Wednesday, 21 June 2017

FOLKLORE ON FRIDAY - Midsummer Magic

Midsummer Eve Bonfire on Skagen's Beach by P.S. Krøyer

Well once again Midsummer is upon us, and at long last I've got round to penning another little delve into the world of folklore. Now the summer solstice has had a special significance for many cultures over the centuries - being the longest day of the year it is obviously is an important, but easy to observe. marker in the calendar of the year. And I sure I need not go into realms of detail about the numerous monuments of the ancient world that were constructed to cast shadows or catch beams of sun on the summer solstice. However as an accurate reckoning of the time of the year is very important for the agricultural calendar, it is perhaps not surprising that marking Midsummer's Day was often an important social event as well as a spiritual one. In the British Isles there seems to have been a long tradition of making merry and lighting bonfires on this date. For example, John Stow in his book The Survey of London (1598) tells us - 
In the months of June and July, on the vigils of festival days, and on the same festival days in the evenings after the sun setting, there were usually made bonfires in the streets, every man bestowing wood or labour towards them; the wealthier sort also, before their doors near to the said bonfires, would set out tables on the vigils, furnished with sweet bread and good drink, and on the festival days with meats and drinks plentifully, whereunto they would invite their neighbours and passengers also to sit and be merry with them in great familiarity, praising God for his benefits bestowed on them. These were called bonfires as well of good amity amongst neighbours that being before at controversy, were there, by the labour of others, reconciled, and made of bitter enemies loving friends; and also for the virtue that a great fire hath to purge the infection of the air.
This national tradition of lighting bonfires began to die out in the 17th century, however it continued in continued in rural England until the 19th century, with local versions often involving processions of assorted officials, and parades with effigies. And of course a handful of such rustic celebrations still survive today. But while some many well be Victorian recreations of older folk traditions, it should noted that there is now a new tradition of Midsummer celebrations. in the shape of the Glastonbury Festival (and similar events), which is always held on the nearest weekend to the summer solstice. 

The Christian Church also marked Midsummer too. The Catholic Church assigned the date of 24th of June as the birthday of St John the Baptist, and consequently celebrating the nativity of this saint and midsummer celebrations began fused together in many places, with the longest day being erroneously celebrated a few days late on June 24th. However it probaby due to St. John, that Midsummer gained a long standing tradition as being a night of divination. For example, there is a very old English folk belief that concerning fern seeds. Now ferns actually reproduce by releasing spores, however our ancestors were somewhat baffled by the fact that this common, and often rapidly spreading, plant appeared not to produce seeds in the usual fashion.

Midsummer Eve by Edward Robert Hughes

Hence it was thought that the seeds therefore must be invisible. Furthermore a tradition emerged that stated that fern seeds could only be seen at Midsummer Eve, and that ferns only released their seeds upon this magical night, with some version of the old belief holding that the fern would put of a blue flower at sunset that would bloom and release the seeds at midnight. And the reason why fern seeds were only produced on this one night of the year was linked to the birth of St John - 
The Angell did foretell John Baptist should be borne at that very instant, in which the Fernseede, at other times invisible, did fall; intimating... that this Saint of God had some extraordinary vertue from the circumstances of his birth
from The Originall of Unbelief (1625) by Thomas Jackson

This fern folklore furthermore evolved to state that if one possessed a fern seed, it would grant its owner various magical powers, such the ability to find lost things (including treasure), to be able to see faeries, and to become invisible. This latter claim was even recorded by Shakespeare - 
We have the receipt of the Fernseede, we walk invisible
from Henry the Fourth Part I 

Hence traditions of assorted rituals and vigils to catch a fern seed on Midsummer Eve emerged. For example in Middlesex, it was said that the seed should be caught by placing  a plate near the plant and the would-be invisible man should hope a seed would land in it. However the seed must plant of its own accord on the plate, for any attempt to interfere would ruin the magical properties of the seed. 

However there were other rites and charms for Midsummer, and again there are links back to St. John. As John the Baptist was seen as the man who foretold the coming of Christ, therefore the date of his nativity was considered a good night for attempting to see the future yourself - a time when what is normally invisible can be seen if you will. And the link to this particular saint can be detected in another widespread bit of folk magic practiced on Midsummer Eve. In 18th century weekly London newspaper The Connoisseur we have one of the oldest recorded versions of the charm of the Midsummer Rose - 
If I go backwards without speaking a word into the garden upon a Midsummer Eve, and gather a Rose, and keep it in a clean sheet of paper, without looking at it, till Christmas Day, it will be as fresh as in June, and if I then stick it in my bosom, he that is my husband will come and take it out
from The Connoisseur, Volume 2 (1755) by "Mr Town"

Now there are many similar charms that allegedly will reveal your one true love, and somewhat surprisingly many of them are to be carried out on Hallowe'en night (see here for more details)! But this particular love rite is very closely linked to midsummer and John the Baptist. For Christian lore held that good St. John was born exactly six months before Jesus, and hence the church set his birthday at Midsummer. And so we have that exact, same half year as part of the magic in this love charm.

Of course if you are of a certain age, not doubt you too find each passing year seems to go faster. And hence hence this old folk charms seems to underline the fact that while once winter seemed far away from the heat of the longest day, for us older folks, midsummer is a reminder that Christmas will be here before we know it...

Midsummer Roses by Leonard Charles Nightingale 

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