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Friday, June 20, 2014

Midsummer's Day, Litha and Saint John's Eve

Introduction

Midsummer's Day falls on June 21.  This is the summer solstice, meaning this is the longest day and shortest night of the year in the Northern Hemisphere. The summer solstice has since ancient times held religious significance in pre-Christian European religious, representing the point when the sun seemed to have stood still (in Latin, solstitum from which the word "solstice" derives means "sun stands still"). It has been tracked by wood or stone circles (such as England's famous Stonehenge) and celebrated with bonfires.

In Wicca (and several modern neo-Pagan religions, this is a major holiday and is known as Litha (sometimes Lithia) or the the Midsummer Sabbat.

In Roman Catholicism, the evening of June 23 is St. John's Eve. This was date was chosen because in ancient Rome, the solstice was calculated as June 24, and was a day holy to Juno and Vesta.  In Catholicism, this generally a minor holiday with major celebrations in several cultures. In predominantly Roman Catholic Lithuania and the Canadian province of Quebec, the Midsummer's Day is a national holiday. Even in several primarily non-Catholic nations (such as Lutheran Denmark, Latvia and Sweden or Eastern Orthodox Estonia, this is a national holiday).  In New Orleans and Haiti, St. John's Eve is a time of worship in Voodoo religious practice.

In the Middle Ages, the Roman Catholic Church attempted to co-opt the pagan rituals by setting the evening of June 23 as St. John's Eve. To this day, in much of Europe, Midsummer's Night Eve is widely celebrated with bonfires.

Midsummer and Litha Rituals

Wiccans and neo-Pagans view Midsummer as a boundary holiday, in this case separating the realms of light and dark. As the longest day of the year, Midsummer marks the farthest extent of the realm of light and the beginning of the return of the realm of darkness. This is sometimes misinterpreted by those outside the tradition, a misunderstanding particularly notable in medieval Christianity where darkness was seen as a symbol of evil.  By contrast, in the Wiccan and Pagan world view, light is seen as symbolizing growth and activity while darkness is seen as symbolizing rest and reflection. Wiccans and neo-Pagans believe that Midsummer marks the endpoint of an extreme after which a return to balance begins, in this case the balance of light and dark.

Altars
Sunflowers on Midsummer altar 

As with all Wiccan and neo-Pagan Sabbats, worshippers set up altars. These altars are usually set up in one home but can also be set up in an outdoor setting, preferably in a forested area.

Because Midsummer is a boundary holiday, Midsummer and Litha altars are set with clear boundaries. This is often done with a piece of string or a cord across the altar, although any sort of boundary separating is possible.

The altar usually includes symbols of the sun (such as children's drawings of the sun), since this is a holiday marking the sun's longest day. Sunflowers -because they follow the sun across the sky -- are particularly popular as symbols on Midsummer altars.

Candles are generally lit for the entire day, symbolizing the long reign of the sun at Midsummer. These are often 24-hour candles, although many people simply use the waning candle to light the next candle so that a candle remains lit at all times for the holiday.

Talismans

Midsummer talismans are made at this time of year. These are kept inside the home for the entire year that follows. At the next Midsummer solstice, these talismans are thrown into the holiday bonfire and replaced with new ones for the coming year.

Talismans are made of plants that thrive at this time of year. In many ancient pagan traditions (still followed by many modern neo-Pagans), this consisted of a sack filled with the plants or a garland woven from them and often worn in the hair. In all traditions, the talismans consist of nine specific plants. While the composition of these plants is widely variant, the number nine is fairly universal., since in most pagan traditions (as well as in Wicca and many modern neo-Pagan traditions), the number nine represents change and growth (and Midsummer is the apex of the influence of the sun, the ultimate generator of growth).

St. John's Wort takes its name
from talismans made for the holiday
Of the nine plants used in the talismans, five were (and continue to be) largely agreed upon: heartsease, lavender, mistletoe, vervain and St. John's Wort. Of these, St. John's Wort (Hyericum perforatum) merits particular attention, since its use was so important at this time of year that its common name is actually taken from the Christianized version of the holiday (St. Johnsmas).

