A Folkloric Solstice and Midsummer's Eve

Midsummer’s Tide

"Round goes the wheel,
Round goes the year,
For woe or for weal,
Midsummer is here."
by Lina Beard, Adelia Belle Beard,
How to Amuse Yourself and Others: The American Girl's Handy Book

What a wonderfully auspicious time! Midsummer, like Hallow's season, is a frame of time, not a specific date.  With all the focus always falling on May Day, what about the other night of witch's flight?  What about Midsummer?! Within the tide of Midsummer are feasts, customs, superstitions and festivals of all kinds, namely; Summer Solstice and St. John’s Eve (you can find some excellent information on the lore of St. John’s at New World Witchery).  Personally, saints play no part in my spirituality, but all charms and magics in the Americas do and so any charm, even the saintly kinds, grab my interest come holiday season.  Even if you’re a pagan, St. John’s Eve is a day for you because it’s very lore throughout history has been tied to witches, spirits, faeries, and liminality. What Midsummer means depends on the individual, and for me, this is the time to revel in the wild gods, those of the sun and the wood and the otherworldly.
"Midsummer Madness can be cured by washing the hands in poppy tea." -C.L Daniels.

Though the solstice in the Americas lacks the fanfare and fun common to folk customs in Europe, it has been enjoying a revival none-the-less, especially among those moving away from the Christianized versions of holidays. They feared witches, you know, this time of year. They feared witches and faeries alike, feared we may steal their milk and bewitch their butter. Feared that we gather at mountainsides to dance ‘round ferns and fires and the familiars of the forest. This is the witchlore of Midsummer, the dance and flight of witches to and from the otherworld, by fern and by fire.
"June 22nd is a day for love charms."
- Green Collection

This Solstice falls on a Friday, the day of Venus the glittering light, on a freshly waning moon, and St. John’s falls on a Sun’s day, as the sun enters Cancer.  Just as Hallows Eve represents the whole of the harvest season, so Midsummer is symbolic of all that is summer and heat and fruit before the harvest, but after the Rites of Spring.   Midsummer, unlike Hallow's Eve, does not have the same grip on American folk traditions in the broader sense. Midsummer, St. John’s Eve and the Summer Solstice are not celebrated with the same wide-spread renown as Hallows Eve or even May Day- this holiday is one that is easily looked over or forgotten in the waves and summer heat.  

Though the 4th of July with all its patriotic flare is how most Americans really mark the rise of summer, for some communities, families, and individuals, the Summer Solstice is an important reminder of our heritage. It’s only a passing resemblance between our Independence Day celebrations and the old world Midsummer festivals.  We may light bonfires and sparklers in our yards instead of great need fires on the hilltops, and we may weave daisy chains instead of wreaths festooned with candles, but we do revel in the greenness and warmth, in fire and life just the same as so many in our hemisphere will do in their own way.

The pagan component and folk magical elements of the celebration of summer are not strong in new world folklore or cultural history- it doesn’t have the same deeply rooted superstitions and taboos throughout the population, so our inspiration mostly comes from the effort to revive the folkloric holiday traditions of our ancestors, particularly those from Europe such as England, Scandinavia, Ireland, France, Spain, Poland, and Germany whose Summer Solstice celebrations are the primary basis for our perception of this seasonal phenomenon and its legends.  It may not be the most popular folkloric holiday here, but it has certainly found rooting in America thanks to our European immigrant populations keeping this old world tradition alive in small pockets of our country's regions over the years.

St. John’s Eve, however, isn’t just a European phenomenon.  Christian influences are at the heart of American folk magic and magical traditions.   Some traditions of magic in the Americas, within voodoo, value St. John’s Eve for its potency in baptism rituals- including baptism of practitioners of witchcraft as well.  St. John’s Eve may have found its way into African American spiritualities by way of forced Christian conversion, but like all things, the meaning has evolved over time and given way to magical practices of spirit dancing and baptisms which reflect more on West African spirituality in the New World than it does on the Christian influence on black Americans.
“On Midsummer's Eve witches, fairies, and ghosts range abroad, evidence of its association with the ancient beliefs about the dead."-Hennig Cohen, Tristram Potter Coffin, The Folklore of American Holidays

The old world folklore is quite clear on some things: this was a time for protection against evils and devils and witches and elves.  It was a time when butter would be charmed by sorcerers and spirits could leave their body to the realm of the dead if they so choose.  For we witches, this is one of our times.  This is a day for flight and fire and fancy. For a witch in the new world, this should be a wild time of fire dancing and water divination, and love spells.  In American folklore, especially that of the Midwest with larger German and Scandinavian populations, the same love projects which are practiced at Hallow’s Eve are also practiced on Midsummer.  With less folklore specifically about Midsummer in the American folk tradition, what could a New World witch do to honor the old world customs of her old world ancestors?

