Date of Observation: Autumn Equinox, September 22 or 23
Where Celebrated: United States and Europe
Symbols and Customs: Circle Ceremonies, Harvest Feasts, Mabon
Related Holidays: Autumn Equinox, Beltane, Harvest Home, Imbolc, Lughnasa, Samhain, Summer Solstice, Winter Solstice, Vernal Equinox
Mabon is derived from the Celtic peoples who lived in Ireland, Scotland, England, and northern France from around 500 B . C . E . until around 100 C . E ., when the Romans conquered most of Celtic Europe. Little is definitely known about ancient Celtic religion. The Celts themselves left sparse written accounts. Julius Caesar, who led the Romans into Celtic lands, wrote of his impressions of the people, as did other ancient Greco-Roman writers.
Mabon honors the arrival of the fall season and the change in the balance of light and dark that occurs with the AUTUMN EQUINOX. The holiday is celebrated on the date of equinox, which falls on either September 22 or 23.
The ancient stone monuments of the British Isles provide some evidence that the prehistoric people that lived there honored the equinoxes and the solstices. Quite a number of stone monuments appear to have been built to identify the dates on which these celestial events occur. This prehistoric civilization was replaced, however, by the Celtic people in ancient times, and then later by the Anglo-Saxon peoples in early medieval times. No direct evidence exists to suggest that the Celts or Anglo-Saxons continued these early observances. Nevertheless, the Anglo-Saxon word for September, “haleg-monath,” translates as “holy month.” This seems to suggest that some important holiday took place during this month. The Christian feast of MICHAELMAS falls on September 29, but it is unclear how widely celebrated it was in Anglo-Saxon times.
Neopagans and Wiccans, people who follow a nature-oriented religion loosely linked to ancient pagan beliefs and inspired by old European folk practices, began to celebrate the autumn equinox in the twentieth century. In doing so, they were guided by the belief that ancient pagan people often celebrated this event. Some call the holiday Mabon, while others refer to it simply as autumn harvest, autumn sabbat, or AUTUMN EQUINOX. It forms one of the eight sabbats of modern witchcraft (or Wicca), the other seven being SUMMER SOLSTICE, WINTER SOLSTICE, VERNAL EQUINOX, BELTANE, SAMHAIN, IMBOLC, and LUGHNASA. Together these holidays form the eight spokes of what is known as the wheel of the year. These holidays are distributed more or less evenly throughout the year, falling on the solstices, the equinoxes, and the four cross-quarter days; that is, the four days that fall between the solstices and the equinoxes.
SYMBOLS AND CUSTOMS
Many Wiccans and Neopagans celebrate Mabon by participating in circle ceremonies that highlight the themes of the holiday. The altar, or area where the ceremony takes place, is decorated with such harvest symbols as corn, apples, and wine, or perhaps equinox symbols, including black and white candles. Participants stand in a circle and a leader takes the group through a ceremony that may involve some combination of listening to stories, lighting candles, chanting, dancing, honoring various gods and goddesses, and responding in unison to invocations offered by the group leader.
Some groups may choose to focus their ceremony on the legend of Mabon, or Persephone, and the spiritual lessons contained therein. Other groups will focus on the change in season and thanksgiving for the harvest. The balance of light and darkness that occurs on the equinox is another popular theme of Mabon celebrations. This time of year is often associated with a turning inwards, and Mabon ceremonies may encourage group members to spend more time in introspection and meditation during the colder, darker months.
Mabon occurs in an important time during the agricultural year, when the late summer harvest is drawing to a close. Neopagans and Wiccans honor this seasonal event in their Mabon celebrations. In fact, many Mabon celebrations revolve around communal meals in which harvest foods are shared and enjoyed. In North America such feasts might include corn, squash, tomatoes, grapes, apples, wine, bread, and other local foods.
Some Wiccans have named the autumn equinox holiday that they celebrate “Mabon” after the Welsh legend about a magical youth of the same name. The legend of Mabon circulated within the ancient Celtic lands (Ireland, the British Isles, and northwestern France). In early Welsh tales Mabon is a heroic warrior, and in later accounts he becomes a semi-divine or magical figure. In the later stories associated with the King Arthur tales, Mabon is stolen from his mother, Modron, when he is only three days old and shut away in a magical cave. The child’s full name, Mabon ap Modron, literally means “mother’s son.” Mabon grows up in captivity but is known to be the finest hunter in the land. He is finally rescued by the great Welsh hero Culhwch, who receives the aid of an owl, a stag, a blackbird, an otter, and a salmon in his long and arduous quest.
There are many variations on this tale. Its association with the AUTUMN EQUINOX comes from the role of darkness in the story. The kidnappers hide the baby in the darkness of the earth (the cave) just as the nights appear to overpower the days around the time of the equinox. The search for the divine child constitutes another important theme in the story. This search represents the universal search for the child in ourselves, or our desire to discover our true, inner nature. The use of animal guides in the search is very important. They alert us to the need to follow nature’s wisdom if we are to be successful in our search.
Some neopagans compare the myth of Mabon to the more well-known Greek myth of Persephone, the spring goddess. Persephone, who is the daughter of the harvest goddess Demeter, is abducted and taken to the underworld by Hades, the Lord of the Dead. Although Persephone is rescued, she has to return to the underworld for six months of every year because she ate the food of the dead. During the time of Persephone’s imprisonment, the days grow cold and the nights long. As the time of her emergence draws near, the earth again begins to show signs of life. Many neopagans associate the time of Persephone’s disappearance with the AUTUMN EQUINOX and the time of her yearly emergence with the VERNAL EQUINOX . The story of Mabon’s kidnapping has also been associated with the AUTUMN EQUINOX . Nevertheless, while Persephone languishes in her dark and dreary captivity, Mabon grows and flourishes in a bright and magical enclosure. Some interpreters of the tale have suggested that Mabon’s presence underground blesses the earth, just as the fallow seasons of fall and winter restore the earth and permit new fertility to burst forth in the spring.
Buckland, Raymond. Wicca for Life: The Way of the Craft, From Birth to the Summer- land. Citadel, NY: 2001. Cabot, Laurie. Celebrate the Earth: A Year of Holidays in the Pagan Tradition. Delta, NY: 1994. Dugan, Ellen. Autumn Equinox: The Enchantment of Mabon. St. Paul: Llewellyn, 2005 Hawkes, Elen. The Sacred Round: A Witch’s Guide to Magical Practice. St. Paul: Llewellyn, 2002. Hutton, Ronald. The Pagan Religions of the Ancient British Isles: Their Nature and Legacy. Oxford: Blackwell, 1991. Grimassi, Rave. Encyclopedia of Wicca and Witchcraft. St. Paul: Lwellellyn, 2000.
Holiday Symbols and Customs, 4th ed. © Omnigraphics, Inc. 2009