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Religious information about the Summer Solstice/Midsummer

Part 2: Significance of the Summer Solstice
Celebrations around the world, in ancient times
.

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This topic is continued from the previous essay.

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Significance of the summer solstice:

In pre-historic times, summer was a joyous time of the year for those Aboriginal people who lived in the northern latitudes. The snow had disappeared; the ground had thawed out; warm temperatures had returned; flowers were blooming; leaves had returned to the deciduous trees. Some herbs could be harvested, for medicinal and other uses. Food was easier to find. The crops had already been planted and would be harvested in the months to come. Although many months of warm/hot weather remained before the fall, after the summer solstice had passed, they noticed that the days were beginning to shorten, so that the return of the cold season was inevitable. 

The first (or only) full moon in June is called the Honey Moon. Tradition holds that this is the best time to harvest honey from the bee hives.  

This time of year, between the planting and harvesting of the crops, was the traditional month for weddings. This is because many ancient peoples believed that the "grand [sexual] union" of the Goddess and God occurred in early May at Beltaine. Since it was unlucky to compete with the deities, many couples delayed their weddings until June. June remains a favorite month for marriage today. In some traditions:

"newly wed couples were fed dishes and beverages that featured honey for the first month of their married life to encourage love and fertility. The surviving vestige of this tradition lives on in the name given to the holiday immediately after the ceremony: The Honeymoon." 1

Another theory about June weddings, is that Europeans traditionally took their annual bath in May. Thus they would only smell a little ripe by June. Brides traditionally carried a flower bouquet to counteract the stench. Boquets are still commonly carried by brides. This is a quaint theory, but apparently one without any basis in fact.

Another justification for June weddings might be that the frequent sexual activity by newlyweds can lead to a pregnancy very shortly after marriage. That would result in the birth of a child in early spring. This avoids the mother having to manage a pregnancy during the very cold winter months. It also avoids a pregnancy during the oppressive heat of summer. It also gives the newborn the longest possible interval to mature before the cold of next winter sets in.

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Midsummer celebrations in ancient times:

Most societies in the northern hemisphere, ancient and modern, have celebrated a festival on or close to Midsummer:

  • Ancient Celts: Druids, the priestly/professional/diplomatic corps in Celtic countries, celebrated Alban Heruin ("Light of the Shore"). It was midway between the spring Equinox (Alban Eiler; "Light of the Earth") and the fall Equinox (Alban Elfed; "Light of the Water").

    "This midsummer festival celebrates the apex of Light, sometimes symbolized in the crowning of the Oak King, God of the waxing year. At his crowning, the Oak King falls to his darker aspect, the Holly King, God of the waning year..." 2

The days following Alban Heruin form the waning part of the year because the days become shorter.

Lugh was a Celtic god similar to the Roman god Mercury. Luch was a harvest god and thus was sometimes associated with the Summer Solstice.

  • Ancient China: Their summer solstice ceremony celebrated the earth, the feminine, and the yin forces. It complemented the winter solstice which celebrated the heavens, masculinity and yang forces.

  • Ancient Gaul: The Midsummer celebration was called Feast of Epona, named after a mare goddess who personified fertility, sovereignty and agriculture. She was portrayed as a woman riding a mare.

  • Ancient Germanic, Slav and Celtic tribes in Europe: Ancient Pagans celebrated Midsummer with bonfires.

    "It was the night of fire festivals and of love magic, of love oracles and divination. It had to do with lovers and predictions, when pairs of lovers would jump through the luck-bringing flames..."

    It was believed that the crops would grow as high as the couples were able to jump.

Through the fire's power:

    "...maidens would find out about their future husband, and spirits and demons were banished."

Another function of bonfires was to generate sympathetic magic: giving a boost to the sun's energy so that it would remain potent throughout the rest of the growing season and guarantee a plentiful harvest. 3

  • Ancient Greece celebrated Kronia -- in honor of Cronus, the God of Agriculture. At the time, slaves and freemen took part as equals. 4

  • Ancient Rome: The festival of Vestalia lasted from JUN-7 to JUN-15. It was held in honor 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 the vestal virgins were permitted inside.

