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Welcome my friends and dear hearts, to Midsummer.
Origins of Midsummer
Litha is a time to celebrate the power of the sun during the middle of summer. The sun is at its highest point in the sky, and Litha is the longest day of the year. At this time of warmth and light, gardens are in full bloom, crops are beginning to flourish, and the planet teems with abundant life. In this Seven-Day Sabbat course, we'll talk about the history of Litha, ways you can mark the Midsummer Sabbat with rites and rituals, some Litha magic, legends and folklore, craft projects, and even recipe ideas for your Litha celebration.
Let's begin by looking at when Litha actually takes place, as well as some of the history of this sunny summer holiday! We'll also discuss ideas for your Litha altar, and you can view photos of other readers' altars as well.
History of Midsummer
An Ancient Solar Celebration:
Nearly every agricultural society has marked the high point of summer in some way, shape or form. On this date – usually around June 21 or 22 (or December 21/22 in the southern hemisphere) – the sun reaches its zenith in the sky. It is the longest day of the year, and the point at which the sun seems to just hang there without moving – in fact, the word “solstice” is from the Latin wordsolstitium, which literally translates to “sun stands still.” The travels of the sun were marked and recorded. Stone circles such as Stonehenge were oriented to highlight the rising of the sun on the day of the summer solstice.
Traveling the Heavens:
Although few primary sources are available detailing the practices of the ancient Celts, some information can be found in the chronicles kept by early Christian monks. Some of these writings, combined with surviving folklore, indicate that Midsummer was celebrated with hilltop bonfires and that it was a time to honor the space between earth and the heavens.
Fire and Water:
In addition to the polarity between land and sky, Litha is a time to find a balance between fire and water. According to Ceisiwr Serith, in his book The Pagan Family, European traditions celebrated this time of year by setting large wheels on fire and then rolling them down a hill into a body of water. He suggests that this may be because this is when the sun is at its strongest yet also the day at which it begins to weaken. Another possibility is that the water mitigates the heat of the sun, and subordinating the sun wheel to water may prevent drought.
When they arrived in the British Isles, the Saxon invaders brought with them the tradition of calling the month of June Aerra Litha. They marked Midsummer with huge bonfires that celebrated the power of the sun over darkness. For people in Scandinavian countries and in the farther reaches of the Northern hemisphere, Midsummer was very important. The nearly endless hours of light in June are a happy contrast to the constant darkness found six months later in the middle of winter.
Roman Festivals :
The Romans, who had a festival for anything and everything, celebrated this time as sacred to Juno, the wife of Jupiter and goddess of women and childbirth. She is also called Juno Lunaand blesses women with the privilege of menstruation. The month of June was named for her, and because Juno was the patroness of marriage, her month remains an ever-popular time for weddings. This time of year was also sacred to Vesta, goddess of the hearth. The matrons of Rome entered her temple on Midsummer and made offerings of salted meal for eight days, in hopes that she would confer her blessings upon their homes.
Midsummer for Modern Pagans:
Litha has often been a source of contention among modern Pagan and Wiccan groups, because there's always been a question about whether or not Midsummer was truly celebrated by the ancients. While there's scholarly evidence to indicate that it was indeed observed, there were suggestions made by Gerald Gardner, the founder of modern Wicca, that the solar festivals (the solstices and equinoxes) were actually added later and imported from the Middle East. Regardless of the origins, many modern Wiccans and Pagans do choose to celebrate Litha every year in June.
In some traditions, Litha is a time at which there is a battle between light and dark. The Oak King is seen as the ruler of the year between winter solstice and summer solstice, and the Holly King from summer to winter. At each solstice they battle for power, and while the Oak King may be in charge of things at the beginning of June, by the end of Midsummer he is defeated by the Holly King.
This is a time of year of brightness and warmth. Crops are growing in their fields with the heat of the sun, but may require water to keep them alive. The power of the sun at Midsummer is at its most potent, and the earth is fertile with the bounty of growing life.
For contemporary Pagans, this is a day of inner power and brightness. Find yourself a quiet spot and meditate on the darkness and the light both in the world and in your personal life. Celebrate the turning of the Wheel of the Year with fire and water, night and day, and other symbols of the opposition of light and dark.
Litha is a great time to celebrate outdoors if you have children. Take them swimming or just turn on the sprinkler to run through, and then have a bonfire or barbeque at the end of the day. Let them stay up late to say goodnight to the sun, and celebrate nightfall with sparklers, storytelling, and music. This is also an ideal Sabbat to do some love magic or celebrate ahandfasting, since June is the month of marriages and family.
