Summer Beginnings – The sun reaches its zenith

Summer Beginnings – The sun reaches its zenith
Beltane (1st May) to Summer Solstice (20th-23rd June)
The days are long and the nights short, the sun has reached its peak and with it all life on earth is bountiful. Plants have grown and are lush with vivid flowers, insects are busy in the sunshine, birds sing loudly in the early hours of the dawn. The summer solstice, the longest day, is a turning point in the year. It is a time to reflect on the growth since winter solstice, celebrate achievements and acknowledge failures. It also is a reminder that from this point onwards the days will shorten and the darkness will eventually take over from the light, in the ever-turning seasons.

Image from Avalon Revisited, Litha
The Powers of Light and Dark – The Oak King and Holly King
Celtic folklore – there are many versions of the same story, it is as old as time. This is my version.

“Long long ago, before the time of men, there was a time of balance. The Earth Goddess nurtures all of life upon her and the Sun God gives energy which flows through all things. Lonely in the sky apart from his love, the Earth Goddess, the Sun God’s energies shined down on her body and were shared and manifested as spirit to all things on Earth, including the trees. Trees are wise and infinite beings; their roots caress the earth so deeply, and they stand tall reaching up to the sky, so the Sun God looked to them as a way of connecting the Earth and the Sky and a way of being with his lover.

In the Forest below were two brothers; Oak and Holly. Oak was the youngest but the tallest of the two, he stood tall and proud with courage. Holly although smaller and older, was just as strong as his brother, his stamina and steadfastness was unrivalled. Together they cared for their woodland family, acting as guardians of the land.

The Sun God saw these brothers and smiled upon them, for these spirits embodied his feelings. He shone down on them and gave them a gift; to be Kings of the Forest. To Oak he gave a golden crown of Mistletoe and to Holly the immortality of evergreen leaves, so he would remain throughout even the darkest of times.

So happy times passed; the brothers wooed the Earth Goddess on behalf of the Sun God and the land laughed and was happy.

During the time when days out-measure nights, the Goddess enjoyed the affections particularly of the Oak King. She enjoyed his strength which seemed to be growing by the day, his bright green leaves and draping flowers; he was magnificent! They were married in secret on Beltane, Oaks energy fertilised the Goddess and the land blossomed.

When Holly heard about this marriage he was enraged, for the Sun God had imbued them both with gifts! His jealousy consumed him. On the eve of the longest day of the year, he went hunting for his brother. They fought a night and a day, through the short darkness and the longest light, until sunset. The battle shook the ground and all life on Earth watched and trembled as the powers of light and dark fought. Both brothers were strong, but eventually the stamina of Holly won and he dealt a blow to his brother inflicting a mortal wound.

As Oaks’ life energy drained away from him in the coming months so too do days shorten and give way to night. Eventually Oak died on Samhain and the Holly King with his evergreen endurance rules the land. The Goddess in her sadness slowly withdrew into herself and became cold, mourning for the loss of her Oak King. The Holly King remained an immortal guardian to his Forest during these cold times, his steady presence oversees the waning year, keeping all life on track.

In these times of dormancy and inception, the seed that Oak set in the belly of the Earth Goddess is growing with potential. On winter solstice, after the longest night, at sunrise, the Goddess gives birth to a child, the Oak King renewed. The Holly King recognises this child as his brother and rejoices, he promises to keep the land safe until Oak is strong enough to be King again. As the days lengthen and nights subside, the Sun Gods energy restore the land after the nurturing darkness. The Holly King is tired after his work overseeing winter and needs to rest and restore himself. The Oak King grows into a fine healthy, strong young man fit for the Sun God to woo his lover once more.

And so the wheel turns ….”

In all Indigenous cultures, the solar festivals of the solstices and equinoxes were recognised, just as the continuously changing seasons of the year. The Solstices were turning points, marking opposite points, the apex of light and dark in the year. This duality is woven into many stories and reminds us that balance is essential to all life. Darkness is needed just as much as light, they are two sides of the same coin.

Image © Nicola Poole
Tree of the Season – Oak (Quercus robur)

“Rock a bye baby, on the tree top,
When the wind blows, the cradle will rock.
When the bough breaks the cradle will fall,
And down will come baby, cradle and all.”

