The name ‘Mabon’ as a term for the neopagan festival of the autumn equinox (along with the Saxon term ‘Litha’ for the summer solstice) was introduced in 1973 by the American witch and writer Aiden Kelly (b. 1940). His blog for 21st September 2012 explains:
“Back in 1973, I was putting together a “Pagan-Craft” calendar—the first of its kind, as far as I know—listing the holidays, astrological aspects, and other stuff of interest to Pagans. It offended my aesthetic sensibilities that there seemed to be no Pagan names for the summer solstice or the fall equinox equivalent to Ostara or Beltane—so I decided to supply them… I began wondering if there had been a myth similar to that of Kore in a Celtic culture. There was nothing very similar in the Gaelic literature, but there was in the Welsh, in the Mabinogion collection, the story of Mabon ap Modron (which translates as “Son of the Mother,” just as Kore simply meant “girl”), whom Gwydion rescues from the underworld, much as Theseus rescued Helen. That’s why I picked “Mabon” as a name for the holiday…” bd
Curiously, his own tradition, the New Reformed Orthodox Order of the Golden Dawn, did not follow him in this and instead called the autumn equinox ‘Rites of Eleusis’. However, the term took off and was used in many American books, and by extension, the readers of those books in the UK and elsewhere.
The association of the god Mabon with the festival is certainly not an ancient or traditional despite the claims in various books and websites where you might read ‘the Celts celebrated the god Mabon on this date’.
In order to see why the name of Mabon for the autumn equinox is an inappropriate one we need to examine the tales of Mabon.
The Celtic God Maponius
There is certainly a Celtic god whose title was Latinized as Maponus, which is not an actual name but means something like ‘divine son’. He is known from a number of inscriptions in northern Britain and Gaul in which he is addressed as ‘Apollo Maponus’ identifying him with the Graeco-Roman sun-god Apollo. Like Apollo, all the evidence suggests that he was a god of the sun, music and hunting – significantly, he was not a god of the harvest or of the corn.
It is not known whether he was widely worshipped before the coming of the Romans, but with them his cult spread along Hadrian’s Wall amongst the Roman soldiers stationed there. Several stone heads found at the Wall are identified as representing Maponus.
He was also known in Gaul where he was invoked with a Latin inscription at Bourbonne-les-Bains, and on a lead cursing tablet discovered at Chamalières, Puy-de-Dôme where he is invoked along with Lugus (Lugh) to quicken underworld spirits to right a wrong.
It is possible that there are some place names associated with him, such as Ruabon in Denbighshire, which may or may not be a corruption of Rhiw Fabon, meaning ‘Hillside of Mabon’. be During the seventh century an unknown monk at the Monastery at Ravenna in Italy compiled what came to be called The Ravenna Cosmography, which was a list of all the towns and road-stations throughout the Roman Empire. It lists a Locus Maponi (‘place of Maponus’) which has been tentatively identified with the Lochmaben stone site.
It is possible that Mabon’s Irish equivalent is the god Aengus, also known as the Mac Óg (‘young son’).
A character called Mabon is found as a minor character in the Mabinogion, a collection of eleven – sometimes twelve – Welsh prose tales from the Middle Ages. He is called Mabon ap Modron, meaning ‘son of the mother’, which has led to speculation that his mother Modron (‘mother’) may be cognate with the Gaulish mother goddess Matrona. There are no inscriptions dedicated to her from ancient times, so this cannot be verified. Whether or not the Mabinogion tale of the hero Mabon stems from a thousand year old story of the god Maponus is uncertain, but since the stories contain the names of other known Celtic gods (transliterated into heroes) it is certainly possible.
The Mabinogion is a collection of medieval Welsh stories which would have been recorded by Christian monks. They don’t seem to have been very widely known until they were translated into English in 1849 by Lady Charlotte Guest, who invented the title Mabinogion since each of the four branches ends with the words “so ends this Branch of the Mabinogi”. In Welsh, mab means ‘son’ or ‘boy’ or ‘youth’, so she concluded that mabinogi meant ‘a story for children’ and (erroneously) that mabinogion was its plural. Another possibility is that it comes from the proposed Welsh mabinog meaning something like ‘bardic student’.
