With the previous post in mind, and the Autumn Equinox recently gone, our first non-introductory post is in relation to Mabon and the legend of Culhwch and Olwen, from the great Welsh cycle of stories known as the Mabinogion, in which Mabon appears. The seed of this post was originally written as part of a comments thread on Sorita D’Este’s blog, and I recommend her own prior article on where the term ‘Mabon’, for the name of the Autumn Equinox, actually comes from: the festival was named this by Aiden Kelly, in the mid seventies, who also states that Gwydion, the North Welsh enchanter/hero, is the rescuer of Mabon from prison in Gloucester. (http://sorita.co.uk/goatssheep)
The first mention of Mabon per se comes in the story of Culhwch and Olwen in the White Book of Rhydderch (c. 1325), in a fragment, and subsequently in the Red Book of Hergest, c. 1400. He’s also mentioned in various triads, usually as one of the Three Exalted Prisoners of Britain. There are linguistic attempts to link him to an earlier deity, the Latinised Maponus – a version of Apollo worshipped along Hadrian’s Wall by Roman border guards – but the etymology is not clear, as we will consider below.
The timeline of Culhwch (pronounced, roughtly, ‘Kil-hook’ – the name apparently means ‘pigsty’, since he was born in one) is clear: Culhwch’s wicked stepmother places a curse on him, stating that he can only marry a girl named Olwen, the daughter of Ysbaddaden Pencawr the giant. Without even setting eyes on Olwen, Culhwch falls hopelessly in love and sets off to win her hand – but he can’t do so without the help of his kinsman, King Arthur. He heads down to Arthur’s court in Cornwall, therefore, and asks for aid – which Arthur, always up for a quest, eventually gives him. Much of the story consists of lists of names of heroes (and women, swords, dogs, and horses – a sort of ‘who’s who’ of magical Celtic Britain).
In typical legendary challenge, Culhwch is given a massive list of tasks to perform before he will be given Olwen’s hand in marriage. This is characteristic of the hyperbolic Celtic imagination (‘he has to do what??’). There are about forty of these tasks, making this a potentially very lengthy tale, but not all of the tasks are given – perhaps fortunately! The story outlines fourteen or so of them.
Mabon turns out to be a crucial part of this quest. Only Mabon, a huntsman snatched from his mother when he was three days old, can handle the dog Drudwyn, which Culhwch needs to hunt the the ravaging boar, Twrch Trwyth – one of the tasks for the winning of Olwen’s hand. Mabon ap Modron, ‘Son son of Mother,’ turns out to be incarcerated in a prison in Gloucester, and must be freed in order to join the quest.
The timescale of the story is quite clear, and it has little to do with the autumn equinox. When he reaches Arthur’s court, Culhwch asks Glewlwyd, Arthur’s porter, if there is a porter on the gate, to which Glewlwyd replies – “There is; and if thou holdest not thy peace, small will be thy welcome. I am Arthur’s porter every first day of January. And during every other part of the year but this, the office is filled by Huandaw, and Gogigwc, and Llaeskenym, and Pennpingyon, who goes upon his head to save his feet, neither towards the sky nor towards the earth, but like a rolling stone upon the floor of the court.”
Culhwch, as mentioned above, asks Arthur for help. They make enquiries, and a year later – at the end of the year – they come up with the list of tasks to win Olwen and beat the boar Trwch Tryth, including busting Mabon out of jail at Gloucester like some Medieval version of the A Team. Mabon is rescued during the first part of the quest, and as far as I can see, Arthur’s knights, with the help of a magical fish, break him out of Gloucester prison round about 12th Night – but definitely in January, not in September.
So not only is Mabon not associated with autumn, he’s actively linked with an adventure that happens in the New Year – which to the Medieval Welsh, was January. Where Kelly gets his idea about Gwydion rescuing Mabon, I have no clue: I can’t find Gwydion in Culhwch, in spite of the massive lists of names, and most of the action is set in the south west and south Wales, not the north. Either Kelly got hold of a completely mistranslated version of the Mabinogion, or he simply made all this up. But it’s a piece of appropriation which does not do the original story, or its author, justice.
Mabon is often described as a Welsh god. Not in these early texts, he isn’t; he’s a hero, a huntsman. Some protagonists – Arawn, for instance – are described as being of clearly supernatural origin, but nothing is said about Mabon himself, although he is located by questioning a series of very ancient animals, and he does have a rather odd birth, which might be a hint of some kind of divine origin. As mentioned above, he’s often linked to the Romano-British deity Maponus, whose name is connected to Lochmaben, and Clochmabenstane in Scotland, but again, I’m really not sure about the etymology of this: you’d need to look at the languages spoken in the relevant areas to draw any significant parallels. Gaelic is completely different from Welsh, being q-Celtic rather than p-Celtic. Gaelic comes – I think – from old Irish, and I would welcome any more informed comments on any perceived connections between that language and Brythonic. Maponus was worshipped primarily along Hadrian’s Wall. There is a Welsh poem (“A Rumour Has Told Me’) which suggests a link between Mabon and the north, either Rheged or the Sctos borders, but There’s no mention of Modron – ‘Mother’ – although attempts to link her with the quadruple or triple figures known as the Matres have been made. But as John Matthews points out, these are titles. Mabon and Maponus might be entirely different entities.
It’s worth noting here that just because a word sounds like another word, this does not mean that they are therefore necessarily connected, particularly when you are talking about different languages. Any EFL teacher will tell you to beware of “false friends” – words that sound the same but which are nothing to do with one another. If a Portuguese student tells me that he’s suffering from ‘constipacao’, it doesn’t mean that he’s got a digestive disorder – he’s just got a cold. If you make a ‘demand’ in Spanish (the verb ‘demander’) you won’t be demanding something, but requesting it – or you might be suing someone. And confetti isn’t a word for sugared almonds anymore…at least, not outside Italy. It’s bad enough with the same language, as anyone who’s asked for a rubber in an American shop will be aware.
Individual pagans or groups may wish, for reasons which vary, to retain the name ‘Mabon’ for the Autumn Equinox. That’s up to them, but ancient antecedents can’t be claimed for it – unless, of course, someone wants to prove me wrong and come up with a source prior to the White Book of Rhydderch.
So what did people actually do in these islands at the equinox? Not a whole lot, that we know of. Throughout recorded history, the nearest festivities have revolved around Michaelmas, the Feast of the Archangels – 29th September, when the harvest was gathered in and people started looking to collect rents etc. It was the start and the finish of the husbandman’s year, and a quarter day, when accounts needed to be settled. Leading up to that, you’d have the wakes and the harvest fairs – and the latter are probably closest to our contemporary autumn equinox celebrations, marking the fruits of the harvest and focusing on the ‘necks’ and corn dollies which represent the last of the corn. Whatever you call it, however, and whatever its antecedents, it’s one of the loveliest of the festivals in the modern pagan calendar and in my opinion, well worth celebrating.