Ecliptic path

The Earth in its orbit around the Sun causes the Sun to appear on the celestial sphere moving over the ecliptic (red), which is tilted on the Equator (white)


This year the autumnal equinox is on Wednesday, September 23.  The Harvest Moon is the Full Moon that occurs closest to the autumn equinox and that arrives 4 days later.

The equinox is all about balance – specifically balancing day and nightEquinox is from the Latin words for equal and for night. We know now that this day is not exactly equal with 12 hours of daylight and 12 hours of darkness, but on both equinoxes (autumn and spring), the very center of the Sun sets 12 hours after it rises.

Of course, we commonly think of the start of the day as the sunrise when the upper edge of the Sun peaks over the horizon a bit ahead of the Sun’s center. Conversely, the clock and human adjustments to it can say what they will, but in our heads night arrives when the entire Sun disappears at that opposite horizon. This we share with the ancients who were much more interested in and followers of the celestial dance.

We call the equinox this week the start of autumn, and in the Southern Hemisphere they will be entering spring.

This year it occurs on a Wednesday and that got me thinking about balancing the week.  Wednesday picked up in modern times the nickname of “Hump Day,” an unfortunate dubbing connected to getting over the middle of the work week and taking the slide to the weekend.

According to international standard ISO 8601 adopted in most western countries, Wednesday is the third day of the week. In countries that use the Sunday-first convention, Wednesday is defined as the fourth day of the week. Actually, many computer-based calendars (such as those connected to email) allow you to set for yourself what day begins the week. I am surely not alone in thinking of Monday as the start of the week with the weekend being its own little two-day holiday hanging off the end.


Odin the Wanderer (1896) by Georg von Rosen

For English speakers, Wednesday is derived from Old English Wōdnesdæg and Middle English Wednesdei, “day of Woden.” This is what is known as a calque of dies Mercurii “day of Mercury”.  A calque is a word or phrase borrowed from another language by literal, word-for-word or root-for-root translation.

Good ol’ Woden is in Germanic mythology, the god Odin (from Old Norse Óðinn).  In Norse mythology, Odin is associated with healing, death, royalty, the gallows, knowledge, battle, sorcery, poetry, frenzy, and the runic alphabet. He was married to the goddess Frigg. In wider Germanic mythology and paganism, Odin was known in Old English as Wóden.

I like the simple illustration of him I included here where he looks less godlike and more of the old wandering wise man.  J.R.R. Tolkien’s wizard Gandalf was surely influenced by Odin, especially Odin in his “Wanderer” guise. There are many works of art and literature over the centuries that have used Odin. The comic book character Odin was created in 1962 by Stan Lee and as in the Norse mythology, he is the father of Thor.

My own favorite modern incantation of Odin is in a novel by Douglas Adams – an author I very much miss having on the planet. His Long Dark Tea-Time of the Soul (Dirk Gently Book 2) finds Odin in our modern world. The lead character of the book is a “holistic detective” named Dirk Gently who believes that gods are created by humans’ necessity and desire for them. They were once worshipped by man, but when that fell away they didn’t disappear but remain on Earth forever. Because nobody worships them, many of them became destitute and depressed. In the novel, Dirk encounter and works with Odin and his son Thor. I like that Odin, like all the gods, is naïve and quite literally unworldly. In this telling, the gods’ world exists in parallel with our own – and the St. Pancras railway station is their Valhalla.

This all sounds quite silly, but I never saw the book that way. The title is a phrase which had appeared earlier  in Adams’ novel Life, the Universe and Everything (the third book in the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy a trilogy that was expanded to a pentalogy ) to describe the wretched boredom of being immortal.

It is also a reference to the theological treatise Dark Night of the Soul, by Saint John of the Cross which was a book I read in a college religion class that made a deep impression on me. It is a poem written by the 16th-century Spanish poet and Roman Catholic mystic and the treatise he wrote later that comments on the poem. The term “dark night of the soul” is used in Roman Catholicism for a spiritual crisis in a journey towards union with God. Though much of the serious study I did then is lost to me now, “Dark Night of the Soul” also refers to the ten steps on the ladder of mystical love, described earlier by Saint Thomas Aquinas who in turn built from ideas of Aristotle.