It is that time of the year again that despite the ever lingering daylight savings, a definite change can be felt as the earth’s wobbling rotation pulls away from the sun here in the Southern Hemisphere. The mornings are distinctively darker and the sun lingers longer below the horizon, and there is an ever slight chill in the air. Yes, the time of the Autumn Equinox draws near (21st of March to be exact for this year).
As such, it appears time again to point out an erroneous association that first appeared in the 1970s and which, despite numerous attempts to rectify over the years, still perpetuates itself within modern Paganism – that being the usage of the term “Mabon” as an alleged alternative name for the Autumn Equinox.
The following is an excerpt from my own book, Dancing the Sacred Wheel: A Journey through the Southern Sabbats (TDM Publishing, 2014), where once again (in what is coming to be almost an annual posting) I address is ongoing error in usage.
The Story of Mabon
Within modern Paganism, the Autumn Equinox is often (and rather erroneously) referred to as “Mabon”. In his informative book about the origins of British seasonal folk traditions, Stations of the Sun, British Professor Ronald Hutton mentions that it was in fact American author Aidan Kelly who coined the term Mabon for the Autumn Equinox, something that Kelly acknowledges in Crafting the Art of Magic, Book 1: A History of Modern Witchcraft 1939-1964. His reasoning behind this naming was to conceptualize the Sabbats for the modern Pagan. While this may be a good thing, it begs the question (and one that is often alluded to in many modern books), “Who, or what, is Mabon?”
Within the Welsh collection of myths known as the Mabinogion (which John Matthews states means “tales of youth”), there can be found the story “How Culhwch won Olwen”, which is believed to have first been written down around 990 CE from an even older story. In order for Culhwch to win the hand of Olwen, it is necessary for him to perform a number of tasks set by her father, the giant Ysbaddaden. One is to enlist the houndsmanship of Mabon ap Modron Mabon, the son of Modron”). This is no easy task in itself, for Mabon was apparently abducted when he was only three days old and no one has heard of him since.
Our Welsh hero enlists the aid of his cousin, Arthur (as in King Arthur from the Arthurian legends), who sets off with some of his knights to locate the mysterious missing Mabon. Their search leads them to confront and question various animals which are said to be the oldest and wisest in all of Britain. Finally, they are led to the Salmon of Llyn Llyw who recalls a “great evil”. He carries them to a prison in Gloucester where Mabon is being held and from there, they rescue him.
In the paper entitled Occasional Papers: Mabon ap Modron 2006, John Bonsing of Caer Australis advises that the story of Mabon ap Modron is described as a story of “the birth of a miraculous – divine – boy, born to a remarkable or significant – divine – mother”. The word Mabon ap means “divine son” whereas Modron means “Great Mother”, from the word matrona”.
While little information is given as to the timing of the story, Bonsing advises that it does appear to be seasonal, with Mabon being a solar child. Further hints are provided throughout the Mabinogion, where Mabon resurfaces in different guises, including that of Lleu Llaw Gyffes (the son of Arianhrod) and Pryderi fab Pwyll (the son of Rhiannon and Pwyll). In the story of Rhiannon, we learn that Mabon was born on May Eve (Bealtaine in the Northern Hemisphere), which is when the ancient Celtic calendar was believed to have commenced. Bonsing further strengthens this thought by pointing out that the Romans recognised Apollo Mabon (with Apollo being their own Solar God) and makes note that when St Patrick lit the Paschal fires in honour of the resurrection of Christ, it was recorded that he did so because he was annoyed with the Pagan Irish celebrating their own Sun God at Bealtaine.
When we read the story of Mabon and investigate the other myths found within the Mabinogion, as Bonsing suggests, it becomes clear that the Autumn Equinox associated with Mabon is a modern invention with seemingly little, if any, true accurate foundation. I have personally read and heard various explanations given for aligning the word “Mabon” with the Autumn Equinox, including it being the time when Mabon was discovered. However, if Mabon is indeed a solar Deity (as suggested by Bonsing), it would make more sense to equate him with the Winter Solstice – for that is when the sun/son is reborn.
Billinghurst, Frances, Dancing the Sacred Wheel: A Journey through the Southern Sabbats (TDM Publishing, 2014)
Caer Australis – The Story of Mabon
Hutton, Professor Ronald, Stations of the Sun (Oxford University Press, 1996)
Kelly Aidan, Crafting the Art of Magic, Book 1: A History of Modern Witchcraft 1939-1964, (Llewellyn Publications, 1991)
Matthews, John, The Summer Solstice: Celebrating the Journey of the Sun from May Day to Harvest (Quest Books, 2002)
Matthews, John, The Winter Solstice: The Sacred Traditions of Christmas (Quest Books, 2003)