© Anna Franklin

Every culture has, at some point in its history, marked the time of the summer solstice and held it to be enchanted. The Celts, the Norse and the Slavs believed that there were three ‘spirit nights’ in the year when magic abounded and the Otherworld was close. The first was Halloween, the second was May Eve and the third was Midsummer Eve. On this night, of all nights, fairies are most active. On this night the future can be uncovered. As the solstice sun rises on its day of greatest power it draws up with it the power of herbs, standing stones and crystals. In the shimmering heat haze on the horizon its magical energies are almost visible. And as the mist gate forms in the warm air rising beneath the dolmen arch the entrance to the Otherworld opens.

The cold, dark days of winter and blight are far away, the time of light and warmth, summer and growth are here.  We naturally feel more joyful and want to spend more time in the open air. The crops are planted and growing away nicely, and young animals have been born.  It is a natural time of celebration.

.We experience changing seasons because the axis of the Earth- an imaginary line between the north and south poles- is tilted from true by 23.5 degrees. As our planet revolves around the sun this means that part of the earth tilts towards the sun, then away again.  Between June and September the Northern Hemisphere is tilted toward the sun and gets more light, experiencing the season of summer. At the same time the Southern Hemisphere experiences winter. Just how much sunlight you experience depends on the latitude you occupy. By June 21st there are twenty-four hours of daylight above the Arctic Circle, while below the Antarctic Circle there are twenty-four hours of darkness.

The word solstice is derived from Latin and means ‘sun stands still’. A little before and during the winter and summer solstices, the sun appears to rise and set at almost exactly the same place.

In ancient China the summer solstice was accounted feminine, predominantly yin, a summer festival of earth and fertility. Offerings were made to encourage the fecundity of the earth. In contrast the winter solstice was accounted male, yang and celestial.

The Celtic Druid priesthood celebrated the marriage of heaven and earth and kindled the sacred Need Fire of oak wood. They gathered their sacred herbs infused with the sun’s power and dried them ready to use them in magic and healing work.

The Saxons began their year at the midwinter solstice, and the summer solstice marked its mid-point. They called the month of June Aerra Litha meaning ‘before Litha’, and July Aeftera Litha meaning ‘after Litha’[1] leading some to speculate that the Saxon name for the festival was Litha, which is usually translated as ‘light’ or perhaps ‘moon’. J.R.R.Tolkien used the term for a midsummer festival in the fantasy novel The Lord of the Rings. The Germanic tribes marked the summer solstice with huge bonfires to salute the victory of the sun over darkness and death.

In ancient Rome the midsummer solstice was sacred to Juno, the Queen of Heaven and guardian of the female sex. She was the wife of Jupiter, a sky and thunder deity, chief of the gods. Juno was the patroness of marriage; the month of June is named after her and it is still the most popular month for marriages. The Roman writer Pliny advised farmers to light bonfires in the fields during the height of summer to ward off disease. [2]

The rites of the goddess Ishtar and her lover Tammuz were celebrated at Midsummer in the Middle East, though further north they were celebrated at the vernal equinox. The month of Tammuz corresponds to our June/July. 

 In Italy and Greece Tammuz became Adonis [‘Lord’]. In the heat of summer the women planted small pots of fast growing plants called ‘gardens of Adonis’, which were allowed to grow and wither in the space of a few days before being thrown into the sea.

For the ancient Greeks the day was sacred to all high priestesses and heras, the female guardians of temples and communities. The name is derived from the goddess Hera, wife of the chief god Zeus [a sky/thunder deity] and the Greek equivalent of the Latin Juno. The Greek year began on the first new moon after the solstice with a Panathenaia festival in honour of Athene. This was celebrated as the birthday of the goddess, and her favours were sought in bringing rain for the crops. It was at midsummer that the titan Prometheus [‘Sun Wheel’] brought fire from the heavens as a gift for his creation humankind.[3]  He entered Olympus by stealth and lit a torch from the fiery chariot of the sun, then smuggled the fire to earth secured in a fennel stalk. Like the Irish sun god Lugh he was a master and teacher of all arts and skills.