The stories now included in the Mabinogion are found in two manuscripts, the older White Book of Rhydderch (c.1300–1325) and the later Red Book of Hergest (c.1375–1425) and Lady Charlotte Guest used only the latter as her source, though later translations have drawn on both books.
The first four tales, called The Four Branches of the Mabinogi, are divided into Pwyll, Branwen, Manawydan and Math and each of these includes the character Pryderi. The Mabinogion scholar W.G.Gruffydd suggested that the four branches of the collection represent the birth, exploits, imprisonment and death of Pryderi.
Mabon is mentioned in the Mabinogion story of The Dream of Rhonabwy in which he is described as one of the King’s chief advisors and fights alongside him at the Battle of Badon. His biggest role comes in the story of Culhwch and Olwen (originally from White Book of Rhydderch). In it is the only known reference to Olwen, and Mabon is still a very minor character in the story, which, in brief, is as follows:
Cylidd Wledig married a woman called Goleuddydd (‘bright day’) who became pregnant, but went mad. Her son Culhwch (‘pig sty’) was born in a pig-sty, his mother dying soon afterwards, and raised in secret by a swineherd until he came of age.
Meanwhile, Cilydd killed King Doged, taking his widow, daughter and land as his own. Cilydd’s new queen invited Culhwch to court when she learned of his existence and suggested that he should marry her daughter, thus guaranteeing succession to the throne for both sides of the family. Culhwch refused, and this offended the queen so greatly that she put a curse on him – that he would marry no one but Olwen, the daughter of the fearful Ysbaddaden Pencawr (‘hawthorn’), king of giants.
Culhwch became intrigued with the tales of Olwen’s beauty – it was said that her hair was as yellow as the broom, her fingers pale as wood anemones and her cheeks the colour of roses, white flowers springing up in her footprints wherever she walked (hence her name which means ‘white track’). He became determined to win her. Advised by his father, he sought the help of his cousin King Arthur. Happy to help, Arthur sent out scouts to search for the maiden, but after a year they had found no sign of Olwen. Cei then suggested to Culhwch that they should look for themselves, and Arthur appointed several fine heroes to accompany them including Bedwyr, Gwrhyr and Gwalchmei.
The group reached the house of a shepherd, whose wife – the sister of Culhwch’s mother – advised them to give up their quest as all men who looked for Olwen were never seen again. However, on seeing that they were determined, she admitted that every Saturday Olwen came to her house to wash her hair. Culhwch waited and upon seeing Olwen, fell instantly in love.
His love was reciprocated by Olwen, but she warned him that her father Ysbaddaden was fated to die when she married and so discouraged suitors by setting them a series of impossible tasks before he would give his consent. Undeterred, Culhwch and his men followed Olwen to her father’s castle, attacked it by stealth, killing the nine porters and the nine watchdogs in the process, and entered the giant’s hall. Outraged, Ysbaddaden attempted to kill Culhwch with a poison dart, but was outwitted and wounded, first by Bedwyr, then by the enchanter Menw, and finally by Culhwch himself. Eventually, he agreed to give Culhwch his daughter on the condition that he completed thirty-nine impossible tasks (anoethau or ‘wonders’), including hunting the Twrch Trwyth (an Irish king who has been turned into a boar along with his seven sons ‘the young pigs’) and recovering the prisoner, Mabon son of Modron, the only man able to hunt the dog Drudwyn, in turn the only dog who could track the Twrch Trwyth. The final undertaking was to cut the hair and beard of the giant himself.
The first task was to find Wrnach the giant, whose sword was needed to kill Twrch Trwyth. When they found Wrnach, Cei tricked him into handing his sword over for sharpening, and beheaded him with it.
The next task was the search for Mabon ap Modron, who was imprisoned in a watery Gloucester dungeon. Arthur’s cousin Mabon had been taken from his mother Modron when he was only three nights old and no one knew whether he was alive or dead. Now Gwrhyr knew all the languages of the birds and the beasts, so when they came to the oldest known creature, the Blackbird of Cilgwri, Gwrhyr asked the bird about Mabon’s whereabouts, but the bird replied that though it had been there so long it had worn away its beak on a smith’s anvil, it knew nothing of Mabon, and directed them to a creature older than itself, the Stag of Rhedynfre. Again Gwrhyr asked about Mabon but the stag replied that it had roamed the plain since the first oak sapling had grown to become an oak of one-hundred branches, but had never heard of Mabon, and sent them to the even older Owl of Cwm Gwlwyd. The owl said it had been around long enough to see the wooded glen uprooted twice and a third forest grown in its place but had never heard of Mabon. It, in turn, directed them to the Eagle of Gwernabwy, who, on being questioned, replied that it was very old and widely travelled, and had pecked stars from a rock each night, so that now the rock was a span high, but knew nothing of Mabon. The eagle sent them to the oldest creature of all: the great Salmon of Llyn Llyw.
