It figures that ‘National Daylight Appreciation Day’ would fall on the same day as the Summer Solstice, the one day of the year when the sun is at its zenith. This is also considered a magical night when maintaining your own blaze can bring plenty of blessings to your household. Many years ago, huge communal solstice fires were lit to celebrate the lingering light of the day. On this night you can light up your own life by literally burning the midnight oil or an orange or yellow candle. Burn until the clock strikes twelve in order to get the most of the magic. This is also considered a fine night for mining mystical messages in your dreams. One way to do that is to pick nine flowers and place them under your pillow. Ancient lore also says that you can sleep with mistletoe under your head if you want your sweet dreams come true. You will still be able to receive important messages on this night even without flowers or herbs, so keep a pad and pen handy and then sleep perchance to dream on this midsummer night!
The History Of Litha
The celebration of Midsummer’s Eve (St. John’s Eve among Christians) was from ancient times a festival of the summer solstice. Some people believed that golden-flowered mid-summer plants, especially Calendula, and St. John’s Wort, had miraculous healing powers and they therefore picked them on this night. Bonfires were lit to protect against evil spirits which were believed to roam freely when the sun was turning southwards again. In later years, witches were also thought to be on their way to meetings with other powerful beings.
In Sweden, Mid-summer celebration originates from the time before Christianity; it was celebrated as a sacrifice time in the sign of the fertility.
The solstice itself has remained a special moment of the annual cycle of the year since Neolithic times. The concentration of the observance is not on the day as we reckon it, commencing at midnight or at dawn, as it is customary for cultures following lunar calendars to place the beginning of the day on the previous eve at dusk at the moment when the Sun has set. In Sweden, Finland and Estonia, Midsummer’s Eve is the greatest festival of the year, comparable only with Walpurgis Night, Christmas Eve, and New Year’s Eve.
In the 7th century, Saint Eligius (died 659/60) warned the recently converted inhabitants of Flanders against the age-old pagan solstice celebrations. According to the Vita by his companion Ouen, he’d say: “No Christian on the feast of Saint John or the solemnity of any other saint performs solestitia [summer solstice rites] or dancing or leaping or diabolical chants.”
As Christianity entered pagan areas, MidSummer celebrations came to be often borrowed and transferred into new Christian holidays, often resulting in celebrations that mixed Christian traditions with traditions derived from pagan Midsummer festivities. The 13th-century monk of Winchcomb, Gloucestershire, who compiled a book of sermons for the feast days, recorded how St. John’s Eve was celebrated in his time:
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.
The fires, explained the monk of Winchcombe, were to drive away dragons, which were abroad on St. John’s Eve, poisoning springs and wells. The wheel that was rolled downhill he gave its explicitly solstitial explanation:
The wheel is rolled to signify that the sun then rises to the highest point of its circle and at once turns back; thence it comes that the wheel is rolled.
On St John’s Day 1333 Petrarch watched women at Cologne rinsing their hands and arms in the Rhine “so that the threatening calamities of the coming year might be washed away by bathing in the river.”
Good morning to all my dear friends! I must start out by apologizing to you for yesterday. I did not do a “good morning, how ya’ll doing?” or any kind of post at all to start things off. I had posting on the brain, I realized that I was running late. And that was it, got to post, got to post! Worse than a damn robot, lol! But I didn’t realize it till I was all the way into the Moon Phase and I felt so bad. Then I decided I would do a “Good afternoon” post. Well, I don’t remember what came up but that didn’t happen either. Again, I am so sorry.
Well the wheel has turned to one of our Sabbats and I am at a dilemma. My dilemma is when to celebrate it. I know I have read some articles that proclaim today as Litha/MidSummer. Well you see, the Tradition I grew up in was one that practice the Ways of the Old. They celebrated Litha/MidSummer on June 21. So what’s a witch to do? I am going to be very diplomatic about this. I am going to wish you a very happy & blessed Litha/MidSummer on both days! How does that sound? I should make everyone happy, shouldn’t I? Then I remember also reading there are some that celebrate Litha/MidSummer from June 20 to June 23. Oh, my! It’s enough to make a poor witch’s head spin, lol!
For those of you celebrating Litha/MidSummer today,from the bottom of my heart,I wish you and yours a
Very Happy & Blessed Litha!
Flame Talisman Spell
(To draw energy and strength from the sun)
Purpose: To gain energy that you can carry right through to the winter solstice.
Background: Litha, or the summer solstice, celebrates the sun at the height of its powers. On the longest day, we honor the strength of the sun just before the days begin to shorten again. It is generally well known that the sun has some positive physiological effects on humans: at this time of year we are generally more outgoing, happier, and healthier. This spell enables you to capture some of that sun power to carry with you…
You Will Need:
One red candle, 6-8 inches long
One white candle 6-8 inches long
Matches or a lighter
One sharp iron nail
One plain copper disk with a hole through it
One 24 inch length of fine cord
One tea-light candle in a jar
Cast this spell at Litha—the Summer Solstice
Casting the Spell:
As part of your Litha celebrations, work the first part of this spell indoors in a properly cast circle prior to going out overnight to await the Litha sunrise.
