Autumn Equinox: Mabon and the Salmon of Wisdom

The Autumn Equinox is the time when the sun crosses the Equator and is positioned above it, exactly between the Northern and Southern Hemispheres. Now as the nights grow longer and the days shorten, leaves hang golden and burnished on the boughs, and the abundance of summer passes into seed. This is the time of the second harvest, gathering the last of the vegetables, fruits and seeds that will see us through the winter in the form of jams, purees, stews and chutneys. The opportunity to rest comes after the labour of harvest, time to give thanks for the abundance of the Earth’s produce, to reflect on all that one has reaped and sown in the previous months, to bring projects to fruition and to start to let go of all that which is no longer needed. Both the cornucopia, the symbol of plenty, and the apple, symbol of the fruit harvest, are associated with Autumn Equinox, now since the 1970s anyway, commonly known as the feast of Mabon.

In Welsh mythology, the figure of Mabon could be of ancient pedigree, and is certainly both elusive and multi-faceted. His story can be gathered and assembled from references in all four branches of the Mabinogion, and a couple of the medieval Welsh romances, though, as ever, this is disputed by scholars. His main association is as Mabon ap Modron, derived from the Romano-British god Maponus, meaning Great Son, born of the great goddess Modron, or Dea Matrona.[1] The sacred child born of the Earth mother goddess. The Maponus of Celtic tradition was sometimes equated with the Greek Apollo, giving him an association with light and the sun, but it is the divine-mother-son-pair that is the most primal archetype, possibly hinting back to a much more ancient origin.

Mabon ap Modron makes his most famous appearance in the guise of a Magical Hunter[2] in tale of Culhwch and Olwen, a romance probably first written in the 1100s, one of the earlier Arthurian references. The story centres on the romance between, Culhwch, son of King Cilydd, who becomes infatuated because of a curse with Olwen, a giant’s daughter. The giant is reluctant to let Culhwch marry Olwen and sets the love-struck youth a series of impossible tasks that he must fulfil in order to win her hand. Clearing fields, ploughing, sewing and raising a crop in one day, fetching two magical oxen to pull a plough, sowing linseed to produce the white linen wedding veil, producing sweet mead without the aid of bees, procuring a magical hamper that never empties, a harp that plays itself, a magical cauldron, and the comb and shears between the ears of the enchanted wild boar,  the Twrch Trwyth, to dress his hair. This magical beast can only be tracked by the dog Drudwyn, which in turn can only be hunted by Mabon ap Modron, but alas, no one knows where he is or whether he is alive or dead. Culwhch must seek the help of King Arthur and his men to perform these tasks, and most of the tale is given over to describing their exploits.

Mabon, it transpires, was taken from his mother when he was three nights old, as was Pryderi ap Pwyll, in the first branch of the Mabiniogion. This Pryderi was the son of Rhiannon, and it was she was blamed for the disappearance of her son, and his suspected murder, and made to bear those visiting court on her back as punishment (see September Harvest Moon: the Horse, Rhiannon and Blackbirds above). Pryderi makes an appearance in all four branches of the Mabinogion and this had led some researchers, e.g. W.J. Gruffydd, to suggest that the origin of the word Mabinogion pertains to the god Maponus, himself equated with Pryderi, the son of Rhiannon and Pwyll. Though some of Gruffyd’s ideas are no longer fashionable, recent scholars are now suggesting that this theory could contain at least a kernel of truth.[4] This could also be further evidence for the ancient pedigree of the divine-mother-son origins for the figure of Mabon.

In order to locate Mabon, King Arthur and his men must enlist the help of a series of wise and magical animals, all of whom are more ancient and therefore knowledgeable than any of the human characters in the story. In order to understand these messenger from the Otherworld they need to enlist the help of a man named Gwrhyr, an interpreter of tongues, who they rescue from imprisonment. Thus prepared, they seek out the Blackbird of Cilgwri who tells them that he so old that he had worn away a smith’s anvil with his beak, ‘so that only a nut sized piece remains.’ Even so, he has heard nothing of Mabon and his fate.

He directs them to the Stag of Rhedynfre, who, when he first arrived ‘had only one antler on either side of his head and the only tree was an oak sapling. In the meantime, that tree grew into an oak of a hundred branches and finally tumbled down so that today nothing remains of it but a fed stump,’ yet despite his age, he too knows nothing of Mabon.

The Owl of Cwm Cawlwyd, the next creature, was so old that his wings were stumps when he first came to his place, had born witness to the growth and destruction of three forests, yet throughout this time has heard nothing of the men they seek. The Eagle of Gwernabwy, older still, once sat on a large stone from where he could peck the stars each night. Now, in the meantime, it has been reduced to the size of a fist, but even he is unable to help. However, he believes that the oldest and wisest creature of them all may be able to: the enormous Salmon of Lyn Llyw.

Indeed, the salmon does have news. He tells Arthur and his men that with each tide he swims up the river until he comes to the walls of a castle in Gloucester, and here he has heard a terrible grieving, the likes of which has never been seen before. He takes Cei and Gwrhyr the interpreter on his back up the river to the castle, and there sure enough, they find the wretched Mabon son of Modron, who has been painfully incarcerated within its walls for years.

With Arthur’s help, Mabon is freed and he helps them procure the dogs needed for the hunt of the enchanted boar, Twrch Trwyth, and the leash that must be held while he hunts. Culwch then goes on, with much assistance and a long and arduous hunt, to retrieve the scissors and comb from between the magical boar’s ears, therefore allowing the giant to complete his grooming in preparation for the marriage of his daughter to her suitor.

Though Mabon’s reference is fleeting in this long and detailed tale, his role as Magical Hunter is paramount for the story. And so is the help of the otherworldly animals, the most important of which is the great Salmon of Lyn Llyw. In both Welsh and Irish tradition, the salmon is the guardian par excellence of wisdom, knowledge, inspiration and prophecy. Another key reference to the salmon is in the Fenian cycles of Irish tradition where the salmon is said to swim in the well of wisdom, the source of all life, that has a physical location at the source of the River Boyne. This well is surrounded by a grove of nine sacred hazel trees, which nourish the salmon and make him wise, giving rise to the red spots on his side.

In the Irish tale, a young man encounters a fisherman who has been fishing for the Salmon of Wisdom for seven years. In a tale similar to that of Gwion Bach (see Summer Solstice: of Taliesin, Ceridwen and magical Cauldrons),  the fish is caught as the boy approaches, and he accidentally touches it’s magical flesh as he is given the task of roasting it over the fire. He instantly becomes endowed with all the knowledge and wisdom of the salmon, and became a great seer and poet.[5] The salmon is indeed a remarkable creature: it will return to the place of its birth to mate, swimming great distances, sometimes upstream, in both salt and freshwater to do so. It’s inbuilt instinct to return to the source of its youth has also led to its association with longevity, and in Druidic tradition, the story of Mabon is linked to the divine child of eternal youth and the salmon the elixir of life, forever sought but not often found.


[1] See ‘Mabon ap Modron,’ en.w.wikipedia.org (accessed 19.9.2020)

[2] ‘The Celtic Myths,’ by Miranda Aldhouse-Green, Thames and Hudson, 2015

[4] See ‘The Mabiniogion and other Medieval Welsh Tales’ edited by Patrick K Ford, University of California Press, 2019

[5] ‘The Celtic Myths,’ by Miranda Aldhouse-Green, Thames and Hudson, 2015

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