In eastern Europe the day was sacred to the sun goddess. The Bulgarians said that the sun danced and whirled swords about itself as it rose on Midsummer Day. The Serbians thought that the sun was aware of its mortality and decline on Midsummer Day and this made it hesitate and stop three times, overcome by fear of winter. In Poland it was said to bathe in the river and dance and frolic in the sky. The Baltic sun goddess was called Saule. Her daughter is the dawn. On Midsummer Eve people stayed up all night in the hope of seeing her dance as she came over the horizon at dawn. [4]

In Russia the death of the vegetation spirit was celebrated at midsummer, when the days begin to decline. On Midsummer Eve a figure of Kupalo was made of straw and dressed in women’s clothes with a necklace and floral crown. A summer tree, decked with ribbons is set up and given the name of Marena [‘winter’ or ‘death’]. A table is set up nearby with food and drink, and the straw figure of Kupalo placed by it. Then a bonfire is lit and the men and women in couples leap over it, carrying the figure with them. [5]

The Hopi Indians of Arizona would have masked men wearing bright paint and feathers who danced their special rituals. They represented the dancing spirits of rain and fertility called Kachinas. The Kachinas were messengers between man and the gods. At midsummer the Kachinas leave the Hopi villages to return to their homes in the mountains. While they are there, for half the year, they are believed to visit the dead underground and hold ceremonies for them.

 Midsummer fires once blazed all across Europe and North Africa. As far east as Siberia the Buryat tribe jumped over fires to purify and protect themselves. Such ritual fires had the power to protect the revelers from evil spirits, bad fairies and wicked witches. They also warded off the powers of bane, blight, dark, death and winter. At one time no self respecting village would be without its midsummer fire, while in towns and cities the mayor and corporation actually paid for its construction.

This is the season when the sun is at its greatest peak but begins to decline. It was therefore natural for people to want to protect themselves, their crops and animals from the powers of decay, winter and blight that are an inevitable consequence of the decrease of the sun’s warmth and vigour. Fire, the little brother of the sun, naturally gains greater power when the force of the sun is at its best.              

The sacredness of the midsummer fire is truly ancient. It is associated with oak wood, sky and thunder gods and with fertility. The most venerated type of fire was one that came from the heavens itself, in the form of lightening, St. Elmo’s fire, or wild-fire and elf-fire made by projecting the sun’s rays through a lens. Otherwise rubbing two sticks together made the holy fire. At least one of these sticks is always oak, though the other may be of a wood representing the feminine to the oak’s masculine. The bonfires too contained oak wood.

It can be argued that the midsummer fires are the funeral pyres of the summer sun.  The Celts thought that there were two sun deities, the summer sun and the winter sun. In The Golden Bough James Frazer speculates that the sacred Oak King was sacrificed on Midsummer Day by being burned alive, after which he is taken to Caer Arianrhod the whirling spiral castle located in the Corona Borealis.[6] The solar hero Herakles asked that his midsummer funeral pyre should be on the highest peak and consist of oak and male olive branches.

The customs of Midsummer indicate a ritual ending and new beginning. At the Baltic midsummer festival all the hearth fires, which were otherwise never extinguished, were allowed to go out.  They were re-lit with ceremony from a bonfire made on a high hill or a riverbank by rubbing together a stick of oak [male] and one of linden [female]. A similar practice was carried out in Ireland.  Mediaeval witches burned an oak log in the hearth on Midsummer’s Eve and kept the fire going for a year when the ashes were removed to make way for a new log. The ashes were mixed with seed corn and scattered on the earth.

People leaped the fires to cleanse themselves. Fire is the natural element of purification and protection, burning away corruption and consuming decay. The magic of fire is said to break all evil spells.

