Midsummer (or Litha, Sonnenwende, Sankthansaften, Midsommardagen, etc.), is without a doubt, a day with heavy connections to the sun. For those of us in the Northern Hemisphere, Midsummer is the longest ‘day’ of the year, as the sun appears in the sky for far longer than any other day of the year. In certain places of the Northern hemisphere including parts of Scandinavia, the sun may never fully set, giving locals an eye-witness view to what’s colloquially known as a ‘midnight sun’. As such, it should come as no great surprise that in pre-Christian times, as well as for pagans and Asatru today, the day is marked with celebration honoring the sun itself.
Sunna (or Sol) is described in our tradition as the Goddess who in her chariot drawn by horses guides the sun in its track, as her brother Mani similarly drives the moon coursing through the sky. We have no actual depiction in the archaeological record of Sunna herself, the closest we come is the Trundholm sun chariot from the Nordic Bronze Age (1700 BCE – 500 BCE) found in Denmark, which depicts the sun (not the Goddess) being pulled by a horse drawn chariot, and the wheels of the chariot are clearly in the form of solar crosses, or sunwheels.
Symbols of the Sun
From ancient sources going back thousands of years, we have two types of sunwheels present in the archaeological record. The first is known as a solar cross, which is a circle bisected by a horizontal, and a vertical line arranged in the shape of a cross. The other incorporates the sowilo rune (which literally means ‘sun’) and may be known as a fylfot or swastika (which infamously was misappropriated by the Nazi party in World War II). Variations of this later type of sunwheel can incorporate a varying number of sowilo runes (two or more) into its symmetrical design.
This symbol is clearly connected to the Goddess Sunna, she whose chariot draws the sun in it’s path across the sky. The other sunwheel, the swastika is a symbol sacred to many world religions, you’ll find it used among Buddhism, Hinduism, Jainism, Greco-Roman architecture and jewelry, and other Asian and Indo-European cultures and religions. Depictions of the swastika appear on various sundries including jewelry, runestones, swords and spears, cremation urns, etc. Throughout Germania, Scandinavia and Anglo-Saxon finds.The symbol has even cropped up closer to home for most Americans, in that it was a sacred symbol of several Native American tribes including the Navajo, Apache, and Hopi.
The word swastsika derives from svastika a much older word from the Sanskrit language, which etymologically is comprised of words meaning both good and well-being, and thus the symbol can be interpreted to mean that it is a charm or blessing for good health. In the Germanic tradition, Sunna, is not only the Goddess that draws forth the Sun, but She is linked with healing in one of the Merseburg Charms as well. Since the Northern Tradition sprung from an agriculturally focused society, they viewed the year as broken up into only two seasons: summer and winter. Winter was the time when food was scarce, when disease ran rampant and illness, malnutrition and the cold weather took lives. Summer was seen as a time of not only warmth, but a time where food was more abundantly available.
Grimm’s Teutonic Mythology describes the traditional folk practices for Midsummer celebrations in the areas where the Norse Gods were once (and in some cases still are) honored is to set a sunwheel (or a wagon wheel) on fire. In some cases the wheel was simply lit locally and incorporated into the Midsummer bonfire. In other cases people trekked out into the countryside, found a hill, set the sunwheel on fire, and let it roll down the hill as they chased after it, people watching and cheering as they watched it roll along it’s fiery way, as vegetation caught fire. Sometimes mini-fires were set in the fields, as a way of directly burning in offering the crops that the sun had helped to grow, or fragrant herbs were tossed into local bonfires instead.
It is possible, that just as Native American tribes would regularly set clearings on fire for the sake of agriculture and to lure bigger game to lush fields, that the selective burning on the fields may have also been conducted not only as an offering, but potentially to help the land so that future crops were more bountiful. As we learned after Mt. Saint Helen’s blew its top, fire is actually a healthy part of nature, as it can help fuel rapid growth and renew the land. This is why the Forestry Service has now abandoned their previous policy of total fire suppression in the fight against wildfires. Sometimes they will now let forests burn because it is healthier for the forest in the long run to do so.
While there’s no doubt both types of sunwheels, solar crosses and swastikas, connect to the Goddess Sunna, some scholars including Hilda R. Ellis Davidson theorize that the swastika may be also connected to Thor, and therefore the symbol was a representation of mjollnir. HRED supports this theory by looking to the neighboring tradition of the Finnish Sami. On the shaman drums, it wasn’t uncommon to see a depiction of a man holding either a hammer or axe, or a swastika symbol. This male figure is identified as the Lappish equivalent to Thor, their Thunder God Horagelles. Considering that the symbol is comprised of two or more sowilo runes, and side by side sowilo runes which resembled lightning bolts were used for the Nazi SS, while this connection is less direct than with Sunna, it is to my mind a viable possible connection. Although I would posit a later appearing connection with Thor, and that the symbol was always closely associated with the Sun, and therefore Sunna.
Today, while many Heathens recognize both symbols, many Heathens tend to shy away from the use of the swastika symbol and instead use the solar cross symbol. This shyness with the swastika is firmly rooted in the atrocities performed by the Nazis in World War II. Today, the swastika tends to be far more associated with hate groups. For this reason many of the Native American tribes will no longer create arts and crafts baring this symbol, the symbol is banned from use except when used in historical context in Germany and Brazil. Yet the symbol is still clearly used on both the Finnish Air Force insignia, as well as in connection with the office of the Finnish President. Of those modern Heathens who do use the symbol, many do so in the privacy of their own homes, or in subtle ways. There are some who do fully embrace the symbol trying to reclaim it and educate in the process, but they are a small minority.
Sunwheels as a Ritual Craft Project
For Litha, I made my very own sunwheel to adorn the altar, which was infused with fragrant herbs and flowers. I opted to make my sunwheel in the solar cross design, and began by going to my local crafts store where I purchased a natural straw wreath, as well as natural raffia. Additionally, I stopped off at the florist and picked up sunflowers, yellow roses, purple mums, and a few other odds and ends that seemed appropriate. Then I used the raffia, and wrapped the wreath with it creating my base solar cross design. Once I had made the solar cross , I then began incorporating the flowers into the sunwheel. The end result only decorated the altar for a few brief hours before it was tossed into the Litha bonfire in offering to Sunna herself.
Or sunwheels I’ve made from other years…
This is an easy project that anyone can do for a modest investment, and can be made both by individuals for their own private rituals or by groups of people as a joint and collective offering. This crafty little project can also serve as a great way of including children into the Litha celebrations.