March is a particularly tempestuous month. The ancient Saxon name for March was Hrethmonath, meaning “rough month” and referring to month’s often blustery winds. During March, the wind can blow with a force unfelt all winter, which also make it a great month to fly a kite.
In Roman times, March’s winds were often joined by the blaring of the war trumpets of the Roman Legions. After taking the winter off, March was the time Roman armies went on the offensive. March still bears the name of the Roman god of war, Mars.
Besides the martial heritage of March, there are a whole lot of other confluences this month and they all are part of the ancient traditions for this time of year. Last weekend was St. Patrick’s Day, a couple weekends ago we sprang forward in time and tomorrow,Wednesday, March 20th, is the vernal equinox.
We also call the vernal or spring equinox the first day of spring. It will be coming early tomorrow morning. Here in the Santa Ynez Valley spring arrives at 4:02 am. Should you be on the east coast, it will be a slightly more civilized hour of arrival, 7:02 am. If you happen to be in the middle of the country, spring arrives at 6:02 am.
The spring equinox is one of the four great solar festivals of the year. March 20th is the date (in some years, March 21st) that most of us recognize as a changing of the seasons. As we welcome spring north of the equator, folks living south of the equator will be gearing up for the cooler temperatures of autumn.
Far from being an arbitrary indicator of seasonal change, March 20th is significant for astronomical reasons. Tomorrow, we will be half way between the Winter Solstice and the Summer Solstice and the Sun will cross directly over Earth’s equator. This moment is known as the vernal equinox in the Northern Hemisphere and the autumnal equinox the Southern Hemisphere. Because the Sun is a sphere and not a point source of light, its actual crossing over the equator takes about 33 hours.
These brief astronomic moments owe their significance to the 23.4 degree tilt of Earth’s axis. Because of this tilt, we receive the Sun’s rays most directly in the summer. In the winter, when we are tilted away from the Sun, the rays pass through the atmosphere at a greater slant, bringing lower temperatures. If Earth rotated on an perpendicular axis in its orbit around the sun, there would be no variation in day lengths or temperatures throughout the year, and we would not have seasons.
Eighty-nine days have passed between the Winter Solstice in December and tomorrow’s Spring Equinox. However, there will be Ninety-four days between the Midsummer Solstice and the Autumn Equinox. The seasons are not of equal length because Earth does not orbit the sun at a constant speed. I don’t know about you, but I like having a longer summer than winter.
The equinoxes themselves are not fixed points in time. They actually fall about 6 hours later every year, amounting to one full day in four years, that it all gets reset by Leap Year. Our calendar is designed to follow the seasons as accurately as is practical. It is good, but not perfect.
The word equinox is derived from the Latin words aequus (equal) and nox (night). On the equinox, day and night are equal, poised and balanced, about to tip over on the side of light. In ancient times the spring equinox was considered sacred to dawn, youth, the morning star and the direction east. In fact, the Saxon goddess, Eostre (from whose name we get the direction East and the holiday Easter) was a dawn goddess, like Aurora and Eos. Our ancestors considered that just as dawn is the time of new light, the vernal equinox was the time of new life.
Even today watching the sunrise is a moving experience. Gazing at the moon and stars can also produce a sense of wonder. To ancient humans, these activities were sources of both mystery and continuity. In the millennia before automobiles, electric lights, televisions, let alone the Internet and smart phones, our ancestors realized the sun’s path across the sky, the length of daylight, and the location of the sunrise and sunset all shifted in a regular way throughout the year. These shifts corresponded to the seasons, which, signaled the start of their growing season, the onset of winter or the time when rivers overflowed their banks. The ability to predict the seasons was key to survival in ancient times. Every season has a beginning and those beginnings are either the one of the two solstices or one of the two the equinoxes.
In Europe many of the prehistoric Neolithic monuments, standing stones and stone circles are aligned to the equinoxes, either the rising sun or rising moon. Scientists have discovered that many cultures around world had sites that were astronomically aligned with either equinoxes or solstices. It is probably no coincidence that early Egyptians built the Great Sphinx so that it points directly toward the rising Sun on the day of the vernal equinox.
The spring equinox is important to Christianity because Easter always falls on the first Sunday after the first full moon after the vernal equinox. The full moon is in seven more days and the reason that Easter is so early this year.
In every culture the spring equinox signals the return of weather that favors humanity’s ability to grow agricultural crops, and for this reason we have associated the equinox and spring with the “rebirth” of our ability to perpetuate ourselves. It is understandable why we have chosen to celebrate such a momentous occasion, and why it has come to represent “rebirth” in a variety of contexts.
The spring equinox was the time, many ancient cultures celebrated the start of the New Year. Our ancestors considered that just as dawn is the time of new light, the vernal equinox was the time of new life. In every culture the spring equinox signaled the return of weather that favored our ability for farming raising crops, and for this reason humans have associated the spring equinox with the “rebirth” of our ability to perpetuate ourselves. It is understandable why we have chosen to celebrate such a momentous occasion, and why it has come to represent “rebirth” in a variety of contexts.
The month of March contains holidays dedicated to all the great mother goddesses: Astarte, Isis, Aphrodite, Cybele and the Virgin Mary. To our ancestors, the goddess showed herself in the blossoms, the leaves on the trees, the sprouting of the crops, the mating of birds, the birth of young animals.
As you can see there’s a lot to March. Tomorrow, try and get out and enjoy the first day of spring, it’s one of the most reassuring points of the year – we’ve made it through another winter and summer is not far away.
Dr. Eric P. Dahlstrom, D.C., L.Ac.
Santa Monica Healing Arts
Providing Chiropractic Care and Acupuncture in Santa Monica since 1999 (http://santamonicahealingarts.com). Check out our 5-star Review on Yelp (http://www.yelp.com/biz/santa-monica-healing-arts-santa-monica) or find us on facebook (https://www.facebook.com/pages/Santa-Monica-Healing-Arts)