Mabon is Upon Us

Mabon, or the Fall Equinox is today. While I always remind my students that the eight sabbats that Wiccans celebrate in the modern world are estimated and agreed upon dates for the agricultural and hunting cycle of the year, I usually try to pay attention to true solstice and equinox moments.

The last few days I have been wired and restless. For the first time in over a week, I fell asleep and slept deeply all night. Waking up this morning, I realized that the equinox had finally hit and some of that shifting energy had finally settled down upon us.

I’ve had a hard time with Mabon this year. While its a time of bounty and rejoicing, it is also a time of sacrifice. This Mabon feels like the end of an important cycle in my own life and I have been hoping that all of my hard work is about to come to fruition. I have been struggling with what to say, but luckily enough a fellow priestess of the tradition I work in, Blue Star, said it beautifully so that I don’t have to. I thought I would share her words and wisdom here, because it touched me deeply and I think it is the type of thing to pass on and carry with you throughout the rest of the dark time of the year.

The Gods have been generous to me in myriad ways, not all of which feel particularly comfortable in the moment. The weeks between the Harvest and New Year are a time of celebrating bounty, but that bounty also requires a reaping. And with a reaping can come a mourning, of sorts, for the things that once were, or could have been but never really bloomed, or are revealed to have grown into something other than what one thought, or intended, or held out hope for, no longer to be consumed in good health or consciousness.

So I meet this holiday in appreciation for the experiences that have nourished me throughout the past year, some anticipated and some pleasantly unexpected. And I tip a nod of farewell to those which have not. Some with sadness, because truth, and some with relief, because honesty.

Regardless, I lay myself before the foot of the Gods in my supplication that l continue to grow to achieve my greatest and most nourished potential with the people and places and experiences that support and contribute to this ultimate end. Which will, in turn, mean that I am divinely positioned to contribute to the greatest and most nourished potential of those people and places and experiences where I am most meant to serve.

You reap the grain. Some makes your bread. Some is released to the wind to grow wherever and feed whomever it’s best meant for.

Blessed Mabon

-the ever beautiful and effervescent Tegan Ashton Cohan

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Lughnasadh and the Goddess Tailtiu

And so we come to Lughnasadh and a full blue moon.

Lughnasadh, the beginning of the harvest season, often recognized as the first harvest; a festival that celebrates the first fruits, the sun god Lugh and games of skill.

In reality, this sabbat was originally about Lugh’s foster mother, Tailtiu, rather than Lugh himself.

Tailtiu was the last queen of the Fir Bolg. She is described in the Lebor Gabála Érenn, a famous history of Ireland:

§59. Tailltiu daughter of Mag Mor king of Spain, queen of the Fir Bolg, came after the slaughter was inflicted upon the Fir Bolg in that first battle of Mag Tuired to Coill Cuan: and the wood was cut down by her, so it was a plain under clover-flower before the end of a year. This is that Tailtiu who was wife of Eochu son of Erc king of Ireland till the Tuatha De Danann slew him, ut praediximus: it is he who took her from her father, from Spain; and it is she who slept with Eochu Garb son of Dui Dall of the Tuatha De Danann; and Cian son of Dian Cecht, whose other name was Scal Balb, gave her his son in fosterage, namely Lugh, whose mother was Eithne daughter of Balar. So Tailltiu died in Tailltiu, and her name clave thereto and her grave is from the Seat of Tailltiu north-eastward. Her games were performed every year and her song of lamentation, by Lugh. With gessa and feats of arms were they performed, a fortnight before Lugnasad and a fortnight after: under dicitur Lughnasadh, that is, the celebration (?) or the festival of Lugh. 
Unde Oengus post multum tempus dicebat, “the nasad of Lug, or the nasad of Beoan [son] of Mellan.” 

Tailtiu cleared a great forest in order for the Irish to plant the first fields. This feat exhausted her and when she was finished, she laid down at her castle and died. The Lughnasadh games were actually the funeral games held by Lugh in her honor.

Tailtiu is the great mother goddess. It is through her pains that the fields were cleared and the harvest was able to be born. She is also seen to be a goddess of childbirth and labor. Tailtiu’s death was a necessary part of bringing forth life for the people. So while people celebrated her life through her funeral games, they also mourned her death and Lugh himself is said to have sung her death song every year. Because of this, Tailtiu is said to have prophesied on her death bed that as long as Lughnasadh is celebrated, there will always be music in Ireland.

Tailtiu’s death was a part of the sacred king rites of Ireland. Tailtiu was a Queen at Tara, the seat of the High King’s of Ireland. She was also married to the last Fir Bolg ruler. While Nuada was the first of the Tuatha rulers, Lugh was his successor.The High King’s of Ireland married the goddess who was sovereign over the land itself. Without holding this sovereignty, no one could rule. Lugh could not marry his foster mother, but by celebrating the sacrifice that ensured the prosperity of the land, Lugh was certainly honoring that connection. Tailtiu is often seen as the dynastic link between the Fir Bolg and the Tuatha de Danaan.

