We all have heard of the ancient summer solstice observances held at holy places like Stonehenge and Chichen Itza, and we have read or watched a performance of Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, but few of us know the meanings of Midsummer Eve and Day and their rituals, or what beliefs and mythology lay behind them. This post explores these questions, from the perspective of the old summer solstice celebrations that we do know about.
The summer solstice, around which the Midsummer festival was celebrated (the evening-night of June 23 and the day of the 24th), is the flip side of the winter solstice and Christmas. The sun was at its height, the day was at its longest, the season was warm, and vegetation was full and still green. The season seemed magical. But this time also marked the beginning of the slow and inevitable weakening of the sun over the next half year. According to James Frazer and Robert Graves, in the mythology of ancient Britain the Oak King ruled when the sun was waxing, while the Holly King who ruled over the waning sun began his rule on the summer solstice, the Oak King withdrawing to the circumpolar stars, which never disappear below the horizon even in winter. On the winter solstice, people celebrated the beginning of the return of the sun. Logically, we might expect one or the other of these times to be viewed negatively, but we always make our holidays into something positive. A happy thought.
Such major transitions in nature never fail to kindle human emotions and imaginations, hence producing myths and rituals. Midsummer Eve was one of the spirit nights of the year, when the boundaries between the worlds were thin and porous. Evil spirits and witches were active. Men were proverbially subject to fairy tricks and queer fancies, as portrayed by Shakespeare. In fact, during this season farmers’ animals and crops were particularly exposed to disease; farmers also needed continued sun together with enough rain to ensure a successful crop. It is therefore not surprising that the Midsummer festival, even in Christian times, was one marked by agrarian paganism, centering around the sun (fire) and water. This festival was most important in the north of Europe – the Nordic lands, Russia, and the British Isles and Ireland – where the sun is weakest and the growing season the shortest. In these climes Midsummer was the most important festival of the year.
The Church converted this occasion into the festival of the nativity of St. John the Baptist (June 24), which nicely bracketed Christmas, since according to the Gospel of Luke the Baptist was born six months before Jesus. This adaptation fit both the solar and water themes of the pagan festival. Like the summer solstice sun and the Oak King, John was destined to decrease (and was even decapitated), while Jesus was to increase (John 3:30). John worked in water (the Jordan) and baptized people with water, whereas Jesus would baptize with fire and the holy spirit (Matt. 3:11; Luke 3:16).
The main Midsummer Eve rituals centered around fires, which had a private household side and a communal village side. In both cases the idea was that the fire, smoke, and ashes would purify the environment, driving away evil spirits and protecting homes, families, livestock, and crops. At home, farmers would light one or more fires at one or more locations where the smoke would drift over their fields, where the livestock were also temporarily pastured so as to receive the same benefit. Farmers might also drive the cattle through the smoke next to the fires or between fires, or over their embers or ashes, and also singe the cattle and horses with burning branches or torches. After that, farmers with their families would head off to the large communal Midsummer bonfire of the village.
The communal bonfire was lit at nightfall, which at that time in northern Europe was quite late in the evening. It had a dual role. One was that of purifying the local environment from evil spirits and disease, an ancient tradition that went back at least to Rome, where this procedure was recommended by Pliny the Elder. The second purpose was to stimulate the now waning sun to remain as strong as possible through the rest of the growing and pasturing season, which was a ritual of sympathetic magic since the fire was looked upon as a miniature version of the sun. Part of the ritual involved jumping over the fire, several times (repetition is important in magic) and both forward and backwards (which imitated the sun oscillating through the seasons). The leapers thus secured protection and good fortune for themselves. When the flames were still rather high, the leapers were the strapping youths of the village, competing with one another. As the flames died down, women and couples also did it, to secure a good marriage, ensure that they would have children, and so on.
Another solar-fire ritual was to roll a flaming wheel down a hill and into a river or lake at the bottom, if there was one. The wheel symbolized the wheel (circle) of the seasons, as well as the sun-disk. The sun as a wheel is an ancient symbol, often depicted in the form of a wheeled chariot being driven across the sky; the swastika is another version of the sun-wheel in motion. In this ritual, the wheel was stuffed with straw or hay (the yellowish color of which resembled the sun) so that the wheel itself was barely visible, and in many cases an axle protruded a meter or so on each side, which people used to guide it down the hill. The idea was for it to roll all the way to the bottom, into the water if any; if it did not roll all the way down, the harvest would be bad. This rite was dramatically depicted in Andrei Tarkovsky’s film Andrei Rublev, showing the ancient pagan Russian Midsummer Eve known as Kupala Night.
The water aspect of the celebrations related to the fertility that water fosters, and to water’s vital role in the heat of summer. People would dress wells, springs, and fountains with flowers, and inevitably St. John became considered the patron of various holy wells, to which pilgrimages were made on Midsummer Day. On Kupala Night Russian girls would float wreaths of flowers (often lit with candles) into rivers, and then endeavor to divine their romantic fortunes from the fate of the floating wreaths. Young men might try to capture them in an effort to win the heart of the maiden who floated it. People also might bathe at midnight on Midsummer Eve. In fact, in Russia, the name for the midsummer festival, Kupala, after a midsummer goddess of that name, comes from the Russian verb kupat, meaning “to bathe.”
Actually, many if not most Midsummer Day rituals had more to do with women (or families) than men. Women performed various rites and uttered spells to help them get married, have children, and so forth. (It is perhaps not irrelevant that our own family holidays (Mother’s and Father’s Day) lead up to the solstice.) Midsummer Eve was a natural occasion for romance, and many a couple retreated to the forest. As an old Swedish proverb went, “Midsummer Night is not long but it sets many cradles rocking.”
Midsummer Eve was also known as Herb Evening, because it was thought to be the most potent night of the year for gathering herbs, especially St. John’s Wort. It was named after St. John because it blooms around that time. It was thought to keep demons at bay and to disempower witches. St. John himself was thought to be a protector against witches. One poem ran:
St. John’s wort doth charm all witches away
If gathered at midnight on the saint’s holy day.
Any devils and witches have no power to harm
Those that gather the plant for a charm . . .
Another feature of Midsummer Day in some locations, especially in Wales but also in England, was the erection of a decorated pole in town similar to a May Pole but called the “summer birch.” This was often in connection with fairs held in towns on that day. Villages competed to have the best pole, and often stole them from one another.
As we have already seen in the cases of the flaming wheel rolling down the hill and Russian girls floating wreaths in water, Midsummer Eve, when the divine was omnipresent, was an auspicious time for divination, which was practiced on that occasion far into the modern period. It was also thought that divining rods should be cut on Midsummer Day.
The old Midsummer rites suffered a blow during the Protestant Reformation and again later when people simply stopped believing in the efficacy of the magical rites practiced on the occasion. In the British Isles and Ireland some of the festivities continued through the 19th century mainly as amusements, while the traditions remain strong in the Nordic countries, especially Sweden. In recent decades they have been taken up again in Neopagan circles, and also as public and tourist attractions. In America, our July 4th effectively serves as our solstice holiday. Think about that next time you are at the fireworks and see the fiery revolving Catherine wheel.
© Arthur George 2015