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.
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
procession of the equinox, 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 24th. 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 21st,
but is celebrated on the traditional date of December 25th,
Yule, later adopted by the Christians.
Again, it must be remembered that the Celts reckoned their days
from sundown to sundown, so the June 24th festivities actually
begin on the previous sundown (our June 23rd). This was
Shakespeare’s Midsummer Night’s Eve. 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 1st), with the summer solstice, midway between the two,
marking mid-summer. 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 24th (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 mid-winter celebration of Yule was adopted by
Christians as Christmas (December 25th), so too the Pagan
mid-summer celebration was adopted by them as the feast of John
the Baptist (June 24th). Occurring 180 degrees apart on the
wheel of the year, the mid-winter celebration commemorates the
birth of Jesus, while the mid-summer 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
importantly, 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 hobby-horse riders. Just asMay Day
was a time to renew the boundary on 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 another 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
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 the 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 1986, 1998 by Mike Nichols
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Revised: Saturday, May 23, 1998 c.e.
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