Litha (June/July)

Sixth and seventh month of the Old English calendar

For an overview of the Old English calendar and links to the other months, see the summary page.

The sixth month of the year, corresponding approximately to the Roman and modern month of June, was called Litha. Like its counterpart in the winter, Giuli (from which we get the word Yule), Litha was a double-length month, or two months of the same name, placed either side of the midsummer solstice.

Bede, writing in 725, tells us:

Litha means "gentle" or "navigable", because in both those months the calm breezes are gentle and they were wont to sail upon the smooth sea.

--Bede, On the Reckoning of Time, Chapter 15. Translated by Faith Wallis.


In the Old English Dictionary, "lithe" is translated as "soft, gentle, mild, serene" and the verb "lithan" as "to go, travel, sail", both consistent with Bede's statement.

However, it might also have another meaning, since elsewhere in the same passage Bede says:

"Winterfilleth", a name made up from "winter" and "full moon"

--Bede, On the Reckoning of Time, Chapter 15. Translated by Faith Wallis. (See article on Winterfilleth for more information)


This suggests that the element '-leth' can mean 'moon', or at least that Bede thought it could. This is somewhat puzzling, as it doesn't appear in the Old English Dictionary, and the usual Old English word for 'moon' is 'mona', related to 'monath', modern English 'month'. However, the same dictionary also gives the Old English word 'lyftfaet' meaning 'vessel in the air' for 'moon'. The element 'lyft' appears as 'Luft', 'sky', in modern German, so it isn't directly related to '-leth'. But to speak of the full moon 'sailing in the sky' is occasionally used as a poetic figure of speech now, and I wonder if that poetic image of the full moon as a serenely sailing ship goes back to Bede's day. If so, it could be a link between 'Litha' and '-leth'. Perhaps some sort of kenning described the moon as 'sailing' and could be used as an alternative name for the moon in certain contexts, much as the sea could be called the 'whale-road'. If so, perhaps the name 'Litha' could have been something to do with the moon, as well as being a description of prevailing travelling conditions? I should stress that I am no linguist and I have no evidence for this suggestion.

We know from Bede's account that the midwinter solstice was an important feast day. Since Litha bracketed the midsummer solstice in the same way that Giuli bracketed the midwinter solstice, it would seem a reasonable inference that the midsummer solstice was also celebrated in some way. Bede doesn't mention any celebration, ceremony or feast, so the imagination is pretty well free to roam. Kathleen Herbert argues that Bede's silence on the subject shows that Litha "… must have been a sacred name, too holy - or too pagan - for common use and Christian explanation." (Herbert 1994). I don't think I would go quite that far in inference from a negative. But there may be a few clues to be gleaned from the Christian feast-day held on the same date in the calendar.

The Christian church celebrates the feast of the birth of St John the Baptist on or near Midsummer's Day. That might be pure coincidence, since according to Luke's Gospel St John was supposed to have been conceived (and therefore, presumably, born) about six months before Jesus and therefore once Christmas had settled on the midwinter solstice, logically St John's nativity would have had to settle on the midsummer solstice for consistency. Or it might indicate the importance of the midsummer date. St John the Baptist was an extremely important saint, so giving him the midsummer solstice feast day may indicate that the pre-Christian festival had also been a very important one, perhaps second only to the midwinter feast.

Various European traditions involve a special fire being lit on St John's feast-day (see Wikipedia for some examples), along with drinking, feasting and revelry. This might suggest that a pre-Christian midsummer festival, if one existed, also involved a fire ceremony. Or, prosaically, it might just indicate that a big fire helps any outdoor party go with a swing! As usual, other interpretations are possible.


Bede: The Reckoning of Time. Translated by Faith Wallis. Liverpool University Press, 1999, ISBN 0-85323-693-3.
Herbert, Kathleen. Looking for the Lost Gods of England. Anglo-Saxon Books, 1994. ISBN 1-898281-04-1.