Solstices
As ancient peoples began systematic observation of heavenly
phenomena, they noticed the wandering habits of the Sun, easily
measured by its changing location at its daily rising. Over
half a year the rising point would be a little further to the north
each day and then it would appear to pause and begin moving
south. In the Northern Hemisphere, it would reach its northernmost
point just as the summer began and its southernmost
point as a prelude to the coldest days. The word ‘‘solstice’’ is derived
from the apparent pause, from the Latin sistere, to stand
still. The phenomena of the changing position of the rising sun
is due to the 23-degree tilt to the Earth’s axis. The axis changes
daily as the Earth rotates around the Sun.
The Sun’s movements were so obvious, and so equated with
changing weather, that some form of acknowledgment of the
solstices occurred in cultures around the world. Some of these
festivals continue into the present and many were observable
in the recent past. Among the oldest records of solstice celebrations
are found in the remains of the ancient megalithic cultures,
such as the one that led to the building of Stonehenge.
Such stone monuments were frequently oriented to include an
alignment to the point of the rising sun at the summer solstice,
presumably an occasion for the community to gather for ritual
observances.
In astrology, the solstices were important markers. The Sun
entered Capricorn at the winter solstice and Cancer at the summer
solstice. While important markers in constructing a horoscope,
the solstices were little used in its interpretation.
In modern times, as Paganism has been revived, the summer
solstice has become a major occasion for ritual gatherings,
among the oldest and certainly the most famous being the
gatherings of the Druids at Stonehenge. Until quite recently,
the summer solstice was celebrated in Germany with a picnic
and bonfire. Couples would attempt to jump the bonfire as a
sign of the strength of their relationship. Neo-Pagans mark the
solstices as two of the major festival occasions (called sabbats).
The ancient winter solstice, called Yule, has survived in a radically
altered form as the Christian’s Christmas, but is now being
celebrated in its own right.
Sources
Cunningham, Scott. Wicca A Guide for the Solitary Practitioner.
St. Paul, Minn. Llewellyn Publications, 1988.
Farrar, Stewart. What Witches Do. New York Coward, McCann
& Geoghegan, 1971.
Lewis, James R. Encyclopedia of Astrology. Detroit Gale Research,
1994.
Spicer, Dorothy Gladys. The Book of Festivals. New York
Womans Press, 1937.