  • Ancient Sweden: A Midsummer tree was set up and decorated in each town. The villagers danced around it. Women and girls would customarily bathe in the local river. This was a magical ritual, intended to bring rain for the crops.

  • Essenes: This was a Jewish religious group active in Palestine during the 1st century CE. It was one of about 24 Jewish groups in the country and was the only one that used a solar calendar. Other Jewish groups at the time included the Sadducees, Pharisees, Zealots, followers of John, and followers of Yeshua (Jesus). Archaeologists have found that the largest room of the ruins at Qumran (location of the Dead Sea Scrolls) appears to be a sun temple. The room had been considered a dining room by earlier investigators, in spite of the presence of two altars at its eastern end. At the time of the summer solstice, the rays of the setting sun shine at 286 degrees along the building's longitudinal axis, and illuminate the eastern wall. The room is oriented at exactly the same angle as the Egyptian shrines dedicated to the sun. Two ancient authorities -- the historian Josephus and the philosopher Filon of Alexandria -- had written that the Essenes were sun worshipers. Until recently, their opinion had been rejected by modern historians. 5

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  • Christian countries: After the conversion of Europe to Christianity, the feast day of St. John the Baptist was set as JUN-24. It:

    "... is one of the oldest feasts, if not the oldest feast, introduced into both the Greek and Latin liturgies to honour a saint." 6

    Curiously, the feast is held on the alleged date of his birth. Other Christian saints' days are observed on the anniversary of their death. The Catholic Encyclopedia explains that St. John was:

    "filled with the Holy Ghost even from his mother's womb...[thus his] birth...should be signalized as a day of triumph." 6

    His feast day is offset a few days after the summer solstice, just as Christmas is fixed a few days after the winter solstice. 7

    "Just as John was the forerunner to Jesus, midsummer forecasts the eventual arrival of"

    the winter solstice circa DEC-21. 12

  • England: Rural villagers would build a large Litha bonfire on Midsummer's Eve to keep evil spirits away. The ashes from the fire were later used to make an amulet that was believed to offer protection. 8

  • Ireland: In oldent times, the Irish would often carry a pebble in their hand as they walked around a Litha bonfire. They would wisper their request for the future to the stone. At the end of the third circling of the fire, they would throw the stone into the fire. 9

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This topic continues in the next essay with a description of
modern-day solstice celebrations and books on the Sostice.

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References used:

The following information sources were used to prepare and update the above essay. The hyperlinks are not necessarily still active today.

  1. G.S. Hawkins, "Stonehenge decoded," Doubleday (1965), Pages 46 & 47.
  2. Morgana, "Ritual feasts - handfasting," at: http://www.newavalon.com/
  3. J.W. Mavor & B.E. Dix, "Manitou: The sacred landscape of New England's Native Civilization." Inner Traditions (1989).
  4. "15 Things You Probably Didn’t Know About the Summer Solstice," Mental_Floss, at: http://mentalfloss.com/
  5. "2005 Equinox, Solstice & Cross-Quarter Movements," Archaeoastronomy.com, at: http://www.archaeoastronomy.com
  6. Paula Giese, "Medicine wheel: Sun & Stars," at: http://indy4.fdl.cc.mn.us/
  7. "Summer solstice - Johannisnacht - Midsummer night," at: http://www.serve.com/
  8. "Litha legends and lore," About.com, 2015, at: http://paganwiccan.about.com/
  9. "Galileo Galilei," Wikipedia, as on 2015-JUN-15, at: https://en.wikipedia.org/
  10. Janet & Stewart Farrar, "Eight Sabbats for Witches," Phoenix Publishing, (1981), P. 143 to 144.
  11. Selena Fox, "Summer solstice celebrations for families and households," http://www.circlesanctuary.org/
  12. C.L. Souvay, "St. John the Baptist," The Catholic Encyclopedia, at: http://www.newadvent.org/  

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Copyright © 2000 to 2015 by Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance
Originally written: 2000-MAY-28
Latest update: 2015-JUN-17
Author: B.A. Robinson

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