Callanish

Midsummer is an important day in many cultures. Because the axis of the earth has an angle of 23.5 degrees, the seasons arise with the lengthening and shortening of the days. Midsummer is also known as the longest day, it is the time when the night is shortest in the Northern Hemisphere. There are many celebrations and rituals associated with this important moment. The summer solstice shifts between June 20, 21 and 22. These festivals are not always celebrated on the day of the solstice, but sometimes a few days later. Some of these rituals and festivals are associated with megaliths. Several megaliths exhibit an orientation to a solstice or equinox.

“Solstice” comes from the Latin words sol and sistit. You can translate it with “stops”, so the combination of words means something like “sun stands still”. The position of the rising sun is the same for days around the solstice.

The Greek festivals dedicated to the god Apollo were celebrated on the summer solstice by lighting large bonfires of a purifying character. The Romans, in turn, dedicated fire festivals to the war goddess Minerva and had a habit of jumping over the flames three times and at that time medicinal properties were attributed to the herbs collected during that time.

Folklore still says that plants have medicinal and magical powers during midsummer and are therefore picked in the night before midsummer. This day is also suitable for making predictions, often related to fertility or love. Bonfires were lit to protect themselves from the dark forces, who were believed to have free rein from the moment the daylight hours diminished.

After the religious reformation in the early 15th century, the church began to feel increasingly uncomfortable with the pagan celebrations associated with midsummer. The feasts were banned or replaced by the feast day in honor of the birth of John the Baptist. Yet the pagan Midsummer festival is still celebrated in many cultures and St. John’s Eve, the eve of St. John’s Day, is still known for its Midsummer celebrations and Midsummer bonfires. Pre-Christian elements are also present at the feasts in honor of John the Baptist, or Saint John.

Many people have gathered to watch the sun rise behind the Heelstone, a menhir on the Avenue at Stonehenge, on June 21

In the UK, Midsummer is a celebration rooted in ancient Midsummer traditions and surrounded by mythical tales of fairies and supernatural visitors. It was believed that ghosts could pass from the afterlife to the present world on the Midsummer Night (Midsummer Night). The festivities include dancing, feasting and drunken debauchery. The revelers jumped over flaming fires. Presumably, the evening’s highest jump predicted crop heights for the new crop season. Other people took part in solemn rituals.

The Eve of St John (Saint John) has special magical significance in Scotland. At some bonfires, a bone was thrown (or ritually placed) into the fire, symbolizing the animal that would previously have been sacrificed to appease the sun god. Birch branches were gathered and hung over the doorways for protection, and heather torches were lit at the bonfire and carried back to the homestead by the head of the house, where he would then circle the crop field three times. This would ensure a good harvest. The same was done around the stable to bless the cattle and protect them from disease. Meanwhile, the young men and boys stayed by the bonfire, waiting for the flames to be extinguished before jumping on it and heading home at dawn.

Herbs and flowers were also traditionally collected on this day and often placed under a pillow in hopes of important dreams, especially dreams about future lovers. Shakespeare wrote the famous ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’ in the 16th century, with the title referring to these dreams. Spending midsummer night in a sacred place could give you the powers of a bard, but on the other hand, you could also become completely mad or hunted by the fairies.

From the 13th century, midsummer was celebrated on St. John’s Eve (June 23) and St. Peter’s Eve (June 28) with the lighting of bonfires, feasting and merriment.

In England, men stayed up at night making three kinds of fires: one is made of bone and not wood and is called a “bonnefyre”; the other version is made of wood and no bones and is called a wakefyre because people used to watch it all night long; and the third is made of both bone and wood and is called “St. John’s fire”.

Midsummer traditions largely ended after the Reformation, but persisted in rural areas until the 1800s before dying out.

Midsummer Eve, Edward Robert Hughes

In the late 20th century, the Federation of Old Cornwall Societies brought back some of the traditional Midsummer rites. The current annual celebration of the Feast of John the Baptist lasts a full week, beginning on the Friday closest to the Feast of John the Baptist. Traditional bonfires are lit along the rocky coasts of Cornwall, lighting up the night sky to highlight the ancient Celtic ceremonies, feasts and dances.

Stonehenge during midsummer, 1700 BC

Er zijn diverse megalieten in verband te brengen met midzomer. Waarschijnlijk het meest bekend is de oriëntatie van Stonehenge. Hier verschijnt de zon op 21 juni vanachter de Heelstone. Deze steen werpt een lange schaduw richting de cirkel van Stonehenge tijdens zonsopgang vanaf de Avenue.

