Ancient gods still worshipped on longest day
Today is the summer solstice – the longest day of the year. In ancient times, it was an important festival of the pagan gods. Could it be time to bring a 3,000-year-old tradition back to life?
For millions of people, especially in cloudy Britain, June 21st will pass uneventfully – a day like any other. For a few thousand pagans, however, this is a very special day indeed: the summer solstice.
Scientifically speaking, the summer solstice is a day when the sun rises highest in the sky; the longest day of the year. Today at midday, places in the northern hemisphere of our planet will be as close as they ever get to the enormous fusion-powered hydrogen furnace that keeps us all alive. Today earth’s axis is tipped deeply towards the sun, as if the planet had bowed in respect to its sustaining star.
Thousands of years ago, when humans were just beginning to understand the mysteries of the universe, the solstice was a very religious occasion. In many cultures, the sun was worshipped as a god – usually one of many. The ancient Egyptians believed that falcon-headed Ra was the deity who lit up the sky. The Greeks thought it was Apollo, or the titan Hyperion. The Aztecs worshipped Tonatiuh, who kept the sun moving in exchange for offerings of human sacrifice.
But as cultures evolved, the sun gods fell out of favour. The Roman emperor Constantine rejected the cult of Sol Invictus (the Unbeaten Sun) in favour of a newer religion: the fast growing cult of Jesus Christ. Worship of nature was replaced by the worship of a more abstract deity: one who created the universe rather than being merely a part of it.
Today, religious beliefs are still changing. The sun is a ball of gas not a flying titan, science tells us, and it moves according to the laws of physics, not the will of a mysterious creator. The more science explains, the more some people start to think that maybe there are no gods at all.
But while atheists try to move from one god to none, some people are pulling the other way. As the sun reaches its peak, ‘neo-pagans’ are gathering around the world in fields, woods and wild places. In Britain, modern druids celebrate by the great ruins of Stonehenge. Thousands of miles away, robed priests meet for a festival on the slopes of Mount Olympus, mythical home of Greece’s Olympian Gods. The traditions are different, but the vision is the same: a return to the sun-worshipping polytheism of the ancient past.
By the gods!
To modern eyes this new paganism can look strange, or even foolish, with its made-up rituals and outlandish costumes. These religions have been dead for centuries. It seems perverse to try to resurrect them now.
But modern sun-worshippers are making a serious point. For too long, they say, we have ignored the natural world. Perhaps finding gods in the sun, the sea or the sky is a way of treating our amazing universe with the respect it deserves.
- What is the most powerful force in nature? Were people in ancient times foolish to worship these forces as gods?
- Will science ever explain all the workings of the universe?
- Invent your own ancient god. You should sketch out his or her powers, areas of influence and characteristics. You might want to look at some real examples first, for inspiration.
- Choose a religious festival from history – it can be from any religion you like. Then research and write an essay describing the festival and its religious meaning. What role do you think it played or plays in its community?
Some People Say...
“Worshipping the sun is as ridiculous as worshipping a rock or a tin can.”
What do you think?
Q & A
- Surely no one these days really believes that the sun is a god!
- It may not be as implausible as you think. After all, millions of people around the world think the stars have supernatural powers.
- What?! That isn’t true!
- What else do you think a horoscope is? If you follow your star sign in the newspaper, or think your personality is guided by the month in which you were born, you are assuming that the stars can have a direct effect on your life, even though you know they are really just balls of flaming gas.
- I suppose that does seem unlikely.
- Indeed it is. In fact, because light from some stars takes thousands of years to reach us, it is even possible that some of the stars we think influence our lives no longer even exist at all.
- Northern hemisphere
- The June solstice is the moment when the northern half of the planet is tipped towards the sun. That makes it summer in the north, but it is of course the winter solstice in the south.
- The sun is composed mainly of hydrogen atoms. At extremes of temperature and pressure, these hydrogen atoms fuse to produce helium, releasing a vast amount of energy in the process. This energy then drives further fusion in a chain reaction, producing the 16 million degree fireball that lights up our planet.
- Human sacrifice
- Almost all ancient civilisations practised human sacrifice at one point in their development, but the Aztecs of Mexico were particularly famous for it, cutting the hearts from their sacred victims with stone knives. Christianity too, in a way, is centred around a human sacrifice: that of Jesus on behalf of mankind.
- Constantine the Great converted the Roman Empire to Christianity in 313 AD, after seeing a vision of the cross in a dream before a battle. He is supposed to have heard the words: ‘By this sign shall you conquer!’
- Druids were priests among the ancient Celts, who lived in France and Britain. Their religion is mysterious, but the name comes from the Greek word for an oak tree. After the Roman conquest of Britain, druids were suppressed by the authorities. The last of the druids were cornered on the island of Anglesey and they and their followers were slaughtered to the last man.