Tuesday, 9 July 2013

High Summer

It is a July summer evening, the scent of the lime comes and goes, wafting in through the open window. I have noticed previously - despite my perennial hay fever - that the relatively still evening is the best time to catch the lime’s fragrance; or on a still damp and mild summer day when the scent hangs heavy around the clustered flowerets. Bees are instantly attracted to this tree when it is in bloom during the daylight hours. I had further wondered about midsummer river rituals in Britain, which are conspicuous by their absence, given their continental counterparts.

The River Cam is a Celtic place name and ‘cam’ means bend or curve, a descriptive name for a meandering watercourse. The Cam has thus given its name to Cambridge but there was an earlier Brythonic name for this river the Granta, however what this name meant is unknown. The Granta has given its name to Grantchester and Grantchester Meadows. Beside the river there exists a large common, the Cam defines one of its longest edges, and this prodigious patch of green is called Midsummer Common, and so again we find a reference to midsummer associated with a body of water. Upon this river bank green, the Cambridge Midsummer Fair is held, one of the oldest fairs in the United Kingdom [1].

The fair was granted a charter by King John in 1211, and was originally held on or near the feast of one St Etheldreda, however the saint’s feast day is 23rd June and so in effect marks the summer solstice, just like that of St John the Baptist. Revenue raised by the fair went towards the upkeep of Barnwell Priory and the monks, who were situated on the edge of Midsummer Common. Earlier still, the monks had resided at approximately the site of the modern St Giles Church in Cambridge’s Castle Street, over half a mile away, yet St Giles Church is still only 200 yards from the Cam which passes close by. This is a point of interest because it is reported that the monks wanted to move to the other side of Midsummer Common because they had no fresh water to drink at the Castle Street site.

Concerning the priory, there is local place name etymology for Barnwell as ‘bairns’ well’ where children played, but this looks like a rationalisation of earlier activity at a well which existed here. It is stated that a holy well “dating back to pagan times” [2], had a wooden oratory constructed at it, by an anchorite. The oratory was dedicated to St. Andrew, whose symbol is the saltire cross, and in the following context I would read this symbol as a solar cross. It is also recorded that “once a year on St John Baptist's Eve, boys and lads met there, and amused themselves in the English fashion with wrestling matches and other games and applauded each other in singing songs and playing musical instruments” [3] which explains the ‘bairns’ well’ name, although this seems to be an attempt to disguise the possibility that, as we have seen in other parts of the British Isles, St John’s feast day was actually a Christianised summer solstice observance, and the crowds which gathered at the holy well - which was itself only about 170 yards from the River Cam - were also there for the water rituals associated with midsummer. It seems that the Church not only absorbed the pagan holy well, it built an edifice there where the local population had once gathered on midsummer evening.

High summer was still marked every year on Midsummer Common by the annual fair, a summer fair held on the bank of a river. That midsummer river rituals were known beyond continental Europe is testified by accounts from Ireland. At sunset on St. John's Eve in West Limerick an ancient fire festival was observed. The fire was begun exactly at sunset and was watched over until after midnight and carefully tended. People gathered around the fire with dance, music and games including ‘feats of strength’ which exactly parallels the wrestling games recorded for the holy well at Barnwell before the priory was built there [4]. Then “unless the weather proved too cold, summer swimming in the river began on St. John's Day and the observance of the festival was supposed to eliminate all danger of drowning.”
I would take that as circumstantial evidence that river rituals during the summer season, which began regionally on May 1st and continued up to the longest day of the year - the summer solstice - and beyond, were known in Britain and Ireland and are today represented by dew lore at this time of the year, and probably other water rituals, and also some holy well customs now associated with Christianity. A major ritual focus at Stonehenge, apart from the megalithic circle and the sunrise, was the river, the Avon [Welsh ‘afon’] which linked Stonehenge - and by a processional avenue - to the lesser known Woodhenge circle near Amesbury.


1. The Stourbridge Fair was also held on the banks of the Cam, further along the river. The fair was held on Holy Cross Day, September 14th, approximately one week before the autumn equinox. Holy Cross Day references Saint Helena whom I elsewhere argue for identification with Elen Luyddog. Elen appears in the Mabinogion, a collection of stories from medieval Wales, and if Elen was an earlier solar divinity, as I believe she was, then the cruciform associated with Saint Helena - just like St Andrew's saltire - might also carry the symbolism of the solar cross.

Thursday, 4 July 2013

The Midsummer Tree

The Tree of Midsummer

It is early July and the limes have had green and yellow bursting buds for several days now, and the elusive sweet scent of the lime is on the breeze. The lime is one of the last trees to flower, and the flowering always occurs over the midsummer period. Probably for this reason the lime is one of the trees associated with the sun goddess Saule in the Baltic where midsummer has retained its pagan celebrations alongside the Christian feast day of St John the Baptist, which coincides with the summer solstice.

