Litha Lore & Poetry

A perfect summer day is when the sun is shining, the breeze is blowing,
the birds are singing, and the lawn mower is broken.

~~ James Dent ~~

The Summer Solstice on June 21 is a key date in the solar calendar, for the Sun has reached its highest point in the sky, making this the longest day in the year, and therefore a time for great rejoicing. The solar god is now at the pinnacle of his power, having grown to full maturity; he personifies the Father and the King, who embody the traditionally masculine qualities of strength, energy and authority. The Goddess, meanwhile, has reached a similar stage in her eternally shifting and returning cycle; she is the Full Moon of Summer in all her glory, the fertile, fulsome Mother Goddess and Queen. This royal pair is perfectly expressed in the symbolism of the Tarot as the Emperor and the Empress…

Midsummer is called Alban Heruin or “the light of the Shore” in modern Druidism. This festival marks the Summer Solstice and the longest day. Over Midsummer, vigils, bonfires and gatherings were usual, with many people jumping through the fire to rid themselves of illness and so engender health and fertility…

June is named after Juno – the Roman Mother Goddess and Queen of Heaven – consort of Jupiter, the Father God (in Greek, they were Hera and Zeus). In Anglo-Saxon, June was known as Aerra Litha, meaning “before Litha”, or Midsummer; in Welsh, Mehefin, or Midsummer; and in Gaelic, An t’Og mhios, “the young month”…

What is one to say about June, the time of perfect young summer,
the fulfillment of the promise of the earlier months, and with as yet no sign
to remind one that its fresh young beauty will ever fade.

~~ Gertrude Jekyll ~~

In the Gaulish Calendrical Tablet, the Coligny Calendar, the month of June-July was called Equos, or “horse-time” – the season when it was possible to ride out freely in good weather and a time for horse-fairs and races…

In June, as many as a dozen species may burst their buds on a single day.
No man can heed all of these anniversaries; no man can ignore all of them.

~~ Aldo Leopold ~~

On June 21 as the twins of Gemini yield to Cancer the crab, we observe the longest day of the year. Summer Solstice, or Alban Hefin as it is known in Welsh, heralds solar celebrations across the British Isles. At dawn, the sun's rays illuminate astronomical markers of the great megalithic circles at Stonehenge in England, the Ring of Brodgar on Orkney, and the Callanish standing stones in the Outer Hebrides...

At the Summer Solstice, as the Sun climbs as high in the heavens as he can possibly go, people the length and breadth of Europe form Atlantic shore to old Russia, from cold north to hot south, have lit magical fires in a ceremony of union with the luminous God, in an attempt to boost his power so that he will not disappear too quickly into the depths of winter…

Ah, summer, what power you have to make us suffer and like it.

~~ Russel Baker ~~

The spiral of the year was and continues to be enacted with bonfires, a tradition revived in the 1920's in Cornwall. The rites hearken back to the ancient practice of rolling a burning wheel down a hillside. In the vale of Glamorgan in Wales, crowds once gathered to watch the spectacle with anticipation. If the cartwheel was no longer aflame when it reached the bottom, it foretold a poor harvest. If however it was still blazing, farmers cheered their good fortune...

At Midsummer, there were three main ways that fire might be used: huge bonfires might be lit in prominent places; burning torches might be carried in procession around the fields; and flaming wheels might be rolled along the ground or down hills. All these customs are clearly forms of imitative magic. The light of the bonfires, visible for miles, recalled that of the Sun’s rolling passage across the heavens, like the Greek solar god Apollo in his chariot…

In Scandinavia, the Midsummer fires were called “Balder’s balefires”, and were sacred to the Norse god Balder. Naming these fires after the god suggests that his body, in effigy or in the form of a living representative, was once given up in the flames, like some great Viking hero on a sacred funeral pyre…

Some Beltane traditions were repeated at Midsummer. Throughout Europe, people trusted their fortunes to the energizing force of the Midsummer blaze. For example, cattle were driven between twin fires to protect them against disease; elsewhere, people jumped over the flames, the height of their leap indicating the eventual height of their crops. In France, people believed that the Midsummer fires could banish June rain – as if the flames would call out the Sun, who would push aside the dark clouds. In Cornwall, it was thought that if a sufficient number of bonfires could be lit on different hilltops, the landscape would glow with firelight, like a giant reflector dish that would strengthen the Sun…

Midsummer is closely associated with Druidry, and even today the British Druid Order is permitted to celebrate the day at Stonehenge. The festival traditionally begins at dusk on Solstice eve when fires are lit to ritually encourage the sun to rise full, to climb into the sky and ripen the fruit of the trees, the grains of the field. At the first light of dawn, celebrants who kept watch through the night honor the power of the solar deity. And then at noon, the rite switches tone in recognition of the cycle of the seasons. After the sun hangs high for three days it begins its descent into the darkness of winter. The Sun King is fatally wounded at his peak and the process of his death and rebirth begins anew...

The Druid Mog Ruith, whos name means “the servant of the wheel”, moved through the sky upon a roth ramach or “rowing wheel”, which was conceived as the shining chariot of the sun. Like the sadhus of India, he performed miraculous Shamanic feats, including flying through the air attired in his enennach. or bird headdress, with magical weapons to smite his enemies. With his daughter, Tlachnga, he is a patron of wisdom and enlightenment…

I question not if thrushes sing,
If roses load the air;
Beyond my heart I need not reach
When all is summer there.

