This article is part of an ongoing series exploring the eight points of the wheel of the year. It is written by a good friend of mine and member of our community, Tony Marshall Griffiths. Tony lives in the North of England but grew up in Wales. He loves the landscapes of the British Isles and the stories and old names that attach to them. You can read more of Tony’s writing on his website, The Enchanted Silence.
“… It was the same with the live coal he would bring back from the summer solstice bonfire.
‘But why do you do that, Martin?’
‘Didn’t we always do it? Didn’t we always bring back a coal from the bonfire to put in our garden?’
‘Was it the power of the sun at its height that you were bringing home to your garden, Martin?’
Again, the question was outlandish and left him wondering what class o’ man I was at all.”From Nostos: An Autobiography by John Moriarty
The Wheel of the Year turns again and the noontime sun (here in the Northern hemisphere) has crept in these last few days to its highest point in the summer sky. This is now the summer solstice, when the sun reaches the height of its influence and floods the northern hemisphere with its light and warmth.
The solstice is named Litha in the Wheel of the Year, taken from the summer months of the Anglo-Saxon calendar recorded by the Venerable Bede in the eighth century. In his book “The Reckoning of Time” he gave a ready translation of the name; “ ‘Litha’ means gentle or navigable, because in both these months the calm breezes are gentle and they were wont to sail upon the smooth sea”.
The solstice has been known and celebrated by a wide range of cultures, across the globe, from times going far back beyond the start of history. At the circle of Stonehenge in the south of England, the approaching avenue, the outlying Heel Stone and the central horseshoe are famously aligned to the sunset of the winter solstice and the opposing sunrise of the summer solstice.
It has recently been discovered that the underlying geology at the site follows this same line from north east to south west, and may have inspired its construction. Elsewhere in the British Isles the Bronze Age burial mound of Bryn Celli Ddu on Anglesey is built to admit the midsummer sun through its main entrance. The Neolithic Goseck circle in German Saxony-Anhalt, two millennia older again than Stonehenge and Bryn Celli Ddu, has entrances aligned to the summer and winter solstices whilst solar alignments have also been suggested for the similarly ancient site of Nabta Playa in upper Egypt.
In the Americas, completely separate cultural milieux created artefacts such as the Big Horn Medicine Wheel, with sightlines like the European circles aligned on the rising and setting solstice sun (as well as the rising points of various significant stars), and the ‘Sun Dagger’ petroglyph at Fajada Butte in New Mexico, which functions as a semi-natural sun-dial with the midday solstice sun falling across the centre of a spiral petroglyph.
In the Christian year, the near-solstice date of 24th June (in Roman terms the eighth calends of July) was allocated at some early point as the feast day of the St John the Baptist (& specifically the feast of the birth of cousin John) as a very deliberate counterpoint to the Christ-Mass on 25th December.
In fact the church calendar has a hidden quartering of the year with the Feast of the Annunciation, the legendary day of Jesus’ conception, celebrated very logically near the spring equinox on March 25th, nine months before Christmas Day, and in the Eastern church at least, September 23rd is celebrated as the day of the Conception of St John the Baptist as well as the feast day of his parents, Elizabeth and Zechariah.
It seems odd that the Church Fathers deliberately chose such a solar arrangement, yet Jesus clearly has the waxing half of the year whilst his cousin and forerunner John has the waning half, somehow acting out the New Testament saying of John that “He must increase whilst I must decrease” with Jesus playing the Oak King to John’s Holly King, a dance of the Yang and then the Yin in the repeating cycle of the year.
St John’s Eve was once a significant calendar event all across Europe, although the date retains a particular vigour and prominence in Scandinavia. In Sweden, Midsummer is one of the main holidays of the year, with the whole country shutting up shop for the celebrations. These traditions are shared in neighbouring Finland where those who are able will travel out to the countryside for the traditional celebrations.
In England there were also widespread celebrations until they were suppressed by the puritans following the Reformation. Hospitality was an important part of the tradition, with householders setting out a table in front of their house to provide ale and cakes to all passers-by. The rituals would involve the lighting of bonfires (in some places literally a bone-fire – a fire built of animal bones) which the villagers would dance around and leap over for luck.
T S Eliot remembers the ghosts of these festivities in the Four Quartets – “On a summer midnight, you can hear the music of the weak pipe and the little drum, and see them dancing around the bonfire. […] Round and round the fire, leaping through the flames, or joined in circles, rustically solemn or in rustic laughter, lifting heavy feet in clumsy shoes, earth feet, loam feet, lifted in country mirth. Mirth of those long since under earth.”
Lighted torches would be processed around the edges of the crop fields to ward off pestilence and in some places there are even hints of burning cartwheels being rolled, presumably symbols of the solar disk. In London and other English cities, St John’s would be celebrated by processions with the marchers carrying blazing torches and accompanied by Morris dancers and carts carrying extravagant tableaux or ‘pageants’. The London parade in 1521 was 4000-strong, featuring a serpent that spat fireballs and a giant called Lord Marlinspike.
In the Celtic regions of the British Isles on the other hand, Midsummer and St John’s Eve were (and in some places are) also widely celebrated with bonfires, although it is really not clear whether these fires are independent survivals of ancient culture or whether they had been absorbed from germanic cultures (the Anglo-Saxons, Vikings or later Anglo-Normans) where the celebration of the solstices has particularly strong roots.
The solstice is literally a turning point of the year when the sunrise crosses the horizon at its northernmost limit and the year takes a brief intake of breath before the sun begins its southward journey. In the earlier imagination, this pause made the midsummer a ‘thin place’ in the landscape of the year, a point of stillness that allowed the larger realities of the imaginal realm to break in. “Movement is time, but stillness is eternity”, wrote Joseph Campbell.
In Shakespeare’s play, midsummer night is a suspension of ordinary time when faerie magic weaves enchantment and illusion around mortals who are brave or foolish enough to have escaped the shell of the everyday world. In Welsh tradition the Midsummer night of St John’s Eve is the third of the year’s ‘spirit nights’ (ysbryd nosau), along with Calan Mai and Calan Gaeaf, when ancestors and spirits are close at hand.
Echoes of these older traditions of divination can be heard across Europe. For example, in Greece one of the names for Midsummer is Klidonas meaning sign or oracle and the shortest night is a time when different folk rituals would allow unmarried girls to discover the identity of their future mate. Similarly in Scandinavia, sleeping with seven different kinds of wildflower under your pillow on the midsummer night lets you dream of the one who will be your husband.
Modern druidry on the other hand calls the solstice Alban Hefin, which is normally translated as “The Light of the Shore”, perhaps with a sense of liminality that celebrates the intersection of the different realms of earth, sea, and sky. Like the other stations of the Wheel of the Year, it is an invitation to take a pause from the push and relentlessness of everyday life and take time to savour the very natural rhythm of the passing year. Maybe there will be chance for you to draw breath with the year and dream some enchanted dreams under the bright midsummer sky.
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