1. Light both candles.
2. Using the nail, inscribe on the disk a circle divided by eight lines, meeting in the center and overlapping at the edge.
3. Hold the disk in your left hand, the cover it with your right and close your eyes. Focus on the after image of the candle flames behind your eyelids. Visualize it moving through your body to your solar plexus and through hour hands into the disk.
4. Thread the pendant, and take it with you to greet the sunrise.
5. Place it on a rock next to the tea-light candle which should be lit as dawn breaks. As sunlight strikes the pendant, raise your arms and say: “Ignite the sacred Fire within”.
6. Wear it until the winter solstice.
by Melanie Fire Salamander
As a pagan, you may well light a bonfire Midsummer night and jump it, for Litha is a fire festival. Likewise, you may stay up to greet the Midsummer dawn.
If you do, keep a pair of garden shears handy. Midsummer’s Eve at midnight, Midsummer’s Day at dawn and Midsummer noon are prime times to collect plants sacred to the sun or special to the fey. In fact, any magickal herb plucked at Midsummer is said to prove doubly effective and keep better. Divining rods cut on Midsummer’s Eve are said to be more infallible, too. You can charge your charms, depending on their purpose, at midnight, noon or in dawn’s first light.
Charms traditional at Litha include those for courage, dream divination, fertility, invisibility, love, luck, protection, wealth, the restoration of sight and the ability to see the fey. Midsummer is a fey time, both by tradition and observation. The scent of the air is thick, green and juicy; it’s lost its spring astringency and is simply lush. The whole world is stretching its limbs and frolicking. The fey are big on that.
Especially for charms of love, gardening and magickal abilities, the fey are a great help in herb collecting. In exchange, they like gifts of milk and honey, cookies, sweet liqueurs, or any sweet food, drink or liquor. They also like baubles, particularly pretty or shiny. Or cold hard cash — but in coin, not paper, and it’s best if shiny.
To stay in good with the fey and the herbs you collect from, leave enough of the plant or other plants of the type that the herb survives in the spot collected from. Remember too to always ask the plant before taking a cutting, and to wait for an answer. A quid pro quo usually works: a shiny dime, some fertilizer, or a bit of your hair or clothing — whatever you think the plant most wants.
Courage: Tuscans use erba della paura (stachys)collected on Midsummer’s Day as a wash against fear. Steep the herb in hot but not boiling water, then rinse the limbs with long strokes moving outward from the torso. You might substitute wood betony, a relative more common in North America.
Dream divination: Litha is a good time for foretelling things in dreams. Specifically, to induce dreams of love and ensure them coming true, lay a bunch of flowers under your pillow on Midsummer Eve. That’s what the girls of old Scandinavia did.
For effective dream divination, remember to keep a notebook beside your bed. At bedtime, relax, ground and center, then clearly define your question. Meditate on that question until it’s firm in your mind, and assure yourself you will remember your dream on waking. Then go to sleep.
As soon as you wake, record your dream. One trick is to set an alarm clock so you’re wakened artificially, which can help dream recollection. Dreams dreamed on Midsummer’s Eve are said to be more likely to come true.
Fertility for your garden: For a lush garden, mix ashes from the Midsummer bonfire with any seeds yet to plant. (You still have time to plant cosmos and a handful of fall-blooming flowers.) Likewise, for fertility sprinkle bonfire ashes on any flowers or vegetables you have growing.
Fey charms: To see the fey, pick flowers from a patch of wild thyme where the little folk live and place the flowers on your eyes. A four-leafed clover not only grants you a wish but also, carried in your pocket or a charm, gives you the power to see fairies dancing in rings. A good place to look is by oaks, said in Germany to be a favorite place for fey dances. To penetrate fey glamour, make and wear an ointment including fourleaved clovers.
St. John’s wort, also known as ragwort, has a strong connection to the fey and transportation. You might add it to charms to travel quickly. The Irish call the plant the fairy’s horse, and the fey are said to ride it through the air. But beware: The Manx say if you step on a ragwort plant on Midsummer’s Eve after sunset, a fairy horse springs out of the earth and carries you off till sunrise, leaving you wherever you happen to be when the sun comes up.
Invisibility: Collect fern seed on Midsummer Eve for use in charms of invisibility. To become invisible, wear or swallow the seed (that is, the spores) you have collected. Such spores also put you under the protection of spirits.
The fern is said to bloom at midnight on Midsummer Eve, either a sapphire blue or golden yellow depending on your source.
Love: Plant two orpine starts (Sedum telephium) together on Midsummer Eve, one to represent yourself, one to represent your lover. If one withers, the person represented will die. But if both flourish and grow leaning together, you and your lover will marry.