Tricks of the Old World and New for Midsummer

"Midsummer Eve is considered a good time for ascertaining who will marry whom, and the charms for the purpose are many and varied."
-Charles Dickens, All the Year Round 1887

Raising the Fires

At least this part of the old world traditions survived in the collective consciousness of American folk magic.  Whether built to drive away evil from the fertile fields or lit to be jumped for luck and health, the fires of summer are a beacon, a signal of summer in a way that permeates so many of our cultures.  I like to burn all my offerings on the great fires, read the ashes. I like the slow and low crackle right at that perfect moment at twilight, when the world is that deep cerulean blue, it’s a perfect time to gaze at the flames to look forward.

"Fire, a symbol of the sun's power, is central to Midsummer rites, and hilltop blazes through which people leap, drive their animals, and hurl objects cleanse evil from the community and renew reproductive powers.  Torches from such fires are carried through fields and even applied to them.”-Hennig Cohen, Tristram Potter Coffin, The Folklore of American Holidays

"Fires made on Midsummer Eve protect the land from evil." CL Daniels, Encyclopedia of Superstitions, Folklore and the Occult Sciences of the World

“In the old country, it is believed that witches are abroad on Midsummer's Eve and huge bonfires are built on the hillsides to drive them away.”- Barbro Sklute, Legends and Folk Beliefs in a Swedish American Community

Water Working

Bathing in a body of water, being consecrated by water, baptized by water, divination with water by use of eggs or by combing one’s hair in front of a mirror of water- all of these are found in various folklore throughout the old world and some have made their way stateside.  Use St. John’s Eve as an excuse to purify the home and body with this element.

"If a woman looks into a well or fountain on St. John's Eve, she will see not only her reflection in the water but also that of her future husband.  This superstition is found in New Mexico, in Chile, and in Andalusia."-Aurelio M. Espinosa, The Folklore of Spain in the American Southwest: Traditional Spanish Folk Literature in Northern New Mexico and Southern Colorado

"In Latin areas, including Mexico and Puerto Rico, public bathing was a St. John's tradition, while Slavic families forbade their children from swimming until the saint has "blessed the water" on June 24th."-Jan Harold Brunvand, American Folklore: An Encyclopedia

"Whoever wishes to know the future will bring to him (or her) will empty an egg into a glass of water and put it under the bed on St. John's Eve.  The next morning the form that the egg assumes will tell everything; if the form of a ship appears, a sea voyage is foretold; if a person appears, it means marriage during the year; if a skeleton or coffin appears, death will come during the year, etc."-Aurelio M. Espinosa, The Folklore of Spain in the American Southwest: Traditional Spanish Folk Literature in Northern New Mexico and Southern Colorado

"If a young lady wants to have a soft skin, and a clear ruddy complexion, she must wait till the eve of St. John's Day, ad then rub the face with a piece of the umbilical cord of a young male child, and she'll have a ruddy complexion, if the moon be full at the time, and she have previously washed her face with a soap made of fresh hog's lard and "teguezquite," a kind of soap used in Monterey." (Rio Grande Superstitions) Journal of American Folklore

Flowers, Ferns, and Seeds

"More famous, however, than these are the miraculous properties which popular superstition in many parts of Europe has attributed to the fern at this season.  At midnight on Midsummer Eve the plant is supposed to bloom and soon afterwards to seed, and whoever catches the bloom or the seed is thereby endowed with supernatural knowledge and miraculous powers; above all, he knows where treasures lie hidden in the ground, and he can render himself invisible at will."
- James George Frazer, The Golden Bough

The importance of flower and herb gathering on St. John’s Eve is a well-known folk custom from the old world which has found roots in the new.  The gathering of early summer herbs such as mugwort, fern seed, and St. John’s wort is a staple, but really the gathering of any lovely flower- especially in the magic numbers of seven or nine, are of great use to a witch this day.
We raise fires and jump them to honor the spark of life that the virid and vegetal spirits breathe into the land, we cleanse in water to purify ourselves and renew as the land is renewed, we gather herbs and bring them in to invite the green into our own homes for the summer. Go gather herbs of Midsummer; offer some to the gods of your local waters, and offer others to the fires and their smokes and offer others to the domestic spirits who dwell in your home. Jump fires and take baths, weave crowns of flowers and toss them into the trees. Sleep with flowers beneath your head and gather fern seeds in the mid-day light. Hang St. John's wort, oak and nettle from your doors and eat the apples of summer. Make love and rekindle your sense of excitement and life. Let the vitality of the season guide you, by fire and fern and flower:

"If on Midsummer night nine kinds of flowers are laid under the head of a person, the sleeper will dream of his or her sweetheart." C. L Daniels, Encyclopedia of Superstitions, Folklore and the Occult Sciences of the World

