Mabon – Element of Water

Continuing the series I started a few years ago, I’d like to spend time this Mabon focusing on the Element of Water. As we continue to travel around the Wheel of the Year, we have come to the season of autumn and the western direction, both of which are associated with Water in my system of correspondences.

Water is represented in the Tarot by the suit of Cups, which is associated with emotions and relationships. Anything having to do with feelings, both internal and external, is in the domain of Water. These cards represent a multiplicity of emotions, from the joy of love to the nostalgia of childhood and also the ennui of depression and the ambivalence of setting out on a new path. In trying to represent such a wide range of emotional states, the Cups are both inviting and challenging cards to work with.

This makes them – and the whole metaphor of Water – a good place for reflection. Water itself is reflective, but not always perfectly so, and it is most reflective when it is still. But at the same time, water, like our emotional state, is seldom still, and that’s a good thing, because motion prevents stagnation with both water and emotions. Reflection is important, but it’s easy to get caught up in that reflection, like Narcissus, and stay caught there. The way to stay healthy is to balance the right amount of movement and stillness together.

At this time of the equinox, we like to think about balance, and it’s easy to get caught up in thinking of that balance as a single point, the perfect moment of equality, as if that were a stable thing. But it’s not; even if that moment of balance happens for a second, it’s because of the motion around it, through that moment, which makes the balancing possible. We see the same thing in yoga, where in even the stillest of balancing postures constant tiny movements are happening to keep the balance going in a dynamic fashion.

Water teaches us that every balance is a dynamic situation, and that we are always in motion, just as water is always moving under the pull of the moon. We are always changing, and that’s essential to us remaining healthy, just as moving water remains a healthy part of a larger system, while still water soon grows stagnant.

Thus our reflections too are constantly changing. Our own self-image has to shift and ripple to absorb the changes that are constantly moving us and our relationships. Similarly, all our relationships have a dynamic component; the relationship itself is a living thing, always changing, in small ways and big ones. This too is part of remaining healthy, because a relationship cut off from changes, isolated from adapting to the living situations of the participants, will soon react as any living thing does without water: it withers and dies.

Seen from another perspective, though, death is just another one of the changes that we encounter, and so it deserves our respect as part of the dynamic balance of life. In this sunset season of the year, we become aware that no matter how much love we pour into the world, the consequence of all things changing is that eventually all things will pass away. Even those things that seem “set in stone” are worn away by the movement of water over time.

This awareness that change is the only constant leads to different kinds of attitudes. Some people embrace that knowledge to such a degree that they become detached from the vicissitudes of everyday life, and they reckon this a great gift, so that pain and joy alike become distant and life as a whole becomes less turbulent. I do not follow that path. I prefer to remain immersed in the ups and downs of life’s white water. The knowledge that the only balance is dynamic helps me cope with both the peaks and the troughs; I savor the sweetness of the good times all the more because I know they will end, and I console myself during the down times with an awareness that they too are fleeting, though perhaps never as quickly as we would wish. Still, the knowledge of variation helps me ride the waves as they come, moving with the flow of life’s waters.

When we get out of balance – because we will, we all will, it will always happen – the knowledge that change is the only constant helps us adapt and move on, flowing with the movement around us to try to find a new dynamic balance, one that we can maintain for a while longer. Still, that sense that things are passing away, even if we know that something new is coming, is one of the most difficult feelings we deal with. We will talk about that more at Samhain.

So I leave you with this idea: water is an apt metaphor not only for our relationships but for so much of our changeable lives and how we have to learn to cope with them. Tears of joy and tears of sorrow have more in common than we like to think. Embrace the moment of equinox, my dears, and we will turn our faces to Samhain soon enough.

Mabon – The Myth of Progress

I’m continuing to republish a series of articles on the Sabbats originally written in 2011.

Mabon, the autumn equinox, is something of a blank slate. In the Wheel of the Year, the “cross-quarter days” are Celtic fire festivals; the other solar festivals – the solstices and the vernal equinox – are grounded in proto-Germanic cultures. In those Germanic cultures, though, the autumn equinox has no strong history of celebration; it doesn’t even have a distinguishing name. To keep the Wheel of the Year in balance, Gerald Gardner included the autumn equinox, but left most of the details open to interpretation. The name Mabon, drawn from Welsh mythology, came into common use later on, but doesn’t do much to specify the nature of the festival.

As a result, different ways of interpreting the multiple harvest festivals have sprung up. Some groups focus on the Celtic roots of Lunasa and leave the harvest symbolism to Mabon; others describe Lunasa as the start of the harvest and the equinox as its end, and may call the festival Harvest Home instead. [1] Still others describe Lunasa as the grain harvest and Mabon as the fruit harvest. It depends on the group, and the bioregion, and the weather. This multiplicity of interpretations is one of the things I love about Paganism: each open space is fertile soil where multiple myths can take root and flourish simultaneously.