Luck and human fertility: As at Beltaine, leap the Midsummer bonfire for fertility and luck.
Protection: Herbs traditional to Litha (also know as St. John’s Day) in England include St. John’s wort, hawkweed, orpine, vervain, mullein, wormwood and mistletoe. Plucked either at Midsummer’s Eve on midnight or noon Midsummer Day and hung in the house, they protect it from fire and lightning. Worn in a charm on your body, they protect you from disease, disaster and the workings of your enemies.
Sight: Dew gathered Midsummer Eve is said to restore sight.
Wealth: The fern also has a connection with wealth. Sprinkle fern seed in your savings to keep them from decreasing. The alleged golden-yellow fern flower, plucked on Midsummer Eve at midnight, can be used as a dowsing tool to lead to golden treasure. Alternatively (the Russian version), you throw the flower in the air, and it lands on buried treasure. Or, if you’re Bohemian, you pluck the flower and on the same Midsummer Night climb a mountain with blossom in hand. On the mountain, you’ll find gold or have it revealed in a vision.
If you wait patiently till midnight on Midsummer Eve and see no such golden fern flower, perhaps invisibility will have to do.
Litha is the time of the sun. While the sun was ascending at Beltaine, it is in its full glory now. In the northern latitudes, which we share with the Northern European peasants who created many of our traditions, it doesn’t even get dark until 10 o’clock. All around the world, sun gods and goddesses from different mythologies have Their special rites on this, the longest day. They come in Their various guises, fighting the dark and bringing fertile, healing light. Today is the day of Their greatest victories.
In ancient Greece, Helios was the God of the Sun. Every day, He rode across the sky in a chariot pulled by four wild, flaming steeds. Every day the horses fought Helios, but every day He was their master. Helios had a son named Phaëthon. He was a mortal and with pride did he watch his father ride across the sky. Phaëthon loved his father and wanted to know more about him and be like him. In short, he wanted to drive the chariot for a day.
Phaëthon begged his father to grant him his fondest wish. Helios, loving his son, agreed. Then the son revealed that his wish was to drive the chariot, and Helios had to grant it. Phaëthon put on the crown of golden rays, mounted the chariot, and off he went. Across the heavens he rode, lighting the sky. The horses began their daily struggle, but Phaëthon could not master them. The horses rode wild. They towed the chariot at the zodiac animals who became enraged and drove the it from the sky. When Phaëthon neared the earth, it dried and cracked. Lakes boiled away. Then he rode up high again and the earth froze.
Zeus saw all this and knew He had to step in. To prevent Phaëthon from destroying the earth, He hurled his great thunderbolts, slaying Phaëthon and destroying the chariot. Helios’ grief was terrible, and he vowed that no one but He would ever drive His chariot again.
The gods are at the height of their power and majesty at Litha and now is the time to meet them up close, but not too close. It is dangerous to for mortals to meet and interact with the divine. As Phaëthon wanted to know the Sun God, so do we go to the God or Goddess. Let us hope that we don’t get burned.
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 candle would 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 spells instructed 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.
by Mike Nichols
The young maid stole through the cottage door, And blushed as she sought the Plant of pow’r; — “Thou silver glow-worm, O lend me thy light, I must gather the mystic St. John’s wort tonight, The wonderful herb, whose leaf will decide If the coming year shall make me a bride.”
In addition to the four great festivals of the Pagan Celtic year, there are four lesser holidays as well: the two solstices, and the two equinoxes. In folklore, these are referred to as the four “quarter days” of the year, and modern Witches call them the four “Lesser Sabbats”, or the four “Low Holidays”. The summer solstice is one of them.
Technically, a solstice is an astronomical point and, due to the calendar creep of the leap-year cycle, the date may vary by a few days depending on the year. The summer solstice occurs when the sun reaches the Tropic of Cancer, and we experience the longest day and the shortest night of the year. Astrologers know this as the date on which the sun enters the sign of Cancer.
However, since most European peasants were not accomplished at reading an ephemeris or did not live close enough to Salisbury Plain to trot over to Stonehenge and sight down its main avenue, they celebrated the event on a fixed calendar date, June 24. The slight forward displacement of the traditional date is the result of multitudinous calendrical changes down through the ages. It is analogous to the winter solstice celebration, which is astronomically on or about December 21, but is celebrated on the traditional date of December 25, Yule, later adopted by the Christians.
Again, it must be remembered that the Celts reckoned their days from sundown to sundown, so the June 24 festivities actually begin on the previous sundown (our June 23). This was the date of Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Which brings up another point: our modern calendars are quite misguided in suggesting that ‘summer begins’ on the solstice. According to the old folk calendar, summer begins on May Day and ends on Lammas (August 1), with the summer solstice, midway between the two, marking midsummer. This makes more logical sense than suggesting that summer begins on the day when the sun’s power begins to wane and the days grow shorter.
