The summer solstice, aka midsummer, marks the time at which the Northern or Southern Hemisphere is most inclined towards the sun. While it’s not taken too seriously by Aussies (who are more inclined to down a beer at the beach than dance around a fire), it has a deep historical significance for many cultures around the world, particularly in Northern Europe.
While Pagan sun worshippers have traditionally flocked to Stonehenge in celebration of the solstice, New-Age witches jump at the chance to embrace their inner wu by casting spells and imbibing enchanting elixirs. Vogue, for instance, interviewed a few self-professed spellcasters to gauge the best ways to harness the powers of the solstice – there’s a DIY “pouch for psychic dreams” (no, seriously) and a recipe for a “solar elixir”.
We’re not going to bother, as we don’t reckon Penthouse readers are the mugwort and elderflower types (unless that particular concoction gets you pissed).
Instead, we’re turning our attention to another peculiar way to mark the yearly phenomenon, and it doesn’t include a dream pouch. No, this next-level weirdness involves a bizarre sun cult and human sacrifice.
On December 17, 1995, just days out from the winter solstice, 27-year-old Frenchman Patrick Vuarnet — the son of Olympic ski champion and entrepreneur Jean Vuarnet (google Vuarnet sunnies) — disappeared from his home in Geneva. Ten days later, the charred remains of his body were discovered in a forest clearing, along with those of his mother Edith and his Swiss girlfriend. Sixteen bodies in total were arranged in a sun-like circle around the remains of a bonfire in the French Alps.
Each of the burned bodies had one or more bullet wounds, and all the remains belonged to members of the Order of the Solar Temple, a secret cult started by Joseph Di Mambro and Luc Jouret that has been operating in several countries (including Australia) since 1984.
The cult had aligned itself with a garden-variety mixture of Pagan mysticism, Christian symbolism, sex, money and power. Di Mambro had brainwashed his followers into thinking he was the reincarnation of several religious leaders and that his daughter was a ‘cosmic child’ who’d take the group to a new planet called Sirius after death. Jouret, meanwhile, had everyone convinced he’d been a member of the Knights Templar in a previous life and was now the third incarnation of Jesus Christ.
In October 1994, convinced the government was hunting them down and that the world was about to end in a catastrophic environmental event, 53 members of the cult from around the world, including Di Mambro and Jouret, prepared to transit to Sirius, taking their own lives in a mass suicide in Switzerland and Quebec.
But Vuarnet and his mother, who had both joined the doomsday cult, never got the call. And after hearing of the 53 dead, Vuarnet stated that while he had previously felt prepared to sacrifice himself, he’d reconsidered his dedication to the cause. “What I thought was true is false, and I failed to recognise that. I have burned all my capes and got rid of all my papers,” he told French magazine L’Express, adding he feared for his life when neither he or his mother were informed of the mass-suicide plan.
The following year, after the 1995 winter solstice, Vuarnet was found immolated, along with 15 others. Was he murdered? Or had his attitude towards the sect changed? It’s difficult to know. What is clear is it’s not only the moon that brings out the loonies.
Your best bet this summer solstice? Stick to beers at the beach. And if you get a call to head for the mountains with your sun-loving mates, maybe don’t go.