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Date of Observation: June 21 or 22 in the Northern Hemisphere; December 21 or 22 in the Southern Hemisphere
Where Celebrated: Modern observances of the Summer Solstice are rare, but in ancient times it was observed throughout Europe, the British Isles, China, Egypt, North Africa, and Scandinavia.
Symbols and Customs: Bonfires, Herbs, Midsummer Bride, Mock Funerals
Related Holidays: Beltane, Imbolc, Incwala, Inti Raymi Festival, Lughnasa, Mabon, Midsummer Day, Samhain, Sun Dance, Winter Solstice, Vernal Equinox
Few celebrations can be traced back as far as the Summer Solstice, the day when the sun is at its furthest point from the equator. It reaches its northernmost point around June 21, which is the longest day of the year for those living north of the equator, and its southernmost point around December 22, which is the longest day for those living in the Southern Hemisphere. The word "solstice" comes from the Latin solstitium meaning "sun-stopping," because the point in the sky where the sun appears to rise and set stops and reverses direction after this day.
The Summer Solstice marks the changing of the seasons, which people in all parts of the world have honored since ancient times.. Many cultures divided the year into two seasons, summer and winter, and marked these points of the year at or near the summer and winter solstices, during which light and warmth began to increase and decrease, respectively. In pre-industrial times, humans survived through hunting, gathering, and agricultural practices, which depend on the natural cycle of seasons, according to the climate in the region of the world in which they lived. Thus, they created rituals to help ensure enough rain and sun in the spring and summer so crops would grow to fruition at harvest time, which was, in turn, duly celebrated. Vestiges of many of these ancient practices are thought to have survived in festivals still celebrated around seasonal themes.
One of the oldest celebrations of the Summer Solstice took place in ancient Egypt at the Temple of Amen-Ra at Karnak, whose foundations date back to about 3700 B . C . E . On the day of the solstice, a beam of light would illuminate a sanctuary in the temple's interior for about two to three minutes, during which the brightness would reach a peak and then begin to subside. This dramatic spotlighting effect enabled the Egyptian priests to calculate the length of the solar year with a high degree of accuracy.
A similar phenomenon was observed at Stonehenge in the Wiltshire plain of southwest England. Built by pre-Celtic peoples over a period of many centuries, beginning around 2800 B . C . E ., this ancient monument composed of enormous stone arches was a gathering place for ancient tribes throughout southern England at the time of the Summer Solstice. If one stands at the center of the monument and faces northeast along its axis, the thirty-five-ton Heel Stone appears 256 feet away, marking the approximate place on the horizon where the sun rises on the Summer Solstice. In recent years, astronomers have discovered at least two dozen other solar and lunar alignments that the ancient builders of Stonehenge incorporated into its structure.
The earliest Chinese emperors observed the Summer Solstice in ways designed to stimulate the earthy, feminine yin forces. The solstice rites took place on the Altar of the Earth just north of the Forbidden City. Unlike the Round Mound used to observe the WINTER SOLSTICE, the altar was square and had a stairway leading in each of the four cardinal directions (north, south, east, and west). While the human sacrifice that took place at the WINTER SOLSTICE was burned, in summer the sacrificial victim was buried, thus maintaining a healthy balance in the earth's natural rhythms.
If the WINTER SOLSTICE is an occasion for hope, when the days begin to grow longer, the Summer Solstice is often tinged with sadness. Although it is a time of warmth, abundance, and fertility, when the days are long and nature is at her peak, it is also the point after which the days begin to get shorter and the darkness increases. While WINTER SOLSTICE traditions can still be found in modern CHRISTMAS and NEW YEAR'S DAY celebrations, the ancient Summer Solstice rites have largely disappeared.
One exception is related to the modern Neopagan and Wiccan movements, which emerged during the 1960s in Great Britain, the United States, and other Englishspeaking countries. They follow a nature-oriented religion loosely linked to ancient Celtic and other beliefs and inspired by old European folk practices. They celebrate eight sabbats, known as the eight spokes of the wheel of the year, which include SUMMER SOLSTICE, WINTER SOLSTICE, VERNAL EQUINOX, BELTANE, SAMHAIN, IMBOLC, LUGHNASA, and MABON. At the time of the Summer Solstice, Neopagans and Wiccans gather to celebrate at Stonehenge.
SYMBOLS AND CUSTOMS
Lighting bonfires was one of the most universal of ancient midsummer rites-one that still survives in some northern European countries. In Denmark and Norway, the fires were believed to prevent cattle from being struck by disease. The Germans looked into the fire through branches of larkspur in the belief that this would keep their eyes healthy. In Scotland, cowherds walked around their cattle three times carrying burning torches in order to purify and protect the animals.
Solstice bonfires were also associated with fertility and courtship. In Bohemia, girls and boys would stand on opposite sides of the fire and look at one another through wreaths they'd made to see whether they would be true to one another and who would marry whom. Then the girls would throw their wreaths across the flames toward their sweethearts. The singed wreaths were taken home afterward and kept in the house, in the belief that they offered protection from illness and thunderstorms throughout the year. When the fire had burned down a little, the couples would join hands and leap across the embers three times.
