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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The Other Thanksgiving

I wrote this post last year for Witches and Pagans, but I thought some of you might enjoy it over here and it is appropriate for the season…

 

Ah yes…Thanksgiving. That time of year in America where we stuff ourselves full of turkey deliciousness and pie, then pass out in front of a football game, while probably saying “thank you Gods” for having a few paid days off of work. Of course, this isn’t what the holiday is actually about, but, as Pagans, we’ve already had our “Hooray, we got through another harvest!” feast.

When we were children, our schools filled us with images of peaceful Pilgrims and Native Americans sitting down to celebrate survival together. Hand print turkeys ran rampant over our decorations and buckled shoes seem to magically appear everywhere.

b2ap3_thumbnail_turkey-images.jpg (Oh common, you can’t tell me that you still wouldn’t do this if you got the chance).

Thanksgiving is the quintessential American holiday. And in more ways than one.

As my friend Jason Mankey will tell you, Thanksgiving itself has roots in Paganism. Of course, it’s a few months late really, but then, the Pilgrims don’t seem to have been the most competent of farmers in their new homeland. (Jason puts a nicer spin on this).

We all know the story of the Puritans coming to America and nearly starving to death in Plymouth until Squanto, the interpreter, stepped in to show the Puritans how to grow crops. In thanks, everyone sat down together to feast and make merry.

As young school children, our teachers usually didn’t cover what happened later between the Puritans and the Native Americans. It wasn’t until we were older that our young hearts got to be broken when we realized that the Puritans were not quite the kindhearted farmers that we always thought them to be, when the darker aspects of this relationship were revealed.

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The Native American massacres by the Puritans have come to be fairly well known and are a hot topic of debate these days when it comes to discussing Thanksgiving. But in the midst of this well-known Thanksgiving story, massacres and all, the common record seems to gloss out another important story of early Americana Puritan history:

The history of Thomas Morton.

Who was Thomas Morton? Essentially the first British Pagan in the American colonies. Thomas Morton wanted to create a Utopian society that took the land and the “Old Ways” into consideration and integrated them with Native American practices for a new society in the New World.

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(Cheerful looking fellow, Old Thomas)

Thomas Morton was a lawyer from Devon, an area of England that was already considered to have integrated Protestantism and Catholocism into the Pagan traditions of the past. Devon had just survived the Reformation and we can probably assume that there were still a lot of ill feelings in the area over the switch to Protestantism. Devon is also known as a place where “the Old Ways”  of “Merry Old England” were maintained, despite the official religion of Christianity.

Morton came from an old Anglican family and was well known for championing the “displaced countrymen” of the day. He worked for the governor of Plymouth, who was majorly connected in the colonial trade. In 1618, Morton became one of the governor’s landsmen and oversaw the colonial interests. While Morton was probably not a huge fan of the Puritans before, sources note that this experience seemed to settle his dislike for his extremely religious neighbors.

Morton first went to America in 1622, but didn’t stay long due to the “intolerance” of the Puritans. When he returned in 1624, he settled a colony called Mare-Mount (for the land and sea) or, Merrymount, with a man called Wollaston. Morton fell out with Wollaston when he realized that Wollaston was selling indentured servants into what was essentially slavery to the Puritans. Wollaston was eventually driven out of Merrymount and Morton proposed a much more egalitarian society where people had equal interests in the colony. Morton called himself “The Host of Mare-Mount”.

Morton created peaceful ties with the local Algonquin tribes and started integrating Native beliefs and traditions into the colony. Morton also openly brought back many “Old English” traditions, one of which, was the Maypole.

As Morton himself said of the revels at Merrymount:

The Inhabitants of Pasonagessit (having translated the name of their habitation from that ancient Salvage name to Ma-reMount [MerryMount]; and being resolved to have the new name confirmed for a memorial to after ages) did devise amongst themselves to have it performed in a solemne manner with Revels, & merriment after the old English custorne: prepared to sett up a Maypole upon the festivall day of Philip and Jacob ; & therefore brewed a barrell of excellent beer, & provided a case of bottles to be spent, with other good cheer, for all comers of that day. And because they would have it in a complete forme, they had prepared a song fitting to the time and present occasion. And upon Mayday they brought the Maypole to the place appointed, with drums, guns, pistols, and other fitting instruments, for that purpose ; and there erected it with the help of Salvages, that came thether of purpose to see the manner of our Revels. A goodly pine tree of 80 foot long, was reared up, with a pair of buckshorns nailed one, somewhat neare unto the top of it : where it stood as a faire sea marke for directions; how to finde out the way to mine Hoste of Ma-reMount.

And because it should more fully appeare to what end it was placed there, they had a poem in readiness made, which was fixed to the Maypole, to shew the new name confirmed upon that plantation; which although it were made according to the occurrents of the time, it being Enigmatically composed) puzzled the Seperatists most pitifully to expound it. . . .

The setting up of this Maypole was a lamentable spectacle to the precise seperatists : that lived at new Plymouth. They termed it an Idoll; yea they called it the Calf of Horeb: and stood at defiance with the place, naming it Mount Dagon; threatening to make it a woefull mount and not a merry mount. . . .

There was likewise a merry song made, which (to make their Revells more fashionable) was sung with a chorus, every man bearing his part; which they performed in a dance, hand in hand about the Maypole, whiles one of the Company sung, and filled out the good liquor like gammedes and Jupiter. – Thomas Morton, Revels in New Canaan (1637)

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Needless to say, this did not go over well with the Puritans.

The Puritans eventually managed to overthrown Merrymount and to capture Morton. Morton was marooned on an island and left to starve. With help from the local natives (who were apparently amused to watch this entire drama), Morton eventually managed to escape the island and make his way back to England, where, to the consternation of the Puritans, he actually managed to win a court case against the Massachusetts Bay Colony (the power behind the Puritans), which revoked their charter.

Unfortunately Merrymount did not survive under the rule of the Puritans in Morton’s absence. Also unfortunately, the politics of the day, which had supported him (King Charles was not a fan of the Puritans), failed during the English Civil War. While Morton did manage to return to America, he was captured and put on trial as a “Royalist”. While he was never actually prosecuted, he was held in prison. He did eventually make it back to Maine, where he was sheltered and finally died in 1647.

Morton said:

This harmless mirth made by young men (that lived in hope to have wives brought over to them, that would save them a labour to make a voyage to fetch any over) was much distasted, of the precise Seperatists: that keep much ado, about the tithe of Muit [mint] and Cunmin ; troubling their braines more then reason would require about things that are indifferent: and from that time sought occasion against my honest Host of Ma-reMount to overthrow his undertakings, and to destroy his plantation quite and cleane . . .

But Thomas Morton is a rather large character to sweep so easily under the rug. We get a lot of discussion and debate over the Puritans and their interactions with their Native neighbors, but who knows about Thomas Morton?

Thomas Morton would be a great example for all of those that like to tell us that our founders were all Christian, and he would be an excellent example for religious peace and tolerance.

Can you imagine what America would have been like if Thomas Morton and his Merrymount would have survived and been used as a basis for our society?

This Thursday, while you’re eating your turkey and watching your football, remember Thomas Morton and the America that might have been. If we had had more of Morton and less of the Puritans, America would probably be a very different place.