Litha – Destruction Averted

I’m continuing to republish a series of essays originally written in 2011.

Litha, the summer solstice, is one of the Sabbats that can be a challenge to celebrate. Yule, the winter solstice, is usually easy to celebrate, because northern and western European culture is inclined to fear winter. Yule, when we begin to see the first evidence that winter will not last forever, makes it easy to celebrate: “We’re not going to freeze to death!” is definitely good news.

By comparison, summer is usually regarded as pleasant and positive. Stereotypically, kids love being out of school, people love spending time with their families, vacations are always fun, and all of that makes summer the time for recreation and enjoyment.

Of course, this can make it easy enough to celebrate Litha. If summer is such a good time, then not much more excuse is needed. [1]

But Litha reminds us that summer will end, so it can also feel like a letdown. The contrast is especially jarring for those who love summer but hold to the current astronomical definitions of the seasons, which use Litha to mark the beginning of summer: Yay, summer’s here! Now the days get….shorter? Huh?

This is one of several reasons that I use a different definition of the seasons. The way the eight Sabbats fit together, there are four derived from old Celtic fire festivals (Samhain, Imbolc, Beltane, Lughnasadh) and four from astronomical events (Yule, Ostara, Litha, Mabon). Historians have correctly pointed out that no Indo-European culture seems to have celebrated all eight; in particular, Mabon, the autumnal equinox, has relatively few roots in pre-Christian European culture. Yule and Ostara derive from Germanic roots, and the Germanic tribes and Celts spent more time bashing each other than sitting down and having respectful multi-cultural dialogue about how to celebrate joint festivals. [2]

But when Gerald Gardner was “improving” the material from the coven that initiated him, he added in the astronomical events, and in a fit of symmetry included even the less-celebrated ones. [3] Mostly, the idea of having a reason to party every six weeks or so is a pretty good one, so I can’t complain too much, and it gives us lots of leeway to adapt the celebration of the Sabbats to a wide range of four-season climates. As a result, there’s no one coherent mythical cycle that incorporates all eight Sabbats that has come down to us, so we find and make our own.

Anyway, astronomers have decided that it’s better to use astronomical events to define the seasons, so they mark each season as starting with its definitive event, which is utterly predictable and convenient for them but weird for those of us in the Northern Hemisphere who think that when it’s freezing and snowing in November, winter’s probably here already. Similarly, I don’t think it makes sense to say summer has started at the exact moment when the sun starts to spend less and less time in the sky every day.

Instead, I follow the older Celtic idea of the seasons that says the four fire festivals, which lie (pretty) neatly in between the four astronomical events, are the days when the seasons change. So for me, summer started at Beltane, Litha is its midpoint, and it will end at Lughnasadh, at the start of August. This means summer is the period when the sun is highest in the sky, both immediately before and immediately after the solstice. Just like “day” doesn’t start at noon and “night” doesn’t start at midnight, each season has its waxing and its waning.

Even understanding Litha as Midsummer means acknowledging that it marks the turning point and the year is inevitably turning towards winter once again. Wicca’s roots in Northern European culture include the implicit preference for summer and fear of winter. The term most Wiccans use for the afterlife, or place of rest and peace between reincarnations, is the “Summerland.” [4] If “heaven” is like summer, that makes a pretty clear statement that summer is much to be desired and while we might enjoy some parts of winter, it is mostly to be endured.

As we are all learning, though, more heat is not always a good thing. Global warming isn’t just bringing higher temperatures: the increased energy in the atmosphere is changing climate patterns and making weather events of all types – from frost to drought – more intense. And when it does bring higher temperatures and longer summers, it reminds us that we can no more live in the midst of constant scorching heat than we can in the midst of perpetual deep freeze.

On the other hand, constant, temperate stability isn’t necessarily the best thing, either. Even if the extremes are no place for us to live for long, perpetual balance isn’t automatically better. The examples of nature show us that we need the heat, and we need the cold, and we need the alternation between the two, just as we need day and night, not perpetual twilight. The flow, the change, the give and take between seasons and influences is an integral part of the dynamic, adaptive kind of balance in which living things find their active stability.

This helps us understand why Litha is a time to celebrate, not to mourn: we know that the waning year it ushers in is more that just a necessary but annoying interlude. But that intellectual knowledge doesn’t easily translate into the language of emotion and symbology, into the stories of myth, so let me put it this way: Litha is a time when we see destruction averted.

In many cultures, myths of creation and destruction are paired or linked. Some myths paint destruction and even death as not just the counterpart but the predecessor and catalyst for creation, such as the Babylonian myth of Marduk making the world from Tiamat’s body, or the Norse myth of the world being made of the body of the frost giant Ymir.

Other stories cast destruction as a consequence of actions that the created beings take: one Egyptian myth tells how Sehkmet was created by Ra to wreak destruction on the world and kill the humans who conspired against him, and the story of the Flood in Genesis is explicitly linked to the sinfulness of humanity.

