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Seren Derwydd

The Old Ways - Midsummer

by Doug and Sandy Kopf

The Sun reaches the peak of its powers at Midsummer, The Summer Solstice, on approximately June 21. This is the longest day of the year and the shortest night. Midsummer marks the turning point of the year, the end of the Bright, the beginning of the Dark. The Waning Year begins. Pliny the Elder, a Roman naturalist who lived from 23-79 CE said of the Sun: "He furnishes the world with light and removes darkness; he obscures and he illuminates the rest of the stars; he regulates in accord with nature’s precedent the changes of the seasons and the continuous rebirth of the year; he dissipates the gloom of heaven and even calms the storm clouds of the mind of man ."

The movement of the Sun in it’s Cycle is all-important to Pagans, as we practice the religion of Nature.

This Festival, known as Litha in many Traditions of the Craft, is called ‘Feill-Sheathain’ in Wales and the name ‘Alban Hefin’, also used by some Craft Traditions, may be Pictish in origin (connected to the 9th century kingdom of Alban, which combined Scots and Picts). This was also the time of the Roman Festival, Vestalia. The word solstice comes from the Latin term ‘solstitium’, which translates into English as ‘sun standing still’.

Now, astrologically, the Sun enters Cancer, a Water sign. Primitives believed that as the Sun set ‘into the sea’, its flames were extinguished. In Ancient Egypt, the Midsummer holiday marked the flooding of the Nile, and was celebrated as the New Year. The festival was held in honor of Isis, the Star of the Sea, the Lady of the Moon, Who Controls the Tides.

As with the other festivals, with the coming of Christianity, the Priests of the Church were unable to convince the people to give up the old traditions, so they incorporated them into their own practices. Midsummer is now known as St. John’s Day or Johnsmas, the birthday of St. John, the Baptist. It has been suggested that the reason this holiday was chosen for St. John can be found in a biblical quote attributed to him: "He must Increase, but I must Decrease," thus associating John the Baptist with Decrease, i.e., the Waning Sun.

In our own group, the color of Summer Solstice is gold, and a golden time it is. The Sun’s rays at their peak radiate and the world is bathed in a golden glow.

School is out, and the streets and parks are filled with children. The highways abound with vacationers on their way to the beaches and mountains. They are out to ‘beat the heat.’ Winter’s icy chill is long forgotten and all are aware of the power of the Sun, nearer now than at any other time.

The customs and traditions associated with Midsummer are many and varied. This is partly because, according to the climate of the area, many of Beltane’s rites were performed at about the time of the Solstice. For example, in Sweden, Germany and even in some parts of Wales, the Maypole dance is performed on June 23, and is called the Midsummer Tree or Midsummer Birch. In Wales, the branches of the tree are cut and used to decorate the pole. The dancing, beginning at noon on Midsummer Eve, is said to have continued for nine days in ancient times.

The popular book (and motion picture), ‘The Wicker Man’, made many people familiar with the wicker giant burnt as a Sacrifice. This was a fictional account of a Beltane rite, however, according to Frazer (‘The Golden Bough’), these giants were part and parcel of the Summer Solstice rites of the Druids, Scots, English, French, Germans and Bohemians. A member of our group, Joanna B., who has thoroughly researched Celtic folklore, tells us that giants, in general, were associated with Midsummer, as were dragons. In some places, whole families of giant effigies were carried through the streets, and in Norwich, England, the Tuesday before Midsummer is called Snap-Dragon Day, and features a procession led by a giant dragon.

The Midsummer Sacrifice (the Sacred King who dies as the Sun begins to wane)is a custom that was common to many cultures. It is our theory that, in England and other places, the season of the Sacrifice began on May 29, the holiday now known as Whitsun. There is much evidence to be found amongst the graffiti in English churches that the Whitsun King became the Sacrifice at Midsummer.

