a grandmother reading to her two grandchildren
Image by Aline Dassel 

This story has a little bit of America in it and a little bit of Orkney in it. Orkney is at the very northern tip of Scotland; it is a collection of seventy islands that once belonged to the king of Norway but are now part of Scotland. Everyone who lives in Orkney lives close to the sea.

Because the sea is so important to them for their livelihood, the people of Orkney pay very close attention to what the ocean is doing and the creatures that dwell in it. They spin tales of mermaids and of the great sea battles between the ruler of summer, Mither o’ the Sea (Mother of the Sea), and the ruler of the winter waves, Teran.

A Fall Equinox Story

Lorna lived in New England on a farm near the sea, and fall was her favorite season. This year she was in fourth grade and just old enough to walk to and from school by herself. 

Every day, on the way to school, she passed by a row of ancient maple trees planted in a line along the roadside. Each spring, she, her parents, and her grandma Torrie hung metal buckets on the trees to collect fresh sap to boil down for syrup.

Now that it was almost the Fall Equinox, the maples were starting to turn color. Vivid oranges and reds were already mixing in with the green of the leaves. Purple, pink, and white asters bloomed along the roadside and in her mother’s garden, and at the bottom of the garden, the small orchard of apples and crab apples was brightly hung with yellow and red fruits. Mither and Grandma Torrie had been busy all week canning apple butter and jelly and preserving spiced apple slices to serve at Thanksgiving and Christmas dinners.

innerself subscribe graphic

The scent of grapes was in the air; wild fox grapes and Concord grapes had spread in dense mats from tree to tree along the edge of the forest. The fox grapes could not be eaten until after the first frost, but Mither and Grandma Torrie had been picking Concord grapes for weeks to make grape jelly, juice, and pie. There were still some blackberries in the hedges if you looked carefully, but they were far and few between because the birds had already picked off the best ones.

Faether’s wheat field was ripe and tall and ready to be harvested, so long as the weather stayed fine. The golden stalks waved and rippled in the wind as if in greeting when Lorna walked by. Dry yellow corn stalks rustled on the opposite side of the lane as V-shaped tribes of geese flew overhead, honking to keep each other in line.

Fall Equinox Supper

That night the family had a very special supper. Before they began eating, Faether spoke about the significance of the day: “On the day of the Equinox, it’s not quite dark and it’s not quite light. Today the day was exactly as long as the night, but by tomorrow the night will be just a few minutes longer than the day. And so it will continue until we slide into the darkest days of winter! Right now, we are still in the middle of the harvest season, which is why we stop for a moment to give thanks. The harvest won’t be completely in until Samhuinn [Samhain], when everything is safely stored in the barn and kitchen cupboards. Then we will celebrate again!”

“But the wheat field is completely bare now,” said Lorna. “I thought you had finished bringing it all in?”

“Yes, we did,” said Mither, “but we still have more harvesting to come—the sheep and the cows that we can’t afford to feed all winter will be harvested. And so will the geese.”

That all made sense to Lorna, even if it made her a little sad. 

It was a fine spread—Grandma Torrie made sure of that, preparing all the dishes her family had enjoyed when she was a girl living in Orkney. There was clapshaw (mashed potatoes and yellow turnips), a fat roasted goose, and freshly baked sourdough bread into which Mither had put a little of each of the grains grown on the farm—wheat, barley, and rye. There were new carrots, freshly dug, new wine made from the Concord grapes that grew on the land, and freshly pressed grape juice for Lorna. For dessert there was a gingerbread broonie (oatmeal gingerbread) with a scoop of whipped cream on the side, and a mag­nificent blackberry pie, made with the very last berries of the year.

Before they ate, everyone listed three things they were grateful for and then named a new project that they wanted to begin in the winter. Then they dug in.

“Pay attention to the color of the goose bones!” declared Grandma Torrie while everyone else was chewing. “If they are brown, that means a mild win­ter is coming, but if the bones are white like snow and ice, it means a harsh winter lies ahead.” The bones were brown, and everyone gave a sigh of relief.

When the meal was done, they went to the parlor, where Faether lit the fire and Grandma Torrie sprinkled dried juniper on the flames, saying, “The smoke of this burning juniper will start the season right!”

Then everyone sat back on a comfortable pillow, sofa, or chair and prepared to listen as Grandma spun her tales.

