LEGEND & LORE
Throughout the solar year, as the earth completes its revolution around the Sun, there are specific dates that mark the extremes and midpoints of the solar cycle. These dates, the solstices and equinoxes, are observed by astronomers and witches alike, as they mark the peak points on the Sun’s cycle of wax and wane. On the equinoxes in particular, occurring at the midpoints between the extremes of the solstices, we experience a balance of light and darkness across the globe. The word “equinox” derives its root from the Latin terms aequus (equal) and nox (night), describing this solar balancing act. While individual locales may not experience this equal balance of night and day perfectly, (meaning, the equinox doesn't create equal amounts of day and night in every place on earth) this overarching theme of balance and liminality pervades the holiday, and informs its cultural and spiritual significance.
In terms of astrology, the equinox occurs in September, as Orion begins his return to the night sky, and the Sun enters the first degree of Libra. This signals the true beginning of the autumn season- a season of harvest, bounty, reaping, and the final flashes of golden sun before Earth's slow descent into winter. Attesting to the spiritual significance of this event are monuments and megaliths across the globe- Machu Picchu, the Great Pyramids, Loughcrew Cairns, Angkor Wat, the Karnak Temple in Egypt, the Mnajdra temples in Malta, and many more- still standing after thousands of years, tracking the movements of the sun through the equinox using unique architecture and design.
In neopagan and Wiccan traditions, this holiday also takes the name Mabon, from the Welsh god of the same name, meaning "Divine Son." Many religions, ancient and contemporary, celebrate death and rebirth mysteries at this time of the year, with the focus on autumn’s descent into darkness. In Sumerian legend, the earth goddess Inanna undergoes an autumn death at the hands of her jealous sister and goes to the underworld to await her spring rebirth. In ancient Greece, Persephone is dragged to Hades while harvesting flowers, and while she is permitted to return on the vernal equinox, she must always descend to Hades and rule as Queen of the Dead when the autumn equinox returns again. In China, the Mid-Autumn festival or Moon Festival is celebrated with sacrificial offerings of fruits, rice, and wheat to the Moon, to secure bounty and success in the coming year & harvest. To the Druids, this night is Alban Elfed, "Light of the Water," opening a period of harvest and thanksgiving for the gifts of the living earth. In Japanese Buddhism, the Higan festival, occurring on both the vernal and autumnal equinoxes, offers an opportunity to connect with ancestors and the beloved dead. In cultures across the globe, this day is a time to hold space for death mysteries, and to celebrate loss and endings as a natural, necessary aspect of life on earth.
In the folk customs of the autumn equinox, this night is celebrated in Europe with feasting, dancing, music and accounting. Grand balls and festivals were held to share the summer’s harvest and to gather one last time before the winter chill sets in. Michaelmas, the Catholic feast of St Michael the Archangel, is sometimes celebrated alongside the equinox or as part of extended harvest-season celebrations, though its proper date is September 29th. As one of the significant end-of-quarter days for the financial and judicial year, Michaelmas was a time of settling debts, paying farmhands and securing work for the long winter ahead. It was also a time to celebrate the fermentation of spirits, as the equinox heralded the end of the grape and hop harvests, when wine and beer were traditionally brewed. While autumn festivals were known for being rowdy and jolly as a result, the death current running through this season is inescapable. As such, the autumn equinox is primarily regarded as a holiday of gratitude, celebration of life, ancestral veneration and feeding one’s beloved dead.
While this introduction to the varied significances of the autumn equinox is extremely brief, the themes of this holiday can still be readily discerned: reaping, fulfillment, duty, tradition, and death. How fitting, then, to celebrate this sacred celestial event with a sumptuous feast, to celebrate the gifts of the season at their ripest and most delicious?
AUTUMN EQUINOX CORRESPONDENCES
MONTH : September ZODIAC SIGN : Libra
MAGICAL THEMES : spirit communication, liminality, gathering, tradition, reaping, sacrifice, setting wards, reflection, giving thanks, death, ancestor work.
CULINARY THEMES : roasted foods, baked goods, tree fruits, starchy vegetables, brassicas, warming spices.
SEASONAL HERBS : elderberry, rose hip, hawthorn, sumac, mullein, mugwort, sassafras, goldenrod, mallow, ginger, black walnut, cattail, burdock, chicory SEASONAL INGREDIENTS : apples, squashes, nuts, grapes, blackberry, pumpkin, pears, blackberries, pomegranates, figs, honey, Brussels sprouts, fennel, sunchokes, pomegranate, rice, yams, broccoli, soybeans, mushrooms, horseradish, persimmon, radicchio, quince, rutabaga, shallots, lychee, mulberries, spinach, kohlrabi, wine, legumes, game meats, ginger, turmeric, sunflower seeds, hazelnuts, turnips, carrots
For my 2021 Autumn Equinox feast, I planned a two-course dinner & cocktail, packed with seasonal flavors and comforting flavors. If you've made pierogis before, this particular recipe changes things up slightly, taking notes from techniques of pastamaking and laminating aromatic sage leaves directly into the dough. These parcels are filled with a purée of roasted squash, caramelized onions, and soft garlic, then tossed in browned butter and crunchy toasted hazelnuts. Nothing too flashy here, but fall can sometimes feel like the season of tradition, and as the world turns toward death in this season, we can find comfort in the familiar. As chefs, there's also something to be said for returning to familiar old recipes and seeking new challenges within them.
For dessert, a fall classic with a foraged twist. Of all the harvesttide fruits to be romanced with this season, I always return to an uncommon ally- rosehips. The fruit of perfumed blossoms, haughty and wide, found in spades where roses grow in hedges, gardens, and along the seaside. Their tart, hibiscus-like flavor is one I'm familiar with, as rosehip tea (šipak) was a mainstay in my Croatian baba's kitchen. In this feast, a magical combination of wild rosehips infused and luscious caramel blends tart & sweet to perfection, atop a simple and seasonally appropriate apple cake. An indulgent crowd pleaser, to be sure, but also one which is (nearly) effortless, and yet still refined.
