In Greek mythology, the Autumn equinox (which occurs on Wednesday) marks the return of the goddess Persephone to the underworld for three months, where she is reunited with her husband, Hades.
This somber event, as recorded by the ancient Greeks — who saw the work of the gods in all natural events — reflects the feeling of the Autumn, when the brilliance of the Summer recedes into the more muted tones of September.
To us in the modern world of today, the Fall and Spring equinoxes also mark the point at which, twice a year, everyone on Earth sees exactly the same amounts of sun and darkness.
In the Northern Hemisphere, tonight marks the Fall equinox (or autumnal equinox); for those living south of the equator, this time of the year heralds the coming of Spring.
And the further you get to the poles, in places like Scandinavia, the northern parts of Canada, and Russia, the larger the difference is between the amount of sun inhabitants receive during the annual cycle of the seasons.
However, during equinoxes, everyone on the globe sees exactly 12-hour long stretches of sunlight and darkness — leading to the word equinox, which is derived from the Latin word equinoxium; as you might infer, that means “equality between day and night.”
Autumn Equinox Marked Today in Northern Hemisphere
Our Fall Equinox this year will arrive at 19:21 UTC (Coordinated Universal Time) tonight, September 22.
That comes relatively early in the day for those on the East coast of the Americas, at 3:21 p.m. local time, what we usually call the beginning of Fall, or Autumn.
However, as happens so often when we discuss scientific matters, there are discrepancies between our colloquial terms and what is happening according to the heavens, or in other words “the astronomical seasons” of the equinoxes and solstices) and what are known as “meteorological seasons.”
CNN meteorologist Allison Chinchar explains what’s really going on here. “Astronomical fall is essentially the time period from the autumnal equinox up to the winter solstice. Those dates can vary by a day or two each year, but this year are September 22 though December 21,” she notes.
“Meteorological fall is different … in that the dates never change and are based on climatological seasons rather than Earth’s angle relative to the sun. These are perhaps the seasons that more people are familiar with,” she adds.
In normal parlance, our meteorological seasons are Spring, which stretches from March 1 to May 31; Summer goes from June 1 to August 31; September 1 to November 30 is Autumn, or Fall; and Winter is considered to be December 1 to February 28.
Chinchar notes that “meteorologists and climatologists prefer to use the meteorological calendar because not only do the dates not change — making it easy to remember — but also because it falls in line more with what people think traditional seasons are.
“For example, December 10, most people would consider winter, but if you are using the astronomical calendar, technically that is still considered autumn because it is before the winter solstice.”
The rotation around the Earth’s axis is what gives us day and night as our world spins in its orbit around the Sun.
Since the axis has a 23.5 degree tilt, some regions see less of the sun while others see more of it — and that’s what gives us our seasons. At all times, either the Northern or the Southern Hemisphere will be experiencing more or less sunshine, and the resultant heat from it.
This phenomenon is at its maximum in late June and late December, during the solstices, marking the greatest differences between day and night; this is especially marked near the poles, leading to the famed “midnight sun” of northern Scandinavia, Russia and Alaska.
Everyone in the northern hemisphere notices the enormous loss of sunlight we have experienced so far since the apex of the summer solstice on June 21.
Ancient Greeks and Others Marked Autumn, Spring Equinox, Solstices
And you can bet our agrarian ancestors all over the world also noticed this phenomenon.
When they were desperate to see the Sun again after long, cold winters — which they often barely survived — they hung their hopes on its warming rays coming again in Springtime.
Stonehenge is only one of the ancient monuments marking the solstices and equinoxes which survives today. Chaco Canyon in the American Southwest has entire buildings that were erected to mark these seminal events in the lives of its ancient people.
Serving as enormous calendars to mark the seasons and the welcome return of Summer, these stone structures are monuments to the inimical ties we have to the Sun and our complete dependence on it for our very lives.
Aligned to signify and celebrate the Summer and Winter solstices and the Autumn and Spring equinoxes, Stonehenge has been a place of worship since time immemorial. Built most likely in the Late Neolithic period, approximately 2,500 years ago, it is still a place that draws people almost magnetically to marvel at its perfectly-positioned monoliths.
Chaco Canyon also marks the Spring equinox by way of the orientation of its main buildings, which were constructed in ancient times by the ancestors of the Navajo people, once called the Anasazi.
On the Spring Equinox, as the sun rises above the canyon’s walls, its rays shine through the windows of Casa Rinconada, the largest kiva, or sacred building, in the canyon, which are aligned in the four cardinal directions.
These four cardinal directions, as well as straight up and straight down, were considered sacred to these people, whose creation story includes the emergence of their ancestors straight out of the ground at a central point in the area.
Persephone Returning to Underworld Marked Autumn Equinox
The story of Demeter and Persephone from Greek mythology is strangely similar to that, with Persephone, who had been abducted by Hades, the god of the Underworld, believed to be drawn back to that dark world every Autumn equinox.
Likewise, she comes out of the ground to the blooming of flowers and the warm sun every Spring equinox, rejoining her mother Demeter for the long Summer days.
In 2014, the Greek Ministry of Culture released photographs of a dazzling Ancient Greek mosaic from the newly-excavated Amphipolis tomb in Macedonia. The mosaic shows Persephone as she was abducted by Hades before he took her down to the Underworld for the first time.
Although Persephone is mentioned in Homer’s epic the Iliad, she has no actual part to play either in the Iliad or the Odyssey. Nor does she feature at all as a character in any extant Greek drama.
However, the beautiful poem called the “Homeric Hymn to Demeter” in which Demeter and her daughter Persephone are the central focus of attention, dating back to the first half of the 6th century BC, shows us the cosmology of the Greeks of the time and the part she played in the turning of the seasons.
The ancient Greek word for “mother” (meter) is actually embedded in Demeter’s name — perhaps denoting Mother Earth. As Classics professor Chris Mackie from La Trobe University states, the Hymn “describes the primordial maternal power brought to bear upon the male sky-god Zeus, who had secretly (i.e., without Demeter’s knowledge) given over his daughter Persephone to a marriage with his brother Hades.
“While Persephone is missing Demeter creates a blight on the land in which nothing germinates and nothing grows… she won’t let the fruit grow on earth until she sees Persephone again.
“Zeus is forced to relent and sends the messenger Hermes to the Underworld to get the girl back. But, just as she is going, Hades prevails on her to eat the seed of a pomegranate to prevent her from staying with her mother above the earth all her days.
“Persephone is therefore forced to spend one-third of each year under the Earth with Hades, and two-thirds with her mother and the community of gods on Mount Olympus.
As Mackie states, Persephone’s connection to the seasons is clear. “She is both queen of the Underworld, as wife of Hades, and associated with the new life that rises with the spring. Death and life are no longer mutually exclusive, but co-exist in both the upper and lower worlds. There is life in death, and death in life,” he states.
The Demeter Hymn contains the foundation of the Eleusinian Mysteries – the renowned religious rites which took place at Eleusis, near Athens. As Mackie explains, “initiation into the Mysteries held out the prospect of making death less threatening.”
So, as the ancient Greeks knew, and we know on a scientific basis now, this return to the relative darkness of Autumn and Winter is not permanent and Spring will come once again, as everything good returns once more to Earth.
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