And a Happy Midsummer to you all…

Midsummer isn’t much celebrated in Britain these days. There are a few revived festivals around – in Cornwall, especially – but most people’s ‘celebration’ is restricted to a TV news clip of folks at Stonehenge having a knees-up, courtesy of English Heritage.

Summer Solstice, Stonehenge copyright A Dunn

Summer Solstice, Stonehenge copyright A Dunn

Most of Britain’s midsummer festivities – including Cumbria’s – were dying out by the end of the 17th century1, although there is evidence that they lingered in the north of the county into the mid 19th century2. Midsummer festivals are still very common across Europe; just about everywhere has some history of it, but it remains second only to Christmas Day in Scandinavia and northeastern Europe.They were known not as ‘midsummer’ but as St. John’s Eve3 festivals – having been re-named by the church in an attempt to Christianise an older tradition – and usually took place not on the solstice (21st June), but on the date regarded as midsummer’s eve in Roman times, 23rd June. The fact that church authorities were well aware that they’d adopted an earlier custom is very clear when the 7th-century St. Eligius was recorded as saying, ‘no Christian on the feast of Saint John or the solemnity of any other saint performs solestitia 4 or dancing or leaping or diabolical chants’5.

Modern observers are often keen to associate midsummer with the Celts but the places where the festival has retained its vibrancy to this day are the ‘Viking’ Scandinavian and the Baltic states. But midsummer is equally well recorded, if not still celebrated, in Ireland, where it is unequivocally linked with a named ancient goddess who pre-dates the Vikings by many hundreds of years. Perhaps this is one of the reasons it was hard to drive out of Cumbria – the double whammy of over-layered Celtic and Viking traditions.The Wetheral Midsummer Wakes continued well into the 19th century. A bonfire was lit, and young men took long lengths of cloth dipped in tallow, and lit them in the fire. They then paraded around the village, holding the flaming brands above their heads.6

The common theme of all midsummer festivals, ancient and modern, is the bonfire. Almost all of them require young men to jump through the flames three, seven or nine times; all numbers with ancient magical associations. Folklore keenies will have noticed that this sounds very similar to the Celtic cattle-purification rite of the ‘need-fire’.

St. John's Wort copyright Michael H Lemmer

St. John’s Wort copyright Michael H Lemmer

There were games and outdoor sports, and women gathered plants and flowers to decorate their doorways and hearths. The plants chosen varied by country, but a common one in Britain was, not surprisingly, St. John’s Wort. The plant is named for the festival, not the other way round; its botanical name is ‘hypericum’ from the Greek, ‘hypereikon’, an ‘eikon’ being a ghost or other spirit. ‘Hyper’ means ‘over’ or ‘above’, giving a combined meaning conveying the ability to fend off spirits.7For here is another midsummer tradition; like Samhain/Halloween, it was considered a time of year when magic was powerful, and ghosts, ghouls, demons, witches and faeries – depending on the culture and time – might be abroad. The greenery around the home was a talisman against their influence.

The third major element of midsummer festivities was divination, and love divination in particular. In Irish tradition there is a Celtic goddess and member of the Tuatha dé Danann, who, over the centuries, came to be regarded as a faery queen. Áine – whose name means ‘light – was represented by the sun and the moon, and looked after human love, wealth and well-being. Rituals in her honour were held on midsummer and required a bonfire. Familiar? Of course, there’s no evidence whatsoever that she was known on this side of the pond, but perhaps we shared a similar heritage.

Details of love divination are thin on the ground in Cumbria, but other western counties shared a tradition known as the ‘midsummer rose’. A woman picked a rose and pressed it in paper. If she didn’t check the rose until Christmas Day, she would find it was still fresh; she then pinned it to her bosom, and the first man to snatch it up would be her future husband.8

Castlerigg, view south

Castlerigg, view south

So how far do midsummer festivals go back? Forever, possibly, or possibly not. Stonehenge, and Cumbria’s own stone circles9 – especially Long Meg, Swinside and Castlerigg – are around 5,000 years old and have stones that seem to align with various solstices. Nowadays, prehistorians tend to think that midwinter, rather than midsummer, was the major festival of the year, but it’s hard to tell as anything that lines up with midwinter sunset also aligns with midsummer sunrise. So our ideas of druid-type people worshipping at the same places into the mists of history might be a bit out of synch with reality… or they might not. But there’s no doubt that we were doing something at midsummer in early times, as we’ve already seen – we just don’t know when we started.

The beginning of the end for midsummer celebrations in Britain was the 17th-century civil war. St. John’s Eve had, ironically, been heavily associated with the over-the-top symbolism and ritualism of the pre-Reformation Catholic church, and was labelled a ‘papish superstition’. It limped on in geographical outposts without a strong tradition of puritanism – Cornwall, Ireland, and, to a lesser extent, Cumberland – but largely disappeared elsewhere.

But today the sun is shining up here in Cumbria, and I say: A Happy Midsummer to you all.