Although our Pagan ancestors probably preferred June 24 (and indeed most European folk festivals today use this date), the sensibility of modern Witches seems to prefer the actual solstice point, beginning the celebration on its eve, or the sunset immediately preceding the solstice point. Again, it gives modern Pagans a range of dates to choose from with, hopefully, a weekend embedded in it.
Just as the Pagan Midwinter celebration of Yule was adopted by Christians as “Christmas” (December 25), so too the Pagan Midsummer celebration was adopted by them as the Feast of John the Baptist (June 24). Occurring 180 degrees apart on the wheel of the year, the Midwinter celebration commemorates the birth of Jesus, while the Midsummer celebration commemorates the birth of John, the prophet who was born six months before Jesus in order to announce his arrival.
Although modern Witches often refer to the holiday by the rather generic name of “Midsummer’s Eve”, it is more probable that our Pagan ancestors of a few hundred years ago actually used the Christian name for the holiday, “St. John’s Eve”. This is evident from the wealth of folklore that surrounds the summer solstice (i.e., that it is a night especially sacred to the faerie folk), but which is inevitably ascribed to “St. John’s Eve”, with no mention of the sun’s position. It could also be argued that a coven’s claim to antiquity might be judged by what name it gives the holidays. (Incidentally, the name ‘Litha’ for the holiday is a modern usage, possibly based on a Saxon word that means the opposite of Yule. Still, there is little historical justification for its use in this context.) But weren’t our Pagan ancestors offended by the use of the name of a Christian saint for a pre-Christian holiday?
Well, to begin with, their theological sensibilities may not have been as finely honed as our own. But secondly and more mportantly, St. John himself was often seen as a rather Pagan figure. He was, after all, called “the Oak King”. His connection to the wilderness (from whence “the voice cried out”) was often emphasized by the rustic nature of his shrines. Many statues show him as a horned figure (as is also the case with Moses). Christian iconographers mumble embarrassed explanations about “horns of light”, while modern Pagans giggle and happily refer to such statues as “Pan the Baptist”. And to clench matters, many depictions of John actually show him with the lower torso of a satyr, cloven hooves and all! Obviously, this kind of John the Baptist is more properly a Jack in the Green! Also obvious is that behind the medieval conception of St. John lies a distant, shadowy Pagan Deity, perhaps the archetypal Wild Man of the wood, whose face stares down at us through the foliate masks that adorn so much church architecture. Thus, medieval Pagans may have had fewer problems adapting than we might suppose.
In England, it was the ancient custom on St. John’s Eve to light large bonfires after sundown, which served the double purpose of providing light to the revelers and warding off evil spirits. This was known as “setting the watch”. People often jumped through the fires for good luck. In addition to these fires, the streets were lined with lanterns, and people carried cressets (pivoted lanterns atop poles) as they wandered from one bonfire to another. These wandering, garland-bedecked bands were called a “marching watch”. Often they were attended by morris dancers, and traditional players dressed as a unicorn, a dragon, and six hobbyhorse riders. Just as May Day was a time to renew the boundary of one’s own property, so Midsummer’s Eve was a time to ward the boundary of the city.
Customs surrounding St. John’s Eve are many and varied. At the very least, most young folk plan to stay up throughout the whole of this shortest night. Certain courageous souls might spend the night keeping watch in the center of a circle of standing stones. To do so would certainly result in either death, madness, or (hopefully) the power of inspiration to become a great poet or bard. (This is, by the way, identical to certain incidents in the first branch of The Mabinogion.) This was also the night when the serpents of the island would roll themselves into a hissing, writhing ball in order to engender the “glain”, also called the “serpent’s egg”, “snake stone”, or “Druid’s egg”. Anyone in possession of this hard glass bubble would wield incredible magical powers. Even Merlyn himself (accompanied by his black dog) went in search of it, according to one ancient Welsh story.
Snakes were not the only creatures active on Midsummer’s Eve. According to British faery lore, this night was second only to Halloween for its importance to the Wee Folk, who especially enjoyed a ridling on such a fine summer’s night. In order to see them, you had only to gather fern seed at the stroke of midnight and rub it onto your eyelids. But be sure to carry a little bit of rue in your pocket, or you might well be “pixie-led”. Or, failing the rue, you might simply turn your jacket inside out, which should keep you from harm’s way. But if even this fails, you must seek out one of the “ley lines”, the old straight tracks, and stay upon it to your destination. This will keep you safe from any malevolent power, as will crossing a stream of “living” (running) water.
Other customs included decking the house (especially over the front door) with birch, fennel, St. John’s wort, orpin, and white lilies. Five plants were thought to have special magical properties on this night: rue, roses, St. John’s wort, vervain, and trefoil. Indeed, Midsummer’s Eve in Spain is called the “Night of the Verbena (Vervain)”. St. John’s wort was especially honored by young maidens who picked it in the hopes of divining a future lover.
