The autumnal equinox is the day that marks the end of summer and the beginning of fall. On this day, on or around September 23rd in the Northern hemisphere, the sun rises directly in the east and sets exactly in the west, and the length of daylight is equal to that of night. In fact, the word equinox comes from the Latin words meaning “equal night.”
It’s a time of agricultural harvest, sharing food, giving thanks for the abundance of summer, preparing for winter; a time of balance, and of honoring both the light as well as the darkness. Whereas the spring equinox brings with it the joyful anticipation of flowers and warmer weather, the autumnal equinox brings with it thoughts of death and the dormancy of crops and plants. It foreshadows the coming of shorter days and longer nights, and since time immemorial, this celestial turning point has played an important role in human culture around the world.
Greek Myth of Persephone
One of the most famous myths regarding this time of year is the ancient Greek legend of Persephone, the daughter of Demeter — the Greek goddess of agriculture and the harvest. Hades, god of the underworld, got smitten with and abducted Persephone, taking her down to his realm to be his queen. Demeter became so distraught that she refused to use her powers to make plants grow, causing crops to die and people to starve. Zeus tried to intervene, but Hades tricked Persephone into eating six pomegranate seeds, obliging her to spend six months of the year in the underworld. So from that time forward at the autumn equinox, Persephone would go down into the underworld, during which time Demeter stopped giving life to all the plants.
A national holiday in Japan, Higan is celebrated during both the spring and autumnal equinoxes. Higan means the “other shore” of the river which separates this life from the afterlife, and in Japanese Buddhist belief, the equinoxes are symbolic of life’s transitions. So this holiday is a time to visit the graves of ancestors, clean them up, offer flowers, light incense, and leave them traditional Japanese food. It’s essentially the “Day of the Dead” for the Japanese.
The Catholic feast day to celebrate Archangel Michael, Michaelmas traditionally involved gathering and eating nuts, blackberries, and feasting on a fattened goose. It’s thought that, like many other Christian holidays, the feast was set near the autumnal equinox to draw people away from pagan celebrations. In the British Isles and parts of Western Europe, it was said that the harvest had to be completed by Michaelmas, and was the time when servants would be paid their wages, new servants would be hired, land was exchanged, and debts paid.
The Moon Festival, also called the Mid-Autumn Festival, has been celebrated in Chinese and Vietnamese communities for centuries. Held on the harvest moon, which is the full moon closest to the autumnal equinox, it is a time when family and friends gather together to gaze at the full moon, give thanks for the harvest, and pray for longevity and for material wellbeing. One of the hallmarks of the festival is making and eating of traditional mooncakes, pastries filled with sweet bean or lotus-seed paste.
Mayan Pyramid of Kukulkan
The ancient Mayans took the autumnal equinox to another level with their knowledge of astronomy, math, and architecture. Their Pyramid of Kukulkan in Chichen Itza, the ancient capital of the Yucatan Mayans, is designed so that a special light show happens on each equinox. The pyramid is aligned and designed in such a way that sunlight and shadow create a serpent’s body snaking down to connect with the huge head of their feathered snake god at the bottom. Today, thousands of people still come to see this impressive spectacle.