De Avenue is een oude laan op de vlakte van Salisbury, zo’n 3 kilometer lang. Op een gedeelte van zijn lengte is de Avenue uitgelijnd met de zonsopgang van de zomerzonnewende en de Heelstone is geplaatst op deze laan.

About 20,000 visitors come to Stonehenge every year to witness this event. This has been possible again since 1999. Those present are already there the night before: dancing and partying from sunset to sunrise. According to researchers, Wauw Mawn was also oriented to the summer solstice. This stone circle would have been demolished and the stones reused in the construction of Stonehenge. Although Stonehenge is widely known for its solar orientation, the original construction has been determined to have a lunar orientation. More folktales about the construction and purpose of these monuments can be found in King Arthur and Stonehenge. It is possible that during the special days certain features were illuminated on megaliths, such as cups that are otherwise not visible or certain figures that have meaning. Examples are given in Megaliths in the moonlight.

Other megaliths in the United Kingdom are also oriented to the point where the sun appeared from behind the horizon during the summer solstice. Alexander Thom, known for his work on Stonehenge, claims that the great length between the three Ballochroy stones (11-31 km away) and the specificities of the surrounding landscape allowed observers to accurately determine the midsummer and winter solstices. The three stones are 3.5, 3.0 and 2.0 meters high. This last, smallest, stone may have broken off at the top. The line of stones is oriented northeast to southwest.

In folklore, the Callanish Stones were petrified giants who refused to convert to Christianity. In the 17th century, the people of Lewis called the stones fir bhrèige (“false men”). Another legend is that early on a midsummer morning an entity known as the “Shining One” walks across the avenue, its arrival heralded by the cuckoo’s call. This animal comes from the mythical land of Tir-nan-Og; a mythical place in Irish-Celtic mythology where the sídhe lived (these fairies are already mentioned in Who built the megaliths on the Iberian Peninsula?).

The first written reference to the stones was by John Morisone, who wrote about 1680 that the stones were men “turned to stone by a sorcerer” and placed in a ring “for dedication”. Sometime around 1695, the Scottish writer Martin Martin visited the site and was told by the locals that “it was a place of worship in the days of paganism, and that the chief druid or priest stood by the great stone in the center from which he addressed the people around him.” In 1743 William Stukeley described the stone circle as a druid circle and the avenue as a serpent.

Callanish 

People also flock to Bryn Celli Ddu’s dolmen on Anglesey during the summer solstice. Dating back to the Neolithic period, this edifice aligns perfectly with the rising sun point of the summer solstice. The presence of a mysterious menhir in the burial chamber and the fact that the site was once a stone circle henge (which may have been used to date the summer solstice) have attracted much interest. The name, which is difficult to translate, means something like “the hill in the dark forest” or “the hill in the forest of divinity”. The site was looted in 1699 and archaeologically excavated between 1928 and 1929. During the Neolithic, structures were built using stones that were removed at the beginning of the Bronze Age to make way for a grave.

Norman Lockyer, who published the first systematic study of megalithic astronomy in 1906, argued that Bryn Celli Ddu marked the summer solstice. This was ridiculed at the time, but research by Christopher Knight and Robert Lomas in 1997-98 showed that his claim was correct. Knight and Lomas argue that the site could be used as a year-round agricultural calendar. Steve Burrow, curator of Neolithic archeology at Amguddfa Cymru (the National Museum of Wales), has recently supported calls for summer solstice alignment. This alignment connects Bryn Celli Ddu with a handful of other solstice-related sites, including the famous Maes Howe (Orkney) and Newgrange (Ireland) structures, both oriented to the winter solstice.

Model of Bryn Celli Ddu

A carved menhir (with serpentine serpents) was erected at these dolmen. This stone is now kept in the National Museum of Wales.

Behind the back wall of the room, in a location that must have once been within the hill, is now a replica of this ‘Pattern Stone’.


Carved stone from the tomb of Bryn Celli Ddu at the National Museum of Wales

The burial mound that covers the tomb is the result of a restoration in the twentieth century. The original was probably much larger. The Anglesey Druid Order celebrates midsummer every year on this site. Anglesey was the center of the Druid world and was the last remaining stronghold during Roman expansion until the brutal invasion of Anglesey in AD 60.