Setting Up Your Litha Altar
Colors of the Season
This sabbat is all about the sun celebration, so think of solar colors. Yellows, oranges, fiery reds and golds are all appropriate this time of year. Use candles in bright sunny colors, or cover your altar with cloths that represent the solar aspect of the season.
Litha is when the sun is at its highest point above us. In some traditions, the sun rolls across the sky like a great wheel - consider using pinwheels or some other disc to represent the sun. Circles and discs are the most basic sun symbol of all, and are seen as far back as the tombs of ancient Egypt. Use equal-armed crosses, such as the Brighid's Cross, or even the swastika - remember, it was originally a good luck symbol to both the Hindus and Scandinavians before it became associated with the Nazis.
A Time of Light and Dark
The solstice is also a time seen as a battle between light and dark. Although the sun is strong now, in just six months the days will be short again. Much like the battle between the Oak King and the Holly King, light and dark must battle for supremacy. At this sabbat, darkness wins, and the days will begin to grow shorter once more. Decorate your altar with symbols of the triumph of darkness over light - and that includes using other opposites, such as fire and water, night and day, etc.
Other Symbols of Litha
Litha Legends & Midsummer Folklore
Litha, or Midsummer, is a celebration that has been observed for centuries, in one form or another. It is no surprise, then, that there are plenty of myths and legends associated with this time of year!
- In England, rural villagers built a big bonfire on Midsummer's Eve. This was called "setting the watch," and it was known that the fire would keep evil spirits out of the town. Some farmers would light a fire on their land, and people would wander about, holding torches and lanterns, from one bonfire to another. If you jumped over a bonfire -- presumably without lighting your pants on fire -- you were guaranteed to have good luck for the coming year.
- After your Litha fire has burned out and the ashes gone cold, use them to make a protective amulet. You can do this by carrying them in a small pouch, or kneading them into some soft clay and forming a talisman. In some traditions of Wicca, it is believed that the Midsummer ashes will protect you from misfortune. You can also sow the ashes from your bonfire into your garden, and your crops will be bountiful for the rest of the summer growing season.
- It is believed in parts of England that if you stay up all night on Midsummer's Eve, sitting in the middle of a stone circle, you will see the Fae. But be careful - carry a bit of rue in your pocket to keep them from harassing you, or turn your jacket inside out to confuse them. If you have to escape the Fae, follow a ley line, and it will lead you to safety.
- Residents of some areas of Ireland say that if you have something you wish to happen, you "give it to the pebble." Carry a stone in your hand as you circle the Litha bonfire, and whisper your request to the stone -- "heal my mother" or "help me be more courageous", for example. After your third turn around the fire, toss the stone into the flames.
- Astrologically, the sun is entering Cancer, which is a water sign. Midsummer is not only a time of fire magic, but of water as well. Now is a good time to work magic involving sacred streams and holy wells. If you visit one, be sure to go just before sunrise on Litha, and approach the water from the east, with the rising sun. Circle the well or spring three times,walking deosil, and then make an offering of silver coins or pins.
- Sunwheels were used to celebrate Midsummer in some early Pagan cultures. A wheel -- or sometimes a really big ball of straw -- was lit on fire and rolled down a hill into a river. The burned remnants were taken to the local temple and put on display. In Wales, it was believed that if the fire went out before the wheel hit the water, a good crop was guaranteed for the season.
- In Egypt, the Midsummer season was associated with the flooding of the Nile River delta. In South America, paper boats are filled with flowers, and then set on fire. They are then sailed down the river, carrying prayers to the gods. In some traditions of modern Paganism, you can get rid of problems by writing them on a piece of paper and dropping them into a moving body of water on Litha.
- William Shakespeare associated Midsummer with witchcraft in at least three of his plays. A Midsummer Night's Dream, Macbeth, and The Tempest all contain references to magic on the night of the summer solstice.
History of Sun Worship
The Egyptian peoples honored Ra, the sun god. For people in ancient Egypt, the sun was a source of life. It was power and energy, light and warmth. It was what made the crops grow each season, so it is no surprise that the cult of Ra had immense power and was widespread. Ra was the ruler of the heavens. He was the god of the sun, the bringer of light, and patron to the pharaohs. According to legend, the sun travels the skies as Ra drives his chariot through the heavens. Although he originally was associated only with the midday sun, as time went by, Ra became connected to the sun's presence all day long.
