Mabon, Mabon-Not

Mabon, Mabon-Not September 20, 2013

This is Part 2 of my continuing rant about the Pagan holy days. The only real issue I have with Mabon is the name.  Aside from the fact that no one seems certain how to pronounce it, the name itself is a poor choice.  As with “Lughnasadh”, which I wrote about last time, “Mabon” is only tenuously related to the season or the Neopagan mythos relating to the season. I would say, of all eight holidays, Mabon has the worst name of all of them.

The name originates with a Pagan-Craft Calendar which was published in 1970 by Aidan Kelly. The name was picked up by the Green Egg newsletter and, consequently, became standard. I have always found it curious that Kelly’s own tradition, NROOGD, did not adopt this name and instead called the fall equinox the “Rites of Eleusis”. Kelly (who also blogs here at Patheos) has earned his place as an elder in the Pagan community, so I mean no disrespect to him. Nor do I mean in any way to diminish the significance of his contribution to the development of Neopaganism. However, Kelly himself was never one to favor adherence to tradition over religious innovation. So I think we honor him by questioning this choice of name for the fall equinox.

“Mabon” is a poor choice for a number of reasons. First, it is a Welsh name, in contrast to the other equinox and the two solstices, which have Anglo-Saxon names. Part of the challenge in naming the equinoxes is that there is little to no evidence that the Anglo-Saxons (or the Welsh for that matter) celebrated the equinoxes. Second, the story of abduction of Mabon in the Mabinogion is a relatively obscure tale, not at all central to the Neopagan mythos (compare the Descent of Ishtar or the myth of Demeter and Persephone for example), and only tangentially related to the Neopagan celebration it so names. The autumn equinox has no real historical connection to the mythical Welsh figure, Mabon, son of Modron. Some Neopagans have suggested that the name is appropriate due to the grieving of Modron for her lost son. But there are many more myths involving grief and lamentation which would be more familiar to Neopagans: Demeter, Isis, and Ishtar are examples of deities who are associated with lamentation motifs.

In my previous discussion on Lughnasadh, I suggested 3 steps for choosing an appropriate name for a Neopagan celebration: (1) Look to the season; (2) Work out what the day means mythologically in relation to the season; and (3) Choose a name for the day that fits the season and the myth.

Let’s start with the season: It’s the equinox, so (in the northern hemisphere) the days will just start becoming shorter than the days. It’s the official beginning of fall in the U.S. Actual harvesting is going on, unlike 6 1/2 weeks earlier during Lughnasadh, the so-called “first harvest”. All those harvest associations we drew on precipitously in August now make sense. Here in the Midwest, we’re just starting to notice cooler weather. Canadian geese will be flying south soon, and the first dabs of color will soon appear on the leaves of the trees.

“The Faun” by Carlos Schwabe

Mythologically, the Sun King/Oak King is dismembered, eaten, and/or interred, following his sacrifice at First Fruits/Mid-Summer 6 1/2 weeks ago. The Goddess laments the loss of her Consort and descends to the Underworld in search of him. The death, eating, and lamentation motifs correspond to the harvest time as well as the triumph of darkness over light manifest in the equinox.

So, we need to find a name that corresponds to the season, the myth, or ideally both. If we’re going to use a Welsh name, then “Llew” would be a better choice than “Mabon”. According to Mike Nichols, the autumn equinox is the day when, in the Mabonogion, the character of Goronwy, symbolizing the darkness, defeats the hero Llew, symbolizing the light, signaling the beginning of winter and the shortening of days. Nichols’ essay, “The Death of Llew: A Seasonal Interpretation”, is great and, if you haven’t read you should check it out. The only problem with “Llew” as a name for the season is that the myth is just as obscure as “Mabon”. If we are going to pick a dying god to name the day after, Osiris would be a choice that would be more familiar to Neopagans. Even Baal, Adonis, and Tammuz would all probably be more familiar to Neopagans than Llew or Mabon.

Or we could go with an Anglo-Saxon name, which would be consistent with the use of other Anglo-Saxon names for the other Quarter Days. In that case, an appropriate name for the day might be “Herfest”, which is the Anglo-Saxon name for “autumn” and a cognate with “harvest”. I’ve seen some Pagans using this name already. If we’re going with Harvest themes, another good name is “Ingathering” or “Cornucopia”, both of which I have seen used by Pagans. Probably the most popular alternative for “Mabon” I have seen is “Harvest Home”. I like it best. The name has nice alliteration. Both “harvest” and “home-coming” are appropriate for the season. And it is an appropriate appellation for the Neopagan version of Thanksgiving.

So, my vote is for “Herfest” or “Harvest Home”. What do you think? What names do you like?

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  • I don’t celebrate the Equinoctial holidays in a large way, it is a quiet sort of rite for me, in spite of being ancestrally related to Wales, I’ve never called it Mabon. I tend to think the practice is more important than the names.

  • Herfst is the Dutch word for autumn. A festival would need an other name than the name of the general season. The only reason that ‘herfest’ might work for some, is exactly brcause it osn’t used in general speech. So it seems some obscurity is required.

  • Our family celebrates the Autumn Equinox as the Apple Harvest, and (even though it doesn’t match up with the historical feast time, and she’s a relatively minor goddess…though I seem to prefer those) as a celebration of Pomona. ‘Erm…an East Coast Pomonalia, if you will! For us, we also celebrate the other equinox as First Bloomingm and Yule as the Longest Night, and Litha as the Longest Day…the only days we celebrate in a traditional contemporary Pagan way is Samhain and Beltane.

