One of the most enjoyable holidays in the pagan calendar is the Summer Solstice, or Litha, which is a time for celebration of the abundance of the Earth, and is also a time to prepare for the darkening months to come.
Litha is one of the four solar festivals (the two solstices, and the two equinoxes) or sabbats, observed by many Wiccan and Pagan traditions, based on the Celtic year. In folklore, these are referred to as the four 'quarter-days' of the year, and modern Wiccan and Witches call them the four 'Lesser Sabbats', or the four 'Low Holidays.' The Summer Solstice is one of them.
Litha is also known as Midsummer, occurring when the sun is at its apex on June 21 in the Northern Hemisphere. In Celtic lore, the Summer Solstice is one of two times each year that the battle between the Holly and Oak Kings occurs.
This folk tradition is a tale of the seasons, in which the light half of the year, represented by the Oak King, often depicted at the Greenman, and the dark half, represented by the Holly King, wage war against each other in a natural magick bid for supremacy. This epic battle takes place at the summer and winter solstices.
The Oak King is seen as the ruler of the year between the Winter and Summer Solstices, while the Holly King rules from the Summer to Winter Solstices. It is the Oak King’s victory that is celebrated at Litha. But while the Oak King may be in charge of things at the beginning of June, by the end of Midsummer he has been defeated by the Holly King who will begin to bring about the dark half of the year, to shorten the length of daylight and replace the current warmth with a growing cold. Thus it is that the holly (tinne) is the sacred tree of June.
I love the symbolism that Wiccans understand from this amazing battle, that in every darkness there is an element of light, and in every light there is an element of darkness. Understanding this basic teaching of the Wheel of the Year better prepares those who follow this path to handle the ups and downs of existence as a natural part of life.
The famous, fabulous witch Marie Bruce of England, has written a wonderful Grass is Greener Spell that underscores this wisdom. Light a white candle then say:
Discontent I will not feel
For satisfaction I will strive
Greener grass is never real
I am happy with my life!
So mote it be.
Allow the candle to burn for 15 minutes, then snuff it out. Repeat it daily until you feel more content with your life.
Humanity has been celebrating the triumph of light over the darkness since ancient times. On the Wheel of the Year, Litha lies directly across from Yule, the shortest day of the calendar year. This battle between the seasons is so significant that in many Pagan circles it is even acted out in some Litha celebrations.
It addition is at Litha, like Samhain (Halloween,) that the veils between the worlds are wondrously thin, that the portals between "the fields we know" and the worlds beyond stand enticingly open. As a result, it is an excellent time for rites of divination, and is also the strongest time to work all types of faery magick.
The most famous bard of them all, 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 the special magick on the night of the Summer Solstice.
Even though Litha and Yule are classified as low or lesser sabbats (holidays,) they are generally celebrated with more reveling, zeal and merriment than any other holidays on the Wheel, except perhaps Samhain (Halloween).
The joyous rituals of Litha celebrate the verdant Earth in high summer; abundance, fertility, and all the riches of Nature in full bloom. This is a madcap time of strong magic and empowerment, traditionally the time for handfasting (weddings) and for communication with the spirits of Nature. One fairly common custom in covens/groves is for women to walk skyclad (naked) through gardens to ensure continued fertility.
Those who celebrated Litha in the past did so wearing garlands or crowns of flowers, and of course, their millinery always included the yellow blossoms of St. John's Wort. The Litha rites of the ancients were boisterous communal festivities that included dancing, singing, storytelling, pageantry and feasting occurring by the village bonfire, and a torch-lit procession through the village after dark.
The Litha Sabbat is a time to celebrate both work and leisure, it is a time for children and childlike play. It is a time to celebrate the ending of the waxing year and the beginning of the waning year, in preparation for the harvest to come. Midsummer is a time to absorb the Sun's warming rays and is also another fertility Sabbat, not only for humans, but also for crops and animals. Wiccans consider the Goddess to be heavy with pregnancy from the mating at Beltane – and much honor is given to Her. The Sun God is also celebrated as the Sun is at its peak in the sky. Wiccans celebrate His approaching fatherhood – honor is also given to Him.
