Today marks the summer solstice in the northern hemisphere. The longest day of the year, this year the UK will get 16 hours and 38 minutes of daylight. In years gone by, crowds have gathered at Stonehenge to watch the sunrise. The stones here frame the sunrise on the summer solstice, leading many to assume celebrating this event led to its construction.
With Stonehenge closed to visitors thanks to coronavirus, English Heritage is offering a livestream version of the solstice celebration. Watch the sunrise at 3:52 GMT on Facebook!
Yet while the solstice always falls between June 20 and 22, midsummer lands on June 24 (Simpson 2003: 238). For some, the names are interchangeable, and the period is also known as Litha by modern pagans. Midsummer is also known as the Feast of St John the Baptist. The Roman festival of Fors Fortuna fell on 24 June.
Litha apparently takes its name from the Anglo-Saxon term for midsummer. Though it’s difficult to know what has a basis in historical practice and what is a modern interpretation. Herein lies the issue when looking at the summer solstice and all of its associated rituals and magic!
Let’s try and untangle some of them, shall we?
The Summer Solstice in Centuries Gone By
A large portion of the writings about midsummer rely on sunrise on the summer solstice. This relates to 18th-century work that Stonehenge was aligned to this sunrise. Ronald Hutton explains that the attribution of Stonehenge to the Druids happened in the 19th century. Scholars assumed that if Stonehenge was aligned to the sunrise on the solstice, then “the cardinal points of the sun must have been sacred to [the Druids]” (2008: 254).
3000 years lie between the Stone Age and the Druids, but the link persists. The now-discredited work of Margaret Murray also added to the mystique around celebrations of midsummer (Hutton 2008: 255).
Theories about the usage of Stonehenge remain exactly that – theories. Is there any evidence of a celebration of midsummer by ancient people?
Sandra Billington explores the idea that the ancient peoples of northern Europe did not celebrate midsummer. For her, Jakob Grimm was closer to the mark when he described two points in the summer calendar when people in Germany lit bonfires. The north lit fires at Easter, the south at midsummer (2008: 42). Grimm came to believe the Easter fires welcomed summer and were far older in tradition.
Billington finds no evidence in Nordic or Saxon literature to support any celebration of midsummer (2008: 43). This earlier day, referred to as ‘Summer’s Day’, is a celebration of the start of warmer weather – not the midpoint of the season. They could also explain the bonfires of May Day, another day to welcome the start of warmer weather. In Germany, records of summer solstice celebrations only start in the 7th century (Billington 2008: 44).
As Billington points out, this offers a contrast with the sheer amount of records about celebrations at Yule. She notes that England had plenty of fairs and rituals held around the time, but not out of celebration of the season. Instead, they often accompanied the holding of legal proceedings – so they’re not actual festivals (2008: 48). Actual midsummer celebrations only developed in England after the Normans arrived (Billington 2008: 48).
The summer solstice “illustrates the sun’s weakness rather than strength” (Billington 2008: 51). This makes it unlikely that sun-worshippers would celebrate their god at a time like that. There was no “need” to, and scholars have found no evidence that the Celts or German tribes did so (2008: 51). In fact, the lack of sun worship within the old traditions meant they continued within Christianity.
One of midsummer’s alternative names in modern paganism is Litha. I’ve seen it described as the Anglo-Saxon word for midsummer – which isn’t quite right. Sandra Billington points out that for the Venerable Bede, both June and July in the Anglo-Saxon calendar were called Lida. It actually meant “pleasant or navigable” (Billington 2008: 44). This referred to how easy it was to sail during the summer, thanks to better visibility from longer daylight hours and calmer waters.
So yes, Lida (or Litha) absolutely refers to midsummer, but in a roundabout sort of way. It focuses on the conditions present during the period, not its actual name. (We’re getting into similar territory here to Eostremonat being misnamed as a goddess, Eostre).
So if the summer solstice isn’t an ancient, pre-Christian festival, why do we celebrate it? As E.O. James puts it, these celebrations “give expression to fundamental themes in the annual sequence of winter and summer […] upon which the rhythm of life depends, and to which they give expression” (1961: 297). Even if they aren’t related to a pagan past, they still represent the cyclical nature of life.
Hutton notes the placement of the festivals in the wider ‘wheel of the year’ as “stressing the cyclical nature of the cosmos”, reflecting a principal theme of modern paganism (2008: 253).
