Wednesday, June 20, 2012

History of the Summer Solstice

The History of Summer Solstice - The exact summer solstice date varies from year to year, but lands somewhere between the 20th and 24th of June. This is the day the sun reaches its apex resulting in the longest day of the year and the shortest night. The time of year is said to be magical and spiritual to many countries and religions.
The mysticism of Stonehenge on Salisbury Plain in England began thousands of years ago. Who actually built the monoliths is uncertain, but Druids and Pagans worshipped among the giant stones and continue to do so today. Christians often incorporated Pagan holidays into the Christian calendar, so it is no accident that the Feast of St. John the Baptist, June 24th, occurs during the summer solstice.

Summer solstice traditions center on the life-giving force of fire and light. Some countries light huge bonfires that glow into the night as a way to celebrate. The Midsummer fires came to be known as St. John’s fires. Villagers gathered around the fires singing, dancing and chanting charms. As the fires burned through the night, people tended and watched over the leaping flames.
A brief history of Litha, ways in which it is celebrated and a correspondence list of herbs, incense and deities and gemstones. 

In the Pagan Celtic year, there are four major Sabbats or harvest festivals and four lesser Sabbats, also known as solar festivals. Litha is one of the lesser Sabbats and is also known as Summer Solstice, Midsummer, Gathering Day and Vestalia.

Typically celebrated on June 21st, Litha is the longest day of the year and a time when the sun reaches its apex in the sky. It is considered the mid-point of summer, which begins with Beltane on May 1st and ends with Lughnasadh on August 1st. In many Pagan traditions Litha is seen as the time when the Oak King, who represents the waxing year, is triumphed over by the Holly King who represents the waning year. The two are actually one God, the Horned God, but the Holly King is seen as the growing youth while the Oak King is seen as the wise and mature man.

The Goddess is also celebrated at Litha by many Pagan traditions. She is seen as the woman heavy with child, who will give birth to the God at Yule. She is also seen as the bounty of coming harvests, of protection and sustenance. The ancient Romans saw this time as sacred to the goddess Juno who was the wife of Jupiter, the goddess of women and children and also the patroness of marriage. Seeing that the month of June is named after her it’s no wonder that marriages are so popular during this month.

Litha is a time of brightness, purification and healing. It is a time to meditate on the aspects of light and dark both within us and in the world around us. Litha is also a time of celebrating outdoors and enjoying the warmth of the sun and the beauty of nature. Rituals and celebrations that involve bonfires, music and handfasting are common during this time.
Litha is considered a time to harvest your medicinal and spiritual herbs and is also considered to be one of the best times to perform spells and magickal work that foster love, prosperity and healing. It can also be a time for meditating on the balance between light and darkness both within yourself and in the world around you.

The following is a brief correspondence list for Litha

Incense- Frankincense, myrrh, rose, pine, vanilla, lemon
Herbs and plants- Lavender, carnation, chamomile, mugwort, honeysuckle, oak, fern, yarrow, wild thyme, daisy, sage, mint, heather, St. John’s Wort, pine, rose
Gemstones- Lapis Lazuli, diamonds, all green gemstones, especially emeralds
Traditional foods- Seasonal fruits and vegetables, corn cakes, honey cakes, honey. Other foods depend on a person’s tradition or individual tastes.
Deities- Mother aspect of the Goddess such as Isis, Athena, Brigid, Epona, Juno, Freya and Hestia
Consort aspect of the God such as Mercury, Thor, Ra, Zeus and Apollo.
Colors- Yellow, gold, orange, blue, green and red

The origins of the sabbats seem to be a mixture of rites that still exist, such as the great Druidic  festivals of Beltane (observed April 30) and Samhain (observed October 31)

Herbs and larkspur were tossed into the dying fires with the words, “May ill luck depart, burnt up with these.” As morning approached and the fire was nothing but ash, people walked through them to bring good luck.