The faeries abound at this time and it is customary to leave offerings – such as food or herbs – for them in the evening.
Although Litha may seem at first glance to be a masculine observance and one which focuses on Lugh, the day is also dedicated to the Goddess, and Her flowers are the white blossoms of the elder. [FYI: In Irish mythology Lugh was a divine hero who led the Tuatha De Danann – who became the fey – against the Fomorians who were led by his grandfather Balor. Lugh killed Balor by shooting a stone into his giant eye.]
Here are just a few other names Litha is also known as: Summer Solstice, Alban Hefin; Sun Blessing; Gathering Day; Feill-Sheathain; Whit Sunday; Whitsuntide; Vestalia; Thing-tide; and St. John's Day.
Wiccan celebrants are commonly associated with Litha, but the holiday is celebrated by ancient religions around the world on every continent who believe in gods and goddesses of fertility and magick. It is thought the word, Litha, may have come from the Saxon tradition.
Shakespeare's romantic comedy, "A Midsummer Night's Dream" has drawn attention to this time of year and captivated audiences since about 1596. Pagans believe that midsummer dreams are more lucid during this time, and as has been said, believe it is a good time to commune with all sprites and faeries.
Litha takes place after the crops have been planted and before the harvest has begun. Pagans believe that Litha is the right time to harvest magical, healing herbs and to make love potions. As a result, Litha became associated with the ideal time for weddings, scheduled between the planting and harvesting. Traditional June weddings still occur around this time.
Litha also celebrates fertility and strength. Foods with fresh vegetables, drinks made with herbs and flowers and incense of different types such as lemon, myrrh and pine, are used in many Litha celebrations.
Edain McCoy explains this magickal season from her book, Celtic Myth and Magick:
“Midsummer is the time when the sun reaches the peak of its power, the earth is green and holds the promise of a bountiful harvest. The Mother Goddess is viewed as heavily pregnant, and the God is at the apex of his manhood and is honored in his guise as the supreme sun.
But don't overlook the Celtic Sun Goddesses in your celebration. The Celts are one of several cultures known to also have female deities to reperesent the power of the sun. The Celtic languages are some of the very few in which the names for the "sun" are feminine nouns, which attests to the one-time prominence of these Goddesses. A number of the myths surrounding these ladies of light have been preserved. Among the most well-known are Sul (Anglo-Celtic), Dia Griene (Scottish), the Princess of the Sun (Breton), and Grian and Brid (Irish).
Just as the Holly and Oak Kings battles for supremacy at Yule, this ever-repeating fight is reenacted at Midsummer, this time with the Holly King, as king of the waning year, victorious.”
Litha has been a source of contention among modern Neo-Pagan and Wiccan groups because it has not been established whether Midsummer was celebrated by the ancients. While there's scholarly evidence to indicate that it was indeed observed, Wicca founder Gerald B. Gardner wrote that the solar festivals (the solstices and equinoxes) were actually added later and were imported from the Middle East. Regardless, most Wiccans and Neo-Pagans celebrate Litha.
Nearly every agricultural society has marked the high point of summer in some way. It is at this time that the sun reaches its zenith. In the Southern Hemisphere, the Summer Solstice occurs in December. It is the longest day of the year, and the point at which the sun seems to just hang in the sky without moving – in fact, the word “solstice” is from the Latin word solstitium, which literally translates “sun stands still.” In ancient days the progression of the sun was marked and recorded. Stone circles like Stonehenge were actually oriented to highlight the rising of the sun on the precise day of the Summer Solstice.
Because Litha is a celebration that has been observed for centuries in one form or another it is no surprise that there are numerous myths and legends associated with it.
--- 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 Fey. 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.
