Part 1: The Vernal Equinox


By Tom Burns - Stargazing



March 20 marks the day we rather arbitrarily call the first day of spring. Unfortunately, the weather we see on the ground and in the sky does not necessarily cooperate. As humans have defined it for thousands of years, the spring, or vernal equinox is not a meteorological event. Instead, it originates in astronomy.

As winter finally turns to spring, we celebrate a variety of holidays associated with the rebirth of light and life after winter’s frigidity. Among them are Easter and Passover. Many of our celebrations are shaped by that magical astronomical moment, this year at precisely 5:58 p.m. tomorrow, when day begins to overpower night. In the days that follow, the sun appears to rise higher in the sky and brings with it warmer weather.

Since our dim beginnings, we have looked to the sky to tell us when and what to celebrate. Over the next two weeks, this column will describe the celestial origins of our contemporary springtime holidays and the myths — both ancient and modern — that surround them.

Long ago, ancient people noticed that the sun moves across the sky in a complete circle, called the ecliptic, once a year. In fact, we divide circles into 360 degrees to mimic approximately the number of days in a year.

On the vernal equinox, the sun’s ecliptic path crosses another imaginary sky circle called the celestial equator, which corresponds to Earth’s equator projected on the sky. Old Sol is moving north as it crosses the line.

We, of course, live north of Earth’s equator. As the sun moves north, it rises higher in our sky. The higher it gets, the more directly its rays beam down on our part of the planet.

Winter is the coldest season because the sun shines down on us from a lower angle. Spring is warmer because the sun’s rays shine most directly down on us. On the summer solstice in June, the sun is almost directly overhead at local noon and beats down upon our heads with exceptional fervor.

Because the sun rises higher in the sky, it spends more and more time above the horizon each day as the season progresses. Tomorrow, day and night are about equal in length. The day after, daylight will be a few minutes longer that night, and the next day, daylight will be longer still.

That process began in December on the winter solstice, the longest night of the year. Every day thereafter, daylight increased and the sun rose higher. However, we are only beginning to see the effects of it now. Meteorologically speaking, it takes the whole season for the more direct rays of the sun slowly to heat up our part of the atmosphere.

Our forbears looked for signs of spring in the nighttime sky, where the gods lived and exerted their often capricious will on humanity.

The rising of one grand constellation marked for them (and for me) the beginning of the season. She is Virgo, who is rising this time of year just as daylight turns to darkness. Look for her as a “Y” shaped collection of stars low in the east. Her brightest star, Spica, is located at the bottom of the stroke of the “Y.”

Virgo, the Virgin — or Maiden, if you prefer — was called Persephone by the ancient Greeks. Her story begins in a mythic time of continuous peace and plenty when the gods lived openly among humans.

Persephone was the young daughter of Zeus, king of the gods, and Demeter, the goddess of the corn, the goddess of the harvest, and therefore, generally the goddess of fecundity and prosperity.

One tragic day, Hades, the god who ruled the realm of the dead, kidnapped the maiden and carried her down to his underworld lair. There she was to become wife and queen to the dark god.

Persephone knew that her chances of escape were small, but she had one hope. She would be trapped in Hades forever if she, in any way, partook of the hospitality of the dark lord. She must not eat a single bite of food and hope that her mother could somehow find her and rescue her from Pluto’s cold embrace.

As Persephone lay weak and hungry, Demeter was so filled with grief that she left Earth to search the universe for her daughter. Demeter’s presence on the planet made the crops grow. In her absence, not a single seed sprouted. An unending winter encompassed Earth.

Humans were desperate and starving, but that didn’t bother Zeus very much. He kind of enjoyed watching humans suffer. He was more upset by the lack of agricultural tribute. Humans had no food to sacrifice at his temples.

As a result, Zeus undertook Persephone’s rescue, but the attempt was doomed. In a moment of weakness, she had eaten six tiny pomegranate seeds.

The seeds have a dual symbolism. By accepting them, Persephone had reluctantly accepted a meal from Hades. The old codes of hospitality unalterably bind both the giver and receiver. To this day, we still engage in marriage feasts to signal our acceptance of such unions.

Also, by accepting the “seed” of Hades, she had symbolically, if not literally, consummated their marriage. She was yoked to Hades forever.

In the meantime, people were starving, and Zeus was not receiving his sacrificial offerings. So, he arranged a compromise. For six months out of every year, Persephone must remain with Pluto in unholy wedlock.

During those months, which are bracketed by the vernal and autumnal equinoxes, Virgo remains below the horizon in the early evening. Because Demeter is paralyzed by grief during that time, winter spreads over the land.

Every year around this time, Persephone is allowed to leave the underworld and travel back into the heavens to visit mom. As Virgo rises in the spring and rejoins her mother, Demeter is filled with joy. That ecstasy allows the dormant plant life to awaken. The goddess of the corn thus brings spring to Earth to celebrate her daughter’s release from the cold realm of death.

For the ancients, the golden age of innocence was over. The virgin had been ravished. The long, long age of winter was upon us. The gods now lived among the cold stars of heaven.

But spring still comes in fits and starts as the sad pain of the goddess Demeter is replaced by unspeakable joy.

That myth probably originated in an even older story told by the Chaldeans. They associated Virgo with Ishtar, “Queen of the Stars.” Ishtar made the crops grow, and she so loved her job that she did it the year round. Humans never wanted for bread, and a golden age ruled our planet.

Ishtar’s diligence did not please King Winter, who was banished to the great Underworld, never to wield his icy power. One fateful day, Winter kidnapped Ishtar’s husband, Tammuz, and dragged him down into darkness. Ishtar was so distraught that she neglected her work, and King Winter took possession of the fields.

Ishtar searched the Underworld until she found her husband, but the dark lord of ice and snow took the opportunity to imprison her as well. King Winter threatened to rule the Earth forever.

When the gods saw the starvation and human suffering that resulted, they asked Winter to release the springtime goddess from his icy grasp. A compromise was reached. For part of the year, Ishtar was to neglect her duties in the field, and winter could reign. But in the spring, Ishtar could again rise and resume her ascendancy over the lives of humans.

Watch her rise, denizens of planet Earth. Watch her rise! If the weather we’ve had this winter gets you down, go outside and look at the stars of Virgo, whose rising heralds the rebirth of spring and better days yet to come.

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By Tom Burns

Stargazing

Tom Burns is the former director of the Perkins Observatory in Delaware.

Tom Burns is the former director of the Perkins Observatory in Delaware.