© Diane McIlmoyle 20.06.12

  1. Amongst others, Machel said in 1692 that midsummer bonfires were no longer lit in Westmorland. See The Folklore of the Lake District by Marjorie Rowling (1976).
  2. Dr. Littleton, Bishop of Carlisle, said that they continued until the mid 19th century. See The Folklore of the Lake District by Marjorie Rowling (1976).
  3. John the Baptist was believed to have been born six months before Jesus, hence midsummer more or less fell on his birthday.
  4. Pagan summer solstice rites.
  5. Vita of St. Eligius (7th century)
  6. See The Folklore of the Lake District by Marjorie Rowling (1976).
  7. A secondary meaning of ‘eikon’ is the root of ‘icon’; this was said to be the reason that in some countries, painted icons of saints were dressed with St. John’s wort. I’m no etymologist, but that sounds a bit… thin.
  8. Oxford Dictionary of English Folklore by Jacqueline Simpson and Steve Roud (2000).
  9. Prehistoric Cumbria by David Barraclough (2010)

There’s a nice blog post on Midsummer at Cumbria’s neighbour, the Isle of Man, at the Manx witch blog.

And another one here, which raises the point about there being more evidence of midwinter use at stone circles, at the Prehistoric Shamanism blog.

Sadly, this is one of the posts that has been madly misinterpreted by someone who hoped to cut and paste this information to write a booklet on local folklore. I don’t know whether the misinterpretation was deliberate, wishful thinking, or difficulty in understanding, but her write-up is nonsensical. And contrary to assertions, she didn’t have my permission to take this blog’s name in vain. Unfortunately, this is what happens when you run a blog… 😦

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9 thoughts on “And a Happy Midsummer to you all…

  1. Awesome post! Glad to know you made a reference to Goddess Áine…quite associated to fertility, love, and astral lights (thus related to the sun and the moon) and healing…. Due to her connection with midsummer rites, it is possible that Áine and Grian may share a dual-goddess too!
    keep up the sacred flame!
    Bright blessings ☼

  2. Glad you liked it! We’re not really sure how much mythology Cumbria shared with Ireland, but it would be nice to think that we did, given we’re not that far apart.

    Thanks for coming over, as ever 🙂

  3. Just catching up with another interesting post. However midsummer passed me by…actually summer has passed me by! I think reviving some of these festivals would be a good thing. Samhain is seeing a revival in one of our local villages and you do see occasionally mid-summer or solstice walks available. We ought to get back in touch with the seasons.

    • I agree whole-heartedly, Carol. For lots of reasons. I do love it that small children often have a better sense of the passing of the seasons than we do, simply because they have seasonal crafts and events at primary school – the last remnants, perhaps, of the festivities every village used to have!

      Thank you so much for coming over and I hope we get a teensy hint of summer weather soon, too 🙂

  4. Pingback: Happy Midsummer! | Esmeralda's Cumbrian History & Folklore

  5. Informative post, as always!

    I’m interested in the way that Christian festivals have this ambiguous relationship with both lunar and solar calendars, lunar from its Jewish heritage because of the need to date Easter from the first Sunday after the full moon after the spring equinox (but of course you know all this!), solar because of the Roman calendar with its fixed dates. Once Christmas was settled on midwinter’s day (Sol Invictus for the Romans) that determined a few other dates, such as March 25th for the Annunciation (nine months before Christ’s birth) and midsummer for St John (because he was conceived six months before Jesus, if I remember correctly).

    On the other hand, I haven’t yet worked out the historical processes in which North European traditions influenced the setting of other key dates in the Church’s calendar, most notably All Souls and All Saints/Hallows and their relationship to Celtic Samhain via Hallowe’en. I expect you’ve done a post on that already…

    • Ah, well, dateology (if that’s not a word, it should be) is always a hot topic. It’s become such a commonplace that the christian festivals are all appropriated pre-christian ones – and I certainly think that’s the case with midsummer – but it doesn’t always wash. We also tend to assume that modern festivals’ cultural associations are those inherited from the previous ones – Halloween/Samhain being king there – but we don’t know that’s definitely true; it could be that we’ve got into the habit of extrapolating the ancient from the medieval. There’s plenty of reason to support the idea that midwinter was the festival associated with the dead in prehistoric times, for pretty good, nature-driven reasons, supported by archaeology. And then we have a nasty habit of assuming that pre-Roman peoples had homogenous and unchanging beliefs. That can’t be true.

      One day I’ll do a really good, heavy, etymologically/archaeologically-driven (as opposed to historical and antiquarian!) analysis of Samhain and midwinter. Or perhaps Ronald Hutton will get round to doing it for me 🙂

      Thanks for coming over! Your input is always appreciated 🙂

      • Looking forward to that etymologically / archaeologically-driven analysis. And I must get round to getting and reading Hutton’s Stations of the Sun, while it’s some time since I visited The Pagan Religions of the Ancient British Isles; time for a re-read and fuller review I think.

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