Lugh is the dying and reborn god, the sun and the grain in the fields. While Tailtiu cleared the land through her labor, it was Lugh who embodied the grain that grew in that land and was cut down for the harvest. Tailtiu didn’t birth Lugh physically, but she was certainly his mother in this sacred sense. Lugh is the young God that we cut down and sacrifice and who returns to the underworld and who is later reborn after the Goddess and the Old God marry. But he can only do this because of the original sacrifice of the Goddess.

So this Lughnasadh, while you dance and sing and make merry, also remember Tailtiu, the Great Mother whose death allowed the fields to grow so that the people could eat.

Children’s Henwen Ritual for Samhain

This is a column from the Pagan Household from October 28th, 2013. I think I’ve linked to it before, but never actually posted it and since Samhain is essentially here…

 

Henwen is one of my favorite Celtic Goddesses. The Great White Sow wandered from Annwn, the Underworld, into this world, giving birth to wheat, barley and bees, as well as wolf cubs, ferocious cats and eagles wherever she went.  And this is how she brought life to the world.

Other stories tell that it was prophesied that whatever Henwen birthed would bring harm to Britain and so King Arthur tried to catch her. Her swineherd was Coll Ap Collfrewi, one of the great swine herders of Britain, and he hung onto her bristles wherever she went. She escaped into the sea, but returned to the land and gave birth to her strange litters there. Arthur never did catch her and it is assumed that the Great Sow still wanders Britain, bringing fertility and prosperity wherever she goes. In this version , Henwen will also read your fortune for you with rods and runes.

Pigs often symbolize our relationship with the Underworld. This is the time of the year where the veil thins between the worlds because of the harvest. This is when the final harvest is brought in and the last animals are slaughtered for winter. All of the spirits passing from our world to the Underworld open the boundaries and allow us easier access to those who have gone before. It also makes it easier for those who are making their transition from this world to the next more to slip away, which is often a blessing. It can be a time of great grief and blood, it can also be a time of joyous celebration and gratefulness for another bountiful year.

Henwen is an excellent goddess to honor for this turning of the Wheel! She is also a goddess you can easily share with your children.

If you have a group of kids, you can do a really easy children’s ritual from the story of Henwen.

Sit all the children down and have them braid wheat straw. (You can find a tutorial here). If your children are too small for this, you can do this beforehand; just make sure there is a wheat braid for every child. Take everyone somewhere outside where there is plenty of room to run around.

Have everyone stand in a Circle. If you want to call Quarters at this point and cast a Circle you can, but you might simply want to acknowledge each direction. Tell the children the story of Henwen and explain that she brought a good harvest to the world. Have them hold their wheat braids and go around the Circle having everyone ask for something for the upcoming year. Have them focus their energy for their wish onto the wheat braid. (This would also be a good time to talk about the Harvest and why it’s important to how we live and what we are celebrating. Let them know that they things they should be wishing for should not be material, but things to help their community).

Since Henwen is a goddess of prophecy, put all the children’s names in a bag (this should probably be done beforehand) and randomly choose names to assign parts to. You will need a Henwen, a Coll Ap Collfrewi, an Arthur and several knights.  (If you want to have clothing props like a pig nose and capes, that could be fun as well!)

Give the children picked to be Henwen and Coll Ap Collfrewi the bags with the wheat braids in them. The rest of the children will be chasing them. The other children are It and the goal of the game is that each child must catch Henwen and Coll, who have to stay together the whole time. (This is a giant game of tag in reverse). When Arthur or one of his knights “catches” Henwen and Coll, Henwen or Coll should give them one of the wheat braids and give them their blessing for the year. That child can now return to the starting point. When everyone has caught Henwen and Coll, Henwen and Coll can return together to the rest of the group. When everyone is together again, have Henwen and Coll announce that their wanderings are done for the year and that they are ready to enjoy the bounty of the Harvest. At this point, have everyone celebrate together with a snack, after closing whatever Circle you started with. A good snack would be wheat toast with butter and honey. Each child can take their wheat braid home with them.

If you’re having an adult ritual later, you could also have the children “visit” all together with their wheat braids to offer the luck of the wheat braids for that ritual. Have them present their wheat braids with well wishes for the blessing of the Priest and Priestess.

Blessed Samhain all! Have fun!

Fairy Horses

I’m getting ready to start graduate school. I’ve been putting it off for years, but things have finally clicked into place and away I am about to go.

I received my first syllabus tonight. The first book that I have to have read (by the first class, yay grad school!) is Jane Eyre. That’s easy enough, it’s not like I haven’t already read it several times, so it will just be a matter of rereading it and giving it a more “critical” look.

One of the things I love most about this story is that Jane Eyre thinks she has a brush with a piece of folklore.

