The summer solstice is the time of year when the sun reaches its highest point in the sky and the days are at their longest. Those who track the different rising and setting points of the sun on the horizon day-by-day will notice how, on the longest day of the year, the sun appears to pause in its journey across the sky before changing direction. Hence, the word ‘solstice’ means ‘sun stands still.’
To the prehistoric Celts, dependent on the sun for light and sustenance, these celestial events must have seemed hugely significant. Summer Solstice refers both to an astronomical moment, when the sun is at its farthest from the celestial equator (in the Northern Hemisphere it is at its most northerly point), and to the longest day of the year.
Like many ancient monuments, Stonehenge has a strong link to astronomical events. On the day of the Summer Solstice, the rising sun lines up with its Heel stone and the Altar stone. Thousands of people gather each year to celebrate the occasion.
In herbalism, flowers harvested around the full moon nearest to the summer solstice are believed to create very powerful medicines. Vervain is considered a powerful magical plant and is especially sacred at the summer solstice. Known as the ‘enchanters plant’, ‘the holy herb’ and the ‘herb of grace’, it is used magically for a whole host of reasons, all to do with bringing in blessings and averting evil influences. It is commonly used to decorate an altar, to make into a tea that can either be drunk or used to consecrate a sacred space, or to ritually cleanse objects or people, especially the ill or vulnerable.
One ancient motif of the summer solstice is the ‘Burning Wheel’. Traditionally, this was a bale of hay, a barrel or a wooden cartwheel that is set on fire and rolled down a sacred hill by the local young men. Accompanied by picnics, games and celebration, such activities were very popular in rural communities all across Europe until fairly recently. The motif of the Burning Wheel may date back thousands of years, its imagery suggestive of solar roots, as from here the sun and the year itself does indeed ‘roll downhill’ to the winter solstice.
To learn more about the solstice, as well as many other significant celestial moments in the year, why not explore one of these Watkins titles?
The Magical Year by Danu Forest
The Magic of The Summer Solstice (ebook) by Danu Forest
The Old Stones ed. Andy Burnham
The Sensory Herbal Handbook by The Seed SistAs