The Summer Solstice

The Summer Solstice

The Summer Solstice, which is also commonly known as Midsummer, takes place when one of the Earth’s poles reaches maximum tilt towards the Sun. In the Northern hemisphere, this occurs when the Sun enters Cancer, somewhere around June 21st. In the Southern hemisphere, it occurs when the Sun enters Capricorn, somewhere around December 21st. As a result of this tilt, the Summer Solstice is the longest day of the year.

Human beings have been marking the Summer Solstice for a very, very long time. In Wiltshire, England, from the vantage point of the middle of the stone circle at the famous Bronze Age site of Stonehenge, the sun rises directly over the Heel Stone. At Fajada Butte in Chaco Canyon, New Mexico, a dagger of light appear to pierce the heart of theNewmexico petroglyph’s spiral. The Greek Antikythera mechanism which, depending on which set of scientists you ask, has been dated anywhere from 250 to 60 BCE, is a marvelous piece of engineering that was used to track, among other dates, the Summer Solstice and the start of the Olympic Games.

Today’s Druids celebrate the Summer Solstice with the festival of Alban Hefin, which means “The Light of the Shore.” For them, the seashore is a place between the worlds, where Sky, Sea, and Earth meet. They view the Summer Solstice as an expression of that liminality, because while the Sun God is at His strongest, His strength is also declining, and the days will grow shorter.

Ancient Druids gathered mistletoe from oak groves at high noon on the Summer Solstice. Mistletoe does not have berries in the summer, and in that form it was prized for its powers of protection. In order to ensure that none of this protective power was lost, Druids would spread or hold white linen under each tree so that the mistletoe would not Lithafall directly on the earth and send the power into the ground.

Wiccans and similarly oriented Pagans refer to the Summer Solstice as Litha. Named after the Anglo-Saxon grain goddess, Litha celebrates the fertile powers of nature at their highest point. It is a time for feasting, swimming, bonfires, and even fireworks. As the Summer Solstice represents the marriage of heaven and Earth, it is also a popular time for Pagan weddings, complete with couples “jumping the fire” to cement their vows. One ancient tradition that is being revived in some areas is the ritual of driving livestock through the dying embers of the Midsummer fire, though with the safety precaution of actually having two smaller fires with a path between to lead the animals through.

Among the metaphysically inclined, one common belief about the Summer Solstice is that it is one of those times of the year when the “veil” between the living human world and the Otherworld becomes thinner. In particular, many stories of humans entering the world of the faeries, or sightings of faeries in the human world, occur at Midsummer. Perhaps some of these stories – or sightings of his own – inspired William Shakespeare toA-Midsummer-Nights-Dream_859_ write A Midsummer Night’s Dream.

The Summer Solstice is a traditional time to gather herbs for purpose of protection, both for homes and animals. Boughs of rowan can be hung over entrances to stables, barns, chicken coops, sheep and goat enclosures, etc. – to protect the animals from disease or harm caused by evil magick. By the same token, a sprig of rowan hung over a pet’s favorite spot would confer the same special protection. Rue is considered protective against disease and poison, though it is poisonous itself when ingested in sufficient quantities. In Italy, rue was considered such an important herb that jewelry makers would make silver replicas of it to act as protection against the Evil Eye. In England, rue was believed to confer protection against faerie enchantments.

In one of many attempts by the Church to eradicate Pagan practices over the years, June 24th was designated “St. John’s Day,” in hopes that it would replace Summer Solstice celebrations. This is how St. John’s Wort, another herb traditionally gathered at johns2Midsummer, came by its name. St. John’s Wort flowers around the Summer Solstice, and those flowers are a cheerful, sunny yellow. In addition to making a lovely yellow dye, St. John’s Wort is also credited with the ability to bind spirits wherever it is hung.

Vervain is another herb that is traditionally gathered at the Summer Solstice. Vervain is believed to have the power to purify and to banish evil and negativity. Lavender is also gathered at this time and is used to make incense for Summer Solstice rites. Fern seeds, which are really spores still attached to the leaf and worn in the shoe, were once believed to make the wearer invisible. Today, the root of the male fern, with leaves intact, is dried over the Summer Solstice fire to create the “lucky hand” amulet.