Traditions vary regarding the other four. In Ireland, Great Britain, Bretagne and Spanish Galicia, two of the remaining plants were oak leaves (the holiday represents the end of the reign of the Oak King, ruler of the waxing year in Celtic tradition) and honeysuckle (symbolizing the beginning of the reign of the Holly King, ruler of the waning year in Celtic tradition). While the number of plants used is always nine, considerable variation exists for the remainder including (among others) rosemary, yarrow, tarragon, mint, red heather, white heather, meadowsweet, aniseed, hazelnut, fennel, chive, rosemary, parsley and mistletoe.

Midsummer Night's Eve, because it represents the highpoint of the masculine force, also is associated with fertility and suitors pursuing eligible women. In some traditions, notably those of Finland, this involves the finding of the "fern in bloom" -- a mythical plant, since ferns do not bloom. Still, placing ferns on charmed flowers in gifts or on the bed of a desired lover is still held to have power in folk traditions.

Bonfires

The best-known traditions involve bonfires. These are often burned on Midsummer Night's Eve.
Midsummer bonfire, Finland
Traditionally people gathered to dance around the bonfires and threw into the fire the talismans gathered from the previous Midsummer.

Wiccans and neo-Pagans light bonfires at Midsummer. Some traditions are to light the bonfire at Midsummer's Night Eve. Others traditions are to light the bonfire at noon, the point of the sun's greatest influence. It is customary to bless the fire and, as mentioned before, to throw the previous year's talismans into the fire.

Many secular traditions throughout the Christian World continue to hold bonfire traditions. The bonfires are either formally dedicated to St. John the Baptist (hence St. John's Day) or just as often lit without any overt Christian overlay. In Bulgaria, the Baltics and Scandinavia, the bonfires at Midsummer are major national festivities and attract large crowds of tourists as well as celebrants.

Many national traditions are associated with St. John's Mass, but an almost equal number are directly tied to the Midsummer's Night Eve. These traditions no longer make even a superficial reference to a religious observance. Both of these traditions are described below in the description of St. John's Mass.


Stone Circles

The Midsummer pagan religious traditions predate recorded history in northern Europe and the Middle East. To ensure that the bonfires were lit on the proper day (both for the summer and winter solstices),  prehistoric people erected standing circles of stone or wood to calculate the rising of the sun.

Göbekli Tepe, Turkey
Newgrange, Ireland
The oldest known stone circle dates to roughly 9000 BCE. This is Göbekli Tepe ("navel hill") near Urfa, Turkey. The oldest stone circle in Europe is Portugal's Cromleque de Almendres. This actually is a double stone circle, with a circle within a circle and dates to 4000 BCE. The oldest stone circle in Ireland is Newgrange, which (with its central burial structure) dates to 3200 BCE. To put these dates in perspective, the Great Pyramid at Giza was only completed in 2560 BCE.

Stonehenge, England
There are over 1000 stone circles and 80 stone henges in Britain and Ireland alone.  While Newgrange is by far the oldest, probably the most famous is at Stonehenge on Salisbury Plain in England. Though much less old (ca. 2200 BCE) than many other circles in the region, Stonehenge's fame rest largely on it size, completeness and denseness of the associated burial mounds.

Today, many of the stone circles -- including Newgrange and Stonehenge -- remain a site of neo-Pagan and neo-Druidic worship today.
Gilgal Refaim, Israel

Stone circles often were significant sites co-opted by later monotheistic religions. It is arguably not a coincidence that Saul was crowned the first king of ancient Israel at Gilgal, the site of the Gilgal Refaim stone circle. Saul was crowned King (1 Samuel 11-12) roughly around 1079 BCE while the Gilgal Refaim stone circle had been a site of pagan worship for predicting the solstices dating back to roughly 4000 BCE.