Bryn Celli Ddu during midsummer

Midsummer is also called Litha in Ireland. This comes from Bede (672-735) who wrote about the names of the months as used by the English in ancient times. He wrote that June and July were called Litha, meaning “soft or navigable,” because in these months the calm breeze is gentle and they were accustomed to sail on the smooth sea. Young people by the River Deel collected the large leaf and stem of the hocusfian and lightly tapped each person they encountered. This was to protect those affected from evil influences and diseases for the next year and the stems were then thrown into the bonfire. Attempts have been made to ban the celebrations, such as the concerted effort by County Kerry clergy and magistrates who, in 1854, proclaimed that they had denounced and strictly banned bonfires (that absurd remnant of fire worship). Still, the celebrations continued.

Grange Stone Circle
Beaghmore; one of the stone circels and a cairn

Built around 2200 BC, the Grange Stone Circle at Lough Gur is made up of 113 standing stones aligned with the rising sun of the summer solstice – celebrations of the longest day of the year have been a local tradition for over 5,000 years. Beaghmore Stone Circle (Bheitheach Mhór can be translated “great place of birch trees”) in County Tyrone was built in the Bronze Age, ca 2000-1200 BC (although there is evidence that the site has been in use from 2900 BC .). It is a historical monument with stone circles, alignments and cairns. The site is thought to have been built to record the movements of the sun and moon – three of the stone rows point to the sunrise at the time of the summer solstice and another is aligned with the moonrise.

The Soulton Long Barrow is a modern landmark, inspired by Neolithic monuments. Urns can be placed in the niches, it does not matter whether the deceased adhered to a particular religion or not. The structure is a succession of stone rooms under an earthen mound and construction started in 2017. It has a main stone laid in the spring of 2018. In this building the sun shines straight through the opening on June 21. This structure was developed in collaboration with archaeologists from the University of Cambridge.

The sun shines through the opening of the Soulton Long Barrow during midsummer
The rising sun illuminates the megalith Arcu di l’Ursini of Carticasi (Corsica) during the solstice

The capstone of St. Lythans Cromlech would turn three times on Midsummer’s evening. Also, all the stones would go to the nearby river for bathing. Tinkinswood is nearby. Legend has it that anyone who spends a night at Tinkinswood on the evenings before May 1, St. John’s Day, or Midwinter’s Day would either die, go mad, or become a poet. The group of boulders to the southeast of the monument is said to be women who were turned to stone for dancing on the Sabbath day, another legend associated with multiple megaliths. Also Wimblestone near Shipham runs around during midsummer nights, here a gold treasure was seen where the stone stood.

Stories (and alignments) related to the solstice don’t just exist in the UK. In Brittany, stories of spinning or dancing dolmens are common. Since the solstice or the highest position of the sun (when it is noon) is mentioned time and again, these stones are associated with solar cults. So it is not the stones that rotate, but the sun revolves around the stones, which thus served as a sundial and calendar. Pedralta is one of the largest rocking stones in Europe. The stone could be turned with only light pressure of one hand. It is the symbol of Sant Feliu de Guíxols; in 1890 a cross was added on St. John’s Eve.

A megalith in Corsica is also associated with the summer solstice. For three days (including the day before and the day after the solstice), the rising sun creates a striking spectacle at the Arcu di l’Ursini. The first ray of sunlight hits the horizontal stone in the form of a thin light line that follows the alignment of notches. The result, for a few minutes, is an impressive luminous arrow that shines on the ridge A Serra d’Accia, the arrow points to the spot where the sun rises. Equally amazing is the sunset during the summer solstice. A supporting stone of the megalith has an oblique face that is hit by the last rays of the sun, allowing one to focus on the position of the setting sun (it disappears behind Penna Rossa).


Archeoastronomy, solstice from Arcu di l’Ursini: sunset. The solar disk disappears below Penna Rossa.

The article Place of the Giants, Megalithic Temples in Malta already discussed how the sun shines on specific stones during the solstices at these megalithic temples. Sun alignments have been made at the main temple of the Hagar Qim complex. On the morning of the summer solstice, the sun passes through an oval hole (known as the “oracle hole”) and enters an apse of the temple. The sun’s rays fall exactly on a stone in the room. At sunset on the same day, the sun sets in line with the entrance to the high apse, illuminating the rear of a small alcove through a stone window. Another alignment observed at Hagar Qim is the alignment of the major axis of the temple with the northern and southern maximum declination of the full moon.

The entrance to Mnajdra South is aligned with sunrise on the solstice and equinox. The first rays of the rising sun during the summer solstice illuminate the vertical orthostat in the left anterior apse. The first rays of the rising sun on the winter solstice illuminate the vertical orthostat in the right anterior apse. During the spring and autumn equinoxes, the rays of the rising sun illuminate the central passageway and inner alcove.