The Greeks honored Helios, who was similar to Ra in his many aspects. Homer describes Helios as "giving light both to gods and men." The cult of Helios celebrated each year with an impressive ritual that involved a giant chariot pulled by horses off the end of a cliff and into the sea.
In Native American cultures, such as the Iroquois and Plains peoples, the sun was recognized as a life-giving force. Many Plains tribes still perform a Sun Dance each year, which is seen as a renewal of the bond man has with life, earth, and the growing season. In MesoAmerican cultures, the sun was associated with kingship, and many rulers claimed divine rights by way of their direct descendency from the sun.
As part of the cult of Mithra, early Persian societies celebrated the rising of the sun each day. The legend of Mithra may well have given birth to the Christian resurrection story. Honoring the sun was an integral part of ritual and ceremony in Mithraism, at least as far as scholars have been able to determine. One of the highest ranks one could achieve in a Mithraic temple was that of heliodromus, or sun-carrier.
Sun worship has also been found in Babylonian texts and in a number of Asian religious cults. Today, many Pagans honor the sun at Midsummer, and it continues to shine its fiery energy upon us, bringing light and warmth to the earth.
Holly King & Oak King Legend & Lore
In some Wiccan traditions, the Oak King and the Holly King are seen as dual aspects of the Horned God. Each of these twin aspects rules for half the year, battles for the favor of the Goddess, and then retires to nurse his wounds for the next six months, until it is time for him to reign once more.
Often, these two entities are portrayed in familiar ways - the Holly King frequently appears as a woodsy version of Santa Claus. He dresses in red, wears a sprig of holly in his tangled hair, and is sometimes depicted driving a team of eight stags. The Oak King is portrayed as a fertility god, and occasionally appears as the Green Man or other lord of the forest.
Ultimately, while these two beings do battle all year long, they are two essential parts of a whole. Despite being enemies, without one, the other would no longer exist.
Deities of Litha
- Amaterasu (Shinto): This solar goddess is the sister of the moon deity and the storm god of Japan, and is known as the goddess "from which all light comes". She is much loved by her worshippers, and treats them with warmth and compassion. Every year in July, she is celebrated in the streets of Japan.
- Aten (Egypt): This god was at one point an aspect of Ra, but rather than being depicted as an anthropomorphic being (like most of the other ancient Egyptian gods), Aten was represented by the disc of the sun, with rays of light emanating outward.
- Apollo (Greek): The son of Zeus by Leto, Apollo was a multi-faceted god. In addition to being the god of the sun, he also presided over music, medicine and healing. He was at one point identified with Helios. As worship of him spread throughout the Roman empire into the British Isles, he took on many of the aspects of the Celtic deities, and was seen as a god of the sun and of healing.
- Hestia (Greek): This goddess watched over domesticity and the family. She was given the first offering at any sacrifice made in the home. On a public level, the local town hall served as a shrine for her -- any time a new settlement was formed, a flame from the public hearth was taken to the new village from the old one.
- Horus (Egyptian): Horus was one of the solar deities of the ancient Egyptians. He rose and set every day, and is often associated with Nut, the sky god. Horus later became connected with another sun god, Ra.
- Huitzilopochtli (Aztec): This warrior god of the ancient Aztecs was a sun god and the patron of the city of Tenochtitlan. He battled with Nanahuatzin, an earlier solar god. Huitzilopochtli fought against darkness, and required his worshipers to make regular sacrifices to ensure the sun's survival over the next fifty-two years, which is a significant number in Mesoamerican myths.
- Juno (Roman): She is also called Juno Luna and blesses women with the privilege of menstruation. The month of June was named for her, and because Juno was the patroness of marriage, her month remains an ever-popular time for weddings and handfasting.
- Lugh (Celtic): Similar to the Roman god Mercury, Lugh was known as a god of both skill and the distribution of talent. He is sometimes associated with midsummer because of his role as a harvest god, and during the summer solstice the crops are flourishing, waiting to be plucked from the ground at Lughnasadh.
- Sulis Minerva (Celtic, Roman): When the Romans occupied the British Isles, they took the aspects of the Celtic sun goddess, Sulis, and blended her with their own goddess of wisdom, Minerva. The resulting combination was Sulis Minerva, who watched over the hot springs and sacred waters in the town of Bath.
