The hearth stone of an abandoned cottage near Glenties, county Donegal, Ireland
The tradition of Donegal fiddle is populated with giants, those who kept the tradition alive at any given time over the past century or so, and today it could be argued that the living patriarchs of Donegal fiddle are the Campbell brothers, Jimmy and Vincent. They related to Caoimhin Mac Aoidh in his history of the tradition, “Between the Jigs and Reels,” that each year during the harvest, the travelers would converge and set up camp near Glenties. One of the gypsies, a tall, exceptional burly fellow known only as Gypsy Mor, was an accomplished fiddler, who believed firmly in the power of the harvest moon. In fact, it was only on the appearance of the harvest moon that Gypsy Mor would consent to shave. His favorite tune, thought composed in the 1840s by a man named Mac Fhionnlaioch, Gealach na gCoinnleach is now known throughout the world, appropriately enough as Harvest Moon.
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MY LITTLE BOY IS ELEVEN YEARS OLD, and interested in all things pagan. Actually not all things, but certainly the more sensational bits, particularly those associated with the Greeks. And I always try to remember to point out traces of the ancient pagans in modern life whenever possible, from symbols to sites, and celebrated dates. And tonight I took great pride in pointing out that this should be one of his favorite nights, as it was the harvest moon. As evidence I pointed to the exceptionally bright moon rising in the sky, quite proud of myself.
I knew the above story, having not only met, but inebriated myself in the company of not only Caoimhin Mac Aoidh, but the Campbell brothers as well, on the very night of the harvest moon, some years ago. I still remember a rather intense conversation held on the stairs of the Highlands Hotel in Glenties with Caoimhin and Jimmy, held entirely in Gaelic, of which I know none, but seemed to be understanding quite clearly. Such is the magic of the harvest moon, the Irish, and large quantities of Guinness and Jameson’s Irish whiskey. I should also add, it was quite likely during that moon, that the little pagan was conceived.
Now, eleven years later, as I started to tell him about the pagan significance of the harvest moon, I realized a startling fact. Aside from the story of Gypsy Mor, I didn’t know shit about the harvest moon. But from the name, I assumed it had to be something special.
The harvest moon is the first full moon closest to the autumnal equinox, and is sometimes known as the hunter’s moon. Here in the midwest, there’s the annual Feast of the Hunter’s Moon, which seeks to recreate the annual event at Fort Ouiatenon, near West Lafayette, Indiana, of a gathering of Native Americans and the French settlers at the 17th century fur trading post,.
Then there’s Leon Redbone crooning “Shine on Harvest Moon” There’s got to be something magic in this, right?
What there is is science and nature. For a brief period of time, the full moon rises low in the sky just about sunset, and due to its presence low on the horizon, it appears unusually large, often with a tinge of red, due to particles visible in the atmosphere. What this means is it stays somewhat light, somewhat longer into the evening, which allows more time in the fields, bringing in the harvest. Or easier tracking of game by hunters.
What I didn’t find was a history of ancient myths and celebrations, honoring the harvest moon. What I did find is a plethora of modern day celebrations, usually involving music, food and copious amounts of alcohol. I would imagine, among those so inclined, a fair amount of licentious sex as well. Among modern pagans and practitioners of Wicca I found a glut of celebrations, ceremonies and rituals, and somewhat connected to that, a dizzying range of commercial enterprises, from jewelry to clothing.
What seemed startling to me is the degree to which we’ve lost track of the natural cycle of the Earth. For those interested in the old ways, there are plenty of opportunities to celebrate the autumnal harvest. You’ve got Lugnasad on or around August 1st, the Equinox a few weeks later, and Samhain or All Hallow’s Eve on October 31. Between the Equinox and Halloween was a period of hard work.
I’d find it a bit more understandable why the harvest moon gets so much attention, if I thought it was perhaps an attempt to avoid pagan dates. At least there would be something of a historical precedence. Instead, I fear the reason for its rise in popularity is due to something far more trivial.
Harvest Moon – it’s taking two ancient ideas with all their connotations and putting them together. It’s romantic, it’s mysterious, it’s some powerful mojo.
It’s also a time when you’re supposed to be working your butt off, to avoid the dangers and hardship of the coming winter. It’s the last big burst of activity, when you’re rushing to bring in the last of this year’s crops. It’s one of the few named celestial events in ancient or pagan calendars which is marked by work, rather than celebration.
But we don’t need the extra light any longer. We have streetlights. Most of us aren’t working the fields, and those that are, typically have plenty of lights beaming from modern harvesting equipment. In short, it’s become a holiday which no longer serves a real purpose.
Maybe there are some ancient mysteries tied into the harvest moon, which I didn’t find or have been lost to history. Celebrating the harvest moon certainly feels right. What doesn’t feel right is the commercialization and trivialization of the night.
Which is sad. It turns out, if there is any magical symbolism in the harvest moon, it’s that of the hearth. It’s the time of year when you’re gathering what will keep you alive, cooked over the family hearth, till the next crops come in. Between the harvest moon and then, there were countless ways to die. A vibrant and healthy hearth is what kept you alive, and was the place you returned after a long day’s work, stretching into the night, on the harvest moon.