The Old Ways: Harvest
Autumn Equinox, approximately September 21, is a celebration of the peak of the Harvest. Once again, Day and Night are equal, but now, the days begin to grow shorter. This day begins the progress towards the darkest time of the year. The Harvest festival is alternately known as Mabon, Alban Elfed or Fogharadh. Fogharadh is a Gaelic word meaning 'hospitality and abundance'. Alban Elfed is 'tide of Harvest'. Mabon means, simply, 'Son'. Mabon ap Modron. Son of the Mother.
For many people, Autumn is a very subtle change from Summer, living, as some of us do, in areas where the trees stay green year round and the weather remains mild, if a bit cooler. If you are observant, though, you can see those changes. The flowers change color, even when the leaves on the trees do not. From the bright pastels of Spring, they turn to the riotous reds, oranges, and golds of marigolds, foxfire, and mums. If you live in the city, where even these are not self-evident, take a stroll through a local nursery, and you will see the changes in the plants being offered for sale.
In the markets, the peaches and berries have been replaced by apples, pears, and sweet corn. Along the roadsides, the produce sellers offer pumpkins, corn and potatoes, instead of melons and berries. The department stores pack away the bikinis to make way for school supplies and sweaters. Even in the cities, the carefree Maiden has become the more practical Mother. It is Autumn and soon will be Winter.
Harvest celebrations are common to almost every culture. The dates vary according to seasonal differences and the types of crops being grown. In the United States today, our version of the traditional Harvest Feast is held on the fourth Thursday in November and its original meaning has been all but forgotten. However, once upon a time, it was celebrated in a more traditional manner.
The first Thanksgiving was held by the settlers at Plymouth on September 23, 1621 (approximately Autumn Equinox). After a year of privation and hardship, the first Harvest was truly a reason to celebrate. Approximately 140 persons attended that first feast, including 90 Native Americans.
Festivals of this nature were held irregularly, according to the abundance of the harvest, for the next 200 years. The modern date, in late November, was assigned to the holiday by President Lincoln in 1864. The reasons for moving the 'Harvest' celebration to a time two months later than a normal harvest (for the United States as it was at that time) are unknown. However, it is known that there had been efforts on the part of some Christian religious leaders to convert the holiday to a 'religious observance'.
In ancient times, there was great need for the Harvest celebration. People knew the hard times were ahead; the signs of the turning Wheel were unmistakable. In some vicinities, they might not see each other again for months and they needed to fortify their Spirits with a feast.
Harvest held menacing undertones for our ancestors. The correct procedures must be followed exactly or next year's crop might fail. One of these procedures involved the cutting of the 'neck', the last sheaf. The neck (neck is a Norse word meaning 'sheaf') was the last stalk to remain standing and was thought to contain the Spirit of the Harvest. No one, of course, wanted the responsibility of killing it. Sometimes, all the farmers would stand back as far as possible and throw their sickles at it, over and over, until at last it was cut down, making this fateful task a joint effort.
There are many interesting customs surrounding the last sheaf or the last wagon-load of the Harvest. In the Orkney Islands, a dog was fashioned from the last of the straw to be cut. This straw dog was called a 'bikko' (believed to be from the from Norse 'bikkja', meaning 'bitch'). The bikko was then hoisted to the top of a building, where it was thought to frighten away malicious spirits during the Winter.
Some people formed the neck into the shape of other animals; sometimes a mare, sometimes a hare and, according to Frazer, sometimes wolf, cock, cat, bull, cow, ox or pig. They viewed this as a sacred feast and that they were eating an animal that had been slain by the harvesters. In other areas, the familiar corn dolly was made, this time called the Corn-Maiden, Corn-Mother, Carlin, Cailleach or Old Wife.
If the Harvest was abundant, the Maiden held the place of honor at the festival, but if the crops were poor, the people looked to the Crone. Often, the Maiden image was kept in the home of the farmer to represent the Corn Spirit being saved and nurtured for the coming year, while the Cailleach would be passed from farmer to farmer, until the last one to complete the Harvest had Her to care for through the Winter.
Sometimes, the last sheaf was called 'The Mother' and took the shape of a pregnant woman. The image was constructed by the oldest married woman in the village, and delivered to the farmer's wife. In some parts of Germany, the 'Corn-Mother' was given a place of honor during the celebration. The finest ears were taken from it, entwined with flowers, and made into a crown for the prettiest girl. She then wore it to the home of the farmer and presented it to him. The Mother, herself, was laid in the barn to scare off mice. In other villages, the Mother was carried, on a pole behind the girl wearing the wreath, to the home of the Village Squire. It was kept there til threshing was complete. (The wreath was presented to him, personally, and the Mother was put on display.) The man who made the last stroke of the threshing was called the Son of the Corn Mother and was tied up inside Her. He was ceremoniously beaten with sticks and carried through the Village. We believe he was meant to represent the Harvest, itself, and may have been the remnant of an earlier rite of Sacrifice.
Although the Equinox is a Solar event, we find little or no reference to any fire-related customs. There were, however, water-related customs. One such custom was 'dousing the neck'. Trying to douse the last sheaf with water, as it was brought in from the field, was thought to bring abundant rain for the next year's crop. This custom also applied to the last wagon, which would be driven down the road, decorated with ribbons and flowers, while it was the target of apples and buckets of water tossed by onlookers.
Another unusual custom comes, once again, from The Orkneys. Until the last century, the methods of planting and harvesting went virtually unchanged in this area. From the earliest times, the crops were cut by hand using a sickle called a 'heuk'. A Harvest custom common in these Islands was known as 'the casting o' the heuks'. After the last of the crop was cut, the heuks were taken by their points and thrown backwards, over the shoulder. The following chant was recited:
'Whar'll I in winter dwell, Whar'll I in vore dell, Whar'll I in simmer fare, Whar'll I in hairst shaer.'
The direction the heuk pointed when it landed was thought to indicate where it's owner would live or find employment in the coming year. If the heuk fell point down, it was an omen that the owner would be buried before the next Harvest.
An interesting custom in parts of France and Germany was the preservation of a tree or large branch, known as the Harvest May. It was fastened to the roof of the house or barn and remained there until Spring. In this case, as has been seen in other celebrations, the people were calling upon the Tree Spirit to insure their survival.
Once the hard work of harvesting and threshiing was complete, all that was left was dancing, singing and the Harvest Home feast or 'Muckle Supper'. (Muckle means 'much' or 'large'.)
Dancing is prominent in all the agricultural festivities, to bless the seed, to help it grow and to bless the harvest. A dance common to this feast was the 'Chain Dance', which seems to be similar to the Spiral Dance we are all familiar with. Participants join hands and follow a leader in a weaving pattern, accordng to LaRousse. The songs are joyous, of course.
The Harvest Home feast was one shared equally by all, landowners and laborers alike. For this celebration they sat side by side and enjoyed the rewards of their hard work together. The abundance of the feast reflected the abundance of the Harvest.
(Note: We have referred here, consistently, to 'corn' as the crop being harvested. Don't forget, though, that this was, variously, wheat, oats, rye, barley or maize. The Vegetation Spirit resides in all of them and the customs surrounding the Harvest are similar, even when crops are different.)
We wish you all a Happy and Abundant Harvest and don't forget: when you dance, sing and make merry, when you enjoy your Harvest Feast and in November, when you sit down to Thanksgiving dinner, you are, as always, celebrating in The Old Ways!