Thursday, June 24, 2010

The Summer Solstice--June 21, 2010; Midsummer Celebrations: June 21-24; St John the Baptist/ Yahya ibn Zakariya يحيى بن زكريا

Solstice Moonrise, Cape Sounion
Explanation: Today's solstice marks the northernmost point of the Sun's annual motion through planet Earth's sky and the astronomical beginning of the northern hemisphere's summer. But only two days ago, the Full Moon nearest the solstice rose close to the ecliptic plane opposite the Sun, near its southernmost point for the year. Astronomer Anthony Ayiomamitis recorded this dramatic picture of the solstice Full Moon rising above Cape Sounion, Greece. The twenty-four hundred year old Temple of Poseidon lies in the foreground, also visible to sailors on the Aegean Sea. In this well-planned single exposure, a telescopic lens makes the Moon loom large, but even without optical aid casual skygazers often find the Full Moon looking astonishingly large when seen near the horizon. That powerful visual effect is known as the Moon Illusion. [from APOD (Astronomy Picture of the Day), June 20, 2008]

The Summer Solstice


"Today [June 21], our sun reaches its northernmost point in planet Earth's sky. Called a solstice, the date traditionally marks a change of seasons -- from spring to summer in Earth's Northern Hemisphere and from fall to winter in Earth's Southern Hemisphere"--NASA

The Summer Solstice in the Northern Hemisphere

As noted in the previous post, Father's Day June 2010: Some Cross-Cultural and Personal Observations, the Summer Solstice has been traditionally a time to celebrate the masculine sun, and by extension Father's Day in many countries until most, for convenience sake, fixed at the 3rd Sunday in June, putting roughly near the solstice every year, and this year very close.

2007, NASA's Solar TErrestrial RElations Observatory (STEREO) satellites provided the first three-dimensional images of the sun. Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/NRL/GSFC

Generally the movements of the sun and stars have become meaningful parts of all ancient cultures and survive in contemporary festivals, and celebrations, often with altered religious meanings. One representation of this is the European wheel of  the year, marking both the astronomical changes, and the festivals that corresponded to them. Some see meaning in this particular wheel  in aspects of later religious manifestations like the design of St Peter's Basilica and Square in Rome in the 17th century, as below.

The old European wheel of the year

La Piazza San Pietro, Roma. The analogy is intriguing and possible, especially because of the long history of pre-Christian Rome and its importance, and drawing from the Empire. However, I'm not sure that is what the architect and artist Bernini had in mind in the renovation he supervised (1656-1667), nor the patron of the project, Pope Alexander VII.

Saint Peter's Square from the dome of the Basilica. The Eyptian obelisk in the centre was originally from the ancient city of Heliopolis (Sun City) at the apex of the Nile. Later it was transported to the middle of the ancient circus in pre-Christian Rome, where gladiators faught, and Christians were thrown to the lions. In Roman times Heliopolis itself was left in ruins, and was in a province with a high Arab population, which called it Ain Shams (the well or eye of the sun). More information is available on this aspect in the excellent article in Al Ahram Weekly, City of the sun.

Midsummer's Night and Midsummer's Celebrations

Since the Summer Solstice marks the official beginning of summer, it is often celebrated in ways that many of us are unaware are related to earlier cultural and religious celebrations. This may be in the form of taking advantage of the long evening, and the usually good weather, for a late night out on a terrasse, a barbecue party to inaugurate summer, or a bonfire on the beach, and dancing. It is a time for courtship, and weddings, many of which traditionally occur in late June.

Yet for pre-Christian Europeans, and newly pre-Christian Europeans (neo-pagans, Wiccans, etc) the summer solstice is also a religious celebration of the sun at its apogee and what that represents in terms of hope, rebirth, and fertility, much like an extension or realization of the rebirth heralded by the Vernal Equinox or Spring. They gather at traditional places of worship and celestial observation, like Stonehenge. The summer solstice is part of the religious and cultural tradition of non-Europeans as well, as can be seen in the photos below.

