Opinion: for our ancestors, the Equinox provided a pause between autumn and winter

The word equinox derives from the Latin for "equal to night". This phenomenon occurs twice a year and happens when the sun rises due east and sets due west and day and night are equal in length. At the precise moment of equinox, the sun crosses the earth's equatorial plane, a projection of the terrestrial equator out into space. Equinox is a short plateau of apparent equal light and dark in our days of mid-Spring and mid-Autumn. At the September Equinox, the sun moves from north to south and vice versa in March. 

For many of us, the shortening evenings bring an early shiver not so much from a cooler temperature, but more from an anticipation of the darker, colder days of Winter. The green leaves are giving themselves up to browns, bronzes, reds and russets and the branches holding them will not be doing so for long. Any swallows you still might see are lagging behind the departure of most of their kin.

Yet in Ireland, the Celtic festival of Autumn Equinox calls us away from such an energy sapping outlook to embrace this "pause between Autumn and Winter". Normally of course, this Equinox occurs in what is regarded as mid-Autumn, with Winter beginning at Samhain. Now we experience a short liminal space before the hours and minutes of darkness begin to outdo those of daylight. The opportunity to synchronise our lives with that brief spell of equanimity is precious.

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From National Geographic, an explainer on Equinoxes

It may be surprising to know that this is the last festival of our native year. Our next Celtic festival is Samhain, which was regarded as a celebration of the Irish indigenous New Year, so this last 'quarter' Autumn Equinox Festival, known as Cónacht Fómhair in Gaelic, is extremely special for us. It is the final verse of energies that began at Samhain 2019 with a chance to review our lives since Samhain last year and answer a call to consciously stir intention on how to live the final weeks of a declining year with alignment and balance.

Autumn Equinox reminds us to recalibrate the yin and the yang, the light and the dark as Mother Nature comes to a point of equanimity. Ignoring the grounding we can attain at Equinox is to our detriment. While community celebrations often occur on September 21st as the exact time varies in different years, we are increasingly more aware of acknowledging the exact ‘true’ moment between each of the eight Celtic Festivals. The actual date and time of exact equality of darkness and light this year in Ireland is 14.30 GMT and 13.31pm (UT) on Tuesday September 22nd

In ancient times, rituals were held at this time to cleanse out old energy and welcome in the new. This is seen as a time of struggle between light and darkness, life and death. Worldwide, certain sacred sites align to both Equinoxes such as the temple of Angkor Wat in Cambodia.

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From RTÉ Radio 1's News At One, retired teacher Dáithí Ó'Connell on how the Autumn equinox provided a welcome surprise in the Conor Pass in 2017

While some scholars of the Irish spiritual tradition claim that our ancestors did not really create a festival at this time, many sacred sites were built to receive illumination when the rising sun of Equinox dawns. An outstanding example of this is Sliabh Na Caillí (Loughcrew), known as the Hill of the Crone in north Co. Meath and where the unique rock art of the back stone is lit magnificently on the mornings at Equinox.

Those outside the Cairn, if lucky, may peer in to witness the sunlight snaking its way through the doorway up the small passageway to shine on the magnificent ‘cave drawings’ on the back stone illuminating the central chamber. That this still occurs thousands of years after it was built is itself a fascinating phenomenon. After all, this complex of up to 30 Neolithic Passage ‘tombs’ was built in approximately 2,000 – 3,000BC.

This year, the Equinox arrives two days before the First Quarter Half Moon, very apt for a time of equal light and dark. Those who brave the elements to rise before dawn or trek up the Hill at dusk this week may be rewarded with clear skies and an astonishing vista of the sun radiating onto our ancestor’s primal artwork.

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From Creedon's Epic East, John Creedon visits Loughcrew

Autumn Equinox is the best time to bring to fruition any projects begun earlier in the year. This in itself gives us an opportunity to seek harmony while finding the right balance in our lives. If that sounds like exactly what you need, then you should celebrate. While you don't need to partake in ancient rituals to do so, you can be inspired by them. Go outdoors, connect with nature, and enjoy the balance of day and night.


The views expressed here are those of the author and do not represent or reflect the views of RTÉ