Celtic Lessons the Autumnal Equinox Teaches
Nature is an awesome thing, isn’t it? It can be powerful and destructive. The recent devasting floods, droughts, and wildfires have reminded us of that. But it can be awe-inspiring, too, in its beauty and complexity. But whether we are inspired by it, respect it, tolerate it, or try to ignore it, nature impacts our lives. The ancient (and not-so-ancient) Celts knew that. They had an acute awareness of and appreciation for all nature. That is evident in their folklore and spirituality.
The Celts believed everything—people, plants, even inanimate objects—had a spirit or a divine essence. So, everything was sacred and was to be treated with respect. The Druids categorized trees into categories, such as Nobles of the Woods and Sacred Trees. Celtic folklore teaches that you should ask permission of a tree or its guardian spirit before picking fruit or leaves. Branches should only be picked up from the ground, not cut from the tree. But respect and reverence weren’t limited to trees. The folklore teaches that good magic can be found in natural things, such as herbs or blessed water, and that the singing of certain birds contains healing magic.
In keeping with this, the Celts considered the equinoxes and solstices special events. The four days a year on which these took place were festivals and holy days. Even today these astronomical events are still significant. Whether we stop to notice them or not, they impact nature and our lives.
Next Thursday, September 22nd an equinox will occur. In the northern hemisphere, it will be the autumnal equinox. In the southern hemisphere, it will be the spring equinox. These important events have lessons to offer us if we take the time to stop and reflect. My post today will focus on the themes and symbolism of the autumnal equinox. For my readers in the southern hemisphere, I haven’t forgotten you. Click here for a post on the spring equinox. Or stay and read this one first. Hopefully, you find something valuable here no matter what season you’re about to enter.
What is an Equinox and How Does It Impact Life Today?
Every year, there are two equinoxes, one in March and one in September. In March, the spring equinox occurs in the northern hemisphere and the southern hemisphere takes place in the southern hemisphere. In September, the opposite occurs. But what exactly is an equinox? The Latin roots of the word give a clue. Equi means “equal,” and nox means “night.” On the equinox, the hours of daylight and nighttime are approximately the same. After the autumnal equinox, the amount of daylight decreases as the darkness increases. The days are said to grow shorter. This change especially impacted humans before the invention of electric lights, but it still affects us today. Decreasing sunlight means decreasing temperatures. So, the days gradually get colder, and we move towards winter. At least for most people. As some of you know, I live in Florida, so the change can be quite subtle.
This change in sunlight and temperature bring about the season most people call autumn (and many of us in the U.S. call it Fall). Every year, the autumnal equinox is listed on calendars as the first day of autumn. It’s time to watch the leaves turn red and gold, take the cozy sweaters out of storage (unless you live in Florida), and (if you’re in the U.S.) start drinking pumpkin-spiced everything. If you’re a farmer, it’s more than that. It’s time to prepare for the harvest.
Autumnal Equinox, the Celtic Version
On the Celtic calendar, however, It’s mid-autumn. Autumn began almost two months ago, at Lughnasa (August 1st). It’s time for the second harvest. Time’s moving quickly and winter’s on its way. You’d better think about getting prepared. These are major themes of the autumnal equinox. Another is balance. After all, the equinox is about equal quantities.
In the Celtic year, the autumnal equinox falls between the festivals of Lughnasa and Samhain (November 1st). Lughnasa is a harvest festival. Samhain marks the beginning of winter as well as the start of the dark half of the year. Because of that, darkness, sparsity, and death are themes associated with Samhain. Those themes should leak into any autumnal reflection, too, as Fall is the transition time between the bright, carefree time of summer and the cold starkness of winter. It is a time to balance the abundance of the harvest with the sure knowledge that nothing lasts.
Happily, that includes the cold, winter, darkness, and death. The Celts believed in the cycle of life, death, and rebirth. Darkness and death will come, but they will be followed by new life and the return of warmth and sunlight. So, the idea that it’s time to get ready for approaching the end is balanced by the hope that there will be a new beginning.
It’s important to note that Celtic balance is not two-fold. It seems to be a dichotomy: light / dark, life / death. But there is a third part: the in-between. This is symbolized by the Awen, a design of three rays of sunlight. One outside ray is male energy. The other outside ray represents female energy. The middle ray symbolizes the balancing of the two. The in-between can be found in many other places in everyday life as well, such as thresholds, fences, and the huge chunk of life that takes place between birth and death.
The in-between is present in nature as well. It can be experienced in the transition seasons of spring and autumn that come between and prepare us for the extreme seasons of summer and winter. It exists in the dawn, that time when the first rays of sunlight give proof that the night is nearly over. And it is present at twilight, that wonderful time when the day is over, but night hasn’t quite arrived. In Celtic folklore, in-betweens are special. They are the places where the otherworldly can be encountered and where magic happens.
With those thoughts in mind, I offer a few reflection questions to ponder during this autumnal equinox. I hope you find them of some use.
*Think about the seeds you’ve planted during the past year. Have they yielded a good harvest? Is there anything else you hope to produce before the year ends?
*If your harvest is bountiful, what can you share with those who are in need?
*In what areas of your life or yourself do you need or want to find more balance? What small steps can you take towards achieving that balance?
*Is there anything in you (a talent, a desire, etc.) that has been languishing in the darkness? What can you do to bring it into the light for the benefit of yourself and others?
*What role does nature play in your life? When was the last time you connected with or just rejoiced in nature?
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Next week, I’ll be traveling so there will be no post. Posts will start again on September 30th. Enjoy the equinox!
Slan go foil!