Celtic Symbolism: Harvest and the Autumnal Equinox
Autumn is here! Well, almost. It begins on Saturday, September 23rd, the Autumnal Equinox. (To my friends in the southern hemisphere, Saturday is the Vernal Equinox, so Happy Spring!)
I love autumn. It’s my favorite season. The leaves turn to beautiful red, gold, and orange colors. There is a crisp chill in the air. Well, I live in Florida, so the crisp chill won’t show up until the end of October, but I know it’s coming. In the U.S., Fall decorations like scarecrows, pumpkins and other squashes, Indian corn, and wreaths with autumn leaves and Fall-colored flowers start popping up all over. It makes my heart sing!
But I also love the Celtic symbolism associated with the season. On the Celtic calendar, it’s been autumn for nearly two months now. It started at Lughnasa (August 1st), the Celtic fire festival of the harvest. Like all the Celtic fire festivals (four in all), it marks the beginning of a season, in this case, autumn. It is, on the Celtic calendar, the final season of the year. The New Year begins at Samhain (October 31st / November 1st). So, from a Celtic perspective, the year is coming to a close. It’s time to sow and then reap the harvest. And it’d better be a good harvest because this is the last chance to gather and store provisions for the long dark winter ahead.
Autumnal Equinox and Balance
In between the festivals of Lughnasa and Samhain comes this wonderful event called the Autumnal Equinox. And it’s pretty important from a Celtic perspective too. There are two equinoxes a year, one in Spring and one in the autumn. Essentially, an equinox is a solar event. The short version is this: on the day of the equinox the hours of sunlight and nighttime are approximately equal. (If you want the longer version, please read my post, “Celtic Balance and the Autumnal Equinox.” For the ancient Celts—and most agrarian people today—the Autumnal Equinox was the second harvest. As I said above, this was the final chance to make sure there’d be enough food to get through the winter. But to the Celtic mind, there’s more to this equinox than just practical preparations. The equinox symbolizes balance.
It’s logical to associate balance with the equinox. After all, it’s about day and night lasting an equal length of time. On an old-time scale, the cups on both sides need to be filled with equal amounts of weight to achieve balance. But Celtic balance is a little different. It has three parts, these are represented with the Awen, a Celtic symbol with three lines of equal length and resembling sun rays. One outer line represents male energy. The other outer line represents female energy. Between the two is a line that symbolizes the balance between these two opposite but equal energies. Think of it like a three-legged stool or any tripod. The third leg gives the structure much more stability than if it had only two legs.
This autumn is a good time to think about what gives balance and stability to your life (or where it’s lacking).
Harvest as Symbol
The ancient Celts depended on good harvests to survive. So do we. Most of us modern people living in industrialized countries don’t think about it. If we need food, we go to the store and there it is. Unless there’s a shortage due to a drought or other weather event. Or—as in recent memory—a pandemic. Nevertheless, farmers (thankfully!) continue to sow, tend, and harvest, and we reap the fruit of their labors. Without their work, the rest of us would be in big trouble. Of course, hunting and fishing are ways to obtain food too and, if we have any skill at it, we could get protein. But our bodies would still need those fruits, vegetables, and grains, so farm products are important to a continued healthy existence. So, planting seeds, watering and caring for the crops, then reaping the result are a necessary part of our lives. That’s the literal part.
Here’s the symbolic analogy. On the Celtic calendar, the autumnal equinox was mid-autumn. It was a time to evaluate how the crops were doing and what else needed to be planted to have sufficient food stores for winter. For us, the equinox can be a time to take stock. What seeds have we planted and were they the right ones to obtain what we need or want? Have we been nurturing them? Are they in need of attention? Water? Pruning? What (and where) do we need to grow to nurture our lives?
Once the seeds have matured, it’s time for the harvest. We can now reap the rewards of our labor. At Samhain, when the harvest was finished, the community gathered for a big feast, but only a portion of the food was eaten. The majority of it was preserved as a store for the winter months when food (including fish and game) would be scarce. Have we prepared what we need to survive any periods of cold and / or darkness that come into our lives?
Speaking of darkness and cold, there is a symbolic aspect of the harvest that sometimes makes people uncomfortable, and I’ll include myself in that group. For the plants that make up the harvest, harvest time is the end of life for them. A discussion of the symbolism of harvest must include talking about death. Okay. Not a topic most of us like to think about. I know. I get it. But it is a reality and there is more than one type of death. We go through many deaths in our lives before we ever get to the death of our bodies.
It can be a loss—of a job, of a friend, of an ability. My aunt used to paint beautiful seascapes. Then she got macular degeneration. I used to play instruments—the flute, the keyboard, and the viola. Then I fell, suffered some damage to my cervical spine, and ended up with neuropathy in my hands. I no longer have the fine motor skills needed to make music with my beloved instruments. So that aspect of my life is over. But I can still listen to music, so my love for it lives on.
Another type of death can be an intentional letting go of something or someone. This can be a positive, life-giving thing. Perhaps you realize that a relationship with a certain person is bad for you. Ending that relationship may be painful and it is a kind of death, but it can lead to a better life. The same is true of letting go of a habit, whether it’s eating unhealthy food, holding onto resentment, or worrying constantly about the future. There are all kinds of things we do that just are unhealthy and unhelpful. Cutting them out of our lives is a death that leads to life.
And that is the beauty in the Celtic symbolism of harvest. The crops are cut down, but new seeds will be sewn, new plants will bud, and the cycle of life will continue. Lughnasa is the last season but, at Samhain, a new year will begin. By Imbolc (the next fire festival on February 1st) new life will be bursting out everywhere, and at Beltane (May 1st) life will be in full bloom and bathed in sunlight. Death is not the end. It leads to new life.
A final thought: while there may be an equal amount of daylight and darkness on the equinox, there are different gradations of light and dark. The light at sunrise is not the same as the light at noon. And from a Celtic calendar perspective, noon is in the rearview mirror and fading into the distance. We are moving rapidly towards the end of the year and towards the darkness. But remember: Celtic balance is not a dichotomy of light and dark, life and death. Celtic balance is a triad. Just as there is a third ray in the middle of the Awen, there is a place between day and night, light and darkness. That place is twilight. As we come (on the Celtic calendar) into mid-autumn, we are going into the twilight of this year. It is an in-between space, and in Celtic folklore, in-betweens are the place where magic happens. So, I wish you an enchanted autumn!
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Slán go fóill
All artwork for this post (except for the Ukrainian flag and the GIF) by Christine Dorman via Bing Image Creator.