Since discovering Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream in middle school I've been fascinating by one of the most consistently celebrated holidays in the human condition. Even deep within the dead, modern world of suburban America Midsummer Day and the night that precedes it can still project an allure of mystery. In our current era Midsummer Day is celebrated under the guise of the Feast of St John the Baptist. But historically it has been the premier fire festival in European culture since the pre-Christian era.
"But the season at which these fire-festivals have been mostly generally held all over Europe is the summer solstice, that is Midsummer Eve (the twenty-third of June) or Midsummer' Day (the twenty-fourth of June). A faint tinge of Christianity has been given them by naming Midsummer Day after St John the Baptist, but we cannot doubt that the celebration dates from a time long before the beginning of our era. The summer solstice, or Midsummer Day, is the great turning-point in the sun's career, when, after climbing higher and higher day by day in the sky, the luminary stops and thenceforth retraces his steps down the heavenly road. Such a moment could not but be regarded with anxiety by primitive man so soon as he began to observe and ponder the courses of the great lights across the celestial vault; and having still to learn his own powerlessness in face of the vast cyclic changes of nature, he may have fancied that he could help the sun in his seeming decline -could prop his failing steps and rekindle the sinking flame of the red lamp in his feeble hand. In some such thoughts as these the midsummer festivals of our European peasantry may perhaps have taken their rise. Whatever their origin, they have prevailed all over this quarter of the globe, from Ireland on the west to Russia on the east, and from Norway and Sweden on the north to Spain and Greece on the south. According to a mediaeval writer, the three great features of the midsummer celebration were the bonfires, the procession with torches round the fields, and the custom of rolling a wheel. He tells us that boys burned bones and filth of various kinds to make a foul smoke, and that the smoke drove away certain noxious dragons which at this time, excited by the summer heat, copulated in the air and poisoned the wells and rivers by dropping their seed into them; and he explains the customs of trundling a wheel to mean that the sun, having now reached the highest point in the ecliptic, begins thenceforward to descend."The summer solstice, along with its winter counterpart and the two equinoxes, were reckoned to be chief times for activity amongst the macrobes. European folklore is ripe with accounts of witches, wizards, fairies, dragons, and other mysterious beings in force on Midsummer Eve. Consider one such account Frazer gives from Sweden:
(The Golden Bough, James Frazer, pg. 722)
"In parts of Norrland on St John's Eve the bonfires are lit at the cross-roads. The fuel consists of nine different sorts of wood, and the spectators cast into the flames a kind of toad-stool (Baran) in order to counteract the power of the Trolls and other evil spirits, who are believed to be abroad that night; for at that mystic season the mountains open and from their cavernous depths the uncanny crew pours forth to dance and disport themselves for a time."
(ibid, pg. 725)
Despite occurring in the midst of growth, the summer solstice has always had a curious association with death in much the same way its counterpart, the winter solstice, is associated with rebirth.
"The symbolism of the solstices should attract our attention since it does not coincide with the character of the seasons in which they occur. In fact, it is the Winter solstice which inaugurates the ascendant phase of the annual cycle, while the Summer solstice inaugurates its descendant phase. Hence arises the Greco-Roman symbolism of the gates of the solstices represented by the two faces of Janus and, later, by the two feasts of St John, in Summer and Winter. It is easy to observe that it is the Winter gateway from which the 'light' phase of the cycle emerges and its 'dark' phase from the Summer gate. It has been observed in this context that Christ's birth falls at the Winter solstice and that of St John the Baptist at the Summer solstice, hence the remarkable passage in the New Testament in which the Baptist says: 'He [Christ] must increase, but I must decrease' (John 3: 30)."Naturally the much more ancient versions of the summer solstice featured death in a far more prominent role.
(Dictionary of Symbols, Chevalier & Gheerbrant, pg. 891)
"In the popular customs connected with the fire-festivals of Europe there are certain features which appear to point to a former practice of human sacrifice. We have seen reasons for believing in Europe living persons have often acted as representatives of the tree-spirit and corn-spirit, and have suffered death as such. There is no reason, therefore, why they should not have been burned, if any special advantages were likely to be attained by putting them to death in that way. The consideration of human suffering is not one which enters into the calculations of primitive man. Now, in the fire-festivals which we are discussing, the pretence of burning people is sometimes carried so far that it seems reasonable to regard it as a mitigated survival of an older custom of actually burning them. Thus in Aachen, as we saw, the man clad in peas-straw acts so cleverly that the children really believe he is being burned. Similarly at the Beltane fires in Scotland the pretended victim was seized, and a show made of throwing him into the flames, and for some time afterwards people affected to speak of him as dead. At Wolfeck, in Austria, on Midsummer Day, a boy completely clad in green fir branches goes from house to house, accompanied by a noisy crew, collecting wood for the bonfire...
