Today is the Summer Solstice, which marks the longest day of the year. And, its also a full moon, which is pretty cool- and actually those two things haven’t coincided in about 70 years. Amongst the Algonquin tribes in North America, the full moon in June was referred to as the strawberry moon, because it falls within the short window when strawberries are ripe, so this solstice coinciding with the strawberry moon is a pretty special event.
If you can’t see this solstice/full moon from where you are because of weather, scheduling, or some other obstacle, you can check it out here courtesy of Slooh telescopes:
Listen to the Midsummer Solstice Episode:
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[Episode 25 Transcript… with pics!]
It shouldn’t be too surprising that essentially every culture that has ever existed has had, at least at some point, some sort of mythological relationship with the sun. Its pretty hard to miss. And, we’re also aware that many ancient civilizations had some sort of system in place, sometimes incredibly complex and accurate ones, of measuring the cycles of nature and time by watching the sky… Temples and monuments were often built with astrological alignment in mind. One of the most famous examples of this, of course, is Stonehenge, the prehistoric monument in Wiltshire, England.
Stonehenge has been a topic of scholarly research and debate for centuries, and yet, as it was built by a culture that left no written records, in many ways it still remains quite mysterious. Archeologists place its original construction somewhere between 3000 and 2000 BCE, although it went through several transformations over the course of history. To this day, in fact, nobody even really knows how these massive stones were moved and arranged, although a number of very interesting hypotheses have come and gone over the years surrounding the how’s and why’s of Stonehenge.
There was a guy during the middle ages called Geoffrey of Monmouth who wrote a very popular account of the stones at Stonehenge having originally been brought from Africa to Ireland by a race of giants, and subsequently transported across the sea by the wizard Merlin, famous for his role in the legends of King Arthur.
Various legends have even arose surrounding individual stones at Stonehenge. The heel stone, in particular, has had a colorful history. During the summer solstice, if you are standing within the stone circle, looking north-east, you would see the sun rise above what is now almost always referred to as the Heel Stone. The Heel Stone has been known by many other names in the past, including Sun Stone and Friar’s Hell, and the name heel stone actually comes from a folktale about the Devil throwing a stone at a friar’s heel…
One fairly common version of that story is essentially as follows:
The Devil buys some magical stones from a woman in Ireland and brings them to Salisbury Plain. He insists that the entire village count the stones. A friar tells the devil that this is impossible because there are too many… which is actually another myth about Stonehenge- that its impossible to count the stones… Angered by the friar’s refusal to count the stones, the devil throws one of them at him and hits his heel. The stone remains there to this day, and that’s why its called the heel stone.
Ultimately, we really don’t know that much about what Stonehenge was intended for- whether it was a religious site, a burial ground, a monument, or something else… Stonehenge certainly isn’t the only archeological site whose architecture corresponds to the the movement of the sun across the sky. The Mayan city of Chichen Itza, located in the eastern Yucatan State in Mexico, is of course, another one- famous for the serpentine shadow that is seen to wriggle down the steps of the northwest corner of the El Castillo pyramid during the spring and autumn equinoxes.
And, of course, it makes a lot of sense that ancient civilizations kept track of the solstices and equinoxes and imbued them with a certain significance within their astrological calendars. These celestial events marked seasonal changes that impacted the harvest and planting schedule, livestock, food storage, and lots of other aspects of daily life associated with the changing of the seasons.
Amongst the pre-Christian pagan traditions throughout Europe, in parts of Asia, and in parts of Northern Africa, important holidays were celebrated on the solstice and equinox. These were seen as particularly liminal times, when the veil between the spirit world and our own was at its thinnest.
Elements of these pagan seasonal holidays survived, in many cases being coopted into the Christian calendar. The most obvious example of that is probably Yule, around which the early Christian calendar conveniently, and really somewhat arbitrarily, placed Christmas, such that the assimilation of the pagan festival into a Christian holiday was, broadly speaking, relatively seamless.
The same thing happened with Samhain, which became All-Saints Day, or, All-Hallows-Tide, or, as we call it today, Halloween.
Of the spring and summer festivals, Beltane, usually celebrated on or around the first of May, was probably the most significant. This marked the beginning of spring, the sun’s waxing, and was associated with fertility. Traditionally this was a particularly important festival for herdsmen and pastoral people, as it was the time when livestock were driven into the pastures.
Elements of this tradition, particularly the idea of bedecking a tree in flower garlands and dancing around it, have evolved into May Day celebrations that are still popular in some parts of Europe, and particularly in Scandinavia.
Both historically and even into today, there was some merging of the Beltane and Midsummer customs. The use of fire is probably the most significant aspect of both of these traditions. And, The May Pole, for example, or something akin to it, is also found throughout midsummer traditions in parts of Europe.
