Summer solstice traditions and sun worship
The summer solstice is when the sun is its furthest away from the equator, making it the longest day of the year. It has been marked as the high point of summer – or midsummer – since the Neolithic era.
Curator Catherine Troiano looks at the traditions and folklore of this ancient festival and explores how the longest day of the year was observed at the places we care for in days gone by.
This year there won’t be any solstice events at our places. This is to comply with the government guidelines around social distancing and to ensure safety in response to coronavirus.
In Northern and Central European Neolithic cultures, the summer solstice may have been related to timings of crop cycles. It was typically marked by Celtic, Slavic and Germanic people by lighting bonfires, intended to boost the sun’s strength for the remainder of the crop season and ensure a healthy harvest.
Numerous Neolithic stone circles also appear to have been built around the movement of the sun at solstices, although, as there are no written accounts from the time, it is difficult to be definitive about the exact purposes of these rock edifices. However stones appear to be carefully positioned to align with the sun’s movements, framing solar motion on summer and winter solstices, and stones at particular solstice axes were even shaped with hammerstones to frame the sunrise for those standing at the centre of the circle.
Though it might seem that the middle of summer would naturally fall on the longest day of the year, the summer solstice and Midsummer’s Day are actually distinct events, normally a few days apart between 20 and 24 June. The difference is thought to stem from variations in the Julian and Gregorian calendars.
The longest day has been marked in different ways over the years and has its own set of customs. Some are based on practical needs. Others originate from spiritual and superstitious beliefs.
Mysticism and magic are a common theme in midsummer folklore across the world. Magic was thought to be strongest during the summer solstice and myths told stories of the world turning upside down or the sun standing still at midsummer.
As Ronald Hutton, Professor of History at the University of Bristol, put it, it was seen as 'a time when the normal laws of nature or divinity could be suspended, when spirits and fairies could contact humans, when humans could exceed the usual limitations of their world.’
In an 1855 oil painting from Gunby Hall, Lincolnshire, Scottish painter William Bell Scott depicts pixies dancing by firelight. In a letter that Scott himself wrote in 1886, he spoke of the painting as showing ‘fairies dancing before a great dying kitchen fire … at a Haunted House on Midsummer’s Eve.’
" ‘[Midsummer was seen as] a time when the normal laws of nature or divinity could be suspended, when spirits and fairies could contact humans, when humans could exceed the usual limitations of their world.’"
Observing the longest day is not limited to the Western world. Many ancient cultures and communities had unique traditions centred around midsummer.
Sun worship took on particular significance in Ancient Egyptian religions. The summer solstice aligned with the rise of the river Nile and the deity of the sun, Ra (known later during the New Kingdom as Amun-Ra), became one of Ancient Egypt’s most important gods. Ra was considered creator of life and ruler of the sun, the sky and kings, and was widely commemorated in monuments and artefacts.
The Egyptian sun god was often depicted with a falcon’s head and a sun disk. He can be seen here on a pyramid stele from Ancient Egypt in the collection at Kingston Lacy, Dorset.
The Roman God of the Sun was widely celebrated in sculpture and painting. This plaster cast at Castle Ward, Northern Ireland, is a copy of the renowned Apollo Belvedere in the Vatican.
Whilst Apollo was Roman God of the Sun, Helios was the sun personified. This coin in the collection at Osterley Park, London, dates from about 400BC. It shows the head of Helios on one side.
The Temple of the Sun
This 18th-century mother-of-pearl model at Erddig, Wales, shows the ruins of the temple at Palmyra. Built in AD32, it was used to worship the Mesopotamian gods including Yarhibol, the Sun God.
The myth of Clytie
According to Greek and Roman myth, Clytie transformed into a sunflower. She'd remained outside, always turning towards the sun, after her sister's death. Evelyn De Morgan’s depiction of her hangs at Wightwick Manor, West Midlands.
Before the invention of clocks, the position of the sun not only indicated the changing of the seasons; it was also used for telling the time. Sundials were used to show the hours of the day, based on the movement of the shadow of the sun as it moves across the sky each day. Sundials, both large and small, can be found in many of the collections we look after.
A forerunner of the pocket-watch was the pocket sundial. This 17th-century example is from Snowshill Manor, Gloucestershire. It includes a compass and calendar in an engraved ivory case.
Packwood House, Warwickshire, has three large sundials painted on its walls, each oriented a different way, in order to tell the time throughout the day.
Sundials became a fashionable centrepiece for formal gardens. This elaborate sundial, supported by three lead cherubs, can be found in the gardens at Polesden Lacey, Surrey.
The collection at Borrowdale, Cumbria, includes this marble sundial. By adding a small amount of gun powder, the cannon could be made to emit a small pop when the sun’s rays fell on it through the magnifying glass.
Many of the places we look after have a special significance to the history of the summer solstice and the traditions and customs surrounding it.