June 21, 2010

The event [the Summer Solstice at Stonehenge] typically draws thousands of alternative-minded revelers to the monument, as they wait for dawn at the Heel Stone, a pockmarked pillar just outside the circle proper, which aligns with the rising sun. Gulf News, Image Credit: AP

About 20,000 people crowded the prehistoric site of Stonehenge on Salisbury Plain, southern England, to see the sunrise at 4:52 am following an annual all-night party. Gulf News, Image Credit: Reuters

The annual celebrations at Stonehenge, about 80 miles (130 km) southwest of the capital, are a modern twist on solstice celebrations which were once a highlight of the pre-Christian calendar. They survive today largely in the form of bonfires, maypole dances and courtship rituals. Gulf News, Image Credit: AP

People stand on a rocky crest filled with astronomical markers at the megalithic observatory Kokino, soon after sunrise, early morning on June 21, 2010 - the day of the Summer solstice. The ancient astronomic observatory, located about 80 km northeast of Skopje, the capital of the Republic of Macedonia, dates back more than 4000 years. It is ranked by NASA as the fourth ancient observatory in the world. Gulf News, Image Credit: AFP

Indigenous people from Bolivia celebrate the rising sun during summer solstice ceremony in Tiwanaku, 70 km (43.5 miles) from La Paz. Gulf News, Image Credit: Reuters

People gather to practice yoga on the morning of the summer solstice in New York's Times Square. The eighth annual "Solstice in Times Square" event on Monday brought out thousands of participants to celebrate the year's longest day. Gulf News, Image Credit: Reuters

June 20-21 in Previous Years

Flames illuminate thousands of revelers in a cave in Zugarramurdi, Spain, during a 1998 Aquelarre, or Witch Coven. Held on or near the summer solstice, the festival commemorates the alleged witches who used the cave in centuries past--many of whom died by fire during the Basque witch trials of the 1600s. Photo and text, National Geographic

Hopi Indian boy rests after a butterfly dance during the 2003 summer solstice at the Chaco Culture National Historic Park in New Mexico. Performed by children, the dance is a prayer for rain and health, and a celebration of the butterfly's pollination of flowers. For a few days around the summer solstice, the sunrise aligns with an ancient solstice marker in the park, which invites a different Native American tribe to perform each year. Photo and text, National Geographic

Swinging sparklers and garlanded with herbs, women parade in Jastarnia, Poland, during the 2006 summer solstice. In central and eastern European countries, pagan solstice festivals often honor Kupala, the Slavic goddess of water, herbs, sex, and midsummer. Photo and text, National Geographic

Each summer solstice the sunlight floods the bottom of an ancient well near Aswān, Egypt, as shown in an undated photo. During the solstice the sun is nearly directly overhead the city—a fact the Greek scholar Eratosthenes used to help calculate the circumference of Earth in the third century B.C.The city's position just slightly north of the Tropic of Cancer—the circle of latitude that receives solstice sunlight at a 90-degree angle—skewed his calculations, but not by much. Photo and text, National Geographic

This longest day of the year, when the sun is present for an unusually long time, is infused with spiritual connotations and mystical beliefs. No where is this better represented than in Shakespeare's play, A Midsummer's Night Dream, occupying from the very title a median place in summer, in the night, and mostly in the liminal state of dreaming-waking. A play about courtship, love, and marriage, forming and re-forming identities, it features Athenians, somewhere between human and divine, faeries who manipulate the humans, and a group of actors, that is people who pretend to be who they are not-- in this instance to be the characters of the play Pyramus and Thisbe, a Romeo and Juliet type of play from Roman mythology.

Title page, First Quarto, 1660

The most famous character is Puck, based on ancient British mythology, a trickster, a mischievous sprite, a problem for the fairies and the humans alike, now officially a court jester. His use of a love potion, both by orders of his master, and through his own error, creates havoc amidst the 4 Athenian lovers now all in love with the wrong person, or with a half animal-half person. By the end Puck has repaired his mistakes, and the lovers are encouraged to believe they dreamt it all. The audience, if offended, is encouraged to do the same: believe they dreamt it, or remember it was but a bit of entertainment., or alternately just think of Puck (and the playwright) as a liar (a common thought about creative writers, dramatists, and poets).

Oberon, Titania and Puck with Fairies Dancing. From William Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream--William Blake c.1786

St John the Baptist‎

St John the Baptist, Basilica dei Santi Giovanni e Paolo, Venice, c.1500

June 24 is the Feast of St John in the Christian calendar, celebrating the birth of John the Baptist, a prophet who in the time of Jesus' ministry would announce the imminent coming of the Messiah prophesied in the Old Testament of the Bible. John was Jesus' cousin (their mothers, Elizabeth and Mary, were cousins) born 6 months prior (now fixed at June 24) to the birth of Jesus (now fixed at December 25). John was also a miracle birth, as his elderly parents Zacharias and Elizabeth were infertile until the Angel Gabriel was sent to announce his conception and historical role. John would precede and announce the arrival of the Messiah.

