The word 'Solstice' derives from the Latin term meaning 'sun stood still', as in the winter and summer the sun appears to rise and set in practically the same place. Summer is one of the four seasons (Winter, Spring, Summer and Autumn) and the seasons are affected by a change in the Earths rotational axis. The two significant points in the rotational axis are the shortest day (least daylight hours and longest moonlight hours) known as the Winter Solstice, celebrated on December 21, and the longest day (when the Earth points towards the Sun and so gives people in the northern hemisphere maximum daylight light hours and shortest moonlight hours) known as the Summer Solstice and celebrated on June 21. This time, June 21, is associated with the 'Honey' and 'Mead Moon', and is now often referred to as 'Midsummer'. To most it is remembered as the time of the year when the distance of the Sun from the equator is at its greatest distance. For others though it is a time to celebrate the achievement of man under the guidance and protection of 'Mother Earth' and 'Bel' (hence Beltane) resulting from their mutual veneration. In ancient Celtic and Wiccan beliefs such a time and event is symbolized by the 'Cauldron' and the 'Spear'.
The body itself can be seen to be physically affected by seasonal change. Within the body is a gland called the 'Pineal Gland' controlling some of the internal clocks which are affected by the movement or journey of the Sun. As the daylight hours shorten, the pineal gland releases the chemical 'Melatonin', this in turn controls the amount of 'Seritonin' in the brain. The pineal gland is sensitive to, and reacts to, the amount of light working in conjuction with the 'Endocrine System'. The body experiences changes in energy levels and in the emotional balance, so being affected by the environment. Hence many people experience an increase in energy as the sun moves through the Spring and Summer pathways, but find that the energy drops with the decrease in sunlight/daylight hours during the autumn and winter.
The seasons can also be seen to directly affect the mating rituals, hibernation and migration times of many animals, all of which are affected by the seasonal length in sunlight hours. Animals can be seen to be affected the most by seasonal change as they do not conform to 'Civilised Social Patterns' (Social Norms). There are exceptions to this in some human cultures such as the life styles of many aboriginal cultures who practice and believe in a life in balance with nature. Daily, monthly and seasonal patterns exist which reflect seasonal change.
The oldest evidence of the recording or noting of time is believed by many scholars to date to around a period called the 'Old Stone Age' (approx. thirty-thousand years ago) when marks found scratched, chipped or painted in pieces of bone, ivory or stone have been found and believed to be the noting of significant events in the sky such as a Full Moon or New Moon.
In the 'New Stone Age' (approx. six-to-eight-thousand years ago) there appears to have been forms of seasonal celebrations carried out by a collection of small communities. Farmers, fishermen and travellers, whose very lives depended on information and events such as the condition of the weather that the seasons bought with them it seems, would gather together to appeal to the energies they believed controlled the cycles of nature - birth, life, death and rebirth - of which crops, animal and human were all participants.
In ancient times people are believed to have used four main techniques for marking the passing of each solstice/equinox.
1/ Marking a symbol or picture (painting or carving) which would be illuminated by the sun's rays (sunrise or sunset). When the sun was at a right angle at a particular time of the year, as previously mentioned, the sun's angle change over the year with the passing of each equinox would be marked. A classic example of this is the ancient chamber which stands in Ireland called 'Newgrange', where there is a very small hole in the chamber through which the rays pass and illuminate the centre of the chamber at the Winter Solstice. If our forefathers knew nothing else, this is evidence that they had a concept of time and it's relevance to natural occurences.
2/ Another method involved the noting of shadows cast from or onto an upright pillar/obelisk. In temperate areas of the Earth, shadows are shorter during the Summer Solstice and longer in the Winter Solstice period. This particular technique has been connected with such civilistaions as the Babylonians, Ionian Greeks, Chinese and Peruvians. (Read more on Mystical Time - History).
3/ A third method is/was used by central Native American tribes. This requires a specially constructed ceremonial structure. On the longest day of the year the Sun at the exact time of noon directly shines through a hole in the ceiling and onto a particular location on the floor.
4/ Another method to mark a season/solstice was by watching the Sun or Moon from a fixed position. The method was frequently used throughout Europe, Asia, and the Americas. Stonehenge (England UK) is an example of this method. This is one of the reasons that Summer Solstice celebrations continue even today linking with the acknowledgement of 'Nature and the Seasons' and may be why they have been passed on/through different belief systems (Pagans, Druids). Stonehenge is believed to have been constructed before the Pyramids. Incidently, the temple at 'Karnack' in Egypt also appears to have used solstice alignments.
