Midsummer Mysteries

1 Jul

There are so many myths and legends surrounding the venerable old festival of Midsummer, which has been one of the important solar events throughout the history of mankind. According to folklore it is the time that the fairies and nature spirits are very active and cross back and forth between our realm and theirs to play tricks on unsuspecting mortals. Litha, which is another name for Midsummer Day, is a celebration that has been observed for centuries, in one form or another, in the ancient pagan religion of the British Isles. Midsummer is especially important in the cultures of Scandinavia, Estonia and Latvia, where it is the most celebrated holiday apart from Christmas. In those parts it is said that, if young people pick flowers at Midsummer, they will dream of their future spouse. On the other side of the world, an old Maori proverb states that if you turn your face to the sun at Midsummer, the shadows will fall behind you. Perhaps most famously, William Shakespeare himself utilised the many mythological and fairytale associations of this time of year in penning his comedy romance, A Midsummer Night’s Dream. With Midsummer not long past, perhaps now is as good a time as any to ask why the period is so deeply rooted in superstition, myth and legend in so many nations.

Midsummer is the period centered upon the summer solstice, more specifically the celebrations that accompany the actual solstice or take place on a day between June 21 and June 24 and the preceding evening. The word ‘solstice’ is Latin for ‘sun stands still’ and is so used because to the naked eye the sun appears stationary in its northern and southern progression. The summer solstice falls at the precise moment when the sun’s power is at its zenith. It is the time of year when the noon sun appears to be farthest north from the celestial equator – the longest day and the shortest night of the year. It was also an auspicious time for ancient peoples. It was at Midsummer that the Holly King, God of the Waning Year, was believed to  encounter and vanquish the Oak King, thereby succeeding in usurping the reign of the year. Fire was an important aspect to Midsummer celebrations. This was the time when the balefires – bonfires on hilltops, at crossroads, or any place where folk could gather – were lit, traditionally kindled from the friction of two sacred woods, fir and oak. Such fires were lit to protect against evil spirits which were believed to roam freely when the sun was turning southwards again, for as this happened the sun god Bel would begin to die. Bel would only live again at the Winter Solstice, when the Yule logs and lit fir-braches would guide his return.

While fire characterised Midsummer Day, Midsummer Eve was the evening of herbs. The herbs and flowers gathered this night are considered exceptionally potent. St John’s wort, burdock, thorn, and nettle, harvested on Midsummer Eve are hung on doors and windows and placed around the home for protection. Some people believed that golden-flowered Midsummer plants, especially Calendula and St John’s Wort, had miraculous healing powers and they therefore picked them on this night. Houses were decorated with fennel, orpine and birch branches. Those who found Royal Fern blossoms on Midsummer Eve were said to become wise, lucky, wealthy and all around happy folk. Traditionally, women wore braided circlets of clover and flowers, while men wore chaplets of oak leaves and flowers around their heads. St John’s wort would also be worn as a decoration. The ubiquity of this herb at this time of year can be explained by the fact that, although Midsummer is originally a pagan holiday, in Christianity it is associated with the nativity of John the Baptist, which is observed on the same day, June 24, in the Catholic, Orthodox and some Protestant churches. For Christians, the traditional fires of Midsummer were to drive away dragons, which were said to also be abroad on St John’s Eve, poisoning springs and wells.

In Northern Europe in particular, which was known for its dark winters and short summers, celebrating the light and the warmth of Midsummer was a natural thing to do. As with many other major pagan festivals, Midsummer had strong fertility associations and as such it was regarded as an auspicious time to dance with, marry or make love to one’s beloved. In Scandinavian countries, on the night before Midsummer every young girl placed a bunch of flowers tied with nine pieces of grass or nine flowers under her pillow, upon which she slept and dreamt of her future husband. Incidentally, the modern term ‘honeymoon’ comes from the moon of Midsummer. This was called the Honey Moon, as this was a time when the beehives were rich in honey, which gathered and fermented into a drink known as mead, customarily drunk at wedding parties at this time of year. Water was the other important aspect of Midsummer. In times past folk swam in waters that flowed towards the rising sun as it climbed in the Midsummer morning sky. Bathing in springs and rivers on Midsummer was thought to bring healing, cleansing and protection, while the dew of a Midsummer morning was said to bestow health on whomever drank of it. Lastly, a full moon on Midsummer Eve is regarded as an especially good omen, for then a mortal may witness fairy dances and celebrations. So be sure to leave an offering for the fairies next Midsummer Eve, so they may think fondly of you!

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3 Responses to “Midsummer Mysteries”

  1. Hugh Paxton July 1, 2012 at 9:48 am #

    A very interesting post! In Thailand we tend to forget about Midsummer because we don’t really have one. I thought your writing style and research admirable! Cheers! Hugh .

  2. redplace July 2, 2012 at 9:24 am #

    Wow! I always I learn something new every time I stumble upon your blog. 🙂

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