Sunday, June 16, 2013

The Summer Solstice

The summer solstice and winter solstice coincide with the longest and shortest days of the year, respectively.  In the Northern Hemisphere, the summer solstice takes place on June 21.  (Note that in the Northern Hemisphere, summer takes place at the same time as winter in the Southern Hemisphere.)

ACC's libraries have many resources to learn more about the summer solstice as well as astronomy in general.  In addition to the scientific aspects of solstices, cultural observances of solstices abound.  Indeed, most subjects are multifaceted, and the different facets to the study of solstices--astronomical, cultural, archeological, and so on--illustrate one of the many values of ACC's libraries:  they provide resources for studying many aspects of a particular subject, not just one aspect.

Cultural observances of solstices stem from earlier times when humanity was more rural and cognizant of nature.  Most people were either directly or closely involved with agriculture, an enterprise largely dependent on natural phenomena such as weather and seasons.  Nowadays, we tend to live in large cities with many mediators between us and nature, such as artificial lighting and sturdy, temperature controlled, fire retardant buildings.  But in earlier times, especially before the nineteenth century and the Second Industrial Revolution, lighting was scarce and most people lived in the country or in small villages.

Once the sun set, darkness dominated.  True, some lighting was available, but many activities were rather impractical or even dangerous because flames were needed for light.  Theaters and opera houses, which needed a good amount of light for the audience to see the stage at night, burned down frequently.  In fact, a theater in Venice, the Teatro la Fenice, or "Phoenix," so named because it rose again from the site of an earlier theater that burned down, subsequently burned down two more times (Midgette)!

So, before electric lighting and steel-framed buildings, night skies undiluted by artificial light and landscapes unobstructed by tall buildings allowed humanity to observe natural phenomena like the stars and sunrises more easily.  And because the night could become so dark, sunrises and sunsets were especially noteworthy.

Caspar David Friedrich, Neubrandenburg, ca. 1816-17.  Romantic era landscape painters often emphasized the grandeur of nature towering over humanity.  The Second Industrial Revolution helped reduce the prevalence of this theme.

Which brings us back to the summer solstice.  The Oxford Dictionary of English defines solstice as "either of the two times in the year, the summer solstice and the winter solstice, when the sun reaches its highest or lowest point in the sky at noon, marked by the longest and shortest days" and explains that the word derives from the Latin word solstitium, which can be broken down into sol "sun" and stit- "stopped, stationary" ("Solstice").  During most of the year, the sun rises and sets in slightly different places on the horizon.  In the northern hemisphere, after the winter solstice on December 22, the sun comes up each day in the east a little bit further north on the horizon as the summer solstice approaches.  At the summer solstice, however, it rises in the same place.  Thus the term solstice, or "sun stationary."  After the summer solstice, the sun begins to rise in the east further and further south on the horizon until the winter solstice arrives.

Have you ever seen a movie in which the sun's placement at a certain time is key?  Perhaps, for example, the hero is tied up on top of a pyre which is to be ignited by the sun's rays when the sun creeps up to a certain point.  Will the hero escape in time?  As farfetched as this scenario might seem, it is related to numerous archaeological sites whose designs took the summer solstice into account.  The Temple of Amen-Ra at Karnak in Egypt as well as Stonehenge in England, for example, both relied on the sun's position during the summer solstice for dramatic lighting effects ("Summer Solstice" 916-917).

More recently, Midsummer's Eve celebrations have taken place on June 23, just two days after the summer solstice.  You have probably already heard that Christians set the celebration of Christmas on a date unlikely to be near the time of Christ's birth because they wished to have an alternative to traditional Roman Saturnalia celebrations held in December (Cohen 16-17).  Likewise, Christians established St. John's Day on June 24 as an alternative to the pagan celebrations centering around the summer solstice ("Midsummer Day" 586).

Peoples throughout the world celebrated Midsummer in countless ways, and some places still celebrate it.  Russians and Ukrainians celebrated Midsummer with a festival known as Ivan Kupalo.  As is so typical of Midsummer celebrations, water and fire played important roles ("Kupalo Festival" 288).  The Russian film Andrei Rublev dramatizes tension between the Christian and the pagan during such a celebration.

A 1991 Soviet postage stamp idealistically portraying the celebration of Ivan Kupalo in Belarus.  Note the elements of fire and water.

Here are a few of the many resources that ACC's libraries have about the summer solstice and related topics:

Circulating Materials (May Check Out)

Andrei Rublev (Strasti po Andre︠i︡u) (DVD)
Celestial Geometry: Understanding the Astronomical Meanings of Ancient Sites
Chasing the Sun: the Epic Story of the Star that Gives Life
Fire of Life: The Smithsonian Book of the Sun
Mysteries of Stonehenge (DVD)
Stonehenge Complete

Online Sources  (You may need to log in if off campus) 

"Archeoastronomy" -- Article in AccessScience
Astronomy Subject Guide from the ACC Libraries
"Kupalo Festival" -- Article in Holidays, Festivals, and Celebrations of the World Dictionary
"Midsummer Day" -- Article in Holiday Symbols and Customs
"Solstice" -- Article in AccessScience
"Solstice" -- Article in The Gale Encyclopedia of Science
"Summer Solstice" -- Article in Holiday Symbols and Customs

Streaming Videos from Films on Demand

Ancient Britons
Everything Under the Sun: Astronomy, Mathematics, and Islam
Stonehenge in Context
The Sun

Reference Books in Print (Library Use Only)

The Folklore of World Holidays
Traditional Festivals: A Multicultural Encyclopedia 

Works Cited

Cohen, Richard. Chasing the Sun. New York: Random House, 2010. Print.

"Kupalo Festival." Holidays, Festivals, and Celebrations of the World Dictionary.

          Ed. Helene Henderson. 3rd ed. Detroit: Omnigraphics, 2005. 288-289. Gale

          Virtual Reference Library. Web. 13 June 2013.

Midgette, Anne. "Burning Down the House." The Wall Street Journal Online.

          10 May 1996. Web. 11 June 2013.

"Midsummer Day." Holidays Symbols and Customs. Ed. Helene Henderson. 4th ed.

          Detroit: Omnigraphics, 2009. 586-589. Gale Virtual Reference Library. Web.

          13 June 2013.

"Solstice." Oxford Dictionary of English. 3rd ed. Oxford Reference. 2012. Web.

          13 June 2013.

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