This article is part of an ongoing series exploring the eight points of the wheel of the year. It is written by a good friend of mine and member of our community, Tony Marshall Griffiths. Tony lives in the North of England but grew up in Wales. He loves the landscapes of the British Isles and the stories and old names that attach to them. You can read more of Tony’s writing on his website, The Enchanted Silence.
“And then, when the trees shed their leaves, and blossoms ripen into fruit, when nature sends us her first frost and prepares to sink into her winter death, we should be able to feel the burgeoning of spirit, with which we should unite ourselves…”Rudolph Steiner, from the essay ‘Michaelmas and the Soul-Forces of the Human Being.’
The equinox festival of Mabon ends the cycle of the Wheel of the Year with an enigma and a riddle. Whilst the cross quarter days of Imbolc, Beltain, Lughnasadh and Samhain preserve names from Gaelic tradition, the three other solar quarter days have names taken from Germanic sources – Yule, Eostre and Litha. This reflects the cultural reality that the cross quarter days were celebrated with more emphasis in the Celtic world, whilst in the Germanic world, for example in pre-Christian Scandinavia, the main festivals of the year were celebrated on the summer and winter solstices.
The name of Mabon assigned to the autumn equinox in the modern-day Wheel of the Year, seems to break this pattern, as the name celebrates a Celtic deity of the British Isles and a character from Welsh legend. Whether this pattern-breaking was intentional on the part of the twentieth century popularisers of the Wheel of the Year, conveying some deeper symbolism, I have not yet found any clues.
Mabon ap Modron of Welsh legend is best known as one the Three Exalted Prisoners of Britain from the Welsh triads (the Trioedd Ynys Prydain), along with Llyr Llediaith and Gwair ap Gweirioed. Whilst the story of Llyr’s imprisonment by Euroswydd is not preserved outside the passing reference in the Trioedd, the Taliesin poem Preiddeu Annwfn mentions the “faithful youth” Gwair as a prisoner in the other worldly fortress of Caer Siddi, bound by a heavy grey chain and singing sadly “before Annwfn’s treasures”.
Mabon ap Modron on the other hand is held captive in the more prosaic location of Caer Loyw (modern day Gloucester) and the story of Culhwch and Olwen from the Mabinogion tells how Mabon is rescued from the gloomy fortress by Arthur, Cai and Bedwyr, the welsh fore-runners of Sers Kay and Bedivere of the Round Table, in order to take part in the hunt of the enchanted boar Twrch Trwyth.
The matronymic Mabon ap Modron (Mabon son of Modron) itself is something of a riddle, basically meaning “Son, son of Mother”. The name ‘Mabon’ is closely related to the modern Welsh word ‘mab’ for son, whilst the name of the Celtic deity Maponos is also linked. Maponos is known from inscriptions from the Roman era that have been discovered in the north of England, and was also attested in ancient Gaul. The styling “Apollini Mapono”, found in these inscriptions, reflects the common practice in Roman religion of invoking a local deity (Maponos) as an aspect or manifestation of one of the major deities (Apollo).
Modron in turn is taken to be the same figure as Dea Matrona (‘the goddess Matrona’ or ‘mother goddess’) also known across western Europe in Roman times. The Venerable Bede wrote in the eighth century that pre-Christian Anglo-Saxon culture in England held a memory of this goddess and her worship:
“That very night, which we hold so sacred (the ‘eighth calends of January’, or Christmas Eve), they used to call by the heathen word Modranecht, that is, ‘mothers’ night’, because (we suspect) of the ceremonies they enacted all that night.”Bede
Statues and carvings found in great numbers across northern Europe show Matrona as a triple Goddess (the Matres or Matronae) and also in the aspect of a mother holding an infant child, startlingly reminiscent of Egyptian figures of Isis with baby Horus or the Christian Madonna and Child.
There is a partial match too with goddess and child-consort pairs from the ancient religions of the middle east, such as Asherah – Baal and Ishtar – Tammuz. These pairings all have associations with agriculture and fertility, where the changing cycle of the seasons is explained and characterised by tales of the dying and rising male deity making a periodic descent to the underworld, making his way to a chthonic place of imprisonment in a way that is at least superficially similar to Gwair and Mabon in the Welsh sources.
In the Mediterranean world by the time of the classical civilisations of Greece and Rome, the male deity had become the female figure of Persephone or Proserpine, but the motif of a seasonal descent to the underworld linked to the changing pattern of the seasons nonetheless remains the same and the mother goddess re-appears recognisably as Ceres and Demeter.
In the mediterranean or middle eastern climate, the summer is hot and arid, and fecundity is associated with the return of the rains in the autumn when the fertility and rain god, such as Baal or Tammuz, returns to the world of life for the new year celebrations and festival of the rains, giving a link at least to the autumn season.
The equinox is also known as Alban Elfed (the light of the water) in Iolo Morgannwg’s reconstructed druidry, whilst in Irish there are names which are more directly suggestive of the time of year – An Clabhsúr (the closure) or Meán Fómhair (also the name of the calendar month of September, meaning middle harvest). More simply the time of year is known as Harvest Home and is the time of the ‘second harvest’ of tree-borne fruits. Certainly the hedgerows around York are full of their fruits of blackberries, rose hips and haw berries, with the sloes soon to come.
Despite the fruitfulness and bounty of the season, it is also a time of closure and contraction in the natural world. At the time of the spring equinox, six fleeting months ago, we celebrated the poet’s words “the force that through the green fuse drives the flower”. Here at the opposing autumn equinox it is timely to read on and contemplate Dylan Thomas’ phrase in its full context:
“The force that through the green fuse drives the flower // Drives my green age. […] The force that drives the water through the rocks // Drives my red blood; that dries the mouthing streams // Turns mine to wax.”Dylan Thomas
The forward momentum that carried the spring world into the greenness of summer now relentlessly bears the year towards Samhain and the threshold of the dark half of the year, when frost will bite and the trees will stand bare.
In this aspect it is surely for our comfort that the nearest point in the Christian calendar is Michaelmas, the feast of St Michael and All Angels on 29th September. What better time to call to mind this warrior of light who will be our ally and protector as the darkness gathers. Darkness lies ahead, but we will not be unaccompanied.
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