The Callanish Stones of Scotland supposedly represent the petrified bodies of giants who refused to convert to Christianity, and who St. Kieran then turned to stone. The stones, however, are now known to date to 2900 BCE, so the previously held belief is now passed down as folklore. The folklore tradition surrounding Long Meg and Her Daughters Stone Circle near Penrith, Cumbria is that this was a witch and her daughters turned to stone for their sins. The stone circle near Newbridge, Scotland (the largest on mainland Scotland) was simply repurposed and given the name of the "Twelve Apostles Stone Circle."

In the 13th and 14th Century, many stone circles were knocked down as well as given names associating them with Devil worship. Thus, the stone circle in Oxfordshire was named the Devil's Quoit. The 5000-year-old stone circle were only restored to their standing position between 2002 and 2008. The Stanton Drew Stone Circle in Somerset was thought to be the result of wedding dancers turned to stone by the Devil.  Similarly the stone half-circle near Avebury, England was renamed the "Devil's Branding Irons" and the standing stones at Boroughbridge, North Yorkshire were named the "Devil's Arrows."


St. John's Day and Secular Midsummer Traditions

St. John's Day Traditions

St. John's Day or St. Jonsmas is June 24. Since the 5th Century, this has been the Roman Catholic feast day of Saint John the Baptist. In the Gospel of St. Luke (Luke 1:36, 56-57), it is explained that St. John the Baptist was born six months before Jesus. The coinciding of the date with the Midsummer pagan holiday is therefore coincidental, but the celebration of the holiday primarily through lighting bonfires and the gathering of healing plants into traditionally associated with pagan practice (St. John's wort and verbena, most notably) is a direct repurposing of the pagan practices.  In many traditions, an effigy of a witch is thrown into the fire along with the talismanic herbs.

In Denmark, Sankthansaften (Saint John's Eve) was the day that medieval healers and doctors would gather their year's supply of healing herbs, so even the tradition of keeping the gathered plants for the coming year was maintained.

Official St. John's Day Eve bonfires are set in communities across not only Denmark, but also Brazil, Croatia, Denmark, Ireland, Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, and Portugal. Annual St. John's bonfires are also set in certain regions of some countries. These include the Vosges, Bretagne and Meurthe-et-Moselle regions of France; the Wachau Valley of Austria; Catalonia and the Basque Regions of Spain; the province of Quebec in Canada; the US-owned territory of Puerto Rico as well as the Voodoo rites associated with Marie Laveau in New Orleans; the Shetland Islands in Scotland; and the Jersey Islands of the UK.

Secular Midsummer Traditions

Bonfires, however, are more widespread than just those dedicated to St. John. Bonfire traditions and many make no attempt to clothe the celebration in a Christian tradition.

Bulgaria: While Bulgarians do celebrate an Eastern Orthodox version of St. John's Day, the folk traditions related to fire called Nestinarstvo long predate Christianity and openly carry many non- Christian traditions.The Nestinarstvo involves the sacrificing of an animal (usual a sheep) then cooking it over a bonfire in the town square around which the entire village dances in a circular horo. Once the fire has reduced to burning coals and embers, special people called nestinari or anastenari fall into a trance and then to the music of a sacred drum dance barefoot on the hot coals. The practice is also observed in five cities in Greece near the Bulgarian border, although Greek Orthodox Church has condemned the practice as idolatrous.

Finland:  Bonfires, midsummer poles (akin to the spring Maypole) and searching for the "fern in bloom" are all Finnish traditions associated with fertility. Since Finland is also far to the north, many activities honor the midnight sun. In addition to bonfires, many Finns celebrate with midnight open-air cooking, girls wearing flowers in their hair, and family gatherings in a rented cottage.

Norway: Though called Sankthansaften, Saint John's Eve is generally recognized as a secular holiday in Norway. The practice of making a pilgrimage to the crucifix of Røldal for its supposed healing power present on this day ended in 1840. Today, the tradition of bonfires is accompanied by "Midsummer's Weddings." These are not actual weddings but rather play-acted weddings held by the bonfire and conducted not only among adults but also among children. The weddings are symbolic of starting a new life with the Midsummer's power.

