Each year at around June 21st, the sun reaches its highest point in the sky and appears to hang there. It is the longest day of the year and marks the slow decline of daylight hours and a whisper of the onset of winter. This is the summer solstice, a day that has been worshipped by various civilisations and faith systems since we were able to mark the passage of the sun through the sky. Practically every culture has their own version of the solstice, but the one that has most captured the imagination and the spirit of the celebration must belong to the Ancient Pagans.
A Major Celestial Event
For the Ancient Pagans the summer solstice was a major celestial event. The word itself explains just how significant it was to their world: ‘solstice’ is taken from the Latin to mean ‘sun stands still’. As part of the celebrations, bonfires were lit in the belief that the heat from the flames would somehow add potency to the sun’s own heat, increasing its energy throughout the coming agricultural season and guarantee a good harvest. Interestingly, the Chinese worship this day with celebrations in honour of Li, the Chinese Goddess of Light.
Think solstice and your mind will inevitably conjure up images of Stonehenge. Stonehenge was – and still is – an incredibly important part of solstice celebrations. The standing stones were constructed so that the sun lit up certain stones at various points in its journey through the sky. Although we have no real idea what rites were carried out on this site in times gone by, modern Pagans still gather at the stones and conduct their own rituals to welcome the sun in all its glory.
What is known, however, is that the Ancient Pagans saw the solstice as the day on which the Goddess of the Earth married the God of the Sky, giving rise to the popular superstition that June is a ‘lucky’ month in which to get married. In addition, they believed that the first and only full moon in June, known as the ‘Honey Moon’, was the best time to gather honey from beehives. This honey was used to make Mead; an alcoholic drink used in handfasting (Pagan wedding) ceremonies in the same month.
The Dangers of the Solstice
However, the summer solstice wasn’t without its own associated risks. At this time, as the barriers between the Earth and the Underworld became less solid, evil spirits were thought to wander abroad, looking to scupper anyone’s chances of prosperity. Consequently, many revellers wore garlands of St John’s Wort – known then as ‘chase-devil’ – to ward off these malign creatures. This was one of many herbs that were coming into bloom at the time, so the summer solstice was also a time for magic, generally of a protective or beneficial nature. Herbs were burnt in ceremonial bonfires and the smoke inhaled to ensure fertility between couples. In addition, livestock was also driven through the smoke to both protect them against dark forces and, again, to ensure their fertility and health.
However, it seems that many of the rituals and celebrations used by modern Pagans might not have their roots in Britain. Gerald Gardner, the founder of modern Wicca, believes that many of the traditions associated with the summer solstice actually have their origins in Europe and the Middle East.
For example, the significance of the bonfires is thought to be attributed to the Scandinavians who subsequently invaded the UK. For them, the longest day was of huge importance because it marked their emergence from six months of cold and darkness and the potential for a good summer. Similarly, the concept of the God and the Goddess, polar opposites who unite to create balance and harmony is thought to have its beginnings in Taoist philosophy; the yin and yang.
A Time for Mourning?
The Norse mythology surrounding the solstice has also had some influence on the Pagans in Britain. According to the Viking myths, the summer solstice marks the time in which Baldur, the god of light, is restored to the Earth. The story tells how Baldur was expected to live out his time in the Underworld, until the final reckoning of Ragnarok. However, Hel, the guardian of the Underworld, was so moved by the tears of Baldur’s mother that she allowed Oestara, the Goddess of Spring, to restore him to the Earth for six months of each year. This falls in with some of the stories surrounding the summer solstice, primarily the one in which Bel, the Celtic sun god, is released from his otherworldly prison or sleep, to restore warmth and fertility to the planet.
However, as much as the solstice was a time for celebration, it was also a time for mourning. While there was the warmth of the sun to help crops grow and livestock reproduce, it also marked the beginnings of shorter days and the inevitable passage towards the colder seasons. As a result, some branches of the Pagan faith also include symbolic funerals.
One such tradition involves the building of a straw effigy covered with flowers. Prospective brides and grooms would carry this effigy and leap through bonfires to encourage their chances of finding a partner. However, the following day, this effigy was often drawn through the streets in an open coffin, symbolising the death of the summer. Other Pagans actually tore the effigy apart, before dumping its remains in a nearby stream or river.
The summer solstice is an important part of the Pagan calendar, known as the Wheel of the Year. However, while many of its traditions centre on magic, myths and revelry, it was primarily a practical celebration based on ensuring the longevity of livestock, crops and the future of the family. While many of those aspects are absent from 21st Century Paganism, the rituals they carry out today are still reflective of the way that the ancients used to live their lives.
The summer solstice might not appear to have any practical significance in the modern world, but the values it upholds are as much a part of the Pagan existence as they were hundreds of years ago.