In these socially stressful times, with protests against raging inequalities on one side and counter protests that instill fear on the other, any sense of centeredness can be hard to find. Great divisions between left and right have been widened. The planet is out of balance between climate extremes; too much fire, too much water. It’s difficult to locate a sense of peace.
This autumn equinox I would fervently wish to imagine that we might pause to observe this time in the circle of the year, in the cycle of the sun, in which night and day are equal and there is a balance of dark and light, of black and white. A time in which the wildly rocking boat is steadied by helpful hands on each side, so that calm and clarity can prevail. If peace cannot be found right now in the larger world, where there is so much loss to be grieved and so much work to be done, perhaps individually and in small communities we can take a moment to attune ourselves with the season’s truth, so that we might enter the inner peace that resides in the center of our souls and find the wisdom we need in order to move forward.
The circle is an archetypal form that instills a sense of peace. When a circular enclosure is entered or a circular form is created, there is a physiological reduction of stress. When the center is marked and one moves around that center point, a sense of well being arises. A dynamic stability emerges as we harmonize our bodies with the movement of the universe, with galaxies circling their center and solar systems circling their sun. Cultures throughout the world create round forms for ritual and ceremony and for living within an awareness of the sacred.
In desiring to align our souls meaningfully with the fall equinox my husband and I have been drawn to experience circles, circles made on the earth by ancient peoples and by our own hands in the form of mandalas. Jung teaches us that wholeness is experienced when the polarities of instinct and image are balanced. Instinct is activated when the body is moving, whether pilgrimaging to a sacred site or making meditative forms with elemental materials. Image is activated when an archetypal form is experienced or created that resonates with the human psyche throughout time, such as the circle.
Our family has ancestral ties to Ireland, and we regard it as the spiritual homeland to which we pilgrimage. Ireland is a place where a vast number of ceremonial circles are still to be found in the form of Neolithic passage tombs and Bronze Age stone circles. Many of these are oriented to the solstices or to the equinoxes.
Autumn Equinox Passage Tombs
We began to orient ourselves to equinoctial ceremonial time ten years ago when we travelled back to the Neolithic, about 3200BC, to the greatest of Ireland’s many passage tomb complexes. This is the immense sacred landscape of Brú na Bóinne where people throughout the centuries met ritually with their ancestors. These are the mounds of the Sí, the dwellings of the Tuatha de Danaan, the People of the Goddess, nestled within the bend of the Boyne, the river of the goddess Boan. Each of the largest tombs in this landscape, New Grange, Dowth, and Knowth, is oriented to a different solar event. New Grange’s passage is aligned to the winter solstice sunrise, Dowth’s to winter solstice sunset, and Knowth’s to the equinoxes. The term passage tomb derives from the passage leading from the entrance to the cruciform burial chambers centered within the huge circular stone mounds. After witnessing the magnificent interior of New Grange we were taken by guides to Knowth.
Knowth has two passages, west and east, facing both sunrise and sunset on the equinoxes. We slowly circled the tomb, gazing in wonder at the enigmatic symbols carved on its ring of huge kerbstones. Two hundred and fifty of the mound’s kerbs and other structural stones are engraved with mysterious geometric compositions, the greatest concentration of megalithic art in all of Europe. Knowth’s passages are not open to the public, but at the western entrance, we stood before the standing stone, which on the equinox sunset casts a shadow a few yards away directly onto a vertical line that runs down the center of the decorated entrance stone. I shuddered as I imagined witnessing this moment.
The next day we travelled west and slightly back in time to about 3500BC. The first farmers had arrived in Ireland and created the ensouled landscape called Loughcrew on the “Hills of the Hag,” the primal crone, the Cailleach. Mythologically it is she who shaped the land. Bounding over the hills, she dropped from her apron the rocks that form the great circular stone chambers of this vast complex of thirty passage tombs.
We drove to Loughcrew Gardens at the base of two of the most beautiful high green hills I had ever seen to meet our guide. We were told that Malachy, who had the key to Cairn T, was with a school group and that we should wait. Cairn T is the best preserved and protected of the tombs. After sitting with tea for an hour or more we were told to go ahead and climb the hill of Carnbane East, hoping we would pass him on the way.
We arrived at the top, amazed at the view of the walled green fields spread out all around below, just as Malachy was leaving Cairn T with the children. He said he couldn’t let us have the key. He’d have to take the children back down and come back up with it. But we must have looked trustable, because, upon reflection, he decided to leave us the key and his big red “torch,” which he’d come back for in an hour or so. We had the tomb to ourselves. Stooping below the stone lintel, climbing over the stone sill, we entered the central chamber and crouched down to view the three cruciform chambers. Rock art covered the surfaces of the stone pillars lining the passage and the chambers. At sunrise on the spring and fall equinoxes the passage is aligned to concentrate a beam of sunlight into the rear chamber, where it illuminates a backstone that is engraved with sun symbols. For now we could only imagine what it would be like to trudge up the hill, bundled against the pre-dawn chill, to be present for this glorious event.
