Wednesday 21st June 2023 is the longest day of the year. It is also known as ‘Midsummer’ or the ‘summer solstice’. On this day, the sun reaches its highest point in the northern hemisphere – and its rays appear to stand still on the horizon. The Arctic Circle enjoys twenty-four hours of sunlight on the solstice. In the UK, the day lasts around seventeen hours.
At Stonehenge, located in the county of Wiltshire, south-west England, the summer solstice is a special time. No one knows the exact purpose of the Neolithic monument, but its builders were experts in astronomy. The huge stones are perfectly arranged to welcome the first rays of summer.
Since ancient times, people have congregated there to celebrate the solstice. Today, pagan groups like druids and wiccans are joined by locals and tourists for a unique, almost mystical experience.
Every year on the day of the solstice, thousands of people gather inside the monument just before sunrise. They face the 'Heel Stone', a huge monolith which stands to the north-west of Stonehenge. From that position, they see the sun rise over the Heel Stone. The stone arches — called ‘trilithons’ — showcase the first rays of sunshine. The shadow of the Heel Stone falls into the monument, touching the heart of the Stone Circle. It is a beautiful sight.
Some people believe that the Heel Stone represents the ‘divine masculine’ and the Stone Circle the ‘divine feminine’. The shadow penetrating the circle would symbolise the fertilisation of Mother Earth. However, others think that ‘Heel’ comes from the Anglo-Saxon word ’helan‘, which means ‘to conceal’. After all, the stone conceals the sun when it first rises on the solstice.
THE SHORTEST DAY
Stonehenge does not only mark the summer solstice; it marks the start of winter, as well. Facing south-west from the centre of the monument, you can see the sun setting through the Great Trilithon, the tallest of the stones. In Neolithic times, watching the sunset on the winter solstice was a sign that the days would start getting longer. It was a sign of hope and renewal.