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).

576951_286792278088676_548827086_n

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.

1

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.

 

Advertisements

There Was an Old Woman

Casting circle for me is one of most integral parts of a Wiccan ritual. I love sweeping and I love the song we use to sweep, but the chant I was originally taught when I came into my tradition that I have been using for casting was just ho hum and I just don’t like casting a ho hum circle!

This chant was not the first circle casting used by my tradition and it certainly won’t be the last, but this particular one never sat right for me when I used it. There are several versions of it around and none of them felt right either.

And while it was suggested that I could write my own, I am a terrible poet and I have a love/hate relationship with Wiccan rhyming anyway.

So, I’ve been looking for something different for a while and I think that finally found the one that works for me!

This rhyme is an old Morris dance that was adopted in the 1700s as a Mother Goose rhyme. There are several versions of it around, but I like the old Morris one the best:

There was an old woman tossed up in a blanket
Ninety nine miles beyond the moon.
And under one arm she carried a basket
And under the other she carried a broom
Old Woman! Old Woman! Old Woman! cried I!
Oh wither! Oh wither! Oh wither so high!
I’m going to sweep cobwebs beyond the sky
And I’ll be back with you by and by.

Morris dance is a great tradition to draw on for folkloric practices anyway. While we can argue over how old the practice of modern Wicca is, I think that details like this prove the very long actual folkloric practices of particular rituals and actions in Britain. Morris dance is very good proof of just how long these practices and beliefs have existed.

I love the imagery of the old woman being tossed up with her broom into the sky to make sure there are no cobwebs. It works for new moons when the moon is unseen and for full moons when the moon is blazing. And what is more traditional in witchcraft than an old woman doing things that no one else will?

Plus it just makes me want to dance as it rolls off the tongue, and what could be better?

The energy of my circle has picked up quite a bit and it definitely took my coven a few circles to deal with the change in energy. It has been both uplifting and energizing!

This website traces a piece of artwork that is tied to the literary history of this poem and also introduces this other, similar yet much longer version:

THE OLD WOMAN AND HER CAT

There was an old woman, who rode on a broom,
With a high gee ho! gee humble;
And she took her Tom Cat behind for a groom
With a bimble, bamble, bumble.

They travelled along till they came to the sky,
With a high gee ho! gee humble;
But the journey so long made them very hungry,
With a bimble, bamble, bumble.

Says Tom, ‘I can find nothing here to eat,
With a high gee ho! gee humble;
So let us go back again, I entreat,
With a bimble, bamble, bumble.’

The old woman would not go back so soon,
With a high gee ho! gee humble;
For she wanted to visit the man in the moon,
With a bimble, bamble, bumble.

Says Tom, ‘I’ll go back by myself to our house,
With a high gee ho! gee humble;
For there I can catch a good rat or a mouse,
With a bimble, bamble, bumble.’

‘But,’ says the old woman, ‘how will you go?
With a high gee ho! gee humble.’
You shan’t have my nag, I protest and vow,
With a bimble, bamble, bumble.’

‘No, no,’ says old Tom, ‘I’ve a plan of my own,
With a high gee ho! gee humble;
So he slid down the rainbow, and left her alone,
With a bimble, bamble, bumble.

So now if you happen to visit the sky,
With a high gee ho! gee humble;
And want to come back, you Tom’s method may try,
With a bimble, bamble, bumble.

I love the rainbow bridge idea, which of course makes me think of the messenger Goddess Iris and the Norse Bifröst. The rainbow is good example of something that is a boundary between the worlds, which is exactly what one needs to think about while casting a circle. This old children’s rhyme also shows how much magical lore and theory can be found in the rhymes and fairy tales that we grew up with. I keep telling my students that you have to know your fairy tales and children’s rhymes for when you are practicing spell work.

One of my favorite fairy tales is “The Buried Moon.” In this strange story, the moon decides to investigate what sorts of evil creatures come out to haunt the bog when she isn’t shining in the sky and gets captured under a large rock! When the moon disappears, the villagers get worried and are frightened. Eventually a traveler hears her cries and seeks out the village wise women to figure out what the villagers should do to rescue her. The wise women tells the villagers: “Go all of ye, just afore the night gathers, put a stone in your mouth, and take a hazel-twig in your hands, and say never a word till you’re safe home again.” Hazel is a wood associated with knowledge and stones can both ground you and allow you to see the fairy world. Its these types of tidbits that we can certainly still learn from today! If you want to read the full story, it can be found here.

What circle castings do you use and why?