Romania: The Romanian tradition of Sânziene is an annual celebration of the Romanian nature fairies. Unmarried women dress in white and collect flowers and herbs during the day, one of which must be the Lady's Bedstraw (Gallium velum). They then braid these around their hair in a crown of flowers and come to the communal bonfire in the evening. There they dance with young men and especially those whom they are engaged. If the flowers stay on their head without falling, good health will follow for the year. If the flowers fall off, however, bad luck will come to their households. Other beliefs include the use of magic love potions and a warning against young men walking alone in the woods (lest they be struck with madness by wondering fairies).


Conclusion

As with all of my posts, these comments are made only with the attempt to encourage understanding and appreciation. As always, I welcome your input and comments.

Happy Litha and Midsummer's Day.



FURTHER READING

American Wiccan, "The Midsummer (Litha) Ritual: http://www.americanwiccan.com/thelitharitual.html

BBC Religions: Paganism, "Summer Solstice": http://www.bbc.co.uk/religion/religions/paganism/holydays/summersolstice.shtml

Cunningham, Scott, "Midsummer: Ritual and Lore," The Llewellyn Journal, http://www.llewellyn.com/journal/article/1914

Dashu, Max, "The Midsummer Dancers," http://www.suppressedhistories.net/secrethistory/dancers.html

De Sues, Cherie Angelique, "Celebrating the Pagan Summer Solstice," http://thepaganandthepen.wordpress.com/2010/06/20/celebrating-the-pagan-summer-solstice/

Mankey, Jason, "A Midsummer Ritual, 2014," Raise the Horns, http://www.patheos.com/blogs/panmankey/2014/06/a-midsummer-ritual-2014/

Owen, Darren, "Tips for Decorating an Altar for Litha," Spiritual Living 360, http://www.spiritualliving360.com/index.php/tips-for-decorating-an-altar-for-litha-10556/

Psaropoulos, John, "The fiery souls of the Anastenari," CNN, http://www.cnn.com/WORLD/9801/05/fire.walkers/index.html

University of the Highlands and Islands Centre for Nordic Studies, "Midsummer, Johnsmas and bonfires," http://www.uhi.ac.uk/en/research-enterprise/cultural/centre-for-nordic-studies/mimirs-well-articles/midsummer-johnsmas-and-bonfires

Wiccan Way, "Wiccan Litha/Summer Solstice/Midsummer Sabbat Ritual Guide for Covens" http://www.wiccanway.com/Litha-Summer-Solstice-Midsummer-Ritual-Guide-For-Covens_c_207.html#.U6XWNEKSJT6

Wiggington, Patti. "Litha History: Celebrating the Summer Solstice," About.com: Paganism/Wicca: http://paganwiccan.about.com/od/lithathesummersolstice/p/Litha_History.htm


CLIP ART SOURCES

Midsummer solstice: http://merlinspath.wordpress.com/2010/07/01/week-7-litha-ritual/

Midsummer bonfire, Finland: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Midsummer#mediaviewer/File:MidsummerNightBonfire2.jpg

Litha altar with sunflowers: http://fc01.deviantart.net/fs70/i/2012/185/7/c/mead_moon_altar_by_carlavk-d560ewi.jpg

Saint John's Wort: http://www.stuartwilde.com/wp-content/uploads/2012/04/st-johns-wort.jpg

Göbekli Tepe, Turkey: http://www.ancient-wisdom.co.uk/turkeygobekli.htm

Newgrange, Ireland: My own photograph

Stonehenge, England: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_stone_circles#mediaviewer/File:Stonehenge_Total.jpg

Gilgal Refaim, Israel: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_stone_circles#mediaviewer/File:Gilgal_Refa%27im_-_Rujm_el-Hiri.JPG

Concluding clip art: http://community.fortunecity.ws/marina/pontoon/2457/id117.htm

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