Date: June 21, 2010
Title: The Longest Day
Podcaster: Diane Duane
Description: It’s midsummer. Or is it really? Isn’t June 21st supposed to be summer’s first day? And what does a circle of stones in the middle of Salisbury Plain have to say about the idea? A brief rumination on dawn over the Sunstone, summer celebrations in Europe, and how people still come to watch one of the continent’s oldest scientific instruments at work.
Bio: Diane Duane is a fantasy and science fiction novelist and screenwriter who has been working in the field for some thirty years. Besides her work for Star Trek — on which she has worked in more media than anyone else alive — she is probably best known for her long-running series of “Young Wizards” novels, known for their unique blend of fantasy and hard science. She lives in Ireland with her husband of twenty-five years, novelist and screenwriter Peter Morwood.
Today’s sponsor: “Between the Hayabusa homecoming from Itokawa and the Rosetta flyby of asteroid Lutetia, 13 June until 10 July 2010, this episode of “365 Days of Astronomy” is sponsored anonymously and dedicated to the memory of Annie Cameron, designer of the Tryphena Sun Wheel, Great Barrier Island, New Zealand, a project that remains to be started.”
Hi there! My name is Diane Duane, I’m a writer, and I live in Ireland.
In the late Spring, a young astronomer’s fancy lightly turns to Stonehenge.
Well, around here it does, anyway. The arrival of June means the Summer Solstice is coming — the Northern Hemisphere’s longest day, its shortest night, and the day on which that great archaeoastronomical monument and ancient calendar device known as Stonehenge suddenly turns from a quiet circle of very old and somewhat graffiti’d stones into a media event and something to make the AA (the Automobile Association, not that other organization) roll its eyes.
But this is one of relatively few aspects of British or European life that’s still attached specifically to the Summer Solstice. It’s true that as June gets into gear and the summer weather starts getting serious, seasonal festivals start breaking out all over Europe. And a surprising number of them brand themselves as midsummer festivals of one kind or another, even though they might not be all that close to June 21st — often referred to not just as the summer solstice but often as Midsummer or Midsummer’s Day.
The first time you consider this association closely, it can seem a little strange. How is what everybody says is the first day of summer also somehow supposed to be the middle of the summer? Interestingly, this problem on examination turns out to be strictly a regional one. Only in North America, it seems, has the Summer Solstice been denoted by calendar makers as the first day of summer, and no one’s terribly sure who got the bright idea to start this trend. But it seems to have been a relatively recent development. US-published dictionaries and encyclopedias of the 1800’s and early 1900’s clearly define “summer” as including the whole months of June, July and August, and no “first day” is mentioned.
On the European side, though, there’s an old tradition of so-called “quarter-days” — four days in a year, three months apart, on which rents were traditionally paid and other debts settled. These were usually associated with the first day of each season — dates which (further back in time) were also often the festival days of ancient religions. For example, in northern and central Europe, Spring started when the serious herding did, in February, the beginning of the lambing season. Ireland is a good example of this; February 1st was the ancient Celtic herdsmen’s feast of Imbolc, and the first of February is still considered the first day of spring. In similar herding and farming cultures across the continent, summer started three months later, at the beginning of May. So a June date a month or so later was as close to the middle of the summer as mattered.
But there’s an additional influence at work here. Naturally earlier rural-living peoples noticed the closeness of the Solstice, the Longest Day, to the approximate middle of local summer. Many pagan peoples (and remember, the word pagus once simply meant “fieldsman”, someone who lived and farmed in the country) found ways to tie local-midsummer festivals to the Solstice proper. And later on, when newer religions arrived, these normally tried to ease their way into local favor by attaching themselves and items of their dogma to the older deities and festivals. This is probably why the feast of St. John the Baptist, celebrated in many European Christian countries on June 24th, has in recent centuries had attached to it many of the trappings and celebrations usually associated with festivities celebrating the middle of summer. Communal eating festivals, celebrating the return of the season of plenty (and drinking festivals, celebrating the maturing of the local wines…), dancing and general rejoicing before the hard work of the harvest period sets in, are closely arranged around the Solstice right around the continent.
Since people were once celebrating the triumphal return of the Sun and the day of its greatest power, there is a lot of attention in such Midsummer traditions to light, and especially to fire. Bonfires get built — big ones. (This is especially noticeable in the more northern cultures, where summer temperatures, nice as they are, are more likely to be on the cool side. The Irish in particular are big on making huge heaps of combustibles and torching them on the slightest excuse: the Beltane / Midsummer bonfires are nearly as big as the ones associated with Hallowe’en and / or the old Celtic quarter-day feast of Samhain, later in the year.) All over Europe, people celebrating Midsummer in the old traditions dance around those fires or sometimes even jump over them in a symbolic gesture that dates back thousands of years — the idea being that by so doing you take some of the Sun’s power into your own body for the purpose of helping you be successful in propagating the species. (Also, if you try to jump over that fire when it’s burning too high, you may also be helping the local gene pool by weeding yourself out of it… but that’s another issue.)
