Thursday, April 29, 2010

Faith: Summer solstice has a long history

Faith: Summer solstice has a long history

By Karen Sorensen
GateHouse News Service
 
The calendar says summer starts June 21, but most of us measure it by weather and events: the first day without a winter coat, opening day at the ballpark, the last day of school. Not so for our ancestors 2,000 to 7,500 years ago, who carefully watched the lengths of the days and the orbit of the moon to annually celebrate the summer solstice.

Why was the solstice so important in pagan religions?
Not much is known about pagans, defined as people who lived in “prehistoric” times before Christ, says Lisa Derrick, an editor at Sacred History magazine. Agriculture was the basis of their existence, and they developed a religious faith in which they prayed to nature-based deities. They were very sophisticated when it came to watching the movement of the sun and moon, and the summer solstice — the longest day of the year — was a day of celebration.
 
How did they celebrate?
Historians have used folklore, fairy tales and other means to piece together some of the summer solstice celebration rituals, Derrick says. Fire — a representation of the sun — was a key component, and people would gather around a bonfire from sunrise to sunset to dance, sing and chant. When the fire burned down, they would walk their oxen and other field animals through the ashes to promote fertility. The charred remains of the fire would then be buried in the soil to encourage crop fertility. Naturally, they would pray for their own fertility as well.

Are there current traditions tied to ancient solstice rituals?
June is traditionally known for weddings; this can be traced back to ancient rituals. Pagans would often marry in this month because there was down time between when seeds went into ground and when they began to grow, according to www.religioustolerance.com. Of particular significance was the full moon, which they called the “honey moon.” This was considered the ideal time to harvest honey, which was believed to encourage love and fertility. What we now call a “honeymoon” is derived from the pagan post-marriage ritual in which a newly married couple would consume honey, consummate their union and pray for children, according to the website.

Do modern-day pagans celebrate summer solstice?
Absolutely, says Dr. Helen Berger, professor emeritus at West Chester University in Pennsylvania. However, they don’t try to replicate ancient pagan celebrations as much as adapt them for modern times. Celebrating nature is a key component, and practitioners gather to hold an outdoor ceremony at which they form a circle and dance, chant or sing, she says.
 

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