Saturday, May 9, 2015

Thoughts on Midsummer

Midsummer is a holiday I choose to celebrate as an Asatruar. I do this not because, but despite, the fact that it is regularly included in the neopagan "wheel of the year" which places holidays at the solstices, equinoxes, and cross-quarter days. I also place it not on the actual date of the solstice, but on June 24th, St. John's Day, which is the traditional day of celebration in Scandinavia (and, it seems, throughout the Germanic world).

While it is quite true that Midsummer is not one of the three sacrifices mentioned in Snorri's Heimskringla and Óláfs saga helga (Winternights, Yule, and Summer Meal), the date was most certainly not unknown as significant to the people of the North. We see it mentioned in several places in the Icelandic sagas and other Old Norse sources, such as Grettir's Saga, Grágas (the old Icelandic law code), the Rymbegla (where it is noted as a feast day), and the Saga of the Norwegian king Magnúss Erlíngssonar, wherein we find the word miðsumarskeið, which means "midsummer time", in the same sense that people today still use the word "Yuletide" to mean a span of days relating to Yule:
When King Sigurd came south in Denmark in Schleswig, he found Eilíf Earl, and celebrated him well, giving him a banquet fit for a hero. That was at midsummertime.
Still, only Rymbegla specifically speaks of any sort of celebration specifically associated with the day (or the span of days), although King Erlíngssonar's banquet for Eilíf Earl could certainly have been coincident with such a celebration.

If we move but a little southward, however, we begin to see a more definite pattern emerge. In the Vita S. Eligius (who lived in the 7th century in France, which at that time was well-entrenched in Germanic Frankish culture), we see the following admonition given to the people of northwestern Gaul:
No Christian on the feast of Saint John or the solemnity of any other saint performs solestitia [solstice rites?] or dancing or leaping or diabolical chants.
Here we see a clear linkage between the Germanic Midsummer (centuries of domination by the Franks had lent the land a decidedly Germanic cast, although a Celtic or even Roman origin for the tradition cannot be ruled out) and the performance of non-Christian celebrations. (As an aside, I will also note the reference to dancing and chanting/singing, which is a theme I'm developing as part of my own contemporary Asatru practice.) So, it is most certainly not a Christian invention to celebrate on the date, else Eligius wouldn't have admonished against it.

I would also note that just because the holiday was not mentioned by Snorri does not mean it was not practiced, as his was not an exhaustive list, since we know of other attested celebrations such as Alfablót, Dísablót, DísþingÞorrablót, etc., not to mention the Anglo-Saxon celebrations mentioned by Bede.

That Midsummer is an important holiday in Scandinavia today should be news to no one. Celebrated with fires and drinking, it is a tradition going back at least centuries. I would argue it goes back considerably farther, based on the evidence in Rymbegla and Eligius. A quick glance at the Wikipedia page on Midsummer (never a good source for hard evidence, but illustrative nonetheless) shows traditions of bonfires and other celebrations associated with the day across the Germanic world and beyond.

In Sweden, the midsommarstång ("Midsummer pole") functions much like a May Pole elsewhere, just moved back a month and a half (possibly explained by the differences in climate between Scandinavia and the Continent), and even in Elizabethan England the association of Midsummer with magic and the fey survived strongly enough for Shakespeare to write A Midsummer Night's Dream around those themes.

It's entirely possible that the celebration of Midsummer with fire, and its association with fertility, is something that isn't completely Germanic in origin. However, I think the fact that it was noted and celebrated is pretty difficult to deny, and the form in which it is celebrated today in the Germanic and Scandinavian nations is as good as any, in the absence of any definitive evidence to the contrary.

And finally, a guide to Midsummer from the folks who do it best:


4 comments:

  1. St. John's Eve is also significant in Ireland, though whether that is because it is native or because of Viking colonial influence is a matter of ongoing discussion and debate.

    The traditional dates being later than the astronomical dates of the Solstices seems to be because, according to my understanding, those are the dates when the sunrise seems to begin to move back toward its equinoctial point after several days of seeming to rest at one point on the horizon. This is the reason that Christmas is on the 25th instead of the 21st-23rd, and St. John's Day is the 24th rather than the 20th-22nd.

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  2. I'm pretty sure that the date of Christmas was set because it was also the date of the Roman Natalis Invicti ("birth of the unconquerable sun"). But your point about Ireland is well-taken. One wonders if there's a way to tease out its origin. If it were more significant in, say, Dublin than in the hinterland, that might point to a Viking origin.

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    1. Heh, yeah, but Dies Natalis Solis Invicti was given its date for the reason I stated, that the point of the Sun rising was starting to move northward again after being relatively unmoving for several days (those surrounding the Solstice proper).

      Skimming through Danaher's section on Midsummer (in Danaher, Kevin - The Year in Ireland), my impression without analyzing it is that it is pretty much everywhere, from West Limerick and Skibbereen in the west and southwest, Donegal in the north, southern Leinster, Co. Antrim in Ulster, just to pick a few locations at random from the text. Of course, I've long suspected that any native Midwinter traditions in Ireland were obscured by Christmas celebrations, with only a few (like the Wren Boys) unusual customs that point to possible non-Christian influences, and it seems likely that Midsummer has undergone much the same process, though perhaps not as completely. This does not mean, by the way, that I support the entirely artificial "Wheel of the Year". There is little evidence pointing toward a significant celebration at the Equinoxes, outside of the puzzling, possibly coincidental, cluster of Saints' Days relevant to Celtic-language-speaking areas in March (in addition to Patrick, Saints David and Piran, relevant to Wales and Cornwall respectively, have feast days in March).

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    2. Error correction: I meant, obviously, that the point of sunrise was moving southward again at Dies Natalis Solis Invicti.

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