The tradition of Midsummer in Europe and parts of Russia was originally a pagan festival that was, again, rebranded into the Christian festival of St. John’s Day, or St. John’s Eve, typically taking place on the eve and day of the summer solstice, usually the twenty third and twenty-fourth of June. Many of the pagan elements, and particularly the use of bonfires, survived and continued to be a part of these festivities for centuries, in some places into today.
In pre-Christian traditions, the midsummer celebration was almost always related to that year’s crops and harvest. Old European pagans, like many ancient peoples, were astute observers of sky, and it isn’t surprising at all that they used the solstices and equinoxes to denote important shifts in the seasons and as cause for celebration and religious rites.
Throughout parts of Europe, this idea of the solstice as a turning point in the year, mid-way between the planting season and the harvest, with the sun beginning its gradual but steady descent- spending less and less time in the sky each day- was often manifested in a folk custom of rolling a wheel, sometimes a flaming wheel.
In the German village of Konz, this wheel-rolling took on a particularly unique air. Basically, everyone in town had to contribute a quantity of straw, which was piled up at the top of a steep hill. Come nightfall, all of the men and boys in the village gathered at the top of the hill while the women and girls assembled at a spring towards the bottom of the hill.
All of the straw that was contributed by the people was plastered on to a giant wheel, typically made of wood, with a tree wedged through the center as a sort of axle, or handle. The wheel was set on fire and two of the fastest and strongest young men of the village would grab the handles and propel the giant flaming will down the hill, attempting to guide it towards the Moselle river. They would pass by the women at the spring, who would cheer them on, but apparently the wheel rarely actually made it all the way to the river. If it did, however, this was considered a most auspicious sign that an abundant harvest was forthcoming that year.
A more common custom that was seen throughout various parts of Europe was the leaping of young people over a bonfire, with a belief that the higher they leaped the higher the crops, often hemp or flax, would grow that year. Flower garlands, particularly of mugwort, vervain, and larkspur, were common features of these festivals as well, and particularly the notion that looking through a bundle of larkspur at the smoke of the midsummer fire would ward off any ailments associated with the eyes.
Another interesting folk custom that is seen, sometimes into today, particularly in the Danish celebration of midsummer or St. John’s Eve, is the burning of a human effigy. Traditionally this little person, made of sticks, was covered in flowers and burnt by a young boy, who then leapt over the coals.
Its been suggested that this tradition has roots in the alleged Celtic practice of burning a human effigy- the so-called “Wicker Man.” In fact, there is fairly scant evidence surrounding this, and a lot of the contemporary awareness surrounding the notion of the wicker man is actually a result of the famous 1973 horror film of the same name. It is true that various Romans, including Julius Caesar, claimed that the Druid priests of the Gauls performed human sacrifice in this manner, but its fairly widely espoused by scholars that there is no actual evidence of this ever happening and that it was far more likely a campaign of disinformation on the part of the Romans… Did the ancient Druids actually lock men inside a giant wicker man and burn them in sacrifice? We may never know for sure, but probably not.
The tradition of fire during midsummer can also be found in Northern Africa, particularly Morocco and Algeria. In this case, popular plants for burning were fennel, thyme, chamomile, geranium, and penny-royal- things that would give off a thick smoke and a strong aroma. People would expose themselves to the smoke in a belief that it had beneficial properties, and would also fan it towards the crops for this same reason. Jumping over the the fires was something that was also practiced by Berbers in Northern Morocco, with the belief that it would bring good health, and sometimes they would fires beneath their fruit trees to ensure a bountiful harvest. Rubbing the ashes of these fires in one’s hair was also thought to prevent hair loss.
In Iran, Tirgan is a midsummer festival that is typically celebrated during the first week of July, or Tir. Tirgan is traditionally associated with the angel Tieshtrya, a Zoroastrian deity associated with rainfall and fertility. Zoroastrianism is one of the world’s oldest religions, and was the predominant Pre-Islamic religion in Iran. And this is something we’re going to get more into in an upcoming episode. For now, however, we’re looking at the midsummer festival of Tirgan. Along with the angel Tieshtrya, there was also an opposing deity, or demon, called Apoahsha who was responsible for drought. In the Avesta, which is the primary collection of religious texts and mythology associated with Zoroastrianism, there is a story describing a mythological battle between these two deities.
Going into battle, Tieshtrya assumes the form of a white horse and Apoahsha, the drought-demon, appears as a terrifying black horse. Tieshtrya’s strength is dependent on human prayers, and due to a lack of them, he is weak and the drought-bringing demon is gaining the upper hand in the struggle.
Tieshtrya appeals to the great Creator God, Ahura Mazda, who offers a sacrifice to the deity himself that provides Tieshtrya with the necessary strength to overpower his nemesis. His victory results in a heavy rainfall and the end of a prolonged period of drought.
