Litha – The Pagan Meaning of the Longest Day of the Year

The Summer Solstice is almost here—time to get naked and light a big fire.

The rising Summer Solstice Sun, aligning with the heel stone at Stonehenge
The rising Summer Solstice Sun, aligning with the heel stone at Stonehenge

Summer and the Summer Solstice are finally here! If you live in the Pacific Northwest, I’ll forgive you if you don’t believe me. We had a Winter that seemed to drag on forever this year, followed by two false Springs (for those not in the region, our “False Springs” start out like any typical sunny day and then around two in the afternoon the sky grows dark, the temperature drops 20 degrees, and city is pelted with hail. The storm continues for another 4 days.) It seemed like Spring would never start, and here we are, looking towards the start of Summer.

Also called Midsummer or Litha, the summer solstice marks the high point of the sun’s arc across the sky in the Northern Hemisphere. We are treated to the longest days and the shortest nights of the year. Around June 19 to 21, it will rise and set at the same point on the horizon three-ish days in a row, hence the word “solstice,” which we get from sōlstitium, a phrase that is part Middle English, part old French and part Latin. It means, loosely, “sun” (sōl) and “to stand still” (stitium).

The solstices and equinoxes are called Quarter Days by some Pagans. For groups like the Celts, this was a lesser holy day. The Celts were a mostly pastoral society, much more concerned with the rhythms of animal mating cycles. The minutiae of the sun’s movements were nearly inconsequential to them. But for societies like Scandinavian heathens and Teutonic pagans, who were agrarian, every subtle change was tracked as closely as possible. Miscount the days of the sun’s course, and your entire crop could be in jeopardy.

Even though the heat of Summer, such as the “dog days” of August, is still yet to come, Witches, Pagans, and followers of many other traditions consider this day and the season it inducts to be the zenith of their sun deity’s potential. Whether this is a god, like the Aztec Huitzilopochtli, Mithra from Persia, or the Canaanite Ba’al, or a goddess, like Amaterasu from Japan or Sekhmet from ancient Egypt, many of these deities come into their power now. According to their archetype, they do this by either passing a test or by killing off their predecessor and taking their force into themselves.

In the Western witchcraft traditions, the “god” idea is often divided into two forms; the Holly King and the Oak King. At the summer solstice, the Holly King fights and kills the Oak King, ruling over the waning year until they meet again at the winter solstice, weaving back and forth forever. And what they are fighting for is the love of (or the opportunity to knock boots with) the Goddess, who is eternal. That’s why we see holy weddings taking place at this time of year, like Isis and Osiris, and Orpheus and Euridice. We also see the blessed Jewish day of Shavuot in this season, a day celebrating the marriage of Israel to the Abrahamic God.

Themes of water and fire permeate this season. And while this is undoubtedly a time to focus on all the solar and light deities, many of the great water deities, like Oshun, the massive ocean goddess from Nigerian Yoruba, and Cerridwen and her overflowing cauldron from Welsh mythos, also have holy days at this time of year.

All of this is reflected very nicely in our astrological myths that have come down to us from the very ancient past. Gemini, the sign that rules over the end of Spring, is the sign of the twins and the union of opposites, illustrated in the myth of Castor and Pollux. Then comes Cancer, a nurturing water sign, followed by Leo, a leadership-oriented fire sign. We see a beautiful example of this metaphor in the relationship between the mortal John the Baptist and the divine Jesus, who were like brothers, from very different mothers. June 24 is St. John’s Day in the Catholic Church, and December 24 is Christmas, the Mass of Christ. Perhaps this relationship is a version of the witch’s Holly King and Oak King (though there is a long discussion to be had about which group adopted the idea first), with John the Baptist coming first to purify souls with water and Jesus Christ coming later to purify souls with fire.

Modern peoples around the world still recognize this day as a point of reverence. Eating, drinking, and making merry are all acceptable forms of worship. So is going skyclad—or naked—in your rites, if at all possible, and letting your body revel in the warmth of the sun. Many Renaissance-era witches would wander through their gardens and fields naked, “leaping on their broomsticks” to encourage the crops to grow as high as they jumped. Getting hand-fasted or married is also appropriate. If you can’t start a giant bonfire on top of a hill as your ancestors may have done, keeping a candle burning for the 24 hours of the solstice will do nicely.

But if you wanna be a real badass, take a giant wooden wheel, wrap it in heather and straw, set it on fire, and roll it down the most prominent hill you can find. In Seattle, the steepest hill we have is East Roy Street. I hope the good people of Madison Park are ready for some old-time religion.

***

PLANT HELPERS

Marigold, St. John’s wort, Red Carnations, Yarrow, Fern, Daisy, Heather

STONE HELPERS

Amber, Carnelian, Sunstone, Moonstone, Mother-of-Pearl

THEMES FOR MEDITATION

  • Think of all the energy you radiate. How do you share your gifts?
  • We all have the capacity to nurture. What does nurturing look like for you?
  • Explore the wild expanse of reality and of your own spirit. What will help you progress on your path?

WITCH’S WORK

Power, Transformation, Healing, Fertility


$1 Patreon subscribers had early access to this piece. Want more? Subscribe!

Leave a Comment

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

Shopping cart

Subtotal
Shipping and discount codes are added at checkout.
Checkout
%d bloggers like this: