As with all things that claim to be pagan, separating fact from myth can be problematic, largely because the pagans didn’t write anything down. Our understanding of ancient practices was born largely from conjecture. These myths were treated to a degree of re-invention during the Age of Enlightenment and were romanticised by the Victorians. However, in the case of Mabon, it’s noted (even by even staunch pagans/neo-pagans) that the word wasn’t applied to the autumnal equinox until the 1970s. And besides, Mabon is the God of Welsh mythology.
What the Welsh God of mythology has to do with the autumnal equinox isn’t clear, especially when we consider that the holiday in question wasn’t even recognised as a pagan-Celtic celebration by the Welsh. However, it is now, though a purely pagan/neo-pagan holiday, and one of the eight Wiccan sabbats celebrated during the year. Mabon occurs between the 21st and 24th of September, the exact opposite of the Vernal Equinox, to mark the beginning of spring, though in Wiccan parlance it’s better known as Ostara. The pagan, eight-spoked, wheel of the year denotes winter (Yule), spring (Ostara), summer (Litha) and autumn (Mabon), with each season split by what is commonly referred to as ‘cross-quarter days. For example, Mabon is equidistant between the start of ‘Lughnasadh’ on the 1st of August and Samhain on the 1st of November.
While ‘Mabon’ and ‘Autumn Equinox’ have been conflated to create an event without any solid provenance, both elements are authentic in their own right. Mabon derives from the Mabinogion (pronounced Mabin-OGion), a collection of 14th-century stories written in Middle Welsh. The Mabinogion was compiled from texts found in two late-medieval manuscripts. The Red Book of Hergest and The White Book of Rhydderch, that date from the eleventh and the fourteenth centuries. These texts were edited and translated by antiquarians, William Pughe and Lady Charlotte Guest in the early 19th century. However, if the contents may be subject to the fashionable whims of the day, the gist of the narrative prose that defines the publication is genuine.
Similarly, harvest festivals have always been celebrated in some form or another throughout history. It was customary to use the early/mid-September harvest (full) moon to gather as many of the few remaining crops before the autumnal rains made the task increasingly more arduous. And after the grain, fruit and crops have been safely stored away, why not celebrate the fact that you have a chance of making it through winter with, at the very least, the odd bonfire and a merry tune?
Over the years these celebrations have been variously ritualised, for example, one of the (many) traditions associated with pagan-Celtic harvest festivals involves dressing the last remaining corn sheaf in fine clothes before releasing the spirit of the corn by setting the effigy alight. But it would seem that Mabon celebrations are more subtle, symbolised by the horn of plenty (the cornucopia) and the humble apple.
The Cornucopia acts as a metaphor for a healthy harvest, while its shape imbues the fundamental characteristics of male and female. The Apple symbolises the fruit of the harvest for one fairly obvious reason (it’s in season) but above and beyond that it’s believed to represent healing, renewal, regeneration, and even immortality, with one little trick up its sleeve.
Cut an apple width way and it reveals a little pentagram. The pentagram represents the elements of Earth, Air, Fire, Water and Spirit on each of its five points. It makes a perfect motif on the Mabon altar, alongside other seasonal fruits, to celebrate the gifts from the earth and give hope to the dark months ahead.
But! Before you cut the apple in half, how about a round of apple magic, one of the ‘traditional’ games played during Mabon.
The idea is to see how long you can keep a single length of the skin when peeling an apple before it drops to the floor. The shape will resemble a letter (of sorts) and that shall be the first initial of your true love's name.