In England, midsummer or summer solstice is synonymous with Stonehenge and the midsummer celebration there with thousands of people gathering at the famous stone circle every year. In the early morning of June the 21st, they gather to see the sun rise over the so-called ‘Heel Stone’. Stonehenge is said to have been built exactly so, that on the longest day of the year the sun illuminates the center of the circle as it rises over the Heel Stone, and therefore we believe that prehistoric people knew about the importance of this day.
But…the sun does not rise exactly over the Heel Stone, but slightly next to it. And science tells us that since Stonehenge was built the position of the earth compared to the sun and the tilt of the earth has not changed so dramatically that it explains this anomaly. Archaeological research that has been done recently shows that there has probably been another standing stone next to the Heel Stone and that together they could have been a kind of gateway through which the sun shone with the mid-summer sunrise. On the other hand, archaeological investigations at Durrington Walls, the village close to Stonehenge at the time the stone circle was in use, say that feasts were celebrated in the winter time and not during midsummer. Research on bones of animals found near Durrington Walls and Stonehenge shows that the animals were slaughtered in December / January and that this was the time of festivities. Until now, there is no evidence of major summer celebrations. This contradicts that Stonehenge was an important meeting place for the summer solstice. Given the position of the Heel Stone and its missing companion, the theory now is that Stonehenge is built in such a way that it is aligned with both the sunrise on June 21st and the sunset of December 21st, the winter solstice, which could be seen through the largest trilithon (two standing stones with a horizontal stone on top). Unfortunately this winter solstice sunset trilithon no longer exists. So Stonehenge was built in such a way that both the summer and the winter solstice were taken into account. There are many theories about the position of Stonehenge with regard to the equinoxes and the position of the moon and stars during the year. If you want to know more about Stonehenge or want to know how and when you can visit Stonehenge, please read my blog about it.
Midsummer was an important day for pre-Christian cultures in Europe. In almost every European country we find the remains of this in celebrations, customs and folklore around midsummer. Another name for midsummer is summer solstice. June 21st is the longest day of the year on the northern hemisphere. The word solstice comes from the Latin solstitium or solsistere , which means stagnation or standstill. At the summer solstice, the sun seems to be at the northernmost point seen from the earth, above the Tropic of Cancer. From that moment the sun turns and starts travelling south again (it’s not really turning of course, but from our earthly point of view it looks like it is) and the days get shorter and the nights longer on the northern hemisphere. In the Netherlands and Belgium, the 2019 summer solstice will take place on 21 June at 5.54 p.m. CEST. In the UK this will be 3.54 p.m. GMT.
Druids call midsummer Alban Hefin and in modern paganism you often come across the name Litha . The name litha comes from the names that the Anglo-Saxon monk Bede described for the months of June and July. June was ‘se Ærra Liþa’ , the early litha month or for litha , and July was ‘se Æfterra Liþa’ , the late litha month or after litha . Our name June comes from the Roman goddess Juno.
When we dive into the pagan celebration of Midsummer, it is difficult to find reliable sources that tell us how people used to celebrate the summer solstice in pre-Christian times. We do know that solstice celebrations have been held for centuries. From Scandinavia we know quite a lot about how, for example, the Vikings regarded and celebrated midsummer. There are also writings from clergy and city councils that call midsummer festivals ‘pagan festivals’ and therefore banned them. But most midsummer celebrations and customs are Christianized and linked to Saint John the Baptist. Every saint has his or her own name or feast and that of John the Baptist is the 24th of June, St John’s Day. In many countries in Europe, midsummer celebrations are held on June 24th instead of June 21st. When we look at the Christian symbolism behind this, we find a lot of symbolism we also find in pre-Christian Europe so it is very well possible that this dates from a time before Christianity. The most important person in the New Testament is Jesus. Jesus symbolizes the light returning to earth and the people. According to the Bible, Jesus was born on December 25th, close to the festival that pagans called Joel, Yule, or Midwinter, celebration of the returning of the light. But in order for light to return, it must turn dark. John the Baptist was born half a year before Jesus, on June 24th, according to the Bible. It is written in the Bible that he said that he, John, was not the Messiah and that he had to decrease so that Jesus could increase. This way John the Baptist became the counterpart of Jesus in the liturgical year. Where Jesus’s birth took place around midwinter and the conception, according to the Bible around the spring equinox on March 25th, John was born around midsummer and his cconception was near the autumnal equinox on September 24th. So Jesus and John are perfect counterparts in the solar year and both symbolize the coming and going of light and dark. In this we find the same symbolism as in many pagan mythologies with others taking the place of these two men representing light and darkness, summer and winter. Nowadays we know that Jesus was not born in December and this symbolism can be traced back to an older symbolism that had to be christianized. The pagan symbolism of summer and winter that defeat each other every year. Oak King and Holly King, the underworld and the world of the living, dark and light, cold and warm, death and life, etc.
