Midsummer

The celebration of Midsummer is a pan-global custom. Every culture has, at some point in its history, marked the time and held it to be enchanted. The Celts, the Norse and the Slavs believed that there were three ‘spirit nights’ in the year when magic abounded and the Otherworld was close. The first was Halloween, the second was May Eve and the third was Midsummer Eve. On this night, of all nights, fairies are most active. On this night the future can be uncovered. As the solstice sun rises on its day of greatest power it draws up with it the power of herbs, standing stones and crystals. In the shimmering heat haze on the horizon its magical energies are almost visible. And as the mist gate forms in the warm air rising beneath the dolmen arch, the entrance to the Otherworld opens- Avalon, Tir nan Og, the land of Youth where it is always summer and death and old age are unknown. Shakespeare captured all the magic of the occasion in A Midsummer Night’s Dream where fairies, magic and mischief abound on one bewitched night in the forest.

Every ancient religion had its own customs and traditions associated with Midsummer. These appear in the lore of Greece and Rome, the myths of the Norse, the Maya, the Aztecs, the Slavs, the writings of the ancient Egyptians, and the Old Testament of the Jews, while the Celts has a large collection of myths associated with Midsummer. Vestiges of these festivities can still be witnessed today. In places we may still see the baal fires, the torchlight processions, the rolling of a sun wheel downhill, the casting of spells, divination, love magic, and the blessing of crops and animals with fire.

The cold, dark days of winter and blight are far away, the time of light and warmth, summer and growth are here.  The summer solstice is the longest day and shortest night of the year. It falls around June 21st in the northern hemisphere and around December 21st in the southern hemisphere. It is a natural time of celebration.

The sun is the largest and brightest object in our skies and all of life on earth is dependent on its light and heat. During our own temperate summer we have long, warmer days when animals produce young and plants flourish and bear fruit, but during the winter the days are short and cold, vegetation dies and animals struggle to find food – survival is harder and sometimes impossible. For our ancestors, winter often brought starvation and death.

The sun governs the pattern of life, its cycles dividing the hours, days, months and years, the round of sowing, growth, harvest and decay. The Egyptians called the sun the divine creator of all things, the master of time and the seasons. Its regular daily and seasonal rotations stand as a symbol of cosmic order. From where we stand on earth, each day the sun seems to rise in the east, scattering the powers of darkness and diffusing light and fertility as it climbs to its zenith at noon. Then it declines, descending into the west and eventually sinking below the horizon, only to return with the following dawn. The Egyptian sun god Ra was born as a baby each dawn, grew to maturity at noon and became an old man at sunset, ready for death. Each sunrise demonstrated the victory of life over the forces of death and darkness; it was a metaphor for human spiritual and physical life, reflecting our own experiences of birth, growth, decay and death, as well as our hope of rebirth, our struggles against negativity and the triumph of spirit. Thus, for our ancestors the eternal cycle of the sun was the central paradigm of their spiritual beliefs. Sun gods were:

“…the types and models of the divine potentiality…they were the mirror held up to men, in which could be seen the possibilities locked up in man’s own nature. They were type figures, delineating the divine life that was an ever possible realization for any devoted man. They were the symbols of an ever coming deity, a deity that came not once historically in Judea, but that came to ever fuller expression and liberation in the inner heart of every son of man. The solar deities were the gods that ever came, that were described as coming not once upon a time, but continuously and regularly. Their radiant divinity might be consummated by an earnest person at any time or achieved piecemeal.”  [1]

No wonder then that the sun was often the chief deity of the ancient world or at least, his or her emblem. There are thousands of sun gods and goddesses with remarkably similar characteristics: they battle the forces of darkness and dispel evil; they illuminate the sky; see everything on their path and uncover those secrets hidden by darkness (often in the form of prophecy); they represent truth, justice and enlightenment and they bring healing.

