The festival centered upon the summer solstice – known as Midsummer Day or Litha – was an auspicious time for ancient peoples. It was at Midsummer that the Holly King, God of the Waning Year, was believed to encounter and vanquish the Oak King, thereby succeeding in usurping the reign of the year. In Celtic mythology the lord of summer ruled the light half of the year and was a young God, fresh and child-like in many ways. He was often depicted much like the Green Man or the Lord of the Forest, covered in greenery and made to look as though the top of his head was an oak tree, hence giving rise to his alternative moniker of the Oak King. The Oak King represented fertility, life, growth and opportunity and is thus linked with several legendary figures associated with nature and rebirth, such as Robin Hood, the Norse god Balder, the Greek god Dionysus and Herne the Hunter. There are many more myths and legends surrounding the festival of Midsummer, which has been one of the important solar events throughout the history of mankind. According to folklore it is the time that the fairies and nature spirits cross back and forth between our realm and theirs to play tricks on unsuspecting mortals. Midsummer is especially important in the cultures of Scandinavia, Estonia and Latvia, where it is the most celebrated holiday apart from Christmas. On the other side of the world, an old Maori proverb states that if you turn your face to the sun at Midsummer, the shadows will fall behind you. Perhaps most famously, William Shakespeare himself utilised the many mythological and fairytale associations of this time of year in penning his comedy romance, A Midsummer Night’s Dream. With Midsummer almost upon us, there is no better time to reflect upon the festival’s roots in superstition, myth and legend in so many nations.
The Green Man – the spirit who stands for nature in its most wild and untamed form, a man with leaves for hair, who dwells deep within the mythic forest – is one of the most enduring, universal myths in the British Isles. Through the ages and around the world, the Green Man and other nature spirits have appeared in stories, songs and artwork, while forests have provided the setting for some of the most enchanting tales in world literature, from the perilous woods of medieval Romance and the faerie-haunted glades of Shakespeare and Yeats to the talking trees of Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings and the archetypal wilderness of Robert Holdstock’s Mythago Wood. All over Britain the image of the Green Man, masked with leaves or disgorging foliage from his mouth, is found carved not only into the wood and stone of pagan temples and graves but also on medieval churches and cathedrals. The Green Man is commonly perceived as a pre-Christian symbol and a connection is sometimes drawn between the foliate faces found in places of worship and the ‘Jack of the Green’ tales of folklore. There are also startling parallels to be drawn between the Green Man legend and that of the seasonal hero-king, who dies with the passing of each summer but is reborn again as winter yields to spring. Whatever the truth behind the legends of the Green Man, it has proved to be an inspiring figure for a breathtaking array of writers and other artists, appearing in various forms in works such as Pre-Raphaelite artist William Morris’s novel The Wood Beyond the World, Lord Dunsany’s The King of Elfland’s Daughter, The White Goddess by Robert Graves, The Green Man by Kingsley Amis and in more modern times Charles de Lint’s Forests of the Heart.
The Jack in the Green is a figure associated with Midsummer Day celebrations, always played in such by a man on stilts in a costume of leaves, topped by a masked face and a crown made out of flowers. Such rituals are debased remnants of pre-Christian religious ceremonies in which trees were held sacred – forest groves being perceived as the dwelling place of deities and a wide range of nature spirits. A strong reverence for trees and the holiness of nature was by no means confined to the British Isles – to the Norse, in the wild, wintry forests of Scandinavia, a giant ash tree called Yggdrasil was the centre of the universe, while sacred trees and groves also played a central part in Classical mythology. The Greek god Dionysus, who is often pictured masked, crowned in vines and ivy leaves, is in many ways an archetypal Green Man figure. Parallels may be drawn between Dionysus and the horned Celtic deity Cernunnos, both being associated with the wilderness and the underworld as well as the great cycle of death and resurrection. In Arthurian mythology, which is as much French as English in origin, the great wizard Merlin was intimately acquainted with the primal forest – he learned the speech of animals and honed his prophetic powers during his years of madness spent roaming the woods and ultimately, of course, ended his days entrapped in the bowels of a tree by the faerie sorceress Vivian. In the famous medieval tale Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, one of King Arthur’s knights confronts a mysterious figure that emerges from the woods like a force of nature.
Fire was another important aspect to Midsummer celebrations. This was the time when the balefires – bonfires on hilltops, at crossroads, or any place where folk could gather – were lit, traditionally kindled from the friction of two sacred woods, fir and oak. Such fires were lit to protect against evil spirits which were believed to roam freely when the sun was turning southwards again, for as this happened the sun god Bel would begin to die. Bel would only live again at the Winter Solstice, when the Yule logs and lit fir-braches would guide his return. While fire characterised Midsummer Day, Midsummer Eve was the evening of herbs. The herbs and flowers gathered this night are considered exceptionally potent. St John’s wort, burdock, thorn, and nettle, harvested on Midsummer Eve are hung on doors and windows and placed around the home for protection. Some people believed that golden-flowered Midsummer plants, especially Calendula and St John’s Wort, had miraculous healing powers and they therefore picked them on this night. Houses were decorated with fennel, orpine and birch branches. Those who found Royal Fern blossoms on Midsummer Eve were said to become wise, lucky, wealthy and all around happy folk. Traditionally, women wore braided circlets of clover and flowers, while men wore chaplets of oak leaves and flowers around their heads. St John’s wort would also be worn as a decoration. The ubiquity of this herb at this time of year can be explained by the fact that, although Midsummer is originally a pagan holiday, in Christianity it is associated with the nativity of John the Baptist, which is observed on the same day, June 24, in the Catholic, Orthodox and some Protestant churches. For Christians, the traditional fires of Midsummer were to drive away dragons, which were said to also be abroad on St John’s Eve, poisoning springs and wells.
In Northern Europe in particular, which was known for its dark winters and short summers, celebrating the light and the warmth of Midsummer was a natural thing to do. As with many other major pagan festivals, Midsummer had strong fertility associations and as such it was regarded as an auspicious time to dance with, marry or make love to one’s beloved. In Scandinavian countries, on the night before Midsummer every young girl placed a bunch of flowers tied with nine pieces of grass or nine flowers under her pillow, upon which she slept and dreamt of her future husband. Incidentally, the modern term ‘honeymoon’ comes from the moon of Midsummer. This was called the Honey Moon, as this was a time when the beehives were rich in honey, which gathered and fermented into a drink known as mead, customarily drunk at wedding parties at this time of year. Water was the other important aspect of Midsummer. In times past folk swam in waters that flowed towards the rising sun as it climbed in the Midsummer morning sky. Bathing in springs and rivers on Midsummer was thought to bring healing, cleansing and protection, while the dew of a Midsummer morning was said to bestow health on whomever drank of it. Lastly, a full moon on Midsummer Eve is regarded as an especially good omen, for then a mortal may witness fairy dances and celebrations. So be sure to leave an offering for the fairies this Midsummer Eve, so they may think fondly of you!