An itinerant, ascetic preacher, who focused on the need for repentance, and on baptism to wash away one's sins, John would later baptize Jesus in the River Jordan. However, also like Jesus, John the Baptist ran afoul of  the Roman powers, in John's case because he reproved Herod Antipas' divorcing his wife to marry Herodias, his brother's wife. During a celebration, Herodias' daughter, Salome, danced so well that Herod offered her anything she might wish for, up to half his kingdom. After consulting with her mother Herodius, Salome requested John's head on a platter. John the Baptist was arrested and beheaded, and his head presented to Salome.

The life of St John has been the subject of great art works throughout the history of Western art and architecture, including churches, cathedrals, sculptures, and, as illustrated below, painting.

The Birth of St John the Baptist

The Sermon of St John the Baptist, Pieter the Elder Bruegel

John baptising Jesus


Salome with the head of John the Baptist

While much of John's life as the herald of Jesus appears only in the Gospel of St Luke, other aspects are present in all the Gospels. Also, the highly respected Jewish scholar and historian, Flavius Josephus, writes (in about 93-94 CE) both of John the Baptist as a preacher, and of his death. However, he portrays the killing as a politically motivated one, to curb the considerable influence of John the Baptist via an ever growing number of extremely devoted acolytes. This fits well with the history of the religious and political tensions of the time.

St John is the patron saint of many institutions, the Sovereign Military Hospitaller Order of Saint John of Jerusalem of Rhodes and of Malta, being one with the greatest relevance to the history of the Middle East and interfaith relations. It was originally founded (~1050) in Jerusalem to care for ill pilgrims in the Holy Land. However, during the First Crusade it became a military order.

A contemporary Knight in his formal habit

Although the Order was forced to retreat to Rhodes, then Malta, and now has no territorial status,  it retains international sovereignty as if it did. It remains an important order for hospital work, healing, first aid, emergency services, crisis intervention, and war and disaster relief by whomever regardless of origin or faith, and where ever needed, often in high risk zones. The Order also plays a main role in teaching first aid to first responders. The Order is based in Rome with headquarters in the Vatican City.

Parade for Quebec National Day, June 24, 2010, St Jean Baptiste

St John is also the patron saint of a number of localities, notably of Puerto Rico, officially San Juan Bautista de Puerto Rico, of the city of Porto, in northern Portugal, and of the province of Quebec, which celebrates La fête de St Jean Baptiste, on June 24, as a national holiday (though not a state holiday, except for separatists, and not yet realized). The Société Saint-Jean-Baptiste is responsible for preserving French Canadian language, culture, and religion. Founded in 1832 it has increasingly taken on a role of promoting the independance of Quebec as a sovereign state. To that end it has been active in promoting the language laws that make French the only official language of Quebec, and the language of all major societal interactions. These laws make public signage in English illegal, for example. Also to that end, it has narrowed its focus to Quebec, rather than its initial mandate to preserve the heritage and rights of French Canadians living in other provinces or the United States.

Yahyā ibn Zakarīyā يحيى بن زكريا


The analogous stories of the Muslim prophet John the son of Zachariah or Yahya ibn Zakariya, are told in the Quran in 3:33-41, 6:82-87, 19:2-15, and 21:89-92. The key verses follow (in the Yusuf Ali translation).

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There did Zakariya pray to his Lord, saying: "O my Lord! Grant unto me from Thee a progeny that is pure: for Thou art He that heareth prayer!
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While he was standing in prayer in the chamber, the angels called unto him: "Allah doth give thee glad tidings of Yahya, witnessing the truth of a Word from Allah, and (be besides) noble, chaste, and a prophet,- of the (goodly) company of the righteous."
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He said: "O my Lord! How shall I have son, seeing I am very old, and my wife is barren?" "Thus," was the answer, "Doth Allah accomplish what He willeth."
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He said: "O my Lord! Give me a Sign!" "Thy Sign," was the answer, "Shall be that thou shalt speak to no man for three days but with signals. Then celebrate the praises of thy Lord again and again, and glorify Him in the evening and in the morning."


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(His prayer was answered): "O Zakariya! We give thee good news of a son: His name shall be Yahya: on none by that name have We conferred distinction before."
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He said: "O my Lord! How shall I have a son, when my wife is barren and I have grown quite decrepit from old age?"
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He said: "So (it will be) thy Lord saith, 'that is easy for Me: I did indeed create thee before, when thou hadst been nothing!'"
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(Zakariya) said: "O my Lord! give me a Sign." "Thy Sign," was the answer, "Shall be that thou shalt speak to no man for three nights, although thou art not dumb."
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So Zakariya came out to his people from him chamber: He told them by signs to celebrate Allah's praises in the morning and in the evening.
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(To his son came the command): "O Yahya! take hold of the Book with might": and We gave him Wisdom even as a youth,
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And piety (for all creatures) as from Us, and purity: He was devout,
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And kind to his parents, and he was not overbearing or rebellious.
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So Peace on him the day he was born, the day that he dies, and the day that he will be raised up to life (again)!


