The ancient world of the Mediterranean and Near East has a great number of interesting mythological beings. Some are related to old gods and tutelary spirits. Some are fairly accurate illustrations of the anxieties of humankind — or maybe mankind, since women didn’t have much of a voice. Some are just ludicrous. One of my favorites though is the idea of the angel. Originally, they were simply messengers. The word remains almost exactly the same as its Greek ancestor, angelos, meaning “messenger”.
There are a number of angels that have names that relate to the Hebrew god, El. There is Gabriel, the “strong arm of god”; Uriel, “god is my light”; Azrael, “help from god”; and several more — you get the idea. Then there’s Michael, which can mean “gift from god” or “who is like god”. These Hebrew angels may not have been conceived as angels in the sense of messengers. In the Torah and Hebrew folklore, they are rather like courtiers and soldiers, more like the djinn (genie) of the Arabic peninsula than the messenger gods like Hermes, Thoth and Iris. In mythology, angels and djinn are fiery and inhuman and obsessively concerned with rules and traditions, accounting and bloodlines. Like their cold northern cousins, the faeries, they’re also largely indifferent to humans. So, of course, we find them fascinating. (Who isn’t interested in humans?!?)
Today is Michaelmas, the feast of St Michael — who is not a saint. Michael is the angel with the flaming sword who keeps humans out of Eden. He also had a few dust-ups with various fallen angels and demons (no idea what the difference is). In Europe, he is associated with high mountains, especially those that stand alone like lonely sentinels over the plains. There are many towers built for Michael on craggy heights all around Europe.
One of the oldest stories of Michael has little to do with his biblical persona — I’m not even sure if it can be found in the Bible — but it explains this association with high places. Michael is one of the chaos fighters, those warriors of order who fend off the forces of disorder. However, in many versions of the story of Michael’s battle, there is no victor. Michael goes to the mountaintop to face the dragon of primordial chaos, who is a being of both earth and sky and therefore lives where these realms meet. Michael finds the dragon and they fight, but neither prevails. Often, this fight is described as stylized, choreographed even, more for appearance than aggression. In the end, there is an agreement reached between the combatants. The dragon will feed the primogenial force into the world while Michael gives that force form. Together, they weave order and chaos into wisdom and life. It is a beautiful illustration of the inherent balance in our world.
Michaelmas is the remembrance of that détente and a reminder to us to seek balance. It falls near the equinox, the season of balance. In the North, it is the autumnal equinox, the traditional Harvest Home feast for much of Europe. It is the third of the annual quarter days (the equinoxes and the solstices) in English traditions, a day when accounts were reconciled and much feasting took place. So the two ideas are conflated — balance and harvest. We see the scales of Libra in the stars around the sun at this time of year. And of course, the harvest is ongoing, though most of the work is done by now — hence Harvest Home, the harvest is brought home.
Michaelmas is a harvest feast, perhaps the original harvest feast. It is a time to give thanks for what we’ve received, especially what we have received from the more-than-human world. It is sometimes called the witches thanksgiving, and in my house that is exactly what it is. Sometimes I roast the traditional goose with juniper berries. Eating goose on Michaelmas is said to bring good luck throughout the year. This tradition may be traced to Elizabeth I who was eating goose when news was brought to her of the defeat of the Spanish Armada. She resolved to eat goose every Michaelmas for good luck. But it was already traditional to eat goose — hence she had it on her royal plate that day. The tradition might also have developed from the quarter day rents. Tenants who needed to put off their payments until the full harvest was in tried to persuade their landlords to hold off on collecting by giving gifts of fattened goose.
“Eat a goose on Michaelmas Day,
Want not for money all the year”.
In Scotland, St Michael’s Bannock, or Struan Micheil is part of the feast. This is made from grain grown on the family’s land, representing the fruits of the fields, and is baked by an open fire on a lamb skin, representing the fruit of the flocks. The cereals are also softened and somewhat fermented in sheep milk, as sheep are the basis of the household economy in Scotland, the representation of wealth. The bannock is kneaded and baked by the eldest daughter of the family (yours truly, growing up). When she presents the cake to the head of the household she recites a traditional kenning:
“Progeny and prosperity of family, Mystery of Michael, Protection of the Trinity”
Most often, since I can’t actually eat goose without belly stress and I haven’t a lamb skin just lying about my home (nor an open fire… yet), I roast winter vegetables instead. These are the fruits of my fields. The roots I planted back in August aren’t quite ready yet — but there are winter squash. And I can get potatoes, beets and rutabagas at the farm stand. And rather than sheep milk, I will use cheese, maybe goat cheese, to make a savory sauce. There are usually nuts and apples and the first of the autumn cranberries worked into this meal because we have these in abundance in New England in the middle of autumn. But I do bake a Struan Micheil each year — whole grain wheat and oats and full of flavor!
So set aside a bit of today to think on your own harvest bounty. Think about Michael and the dragon, holding all this life in balance. Then, sit down with loved ones and eat a sacred feast of thanksgiving.
for 29 September 2021
You can respond in the comments below or make a Twitter post to the Wednesday Word. Either way, begin your response with #thanksgiving. Your response can be anything made from words. I love poetry, but anything can be poetic and you needn’t even be limited to poetics. An observation, a story, a thought. Might even be an image — however, I am not a visual person, so it has to work harder to convey meaning. In the spirit of word prompts, it’s best if you use the word; but I’m not even a stickler about that. Especially if you can convey the meaning without ever touching the word.
If responding in Twitter, you are limited to the forms of Twitter. I would prefer that there be no threads because that is difficult. So if you have something long, post it in the comments below. That said, please don’t go too long. Keep it under 2000 words. I’m not going to count, but I’m also not promising to read a novel. Unless it’s really good!
If I receive something particularly impressive, I’ll post it next week. If not, well, that’s fine too. I know you all are busy. But if you’ve read this far, then I’ve made you think about… thanksgiving.
all this life! this lavish abundance magnanimous hand that gives in floods and fields and streams satiating succulent sweet starlight for all and sundry who do we thank where to direct this upwelling gratitude what rings do we kiss in fealty we come on bended knee before this bounty and offer ourselves in thanksgiving to being all this life is it not miraculous! to be is, indeed, the great mysterious gift
©Elizabeth Anker 2021