Friday marks the summer solstice in the northern hemisphere, which will see the sun will rise before 5am and sets after 9pm. The word solstice comes from the Latin words “sol”, meaning sun and “sistere”, to stand still, because the Sun’s path appears to momentarily stop before reversing direction. The solstice has been celebrated since ancient times and is one of the earliest astronomical observations in human history.
However not all cultures call the summer solstice by this name and it means different things to different people.
In northern Europe, the longest day of the year was known as Midsummer, while wiccans and other pagan groups called it Litha.
In modern times, Litha is about balance, attaining a balance between the elements of fire and water.
The summer solstice is steeped in pagan folklore and superstition.
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People were thought to wear protective garlands of herbs and flowers to ward off evil spirits that appear on the summer solstice.
The most powerful of these, was “chase devil,” known today as St John’s Wort because of its association with St John’s Day.
Folklore also holds that bonfires on Midsummer, as the solstice was known among northern Europeans, would banish demons and evil spirits and lead young maidens to their future husbands.
Some Christian churches dubbed it St John’s Day in commemoration of the birth of John the Baptist.
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And in ancient Greece, the summer solstice coincided with the beginning of a new year, and it also marked the one-month countdown to the opening of the Olympic games.
Native American tribes have long observed the summer solstice, and many continue to do so today with ancient rituals.
Tribes in present-day Wyoming built a “medicine wheel,” a stone wheel with 28 spikes at the top of Bighorn Mountain, to observe the solstice.
This wheel was aligned with the sunrise and sunset on the solstice, and is accessible only in the summer months.
Another ceremonial ritual is the Sundance celebration, originated by the Sioux tribe in the western and northwestern US, because it was believed the sun was a manifestation of the Great Spirit.
Thousands annually gather at the prehistoric megalith monument Stonehenge to celebrate the summer solstice.
Stonehenge, built around 2500 BC, lines up perfectly with both the summer and winter solstices.
Although Stonehenge’s exact purpose remains a mystery, its most believable explanation is that it was built as an ancient calendar marking the passage of time.