The Myth, Legend, and History of the Autumnal Equinox

By Hayley White

Reading time: 12 minutes

As we come into the month of March, summer slowly passes us by. So, with sweater weather just around the corner we step into the crisp autumn season. Everything becomes a lot less green and as the leaves fall from the trees, we find ourselves in a world of reds, oranges, browns, and yellows. Some animals store food away and thicken their coats for the coming hibernation and others prepare for winter. With the new season also comes one of the two seasonal equinoxes of the year – the autumnal equinox.

Scientifically speaking, the equinox marks the time and date when the sun crosses the equator and moves from the Northern to the Southern Hemisphere. It is the day in which these hemispheres get the same amount of sun rays, and we have a day and night of equal length. Generally speaking, the equinox marks the beginning of the new season and is the time many would gather to celebrate the seasonal changes with festivities and food. ‘Equinox’ comes from Latin origin: Aequi/aequus, meaning equal and nox/noct, meaning night. The word itself was created in the Middle Ages and was drawn from Latin aequinoctium and old French équinoxe.

By Hayley White

Reading time: 12 minutes

As we come into the month of March, summer slowly passes us by. So, with sweater weather just around the corner we step into the crisp autumn season. Everything becomes a lot less green and as the leaves fall from the trees, we find ourselves in a world of reds, oranges, browns, and yellows. Some animals store food away and thicken their coats for the coming hibernation and others prepare for winter. With the new season also comes one of the two seasonal equinoxes of the year – the autumnal equinox.

Scientifically speaking, the equinox marks the time and date when the sun crosses the equator and moves from the Northern to the Southern Hemisphere. It is the day in which these hemispheres get the same amount of sun rays, and we have a day and night of equal length. Generally speaking, the equinox marks the beginning of the new season and is the time many would gather to celebrate the seasonal changes with festivities and food. ‘Equinox’ comes from Latin origin: Aequi/aequus, meaning equal and nox/noct, meaning night. The word itself was created in the Middle Ages and was drawn from Latin aequinoctium and old French équinoxe.

Celebrations for the autumnal equinox vary depending on religion and culture. In Greece, it was the celebration of Demeter and the farewell of her daughter Persephone as she left to go back to the underworld. In Mayan and Aztec legend, the god Kukulkan/Quetzalcoatl is worshipped. In Buddhism tradition, Higan is celebrated, and in Hindu culture, Navaratri. In Chinese and Vietnamese communities, the harvest moon is celebrated by the Moon Festival or Mid-Autumn Festival.

Pronounced MAY-bone, MAY-bun, or MAH-boon, Mabon is a modern neopagan take on the celebration of the equinox. The name, Mabon, was adopted for this celebration in the 1970s by American poet and academic Aidan Kelly. Ever since, it has been known as Mabon and it is historically one of the oldest harvest festivals in Europe.

According to Celtic legend, the tale begins with Earth Mother Goddess and Guardian of the Otherworld Modron giving birth to the Great Son Mabon ap Modron on the autumn equinox. Depending on the version of this story, it is either three days or three years later that Mabon was stolen from Modron and held captive in the otherworld (Modron’s womb) where he is nurtured and faces many challenges that help him to grow stronger and wiser. He is rescued by a group of animals including an owl, stag, and a salmon and reborn as the “Son of Light”. In another version he is rescued by King Arthur.

Most Celtic equinox celebrations centred around harvest feasts, but many other rituals and traditions relating to the equinox were followed as well. The equinox was considered a time to honour the spirit world, so it was a common tradition to pick apples and place them on the graves of the dead because apples were symbolic of rebirth and for the wishes of the living to be reunited with their loved ones.

The Celts believed that the corn spirit was trapped in the corn and needed to be set free, so a large wicker man effigy was burned in celebration of the harvest and the ashes spread over the fields. Celts also had a ritual of dressing up the very last harvested corn sheaf or shaping it into a wicker man or woman. These same ‘corn dollies’ were kept inside during the long winter to protect folks from bad spirits. Depending on the area, the last sheaf was kept inside until spring, when it was ploughed back into the land. In Scotland, the last sheaf harvest was called “the Maiden” because it had to be cut by the youngest female.

The ancient Greek equivalent of the Great Son Mabon is Persephone, daughter of Demeter, goddess of the Earth, agriculture, grain, and harvest. Demeter was upset when Persephone was stolen by Hades to be queen of the underworld. In her anger, Demeter refused to use her skills to make plants grow, and instead, put a curse on the earth that caused plants to wither up and die every time Persephone left. Demeter eventually got her daughter back from Hades for nine months of the year before Persephone disappeared for the other three months over winter.

