Mabon, the Sacred King and Sacrifice

Blessed Mabon! A little late.

This is a good time of year to talk about the idea of the Sacred King and the Barley Man.

This part of the year, from Litha through Samhain, is focused on the young God and the sacrifice that will guarantee the continuity of the crops. The young god must die with this year’s harvest, and then enter the Underworld, so that he can be reborn in the crops of the following year. It is only through the sacrifice of the king that the people can flourish. Mabon (pronounced MAB-un) is at the center of this cycle.

Six weeks ago, at Lughnasadh, we celebrated the sacred games (named for Lugh, the Irish God of all skills). The winner of these types of sacred games is often crowned the king of the year, and at Mabon, the old king is sacrificed in a variety of different ways for the fertility of the fields. In some places, this is done every year. In other places, it’s either a three, four, five or seven year cycle. The seven year king cycle is found across multiple mythologies.

Looking across the wheel to Ostara, the goddess returns from the Underworld. At Beltane, she and the young god enjoy themselves together. Litha is when the sacred marriage takes place, and at Lughnasadh he is crowned king. At Mabon, the young God must die; and at Samhain, the Goddess travels back to the Underworld to be with him and start the cycle all over again (think of Persephone and Hades as an example of this).

In Wicca, we constantly celebrate the cycle of the Old God, the Young God and the Goddess. This is a cyclical mythology found across European mythology.

James Frazer talks about this idea in The Golden Bough, a book that you can read and reread over and over and still learn new things every time.

“IN THE CASES hitherto described, the divine king or priest is suffered by his people to retain office until some outward defect, some visible symptom of failing health or advancing age, warns them that he is no longer equal to the discharge of his divine duties; but not until such symptoms have made their appearance is he put to death. Some peoples, however, appear to have thought it unsafe to wait for even the slightest symptom of decay and have preferred to kill the king while he was still in the full vigour of life. Accordingly, they have fixed a term beyond which he might not reign, and at the close of which he must die, the term fixed upon being short enough to exclude the probability of his degenerating physically in the interval.” ~ Chapter 24, The Killing of the Divine King, Section 3. Kings killed at the End of a Fixed Term.

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I actually came across this concept for the first time when in middle school I read Mary Renault’s The King Must Die . While this novel is historical fiction; it follows the life of the hero Theseus (famous for defeating the Minotaur in Crete) and looks at the transition from matriarchal society to a patriarchal one in ancient Greece. Reading this novel made me immediately think of Demeter and the rites at Eleusis.(I highly recommend this novel for anyone interested in this mythology. I read it when I was fairly young, but it is an adult novel with a lot of amazing mythological insights).

While Demeter searches for her daughter, She comes to the home of a human family.

And thus it came to pass that the splendid son of bright-minded Keleos, Dêmophôn,[25] who was born to well-girded Metaneira, was nourished in the palace, and he grew up like a daimôn, not eating grain, not sucking from the breast. But Demeter used to anoint him with ambrosia, as if he had been born of the goddess, and she would breathe down her sweet breath on him as she held him to her bosom. At nights she would conceal him within the menos of fire, as if he were a smoldering log, and his philoi parents were kept unaware. But they marveled at how full in bloom he came to be, and to look at him was like looking at the gods.[26] Now Demeter would have made him ageless and immortal if it had not been for the heedlessness of well-girded Metaneira, who went spying one night, leaving her own fragrant bedchamber, and caught sight of it [what Demeter was doing]. She let out a shriek and struck her two thighs,[27] afraid for her child. She had made a big mistake in her thûmos. Weeping, she spoke these winged words: “My child! Demophon! The stranger, this woman, is making you disappear in a mass of flames! This is making me weep in lamentation [goos]. This is giving me baneful anguish!” So she spoke, weeping. And the resplendent goddess heard her. Demeter, she of the beautiful garlands in the hair, became angry at her [Metaneira]. She [Demeter] took her [Metaneira’s] philos little boy, who had been born to her mother in the palace, beyond her expectations,—she took him in her immortal hands and put him down on the floor, away from her.[28] She had taken him out of the fire, very angry in her thûmos, and straightaway she spoke to well-girded Metaneira: “Ignorant humans! Heedless, unable to recognize in advance the difference between future good fortune [aisa] and future bad. In your heedlessness, you have made a big mistake, a mistake without remedy. I swear by the Styx,[29] the witness of oaths that gods make, as I say this: immortal and ageless for all all days would I have made your philos little boy, and I would have given him tîmê that is unwilting [a-phthi-tos].[30 But now there is no way for him to avoid death and doom.[31] Still, he will have a tîmê that is unwilting [a-phthi-tos], for all time, because he had once sat on my knees and slept in my arms. At the right hôrâ, every year, the sons of the Eleusinians will have a war, a terrible battle among each other. They will do so for all days to come.[32] I am Demeter, the holder of tîmai. I am the greatest boon and joy for immortals and mortals alike. But come! Let a great temple, with a great altar at its base be built by the entire dêmos. Make it at the foot of the acropolis and its steep walls. Make it loom over the well of Kallikhoron,[33] on a prominent hill. And I will myself instruct you in the sacred rites so that, in the future you may perform the rituals in the proper way and thus be pleasing to my noos.” ~ Homeric Hymn to Demeter, lins 233-274

