Midsummer is the most natural time of the year for a celebration marked by simple pleasure and unaffected joy. The midwinter rites of Christmastide, the diametric opposite of midsummer on the face of the annular calendar, have an air of fortification and remembrance – illumination kindled to hold back the dark and nurture a hope for solar renaissance. If midwinter is the time when the seeds of light are sown, midsummer is the moment when they flower to their fullest extent. The sun is at its apogee, its long arc across the sky vaulting to its utmost height. The earth, spinning through its axially tilting orbital dance, presents its northern hemisphere to bask in solar warmth, bringing out its summer colours – bright grassy greens and buttercup yellows, speedwell blues and poppy reds. Darkness has been cast aside, compressed into a few brief hours (or dispelled altogether if you travel far enough north into the Scottish isles or Scandinavian wilds). The triumph of light, of the spirit of life, is to be rejoiced in unreservedly, no matter how brief its moment of ascendance.
As with midwinter rites, including Christmas day itself, there is a slight misalignment with the precise moment of solstice division into maximal periods of light and dark. The summer solstice falls on the 21st June. The first rays of the rising sun shafting through the megaliths of Stonehenge onto its central ‘altar’ stone are greeted by Druid revivalists, rooted in 18th century reinventions. Thousands of bystanders respond to the morning solar radiance with the glinting digital scintillations of their mobile cameras and phones – a very modern form of worship, attracting a mass congregation, if only for this one day. The antiquarian dream of Stonehenge as a solar temple of the Druids is one which enchanted William Blake amongst others, as the image of a megalithic trilithon gateway for the giants of old Albion in his illuminated book Jerusalem attests. Mere fancy it may be, but it’s one which still exerts considerable influence on the contemporary imagination, mired in a materialistic present and yearning for a sense of connection with a magical past.
Traditional midsummer celebrations have not taken place at the time of the solstice, however, but three days later on the 24th, St John’s Day, and even more so on its preceding eve. This is the date which has come to be officially designated midsummer’s day. Further festivities were held on the joint saint day of Peter and Paul, the 28th. Many must have simply bridged the two festival days with continuous merriment. And remember, this is the time of Glastonbury weather (the Glastonbury festival being a modern manifestation of midsummer revels), so suggesting alternative dates for a festival which was of its essence an outdoors celebration was an eminently pragmatic hedging of bets.
There’s really only one way to celebrate the supremacy of the sun and whatever divinities are associated with it: build up huge fires on the high places of the landscape to reflect some of its flaring, mesmerically roiling photosphere back at it; to emulate some of its warmth, that radiance which makes the heart lighter, the spirit more buoyant. Poets have recognised the spiritual refreshment afforded by this time of light, its countermanding of wintry melancholy. Matthew Arnold, in Thyrsis, his elegy to his friend Arthur Hugh Clough, asks of those who suggest their spirit departs with the falling blossom ‘too quick despairer, wherefore wilt thou go?/Soon will the high Midsummer pomps come on,/Soon will the musk carnations break and swell,/Soon shall we have gold-dusted snapdragon,/Sweet-William with his homely cottage smell,/And stocks in fragrant blow;/Roses that down the alleys shine afar,/And open, jasmine-muffled lattices,/And groups under the dreaming garden-trees,/And the full moon, and the white evening-star.’
John Clare, the farm labourer poet, who suffered desperately from the depredations of depression, nevertheless revelled in the ecstatic moods of summer: ‘Now swathy summer by rude health embrowned/Precedence takes of rosy fingered spring/And laughing joy with wild flowers prankt and crowned/A wild and giddy thing/With health robust from every care unbound/Comes on zephers wing/And cheers the toiling clown.
Happy as holiday enjoying face/Loud tongued and ‘merry as a marriage bell’/They lightsome step sheds joy in every place/And where the troubled dwell/Thy witching smiles weans them of half their cares/And from thy sunny spell/They greet joy unawares’.
