Autumn Equinox (around 21st September)
The festival of Harvest End or Harvest Home coincided with the Autumn equinox in September when the days and nights were equal. It is in the sign of Virgo, the corn maiden or goddess. At this period there was a feeling in the air that autumn was when the Bright Goddess of spring and summer handed over to the Dark Goddess of winter. The last sheaf of corn was called the 'Old Woman', 'The Old Witch', the Queen. In Scotland two corn dollies were made from the last sheaf of corn and called the Cailleach and the Maiden. They were dressed accordingly in handmade clothes and were the harvest of the past year and the year to come.
In the Highlands the last sheaf was called the Maiden before Samhain, and the Cailleach afterwards. This sheaf was thought to contain the spirit of the grain goddess, so the maid from the farm ran to the farmhouse with it and there it was fashioned into a corn dolly and hung up over the hearth for winter. The Cailleach presided over the home, and was taken out and scattered on the fields prior to sowing time in the spring. Thus was the cycle of the Earth Goddess complete.
The (usually) male worker who cut the last sheaf of corn was given the title Harvest Lord, and the maid who brought it back to the farm was called the Queen of the Harvest. They presided over the harvest supper, when these rites became too riotous and rowdy in the 19th century they were replaced by the more sedate Harvest Festival of the Church when the fruits of the harvest were offered.
In some areas the person who cut the last sheaf was treated roughly by the other farm hands, and in some areas if a stranger walked into the threshing floor they were bound with a flail and a rope made from twisted corn was placed around their necks. In some areas the person who cut, bound and threshed the last sheaf was treated as an embodiment of the corn spirit by being wrapped in sheaves, killed in mimicry by agricultural implements and thrown in water. These customs all bear the hallmarks of folk memories of the older re-enactment of the death of the sacred king, or sacrificial offering at Harvest End.
This time from Lughnasadh to Samhain is a time of thanksgiving, the time of mature contemplation of the past year's work. The seeds of that working should be looked at and thanks given for whatever has been achieved. It is also a time for sorrow, for the season of growth is over and the year must surely die.
That is the inner meaning of Lammas and Harvest End. On a practical level the Gods will be thanked for the harvest and the story of the death of old John Barleycorn re-enacted. As the autumn comes, the leaves begin to fall, the mist rises from the empty fields and the first frost makes hedgerows white, the reign of the bright Summer Goddess comes to an end. She must become the Wise Crone, the Dark Queen and the Destroying Hag.
She is now the Winter Goddess of the waning and dark moon whose gifts are visions of the future and the release of death. The spring maiden and summer enchantress hide their beautiful faces behind the grim visage of the winter Hag. She is the Old Queen who rides out from the faery mound at the head of the Faery Host at midnight on Samhain eve. Beside her rides the dark and sinister figure of the Wild Hunter with his stag skull mask and antlers. The dark season ha begun and once more the goblin dead haunt the spirit paths waiting to be invited in.
A note is required at this point, we note that many Wiccans and American neo-pagans have taken to calling this Mabon. Let us be quite specific, this is NOT the name for this festival, the name Mabon is new, given to bestow an air of antiquity, and a Celtic name like many of the other Sabbats. This is not a name generally used in the Traditional Craft.
© Traditional Witch 2006