As this horse approached, and as I watched for it to appear through the dusk, I remembered certain of Bessie’s tales, wherein figured a North-of-England spirit called a “Gytrash,” which, in the form of horse, mule, or large dog, haunted solitary ways, and sometimes came upon belated travellers, as this horse was now coming upon me. It was very near, but not yet in sight; when, in addition to the tramp, tramp, I heard a rush under the hedge, and close down by the hazel stems glided a great dog, whose black and white colour made him a distinct object against the trees. It was exactly one form of Bessie’s Gytrash — a lion-like creature with long hair and a huge head […], with strange pretercanine eyes […]. The horse followed, — a tall steed […]. Nothing ever rode the Gytrash: it was always alone […].  ~ Jane Eyre Chapter 12

Jane Eyre has an encounter with a Gytrash…at least she thinks she does. In reality, this is the scene where she meets Mr. Rochester, her mysterious employer and the hero (anti-hero possibly?), for the first time.

A lot of scholars like to use this as an example of Romanticism in Bronte’s writing. But I think that a lot of it simply has to do with the fact that the Gytrash was a piece of British folklore that most people probably still regularly had encounters with and would have talked about. People were probably warned to watch out for the Gytrash as they traveled through unfamiliar countryside

The Gytrash falls into that category of spirits that haunt lonely roads and weary travelers. Usually appearing as a horse, a dog or sometimes a mule, the Gytrash can either be helpful or harmful.

Jane Eyre is not the only famous piece of literature to depict a Gytrash. The legend of a Gytrash also shows up in Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Hound of the Baskervilles nearly 60 years later.

There are many types of spirits like this that people would have been weary of meeting on a deserted country road. We’ve all heard of the Will-O-the-Wisp, which are present even in American folklore. The Bridgewater Triangle in Massachusetts is famous for sightings. They even come up in children’s movies these days!

Kelpies and Pukas are also similar to the Gytrash. These water horses can bring good or bad fortune to whoever they encounter. The Puka is known for showing up as a horse, a goat or a rabbit. It is usually associated with Samhain, since it was known for demanding an offering from the last harvested crops. Without the offering, they would cause trouble for the whole community. The Puka can also speak with a human voice and was known for trying to tempt people to come out of their houses at night. (The Puka is also a character in one of my favorite novels, Peter S. Beagle’s Tamsin. If you’re interested in British folklore this is a great book to check out).

Kelpies could appear as beautiful women who would lure men to their watery deaths. The Kelpie usually liked to eat its victims. Sometimes also appearing as a horse, it would tempt someone to get on it’s back and then ride them into a body of water where they could drown and devour their victim. One of the more famous stories of the Kelpie was about one who had convinced nine friends to get on its back. The tenth refused, but put his hand on the Kelpie’s nose. The hand became stuck there and instead of getting on the horses back as the others had done, the tenth child cut off his hand and escaped.

There are also many stories of Kelpies kidnapping women to be their wives in their watery homes which were usually at the bottom of the local loch. (As I write this, my partner is at GenCon without me. This year their guest of honor is another one of my favorite authors…Mercedes Lackey. One of Lackey’s less well-known works is The River’s Gift, a story about a Kelpie. I also recommend this book).

These types of creatures are also related to the Mari Lwyd. The Mari Lwyd or the Grey Mare is a Welsh tradition. Men would carry a horses skull (usually made out of wood or cardboard), decked out in a white sheet (that disguised the man carrying it), ribbons, and a hinged jaw that could snap at people door to door as they wassailed the new year in. Unlike England, where the focus of the wassail ritual was on the birds and the crops, the Welsh focused on the Mari Lwyd, which was a tradition that connects back to the goddess Rhiannon.

We meet Rhiannon in the Mabinogion. Rhiannon is an underworld woman who appears to the hero Pwyll on top of a fairy mound riding a horse. After they are married (which is a long story in and of itself), she is accused of eating her newborn son. In recompense she has to bear men on her back like a horse and tell them what she has done.

The penance that was put on her was as follows: she was to stay at the court of Arbeth for the duration of seven years. There was a mounting-block by the gate. She had to sit beside it every day telling anyone coming by the whole story (of those she supposed did not know it) and offering whichever guest and stranger would allow themselves to carried, to be carried on her back to the court. But only rarely did anyone allow the carrying. In this way she passed the next part of the year.

~ From the third part of the First Branch of the Mabinogion

And while Rhiannon’s son is eventually returned and all is well, it seems as though Rhiannon has to go through her own initiation to lose her underworld nature and does so in this way.

Rhiannon is also usually known for embodying an example of the idea of Celtic sovereignty. Rhiannon represents the land, Pwyll has to marry her to have the right to rule over the land. The book Women of the Celts discusses this idea at length if you’re interested in that.

Rhiannon Alan Lee Illustration, 1984

Rhiannon
Alan Lee
Illustration, 1984

In general, these horse spirits seem to be tied into the land. They either haunt travelers who are in their territory, or they are a part of the rituals of the harvest and the turning of the Wheel. Rhiannon is a goddess that is a big part of my own work. I love that the mythology of the original horse goddess still remains present in a great deal of folklore and literature. I don’t know what I would do if I were to meet a Gytrash or a Puka on the road. They are seductive creatures and even though I know better, even I might be tempted to see where one would lead me…

Other Readings:

The Great Queen and the Sovereignty of Self

Rebellion of the Queen

The Wedding of Sir Gawain & Dame Ragnell

The Celtic Goddess of Sovereignty as Warrior: Boudicca and the Death of a Druid Prince