A Midsummer Night’s Lore

A Midsummer Night’s Lore

by Melanie Fire Salamander

 

Cinquefoil, campion, lupine and foxglove nod on your doorstep; Nutka rose, salal bells, starflower and bleeding-heart hide in the woods, fully green now. Litha has come, longest day of the year, height of the sun. Of old, in Europe, Litha was the height too of pagan celebrations, the most important and widely honored of annual festivals.

Fire, love and magick wreathe ’round this time. As on Beltaine in Ireland, across Europe people of old leaped fires for fertility and luck on Midsummer Day, or on the night before, Midsummer Eve, according to Funk and Wagnall’s Standard Dictionary of Folklore, Mythology and Legend.Farmers drove their cattle through the flames or smoke or ran with burning coals across the cattle pens. In the Scottish Highlands, herders circumnabulated their sheep with torches lit at the Midsummer fire.

People took burning brands around their fields also to ensure fertility, and in Ireland threw them into gardens and potato fields. Ashes from the fire were mixed with seeds yet to plant. In parts of England country folk thought the apple crop would fail if they didn’t light the Midsummer fires. People relit their house fires from the Midsummer bonfire, in celebration hurled flaming disks heavenward and rolled flaming wheels downhill, burning circles that hailed the sun at zenith.

Midsummer, too, was a lovers’ festival. Lovers clasped hands over the bonfire, tossed flowers across to each other, leaped the flames together. Those who wanted lovers performed love divination. In Scandinavia, girls laid bunches of flowers under their pillows on Midsummer Eve to induce dreams of love and ensure them coming true. In England, it was said if an unmarried girl fasted on Midsummer Eve and at midnight set her table with a clean cloth, bread, cheese and ale, then left her yard door open and waited, the boy she would marry, or his spirit, would come in and feast with her.

Magick crowns Midsummer. Divining rods cut on this night are more infallible, dreams more likely to come true. Dew gathered Midsummer Eve restores sight. Fern, which confers invisibility, was said to bloom at midnight on Midsummer Eve and is best picked then. Indeed, any magickal plants plucked on Midsummer Eve at midnight are doubly efficacious and keep better. You’d pick certain magickal herbs, namely St. Johnswort, hawkweed, vervain, orpine, mullein, wormwood and mistletoe, at midnight on Midsummer Eve or noon Midsummer Day, to use as a charm to protect your house from fire and lightning, your family from disease, negative witchcraft and disaster. A pagan gardener might consider cultivating some or all of these; it’s not too late to buyat herb-oriented nurseries, the Herbfarm outside Fall City the chief of these and a wonderful place to visit, if a tad pricey. Whichever of these herbs you find, a gentle snip into a cloth, a spell whispered over, and you have a charm you can consecrate in the height of the sun.

In northern Europe, the Wild Hunt was often seen on Midsummer Eve, hallooing in the sky, in some districts led by Cernunnos. Midsummer’s Night by European tradition is a fairies’ night, and a witches’ night too. Rhiannon Ryall writes in West Country Wiccathat her coven, employing rites said to be handed down for centuries in England’s West Country, would on Midsummer Eve decorate their symbols of the God and Goddess with flowers, yellow for the God, white for the Goddess. The coven that night would draw down the moon into their high priestess, and at sunrise draw down the sun into their high priest. The priest and priestess then celebrated the Great Rite, known to the coven as the Rite of Joining or the Crossing Rite.

Some of Ryall’s elders called this ritual the Ridencrux Rite. They told how formerly in times of bad harvest or unseasonable weather, the High Priestess on the nights between the new and full moon would go to the nearest crossroads, wait for the first stranger traveling in the district. About this stranger the coven had done ritual beforehand, to ensure he embodied the God. The high priestess performed the Great Rite with him to make the next season’s sowing successful.

In the Middle Ages in Europe, traces of witchcraft and pagan remembrances were often linked with Midsummer. In Southern Estonia, Lutheran Church workers found a cottar’s wife accepting sacrifices on Midsummer Day, Juhan Kahk writes in Early Modern European Witchcraft: Centres and Peripheries, edited by Bengt Ankarloo and Gustave Henningsen. Likewise, on Midsummer Night in 1667, in Estonia’s Maarja-Magdaleena parish, peasants met at the country manor of Colonel Griefenspeer to perform a ritual to cure illnesses.

In Denmark, writes Jens Christian V. Johansen in another Early Modern European Witchcraft chapter, medieval witches were said to gather on Midsummer Day, and in Ribe on Midsummer Night. Inquisitors in the Middle Ages often said witches met on Corpus Christi, which some years fell close to Midsummer Eve, according to Witchcraft in the Middle Ages, by Jeffrey Burton Russell. The inquisitors explained witches chose the date to mock a central Christian festival, but Corpus Christi is no more important than a number of other Christian holidays, and it falls near a day traditionally associated with pagan worship. Coincidence? Probably not.

Anciently, pagans and witches hallowed Midsummer. Some burned for their right to observe their rites; we need not. But we can remember the past. In solidarity with those burned, we can collect our herbs at midnight; we can burn our bonfires and hail the sun.