- Sunna or Sol (Germanic): Little is known about this Norse goddess of the sun, but she appears in the poetic eddas as the sister of the moon god.
Handfasting History: An Old Tradition Made New
Marriages, Irregular and RegularIn centuries gone by, handfasting was a popular custom in the British Isles. In rural areas, it could be weeks or even months before a clergyman happened to stop by your village, so couples learned to make allowances. A handfasting was the equivalent of today's common-law marriage -- a man and woman simply clasped hands and declared themselves married. Generally this was done in the presence of a witness or witnesses. In Scotland, marriages were considered the office of the church until 1560, when marriage became a civil matter rather than a church sacrament. After that time, marriages were divided into "regular" and "irregular" marriages.
A regular marriage took place when banns were read, followed by a clergyman performing the duties of the ceremony. An irregular marriage could take place in one of three ways: a public declaration by the couple that they were husband and wife, followed by consummation of the relationship; by mutual agreement; or simply by living together and being recognized as husband and wife. As long as everyone was above the age of consent (12 for brides, 14 for grooms) and not too closely related, irregular marriages were generally considered as valid as a regular marriage.
Typically the gentry and landowners were married in the "regular" way, so there could be no question later on if the marriage was legally recognized or not -- in cases of inheritance, this could be a big issue. Handfastings or irregular marriages were considered the domain of the lower class and peasants. Around the middle of the 1700s, irregular marriages were made illegal in England -- but since Scotland kept the tradition, it wasnâ€™t uncommon for an amorous British couple to elope over the border. Gretna Green became famous because it was the first town in Scotland that elopers would encounter once they left England -- and the Old Blacksmith's shop there became the site of many 'anvil weddings', performed by the village smith.
An Old Concept, New IdeasThe word "handfasting" fell by the wayside for many years. In the 1950s, when the witchcraft laws were repealed in England, various occultists and witches -- including Gerald Gardner andDoreen Valiente -- searched for a non-Christian term for their wedding ceremonies. They settled on "handfasting", and the concept was resurrected within the Neopagan movement. Typically, a Pagan handfasting was meant to be a secret ceremony, held only in front of your coven or study group. As Wicca and Paganism become more mainstream, however, more and more couples are finding ways to work their Pagan and Wiccan spirituality into their marriage ceremony.
The actual term "handfasting" comes from the tradition of the bride and groom crossing arms and joining hands -- basically, creating the infinity symbol (a figure-eight) with the hands. In Neopagan ceremonies, the clergyperson performing the ceremony will join the couple's hands with a cord or ribbon during the ritual. In some traditions, the cord remains in place until the couple consummates the marriage. While some people may choose to have their handfasting be a permanent bond, others might declare it to be valid for "a year and a day", at which point they will re-evaluate the relationship and determine whether to continue or not.
Who Can Be Handfast? Anyone!One benefit of having a handfasting ceremony is that it because it's not the same as a legal wedding, there are more options available to people in non-traditional relationships. Anyone can have a handfasting -- same-sex couples, polyamorus families, transgender couples, etc. In Dianic Wicca, Z Budapest used the word "tryst" to refer to a ceremony for a lesbian couple.
Dormant for so long, the idea of the handfasting ceremony has enjoyed a huge rise in popularity. If you're fortunate enough to find someone you love enough to spend your life with, you may wish to consider having a handfasting rather than a traditional wedding ceremony.
Jumping The Besom: Broom Handfastings
Deities of Love & Marriage
Aphrodite was the Greek goddess of love and sexuality, a job she took very seriously. She was married to Hephaistos, but also had a multitude of lovers -- one of her favorites was the warrior god Ares. A festival was held regularly to honor Aphrodite, appropriately called the Aphrodisiac. At her temple in Corinth, revelers often paid tribute to Aphrodite by having rambunctious sex with her priestesses. The temple was later destroyed by the Romans, and not rebuilt, but fertility rites appear to have continued in the area. Like many Greek gods, Aphrodite spent a lot of time meddling in the lives of humans -- particularly their love lives -- and was instrumental in the cause of the Trojan War.
In ancient Rome, Cupid was the incarnation of Eros, the god of lust and desire. Eventually, though, he evolved into the image we have today of a chubby cherub, flitting about zapping people with his arrows. In particular, he enjoyed matching people up with odd partners, and this eventually ended up being his own undoing, when he fell in love with Psyche. Cupid was the son of Venus, the Roman goddess of love. He typically is seen on Valentine's Day cards and decorations, and is invoked as a god of pure love and innocence -- a far cry from his original form.