The salmon recalled hearing of Mabon, and told them that as he swam daily by the wall of Caer Loyw, he heard a constant lamentation. The salmon took Cei and Gwrhyr upon his back to the castle, and they heard Mabon’s cries bewailing his fate. Mabon could not be ransomed, so seeing that force was the only answer, the knights fetched Arthur and his war band to attack the castle. Riding on the salmon’s back, Cai broke through the wall and collected Mabon, both fleeing on the back of the salmon.
Later in the tale, Mabon mounted on his steed Gwynn Mygdwn (Fair Dun-mane) and pursued the Twrch Trwyth into the river Severn and snatched the shears, comb and razor that lay between his ears, and Twrch was driven into the sea and drowned.
Finally, Arthur himself killed the Black Witch, taking her blood to soften the beard of Ysbaddaden. With these tools, Culhwch cut Ysbaddaden’s hair and shaved his beard to the bone. Ysbaddaden died, allowing Culhwch and Olwen to get married.
Mabon is named as one of the ‘Three Exalted Prisoners of the Island of Britain’, stolen when he was only three days old “from between his mother’s side and the wall,” in one translation.
The three exalted prisoners of Britain were Llyr Half Speech (possibly the Llyr who was the father of Manannan the sea god), Mabon son of Modron and Gwair son of Geirioedd who was bound by a heavy blue chain in the underworld.
Let us suppose for a moment that the god Maponus and the literary hero Mabon are one and the same. We must remember that all the evidence points to Maponus being the young sun god, his youth meaning that he would represent the morning sun or the sun newly reborn after the winter solstice. His theft from his mother after three days would make sense in this light – the three days being the three days the sun stands still at the winter solstice. The imprisonment of the young god underground equates to the sun in the underworld before he is ‘released’ to begin his reign as the new sun. In Culhwch and Olwen, Mabon is said to be imprisoned inside a tower in Gloucester, from which he is freed by Cei and Bedwyr in order to go hunt the Twrch Trwyth. The ‘missing sun’ or ‘imprisoned sun’ is a premise found in the solar myths of many cultures to explain the night or the shorter days of winter, especially those around the three days of the winter solstice. Such tales often include themes of captivity or the theft of the sun (i.e. the god or object that represents it) and its rescue by a band of heroes, such as Jason and the Argonauts rescuing the Golden Fleece (the sun) from the dragon or the Lithuanian sun goddess Saule, was held in a tower by powerful king, rescued by the zodiac using a giant sledgehammer, or the Japanese sun goddess Amaterasu hiding in a cave.
An earlier source that mentions Mabon is the tenth century poem Pa Gur, in which Arthur recounts the great deeds of his knights in order to gain entrance to a fortress guarded by Glewlwyd Gafaelfawr. In this, Arthur describes Mabon fab Madron as one of his men, and says that Mabon is a servant of Uther Pendragon. A second Mabon is mentioned, Mabon fab Mellt (‘Mabon Son of Lightning’) and this is interesting, since the sky/storm god is often the father of the sun god in myth, as Zeus is the father of Apollo.
Mabon defeats the monstrous boar, and in myth the boar is often a symbol of winter and the underworld, just as the sun after the winter solstice defeats winter. Mabon then is the divine sun-child born at the winter solstice and this is his festival – he is not the aged god of the harvest or the seed in the ground as Kore is in Greek myth. As Sorita d’Este says:
“Honour Mabon as a Wizard, a Merlin type figure, as the oldest of men and beasts, honour him as the Son of the Mother, and a hero – don’t take that away from him by ignorantly using his name as if it is a different word for Autumn Equinox. If you really believe that the Old Gods of these lands still live, that they should be honoured and respected, then do that. Don’t join the generations who tried to belittle the Gods in an effort to diminish their power.”