Celtic Balance and the Autumnal Equinox
It’s coming this Tuesday, September 22nd: the Autumnal Equinox. Likely it will come and go unnoticed by most people. This is a shame because the activities of nature should be as important to us moderns as it was to the ancient Celts. The Celts had to pay attention to nature. They were fishers and farmers. The sun, the moon, and the seasons impacted their lives completely. Those of us living in the 21st century, unless we’re farmers or fishers, are less aware of that impact. Still, it is there whether we notice it or not. In fact, ignoring nature, taking it for granted, or worse, abusing it, can spell disaster. I am a native Floridian and I guarantee that not taking a hurricane seriously can be a deadly mistake. Considering all that is going on right now with storms, wild fires, and a pandemic, I could write a gloom and doom, the-apocalypse-is-coming post about the relationship between humans and nature. I won’t. Instead, this post is about the awesome bi-annual event called the equinox and how it should remind us, like it did the Celts, of the importance of nature, human life, and balance.
So what is an equinox? It is a solar event which happens twice a year, in the spring (on or near March 22nd in the western hemisphere) and in the autumn (on or around September 22nd). At the equinox, the hours of daylight and the hours of darkness within a twenty-four hour period are almost exactly equal. Also, no matter where you are in the world, the sun, on the day of the equinox, will rise precisely in the east and set due west. The rest of the year, sunset and sunrise will be more northwest or southeast, depending on where you live and the time of the year. After the Spring Equinox, the days start getting longer so there are more hours of daylight and warmer temperatures (great for growing crops!). After this Tuesday, the Autumnal Equinox, days will get shorter and shorter as the western hemisphere moves towards winter (the eastern hemisphere will have Spring Equinox this Tuesday and move towards summer).
The Autumnal Equinox is the astronomical start of autumn (or fall, if you’re an American). I’m being specific because the start of fall actually varies. In addition to the astronomical definition of the first day of autumn, there also are the meteorological, calendar, American “unofficial,” and Celtic. The meteorological definition of the start of autumn is based on a system of three months for each season, grouped together by their typical temperatures. In this system, September is the first month of fall. Many calendars will follow this and list September 1st as the beginning of autumn. In the U.S., Labor Day is said to be the last day of summer since the new school year generally begins right around the holiday. Labor Day is the first Monday in September, so the date varies from year to year. In the U.S., the “unofficial” first day of fall is the day after Labor Day. For the Celts, autumn started over a month ago, on Lughnasa (August 1st). The Autumnal Equinox, in Celtic culture, marks mid-autumn and the time of second harvest.
And second harvest brings us back to why the Autumnal Equinox is important. For the Celts, Lughnasa was a celebration, a time to rejoice in the first fruits of the harvest. By the equinox, reality sets in. The second harvest better be a good one. Days are going to grow shorter, nights longer and colder. Winter is coming. Preparations need to be made. Food and supplies are stored away, and those stores need to be enough to get the family through the long dead of winter.
The equinox symbolizes the delicate balance between light and darkness, warmth and cold, plenty and want, life and death. How can there ever be too much light? Try sleeping with lights on. It can be done but, if you try it, you may not find it entirely satisfying. Too much warmth? Hah, live in Florida in September! Seriously, though, you know that too much warmth means hot and that’s just as miserable as too much cold. Too much plenty? That’s not possible, is it? Anyone who’s over-indulged at a holiday meal knows there is such a thing as too much of a good thing. But what about life? Surely, there is no such thing as an overabundance of life. Perhaps not, but doesn’t the shadow of death spur people to want to live life rather than just exist? Besides, physical death isn’t the only kind of dying, and some kinds of death can be good.
Good death? Yes. Autumn is the perfect example of this. Green leaves change color and become vibrant in the autumn. They also dry up and fall to the ground. This is good for the tree. It makes way for the new growth, the buds and fruits that will blossom in spring. The land, as well, goes through an apparent death during winter only to rise to new life in spring. This cycle of life-death-and-rebirth didn’t escape the notice of the Celts. A strong belief in the soul’s eternal existence, endlessly journeying through this cycle, is evidenced in their folklore, mythology, and symbolism.
This is Celtic balance. It’s not the good / bad, right / wrong, male / female dichotomy of so many philosophies. Celtic balance is a triad. It is body, mind, and soul. This concept is represented in the Celtic symbol known as the Triskel (see picture), a circular design made up of three legs. In addition to representing mind-body-spirit and life-death-rebirth, it indicates movement, growth, and progress. The well-known Celtic Triquetra (see picture), symbolizing eternal life, is a design with intersecting leaf-like shapes which form into a triangle. Perhaps the best Celtic symbol for the equinox is the Arwen (see picture), a design with three lines which resemble sun rays. One of the two outer rays represents male energy while the other represents female energy. A middle ray is the balancing of these two opposite but equal forces.
You might argue that the equinox is more like the aforementioned dichotomies. It is about light and dark, day and night. Ah, but there actually are three things. There is night. There is day. And there is the in-between: twilight. In Celtic folklore and spirituality, the in-between is a BIG thing. (Just wait ‘til we get to Samhain, the biggest in-between of the Celtic year!) The in-between is where dark and light, life and death, meet and merge. The in-between, just as in the Arwen symbol, is the balance. The equinox is a balance and it is an in-between. Days stop growing longer. Nights stop growing shorter. On the equinox, there is a pause when everything is in balance. Then things reverse. Light recedes. Dark draws near.
Are you ready for the reversal? This Tuesday is the pause to prepare: for the change, for the move towards darkness, for the progression towards the death of another year. And for the new life that will follow.
Reflections for the Autumnal Equinox
1. Where do you find or need to find balance?
2. What changes do you need to make to improve your life or someone else’s?
3. Take stock of your storehouse (whatever that is for you) and take any necessary action (add, re-stock, or share with those whose harvest is meager).
4. Take mini-hibernations to refresh your body, mind, soul.
5. What do you need to let go of or die to in order to allow for new growth?
6. What has grown cold and needs to be warmed or brought into the light?
7. In life’s dark winters, what sustains you and gives you hope?
8. How do the seasons and the work of farmers affect your life?
9) Spend some time in nature and consciously notice it.
10) How’s your harvest? How do you feel in response?
11) In the midst of darkness, trust in rebirth.
A Prayer for Autumn
I veil my soul with the hues of Autumn,
veil of light upon my mind,
veil of life upon my body,
veil of love upon my heart.
The blessing veil of Autumn’s dusk
be upon all beings,
now and then,
now and when.”
From Celtic Devotional by Caitlin Matthews
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Slan go foil!
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