But the rituals of midsummer are not an entirely modern invention either! Let’s take a look at where the ‘traditional’ bonfires and processions came from.
How and Why We Think of Midsummer As We Do
Simpson and Roud tell us that the 14th-century monk John Mirk of Lilleshall, Shropshire wrote many descriptions of midsummer festivities. These went on to influence how people thought about these celebrations in later times. Unfortunately, the descriptions were not first-hand accounts (as previously thought), as he was quoting a writer from continental Europe (Simpson 2003: 238). As a result, we don’t know how accurate any of our conceptions of earlier celebrations are, at least where Britain is concerned.
Unlike Sandra Billington, Ronald Hutton states that northern Europeans had celebrated the solstice since prehistoric times. They’d lit bonfires and carried torches, although he says this was “apparently to protect themselves, their crops and their livestock against the hazards of late summer” (2005: 70).
By the late fourteenth century, people had begun getting rowdy during the festivities. The officials hired watchmen to try and police the event (Hutton 2005: 70). In 1378, the aldermen in London hired members of the Watch to act as bodyguards for their processions. The Watch was a group of watchmen who acted as a rudimentary police force.
The Watch processed behind the aldermen, carrying flaming pails on poles. Here, they re-enacted the ancient carrying of fire through the community. They did so by giving the ‘police’ a central role in the procession, rather than it becoming “an adversarial relationship” (Hutton 2005: 71).
These processions become more outlandish as time passed since each Lord Mayor tried to outdo the one before (Simpson 2003: 238).
John Stow described these festivities in London in the 1590s. He describes street bonfires, processions, and people decorating their doors with fennel, St. John’s Wort, and lanterns (Simpson 2003: 238). We even see whifflers, drummers, and morris dancers in his accounts. Those same whifflers apparently went on to inspire the Green Man in churches around the country.
The Parades Appear Elsewhere
These processions also spring up in other cities, and the more secular parades included effigies of dragons and giants. Reformers tried to get rid of the bonfires during the 16th and 17th centuries. 19th-century folklorists managed to find evidence of them in the west country and the north of England. These communal bonfires saw local communities making merry around them (Simpson 2003: 238).
It was common for young men to try and leap over them. Some writers talk about the ‘purification’ rite of leaping over a bonfire, something usually related to the May Day bonfires of Beltane. Simpson and Roud point out that this fire leaping was also people simply showing off! (Simpson 2003: 238)
For Kate West, the summer solstice is both a time of celebration and reflection (2003: 80). While we have oodles of daylight, the time also marks the point when the days will begin to get shorter. In some branches of neo-paganism, this is why the summer solstice is so tied in with fire. We’re celebrated the sun’s ‘high’ point before the slow descent towards winter.
Fire and the Summer Solstice
The summer solstice is regarded as a fire festival. Patti Wigington explains that European cultures would celebrate using a sunwheel. Locals would set a wheel on fire, rolling it down a hill into a river. A Welsh belief explained the crops would be good if the fire went out before the wheel landed in the river (2018).
Some believe the sunwheel relates to the ascent and descent of the sun. Yet Billington instead makes links between the burning wheel and Christianity. Here, the wheel represents St John the Baptist, for whom the day is named. He decreased in influence while Christ rose. Like Fortuna’s wheel of fortune, the burning wheel represented these rising and falling fortunes (2008: 51). This would certainly echo the Roman festival of Fors Fortuna.
Yet bonfires at midsummer also act as a way for a community to get together. They provide a much-needed holiday between the revelry of May Day and the frantic activity of harvest time. Here, I think we need to honour the ‘purifying’ nature of fire. Indeed, some people use the Solstice as a midyear ‘reset’, reviewing the year so far and making adjustments for the remaining six months.
Modern pagans (and many other religions) still honour the sun at the solstice. Marking its astronomical descent becomes a way to honour the cyclical nature of life. If this can bring us closer to nature and natural rhythms, so much the better.
The Oak King and Holly King
Kate West reminds us that this is the time of year that marks another battle between the Holly and Oak Kings (2003: 79). They last did battle at the winter solstice, or Yule. At that time, the Oak King wins and reigns during the return of the sun.
During the summer solstice, the Holly King wins and reigns over the decline of the sun. West relates her own community’s use of the day for staging mock battles. Two people are chosen to play the Kings and they re-enact the battle. The ‘correct’ King wins, and everyone has a jolly time watching and cheering them on.
