Reflections on the Autumn Equinox

I love Autumn, it’s my favorite season, but it’s far too early to reflect on falling leaves, pumpkin patches, and mulled cider. Late September also lacks the riot of color that often occurs in mid-October, but it posses a dignity and beauty all its own in its golden wheat fields and ocean blue skies. The Equinox is the first chapter of Fall, not the middle of the book.

Despite just being the prologue, The Autumnal Equinox remains one of my favorite sabbats. I’ll put it right up there next to Beltane, Samhain, and Yule. A lot of sabbats feel rather inter-changeable. I’ve written Ostara rituals that with only a few tweaks could easily be turned into effective Beltane rites, the same with Midsummer and Lughnassa. On the surface I should be able to do the same thing with the Fall Equinox and Samhain, they are both harvest festivals after all, but to me they’ve become quite distinct holidays.

Samhain’s harvest associations remain obviously, but they are often over-shadowed by the closeness of the “veil between the worlds.” It’s almost impossible to remove Samhain from the context of ancestors and relatives who have passed on. That’s not a complaint, I love the feeling of reunion I get at Samahin with lost loved ones, but that’s become such a large part of the sabbat that almost everything else about it gets lost. I love a good harvest ritual, which is why this is one of my favorite times of the year.

One thing I truly appreciate about this particular sabbat is that it’s not a “made up” holiday. Many holidays have rather dubious origins, but September celebrations are legitimately old. Bede, writing in the early 700′s CE, mentions September as an Anglo-Saxon holy month when the harvest was celebrated. By the late 1500′s the English countryside celebrated the harvest with Harvest Home, a time for feasting, celebration and games. While it’s nearly impossible to prove that Renaissance-era customs date back to pagan antiquity in an unbroken chain, many of the ways Harvest Home was celebrated “feel Pagan,” which is more than enough to make them so in my mind.

Harvest Kings and Queens were popular in many areas, often times the “royalty” getting to act as supervisors for the gathering and gleaning respectively. Not surprisingly, feasting often ended a long day of toil in the fields. Customs honoring the last sheaf of grain to be gathered were common. Sometimes the last of the harvest was seen as a positive talisman, and depending on the location, it could also be looked at with a degree of foreboding. The last bit of crop left standing in the field was often harvested from a distance with men throwing sickles to bring it down. Generally it was all just good-hearted fun, but some folklorists have attributed this custom to fear, that no one wanted to be the last man to cut down the crop.

Ever done a ritual in a field full of grain? You should.

Parades lead by someone carrying that last bit of grain to be harvested were popular, as were parades featuring corn dollies made from those final sheaves. It’s impossible to know exactly what the corn dollies symbolized to various communities. They were often given names and titles, with “Crone” being particularly popular. Some of them were given seats of honor during the feasting. It’s easy to see a goddess in those dollies, though it’s impossible to know if such customs truly come from an ancient paganism or are simply seasonal rites that feel Pagan today. Regardless, they do illustrate a close relationship with the Earth, which I’ll always feel comfortable celebrating.

You might have noticed that I have refrained from using the term “Mabon” in these first 650 words, and that was a challenge. Mabon was originally the name of a Welsh god (or hero) and was only attached to the Fall Equinox back in 1970 by (our own) Aiden Kelly. There are many in the Pagan Community who dislike the term Mabon as it’s not authentic, but I still find myself oddly attached to it. Mabon literally translates as “Son of the Mother,” which does seem like a strange thing to name a holiday after, but the word Mabon seems firmly wedded to the Autumnal Equinox forty years in.

To me, Mabon sounds like the name of a fall holiday. There’s a dignity and somberness to the name that feels appropriate to the time of year. I’m usually a stickler for historial accuracy, but Mabon as a name for the Fall Equinox has superseded Mabon the mythological Welsh figure. When someone says Mabon to me, I think of a sabbat in the fall usually spent drinking hard cider, praising the Lord and Lady of the grain, watching a little college football and enjoying the presence of others. Words evolve, words change, and while Mabon may not mean “harvest celebration” I doubt the Welsh god of the same name is bothered by the association.

I lived in a college town long past the time I was in college and the rhythms of Michigan State University played a large role in my Pagan practice. September was never the beginning of the end, in a lot of ways it was always the “beginning of the beginning.” I was involved with the college student group for ages (later as an advisor), and September was when we kicked off a new year of rituals, activities, parties, and everything else. Since it was the start of the school semester, Mabon was often our biggest sabbat of the year. Giant potluck dinners, a big party atmosphere, and often a great scavenger hunt type ritual taking place over two square city miles, it was always about as perfect of a six hours as could ever be hoped for. Those were great times, and have contributed to the rose colored glasses I view Mabon through.