Autumn Equinox Stone Circles
Ritual weaves the strands of the fabric connecting earth, spirit, and us humans to sacred places at sacred times. Perhaps my favorite rituals of a subsequent trip to Ireland involved pilgrimages to four Bronze-Age (c.2000BC) equinox-aligned stone circles on the days before, during, and after the autumnal equinox. Most of the stone circles in the south of Ireland are composed of an odd number of standing stones. Many have an entrance flanked by two taller portal stones that face a horizontal recumbent boulder across the circle called the axial stone. Some of the circles are oriented NE – SW, to the solstices. These four are aligned E – W, orienting them to the spring and fall equinoxes. What “aligned” means is that these stone circles have a pair of portal stones in the east, through which the equinox sun rises, and an altar-like recumbent boulder in the west, behind which the equinox sun sets.
The day before the equinox we set out to find Bohonagh stone circle in County Cork, the territory of my ancestors. As happens often with us, we had to try several roads and stop to inquire at a number of homes before we were finally able to locate the dairy that we thought might be the site of the circle. Tramping through mud and ducking under an electrified fence (don’t ask how we know this), with cows all lined up watching us, we climbed up through lush grass until we found the beautiful circle at the top of the hill. Overlooking a vast domain, it is quite a powerful place. We walked the circle three times sunwise, laying hands on each stone as we passed. Much of the height of each stone extends deep into the earth, grounding us as well as grounding them. A friend at home had requested that we put a round, golden glass sun stone “in a high place” for her. Our ritual at Bohonagh included carefully placing her stone just right in a fortuitously aligned groove of the recumbent, so that when the descending sun shone through it, a small golden dagger illuminated the white stone, radiating prayers for her well-being and blessings for our community.
On September 22 we arrived at Derreenataggart stone circle on the Beara Peninsula, with hours to wait before the sun would set behind the recumbent boulder. I was surprised that on this auspicious day at this sacred place there were no other celebrants present. We made an altar on a small rounded rock nestled in the grass in front of the axial stone, placing wildflowers and berries picked at the site as an offering of beauty. There happened to be a deep grove in the stone that held the grass and flower stems up as if in a vase. Eight of the tall stones are still standing, including one of the portal stones, the tallest being nine feet. Rather, they are leaning in, seeming much like dignified elders listening intently at a gathering.
We walked the circle slowly, several times sunwise, greeting each stone personage. Then we waited in meditation, one of us resting against the tall portal pillar, the other lying on one of the fallen slabs, contemplating the passage of the sun, until it finally descended behind the large recumbent boulder. Being in the very place where people have waited upon the passage of the sun like this for thousands of years, I relaxed into a profound sense of peace. I felt held in the center of widening concentric circles of the stones, the elements, the ancestors, time, space and spirit, with great gratitude for the holding.
Autumn Equinox Mandalas
On autumn equinox the following year we wanted to make a ritual that would put us in touch with our community back home, in time, if not in space, and in rhythm with the soul of the season. We were drawn to the ocean at the western tip of the Dingle Peninsula. Smerwick Harbour is ringed with the remains of 6th-9th century monasteries, oratories, and hermitages, their doorways all facing the bay and the pink glow of the lowering sun.
We noticed variously colored stones on the beach, so we gathered red, yellow, green, and blue to make a mandala. Tracing a circle, we placed yellow stones in the east, red in the south, blue in the west and green in the north. We found shorebird feathers to represent east, wind; shells for west, water; and flat rocks with barnacles and other critter abodes on them for north, earth. But we weren’t sure how to represent the south. Ah, over there was a large, solid piece of washed up tar. Tar made of ancient sunlight, containing vestiges of the power of fire, perfect! We connected these symbolic elements with concentric circles sculpted in the damp sand. Laughing, we had to refine the circles a couple of times after frisky dogs kept helping us dig! Scouring the shoreline again, we each found a white and a black stone and held the dark one in our left hands and the light one in our right, until their polarities felt equal. Then we balanced these four stones on a rounded rock in the middle of the mandala. Feeling complete, we walked around the circle sunwise singing a Shalom song from a circle-dance that our community enjoys, sending our friends at home the peace of inner and outer equilibrium.
