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The Magic of Midsummer Eve

Would you like to gather some herbs for white magic, or perhaps have a look into the future? Perhaps you’d like to see fairies and elves at play, and join their twilight dances in 

the wooded glen?  Of all the nights of the year, the night best suited to this particular kind of activity is June 23, Midsummer Eve.

         "I must go and seek some dewdrops here,

        And hang a pearl in every cowslip’s ear.

        Farewell, thou lob of spirits, I’ll begone,

        Our Queen and all her elves come here anon."                   

        A Midsummer Night’s Dream - Act II, Scene 1


In Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, the Queen of the Faeries, Titania, is smitten with love for a lad whose head has been transformed into the head of an ass.  This is actually quite in keeping with Midsummer tradition, for this is a night when magical things can happen, and the strangest things be seen.

Midsummer’s Eve is the evening and night of June 23rd in the Anglo-Celtic tradition. (In the old days the Celtic Day began at sunset and ended just before sunset on the next day).   The summer solstice, the time when the sun reaches its high point in the sky and provides the longest daylight of the year, occurs a couple of days earlier, on June 20 or 21.  There’s also a hint of melancholy to the day, as after Midsummer, the days begin to grow shorter again.

Not only in Shakespeare’s play was Midsummer Eve a magical night.  In the northernmost parts of the British Isles and Scandinavia there’s not much real darkness on Midsummer’s night -- rather, an extended vague twilight that gives the world a luminous mystical air -- and the sky begins to lighten again by 2:00 in the morning.  It seems not surprising that this mysterious atmosphere, neither true light nor dark, but rather a quirky and deceptive mingling of the two, might give rise to the idea that Midsummer Eve is a time when elves, pixies, ghosts, and other creatures of supernatural inclinations find it opportune to come out and frolic.   


Like the change-of-season festivals of Hallowe’en/Samhain or Beltane/May Day, Midsummer’s Eve is traditionally a time when the veil between the human world and the spirit world is thin, so a passage from one world to the other in either direction is possible.  On this night time itself is of a different nature, so it’s more easily possible to look into the past, or try and discern the secrets of the future!

Midsummer Eve was once the occasion of great fire-festivals all across Europe, especially in parts of Denmark, Sweden, Norway, Germany, and the British Isles.  The practice probably dates back to Druidic times, when, as noted in Hone’s Year Book, 

“…the Druids kindled large fires on all their sacred places and on the tops of all their cairns in honor of Bel, or Belinus, the name by which they distinguished the sun, whose revolving course had again clothed the earth with beauty, and diffused joy and gladness through the creation.” 

On this magical evening, huge bonfires were kindled on hillsides and in open fields, and people would drink and dance wearing garlands of magical plants such as mugwort and vervain, then later throw them into the flames.  In 16th. Century Germany the celebrants would look through bunches of larkspur at the fires to ensure good vision.

These fires were lit in celebration of the sun’s crossing the midpoint of the heavens.  According to one German tradition, the fires had to be kindled by rubbing together two types of wood, oak and fir.  As the fires began to burn low, the young men of the villages would jump over the dying flames, leaving any misfortunes of the previous months behind-- and attracting the eyes of the young women with their (often drunken) athletic prowess.  One can only hope that people were more athletic in those days.  This was also the practice in Ireland, and after the flames died down young women would walk through the coals to ensure that they might find good husbands.

In France and Sweden Midsummer Eve is the most propitious day on which to gather mistletoe to ensure its magical virtues.  In Wales a sprig of mistletoe gathered on Midsummer Eve is  said to produce prophetic dreams (and not necessarily pleasant ones) if placed under one’s pillow.  The belief that herbs and other plants had the greatest medical or magical power if gathered at Midsummer is widespread.  There was even a belief in Morocco that an important magical plant called “the sultan of the oleander,” a branch of (poisonous) oleander with a cluster of four pairs of leaves, had the greatest power if gathered just before Midsummer (The New Golden Bough).

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