The word ‘bonfire’ has an unclear etymology. It may be ‘boon-fire’ signifying a time of goodwill. It may be from the Nordic baun meaning ‘torch’ or ‘bane-fire’ as it was a fire of purification and dispelled all evil things. Again it could even be bone-fire, since bones were often added. In the thirteenth century it was recorded that in Shropshire there were three types of fire, one of bones only called a bonfire, one of wood only called a wakefire, and a third of bones and wood called St. John’s Fire. [7]

The midsummer fire had particular characteristics. It was constructed in a round shape on a sacred spot- near a holy well, on a hilltop, or on a border of some kind. Such liminal sites were sacred to the Celts who counted any boundary a magical place between places, giving entrance to and from the Otherworld. The fire was lit at sunset on Midsummer Eve, either with needfire kindled by the friction of two pieces of oak, or with a twig of gorse, itself a plant sacred to the sun.

Men and women danced around the fires and often jumped through them for good luck; to be blackened by the fire was considered very fortuitous indeed. A branch lit at the fire was passed over the backs of animals to preserve them from disease. As late as 1900 at least one old farmer in Somerset would pass a burning branch over and under all his horses and cattle. [8] The Cornish even passed children over the flames to protect them from disease in the coming year.

In Germany images of the Winter Witch [the hag goddess of winter] and evil spirits were burned on the midsummer fire. In Sweden the night of St. John was celebrated as the most joyous of the year. Bonfires, called Baldur's Fires, were lit at dusk on hilltops and other eminencies. The fires consisted of nine different woods and fungi were thrown onto the blaze to counteract the power of trolls. For the mountains open at Midsummer, and all such fairies and spirits pour forth.

Blazing wheels symbolise the sun rolling through the heavens. The ancient Pagans of Aquitaine rolled a flaming wheel down a hill to a river, then took the charred pieces to the temple of the sky god. Fun customs are hard to kill and instances of wheel rolling were recorded right into the twentieth century. In the vale of Glamorgan [Wales] people conveyed trusses of straw to the top of a hill. A large cartwheel was swathed with the straw and set alight and the wheel rolled downhill. If the fire went out before it reached the bottom, this indicated a good harvest.[9] At Buckfastleigh in Devon a wheel, lit at sunset, was guided with sticks to encourage it to reach a stream. If it did then this meant good luck for the community.

Torches would be lit at the bonfire and these would be carried inside the milking parlour to keep milk and butter safe from evil magic then around the fields and growing crops as a protection and blessing. The torches were afterwards attached to the fences and left to burn all night. The ashes of the bonfires were scattered in the corn as an aid to fertility.[10]

Midsummer is a time for magic and divination. The twelfth century Christian mystic Bartholomew Iscanus declared ‘He who at the feast of St. John the Baptist does any work of sorcery to seek out the future shall do penance for fifteen days.’[11] Young girls would use the magic of the season to divine their future husbands. According to one charm a girl should circle three times around the church as midnight strikes saying

Hemp seed I sow,

Hemp seed I hoe,

Hoping that my true love will come after me and mow.

Looking over her shoulder she should seen a vision of her lover following her with a scythe.  Placing nodules from the root of mugwort under her pillow would enable her to dream of her lover instead. Other, less pleasant secrets could also be learned: if you stand in the churchyard on this night a vision of all those who will die this year will pass before your eyes.

You might think that the erection of the maypole is a tradition purely associated with May Day [Beltane] but you would be wrong. The raising of the midsummer tree is an authentic midsummer custom found in many areas, including Wales, England and Sweden.

These cut and decorated poles represent the vitality of the vegetative life force in spring and summer and are made from deciduous birch. [12] They represent the phallic fertilising power of the God, thrust into the womb of the Earth Mother. Such trees formed part of Druidic activities; there are various illustrations of Celtic rituals including a pole thrust into a well or earth cavity, regarded as entrances to the womb of Mother Earth.

The tree or pole also functions as an axis mundi, joining the worlds of Gods and humankind in the ritual cycle. Around them sunwise and anti-sunwise dances take place, winding down one season and winding up another.

Midsummer marks the impregnation or fertilisation of the Goddess as Flower Bride. Craft tradition venerates this as the time of flower opening when foliage and flowers are at their fullest before fruiting begins. Bees and insects are busy pollinating blossoms. The season is sacred to Blodeuwedd, the Welsh flower bride of the sun god Llew. Her name means ‘Flower Face’ and she was created by two magicians for the god when his mother Arianrhod forbade him to marry a human woman. Eventually she was unfaithful to him with Gronw Pebyr [‘Strong Young Man’] and caused his death. As a punishment she was changed into an owl. Though some see her as the archetypal rebellious woman [13], she is in fact the blossoming earth goddess in the summer, and her two lovers are summer and winter or the gods of the waxing and waning sun. A similar story is told of Guinevere, Arthur’s Queen, also called the Flower Bride, stolen away by King Melwas of the Summer Country and rescued by Arthur, another sun god. In a further story she betrays Arthur with Lancelot of the Lake. Both she and Blodeuwedd are sovereign goddesses of the land, whom the king/seasonal god must marry in order to rule.

Flowers play a great part in the Midsummer festivities. They are made into wreaths and garlands, cast into the fires and thrown into holy wells and springs. In many parts of the world a rose festival takes place in June. Roses and rosettes are emblems of the sun, like other flowers with rayed petals, but also represent the vulva of the Goddess. Roses are sacred to the goddess of love and legend has it they sprang from the blood of Venus whose rites are celebrated at this time. Couples at weddings in ancient Rome wore chaplets of roses. Because this is the season of fertilization, blossoming and verdant life it was the preferred time for betrothals and weddings.

St. John’s Eve is traditionally the time for declaring love. In Sicily boys and girls become ‘sweethearts of St. John’ by performing ceremonies over hairs drawn from their heads, then tying them together and throwing them in the air. In some villages sweethearts present each other with sprouting corn, lentils and seed, planted forty days before the festival. These potted-plants are a relic of the ancient gardens of Adonis, sown during the heat of midsummer in honour of the vegetation god. Their rapid growth and withering ritually imitate his growth and harvest sacrifice.

At midsummer foliage and flowering is at its fullest just before fruiting begins. This makes it the ideal time to gather herbs and flowers. An eleventh century Anglo Saxon medical text described gathering vervain at midsummer to cure liver complaints. [14] Other customs included decking the house (especially over the front door) with birch, fennel, St. John's wort, orpine, and white lilies. Even churches were decorated with birch and fennel.

On Midsummer morning the druids ventured out to collect herbs. Herbs are part of the bounty of the sun god who is always a patron of healing and medicine. The Greek sun god Apollo was the father of the god of medicine Asklepios. The Celtic god Belinos was a patron of healing and renewal.

Every self-respecting witch takes the opportunity afforded by the magic of midsummer to collect a good supply of herbs to preserve for use throughout the year. At the end of this time any herbs left over should be thrown onto the midsummer bonfire.

There is a wealth of herb lore associated with the Solstice. Several plants were thought to have particular magical properties on this night, especially vervain and St. John’s wort. Indeed, Midsummer's Eve in Spain is called the 'Night of the Vervain'.           

Yellow flowered St John’s Wort, an emblem of the sun, would be gathered on the Eve and made into garlands. It was believed to possess the quality of protecting the wearer against all manner of evil.  Legend has it that if a young woman should pick St. John’s Wort on the morning of Midsummer with the dew still fresh upon it she will marry within a year. Yarrow was also gathered for medicinal purposes and to be used in marriage divination by young girls. By placing a bit of the herb under the girl's pillow, she would dream of her future husband.