Evil spirits were said to lurk about on the magical night of the summer solstice. St. John’s wort, an aromatic ancient herb that smells like turpentine or balsam was used to ward off witches and evil spirits. Circlets were fashioned from stems of St. John’s wort and worn on the head. Farmers wreathed livestock with circles of St. John’s wort. Bouquets of the herb were placed in the home, on the doorstep and over the door to prevent evil from entering the home.
Summer Solstice Celebrations
Present day Druids, Pagans and those seeking spiritual experiences converge on Stonehenge during the summer solstice. Dancing to the rhythm of drums and general merry making takes place as thousands wait to greet the rising sun from the ancient mystical location.
The short summers of Scandinavian countries makes the summer solstice especially joyous with Swedish celebrations the most elaborate. Large gatherings take place in towns and villages throughout Sweden. Traditional dress is worn with much merriment taking place through singing, dancing and gathering flowers. A time-honored menu  of pickled herring, boiled new potatoes served with sour cream, red onions, and fresh dill, along with grilled  seafood (such as salmon) is served. In-season strawberries swimming in cream make up the dessert. The meal is accompanied by beer or schnapps. As families gather to share a midsummer meal, each time drinks are poured anew, a rousing drinking song is sung.

Summer Solstice: Ancient Ways of Marking Time
By the time of the New Stone Age (six to eight thousand years ago) there are many signs that seasonal celebrations were at the center of community life. The farmers and seafarers whose lives depended on the weather and seasons, naturally chose to gather together regularly to direct their appeals to the energies they believed controlled the cycles of nature - birth, life, death and rebirth in which crops, animal and human all participate.
Ancient people used four primary ways of marking the solstices and equinoxes. The first involved the creation of spot lighting effects on the walls of passages, chambers or caves. People who used this technique often carved or painted symbols where they would be struck by a beam of light at sunrise or sunset on one of the solstices or equinoxes. An example where this method was used would be Newgrange, an ancient chamber located in Ireland.
A second method involved measuring the shadow of an upright pillar usually at noon. In temperate zones, the shadow is shortest at the summer solstice, and longest in midwinter. This technique was used by Babylonians, Ionian Greeks, Chinese and Peruvians.
A third method used by Central American tribes required a specially prepared ceremonial structure. Only at noon on the longest day of the year would the sun directly shine through a hole or tube in the ceiling and onto a particular spot on the floor.
The fourth way to mark the solstices was to watch, from a fixed position, where on the horizon the sun set over a period of years. The use of this last method was widespread throughout Europe, Asia, and the Americas. Stonehenge, in England, incorporated this last method. The summer solstice sunrise is marked here. In Egypt, the temple at Karnak also incorporated solstice alignments.
From China, the Book of Records describes instruction which "The Perfect Emperor Yao (2254 BC.) gave to his astronomers to ascertain the solstices and equinoxes... and thereby fix the four seasons." The summer solstice ceremony was the complement to the one in December. The winter festival was held to honor and energize the celestial male, yang forces.
In order to counterbalance the natural predominance of yin that occurs in that season, the summer festival was earthy, feminine, and yin in character so as to stimulate those forces. The summer festival took place on the altar of the Earth, which was square to evoke the terrestrial forces. While the winter solstice's sacrificial victim was burned so that smoke could rise to heaven, in summer the sacrifice was buried. -- Excerpts from the article, Summer Solstice, a web page from the American Spirit Newspaper

Toasting Immortality
On the eve of the longest day of the year, twist together wooden branches into the shape of a man and place a piece of foil-wrapped bread inside it. Throw the man into a fiery pit, remove the toasted bread from the charred remains, distribute among friends and eat.
Its the summer solstice Wicker Man ritual, and you wont be seeing it in Martha Stewarts Living.
Witches of the pagan religion Wicca, however, regard...the Gregorian calendar on which it is based as little more than random human constructs, and choose instead to be governed by solar, lunar and planetary cycles. Summer solstice, when the sun hits the Tropic of Cancer and ascends to its highest point, is the longest day, and shortest night, of the calendar year.
It is also one of the eight major holidays of witchcraft.
According to Reverend Marsha Smith, a spokesperson for the Salem-based Witches League for Public Awareness, to practitioners of Wicca summer solstice is a time of heightened creativity, sensuality and eroticism.
During the solstice, she says, the Wiccan Sun God reaches his highest power. "Wicker Man" rituals re-enact the Sun Gods journey and the cycle of changing seasons. Wiccans believe that during the ritual the Sun Gods spirit enters the bread, and that by eating it humans partake of his immortality.
"Because Wicca comes out of a Northern European experience, where winters are awfully cold, people look forward to summer, when you can strip down and be outside," says Smith. It doesnt take a witch to know that more sunlight means more exposed flesh, more hours to frolic and more opportunity to contemplate the joys of, well, ah, procreation.

