Oh, I’m in a mood, and I’m tired with everyone– modern-day Christians, Neo-Pagans, brainless TV talking heads, and astronomers, just to name a few. Why? Because of the gross misunderstanding that surrounds the equinoxes and solstices, as well as general modern cluelessness as to how humanity’s most ancient calendar worked– the one measured out by places like Stonehenge and the Majorville Cairn and Medicine Wheel in Alberta, Canada. So, seeing as I am in a semi-foul mood, let’s start things out with a joke– this is from a greeting card I received several years ago, and it never fails to make me laugh…
So what is it about Saint Patrick’s Day, anyway? Today, thanks to Western astronomy co-opting the term “equinox” for its own purposes, and Christianity co-opting the date of March 17th as the celebration of the death-anniversary of a Celtic bishop who got all cranky-pants with the Druids, what we’ve got is a modern holiday where great swathes of elementary school children wear green clothing, make paper shamrocks and listen to stories about leprechauns. Adults tend to celebrate it by getting snockered on beer with green food-coloring added to it and/or by listening to hours and hours of Celtic music played at migraine-inducing volumes. If one polls any cross-section of Saint Patrick’s Day celebrants, one gets some very strange answers as to why March 17th in particular is so important, but the bottom line is, nobody ever gets it right.
For the record, here is the correct answer:
In Ireland, March 17th is the day of the Functional Equinox, that is, the 24-hour period when the length of the day and night are actually equal.
If this comes as a surprise to you, you are not alone. Neo-Pagans as a group are just as confused, thinking that by celebrating the Vernal or Autumnal Equinox at the precise day and moment their Witches’ Almanacs and Faerie/Tree/Moon calendars cite, that they are doing as the ancients did. Unfortunately, they are not even close– the dates that all calendars, time-calculating websites and news programs cite are the dates of the Astronomical Equinoxes, which are modern, artificially agreed-upon moments during the Earth’s yearly orbit when the Sun is directly overhead a specific point on Earth’s equator. Here is a quick little quote from the Wikipedia entry on “Equinoxes and Solstices” that explains what the Astronomical Equinoxes are–
An equinox happens each year at two specific moments in time (rather than two whole days), when there is a location (the subsolar point) on the Earth’s equator, where the center of the Sun can be observed to be vertically overhead, occurring around March 20 and September 22 each year.
At an equinox, the Sun is at one of two opposite points on the celestial sphere where the celestial equator (i.e. declination 0) and ecliptic intersect. These points of intersection are called equinoctial points: classically, the vernal point and the autumnal point. By extension, the term equinox may denote an equinoctial point.
This is most emphatically not what the ancients– who invented the term “equinox”, by the way– meant when they used the term and/or measured their equinoxes by direct observation. What they were measuring and referring to were the Functional Equinoxes– the specific days at their observing location when the length of day and night were exactly equal.
So you may well ask, why the heck do we need two different kinds of equinoxes? Well, here’s the reason, short and simple– the days of the Functional Equinoxes differ based on the latitude one is observing at. While the Functional Spring Equinox will always be on or near the same day at locations that share the same latitude, for locations at different latitudes, the Functional Equinoxes will be on different days. This is because of three things:
1) The earth’s orbital path around the Sun is elliptical, not circular.
2) As it orbits, the Earth speeds up as it gets closer to the Sun, and slows down the farther away from the Sun it travels.
3) The earth’s axis is tilted.
Here is a little table showing the dates for the Functional Vernal/Spring and Autumnal/Autumn Equinoxes for 2012 at three different North latitudes:
Functional Vernal/Autumnal Equinox Dates, 2012
Dublin, Ireland (53 degrees, 20 min. N. Lat.)
Mar 17, 2012 Sunrise- 6:34 AM Sunset- 6:34 PM 11h 59m 32s
Sept 25, 2012 Sunrise- 7:17 AM Sunset- 7:15 PM 11h 58m 50s
San Diego, California (32 degrees, 42 min. N. Lat.)
Mar 16, 2012 Sunrise- 6:57 AM Sunset- 6:58 PM 12h 00m 52s
Sept 26, 2012 Sunrise- 6:40 AM Sunset- 6:39 PM 11h 59m 19s
Mexico City, Mexico (19 degrees, 26 min. N. Lat.)
Mar 13, 2012 Sunrise- 6:46 AM Sunset- 6:46 PM 11h 59m 44s
Sept 28, 2012 Sunrise- 7:27 AM Sunset- 7:27 PM 12h 00m 07s
You will note the date of the Functional Spring Equinox for Dublin, Ireland– March 17th. It is always very close to the same date for this location/latitude, year-in, year-out, and the ancients knew this and observed it. When Christianity started making inroads into Druidic Ireland, the day was “sanctified” by making it the death-anniversary of Patrick (something of a stretch, I’m guessing, but it still found a place in the liturgical calendar) because everybody celebrated on March 17th regardless of its pagan origins, and the early church felt obliged to do something to make it all less eternally-damned-heathen.
Then modern astronomers came along and said, “let’s make everything nicely uniform worldwide, because we can’t have a whole mess of different official dates for the equinoxes, or print different calendars for different latitudes”, so they co-opted the term “equinox” to mean an artificial moment in time when the Sun is directly over a particular point on Earth’s equator. Then they further muddied the waters by arbitrarily creating a new “official designation” for the Functional Equinox, even though nobody really needed one. Here’s the confusing name-swap garbage explained (supposedly) on Wiki–
Although the word equinox is often understood to mean “equal [day and] night”, this is not strictly true. For most locations on earth, there are two distinctly identifiable days per year when the length of day and night are closest to being equal; those days are referred to as the “equiluxes” to distinguish them from the equinoxes. Equinoxes are points in time, but equiluxes are days. By convention, equiluxes are the days where sunrise and sunset are closest to being exactly 12 hours apart.
No, guys, you just made that up on the spur of the moment to disguise the fact that you purloined the term “equinox” and completely ignored its original meaning because it was convenient for you to do so.
To sum up, then–
1) If Pagan groups want to celebrate the equinoxes as their forebears did, they need to get hold of yearly sunrise/sunset time tables for their individual locations and determine which days in Feb.-Mar. and Sept.-Oct. are the individual dates when day and night are of equal length at their latitude, because that’s the way the Druids and the folks who built the Majorville Medicine Wheel reckoned it.
2) If one is trying to reconstruct ancient magickal ritual, it is the Functional Equinox dates which are important, because that’s what was meant by the term “equinox” in previous centuries.
3) If one is trying to do a present-day magickal working that will truly harness the equal-light-and-dark vibe, then the work needs to be done on the Functional Equinox at the location where the work is being undertaken.
4) I spit on the term equilux. It is nothing but another layer of crap-jargon obscuring an already badly confused situation. Besides, I am perfectly capable of distinguishing between two different uses of the word equinox, which I have done quite satisfactorily in this post.
5) Just because stupid talking heads on TV news programs idiotically parrot nonsense stuff like “Today is the Spring Equinox– this means the length of day and night are the same today, all around the world…” it does not mean you have to believe one word of what they say. They are usually talking about the Astronomical Equinox, and are completely mistaken about every supposed “fact” they state about it (see the Wiki definition of the Astronomical Equinox in the above post).
6) Saint Patrick’s Day is very likely a church-preserved Functional Spring Equinox festival dating from the days of Olde Druid Ireland.
7) I am fed up with the general state of stupidity surrounding both Saint Patrick’s Day and equinox definitions! I think I need a beer, or maybe a nice, home-brewed raspberry mead. Hold the green food coloring, please…