It was the custom for people watch the sun go down on St. John’s Eve, then to stay awake for the entire length of the short night and watch the sun come up again. In the sixteenth century John Stow of London described it is a time when people set out tables of food and drink which they invited their neighbors to share, made up their quarrels, lit bonfires and hung their houses with herbs and small lamps.[15]

While Midsummer is a sun and fire festival, it is also a festival of water. In bygone days people would make pilgrimages to holy wells at Midsummer to solicit cures, or to make offerings of coins, pins and flowers to the resident deity. 

On Midsummer Day in Sweden women and girls went to bathe in a river. In Russia women bathed in the river, dipping in it a figure, supposedly of St. John, made from grass and herbs. These acts are sympathetic charms for bringing the life-giving summer rain to nourish the crops.

In Britain it was the custom to visit holy wells just before sunrise on Midsummer’s Day. The well should be approached from the east and walked round sunwise three times. Offerings, such as pins or coins were thrown into the well and its water drunk from a special vessel.[16]

Wells and springs issue from the earth womb of the life-giving Goddess. Along with caves and clefts they were regarded as entrances to this womb from which all life springs and returns to at death. Entering a cave was akin to entering the womb of the earth. In Sumerian matu meant ‘womb’, ‘underworld,’ and ‘cave’. [17] The word comes from a root word for ‘mother’ rendering the Latin mater and Teutonic modar, and the English mother. All such places were held sacred to the Goddess.

Midsummer is the festival of Sul Minerva, the goddess of the famous healing springs at Aqua Sulis, or modern day Bath, in the south of England. It is at this season that the various well-dressing rituals of England begin. Though these now come under the auspices of the Christian Church they are very ancient and Pagan in origin designed to honour the spirit of the water. The wells are dressed with elaborate pictures made of flowers.

Water becomes very important at the height of the summer when the growing crops need irrigating.

This is also the season of necessary rain and the time of thunderstorms. While rain is always life-giving the thunderstorms that occur in the sultry midsummer heat demonstrate the presence of the virile sky god, roaring like a bull and flashing his lightening axe. It is his semen- the rain- that fertilises the earth goddess. In some myth systems it is the thunder god who is her mate, not the sun. Aeschylus declared:

The holy Heaven doth live to wed the ground,

And Earth conceives a love of marriage,

The rain that falls from husband Heaven

Impregnates Earth; and she for mortal men gives birth

To pastoral herbage and Ceres’ corn.[18]

Thunder gods are invariably associated with the oak tree because the oak attracts more lightening than any other tree. Thus the power of the god is mediated from the sky, through the earth realm [the tree] into the underworld via its roots. These oaks were venerated as the dwelling place of the god.  The best known of all the sacred groves of Greece was Dodona in Epirus, sacred to Zeus, the Greek sky/thunder god.  It is said that thunder storms rage more frequently there than anywhere else in Europe and this is probably why the temple was established there.

The oak was also sacred to Thor, the Norse thunder god. His well-known symbol of the hammer is in fact thunder. Boniface felled an oak in which he was believed to reside during the conversion of the Germans.  Oaks figured in many representations of Taranis, the British thunder god.  The Finnish god of thunder was Ukko [‘Oak’] and Rauni [‘Rowan’] was his wife. In Russia the oak god was called Perun, his name meaning 'thunderbolt'. The Canaanite storm god Baal was depicted with an ax and pointed cap.

The oak is the king of the forest, huge, living for centuries. The roots of the oak are said to extend as far underground as its branches do above, making a perfect symbol for a god whose powers royally extend to the heavens, middle earth and the underworld equally. It is a symbol of the law ‘as above, so below’.

The Roman writer Pliny recognised the Greek word ‘drus’, meaning ‘oak’ is related to the Celtic word ‘druid’.  Some authors suggest the second syllable may be commensurate with the Indo- European wid meaning ‘know’ and the derived meaning would be ‘oak knowledge’.[19] It has been suggested that bard may be formed from the word barr meaning ‘branch’ as bard in Welsh is bardd. The druids washed in water found in the hollows of oak as a ritual cleanser for the midsummer rites.

