Holiday Mythology: Autumnal Equinox

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While the weather begins to cool down in the early days of September, the official start of fall does not begin until Sept. 22. This is known as the Autumnal Equinox. Scientifically, an equinox is when there is an equal amount of daylight and nighttime. This occurs twice a year, in the fall and in the Spring. But historically, the equinoxes are tied to mythological and traditional events going all the way back to the Ancient Greeks (though a majority of their celebrations occur during the solstices, but that’s for another article in another issue).

In Ancient Greece, the Greeks recognized Autumn as the time of year when Persephone, wife of Hades and daughter of Zeus and Demeter, would return to the Underworld. They called this Mabon. If you do not know the story of Persephone, it is simple. She was in a field of flowers playing with her friends, the nymphs, when Hades came and swept her off of her feet. He brought her down to the Underworld and married her. Demeter searched for her daughter and while she continued to look around, she did not allow the Earth to be fruitful (Demeter was the goddess of the harvest). Long story short, Zeus had known about this the entire time and would only allow Persephone to return to Earth during the Spring (the Vernal Equinox) when everything was in bloom, but she had to go back to the Underworld in the fall when plants would die before the cold of winter.

As with every ancient and mythological tradition, there is a Christian adaptation. According to Historic UK’s website, Michaelmas is the feast day of the Archangel, St.  Michael. The feast day occurs on Sept. 29 and is associated with the beginning of Autumn. The English call this one of four “quarter days.” These are basically days that fall on religious festivals, like Christmas, Lady Day, and the pagan Midsummer. But out of the four days, the harvest had to be completed by Michaelmas. Because Autumn has shorter, colder days and longer nights, and St. Michael is seen as the Archangel/Saint of Protection, the English would celebrate the protection during the “dark months” of winter. In the British Isles, they would also feast on a goose that was fattened by the leftovers from the harvest to bring about good wealth in the coming year.

So there you have it! Another fun tidbit of history you can share with your friends at the next trivia night you attend. Stay tuned for the fifth issue of the McKendree Review, where you will learn all about Halloween and its very pagan past.

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