On summer solstice the sun reaches its high point, the year cycle comes to its longest day and shortest night. This means that it is also the time where the forces of life are strongest and where herbs have the most power and are typically gathered in groves, forests and meadows. What the Midsummer holiday was originally called in western Europe, we do not know. A festival known as Kronia, which will be discussed later in this essay, was celebrated in ancient Greece around the time of the summer solstice. In Lithuania, the Midsummer festival is called Rasa (dew), but also Kupolinės, which is cognate with the Lithuanian word for herb. Dew was regarded as a fundamental manifestation of life force in ancient times, and before the dawn it possesses great healing powers. The gates to the place of the Rasa festivities are decorated with herbs and oak leaves. It is said that ferns bloom only at midnight on this night, and whoever is lucky enough to find such a blossom will gain special powers.
In the Anglo-Saxon area the respective summer months were the two so-called Liþa months (three in leap years). Gerhard Heß in his book ‘Oding-Wizzod’ interpretes the word Liþa as etymologically deriving from a root that means “to leave” or “to wither.” This would reflect the decline of the sun.
This leads us to the ancient and interesting custom of rolling burning wheels down from hilltops. The custom can nowadays be found on holidays, like Yule, Easter or Valburg’s Night. It however seems that it is originally linked to the Summer Solstice, which would also fit in terms of symbology: The sun is from this point onwards going its downwards path. The custom is also reported on in Thomas Naogeorgus’ book Regnum Papisticum from 1559. Here is an English translation of the respective Latin verses:
Some others get a rotten wheele, all worn and cast aside
Which covered around about with strawe and tow, they closely hide;
And caryed to some mountaine’s top, being all with fire alight,
They hurle it downe with violence, when darke appeares the night :
Resembling much the sunne, that from the heavens down should fal,
A strange and monstrous sight it semes, and fearful to them all.
But they suppose the mischiefs all are likewise throwne to hell,
And that from harmes and daungers now in safetie here they dwell.
In the village Questenberg in central Germany the Questenbaum (“tassel tree”) is erected on a hilltop for Pentecost and stays there until next year, which might go back to a Germanic or Wendish custom on Summer Solstice as well. Again we find the symbology of the year cycle on a geological high point, which seems to reflect the astronomical situation.
For the Midsummer time in later June, there are two saints and holidays that seem to be reinterpretations of original pagan figures and holidays, Saint Vitus and Saint John (the Baptist). The Christian narrative is that Saint Vitus was some martyr who died under emperor Diocletian in southern Italy in the year 303. Saint Vitus Day is the 15th of June, so it takes place about six days before Summer Solstice.
In folk belief Saint Vitus is the patron of pharmacists, innkeepers, beer-brewers, wine-growers, copper smiths, dancers, actors, the youth, and a couple of others. He is called upon against Saint Vitus Dance and epilepsy (German: Fallsucht) and is thus linked to the falling down of things by G. Heß, like the sun falling or declining from the sky.
Augury and omens: He is also connected to the growth of mushrooms (“If it rains on Saint Vitus Day, it will rain mushrooms”). In western Germany there is a well connected to him: When the well dries out late in the year, it will be a blessed summer. In the Slavic area, Saint Vitus replaced the god Svantevit / Sventovid, protector of the fields, who bears a cornucopia. Like Saint Vitus, he rides a white horse, from which’s saliva the first mushrooms were created. Sventovid is apparently accompanied by goblin-like creatures, according to folk-belief.
The saint most associated with Midsummer is Saint John the Baptist. It is said he was decapitated on the 28th of August, but his death is actually commemorated on the 24th of June, about three days after the Summer Solstice, with Saint John’s Eve on the 23rd of June. G. Heß connects this with the death of Baldur. The herb Saint John’s wort blooms around the time of Summer Solstice and is known for its effect against depression, although a side-effect is that it makes sensitive to solar radiation. The red substance made from the plant is called “Saint John’s blood.” Could it originally have been called Baldur’s blood?
The typical custom associated with this saint since at least the 12th century is the Saint John’s bonfire, which is lit at the evening before his holiday and people dance around and sometimes jump over. The symbolism of fire and sun is obvious. The fire was believed to protect against demons, evil spirits (illness etc.), hail storms and field damage. Other customs are related to water, namely the blessing effect of bathing in rivers or lakes at Saint John’s night, and similar with dew and wellwater.
Bonfires and Nodfyr
The Midsummer bonfire might be connected to the so-called Nodfyr (“need-fire”), an Old Saxon custom that we know about from early medieval written sources. The word Nodfyr might go back to Old High German “hniudan” (to rub), or refer to the need of light and warmth during the dark half of the year. The Indiculus superstitionum et paganiarum is a law text by the church against pagan customs of the Old Saxons from the 8th century. Sadly we only have the table of contents of this work, since the rest of the manuscript got lost at some point in time. But the table of contents contains a chapter titled “On the fire made from rubbing wood together, i.e. Nodfyr.”