And the glow-worm came With its silvery flame, And sparkled and shone Through the night of St. John, And soon has the young maid her love-knot tied.
There are also many mythical associations with the summer solstice, not the least of which concerns the seasonal life of the God of the sun. Inasmuch as I believe that I have recently discovered certain associations and correspondences not hitherto realized, I have elected to treat this subject in some depth in my ‘Death of Llew’ essay. Suffice it to say here, that I disagree with the generally accepted idea that the Sun God meets his death at the summer solstice. I believe there is good reason to see the Sun God at his zenith—his peak of power—on this day, and that his death at the hands of his rival would not occur for another quarter of a year. Material drawn from the Welsh mythos seems to support this thesis. In Irish mythology, midsummer is the occasion of the first battle between the Fir Bolgs and the Tuatha De Danaan.
Altogether, Midsummer is a favorite holiday for many Witches in that it is so hospitable to outdoor celebrations. The warm summer night seems to invite it. And if the celebrants are not, in fact, skyclad, then you may be fairly certain that the long ritual robes of winter have yielded place to short, tunic-style apparel. As with the longer gowns, tradition dictates that one should wear nothing underneath—the next best thing to skyclad, to be sure. (Incidentally, now you know the real answer to the old Scottish joke, “What is worn beneath the kilt?”)
The two chief icons of the holiday are the spear (symbol of the Sun God in his glory) and the summer cauldron (symbol of the Goddess in her bounty). The precise meaning of these two symbols, which I believe I have recently discovered, will be explored in the essay on the death of Llew. But it is interesting to note here that modern Witches often use these same symbols in their Midsummer rituals. And one occasionally hears the alternative consecration formula, “As the spear is to the male, so the cauldron is to the female.” With these mythic associations, it is no wonder that Midsummer is such a joyous and magical occasion!
by Mark Dalton
It was a sunny early evening on Midsummer’s Eve, years ago when I was a footloose young college student. My friend Dace came bursting through the door of our communal hippie household with a couple quarts of beer clanking in a paper bag and announced, “We’re going to a Latvian party tonight — it’s St. John’s Eve!”
I should explain about Latvians. Latvia is one of the Baltic countries, three small nations along the Baltic Sea, on the cusp between the Germanic lands of western Europe and the Slavic peoples to the east, and between the northern lands of Scandinavia and the plains of central Europe. Latvians saw a lot of traffic and heartache during the twentieth century, as they moved from Russian domination, to a brief flowering of independence following World War I, to German occupation during World War II, to becoming a Cold War republic of the Soviet Union, to an eventual, ecstatic return to independence after the collapse of the USSR. Many Latvians fled to the west as refugees when their country was overrun by the Soviets at the end of World War II. Sometimes after years in western European resettlement camps, they came to the United States — particularly the Midwest, where large, settled communities of German-Americans welcomed them like long-lost cousins.
My city in Nebraska was no exception, and I grew up with so many Latvian friends I sometimes felt as if I had been adopted into the tribe. Latvians as a rule are friendly, outgoing, smart and often creative people. My friend Dace (say it “Dot-suh”) was a sunny art major with blond hair streaming down her back and an air of sophistication and mystery. She seem wise beyond our years, which was then about 20. She was a great dancer and loved James Brown and the Motown Sound, having spent her teens in Detroit. Dace showed me Diana Ross’s senior picture in her high school yearbook. A home economics major, Diane, as she was then known, was voted by her classmates as “most likely to succeed.”
I’d been to a number of Latvian college parties by that time, either with Dace or other friends, and they were invariably a great time, always with plenty of beer, music, dancing and good-natured fun. “Where’s the party?” was my question. “This one is out in the country” was the response. “I’ve got the directions.” We polished off one of the quarts, and then piled into my old station wagon as dusk started to set in, driving quite a ways out of town down those Nebraska gravel roads. Fragrant breezes wafted around and through the open car windows, with the sounds of crickets and cicadas making Midsummer Night’s music as we drove along.
“So what’s the deal with St. John’s Eve?” I asked. “Well, it’s the night of the Summer Solstice — you know, like in Midsummer Night’s Dream? The fairies and goblins come out, and everybody parties? In Latvia, St. John’s Day is a big deal. Everybody named Janis [Latvian version of the name] gets to lead the celebration.” Anyone familiar with the Latvian community knows that Janis is an extremely popular name, so it didn’t surprise me that they had their own holiday — but more about that later.
At this point, Dace was counting mailboxes as we drove along, and she suddenly yelled “Here! This one! Turn in here!” so we did — pulling perhaps 500 feet down a winding dirt drive, coming into a clearing where there was already a large crowd of kids milling around, rolling beer kegs out the back of a pickup truck — and also working on a large pile of brush, tree branches and logs in the middle of the clearing. “You always gotta have a bonfire on St. John’s Eve,” said my hostess. “The bigger, the better!”
