(Essay) The Equinoxes as Story of Redemption: Sacred Balance of Maternal Creativity by Glenys Livingstone Ph.D.

Glenys LivingstoneAt 11:02 UT March 20th it will be Autumn and Spring Equinox at the same time on the Planet – the Seasonal Moments of balance of light and dark that occur in the dark part and in the light part of the year respectively. The story essentially enacted and told at these seasonal transitions is one of descent and return – the mystery and power of loss and return. The Autumn Equinox (sometimes named as Mabon) is inseparable from the Spring Equinox in its revelation. Spring Equinox is frequently named as Eostar, from which the Christian rituals of Easter have taken their name since the Middle Ages of the Common Era.

The most popular story of descent and return in the Christian West, and also adopted within other cultures around the globe, is that of Jesus: a story celebrated in the Christian Easter rituals. Jesus is regarded literally by many, and at least nominally by many more, as the Redeemer – shaman if you like – who saves all of creation from eternal alienation and loss. Such stories of redemption may be understood in essence, as a desire for the restoration of Beauty – a sense of Cosmic order. The fact that Jesus’s story as told is based on more ancient stories of descent and return remains unkown to many, and the fact that the Cosmos Herself reveals such story often remains out of reach – disabling the perception of stories of descent and return that may be witnessed in what was/is most likely the primary place of such revelation – the phases of the Moon and seasonal experiences. Such Cosmic/Earth-based story may be more useful in our times, for the regaining of deep relationship with our place of being, since the saviour or redemptive quality – the return of Beauty – is revealed within our creative context Herself, and all participate in it by nature of being and becoming. It does not require an external entity to do the dying on behalf of all and resurrect by extraordinary miracle. The initiates who attended the ancient celebrations of the Autumn Equinox in Greece – the Eleusinian Mysteries – were awestruck when the ear of wheat was upheld: they got something in that moment, that the cut wheat held within it.  It was Seed, a numinous reality, a holy thing.

Glenys Livingstone 2Both Equinoxes celebrate a sacred balance of loss and return which are inseparable, and they may both be understood in the Mystery of the Seed. The Seed essentially is, and represents, deep Creativity, that manifests in the flower of Spring and the fruit of the harvest in Autumn: seed becomes fruit, fruit becomes seed, as is commonly spoken in Pagan ceremony[i], and illustrated in the diametric slicing of an apple which reveals the core – the Kore, understood as the Daughter-Self within the Mother, in the heart-intelligence of the Mother, illustrating the continuity of the life thread. It is a religious relationship,  expressed in icons of the Mother Demeter handing wheat to the Daughter Persephone. Such an icon came to be central to the Autumn Equinox rituals as we do them at my place, wherein the celebrant as Demeter hands each participant stalks of wheat tied with thin red ribbon/thread.

The rituals of Autumn Equinox season express that the beauty and sustenance (the harvest) that we may enjoy everyday, unfold from the underworld, the deep dark Earth – into which the Seed goes. The metaphor expresses a stepping into the creative power of the Abyss: that the ancients could see in the Seed, and in the vulva shape of it … the Mother-Source, which was/is, at the same time, Daughter and continuity: ontological renewal.  It was an initiation into the vision, the knowledge of the Seed, as a thread of life that continues beneath the visible. The metaphor arose at a time in the human story when the power of the seed was coming to be understood – thus it is often said poetically that Demeter gifted humans with agriculture. Demeter, the Grain Mother, is Earth-Mother (Gimbutas 1991:141) and identified with the triangle motif – the pubic triangle – which represents the sacred Source of Life (Gimbutas 1991:145).

For millennia in Greece, this Seasonal Moment was the holy celebration of Persephone’s descent to the Underworld, and in earliest traditions of female-based metaphor, Goddess-centred sympathies, evidence suggests that Her descent may be understood as voluntary, as Charlene Spretnak tells it in her re-storying (1992:105-118), and as Marija Gimbutas’ research indicates (1999:160-161).  The Daughter-Self of the Mother knows the necessity of the journey into the dark, if life is to be renewed[ii]: She (the Seed) thus comforts the dead, the lost, with the promise of renewal, the restoration of Beauty. Her descent is also a journey to self-knowledge, to Wisdom, to becoming Mother: as such, She is shaman, Redeemer. It is said in Pagan tradition that Persephone becomes “Queen” of the Underworld – that is, it is a descent to “Sovereignty”: it is meant that She is Caretaker in that world, and also, that the self must be known, is the primary location of the Sacred. It is not a sovereignty that lords it over others, but a sovereignty that knows its agency, and will dare the Journey required. As Sovereign, Persephone is all three dynamics of a female trinity at once: She as Seed is New Young One, Old One and Mother, a sacred balance of Creativity. It is a threefold Wisdom of deep reverence for the small self, in deep relationship with the web of life, directly participating in Cosmic Creativity. The Demeter-Persephone Mysteries celebrate a familiar-ity with the Deep, a descent to power: a power that is understood as the capacity an apple tree has to make an apple – not as a capacity for control (Judy Grahn in Spretnak 1982:265). It is an authority earned by shamanic capacity to travel the depths of transformation, and of vision to see the Thread of Life that continues beneath the visible, the intimacy of grief and joy. Autumn Equinox may be a Moment of thanksgiving for the extant harvest, yet also a Moment of remembering and grieving the losses involved in that harvest – the seeds planted.

