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Religious information

Overview. Viewpoints. Why? Summer
Solstice celebrations: ancient and modern

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The Summer Solstice is also known as: Alban Heflin, Alben Heruin, All-couples day, Feast of Epona, Feast of St. John the Baptist, Feill-Sheathain, Gathering Day, Johannistag, Litha, Midsummer, Sonnwend, Thing-Tide, Vestalia, etc.

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Overview

People around the world have observed spiritual and religious seasonal days of celebration during the month of June. Most have been religious holy days which are linked in some way to the summer solstice. On this day, typically JUN-21, the daytime hours are at a maximum in the Northern hemisphere, and night time is at a minimum. It is officially the first day of summer. It is also referred to as Midsummer because it is roughly the middle of the growing season throughout much of Europe.

"Solstice" is derived from two Latin words: "sol" meaning sun, and "sistere," to cause to stand still. This is because, as the summer solstice approaches, the noonday sun rises higher and higher in the sky on each successive day. On the day of the solstice, it rises an imperceptible amount, compared to the day before. In this sense, it "stands still." 

(In the southern hemisphere, the summer solstice is celebrated in December, also when the night time is at a minimum and the daytime is at a maximum. We will assume that the reader lives in the Northern hemisphere for the rest of this essay.)

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How people view solstice celebrations:

People view other religions in various ways, and thus treat the celebrations of other faiths differently:

  • For some people, religious diversity is a positive factor. They enjoy the variety of June celebrations, because it is evidence of wide range of of beliefs within our common humanity. They respect both their own religious traditions and those of other faiths for their ability to inspire people to lead more ethical lives.

  • Others reject the importance of all celebrations other than the holy day(s) recognized by their own religion. Some even reject their religion's traditional holy days if they are convinced that they have Pagan origins. This is a common occurrence with Easter and Christmas among conservative Christians..

  • Some view other religions as being inspired, controlled, or even led by Satan. Thus the solstice celebrations of other religions are ignored or avoided because they are viewed as Satanic in origin.
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Why does the summer solstice happen?

The seasons of the year are caused by the 23.5° tilt of the earth's axis. Because the earth is rotating on its axis like a top or gyroscope, the North Pole points in a fixed direction continuously -- towards a point in space near the North Star. 21 But the earth is also revolving around the sun. During half of the year, the southern hemisphere is more exposed to the sun than is the northern hemisphere. During the rest of the year, the reverse is true. At noontime in the Northern Hemisphere the sun appears high in the sky during summertime, and low during winter. The time of the year when the sun reaches its maximum elevation occurs on the summer solstice -- the day with the greatest number of daylight hours. It typically occurs on, or within a day or two of, JUN-21 -- the first day of summer. The lowest elevation occurs about DEC-21 and is the winter solstice -- the first day of winter, when the night time hours reach their maximum.

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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, 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." 14

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Midsummer celebrations in ancient and modern 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..." 13 The days following Alban Heruin form the waning part of the year because the days become shorter.

  • 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. 6

  • 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.

  • 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." 16 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." 16 His feast day is offset a few days after the summer solstice, just as Christmas is fixed a few days after the winter solstice. 1 "Just as John was the forerunner to Jesus, midsummer forecasts the eventual arrival of" the winter solstice circa DEC-21. 

  • 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 -- 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. 19

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This topic continues in a separate essay


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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. "Summer solstice - Johannisnacht - Midsummer night," at: http://www.serve.com/ 
  2. Robin DuMolin, "Summer Solstice," at: http://www.celestia.com/
  3. Robin DuMolin, "Summer Solstice," at: http://www.celestia.com/ http://www.christiaan.com/ 
  4. Janet & Stewart Farrar, "Eight Sabbats for Witches," Phoenix Publishing, (1981), P. 143 to 144.
  5. "Summer Solstice," at: http://users.erols.com/ 
  6. J.W. Mavor & B.E. Dix, "Manitou: The sacred landscape of New England's Native Civilization." Inner Traditions (1989).
  7. Selena Fox, "Summer solstice celebrations for families and households," http://www.circlesanctuary.org/ 
  8. "Find the equinoxes and solstices for a particular year," at http://domeofthesky.com/
  9. "World Time Zone: Accurate local times," at: http://www.isbister.com/
  10. "Litha," a list of links to web sites about Litha, is at: http://paganwiccan.about.com/religion/paganwiccan
  11. "Litha," a description of the festival from a Neopagan perspective, is at: http://home.att.net/
  12. "Litha: Summer Solstice," at: http://www.byzant.com/
  13. "Morgana, "Ritual feasts - handfasting," at: http://www.newavalon.com/
  14. G.S. Hawkins, "Stonehenge decoded," Doubleday (1965), Pages 46 & 47.
  15. C.L. Souvay, "St. John the Baptist," The Catholic Encyclopedia, at: http://www.newadvent.org/ 
  16. Paula Giese, "Medicine wheel: Sun & Stars," at: http://indy4.fdl.cc.mn.us/ 
  17. The Center for Archaeoastronomy publishes a four page quarterly newsletter, appropriately published on the equinoxes and solstices. See: http://www.wam.umd.edu/
  18. M Lnnqvist & K Lnnqvist, "archaeology of the Hidden Qumran: The new paradigm," (2002) a book advertised at:  http://www.akateeminen.com/  
  19. "2005 Equinox, Solstice & Cross-Quarter Movements," Archaeoastronomy.com, at: http://www.archaeoastronomy.com/
  20. "Dates and Times of Equinoxes and Solstices," Hermetic Systems, at: http://www.hermetic.ch/
  21. Actually, this is not precisely true. The Earth wobbles like a decelerating top and completes one cycle in about 25,765 years. The interval of time is called a "Great Year" or "Platonic Year." This motion is called "precession of the equinoxes:"  As a result, the star to which the North Pole points changes down through the millennia. More details:

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Copyright © 2000 to 2011 by Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance
Originally written: 2000-MAY-28
Latest update: 2011-JUN-23
Author: B.A. Robinson

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