And an incredible bonfire it was that night — the sun went down as it crackled into life, sending flames and showers of sparks high into the sky as the keg foamed, the music rocked, and we danced in a great circle under Dylan’s diamond sky. Later in the night, as the fire simmered down and the crowd mellowed, I was sitting with some of the guys when they jumped up and said “Come on, man! Tonight you’re going to leap over the fire with us and become a real Latvian!” Sure enough, there was an unruly line forming to one side of the somewhat tamer, but still vigorous blaze. “You jump the fire on St. John’s Eve, you’re gonna have good luck with the women all year long!” said my mentors. And so I did. And that delightful night was my introduction to the survival of real pagan ritual in the Western world.
The thing about Latvia and the other Baltic countries is that Christianity never really triumphed there, certainly not to the extent it did in western Europe and the English-speaking world. The Baltic countries were never a part of the ancient Roman Empire, and they were not incorporated in the later Holy Roman Empire until well into the fifteenth century (and then only after great reluctance and resistance). For hundreds of years, Latvia’s neighbor Lithuania, which had converted its local folk-pagan beliefs into a powerful and coherent pagan state religion, served as a buffer between the Baltics and the advance of Christian Europe.
Baltic and Latvian paganism was an earth-centered set of beliefs. Around the year 1400, Father Peter of Dunsberg wrote “[Latvians] worship all of creation… moon, stars, thunder, birds… they have their sacred forests, fields and waters in which they dare not cut wood, nor work, nor fish.” Important deities in the Baltic pantheon include Dievs, the sky god; Mara, goddess of earth and water; Laima, the goddess representing destiny or fate — and Janis (John), son of Dievs, the fertility god of the summer solstice!
In spite of the official “Christianizing” of Latvia and the other Baltic states, pagan beliefs were neither eliminated, nor outside the major cities even driven very far underground. The language of Christianity was Latin, and later with the rise of Luther German, and they were also, as in many nations, the language of the oppressor. Latvians, in response, perpetuated their folk customs and pagan beliefs through songs and celebrations in their native language. Early in the twentieth century, the pagan oral tradition of Latvia was collected and published in six volumes (the “Laviju Dainas”), followed by the collection of sacred Latvian folk songs in the 1920s (the “Dievturi”). These works offer invaluable documentation of the survival of pagan beliefs and folkways down to the present time. Lithuanian paganism was again officially recognized in 1967, and since 1988 a shrine-site at Romuva has again become a place of pilgrimage and celebration for modern Baltic pagans. Similarly, after a long period of repression under the Soviet Union (including a total ban on Midsummer festivities), modern Latvian paganism is experiencing a rebirth under the name “Dievturi,” after the sky god, and has become a national movement, “Dievturiba.” Again, in Latvia, the Midsummer’s Eve festivities, or “Jani,” are back on a large scale!
Indeed, the reality of Latvian paganism and its survival into the twentieth century very closely matches Gerald Gardner’s description of Wica (as he spelled it) in the British Isles:
“Although its adherents might be of any class of society, they were mostly drawn from the peasant population of outlying districts. These people lived close to the earth, and their livelihood depended on the fertility of animals and crops. Hence they continued to do what they had been doing from time immemorial — namely, to follow a religion of nature and the fertility thereof, and to hold regular festivals at which the concept of cosmic fertility was worshipped, and the attempt was made to induce it by ritual to manifest upon the earth.”
Now, we understand that, in Latvia, as across the nominally Christian nations of Europe, St. John’s Eve is commonly and officially associated with John the Baptist. But the association of the Baptist with the “John” (or Janis) of midsummer is one area where the clever syncretism of the Christian church is thinly veiled. St. John himself has often been clearly associated with the pagan Oak King, all across Europe, and in fact, many existent statues show him with little horns! (Pan the Baptist!) This persistent association of the Baptist with nature and the rustic shrines offered up to him through the ages offer substantial clues to the more ancient reasons for his attachment to a powerful pagan holy day.
In the Latvian midsummer festival, for example, the arrival of Janis is heralded by much music-making, and he is pictured as tall and handsome, with a wreath of oak leaves on his head. The use of oak, birch and other leaves, branches and flowers is very important to this celebration, as Latvian men, women and children bedeck themselves and their homes with wreaths and garlands to celebrate the arrival of this beloved deity of fertility and plenty. The villagers gather to sing songs to and about Janis — and there are many of them, all ending with the same word, “ligo,” meaning good cheer or to make merry. As the bonfires are lit, the more amorous couples in the village tend to slip off into the night at times in search of a magickal (and possibly mythical) pure white flower that blooms on this night — and even if the flower isn’t found, the search is reportedly sure to be enjoyable! As the song goes,
“Here comes Janis on Janis’ eve, with his steed all adorned;
“Run little sister and open the gates, so Janis can ride into our yard!”
