Nothing like a midsummer sacrifice

The summer solstice celebrations are not simply pagan fancies. They embody the centuries-old spirit of the season.
Midsummer's Eve bonfire on Skagen's beach, Denmark. Credit: Fine Art Images / Heritage Images / Getty Images.
Midsummer's Eve bonfire on Skagen's beach, Denmark. Credit: Fine Art Images / Heritage Images / Getty Images.
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In the UK, the 21st of June 2021 is a significant date: it is the day (hopefully) all remaining lockdown restrictions are eased. Nightclubs, indoor parties, and all the hilarious carnage they bring await the British population.  

But away from sticky floors and smoking-area conversations, the 21st is also the summer solstice. It is impossible to mention mid-June without thinking of the pagans and druids who normally descend on Stonehenge. Like last year, the moment the sun rises above the Heel Stone is being livestreamed. The pagan revolution will be televised.  

In an age of internet calendars – when we have a precise knowledge of when the sun will rise and set – it is all too easy to dismiss the flowers, incense, and ceremonial mead of the Stonehenge druids as performative. 

But such an attitude is dangerously short-sighted. Back in November, the government gave the go-ahead for a road tunnel under the ancient monument. English Heritage have argued that the underground tunnel will restore the appearance of the site, but historians, druids, and green campaigners are concerned it could destroy many potential artifacts. Ignoring the importance of this pagan site and its ancient astrological rituals risks destroying millennia of history and inheritance.  

It is not just at Stonehenge where the summer solstice is observed. Across the Northern Hemisphere, Midsummer is marked on different days in mid-June. In Denmark, Latvia, and Estonia, bonfires are lit: in Denmark, to prevent evil spirits entering the house; in Latvia, to give light to the next year. In Estonia, jumping over the fire brings good luck. And it is not just pagan astrology that marks mid-June: the 24th is the feast day of St John the Baptist.  

In Sweden, Midsummer Eve is a national celebration complete with maypoles, greenery, and midnight swims. The Swedish tourism board cites it as a holiday rivalled only by Christmas; the folklore and traditions (girls pick seven flowers to place under their pillow in the hope they dream of their future husband) cannot simply be discarded as kitsch or outdated, but as an intrinsic part – however playful – of national identity.  

The Swedish festival was immortalised in the horror film Midsommar (2019) – a fetishized world of cult sacrifices and psychedelic mushrooms. And fire-leaps and flower crowns could be scorned as little more than live re-enactments of the seventies classic The Wicker Man (1973). 

But Midsummer has long had an important place in literature. The revelries of Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream could not – as the name suggests – take place without the transformative, liminal possibilities of Midsummer. On the shortest night of the year, when the boundaries between the mortal and faerie, the earthly and the occult are at the weakest, the play is suspended in temporal and sexual ambiguity. On what other night of the year could Titania fall into bed with Bottom?  

The Wicker Man soundtrack features the Middle English song ‘Sumer is icumen in’, a manuscript copy of which resides in the British Library, MS. Harley. 978. The thirteenth-century lyric recounts how:  

Sumer is icumen in
Lhude sing cuccu
Groweþ sed
and bloweþ med
and springþ þe wde nu
Sing cuccu 

(Summer has come / The Cuckoo sings loudly /The seed is growing / And the meadow blooming / And the wood is springing new leaf / Sing Cuckoo)  

As early as the thirteenth century, Midsummer was associated with new life and fertility: in the Middle English corpus, ‘sed’ is used in both agricultural and sexual senses, as well as to mean the spiritual seed of the Holy Spirit. The rituals of Sweden, Latvia, and Estonia – and the Christian celebrations for St John the Baptist – form an unbroken intellectual tradition that has mixed the secular with the sacred. ‘

Mirie it is while sumer ilast’ (‘Merry it is while summer lasts’), is another thirteenth-century song found in the Bodleian’s MS. Rawl. G.22. Whilst ‘Sumer is icumen in’ is a joyful paean to the sun, ‘Mirie’ laments how the ‘windes blast’ and ‘the nicht is long’. It is, perhaps, a song for the winter solstice, and it too marries this awareness of the changing seasons to a Christian context: it is added to a manuscript of the Book of Psalms. 

To deny the importance of Midsummer – and to scoff at the Stonehenge Druids, neopagans, and revellers – is not to scoff at just one night, but at centuries of intellectual and literary tradition. Midsummer is not simply ‘pagan’ – as the plot of The Wicker Man would have you believe – but intimately interwoven with the Christian past. And, even if a sense of the spiritual possibilities of the night fail to excite you, perhaps there’s a fetching donkey lurking round the next tree… 

I plan to spend the night of the 21st of June in a green blooming meadow with a maypole and a bonfire. All that I need to complete the plan is a willing human sacrifice.

Francesca Peacock

Francesca Peacock is a member of the Engelsberg Ideas editorial team.

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