Grandma's Story Time

Grandma Torrie came from Orkney. She was always passing down stories from her girlhood to Lorna. “Because you have to know where you come from, even if you have never been there,” she would say.

“In the land where I am from—and you are, too, though you have never been there—we live close by the sea.”

“So do we!” said Lorna. “We can see the ocean just by standing on the high wall behind the barn!”

“Just so,” said Grandma Torrie. “And that is why I am going to tell you the lore of the sea that I learned when I was exactly your age, back in Orkney. We always paid close attention to the ocean, because our faethers (fathers) mostly made their living as fishermen. Everyone wanted to know what the weather would be and how to prepare for it. It was a matter of life and death for us.

The most important spirits of the ocean were called Teran and Mither o’ the Sea. Sea Mither and Teran are invisible to us humans, but you can follow their activities quite clearly as the seasons change.”

“What does Teran look like?” Lorna asked.

“He is a huge sea monster with cold eyes that never blink,” said Faether. “You mean like a shark?” Lorna asked. She had seen sharks brought in by fishermen and some that were stranded on the beach.

“Quite so!” said Grandma Torrie. “He also has huge, twining tentacles and big barnacle-crusted flippers that he uses to churn the sea into giant waves. If a sudden summer storm rises up, that’s him thrashing about, try­ing to escape the powers of Mither o’ the Sea.

She continued, “In the springtime, at the time of the Equinox, Sea Mither battles with Teran, and she always wins. She sends him deep under the waves and holds him captive. But that takes all her strength, and by the Fall Equinox she is quite exhausted and loses her grip. Then Teran rises from the ocean floor once more and rules all winter, until Mither o’ the Sea can get her strength back at the Spring Equinox.”

“And so,” Grandma Torrie told them, “every Equinox, spring and fall, they battle for weeks. You always know when it is happening because there are gales, high winds, dark skies, howling blizzards, huge waves, and cold waters that boil and churn.”

“But Sea Mither always hears the cries of drowning people and of people crying on the shore—anyone who is starving, sick, or cold—even in the win­ter when her powers are weakest,” she said. “So, you can call on her any time you need protection. But her powers are at their peak in summer, of course. She is the one who repairs and replenishes the land after it is ravished by Teran’s freezing winter reign. She is the one who gives the sea creatures the strength to have their babies, warms the oceans, and sends the gentle sea breezes. She keeps Teran and the other dark sea creatures in check!”

Grandma Torrie reached over to her dessert plate, took a small piece of broonie, and threw it into the fire. “To keep evil forces away,” she explained, adding, “and now it’s time for bed. Sweet dreams and good night!”

© 2022 Ellen Evert Hopman.
Edited excerpt printed with permission
from the publisher, Destiny Books,
an imprint of Inner Traditions International.

Article Source:

BOOK: Once Around the Sun

Once Around the Sun: Stories, Crafts, and Recipes to Celebrate the Sacred Earth Year
by Ellen Evert Hopman. Illustrated by Lauren Mills.

book cover of Once Around the Sun: Stories, Crafts, and Recipes to Celebrate the Sacred Earth Year by Ellen Evert Hopman. Illustrated by Lauren Mills.In this beautifully illustrated book, Ellen Evert Hopman shares rich stories drawn from traditional folktales, hands-on crafts, and seasonal recipes to help families and classrooms learn about and celebrate traditional holy days and festivals of the sacred earth year. Designed to be read out loud, the stories are complemented with pronunciation guides and translations for foreign words. 

For each story, the author includes hands-on projects special to the holiday--from crafting magical wands and brooms to flower crowns and Brighid’s Crosses--as well as seasonal recipes, allowing families to enjoy the tastes, smells, and sounds associated with the feast days and celebrations.

For more info and/or to order this book, click here. Also available as a Kindle edition

About the Author

photo of: Ellen Evert HopmanEllen Evert Hopman has been a Druidic initiate since 1984. She is a founding member of the Order of the White Oak, an Archdruidess of the Tribe of the Oak, and a member of the Grey Council of Mages and Sages. She is the author of several books, including Walking the World in Wonder.

The book's illustrator, Lauren Mills, has won national acclaim as both an author/illustrator and a sculptor. She is the author and illustrator of the award-winning The Rag Coat.

More books by Ellen Evert Hopman.