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Autumn in Myth: The Life and Death Cycles
I’m a linear thinker – I like going from cause to effect in a straight-forward, logical sense. I don’t normally think of the various life cycles that we see all around us in nature – the way water flows, for instance, and the flow of the seasons from one to the next. However, when I study mythology, cycles stand out. For me, these cycles have a much more in-the-hands-of-fate feeling – which is perhaps a blow to my own personal views on fate and freewill. Regardless, this appeals to me when I’m doing research for my stories. Because my novel dealt with a combination of Norse and Celtic Mythology, I’ll focus on those two, but first, I’ll touch briefly on probably the most famous myth of how we get our seasons in the western classic mythos: The story of Persephone.
Greek - Persephone
Demeter, the Greek goddess of harvest, was responsible for making things grow. Her daughter, Persephone, was literally the goddess of spring. At some point in time, Persephone was stolen by Hades, the greek god of the dead, and taken to the underworld to be his wife. Demeter grew cold, and searched for her stolen daughter - nothing grew while her daughter was missing. When Demeter at last found Persephone, Persephone had eaten six seeds of a pomegranate – forcing her to stay in the underworld six months of the year. It was said that Spring was when Persephone returned to Demeter, and autumn was when she left her mother to return to Hades. While she was with her mother, the world grew and flourished – and grew cold when Persephone returned to her mother’s side.
Autumn has a different significance to the many different cultures around the world – reflective in their mythologies and stories. Usually, the sequence goes in this order, though there is some variation:
Summer: Young to Mid Adulthood
Autumn: Twilight Years
Winter: Old age and death
Only to return to Spring – often, with rebirth – many classic mythos tells stories of deities slain and raising from the dead, only to return from the underworld – perhaps autumn represents that struggle before death or the journey to the underworld. One such cycle of death and rebirth can be found in the Norse Tradition.
Norse – Ragnarok
Ragnarok (The Fate of the Gods), or Ragnarøkkr (The Twilight of the Gods)
Rather than an ultimate beginning and ending, the Poetic Edda cited Ragnarok as the literal end of the world – that the subsequent battle between the kingdom of the gods (Valhalla) and the underworld (Hel) would result in the destruction of Earth and the other worlds connected to them – the death of most of the gods and the subsequent occurrence of various natural disasters, and the submersion of the world in water, where the world would resurface, several already slain gods would return, and the world would be repopulated by two humans, formed from a tree and beginning the cycle again and again. The universe in Norse mythology stemmed from a central holy tree, Yggdrasil, and it was said that the first humans came from this tree – the holy tree in which all the worlds were connected. It was said that this cycle had been going on and would go on indefinitely.
Less well-known to most of us today are the stories of the Ulster Cycle – although you might recognize some stories, such as Tristan and Isolde, and Deidre of the Sorrows. I highly recommend you research Cu Chullain and explore Irish, Welsh, and Scottish Mythology. The pre-Christian Celtic peoples had a very ancient set of traditions, which carried on even after the conversion process. While the gods have become heroes in many translations, these early stories went on to influence the western tradition of romanticism and folklore. Rather than a single mythology, we’ll consider an ancient festival that has significance in North-American culture to this day.
Celtic - Samhain
Samhain is a Gaelic Festival marking the end of the harvest season. It was celebrated from sunset October 31 to sunset November 1. The Celts had four other seasonal festivals that marked the seasons and had different significances: Imbolc, Beltane, and Lughnasadh.
According to Celtic Mythology, Samhain marked the time where the door to the Otherworld opened and for Fae and the dead to communicate with the living. Samhain was effectively the festival for the dead, and according to the Boyhood Deeds of Fionn, it said that the fae doorways were always open at Samhain. We get our origin of Halloween as people would leave ‘treats’ out for the fae and dress up in costumes to befuddle them – if carrying iron or salt wasn’t an option. These however were not the pleasant faeries many of you were thinking of – the original fair folk were usually seen as tricksters, willing to steal people and bring them back to the fae realm.
A huge thanks to L.T. Getty for taking the time to write this post! As you all know, I love mythology, so I geeked out when reading this. Now, on to the contest :)
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