Midsummer, Johnsmas and bonfires

It is midsummer. The scarves and hats might come off for a peedie start if we are lucky, the esoteric druid types are gathering at the Ring of Brodgar, and I am out at midnight to check whether it is true that you can read a newspaper by the light of what the Shetlanders call “the simmer dim” – it’s not, but nearly.

Midsummer, or Johnsmas, is an old festival which is celebrated in many European countries. In Norway, where I grew up, people still celebrate midsummer by lighting bonfires. These are usually lit down by the shore, and nowadays the whole thing has turned into a kind of summer barbeque where families and friends gather to enjoy the long summer night which never goes dark. Bonfires are handy to keep the midges away too! However, there is also a tradition for having the midsummer bonfire up on a hilltop, as you can see in place-names. For instance, in Oslo there is a hill called Sankthanshaugen, meaning St John’s Hill, where people held their midsummer celebrations.

At this point you might be thinking: We have St John’s place-names in Orkney too! And so we do. There are several places called St John’s Head, for example. It would be reasonable to think that many of these St John’s names commemorate midsummer celebrations on Johnsmas (however, I do think they were brave if they danced and partied up on St John’s Head in Hoy – oh my, it’s high and steep!).

Bonfires seem to be an essential part of the celebration. Ernest Marwick in his book The Folklore of Orkney and Shetland records (p. 111-112):

“It was the sun that was symbolised at Johnsmas (midsummer) in the bonfires that were traditional in many parts of the islands. Material for the Orkney bonfires (which persisted until the 1860s) was gathered by the older boys and girls of each district during the fortnight before Johnsmas Eve. ... There was much animation as the young people danced and capered round the bonfire. The boys pulled torches of blazing heather out of the fire and ran over the hill-sides, setting more of the heather alight. In some places memories of the old significance of the Johnsmas bonfire remained in people’s minds. Up to the mid-nineteenth century, a few farmers in Rousay used to carry the blazing heather into the byres and, where possible, among the cattle to make them thrive. When cows were not in calf, this helped to ensure procreation. In the preceding century, people were in the habit of walking around the fire several times ‘with the sun’, as if following a ritual; horses which had been sick were led around it in the same way. There are well-established traditions of houses and fields being circled with the blazing torches. In Birsay, Firth and Orphir – probably elsewhere – a bone was thrown into the fire. Dancing continued until early dawn. Jumping through the flames seems to have been essential everywhere.”

The custom of jumping through the flames is not just a Scottish thing; it is a tradition which is widespread in Europe, as J. G. Frazer observes in his comprehensive work The Golden Bough. Lighting bonfires is a custom which is also associated with other festivals through the year, such as Beltane, Easter and midwinter.

My Swedish colleague and friend, Alex Sanmark, tells me that midsummer is a big deal in Sweden even today. There, they erect a midsummer pole – similar to the May Poles found in Britain. The Swedish midsummer poles are tall and roughly cross-shaped with a beam going horizontally across. Leaves are wound round and round the pole all the way up and around its arms as well. Wreaths of leaves and flowers are hung from each arm of the pole, and the whole thing is decorated with lots of flowers.  Frazer describes the midsummer pole such: “from six inches to twelve feet high, decorated with leaves, flowers, slips of coloured paper, gilt egg-shells strung on reeds, and so on”. People play fiddles and dance around the midsummer pole to everyone’s great enjoyment.

When I was little, I learned that if you pick seven different flowers on midsummer night, and put them under your pillow, you will dream about your future husband. This never worked for me, as far as I can remember. However, there are various divination rites associated with midsummer. J. G. Frazer notes that in modern Europe, the midsummer festival “has been above all a festival of lovers and of fire; one of its principal features is the pairing of sweethearts, who leap over the bonfires hand in hand or throw flowers across the flames to each other. And many omens of love and marriage are drawn from the flowers which bloom at this mystic season.” Ernest Marwick records from Orkney that, similarly to divination rites practiced at Halloween, girls could take home a partly burned peat from the midsummer fire, extinguish it in a tub of urine, place it above the door lintel and wait till next morning. When the peat was then broken open, a fibre would show the hair colour of the girl’s future husband.

How old are the midsummer customs? Was midsummer celebrated by the Norse? By the pre-Christian Norse, probably not. In Iceland, there was a general “thing” assembly at midsummer, between the end of spring work and before the busy haymaking season, but this is not the same thing as a midsummer celebration. J. G. Frazer and Ernest Marwick assume that the custom of lighting bonfires derives from ancient sun worship, which sounds reasonable. However, as Sandra Billington points out in an article in the journal Folklore (April 2008): In the North of Scandinavia, the turning point of the sun is actually not visible, as the sun is above the horizon continuously for up to nine hundred and sixty hours, depending on how far north you are. Therefore it makes no sense to celebrate the longest day at any particular 24-hour point of that stretch. It makes more sense to have a bonfire at Easter, at the time when you start feeling the warmth of the sun again. Billington was also unable to find any records of midsummer celebrations at the summer solstice in Norse texts she examined. It was king Olaf Tryggvason who instituted Johnsmas on the 24th of June as a drinking feast to St John in Norway in the year 994. Olaf Tryggvason was one of the kings responsible for the Christian conversion of Norway – and indeed of Orkney, as he converted Earl Sigurd at swordpoint at Osmundwall. The Johnsmas celebration was, according to Billington, probably inspired by Roman customs originating in pre-Christian Roman society. These customs may have travelled north through Germany. Johnsmas celebrations then caught on in Scandinavia, and Olaus Magnus in the 16th century described bonfires, dancing and singing of ballads celebrating “heroes and famous women” and satirising current leaders. Sandra Billington concludes her article by noting that “one has to acknowledge that J. G. Frazer did himself achieve a substantial dislocation in the actual development of midsummer customs. It is thanks to his writings and to other like-minded Victorians that, today, some neo-pagans who claim to be reviving ancient Celtic or Germanic agrarian rites have added a ritual at midsummer.” I, however, see nothing wrong with continuing a tradition which has been with us for several hundred years, even if it is not pre-Christian.