The Vernal Equinox

By Justin Ayars, JD

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On Tuesday, March 20th, the world observed the vernal equinox, more commonly known in the Northern Hemisphere as the first day of spring (or autumn in the Southern hemisphere). On this day, the sun rose precisely in the east, centered itself on the Earth’s equator and set precisely in the west, resulting in a day of equal lengths of light and dark. Today, this biannual celestial event (it’s sister event, the autumnal equinox, will occur on Saturday, September 22) is marked without much fanfare. However, for many ancient cultures across the Americas, equinoxes were a time for celebration, sacrifice and migration. Some cultures keep their traditions relating to the solar calendar alive and by performing ceremonies timed to the equinox.

Ancient Astronomers

In the Peruvian desert north of Lima, at a site called Chankillo, sits an enormous astronomical observatory that dates back to 500 B.C. This observatory contains 13 towers constructed in a north-south line resembling a spine. Throughout the year, the sun rises and sets to the left of the first tower at the summer solstice, in the center at the equinox and to the right of the last tower at the winter solstice.

Although we don’t know who built this observatory, it’s likely that they worshiped the sun as many ancient cultures in the Americas did. Archaeologist Iván Ghezzi of the Catholic University of Peru notes, “Chankillos is much more than merely an astronomical observatory. It’s a site that was a large ceremonial center.”

Chankillo is one of many ancient structures built to align with the equinox, such as the Stonehenge-like circle of wooden poles (nicknamed “Woodhenge”) at a prehistoric site called Cahokia in Southern Illinois, and the earthen lodges oriented towards astronomical features built by the Skidi Pawnee.

Light, Shadow & Blood

In addition to marking astrological alignments, another method of tracing the sun’s path through the heavens involves using sunlight to inscribe illuminated shapes or cast shadows. For example, at Chichén Itzá the Maya crafted a sculpture that transforms into a blazing serpent at the equinox, which represents their deity Kukulcan.

In 1977, rock artist Anna Sofaer was exploring the petroglyphs of the American southwest at a site in Chaco Canyon, where an ancient civilization thrived for millennia in what is now New Mexico. At the top of Fajada Butte, Sofaer found what’s known as the Sun Dagger, a calendrical marking created from two spirals etched into the rock. During the summer solstice and equinoxes, the spirals are sliced by a dagger of light as the sun shines through slabs of rock. Before the rock slabs shifted, at the winter solstice, two daggers used to appear on either side of the spiral.

Interred bird bones found at the site suggests that the Chaco Canyon inhabitants marked the equinox by sacrificing scarlet macaws. This practice was apparently quite common among the Puebloans of the Southwest and Northern Mexico. “In many of areas of the ancient New World, scarlet macaws were symbolically associated with the sun and with fire, probably because of their red and yellow feathers,” says anthropologist Andrew Somerville of the National Autonomous University of Mexico, who has worked extensively at a site called Paquime in northern Mexico. “By sacrificing a symbol of the sun on this solar holiday, one was perhaps ritually ending the dry season and hastening the arrival of the spring and summer rains.”

Equinoctial Holiday Traditions Live On

Some Native American equinox traditions are still alive. For the Lakota of the U.S. Midwest, the vernal equinox not only kicked off a seasonal migration in the Black Hills of South Dakota, but also a series of ceremonies meant to welcome life on Earth and send the souls of the deceased to briefly rest in the core of the Milky Way.

Victor Douville teaches ethnoastronomy at Sinte Gleska University on the Rosebud Reservation in South Dakota. Millennia ago, Douville says, the Lakota noticed that every spring, the sun rises in the constellation known as the Dried Willow. “Those stars look like nubs on the branch, and the branch represents the red willow,” Douville says. The inner bark of that red willow is the main ingredient used to make tobacco for the equinoctial Sacred Pipe ceremony, which is meant to rekindle the sacred fire of life on Earth. The ceremony is the first in a series of four that culminates with the Sun Dance on the summer solstice.

The Lakota, who followed great herds of buffalo across the Midwest, timed their movements to the motions of the sun and stars. The ancient traditions that accompanied their migrations are still alive on the Rosebud reservation today. “We still have the elders that know about this,” Douville says. “And when they die out, we still have the language.”

The next time the vernal equinox crosses our calendars, don’t just make a resolution to do some spring cleaning; rather, consider the importance that this solar holiday had to ancient civilizations across the Americas and how some cultures continue to honor the celestial alignment today.

Special thanks to Nadia Drake at The National Geographic for helping make this story possible.