Why Witch's Thanksgiving Is Named for an Obscure Welsh God

An excerpt from Withcraft, Power, and Transformation” A Magical Mystery School for the 21st Century © Janus Blumë 2020.

Since I haven't been able to get the book published yet, I thought I would make this excerpt available as the starwheel gets ready to turn toward darkness and we celebrate the harvest.


We arrive at the second equinox of the year, a day of equal light and dark before we descend into the dark interval of shorter and shorter days. We have an opportunity once more to appreciate the balance of opposites. The growing season ends, the harvest is ripe, and the Witches celebrate Thanksgiving,

A Welch god, Mabon ap Madron (MAY-bun ap MUH-drone), lends his name to the Harvest Home Festival. His name means “son of the mother.” A Witch and writer named Aiden Kelly gave the name of Mabon to the autumn equinox in the 1970’s. Within a few years, all the other books about Wicca and Witchcraft had adopted it. Pagans have been scratching their heads about it ever since.

The people of British Isles conveyed their folktales through an oral tradition. Little remains of the original myth of Mabon. What comes down to us in written form has been conflated with post-Christian Arthurian tales. We don’t know much about what the tale meant to those who first told it.

Kelly explained his choice in a 2012 blog. He had completed his Ph.D. dissertation on the Eleusinian Mysteries of ancient Greece, so he was well-versed in classical mythological correlations. In pondering which lore of the British Isles might be associated with the autumnal equinox, he noticed a theme:

“…there seems to be a complex of myths associating the fall equinox with the rescue of a young person from death… I began looking for a similar sort of myth in northern Europe. I could not find one in Germanic or Gaelic literature, but there was one… in the Mabinogion collection, the story of Mabon ap Modron…”

World mythology virtually rings with tales of Goddess/God fertility narratives. They often reflect themes of abduction, separation, and resurrection. The title “Son of the Mother” may, in fact, tie the harvest theme to earth’s cycles—the story of the Great Mother and her beloved, depicted as consort, child, or even both.

Here are a few examples. Isis resurrects her slain consort Osiris long enough to conceive the sacred child Horus. Cybele, once known as the Mother of the Gods, hails from the part of Asia minor now known as Turkey. She falls in love with her son (or grandson), Attis, and around the fifth century B.C.E. their cult worship becomes popular in Greece. We all know the story of the grain goddess, Demeter, and Persephone, her daughter, whose separation and reunion result in the annual cycle of barrenness and fruitfulness.

The Cosmic Mother, Who is giving birth to the Divine

We can even see representations of the Mother of God in medieval Christian art. The Wheel of the Year represents Mater Deum Magna (Great Mother of the Gods) as we see Her and Her Holy Child through the seasonal ebb and flow of solar illumination. “Son of the Mother” may, in fact, be the perfect name for the holiday which celebrates the fall harvest, the sacrifice of the god in the grain.

When the equinox has passed, the hours of darkness will increasingly outnumber those of light. The God’s life force has gone to nourish the crops, and the cutting of the grain symbolizes his sacrificial death. Harvest Home as a representation of the grain sacrifice has come down to us in the lyrics of the traditional song, “John Barleycorn Must Die.”

There were three men came out from the West

Their fortunes for to try,

And these three men made a solemn vow,

John Barleycorn must die…

There’s a humorous twist at the end of the song. Grain makes bread, a food so essential that we call it “the staff of life,” but that’s not all. Barley is a key ingredient of malt liquor.

There's beer all in the barrel and brandy in the glass

But little Sir John, with his nut-brown bowl, proved the strongest man at last

And the huntsman he can't hunt the fox nor loudly blow his horn

And the tinker he can't mend his pots without John Barleycorn .

John Barleycorn gives cheer and resolve as well as sustenance. Most Religions seek to control and limit the behavior of their members, but Paganism sets us free. Witchcraft doesn’t require us to abstain, and revelry is common. Some Pagans come to realize that neither beer, brandy, nor “barleycorn” serve them well. Wisdom, the guiding principle of our Craft, leads some of us to celebrate a harvest of sobriety.

Fall harvest was an important event in the British Isles. The date was determined by the ripening of the grain. It happened in late September, but the exact day could vary slightly from year to year. Everyone in the community regardless of age, gender, or status worked side by side to cut the grain and bring in the sheaves. The people celebrated together when the work was done, saving the last sheaf as a charm to bless the following year’s harvest.

Have a feast for Witch’s Thanksgiving. Decorate with the colors of fall and harvest. Contemplate balance on this day of equal hours of day and night. Fill a cornucopia with local representations of nature’s bounty. Apples ripen now, and they have a long and respected connection to the goddess.

Cut one in two crosswise and see the pentacle inside. Drink a toast of your choice to John Barleycorn with a heart full of gratitude for the blessings of the season and for the gift of life.

The Circle Comes Round

The hours of darkness continue to grow until once again we find ourselves at summer’s end, Samhain. In the modern Western worldview, we have progressed in linear fashion from one year to the next, but our ancestors saw things differently. Their year was a repeating cycle. We’re not coming up on a “new” year, but the old one dissolved and reintegrated. The year we’ve just experienced dissipates, re-forms, reintegrates, resurrects. The Witch’s Wheel of the Year is an attempt to reclaim a world view in which life is a circle to enjoy, not a race to run."

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