@David Halpin Circle stories
As we know, for many cultures around the world midsummer’s eve is a time when fairies and spirits cross more easily into the human world. One famous piece of writing which describes this liminal time is William Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Nights Dream whose characters include both the king of the fairies, Oberon, and the fairy queen, Titania.
In the 8th century, the writer, Bede, included a list of old Anglo-Saxon names for the pagan festivals and months, including the name Litha for midsummer. Today, some pagans and witches use this name to refer to the summer solstice as part of the wheel of the year.
As far as traditional folklore is concerned, observing the time of midsummer and the solstice draws attention to the cyclical nature of life and time. The fairy lore and spiritual aspects allow people to see beyond these earthly bonds and into the realm of eternity and timelessness.
Of course, there was also a connected magical element to the fires lit on midsummer as they banished bad luck and evil spirits. As we have seen from previous posts, this is a time when a person might inadvertently cause offence to the good people without even realising it. The wearing of flowers in a persons hair and hanging garlands upon doorways was a way to thwart bad luck in this respect.
In Irish lore the cycle of life is often represented by turning, spinning and circular motion. There are many other variants of this custom of making wishes while walking in a circle. Sometimes people walked around a fire or a well but in other cases it might be a fairy tree or wooden pole.
Another custom is ‘turning the pebble’ where a person would walk around the midsummer bonfire three times holding a stone in their hand and whispering a wish they wanted to come true to themselves.
Then, after the last loop they threw the pebble into the flames.
In some Scandinavian countries a type of decorated Maypole is the central focus of the dancing and rituals.
When you look at the mythology of spider-goddesses, spinning and webs you also notice these archetypal patterns. I would recommend Barbara Tedlock’s excellent book, The Shaman in the Woman’s Body, for more on this. https://www.penguinrandomhouse.com/…/the-woma…/9780553379716
Another circular motif used at this time of the year is a sunwheel. Depending upon where you live these may take the form of huge balls of straw or tangles of wood which are set on fire and rolled down a hill at sunset.
The ashes of the sunwheel were then used to protect homes and animals from evil spirits. A similar fire custom which includes prophecy is jumping over the bonfire with your love. If you let go their hand during the jump the relationship was said to be doomed, though!
An interesting form of divination used in Northern Europe at midsummer is one where young girls float garlands containing their wishes, either whispered to the flowers or written on paper, on the surface of a river or lake. Depending on how the garland moves or whether it sinks was said to predict the outcome of the request.
Some versions of this custom say you are not meant to look at the garland or even go back to the offering as you are handing your wishes to the gods, goddesses and spirits to determine.
I think there is probably a connection here to the tradition of placing problems on a rag tree and allowing the material to deteriorate in the hope that the problem will too. You can also notice similarities to various Irish practices at Holy Wells in this custom. The circling and water rituals carried out at Holy Well’s, which, of course, were old pagan sites long before they were Christianised have that same context of leaving things in the hands of higher powers.
In fact, for many in Ireland today, midsummer is more associated with St. John, and many of the ancient pagan practices and lore have either been forgotten or ‘updated’ with Christian names and themes.
Fire, prophecy, fairies, ancestors and feasting are the motifs that run through all of the lore associated with this time of the year. We find parallels between South American customs and Russian lore, Irish traditions and those of North American indigenous tribes. It really is a treasure trove of comparative archetypes.
You can also notice some similarities to the Bealtaine traditions here as both of these rituals are acknowledging the long, summer days, purification and the prospect of new life in all of its manifestations. Biologically this makes sense. We are more energised having been exposed to longer hours of daylight and psychologically this is a good explanation for many of the customs involving resolutions and promises made at this time of the year.
(As an aside, it’s probably easier to feel more positive about the future in the summer than the later custom of making resolutions on January the 1st during the depths of winter!)
One Irish custom which is very easy to maintain and continue is that of lighting a candle on solstice morning and letting it burn all day in recognition of the sun and in remembrance of our ancestors. Always be careful where you place the candle, though!
Over the next few posts I’ll take a look at further folklore and rituals associated with midsummer. There’s quite a lot as you would expect which is why I’ll start posting now. There are also some customs and traditions which people might want to enact themselves so posting early will allow good time for preparation.