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.

theseus-minotaur

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 and the Forgotten Queen

This was a blog post from Witches and Pagans originally posted on September 17th, 2012. Blodeuwedd is a goddess that I work very closely with.

 

Mabon is the Sabbat where the focus of the wheel of the year goes from Life and growth to Death and the harvest. It is when the young God experiences death and begins his journey to the Underworld. It is also when the White Goddess begins her descent to the Underworld to take her rightful place as the Queen of Death. The Welsh figure of Blodeuwedd is an often ignored facet of the Queen of Death.

Blodeuwedd is a Goddess that modern audiences have a hard time viewing outside of the lense of our industrial, patriarchal culture. Blodeuwedd, who comes to us in the Fourth Branch of the Welsh Mabinogion, is a woman created out of the flowers of the forest by the Gods Math and Gwydion who need a wife for Gwydion’s son Lleu; Lleu has been cursed by his mother, Arianrhod, to never take a human wife. Blodeuwedd’s story is often seen as one of rape and revenge, similar to the way the Arthurian legends are often treated. It is a story that most people never try to reconstruct with the meaning it might have had to pre-Medieval Welsh listeners. For modern listeners, Blodeuwedd is not seen as the White Goddess that she is; she is viewed as a woman torn between two lovers, such as the Medieval Iseult, or Shakespeare’s Juliet, and the tale of the two Gods/men (Lleu and Gronw) becomes one of lust and revenge.

Unlike the Greek myths, where we have the original stories “written” out to us by the Greeks themselves, the Mabinogion comes to us through the interpretation of the “modern” and patriarchal society who recorded it. Christian ideology overshadows the retelling of the stories, and these tales are doomed to be seen in the shadow of modern ideologies. Blodeuwedd as a Goddess is a victim not of rape, but of misinterpretation.

In the modern scenario, Blodeuwedd has no agency of her own as an individual and therefore no power as the Goddess that she is; she is the tool of the men around her, rather than a woman with true power. She becomes an excuse to shame women and is not seen as the force of nature she is, the force that assists in turning the wheel of the year. In this way, Blodeuwedd becomes similar to Pandora and Galatea, a plaything of a thunder wielding, sky father God. But let us remember that Blodeuwedd is a creature of the forces of land and nature worshipped by the agrarian Celts.

In the contemporary retelling of Blodeuwedd’s story, we sense that Math and Gwydion’s intentions are simply to create a wife for Lleu; that there are no other reasons that this woman needs to be brought into existence. But consider that Math and Gwydion create Blodeuwedd from the flowers of the forest, which symbolize the life and death aspects of the cycle of the year; they are intentionally drawing the White Goddess of the Underworld, the White Lady of Death, into the physical realm. Blodeuwedd of the Underworld is the balance to Lleu’s role as the Lord of the Sun.

Arianrhod, Lugh’s mother (another misunderstood Welsh Goddess), foreshadows the role that Blodeuwedd is to play. Lleu’s birth is seen as being shameful to her in the Christian context; she is not seen as the High Priestess figure who is helping her son through his initiations to gain the power that he is destined to inherit. Gwydion’s “trickery” to make Arianrhod name Lleu, by getting her to exclaim “the young lion has a steady hand” when he kills a wren (symbol of winter), is the first place where it is understood that Lleu has to kill the Old God in order to take his rightful place as God of the Sun. It is the starting point for the task that Blodeuwedd will assume in order to facilitate this cycle. Blodeuwedd’s lover Gronw is the wren that Lugh originally kills to claim his title. Life and Death work side by side to ensure this cycle continues.

Blodeuwedd is the physical manifestation of the Goddess of the Underworld. Just as Persephone in the Greek myths, Blodeuwedd is aware of what she is doing when she tasks Gronw with killing Lleu. Blodeuwedd’s “choice” between Lleu and Gronw is the neverending cycle of Growth and the Harvest. The Sun God must die so that winter may come: the cycle of death and rebirth again and again. Blodeuwedd is not just a woman who is torn between two lovers through Math and Gwydion’s magic; she is an incarnation of the White Goddess.

Blodeuwedd’s role in this cyclical story is an integral part of what Mabon symbolizes. When we forget the basic meanings behind the stories of our holidays or misinterpret their meanings, we forget the true importance of what we are celebrating. Blodeuwedd is not a light Goddess; she is the Dark that awaits all of us in the end, and her presence at Mabon should be considered in light of her true aspect.

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

Cunt: The Reason for the Season

Cunt. C-U-N-T. CUNT! CUNT! CUNT!

Cunt, the forbidden word.

I love this word.

The other day, this word came up in a coven class and no one wanted to say it.

I, however, really wanted to break into this:

Since I have no acting talent, I was gracious enough not to hurt everyone’s ears, but…as someone in the third wave of feminism, I consider cunt to be more than simply a “reclaimed” word. It is a powerfully evocative word that just makes me shiver with glee.

As a witch, it has even more importance to me, and it all centers around Ostara.

You can track down various meanings and etymologies of the word cunt, but in this case, I like to look at it’s progression from the word ‘coney’ or hare.

The Online Etymology Dictionary says, “Alternative form cunny is attested from c.1720 but is certainly much earlier and forced a change in the pronunciation of coney (q.v.), but it was good for a pun while coney was still the common word for “rabbit”: “A pox upon your Christian cockatrices! They cry, like poulterers’ wives, ‘No money, no coney.’ ” [Philip Massinger: “The Virgin-Martyr,” Act I, Scene 1, 1622]”

Of course, if you weren’t familiar with coneys before, you were after this scene from the Lord of the Rings trilogy:

Hares are one of the first animals to poke their noses out and start procreating during the earliest days of spring. Not only do they, well, “fuck like rabbits”, but if you look at a hare’s tail, it looks like a woman’s pubic hair.

This has been used as a symbol of the goddess Eostre to represent both the birth canal and her reproductive abilities. For centuries, many British folk customs have centered around the hare during the month of April. Many academics also tie the hare to Freya, who didn’t have hares pulling her chariot, but a pair of cats. What do we call our cats these days? Pussies of course! So…coney – cunny – cunt – pussy…!

And there you have it. CUNT! The reason for the season.

Now say it with me kids, “CUNT!”

And remember, the next time you call a woman a cunt, you’re calling her a queen. So maybe she does deserve it after all.