Summer solstice traditions and sun worship

Catherine Troiano, Photography Curator Catherine Troiano Photography Curator
Brimham Sunrise

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.

Summer solstice and Midsummer’s Day

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.

Perpetual almanack

Keeping track of the seasons

The solstice sits within a wider celestial framework, complemented by seasonal equinoxes marking spring and autumn as well as daily, monthly and annual cycles. Recognition of this broader natural phenomenon is clear in objects like this ‘perpetual almanack’ at Snowshill Manor, Gloucestershire. It tracks the revolutions of days, years, moons and seasons through the motions of sunrises, sunsets, equinoxes and solstices.

Midsummer traditions

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.

Bonfire

Bonfires

Lighting and jumping over bonfires on Midsummer’s Eve dates back to pre-Christian pagan customs. It was thought to keep demons away and bring good luck to lovers.

A re-enactment of a battle between Saxons and Vikings

Viking customs

The solstice was particularly important in Nordic communities, where seasonal changes in sunlight are dramatic. The Vikings used the long days to maximise their productivity with hunting, settling disputes and conducting raids.

The altar table with Maltese cross emblem at St Johns Jerusalem

Christian festivals

Following the establishment of the Christian Church, solstice celebrations were combined with St John’s Day, commemorating St John the Baptist. In the 19th century, Christians used St John’s Day to act out the baptisms of children who had died as ‘pagans’.

Painting of a stag hunt at Lyme

Local customs

Local traditions have developed around the longest day, as seen in a painting after the artist Jan Wyck at Lyme Park, Cheshire. It depicts stags at Lyme being driven through a stag pond, no longer in existence, at midsummer.

Midsummer magic

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.’ 

Pixies Dancing in a Ring by the Firelight by William Bell Scott, Gunby Hall, Lincolnshire
Pixies dancing in a Ring by the Firelight by William Bell Scott
Pixies Dancing in a Ring by the Firelight by William Bell Scott, Gunby Hall, Lincolnshire
" ‘[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.’"
- Ronald Hutton, Professor of History at the University of Bristol
Sun devotions

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.

Sundials

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.

Our places and midsummer

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.

Sunrise over parkland at Charlecote Park

Summer solstice events cancelled this year 

Unfortunately, due to unprecedented circumstances surrounding coronavirus, summer solstice events will not be happening at our places this year. All our sites, including Avebury and Stonehenge Landscape, will be closed for solstice commemorations.

We are, however, working to open our outdoor spaces as safely and quickly as possible.

Stones at Castlerigg Stone Circle, Keswick

Castlerigg, Cumbria

This ring of 38 stones has stood at Castlerigg for about 4,500 years, since it was created by Neolithic farming communities. The exact purpose of the circle is still a mystery, but it may well have played an important role in seasonal celebrations such as the summer solstice.

Coastal view towards Carn Llidi on St David's Head, from Pen Beri rock

Coetan Arthur, Wales

Coetan Arthur is a Neolithic burial chamber on St David’s Head that dates back to around 4000BC. According to local legend, every Midsummer’s Eve and All Hallows’ Eve, the stones uproot themselves to drink or bathe in the sea.

Sunrise over the avenue at Avebury, Wiltshire

Avebury, Wiltshire

Avebury, home to the world’s largest prehistoric stone circle, has been adopted as a sacred site by contemporary pagan religions such as Wicca and Druidry. Archaeologist Alexander Keiller excavated here in the 1930s but much is still unknown about the purpose and construction of the stone circle.

A view of the stone circle at Stonehenge

Stonehenge Landscape, Wiltshire

We look after the 827 hectares of downland that surround Stonehenge. The monument itself is cared for by English Heritage. Today, Stonehenge is perhaps best known for the summer solstice, but some archaeologists believe that the focus of Stonehenge’s builders may have actually been the winter solstice.

View from the summit of Trencrom Hill, West Cornwall

Trencrom Hill, Cornwall

Seven merriment or ‘midsummer’ holes can be found in the rocks on the summit of Trencrom Hill. They were used in the 19th century during annual festivities, such as midsummer. The man-made holes were filled with gunpowder, sealed with a clay plug, and a fuse was lit to create a celebratory big bang.

Sutton Hoo burial mound and tree at sunrise

Sutton Hoo, Suffolk

The summer solstice was a highlight in the Anglo-Saxon calendar. It was, therefore, an important annual moment for those who built Sutton Hoo, an Anglo-Saxon burial site in Suffolk, where an Anglo-Saxon king, possibly Raedwald, was laid to rest in a spectacular ship burial.