Tuesday, 25 June 2013

Litha: some thoughts

The lime tree by my window has not yet flowered, with its sweet if fugitive scent. It is June 25th and we have had a long grey winter and a cold, damp summer - so far - due to the vagaries of the Jet Stream. Last year my lime flowered on midsummer evening, the summer solstice. I was going to say ‘the ancient festival of’ but I cannot - there is no documented proof that the summer solstice was ever celebrated in England in the remote past, that is to say, concerning the most part of Britain where the English language is today spoken.

However, my blog is in the form of a journey, an exploration into the past, and so - hold tight -  backwards in time we go. I look for patterns in belief and the patterns I am seeing do strongly suggest that the documented pre-Christian midsummer festivals across continental Europe were in fact reciprocated on this side of the briny divide; bit of a problem though, because the first historian of the English, 8th century Bede, effectively says ‘no’ by ignoring them, if they did exist; and also remembering that the insularisation of the British Isles was a fairly recent phenomenon in terms of geological time: the land mass now named ‘Doggerland’ which linked us to northern Europe was only completely inundated by the North Sea some 8000 years ago.

So what patterns am I seeing? I think summer can be celebrated from springtime, the dawn of summer - until midsummer - and beyond that is the agrarian harvest, with its own rituals. This means I am looking at May [Beltaine] to July for summer festivals in Britain and not just the period of the solstice. I have found traces or suggestions of the Baltic midsummer festival ‘Ligo’ in the name of the lime tree because both words trace back to a common sense of ‘pliable’ or ‘lithe’ which is the self-same meaning for the Anglo-Saxon season of Litha, recorded by Bede as a name for midsummer, but that is all he tells us.

Well, we have our tree, the lime, once abundant in the British Isles but it is a curious fact that since Britain was cut adrift from continental Europe the lime has stopped propagating itself over here. It follows that it is a dwindling tree in Britain, if still quite a popular one, judging by our streets and park spaces. Perhaps the second favourite tree (there were several) of the Baltic sun goddess Saule (‘sun’) was the birch, and the birch carried on as before, unfazed by the depredations of the North Sea, it figures quite prominently in British midsummer festivals from when they are documented, from about the Middle Ages onward -

“The impulse to celebrate the arrival of summer in Europe’s northlands, by bringing home blooms and leaves, is probably ageless ... birch was the favoured tree in Wales ... the maypole ... a tall birch tree, around which festivity took place”

pp 230, 233, Ronald Hutton, ‘The Stations of the Sun’, 1996.

Latvian Daina [song number 235].

The three leaved birch
At the edge of the highway;
This is where Saule suspended her girdle,
And Saule’s  daughter, her crown.

[translation RK]
However, a crucial aspect of the summer rites (including spring time) was ritual bathing - which explains the St John the Baptist reference for midsummer - a somewhat neglected Christian feast day in the UK today.

Across Eurasia, the summer bathing tradition of Kupala Night "predates Christianity. Due to the popularity of the pagan celebration ...it was simply accepted and re-established as one of the native Christian traditions intertwined with local folklore.

 "The Ukrainian, Belarusian and Russian name of this holiday combines "Ivan" (John — the Baptist) and Kupala which is related to a word derived from the Slavic word for bathing, which is cognate. The latter is reinterpreted as John's baptizing people through full immersion in water (therefore his biblical title of the Baptist)"

But Kupala is a goddess - she is an incarnation of the summer goddess - in England that would be 'Queen of the May' a tradition itself absorbed I believe by the Virgin Mary, the May 1 ‘Queen of Heaven’. Kupala's feast day, the solstice and her ritual bathing has been merged to the St John the Baptist observance.

Then where is Kupala’s ritual summer dip in the British Isles? To begin with there are some intriguing hints. “In Oxford, it is traditional for May Morning revellers to gather below the Great Tower of Magdalen College ... to listen to the college choir sing traditional madrigals ... then thought to be traditional for some people to jump off Magdalen Bridge into the River Cherwell”.

