September in the Wheel of the Year: The Start of Autumn - Lucya Starza
Autumn arrives in England in September, but opinions vary on when it actually starts. Some regard the seasons as starting or centring on the equinoxes and solstices – that’s the astronomical definition. Weather forecasters, or meteorologists, divide the year into three-month sets based on average temperatures, with England’s autumn being September, October, and November. The third way is to observe changes in plants and animals, such as falling leaves, and birds migrating. Some Pagans stick to dates in their own tradition, like festivals in the Wheel of the Year. What you do is your choice, but getting outdoors and looking for signs of the changing season is good to help keep in step with nature.
Mushrooms and Fungi
Early autumn is the time for mushrooms. Some are edible, some are poisonous, and some are magical. In folklore, fairy rings are natural circles of mushrooms in woods and meadows. The most common is the Scotch bonnet, which gets called the fairy ring champignon. They can form because the mycelium of the fungus uses up nutrients in the soil and so expands outwards. Some British legends say the space within the ring is dangerous. If you step inside you might anger the fae and get trapped or whisked off to fairyland for 100 years. In France and Germany they are sometimes known as witches’ circles and thought to mark places witches' dance. Mushrooms are associated with witches in other ways too, particularly the red-and-white-spotted fly agaric. Its psychotropic compounds are an ingredient in old recipes for flying ointment, used to give visions and out-of-body experiences. Fly agaric is poisonous. If you see one in the woods, leave it. Don’t eat any wild fungus without being sure it’s safe. You won’t come to harm by only taking photos.
I love the gold, red and brown colours the leaves start to turn in September. If you catch a falling leaf, you’ll be free from colds all winter according to superstition. Another saying is that for every one you catch, you’ll have a lucky month the following year. Keep your caught leaves safe until new green buds appear on the trees in the spring. You can also use fallen leaves in spells to rid yourself of things you no longer want in your life. Write whatever it is on a leaf in environmentally friendly ink paint or ink, then leave it to rot away and return to the earth.
When I was a kid, the dreaded return to school was offset by the conker season. My friends and I would gather the huge, smooth, brown seeds of the horse-chestnut tree, prising them out of their prickly cases to find the biggest, toughest nuts for games of conkers. Bouts are played by two people, each with a conker threaded on string. Players take turns to strike the other conker until one breaks. A winning conker is named after its victories. A single win is a oner, after two wins it’s a twoer and so on. The tradition can be kept alive as part of seasonal festivities, as games are a traditional part of harvest celebrations.
Berries and Fruit
Trees and bushes are usually laden with berries in September. Weather lore says if these are exceptionally abundant, a harsh winter lies ahead. I collect and dry berries to use in spells. Hawthorn berries can represent the heart when making poppets, and a loop of rowan berries can be attached to crossed rowan sticks and tied with red wool to make a traditional home protection. Plums are among the last of the soft fruit to ripen, from late August to late September. In folklore they symbolise vitality and endurance. According to Rachel Patterson in A Kitchen Witch's World of Magical Food, plums are also an aphrodisiac. Use them in spells for passion, or serve them to your beloved, perhaps in a crumble.
Michaelmas daisies bloom profusely at this time of year. They offer much-needed colour in the garden as the days get gloomy, and bees and butterflies like them. Michaelmas daisies would be perfect to put on a September altar. Sandra Lawrence, in The Witch's Garden, writes that Michaelmas daisies are flowers of farewell - and this time of year is when we bid goodbye to summer. They are named after the Archangel Michael, whose feast day is September 29. He’s honoured by followers of many spiritual paths and magical traditions. In ceremonial magic Michael can be called upon for protection. Associated with the element of fire, he is one of the guardians of the compass points of the circle, along with Raphael, Gabriel and Uriel.
The Grain Harvest Ends
For our ancestors who worked the land, September was the last good month for bringing in the grain, before the dark and damp of October rotted what was left in the fields. Steve Roud writes in The English Year: “The importance of the harvest in an agricultural economy can hardly be overstressed… Embedded in the practical and physical arrangements necessary to ‘win’ the harvest… customs…grew up over the years which served to keep the workers amused, gain them some monetary advantage, or celebrate their achievements.” These customs could have grown out of games, solutions to problems, and superstitions, but most scholars nowadays are doubtful about grains of ancient pagan lore to be gleaned from them. Steve Roud writes: “…the idea that harvest customs are direct survivals of belief in corn goddesses and vegetation spirits of pre-Christian times…is not supported by the documentary record.”
Professor Ronald Hutton writes in Stations of the Sun that most current ritual harvest celebrations are Christian in origin. However, he adds: “None the less, feelings persist in different forms that the season belongs to older deities as well, and this is a belief which predates…Frazer [in The Golden Bough]. Elizabethan observers of English harvest customs, after all, instinctively recalled Roman worship of the corn-goddess Ceres.”
Indeed, many modern pagans find ways of connecting with the gods, goddesses, and spirits of the land and seasons through harvest folklore. Whether that’s due to an atavistic memory of things otherwise lost or a modern creation is less important than the fact these things give us meaningful ways to celebrate the season. Scholars can argue whether harvest celebrations are continuations of ancient pagan festivals or are similar because they fulfil a similar social need. However, if all you want to do is honour your own gods with traditional customs, then leave the scholars to their debating, and in the words of the great philosophers Bill and Ted, “Party on, dude.”
I’ll be writing more about the Autumn Equinox in a future post.
This is the seventh in a series of posts I’m writing for the Moon Books Blog on the theme of the Wheel of the Year. My posts will be compiled and edited into a book: Pagan Portals – Wheel of the Year. Other books by Lucya Starza in the Pagan Portals series include Candle Magic, Guided Visualisations, Poppets and Magical Dolls, and Scrying. Lucya edited the community book Every Day Magic – A Pagan Book of Days.
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