The timing of the Harvest Festival is a tricky one for Pagans, as harvest occurs at different times in different regions. There is no specific date across Celtic culture that corresponds to a harvest festival, despite the fact that such festivals very much did exist. Herodotus first mentioned the Celts in 5 BCE and noted that they principally lived along the upper Danube River. At the time, their principal festivals, Imbolg, Beltane, Lughnasad, and Samhain, marked the changing of the seasons.
The connection between harvest and the autumnal equinox traces its origins back, not to Celtic, but to Germanic traditions. Roman historian, Tacitus, first described Germanic people in 98 CE, placing them in upper Germany and Denmark, in an area which bears the name Angeln. Like the Celts, the Anglo-Saxon Pagan year also contained four holy days to mark the changing of the seasons: Yule, Lencten Efniht (lengthening equal-night), Litha, and Haerfest Efniht (harvest equal-night). Eostre was not recorded in the place of the Lengthening equal-night until the 8th century.
Somehow, through trade or years of conquest, these two calendars were merged into one. The Celtic and Germanic people had their own names for months and seasons which predate the Roman calendar currently in use. In Welsh, the month surrounding the autumnal equinox was Medi, the month of reaping. In Anglo-Saxon it was Gerst Moanth, the barley month. Either way, it is a time of harvest and plenty.
With the changing of the leaves, hints of wood smoke wafting on the breeze, and a new crispness in the air, autumn is a time of enchantment and nothing is more enchanting than the harvest moon. Anyone who lives in a rural area knows that harvest stirs up a lot of dust. All that airborne dust gives the harvest moon the lovely yellow-orange coloring that people admire. The harvest moon is the full moon that falls closest to the Autumnal Equinox.
To celebrate the Autumnal Equinox, and the harvest season, consider visiting a you-pick farm to gather items to make a cornucopia. Cornucopias appear in connection with gods and goddesses all over Europe. They are the “horn of plenty”, a symbol of abundance.
Items traditionally found in a cornucopia include:
- Acorns—a symbol of the god, strength, virtue, and prosperity.
- Apples—a sacred fruit for the goddess Iduna, thought to bring immortality.
- Corn—maize did not grow in Europe, yet there are many references to corn. This is because corn was used to describe any grain. When Europeans migrated to the Americans they learned to grow maize and grind the seeds into corn meal, so in the Americas corn is often included in the cornucopia. It is also a way to acknowledge Native American hospitality, without which early migrants would not have survived the harsh American winters.
- Grapes—according to the Celtic tree calendar, the lunar month encompassing the equinox is the vine month. Grapes have long symbolized the harvest and prosperity. In addition, they have the magical associations of prophesy, truth, and intuition. Cesare once said Celts would sell their souls for a cask of wine, so feel free to imbibe while you are crafting.
- Pumpkin—another new world food that helped see European immigrants through the winter. Mini-pumpkins are more than just decorative, you can roast and eat them like any other squash. (See recipe below.)
- Wheat—a symbol of fertility and prosperity.
Consider adding some antlers to your cornucopia as a means of paying tribute to the gods and welcoming the opening of hunting season.
After your crafting is complete, light a bonfire and raise a glass to toast the gods. Ellen of the Ways is an ideal deity to call upon during the autumn. Often portrayed with the antlers of a deer, she is a horned goddess, and her link to the Earth cannot be denied. She is associated with crossroads, wells, waterfalls, springs, groves, and the creatures of the forest. (Also, feel free to curse her when a deer dashes in front of your car during your commute to and from work.)
Another horned deity, Cernunnos, is a pre-Roman god whose earliest known inscription is a 4th century BCE rock carving. He is the lord of animals, abundance, fertility, and regeneration. In some depictions, he has a great sack from which grain spills forth, being consumed by stags and bulls below. Seen as a god for the common man, he regularly underwent shape-shifting, no doubt leading hunters on a merry chase. Thus, the equinox celebrates not only the harvest, but the sacred opening of the hunt.
Not sure what to say during your invocation? A recitation of Robert Louis Stevenson’s “Autumn Fires” is appropriate, though I prefer Robert Burns’ “John Barleycorn.” Burns’ poem, published in 1782, conveys harvest imagery with the sacredness of sacrifice and regeneration that permeates the season. It is theorized that John Barleycorn and the Anglo-Saxon figure associated with barley, Beowa, are one and the same. Feel free to pour out a libation to the gods, and to John Barleycorn himself, doubtless he will rain blessings on anyone who shares their beer.
John Barley Corn
There was three kings into the east,
Three kings both great and high,
And they hae sworn a solemn oath
John Barleycorn should 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 surpris’d them all.
The sultry suns of Summer came,
And he grew thick and strong;
His head weel arm’d wi’ pointed spears,
That no one should him wrong.
The sober Autumn enter’d mild,
When he grew wan and pale;
His bending joints and drooping head
Show’d he began to fail.
His colour sicken’d more and more,
He faded into age;
And then his enemies began
To show their deadly rage.
They’ve taen a weapon, long and sharp,
And cut him by the knee;
Then tied him fast upon a cart,
Like a rogue for forgerie.
They laid him down upon his back,
And cudgell’d him full sore;
They hung him up before the storm,
And turned him o’er and o’er.
They filled up a darksome pit
With water to the brim;
They heaved in John Barleycorn,
There let him sink or swim.
They laid him out upon the floor,
To work him farther woe;
And still, as signs of life appear’d,
They toss’d him to and fro.
They wasted, o’er a scorching flame,
The marrow of his bones;
But a miller us’d him worst of all,
For he crush’d him between two stones.
And they hae taen his very heart’s blood,
And drank it round and round;
And still the more and more they drank,
Their joy did more abound.
John Barleycorn was a hero bold,
Of noble enterprise;
For if you do but taste his blood,
‘Twill make your courage rise.
‘Twill make a man forget his woe;
‘Twill heighten all his joy;
‘Twill make the widow’s heart to sing,
Tho’ the tear were in her eye.
Then let us toast John Barleycorn,
Each man a glass in hand;
And may his great posterity
Ne’er fail in old Scotland!
Sausage Stuffed Mini Pumpkins
4 mini pumpkins
1 small onion
8 ounces sausage
1 ounce bread crumbs
1 tsp dried sage
Salt and pepper to taste
2 Tbls butter, melted
Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Lightly spray a small casserole dish or cake pan (so long as it will hold all the pumpkins) with cooking oil. Set aside.
Cut top off all pumpkins and scoop out the seeds, reserving the tops.
Dice onion. In a small bowl, use fingers to combine onion, sausage, bread crumbs, sage, salt and pepper. Fill pumpkins with stuffing mix and place in casserole dish, returning the tops to the pumpkins. Brush sides and tops of pumpkins with melted butter. Add ½ inch of water to dish and roast in middle of oven for 40 min. Pumpkins are done when tender. Test for softness by poking pumpkin side with a sharp knife.