Midsummer was associated with magic long before Midsommer came along. Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream explores the havoc wreaked when the Fae folk start using their potions for mischief.
Joanna van der Hoeven suggests that if you want to seek out the Fae, wear St John’s wort in your buttonhole (2018). This herb, best collected at this time of year, will keep away troublesome faeries!
Indeed, many will tell you that the summer solstice is a great time to work magic of all kinds. Healing, love, prosperity, peace, and abundance are all popular types of magic. Though be aware that 2020’s solstice also falls during an eclipse. Magic is not recommended during eclipses…
But if you’re feeling brave (or you’re reading this after 2020), what magic can you make at midsummer?
According to Witchipedia, the summer solstice is a great time to gather herbs for healing. It’s also a good time to do a spot of love divination – gaze at your reflection in water and if you’re lucky, you’ll see the image of your future partner! (2019)
Simpson and Roud explain that Midsummer Eve (June 23) was a powerful time for love divination. They relate a condensed version of one ritual. A blindfolded young woman should pick a rose on Midsummer Day at midday while the clock struck twelve. She should fold the rose in white paper and put it away until Christmas Day. If she’d performed it correctly, it should still be fresh. She should put it on her bosom and her intended would snatch it away (2003: 239).
Another practice advises singletons to pick St. John’s wort on Midsummer Eve. If it was still fresh in the morning, they will get married.
Or you could head to a churchyard near midnight on Midsummer Eve. At the stroke of 12, run around the church scattering rose leaves and rosemary. Chant “Rose leaves, rose leaves, rose leaves I strew, He that will love me, come after me now.” (Simpson 2003: 239) I’m not sure if your intended is supposed to take ‘now’ literally. I’d be a bit unnerved by someone suddenly chasing me in a graveyard at midnight.
Others might indulge in a spot of well dressing. Midsummer may be a fire festival but it also occurs at the start of Cancer, which is a water sign. Visit a holy well just before sunrise. If you can, walk clockwise around the well three times. Offer silver coins at the well (Wigington 2018).
Got a problem you want to release? Write it out on a slip of paper. Drop the paper into moving water on the summer solstice (Wigington 2018). Or take advantage of midsummer’s fiery nature and burn it (safely!).
Patti Wigington advises that you can use the ashes from your midsummer fire. Add the ashes (when they’re cold) to a pouch for protection from harm (2018). She also says you can sow them in your garden to ensure a bountiful harvest.
If you’re a card reader (tarot cards or oracle, it doesn’t matter), you can leave your cards in the summer solstice sun to cleanse them.
Nothing has to be big or elaborate. Even just watching the sunrise and meditating on the year so far can be enough.
Whether midsummer is an ancient festival or not, people have been celebrating it in Britain since at least the late 14th century. In our 24/7, ‘always-on’ culture, it’s important to connect to the cycles of nature. They remind us that it’s okay to slow down and enter periods of rest.
How will you celebrate the summer solstice?
Billington, Sandra (2008), ‘The Midsummer Solstice As It Was, Or Was Not, Observed in Pagan Germany, Scandinavia and Anglo-Saxon England’, Folklore, 119:1, pp. 41-57.
Hutton, Ronald (2005), ‘Seasonal Festivity in Late Medieval England: Some Further Reflections’, The English Historical Review, 120:485, pp. 66-79.
Hutton, Ronald (2008), ‘Modern Pagan Festivals: A Study in the Nature of Tradition’, Folklore, 119:3, pp. 251-273.
James, E.O. (1961), ‘Superstitions and Survivals, Folklore, 72: 1, pp. 289-299.
Simpson, Jacqueline and Steve Roud (2003), Dictionary of English Folklore, Oxford: Oxford University Press.
van der Hoeven, Joanna (2018), ‘The Summer Solstice: Lore and Tradition’. WitchesAndPagans.com, https://witchesandpagans.com/pagan-paths-blogs/druid-heart/the-summer-solstice-lore-and-tradition.html.
West, Kate (2003), The Real Witches’ Handbook: A Complete Introduction to the Craft, London: Element.
Wiginton, Patti (2018), ‘Litha Legends and Lore’, Learn Religions, https://www.learnreligions.com/litha-legends-and-lore-2562233.
Witchipedia (2019), ‘Summer Solstice’, Witchipedia, https://witchipedia.com/glossary/summer-solstice/.
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