What exactly is the Solstice, and what significance did it hold for prehistoric societies?
The summer solstice, typically occurring on the 21st of June, marks the longest day of the year, although the sun’s position remains relatively stable for a few days before and after. For Neolithic communities, sunlight played a crucial role. It provided warmth for both people and animals, and it was essential for the growth of their crops. During the summer solstice, the Earth’s axis is tilted at its closest point to the sun. As a result, in the northern hemisphere, the sun reaches its highest point in the sky, making it the longest day and the shortest night of the year. For prehistoric people, observing the daily positions of the rising and setting sun would have been relatively straightforward. They could easily mark these orientations from any given location.
Stonehenge, the iconic stone monument in Wiltshire, England, constructed around 2500 BC, was designed to align with the movements of the sun. During the summer solstice, when standing in the center of the monument, the sun rises just to the left of the Heel Stone, a large standing stone outside the stone circle, visible through a gap in the outer sarsen circle. Archaeological excavations suggest that the Heel Stone may have had a companion, creating a frame through which the sun would have risen. The first section of Stonehenge Avenue also aligns with this same axis. Additionally, there is a separate alignment towards the southwest, indicating the direction of the winter solstice.
It is highly probable that people gathered at Stonehenge during both the midsummer and midwinter solstices to partake in rituals and ceremonies for the changing seasons, the sun, and the sky. The longest day of the year likely provided a time for celebration, with warm nights and extended daylight. Stonehenge has become synonymous with solstice celebrations and has been the place of rituals. Today, many modern-day spiritual and religious groups gather at Stonehenge to mark the occasion, and it is one of the rare times when visitors are permitted to approach the stones closely.
Midsummer Night’s Dream – Shakespeare
Shakespeare also found inspiration in the summer solstice when he wrote “A Midsummer Night’s Dream.” During the late 1500s, Midsummer Night was a holiday that celebrated the summer solstice. It involved bonfires, expressions of love, singing, dancing, and was associated with supernatural phenomena. Over time, with the rise of Christianity, the significance and celebration of Midsummer Night diminished in England and became known as St. John’s Day. Although not explicitly referenced in the play, Shakespeare drew on this tradition, adding elements of Greek mythology and setting the scene in Athens during the wedding of Theseus and Hippolyta.
Summer Solstice around the world
Celebrations of the summer solstice have been observed by diverse cultures worldwide. In the British Isles, other Neolithic sites like Bryn Celli Ddu in Wales and Townleyhall in Ireland align with the midsummer sunrise, where the sun’s rays pass through the passage and reach the inner chambers. The tallest stone in the circle at Castlerigg possibly indicates the northwest midsummer sunset. At Fajada Butte in New Mexico, USA, a ray of sunlight passes through a gap between two rocks, intersecting with a spiral shape precisely at noon on the summer solstice. In 16th-century China, the emperor conducted ceremonies at the Temple of the Earth during the midsummer solstice, offering prayers to the sky and the gods. In northern Europe, midsummer festivities, involving bonfires and later incorporated into the Feast of St. John the Baptist, occurred from pre-Christian times until the mid-19th century.
At the renowned Glastonbury Festival held in Pilton, Somerset, England, the summer solstice receives a grand welcome. The festival spans five days and showcases a wide variety of contemporary performing arts, including music, dance, comedy, theatre, circus, and more. This year, with an impressive lineup featuring Elton John, Arctic Monkeys, Lana del Ray, Blondie, and other prominent artists, Glastonbury Festival promises an unforgettable experience for music enthusiasts of all generations.