With bonfires on hilltops throughout the land, the celebration of St. John’s Eve, or Jani (John’s Days), on Midsummer’s Eve goes on throughout the night across Latvia, and wherever the sons and daughters of Latvia congregate. And wherever you are on this holy night of celebration, love and thanksgiving, please give a good thought to the Latvians and their Baltic neighbors, for their bravery and tenacity in keeping the spirit, joy and sense of oneness with the natural world of pagan religion alive and intact, and join them in communion with the glory of our beautiful universe!
- Gerald Gardner: Witch, by J.L. Bracelin
- A History of Pagan Europe by Prudence Jones and Nigel Pennick
- “The Country of Latvia”: http://www.angelfire.com/al2/LatvianStuff/Latvia.html
- “Ancient Latvian Paganism”: http://www.pagan.drak.net/wwcrew/
- “St. John’s Eve in Old Ireland”: http://www.irishcultureandcustoms.com/article1035.html
- “The Bonfire Tradition in the Orkney Islands”: http://www.orkneyjar.com/tradition/bonfire.htm
- “A Midsummer’s Celebration,” by Mike Nichols:
by C. Cheek
Is there anyone who doesn’t associate bonfires with pagan festivities? Fire is the element of Midsummer, when the Sun King is at his highest. Sweet herbs laid upon coals purify the air, and the smoke from burned prayers or offerings rises to the heavens. Some revelers dance around the fire to infuse the night with life and laughter and lust, others gaze into the flickering light to see what the future holds. What could be wilder, more carnal, more appropriate to the Dionysian festival of Litha than a huge, roaring bonfire? All you need is a little planning and forethought, and you too can set the night aflame.
Most people want to host Midsummer on their own property or in a public park. Keep in mind that not all parks allow fires. In Seattle, for example, only Alki Beach and Golden Gardens allow fires at all. If you’re in a national forest or state park, fires are generally allowed except on no-burn days. You can call the park warden to find out the conditions in advance.
If you’re having a celebration on your own property, you’ll be restricted by your city’s backyard burning rules. Most cities allow small fires, as long as you’re not burning garbage. Call the fire department to find out if a burn ban is in effect, or check your city fire department’s Web site.
The safest place to have a fire is in a permanent brick or stone fireplace. Second safest is in a covered fire barrel with mesh sides, over a concrete or other non-flammable surface. You have to admit that this doesn’t have the allure of a fire built in a more primitive setting, but safety is still important. You don’t want to chance having the wind or a careless guest spreading the fire. If you have the fire pit on the ground, remove any grass underneath, and replace peat or bark mulch with sand or stones. Make sure there are no trees, bushes, buildings, picnic tables or other flammable objects near your pit.
No matter where you put your fire, you’ll need something ready to put it out. A fire extinguisher is good for emergencies, but you won’t want to use a fire extinguisher every time. Not only are they expensive to purchase and recharge, but some of them contain toxic chemicals. For a campfire, water is best. A single gallon isn’t enough. Have a hose or several large buckets of water ready. It may seem like a good idea to put sand or earth on a fire instead, but earth or sand can bank the coals, keeping them dormant until the wind stokes them up again. Every year, people who fail to completely extinguish their campfires start forest fires. Don’t be one of those people. If you leave a fire unattended, your karma will get so bad, you’ll be audited yearly for life.
Bonfires are communal events, so your best bet is to make everyone bring a little bit of wood — like a flammable potluck. That way everyone has contributed to the event, and the burden of gathering or buying wood isn’t all on the host.
Many people like to use Duralogs, firewood made from compressed paper. These are good because they burn cleanly and are made from recycled materials. Duralogs can help you start the flames, but cost about a dollar an hour per log to burn. They also aren’t structurally sound once they start burning, and you won’t be able to stack them very high.
Cordwood is a good choice, because most wood sold for fires has been well dried and comes from ecologically sustainable forests. Places that sell camping goods often sell small bags of firewood, but you’re paying for the convenience. Like many things, wood is cheaper in bulk. Depending on the type of wood you get and where you live, it will cost $100 – $200 per cord. (A cord is a stack of wood that measures 4′ x 4′ x 8′) Check the classifieds, or visit www.firewoodcenter.com for a list of dealers near you. The disadvantage of buying cordwood is that you usually have to buy at least half a cord, and you may need to pay delivery fees as well.
Another option is to use gathered branches. If you are having a fire in a national or state park, you are not allowed to gather wood for fires. If you are on private land, you can do it as long as you respect the wishes of the owner. Don’t cut down living trees. Not only is it bad karma, the wood will remain green and wet for far too long. Gather only dead branches. Dead wood is free and removing it helps the tree grow better. You’ll know it’s dead when it snaps off sharply. If it bends, it’s still too green.
If you’re on the beach or near a river you can gather driftwood. It burns much hotter than normal cordwood, and is generally free of rot and insects. Driftwood from a river will gather on the banks, especially on a curve, after floods. Don’t count on finding all the wood you need at one time or in one place. Plan ahead, and pick up a little at a time. It will add up.
