Theology: The History of Summer Solstice

I just looked outside my window and exclaimed “the sun sure is bright for this time of day” – usually around now, my condo starts to grow dark and I have to turn on the lights to see what I’m doing on the computer.

And then it hit me – Summer Solstice! It’s that time of year again.

I remember as a kid loving this time of year. Mum and I would sometimes play badminton at 8 or 9:00 pm. Or we’d all sit outside and enjoy the sunny weather. Mum would tinker around in the garden while dad often napped in one of the lawn chairs with a beer in his hand.

This got me thinking about the history of summer solstice and the real meaning behind it. I know in my studies of Wicca, for example, Summer and Winter solstice are two of the most celebrated days of the year.


What is Summer Solstice?

Summer Solstice occurs between June 20-22 of every year and marks the longest day of the year. Here in Edmonton, that means the sun will go down between 10:30 – 11:30 pm tonight.

The world Solstice is a combination of “sol” which means “sun” and “sistere” – to stand still. The Sun’s path appears to momentarily stop before it reserves its direction.

Summer Solstice, also called Estival Solstice, happens when one of the Earth’s poles is at its maximum tilt toward the sun – it only happens twice a year.

Summer Solstice has been celebrated around the world for thousands of years. While some historians claim that celebrations date back to early Paganism days, others believe that this day had significant meaning for ancient civilizations.

Four fairies dance in a circle beside another fairy who faces a human king and queen
Wikipedia 1796

A Midnight Summer’s Dream, a play written by Shakespeare in 1595-1596, would turn out to be one of his most famous works.

This comedy revolves around the conflict between four Athenian lovers and the marriage of Theseus and Hippolyta. If you’re looking for something entertaining to watch this weekend to celebrate this ancient holiday – you may want to watch one of the many performances from around the world.


The Origin of Summer Solstice

One of the earliest recordings of Summer Solstice, which typically falls on a Monday, marks the first day official day of summer – and the longest day of the year with the most sunlight.

From the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) – “Occurs when the sun is directly over the Tropic of Cancer”.

Summer Solstice celebrations have a time-honoured history and was used in ancient times as a seasonal marker. These markers helped the farmers determine when to plan and harvest their crops.

I decided to do some digging into the origins of Summer Solstice and was surprised to learn just how far back these traditions have been traced.


Egyptian Stonehenge

Nabta Playa “little bushes”, is a basin that holds water seasonally and is located in Egypt. It is a 12 foot wide circle of large stones that dates about 6,800 years ago.

This ancient structure predates Stonehenge by more than 1,000 years and it may have been built by a nomadic society that would later become an Egyptian civilization.

Astrologists believe that the Egyptian Stonehenge may have been used to collect water during the rain season. The large stone slabs however, are among the oldest astronomical alignments of all the mega-structures in the world.

There are many theories about these ancient stones and one of them is that they may have been used to celebrate the arrival of the summer monsoons. Over the years, the rains dried up – and the people of the area moved towards the Nile.

Nabta Playa - Wikipedia
Nabta Playa – Wikipedia

Stonehenge

Some scholars believe that the ancient structure known as Stonehenge, found in Wiltshire, England, is evidence that our ancestors used the Summer Solstice as a way to organize their calendar year.

There are theories that Stonehenge’s unique stone circle may have been built around 2500 BCE to determine the date of Summer Solstice.

Illustration image

Pagan Festivals

For Pagans, which is one of the oldest forms of religion – the two most celebrated holidays are the Winter and Summer Solstice.

Pagan Celebrations – Wikipedia

The Wheel of the Year is a calendar observed by many modern Pagans. The calendar lists seasonal festivals, solar events, and the “mid-points” in between each solar event.

Each festival is referred to as a “sabbat” – you may have heard the term “sabbat holiday” before in movies, books or television shows like Supernatural and Charmed.

Early festivals and traditions were tied to lunar and solar cycles. One of the oldest known festivals is called the “Litha” – which means “gentle” or “navigable.

Wiccans follow a similar calendar and also refer to their festivals as a sabbat. The term sabbat, originates from the Middle Ages and was used in reference to Jewish and other heretical celebrations.


Summer Festivals

Pagans celebrated the beginning of summer with large and festive gatherings. They lit massive bonfires and gathered medicinal plants that were used as decorations to hang on their doorways or they were dipped in bathing water.

While celebrations vary from region to region around the world, music and dancing around a bonfire seemed to be a common theme. Music would have been played on a pan flute or perhaps using drums or hand shakers.

In some regions, like Scandinavian countries, people would dance and sing around a large pole. The “summerpole” was decorated in flowers and garnishes – these garnishes were used as a gift or offering to the Sun God.

“The livelier the dance, the better the harvest,” according to J.A. MacCulloch in The Religion of the Ancient Cults.

Food provided at these festivals were plentiful. Party guests enjoyed pumpernickel bread, mead and meat that was cooked using fire which represented the sun. Fruit like mangoes, peaches, nectarines oranges were shared among friends. The mead was likely a honeyed alcoholic beverage or wine.


I tried to find some recordings of ancient melodies but not having any luck. So, I will leave you with this clip from youtube of a Summer Solstice Celebration in Ireland – a country that I’d like to see before my time is up.


It took me a while – but here – I found a video from Aalborg, Denmark – close to where my family is from. I’ll update this as I find more videos from around the globe.

Do you celebrate Summer Solstice where you are? If so, what kind of celebrations occur in your part of the world? Let me know in the comments! And….

Happy Solstice!

Summer Solstice - HISTORY
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