What happens during a Summer Solstice?

What happens during a Summer Solstice?

In the Northern Hemisphere, the night of the 20th to 21st of June marks the longest day of the year. Nowadays, in a time with an all-round electricity supply, this may not seem significant. But picture a day a few hundred years ago. There were no street lights, TVs, or other artificial sources of light. In the home candles and fireplaces were the only tools to illuminate the darkness. Outside however the only light sources in the night sky were the moon and the stars.

Stonehenge, UK

Having longer access to daylight was so significant that our ancestors worshipped the longest day of the year. It meant that the growing season was at its peak and the countdown to the shortest day of the year (21st December) would begin. This is of course only true when you live in the Northern Hemisphere. “Down under” the opposite happens and the December Solstice is the longest day in the year.

 

Monuments to worship the Solstice included The Karnak temple (Luxor, Egypt), Stonehenge (UK), Angokr Wat (Cambodia), and the Serpent Mound (Ohio, US).

Serpent mound in Ohio, US

On Serpent Mound, believed to have been built thousands of years ago, a large serpent and head are carved into the landscape. On the 21st June, the open jaws of the serpent align with the setting sun, as if the dragon is spitting out ‘fire’. This spectacle was even further enhanced by a large crystal (showing the eye of the dragon), which was situated in the serpent’s head. Unfortunately, this large crystal was stolen during the 18th century and the solstice effect is now only half as effective.

What happens during a solstice?

As the earth moves around the sun, its path resembles more of an eclipse than that of a circle.

When the path of the sun is at its most northern point in the Northern Hemisphere (which happens every year on the 20/21st of June) we see a summer solstice – the longest day of the year.

During the night of the 20/21st of December however, the sun lies at its most Southern point, therefore it is the longest day in the Southern Hemisphere and the shortest day in the Northern Hemisphere. On the 21st of March and 23rd of September, the sun forms an exact 90-degree angle, therefore days and nights are the same – everywhere.

There are so many traditions that I can’t mention them all. One of my favorites is the ritual of the Baltic sun goddess Saule. Every day this tireless goddess rides her fiery chariot across the sky, from morning to nightfall, when she retires to her castle. Saule is the goddess of fertility and the land, a similar version to Demeter in Greece.

Farmers prayed to her to have a good harvest and around the Summer Solstice, the whole community celebrated by lighting bonfires. Partly to worship her and ward off evil spirits. Young people wore wreaths of flowers, leaped over fires, sang, and danced.

It is interesting that our forefathers paid much more notice to the winter solstice. The longest day had of course much less significance than the shortest day. The celebration concerned the re-awakening of the light. Growing sunlight meant that the climate was getting warmer and after the cold spell, another growing cycle would begin. The festivities around the winter solstice would eventually morphe into Christmas celebrations, showing a baby Jesus with a halo. The ‘growing little light’ was a powerful symbol.  Longer days meant more growing time which eventually turned into the rebirth of the growing cycle and the start of a new year, celebrated by Passover or Easter and marked by the first Full Moon after the spring Equinoxe. 

Today we are still singing and dancing and celebrating these yearly turning points.  After the last two challenging years where people had to watch the last summer solstices online.  But this year we can meet again in person to watch this spectacle in situ. 

Here is a link to this year’s Solar Eclipse at Stonehenge . The first in history that takes place on Facebook instead of in situ. But this means that you can watch it now the comfort of your own home!

Solar eclipses

Solar eclipses

Total lunar eclipseYou must have ‘lived behind the moon’ not to have been swooped up this month’s news about a total solar eclipse. This particular one happened on the 20th March 2015 and was mainly visible in the Northern parts of Europe, particularly Scotland, Norway and Iceland.

As you can see on this picture, the moon passes between sun and the earth. As the visible moon is larger than the visible sun, the sun is eclipsed by the moon and no direct sunlight is visible to us. This event does not last long, in fact this year the longest solar eclipse was visible in Scotland and its total time was 2 minutes and 47 seconds, so not an eternity.

Total eclipses are vary rare astronomical events. The last one was in 1999 and the next one will occur again on August 12th 2026.

So considering how rare these events are and how short a time they take, it is remarkably how they capture our imagination. In the past solar eclipses often were markers of important historical events. There aparantly was a solar eclipse when Jesus died and Mohammed was born and in more recent times the solar eclipse in 1919, when the sun light was blocked by the moon for a full 6 minutes and 51 seconds, scientists measured the bending of the light from the stars. These finding were instrumental in the explanation of Einstein’s theory of general relativity.

Find out more about historical significant solar eclipses  

 

 

 

 

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