Litha, or Mid-Summer’s Day, falls on the Summer Solstice and is known as one of the ‘quarter days’-Equinoxes and Solstices-that divides the year evenly into quarters. The Summer Solstice occurs when the sun reaches the Tropic of Cancer, hence this is the date the sun also enters the astrological sign of Cancer. For the northern hemisphere, this is when the planet is tilted to give us the most sunlight. Although this day is the longest of the year it is generally not the warmest. It is the day that the sun overpowers the darkness, and it is this source of energy that we use in our magic with themes of power and protection. The date of the Solstice varies from year to year, falling sometime between June 20th through 23rd. Old calendars marked time from sunset to sunset, so you may want to start your celebration on the eve of the Solstice which is after sunset on the day before the Solstice.
Litha is a celebration of the bounty of Summer. There are many flowers, with the bright pastel spring blooms giving way to the rich intensity of Summer flowers. The fields have been seeded, the plants are growing, some early crops may be harvested but most of all there is promise of the larger harvest to come in both the field and trees. Now we must trust that there will be enough rain and sun, and not too much of either or of the wind, so that we may harvest sufficient amounts to see us through the coming winter.
The youthful energy of spring and Beltane have mellowed into maturity; emotional maturity and love now matches the sexual maturity or lust of the earlier season. If Beltane was the lustful courtship of the Lord and Lady, this is Their wedding. Their passion is no less, but has increased in depth. Love is now their guiding force, and Lust is merely the spice .
This day is also known as Midsummer, because, for the pagan community, Summer officially starts at Beltane (on May 1) and ends on Lughnassahd (August 1) with this day falling in between the two. Other names that this holiday is known as are Litha and St. John the Baptist Day. For those who are of the Christian faith this the date chosen for honoring John the Baptist, cousin and fore-seer of Jesus Christ. The Christian church began doing after realizing how widespread and ingrained the festivals of this day were. St. John, the cousin of Jesus of Nazareth, was considered one of the most important saints, leading you to see the importance that the Christian church put in “claiming” this holiday. Litha is a word supposed to derive from one that is Saxon denoting the opposite of Yule.
Traditionally, Litha is a time sacred to the Sun King, for this is when He is at His strongest. The God is in his prime. He has reached the peak of His power, and His rays are such that none dare look at Him for fear of being blinded by His light. With this power comes the heat of Summer, the promise of fruit and grain, and a great harvest to come. His potency ensures the continuity of life in the face of the oncoming darkness. He is ever-living, ever-returning with virility, fertility and strength. He guides us in our own personal growth, just as he guides the crops and creatures of Earth. His marriage with the Goddess now makes Him Her protector as well as her lover. He is a full grown man, and due to the merry making of Beltane, a father.
At Litha the God can be seen in many different traditions and mythologies. In the Oak King/Holly King myth, the Sun King has two separate personalities. These personalities are so strong that, to some, they become different entities, the Oak King and the Holly King, each ruling one half of the year. The Oak King was born at Yule to the Great Mother, and in his light and splendor begins to turn the Great Wheel and start the lengthening of the days. The beginning of the sun’s decline is symbolized by the return of the Holly King, the Spirit of Winter, at the moment after the Solstice. It is on mid-Summer that the dark half of the sun god begins to gain power. Often, mock battles are played between representatives of the two gods who fight over the attentions of the lady Goddess. At the Summer Solstice the dark Holly King (to some beliefs as the Wren) slays his light twin the Oak King (to some beliefs as the Robin) and begins his half-yearly reign which ends with the Holly King’s death at midwinter when the scene is reversed and the Oak King is triumphant. The eternal dueling of these light and dark brothers gives life to the primary tenant of western Goddess worship, “there is darkness in the light and light in the darkness.” Although the Dark God is defeated, he has weakened the God of Light who has now begun to die. As everything in nature comes to its peak and then declines, so too must the God in His aspect of the Sun. With decline comes transformation, and so it is with the God, who takes on many aspects and wears many crowns.
The Earth Mother is also at Her finest at this time. The Goddess is becoming Mother, the seed that was planted earlier in her womb is growing with the son/sun. She blossoms just as the earth blossoms with abundance. She basks in the light of her lover and grows with child each day. The land is glowing with flowers and ripening fruit as the Goddess glows and ripens, as well. Like the animals and plants, we feed off of this warmth, and take a moment to rest on this Sabbat.
