Summer Solstice Rituals: How Ancient Cultures Marked the Longest Day

The June solstice is fast approaching. But how did ancient cultures mark this astronomical event?

The Northern Hemisphere's summer solstice marks the longest day of the year and the beginning of summer in the Northern Hemisphere. It occurs when Earth reaches the point in its orbit where the North Pole is at its maximum tilt toward the sun. In 2022, this will happen on Tuesday, June 21.

This event has been marked for thousands of years by many ancient peoples, who considered it to be an important event. In northern and central European cultures during the Neolithic era, for example, the summer solstice held significance in relation to ancient agricultural practices.

Celtic, Slavic and and Germanic peoples often marked the solstice by lighting bonfires as it was believed that this would boost the strength of the sun for the remainder of the crop season and ensure a good harvest.

"In Northern Europe, midsummer was celebrated from pre-Christian times until the mid-19th century, with festivals during which bonfires were lit, later incorporated into the Feast of St. John the Baptist," Susan Greaney, a historian with English Heritage, told Newsweek.

One ritual that took place in medieval Germany along the Moselle River was particularly curious, according to anthropologist and astronomer Anthony Aveni.

"They would get a big, old, discarded wagon wheel, and decorate it and put a lot of straw and then light it. Then the men of the village would roll the wheel of fire down into the river," Aveni told Newsweek.

Neolithic Europeans also constructed several stone circles that appear to have been built to align with the movements of the sun at the summer and winter solstices. One famous example of this is Stonehenge, located in southwestern England.

Stonehenge at the summer solstice
Visitors celebrate the summer solstice at Stonehenge on June 21, 2019 in Amesbury, England. People gather at the ancient stone circle to see the sunrise on the dawn of the summer solstice in a tradition likely dating back thousands of years. Finnbarr Webster/Getty Images

The famous stone monument was built around 4,500 years ago during the Late Neolithic period by farmers and herders who clearly considered the solstice to be a significant occasion. The way that the stones are laid out serves to frame the sunrise at the summer solstice and sunset at the winter solstice.

"The stones were carefully designed to align with the movements of the sun. Standing in the center of the monument at summer solstice, the sun rises just to the left of a large standing stone outside the stone circle, known as the Heel Stone, seen through a gap in the outer sarsen circle," Greaney, a Stonehenge expert, told Newsweek.

Because there is a lack of evidence from the time, we don't know, and may never know, what kind of ceremonies may have taken place at Stonehenge thousands of years ago.

But given that the builders of the monument constructed it around the movements of the sun, it is likely that people gathered here at the solstices to conduct rituals and ceremonies related to the changing of the seasons, according to Greaney.

"The longest day of the year would have perhaps been a time of celebration, with warm nights and long daylight making it the perfect time to gather together," Greaney said. "These must have been special times when people gathered together from far-off communities to hold feasts, ceremonies and rituals."

"We don't know what these occasions included—singing, dancing, processions, speeches, sporting events—but they would have been memorable and exciting, just as summer solstice celebrations at Stonehenge still are today."

Aside from marking the seasons—thus dictating when to grow certain crops—the solstices may have been a time to remember the dead or worship a solar deity.

In China, the Summer Solstice Festival is one of the 24 fortnightly divisions of the year, each named for the sun's position, seasonal phenomena, or associated farming activity.

"During the late imperial period, the summer solstice was a brief holiday but no longer," David Pankenier, an expert on ancient China and cultural astronomy at Lehigh University, told Newsweek. "The importance of the summer solstice is due to the fact that it marks the time when the assertive 'yang' force of the complementary 'yin-yang' pair reaches its peak."

"In Chinese cosmology the continually changing balance between the two governs and animates the cosmos," he said.

The summer solstice is of lesser importance than the winter solstice, in this case, because it marks the start of the yang force's decline as the yin influence (recessive, dark, cool) starts to grow, according to Pankenier.

"In contrast, because the winter solstice signals the gradual return of 'yang' to dominance, and with it warmth, sunlight, and the renewal of nature, in the popular mind it is associated with renewed optimism for the New Year ahead," he said.

"But the Summer Solstice also marks the completion of the winter wheat harvest, an event worthy of celebration in itself. In North China eating noodles made from the new wheat flour to mark the occasion was customary in many places."