by Mike Nichols (a.k.a. Gwydion)

    In addition to the four great
festivals of the Pagan Celtic year,
there are four lesser holidays as
well:  the two solstices, and the two
equinoxes.  In folklore, these are
referred to as the four 'quarter-days'
of the year, and modern Witches call
them the four 'Lesser Sabbats', or the
four 'Low Holidays'.  The Summer
Solstice is one of them.

    Technically, a solstice is an
astronomical point and, due to the
procession to the equinox, the date
may vary by a few days depending on
the year.  The summer solstice occurs
when the sun reaches the Tropic of
Cancer, and we experience the longest
day and the shortest night of the
year.  Astrologers know this as the
date on which the sun enters the sign
of Cancer.  This year it will occur at
10:57 pm CDT on June 21st.

    However, since most European
peasants were not accomplished at
reading an ephemeris or did not live
close enough to Salisbury Plain to
trot over to Stonehenge and sight down
it's main avenue, they celebrated the
event on a fixed calendar date, June
24th.  The slight forward displacement
of the traditional date is the result
of multitudinous calendrical changes
down through the ages.  It is
analogous to the winter solstice
celebration, which is astronomically
on or about December 21st, but is
celebrated on the traditional date of
December 25th, Yule, later adopted by
the Christians.

    Again, it must be remembered that
the Celts reckoned their days from
sundown to sundown, so the June 24th
festivities actually begin on the
previous sundown (our June 23rd). 
This was Shakespeare's Midsummer
Night's Eve.  Which brings up another
point:  our modern calendars are quite
misguided in suggesting that 'summer
begins' on the solstice.  According to
the old folk calendar, summer BEGINS
on May Day and ends on Lammas (August
1st), with the summer solstice, midway
between the two, marking MID-summer. 
This makes more logical sense than
suggesting that summer begins on the
day when the sun's power begins to
wane and the days grow shorter.

    Although our Pagan ancestors
probably preferred June 24th (and
indeed most European folk festivals
today use this date), the sensibility
of modern Witches seems to prefer the
actual solstice point, beginning the
celebration at sunset.  Again, it
gives modern Pagans a range of dates
to choose from with, hopefully, a
weekend embedded in it.  (And this
year, the moon is waxing throughout.)

    As the Pagan mid-winter
celebration of Yule was adopted by
Christians as Christmas (December
25th), so too the Pagan mid-summer
celebration was adopted by them as the
feast of John the Baptist (June 24th).
 Occurring 180 degrees apart on the
wheel of the year, the mid-winter
celebration commemorates the birth of
Jesus, while the mid-summer
celebration commemorates the birth of
John, the prophet who was born six
months before Jesus in order to
announce his arrival.

    This last tidbit is extremely
conspicuous, in that John is the ONLY
saint in the entire Catholic
hagiography whose feast day is a
commemoration of his birth, rather
than his death.  A generation ago,
Catholic nuns were fond of explaining
that a saint is commemorated on the
anniversary of his or her death
because it was really a 'birth' into
the Kingdom of Heaven.  But John the
Baptist, the sole exception, is
emphatically commemorated on the
anniversary of his birth into THIS
world.  Although this makes no sense
viewed from a Christian perspective,
it makes perfect poetic sense from the
viewpoint of Pagan symbolism.

    In most Pagan cultures, the sun
god is seen as split between two rival
personalities: the god of light and
his twin, his 'weird', his 'other
self', the god of darkness.  They are
Gawain and the Green Knight, Gwyn and
Gwythyr, Llew and Goronwy, Lugh and
Balor, Balan and Balin, the Holly King
and the Oak King, etc.  Often they are
depicted as fighting seasonal battles
for the favor of their goddess/lover,
such as Creiddylad or Blodeuwedd, who
represents Nature.

    The god of light is always born at
the winter solstice, and his strength
waxes with the lengthening days, until
the moment of his greatest power, the
summer solstice, the longest day. 
And, like a look in a mirror, his
'shadow self', the lord of darkness,
is born at the summer solstice, and
his strength waxes with the
lengthening nights until the moment of
his greatest power, the winter
solstice, the longest night.

