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] 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”.

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