The light of the bonfire reveals a myriad of silhouettes dancing, twirling and turning amidst the flowers and the flames. Cymbals sing and drumbeats scatter the air as children play and laugh. The young dance, as the old drink and tell songs and legends of the past to all those who would like to hear. Ripe oranges and lemons, smoking meats and fresh milk await those who are too tired to dance, as everyone shares in the joys of Midsummer.
A solstice is an astronomical event that takes place twice a year when the sun is at its furthest point from the Equator. In June, the sun reaches its northernmost point and the Earth’s pole tilts directly towards it, thereby creating what is known as the Summer Solstice – when the longest day and the shortest night of the year occur, marking the beginning of summer in the Northern hemisphere.
Also called Midsummer, Litha and St John’s Day, this seasonal event has inspired countless festivals, celebrations and religious holidays throughout the centuries. In ancient times, the date of the summer solstice marked an important time, in that it helped people manage their calendars when it came to organising crop rotation and the harvest.
European Midsummer-related holidays, traditions and celebrations are pre-Christian in origin. However, as Christianity entered pagan areas, Midsummer celebrations were often borrowed and transferred into new Christian holidays, often resulting in celebrations that mixed Christian traditions with traditions derived from pagan festivities. This date is also associated with the nativity of John the Baptist, which is observed on June 24.
The celebration of Midsummer’s Eve was from ancient times a festival of the summer solstice. Bonfires were lit to celebrate the sun and the fertility of the land. The celebrants danced around the fire, ate the fruits of the earth and prayed for a good harvest. It was also a propitious time for couples to be joined in union, since the sun, being at its peak, was a symbol of fertility and prosperity. This, in fact, is still the case, as most people nowadays still tend to get married in the months of June or July.
Different versions of Midsummer are still celebrated as festivals around the world today. Estonians celebrate ‘Jaaniõhtu’ on the eve of the summer solstice with bonfires, Brazil has its June festival and many towns and cities in Ireland organise Midsummer Carnivals with fairs, concerts and fireworks. In Sweden, people erect maypoles, decorated with garlands of vines and flowers, and young men and women are invited to dance around them. These are just a few of the events that take place at this time of year around the world.
The importance of this period of the year was even felt during Neolithic times. Testament to this are the many stone structures and stone circles around the world, which still reflect the light and hum with a special energy, during the days of the two Solstices. The well-renowned Stonehenge, for example, which was erected around 2500BC, is known to be a ‘sun-clock.’ On the day of the June Solstice, if you stand inside the Stonehenge monument facing north-east through the entrance you can see the sun rise just above a roughly hewn stone outside the circle, known as the Heel Stone.
A very similar effect can be admired at our own temples of Ħaġar Qim and Mnajdra. On the summer solstice, sunlight shines through a hole, known as the oracle hole, at Ħaġar Qim Temples. This opens onto a chamber on the northeast side of the temple where the sun’s rays project a disk of light on a stone slab at the entrance of the apse. As the minutes pass, the disk becomes a crescent, then elongates into an ellipse, then elongates even further and finally sinks out of sight as though into the ground. At Mnajdra, the first rays of the sun light up the edge of a megalith to the left of the central doorway connecting the first pair of chambers to the inner chambers.
The phenomenon at our beautiful temples.