Harvest moon and religious links to equinox

Sun at the equinox lights the burial chamber at Loughcrew
Sun at the equinox lights the burial chamber at Loughcrew

by Heather Elvidge

Don’t miss the moon as it rises on the 18th and 19th. This is the Harvest Moon, the full moon closest to the autumn equinox.

For several nights the moon will come up as the sun goes down, which was a boon to harvest workers in the days before farm machinery with headlights. They could work into the night while the moon illuminated the fields.

Harvest has always been a frantic scramble to beat the weather. In the past everyone — not just farmers and their workers — prayed for a successful harvest because the country depended on it.

Today we import nearly half of our fruit and vegetables. In 2012 we had to bring in wheat as well, because of the disastrous weather. Fortunately this year’s harvest has gone more or less to plan, although less wheat and oilseed rape was sown in the cold, wet winter and early spring. So although the grain is of better quality than last year’s, overall yields are down.

September was very kind until the wet and windy weather swept in. The sunny days brought a tremendous flush of moths and butterflies, especially small tortoiseshells. Hopefully there’ll be fine autumn days to come, with a few more butterflies.

Sun and stars

The autumn equinox, when day and night are approximately the same length, will occur on September 22. After this the nights will get longer, with indecent haste; but on the plus side, there are signs of better weather.

In the distant past, the equinoxes would have been more difficult to calculate than the solstices. Yet somehow our ancestors managed it, most likely by watching the rising and setting of the stars.

At Loughcrew, in the Republic of Ireland, there’s a 5,000-year-old burial mound where the sun shines in to illuminate carvings on the walls, only at the equinoxes. And in 2009, a 700-year-old Suffolk church revealed a forgotten wonder.

Holy Trinity in Barsham has a narrow little window high in its round tower. As it seemed to have no purpose, in 1870 the vicar hung a picture over it. By chance, it was discovered that at the equinox, a beam from the setting sun passes through this window and lights up the figure of Christ on the cross, high up in the rood screen. Now visitors pack the ancient church twice a year to witness this marvellous occurrence.

At the equinox we’re halfway between midsummer and midwinter. The night sky has an autumnal look as the three bright stars seen overhead in summer sink towards the west. The highest of these is Deneb in the constellation of Cygnus the Swan, also known as the Northern Cross. Cygnus stands at a “fork” in the Milky Way, and if you have binoculars, or even if you haven’t, this is an interesting area of 

Of the planets, Venus is brilliant low in the west-south-west. Above left of Venus is Saturn, and the two planets are drawing closer together this week. Early risers should look out for Jupiter, a fine sight high in the morning twilight.