Glenys Livingstone 3

In the ritual of Autumn Equinox as it is done at my place, the participants go “out into the night” with a seed, a “Persephone,” to plant it (Livingstone 2005:243-244). “Persephone” goes into the heart of our sorrows to unfold the Mystery, wholes/heals the heart. She is understood as an energy present in each being, all of existence – at the heart of matter: no need to look for an external saviour. When the ritual participants return from the “Underworld” with planted pots, the celebrant holds her pot up and affirms:

These represent our hope. The Seed of life never fades away. She is always present. Blessed be the Mother of all life. Blessed be the life that comes from Her and returns to Her (Livingstone 2005:245).[iii]

Like its Spring counterpoint which may express a “stepping into power” (Livingstone 2005:142), Autumn Equinox expresses this too, but it is stepping into the power of loss. Autumn Equinox may be a time for grieving our many losses: as individuals, as a culture, as Earth-Gaia.  And it may be felt as rage/anger, all of which may be expressed in ritual process. Participants may join Demeter – and any other Mother Goddess from around the globe – in Her grief/rage for all that has been lost. The Mother weeps and rages, the Daughter leaves courageously, the Old One beckons with Her Wisdom and promise of transformation; yet all three know each other deeply – are one relationship of Creativity – and share the unfathomable grief. But the revelation of this celebration of Persephone as Seed is that:

Everything lost is found again,

In a new form, in a new way.

Everything hurt is healed again,

In a new life, in a new day. (Starhawk 1989:103)

This redemption, the restoration of Beauty in the face of loss, is a role that any and all may take ~ as initiates into the Mysteries. It is a commissioning to tend the thread of continuity, of Care – a sacred quality. The comfort that the Seed offers, that the Beauty of the lost Beloved One will be restored, will reflower, is often expressed in present (patriarchal) cultural texts as hope for ever-lasting life – which may be expressed in Cosmic Maternal context  as the fact of never-ending renewal.

Glenys Livingstone 4Spring and Autumn Equinox rituals may express blessed Moments of harmony and balance – a sacred balance that streams through the grief and the ecstasy of Life – not in a duality, but in a trinity of embedded Maternal Creativity that enables all to come forth.

© Glenys Livingstone 2013

An essay based on Female Metaphor, Science and Paganism: a Cosmic Eco-Trinity as published in Indian Journal of Ecocriticism, Volume 3 August 2010, p.51-61. http://pagaiancosmology.com/articles/female-metaphor-science-and-paganism-a-cosmic-eco-trinity/


Austen, Hallie Iglehart. The Heart of the Goddess. Berkeley: Wingbow Press, 1990.

Gimbutas, Marija. The Living Goddesses. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1999.

_______________. The Language of the Goddess.  NY: HarperCollins, 1991.

Livingstone, Glenys. PaGaian Cosmology: Re-inventing Earth-based Goddess Religion. Lincoln NE: iUniverse, 2005.

Spretnak, Charlene. Lost Goddesses of Early Greece. Boston: Beacon Press, 1992.

_______________ (ed.) The Politics of Women’s Spirituality. NY: Doubleday, 1982.

Starhawk. The Spiral Dance: A Rebirth of the ancient Religion of the Great Goddess. NY: Harper and Row,1989.

[i] See Starhawk p.196.

[ii] there may also be other reasons for Her choice.

[iii] These words are in part from Starhawk  p.193.

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Donna Snyder

Thank you so much for this fascinating explanation of the significance and symbolism of both the vernal and autumnal equinox. Dr. Livingstone, you are a treasure.

Michael York

Beautifully and most refreshingly expressed. You reveal that positive spark that is at the heart of pagan paganism. Thank you.

Claire French

When I first realised that Australians celebrate Easter and Thanksgiving at the same date it came as a deep shock that made me cry. Now I understand this double celebration on the Southern Hemisphere much better and I am grateful for the great harmony it expresses.
Claire French, Melbourne


[…] a slightly edited essay by the author Glenys Livingstone from March 2013, published originally at Return to Mago  […]

One thought. I used to interpret Persephone’s first descent as her choice, but over many years I have come to see this initial descent of hers as one not made willingly. The abduction of the Maiden by Hades actually makes more sense to me because how realistic is it to think that a young girl would choose to leave her mother and the upper world willingly? After the first decent the choice to return is made by Persephone because she has become a Queen of the Underworld and can now move between the worlds of life and death. She has… Read more »
Glenys D. Livingstone

interesting Sara … I agree that there is a place for the unwilling descent story, because it happens all the time (though perhaps more frequently in a patriarchal dualistic world). Still … in the story of her willing descent, it is her youth that gives her courage and the desire to dare such a journey – to fix the world, or for desire to know it. It is also true that her returns to that world are not so naive as the first one …


Yes Glenys, I think there is room for both versions also because – and you nailed it – unwilling female descents are more the norm in patriarchal culture – sad to say. I do like the idea, especially for young women – of Persephone choosing the underworld of her own volition because we so desperately need models of courage that work for young women. There are so few of us writing about what our invisibility as women is doing not only to ourselves but to the culture at large. All of our voices count and I particularly like yours!

Ursula Rachel Medusa

Thank you for this much more complete look at the symbols and histories and herstories of equinox I feel the information esp of the descent and rebirth life-death-life is so important to remember beyond the soley Christian look in dominate culture provides. Nature her and his self is ever-changing in the cycle of the seasons and promises renewal and descent both of which facilitate out soul-growth:) Thank you*