Molly Lyons is a trained anthropologist as well as a practitioner of Wicca. Here she applies her anthropological eye to the Mabon ceremony.
What Does Mabon Celebrate?
The Autumn Equinox typically falls in the middle of the month of September. To some, it is just another day that marks the transition from summer to fall. To many Pagans, however, it is a religious holiday that marks the end of the second harvest and soon the end of the Wheel of the Year.
The Autumn Equinox, known to Pagans as Mabon, is a time for celebrations with bonfires, religious rites, telling of stories and the passing down of traditions. It is the time of the year when both the sun and the moon are seen as equals, before the darkness of winter takes hold.
Each Pagan celebrates Mabon in their own way, unless they are part of a coven, in which case they practice the ritual in community with their fellow coven members. For those who are solitary practitioners, like me, attending a Mabon ritual with a coven is a new religious experience, much like a Baptist attending a Lutheran service.
Mabon rituals are filled with tradition as well as mystery and magic that spans the decades. Mabon is a lesser Sabbath for Pagans, yet it is an important occasion to finish tasks that have taken up most of the year so that Samhain, the New Year, can be celebrated without thoughts of past tasks. Celebrating rituals such as Mabon help to reestablish the bond between the practitioners and their craft, and facilitate the potential to share their faith with others who want to join Wicca or those whom are simply curious. Mabon is celebrated with rituals and a feast, signaling the end of the second harvest and the coming of the dark.
Observing a Mabon Ritual
I asked permission of a local High Priestess to observe their Mabon ritual. She granted me permission as long as I kept their identity confidential via aliases and described the ceremony in general terms without recording their spells. These conditions were important to them because spells that are shared within the coven are for the coven only and passed down through the maternal line of the community.
The Mabon celebration was held at a local park (Wiccan rituals typically take place outdoors because the Wiccan church is nature itself). They requested that I keep the location secret, for they did not want others to interrupt their ceremonies. Much like a Christian church, those who might find fault with their religious practices are not welcome when a ritual is taking place—and therefore the location is known only to the coven and those they trust with the information.
I wanted to observe a coven celebration of Mabon because I believed it would help me understand my own connection to Wicca. I also looked forward to sharing my faith for the first time with others who hold the same faith.
The Wheel of the Year
The ritual celebration of Mabon spans many centuries as a vital cycle of the Wheel of the Year. “These cycles are widely celebrated in eight seasonal festivals, called Sabbaths, spread evenly throughout the year” (Roundtree, 2010, pg. 19). These cycles include, in order: Samhain, also known as Halloween; Yule, the winter solstice; Imbolc, Ostra, the spring equinox; Beltane, also known as May Day; Litha, the summer solstice; Lughnasadh; and Mabon, the autumnal equinox.
The ritual celebrations associated with these Sabbaths are a large part of the Pagan religion. “Ritual is an important part of most magical traditions, because it is seen to be a holistic healing space from the everyday world where the magician can contact her or his inner world and the wider forces and energies of the cosmos” (Greenwood, 2000, pg. 43). With rituals, the commitment to the religion is renewed.
The Mabon ritual I observed was unfamiliar to me because it was with a small coven whose traditions I did not know. Within Pagan religions, each ritual is different with regard to who is participating. “Usually it is decided well in advance which ritual is going to be done—often rituals are specially written, handed out in advance and lines learnt by heart” (Greenwood, 2000, pg. 24).
These are often reserved for those who are a part of that particular coven. Being a solitary practitioner, my rituals are written by me; the only others who know of the rituals are family or close friends who chose to participate in various rituals or Sabbaths.
The High Priestess (HP), was very welcoming of my interest to observe their Mabon ritual. However, even though I am also Wiccan, she insisted upon anonymity for herself and her small coven of five. After a very long and gruesome history, Witches by nature are suspicious of those who wish to learn their secrets without some rite of passage to initiate the newcomer into the fold. The HP and her coven asked to be addressed by their magical names.
