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 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.

A Midsummer’s Celebration

 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!


Document Copyright © 1983 – 2009 by Mike Nichols. Text editing courtesy of Acorn Guild Press. Website redesign by Bengalhome Internet Services, © 2009

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.

Deity of the Day for June 9th is THOTH

Deity of the Day

THOTH

Also known as TAHUTI, TEHUTI, THOT
 

Well-known God with the head of an Ibis. He’s a good all-rounder for Arts, Science, Music, Astronomy, Speech and Letters. A good egg. Thoroughly recommended.

If ever a God was greater than great it was THOTH. In one translation his name is prefixed with the word ‘great’ no less than eight times. Thith may have helped to reduce the embarrathment cauthed by having a name that lookth like a lithp.

His resume seems too impressive to be true — but most of the facts speak for themselves. He is the master of time, mathematics, astronomy, readin’, writin’, ‘rithmatic — and almost anything else you can point a pair of dividers at.

365 days in a year? Thank THOTH (see AAH for the full story). 12 hours of day and 12 hours of night? Thank THOTH. Circles having 360 degrees? Thank THOTH.

His bestselling BOOK-OF-THE-DEAD is still in print and you will never be able to hitch-hike to Heaven on the Nile without it.

He does have his eccentricities — he sometimes likes to revert back to the good old OGDOAD days and appear as a baboon. Not just any old baboon, but one that could have written the complete works of Shakespeare before Shakespeare existed. (Now there’s an idea — it’s always been known that Shakespeare could hardly write his own name let alone spell it, so who really wrote all those plays that bearded scene-shifter claimed as his own?) In the custom of the times he chose the head of an Ibis with a fancy wig for those high-flying occasions.

Encouraging RA to call himself Top God left THOTH free to run just about everything without any fuss or hassle. Pocket calculators? THOTH used the whole firmament, available to all on a grand scale. Think Sky.

To make it easier, all the stars and planets required for calculation are associated with favorite Gods. Need to work something out via Sirius? Log in and have HATHOR guide you. Need the moon for phases, time or tides? Go to THOTH; he chose to be Top Moon God alongside his best buddy KHONSU.

Cool, modest, unflappable, and a brilliant arbitrator, THOTH has stood the test of time, time and time again. Full ticks and tocks to this tip-top God.

He was also known to Greek God geeks as Hermes Trismegistus, possibly to avoid talking with a lisp.