In recent years, a belief has spread that the Autumnal Equinox is the first day of Fall. This is clearly an urban legend with no basis in truth. Like all such myths, most of the support for this idea is based in tidbits of ‘scientific fact’ gleaned from internet forums and Wikipedia. Its proponents state that the Autumnal Equinox occurs when the axis of the earth is not pointed toward or away from the sun, resulting in roughly equal-length night and day. They also claim that ‘autumnal’ is an adjective meaning ‘pertaining to autumn’ and that ‘equinox’ comes from the Latin aequi meaning ‘equal’ and nox meaning ‘night.’ Such linguistic bamboozlement is a telltale sign of these modern tall tales, and is not to be believed under any circumstances.
The truth about the Autumnal Equinox is far more interesting, and far older, than the explanation offered by poorly researched chatroom ‘science.’
The Autumnal Equinox is a legendary monster said to live in the ancient forests of Great Britain. The story goes that the Celts and Anglo-Saxons who inhabited the forests and surrounding farmland lived in peace and security most of the year. But every September, for one night only, the Equinox would appear. The people would hear the ominous cry of the Equinox from the darkest parts of the forest exactly as the sun went down. It was the only warning they ever got. The Equinox would emerge from its secret den to prey upon the human population, gorging itself on the flesh of its victims. And then, just as quickly as it appeared, it would disappear at the crack of dawn, not to be seen or heard from again until the following year on the same night.
The word ‘autumnal’ is believed to originate with the Anglo-Saxon unman, meaning ‘un-man.’ The prefix aut-, from the Greek auto, meaning ‘self,’ was most likely added during the Jacobean period, when it was in vogue to attach Greek and Latin affixes to Anglo-Saxon roots. The overall sense of the word — literally translated ‘self-un-man’ — is of a creature originally human who for some horrible reason has willingly transformed himself into a monster by some agreement with dark forces. You see, the Equinox is no mere monster; it is the worst kind of monster: one that used to be man. It is no wonder, then, that the Autumnal Equinox held a place of special fear for the Celtic and Saxon tribesmen.[i]
The word ‘equinox’ is another example of Jacobean Latin-Saxon pairing. ‘Equi-‘ comes from the Latin equus, meaning ‘horse,’ and ox is an Anglo-Saxon word meaning, well, ox — literally translated, an ‘equine ox.’
So the Autumnal Equinox is a monstrous beast — part horse, part ox — that used to be a rational man before he sold his soul to demons and was transformed into a flesh-eating hell beast.
Out of self preservation, the tribesmen started building large fires and holding religious ceremonies in order to ward off the Equinox. Later on a belief arose that if one could manage to balance an egg vertically on the night of the Equinox’s attack, it would act as amulet capable of warding the monster off. The custom continues to this very day.
Eventually, as the population of Britain grew, the forests were cut down, cities spread, technology improved, and the Equinox has scarcely been seen since. The only memory anyone has of it is in the continuing commemoration of the night named after it at the end of every September.
Still, there are those who say that if one is alone in an English wood on this inauspicious night, the ominous keening of the ravenous Equinox can still be heard.
[i] The only creature more terrible and more feared than the Autumnal Equinox is the Vernal Equinox. ‘Vernal’ here is derived from the same Latin root as infernal, meaning ‘from hell.’