Once again, thinking back to our ancestors, we know that they found this to be a peaceful time. The crops were planted, their animals had usually birthed by this time and they had a slight lull as they awaited the time of the first harvest. Among humans there is change in the type of energy. Where spring made us sprightly, Summer makes us passionate. Flesh is revealed; sensuality is at its highest expression; heat makes us languid, yet the cooler nights are energizing.
Mid-Summer is said to be a mystical time when the forces of magic are increased and fairies roam our world. Fairies, elves and sprites are purported to be most easily seen at Mid-Summer, dancing in fairy rings. As portrayed in Shakespeare’s “A Mid-Summer Night’s Dream,” it is a night much like Samhain, when the veils are once more thin between the realms of the Sidhe (or fae) and the world of mortals. This is the night when mortals have strange experiences, and when faeries troop across the land. Litha is a “day outside of time,” and the strange experiences one might have are likely to be comic, harmless, or even beneficial. Litha has an “upside down” quality about it – things are often reversed or mixed-up. It is a time for merriment and the wish making. There is a tradition of celebrating Litha where one makes wishes after gathering flowers(especially St. John’s Wort) either to hang in your home as protection amulets or to tied onto the tops of roofs as a symbol of a wish that you want carried into the next world.
The Sun festival was a noisy time, with singing, dancing, and drumming lasting the whole night through. In some places in Germany, tall fir-trees were set up in open places and decorated with flowers, and red and yellow eggs. The younger folk danced around these trees during the day, and the older ones during the evening.
Homes would frequently be decked with such plants as birch, white lilies, roses, and Saint John’s Wort. Saint John’s Wort was of particular importance to the Mid-Summer celebrations and in addition to wearing it and spreading it about the house, young girls would often use it to help divine the future of their love lives. Mistletoe, Mugwort, Vervain, Basil and many other herbs are harvested in ritualistic manners to preserve their energies for use in the colder times on Litha. Amulets of the past year are buried or burned and new ones, often for protection, are made for hanging around and outside the house.
Mugwort, in particular, was gathered on the mid-Summer’s eve, to be worn as head wreaths during the next day; these were then hung on the house or barn to act as protective charms for the ensuing year. To gather this herb today you would be barefoot, ideally, and cut the stems with an iron-free blade or “snip” them by pinching with your fingers. First ask permission of the mother plant, explaining why and how you will use the plant; then offer something in exchange. Custom says silver, but compost, fertilizer pellets or a special stone are also fine “payment”. Don’t let the herb touch the ground once it’s cut, but place it on a white cloth. Act quietly and with reverence.
As the days start to lose their light from this point, many cultures encouraged the Sun to return. Bonfires were representative of the Sun and they are still used on this day for that reason. Other sources of flame would include lanterns carried by revelers “walking the march,” who were often attended by dancers and costumed players dressed as a variety of costumes. Flaming torches were carried around the fields and orchards to drive off insect infestations and other detriments to a good harvest. In Germanic countries smaller lanterns were set afloat on rivers and lakes as well. In other areas people would extinguish their home-fires, and then re-light them with a flaming torch or brand from the Mid-Summer fire.
In many cultures the bonfires were attended by all the villagers. Each person who attended would have contributed to its blaze. Besides adding light for the nighttime festivities, the fires where thought to ward off ill-meaning spirits and leaping of bonfires for purification, health, fertility, and love was common with the height of the leap thought to govern the eventual height of the crops in the fields. The bon fires are traditionally kindled from fir and oak with assorted herbs throne upon the flames. This was a time that might also entail the members of a village straddling brooms, pitchforks or other tools and jumping as high as they could to show the crops how high to grow while circling the bonfire or the fields themselves. In Germany, Mugwort and Vervain were tossed into the Mid-Summer fire upon leaving it, with the words, “May all my ill-luck depart and be burnt up with these.” Herbs were also used by some peoples as a smudge, the smoke clearing bad influences from crops, animals, and people. Pigs and cattle would be driven between two fires to preserve their health and ensure their fertility or they might be driven through the fires to cure the sick and protect the sound. Afterward, some of the ashes from the herbs and charred wood of these huge fires would be taken to spread in the gardens among the cabbages. These ashes would keep the cabbage worm under control and it is not known if it was done for this purpose, alone, or if this was merely a beneficial “side effect.”