Of course, these myths are never purely about destruction: Sehkmet was stopped; the Flood gave way, and Yahweh promised never to try that again, even hanging the rainbow in the sky as a symbol of his relinquishing rain as a weapon. But in the primarily linear conception of time that dominates most Western culture, these myths are mostly before-and-after stories. Even the Biblical flood, which can be seen as ending in a restoration of Creation, is a dividing point, one that is explicitly promised not to come again.

In Wicca’s focus on cyclical time, there is no single creation myth. The idea of rebirth at Yule serves a similar purpose, with the allegorical connection of the Sun and the vegetation god making the winter solstice a myth of re-creation every year. This idea of constantly dynamic life-cycles occurs on many scales simultaneously, too, from the rising and setting of the sun to the phases of the moon, to the turning of the year, to the lifespan of a person, and even to geological time.

Just as there is no single creation myth but an ongoing story, there is no single myth of the world being spared a disaster. Instead, the twin forces of creation and destruction are seen as parts of an ongoing cycle, feeding into each other. We face destruction from both extreme heat and extreme cold (and other forces, if they get out of balance), and Litha and Yule are both celebrations of destruction averted and the ongoing re-creation of the world.

As MadGastronomer’s article on the Eleusinian Mysteries pointed out, Southern European cultures, where great heat made summer the barren period, told their stories of destruction averted around summer, and Persephone was not the maiden of the springtime but the advent of the autumn planting, the return to the growing season that would get the Greeks through the next summer’s drought.

That sense of the necessary interplay – the way that the barren period is not just the counterpart to, but inextricably linked with the fruitfulness – is what we ought to try to express and celebrate at Litha.

Raj expressed how a similar cyclical view is at the heart of Hinduism: “The Hindu Supreme Trinity consists of Brahma the Creator, Vishnu the Preserver, and Shiva the More Complicated Than That. Shiva is often called The Destroyer, but he is not an evil being seeking the destruction of the world for his own gain. He is, after all, part of the Supreme Trinity. His role is to transform that which is into something new. In doing so, he does indeed destroy, but the destruction he wreaks is destruction for the sake of new creation.

“What this means is that in the Hindu worldview, as in the Wiccan, destruction is an integral part of the process of creation. Acknowledging the role of destruction in the reality we inhabit isn’t always a pleasant thing to do, and we are certainly not obligated to celebrate destruction whenever and wherever it occurs. We can, however, remember that a lot of the destruction in nature results in creation, so that ultimately, while destruction is ongoing, utter destruction is averted because creation, growth, and renewal are also ongoing.” [5]

While it heralds the sun’s waning, Litha is not about light or dark winning victories over each other, even temporarily, or about one end of the polarity between ice and fire being the “good” one; it’s about the constant interplay in the dance that is the turning of the Wheel of the Year. That cooperation and interaction are the real story of destruction averted, and not just averted, but transformed into the ongoing process of re-creation. Now that’s something to celebrate.

——

[1] ^ In US culture, Memorial Day has mostly become a similar celebration of summer, although ten years of war have created quite a few families with someone to memorialize and plenty of additional performances of often-empty patriotism.

[2] ^ Imagine the “barbarian” opponents of the Romans in Gladiator and the Celts from Braveheart trying to spend time together. The result would either be massive carnage or an all-night drinking bout that would end in…massive carnage.

[3] ^ I haven’t written much about Gardner. That’s on purpose. He’s considered the “founder” of modern Wicca. He said he was initiated by a millenia-old survival of prehistoric witchcraft; that may have happened, but he probably wrote a lot of the rituals himself, and is apparently the originator of many recognizeably Wiccan practices.

He had many personal foibles and some seriously objectionable beliefs and practices (most notably sexism and Orientalism). Personally, I think getting rid of some of that dross he mixed in is one of the signs of progress in Wicca in recent decades, but that’s just me. Wicca has changed and diversified tremendously since Gardner, so don’t judge all of Wicca or all Wiccans on the basis of Gardner.

[4] ^ Adopted from Spiritualism. Wiccan beliefs on what happens after death are complex, highly individual, and not necessarily coherent, but it is common parlance to speak of someone “going to the Summerland” or “being in the Summerland” after death. Wiccans who think about reincarnation may describe the Summerland as a place of rest and joy between incarnations.

[5] ^ I would like to thank Raj for his excellent contribution here and even more for his tremendous help in discussing the ideas behind this article with me. Our conversations and his commentary on Hinduism made it possible to develop these ideas fully, and to expand the scope of the inter-religious aspect beyond solely Western ideas and practices. I am deeply indebted to him for his cooperation and look forward to collaborating with him again.

About Literata

Literata is a Wiccan priestess and writer. She edited Crossing the River: An Anthology in Honor of Sacred Journeys, and her poetry, rituals, and nonfiction have appeared in works such as Mandragora, Unto Herself, and Anointed as well as multiple periodicals. Literata has presented rituals and workshops at Sacred Space conference, Fertile Ground Gathering, and other mid-Atlantic venues. Literata offers healing and divination services as well as customized life-cycle rituals. She is currently completing her doctoral dissertation in history with the support of her husband and four cats.
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