Saturday, September 21, 2013

Pausing to Remember

Harvest Moon (c) John Ashley
Harvest Moon rises Thursday evening between Numa Ridge and Rainbow Peak, in Glacier Nat. Park
Wednesday's anticipated moonrise was a rainy washout. But on Thursday evening, the clouds finally melted back into the mountains mere minutes before the full moon broke the eastern horizon and rose silently into the Earth's own deep-blue shadow. We call this one the "Harvest Moon," as it's always the full moon that appears just before the fall equinox.

Tomorrow's Autumnal Equinox (at 4:44 pm in Montana) marks the approximate date (depending on where you live on the planet) when daylight and darkness are equals. "Equinox" comes from the Latin words, aequus (equal) and nox (night). Likewise, names for festivals that followed the Harvest Moon originated from the days when everyone worked outdoors and used the sun and moon as their clock and calender.

Releasing the sun's spirit
Back in the time of myths and mysteries, this was the day when the god of light, Llew, was defeated by his alter-ego, god of darkness twin, Goronwy. Llew represented the sun's power as captured by the just-harvested fields of corn. Pagan peasants dressed the very last shocks of corn in fine clothing and burned Llew's effigy in a celebration meant to "release" the vanquished spirit so he might return next spring.

The ancient festival, "Gwyl Canol Hydref," began at sundown on this date, a time to celebrate the harvest and remember spirits who, like Llew, had passed on. Some Celts called it, "Mabon" or "Harvest Home," sort of an early version of Thanksgiving. A branch of the medieval church Christianized this Welsh holiday as "Michaelmas," turning the tables to celebrate the victory of Archangel Michael over the angel of darkness, Satan, who was cast out of heaven and thrown down onto the fields of Earth.

During the murky, mid-1600's a folksong called, "John Barleycorn" arose from the muddy fields of England, or perhaps Scotland. Countless variations exist today. In verse the Barleycorn character represents the "spirit of the field" who suffers life's indignities and death in a story that parallels Llew's death and sacrifice. In song, John Barleycorn symbolizes the cultivation and harvest of an important crop, barley, and its transformation into literal spirits - beer and whiskey.

Following these lines, in 1913 American author Jack London published an autobiographical novel that he titled, "John Barleycorn." Across its pages, London described the pains and pleasures that alcohol brought to his life. Viewed from the outside, London led a difficult but successful life and career. But when under the influence of alcohol, John Barleycorn sent a clear message to a drunken Jack London that life and love were pointless struggles.

On this day, I'd have paid a King Edward's sixpence to stand beside London and watch the moonrise over Montana's wild mountains. Such a vision of light is surely equal to alcohol's dark clutches, if not its superior. Even London, I believe, would have felt moved by tonight's Harvest Moon.

You can hear a wonderful, traditional treatment of the folksong,"John Barleycorn," here