Magical or Craft Names
Magical or craft names, are a way that Witches can protect themselves. “A magical/spiritual name chosen by a Witch for working in the Craft, and may be used openly, in Pagan community settings” (Moura, 2004, pg. 29). Some covens request that a special coven name be given to initiates that enter the coven, one that is separate from their craft name. Aside from the HP, I observed Ravine, Nubia, Echo, and Faula in the Mabon ritual.
The coven was made up of all female Witches between the ages of 19 and 42. The primary ethnicity was Caucasian, although Nubia appeared to be of African American descent as well as Caucasian, and Ravine told me she was from the Cowlitz tribe. Their economic status could not be accurately determined, although they did not appear to be either part of the 1% or lower income.
Hidden Ritual Location
The women arrived at the secret location in their own vehicles, aside from the HP who carpooled with Echo and Faula. I later learned that Echo and Faula were the HP’s daughters. When they stepped out of their vehicles I noticed that each was wearing a dark cloak, the primary coven wearing green while the HP wore red.
As the women led me into the woods, they spoke not about the ritual at hand but about daily events: first weeks of school stories, work issues, family antics, etc. This indicated to me that they were not just associated on a religious level, but a personal one as well.
The path to the circle was understandably well hidden. Wicca is a religion that is not unfamiliar with disturbances during rituals. “I experienced one night ritual in a wood in the middle of London that was rudely disrupted by a drunken man who would not leave. His presence affected everyone, and eventually the ritual had to be abandoned” (Greenwood, 2000, pg. 27).
Circle and Altar
When we reached the circle, I saw that there was an altar already set in place. The altar is the centerpiece of many religions and in Wicca is the cornerstone on which the religion is based. Upon a basic altar one will find a goddess area/both area/god area, spirit bowl, offering plate, candle, and incense. On more complex altars one will find a chalice, water bowl, pentacle, salt bowl, wand, bell, cauldron, athame or bolline, supplies, libation bowl, and a book of shadows.
On the altar there was the basic goddess area/both area/god area/ spirit bowl, offering plate, candle, incense, chalice, bell, water bowl, salt bowl, pentacle, cauldron, food supplies, and a book of shadows. “Goddess area/ both area/ god area may have candles or a representation, such as statues, stones, a conch shell for the Goddess and a small antler rack or animal horn for the God, with a candle or other item to represent both Goddess and God together” (Moura, 2004, pg. 23).
The area belonging to the goddess, god, and both combined are similar to a Christian cross upon a Christian altar. The spirit bowl contained hard apple cider, and the offering plate held wheat bread as well as oats to honor the celebration of the second harvest.
This was a coven who believed in participating in rituals while skyclad. To be skyclad is to be fully nude, with nothing adorning the body. I was surprised by this because I thought it was too cold to participate in the ritual skyclad. The nudity did not offend me, as I myself have often performed rituals skyclad, but when I'd done so it was either summer or I was indoors.
Performing rituals skyclad is embraced by many covens and witches; it is to help remove the last of the barriers between the practitioners and the goddess and god.
Opening and Closing the Circle
The beginning of the ritual started with the casting of a circle. “The circle becomes sacred space, separate from the everyday world and everyday consciousness, a magical un-place where the customary boundaries between dreams, desires, fantasies, realities, seen and un-seen, what is and what might be, alter” (Roundtree, 2010, pg. 14).
Casting the Circle
The HP began casting the circle by lighting the candles and incense while the coven began sweeping the debris from the circle with their besoms, also known as brooms. Once the circle was clear, in a clockwise motion, the HP walked around the circle sprinkling salt. She did this three times.
When she came back into the circle she approached the altar and rang the bell three times. She picked up a white candle and raised it to the North before her, calling upon the guardians to protect them while they were in the circle, she did the same for the remaining cardinal directions. “Experience is gained through ritual and the calling in of the spirits of the four quarters of the witchcraft circle: east, south, west and north. These correspond to intellect, will, emotions and the body in the human microcosm” (Greenwood, 2000, pg. 41).