  • JasonMankey

    Sure, it’s a name that has nothing to do with the holiday, but I’ve always thought it sounded cool. Isn’t that good enough? We are creating new traditions, “Mabon” as a name for the Fall Equinox is one of those.

    I think it’s too ingrained in people’s heads by this point to be changed into anything else. Harvest Home is/was a very real holiday, and I used that a little bit now, but it just confuses people.

  • I agree with this – I’ve never used the popularised names for either equinox, and I find Mabon particularly unfitting. I’ve been happy enough with just calling it the Autumn Equinox, and I also refer to it sometimes as the Autumn Turning. I like all of the names you suggest, but particularly the Ingathering and Harvest Home.

  • I just like to call it the Autumnal Equinox — because I live in the Northern Hemisphere. I don’t use the Mabon handle, nor Litha. They feel inauthentic coming out of my mouth.

  • Living The Wheel

    I’ve never understood the names for the sabbats. It’s always been the giant bone I have to pick with paganism. None of the names make any sense for modern pagan people.

    Harvest Home is a decent one, and I’ve heard many people use it. I still can’t get on board with that one though. It sounds awkward to say. What exactly is a “harvest home”? I think too literally for that to work for me. If it were called “harvest homecoming”, I would have an easier time.

    I used to call this Autumnmas. And, when I did my own blog post about the equinox, I just called it the Autumn Equinox.

    Mabon is known as “the Witches’ Thanksgiving”. Mabon being a pretty bad name, it’s definition is what resonates with me the most.

    Maybe I should just start calling it what it is.

    “Happy Witches’ Thanksgiving!”

  • Though I suspect you are only trying to be cantankerous here, a less cynical approach would pick up on the similarities between Mabon and Apollo (Maponus Apollonius) and Taliesin, and particularly which creature it was who knew his whereabouts (The Salmon, guardian of the West, the setting sun into water). While the Welsh myths are certainly not central to all paganism, the largest of the druid orders (OBOD) and several others (particularly AODA) draws heavily from them.

    But names seem less important than to what seems to be your agenda. Your experience of the 8 feasts are quite different from mine (I slept outside on an old druid hill in Bretagne on Mabon, so mine was probably different from most others, too) and I haven’t quite been able to figure out what you’re on about. I’m trying, sir, but it’s difficult not to suspect your approach starts from cynicism and certainty that the spiritual world should look the way you want it to and fit a particular (middle-class, unchallenging) view of modern society, an approach quite similar to the materialist or the evolutionary psychologist.

    I keep reading you attempting to understand, and shall continue to do so, but I fear there’s a sort of elitism here which attempts to keep the unsafe, messy but liberating and revolutionary trauma of the Other in abeyance. On a personal level this may make sense, but I begin to worry about those who’ve embraced it and find themselves hearing fewer pagan voices which validate their experiences. Fortunately, many of us tend to be already familiar with attempts to invalidate our experiences (queer, subaltern, etc), so most of us will do okay.

    • I fail to see what Aidan Kelly’s choice of an obscure mythological name for this great day has to do with the “unsafe, messy but liberating and revolutionary trauma of the Other in abeyance”. It’s as if you are responding to another post.

      • Apologies if that appeared more general–I had re-read several of your previous posts before commenting on this one, and thus was responding more to your general methodology rather than the specific details of this post.
        Again, the specific naming is less important, I think, than the need to transform (or I would dare say sanitize) celebrations and beliefs into a more palatable, modern and less mystical form, an approach which privileges a particular intellectualization over an experiential approach to mystery, scrubbing paganism of things which might spill out into the everyday and actually alter society.
        A discussion of this sort probably is better done elsewhere though, and I’d be happy to correspond with you instead, as I am earnestly attempting to understand your worldview (thus the re-reading of your previous posts before commenting).

        • Oh I see. Sorry if I was curt. Your criticism may be on point. There is part of me that indeed longs for conventionality, while another part longs for what you described so well as the “unsafe, messy but liberating and revolutionary trauma of the Other in abeyance” (love that phrase!). I guess I consider the stations of the Wheel of the Year to be more exoteric, and I would like to make these more understandable (if not necessarily palatable) to non-Pagans. Of course that’s just peculiar to me. The Wheel is the part of Paganism that I am trying to share with my non-Pagan wife and children. There are other parts of my practice, which might be called more esoteric, which I write about less often here, and which I don’t really share with my family. These are more about escaping what D.H. Lawrence called the “glass bottles of our egos”. ( I appreciate your challenging insight. I would like to hear more about your thoughts on specific posts or in general.

          • You’ve a good point there, certainly–the wheel of the year’s probably the most accessible entry point to non-pagans. So, too, are the myths, and the power of both is that they function of multiple levels and allow mystery to “hide in plain sight.”

            I understand, too, the difficulties of sharing esoteric writing with those close to one. It’s risky in general, particularly when so much mysticism borders the realms of apparent madness in the eyes of both the mystic and those around her or him.

            And, wow–that D.H. Lawrence quote leaves one with quite the luscious ache. Thanks for pointing it out!

            • “It’s risky in general, particularly when so much mysticism borders the realms of apparent madness in the eyes of both the mystic and those around her or him.”

              Yes, precisely!

            • Not to plug my blog, but this specific topic of madness and mysticism is of primary concern for me, particularly as I’ve met so many people (including myself) who’ve repressed or diminished the spiritual in order to hold on to societal norms particularly on account of the fear-of-madness. And without many leaders and priests, and without a strong physical community at least familiar with such things, most people have to go about it alone: