On A Midsummer's Night
Updated: May 15, 2022
"Let us speak of the revels which are accustomed to be made on St. John's Eve, of which there are three kinds. On St. John's Eve in certain regions the boys collect bones and certain other rubbish, and burn them, and therefrom a smoke is produced on the air. They also make brands and go about the fields with the brands. Thirdly, the wheel which they roll."
13th-century monk, Winchcomb, England
Today, June 20, is the astronomical summer solstice for those of us who live in the Northern Hemisphere. The word solstice is from the Latin sol - sun and sistere - to stand still. The word describes the apparent pause in the sun's seasonal movement before it reverses. At the Winter Solstice in December, the sun is at its lowest point in the sky. At the Summer Solstice, the sun reaches its highest point in the sky. (It is the opposite for our friends in the Southern Hemisphere.) Solstice celebrations - both summer and winter - have been observed across the globe and have played a major role in many cultures. Many of these traditions stretch back to humankind's Neolithic roots.
Henges, like the famous Stonehenge, and similar structures can be found throughout the world. Many align with the solstices, and though their exact purpose is still debated, their existence shows the awareness Neolithic people had of seasonal changes and the importance they had to their lives.
The summer solstice marked the new year for Ancient Egypt. The Ancient Egyptians connected the solstice and the first appearance of the bright star Sirius to the annual flooding of the Nile. The Nile floods were vital to the Egyptian food supply, and therefore these three events represented the "rebirth" of Egypt. Some Ancient Greek calendars, in particular Athens, also had the summer solstice has the start of the new year. An old Greek festival called Kronia was held and offerings were made to the god Kronos. Kronos began as a god of harvest but later was simply the father of Zeus. By classical times, the festival had less importance but one feature remained. During the time of the festival, all social restrictions were lifted, and slaves became equal to their masters. It was a time of great frivolity and revelry - an ancient version of Mardi Gras. This tradition of turning the social order upside down would eventually spread throughout Europe and attach itself to other festivals during the year.
The Romans celebrated the Vestalia, a festival honoring Vesta, goddess of the hearth. It was the only time of the year that married women could enter the temple of Vesta (which housed the Vestal virgins). The women brought offerings to ensure the blessings of the goddess for their families. The Ancient Chinese associated the summer solstice with the "yin" which is the feminine force. (The winter solstice was the "yang" - the masculine force.) Femininity and the hearth represent fertility, bounty, and birth. Ancient people used the time of the solstice to seek a plentiful harvest, successful hunting, and the good health of the community.
Throughout Northern Europe, the summer solstice was referred to as midsummer. The Celts, Germans, and Norse tracked time differently from the Mediterranean civilizations to their south. Their calendars tended to be based loosely on when events occurred, and the timing of those events could change from year to year. Midsummer, therefore, was not always celebrated exactly on the day of the summer solstice. It was called midsummer because, for these Northern people, the summer began near the time of the spring equinox. (The winter season began near the autumnal equinox.) The solstices were seen as a struggle between light and dark. In Ancient Britain, for example, there is the myth of the Oak King and the Holly King. The Oak King represents light and rules during the time the sun increases - the days get longer. The Holly King, representing the dark, takes over at the summer solstice and rules as the sun decreases - daylight hours grow shorter. By the Christian era, the summer solstice will also be perceived as representing the fragility of the world - for even a great diety such as the sun can become weak. The Catholic Church would use this as a contrast to the unchanging Jesus Christ when converting the pagan areas of Northern Europe.
Midsummer's Eve was one of three nights believed to be when spirits, both mischievous and evil, walked the Earth. (Hence the backdrop of Shakespeare's play, "A Midsummer's Night Dream".) The other two nights were at Halloween and May Eve (April 30). Because of this belief, fire became an essential part of many Midsummer traditions. Not only did fire represent the sun, but it was also regarded as a way to protect a person or place from malevolent spirits.
Individual fires were lit in homes or close to a person's fields so that the smoke and ash would drive off evil spirits from the house, crops, and livestock. Larger communal fires were built, if possible, atop a hill to represent the sun at its highest point. People leaped over smaller fires to help purify themselves and gain good fortune for the coming year. In some areas, a wheel was set afire and rolled downhill. The wheel is an old symbol used in many cultures to represent the yearly cycle as well as the sun itself.
When the Catholic Church came to Northern Europe, Midsummer was appropriated and turned into the Feast of St. John the Baptist. The day became fixed as June 24, the birthday of John the Baptist. The bible says John the Baptist was born six months before Jesus, and John the Baptist declares that he must decrease while Jesus must increase. This fits well with the solstices as the sun decreases beginning with midsummer and increases at midwinter when Jesus (the light) is born. (Echoes of the Oak King and Holly King.)
During the Middle Ages, church chroniclers noted that there were three different fires that were lit on St. John's Eve. One was made from wood only and called the wakefire - it is the fire one wakes to. Another was made entirely of bones and rubbish. This was called a "bonefire" or bonfire. The third was a combination of bone and wood and was referred to as St. John's Fire.
Water also played an essential role in many midsummer traditions. Water was another symbol of fertility. People dressed up wells, springs, and other sources of water with flowers. Many of these places came under the patronage of St. John the Baptist and were destinations for pilgrimages. During the Russian midsummer festival known as Kupala, girls would float flowers down a river, and the men would try to grab them in the hopes of obtaining romantic love. Bathing in the river was also part of this tradition.
The Ancient Celts referred to this time as Litha, meaning light. Modern-day druids and Neopagans have adopted this term for their summer solstice celebrations. They strive to return to what they believe is the original intent of many midsummer rituals. Since early in human history,we have observed the natural cycle of the sun, understood its importance in our survival, and grappled with the meaning of our own role in this cosmic wheel.
Want to learn more about comparative mythology across the human race? I recommend any work by Joseph Campbell. In particular, the four-book set called the Masks of God: Primitive Mythology, Oriental Mythology, Occidental Mythology, and Creative Mythology. I also recommend The Hero With A 1000 Faces.
Dated but a classic is James George Frazier's The Golden Bough.
From the Beast to the Blonde by Marina Warner delves into fairy tales and their meaning.