The autumnal equinox responds to the spring equinox. The sowing of seeds, the working of the earth, the blossoming and fertilisation of flowers in the orchards, and the celebration of nature’s resurrection are followed by a time of harvesting, thanksgiving and rituals related to death and the fear of the other world’s overflow.
Autumn inevitably evokes the idea of the end of a cycle. The vegetation, after an explosion of twilight colours, gradually goes into a dormant state as the days decline. Morning mists, low skies, coolness and then cold spread over temperate regions.
Modern popular imagery, associating this apparent decay of vegetation with the celebrations of the dead on All Saints’ Day, is still imbued with melancholic poetic expression. Charles Verlaine’s beautiful poem “Chanson d’automne” is an archetypal example of this and underlines the gloomy character of these autumnal months. Yes, it is a time for thinking about one’s finiteness, a time that calls for remembrance and a conscientious withdrawal of the inner self. Autumn simply reminds us of the obvious: everything comes to an end.
If autumn reminds us that all existence is finite, we who project ourselves into a cyclical universe must also see in it the promise of tomorrow. It is a season of fullness and turbulence: the season of the end of summer when, for a few weeks, the vegetation matures, vigorous, and thrives until harvest time, a time of genuine joy in the countryside, when community life flourishes and barns fill up before the dark times leading to the winter solstice. It is above all the season of metamorphosis: the leaves that have fallen to the ground merge with the earth, gradually becoming humus rich in organic matter and biotope that will allow the renewal and development of plants from spring onwards. Finally, the shrinking of the plants and the shortening of the days naturally invite us to withdraw into our own interiority before the long winter and the spring rebirth.
Moreover, in European traditions, the idea of the separation of the year, of the autumnal shift, is widely attested. In astrology, the entrance of the Sun in sign of Libra marks the beginning of the autumnal equinox. In the Germanic world, the month of September, or ‘Scheiding’, – which separates – was the beginning of the second part of the year, starting in March. For the Celts, the year began after the celebrations of Samhain, a period of a few days considered to be out of time. A time when the world of the dead and the living are open to each other. In ancient Greece, the Eleusis mysteries celebrated Demeter, Persephone and Hades during the equinox, whose myth obviously evokes this idea of the porosity between the world of the living and the world of the dead as well as the cycle of nature.
Thus, two axes can be identified in autumnal traditions and festivals: the first corresponds to the ancient European beliefs linked to the cult of the dead; the second is linked to agro-pastoral celebrations dedicated to the cycle of seasons, nature and harvests, and filled with rites of blessing in favour of fertility deities.