The Enchanted Nights of Midsummer

The Enchanted Nights of Midsummer

by Asherah

When I was a young girl, I had a book of tales and poems about fairies. I don’t know where it is now, probably on one of my parents’ dusty bookshelves, missorted after a move. It was a big book, mostly pictures, and it fascinated me: I wanted to get into that world, in with the fairies.

I only remember one verse: “The fairies will be dancing, when there’s a ring around the moon.” But I remember that the big fairy holiday was Midsummer Night.

On Midsummer Night, the witches, the fairies, the spirits of the dead, the wraiths of the living: all will be abroad and visible.

I couldn’t have been more than five, but it enchanted me, the idea of slipping out at midnight, stars veiled in the humid dark of summer, maybe with a flashlight (a candlewould have been more romantic but harder to get), to a ring trodden bare in grass that flickered around my ankles. The circle would break, a small, bony hand held out to mine…

But I knew if I tried slipping out I’d get in trouble. Moreover, I was confused. It seemed Midsummer Night was June 21, or thereabouts, but wasn’t that the beginning of summer? If so, why was it called midsummer? I consulted my mother, but the contradiction didn’t bother her; she said that was just the way it was. It was only much later that I stumbled on the answer, that if Beltaine is summer’s start the solstice falls at Midsummer.

In medieval times, Midsummer was the feast of St. John the Baptist. The herbs of St. John are St. Johnswort, hawkweed, orpine, vervain, mullein, wormwood and mistletoe. Plucked (depending on your tradition) either at midnight St. John’s Eve or at noon St. John’s Day and hung in the house, they will protect it from fire and lightning. Worn about the body, they will protect you from disease, witchcraft and disaster.

Previously, Midsummer was one of the great fire festivals of Europe. At Stonehenge, it is said, Midsummer was a time of human sacrifice. The children’s counting-out rhyme “Eeny, meeny, miney, mo” may be a relic of the means by which the Druids chose their sacrifices.

It was around Midsummer when my friend Holly and I decided to enchant David, who was the cutest boy in our class. We were 11, and what might happen if he really fell in love with both of us didn’t cross our minds. (I think each of us in her heart of hearts felt he’d choose her.) Holly got a copy of the Dell pocketbook Everyday Witchcraft from the stand at the grocery store checkout line, and I talked my mother into buying me one too. One of the love spellsinstructed us to collect grass from his lawn and make a charm from it.

So we slipped out and met at dawn . I remember the feel of dawn asphalt cool beneath my feet. In Kansas City the lawns are pretty big; sitting on the sidewalk at the far corner of David’s lawn, at the bottom of a steep incline, we ran little risk of being seen. So we collected a few strands and sat a while, basking in his nearness.

If an unmarried girl, fasting, on Midsummer Eve at midnight sets the table with a clean cloth, bread, cheese and ale, leaves the yard door open and waits, the boy she will marry, or his spirit, will come in and eat with her.

Plant two slips of orpine (Sedum telephium) together on Midsummer Eve, one to represent yourself, one to represent your lover. If one slip withers, the one it represents will die. But if both take hold, flourish and grow leaning together, you and your lover will marry.

It was around Midsummer also, and I, 13, but not much the wiser, when my friend Vanessa and I did candle-magic on a mutual friend, Troy. Vanessa made a good, thick candle-poppet of him, with the wick for his head. She was angry at him, and her spell was to banish him; she buried the candle-poppet in the gutter outside her house. I had a crush on him, and my spell was quite the opposite, though I didn’t confess this to Vanessa. Our spells must have crossed, because while Vanessa and Troy made up, ever afterward Troy had an aversion to me.

To become invisible, wear or swallow fern seed (that is, fern spores) that you collected on Midsummer Eve.

On Midsummer Eve at midnight, the fern blooms with a golden flower. If you pluck this flower, it will lead you to golden treasure. In Russia, the flower must be thrown in the air, and it will land on buried treasure. The Bohemians believe that if you pluck the flower and on the same Midsummer Night climb a mountain with the blossom in hand, you will find gold or have it revealed to you in a vision. Bohemians also sprinkle fern seed in their savings to keep them from decreasing.

It was the fairies, and charms like those of Midsummer, that led me to the Craft. I won’t swear all the high points of the summers of my youth happened on Midsummer Night, but Midsummer is a kind of distillation of all summer. On that night, perhaps you can brush back a feathery, green- smelling branch to see, dancing in a ring, fairies. Or sometimes you might find such a ring indoors.

[Enter Puck, carrying a broom]

“Now it is the time of night
That the graves, all gaping wide,
Every one lets forth his sprite,
In the church-way paths to glide.
And we fairies, that do run
By the triple Hecate’s team
From the presence of the sun,
Following darkness like a dream,
Now are frolic. Not a mouse
Shall disturb this hallowed house.
I am sent with broom before,
To sweep the dust behind the door.”

(from A Midsummer Night’s Dream, by William Shakespeare)

Merry Midsummer to all.