In the East Anglian Tradition, the Summer Solstice is the seventh of the eight festivals of the natural year, which are celebrations of what Nigel Pennick calls “The Stations of the Year.” These stations express the round of life, death, and rebirth that is such an integral part of the agricultural cycle. At the same time, they are also a way of exploring the metaphysical questions of life, death, and the path to spiritual enlightenment. In this tradition, the stations are as follows:

Station Festival Event Agricultural Cycle
1 None (it’s a mystery) Death/rebirth Plant produces seed and dies.
2 Autumnal Equinox Calling/summoning Fruit ripens/harvest.
3 Samhain (October 31) Awakening Letting go, seed is released.
4 Yule Enlightenment Rebirth of the spark of life in the seed.
5 Vernal Equinox Reconciliation Seed, apparently dead, comes back to life.
6 Beltane (May 1) Mystic union Plant grows in harmony with environment.
7 Midsummer Sanctification Flower opens and is fertilized.
8 Lammas (August 1) Completion The circle turns.

Druids, Wiccans, and Celtic-centered Pagans have a slightly different approach to observing the overarching cycle of the natural world. They refer to it as “The Wheel of the Year,” and conceive of the cycle as follows:

Festival Event Agricultural Cycle
Samhuinn (October 31) Ending and beginning of the year. Remembering and contacting the honored dead. The final harvest; livestock who won’t be overwintered are slaughtered.
Winter Solstice (Alban Arthan) Death and rebirth. Death of the Holly King and rebirth of the Oak King. Longest night of the year.
Imbolc (February 2) Honoring the Mother Goddess. First faint signs of spring, lambs are born (in some climates).
Spring Equinox (Alban Eilir, Eostre) Celebrating the Resurrection of the God, light overpowering darkness. Equal day and night; flowers begin to appear; first seeds are planted.
Beltane (May 1) Celebrating the Fertility of the Land. Spring is in full bloom.
Summer Solstice (Alban Hefin) Celebrating the union of heaven and Earth. Longest day of the year.
Lughnasadh (August 1) Giving thanks to the Goddess. First harvest, particularly of grain.
Autumnal Equinox (Alban Elfed, Mabon) Giving thanks to the Goddess, and preparing for the return of the dark. Equal day and equal night. Second harvest, particularly of fruit.

Although the Summer Solstice occupies the seventh spot in the Stations of the Year, and the fourth spot in the most common Wheel of the Year, its essential significance is the same in both calendars. The Summer Solstice is a time to celebrate the light when it’s at its strongest, when exuberant growth is at its height. At the same time, we are reminded that the light will begin to wane thereafter, and that we would do well to consider the nature of our spiritual harvest.

 


Sources:

Campanelli, Pauline. Ancient Ways: Reclaiming Pagan Traditions. First Edition, Second Printing, Llewellyn, 1992.

Zell-Ravenheart, Oberon. Grimoire for the Apprentice Wizard. New Page, 2004.

Pennick, Nigel. The Pagan Book of Days. Destiny, 1992.

Huson, Paul. Mastering Witchcraft. Perigee, 1970.

“Summer Solstice.” Wikipedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Summer_solstice.

“Archaeoastronomy.” Wikipedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Archaeoastronomy.

“Antikythera mechanism.” Wikipedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Antikythera_mechanism.

“Summer Solstice – Alban Hefin.” The Order of Bards, Ovates, and Druids. https://www.druidry.org/druid-way/teaching-and-practice/druid-festivals/summer-solstice-alban-hefin

“The Eightfold Wheel Of The Year & The Druid Festivals.” The Order of Bards, Ovates, and Druids. https://www.druidry.org/druid-way/teaching-and-practice/druid-festivals/eightfold-wheel-year-druid-festivals

Traversing Transitions: Where Freemasonry and Tibet Meet

Traversing Transitions: Where Freemasonry and Tibet Meet

“It’s hard to have those conversations,” the palliative care doctor was saying. She was talking about telling a loved one that Stage 4 cancer is terminal, and all the discussions and decisions that surround such a prognosis. The patient, an 85-year-old man, had lived a good life and yet, because of his fear of death, of losing this life, he was in denial and angry. This caused him and his family pain and turmoil as he sought to find his way to some acceptance of his situation.

Conversations about death are hard because U.S. culture is steeped in the fear of death. One only needs to look at television or magazine ads to see this; a culture that prides itself on fitness, youthfulness, and acquiring things has little understanding of the true nature of death. Death is a skeleton to be feared, a lurker in the closet that should not be acknowledged. Many aged have lived a life of denial of death, waiting until perhaps the last possible moment to “find God” or think about “the other side.”

