In this piece, we take a look at the spiritual work Pagans and Witches do at the Fall Equinox and Mabon season through the symbolism of Astrology, Tarot, and 5000 years of Goddess worship.
The Fall Equinox is the Fulcrum or balancing point between the Light half and the Dark half of the year. Once we pass this point on the calendar, we’re heading off into an ‘extreme’ end of the year. In the Northern hemisphere, we’re heading into the Dark, in the Southern Hemisphere, we’re heading into the Light. For us Northerners, we’re going to see our days get shorter and nights get longer until we finally hit the Winter Solstice which is the nadir of the Sun’s path.
But here at Mabon, we teeter at the lip of the descent. It doesn’t happen overnight, but it seems to creep up on you all the same. One day, you’re enjoying a warm sunset under the stars, and a week later, you’re pulling out your coat because you know it will be cold and dark by the time you get off work or school.
Finding ourselves in or out of balance happens just as incrementally.
We look around at society and our own lives and think, “Yeah there’s some problems, but we’re working on it,” and then the very next day we see a vulgar display of power, an absolute of some kind dropped into our lives, and we think, “How did we get this far afield?”
In Western astrology, the zodiacal sign that coincides with the Autumnal Equinox, or Mabon, is Libra. Represented by the scales, the image of balance is central. But there is a lot packed in such a simple symbol.
We can see a setting Sun, which makes perfect sense for the Northern Hemisphere, as we are heading into the waning part of the year. The Light is sinking, going underground. This is a necessary reminder that even seemingly permanent power systems can wax and wane, ebb and flow, and just because we are heading towards an extreme place, that doesn’t mean we won’t (or can’t) ‘balance out’ later on.
We can see a ‘scale’ over a flat line: this could represent the horizon, hearkening back to the idea of ‘fairness’ expressed in the phrase ‘standing on equal ground.’ It’s tough to have ‘balance’ in a society where we don’t all start on equal footing.
When we look through traditional Tarot, 2 cards utilize a ‘scale’; the Six of Coins and The Justice card.
The image on the six of coins card usually makes people uncomfortable. Here we have a nicely dressed person standing on a street passing out money to people who look despondent. They’re dressed like beggars, sitting on the ground, i.e., ‘lower’ than the nicely clothed person, and they have their hands out in an ‘asking’ gesture. And the beautifully groomed person is using a scale to measure out how much they give. Can you imagine walking down the street, giving out money to homeless people, but first checking your balance, right in front of them? It’s a bit grim.
The second card featuring scales is The Justice card. Here we see a person sitting upright on a throne, staring straight out of the image at you, holding a sword in one hand and scales in the other. They seem like they’re in charge, and they carry two critical symbols, both attached to money, power, and authority.
What are we seeing in these two cards? A conversation about what is ‘fair’ and what is ‘right.’
Let’s say we are in a world where, if you steal a loaf of bread and are caught, you’ll have your hand cut off. You are hungry, your family is hungry, and you decide it’s worth the risk. You choose to steal a loaf of bread. You are caught. “Fairness” would dictate that you get your hand cut off. Giving you special treatment wouldn’t be ‘fair’ to everyone before you who had to deal with the punishment. It wouldn’t be ‘fair’ to the Baker, who spent their money on grain and worked hard to bake that loaf of bread.
But what would be “right” is to take into account the broader context – that you and your family are hungry- and let you have the loaf of bread, and feed your family and yourself. However, we can’t just be passing out all the loaves of bread willy-nilly. It does not respect the Baker’s sacrifice, and we could find ourselves with nothing to eat come Winter. Instead of just one starving family, we might all starve.
So we look to those who have been through a few Winters for guidance.
The wisdom to know how to dispense enough today so that no one is hungry and there is some left for tomorrow while working towards a form of ‘balance’ that is not so superficial. But this wisdom can look and feel dismissive, uncaring, and calculated, especially to the naive and inexperienced, who simply see the massive harvest just pulled in.
Because what would really be ‘right’ is that everyone has the opportunity to grow their own grain, that everyone has a working oven, and everyone has the know-how to make their own bread. Not only are we all fed, but we get the satisfaction that we created our own abundance, and did not have to rely on someone else to share theirs. This is the difference between what is ‘fair’ and what is ‘right.’
Moments in our life like what we experience in the Justice card can be embarrassing, shameful, or super uncomfortable, but they are obviously needed if we are going to have a healthy society. We must know first hand what is out of balance, and who is lacking something, so we can correct the system and bring everyone into wholeness.
While the mood of Fall Equinox and Mabon is jovial and celebratory, there is a serious undertone to the work. In this regard of have and have not, the scales oversaw life and death. Get the numbers wrong, and a whole civilization could perish because a judge was too harsh and stingy, or too lenient and generous.
The Egyptian Book of the Dead (approx 1550 BCE), aka The Book of Emerging Forth Into the Light, describes the process the soul goes through as it moves through Duat, or the lands of the Dead, before entering the Afterlife. A central image is the scale of Ma’at being used to weigh the heart of the deceased against the Feather of Truth. Ma’at was a Goddess who was the living embodiment of truth. We get the words matter, material, and meter from the name ’Ma’at. She was the embodiment of reality – or what was tangibly real. If the heart weighs more than the feather, it is thrown to the Goddess Ammit, who would either eat it or throw it in a lake of fire. Ammit was depicted as a lion/crocodile/hippo-the three biggest predators of the Egyptian world. Her name translates to “Great of Death.” Either way, the soul would be destroyed forever. The process is overseen by Anubis, a man with the head of a black wolf. He was a psychopomp-like Hermes- who shuttled souls from place to place and protected the Dead on their journey. The results are written down by Thoth, the scribe of the Gods. He was the living embodiment of thought and the stuff of the mind. It’s where we get the word thought from.