Understanding and relating to Pagan myths has taken practice, though. When I first became Pagan, I used to be confused and sometimes downright irritated when I read tales of deities who didn’t seem very godlike, coming from a monotheistic perspective. I mean, they get drunk, they have fights, and they cheat on their spouses, not always in that order. They’re not exactly the kind of example we’d want to imitate in most cases.

As I grew in my practice and engaged more with the myths and with different kinds of stories, I gradually reached the conclusion that my assumption – that myths are stories about gods whom humans should seek to emulate – was a holdover from my Christian past. In Christianity, religious narratives about Jesus or good Christians are presented as exemplars for followers to emulate. This approach is very god-centered, and when taken to its (il)logical extreme, it can almost erase the adherent by reducing her to a mere reflection of the beatified.

I’ve come to see the older myths as human-centric stories. The gods act like humans – and do they ever! – except that the gods are bigger and stronger, so when they screw up, they royally – or maybe deifically? –  screw up. The myths reflect humans back to themselves, but enlarged. The stories don’t minimize the bad in favor of the good, or vice versa; they magnify all the parts and possibilities, or they add unique features that weren’t present before.

The myths give both storyteller and audience the chance to engage with human stories in an exaggerated setting so that they’re more interesting, more exciting, more dangerous, more tragic and more amazing. Throughout, though, they are fundamentally human stories.

This approach also helps me understand why so many overlapping, contradictory versions of the same myth can co-exist. The myths are no longer central; the teller and audience are, so it is natural for the people to adapt the myths to tell the stories they need to tell. No one is trying to find the single unchanging standard for behavior; the multiplicity of myths encourages us to adapt our responses to the situation, just as the storyteller working on the fly might have to alter the ending to fit the narrative corner she backs herself into. What matters is that the story works, that it’s good enough, that it fits its context.

The most encouraging thing about this approach to the myths, though, is that because we’re telling them, we can change them. They grow with us over time. And that’s important, because my favorite myth is the myth of progress.

Historian Laurence Keeley, in his book on prehistoric warfare, wrote that modern people tend to view prehistory in terms of two competing myths: the myth of the golden age or the myth of progress. [2] The myth of the golden age conceives of the world as continually declining. It leads us to assume that the past was always better than the present – if not in hygiene or life expectancy, then in some in some ineffable but presumably more important characteristics like social structure and morality. The myth of progress supposes the polar opposite: it tells a story of continuous development, usually with technological and social development being used as evidence of the present’s superiority.

It is quite accurate to describe both of these worldviews as myths; as the Slacktiverse’s motto says, it’s usually more complicated than that. Depending on the period and place that a historical narrative tries to describe, and what the narrative’s author views as “good,” it may seem that these myths take turns driving alternating ages of development and decay, or that one is predominant for all the period under consideration, or both, or neither.

For example, the history of Europe in the centuries after the end of the Roman Empire is usually told in accord with the myth of the golden age, while the history of the time around the Renaissance and the Enlightenment is usually presented as progress. Neither of these is entirely true or entirely false, especially depending on who and what the person telling the story considers important. Each framing, though, highlights some aspects and supports some conclusions, while pushing other matters into the background.

For the present moment, I try to make narratives that loosely fit with the myth of progress. I think that trying to tell our own stories as a part of the myth of the golden age is fundamentally discouraging, but trying to tell them as part of the myth of progress is a fundamentally optimistic position which can not only make us feel good but inspire us to do good.

To me, starting from a position that assumes the past was better seems like an invitation to despair; we can’t get back there, after all, and if you think, as I do, that a certain amount of change is inevitable, then we may not even be able to hold on to the fragments of it we retain. The ability to learn and the ability to change are tied up together. An attitude of suspicion about all change seems to me to be inherently resistant to learning, and hence to growth.

The myth of progress, by contrast, is an invitation to hope. We can’t change the past; we have to acknowledge it in all its beauty and grandeur, its cruelty and despair. But with that acknowledgement, we free ourselves to work on what we can change: the present, with an eye towards the future. As Terry Pratchett wrote, if we do a good job of changing our own present, when we get to the future, the present will “turn out to be a past worth having.” [3]

In this way the myth of progress is more than an invitation to hopeful feelings: it is an invitation to hopeful action, to hope and love enacted. The myth of progress, and the mindset that comes with it, help me tell my stories in ways that guide my actions. Because I continue to have hope, I continue to put forth effort to make the world – and its stories – continue to improve.

