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

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!

Boundaries and Hospitality

“Hospitality is making your guests feel at home, even though you wish they were.” – Proverb

We don’t have doors in our house. We have doorways, but no actual doors. So, my Significant Other put up old sarongs to at least give us some privacy in the bedroom.

We have a black cat named Bansidhe. She sings to us all the time (I haven’t noticed anyone dying whenever she cries, but who knows, right? She is a cat after all. I also haven’t noticed her herding fairy cattle, but I’m pretty sure she does that at night while we’re sleeping. At least it sounds that way…). She also has trouble crossing over our threshold at the curtains. At first I just assumed that my cat might be a little…well, you know, special. But then I started watching her when we did ritual. She never crosses our Circle. She is also an excellent companion on guided group meditations, and in my own astral temple work. She is very good about digging her claws into my knee at just the right moment to bring me all the way back. So I started watching her when she was going in and out of our bedroom.

She works her way up to it and then seems to force her way through. If I open the curtain for her and invite her in or out, she has no problems at all. But when she’s doing it herself, she does that adorable cat hunter butt wiggle thing and gets this look of extreme focus on her face as if to say, “I’m GOING to do it, NOW”.

So I started thinking that maybe my personal shields on the bedroom were a little much…

But what can I say? The bedroom is my Sanctuary, it is where I go to retreat from the world and from people and from all of those grating social activities that drive me nuts. When I’m at work, I’m forced to be polite and nice to people who do not always give me the same courtesy. I see it as a part of my professional demeanor to be as polite in all situations as I can be. Having a bad day? No excuse to take it out on other people.

So when I get home from work, I need a place away from the stresses of the outside world. I also don’t particularly like having people living in my space. I work my ass off and sacrifice a pretty big part of the actual me to work the job that I do. And while there are things about the job that I love, there are also things, most notably a lot of coworkers, that make this job an absolute misery for me. But, at the end of the day, I like having a steady paycheck with benefits. I like knowing that I can pay the rent to ensure that my sanctuary is always there. So working a nine to five job is a sacrifice that I’m willing to make. Having that Sanctuary is essential.

We live in a shotgun apartment. (Shotgun Apartment Layout) Our bedroom is not only our shelter, it is in the heart of our house. It is the most protected room physically in the whole place, which I’m sure adds to the shielding me and my Significant Other have created.

I’ve had more than one person tell me that the shields on my bedroom were particularly strong, but until my poor familiar started having trouble dealing with them, I had never noticed this myself.

In this house, it’s not just me, but my Significant Other as well. While he is a much more social person than I am, like me he appreciates his space. So I’m sure that between  him and I, the shields on our bedroom (which is where we spend a majority of the time in this apartment), are pretty spectacular.

Last year, I had someone that I respected tell me that I’m an “aggressive, territorial bitch”. I had told her son, who was going to be our landlord, that I didn’t want a strange girl living with us. He had hired a girl to watch the house while they were doing repairs on it and she was living in the rooms that we were moving into. I had told him that I didn’t mind if she stayed until she found a new place, but that I wasn’t comfortable with her living with us for very long. She was someone that I didn’t know, who wasn’t going to be contributing to the household expenses, and who was not someone that I had personally invited. I saw her as his employee and therefore his responsibility. I didn’t think this was being unreasonable. But I was told that I was a bad Pagan and that I lacked “hospitality” for not wanting to house this stranger. I think, that out of that entire horrible conversation, as I was torn to shreds and generally sat there with my mouth hanging open in shock through all of it, that it was this accusation that hurt the most.

My S.O. and I went on to house people continually from October of 2011 to March of 2012 without respite (in the shotgun apartment with no privacy). It wasn’t a knee-jerk reaction to this accusation either, it was because of promises that my S.O. and I had made to various people months prior. It wasn’t until after that whole long period was over that I looked back on my supposed “territorial aggressive bitchiness of no hospitality” that it occurred to me how absurd the whole thing was.