~~ John Vance Cheney ~~

The Classical writer, Diodorus Siculus, wrote of the Celtic Gauls, “In war they carefully obey the Druids and their song-loving poets…Often times as armies approach each other in line of battle with their swords drawn and their spears raised for the charge, these men come forth between them and stop the conflict, as though they had spell-bound some kind of wild animals. Thus, even among the most savage barbarians, anger yields to wisdom and Ares does homage to the Muses.” Celtic texts also speak of the peace-making abilities of the Druids and poets…

The Celts traditionally made offerings and prayers at wells, a custom that continues to this day – especially at those wells that have healing properties. “Clooties”, or strips of cloth, are dipped in the well, prayed over and hung in the thorn tree that invariably grows over the well, there to hang and fade until the prayer, blessing or healing is achieved. All “wishing wells” started life as primary accesses of healing power. The Struthill Well in Scotland is remembered in this wishing spell – a remnant of earlier incantations:

Three white stones,
And three black pins,
Three yellow govans (daisies)
Off the green,
Into the well,
With a one, two, three,
And a fortune, a fortune
Come to me.

Medb, or Maeve, was Queen of Connacht. She is said to have slept with or been married to many kings, although her long-term husband was Ailill. She seems to have been a priestess of the Goddess of Sovereignty, since no king was considered authentically inaugurated unless he had first slept with her. She was the cause of the Cattle Raid of Cooley, since she desired to have the Brown Bull of Cuailgne for her own herd. This brought about the conflict between Ulster and Connacht. Medb kept her beauty and youth by bathing in a certain lake, which is where she was eventually killed. Parts of Medb’s story are similar to that of the Cailleach’s (Winter Crone’s)…

Press close, bare-bosomed Night! Press close, magnetic, nourishing Night!
Night of south winds! Night of the large, few stars!Still, nodding Night!
Mad, naked, Summer Night!

~~ Walt Whitman ~~

To dispense the healing power of music was one of the many skills of the poet. Three harp-strains are said to have been instituted at the three confinements of the Goddess Boann: at her first labour, she was sorrowful because of the pain; at the second birth, she was full of joy; and at the third birth, she was sleepy because of the length of her labour. These three children were called Goltraiges, Gentraiges and Suantraiges, who give their names to the three strains that harpers were about to reproduce: the sorrow strain, which provokes the release of lamentation after grief; the joy strain, which provokes mirth after sorrow; and the sleep strain, which provokes rest after trauma…

Aed Finn, an Irish poet of the late Dark Ages, annotated and possibly composed The Voyage of Maelduin, which tells of the hero’s voyage to the Blessed Islands of the Celtic Otherworld. In this episode, the travelers encounter a hermit on a tiny island; he relates his coming there and prophesies their safe return:

I cut a turf from the grey-green land of my
Ancestors; a sea-breeze blew me to the play I am
In now, though it was composed narrowly.

Then did the star-strong King make broad an
Island from the wondrous sod of sea-gull’s hue is
The shoreline.

Each year was another foot added to the
Island; and best of all, a tree grew over the
Cresting wave.

A pure well fountained for me with eternal
Sustenance; by the protection of angels, sweet
Food, a sacred celebration.

Each of you will come homeward, a fruitful
Company over the wave’s track.

On Midsummer’s Eve, young women in Ireland gathered yarrow (Achillea millefolium) with the rhyme:

Good morrow, good yarrow,
Good morrow to thee.
Send me this night my true love to see;
The clothes that he’ll wear,
The colour of his hair,
And if he’ll wed me.

It was placed under the pillow to induce dreams of the future beloved…

In Ireland, Solstice was understood as one of three nights of the year in which the spirit world was more accessible. At Samhain, or Halloween, and at Beltane the veil parted between the domains of the living and the dead. At Midsummer, it was the fairy folk who joined human revelers. Knockainey, the hill in County Limerick considered sacred to the fairy Queen Aine, glowed with torches in her honor. It is said that Aine revealed herself as the flames died down and lead the villagers home. Her name translates as "brightness" and she is likely related to an ancient solar goddess. As late as the nineteenth century, families in the area still claimed connection to the fairy queen speaking in endearing terms of her as a woman, indeed "the best-hearted woman that ever lived"...

There is, however, a disheartening side to the celebration. If the Solstice is the day of the Sun’s greatest power, it follows that the day after it is the beginning of his gradual decline. From now on, the days will slowly but inexorably become shorter, as little by little the darkness swallows the light. Thus the Solstice that greets the solar god’s zenith is also a goodbye – an ave atque vale, a “hail and farewell” to the Eye of Heaven…

The night has a thousand eyes,
And the day but one;
Yet the light of the bright world dies
With the dying sun.

~~ Light by Francis William Bourdillon, 1852 – 1921 ~~

On June 24th, when the days begin to get shorter, the celebrations came to a close. After Christianity took root throughout the Celtic lands, the 24th was reserved for the feast of John the Baptist. Preceding Jesus by exactly six months, John was born early to announce Christ's coming. In Britain, St. John's wort is harvested at Midsummer. Valued by Celts as an herbal "demon chaser", the plant is now valued by modern medicine for its anti-depressive qualities. With its vivid yellow flowers, St. John's wort is a symbol of both its namesake and the brilliant solstice sun...

In summer, the song sings itself.

~~ William Carlos Williams ~~


The Celtic Book of Days - A Guide to Celtic Spirituality & Wisdom by Caitlín Matthews

The Magickal Year - A Pagan Perspective on the Natural World by Diana Ferguson