Wednesday, 5 November 2014

Midsummer Traditions

Like Christmas, Easter, Mayday and most other notable dates of celebration in the Western calendar, the Midsummer festival has its origins in pre-Christian European traditions that were given a Christian veneer to give that life-hating religion a crowd-pleasing, pagan feel to those natives who found it too dull, dour and lacking in fun to bother with. Traditionally, Midsummer is recognised as being on 24th June, the birthday of St. John the Baptist and thus marks the birth of winter in polarity to the birth of Christ, who symbolises the sun’s rebirth in the shortest days of winter. See my Christmas postGleðileg Jól for more on this particular symbolism. Nowadays, as society becomes more secular, the celebration of Midsummer, amongst those who bother, is generally centred on 21st June, the day of the Summer Solstice, rather than the birthday of St. John, the date of which is no longer an accurate reflection of the longest day of the year.

Pan-European Midsummer traditions, according to Frazer’s Golden Bough, include the casting of herbs, pebbles or effigies into a bonfire to ward off bad luck, leaping over or dancing around that fire to increase the fertility of the people and the land, and the igniting of hay bundles and wooden cartwheels, which were then rolled down a hill, as an oracular means of predicting the success of that summer’s harvest. Midsummer, as the turning point of the year, represents a liminal period. It is a time where past actions are reflected upon and the fruit of their actions are considered and anticipated. It is a mid-point; a brief resting place where hope is at its highest and the results of ones past actions can equally go in or against ones favour. It is a beginning and an end at once, and is part of the ongoing cycle of death and life as represented by the death of Baldur, the myth of Ragnarök, or the cyclic feud between Arawn and Hafgan the Holly King and the Oak King.

A current tradition amongst neo-pagans and others in the UK involves watching the sun rise over the heel stone at Stonehenge on the day of the Solstice. It was the 18th Century antiquarian William Stukeley who was the first man of the modern era to notice that the blue stones opened up to the direction of the rising sun of the summer solstice, with the sun rising directly above the Heel Stone, thus encouraging the common contemporary opinion that Stonehenge was once the site of solar rituals. Gerald Hawkins, writer of ‘Stonehenge Decoded’, also claimed that the positions of the stones at Stonehenge had strong correlations with the rising and setting positions with the sun and the moon. He even went as far as saying that the stones and holes that marked the earliest incarnation of Stonehenge could be used to predict lunar eclipses.

Despite being subject to the doubt of modern academics,this is a claim that is also backed up by the theories of Alexander Thom, who claims that several other megalithic sites in the British Isles display similar lunar and solar alignments. See one of my posts from this time last year, Solar Alignments of Ancient Monuments, for more on this. In Mythology of the British Isles, Geoffrey Ashe remarks how in the 4th Century BCE, a Greek by the name of Hecataeus of Abdera spoke of an island ‘North of Gaul’ which was inhabited by Hyperboreans and ruled over by Apollo, who would appear to them every nineteen years when the heavens were in a certain position and would play his harp to them at a ‘remarkable round temple’.

In the Celtic religion at the time it would seem that Apollo’s equivalent was Maponus, who, like Apollo was a sun god and a harp-playing god of music. Interestingly, though perhaps just coincidentally, the figure of the nineteen-year cycle suggested by Hecataeus correlates roughly with the 18.61 years of the lunar cycle, suggesting that there was also a possible lunar element to their religion, as well as a possible knowledge of the nature of the lunar nodical cycle amongst the Britons and their forebears. There appears to be more to the ancient nature of Stonehenge than a solar/lunar worship centre alone, with the 260 barrows that lie within a three-mile radius of it suggesting that funerary rites also seemed to play some part in the ritual purpose of Stonehenge.

Though it cannot be proved that Neolithic man displayed such great astronomical knowledge, in consideration of the other monuments of the era, and the solar, lunar and stellar nature of the religions of those times, it does seem fairly likely that there was an observational aspect to all of these sacred sites which may have been closely associated with burial rites and the souls and fates of the dead. The fact that there are about 900 megaliths and 40,000 Long Barrows in Great Britain suggests that these things were of vital importance to the practitioners of the ancient religions that once thrived here.