Know’st thou not at the fall of the leaf
How the soul feels like a dried sheaf
Bound up at length for harvesting,
Today, the 22nd day of September (beginning, strictly speaking, at 2.54 am), is for us the Autumn or Autumnal Equinox. For our ancestors, speaking Old English, or ‘Anglo-Saxon,’ the time of emniht or efenniht ‘even-night’, occurs while Hāligmonath, the ‘holy month’ of September, so called because thanksgiving ceremonies for the grain harvest were held, is giving way way to Winterfylleth, the ‘winter full-moon’. In dark-age chronology the new month and the new season began with the first full moon of October. Around this time daylight and darkness are of roughly the same duration (Latin aequi, equal; nox, night), though only exactly at ‘Equilux’ (lux is light in Latin) which falls this year on September 28.
The christian church ignores the equinox, although Michaelmas, held on September 29th, may have been intended to wean pagans from their late-Summer and early-Autumn fertility rites. Modern Wiccans and new age pagans celebrate the feast of Mabon, or Second Harvest, at the Autumn equinox. Some prefer the Irish Gaelic name for this month, Mea’n Fo’mhair, which translates literally as ‘middle harvest’. Festivities may last for a week and involve the venerating and eating of fruits such as apples, blackberries, and nuts. Though derived from supposedly ancient Celtic myth, the acorn and chestnut-strewn altars, the overflowing horns-of-plenty and the russet-coloured robes on display are almost certainly modern inventions, never associated for sure with any historical or supernatural ‘Mabon.’
There was indeed a god of youth in the Celtic pantheon whose name Maponos derived from mapos, a Gaulish word for son or boy, the root mab also denoting son in Welsh, Cornish and Breton. Both come from Proto-Indo European makʷos, son, (which gives us the Mac and Mc used in Scottish and Irish surnames). The figure of Maponos was worshipped by Gallo-Romans on the continent and in Britain who identified him with the Roman god Apollo. Under the name of Mabon the same mythical youth appears in the Welsh Mabinogion legends and the Arthurian romances, but it is not known when in the year Maponos or Mabon were worshipped (there are two inscriptions on record from the end of August) or what rituals were involved.
Autumn, as is well attested, comes to us via Middle English autumpne, from Old French autompne, itself from Latin autumnus which is said to be adapted from a lost Etruscan or Venetic root autu-, but could equally be formed from Italic au(ct)- meaning dry (the notion of drying leaves and grass, in John Clare’s words; The ground parched and cracked is like overbaked bread…the greensward all wracked...) or Latin auctus, increase (the opposing notion of late fruition and abundance, Blake’s laden with fruit, and stainèd
With the blood of the grape). As a seasonal name Autumn, first heard in England from the 12th century, was only rarely used here before the 16th century, ‘Harvest’ (Old English hærfest from the same root as Latin carpere to pluck, crop) being the term preferred. ‘Fall’, probably a contraction of ‘fall-of-the-leaf’ was an alternative also used in former times in Britain and it was exported to America with settlers in the 17th century.
Above is Keats’ famous ode, with its first, endlessly quoted, line. But let a later author, Emily Dickinson, have (almost) the last word…
Besides the Autumn poets sing
A few prosaic days
A little this side of the snow
And that side of the Haze
In 2021 I talked to US journalist Keira Wingate about autumnal language differences and her article in USA Today is here…
Image by Atelier Arabesque