Lithuanian Ethnoastronomy

7. The Reflections of the Solar Observations in the Solstice Festival Traditions

The researchers of the calendar tradition in the Rasos (Joninës) festivities, solstice, find a great deal of the so-called elements of the solar cult. It appears only natural that Rasos festival coincides with the remarkable phenomenon of the summer solstice and thus should be associated with the Sun. Yet, from the relicts of the tradition that survived to our days this is not obvious. J.Balys, for one, in discussing the tradition and the beliefs states that ‘‘It is difficult to see a somewhat clearer link with the Solar cult and the Sun's path, if we do not apply any effort. The images of the floral spirits are clearer' (Balys 1993, 240-242).

This conclusion does not deny the very solar origin of the festivity. Therefore, deep-rooted tradition of the Solar cult is not denied either. In Rasos the wild and cultured vegetation is given more prominence as well as all the agrarian functions in relation to the Sun.

Recently growing interest in archeoastronomical and ethnoastronomical research prove that in the archaic cultures the Cults the Sun, the Moon and other heavenly bodies were widely observed. It is considered that megalithic monuments in Europe and in many other parts of the world were not just ritual constructs but also prehistoric observatories used for the observation of the heavenly bodies for calendar drafting. In Lithuania the old ritual place and astronomic observations is considered the hill enclave known under its popular name as the Birutë' Mountain in Palanga.

A calendar system based on the movement of the Sun over the period of a year seeks to define two crucial dates. These crucial dates are the summer solstice (06 21-22) and winter solstice (12 21-22). Defining the dates and ritual marking of the dates must have been of crucial importance in the traditional Baltic and Old Lithuanian cultures whose life organization was carried in compliance with the Sun and the Moon calendar. A famous megalith monument researcher professor Thom, on having examined over 300 megalith observation places used for astronomic observations on British islands, tried to reconstruct the calendar in accordance with the lay out of the observatories. It has been concluded that in the early Bronze Age there must have existed very precise and widely applied calendar. It is also considered that first, in the manner of vizyration, the exact directions of summer and winter solstice (directions that summer take in rising and setting on the solstice day) were determined. (Vud 1981,120-129). Visible equalities of the movement of the Sun path and the manner and techniques of their observation must have been reflected in the calendar compiled on the basis of Lithuanian observations and influenced the system of related rituals and beliefs. Though in the modern folk calendar we trace only separate elements of pre-Christian Lithuania traditions but on closer observation there sometimes shines more hope to retrieve something from the past. Therefore it is important to review the Rasos festivity dates form this ‘‘heavenly’‘ point of view.

Because one of the main goals of the astronomic observations was determination of the important calendar dates let us look at the date of the Rasos festivity form the archeoastronomic position. In M.Strijkovski' (1588) view these festivities started on 05 25 and lasted to 06 25.

S.Daukantas states that the Rasos festivity lasted 14 days. In Latvia this festivity till recent days went on the whole week. In Austria about 12 days (06 24 - 07 04). Nowadays in Lithuania and in other European countries among the country folk there exists an opinion that the festivity must take place in between 06 24 and 06 29. We may guess that this longer festive period may be relate to the changes in the observed azimuths of the sunrises and sunsets and their slowing down around the solstice . The fact to support this assumption is the lingering attention of the villagers paid to the fact that on the solstice day the Sun does not set in the West but far in the North or North West. This location of the sunset in the midsummer is called the High West of the summer (the direction of the sunrise of the period - the High East of the summer); the directions of winter sunset and sunrise- the Low East of the winter and the low west of the winter). Till now it is possible to mark some milestones in the location, which stand in the way of the summer path on solstice days. For example: ‘‘On the Seliutai (family name) oak rises the Sun and sets on the Pamociškes slope in February and when the days are getting longer then March comes. When the day gets longer we say that the Sun rises on the hill. Our every elevation has a name’‘ (Česnulienë, Varëna region, 1994).

With more precise measurement (azimuth measured to the exactness of 1° ) it must have been noticed that the marginal directions of the summer settings and risings of the Sun change round 06 13 and continue in these new positions till about 07 01. Therefore, the 18 day period must have been noticed when the Sun does not move in relation towards the rise and setting directions (Cf. Russian term ‘’letneje solncestojanije’’ (summer standing of the Sun - summer solstice)). The central date of this period corresponds to the astronomic solstice date. It is possible that in the old times the period of the Rasos festivity was associated with the above ‘‘standing’‘ period. This explains the reference in historical documents to the meaning of the lengthy period of the Rasos festival and allows us to verify its length and calendar location.

