Celebration of time and the solstice

A handsome contemporary sundial by artist carver, Martin Cook.
A handsome contemporary sundial by artist carver, Martin Cook.

Our ancestors knew the yearly path of the sun and moon.

First they used landmarks to help remember; later they put up stone circles to predict solstices and equinoxes. Later still came the sundial, splitting the day into hours. The tyranny of time had begun.

Our battle against time intensified with the development of clocks.

Greek and Roman towns had sundials in their squares, temples, and public baths in the third century BC. They weren’t always appreciated — some citizens resented having their day chopped into pieces.

Medieval Christians placed sundials on monasteries and churches, to mark the hours when prayers were said. But most folk didn’t need sundials to partition their day, because the position of the sun in the sky was accurate enough for work on the land.

With the growth of cities and commerce, the pressure was on. From the fifteenth century, merchants, pilgrims, and other travellers carried portable sundials; time wasted meant lost opportunities, or lost profits. Depictions of time altered too. Once a joyful winged youth holding a sundial, time became a ruthless old man with an hourglass who scythed down everything in his path.

Our battle against time intensified with the development of clocks. Now minutes counted, so time became something to spend wisely. Today, in the frantic age of the atomic clock, every second matters.

It seems that the more accurately we can measure it, the more time has us in an iron grip. No wonder the gentle sundial is enjoying a revival.

This month has the longest daylight hours, making it ideal for all kinds of outdoor activities. Or it would be, if it weren’t for June’s habit of bringing unsettled weather.

Yet its reputation has never deterred us. In the past June was a month of fairs; today we defy the weather gods with music festivals and Wimbledon.

At the heart of June is the summer solstice. On Sunday, the 21st, the sun will reach its highest point at noon. Solstice derives from the Latin for “sun stands”, because the solar disc does appear to stand still for a few days — what it’s actually doing is rising and setting at the same points on the horizon. It will be a while before we notice that the days are shortening.

When the golden ball stands still, nature seems to hold its breath; between the solstice and Midsummer’s Day on the 24th there’s a feeling of anticipation.

This magical time has been marked since the dawn of history. Bonfires were lit, drums banged, and flaming wheels rolled down hillsides in tribute to the all-powerful sun. By imitating the sun’s light and its path through the sky, people honoured the life-giving god and hoped to win his favour.

You might think we no longer take the solstice seriously, but around Britain people will be celebrating. The most well known are the pagan groups who welcome the sun at Stonehenge, but other events are planned for smaller stone circles all over the country. Most of us don’t light bonfires and leap the embers to ensure good health, yet we still feel an urge to celebrate midsummer’s long twilight. This is a peak time for outdoor parties, illuminated by fairy lights and solar-powered lanterns.