Saturday, 12 July 2008

Midsummer Ritual Bonfire in Different Cultures

Why do people in different cultures celebrate natural phenomena like midsummer or the summer solstice? 

Are these rituals remnants of an ignorant “pagan” past or are they quests for discovering man’s own identity and finding answers to questions about our origin and destiny, our role in the big picture?

Midsummer Celebrated in Many Cultures Worldwide

Midsummer or summer solstice is celebrated in many cultures as the longest day of the year. Especially in the northern hemisphere, from Finland to Spain, it is often associated with bonfires. In many European countries people gather around bonfires, often fed with old and unwanted wooden furniture, broken boats and some people jump over the fire while making wishes. 

Though 24th June is technically the longest day, 21st June is celebrated in most countries since the Gregorian calendar reform. But neo-pagans celebrate summer solstice on June 24th along with most European folk festivals. 

Origin of Midsummer Festivals is Pagan

As with many other pagan festivals, midsummer has been Christianized in most Western countries. In England it has become “St. John’s Eve”, “St John’s Day” or feast of John the Baptist in many countries, in Russia it is Ivan Kupala Day, in Poland it is Noc Kupały or Noc Świętojańska.

The ancient Germanic, Slav and Celtic tribes in Europe celebrated Midsummer with bonfires. Midsummer night, when in the far reaches of the northern hemisphere the sun does not sink even at midnight, was full of fire festivals and love magic, and divination. Pairs of lovers would jump through the luck-bringing flames believing that the crops would grow as high as the couples were able to jump. Through the fire's power, maidens tried to find out about their future husband, and spirits and demons were banished.

Modern Wiccan Version of Midsummer

Like the ancient Celts, the modern Wiccans believe that at Litha or the Feast of the Faeries at twilight in midsummer, the portals between the worlds open and faeries may enter our world. Humans who welcome them are blessed with joy and wisdom. The modern Druids call midsummer Alban Hefin while the ancient druids called it “Alban Heruin” or "Light of the Shore".

Evidence of Midsummer in Ancient Cultures

There is evidence of Midsummer festivals in ancient cultures: 
  • in Newgrange in Ireland from around 3000 BC
  • among the Essenes, a Jewish sect from 1st century A.D.
  • the ancient Hopi and the Nachez people in the Americas 
  • the Chinese. For the Chinese the summer solstice ceremony celebrates the earth, the feminine yin force. It complemented the winter solstice, which celebrates the heavens, masculinity and yang forces. 
  • Even the peoples of North Africa, particularly in Morocco and Algeria, especially the Berbers also celebrate midsummer.

In many countries there are many kinds of beliefs and traditions related to Midsummer. Even William Shakespeare speaks of “Midsummer madness” in his most delightful play, Twelfth Night as a form of madness brought on by the heat of midsummer.

Midsummer or Juhannus is the Most Important Festival in Finland

In Finland, midsummer or Juhannus is the main festival of the year when cities are virtually empty as people go to their countryside cottages. People gather around the kokko or bonfires and watch the fire. 

Juhannus is a popular day for weddings as also unfortunately excessive drinking, drowning and accident figures (driving a car and drowning) are the highest in the year. In earlier days, maidens went naked to the meadows the night before to collect seven different wild flowers, which they placed under their pillows so that they then dreamt of the man who would become their husband. 
More about these Finnish midsummer rituals here.


Tuulikki said...

Very interesting post. It's a pity that most old rituals and customs have disappeared from Finland.

Satu said...

Midsummer is very important still in Finland though people don't know any more why we celebrate. The rituals were practised by my grandmother's generation. We are modern now with no pagan rituals. Good writing.

Rana Sinha said...

Thanks Tuulikki and Satu for your kind words.

DeCarvalho said...

this year by 27th june a ritual of midsummer will be recreated in Portugal, 30km north of Lisbon in a rural area called Alenquer. See more at the site where the ritual will soon be published and easily understood with a software for translations