After addressing the North, East, West, and South, she replaced the candle and asked their primary goddess and god for their blessing and help with the ritual. The HP then concluded the circle casting by ringing the bell nine times.
After speaking for a few moments about the meaning of Mabon and giving thanks to the goddess and the god for the bounty of the second harvest, the coven repeated her words and they chanted together as the HP placed the white candle in the cauldron and sprinkled it with herbs. She then rung the bell three times and began to close the circle. “When the ritual is finished the reverse procedure is adopted by the ‘closing’ of the circle and the return to the ordinary world, which is seen to be accompanied by ‘grounding’, the re-establishment of normal everyday consciousness” (Greenwood, 2000, pg. 46).
Closing the Circle
The closing of the circle consists of thanking the goddess and god for their blessings, walking clockwise around the circle and sprinkling salt, then blowing out the candle. The coven ended the ritual by sprinkling fruits, nuts, berries, and seeds around the outside of the circle for the animals to feed upon before they hibernate for the oncoming winter.
After the food was distributed, the coven and I ate oatcakes and wheat bread covered in honey and drank crisp apple cider while speaking about day-to-day events in our lives. Each woman felt her connection to Wicca and their goddess and god renewed until Samhain and the next ritual.
The Significance of Mabon
Mabon is the second harvest and the second to last Sabbath cycle on the Wheel of the Year. “For Wiccans in most parts of the world, this Sabbath is a further celebration of the harvest season and an acknowledgement of turning towards the darker, colder part of the year’s cycle, equinox being the time when daylight and darkness are equal” (Roundtree, 2010, pg. 110).
In other parts of the United States it is celebrated in the same manner as the ritual that I observed. “Participants formed a circle around a tree and a small table that held a votive candle and a small caldron, symbolizing fire and water. Three Druids held three crossed sickles and pulled them apart to consecrate the land at the beginning of the ritual” (Kay, 2006). Herbs are especially important in many Pagan rituals and Mabon is not an exception.
Herbs and Grains
The herbs involved with Mabon are used in the ritual as well as decorating the altar. Acorns, ferns, grains, sage, thistle, vegetable, and roses are all used. Grains above all play an important part in the Mabon ritual. “Baked goods made with new grain are eaten in honor of the Green Man, the living spirit of vegetation, who sacrifices himself in autumn so that others may carry on” (Hopman, 1995, pg. 83).
The acorns and vegetables are used to feed the animals of the forest for they are connected to humans through the goddess. “It is considered wise to pick one of each flower and vegetable of the harvest (choose only the very best of specimens, free of blemish or blight) and leave it on an outdoor shrine for the nature spirits in thanks for their kind work all summer” (Hopman,1995, pg. 83).
Connection Between Humans and Nature
The connection between humans and nature is particularly important in rituals that primarily take place outdoors. After the ritual is a feast, usually the coven will gather at the home of the HP to partake in the feast. “The essential nature of this feast is the drawing together and drawing in of the family as it prepares to face the chaos of the season of Samhain. The best tableware and finest foods are displayed as mead and music fill the house with cheer” (Hopman, 1995, pg. 82-83).
This is a tradition that goes back many centuries as societies celebrated the harvest before winter was upon them. The ritual has changed over the centuries, yet the feasting and celebrating remains the same.
Paganism and Self-Protective Secrecy
The one problem with Pagan rituals is that many have to be celebrated in secret due to the controversy surrounding the religion. “Even at public pagan events, some only identify themselves by "magickal" names—spelled with a "k" to distinguish it from sleight-of-hand illusions—because followers have lost their jobs and their children because of discrimination, Marts said” (Kay, 2006).
With the anonymity associated with the religion it is also almost impossible for some Pagans to search out others who share the religion. “Chances to meet other Pagans and interact with the larger Pagan community on an ongoing basis are limited. That, in turn, makes it difficult for Pagans to create solidarity and encourage organized political action on behalf of Paganism as a religion” (Barner-Barry, 2005, pg. 40).
