When I told Ron that on the autumnal equinox, day and night are not equal, he was a bit perplexed—and understandably so, since equinox means equal night. On the two equinoxes (vernal and autumnal), the Sun shines directly on the equator, resulting in nearly equal lengths of day and night.
Why nearly? The Earth’s axis. And although the Earth’s axis tilts neither toward nor away from the Sun on the vernal and autumnal equinoxes, day and night still are not equal. Not even at the equator, where the Sun is directly overhead, does a true equinox occur. There, day and night stay approximately the same length all year round, but day will always appear a little longer because of the refraction, or bending, of solar rays. Refraction causes the Sun to appear above the horizon when it is actually below it. So we can see the sun minutes before it actually rises and sets.
Today’s autumnal equinox marks the moment the Sun crosses the celestial equator—the imaginary line in the sky above Earth’s equator—from north to south. Before the autumnal equinox, it rises and sets in a more northerly direction; afterwards, more southerly.
Additionally, the days become a little longer at the higher latitudes (those at a distance from the equator) because it takes the sun longer to rise and set. According to the National Weather Service, on the equinox and for several days before and after it, the length of a day ranges from about 12 hours and 6.5 minutes at the equator, to 12 hours and 8 minutes at 30 degrees latitude, to 12 hours and 16 minutes at 60 degrees latitude.
This also explains why on non-equinox days, the Sun rises not from true east, but from an easterly direction. Only on an equinox does the Sun rise due east (90 degrees) and set due west (270 degrees). Thus, we see its arrival and departure in a slightly different place along the horizon each day.
Has this bit of astronomy challenged your equilibrium? If so, you are not alone. A bit of astrology may help. The Sun is about to enter Libra, the seventh sign of the zodiac, the one that represents a shift in perspective. While the first six signs focus on the individual, the last six focus on relationships with others and the world at large. Represented by scales, Libra exemplifies balance.
According to Eight Sabbats for Witches, by Janet and Stewart Farrar, the term balance is a much more appropriate term than equal for an equinox. Not only do spring and autumn balance each other, they are also seasons when we change gears and energy. Spring, for example, is the time for growth while autumn is the time of harvest. Spring initiates life, autumn ushers in death. Spring is youth, autumn old age.
For what it’s worth, the Farrars practice Wicca, a religion that seeks to harmonize people with divine principles through rituals based on natural occurrences. They believe that March and September—the months with equinoxes—are times of metaphysical stress, times when the veil between the seen and unseen is thin, creating times of psychological as well as psychic turbulence. Say what you will about witchcraft, divine principles, and psychic veils, no one can dispute that March ushered in pandemic turbulence, and that this September is so chock full of social, cultural, and political stress that all we need is an alien spacecraft landing to create utter universal chaos.
It would seem, then, that the 2020 autumnal equinox runs contrary to the concept of balance. Not to mix metaphors, but it’s the same as Taoism’s yin-yang relationship. Within every positive occurrence is a seed of negative, and within every negative is a seed of positive. Seeds produce crops to be harvested. The harvest produces the seeds for new growth. One cannot exist without the other.
In the Wiccan cycle, light rules the darkness at the vernal equinox, and darkness rules the light at its autumnal equivalent. Rather than lament the inequality of darkness that begins today, I’m going to seek balance.
Balance depends on three systems in your body—visual, proprioceptive (muscles and joints), and vestibular (inner ear). Your visual system tells your brain where your body is in relation to your environment. Your proprioceptive system tells your brain what your muscles, tendons, and joints are doing. And your vestibular system tells your brain if your head is level—and yes, we could all use a level head around now.
Balance starts with knowing where you are—finding direction, so to speak. Here’s a clever exercise. While not offered as a means to reset your psychic balance, Bruce McClure, lead writer for EarthSky‘s “Tonight” pages, does suggest using the equinox to find true east and west from your yard, the beach, a mountaintop, or anywhere you like. Just go outside at sunset or sunrise and notice the location of the sun on the horizon with respect to familiar landmarks. You can use these familiar landmarks to find the cardinal directions long after Earth has moved on in its orbit. I like to think of it as orienting myself in the universe.
Because of differences in the calendar and the tropical year, the autumnal equinox can occur any time between September 21 and 24, but it happens at the same moment worldwide. This year, it is today, Tuesday, September 22, 2020, at 9:30 am EDT. I think the world would be more balanced if we all took a minute at that time to orient ourselves.
To find the exact time of your sunrise and sunset, check here. Where I live, the sunrise today is 7:15 am (90 degrees East), and sunset is 7:25 pm (270 degrees West). And yes, I began the autumnal equinox by centering myself in the universe. With my body acting as a fulcrum, I closed my eyes to steady my equilibrium and pointed my right hand east, and my left directly west. I took a minute to change gears, to be balanced, to recognize and understand the significance of the natural phases of the Sun and Earth in my own environment, so that the turbulence of the season exhilarates rather than distresses me. And in that one moment, I might even have been ready for a UFO.
Ron, however, was still confused.