The Summer Solstice marks the longest day and the shortest night of the year. The sun reaches its highest point in the sky as we enjoy over sixteen hours of daylight. The term solstice comes from the Latin word solstitium, with sol meaning “the sun” and sistere meaning “to make stand.” Today the term solstice is used to describe the exact moment when the sun reaches its northernmost point ( around 21 June) or its southernmost point (around 21 December) from the earth’s equator.
Summer Solstice celebrations have their roots deeply imbedded in Neolithic times and both tombs and circles were built in alignment with the rising and setting sun at this time of year. The Druids of the Iron Age called this day Alban Heruin meaning “the light of the shore” and it is also referred to as Midsummer or Litha, an Anglo Saxon word meaning calm and gentle. Probably referencing the beautiful Summer weather.
Some Pagans believe that the Goddess is heavily pregnant at this time and that the God is at the height of his virility. They form the perfect union surrounded by a bountiful earth awash with colour and scent.
Traditionally, people would stay up all night on Midsummer’s Eve so that they could welcome the rising sun. Bonfires were lit on top of hills and the wood they chose to burn was often oak. They danced around the flames, sang, cut divining rods and leapt over the fires and burning embers. These ritualistic fires were lit to invoke good luck, fertility, purity and protection from disease and evil spirits for example.
It was common for courting couples to hold hands and jump over the embers of the Litha fire three times to ensure a long and happy marriage, health, prosperity and many children. Young men jumped over them to prove their courage and strength and young women jumped over the cooling embers to attract a husband and to help with their fertility.
The charred embers possessed protective powers and were made into charms to protect against things such as injuries and were commonly scattered in fields and orchards to protect and encourage abundant crops.
Cattle were guided through the embers too while their backs were singed with a burning hazel twig. Burning gorse or furze was carried around the cattle to bless them and protect them from misfortune.
People would also scatter the embers around their homes for protection, as well as placing them in the hearth. Some people even lit hazel sticks from the bonfire and raced one another back home; the first one to get there would be blessed with prosperity for the coming year.
In Ireland the oldest woman in the community would circle the fire reciting prayers of protection and houses were decorated with birch, fennel, St John’s Wort and white lillies.
The Celts depicted the sun as a spoked wheel and would bind wooden cart wheels with straw, set them on fire and then roll them down the side of a steep hill. For them this symbolized the turning of the year. It was believed that if the wheel was still alight at the bottom of the hill then a good harvest would follow.
The full moon of June is traditionally called the Honey Moon named after the mead drink that is readily available at this time of year. This was often part of hand fasting ceremonies performed on the Summer Solstice. Mead was regarded as the divine solar drink which was believed to contain magickal and life restoring properties.
Mistletoe was revered by the Druids and was regarded as particularly potent when it grew on an oak tree. Although we associate mistletoe with the Winter Solstice, it was often gathered ceremoniously at Midsummer when it was considered to be at the height of its power. The cuttings would have then been made into protective amulets. Their festivities and rituals would not have taken place at Stonehenge as many people are led to believe. There is no historical evidence that Druids had a connection with Stonehenge, however, modern day Druids still gather at the megalithic stone circle for the Solstices and Equinoxes.
Tree worship has always played an important role in the Midsummer festivities and trees that were found near wells and springs were often decorated with torn pieces of cloth that were soaked in the healing waters. It was believed that when the pieces of cloth disintegrated completely then the malady that they represented was cured.
In some areas of Ancient Greece the Summer Solstice was seen as the first day of the year and a festival called Cronia was held at this time in honour of the agricultural God Cronus . During these wild celebrations, slaves were allowed to swap places with their masters and were treated as equals. The Summer Solstice also counted down the four weeks before the start of the Olympic Games.
In the days leading up to the Summer Solstice, the Romans celebrated the festival of Vestalia (the public hearth). It was a festival that honoured the Goddess Vesta which included her shrine being ritually cleansed. This was the only time of year that married women were permitted entrance into the sacred temple of the Vestal Virgins to make an offering to the Goddess.
Midsummer was an extremely important time for the Vikings who would already be taking advantage of the milder calmer weather going off in search of land and wealth. For the ancient Norse who stayed behind they would be gathering to discuss legal matters and resolving disputes. Scandinavian and Germanic tribes would also have built huge bonfires and visited healing springs.
If you know of any European traditions or folklore associated with the Summer Solstice then I would love you to share them.