Mabon: Exploring the Autumnal Equinox

Or, What is Mabon and How is it Celebrated?

Weathered planks mark a swampy portion of the “Redwing Trail” at the Binghamton University nature preserve.

As we traverse the Wheel of the Year, those of us in the Northern Hemisphere now find ourselves at the cusp of the Autumnal Equinox.  Known variously as Mabon, Harvesttide, Harvest HomeFeast of the Ingathering, Meán Fómhair, and Alban Elfed [6], many Neo-Pagan traditions celebrate this as the turning point between the “light” and “dark” halves of the year.  As the equinox passes, the dark part of each day will be longer than the light part, and many of us will begin the work leading into our final harvest festival around the secular Halloween.  Like its springtime counterpart, the history of Mabon is little understood by much of the Neo-Pagan community.  But while an argument can be made for Ostara’s place in historical Pagan practice, Mabon as we know it is a modern invention with roots dating back to the early 1970s.

Historical Inspiration and Modern Creation

The Autumnal Equinox was not one of the four major feasts of ancient Celtic tradition [2][3], those being the great fire festivals of Samhain, Imbolc, Beltaine, and Lúghnasadh. While the Equinox itself was not honored, there is evidence that some communities would hold an observance between Lúghnasadh and Samhain to celebrate the end of the grain harvest. Some of these celebrations would serve as a conclusion to the ritual themes begun at Lúghnasadh [1], much in the style and spirit of the English “harvest home” celebration [2]. Like its English counterpart [4], these communities would ritualistically cut the last stalk of grain and preserve it as a means of ensuring the land’s continued fertility. The stalk would sometimes be fashioned into the form of an animal or a woman. The reaper who had cut it would then be charged with safekeeping this “corn dolly” for the coming year, during which time he could expect to receive special favors from the Otherworld. At the end of the next year’s harvest, the dolly would then be ritualistically burned [1].

But nonetheless, there is little evidence that any Indo-European or classical Pagan religion formally observed the Autumnal Equinox outside of the Greek cult of Demeter and Persephone, which would at this time hold the Greater Eleusinian Mysteries [5]. Even during the early years of the Neo-Pagan movement, little if any attention was paid to the equinoxes. When writing on her theory of the “Witch Cult” in Europe, Margaret Murray claimed that their festivals were held on the solstices and the four quarter days. And in Gerald Gardiner’s earliest works on Wicca, only the solstices and quarter days were celebrated. It was not until the early 1970s and the work of Aidan Kelly that the equinoxes were developed into the Neo-Pagan Wheel of the Year. According to Ronald Hutton [5], Kelly constructed a ritual based on the story of Persephone and her return to the Underworld.  He then chose to name the holiday “Mabon” after the character from the Mabinogion, whom he saw as a Celtic male parallel for the Greek Persephone, both being young fertility Deities rescued from the Underworld.

Personal Opinions on Mabon

I must admit that I often overlook this High Day, and find that it has very little resonance with me. I can comprehend the symbolism of the Autumnal Equinox as the “turning point” at which we enter into the dark half of the year. I can also wax poetic about how the dark half of the year is a time for introspection and self-care. However, I personally don’t view the dark half of the year as having officially started until the two or three weeks before Samhain, and in the same manner don’t view the light half of the year as really kicking in until around Beltaine. Why this is, I don’t know… perhaps its still too warm out, perhaps the leaves haven’t quite changed color enough for my tastes. But for me, there is a certain “fall” quality to fall that doesn’t seem to kick in until the first weeks of October here in the American Northeast. By the time Samhain rolls around, it feels like we’re well into the dark half, but I just don’t get that same feeling at the Equinox (which is well enough, as we aren’t well into the dark half… its only just begun).

As my local ADF grove keeps a Gaelic hearth practice, treat the four Quarter Days as more “general purpose” holidays than we do the four Gaelic High Days.  As it is unclear whether they were observed by the historical Gaels, we feel that we have some flexibility on the content and subject of the Quarter Day rituals. For instance, we celebrated Midsummer 2015 with a Vedic ritual, and used the following Autumnal Equinox as a chance to craft a ritual specifically to honor the Earth Mother. I am supportive of this decision, not the least because I keep a (mostly) Gaelic hearth. It allows for the grove to use Gaelic Hearth-inspired rituals and themes for the Gaelic High Days (which are the ones that are super-important to me and probably also to the grove’s Patron Dieties), while keeping the remaining four High Days open to spiritual exploration and experimentation.  I feel that such a scheme strikes a nice balance, ensuring that the grove honors its commitment to its hearth culture and Patrons, while still giving it room to support and showcase the spiritual development of its membership.

Footnotes

1. Kondratiev, Alexei. The Apple Branch: A Path to Celtic Ritual. New York: Citadel Press, 2003. 209-19.
2. Ellison, Robert Lee. The Wheel Of the Year At Muin Mound Grove, ADF: A Cycle of Druid Rituals. 6th ed. East Syracuse: Dragon’s Keep Publishing, 2013. 143-4.
3. Powell, Thomas George Eyre. The Celts: Ancient Peoples and Places. Rev. ed. New York: Frederick A. Praeger, 1958. 116-21.
4. “Harvest Home”. Encyclopædia Britannica. Encyclopædia Britannica Online. Encyclopædia Britannica Inc., 2015. Web. 19 Sep. 2015.
5. Hutton, Ronald. “Modern Pagan Festivals: A Study in the Nature of Tradition”. Folklore. 119:3 (208): 251-273. DOI: 10.1080/00155870802352178.

6. Wikipedia contributors. “Wheel of the Year.” Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, 4 Sep. 2016. Web. 14 Sep. 2016.

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