Equinox arrives on Thursday, March 19 this year, when the Sun returns North of the Celestial Equator heralding Spring for the Northern Hemisphere and Autumn in the Southern Hemisphere, at exactly 11:50 pm in the Eastern Time Zone. Equinox ushers in the season of moveable feasts that are a cultural emulation of the rhythmic relationship of Sun and Moon with Earth and stars.
But how do we know it’s occurring?
Used to be that the annual moments of balance (Equinox) and stillness (Solstice) were announced to the community by those tasked with the sacred job of observing the heavens, they who marked the movement of the Sun through the “portals” imagined at the various degrees along the horizon, while also tracking the Moon as it shed its light into the night: crescent, gibbous, full. The different cultures of the world marked the horizon with sticks and stones, megaliths and temples, to facilitate their striving to live in harmony with this greater cosmic cycle, all the while refining their capacity to know when to honor the sacred moments in the year by developing more sophisticated ways of determining date and time.
When Julius Caesar established the Julian calendar in 45 BC, he followed the ancient Persian and Indian calendars and set March 25th as the date of the Spring Equinox. At the time, the known-value of the year was longer than the tropical year (the time it takes for the Sun to return to the same place in its annual cycle) by about 11.3 minutes on average, which isn’t too bad, but it amounts to a difference of one full day every 128 years. This caused the Julian calendar to drift relative to the Equinox, so that, while the Julian calendar showed Equinox occurring on March 21st in 300 AD, by 1500 AD it had drifted backwards to March 11. This drift and the challenge it presented for determining the sacred festivals of the Spring led to the Gregorian Calendar Reform of 1582, but rather than go further into the story of calendar reform, let’s stop in Dante’s era two centuries earlier.
During the Middle Ages, Christians believed that the world was created on March 25, 5229 years before the birth of the Christ Child. But by far the most important event in the cycle of the year was not Christmas, which was fixed to an immovable date in the calendar, it was Easter, a sublime mystery the date of which moved according to the changing relationship between Earth, Sun, and Moon each year. In his “Divine Comedy,” Dante described his pilgrim’s journey through Hell, Purgatory and Paradise as happening over the seven days that precede Easter, beginning sometime around the Spring Equinox, as evidenced by the terrific description he gives of the Vernal sunrise in Canto I of the Paradise:
“Through divers portals rises on mankind
The lantern of the world, but from that part
Where the three crosses the four circles bind,
With happiest stars he comes conjunct, to start
His happiest course, and seals and tempers here
This mundane wax most after his own heart.”
At the poet’s hand, the Sun becomes the lantern of the world, bearing light through the diverse portals, or different degrees along the eastern horizon of the Earth. But at Equinox, the sublime reality for Dante is that the moment of balance is not merely that day and night are now of equal length, but that the four sacred circles are bound into three crosses, the latter suggestive of the three crosses on the hill at Golgotha during the Crucifixion. The happiest stars are for Dante the stars of Aries, those that mark the beginning of the Sun’s journey through the spiritual New Year, while making their impression into the mundane wax, or human being, made after his own likeness.
What are these four circles? Answering this question requires knowing what was understood as the Earth’s relationship to its celestial environment prior to the Scientific Revolution that occurred a few centuries after Dante. The first step is imagining the Earth at the center with Sun, Moon, planets and stars moving around it. The four circles can then be understood as: 1) the circle of the visible horizon; 2) the circle of the Celestial Equator, which is Earth’s Equator projected onto an imaginary celestial sphere, and which is not parallel to the visible horizon (unless you are standing on the Equator); 3) the Ecliptic, or the path through the fixed stars of the zodiac that Sun, Moon, and planets seem to follow around the Earth; and 4) the Equinoctial Colure, the circle created by drawing a line from Spring to Autumn Equinox through the North and South Poles of the Earth. An elaborate imagination that nonetheless created a strong sense of being held in the balance by all the forces of the universe at the moment of Equinox, which is now upon us.
So here, a simple ceremony that can easily be undertaken while honoring the sacred space required of the season.
*Four strands of ribbon, or four long twigs, or anything with which you can make the four lines shown above, you could even just draw this on paper
*Candle or lantern, some element of light
*A sense of the direction in which you are standing, ideally you want to face East
*A prayer or verse that speaks to balance and harmonizing in relation to self, to others, to the world and cosmos
Place the ribbons one by one on the ground, mindful that you start with the ribbon indicating 1) the visible horizon, lain from East and extending West. Then, 2) lay the Celestial Equator ribbon across this horizon line, also from East to West but at a slight angle, and intersecting at the center. Follow this with the ribbon for 3) the Ecliptic, again intersecting the other two at the center, and which you can imagine as extending from sunrise at Spring Equinox among the stars of Pisces in the East to sunset with Autumn Equinox among the stars of Virgo in the West. Finally, 4) lay the fourth ribbon marking the Equinoctial Colure across the other three, intersecting at the center. This ribbon should be laid from North to South.
As you are placing the ribbons, consider:
1) What is your sense of your place in the horizon? The ancients worshipped certain stars as guardians of the visible horizon ~ which is your star?
2) As you place the Celestial Equator ribbon, consider your sense of gravity ~ where is it centered in your being, and how do you engage from here with the world around you?
3) Now, with the third ribbon of the Ecliptic, consider your sense of the world around you as the periphery, and how your destiny unfolds within its embrace
4) Finally, with the fourth ribbon, contemplate what binds the Equinox points together? What flows from season to season along this line of balance, peaking above and below this line at the Solstice moments, but always returning.
Now, place the lantern of the world at the center, and recite your prayer of balance.
This active contemplation is best undertaken at the moment of Equinox, and can be repeated each day from Equinox to New Moon (which occurs March 24, 2020), a gesture of striving to harmonize within the greater rhythm of the year, as it is defined in the macrocosm by the celestial environment, rather than in the microcosmic aspects of our day-to-day, in which we can easily pass by the seasonal changes with the use of electricity and technologies that remove us from our environment, and from one another.
Let me know how it goes!
Your soul knows the geography of your destiny. Your soul alone has the map of your future, therefore you can trust this indirect, oblique side of yourself. If you do, it will take you where you need to go, but more important it will teach you a kindness of rhythm in your journey.