The Real History of the Summer Solstice

Spoiler: It’s not good news.

The modern 8 High Days of the Pagan calendar (or wheel of the year) comes from early Wicca, which based much of its traditions from Celtic and occult sources. Over nearly a century, we’ve become better at understanding the practices and beliefs of our pagan fore-bearers, but we can’t simply drop an “ancient calendar” onto our modern one. It won’t work like that.

The summer solstice is a particularly difficult modern holiday to reconstruct. There is virtually no information about how ancient to medieval peoples celebrated this. In some cases, this is because there wasn’t a holiday at this time. Many agrarian societies were too busy with their farms (or with wars and other skirmishes) to celebrate anything. The fact that we have the time to plan a holiday in high summer shows our privilege as modern people.

What do we Know About Pre-Christian Summer Solstice Traditions?

We have precious little information about how ancient to medieval pagans celebrated their holidays and religious festivals. That is simply true across all Indo-European cultures. Often, what we do know stems from medieval Christian times, and then it’s hard to say which traditions had pagan roots. Furthermore, it’s always hard to find credible sources online (which anyone is able to access).

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Now many Pagans – and much of the information online – talk of bonfires and maypoles and “pagan summer festivals.” But we must always remember that the potato is a New World crop, by which I mean: a tradition that seems to be very old probably is younger than you think. (The Irish did not always have potatoes, and the traditional ways of celebrating the summer solstice may only be as old as medieval times.)

Celtic

The most common discussions about Celtic traditions around the summer solstice have to do with Newgrange, Stonehenge, and other similar stone structures. These align to the rising and setting of the sun on days like the summer solstice. However, these structures were built by pre-Celtic peoples. While the Celts may have used many of these structures, they did not necessarily use them in the same way as their Neolithic creators.

There is evidence of Celtics cultures celebrating festivals like Beltane and Lughnasadh in medieval times. These were closely linked to agrarian cycles because they were important for farmers and villages. (Not to burst anyone’s bubble, but it is hard to find evidence for the fire festivals in pre-Christian times. The Celts didn’t write anything down!)

Celebrating the solstices and equinoxes can firmly be placed in modern Neo-Paganism. Ronald Hutton argues in his 1991 book The Pagan Religions of the Ancient British Isles, that the solstices and equinoxes were not celebrated by ancient Celtic peoples. Gardner decided to incorporate these dates as holidays into Wicca, and they have stuck in Pagan communities ever since. Forty years later, and we still cannot fully accept this truth.

Norse

We know precious little about Scandinavian, or Norse, calendars and holidays either. Jackson Crawford does have a YouTube video about the Norse calendar and the information we do have regarding it. We know the Norse used a lunar calendar and the names of their months. We know a little bit about holidays like Yule. But that’s about it.

The month around the summer solstice was called “Sun Month,” which makes a lot of sense, but it’s not much to go off of. There was a time near the summer solstice called “Moving Days” which survives in folk superstition today. These days were supposed to be a good time to move. There isn’t any information about how this may relate to a summer holiday or anything religious. Essentially, the Norse were too busy to do much of anything but tend the farm. (When you think about it, this would also apply to Celtic peoples in the midst of their farming season.)

Photo by me at the NYC Swedish Midsummer Festival

But what about all the Pagan bloggers who say that the Norse hopped over bonfires and such? Annika Hipple writes in “Midsummer in Sweden” about traditional Swedish festivals, which they call “pagan summer festivals.” But even in this article, the author admits that the Swedish maypole was brought to the country from Germany and France in the medieval period. It’s likely this happened in the late medieval period. The Viking Age was roughly 400 years before this maypole tradition. Again, it may seem old-school to us today, put that doesn’t mean it went back to pagan times. (Note that in the Wikipedia article I cited, the statement that the maypole extends to Germanic pagan times has no citation.)

Slavic

As is often the case, I have little information regarding Slavic traditions or paganism. Most of this information comes from Wikipedia, with warnings of too few citations or issues with quality standards. It’s difficult for me to say anything with surety. There are two traditions of note, and while many say the are “ancient pagan rites” I have seen no proof of it. First is Green Week or Rusalka Week in June, which has a lot to do with the dead, birch trees, and perhaps fertility.