Fire, though, is just secondhand sunlight, as even the ancients knew — and the best way to engage with the Sun, to get into relationship with it, was to build a place where it could come into a ritually significant contact with the Earth that depended on it: where it could be (even for a short time) trapped — signifying, for however brief a time, that you and the powers of the Universe had a contract, and each year you wanted confirmation that the other side was honoring its half of the agreement with your local Gods. The ancient peoples of Europe were perfectly conscious of the Sun’s importance to life on Earth: and not just in the matter of getting the crops in on time, but in knowing when to harvest them too. For this, some kind of calendar that would tell you what the Sun was going to be doing at a given time of year — at what angle it would shine on your crops, and for how long each day — was vital. And if you could get the Sun itself to confirm that the course of the year, and its own behavior, was on track, then that was the way to go.
Stonehenge was a solution to both these problems. As we now know, it wasn’t a big circle of stones that just magically happened all at once. It was a delicate astronomical instrument that was built in several phases over something like fifteen hundred years or more, first in wood and then in stone, each phase more ambitious and more accurate than the last as the engineers and builders fine-tuned their calendar instrument to synchronize correctly with the Sun. Later some capacity for lunar calculations was built in as well, possibly as an attempt to coordinate the lunar calendar with the solar one. But the Sun’s business was always the main event at Stonehenge. Knowing the exact day when the Solstice was occurring was vital for a serious agricultural culture that had graduated from the hunter-gatherer lifestyle to one where a regular food supply was important to keeping all those now-settled people in a growing nation alive and well through the cruel winter to come. For anxious viewers standing at the center of the great stone ring on the day of the Summer Solstice, the sight of the midsummer Sun rising again and again exactly above the Heel Stone was a sign that the Universe was working properly, and — barring bad weather — the harvest could go ahead as scheduled.
The sacred nature of the place — one which (by the builders’ careful calculations and engineering) the immortal Sun graced once a year with its direct presence — also made Stonehenge somewhere that notable people of the time wished to be buried, in hopes of sharing that immortality… or (let’s not discount human nature here) making sure that their still-living neighbors knew how important they were because they’d been buried there. The remains of such notables, local chieftains or revered religious figures, have been found in and around Stonehenge on and off over the past few hundred years. Those who came to the stones every Summer Solstice to witness the Sun’s continuing cooperation in the business of keeping mankind alive would also be mindful of their own dead at such times, and we still have evidence here and there of the offerings they brought.
The chance of finding more of these ancient remnants, and the desire to keep the stones themselves and their immediate surroundings as much out of the flow of modern life as possible, has resulted in the British government limiting access to them. Due to past abuse of the area in previous years for rock festivals and such, and partly due to increasing concern about damage to the environment around the stones by the never-ending stream of curious visitors, you can’t get right up among the stones any more, but have to be content to walk around them at a respectful, roped-off distance. It’s a little sad for those of us who’d like to be able to get in there and touch the physical fabric of this very ancient calendar device. But at least the site is being preserved for future research, which it seems to me would please Stonehenge’s designers if one had access to a handy time machine so that the concept could be explained to them. They were all about tying the plain facts of local astronomy into the everyday business of keeping human beings alive and (additionally) in touch with the divine.
The latter space is now mostly held open by the neo-Druids for whom access to the stones is allowed at dawn on the Summer Solstice. For others around Europe, either due to the presence of their own local stone rings or the simple maintenance of ancient tradition, the Solstice has now simply become a day for casually saluting the creative and sustaining power of the universe, having a good time around an all-night bonfire, or holding a 24-hour softball game in a place where, due to a high enough latitude, the sun never sets. (Such as Iceland, where this tradition is enacted every year. So far no Solstice Day game has been called on account of volcano: let’s hope it stays that way.)
And meanwhile, over in the Wiltshire region of Britain, the preparations for the great day are well under way. “June 20/21,” say the yellow signs that the Automobile Association posts up, “A303 / A334, expect delays.” “Ya think??” said a colleague of mine on seeing the announcement. Every year around the Solstice, regardless of the limitations, hordes of people start arriving from near and far to get as close to the yearly miracle as they can. Some of them are genuinely stirred by this contact with the distant past, a sense of the same wonder that moved those who came to Salisbury Plain when the stones were new. And the thoughts of a lot of astronomy fans, from the amateurs to the pros, will be with them as the Sun rises over the edge of the plain and aligns with the Sunstone as seen from the center of the trilithon circle. It’s always heartening when, regardless of centuries of steady use, a scientific instrument still works.
For a collection of URLs to follow for more information about calendars and the Solstice, please go to this web address:
End of podcast:
365 Days of Astronomy
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