    Indirect evidence supporting this
mirror-birth pattern is strongest in
the Christianized form of the Pagan
myth.  Many writers, from Robert
Graves to Stewart Farrar, have
repeatedly pointed out that Jesus was
identified with the Holly King, while
John the Baptist was the Oak King. 
That is why, 'of all the trees that
are in the wood, the Holly tree bears
the crown.'  If the birth of Jesus,
the 'light of the world', is
celebrated at mid-winter, Christian
folk tradition insists that John the
Oak King was born (rather than died)
at mid-summer.

    It is at this point that I must
diverge from the opinion of Robert
Graves and other writers who have
followed him.  Graves believes that at
midsummer, the Sun King is slain by
his rival, the God of Darkness; just
as the God of Darkness is, in turn,
slain by the God of Light at
midwinter.  And yet, in Christian folk
tradition (derived from the older
Pagan strain), it is births, not
deaths, that are associated with the
solstices.  For the feast of John the
Baptist, this is all the more
conspicuous, as it breaks the rules
regarding all other saints.

    So if births are associated with
the solstices, when do the symbolic
deaths occur?  When does Goronwy slay
Llew and when does Llew, in his turn,
slay Goronwy?  When does darkness
conquer light or light conquer
darkness?  Obviously (to me, at
least), it must be at the two
equinoxes.  At the autumnal equinox,
the hours of light in the day are
eclipsed by the hours of darkness.  At
the vernal equinox, the process is
reversed.  Also, the autumnal equinox,
called 'Harvest Home', is already
associated with sacrifice, principally
that of the spirit of grain or
vegetation.  In this case, the god of
light would be identical.

    In Welsh mythology in particular,
there is a startling vindication of
the seasonal placement of the sun
god's death, the significance of which
occurred to me in a recent dream, and
which I haven't seen elsewhere.  Llew
is the Welsh god of light, and his
name means 'lion'.  (The lion is often
the symbol of a sun god.)  He is
betrayed by his 'virgin' wife
Blodeuwedd, into standing with one
foot on the rim of a cauldron and the
other on the back of a goat.  It is
only in this way that Llew can be
killed, and Blodeuwedd's lover,
Goronwy, Llew's dark self, is hiding
nearby with a spear at the ready.  But
as Llew is struck with it, he is not
killed.  He is instead transformed
into an eagle.

    Putting this in the form of a
Bardic riddle, it would go something
like this:  Who can tell in what
season the Lion (Llew), betrayed by
the Virgin (Blodeuwedd), poised on the
Balance, is transformed into an Eagle?
 My readers who are astrologers are
probably already gasping in
recognition.  The sequence is
astrological and in proper order:  Leo
(lion), Virgo (virgin), Libra
(balance), and Scorpio (for which the
eagle is a well-known alternative
symbol).  Also, the remaining icons,
cauldron and goat, could arguably
symbolize Cancer and Capricorn,
representing summer and winter, the
signs beginning with the two solstice
points.  So Llew is balanced between
cauldron and goat, between summer and
winter, on the balance (Libra) point
of the autumnal equinox.

    This, of course, is the answer to
a related Bardic riddle.  Repeatedly,
the 'Mabinogion' tells us that Llew
must be standing with one foot on the
cauldron and one foot on the goat's
back in order to be killed.  But
nowhere does it tell us why.  Why is
this particular situation the ONLY one
in which Llew can be overcome? 
Because it represents the equinox
point.  And the equinox is the only
time of the entire year when light
(Llew) can be overcome by darkness

    It should now come as no surprise
that, when it is time for Llew to kill
Goronwy in his turn, Llew insists that
Goronwy stands where he once stood
while he (Llew) casts the spear.  This
is no mere vindictiveness on Llew's
part.  For, although the 'Mabinogion'
does not say so, it should by now be
obvious that this is the only time
when Goronwy can be overcome.  Light
can overcome darkness only at the
equinox -- this time the vernal

    So Midsummer (to me, at least) is
a celebration of the sun god at his
zenith, a crowned king on his throne. 
He is at the height of his strength
and still 1/4 of a year away from his
ritual death at the hands of his
rival.  The spear and the cauldron
have often been used as symbols for
this holiday and it should now be easy
to see why.  Sun gods are virtually
always associated with spears (even
Jesus is pierced by one), and the
midsummer cauldron of Cancer is a
symbol of the Goddess in her fullness.
 It is an especially beautiful time of
the year for an outdoor celebration. 
May yours be magical!