So, today is the Summer Solstice, generally described as the marking the begin of summer- but in actuality they probably mark the midpoint of the seasons. Phil Plait has a great description of why this makes astronomical sense. It has to do with the sun’s apparent position in the sky. Regardless- the Summer Solstice marks the longest day of the year and is celebrated by a great many cultures world wide.
Interestingly, Plait’s arguments about the solstice being the middle of the season are in reaction to the relatively new (and North American) idea of marking the beginning of a season with the. This is not the case in England for example, where the solstice marks the middle of summer- in fact I’m sure you’ve heard the term Midsummer, traditionally held on June 24th.
Marking the longest day of the year seems like a natural celebration point, and many different religions tend to centre festivities around the world celebrate equinoxes and solstices. It’s a very popular idea that modern religion have concurrent holidays planned around similar times in order to over-shadow pagan rituals. I personally don’t buy this explanation, because it assumes that religions like Christianity and Judaism sprang up overnight, and were deliberately set up to overtake other beliefs. Instead it’s important to remember that these religions grew out of previous belief systems and are the products of the practises that came before them. I’m not going to go in to a great deal of detail about this, because the origin of religious beliefs is a tad bit dense for a single post- but remember that nothing is ever simple.
Anyway, on with the Midsummer celebrations!
Probably the most famous image for the Solstice is this:
In 1965 Astronomer Gerald Hawkins suggested that Stonehenge was used as an astronomical calculator. In his book, Stonehenge Decoded, he suggested numerous different celestial events that could be predicted by looking at Stonehenge in a variety of different angles. I’m kind of skeptical because there are so many different markers, features, and aspects to Stonehenge that drawing a strait line between any two may result in pointing at something significant. However it is a legitimate theory, with a great deal of support behind it. Interestingly, a great deal of modern pagans have emphasized the summer solstice sunrise as the central reasons for Stonehenge, while ignoring the Winter Solstice. There seems to be just as much support for Stonehenge as an astronomical marker of the Winter Solstice Sunset as the Summer Sunrise, and information from bones found nearby seems to indicate use of the site only in the winter time. But make of that what you will.
There have been some criticisms of the astronomical origins of Stonehenge of course, and equally legitimate ideas about the place as an important part of a ritual landscape, or healing.
And then there is the one about Merlin and the Giants.
If I’m honest, I don’t know which one I buy. But it’s probably not the Merlin one. I suspect it’s probably some combination of all three.
What we forget is that the progression of seasons is important to everyone, and humans have invented all kinds of way to mark the passage of time. Often important secular information is included within sacred information.
My favourite example of this comes to me from Eldon Yellowhorn, a professor at Simon Fraser University. Apparently, the Blackfoot story about the Lost Boys (very proficient hunters who were shafted by their Elders) correlates to a constellation that rises in the horizon when it’s time to hunt Bison, and disappears again when hunting season is over. The Blackfoot appeared to use the appearance of these stars as a calendar marking the best time to gather together and hunt.
I don’t doubt that Neolithic people were smart enough to mark the solstice, or really any other event they wanted to. The question is why?
Why celebrate the Longest Day? Or the Shortest?
There are probably as many good answers to that question as they are smart people to think about them.
But in the end, aren’t we just always ready to party for any reason? I know I’ll be celebrating the longest day tonight, in my own way- on the top of a rock. Because I don’t really need a reason to sit on top of a rock and drink a beer.
But I’ll take one.
PS- depending where you are, the 21st might not be the longest day for you. Just FYI.