Simply put, an equinox occurs twice a year – spring and autumn – when the Sun crosses the plane of the Earth’s equator. Derived from a Latin term meaning “equal night”, an equinox is not actually an entire day, but happens at two specific moments each year when the centre of the Sun is observed directly above a certain location on the Earth’s equator. But science aside, in folklore equinoxes are mystical moments whose magical power still touches the Earth today.
While the meaning of the word is “equal (day and) night”, the translation is somewhat misleading. Most locations on Earth count two identifiable days each year when the length of day and night are roughly 12 hours each, known as “equiluxes”. Equinoxes, on the other hand, occur around March 20/21 and September 22/23 at specific moments in time. But for the purpose of marking our calendars and, in some cases, dancing round fires, the vernal equinox falls on March 20.
The equinox is culturally significant in many countries across the world. In Japan, for instance, Vernal Equinox Day (March) and Autumnal Equinox Day (September) are national holidays, spent visiting family graves and holding family reunions. Meanwhile, in Iranian/Persian tradition, the Earth (symbolised by a fighting bull) and Sun (a lion) are considered equal in power on the day of an equinox.
Traditional spring and autumn (harvest) festivals are celebrated on these days. In ancient Britain, and into the present under the banner of Neopaganism, the celebrations of Ostara are held on the vernal equinox and Mabon on the autumnal. Of eight Celtic festivals throughout the year, the vernal equinox is the forth, falling between Imbolc (above) and Beltane (below), linked to rebirth and fertility, and welcoming the spring after an arduous British winter.
Megalithic stone circles are often associated with pagan rites. While they remain cloaked in mystery – difficult to date precisely and of uncertain purpose – it is widely accepted that their builders had some understanding of the astronomical calendar, and the alignment of stone circles to the Sun and Moon signify great importance placed on the cycle of the seasons.
While Stonehenge is the most famous ring of standing stones, a stone circle stands on Harthill Moor in the Peak District of northern England near a curious rock formation known as Robin Hood’s Stride. While the region abounds with stories of the famous outlaw, these rocks relate to Robin of the Greenwood, or the Green Man, a popular fertility symbol linked to the coming of spring. From the nearby circle, named Nine Stones, the moon is seen to set between the two pillars of Robin Hood’s Stride at midsummer.
While the science is fascinating – and complex – the equinoxes have becoming deeply ingrained symbols of rebirth and harvest that still perpetuate in many cultures to this day. Closely associated with druids, Wicca and fertility rites in the British Isles and Atlantic fringe especially, the vernal equinox is a magical time which may lack much of its ancient significance, but nevertheless signals winter is over and summer is on the way.