Behind the Vernal Equinox

Halfway between the solstices in late March and in late September, there are two days when the northern and southern hemispheres receive the same amount of sunlight and the days and nights are of the same length. Then the tilt of the Earth’s axis is not towards the Sun, but lies at a right angle to an imaginary Earth-Sun line. At the Equator, the Sun is directly overhead. These days are the equinoxes. Equinox means “equal night.” Ancient people regarded the equinoxes, like the solstices, as significant moments of the year.

Equinox Mythology
Before the occasion of Easter, which celebrates the resurrection of Jesus, people celebrated the Vernal equinox. In ancient history the resurrection or rebirth concerned pagan gods. One of the first stories ever recorded of death and then resurrection is the Egyptian myth of Isis and Osiris. The goddess Isis and the god Osiris ruled an ancient land in peace and bliss. This ended when Set, Osiris’ brother, murdered Osiris in a fit of jealousy. He cut up his body and scattered it throughout the world. Isis was heartbroken and gathered back these pieces. She took them to Anubis, lord of the underworld who brought Osiris back to life. Through the reunion of Isis and Osiris the sun god Horus was born. Out of the darkness came the light.

Aphrodite the goddess of love and fertility fell in love with the handsome Adonis. She hid him in a box so no one could see him. She then gave the box to Persephone, the queen of the underworld for safekeeping. She opened the box and also fell in love with Adonis and refused to return him to Aphrodite. Aphrodite mourned her loss, and as a result the land became barren. Zeus, her father tried to intervene, but neither goddess would give up Adonis. Zeus finally decreed that Adonis would spend a third of the year with each goddess and one third of the year alone. So each Spring Adonis returns to Aphrodite and each winter he spends with Persephone in the underworld.

Dionysus, the god of wine was the son of Zeus and Semele, a mortal princess. Zeus promised Semele anything she asked of him. Semele was pregnant and asked only to see him in his splendor as the god of gods. Zeus knew no mortal could witness this sight and live. Despite this Semele insisted. She died and Zeus took their baby from her body and hid it within his own until the baby was born. Nymphs raised Dionysus, and when he grew up he traveled to faraway lands, performing feats that proved his godhood. What he longed for was the mother he never knew, so he went to the underworld to find her. When he found her he defied, and escaped, death with his mother. He brought her to Mt. Olympus where she was allowed to dwell with the gods.

The worship of Dionysus took place not in temples or wild places, but in the theatres, the plays put on about him were acts of worship and the forerunners of today’s “Passion Plays.” Dionysus was killed, but because he had overcome death, he rose again. As the god of the vine he dies each year and then resurrects. His rites were held in spring, when the vines put forth new shoots. In all the numerous myths having to do with resurrection, the element that causes the resurrection is love.

Seasonal Associations
Each season of the year is associated with a direction and time of day. Spring is associated with an eastern direction and the dawn. This is in honor of the goddess of spring and the east, Eostre. The time of dawn (new beginnings or rebirth) is also associated with her, since she was also called goddess of the dawn. Pagan Anglo-Saxons made offerings of colored eggs to this goddess Eostre. They placed them among grave goods in burials, as a symbol of rebirth. Egyptians also placed eggs in tombs and pagan Greeks placed eggs on the fresh graves of their loved ones to ensure resurrection of the dead by the magic associated with the eggs.

Celebrations and Beliefs
In Mexico, in the Aztec capital of Tenochtitlan is the Templo Mayor, a pyramid surmounted by two symmetrical temples. This pyramid has been called a functioning astronomical observatory whose main purpose was to announce the equinoxes. The fact that the Aztecs aligned their principal religious structure with the equinoctial sunrise is partly to be explained by the fact that they celebrated the main festival of the god Xipe Totec at the vernal equinox.

In the Amazon, the equinoxes coincide with the start of the two rainy seasons- one in March, the other in September. The Desana and Barasana Indians see connections between everything that happens on Earth ˆ and particularly, the availability of fish and game animals with what they see in the sky. They see the night sky as a great brain, with its two hemispheres divided by the Milky Way. According to their myths, on the First Day the Sun Father fertilized the world at its center by creating a perfectly vertical rod. It was from this spot that the first people emerged. This place is the equator. Each spring and fall equinox, when the Sun is directly overhead, and an upright staff casts no shadow; these Indians believe the Sun‚s rays are again directly penetrating the Earth, making the world fertile and new.

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