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The summer solstice is observed on either June 21 or June 22 of each year in the Northern Hemisphere. And, on December 21 or 22 in the Southern Hemisphere.  Today, the observation isn't as popular as it was in ancient times throughout Europe, the British Isles, China, Egypt, North Africa and Scandinavia.

What does the summer solstice mean?  It is the day when the sun is at it's furthest point from the equator, resulting in the longest day of the year depending on which hemisphere you live in.    The word "solstice" originates from the Latin word solstitium which means "sun-stopping."  This is because, the point in the sky where the sun appears to rise and set, well it stops...then reverses direction after this day. Interesting, huh? 

This just fascinated the ancients!  Many celebrations took place on the summer solstice. The oldest one we know of took place in Egypt.  At the Temple of Amen-Ra in Karnak back in 3700 B.C. (on the solstice) a beam of light would illuminate a sanctuary in this temple's interior for about 2 or 3 minutes.  This brightness would reach a peak and then start to subside.  This spotlighting effect was so dramatic that the priests were able to calculate the length of the solar year with a high degree of accuracy.

Then we have the ever popular Stonehenge in the Wiltshire plain of southwest England. This was built around 2800 B.C.E. by pre-Celtic people over a lengthy period of time. Most of us have either seen Stonehenge in person or in photos.  It is made up of very large stone arches. Ancient tribes throughout Europe gathered here on the Summer Solstice. Why? If you stand in the center and face northeast along it's axis, the 35-ton Heel Stone appears 256 feet away, making the approximate place on the horizon where the sun rises on the Summer Solstice. Astronomers recently have also discovered approximately 2 dozen other solar and lunar alignments that the ancients incorporated into the Stonehenge structure. It's actual purpose is still be debated among astronomers and archeologists today.

The Chinese emperors of the past also observed the Summer Solstice. Their purpose was to stimulate the earthy, female yin forces.  These rituals took place in The Forbidden City on the Altar of the Earth. Unlike the Round Mound (used for the Winter Solstice), this altar was square and had a staircase leading North, South, East and West.  The Chinese did a human sacrifice as part of their ritual for the Summer Solstice also.  The sacrificial victim was burned for the Winter Solstice. But the Summer Solstice sacrificial victim was buried. They believed by doing this, they were maintaining a healthy balance in the earth's natural rhythms. 

The Winter Solstice is an occasion that is filled with hope, because the days begin to grow longer. But the Summer Solstice is just the opposite.  It is filled with sadness, because the days begin to get shorter and filled with more darkness.  Ironically, it is also a time for more warmth, abundance and fertility.  

Christmas and New Years celebrations can be found  in the Winter Solstice and still are observed today in some form. But, the ancient Summer Solstice rites have disappeared in society today.  In the United States a few "New Age" groups still observe the Summer Solstice.  The largest celebration in the United States is in Belfast, Maine.  The Institute for Advanced Thinking (aka The World's Oldest Think Tank) has people coming from as many as 20 different states and 5 countries to camp out in tents and sleeping bags and rise at dawn to greet and worship the sun with prayers and ritual chants.

SYMBOLS and CUSTOMS

Bonfires have always been a part of ancient rituals.  Lighting a bonfire is one of the most universal observances  for the Summer Solstice, mostly in the Northern Hemisphere today.

In Denmark and Norway, they believed that the fires prevented their cattle from being struck by disease.  The Germans looked at the fires through larkspur branches, believing that by doing this it would keep their eyes healthy.  In Scotland, cowherds would walk around their cattle three times carrying burning torches.  They felt by doing this it would purify and protect their animals.

But, bonfires weren't just for protection.  Many were associated with fertility and courtship.  In Bohemia, girls and boys stood on opposite sides of the fire and look at one another through handmade wreaths.  This was to see whether or not they would be true to each other and who would marry whom.  Afterwards, the girls would toss their wreaths across the flames toward their sweethearts.  The singed wreaths were then taken home afterwards and kept in the house.  Why? They felt this offered protection from illness and thunderstorms throughout the year.  When the fire had burned down a little, the couples would then join hands and leap across the embers three times.