[FYI: Rue has a long history of use in both medicine and magick, and is considered a protective herb in both disciplines. The hardy evergreen shrub with yellow flowers is mentioned by writers from Pliny to Shakespeare and beyond, as an herb of remembrance, of warding and of healing. Early physicians considered rue an excellent protection against plagues and pestilence, and used it to ward off poisons and fleas. A Modern Herbal refers to the plant's 'disagreeable odor and flavor,' but in truth, the bitterness of the leaves is only evident in large doses. In smaller amounts, it imparts a pleasant, musky flavor to cream cheeses and light meats. Rue was once believed to improve the eyesight and creativity, and no less personages than Michelangelo and Leonardo Da Vinci regularly at the small, trefoil leaves to increase their own. The legend of rue lives on in playing cards, where the symbol for the suit of clubs is said to be modeled on a leaf of rue. There are concerns that rue is poisonous and can cause violent gastric reactions when taken in large doses. In addition, some people are highly sensitive to the plant's oils and can develop a severe rash when they are exposed to it and then the sun.]
--- Sun worship is a custom that has gone on nearly as long as mankind itself. In North America, the tribes of the Great Plains saw the sun as a manifestation of the Great Spirit. For centuries, the Sun Dance has been performed as a way to not only honor the sun, but also to bring the dancers visions. Traditionally, the Sun Dance was performed by young warriors.
According to historians, Sun Dance preparation among most of the Plains peoples involved a lot of prayer, followed by the ceremonial felling of a tree, which was then painted and erected at the dancing ground. All of this was done under the supervision of the tribe's shaman. Offerings were made to show respect to the Great Spirit.
The Sun Dance itself lasted for several days, during which time the dancers abstained from food. On the first day, prior to beginning the dance, participants often spent some time in a sweat lodge, and the painted their bodies with a variety of colors. Dancers circled the pole to the beat of drums, bells, and sacred chants.
The Sun Dance was not held solely to honor the sun – but was also a way of testing the stamina of the tribe's young, unblooded warriors. Among a few tribes, such as the Mandan, dancers suspended themselves from the pole with ropes attached to pins that pierced the skin. The young men of some tribes lacerated their skin in ritualized patterns. Dancers kept going until they lost consciousness, and sometimes this could go on for three to four days. Dancers often reported having a vision or a spirit walk during the celebration. Once it was over, they were fed, bathed, and – with great ceremony – smoked a sacred pipe in honor of the Great Spirit's manifestation as the sun.
--- Ley lines were first suggested to the general public by an amateur archaeologist named Alfred Watkins in the early 1920’s. Watkins was out wandering around one day in Herefordshire and noticed that many of the local footpaths connected the surrounding hilltops in a straight line. After looking a map, he saw a pattern of alignment. He posited that in ancient times, Britain had been crossed by a network of straight travel routes, using various hilltops and other physical features as landmarks, needed in order to navigate the once densely-forested countryside.
Watkins' ideas weren't completely new. Some fifty years before Watkins, an archaeologist named William Henry Black suggested that geometric lines connected monuments all over western Europe.
The idea of ley lines as magical, mystical alignments is a fairly modern one. One school of thought believes that these lines carry positive or negative energy. It is also believed that where two or more lines converge, you have a place of great power and energy. It is believed that many well-known sacred sites, such as Stonehenge, Glastonbury Tor, Sedona and Machu Picchu sit at the convergence of several lines.
There are a number of academics who dismiss the concept of ley lines, pointing out that geographic alignment doesn’t necessarily make the connection magical. After all, the shortest distance between two points is always a straight line, so it would make sense for some of these places to be connected by a straight path. On the other hand, when our ancestors were navigating over rivers, around forests, and up hills, a straight line might not have actually been the best path to follow. It is also possible that because of the sheer number of ancient sites in Britain, that the "alignments" are simply chance coincidence. Ri-ight!
--- People believed that the Litha fires possessed great power, and that prosperity and protection for oneself and one's clan (family) could be earned merely by jumping over the Litha bonfire. It was also common for courting couples to join hands and jump over the embers of the Litha fire three times to ensure a long and happy marriage, financial prosperity and many children. Even the charred embers from the Litha bonfire were believed to have possessed protective powers – they were charms against injury and bad weather in harvest time. The embers were commonly placed around fields of grain and orchards to protect the crops and ensure an abundant reaping. Other Litha customs included carrying an ember of the Litha fire home and placing it on one's hearth and decking one's home with birch, fennel, St. John's Wort, orpin, and white lilies for blessing and protection.
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.
--- 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.