Solar myths explain the sun’s daily movement across the sky from east to west and its disappearance at night as a journey taken by the god, usually travelling across the heavens in a chariot or boat. In Scandinavian and Celtic countries many Bronze Age carvings show the sun disc being pulled along on a cart. The Greek Helios (or Apollo) drove his fiery chariot through the sky by day, and by night he floated back across the ocean in a golden bowl, only to mount the chariot again the next morning. Ra travelled across the sky in his sun-boat and passed through the Duat (underworld) each night, bringing light to the souls imprisoned there and defeating the demon Apep before escaping with the dawn. The Navaho call their sun god Jóhanaa’éi (‘Sun-bearer’) and every day he hauls the sun across the sky on his back. At night, he hangs the sun from a peg on the wall and rests. In Australian aboriginal mythology, the sun goddess Wuriupranili lights a torch and travels from east to west, extinguishing the torch in the western ocean. She decorates her body with red ochre which represents the colour of the sun rise and sunset. Dawn and dusk were often spoken of as gates. In Norse myth the sun emerged each day from deling’s dore (‘dawn’s door’), and for the Canadian Bella Cool Indians the doors are guarded by a warrior called the Bear of Heaven. Shamash entered the Gate of the East onto the Mountains of Sunrise and travelled to the Mountains of Sunset and exited through the Western Gate of Heaven. [2] Where the sun went at night, and whether it would return, was a matter for grave concern. What would happen if the sun god failed to defeat the monsters of darkness and not rise each dawn? Life on earth would come to an end. The sun god could be benign and friendly, spreading his light and warmth, or he could be cold and indifferent, withdrawing his gifts; he could even be cruel and destructive, shrivelling living things with his overbearing heat. It was necessarily to propitiate him, and in some places human sacrifices were offered in order to bring back the sun at the winter solstice.

As well as the sun’s daily birth and nightly death, the sun is seen to wax and wane during the year. After midwinter the sun begins to grow stronger and the days lengthen up until midsummer, when the opposite happens and the days gradually grow shorter and colder. At midwinter and midsummer the sun apparently changes its course. In midwinter having reached the lowest point in its path, it turns about and begins to mount the skies; conversely at midsummer, having attained the highest point it reaches, the sun seems to turn about once more and descend. Consequently it was often imagined the sun god was born at the winter solstice and grew until midsummer, afterwards declining towards his death at the midwinter solstice, before being reborn and the whole cycle beginning again. Hurs or Hors was the Slavonic god of the old winter sun who became smaller as the days grew shorter and died on korochun (the winter solstice) defeated by the dark powers of Chernobog. The next day Hors was resurrected as the new sun, Koleda. (Koleda survives in the modern Slavonic languages as the word for Christmas.) Because of his transformation the Slavs worshipped Hors as the god of healing and the triumph of health, [3] a characteristic shared by most of the sun gods around the world. The rebirth of the sun at the winter solstice meant that the hope for the renewal of the cycle of the seasons was accomplished, and the wheel of life would spin on. In many countries this festival season was known as yole or yuul, meaning ‘wheel’ from the word hiaul or huul, which even to this day signified the sun in some languages. The wheel is one of the ancient symbols of the sun, the spokes representing its rays and the wheel’s turning the sun’s passage through the year.

We experience changing seasons because the axis of the Earth – an imaginary line between the north and south poles – is tilted from true by 23.5 degrees. As our planet revolves around the sun, this means that part of the earth tilts towards the sun, then away again.  Between June and September the Northern Hemisphere is tilted toward the sun and gets more light, experiencing the season of summer. At the same time the Southern Hemisphere experiences winter.  Between December and March the Northern Hemisphere is tilted away from the sun and experiences less light and warmth, while the Southern Hemisphere enjoys summer. Just how much sunlight you experience depends on the latitude you occupy. By June 21st there are twenty-four hours of daylight above the Arctic Circle, while below the Antarctic Circle there are twenty-four hours of darkness.  During spring and autumn, both hemispheres experience milder weather and the two equinoxes mark the junctures when the Earth’s axis is pointing sideways. Without the tilt in the Earth’s axis we would have the same degree of light and warmth – or dark and cold – all year round, and have no seasons at all; the sun’s rays would always be directly over the Equator. The solstices and equinoxes are the four stations of the sun during the year, represented by an equal armed cross; there is a frequent connection between sun gods and crosses.

The word solstice is derived from Latin and means ‘sun stands still’. The sun usually rises at a different point on the horizon each day (it only rises due east at the spring equinox). It travels north-east to its furthest position at the summer solstice and appears to stand still for a few days before heading south-east, reaching its southernmost position at the winter solstice where it seems to rest again for a few days before heading north once more. The summer solstice is celebrated when the sun reaches its most northerly position. Moreover, during the winter the sun does not rise so high in the sky and the shadows are longer. During the summer it climbs high and strong in the sky and shadows are short.