People fear dying, not death, in general. They fear the pain and suffering that comes with long illnesses. Who wouldn’t? Cancer is certainly not a pleasant state. We hope for a quick death or to die in our sleep. Death in this way removes the focus on the body, on the horrors of what happens to the flesh that decays. Westerners don’t spend a lot of time on what it means to transition in death; they mostly focus on the unpleasant physical effects of the dying process. What is fascinating is that if one steps outside of perhaps the standard Western religions, he sees a far greater world that is not only accepting of death, but embracing of death.

While the Egyptian Book of the Dead (The Book of Coming Forth By Day) is a book, or set of scrolls, that specifically addresses the stages of death and afterlife, it doesn’t speak to the reader in such a way as to make the stages of death clear. It is still, after all, a Western book, early (2670 B.C.E.) as it may be. The scrolls were lists of spells which were left in the tombs of the dead. Their purpose was to provide the deceased a way to navigate the afterlife successfully. A very good modern interpretation / translation of this book is titled “Awaking Osiris.”

The Bardo Thodol, or “The Great Liberation Upon Hearing in the Intermediate State” is a book which is written for the living to assist the dying and deceased to make the transition off the Wheel of Life to Nirvana. This book is also known as the Tibetan Book of the Dead, although that is a fanciful 20th C. Western name.

Three bardos, or intermediate states between activities, are to be navigated, and success in these provides pathways toward different ends. A bardo may be any intermediate state, such as between birth and death, death and rebirth, even between something like sleeping and awakening. The guru or teacher sits with the person that is about to die and speaks to him of his journey, reminding him of his true being. He is prompted to enter the Clear Light, and thus, remove himself from the path of Earthly physical life. If he transitions to the second bardo, further instructions are given, and so on, until the soul either returns to Nirvana or back into a physical body, depending on the spiritual acumen of the deceased person. That all sounds a little complicated; in essence, it is assistance by the earthly person to the unearthly one, guiding him on his way to reincarnation or elevation.

“O Nobly Born, that which is death being called to thee now, resolve thus: “O this now is the hour of death. By taking advantage of this death, I will so act for the good of all sentient beings, peopling the illimitless expanse of the heavens, as to obtain the Perfect Buddhahood, by resolving on love and compassion towards them, and by directing my entire effort to the Sole Perfection.”

This section, from the First Bardo, is an example of the cultural views of death; not only its acceptance but total embrace to do what is best for the good of the collective humanity. This section goes on to remind the deceased that his life is in service to the greater good. The bardos continue in a cycle, all the while being guided by a guru, a “man of Faith,” a brother, or other person. The person acts as a guide from this realm to the next, allowing the soul to find peace by whatever means it finds possible. The thought of reading these beside the dying person is somehow comforting, perhaps as much to the speaker as to the “hearer.”

I think much of this same type of symbolism and instruction is provided to the Craft Mason, who winds through these bardos in the the rituals of all Craft degrees. Freemasonry, being an initiatory rite, seeks to impress on its membership the repeated lessons of life and death, until these ritual words and actions become very familiar to him. At first he is the recipient and later the provider. The nature of Freemasonry, the Service to Humanity, maybe partly this: imparting the ability to have each human experience a peaceful transition from this life to the next, and thereby improve the overall state of all beings.

The three bardos of death to rebirth transition, as explained in the book, are the Bardo of the Moment of Death, the Bardo of Experiencing Reality, and the Bardo while seeking Rebirth. To me, these mirror perfectly with the Craft degrees, where the lessons are told in with a Western slant. In some Masonic traditions, a chamber is used to create a space for the candidate to experience a true bardo, an intermediate state between activities, where reflection and change can take place. Symbolic in this world, perhaps these ritual trappings are faint shadows of the reality of our earthly transition.

It was said to me, recently, that Freemasons seem to be less afraid of death than perhaps the average Western human. If we listen to what Freemasonry is imparting, the Mason can’t help but put away the denial of his physical, transitory nature. We will die from this world. Freemasons may be better able to embrace the transcendence of being that marks the animus, the soul, the spirit, or whatever you wish to call the immortal principle in each living thing. Fear is the mind killer and is that which brings pain to what may not need to be a painful experience.

Freemasons are repeatedly provided the tools, symbolic and ritualistic, to learn to guide themselves and others through all the bardos of the human existence. It seems to me that all humans could use a lot more peaceful transitions into whatever intermediate state we find ourselves.

“Thine own consciousness, shining, void and inseparable from the Great Body of Radiance, hath no birth, nor death, and is the Immutable Light.” ~ Buddha Amitabha