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Chumash Autumn Equinox


This text explores social and spiritual beliefs about the autumn equinox, as expressed in the traditions of the Chumash Indians of southern California. Their equinox ceremonies were held on September 21. This was the exact moment in time when day and night are of equal length.

September is the ninth month of the solar year. It is the time when Mother Earth bears the fruits of her womb and provides prosperous crops of seeds, fruit, and animal meat. In this sense, the earth mirrors the physiological pattern experienced by human females, whose gestation period is also nine months. Prayers, songs, verse, and political orations associated with equinox gatherings frequently touch upon the importance of Mother Earth and of the Sun and other celestial bodies that impact human life during the fall season.

They are rich in inspirational locution. Many phrases enriched public discourse during this season, including poetic-mythological references to the Eye of the Sun, the Beauty of the World, the Flower of the Wind, the Children of the Sun, and enigmatic discussions of the Sun's Shadow and the Walnut Shell Enigma. One of the purposes of this text is to introduce the reader to the turn of mind that produced such inviting phraseology, embodied in public pronouncements of hope qualified with overtones of foreboding and redemption.

The fall equinox is one of the four major astronomically determined holidays of the Chumash calendar. The spring equinox, and the two solstices, complete the quadrisected ceremonial year. The fall equinox is characterized by a season of harvesting, plus the beginning of the darker days of approaching winter.

F.L. Kitsepawit was one of the leading Chumash historians of the early twentieth century. He used John Harrington of the Smithsonian Institution as a consultant. Together, they preserved important information on Chumash equinox traditions. The Kitsepawit/Harrington field notes included, for example, tantalizing passages about the teachings of I. Suluwish, concerning the equinox and what he described as the Shadow of the Sun. This text begins with a background discussion of the shadows created by the sun, and how an analysis of the cosmic duality of shadow/light contributes to our understanding of traditional Chumash theology.

To understand the phrase Shadow of the Sun it is helpful to examine the meaning of 'shadow' in Chumash teachings. Clearly the sun is not a shadow, but rather the mirror opposite. It's rays drive away shadow! Throughout this text, therefore, the role of the Sun as illuminator is a reoccurring subject of discussion. Secondary shadow themes associated with the approaching winter months include dusk, dark, shade, insubstantiality, foreboding, and demonology.

Speeches made at Chumash equinox gatherings often emphasized the need for caution.4 The day after the equinox, the sun began a six month period of declining power. With each setting sun, the length of the day was diminished, and the length of the night increased. Family elders warned against the approaching winter. They did not let themselves be lulled into thinking that the hot days and good weather would last much longer. The Thanksgiving feast that followed the equinox was a time of joy. But the educated Chumash knew that the approaching winter months would test both individual and communal spirituality.

John Anderson

July, 2001

This web page represents the views of the author, and does not necessarily represent the views of the Chumash Indians, either individually or in a group.