~ Traditional Rhyme, some legends say that it refers to acorns rather than neglected infants!

The English or Pedunculate Oak once was a symbol of England, and many of us still feel a deep connection to this majestic tree. It is a common tree of Britain and Ireland and can grow to over 1,000 years in age. It is typically about 15 – 25m tall and has a grey, knobbly, deeply fissured bark. Its characteristic deeply lobed leaves have smooth edges and 2 small lobes where they meet the nearly non-existent leaf stalk (Sessile Oak Q. petraea – the UK’s other native Oak species has much longer leaf stalks). In autumn its acorns sit on long stalks (sessile oak acorns sit directly on their twigs).

Uses – There can be no doubt that the history of England’s industry, trade and wars would have been much different if the Oak was not found in abundance in the UK. It is the most widely used hard-wood and is hard, strong, resistant to decay, and bends well. Traditionally there have been four main uses of oak: The most prominent is as a timber tree. Oak was a highly prized timber and was particularly used in ship building in the days of wooden ships. Its timber is also used in buildings, for furniture and a whole range of other uses. Vast amounts of oak bark was used for tanning leather until 1880. Acorns were used for animal fodder as they are a rich food source, and also eaten by humans in times of famine. The smaller branches and twigs were used for firewood or charcoal making. It burns hot and long, providing a sustained heat which was vital to iron casting.

Folklore – Oak is the tree of strength and courage and is possibly the most revered of all the trees. Its Celtic name ‘Duir’ means door and is where the ‘Druids’ got their name from (literally meaning men of Oak). Large oaks were often meeting places where druids would teach, laws were passed and couples married beneath their boughs. The king of the Forest; Oak is particularly associated with the thunder gods; Zeus in Greek, Jupiter in Roman, Thor in Norse, Taranis in Celtic, as Oaks often get struck by lightning and the people believed that this was symbolic of the great fertilising power of the rains which caused the earth to bear fruit. Oak has always been considered to hold great power, King Arthur’s round table was reputedly made from one slice of an enormous trunk and Merlin the wizard supposedly cut the topmost oak branches as his wand. Oak trees that bear mistletoe were particularly revered. The evergreen mistletoe, with its roots in the air, represents the Gods very life essence and its white berries magical fertility. At the eve of summer solstice there was a Mistletoe rite that Druids performed on oak bearing mistletoe – they would cut the mistletoe with a golden sickle and catch it in a white cloth before it touched the ground. Oaks peak time is recognised and celebrated at summer solstice, the beacon fires that were lit on hilltops were traditionally oak fires. Cattle and sick people were passed through the smoke of these ceremonial fires for healing and good health. People also leapt the flames of the fires to rid themselves of misfortune and ensure abundance in fertility and love.

Wisdom – The deep rooted and bold Oak represents courage, resilience and inner strength. His slow growing nature over hundreds of years reminds us that perseverance can prevail to the benefit of many (an Oak is host to hundreds of other species that find sanctuary amongst his protection) but warns of stubborn strength which can break in the winds of change. Duir can be a doorway to new perspectives, our true self and reconnecting to life’s simple pleasures.

Celebrate Summer!
Enjoy the long days of the season before the wheel turns!

  • Make a solar symbol – use natural materials; leaves, petals, grass stems, stones, sand etc, to form circular patterns on the ground as a way of representing the wheel of the year.
  • Make a wreath/hoop – use willow or hazel to bend into a hoop and decorate with natural treasures of summer. You could use it as a frame to hang natural garlands (strings with leaves, flowers etc tied onto it) from like a mobile, or hang sticks from it to make wind chimes.
  • Have a fire to welcome the waning year – You don’t need a massive bonfire to celebrate summer solstice, a small one can have meaning. Pass through the smoke (or jump the flames if you’re feeling light-footed, and not wearing flammable clothing!) for good luck and health. (NB. Do make sure you have permission to have a fire and follow safe practice!)

Seasonal Stories Through the Year:
Winter Beginnings – Journeying into Darkness
Winter’s Ending – The Returning Sun
Spring Beginnings – Light Becoming Balanced with Dark
Spring’s Ending – Awakened Energies
Summer Beginnings – The sun reaches its zenith
Summer’s Ending – The beginning of harvest