In England many old oaks are still known as ‘bull oaks’. The storm god is also associated with the bull. The ancient Mesopotamian storm god was depicted with bull’s horns, tail and spiralling hair. Baal has spiralled hair, reminiscent of a bull’s pelt.  He took the form of a bull to mate with his sister in the form of a cow. The druids thought that the sky bull mated with the earth cow at Midsummer. The bull is one of the most powerful European animals, synonymous with strength and virility. His roar and the crash of his hooves mimic the thunder of the sky god. In Asia and Europe, from the Neolithic age onwards the bull and the axe or hammer was associated with the thunder/sky god. The bull was his chosen sacrifice, and remnants of this custom survive in the bullfights of Spain.

In the Craft the solar year is often seen as being ruled over by two opposing kings. The Oak King rules the waxing year while the Holly King rules the waning year. At each solstice they battle for the hand of the Goddess. This idea of two gods, one of summer/light and one of winter/darkness occurred in many myth systems. These two lords, often twins or even hero and dragon/snake, fight for rulership at the beginning of summer and at the beginning of winter.[20]  The Greek sun god Apollo killed the python at Delphi with his sun-ray arrows.  The serpent represented the powers of darkness, underworld and earth womb as opposed to Apollo’s gifts of light and sky. The Egyptian god Ra, as the solar cat, fought the serpent of darkness Zet or Set.  Similar stories are of sky gods fighting serpents, such as Marduk and Tiamat, Zeus and Typhon, Yahweh and Leviathan. In Irish myth the Fir Bolgs and Tuatha de Danaan first fought at Midsummer. The monstrous Fir Bolgs represent the powers of winter, decline and death.

The dark twin or the dragon is not an evil power but merely the other side of the coin.  One is light, the other dark, one summer, one winter, one sky, and the other underworld. Pagans accept these polarities as a necessary part of the whole- winter comes but summer will return.

Pagan midsummer festivities were transferred to the Christian Feast of St. John the Baptist. However, St. John may not be as 100% Christian as he seems at first glance. Robert Graves points out that while the winter solstice celebrates the birth of Jesus, the summer solstice celebrates the birth of John, the elder cousin. This relates them directly to all the ancient twin deities of light and dark, summer and winter.[21] If John is the Oak King of midsummer, Jesus is the Holly King of midwinter - ‘of all the trees that are in the wood/the holly bears the crown’ as the old Pagan carol says.

Some of the representations of St. John are rather strange for a Christian saint. He is often depicted with horns, furry legs and cloven hooves like a satyr or woodwose, a wild man of the woods. His shrines too are often of a rustic nature, ostensibly because St. John was fond of wandering in the wilderness. It is possible that St. John not only took a Pagan midsummer festival for his feast day, but also the attributes and shrines of an earlier green god. Frazer speculates that he took on the mantle of Tammuz/Adonis, the vegetation god who was honored at midsummer.

Stonehenge has been described as an astronomical observatory. It is orientated to the sun at the summer solstice, which rises above the heel stone. Some say this should be ‘heal stone’, as the circle was associated with healing at Midsummer. In the 12th century Geoffrey on Monmouth recorded that the stones were washed and the water poured into baths to bathe the sick. The practice continued until the eighteenth century. Others say that the word heel may be derived from Helios, Greek God of the sun.

Of course, Stonehenge is not the only circle or site orientated to the summer solstice. Others include Avebury, Stanton Drew, Randwick Barrow, Addington Barrow, Bryn Celli Dhu Temple, Mayburgh Henge, Temple Wood Circles, and Newgrange [which also has midwinter alignments]. [22] Other circles have midsummer legends- some come alive and dance. According to legend the Rollright Stones king stone is a real king turned into stone by a witch. On Midsummer Eve he is said to turn his head, and for hundreds of years pilgrims would visit the circle to witness it. Nearby is a group of stones known as The Whispering Knights, and on Midsummer’s Eve they will whisper your future, especially that portion concerning your love life.