Pagan summer rituals included bathing in water, frequently rivers, and so the identification of St John with this time of year has merged Christian and pagan observance side by side. In Britain, we have summer celebrations, and the feast day of St John the Baptist is an aspect of Church devotion, but you’d hardly notice that, it doesn’t stand out particularly from any other feast day today, and it is practically diaphanous compared to Easter (vernal equinox) and Christmas (winter solstice) which fall on approximately significant dates in a pre-Christian context.
The water aspect of summer extends back into the spring called ‘Whitsuntide’ by the Church, and we know that water is referenced here - and interestingly without mention of St John the Baptist - because white was the colour traditionally worn on the occasion of baptism, and so Whit Sunday often followed by Whit Monday and other days during this week in spring. 1

But where are the great pagan water festivals which pre-dated the Church holy days? We have already detected a general significance for dew over the summer period, but mention of pagan river rites is difficult to find, perhaps unsurprisingly so - the Church did not go to all the trouble of installing its baptismal saint at the summer solstice only to see earlier customs survive. And so I wondered, if the actual customs have perished, is anything to be gleaned from place names?
An obvious candidate is the river at the town of Midsomer Norton in Somerset; and you will also find obvious attempts to rationalise away references to anything genuinely pagan here and elsewhere. Midsomer Norton stands on the River Somer or ‘summer river’ and the village name is suggested by some to be in remembrance of the St John the Baptist ‘summerings’ or festive occasions which occurred at this time. If so, it is curious that the saint’s name is absent from the village here. Critics will argue that the earlier names recorded for the village were Norton Friars and Norton Canonicorum, but since these are ecclesiastical references you can hardly expect anything with heathen connotations to prevail.
I would certainly see the Somer at Midsomer Norton as a potential midsummer river recalling pre-Christian water celebrations on a par with Kupala Night in continental Europe, and I rather think the summer aspect of the river Somer gradually reasserted itself into the medieval period, folk custom being such a very conservative phenomenon. Pagan rejoicings known as ‘summerings’ were alive and well during the Middle Ages even though they were given a new Church identity; the originally pagan nature of these glad times reveals itself from the disapproving writings of contemporary Puritans which ironically identify the equivalent of pagan midsummer eve rites in the British Isles for posterity.

Meanwhile, in Wales there are some further revealing river names. In North Wales the River Alwen today accompanies the A5, a major road into Wales from England. The name Alwen is significant because it possibly recalls the name of a river deity, either Alaunos (male) or Alauna (female) and Alauna may be an earlier name for Elen, as much as Elen in Middle Welsh means ‘elain’ young deer or doe. But into this river flow numerous tributaries, and one of them has solar associations. This is Nant Heulog (sunny river) near Corwen. Further along the Alwen occurs the place name Ffridd Brynhelen, ‘fridd’ meaning pasture and ‘bryn’ meaning a hill. The significance of Helen’s Hill here is opaque but its location on the Alwen or possibly the Elen river cannot be ignored. The incidence of the ‘sun’ tributary to this river in the context of Elen being a sun goddess [see www.the-marian-cipher.com] is I feel rather compelling. Was the Alwen or its sunny tributary being resorted to by the local population for pre-Christian summer festivals?

That midsummer was indeed marked as a time for water ritual is further suggested by some holy well research. In an article entitled ‘Visiting the wells at Midsummer – a lost holy well custom’, the author has identified at least three midsummer well water immersions, an ‘eye well’ - eyes being synonymous with the sun - ritual well perambulations; as well as bonfires, music and dancing at this time which recall the celebratory nature of the historical pagan midsummer  festivals documented across much of Europe.

So it looks as if, in Britain, pagan midsummer river rites - if they existed - had been entirely suppressed by the time documentary evidence for folk customs started to appear in the early Middle Ages. The watery aspect of midsummer lived on at a popular level in dew lore, and also well rituals which had become Christian holy wells by this time. Rivers are such a focus within the landscape, especially before the introduction of motorised forms of transport, that their ritual neutralisation may I think have been a Church priority, whereas the comparatively innocuous dew traditions might have gone unnoticed; bearing in mind that probably all rivers were seen as numinous in pre-Christian Britain: the River Alwen may be a good example, the rivers Dee at Chester and in Aberdeenshire are certainly so, retaining their sense of ‘The Goddess’ to this day.

1. Ronald Hutton, ‘The Stations of the Sun’, 1996, page 277: “Whit Sunday or Whitsun ... most likely explanation is that the festival was a notable time for baptisms, and white was the customary colour of baptismal robes”.