Midsummer: history, folklore and magic7 min read
Originally written on June 2020, updated 2022
Litha, or Midsummer, is a celebration that has been observed for centuries, in one form or another. Its exact dates vary among different cultures, but is primarily held close to the summer solstice.
The celebration predates Christianity, and has existed under different names and traditions around the world.
It is no surprise, then, that there are plenty of myths and legends associated with this time of year.
We all have heard of the ancient summer solstice celebrations 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.
Historically, Midsummer day, on June 24 marks the midpoint of the growing season, halfway between planting and harvest.
It is traditionally known as one of four “quarter days” in some cultures, and folks celebrated by feasting, dancing, singing, and preparing for the hot summer days ahead.
This story is all rooted in the ancient Celtic calendar in which the solstices and equinoxes were called “Quarter Days” and the mid-points were called “Cross-Quarter Days,” marking the beginning of a season.
Together, the Quarter Days and Cross-Quarter Days made an eight-part year that reflected the natural procession of the seasons.
The eve prior Midsummer is called Midsummer’s Eve, marking the shortest night of the year. The English church later celebrated this day as the birthday of John the Baptist, who foretold the birth of Jesus exactly six months later (read more on this fantastic article write by another author).
According to popular belief, If it rains on Midsummer’s Eve, the filbert crops will be spoiled while, in agricultural communities, fine weather on Midsummer Day portends a fruitful season.
In any case this was one of the spirit nights of the year, when the boundaries between the worlds were thin, and evil spirits and witches were active.
Men were proverbially subject to fairy tricks and queer fancies, as portrayed by Shakespeare himself. In fact, during this season farmers’ animals and crops were particularly exposed to disease, as 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, represented with fire, and water.
This festival was important especially in the north of Europe, where the sun is weakest and the growing season the shortest.
And thus a common way to celebrate is to have a bonfire party.
After all, these northern people have emerged from some long, dark winters.
The idea was that the fire, smoke, and ashes would purify the environment, driving away evil spirits and protecting homes, families, livestock, and crops.
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 Ancient Rome, where this procedure was recommended also by Pliny the Elder. The second was to stimulate the now waning sun to remain as strong as possible through the rest of the growing and pasturing season, since the fire was looked upon as a miniature version of the sun.
Some farmers would light a fire on their land, and people would wander about, holding torches and lanterns, from one bonfire to another. If you jumped over a bonfire, presumably without lighting your pants on fire, you were guaranteed to have good luck for the coming year.
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 circle of the seasons, as well as the sun-disk, an ancient symbol not by chance often depicted in the form of a wheeled chariot being driven across the sky.
For example, in the Austrian state of Tyrol, torches and bonfires are lit up on mountainsides, which is a stunningly beautiful sight.
According to ancient Latvian legend, Midsummer’s Eve is spent awake by the glow of a bonfire and in pursuit of a magical fern flower—said to bring good luck—before cleansing one’s face in the morning dew.
During the Middle Ages, ferns were thought to flower and produce seed only once a year—at midnight on St. John’s Eve prior Midsummer’s Day. And, traditionally, this was a celebration accompanying the summer solstice.
Since the seeds couldn’t be seen, they were believed to be invisible and, according to lore, they could only be found on this day. The possessor of these “seeds” could understand the language of birds, find buried treasure, and have the strength of forty men.
Astrologically, the sun is entering Cancer, which is a water sign. Midsummer is not only a time of fire magic, but of water as well.
The watery aspect of the celebrations also related to the fertility that water fosters, and to its 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.
However, 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, named after the Saint 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 said:
“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 and some part of England, was the erection of a decorated pole in town called the “summer birch.” This was often in connection with fairs held in towns on that day. Villages competed to have the most beautiful pole, and often stole them from one another.
Residents of some areas of Ireland say that if you have something you wish to happen, you “give it to the pebble.” Carry a stone in your hand as you circle the Litha bonfire, and whisper your request to the stone. After your third turn around the fire, toss the stone into the flames.
In Egypt, the Midsummer season was associated with the flooding of the Nile River delta while, in South America, paper boats are filled with flowers, and then set on fire. They are then sailed down the river, carrying prayers to the gods.
In Sweden, Midsommar is a national holiday, second only to Christmas: all Swedes take to the countryside and make their own flower garland. This is then followed by a lunch of pickled herring with potatoes, dill and chives, drinking nubbe, basically vodka snaps, and dancing around a tall pole adored with fresh-picked flowers.
In Greece, locals re-enact a 2,500-year solstice tradition: They hike to the peak of Mt. Olympus.
In Britain, folks surround the ancient Stonehenge monument and dance and play drums to mark the Sun’s solstice peek, and peaking appearance, between slivers of rock.
In Kraków, Poland, girls make flower-and-herb wreaths and float them down the Wisla River. If a boy takes up a girl’s garland, the belief is that they will marry. (But be careful: If the wreath sinks, it is believed that the girl will die young!) On the other hand, wreaths that connect while afloat symbolize two girls’ lifelong friendship.
Also Italy has regional midsummer traditions: In Rome, for istance, some people eat snails as It is believed that these horned creatures will protect the consumer from devilry.
In northern Italy, cooks prepare dishes with aged balsamic vinegar, and this is the time when the year’s grapes are entering a critical stage of development.
It is on this night that the unripe walnuts are collected to make the nocino, the liquor of the witches, but be careful, you have to use a sickle with a wooden blade, never an iron one, otherwise you will attract all the curses of the witches! Always in Italy…there is another curious tradition linked to this night and involved white eggs and water…
On Midsummer’s Eve, Danes dine with family and friends, then celebrate with bonfires into which they throw effigies of witches made of hay.
In any case, 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.
However, 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 still today.
Images from web – Google Research