Mabon’s lack of association with anything beyond the harvest and equinox has allowed it to become the amazing, laid-back Pagan Thanksgiving it was meant to be. Post-Samhain Ritual I tend to be far too drained to do anything other than melt into a chair, and my dinner beforehand is usually eaten in silence, sometimes in the dark. There’s a lightness to Mabon, and a lack of expectation that opens up possibilities. I like ritual to be serious and have some meaning, but not every ritual has to hit you over the head with what it’s trying to say. Harvest Home* is summed up in its name; post-summer everyone has returned from their various journeys and it’s time to celebrate another year of the Earth’s abundance. We’re home and it’s harvest time.

They aren’t here yet, but they will be soon . . . .

Yes, for many of us, the nights grow colder and the blooms on the flowers begin to fade, but there’s always been an amazing energy in the air this time of year. Summer’s door closes and Autumn’s opens wide. Yes, it’s too early to wax nostalgic about frosty mornings, pumpkins, and the crunch of leaves under my boots, but it is a great time to celebrate the transition of the Earth and the gathering of the harvest. I wish you all a blessed Mabon/Equinox Celebration.

*Before moving to California I’m not sure I had ever even heard the term “Harvest Home” before, but it’s a phrase attached to a lot of Equinox rituals out here. As I can often be slow to embrace change, I tend to stick with Mabon.

About Jason Mankey

Jason Mankey has been involved with Paganism for the last twenty years, and has spent the last ten of those years as a speaker, writer, and High Priest. Jason can often be found lecturing on the Pagan Festival circuit, so you might just bump into him. When not reading and researching Pagan history he likes to crank up the Led Zeppelin, do rituals in honor of Jim Morrison (of The Doors), and sing numerous praises to Pan, Dionysus, and Aphrodite. He lives in Sunnyvale CA with his wife Ari and two hyper-kinetic cats.

  • http://www.patheos.com/ Star Foster

    Harvest Home is also the name of a fantastic Wicker Man-esque horror novel. Some of the speeches are so good I know some Pagans have worked them into their liturgy.

    • JasonMankey

      I will have to find that! I hope your first sabbat in Minneapolis is a happy one.

  • Kyle

    Though not specifically pagan, the album, “Harvest Home”, by folk artists Jay Ungar and Molly Mason, is an excellent celebration of the fall harvest, our agricultural roots, and connection to the land during this special time of the year. http://www.jayandmolly.com/harvesthome.shtml

  • Lēoht Sceadusawol

    *Insert rant here about how Mabon as a holy day is a misappropriation*

    *Respond with Tiwsdæg, Woðensdæg, Þunorsdæg, Frigesdæg, Sæteresdæg*

    (I thought I would save time and jump straight to the resolution.)

  • KarenD

    Fall is my favorite time of year, in no small part because my birthday s in a few days; I seem to feel more in tune with this season, more alive than the rest of the year. I live in New England, so it’s easy to see the changes coming on. The leaves are barely showing color in Western Mass, but the farm stands are swapping out zucchini & tomatoes for local butternut squash & parsnips. There are also several corn mazes in the area, which are great fun to explore. Also, fresh cider and cider doughnuts!

  • http://www.facebook.com/Anna.Greenflame Anna Greenflame

    While this is a great blog post, and I agree with the wonderful poignancy of this holyday, I have to scratch my head a bit at this line:

    ” … if such customs truly come from an ancient paganism or are simply seasonal rites that feel Pagan today.”

    Um – seasonal rites are rites that honor the seasons, which connect us to the Earth. I personally see that as Pagan no matter in Whose Name(s) the rite is done. I would suggest that our definitions of “ancient pagans” are perhaps a bit too refined or overthought.

    • JasonMankey

      I tend to agree with you, but I’m sure a Christian who decorates for fall wouldn’t feel the same way. It’s a slippery slope. I tend to look at seasonal celebrations as “pagan” because they feel that way, but I’m not sure everyone practicing them would agree with that.

      • Lēoht Sceadusawol

        Plenty of churches in England will be decorated in a very seasonal way at the moment – they will be busy celebrating harvest tide.

        I’d hardly call that Pagan.

  • VikingRunnerGirl

    I went to college for six years and then worked in a building on campus for another three, so I loved to see you describe September as a beginning of the beginning! I still feel the same way about it myself. Instead of feeling contemplative and ready to wind down in the fall, I tend to feel energized (or as energized as I get, at least) and ready to face new adventures. I’ve felt a little weird about that in the past so I’m glad to know I’m not the only one!

  • Brian Michael Shea

    I remember that! It’s called The Dark Secret OF Harvest Home. It stars Bette Davis. I’ll be honest, I felt a little offended the first time i saw it, but there are inspirational aspects to it. Typical ‘paganophobia’ of Hollywood.


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