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The language of the summer solstice

The language of the summer solstice

It’s hard to believe, with spring only just about sprung here in Britain, but 21 June is midsummer. This is also called the summer solstice, from Latin sol “sun” and stitium “standing still”, because seen from the earth it looks like the sun halts in its tracks going northward, and moves back south.

Because of the tilt of the earth towards the sun this means  the summer solstice is the longest day of the year for us northern hemisphericals, with around seventeen hours of sunlight in London (or daylight, at least – let’s remain realistic).

This is a delightful time, because it means as much light as we are going to get, and the definite start of the warm season of summer, since, although the word midsummer seems to indicate that it’s the height of summer, it’s usually when summery weather has only just started. So, a good reason to celebrate. Though at the moment it’s not a common holiday in Britain, the summer solstice is celebrated in many places around the world (often called Saint John’s Day in Christian countries because Saint John was famously born six months before Christ) but bearing distinctly pre-Christian pagan overtones in most countries, with bonfires being raised, originally to celebrate the high point of the sun and drive away evil spirits, but these days usually to gather with friends, burn stuff, and have a good time.

Pagans and neopagans

It’s not all fun and games, however. In Britain and many other western countries, you may also come across (neo)pagans who celebrate midsummer as an important religious holiday. More and more so, in fact, as paganism is one of the fastest growing religions in the UK. So who are those pagans and what do they celebrate?

The Latin word paganus means a person from the country, which makes sense, as many pagans love going out in nature rather than being cooped up in cities; but current etymological theory assumes the word pagan comes from the Roman military use of paganus, meaning a civilian, i.e. not a soldier of Christ. Modern pagans reclaimed this originally derogatory term, and wear it as a badge of pride.

It is notoriously difficult to make overarching statements about pagans, as there are so many different groups and ways. A large group are the Wiccans, who reclaimed another derogatory term, as wicca is old English for witch. However, both wicca and witch may well have an older and more positive meaning: though the specific origins are disputed, there are links to Gothic weihs (holy), and witchcraft is found in texts to refer to anything from midwifery to skill with horses. In other Germanic languages, the word for a witch is heks, related to hagazussa – hedge rider, someone who rides between the worlds.

Druids are another large group, and especially during the Summer Solstice they get a lot of attention with their ceremonies at Stonehenge. Druid means tree wisdom, and their love of nature holds a central place in their spirituality.

Heathen, yet another derogatory term to be reclaimed (are we sensing a pattern here?) is currently mostly used in pagan circles for the people who follow the old Germanic Gods. Though people often mistake heathen to mean atheist, these fearsome Vikings have quite a few Gods, known by many names – many of which we still use daily, Tuesday being Tiw’s day, Wednesday Woden’s day, Thursday Thor’s day and Friday Frigga’s day.

With these and many more groups and paths all labelled under “paganism”, and no holy book or hierarchical leader to speak for all, it’s notoriously difficult to state what “a pagan” is, but the Pagan Federation makes a good attempt at defining paganism as ‘a polytheistic or pantheistic nature-worshipping religion’ – the Oxford English Dictionary, similarly, includes the definition of pagan as ‘a follower of a pantheistic or nature-worshipping religion’. Polytheism means the worship of more than one god, which is easily combined with pantheism: seeing the Divine not as being an outside force, but inside you, me, this rock, and that tree.

For pagans, nature is not a resource to be used, but as valuable a part of the Divine as they themselves are, and they respect it as such. They try to get “back to nature” by acknowledging the rhythms of the seasons as a reflection of the Divine and their own spirit.

Most pagan groups celebrate eight festivals in the Wheel of the Year, being the solstices, the equinoxes, and the four cross-quarter festivals, which fall halfway between the solstices and the equinoxes.

Some pagans call the summer solstice Litha, which is likely a new term for it, based on a work from the 8th-century monk Bede, in which he gives the Anglo-Saxon name for June and July as Litha.

Fire and water

Most pagan groups see this as a festival of fire, in which they light bonfires to honour the grand fire of the sun. Bonfires were originally bone-fires, in which animal bones were burnt to ward off evil spirits in Celtic times. TV shows and tabloids are eager to paint pictures of pagans dancing naked around these fires in wanton abandon, but, as Terry Pratchett states: “In the average temperate climate there are very few nights when anyone would dance around at midnight with no clothes on, quite apart from the question of stones, thistles, and sudden hedgehogs.” For pagans who celebrate a Sun God, this is the time when he is at the height of his power, and crowned as king to rule with his queen, the Goddess.

Pagans are nothing if not diverse, however, and the Goddess Temple in Glastonbury celebrates midsummer as the time of the Mother of Water.

So whether you go partying around a bone-fire or worshipping the Water Goddess on your holy-days, or maybe even go to Stonehenge to celebrate the sunrise, have a wonderful summer, and if you will, spare a thought for the Old Gods, who are everywhere, if you only scratch the surface a little…

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