Schematic representation of the equinoxes and solstices

An important goddess in Malta was Tanit; the “Opener of the Paths of the Sun in All Its Stations” which governs the daily rising and setting of the sun and also the rising and setting sun at various places along the horizon during the year, especially the equinoxes and solstices.

In Portugal Festa São João (Festival of Saint John) is celebrated: folk festivals in which jumping over fire occurs. In legends, recorded by archaeologist Henna Lindström from Portuguese sources, people seek mouras or moiras in the afternoon, midnight or mid-summer to help them with illness, infertility or adversities in love. These “enchanted moors” are described in Who Built the Megaliths in the Iberian Peninsula. They show themselves not only as beautiful women, but sometimes as bull or snake. They are most common during midsummer sunrises. Not only at caves or dolmen, but also at fountains and other water sources. People in certain areas carry a flowering leek plant (alho-porro, which has a pungent odor) and brush it over other people’s faces. Tradition has it that in his youth St. John was a bastard and people hit him on the head with the plant and said, “Return to the straight path.”

There are countless stories associated with megaliths. One of these is about the dolmen d’Arca (also known as Dólmen do Espírito Santo de Arca: this megalith was even Christianized in its name, with an ecclesiastical Holy Spirit being nicknamed). It is the most important megalithic monument in Serra do Caramulo and certainly one of the most famous. According to legend, the capstone on the head of a moira was carried to these dolmen, turning a spinning wheel with one hand and carrying a baby with the other. In Malta, Sasuna also carried a baby while building one of the temples on the island, more details about this can be found in Place of the Giants, Megalithic Temples in Malta.

Dolmen d’Arca


The locals believe that every night of São João, that is, every night of the summer solstice, that same enchanted moira spins on top of the dolmen, surrounded by various gold objects. When a man passed by, the moira asked what he liked best, his eyes or the gold. Greedy, most chose gold and faced the moira’s revenge.

Also in Spain there are alignments that show special spectacles during midsummer. During the sunrises around midsummer, the sun’s rays illuminate the first 7 orthostats on the right side of the dolmen de Soto. The special orientation of these dolmen, whose entrance faces the Peña de los Enamorados and not the sunrise, is one of the peculiarities highlighted by UNESCO for the future declaration of the megalith as a World Heritage, together with that from Viera and the ’tholos’ from El Romeral (the latter focused on El Torcal).

Charlemange stops the sun to make the day long enough to conquer the Saracens after the death of his beloved cousin. This occurs in the famous Roelantslied (see Charlemange and the destruction of dolmens). And as mentioned at the beginning of this article: solstice means something like the sun stands still.

In Spain, San Xuan (Saint John) is celebrated. In some areas, bonfires are traditionally called tequeos, meaning people of the dance. Not only do people dance around the fires, they also burn the old and make room for the future. The midsummer tradition is particularly strong in the northern areas of the country such as Galicia, Asturias, Cantabria and the Basque Country, where one can identify the rituals with the pagan beliefs that were widespread throughout Europe during the Neolithic. These beliefs revolve around three basic ideas: the importance of medicinal plants (especially with regard to health, youth and beauty); the protective nature of fire to protect people from evil spirits and witches and the purifying, miraculous effects of water. It is believed that the water is blessed from midnight, it is miraculous: it cures diseases and brings good luck.

The Xanas, called fairies of the waters, are spirits of nature in the form of women of great beauty with long blond hair who guard great treasures. She is a kind of nymph that lives in the springs, in the caves and on the banks of the waterways. They are said to appear mainly on the night of San Xuán/Juan. It is believed that they protect love and punish the infidelity of lovers. Besides weaving strands of gold (Jomezana), they have hens with golden chicks (Cudillero), weave gold threads on the water (Limanes) and they have golden claws (Muros de Nalón, el Naranco) and many other treasures. They pay with it to those who favor them, and make rich the people who free them from their spell…

The fountains for San Xuán are decorated in a large area. The ancient fountain of Balmori is home to twelve enchanted blackberries that regain their human form during San Juan. They were turned into golden chicks by a sin, and if anyone cannot see them, it is because they have made a similar mistake.


The tradition of decorating the fountains with flowers for the night of San Juan.

