20 June 2012: The Aestival Solstice

'.....On the hub of a burning wheel, you read
a twinkling, sidereal calendar. 
Each keyhole of light has decreed
that we do not err or wander.....'

From 'Looking at the Stars near Inch' by John McAuliffe (born 1973)

Regular readers will know about my fascination with calendars, solstices and equinoxes. So here we are again; the world turns reliably on its axis and the solstice moment is actually this evening at 23.09 GMT. Just in case you thought I'd got it wrong - it's the first time since 1975 that the solstice hasn't occurred on its usual date of the 21 June.

In one form or another the summer solstice has been celebrated since Neolithic times. Tonight the neo-pagans will be out in force at Stonehenge and across northern Europe bonfires will be lit to mark the ancient feast of ‘Litha’. The Romans celebrated Midsummer Day on the 24th June and that is still the case in some cultures, the 24th being the feast of St John the Baptist who is the patron saint of Penzance and I’ve talked about that before...

I did recently discover that St John’s Day is the longest established feast in the Christian calendar, which probably says something about the conversion of paganism to Christianity – or vice versa. The early church wanting as ever, to piggyback their Christian Feasts onto occasions when not-yet-Christian people were celebrating anyway.

So tonight we can salute the sun at that point of the year when the northern hemisphere is tilted closest to it. My other half (otherwise known as Eeyore) is bound at some time today to remark ‘it’s all downhill from here to winter’.

Anyway to get to the point. I saw an extraordinary thing a few weeks ago. Here it is….

This is the Nebra sky disc. It’s made from Cornish tin*, Austrian copper and Cornish gold. It’s a Bronze age representation of the heavens made about 1600BC and discovered in 1999 near Nebra in Saxony-Anhalt, Germany.  The story of its discovery and rescue is a thriller in itself and you can read about that here….

The disc is the earliest known, accurate representation of the heavens, and you can see the sun and the moon in gold foil and the gold dots that represent the star cluster called the Pleiades.  The Pleiades are associated with the growing season – their appearance in the sky every spring was the signal to begin planting. The piece of gold across the bottom probably indicates the passage of the sun across the night sky, but it is the curved gold piece on the right edge which it the most fascinating. Originally there was also one on the left and together they accurately represent the angles of the rising and setting sun at the solstice . Measuring them has enabled the archaeologists pinpoint the latitude where the disc was used. It’s a swathe across northern Europe that includes the region in which the disc was found.

The disc was a sort of astrological clock. Holding it up and checking the relative size of the moon with the position of the stars would enable our ancestors to calculate when an extra month needed to be added to the year in order to keep the solar and lunar calendars in alignment.  Archaeologists have long known that the ancient Babylonians had this knowledge, but not that our European Bronze Age ancestors were also learned in the ways of the heavens. They were indeed as sophisticated in their own way as we are. Why should we doubt it? And now we have proof.

I find it an overwhelmingly resonant object. I just think of the journey it has been on - from those who dug the precious ores out of the earth, those who magically turned that ore into liquid metal and hammered it into shape. Those who designed it and made the calculations – how did they do that? Who paid for it and in what currency? Who used it? Who hid it? My mind boggles.

Anyway the master copy of the disc is on display at the National Maritime Museum in Falmouth – go if you get the chance.

So the ancient festival of the sun at the summer solstice is probably our oldest communal celebration. It is a night for staying up until dawn and watching the heavens by the dying embers of the midsummer bonfire. 

There are a number of foods associated with midsummer especially Jāņu cheese which is a soft caraway flavoured cheese from Latvia and Västerbotten, a strong salty cheese from northern Sweden.  Västerbotten makes a traditional Swedish summer tart.


You will need sufficient shortcrust pastry to line your chosen dish. I made it with 1/4 rye flour for a nutty taste. Pre-bake it until crisp.

250g Västerbotten (or other strong cheese such as parmesan or gran padano )

1 finely chopped medium onion

3 large eggs

200ml double cream
Salt and white pepper, to taste
60g butter
Oven 180c

Heat the butter in a frying pan and cook onion until golden. Set aside and cool.
Whisk together the eggs and cream and add the onion and all but 2 tablespoons of cheese, season to taste but remember the saltiness of the cheese. Pour into the prepared pastry casing and bake in the oven for 25 -30 minutes or until golden and set.  Remove from oven and sprinkle with remaining cheese. Bake for another 5 minutes until the cheese has melted.

Serve lukewarm with a sharp green salad.

This is not a quiche - so I didn't want to make it in a quiche dish or flan tin. I used an old enamel plate for a rustic effect. I still pre-baked the case by putting one enamel plate on top of another with the pastry sandwiched between. It worked a treat and I like the way the tart looks sort of rough and ready..

When I survay the bright
Coelestiall spheare:
So rich with jewels hung, that night,
Doth like an Aethiop bride appear,
My soule her wings doth spread
And heavenward flies....

From 'Nox Nocti Indicat Scientam' by William Habington (1605-1654)

* The scientists have been even been able to pinpoint the source of the Cornish tin as Carnon Downs near Falmouth.

1 comment:

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