As the wheel of the year turns ever on we come to the autumn equinox. While Lughnasadh marked the beginning of the harvest season, September marks its culmination. It is now that the balance tips from light to dark. Going forward the days will grow ever shorter until Yule when things swing once again in the opposite direction.
The theme of balance operates on several levels at the autumn equinox. First of all there is the length of day. Along with the vernal equinox in March, the day and night are of equal length. In fact the word equinox means “equal night” in Latin1. Thus the autumn equinox is also a time when the powers of light and dark are said to be in balance. In ages past, many believed that it was safe to approach cemeteries only at this time of year for that very reason2.
But as mentioned this is also harvest time in many parts of the Northern Hemisphere. In fact the autumn equinox is the second of three harvest festivals on the wheel of the year. What was begun at Lughnasadh, the grain harvest, is now complete. The fall crops are ready to be brought in as well3. Naturally this is a time for celebration for it is this time of year when the fruits of our labor, literally and figuratively, come to bear. During the harvest, we bask in the abundance of what we have sowed.
For our ancestors this was payday. In an agricultural society the bounty of the harvest only came once a year. Thus, assuming a successful harvest, this would have been a time of plenty. Of course the exact timing of the harvest varies according to climate and location. Thus the traditions surrounding both it and the autumn equinox vary considerably. In the British Isles, for example, the latter was afforded a different significance than in Mayan or Japanese culture4.
Many traditions revolved around the last sheaf of grain. If the harvest was the culmination of an entire season of work, the cutting of the last piece of it marked the end of that effort. In many parts of Britain it was cut in a special way then tied up. The exact traditions varied immensely and being the person to cut the very last sheaf was not always a good thing. Much of the time this piece of grain was given a name and the act of cutting it became a game5. Once it was done, the results might be made into a doll and kept until spring when it would be ploughed back into the earth. It was often given a name, usually female. As with the cutting, the traditions surrounding the corn doll varied considerably6.
Of course the celebrating did not stop when the doll was made. This after all was payday. There was much to be happy about. And so sometimes there would be a procession from the field complete with decorated wagons and dancing. Then there was the harvest supper. Again there was considerable variety of traditions. But in keeping with the season, this was an occasion for feasting and celebration7. The English called it Harvest Home and it was commemorated with food, drink, and song8.
Much of the above speaks of the traditions solely of the British Isles. Other cultures no doubt had their own harvest festivals. What is described relates to autumn equinox insofar as it is a harvest festival and the harvest was traditionally celebrated in the manner previously described, at least in Britain.
Yet there are few parallels to modern practice in those traditions. As with Lughnasadh, the history of the celebration of the autumn equinox is difficult to trace and it is on the whole a rather troublesome holiday. Even the name is a matter of contention. The festival for which this essay has been titled is of course Mabon. That is how most pagans know the autumn equinox. Yet it is conspicuously absent from the previous descriptions of harvest traditions. The reason is that the term is distinctly modern as is the entire festival. Both were created by Aidan Kelly, one of the founders of New Reformed Orthodox Order of the Golden Dawn (NROOGD), in the 1960s and 70s. In fact the entire cycle of what is now known as the wheel of the year originated with Kelly around that time. However while most of the other festivals had some equivalent in history such was not the case for the equinoxes. Drawing on a variety of sources, including the Greek story of Persephone, and the work of scholar W. J. Gruffyd who equated a Welsh deity named Mabon with her, Kelly composed a ritual and liturgy for autumn equinox and named it Mabon9.
One can view the modern history of Mabon several ways. A tempting approach would be to decry our tendency to make things up as we go along. However to say that would be to dismiss the real meaning people find in Mabon. One could also simply paper over it all, but that does not solve any problems either. An altogether better approach would be to simply embrace the spirit of the season. Like most things Pagan the ultimate meaning is what you find in it. Or put another way, it is the experience which matters most.
And there are many ways to experience Mabon. As this is the time of the year when the balance shifts towards darkness, many find introspection and indoor activities very appropriate. With the weather turning cooler for many folks, Mabon is a good time to take stock at what is needed and reflect on what the previous year has brought. If one has a garden, now may be the time to bring in the literal harvest as well while preparing for the coming winter. A harvest supper would also be very seasonal. Another fun activity would be to create vegetable stamps using the produce gathered from that harvest10.
One can also simply take the time to rest. While modern society does not move with the rhythms of nature in the same way ancient ones did, there are still seasonal activities in many areas. For example outdoor festivals tend to happen during the warmer months. So one can make Mabon the starting point of a more inward time and cook and spend with family. For many, winter will soon be here and now is a good time to gather strength11.
As with all holidays there are many ways to honor and celebrate the seasons, the earth, and the Goddess. At Mabon we see the balance tip from light to dark. The twilight of the year has passed. The harvest is nearly complete. Now is a great time to rest and gather strength. Not everyone finds enjoyment in the darker months, but the respite they provide is a chance to reflect on life and plan for the road ahead.
River Loneruner is an active member of Hecate's Cauldron's Inner Circle and a second year student of the Temple Tradition.
1 Christina Aubin, “Mabon - Overview by Christina.”
2 Edain McCoy, Sabbats: A Witch’s Approach to Living the Old Ways.
3 Christina Aubin, “Mabon - Overview by Christina.”
4 “Fall Equinox Celebrations.”
5 Peg Aloi, “You Call It the Autumn Equinox, We Call It Mabon.”
6 Anna Franklin, Autumn Equinox: History, Lore, and Celebration.
8 Peg Aloi, “You Call It the Autumn Equinox, We Call It Mabon.”
9 Ronald Hutton, “Modern Pagan Festivals: A Study in the Nature of Tradition,” 260 – 61. Hutton also states that Ostara was created by Kelly in the same manner. That topic will be addressed in another essay.
10 Toadstoll Mushroomgazer, Mabon.
11 Maggi Setti, “Autumn Equinox: A Point of Balance on the Wheel of the Year.”