The Enchanted Nights of Midsummer
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.