The antiquity of this custom is in doubt but the date and Marian reference is perhaps notable this being, as stated above, the date for the festival of the Queen of Heaven.
Riverine references are sparse though. On May 1 each year, one ‘Kettle Bridge Clogs’ morris dancing side dance over Barming or Kettle Bridge, which crosses the Medway river  near Maidstone, in order to mark the start of their morris dancing season; whilst in Knutsford, in Cheshire, there is a tradition of "sanding the streets" with coloured sand in patterns on May Day, since tradition has it that King Cnut, fording the River Lily, threw sand from his shoes into the path of newly weds, wishing them as many children as grains of sand before them. This custom can be traced to at least the late seventeenth century and I would classify it as a thinly veiled fertility rite.



But there’s not a great deal more; unless of course we take a closer look at the numerous references to dew over the summer season. I have found references to dew rituals from Ireland to Scotland to England which I first considered as an alternative to ritual summer bathing but it is much more than that. From the West Country there comes a springtide custom when “some girls would be up early to wash in the morning dew for it was said that bathing in May dew made a girl more beautiful” and similarly in Scotland on “the slopes of the hill facing Holyrood are where young girls in Edinburgh traditionally bathe their faces in the dew on May Day”. In Ireland, a Dr. Gerard Boate (1652) wrote of the virtues of May Day Dew, and otherwise it was believed that if a girl rose early on May Day and bathed her face in morning dew at sunrise she “will be beautiful” just like the English and Scottish examples above cited. And more to the point, just like the beautiful sun herself!

These folk customs have their exact counterpart in the Baltic, which had an ancient sun goddess and the longest living unbroken tradition of paganism in Europe, together with an immemorial observance of the summer solstice. The corresponding seasonal name of Old English Litha is Ligo in the Baltic and the two words basically mean the same thing, they must be cognate yet no linguist yet has come to that obvious conclusion. One wonders why? Ligo is also called Jani which is the predictable reference to ‘John’ as in the Christian saint; it is also “a night of ancient fertility rituals. Some people maintain an old Jaņi tradition of running naked through the morning dew to bathe themselves. The belief here is that he who bathes nude in the morning dew of Jani will have a year of beauty, endurance and strength”.
Another Baltic name for midsummer is Rasos [Rasa in Latvia] and this name specifically references dew. Around June 24th ‘Dew Holiday’ traditions include “singing songs and dancing until the sun sets, telling tales, searching to find the magic fern blossom at midnight [a euphemism], jumping over bonfires, greeting the rising midsummer sun and washing the face with a morning dew, young girls float flower wreaths on the water of river or lake. These are customs brought from pagan culture and beliefs”.

Lithuanian and Latvian are very ancient languages in the Baltic and it is fascinating to see how close the Baltic and subcontinent of India are with respect to Rasos. The corresponding word in Hindi is Rasa which denotes a religious festival also current, called Rasa Lila. In Sanskrit, the word 'rasa' means juice, nectar, emotion or sweetness and 'lila' means to be active. The Rasa Lila is actually a dance of love between the god Krishna and his consort Radha, it takes the form of a circle dance. It was a circle of dew which inspired the earliest building faze of the towering Mont St Michel in France. Looking at the words juice and nectar we can see a clear connection to dew in the sense of liquid, and in this religious sense - mystical liquid.

I will conclude then on the circumstantial evidence of the exact correspondence between ritual dew bathing (and gathering) in the Baltic and the British Isles, to argue that the midsummer solar ritual of the solstice, presided over by a sun goddess , [in the Baltic Saule, in Britain perhaps Sulis - the Bath goddess whose name means sun] - represent the same prehistoric tradition, effaced as Litha by Christianity in England but living on as Ligo in Latvia and Lithuania to this very day.

And when will we recover our pagan summer heritage?

In English folklore, if a girl gathered St John’s Wort “on midsummer’s eve with the dew still on it, she would marry within a year”

Reference: p. 59, ‘Discovering the Folklore of Plants’, M Baker. Shire Publications, 1981.