Accounts from as far back as the 4th century in the old French province of Acquitaine record midsummer fire festivals in which blazing wheels were set rolling down steep hillsides – the solar disc turning on its tumbling course. In mid 19th century Buckfastleigh in Devon a wheel with rim and spokes wrapped in straw was set ablaze and rolled from the heights on midsummer eve, accompanied on its fiery descent by villagers pelting alongside, attempting to steer it with sticks to a steamy dousing in the river Dart. If they succeeded in their endeavour, good fortune would prevail over the coming months, and a good harvest guaranteed. If not, they’d had a wild time and could repair breathlessly to the nearest alehouse to drown their thirst.
Font in Bratton Clovelly church, DevonThe representation of the sun as a wheel was common in medieval times. It symbolised both its daily progress across the sky and the procession of the solar year with its seasonal transformations. Solar wheels can be traced on many Norman fonts, often the oldest objects in rural parish churches. Like many other pagan symbols or allegorical beasts, they have been translated into a Christian idiom. This marked a process of continuity and fusion as much as an imposition of alien values. It was the cataclysmic historical and cultural rift of the Reformation which brought this continuum of belief and practice to a violent iconoclastic end.
John AubreyThe fires of medieval belief and ritual were increasingly stamped out, both literally and figuratively. The antiquarian John Aubrey wrote, in his 1688 volume Remains of Gentilisme and Judaisme (a pioneering folkloric work), ‘still in many places on St John’s night they make Fires on the Hills: but the Civill Warres comeing on have putt all these Rites or customes quite out of fashion’. Nevertheless, the tradition lived on the further reaches of the isles.
Hilltop fires were lit on St John’s Eve across England and Eastern and Northern Scotland and in the Northern Isles (less so in the Celtic lands of Wales, Ireland and the Western Isles). In Scotland, the sun’s progress would be ritually re-enacted by processing around the fields three times sunwise (ie clockwise) with blazing torches held aloft, the crops and herds thereby blessed. Bonfires were started as the sun slowly sank below the horizon, staining the sky with its tangerine and vermillion afterglow. In the Northern Isles, Johnsmas fires were built from varied materials including heather, fish bones, peat, flowers, seaweed and feathers.
In Westernmost Cornwall, chains of fires were lit tracing the rugged, curving concave coastline of Mount’s Bay from Penzance to the Lizard. Cornish midsummer fire traditions were revived by the Old Cornwall Society in 1929, colouring them with druidic romance whose nationalist elements lent the proceedings a curiously formal, civic air. Beginning atop the tor of Carn Brea, the site of a Neolithic settlement, the fires are blessed in the old Cornish language and flowers arranged in the shape of a sickle thrown into the flames by a local girl designated the Lady of the Flowers. The sickle anticipates the harvest whilst the ceremony is a decorous and fragrant reminder of a more elementally superstitious past when a bountiful harvest required the offering of human life. Antiquarians in previous centuries dreamed of detecting remnants of the wicker giant sacrifices which Julius Caesar claimed to have witnessed in the Gaul of the 1st century BC in midsummer fire rituals, but there was really no evidence to support the fabric of their fancies.
Sir Benjamin Stone's picture of the Whalton Baal Fire rites in 1903The Baal Fire at Whalton in Northumberland is lit on the village green on the 4th July, harking back to the old midsummer’s eve date before the rift between the Julian calendar and its Gregorian replacement opened up in September 1752, a faultline which swallowed up 11 days (precious moments guarded by the Paladin of the Lost Hour in Harlan Ellison’s short story). It’s a celebration which can lay claim to real continuity, perhaps even with a pre-Reformation tradition. The word baal could derive from the Celtic bel, meaning the sun, or light, or from the Anglo-Saxon bael, meaning fire (which is also the root of Beltane). Fuel for the fire is carried by hand to the place of burning, and children dance around the stacked tinder before it is set alight as the evening shadows gather. Couples take over from the children, dancing around the flames and later leaping over the crackling embers, as was the way with midsummer fires across the land. Leaping the fire and darting through its smoke, breathing in and wreathing the body with its heady woodscent aroma was an act of purification and invited good fortune.
