getting rid of bad habits is a classic Mabon ritual, and the following spell might help. Using blue ink, write the habit you wish to break on plain white paper. Think about what you have written, then crumple the paper as if you are angry. Burn the paper and say: “Fire fleet and candlelight, let this habit take flight! Smoke, curl, white and gray, let this habit go away!” As the smoke rises, see your habit drifting away with it.
Here are a few ideas to get you in touch with the spirit of Mabon:
Decorate your home and altar. Include pumpkins, corn, gourds, and apples. For flowers, use rust or burgundy mums. Bittersweet is also a wonderful accent.
Go on nature walks and collect natural decorations such as seed pods and pine cones. Use them til Yule.
To honor the concept of reincarnation, now is the time to plant spring-flowering bulbs if you can. Look in wonder at each bulb as you plant; every bulb contains the secret of life in death and the cycle of the seasons.
Share yourself by visiting the elderly, or those you don’t see often enough.
Donate winter clothing to charities and share the bounty of your garden.
Create quality time for yourself. This is the season to recharge your own spirit as well as the spirit of others. Take time to discover a new hobby, learn a new skill, attend that exercise class you’ve been thinking about, or read all those books you’ve been saving.
Care for the wild things who’ll share your space this winter – do your pets have a warm place to sleep in your home away from drafts? Buy corn for the squirrels. On Mabon Eve I enjoy filling all the bird feeders on my property.
Above all, give thanks. Thank you home, your garden, and those who help you achieve your goals.
Foods for Mabon
No matter if you call this holiday Mabon, Harvest Home, or the Festival of the Vine, food is a major focus of this sabbat.
Your celebration should try to include such foods as apples, pumpkins, corn, grapes, nuts, and beans. If you aren’t a vegetarian, red meats are also good. Bake a spicy pumpkin cake or bread to honor the Goddess. Drink wine, grape juice, or cider to honor the God.
Since sharing is a part of Mabon, consider checking with your local food bank to see what foods they may need, and make a donation. Their needs are more critical as winter nears.
As you prepare a Mabon feast, savor the flavor and sight of the food. Decorate the table with deep orange and burgundy candles. Gather family and friends. As you enjoy the food and company tell stories of loved ones who have passed into the otherworld. Toast their memories and the old ways. Toast the wisdom of Mabon. Let the meaning of this powerful day remain with you as you journey around the wheel of the year. May your home and hearth be blessed.
The following is also from Llewellyn’s 2003 Witches’ Datebook, article by Magenta Griffith
Mabon is the time of harvest, so this is a very good time for a feast. This also would be a good time to share your feast with family and friends who do not follow your traditions, since everyone enjoys good food and talking about memories. Ask each person to bring a dish and a story to go with it.
The story could be the way your friend’s grandmother taught her to make this food. It could be an origin story about the chief ingredient – there are plenty of stories about corn, for example, that could be told to accompany cornbread. Maybe this is an old family recipe and you can tell about the first time you tasted it.
Have everyone sit around one table. Start by grasping the hand of the person on your left and say “Hand to hand, the circle is cast.” The next person takes the hand of the person on his left in turn. When the circle is complete, everyone says “The circle is case, may it hold fast.” Bless the food, then serve, and take turns telling the stories while you eat. When you are done eating, thank everyone who has contributed stories and food, and thank the Earth Mother again for her bounty.