The Summer Solstice

The Summer Solstice

Marking the beginning of the astronomical summer and the middle of the ‘ancient’ summer, Midsummer’s Day, the Summer Solstice, or Litha (also known as Midsummer, Gathering Day, Alban Heffyn or Feill-Sheathain) will, here in the northern hemisphere, occur on the 20th of this month (June 2016). Interpreted differently around the world, Summer Solstice is recognised and celebrated with rituals, festivals and/or holidays, often with religious or fertility related themes, by most cultures.

summer solstice

Summer Solstice, the Litha Fire Festival

In Pagan beliefs, Summer Solstice is the Sun God’s most powerful day. Glorifying the sun and, of course, the Sun God, the Litha festival sees fire playing a very prominent role. Able to burn and consume; shed light, cook and purify, fire, the element of transformation, is the most immediately felt and most easily seen element and even modern Midsummer rites still see balefires figuring prominently among celebrations. The sun’s rising on this day has been acknowledged and marked in some ritualistic fashion from time immemorial. This is particularly apparent in the heel stone of Stonehenge, which, seen from the stone circle’s centre, marks the Summer Solstice sunrise.

Ancient Litha Celebrations

A fire-festival of utmost importance in ancient times, Litha saw balefires burned to ritually strengthen the sun. This important day was also often marked with burning straw-bound wheels being rolled down hillsides; flaming tar barrels and/or torch-light processions. The Norse people in particular enjoyed lengthy processions and, gathering their families and animals together, would parade with lit torches to the celebration site through the countryside.

Evil, Fertility and Prosperity

In addition to providing the sun with magical strengthening, fires were also used in order to bring prosperity and fertility to crops, herds and men, as well as to drive out any evil. Blazing furze or gorse was, for instance, carried around cattle in order to prevent misfortune and disease, while people would leap through flames or dance around fires as part of strengthening and/or purifying rituals. The ancient Celts lit fires all over the land the night before Midsummer’s Day (at sunset) and keep them burning until the following day’s sunset. All their festivities would then take place around these fires. The appearance and number of fires that could be seen from any point was used as a way of divining the future right up to the middle of the 18th Century in Cornwall.

Summer Solstice in Astronomic Terms

Astronomically speaking, Summer Solstice, the year’s longest day, represents the Sun God at his most powerful. While summer’s hottest days are yet to come, the year is waning from this point, and every day, the sun will withdraw from the sky a little earlier, right up to Yule, the Winter Solstice, when the days will start to get a little longer again.

Litha in Agricultural Terms

Agriculturally speaking, Midsummer’s Day means crops have reached full growth and, reaching maturity are getting closer to the time of harvest. The majority of wild herbs are fully mature by Litha, making this the traditional time to gather medicinal and magickal plants to be dried and stored for winter use. In Wales, the Summer Solstice is called Gathering Day because of this practice.

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Tony Hyland