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Midsummer Pagan Traditions

St John's wort doth charm all Witches away
If gathered at midnight on the Saint's holy day
Any Devils and Witches have no power to harm
Those that gather the plant for a charm
Rub the lintels with that red juicy flower
No thunder nor tempest will then have the power
To hurt or hinder your house; and bind
Round your neck a charm of similar kind

--Traditional English proverb

St. John's Eve: A Study in Folklore

     The celebration of Midsummer, known also as St. John's Eve is rife with a plethora of folklore. Typically this is a time when the Sun enters the astrological sign of Cancer but this festive occasion has been celebrated and recognized as occurring between the 21st of and the 24th of June. You may well wonder why a distinctly Christian figure, such as St. John, has such strong associations with this lesser Sabbat. As Mike Nichols notes in his Midsummer essay, St. John the Baptist was considered to be somewhat of a Pagan figure and was often shown with the cloven hoofed lower body of a satyr, he was also depicted with horns, and many considered him to be a form of Pan that was co-opted by the Church. These descriptions coupled with the fact that St. John was also known as the Oak King paint him as being more of a Jack-in-the-Hedge figure, a Verdelet if you will. These associations occur naturally when you consider that this is a potent time of the year when the woods and the wild are bursting with bloom. For many regions this period represents the height of the growing season and the air is thick with a viridescent power. 

     St. John also lends his name to specific wort that many a wortcunner is familiar with. St. John's Wort (hypericum perforatum) is a member of the Sunflower family and is easily recognized by the tiny bright, golden-yellow flowers it produces that tend to resemble miniature suns. You may recall the recent studies that linked the use of St. John's Wort with being a natural antidepressant as this plant is thought to contain encapsulated sunlight in the oils it produces, this oil, whether used internally or externally, is just the thing to chase away the blues or dark thoughts when used in a consistent and responsible manner. 

     Many witches pick their herbs and worts at the Summer Solstice, as this is a time when they are thought to be at their most effective. Plants selected at this time were more filled with the numinous and divine essence, with the fullness of the light and warmth of the sun readily available to those who would use them in spells and poppets for themselves or for others. St. John also gives his name to the practice of Johanistreue (St. John's Bedstraw) or strewing. Ancient heathen customs included the art of strewing aromatic herbs and flowers on the ground at the Solstice for the Gods to rest upon and during the Christian conversion of such acts this became known as the bed upon which John, the favored disciple of Jesus, lay down upon. Though the specific flowers and herbs used may have been slightly different from region to region the following were almost always included; St. John's Wort, Chamomile, Wild Thyme, Wolf's Claw, Mugwort, Arnica, Calendula, Elder, Oxeye Daisy, Vervain, Yarrow, Wood Betony, Burdock

     Ferns also have a prominent place in the folklore of Midsummer celebrations. It was often mistakenly thought that the fern was only able to seed on the eve of Midsummer and if you were quick enough to gather some of that magical seed from the female ferns on St. John's Eve and mix those seeds into a salve with which to anoint the eyes that you would be able to see straight away into Elphame or the Land of Faeries. If you were diligent enough to mix this salve at the exact moment that St. John himself was born you would also have the ability to walk about unseen, quite invisible to the rest of the world. Fronds of ferns also offered protection from wicked witches for if you make an oblique cut near the leaf stem of the rhizome a pattern in the shape of the Greek letter X is shown, this letter Chi being the letter of Christ and used in abbreviations of the word Christian (Xtian) and Christianity (Xianity). Even ancient white robed Druids chose this auspicious time to harvest the 'soul of the oak', what we know as mistletoe, with their golden sickles amid sacrificial offerings of white bulls. 

     Faeries make their appearance during this holiday too. While Roodmas and Hallowmas are thought to be times when the veil was more apt to be rended, when the separation between our world and the Othereworld was at it's thinnest, the Good Folk, the Gentry, or Them that's In It, as they have been called are still quite active. We know Faerie Queens, in the guise of Aine of Knockaine, Titania, the Queen of Elphame, and many more epithets as the rulers of the Seelie (Summer) and Unseelie (Winter) Court. They often take human, mortal lovers as can be seen in the folklore of such tales as Shakespeare's Midsummer Night's Dream, the ballads of Thomas the Rhymer as well as that of Tam Lin and even in the tale of Peer Gynt. It was also believed that if one were to gaze through a hagstone or holed stone during the Summer Solstice that this act gave one a view into the Elphame or the Land of Faeries. Fires were often lit at sundown for several reasons during Summer Solstice celebrations -- namely as way to recognize and honor the fiery power of the sun at it's zenith but also to chase away those nearby spirits whose presence may have thought to have been one of a negative experience. 

     While at Roodmas or Beltane there were kept dual fires in which cattle and such were ushered between to enjoy the great benefits from the smoke generated these fires at Johnsmas or Midsummer were nominally single fires kept atop tors and hills. These fires would have been tended to all during the night in order to stay lit (known as setting the watch) ' and those who went without sleep to tend such fires were thought to gain the boon of the Queen of Faeries by their efforts and that such behavior would either drive one mad or give one the ability to speak with a charmed tongue (a reference to the noble arts and talents of the poet). 

     In Croatia, Johnsmas balefire is thought to bestow great luck upon the jumper and couples would often leap the flames together. History does give us examples of triple fires once kept by those who celebrated the Feast of St. John. The first fire, made of clean bones with no wood; a bonfire -- the second fire, made of clean wood and no bones; this one called a wakefire ' and finally, the third fire, a combination of bones and wood; this one being called St. John's Fire, with the latter having the ability to drive away even dragons! Not only were these simple fires kept but an object known as the Fire Wheel was often utilized as well. A wooden wheel was stuffed with rushes all between the spokes and taken to the top of a nearby hill and set aflame, if the wheel managed to stay lit with a blazing fire all the way during the trip to the bottom of the hill, well that was considered a most propitious sign, that of an excellent harvest to come. If however, the wheel did not manage to stay lit that was an omen of a most awful harvest to come and such an event generally left the celebrants in an unhappy state. 

     Historically the date of St. John or St. John's Eve has been one of note as many important events happened at this time. In Ireland & England it was once thought that on midnight during the 23rd of June (St. John's Day Eve) the souls of all those who were living left their bodies and found the spot where they would eventually die. It was on this date in 1717 that the Masons went public in London. This is also the day King Edward III founded the Order of the Garter in 1348, which many think was really a secret order of the Old Faith. Traditionally this is the day the Pied Piper lead 130 children out of the town of Hamelin and into a nearby mountain where they were never seen or heard from again. 

Witchcraft Medicine, Claudia Mueller-Ebeling, Christian Ratsch and Wolf-Dieter Storl 
Stations of the Sun, Ronald Hutton 
Introduction to English Folklore, Violet Alford 
Mike Nichols, 
Private Correspondence 

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