This entry is adapted from Our Troth Volume 3 and generously donated by the Publisher for the education and enjoyment of all Heathens. For the unedited and uncut version, buy the book!

In northern Europe around the middle of summer, the sun does not set until late in the evening, if it sets at all. Even where the midnight sun is not seen, the night sky glows with twilight. Light has gained its greatest victory over darkness, and the warm weather invites people to come outside and enjoy themselves.

Midsummer is usually considered to be the summer solstice, the shortest night of the year, which can fall between June 20 and 24. In some areas the timing was different; in the Northumberland village of Whalton, the Midsummer bonfire is held on July 4, that being the day of the summer solstice before the Gregorian calendar was adopted.

It also has nothing to do with the movie Midsommar. The events in that movie do not reflect any current beliefs or practices of Modern Heathens, except that we like dancing, drinking, music and food--and sometimes we do those things in idyllic rural locations. That's about it. Not going to spoil the rest of the movie for you. 

Historical References to Midsummer

One of the earliest manuscripts on timekeeping in Iceland gives the date of Midsummer as thirteen weeks and three days from the first day of summer, literally midway between Sumarmál and Vetrnætr. Since the first day of summer could fall between April 9 and 15 in the Julian calender, Midsummer could fall between July 11 and 17 (Rím I III.26, ed. Beckman and Kålund, Alfræði Íslenzk, vol. 2, p. 22); the corresponding Gregorian dates would be July 23-30 (Janson, “The Icelandic Calendar,” p. 101).

Under Christianity, Midsummer festivities in many parts of Europe seem to have been transferred to “St. John’s Eve”, the evening of June 24. We do have some documentation that Midsummer was celebrated in pre-Christian times: the 7th-century missionary Eligius admonished his Frankish flock,

“Let no Christian believe in bonfires or sit at incantations, which are diabolical works. Let no one perform solstice rites, or dancing or leaping, or diabolical chants, on the feast day of St. John or of any other saint” (Audoenus, Vita Eligii II.16; ed. Krusch, pp. 705-706).

This might also be a survival of the old pagan Midsummer.

There is not much evidence from the sagas that Midsummer was celebrated in pre-Christian or conversion-era Scandinavia or England.

It is not one of the three major festivals mentioned in Ynglinga saga, nor is it mentioned much in Old English texts (Billington, “The Midsummer Solstice,” pp. 42-44).

But there is some evidence that it was celebrated, at least in certain areas.

  • Óláfs saga Tryggvasonar 65 tells how the folk of Mære, who have assembled at a great Thing to oppose the missionary efforts of King Óláfr, reject his preaching and decide to hold a miðsumarsblót with human sacrifices.
  • The historical text known as Ágrip af Nóregs konunga sögum 19 (ed. Driscoll, pp. 30-33) states that Óláfr Tryggvason, “as a favour to the people,” replaced Heathen sacrifices (called blótdrykkjur, “sacrifice-drinking”) with four new feasts (called hátíðardrykkjur, “holiday drinking”): Christmas; Easter; Jóansmessu mungát or “ale on the feast day of St. John the Baptist;” and haustǫl at Míkjálsmessu, “autumn ale on the feast day of St. Michael” (September 29).
  • Billington (“The Midsummer Solstice,” pp. 42-44) suggests that Olaf introduced the St. John’s Eve feast as a new holiday, but the wording of Ágrip still seems to imply that the St. John’s Day feast replaced an older Heathen celebration that was held at approximately the same time, just as the other three Christian holidays probably were intended to replace Yule, Sigrblót, and Winternights.
  • The Frostatingslög, one of the earliest written law codes from Norway and applying to a region centered on Nidaros, mentions that every householder was required to brew a minimum amount of ale and hold a feast on St. John’s Eve (II.21; transl. Larsson, Earliest Norwegian Laws, p. 234); again, this may be a Christianization of an earlier feast.

Midsummer Fires

Bonfires are prominent in Heathen Midsummer festivities. Actually, bonfires are popular at just about every Heathen holiday. Come to think of it, it's hard to find a Heathen holiday that wouldn't welcome a good bonfire. But the Midsummer bonfire, unlike all the other bonfires, we see carried over in Christian celebrations in Scandinavia. 