Impact of the Internet on Pagan Practice
Yet with advancing technology, Pagans are able to connect more regularly via the internet and find covens, whereas before one would have to search for years. “The problem of isolation for Pagan groups and individuals has been mitigated somewhat by the periodic Pagan festivals held in various locations throughout the United States, as well as Internet groups and a few widely read Pagan journals. This is, however, no substitute for ongoing face-to-face relationships or a generally accepted umbrella organization that can give a single voice to Paganism” (Barner-Barry, 2005, pg. 40). This was how I found the coven that I observed and shared with them some of the irritation at not being able to practice rituals such as Mabon freely and without fear of repercussion.
Pagan religious activities are kept secret not only due to repercussions from the outside modern world but also because the Pagan religion does not share its secrets with just anyone. As I stated before, one must be initiated into the religion. Because Pagans do not practice proselytism, many who embrace Pagan religions do so through family or peer influence. This is especially true with teenage Pagans. “The influence of peers is best documented for the case of traditional religious beliefs” (Irwin, 2009, pg. 15). This also allows for the rituals to be passed down from family members and coven members and makes the individual's experience with any ritual new when participating with a Pagan from another coven or another solitary practitioner.
With rituals such as Mabon, not only do practicing Pagans renew their religious connection with the Goddess and God, but also with those who practice with them. These rituals present Pagans with a chance to take a religion that has been primarily kept in a broom closet and bring it out to be celebrated with those who are like-minded without fear of consequences or ridicule.
For those who want to learn more about Pagan religions, the practicing of these rituals with the help of practicing Pagans help to educate those who are curious or misinformed. Hopefully in the future, Pagans will not have to hide the practice of rituals, such as the coven I observed, and be able to share without fear customs and traditions that span many centuries and teach those who are uninformed about the connection Pagan religions have to nature and the seasons.
Barner-Barry, C. (2005). Contemporary Paganism and the Law: Minority Religions in a Majoritarian America. London: Palgrave MacMillian. Retrieved from http://site.ebrary.com/lib/ashford/Doc?id=10089186
Greenwood, S. (2000). Magic, Witchcraft, and the Otherworld: an Anthropology. New York: Oxford. Retrieved from http://site.ebrary.com/lib/ashford/Doc?id=10006775
Hopman, E. E. (1995). A Druid's Herbal: For the Sacred Year. Rochester, VT: Destiny Books.
Irwin, H. J. (2009). The Psychology of Paranormal Belief: A Researcher's Handbook. Hertfordshire, GB: University of Hertfordshire Press. Retrieved from http://site.ebrary.com/lib/ashford/Doc?id=10491599
Kay, L. F. (2006, Oct 01). At festival, blessings and lessons ; pagan pride day highlights nature-focused traditions, practices that predate christianity. The Sun, pp. 3-3B. Retrieved from http://search.proquest.com/docview/406140443?accountid=32521
Moura, A. (2004). Grimoire for the Green Witch: A Complete Book of Shadows. St Paul, MN: Llewellyn Worldwide Ltd.
Roundtree, K. (2010). Crafting Contemporary Pagan Identities in a Catholic Society. Surrey, GB: Ashgate Publishing Limited. Retrieved from http://site.ebrary.com/lib/ashford/Doc?id=10356290
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Mackenzie Sage Wright on October 11, 2013:
Great reporting, very interesting. I guess a lot depends on where you live. When I lived in NYC through the 90's there were several annual Pagan rituals and celebrations in broad daylight in the middle of Central Park (I'm sure they still go on). Imagine 200 Pagans dancing around May Poles, drummers drumming, chanting about Goddesses and Gods. We barely got any spectators, let alone any trouble. Now where I live there are open gatherings in nature preserves and public camping sites. It's openly advertised in community news... the planning committees meet in the public library once a month and it's on the bulletin board.
I guess I'm just lucky to have never lived anywhere that we had to keep secret (my kids, my husband, family-- are all openly Pagan). I guess that means there's been a lot of progress and hope it continues so that no one has to ever feel the need to hide. Thanks for sharing!