And although some of the stories we tell are ones we really don’t want to live through, sometimes we tell ourselves stories that we do want to live up to, stories that inspire us to be better than we thought we were. I think America’s founders did that, for example, telling themselves a story about how things might work out much better in a society where religious liberty was guaranteed to all. The ones who found hope in that story were able to convince the ones who wanted to preserve an imaginary golden age of state-sponsored Christianity, and so there are clauses of the First Amendment to the Constitution which prohibit government establishment of a religion and guarantee free exercise to all.

But even at the time the Constitution was written, the story of free exercise for all religions was not the literal truth; it was in some ways a myth. Native Americans and slaves were not granted the rights the founders proposed, at least in part because they were seen as not really citizens and not fully human. State-sponsored Christian prayer continued in schools until the mid-20th century. Today, the US still lives up to that lofty ideal only imperfectly, but it has made tremendous strides towards making what was once a myth into a reality for more and more people. That gives me hope.

This is what I love about Mabon; more, perhaps, than any other Sabbat, it is a festival about which Pagans are actively making their own myths, in all their many forms. Mabon is an opportunity for us to look at our myths, and the stories we tell ourselves about our world, our past, and our potential futures. And since Mabon is so open to reinterpretation, it reminds us that if we don’t like those stories, or where they’re going, then maybe we can start telling the story differently, trying many versions, until we find the ones that we can live with and live in.

So, what’s your myth? How do you use a myth – of progress, or something else – to tell your own stories?


[1] Here I use the modernized Irish spelling for this holiday rather than the “Lughnasadh” spelling most Pagans are used to seeing.

[2] Keeley, Lawrence H. War Before Civilization. Oxford University Press, 1996, p 4-5.

[3] Pratchett, Terry. I Shall Wear Midnight. Harper Collins, 2010, p 336.

Mabon Apples and Honey

Wishes for a sweet year to be born from this harvest season: apples and honey. My apple showed me a perfect little pentacle when cut.

May it be so for you!

(Photo by the blogger; please link back here if you use.)

Mabon: Jewels and Fruit

Grounding and centering.

I breathe in, and out. I sink my roots down, deeper, deeper. Breathe. Sink. Breathe. Sink.

When I am grounded, deep in the dark, I find the Mother. I spread my hands before her, and my tears spill through, becoming jewels that tumble into the soil.

I know instinctively that they are not for me. These are what I need to leave behind. They are fixed in form, and they need to be returned to her. I look to her to ask what I should take to nurture my soul.

She points to the dirt. And then I see the tiny, hairlike fibers of my roots that quest between the crumbs of the soil, finding the minuscule fragments of nutrients, the miniature droplets of moisture. The fragmentary crystals of minerals and elements that are what I can absorb and turn into something else, something of myself, something living. There are droplets of compassion, particles of patience, fragments that will feed me.

I draw deep; each one is small, but my roots are questing wide and deep, and they quench my thirst and feed my hunger quickly, richly. I draw myself up, pressing upwards, unraveling shoots and branches.

The Father shines down on me. I turn my green face to the sun, asking implicitly what I am to do; I cannot reach so high so quickly. Don’t worry, he reassures me: I am here to help draw you up. He is right, and my branches grow and spread into a gorgeous canopy.

I grow, breathing in air and basking in fire from above and pushing it down to feed even my deepest roots, drinking in water and drawing in nutrients from below and sending them pulsing skyward to provide the raw materials to my highest branches.

In between appear apples, dangling from my branches like drops of fire, like the most precious jewels on gossamer threads, but more beautiful, so much more beautiful as living things that carry within themselves the promise of life.

This is the dynamic balance of Mabon.

Happy Mabon! The Myth of Progress and a book review

Happy autumn equinox to everyone!

The Myth of Progress is my article about Mabon at the Slacktiverse:

This is what I love about Mabon; more, perhaps, than any other Sabbat, it is a festival about which Pagans are actively making their own myths, in all their many forms. Mabon is an opportunity for us to look at our myths, and the stories we tell ourselves about our world, our past, and our potential futures. And since Mabon is so open to reinterpretation, it reminds us that if we don’t like those stories, or where they’re going, then maybe we can start telling the story differently, trying many versions, until we find the ones that we can live with and live in.

So, what’s your myth? How do you use a myth – of progress, or something else – to tell your own stories?

And the latest issue of Eternal Haunted Summer includes my review of the Percy Jackson and the Olympians series by Rick Riordan:

For readers who want to spend a lot of time inside the head of a stereotypical twelve-year-old boy, these books will be a fun romp. The stories might inspire kids to go on and read the original myths, and they are fine as light entertainment, but they have plenty of problems, too. If I gave these books to children, I would also have some very serious conversations with them about some of the subtler messages conveyed, and I wouldn’t use these books as a first introduction to the Olympic pantheon.