Olaus Magnus explained how the holiday was celebrated in Sweden in the 1500s (Historia de Gentibus Septentrionalibus XV.8; transl. Fisher and Higgins, A Description of the Northern Peoples, 1555, p. 735):

Finally, when all the forests, meadows, and plains are green and flowering, when the sun is moving through Cancer, that is, on the vigil of the feast of St. John the Baptist. . . the whole people, of both sexes and all ages, regularly gather in crowds in the public open spaces of cities, or on a flat stretch of ground in the fields, and everywhere light great fires for round dances and skipping dances. They repeatedly sing and simulate in dancing the glorious feats of ancient heroes, performed at home, abroad, or anywhere in the world, and also the deeds which famous women, to gain everlasting praise, accomplished from a desire to preserve their chastity. Moreover, in traditional ballads, to the accompaniment of harps and pipes played alternately, they unfold the actions of idle, degenerate noblemen, cruel oppressors, and crude women who have cast out virtue.

Midsummer bonfires aren't just popular in Scandinavia, they're all over Germanic Europe.

  • In southern Germany and Austria, Midsummer was also celebrated with bonfires (sonnenwendefeuer, “sun-turning [solstice] fire”). Evidently Eligius’s condemnations didn’t work; in the 9th century, there were great assemblies of people on Midsummer, and even Frankish kings were known to join in.
  • In medieval times, princes might light Midsummer fires and take part in dancing around them and leaping over them. In the early 19th century, the custom of bonfires was still kept up in some areas, mostly by young people, who might go begging for pieces of wood for the fire or food to cook on it (Grimm, Teutonic Religion, vol. 2, pp. 617-619).
  • In some areas, rolling wheels were set on fire on Midsummer Eve. Grimm tells us that the town of Konz made a large wheel, which was set on fire and rolled down a hill into the Moselle River. If it was still burning when it landed in the river, that foretold a good wine-harvest, and there was much rejoicing (Teutonic Mythology, p. 620). 

This is what gives us the idea that one thing we do as modern Heathens at Midsummer is have a big bonfire. But as you can see, there's more to Midsummer than just the fire itself. There's all kinds of activities going on. Singing. Dancing. Revelry. Good stories. Fun times. Drunken noblemen. 

And maybe even a little magic.

Green Magic

In Sweden today, Midsommar remains a much-loved and quintessentially Swedish holiday. Revelers feast on traditional foods, light bonfires, and go swimming. A “maypole,” tree, or post is put up, and there is dancing around it, notably a song about little frogs that requires everyone to hop around making frog noises. 

With or without a Midsummer pole or tree, greenery is important at Midsummer festivities in and beyond Sweden. In Skåne, it was traditional for people to make a Midsummer wreath out of all the flowers and plants that could be gathered; this wreath would be hung from a pole carried between the shoulders of two men.

The two “wreath-boys” and six to twelve “wreath-girls” would carry the wreath in a procession around the village. Young men and women would exchange smaller wreaths as tokens of their affection (Olrik and Ellekilde, Nordens Gudeverden, vol. 2, pp. 678-679). It was also common to deck homes and churches with greenery.

The Healing Waters of Midsummer

Even water becomes healing at Midsummer. Water drawn from holy streams or wells on this night was healing, as was Midsummer dew. Rolling in Midsummer dew would keep a person healthy all year round, or dew could be collected to use as a remedy for eye ailments by dragging a cloth over the ground on Midsummer night and wringing out the cloth.

Water could also be used for divinations on Midsummer Eve; in Halland, a young girl who drew water from a north-flowing stream would see the face of her future husband in the water, while in Hemsedal, a girl had to fast all Midsummer afternoon and then sleep outdoors, on an island between two streams, with an earth-fast stone under her head, if she wanted to dream of her future husband.

Summer wasn't all fun and magic though, when late summer rolled around, it was time to lay down the law. 

Thing’s Tide (Iceland) | Late Summer

The thing or þing was a combined legislative and judicial assembly found among most Germanic-speaking groups. As far back as the second century CE we have inscriptions to the god Mars Thincsus, “Mars of the Assembly,” left by Frisian troops in Roman service along Hadrian’s Wall.

Details of how these assemblies were organized varied, but a common pattern was to have local things where the people of a relatively compact region could settle cases, and then to hold a single larger assembly attracting people from all over a larger district.

Here cases could be heard that had not been resolved at the local things, and new laws could be debated and passed. Some things were held in winter, notably Disting in Sweden, and for others we do not have precise information on when they were held, but it seems to have been common to hold the larger assemblies in summer.

Many Modern Heathen groups hold a sort of "Thing’s Tide" in late Summer. This includes national organizations like The Troth but also regional groups may hold "conferences" like the "Northeast Thing" in the Northeast United States or the "Northern Folk Gathering" in the upper Midwestern United States.

A large kindred, or an assembly of several kindreds, might find this to be an appropriate time to elect officers, propose changes to the by-laws, hear any concerns or grievances that its members might have, and otherwise work on whatever needs doing to keep the group on an even keel.

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