Summer solstice is also an occasion of transformation. "From winter to summer solstice, the energy builds up. From summer to winter it wanes," Smith says. "Summer solstice is a very passionate period, yet at the same time we acknowledge that its also when we start to slow down."
Along with the "Wicker Man" ritual, Reverend Smith also suggests leaping over a bonfire as a "symbolic passing through the fires of purification." And, in a pinch, "A candle will suffice." -- Edited and excerpted from the article at LA WEEKLY

Midsummer: The Oak King and the Holly King
The Oak King defeats the Holly King on the longest day of the year.
The Holly King and the Oak King are part of Celtic mythology, and they represent two sides to the Green Man, or Horned God.
They battle twice a year, once at Yule and once at Midsummer (Litha) to see who would rule over the next half of the year. At Yule, the Oak King wins and at Litha, the Holly King is victorious. In other words, the Oak King rules over the lighter half of the year, and the Holly King over the darker half. The change from one to the other is a common theme for rituals at Yule, and also at Midsummer.
Another version of the Holly King and Oak King symbolism, is that they do not directly switch places twice a year, but rather both live simultaneously. The Oak King is born at Yule, and his strength grows through the spring, peaks at Beltane and then he weakens and dies at Samhain. The Holly King lives a reverse existence, and is born at Midsummer, waxes more powerful through the summer and fall, to his peak at Samhain. His influence then lessens until Beltane, when it is his turn to pass away. In this perspective, the two Kings enjoy a more intricate interplay of power and is perhaps a better illustration of their duality. At any given time, they both exist but have varying levels of influence throughout the year.
Either way, each King represents different ideas. The time of the Oak King is for growth, development, healing, and new projects. The Holly King's time is for rest, reflection, and learning.
Midsummer has arrived, and if you're looking for more information on this Sabbat, About's Pagan/Wiccan guide can help. You might want to make some traditional foods for a Solstice meal, or try your hand at something crafty. Plenty of ritual ideas too. -- Excerpts from articles by Terri Paajanen,'s Pagan/Wiccan Guide

More about Summer Solstice at Stonehenge

Designed and erected by people who existed more than 5000 years ago, Stonehenge is still a traditional gathering place on the Northern Hemisphere's longest day -- the Summer Solstice. Stonehenge is a mystery, one of several stone circle monuments in Great Britain. The relationship and alignment of the standing stones to the sun's seasonal revolution appear to have been designed to function either as some kind of astronomical calendar, or as a sacred ritual site honoring the sun. Whatever its purpose to the ancients, the silent stones still wield an enormous power on tourists to Great Britain.
So much so that the English Heritage organization is going to be shutting the site down to visitors during the coming years while renovations are made including diverting the highway and traffic away from its encroachment on the site itself. Over time, the road and sidewalks have crept so close to the ancient remains that photographers and film crews seeking to recapture the original mystery of the place have been hard put to keep modern automobiles and power lines out of the shots.
Similarly, the modern celebration of the Solstice has been the focus of a conflict of purpose from two fundamentally different types of pilgrims.  Spiritually-inclined Druids, Wiccans, neo-pagans, and new-agers feel quiet meditation and rituals are the appropriate purpose for the sacred site's energies -- while others feel the occasion calls for dancing, chanting, and a thunderous drum circle reminiscent of a Grateful Dead show. Public celebrations of the Solstice at Stonehenge were banned until only a few years ago due to a violent clash between celebrants and police in 1985.

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