Very recent ethnoastronomic material gives us data about the phenomenon of the Sun's ‘‘Standing’‘. ‘‘The sun stands in one place from St.John to St.Peter and then the days get shorter’‘, it is said ‘‘the length of the day jumps back (Ţakauskas, Lazdijai region, 1992) or more often – ‘’The Sun jumps back’‘.

This jump may be interpreted only in relation to the change in azimuth, i.e. the beginning of the shortening of the longest Sun path along the sky with the marginal rising and setting azimuth. It is interesting that this jump is often widely related to the phenomenon of the Sun dance. For instance: ‘‘ The sun dances on 29 June and jumps back, the day get longer’‘ (Maskeliűnas, Lazdijai region, 1984); ‘‘On St.Peter's the Sun dances and the days get shorter’‘ (Baulienë, Kaiđiadorys region, 1994); ‘‘On St.Peter's the Sun jumps and the Sun dances, the witches dance and the Sun. The length of the day jumps back. From St.John to St.Peter the Sun stands in place, shimmers. Slowly then jumps back and the days get shorter’‘ (Januđienë, Lazdijai, 1992); ‘‘On St.Peter the Sun jumps back and the days start visibly getting shorter. [...} The Sun returns back and the day get shorter from St.Peter, here you go’‘ (Balevičiűtë, Alytus region, 1993). Yet most often it is said that the Sun on rising ‘‘dances’‘ (Three times jumps up and down or ‘‘dresses up’‘ (changes color) (Balys 1993, P.240 242).

In some areas it is said that the Sun is dancing in the morning of St.John or St.Peter in other sources that this happens on Easter morning or the Shrove Thursday morning. Dancing Sun in the morning of St.John and St.Peter is mentioned by Latvians, Byelorussians, Russians, French, Italians, Poles, Bulgarians, and Greeks. The illusion of dancing and changing colors of the Sun could have been created by the atmospheric optical condition which may appear because of the refraction, different degree of reflection of the Sun rays depending on different temperatures of the atmospheric layers. It is obvious that this atmospheric phenomenon may be observed on any day and does not necessarily relate to the festival. Why, then, is the phenomenon so widely related to St.John's or Easter morning?

It is possible to simply state that one reason is the exceptionality of the festivity, the exceptional value of the observed phenomenon could have been logically explained only in relation to some sacred calendar event. But it would be far more appealing to find the Solar importance in the festivities celebrated around the dancing Sun phenomenon and see the connection spring from the typical alertness related to the days of the observation of the sunrise and the sunsets azimuths tradition. In popular opinion the dance of the Sun is associated with the jump, i.e. when the Sun moves from the marginal rising and setting azimuth. This view is supported by the data from the recent ethnographic material. Here is the detailed description of this observation: ‘‘when the Sun moved furthest North the day would be longest. Then it's St.John. The longest day would be determined in the following way. Take some tree in the middle of the fields or something alone that is not hampered by the shadows. One day the length of the shadow of the tree in the sunset would be marked: the end of the shadow marked by a pole. In the next evening the procedure would repeat. Not only the length of the shadow would be marked but the angle by which it falls from the tree as well. When the shadow started to move farther from the tree, when it moved to the side most the day was considered the longest.’‘ It is quite possible that the ritual pole - Kupolë decorated with plants could be used for observation purposes. In other words Kupolë could have been a sort of gnomon whose shadow marked a ritual time.

Vicariously testifying to the fact that he observations of the Sun were carried out are the quotes: ‘‘only those who sleep not on St.John's night can see the dancing and dressing Sun’‘. Or else they say that observation should be done through a silk scarf, through a smoked glass or through a slot in the ‘‘bath structure’‘(pirtis)(1). The last condition is most amusing. This associates with the wizyrating technique known from the archeoastronomic research when a calendar date is marked by a short timed appearance through a small hole of the sun beam and it lights up a special mark.

It is believable that in pre-Christian Lithuanian culture the observation of the heavenly bodies was one of the most important activities of the cast of the pagan priests. After the disappearance of the pagan priests some functions in the observation practices for a while could have been carried out by the seniors in the family. But when the observation points were destroyed and the whole religious system was disappearing, with the spread of Christian calendar, attending to the depths of culture waded first. Cultures related to the material world and bearing motives of vegetation and animal observation more understandable for the common people lingered longer.