SOL SOUL

The summer solstice is ancient nature worship with lasting universal appeal

Everyone relies on the sun to survive so it makes sense that we still celebrate an ancient solar holiday. The summer solstice is spiritually and scientifically significant, and it has been throughout human history, around the world.

Earth's axis on the summer solstice.
The sun’s rays hitting Earth on summer solstice in the northern hemisphere. (Przemyslaw Blueshade Idzkiewicz.CreativeCommons)

It’s the longest day of the year—in 2017, that’s June 20 for the Northern Hemisphere—when the sun is at its highest point in the sky. From then on, el sol will shine ever less every day from June 20 until the winter solstice in December.

That still matters to people even if postmodern civilization is relatively disconnected from nature. Perhaps we understand seasons instinctually, or maybe it’s genetic memory. Because wherever you’re from and whatever you believe, your people probably celebrated the summer solstice somewhere long ago.

Designed for the day

The great architects of history appear to have been obsessed with this event. Ancient Egyptians designed with the holiday in mind—for a viewer standing at the Sphinx, the sun sets precisely between two of the Great Pyramids on the summer solstice.

Similarly, in a long-buried Mayan city in Guatemala, archaeologists discovered an astronomical observatory with buildings that align with the sun during the solstice. It’s believed that people gathered there to watch while the monarch seemed to command the heavens.

Cottonwood tree.
As above, so below. (US Fish and Wildlife Service)

In the US, Wyoming’s Bighorn medicine wheel, a stone arrangement built by the Plains Indians, was the site of an annual Sioux ritual sun dance. It was designed to align with the solstice at sunrise and sunset, during which the Sioux performed the wi wanyang wacipi, a “sun gazing dance,” around a sacred cottonwood tree symbolizing the connection between heaven and Earth.

Stonehenge, an assemblage of giant rocks in England dating back 5,000 years, is probably the best known and most popular summer-solstice celebration locale today. It also aligns with the sun on solstice and has long been the site of sun-worship rituals. Modern day Druids, inspired by ancient Celtic priests of the same name, light bonfires there and connect with nature on what they consider the year’s most auspicious day.

Sacrifice, magic, and mischief

In most historical cultures, summer solstice was a time to delight in nature’s bounty, and people sometimes party hard. The ancient Chinese saw the summer solstice as an expression of yin, feminine energy, which is balanced by the yang, or masculine energy, of the winter solstice. The day was a celebration of the Earth, marked with nature festivals.

In the two weeks before the summer solstice, Romans honored Vesta, the goddess of the hearth (not Earth). On what they called “Vestalia,” the Vestal temple was opened to all women to come pray to her—she protected virginity and marriages and so was considered particularly dear to the ladies. The Vestal Virgins, female priestesses chosen as children to tend the temple’s fires and secrets, were thought to be Vesta’s brides. They offered their goddess a sacred cake on Vestalia, made with water from a holy spring to signify purity during the Earth’s season of fecundity and fortune.

For the ancient Celts, the longest day of the year also marked a short night of especially wild mischief-making and merriment on the part of nature’s nymphs, the fey folk. The charming but fickle forest spirits known to bring good luck and cause trouble, depending on their whim, could sometimes be placated with offerings of food.

 Vikings got a lot done during Midsummer. The Norse paraded on the solstice day and night, walking around villages with torches in hand to symbolize the sun, while wearing crowns of flowers on their heads. But it wasn’t all fun. Vikings believed that this time of long light was auspicious for doing business and practicing law and they got a lot done during Midsummer.

Not every culture, though, saw light in the summer solstice. About 4,500 years ago in Babylon, where disease was at its height during the hot summer, Mesopotamians believed the god of food and fertility, Tammuz, died every year before the solstice. The period around it was an extended funeral.

The solar holiday may not have been entirely celebratory for everybody in old South America either. The Inca in Peru marked the solstice with appeasement offerings to the gods of food, animals, and possibly people in a rite called Inti Raymi.

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