A Shropshire monk writing in the 14th century described the ‘three manner of fires’ which were made on St John’s eve. ‘One is of clean bones and no wood, and is called a bonfire; another is of clean wood and no bones, and is called a wakefire, for men sitteth and wake by it; the third is made of bones and wood, and is called St John’s Fire’. The bonefire was a purifying conflagration, its evil stench and acrid smoke driving away malevolent forces and keeping pestilence at bay. The wake fire was the sociable circle of warmth around which people would gather for the night. St John’s Fire was a ritual blaze with a rather more solemn ambience.
It wasn’t just in rural areas that fires were started. The estimable John Stow, Elizabethan tailor and self-educated antiquarian (who we’ve encountered in previous Calendar Customs explorations) recorded his good-humoured observations of London midsummer celebrations in his invaluable and highly readable 1598 masterpiece Survey of London. ‘In the month of June and July, on the vigils of festival days, and on the same festival days in the evening after the sun setting, there were usually made bonfires in the streets, every man bestowing wood or labour towards them: the wealthier sort also, before their doors near to the said bonfires, would set out tables on the vigils, furnished with sweet bread and good drink, and on the festival days with meats and drinks plentifully, whereunto they would invite their neighbours and passengers also to sit and be merry with them in great familiarity, praising God for His benefits bestowed on them. These were called bonfires as well of good amity amongst neighbours before at controversy, were there, by the labour of others, reconciled, and made of bitter enemies loving friends; and also for the virtue that a great fire hath to purge the infection of the air’. As well as re-iterating the idea of fire and its smoke as a purgative and purifying force before the potentially arid and pestilential days of the long summer, Stow gets to the heart of the matter here; a communal fire acts as a focal point for gathering around and generates good spirits and an amiable atmosphere. It’s this as much as any symbolic, spiritual or magical purpose which explains the widespread popularity of midsummer fire ceremonies over so many centuries. Even an 18th century protestant cleric such as Henry Bourne, writing in his 1725 volume Antiquitates Vulgares, recognised the fundamental innocence of such impulses (unless taken too far, of course, he felt compelled to add): ‘when they (the fires) are only kindled as tokens of joy, to excite innocent mirth and diversion, and promote peace and good neighbourhood, they are lawful and innocent, and deserve no censure. And therefore when on Midsummer-Eve, St Peter’s Eve, and some other times, we make bonfires before shops and houses there would be no harm in doing so, was it not that some continue their diversion to too late hours, and others are guilty of excessive drinking’.
Fires burning in the streets of London naturally cast the looming shadow of King Mob, summoning the potential spirit of its mutinously grinning collective visage. It’s perhaps no surprise that the city watch played an increasingly prominent role in the medieval and Tudor periods. From the 14th century onwards, they were required to parade through the streets in their gayest finery, carrying flaming ‘cresset’ buckets on poles slung over their shoulders. No such finery for the black-clad, baton-wielding riot police who set about the latterday travellers intent on holding a free Solstice festival in the fields around Stonehenge in 1985, a one-sided altercation which became known as the Battle of the Beanfield (although ‘rout’ would be a more accurate description).
The Salisbury Giant and sidekick Hob-NobMidsummer parades grew in size and theatricality throughout the Tudor period, with passing pageants featuring creatures and characters from biblical and national mythologies. Giants were prominent (as they would be) along with saints, dragons, hobby horses, Moorish kings, Pluto, the Roman god of the underworld, unicorns and Jesus Christ himself, all accompanied by minstrels and morris dancers and brought to moving picture life in the pixillating flicker of a hundred smoking torches. Such pageantry was another victim of Reformation and Civil War. As early as 1533, Henry VIII’s Royal Council was looking to curtail these potentially rebellious gatherings, and in 1539 he succeeded in suppressing the annual London march for the remaining 8 years of his reign. It was never the same again and soon faded away completely, a fate which befell similar parades across the country. A mouldering remnant of an effigy was discovered in 1844 in the backrooms of a Tailor’s Guildhall in Salisbury; a giant which once bestrode the midsummer parades, now a tattered, dimineshed shade of its former self. It now lies quiescent in the city museum.
