By Right Rev. Roland Lakey
Most of us know that at some time in September, we have what is called an equinox. Many know that translates, from the Latin, as “equal night” meaning equal day and night. Still, how many of us know the history and folklore behind what is really a pagan festival?
Our ancestors were old hands at following the movements of celestial bodies, most obviously the Sun. Why? Because their very livelihoods depended on that knowledge.
The vast majority of the world’s populations were agrarian. They lived off the land; eating and trading what they could grow and hunt. Without the local weather forecaster on “News at 6”, they had to keep careful track of the weather and seasons themselves.
They lived by what today is referred to as “the Wheel of the Year”. This is still used by many Western Tradition pagans, such as Wiccans, Druids, and Asatru, to mark festivals and holidays.
Picture, if you will, a large circle inscribed on a wall. At the top, 12 o’clock, is the winter solstice, Yule, the shortest day of the year. Opposite, at 6 o’clock is the summer solstice, the longest day of the year.
Now these, of course, are in the northern hemisphere. They are opposite below the equator, which explains a great deal about Aussies!
Back to our wheel or ‘clock’ – on either side are the two equinox, the vernal or spring equinox at 3 o’clock and the fall or autumnal at 9. That is where we are now. These four high holidays are collectively known as the “Quarter Festivals” and vary according to when the Sun crosses the “celestial equator.”
This celestial equator is an imaginary line around Earth above the equator. Due to differences between the Gregorian calendar year and the tropical year, the September equinox can occur at any time between September 21 and 24. This year it was at 1:01 pm on September 22 here in Portland. The Sun is literally heading south for the winter.
One quick note on the Wheel of the Year, there are four other high holidays on it called the “Cross Quarters” or “Fire Quarters” because they are usually celebrated with bonfires.
These are fixed dates again based on important times in the agricultural year. The one we know best is Samhain, or Halloween to the uninitiated.
Autumn Equinox is when we pass from the ‘light’ half of the year, (more daylight than dark), to the ‘dark’ half, the opposite. The darkness gets longer every night until Yule.
The ancients had three harvest festivals, beginning with the 1st of August, equinox the middle and Samhain the last. Equinox meant that it was time to get serious about bringing in all the crops. Remember, agrarians lived off the land. Winters could be long, cold and hungry. No Costco or Visa cards back then.
Interestingly, in many Christian churches, this is the time of Harvest Sunday, the Cornucopia of Plenty. They may be more ‘pagan’ than you think. On the Western Tradition Tree Calendar, September is called the Apple or Vine month – cider or wine anyone?
Both equinoxes are claimed to be times of balance, since darkness and light are balanced. Hence the idea that it is easier to balance an egg on its end. Some say it can only be done if you are at the equator.
Not to burst anyone’s bubble, but it can be just as easily (or not) done any day, especially if you spill a little salt on the table.
It is also supposed to be a time of change – jobs, partners, apartments or whatever you want to change. Now this appears, in this old druid’s observation, closer to the truth. Perhaps we can see the approaching winter and want to make it easier than the last. Certainly we will be changing our clothes, and what better excuse for buying a new wardrobe?
One last thing: remember that this is the Wheel of the Year. It never stops turning and soon the light will start growing again. The ‘dark’ half of the year has lots of great and fun things to enjoy.
Catch up on those household chores in the “honey do” jar, curl up with a loved one or a good book. Sit and watch the snowflakes silently fall or when invited to a seasonal party, go!
May your gods go with you!