"Gather fern seeds on the Eve St. John's day to keep your sweetheart."- Thomas G. Manning & Ambrose N. Burton,  A Collection of Folklore By Undergraduate Students of East Tennessee State University (1966)

Language of the Fern: "Sincerity"

Cunningham associated ferns in general with mercury, air, and masculinity. Sword Fern was used by local tribes to be chewed or drunk in tea for sore throats, washed over wounds to soothe them, eaten after being steamed and shucked in times of desperation, and for hair-wash.  In other parts of the Northwest, ferns were associated with safe child birthing medicine.  Some Pacific Northwest tribes were said to have utilized sword fern "magically" as a charm in a ritual to bring the winds, and according to ethnobotany scholar Nancy Turner, and was just as useful on a practical level as an edible; "Fronds for pit-cooking, matting, and ceremonial purposes harvested only a few from each plant to maintain plants (general, Northwest Coast)"- Nancy Turner, Ancient Pathways, Ancestral Knowledge: Ethnobotany and Ecological Wisdom of Indigenous Peoples of Northwestern North America.

Outside of the Northwest, fern-lore includes instances found in Hoodoo, where dried ferns are said to be burned to break witchcraft, swept across floors to banish ill-intent, or, to draw love.  Fern also has associations with love in Southern folk charms outside of hoodoo and conjure, and it was the seeds that were of value for these charms.
"To the one who finds,
The seeds of fern,
Misfortune and evil,
To good luck will turn."
 - Lina Beard, Adelia Belle Beard,
How to Amuse Yourself and Others: The American Girl's Handy Book

Additional Midsummer charms from the folklore of our old world ancestors...

-Witches were said to be found dancing around king ferns on St. John’s Eve.  Those who waited by the fern and sought seeds could also find gifts from the devil.

-A branch of hazelnut cut on Midsummer's Eve will serve as an excellent wand for a practitioner of water-witching.

-Weave a wreath of nine kinds of flowers into a crown and silently toss the wreath over your shoulder, behind your back, into a tree. However many times it falls before catching is how many years it will take for you to wed.

- Gather many Midsummer herbs and at noon or midnight on St. John's Eve, place the herbs in the boughs and eaves of the home. Those which remain green or do not drop by Hallow's Eve will ensure good luck to them who gathered the herb.

- Gather nine kinds of flowers on St. John's Eve, make a decoction of these flowers and drink as a medicinal treatment.

-Casting flower crowns and garlands into the water to divine by their movements.

-Rubbing oneself with mugwort or wearing mugwort and casting this herb into the fire on May Day is meant to rid one of evil influences and break hexes. The same for St. John's wort. All old herbal materials are best burned in the Midsummer fire.

-Some cultures in Europe (Frazer claims the Celts, Slavs, and Germanic tribes) strongly associated the oak with St. John's Eve and purportedly used oak as a source for the great fires of Midsummer, after stripping off the mistletoe which oft grows on oaks.

-While some European cultures believed St. John’s wort could repel witches when hung in the doorway, others believed that the witches themselves craved this herb and gathered it on St. John's.

-Apple Charm- cut an apple in two and whoever’s half contains the most seeds will find love first.

-It was believed that one who stands under an elder tree at Midsummer will see the court of the fairy go by in all their array.

-"Elderberries picked on St. John's eve, will prevent possession from witchcraft, and bestow upon the owner magical powers." C.L Daniels, Encyclopedia of Superstitions, Folklore, and the Occult Sciences of the World

Go forth witches, and make offerings of wreaths to the rivers, butter to the dead and the small folk. Build fires for the spirits and wash clean in the sea. Hang St. John's wort over your doors, picnic beneath elder trees and dance around the ferns to conjure the otherworldly. Your foods are first fruits and summer teas, buttered cakes and honey. Swim with your friends, dance with your children in the woods, weave flowers and light fires, fill your life with energy. Fill your home with greenery and protect yourself carefully on these midsummer nights...

Sponge Cake at Funerals And Other Quaint Old Customs: Magical Creatures, A Weiser Books Collection by William Wirt Sikes, Varla Ventura The Golden Bough by James George Frazer
Encyclopedia of Superstitions, Folklore and the Occult Sciences of the World by CL Daniels
A Collection of Folklore By Undergraduate Students of East Tennessee State University (1966) by Thomas G. Manning & Ambrose N. Burton
American Folklore: An Encyclopedia by Jan Harold Brunvand
The Folklore of Spain in the American Southwest: Traditional Spanish Folk Literature in Northern New Mexico and Southern Colorado by Aurelio M. Espinosa
African American Folklore: An Encyclopedia for Students: An Encyclopedia for Students by Anand Prahlad
The Folklore of American Holidays by Hennig Cohen, Tristram Potter Coffin
Legends and Folk Beliefs in a Swedish American Community by Barbro Sklute

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