Lately I’ve seen a few blog posts and YouTube videos of a particularly reconstructionist bent going out of their way to try to prove that the pre-Christian Germanic peoples did not celebrate Midsummer. I think they vastly overstate the case, and I’d like to go through some of the evidence to the contrary. I did touch on this subject a few years ago, but I’d lie to go into a bit more detail now.
Now, let’s get the obvious out of the way right at the beginning. Midsummer is not one of the “big three” sacrifices that are mentioned by Snorri Sturluson in Ynglingasaga 8:
On Winter Nights there should be sacrifice for a good year, and in the middle of winter for a good crop; and the third blot should be on summer day, a Victory-sacrifice.
Some even go so far as to look for the word miðsumarsblót in the sources, and naturally come up empty (except for one example from Olaf Tryggvason’s Saga that is talking about a special event, not something that happened on a recurring basis). “HOO-HA!” they say. Since the word for midsummer-sacrifice doesn’t exist, there must have been no Heathen midsummer!
Well, not exactly, and for a reason which is quite obvious when one thinks about it. A sacrifice is not the only way to “celebrate”.
In fact, we’ve already seen a large array of minor holidays that are celebrated (in some cases “marked” might be a better word) with customs, rather than full-on sacrifices. I don’t think there’s anything at all inconsistent with the notion that there are the “big three” sacrifices at Winternights, Yule, and Somarmal, and then a variety of other holidays held on significant dates throughout the year, including Midsummer.
Even the most reconstructionisty of reconstructionists will admit that the concept of Midsummer as a time of year was present in the Heathen mind, even if it might be little more than “the full moon that is 6 full moons after Yule”. It’s mentioned in Grettir’s Saga, Gragas, and elsewhere. We also know that in the post-conversion era midsummer was a day of celebration and associated with fire, water (bathing in wells and streams), fertility, frightening off evil spirits, and divination.
What to make of this? We are left with two possibilities:
- The celebration of midsummer and its associations with fire and water, fertility, frightening off evil spirits, and divination was a Christian invention that was imposed on the Germanic peoples by clerical and secular authorities, and enthusiastically taken up.
- The celebration of midsummer and its associations with fire and water, fertility, frightening off evil spirits, and divination was a holdover from the pre-Christian era that clerical and secular authorities attempted to co-opt in order to make their own faith more appealing.
With that second option, we also need to remember that the midsummer celebration was moved from its lunar-based time around July to the 24th of June in order to honor St. John the Baptist. If the fire/fertility/evil/divination that have long been associated with midsummer celebrations were indeed of Christian origin, we would expect to see those elements somehow connected to the story of St. John outside the context of his birthday (June 24 is held to be his birthday as a counterpoint to the birthday of Jesus on December 25, symbolically half the year apart).
But there’s nothing in the nativity story of St. John (described in Luke 1:5–25; 1:57–66; I’m not going to reprint them here due to length, but the links will take you to the text) that has anything to do with any of the popular associations of the holiday. Too, the liturgical celebration of the holiday has no such associations, either. In short, there’s nothing to support the idea that the celebration of midsummer was something brought in by Christianity.
On the other hand, if the midsummer celebrations were a pre-Christian survival, one would expect the Church fathers to have spoken out against it in some way. And indeed, that is what we see in the Life of St. Eligius (588-660 CE) in one of his sermons given in western France (under control of the Frankish Germanic tribes, and before them the Vandal Germanic tribes).
Although the Merovingian king Clovis I was baptized in 508 CE, the inhabitants of Gaul retained their Heathen customs and religion for two centuries before they were completely Christianized (and even then, that just meant the ending of overtly Heathen rituals and practices). Eligius would have been preaching during the period of dual faith, and his efforts would have been part of the overall conversion process. And indeed, he speaks specifically against the habits of the Pagans on St. John’s Day:
Before all else, I denounce and contest, that you shall observe no sacrilegious pagan customs. … No Christian on the feast of Saint John or the solemnity of any other saint performs solestitia or dancing or leaping or diabolical chants.Life of St. Eligius 16
We see the same sort of thing in the sermons of Caesarius of Arles (468-542 CE). Arles was firmly in the hands of the Visigoths (another Germanic tribe) for many years before Caesarius was born. As Bernadette Filotas puts it in her wonderful book Pagan Survivals (p. 175) which paraphrases and partially quotes the long-serving archbishop:
The influence of the gospel image of John the Baptist is unmistakable in the description of ritual bathing in springs, marshes, and rivers during the night and early hours, although they were accompanied with ‘vile or lewd’ love songs. Bawdiness was an essential feature. Caesarius urged his hearers to keep the members of their household from obscene behavior and indecent speech so that ‘the sacred solemnities; not be polluted by bawdy songs’. His warning that the saint would listen to these prayers ‘if he knows that we celebrate his feast peacefully, chastely, and soberly’ implies that the actual celebration tended to degenerate into an orgy.
The sermons of Atto of Vercelli (885-961 CE) tell a similar tale. The city in northern Italy was in the hands of the Visigoths for centuries, and later the Germanic Lombards. Of St. John’s Day he complains with typical Christian prudery:
Certain little trollops abandon the churches and the divine offices; they pas the whole night any which where, in the streets and crossroad, by springs and in the countryside; they form round dances, compose songs, draw lots and pretend that people’s prospects are to be predicted from things of this sort. Their superstition has given rise to madness to the point that they presume to baptize grass and leafy boughs, and hence they dare to call [them] godfathers or godmothers [compatres vel commatres in the original]. And for a long while afterwards, they strive to keep them hung up in their houses, as though for the sake of piety.
The information about the creation of what seem to be poppets is new and unique to Atto, but there’s no reason to suspect that such a very specific detail is his invention. What we see consistently in all these sources is a tendency towards song, licentiousness, and divination.
But what of the central feature of contemporary Midsummer celebrations; the fire? We have abundant late sources, but are there any earlier sources that are either contemporary with, or immediately after, the Heathen period?
Unfortunately, no. I’ve not been able to find any references to fire associated with midsummer or St. John’s day that are contemporaneous with the Heathen period or what might be considered a reasonable period of dual faith while the conversion process takes place.
That said, we’re still left with the origin of the association of fire with the Midsummer celebrations. We’ve seen that there’s no such association with the story of the nativity of St. John the Baptist; if anything, he’s associated with water (which was okay with our sources, as long as the bathing didn’t include ribald songs and overt sexuality).
Given the alien nature of the fire association with the Christian holiday, I’m inclined to include it as having a pre-Christian origin, although with the footnote that it’s entirely possible that there is some secular mechanism by which the fire association was later added, although the form such a mechanism might take remains opaque, and doesn’t explain the ease with which the Midsummer fires fit into the otherwise-religious customs of the day.