Summer Solstice: a Pictish Approach
We’re getting closer and closer to the longest day of the year, but here the celebrations have already started. However, before we get started on ideas to celebrate it with Pictish spirits, I would like to give you a very brief introduction to Pictish astrology, as it ties into what this festival means to my spirit allies. What I am about to teach you has its basis on shared personal gnosis with a friend who is an actual astrologer: Luis Guilherme Pontes de Azevedo (Gui), from Rio de Janeiro. I am but one of the channels for the message. I don’t know much about astrology myself, which is why I relied on this friend’s confirmation to develop my theory.
The following is a Pictish design depicting 2 symbols of great significance to them. Please have a look at the first one, the crescent moon.
This symbol is often called “crescent V-rod” in archaeology. It appears in a lot of Pictish stones, from the oldest, up to the Early Medieval, making it undoubtedly a pre-Christian symbol. In fact, whenever I see it in Christian stones it tends to be a lot more ornamented but the proportions are very weird. My theory is that over time, it lost its meaning and became a patriotic thing that was added to Pictish art regardless of context. This stone, however, is ancient. I have no idea where this specific stone was found, but I can tell it is pagan because of the carving style: nothing too elaborate or in relief, simply an outline.
The Picts would make very good graphic designers in this day and age if they ever stumbled upon a time machine and tried to test it (a girl can dream!). Their ability to summarise an entire philosophy into one only symbol is remarkable! I am not claiming to “know” the meaning of the famous “crescent V-rod” symbol – different from certain historians I’m side-eyeing hard now, I do not take definite conclusions from the Pictish writing. There is no way to know for sure what exactly they meant with the symbol, and it will forever be open for interpretation. (Don’t get me started on how Pictland was not one tribe, but the union of many slightly different tribes who could very well read it differently – and how Pictish history encompasses a millennium, so there can be different meanings over time as well). Regardless, this is a symbol I use in my own practice in order to explain something I learned from the Picts. The symbol serves my purpose, regardless of its real meaning(s) in the past.
Interaction Between Worlds
In order to understand how my spirit allies use this symbol, draw an imaginary square around it. You’ll see that the empty space under the crescent also has a meaning: its reflection in the underworld, which is always in the exact opposite aspect if compared to what we (living people) see in the sky. So whenever there is a waning moon in the upper world, there will be a waxing moon in the Underworld – this is literally what the symbol means in my view.
Pictish astrology works on the premise that there are three worlds that constantly interact with each other: the upper world, where the wise and virtuous live (call them deities, elevated ancestors or whatever you believe), the middle world which is the material dimension where we live, and the underworld, where the departed spirits live (or await reincarnation, whatever you believe). These worlds are in constant interaction (indicated by the “V”. No, it isn’t a “broken arrow”. In my view it shows movement).
The concept of three worlds interacting with each other is common enough across Celtic societies. The Picts elaborate on it beyond the simple concept of three worlds for which we have surviving lore. The general belief is that the middle and upper worlds share the same sky, whereas in the underworld, all the same stars, planets, asteroids etc can be seen in the exact opposite places – a perfect reflection. Gemini becomes Saggitarius, a full moon becomes a new moon, a trine is still a trine, but in the opposite side. (In practice it can get a lot more complicated, but this is only an introduction!)
Side note: yes, I know Stonehenge predates the Picts and isn’t even in Scotland – but there is a good chance the local Celts inherited lore from this Neolithic culture. This is the only monument in Britain known to be aligned for the summer solstice.
Whether or not an astrological theory inclusive of the Underworld is unique to the Picts, it seems to fit in perfectly with Celtic lore in general. Pictish astrology explains the phenomenon of the “thin veil between the worlds”, which happens in the equinoxes. Well, the stars are reflected in opposite places and aspects in the Underworld, so our summer solstice is their winter solstice… But equinoxes are pretty similar, albeit still opposite. They are liminal places between the seasons, and we wouldn’t feel a huge difference in the vibe if we crossed the veil during these times – hence why it is easy.
Liminal times of the day such as dusk and dawn are also – unsurprisingly – very favourable for spirit work. They develop in opposite ways (the light of day is either going away or coming back) but they feel very similar and the environment tends to be the same in both worlds, which makes the crossing easier.
But what does this have to do with the summer solstice? Well, even though you could say that the solstices are when the environments in the middle world and the underworld are very distant from one another, they are also midpoints between the equinoxes. The summer solstice marks the start of the “countdown” to the autumn equinox, and so on. So in a way, they are liminal places, even though they aren’t among the four major celebrations in the Celtic world.
An Inherited Tradition?
Whereas Stonehenge is aligned with the summer solstice, a different sacred site across the Irish Sea was built with the winter solstice in mind: Brú na Boinne. Both sites are pre-Celtic, but there are a lot of mentions of Brú na Boinne in Irish mythology, for example. The Celts inherited and used these places according to their ancestors’ traditions.
Whereas the Celtic “calendar” only has four main yearly festivals (Imbolg – Bealtain – Lughnasadh – Samhain), it isn’t too much of a stretch to say the Celts in Britain also celebrated winter and summer solstice, because it was heritage from the previous inhabitants of the Isles. Whatever their religion, these Neolithic people considered solstices to be very important – so much so, that they built monuments to celebrate them, and the Celts simply continued the tradition during the Iron Age, using the existing monuments.
How to Celebrate Summer Solstice
Now that we have already established that the solstices are probably not Celtic in origin, it is only logical to consider them secondary celebrations. There is no mythology for the summer solstice in Celtic lands (i.e. no ruling deity for the festival), so they can be considered very informal gatherings which happen for the banter alone.
Summer inspires us to be outgoing, make new friendships, take risks, take a very physical or hands-on approach to our objectives. The days are longer, the weather gets warmer, life thrives in nature and everything seems to gain momentum. Honestly, you don’t even need to share my beliefs in order to participate. Mainstream society already celebrates the summer solstice in a very secular way: music festivals. Need I say more?
There are plenty blog posts already on how to celebrate the summer solstice from a neopagan perspective. They range from picking St John’s wort on the summer solstice eve to writing rituals that honour the sun. I politely differ. I don’t think there needs to be something exceptionally formal or stereotypically pagan about the solstices. They are ultimately gatherings that tend to include people from multiple faiths and backgrounds. I tend to simply go to more festivals and public events during the weeks before and after the solstice – this sounds very secular, but I can partake in energy work during these events and nobody needs to know. I don’t care if people notice my polytheist ways during my celebration or only see me as yet another face in the crowd. All I want is to join the party.
I am aware not everyone is willing or able to socialise. Maybe going to festivals or crowded places isn’t your thing… Well, I believe there are many different ways to celebrate the longest days of the year. Here is a very good list of solitary practices that work for neopagans and spirit workers. In the end, the summer solstice is a period of high energy, fast pace and high activity in nature (perceived in the material level), so celebrating it in an animistic fashion comes down to harnessing that – whichever way you choose to go about it.
When it comes to spirit work, things can get very interesting. Remember I mentioned this would be a winter solstice in the Underworld? Well… Not surprisingly, the summer solstice period is when I tend to have the most symbolic dreams, full of messages for self-development and self-evaluation. Whenever we dream, we visit the Underworld – and it is currently in a period of introspection, in contrast to the world of the living, where we experience summer solstice and the pinnacle of extroversion.
Anyway, winter or summer, we and the departed spirits share one thing during this time of the year: celebration. So however you do it, formal or not, I hope you have a very enjoyable one!