"In some parts of Bavaria, also, the boys who go from house to house collecting fuel for the midsummer bonfire envelop one of their number from head to foot in green branches of firs, and lead him by rope through the whole village. At Moosheim, in Wurtemberg, the festival of St John's Fire usually lasted for fourteen days, ending on the second Sunday after Midsummer Day. On the last day the bonfire was left in charge of the children, while the older people retired to the woods. Here they encased a young fellow in leaves and twigs, who, thus disguised, went to the fire, scattering it, and trod it out. All the people present fled at the sight of him."
(The Golden Bough, James Frazer, pg. 744-745)
Another curious association of Midsummer is with secret societies. Certainly one of the most important fraternal orders of the modern era chose to make its official existence known on St John's Day.
"When four London Masonic lodges decided to go public in 1717, they met on June 24, the day dedicated to their patron saint, John the Baptist, and elected a Grand Master for the new Grand Lodge. The Masons at York were incensed at this unilateral decision on the part of London Masons to throw off their ancient veil of secrecy and at the Londoners' presumption that they could set themselves above all the Masonic lodges in England."
(Born in Blood, John J. Robinson, pg. 56)
Now, consider this curious folk tradition Frazer has recorded:
"At Jumieges in Normandy, down to the first half of the nineteenth century, the midsummer festival was marked by certain singular features which bore the stamp of a very high antiquity. Every year, on the twenty-third of June, the Eve of St John, the Brotherhood of the Green Wolf chose a new chief or master, who had always to be taken from the hamlet of Conihout. On being elected, the new head of the brotherhood assumed the title of the Green Wolf, and donned a peculiar costume consisting of a long green mantle and a very tall green hat of a conical shape and without a brim. Thus arrayed he stalked solemnly at the head of the brothers, chanting the hymn of St John, the crucifix and holy banner leading the way, to a place called Chouquet. Here the procession was met by the priest, precentors, and choir, who conducted the brotherhood to the parish church. After hearing mass the company adjourned to the house of the Green Wolf, where a simple repast, such as is required by the church on fast-days, was served up to them. Then they danced before the door till it was time to light the bonfire. Night being come, the fire was kindled to the sound of hand-bells by a young man and a young woman, both decked with flowers. As the flames rose, the Te Deum was sung, and a villager thundered out a parody in the Norman dialect of the hymn ut queant laxis. Meantime the Green Wolf and his brothers, with their hoods down on their shoulders and holding each other by the hand, ran round the fire after the man who had been chosen to be the Green Wolf of the following year. Though only the first and the last man of the chain had a hand free, their business was to surround and seize thrice the future Green Wolf, who in his efforts to escape belaboured the brothers with a long wand which he carried. When at last they succeeded in catching him they carried him to the burning pile and made as if they would throw him on it. This ceremony over, they returned to the house of the Green Wolf, where a supper, still of the most meagre fare, was set before them. Up till midnight a sort of religious solemnity prevailed. No unbecoming word might fall from the lips of any of the company, and a censor, armed with a hand-bell, was appointed to mark and punish instantly any infraction of the rule. But at the stroke of twelve all this was changed. Constraint gave way to license; pious hymns were replaced by Bacchanalian ditties, and the shrill quavering notes of the village fiddle hardly rose above the roar of voices that went up from the merry brotherhood of the Green Wolf. Next day, the twenty-fourth of June or Midsummer Day, was celebrated by the same personages with the same noisy gaiety. One of the ceremonies consisted in parading, to the sound of musketry, an enormous loaf of consecrated bread, which, rising in tiers, was surmounted by a pyramid of verdure adorned with ribbons. After that the holy handbells, deposited on the step of the altar, were entrusted as insignia of office to the man who was to be the Green Wolf next year."Essentially a fraternal order, in this case the Brotherhood of the Green Wolf, chooses a new grand master who then leads a fire procession that ends with his mock burning. This ritual bears more than a passing resemblance to the fate of Jacques de Molay, the final Grand Master of the Templars, who was burned at the stake on March 18, 1314. One of the heresies that the Knights Templars have been accused of over the years is that of being 'Johannites,' which they may have learned from the Mandaeans. A typical account of the charge is as follows:
(The Golden Bough, pgs. 727-728)
"At that period there was a sect of Christian Johannites in the East who claimed to be alone initiated into the inner mysteries of the Saviour's religion; they claimed also to know the true history of Jesus Christ. Adopting some parts of Jewish traditions and Talumdic accounts, they regarded the facts in the Gospels as allegories, of which St. John had the key...The reader is of course adviced to take Levi with a heaping grain of salt.
