At long last, the gripping winter is officially over. At 6:51 a.m. the Earth arrived at the point in its orbit that bathes the Northern Hemisphere with the most sunlight it gets all year, making for the longest day. The sun was at its highest point in the sky.
The sun rose at 5:25 this morning, but that’s not the earliest sunrise of the year—those actually occur in the days leading up to the solstice, according to Earthsky.org. For instance the earliest sunrise of the year in Pennsylvania took place on June 14, the website said—it depends on one’s latitude. Either way, dawn twilights around now are among the most beautiful for the year, the site notes. The 8:30 p.m. sunset will yield 15 hours, 5 minutes of daylight, according to Timeanddate.com.
The solstice has been celebrated since time immemorial, at numerous sacred sites. The ancient Anasazi, or Pueblo, built structures that welcome the solstice sunrise. Even though the people who built them may be long gone, we are still drawn to the magic of these places. The allure of traditional astronomical knowledge is hard to resist, and people gather even today to usher in the turning of the year. Though many are gathering at Stonehenge over in the U.K., the solstice is observed right here on Turtle Island at places of equal mystery.
Woodhenge at the Cahokia Mounds is another such site, though its structures are more geared toward the equinoxes.
One of the more striking is the Bighorn Medicine Wheel at the top of Medicine Mountain in what is today Wyoming. Its 9,642-foot-high perch makes it accessible only in summer, according to the Stanford Solar Center, which profiles the archaeological wonder. Though built between 300 and 800 years ago, the wheel is part of a complex of astronomical sites built by Plains Indians that date back as far as 7,000 years.
In the 1970s archaeoastronomer Jack Eddy posited that two points on the 28-spoked wheel align with the rising and setting summer solstice sun, while other spokes pointed toward various stars also heralding the summer solstice.
Turtle Island is chockablock with Sacred Sites geared toward the solstices and other astronomical phenomena, and many of them are hosting solstice gatherings, especially at sunrise. Old Stone Fort State Archaeological Park in Tennessee, for instance, invited guests to watch the sunrise starting at 5 a.m. The 2,000-year-old site was constructed for sacred rites and ceremonies, its entranceway “a complex combination of walls, two parallel mounds and a ditch,” as described by the Shelbyville Times-Gazette.
Though every day represents a change from the day before, this is especially evident at the solstice.
“Even as this northern summer begins with the solstice, throughout the world the solstice also represents a ‘turning’ of the year,” Earthsky.org sums up. “To many cultures, the solstice can mean a limit or a culmination of something. From around the world, the sun is now setting and rising as far north as it ever does. The solstice marks when the sun reaches its northernmost point for the year. After the June solstice, the sun will begin its subtle shift southward on the sky’s dome again. Thus even in summer’s beginning, we find the seeds of summer’s end.”