Understanding the Summer Solstice
By Sarah Todd
As a Christian, I've always been interested in the Summer Solstice and the Pagan religion. I remember a horror film called "Spellbinder", and the climactic scene was based around the Summer Solstice.
Since the advent of Christianity some 2000 years ago, there is a view that ancient religions such as Paganism are inspired, controlled, or even led by Satan. Thus, solstice celebrations are rejected because they are viewed as Satanic in origin.
But this isn't a true reflection of an old religion.
All over the world and throughout history, the month of June has featured a number of religious and spiritual days, mostly linked to the Summer Solstice. Although people living in the Southern Hemisphere celebrate their summer solstice on December 21, the cultural and historical information about this date is still relevant.
At this point, I want to make an observation - Christianity has incorporated Midsummer into the calendar, observing the feast day of St. John the Baptist on June 24. It's thought that this is because Summer Solstice was a celebration of victory of sun and light on the longest day of the year over darkness and death. It's also the alleged date of St. John's death. Interestingly, it is directly opposite the feast day of the birth of Christ. St. John baptized Jesus and proclaimed him The Saviour, so this particular day is supposed to point to Jesus' triumph over death.
We now return to the traditions of this festival...
Summer Solstice is also called Litha or St. John's Day, and in Pagan times it was an important religious event. Tribes would gather to celebrate the longest day of the year. Whole communities would participate in the celebration, paying homage to nature and the planets.
Mother Earth was commemorated as "The Goddess", while "The God" was represented as the Sun King. The festivities were filled with colour - yellow for the harvest, green representing nature and blue for the sky. Some of the rituals that took place during the Summer Solstice are kept alive today by modern Pagan faiths. They include:
1. Staying up all night to welcome the rising sun at dawn.
2. Keeping a sacred fire burning all night.
3. Dancing around the sacred fire to the beat of drums.
4. Burning a Yule wreath in the sacred fire.
5. Making a promise to Mother Nature to do something to improve the environment.
6. Exchanging magical gifts with fellow Pagans.
7. Exchanging songs, stories and poems with other people.
Summer Solstice was celebrated by the Slavs, the Celts and many Germanic tribes, with massive bonfires as a main feature of the festivities. The Druids celebrated it as the marriage of Heaven and Earth.
Customs and rituals were performed all over Europe, and over time the Summer Solstice evolved into a night of fire festivals and love magic.
Oracles were consulted, predictions were made and spells were cast.
Midsummer Night became focused on lovers and fortune telling, commemorating the magic of the year's shortest night, nature, and the woods. A maiden could learn the identity of her future husband, a pair of lovers could leap through the bonfire flames to bring them luck and spirits and demons would be banished. Others leapt over the flames in the belief that the higher the leap, the taller the crops that year!
Customs to ensure the health and fertility of the land, domestic animals and humans were performed, and the church, the nobility and the peasants would join in the celebrations. Cities and towns marked the occasion with parades, plays and festivals in the market place.
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Adding to the celebration of nature and her gifts was the inclusion of herbal potions, water and brooks that were supposed to contain healing attributes. Water customs conducted during the Summer Solstice, such as cleaning and decorating fountains and wells, persist in many European cultures to this day. The Germanic tribes called this festival "Johannisnacht", and tell of the healing powers of a magical pool and a fern that blooms only at Midsummer. Herbs gathered at this time and specific foods like baked elder flower blossoms were also believed to be able to heal and bring health.
Here's more information about how ancient peoples observed the Summer Solstice:
Many remains of ancient stone structures can be found throughout Europe, apparently serving religious and astronomical purposes. These structures were built before writing was developed, so we can only speculate on the significance of the Summer Solstice to the builders. The most famous of these structures is Stonehenge, on Salisbury Plain in Wiltshire in the United Kingdom. It was built in three stages, between 3000 and 1500 BC. The main axis is aligned on the midsummer sunrise, an orientation that was probably for ritual rather than scientific purposes. Four "station stones" form a rectangle whose shorter side points in the direction of the midsummer sunrise.
Their Summer Solstice ceremony celebrated the earth, the feminine and the yin forces, complimenting the Winter Solstice which celebrated the heavens, masculinity and yang forces.
The Midsummer celebration was called Feast of Epona, named for a mare goddess who personified fertility, sovereignty and agriculture. She was portrayed as a woman riding a mare.
The festival of Vestalia lasted from June 7 to June 15, in honour of the Roman Goddess of the Hearth, Vesta. Married women were able to enter the Shrine of Vesta during the festival. At other times of the year, only vestal virgins were permitted inside.
Each town set up and decorated a Midsummer tree, around which the villagers would dance. Women and girls would customarily bathe in the local river, a magical ritual, intended to bring rain for the crops.
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The Natchez tribe worshipped the sun and believed their ruler was descended from him. Every summer they held a first fruits ceremony. Nobody was allowed to harvest the corn until after the feast. Males in the Hopi tribe dressed up as Kachinas - the dancing spirits of rain and fertility who were messengers between humanity and the Gods. At Midsummer the Kachinas were believed to leave the villages to spend the next six months in the mountains, visiting the dead underground and holding ceremonies on their behalf.
This group of religions conducts ancient Pagan ceremonies. Of these, Wicca is the most common. Loosely based on ancient Celtic beliefs and practices, Wiccans recognize eight seasonal days of celebration, called "sabbats". The Summer Solstice sabbat is often called Midsummer or Litha. Wiccans may celebrate the sabbat on the evening before, at sunrise on the morning of the solstice, or at the exact time of the astronomical event.
In conclusion it would seem that the modern media and Hollywood has turned an ancient celebration of nature into a macabre, sinister ritualistic period. Solstice is a celebration of our world and the power and wonder of nature. What is so evil or satanic about that?
About the author - Sarah Todd was born in Africa and lived there for the first 38 years of her life. She worked in public relations for more than five years, running her own PR company and dealing extensively with the world of journalism and the print media.
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