Modification Around the World: Ritual Piercing and the Autumnal EquinoxBy
Many cultures around the world celebrate the Autumnal equinox. The phrase itself is taken from Latin and roughly translates to “equal night,” a reference to the near equality of the day and nighttime hours on the day it’s celebrated. In other cultures and religious groups, this holiday can go by many names, including Mabon, Harvest Home, Michaelmas, Alban Elfed, Second Harvest, and the Feast of Avilon. What’s far more interesting though is the ways in which this ancient festival is celebrated, particularly amongst those that still advocate a tribal or more naturally connected existence.
Amongst the Australian Aboriginal tribes for example, communal gatherings and feasts may be held which include the passing on of the tribal histories and traditions orally. Since the rights of passage for male members of the tribe are celebrated in ceremony as something akin to the death of a child and his rebirth as a man, this type of ceremony is often held during the equinoxes or what would constitute harvest celebrations. In many of these rituals, the young man will be pierced at some point, either through the ear, or the nasal septum, as blood in Aboriginal cultures is seen as a source of strength, knowledge, and vitality.
For many neo-pagans, particularly those in the United States and UK, piercing, tattooing, or ritual suspension may likewise be used to celebrate the coming of Autumn. For Wiccans and other pagan groups, the equinox is often seen not only as a celebration of the abundance of second harvest, but also of the duality of nature, death that will lead to rebirth. In England, celebrations are held in mass at Stonehenge, where the ancient monument has been created to align with the sun during Vernal and Autumnal equinoxes. For spiritual reasons, modifications may be performed out in nature, perhaps even in a place considered sacred in the pre-dating Celtic or Anglo-Saxon traditions. As this is a time to observe the cyclical nature of the universe, it has also been thought of by some as an auspicious time to retire piercings already in existence, or begin the process of removing or covering a tattoo.
Other cultures still may celebrate by cleaning and decorating the graves of the ancestors, as in Japan during the festival of Higan, or by burning a corn doll or “corn maiden” made from the last sheaf to be harvested, as in parts of Scotland. This latter ritual is meant to symbolize the sacrifice of a vegetation spirit, and was known to be celebrated by the Celts in the form of a larger wicker figure. The concept has also been reinvented in the US via the performance, music, and arts festival known as Burning Man. Even certain Native American groups have historically celebrated the September equinox with ceremonies honoring the sun and promoting tribal unity, which often included tattoo-like decoration of the body using fruit pigments or ashes.
Although the methods of celebration may be imaginative and diverse, it seems that every culture agrees on one simple thing: the beginning of Autumn is a great time for decorating the body.