Basking in the Summer Solstice: Celtic Folklore Traditions
Every year there are two solstices, one in winter and one in summer. This year, the summer solstice is June 20th (in the northern hemisphere). So what is a solstice and what does it mean? Why do solstices matter?
Ancient civilizations, such as the Celts, had agrarian societies which needed to be attuned to nature in order to survive. They were especially aware of the sun and the moon, and how changes in these impacted crops. Edifices, such as Stonehenge and Newgrange, were built to observe the apparent movements of the sun throughout the year. Of course, humans now know that it’s the earth, not the sun, which moves. Nevertheless, this movement impacts the inhabitants of earth. On the solstice, the earth tilts so that its north pole is the closest it will be all year to the sun. This results in the longest day and shortest night of the year.
Now, that may feel like a cool fact to know for Jeopardy but it’s more than that. Summer solstice is the official calendar start of summer (although the Celts considered it mid-summer). More importantly, it marks a significant astronomical shift. From here on out, the earth will start to tilt away from the sun, days will get shorter and, eventually, colder (until winter solstice when the process reverses). Basically, the summer solstice is a wake up call: enjoy the warmth now ‘cause it ain’t gonna last forever (unless you live in Florida, like me). If you’re a farmer (ancient or modern), you know you’d better finish planting if you want to have something to harvest in the fall. In the time of the ancients, a small harvest meant you probably wouldn’t live to see spring.
The ancients may have misinterpreted which heavenly body was moving but they recognized that, at the solstice, an apex was reached and the sun would start going away. Celts responded with religious rituals and celebration, a mixture of eat-drink-and-be-merry-for-tomorrow-we-die and O great sun god, we realize you want a vacation but stay with us a while longer then be sure to return after your rest!
Summer Solstice is one of eight major Celtic holy day festivals. In Ireland, traditions associated with it have been practiced for over 5,000 years. Even today, hundreds of people annually gather on the hill of Tara for ritual and celebration. Bonfires are lit, not only in Tara, but throughout Ireland.
The ancients lighted fires both as a symbol of the sun and in celebration of its light and warmth. Celts set wooden wheels on fire and rolled them down hills. Lovers leapt over fire to bring good luck to their relationship and farmers believed the higher they could jump over the flames, the better their crops would be.
Concern about crops was a theme of the summer solstice. Although the solstice now marks the start of summer, the Celts considered it midsummer, the halfway point of the growing season. They celebrated the abundance of sunshine and prayed for a good harvest. They prayed to the goddess to protect their crops from evil. Which goddess? That varies from Celtic land to Celtic land. It also varies depending on which scholar is consulted. The goddesses most associated with this festival are Aine, her twin sister, Grainne, and Etain in Ireland, Brighid, the Scottish goddess of summer, and Rhiannon in Wales or her counterpart, Epona, in Brittany. The Oak King might also be evoked as he ruled the light half of the Celtic year (May 1st to November 1st).
The summer solstice is a magical time. In Gaelic, it is called grianstad, which means “sun stop.” It was so named because the sun appears, for a few days before and immediately after the solstice, to rise in the same spot on the horizon. According to Celtic folklore, the sun would stop and reverse course on the solstice (thus the days grew shorter as the sun seemed to retreat).
Because of the sacredness of the day and because the sun seemed to stand still during this time, the summer solstice came to be associated with potent magic. According to folklore, it is an excellent time to pick herbs either for medicine or magic because plants, on the solstice, are filled with light energy. While you’re at it, pick some honeysuckle and fennel and hang them over your doorway to protect your home and family. Be sure to ask a plant’s permission, though, before picking it. Afterwards, offer up a thanksgiving of some kind. It is also a good time for divination, so pay attention to your dreams!
Celtic festival days are a good time for reflection and the summer solstice is no different. Some themes associated with this solstice are light and warmth, change, hope, fertility, and gratitude (especially an appreciation of nature). Here are a few reflections for this time:
* What change would you like to make in yourself or your life and how can you plant the seeds of change?
* What can the warmth and light within you give birth to?
* What gives you hope in times of drought or relief under sweltering pressure?
* In what ways do you need nourished right now? How can you nourish others?
* How does nature impact your life?
May the light and warmth of summer joy be with you throughout this year.
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