Autumn Arrival: Customs and Folklore of the Equinox

“No spring nor summer beauty hath such grace as I have seen in one autumnal face.”

John Donne

We are fast approaching the equinox and the moment of astronomical autumn which takes place on the 23rd of September here in Western Europe. In the meteorological definition, though, autumn began on September 1st. So, for those who want summer to last a little while longer, you still have some time left!

The equinox is the moment in the year when the hours of daylight and darkness are the same length. Following this equality, the hours of darkness then become longer until their peak at the Winter Solstice. But let’s not jump on too far ahead, just yet! I’ll post a bit more detail about the equinox itself nearer the time but for now I can’t help but be struck by the slight chill in the morning and evening air, the rusted leaves beginning to decorate the paths and roads, and the shift in the various hues of green in the fields and mountains.

An Owl charm and shell/ Hag-stone at Athgreany stone circle

For the ancient Irish, the equinox may have been a time to recognise that colder times were approaching. Some neo-pagans refer to the autumn equinox as Mabon but this title has no relationship to Ireland or ancient Irish customs. In Druidry, the autumn equinox is named in some sources as Alban Elued, which means ‘The Light of the Water’ and in others as Alban Elfed, meaning, ‘Light of Autumn’. It is worth pointing out that some researchers question the historicity of these translations.

We know that the equinox was of particular importance to the pre-Celtic ancient Irish because of the huge amount of megalithic sites with confirmed alignments to this time of the year. Sites such as Athgreany stone circle (Proposed by Helen O’ Clery and Dr. Ian Elliot of Dunsink Observatory), Ballyhoneen wedge tomb, Loughcrew Cairn T, Grianán Ailigh and many more may all align to the equinox sunrise and sunsets. The purpose of this is most likely to be ritualistic in nature. Ancestor veneration and an acknowledgement of the Otherworld and the spirits and the dead is certainly attested to in many other indigenous cultures at this time.

Sheep at the foot of Lugnacoile Mountain

It would be extremely odd if this was not the case here in Ireland considering our relationships to those same people. The equinox in Asia, as another example, is a portal of boundary crossing. It is a time to remember loved ones and the eternal cycle of things to which we all belong. In Japan, the holiday of Ohigan is celebrated for a full week at the autumn equinox. This feast allows people to acknowledge the transitory nature of human life and give thanks to ancestors.

It is also a time when spirits are free to cross the threshold between the material and non-material worlds. Ohigan represents an auspicious moment for those of us still living to think about our own lives and where we are going. Within Greek mythology the autumn equinox was when the goddess Persephone returned to the darkness of the underworld, where she was reunited with her husband Hades. This story, of course, has its roots in the myth of Inanna and Ishtar also making this descent into the spirit world.

A view of Athgreany

The original account of this story goes back to at least 3’500 BCE and probably much further. In many folk-stories and traditions this is a time when spirits, ancestors and fairies can more easily enter our own earthly realm and make contact with us. The equinox is considered a liminal time. This means that it is a moment when borders come together for a short period allowing an easier passage between worlds.

In this account from the Irish folklore archives a man hears autumnal fairy music and defies the warning to stop listening to it. Needless to say, it does not turn out well for him!

As you walk through the countryside you may come across acorns scattered on the pathways and fields. If these little acorns survive being taken by wildlife they may become mighty oak trees themselves in the future. It is an old Nordic custom to place acorns on your windowsill to protect your house against storms and lightning. This may come from the Norse myth of when the God Thor took shelter beneath an oak.

Another North European equinox custom was to empty a sack of grain into the wind in order to appease Odin. This giving of your crop is similar to many of the other sacrificial offerings we have looked it which occur at both the first and second harvests of the season. Returning to Ireland, the Druids believed that if an oak tree was struck by lighting its mistletoe would become even more magically potent.

Ultimately, the equinox is both a time to reflect upon all of the work we have done in the year as well as preparing for the dark months ahead. In essence, it is a time of balance in a personal as well as an astronomical sense. For ancient people this point of the yearly cycle may have told them that the crone was on her way and that they should prepare accordingly. The Cailleach’s approach could be seen in the empty fields and felt in the colder air and darkening evenings. The year had turned further and a new season was about to begin.

David Halpin is a writer from Tallaght, now living on the Carlow/ Wicklow border. He has been writing about Irish Forteana and spirituality for over thirty years and has had his articles published in magazines and books throughout the world. David’s photographs of Ireland’s sacred sites have been published in journals and articles worldwide and in 2020 were included in An Taisce’s annual report on the Irish landscape. David is also a reviewer of esoteric writing and as well as publishing for The Occult Book Review, he also contributes regularly to newspapers, magazines and online publications. His articles have appeared in The Wild Hunt, New Dawn Magazine, Coire Ansic, and he is a regular contributor to Ancient Origins. David also runs the blog, Circle Stories, where he focuses his writing upon the topics of consciousness and folklore.

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