She taught this little boy the mysteries of agriculture, how to sow and harvest the fields. While he didn’t end up being immortal, he was given a great gift, and is considered to be the founder of the Great Rites.

The greater rites were held in September and celebrated the Persephone myth. While whatever happened in detail at the rites is unknown, we do know that an initiation took place where those shown the mysteries came out with a greater understanding of death. Games and feasting were an important part of the celebration. Cicero wrote “Nothing is higher than these mysteries…they have not only shown us how to live joyfully but they have taught us how to die with a better hope”.  (If you want to read further, I found this article).

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In my coven, we celebrate the great harvest with a sacrifice of the barley man (called John Barleycorn in the British tradition). While the first fruits of the agricultural cycle are available around Lughnasadh, Mabon is when the fields are really ready for the first full harvest. At Samhain, we celebrate the final slaughter of the animals and the last harvest before winter comes. We send the Goddess off to the Underworld and turn inward for the cold months. But at Mabon, it’s time to celebrate the fruition of all our work throughout the year. It’s a time when we can fully reap everything that has been sown, both physically and spiritually. It’s a time for joy and celebration, but also time to sacrifice to ensure that the crops grow again next year.

While ancient cultures may have literally sacrificed the king, we are slightly removed. So we take the symbolic fruits of our labor and bake a Barley Man. I use gingerbread. Molasses, flour and brown sugar are all ingredients that are grown and produced here in Louisiana. Because we are ensuring the fertility of the cycle, he becomes a very obscene barley man, and at the height of ritual, we “chop” his genitals off and slit his throat. He is later left outside and offered to the Gods to do with whatever they will.

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Feasting and celebration is a huge part of our ritual. This is our Thanksgiving. It is time to say thank you for the year that has past and start preparing for the year that is to come.

So feast and make merry and remember the sacrifice that goes into our lives. We may not be sacrificing the traditional way, but blood, sweat and tears still go into everything we have and do, and this is the time of year to celebrate that, embrace that and accept that sacrifice is necessary.

 

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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

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.

Katy Perry’s Imbolc Half Time Show

A friend of mine commented, “Jeez get a temple guys, you all just worshipped Ishtar. Congrats!”

I personally thought that it was delightfully appropriate for Imbolc…

While I don’t usually get into sports events and largely ignore these things, Katy Perry’s Super Bowl halftime show was pretty spectacular and definitely brought back light and warmth to a rather chilly world.

I don’t usually love Imbolc that way that some of my closest people do, but this year it seemed like an appropriate sabbat to celebrate. And Katy Perry’s powerful, yet whimsical show, was a delightful part of my Imbolc weekend. Enjoy!

May the cold, bleak winter be behind us and a new, happier, warmer world await. Blessed Imbolc!

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!

Samhain Swine

This was originally posted on Witches and Pagans on October 28th, 2013. I know we’re slightly out of season, but I’ve been working on some research that relates to this topic. Plus, I really like mythological pigs. They make me happy. Enjoy:

 

Samhain: During this time of year, some people celebrate the Lady’s return to the Underworld. Others remember their ancestors and give thanks and blessings to those who have come before us. Still others celebrate the end of the Harvest. Samhain is a time of diverse celebrations and remembrances.