A variant of the fire custom has been passed down into the Middle Ages and even the 20th century. Farmers would drive their cattle through the smoke of a burning fire at Summer Solstice. The fire would be made from 9 different kinds of wood, and was said to prevent illness in the livestock. The Midsummer bonfire can also involve jumping over the fire, especially for young couples, hand in hand from East to West.
Midsummer seems to be in general a time for forecast, also about the future loved one, and there are several customs related to this. Besides the aforementioned Saint Vitus well, there is a custom in Lithuania that gives forecast on weddings: Unmarried maidens face the so-called Kupolė tree with their back and throw a flower wreath. The number of tries that it takes to get the wreath on this branched pole indicates the number of years until marriage.
In Rasa there are also divination qualities ascribed to the dew on the Solstice morning. The greater the amount of dew, the greater will the harvest be. Around the region of Švenčioniai, young women would rise early and wash with the dew and then sleep again to dream of their future husbands. During the night, dew would be gathered on cloths which would later be used in healing rites. Since Summer Solstice is the day where the nights start getting longer again, it is often seen as the day where the death of Baldur, the young god of light, is foreshadowed, as described in the Eddic Poem Baldrs draumar (Baldr’s dreams):
and the powerful gods
why there were
bad dreams for Baldr.
The connection of Baldur with the Summer Solstice is hard to prove, since there is no hard evidence for this, but both narratives show considerable analogies in their meaning. Considering that Baldur is killed by his dark brother Hödr, there might even be a connection to the Alci, a twin couple that Tacitus reports on in his Germania:
The Naharvali proudly point out a grove associated with an ancient worship. The presiding priest dresses like a woman; but the deities are said to be the counterpart of our Castor and Pollux. This indicates their character, but their name is the Alci. There are no images, and nothing to suggest that the cult is of foreign origin; but they are certainly worshipped as young men and as brothers.
And Summer Solstice is also the time where the zodiac sign of Gemini comes to its end and the sun moves on to the sign of Cancer. The Roman Castor and Pollux are usually compared to the Greek Dioscuri, the Indians Aśvins and the Baltic ‘Sons of God’ and are one of the less disputable reconstructable Indo-Germanic deities. Within the Greek tradition the Dioscuroi are associated with horses and protecting or saving sailors and armies in distress. The Alci thus seem to be a German reflex of whatever the Indo-Germanic original deities were, since their names are different in all the traditions.
The Athenian year began around midsummer, more precisely on the new moon before the Summer Solstice. Some twelve days after the beginning of the Attic year, the first festival on the calendar, the Kronia was celebrated. Precious little is known about this festival and it cannot be directly connected with the summer solstice, however a properly intercalated lunisolar calendar (such as a competent Athenian government could have used) would yield a date every year approximately around the Summer Solstice. For example, in the current year (2019), the New Moon before the Summer Solstice is on June 3rd, giving a date of the Kronia of June 15th, only a mere 6 days before the actual event itself.
It is only thanks to Demosthenes that we can even make such a calculation, for in one of his speeches (24.26) he makes a stray reference to an event on the 12th of Hekatombaion, and casually notes that this was also the day the Kronia was celebrated. Both the Etymologicum Magnum (321.4) and Plutarch (Thes. 12.2) record the Attic tradition that the month Hekatombaion was once called Kronion, after this festival, and only later was changed to Hekatombaion. This tradition may in fact be the correct one.
So in whose honor was this festival and what exactly did its celebration entail? Its very name would suggest a festival in honor of the Titan Kronos, but we have explicit testimony from the ancients that it was celebrated both for Kronos and his wife Rhea. (Philochorus FGH 328 f 97, preserved in Macr. Sat. 1.11.22 and the scholiast to the aforementioned passage of Demosthenes) Further, Pausanias (1.18.7) tells us that there was a temple in Athens jointly dedicated both to Kronos and Rhea. Although whatever public rite would have been celebrated there on this day has been lost to us. We do know, again from Demosthenes (ibid.), that the Athenian government conducted no official business on that day. Philochorus (ibid.) tells us a little of the private ritual, which seems to have involved a slave holiday to celebrate the grain harvest, wherein masters and slaves dined together.
Thus is what little is known of the Kronia at Athens. We may speculate some that this festival was a celebration of Kronos’ reign over the Golden Age, as indicated by the slave holiday (slavery was unknown during the Satya Yuga) and that the Attic sense of time required an annual remembrance of that age whence we came and to which we hopefully look for its return.
Deubner, Ludwig: Attische Feste, 1956.
Gerhard Heß: Oding-Wizzod. Gottesgesetz und Botschaft der Runen, München 1993.
Parke, Herbert W.: Festivals of the Athenians, 1977.
Publius Cornelius Tacitus: Germania https://facultystaff.richmond.edu/~wstevens/history331texts/barbarians.html
Neményi, Géza von: Die Wurzeln von Weihnacht und Ostern: heidnische Feste und Bräuche, Holdenstedt 2006.
Asentr.eu: Mittsommer. http://www.asentr.eu/f_somm.html