"The Templars had two doctrines; one was concealed and reserved to the leaders, being that of Johannism; the other was public, being Roman Catholic doctrine. They deceived in this manner the enemies that they hoped to supplant. The Johannism of the adepts was the Kabalah of the Gnostics, but it degenerated speedily into a mystic pantheism carried even to idolatry of Nature and hatred of all revealed dogma."
(The History of Magic, Eliphas Levi, pg. 208-211)
Yet the custom of the Green Wolf seems to have origins that run even deeper than the High Middle Ages. Green is the color of vegetation and rebirth. Osiris, the Egyptian dying and resurrecting god, was often depicted with green skin. This has led some to refer to him as the Green Man. According to Diodorus Siculus, Osiris was resurrected in the shape of a wolf to help his wife and son over come his evil brother Set. In general the wolf can be used as a symbol of fertility, ala the she-wolf that suckled Romulus and Remus. In all likelihood the rituals surrounding the Brotherhood of the Green Wolf likely stretched back to antiquity when a more serious organization prevailed.
Another strange Egyptian link I've noticed is with the number 23, the traditional date of Midsummer Eve. Of course one can't tackle the 23 enigma without mentioning Robert Anton Wilson, Mr. 23 himself. Consider this fine piece from the Fortean Times:
"I first heard of the 23 enigma from William S Burroughs, author of Naked Lunch, Nova Express, etc. According to Burroughs, he had known a certain Captain Clark, around 1960 in Tangier, who once bragged that he had been sailing 23 years without an accident. That very day, Clark’s ship had an accident that killed him and everybody else aboard. Furthermore, while Burroughs was thinking about this crude example of the irony of the gods that evening, a bulletin on the radio announced the crash of an airliner in Florida, USA. The pilot was another captain Clark and the flight was Flight 23.As to the Egyptian connection, Wilson notes:
"Burroughs began collecting odd 23s after this gruesome synchronicity, and after 1965 I also began collecting them. Many of my weird 23s were incorporated into the trilogy Illuminatus! which I wrote in collaboration with Robert J Shea in 1969–1971. I will mention only a few of them here, to give a flavour to those benighted souls who haven’t read Illuminatus! yet:
"In conception, Mom and Dad each contribute 23 chromosomes to the fœtus. DNA, the carrier of the genetic information, has bonding irregularities every 23rd Angstrom. Aleister Crowley, in his Cabalistic Dictionary, defines 23 as the number of 'life' or 'a thread', hauntingly suggestive of the DNA life-script. On the other hand, 23 has many links with termination: in telegraphers’ code, 23 means 'bust' or 'break the line', and Hexagram 23 in I Ching means 'breaking apart'. Sidney Carton is the 23rd man guillotined in the old stage productions of A Tale of Two Cities. (A few lexicographers believe this is the origin of the mysterious slang expression '23 Skiddoo!'.)"
"Celebrations of the Dog Star, Sirius, beginning on July 23, are the origin of the expression 'dog days,' meaning the days from July 23 to September 8, when the last rituals to Sirius were performed."Essentially Midsummer Eve would mark the month point before the beginning of the Dog Days of Summer. Another strange synch with the number 23 is again Jacques de Molay, who was the 23rd and last Grand Master of the Knights Templar.
(Cosmic Trigger, pg. 87)
John the Baptist is also closely associated with decapitation, which has been addressed from time to time on this blog. Decapitation, severed heads, and skulls are symbolically linked to the alchemical process of putrefaction.
"... the skull symbolizes the cycle of initiation through the death of the body as the prelude to rebirth at a higher level of life and in a state in which the spirit rules. As a symbol of physical death, the skull is similar to the alchemical process of putrefaction, as the grave is to the athanor -the new man rises from the crucible in which the old man was annihilated, in order to become transformed. The skull is often depicted with cross bones, a St. Andrew's cross, symbol of nature quartered under the overwhelming influence of spirit, and hence a symbol of spiritual perfection."
(Dictionary of Symbols, Chevalier & Gheerbrant, pg. 889)
Interestingly the Templar ships were said to fly a skull and cross bones flag similar to notorious Jolly Rogers. In alchemy, sometimes decapitation is used rather than the skull for this symbolism, as I described here. The symbolism that the decapitation of St John brings to Midsummer is interesting. This is in keeping with its odd ties to death, just as the winter solstice and its links to rejuvenation. Even with nature in seemingly full bloom putrefaction has already set in, so that the new man can be born anew.