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Party like a Pagan: 5 ways to celebrate the summer solstice
With all the celebration and neolithic celestial alignment that goes on at Stonehenge, there’s no denying that the summer solstice is perhaps the oldest excuse to throw a party going. From solitary witches to groves of druids, most Pagan faiths have honoured the solstice with rituals, feasts, and just a hint of debauchery across Europe for thousands of years.
Midsommar, for example, is more than just a cult horror movie, it was a national holiday marking the solstice in Norway up until 1771 and is still celebrated in Sweden and Finland today.
So if you're ready to hack it with heathens, slay like a solitary, or dance until dawn with druids, here are five historic ways to party like a Pagan.
1. Pull an all-nighter
The shortest night of the year was as much to be celebrated as the longest day, making the eve of the solstice the pre-drinks of this pagan party. Nowadays it’s common to wake to greet the sunrise on the solstice, but for ancient Pagans it would’ve been an all-night affair, celebrating the sun and welcoming its rise.
It has also long been heralded as a powerful time for protective charms and divination. So much so that on no other night could a bowl of water and some pieces of paper tell you your true love's initials, or could bunches of dandelions bless your house with more than damp bedsheets.
Plague, carbuncles, or ‘the quartan ague’ got you down? According to one archaic West Country charm, some coal dug from beneath the root of mugwort or plantain on the eve of the solstice has got you covered!
2. Make a sacrifice
If laying off chocolate for the whole of Lent seems too much of a long-term commitment, a quick solstice sacrifice may be the alternative for you. Many historians agree that Stonehenge was used for ritual sacrifices on occasions such as solstices. Sadly, in Neolithic times, the sacrifices were probably human.
Fortunately, we moved on from there with Celtic and Germanic folks usually opting for a good sturdy wild boar as their sacrifice to appease the deities. Whether human, hunted, or livestock, throughout history sacrifices were generally the best people could afford. Ahead of the rituals they were well looked after, then respectfully killed and prepared for the feast in an attempt to ensure an abundant harvest.
3. Dance through the fire
As you’d expect from a celebration of the sun that predates electricity and candles, fire played a huge part in summer solstice celebrations. Passing ‘thrice through fire’ was seen as a powerful cleansing rite, capable not only of exorcising evil influences from people and cattle, but also blessing them with strength, power, fertility, and abundance. It was thought to be most potent to do this, you guessed it, on the eve of the solstice. As the fires burned down, people (particularly newly married couples) and cattle would jump through the flames from east to west.
Across Britain, ancient circle dances are still reenacted wherein dancers link hands to circle chaotically, then break away to jump through the flames. They then pull the ring to and fro through the fire until the flames are extinguished, guarding the participants from ill fortune for the year.
If you plan on recreating one yourself, just remember open fires and human flesh don’t mix well, and as we’ve already established long-pig is off the modern menu.
4. Start an everlasting feud
Is it even a party if there’s not a punch-up? Not when it comes to solstices! A prevailing theme of solstice celebrations is the eternal battle between light and darkness as the wheel of the year turns. The Oak and Holly Kings are relatively modern additions to this archetype and during summer solstice the Holly King wins. He reigns over the dark half of the year while the Oak King recovers, winning the rematch at the winter solstice.
Throughout history we see Celtic deities such as Lugh and Balor take up this everlasting feud, and even Sir Gawain and the Green Knight were placed in these roles. So water pistols and light-sabers at the ready, just remember the losers will win at the winter solstice so play nice!
5. Watch the sunrise (and sunset)
Crowds flock to sites like Avebury, and Glastonbury Tor every summer solstice to celebrate sunrise’s energy as our ancestors would. English Heritage even streams sunrise at Stonehenge allowing people worldwide to be there in spirit. They also stream sunset because this solstice mourns the loss of the sun, where ancient pagans faced winter with uncertainty ahead of their first real harvest.
As part of the cycle of life, death, and eventual rebirth, Celts believed that their horned god, Cernunnos, died at the summer solstice. Therefore, worshippers would gather one last time to offer prayers of thanks in the hope that he would merry part to merry meet again come December.