June 21st will mark the summer solstice – the longest day of the year. How does that work exactly? Does the sun just know to hang out longer in June than in December? The sun only seems to rise and set each day, but actually it rises higher and lower in the sky each day.
We know the Earth orbits the Sun within a year, and Earth rotates on its axis to give us the separation of night and day. We also know that the Earth has a slight tilt on its axis (about 23 1/2° off axis) which gives us the seasons. And while on Earth, we see all this movement as the Sun rising in the east and setting in the west, every day.
Pay close attention to the sun’s path in the sky. This path, known as the ecliptic, remains the same every year and has helped humanity to define the constellations of the zodiac, chart the night sky, create accurate calendars, etc. It has provided us with a solid basis to position ourselves in space. Point is – the ecliptic: good.
One thing you will notice while observing the ecliptic is that the sun also shifts north and south over the course of the year. We see this happen because the tilt in Earth’s axis gives us a unique perspective of the sun.
The tilt causes us to see the sun rise and set at different angles. When summer comes along, the sun rises more to the north. The days get longer, fruits and flowers start budding, and life is renewed. After the summer solstice, the sun will start rising more and more southerly, it will get lower in the sky, and the days will get shorter until we reach the winter solstice.
The summer solstice was significant to our ancestors. They paid close attention to the sun’s movements because they valued it as a giver of life, light and heat. Naturally when the sun was at its highest and most powerful, different societies held festivals and rituals in reverence. Ancient cultures around the world from the Mayans to the Norse, to the Egyptians to the Chinese dedicated monuments and religious sites to capture the sunlight of the summer solstice specifically, showing how significant the sun was to them.
Our ancestors used the sun’s cycles to predict the best timing for planting crops. They have also used it to predict flooding seasons, like the Nile cultures and those in Mesopotamia. Indeed the sun was top priority to them, and the summer solstice was the culmination of life itself. It was a time to honor nature, to remember the sun’s cycles, and to enjoy being alive.
But why keep all the fun in the past? You can check out the path of the sun today! Start this June, right on the solstice. You will want to do this first thing in the morning when you have time to view the sunrise. Record or remember a spot on the horizon where the sun is rising, and note the date as well. Over time, you will notice that the sun will slowly start to rise more and more to the south, until we get to the winter solstice in December. And that will be a story for another time.