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First day of summer 2013: where our solstice traditions come from (+video)

Summer Solstice 2013: our solstice traditions have been inherited from ancient traditions practiced around the globe.

By Contributor / June 21, 2013

People walk during the summer solstice shortly before 5 a.m. at the prehistoric Stonehenge monument, near Salisbury, England. Following an annual all-night party, thousands of New Agers and neo-pagans danced and whooped in delight at the ancient stone circle Stonehenge, marking the summer solstice, the longest day of the year.

Lefteris Pitarakis/AP

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Stonehenge is baffling: it’s not well understood why the Neolithic people would have spent their time heaving giant stones into a precarious-looking formation that doesn’t appear to have any other purpose besides aligning with the rising solstice sun. But we can imagine that the sun was somehow very important to them.

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More than 20,000 people gathered at the famed Stonehenge monument to mark the summer solstice, the longest day of the year in the northern hemisphere.

And for more evidence that the summer solstice was a big deal to the world’s ancients, take a brief tour of all the places and ways in which the moment was commemorated around the globe: with massive monuments that caught the solstice light, with festivals and food and fun, and with bonfires that leaped skyward in proud imitation of the sun they honored.

In Africa, Egypt’s pyramids are built so that on the summer solstice the sun will sit smartly between two of the pyramids, when viewed from the Sphinx. Just northward, the Greeks would celebrate the festival Kronia in honor of the Greek god Cronus, god of agriculture, at about the time of summer solstice. And westward, in the Roman Empire, the ancient Romans also threw a summertime festival called Vestalia, in honor of Vesta, the goddess of the hearth. During that festival, married women were permitted to enter the goddess’ shrine, otherwise restricted to virgins.

Dipping over to South America, in what it now Peru, the Inca celebrated Inti Raymi to honor the winter solstice. The Mayans’ temples – in what is now Guatemala – are also built to align with the sun on what for them would have been the winter solstice.

In Asia, the ancient Chinese commemorated the summer solstice as a celebration of femininity and the earth, as the sun rose to give life to summer crops. Come winter, the Chinese would, fairly, celebrate the December solstice as honoring masculinity and the heavens. In India, the ancient Ajanta caves are thought to align with the sun on the summer and winter solstices, so that the stone Buddhas within are lit up during the ethereal moment.

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