In Spain, people still build a bonfire and light it at 6:00 pm on Midsummer Eve. This is done in San Pedro Manrique. Then at midnight, they spread it's coals into a carpet and walk barefoot across the glowing path carrying another person on his/her back.  

In North Africa, you also see Midsummer bonfires, even though the Islamic calendar is lunar there and independent of the seasons.  Therefore, to some this suggests that the lighting of bonfires is even older than the arrival of Islam.

When to gather herbs?  It was considered the best to do it during the solstice because the herbs would then cure diseases and protect against evil. The Christian church tried to draw attention away from some of these ancient Summer Solstice practices by making June 24th Saint John the Baptist Day.  These herbs then became known as "St. John's Herbs." In France, mugwort is known as the "herb of St. John" -- showing a clear attempt to Christianize an old pagan herbal remedy.

Mugwort was gathered at the solstice and made into garlands. Herbalists still today use mugwort to cure rheumatism, fevers and ague.  When mugwort is sewn into a pillow it is said to induce vivid dreams.

Verbena, also known as vervain, was gathered after sunset on Midsummer's Eve and soaked overnight in water, or dried and worn around the neck. It was believed to strengthen the nervous system and relieve stress.  It was used as an aphrodisiac by the ancients also.

St. John's Wort blooms around the time of the Summer Solstice.  It produces masses of bright yellow flowers that resemble the sun.  It's oil today is used to help relieve sunburn. The ancients also felt that one whiff of this would send evil spirits running in the opposite direction.

Hawkwee or Mouse-ear is a herb that the ancients believed contained the blood of St. John. It had a milky, reddish juice that they also felt was a good remedy for whooping cough and any respiratory disease.

On Midsummer's Eve at midnight, the ancients also believed that ferns bloomed.  Whoever got to see this take place would be endowed with miraculous knowledge and power. But,.... if the magical flower was touched by a human hand, all this would vanish instantly!!!

Many herbs are associated with the Summer Solstice.  Some of them are chamomile, geranium, thyme, rue, chervil seed, giant fennel and pennyroyal.  All of these were prized for their aromas when tossed into bonfires.

So why is June the most popular month for weddings? Is it due to good weather? Not really. The ancients felt that because the Summer Solstice marked the peak of the summer season, it also marked fertility and sexuality!  It was usually during this time that many participated in symbolic marriage ceremonies.

In Sweden, each village chose a Midsummer Bride, who then selected a mock-bridesgroom.  Young men from the village also took advantage of the season to choose temporary brides. 

In Sardinia, the summer solstice couples were called "Sweethearts of St. John," and the celebration involved pots of sprouting wheat and barley that symbolized a Link between human sexuality and the fertility of nature.

But, these marriage rituals were not just play-acting. Their purpose was to make the crops grow and the flowers to bloom.  The ancients also felt that sexual intercourse (human) created a harmonizing effect on nature and society.  This influence was especially needed at the solstices, when Heaven and Earth were at their most extremes

Since the Summer Solstice was the point where they days were now going to get shorter and darker, many of the ancient rites intentions were to postpone the sun's decline by celebrating life and fertility; or, to mourn it's passing.  So, not only was midsummer a time for weddings, ironically it was also popular for funerals.  

In Tsarist Russia, they celebrated midsummer by dressing a straw man in women's clothing and decorating it with a crown of flowers.  Then young people would take this effigy in their arms and leap over a bonfire. The next day the effigy would be stripped and thrown into a river or stream. In some areas, the straw figure would be attacked and torn to shreds. Then it's death would be loudly mourned.  Sometimes this effigy was carried in a coffin through the streets.

The purpose of this mock funeral was to mourn the death of the sun and the beginning of the cycle of decay in the natural world.  Weddings and funerals were both seen as moments of transformation, when energy was released and Heaven and Earth were momentarily reunited.

Return to our June Holidays Page for more celebrations.

Source of Information:
"Holidays, Symbols & Customs  3rd Edition"
By Sue Ellen Thompson
Omnigraphics, Inc. 2003

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