Another strong theme at this time of year is ‘bringing in the Harvest.’ All around the world, we see farmers bringing in the majority of their crops in this season. We too can see the fruition of our goals and deeds that we dreamt up during last Winter’s sleep. But we are also reaping the consequences of our actions – or inaction – from the previous nine months as well. This is where things can get a bit sticky. This is where myth and metaphor step into the territory of the psyche. It’s all well and good if you’ve accomplished everything you set out to do – but let’s be honest – it rarely works out so tidily.
Even the most successful of us have unreachable goals. Most of us have big dreams for ourselves, our communities, and our world at large. And most of us don’t see those dreams realized. Not all of them anyway. Most of us want to be happier, healthier, more successful, more generous, more fulfilled, whatever that is to us, and most of us fall short of these perfected states of being. And that’s just our goals that weren’t achieved. What about all the not so great stuff you might have done this year? Those times you didn’t show up for a loved one, or did harm to yourself, or stayed silent as you watched injustices play out in your society, or actively avoided responsibility in your life? If none of this applies to you, please contact me because I’ve never met a living Saint. I and everyone I know has done stuff we’re not proud of. Most of us don’t want to face our inner dialogue of disappointment, shame, regret, and insecurity that crops around our shortcomings. And yet, all that stuff is waiting for us in our subconscious. Especially if we are consciously avoiding dealing with it.
This idea of reaping the harvest of our deeds sits very comfortably with the Jewish holiday of Yom Kippur, literally translated as The Day of Atonement. For Jews, this is the start of their New Year. And during this season, they will fast, pray, and attempt to atone to their G-d for any misdeeds over the last 12 months. In other words, they start out their year with the cleanest conscious possible, before heading into the hardest part, Winter. This symbolism is potent to me, especially when we step back and look at other myths that are playing out at this time of year.
In Ancient Greece, we would be seeing the beginning of the Eleusinian Mysteries or the Descent of Persephone. In Assyria/Sumeria/Babylonia, we would be seeing the Descent of Inanna or Ishtar. In Ancient Egypt, the Death and Resurrection of Osiris through Isis. What do all these myths share in common? A God or Goddess was heading onto the Underworld, experiencing a type of ‘Death’ or ‘stillness,’ and then coming back again, but changed by the journey.
Of particular note is the Descent of Ishtar, who after leaving behind her seven vestments, goes to meet her twin (sometimes her older sister, sometimes her ‘counterpart’), the utterly black Goddess Ereshkigal, who rules the Lands of the Dead. Ereshkigal is a chthonic Goddess, literally of the Earth, and is depicted dwelling in the deepest, darkest, places. In some versions, Ereshkigal literally holds Ishtar down for three days, in others Ishtar dies. But at some point, they become one person. Ishtar integrates her dark twin. In the meantime, all sex has ceased on Earth, and no one is happy about it. The gods intervene, sending an intersex being down to ask Ereshkigal to sprinkle Ishtar with the waters of life. Ishtar comes back to life, and makes her way back to Earth, reclaiming her seven vestments as she goes.
There’s a break in the text here, archeologists have still not discovered the missing portions. But when we look at the Inanna myth, which we do have complete versions of, and compare the two, they are very similar, and here is what happens in the Inanna myth at the missing point: Inanna is allowed to come back up to the lands of the living on one condition: she must send someone back in her place. Along the way, she keeps meeting people, but they are friends and loved ones, and she will not damn them. When she finally returns, she finds her husband Dumuzi, ruling in her stead. He’s taken concubines in her place and has been living it up while she was going through hell. She promptly sends him in her stead and never looks back.
The metaphors of Fall Equinox and Mabon are clear: get right with all that stuff that is at the very bottom of you, in your darkest, most hidden parts, because it IS you.
If there are Devils to be met on the Underworld Journey, they surely will come from your own Heart.
Take off your ego, take off all the mental constructs you use to keep yourself buffered and disguised from yourself and the world, and get real. See yourself, with all your flaws, your mistakes, your shortcomings. And love them. Accept them. And don’t think you can push this work off onto other people, you have to deal with your issues, but when you come back from this inner journey, with this hard-won new appreciation for yourself, don’t be surprised if you find some people in your life that have been taking advantage of your apparent lack of self-understanding. Toss them out with the trash.
Amazing to think people had this much self-awareness 5500 years ago.
Ultimately, these ideas of ‘reaping’ and ‘balancing’ come together in an ‘accounting’ of your deeds for the last year. But we are also being faced with the responsibility of accounting for the acts of others as well. We live in the wake of fever dreams of men who were poisoned by their guilt for their deeds and could not deal with their own Shadow Selves. The generations living now are faced with a reckoning of a covenant we did not sign. But here we are all the same. This is our check-in on the micro and macrocosmic bar-tab of our lives. You are reaping the harvest of your deeds and others. And when it comes time to look yourself in the eye, it’s much easier to face your mistakes knowing you have done everything you could to make amends, to balance out the scales. And this is what is going to get you through the Winter. Find a way to balance the Karmic Checkbook of your Soul.