Although not specifically a god of love, Eros is often invoked as a god of lust and passion. This son of Aphrodite was a Greek god of lust and primal sexual desire. In fact, the word erotic comes from his name. He is personified in all kinds of love and lust -- heterosexual and homosexual -- and was worshipped at the center of a fertility cult that honored both Eros and Aphrodite together. During the classical Roman period, Eros evolved into Cupid, and became portrayed as the chubby cherub that still remains as a popular image today. He is typically shown blindfolded -- because, after all, love is blind -- and carrying a bow, with which he shot arrows at his intended targets.
Frigga was the wife of the all-powerful Odin, and was considered a goddess of fertility and marriage within the Norse pantheon. Frigga is the only one besides Odin who is allowed to sit on his throne, Hlidskjalf, and she is known in some Norse tales as the Queen of Heaven. Today, many modern Norse Pagans honor Frigga as a goddess of both marriage and prophecy.
As the wife of the Sun God, Ra, Hathor is known in Egyptian legend as the patroness of wives. In most classical depictions, she is portrayed either as a cow goddess, or with a cow nearby -- it is her role as mother that is most often seen. However, in later periods, she was associated with fertility, love and passion.
Hera was the Greek goddess of marriage, and as the wife of Zeus, Hera was the queen of all wives! Although Hera fell in love with Zeus (her brother) immediately, he isn't often faithful to her, so Hera spends a lot of time fighting off her husband's numerous lovers. Hera is centered around the hearth and home, and focuses on family relationships.
In ancient Rome, Juno was the goddess who watched over women and marriage. Although Juno's festival, the Matronalia, was actually celebrated in March, the month of June was named for her. It's a month for weddings and handfastings, so she is often honored at Litha, the time of the summer solstice. During the Matronalia, women received gifts from their husbands and daughters, and gave their female slaves the day off work.
Parvati was the consort of the Hindu god Shiva, and is known as a goddess of love and devotion. She is one of many forms of Shakti, the all-powerful female force in the universe. Her union with Shiva taught him to embrace pleasure, and so in addition to being a destroyer god, Shiva is also a patron of the arts and dance. Parvati is an example of a female entity who has a profound effect on the male in her life, for without her, Shiva would not have been complete.
The Roman equivalent of Aphrodite, Venus was a goddess of love and beauty. Originally, she was associated with gardens and fruitfulness, but later took on all the aspects of Aphrodite from the Greek traditions. Similar to Aphrodite, Venus took a number of lovers, both mortal and divine. Venus is nearly always portrayed as young and lovely. The statue Aphrodite of Milos, better known as the Venus de Milo, depicts the goddess as classically beautiful, with womanly curves and a knowing smile.
Although Vesta was actually a goddess of virginity, she was honored by Roman women along with Juno. Vesta's status as a virgin represented the purity and honor of Roman women at the time of their marriage, and so it was important to keep her in high regard. In addition to her role as virgin-in-chief, however, Vesta is also a guardian of the hearth and domesticity. Her eternal flame burned in many Roman villages. Her festival, the Vestalia, was celebrated each year in June.
The Spirit of Litha, A Midsummer Muse
A Midsummer Sabbat
The gardens are blooming, and summer is in full swing. Fire up the barbecue, turn on the sprinkler, and enjoy the celebrations of Midsummer! Also called Litha, this summer solstice Sabbat honors the longest day of the year. Take advantage of the extra hours of daylight and spend as much time as you can outdoors. While you're planning your celebrations, though, you may want to take a minute to read up on:
Depending on your individual spiritual path, there are many different ways you can celebrate Litha, but the focus is nearly always on celebrating the power of the sun. It's the time of year when the crops are growing heartily and the earth has warmed up. we can spend long sunny afternoons enjoying the outdoors, and getting back to nature under the long daylight hours.
Here are a few rituals you may want to think about trying -- and remember, any of them can be adapted for either a solitary practitioner or a small group, with just a little planning ahead.
Celebrating The Sabbat
Midsummer Crafts & Creations
Looking for Midsummer,
Handfasting History & Recipes?
Here's wishing you and yours a beautiful Midsummer & Midsummer Night's Dream,
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Celebrate with the Spirit of Litha, See where the Universe Takes You,
Wishing you a Wonderful Midsummer
Love & Light,