June is a wonderful month in Rome: the weather is sunny, but still cool and pleasant and there are hundred events and concerts going on day and night. Most important, the sun keeps shining for a long, long time on the marvellous palaces and monuments which adorn the city, almost 15 hours every day!
Did you know that?
It’s true! We are approaching the longest day of the year - and the shortest night on the other hand:
the summer solstice, which falls this year on June 21st.
The solstice is an astronomical event, that happens twice through the year, once in summer and once in winter, when the Sun reaches its highest position in the sky.
The name “solstice” comes from two Latin words, Sol, which means “the Sun”, and sistere, that is “to stand still”, and indicates that the Sun looks like keeping the same relative position in the sky with no changes on the day and in the surrounding ones.
The rest of the year, the tilt of the Earth on its axis causes instead the impression that the path of the Sun rises and falls from one day to the next one.
Since the earliest times, mankind across all the continents have celebrated this day as a crucial one.
Surely you already heard something about the magic, incredibly exact rising of the Sun on the summer solstice above the Heel Stone, a rough stone which stands right outside the prehistoric monumental circle of Stonehenge, England.
Thousands of people still gather there every year to enjoy the event.
Possibly following the same approach, Mayas and Aztecs built their buildings so that they would align perfectly with the shadow of the sun on the day.
Many Native American tribes celebrated the day with the holy ceremony of the Sun Dance, which also honoured the Great Spirit.
For the ancient Greeks, the summer solstice marked the start of the new year and also the starting of the countdown to the Olympic Games. It was celebrated with feasts and games and with a special social one-day revolution, with slaves having the chance to enjoy the festivities side by side with freemen.
We could continue describing the ceremonies and beliefs relating to the Aestival Solstice for days.
Just bear in mind that in most European pagan traditions, it is a day of harmony,
when the elements of fire and water are in perfect balance, night and day have properties like no other and favourable energies spread over Earth.
Anyway, we are in Rome.....what about Rome and the Romans?
Something extraordinary happens between noon and 1PM on June 21st inside one of the best preserved and most beautiful ancient Roman buildings in the world: the Pantheon.
The sunlight which enters through the oculus, the large opening on top of the dome, caresses its ceiling and projects a huge 9m diameter light disc on the floor. Do not miss this spectacular sight, for sure you have never seen anything like this before! It greatly proves how much important the day was for the ancients and how magnificently they celebrated it.
In Ancient Rome, June 21st was also the festival of the goddess Cardeas, a health deity who protected doors, hinges, and passages. The 1st century BC poet Ovidius describes her as the one who “could open what is shut and shut what is open”, as the hinge of life for the Roman, thus celebrated on the Summer Solstice, pivotal moment of the year.
Cardeas was also in charge of safeguarding kids from evil spirits and witches.
This pagan belief relating to the solstice days still echoes nowadays in Rome.
How? Beware that the night of June 23rd, which closes the summer solstice, is a frightful one in the city! This is the night when “anything can happen and everything can be remedied”...it is the Night of the Witches, when the enchantresses come out to ensnare souls!
For centuries, on this night, the Romans came from all the quarters at the light of lanterns and torches and gathered in the Basilica of St. John Lateran, to pray the saint and enjoy fireworks, music, wine and snails. They were equipped with cowbells, brooms, whistles, horns, and garlic to cast out the witches and prevent them from gathering the herbs to concoct their spells.
The festival remained almost forgotten for years, but recently revived with the organisation of several events.
From June 22nd to 24th, from 7:30PM to midnight, the square facing St. John Lateran will house displays by traditional Roman artisans and enogastronomic events.
Come and enjoy, but be careful, do not forget that this is a night of magic and spells!
As Shakespeare wrote in his Midsummer Night’s Dream: “The iron tongue of midnight hath told twelve. Lovers, to bed! ‘Tis almost fairy time!”