Another important Iranian tale that is often associated Tirgan, and goes hand-in-hand with the story of Tieshtrya, is the tale of Arash the Archer.
The legend behind Arash is an ancient one, and it essentially begins with a dispute over land between the ancient Iranians and their neighbors, the “Turanians,” over where the borders between their nations actually were.
After a war between the two nations has come to a point of negotiation, they agree to make peace. And they decide that the dispute over their borders will be settled by shooting an arrow. However much land falls within the reach of the bowshot will belong to Iran, and everything beyond that will belong to their adversaries.
That night, an angel comes down and visits the leader of the Iranians to construct a special bow and arrow, and to ask a man named Arash to be the archer.
The bow is made and at dawn, Arash launches the special arrow into the sky, which goes an incredible distance. The distance different depending which version you read, but a common description is that it took the people 40 days of walking to reach it… so, really far.
In some versions of the story, Arash is actually destroyed by the shot and vanishes. In other versions he is exalted and lives out his life as a great hero amongst his people.
Either way, once the borders have been established and peace is agreed upon, rainfall pours over both countries, ending a prolonged period of drought, which harkens back to the previous tale and is associated with the angel Tieshtrya and his rain-inducing victory over the drought demon.
Obviously, a big part the solstice has to do with the journey of the sun- which is both a daily journey, from dawn til dusk, as well as a seasonal journey, where days get longer and shorter. The sun’s journey, and the mystery of sunrise and sunset- where the sun goes after it recedes into the horizon- is something that has fascinated human beings from our earliest days.
The next story we’re going to look at is an Iroquois sun myth, which involves some brothers who follow the sun on its journey to the horizon, and beyond… This version comes from Edward Cornplanter, a Seneca, and appeared in a 1910 volume of the Journal of American Folklore. Its called The Brothers Who Followed the Sun under the Sky’s Rim… [Original version can be found here]
There were 3 brothers, all of whom were unmarried and all of whom had spent their lives hunting. As young men, hunting was exciting for them, but as they grew older the thrill began to fade. The youngest of the three brothers suggested that they try something new for excitement. He suggested they walk to the edge of the earth, where the sky meets the sea.
They traveled for several years, and eventually came to the place where the sun goes under the sky’s edge and the sky sinks into the water. The brothers camped at this place for a month, studying it. Some other men came and tried to get under the edge of the sky, but the sky sank down and crushed them.
The two youngest brothers wanted to go under the edge of the sky when the sun passed through, but the older brother was afraid. They left him and made a run for it, following the road under the sky’s edge as the sky was descending above them.
The older brother watched, and seeing that nothing happened to injure his younger brothers, he ran after them, but he got crushed. They watched his spirit shoot past them.
On the other side, everything was different. There was a large hill, which the two brothers climbed, and from there they saw a village in the distance. A man came running towards them, calling to them to come with him. The man was old, but moved like a young man. He introduced himself as the father of the people in the Above-the-Sky-Place. He also says he is the father of Ha-wen-ni-yu, who is the creator or ruler deity. He advises the brothers that when they meet Ha-wen-ni-yu, they must speak to him first, before he speaks to them, or else they will become spirits like their older brother.
So, when they meet Ha-wen-ni-yu, they quickly say the words told to them by the old man. At this point, Ha-wen-ni-yu asks the men about their bodies, and then tells them that he will renew their bodies, which are old. He has the brothers lie down and touches a shell to their mouths. He proceeds to skin them, take their bodies apart, and reassemble them. He washes all of their organs before replacing them.
Once they were reassembled, the brothers felt renewed, and Ha-wen-ni-yu put them to a series of tests, all of which they passed with the newfound strength and speed that resulted from the transformation.
Later, they watch as a man comes running in carrying a ball of light at his chest. It is the sun, the messenger of Ha-wen-ni-yu, who brings him news of a war going between one nation and the people of the two brothers. They watch this unfold from the celestial realm, through a hole made by an uprooted tree.
The two brothers stay for a long time and learn many things from Ha-wen-ni-yu, but eventually he instructs a messenger to take them back to their own world. Again, they follow along the path of the sun and travel under the sky. They come out back in their world, but where their village once was was now a grove of trees. Things had changed.
They followed a path through the trees for a short distance and found their village and their people. They told their story there, but nobody knew them except for their sister, who was now an old woman. The war they had witnessed from the upper world, she explained, happened over fifty years ago. To them, it didn’t feel like that much time had elapsed and their bodies looked no different from when they had left.
The two brothers were unhappy now, and they wished to be back in the upper world. Their speed and strength made them unlike other men, and they never got tired or sick. Eventually, they were both struck by lightning, which finally did them in.