The Autumnal Equinox, also called Harvest Home, Mabon or Alban Elfed is a time of transition and change, a time of honouring the changing seasons and a time of reflection and thanksgiving (in fact it is often called “The Pagan Thanksgiving”). It is also a time of balance. The Autumn Equinox is the midpoint between the summer and winter solstices, when the day and night is of equal length and light and dark are balanced. It marks the beginning of the dark half of the year for the northern hemisphere, when nights are longer than days.
By the time of the Autumnal Equinox, the earth around us is showing the signs of the journey into winter – with later dawns and earlier sunsets, the weather is cooler and the leaves on the trees are just beginning to turn wonderful colours. The animals are busy preparing for winter – squirrels collecting nuts and acorns while birds prepare to migrate to warmer climates. Most of the grain and fruit harvests have been gathered in and its now time to harvest the apples, grapes, squashes and nuts, to preserve them for winter.
Historian Ronald Hutton writes that the end of the harvest was often celebrated in the medieval times with a harvest feast or supper to reward those who helped gather in the harvest, and ceremonies involving the last sheaf of corn. It often involved a lot of drinking. In the book “Our Troth”, they mention a lot of examples of the last sheaf of corn being associated with Woden in Germany. These include a charm to Wodan from 1593 that talks of it as fodder for his horse, the last sheaf being given to a demon called “Wode,”, the mention in the Southern German Statsregister (1350) of leaving the “Wutfuter” (Wod’s fodder), the last sheaf being left ” for the wolf, as fodder for his horse”, the last sheaf being made into a corn dolly in Niederporing and given the name “Aswald – Ase Ruler”, the last sheaf being a “Waul-Staff” decorated with ribbons and flowers, being called “Wode,” and a few apples being left hanging from the fruit harvest for “der Wod.” All these examples point to the importance of Woden in the celebrations of the end of the harvest. In Scandinavia, the last sheaf was supposed to be left for Woden’s horse. Interestingly in England, the last sheaf is often called the “Harvest Queen” and in Denmark, it is the “Old Woman.” Perhaps it therefore represents the goddess Earth, a bride of Odin in the Norse mythology. The Harvest Supper, called the “Mell Supper” in Northern England was a communal supper in which the landowner thanked the workers who helped him gather in the harvest. There was often lots of dancing, singing, entertainment, drinking and food.
According to Bede, September was called haleg-monath (holy month) for the ancient Anglo Saxons and Hutton says “it can be surmised that this was derived from religious ceremonies following the harvest.” Bede further says that this was the month when the heathens “paid their devil tribute in that month.” Interestingly Jason Mankey has suggested the Autumn Equinox could be renamed “Halig” after Bede’s original name for September – I really like that idea.
I am not aware of any evidence or mythology to suggest that this day was celebrated by the Druids in ancient Gaelic cultures. However, there are a few ancient Irish temples which line up with the sun at the spring and autumn equinox which suggests that pre-Celtic people’s might have considered the day sacred. It is also very close to the time of Michaelmas which may have absorbed previous festivities in ancient Irish culture at this time, for example – picking carrots on the eve before, an emphasis on giving to charity and the beginning of the apple harvest and hunting season.
In modern times, Druids honour the Green Man of the forest by offering cider libations to trees. It is also good to celebrate this time by visiting an orchard to pick apples, making jams and cider or eating a meal of autumnal fruits and vegetables, especially carrots, apples, nuts, grapes and squashes. It is a time to make gratefulness lists and also to remember those who have a lot less than us and to perhaps volunteer or give some food away to others. In Gaelic cultures the Last Sheaf was often identified as “Cailleach”, the old woman of Winter, so she is a suitable deity for Druids and Celtic Reconstructionists to honour at this time. Additionally is the Mabon or Maponus, mentioned in the Welsh Mabinogi. It’s also potentially possible that 29th September was a day focused on Gwyn ap Nudd, the Welsh lord of Annwn (the Otherworld) as September was referred to as Gwynngala in Cornwall.
For Heathens, this can be a time to honour a variety of gods. First there is Ing/ Freyr (though he might be more traditionally honoured at Winternights), a lord of fertility, king of the Aelfe and has the title “Harvest God.” The Vanir as a whole may be honoured at this time, as may the Earth Mother. Idunna may be honoured as goddess of the apple because today begins the apple season, Njord because its the end of the fishing season or Aegir as god of brewing. It would also be very appropriate to honour Woden at this time given his historical association with the last sheaf in Germany and Scandinavia. Meanwhile Neo-pagans celebrate it as a day of balance, when the night and day are equal and nature is declining. In Christian cultures it has become known as Michaelmas (celebrated Sept 29th).
For me, this is a time to give thanks for the abundance of nature. It is a time to party and celebrate with all the wonderful food that is around. It’s one of my favourite times of the year because its so beautiful at this time as the leaves are turning. I love to decorate my altar with fruits, vegetables, nuts and leaves, as well as making leaf garlands to hang around the house. I will have a big feast of waldorf salad (filled with autumn nuts and fruits like grapes and apples), carrot, butternut squash, and lentil salad ( I use carrots from my allotment), and fruit bread.
Here are some videos…