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And (remember) Zakariya, when he cried to his Lord: "O my Lord! leave me not without offspring, though thou art the best of inheritors."
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So We listened to him: and We granted him Yahya: We cured his wife's (Barrenness) for him. These (three) were ever quick in emulation in good works; they used to call on Us with love and reverence, and humble themselves before Us.
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And (remember) her who guarded her chastity: We breathed into her of Our spirit, and We made her and her son a sign for all peoples.
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Verily, this brotherhood of yours is a single brotherhood, and I am your Lord and Cherisher: therefore serve Me (and no other).

The Minaret of Jesus, Umayyad Mosque, Damascus, Syria

The Shrine of John the Baptist, within the Ummayad Mosque




Umayyad Mosque, built by the Caliph Walid,  built 705 CE/ 86 HJ 

The Umayyad Mosque, Damascus, Syria, with its Minaret of Jesus, and Shrine of  John the Baptist, is an excellent and very physical reminder of the interconnectedness of Christianity, its Judaic roots, and Islam--the 3 Abrahamic religions, with more in common than not in terms of their core beliefs: monotheism, Yahweh/ God/ Allah, the genesis of the world,  the fall of Adam and Eve (Adam and Hawa), the key events of the Torah and the Bible retold in the Quran, the Noahide laws then the 10 Commandments, the general cosmology, and a shared narrative arc, turning on the history and prophesy of a Messiah. Both the winter and the summer solstices figure prominently in the dating and celebration of  this narrative.

SOHO [the Solar & Heliospheric Observatory] Extreme ultraviolet Imaging Telescope (EIT) full-field Fe IX, X 171 Å images from NASA Goddard Space Flight Center [2010/06/24 01:00:16]

Happy Summer Solstice to all!
And especially to those of us living in Northern climes, 
where we need the sun the most!


And for those readers who insist on living upside down,
on the bottom half of the globe,
Take heart, the shortest day of the year heralds the return of the sun!
Happy Winter Solstice!


Do you take notice of, or celebrate the Summer Solstice? How?
Do you see it as a point of commonality with others around the globe? Why or why not?
Does the idea that other religious holidays were built on it have any significance for you? What and why?
Are other local or national holidays coinciding with these themes part of your experience? How?
Any other comments, thoughts, or experiences?

Related posts:

The Winter Solstice: Where Physics Meets Culture for All
Cross-Cultural Christmases: Saudi, Arab, Muslim, and Non--Part I  Cultural Traditions
Cross-Cultural Christmases: Saudi, Arab, Muslim, and Non--Part II Interfaith Christmases
Cross-Cultural Christmases: Saudi, Arab, Muslim, and Non--Part III The Christianity in Christmas
The Vernal Equinox: Springtime in Saudi and the Equinoctial Day and Night that Join Us All
Passover, Pasqua, and Pilgrimages: Yeshua, Jesus, and Isa
Cross-Cultural Easter Celebrations: The Easter Bunny, His Eggs, and Chocolate!

4 comments:

Susanne said...

Some very lovely pictures. I especially love the full moon one in Greece! Wow!

And of course I adored seeing the Ummayyad mosque and shrine of John the Baptist since I was there just last year. I have pictures near the shrine. :)

Very informative post. I didn't even know about John the Baptist's birthday being celebrated. I know you probably wonder what kind of Christian I am! ;-) Well, we just don't celebrate all those things, but we appreciate John the Baptist very much!

Thanks for sharing this! Happy summer to you. I hope you are enjoying some nice warm days! It's downright TOASTY here!

Chiara said...

Susanne--thank you for you lovely comment!

I think you are an excellent Christian, both in theory and in practice. I almost posted one of your pictures at the Umayyad Mosque by the shrine of John the Baptist from your blog--just to sneak one in LOL :)--but decided to save it. ;)

It is interesting that Roman Catholics celebrate St John the Baptist more than Protestants do, but then that is part of the Catholic emphasis on the saints and their feast days. Perhaps that was one of Martin Luther's complaints--I must check! :)

Midsummer has been hot, but seems to be cooling off here--only to have the days' highs go beyond the predicted. That's fine by me! :)

Thanks again for your comment!

Susanne said...

" I almost posted one of your pictures at the Umayyad Mosque by the shrine of John the Baptist from your blog--just to sneak one in LOL :)--but decided to save it. ;)"

Ha, ha! Now that would have really been hilarious!! :-D

Glad you are finally enjoying some warmer days! :)

Chiara said...

Susanne--LOL :) Be watching the pics carefully! :)

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