The Sanskrit root of the word summer means ‘half year’, suggesting the light and dark halves of the year were marked by the two solstices. [4] This division of the year by the two solstices into two halves was common in the ancient world. The Saxon year began at the winter solstice and the summer solstice marked its mid-point.  They called the month of June Aerra Litha meaning ‘before Litha’, and July Aeftera Litha meaning ‘after Litha’ [5] leading some to speculate that the Saxon name for the festival was Litha. The Icelandic lida or litha means ‘to move’, or ‘pass over’, in other words, the sun passing over its highest point or the month of the sun’s descent. J.R.R.Tolkien used the term for a midsummer festival in the fantasy novel The Lord of the Rings and some Pagans, particularly in the USA, have lately adopted the name for the midsummer festival. While the solstice generally falls round the 21st June [6] Midsummer’s Eve is fixed as 23rd June, and Midsummer’s Day (or St John’s Day) as 24th June. Then again, we find references to Old Midsummer Eve and Old Midsummer Day in early July. It is generally accepted that the Christian missionaries persuaded the old Pagans to move their celebrations of the summer solstice to the feast of St John on 24th June, pegging a moveable solstice feast to a definite date. However, it is noticeable that while most parts of Europe celebrate on St John’s Day, a significant number of individual areas celebrate on St Peter’s and St Paul’s Day, 29th June. At least part of the confusing results from changes made to the calendar. In 1582 Pope Gregory XIII wiped out ten days from the old Julian calendar to make it astronomically correct. However, the Gregorian calendar was not adopted in Britain till 1752 and Ireland in 1782, by which time eleven days had to be dropped. Some towns refused to move their holidays, and Whalton in Northumberland still lights its fire on old Midsummer Eve, 5th July.

The Pagan festivities of the summer solstice were appropriated to the Feast of St. John the Baptist, the cousin who baptised Jesus and announced that he was the saviour foretold by the Hebrew prophets. The baal fires became the fires of St. John, whom Jesus called “a bright and shining light”. In the Middle Ages, Christian mythographers declared that St John was born at the summer solstice at the time of the weakening sun, announcing his own power would wane with the birth of Christ at the winter solstice, the time of the strengthening sun. [7] John the Baptist is reported to have said of Jesus “He must increase, but I must decrease.” [8] John is the only saint whose feast day is celebrated on the day of his birth, rather than his death. Christian scholars incorporated Pagan symbolism into their iconography to associate Christ with the waxing year and John with the waning, represented by the holly and oak respectively, though neither tree had any connection with Christianity or Judaism. The evergreen holly persisted through the winter death-time and so was identified with Christ, the white flower emblematic of his purity, the prickles his crown of thorns, and the red berries the drops of his shed blood: “…of all the trees that are in the woods, the holly bears the crown” in the words of the old carol. [9]

There are a number of customs associated with Midsummer, most of which celebrate the time of greatest light and encourage the power of the sun with sympathetic magic in the form of bonfires, rolling wheels, circle dances and  torchlight processions. Because the energy of the sun infuses the whole of nature, it is a potent time for gathering plants, seeking healing or practicing divination. However, Midsummer is also a dangerous time when the wild forces of the spirit world are close and threaten, and precautions have to be taken against them.

© Anna Franklin, author of Midsummer, History, Lore and Celebration, Lear Books

 

 

[1] Alvin Boyd Kuhn, The Great Myth of the Sun-Gods, 2005

[2] John Matthews, The Summer Solstice, Godsfield Press, London, 2005

[3] http://www.absoluteastronomy.com/topics/Hors

[4] Dr E.C.Krupp, Beyond the Blue Horizon, Oxford University Press, Oxford, 1992

[5] Nigel Pennick, Runic Astrology, The Aquarian Press, Wellingborough, 1990

[6] It can vary between 19th– 23rd June

[7] Phillipe Walter, Christianity, the Origins of a Pagan Religion, Inner Traditions, Rochester, 2003

[8] John, 3:30

[9] John Williamson, The Oak King, the Holly King and the Unicorn, Harper and Row, New York, 1986

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Author: annafranklinblog

Anna Franklin is the High Priestess of the Hearth of Arianrhod, which runs teaching circles, a working coven, and the annual Mercian Gathering, a Pagan camp which raises money for charity. She regularly speaks at conferences, moots and workshops around the country. She is the author of many books on witchcraft and Paganism, including the popular Pagan Ways Tarot, Sacred Circle Tarot, The Fairy Ring, Herb Craft, Magical Incenses and Oils, Personal Power, A Romantic Guide to Handfasting, Familiars, The Oracle of the Goddess, Hearth Witch, The Path of the Shaman and The Hearth Witch’s Compendium. Anna’s books have been translated into nine languages.

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