First day of summer 2013: where our solstice traditions come from

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

Lefteris Pitarakis/AP
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.

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.

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.

Generally, the summer solstice becomes more important with increasing latitude – for civilizations close to the broiling equator, after all, summer weather was not particularly novel, nor was the demarcation of seasons so important to agriculture. In North America, Wyoming’s Bighorn medicine wheel – a Native American-made stone arrangement some several hundred years old – is believed to have been deliberately built to align with the solstice sunrise and sunset. And in northern Europe, Celtic, Slavic, and Germanic couples would leap over bonfires, in hopes of giving a magical jolt to the sun’s fertile powers – their crops that summer would grow as high as the lovers had jumped, it was thought.

Since those midsummer festivals have pagan origins, the new Christian governments rolling into northern Europe attempted to put a stop to them as they consolidated political control there. When that failed – the conquered people turned out to be reasonably stubborn about their inherited traditions – the summer rituals were incorporated into the Christian tradition as St. John’s Eve on June 24th , the feast day of St. John the Baptist.

Today through June 24th , the solstice will still be celebrated around the world, all in appreciation of the same sun. In Times Square, thousands of people on yoga mats will do a collective sun salutation, Portuguese commemorators will parade through their cities, and Russian girls will float their flower garlands down their rivers.

At Stonehenge, upwards of 30,000 modern Druids will dance at the fabled monument as the sun comes up, Austrian celebrants will send a procession of candle-lit ships down the Danube River, and Latvian runners will race nude through the town of Kuldīga.  Across northern Europe, friends and family will ignite bonfires and do as their ancestors did, leaping over them in a gesture of optimism for warm months to come.

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