Midsummer 2017

 

A bonfire for Midsummer in Mäntsälä, Finland.

A bonfire for Midsummer in Mäntsälä, Finland.

The summer solstice, more commonly known as Midsummer, marked the longest day of the year and the zenith of magical power often called “white magic.” Magic worked on Midsummer was most often concerned with life and fertility. Jumping through the Midsummer bonfire was a way to attract fertility, good luck, and prosperity to both the jumper and the surrounding fields. The bonfires of Midsummer are traditionally kindled from the friction of two sacred woods, fir and oak. Nine different types of herbs are thrown upon the Midsummer fire: mistletoe, vervain, St. John’s Wort, heartsease, lavender, and a choice of four others chosen from herbs typical of this season such as yarrow. Folks would feast, dance and jump the fire for luck and fertility. The herds were driven through the embers in days long ago to purge disease and illness from them. When the fires had burned down, folks would carry ashes back to their homes to sprinkle on fields, the four corners, and lay embers on the hearth. The ashes bring powers of protection, health and luck.

Water is the other important aspect of Midsummer. In times past folks swam in waters that flowed towards the rising sun as it climbed in Midsummer morning sky. Bathing in springs and rivers on Midsummer brings healing, cleansing and protection. The dew of Midsummer is said to bestow health to whomever drinks of it. Especially powerful is fetching running water of Midsummer morn and mixing it with ashes from the bonfire, sprinkling it around the house, yard and on oneself bestows protection and luck. Iceland combined the beliefs about bathing and dew into one practice: Icelandic folklore says that if you bathe naked in the morning dew on the morning of June 24, you will keep aging at bay for longer.) Midsummer Eve, the night before the solstice, is the evening of herbs. The herbs and flowers gathered this night are considered exceptionally potent. St John’s Wort, burdock, thorn, and nettle , should be harvested on Midsummer Eve and hung on doors or windows and placed around the home for protection. Royal Fern seeds which are gathered at midsummer are said to make the possessor invisible. They who find Royal Fern blossoms on Midsummer’s eve become wise, lucky, and wealthy. Women wear braided circlets of clover and flowers, while men wear chaplets of oak leaves and flowers around their heads. In times past, livestock were also decorated with garlands made of flowers, foliage, and oak leaves.

Walpurgis Night

PRAGUE, CZECH REPUBLIC – APRIL 30, 2013: Participants of the costumed parade at the Witches Night carry a straw witch over the Charles Bridges in Prague, Czech Republic.

Walpurgis Night is the English translation of Walpurgisnacht, one of the Dutch and German names for the night of 30 April, so called because it is the eve of the feast day of Saint Walpurga, an 8th-century English missionary to the Franks. In Germanic folklore, Walpurgisnacht, also called Hexennacht, literally “Witches’ Night”, is believed to be the night of a witches’ meeting on the Brocken, the highest peak in the Harz Mountains, a range of wooded hills in central Germany between the rivers Weser and Elbe. May 1, also known as May Day and Beltane, was long celebrated in pre-Christian Europe as a highpoint of the magical year and many of the traditions and practices associated with it carried over into the celebration of Walpurga’s festival.

In much of Central Europe today, Walpurgis Night has become a holiday similar to Hallowe’en in the United States. People dress up as witches and go out to party — as in the photo above. There is often lots of drinking! In many places, a witch is burnt in effigy. In Prague, Walpurgis Night — Čarodějnice in Czech — is a very popular holiday. There are two Central European holidays that I would love to arrange to attend sometime… one is the Krampus parades in Salzburg in early December and the other is Walpurgis Night in Prague! (I guess another holiday I’d like to see sometime are the Midsummer bonfires in late June. Anybody want to join me? Maybe we can arrange a group to go together to one of these holidays!)

(A chapter of Come Hell or High Water, Part One: Wellspring happens on Čarodějnice.)

You can also read my 2014 post about Walpurgis Night if you want.

Pysanky Can Save the World

My collection of decorated eggs from Prague and Salzburg on display as an Easter egg tree in 2015.

Pysanky are the decorated eggs in Ukraine or other Slavic areas which are a very important part of the holiday season. It is important to keep making new pysanky every year to replace those that were broken by accident last year because the pysanky keep an evil dragon away from the earth. The more pysanky there are in the world, the further away the dragon must hide. But if there are too few pysanky, then the dragon can come closer and if there are really not enough pysanky in the world then the dragon can eat the earth!

Easter baskets were traditionally baskets of holiday food (meat, cheese, eggs — all the things that people were supposed to be fasting from during Lent!) that were brought to church to be blessed. Easter Monday was a good time to keep eating what was in the Easter baskets as well as enjoy the decorations and displays of Easter eggs. In many parts of Central Europe, people make “Easter trees” to hang their elaborately decorated Easter eggs on.

Pysanky were thought to protect households from evil spirits, catastrophe, lightning and fires. Pysanky with spiral motifs were the most powerful, as the demons and other unholy creatures would be trapped within the spirals forever.

Pysanky held powerful magic, and had to be disposed of properly, lest a witch get a hold of one. She could use the shell to gather dew, and use the gathered dew to dry up a cow’s milk. The witch could also use bits of the eggshell to poke people and sicken them. The eggshell had to be ground up very finely (and fed to chickens to make them good egg layers) or broken into pieces and tossed into a running stream.

The cloth used to dry pysanky was powerful, too, and could be used to cure skin diseases. And it was considered very bad luck to trample on a decorated egg -– God would punish anyone who did with a variety of illnesses.

There were superstitions regarding the colors and designs on the pysanky. One old Ukrainian myth centered on the wisdom of giving older people gifts of pysanky with darker colors and/or rich designs, for their life has already been filled. Similarly, it is appropriate to give young people pysanky with white as the predominant color because their life is still a blank page. Girls would often give pysanky to young men they fancied, and include heart motifs. It was said, though, that a girl should never give her boyfriend a pysanky that has no design on the top and bottom of the egg, as this might signify that the boyfriend would soon lose his hair.