Autumn Equinox

We know Keats’ ‘season of mists and mellow fruitfulness’ has become a cliché but it is still the most evocative description of an English autumn and my favourite time of the year.

Not surprisingly, the Magister is ‘Master of Ceremonies’ for this fire festival of the Harvest Home and we immediately felt the need to say that it is important to stand well back from the rites and look at it in all its richest symbolism. Many students struggle without the attribution of human traits,emotions, or intentions to these gods, although it is considered to be an innate tendency of human psychology to ascribe human form or attributes to a deity.  During the dark time the goddess ‘sleeps’ or goes into hibernation like much of the flora and fauna in the natural world.  The god ‘keeps watch’ and the pair only interact again at the time when the bright and dark tides are equally balanced at the Vernal Equinoxes.

The Autumnal Equinox is also a time of transition.  It is the time of the harvest and plenty, when the work is finished and the last stook of corn has been cut and stored in the barn to be ploughed back into the ground in the spring.   So while it is a ritual of thanksgiving, it is also an important rite of passage – regeneration and renewal – the symbol of which is over-wintered in the barn or corner of the kitchen.  To trace our indigenous customs back as far as possible, we can turn to T F Thistleton Dyer’s Folk-lore of Shakespeare, which tells us that ‘the ceremonies which graced the in-gathering of the harvest in bygone times have gradually disappeared, and at the present day [1883] only remnants of the old usages which once prevailed are still preserved’.

‘Shakespeare, who chronicled so many of our old customs, and seems to have had a special delight in illustrating his writings with these characteristics of our social life, had given several interesting allusions to the observances which in his day graced the harvest field … an allusion to the ‘Hock Cart’ of the old harvest-home.  This was the cart which carried the last corn away from the harvest field; and which was generally profusely decorated and accompanied by music, old and young shouting at the top of their voices a doggerel after the following fashion:-

We have ploughed, we have sowed,

We have reaped, we have mowed,

We have brought home every load,

Hip, hip, hip! Harvest home.’

Of course, if the harvest failed there were propitiatory rites to be observed during the coming months, since the survival of the community was dependant on the harvest for its survival. With an exceptionally bad year – and some years were terrible – the harvest-home rhymes reflected this:

The bread aint done, the cheese aint come,

The Devil never knew such a harvest home.

This theme is echoed in the famous cult-film, The Wicker Man, where human sacrifice was deemed necessary after several consecutive years of a failing harvest. The folk-song John Barleycorn also reflects the belief in the dying or sacrificial god for the benefit of the community.  In good years, however, the chief feast of the year followed on the harvest with all the men, women and boys riding home on the last load, the horses’ harnesses gaily decorated with flowers, and horns being blown. Almost every village seems to have had its own version of the harvest-home rhyme:

Up! Up! Up! a merry harvest home,

We have sowed, we have mowed

We have carried our last load.

A good plum pudding and a good beef bone.

While a cauldron is the perfect container for a large ‘Harvest Home’ stew – we’d go for a crock-pot (or two) and cook it the day before as this does improve the taste. At the traditional supper, boiled beef and carrots was the staple fare, taken from the pot in the old way with a flesh-fork; the second course was the inevitable plum pudding, and both were washed down with draughts of specially brewed ale. At the end of the meal, the health of the master was sung.  In Robert Herrick’s poem, ‘The Hock Cart, or Harvest Home’ we have a contemporary view of the ingredients of a typical 17th century celebration:

Well, on, brave boys, to your lord’s hearth,
Glitt’ring with fire, where, for your mirth,
Ye shall see first the large and chief
Foundation of your feast, fat beef :
With upper stories, mutton, veal
And bacon (which makes full the meal),
With sev’ral dishes standing by,
As here a custard, there a pie,
And here all-tempting frumenty.
And for to make the merry cheer,
If smirking wine be wanting here,
There’s that which drowns all care, stout beer ;
Which freely drink to your lord’s health,

Needless to say, these were always boozy, ribald affairs – and the relatively modern British tradition of celebrating the modern harvest festival in churches only began in 1843, when the Reverend Robert Hawker invited parishioners to a special thanksgiving service at his church in Morwenstow, Cornwall. Popular Victorian hymns such as We plough the fields and scatterCome, ye thankful people, come and All things bright and beautiful helped spread the annual custom of decorating churches with home-grown produce for the harvest festival service. On 8th September 1854 the Rev Dr William Beal, Rector of Brooke, Norfolk, held a Harvest Festival aimed at ending what he saw as disgraceful scenes at the end of harvest, and went on to promote the cleaned-up ‘harvest homes’ in other Norfolk villages!