As mentioned earlier, the day of the summer solstice is an important day in many countries inside and outside Europe. In Europe, especially in Scandinavia and the Baltic states, midsummer is a national celebration. In most countries in Europe these festivals take place on June 24th and not on the official day of the solstice. However, many of the customs around the summer solstice have their roots in the older, pagan, history of Europe. A widespread use in Europe and in Britain is the burning of midsummer bonfires. In almost every country where midsummer is or was being celebrated, lighting large bonfires, often on hills, is an important way to celebrate midsummer. People dance, eat and drink together and sing around these fires. In his book ‘Deutsche Mythologie’, Jacob Grimm describes the custom of setting a wagon wheel on fire and rolling it off a hill. This is also known from Ostara in some areas. In Dartmoor this was a summer solstice custom, the aim was to roll the wheel down the hill into the river. If it succeeded, it would bring good luck. During the reformation, midsummer bonfire customs died out in many areas. It led to riots and clashes between protestants and people who wanted light bonfires, so they were banned in many towns. Later, in the 18th and 19th century midsummer fires were lit again every year. Late 19th and early 20th century this came to an end, mainly because it was too risky, town councils (and insurance companies) were afraid it could cause townfires. Nowadays there are still places where fires are lit during midsummer. The best known is the Golowan Festival in Cornwall. This is based on the ancient tradition of midsummer bonfires and processions. It is celebrated during a number of days, with the main event being Mazey Day. A parade is held with traditional ‘serpent dances’, a dance in which people dance in a long line and walkthrough ‘gates’ made by the dancers. It looks like people are sliding through the streets like a serpent. Another saint who plays a role during this festival together with St John is St Peter. He is the patron saint of fishermen and his feast day is on June 29th, together with St Paul. Most villages in Cornwall are fishing villages, so it is not surprising that they also honour their patron saint during these celebrations.
Midsummer was also the day when many herbs were thought to be at their peak when it comes to magic and healing power, according to folklore from England, Germany, Denmark and Sweden. Traditionally this is the day many herbs had to be picked in order to be able to use them for magical, protective and medicinal means. Especially St John’s Wort, yarrow and mugwort were magical midsummer herbs. St John’s Wort (Hypericum perforatum) usually blooms on St John’s Day and was traditionally picked on June 24th and hung in doorways and windows to protect houses and stables. Everyone who works with herbs knows that if you put St John’s Wort flowers in oil, the oil turns bright red. This represented the colour of John the Baptist’s blood after his decapitation. The Medieval Order of the Knights Hospitaller (the Knights of the Hospital of St John of Jerusalem), used this St. John’s Wort oil to heal the wounds of people who were injured during the crusade. Yarrow (Achillea millefolium) was burned to ward off evil magic during midsummer. John the Baptist is said to have worn a belt of mugwort (Artemisia vulgaris) in the desert to protect him from exhaustion. Picked on the day of St John mugwort would protect against all kinds of evil and dark magic. A crown made from mugwort protected the wearer against possession by evil. The old name St John’s herbs not only refers to the herb Hypericum perforatum (St John’s Wort), but to several herbs that flowered during midsummer. All kinds of herbs and flowers were used in bunches, wreaths, headdresses and other decorations at the midsummer celebrations. All these midsummer herbs were credited with very strong and magical powers. In Tudor England it was common to decorate doors and passages with birch branches and fennel during the summer solstice.
Welldressing, or decorating sacred springs, is also a well-known summer solstice custom. The Christianized explanation for this is that it recalls how John baptized people (including Jesus) in the Jordan River, but the use of honouring and decorating springs is older than this and played an important role in various nature-based religions. The night before midsummer is a magical night. This night inspired Shakespeare for his magical ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’, but we read about this in other stories too. It is supposed to be the most romantic night of the year and Oberon, the fairy king, gives a recipe for a magical love potion in in ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream‘. Cover someone’s eyelids with this potion in the night of midsummer and this person will madly fall in love with the first creature he or she lays eyes on.
‘Yet mark I where the bolt of Cupid fell:
It fell upon a little western flower,
Before milk-white, now purple with love’s wound,
And maidens call it love-in-idleness.
Fetch me that flower; the herb I shew’d thee once:
The juice of it on sleeping eye-lids laid
Will make or man or woman madly dote
Upon the next live creature that sees it.’
If you want to see a fairy of ‘fae’, go sit in a stone circle on midsummer night accoring to an Irish legend. Be careful that you are not taken to the fairy realm, because getting out is difficult. A good protection is to wear your jacket inside out, which confuses the fairies. And if you are taken, do not eat or drink anything in the realm of the fairies, because if you do, you will have to stay there forever. On the Shetland Islands you run even more risk, because the selkies try to lure people into the water on midsummer. This is quite similar to folklore in Iceland, where they believe that you can talk to animals, especially horses and seals, during midsummer. Washing your face with the dew on midsummer morning or, even better, rolling through it, is also a well-known practice in many Northern European countries. Here in the Netherlands, where I live, we go ‘Dauwtrappen’ (‘trample the dew’) on Ascension Day, this goes back to the old folklore around morning dew and its magical properties.