Bonfires can be expected at this festival, since this is the day of the Sun’s highest energy, and from now on His Power will wane. Fires were lit both as a tribute to the Sun and as a contribution by the people of the energy from their own fires, to keep the Sun’s fire burning longer. Wheels, representing the Sun, were traditionally sent flaming downhill at Summer Solstice, showing the decline of the Sun’s rays in the months to come. It was said that if the Wheel kept burning all the way down, there would be an abundant harvest, but if the fire went out, the crops would fail. This is still done on St. John’s Day in many parts of the world and, at least from one part of Yorkshire, we have first hand testimony that it is an accepted part of today’s Midsummer celebration!

The all-night vigil was common to many cultures at Midsummer. Some were observing the stars, as in the Egyptian temples, but there were many other, more personal, reasons. In the British Isles, it was believed that the spirits of those who would die within the year could be seen walking abroad on Midsummer Eve. Many people would stay awake all night to prevent their souls from wandering. It was also a night for unmarried women to keep vigil, hoping to be visited by the spirits of their future husbands.

As at the Winter Solstice, the ‘Golden Bough’, mistletoe, is sacred at Summer Solstice, when it is in bloom. The Druids gathered the Golden Bough on Midsummer Eve, cutting it with a golden scythe, and catching it in a cloth, never allowing it to touch the ground. They believed that mistletoe could open all locks, cure all ills, and was a lightning conductor. In Sweden, mistletoe is believed to be possessed of mystical qualities and, in Wales, a sprig of mistletoe gathered on Midsummer Eve and placed under the pillow is said to bring prophetic dreams. This is seen as the second of the three ‘Spirit Nights’ and is a good time for all forms of divination. Mugwort is sacred at this time and vervain (and as a later addition, St. John’s Wort). It is traditional to burn nine different herbs in the midsummer fires. The herbs burned are mugwort, plantain, watercress, cock-spur grass, mayweed, stinging nettle, apple, thyme and fennel. Nine are burned because nine represents a cycle of completion.

A lovely and unusual custom, practiced in South America and in Austria on the Danube River, is the ‘burning boat’ or ‘candle boat’. These paper boats are filled with flowers, set afire and sailed off on the ocean or river, to carry prayers to the Goddess. The strangest thing about the ‘candle boat’ is that the custom should appear in two places so far separate, with no explanation or connection. If you are near a body of water, this would be a wonderful addition to your own Midsummer festivities.

We were given the following information when we called the Public Library research department, regarding Summer Solstice. The interpretations that accompany the chant were given us along with it:

‘The Witches in West Cornwall, England, were said (by the Christians, we will assume) to ‘renew their pact with the Devil’ on Midsummer Eve, at Midnight. They would circle seven times around the fire, holding hands and chanting:

Green is gold -- (nature’s first green is now gold)
Fire is wet -- (candle boats sailed)
Fortunes told -- (fortunes cast)
Dragon’s met! -- (St. George)

They would then separate at one point (the rest still holding hands), and begin a Sunwise spiral dance.’

We found this particularly interesting because the ‘candle boats sailed’ indicates yet another area where this tradition was observed, but ‘green is gold’ probably refers to the mistletoe, which is gold at Midsummer, and it is doubtful that St. George had anything to do with ‘dragons met’, considering the giant dragons we mentioned earlier. The chant and dance are fun, though, and well worth trying. Speaking of Midsummer dancing, it was also believed that skeletons rose up from the roots of oak trees and danced around them at the moment of the Summer Solstice!

By the way, Summer Solstice is still observed publicly by modern English Druids, both at Boadicca’s Tomb, Parliament Hills, London, and at Stonehenge. All night vigils take place on both sites, and at Stonehenge, there is a second celebration at Noon.

Midsummer is not forgotten in today’s world, although it may be called by a different name. The bonfires are lit, vigils kept, cartwheels sent blazing down hills. Candle boats are sailed in Brazil and in Florida, as well as on the Danube. When you light your fire and stay up throughout the night, you are celebrating in the way our ancestors did. Have a wonderful Midsummer and Blessed Be, followers of The Old Ways!

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