--- 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.
For contemporary Wiccans and Pagans, this is a day of inner power and brightness. Find 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 triumph of light over darkness.
Litha is a great time to celebrate outdoors especially 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, fire flies, storytelling, and music.
Here is a sampling of the Gods and Goddesses from around the world associated with the Summer Solstice:
Amaterasu (Shinto): This solar goddess is both the sister of the moon deity, and the storm god of Japan. She is known as the goddess "from which all light comes." She is much loved, and is known for her warmth and compassion. Every year in July, she is honored with public celebrations throughout Japan.
Aten (Egypt): Known an aspect of Ra, Aten was not depicted as an anthropomorphic being (like most of the other ancient Egyptian gods), but is represented by the disc of the sun, with rays of light emanating outward.
Apollo (Greek): The son of Zeus by Leto, Apollo is a multi-faceted god. In addition to being the god of the sun, he also presides over music, medicine and healing. He is also identified with Helios. As his worship spread throughout the Roman empire and into the British Isles, he took on many of the aspects of the Celtic deities, and is seen as a god of the sun and of healing.
Hestia (Greek): This goddess watches over domesticity, the home and the family. She was given the first offering at any sacrifice made in the home. Publicly, local town halls were shrines for her – and when new settlements were formed, a flame from their public hearths were taken to new villages from the old ones in her honor.
Horus (Egyptian): Horus was one of the solar deities of the ancient Egyptians. He was honored as rising and setting daily, and is also associated with Nut, the sky god. Horus later became associated with the more famous 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 coincides with the sacred number recorded in Mesoamerican myths.
Juno (Roman): She is also called Juno Luna and blesses women with menstruation. The month of June was named for her. She is the patroness of marriage, and her month remains an ever-popular time for handfastings (weddings.)
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 when the crops are flourishing and are 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 merged 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.
The following chants and prayers celebrate the different aspects of Litha. Feel free to modify them to suit the needs of your own tradition:
Prayer for the Garden
By Patti Wigington
Small plants, leaves and buds,
growing in the soil.
O fiery sun, may your rays of
light and warmth
bless us with abundance,
and allow these plants to blossom
A Prayer for the Beach
By Patti Wigington
O mother ocean, welcome me in your arms,
bathe me in your waves,
and keep me safe
so that I may return to land once more.
Your tides move with the pull of the moon,
as do my own cycles.
I am drawn to you,
and honor you under the sun's fiery gaze.
Prayer to the Sun at Litha
By Patti Wigington
The sun is high above us
shining down upon the land and sea,
making things grow and bloom.
Great and powerful sun,
we honor you this day
and thank you for your gifts.
Ra, Helios, Sol Invictus, Aten, Svarog,
you are known by many names.
You are the light over the crops,
the heat that warms the earth,
the hope that springs eternal,
the bringer of life.
We welcome you, and we honor you this day,
celebrating your light,
as we begin our journey once more
into the darkness.
A Fourth of July Prayer
By Patti Wigington
Gods of liberty, goddesses of justice,
watch over those who would fight for our freedoms.
May freedom be given to all people,
around the world,
no matter what their faith.
Keep our soldiers safe from harm,
and protect them in your light,
so that they may return to their families
and their homes.
Goddesses of liberty, gods of justice,
hear our call, and light the sky,
your torch shining in the night,
that we may find our way back to you,
and bring people together, in unity.
Litha is the season of great solar energy. A great project is to put together a blessing besom, especially since sweeping is one of the best ways to make a space sacred and clean. After making it, use it to physically cleanse your home, then hang it up to keep positive energy flowing.
To make a blessing besom, you'll need the following: A broom – either make your own, or purchase one at a craft store; ivy or vines; flowers and herbs; ribbons; and small bells.
Wrap the ribbons and ivy loosely (allow some give) around the handle of the broom. Next, add sprigs of herbs and flowers beneath the ribbons as desired. Once done, tie a few small bells onto the broom, so that it makes a pleasant sound when used. In many cultures, bells are used as noisemakers to frighten away evil spirits or negative energies.
