On June 21st 2013, more than 21,000 people gathered at Stonehenge to celebrate the midsummer solstice. It may well be that the plans to renovate the site swelled the ranks, but the number of people turning up each year to mark the event has been steadily growing. But what’s all the fuss about – and how to these people mark the midsummer solstice?
More than Daylight
Most people are aware that the midsummer solstice marks the longest day; there are more hours of daylight on this day than on any other. Once the solstice has passed, we lose daylight by around one minute per day, as the scales tip and we move steadily into winter. Even the name ‘solstice’ references the position of the sun in the sky: ‘sol’ means ‘sun’ and ‘stice’ means ‘stands still’. This refers to the way the sun appears to hang in the sky on that day, apparently not moving or following its usual path. However, there’s a bit more to celebrating the solstice than just marking the extra daylight.
The Ancient Greeks used this day to honour Cronus, the god of agriculture. The Festival of Kronia was marked with feasts and games, to ask for the god’s blessing in the summer months ahead and for protection in the subsequent winter months. As ever, there was a practical edge to the festivities; this was all about farming and getting Cronus to extend his gaze over crops and livestock, to ensure good yield. However, it was also the day on which all men were considered to be equal and slaves were permitted to join in the revelries and compete in the games.
Romans and South Americans
The Romans, too, enjoyed a good party and their calendar was littered with celebrations. They, too, used the solstice to ask their gods to lend a celestial hand in the farming side of things, but their requests centred around fertility. This was reflected in the practice of allowing the men folk – on that day only – to enter the temple of Vestalia and make offerings to the goddess, Vesta, who watched over the home. Their hope was that the goddess would offer them protection and, for newlyweds or those trying for a child, increase the man’s potency, virility and fertility.
In South America, the Ancient Mayans and the Aztecs took advantage of the sun’s position and used the day to build structures that were physically central to their temples and places of worship. By building on this day, they could be sure that the shadows cast by certain structures would align perfectly on both the midsummer and winter solstices. It is thought that the Ancient Celts, who built Stonehenge, may have followed a similar approach – although quite how the standing stones were erected is still unknown.
The Ancient Pagans
For the Pagans, the solstice marks the perceived journey of the sun as a Wheel of Life. At midsummer, the levels and potency of psychic energy are thought to be particularly high and herb magic was practiced. Today, you can see revellers decked in garlands of flowers and herbs. What they may or may not know is that certain herbs are more prone to flowering at this time of year and were used to ward of evil spirits and keep negative energies at bay. One of these plants was St John’s Wort – a plant that we now know has beneficial properties in the battle against certain mental conditions, such as depression. In addition, herbs and flowers were burnt on huge bonfires; the heady aromas and smoke they produced were also believed to have healing and protective properties.
In most cultures, the midsummer solstice has a story associated with it. For the Ancient Celts, it was more than just about farming: their mythology tells of The Goddess taking over reign of the Earth from the Horned King. The Goddess is an exceptionally fertile character, whose life-giving properties are synonymous with the power of the sun. Conversely, the Horned King is a cold and sterile figure, who is associated with death and dormancy; the conditions we experience in the winter months. The story is an allegory for the coming of the summer and the passing of winter and the two central characters are also known by other names, such as the Oak King and the Holly King. Other facets of Paganism see the midsummer solstice as a wedding between the powers of Heaven and Earth. Regardless of the cultures involved, the themes are much the same; the cyclical battle between light and dark, fire and ice and life and death. For the Chinese, the midsummer solstice is a festival of yin, celebrating femininity, fertility and – in accordance with the Ancient Celts – the Earth itself.
From Bonfires to Twitter
Bearing this in mind, it’s not uncommon to see many Pagan weddings or ‘handfasting’ ceremonies taking place at this time of year. With the Goddess bestowing her blessings of fertility, believers take the opportunity to wed on this day and boost their chances of having children. Handfasting takes place at Stonehenge, adding further jubilance to the celebrations and newlyweds often walk through the smoke of herb-strewn bonfires in an effort to cleanse themselves of any negative influences and embark on their journey through life together, reborn from any problems in the past.
Interestingly, psychologists have come up with another reason why we might choose this day to kick back and party. Links between the amount and quality of sunshine we receive and our levels of happiness are still being correlated, but it seems that the sunnier it is, the happier we are. Research has also involved studying social networking sites; in 2011, a group of researchers decided to monitor the Tweets of 2.4million Twitter users, over a two-year period. Among their findings was the discovery that, as the levels of sunlight increase, so too did the positivity of the users’ broadcasts. In short, by the time the midsummer solstice comes around, we’re approaching a natural peak in positivity and it seems only right that we should let it out, by celebrating the natural world around us.