I, however, think about pigs.

Let me tell you a story:

Once upon a time, a king was hunting in the forest. As he was mustering his own pack of dogs, he heard a strange pack of dogs baying. As he and his dogs came to a clearing in the woods, he finally caught sight of the other pack of dogs. These dogs were white with red ears and they were chasing a white stag. (This should have been his first hint that this was no ordinary pack of dogs).

The strange pack of dogs brought down the stag and the King, whose name was Pwyll, had his dogs drive them off so that he could claim the prize of the stag for his own pack.

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As his dogs fed, another Huntsman appeared in the clearing.

Pwyll, King of Dyfed, greeted the stranger, but the stranger refused to introduce himself because of a great discourtesy Pwyll had done him. When Pwyll asked what discourtesy he had given, the Stranger answered.

‘I’ve never seen a greater discourtesy by a man than driving off a pack which has killed a stag, and [then] feeding your own dogs on it.

Art by Alan Lee for an illustrated version of the Mabinogion

Art by Alan Lee for an illustrated version of the Mabinogion

That’ said he ‘was the discourtesy, and though I won’t be revenging myself on you, between me and God, I will be claiming dishonour from you to the value of a hundred stags.’

‘Chieftain, if I’ve committed an offence, I will redeem your friendship.’

‘In what form will you redeem it?’

‘As appropriate to your rank – I don’t know who you are…’

‘A crowned king am I in the land I am from.’

‘Lord,’ said Pwyll ‘good day to you. Which land is it that you are from?’

‘From Annwvyn. Arawn king of Annwfn am I.’

It’s never wise to upset the God of the Underworld, and Pwyll realizes too late who he has offended. Arawn asks Pwyll for a service to restore his honor. Pwyll happily does the service asked of him, and this begins a great friendship between the Kingdom of Dyfed and the Kingdom of Annwn. Pwyll himself received many gifts from Arawn, the most important of which is Pwyll’ s wife, the goddess Rhiannon, which is another story entirely. (If you want to read the whole story, you can find it here). But the greatest gift the Kings of Dyfed receive from Arawn is a herd of swine.

This story comes to us from the first Branch of the Mabinogion. Throughout the Mabinogion, the ownership of the pigs is an important issue. Whoever owns the pigs has a close and friendly relationship with the Underworld, which brings them both prosperity and happiness.

Also from Welsh folklore, we hear about Henwen, the White Sow (another Underworld creature), who brought abundance to England by birthing litters of bees, wheat and barley. She also birthed eagles, ferocious cats and wolves. Henwen is a goddess of prophecy and would use sticks and runes to spell out someone’s future for them

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We see sacred pigs in many stories throughout European mythology.

The pig was sacred to Demeter, a goddess that is an important part of the Greek Underworld story of Persephone and Hades. This spilled over onto the Roman goddess Ceres as well. Sacred pigs were herded into caves for the goddesses in both lands. While most people agree that Zeus was suckled by a goat, some say he was suckled by a sow.

Circe turned Odysseus’s men into swine on his journey returning from Troy.

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The great goddess Cerridwen was known as “The Old White Sow” and the Irish god of the sea, Manannan had a magical herd of pigs.

The Russian witch/goddess Baba Yaga is also often thought by some to ride a Sow through the forest instead of the flying mortar.

In Norse mythology, the boar is a symbol of Odin, and the Valkyries serve the warriors who feast in Valhalla from the boar Saehrimnir.

Pigs still tie us to the Underworld, which is why I always “sacrifice” a pig on Samhain. This is a reminder to me and to the Gods of the relationship that we have with the Underworld. While most of us can’t actually sacrifice a pig, I make a delicious pork dishes and leave them out as offerings to stand in as a replacement for a living swine.

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My “pig” sacrifice for the year, made with pork roast and bbq sauce

So while you’re enjoying your Samhain festivities this year, whatever they may be, remember the pigs! They may sound like an odd creature to appreciate, but they are an important tie to the Underworld that can bring your home health, wealth and prosperity.

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*I wrote a children’s Henwen ritual for Samhain over at The Pagan Household. If you’re interested, you can find it here!