If you like, you may consecrate the blessing besom the same as any other magical tool. Use it to sweep around your home, starting near a window or a door, and working in a deosil (clockwise) direction. As you do so, you may wish to chant something like this:
Sweeping, sweeping, 'round the room,
Blessings from this cleansing broom.
From floor to ceiling, and all between,
May this space be fresh and clean.
Sweeping good energy here to me,
As I will, so it shall be.
Here are just a few magickal correspondences (items that amplify specific natural energies) associated with Litha:
Purpose : Rededication to the Lord and Lady, beginning of the harvest, honoring the Sun God, honoring the pregnant Goddess.
Dynamics/Meaning: Crowning of the Sun God, death of the Oak King, assumption of the Holly King, end the ordeal of the Greenman.
Tools, Symbols and Decorations: The sun, oak, birch and fir branches, sun flowers, lilies, red/maize/yellow or gold flower, love amulets, seashells, summer fruits and flowers, feather/flower door wreath, sun wheel, fire, circles of stone, sun dials and swords/blades, bird feathers, and the Witches' Ladder. (FYI: A Witches’ Ladder is similar to a prayer bracelet or Rosary in other faiths. It is generally a string comprised of 40 beads, or a cord of 40 knots, which some Wiccans or witches use for magick. The beads or knots enable a practitioner to concentrate on repeated chants or incantations without having to keep count, thus enabling the practitioner to focus all his or her attention or will on the desired goal.)
Colors: Blue, green, gold, yellow and red.
Customs: Bonfires, processions, all night vigils; singing, feasting, celebrating with others; cutting or gathering divining rods, dowsing rods and wands; herb gathering; handfastings (weddings); Druidic gathering to collect mistletoe in oak groves; needfires, leaping between two; women walking naked through gardens to ensure continued fertility; honorign the Mother's fullness, richness and abundance; placing garlands of St. John’s Wort placed over doors/ windows and a sprig in the car for protection.
Goddesses: Mother Earth, Mother Nature; Venus, Aphrodite, Yemaya, Astarte, Freya, Hathor, Ishtar; all Goddesses of love, passion, beauty and the sea, and pregnant, lusty Goddesses; Green Forest Mother; Great One of the Stars; and Goddess of the Wells.
Gods: Father Sun/Sky; Oak King, Holly King; King Arthur; all Gods at peak power and strength.
Rituals/Magicks: Nature spirit/fey communion, planet healing, divination, love and protection magicks. The battle between the Oak King – God of the waxing year – and the Holly King – God of the waning year, which can be acted out in a ritual play, or scenes from the Bard’s (an incarnation of Merlin) "A Midsummer Night’s Dream," rededication of faith, and rites of inspiration.
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.
Animals/Mythical Beings: Wren, robin, horses, cattle, satyrs, faeries, firebird, dragon, and thunderbird.
Gemstones: Lapis lazuli, diamond, tiger’s eye; and all green gemstones, especially emerald and jade.
Herbs: Anise, mugwort, chamomile, rose, wild rose, oak blossoms, lily, cinquefoil, lavender, fennel, elder, mistletoe, hemp, thyme, larkspur, nettle, wisteria, vervain ( verbena), St. John’s Wort, heartsease, rue, fern, wormwood, pine, heather, yarrow, oak and holly trees.
Incense/Oil: Heliotrope, saffron, orange, frankincense and myrrh, wisteria, cinnamon, mint, rose, lemon, lavender, sandalwood, and pine.
Foods: Honey, fresh vegetables, lemons, oranges, summer fruits, summer squash, pumpernickel bread, ale and mead, and carrot drinks.
However you choose to celebrate the Summer Solstice, as a Litha Rite or some other Midsummer holiday, make it joyous. Try to celebrate outside in the open air if possible, with good company. Feast, dance, sing and enjoy the abundance of nature. Drinks to share at Litha include honey mead, elderflower wine or a cordial. Decorate your home or an outdoor celebration with blue and red ribbons, holly, oak leaves, reeds, wild roses and cultivated red roses, along with any yellow or red flowers.
Whatever you do, be sure to remember to cleave to your partner with love and the sexual abandon that only this time of wild magick inspires!
— Danu’s Daughter