At San Pedro Manrique in Spain, people still build a bonfire and light it at six o'clock on Midsummer Eve. At midnight, they spread its coals into a carpet and walk barefoot across the glowing path, each carrying another person on his or her back. Midsummer bonfires are also common in North Africa, even though the Islamic calendar is lunar and therefore independent of the seasons. This would seem to suggest that the custom of lighting fires is even older than the arrival of Islam.
The solstice was considered one of the best times of year to gather the herbs that would cure diseases and offer protection against evil. When the Christian Church tried to draw attention away from the pagan rites of the solstice by making June 24 St. John the Baptist's Day, these herbs were referred to as "St. John's herbs."
Mugwort was gathered at the solstice and made into garlands. Herbalists still use mugwort to cure rheumatism, fevers, and ague. When sewn into a pillow, its dried leaves are said to induce vivid dreams. In France, mugwort is known as the "herb of St. John"-a clear attempt to Christianize an old pagan remedy.
Verbena, also referred to as vervain, was gathered after sunset on Midsummer Eve and soaked overnight in water, or dried and worn around the neck. It was highly valued for its ability to strengthen the nervous system and relieve stress. The ancients used it as an aphrodisiac.
St. John's wort blooms around the time of the Summer Solstice, putting out masses of bright yellow flowers that resemble the sun. Its oil is still used to relieve sunburn, and the ancients believed that one whiff of this strong-scented plant would send evil spirits running.
Among Christians, Hawkweed or Mouse-ear root was believed to contain the blood of St. John. But the ancients valued the milky, reddish juice of the plant as a remedy for whooping cough and respiratory diseases. Ancient peoples believed that ferns bloomed at midnight on Midsummer Eve. Whoever saw the blooming take place would be endowed with miraculous knowledge and power. But if the magical flower was touched by a human hand, it would vanish instantly.
Other herbs associated with the Summer Solstice and midsummer in general include chamomile, geranium, thyme, rue, chervil seed, giant fennel, and pennyroyal, all of which were prized for the aromas they gave off when they were thrown on BONFIRES .
Because it marked the peak of the summer season, the solstice was associated with fertility and sexuality. Even today, June remains the most popular month for weddings, although most people know nothing about the ancient ceremonies involving symbolic marriage that once took place at midsummer.
In Sweden, each village chose a Midsummer Bride, who in turn selected a mockbridegroom. Young men of the village also took advantage of the season to choose temporary brides. In Sardinia, these summer solstice couples were known as "Sweethearts of St. John," and the celebration featured pots of sprouting wheat and barley that suggested a symbolic link between human sexuality and the fertility of nature.
These marriage rituals were more than play-acting; they were designed to make the crops grow and the flowers bloom. The ancients believed that human sexual intercourse exercised a harmonizing influence on nature and society-an influence that was particularly needed at the solstices, when Heaven and Earth were at their extremes.
The Summer Solstice was the point after which the days grew shorter and the light declined. Many of the ancient rites that took place at the solstice were designed to postpone the sun's decline by celebrating life and fertility, or to mourn its passing. Midsummer was therefore a popular time for both weddings (see MIDSUMMER BRIDE ) and funerals. In Tsarist Russia, midsummer was celebrated by dressing a straw man in women's clothes and decorating it with a crown of flowers. Young people would take this effigy in their arms and leap over a bonfire; on the following day, it would be stripped and thrown into a stream. In some areas, the straw figure was attacked and torn to bits, after which its "death" would be loudly mourned. Sometimes it was carried in a coffin through the streets.
The point of these mock-funeral rites was to mourn the "death" of the sun and the beginning of the cycle of decay in the natural world. Both weddings and funerals were seen as moments of transformation, when energy was released and Heaven and Earth were momentarily reunited.
Frazer, Sir James G. The Golden Bough: A Study in Magic and Religion. New York: Macmillan, 1931. Heinberg, Richard. Celebrate the Solstice: Honoring the Earth's Seasonal Rhythms through Festival and Ceremony. Wheaton, IL: Quest Books, 1993. Henderson, Helene, ed. Holidays, Festivals, and Celebrations of the World Dictionary. 3rd ed. Detroit: Omnigraphics, 2005. King, John. The Celtic Druids' Year: Seasonal Cycles of the Ancient Celts. London: Blandford, 1995.
BBC (British Broadcasting Corporation) www.bbc.co.uk/religion/religions/paganism/holydays/summersolstice.shtml
Summer Solstice(religion, spiritualism, and occult)
One of the Lesser Sabbats on the Wiccan calendar, the Summer Solstice falls on or about June 21, depending upon when the sun enters Cancer. This was originally a fire festival throughout most of Europe, although Janet and Stewart Farrar point out that it was late developing as such in Celtic countries, since they were not originally solar oriented.
Other names used for the Summer Solstice are St. John's Eve, Alban Hefin, and Litha. It is the time when the sun is at its zenith, giving the longest day of the year. This sabbat marks the end of the reign of the Oak King and the start of that of the Holly King.
summer solstice[′səm·ər ′säl·stəs]
Although it was very common to celebrate the summer solstice in ancient times, modern American observations are comparatively rare. But there are a number of solstice observances held by New Age and Neopagan groups throughout the United States.
See also Capac Raymi; Doan Ngu; Druids' Summer Solstice Ceremony; Midnight Sun Festival; Midsummer Day; Ysyakh
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BkFest-1937, p. 136
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DictFolkMyth-1984, p. 1032
FestSaintDays-1915, p. 4
FestWestEur-1958, p. 68