Water is also important in other areas in combination with midsummer, such as in Germany. On St. John’s Day in 1333, Petrarch saw women in Cologne wash their hands and arms in the Rhine “so that the impending disasters of the coming year might be washed away by bathing in the river.” But the most famous are the fires. On June 20, 1653, the city council of Nuremberg issued the following order: “Where experience has shown that after the ancient pagan custom on the day of John every year, on the land, both in towns and villages, money and timber have been gathered by young people, and upon it the so-called Sonnenwendt or Zimmet fire is kindled, and one drinking wine, dancing about the said fire, jumping over it and burning various herbs and flowers, and setting brands of the said fire in the fields, and on in many other ways all kinds of superstitious work was done — therefore the Supreme Council of the city of Nuremberg is compelled to abolish all this unseemly superstition, paganism, and fire hazard on this coming day of St. John.”


Dancing around the Feu de la Saint Jean by a Decorated Fountain, France, 1893
Divination with flower wreaths
Johannissprung: Das festliche Jahr in Sitten, Gebräuchen und Festen der germanischen Völker, 1863

Also in Germany, several megaliths are oriented to the point at which the sun rises during midsummer. Ewald Adolf Ludwig Wilhelm Schuldt (January 3, 1914 – June 1, 1987) was a German prehistorian who did extensive research on the megaliths of northern Germany. Although the orientation of the megaliths varies, many of these structures have entrances facing south. Of the 99 dolmens studied by Schuldt in Mecklenburg-Vorpommern, 46 are oriented at the midsummer peak of the sun (south to north), 26 at the vernal equinox (east to west), 14 at the midsummer sunrise (northeast to southwest ) and 13 towards midwinter sunrise (southeast to northwest). Megaliths in Mecklenburg-Vorpommern are the subject of many folk tales, mainly related to giants, fairies, dwarfs, subterranean creatures and hidden treasures. In these stories, people who try to take the treasure are usually hindered or punished by the magical creatures. These treasure stories have contributed to both the long-term preservation of megaliths and the looting of the tombs, depending on the degree of public superstition.

For neo-pagan groups, evidence of the Externsteine’s long-standing importance lies in the sacellum of Rock II: the circular opening above the altar faces the sunrise at the solstice.

One of the most important celebrations in Scandinavia was held during the summer solstice or midsummer evening, in honor of Balder the Good. Baldr (also called Balder or Baldur, see also The Stone of Baldr) is a Germanic sun god, he is the son of Odin and Frigg. Midsummer was regarded as the anniversary of his death and of his descent into the underworld. On that day, the longest of the year, people gathered outside, lit great bonfires and watched the sun dip little below the horizon in the northern areas of Scandinavia until it rises again. From midsummer, the days gradually become shorter and the sun’s rays less warm. Midsummer is still the most important festival in Scandinavia, gathering on the shores of lakes and along the coast. Wearing a flower garland in the hair is an ancient symbol of rebirth and fertility. To keep the flower magic all year round, the bouquets were dried and sometimes used at Christmas to keep the family healthy during the long, cold winter.

Before the advent of Christianity, the midsummer festival in Finland, today known as Juhannus to Johannes Kastaja (John the Baptist), was held in honor of Ukko and was called Ukon juhla (‘Festival of Ukko’). This tradition continued into the 19th century. In Finnish mythology, Ukko is the god of the sky, the weather, crops, and other natural things. He is also the most important god in mythology, and the Finnish word ukkonen (thunderstorm) is derived from his name. In the Kalevala, he is also called ylijumala, because he is the god of all things.

Preparations for juhannuskokko (Saint John’s fire) at Seurasaari, Helsinki. Old boats are also burned, 1964

In a 2009 study, Marianna Ridderstad and Jari Okkonen, who mapped the gigantic Jatinkirkko (Giant Churches), described that nearly half of the structures are oriented (± 5 degrees) to the main sunrises and sunsets. The structures are dated between 2500 and 2000 BC. For example, the Jätinkirkko of Raahe, one of the largest giant churches, had its “gates” facing the midsummer sunset, the winter solstice sunrise, the winter solstice sunset, the midsummer sunrise.

Traditionally, the Ale Stenar or Ales Stenar (“Ale” or “Ales Stones”), on the shores of the western Baltic Sea, are referred to as the tomb of the legendary King Ale. It consists of 59 menhirs on a promontory, they are placed like a stone ship. According to amateur researcher Bob G. Lind, it would be a sort of giant Neolithic solar clock: during the winter and summer solstices, the sun would align with the bow and stern of the ship. I am very curious whether the (remaining) megaliths in the Netherlands are oriented to midsummer or other important sun or moon positions.

Marinda Ruiter

Ales Steinar, 1777 (before reconstruction)

This is a translation of a Dutch article, sources can be found in that article: Midzomer

Vorig artikelMegaliths in the Alto Tejo, Portugal
Volgend artikelZwerfsteengebruik door de eeuwen heen

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