This is the time when the earth goddess is fertilised by the life-giving rain, or by the lightening flash of the thunder god. As we have seen, the Midsummer Tree thrust into the earth symbolises this. However, another form of this sacred marriage takes place at the summer solstice: one perhaps more ancient still. This is the marriage of the sun and earth, of sky father and earth mother, that makes the earth fruitful.

At the midsummer solstice Neolithic people would gather outside Stonehenge to witness this hieros gamos. As the sun rises behind the heel stone a phallic shadow is cast into the circle and touches the so-called ‘altar’ stone, consummating the marriage. [23] The circle is an ancient symbol of the Goddess or her womb, and any stone with a hole in it represents the Goddess, including stone circles. The phallic heel stone stands outside the henge and for only a few days around the summer solstice does its shadow touch the altar stone [itself a lozenge shape, another ancient goddess vulva symbol]. Terence Meaden speculates that this stone is an axis mundi, linking the earth plane to the realms of the gods. The phallic shadow can only enter through the middle triathlon, another three-fold symbol of the goddess. The circle constitutes a bounded space, where gods and humankind can interact.

In the Craft the fertilisation of the Goddess by the God takes place when the wand is plunged into the cauldron, representing the womb of the goddess, with the words:

"The knife to the cup, the rod to the cauldron, the sun to the earth but the flesh to the spirit."

The feast of the summer solstice, along with the other solar festivals, is often referred to a Lesser Sabbat- as opposed to the four ‘Fire Festivals’ or cross-quarter festivals of Imbolc, Beltane, Lughnasa and Samhain. This is a misnomer in many ways. For example Lughnasa was never a fire festival while both the solstices were.

The controversy in Craft circles dates back to the 1950s and Gerald Gardner, the father of modern Wicca.  His own coven allegedly only celebrated the four-cross quarter festivals.[24] Gardner put forward the idea, which had some currency in scholastic circles at the time, that the solstices and equinoxes were a later import from the Middle East. However, there is a great deal of evidence to the contrary.

We have seen that the festival is pan-global. We know that the builders of the megaliths celebrated the solstices and equinoxes. We know that the Saxons and Norsemen held the summer solstice to be a festival of major importance; in northern Europe it was generally considered to be the most important festival of the whole year.[25] Academics are also now challenging the view that the observation of the summer solstice spread from there into Celtic areas. [26] I often read that the Celts did not celebrate the summer solstice, or if they did then the bonfire customs were transferred to it from Beltane. In fact, the reverse is probably true. Midsummer is a far more ancient festival, practised throughout Britain, Ireland and Europe prior to the invasion of the Celts, as evidenced by the megalithic sites orientated to the summer solstice. The native people intermarried with the invaders, and were not completely wiped out by them, as some writers seem to assume; genetic testing of Neolithic burials has revealed descendants still living in the same areas. It seems likely that the Celtic ‘invasion’ may have been more a case of the transmission of Celtic culture than a physical invasion in some places. It is inconceivable that the indigenous people would not continue to celebrate their most important festivals- the solstices and equinoxes.

Scholars agree that the Celts absorbed much from the peoples that they invaded and the evidence is plain that the Druids considered Midsummer an important festival. In fact, the solstice customs of Celtic, Wales, Scotland, Cornwall and Brittany are perhaps even more enthusiastic than those of nearby Saxon and Viking areas. The wealth of solstice customs in the Celtic lands of Ireland and the Isle of Man also demonstrate the importance of Midsummer in these areas. The nature of these customs indicates their antiquity and many of them are peculiar to Midsummer, so the theory that they are transposed from Beltane is called into grave question.

While the solstice generally falls around the 21st June [27] Midsummer Eve is fixed as the 23rd June, St. John’s Eve, and Midsummer Day as St. John’s Day, the 24th June. Then again, you may read of Old Midsummer Eve and Old Midsummer Day in early July.

