The Significance of the Equinox in Astronomy
The seasons are changing today. For us, in the Northern Hemisphere, the September equinox, also known as the autumnal equinox, marks the first day of autumn, while in the Southern Hemisphere, it is the first day of spring. The season officially begins at 4:44 p.m. EDT during the autumnal equinox.
The name ‘equinox’ comes from the Latin aequus (equal) and nox (night). It is one of only two days in the year (the other being the vernal or spring equinox) when the sun is directly perpendicular to the equator, resulting in exactly 12 hours of daylight and 12 hours of darkness. The sun rises at the South Pole today for the first time in six months. In the northern hemisphere it’s harvest time.
Looking at the mid-day position of the sun over the summer season, Northern Hemisphere sky-watchers will notice that it has been slowly sinking closer to the southern horizon, and creating ever longer shadows.
It’s only on the spring and autumnal equinox that the Sun rises due east and sets due west.
Astronomically speaking, the September equinox marks one of the four major turning points in the cycle of seasons. The Earth spins on its axis, which is tilted at 23.5 degrees with respect to its orbital plane. On these days, however, the Earth’s axis is neither tilted away nor towards the Sun, but has both northern and southern hemispheres experiencing equal amounts of sunshine.
The Significance of the Equinox in Spirituality and Ancient Times
The autumn equinox is a mysterious time. It marks an essential passage in the process of enlightenment that is often overlooked, misunderstood, and mistaken as dark and heretical.
It is the time of balance between day and night, before night takes over and brings the coming winter, a time of darkness and death. This duality between light and dark exists within humanity, and in the work of spiritual transformation. All things must die before they can be born, all spiritual ascent requires descent first, and all those who long for light must firstly face their own inner darkness and overcome it. The autumn equinox symbolizes a stage of inner preparation in the process of enlightenment—to make way for the Son to be born within at the winter solstice.
Remnants of the esoteric meaning of the autumn equinox can barely be found in lasting traditions from the times of ancient peoples who celebrated it and knew of its real significance. To discover the esoteric meaning by looking at rituals and traditions is not easy. There are many traditions which have been passed down today, but these have strayed from their root meanings. Different civilizations and cultures have added their own veneer, altering and losing much of the meaning as they themselves lost the knowledge of it.
Traditionally, the autumn equinox is a celebration of the harvest, as it is when summer has finished giving its fruits, which are collected in preparation for winter. But there are other indicators given by the most ancient sacred sites that mark the autumn equinox: a descending passage into a subterranean pit lit by a star of the dragon constellation in the Great Pyramid of Egypt, a seven-scaled feathered serpent of light descending a giant pyramid in Mexico, a giant Pyramid of the Sun aligned to the equinoxes built on a cave symbolizing the underworld, and even giant statues facing the sunset that leads to growing darkness on Easter Island.
September Equinox Customs and Holidays
In Greek mythology fall is associated with when the goddess Persephone returns to the underworld to be with her husband Hades. It was supposedly a good time to enact rituals for protection and security as well as reflect on successes or failures from the previous months.
Aboriginal Australians have, for a long time, had a good knowledge of astronomy and the seasons. Events like the September equinox, which is during the spring in Australia, played a major role in oral traditions in Indigenous Australian culture.
In China the Mid-Autumn Festival, also known as the Moon Festival, is celebrated around the time of the September equinox. It celebrates the abundance of the summer’s harvest and one of the main foods is the mooncake filled with lotus, sesame seeds, a duck egg or dried fruit.
Higan, or Higan-e, is a week of Buddhist services observed in Japan during both the September and March equinoxes. Both equinoxes have been national holidays since the Meiji period (1868-1912). Higan means the “other shore” and refers to the spirits of the dead reaching Nirvana. It is a time to remember the dead by visiting, cleaning and decorating their graves.
The Christian church replaced many early Pagan equinox celebrations with Christianized observances. For example, Michaelmas (also known as the Feast of Michael and All Angels), on September 29, fell near the September equinox.
Pagan celebration: Mabon
On the autumnal equinox, many pagans celebrate Mabon as one of the eight Sabbats (a celebration based on the cycles of the sun). Mabon celebrates the second harvest and the start of winter preparations. It is the time to respect the impending dark while giving thanks to the sunlight.
Sources: Wikipedia, Encyclopedia Britannica, National Geographic, The Path of the Spiritual Sun, www.timeanddate.com