Midsummer parades have been reinvented in some areas, though, notably so in Penzance. The Mazey Day festival has been fashioned around the old Golowan (St John’s Eve) celebrations. At midnight on St John’s Eve, a Penglaz ‘obby ‘oss is brought out, a flower-garlanded and gaily beribboned horse’s skull held aloft on a pole, its empty sockets filled with the night’s shadows, chomping incisors flashing an enamelled grin in the torchlight. A female ‘teaser’ leads it in a snaking serpent dance down to the quayside, the townspeople twisting and turning in its mesmerically swaying wake.
Midsummer is not one of the festival periods during which the worlds of faerie are at a perigee point of proximity to the waking world. A Midsummer Night’s Dream, with its fairy court and mischievous sprites making sport with human destiny is, despite its title, set on May Day eve. Midsummer’s eve is still a time steeped in powerful magic, however. Although Midsummer is a solar festival, a daylit affair, this is also the point at which the astrological calendar moves into the house of Cancer, a sign associated with water and the moon.
It was thought to be a time when witches were active, going abroad to gather flowers and herbs whose potency was at its height on this night. As John Aubrey noted, ‘Midsummer Eve is counted or called the Witches’ Night’. Cornish Penwith witches were said to gather on Burns Down above Zennor on midsummer’s eve, the nomenclature denoting the many fires which were lit amongst the natural cauldrons of the granite landscape basins and on the tables of dolmen stones. The Witches’ Rock which was the ultimate site for their midnight assembly is no longer there, having been broken up and possibly used for stone wall construction in the nineteenth century. It used to be said that touching the rock nine times at midnight would afford protection against ill-fortune – a species of associative counter-magic. Perhaps it is no coincidence that the farm which lies beneath Burns Down is called Tregerthen, or Rowan Tree Farm. Rowan wood afforded powerful protection against the depredations of witchcraft, and twigs tied together with red ribbons and hung above stable and farmhouse doors would keep harmful magic at bay.
St John's WortEffigies of witches were burned in some fires, a tradition revived by the Cornish at St Cleer. A witch’s broom and hat are perched on the peak of the bonfire mountain. When it is lit, a variety of herbs and flowers are thrown onto the pyre to nullify their efficacy in any witchery attempted in the vicinity. The very flowers used for the purposes of witchcraft (or, as was more likely the case, herbal medicine) could be employed as magical protection. Garlands of vervain, yarrow, mugwort, plaintain, dwarf elder, corn marigold (the ‘summer’s bride’), orpins and, most powerfully of all, St John’s wort (or chase-devil) could be hung on doors to repel malevolent spells, or burned in midsummer fires to create a purifying incense. Yarrow hung up on St John’s Eve would ward of sickness for the coming year. Those seeking St John’s Wort on the evening when its magic was at its most potent might have a bit of hunt on their hands, however. It was said to be able to move to evade those intent on picking it.
Of course, midsummer flowers were beautiful decorations, magical powers notwithstanding. John Stow noted ‘on the vigil of St. John the Baptist, and on St. Peter and Paul the Apostles, every man’s door being shadowed with green birch, long fennel, St. John’s wort, orpine, white lilies, and such like, garnished upon with garlands of beautiful flowers’, their colours brought out in the evening by the illumination of hundreds of lamps to ‘make a goodly show’. Another tradition involved the creation of midsummer cushions; either an actual cushion upon which flowers were arrayed, or a stool covered in a layer of thick, clayish soil into which flowers were embedded. The poet John Clare loved such presentations and wanted to title one of his later collections The Midsummer Cushion.
