Summer Solstice at Stonehenge
The Summer Solstice occurs when the tilt of the Earth’s semi-axis, in either northern or Southern hemispheres, is most inclined toward the sun. Earth’s maximum axial tilt toward the Sun is 23° 26′. This happens twice each year (once in each hemisphere), at which times the Sun reaches its highest position in the sky as seen from the North or the South pole.
Taking place on either June 21 or 22 the Summer Solstice is known alternatively as Alban Hefin, Litha, Midsummer, Gathering Day and Feill-Sheathain.
In the Southern Hemisphere, the Summer Solstice falls on 21st or 22nd December, with the sun touching the southernmost point along the horizon.
Most cultures of the Northern Hemisphere mark Midsummer in some ritualised manner and from ancient times people have acknowledged the rising of the sun on this day.
The Summer Solstice was a fire-festival of great importance when the burning of fires ritually strengthened the sun. It was often marked with torchlight processions, by flaming tar barrels or by wheels bound with straw, which were set alight and rolled down steep hillsides. The Norse especially loved lengthy processions and would gather together their animals, families and lighted torches and parade through the countryside to the celebration site.
Ottery tar barrel
The use of fires, as well as providing magical aid to the sun, were also used to drive out evil and to bring fertility and prosperity to men, crops and herds. Blazing gorse or furze was carried around cattle to prevent disease and misfortune; while people would dance around the fires or leap through the flames as a purifying or strengthening rite.
The Celts would light fires all over their lands from sunset the night before Midsummer until sunset the next day. Around these flames the festivities would take place. In Cornwall up to the mid 18th century the number and appearance of fires seen from any given point was used as a form of divination and used to read the future.
Astronomically, it is the longest day of the year, representing the God at full power. Although the hottest days of the summer still lie ahead, from this point onward we enter the waning year, and each day the Sun will recede from the skies a little earlier, until Yule, when the days begin to become longer again.
Van Gogh Wheatfields
Agriculturally, the crops are in full growth and coming closer to the harvest time. Most wild herbs are fully mature by Midsummer and this is the traditional time for gathering magickal and medicinal plants to dry and store for winter use. In Wales, Midsummer is called Gathering Day in honour of this practice.
‘Light of the Shore’
The name for the festival of the Summer Solstice in Druidry is Alban Hefin, which means ‘The Light of the Shore’. Druidry has a great respect and reverence for places that are ‘in between’ worlds. The seashore is one such place, where the three realms of Earth, Sea and Sky meet. There is great power in places such as these.
Alban Hefin is the time of greatest light and culmination of the power of the Sun but it also brings sadness as the Sun’s strength inevitably declines and we enter the waning year.
This is the time of the Dark Twin, or Holly King, who ritually defeats the Oak King in battle to take us into the dark night of Winter. Then, in turn, at Alban Arthan ‘Light of Arthur’ or Winter Solstice the Holly King yields to the Oak King who takes us back into the waxing year and the light of Summer.
Holly Queen defeats Oak King at Catuvellauni Grove Summer Solstice Ritual at Barton Hills, Bedfordshire 2015
To the Druids it is the turning of the seasons and the cycle of life, death and rebirth – reflected in the Wheel of the Year in its completeness – which is celebrated at these times.
Traditionally folk, wearing garlands of flowers, would dance around great bonfires. Flaming brands were whirled to form sun-wheels and blazing barrels balanced on top of poles. The daring jumped through tall flames and when the fires died down to glowing coals, dancers held hands and skipped through the embers, being careful not to break the chain, which would bring bad luck.
The ashes from the fires were believed to have magical powers, and farmers carefully collected them to scatter around their fields or the animals’ barns.
The old bonfire customs lasted well into modern times, and still continue today in Cornwall, thanks to the efforts of the Old Cornwall Society in keeping the old ways alive.
On St. John’s Eve, every hill in Cornwall blazes with a beacon that can be seen for miles around, as in days of old, while in some towns chains of dancers spiral through the streets in the ancient serpentine dance.
Montol torchlit procession
The Cornish Fire Festival of Midsummer’s Eve is generally acknowledged to stretch back to pre-Christian times. References to the bonfires and Midsummer celebrations can be found in Bottrel’s “Traditions and Hearth side stories of West Cornwall” (published 1870).
Fire festivals are celebrated all over Europe. In Florence
St John’s Day is celebrated with a football game in the Piazza Santa Croce.
and the day ends with a spectacular firework display over the City.