The Summer Solstice, Kupalo/Kupala and St. John the Baptist (Part 1)
In case you did not notice, this is summer solstice week.
Week? You may ask. Well, not quite, but as I recently learned, the longest day of the year (or the shortest, if you live in the Southern Hemisphere) is not always June 21; it can also fall on either the 20th or 22nd: between the just-officially-declared federal holiday Juneteenth and the 24th, Day of St. John the Baptist.
Not to add to the confusion, but the summer solstice is a phenomenon that hits the entire earth at the same precise moment but falls on different calendar days in different places. This year, it hit North America on the 20th and China on the 21st.
The solstice marks the beginning of summer, but it is also known as Midsummer day. In ancient Greece, some viewed it as the start of a new year. Intuitively, because it is the time of year when the sun is closest to the surface of the tilted earth's Northern Hemisphere, it should be among the hottest days, but it is not the case because temperatures lag, producing variation even within the United States. The hottest days of the year strike first in southern Nevada and New Mexico and Western Texas around the last week of June and two months later in coastal California.
As someone born and raised in the tropics, I am drawn to the sun. Thus, every year I look forward to summer solstice day, which brings the longest hours of daylight, little over 15 hours in Central New Jersey, where I used to live, and shy of 14 in Central Florida, where I now reside.
Looked at from another perspective, because the summer solstice is the peak of solar radiation in the Northern Hemisphere, it also marks the moment when days begin to get shorter and shorter over the next six months. By the same token, I find comfort in the arrival of the winter solstice (circa Dec. 21) because thenceforward days will get longer until they peak again in six months.
I am also fascinated by the summer solstice because I lived many years in the San Juan metropolitan area, Puerto Rico's capital, whose patron Saint is St. John the Baptist. The eve of the Dia de San Juan falls on June 23, very close, and not coincidentally so, to the year's longest day.
Agrarian societies from the Paleolithic to the present have been far more attentive to astronomical cycles of the sun and the moon than we are because their livelihood depended on it: figuring out which is the most propitious time of the year to plant specific crops, for example. Prehistoric religions sacralized the earth, practiced numerous fertility rituals and imposed divinity on the sun as source of life. Female deities, mother goddesses, often represented as voluptuous figurines, were central to the religious beliefs and practices of early agricultural peoples.
Historically, throughout many cultures of the Northern Hemisphere, the Midsummer Day has been a time of celebration characterized by common themes, some of which are still observed today. Those recurring themes include fertility rituals (including human reproduction) and the belief that that day marks beginnings, as in the start of a new year, a propitious time to break with the past, cleanse oneself of the influence of evil spirits or bad luck, and look forward to new happy and prosperous beginnings.
In pre-Christian Europe, summer solstice celebrations invariably included the elements of fire and water. Bonfires lit on that day were believed to further strengthen the sun and at the same time scare away evil spirits. Pre-Christian Celts' summer solstice festivities, known as Litha, included lighting bonfires and setting wheels on fire to be rolled down hills. Men in ancient Greece jumped over bonfires to gain luck and demonstrate bravery. Likewise, Slavs in Russia and other parts of Europe practiced Midsummer fire rituals on the day of Kupalo, a Slavic god of fertility, connected to the sun.
Water, which is as important to successful farming as sunlight, was another important component of pagan solstice celebrations. Kupalo is also represented as a female deity, Kupala, goddess of water. Slavs and other European peoples engaged in rituals of purification by water that included swimming and submersion. Solstice Day swimming was believed to have curative powers. The more times someone plunged into a river or lake, the better the results.
Part two of this column will discuss the impact of Christianity on pagan summer solstice rituals and celebrations; the ways in which Christianity accommodated such practices; and the formation of hybrid celebrations, many of which continue today.
Readers can reach Luis Martinez-Fernandez at LMF_Column@yahoo.com.To find out more about Luis Martinez-Fernandez and read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate website at www.creators.com.Copyright 2021 Creators Syndicate Inc.