OrpineMidsummer was a time considered particularly propitious for divination, especially when foretelling romantic fortunes. Flowers play their part here too. The prominent floral aspect of midsummer rites and celebrations is hardly surprising given that this is the time of fullest flowering. Two orpine flowers were hung together, sometimes resting against a plate, on midsummer’s eve. If, on the following morning, they had inclined towards one another, love would blossom and fidelity was assured. If they turned away from each other, love would fade and loyalties stray. In the disastrous event of the orpines withering, a death in the household was foretold. Fortunately, this was highly unlikely. Orpine flowers were renowned for remaining fresh long after having been cut, hence one of their common names, life-long. Another such name was ‘midsummer men’, indicating how closely and widely they were associated with these divinations.
The magical potency of flowers reached its peak on St John’s eve, and in some cases this was the only time at which their power became manifest. A piece of mugwort ‘coal’ dug up beneath its roots (in actuality a rotted part of those roots) on St John’s Eve would afford protection from plague, ague, lightning, carbuncle and burning, and was thus a highly sought after natural treasure on this one enchanted night. Fernseed (the tiny spores on the underside of fern leaves) was particularly elusive, supposedly appearing on this one evening of the year and no other. If you were somehow able to gather it (and you would likely face opposition from witches jealously guarding their special patch) it would confer upon you the power of invisibility. Sacred springs or wells could also be used for divination, with the bubbles or ripples produced by offerings of coins, bent pins or flowers thrown upon the waters providing answers to questions of love and matrimony. These offerings, or coloured ribbons tied to adjacent trees, would activate the healing powers of the waters.
A sunwise circumnavigation of the well was often part of the ritual, as at the Pin Well in Alnwick Park in Northumberland. Processing or dancing in a circling, sunwise direction was a feature of many midsummer celebrations, modelling the ecliptic solar passage across the sky and thereby invoking its power and blessing. Never anti-sunwise (or widdershins), however; that would summon dark otherworldly forces into your life and invite ill fortune. The North Eastern antiquarian Moses Aaron Richardson, writing in the 6th volume of his mid-19th century collection titled, with exhaustively thorough accuracy, ‘The Local Historian's Table Book of Remarkable Occurrences, Historical Facts, Legendary and Descriptive Ballads, &c., connected with the Counties of Newcastle-upon-Tyne, Northumberland, and Durham’, remarks upon the three holy wells near Longwitton-hall in Northumberland. ‘Great concourses of people from all parts, also used to assemble here in the memory of old people on “Midsummer Sunday and the Sunday following” and amuse themselves with leaping, eating gingerbread brought for sale to the spot, and drinking the waters of the wells’. He also notes the myth of the guardian dragon associated with the wells, a creature capable of making itself invisible and renewing itself by dipping its tail in the healing waters. It was defeated by one Sir Guy of Warwick, who noticed its secret and cunningly interposed himself between the beast and its source of power, hacking it about until it could take no more, curled up and died. The wells were thenceforth free for all to use. Three cheers for Sir Guy!
To retain the magical properties of plants and flowers gathered St John’s Eve, or the divinatory secrets of sacred waters, it was a general requirement that complete and solemn silence was maintained. The Moomins understood this, as Tove Jansson related in Moominsummer Madness. After sitting by their midsummer fire for a spell, Moomintroll, the Snork Maiden and the Fillyjonk venture out into the night meadows to gather nine kinds of flower (as we have seen with the Witches’ Rock, nine is something of a magic number). The Snork Maiden recalls previous midsummer evenings when ‘we went off to pick nine kinds of flowers and put them under our pillow and then our dreams came true. But you weren’t allowed to say a word while you picked them, not afterwards until morning’. This most magically-wise of creatures also knew some midsummer romantic divinatory rites: ‘First you must turn seven times around yourself, mumbling a little and stamping your feet. Then you go backwards to a well, and turn around, and look down in it. And then, down in the water, you’ll see the person you’re going to marry’.
Midsummer’s eve in the Moomin’s world was also the only time to sow the seeds which almost instantaneously germinate into the small, ghostworm creatures known as the Hattifatteners. More midsummer’s eve sowing magic could be achieved by a girl who walked 12 times (sunwise, of course) around a church, scattering hempseed in her wake whilst intoning the rhyme ‘hempseed I sow/Hempseed I hoe/Let him tht is my true love/Come after me and mow’. The phantom of her future love would then appear, trailing after her, completely under her spell.
