The Autumnal Equinox usually occurs around 20/21 September, but this year is as late as the 23rd. It marks the second point in the year when day and night are of equal length, the first being the Spring Equinox. The word equinox comes from the Latin for “equal night”. From this day on, the nights will be longer than the days, making the Equinox the start of the dark half of the year.
Astronomically, the Equinox occurs when the plane of Earth’s equator passes the centre of the Sun. At this moment, the Earth’s axis neither inclines towards nor away from the Sun, causing day and night to be exactly equal.
The Equinox marks the first day of Autumn. The word Autumn comes from the Latin Autumnare meaning “to ripen”, which neatly describes what is going on in nature at this time of year.
The Equinox is the time of the second harvest: of fruits, nuts and berries. Ronald Hutton writes that harvest festivals were often held around this time of year, involving feasting and rejoicing in the bounty of nature that is stored up at this time to prepare for the winter ahead. In parts of Britain and Northern Europe, the whole month of September was called “Halig-monath”, meaning “holy month” because of the religious significance of harvest festivals.
The Autumn Equinox is known by many names in Paganism, including Mabon, Second Harvest and Gleichentag (literally “even day”). Some modern Druids call the day Alban Elfed, meaning “the Light of the Water”, since the day sits on the western point of the traditional Wheel of the Year and in Celtic myth, the Western Isles mark the point where the sun sets, and are associated with the Otherworld.
No matter what name it is called, the Autumn Equinox is a liminal time, not light nor dark, not summer nor winter. By this time of year, the earth is beginning to show signs of the descent into winter’s cold: the temperature starts to slowly drop (although it remains warm for a while yet) and the first few leaves begin to turn gold and red. Squirrels begin to gather nuts and store them in their caches, and migratory birds prepare to leave for warmer climes, while other, Northern, birds, arrive in Britain to take advantage of our relatively warm winters.
In my own personal paganism, I always feel most “pagan” and connected to the land at Autumn. The whispering of the falling leaves, and the activity of the local wildlife really remind me of the life that is all around us, even in a time of year often associated with death.
This is the time of the turning of the Light into Darkness. Let us step forward into the darkening days holding before us the divine promise of new Light at the end of the Dark Days, from year to year and life to life.
ADF. Our Own Druidry: An Introduction to Ár nDraíocht Féin and the Druid Path. Tucson: ADF Publishing, 2009.
Carr-Gomm, Philip. Druid mysteries: ancient wisdom for the 21st century. London: Rider, 2002.
Hutton, Ronald. Stations of the sun: a history of the ritual year in Britain. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1996.