Summer, Standing Stones and Stories of Old:
The Summer Solstice
By J.P. Reedman
Summer Solstice. The time of the year when the days reach their longest before declining towards wintry gloom again. Celebrated back in the deeps of time, in the Neolithic and probably long before, this time of the year is replete with folklore and symbolism and old traditions that have never entirely faded.
The solstice itself falls on the 21st or 22nd of June, but to the ancients the ceremonies that took place most likely lasted for about a week as the sun really reaches its ‘stand still’ for several days. This timeframe would encompass St John’s Eve, old Midsummer, a Christianised feast day but, with its tales of fairies, bonfires and mayhem, seeming to bear traditions that may just hark back to a time before Christianity reach the isles.
On Midsummer’s Eve, for instance, you can pluck the fernseed, if you are lucky enough to find some. This magical seed will lead you to a ‘seam of gold’ on a hill or mountain, and will confer invisibility to its finder. Could the seam of gold actually be a reference to the rising sun? Possibly. Many ancient burial mounds, for example, have legends relating to burials in golden armour, golden boats or golden thrones. Since many mounds are oriented towards the east, and male skeletons of the Beaker era are positioned to gaze toward the rising sun, a solar reference in these legends could be very possible.
The same solar reference might be seen in the traditional pastime of cheese-rolling. This used to take place at Midsummer, when a large wheel of cheese was sent rolling down a steep hill with the locals chasing after it. A wheel is an ancient sun symbol, and the cheese itself a large yellow ball resembling the solar disc. Cheese-rolling still takes place in the Cotswolds although the date has now been moved to May.
|Cooper's Hill Cheese-Rolling and Wake|
There is also lore about the Cuckoo, now sadly rare in Britain, as a bird connected with the solstice and Midsummer. Cuckoos traditionally begin their migration around this time and so their disappearance tallies with the gradual fading of the summer light. It is interesting that there is a stone called the ‘Cuckoo Stone’ near Woodhenge, although it seems to have no alignment. Cuckoos also feature in the legend associated with the Callanish stone circle in the Hebrides, where the ‘Shining One’ is said to walk along one of its avenues heralded by the cuckoo’s cry on Midsummer morning. While we can’t say how ancient this story is, the ‘Shining One’ is the epithet of the pan-Celtic God Lugh, who, with his long spear, has solar attributes.
Aside from folklore, in some places solstice and/or Midsummer, is still celebrated with dancing and ceremony. While these ceremonies may have little to do with the beliefs of our ancient ancestors, they must certainly hold at least a little of the spirit of the people of ancient times.
In Cornwall, the traditional Midsummer bonfires are lit in various parts of the county, and there is dancing. The celebrations continue for the better part of a week. A similar bonfire is lit on Hampstead Heath in London.
Of course, the most famous place to celebrate the solstice is Stonehenge in Wiltshire. Up to 30,000 people have descended on the monument to see the sunrise on one of the four days a year when the inner circle is open to all-comers. There is drumming, people meditating or praying, and a huge burst of cheers when the sunlifts its head beside the tip of the Heelstone. It is interesting that the main alignment at Stonehenge seems to actually have been on the winter solstice ,when the sun was framed by the arches of the Great Trilithon, but the Midsummer alignment is older—the henge monument (the bank and ditch) was open to the north-east in the monument’s earliest phase, some centuries before the large sarsen stones were hauled into position.
Stonehenge is of course not the only prehistoric monument with a Midsummer alignment—others include Callanish (recently confirmed),the Clava Cairns in Scotland, Gors Fawr, the chamber tomb of Bryn Celli Dhu in Wales, and the enormous Grange Circle in Ireland. There are likely many more, and some line up with the Midsummer solstice sunset rather than sunrise, as at the timber circle of Woodhenge, in a reverse alignment to nearby Stonehenge.
With a renewed interest in prehistory and archaeology, as well growing study of folklore independent of and inclusive in anthropology, hopefully the celebrations of our ancestors, from whatever date they come, will continue on into the future. Man, after all, is in many ways still a sun-worshipper (summer—hooray!), and just as aware as his prehistoric forebears that the sun brings life to the world.
The Stonehenge Saga
THE STONEHENGE SAGA takes place in 1900 BC, and blends the Arthurian myths with actual archaeology, including recent finds in the Stonehenge landscape such as the ‘sacred spring’ and ‘magical purple stones’ at Blick Mead.
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J.P. Reedman is the author of historical fiction on Stonehenge, Robin Hood, Richard III and the Wars of the Roses and the lesser-known medieval Queens and Ladies.
You can find J.P Reedman on Twitter.
You can find J.P Reedman on Twitter.