In English folklore, John Barleycorn is a character who represents the crop of barley harvested each autumn. Equally as important, he symbolizes the wonderful drinks which can be made from barley – beer and whisky – and their effects. In the traditional folksong, the character of John Barleycorn endures all kinds of indignities, most of which correspond to the cyclic nature of planting, growing, harvesting, and then death.  It has all the symbolism of the dying god/sacrificial king that is at the heart of all witchcraft and ancient pagan tradition.

Versions of the folk-song John Barleycorn date back to the reign of Queen Elizabeth I, but there is evidence that it was sung for many years before that and, although most of us no longer work on the land, the power of this extraordinary and ancient song remains undiminished.  There appears to be some mystery as to who the three men were coming from the West (sunset – the place of death?) and the three men coming from the East (sunrise – the place of life?) and are possibly the personification of barley and its by-products of bread, beer and whisky.  The lyrics to the Robert Burns version are as follows:

There was three kings into the west [or east]
three kings both great and high,
and they hae sworn a solemn oath
John Barleycorn must die.
They took a plough and plough’d him down,
put clods upon his head,
and they hae sworn a solemn oath
John Barleycorn was dead. 
But the cheerful Spring came kindly on’
and show’rs began to fall.
John Barleycorn got up again,
and sore surprised them all. 

Writer and storyteller, Austin Hackney, tells us that in the earliest Celtic writings and myths, the male heroes frequently set out in groups of three to undertake their sacred quests.  Similarly, in Celtic myth, ‘The West’ as we know was a euphemism for ‘Otherworld’ – the mystic isle across the western sea where wonders and magic were commonplace, where pleasure and immortality could be found in the dwelling place of the gods.

‘Thus it seems reasonable that these words of the song are a remnant, a memory, of an earlier myth surrounding the figure of John Barleycorn: three magical heroes coming from the mystic ‘otherworld’ to bring about his death.  In the body of anthropological and folkloric study that has been undertaken over the last hundred years or so there is a wealth of information and evidence to support the theory I propose here for the interpretation of this song – and for its roots in antiquity. From the common symbol of the Sacrificial King, the tomb/womb of death and rebirth and the residual folk customs (such as Corn Dollies and Soul Cakes) that are so redolent of the more terrible offerings of the pagan past, to the rites and rituals of modern pagan revival movements and interpretations in popular media (Stephen King’s Children of The Corn and the original Wicker Man for example).  But for me there is an argument a little less scientific, but personally no less compelling: the simple enduring power and emotional impact of the story and of the song. It has survived a long time and still makes the hair on the back of one’s neck stand on end. That speaks to me of ancient roots that stir deep memories in the psyche.’

In Northern Europe, it was Michaelmas that marked the end of the harvest and some covens may prefer to hold their Harvest Home on this day since it was an important date in the rural calendar. This was the time that farm folk calculated how many animals they could afford to feed over the winter and how many would have to be sold or slaughtered and salted down in order to preserve the meat. In addition to livestock fairs, rural folk attended hiring fairs which were especially important for farm laborers looking for winter employment after the harvest.  Old Michaelmas Day now falls on 11th October as a result of the shift from the Julian to the Gregorian calendar. 

Michaelmas term [modern 29th September] is the first of the academic year in a number of English-speaking universities and schools, and was also one of the regular quarter-days for settling rents and accounts; often, since this was also the time of the ‘geese harvest’, and many a farmer paid off his accounts with a brace or more of plump birds from the flock hatched in the spring. Michaelmas also marked the end of the fishing season, the beginning of the hunting season, the traditional time to pick apples and the time to make cider.

Traditionally, on Michaelmas Day, families sat down to a roast goose dinner and it was the custom to hide a ring in the Michaelmas Pie; the person who found it would be married within the year. This was another old bit of folklore that leads us to believe it was a pie made with blackberries as part of the filling as it was once believed that on the feast of St. Michael, the devil spat on the blackberries (or worse!) and it was therefore very unwise to pick and eat the fruit after 29th September. According to legend, when St. Michael cast Satan from Heaven, the devil landed on earth in a patch of brambles and he returns every year to spit (or worse) on the plant that tortured him, breathing his foul breath over it and trampling it.  In reality, with the onset of heavy dews and the first frosts, mildew begins to cloud any late berries.  In medieval times in England it was a sign that the crop had been defiled and it was therefore deemed unwise to pick blackberries after Michaelmas Day.  So no more blackberry pies for this year!

We can see from the above that, once again there is a lot of hidden symbolism concealed behind the historical and folklore elements of the harvest season which remains undiminished as the holiest time of the witch’s year.  For those who view this from a purely urban standpoint and cannot understand the relevance as an integral part of  today’s witchcraft, we would say that if this doesn’t speak of ancient roots and stir memories deep within the psyche, then perhaps your feet would be more suited to a different path. Kindred calls to kindred, blood calls to blood.

Carrie West

Phillip Wright

Taken from our Old Craft grimoire, Round About the Cauldron Go …

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