Solstice means sun (sol) stands still (sistere). As the sun reaches its most northerly point in the sky each year between June 20 and 22, its position at noon doesn’t change. It appears suspended directly overhead at the Tropic of Cancer (23 degrees 27 minutes north latitude), before it begins shifting southward toward the equator again and its lowest point, in late December when the second solstice occurs. The precise June solstice moment this year was 10:51 a.m. UT (6:51 a.m. EDT) today.
Solstice is different from an equinox, the two times each year when the sun is directly above the Earth’s equator and day and night are of equal length. Equinoxes mark the beginning of spring (March) and fall (September). In ancient times, solstices and equinoxes were keenly observed and guided predictions about annual seasons and weather. Solstice marks the day when the sun takes its longest path through the sky and we have the most daylight.
According to Dr Duane Hamacher, professor of cultural astrology at the University of New South Wales:
Examples around the world abound and each culture assigns a distinct meaning to this event. But it is clear that global cultures today and in the distant past were keen observers of the sky and marked the rising and setting positions of the sun during the solstices as very special and sacred events – typically to develop calendars.
In Australiathe Watharung Aboriginal people of Victoria built a stone arrangement called Wurdi Youang (meaning big hill) that marked the position of the setting sun at the solstices and equinoxes”
Ivan Kupala Day in Belgorod Oblast Russia, in 2011
Wiki Commons/Лобачев Владимир
It is really midsummer and ancient cultures began their summer celebration on May Day or Beltane, but we now view it as the astronomical beginning of summer season in the Northern Hemisphere. Solstice was celebrated by Germanic tribes (Ivan Kupala), Celts (Feill-Sheathain), Gauls (Feast of Epona), Romans (Vestalia) and Ancient Druids (Alben Heruin), who celebrated the day as a wedding between the heavens and the earth.
Ehrwald Basin, Solstice Lights, Austria
In ancient Chinese culture the feminine Yin force is born at the solstice and brings more moonlight, while the Yang is born at the winter solstice and brings more sunlight. Egyptians marked the day with celebrations to Ra and Horus to ensure fertility and abundance of crops. Ancient Stonehenge near Salisbury, England has an arrangement of huge megaliths that are aligned according to the sun’s rise on the summer and winter days of solstice and the druids celebrated with bonfires, music and dancing and buried their dead there.
Druids—and sometimes aliens—have been suspected of planting the 4,500-year-old stones. Is Stonehenge an astronomical calendar or a place of healing or a marker for magical energy lines in the ground? For a long time, no one really knew, though some theories were more grounded in reality than others.
But now, we may be a little bit closer to understanding the monumental Neolithic site. Archaeologist Mike Parker Pearson and his colleagues at the Stonehenge Riverside Project spent seven years excavating Stonehenge and its surroundings. He is interviewed re: findings published in his book, Stonehenge—A New Understanding: Solving the Mysteries of the Greatest Stone Age Monument.
When we came …. to Stonehenge and dug there, we recovered some 60 cremation burials inside Stonehenge. What we now know is that Stonehenge was the largest cemetery of its day.
(Nearby) At Durrington Walls, we have two of these great timber circles—a bit like Stonehenge in wood—at the center of an enormous village. From where we’ve excavated, you’re looking at a fairly dense settlement of houses. We discovered that they’d been feasting there on a very large scale. We estimate that about four to five thousand people may have gathered there at the time they were building Stonehenge.
We also know that there were seasonal influxes into the settlement at Durrington Walls. (The) evidence suggests that people were gathering in large numbers at the winter solstice. We’ve been getting it wrong in modern times about when to gather at Stonehenge.
One of our discoveries in 2008 was on the avenue that leads out of Stonehenge. As you are moving along the avenue away from Stonehenge, you are looking toward where the sun rises on the midsummer solstice. If you turn 180 degrees and look back toward Stonehenge, that’s where the sun sets on the midwinter solstice. Underneath the avenue, we discovered a natural landform, formed in a previous ice age, where there are grooves and ridges that by sheer coincidence are aligned on that solstitial axis.
Right next to this landform are pits dug to hold posts that were put up 10,000 years ago, much older than Stonehenge. Another archaeological team has discovered down by the river next to Stonehenge a huge settlement area for hunters and gatherers, which seems to have been occupied on and off for something like 4,000 years before Stonehenge itself was ever built.
We think that long before Stonehenge this location was already a special place. These hunters and gatherers may have been the people who first recognized this special feature in the land where the earth and the heavens were basically in harmony. (See Stonehenge pictures.) This interview has been edited and condensed.
Other customs included decking the house (especially over the front door) with birch, fennel, St. John’s wort, orpin, and white lilies. Five plants were thought to have special magical properties on this night: rue, roses, St. John’s wort, vervain, and trefoil. Indeed, Midsummer’s Eve in Spain is called the “Night of the Verbena (Vervain)”. St. John’s wort was especially honored by young maidens who picked it in the hopes of divining a future lover.
And the glow-worm came
With its silvery flame,
And sparkled and shone
Through the night of St. John,
And soon has the young maid her love-knot tied.
The summer solstice season increases conception rates and fertility and has been scientifically linked with increased sexual hormone levels for both women and men associated with increased ultraviolet light. It is World Peace Day. In the southern hemisphere, the June solstice is known as the shortest day of the year. It is when the sun has reached its furthest point from the equator and marks the first day of winter.
Even Shakespeare added a marvelous literary work to mark summer’s romantic season in his play, A Midsummer Night’s Dream:
Pulling together Britannic folklore with aspects of Greek mythology, Shakespeare fashioned a light comedic romance comprised of elements which were to become his basic comedic formula: confusion, mischief and the exasperation that ensues between pairs of couples, consummating in multiplicities of marriages.
The forest becomes the magical portal wherein a dream replaces reality with illusion and the play ends with this reassurance by Puck at the very end of Act V:
“If we shadows have offended, think but this and all is mended: That you have but slumbered here, While these visions did appear; And this weak and idle theme, No more yielding but a dream…” Act V. i. 418-23