The second tradition is Kupala Night, which is held on the night of the summer solstice. One of the main activities of the festival is for young women and men to go searching for a blooming fern flower on that night. (These ferns apparently do not bloom, so you can imagine what this festival is really about.) It’s still commonly practiced. What’s important for us here is that Kupala was a celebration of the solstice and fertility and summertime in general. Supposedly the tradition is pagan in origin because the Christian Orthodox Church connected the holiday to St. John’s Day as a way to christianize the populace. While this was a common tactic of early Christians, I don’t have good resources regarding the early church in Slavic countries.

Roman

Now, for Hellenes and Roman polytheists, what I will say comes as no surprise: the calendars of the Greco-Roman world have plenty of holidays – many with information regarding rituals – but few really correlate to the 8 Neo-Pagan holidays. And the holidays around the summer solstice don’t really correlate to the solstice itself.

The Romans did have a festival to Vesta in June, the Vestalia. While the focus of the holiday had to do with baking and women were allowed into the inner chambers of Vesta’s sacred building, there isn’t much to do with the sun or summer. Vesta was also considered the guardian of the home and the Roman state, and the Vestalia was an observance of her guardianship, culminating with the cleaning of her temple. The author of Roman Pagan cites Ovid’s Fasti as our main source of knowledge about this festival. While she is the goddess of the hearth fire, that association is as close as we can get to a modern summer solstice holiday.

Greek

It seems that the ancient Greeks calculated the beginning of their year at the new moon after the summer solstice. This last month of the year was called Skiraphorion and the first month of the year was called Hekatombaiōn. This makes the festival of Skira, which landed close to the solstice, something of an end-of-year holiday to ensure a good harvest the following year.

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The Skiraphoria honored Demeter and Kore, Athena, Poseidon, and Dionysus. So the festival honored the goddess of grain, the goddess of olives (and the city), the god of seafaring, and the god of wine – all of which were the lifeblood of the Athenians! Ensuring the well-being of these things would keep Athens prosperous. This is a festival for the agrarian cycle, and it has much to do with the fertility of the land in summer. It’s not exactly what modern Pagans would consider the summer solstice holiday to be about, but it is very close.

Interestingly, Plato connects Apollo as a sun god to a festival related to the summer solstice. By the reckoning of Tomislav Bilić in his academic article, this festival was supposed to be celebrated just before the month of Hekatombaiōn (aka the start of the New Year). Bilić makes a good argument for this, although there isn’t much concrete evidence to support it.

Was the Summer Solstice an Ancient Holiday?

The summer solstice was the middle of summer. It was hot. Things were growing. Farmers were busy. Ancient Rome and Greece had five other festivals that month anyway. These things should be no surprise to us. And yet, when you google anything about the Pagan summer solstice, there are pages and pages insisting this holiday has ancient roots.

It does not. That’s ok.

Should we even bother celebrating the summer solstice? I think so. For one, it’s keeps our holiday calendar to every six weeks, which I quite like. I also think it’s good to have a “pan-Pagan” calendar of sorts. So it has use to us modern people.

But there’s more to the solstice than that. Pagans are often nature-centered. The height of summer is when everything is alive and growing. And since we do not have to labor in fields to ensure our survival, we should give offerings and celebrate life. Midsummer is a modern extension of May Day (or the Beltane fires). The same “reasons for the season” apply.

How Should We Celebrate This Modern Holiday?

Many authors online say you can celebrate the sun, the earth, the Good Neighbors/Fairies and other spirits, etc. These are all fine ways to celebrate. You can honor fertility deities or sun deities. You can celebrate any ol’ way you like – this is a modern holiday. Give thanks for the warmth of the sun and the growing of food and plant life. Celebrate with fun outdoor activities.

Photo by Bob Ward on Pexels.com

Honor the land in one way or another. I can’t tell you how to do that – it depends on where you live. On the East Coast of the US it’s muggy and hot, but we can do something outside in good weather. In Arizona or Nevada, its wildfire season. Perhaps focusing on water and rains (and rain deities vs solar deities) at a solstice ritual would be important. You know your local land: honor it at the solstice accordingly.

Sources

Celtic

Norse

Slavic

Roman

Greek

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