Nature & AnimalsReligion & Spirituality

The dark side of the earth: the autumn equinox

Photo courtesy of NASA
Photo courtesy of NASA

I love the autumn equinox. It’s the only time of the year when, along with the spring equinox, day and night are of equal length (not quite true – it’s complicated … ) and the earth is straight on its axis! Catch the brilliant BBC documentary ‘Orbit’ to see scientists explaining this with globes next time it’s shown. Meanwhile, here’s some science.

Traditionally, the autumn equinox is significant because it’s the point at which we in the northern hemisphere enter the dark half of the year, and life changes. For ancient humans, successfully adapting to this change, with its greater challenges of finding food and warmth, was a matter of survival. For us modern humans, the onset of winter heralds a change in lifestyle which is as much cultural as physical: going to work in the dark, evenings round the fire/telly, hot chocolate, the run-up to Christmas.

For me personally, the shift into winter has gradually evolved from something to be dreaded to something to be accepted, even welcomed. Like many people, I suffer (mildly) from Seasonal Affective Disorder, a hormonal response to the lower levels of light which brings reduced energy levels and a craving for carbs. I’ve found that the solution to this is, rather than treating winter the same as the rest of the year, to adapt: I do less externally, stop making trips of any distance and tend to keep my socialising local. The dark half of the year is when I do most of my reading. The result? I now enjoy winter.

I owe this change in part to the neo-pagan movement, with its attentiveness to seasonal change and recognition that death and darkness are part of the cycle of life. And the research I did into contemporary Druidry went deeper than I anticipated, teaching me the importance of ritual as a way of marking the passage of the year. Or perhaps a better word is the effectiveness of ritual: I don’t know how much is psychological, how much communion with a trans-human reality, or even what you call that – nature? God? … I just know that ritual works, much of the time.

Ritual can take the form of a large pagan ceremony, gathering a few friends, or creating a small autumn altar featuring the fruits of the season – the equinox is also a harvest festival – I’ve done all of these things at various points in the pagan year. But it’s also important not to feel constrained do things too religiously, as it were, to feel free to do nothing in particular except to recognise that it’s that time of year again. In early autumn, that could involve going for a short walk, collecting some leaves or eating an apple. Or how about – uber-traditional, this – a spot of egg balancing? The point, as Francesca de Grandis says in this nice equinoctial blog, is to move ‘mindfully into the colder months’.