Science + Nature

The Earth at Perfect Balance: Autumnal Equinox

The equinox is all about celestial balance. It happens just twice a year. For one brief, shining moment, the Earth’s equator lines up with the center of the Sun. What that means is that the Earth is not tilted either toward or away from the Sun. The Northern and Southern hemispheres receive the same amount of daylight; night and day are approximately equal in length. For us living in the U.S., this phenomenon marks the beginning of shorter days– when there is fewer hours of sunlight. The exact moment of the perfect equinox is happening this year on September 22 at 4:02PM ET.

The autumnal equinox has long fascinated us Earth-dwellers, seemingly since the beginning of written history. Here’s a look at how some early peoples marked the day:

The Mayans:

The Mayan civilization is one of the most mysterious historians have ever encountered. This powerful group resided in the Yucatan region of Mexico for thousands of years, before collapsing sometime around A.D. 900. But before that time, they built a stepped pyramid called El Castillo at Chichen Itza. At the bottom of the pyramid is a snake-head sculpture. On the fall equinox, triangular shadows appear along the side of the pyramid, creating the illusion of a serpent slithering down the side of the structure. Some believe this may have been a tribute to the Mayan serpent god. 


Ancient Greeks:

Celebrating the harvest is a common theme found throughout history. In ancient Greece, the occasion was marked with the Oschophoria festival in the autumn. Historians say it celebrated the harvesting of grapes for wine, and honored the gods Dionysus and Athena. On the day of the festival, two boys, disguised as women, carried vine branches from the temple of Dionysus to the temple of Athena. The festival also included hymns, dances and races.

The Druids:

The Druids, historically found in Britain and modern-day France, mark the autumnal equinox with a festival known as Alban Elfed. It means “Light of the Water.” It’s a time to celebrate and give thanks for the harvest. Alban Elfed is also seen as a time to say farewell to the summer, and acknowledge that darkness is about to take over. It is unclear what name ancient peoples may have used to describe the occasion.

Top image courtesy of NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center/Genna Duberstein

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