It is generally accepted that the Christian missionaries persuaded the old Pagans to move their celebrations of the summer solstice to the Feast of St. John the Baptist on 24th June, thus pegging a moveable solstice feast to a definite date. However, it is noticeable that while most parts of Europe celebrate on St. John’s Day, a significant number of individual areas celebrate on St. Peter and St. Paul’s Day, 28th June.

At least part of the confusion results from changes made to the calendar. In 1582 Pope Gregory XIII wiped out ten days from the old Julian calendar to make it astronomically correct. However, the Gregorian calendar was not adopted in Britain until 1752 and Ireland until 1782, by which time eleven days had to be dropped. Some towns refused to move their holiday, and Whalton in Northumberland still lights its fires on Old Midsummer Eve, 5th July. From the evidence it seem that the Midsummer festival was a general holiday held over several days around the solstice.

The solstice marks the height of the sun’s power. For many this is the day to hallow, and to observe it a few days later would be like celebrating the full moon a few days later than it actually falls- when the energies are quite different and actually waning. For others the 23rd and 24th have accrued such magic about them over the centuries that these are accounted the correct days to hold the festival. Only you know what feels right for you, and you should work on the day that seems most magical.

Now is the time of brightness, long days and warmth. There is the promise of the harvest growing in fields and gardens. The earth is pregnant with goodness, made fertile by the light of the sun. The sun god is in his glory, strong, virile, the husband and lover of the Goddess. The power of the sun on this day is protective, healing, empowering, revitalizing, and inspiring. It imbues a powerful magical charge into spells, crystals, and herbs. It is a time for fun and joy, for enjoying the light and warmth.


Rite for Midsummer    Oak and Holly King Rite    Witch Rite for Midsummer    Saxon Midsummer Rite

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Further Reading:




[1] Nigel Pennick, Runic Astrology, The Aquarian Press, Wellingborough, 1990

[2]  Pliny, Natural History XVIII

[3]  Prometheus formed humankind from clay and water

[4] Sheena McGrath, The Sun Goddess, Blandford, London, 1997

[5] J.G. Frazer, The Golden Bough ,Macmillan, London, 1957 imprint

[6] James Frazer, The Golden Bough, The Macmillan Press, London, 1957 [first published 1922]

[7] Mirk’s Festival, ed. T. Erbe, 1905, quoted from Hutton

[8] R.L.Tongue, Somerset Folklore, Folklore Society, 1965

[9] Marie Trevelyan, Folk Lore and Folk Stories of Wales, 1909

[10] This has a scientific basis- wood ash provides a high potash feed for plants.

[11] Mediaeval Handbooks of Penance, ed. J.T.McNeill & H. M. Garner, New York, 1938

[12] As a counterpoint to the Midwinter or Yule tree, which is made from an evergreen and represents the survival of the vegetation spirit, even in barren winter.

[13] Like Eve, created from the rib of Adam

[14] G. Storm, Anglo-Saxon Magic, 1948

[15] A Survey of London, ed. C.L. Kingsford, Oxford, 1908

[16] F. Marian McNeill, The Silver Bough, Cognate Classics, Edinburgh, n/d

[17] Terence Meaden, Stonehenge, The Secret of the Solstice, Souvenir Press, London, 1997

[18] Aeschylus [Greek poet 525- 456 BCE], Tragicorum Graecorum

[19] John King, The Celtic Druids’ Year, Blandford, London, 1995

[20] In some cases the solstices, in others the equinoxes, in others still Beltane and Samhain.

[21] Robert Graves, The White Goddess, Faber and Faber, London, 1965

[22] Terence Meaden, , Stonehenge, The Secret of the Solstice, Souvenir Press Ltd. London, 1997

[23] Terence Meaden, Stonehenge, The Secret of the Solstice, Souvenir Press, London, 1997

[24] Michael Howard, ‘High Days and Holidays’, Deosil Dance, Imbolc 1994

[25] Ronald Hutton, The Stations of the Sun, Oxford University Press, 1996

[26] ibid

[27] It can vary between 19th and 23rd June.