A more unsavoury form of love divination is practised in the kitchen, with the midsummer’s eve baking of dumb cakes by a small gathering of women. Once more, the preparation and cooking must be carried out in complete silence. The ingredients are simple and few: half flour and half flour mixed into a dough with the piss of each participant. Each in turn makes a mark or scratches an initial on the cake (or cakes). After the rigorous observation of various scrupulously specified instructions (for this is a highly ritualised recipe) the baked cakes are taken out of the oven and the spectres of future husbands appear to break the piece of cake (or take the smaller bunlike variants) bearing the mark of their bride-to-be and present it to her. As with all supernatural procedures, there were attendant dangers. The anonymous author of the 1685 volume Mother Bunch’s Closet Newly Broke Open (Mother Bunch herself, perhaps) concluded his or her instruction with the saucily valedictory line ‘if there be any so unfortunate to hear a bell, I wish I had them to my bedfellows this night to prevent leading apes to hell’. Leading apes in hell, a phrase which turns up in a number of Shakespearean quotes, was the proverbial fate of old maids in the 16th and 17th centuries, although its precise meaning remains obscure. However, the fact that it is taking place in hell suggests that it’s unlikely to be pleasant. So, a recipe which risks bestial intercourse of whatever variety in the fiery pits. You don’t get that in Delia (as far as I’m aware).
The combination of summer heat and the heightened influence of the moon led to midsummer being considered a time of delirium and madness, particularly for those already affected by such states. Tove Jansson’s Moominsummer Madness plays on such associations, as well as on the theatrical elements which are also central to the novel. The phrase midsummer madness was common in Shakespeare’s time. In Twelfth Night, Olivia responds to Malvolio’s absurdly misguided advances by declaring ‘why, this is very midsummer madness’. Such tendencies lend St John’s eve festivities and edgily antic air, creating a sense of licensed lunacy and abandon. Midsummer sports such as swinging fireballs on the end of chains, running with tar barrels, leaping through flames or rolling burning wheels down hills were ways of toying with chaos, playing with scarcely contained elemental forces that could easily grow rapidly out of control and scorch, char or completely consume; A good analogy for those skirting the borders of mania. Perhaps by allowing the demons of the mind their night of wild freedom, their longer term ravages might be curtailed in the dog days to come.
The ephemeral nature of the sun’s triumph was acknowledged in rites which anticipated harvest time, the fruiting and going to seed of plants now in the full glory of efflorescence. The smoke from fires was partly intended to ritually cleanse the air, protecting crops and herds from pestilence and blight. In Herefordshire and Somerset, fires were lit adjacent to orchards to encourage a good crop in the autumn, as John Aubrey noted: ‘On Midsummer-eve, they make fire in the fields in the waies: sc. to Blesse the Apples’. The ephemerality of human life was also underlined by the south western custom of the midsummer’s eve church porch watch. On the long, hazy evening and short, balmy (hopefully) night of this enchanted evening, it was the phantoms of the living which drifted dreamily abroad, as we’ve seen in the context of a number of the divinatory rituals. The porch watcher could observe the villagers filing dumbly into the parish church, departing once more at midnight. If any remained inside, it was a sure sign that they would die during the following year (in some variations of the tradition, it was only those thus marked who entered the church in the first place). Once more, dangers attended this encounter with the supernatural. If the watcher was overcome with weariness and slipped into sleep during their nightlong vigil, they would join the phantom congregation remaining inside before the next St John’s eve.
For all that it kept one eye on the time to come, and on the dwindling of the light, midsummer’s eve and its ensuing day were all about celebrating the moment. The sun is rising now, climbing to the height of its radiant glory. Light and warmth and joy fill our hearts in this instant, This Instant! So let us gather around the convivial fires, revel in the amber glow bronzing one another’s faces and leap boldly through the flames and fragrant smoke. Surrender to the holy midsummer madness. We are alive. Blessings and thanks to Bright Phoebus, to the lifegiver, to The Sun.