Ancient Celebrations of the Equinox

The next Equinox is on Wednesday 22 September at 20:20 (GMT+1) and marks the exact moment the Sun is directly over the Equator and begins its journey to the Tropic of Capricorn in the Southern Hemisphere (approximately 23°27′ S of the Equator for the academics among us). In fact its latitude is currently 23°26′11.3″ (or 23.43647°) south of the Equator and it is very gradually moving northward, currently at the rate of 0.47 arcseconds, or 15 metres, per year. That is because the Earth’s axis isn’t fixed and actually wobbles.

Less than 3% of the world’s population lives south of it; this is equivalent to about 30% of the population of the Southern Hemisphere. The further North from the Equator you are the longer the nights will be from now until the next Equinox. So for those nearest the North Pole there is almost 6 months of night. Conversely in the Southern Hemisphere it is the lighter part of the year.

When the Tropic of Capricorn line of latitude was named over 2000 years ago centuries BC, the Sun was in the constellation Capricornus at the December solstice. This is the date each year when the Sun reaches zenith at this latitude, the southernmost latitude it reaches for the year. However, due to the precession of the equinoxes the Sun currently appears in Sagittarius at this solstice and these means at the Equinox the Sun is in Virgo rather than Libra.

Ancient Cultures

Ancient cultures didn’t have clocks to calculate minutes of daytime and nighttime, but they could measure the sun’s position geometrically.

People observed that the sun’s rising and setting points moved slightly each day of the year. The summer solstice would occur when the sun reached its northernmost point, marking the longest day of the year in the Northern Hemisphere. The sun’s southernmost point marked the winter solstice, or shortest day of the year in the Northern Hemisphere, when the North Pole was tilted the farthest from the sun. The two days of the year when the sun rose exactly due east and set exactly due west marked the equinoxes.

A number of prehistoric sites were used by ancient peoples to track the position of the sun and predict equinoxes and solstices. These sites include Stonehenge and Newgrange in the UK and the Majorville Medicine Wheel in Alberta, Canada, along with many other circles and mounds, which have various alignments with the Sun.

Although, there is no record of how the Celts celebrated the Equinox, we know that circles are prolific in all the areas they lived and inhabited, so it is likely they continued indigenous traditions.

To the ancient Greeks, the September equinox marked the return of the goddess Persephone to the darkness of the underworld, where she is reunited with her husband Hades.

The full moon that falls closest to the autumnal equinox is sometimes called the Harvest Moon. The Chinese began celebrating the fall harvest at the Harvest Moon centuries ago, during the Shang dynasty. Ancient Chinese celebrated the successful harvest of rice and wheat and made offerings to the moon.

Ethnic Chinese and Vietnamese people still celebrate the Harvest Moon or Mid-Autumn Festival. During the Mid-Autumn Festival, lanterns adorn streets and family and friends gather to give thanks, share food and watch the moon. Round pastries, called mooncakes, are often enjoyed at this time.

Higan is a holiday celebrated by some Japanese Buddhists. It takes place twice a year, during the fall and spring equinoxes.

During Higan, Japanese Buddhists will return to their hometowns to pay respects to their ancestors. Higan means “from the other shore of the Sanzu River.” In Buddhist tradition, crossing the mythical Sanzu River meant passing into the afterlife.

The people of the British Isles have given thanks at fall harvest festivals since recorded pagan times. Harvest festivals traditionally were held on the Sunday nearest the Harvest Moon and were adopted by the Church as Harvest Sunday. Primary School children used to bring donations of food, which were then donated to elderly relatives and others in the local community (a Harvest basket).

Early English settlers took the harvest festival tradition with them to America. These tradition festivals, once celebrated around the equinox, formed the basis of American Thanksgiving, which is now celebrated in November.

Mabon

Aidan Kelly gave names to the summer solstice (Litha) and equinox holidays (Ostara and Mabon) of Wicca in 1974, which were subsequently promulgated by Timothy Zell through his Green Egg magazine. Interestingly Kelly’s own neopagan group, New Reformed Orthodox Order of the Golden Dawn didn’t adopt the term, but instead called the Fall Equinox “The Rites of Eleusis”.

Although, Mabon has become widely used across the pagan community it is a terrible choice of name that has little to do with the Equinox celebration. The story of the abduction of Mabon in the Mabinogion is relatively obscure and there is absolutely zero historical connection between Mabon and the Autumn Equinox.

Many Druid Orders use Alban Elfed (Hyfed) as the name to celebrate the Autumn Equinox. Alban Elfed translates from Welsh as Autumn Equinox (Alban can translate as Equinox or Solstice) and Elfed means Autumn. Many Druid Orders including ADO and OBOD state it translates as “light of the water”. But as far as I can see from translations this is incorrect, but maybe Welsh speakers might want to correct me.

How to Celebrate The Autumn Equinox today

The Equinox is a time of balance and of equalising, when the day and night are of the same time everywhere in the world. It is the second Harvest festival following Lughnasadh. Remember those in need. Donate to the needy and food banks.

Celebrate with friends by praising and giving thanks to your God(s) or Spirits or the Earth Mother for the Harvest and keeping well fed and nourished, either in ritual or informally. Enjoy eating Autumn berries, or a fruit pie or crumble.

Share stories, sing songs, do meditations of balance and enjoy yourselves.

Whatever you wish to call it, Equinox blessings to you from North West England 🙏

Filtiarn xx

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