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.

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