If you are willing to invest the time you can get free wood in your city. It’s too late for this Midsummer’s bonfire, but next autumn, walk around your neighborhood, especially on days when trash collectors pick up yard waste. With a saw or a pair of loppers cut pruned branches into manageable sized pieces (one to two feet) and store them in a dry location, such as a garage or carport. In a few months, your yard waste will be burnable timber. The advantage of gathering the wood yourself is that it’s free, you can get to know your neighbors better and you can choose woods that have magical or emotional importance. Also, since you put more foresight and work into your fuel, the fire will have more meaning. Meeting the tree, cutting the lumber, and anticipating your fire for months and months is very different from picking up a couple of Duralogs at Circle K on the way to the park.
Don’t burn broken furniture, cardboard boxes, or other trash. Most city laws prohibit burning garbage, and with good reason. Plastic, varnished wood and even some papers release harmful gasses when burned. If you have mementos or items of spellwork that you want to burn for ceremonial reasons, either make sure they’re clean and free of chemicals, or use only a tiny portion.
A fire needs fuel and air. Place the fuel in such a way so that the air can get to the flames without extinguishing them. If you have patience, you can start with just kindling. Light a match under grass and slowly add small twigs. When you’ve got a decent flame, but before the fuel turns to ash, add larger thumb-thick sticks to the pile. When those sticks have lit, you can gently teepee or stack the larger logs on top. That’s how experienced campers do it. The rest of us use an entire box of matches, curse at everyone nearby and blame the damp earth and the wind for our failure.
If you’re one of those, try the cheater’s way. Clean and prepare your fire pit, whether metal or a hole in the earth, and pour in a pile of charcoal briquettes. Douse them with lighter fluid and toss a match on top. When the coals have been burning for a while and glow red, stack logs on top and fan the coals till the wood catches. If you do this well before your guests arrive, you can tell everyone you started the fire by rubbing sticks together. Hide the briquette bag and they’ll never know.
Once you’ve got your fire going, what to do with it? An old German tradition is to burn Sun wheels: everyone would bring a handful of straw, tie it to a wheel, and set it on fire. The men would roll it down the hill, past cheering women. Your local fire warden will not approve of this. An even older tradition (decried by the Romans) is to cage condemned men and women in a wicker effigy and burn them alive. This is also a bad idea.
Instead, give everyone an unlit torch. The leader begins a prayer, then lights each torch as they pass in procession. The torchbearer joins in the prayer as soon as his or her torch is lit. As the firelight rises, the chanting will grow louder. Once everyone holds lit torches, use them to light the bonfire simultaneously. As the bonfire burns, have everyone join hands and dance a simple grapevine step in a circle. Your coven leader can sing out couplets for all to repeat, other members can offer songs of their own, or people can simply sing whatever nonsense is on their mind. The important thing is to make some noise and loosen up. There’s nothing like the flickering glow and heat, the communal voices rising like sparks to the sky and the warm grip of palms on either side to make anyone feel fiery and sensual.
Some people might want to jump over the bonfire, but unless it’s very small, discourage them. Loose clothing and open flames don’t mix! I once had a cloak catch on fire while I was wearing it. Cotton lights quickly, hair burns faster than paper and synthetic fabrics melt and stick to skin. This is not fun.
Another ritual that’s great for bonfires involves preparation. Ask the guests to prepare a sacrifice (homemade incense works well) as an offering. Say whom the offering is for as you toss it into the fire. Conversely, you can invite your guests to burn that which they don’t want anymore: mementos of an ex, their pink slip, strands of pre-diet clothes. As they toss it into the flames, they ask the gods to remove it (and its implications) from their life.
Once the party gets going and the mead starts flowing, people might feel inspired to toss clothing too. As long as they don’t toss stinky polyester into the fire, why not? Hey, it’s Midsummer! What better time to go sky clad?
Enjoy your bonfire!
· Have the fire only in designated areas, and keep flammable materials away from your fire pit.
· If your wood has been stored outside, wear gloves and watch for wildlife. Snakes and spiders love woodpiles, and they might bite you for disturbing their home. Also, build and burn your fire on the same day so that you don’t unwittingly kill innocent creatures.
· Make sure you have a sufficiency of water and/or a fire extinguisher. It’s easy for a fire to get out of control.
· Don’t have fires on windy days, or when the land has a lot of dry brush. Sparks can fly.
· Keep children away from the fire. Watch the adults too. There’s often a joker who thinks he’s invincible, especially when he’s had a few beers.
· Don’t have fires under trees or other flammable structures.
· Don’t pour lighter fluid or any other flammable liquid onto an open flame. Flames can travel back to the source of the fuel, causing explosions. Also, never ever use gasoline to start a fire unless you want to see the inside of a burn unit firsthand.
· Keep the fire attended at all times.
· Make sure the fire is completely out before you leave. A cold puddle of ash is good. A smoking heap of coals is not.