10 Things You Never Knew About the Spring Equinox
The first day of spring? Nope. The "vernal equinox" happens every year, yet most people don't know what it is, or why it's important. Here's the scientific—and spiritual—scoop.
What is an equinox, anyway?
You may have heard that the spring equinox is the official start of spring. It’s not. The change in seasons is more in flux than your calendar might suggest—many meteorologists and climatologists say that based on weather and temperature shifts, the real first day of spring in the Northern Hemisphere should be March 1. An equinox, on the other hand, is about space and our solar system. It’s a planetary phenomenon, sort of like an eclipse.
An equinox is a moment in time and space when the sun is positioned directly above the Earth’s equator, something that happens just twice a year: On March 20 or 21 (the “vernal” or “spring” equinox) and on September 22 or 23 (the “autumnal” or “fall” equinox).
The word “equinox” comes from the Latin for “equal” and “night.” The hours of daylight and nighttime are close to equal during the two annual equinoxes.
An ancient serpent
At the El Castillo ancient Mayan pyramid in Chichén Itzá, a mysterious spectacle appears every spring and fall equinox. At sunset, the angle of the light creates a shadow that looks like a giant snake slithering down the side of the pyramid. (See a time-lapse video here.) It may be purely coincidental, but because the pyramid is dedicated to the feathered serpent god Quetzalcoatl and the Mayans were skilled astronomers, many experts believe the builders did it intentionally. Here are some fun facts about the fall equinox.
A full “Worm Moon”
For the first time in almost four decades, the 2019 vernal equinox will coincide with a “Worm Moon.” (The last time it happened was in 1981.) So what’s a Worm Moon? March showers may bring April flowers, but they also force worms out of the soil, which is why the first full moon in the month of March is known as a Worm Moon. Get inspired by these photos to celebrate the start of spring.
A mysterious egg
Folklore claims that special magnetic or energetic changes on the day of the vernal equinox make it possible to stand a raw egg on its end. As cool as this sounds, it’s a myth. You can balance some raw eggs on their end, but you could do it any time of year.
According to the Washington Post, this egg story may stem from Chinese Lunar New Year traditions that have their roots in the Shang Dynasty that ruled China for nearly six centuries. Legend has it that on the vernal equinox in the year 1600 BC, a woman named Chien-Ti received a special egg from a heavenly swallow. In a story that bears similarities to Jesus’ mother Mary’s virgin birth, Chien-Ti, also a virgin, became pregnant. Her child, Hsieh, would be divine and go on to found the Shang dynasty, reports Bustle.
The Cybele Cult
For a certain group of ancient Romans, the vernal equinox was a day to celebrate the deity Cybele, a goddess closely associated with nature and fertility. A cult sprung up around her, and her festival was celebrated similarly to rituals surrounding Dionysus, god of wine: There were wild parties, dancing, drinking, and sex. Cybele’s festival also included a Christmas-like tree: According to Encyclopedia Britannica, celebrants would cut down a pine tree and bring it to her shrine, where they decorate it with flowers and treat it as a god.
In another interesting twist, Cybele’s priests, called the Galli, were eunuchs who grew their hair long and dressed as females; during Cybele’s festival, they joined in the religious fervor until they collapsed.
A gateway to hell
In a cemetery on Emanuel Hill, in the tiny town of Stull, Kansas, lies a so-called “gateway to hell,” author Mark Moran writes in Weird U.S.: Your Travel Guide to America’s Local Legends and Best Kept Secrets. Legend has it that this gateway is one of several places around the world where the devil himself can enter the human world. He can only do it twice a year, and one of those days is the vernal equinox. (Yes, the other is Halloween.) Since the 1970s, people visiting the cemetery on these days report hearing disembodied growling, being grabbed by unseen arms, and experiencing amnesia.
The devilish cemetery has gained such a reputation that pop singer Ariana Grande paid a visit when she was in Kansas to perform. “I felt this sick, overwhelming feeling of negativity over the whole car and we smelled sulfur, which is the sign of a demon, and there was a fly in the car randomly, which is another sign of a demon,” she told Complex. “Then I took a picture and there are three super distinct faces in the picture—they’re faces of textbook demons.” Check out these 13 haunted house mysteries no one can explain.
In ancient Judaic mythology, there’s a claim that the water in springs and rivers becomes unsafe to drink during the vernal and autumnal equinoxes (and the winter and summer solstices too), reports the Times of Israel. The solstices and equinoxes were considered spiritually vulnerable moments when warring supernatural powers might release cosmic poisons into the water. A scholar wrote in the 12th century: “An angel is appointed over each season. But as the new guard replaces the old [during the equinox and solstice], the mighty warriors Cancer and Scorpio become filled with jealousy and rage… They engage each other in battle… hurling venom and wrath. The venom falls into the springs and aquifers whose waters flow to the valleys and hills, into every pool of water on the face of the earth, and into the waters inside wooden and stone vessels. The waters will kill all who drink from them at this hour.” Don’t miss these things you never knew about the winter solstice, either.
The date of Easter
Unlike Thanksgiving or Independence Day, the exact date of Easter changes from year to year. Deciding what day Easter will fall on is a matter of great importance to Christian churches because it celebrates the resurrection of Jesus Christ. It’s so important, according to Panos Antsaklis, PhD, a professor at Notre Dame University, that in the 4th century AD, a group of Christian leaders came together to officially decide how to calculate Easter’s date. Their decision: Easter is to be celebrated on the first Sunday after the first full moon following the vernal equinox.
Mysterious river waves
Waves large and powerful enough to surf on typically only occur in oceans or massive lakes. But during extreme tides—usually after a new or full moon—waves known as “tidal bores” can pop up in rivers. The biggest and most surfable tidal bores take place during the spring and autumn equinoxes. One notable example occurs in a river estuary near Gloucestershire, England, reports the Guardian. Called the Severn Bore, the wave rolls through every morning for two or three days around the equinox, and surfers from around the world gather to ride it.
The Persian New Year
The Persian New Year celebration known as Nowruz kicks off at the vernal equinox and lasts for 13 days. The night of the equinox, Iranian families gather for a holiday meal and count down to the first stroke of their new year with a cheer of “Eide Shoma Mobarak,” or “Happy New Year!” reports NPR. The holiday table, called the haft seen, is decorated with seven ceremonial items: An apple representing beauty, vinegar for patience, hyacinth for spring, a sweet pudding for fertility, sprouts representing rebirth, and coins for prosperity. Next, check out these facts you never knew about the summer solstice.