ARTICLES & STORIES
Summer Solstice 2006
by Penny McManigal
known as Midsummer – St John's Eve
Spin earth! Tumble the shadows into dawn,
The morning out of night;
Spill stars across these skies
And hide them with the suns.
Teach me to turn
My sullen sense toward marvel.
~ Raymond J. Baughan
Our planet will celebrate the Summer Solstice on June 21st 5:26 A.M. PDT. Summer will begin, it is the longest day of the year. For the past 3 years I have gathered in circle in Orange County, California to celebrate the turning of the seasons, as do peoples from all over our planet. We invite you to celebrate this day in your community or in a virtual circle with others around the world.
These are some historical facts about the Summer Solstice
The earliest event that can be confidently said to have occurred on summer solstice happens to be one of the great triumphs of the rational mind. In 246 B.C., the Greek, Eratosthenes of Kyrene, was summoned from his homeland to undertake supervision of the great library at Alexandria. By chance he happened to be at Aswan (then Syrene) during the summer solstice. Looking into a well, he noted that the sun was absolutely, directly overhead. Yet, on the same day in Alexandria, (500 miles to the north) the sun cast shadows that inclined at an angle of about 7.2°. With these few rudimentary elements, Eratosthenes reasoned that the change in the angle of the shadows was brought about because he had moved about over the surface of the planet. Knowing that the earth was round, and further knowing the circumference of a circle to be 360°, this all-but forgotten genius calculated the circumference of the earth at roughly 25,000 miles. He was off by less than 1%—the actual figure is 24,901.55 miles.
Marching across the European landscape, scores of megalithic stone observatories have survived the vicissitudes of time, still serving to admit the first precious rays of either winter or summer solstice sun. The most famous of these was old when the Romans saw it, but even then, the Celts attributed construction of Stonehenge to an older race than they. Until the mid-1960's radiocarbon dating, archaeologists had no idea the stone circle was 5,000 years old (older than the Great Pyramid). People gather at Stonehenge to watch sunrise at a precise spot on the morning of the Summer Solstice.
And while solstice may blanket an entire hemisphere at a time, the task of providing a receptacle for a single shaft of light to strike one specific spot on one particular day, year after year, is a task of mind-bending complexity: it requires precise knowledge, not just of the path of the sun and the moment of transit, but awareness of your exact position on the surface of the planet. Arithmetic arcana was not the province of the peasantry, but it is striking that the continent over, the common folk of Europe's various tribes marked summer solstice with identical habits and customs. "When we pass from the east to the west of Europe we still find the summer solstice celebrated with rites of the same general character. ... Whatever their origin, they have prevailed all over this quarter of the globe, from Ireland on the west to Russia on the east, and from Norway and Sweden on the north to Spain and Greece on the south.
According to a mediaeval writer, the three great features of the midsummer celebration were the bonfires, the procession with torches round the fields, and the custom of rolling a wheel." (JG Frazer, The Golden Bough) Whether or not the rolling of a lighted wheel downhill was meant to mimic the sun's celestial estate, it's impossible to imagine a more vivid depiction of the summer solstice. For it is now, at the height of its blazing powers, that the sun embarks on the long descent into the darkness and cold of winter. While we consider solstice the "official" beginning of summer, it was not so in the old European reckoning. Their sun wheel marked out summer's domain from May 1st through August 1st—making solstice the midpoint, or Midsummer. The solstice was also associated with some form of ritual bathing, of leaping over the dying bonfire, of driving cattle through smoke or ashes, and taking charred wood or ashes out to the tender crops in the fields.
In simple terms, winter and summer solstice owe their very existence to the precession of the earth on its axis. In its unceasing journey, the earth presents either one or the other hemisphere to the sun. Twice a year it reaches a maximum degree of tilt, which makes the sun seem to pause briefly in the sky, Latin in origin, derived from sun (sol) standing still (sistere). Thus, during the southern hemisphere's six month inclination, when that happens, we experience our winter solstice, or shortest day and longest night. Conversely, as our northern hemisphere is tilted sunward, summer solstice occurs on the date when the earth again reaches that maximum degree of tilt—or, our longest day and shortest night.
from Guy Ottwell, The Astronomical Companion