We know from evidence contained within the Chinese 'Book of Records' that 'The Perfect Emperor Yao' (2254 BC) gave instructions to his astronomers to enable them to calculate the solstices/equinoxes. In this system, the Winter Solstice period acknowledged the celestial male, or 'Yang Forces' and the Summer Solstice period acknowledged the opposite, female or 'Yin Forces' were connected with the Earth.
In the ancient Roman period there was a ceremony carried out during the festival of the 'Grove of Diana'. This was a time when the priest could be replaced by any other man and hold the title 'King of the Wood' if he carried out the following actions. He took a branch known as the 'Golden Bough' from a sacred tree which would stand within the temple grove and then kill the current priest. It was believed that the old priest represented a God and the death of a God caused a new life to enter into the world. The death of these priests/gods, together with the rituals that followed them, are believed to have been connected with the solstices.
The Summer Solstice was incorporated into the Christian calendar during the spread of Christianity, and like so many of the old festivals, was given new meaning which was considered less Paganistic and more suited to the Christian festival. The Summer Solstice became the feast day of 'St. John the Baptist'.
Several hundred years ago, across Europe, healers were usually women who carried out healing using a mixtures of herbs. 'Hildegard of Bingen' (twelfth-century) put together a book recording many of these herbs and what they could be used for. In time, it became the foundation of herbalism and medicine in the western world. Shortly after its' publication, the Spanish Inquisition was established and it is believed over nine-million women were persecuted and then executed for what was termed as the practice of witchcraft. Witchcraft at this time had many definitions one of which was "The knowledge and practice or the traditional ways of healing". The connection of herbs and healing to witchcraft is that many of the herbs used for healing were believed to hold more healing power if they were gathered at significant times of the year such as Summer Solstice. During this time, it is believed by some, that the feminine earth energies (See also Yin & Yang above) are at their most powerful.
Examples of some of the herbs gathered at Summer Solstice were 'Mugwort' - the herb of St. John, also known as 'St John's Wort', together with Chamomile, Geranium, Thyme, and Penny royal. Another reason these were special at the Summer Solstice period is that they possessed beautiful aromas when thrown on bonfires which were common occurences during midsummer festivals across Europe. These were believed to eradicate bad luck/negative energy, and usually made from branches of the sacred Oak and Fir trees. Another common ancient practice was to gather bundles of bay leaves and set these alight before rolling them down hills - a sight which must have been inspiring to witness.
Making flower headdresses is an ancient tradition for this day, with wreathes of sacred plants and herbs hung on houses for good luck and prosperity. Five plants have been commonly known in rural folklore to possess special magical powers at this time: Rue, Roses, St. John's Wort, Vervain and Trefoil, with any of the herbs thrown in the bonfire for luck (or to honour the Sun, symbolised by the fire itself).
Since most religions believe everything or spiritual energy itself is from and of the Creator, then it is obvious that acceptance of the four seasons was taken as a cosmic indication of what and how the energy could be found around, within and affecting all living things. The feeling as mentioned at the beginning of this explanation can be described as purely the result of a chemical reaction within the brain, but it can also be said that the chemical reaction only happen due to the external force of Sunlight. So human kind was/is reacting to Nature. With the introduction of social changes to working patterns, shift work, moveable holidays etc., along with artificial light and light pollution itself, the brain is becoming somewhat confused with with what has been referred to as the 'natural instinct' drawing the individual towards the outward expression of internal changes affected as said by external forces. Is this what causes the modern day disease known to us all as 'stress', caused by working against natural cycles in Time?
In literature the the Summer Solstice is associated with the famous Shakespearean play 'A Misummer Nights Dream' when Faries with their magic play the leading characters interacting with humans/mortals. In folklore it is believed that the Summer Solstice in particularly Midsummer's Eve is a time when Faries would bestow goodluck on humans. An old ritual for children was to place food out in the garden for the Faries who would then sometimes leave crystals as token of thanks, this particular offering could explain where the leaving of food for Santa Claus at Christmas also stemmed from.
Happy Solstice to all,The Mystic