Thursday, June 21, 2018

Solstice Traditions

Solstice – The word conjures up magical ideas from civilizations lost to us. The word itself is  derived from the Latin words ‘sol’ (sun) and ‘stitium’ (still or stopped) because ancient observations revealed that the movement of the earth stopped and shifted on these days every year.

The shortest and the longest days of the year, those days we identify as the winter and summer solstice provide us with an enchanting confluence of agricultural science and the numinous beliefs held by ancient and modern civilizations. These special days have been celebrated by cultures around the world since the Stone Age. For Summer Solstice in the northern hemisphere, the common thread of these observances are marked with bonfires to ‘burn the hex’, community based singing and dancing, shared feasts and an intense focus on regrouping the community to begin food production that would see them through the following winter.

Solstice was also a harbinger of climatologic occurrences that portend well or poorly for the growing season. In ancient Egypt, the summer solstice coincided with the rise of the Nile River. By observing how the Nile changed, the community could plan their plantings and anticipate flood or drought related issues. This date was so important that it became a part of their architectural planning. For instance, from the view of the Sphinx, the sun sets squarely between the Great Pyramids of Khufu and Khafre on Egypt’s Giza plateau during the summer solstice.

Ancient Greeks began the solstice with a festival honoring Cronus, the god of agriculture. Once the festival to Cronus began, slaves and masters became equals with roles being switched. Plantings surrounded this period of celebration – both with joy for the crops that were growing and anticipation of the harvests to come.

In the days leading up to the solstice, married women in ancient Rome entered the temples to Vesta (goddess of the hearth) to make offerings to the goddess in hopes that the goddess would exchange these offerings for blessings to the families and the community.

The pagans of Northern Europe have taken the solstice seriously since well before recorded time. Bonfires were set to boost the sun’s energy and increase crop yields in hopes of a great autumn harvest. The bonfires became associated with magical thinking and were used to banish evil – the hexes and demons that plagued these cultures in the long and very dark winter. The belief that mother earth would provide is an important part of these ritualized behaviors. The hexes and demons being banished were sent away to allow the feminine powers of fertility associated with the earth to provide a bountiful harvest.

This is akin to the Native American beliefs of Mother Earth and Father Sky. Father owns the sky but Mother Earth provides for all. The Hopi tribe of Northern Arizona takes this so close to heart that their most prized possession – their family seed bank – belongs to and is held in trust by the mother of the family. Across North America, most of the Native American tribes practiced solstice rituals. Many tribes developed architectural designs that focused on providing a ‘picture’ calendar to use as a reminder of planting times before they had the written word. They worked out aligning small, high windows in structures that would line up perfectly with the sunlight at sunrise and sunset on solstice and equinox. As the time grew closer to planting times, the light moved into focus as their reminder to prepare for the plantings.

In China, not only were the solstices celebrated but they also held festivals for the equinoxes. Depending upon the geography and climate in this great expanse of land either the spring equinox or the summer solstice were associated with planting for the autumn equinox – the harvest or Moon Festival. Throughout China, the festival of the summer solstice was associated with yin (feminine) forces and is tied to honoring the goddess of light, Li. There are marked similarities to the observance of mother earth providing a plentiful harvest by the pagans of northern Europe.

Religious groups have also developed rituals around the solstice. Wiccans refer to this date as Litha and Christian churches commemorate the birth of John the Baptist on summer solstice. In the desert southwest, the native peoples came to know this commemoration and tied it to their own seasonal plantings that are tied to the desert climatologic event known as monsoon rains or the chubasco. This is still celebrated in many parts of the southwest and is called Dia del San Juan or St. Johns Day. This is a major warm season crop planting day and is considered to be the start of the 5th growing season of the year.

There is a modern theory of agriculture that is gaining traction called biodynamic cycles. Developed in Germany in the 1920’s, it centers on the belief that the earth is a living organism that inhales and exhales. “This mighty breathing is in direct relationship to the surrounding cosmos. Beginning with the Easter Season (equinox), the long exhale starts and continues through St. John’s Tide (the summer solstice). This long exhalation is experienced in the rapid growth and green-up that we experience in the northern hemisphere when all the elemental beings are released.” Carol Avery

For modern farmers, the solstice provides the maximum day length and generally the warmest temperatures that help ensure the optimal germination of seeds. So, however and wherever you celebrate the
solstice – get out there and work on the fertility of your soil and plant what makes you happy!

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