In Europe, it was a festival of lovers as well as that of fire. As each young unmarried couple leapt the flames, others speculated as to who would marry within the year. In other traditions lovers would leap fires together, or throw flowers to each other across the fire. Both flowers and fire were used to give omens for love and marriage. It is not surprising that roses, which bloom at this time, were used in many festivals and divination rituals, for their fragrance was said to be as sweet as love.
In many places sun-wheels were common on this holiday and that of Lughnasadh. They were wheels that were often rigged with straw and pitch, set aflame, and sent rolling down the hills toward a stream, pond or other body of water. Two young men would do their best to guide it, while one or more followed with torches to re-light the wheel should the fire die out. . The longer the blaze, the better the harvest. A successful roll, extinguished in the watercourse, guaranteed an abundant harvest, as well.
Saint John the Baptist also has much importance in relation to this holiday. It was the custom in England, on St John’s Eve, to light large bonfires after sundown, providing light for the revelers and warding off evil spirits. There would be feasting and partying, dancing, games, bartering and all forms of celebration and, as in other areas, leaping the fire was a common practice. It should be noted , interestingly enough, that St. John, though a Christian figure, was seen by the early Celtic-Catholic people as a very pagan one. He was known as “the Oak King” and had a strong connection to the nature in the wilderness . He was often depicted as a horned figure and, at times, with the lower portion of his body as a satyr, as though people regarded him as a Christian Pan. This may seem very odd to a modern person, but keep in mind the fact that the early Christians, particularly those it the British Isles often simply put knew names to old deities. Modern day Christians celebrate mid-Summer is Saint John’s Day and celebrates his birth, much as Christmas celebrates the birth of Christ in coincidence with Yule. The reason given as to why Saint John’s birth is celebrated when every other Saint’s day occurs at death is that John is a special case since he was born exactly six months before Christ to announce the coming of the Messiah.
In ancient Rome, a “festival of jollity and drunkenness” was celebrated by the Plebeians and slaves in honor of Fortuna, the Roman Goddess who was the personification of good fortune. She was originally a Goddess of blessing and fertility and in that capacity she was especially worshipped by mothers. Because she was considered the Goddess of Luck the word fortune comes from her name. At first, she was regarded as a kind of fertility Goddess or bearer of prosperity but, gradually, she was invoked exclusively for good luck-or lamented to for the lack of it! As the Goddess of Chance, she was consulted about the future at her oracular shrines in Antium and Praeneste (now Anzio and Palestrina). A favorite subject in ancient art, the Goddess Fortuna is usually depicted holding a rudder in one hand and a cornucopia, or horn of plenty, in the other. The rudder signified that she guides the destiny of the world; the cornucopia, that she was the provider of abundance. Known as Tyche to the Greeks, Fortuna was worshipped extensively throughout the Roman Empire and had oracular shrines at Antium and Praeneste (now Anzio and Palestrina). . The festival involved features of both fire and water. (The water link is noticeable in the Church’s choice of St. John the Baptist for this day.) Events included foot-races and boat-races, and plenty of wine and merry making. During the Middle Ages, she was depicted as Dame Fortuna who, spinning the wheel of fortune, seemingly at random, would grant goodness to one while she beset others with misfortune.
In nearly every culture, the Summer Solstice has been recognized, revered and even feared. The Sun is at its height, but at the same moment begins to decline. Only hope, ritual and belief would ensure its return at the Winter Solstice to our ancestors. Litha is a time for healing of all kinds, and protection rituals. This is a good time for clearing away non-useful energies, and establishing a stable base. Litha is about joy. It is about being completely alive, as the earth is at its zenith. Everywhere you look, it is green and life is abundant. Weave flowers into your hair – dance and frolic, take a big, deep cleansing breath of Summer air. Pick summer strawberries or other early fruits and vegetables. Know how fortunate you are to be a part of this wonderful circle of life and the turning wheel of the year.