On autumn equinox the next year we took a small red and white ferry to Sherkin Island in Roaringwater Bay, the immediate territory of my O’Driscoll ancestors. As we walked to a cove called Silver Strand we collected colorful wildflowers, leaves, and berries from the hedgerows lining the path, anticipating that we might like to make something symbolic to send greetings back home to friends and family. On the beach we made a circle in the sand filled with round white limpet shells and ringed with the vivid fruits and flowers. It reminded us of the recent bright Harvest Moon. We sent a photo home as our harvest blessing.
Finding a cave-like area of beautifully sculpted and striated grey rock, we gathered flat cobbles and colorful seaweeds to make an offering. We wanted to honor and bring gratitude to the deep-time ancestors and spirits of the land in order to help forge connections between them and the ancestors and sacred beings of the land back home, and to ask that their much-needed wisdom might infuse us all. Then we watched as the fast-approaching tide came in to carry our prayers away to them.
On the last day of that five-week pilgrimage to sacred earth-spirit sites, we wanted to make a ceremony to express our gratefulness. At a beach strewn with very colorful stones near holy Mt. Brandon, we made a spiral as an altar around which to sing, dance, pour libations of milk and raise prayers. The spiral is such a powerful image of pre-Celtic Ireland as well as a fitting symbol of the archetypal Journey. Then, speaking aloud our heart-filled thanks, we sprinkled pinches of biscuit crumbs on the spiral path as offerings: gratitude to the Goddess and the loving spirits of the land … gratitude for contact with our ancestors and the deep-time Ancestors of this Place … for the healing energies of stone circles and sacred springs … for the warmth of friends and guides … for the potent presence of the elements … for the plants, trees, Bird Messengers and Rock Beings … for the incredible beauty all around ….
At the end of August on our most recent pilgrimage to Ireland we went looking for a holy well on a coastal cliff, but couldn’t find it and instead found ourselves on a beach with especially vibrant colored stones and made this love mandala to send home.
We celebrated the equinox on two beautiful beaches on the coast of Donegal. The day preceding the equinox we noticed that the deserted beach at the base of wild cliffs near the abandoned stone village of An Port was made of pure black and pure white stones. It seemed they might have the potential to symbolize quite strikingly the effort to balance our own polarities of darkness and light. So we began gathering them to make a spontaneous mandala, hoping some meaningful form might arise. As we worked to arrange a symmetry of black stones on one side, white ones on the other, a ritual mask began to emerge, a mysterious face poised between black and white, holding shadow self and light self in balance.
On the equinox, after a windy, rainy morning we drove farther north along the coast and arrived at a very magical storm-shingle beach of large white cobbles with small colored pebbles scattered between them. We were inspired to use one of the large stones as a canvas upon which to make an equinoctial black and white cross ringed with a circle of colored stones. This is the alchemical symbol for the Earth. Such a simple form, yet it continued the theme of balance and functioned as a symbolic seal on our pilgrimage, an offering in gratitude, and an act of affirmation of our prayers for an honored Earth.
This fall we had planned to spend the equinox in Ireland again, but with the Covid pandemic looming, the trip was cancelled. Thanks to a new deer fence, we are harvesting an abundance of vegetables for which we are very thankful. The fall equinox is known in pagan communities as Second Harvest, the first harvest being Lughnasa/Lammas, which precedes it, the last being Samhain, the cross-quarter that completes the bright half of the year. For this year’s ritual to celebrate the equinox and express our gratitude for the fruits of this season of plenty, we enjoyed making a festive mandala of tomatoes, squash, zucchini, peppers and beans circling a lemon cucumber in the center. Well, it’s almost in the center. May we each be held in the center of a circle of peace.
An old Irish blessing invokes the Celtic nine elements to protect one about to set forth on a journey. It will be quite a journey as we learn to restore a balance between human needs and those of the rest of the animals, plants, and habitats with which we share the Earth and the climate balancing systems of the planet. We all have gifts to bring to the work of renewing the sacred circle of belonging, enclosing and enfolding us in a colorful mandala of human and non-human kin within our beloved round Earth.
May you go forth under the strength of heaven,
Under the light of sun, under the radiance of moon;
May you go forth with the splendor of fire,
With the speed of lightning,
With the swiftness of wind;
May you go forth supported by the depth of sea,
By the stability of earth,
By the firmness of rock;
May you be surrounded and encircled,
With the protection of the nine elements.*
*Source: Celtic Devotional: Daily Prayers and Blessings by Caitlin Matthews (Harmony Books, 1996).
Text (C) 2020 Betty Lou Chaika. Photos (C) 2020 Betty Lou and David Chaika