North American wild rose


Midsummer occurs at summer solstice, when the tilt of the earth's axis gives those of us in the northern latitudes extra hours of sunlight. It is an unruly time, when the veil between the natural and fairy world is lifted. This phenomena occurs because the march of time measured by phases of the moon doesn't synchronize with the progression of the zodiac. Because the revolution of the earth around the sun does not coincide with the lunar year, the cycle of seasons is difficult to quantify in the logical calibrations of calendars and clocks.

Perhaps this is why ancient astronomers feared that without intervention, nature would deteriorate into chaos. Fires were lit as sympathetic magic. Sun wheels were rolled down hills. Celebrants bathed in cleansing waters, and sacrifices were made. These sacred rituals intended to avert destruction were apparently successful. However, since this magic has been abandoned, the zodiac has slipped slightly out of its prescribed place and the calendar day migrated from June 24 to its current date of June 21st.

The deterioration of time is most noticeable with the constellation of Gemini, because the month of the Twins is also the oak and solar month. Once, the rites of solstice would have been practiced when the sign of Gemini ruled the Zodiac. Twins and solstice are inextricably mixed in the magical practices of the Old World.

Midsummer was a time to realign the lunar and solar calendars. Consequently, it is a festival of both fire and water. The Dragon which symbolized chaos that life comes from and returns to, is a fire and water creature. There is also reason to understand the Dragon as a metaphor for a year. For Celts, the New Year began when the old dragon was killed, and the new dragon emerged. Although different cultures mark the New Year at different times, the dragon metaphor can often still be identified.

Stone age people apparently had counted off the year based on the earth's movement through the galaxy. Although time is easy to follow by watching the moon, keeping track of a solar year would have required the same logic and powers of observation that modern scientists use. Proof that those ancient tribes had this information exists in the form of a Paleolithic hercules figure.

Hercules occurs throughout Europe, Northern Africa and Asia under many different names, but some characteristics are constant. He wears an animal pelt and carries a staff, club or wand made of oak. He was a rainmaker and fertilizing force. The oak tree was sacred to him because it attracted the lightning bolts of storms. Most of all, he was the sacred hero, the human incarnation of the sun. Midsummer is his day.

Ancient people, watching the sky for a year would notice that although the moon is unpredictable, the constellations are a dependable indication of the time of the solar year. The year was divided into quarters based on the solstices and equinoxes, then each quarter was divided into three periods whose length approximated the length of a lunar cycle. The year and its twelve zodiac constellations are personified by the hercules and his twelve companions.

But the moon was unruly. After all the careful observation and painstaking calculation, the single most significant time marker wouldn't match up with the fixed stars. While some ancient people may have gathered around the midsummer fire to ponder this enigma, others who were more literal minded and fastidious invented religion. Their reasoning was impeccable. Gods require human sacrifice. Whether flayed, hung, burned alive, torn limb from limb, impaled or beheaded, the victim's death mollified supernatural powers.

In historic time, that is from about 5000 BCE, we know that it was the solar hero's duty to overpower the moon. In Shakespeare's Midsummer's Night Dream, this meant Theseus had to marry the Amazon Queen. One of Greek Hercules twelve labors was to steal Hippolyta's girdle. The Amazon Queen's girdle would refer to the Zodiac which the hercules ruled. Another of these famous labors was to steal the moon goddess's sacred hind with the golden horns. When the sun god bested the moon goddess the course of time is brought under control.

Although details of Midsummer rituals vary throughout Europe, certain themes echo throughout the sun-worshipping lands. Summer solstice was a time of cleansing by fire and water, a time when enchantments of love and wealth were most potent, and a time when earth and nature spirits crossed over into the human realm. Golden treasures could be found by noting the location of magical flames that appeared on Midsummer eve. Young girls sought the identity of their future mates through a variety of magic spells. Fairies, and witches, walked the paths. Celebrants jumped over fires, or walked through fires in hopes of benefiting from the cleansing flames, and possibly in hopes of gaining some of the sun's power through association. Bonfires, fires fed with bones and bad smelling refuse, were ignited in hopes of driving off dragons who would otherwise contaminate wells and water sources. Torches were carried through fields to drive disease from crops, while cattle were led through fires to cleanse them of vampire-like creatures that may have taken residence between their horns. Sometimes a burning wheel that was meant to represent the sun, was rolled down a hill. Fires were burnt at crossroads and beside lakes.

While primarily a fire festival acknowledging the sun's turning, water magic is particularly potent at this time also. Bathing in some pools had curative and restorative effects. In some places, washing in dew collected on Midsummer eve was magical, while in other places, bathing in water steeped with herbs over Midsummer night could cure and restore health and vigor.

Because the forces of nature get out of control during this magical time of year, boundaries between natural and supernatural broke down. Shakespear caught the disorienting unruliness in A Midsummer's Night Dream. Puck usually used the night to play tricks on rustics, but when he had the magic pansy in his hands, he used it to help a distraught lover. Of course, for all his good intentions, the plan went awry, which is always likely to happen at this unruly time of year.

This is also a good time to search for treasure that otherwise is hidden in the earth. Ferns or flames sometimes show treasure hunters where to look, but often restraints of strict silence have to be observed. So many people on the verge of becoming rich with gold, spoke or gasped, and broke the spell. Silence was also important to many of the love-charms and fortune telling that took place on Midsummer's eve.

Farther south, in the arid lands that appreciated the watery moon rather than the hot sun, human sacrifice was practiced at summer solstice to appease the fearsome sun god. When the sun was at its zenith, the crops withered, pools evaporated, and ancient people mourned the death of Adonis, or Tammuz, the corn god. First-born children were fed to the sun god to turn his wrath. Even into modern times, animal sacrifice, as instituted by Abraham in Genesis, is practiced at this festival. Pilgrims drink at the fountain of Haggar, and first-born children thank their god that it is animals that are sacrificed.

The dragon's part in ancient rituals are significant. Although it is possibly just a metaphor of the year, swallowing the sun and giving it birth alternately, it was also thought of as a contaminating force of nature, polluting the waters and withering crops. Effigies of the old dragon, or death, are burned in modern bonfires.

Christians were not very successful in the attempt to claim this festival by fixing June 24th as the birthday of John the Baptist. Midsummer, being opposite on the Wheel of life from winter solstice, put St. John opposite Jesus, the Adonis of Christians. Already portrayed in Christian myth as twins, these two solstice heroes accurately illustrate Robert Graves' theory of dying gods. Jesus and John as twins, illustrated in early Christian art, were both blood sacrifices ruling opposite solstices. One mortal, one immortal, they depict the connection of modern religion with the ancient pagan rites. That St. John wears the animal pelt and carries an oak staff illustrates that he is just one of many hercules figures. In spite of Church restraints, this remains a festival of Zodiac heroes and magic.

Magic is unleashed when Nature, sometimes personified as Salome, lifts her veil in Midsummer. Some of this magic can be harvested in herbs, flowers and fern seed . Mistletoe cut on Midsummer eve will cure all. Ashes from oak fires are magic aids to health and protection from storms and fire.

This is the fairies merriest day. They might be willing to do you a favor, but they also like to play pranks now that they're loose. Put thistles around your barn so pookas don't steal the milk. Dance around the fire by the water with your sweetheart or carry a torch in a boat on the lake. This is the most magical time of the year, so remember to wear a sprig of thyme in your hair.

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Nancy Sherer


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