Finally, this feast is paired with a riff on a British classic, bramble whiskey. Typically, this beverage is made by fermenting blackberries or other hedge fruits- elderberries and sloes- into whiskey for several months. With a small addition of sugar, this unique liqueur preserves the last of summer's sweetness. However, if we're eating and cooking seasonally, this beverage would not be ready until mid-winter, when the whiskey would have had sufficient time to infuse after the blackberry's brief, liminal season of ripeness. Normally, blackberries in late September come with a warning- to eat the berries picked after Michaelmas could bring illness and misfortune, as these are said to be claimed by the devil himself. Luckily, a pack of frozen wild blackberries from last fall came in great handy, and were infused with scotch- another departure from the classic recipe- to be ready for the equinox. This smoky-sweet liqueur is lovely served neat in cordial glasses, or over ice for days when the last of summer's heat remains.
As a ritual goes for the autumn equinox, I like to focus on the reciprocal relationship between the planet and the witch. The witch sows, the planet grows, the witch reaps. The land speaks, the witch listens. In the 19th century book of Scottish hymns and charms, the Carmina Gadelica, a fascinating piece of culinary harvest magic which speaks to this relationship is preserved within the "Blessing of the Struan." The Michaelmas struan is one of the few culinary rituals mentioned by name in the Carmina Gadelica, a collection of Scottish poetry and charms compiled in the late 19th century. This bread would have been baked by the eldest daughter of the family, under careful watch of her mother, and for good reason – struan loaves are considered ruined if they crack on top while baking, and cracked loves are not eaten. In the text, a blessing for the bread is given, in which the loaf is consecrated in the name of St Michael. The blessing reads:
"Each meal beneath my roof, they will all be mixed together In name of God the Son, who gave them growth. Milk, eggs, and butter, the good produce of our own flock, there shall be no dearth in our land, nor in our dwelling. In the name of Michael of my love, who bequeathed to us the power, With the blessing of the Lamb, and of his mother; Humble us at thy footstool, be thine own sanctuary around us, Ward from us spectre, sprite, oppression, and preserve us. Consecrate the produce of our land, bestow prosperity and peace, In the name of the Father the King, and of the three beloved apostles. Dandelion, smooth garlic, foxglove, woad, and butterwort, The three carle-doddies, and marigold. Gray cailpeach plucked, the seven pronged seven times, The mountain yew, ruddy heath, and madder. I will put water on them all in precious name of the Son of God, In name of Mary the generous, and of Patrick. When we shall sit down to take our food I will sprinkle in the name of God on the children."
This stunning poem mentions sacrifices from one's own harvest (milk, eggs, butter- and grain naturally) and a whirling list of botanical allies from the local environment as well. The powder behind the consecration comes from invoki g. St Michael, yes, but also from the living land itself. This blessed bread is intended also for sharing- among family members, friends, and the community. Taking a cue from this recipe / ritual, we arrive at the core of the reciprocal relationship- sustenance. The Earth sustains us, and we sustain the land and each other in return.
In my own practice, this manifests in rituals of feeding the land and sharing my meals with its spirits before their subterranean journey for the coldest part of the year- an opportunity to break bread with the community of spirits in my local environment. Much of my thinking about this local community of spirits comes from Marcus McCoy's concept of bioregional animism, in which the practitioner relates to the spirits of the land (viridis genii) whose "animated intelligence is the collected soul and mind of all that composes it within the bioregion and that which at the same time animates and gives mind and soul to those living within the bioregion." It is the spirit not just of earth, but of place. Not just of place, but all that which makes a place- animals, plants, trees, geography, weather, and people. Nourishing these spirits and this relationship feels appropriate for the autumn equinox, as the visible manifestations of this intelligence- it's plants and animals and kinetic energy- go underground for winter, and I retreat within the man-made world of apartments, central heating, and shelter from the cold.
To do this, I typically make off the woods at sunrise or sunset on the day of the equinox- a liminal hour for a liminal feast. My rituals typically include reserving a portion of my holiday feast for sharing, and preparing a special-occasion incense blend to call forth and honor the land spirits I know well. This year, my incense recipe is as follows :
AUTUMN EQUINOX INCENSE - all ingredients powdered
1 oz myrrh
4 g birch bark
3 g oak leaves
3 g cloves
2 g sunflower or calendula petals
Once I have found a quiet, private place to work, I will light my incense and make my invocations. As the death current of this holiday is important for my practice, the Orphic Hymn to Pluto (Hades) or the Orphic Hymn to Persephone are suitable selections here. I speak freely from the heart, exchanging thoughts about the year behind and the year ahead- what scares me, what I hope to accomplish, what I have accomplished thus far- along with a sincere outpouring of gratitude for the land and it's support in the verdant seasons now behind me. I dig a small pit in the earth and bury the food offerings, along with splashes of good wine, songs, intention papers, and any other biodegradable offerings. It is extremely important, especially during rituals which honor our connection to the land, no to be a litterbug.
This day is also an end-of-season opportunity to get some last forage in before winter arrives. In my region, mugwort, goldenrod, autumn olive, wild thyme, clover, black walnuts, chicken of the woods, sumac, rose hips, blackberries, raspberry leaves, dandelion roots, and burdock are all plentiful at the autumn equinox, and I make a sacred forage trip on my return walk home. These special herbs & plants will be used for private rituals only, in crafting my own tools and works throughout the next year, but especially for themes which are governed by the equinox- protection magic, dreamwork, necromancy, and communication with the spirits I know well.