THE MYSTERIES OF THE AUTUMN EQUINOX

As the Sun moves out of the harvest period of Virgo, it nominally enters the sign of Libra, the scales, where the grain is weighed and measured. The scales of Libra are an obvious symbol of balance and harmony, and by logical extension, justice.  In Greek myth they belonged to Dike Astraea (Virgo) the goddess who upheld natural law. Astraea (‘Star-maiden’) was a daughter of Zeus and Themis, a personification of justice As mankind became wicked, she was the last immortal to leave Earth, taking her place in the constellation Virgo, while the scales of justice she carried became the constellation Libra. 

The scales of Libra are a perfect symbol of the autumn equinox, [1] when day and night stand at equal length, a point of balance which we acknowledge before the scales tip and the hours of darkness start to outweigh the hours of light, with dawn getting later and sunset getting earlier each day – a process that will continue until the winter solstice. The Sun is in decline on its southward course.  As we withdraw from out outdoor activities and turn towards the warmth of the hearth fire in winter, it is time for us to go deep within, to pursue our own spiritual transformation.

The autumn equinox marks the end of the year’s cycle of growth and the culmination of all the work of the agricultural year. It is a time of plenty and celebration as we give thanks to the Gods for all they have given us during the year, but it is also a time of sacrifice – the bright god of the grain has made his sacrifice so that we may eat. He departs from us to go into the underworld (the seed is returned to the earth in the autumn), where he will rule as the Lord of the Dead until Yule. This riddle of death, transformation and rebirth is the deepest mystery of our teaching.

Though the autumn equinox can be celebrated as a simple Harvest Home festival, it contains a much deeper mystery, one that speaks to the central core of our Pagan teachings. The festivals of the year teach us about the great cosmic pattern, showing us the ebb and flow of energy in the manifest world and the spiritual truths which underlie them. At the autumn equinox we experience the death that comes before resurrection – the death of the year that comes before its rebirth in spring, the physical death which comes before rebirth into another life, and the spiritual death and rebirth that comes with initiation. These ideas were at the core of the ancient Rites of Eleusis held at the autumn equinox in Greece.[2]

The central myth that underlay the mysteries was that of the grain goddess Demeter and her daughter Persephone who was stolen away to the underworld at the decline of the year, only to return in spring. According to the story, the mysteries were instituted after Demeter, searching for her missing child, rested at the house of Celeus, king of Eleusis. There she learned from Hecate that Persephone had been abducted by the god of the underworld Hades, and was held prisoner in his chthonic realm.  Demeter asked the people of Eleusis to build a temple for her, then she retreated into it and remained there, brooding on her loss. The following year, no crops grew. The trees refused to yield fruit and the buds withered on the vine. An endless winter descended on the earth. Zeus realised that the whole of creation was doomed unless Demeter lifted her curse and so sent Hermes into the underworld to fetch her. However, Hades was unwilling to lose his lovely bride and cunningly offered her a sweet pomegranate as she readied herself to leave. Now he knew full well that anyone who eats the fruit of the underworld is doomed to remain there. Thus it fell that though Persephone was allowed to visit her mother, she was now bound to return. Persephone could spend two thirds of the year with Demeter but the remaining third of the year must be spent with her husband, Hades. With Persephone’s return, spring came and the frozen buds blossomed, the earth became green and fertile once more. But when Persephone goes back to the underworld, Demeter decrees that barren wintershall cover the earth.  At Eleusis (‘Advent’) Demeter taught the human Triptolemus the principles of agriculture, which he taught others in turn, and this was how humankind learned how to farm.

The core message of the rites was rebirth after death, as symbolised by cycle of vegetation. For two thousand years, large crowds of worshippers made the pilgrimage to the rites of Eleusis from all over Greece, and later from all over the Roman Empire. Initiation was open to all, Greeks and foreigners, men and women, freemen and slaves, only on the condition that they had not committed the sin of murder.

In the coven, we acknowledge that at the autumn equinox, light and darkness stand in balance once more, but the darkness is gaining, day by day, as we move towards winter.  We watch the dying fire of the Sun and lament the fallen god of the grain as he travels to the land of the west. The expansive, active part of the year is over and it is time to turn inwards.  Each festival of the year, in its eternal spiral, can be viewed as an initiation into a new mode of consciousness.  At the autumn equinox we experience the mystery of the death of the God who enters the underworld where he will rule as the Lord of the Dead until his rebirth at Yule. Through that death comes transformation, regeneration and rebirth.   The Sun’s power is waning, but deprived of the external light, we encounter inner illumination. For this is the mystery you must know: for every beginning there is an end, for every end, a beginning. The god’s tomb is but the earth-womb of the Mother, and the Lord of Death will return to us as the Lord of Life, as the wheel turns.

© Anna Franklin, 2020


[1] NB: Because of precession, Libra no longer rises on the ecliptic at the equinox

[2] Cicero, Laws II, xiv, 36

Author: annafranklinblog

Anna Franklin is the High Priestess of the Hearth of Arianrhod, which runs teaching circles, a working coven, and the annual Mercian Gathering, a Pagan camp which raises money for charity. She regularly speaks at conferences, moots and workshops around the country. She is the author of many books on witchcraft and Paganism, including the popular Pagan Ways Tarot, Sacred Circle Tarot, The Fairy Ring, Herb Craft, Magical Incenses and Oils, Personal Power, A Romantic Guide to Handfasting, Familiars, The Oracle of the Goddess, Hearth Witch, The Path of the Shaman and The Hearth Witch’s Compendium. Anna’s books have been translated into nine languages.

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