Tuesday, June 16, 2015

An Introduction to Litha


 Ring of Brodgar; by Stevekeiretsu (Own work) CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Litha, a Pagan Observance

By Race MoChridhe

On the Mainland of Orkney--the far edge of the world in the reckoning of ancient (and many modern) Britons--stands a great stone circle known as the Ring of Brodgar. In approximately three weeks, the Orkney sky will stay light all night, and the sun of the solstice morning will rise in perfect alignment with the cool, grey slabs. The stones raise far more questions than they answer, but they testify with clarity to the importance of the longest day in a year some forty centuries or more ago to a people who, in the depth of winter, might have scarcely seen the sun.

Their descendants, of all religions, continue to mark the day across the British Isles (as in various forms do their cousins throughout Europe and Iran). The Christians call it St. John’s Day, celebrating the birth of the Baptist. In this form, it has gone on to become the national holiday of several countries, most notably Quebec (province), Canada. The Pagans, who had celebrated it long before Christianity’s arrival, have come, nonetheless, to call it by a name invented by a churchman--Litha--drawn from the Venerable Bede’s Anglo-Saxon naming of the months. Although both mark it with bonfires to honor the power of the sun and rolling wheels to symbolize the turning of the year, in Christian cultures, sadly, the significance of the day has generally declined where it has not become secularized. In Pagan culture, however, its importance is undiminished.

Among Witches, Litha is celebrated as the height of the Lord’s vigor. The dying and reborn god, who had been reborn at the winter solstice, had grown into manhood at the spring equinox, and married the Lady at the beginning of May, now holds court in the fullness of his strength and radiance. As the embodiment of the inseminating principle of manifestation, he brings the natural world into its greatest abundance, he at the same time readies himself for the sacrifices of the harvest season, during which he will spend his strength to bring forth the fruits of the earth, aging into fall and dying at Samhuinn (Hallowe’en) to begin the cycle again. This version of Litha, which finds its most important expression in the fullness of the trees and the length of the grass, symbolizes on a microcosmic level the true actualization of the Self which is possible when the masculine and feminine principles (the animus and anima in psychological terms) are fully united in the hieros gamos--the sacred marriage around which Wiccan ritual revolves.

Modern Druidry also focuses on the fecundity of the season but, in keeping with Druidic tradition, generally develops the theme through the imagery of inspiration more than fertility. While the winter solstice is identified with inspiration itself, the spring equinox reflects the reception of that inspiration, and the summer solstice is the time of its expression. This version of Litha (or, in Druidic parlance, Alban Hefin), identified most strongly with the advancing light of the solstice morning, celebrates the movement from idea to realization, both microcosmically in the magickal exercise of the human will, and macrocosmically in the manifestation of the cosmos from Word and Wisdom in the mind of God (or the Gods, if one prefers). Many Druids also take it practically as the time of year most suited to getting things done and hence, while it has become customary in our society to take long vacations in the summer, Druids often wait to go on holiday until around the time of the fall equinox, which Druidic tradition dedicates to recollection.

The very fact that Midsummer marks the official beginning of vacation season in Sweden, however, is one sign of the day’s continuing importance in northern Europe, used to justify modern Heathens’ celebration of Litha (which, curiously, is alone among the solstices and equinoxes in not having had a mandatory sacrifice booked on the Norse calendar). This Litha, expressed most beautifully in the exultation of communities brought together by the long, golden evening, is marked with the aforementioned bonfires (leapt through to bring good luck in planting or love) and rolling wheels, but also gathering flowers and herbs, dancing, divination, and an all-night vigil (of a more raucous, joyous kind than that word often implies). 

But no matter how we mark the occasion, what we all--4,000 years ago or today, Christian or Pagan--gather to celebrate is the fact that Divinity, by whatever name we choose to call It, has brought forth our world and us with it, and given us a day under the sun in which to know life, and love, and laughter. May we all rejoice in it, and be glad.

Litha is most commonly celebrated on the 21st of June, and in the southern hemisphere, on the 21st of December.

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