But that accusation has nagged at me for months now. Where does our responsibility to be “hospitable” end? Especially for people like me who need privacy from the outer world for our physical well being. I can’t emotionally handle being around people for very long. I have to like you a lot and trust you even more to be O.K with you in my space for long periods of time. When I’m around people constantly, it wears me down, first mentally and then physically. Again, I have a stressful job, and the stress of those people adds onto my stress with regular social situations. I’m O.K with the fact that I have some social anxiety and maybe a slight case of agoraphobia; I know how to deal with those things and live a relatively normal social life. But I also know that there are times when I have to seclude myself in order to shore myself up for when I am around people.

If nothing else, I think the shields on my bedroom, which aren’t particularly intentional, are a good example of how willing I am to keep people OUT of my personal space when I am home.

I never before saw that as meaning I lacked hospitality. How can I give hospitality if I am too sick and worn down to give the type of shelter to a guest that is essential to  hospitality?

I think that hospitality can be a troublesome issue for modern Pagans. We can’t quite just allow every person who wanders by into our homes anymore. The dangers of inviting strangers in are much different than those of the past. Our lives are also not ruled by the social obligations that ancient lives were. We don’t give service to a ruler who then has obligations to us, and our lives are not intertwined with the rest of society in the same way either. And while we do still have obligations to the Gods (otherwise, what’s the point of being a Pagan?), we have much less of a connection to our neighbors and communities than ever before. Community has been the subject of a lot of Pagan blogging lately. People have been asking why it’s so important or why they should be as invested in the Pagan community when its generally quite a mess. I’m sure that this was never a concern to our ancestors. Community was their whole lives. Of course, we also don’t have to worry about breaking social obligations and becoming  outcasts, deprived of the resources of greater society. We can happily live outside of social boundaries if we choose to, and other than alienation from the rest of the herd, we can do our own thing mostly in peace.

I would say that my Significant Other practices some of the purest forms of hospitality that I’ve ever seen in a modern Pagan. If he meets you and you need a place to stay, he invites you home with him. But these interactions are still within the personal sphere. He has also traveled the road pretty extensively for over thirty years and appreciates hospitality in ways that I’m sure most “landed” people don’t. It’s not uncommon for me to come home and find another musician crashing on the couch for a night or two.

I think this also comes down to a debate between the hardcore reconstructionists and those who are more on the Neo-Pagan side of things. To be someone who is actually reconstructing whatever Pagan religion that you’re practicing, the act of hospitality takes on a much greater significance than it does for someone with a more current frame of mind. Xenia was an extremely important aspect of the ancient Greek practices and some form of this is found in most other Indo-European cultures.

I had never seen myself as being inhospitable before. I have more house guests than most people that I know other than the pirates. And one of the things I love so much about my pirate crew is their ability to ensure that everyone in our group has the things they need. Lost your job? Don’t worry, we’ll keep you fed and put a roof over your head until you find something new. The pirates are the best example of a working community that I’ve ever seen. I see hospitality as giving someone a place to stay who needs it until they move on or have gotten back on their feet from whatever, not indefinitely housing someone who doesn’t have any reason to need it. I think that the point you have no extra energy to give a “guest” is the point where the guest is no longer acting in that particular role. It’s just like any relationship, there should be an energy exchange, not an unhealthy energy drain.

I think, as with so many other things, it comes down to doing the best you can. Sometimes we set boundaries because we need them, and it isn’t always the best choice to open your home up indiscriminately. There is a reason we set a circle and only invite certain beings into our rituals. Our homes are the same way. If we aren’t inviting every spirit or deity that wanders past in ritual, why are we supposed to do the same with strangers? We shield for a reason, we cast circles for a reason. Our homes have many sacred elements, and shelter our religious and ritualistic lives as well. We are not the ancient societies that first came up with these ideas, and while I still expect to help people where I can, I have to watch out for myself too, since I no longer live in a community that will.