Stonehenge, Autumn Equinox, Mabon ap Modron and the Hunt for Twrch Trwyth

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Stonehenge Autumn Equinox (Mabon) Celebrations 2014 (Courtesy of Stonehenge Stone Circle) Creative Commons Licence

The branch of modern Neopaganism commonly referred to as ‘Druidry’ celebrates the festival of the Autumn Equinox as Alban Elfed, which is generally translated as ‘The Light of the Water’. The term was originally ‘divined’ by the great eighteenth century Bardic scholar Iolo Morganwg; one of the founding Fathers of the Modern Druid Revival. One of the better known groups presently concerned with the revival of celebratory rites associated with the old Pagan Ritual Calendar, the Order of Bards, Ovates and Druids, describe this particular point in the ritual year as ‘a time of the Great Tides’. The point in the Astronomical Year when the combined influence of the Moon and the Earth’s gravitational pull bring about the highest and lowest tides in those bodies of water that are subject to such natural phenomena.

The sort of activities engaged in by many Neopagans during and immediately after the Autumn Equinox include ‘Mushroom Hunting‘; ‘Ecoregional Sacred Observances‘; finding ‘fulfillment in the collected harvest‘; and newly created rites for ‘a solitary pagan and for a group pagan ritual‘. Elsewhere, similar rites and rituals are enacted by members of groups such as the ‘Ár nDraíocht Féin.’ An attempt at the full scale revival of the Autumn Equinox celebration was made in September 1993 with the establishment of the ‘Equinox rite of the Gorsedd of Bards of Caer Abiri.‘ Among those taking part in the first inaugural rite back in 1993 were ‘John Michell, author of The View Over Atlantis, etc.; Ronald Hutton, author of Blood & Mistletoe, Pagan Religions of the Ancient British Isles, etc.; Graham Harvey, author of Listening People, Speaking Earth, etc.; Philip Carr-Gomm, chief of the Order of Bards, Ovates and Druids; Emma Restall Orr, founder of the Druid Network; Shan Jayran of the House of the Goddess; Rev. Gordon Strachan, author of Jesus the Master Builder; Tim Sebastion, founder of the Secular Order of Druids; and Philip Shallcrass, chief of the BDO.’

In ancient time the Autumn Equinox appears to have been associated with an aspect of the Sun God referred to in Ancient Romano-British Latin inscriptions as ‘Maponos‘, literally meaning a young boy or a son, in the specific context of a royal or noble heir. In certain religious settings Maponus is represented as a god of music and poetry. In Medieval Welsh legend he manifests as Mabon ap Modron, a key figure in the tale of ‘Culhwch ac Olwen’; as it is recounted in ‘The Mabinogion‘, a collection of old Bardic legends immortalized by Lady Charlotte Guest. Elsewhere, in the writings of Morien O. Morgan, another key figure in the Modern Druid Revival, whose ‘Mabin of the Mabinogion‘ achieved cult status during the nineteen seventies in its earliest imprint under the title ‘The Royal Winged Son of Stonehenge and Avebury’, Mabon appears as a central figure in what are described as the ‘Solar Dramas’ of primordial Celtic paganism. In essence, the Mystery Plays of Ancient Bardism and Druidism. Ritual performances that many believe were previously enacted at Stonehenge, Avebury, and other key locations across the British Isles, over the course of the Autumn Equinox.

In the tale of ‘Culhwch ac Olwen’, Culhwch must enlist the help of Mabon ap Modron in hunting a magical boar referred to in Welsh legend as ‘Twrch Trwyth‘. In view of this, it is highly probable that the Autumn Equinox marked the start of the boar hunting season in former times. Hence the appearance of Twrch Trwyth in the tale of ‘Culhwch ac Olwen’. There is also evidence to suggest that at Winter Solstice the builders of Stonehenge engaged in lengthy feasts at nearby Durrington Walls, as part of the ancient rituals previously associated with the celebration of Alban Arthan. We also know that wild boar would almost certainly have been on the menu at many such celebrations. So, it is highly likely that certain wild animals, including a fearsome species of undomesticated cattle known as the Wild Auroch, were ritually hunted between Autumn Equinox and Winter Solstice, on a yearly basis, to provide ritual food for this very purpose. And, given the fact that much of the produce that was consumed at such ritual feasts appears to have been brought from as far afield as North East Scotland, a five hundred mile round trip, it is safe to assume that at least some of this produce had its origins in the old tribal ‘civitas’ of the Brigantes, whose territory covered much of what is now Northern England.

It is now generally accepted that Maponos was the tutelary god of the Brigantes tribe. A series of inscriptions from within the ancient Roman fort at Corbridge in County Northumberland, just south of Hadrian’s Wall, are suggestive of the existence of a major cult centre there, linked to the worship of Apollo Maponus, at a key military installation located along the old Roman Road known as Dere Street. The cult centre was located at an intersection between Dere Street, which ran South as far as York, and the Stanegate, another Roman road which ran along the course of the Roman Wall itself as far as Carlisle. Just north of another major intersection, where Dere Street meets up with the old Roman Road from Pons Aelius, or Newcastle, stands what was almost certainly another ancient ritual centre where, in former times, such sacred boar hunts would doubtless have taken place.

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Section of Dere Street running towards Corbridge North West of Brancepeth in County Durham 

The ancient village of Brancepeth in County Durham lies just South East of a locality known as ‘The Brawn’s Den‘, the supposed haunt of a wild boar in no ways dissimilar to the legendary Twrch Trwyth. Local legend tells of the slaying of this mighty beast by a knight by the name of Sir Roger de Ferie in 1208. Although another local tradition claims that this individual’s name was Hodge of Ferry. A similar story is attached to a locality known as Pollards Lands, just South of Bishop Auckland, where the hero of the tale is none other than Richard Pollard. Both locations lie directly adjacent to Dere Street and there are what appear to have been Iron Age settlements or ritual centres close at hand at both sites. Brancepeth is close to what is now generally believed to have been an Iron Age Camp at Stockley Beck, whilst the earliest recorded form of the name for Bishop Auckland, ‘Alcleat’, suggests that a similar encampment may have been located along Dere Street on the site of where Auckland Castle presently stands.

The fact that the ancient rituals associated with the Autumn Equinox at this time almost certainly involved sacred theatrical performances, which possibly went on from dusk until dawn, demonstrates once again how the allotted times put forward by English Heritage for Open Access to Stonehenge at this particular point in the Ritual Calendar are woefully inadequate. Something which those presently involved in various legal wrangles with English Heritage and its partner agencies might well decide to take into consideration at some future date.

About Rupert Ferguson

A lineal descendant of Captain Robert Ferguson (1719-1799) the older brother of the great Scottish Enlightenment Philosopher and historian Adam Ferguson (1723-1816); the friend of Hume, Gibbon and Adam Smith. Also related to the great feminist author and playwright Rachel Ferguson. Have written extensively on a vast range of subjects, been published in print as book author and in various journals and magazines into the bargain. Early work as an underground film maker on the early Goa Trance and radical anti-CJB political scene in the 1990s has since become more refined and ambitious and I have since been a regular contributor to such high profile events as the Portobello Film Festival Annual Film Maker's Convention.....
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