The Autumnal Equinox: Light, Darkness, and Celtic Balance
In the U.S., Labor Day is considered the unofficial start of fall (which most of the rest of the English-speaking world refers to as autumn). However, Fall 2021 officially begins next Wednesday, September 22nd. I’m excited. Autumn is my favorite season. I love the changing leaves, the chill in the air, the decorations, such as scarecrows and Indian corn. Of course, since I live in South Florida, most of the trees stay green and the crisp, cool breeze won’t get here until around Halloween. Or maybe Christmas. But even people who live north of Florida will not necessarily experience a drop in air temperature next week. So why do calendars proclaim September 22nd as the start of the harvest season? It all has to do with a magnificent astronomical event known as the autumnal equinox (the southern hemisphere, on September 22nd will experience the spring equinox).
On the Celtic calendar, both of the equinoxes (autumnal and spring) as well as the two solstices (summer and winter), are festival days. The Celts were (and many still are) farmers or fishers. Nature had a tremendous impact on their livelihoods. They paid attention to it, respected it, and celebrated it. Modern Americans, no matter their occupations, should too. A year of scorching temperatures and wildfires in the west, as well as hurricanes and floods in the south and northeast, should awaken us to the fact that the forces of nature impact the lives of all of us. Don’t misunderstand. This post is not a lecture on climate change or a plea to go green. It is an invitation to reflect on the things nature can teach us about ourselves and our lives.
What is an Equinox?
First things first: what the heck is an equinox? Twice a year, in March and in September, the number of hours of daylight and the hours of darkness are approximately the same (about twelve hours of each). After the spring equinox, the hours of daylight increase each day while the darkness decreases. After the autumnal equinox, this reverses. The sun rises later and sets earlier each evening, so the days become progressively shorter. Of course, human-mandated daylight savings time messes with this but you still likely have an awareness, as fall progresses, of darkness coming earlier in the evening.
For the ancient Celts, and for farmers today, this is a signal to hurry up and get the harvesting finished. Not only will there be fewer and fewer hours to get the work done, but the sun’s going away and the crop-killing frosts will be coming soon. In fact, the Celts considered the autumnal equinox mid-autumn. On the Celtic calendar, autumn starts at Lughnasa (August 1st). The autumnal equinox signaled the time for the second harvest, the last chance to bring in the crops before the start of winter and the dark half of the year at Samhain (October 31st—November 1st).
The Equinox: a Symbolic Perspective
The autumnal equinox is more than an astronomical occurrence and a harvesting timeline for farmers. It has symbolic implications for our lives. Here are a few thoughts on the symbolic significance of the equinox.
Harvest: I’ve explained above the direct connection between the equinox and harvest but what about its metaphorical resonance? It’s a good time to evaluate our own harvests. How are our goals going? These could be short-term or long-term goals for the year or life goals. Are we on the brink of reaping the rewards for our hard work? If not, what’s getting in the way? Did we sow the right seeds? Are we doing proper care and maintenance? How’s the soil? How realistic is it to grow what we want in this soil / environment? What needs to change to accomplish the desired product?
It’s important to keep in mind that the harvest needs to consist not only of what we want but of what we need. Farmers grow food that will sustain them or crops that will sell. Are you sowing the right seeds to produce what you need—self-esteem, friendship, serenity, and/or love, for example—as well as what you want?
Stocking Up and Preserving: For the ancient Celts, once the harvest was finished, they had to set about preserving and storing the food so it would last through the winter. Perhaps this is a topic best suited for a discussion about Samhain which, among other things, was a celebration that the harvest was accomplished. The fire festival also marks the start of the long isolation of winter.
Although I have gone through a few blizzards in my life, as a native Floridian, I feel more confident talking about hurricane preparations. I do believe there is a direct analogy that can be made between what the ancient Celts faced at wintertime and what I’ve experienced with hurricanes. You have to prepare well in advance because, once it starts, there’s no running out to store to get whatever you forgot. You’re in it for the duration and you don’t definitively know how long that will be. The rule of thumb for hurricanes is to have enough in the house for three days. Hah! I’ve been stuck in the house for two weeks. The ancient Celts had to prepare to live on their food supplies for months. In both cases—hurricane and winter for the ancients—preparation needed to be done early and done well.
All right. That’s the literal. Here’s the symbolic. How are you preparing for life’s storms, the expected and the unexpected? Do you have the reserves—mental, emotional, and whatever else—to ride them out?
Balance: The equinoxes, by their very name, call us to balance. Light and dark, of course, come to mind because of the equal number of daylight and nighttime hours associated with the event. Warmth and coldness might come to mind as well since the autumnal equinox marks the end of summer and the beginning of fall. It is a threshold that moves us towards the darkness and coldness of winter. And dark and cold bring up the difficult topic of death. Western thought presents all of these as dichotomies, two opposites. Often, they are couched in terms of positives and negatives, good and bad. But darkness, coldness, and even death don’t have to be bad.
Darkness is necessary. It’s a signal to our bodies (and brains) that it’s time to rest. Imagine trying to sleep when it’s constantly light outside. As a nurse, I worked the graveyard shift for a lot of years. I can attest to the fact that sleeping in the daylight isn’t easy.
Sunset often brings a lowering of the air temperature. This often is a welcome relief. Freezing is no fun but there is a temperature that is a happy medium between hot and cold. What’s better than cozying up to a fireplace in the dead of winter or coming into an air-conditioned room after being in the sweltering summer heat? The key is a balance of the two extremes.
But death? How can there be anything good about death? Generally speaking, physical death is not a good thing. I say “generally” because there are physical conditions worse than death, but that’s a discussion for another post. Metaphorically, there are deaths that are not only good but necessary. Ending a toxic relationship is one example. Cutting out a harmful habit or letting go of lingering anger, resentment, or shame are other examples.
The autumnal equinox is a good time to reflect on Celtic balance, which is not a dichotomy. Celtic balance is a triad. It is best symbolized by the Awen, a design with three sun rays. One ray represents masculine energy. A second one stands for feminine energy. The middle ray represents the balancing and blending of the two.
What’s that got to do with the equinox? At first glance, the equinox may seem to be a simple balance of light and dark, since there are equal quantities of both that day. Yes and no. You may have noticed that, at the start of the post, I said there was approximately an equal amount of both. But it really isn’t important how many exact minutes of daylight and nighttime there are on the equinox. The light changes throughout that twenty-four hour period and, as with all days, there is a blending of darkness and light at dawn and again at dusk. That is the center ray.
In Celtic folklore and spirituality, there is more than light and dark. There is the in-between, the blending that provides balance. The design of the Awen reminds me of a three-legged stool, and which would you rather sit on, a stool with three legs or two? So, as the autumnal equinox approaches, think about how you find balance between light and dark, life and death.
Two final thoughts. First, in the Celtic tradition, death is not just an end; it is a beginning. There is an endless cycle of life, death, and rebirth. Samhain, which follows Lughnasa and the autumnal equinox, is the beginning of the dark half of the year. Death is strongly associated with the festival as it is a time to honor the ancestors. Samhain is also the Celtic New Year. The old year ends and the new begins. Winter will be followed by spring just as death will lead to new life. Lastly, twilight, that place where darkness and light melt into each other, is where magical things happen.
Wishing you balance and a little magic as we approach the autumnal equinox!
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Slan go foil!
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