The Thesmophoria was another equinoxial festival widely celebrated in ancient Greece. It was held in honour of Demeter – also known as Thesmophoros – and was celebrated exclusively by married women; no men nor maidens were allowed to partake.

Pigs were sacrificed in a big pit called a megara either a couple of months or weeks earlier than the festival, because the pig needed to be rotten and decomposed for the ritual. The rotten pig remains were collected from the megara by ‘bailers’. These were women who spent three days staying ritually pure and who carried fertility symbols like pinecones, dough figures, and serpents (Britannica, 2011). It was believed that the pigs’ remains were placed on an altar mixed with seeds and cakes and were scattered across fields. The mixture was such a great fertiliser that it led the Greeks to believe it ensured crops would grow.

The Greeks celebrated Thesmophoria at times that varied from place to place. For the most part, it was celebrated at or around the time of the autumn equinox, but in Delos and Thebes it took place in summer. In Athens, Thesmophoria was honoured over three days from the 12th to the 14th of Pyanopsiōn(October/November in the ancient Attic calendar). The three days were called anodos or kathodos (ascent or descent), nesteia (fasting), and Kalligenia (the fair birth). Anodos was the first day of the festival when preparations were made and participants ascended to the shrine called the Thesmophorion. Nesteia, the second day, was a day of fasting to mimic Demeter’s mourning at the loss of her daughter. On the third and final day, women worship the goddess Kalligenia for a fertile environment, beasts, and men.

For the Mayan and Aztec cultures in ancient Mexico, celebrating the equinox was based around the massive monument of Kulkulcan/Quetzalcoatl on the pyramid Chichén-Itzá. The pyramid steps are oriented so that the spring and autumn equinoxes cast a unique shadow; an illusion that is meant to make it look like a snake is moving down the stairs, with the tail at the top connecting with the head at the bottom. People travel from far and wide to see the Chichén-Itzá, but for the Mayan it represented the two times a year their revered god, Kulkulcan/Quetzalcoatl, visited the temple in person.

For Buddhists, equinoxes have a very special meaning. Because the equinox is the time when day and night are equal length, Buddhists believe it is symbolic of the joining of the spiritual and physical worlds and represents the balance between light and dark. The equinox is such an important time for them that the day of the autumn equinox is a public holiday.

The traditional Buddhist equinox ceremony is known as Higan. Higan means “the other shore” in Sanskrit and describes Nirvana – the state of bliss and enlightenment attained after death. For six days, Buddhists pay respect to their ancestors by cleaning their gravesites and offering fresh flowers, incense, sweet rice balls called OHAGI, and prayers. The fresh flower offerings are often higanbana; red, chrysanthemum-like flowers that bloom during the week of the autumn equinox. These blooms signify shubun, the arrival of autumn. Memorial tablets are displayed in homes or on family gravesites and memorial services are also common. Priests are usually asked to read a sutra, a short verse or prayer, in honour of a deceased relative.

The Hindu religion has celebrations for all four seasons, but the autumnal equinox is the most celebrated of them all. Sharada Navaratri, also known as Maha Navaratri, begins on the first day (pratipada) of the fortnight of the lunar month Ashwin (September-October), lasting ten days and nine nights.

Shadara Navaratri is the festival celebrating the death of the demon Mahishasura at the hands of the Hindu divine feminine Mother Goddess Devi – also known as goddess Durga. According to legend, their battle lasted for nine nights until she finally beheaded him on the tenth day (Agarwal, 2018). Sometimes, Shadara Navaratri may be held for an extra day or one day less, depending on the Sun and Moon positions and the leap year. In most regions, the festival can either fall after or during the autumn harvest and is celebrated differently in various parts of India. For most areas, homas (fire rituals), Abhishekas (pouring libations), and pujas (worship prayer and flower offerings to deities) are all gathered and performed during the period. Most also celebrate through fasting, meditating, and worshipping. Each day celebrates a different goddess, though every goddess is a manifestation of the goddess Durga and across the nine days, she is worshipped in many forms.

It is understandable that there would be so many ways to celebrate the equinox across the globe. It is important for telling when autumn has begun, and it is an important marker of the harvest before the coming winter. It only makes sense that so many religions and cultures have created their own mythology to solidify and recognise this important seasonal change.

Goddess Durga Puja
Photo: Tanuj Adhikary, Unsplash

Sources: 1. Navarātri. Hinduism and Tribal Religions 2. Thesmophoria, Encyclopedia Britannica

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